04 December 2018

'There is nothing further for God to say.' Sunday Reflections, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C

Linaioli Tabernacle, St John the Baptist, Fra Angelico 
[Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Luke 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

    make his paths straight.
    Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
    and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’

The last part of today's gospel from Handel's Messiah

Charles Kuralt was an American journalist who worked for many years for the CBS TV network in the USA. He was especially noted for his 'On the Road' features on the CBS Evening News. These started in 1967, the year I was ordained, and I became familiar with them when I went to study in the USA the following year.

I vividly remember one particular story - they were never from the highways but from the byways of the United States - about a man somewhat on the older side who lived in a small town somewhere in the heartland of the country. I forget the particular state. The nearest town was only a few kilometres away but there was no road connecting the two. People had to take a very long way around to get from one to the other.

The residents of both houses tried for years to persuade their politicians to build a road between the towns, without success. So this particular elderly citizen decided he'd start to build a road himself, using planks. When Charles Kuralt caught up with him he hadn't got very far - but he had started.

Legion of Mary Altar [Wikipedia]

This man was engaged in what the Handbook of the Legion ofMary calls Symbolic Action. The Handbook was written almost entirely by Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion.

The Handbook says, It is a fundamental Legion principle that into every work should be thrown the best that we can give. simple or difficult, it must be done in the spirit of Mary . . . 

But sometimes we are faced with works which are really impossible, that is to say, beyond human effort . . .

'Every impossibility is divisible into thirty-nine steps, of which each step is possible' - declares a legionary slogan . . .

Observe: the stress is set on action. No matter what may be the degree of the difficulty, a step must be taken. Of course, the step should be as effective as it can be. But if an effective step is not in view, then we must take a less effective one. And if the latter be not available, then some active gesture (that is, not merely a prayer) must be made which, though of no apparent practical value, at least tends towards or has some relation to the objective. This final challenging gesture is what the Legion has been calling 'Symbolic Action.' Recourse to it will explode the impossibility which is of our own imagining. And, on the other hand, it enters in the spirit of faith into dramatic conflict with the genuine impossibility.

The sequel may be the collapse of the walls of that Jericho.

I saw Charles Kuralt's broadcast some time between 1968 and 1971. In the autumn of 1982 I was working in a hospital in Minneapolis as a chaplain on a three-month Clinical Pastoral Education programme. Charles Kuralt came to town while I was there to give a lunchtime lecture in an auditorium near the hospital and I went along to hear him. When he invited questions from the very large audience someone asked him, What happened to that road the old man began to build? So I wasn't the only one who had remembered the story.

Mr Kuralt told us that the man had since died - but that the road between the two towns had finally been built by the authorities.

The chances are that the man featured in Charles Kuralt's story, since he was from the heartland of the USA, was familiar with today's gospel. St John the Baptist is quoting the Prophet Isaiah and asking each of us to Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. He assures us that Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;  and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Jesus asks for our cooperation. When he was faced with the hungry crowds he asked the Apostles what food they had and then told them to feed the people. Their cooperation with their feeble resources enabled him to show God's bounty in a way they could not have imagined. At Cana Jesus told the servants to fill the water containers - and changed the water into the equivalent of about 600 bottles of the very best wine. (I once read a commentary that advised the reader to take that in a symbolic sense. I really don't see why we should diminish God's bounty! What Jesus did is indeed a symbol of God's bounty precisely because it was an ct of that bounty in a specific situation.)

Linaioli Tabernacle (shutters open), Fra Angelico [Web Gallery of Art]

We have no idea what God can do with a seemingly insignificant or purely personal action. When the young St Anthony of the Abbot went of to live as a hermit in the desert, rather like St John the Baptist, he had no idea that it would lead to the foundation of monasteries of contemplatives around the world. 

When in 1964 Jean Vanier, a former officer in the Royal Canadian Navy and a professor of philosophy, bought an old cottage in France, rebuilt it and invited Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two men with learning disabilities who were living in institutions, to live with him he had no idea that this would lead to L'Arche communities around the world. These are communities where persons with learning disabilities live with others like a family and are able to develop their abilities, sometimes to the extent of leaving and living on their own. Raphael or Philippe, I forget which one, was able to make such a decision after .

Jesus, through the words of Isaiah repeated by St John the Baptist is calling us to actively prepare for his coming, in so many unexpected ways in our daily lives, through joys and sorrows, through the Mass and the sacraments, and in glory at the end of time. We are also preparing to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. However, that First Coming in the flesh has already taken place. 

St John of the CrossZurbarán [Wikipedia]

St John of the Cross wrote in The Ascent of Mount CarmelWhen he (God) gave us, as he did, his Son, who is his one Word, he spoke everything to us, once and for all in that one Word. There is nothing further for him to say. This is part of the Second Reading in the Office of Readings for Monday in Week 2 of Advent.

There is nothing further for him to say.

St John of the Cross goes on to write in the same passage, Consequently, anyone who today would want to ask God questions or desire some vision or revelation, would not only be acting foolishly but would commit an offence against God by not fixing his eyes entirely on Christ, without wanting something new or something besides him.

God might give him this answer, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.' I have already told you all things in my Word. Fix your eyes on him alone, because in him I have spoken and revealed all. Moreover, in him you will find more than you ask or desire

The writings of St John of the Cross and of other great theologians do not reveal to us anything new but rather bring us into a deeper understanding of the Word. Likewise, the messages that the Church recognises as having been received in such places as Lourdes, for example, do not reveal to us anything new but rather emphasise some aspect of the Word, usually a call to penance and to prayer, in other words, Prepare the way of the Lord.

God asks us to look to the future in active, sometimes symbolically active, hope like the old man in Charles Kuralt's story. Be ready to meet Jesus in whatever guise he comes and whenever he comes, each day, at the hour of our death, at the end of time.

27 November 2018

'A Season of preparation for the birth of the Lord.' Sunday Reflections, 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt 

We begin Year C, which highlights St Luke's Gospel

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Luke 21:25-28, 34-36 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

Jesus said to his disciples:

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night)
An ancient Advent hymn sung by the Christendom College Choir & Schola Gregoriana

Pope Benedict's Angelus Talk on the First Sunday of Advent, 29 November 2009. [I have highlighted some parts.]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This Sunday, by the grace of God, a new Liturgical Year opens, of course, with Advent, a Season of preparation for the birth of the Lord. The Second Vatican Council, in the Constitution on the Liturgy, affirms that the Church "in the course of the year... unfolds the whole mystery of Christ from the Incarnation and Nativity to the Ascension, to Pentecost and the expectation of the blessed hope of the Coming of the Lord". In this way, "recalling the mysteries of the redemption, she opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with saving grace" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 102). The Council insists on the fact that the centre of the Liturgy is Christ, around whom the Blessed Virgin Mary, closest to him, and then the martyrs and the other saints who "sing God's perfect praise in Heaven and intercede for us" (ibid., n. 104) revolve like the planets around the sun.

This is the reality of the Liturgical Year seen, so to speak, "from God's perspective". And from the perspective, let us say, of humankind, of history and of society what importance can it have? The answer is suggested to us precisely by the journey through Advent on which we are setting out today. The contemporary world above all needs hope; the developing peoples need it, but so do those that are economically advanced. We are becoming increasingly aware that we are all on one boat and together must save each other. Seeing so much false security collapse, we realize that what we need most is a trustworthy hope. This is found in Christ alone. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, he "is the same yesterday and today and for ever (Heb 13: 8). The Lord Jesus came in the past, comes in the present and will come in the future. He embraces all the dimensions of time, because he died and rose; he is "the Living One". While he shares our human precariousness, he remains forever and offers us the stability of God himself. He is "flesh" like us and "rock" like God. Whoever yearns for freedom, justice, and peace may rise again and raise his head, for in Christ liberation is drawing near (cf. Lk 21: 28) as we read in today's Gospel. We can therefore say that Jesus Christ is not only relevant to Christians, or only to believers, but to all men and women, for Christ, who is the centre of faith, is also the foundation of hope. And every human being is constantly in need of hope.

Dear brothers and sisters, the Virgin Mary fully embodies a humanity that lives in hope based on faith in the living God. She is the Virgin of Advent: she is firmly established in the present, in the "today" of salvation. In her heart she gathers up all past promises, and encompasses the future. Let us learn from her in order to truly enter this Season of grace and to accept, with joy and responsibility, the coming of God in our personal and social lives


The Visitation, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]

On 24 November I was travelling on a bus here in Ireland. I overheard a passenger say to another person, It's Christmas now. Not quite. There was still a full month to go before the Church's Christmas Season begins on the evening of 24 December either with the Vigil Mass in the early evening or, more commonly, with the Mass During the Night, formerly known as the Midnight Mass.

Advent is the liturgical season that has been largely sidelined, even in Catholic institutions such as schools which usually hold Christmas parties before Christmas has even begun. In my last few years in the Philippines I tried, with some success, to have these parties called Advent parties. Some groups I was associated with adopted the term while others compromised with the 'Pre-Christmas' party. I reminded them that a wedding banquet takes place after the wedding and a baptismal party takes place after the birth and baptism of the child.

In El Greco's painting of the Visitation above we see two women, Mary and St Elizabeth, vibrant with a dance of life, each carrying a child in her womb. Each was preparing for the birth of her child. And the young Mary, in the early stages of pregnancy, went specifically to be of help to her much older relative who was, according to tradition, about six months later in her pregnancy. Mary wanted to help Elizabeth prepare for the birth of St John the Baptist.

In the opening sentence of his Angelus talk Pope Benedict states clearly that Advent is a Season of preparation for the birth of the Lord.

In the weekday Masses in the earlier part of Advent we listen to a prophecy from the Old Testament and then a gospel reading that shows how that prophecy has been fulfilled with the coming of Jesus. This is meant to bring us hope for the future, that God who came into the world more than 2,000 years ago as a human being and is now risen from the dead will continue to be with us as individuals and as a community as we journey towards eternal life.

And Mary continues to bring Jesus her Son to us and to lead us to her Son, in accordance with the will of the Father. Pope Benedict's Angelus message ends with these beautiful words: In her heart she gathers up all past promises, and encompasses the future. Let us learn from her in order to truly enter this Season of grace and to accept, with joy and responsibility, the coming of God in our personal and social lives.

Ad te Domine, Alessandro Scarlatti

Antiphona at introitum  Entrance Antiphon Cf Ps 24[25]:1-3

Ad te levavi animan meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei,
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

24 November 2018

'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' Sunday Reflections, Christ the King, Year B

From The Gospel ofJohn (2003) Directed by Philip Saville. [John 18:33-37, today's Gospel]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings(Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel John 18:33b-18 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Christ Before Pilate, Tintoretto [Web Gallery of Art]

The Kingdom of God breaks into our lives very often in quiet, apparently insignificant ways. More than 50 years ago, shortly after I was ordained, I was stopped by an elderly woman in a poor part of Dublin, just around the corner from where I had gone to school. She wasn't well dressed but didn't ask me for anything. She simply wanted to tell me how lonely she was. She kept repeating that.

I never met that woman again but I have not forgotten here. I often pray for her soul and also pray that one day she will welcome me into the heavenly home that God wills for all of us. That encounter at a street corner in Dublin has been an ongoing grace for me, an experience of the Kingdom of God breaking through in what would seem to have been a totally insignificant event.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3). Being poor in spirit means knowing one's need of God. The woman who stopped me in the street was expressing that because she saw that I was a priest and in some way a representative of the Lord.

The only thing I could give that poor woman, who was old enough to be my grandmother, was a listening ear. But she gave me a glimpse into the Kingdom of God, a gift that has lasted all these years.

My kingdom is not from this world, Jesus tells us in today's gospel as he stands before Pilate. But his kingdom is constantly breaking through in this world, in very ordinary, unplanned encounters when God gives us the grace to see and to hear - and we accept that grace.

Head of a Woman, Van Gogh [Web Gallery of Art]

Responsorial Psalm [Philippines, USA]

14 November 2018

'No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.' Sunday Reflections, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

The Adoration of the Name of Jesus, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Mark 13:24-32 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)   

Jesus said to his disciples:
 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.'

Fig tree [Wikipedia]
As I write this the worst wildfire in California history is still raging, with more than fifty known deaths and hundreds of people unaccounted for. A town named Paradise has been totally destroyed. Last night a friend who is a father of seven young children, the eldest 13, told me of the sudden death from a heart attack of his niece's husband, aged 33, leaving a young widow, and four small children without a father. A three-year civil war has left Yemen on the brink of what may become the 'world's worst famine in 100 years' that could leave 13 million people at the risk of starvation. 

Last Sunday much of the world held ceremonies to mark the centennial of the Armistice that ended the Great War, later known as World War One (1914-18). This 'war to end all wars' resulted in around 16 million deaths, about six million of those civilians. But the centennial ceremonies offered hope as former enemies joined together to remember and pray for the dead and looked to building a future without war.

Today's gospel speaks of realities that occur in every age. The Great War was the result of sinful decisions by human beings, as are the civil war in Yemen and the famine it is causing. Wildfires are often, though not always, the result of carelessness by human beings and sometimes are deliberately caused by sinful decisions.

The sudden death of a young husband/father is not something that can be foreseen. In the case of the young father of four who died yesterday there is a family medical history. But too often such deaths are the result of one person deciding to kill another.

We often gloss over the reality of sin and the consequences of our decision. But the First Reading speaks plainly: Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2).

We are drawing to the end of the current liturgical year in which the Church has focused on the Gospel of St Mark. The first words that Jesus speaks in this gospel are: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Jesus is emphasising the need for repentance. He warns us in today's gospel, But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Pope Francis going to confession

Jesus has given us the gift of a particular way to obtain forgiveness for our sins, the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, often referred to as 'confession'. The Catechism of the Catholic Church No 1422 reads: Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labours for their conversion.

Pope Benedict XVI [Wikipedia]

Today's readings call us to reflect on death, particularly our own, not in a morbid way but from a belief that God is the foundation of hope. Pope Benedict writes in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi No 48, in the context of our relationship with those who have died, Now a further question arises: if 'Purgatory' is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death.

This passage acknowledges the effects of our sins on others but also gives us hope. Benedict quotes the English poet John Donne: No man is an island, entire of itself. 

Each time when someone we know dies, whether naturally after a long and fruitful life or tragically while still young, that is a grace from God for us to reflect on the purpose of our life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church No 1023 says, Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they 'see him as he is,' face to face.

That is God's will for each of us but it is possible to reject that loving will. If we choose not to ask God's forgiveness for mortal sins we will have opted for shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2).

May each of us, with God's grace, choose eternal life, especially by asking God's forgiveness regularly in the sacrament of reconciliation.