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Thursday of week 29 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Eph 3:14-21

Today we have a lovely prayer of Paul for the church or churches to whom he is writing.

The passage has been summarised thus:

The apostle prays that those he is addressing may, like the rest of the church, deepen their understanding of God’s plan of salvation in Christ.

It is a plan that affects the whole universe (15)

with the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love in Christ (18)

or possibly the universe in all its dimensions.

The apostle prays that they may perceive the redemptive love of Christ for them

and be completely immersed in the fullness of God (19).

The prayer concludes with a doxology to God (20-21). (New American BIble)

It is a prayer Paul makes kneeling in the presence of the Father. We are accustomed to kneeling during prayer but in Paul’s time it was normal to stand so Paul’s posture here expresses a very special submission and reverence.

“God is the Father from whom every family gets its name.” There is a play here on the Greek words for ‘father’ (pater, pathr) and ‘family’ (patria, patria). Patria is used for any social group descended from a common ancestor. Hence, God is the common ancestor of every single person, of every community. This we affirm every time we pray “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. We do not address God as strangers or as outsiders but as Someone who is very close to us in a real family sense.

Let us lay out more diagrammatically the petitions that Paul makes on behalf of the churches:

May the Father give you the power through his Spirit

for your hidden self to grow strong;

so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith;

and then, planted in love and built on love,

you will, with all the saints, have strength to grasp

the breadth and length, the height and the depth;

until, knowing the love of Christ,

which is beyond all knowledge,

you are filled with the utter fullness of God.

Let us note some of the things that Paul mentions here:

There is a prayer that our “hidden self”, that is, our inner self grow strong through the power of the Spirit within us.

He prays that, through our opening up to God in faith, Christ may be truly present and active deep within our being. As Paul said of himself on another occasion: “I live; no, it is not I, but it is Christ that lives in me” (Gal 2:20). We, too, want to be able to say this about ourselves individually and collectively. With the mutual relationship that faith opens up, we are to be “planted in love and built on love”. This is the agape-love which must the main driving force of all that we say and do.

In language reminiscent of the Stoics, he prays that we may have what may be termed almost a cosmic grasp of the role of the Christ. “That you may have strength to grasp the breadth and length, the height and the depth”. Paul uses it to suggest the cosmic function of Christ in the rebirth of the world. It could be referred to the size of the mystery of salvation, or preferably to Christ’s universal love on which (next verse) the mystery depends. Christ becomes the Omega Point, to which all creation and creativity is ordered.

In a paradoxical phrase, Paul prays that the Christians will come to know and understand what is indeed beyond all human knowing, namely, the love of Christ for us and for the whole world. It is the infinite love of God, expressed by Jesus dying on the cross as the uttermost proof of love, “the greatest love that a person can show”. On this side of death, we will never get beyond grasping this love in a clouded mirror. We live in the Cloud of Unknowing and yet, from time to time, we can be given glimpses of understanding. It is something that the mystics have experienced but in a way that they cannot put in words.

With this understanding – imperfect though it be – Christians are “filled with the utter fullness of God”. Christ, who himself is filled with the divine life, fills Christians with it. The Church itself as part of the Body of Christ in a sense completes the fullness of the whole Christ. A Christian enters both the Church and the new cosmos which he helps to build and which is the fullness of the total Christ.

Faith, knowledge and understanding, love and fullness: these are the gifts which Paul prays for in the communities. Surely we, too, need to make this prayer our own also.

Finally, Paul concludes with a prayer of praise to God through Christ Jesus. He praises the God whose power at work in us can achieve more than we could ever ask for or even dream of. In one sense, Paul can point to the rapid growth of the churches, in spite of so many difficulties, as a convincing sign of this. And when we see the vastness of the Church today we see the truth of these words. They are the basis of our hope for continuing growth in our own church.

Lastly, a prayer for God to be glorified through Christ in every generation in the Church. The greater glory of God is at bottom the essence of all living and everything we do is to be directed to this. Faith and love leading to praise.

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Thursday of week 29 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Luke 12:49-53

We have some passionate and disturbing words from Jesus today.

First, he expresses his deep desire to cast fire on the earth. In the imagery of the Old Testament, fire is a symbol of God’s powerful presence. We remember Moses at the burning bush, the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites by night as they wandered through the desert to the promised land, as well as the tongues of fire that hovered over the disciples at Pentecost.

It is this Pentecostal fire that burns men’s hearts and draws them to change the direction of their lives. For Jesus’ wish to be fulfilled we have to play our part in helping to spread some of that fire of God’s love everywhere.

Second, he expresses a longing for his baptism to be accomplished. Baptism here refers to his immersion in the terrible suffering and death by which we will be liberated. In fact, the ritual of baptism where the person to be baptised was immersed in the baptismal pool was seen as a parallel to Jesus going down into death and emerging to the new life of the resurrection. Paul speaks about this.

Thirdly, Jesus says he has come not to bring peace but division on the earth. At first sight, this is a hard saying and it does not make any sense. Is Jesus not the Prince of Peace? Did Jesus not say at the Last Supper that he was giving his peace to his disciples, a peace that the world could not give and that no one could take away? Did he not say, “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest”? Was the final greeting of the Risen Christ to his disciples in the upper room not “Peace [be/is] with you”?

Yes, but he also warned his disciples that, after he was gone, they could expect a rough ride. They would be hauled before rulers and governors, they would be beaten and jailed and put to death. People would think they were doing well in ridding the world of them. In that sense, Jesus was certainly not going to bring peace.

And, by the time this gospel was written, Jesus’ prophecy had been well borne out and there was a lot more to come.

The break-up of families, father against mother, parents against children, in-laws against in-laws, were unfortunately only too common as one or more members in a family decided to follow Christ and be baptised. These must have been very painful experiences which no one wanted. Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Church in China during the Communist persecution knows how many families were torn apart by their accepting Christianity. (In the Gospel, we see it in the story of the blind man who attached himself to Jesus and whose parents, terrified of the authorities, wanted to have nothing to do with. It is surely an image which was quite familiar to converts in the early, not to mention the later, church.)

Jesus had warned that those who wanted to follow him had to be ready, if necessary, to leave home and family and enter into a new family of brothers and sisters. To follow the way of truth and love, of freedom and justice is always going to arouse the hostility of those who feel threatened by goodness.

But is it right to break up one’s family? We might counter by asking which is the more loving thing to do: to be true to one’s convictions and one’s integrity or to compromise them for the sake of a merely external peace? The one who leaves a family for the sake of Christ and the Gospel shows a greater love for one’s family and will never cease to love them no matter how viciously they may react to the choice the Christian has felt it necessary to make. In the long run, truth and love will prevail. They must.

Finally, hostility, division, persecution, provided the Christian is not directly responsible, does not take away the peace that Jesus spoke about. On the contrary, it is only by being true to one’s convictions and one’s integrity, whatever the price that has to be paid, that peace can be experienced.

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