Gay Walsh

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

In the synagogue (of Nazareth) Jesus stood up and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he found the passage where it was written: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to bring liberty to captives…” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down. All in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on him. Then he began by saying to them: “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21

With Epiphany behind us, we now move into the “Year of Luke”. (The miracle of Cana was celebrated by early Christians, and still is by the Eastern Churches, as the fourth revelation of Jesus to the world. The other three were the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus. These were all part of Epiphany.) Luke deserves an introduction because of the perspective he brings to writing about Jesus. He was born a Greek, he studied to become a medical doctor, he was attracted to Jesus through his contact with Paul, and he came into the early Christian community without the prejudices and expectations held by the Jewish people. The Jews saw themselves as “the Chosen People”, and, indeed, they were. They led the ancient world in promoting monotheism. They firmly held that there is One God, not a panoply of gods. They had the benefit of the teaching and leadership of Moses and the prophets, and they held firmly to the belief that the Messiah would be born into their race and would come to rescue them from the oppression that had been visited on them for centuries. Their utter conviction that they were “the Chosen People” led many of them to adopt a sense of superiority and the unshakable belief that the Messiah would come in power and strength to scatter their enemies and establish them in comfort and security. They could not accept that the Messiah would find his way into the world as a baby born in humble and obscure circumstances, even though one of their prophets had proclaimed that. Luke, then, was able to look at the story of Jesus with the objectivity and discipline of a scholar with a scientific background and with a vantage point from outside Judaism.

With that long introduction, I begin today’s reflection with a story. While I rarely recommend books, I have no hesitation in pointing to Rachel Naomi Remen’s book entitled My Grandfather’s Blessings. It is a book for everyone, but especially for those who have, have had or are afraid of getting a very serious illness. Rachel’s very name suggests her Jewish background, and her grandfather was an orthodox Jewish Rabbi. She herself is a survivor of a lifelong, chronic illness. This is one of her stories from My Grandfather’s Blessings:
“Richard was a widower. His wife had died a long and painful death from cancer. After some time, he met Celia and they came to love each other and each other’s children dearly. Less than a year into their courtship, Celia discovered a lump in her breast and went for testing. She was alone when her doctor informed her that the lump was malignant. Her first thoughts were for Richard and his children. They had been terribly wounded by cancer only a few years before, and Celia reasoned that she could not bring this terror back into their lives again. She called Richard immediately and broke off their relationship without telling him why. She declined his phone calls and returned his letters over a few weeks. However, he persisted until she agreed to see him. She intended their meeting to be one of goodbye.
When they met, she could see the hurt etched into his face. But Richard gently asked her why she had broken up with him. Fighting back tears she told him the truth: that she had discovered a lump that turned out to be malignant, and that she had undergone surgery to remove it and was about to start chemotherapy. ‘You and the children have been through this once already, and I’m not going to put you through it again’, she explained. ‘You have cancer?’ he asked. Silently she nodded as the tears ran down her face. ‘Celia’, he said, and began to chuckle. ‘We can do cancer. We know how to do it. I just thought you didn’t love me anymore.’ But she did, and they got through it together, happily married.” (Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Penguin Putnam, N.Y. 2001)

As baptised members of the Christian community, we have inherited the blessing of God’s Spirit and the invitation to “bring glad tidings and “proclaim the Lord’s favour” to the poor, the blind, people in prison, the oppressed, the forgotten and the helpless. We all have the potential to breathe life and hope into others, just as Celia and Richard did for one another, when we do so, knowing that God’s Spirit is our guide.

Having been anointed by God’s Spirit in the Jordan, Jesus returned to his home-town of Nazareth, where he was invited by the synagogue officials to read and reflect on the Scriptures. For a moment, let’s imagine the scene: The people of Nazareth had surely heard that Jesus had been making an impression wherever he went. His growing reputation and the acclaim he had received had preceded his home-coming.
Having read a passage from Isaiah with which the congregation would have been familiar, there was an expectation that he would offer a reflection or commentary on what he had just read. Instead of doing that, he looked straight at the gathering and, without explanation or qualification, announced: “This is taking place right here, right now in this synagogue. Moreover, you’re hearing it from the mouth of the Messiah himself, from the one whom our people have been expecting for centuries.”

For a congregation looking for some insight into the passage from Isaiah that they had just listened to, this was beyond the pale. To have one they had seen grow up among them make an assertion like that was tantamount to blasphemy to the people of Nazareth. They interpreted what they heard as one of their own blowing his own trumpet and simply big-noting himself. That, understandably, accounts for the hostile reception they gave him. But that’s the focus of the gospel-reading for next week.

Today’s first reading from Nehemiah and the second reading from Corinthians complement the gospel-reading. 450 years before Jesus, Nehemiah had encouraged the people of Israel to rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem. They set about that task with a will, and saw the day when their efforts brought success. In a record homily that went for six hours, Nehemiah encouraged and congratulated the people, assuring them that what they had achieved was testimony to what God had done for them. That was something over which to rejoice and be grateful. Of comfort to them was the realisation that they were in God’s hands, and that was all that mattered. Paul, in turn, assured the Christian community in Corinth that as members of the people of God they were all of equal importance, essential to bringing life to one another, and all having the same status, with no one either inferior or superior. In speaking to the people among whom he grew up, Jesus stated that his mission was to bring God’s promises to realisation. As his disciples, and inspired by God’s Spirit we have the very same mission. And that’s not an option. It’s an imperative. Otherwise, we’re only play-acting.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection, Uncategorised

