On this Mothers Day, we give grateful thanks for our mothers and for their great love that impacts on our lives. To break open today’s Scripture readings in light of this celebration is an engaging task, given the emphasis on love and friendship in each reading. We learn God’s love from our experience of family life and Mums and Dads usually have the biggest influence on us.
John the Evangelist records Jesus’ discourses and he also writes ‘love letters to the Church’, stressing the universality of love as God’s unique gift. The very experience of love opens up the possibility of knowing God and recognizing God’s affirmation of our humanness in sending his Son Jesus to define what it really means to be a man or a woman.
Our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter reminds us that love is what Jesus does best. It reminds us too that love is the best reason for doing the things we need and want to do for the people we love most. In fact, love is what we have done in our families all our lives and what we continue to do. The quality of this love is expressed beautifully in the love of our Mums.
The engaging image of the vine and the branches in today’s Gospel focuses on the close intimacy between ourselves and Jesus – ‘communion’ in fact. Connectedness, belonging, being ‘at home’ are all core aspects of our Christian life and underpin our celebration of liturgy. While we’ve been celebrating liturgy for years – the Mass and the Sacraments – at times our appreciation of its meaning may escape us or become a bit flat.
‘Communion’ is much more than simply receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. It certainly extends to our bonds with one another as Church but goes far beyond that to what unites the whole human family for whom Jesus embraced our human condition. Celebrations of joy and peace unite us but so do the realities that challenge us. Look at how COVID has deepened our bonds with people across the world.
I’m reminded of St Augustine’s broad understanding of the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist in his Body and Blood and in the Community where he invites us to, ‘Be what you see and receive what you are!’ (Sermon 272). Just as bread and wine are changed, so is the community – both essential because the Eucharist makes the Church and binds us together.
This year, the Church in Australia celebrates 200 years of Catholic Education, a remarkable story of sacrifice, energy, commitment to our Faith, satisfaction and achievement. My greatest joys as an Augustinian include my involvement in Augustinian schools and the many schools attached to our parishes. Our leaders and teachers continue to dedicate their lives to the important vocation of educating our youth, a reminder of the true diversity of the Christian Vocation which is the focus of this World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
In this Easter Season, we are called to look again at our gifts, especially God’s gift of his own presence in our hearts, to look at our life-style and priorities, how we are living as followers of Christ – in other words, our vocation.
Vocation is about who we are – like parenting and friendship! Faith is not simply an intellectual exercise but a response of our whole being. Vocation is like that - part of our identity, not just a set of duties we switch on and off when needed. As believers, our faith colours our whole life and outlook on the world.
‘Have you anything here to eat?’ I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘earthiness’ of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. Perhaps his question to them in today’s Gospel is his way of helping them to appreciate and understand that his rising from the dead makes a difference in the ordinariness of our everyday lives.
After Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples experience him personally, either individually or as a group. Today, Jesus comes to them just as two of their number are telling their story of meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus and recognizing him at the breaking of bread. Again, the setting is a meal being shared on the first day of the week, the day of the Eucharist celebrations that re-live this great event.
The disciples’ response is agitation, fear and doubt but Jesus reassures his astonished disciples, ‘Touch me and see for yourselves.’ A significant aspect of these appearances is the way in which Jesus uses his wounds to quell their doubts and in his wounds, the disciples recognise him. There are echoes here of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas who needed to be convinced that Jesus was still alive by touching his wounds.
During Lent, many reflect on the Stations of the Cross. For several years now on Good Friday, the Popes have followed a newer version based on the Scriptures, approved by the Church in 1975. This version begins with the Last Supper and concludes with the Resurrection. Noted Australian religious artist, the late Fr Pat Negri SSS, portrayed the Passion of Jesus using artworks of the great masters. In the Stations prepared for the renovated St Augustine’s Church, Kyabram, he chose the 1602 painting by Caravaggio – ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’ – depicting the encounter between Thomas and Jesus as the subject for the 14th Station with the title – ‘Now believe!’
Describing this meeting, Fr Pat says, ‘The Risen Jesus who appears is tangible. The experience of his presence in the gathering of disciples is real, substantial, ongoing. Thomas, sure now of his love for Jesus, makes his act of faith: ‘My Lord and my God!’
Belief is not simply an intellectual exercise but a response of our whole being. Lovers ‘believe’ in one another; football fans ‘believe’ in their team; religious faith is a commitment of our whole person to Jesus. Efforts to compartmentalize our relationship with God are rather futile because genuine faith and selfless love are all-consuming.
Holy Week and Easter are different this year, one year on from the COVID lockdown. What a relief to reclaim our freedom to celebrate Easter and its living symbols of darkness and light, fire and water, drawing us once more into the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection and a renewed appreciation of our own baptism.
Why not recall our own baptism on this day? Do we know the date? Is it as important as our birthday? Why not celebrate it on this great day of Easter? Our lives are ‘holy ground’ and Baptism helps us to get to know God ‘from the inside’ – what an incredible reality!
Recall the words of Jeremiah in the first reading for the 5th Sunday of Lent, 'Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts… they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.' – the knowing God wants, a reminder that we know God. God's law is written in the hearts of you and me. And of course God knows us!
Both Christmas and Easter are closely linked because each is about a different aspect of the redemptive work of Christ – the birth of Jesus the Saviour and his Resurrection – events that change how we see our world, ourselves and each other – set free by Jesus, the dignity of each affirmed. We keep this dream alive, particularly as we celebrate the fulfillment of this promise at Easter.
Together we form the Whole Christ – members of his Body, a Priestly People. During this Holy Week, we prepare to celebrate the holiest days of the year, Jesus risen from the dead. We celebrate our baptism, the sacrament of belonging and Christian identity. We renew our baptismal promises throughout the Easter Season. Both the Divine Story and our story are about Life, Death and Resurrection – all three!
The Paschal Triduum is one, continuous liturgy – ‘One Feast’ – the heart of the liturgical year. Following the greeting on Holy Thursday, there is no dismissal or conclusion; the Friday liturgy has no introductory or concluding rites; and the Easter Vigil has no introductory rite either, but a concluding rite with the ‘double’ Alleluia – ‘the happiest night of the year’! These familiar words from the Roman Missal describe the unity of this week’s celebrations and challenge us to experience the continuous flow of these 3 days and renew our faith - we are already saved by Christ.
A couple of weeks ago the working document (instrumentum laboris) for the Plenary Council was released – Continuing the Journey. The first assembly opens less than 200 days from now with laity having a consultative voice for the first time - a timely response in light of the inspiring words of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World):
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, n. 1).
Our Church today needs that same energy with Jesus Christ always at the centre. Already 17,457 submissions have been received from more than 220,000 individuals and groups in the Listening and Dialogue phase - including the Catholic Community of North Harbour. The COVID situation delayed the start of the Plenary Council but the guiding question remains: What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?
International Women’s Day last Monday was an important opportunity for many to celebrate womanhood and achievements, as well as to raise consciousness of various issues affecting the lives and welfare of girls and women throughout the world. Almost every day has a particular reference that keeps significant concerns before our minds, including International Men’s Day on 19 November this year.
Each year the Church nominates important persons or themes each year as a means of refreshing our faith and devotion, declaring a Holy Year focusing, for example, on the Eucharist, Grace, Mercy, Consecrated Life, sometimes a particular person. In his Apostolic Letter Patris corde – ’With a Father’s Heart’ – Pope Francis proclaimed 2021 the Year of Saint Joseph, beginning on 8 December 2020. The Feast of St Joseph falls on 19 March and 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the declaration of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church. Joseph is also an exemplary patron of dignified work - Feast on 1 May.
The past year has been like nothing we have experienced before and the lives of people across the world have been impacted in a significant way. Government directives and personal decisions have needed to take account of the common good of all. As vaccinations proceed in our country, some of you have raised ethical questions about specific vaccines. The following brief notes may address some of those concerns.
The main vaccines to be used in Australia are Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and Novavax later in the year. Religious concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine arise from its use of decades-old (1972) aborted fetal cells in the development process. 50 million doses are being manufactured in Australia. While we are entitled to request a different vaccine the federal government has indicated that most people won’t have a choice.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher and Archbishop Peter Comensoli have both issued statements, as has the Pontifical Academy for Life in Rome. This is a complex moral issue and so you may find the following points helpful:
The word ‘expectation’ is a recurring theme in our Christian journey. It is part of our Advent preparation for Christmas and part of our Lenten preparation for Easter – pivotal moments that define the impact of God’s entry into our history and our Christian identity. Our participation is grounded in our daily, human experience which sheds light on our experience of the Divine and which in turn is graced by the Presence of our God who is love. Spiritual writer Fr Henri Nouwen offers us a provocative, if lengthy, reflection as we encounter our inner self in this Season:
‘Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations.
Lent is about our relationship with God – both grace and gift! Yet don’t we sometimes groan inside when Lent seems to come so early after the relaxation of the holiday season? None of us likes to be too hard on ourselves, so the thought of penance isn’t too attractive. This response reflects the imbalance that has developed over the years – the emphasis on our individual observance of Lent to the detriment of our communal observance.
Lent is much more than a personal, spiritual workout. The key words for Lent are baptism and conversion as we experience something of the dying and rising that baptised life is all about – to deal with our weakness, to belong to the Church, to grow in our relationship with Jesus. Lent is more joyful when it is a communal experience of renewal and recommitment to mission.
Lent helps us prepare for Easter, for the worthy celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Pope Francis has issued a thoughtful Lenten Message and I share a few of his insights with you:
Sunday of the Word of God celebrated a week ago reminds us that Scripture is at the centre of our Faith. In the first season of Ordinary Time we have been listening to Mark’s Gospel. During Lent which begins this week, we will listen to a mixture of Sunday gospel readings from both Mark and John. Mark’s Gospel is read in Year B of the liturgical cycle and it is worth knowing something about the ‘filters’ that he uses. Whereas Matthew (Year A) presents Jesus’ teaching in the form of long sermons, Mark presents the actions of Jesus as living sermons in themselves. So far we have seen healing miracles and exorcisms in Jesus’ ministry, along with some controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders. Let us reflect on Mark’s distinctive characteristics and themes.
Post-Resurrection faith - Jesus is still present! The Gospel accounts were all written after the death of Jesus and so the distinctive ‘lens’ or ‘filter’ that influenced the Gospel writers is the Resurrection of Jesus and ‘post-Resurrection faith’, giving us a particularly good overview of Jesus’ life. Each gospel has an underlying belief that Jesus is somehow still present in a new way and the writers seek to put us in touch with that reality, revealing to us something of who God is and what he is like, helping us get in touch with our own life and its meaning. Mark’s gospel reflects the community’s living faith, what the community believed.
As we begin a New Year, we are usually energised by our celebration of Christmas which is followed by the Feasts of the Holy Family, the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord, along with family gatherings and holidays. This past year the ‘religious experience’ of this Season in our churches was compromised by the limitations placed on all of us. Thankfully, families kept the message alive, some by joining the wider community watching Christmas Mass livestreamed, certainly by celebrating the Birth of Jesus in the ‘primary church’, the Church in the family. The story of Jesus’ origins, including Mary’s invitation to become the Mother of God, as well as Joseph’s struggle to come to terms with what was happening to his fiancée Mary, and then the birth of Christ are all family issues.
And so, was our family experience of Christmas a holy experience? It should be the happiest of times but occasionally Christmas exposes the flaws and the brokenness in families as people make an effort to come together in a harmony that can be a challenge at other times of the year. The members of Jesus’ family are our models but we must take care not to de-power their human example by surrounding them with an aura of unreality. In every family, people’s lives bump against each other as they grow through different ages and stages. This was true of Jesus as he moved from childhood into adolescence and adulthood, and grew in his awareness of who he was and his mission from his Father.
For those of us living on the Northern Beaches, Christmas 2020 is fixed indelibly in our minds. Our careful preparations for the Christmas Season – festive decorations, family gatherings, parish liturgical celebrations, the anticipated refreshment of holidays after a most challenging year – were suddenly turned upside down. Initially, numbers allowed in our homes and churches were restricted and then the latter were locked down and our local region isolated, even more so north of the Narrabeen Bridge. The ABC called by to ask about the impact on parishioners and parish Christmas celebrations. The unthinkable was happening!
I’m still processing this experience, helped somewhat by a recent article by poet and critic Hilary Davies in The Tablet, a Catholic magazine from the UK. Reflecting on the place of the Eucharist in our lives, Ms Davies speaks of how crucial it is for us human beings to enjoy the real presence of our friends and families if we are to thrive. This past year, we have often been deprived of this real presence and it has been quite stressful. She goes on to say:
‘Virtual presences are better than nothing, useful, even helpful, but they are no substitute for a meal round a table having a good conversation or playing with our children and grandchildren. We need hugs.’
We celebrate Christmas 2020 in the midst of the most amazing circumstances. Due to the situation on the Northern Beaches resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Christmas Masses at St Kieran’s and St Cecilia’s have been cancelled, also Masses on Sunday 27 December, Feast of the Holy Family, and all other public Masses until further notice.
We had a similar experience in Holy Week and Easter this year and the months of disruption to our family, work and school life are fresh in our minds. Hopefully this crisis will not last long but we should not underestimate its impact on people’s lives, especially during the Christmas Season with family gatherings and visits seriously limited.
Christmas and Family go together. This coming Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Family and its closeness to Christmas sharpens our appreciation of our own families and the great Feast of Christ’s Birth. Wherever you find yourself in these days – at home with family or friends, spending time with those we love, contacting those close to us, or for so many confined to home - we hope that this Christmas will be filled with God’s special blessings of peace and that you will enjoy happiness and good health in the New Year.
Usually, it feels good to say Yes because No often makes us feel a bit negative about ourselves, even rejecting or rejected. Sometimes we must say No because it’s the right thing to do, but our Yes to goodness and generosity and love is a very freeing word.
Our personal stories are filled with positive responses – our parents’ Yes that led to our birth – and of course God’s emphatic Yes to our existence from the beginning. Actually, can you get your head around how long God has been in relationship with us? And of course God works through events and choices over which we have no control. My father’s first wife died in childbirth, an uncommon event even in those days, and he married again. I give thanks for the gift of my life daily.
In a Christmas reflection, Fr Richard Rohr challenges us to think about our inclination to manage our lives, to organise things and make them happen. That is built into our culture but it lets us down when it comes to our spiritual life where we need to receive what is being given to us freely. Mary is the model of this attitude of receiving, of surrender, and of thanksgiving in her beautiful canticle, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), a prayer that we could well pray as our own, especially during these Seasons of Advent and Christmas.
At this time in our lives and in our Church, we need the message of joy proclaimed so enthusiastically in today’s Scripture readings, especially in the prophecy of Zephaniah and St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Reflecting on this day, the late Fr Russell Hardiman once described the holy joy of the believer proclaimed by Zephaniah:
‘Such joy cannot be so self-contained. It must become a shout, a loud one at that, a heart-exulting rejoicing that would wake up anyone who had fallen asleep in a world gone sadly awry. This is no put-on-a-happy-face joy that denies the past or masks the truth, but a grace-inspired joy, joy inspired by God…’ (Pastoral Liturgy Vol 43,1).
The Season of Advent is in fact a season of joy and we continue to sing Alleluia. This Third Sunday, traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, takes its name from the first word of the Latin entrance antiphon meaning ‘Rejoice!’ Our readings are about joy. Zephaniah describes the God in our midst dancing, ‘with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival,’ and St Paul urges us, ‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord…’
Last week we reflected on hospitality and welcome, an important ministry focus in our Parish but also a worthwhile spiritual goal for each of us during Advent. This Season calls us to a change of heart and invites us to create a hospitable and welcoming place within us where we can appreciate the wonder of God’s gift of Jesus. The clear call to repentance in the Scriptures is not an invitation to become more stressed but rather to recognise God’s forgiving love and let go of our personal ‘baggage’. Isaiah reassures us, ‘God is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes’ (40:11).
The invitation to prepare our inner self is an invitation to offer God ‘our’ hospitality. Just as John the Baptist was open to and welcomed the word of God, so we need to remove our barriers to God’s openness and hospitality. Hospitality is a joyful work and it is born of deep longing – God’s longing that no one be lost and our longing for the gift of peace within.
Hospitality and welcome are familiar and important themes in our Parish Community – attitudes and practical responses that are second nature to us. Hospitality and welcome are core Advent realities as we prepare to celebrate the Birth of Jesus at Christmas.
In Jesus, our God extends hospitality and welcome, inviting us to enjoy his faithful love made present to us in the life of his Son. We in turn are invited to offer hospitality and welcome to our Saviour who has embraced our human condition, in how we love, in how we pray, in how we live. Of course, Christmas is an Easter Feast as it celebrates our Redemption. Every gospel account is coloured by faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, and so we don’t need to pretend at Christmas that Christ hasn’t yet been born or hasn’t risen from the dead.
Hospitality carries strong overtones of the generosity of God, his joy at his Son’s birth and our birth too. We are very familiar with Jesus’ special attention to the outcast and the needy during his public ministry and how he reveals to us the God who is compassionate, generous and forgiving. This is the God we recognise in the healing grace of the Sacraments.