Category Archives: Thoughts for the week

Thought for Ash Wednesday

We are ambassadors for Christ, St Paul reminds us today, We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.

The popular vision of Lent is a time when those crazy Christians give up chocolate for no easily discernible reason, and to no real benefit. Given the overwhelmingly secular society in which we live, I always find it hard to give up chocolate, as Cadbury’s Mini Eggs only seem to be available during Lent. Nobody seems to have told them that the Easter season begins on Easter Sunday and continues with seven weeks of feasting and celebrations. Celebrations and feasting in which it is impossible to obtain Mini Eggs.

But I digress.

The First Reading for Ash Wednesday, from Joel, shows God yearning for his people. His people have, once again, strayed from the path of righteousness that he laid out for them and have abandoned all that is good in the Law, offering all the sacrifices in the Temple and doing all the rituals and ceremonies, but never actually loving God.

Return to me, says God, return to me with all your heart. He is no longer interested in burnt offerings or the trappings of repentance. He wants good, honest atonement, so he and his people can be at one. He reminds us, once more (because we’re a bit slow) that he is rich in mercy, abounding in kindness. It is in his nature to relent, even after the sentence has been passed.

So we blow the trumpet, proclaim a fast and gather all the people. We throw ourselves on the mercy of God made manifest in the body of his son, Jesus. Jesus, the Word through whom God created the universe, truly present to us in the Eucharist, who died to save us from ourselves.

We must be careful with the manner of our fasting, of course, lest we fall into the same trap that Joel mentioned in the first reading. When we fast, we do it silently, with cheerful faces and jovial hearts, otherwise, we are not fasting for the Lord, we are fasting for ourselves. We have had our reward.

Thoughts for Epiphany

In the second half of the first century, a church had formed, probably in or near Rome, around a man we call St Matthew.  This church was composed of a mixture of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Matthew’s task was to ensure that these two parts of his community were able to talk to one another and to form a coherent, integrated church.

The story of the visit of the Magi is very a important illustration of how Matthew seeks to achieve this.  These Magi, astrologers from a far-off country have travelled for many weeks, across a thousand miles of desert, based only on the data they gathered from the stars. They came to see a king: the greatest king ever to be born on the Earth.

The heavens give up their secrets only reluctantly, however, so they arrived in Jerusalem and needed some clearer directions.  They turned to the Jewish authorities, the king and the Scribes.  People who knew the Jewish scriptures, people who had been living with the promise of the Messiah for centuries.

The Jewish scholars knew exactly where the Messiah was to be born.  It was there, in their books.  Did they go and dirty their feet, though?  Did they go just a few miles out of their way to see God keep his promise?  To see Heaven stoop down and touch the Earth?

They did not.

These pagans from a far off land were the first to visit the Holy Family in Matthew’s Gospel.  People not from God’s chosen race, but gentiles.  Gentiles who had given up time and money to come, on a long and dangerous journey into territory occupied by Rome, to see a newborn baby.  They couldn’t even enter discourse with him about the higher points of theology.  They couldn’t speak with him about God, salvation or even the price of fish in Jerusalem.  He lay in his crib and peered at them with the wide eyes of the newborn, as they gave him gifts fit for a king.

Thoughts for Holy Family

Holy Family was always a source of many giggles and much nudging in my family, as I was growing up.  My parents never really thought much of my attempts to emulate the fruit of the vine around their table: they had enough problems trying to get my face out of the computer and get me down to eat dinner in the first place.  My mother, proud of her feminist ideology, took umbrage at being described as a fruitful vine at the heart of the house.  She was a professional, managing somehow to juggle a part-time (and, later, full-time) job with parenting two feisty teenagers.  The most amusement of all, however, was the command to be sympathetic to my dad, even should his mind fail.  For many decades, we have ribbed him about this.  He always knows what we’re talking about if we start showing him sympathy at random moments.

Looking back on this, I can see the way that these readings did actually help our family to bond.  They united us in a shared sense of the ridiculous where we were able to laugh at how little these scriptures spoke to our lives in the late 20th century.