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus directed the servants: “Fill the pots with water.” And they filled them to the brim. “Now, fill your pitchers and take them to the headwaiter”, Jesus said. And they did. When the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine (he didn’t know what had just happened but the servants, of course knew), he called out to the bridegroom: “Everyone I know begins with their finest wines and after the guests have had their fill brings in the cheap stuff. But you’ve saved the best till now.” John 2, 1-11

Scattered throughout the First or Old Testament are various indicators of changes that would take place once the Messiah had arrived. One of those indicators would be that the poor and other needy people would get a new lease of life (Isaiah 61, 1-5). In fact, Luke borrowed those words and put them into the mouth of Jesus as his mission statement (see Luke 4, 17-21). Another indicator of God’s love let loose on the world when the Messiah arrived is contained in the image of the love between bride and groom at the time of their marriage. God’s love for Israel is as intense and passionate as the love between a bride and her groom. That is described in today’s first reading (Isaiah 62, 1-5). A third indicator of the arrival of the Messiah for the people of Israel would be an abundance of wine (Isaiah 25, 6). In today’s gospel-reading, the story of the wedding banquet in Cana, John has taken from Isaiah the two images of marriage and plentiful wine to shape a story about the launch of the public ministry of Jesus, the Messiah.

Moreover, the more I delve into John’s Gospel, the more convinced I am that its author had two clear objectives in mind: to demonstrate that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and that Jesus’ mission was to reveal to the world God’s extravagant love for humankind. What the other Evangelists call “miracles” John refers to as “signs”, indicators of what lay ahead for the people as a consequence of the Messiah’s coming among them. The first sign or indicator is wrapped up in the story of a wedding banquet, a story that has almost nothing to do with the bride and groom. The central characters are Mary, Jesus and the caterers. Those most impressed by what they witnessed were the disciples who were among the wedding guests. John writes of them in these terms: “Thus did Jesus reveal his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (John 2, 11).

Mary had watched her son grow into an adult and had seen enough of him to appreciate that he was on the verge of making an extraordinary impact on the world to which they both belonged. She was not going to see the newly-weds and their families embarrassed by a shortage of wine. So, she took the initiative of drawing Jesus’ attention to the problem. Clearly, she was quietly confident that her son would not disappoint her, for she set about instructing the caterers to follow whatever instructions Jesus would give them. As a result, six stone jars where filled to the brim with water from the well, which in no time was transformed into top-class wine – somewhere between 90 and 150 gallons of it. John does not record just how much of it was consumed or how the left-overs might have been distributed to all the neighbours. The wine in abundance is undoubtedly a symbol of the extravagance of God’s love expressed through the goodness of Jesus.

I suggest that this story is something of a parable not just for the people of John’s community but for us too. Mary’s initiative demonstrated that she was not going to be a mere bystander and allow what should be a joyous celebration to fizzle out into disappointment and embarrassment. Therein lies a question for us who belong to a Church that is showing signs of drifting in the direction of passivity and lifelessness. Pope Francis has been appealing to all of us who see ourselves as card-carrying Catholics to embrace what is implied by his call to synodality and to not let ourselves get bogged down by lethargy. He is calling us to be participants in the revitalisation of one another and to involve ourselves in creating a community that really reflects in action the Gospel entrusted to us by Jesus. But, allowing God’s extravagant love to invade our lives carries the risk of being open to change.

To continue the notion of this story as a parable, the wedding guests represent us, and Mary, one of the wedding guests, speaks up on our behalf, pointing out to her son that we are in need of an injection of life. She does not plead or persist. Her few words are an understatement of the situation in which her friends find themselves (and in which we, in turn, find ourselves). She merely makes an observation: “They have no more wine”, confident that Jesus will rise to the occasion. We, too, have run low on energy and enthusiasm for translating the Gospel into action.

The new wine is a powerful symbol of hope and a tangible statement that God is establishing a new relationship of life and love with the people of Israel. God is offering them the elixir of life, symbolised by the new wine.

God’s life and love is also offered to us, but to avail of it we need to be on the same wavelength as Jesus. For that to happen, we could do no better than to take the cue Mary gave to the catering staff: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2, 5). That means keeping our ears open.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Baptism of the Lord – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

After Jesus was baptised, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3, 15-16, 21-22

To grasp the full significance of today’s gospel-reading, it is important for us, once again, to look at context. The first two chapters of Luke (the infancy narratives) serve as a prologue. Then Luke launches into the body of his Gospel, describing the mission of Jesus and its impact. He begins by introducing John the Baptist and his ability to draw crowds, despite his “fire and brimstone” sermons. He then turns his attention to what the Baptist effectively called the “main event” – the arrival on the scene of the one for whose coming he claimed to be preparing. With a touch of irony, Luke observes that God chose for a messenger none of the “big shots” of the day – Tiberius Caesar (Emperor of Rome), Pilate (Governor of Judea), Herod (Tetrarch of Galilee), Philip (Tetrarch of Iturea & Trachonitis), Annas & Caiphas (Jewish High Priests) – but the eccentric John the Baptist: “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness” (Luke 3, 2). Luke then proceeds to describe how John challenged his audiences to shake themselves out of their complacency, to repent of their sins and to come forward and be baptized. In contrast, Jesus appeared without fanfare and humbly joined those lining up to be baptized by John, who baulked at the prospect of baptizing the one for whose arrival he had been preparing. – the Messiah, the Christ of God. John described himself as the signpost directing people to Jesus, whom the Evangelists eventually identified as “the light of the world”, the very centre of human history.

