Sunday Readings Reflection

The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“When the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s sons and daughters.”  Galatians 4: 4-5

We Christians honour Mary because of the unique role she played in the story of God’s love for humanity. While we have come to apply to her many titles, arguably the greatest compliment paid to her came from Jesus himself while he was speaking to a large crowd. A message was passed to him that his mother and other relatives were outside and wanted to catch up with him. (see Matthew 12: 46-50) Then, looking over the heads of the crowd in front of him, Jesus used the interruption to ask a rhetorical question which he immediately answered: “But who are my mother, my brother, my sister? It is the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Some have incorrectly interpreted this as a reprimand to his mother and relatives for interrupting him. Rather it was a glowing compliment in which Jesus stated that Mary’s greatness lay not in the fact that she was his birth mother, but in her unwavering adherence to everything that God had asked of her. Nobody has been Mary’s equal when it comes to listening to God’s word and acting on it. The message, of course, for all of us is to direct our attention to developing a listening heart to the Gospel of Jesus.

The start of a new year has long been associated with our being encouraged to stop and reflect on resolutions we might make to rid our lives of habits and practices that are physically, emotionally and morally detrimental. We are encouraged to make alterations to the ways in which we live and relate, so that we will do better at respecting ourselves and all those around us. The Church helps us to do this by holding up to us Mary as a model worthy of imitation. That’s why the liturgical celebration at the start of the calendar year is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. It invites us, in imitation of Mary, to integrate into our lives the things of God.

In the course of history, we Catholics have demonstrated a tendency to err in the direction of over-sentimentalising our devotion to Mary. We have turned her into the essence of nurturance, full of sweetness and gentleness, ever ready to advocate for us with her Son. I don’t want to deny that those are some of Mary’s qualities. But, at the same time, it is important that we don’t overlook the fact that she was a normal woman, toughened by the experiences of living under the rule of foreigners who had occupied the land into which she was born and in which she grew up. She was hardened by having to witness, without protest, the way in which the Son she had loved into life was disregarded, then labelled as a threat to religious and civil stability and, finally, unjustly tortured and executed. Earlier, she had witnessed the slaughter of countless babies done to death by a deranged king who saw in infants a potential threat to his position and power. She endured, with her husband Joseph, life as refugees in a strange country in order to protect their son. Bitter experience had toughened her and, at the same time, had taught her compassion and given her an ability to reach out to others who had experienced grief and trauma similar to hers. So, she was there to encourage and guide the small group of disciples who, we are told, gathered in fear mixed with hope in the Upper Room before the first Pentecost. First among equals, she earned the title as the first and foremost disciple of Jesus. As a model for our discipleship, we need not look beyond Mary.

At the end of May 2021, Pope Francis spoke of his devotion to Mary under the title of “Undoer of Knots”. He told of how he had discovered in a church in Augsburg in the 1980s a painting done by the German Baroque artist, Johann Schmidtner (circa 1700). It seems that the painting had been inspired by a treatise on faith written by St Irenaeus fifteen hundred years earlier. In the course of that treatise, Irenaeus had written: “Mary, the Virgin is found to be obedient, saying: ‘Behold, O Lord, your handmaid. Be it done to me according to your word.’ Eve, however, was disobedient; and, when yet a virgin, she did not obey…Having become disobedient, Eve became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race; so also, Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race… Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses. – Against Heresies). When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he promoted devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots. It became popular in Argentina and Brazil.

We know from experience that we can tie ourselves up in emotional knots and in confusions we create for ourselves in our relationships and even in the way in which we pursue the practice of our faith. Miscommunication and insensitive use of language all too often lead to strained relations between friends and among families. Even in the practice of our faith, we can fall into thinking that we have a responsibility to put our energy and effort into earning God’s approval. We lose sight of the fact that God’s love for us is both everlasting and never diminishing in intensity. That inevitably ties us up in knots. They are knots we can safely put in the hands of Mary, the woman whose faith kept on keeping on.

As we move into 2023, we might do well to turn our attention to Mary as one whose approach to the ups and downs of life can help us to make constructive adjustments to how we might walk in the footsteps of her Son and our brother.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

The Nativity – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“For today in the city of David a saviour has been born to you who is Christ and Lord.”   Luke 2: 1-14

“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us.”   Luke 2: 15-20

On this day to which we all look forward, there are four gospel readings – one from Matthew (Matthew 1: 1-25) for the Vigil Mass, another from Luke (Luke 2: 1-14) for Mass at midnight, a third from Luke (Luke 2: 15-20) for the dawn Mass and a fourth from John (John 1: 1-18) for Mass during the day itself. This reflection is on Chapter 2 of Luke. Luke has written large his preference for the poor, the outcast and the lowly by the fact that he identifies despised shepherds as the first to learn of the birth of Jesus. The irony of the manger scene to which we have become accustomed is that there was nothing meek and mild about those shepherds who had come into Bethlehem from the nearby hills after they had experienced a visitation from angels. In reality, they were characters who had earned a reputation for being aggressive, tough and earthy. That reputation led to their being excluded from the temple. Religious authorities felt threatened by their reluctance to conform. Underneath Luke’s account is the clear message that nobody is excluded from the love and mercy of God.

Note, however, that the shepherds are not the only poor people in the outhouse in Bethlehem. We can easily miss Mary and Joseph who can only have been wrung-out after a perilous and exhausting 100-mile journey. They, like countless others, whose importance was little more than statistics on an electoral roll, were the victims of Roman bureaucracy, which pushed poor defenceless people around with not the slightest consideration for what they might have to endure. Even now, insensitive bureaucrats often reduce poor people to anonymity. The irony, of course, was that Mary, Joseph and their unborn child, like all their fellow travellers who were heading into Bethlehem to be counted, didn’t count at all. The painting below, entitled The Census in Bethlehem by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel, imagines Joseph and Mary, her pregnancy at full term, indistinguishable from everyone else clamouring for accommodation.

The only hope open to that vulnerable family at the centre of the manger scene which we know so well was their faith in the God of promise with whom they were on intimate terms. There was no hope to be found in the impersonal power that pushed them and others like them to go to Bethlehem. Moreover, the only security they had was the meagre store of food and personal belongings they were able to carry with them. Their hope lay in the trust they had in the God who had already intervened in their lives, despite the human struggle, suspicion and hardship that had eventuated in the wake of the divine intervention they had experienced. Neither had they anticipated visits from rough-clad shepherds and a group of well-off seekers who had come from the East with valuable gifts.

It is into this scene that Luke invites all who dare to read his Gospel. We are all invited to make a journey of the heart to Bethlehem, to reflect on what the shepherds encountered in that broken-down animal shelter, and what the Magi experienced after them. The Bethlehem where Jesus was born was a place of poverty, anonymity and oppression. Present-day citizens of Bethlehem, sisters and brothers of Jesus and of us, too, struggle for life, recognition and dignity under a different Caesar. And there are Bethlehems replicated all across our common home, planet earth. To what extent do the residents of those many Bethlehems feature in our celebration of the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us? How might we include them? And how might we go about bringing God-with-us to everyone we encounter, especially during this last week of our calendar year?

We, who do not live in want, can so easily become lulled into a false security that all is well in the world which we inhabit. But that common home of ours is groaning under the abuse and neglect we have all had a part in meting out to it. The Jesus we reverence in the crib at Bethlehem grew to bring hope into our world. The child in the manger, a feed-bin for domestic animals, grew to be the “bread of life”, nourishment for all who would come to him. Christmas reminds us who believe in him that we, too, are to be agents of hope and nourishment for others by the way in which we live and relate. Shouldering those responsibilities calls for more than just wishing for change and betterment, for more than hoping that our teenagers won’t dabble in drugs or hoping that there won’t be another Global Financial Crisis or another Covid pandemic or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Being agents of hope and nourishment calls for rolling up our sleeves and committing ourselves to practical actions of caring for our earth, giving material support to our starving and refugee sisters and brothers, reaching out to actually talk to needy people begging in our streets, volunteering to assist those whose lives have been destroyed by floods and cyclones and rising ocean waters. Christmas is much more than sentiment!

In finishing this reflection, I remind myself and others of words to which I annually refer from the American poet, W. H. Auden, in his Christmas Oratorio: “It lies within your power of choosing to conceive the Child who chooses you!”

How different we and our world might be if we were to take the risk of bringing Jesus to birth within each of us. Remember, Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Let’s invite him to be God-in-us!

I take this opportunity to wish all regular and casual readers of this weekly reflection, a blessed and peace-filled Christmas and a graced and rewarding year ahead.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”   Matthew 1: 18-24

Today’s gospel-reading is Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus. It’s a story which Matthew places squarely in the chequered history of the Jewish people. In order to appreciate that history, we would do well to stop and read the first seventeen verses leading up to today’s gospel-reading. They come under the heading of Genealogy of Jesus, which we remember because it contains all those “begats”, a rather quaint feature of the opening of Matthew’s Gospel. U.S President Ike Eisenhower once told how he was reared in a deeply religious family where he was instructed to read the entire Bible but allowed to skip that section of Matthew with all the “begats”.

There are lots of words for birth that Matthew could have used in describing Jesus’ origin, but he settled on the Greek word genesis, a word that relates nicely to the word genealogy and replicates the title of the very first book of the Bible, Genesis – an account of the very beginnings of creation.

In Jesus’ family tree, Matthew lists all the great heroes of Jewish history. In addition, there are some whose track-record was less than edifying. Abraham was a man of faith who came very close to sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac. However, things got worse after that. Jacob, with family encouragement, cheated his older brother, Esau out of his birthright. David had Uriah killed in battle to hide his adulterous relationship with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. Among others who featured in Jesus’ ancestry were Tamar who tricked her father-in-law Judah into impregnating her so she could obtain security in his family. Then there was the prostitute Rahab who hid in her house two of Joshua’s spies who had come to reconnoitre the city of Jericho. She talked the spies into protecting her and her family when Joshua’s army invaded Jericho. And when Joseph, a true “son of Abraham” and a distant descendant of King David accepted Jesus as his son, Jesus’ lineage became even more complicated. Matthew’s point is that God could cope with the messiness of life and human frailty and that Jesus could come and live in the midst of that messiness.

Now let’s for a moment consider the confusion and messiness that overtook Mary’s life. Matthew introduces Mary’s pregnancy with a glorious understatement: “When Jesus’ mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1: 18). There is no indication as to who found Mary to be pregnant. Moreover, it would have been impossible to keep that news under wraps. It would have spread like wild-fire and the village gossips would have had a field-day. And we know the questions that Mary would have been asked had she confided in close friends: “What did your parents say when you told them?” “Does Joseph know?” “Did some Roman soldier do this to you?” Had Mary dared to say that an angel had told her she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, she would have attracted the label of “lunatic”. Still more complications and messiness were to follow.
And what about Joseph? Now we would say that he was caught between a rock and a hard place. We are told that he had secret thoughts of divorcing Mary quietly. That might have been a just solution to his problem, but it could easily have led to her being stoned to death – the penalty for infidelity as prescribed by the Levitical law. Had she escaped that, she could have ended up destitute, with no adult male to provide for her. Yet, for Joseph to marry a woman who appeared to be unfaithful to him, he would be defiled by her seeming disregard for the law. Even worse, for him to accept Mary’s child would be tantamount to his bringing an illegitimate child into his ancestral line. That child would inherit the birthright of any offspring he might eventually father. As he was wrestling with issues such as these, in a dream he experienced during the night, he was engaged by an angel, whose first words were: “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. It is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child” (Matthew 1: 20). We all know that directives to stop being afraid are generally ineffective. Let’s not forget that the Angel Gabriel gave the same advice to Mary. That leaves me wondering whether angels create fear by their sudden, unexpected arrival or whether those to whom they appear are already frightened by the issues with which they are dealing. The crux of the matter which had brought an unresolved dilemma to both Mary and Joseph was that they were confronted with a pregnancy they had not cooperated with one another in creating. But to all intents and purposes they were left with the problem of resolving it for no other reason than that Mary’s pregnancy threatened her place, her child’s and her fiancé’s place in the community that would normally have been home to them.
We who have the whole of the Bible available to us between the covers of a single book can point to story after story of how God had worked through messy and shameful domestic and national situations to rescue people and restore them to hope and promise. Isaac was saved from being sacrificed at the eleventh hour, Moses, a murderer, led an enslaved people out of Egypt into freedom, Tamar, by deception, ensured that Judah would have sons, an earlier Joseph, one of Jacob’s many sons, also had dreams and rescued the very brothers who had sold him into slavery. There is little doubt that Matthew saw the event of Mary’s pregnancy, the birth of Jesus and the courageous selflessness of the second Joseph as just another episode that really belonged to the Old Testament. For Matthew, Jesus was first and foremost the fulfilment of all the prophecies of the Old or First Testament. On eight occasions in the course of his Gospel, Matthew cites Jesus or his actions as being the fulfilment of what had been proclaimed by the prophets of the Old Testament.

In the two creation stories at the start of the Book of Genesis, we hear the story of how God created the world. At the commencement of Matthew’s Gospel, we are told how God, created the world afresh in the person of Jesus, The crux of that fresh or new creation was the fact that God, in Jesus, became part of our flesh and blood, a full member of the human community. Jesus became one with us when he was born of Mary. In today’s gospel-reading, Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophecy of that birth in all the details with which we are familiar: “The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, a name which means “God is with us”.

In our baptism we became even more closely linked to Jesus as his sisters and brothers, all children of God. Our family histories with their skeletons in the cupboard, with their frailties, shames, mistakes and failures are as messy and confused as was Jesus’ genealogy. None of us is beyond God’s capacity to reach out to us in love, forgiveness and acceptance. In the festival we call Christmas we celebrate the fact that the child who became part of the families of both Mary and Joseph is also born into our family. God has made our world new through him, and because of him will continue to renew it through us. Can we accept that responsibility? Isn’t that what being a follower of God-with-us really means?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Third Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”   Matthew 11: 2-11

In 2013, Pope Francis wrote a document encouraging all Christians to proclaim, by the way they live, the joy to be found in the Gospel. The title of that document is Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), and its opening sentences read: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and the lives of all who encounter Jesus…With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.”

The enthusiasm of Pope Francis about the joy of the Gospel filling our hearts does not match my experience. That’s not a criticism of him but, rather, a comment on my own inadequacy to allow myself to be captivated by the Person and the Gospel of Jesus. Living in accord with the Gospel is, in my experience, a challenge. I suspect that one of the reasons for that is that there is a lot happening in the world that dampens my hope. I am committed to the call of Jesus to work for justice for those who are not getting it, for people who are victims of exploitation, for the countless refugees in search of security, shelter and sustenance to sustain them and their families. However, I find some comfort in the fact that one as great as John the Baptist also had questions and doubts. His sending some of his disciples to check on the credentials and track-record of Jesus indicates to me that he was wondering if his confidence that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah had been misplaced. Admittedly, his own imprisonment must have brought him face-to-face with human depravity and despair. It has to be difficult for prisoners in any age or place to believe in a future full of hope. But John’s limited view from his prison cell meant that he had no appreciation of what Jesus had been doing. As a result, he sent his disciples to put to Jesus on his behalf the question with which he was struggling: “Are you ‘He who is to come’ or do we look for another?”   (Matthew 11:3)

If there is one thing that gives me hope in the content of today’s gospel-reading, it is the fact that Jesus did not only resist being critical of John for doubting him but went on to praise John for all he had said, done and modelled to prepare his world for the advent of the Messiah, Jesus himself. The Baptist, however, did not have the satisfaction of seeing Jesus in action. His imprisonment deprived him of that. However, the hope that Jesus brought into the world is to be seen in the answer he gave to the delegation who had come from John: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead people are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to them. Blest is the one who finds no stumbling block in me.”  (Matthew 11: 4-6). Jesus did not go on the defensive, he merely asked the messengers to open their eyes and judge for themselves whether or not what they saw demonstrated God’s active presence in a broken world.
Let’s not forget that Jesus had come to establish the reign of God in the world. But the way in which he did that was different from the way in which John, John’s disciples and most of the Jewish people imagined it would happen. For the most part, they were expecting the Messiah to forcefully drive out the Roman occupiers of their country. In contrast, Jesus chose the way of non-violence. The message which Jesus suggested John’s disciples take back to their leader was all about the restoration to health and dignity of the poor and needy. What Jesus had done for them was a clear sign that the reign of God was being initiated in a non-violent way.

Jesus’ directive to John’s disciples is equally relevant to us. Are we ready and open to look at our world for signs of God’s presence? What signs of hope can we see? Or do we see a future full of doom and gloom, especially when we believe our political leaders are doing precious little to stem the consequences of climate change? And what spoken and unspoken thoughts do we entertain about Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro recently ousted President of Brazil, Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria and the Military Junta in Myanmar? We hear of the atrocities over which they are alleged to have presided and conclude that their people and our world would be better without them. Would we be satisfied if they were removed by forces more violent than those at their command? Yet we know that violence is totally foreign to Jesus and his Gospel. Just a few weeks ago on the Thirty-Third Sunday of the year, the gospel-reading from Luke recorded Jesus as saying that there will be wars, brutality and insurrections so long as human beings misuse power and freedom. But such happenings are not a signal that the end of the world is near (Luke 21: 5-19 and Matthew 24: 6). When such things happen, we hear some people asking why God does not intervene. But Jesus did not subscribe to belief in a God who would come and intervene whenever people with power and military might misused their freedom. But violence, terrorism and armed conflict can distract us from seeing God’s presence made visible in the goodness and generosity of people reaching out with compassion and care to their sisters and brothers in need.

So, we have to stop and ask ourselves if we really do want to closely encounter Jesus and have our hearts and lives filled with the joy of the Gospel. We also need to look into our own hearts to see whether or not we would want the conflicts in our world addressed by strategies based on the use of force and violence.

Instead of allowing our attention to be turned to all in our world that is destructive, disrespectful of people’s freedom and dignity, neglectful of our common home, let’s discipline ourselves to hear and see how good and generous people are bringing to reality God’s reign of justice, mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
In this context, I am reminded of a story written in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, a sometime critic of the Catholic Church. Kristof told of the extraordinary contribution of Dr Tom Catena to the well-being of more than half a million people living in the Nuba mountains of South Sudan. Tom Catena is a medical practitioner and lay missionary, the only doctor working in the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba mountains. In fact, he’s the only doctor living and working in that part of South Sudan. And the hospital in which he spends most of his time has been the target of bombing by the Sudanese air-force. Dr Tom does everything from removing pieces of shrapnel from victims of the bombing, to amputating mutilated limbs of children, to delivering babies and run-of-the mill appendix and hernia operations. He attends to children and adults suffering from malnutrition and leprosy.
Aware of the initiatives undertaken by Pope Francis, Kristof admitted that he has a dream that Pope Francis will one day make a visit to the Catholic hospital in the Nuba mountains as a way of galvanising opposition to the evil of the bombings taking place there. That dream might just come true next year when Francis visits Sudan. Perhaps the greatest tribute given to Dr Tom came from a Muslim chieftain who said: “That doctor is Jesus Christ. Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see and helped the lame walk. That’s what Dr Tom does every day.” If we care to open our eyes, we’ll see people like Tom Catena making God’s kingdom real.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Second Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  Matthew 3: 1-12

The famed American novelist, Stephen King tells very gripping stories. He is so skilled at wring them that he has published nearly seventy horror, crime and science-fiction novels and sold over 350 million copies. He has grown wealthy on the royalties that have accrued from those novels. In addition to being a brilliant creator of stories, he’s a prominent social activist. For instance, in 2012 he called for wealthy Americans, including himself, to pay higher taxes, citing it as “a practical necessity and moral imperative that those who have received much should be obligated to pay tax in the same proportion.” Then, in 2013, following the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (December 14, 2012) which claimed 28 lives, he called for gun owners to unite to support a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. He argued: “These are weapons of mass destruction. When lunatics want to make war on the unarmed and unprepared, these are the weapons they use.”

In 2001, King was invited to deliver the Commencement/Graduation address to the graduating class of Vassar College, a Liberal Arts University situated in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. While he is not a member of any church, King gave an extraordinary oration which resonates with the message proclaimed by John the Baptist as reported in today’s gospel-reading from Matthew. The following is an extract from King’s address:

“What are you going to do, Vassar class of 2001? Who will be the doctors, the lawyers, the writers, the painters, the executives, the politicians? Who’s going to look around at age forty-five, surprised as hell to find himself or herself the head concierge at the Hotel Carlyle in New York and say: ‘How the hell did I wind up here?’ What will you do? Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t know how many millions of dollars. – I’m still in the Third World compared to Bill Gates, but on the whole I’m doing okay – and a couple of years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying in a ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like the branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a Mastercard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts Mastercard. If you find yourself in the Emergency Room with a serious heart attack, or if the doctor tells you yeah, that lump in your breast is a tumour, you can’t wave your Diners Club at it and make it go away…The man who saved my life was a volunteer paramedic…He did the things that needed to be done at the scene, and then drove me to the nearest hospital at a hundred and ten miles an hour. And while he may have an American Express Card, I doubt very much if it’s a gold one…We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but an extremely valuable look at life’s simple, backstage truths: We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going to go out broke…Steve King? Broke. You guys? Broke. Not a crying dime. And how long in between? How long have you got to be in the chips?…Just the blink of an eye!…No matter how large your bank account, your kids will still play their music too loud when you get to be my age. No matter how many credit cards you have, sooner or later things will begin to go wrong with the only three things you have which you can really call your own: your body, your spirit and your mind. Yet for a short period. – let’s say forty years, but the merest blink in the larger course of things – you and your contemporaries will wield enormous powers…But of all the power which will shortly come into your hands. – gradually at first, but then with a speed that will take your breath away – the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country, resources you yourselves will soon command, but they are only yours on loan. Only yours to give for a short time… Should you give away what you have? Of course, you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not. All you have is on loan, anyway…All that lasts is what you hand on. The rest is smoke and mirrors!” (Stephen King, Commencement Address, Vassar College, 2001)

In the gospel-reading of this Second Sunday of Advent, we hear tell of another social activist who challenged people in his part of the world more than two thousand years before Stephen King. John the Baptist was a prophet, to boot, and he suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the Judean desert. His strange diet and his unusual dress led to his being labelled as something of an eccentric. Well-versed in the Scriptures of his tradition, he became convinced that the appearance of the Messiah, long awaited by his people, was imminent. He therefore called those who came to hear him to tidy up their lives by taking seriously what their prophets had been calling them to for centuries. To welcome the Messiah in a fitting manner, they would need a change of heart. So, he called them to repentance. While some, no doubt, came out of curiosity, to get a glimpse of him, many heeded his call to prepare themselves for what John proclaimed God was about to do in their very midst. They witnessed to their readiness by stepping forward to participate in the ritual baptism that John was conducting in the waters of the River Jordan. John appealed to the hearts of those who gathered to hear him. He reminded them of the emptiness of their lives and the injustice they had cultivated by neglecting to reach out to widows, the poor and strangers. He called them to reclaim the best in their tradition. Like the other prophets before him, he spoke the truth as he saw it, without hesitation, without flinching. His call is to us, too, to open our hearts to what God has in mind for us. John was really asking his people if they were satisfied with their world and with the way in which they lived in it. Those same issues are relevant to us as we prepare in Advent to invite Jesus to be born into our lives. There are unhealthy things in our lives and our world that are of our own creation. In very different ways, both John the Baptist and Stephen King alluded to what calls for our attention. It is one thing to identify what requires attention, another thing to actually address it. However, the launching pad is to be open to a change of heart and attitude, to acknowledge that we need conversion. Advent is about asking God for assistance. To begin with, we may need to stop and ask ourselves just how satisfied we are with the life we have built for ourselves, with the world, our common home, to whose degradation we have contributed.

Social activists and prophets are effective only to the extent that we respond to their challenges. What challenges do John and Stephen give to you and me?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

First Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Put on the armour of the Lord Jesus Christ and stop paying attention to your sinful nature and satisfying its desires.”   Romans 13: 11-14
“Stay awake! For you do not know when your Lord will come.”   Matthew 24: 37-44

Advent was included in the Church’s calendar as a period of reflection intended to engage the Christian in giving attention to the significance of the fact that, in the person of Jesus, God demonstrated unequivocal solidarity and identification with all of humanity. Two words which occur again and again in the prayers and readings of Advent are “Emmanuel” and “incarnation”. Emmanuel is one of the names attributed to Jesus and literally means “God with us”. It first appears in the Bible in the prophesy of Isaiah, who proclaimed how Jesus would be born as a child and take a place in human history. In a prophesy to Ahaz, Isaiah declared: “Watch for this: A girl who is a virgin will become pregnant. She’ll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-With-Us)”  (Isaiah 7:14). We will have to wait till the Fourth Sunday of Advent to hear this reading.

“Incarnation” is a word that is rarely used outside the context of religion. It is derived from the past participle of the Latin verb incarnare, which means “to make/become flesh”. From about the year 1300, the noun incarnation was used quite specifically to mean “the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ” (Chambers, Dictionary of Etymology, p. 517, Harrap Publishers, N.Y. 1988). The word also appears in the flower name carnation, flesh colour. Advent invites us to reflect on the enormity of how God touched humanity in the person of Jesus and how, as a consequence, we are able to encounter Jesus in and through our human experiences. The prominent Catholic theologian and Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (c.295-375) wrote a treatise on the Incarnation entitled DeIncarnatione, in which he stated: “God became like us so that we might become like him.” (sic). The implication of this is that Jesus grew and developed through childhood, adolescence and adulthood like every other male. He asked the kind of questions about his origins and development as every one of us has asked. He had to learn how to befriend his body and make his way through the challenges and traumas of adolescence as every other adolescent has. He had to deal with the whole gamut of human emotions within himself and in everyone he encountered. He experienced grief and rejection, loss and acceptance, illness, suffering and the depravity of humiliation, torture and execution of the kind experienced only by a minority. And he died as we all must.

Regrettably, Advent in the world we know has almost become a non-event. The world of retail commerce has already begun selling for Christmas, and Christmas carols can be heard already in shopping malls the world over. For any of us to set aside time for Advent prayer and reflection requires special effort and discipline.

There is an additional irony in some of the readings set down for this First Sunday of Advent. God’s incarnation in human flesh in the person of Jesus not only points to the value and dignity of human flesh and blood – the fact that Jesus adopted our human flesh and blood implies that – but it suggests that this is worth celebrating. In today’s reading from Romans, however, the human body seems to be the object of some severe criticism. The problem we face here is that the Greek word for flesh used in Romans can have two meanings. Sometimes flesh is equated with our sinful nature, while at other times it is used to refer to our human condition, worthy of our reverence and admiration, despite its fragility. The fact that God, in the person of Jesus, has identified in the incarnation with our flesh, in the sense of something to be reverenced, gives us every reason to celebrate. At the same time, we all know the temptations we experience when we let bodily urges and desires get out of control, when we fail to treat our bodies with reverence, respect and self-control. But that does not mean that there is something about our bodies of which we should be ashamed or embarrassed. We, with our bodies, talents and emotional life, are gifts from God. It’s important that we stop from time to time to remind ourselves that all of God’s gifts are good, and so worthy of respect and reverence. We also know that gifts can be misused, and today’s reading from Romans is simply a reminder to us to use our gifts for the purpose for which they are intended.

That complements the call in the gospel-reading from Matthew to be alert to what is happening within our own lives and in the world around us. That does not imply that we are insensitive to, or burdened with despondency by, the prevalence of violence and the injustice of events taking place in the troubled parts of our world. We also know of many people, including ourselves, whose generosity is at work to bring relief and healing to our sisters and brothers who are victims of injustice, prejudice and neglect. The Gospel call to stay awake is also a reminder to us to recognise the presence of Jesus in everyone we encounter in the course of each day. The corollary of that is that we take care to avoid slipping into living our lives as though each day is just a matter of business as usual. That can so easily lead to complacency and dulling us from being surprised by God’s unexpected revelation in very ordinary events.

Still there is one more image in today’s gospel-reading that cannot be ignored. It strikes me as something of a shock that God will come into our lives like a thief. Yet, apart from the extended metaphor of God as thief in today’s gospel-reading, there are two similar references in the Book of Revelation (Rev 3:3; and 16:15) and another in Thessalonians, where Paul wrote: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night”  (1 Thessalonians 5: 2). I have to admit that I am more comfortable with Jesus as the Light of the world, the Bread of Life, the true vine, the door, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, and God as the potter. But thief? In real life, there are many who believe that their bank accounts, their houses, their cars and their health insurance are their guarantee of lasting security. But God has a way of stealing from us the false sense of security we can create for ourselves. Thieves who break into houses don’t advertise their coming, and when they do invade our homes, we can feel violated. God, on the other hand often comes unannounced into our lives. We experience God’s presence in the kindness of neighbours who turn up with meals when we are grieving the loss of a loved one, and in the many other acts of kindness extended to us by friends, neighbours and strangers. Moreover, God is ever intent on “stealing” our hearts and our allegiance, not by deception, but through the insights we get, from time to time, into God’s love for us expressed in very ordinary events. We may even have found ourselves resonating with the experience of the prophet, Jeremiah who acknowledged how God had captivated him: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced”  (Jeremiah 20: 7) In this context, I am reminded of what a friend said to me after losing all his treasured family photos and other possessions in our recent floods: “In a very real sense, it was a blessing, because those things were distracting me from making sure that my heart was in the right place!”

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Some of the disciples were talking about the Temple, how beautiful it looked with its fine stones and gifts offered to God.”    Luke 21: 5-19

The disciples’ appreciative remarks about the ornateness of the Temple elicited from Jesus a list of comments that they probably least expected. After all, it is likely that they were repeating comments of the kind made by countless visitors and pilgrims who had come to the Temple before them.

Jesus, however, gave them a list of weighty issues to ponder and digest. What is worthy of note about this section of Luke’s Gospel is that it parallels similar passages in both Mark and Matthew that are something like Jesus’ final thoughts to those close to him before he was arrested, tortured and sent to his public execution. Today’s gospel-reading is a summary to his disciples of what they could expect if they committed themselves to practicing everything he had taught them.

In a response that must have deflated the disciples, Jesus offered a list of grim and unambiguous assertions, the meanings of which are probably best paraphrased:

The first was a grim reminder that the beautiful Temple which the disciples so admired would one day be nothing more than a pile of rubble. Shocked by his prediction, the disciples wanted an indication as to when such destruction would happen. But Jesus bypassed their question and proceeded to give them a further warning.

He warned them about expecting too much from organised religion that can sound as though it is able to offer quick answers to people’s hopes for instant salvation. He also made reference to religious charlatans who would come offering false hope by claiming to speak on behalf of Jesus himself: “Take care not to be misled. Many will come in my name saying: ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is at hand.’ Do not follow them.”   (Luke 21:8)

Then, without so much as a pause to breathe, he launched into a third point about war and violence. Extreme abuse of power resulting in war and conflict deter all our efforts to bring peace and calm fear. But we need to remind ourselves that such violence is bound to occur when greed and competition rear their ugly heads. “Be sure”, he said, “not to let news of such events paralyse you with fear.”

Then, as though he were running out of time to say everything he wanted, he had moved to his next point about the inevitability of the occurrence of natural disasters that would turn people’s lives upside down. “But don’t rush to interpret such events as signs that the end of the world is near. Wars between nations and natural disasters such as earthquakes, famines and plagues will all come and go, but, ‘for you who would be my disciples, even worse experiences await you!’”  (Luke 21:11)

Then followed a brief comment on how government institutions can pervert the law to destroy the lives of those they are meant to protect. Acutely aware of people intent on ridding their world of him, Jesus warned that similar injustices awaited his disciples: “You will be arrested and persecuted and brought to trial before kings and governors” (Luke 21: 12).
The final point that Jesus made was to be alert to the possibility of animosity and betrayal coming even from family members, some of whom would stop at nothing. (Luke 21: 16).

Some of us may conclude that this outburst from Jesus was the result of the emotional pressure he felt as he reflected on his own experience of rejection, injustice and prejudice levelled at him by those whose lives he had made uncomfortable by the challenges he put to them. I’m inclined to think that he was more intent on urging his disciples to be alert to the painful forces that could be loosed against them not just by a violent and greedy world, not just by forces of nature, but by those who controlled the power of the religious institution to which they were adherents. There is something attractive about the flowers, the icons, the statues, the music, the incense and the rituals that are part of our religious practice and worship. But some of us have had experiences that make these things pale into insignificance. There comes a time for some of us when more painful events impinge on our religious consciousness. We all know of someone who has been emotionally or even sexually abused by religious people in whom they placed their trust. Such abuse does not belong only to our religious world. It has invaded the fabric of our political, institutional and sporting worlds.

Sometimes, we can delude ourselves into thinking that religion is meant to desensitise us to the painful issues at work in our Church and our world. Jesus and his Gospel are surely intent on encouraging us to face openly and honestly those painful issues, however complex they happen to be. God’s Spirit is present and at work in the complexity of our own lives and in the complexity of the world around us. While we might be inclined to want to simplify complex situations and challenges, it is vital that we try to face them openly and squarely. In today’s second reading Paul gives us a good example of mixing reality with genuine love and care. He seems to have no hesitation in speaking the truth in love to the Thessalonian community to whom he wrote: “Indeed, when we were with you, we used to lay down the rule that anyone who would not work should not eat”  (2 Thessalonians 3: 10).

However we choose to live our religion, it is empty if it fails to lead us towards discipleship of the Jesus who taught us to live with courage, compassion, integrity and fearlessness, ever conscious of God’s Spirit somehow present under the messiness of the troubles which surround us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The lord is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”   Luke 20: 27-38

While today’s gospel-reading looks to be fairly complicated on the surface, it carries a message of great hope and encouragement for all of us and, by implication, shows us how to live our lives with meaning and purpose. In the process, it discloses the insincerity of the Sadducees in formulating a question to Jesus that seems to be motivated more by sham and mockery than a desire for an answer to a genuine real-life issue. As is so often the case, an appreciation of context helps us in unravelling the complexity of this gospel-reading.

In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees were fewer in number than the Pharisees with whom they had differences of opinion on matters relating to the Law. Sadducees, for the most part, belonged to the upper classes of society and favoured literalist, fundamentalist and traditional interpretation of the Law. In their view, Torah and Moses were synonymous. They believed that the Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were all formulated and dictated by Moses himself. They had little time for the theological and legal explorations and debates engaged in by the Pharisees. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death simply because it was not specifically mentioned in the Torah. Moreover, in the time of Jesus the concept of life after death or resurrection was relatively new even in the thinking of the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in life after death but the Sadducees rejected it as totally out of hand.

