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Thursday, 30 January 2020

The Presentation of the Lord 2020


(Mal. 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40)

There are a few things we should note about St. Luke’s gospel account of Mary and Joseph bringing the Child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem.  First of all, since it was not necessary for them to bring the Child to the Temple, why did they choose to do so?  Secondly, Luke tells us that:

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,”

However, the Law prescribes that the firstborn of man should be ‘redeemed’, not ‘presented’:

You shall dedicate to the LORD every newborn that opens the womb, and every first-born male of your animals will belong to the LORD.  Every human firstborn of your sons you must redeem. (Exodus 13:12-13)

The price of redemption was five Temple shekels, the money going towards the upkeep of the Temple worship and the support of the priests of Levi who had no land in Israel in order to be totally devoted to the worship of the Lord.  Since no redemption price was paid for Jesus -- only the sacrificial offering of a pair of turtle doves for Mary’s purification according to the Law -- there is no question of Mary’s first-born Son being bought back, redeemed, as the Law laid down, and that is why Luke changed the wording of the Law and spoke of Mary and Joseph presenting the infant Jesus to the Lord.   That very presentation -- doing something unique for this unique Gift from God -- was the reason for their bringing the Child to the Temple in Jerusalem: in the mind of Mary there was no question of ‘redeeming’ -- buying Him back -- from God, on the contrary, in acknowledgement of His ‘gifting’ to her (and to us) by God, Mary was, of her own initiative and  free will, bringing Him to God’s Temple in order in order to present Him to His Father: to offer Him along with the childhood-long years of her own worshipful service of maternal love, cherishing, and teaching, to present Him to His Father, God, for God‘s purposes on earth:

They took Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord” ), and to offer (for Mary’s purification) the sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” in accordance with the dictate of the law of the Lord.

Just as Samuel had been given to the Lord in the old Temple of Shiloh by his mother Hannah in thanksgiving that the opprobrium of childlessness had been taken from her, so here Jesus is presented by Mary to the Lord in the Temple at Jerusalem.   He was consecrated to the Father before His birth on earth and in His birth; here His Mother acknowledges God’s claim on her human Son and, yielding her own claims upon Him, presents Him to His Father in the Temple, with a sense of gratitude immeasurably greater than that of Hannah (Lk:46-48):

Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.   For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness.”

See how wonderfully that holy Mother co-operates with her Son in the work of our salvation!  At this, her very first opportunity, Mary does what her Son cannot yet Himself physically do: for, graciously aware of the depths of her own lowliness she offers Him – out of heart-felt personal gratitude and with wondrous sensitivity to the working of the Spirit of the Son within her -- to His Father of Whom we are told in the letter to the Hebrews (10: 5-7):

For this reason, when He came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me; holocausts and sin offerings You took no delight in.  Then I said, ‘As is written of Me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do Your will, O God.’”

Here Mary is shown as the perfect realization of the ‘daughter of Sion’, following in the steps of Abraham, who, when leading his son Isaac on the way to sacrifice on Mount Zion, said (Genesis 22:8):

            My son, God will provide for Himself the sheep for the burnt offering.

Abraham became the father of Israel and indeed our father in faith because he had been willing and prepared to sacrifice his only, beloved, son Isaac, in obedience to God.  However, at the point of sacrifice, the Lord intervened and said:

Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.  (Genesis 22:12)

Isaac was not the lamb of God, nor was Abraham‘s obedient -- though heavy -- heart a full foreshadowing of the future.  For, when the old covenant was come to its fulfilment, Mary, the supreme daughter of Abraham was offering, presenting, her Son entirely to God His Father with a most wonderfully grateful and rejoicing heart:

Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

The New Covenant was at hand, and this Presentation of the Infant Jesus is the very first fully, purely, Christian act, Christian sacrificial act … Mary offering her Son to His Father for His, indeed soon to be, both Their, purpose(s).  As the annotators of the of ‘The Jewish Annotated New Testament’ make perfectly clear, “no law prescribes this presentation, presenting children at the Temple is not a recognized custom”. 

It is true that Mary did not as yet know what would be asked of her: she did not foresee the Crucifixion.  Nevertheless, her offering to God was given in total faith and sincerity, complete trust and self-abandonment.  Therefore, having presented Him to the Lord, she was not called to leave Him in the Temple as Hannah had done with Samuel.  Samuel had been left with Eli the high priest; here, there was none worthy to bring up Jesus save Mary His immaculate mother, and therefore He went back with her to Nazareth and began learning, as we are told:

To grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; with the grace of God upon Him.

God accepted at the Presentation Mary’s offering of her Son, as an implicitly sacrificial, TOTALLY CHRISTIAN offering made under the supreme guidance and sublime inspiration of the Spirit of her Son, the Holy Spirit of Truth and of Love, already working fully, freely, and unrestrainedly, in her.  In the subsequent hidden years of life in Nazareth she helped her Son become a man before God:

           He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a             merciful and faithful high priest. (Hebrews 2:17)

Unbeknown to Mary, the Spirit of her Son was already leading her, preparing her, for the time when He would leave her, first of all to enter upon His public mission, and when, finally, He would be taken from her in the Crucifixion.  This preparation began to be revealed to Mary almost immediately after she had presented her Son in the Temple, for the prophet Simeon came upon the scene and said to her:

Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed -- and a sword will pierce even your own soul -- to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

And we can glimpse how gently God would lead her over the years ahead, for, lest those words of Simeon should hang around in her memory like some small but threatening cloud on the distant horizon, the prophetess Anna came shortly after Simeon with a paean of praise for the Child and for God:

             She began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of (the Child) to all                 those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

It was with such mysterious words of wonder, joy, and hope that Mary and Joseph:

            returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.

The work of our redemption was beginning with God and man, One in Jesus; and with Mary co-operating in wondrous responsiveness to the Spirit, both in the birth, and now in the Presentation, of her Son.  This presentation of her Son by Mary was no blind gesture, rather it was the occasion when she seized with both hands a blessing offered her by God, affirming it most solemnly in the Temple at Jerusalem; and then, over the subsequent thirty years,  confirming it by her daily humble faith and prayerful trust under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as He prepared her to be able to fully and finally live out the offering she had so spontaneously and whole-heartedly made in the Temple.

It is frequently like that with us, People of God.  We can be called, invited, to respond to God with decisive self-commitment, and that moment is not the time to want to think out, anticipate and foresee, all that might result from such an invitation.   God wants our response of humble trust and total commitment; for He Himself will enable us to carry out what He has encouraged and invited us to take on.  Mary was totally pure, and that does not simply mean sin-less, it also means totally self-less before God, totally unselfish in her response to His will … God often wants to find something of that purity in us her children too.


Friday, 24 January 2020

3rd Sunday of the Year A 2020

3rd. Sunday of the Year (A)
(Isaiah 8:23 - 9:3; 1st. Corinthians 1:10-13,17; Matthew 4:12 -23)

Today’s readings speak to us of the joy God’s People experience when the yoke of sin, the rod of the oppressor, is lifted from their shoulders when they embrace the Good News brought by Jesus:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; among those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, as they rejoice before You as at the harvest, as people make merry when dividing the spoil. 

Jesus, as you heard in the Gospel reading, intended to make His apostles “fishers of men” by doing what He Himself was setting out to do, preach the Gospel, the Good News of salvation, to all men and women of good will.

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea.  From that time on Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Notice how strongly God impressed upon the great prophet Isaiah the fact that great joy that would be occasioned by this future preaching of the Messiah, for he multiplied words expressing joy and happiness: ‘abundant joy’, ‘great rejoicing’, ‘joy of harvest’, and, ‘as people make merry when dividing the spoil’; and all those differing expressions of the same thing in just one sentence.

Jesus, as you well know, specially chose disciples, ultimately twelve in all, whose task would be to hear and learn from Him first of all, and then continue His work of preaching, proclaiming world-wide, His Good News:

            Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)

And Paul a former Pharisee – himself specially chosen by the Risen Jesus, not as one of the Twelve but alongside them, to become the Apostle of the Gentiles – that same, though so very different, Paul also declared, as you heard earlier:

Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel; and not with wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied if its meaning. 

Now, People of God, in this modern age do you rejoice to hear the Gospel preached?  Do you feel you need, do you truly want, to hear the Gospel message?  I have no doubt that many in the Church on Sunday do not have such a desire, because for many their principle criterion of a sermon depends on its length not on its content.  They much prefer a short -- even a very short -- homily, and when that is the case, they leave the Church positively congratulating themselves on their good fortune. 
Why then is it that the great prophet Isaiah foretold joy, gladness, rejoicing, for God’s People privileged to  hear God’s Words of Salvation; and yet, for so many today -- like those still ‘living in a land of gloom’ there is no awareness of any such joy or privilege, just a feeling of weariness and tedium.  What does that mean?  It cannot mean that Isaiah was wrong or mistaken for God inspired him.  What does it mean then?  Is it not, perhaps, a lamentable but undeniable fact, that too many modern apparent Catholics are not truly living members of Christ’s Body, but rather, only committed in their Catholic sentiments at the best, but hangers-on in their Catholic and Christian mind and heart?

As St. Paul put it to his converts in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:1-3):

Brethren, I could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ.  I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. 
Children cannot stomach solid food, it is not sweet enough, it is not sufficiently easy to digest, nor does it look sufficiently attractive: that is why, today, the Word of God, which the prophet foretold would bring such rejoicing to God’s People, fails to call forth that joy and delight in many modern Catholics.

It is often said, of course, that the preacher fails to make the homily interesting, he is so dull, or so intellectual, or so unchallenging.  That might be said, and indeed it might be the part of the reason in some cases, but Dr. Johnson once remarked that Christians do not need to be told new things, the latest ideas, so much as to be reminded of those things they know but are in danger of forgetting.

Just think, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ: what if your father or mother had died and the preacher was saying some words about them, or if your son or daughter was getting married and the celebrant was mentioning them in his address, would not you be interested, attentive, even though the preacher was not brilliant, even though his words were perhaps stodgy?  Words about your father or mother, about your son or daughter, could not fail to be of great interest to you; you would hang on to every one of them.

Why then are the words of the Gospel, why then is preaching about Jesus and His offer of salvation, so uninteresting for so many?    In the Gospel reading today we heard:

Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. 

People came to Him in their need and with their infirmities; can it be that for many today -- even those coming to Church and finding themselves bored to death with the readings and the sermons -- Jesus is not interesting because they are not aware of their need of Him: because they are in no way convinced of the corruption which infects the imagined virtues of our pagan society, or of the spiritual poverty and moral weakness waiting to betray they themselves in times of trial and distress? 

In other words, can it be that, deep down, they think Jesus’ Good News is not really as good as the worldly pleasure and prosperity they find themselves presently enjoying and which they think are assured for them in the future?

Certainly, Jesus saw a deeply rooted malaise in the hearts and minds of the satisfied and self-contended Jewish leaders in His time, He said to them:

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. (Mark 2:17)

He was addressing deeply religious people, people who, for all that, did not want to recognize themselves as needy or endangered.  They used their literal observance of the Law and their contempt for the Gentiles – above all their Roman occupiers -- to bolster themselves.  Today, religious people also have practices and aspirations that help them avoid, put-off, any disturbing awareness of their own deep needs or personal insufficiency: for some of them who are Catholics, reception of Holy Communion is one such practice; for others, good works proclaimed by modern society also provide such a very comforting shelter.

Perhaps the modern ease of approach to the Eucharist and aversion to hearing the Word of God proclaimed is partly due to a failure to understand the true relationship between the Word of God in the Scriptures and Mother Church’s proclamation of the Faith, and the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ our Saviour, present in the Eucharist.  Most Catholics – even those who are impatient or ill at ease with the Scriptures or the Church’s proclamation of Jesus’ Good News – still want to receive the Eucharist, even frequently, believing It to be the key to Eternal Life:

Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
Nevertheless, Jesus also said on that very occasion (John 6:53-54, 63-64):

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.  But there are some of you who do not believe.
Our Catholic Faith does not in any way teach or rely on magic.  When Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood He is referring to His whole Person and Being.   The whole life and death of Jesus -- the Incarnate Son of God -- offers nourishment for eternal life, and ‘eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus’ is intended to literally express the deepest personal commitment to and oneness with the Person of Jesus, Who lived, died, and rose again for us and for our salvation.   We cannot just troop up to receive Holy Communion and think that thereby eternal life is ours … that is nothing more than magical thinking.   Our reception of the Eucharist, our active participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, is intended to be the sublime expression, fulfilment, and confirmation of our continuous and consuming desire for oneness of mind, heart, and will, with Jesus, through the Spirit.

Likewise, with public good works so approved by many who show little respect for the Word of God proclaimed in the Church.  Just as mere reception of the Eucharist does not stand alone at the summit of Christian piety, so neither can socially-approved ‘good works’ be regarded as the supreme requirement or conclusive evidence of the Christian spirit.  As John the Baptist demanded of those coming to him for baptism, the fruit of good works is required, but only as an expression and consequence of their personal commitment of faith:

Diversity of fruits do not nourish man, rather is it Your Word that sustains those who believe in You. (Wisdom 16:26)

People of God, are you one of those who want indeed to approach Jesus but only from a position of strength, so to speak; to draw near to Him, indeed, but always confident in your own basic goodness?   Are you one who does not want to feel, who, indeed, will not allow yourself to be made aware of, your own emptiness and need?  There are many who will do almost anything to avoid any deep awareness of loneliness and nothingness which moments of loss, suffering, or love can make painfully clear: and modern society is, as a whole, geared to providing countless distractions that will help us to temporarily ignore any such saving awareness of our fundamental emptiness, weakness, and need.  And yet, without such an awareness, no one can turn to God as Saviour.

Now, you whom I am addressing have been chosen -- are called to salvation -- by God, otherwise, you would not be here; and though I am speaking now to admonish some, I do not wish to discourage any, for I urge you all to recall those words of Jesus (Luke 11:9-13):

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you; for everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.  If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish?  Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!
People of God, the word of God has gone forth from the prophet's mouth:

You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing; they rejoice before You as people rejoice at harvest, as they exult when dividing the spoils. 

Those words of Scripture, will not, cannot, return to God fruitless: and God's faithful people will indeed always rejoice both in His living Word and in His Eucharistic Presence.  Whether you will be among them is up to you: but none should try the childish practice of blaming others for what is personal indifference.  If you are looking and longing for God, then, whether the sermon is poor or the liturgy too long will in no way harm you, for so long as the words spoken are a sincere expression of the truth about God, and if the liturgy is celebrated authentically, you should and can learn something profitable and receive blessing.  And being humble enough to learn and love something, you will, soon enough, be granted to rejoice with all the blessed, because the God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in Whom you believe and trust is, indeed, always available for you in the Eucharistic celebrations of Mother Church, where He will not fail to call, comfort, strengthen and enlighten you, by His Presence in both Word and Sacrament.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

2nd Sunday of the Year A 2020

 2nd. Sunday of the Year (A).
(Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; 1st. Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34)

Today, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are encouraged to admire and adore the wisdom, goodness, and the beauty of our God; and, in the first reading we heard that God, speaking of the promised Messiah, said by the prophet Isaiah:

It is too little for You to be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will make You a light to the Gentiles, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Out of all the nations on earth, God had chosen to specially form, teach, guide and protect, one particular people – Israel -- as His Chosen People, chosen ultimately for the greater good and eternal salvation of all mankind.  By the time of Isaiah that teaching and cherishing had been ongoing for over a thousand years, and Isaiah himself was one of the line of prophets sent by God to His Chosen People to prepare for the coming from among them of a Servant worthy and able to proclaim the name of the Lord and His saving Word in Israel and for the whole world.  Israel could not of herself bring forth that definitive Servant of God’s salvation because Israel was, in her degree, infected by sin; rather, she would be the relatively holy stock from which that supremely and sublimely Holy Servant would arise Who would be uniquely able to reveal the Name, proclaim the Word, and show Himself to be the Salvation, of God for the whole of mankind.

In the fulness of time the Old Testament covenant had prepared a people able to bring forth the most pure and humble Virgin, Mary of Nazareth, of whom we read in the Song of Songs (2:1):

            I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys, a lily among thorns.

She it was who would welcome, give birth to, and nurture the Son of God made Man as foreshadowed again in the prophecy of Isaiah (45:8):

Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down.  Let the earth open and salvation bud forth.

In Jesus, not only those who are Israelites by birth -- prepared over 2000 long years by a line of inspired prophets, dedicated priests, and chosen kings -- are called to become children of God in the beloved Son, but also the Gentiles -- who for millennia had walked in darkness and lived under the shadow of death -- are to be evangelized, invited, and enabled, to turn from their former ways and believe in the Good News of Jesus brought to them by the universal Church founded upon His Apostles.   For the proclamation of the New Testament is the offer and means of God’s salvation to all mankind, both Jews and Gentiles, through faith in Christ Who is the Spirit-anointed-Saviour of all.  Mankind is to become one again in Jesus,  all being offered a shared heritage as adopted children in the Kingdom of their heavenly Father, a heritage which the only-begotten-Son won for them  by shedding His blood on the Cross of Calvary, a heritage for which the Holy Spirit bequeathed by Jesus alone could and would prepare them. 

We should be filled with gratitude, People of God, as we think on this: God trained the Jewish people for 2000 years, and then, in His immense mercy and goodness, put us -- through Jesus -- alongside and together with those He had cherished and nurtured for so long!!

Let us now turn to today’s Gospel passage where you heard John the Baptist, the forerunner of the promised Messiah, revealing Jesus to the Jewish people:

“I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.”  John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon Him.   I did not know Him, but the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’  Now I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God.”

You remember the scene, surely, when Jesus was coming up from the waters of the Jordan used by John for his baptism?  It was then -- when Jesus was dripping with water -- that John saw the Spirit coming down upon Jesus in the form of a dove, -- the symbol of peace -- here signifying the peace between God and man which Jesus, the promised Prince of Peace, would bring about.

Think of that scene, People of God, and then remember the words Jesus was later to say to Nicodemus, a leader among the Jews:

Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

Water and the Spirit: what did they mean for the Jews and the Gentiles, both called in Christ -- the Saviour of the whole world -- to become God’s children?  Listen, and wonder at the wisdom, the beauty, and the goodness, of God; for, in order to save mankind from the bonds of sin and death, God had to convict mankind of their sinfulness, in order that they might turn from sin, reject it, and embrace -- gratefully and wholeheartedly --  God’s offer of eternal life in Jesus.

The Chosen People, had, over thousands of years, become a supremely spiritual and moral people; and yet, although they had been given a Law which was holy, they had, in their ‘professional’ observance of that Law, become ever more reliant on their own efforts: they had come to think that they were able to observe that Law by themselves and imagined they could, in that way, prove themselves worthy to be  the Chosen People of God.  They came to regard themselves as having been chosen, not out of God’s boundless mercy, but because of their own particular spiritual superiority and ability, to believe, indeed, that God had been right in choosing them, because they, above all other nations, had the strength of will and moral character to keep His Law.  There, People of God, we recognize the sin of the pharisaic Jews: spiritual pride.

In this scene by the Jordan where John was offering a baptism of repentance, the Jewish people were being told that it was only by God's free gift of the Holy Spirit -- to be given through Jesus the Lamb of God -- that they could practice a holiness acceptable to Him Who is the all-holy One: only by God’s Gift which is the Spirit, the Spirit of Holiness, could they become holy; and the Spirit was wholly Jesus’ to give.  That is why the He was seen by John the Baptist, descending and resting upon Jesus as He came up out of the waters.

The Gentiles on the other hand, although they had risen to great cultural and social heights in the ancient empires, and more recently in the glories of Greece and the achievements of Rome, nevertheless, they had become morally degraded despite all the truths they had espied, the beauties they had observed and created, and the grandeur of the social fabric they had established.  They had sunken into all sorts of moral abominations and for this the Jews despised them, despite being subject to their military power.  St. Paul, himself born and reared as a strict Jew, expressed this awareness of the Jews with regard to their conquerors when he wrote to the Romans:

Although they (the Gentiles) knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. …. God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.  (1:21-32)

There you have the Gentiles’ sin: wallowing in abominations for which they needed to become repentant if they were to be washed clean; a cleansing symbolised by the water dripping off Jesus – God made man --as He came out of the waters of the Jordan. 

Water and the Spirit for the cleansing of Jews and Gentiles: water and the Spirit, whereby Jesus would assume and redeem the sins of the world!  The whole of human life had been infected with the sin of Adam in its lowest depths and highest achievements: social life, intellectual vigour, and spiritual aspirations, all had been stained by the Gentiles’ lust for pleasure and power and the spiritual pride of Judaism; all had to be convicted of sin in order that forgiveness and fulfilment could be offered to all.

People of God, as we recall these truths, let us rejoice with full measure of gratitude for the coming of Him whom John the Baptist called:

The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world;

and let us have due appreciation of that people specially chosen of old to prepare for the coming of Him Who -- as the Glory of Israel and Light of the Gentiles -- offers peace and salvation to all who believe in His Name.  Let gratitude burgeon ever more and more in our hearts, dear People of God, to the Father Who sent us His Son, and Who, through the gift of His Most Holy Spirit -- the eternal bond of love between Father and Son -- will gather those of all climes and all ages able to recognize and willing to personally welcome Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, into one heavenly Family able to partake of and rejoice in the eternal feast prepared for them in the Kingdom of God the Father Who is All in all for all.      

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Baptism of the Lord Year A 2020

 Baptism of the Lord (A)
(Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)

Our readings today began with God saying through the prophet Isaiah:

Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Chosen One in whom My soul delights!

Those words were echoed in our reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew, where the voice of the heavenly Father was heard to proclaim:

            This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.

There can, therefore, be no doubt about the focal point of our celebration today: we must look afresh at, and learn to appreciate more, Jesus our Saviour, God’s chosen Servant in Whom His soul delights, the Father's beloved, sent-among-us, Son. 

Notice first of all, that whereas John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to some of his disciples by telling them of the mission Jesus would fulfil (John 1:29):

Behold, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world;

at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, however, the Father does not reveal Jesus to us by saying "this is your Saviour" or any other such words indicating what Jesus was going to do for us; far from that, and infinitely more than that, He proclaims the very Person of Jesus, and, in doing so, reveals His own Self, with the words: 

            This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased!

With that proclamation the Father gives us a glimpse of the very essence of Divine Life and Beatitude in which the Father and Son are eternally One in the Holy Spirit of Love; and, by manifesting His Own sheer delight in His Son made flesh, He thereby invites us also to delight in Jesus to our utmost; not simply, nor even primarily, because of what He does on our behalf, but because of Who He is, among us.

Since -- in the process of canonization -- it has to be shown that candidates had practiced Christian virtues to a heroic degree, it might easily be thought that holiness demands, first of all, the practice of virtues; and, under that impression, some devout but misguided people regard the spiritual life as a matter of consulting, compiling, drawing up, a list of virtues to be given special attention -- one by one -- until, hopefully, all are mastered; while always, of course, rejecting sin and avoiding the slightest occasion thereof.  Such zeal, however, is very Pharisaic:  is not only mistaken in its appreciation of Christian spirituality, in which -- as the very word itself proclaims -- the Spirit should lead us to, along the way of, Jesus; it is also dis-figured by over-reliance on human cogitations and endeavours, thereby projecting an impersonal, most unattractive, perhaps even inhumane, picture of the Christian spiritual life of love for  God in Jesus.

In truth, Christian holiness cannot be characterized by anything other than a delighting in God, above all and in all.  The practice of virtues and avoidance of evil should flow freely and unconstrainedly from that transforming and transcending love as the ‘unconscious’ fruit of a P/personal relationship which fills one’s life.

First of all, therefore, we must want, seek, and pray to appreciate the Person of Jesus shown us, given to us for us, by the Father; and then, in Jesus and by the power of His Spirit, we should try to recognize, appreciate, and respond to, the Father Himself, so that we begin to share in Jesus' own love for the Father.  Only in that way can we fulfil our calling to become true disciples of Jesus, and in Him, true children of the Father, by the Spirit. 

In our endeavour to appreciate Jesus, therefore, let us turn back our attention to the prophet Isaiah who told us, in the first reading, about the Servant:

Behold! My Servant Whom I uphold, My Chosen One in Whom My soul delights!  I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.

And then let us recall what Peter told us in the second reading:

You know how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.

Both passages clearly relate to St. Matthew’s account in today’s Gospel reading of Jesus' experience on the occasion of His baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist:

When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.

Now, John had not wanted to baptize Jesus, as you heard:

John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"

Jesus, however, insisted; He had come to do His Father's will  -- that is, "all righteousness" -- which meant that His life could not be lived in accordance with merely human standards, nor could it be thought subject to human judgements, not even those of one so holy as John the Baptist:

Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness." 

Isaiah had foretold what mission the Father had in mind for Jesus:

            He will bring forth justice to the Nations.

Few words, indeed, but full of meaning, because the prophet’s "justice" means God's truth and love, God’s own righteousness, to be fulfilled in us and in our lives.

Moreover, the prophet foretold how the Servant would go about His work, and so, indirectly, gave us some idea about what sort of person the Servant would prove to be:

He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. 

He will not, Isaiah says, take advantage of simple people by bombast, nor indulge in any haranguing of emotional crowds; He will proclaim His message of justice and truth calmly, and with full respect for His hearers.

Isaiah went on to show us another engaging aspect of God's Chosen Servant, when he said:

A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.

And so, though anointed with the Spirit and with power, Jesus would be characterized, the prophet said, by gentleness and respect; and this St. Peter confirmed in our second reading when he said:

He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.

Nevertheless, since Jesus had been given the mission to bring forth true justice on earth, He would inevitably meet with opposition in a sinful world, and this prospect led Isaiah to give another characteristic of the Chosen Servant and Beloved Son:

He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth.

And so, though -- in His gentleness and respect -- neither breaking what was bruised nor extinguishing what might still dimly glow, the Servant’s anointing with the Spirit and with power will not allow Him to be either disheartened or crushed by His painful experiences of life in a sinful world.  He will face trials similar to those we now encounter in our daily lives, and indeed others far greater and more testing than any we will ever know, but He will live through them as the Servant obedient in all things to the Lord, as the Son, in all things loving, and witnessing to, His Father.  In that way Jesus will be like us, one with us and able to understand us; and yet, for all that, He will be unique, the only One to faithfully bring forth justice and fulfil all righteousness, the One Who will neither fail nor falter in His mission:

            ‘till He has established justice in the earth.

And that, People of God, means that Jesus will never give up in His endeavours to enable us to recognise and appreciate the Father's goodness and love, and to raise us up -- by His Spirit -- to become more worthy children of such a Father.

Today there are many who try to proclaim the love of Jesus us by telling us how much He empathizes with us in our sufferings because He too has suffered; how His whole longing and aim is to bring us comfort and release, joy, peace and love, now.  And they leave it at that, being unwilling or afraid to speak of any further suffering to be borne or efforts to be made by those who want to belong to God.   And that is a travesty of the full truth: a travesty which, though pleasing to hear, is deadly in its effects, for it is a half-truth that would leave us no longer looking up to heaven but resting here on earth. 

The true Jesus, the Scriptures tell us:

Will not fail nor be discouragedtill He has established justice in the earth

that is, true justice in the hearts and minds, the lives and loves of you and me, and all others like us throughout the whole world who will listen to His Good News and gradually learn to fight the good fight here on earth while hoping for, and aspiring to, a new, eternal, home being prepared for us in heaven.

People of God, we are not always ready, perhaps not even always willing, to lift our eyes to heaven, because the devil both abuses our weakness and hides our ignorance so that we do not know our own needs, nor do we want to see our own failings.  But Isaiah tells us clearly in the name of the Lord:

I will appoint You (My Servant) as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness from the prison.

Though we are all blind and prisoners to a greater or lesser degree, let us not -- through pride – reject, or -- in fear -- turn away from, God's gift of a Saviour, because He intends to free us from our sins and enlighten our ignorance by drawing us, as the prophet Hosea said:

            With gentle cords, with bands of love. (Hosea 11:4)

Or, as Jeremiah (31:3-4) told us in even more striking words:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have drawn you with lovingkindness.  Again I will build you and you will be rebuilt.

Therefore, People of God, let us resolve this very day to allow God to rebuild our lives as He seeks to draw us in the Spirit -- with bands of love -- to Jesus; in and from Whom we can learn to appreciate, and to love more and more, the Father revealing Himself to us along with Jesus, as the Gospel proclaimed:

After Jesus was baptized, He came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened (for Him), and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon Him.  And a voice came from the heavens saying, "This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased."        

Friday, 3 January 2020

The Epiphany 2020

The epiphany (2020)
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

In the Eastern Church today’s solemnity of the Epiphany of Our Lord has precedence over Christmas, whereas for us in the West, Christmas Day is the greater celebration; and the reason for this diversity is that these two solemn celebrations are complementary
At Christmas we celebrate God’s inconceivable humility and wondrous goodness whereby His only-begotten Son puts on human flesh, becoming Himself fully and truly human in His divine Sonship, in order to involve Himself with us totally – sin alone excepted -- for a right understanding and resolving of the mess into which we had got ourselves and our world by deliberate and wilful sinning against God.   And that Christmas awareness of such amazing humility and goodness on God’s part is both a constant reminder of the ugliness and folly of our pride, and a persistently loving provocation to recognize and respond to the  beauty of His Son-among-us, and learn from Him to renew something of the original beauty of our creation by humble gratitude and trust as children of God in the Son sent to be our Saviour.

On Christmas Day we recalled the words of Elizabeth to Mary our Mother: 

Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45);

and we too, as her true children, at Christmas renewed the sincerity of our belief in Jesus our Lord and Saviour and the simplicity of our trust in God’s promises for our salvation.

At the Epiphany, however, we rejoice in the divine glory manifested in the earthly life and being of Him Who, though coming as Saviour, deigns to be like us:

As an Infant, Who, like some uniquely wondrous lodestone, draws the heavens (planetary movements of those times being apparently confirmed by modern computer simulation) and the Magi (men guided by their learning in science and philosophy and deeply motivated by their sincere religious commitment) from lands afar, to His crib in Bethlehem;

At His baptism, when His humility before John opened the very heavens, calling forth a divine witness as the Spirit descended upon Him like a dove, and the Father proclaimed Him to be His own beloved Son;

At the wedding in Cana, where as a passing guest He changed, at His mother’s instigation (!), water into rich and copious new wine; His power there being manifested and matched by His divine awareness, human generosity, and filial compliance. 

All these resplendent signs of His human majesty, glory, power, and compassion, give us unshakeable confidence that what He has promised, He can and will fulfil in and for His Church throughout the succeeding ages of her public proclamation of, and Spirit-guided witness to, His Good News, and for all His true disciples as they try to live their personal lives according to His teaching and for the praise and glory of His most holy Name. 

For us, therefore, who are disciples of Jesus, there should be a more than worldly, human, joy when we celebrate the birth, the majesty and power, of Jesus, because His Kingdom is not of this world, as He Himself said.   As you all are well aware, though human joy is most desirable, experience does -- at times -- show it to be equally unreliable; again, worldly joy can change some people into louts and hooligans even more easily than it makes others into happy and generous companions; and when circumstances change, such joy can quickly disappear, leaving behind it corrosive complaint rather than grateful and calm peace. 

Jesus the Lord triumphed for us by overcoming death and destroying the rule of sin in our flesh, and His renewed coming this Christmas season is a confirmation of His  promise that He will share His triumph with all who put their faith, and find their joy, in Him, becoming one with Him through baptism and the Eucharist.  His victories are eternally valid; for, in His Resurrection and Ascension human flesh has once again been restored to heaven and is now, indeed, at  the right hand of the Father in glory; and He, the Risen Son of Man, is both willing and able to triumph over the darkness of sin and ignorance, not only in the world around us, as was shown by His bringing to naught the schemes of that cunning and murderous tyrant, Herod:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, the glory of the LORD has dawned upon you. Though darkness covers the earth and thick clouds the peoples, upon you the LORD will dawn and over you His glory will be seen;

but also, in our own very intimate, complicated, and shadowy, minds and hearts.

Just as at Christmas we rejoiced and renewed our humble and grateful trust in the promises made to us in Christ, in accordance with the teaching of St. Paul who most emphatically teaches us (2 Corinthians 1:20) that:

However many are the promises of God, their "Yes" (is) in Him; therefore the Amen from us also goes to God for glory;

even so now, on this feast of the Epiphany – a word which means the shining-forth, manifestation, of the glory of Christ – we should exultantly rejoice, and stir up anew the confidence which heaven alone gives, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed:

Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall throb and overflow.  For the riches of the sea shall be poured out before you, the wealth of nations shall come to you.

Grateful trust and sure confidence, humility and power, patience and vigour, joy and peace, each is so necessary for, and all are so beautifully complementary in, the fulfilment of our Christian vocation and personal calling, just as Christmas and Epiphany are equally essential for the fullness of our appreciation and liturgical celebration of Jesus, perfect God and perfect Man, coming to serve us as our total and unique Saviour.

And so, though the deep darkness of human sin is so evident in the world around, and even though our own souls may know too much of its oppressive shadow at times, nevertheless, His glory will appear for those who firmly believe His promises and confidently commit their lives to His most loving, and supremely powerful, Providence.

Therefore, People of God, I urge you in this holy season to discover deeper peace by confirming your trust in Jesus’ promises, and to renew your confidence by stirring up your joy, as you celebrate His glory and power; for such are the signs given and the blessings offered us in this sublime culmination of the Christmas season which is today’s Epiphany.

The multitude of angels sang:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favour rests! 

And the shepherds, having told their good tidings to all gathered around the Infant Christ, returned to their sheep in the fields:

Glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

Let all of us, too, dear friends in Christ, sincerely pray that our celebration of the Epiphany today may give glory to God and further the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, through the comforting and strengthening of all those who are her true children.  Amen.