The focus of today’s gospel-reading is the self-effacing, humble baptism of Jesus, an action that he chose as his way of identifying deeply with the very people whose lives he would set out to transform by revealing to them God’s love for them. Having been baptized, Jesus sat quietly in prayer. As he prayed, there came what can only be described as a moment of epiphany, a revelation for him personally: “Heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily shape, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you’” (Luke 3, 21-22).

The point of this is that Jesus, as fully human as we are, had to discern through personal prayer, his own vocation in life. Like us, he had moments of insight and revelation, when the way forward became clearer to him. Luke describes one of those moments graphically. It was a moment when, conscious of God’s Spirit guiding him, Jesus committed himself to his mission to his own people. Because we know the conclusion to which all the Gospel writers came, namely that Jesus was truly divine and truly human, I suspect that we more readily accept his divinity, and gloss quickly over his humanity. One of the great Vatican II documents is The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). In it we read a statement of how Jesus lived his humanity as we do: “He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved”. Implied in this is the fact that he had to discern his vocation in life and make decisions about how to live it out. He knew his choices had to express the love in his heart, and he learned that he had the Hebrew Scriptures and God’s love to guide him.
In addition, we have the books of the New Testament to guide us, and the assurance that God loves us, too. Given that most of us were baptized in infancy, there were almost certainly no epiphanies or moments of revelation of which we or our sponsors were conscious at the time. However, today’s gospel-reading is an invitation to us to reflect upon the significance of our incorporation into the Christian community. While a Baptism certificate is a record of our enrolment in that community, the only authentic measure of our commitment to what we profess is the extent to which we translate the Gospels into practical action.

When Jesus sat in prayer following his Baptism by John, inspired by God’s Spirit, he came to the sudden realisation that he had just been claimed as God’s beloved Son. In our Baptism, we, too, were claimed as God’s beloved daughters and sons to carry on the mission of Jesus to a world in need. Fidelity to the mission entrusted to him by God led Jesus to the Cross. Fidelity to the word of God that came to him in the wilderness led John the Baptist to confront Herod who, in a moment of moral weakness, had John executed. While commitment to our baptismal promises may not lead to bloodshed, we can be sure that it will lead us to some sticky moments. Calling for justice, protesting for the release of asylum seekers, working to assure that refugees are treated with dignity will meet with opposition. That kind of action is demanded by the Gospel.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Feast of the Holy Family – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

After three days, they found Jesus in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his answers…His mother said to him: “Son, why have you done this to us?…Your father and I, grief-stricken, have been searching for you.” He said to them: “Why? Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2, 41-52

At the outset, it’s important to note that scholars regard this gospel-reading as a later addition to Luke’s original Gospel, recognising that it came from a vibrant oral tradition containing an abundance of stories about aspects of Jesus’ life. Secondly, a more accurate translation of Jesus’ response to Mary and Jesus is “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house” rather than the more familiar “about my Father’s business?”

I suggest that in this story about Jesus getting lost there is a tension between the reality of Jesus beginning to assert his independence and the way in which we human beings can embellish stories, especially when we have the benefit of a retrospective view of the person who is at the centre of the story.

Once we accept that Jesus was like us in everything except sin (Hebrews 4, 15), we have to accept that Jesus had to negotiate the challenges that accompany normal human maturation and development. He had to grow through the physical and emotional changes of puberty, adolescence and young adulthood; he had to struggle with the trial and error learning that accompanied claiming and asserting his independence; like most young people finding their way in life, he would have failed to realise the impact on his parents of some of his decisions. At the same time, in the Jewish culture in which he grew up, there was the custom that boys were told that on their twelfth birthday they inherited the responsibility of being faithful to the Torah. In other words, they had to start taking on adult responsibilities. Moreover, rabbis of Jesus’ time, followed the practice of teaching their congregations by gathering them in groups in the temple/synagogue precincts and following a question and answer process, inviting participants to make contributions to the discussion. Apparently, this is the kind of activity in which Jesus was involved while Mary and Joseph were searching frantically for him. Those who shaped and embellished the story of today’s gospel-reading would not have dared to present him as anything less than precocious. Suggesting that he stunned the Temple teachers with his answers and insights was the story-shapers’ way of pointing out that there were clear signs when Jesus was only 12 years old that he was destined to be the Messiah.

Side by side with the story of the young Jesus’ brilliance is the fact that Jesus, Mary and Joseph belonged to an extended family. In practice, that meant that on a pilgrimage journey, the adults chatted with one another as they walked along, and the children were left to entertain themselves. So, it is entirely understandable that Mary and Joseph did not notice that Jesus had stayed behind in Jerusalem. And it fits that Jesus had not even thought to tell his parents what he had decided to do. It was entirely credible that Joseph and Mary became frantic when they discovered that Jesus was missing. Like all parents whose child goes missing, they would have been imagining that he had come to harm. Little wonder, then, that, when she found him, Mary gave Jesus a piece of her mind. And in keeping with the mentality of a youngster who had not dreamed that he had caused concern, Jesus gave an answer that seemed to be about defending his action. In keeping with the embellishment theory, his answer strikes me as being beyond the capacity of a 12year-old boy. However, his answer suits Luke’s purpose of pointing out that even as early as when her son was only 12, Mary was given a hint that Jesus was not hers to hold onto, that his life journey would take him away from her and Joseph. In an almost non-committal way, Luke merely records: “Mary held all these things deep within her heart.” (Luke 2, 20)