The law to which the Sadducees referred in framing their question to Jesus was one that existed in other ancient cultures as well as in Judaism and was known as the levirate law, which derived its name from the word levir, meaning a husband’s brother. The levirate law stipulated that if a married man died leaving his widow childless, the dead man’s brother was to marry the widow and treat their first son as the son of the man who had died. There are references to this law in both Genesis (38:8) and Deuteronomy (25: 5). The purpose of the law was to ensure that family property remained in the family that generated and owned it. The kind of afterlife to which the Pharisees subscribed was that it was an improvement on the earthly life with which they were familiar rather than a completely different kind of life. Jewish men believed that the greatest blessing in life was to have sons who, in their turn, would keep the family name well and truly alive. Consequently, they saw the afterlife as a state in which they would have an endless array of sons. Some decades later. notable Jewish scholars reinforced this view of the afterlife in their teachings. Rabbi Gamaliel II asserted that, in the afterlife, “Women will give birth daily”. And a descendant of his, Rabbi Eliezer, stated: “Every Israelite will have six hundred thousand sons”. I wonder if Jewish women imagined that as their understanding of the afterlife. The farcical question which the Sadducees put to Jesus regarding the woman who married seven brothers in succession (all of whom died), entailed presenting the proposition that, even though Moses had promulgated the practice of the levirate law, he could not have subscribed logically to a belief in an afterlife.

In responding to the riddle the Sadducees put to him, Jesus described the afterlife as something like the life of angels – endless and very different from the life of human beings, a life in which marriage, conception and childbirth would not be necessary for the propagation of the human race. He made the point that God was capable of creating an utterly different kind of life, nothing like the kind of life humans experience. The rules, practices and customs of human life would no longer operate. Having said that, he then engaged with his questioners on their own ground, quoting to them from the Torah (the only Scripture to which they adhered) the section describing the encounter Moses had with God in the burning bush, in which God says: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Genesis 3, 6). This implies that, if God is the God of those Patriarchs, they are still alive. Moreover, the Sadducees knew well that God’s love is endless. Logically, then, they could only conclude that those whom God loves must still be enjoying some kind of life, different in kind from human life. In their efforts to force Jesus to provide textual proof of an afterlife, the Sadducees had forgotten to take into account the nature of God as eternal love for all whom God had loved into life.

The logical consequence of all this is that the God who has loved every human being into life, the God whose love is unconditional and eternal, continues to love all of us endlessly. We, in turn, know in the depths of our heart that we are made for love and that after we experience human death a different kind of life awaits us, allowing us to continue to experience God’s love. That surely leaves in the dust any theory that our lives are meant to be endurance tests in which we earn or forfeit God’s love through our efforts and failures.

In all of this, there is, I suggest, an implied corollary. I have long held the view that gifts reach their full potential only when they are shared. In that context, indelible in my mind is the memory of a comment made to me years ago by a young man who was dux of the College he attended. In conversing with him, I asked if other students came to him seeking assistance with their work. This was his reply: “I don’t give help to anyone. If I did that, they might get more marks than I in our examinations!” The most precious gift we have is life. The challenge for all of us is surely to live our lives to the full, sharing who we are and the other gifts with which we have been blessed to make our world a better place and to enrich the lives of everyone we encounter by the way we affirm, encourage and accompany them to grow into their best selves. Life’s journey is not a quest to get to heaven, is not about accumulating merit or brownie points to qualify for entry through the “pearly gates”. It is about living to the full the love that has been planted deep within us.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I mean to stay at your house.”  Luke 19: 1-10

There is no doubt that Luke, in his Gospel, presents us with a Jesus who has a preferential option for the poor and needy. As we have followed the Sunday readings throughout the year, we have read of the woman who had unsuccessfully spent all her savings on doctors, and, in desperation, reached out in faith to touch Jesus’ cloak (Lk 8: 43 ff). There was the story of the rich man who feasted every day but ignored poor Lazarus who was wasting away at the rich man’s door (Lk. 16: 19-31). There have been multiple accounts of Jesus reaching out to ostracised blind people and untouchable lepers (eg Lk. 5:12-16 and Lk. 17: 11-27). And then, there was the story of how Jesus urged a gathering at a celebration in a Pharisee’s house to invite to their banquets poor people who could not return the favour (Lk. 14: 12-14). A close second to Jesus’ preference for the poor was his outreach to those who had been labelled as public sinners, especially tax-collectors, who were universally despised and treated with contempt. Tax collectors have been the focus of the gospel readings of recent Sundays, and this coming Sunday we have the story of Zacchaeus, “a chief tax-collector”.

There is a touch of humour about this story in that it describes the undignified behaviour of a high-profile public identity who resorts to shinning up a tree in order to get a good view of Jesus, the prophet, whose reputation had preceded him. We can only wonder what it was that prompted Zacchaeus to risk further public embarrassment and ridicule by an action such as that. After all, he had already earned the contempt of almost everyone for his collaboration with the Romans and his extortionary methods of bleeding rich and poor alike. He would have been almost friendless. Had he reached the point of being sickened by the man he saw when he looked into the mirror? Had his conscience started to get the better of him? Had he come to realise that accumulation of wealth at the expense of others had given him neither joy nor satisfaction? Was he merely curious?

Whatever it was that possessed him to climb the sycamore tree, it seems to me that he somehow had come to the conclusion that the Jesus he wanted to see might be his only source of inner peace. Jesus, in his turn, somehow sensed that the man he saw up the tree was longing for his hollowness to be filled. Without hesitation and without stopping to consider that, yet again, his critics would condemn him for associating with public sinners, Jesus invited himself to lunch in the house of Zacchaeus. Both Zacchaeus and Jesus pushed to the side personal reputation and human respect.

For whatever reason, Zacchaeus went in search of Jesus. In his turn, Jesus responded to Zacchaeus, affirming that there was some good in him despite his reprehensible past. Whatever Jesus said to Zacchaeus was enough to trigger in him a change of heart, an experience of conversion.

