1st Sunday Lent

18th February 2018

Genesis 9:8-15)

Many nations have an ancient story about a massive flood that covered a great deal of the earth (http://creation.com/many-flood-legends); it is a traditional tale that they like to pass on to each generation. The Old Testament presents its version of this story as a desperate measure taken by their God, angry because of the huge wickedness of the people that he had created. It extends into the story of the ‘salvation’ of Noah in the Ark together with his immediate family and a viable sample of all living creatures; with this it becomes the story of a new beginning, a second chance and especially a firm promise from God that He will never react this way again – a covenant for a new beginning. The story relates that God arranged that the appearance of the rainbow would remind people of this settlement. This version of a flood story can still give us confidence in the love of God for us that can extend into forgiveness for whatever sins we have and of which we repent. It is symbolized well by the combination of rain and sunshine producing the rainbow which we still rejoice to see. Indeed, just as we are told that none of us in fact see the same rainbow, so God’s attitude to us treats each one of us as a beloved individual person.

(1 Peter 3:18-22)

This letter comes from a period when the Christians were clearly a distinct and new religion and were liable to criticism and even persecution from Jews and from those who followed the Roman or Greek gods. The letter is attributed to Peter, but written too late to be his; it reads as a general letter to a number of churches from an overseer (a bishop). Its content definitely relates to the sacrament of Baptism and our reading comes from a section that is like a sermon explaining the symbolism of water in terms of the flood story – it is a new beginning for people and even though times might be hard, they were hard for Jesus too (unto death) but because of Him, difficulties can be lived through, for He now lives in glory with God. The original recipients were quite likely to suffer persecution from Roman authorities and possibly ostracism from members of their own family and onetime friends. If we are trying to live in an upright way as shown to us by Jesus, then we will face difficulty both from the situation we are in and the temptations that we will have, then this ‘sermon’ will have something to say to us.

(Mark 1:9-15)

This extract is typical of the author’s short and pertinent style. John is a man who preaches conversion; not a change of religion but perhaps, a renewed, commitment to live up to the ideals that one knows one should – appropriate for Lent; his message is often summed up with the word ‘repent’ in the Greek original (μετανοιειτε) “change your whole way of thinking.” Mark writes that Jesus (we suppose at about the age of thirty) leaves his life in the little village of his family and friends, Nazareth, and comes to John to symbolically express this dramatic change in his way of life thenceforth. Mark emphasizes this ‘new beginning’ by relating three life-changing moments: firstly, Jesus saw (we might say envisaged) the heavens ripped open; secondly, just as at creation, the Spirit of God hovered over (with creative power as in the opening words of Genesis); and finally, the creative voice of God (Who said ‘let there be… and there was…”) declares Jesus to be His Son, loved and doing what pleases God. It is from this moment of commitment that Jesus’ life begins to be really a struggle; he is lead by the Spirit into the desert – a traditional place for difficulties, and among wild and lawless people, though attended with the heavenly angels. Then Mark’s abrupt style puts John to one side and Jesus straight into His public ministry, as we call it, of encouraging this same conversion in others, which is really good news for them

6th Sunday B

11th February 2018

(Lev 13 1-2,44-46)

This extract from the Book of Leviticus is about the laws governing the isolation of those with leprosy or similar ailments. Like some other religious traditional rituals and laws, these rules arise from a matter of hygiene and community health, and are given a religious interpretation. So it says that those with the disease or in contact with them will be considered religiously ‘unclean’ and not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies or even mix with others in public places. These laws were still in force at the time of Jesus and it is quite significant that He transgresses this ruling by touching the unclean in order to heal them. Perhaps it is still the case that not all church laws have to be kept, depending on the particular situation!

(1 Cor 10:31-11:1)

In this reading Paul is responding to another question that the Corinthian Christian Community have put to him, which concerns the food that they might buy in the market place which may have been offered to ‘false’ gods; they wonder if it is right to eat such food. Paul’s answer is based on the premise that all things are permissible as long as they do not offend others – we must always try to do good to others, as Christ did. In practice, however, this is more complicated than it might seem, because sometimes you have to take a course of action that ‘offends’ someone else; Paul’s rule is absolute though – whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.

(Mark 1:40-45)

Here we have an isolated story that Mark includes in his gospel at this point; it may well be based on an original account told by Peter, from whom much early information about Christ came to Mark. We see that Jesus reaches out to touch the leper despite the ritual uncleanness that Leviticus mentions (see first reading); and again, this account, like others, reminds us that Jesus came to show us how to live as God would wish us to – not in all details but in the basic attitude and principles – even though this may offend some religious rules and perhaps some people. If we allow the life of Christ in us to drive all we do, then all things are permissible, because all we do will be based on the love of others and through them the love of God.  There is an interesting diversity in the translation of the feelings that Jesus is said to have: sorrow, anger, compassion etc.  This difficulty is also found in early manuscripts that some of which use a Greek word meaning “was angry” and others a different word meaning something like “deeply moved.”  Most scholars think that anger was the original for you can imagine a scribe changing that to compassion but not vice versa; but this whole issue gives us pause for thought – what attitude should we have to the woes that others undergo: sorrow, anger, deep concern or should it always result in action, even cutting through the accepted practice of the time?

5th Sunday B

4th February 2018

This first reading (Job 7:1-7) is a very brief extract from a poetic story of high literary quality and revealing theology. Our English language has adopted various phrases from it: by the skin of one’s teeth; multiply words without knowledge; miserable comforters. Its story was retold in a Pulitzer prize-winning book in 1950, and there is an inferior children’s version here. Job was a man with multiple woes and unsympathetic, inadequate comforters, who spoke quite forcefully to God about his plight and after a long and tortuous time still remaining faithful to God, found relief through visualizing the awesomeness and grandeur of God and His creation. We all have times of upset and perhaps a sense of injustice – but remember the end of the story, untold in this reading!

Earlier in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:16-23 passim) Paul has dealt with the question of Christians eating some of the food on sale in the marketplace that has been sacrificed to an idol of pagan belief. Some think that Christians should not eat this food, while others think that since there are no real gods other than their one God, there is nothing wrong with eating this meat. Paul agrees with the more liberal view but wants to promote the avoidance of upsetting those Christians who think eating this meat is wrong and hence recommends abstaining from this meat if it gives scandal to other believers and finishers chapter eight writing “if food offends my brother I will never eat meat again so as not to offend him.” But Paul knows that many of the community are liberal in this matter, and that they are aware that he, as a leading Christian in the church, not only is liberal minded but also ought to be an example of this more enlightened view and of the consequent freedom in what one eats. Because of this he now writes to them about restricting one’s own freedom for the sake of others since the good of the community is more important than anything. Paul now exemplifies his attitude with reference to the question of payment for himself as their preacher and pastor – he feels he must sacrifice himself for others.

After the synagogue sermon we read about last week Jesus and the first disciples go to the house of Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29-39) where it seems they will be staying – an extended family. I always smile to myself when I read how Jesus finds Simon’s mother-in-law not well, so cures her and – almost seems, so that – she can then wait on them. This is obviously an anecdote from Peter himself that Mark has heard of. That evening Jesus frees a lot of people from various difficulties, but it is clear that He really wants to get back to the task of preaching about the kingdom. But notice also that Jesus needs a time of solitude to pray as though as to recharge his energies before he gets on with his task of preaching and freeing people from their demons. We all have some sort of demon that we need to be freed from and we need to follow his example of taking time with God before we get on with our ask in life.

4th Sunday 2018

28th January 2018

In the first read (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) , Moses relates the message that God will send a prophet to the people. This most probably meant at first that God would always send prophets to teach people God’s ways – to encourage, scold and challenge them. And there were in fact a series of prophets who were the mouth-pieces or spokes-persons of God, which is what the word prophet means (in the Greek προφητης). But later, perhaps following the yearning for a Messiah, this message from Moses may have been taken as an ideal Prophet who would speak God’s final words. Followers of Christ who came to realise that he was the very Word of God, took this as a foretelling of His coming. For us, as for all people across the ages, there is the problem of discerning the message of God to us, in general and to each of us individually in our different situations. Surely God’s message is in the Bible, but that needs interpreting, and the traditional teaching of the Christian Church plays a role in this. But in the end any individual application, comes from our own make-up, our circumstances and the myriads of people who communicate with us directly or indirectly. I think, that like a real parent, God wants us to heed all these and do the best we can – but we mustn’t harden our hearts or close our ears.

The second reading (1 Cor 7:32-35) follows on from last week’s. Paul is answering a number of questions that the Corinthians have raised with him, either by messenger or by letter. They had many questions they wanted their first evangeliser to sort out for them in their particular situation. Some Christian converts from Judaism promoted strict observance of the Jewish laws even for non-Jewish Christians, thinking that in this way they could deserve God’s love and grace. But this is mistaken because we know that God loves us gratuitously and we are not worthy of any reward from God. Some people in Corinth, perhaps in reaction to the immorality for which their city was notorious or the supposed imminence of the end of time, promoted celibacy even within marriage. Paul thought there was no harm in this but that it was not necessary. Paul knows that there is a difference between what he suggests and the genuine imperatives from the Lord for good Christian living.

Mark in the gospel (Mark 1:21-28) tells us of Jesus’ visit to the local synagogue where, as a visitor, he was invited to say some words. Jesus has confidence about any message of God for the people, because, as we now believe, He was the very Word of God incarnate into our humanity. The recipients of Mark’s preaching also had this belief, though perhaps only incipiently. In the story, the authority of the words of Jesus is recognised, interestingly even before His power over unclean spirits is exhibited. I notice that, in Mark’s gospel story, it is only the unclean spirit that actually recognises who Jesus is, and secondly, that there seems to be an aside, that the local leader of the synagogue and perhaps other teachers, don’t quite speak with the same personal confidence in what they say. We should be wary of thinking that we can earn God’s love (we have it anyway), and we should try to detect what God might be saying to us through the things and the people with whom we interact and the beliefs that we hold, and respond with confidence that we are doing the best we can. These are the ideas, perhaps, that we should take from the Word of God we hear each Sunday.

3rd Sunday B

21st January 2018

The Biblical story of Jonah and the whale is a fascinating story with many sub-plots and deeper meanings within it, dealt with very well on the website of the American Catholic Bishops’ Conference. We, unfortunately, only have a very short extract (3:1-5,10) from the whole story. Jonah, whose name means dove and indicates peace, is told by God a second time to deliver His message to the Ninevites. He must go and preach God’s anger to the wicked people of Nineveh, a huge city east of Israel and the capital of their longtime enemies. He had been told this before but tried to avoid both God and doing as asked – that’s the bit about the storm at sea and the whale. This time Jonah obeys this request from God and these enemies of Israel repent, for every single one of them believes in God (whom Jonah thought was just the God of Israel). With this show of repentance and the people giving up their evil ways, God has mercy on them. Even just this small bit of the story has something to say to you and me – listen, discern and heed!

In the Second Reading (1 Cor 7:29-31 ) written about the year 50 AD we detect how Paul thought then that the time was very soon for the final fulfillment of God’s plan in Christ – for the end of the world as we know it. But in later parts of his writings and other parts of the New Testament the delay in this actually coming about had made the early Christians think otherwise. However, the passage holds for us the message of the urgency of preparation for our fulfilling of our part in God’s plan for us. Not for us the abandonment of normal human activity but rather full engagement with our role in life in accord with the will of God in so far as we can discern it. But the rate of change we experience in technology and in the international situation does remind us that the world as we know it is continually coming to an end. Again the change in understanding God’s ways with humanity which this passage in the context of the New Testament indicates, must teach us to be cautious about any certainty we feel in respect of God’s plans for our world and for each of us at this time; before the mystery of God we must have due humility!

The Gospel (Mark 1:14-20)  tells us of the end of the work of John the Baptist and the beginning of the public mission of Jesus in Galilee. Mark is emphasising that not only are the two people and their roles different, but that when Jesus started his preaching and teaching, the work of the Baptist was over. Then we read of the call of the first few disciples. It was only last Sunday that we heard an alternative version of this story. We need to be aware that a gospel is not the same as a plain history. The word gospel means good news, and the evangelists are trying to communicate to their audiences, and through this Word of God, He is trying to communicate with us something of what our life should be like as a follower of Jesus. So, unlike John’s version which we heard last week, the other gospels emphasise the immediacy and the completeness of the disciples’ response to Jesus’ call. Of course there is an historical basis for it – Jesus did have special followers – but the good news for us is that we too are called and should respond at once and wholeheartedly! Mark probably heard the call described by Peter when preaching to potential converts. Now Mark speaks to us.

2nd Sunday Cycle B

14th Jan 2018

The two Books of Samuel are classified in the Old Testament as History. History written then had the aim of influencing its readers morally, religiously or politically. The information included may have come from ‘historical’ annals, old folk tales and favourite stories which had something to say to all people. Our reading today is such a story; it has a message about how we might pick up on what God is wanting us to do with our lives. It has the homely setting of an old father-like figure and a young boy who related to him as to a grandfather; it has the characteristic pattern of threesome repetition; it is clearly set in a religious context (the Temple) and it has the engaging feature of misunderstanding prior to getting things right. It is an account of God’s call of the prophet Samuel. It is from such accounts that Fr. Daniel L. Schutte, S.J. took the refrain and used it as the chorus when he composed that now well-known hymn about our own renewed commitment to recognise God around us, His call to us and our positive response to it.

The second reading (2nd Reading – 1 Cor 6:13-20 passim) does not seem to fit in well with the other readings for today except that it illustrates the difficulty we might have in discerning exactly what is for us the right thing to do and what we should not be doing. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about a specific problem. His preaching has told these Gentile converts that now they are Christians they are not bound by any laws (Paul has in mind particularly the Jewish Law). He probably spoke most powerfully about this freedom, because he had been a strict Jew himself up until he became a Christian, but also because some of the Jewish converts thought the Gentile Christians ought to be bound by the Jewish laws. But in the morally loose city of Corinth, some of the Gentile Christians might have taken this to include freedom in sexual practices. Paul has to modify his revolutionary teaching; the freedom doesn’t extend to this; it affected the eating of food sacrificed to idols which Jews wouldn’t do, but, Paul thinks that is permissible, since the stomach is just an organ of the body; but our bodies as a whole are ourselves and are the shrine of the Holy Spirit and should not be defiled by inappropriate sexual behaviour. This is a good illustration for us of how the rules we have in our religion are derived from our beliefs about God, about ourselves and about the relationship we have with God which we know through Jesus Christ.

The gospel (John 1:35-42) passage can easily be taken to be a charming and believable narrative about John, Jesus and the first disciples, but in John’s gospel particularly, there are usually deeper meanings within the text. With no infancy narrative in his gospel the first public presentation of Jesus is made in this passage by the Baptist to two of his disciples, with the words used in catholic liturgy announcing communion: “behold the lamb of God!” The reply with a depth of inner meaning uses the word ‘follow’ as to walk behind and also as to be a disciple of. Jesus then asks “what do you want?” the words used by a priest when someone presents to be baptized and a question always challenging us. Notice also the query where Christ is to be found and the welcome “Come and see.” The call of the first disciples in the other gospels is while they are fishing (which they seem to abandon immediately), but here Simon Peter is called by his brother who first followed Christ. This all leaves us with questions about our own relationship with Christ which we need to regularly consider.

Epiphany

7th Jan 2018

Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, seems to have had an epiphany, that is, a revelation of something about God, of His relationship with Abraham’s descendants: they will be blest and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through them (Gen 12:1-3).  It was the prophets who regularly tried to re-awaken this epiphany, revealing as accurately as they could what God wants for His creatures.  At the time of our first reading, the Jews are probably just back in Jerusalem after suffering exile in Babylon and looking at the dilapidated city and Temple, they need a ‘bright star’ to lift their spirits; so we read from the prophet’s poem encouraging them to realise what can be – to see the work of God in their surroundings – which he interprets as best as he can, speaking of the wealth of nations coming to them as gifts from around the world, from Midian, Ephah and Sheba.  The responsorial psalm is appropriate to this idea as well.

What we think we know of God is always inadequate – the revelation (epiphany) is always in need of improvement and correction.  So it is that many of the Jews in the first few decades after Christ could not accept His attitude to sinners and non-Jews; and even some of those who became Christians thought that non-Jews would need to accept the rules of Judaism in order to become Christians.  But Paul had seen that the will of God was different, mysteriously extending God’s love and forgiveness to all who would have it; this was the distinctive revelation of Christ; Paul had the grace of receiving this epiphany of something more about the purpose of God for the world.  Paul wrote that pagans have the same privilege, and even invents a new word to try to express this mystery, namely, they are (συνσωμα) ‘part of the same body with’ the Jews in Christ.  And this welcome message for us is in our second reading!

The gospel is the story of the magi, the wise men from the east, following their star to find Jesus; it is about this that we chiefly use the word Epiphany.  The magi, like us, have to find their way towards the mystery of God’s great closeness to us humans through Jesus who is both human and Divine.  And we, like the wise men, will have to learn from others, others who know something of the Scriptures.  There are many celebrities and famous people we may be tempted to try to emulate, but we must find the right star for us; we must be wary of  those with unsuitable motives; we must have our dream and stay close to that Jesus who is our ruler and gentle inspiration.  And as we move towards this perfect example of what it is to be human, we must bring our gifts and talents – we all have something to give.  So the gospel story is about the revelation of God to us, about how we understand it and how we are to respond as best we can – a story of great depth, beauty and personal significance