Monday, 21 August 2017

Week 20 Monday (Year 1)

Readings: Judges 2:11-19; Psalm 106; Matthew 19:16-22

The first readings at Mass this week are from the Book of Judges with one reading from the Book of Ruth, set in the time of the judges. There is a recurring, tedious, pattern in the Book of Judges: the people do what is displeasing in the sight of the Lord, the Lord is angry with them, they are reduced to dire distress, the Lord relents from what he has planned to do against them and raises up a judge to lead them. But once the judge is dead the people lapse again and the pattern continues as before. Over and over, with protestations of repentance when things get difficult.

It is a common experience, this tedious recurring pattern in relationships, perhaps in relation to drink or other addictions, perhaps in arguing and quarreling over the same old things. How are such patterns to be broken? What will get us moving again? What will kick start us into new life? We hope that God's providence will find some gentle way of doing this, helping us to move forward.

The rich young man in today's gospel wants eternal life. What about life first of all, Jesus says to him, how are you doing with living life? What about the commandments? I have been observing those all my life, says the young man. Then if you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.

Here is the possibility of a kick start, a new vocation, a new venture. But the young man goes away sad because he is a man of great wealth. There are other things that hold us back from the venture, besides the addictions and attachments mentioned earlier. There is wealth and other forms of comfort and power. There is the effort required and the willpower just does not seem to be available.

'Do you want to be healed', Jesus asked the man who was ill for thirty eight years. Perhaps the answer will be 'no'. Perhaps the illness and struggle we know are better than the new possibilities of grace we do not know. Perhaps we only flirt with the idea of a new start, a fresh beginning, while in reality being content (and sad) with what we have managed to accumulate and with the limitations to which we have become accustomed.

Pope Francis says that God never tires of showing mercy. We see from the Book of Judges that God never tires of rescuing his people. It sustains our hope that one day we will respond courageously to God's saving help and live from a new depth of union with Him.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Week 20 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 66; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

How are we to understand this story in which Jesus is rude to a Canaanite woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon?

There is a feminist interpretation that says that Jesus, as a limited human being needs to be helped, in particular by the women who come into his life, and that here we see him being helped by the Canaanite woman to realize the full extent of his mission. She calls him, as it were, beyond the boundaries of his own understanding and imagination.

I don’t think this is to be simply dismissed. We do, often, have difficulty accepting the full humanity of Jesus and what it entailed. We are probably much happier, for example, accepting that Jesus needed to be taught how to pray by Mary and Joseph than we are with the suggestion that he needed to learn something about his mission from the Canaanite woman.

If we work with the belief that Jesus knew exactly what he was about and understood what his mission was and how he was to pursue it, how are we to explain the strange conversation that takes place between him and this woman? In the first instance he remains silent. (As he did also when confronted with the woman taken in adultery in John 8.) The disciples encourage him to do something for her, whether to help her or just to get rid of her is not clear. Jesus then makes the statement about being sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Whether he says this to the woman or to the disciples is, once again, not clear. The woman repeats her request: ‘Lord, help me’. Notice that she makes exactly the same prayer as Peter in last Sunday’s gospel: ‘Lord, save me’. In situations of great need we don’t need to be told how to pray. Then Jesus makes this strange statement in which he seems to imply that she is a dog. But is immediately taken by her answer about the dogs at least getting the scraps that fall from the master’s table. And so he acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter.

Here’s a suggestion as to what might be going on here. I spent a short time in Trinidad but learned that the people there liked what they call ‘piquant’. It is a French word that has hung around and refers to an exchange between people that is witty and clever, moving towards being daring and even (to one who does not understand what is going on) insulting. I can remember one or two conversations of this kind where each party is expected to give as good as he gets – there is excitement and fun in the conversation but an onlooker might not understand what is happening and might even feel uncertain about it.

Might it be that the Canaanite woman and Jesus are immediately attuned to each other – they were able to see each other’s eyes, for example – and that their exchange is of this kind, a kind of verbal sparring that both sides will enjoy. They are then enacting a parable for the sake of the disciples in order to teach them something about the universal mission of Jesus.

