The Assumption

There was much apocalyptic literature in the centuries before and after Christ – among the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Persian and even Indian literature. This literature which is about the development in the world of disasters and troubles expressed in dramatic stories, included those of evil ‘influences’ seeking to destroy the next ruler born to a chosen woman to be mother of the future ruler. Some form of these apocalyptic stories were part of Jewish literature – as also the book of Revelation in the N.T. which used to be called the Apocalypse in Catholic bibles, because of its similarity to such literature. Our first reading (from Revelations 12:1-6) for the Catholic feast of the Assumption includes an adaptation of this mythic scenario to the situation of Christianity under Roman persecution in the 1st century to encourage believers in Jesus and his resurrection – a faith that secures them safety in heaven, but how the rest of us, still living in our world, are still threatened by evil. The story could bring to mind the Assumption of Mary into heaven – waiting with Christ for the rest of us after our struggles against the evil forces in our world. There are ‘secular’ stories of old about such sort of events.

The second reading (1 Cor 15:20-27) is about the resurrection – life with God after death. The appearances of Jesus referred to chiefly in the gospels, are expressions of risen life after death which through Jesus is open to all – but all sin and deficiencies in us humans are gaps in our relationship through Christ with God. I think Paul like most of the early believers thought this completion would come fairly soon for them. But, after two millennia we have to realise that we are still working on this i.e. on freeing ourselves and our world from many failings and imperfections. The belief in the Assumption of Mary who illustrates this fulfilment drew this passage to the minds of those devising the liturgy for the Catholic feast.

The Gospel that is read this day is from Luke 1:39-56 and it gives us what follows after the story of the Annunciation. And it includes the song that she sang when visiting Elizabeth, which is sometimes called the Magnificat after the first word of it in Latin. It tells of the blessing that she has from God, but also of the way God favours those who are good-living, but suppresses those who are not – I guess most of us are bit of each – but Mary feels utterly blessed and that is the ground for celebrating her this day.

see Jeffs Jottings

19th Sunday Cycle C

The first reading is from a section of the book of Wisdom (18:6-9) about the Passover and is a reflection on the history of the Old Testament people and the pattern of God’s dealings with us humans. This Old Testament book was written originally in Greek; it is not considered as part of the canon of Scripture by Protestant Churches but is accepted by the Catholic Church; its status is called deutero-canonical – meaning of secondary canonical status. It reads as though God rewards those who are His people and punishes their enemies. This is how the covenant celebrated in the Passover meal, was generally interpreted by the chosen people. Similar ideas seem to show themselves in the psalm that follows the reading (extracts from Psalm 33).

The second reading is from the book of Hebrews (Chapter 11, verses 1-19 omitting the examples of Abel, Enoch and Noah). This writing was in the past referred to as Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, but now is generally recognised as by some unknown Christian authority who focused on the Christian impact and interpretation of the events of the Old Testament. As in all the books of the Bible the chapter divisions are a later addition, so that this reading from the beginning of Chapter 11 flows naturally on from the end of the previous chapter. The opening phrase is well-known in the King James version which reads “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The illustrations from the O.T. in our reading give some indication of how the author understood the words. Faith can be taken as a personal response, something subjective, rather than an objective reality. Today, in English translations both objective and subjective interpretations are used. I think the word “realisation” would be good; its dictionary definition has three possibilities: i. the act of becoming fully aware of something; ii. the achievement of something; and iii. the conversion of some asset into something useful.
It is most likely that Jesus would have said something about being prepared for a disaster and disappointment as He sensed that He would be arrested because of popular support for a nationalist interpretation of what He was trying to say about God and religion.  And this popular view was seen as a threat by both religious leaders and secular authorities. We know that after His death and resurrection there was an expectation of the coming of Christ as judge to establish the kingdom on earth and to share a heavenly banquet with the faithful followers. But Luke (12:32-48) has presented this as a warning addressed to the leaders of the church (the stewards). Their need for readiness uses the phrase ‘gird your loins’ which refers to the tying up of their long robes ready for some physical work and in some translations is rendered “see that you are dressed for action.” Behind what Luke writes there is a parable about this need for preparation and readiness.