There are other dimensions to this story. There was a time when we Catholics were led to believe that there was some idyllic quality to the life of the “Holy Family”. It was as though theirs was a life which we were expected to emulate in our families. But, would we want to endure the things that came their way? Mary and Joseph had to put up with the gossip about Mary’s pregnancy before she and Joseph were married; they had to contend with the indignity of Jesus being born in an animal shelter; they had to protect their son by journeying as refugees to Egypt, where they hardly lived in luxury, where, at best, they were tolerated; and Mary had to carry the pain and indignity of seeing her adult son executed as a criminal. All that now makes me wonder if Mary ever regretted saying “yes” to Gabriel instead of telling him to go and disturb some other girl’s life. Yet, somehow, it’s their faith and trust in God that Mary and Joseph clung to as they made their way through the upsets, fears and crises that befell them that we are asked to imitate. There is no family that does not experience disappointment, dislocation, grief and tragedy of one kind or another. When people of faith risk venturing into family life, they have to learn to trust that God’s Spirit will be there to guide them through the difficulties and disappointments, through the griefs and tragedies, through the joys and triumphs that will inevitably come their way.

There is yet one more realistic implication to this story. Even a brief reflection on our lives will reveal that, while we say that Jesus and his Gospel, are central to our lives, there have been times when we have lost Jesus and his message. We claim to belong to a community of faith, yet when the conduct of its leaders is less than we expect, we walk away and label ourselves as disaffected Catholics. When family members fall ill or sully the family reputation, we pray that God will make things right. But we don’t get the miracles for which we pray. So, we stop our prayers. We have somehow lost Jesus. Any number of things can happen in our lives that lead us to attribute the blame to God for not taking into account the good and decent lives we have lived. So, our faith wavers and we lose contact with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

We might “lose” Jesus by distancing ourselves from him or by locking him out of our lives. But let’s not forget that he continues to make his presence felt in the kindness, love, forgiveness and compassion of the people we encounter every day. Sometimes we have to be jolted into realising that the goodness of other people, and indeed, our own goodness, reflect the goodness of God and the goodness of Jesus whose coming among us we celebrate at Christmas.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice, saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” Luke 1 39-45

While the gospel-reading for today illustrates how God’s love is reflected through human interactions (as seen in how Mary and Elizabeth engage with one another), pivotal to a proper understanding of the Incarnation is the reading we hear from Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews attributes to Christ words from Psalm 40 which he addresses directly to God, telling God that he appreciates that God has no interest in blood sacrifices: “Sacrifice and offering you (God) did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in” (Hebrews 10, 5-6).

Did Jesus actually direct these words of Psalm 40 to God, or did the writer of Hebrews conclude that he did, by closely examining the implications of Jesus’ actions and teaching? But one thing that is clear from the life of Jesus is that the God he and the people of Israel worshipped had no appetite for blood sacrifice. Had Jesus prayed Psalm 40 publicly, as the writer of Hebrews records, his prayer would have helped to undermine a custom that had kept the Temple treasury in Jerusalem afloat. The bottom would have fallen out of the sale of doves, pigeons, sheep and goats destined to be sacrificial offerings. Anthropologists through the ages have noted how almost every culture of the ancient world had its gods, of whom people lived in fear. Ordinary people, along with their leaders, engaged in sacrifice in an effort to appease or mollify their gods. Anyone who refused to offer sacrifice to the local gods was accused of angering them, needling them into delivering divine retribution. Seemingly, that’s why early Christians, who refused to offer sacrifice to idols, were done to death. There were others who struggled with what they saw as capricious, heedless and unpredictable behaviour of gods, who seemed to ignore the sacrifices designed to win divine favour, provide plentiful rain and good crops, bring victory in battle, give protection from disease or deliver financial prosperity. Shakespeare was alert to such doubters, as can be seen from the words he put into the mouth of Gloucester in the tragedy, King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” (Act 4, Scene 1, lines 41-42). This reading from Hebrews offers a preview of the impact on the world that would be made by the two unborn children about whom Elizabeth and Mary are rejoicing in today’s gospel-reading.

It’s hardly likely that Mary, already pregnant and the subject of local gossip, would have ventured alone and without protection on the eighty-mile journey to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah. I suggest that Luke made no mention of Zechariah and Joseph in order to highlight that the entry of John and Jesus into the world was announced and managed by women of very humble origins themselves, and regarded as having no credibility, simply because they were women in a male-dominated society. The circumstances of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth complement the message of today’s first reading from Micah that the longed-for Messiah would come from a village as humble and insignificant as Bethlehem, a village that hardly merited a place on the map.

Even a cursory reflection on Luke’s account of the conversation that transpired between Elizabeth and Mary is sufficient to lead us to conclude that it must have been Spirit-inspired and Spirit-filled, alerting us to the reality that God’s Spirit is ever alive and active in our world, even in the most ordinary circumstances, and even in the conversations and meetings in which we engage every day. All this reinforces something that we can easily forget, namely that God’s Spirit is ever at work in our world in new and creative ways and, indeed, can choose us to be the instruments of grace for others.

Let’s not forget that Zechariah was still unable to speak. So, there was no opportunity for him and Joseph to be off in a corner speaking men’s business. What they heard as Mary and Elizabeth exchanged their experiences would surely have left them gobsmacked.

