Ss. Timothy and Titus

One of the most difficult lessons we must learn as Christians, is that the Kingdom of God is to be found in the common, everyday experiences of our lives; and really, that for which we seek is already in our midst.

Gardeners and farmers appreciate this truth.  The Kingdom of God is so similar to the way a seed grows, and once it is grown it takes on a life of its own.  The gardener doesn’t cause the growth but assists God in the process by providing what the seed needs to grow and flourish.  Once the seed reaches maturity the process is complete, and the crop can be harvested.  So it is with the Kingdom of God and the final end for which we wait.

Both in the garden and in the Church, we work to break up stony ground; we sow seeds, we feed and water them. And we weed the earth.  We have good years and we have bad years, but we always have surprises.  As in the garden, so in people’s hearts, so much is beyond our control.  We can only plant and nurture the seeds we have sown in people’s hearts, and we must let God do the rest.  Conversion takes place in the heart, not the intellect.  We can preach and teach and give good example until we are blue in the face, but if the person we seek to convert hasn’t received the gift of faith, then we won’t get very far.  We must always remember that many are called, but few are chosen.

So much of what God wants to accomplish in and through us is done in ways we cannot see.  St. Timothy and St. Titus will attest to that.  We are simply broken vessels through which God does his work.  If we seek his will, rather than our own, and if we loosen up on our own agendas, then we will find gracious surprises, and find them in abundance.

Ss. Timothy and Titus, pray for us.

The Conversion of Saint Paul

When the people of Jerusalem looked at Saul of Tarsus, they saw a man filled with unbridled spiritual ambition.  Many of his fellow Pharisees must have looked at Saul with some suspicion.  Was he just trying to climb the social and establishment ladder and enhance his image?  Was he too filled with anger and hatred to be an effective religious leader?  Whatever their concerns, these Pharisees also recognised in Saul a valuable ally and tool in their goal of squashing the new and dangerous religious sect of Christians.  This is the man whom we honour today as a spiritual giant.  And it stands to reason that if God can touch and use someone like Saul, then there is hope for us yet.

What do people see when they look at us?  More importantly, what does Our Lord see?  When the world looked at Simon Peter, they saw a hot-headed fisherman, but Our Lord saw the “Rock” on which he would build his Church.  When the world looked at Saul, they saw an ambitious, aggressive, perhaps even violent man; but Our Lord saw an apostle, a missionary, and a mystic.

I would hazard to guess that few people ever come to realise their full potential.  We seem happy to accept the limitations other people and institutions place upon us, and we feel intimidated when we try to rise above the status quo. The people who were with Saul on the day of his conversion saw the light of Christ, but they didn’t hear his voice.  Our Lord’s call is universal, but the response he demands is personal and unique.  And perhaps the question we should ask is not: “What is God calling me to do?” but “Who is he calling me to be?”  Saint Paul made a great effort to follow Christ faithfully.  But above and beyond all of Paul’s effort was the grace and mercy of Almighty God, who calls each one of us to be a generous receiver of that same grace offered to Saint Paul on the day of his conversion.

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

When was the last time you heard an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone sermon?  How long has it been since a preacher with fire in his eyes and smoke coming out of his nostrils let loose with a hell-and-damnation tirade that blistered the ears and trembled the hearts of his hearers?  How long has it been?

Well, according to my timing it was only five minutes ago!   We heard such a sermon, not from yours truly, but from that pulpit-pounding, rafter-raiser, window-rattling prophet of the Old Testament: Jonah.  As the preacher in our first reading today, Jonah has one point in his favour: he is brief and to the point.  With just eight words Jonah delivers his warning to the people of Nineveh: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”  No ands, ifs or buts about it.  No maybes or perhapses.  This is it!  Forty days more – and THE END!

Jonah’s eight words turn out to be more productive of a genuine conversion that all the paragraphs and pages of other Old Testament prophets.  Other prophets preached, cajoled, warned, pleaded, thundered, encouraged and condemned their listeners with powerful and poignant pronouncements.   But for all their rhetorical skills the effect on their hard-hearted and stiff-necked hearers was practically nil.

But not so with Jonah; he must have been the envy of every other prophet.  He spoke and the people believed that God spoke through him and they turned away from their evil ways.  Their hearts had been changed and so God’s mind had to be changed as well: “He repented of the evil that he had threatened to do them.”  So even though Jonah’s eight-word prophecy didn’t actually prove true, there’s no denying the positive impact of his fire-and-brimstone sermon.

We have to read the rest of Jonah’s story to discover the effect that his success had on this prophet.  Rather than rejoice at the conversion of the people of Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry, so angry that he thinks it’s better for him to die than to live.  Why was he so angry?  Well, Jonah had really wanted his prophecy to be fulfilled rather than to be successful.  He wanted these evil people to be destroyed, not saved.  But he also knew that he was dealing not with a vicious, violent, vindictive, fire-and-brimstone God, but with a “gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in mercy and loath to punish.”  Fortunately, this loving, forgiving God has the last say in Jonah’s prophecy.

In the gospel today, Our Lord picks up where the God of Jonah left off.  Today we hear the very first words that the Lord Jesus speaks in St. Mark’s Gospel.  And these are the words we must remember Sunday after Sunday, indeed, day after day throughout the whole of our lives.  Because these are the words that form the agenda and set the tone of Our Lord’s preaching and teaching.  He says: ‘The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

Now we can listen in vain for thunder and look in vain for fire and brimstone in Our Lord’s first sermon.  And yet his words resound and glow with the warmth of that everlasting compassion and mercy of God’s message.  Our Lord speaks of “the time of fulfilment,” the time of filling out and filling up God’s plan of salvation, the time of completing and perfecting what the God of the Old Testament had begun when God created the world and saw how good this world is.  In the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord came “not to abolish but to fulfil.”  And in the words of St. John’s Gospel, Our Lord came not to condemn the world but to save it, so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

Our Lord announces: “The reign of God is at hand.”  We don’t even have to wait forty days to see if that ‘reign’ is a deluge of destruction or a kingdom of kindness where we are constantly drenched with God’s forgiveness, peace and joy.   So close, so intimate, so personal is Our Lord’s presence with us and within us that we might even say: “The reign of God is at heart.”

And what begins with the heart must inevitably permeate and infiltrate our entire lives.  Just as the heart enlivens every member of the body by pumping blood to it, so does Our Lord enliven our whole existence.  So it is he says, “Reform your lives.”  When the Lord Jesus comes into our lives we begin to change.  We change our attitudes and our actions and our words.  We change our priorities and our principles.  We change our agenda.  To reform our lives means to commit and attach ourselves to Our Lord just as his first disciples “abandoned their nets and became his followers.”  Today’s gospel tells us they “went off in his company.”   And that’s just it.  To reform our lives simply means we start keeping company with the Lord Jesus.  He is our constant companion.  Even though he is our Lord and God, we are able to walk with him, and we talk with him as friend to friend.

Now, the more we walk and the more we talk with Jesus, the more we “believe in the Good News.”  We believe that Our Lord’s message is essentially and intrinsically good news, not sad news or bad news or mad news.  Mind you, this isn’t to say that Our Lord never preaches hard things to us.  Indeed, there will be many times during the coming months when we will be tempted to say what so many of Our Lord’s disciples said after his famous Bread of Life Discourse in John chapter 6: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

We must always try to see beneath the hard shell of some of Our Lord’s sayings the challenges that he keeps giving us to grow in love, in faith and in hope.  Nor can we forget his words: “My yoke is easy and my burden light.”  The burden is easy and light only because Our Lord is always with us and within us to help and support us.  When we feel the weight of the Cross on our shoulders begin to lighten it’s because the Lord himself is carrying the Cross with us. And so, if anyone is still hankering for an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone sermon, remember that it was Our Lord who sent the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples at Pentecost.   Therefore, let our prayer today and every day be: “Enkindle in us, O Lord, the fire of your love!”

Saturday of Week 2 in Ordinary Time

On the night before he died Our Lord prayed that all his followers might be one, but he was aware of divisions among those who professed his name just as he was of the loaves of bread blessed, broken and given to more than 5,000 people.  Our Lord himself was the victim of division: his relatives said he was mad and the religious leaders accused him of being an agent of the Devil.  And yet Our Lord continued to heal those who were divided within themselves.  He continued to work for the unity of his closest followers, divided as they were by personal ambitions, political loyalties and various self-interests.  With divine common sense, Our Lord argued that a house that is divided simply cannot stand.

We stand back from the Gospel and we recognize that the petty divisions among Christians can only have a destructive impact.  Far from endearing people to Christianity the divisions among Christians continue to put people off.

It must be more than a quarter of a century now since Cardinal Basil Hume commented on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity saying that the time for talking is over and the time for action has come.  And here we are still talking and avoiding the real issues and going nowhere.  Is it any wonder faith is so diminished in this country and so many parish churches have lost the support of those who used to fill them? I suppose the only thing we can do is pray and ask God for a miracle.  It seems to be part and parcel of human nature to divide and destroy, and 2000 years of history has shown that Christians are not immune to that human trait.  We will never achieve the unity of Christians, at least not until we come to realise that the only division we can accept is that which enriches everyone.  Just as with the loaves Our Lord divided among the 5,000, so we must pray that our efforts will multiply as we divide them with others.

Friday of Week 2 in Ordinary Time

Our Lord chose and called those he wanted to be his disciples; these twelve men responded to Our Lord’s call and followed him.  Right from the start Our Lord gave us a model of ministry as something to be shared.  His wasn’t a do it yourselfreligion and I’m sure even Our Lord had to resist the temptation to do the job himself rather than entrust it to others.

Conversion isn’t something that happens to us through the ministry of other people.  Rather it comes about through our ministering to others.  Someone said that the best teachers learn the most in their own efforts to teach.

By sharing his ministry with his Apostles, Our Lord opened their eyes to the depth of the Father’s love for his creation, and to the power of his healing touch, which could work wonders even through the likes of them.

And who does Our Lord choose?  Well, even a superficial look at the names of the Twelve reminds us that there wasn’t just one type or personality.  Some of them were talkative, inquisitive and challenging.  Others were so quiet that we hardly know more than their names. We, who are called to minister with Our Lord today, we’re also a mixed bunch.  Our Lord asks of us what he asked of those first twelve men: “Come, follow me”.  We must be willing to share the message he has given us; and following his model of ministry, share the tasks with one another.

Saint Agnes

Today we honour the memory of Saint Agnes, a teenage martyr, who died in the year 305.  Having consecrated her young life to God, Agnes was denounced as a Christian to the pagan authorities in Rome.  After refusing to renounce her faith Agnes was tortured and then beheaded; her body was buried on the Via Nomentana, in a cemetery named in her honour.  Saint Agnes is held up to all young people as an example of fidelity as they seek to follow Christ.

Each year, during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are reminded of the painful and scandalous divisions among Christians, and we are encouraged to pray and work for the reconciliation of our separated brethren.  On the night before he died, Our Lord prayed for all of us—his followers in every age—and asked, “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (John 17:21).

This past fortnight we have been hearing from the Letter to the Hebrews with its strong emphasis on hope and confidence in God.  Though it may seem at times that we will never overcome the differences that separate Christians, we can still have hope because Our Lord continues to pray before his Father, asking for us to be united.  He is the great high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20) who has paved the way for us to enter heaven as one body healed of all strife and division.

God wants to unite his scattered, divided children, and he will help us to achieve a more respectful and humble approach toward those who think differently than we do.  Because Our Lord is the basis of our hope, we can look for an answer with confidence and expectation.

One thing we must remember: we cannot have hope if we don’t believe that what we hope for will come to be.  Neither can we have hope without the perseverance to walk toward the goal we are seeking.  Abraham shines as a man with great faith in God’s promises.  He persevered through trial and disappointment until he realised his dreams of having a son.  Because he waited and tried to obey God, his hopes were realised beyond his expectations.  He became not only the father of Isaac, but the father of many nations, indeed our own father in faith as well. We are all heirs of God’s promises.  We all have Our Lord as the “sure and steadfast anchor” for our faith (Hebrews 6:19).  He asked the Father that we may all be one; and will the Father deny him?  Of course not.   We can have faith that we will see the fulfilment of God’s desire that we all become one in the Church he established.

Wednesday of Week 2 in Ordinary Time

Imagine a group of ordinary people celebrating someone’s good news, when the critic in the group puts a damper on things.  Their attention to details isn’t to refine and enhance a given situation, but to somehow puncture a hole in the big picture and point out its imperfection.

Our Lord was saddened at those who closed their minds to his message of God’s great love.  They seemed compelled to dampen the joy of those who welcomed his message and his miracles.  They saw their beliefs in their own rigorous ways being jeopardised by Our Lord’s teaching, which had their foundation in the very heart of God’s Law.  In their fear of losing power and influence among the ordinary people they seem not to care whether this man who needed healing, or even many more like him, continued to suffer.

Change is difficult to accept when we have backed up our own behaviour with strong moral convictions about why this way – usually our way – is the best way.  It takes a generous spirit to be open to the possibilities of a greater truth or to grasp the heart of another culture or another generation’s way of seeking truth. If we root our search in the person of Jesus, then we can be sure that our vision and our outlook will always be tinted by love; and our lives will reflect the joy of those who rejoice in his healing graces.

Tuesday of Week 2 in Ordinary Time

The year 2020 presented some unique challenges for all of us: a global pandemic and many disrupted plans, economic hardship, and for some, political and racial tensions.  Any one of these things could have shaken us, not to mention any personal trials we may have faced or may still be facing.

In light of all that has happened and is still unfolding, this verse from today’s first reading can encourage us: “Take a firm grip on the hope that is held out to us” (Hebrews 6:18).  As Christians, we can place our hope in the promise that one day we will be united with God in heaven.  No illness, no financial loss, no disappointment or cancelled plan or other kind of strife can thwart that promise.  That’s the hope that the author of Hebrews held out to the early Christians, and that’s what he holds out to us as well.  If we try our best to stay close to the Lord and follow his commands, our hope is sure and certain.

But how do we hold fast to hope?  By hanging on and gritting our teeth through the difficulties?  No.  Our hope lies in the faithfulness of God.  We can be confident that he will see us through every trial as we trust in him.

And that’s not just a vague promise.  God gives us three tangible sources of grace that can strengthen and renew our hope.  In the Eucharist, Jesus becomes present to us, healing us, strengthening us, and nourishing us.  In the Scriptures, Our Lord teaches us who he is, how much he loves us, and the wonderful plans he has for us.  And through our relationships, God blesses us with our community, our family, and friends, who can provide us with the love and support we need to get through our trials.  In all of these ways, we can experience a foretaste of heaven, and our hope grows stronger. Life can be hard at times, and as religious we are not immune to frustration and even despair.  This is when we need to renew our faith in the Eucharist, in Scripture, and in other people.  As the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us, we must take hold of them and never let go.

Saint Margaret of Hungary, O.P.

Today we honour the memory of Saint Margaret of Hungary who joined the Order in 1245.  Margaret had an unusual approach to the religious life, and it’s highly unlikely she would have made it into the novitiate today.  And yet Margaret was considered a saint in her own lifetime and many miracles have been attributed to her intercession.  Today’s feast reminds us that we entered the religious life, not to do our own thing and build our own little empires, but to devote our talents and our lives to the common apostolate.  Margaret died on this day in 1270 and was canonized in 1943.

If you cast your minds back to the last year of the last century there was a great deal of pessimism around.  Many people presented a negative, even scary image of the approaching year 2000.  Even some Christians read certain events like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and famines as signs of the last days.  In today’s gospel we encounter a similar concern and anxiety about the future.  John the Baptist’s disciples continue to speak of God’s impending judgement on the children of Israel.  It was a stern message that struck fear in the hearts of the people, some of whom were confused and asked Our Lord “Why don’t you and your disciples follow the example of John’s followers and the Pharisees by fasting?”  The crowds were surprised by Our Lord who ate with public sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors.  Some called him a ‘glutton and a drunkard’.  It seems Our Lord and his disciples were following a path to holiness contrary to traditional expectations.

Like John the Baptist, Our Lord knew that something was about to happen that would change the world forever.  A new era was emerging characterised not by fasting, but by feasting.  The past had given way to a glorious future, the Kingdom of God.  Our Lord was living the Gospel and announcing God’s love for all his children.

As we begin the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are reminded that Our Lord invites all of us who follow him to preach his Good News by word and by deed, and he challenges us to reveal the Kingdom of God to the world.  As our individual gifts are numerous, so too are the possibilities.

Lord, may we all be one.

The 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today’s Gospel is very much a word painting of two extraordinary people.  One is John the Baptist, who receives a great deal of attention and doesn’t like it.  The other is Andrew who is put on everyone’s back burner, and he really couldn’t care less.

John is most definitely the star of the show.  He is surrounded by huge crowds.  He is admired and acclaimed by everyone.  People travel hundreds of miles on foot to hear him speak.  Everybody wants a piece of him.  And yet John is about to throw all that adulation overboard; because standing before him is One whom he cannot ignore.

At this point, Jesus of Nazareth is a complete unknown quantity as far as John’s admirers are concerned.  And it is John who puts the spotlight on Our Lord.  The only loser will be himself.   Perhaps, then, we can better understand why John is the only person of whom Our Lord says He stands in awe.

On the previous day John was surrounded by a crowd of fans and admirers.  He points to Our Lord and declares him to be the Messiah: ‘Look, there is the Lamb of God’.  John is eager to step back into the desert.  His job as the Lord’s forerunner is coming to an end.   Life in the fast lane is clearly not to his taste.

In today’s Gospel, John stands with two of his biggest fans.  One is Andrew, the other isn’t identified.  Most scholars assume it was John the Evangelist, who wrote this account.  Perhaps modesty stopped him from mentioning his own name?  Once again, John points to Jesus and identifies Him as the Messiah.  And, as John foresaw and perhaps even hoped, his two right hand men leave him and follow Christ.  They were unknowingly following a plan that had been programmed from Day One.

There could not have been an ounce of envy in John the Baptist.  He did his job.  He had his time in the limelight.  And now willingly he surrenders to his successor.  Now, if we happen to have a little problem with pride, and if we’re honest, most of us secretly do, then John the Baptist is our cure; for he teaches us that ‘no one has ever choked to death from swallowing his own pride.’

Our Lord invites Andrew and his friend to spend some time with him. And they must have had an amazing evening together, because first thing the next morning Andrew is most anxious to introduce his brother Simon to their extraordinary new friend.  Andrew makes the proper introductions and then he willingly surrenders front stage to his brother.

From this point on Andrew, more or less, loses his identity.  The gospels will mention him, not often by name, but usually as ‘the brother of Peter’.  It will be Andrew’s fate to live in his brother’s shadow.  And yet there is no hint of sibling rivalry between them.  While Peter is referred to a hundred times in the gospels, Andrew is referred to seldom.

Even though Andrew was a charter member of the College of Apostles, it was his fate never to become a member of Our Lord’s inner circle.  And yet, there is no evidence that this ever upset him.  He was more than happy to play a supporting role.

I suppose many of us, if we were in Andrew’s shoes would have sounded off and complained.  It’s not easy being top of the pile and then having to take a lower place.  But Andrew was willing to accept his place in the scheme of things.  He shows us that we can’t all enjoy the limelight and have our name splashed on billboards and book covers.  It’s the same in a religious community, or in any human organisation.  We each have our unique place in the great machine of life, which only works properly and efficiently when each of us does our job; where even the tiniest cog or screw is important and, without which, the whole would suffer.  Andrew considered himself a winner just to be numbered among Christ’s company.  And so should we.  Most of us have been fortunate in life, but never more fortunate than to be counted among one of Our Lord’s followers.

It’s part of the human condition that some people go out of their way to be noticed.  It’s as true in the Church just as much as it is in the wider world.  Social media has been in the news lately and I have no time for it.  But I do have a little used account on Facebook, and whenever I take a glance at what my friends are up to the one thing that pushes my button are all the self-seeking comments, especially from fellow priests and religious.  It’s all about me, me, me!  Look at me!  Look at what I’ve done!  They announce to the whole world that ‘it’s my birthday’ or ‘it’s my anniversary’, no doubt intimating that the rest of us should drop them a line of congratulations and give them a pat on the back!  Am I just an old fogey or is that odd behaviour?  Not that I’m condemning anyone, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the lesson we’re being taught today.

John the Baptist and the Apostle Andrew teach us that when we tell others what Jesus can do for them, we should, first of all tell them what Jesus has done for us.

Saint John and Saint Andrew, pray for us.