See Jeffs Jottings

18th. Sunday C

The first reading is from a book called Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth and neither name is very helpful for us, but it is one of the latest books added to the last section of the Jewish bible, the Christian Old Testament. It is a kind of wisdom literature: the thoughts of someone about life seen as a journey through various different situations but always finding life unsatisfactory. Our reading is mostly from Chapter 2 (verses 21 -23); it is introduced with the well-known phrase ‘vanity of vanities, all things are vanity,’ at the beginning of the book. But this can miss the sense, for nowadays vanity means pride, often pride where there is nothing of which to be proud; the Hebrew word really seems to refer to something that is vaporous or even foggy; and the whole book would bear out this meaning, for the author finds that things that at first appear solid turn out to be nothing but airy-fairy nonsense. The book is attributed to the son of David, Solomon, for he was noted for his wisdom, but it was written about 700 years after him – about 300 before Christ. There was some debate by Jewish scholars about whether it should be seen as a sacred book, but in the end it found its way into the bible. I think it is a very religious attitude to see the contingency and insubstantiality of everything – the futility of whatever one does except (and that’s a big except) for the presence and activity of God in our lives and in all (the good) we do.

The second reading is from the last chapter of Colossians (3:1-11 passim), and this is the fourth Sunday we have read from this letter.  It summarises succinctly the situation we are in and the imperatives that follow from this.  The distinctive feature of the passage may be brought out by examining the structure of the language: there is a putting together of statements of fact with requirements  of behaviour (in more technical language, a transition from indicative verbs to imperative ones, from “is” to “ought”).  Through Christ there is a new situation, humanity is elevated to a new plane of existence; the consequence is that we ought to live differently, there is an imperative for us to live up to this new life – a life with Christ, within God’s life.

The gospel we have for today is peculiar to Luke (12:13-21). It begins with a phrase used several times by Luke, “a man” or sometimes translated “someone” or “a certain man;”   such was the beginning of the parables of the Good Samaritan (which we read three weeks ago) and the one about the Prodigal Son. In Jesus’ time and place, a dispute of a legal, moral or religious question would be brought to a rabbi for a judgment to provide an answer or solution. Jesus was not really a rabbi, but in Luke’s account here this man who had a dispute with is brother over the inheritance, presumable left by a parent, asked Jesus to make a ruling. Jesus wasn’t going to over-reach his authority, but took the opportunity to teach a moral lesson about the relative value of earthly riches compared with the prize of heaven; and so we have the parable of the Rich Man. This is actually the first of five such tales Luke records about a rich man; he is trying to make some point.

See Jeffs Jottings

17th Sunday: C

The readings

The first reading is another part of the story about Abraham. The whole story is about God in discussion with Abraham deciding to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness of its inhabitants. The story has probably developed from an earlier myth that was around about the near total destruction of humanity, this time not by flood but by fire; the primitiveness of the view of God is obvious in the way God discusses this with Abraham and in that God has to go and see what is going on in Sodom having heard shocking reports of its behaviour. The part of the story in our reading is about the question of the righteousness of God – is it right to condemn a group which includes even just a few good people? This was an important question for the Jewish people as they settled in what they called the promised land where other tribes were living. It perhaps reflects both the market-place custom of theirs in haggling for a good price and the intimacy that they felt there was between God and their ancestor Abraham.

The second reading is reminding the Christians of Colossae what their baptism should mean to them. They would most likely have been baptised by going completely under water, in a river or pool, and probably as adults – and rising up out of it, rising with Christ. This is how the Baptist denomination still performs the ceremony today. Some of the people of Colossae thought that God is absent from our world and that only after our death will our life be in Christ. But this reading stresses that it is here and now that we are with Christ; using unusual Greek words to emphasise this unity we have with Christ even now – with his death, with his resurrection and with a renewed life here and now; these are like our English word sympathy, synthesis, symbiosis and others that use the Greek word ‘συν’ meaning ‘together with.’

The gospel relates the story of Jesus teaching about praying, and includes Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which Catholics more often call the Our Father. We notice particularly here the teaching skill of Jesus in the use of everyday language and easily understood examples illustrating the substance and manner of prayer that his disciples should have, what they should say and how they should say it. The language of our prayers and the way that we pray could be just the same as our approach to our neighbours and friends, and in return God’s way with us is best likened to a responsible father to one of his children. Matthew’s gospel also has the Lord’s prayer (Mt 6:9-13) but worded slightly differently.

See Jeffs Jottings

16th Sunday: C

The readings.

The book of Genesis is not ordinary history but a tale about the chosen people and their origin and relationship with God. The stories of Abraham in Genesis, are the oft-told tales of the origins of the covenant between God and his chosen people who saw themselves as the descendants of Abraham. In the way it is told, God had already announced to Abraham (chapter 17) that his wife Sarah would give birth to Isaac although he was 100 and she 90, and now our first reading (Genesis 18:1-10) is about the timing of the birth of this God-given child. It is an intriguing short tale not only showing us the gracious custom of welcoming strangers but giving a hint of the way people thought of God communicating with them; for although it tells us that three men came to deliver this message, they seem to represent the one God to Abraham – you have to listen carefully or read the passage again to notice this.
For the second reading (Col 1:24-28) we have a continuation of the deep doctrinal presentation which was begun last week. There is the realisation that not all is as it should be in the church, the body of Christ. He is the head but we are the body, the part which is as yet struggling and incomplete. There is much suffering for us and more to learn, understand and to bring about so as to progress towards the completion and fulfilment of our place in the glorious body of Christ with God in heaven. The overall plan is a mystery and as yet incomplete, and we, members of this creation -His Body – have our important roles to play. Paul suffered much both from other people and from imprisonment, but now, writing from prison, he is glad to be part of this development towards the perfection which God is creating with us.

Last week’s reading from Luke included the parable of the Good Samaritan. For today we have the next story Luke tells – of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) ; if last week’s was about ‘Love your neighbour,’ then this story is about listening to God, ‘Love the Lord thy God.’ We know from John’s gospel that Martha and Mary lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem, but Luke doesn’t mention this because he has the motif of Jesus on a journey and still quite a distance from its climax in Jerusalem. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet like a student of a Rabbi, though the Rabbis would not have had female disciples, so there is quite a lesson in this alone. The story wants to make the point that hospitality, especially for a travelling missionary should not be excessive and not hinder the work of teaching and the response of listening.

See Jeffs Jottings

15th Sunday: C

The Readings.

Deuteronomy is the name of the last book of the first and principle section of the Old Testament called the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). It was mostly written down about 700 BC, when the Jews were very weak in their religious practice and when they were drawn towards pagan services and rituals. It contains appropriate sermons and a blueprint for renewal of Jewish religious practice – revival of the original Commandments given through Moses according to Exodus and expanded in the other books of the Law. The sermons are attributed to Moses to give them added authority, and they are what he would have preached in that situation. Today’s reading is from the last sermon and is addressed to those who have become slack in practising their religion and maybe exiled from their own country. It encouragingly stresses the intimacy of God’s Law to his chosen people – You know it so do it.!

For the second reading we have what might be adapted from an early Christian hymn in the beginning of the letter to the Colossians. This letter contains an understanding of Christianity that has developed from what is found in the early letters of Paul (Galatians, Corinthians and Romans). It links well with the first reading, but speaks of Christ rather than of the Law; instead of rules we have a way of life to live by and live with. Christ is the very representative – icon – of God with us. The first verse of the hymn is about Christ being involved in all creation, and holding everything in existence together. The second verse is about Christ’s relationship with the Church, as its head, pouring out his life and thereby lifting us all into the fullness of the life of God.

In the extract from Luke’s gospel we have a passage that is in the form of a dialogue between a student and a teacher, the rabbi. The student/disciple asks about the Law because it seems unclear as how one should live one’s life. And the reply is in the typical form of rabbinic teaching, with an illustrative story ending with a question for the would-be follower. Luke presents it as a scholar trying to outwit Jesus who responds with a challenging story and question – especially critical of the clergy and the self-righteous. From this story we have the phrase ‘a good Samaritan.’ The Jews, especially the priest and clerics in the story, would have judged Samaritans to be less religious than themselves, but… on what understanding of religion?

See Jeffs Jottings

14th Sunday: C

The readings.

The 1st reading is from the last chapter of the book of Isaiah (66:10-14) which is a section of poetry concerning the Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon to the ruins of their temple and city. They had uncertain emotions about the reason God had allowed this to happen and about his relationship with them. Ideas about the nature of God vary throughout the Old Testament and even in the New Testament and throughout the history of Christianity. In some situations, both of nations and of individuals, it can seem appropriate for God to be presented as harsh and even angry, but in others and at other times it seems preferable for God to be seen as forgiving and loving. So, in the reading, God is associated with the perfect Jerusalem, which in the New Testament would be called the coming Kingdom of God and is today what Christians call heaven or the future fulfillment of God’s plan for creation. In this poetry it is an image of a loving mother with a suckling and bouncing baby – an image of warmth and love, as the love of God for his people. But interestingly the section set out for our reading omits the second half of the last phrase which in full reads as “to his servants the Lord will reveal his hand but to his enemies his fury.” This would make it more like the Last Judgement when the just shall be saved and others not.

For the second reading we have the last few verses of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It reminds us that not only is the Kingdom open to non-Jews but that we are already living as new creatures in this life here and now – as expressed and illustrated in the other two readings.

In Luke’s gospel Jesus’ public work is told as a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem; it is a time for drawing people to him with his message of God as a loving and forgiving Father; in this, Luke follows the pattern of Matthew and Mark; and so the gospel journey comes to an end with the death and raising of Jesus to be with the Father in heaven. But the geographical movement in Luke is interrupted by chapters 10 to 18. Before that Jesus has already chosen the twelve and even sent them out to preach – twelve is the number of the Jewish tribes and it is these and those who join them, that are thought of as being drawn towards the Kingdom of God. The reading for today (Luke 10:1-20 – omitting the woes on unrepentant cities) begins this interruption with an account of the selection of seventy ‘missionaries’ sent out in a similar way. Luke knew that in the Bible (Genesis 10 and 11) after the flood there were 70 nations that filled the whole world; so this story shows that God’s Kingdom is open to all people, not just Jews; and so the 70 should eat whatever food, never minding the Jewish dietary rules; but the spreading of this good news will be difficult – they will be “like lambs to the slaughter.” The last section of today’s gospel reading tells of their success but they shouldn’t rejoice about this.

See Jeff’s Jottings

SS Peter and Paul

The Readings

In the Acts, Luke is writing the remarkable account of the expansion of Christianity and the development of the church; and this is despite external opposition, even persecution, and their leaders’ inadequacies and failings. The story is built around the two different characters in the early church of Peter and Paul. Whereas Peter was a headstrong, simple Galilean Jewish fisherman who followed Jesus throughout His public ministry, Paul was a well educated Jew and Roman citizen living outside of the Jewish territory, who after a brief encounter with Jesus turned from antagonism to christians to be come an apostle to the Gentiles. The phrase “in those days” at the beginning of today’s reading, alludes to the time when the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and the surrounding area expanded and even included followers of Jesus’ Way who were not Jews – they were Samaritans or even Gentiles. It was this expansion that began to cause disturbances in Jerusalem. Herod, the local ruler, wanted to keep the peace in order to retain favour within the Roman empire, and so began to arrest the Jewish Christian leaders who were the source of the trouble. So our reading concerns the imprisonment of Peter; it was during the feast of unleavened Bread – a sacred time in Jerusalem – so he would be executed after the Passover, as James had been earlier. The story of his escape was passed down by word of mouth – and with significant elaboration – that is what is related here by Luke. This is a good story illustrating how faith can lead us into difficulties and yet God can save us; and there is a delightful incident about Rhoda (in our language Rose) which follows our reading which you might like to read here.

The two letters to Timothy and the one to Titus are together called the pastoral epistles. They may well date from about the year 100 AD at a time when the organisation of the body of Christians was developing and the difficulties of admitting Gentiles and the like were overcome. But at that time part of the difficulty was the distance in time since Jesus, and even since the time of the disciples who knew him. So these letters are about life and practice in this later church. But the letters do include some passages that seem most likely to come from Paul himself, and our reading today is from one of these sections. In the first paragraph Paul writes about himself in later life as he looks back on the devoted life that he has led and looks forward to his expected reward like that of all who work for the fullness of coming of Christ on earth. The second paragraph in the original begins with a “But” because the text tells of the loneliness and difficult situation of Paul – even being unsupported when taken to court – which explains the ‘but’ before our second paragraph. On this feast of Peter and Paul, this reading shows Paul as a saint in the sense of the word, someone that we would do well to emulate; we should be pouring out our lives for God’s work and confident that the Lord is with us even at difficult times and that we shall eventually get our reward.

Peter acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah is told in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). But Matthew, which we read today, adds a commissioning of Peter to be a leader of the church. This may be because the churches for which Matthew is particularly writing had a special respect for Peter their founder and leader for a time. He is called a rock, which is what Peter means. Nevertheless he also was the most headstrong disciple who so often let Jesus down. This is why he is an admiral saint – someone we can look to emulate in some way because even when we mess things up we can be sorry, be forgiven and still go on to do good things. He was eventually executed for his faith in Rome. Catholics particularly view him as the first overall leader of the Church worldwide – a Pope.

See Jeffs Jottings on Angels

13th Sunday Cycle C

God has called Elijah to the sacred mountain of Sinai (also called Horeb); it is on this mountain that there is fierce wind, an earthquake and fire, but God is in the silence that follows, and it is there that God tells him to pass on the mantle of his job to Elisha.  When Elijah does this, as we have in our reading (1 Kings 19:19-21), Elisha ceremoniously leaves his life as a successful farmer, and after a meal with his friends and relatives, obedient to God’s call, sets off to start his new life following Elijah – at least to begin with then becoming a prophet in his own right..

In the second reading we hear Paul continuing to instruct the Galatians; the chapter is introduced with the words “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”   But the main message (Galatians 5:13-18) is not easy for us to grasp because of the significance of his use of the word ‘flesh.’  ‘Flesh’ is sometimes just a way of saying ‘human’ rather than divine as in the well-know phrase “the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14) which just means the Son of God became human – one of us.  But sometimes the word ‘flesh’ is used to imply a human way of living that is in opposition to what God wants and is not even helpful to our fellow human beings; this is not dissimilar from what was sometimes called ‘original sin,’ namely, the situation in which we live that falls well short of what it could and should be.  In contrast to this flesh is the spirit; ‘spirit’ can mean the uplifting and contagious spirit that we have as humans for the good of ourselves and others, but also, for Christians, it can refer to the Spirit of God that is in us enabling and encouraging us to live as true followers of Christ, showing love of others to the bitter end.  The passage makes sense when we understand something of this.

In the gospel passage, Luke’s theme that Jesus’ public life is a journey surfaces, and this is a key moment in His journey; it is not a geographical one, but a spiritual one; from now on Jesus realises that it is through pain, suffering and apparent failure that He will fulfill the will of the Father for Him.   There are clear echoes here of the account of Elijah’s decline from power, of the moment of Elisha’s call to follow him and of Elijah’s being ‘taken up’ at the end of his life.  Jesus is a Prophet and more, is a leader like Moses – but more – but they share in and illuminate His life for us.  In the reading (Luke 9:51-62) we have a message for us if we are to be true followers of Jesus.

The Body and Blood of Christ

The first reading from Genesis (14:18-20) is an isolated anecdote in the story of Abraham, which may have indicated belief in a universal god outwith the race and descendants of Abraham.  There is also reference to this ‘king of the most high’ in psalm 110 celebrating the kingship of David over the Jews.   The idea of a god over all the people of the world and over all creation was used in the New Testament book called Hebrews (6:18-7:22) and applied to the priesthood of Jesus as understood by Christians.

The second reading is from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. (11:23-26).  This passage is about what Paul learnt from the early Christian community when he joined one group for a communal meal together.  We learn from the gospels, written later than this, that Jesus had shared in meals with friends and others who invited him – he was living the very best way a human can – sharing and befriending all.  This was how He just gave His life for others!  Not only were there those Jews who were annoyed by what He was doing and saying – upsetting their authority, but also many of His followers easily misunderstood him: some thought of Him as a potential leader against the occupying Romans, some in addition that He might be the longed-for leader who would raise the Jewish nation to great height in the world, bringing God’s plan for them (as they saw it) to completion.  It was these attitudes that would lead to His death.  When Christian groups came together later, they wanted to emulate the life of Jesus.  Like all like-minded groups among both the Jewish world and the wider, so-called, pagan empire, they met together and had a meal.  At such meetings Paul learnt how the shared bread and wine were thought of as the life and death of Jesus both given for others.  He was now reminding the Corinthian Church of this, because they were somewhat missing the point of the shared meals.

The gospel comes from Luke: most of 9:11-17.   It is about the feeding of a huge crowd.  This is appropriate today so that we don’t think that Jesus’ last supper was the only time he thanked God and broke food with His ‘fans’ and friends.   More than the others, Luke tells of Jesus’ meals with all sorts of different persons: a banquet in the house of Levi with tax-collectors and sinners, dinner at Simon’s place including Pharisees and a ‘sinful’ woman, at the home of Martha and Mary and invited by Pharisees and lawyers.  Luke portrays Jesus as a friend of everyone, sharing Himself with them and showing them the love of God.  On this feast when we celebrate the ‘last supper’, we must not think of it as like a mass, but rather as a get-together giving thanks to God (which is what ‘blessing’ the bread and cup means) and showing His true self as living and willing to die for others – for all kinds of others.

See Jeff’s Jottings on Corpus Christi (as it used to be called).  And a comment on last week’s sermon by Fr Benedict