Every gospel-reading we hear calls us to move from the stance of observers to that of active participants. We make that shift by acknowledging that the experience of Zacchaeus is our experience, too. While few of us have earned a reputation for advancing ourselves by gouging the poor, there have been times in our lives when we have compromised our personal integrity, when we have not been true to what we know to be the deepest desire of our heart. We have felt the needle of conscience prodding us to mend our ways, to address whatever is in need of healing in our lives. That is the experience of all humans, be they people of a particular religious faith or of none. We all know in our heart the feeling of dis-ease whenever we fail to live with integrity, whenever we fail to treat others with reverence and respect, with the dignity they deserve as our sisters and brothers.

Those of us who call ourselves Christian, commit ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to live in accord with his Gospel. We know from experience that conversion of mind and heart is a life-long journey. It is rarely the consequence an instant, life-changing event similar to the dramatic experience that turned the life of Saul of Tarsus upside down. Still, in different ways, Jesus says to each of us: “I mean to come and stay in your house.” Perhaps we are hesitant, even reluctant, to give him entrée. I suspect that’s because we don’t believe we are good enough or because we fear what he might ask of us. Life experience has taught me that most of us are slow to admit that we are good. God doesn’t make junk. And my experience is that there is good in everyone I have encountered, and that human decency is to be found in everyone.

We don’t know whether Zacchaeus’ change of heart in the direction of being magnanimous was complete or lasting. Implicit in his promises was an admission that his conduct had been less than exemplary and that he was resolved to make amends. What this story of his meeting with Jesus does tell us is that Jesus has the ability do deal with the ambiguities evident in the lives of everyone. As he dealt with Zacchaeus in the circumstances of his life, so, too, is he ready and willing to deal with us in the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. We need to be courageous enough to prepare ourselves to listen for the times when he says to us: “I mean to join you in your house for lunch today.”

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

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

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”   Luke 18: 9-14

I want to suggest that the cleverness of this parable is that it draws us into identifying with the tax collector while, in actual fact, we are probably more like the Pharisee. There is some wisdom in the aphorism “All comparisons are odious!”, especially when we slip into comparing ourselves with others. The big difference between the prayers of the two men who had come to the temple to pray was that in his prayer the Pharisee measured himself against the performance of people around him (‘I am not like the rest of men’), while the tax collector looked only at his own life.

Surely, it comes as no surprise to us that we find ourselves quick to identify with the tax-collector. After all, we squirm whenever we hear anyone trumpeting a list of his or her donations to charitable organisations or their extensive involvement in volunteering activities. What’s more, centuries of conditioning have left Christians in no doubt about the reputation they are expected to attribute to Pharisees. Despite the error inherent in the label ”Pharisee”, we take Pharisees to be self-opinionated, self-righteous, hypocritical legalists intent on finding fault with almost everything Jesus said and did. They prided themselves as self-appointed guardians of religious law and practice. At the same time, history attests that many Pharisees did what was expected of them, with integrity, and respect for those around them.

Throughout history, peoples and groups have had their names universally tarnished because of the actions of a few of their members. Nigerians, for example, have been labelled as belligerent, Jews as usurers, Moonies as brain-washers, Real Estate agents as swindlers and so on. The labels simply reveal the prejudices of those who attribute them. Tax-collectors in the time of Jesus had a reputation for being extortionists and collaborators with the Romans. Yet, today’s parable presents the tax-collector’s prayer as much more to our spiritual liking than the prayer of the Pharisee. The tax-collector, recognising his sinful history and acknowledging that God’s graciousness is beyond his ability to earn it, throws himself at the mercy of God. The Pharisee, in contrast, lists his good deeds as adding up to a curriculum vitae that is bound to earn God’s approval.

We have all grown up in cultures that have taught us that competition is a worthy pursuit. We compete in scholastic exams and sporting activities with fellow students throughout our school and academic lives, working to achieve better results than our peers. That overflows into our religious activities in such a way that we can delude ourselves into thinking that we earn God’s approval by our good deeds. Rather than thinking that we earn God’s love through the good we do, we would do well to remind ourselves that the good things we do are a result of God’s empowering us to do them. The genius of today’s parable is that it impels us to look into the mirror, and to acknowledge that we see in ourselves a greater resemblance to the Pharisee than to the tax-collector.

While we don’t brag about our achievements and hard-won qualifications, we list them and our published papers in our CVs and have our university degrees and professional qualifications displayed on our office walls and business cards. We provide evidence of how we are apparently better than others. What we so easily forget is that all our achievements and successes are attributable to the blessings we have received from God.

What inspires and encourages us about the way in which the tax-collector presented himself to God was his honesty in acknowledging his weakness and his complete dependence on God’s gracious mercy.

The assertion Paul makes in today’s reading from his second Letter to Timothy reinforces the gospel message of the need for us all, when we pray, to come into the presence of God with openness, honesty and humility. Like the tax collector in his self-assessment, Paul gives a self-evaluation to Timothy that has no hint of comparing himself with others. Using a metaphor from athletics, he asserts: “I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. And now there is waiting for me the prize of victory.”  (2 Timothy 4: 7-8).   His honesty is echoed by top-rank athletes who can look at their performances relative to their nearing or exceeding their own personal best. They make no comparison with those against whom they have been competing.

In this context it is important that, whenever we engage in self-evaluation, we don’t ignore our truth. Let’s not deny that we may well be intelligent, creative, talented, generous in sharing out time and talent, faithful, loyal and honest. There is nothing admirable about cultivating the disease of low self-esteem. The debilitating habit of always wanting to run ourselves down is a mockery of the truthful stance of the tax-collector before God. The practice of perpetually belittling or underestimating ourselves becomes an obstacle to ever coming to appreciate that we are loved by others, even by God. That does not mean we are perfect. We all carry human flaws and frailty. But having been created in the image of the God who loved us into life, we must accept that, like God, all of us are good, creative, loving and free when we are at our best. Sure, we need to acknowledge to ourselves and others that there are times when we are sinful, but such acknowledgement is meant to lead us to put our hope and trust in God, who not only respects and treasures us, but trusts us to be instruments of peace, compassion and mercy for others.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection