Category Archives: Thoughts for the week

Random thoughts inspired by a quiet afternoon’s listening

Part of the Jesuit tradition of reading the scripture is to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit as you read, slowly and carefully, over a section of text. If a particular word or phrase jumps out at you, the discipline urges you to stay with it and examine the thoughts and feelings that arise in response.

With this in mind, I have recently re-discovered Green Day and, in particular, their very fine 2004 album, American Idiot. One phrase from the album jumps out at me and stays with me. In the first half of the album, “Are We The Waiting” contains the line “the Jesus of Suburbia is a lie”.

Jesus of Suburbia?Whilst acknowledging that “Jesus of Suburbia” in the context of the album is something quite different, this line got me thinking and keeps me thinking. We live in a rich, Western, democratic country. We are a nation of polite people who don’t want to bother others and certainly don’t want to be bothered ourselves. We are a nation of suburbanites, and we often want our Jesus to be a Jesus of Suburbia, who will reward us for our neat lawns, well-painted fences and the purity of our teabags.

As Green Day point out, however, the Jesus of Suburbia is a lie.

Jesus came to kick bottom, turn over tables and cause such upset that the authorities fear a riot. We need to be the radical voice of love in our society, the dissident voice of solidarity with the migrant and the refugee; we need to be the warm hearth that others can come to when they need one; we need to be out there clothing the naked and feeding the hungry if we ever want the words of St James not to sting: “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” James 2:14-26

Thoughts for the Easter Vigil

At some point tonight, God raises Jesus high and gives him a name that is above all names.

We light a fire, we light a candle, we light up the church. We sing the great hymn of resurrection joy Rejoice, heavenly powers; sing, choirs of angels. For Jesus Christ is risen. Easter joy bursts from every moment in this Mass, we rejoice with the host of Heaven in the work of salvation brought by God through his Son.

The readings, tonight, take us right from the beginning of time all the way through salvation history. We begin with the beginning of Genesis. There are two stories about the creation of the universe in Genesis, and we read the first one, the one that starts, appropriately enough, in the beginning

In the second reading, we pick up the story with Abraham and the sacrifice he was asked to make. We saw this story a few weeks ago during Lent. Here, the emphasis is on the promise God makes to Abraham at the end of the reading: “All the nations of the Earth will bless themselves by your descendants, as a reward for your obedience.”

Skipping over Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his coat with long sleeves, the flight of Israel’s sons to Egypt to escape the famine, and 400 years of slavery, we come to the people of God sandwiched between the Red Sea and the army of Pharaoh. God begins by suggesting that his patience is already running thin and the Exodus hasn’t even begun yet “Why do you cry to me so?” He rescues his people from the army, however, and they march through the Red Sea dry-shod. They are free.

But not for long. By the fourth reading, the Israelites are in exile again. Through Isaiah, the Lord addresses the people telling them that his anger is abating and he is making a promise to them as he did in the days of Noah: “the mountains may depart and the hills be shaken, but my love for you will never leave you.”

Isaiah again in the fifth reading: a pastoral poem of God’s desire to nourish his people, to give them all that they need. God calls his people to abandon their wicked ways and return to him, so that he can give them his abundant gifts.

The sixth reading, from Baruch, is from about the same time as Isaiah. Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe and shared much of Jeremiah’s work. He has been excised from Protestant bibles, but we are able to benefit from his words. He calls the people to wonder what they are doing, being carted off away from the promised land once again. He is sure that the Lord will, once again, call to his people and gather them to him again. Turn back to the Lord and he will call us home.

The final Old Testament reading is addressed, once more, to the House of Israel in exile. Ezekiel is rather more forthright in his criticism than Baruch was. God reminds Israel that they defiled his land and defiled his name. It is for the sake of his name that the Lord will gather up his people. In so doing, he will give a new heart to his people, infuse them with a new spirit. God’s people will live in his land; they will be his people, and he will be their God.

St Paul expounds on the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ died and, having been risen, can die no more. We join in Christ’s death at our baptism, and die to sin such that our sin no longer has power over us, we are no longer slaves: we are free and we shall share in Christ’s resurrection to be with God in eternity.

The end of Mark’s Gospel is quite sudden. His first words in chapter 1 are “the beginning of the Good News…” At the end, chapter 16, he concludes with an empty tomb, an angel and the women, the first witnesses of the resurrection, stunned into silence. Mark prefers to let the rest of the story live within us, within the life of the church. Jesus is risen, it is up to us to proclaim that to the world. Jesus told the disciples to meet him in Galilee but Mark doesn’t tell us what they found there. He lets them do that for themselves and on, down the generations, through us.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Thoughts for Good Friday

I always find today’s liturgy starkly beautiful. The church stands in shocked silence at the events that unfold in the reading of St John’s Passion.

The building is bare. The statues gone or covered up. The tabernacle is empty. There is no Mass today, not anywhere in the world. Yesterday, we had a church. Today, we have an empty room. Jesus is not there: he has been taken by force of arms and is to be executed as a common criminal.

We gather in silence. Our priests prostrate themselves at the foot of the Cross. Words are spoken.

See, my servant will prosper: he shall be lifted up, exalted to great heights.

Isaiah’s words begin with such power, with such positivity, with such hope. Hope that is dashed with the very next sentence:

As the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.

The words that pour from the prophet’s pen describe so closely the events that were to take place 800 years afterwards that we cannot but see a connection, for it was our sufferings that Jesus bore; he was pierced through for our faults and by his wounds we are healed.

The letter to the Hebrews proclaims Jesus’ priesthood and gives us the boldness to stand in the presence of the Most High. Not because of our own good efforts, far from it, but because Jesus’ suffering has bought redemption for us all.

And so to the reading of the Passion.

We know the story well. Jesus is betrayed by a friend; Jesus gives the only military command of his life on earth: Put your sword back in its scabbard. Jesus is not broken, though. He sets his face like flint and talks back to Annas, the High Priest’s father-in-law and even reproaches the guard who takes umbrage with his tone.

Pilate wants nothing to do with this case. He’s got Rome breathing down his neck because of recent trouble and the last thing he needs is another riot on his hands with so many people in Jerusalem for the Passover. The local religious authorities are not willing to give him what he wants, though. For his own part, Pilate can see exactly why the chief priests have dumped Jesus on him and he is convinced of Jesus’ innocence. He doesn’t have the stomach for a fight, however, and washes his hands of it. He gives the people what they want and walks away.

Not walking away, and at great personal risk, we see the three Marys and John at the foot of the cross. Jesus knows that Mary will be left destitute with no man about the house so, even as he is dying in agony, he ensures that his mother will be cared for.

In completion of the Father’s work of redemption, Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. His soul’s anguish over, he shall see the light and be content.

It is left up to the less-known disciples to claim Jesus’ body and bury it.

The last sentence of today’s Gospel always takes my breath away. Our saviour has been killed; all hope is dashed; the life drained out of him. The starkness of this moment is captured perfectly in John’s closing words:

Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Full stop. The end. We hear no more words of scripture until the Easter Vigil. In the meantime, we wait by the tomb, or we wander, subdued, through the world. Our Saviour is dead. What now?

The closing prayer of the Good Friday liturgy is one of my favourite parts of the whole cycle of the liturgical year. It is rendered best, in my opinion, in the 1970 translation:

Lord, send down your abundant blessing upon your people who have devoutly recalled the death of your Son in the sure hope of the resurrection. Grant them pardon; bring them comfort. May their faith grow stronger and their eternal salvation be assured.

All depart in silence.

Thoughts for Maundy Thursday

And so we enter the Easter Triduum, the greatest feast of the Church. We begin, as is traditional, with a meal.

Many huge things today: the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of his enemies, the Sanhedrin meets at night time (something it is not allowed to do), Jesus’ friends run away.

But before all that…

The year is 1446BC (or 1250BC, nobody really can be sure), and the people of God are suffering in Egypt under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. A leader has arisen among the people, chosen and blessed by God, who challenges Pharaoh to let God’s people go. The events that followed are recounted in today’s first reading, from Exodus. Moses and Aaron are passing on God’s instructions about what to do to prepare their households for their long march to freedom. They are to eat a hearty meal and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The bread will not have time to rise, so make unleavened bread. Get ready, for the Lord will walk amongst the people tonight.

St Paul shows us that he clearly understood what Jesus was doing on this night, in history. Whenever we do as Christ did, we proclaim his death. Sounds a bit silly, but we do not proclaim it in isolation, the Messiah’s death is his moment of victory.

It is interesting that, on this day when we commemorate the night when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, that the Gospel reading doesn’t mention the Eucharist at all. This moment is not recorded in John’s Gospel. No, the details of the meal appear in the other three Gospels, which we can read at our leisure. That said, anyone who doubts the voracity of John’s belief in the body and blood of Christ should head over to chapter 6 of his Gospel, in which he mentions eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood seven times before stating that many of Jesus’ disciples couldn’t accept that and left him then.

On the night before Jesus died, St John tells the story not of the meal, but of what happened after the meal. First-century Jerusalem at Passover would have been a hot and dusty place, and feet would get dirty quickly. A gracious host would have bowls of water available for guests to wash their feet in. There would also be a servant or two to help with this. It seems that the Lord’s friends hadn’t washed their feet before the meal, and there were no servants to do this job for them. Jesus steps up and shows them exactly how to be a great leader. He stripped off his Passover best and wrapped a towel around his waist, knelt down and did the job of a servant, finishing up by giving his friends a firm command to do the same to each other.

In another place, Jesus tells his disciples that, in order to be the greatest, they had to put everyone else before themselves, they had to become the least, they had to become the slave of all.

After centuries of opulence, Pope Francis is giving us a hint of what this teaching means in practice.

Thoughts for Passion Sunday

We begin Mass today with a Gospel reading. It does us good to sit with this for a moment, because it can be overshadowed by the reading of the Passion later on.

We see Jesus riding into Jerusalem, with all the people shouting and waving and putting their cloaks down and making sure that the coming king’s feet don’t touch the dusty ground. He rides on the foal of a donkey: this is not a fine warhorse, this is not a chariot. He takes the lowliest of animals, a beast of burden, the child of a beast of burden and mounts this beast as his ride. Far greater than the finest of thoroughbred chargers, this symbol of poverty, of service, of burden carries the Christ into his city. The people are unperturbed by his show of humility and cry on,

Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father, David. Hosanna in the highest Heavens!

In the first reading, Isaiah’s words ring clearly for us as a foretaste of Christ’s own life. We see in the words of the prophet everything that Jesus did in his life and, in particular, in his Passion. We hear, too, a call to our own lives: when God opens our ears, we must listen, even if his call leads us down a path of suffering. Our faith seems ridiculous to many around us: we take strength from Isaiah’s words: we know we shall not be shamed.

In the psalm, this week, we are reminded of Jesus’ words from the cross. Even in his last hour, he was filled with the scripture. The psalm describes his suffering, even what the soldiers did with his clothing, and his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” rings in our ears.

St Paul reminds us that Jesus, the son of God, is divine. He came from God and returned to God. Yet, he did not cling to his equality with God: he emptied himself of this glory and loved us so perfectly that he submitted to the death of a common criminal. There were much more dignified ways to die, even more dignified ways to be executed. Crucifixion was about as bad as it could be: it was a humiliating death: slow, painful and public. “But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names.”

This week, we read the story of the Lord’s passion and death from one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), according to the three-year cycle of readings. We will hear John’s account on Good Friday.

Mark, this year, is the most concise rendition of the four. He began his Gospel with Jesus’ baptism and concludes with the Passion. We stand as we are reminded, once more, of the completion of God’s great work of salvation. As with all stories, this one is full of human weakness. Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed, by one of his friends (how many times have we done this to him?); Peter announces that he will stand by Jesus to the very end, even into death (who was it who stayed with him to the end, though? It was not Peter). In Mark’s Gospel, we see a young follower of Jesus, not mentioned in any of the other renditions, running off into the night naked. Some scholars think that this boy may be Mark himself.

As Jesus is hanging on the cross, he quotes the psalm we read earlier, and yields his soul to the Father.

Seeing this, the centurion, a gentile, recognises Jesus for what he is: “Truly, this man was a son of God.” The centurion is the first person in the whole of Mark’s Gospel to recognise Jesus and to declare his identity aloud.

In the Temple, in front of the Holy of Holies, hung a huge curtain. Behind this curtain was the place where God’s presence dwelt on Earth. This curtain, the Veil of the Temple, separated the presence of God from the people. Only the High Priest was allowed through the veil, and then only one one day each year.

At the moment of his death, the curtain, the barrier separating God from his people, was torn in two, from top to bottom. From that moment, God was no longer separated from us. Soon after, he would send his Holy Spirit amongst us, and we would be his church.

Thoughts for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

We see the transformation of the world beginning this week. God tells Jeremiah that, even though the people turn away from them time and again, he will call them to himself once more, for all time. The written Law is too easy to ignore; when you take a child by the hand, they will wriggle free after a time and go their own way.

Not this time. God promises a new law, he will write it on our very hearts, creating hearts for love, pure hearts, cleansed from our sin.

Interestingly, this is a rare mention of the God’s holy spirit in the Old Testament occurs in the psalm. The psalmist expresses our yearning for God’s help, for we are nothing without God. We yearn for him: it is written on our hearts.

St Paul outlines what Jesus did for us, reminding us that our Lenten journey is nearly at its end, when we will get to see Jesus submit so humbly to God that his prayer for the salvation of the world was heard.

In the Gospel, Jesus explains to us (because we’re a bit thick) what must happen and why. He is the seed of God planted in the Earth and the death he must die is a literal and brutal death.

I find it interesting that the church has chosen this exact starting point for the Gospel this week. We could easily start the reading with “Now the hour has come…”, but we don’t. We begin with some Greeks approaching one of the apostles asking to see Jesus. Between them, the apostles arrange for these foreigners to have access to Jesus. It is the role of the leaders among the church to bring people to Jesus, to facilitate that meeting, to welcome strangers and to bring them into relationship with the one who was lifted up.

Now that sentence is being passed on our world, with whom do we align? Do we stand with the prince of this world? Do we stand with him who is to be overthrown, or do we let go of the convenience of the life we have and move towards the life that God is giving us to lead, one that will bring us to his eternal kingdom?

Thoughts for the fourth Sunday in Lent

The first reading, from the second book of Chronicles, paints the People of God as a recalcitrant child who never, ever learns. Time and again, the people stray from the true way (from the Law that we covered last week). Time and again, the Lord sends prophets to call the people back to his love.

Enough now. God is … ah … displeased.

Nebuchadnezzar descended on them like the wrath of God, smashed up the city, smashed down the Temple and carted anyone who survived the onslaught back home with him to Babylon. Today’s psalm, famously recalled by Boney M, is the lament of God’s people in exile.

The Chronicler doesn’t stop there, however. In Advent, we heard Isaiah’s cry of consolation. Here, we see the same event from a separate perspective. God has personally commanded the king of Persia to rebuild the Temple, and to let his people go home, so that they might, once again, worship God on his own soil.

Paul takes up the theme when he reminds us so forcefully that we have done nothing at all to earn the sacrifice of Christ. It was not because of any merit on the part of humankind that God sent his Son to redeem us. It was because we are God’s work of art. Let’s remember that the next time we are lacking in self-esteem.

In today’s reading from John’s Gospel, we meet Nicodemus . Here is a man, a leader of the Jews, desiring to know better the love of God. He has already been told that he must be born again in water and the Spirit (as we all are in baptism) in order to see the Kingdom of God, and now Jesus is telling him what will come to pass to accomplish the great work of salvation.

Jesus refers to the Exodus, where the People of God, having refused to enter the Promised Land, are stuck in the desert, beset by all kinds of maladies, including venomous snakes. Moses erects a snake on a staff and raises it up. Anyone who is bitten by a snake and looks up at this golden snake will be saved from death. Jesus explicitly likens himself to this icon, saying that he himself will be lifted up and, through this sacrifice, salvation will come into the world.

Calvinism gets a bit stuck with this passage. Jesus tells us that God sent him into the world not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved, and that anyone who believes in Jesus’ mission of salvation is saved already.

As we head towards Holy Week, let us hold this image of Jesus lifted up for our salvation at the forefront of our minds so we are truly ready to join in the great liturgies of Easter.

Thoughts for the third Sunday of Lent

Late again. Sorry.

We open with the Law, this week. For the Jewish people in the desert, the Law gained a capital L. Forty days after the Passover night when they got out from under the grip of Pharoah, they crossed the Red Sea. Ten days after that, they found themselves at Mt Sinai, receiving the Law. Handwritten by God on stone tablets. Pentecost, as it came to be known, remained a Jewish festival from this time.

The psalmist reminds us that God’s Law is perfect, and following it leads to life, to peace and to enrichment. Note Jesus’ reaction in the Gospel when he sees people taking God’s Law and re-interpreting in the way that best suits themselves.

St Paul reminds us that Christianity is crazy. Our greatest hero, the person whom we venerate above all others, the Son of God himself, was tried and executed as a criminal. Indeed, to human eyes, this looks ridiculous. “To Jews, an obstacle they can’t get over; to the pagans, madness.

The Gospel this week shows Jesus flipping tables. It is important that we remember this face of Jesus. Too often, we are presented with a rather prissy, soppy image of a Jesus who wouldn’t stand in the way of a feather. Today, we are reminded that he has a backbone and isn’t afraid of causing something of a stir within quiet, well-behaved social norms.

In the Temple, at the time, people would go to make offerings for sin. They’d talk to the priest and the priest would tell them what sacrifice was required. The sellers in the Temple forecourt were capitalising on this and making it nice and convenient for the penitents. As Fr Denis McBride puts it, you’d raise an eyebrow if you saw your Uncle Derek there leading a giraffe…

Jesus has an altogether different idea of what the worship of his Father looks like, and he shows us what we must sometimes do if we are to join him in building his kingdom.

Jesus depicted cleansing the temple

Thoughts for the Second Sunday of Lent

Sorry this one is so late…

What kind of God do we see in the first reading? He drives Abraham off to a remote mountaintop and asks him to murder his own son. This is a tricky reading indeed. How can a God who is Love demand the literal blood sacrifice of a person’s only child? Possibly the God we see in the second reading, on who did not spare his own son but stood by and watched as the life poured out of him.

Abraham goes with God’s command, however. God has already promised him descendants and Isaac is his only chance to achieve this. Undeterred, Abraham raises the knife and is but a moment away from snuffing out his own bloodline when God calls him once more. God is satisfied that Abraham has cast-iron faith in him and trusts him completely. Because of this display of faith, God re-seals his covenant to Abraham and promises him descendants as numerous as the stars.

St Paul takes up this theme. God gave us his son. His only son, whom he loves. If God did not withhold such a precious gift, we can be assured of God’s abundant generosity in all other things.

Significantly, Paul reminds us to be kind to ourselves. If God acquits us (and he does), who on this Earth may condemn us. This reading challenges us to see God as the final arbiter of our souls and not to spend time worrying about what others are saying about us. It also challenges us to see God as the final arbiter of others’ souls too, and we’d best keep our harsh judgements to ourselves.

The Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of glory on Earth. The contrast with the scene we witnessed at the Baptism of the Lord in the weeks following Christmas is that there are witnesses present this time. If you remember, the account at Jesus’ baptism doesn’t say that the people present at the baptism saw anything. In Mark’s account, it mentions that Jesus saw the heavens opening. This time around, Peter, James and John see it too, and they are terrified.

Peter leaps to the rescue, as he often does. He puts his foot firmly in his mouth and says the first thing that comes to mind. I like this about Peter: he is unafraid to look stupid in front of his friends. He is impulsive and a bit reckless, but his passionate love for Jesus shines through all his actions. As it is, he is saved by God’s intervention, as the cloud covers the sun and leaves only Jesus standing on the mountain with them.

The challenge facing the apostles is the same challenge that we face every day. How can we come down from that mountain and return to normal? How do we take that encounter with God into our mundane lives without always wishing that we could go straight back up the mountain again and stay there forever. That was not Jesus’ plan for his disciples and neither is it his plan for us. At our own baptisms, Jesus opened the heavens and poured his spirit down upon us: we must allow that spirit to transfigure us each day as we go about our daily lives.

Thoughts for the first Sunday of Lent

On Saturday, Fr Peter told us that Ash Wednesday and the subsequent three days were added to Lent in the fourth century. Prior to that, the First Sunday marked the beginning of Lent and so we begin what is known as the first week of Lent, and we begin it with a promise.

Not a promise that we will behave ourselves, for Mary Poppins would call that a pie-crust promise: easily made and easily broken. No, this is a solemn and divine covenant made by God to Noah and to his family. God brings forth the rainbow as a sign of his covenant between him and the earth

The Flood is a theme that comes back to us in the second reading. Here, St Peter sees the waters of the flood as prefiguring the waters of baptism. When we emerge from the water of baptism, we find ourselves under God’s rainbow, our spirit washed in the waters, an appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection of Christ.

The Gospel, this week, comes from the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Mark doesn’t spend any time on Jesus as a child. We open the narrative in the wilderness with John baptising for the forgiveness of sins. After Jesus is baptised, we see him driven by the Spirit across the Jordan into the wilderness.

Whenever I read this text, I wonder what that must feel like, being driven by the Spirit. I have felt coaxed sometimes, urged sometimes, but never grabbed by the lapels and driven. Maybe we should pray for that more often.

It is worth noting that being out with the wild beasts, tended by angels, is a reflection of Isaiah’s image of paradise (the wolf lying down with the lamb, the lion and the ox lying together). An appropriate beginning for Jesus’ ministry, then, as he re-crossed the Jordan and began to proclaim that now is the time, the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe in the Good News.