Sunday Readings Reflection

Ascension – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.” Acts 1, 1-11
“Go into the world. Go everywhere and announce God’s good news to one and all.” Mark 16, 15-20

University lecturers in the Faculty of Education have been known to say to their students: “When you go into a classroom, tell students what you are going to teach them, then teach them, and conclude by telling them what you have taught them.” Of course, that includes telling the students where and how to get help if they haven’t grasped what the teacher has tried to teach them. Today’s three readings combine to give a summary of what Jesus came to teach everyone who would be a disciple (students), where and how to get help (from the Holy Spirit and prayerful reflection) and what was involved in being commissioned (sharing with others what has been learned).

The way in which Mark opened his Gospel (“Here begins the Gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) resonates with the way in which Luke introduces the Acts of the Apostles (often called the second volume of Luke’s Gospel): “In my first account (volume), Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up to heaven, having first instructed the apostles he had chosen through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1, 1-2). Luke proceeds to record a conversation that took place between Jesus and his apostles immediately before he disappeared permanently from their sight: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you; then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1, 8). To put it bluntly, Jesus was telling the apostles to roll up their sleeves and prepare to go out and share what he had taught them. Moreover, we hear the very same message in today’s gospel-reading from Mark: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation” (Mark 16, 15). The implication of the start of both Acts and Mark’s Gospel is that what Jesus said and taught was but the beginning of his good news to the world and that it was to be continued by all his followers, with the help of the Holy Spirit, until there was nobody left to hear that good news. The indicator that Luke gives to include all of us in the proclamation of Jesus’ good news is the fact that he addresses the second volume of his Gospel to Theophilus, a Greek name which literally means friend or lover of God. Surely that is a generic name for all of us who all claim to be friends and lovers of God.

The question which Luke attributes to all the apostles in their final exchange with Jesus, was probably put by one of them, on behalf of his companions. The very fact that they could ask Jesus: “Lord, are you going to restore the rule to Israel now?”, is a clear indication that those eleven apostles were a class of slow learners. They had not understood what Jesus had tried to teach them. Clearly, too, his telling them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came down on them just didn’t register with them. Indeed, they probably could not even imagine who the Holy Spirit might be. But their question to Jesus would suggest that they were still expecting a political bonanza or a visit from the tooth fairy. Yet, Jesus still took the risk of trusting that God’s Spirit would breathe sense into them. So, he commissioned them to work at bringing his good news to the world, at continuing to contribute to his Gospel, but making sure to rely on the Holy Spirit.

I have no doubt that Luke and the other Gospel writers wanted to stress just how slow the apostles were in coming to understand who Jesus was and what he had tried to teach them. They also knew that the apostles did not know who the Holy Spirit was and how God’s Spirit works in the world. But are you and I any different from those first apostles? Have we yet grasped who the Risen Christ is and what our role is in living and sharing his message? And what role do we give to God’s Spirit in our day-to-day lives? How often, in the space of a week, do I reflect on the action of God’s Spirit in my life, in the world around me, and in the people I encounter? Or do I do that only when I make time to sit down to write a reflection like this? I can admit, too, that there have been times in my life when I have hoped that God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit would come with a spectacular solution to my challenges. I have even hoped that God would intervene and solve my problems for me. But isn’t it true that God has given us the resources we need to meet the problems and challenges that come our way, and that Jesus has assured us that the Holy Spirit is within and around us to guide us in the decisions we make? And yet, all too often, we delude ourselves into thinking that it all depends on us. We also have to remember that the blessings we have are for our community and our world, not just for ourselves.
There is an African parable about two villages separated by a river.  In each village, there lived a woodworker who knew how to make chairs.  Both knew the secret of making strong, durable and beautiful chairs. But the chair-maker in the first village was afraid to teach others because he thought they would not make the chairs correctly — and worse, if they did, they could cut into his business.  So, he jealously guarded his work.  He became suspicious of anyone with wood, worried that they may have discovered his secret.  He would ridicule them and warn them not to try and make a chair themselves.  So, he made all the chairs in the village, but no one wanted to go near him.  The young men of the village interested in woodworking left the village rather than ask him to teach them. The chair-maker eventually died alone — and his secret with him.
But the chair-maker in the second village did not keep his knowledge to himself.  He helped anyone who asked what wood to use, how to plane and cut the pieces, how to mix the glue to assemble the pieces.  Over the years, many of the young men of the village served as his apprentices.  Sometimes one of them would discover a way to improve the chair.  The master chair-maker would encourage the apprentice to show what he discovered to others.  As a result, the chairs in the village kept getting better and better.  People from other villages would come and buy their excellent chairs — and soon the tables and benches he and his apprentices began to make. 
When people praised the master chair-maker’s work, he would laugh and say, “I did not build these chairs alone.  These young men have improved my chairs.  I am getting old, but these young men will continue building better and better chairs.  I have given my skills and knowledge to them and they have given their love and friendship to me.  Together we have done far more than if I had worked alone.” (Adapted from Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy, compiled by Joseph G. Healey. I am indebted to the writer, Jay Cormier for this story.)
We have all been instructed in how to live and witness to the Gospel. We also know that some who see our efforts to do that will ignore or ridicule us. Are we still up to it?

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Sixth Sunday of Easter – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live on in my love. If you keep my commandments, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love…This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”      John 15,9-17

The Jesus John presents, giving his parting words to his disciples on the evening before his death, didn’t mince his words. He gave them a command, not a mere recommendation, to love. All those wanting to walk in the footsteps of Jesus were expected to demonstrate that love was their distinguishing characteristic.

While we all know that we are made for love and that, as Christians, we are called to love everyone we encounter, we know from experience that there are people whom we find difficult to love. They rub us up the wrong way; we find their personalities, opinions and actions off-putting and even abrasive and objectional.  Yet in today’s first reading we hear John saying: “Let us continue to love one another because love comes from God” (1 John 4, 7).  In our gospel-reading for today, we are told that love is the Christian’s mark of authenticity. Love is so central to the life of anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus that John identifies loving as the one and only commandment that Jesus prescribes for his followers: “This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15, 12).

Still, there is something in us all that suggests strongly that we don’t like commands and directives. We resent being told by others to do things, even if the one telling us is Jesus himself. Moreover, we don’t like conditions being hung on us, and being told, in the same breath, that fulfilling them is the only way of demonstrating that we are genuine. But doesn’t it sound like that when John attributes to Jesus the words: “You will live in my love if (my emphasis) you keep my commandments” (John 15, 10)? I dare to suggest that the “if” reflects the difficulty that translators have, and that Jesus (and John) are telling us that, whenever we reach out in love, we are reflecting the capacity for love that God implanted in the human heart and which Jesus modelled for all humanity in the way he lived and related. Jesus loved us unconditionally and surely does not want us to impose conditions on ourselves and on others as we and they reach out in love to one another.

And let’s keep reminding ourselves that we Christians don’t have a monopoly on the love market. All love reflects the love of God planted deep within our being. In a very moving memoir (All But My Life, 1957, Hill & Wang publishers), Gerda Weissman Klein recounts how she survived the atrocities of a concentration camp and the ordeal of a 300-mile death march from Germany to Czechoslovakia. Her lasting memory of the Holocaust is of her dear friend Ilse Kleinzahler, who had grown up with her and who was transported with her, both 16-year-olds, to a slave-labour factory in Grünberg, Germany. One day, on their daily march from their barracks to the factory, Ilse (whose name in Hebrew means “God’s promise”) came across a raspberry in the gutter. Unnoticed by the guards, she picked it up and kept it safely in her pocket all day long. Gerda relates: “Ilse, had carried it in her pocket – the temptation to eat it herself must have been incredible –  and gave it to me that night. She had plucked a leaf through the barbed wire, washed it and gave it to me with that slightly bruised raspberry sitting gently on it. Most people think of the Holocaust as unrelieved horror. I want to remember how people helped each other, how there was friendship and love and caring.”  Of the 2000 young women who set out on that long march into Czechoslovakia, Gerda and Ilse were among the 300 who survived the ordeal. But Ilse died just three days before rescue came from the American advancing forces. She was kicked in the head by a brutal SS guard, and died. However, on the very morning of the day she died, Ilse had given Gerda a potato and had encouraged her to promise “to hold out for just one more week”. Gerda, also tells of a female SS guard, Frau Kugler who had “the face and bark of a bulldog” but who proved to be “a warm caring human being” who dragged Gerda and three other sick girls to their work places and propped them up against their machines, thereby saving them from the notice of a German agent who had come to identify the sick to be sent off to the gas-chambers of Auschwitz. Gerda later wrote: “Frau Kugler put a lie to the lips of all those officers and guards who said they had no choice.” Gerda’s story is eloquent testimony to the fact that genuine love finds expression in countless ways and in those in whom we least expect to find it.

As we know, Shakespeare wrote a play entitled Love’s Labour Lost. We know from our own frailty that sometimes our love falls short, gets lost or goes unnoticed because we put the labour, ahead of the love. We know, too, that there are times when loving is difficult, when the people to whom we want to reach out are prickly, grumpy or very demanding. Moreover, they sometimes remind us that we are supposed to be kind and loving, without counting the cost. But we would be deluding ourselves if we thought that Jesus found it easy. The rejection, abuse, torture and humiliation inflicted on him over the days that led to his execution hardly gave him feelings of satisfaction. Yet the very fact that his love for all humanity was what motivated him to let his executioners have their way was the ultimate act of love. And Jesus calls us, too, to love, even when we are not buoyed up by the feelings we think ought to accompany loving. Moreover, John, in his First Letter, reminds us that authentic love must find expression in action: “If anyone boasts of loving God, and has no time for his brothers and sisters, he or she is a liar” (1 John 4, 20). In his account of one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, John underlines that love goes hand-in-hand with reaching out to our sisters and brothers. Jesus asked Peter three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Three times, Peter attested that he did. And Jesus replied that the way to demonstrate that love was go out and “feed my lambs, tend my sheep and feed my sheep” (John 21, 15-17). Action speaks far more loudly than words!

We cannot let this Sixth Sunday of Easter go by without giving some attention to the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This is a story of the way in which God’s Spirit was at work in bringing together Peter and Cornelius (a non-believer, but a very decent man) and leading them to collaborate in shaping a future that neither one had even imagined.  Cornelius had a visitation from an angel who urged him to seek out a man called Peter, who lived 30 miles away in Joppa. Cornelius sent his servants off to locate Peter. Meanwhile, Peter, too, had a vision in which he was urged to eat foods that pious Jews refused to touch. On his three-fold refusal to give in to what he regarded as a temptation to evil, he was told firmly that nothing that God had created could possibly be regarded as unclean. Peter awoke from his dream to find Cornelius’ servants knocking on his door. Had he been true to his Jewish tradition Peter would have refused to have anything to do with a Gentile. However, he went with Cornelius’ servants and discovered a Roman centurion and his family who had been moved by God’s Spirit. This encounter had a profound impact on the early Christian community, for it led Peter and all the early Christians to realise that the only qualification required to follow Jesus is a readiness to love.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fifth Sunday of Easter – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br  Julian McDonald cfc

 

“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower…Live on in me, as I do in you. No more than a branch can bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, can you bear fruit apart from me. I am the vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated from me, you can’t produce anything.” John 15, 1-8

The renowned Romantic, English poet and social reformer, William Blake was the author of the poem Jerusalem, which many describe as the unofficial English national anthem. Set to music, it featured in the film Chariots of Fire and is sung annually at the famous British Prom Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall in London. The poem is based on an English legend that Jesus, as a young man, visited the shores of England (formerly called Albion). The opening verse of Jerusalem refers to that legend:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green,
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

Blake was a deeply religious man and wrote a much longer poem, also entitled Jerusalem (some 100 pages of verse and illustrations). The opening lines of this long poem echo today’s gospel-reading:

Of the Sleep of Ulro! and of the passage through
Eternal Death! and of wakening to Eternal Life.
This theme calls me in sleep night after night, & ev’ry morn
Awakes me at sun-rise, then I see the Saviour over me
Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song.
Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:
Fibres of love from man to man thro’ Albion’s pleasant land.
(Note: Ulro is an Anglo-Saxon word for the land of the living dead or hell.)

In yet another of his poems, The Little Black Boy, Blake describes what a young African lad learned about God from his mother. He attributes the following, profound words to the boy:
And we are put on earth, a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.

Today’s reflection is not meant to be a lesson in the poetry of William Blake, but it is about the reminder which Jesus gave his disciples on the night before he died. – a reminder that in Jesus’ love for us and for all humanity we are grafted not only to him but to one another in ways that we probably don’t fully understand, and that, arguably, the central purpose of our lives is to “learn to bear the beams of love”.

The predominant theme running through today’s gospel-reading is that of love – God’s love for Jesus shared by him with all of humanity. If there is one thing that none of us has to be taught is that we are made for love. We know that because we have all felt love welling up from the very depths of our being. What we have learned from others, especially from our parents and from looking at the life of Jesus (love incarnate, loved enfleshed), is how to go about expressing our love in the best possible way.

To get grips on today’s gospel-reading, it is probably worth our while to give some attention to the context out of which it grew. We know that all four evangelists wrote their Gospels to instruct and encourage the communities to which they belonged. Their focus was not on providing a biography of Jesus or on giving an account of the day-to-day activities of his public ministry. Rather, they were offering stories and explanations as to who Jesus was and how his followers might go about embracing and living the message of love which he lived and proclaimed. John’s way of doing this was to employ language that relied heavily on symbols and metaphors. The key to understanding John is in discovering the significance of the imagery he used and coming to appreciate that he attributed that imagery to Jesus. We also have to acknowledge that Jesus probably used metaphors and symbols with which his various audiences would have been familiar.

In this context, it is worth noting that the culture and civilisation from which Abraham emerged was that of Sumeria. The nation of Sumeria was made up of city states which formed an alliance with one another for the sake of protection against invaders. These city states were located on the fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Southern Iraq) and the culture and civilisation they developed were the seeds of what we now understand as culture and civilisation. Grapes have been cultivated in the Near and Middle East for thousands of years, and archaeologists have discovered the remains of a winery in Armenia that dates back 4000 years. In Sumerian culture, the symbol for life was the grape leaf. So, when Jesus used the symbol of the grapevine to describe himself, his listeners would have understood what he was talking about.

Today’s gospel-reading from Chapter 15 of John is an extract from the discourse that John attributed to Jesus at the Lord’s Supper on the evening before Jesus died. Moreover, it forms a key part of John’s unfolding explanation of Eucharist. It goes all the way back to his account of the feeding of the 5000 in chapter 6. Immediately after that event, John has Jesus declare: “I am the bread of life” (John 6, 28-59) – the very first of those seven “I am” statements special to John’s Gospel, and referred to in last week’s reflection. And Jesus proceeds to say: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them”. Now, in our gospel-reading today from chapter 15, we hear Jesus declaring: “I am the true vine…those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love” (John 15, 1-8).

And let’s not forget that the “you” in these passages refers to the eleven disciples and to us. It is in the plural, so we don’t slip into thinking that Jesus is talking about some cosy, individualistic, personal relationship between himself and me. He is talking to a group of disciples as a community. John is using this part of his Gospel to address the community that he was leading, a community of believers that would grow into the early Church. In John’s theology, the Word of God became enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ, and will continue to become enfleshed in our world through us who gather as a community of believers around the person of Jesus in the meal we now call Eucharist. The abundance of love and life that flowed from God into Jesus continues to flow from Jesus Christ into us as we gather round him, participating in the Eucharistic meal. Through our connection to the vine of life, we, as community, are nourished with the creative, loving, compassionate energy of God, with the very same energy that flowed through Jesus, the Christ.

In commenting on this part of John’s Gospel the mystic, Meister Eckhart wrote: “A plum tree brings forth plums not by an act of will, but because it is its nature to do so. In the same way, the community of the people of God, gathered around Christ in the Eucharist, allowing the energy of Christ to flow unimpeded into and through all its branches, produces what, by its nature, it must: the fruit of compassion, mercy, kindness, patience, wisdom and love.

Jesus (and subsequently, John) uses the image of the vine to illustrate and explain his continuing connectedness to his disciples and their connectedness to God through him and their connectedness (and ours) to one another and to everyone whom they and we encounter. The challenge for us is to live and love as though we really value that connectedness. Our lives are about learning to bear, appreciate and reflect the beams of love.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday of Easter – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“A hireling (hired hand) is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him. I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father. For these sheep I will give my life. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must lead them, too.” John 10, 11-18

In English, the word “hireling” is a derogatory term, equivalent to somebody who is a mercenary, who works only for the money and lacks a sense of responsibility for whatever he or she is engaged to do. The irony, of course, is that most of us started our working lives as hired hands, and progressed through the ranks only by demonstrating that we were able to act responsibly.

It seems that, from the way Jesus uses the word “hireling” in today’s gospel-reading, it had a derogatory connotation even in his time. It strikes me that John has constructed this section of his Gospel to highlight Jesus’ repeated criticism of the Jewish religious leaders of his time who, in his view, were closer to being mercenaries than to compassionate carers taking proper responsibility for the people they were appointed to look after. By proclaiming “I am the good shepherd” and repeating (five times) that a good shepherd “lays down his life for his sheep”, Jesus clearly signalled that he wanted no connection with the appointed religious leaders of his day.

In his Gospel, John attributes to Jesus seven “I am” statements: “I am the Bread of Life (6, 28-36)…the Light of the World (8, 12-30) …the door/gate (10, 9)…the good shepherd (10, 11-30)…the resurrection and the life (11, 17-27)…the way, the truth and the life (14, 6)…the true vine (15, 1-6).   The only one of those statements in which he attributes to himself an actively human role of caring is “I am the good shepherd”, and the significant word is “good” in contrast to the officially appointed, religious shepherds who fail to measure up.

At the very core of his role as shepherd is the intimate relationship he has with those whom he shepherds: “I know mine and mine know me.” Moreover he proceeds to explain how that relationship is like the intimacy he has with God – “I know my sheep and my sheep know me in the same way that the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10, 15).

So far, this reflection is something like a theological excursion into today’s gospel-reading in an attempt to make meaning of it by looking at it from the outside. However, to engage with it means making a move from the position of observer to that of participant. I suggest that John’s intention, (and Jesus’ intention, too,) was to alert us first of all to the responsibilities that fall to those who claim to be followers of Jesus. By putting ourselves in that category, we, too, commit ourselves to being good shepherds – spending our energy, directing our skills and giving our time to those we are privileged to serve. It means doing what we can to release those around us from fear, doubt and uncertainty, opening a way for them to shape their own lives in freedom, encouraging them to create a future for themselves with the dignity to which they are entitled. It means challenging the systemic injustices that rob struggling people of their rights, and enabling them to claim a voice for themselves. It surely demands that we set aside our own wants, needs and fears so that we can grow into shepherds of reconciliation, compassion and freedom for others.

Jesus stated, with no ifs or buts: “I know mine and mine know me”. If we claim to be one of his, we have to be prepared to allow his Spirit to guide us in getting to know him with some degree of intimacy. That surely means investing time in prayer and reflection, in being present to God present in everything around and within us, and in everyone we encounter in our day-to-day living. That demands making space for prayer and reflection.

Shepherding, let’s not forget, is double-edged. True, we have to learn to be good and sensitive at shepherding others. We also know from experience the need we have for being shepherded ourselves. Yet, so often it is more comfortable to feel needed than to be needy.

As we reflect on this gospel-reading, let’s not skip over Jesus’ comment: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must lead them, too, and they shall hear my voice” (John 10, 16). Membership in Jesus’ flock requires only one thing: Listening to his voice. Both Matthew and Luke highlight that in their accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and his transfiguration on the mountain, with the accompanying voice from the heavens: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Luke 9, 35; Matthew 17, 5). Sadly, there have been groups and institutions that have claimed exclusive ownership of Jesus and his Gospel, rejecting those who have not been admitted to signed-up membership.

The real challenges of today’s gospel-reading are, in essence, to be met in the way we respond to a few simple, yet demanding, questions: Do I listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd inviting me to shepherd and be shepherded? Am I prepared to spend my life reaching out to those with whom I am asked to share the blessings I have been given, for no other reason than that Jesus says to me: “I love you and you are mine!”? He says exactly that to everyone else as he invites us to be instruments of his love.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Third Sunday of Easter – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The two disciples told the eleven and their companions what had happened on the road to Emmaus, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of bread…While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said: “Peace be with you…Look me over from head to toe, touch me and see that a ghost is not flesh and bones like this.” Luke 24, 35-48

At this stage of my life, I find that I don’t go to weddings anymore, only to funerals, at which I find myself delivering the eulogy. Anyone preparing a eulogy normally sits with those who know the deceased, gathering stories and memories. Such meetings often end up with various friends and family members launching into: “Do you remember when he went up to the Cardinal and called him ‘Your evidence’ or when she embarrassed us all by telling the rent collector that mum was not able to speak with him because she was in the bedroom with the electrician?”

On reflection, we can come to appreciate that those who wrote the four Gospels relied heavily on stories about Jesus that had been passed on orally, by those who actually knew him, to the next generation, who in their turn related them to younger people who wanted to know more about Jesus. In time, such stories were changed in the ways in which story-tellers are used to doing. And remember, we are all story-telling people, who spend a good part of each day relating to others what we have selected from our experiences of the day as it has unfolded.

So, I suggest that a worthwhile preparation for reflecting on today’s gospel-reading is to read quietly the whole of chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel. That chapter is Luke’s version, with minor variations, of last Sunday’s gospel-reading from John. It records memories of what occurred on the day Jesus was raised from the tomb. It leaves me with the impression that the prospect of new life heralded by Jesus’ resurrection took hold of the disciples slowly, in fits and starts. Very few of us rush to grab the prospect of a new way of doing things, let alone a new approach to living. We take on the possibility of new life with a degree of caution. We already know that embracing anything new requires change, and change is very often uncomfortable, even painful. New life, a new way of living and viewing the world, does not slip in quietly through the back door. Any mother will tell us, if we don’t already know, that the pain of giving birth to new life is excruciating, as are the struggles to guide a child successfully through infancy, early childhood, adolescence and early adulthood to maturity. Maturing as Christians is just as painful.

Traumatised by the injustice and brutality of Jesus’ trial and execution, the disciples were seemingly resigned to accepting the grief that had overtaken them. The women among them, accustomed to attending to practical demands, had prepared spices for anointing Jesus’ body, and headed for his tomb in the early morning. The men were slowly getting used to coping with their fear and grief, as victims of prejudice and persecution have done throughout the centuries. But, the expectations of all of them were jolted from the moment the women arrived at the tomb and saw the stone rolled away from the entrance. Moreover, when the women came back with the news given them by the two gleaming men who had greeted them in Jesus’ empty tomb, reminding them that their teacher had done his best to prepare them for the surprise that had just startled them, the Apostles dismissed their message as nonsense, and Peter ran off to verify for himself whether or not they were suffering from hallucinations. The women had returned, buoyed up with hope, but their stunningly good news was greeted with disbelief. This was Luke’s way of demonstrating just how difficult it is for the new to break into people’s lives, even into the lives of those who had walked with Jesus for three years.

On that very day, on a road leading to Emmaus and then over a meal in an inn, the Risen Jesus had made a second attempt to break into the lives of two other dispirited disciples. That experience had lifted them from grudging resignation, to the joy of recognising their Teacher in someone who had presented as a sympathetic stranger, and had left them, too, buoyed up with a hope that propelled them to come rushing back to the apostles with the incredible news of resurrection. As they shared their excitement of how they had recognised the Risen Jesus in the simple act of breaking bread, and sat listening to how Simon had discovered that the Master had been raised up, Jesus made a third attempt to convince them that his resurrection could be life-changing for them, too. In extending to them the gift of peace and forgiveness, he urged them to set aside their fears and doubts and to come forward to touch him, as proof positive that it was really he standing before them. In so doing, he promised them his Spirit, who, in due course, would empower them to let resurrection, new life loose in the world.

Embedded in these stories is a very clear message that the very first disciples who had been privileged with first-hand encounters with the Risen Jesus, struggled to allow even the possibility of resurrection to break into their living. It was as though they had been inoculated against the new, against change and transformation. Therein lies a message of hope for us. As this very moment in our history, we look around at a world and its people gripped and dispirited by a raging virus. We can see, too, how, over two thousand years since Christ was crucified, violence and hatred still hold sway in many places, how our Church has failed the very people whom it was meant to protect and, in the process, has all but lost its credibility. We can look at all this and begin to conclude that resurrection is still beyond our reach. BUT, Luke will not let us ignore the fact that it is at the very moment when we tell ourselves that hope is dead and buried and when we do the preparations to complete the burial, that the stirrings of new life are likely to be felt. Like the women at the start of chapter 24 in Luke, we might set out on pilgrimage to the tomb of our long-dead dreams, only to be disturbed by the rumblings of hope and resurrection breaking out from unexpected places. We meet a complete stranger who stops to engage us in the supermarket. We read of a small child who gives his prized sneakers to a new-found friend, because “that’s what Jesus would do”. Our hearts break open when we hear the very human, yet very divine question: “Do you have anything to eat here?”
Perhaps some of the best places for us to understand ourselves and our role in the world and, indeed, to experience resurrection, are soup kitchen tables, budget cafe and family kitchen tables, where the people with whom we engage will mirror to us new insights and resurrection. When we stop to ponder the resurrection of Jesus, we might well discover that it is God’s affirmation that the universe and all of creation matter, that love, integrity and justice matter, that all of us human beings, with our mystery, complexity and in-built contradictions, matter, for we have all been loved into life by God and are in God’s image. We are all living proof of the Risen Christ’s breaking into our lives and resuscitating us with resurrection. And that process must surely continue.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Second Sunday of Easter 2021 – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed upon them and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit”…Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” John 20, 19-31

Today’s gospel-reading has the potential to lift us up and fill us with renewed hope, if only we can absorb its message. In asserting this, I have to admit to struggling with part of it for many years. I just could not understand how Jesus, in breathing on his disciples and commissioning them to do as he had done, could say to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 19, 22-23).

Jesus had spent his public ministry reaching out to people who had been rejected and marginalised by the religious authorities who had labelled these people as public sinners. Why then would he tell his disciples to hold on tight to peoples’ sins and, in so doing, to discard them as the religious leaders had done? I found a solution to my puzzlement in a book entitled Jesus Risen in Our Midst. It was written by Religious Sister, Sandra Schneiders IHM, a former professor at the Jesuit Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She has written more than a dozen books, many of which were on aspects of Religious Life. I had found some of them really heavy-going, so I picked up Jesus Risen in Our Midst with some hesitation. To my surprise, it gripped my attention. In explaining Jesus’ commission to the disciples (quoted above), Sandra Schneiders noted that biblical scholars translating John’s Gospel from the original Greek added the word “sin” to the second part of Jesus’ words of commissioning. Schneiders points out that Jesus did direct his disciples to forgive people’s sins, but to hold tightly to those people, NOT their sins. Isn’t it true that we Christians have often been urged to reject the sin, but not the sinner? If we were to hold fast to rejecting sinners, none of us could claim to being acceptable to Jesus, and none of us could claim to be sharers in his ministry. So, hanging on tightly to our sins and the sins of others would imply self-loathing and the rejection of others. – a total contradiction of the commission given to anyone who would be his disciple.

The almost incredible aspect of John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to and commissioning of the disciples locked away in guilt and fear is that Jesus puts into practice exactly what he commissions those disciples to go out and do. By offering them the greeting of Peace/Shalom and then repeating it, Jesus demonstrates that he is not holding on to their sins of betrayal, denial and desertion, but forgiving them utterly and without reservation, proclaiming that he wants to hold on to (retain) them.

Just in case his community failed to grasp the fact that Jesus was modelling for them the mission of forgiveness he wanted them to take on and continue, John repeated it. A week later, when Thomas had rejoined the disciples, John recounts that Jesus appeared again, greeting them with: “Peace be with you”. Jesus was reaching out to them all, yet again, in reassurance and reconciliation. Reminding them of the promise he had made to them in the course of his final meal with them:
“Peace is my farewell to you, my peace is my gift to you; I do not give it to you as the world gives peace. So, do not be distressed or fearful” (John 14, 27).
We can understand that the disciples had locked themselves away because they were afraid of being done to death as Jesus had been. We can also appreciate that they were probably filled with guilt at the manner in which they had deserted Jesus when he most needed them. But why could they not accept the testimony of Mary Magdalen who had informed them of her encounter with the Risen Jesus? She had gone directly to them, declaring: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20, 18).

It is true that, to the Jews of the time, a woman’s testimony was regarded as entirely unreliable. As a consequence, they were not allowed to be witnesses in legal proceedings. It’s also possible that all those male disciples had dismissed her words as “typical female hysteria”! In John’s telling of this story, Jesus has to repeat his greeting of peace to the ten disciples to convince them that he had risen, and that he had really forgiven them. It seems to me that the focus is put on Thomas because he had already earned a reputation for speaking out without thinking. His reaction to the other disciples repeating: “We have seen the Lord” is entirely predictable. He simply was not going to be convinced by anyone’s assertions. Maybe he, too, was struggling with believing that even Jesus could forgive the enormity of their failure as a group. Given his reputation for being outspoken, it’s entirely understandable that he could not accept that anyone so brutally tortured and done to death as Jesus was could possibly come back to life.

What then is the point of this resurrection account from John? To begin with, we have to remind ourselves that all four Gospel writers offer different accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, at times seemingly contradicting one another. Let’s remember that they were not writing historical accounts. Rather, their intention was to invite their communities to stop and reflect on their own faith in the assertion that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Nobody will ever be able to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. In the same way, none of us can prove our love for another person. We can offer words of love and tangible expressions of the love we profess, but we can never prove it.

Thomas had been told by his close friends that Jesus was alive, and that they had been talking with him. Typically, he just wasn’t going to buy their story. He wanted categorical proof. He wasn’t going to accept stories. He would not be satisfied until he met face-to-face with the resurrected Jesus whose stone-dead body had been sealed in a tomb just a few days before. What he got, however, was an encounter with the risen Jesus that threw him into such a tailspin that he dropped all his intentions of conducting an autopsy. The interaction between Thomas and Jesus is held up to us to teach us that searching for proof of Jesus’ resurrection, or, indeed, for proof of the existence of God, is utter foolishness. Rather, what we all most need is experiencing the presence of the divine in the very ordinary actions, decisions, encounters and complexities of our day-to-day lives.

I believe that Jesus breathed God’s Spirit into the disciples, Thomas included, in that upper room where they had locked themselves away from real life. I believe that same Spirit has been breathed into each of us. We know that we get glimpses of that Spirit at work in the love, generosity, compassion and forgiveness of people we encounter and, indeed in our acts of care and compassion towards others. The crucified and risen Jesus lives again in each of us. Maybe we have to get to know him a little better by first touching the scars we carry. Then, we might be able to go out and start practicing resurrection.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Easter the Resurrection – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

On entering the tomb, they (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) saw a young man sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. This frightened them thoroughly, but he reassured them: “You need not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has been raised up; he’s not here. See the place where they laid him. Go now and tell his disciples and Peter: ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.’” Mark 16, 1-8

Since the onset of Covid, the restrictions around public gatherings have meant that we have been unable to conduct the funerals of deceased family members, relatives, community members and close friends in the manner to which we have grown accustomed. There have been no vigil services, wakes and sharing of memories. Numbers of those able to attend funerals have been severely restricted, and there has been almost no scope for refreshments and chats after a burial has taken place. It took me some time to appreciate the impact of these restrictions on those grieving for the person they had lost. I came to appreciate just how important are a cup of tea and a chat at the conclusion of a funeral. They are, I suggest, integral to the grieving process.

If we don’t share memories of the deceased, if we don’t share with those we know and trust something of our feelings of emptiness and loss, we can get stuck in our grief, we can get caught in forever visiting the grave of the one we have lost. And there is a consequent risk of becoming unhealthily locked in the past. That is not to dismiss or belittle visits to the grave of a loved one. Those visits can be part of healthy grieving. However, it’s important not to become trapped there.

In Mark’s account of the three women coming to visit the grave of Jesus, there is not the slightest hint that they were coming with thoughts of resurrection. Having so recently watched the execution of the one who was so important to them, they were coming with a supply of perfumed oils to anoint Jesus’ body. That was a natural and understandable part of their grieving process. But they were stopped in their tracks by an unnamed messenger, who was clearly expecting them and who not only gave them proof of Jesus’ resurrection, but also gave them a direction to share the good news with their friends, including information as to where to find him.

It’s important at this point to stop and look at how Mark had structured his Gospel for the community for whom he had written it. He launched his Gospel with the words: “The good news of Jesus Christ begins here” (Mark 1, 1). Then he spent almost 16 chapters elaborating on that beginning, at the end of which he handed it over to his community, urging them to involve themselves in continuing the story of that good news. If we are participants in the story, not mere observers, we, too, are being urged to continue the story of God’s love for the world expressed in the life, mission, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I read recently an article by a Lutheran pastor, in which he paraphrased the message the three women were given by the young man in white when they stepped into Jesus’ otherwise empty tomb: “I know you’re here for Jesus of Nazareth. But he’s not here. You need to go and do something else with your grief. There’s a good life out there in front of you. Go now and tell some of your friends what I’m telling you: Jesus has been raised, and he’s a good bit ahead of you. He’s gone on to Galilee. That’s where you can catch up with him.” (Peter W. Marty, It’s Easter. Step into the Future, The Christian Century, March 9, 2021)

We belong to a Church that will forever be in process. The process is not about changing the foundations on which it has been built. – the Good News of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. But it is about living that Good News in ways that will make an impact for good in a world that is also in the process of unprecedented change. And that is uncomfortable. There are those around us who want to reclaim a comfortable, secure, nostalgic past. We’re not always sure of the next step. For many, comfort is more manageable than venturing into an unknown future. However, the resounding message of Easter is to open ourselves to God’s confidence in a future opened up for us by the resurrection of Jesus.

When we gather in faith to bury our dead, we can forget that they, too, were people of faith who, like us, have struggled to express that faith as fully and effectively as they (and we) might have hoped. But let’s not forget that they probably would want us to keep on living with purpose, love and hope, doing our little bit to contribute positively to the world of which we are but a part. If our grieving were to be interrupted by a young man in white, we might hear something like this: “Friends, I know your thoughts are for the one you have lost, and even for yourselves and how you will cope. But, be assured that there’s good stuff ahead, a future into which you can step with hope. And Jesus, about whom you know something, is already in that future. Moreover, he’s waiting for you to notice and catch up.”

In a truly inspirational presentation to the Trinity Institute, New York (2007), Moral Theology Professor Peter J. Gomes from the Harvard School of Divinity spoke of the role that Christians have in continuing to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ begun by Mark in his Gospel. In speaking of our role in what he calls “God’s Unfinished Future”, Professor Gomes highlighted the role of hope. Christian hope is clinging to the certainty that even when things don’t turn out right, we will continue to endure, trusting in a God who will never abandon us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that hope is born of faithful endurance through the trials that come our way. It is not optimism that seduces us into pretending that all is right with the world while we fail to look at the dark side. Paul wrote: “We know that affliction makes for endurance, and endurance for tested virtue, and tested virtue for hope. And this hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5, 3-5).

Easter does not deny the reality of disappointment, betrayal, suffering and pain. However, it does proclaim reason for hope in the human condition. If we dare to open our eyes, we come to know that the risen Christ is present to us in the compassion, care and acceptance we experience in engaging with every good person who in his/her way continues to share the good news of Jesus. We do that, too, when we rise above life’s difficulties to give love and life to others, to mend and renew broken relationships, to proclaim in our actions the good news of the empty tomb. Easter is God’s definitive proclamation that life is in the future, that it is up to us to continue to be good news. Paul surely got it right in writing to the Philippians: “I give no thought to what lies behind, but push on to what is ahead…life in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3, 13). Love, compassion, humility and selflessness will ultimately triumph over hatred, prejudice greed and death. That’s the message of Easter.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Passion/Palm Sunday – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

A man named Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was coming in from the fields, and they pressed him into service to carry the cross…The centurion who stood guard over him, on seeing the manner of his death, declared: “Clearly, this man was the Son of God!”                            Mark 14, 1 – 15, 47

Compared with the Good Friday reading of John’s account of the Passion of Jesus, Mark’s version is very much understated. The first ten chapters of Mark’s Gospel present Jesus engaging with the crowds and receiving their approval not only for his cures and miracles but also for the manner in which he identified with them as they struggled with the burdens put upon by religious leaders intent on demanding observance of the letter of the Law. Those ten chapters also reveal how Jesus had disagreed with the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee over the narrow ways in which they had interpreted their Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Jesus could not accept the way in which they put rigid and unfeeling adherence to law ahead of human need and well-being. Consequently, as early as chapter three of his Gospel, Mark notes that religious authorities were shaping plans for ending Jesus’ life.

Mark does describe Jesus’ short journey from Bethany to Jerusalem as one during which he received accolades from the crowd, who spread cloaks and reeds in his path. This journey, I suggest, was much more like a protest march than a procession of triumph. When he reached the city gates, he entered Jerusalem alone, not in triumph and quietly went into the Temple and looked around before returning with his disciples to Bethany. It was the next say, according to Mark, that he returned to the Temple and caused a commotion by overturning tables and driving out those who had turned the Temple into a market-place. He looked, pondered, and then acted.

The events that followed the anointing of his feet by an unnamed woman in the house of Simon were not witnessed by adoring crowds. They were largely confined to Jesus and his disciples. It was only Jesus who understood that his journey to Jerusalem was actually a funeral procession. He fully understood that he was a marked man. While his disciples may have shown signs of anxiety, they could not grasp what was about to unfold. They came to understand what eventuated only in retrospect, only after he had been executed and resurrected. We, too, participate in all the events of Jesus psychological struggles in Gethsemane garden, his betrayal and trial, his condemnation, torture and execution, in the knowledge of his resurrection. We know that, despite our betrayals, our desertions and treacheries, his acceptance and forgiveness and love for us has not wavered.

Of note, too, is the fact that, while Jesus celebrated a Passover meal privately with his friends, Mark records no mention of directions to them to repeat the ritual offering of bread and wine among themselves or with anyone else. It was only in retrospect that Mark’s Christian community interpreted this as the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as what we now call Eucharist.

Having noted Mark’s way of understating the events surrounding Jesus’ final days, I invite us all to turn our attention to two seemingly insignificant aspects of Mark’s narrative. – the conscription of Simon of Cyrene to assist Jesus in carrying his cross and the proclamation of the Roman centurion when he saw that Jesus had expired.

We’ve all come to admire people who voluntarily take up a cross by dedicating their professional expertise to the service of those who are less fortunate. They let go of personal advancement simply to benefit others, because that’s what walking in the footsteps of Jesus means to them. One such person is Dr Tom Catena, a 57-year-old physician, surgeon and lay-missionary from New York, who has spent the last 13 years as the only doctor at a 435-bed hospital in the Nuba mountains of South Sudan. There’s a kind of brightness about chosen crosses such as this. Moreover, we often find inspiration in the words and actions of those who choose them. When the local bishop directed all foreign Church workers to leave when their lives were at risk, Tom Catena refused, saying: “The way I saw it was that, if I left, that would tell the people here that my life is more valuable than theirs. And I don’t believe that. That’s not how Christ was, he gave his life for everyone.” (America magazine, August 2018)

But there are other crosses that none of us chooses. They are the kind of cross inflicted by oppressors on ethnic groups like the Rohinga Muslims of Myanmar and the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Province, China. Then there is the baffling cross of the Covid 19 pandemic which has been carried by millions of people across the globe. All these crosses seem to me to make no sense whatsoever. That’s the kind of cross that was forced on Simon of Cyrene, who arrived on the scene of Jesus’ struggle to Calvary at the wrong time. Pressed into helping Jesus who had fallen under the weight of his Cross, Simon had no choice but to give in to the Roman soldiers who were in charge. We don’t even know if he was a religious man going up to Jerusalem for Passover. Mark identifies him as “the father of Rufus and Alexander”, suggesting, perhaps, that this family was known to Mark’s community. Was Simon a reluctant participant or a willing helper? Had he undergone some kind of conversion by the time he got to the end of that ordeal? Did he flee the scene as soon as the soldiers had finished with him? There are times in our lives when we are drawn into the lives of acquaintances, friends, family members and even strangers, and asked or forced to assist them in carrying their crosses of terminal illness, creeping dementia, criminal charges, grief, loss and the like. Reflecting on Simon of Cyrene prods me to ask if I am a reluctant or grumbling participant in the crosses of those around me or whether I walk with them caringly and compassionately. Do I walk with them giving of my time and attention stintingly and grudgingly, feeling sorry for myself at being trapped into doing something unpleasant? Am I afraid of what others may think of me if I fail to give a helping hand? What strikes me about Simon is that he walked with Jesus, and ended up giving the Romans the satisfaction of executing their victim. Those of us with a passion for justice step out to demonstrate in the public eye because of unjust laws, because we believe that black lives matter, that firearms must be banned or that asylum seekers deserve to be welcomed. Yet we know that we may not live to see the change for which we advocate. In the long run, our efforts, like Simon’s, may come to absolutely nothing. What matters, however, is that our personal integrity demands that we embrace the Cross of Jesus whenever it comes into our lives and into the lives of our sisters and brothers. Failure to go that way means that we end up losing our humanity, and as the song of Marist singer Chris Skinner reminds us: “it is human that were meant to be” (Chris Skinner SM, Human).

Whatever the thoughts and feelings Simon experienced, he stands in stark contrast to Jesus, who day in and day out selflessly walks with us as we carry the crosses that come our way – crosses of our own making and crosses given to us by others. Sometimes we let those crosses feed our bitterness, at other times we allow them to transform us, to contribute to our growth and development as human beings, as followers of Christ. In his uplifting sonnet As kingfishers catch fire…,the poet Hopkins offers us words of encouragement and hope, assuring us that we can be Christ to others every day of our lives:

for 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.

He could just as accurately have stated that Christ’s passion is repeated millions of times each day as his sisters and brothers shoulder crosses of terminal disease, injustice, persecution, prejudice and rejection. We know that we, too, will be numbered among them, that we may even be asked to fill the shoes of Simon of Cyrene. We also have the assurance that Jesus himself will accompany us every step of our journey to resurrection.

A few thoughts, now, on the unnamed Roman centurion who stood at the foot of Jesus on the Cross, and had a hand in his death. It was an American minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church, Kate Braestrup who first prompted me to reflect on the pronouncement attributed to that Roman centurion. Widowed with four children when her husband, a police officer in Maine, USA, was killed in a motor vehicle accident while on duty, Kate gained entry into an Ecumenical Seminary in 1997 and was ordained in 2004. She was motivated by the fact that her husband Drew had thoughts of becoming a minister himself, and the two of them had discussed that possibility at length in the months before he was killed. Kate combined theological study with rearing her young family. A journalist by profession, she has gone on to write books on spirituality, which have attracted the attention of the New York Times. In 2010 she published Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life. In this book, the centurion on Calvary is one of the topics of Braestrup’s reflections.

In today’s gospel reading there are no pyrotechnics associated with the moment of Jesus’ death. Mark observes that, at the moment Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple sanctuary was torn in two and that the centurion who had witnessed the manner of Jesus’ death declared: “Clearly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15, 39).

The centurion’s words emanated from what he thought and felt as he witnessed Jesus’ agony and death. He concluded that he had been involved in the death of an innocent man. Somehow or other he was touched by the grace of God, not because of who he was, but because of who God is – endless love, hope, compassion and mercy for all of humanity. While we reflect on what happened to the centurion, there is an invitation to us, as we walk down from that hill of Calvary, to ask ourselves what we might do for the broken world of which we are a part. God’s hope is surely that we will live differently because of what Jesus has done for us? Might that mean being a little more sensitive to those around us, making ourselves available to help them to carry their crosses, reaching out in forgiveness and tolerance to those who have hurt us, speaking the truth with courage, compassion, integrity and love? There is a rich abundance of material for reflection in the passion narratives of all four Gospels. But we all need to give ourselves time and space to do the reflecting.

 

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fifth Sunday in Lent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Some Greeks approached Philip: “Sir, we want to see Jesus. Can you help us?” Philip went and told Andrew. Andrew and Philip together went and told Jesus. Jesus replied: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground and dies, it is nothing more than a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”    John 12, 20-33

 

We know enough about John’s Gospel to appreciate that its author doesn’t use words idly or waste them. So why does today’s gospel-reading open with some visiting Greeks approaching a disciple with a Greek name to seek the favour of a privileged introduction to Jesus? They choose a ploy that has been used since Adam was a boy: “If we can find a one-talk, he’ll use his influence to get us in the side door. We’ll be able to skip the line.” There’s probably some truth in that. However, I suggest there is more to it, and the clue lies in Jesus’ response to Andrew and Philip: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless the grain of wheat is buried in the ground and dies…”.

One wonders why the Greek visitors wanted an introduction to Jesus. Perhaps it was out of curiosity. Perhaps they had heard of his reputation for curing the sick and infirm. Maybe, they had seen evidence of the impact on ordinary people of his wisdom and teaching. But the response Jesus gave to the overtures made by the Greeks and the request put to him on their behalf by Andrew and Philip made it clear that he was not interested in fame and had no desire to be put up on a pedestal. Rather, his words were a veiled pointer to a future when he would be put up on a cross.

The Greeks reflect to us something of ourselves. We can all recall times of prayer, reflection and bursts of enthusiasm when we wanted to get close to the person of Jesus, to know him better, to walk in his footsteps. We can all remember echoing, in one way or another, the words of those Greeks: “We wish to see Jesus.” But, perhaps our enthusiasm and desire faltered when we actually came to see Jesus in his true colours. – one who expects of us honesty, compassion, generosity, selflessness, integrity, fidelity and the like. Maybe we baulked when we saw a Jesus who was troubled at the prospect of torture and execution, who felt like abandoning his mission because of the personal cost involved, and who, as today’s second reading from Hebrews tells us, “cried out in pain and wept in sorrow as he offered up priestly prayers to God” (Hebrews 5, 7).

It’s not uncommon to find the words “We wish to see Jesus” inscribed on the inside of Church pulpits as a reminder to homilists that they have a serious responsibility to reflect in their words and actions to the people in front of them something of the person and message of Jesus.

On the inside of the pulpit of St Michael’s Uniting Church in Collins Street Melbourne, one can see inscribed the words “We wish to see Jesus”.  A story is told of a minister who was invited to preach there one Sunday morning. When he stepped into the pulpit and was confronted with those words, he responded immediately with: “Oh, sorry, I’m not Jesus; I’m not even the apostle Andrew!” With that, he went and sat in the front pew and folded his arms. It took some minutes for members of the congregation to convince the visitor that they still wanted him to deliver his homily. However, he did not return to the pulpit. Instead, he took his place behind a simple lectern.