There is plenty in the prophets about the universal reach of God’s promises to Israel and we cannot imagine that Jesus is unaware of this. The first reading at Mass today is an example. In fact placing it alongside the story of the Canaanite woman, the Church is inviting us to see this prophecy fulfilled in this encounter. The pagans, represented by the woman, will come to the temple, Jesus, and their prayers and sacrifices will be acceptable to the Lord. The text is quoted later in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus drives out the moneychangers and says it is to be a house of prayer for all the peoples.

The second reading too is about this, Paul grappling with the fact that the Jewish people as a whole had not accepted Jesus as the messiah. Romans 9-11 is the great New Testament text for thinking about this question, the starting point for thinking about the relationship of Christianity with the Jewish people. And of course it is not only Jews who have from time to time looked down on other people (or been looked down on by them) – there are many nations that have done this.

But Jesus in his encounter with the woman takes the opportunity to teach the disciples something about the call of human need, that there is no limit and no boundary to where the light of the gospel and the healing love of Christ are to be brought. Wherever there is human need the gospel is to be preached.

And the missionary learns from the missioned, if we can put it like that. We might be tempted to think that we know what people need and that we are the ones to provide it. But Jesus, remember, does not presume to know that: ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ My first assignation as a priest was to Edinburgh where I studied at the University and helped out at the chaplaincy. I was 24 years of age and supposed to be an ‘elder’ in the community! I learned what I was to do as a priest from the people who came to me, they taught me what a priest was to do, the ways in which he was expected to serve. There must always be this dialogue, between the teacher and the taught, the missionary and the missioned, the helper and the helped. We do not realize the gifts we carry until those we serve help us to realize them. Their need will call us beyond the limits we may have set to what we think we have to offer.

I must acknowledge that Fergus Kerr’s homily on the Torch website helped me in thinking about this gospel. And I conclude with a quote from him:

Isn’t this wonderful little story an invitation to reflect on the possibilities of liberation that pagans may hope to find in Christianity, and the necessity, if they are not to be disappointed, that we Christians discover possibilities in ourselves that call us beyond our inherited boundaries?

Friday, 18 August 2017

Week 19 Friday (Year 1)

Readings: Joshua 24:1-13; Psalm 136; Matthew 19:3-12

So the conversation is in three parts. The Pharisees want to test Jesus and ask him about divorce. His initial response is simply to quote what’s in the law. They are not content with that and then ask him why Moses allowed people to divorce. ‘Because of your hardness of heart’, Jesus replies. And in a third moment the disciples get in on the conversation, and decide that Jesus’ answer is too difficult

In some ways this passage, from Matthew 19, harks back to many things Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, where he reads passages from the law and then gives a more radical interpretation of how they are now to be lived out, in the kingdom of heaven, in the ethics of the kingdom. ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you’. And in this passage too he says that: ‘I say to you’.

It was not so from the beginning, he says. This is not how God intended it to be. The original plan for marriage did not envisage divorce. But now, the Pharisees say to him, this is what Moses decided should be allowed. We might hear people saying or imagine people saying this is how the real world is, not all marriages work out. What’s the problem? Hardness of heart, Jesus says, sklerocardia, the hardness of your heart, a sclerosis of the heart, hearts becoming stone, sometimes through sin, sometimes through disappointment, rejection, betrayal – there are many reasons why human hearts become stony, begin to close down, find it all too much to bear.

And nor is it to be so in the future. This is what the disciples’ question enables Jesus to say: it is not to be like this in the future. If his initial answer looks back to the past, to original innocence – from the beginning it was not to be like this – his third answer, to the disciples, looks forward to the future, to the kingdom of heaven, to a place where this will not be an issue again.

The hardness of heart … who will take out of our bodies these hearts of stone and give us heart of flesh instead? Well, not ourselves. We don’t have the ability, it seems, to remove these hearts of stone, to give ourselves hearts of flesh. It is the gift of the Spirit as we read in the prophet Ezekiel who removes from our bodies hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh instead. We need to learn to receive. This is what Jesus says at the end. It is a matter of grace, not of something we can achieve ourselves, but of something we receive, the gift of the spirit, the gift of God’s grace. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it, he says. Whoever accepts the invitation to live towards the kingdom of God will, by the power of God’s grace, find themselves able to live according to the ethics of the kingdom. They will find their hearts of stone being turned into hearts of flesh.

Not that that’s going to be an easy process for any of us. Jesus himself leads the way and shows us, through his suffering and death on the cross, how the kingdom of heaven has been established.

You can listen to this homily being preached at theWord

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Week 19 Thursday (Year 1)

Readings: Joshua 3:7-10a,  11, 13-17; Psalm 114; Matthew 18:21-19:1

You will find here a homily on today's gospel reading

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady -- 15 August

Readings: Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1:39-56


In the summer of 1270 our brother Thomas Aquinas took advantage of the summer break to attend to a few jobs that had come in during the academic year. One was a request from a friend of his, James of Tonengo, a canon at the cathedral of Vercelli. James’s problem was that the canons of the cathedral could not agree about who the next bishop should be. They were deadlocked. Not only that, they could not appeal to the Pope because there was no Pope! Clement IV died in November 1268 and his successor, Gregory X, was not elected until September 1271, an inter-regnum of almost three years, the longest in the history of the papacy. The cardinals, meeting at Viterbo, were also deadlocked. This was so unsettling for everybody that the civil authorities eventually locked them in, took the roof off the place in which they were meeting (to expose them to the sun and the rain), and finally starved them until they came to a decision. (It was in fact Gregory X who established the conclave more or less as we know it in order to prevent such a thing happening again.)

James’s question to Thomas was this: given the circumstances, would it be acceptable for the canons of Vercelli to choose a new bishop by casting lots, i.e. by tossing a coin, using cards, or in some other way. They could not agree and there was no Pope to whom they could appeal. Would it not in fact leave more room for the Holy Spirit to show his hand if they were to cast lots? Thomas wrote a short work in reply, called De sortibus (‘On casting lots’), in which he says that it would not only be unacceptable to choose spiritual leaders in this way, it would be an insult to the Holy Spirit. Why an insult to the Holy Spirit? Because, Thomas says, the Spirit has been poured into the Church and if something is to happen now by divine inspiration it must happen through human thinking and decision-making. Thomas notes that Matthias was chosen to replace Judas by casting lots but this was before the day of Pentecost when the Spirit was given to the Church. Now – it bears repeating – if something is to happen among us by divine inspiration it must happen through what Thomas calls concordia, the consensus reached through human beings talking, thinking and voting.

Why talk about such a thing on the feast of the Assumption of Mary? It is because Mary teaches us so much about grace and the way it works in the human being. The Spirit is given to us and the gift of grace is established within us not in order to replace human conversation and thinking and decision-making but in order to enable them to happen and to happen better. The first creation requires only God’s word – ‘let there be light’, and so it was. The new creation requires also the word of the human creature – ‘let what you have said be done to me’. Mary’s fiat is her vote, her voice sounding. Creation waits expectantly for her response to the proposal put to her by Gabriel.

The gift of the Spirit does not replace our humanity but enables it, heals it and strengthens it, allowing our thinking and our speaking and our action to reach beyond what would be possible for them without God’s grace. God’s will works in and through Mary’s will just as, and even more so, it works in and through the human will of Jesus. ‘Father, let this cup pass me by’, he prays in Gethsemane, ‘yet not what I will but what you will’ (Mark 14:36).

Paul speaks thus in the second reading: ‘the resurrection of the dead has come through a human being’. Later in the same chapter he writes ‘thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 15:57). It is God’s victory, given to us. It is the work of God because it is a new creation, but God does not work it without us. Elsewhere Paul speaks of the ‘Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Rom 8: 16) – the divine Spirit and the created spirit collaborate, work together, in this new life, the life of the new creation. It is not that the Holy Spirit says to us ‘push over and let me do it’ but that the Spirit says ‘let me enable you to do it, let me establish and strengthen in you the gifts of wisdom, courage and love that will make it possible for you to do it’.

Mary’s immediate instinct on the departure of the angel is to go and visit Elisabeth. Immediately she sets out. This teaches us something further about grace, that it always carries with it a call and a mission. To receive a gift from God does not mean simply to be loved but to become a lover. Thomas Aquinas speaks beautifully about this elsewhere in his writings. The only thing God can give is God and God is love. So the gift of God is always the gift of love. But truly to receive it means not just that I am loved but that I am made to be a lover. So Mary, conceiving the Word, immediately sets out to the one who is in need, and carries the Word to her.

Mary and Elisabeth are then preachers of the gospel to each other. It is striking that the language Luke uses in his account of the visitation anticipates the language he will use in the Acts of the Apostles to speak about the preaching of the gospel: there are words spoken and heard (‘Elisabeth shouted with a great shout’, ‘when the sound of your greeting reached my ear’), there is the response within when the news of the Word is received (‘the babe leaped in her womb’), there is the Spirit enabling the reception of the Word (‘Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’), there is faith (‘blessed is she who believed’) and joy (‘the babe leaped with joy’). This is how it is when the gospel is preached and heard.

I remember well a comment of Albert Nolan’s when he spoke in Dublin many years ago. The Cabra sisters invited him, as I remember, and the friars were invited to attend also. He spoke of the heart, lips and hands, saying that Christian compassion must reach from the heart to the lips and on to action. It is not enough just to feel for others who suffer but to speak up for them and to do something about their situation. It is not enough just to do something but that action be supported by truthful speaking and loving compassion. So with Mary, she is disposed in her heart to receive the word of the angel and so conceives the Word Incarnate. She is enabled by the Spirit to speak what has happened (‘my soul magnifies the Lord’). And she takes action, going immediately to help the one who is in need and to bring the message of the gospel to her.

As we celebrate this great feast of Mary’s participation in the new creation won by her Son, and as we recall the wisdom of our brother Thomas Aquinas, we pray that we will come to understand better the gifts we have received, to be gracious and compassionate companions, speaking what is true and doing what is good.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Week 19 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33

No Christmas would be complete these days without at least one Indiana Jones film being shown on TV. In the first of them, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the climax comes when the German soldiers gather round to examine the contents of the lost ark of the covenant which they have supposedly dug up in the Egyptian desert. In typical Hollywood fashion God makes his presence felt through an impressive storm, earthquake and fire which mercilessly destroy those who dare to gaze upon the glory of the Lord.

It is reminiscent of the moment in the life of the prophet Elijah recounted in today's first reading. Despondent and depressed he flees to the desert and takes refuge in a cave where he is visited by an impressive storm, earthquake and fire. Elijah is told however that the Lord is not in any of these. Instead he recognises God in the sound of a gentle breeze or, as it is more properly translated, in ‘the sound of fine silence’.

This paradoxical phrase links up with a long tradition of reflection on the Bible which explains the variety of ways in which we can speak about God and name God. As creator of all things God can be named from his works. God is the ‘cause’ responsible for all that is and the ‘artist’ whose works we see all around us. These works speak positively about the power and majesty, goodness and beauty of their source. They reflect something of God and are validly understood as images of God.

But God is not any of the things we see around us nor is God just another thing alongside the things we see and experience. The reality and the presence of God are much more mysterious than that. What is called ‘negative theology’ teaches us that in naming God we must also deny everything of God. In other words while God is the creating cause of everything that is, God is not a mountain or a river or a star or an angel or anything else that can be named.

On the one hand we can use everything as a name for God because everything reflects something of the glory of God who is its cause. On the other hand we must deny everything of God and say that God is not any one of these things which God has made but is greater than any and all of them.

The Bible and philosophy together teach us that some names seem more suitable for God, names like being, goodness and wisdom. But even these names are used of God in a way that surpasses our ordinary knowledge and use of them. God is good, powerful and beautiful not simply in the way we experience and understand these names but in a way that is special to God.

To want to see God, know God and name God is a natural human desire. But it can very easily become a desire to ‘have’ God in a way in which God cannot be had and held. The Bible warned that no person could see God and live: a warning against trying to possess, comprehend or control the divine mystery. Whatever we say about God must be carefully qualified until we arrive at a moment which is fittingly described as ‘the sound of fine silence’.

God bursts all bonds, even the bonds of those images, concepts, names and experiences which human beings identify as ‘divine’ or ‘theological’. The adventure of seeking the names of God is like stepping out to walk on water. Very soon we realise that far from being able to hold and control God by knowing and naming God, it is God who sees, knows and names us.

It strengthens our faith to think a bit more deeply about the ways in which we can legitimately speak about God. It brings home to us something of the wonder and magnificence of God. It is important that we not speak about God in a way that is too easy or familiar. In time of real need, however, we all fall back on the name which is above all other names. As we begin to sink we call on Jesus and with Saint Peter we know who we mean as we cry out ‘Lord, save us’.

You will find here another homily for today.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Week 18 Wednesday (Year 1)

Readings: Numbers 13:1-2, 25 - 14:1, 26a-29a, 34-35; Psalm 106; Matthew 15:21-28

How are we to understand this story in which Jesus is rude to a Canaanite woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon?

There is a feminist interpretation that says that Jesus, as a man, needs to be helped, in particular by the women who come into his life, and that here we see him being helped by the Canaanite woman to realize the full extent of his mission. She calls him, as it were, beyond the boundaries of his own understanding and imagination. We do, often, have difficulty accepting the full humanity of Jesus and what it entailed. We are probably much happier, for example, accepting that Jesus needed to be taught how to pray by Mary and Joseph than we are with the suggestion that he needed to learn something about his mission from the Canaanite woman.

If we work with the belief that Jesus always knew exactly what he was about and always understood what his mission was and how he was to pursue it, how are we to explain the strange conversation that takes place between him and this woman? At first he remains silent (as he did also when confronted with the woman taken in adultery in John 8.) The disciples encourage him to do something for her, though whether this is to help her or just to get rid of her is not clear.

Jesus then makes the statement about being sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Whether he says this to the woman or to the disciples is, once again, not clear. The woman repeats her request: ‘Lord, help me’. Notice that she makes exactly the same prayer as Peter in yesterday’s gospel: ‘Lord, save me’. In situations of great need we don’t need to be told how to pray. Then Jesus makes this strange statement in which he seems to imply that she is a dog, but is immediately taken by her answer about the dogs at least getting the scraps that fall from the master’s table. And so he acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter.

Here’s a suggestion as to what might be going on here. I spent a short time in Trinidad, in the West Indies, but long enough to learn that the people there liked what they call piquant. It is a French word that has hung around in that part of the world and refers to an exchange between people that is witty and clever, moving towards being daring and even (to one who does not understand what is going on) insulting. I can remember one or two conversations of this kind where each party is expected to give as good as he gets – there is excitement and fun in the conversation but an onlooker might not understand what is happening and might even feel uncertain about it.

Might it be that the Canaanite woman and Jesus are immediately attuned to each other – they were able to see each other’s eyes, for example – and that their exchange is of this kind, a kind of verbal sparring that both sides enjoy? They are then enacting a parable for the sake of the disciples in order to teach them something about the universal mission of Jesus.



There is plenty in the prophets about the universal reach of God’s promises to Israel and we cannot imagine that Jesus is unaware of this. The pagans, represented by the woman, will come to the temple – which is now Jesus - and their prayers and sacrifices will be acceptable to the Lord. He quotes this kind of text later in Matthew’s gospel, when he drives the moneychangers out of the Temple and says it is to be a house of prayer for all the peoples.

Jesus in his encounter with the woman takes the opportunity to teach the disciples something about the call of human need, that there is no limit and no boundary to where the light of the gospel and the healing love of Christ are to be brought. Wherever there is human need, charity is to be exercised and the healing power of the gospel made present.

The missionary learns from the missioned if we can put it like that. We might be tempted to think that we know what people need and that we are the ones to provide it. Jesus, remember, does not presume to know that: ‘what do you want me to do for you’ he asks a blind man. The young priests who go out from this community learn what is expected of them from the people who come to them, teaching them the ways in which they expect them to be of service. There must always be this dialogue, between the teacher and the taught, the missionary and the missioned, the helper and the helped. Those we serve help us to realize the gifts with which we have been entrusted. Their need will call us beyond the limits we may have set to what we think we have to offer.

Fergus Kerr OP composed a homily for Torch, the English Dominican website, about this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. He concludes with this question:

Isn’t this wonderful little story an invitation to reflect on the possibilities of liberation that pagans may hope to find in Christianity, and the necessity, if they are not to be disappointed, that we Christians discover possibilities in ourselves that call us beyond our inherited boundaries?