That meeting between Mary and Elizabeth sets the stage for the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ of God, which becomes the centre of our reflection within a few days. At one level, the Incarnation consists of the factual reality that God has become one of us in the person of Jesus. As one of us, Jesus is our brother. Of equal significance is the almost incredible reality that God’s love for humankind has been given undeservedly, freely and without condition. In contrast, we know that our love is given and shared all too often with conditions attached.

Many of us are familiar with St Irenaeus’ encouraging assertion: “The glory of God is women and men fully alive.” We may be less familiar with another of his observations: “Because of his great love for us, Jesus, the Word of God, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.” But we have to let him into our lives so that he can engage us in the transformation. Then, with Jesus we might come eventually to say to God: “Here I am, I come to do your will” (Hebrews 10, 7).

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Third Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Using words that gave them strength, words that put heart into them, John preached the good news to the people. Luke 3, 10-18

Advent is essentially a period for readying ourselves to reflect on the significance of how God’s promise for us and our world was fulfilled in the person of Jesus, born into the world in the same way as you and I were born. The birth of Jesus was confirmation of God’s fidelity to the divine promises articulated by prophets over centuries. Over more than 2000 years since then, there have been countless Christians who have testified to God’s ongoing trustworthiness, presence and self-revelation in the very ordinary circumstances of our lives. As the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins expressed it: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men’s faces” (G. M. Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire).

The prophet Isaiah had said as much more than seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus: “Seek God while God is still near, call to God while God is close at hand” (Isaiah 55, 5-6). And in today’s reading from Philippians, we hear part of what Paul had written from prison: “The Lord is near. Dismiss all anxiety from your minds. Present your needs to God in every form of prayer…(Philippians 4, 5-6). Paul was so conscious of God’s presence in the circumstances of his life, that he wanted to share it with the people of Philippi among whom he had lived and worked. So, he urged them to rejoice, as if they had the same consciousness of God’s close presence in their lives. However, while we can admire Paul’s enthusiasm in sharing his experience, we just don’t know the impact his message had on his audience. We do know, however, that directions to us like “Rejoice!”, “Be positive!”, “Snap out of it!” and “Don’t be anxious!” generally have little impact. The emotional experiences of others are generally not contagious. Simply telling me that God is near, doesn’t necessarily mean that I will feel God’s nearness. But it might start me on the way of trusting enough to take my anxieties, troubles and concerns to God. And we all know that there are times in our lives when our faith in God struggles, when it waxes and wanes. And, as a result, we don’t approach God with boundless faith.

The message in today’s first reading is out of character with the prophet who wrote it. His prophecy is full of gloom and doom, with his predictions of the “day of the Lord” promising a disastrous experience for the people of Israel and Judah. His audience was people who had been carried into exile where they were forced to live with foreigners whose language, customs and religion had not the slightest similarity to theirs. And yet, quite uncharacteristically he talks of God singing to them an infectious song of promise: “So sing, Daughter of Zion! Raise the rafters, Israel! Daughter Jerusalem, be happy! Celebrate! God has reversed his judgements against you and sent your enemies off, chasing their tails…There’s nothing to fear from evil ever again!…Don’t be afraid, dear Zion, don’t despair. Your God is present among you…The accumulated sorrows of your exile will dissipate. I, your God, will get rid of them for you” (Zephaniah, 3, 14-18). While these words of Zephaniah were not a magic wand, they were words of hope and encouragement to a people down on their uppers.

The hope in all this for us is that, despite our personal wavering, we known deep down that we can trust in a God to whom we can bring our brokenness, our doubts and our questions, confident that we will find some consolation even if we don’t immediately get the answers we want. For God’s people, the promise that Zephaniah offered was long in coming. It was delivered when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We refer to that as the Incarnation, God coming among us in human flesh, in the person of Jesus. But the Incarnation is an ongoing event, and God is here to stay, abiding in creation and in the depths of the human heart, and to be encountered in everyone we meet.

And that brings us to today’s gospel-reading. We have all behaved in ways that leave us feeling guilty. We have been less than we want to be. To participate in today’s gospel-reading, rather than just hear it from the side-lines, means joining with those whom John called to a change of heart and asking: “What must we do then?”
While we know deep in our hearts that the answer is to live with integrity, it is essential that we stop, from time to time, to spell out for ourselves what that looks like in practice. Way back in the middle of last century, a German theologian and psychologist, Josef Goldbrunner, wrote a book called Holiness is Wholeness. It was based on Carl Jung’s psychology that posited that we all have a deep desire to be truly at home with ourselves. In the long run, that comes down to growing into our true selves, to being the persons that God is inviting us to be. That’s what wholesomeness or holiness means.

Perhaps that’s best illustrated in a story. A medical doctor, Victoria Sweet, volunteered to spend two months of her time at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. It’s a medical centre that caters specifically for the homeless and the destitute. Dr Sweet came for two months and stayed twenty years. She recorded her reflections on that long experience in a delightful book entitled God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. In one of her anecdotes, she tells of a colleague who worked with stroke patients. One day, while he was doing his rounds, he came across a man who had been ready for discharge months earlier. However, the man was still in a wheelchair, even though he was able to walk. “Why are you still here, Bill?”, the doctor asked. “No shoes!” came the reply, “They’ve been ordered, Doc, but still waiting for insurance to approve them.” “How long have you been waiting”, the doctor asked. “Three months” said Bill. “What size do you wear?” asked the doctor. “Nines”, said Bill. The doctor turned on his heels and was back within 30 minutes with a pair of size nine running shoes. On the way back into the ward, he ran into Dr Sweet who asked him what he was doing with a pair of runners. He gave her a quick explanation, went and put the new shoes on Bill’s feet, and filled in the discharge form.

On reflecting on the incident, Dr Sweet commented that it would never have occurred to her to do what her colleague had done for Bill. It gave her an understanding of an aphorism that had puzzled her for decades: The secret in the care of the patient is in caring for the patient. The doctor who bought the shoes for Bill, understood that Bill was his brother, that patients are people deserving respect.

John the Baptist’s repentance (conversion of heart) goes hand-in-hand with just, compassionate and merciful action. The first step in that direction lies in telling the truth about ourselves. That prepares the way for the kind of action the Baptist called for. Saying “We have Abraham as our father” is a bit like producing our Baptism Certificate as proof of our Christianity. Practicing daily conversion means doing whatever is reasonable to makes things right in our work, relationships and lives.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Second Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

In the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberias…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God was spoken to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert. He went about the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins, as is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A herald’s voice in the wilderness, crying: ‘Make ready the way of the Lord…and all humankind shall see the salvation of God.’”     Luke 3, 1-6

My limited knowledge of the Old or First Testament leads me to think that the central figure of today’s gospel-reading might well have been the first hippie listed in recorded history. I sometimes wonder what his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah might have thought of their only son and his somewhat unusual life-style. Perhaps God saved them the embarrassment of trying to explain to their neighbours just what had gotten into their son, by taking them to heaven before John went wild. In light of Zechariah’s high profile in the Temple, John, too, would probably have been in line for an important position. However, he chose to go in a different direction.

Luke expands on that different direction in today’s gospel-reading. He starts by listing all the notables in positions of power, and then proceeds to point out that God’s word eluded them all and, instead, came to an eccentric, who was living an alternate life-style. I wonder if there is something about position and power that makes those, who aspire to those things or who have them, impervious to hearing or understanding the word of God. By way of contrast, God’s word took hold of John and fired him up to embark on a mission of waking up his world. John found a freedom that escapes many of us. Ignoring both fear and favour, he found within himself the ability to share the insights that God’s Spirit had led him to discover. Luke, having reflected on John and his frenzied activity of calling people to a change of heart and outlook, described him as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that there would come on the scene an obscure figure who would call people to ready themselves for the coming of the Messiah by changing their hearts:

“A herald’s voice in the desert, crying: ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, clear him a straight path. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be levelled. The windings shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth, and all humankind shall see the salvation of God” (Isaiah 40, 3-5).

It takes courage and integrity for anyone to claim her/his freedom. In that regard John the Baptist is a model and inspiration for us all. Dawna Markova is a woman of our own times who seems to have found her freedom, and is not afraid to claim it in the public forum. Perhaps we, too can learn from her as we do from the Baptist: “I will not die an unlived life. I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire. I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. I choose to risk my significance; to live so that which came to me as a seed goes to the next as a blossom and that which came to me as a blossom, goes on as fruit.”

John, of course, by using the metaphor of road maintenance and redirection, was calling his people to set about changing their own hearts and challenging the predominant culture to direct its resources to things like justice, compassion and security for everyone. He was echoing the message of Isaiah that God’s saving love is for everyone without exception, and that the first step, for all who came to listen to him and be baptised, was to straighten out their lives, to get rid of whatever was blocking the way for the word of God to touch their hearts.

Advent, as we know, is a time for us to stop and ponder the significance of the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus. While Jesus, like John, spent some time in the wilderness before embarking on his mission, he immersed himself in all the nonsense, strife and madness of what is involved in living life in close proximity to other struggling human beings. He was born in a stable on the edge of a small town that was so overcrowded that there wasn’t even basic accommodation available. And he grew up in a culture that was so plagued with religious rivalry and infighting that he ended his life on a cross provided by agents of a culture that was anathema to those who practiced Judaism.

The crowded urban cultures in which most of us live are quite simply symptoms of the brokenness of our world, a brokenness that cries to be mended, but a brokenness we feel unable to address because of fear, a sense of helplessness or a reluctance to claim our true freedom.

The arrival of John the Baptist with his call to all to open themselves to a change of heart and spirit came as a surprise. Yet his call evidently woke his part of the world from its slumber. His appearance was a surprise, but a reminder to those around him that the God he proclaimed is a God of surprises. Moreover, he is a reminder to us that we can never predict exactly when and how God will appear in our lives. However, we can be sure that God is present to us somehow in the events that fill our days, if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

This Sunday’s gospel-reading is an invitation to us to stop and ponder what is calling for change in our own hearts. There will be no possibility of change if we think there is no reason to change. If we are happy that the geography of our hearts needs no maintenance or alteration, then we will stay in our ruts. But perhaps we may need to do something to open a pathway by which God can find a way into our hearts as we prepare for Christmas.

If we are tempted to think that all this is in the too-hard basket, we might do well to look at today’s second reading from Paul to the Philippians. Many of us write letters at this time of the year to bring extended family members up to date. Today’s extract from Philippians is a little like that. To a community with whom he has worked, Paul gives credit for their efforts to spread the good news of Jesus. But he takes no credit for his own efforts. He attributes their good work to the fact that they have opened their hearts to Jesus and God’s Spirit, but that’s the kind of thing God does if we take the risk of providing an opening for God to work in and through us. The invitation of Advent is to open up, even just a little, to allow Jesus to come in.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

SIP/SOS 2022

WE INVITE YOU TO CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION IN 2022 FROM THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN HOME – possibly with a beverage in hand?

 VIA ZOOM/S.O.S!

Our 2022 Theme

“Being Heard”

Dates for your diaries

Wednesdays:

2nd March, 

6th April,

4th May,

1st June,

6thJuly,

3rd August,

7th September,

5th October.

As well as our March SIP when we invite our speakers to open up the year’s theme for us, topics will include:

“Listening with the heart”;

“Love and Light”;

“The Call to Journey”;

“The call of the environment”;

A review of the second session of the Plenary Council……

Venue: From the comfort of your own home by Zoom/SIP/S.O.S 

7.30pm – 9.00pm

MORE INFO? WANT TO RECEIVE OUR MONTHLY ZOOM LINK?
 CALL MAREA ON 0414 873 910      Email: mareadonovan@gmail.com
Posted by Gay Walsh in Spirituality In the Pub

First Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“It will seem as though all hell has broken loose – sun, moon stars, earth, sea, all in an uproar, and everyone all over the world in a panic at what is coming…When these things start to happen, stand tall, for your deliverance is near at hand.” Luke 21, 28-28; 34-36

Getting towards the end of Luke’s Gospel, the writer ventures into an imaginative and hypothetical description of Christ’s Second Coming. Since he has no inside knowledge of what that will look like, he relies on the kind of language we associate with poetry – metaphor, symbolism and hyperbole. Because his topic is the end of the world as we know it, we call it apocalyptic writing. It is closer in style to poetry than to prose.

Poetry is destroyed when we undertake a word by word or line by line analysis of the text. We get a better appreciation by allowing the words to wash over us. In that way we get a feel for what the author is describing. In today’s gospel-reading Luke offers a poetic description of how the world and, indeed, the universe will be disjointed at the time of the Second Coming of Jesus.

We are used to dealing with signs and symptoms which are pointers to various aspects of our daily living. A flashing red or blue light frequently points to a hazard ahead on a road or a police operation in progress. When we present ourselves to a doctor for examination, we describe the signs that something is amiss in our bodily functions. We can even begin to panic as we await the doctor’s interpretation and assessment of those signs in the light of his or her professional experience. The signs of the end times that Luke names are frightening. Paradoxically, however, they are the signs of the arrival of the fullness of love in the person of Jesus, who knows fully the human condition and the ups and downs that are part of it. But, if we are going to be able to stand secure in the presence of the Son of Man when he returns, we must surely be alert to the signs of chaos, destruction, injustice and inequity present in our contemporary world, and take responsible, gospel action.

Today’s gospel-reading parallels our recent Sunday readings from Mark. Following Mark, Luke’s description of the upheaval and chaos in the natural world, comes immediately after the story of the widow’s mite. In explaining the action of the widow giving her all, Jesus describes the inequality and disparity of a religious system which forces people like the widow into penury. He then moves the focus onto the Temple practices that cause the disparity and points out that, in time, the Temple and the system that supports it will be destroyed totally. The magnificent Temple edifice will prove to be as ephemeral as the new leaves, flowers and fruit on the fig tree.

The relevance of all this for us in the here and now is that the upheaval Jesus describes as a prelude to the coming of the Son of Man is really an invitation for us to look at our world and notice the signs of upheaval that leave us less than comfortable. The world of commerce is intent on lulling us into a sense of false security. The shopping malls are decorated already with tinsel and gaudy adverts for bargain-priced presents. And have carols echoing through all the shops, forcing us to think that Christmas has arrived already. Yet there are still vast gaps between the poor and the rich; the homeless seek shelter for the night on the doorsteps of the shopping malls; migrant families are locked away in detention centres because they lack the right documentation; the Covid pandemic is still causing havoc around the globe; refugees are pleading for welcome at the borders of wealthy countries, whose citizens are deaf to cries for assistance. We live in a world that is seriously disjointed and on a planet that has been desecrated because of human selfishness and neglect. Yet the retail industry tries to massage our senses and our minds into believing that our world is full of peace and good-will.

But over the next few weeks, Advent intervenes to shake us out of the lethargy that has numbed us into insensitivity. Hidden in the signs of disintegration, upheaval and chaos are signs of God’s ever-present love. To see them, however, we have to make time to look, to discover and to ponder. This first Sunday of Advent is an invitation to us to stop and take in the many signs of God’s love hidden in the ordinary upsets of our lives, in the babbling and disagreements of our political leaders, in the Covid pandemic that has blown away our notions of normality and distanced us from those we love.

