Fresh from our reflection on Mothers’ Day and the World Day of Prayer for Vocations against the backdrop of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, this Sunday’s Gospel is taken from another of Jesus’ discourses in John on his ‘new commandment’ to ‘love one another, just as I have loved you’ – the virtue by which all will recognise us as Jesus’ disciples.
‘Climate’ is a trigger word today, perceived by some as defining one’s political leaning when paired with the word ‘change’ to describe the plight of our environment. By the time most of you read this, we’ll have some idea of the outcome of the Federal Election and the persuasive power of the arguments for and against climate change, among a host of other issues. Today’s column is not about the environment though I recommend the Pope’s challenging Encyclical Letter Laudato Si on ‘Care for Our Common Home’ written in 2015.
The word ‘climate’ sits easily with the Gospel – the climate in the Church, the climate of love, trust, mercy, openness, justice, transparency, forgiveness and reconciliation – each a dimension of Jesus’ new commandment of love, signs of his promise in today’s second reading from Revelation, ‘Behold, I make all things new!’
At times in the Church, things may not feel new at all but rather bogged down and stale - perhaps because the Church is too much about ‘the Church’ when the focus Jesus gives us is the Kingdom of God. Much as I love the hymn City of God, in fact we don’t ‘build’ anything – God is the Builder and our task is to bring forth the fruits of the Kingdom. The vision of John in Revelation is of a real place – the ‘new heaven and the new earth’, the new and transformed Jerusalem where we are at home with God.
On this Sunday, we celebrate Mothers Day and honour our mothers, living and deceased, in a variety of ways – through our prayers, blessings and loving wishes, expressions of gratitude and special gifts, and a myriad of other thoughtful gestures. Invariably mothers model the generous ideals we associate with discipleship and a sense of ministry.
Appropriately, today is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday where we recall fondly the patient, pastoral care and total love of Jesus – his ‘motherly’ qualities. Traditionally the World Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving for Vocations, this day is about our personal vocation. Every Christian is called to discipleship, some are called to ministry.
Recently, I spent time with 5 young people preparing for entry into religious life. Focus was the Eucharist and a highlight was a most engaging conversation about the Church and the Eucharist, particularly Pope Francis’ teaching about the kind of Church we are called to be:
‘The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door (The Joy of the Gospel n 46).’
The Holy Father, in his often disarming way, reassures us that the Church is not a tollhouse but the house of the Father. Discipleship and ministry only make sense in a setting of welcome.
Family life thrives where there is that sense of being ‘at home’, a spirit encouraged by the warm hospitality of Mums and Dads – a reflection of the ‘domestic church’, Church in the Family. We all need to belong, to feel welcome in our family, parish and wider community.
As I return to ministry in North Harbour after my surgery and recovery time, I wish to express my sincere appreciation to you all for your generous prayers and personal support these past couple of months. After my refreshing sabbatical in Chicago last year, further time off was definitely not on my agenda. All has gone very well, thanks be to God. My special gratitude to our Parish Team and to the Augustinians, especially Frs John and Fr Paul for their leadership and Frs Senan, Peter, Abel, and the Brookvale Community for their ministry support.
Some years ago, I found a cartoon that read, ‘If you’re too busy to pray, you’re busier than God intended you to be!’ I’m used to being busy, most if not all of the time but, during my recuperation, I often found that the time passed very slowly and some days were quite boring. Yet there was time for reflection and journaling, time to discern what this second chance at living might mean, a familiar invitation to many of us as we face even ‘routine’ changes in our personal and family circumstances or work life.
In today’s Gospel, the disciples are dealing with change. They do so by returning to what they knew – fishing. It’s so easy to seek out the familiar but returning to one’s original occupation in the workforce can be fraught with difficulty where technology or work protocols have changed. This probably was not the case with the disciples though on this occasion they are initially unsuccessful – they laboured all night and caught nothing!
We have a saying, don’t we: ‘Seeing is believing’? But Jesus seems to suggest the opposite: ‘Believing is not seeing!’ He says to Thomas, ‘Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ In our scientific age we seem to think that unless we can put everything under a microscope and see it and detect it, unless we can measure it, then it can’t be verified and therefore need not be true and so need not be believed. Wasn’t Thomas of this same earthy, scientific bent? ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into his side, I refuse to believe.’
And yet, when we stop to think about it, the most important things in human life cannot be proved scientifically. For example, the human love of spouses for each other, the love of parents for their children. When someone says, ‘I love you,’ we can’t respond by saying, ‘Hold on a minute till I wack this lie detector onto your arm and I verify if you’re telling me the truth or not!’ Of course, our attitude must be one of faith and trust that they are telling us the truth. We do, however, have one way of helping our act of belief and that is by observing the actions of the person towards us. The actions of the person professing love for us will, of course, be a good indicator of their sincerity and truthfulness. If a person says that he or she is your friend and then starts immediately to talk about you behind your back, then you don’t believe that person.
So it is too with our various religious beliefs; for example, our belief that God exists, our belief in the incarnation, that God became man, our belief in the Trinity, our belief in the resurrection, our belief in God’s unconditional love for me. None of these can be proved scientifically. They all have to do with a relationship of love and trust, of faith that doesn’t see or even understand everything.
The Gospels tell us that within a few hours on Easter Sunday morn, two competing narratives had started to spread: some suspected that Jesus’s disciples had come at night to steal the body while the guards were asleep; others, especially a group of women, claimed to have seen angels and even Jesus himself alive. It would be the ideal scenario for a Sherlock Holmes to solve the riddle. What were the clues? The empty tomb (no body), the large entrance stone rolled away and the strips of linen and the burial cloth inexplicably left behind. Holmes would rigorously separate these facts from any beliefs in a risen Christ. The lack of consistency between the accounts of the Easter story further complicates the investigation. Just how many angels were there? How many women went to the tomb? Did the disciples see Jesus in Galilee or in Jerusalem?
One other striking conundrum is that in all the Resurrection stories why was it that the people who had known Jesus best and had lived with him for a number of years, struggle to recognize him? He is mistaken for a gardener by Mary Magdalen; he walks with the two disciples to Emmaus for hours as a perfect stranger and from the shore gives fishing instructions like an intrusive know-it-all to his closest friends, John and Peter in the boat with their nets. I don’t think Sherlock would have been influenced by their claim that they felt a ‘burning of the heart’ when they met him. Feelings are notoriously unreliable. The human capacity for self-delusion is boundless.
Why do we today, on a Sunday, read out the Passion of Jesus Christ? It seems out of place, since Jesus did not die on Palm Sunday and it seems inappropriate, since Sunday is supposed to be a day of rejoicing. Partly, the reason is just practical: not everyone can be here on Good Friday and the Gospel next Sunday, at Easter, will not make much sense without the Gospel today. Jesus cannot rise without having first died. This is not the whole reason though. It is indeed fitting to read the Passion of Jesus today because we must realize that the triumphant arrival of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem was one with his death on the Cross.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus climbed up Mount Zion; in his passion, he climbed Mount Calvary.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus was carried into Jerusalem; in his passion, he walked carrying his cross.
On Palm Sunday, a crowd lined the streets to praise our Lord; a crowd lined the way of the cross too.
On Palm Sunday, the crowd took off their cloaks and laid them on the road to honour Jesus; before the cross, Jesus was stripped of his cloak and clothes.
On Palm Sunday, everyone praised Jesus, calling out “Hosanna!” In his passion, Jesus was insulted, mocked, and laughed at.
Yes, Palm Sunday is the key to understanding the Passion, and the Passion is the key to understanding Palm Sunday. We stand with palms (or olive branches) in our hands because we too want to honour Christ. We also stand as sinners because, after all, we are the reason that Jesus died on the cross. So here we are praising God and asking forgiveness.
What on earth was Jesus writing on the ground that made all the would-be stoners of the woman caught in adultery back off? You can imagine all the men gathering around behind Jesus looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing in the sand. The poor woman was standing in front of him. The word for "writing" which is used here in the Gospel text has a literal meaning "to write down a record against someone". Perhaps Jesus was writing down a list of the sins of the accusers starting with the elders or ringleaders seeing they were the first to leave the scene. So Jesus turned the challenge they had made to him back towards his accusers. In effect he says: Go ahead and stone her! But let the man who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. He leaves the matter to their own consciences.
To judge from today’s gospel, the worst of the seven deadly sins seems to be not lust, but pride. Funny how we always think that sexual sins are the worst kind of sins. Far from it. Do you remember the Seven Deadly Sins? Neither do I but I’ve looked them up: pride, greed (avarice), lust, envy, gluttony, wrath (desire for vengeance) and sloth (laziness). These sins are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one's natural faculties or passions (for example, gluttony abuses one's desire to eat). The Pharisees’ proud self-righteousness left them feeling no need to ask God for mercy but quite entitled to condemn others.
What led Jesus to tell this wonderful story of the Two Sons? It was the fact that the Pharisees objected to the company he kept, to his eating with sinners. So he gives them an insight into the mind of God. When you think about it, it’s truly extraordinary. ‘While he was still a long way off, a dot on the horizon, his father saw him’. Doesn’t that mean he was on the lookout for him, from the day he left, watching and waiting and praying, like many a father or mother? Doesn’t it illustrate how God the Father feels about each one of us, how much every one of us matters to him, how anxious he is that we’d come back? And he didn’t just wait for the son; he ran out to meet him – met him half-way. Some feel we should call this story ‘The Prodigal Father.’ To be prodigal is to be wasteful or lavish in your use of things. Well, the father threw his forgiveness around. Not in any grudging or reproving way, but in an explosion of sheer generosity and joy.
In the gospel today we are given two glimpses of occurrences from Jesus’ time which put him more into our everyday context, like two stories from the local paper. One story is from the political scene. Galilean patriots (or ‘terrorists’ as the Romans would call them) were murdered as they were in the very act of paying homage to God and their blood mingled with that of the animals they had slain for sacrifice. The other story concerns a natural disaster, a tower collapsing, killing 18 men.
These are examples of the two kinds of evil which have always bedevilled mankind, moral evil caused by man and natural evils caused by the laws of nature but often considered to be acts of God (even by insurance companies). So Jesus is asked to comment on these two stories. First of all, he denies the prevalent idea of his time that these evils were brought upon these people as a punishment by God for sins committed. But doesn’t God allow them all the same?
I suppose in one sense it’s easier to understand that moral evil – man’s inhumanity to man - is a result of sin, original sin. Sometimes these acts come from the evil in the heart of man as we have witnessed in Christchurch and at other times it comes as the result of our own greed or short-sightedness or foolishness as with global warming. As for natural evils, earthquakes, droughts, etc., from a scientific view they are morally neutral, neither good nor bad, they simply are just there following physical laws. However, without a doubt, they are definitely evil in human terms when human life is lost.
‘Transfiguration’ – when we hear that word, what image does it conjure up in our minds? A change in appearance maybe? We say that someone was ‘transfigured with joy’. We can see a change in their face as it ‘lights up’ and their body is alert and attune to what’s going on in the face because it’s happening to the whole person, inside and out. We also refer to certain saints when they have an intense experience of God as being ‘transfigured’ or as being ‘in ecstasy’, a word which means being ‘outside of oneself’ – we even have a drug named after this effect which it produces. In Rome there is the famous statue of St Teresa of Avila in ecstasy by Bernini. She is in a type of swoon with a young angel standing above her about to pierce her heart with the love of God. She is definitely transfigured, even in stone. Try googling it.
But with Jesus not only his face but even his clothes were transfigured. What can we make of this? Creation itself will also be transfigured in Jesus, perhaps? Some scholars thought that this was really an account of one of the appearances of Jesus which took place after his resurrection and it somehow made its way into the gospel story before Jesus’ resurrection by mistake.
Today, the first Sunday of Lent, we remember how Jesus was tempted for 40 days in the wilderness. Each time we pray the Our Father we say, ‘Lead us not into temptation’. Not so long ago, Pope Francis, as is his want, shocked everyone by saying that this translation is very misleading – and should be changed! Change the wording of the Our Father? Never. Well, there are other more modern versions of the Our Father in English which change words such as ‘trespasses’ which conjure up signs on some private block of land. These translations are really quite good but I think the reason they haven’t been adopted is that all the Christian churches need to change together for we don’t want to give up the one prayer that we have in common, even if we don’t add, ‘For thine is the kingdom….’ which we say shortly afterwards in our Catholic Mass.
What is Pope Francis on about? He’s not happy that we are unwittingly suggesting that God, our loving Father, could possibly do such a thing as to ‘lead us into temptation.’ God cannot possibly lead us or tempt us to commit sin. Sin is evil, God is goodness itself. Biblical scholars suggest that a more accurate translation would be, ‘Do not bring us to the test.’ So it’s a question not of being tempted but of being put to the test. Is that more helpful? Let’s look a little more closely, firstly at Jesus’ own ‘temptations’ or ‘testing’. The first thing we notice is that it is Satan, not God, who is doing the tempting or testing. Satan is the great tempter who as with Job is permitted to test God’s children. The tempter is called by many names in Scripture: the devil, Satan, accuser, slanderer, and father of lies, just to name a few. He is an intelligent being who is completely evil.
Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular and important holy days in the liturgical calendar. As we know it opens Lent, a season, as Jesus himself tells us, of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Unlike the Feasts of the Ascension and Corpus Christi, it has not been transferred to the following Sunday which in a way is a pity because the majority of us cannot participate on the Wednesday, being as it is, a busy workday. I guess it all has to with counting off those 40 days of Lent whereas, in fact, if you do a count you will find that Ash Wednesday is actually 46 days before Easter Sunday. What’s with those extra 6 days? Well, they are the 6 Sundays of Lent when you are not obliged to fast – not even on the 6th Sunday, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Did you know that? Neither did I until a few years ago.
The spirit of Ash Wednesday is in direct contrast to the Mardi Gras or Carnivale festivities which take place on the days beforehand. The origin of these events is Catholic with Orthodox Greece also enjoying like celebrations. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday", reflecting the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. Carnivale or “Farewell to the flesh” - plenty of which will have been on display in the Sydney Mardi Gras procession - originally meant ‘farewell to meat’ as meat was off limits for the 40 days.
In the middle of last Sunday’s homily I realized that so much of Jesus’ teaching is about the state of our hearts – about how easily we get stuck in our heads when we need to give free rein to our hearts, how warmly we respond to the ‘beatitude people’ we know, a response from our hearts and all this at a time when I am trying not to think too deeply about my heart!
The only thing I want to say about the heart this week is to quote St Augustine who describes the heart as the organ of seeing, ‘We see with the heart!’ The poet Bouillon says, ‘The mind has a thousand eyes, the heart but one!’ Wonderful as our mind is, we can be misled by prejudices, fears and anxieties; with our heart, we see more clearly.
I recall a confrere of mine who used to pray from time to time for his enemies. This surprised me because I was not aware that I had any enemies. Yet Jesus in the Gospel tells us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who treat us badly (Luke 6:27). At times this may feel almost impossible but these are responses to aggression that we admire in people like Martin Luther King.
Love is more than something we do when others treat us poorly; love involves our refusal to be a victim because that gives us the freedom to treat the one who has offended us with dignity. To term someone an ‘enemy’ can be an admission of our unwillingness to love.
What an odd title! Yes, I agree but I didn’t make it up; it is the title of a chapter in a book I’ve been reading for the last year and a half – Finding Your Hidden Treasure by Fr Benignus O’Rourke OSA. I’m not really that slow a reader but I find that each paragraph in this book about our inner prayer journey requires considerable time to absorb.
We are great watchers – of television, news bulletins, movies, sport…. even the ‘passing parade’ of humanity when we are on buses, trains or planes, or in airports. I sometimes wonder at the myriad of human stories in the lives of all these people and wonder even more that God knows each one intimately –God is watching what we are doing at every moment with keen interest.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading recounts Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, though presented in a more blunt manner than in Matthew. Luke recounts 4 Beatitudes and 4 corresponding Woes, each holding together two clashing ideas. In the vision of Jesus, there is often a reversal of fortune, even for those who suffer the painfulness of the present. In various ways, God sides with the poor and vulnerable and reverses the situation.
In every age, each of us needs a prayer because there is emptiness in us which only God can fill. Jesus tells us: ‘Blessed are you poor!’ – hardly something deserving of ‘congratulations’. In fact Jesus is not endorsing poverty or hunger as such but reminding us that God acts on behalf of all the vulnerable and marginalised. Our ‘poverty’ is not simply economic but includes loss, being misunderstood, estranged from loved ones, lonely, suffering sickness or injustice.
Last week, I reflected on our call to be the ‘face of Jesus’ for one another and especially for our children as parents, teachers in our Catholic schools and catechists in State schools.
As our young people return to school, we affirm parents as the first and best of teachers of their children, with the primary responsibility of passing on the Faith as best they can, in many cases in partnership with our Parish and School Communities.
We need to be passionate about education and support our children’s schools, whether Catholic, State or private. Our schools can and do make a difference in the lives of our children and their families, and Catholic schools in particular have a special responsibility in forming our children in the Faith.
I am always very moved at the sight of children returning to school, the careful preparation by parents, the often new uniform, and the backpack which at times seems bigger than the wearer! This past Friday, both Parish schools gathered for their Opening School Masses, a reminder that the Eucharist both forms us in Faith and expresses who we are. Family participation in the Sunday Eucharist is an important statement to our children and strengthens us all on our Faith journey.
I never cease to be amazed at the remarkable turn of phrase in Pope Francis’ writings and speeches, mostly prepared in Italian or Spanish but still with sharpness when translated into English. We are very familiar by now with his invitation to bishops and priests to ‘smell like the sheep’, an image now extended to many other groups in the Church – teachers, parents, all those who minister in some way – inviting us to live the earthiness of the Gospel.
As our schools reopen, we are reminded of how precious our children are and our need to protect them. The second reading at Mass today and for the past 2 weeks is from the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, Chapters 12 and 13, describing the variety of gifts each of us receives from God’s Spirit and how together we are the Body of Christ and, as different parts, complement each other.
My prayer for each of you is that you begin this year refreshed and confident in our Church that both suffers and brings us Joy. I find great strength in the hopeful words of the late Bishop of Townsville Michael Putney:
Dear Fellow Parishioners,
On these last days of Advent we come, like the shepherds, to keep guard over our hearts so that with the dawn we may greet the saving presence of God in the person of the Holy Child of Bethlehem. When we are in the presence of any tiny baby, no matter what age we may be, our spontaneous response is one of surrender to feelings of tenderness, protectiveness, care and unconditional love that is simply drawn out of us without our having to think about it. We forget our own struggles and anxieties and become involved and concerned for their welfare, even if we had never met them before in our lives! When we stop thinking about ourselves and go out in wonder and delight at the presence of any child, we discover our hearts are at peace as well. Without even thinking about it we come to an intuitive understanding of what Christian Peace is all about.
At each Christmas time we return to an actual name, a face, an infant to communally surround with our love – who calls forth from even the hardest hearts a response of care and reverence. He is God’s gift to reveal the joy God has in sharing divine love and life with his entire precious human race. The gifts we get and the gifts we give at Christmas are our ways of celebrating the great Gift God longs to share with us from the time when the shepherds were told “Today you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” . . . and love and reverence went out from their hearts to his, and they bowed down and honored Him.
Dear Fellow Parishioners,
Something significant happened at Vatican II that continues to impact us to this day. In Vatican II’s vision of church, and running through all the documents is a deeper understanding of our love relationship with God in and through Christ. This understanding previously existed, but not in the manner that brought a personal appropriation of that relationship rooted in the gospels and in the person of Jesus. Many quotes from the Vatican II documents can be cited to support this but a significant one appears in Dei Verbum, the Constitution on Divine Revelation.
It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will, which was that people can draw near to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit and thus become sharers in the divine nature. By this revelation, then, the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men and women as his friends, and lives among them in order to invite and receive them into his company. (DV #2)
Dear Fellow Parishioners,
Pope Francis has spoken often of his conviction that the Lord is asking the Church at this time to evangelize, and that this requires us to change, both in our mindset as Catholics and in our culture and life in the Church. “Do not fear”, he tells us, “to look on the wounds of our Church, not in order to lament them but to be led to where Christ in His woundedness shows us a way towards healing”.
A recent speaker at a symposium in America noted that the Church has been in tribulation for many years, because of the rapid expulsion of Christianity from western culture and law, and the growing distance and introversion of its attitudes. In too many cases the Church has refused humbly to accept the invitation of the Holy Spirit to discern and reform – to ask: how is the Holy Spirit asking us to change that we might evangelize in this new context?
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
The government's assurance that it will move most of the remaining refugee children from Nauru by the end of the year is welcome. It came after doctors, nurses, judges, Wentworth voters and Coalition backbenchers had responded publicly to the evidence of acute mental health issues among children on the island. The policy of preventing the children of people seeking asylum from coming to Australia is increasingly seen by ordinary Australians as cruel. It is no longer an electoral asset but a potential liability.
The decision is particularly welcome as Christmas approaches. Australian Christmas focuses on children. Christmas, and particularly the first Christmas, also raises broader questions about Australian refugee policy. It makes us ask why adults are left to languish on Manus Island, Nauru and in Australian detention centres. They, too, were children once. It also makes us ask why the government had so strongly resisted transferring to Australia children so clearly at risk. What is it that enables us to pass by damaged children, untroubled?