PALM SUNDAY

f

Christians throughout the world want to get involved in the story of Christ’s Passion.  We’ve all heard about the famous Passion Play performed in Oberammergau in Bavaria every ten years.  In the Philippines zealous individuals attract media attention every year by having themselves nailed to a cross.  Closer to home, throughout the United Kingdom almost two dozen passion plays were scheduled for this year.  And throughout history artists have depicted Our Lord’s Passion in so many different ways.

The passion narrative has a deep human fascination; we sympathise with the Victim; we recoil at the cruelty which human beings can inflict on one another.  But for us Christians, the story tells so much more.  It tells the story of human redemption and salvation.  It depicts in graphic form the inner meaning of our sacramental rebirth and our Eucharistic celebration.  It shows the Way of the Cross each of us is called to walk on our way to salvation.

Jesus is the humble and obedient Suffering Servant who has endured hardship and encountered resistance from his own people.  After much abuse and suffering there is no beauty to be found in him.  The suffering and bloodied Christ embodies the whole mystery of human suffering.  In him we can see the suffering people of the world even today: the victims of war, the victims of disease, the victims of violence, the victims of abuse and neglect.  We see our own sorrows in the Man of Sorrows.

Saint Matthew highlights all the elements of Our Lord’s suffering.  He undergoes severe mental anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He endures the defection of his disciples, the betrayal of Judas, the denials of Peter, the taunts of the crowd, and the rejection of his own people.  He has to bear the physical and psychological torments of being beaten and scourged, of having a crown of thorns thrust onto his head, and of being an innocent victim brutally nailed to the Cross.  Jesus is innocent of any wrong, he doesn’t deserve this suffering.  But he accepts it freely.  He could have avoided it, but he didn’t.  And our first reaction is to ask ‘why’?  The answer to this question doesn’t come from logic, but from faith.

Saint Paul teaches the theology of this suffering in his Letter to the Philippians.  Jesus Christ emptied himself and took the form of a slave.  He became obedient even unto death on a Cross.  This emptying was total.  Jesus took upon himself all the trials of our human condition.  Though he was innocent and utterly sinless, he bore the terrible weight of our sins.  When his emptying became total, exaltation happened.  He rose from the dead and received the name above all other names.

The Resurrection bursts into Saint Matthew’s Gospel even before Easter morning.  When Jesus dies on the Cross, a theophany occurs.  God reveals to the world that this death is unlike any other.  There is an earthquake.  The dead rise from their graves.  The Roman soldiers supervising Our Lord’s Crucifixion, seeing this divine intervention, proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God.

One way we share in the passion and death of Our Lord is the fact that it was our sins that caused Jesus to die.  How dreadful is the congregation’s part of the reading of the Passion, that chilling cry: “Crucify him!  Crucify him!  His blood be on us and on our children!”  Part of the Holy Week journey is a journey through our own conscience; past the many sins we have contributed to the terrible burden Our Lord had to bear for us.  The Church asks us to fast on Good Friday as a sign of our repentance.

But there is another role we play in the Holy Week story.  We can also read Our Lord’s parts in the Gospel.  As he dies and is buried, so we have died and been buried with him in Baptism.  As he is exalted as the risen Lord, we have been raised to new life in his grace.  Our life as Christians is daily dying to sin and living for God, and our physical death will be the gateway to eternal exaltation.  Through the forty days of Lent we have been trying to intensify our awareness of this life and our faithfulness to its demands.

As we participate in the ceremonies of this Holy Week, may we experience anew our share in Christ’s dying and rising; and may we renew the process and the commitment of our Baptism.

ff

Saturday of the 5th Week of Lent

Many moons ago I used to look after chickens, and their free-range eggs were the best I have ever tasted.  If you have ever watched a hen gather her chicks, she will spread her wings to provide a safe place for them if there is any danger.  As the chicks gather under their mother’s wings, you can’t even tell they are hiding there.  This is how God wants us to think of him.

The ancient Hebrews turned away from God time after time and they even worshipped pagan idols.  They abandoned their covenant with God, and over time they reaped the consequences of their sin: their Temple was destroyed, and they were sent away in shame to live as exiles in a foreign land.  Even as they adjusted to their new status as refugees, God promised through the prophet Ezekiel that he would gather them back under his wings.  He would forgive them and renew his covenant with them.  He would deliver them from exile and give them another chance.

What God promised the Hebrews he has also promised for us, and he has fulfilled that promise in a surprising and powerful way.  When we were lost in the exile of sin, he sent his Son to bring us home.  On the Cross, Jesus gave up his life so that we could find shelter under the Father’s wings.

This is who our God is.  Like a mother hen, He gathers and he protects.  He heals, and he delivers.  He is always ready to welcome us with open arms.  Even if we feel unworthy or distant, that’s not how God sees us.  God sees us as vulnerable children needing his protection and guidance: something he is always ready to give.

e

Friday of the 5th Week of Lent

Anyone who lives in close proximity to other people can, at times, feel a little bit neurotic.  It’s not just a common trait among religious.  I’m sure we’ve all felt that someone has it in for us, or that people were out to get us.  Or maybe we’ve felt as though someone has worked to undermine us or humiliate us.  Well, if we have, then we’re not alone.  In fact, we’re in very good company: in today’s readings Jeremiah, David, and Our Lord have to deal with public smearing, threats, and betrayal.

But how do we respond when we find ourselves in awkward and uncomfortable situations?  Do we echo Jeremiah’s plea: “O Lord God of hosts … Let me witness the vengeance you take on them”?  Or do you follow Our Lord’s teaching: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

For a moment, place yourself in Jeremiah’s shoes.  He had been given the difficult task of proclaiming prophecies concerning God’s judgment to his fellow citizens.  Jeremiah prayed that God would have mercy on them, but the people repaid him with plots to kill him.  In fact, Jeremiah’s prayer today follows the discovery of a second plot to kill him.

Although Jeremiah adds a sharp, vengeful request to his prayer, he still exemplifies an admirable response to injustice and malice.  He takes his broken heart to God.  And such a sign of trust pleases God.  He comforts Jeremiah and gives him strength for his task; God rescues him from “the power of the wicked” who were out to get him.

We can come before God in the same way.  It doesn’t upset him to hear our frustration.  In fact, it’s much better to let it out than to keep it in.  God knows our heart, and he is always ready to give us his heart as we pour out ours to him.

aaa

Thursday of the 5th Week of Lent

Those of us with a few grey hairs on our heads know what it’s like to forget things.  We’re appalled when we forget someone’s birthday or anniversary, we’re frustrated when we lose pens or forget people’s names.  It’s annoying to lose track of the little things.  But forgetfulness becomes downright tragic when we lose sight of the big picture, when we lose sight of what life is all about. This is why today’s responsorial psalm urges us to remember and praise God for his wondrous deeds.

This is a perfect encouragement as we prepare to observe Holy Week.  So how can we fight forgetfulness and take on the kind of remembering that leads to gratitude, joy, and transformation?  Well, we can do it by taking God’s wondrous deeds personally.

From the time we lived in caves huddled around the fire on cold evenings, human beings have handed down their stories from one generation to the next.  For thousands of years, Jews and Christians alike, have been recounting how God made them a people for his own possession.  At Passover each year Jews continue to remember the pivotal story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  They recall their liberation in a way that makes it personal and present, and not something that just happened in the distant past to a group of anonymous people.

During Holy Week we do the same.  The great things God did for the Jews have become part of our history as well, and they are fulfilled and completed in Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.  As Catholics, we believe that every Mass recalls these saving acts and makes them present to us.  We are there in the upper room with Jesus and the Apostles.

And so, as we approach Holy Week let us take it all personally.  Let us recall and relive those wondrous deeds that God has done.  And let this one truth sink into our hearts: that God did all this for you and me.

dd

Wednesday of the 5th Week of Lent

During times like these, times of confusion, uncertainty, and even fear, it makes sense to cry out to God for help when we’re struggling.  But the Scriptures also show us people praising God when they’re in dire straits.  In today’s first reading, for instance, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have been thrown into a white-hot furnace because they refuse to worship pagan gods.  But instead of panicking and crying out in fear, they walk about in the flames, “singing to God and blessing the Lord” (Daniel 3:24).

Two things happen as the three men in the fiery furnace praise God.  First, they are supernaturally protected, the flames don’t harm them.  Second, they realise that they are not alone: there is a fourth man in the furnace with them, who “looks like a son of God” (3:92).

We all face challenges in life; we all feel at times that we are in a white-hot furnace of our own.  Our first reaction is usually to cry out to God to save us.  And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, God wants us to call on him in our need.  But what if we decided to take a deep breath and offer him praise as well?

Like the “fourth man” appearing in the furnace, the act of praising God in some mysterious way makes him more present to us.  We know that he might not always protect us from harm in miraculous ways as he did for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  We know that he might not take away the challenges we face.  But we do become more aware that he is with us, and we become more confident that he will never leave us or forsake us.

And something else happens as we step out in faith and decide to praise God: we move from focusing on ourselves and our problems to focusing on God.  That stirs up our hope and confidence in God.  We understand in a deeper way that we have a great and mighty God who will love us, not just in our present troubles, but into eternity.  If we take today’s Responsorial Psalm to heart, we will realise that even if our situation doesn’t change, our hearts will.

cc

Tuesday of the 5th Week of Lent

The account of the Hebrews’ grumbling and the punishment of the fiery serpents is just one of many in the Old Testament that recount how hard life in the desert must have been.  The plagues that God used to convince Pharaoh to let his people go must have been dramatic; almost as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea that had sealed their freedom from slavery.  The Hebrews were the beneficiaries of many displays of divine power, so you can understand their puzzlement at the plague that God seemed to have unleashed on them.  In Egypt, God had taken care of everything so that he could bring them unharmed into the Promised Land.  But now things seemed radically different.

Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we see that the journey to the Promised Land was very difficult; and not just because of the harshness of the desert.  It was hard because it called for the people’s full cooperation with God.  How challenging it must have been once the people realized that God was not going to take care of their every problem.  It must have been shocking indeed to discover that they needed to put aside their grumblings, work together, and obey God’s commandments.

Like the Hebrews, we too face challenges and difficulties; trials that call for deep trust and cooperation with God.  So, how do we react to these trials?  Do we lose hope, get impatient, maybe even grumble and complain?  Or do we look to the Cross and stand firm in our faith in God’s plan for us and the victory that he has won for us?

b

Monday of the 5th Week of Lent

According to Jewish law, adultery was a capital crime punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10).  But according to Roman law—which governed occupied Palestine—Jews had no authority to put anyone to death.  Capital cases had to be referred to the Roman Procurator.  So, if Our Lord had agreed with the Pharisees, he would have violated the Roman law.  But if he had disagreed, he would have been identified as a false teacher.

Once again, Our Lord’s enemies underestimated him.  Our Lord needed only one sentence to silence them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

Why did this one sentence have such a dramatic impact?  Well, Our Lord made it clear that whatever judgment they levelled against this woman for her sin would be levelled against them for their own sins.  If she were condemned, they would be condemned too.  There were only two responses: to confess their sins, or to walk away.  And since they were unwilling to repent, they walked away, and the woman lived.

But they should have stayed and faced their sins.  That’s what the woman did, and her life was changed.  Our Lord showered her with grace and washed away her sins.  Even though she was guilty, Our Lord issued a decree of divine forgiveness and set her on a new path.

I recently read about the 18th century hymn writer John Newton, who learned this lesson well.  He survived a violent storm at sea and, and in thanksgiving to God, he wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’.  Now, Newton was a slave trader.  He focused on material gain and cared little about the people he put into chains.  After experiencing God’s mercy so dramatically, he was converted and gave his life to God.  He eventually spoke out against the slave trade and influenced the young William Wilberforce who devoted his life to outlaw slavery in Great Britain.

Like John Newton, we may feel moved to change our lives to the degree to which we experience God’s mercy.  And we should always remember that, like the woman caught in adultery, we too deserve punishment, but have been given mercy, peace, and life instead.

aa

Fifth Sunday of Lent

I said at the beginning of Mass that we are all linked together as members of the Church by an invisible bond of unity.  That bond is strengthened and maintained by the miracle of technology, which allows our friends and relatives to join us for our Conventual Mass this morning.  As the Coronavirus Pandemic takes a firmer grip on all our lives, we take the opportunity to thank all those medical professionals, and others, who serve the people of the communities in which we live.  And, as people of faith, we commend all those who suffer from the disease to the mercy of our gracious God and ask him to ease their burdens during this time of testing and trial.  In the meantime, and we say in the north, we have to get on with life; we follow government advice to stay home, in order to protect other people, and especially those we love and care for.  We also pray for a swift end to the pandemic and ask God to inspire the scientists to find an effective vaccine to protect us from this virus.  Even though all our lives have been interrupted, it doesn’t mean that life has to grind to a halt.  As Christians we continue our Lenten journey, perhaps with more fervour than ever before.  And while joining in worship at a distance is not the same as being here, I do encourage our friends and relatives to take part and join us for the Holy Week liturgies as we approach that most significant week of our Christian lives.  Because the Sisters and I live in the same household, we are able to carry on as normal, and invite you to join us for the entire Triduum on Church Services TV, and for as long as this crisis lasts.

Next Sunday is, of course, Palm Sunday and it marks the beginning of the holiest week of the Church’s liturgical year.  Over the five weeks of Lent we have tried to spend, at least some time, looking in at ourselves instead of the usual looking out at others.  Lent shows us how easy it is to criticise, judge and to blame other people, and many of us are dab hands at it.  The funny thing is, if you just spare a minute or two to have a look, you may find that you are blaming others for the very things that are so obviously wrong with yourself.  And because you have been so busy looking around outside you; you may have become blind to what has been happening inside you.

During Lent we make a special effort to do without something we like, or we make do with something we don’t find particularly pleasant.  The result, we hope, is an improvement of our interior life.  That really is the meaning of penance.  It’s a change in our attitude to people, and also to things.

Now, as Holy Week draws near, Christ becomes very much the central character on the stage.  The greatest drama in human history begins to play itself out, reaching its climax at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the kangaroo trial before Pontius Pilate, Our Lord’s Death on the Cross on Good Friday, and the most marvellous thing of all, when death was finally defeated by Our Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Those great events could only happen once, but we remember and take part in them again during the Holy Week liturgies.

All our readings today have the theme of rising to new life.   In St. John’s Gospel we hear the breath-taking story of Our Lord bringing back to life his old friend Lazarus who had been dead for four days.  When Lazarus became ill, Jesus and the Apostles were some distance away in hiding from the Jewish leaders who were looking to arrest him.  When Our Lord received the news about his friend, he made no move for two days.  The Apostles were surprised at that, because they were aware of the close friendship between Our Lord and Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.  “Don’t worry”, Our Lord said, “This sickness will not end in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.”  And so they returned to the village of Bethany, which was practically a suburb of Jerusalem, and the incredible event of our gospel today took place.

Our Lord had still to be glorified and that could only happen when he himself suffered death.  The Jewish leaders decided he must die, and so they made plans for his capture and arrest.

From this moment on, all must have been very sad for the Apostles.  Slowly they were remembering Our Lord’s words about going up to Jerusalem and being arrested, tried and condemned.  St. Peter would recall how he had been put in his place for objecting to all this.  With him, both James and John must have been recalling the amazing Transfiguration event of just a few weeks ago.  And they must have wondered how the course of events could have changed so quickly.  The days to come were to shatter their world and their lives.  But they didn’t know what we know.

For us, as we live again the end, which was of course, really the beginning, there is the thought of the inevitability of our own death and, please God, our resurrection.  From time to time I remind myself of that line in the Mass for the Dead which says that for God’s faithful people life is changed, not ended.  What our lot will be in the Kingdom of Heaven will depend on the way we live our lives today.

As Christ prepares to suffer and to die, and then to rise from the dead, let us strengthen our faith so that we also will rise with him when our turn comes.

a

Saturday of the 4th Week of Lent

Today’s Gospel gives us plenty useful material for our lectio divina.  There’s a lot to consider and it can be rather confusing.  Some Jews thought Jesus was a prophet.  Others were convinced he was the Messiah.  Others doubted that he was anything special because of his place of birth.  And still others thought he should be arrested because his words scandalised so many of the religious leaders.

But there was one group of people who wasn’t confused: the temple soldiers.  They chose to disobey their orders and not to arrest Jesus.  “Never before has anyone spoken like this man” (John 7:46).  Something about Our Lord and his message made them pause and question themselves, and the position of their employers.  Our Lord’s words had found a way into their hearts, and those words took them by surprise and challenged them to think differently about the God whose Temple they were sworn to protect.

We all get confused sometimes.  We may have questions about our faith.  We may struggle with a particular Church teaching.  Sometimes we read Scripture without truly understanding what is being said or why.  Sometimes it’s the events of our own lives, and aren’t we living through such a time now when so many questions are gathering in our minds.  So, what should we do?  Well, we can learn something from those temple guards: we must listen to Jesus in his word.

And this is because there is great power in the word of God.  And we can experience this power when we are open and listening to it.  Anyone can hear a scripture passage being proclaimed, but those who are thirsting for God will hear it address them personally.  So will those who are eager for truth, those who know how empty their hearts are without God, and those who are tired of living only for themselves.  In each of these situations, and of course countless others, the Holy Spirit finds open hearts, and he comes to them.  He gives glimmers of God’s love and invites them to keep pursuing him.

We don’t know what happened with these temple guards, but we do know one thing: their lives were upended that day, and they couldn’t go back to living as before.  And neither can we.

zzz

Friday of the 4th Week of Lent

Perhaps on first hearing you missed the full impact of one sentence in today’s gospel: “the Jews were out to kill him”.  How chilling those words are and thinking about their meaning makes our blood run cold.  The leaders of the Jewish people were looking for an opportunity to kill the very person who had come to save them.

Equally chilling are the words of the Letter to the Hebrews in referring to those who have abandoned their faith: “They crucify again for themselves the Son of God and make him a mockery”. (6:6)  Though these words were written as a vivid picture of the malice of apostasy, they can also be applied without exaggeration to the evil of any deliberate mortal sin.

Too many Catholics nowadays don’t like to hear about mortal sin, because they have given up going to Confession, and they don’t like to be reminded of their failings.  I still hear that many priests are slow to talk about mortal sin lest they be accused of being negative or old-fashioned.  We would probably be surprised at how many Catholics think mortal sin, purgatory and hell were abolished by the Second Vatican Council.  But sin and the possibility of spending eternity in hell is not imaginary.  Sin doesn’t go away simply because we don’t like to think about it.  Sin, as we are all too aware, is a real and distinct possibility in all our lives.

Many of the readings at Mass during this season of Lent warn us about the danger of complacency in religion.  It’s so easy to find ourselves just going through the motions of being a Catholic.

As we prepare to celebrate the great liturgies of Holy Week, we should ask ourselves if we are spiritually healthy.  If not, then now is the time to search out even the smallest venial sin to destroy it.  Now is the time to build up our spiritual strength against a sudden attack.  Now is the time to do everything we can, without complacency, to make sure that one day we are not so foolish as “to crucify again for ourselves the Son of God and make him a mockery”.

y