Traditionally, we take the Advent season as a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus into our lives. If we are to allow Jesus to be born in our hearts, we can expect that he will nudge us to involve ourselves in changing what is crying out for change and conversion, not just in ourselves, but in our world. He is calling us to set to work to establish the kingdom of God where we live and work and socialise. That involves treating one another, especially those who are so often overlooked, with justice, respect, care and compassion. In a very real sense, Advent telescopes our lives into four weeks of searching, noticing, reflecting, and taking constructive Gospel action. And isn’t that the purpose of our lives? Are we not on a life’s journey to come into the presence of the one who loves us endlessly. His love is so boundless that the prospect of coming before him when our earthly lives come to an end must fill us with hope. For then our pretences and self-justification will evaporate, and we will rest secure with the one who loved us into life and who loves us in our strength and weakness, in our failures and our triumphs.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see things happening, know that the Son of Man is near…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Mark 13, 24-32

Once again, context is all important in grasping the significance of today’s gospel. At the beginning of Mark Chapter 13 from which today’s reading comes, we hear that Jesus had foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That prompted two questions from his disciples: “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?” (Mark 13, 4).   Not surprisingly, Mark has Jesus respond to these questions in reverse order. But instead of giving the disciples dates and times and signs of impending disaster, Jesus points out that squabbles and wars will always be going on around them because that’s the way of the world. Consequently, they should turn their attention to living true to themselves instead of upsetting themselves with what is going on around them. Moreover, he adds that there is no reason for them to assume that the end of the world is just around the corner, “for the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13, 10). This is also Mark’s way of countering a view that was seemingly held by some in his community. They held fast to the belief that Jesus was God’s perfect and last involvement in human history. It was logical, then, that the fullness of God’s kingdom would soon become a reality and, as a consequence, the world would come to an end. In this rather lengthy explanation that Jesus gives his disciples Mark attributes to him a reference to the persecution of Christians that Nero had initiated in Rome. When Nero was accused of starting the fire that destroyed the city of Rome, he scapegoated the Christians of the city, and set about having them exterminated. And so, Mark has Jesus say: “…and you will be hated by all because of my name” (Mark 13, 13). Scripture commentators point out that Christians of Mark’s era were seen as losers on opposite sides of the Roman Empire. They were being blamed by Nero in Rome as arsonists (for which they were executed) and accused by Jews, who had no time for Jesus, as deserters who got out of Israel to avoid the unpredictables of the Roman occupation.

Mark was writing for a community, at home and abroad, a community that was dealing with physical and political hostility. His Gospel includes allusions to some of the historical pressures directed at that community. In so doing, he acknowledges just how difficult it was for them to be true to their new-found faith. But he assures them that Jesus offers hope.

All this is part of a long lead-in from Jesus before he offers answers to the two questions his close disciples asked when he made his surprising prediction that the grand Temple edifice in Jerusalem would end up in ruins. Having urged them not to get upset by the wars and natural disasters going on around them, he answers their two questions (Mark 13, 4) in a way that, on the surface, looks less than satisfactory. In fact, he includes comments about the end of the world and the return of the “Son of Man” – things they had not specifically asked about. And he does so, using the symbolic language that is associated with apocalyptic writing and speaking. What’s more, in referring to the upheavals in both the political and natural worlds, he uses the term “these things” so ambiguously that neither his disciples nor we quite know whether he is referring to the end times or the destruction of the Temple. I suggest that Mark deliberately tells the story this way to put the focus on the real message that Jesus wanted to give his disciples: In the long run, their knowing exactly when the Temple would fall into ruins and when the Son of Man would return in glory was trivial, in comparison with a commitment to live in hope, trusting that, no matter what happened around them, God would lead them through, even through death and persecution. Therein lies the central message of today’s gospel, both for the disciples and for us: no matter what troubles, disappointments and tragedies are visited upon us in the course of our lives, we can be sure that God, who loved us into life and who continues to love us day in and day out, will continue to walk beside us, even when those challenges don’t evaporate.

There is one sentence at the very end of today’s gospel-reading, that calls for attention. In reference to when the world might end, Jesus says: “As to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13, 32). This underlines the reality that in coming among us Jesus embraced the human condition in its totality. There were limits to his knowledge, just as there are limits to ours. In this context, we ought not forget that Jesus also cured many people of the illnesses and disabilities that limited them. He even restored to life people like his friend Lazarus and the son of the widow of Naim. But they all eventually died and were buried, just as he himself died and was buried. But, he has promised us the fullness of life, life that will come to us only through death.

We are all familiar with St Paul’ encomium about love, in which he concludes: “When all is said and done, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13, 4-13). Yet, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ very last words of encouragement to his disciples are not about love, but about living with hope in God. In more recent times, we have seen two popes, Benedict and Francis, make strenuous efforts to encourage us to attend to the importance of living in hope.

On the importance of hope, Gustavo Gutiérrez, the great Peruvian theologian, Dominican priest and exponent of liberation theology, mirrors Popes Benedict and Francis in their call to us to live in hope. In an interview in 2003, he stated: “Hope is based on the conviction that God is at work in our lives and in the world. Hope is ultimately a gift from God given to sustain us during difficult times. Charles Péguy described hope as the ‘little sister’ who walks between the ‘taller sisters’ of faith and charity; when the taller sisters grow tired, the little one instils new life and energy into the other two. Hope never allows our faith to grow weak or our love to falter.” (Daniel Hartnett, Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez, America Magazine, February 3, 2003)

Let’s not forget that hope, just like every other virtue, is not a collectible item. It is an attitude to living, to relating to God and to others, to engaging with the events of life. It is something that we integrate into our lives with practice and over time. Moreover, it is contagious. When others see hope in us, they learn to imitate it. Our hope gives hope to those around us. As we cope with the Covid pandemic that has taken our world by surprise, with the threat of global warming, with trauma and tragedy of every kind, we will not manage unless we have the conviction that God is present and to be found in everything that happens, however it turns out. Heaven and earth will surely pass away, but the things of God, the values that Jesus lived and taught will be forever constant and life-giving.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection