Times change, empires rise and fall, entire cultures are born only to die again, new technologies emerge and are replaced, history flows like an everlasting river; and human nature remains substantially the same. From the time of Moses to the time of Jesus and his disciples an epoch of time had elapsed, another 2000 years lie between us and the disciples and …as the French saying goes: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change – the more they remain the same. Just how much have we progressed, how much have we learned, have we truly listened to the voice of Jesus?
In our Gospel reading today Jesus speaks of welcoming the child, and not just the child in years, but the young at heart. For elsewhere in the Gospel he also says that we should come to him as if we too were children. In our more modern and supposedly advanced times, we have gained a certain security perhaps, technology has taken away from of the drudgery and danger, medical advances have extended our lives, our surroundings are comfortable, predictable, tamed. There is a well-known saying “Take what you want, says God, as long as you accept there is a price and you must pay for it”.
If that is so, what have we paid, and just what have we bought with it?
Sometimes there are sentences and phrases in the Bible that are so familiar, that we pass over them rather too rapidly, supposing we know what they mean. And on one level that’s understandable. The text would be unreadable if we stopped at every and, if or but trying to uncover a multiplicity of interpretations – we would never get to the end. But having read a passage it is often well to go back over the ground, to see whether we might dig beneath the surface. And in today’s Gospel we have just such a challenge.
We bring to our reading of the Bible the preconceptions, the perceptions, perhaps even the prejudices of our own time. And sometimes we forget, or don’t like to be reminded, that the people in the stories of scripture, including Jesus, were also deeply influenced by the values and understandings of their own age. Jesus was a man, born into a time, a culture, a context very different from our own. A man capable of being occasionally mistaken, of sharing the cultural preconceptions, sometimes even the misunderstandings of his time. When we hear his voice calling to us today, we need to remember both the man who was, as well as the figure of reverence and devotion he has become.
Is there a tendency, within the church, to revert to the Pharisee, to retreat into rules and constraints and the sanctuary of the few? As each generation passes religions can tend – perhaps they can’t resist – to add some extra rules of their own. What may have started as a kernel of truth, some central and pure experience of God, builds and builds, adding layer upon layer of man-made disciplines and regulations, until something beautiful and unconditional, becomes smothered and obscured with decrees and laws and conditions. Do we recognise this in ourselves? And if so, what can we do about it?
According to a study published a while ago in the journal, ‘Science’, we don’t seem to know ourselves very well. It turns out that common stereotypes that we hold about other countries and our own do not actually reflect the real personalities of people in these countries. And if we portray even to each other an inaccurate and dishonest image of our culture, are we any more honest in the way that we represent ourselves? Do we even know ourselves?
We continue the readings from John’s gospel, that draw a comparison between the material bread that sustains only for a while, and Jesus, the living spiritual bread, who points the way to transformation and new life. And today we ponder not only the reactions of the people of his time, but also of our own. Is the gospel of hope met with enthusiasm and passion, or indifference and scepticism and the retort – whatever?
The choice, as always, is ours to make.
Throughout his ministry starting at the feast at the wedding in Cana, later in the breaking and sharing of the loaves and fishes with the multitude, culminating in the Passover meal before his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus is clearly compelled to share with others the most basic, the most essential and nurturing things of life. But in the act of sharing, he always seeks to teach that in the humblest and simplest of things, can be found some of the most profound and life-changing spiritual realities.
In today’s gospel Jesus appears to be pleased that the people have come to look for him, but is seemingly disappointed about the reason why. They were grateful for the bread he implies, grateful for the food, but they didn’t understand it value, its true meaning. Even if they have some sense of the bread having been miraculous, they are still looking at it in a rather literal, physical, superficial way. But Jesus is trying to point them, and us, to a different understanding, and a different set of priorities.
Last week the appointed readings for the day had chopped out the middle section of chapter, in order to make us concentrate on the action and the emotions that wrapped around the story. This week the content has been restored to us, but not from the gospel of Mark – instead we have the same miracles expressed and interpreted by John. In the wilderness, Moses asked the question of God “How am I to feed all these people?” and in Exodus the answer came in the form of Manna – the divine gift of sustaining spiritual food. Now, in the midst of the crowd gathered around him Jesus asks the same question.
There is something odd about today’s gospel reading. Something is missing. In fact, 18 whole verses are missing from the very core of this passage. 18 verses that cover the momentous events of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water towards his disciples in the boat, rowing against a heavy wind. For this Sunday, the church lectionary compilers have taken all of this out. Begging the question, what have they left in and why?
All too often we can get completely caught up in the daily struggles of getting and keeping and using, of seeking to invent and define ourselves and imposing ourselves on the world and people around us; we can be so locked into meeting the most basic needs and wants that we can forget to ever address the actual purpose of our lives. The sad reality of modern life, as Thomas Merton the monk and mystic once observed, is that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find that when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. So where should we place the ladder, and to what should we seek to climb?
Perception is all, we are told nowadays and we seem all too often to believe it. But reality, ultimate reality is quite different. Something that truly is, remains the same whether it is perceived and believed or not. Sometimes we need to admit to the limit of our power and our imaginations – sometimes we need to be shocked into acknowledging what is actually staring us in the face.
Somehow we can soak up the impression that doubts are a sign of a weak faith, of lack of seriousness, lacking in commitment, perhaps even sinful, faithless and morally wrong. But the problem with this approach is that it sees faith as static, rather than as a journey, as a possession already acquired, rather than a pilgrimage with lessons to be learned, old and stale habits to be discarded and new insights to be absorbed.
To the Hebrew people the sea was often a symbol of the primeval forces of chaos, the habitation of monsters, fearful, uncontrollable, untamed. The sea could all too easily be seen as akin to the place of evil, disorder and terrible power, ideas deeply rooted in myth and legend dating back to earlier Canaanite times, before Moses, beyond all memory – ancient fears. The great waters served as a metaphor for evil forces active in the world and especially for the tribulations of just people. So what is Mark trying to teach us in this story of the storm at sea, why are experienced fishermen seemingly so frightened, why is Jesus so unfazed?
The Mustard Seed Jesus tells two stories, two parables that focus on seeds as a way of speaking about the Kingdom of God. Seeds are amazing. Just think of it, contained within that tiny rather hard fragment is all that is needed to produce entire plants and...
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of the shorter parables of Jesus. And yet from that seed grows a bush that can reach over nine feet tall; all that complexity and diversity from just the tiniest of beginnings. This is the analogy that Jesus draws between the smallest of our actions that, done with love, can have enormous ramifications. That the smallest of things, the smallest building bricks may construct the Kingdom of God. But to what extent are we making a difference?
A former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Secretary-General of the World Trade Organization, Mike Moore, once wrote in his autobiography, “It is wrong to be right too soon.” He was referring to a human tendency to be resistant to new ideas, especially ideas that might lead to change. Whilst it does help everyday coping, it can also seriously get in the way of long-term learning and growth. Opinions can just sit there, day after day, year after year, never overwritten, never challenged, never updated.
Trinity Sunday, is a time to reflect upon the nature, the character, and the challenge of the Trinity. Something unique to the Christian faith, often misunderstood, even by Christians, as we seek to grasp that which is beyond reach, to comprehend that which is above all a mystery – using words and images to try to understand, but knowing that if we take them too literally, they will obscure all understanding.
Luke’s main point in Acts is not the special effects or even the drama of the gift of tongues, but spiritual transformation. Far from being someone who they could only experience as a memory, Jesus, the spirit of Jesus, came alive to them, in that moment, vividly, overwhelmingly. For the heart of Pentecost for us is not some rather strange past events, it is not just an odd story about something that once happened long ago. What is significant, of prime importance for us, is that Pentecost takes place within our own hearts – that change that comes upon us.
Today, In John’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus rather different from the Jesus depicted in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew or Luke. Here is John writing around AD 100, almost seventy years after Jesus died, informed by who Jesus had been, but now also deeply influenced by what he had become for the members of the church at the end of the first century. What are we to make of this Jesus, and the Jesus of the previous Gospels, and the Jesus we might encounter today. To pick up on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, does the act of observation change that which is being observed?
Today we reflect upon the nature of love, that the narrative, the essential story of the Bible is that of humanity wrestling with our darker side, which sometimes prevails, for a while, but that we are always called back to a pilgrimage towards forgiveness, compassion and love. The gift of God is love and the commandment of God is love – they are one and the same.
Today we reflect upon the tension between the care and attention that we rightly need to expend on ourselves and our church community, the internal spiritual work that is required, the tending and pruning of the vine as it were – contrasted with the work that we should do beyond the boundaries of the church, outside the vineyard, where there is suffering and enormous need. To what extent should the church look within, but also look around us – at the cares and sufferings of the world. And also to reflect both on what we have to teach the world, and what the world has to teach us.
Today we reflect upon what is means to be a shepherd, in the sense of caring for and defending those entrusted to one’s care. Not that we are seen as mindless sheep, but as fellow travellers and pilgrims along a path that is long and difficult, strewn with obstacles; a journey that will change us, if we are prepared to be changed.
Today we reflect upon resurrection, its meaning and significance in the time of Jesus and in our own time. We look at the different between old thoughts and new thinking, and we consider what new life might look like today, for the way we live and our sense of self.
Despite the epithet ‘doubting Thomas’, he was in reality prolific and heroic, a towering man of faith. He went on to be the only apostle to preach the faith far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. He reminds us that sometimes it is the struggle with faith, it is in the moments of anguish and questioning when our faith, paradoxically is often at it strongest. We can see our own doubts, great or small, not as objects of shame, to be hidden and suppressed behind the mask, but as spurs to our spiritual growth and rebirth.
We gather as a Diocese to celebrate the new life and new hope of Easter. Our church buildings must remain closed but we still have each other, we can come together like this, we can pray for each other, talk to each other and hold each other in our thoughts and our hearts, we can continue to be the church together and to hope for better days to come – as surely they will.
After all the message of Easter is renewed life and new hope.
The Passion is almost over but not yet, Jesus is almost risen, but not yet. The Easter fire is lit outside the church as evening falls, a flame to light the Paschal Candle – a tradition credited to St Patrick. We start this service with the church unlit, illuminated only by the light of the Paschal Candle coming into our midst, slowly revealing its presence among us, symbolising the realisation, only gradually dawning upon the disciples, that Christ is the light of the world.
God does not insist on payment of a debt. Whereas we may equate crime with punishment, and our hearts scream out for vengeance, the heart of God offers forgiveness, acceptance and healing. God is surely above the anger, retribution and violence of the world that we have fashioned for ourselves. Rather he attacks the very source of wrong doing, in the corruption of the human heart and begins the healing there.
The Office of Tenebrae took place in ancient times during the Great Triduum, the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday which brings Holy Week to an end. At the climax of the Office is the recitation of part of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. The recitation is accompanied by the gradual extinguishing of the 15 Tenebrae candles which represents the overwhelming sense of darkness, defeat and desolation felt by the disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion.
We celebrate Palm Sunday – a story of triumph, but a triumph that foreshadows terrible suffering to come. As we live through these difficult days, we might take time to reflect on how the Holy Week journey now speaks to us in new and different ways: of joy and sadness, of hope and despair, laughter and tears, life and death, so often intermingled, the one interwoven with the other, inseparable and indivisible. So it is with life, so too with our journey of faith over the next few days.
Today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, although that it is not as exciting or as racy as it sounds. But it is a time to think very carefully about the kind of God that we say we believe in, and what that says about us, our own priorities and prejudices. Supposedly we worship what we esteem, what we value, what we hold to be the highest, the most holy and the finest – or do we? Passion Sunday is a good time to ask that question.
Today as we keep Mothering Sunday, we are challenged to reflect upon not only the bond between a mother and a child but the extent to which the self-sacrifice, the pain and the devotion that mothers must go through in order to bring a new life into the world, gives them some greater insight into the respect, compassion and reverence with which we should all seek to treat one another. A mother knows what new life costs, they might also teach us something about the value and the sanctity of life.
We hear the story of Jesus overturning trading stalls and tables, berating and ejecting tradesmen from the Jerusalem Temple, supposedly the holiest of places, but clearly also for some a place of business and profit. But the story has greater relevance than just an occasion where Jesus railed against particular people at a particular time. It also causes us to question the extent to which we as Christians should support or be wary of the profit motive, and whether the economic systems we have devised for ourselves are really just and equitable, and what role they might play in advancing or hindering the Kingdom.
Jesus’s determination to stay true to the road that lay before him, true to his Father’s will, was to lead him to the Way of the Cross. On that journey he calls upon us to bear our own cross, for such is the way of Christian discipleship. But the truth is that we don’t like anything that looks like a cross, problems, troubles, sickness; we spend our entire lives trying to avoid them. In that, we are very much like Peter.
One of the problems in church life is that we do eventually take on new ideas, but we somehow cannot let go of the old.
Particularly at Lent there is the tendency of church teaching, especially in the liturgy and in hymns to concentrate on human sin and error from only one perspective – the tendency of the season to view the complexity and vulnerability of the human condition through just one simplistic and erroneous lens. For far too long, the western church has tended to see human failings in terms of crime and punishment.
We like to form a pattern of the world, a mental map of how things work, why they happen, an explanation of the way the world works, and why. We tend to seek explanations for new things according to the old ways, we like to fit things into an existing pattern. Generally it can serve us well. But sometimes it can serve us ill. As Jesus says earlier in Mark’s Gospel: “no one puts new wine into old wineskins”. Today, some elements of church life and teaching are now holding us back, limiting our ability to learn and progress. We can, of course, be tempted to hold onto it all; it’s familiar and comfortable, but like the old wine skin it cannot contain, it cannot hold the new, lest it burst apart.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke start with the genealogy of Jesus’s ancestors and his claim to a worldly royal heritage, or the story of his birth and his family – but for John this is already too late in the sequence of events. For whilst at the start of the Gospel of John we encounter Jesus already as a young man, commencing his ministry with a ritual baptism by John the Baptist; first John is at pains to set Jesus in his cosmic context. Not just as a person born into time, but as a reality which existed before all time.
In the temple an old man waits. Tired, near the end of his days, prepared for his dying, but waiting nevertheless. Utterly convinced that his eyes will not close for the last time, before he sees the promised Messiah, the saviour of his and all people. Outside a family prepares to enter. They are humble and poor, the sacrifice they are about to make is an allowance for those of few means, otherwise they would be expected to bring a lamb and turtledoves. But like the old man, they too are devout. All the rituals have been observed, their poverty does not prevent them from observing the pious demands of their faith. And so an ending and a beginning, as so often in life.
Jesus approaches some young men, in the middle of their work, at a critical point in their work and calls them to drop what they are doing, straight way, and to follow him to an uncertain and precarious future. Forget everything else, drop everything now, don’t look back, don’t prevaricate, don’t set pre-conditions, but follow me now. One might well ask is that the message of today’s gospel, is this really what I am being asked to do? To forget job, home, family, commitments, all other duties for my faith?
In the gospel reading we have this rather odd encounter between Jesus and Nathanael. As miracles go it doesn’t seem a big one. But the words cannot truly capture what is really going on – the personal encounter – the fact that in the moment Nathaniel meets Jesus, he feels something that he has never felt before, but had yearned for. Something that we all, in our own way, long for.
(Previously published in the Clare Champion) I wonder if you remember a scene from the 1970’s TV series ‘Brideshead revisited’ where Julia is reflecting on her failed marriage to Rex Mottram; a man of prodigious money-making powers but of utterly stunted spiritual...
(First published in the Clare Champion) Previously I have written about holiness and how it may be found in surprising places; in the beating heart of a scruffy cross-breed dog who knows the saving power of love, but who admittedly still bears significant malice...
Luke tells a good and powerful story. If he were alive today he would be a movie-maker, telling his story in the modern way. And like a cinema film, Luke is telling several stories at once. Not necessarily all drawn from the same actual event, but from many events that happened over a longer period of time. But he combines them with consummate skill into one narrative, one dramatic happening in order that we might learn and understand – he is less concerned with exact factual accuracy that he is with us taking Jesus’s example and seeking to follow it in our own lives and communities. Whatever the future of Christianity holds, and there will be great surprises along the way, it will have to teach people how to believe and live and not dwell simply on what to believe.
The story about the three Wise Men, sometimes known as Kings, sometimes called the Magi, is contained only in the Gospel of Matthew. Whether it really happened in the way that Matthew describes is not the point. The ancient people were quite relaxed about real events being mixed up with ancient legends – not to obscure the truth, but to bring it out, to make it real. The Three Kings, and the Shepherds, serve as symbols that all of us, great and small, the rich and powerful, poor and vulnerable, young and old, east, west, north and south are called to hold in our hearts another king, but a king of humility, of compassion, of justice, of mercy and of self-giving love.
In his gospel, Luke (and similarly Matthew) is saying that God, that the divine, that transcending and healing love is to be found in us – for Luke, true dignity, true holiness, is to be found in the simplest of things, the least exalted of things. That God, that the divine, that transcending love is to be found in all of us – not in the trappings of social status or worldly power, or those who wield it merely because they desire power over others.
The challenge of Christmas, the challenge of the Christ-child lying in a roughly hewn animal feeding trough, is to re-discover the joy and wonder of life. To explore its simple beauties, its transcendent joys, its moments of sheer poetry and surprise, sometimes fleeting, sometimes in the smallest of things.
Christmas Miscellany is a collection of carols, prayers, reflections and music gathered from the churches of the Catholic Diocese of Killaloe and the Church of Ireland Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe, and hosted and edited at St Columba’s Church, Ennis. It is particularly heartwarming to reflect that, at this time of Covid, the reaction of churches has been to collaborate and unite in a shared programme of celebration and thanksgiving. In time we will find that Covid 19, much as we deplore it, has taught us many things. Not least among those lessons will be the knowledge that what unites us, what brings us together, what we share, what we love, what holds us together, is so much more than what divides us.
Our world would listen to a church that with humility but also with resolve and with wisdom, pointed us to a way of living, a way of loving, a way of being fully alive, fully human, fully at one with the God who made us and who speaks daily into the wilderness of our own hearts, if we would but listen. We are not that church. We are not that people. Yet. But we could be.
Jesus instead wants us to be whole rather than religious, he calls upon us to be loving rather than moralistic and self-righteous, to be inclusive rather than exclusive and divisive, to live life abundantly rather than be constrained and withered by guilt and shame and failure to follow impossible rules. It was this freedom, this emancipation that caused people to seek out the baptism of John, and it was this experience of limitless and indiscriminate love that compelled the multitudes to Jesus’ side and made them hang upon his words. This must be the task of the church of the future. To preach the gospel that promises us our release from captivity, from the chains that bind us and to discover the liberty, at last, to realize our full potential, our full dignity, our fullest and truest humanity.
We commence our journey through these days of Advent, leading to a destination that is not so much a finish line as it is a starting point, not so much a goal, as a waypoint on our Christian journey. A new beginning, but also a continuation. But do we need to continue the reactions and fears of the past in our own spiritual lives and our own reading of scripture? Perhaps we might understand the words of Jesus in a less literal but also more ‘revealing’ way. Advent is a good time to ask those questions…. our entire life long is the time to answer them.
Christ is a strange sort of King. By worldly reckoning kings should be dripping in jewels, living in enormous palaces with hot and cold running servants. Privileged, pampered and powerful. But the Kingship of Christ is not of this world, and not of such indulgent and transient standards. Indeed, Christianity itself cannot be judged by the corrupt and superficial measures that our society employs. For the Gospel of Christ, the Kingship of Christ turns the world upside down.