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PETER AND PAUL, APOSTLES

Commentary on Acts 12:1-11 2 Timothy 4:6-8,17-18 Matthew 16:13-19

ON THIS DAY WE CELEBRATE a special feast of the Church, symbolised by the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. They were the two men around whom the mission of Jesus to establish the Kingdom was centred and from whom it grew and spread to every corner of the world. As the preface for today’s Mass puts it: “Peter raised up the church from the faithful flock of Israel. Paul brought your call to the nations, and became the teacher of the world. Each in his chosen way gathered into unity the one family of Christ. Both shared a martyr’s death and are praised throughout the world.” Each one represents two very distinct roles of the Church in its mission to the world.

Source of stability
Peter represents that part of the Church which gives it stability:
its traditions handed down in an unbroken way from the very beginnings,
the structures which help to preserve and conserve those traditions,
the structure which also gives consistency and unity to the Church, spread as it is through so many races, cultures, traditions, and geographical diversity.

Peter today is represented by the pope, who is the great symbol of unity and continuity. Without his role we would see the Church break up and disintegrate, which has happened to such a large extent with those parts of the Church, which broke away from the central body. A number of the mainline non-Catholic Christian churches realise today the importance of that central role of Peter and they are trying to find ways by which we could all become one Church again, ways by which diversity could be recognised but divisions removed, that all who believe in Christ might find and express that unity (but not uniformity) for which Christ prayed during the Last Supper.

Prophetic role
Paul, on the other hand, represents another key role, the prophetic and missionary role.

It is that part of the Church which constantly works on the edge, pushing the boundaries of the Church further out, not only in a geographical sense but also pushing the concerns of the Church into neglected areas of social concern and creatively developing new ways of communicating the Christian message. This is the Church which is semper reformanda, a Church which needs to be constantly renewed.

This renewal is spurred on by the Church’s contact with the surrounding world. This world is itself changing and, in our own times, changing with bewildering speed. Not only new technologies but new knowledge and new ideas continue to surface. Our rapidly changing societies call on us to express the core of our faith in new ways.

As one Asian theologian used to say, “The world writes the agenda for the Church.” That does not mean that the Church is to conform to the ways of the world. Quite the contrary. What it does mean is that the Church’s evangelising work has to be in response to where people actually are. It is no good just handing out the same old things in the same old way. If the Church is to remain relevant, if it is to continue speaking in a meaningful way to rapidly changing world, if it is to keep up with the new knowledge and ideas which change our ways of understanding the world in which we live, it has to renew itself constantly
in the way it expresses its message,
in the way it structures itself,
in the way it communicates its message,
in the way it dialogues with the world.

The world may not like what the Church has to say but it should be able to understand it and be stimulated by it.

New challenges
A changing world involves new challenges of what is right and wrong, a changing world brings about new social problems, new forms of poverty, of injustice, of exploitation and discrimination, of lack of freedom and the absence of peace.

Hence there have to be new ways of preaching and witnessing to the Gospel of truth, of love, of justice, of freedom, of peace. For this we need the prophetic role of the Church, built on the foundations of tradition and continuity. We have to avoid the two tendencies either of digging in and looking only to the past or of neglecting the traditions and bringing in innovations with no foundations.

When faced with difficult situations, Catholics tend either to dig in and become fundamentalist or to throw in the towel completely. Neither is helpful either to the Church or to society.

God’s accompanying presence
The readings today emphasise the presence of God in the work of his Church. Peter’s faith and acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah-Christ and Saviour-King are rewarded by his being made the foundation on which Christ will build his Church. Through Peter, Jesus gives his Church a guarantee of never-ending protection. And he gives to Peter, as his representative, the powers, which he himself had received from the Father, the “keys of the Kingdom”.

Through the centuries, the Church has been battered and countless efforts made to wipe it out
but it continues to benefit from Christ’s promise and overall to grow in numbers. And as long as it remains faithful to the principles it received from Christ, principles which are of the very nature of God and consonant with the deepest longings of human nature, it cannot fail. Truth and love cannot be suppressed.
Doing the only thing possible
We see that in the First Reading where Peter is thrown into jail for preaching the message of Christ and the Kingdom. As Paul, who was himself in prison more than once, will say later, the word of God cannot be bound. Peter finds release and then goes back to the only thing he can do – proclaim the message of his beloved Master. The miraculous release from prison symbolises that protection over his Church which Jesus had promised in the Gospel. It is significant too that Peter’s imprisonment occurred during Passover week, the same week in which Jesus himself was arrested and suffered.

A well-spent life
Paul in the Second Reading speaks first with gratitude of how his life has been spent in the service of his Lord. “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith.” May we be able to say the same as we approach the end of our life. Paul also speaks of how God continued to protect him through all kinds of trials and persecutions. “The Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the non-believers to hear.” He too knows that the Lord will continue to protect him but he also knows that when his time comes he is ready to go.

Paul’s love for Jesus is so intense that he finds it difficult to choose between staying alive and working for the Kingdom or dying and being reunited with Jesus, his beloved Lord. As he said once in a memorable phrase, “For to me life is Christ, to die is gain.” In either case, he is with his beloved Lord.

Ever old, ever new
As we celebrate this feast today, let us both remain faithful to the traditions which have come down to us over 2,000 years but, at the same time, be ever ready to make the necessary changes and adaptations by which the message of Christ can be effectively communicated to all those who still have a hunger for that truth and love which over the centuries never changes.

Let us pray today for the whole Church all over the world;
let us pray for our pope as the focus of unity for Christians everywhere;
let us pray for those who, while remaining faithful to the core traditions, are creatively finding new ways to proclaim the message of the Kingdom to people everywhere;
let us pray for those places where the Church is working under great difficulties;
let us pray for our own parish community that it may truly be both loyal to the faith of our fathers
and have a true missionary spirit effectively to proclaim Christ to all those among whom we live.

In other words, what agenda is our local society writing for our local church?

 

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BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST (CORPUS CHRISTI)

Commentary on Deuteronomy 8:2-3.14b-16a; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-58

PERHAPS THE GREATEST GIFT that Jesus left behind to his fledgling Church, apart from the example of his own teaching, life and death, was the Eucharist. With justification, the Eucharist is often spoken of as the very centre of Christian living. There is a very real danger for Christian communities of collapsing or degenerating when deprived of the Eucharist for any length of time. No one can in effect remain a committed Christian without participation in the Eucharist.

Every persecuted Church realises this and struggles to keep the Eucharist alive in its communities. We have seen that in countless examples over the centuries, including our own. We have seen how Catholics in China went to enormous lengths to celebrate the Eucharist in spite of appalling difficulties.

In Ireland, people will point out lonely outcrops known as “Mass rocks” in remote parts of the country where persecuted Catholics secretly celebrated the Eucharist at the risk of death. In England, you will be shown the hiding places for priests on the run who went from house to house to provide the Eucharist for Catholics who risked martyrdom if they were discovered celebrating the “Popish Mass”.

It is sad, then, to find in our persecution-free societies today how many have lost this sense of the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian living. However, it is not altogether their fault. The Church itself must take some of the blame.

What do we do?
What do we do at the Eucharist? Basically we do two things:
a. We remember and we give thanks. The word ‘Eucharist’ is derived from a Greek word for ‘thanks’. Above all, we remember with deep gratitude all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, through his life, suffering, death and resurrection. We also remember and give thanks for all our own personal experiences of God’s love at work in our lives. It is a time to count our blessings. And we remember and give thanks not only for what happened a long time ago but most especially for what is happening in our lives at this time.

b. We come together to celebrate our being a community and a fellowship in Christ. The Mass, by itself, does not make community. It is the celebration of a community already existing. For, although the Eucharist is at the centre of our Christian life, it is not the totality of that life. It cannot survive in a vacuum. The Eucharist is a sacrament or sign of something which is bigger than itself – a living Christian community. That is why I like to say that the Eucharist is, by and large, the measure of a Christian community. From the way a congregation celebrates its Eucharist one can know immediately whether this is a living or a dying or dead community. A dead or non-existent community cannot have a living Eucharist.

Today is the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Whose Body? and whose Blood? The Body and Blood of Christ? Is it the body that died on the Cross? The body that walked and talked and taught in Galilee? Not really. The Body we celebrate today is the Body of the Risen Jesus. All of us who are baptised are members, constituent parts of that Body. Some of those members are alive and healthy and contributing to the overall life of the Body. Others are sick or dropping off, others are in need of healing or nourishment…

When we approach the altar table to receive Communion, the priest or minister says, “The Body of Christ”. When we say our “Amen” of assent in faith, we need to be aware that the Body we are receiving is that Risen Body of Jesus, of which each one present is a part. We may even say that we are, in fact, eating each other! If that sounds shocking then it is not surprising that the Jews, including some of Jesus’ own disciples were shocked, when he told them to eat his body and drink his blood.

For we do not just ‘receive’ the Body of Christ. It would be better to say that we share it. Paul emphasises this in today’s Second Reading, “The blessing-cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ.” ‘Body’ here means the whole Body of the Risen Christ – Jesus and the community of followers. He continues by saying that the one loaf which is broken and distributed is a sign that, “though there are many of us, we form a single body because we all have a share in this one loaf”. It is unfortunate that nowadays the sense of sharing the one loaf has been lost by the small unbread-like discs that are now normally used.

‘Communion’ is not just with Jesus but also with all those around us. That is why, before this ‘Communion’ we need to say the Lord’s Prayer in which we ask forgiveness of those we have offended. The Sign of Peace (oh, so artificial most of the time!) gives an opportunity for genuine reconciliation so that the unity expressed through ‘Communion’ may be genuine. (Have we not seen people deliberately avoid each other at the Sign of Peace and then piously approach the altar? They have forgotten the instructions of Jesus to stay away from the altar until we have reconciled with the brother or sister.)

Of course, it is difficult to have a sense of sharing in the one loaf as the sacrament of one Body, if, in fact, we are not one body. And we are not one body if, outside the church building, we are not united and caring for each other. One gets the impression that many come to Mass as a purely personal act. They come in and out as self-contained individuals. Some come late and leave early apparently with no sense whatever that this could be construed as a lack of respect for the celebrating community. Many, needless to say, complain of their Sunday Mass as a highly boring experience.

If we are not already a community before we enter the place where the Eucharist is being celebrated, we are not suddenly going to become a community after we come in. A parish where Mass-going is basically the only activity of its members is going to be a dead parish and its Eucharist will also be dead. As was said above, the Eucharist is the measure of the life of the parish. And a parish gets the Eucharist it deserves. Poor community, poor Eucharist. A vibrant Christian community cannot have a bad Eucharist. Maybe some of those who have stopped going to Mass are in fact acting more honestly because the Mass no longer is a source of nourishment for them.

A cautionary tale
There is a story of a parish where the people complained that it had died, so the pastor organised a final requiem Mass with a coffin in front of the altar. At the end of the Eucharist(?) the people were invited to file past the open coffin. When they looked in they each saw an image of themselves in a large mirror placed at the bottom of the coffin. Yes, if our parish is dead, if our Eucharists are boring, it is not just because of bad sermons or poor singing. The problem is more basic and everyone is partially responsible. So, before we give up going to Sunday Eucharist, we might ask to what extent are we responsible for the situation we complain about.

So our celebration of the Eucharist, of the Body and Blood of Christ, is not simply a commemoration of what happened to the ‘historical’ Jesus 2,000 years ago. It is – in a spirit of remembrance and thanksgiving – a celebration of what makes us what we are today. We today live, as Paul told the Philippians, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death and experiencing the power of his resurrection. The Eucharist is the celebration of a living Body, of which we are a part. It is up to us, with the help of Jesus, whether – to use the other image of Jesus – we are living branches on the parent Vine or whether we are dying branches that need to be lopped off and thrown away as unfruitful.

We need to celebrate as a people who become daily more and more aware that we are constituent parts of the Body of Christ. If people are to know Christ, it can only be through us, his Risen Body, that they will come to know him. The more we grow in this awareness of Christ’s living and acting through each one of us, the more meaningful will be our gathering round his table to share together, to eat and drink together the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord – which we are.

 

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Trinity Sunday

Commentary on Exodus 34:4b-6.8-9; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18

WE HAVE NOW COME to the end of the many weeks which were taken up with the celebration of and reflection on the ‘Paschal Mystery’. It began with Ash Wednesday, went through Lent, the celebration of Holy Week and Easter, the weeks following Easter and culminating in Pentecost and the handing on of Jesus’ mission to his Church.

We return now for the rest of the liturgical year to the ‘Ordinary’ Sundays of the Year and they will bring us right up to Advent and the beginning of another liturgical cycle. But, traditionally this transition is commemorated each year by our celebration of the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most fundamental in our Christian faith but it is also a doctrine which many of us have difficulty coming to terms with. We often refer to it as a ‘mystery’ and therefore something which can be affirmed but is not to be understood and need not be explained. “Just believe it,” is something people may be told.

In the New Testament, the word ‘mystery’ (Greek mysterion, ) refers primarily to some truth which God has made known to us and which we otherwise would not have discovered. The Trinity, that in God there are three Persons, really is a mystery in this sense. It is also, of course, difficult for us to understand how one being can be three persons just as it is difficult for us to understand how Jesus can be both God and human (the mystery of the Incarnation).

Three possible reactions
We can react to this situation in three ways: one, by saying it is all rubbish anyway; two, by not thinking about these things at all; or three, by trying to reduce them to categories which are within our human comprehension.

I think none of these approaches is very helpful. Rather, I feel, we should try to understand as much as we can, and say as much as we can while acknowledging that we can only go a certain distance. However, I believe we can go far enough to satisfy our hunger for truth and to have some understanding of our God.
One thing we can say right at the beginning. We are not dealing with outright contradictions or trying to believe the impossible. We are not being asked to believe that 3=1.

We are asked to believe that in the one being we call God, there are three Persons, who are, in the words of today’s Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, “three Persons equal in majesty, undivided in splendour, yet one Lord, one God, ever to be adored”.

Rather than getting ourselves tied up in theological knots, we would do far better by reading prayerfully over the beautiful Scripture readings of today’s Mass. Here there are no abstruse theological explanations or speculations. Rather the emphasis is not on what, or how, or why but, in very practical language, on the tangible way the Persons in the Trinity relate to us.

A God who is very close
The message coming loud and clear through these readings is that our God is not far away, that he is not “up there somewhere”, a kind of scary, long-bearded policeman in the sky. The message coming through is that our God is close by and he cares. In the First Reading (from Exodus) Moses is told that God is the “Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness”. Oh, we really need to hear that and to become utterly convinced of it especially when we find times rough and painful.

Several years ago there was a film called “The Three Faces of Eve”. The story was about a woman who had a multiple personality. In a rather different way, we could speak of the Three Faces of God.

In Greek drama of classical times, one could recognise the character being played by the mask that he/she wore. (In Chinese opera, there is something similar where the faces of the players are elaborately painted so that one can know which role is being played – a king, a general, a concubine, a soldier…) The mask was called a prosopon (). In Latin this word was translated as persona. Even today in programmes of plays we still list the actors under the heading ‘Dramatis Personae’, the characters or the roles in the drama. So, in a certain sense, there are three personae or roles in our one God. With this difference that in a play the role is assumed for the duration of the drama while, in God, the roles are permanently identified with God himself.

It might be helpful to us to look at these three roles of God as they are presented to us in Scripture.

a. Father*
While traditionally Scripture speaks of God as Father, we know that in God there can be no gender differences and we call God Father in the sense of the Parent who gives life and nurture. God as Father is the originator, the source, the conserver of all life, of all that exists. “In him,” says the Acts, “we live and move and have our being.”

God as Father is no puppet operator in the clouds but an indwelling Lord. Matthew Fox likes to speak of the “panentheism” of God. God is IN all his creation but is not identified with it (pantheism). The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”. Through the Father, our God is to be sought and found in all things, which he has created and keeps in being. From the simplest minerals which are alive with atomic energy to the most gifted and creative human being to the outermost galaxy. And so we have the lovely prayer of Moses in today’s First Reading, “Let my Lord come with us.”

b. Son*
If we can speak of God as Father/Mother, then the “only begotten” must equally be spoken of as Son/Daughter. The Only Begotten as such can be neither male nor female even though incarnation de facto took place in a male. However, the Creed which we will soon recite says of the Son/Daughter that homo factus est, which should literally be translated “was made human” or “became human”. The word homo+ in Latin, like anthropus  in Greek, does not specify gender; both men and women are ‘homo’.

We know the Son, of course, best through Jesus, born of Mary in Bethlehem. In him there was the mysterious combination of the divine and the human in one Person. Jesus was totally God and totally human – not half and half. A truth as far beyond our comprehension as the Trinity itself.

Jesus is the revelation, the unveiling in human form of our God. The message of this revelation is purely and simply to let us know that God, that the Father loves us with an overwhelming love. “God [Father] loves the world so much that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God [Father] sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” So John tells us in today’s Gospel passage.

God is not concealed behind the humanity of Jesus but is seen precisely in that humanity. When is Jesus most clearly revealing of the Father? In his miracles? Certainly. But surely Jesus is most clearly revealing the heart of the Father when he is at his most human. We see the Father God most clearly in Jesus in his compassion for the weak, the needy, the sinner; in forgiving the sinner and his enemies; in healing the physically and mentally sick; in integrating the social outcast back into the community; in his unconditional acceptance of all irrespective of class, religion, or gender. Yes, our Father God really loves the world and that has been shown to us by the Only Begotten in Jesus.

c. Spirit*
Finally, we see God as indwelling Spirit. The Spirit is described first as the subsisting Love that is generated between the Father and the Son. Again, of course, we cannot speak of either ‘he’ or ‘she’, still less of this Love as ‘it’.

The meaning of the Spirit in practice means that God is indwelling in all creation and revealing himself through it. Wherever there is Truth or Love or Beauty, there is God. Every act of truth and integrity, every act of love and compassion, every act of human empathy, every act of solidarity, forgiveness, acceptance, justice in people is the Spirit of God working in and through us.

When such actions appear in us, they are a sign that we are open to the Spirit and that he is working in us and through us. Let us pray today with Paul in the Second Reading: “Try to grow perfect; help one another. Be united; live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you…”

And he concludes with the lovely greeting we often use at the beginning of the Eucharist:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God [Father]
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

…And finally
One last afterword. The two great mysteries of our faith are the Trinity and the Incarnation. They are combined in a marvellous simplicity in the Sign of the Cross with its accompanying words. Let us try to say this simple prayer with ever greater meaning and awareness and form the cross on our bodies with care and dignity.

St Ignatius of Loyola had such a love of the Trinity (as the result of some mystical experiences) that every time he began celebrating the Eucharist with the Sign of the Cross he broke down in tears and could hardly go on. Let us, too, rediscover the Sign of the Cross as a means of getting in touch with the God who loves us so much that he sent his Son and fills us with his Spirit.

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*There is no sexual differentiation in God, so we can speak with equal validity of the First Person as Father/Mother and of the Second as Son/Daughter. The Spirit, too, is both male and female. This is the language of the Scripture texts reflecting the times in which they were written. It is not the words that are important but their meaning.

Homosexuality, then, indicates a sexual orientation between people of the same gender, whether they are male or female.

 

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Sunday of week 8 of Easter – Gospel

PENTECOST SUNDAY

Commentary on the Readings Acts 2:1-11 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13 John 20:19-23

TODAY WE ROUND OFF more than seven weeks of celebrating the Paschal Mystery: Passion and Death – Resurrection – Ascension, Exaltation – Coming of the Holy Spirit. Although in the liturgy it is spread over seven weeks, all the elements are actually there on the cross on Good Friday. At the moment of death Jesus passes to life, is exalted to the Father and breathes forth his Spirit.

Today is also the birthday of the Church. What is the Church? The Church is basically that community and complex of communities spread all over the world which is continuing the visible presence of God and his work by living openly in the Spirit of Jesus and offering its experience of knowing Christ to the world.

“The Word was made flesh and lived among us.” These words apply not only to Jesus but to all those who are now the visible Body of the Risen Jesus. It is for each of us, individually and in community, to incarnate the Word of God in our world.

Pentecost Day
Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us one account, perhaps the most familiar one, of how the mission of Christ was transferred to his followers. The scene is full of biblical imagery. There was a sound “like the rush of a violent wind”. In Greek the words used here for “wind” and “Spirit” are very similar. The whole house was filled with the very Spirit of God.

Then “divided tongues, as of fire” were seen resting on each person present. Fire, again, speaks of the presence of God himself. God spoke to Moses from out of a burning bush. As the Israelites wandered through the desert on their way to the Promised Land, a pillar of cloud accompanied them by day, and a pillar of fire by night. God was with his people.

The fire here was in the form of tongues, as if to say that each one present was being given the gift and power to speak in the name of God. And in fact, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

Amazement
Because it was the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the city of Jerusalem was filled with pilgrim Jews from all over the Mediterranean area. They were amazed to hear the disciples speaking to them in their own languages. “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” In the Book of Genesis, men tried to build a tower to reach right up to heaven. For such arrogance, they were punished by being made to speak in different languages. No longer able to communicate, they could not finish their project.

Now the time of the Tower of Babel is reversed. The disciples have a message which is offered to and can be understood by people everywhere. People are being called to be united again as brothers and sisters under one common Father, revealed to them by his Son Jesus Christ.
Pentecost Sunday

A different account
The Gospel from John presents us with a different account of the coming of the Spirit.
It is Easter Sunday. The disciples are locked into the house, terrified of the authorities coming to take them away as collaborators with the recently executed Jesus.

Suddenly the same Jesus is there among them. “Peace with you,” is his greeting. It is both a wish and a statement. Where Jesus is there is peace. The presence of Jesus in our lives always brings peace and removes our anxieties and fears.

He shows them his hands and side to prove it is himself: the one who died on the cross and the one who is now alive. Then he gives them their mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Their mission and his are exactly the same. Our mission and his are exactly the same.

He then breathes on them. As God breathed on the earth and created the first human being.
In Christ, we become a new creation. The breathing also symbolises the Spirit of God and of Jesus.
So he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

With the giving of the Spirit comes also the authority to speak and act in the name of Jesus.
“If you forgive sins, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is not just a reference to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the power to forgive sin. Forgiving sin, reconciling people with God is the very core of the work of Christ and the Christian mission.
The disciples are now the Body of Christ, the ongoing visible presence of Christ in the world.

This Body will experience injuries and wounds and disease… It will wander at times far from God. It will need healing and forgiveness and reconciliation. It will also try to bring the same healing and reconciliation to a broken world.

A body with many parts
Finally, the Second Reading speaks of the effect of the Spirit on the Christian community. The Church and each community within it reflects unity and diversity. We are not called to uniformity. We are not clones of Christ or each other. Unity presumes diversity and a variety of gifts and talents and responsibilities.

So, on the one hand, we are called to be deeply united in our faith in Christ and in our love for each other. At the same time, each one of us has a unique gift. It is through this gift or gifts that we serve and build up the community. They are not just for ourselves, or for our families and friends. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

We are like a body. Each body has many members, each with its own particular function, yet they all are ordered to one purpose – the good functioning of the body as a whole. So it is with the Christian community, which is the Body of Christ. Each member is to be aware of his or her particular gift. This gift indicates the role the member has to play in building up the whole Body, the whole community.

Today let us ask God to send his Spirit into our hearts. Filled with that Spirit, may we each individually make our contribution to the community to which we belong. And, as a community, may we give clear and unmistakable witness to the Truth and Love of God, revealed to us in Jesus our Lord.

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Sunday of week 6 of Easter

Commentary on Acts 8:5-8, 14-17, 1 Peter 3:15-17, John 14:15-21

THE COMMON THEME of John’s Gospel which we are reading these weeks is the fact that Jesus, following his resurrection, has left us and returned to his Father. At the same time, he is still with us but in a different way from before his death on the cross. And today’s readings tell us that it is through the Spirit of the Father and the Son that that presence is experienced by us.

We see this clearly expressed in today’s gospel passage. Jesus is telling his disciples at the Last Supper that, through the Spirit, he will continue to be with them – and us – forever. He calls the Spirit an ‘Advocate’. In other biblical translations he is called a ‘Counsellor’ (NRSV,NIV), ‘Comforter’ (King James), Counsellor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, Standby (Amplified Bible), Advocate (NAB, NRSV). The Greek word is parakletos (), from which comes the older word ‘Paraclete’. Basically a ‘paraclete’ is someone like a defence lawyer, someone who stands by you in court, gives you support, advice and comfort in difficult situations where you need help. That is precisely the role of the Spirit in our Christian life. He teaches, he guides, he supports, he consoles, he comforts as we try to be faithful in our following of Christ’s Way.

Pointing the Way
He is the Spirit of Truth, the same Truth that Jesus himself represents. “I am the Way: I am Truth and Life.” That Truth is not just a list of dogmas or doctrines. It represents a deep understanding of what life is really about, of how it is to be lived in partnership with one’s brothers and sisters in our common search to make this world truly God’s Kingdom, to make this world the kind of place that God wants it to be. It combines the ideas of wholeness and integrity, a total harmony between the inner and outer self and between the self and God. All this we find in the highest degree in Jesus.

Many in the world do not recognise the Spirit. The ‘world’ here represents all those who live only for themselves, who see everyone else and everything else as stepping stones to their own advancement, their own pleasure and enjoyment. Such people are totally deaf to the Spirit.

We, however, who have accepted Christ and his Gospel do know the Spirit. “He is with you, he is in you.” So, although Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to leave them and they are clearly alarmed and despondent at the idea, he reassures them that he will come back, he will continue to be with them though in a different way.

An end and a beginning
To the ‘world’ Jesus’ death on the Cross was the end of everything. He had been a flash in the pan. A sensation of a kind in that corner of the world. Jesus Christ the Superstar. But now, as Jesus speaks with his disciples at the Last Supper, it was all about to end in total failure and degradation. But those who can see discern in the cross not dismal failure but the triumph of love over hate, they can see that the object of that love is themselves, they know that Jesus has passed into life and that all those who identify themselves totally with him and his vision of universal Love still enjoy his presence.

“On that day”, the day when Jesus was lifted up in glory on the cross, “you will understand that I am in the Father and you in me and I in you!” And how is that to be brought about? “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And what are those commandments? Quite simply it is to put Love at the heart of all living. “The greatest love a person can show is to give their life for their friends.” This is what Jesus did for us and what we are called on to do for others. “By this will all know that you are my followers, that you have love for each other.” And what is that Love? As we have mentioned before, this Love is an unconditional desire for the well-being of every single person. Another word for ‘love’ in the Gospel is ‘service’. Not the service of the slave for a master, not the service of the specialist – be he/she doctor, lawyer, priest – for the (inferior) lay person but the service of one brother/sister to another brother/sister without any distinction of rank, race, nationality, religion or whatever.

The Way to loving God
It is all summed up in this final sentence: “Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be one who loves me; and anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him/her.” We love God not just by expressing our love directly for him but by the way in which we extend Love to all those around us without any exceptions whatever. And all those who love Jesus will receive the love of the Father. But how to love Jesus? We love Jesus when we love him in our brothers and sisters. “Whatever you do to these the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.” When we live our lives in this way we will in turn experience God’s love and grow in our familiarity with him.

Disciples and apostles
We see that love of God and Jesus coming to the people of Samaria in the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles. That love comes to them through the deacon Philip and his companions as they proclaim the message of the Gospel. Great signs of healing follow. The examples of evil spirits being driven out, cripples and paralytics being cured point to the much deeper liberation that comes through our surrender to the Gospel: a real healing and being made whole and a liberation from everything that inhibits our being fully functioning people.

This experience leads to their total acceptance of the Gospel and their being filled with the Spirit of the Father and of Jesus. What they received from Philip, they in their turn will now communicate to others who have yet to hear the message. The lesson for our own Christian lives is so clear. To be a disciple of Christ is to be not only a disciple, a follower but also an apostle, sharing our experience of knowing Christ with others.

A message to be made one’s own…
The way in which we are to do this is indicated by the Second Reading today. “Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have.”

Given that we have an inner conviction of the truth of Christ and his message, we must be always ready and able to give people an adequate explanation of our faith. It is not just something we hold because we were told to do so or because we read about it in a book. It may have begun there but now it is something based on an inner conviction arising from personal experience. As St Paul says, “I know in whom I believe.” And that inner conviction must flow out into our behaviour – our words, our actions, the way we relate with other people whoever they may be.

…but not always welcomed
Peter tells us to share our faith “with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander you when you are living a good life in Christ may be proved wrong in the accusations that they bring.” It is a paradox that, like Jesus himself, our very goodness may be the reason we are attacked. But we need also to be sure that we have not given genuine cause for criticism, that we do not proclaim one thing and do something else. We know that happens too often with all of us.

And Peter adds, “If it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.” Indeed the Eighth Beatitude describes as happy and fortunate those who are privileged to be maligned and persecuted for their faithfulness to truth and love and justice. And, if we think that strange, let us not forget that “Christ himself, innocent though he was, died for the guilty (and that means all of us), to lead us to God”.

So in today’s Mass we rejoice in the gift of the Spirit by which the Father and Jesus his Word continue to be with us and in us and to guide us in the Way which he guarantees our true happiness and fulfilment. How do we know that is true? We just have to follow his invitation: ‘Come and see.’ Many have done so and not been disappointed.

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Sunday of week 5 of Easter (A) – Readings and Gospel

Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

THE CLOSE IDENTIFICATION of Jesus with God the Father is the over-riding theme of today’s Gospel passage. There is a secondary but related emphasis on our identification with Jesus and his mission.

The context of the Gospel is Jesus’ long discourse with his disciples at the Last Supper. They are aware that Jesus is about to leave them. There is a heavy air of gloom and anxiety as the enemies of Jesus close in around him.


A call to trust

Do not let your hearts be troubled,” are the encouraging words he speaks to them. “Trust in God still, and trust in me” is a call to total faith in the Father and in Jesus. It is a single act of trust for to have faith in the one is to have equal faith in the other. And, towards the end of the passage, Jesus appeals to the evidence of all they have seen him say and do. “You must believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; believe it on the evidence of this work, if for no other reason.”

The disciples cannot be too happy to hear that Jesus is about to leave them. It is no wonder that their hearts are “troubled”. This, in spite of the promise that Jesus is going away to “prepare a place” for them, that he will return to take them with him, “so that where I am you may be too“.

The Way

They should have no trouble understanding and accepting this. Jesus has now been with them for three years, has taught them continuously all during this time, they have seen him teaching and working among the people, so “You know the way to the place where I am going,” they are told.

Thomas, the man who likes to confront and the one with the very literal mind, protests: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” He is clearly thinking in geographical terms. In fact, all Jesus’ words about going and coming are spoken on quite a different level of meaning altogether. However, we can be grateful to Thomas for drawing out of Jesus one of the great sayings of John’s Gospel: “I AM the Way — I AM Truth and Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” It is obvious from all that has already been said that the Way of Jesus, all the coming and going, the “places” which are being prepared are not to be understood in any literal or spatial sense. They are to be understood totally in terms of mutual relationships, the mutual relationships between Jesus, the Father and his followers. The “Way” of Jesus, through his coming suffering and death, will end in the new and abundant life he wants for all his followers.

Where does the Way go?

To follow the Way of Jesus is not to go anywhere. It is to become a special kind of person, a person whose whole being reflects the Truth and Life that Jesus reveals to us. It is to be a person who is totally identified with the vision and the values of Jesus. To be such a person is to be a person of Truth and Life.

Truth is here understood not in a purely intellectual sense. Truth here is that complete integrity and harmony which Jesus himself revealed not only in what he said but in the total manifestation of his life and person. Truth for Jesus was not just something he knew or accepted or believed in; truth for Jesus was what he was in his whole person: thoughts, feelings, actions, relationships. It was that total conformity between his inward self and his outward behaviour. For us to live Truth in that way is also to be fully alive, to be a “fully-functioning person”, responding totally to that abundance of life which Jesus came to give us.

Truth and Life

And God the Father is, of course, also Truth and Life. But we go to God the Father through Jesus and we call Jesus the “Way” because he is the visible manifestation in human form of all that his Father is. It is this incarnation of the Father’s being in the human person of Jesus, a man “like us in all things“, which makes him the accessible model for us to grow ever more in the likeness of our God and to experience to the full his love and life in us.

And so Jesus says quite logically, “If you know me, you know my Father too. From this moment you know him and have seen him.” Now it is the naïve Philip’s turn to interject. “Lord, let us see the Father and then we shall be satisfied.” It was the hope of every good Jew some day to see God face to face. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip,” says Jesus (with a tinge of disappointment?), “and you still do not know me? To have seen me is to have seen the Father, so how can you say, ‘Let us see the Father’?”


Seeing God in Jesus

For, as Jesus continues, he is in the Father and the Father is in him. However, this statement must be understood with some qualifications. Jesus is the Son of God and is one with the Father in all things but to say that when we see Jesus we see God is both true and not altogether true. For Jesus, as we know him, is limited by his humanness. When he speaks, certainly it is God who speaks. When he heals, certainly God heals. When Jesus died on the Cross, God also died? Surely not. God cannot die. The death of Jesus in his humanity was a sublime witness of the love and compassion of the Ever Living God.

Pale reflection

Jesus, in his humanity, is but the palest reflection of the infinite Truth, Goodness and Beauty of God. When we see Jesus, we see God but… there is much that we do not see. And so we speak of Jesus as the Way. We go through him to find the total reality of God. A reality that mystics have been given glimpses of but which most of us will have to wait for until after we have left this earth. It is important that we understand this for I find that many people tend to speak rather loosely of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. If we make Jesus, not the Way, but the End, we can find ourselves with a very reduced God. Philip thought he knew Jesus very well, spending every day with him. Yet he had not come to recognise God in the words and works of Jesus and so he did not really know Jesus.


God’s many dwelling places

Today, perhaps, our problem is not so much recognising God in Jesus. In fact, as mentioned, we can go too far in doing so. Our problem is not being able to recognise God in the world and people around us. At the beginning of today’s Gospel, Jesus says that there are many “rooms”, many dwelling places in his Father’s house.

We can understand this, of course, as “heaven” but God’s dwelling is also the Church, every Christian community is a dwelling place of God. And indeed each and every disciple, who believes in Christ, is a part of God’s Temple. There is now no longer for us a material Temple. Furthermore, as Paul told the Romans, “ever since the creation of the world [God's] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and godhead, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made“. This is to say, that not only in Christian communities, but indeed in people everywhere and in the whole of our created environment, God’s presence is shouting out to us. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Every little flower, every singing bird can say to us, “Who sees me sees the Father”.


The same works as Jesus – and even more

Lastly, Jesus has a word for us. “Whoever believes in me [and in my identity with the Father] will perform the same works as I do myself. He will perform even greater works, because I am going to the Father.” The Church and every member of every Christian community is called on to continue the mission of Jesus.

But how can we do greater works than Jesus? And how can we do them because Jesus is going to his Father? The Church and every Christian community is called on to continue the mission of Jesus. That is evident from the Acts of the Apostles onwards. But doing more than he did? Yes, because by leaving us for the Father he passed his mandate on to us.


Continuing Jesus’ work

We can do more than Jesus not in terms of more spectacular signs but because, Jesus in his humanity here on earth, was limited to a very small section of space and time. In his lifetime, he reached only a relatively small number of people. In fact, when he died all he could show for all his preaching and miracles was a handful of women at the foot of the cross. Peter and the rest were nowhere to be seen. Strangely, it was only by his leaving us that the energy and life he brought was released. By his going he set in motion a process by which his message, his Way of Truth and Life, could reach every corner of the world.

There are now very few places where Jesus’ message has not been heard. Moreover the Pope or some other religious leader, hooked up to satellites, can simultaneously reach literally billions of people. Jesus on earth could not do that.


Show the Way

But whether we are pope, bishop, priest, office worker, truck driver or housewife – our duty is the same: to lead the people we come in contact along the Way of Jesus – the Way of Truth and Life. By working together, we can do more than Jesus did, or rather he does it through us. The Gospel still needs to be preached with greater enthusiasm, with greater relevance, with greater integrity. As in Jesus’ day, the masses are calling out to be fed and we, the friends and companions of Jesus, have been called to continue to bring the Bread of Life to the world.

Jesus said “Without me you can do nothing“. It is important for us to realise that opposite is also largely true: without us Jesus can do little.

Commentary on John 14:15-21

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Sunday of week 4 of Easter

Commentary on Acts 2:14a.36-41; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

TODAY IS COMMONLY KNOWN is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”.  It is also known as “Vocations Sunday”, a day when our Church prays especially for new shepherds and pastors to lead the Christian communities.

The image of God as the shepherd of his people has a long tradition in the history of God’s people.  The image of the shepherd is one which appears several times in the New Testament.  It is one that would be immediately understood by the people of the time.

In some parts of the world, especially in hotter climates, the sheep is a rarity.  Some have never seen a sheep (except perhaps on television, in a zoo or as lamb on the dinner plate!) and still less shepherds. And the shepherd of the Middle East is somewhat different from, say, sheep ranchers of the Australian outback, rounding up on horseback thousands of animals.  If one goes missing, it is hardly noticed.

The shepherd of the biblical Middle East had a much more intimate relationship with a much smaller flock.  He would bring them out to pasture each day and spend all his time with them.  In the evening he would bring them back to the enclosure where they would be safe from preying animals.  He knew each one individually and would notice immediately if even one was missing.  Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep would have resonated perfectly with his hearers.

Where many of us come from the shepherd walks behind the sheep, often with a dog to help.  In the Middle East, the shepherd walks in front of his sheep and they follow him – and only him (“They know his voice”).

Sheep in Scripture

There are a number of references to sheep and shepherds in the Synoptic gospels.  In Mark, for instance, Jesus is deeply moved by compassion because the crowds are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:35).  By implication, of course, he is their shepherd.  In response to criticism by the Pharisees that he was mixing with sinners and the unclean, Jesus told the parable of the shepherd who goes to extraordinary lengths to bring back a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7).  In Matthew, believers are warned about false prophets among them, who are really wolves, but come in sheep’s clothing.  In the final judgement, the good, that is, those who recognised and served Jesus in “the least of my brothers” are good “sheep”, in contrast to the wicked “goats”.

We have also that marvellous passage in Ezekiel where the shepherds of Israel are condemned for their betrayal of their responsibilities and where God himself promises to take over the gentle care of his flock.  There are many parallels in this passage and the Gospel of today.  The bad shepherds fatten themselves at the expense of their sheep.  The sheep are left wandering and become a prey to marauding wolves.  The Lord of compassion promises to go and gather his sheep and bring them back to good pasture.  Through his compassionate care of them, God’s people “will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people…  And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 34:30-31).

Two images

In today’s Gospel passage, which consists of the first 10 verses of Chapter 10, there seem to be two separate parables. The first is a warning against people who would want to steal the sheep and the second focuses on the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd.  The central image, too, is not so much that of the shepherd as of the gate.  In fact, later on in the passage, Jesus says, “I AM the Gate”.  Here it would seem that Jesus is the Gate of the sheepfold, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus.  Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, for instance, by climbing over the fence or breaking through it, is dangerous and should be avoided.  He is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep.  The genuine shepherd, however, enters by the Gate (Jesus).  He is recognised and admitted by the watchman (the leader of the community?) at the gate.

The sheep hear and recognise and follow their shepherd’s voice.  In a sheepfold where there are the sheep of many shepherds, the true shepherd knows which ones belong to him.  He calls them out one by one.  They, recognising the voice of their own shepherd, follow him.  They will not follow other shepherds, even if called by them.  It is a free relationship.  The sheep go in and out.  They follow, not because they are forced to but by their own choice.  The other sheep (belonging to other shepherds) stay behind.

When the shepherd has brought out his sheep to pasture, he goes ahead.  And they follow because “they know his voice”.  They will not follow a stranger but run away from him, because they do not recognise his voice.

We are told that the disciples failed to understand the meaning of this parable.  This is a reaction which is more common in the Synoptic gospels, especially Mark (cf. Mark 4:10-12).  Parables are meant for “insiders” and not “outsiders”.  So Jesus spells out more clearly what he means.  He is the Gate of the sheepfold.  Those who enter the sheepfold by any other way are not to be trusted, they are “thieves and brigands”.  And the sheep will ignore them.  “Anyone who enters through me [the Gate] will be safe.”

Fullness of life

Many of the warnings of Jesus here should be read in the context of the story of the blind man in the preceding chapter 9.  Here Jesus condemns the blindness of the Pharisees as religious leaders who are totally unfit to bring people to God.  They are not good shepherds and they refuse to enter by the Gate.

The passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”  To follow Jesus is not, as some seem to fear, to live a half life, a life filled with endlessly dire warnings of “Don’t!”.  It is to live life, our human life, to the greatest possible fullness.  As one writer puts it, “The Gospel is a statement about how human life is best lived.”  The same writer also says, “Life with God is good for human beings and should be seen to be so.”  True evangelisation consists in making this clear by the way we speak and live.  So many people, unfortunately, have the impression that there is something “unnatural” or “super-natural” in being a Christian.  Somehow we are not doing a good job.

Called to serve

Today is Vocations Sunday.  It is obvious that our Church today is in great need of good shepherds, totally committed to the Way of Jesus.  We are asked to pray today especially that our Christian communities will be graced with good shepherds and pastors.  It is a pity that we tend to narrow the term “vocation” to those who feel called to the priesthood or what we fall ‘religious’ life, as when we ask, “Do you think you have a ‘vocation’?”  Or say, “There are very few ‘vocations’ in our diocese.”

Yet we need to emphasise very strongly that every single baptised person has a ‘vocation’.  Everyone is called by God to play a specific role in the Christian community and in the wider community.  Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ is something that we are all called to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to meet the service needs of our Christian communities.  Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes a contribution to the well-being of the whole.

Unfortunately, a large number, it seems, decide first on their ‘career’ and only then ask, “How can I be a good Catholic?” (that is, if they do ask the question).  It is absolutely basic for us to ask ourselves at all times, “What does God want me to be?  What are my particular gifts?  How can I offer these gifts in service to the wider community and to my own Christian community?”

If I live my life as a morally good person, “keeping the Commandments” and saying my prayers and “fulfilling my religious obligations” but do not in fact play an active and constructive part in my community, I am not really a Christian in the proper sense.  Yet, it seems that that is the way many people live their Catholic lives.

Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ as something that we are all called to respond to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to respond to the service needs of our Christian communities and, by extension, the needs of the wider community.  There is still among many, one fears, what can be called a ‘supermarket mentality’ where our Christian practice is concerned.  The Church is there to provide me with ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ ‘goods’ as I need them.  But there is a danger that, like supermarkets in some former Communist countries, there may soon be no ‘goods’ available and, worse, no one to distribute them!

Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes his or her contribution to the well-being of the whole.  When all are giving, all will be receiving in abundance, the abundance that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel.

Today we are asked to “pray” for vocations.  There is a danger that, although many will fervently do so, they are praying for other people’s vocations and not their own.  To say this prayer with sincerity involves my reflecting on how God is asking me to make a meaningful contribution of myself (not just money) to the building up of our community, our parish.

In fact, one has to be deeply impressed by the number of people who do make a substantial contribution one way or the other to the running of our church communities.  Nevertheless, today, Vocations Sunday, challenges each one of us to reflect on how we personally are responding to the call that Jesus is making to each of us right now.  As a group or community, we respond to that call by seeing that all that is needed for the maintenance and growth of our community is being generously provided .

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FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Commentaries on the Readings : Acts 2:14a.36-41; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

TODAY IS COMMONLY KNOWN is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. It is also known as “Vocations Sunday”, a day when our Church prays especially for new shepherds and pastors to lead the Christian communities.

The image of God as the shepherd of his people has a long tradition in the history of God’s people. The image of the shepherd is one which appears several times in the New Testament. It is one that would be immediately understood by the people of the time.

In some parts of the world, especially in hotter climates, the sheep is a rarity. Some have never seen a sheep (except perhaps on television, in a zoo or as lamb on the dinner plate!) and still less shepherds. And the shepherd of the Middle East is somewhat different from, say, sheep ranchers of the Australian outback, rounding up on horseback thousands of animals. If one goes missing, it is hardly noticed.

The shepherd of the biblical Middle East had a much more intimate relationship with a much smaller flock. He would bring them out to pasture each day and spend all his time with them. In the evening he would bring them back to the enclosure where they would be safe from preying animals. He knew each one individually and would notice immediately if even one was missing. Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep would have resonated perfectly with his hearers.

Where many of us come from the shepherd walks behind the sheep, often with a dog to help. In the Middle East, the shepherd walks in front of his sheep and they follow him – and only him (“They know his voice”).

Sheep in Scripture
There are a number of references to sheep and shepherds in the Synoptic gospels. In Mark, for instance, Jesus is deeply moved by compassion because the crowds are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:35). By implication, of course, he is their shepherd. In response to criticism by the Pharisees that he was mixing with sinners and the unclean, Jesus told the parable of the shepherd who goes to extraordinary lengths to bring back a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). In Matthew, believers are warned about false prophets among them, who are really wolves, but come in sheep’s clothing. In the final judgement, the good, that is, those who recognised and served Jesus in “the least of my brothers” are good “sheep”, in contrast to the wicked “goats”.

We have also that marvellous passage in Ezekiel where the shepherds of Israel are condemned for their betrayal of their responsibilities and where God himself promises to take over the gentle care of his flock. There are many parallels in this passage and the Gospel of today. The bad shepherds fatten themselves at the expense of their sheep. The sheep are left wandering and become a prey to marauding wolves. The Lord of compassion promises to go and gather his sheep and bring them back to good pasture. Through his compassionate care of them, God’s people “will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people… And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 34:30-31).
Two images
In today’s Gospel passage, which consists of the first 10 verses of Chapter 10, there seem to be two separate parables. The first is a warning against people who would want to steal the sheep and the second focuses on the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd. The central image, too, is not so much that of the shepherd as of the gate. In fact, later on in the passage, Jesus says, “I AM the Gate”. Here it would seem that Jesus is the Gate of the sheepfold, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, for instance, by climbing over the fence or breaking through it, is dangerous and should be avoided. He is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep. The genuine shepherd, however, enters by the Gate (Jesus). He is recognised and admitted by the watchman (the leader of the community?) at the gate.

The sheep hear and recognise and follow their shepherd’s voice. In a sheepfold where there are the sheep of many shepherds, the true shepherd knows which ones belong to him. He calls them out one by one. They, recognising the voice of their own shepherd, follow him. They will not follow other shepherds, even if called by them. It is a free relationship. The sheep go in and out. They follow, not because they are forced to but by their own choice. The other sheep (belonging to other shepherds) stay behind.

When the shepherd has brought out his sheep to pasture, he goes ahead. And they follow because “they know his voice”. They will not follow a stranger but run away from him, because they do not recognise his voice.

We are told that the disciples failed to understand the meaning of this parable. This is a reaction which is more common in the Synoptic gospels, especially Mark (cf. Mark 4:10-12). Parables are meant for “insiders” and not “outsiders”. So Jesus spells out more clearly what he means. He is the Gate of the sheepfold. Those who enter the sheepfold by any other way are not to be trusted, they are “thieves and brigands”. And the sheep will ignore them. “Anyone who enters through me [the Gate] will be safe.”

Fullness of life
Many of the warnings of Jesus here should be read in the context of the story of the blind man in the preceding chapter 9. Here Jesus condemns the blindness of the Pharisees as religious leaders who are totally unfit to bring people to God. They are not good shepherds and they refuse to enter by the Gate.

The passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” To follow Jesus is not, as some seem to fear, to live a half life, a life filled with endlessly dire warnings of “Don’t!”. It is to live life, our human life, to the greatest possible fullness. As one writer puts it, “The Gospel is a statement about how human life is best lived.” The same writer also says, “Life with God is good for human beings and should be seen to be so.” True evangelisation consists in making this clear by the way we speak and live. So many people, unfortunately, have the impression that there is something “unnatural” or “super-natural” in being a Christian. Somehow we are not doing a good job.

Called to serve
Today is Vocations Sunday. It is obvious that our Church today is in great need of good shepherds, totally committed to the Way of Jesus. We are asked to pray today especially that our Christian communities will be graced with good shepherds and pastors. It is a pity that we tend to narrow the term “vocation” to those who feel called to the priesthood or what we fall ‘religious’ life, as when we ask, “Do you think you have a ‘vocation’?” Or say, “There are very few ‘vocations’ in our diocese.”

Yet we need to emphasise very strongly that every single baptised person has a ‘vocation’. Everyone is called by God to play a specific role in the Christian community and in the wider community. Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ is something that we are all called to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to meet the service needs of our Christian communities. Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes a contribution to the well-being of the whole.

Unfortunately, a large number, it seems, decide first on their ‘career’ and only then ask, “How can I be a good Catholic?” (that is, if they do ask the question). It is absolutely basic for us to ask ourselves at all times, “What does God want me to be? What are my particular gifts? How can I offer these gifts in service to the wider community and to my own Christian community?”

If I live my life as a morally good person, “keeping the Commandments” and saying my prayers and “fulfilling my religious obligations” but do not in fact play an active and constructive part in my community, I am not really a Christian in the proper sense. Yet, it seems that that is the way many people live their Catholic lives.

Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ as something that we are all called to respond to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to respond to the service needs of our Christian communities and, by extension, the needs of the wider community. There is still among many, one fears, what can be called a ‘supermarket mentality’ where our Christian practice is concerned. The Church is there to provide me with ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ ‘goods’ as I need them. But there is a danger that, like supermarkets in some former Communist countries, there may soon be no ‘goods’ available and, worse, no one to distribute them!

Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes his or her contribution to the well-being of the whole. When all are giving, all will be receiving in abundance, the abundance that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel.

Today we are asked to “pray” for vocations. There is a danger that, although many will fervently do so, they are praying for other people’s vocations and not their own. To say this prayer with sincerity involves my reflecting on how God is asking me to make a meaningful contribution of myself (not just money) to the building up of our community, our parish.

In fact, one has to be deeply impressed by the number of people who do make a substantial contribution one way or the other to the running of our church communities. Nevertheless, today, Vocations Sunday, challenges each one of us to reflect on how we personally are responding to the call that Jesus is making to each of us right now. As a group or community, we respond to that call by seeing that all that is needed for the maintenance and growth of our community is being generously provided .

 

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Sunday of week 3 of Easter

Commentary on Luke 24:13-35

One of the great passages of the New Testament. It encapsulates in a little over 20 verses the whole Christian life. It is Easter Sunday as the passage opens. In Luke all the resurrection appearances take place in the vicinity of Jerusalem and on Easter Sunday.

It begins with two disciples on the road leaving Jerusalem. For Luke the focal point of Jesus’ mission is Jerusalem – it was the goal to which all Jesus’ public life was headed and from there the new community would bring his Message to the rest of the world.

They are on their way to a place called Emmaus, about 7 miles (11 km) from Jerusalem, whose exact location is not now known. It does not really matter and that is the point. They were on the “road” – they are pilgrims on the road of life. Jesus is the Way, the Road. The problem is that at this moment they are going in the wrong direction.

The Risen Jesus joins them as a fellow-traveller. “Something” prevents them from recognising him. What was that “something”? Their presumption that he was dead? Was it their pre-conceived idea of what Jesus should look like?

Seeing their obvious despondency and disillusionment, he asks what they are talking about. With deliciously unconscious irony they say, “You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.”

Jesus plays them out a little more with a totally innocent-sounding, “What things?” He wants to hear their version of what happened. To them the death was the failure of Jesus’ mission. They refer to him as a “prophet” as if, after the debacle of his death, they could not see in Jesus the Messiah they had earlier acknowledged. “We were hoping (‘hlpizomen, elpizomen, sperabamus) that he would be the one to set Israel free.” Again the delicious irony of their own words is lost on them. For them, freedom meant liberation from the tyranny of foreign domination and perhaps the inauguration of the Kingdom of God as they understood it.

They are puzzled also by the stories of the women describing an empty tomb and angels – but there is still no sign of Jesus. More irony! They are addressing these very words to Jesus!

Jesus then gives them a lesson in reading the Scriptures and shows them that all that happened to Jesus, including his sufferings and death, far from being a tragedy was all foreordained. Luke is the only writer to speak clearly of a suffering Messiah. The idea of a suffering Messiah is not found as such in the Old Testament. Later, the Church will see a foreshadowing of the suffering Messiah in the texts on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

This story emphasises that all that happened to Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament promises and of Jewish hopes. All through Acts, Luke will argue that Christianity is the fulfilment of the hopes of Pharisaic Judaism and its logical development. In many respects, Matthew’s gospel has a similar theme.

As they reach their destination, Jesus makes as if to continue his journey. However, they extend their hospitality to the stranger. “I was a stranger and you took me in.” “It is nearly evening time and the day is almost over,” they say. So Jesus goes in to stay with them. Wonderful words. But it would not have happened if they had not opened their home to him.

As they sat down to the meal, Jesus, the visitor unexpectedly acting as host, took the bread, said the blessing over it, broke it and gave it to them. And in that very act they recognised him. This is the Eucharist where we recognise the presence of Jesus among us in the breaking of bread. Not just in the bread, but in the breaking and sharing of the bread and in those who share the broken bread.

Then Jesus disappears. But they are still basking in the afterglow. “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” In the light of all this experience, they turn around [conversion!] and go back along the road to Jerusalem from which they had been fleeing. There they discover their fellow-disciples excited that the Lord is risen and has appeared to Simon. And they tell their marvellous story and how “they had recognised him at the breaking of bread”.

All the ingredients of the Christian life are here.

– Running away from where Christ is to be found. We do it all the time.

– Meeting Jesus in the unexpected place or person or situation. How many times does this happen and we do not recognise him, or worse mistreat him?

– Finding the real meaning and identity of Jesus and his mission in having the Scriptures fully explained. Without the Scriptures we cannot claim to know Jesus. Yet how many Catholics go through life hardly ever opening a bible?

– Recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread, in our celebration of the Eucharist. The breaking and sharing of the bread indicates the essentially community dimension of that celebration, making it a real comm-union with all present.

– The central experience of Scripture and Liturgy draws us to participate in the work of proclaiming the message of Christ and sharing our experience of it with others that they may also share it.

– The importance of hospitality and kindness to the stranger. “I was hungry… and you did/did not feed…” Jesus is especially present and to be found and loved in the very least of my brothers and sisters.

The scene is also a model of the Eucharist:

Those walking together on the Road gather together and meet Jesus, first, in the Liturgy of the Word as the Scriptures are broken open and explained, and, second, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where what Jesus did for us through his suffering, death and resurrection is remembered with thanksgiving and the bread that is now his Body and the wine that is now his Blood, is shared among those who are the Members of that Body to strengthen their union and their commitment to continuing the work of Jesus.

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Sunday of week 2 of Easter – Gospel

Commentary on Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31
TODAY’S GOSPEL BEGINS in an atmosphere of fear. It is Easter Sunday, two days after the death of Jesus. The disciples are inside the house, with the doors firmly locked, because they are terrified that, as companions of Jesus, they too will be liable to arrest and punishment. The words of assurance they had been given earlier are all forgotten. Suddenly, there is Jesus standing in their midst. The very fact that he can be present in spite of the locked doors indicates that he is not the same as before, that he is present in a new way.
“Peace with you!” is his greeting. It is the normal Jewish greeting of “Shalom”. But, coming from Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to this group of frightened people, it has special meaning. And, in the Greek, there is no verb so it can be taken either as a wish or a statement of fact – where Jesus is truly present to us, there is peace.
He shows them his hands and side. He is not just a disembodied ghost but the same Jesus who died on the cross – and yet there are differences.
The disciples’ fear is gradually transformed into an unspeakable joy at the return of their Master. He continues to speak to them. Repeating his greeting of peace, he proceeds to give them their mission. There is no critical word of their failure to stand by him in his final moments. “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.”
Then he breathed on them. The breath of life, reminiscent of God breathing on the dust of the earth and creating human life in the first man. It is also the breath of the Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
A new mission
Then comes their mission: “For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” Is that all he gave them to do? It does not seem much. What about all the other things the Gospel talks about? And yet, it is all there in those words.
There is no full forgiveness of sin without reconciliation. Their task is to bring about the reconciliation of all with their God, with their brothers and sisters and with the whole of creation. It can also be summed up in the letters JPIC – Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.
That is their primary mission, to which all their other efforts and teaching will be subordinated. To restore right relationships between God and his people and among the people themselves. That is a pretty big programme.
In practice, it involves a lot more than just saying words of forgiveness. It involves much more than “going to confession” and being absolved by a priest. It involves working to create a whole society based on right relationships with God, between people and with the rest of the creation. It is the making of the Kingdom of God. That is a pretty big programme.
And, of course, their mission is also ours. The words of Jesus spoken to them are also spoken to us.
An ideal community
This is very well expressed in the description of the ideal Christian community we find in the First Reading. “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul”. This is the unity of community and fellowship.
“No one claimed for their own use anything they had, as everything they owned was held in common.” Or in the Marxist version: “To each according to his need; from each according to his ability.” None of that individualistic greed and competitiveness that so marks our societies today.
As a result, “none of their members was ever in want” because those who had wealth gave it to the community. “It was then distributed to any members who might be in need.”
Can we find that today anywhere in the Church? Actually yes. It is present in communities of religious life, where it is properly lived. But it needs to be lived more widely among all Christians. The Basic Christian Community and other forms of lay community living are moving in that direction.
The Second Reading speaks of keeping God’s commandments. And, the writer tells us, those commandments are not difficult. That may not be our experience and yet it is true because those commandments are only a call to be totally true to our human nature. They are not asking us to do things which are not in accord with our nature or transcending our nature. And, of course, in the New Covenant, the commandments in question are those telling us to love each other as Jesus loves us, to be agents of peace and reconciliation and justice, which ties in with the Gospel and the First Reading.
The doubter
On that day, there was one apostle missing – Thomas. When he was told that his companions had “seen the Lord”, he said he would not believe unless he saw with his own eyes the marks of the wounds and put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side.
And then, one week later – today, in fact – they were all, including Thomas, gathered together in the room. Although the doors were locked, Jesus was suddenly there among them. After the usual greeting of peace, he invited Thomas not just to look but to touch the wounds in his hands and side. “Do not doubt any longer but believe.”
Thomas yields completely to the experience. “My Lord and my God!” It is one of the most powerful acknowledgements of Jesus’ real identity in the whole Gospel and the only time anyone directly calls him God.
Ironically, too, it is an act of faith. Thomas could not see directly that Jesus was God. No one can see God directly. But the experience convinced Thomas that he was in the presence of God himself.
The following words of Jesus are meant to encourage us, all those who have not had Thomas’ experience: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” We, too, need to be always open to experiences where God’s unmistakable presence can be recognised.
Finally, we are reminded that everything that is in the Gospel is to help us to come to that stage of faith by which we believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” and that, through this belief, we may find life.
Untold numbers of people have tried this and found that it is altogether true. They have found in following Christ a meaning, a direction and a very special quality to their lives which cannot be found anywhere else. May that be our experience too.

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