All of us Christians, worthy of the name, have a responsibility to reflect, in our words and actions to one another and to everyone we encounter, something of the person and the Gospel of Jesus. Many of us are surely familiar with one of the dismissal prayers proclaimed to us by the priest at the conclusion of Mass: “Go now, in peace, glorifying God by your life.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated as he stood at the altar after giving a homily on today’s gospel reading. As late as three years before his death, Romero had been described as “a quiet, pious, conservative cleric” who was unable to challenge the injustices being pursued by the government of his country, El Salvador. One of Romero’s biographers, the Catholic peace activist, John Dear described him in these words: “As Bishop, he sided with the greedy landlords, important power-brokers and violent death squads.” However, Romero experienced a profound conversion of heart when a priest friend, Rutilio Grande, who was working among the poor, was executed by agents of the Salvadoran government. Deep within, Romero heard the voice of God urging him to speak out: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” He later described his conversion as “a development of the same desire I have always had to be faithful to what God asks of me.” (Celeste Kennel-Shank, “Oscar Romero’s Grain of Wheat”, The Christian Century, March 2015)

Benedictine tradition and spirituality are rich in insights for living and keeping in touch with God, with Jesus. In their monastery in Monte Casino, Italy, is a fresco that depicts the virtue of obedience as a listening ear. Indeed, the very word “obedience” is derived from the Latin verb obaudire meaning “to listen”.

Today’s reading from Hebrews states that Jesus learned trusting obedience to God by listening deeply to his own suffering, discovering its meaning and being courageous enough to follow the path along which it was leading, ‘just as we do. Then, having arrived at the full stature of his maturity…he became the source of eternal salvation to all who believingly obey him” (Hebrews 5, 8-10). Romero, too, learned obedience to follow the path along which Jesus was inviting him. Knowing what had happened to his friend for accompanying the poor, Romero could have become more fearful, more intent on saving his own life. Instead, he chose to allow God to keep shaping him into the person he dreamed of becoming, and knew, deep down, that God was inviting him to become. In his final homily, Romero had said: “One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us. Those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives. Those who, out of love for Christ, give themselves to the service of others will live (and die?) like the grain of wheat.”
Let’s leave the last word to the prophet Micah: “This is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6, 8).

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection

Fourth Sunday in Lent – a Reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. Jesus came to help, to put the world right again.” John 3, 14-16, 19-23

Today’s gospel-reading contains a generous sample of the opposing contrasts that John uses throughout his Gospel. – light and darkness, truth and falsehood, doubt and belief. Had our reading included the first part of chapter 3 of John, we might have ended up as confused as poor Nicodemus, who simply could not grasp what Jesus was talking about. He even went as far as asking Jesus to explain himself: “What do you mean? How can a grown man be born again? What do you mean by this ‘born-from-above’ talk?” (John 3, 4) Jesus and Nicodemus are on different wave-lengths. It’s important, however, to note that John introduced his audience to Nicodemus as “a leading Jew who had come to Jesus by night” – under the cover of darkness so as not to be seen by his colleagues, and out of the darkness of ignorance.

In digging into this gospel-reading, we have to bear with the symbolism that John uses. For many people, darkness is or has been something to fear – the darkness of the unknown, the darkness of ignorance and secrecy (illustrated by remarks like “The politicians have kept us in the dark!”), the darkness which hides real or imaginary dangers. We can all probably recall childhood memories of being afraid of the dark. There was a time, for instance, when there was no such thing as indoor toilets and, afraid of the bogeyman or some other beast lying in wait to grab us, we would dash to the outhouse and lock ourselves in.

The American poet, Kenneth Patchen wrote a poem about the terrors of the dark called All the Roary Night in which he writes: “All around us, the footprints of the beast…of something above, something that doesn’t know we exist.” (Selected Poems of Kenneth Patchen, A New Directions Paperback, N.Y., 1936) Patchen’s poem might well be relevant to us in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Many of us were afraid of Covid 19 until it was explained. Now, there are some among us whose remarks about the risk of the various vaccines are elevating the fear levels of many in the community. Somehow or other, the fear of potential terror and disaster comes to gnaw away at the human psyche. Today’s readings combine to reassure us that we have a God whose relentless love reaches out to all of us human beings who are lost in the darkness of fear, doubt, uncertainty and ignorance. Today’s gospel-reading proclaims that God’s love for the world is personified in Jesus who came to be one of us as our brother. But that won’t chase Covid away.

Today’s first reading from Chronicles makes reference to a different pandemic. – a pandemic of evil which has not only infected the minds and hearts of the Jewish priests and leaders, but which has filtered down to the people themselves, who have adopted the abominations of their pagan neighbours. Yet, despite their sinful history, despite the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem and the consequent deportation of the Chosen people into exile, God did not give up on them. Moreover, God chose the most unlikely rescuer for these people in the person of Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia: “From Cyrus king of Persia a proclamation: “God, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also assigned me to build a Temple of worship at Jerusalem, in Judah. All who belong to God’s people are urged to return. – and may your God be with you! Move forward!” (Chronicles 36, 23). God can and does work in surprising and unexpected ways.

In the second reading from Ephesians, Paul launches into a flight of high emotion, describing himself, his community in Ephesus, and, indeed, all of humanity as “God’s work of art(Ephesians 2, 9). In making that enthusiastic and confident claim, Paul emphasises that this is the gift of God’s measureless love and mercy, not something that we could ever earn. God loves us and all of creation unconditionally. Therein lies an invitation to us to stop, take in and appreciate all the rest of God’s works of art with whom we live and work, and the created world that surrounds us.

In the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (from which Nicodemus disappears without explanation), Jesus refers obliquely to his forthcoming death by crucifixion: “the Son of man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert” (John 3, 14). In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes two other references to being lifted up (on the Cross). In speaking to the Jews he says: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He” (one with God the Father, the Christ of God – John 8, 28). The third is recorded in John 12, 32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.”

In making these statements, Jesus is encouraging anyone who will hear him to come to appreciate that his death on the Cross will be the ultimate expression of God’s love for the world. In his self-offering Jesus reveals God’s relentless love for humanity. Despite the fact that humanity, down through the centuries, has turned its back on God’s love, God does not stop offering it. Maybe, we will come eventually to realise what God is offering us, and come to accept it.

In alluding to the Exodus story of Moses being directed by God to fashion a bronze serpent for the people to gaze upon after they had been bitten by venomous snakes, Jesus was making the point that we humans only come to understand evil (symbolised by the bronze serpent) when we take time to look it in the face, reflect on it, and take steps to expel it from our lives, individually and collectively. By looking at the Cross of Jesus, we can come to comprehend the evil that put him there but also come to appreciate the immensity of his love for humanity that allowed him to let his executioners have their way.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life” is a statement that has captured the attention of countless Christians and given them hope. However, it has to be considered in the context of what Jesus had shared with Nicodemus both before and after he made that statement. In that long conversation, Jesus makes reference to darkness and light, judgement and salvation, death and life, doubt and belief, but these are not simply insulated opposites. They ebb and flow in and out of one another. We all have experiences of doubt and belief, of light and darkness and so on. Nicodemus, despite being educated, respected and comfortable, didn’t have all the answers. He needed to be exposed to Jesus’ bewildering talk. So do we. And isn’t it appropriate that, after talking about a world that struggled with light and darkness, Jesus sent his disciples out into that world where they encountered the Samaritan woman. Isn’t that a clear indication that God’s love is for the whole world, without exception? But we have to welcome and embrace that love.

Posted by Gay Walsh in Sunday Readings Reflection