As I mature (I’m turning 40 next birthday), however, I am finding that the readings for Holy Family are speaking to me on a much more profound level.  I’m a parent myself now, and that, in itself, has caused me to look at the world in a completely new way.  In spite of my objections, rooted in childhood, to the tone of the readings, I can see where they are coming from.  My children are beautiful treasures in the heart of my house, there to be cherished, and I must take care to guide them with a gentle hand so as not to drive them to resentment.  My wife, too, is a wonderful human being and I must treat her with the love she deserves as a child of God and as the one closest to my own heart.

In this new century, as we are looking at a huge rise in cases of dementia, it is entirely possible that my parents’ minds might fail, and I am called to be sympathetic to their plight, regardless of the quality of relationship I have with them now, and have had in the past.  Family life is hard, with many (often very different) people all occupying the same spaces.  Tempers can flare and feuds are born. Some of my family members have not spoken to each other for 25 years.

The feast of the Holy Family reminds us that there is a better way than that.  Christ came into the world in a family, and he lived the majority of his years on this Earth within that family.  Even his family life was hard, and he scared the wits out of his parents at least once. This is, however, the model that God gives to us as a place for nurturing our children, and for living out his Word in the world.

In 2014, we can see that the word “family” describes an entire rainbow of different arrangements, following a great diversity of models, but each of these different families is still family, and it is through our families that God’s work of salvation begins.

Thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Advent

This week’s Gospel reading always fills me with an irreverent mental image of the encounter depicted in Luke’s infancy narrative.  I’ll get to that in a moment but, before I do, let’s take a wider look at today’s readings.

In the first reading, David wants to build a proper temple for the Lord’s presence.  Nathan, God’s prophet in David’s court, initially gives the project the green light, but God speaks to him that night and tells David to hold off on the building work and leave that for later generations (it was David’s son, Solomon, who got the Temple built).  In the context of the season, this could be seen as a reference to God’s future intent to send his son to be the living Temple of God on Earth, so David doesn’t need to build a stone one.

Psalm 89 speaks of God’s faithfulness to his people, of God’s promise to David that God will be a father to him and to all his children forever.  In choosing this psalm for this week, the church is reminding us that God’s promise was made manifest when he sent his son to be our saviour.

St Paul reaffirms this gift with his hymn of praise to the Father and the Son.

The Jesuits teach a very powerful prayer technique, which they call Imaginitive Contemplation.  In short, you use your imagination to put yourself inside a scripture reading, either as one of the players or as a fly-on-the-wall observer.  Whenever I engage with today’s Gospel in this way, I find myself looking at a teenaged girl at work in the house.  She’s been out for water already, and is sweeping or carrying a plate of food or something.  When the angel appears (without knocking), she leaps out of her skin with a shout of “holy ****”, and sends the plate crashing to the floor.  Gabriel, interrupted in his greeting, bends down to help her tidy the mess and straighten things out before continuing the work he was sent to do.

To get the full impact of the conversation Mary has with Gabriel, we need to look back to the beginning of the chapter (the first in Luke’s Gospel).  Here, we find Gabriel on another job: this time, he’s delivering a message to Zechariah – both he and his wife are old – that Elizabeth is to conceive and bear a son, John the Baptist.  Poor Zechariah doesn’t quite believe what the angel is saying to him and he interrupts to express his doubt.  For his trouble, Gabriel gives him a royal dressing-down and takes away his power of speech.  Right before Zechariah is supposed to be running the afternoon service in the Temple.

Here, we learn that we should never question an angel.

Fast forward six months and we’re back in Nazareth with a young girl with an angel’s greeting, “kecharitomene,” ringing in her ears and the dropped tomato sauce drying on her ankles.  Unhelpfully, perhaps, he returns to his script.  “Do not be afraid,” he says, hoping that might work.

In my imagination, she offers him a cup of the water she fetched that morning and they sit together for a moment.  She says nothing, maybe cocking an eyebrow in question.  He presses on, telling her of God’s mission for her, should she choose to accept it.  The eyebrow rises again, her head shakes a little and she shows us what she’s made of.  She questions the angel.

He doesn’t smite her – maybe he’s aware that all of Heaven is watching them at that moment – instead, he respectfully answers her question without talking down to her, allowing her to exercise the free will that God bestowed upon her at the dawn of creation.

Heaven holds its breath.

She turns to him, looks him squarely in the eye and nods imperceptibly.  The girl with nerves of spun steel declares “I am the handmaid of the Lord: let what you have said be done to me.”

Thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Like last week, John the Baptist takes centre stage in the Gospel but, before he does, we are treated to a wealth of cross-references.

The keen-of-eye will recognise the first reading from Isaiah in two separate Gospel stories. The first, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me is the scripture that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:18), a reading that leaves his audience on the edges of their seats. The second part of the reading, of course, is what dances from Mary’s lips when she greets Elizabeth with news of her own pregnancy with Jesus.

Unusually, the psalm this week is not taken from the book of Psalms. Following the hint from Isaiah, we hear Mary’s Magnificat, her great song of praise to God. She wasn’t inspired only by Isaiah, though, she was also calling upon one of the women of the Old Testament. Many centuries before Mary, Hannah cried out in the House of the Lord, for she was childless (much like Elizabeth). The Lord heard her prayer and she gave birth to a son who, much like Elizabeth’s son, was a great prophet.

In her prayer, Hannah had promised her child to the Lord so, when he was still very young, she took him to Eli in the House of the Lord, and offered her prayer of thanksgiving: My heart exults in the Lord, in my God is my strength lifted up, my mouth derides my foes, for I rejoice in your deliverance. (1 Samuel 2)

Samuel heard the Lord calling to him as a child, and the Lord was close to him all his life. It was to Samuel that the People of God came to demand a king, and it was Samuel who anointed first Saul and then David as kings of Israel (kings of the Jews, you might say).

In his turn, the son Elizabeth bore in her old age will baptise another King of the Jews, whom God himself anoints with the Holy Spirit, to bring glad tidings to the poor and proclaim liberty to captives.

We mustn’t forget St Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, even if we do find it tucked in between all of our wonderful cross-references. It’s a radical little text, quite subversive in its own way. While we pray fervently for the God of Peace to prepare us for his coming at Christmas, Paul urges us to test everything and retain what is good. God has given us brains and demands that we use them. We must examine our lives and all of the influences on our lives and decide for ourselves (with God’s grace) what is good and retain only what is good. The next time someone tells you that Catholics are mindless drones, point them at this passage.

And so to the Gospel. We see John the Evangelist’s take on John the Baptist’s ministry. It is important that John is given his place, but it is equally important that John is put in his place. All of the evangelists do this early on in each of their Gospels. Here, John the evangelist defines the Baptist’s role. Remember: if you see a man standing and baptising another, which of them looks like the greater of the two? The simple answer is the one doing the baptising. In order to leave Christians in no doubt as to the real power relationship at play here, John the Baptist says it plainly: “I am not the Christ.” John goes on to define what his role is in salvation history, quoting the same passage from Isaiah that we saw last week: a voice crying out in the wilderness. There is one coming, he is walking among us although we do not recognise him,  whom we are unworthy to untie the strap of his sandal.

Let us heed John’s message, then, and Paul’s too, such that the Lord will find us blameless upon his coming.

Thoughts for 2nd Sunday of Advent

John the Baptist takes centre-stage this week.  The last of the Old Testament prophets, it is his job to be a bridge from the old times into the new, to bring the people into a new relationship with God where God isn’t just a far-away presence, but is now ready to walk among his people as one of them, to roll up his sleeves and to complete the work of Salvation.

We begin with Isaiah’s great proclamation of God’s forgiveness.  The People of God have been in exile in Babylon for sixty years and God instructs his prophet to cry out in the wilderness, to give his people a new heart.  God’s anger has abated: the people have atoned for the sins of the past.  The time has come for God’s people to return to their homeland in peace.

Of course, having lived in Babylon for sixty years, the people have become somewhat settled.  They have houses, they have kids at the local school, they have jobs and friends and roots.  How many will heed the call and return?  Jerusalem was reduced to rubble by Nebuchadnezzar, and it’s not going to be an easy trip: many miles across the desert, across the Jordan and then start to really work.

God calls the people anyway.  He will be their shepherd (an image present in last week’s psalm), and gather them to his breast, to feed them and nurture them.  God’s yearning in this passage is palpable: this is a call straight from the heart of God, a heart now filled with desire to enfold his wayward people in his love, to stand at the head as they become, once again, a wandering tribe, crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.

The psalm this week is all about the fruit that springs forth from the from the very soil when God is standing there.  If ever we wonder what God’s work looks like, this is it.

In the second reading, a rare peek into the writing of St Peter, we are reminded that God’s notion of time is rather different from ours.  He is big beyond our imagining, and can see a thousand years in a single day, yet he has unimaginable attention: he can spend a thousand years appreciating the tiniest of moments.  In Advent, our time of waiting, we are called to renew our commitment to holiness so that we are not found with our spiritual trousers around our ankles when God decides that we have waited long enough.

St Mark begins his Gospel in the wilderness, reflecting on the great prophet who called the people back from Babylon 600 years before, linking Isaiah explicitly with John, whose voice was crying out to the people, exhorting them to get their hearts ready for the coming of the Messiah.

The people went to him in droves.  Leaving sacred spaces and great cities behind them, they went out into the wastelands East of the Jordan to see this man who had been chosen by God, not by the religious authorities of the time.  He was not in the Temple, yet they went out to him in the desert.  He was not a priest, yet they went, and confessed their sins.  He baptised them (for free), washing off their sins with water (at the Temple, the people would have had to buy an animal and present it for sacrifice: the larger the sin, the larger the animal.  What would you think if you saw Uncle Tony in the queue, leading a giraffe?) and calling them make themselves ready for the coming of another prophet, to make a straight path in their hearts for the Lord.

He is coming in a fortnight: what are we doing to straighten his path?

Thoughts for 1st Sunday of Advent

Following the death of King Solomon in 926BC, there was a split in the People of God, and they divided into two kingdoms. To the North, was the kingdom of Israel; to the South, the kingdom of Judah.

Into this mess, God sent Isaiah as prophet. Isaiah spoke out against idolatrous practices and warned what would happen if Israel didn’t turn back to God. Sure enough, Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722BC and many Jews were carried off. Isaiah tells us never to lose heart, however, as God will maintain a remnant of the faithful and will call them back home.

Much later in 586BC, the Kingdom of Judah is overrun, Jerusalem is utterly destroyed and the people carried away into exile in Babylon. Again, the prophet cries out among the people, but this time with a message of hope that God is going to gather his people once more and they will return across the Jordan to the land of their fathers.

With the fall of Babylon in 539BC, Jews did, indeed, begin to return to their homeland and it is from this period that today’s reading is taken. It seems that the Lord has been quiet for some time, leaving his people to wallow in the fruits of their sinfulness, abandoning them to their fate. The prophet beseeches the Lord to return to his people, to show, once again, the great power that he had shown long ago. To show to his people his great mercy and to return as the Father to his people, to work them as a potter works clay.

Taken today, this first Sunday of Advent, it is a clear call to us to admit our guilt and to turn back to God, mindful of his mercy and his promise to gather all peoples to himself so that, when we welcome Jesus at Christmas, he “would meet us doing right”.

The psalm implores God to come to his people, to be their shepherd. To send the Son of Man to care for the vineyard, to bring new life to us all.

St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians begins with a prayer of praise to God and a reminder to Christians to to wait for the coming revelation of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel reading, this week, is from late on in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus reminds us all to remain vigilant, watchful. God is coming at a time of his own choosing and, particularly during Advent, we pay close attention to the state of our own souls in anticipation of his glorious, if understated, arrival at Christmas.