Sunday, 21 January 2018

Week 3 Sunday (Year B)

As in Matthew and John, Mark tells us that the arrest of John the Baptist is the signal for the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. He has been active before that, as a kind of disciple of John (or so it would seem looking on from the outside), but once he hears of John's arrest things change quickly and radically: he withdraws from Judea into Galilee, and his own work of preaching, healing, and exorcism gets under way.

There is a strong contrast in Mark's gospel between the preaching of the Baptist and the preaching of Jesus. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus preaches the gospel of God, the fulfillment of time, and the imminence of the kingdom of God. It is time to repent and to believe in the gospel.

What has come between the preaching of John and the preaching of Jesus is Jesus' baptism and his temptation in the wilderness, both described briefly but profoundly by Mark. The opening of the heavens at the baptism is the answer to an ancient prayer of Israel that God would open the heavens, intervene, visit his people, come down, save them. Mark tells us that this prayer of Israel is answered in the moment of Jesus' baptism: the Spirit comes from the opened heavens to anoint Jesus while the Father's words, accompanying the Spirit's anointing, recognise him as the beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased.

Jesus is now established in his identity. It happens at the level of his divine nature (if we can put it like this) in his baptism. And it happens at the level of his human nature in his temptation in the desert. There, as Mark describes it, the Son of God (Mk 1:1), is the centre of creation, tempted by the devil as Adam and Eve were, he is with the wild beasts as the prophecies foretold concerning the child who would lead the people into the kingdom, and the angels ministered to him as was promised for God's chosen one in the psalms.

Hence the huge difference between the preaching of the Baptist - a call to repentance and to a symbolic enactment of it in baptism - and the preaching of Jesus - carrying the gospel of God, announcing that the time is fulfilled, saying that the kingdom of God is at hand. There is a whole new rationale for repentance, a whole new level of spiritual life, not just to try to tidy ourselves up and sort ourselves out, but to 'believe', to open ourselves to the approach of God, to be ready, like the first disciples, to answer his call and if necessary to leave everything we have known up to now in order to follow him into his kingdom.
We see this transforming work of the Spirit accompanying the preaching of Jonah as it accompanied the preaching of the Baptist and then of Jesus. Jonah's attempts to avoid the mission to which he was called are finally frustrated and, still complaining, he takes on the seemingly impossible task of calling a huge city to repentance. But just one day into the work he finds that everybody repents, including God who, we are told, 'repents of the evil he had threatened to do to them'. We can imagine Jonah, and John the Baptist, both saying 'we are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty'. In other words they allowed themselves, and their lives, to be instruments of God's purpose for others. The same with Peter and Andrew, James and John: they too allow the Spirit to work powerfully in them so that they can leave everything in order to follow Jesus.

'The world in its present form is passing away': so Saint Paul in today's second reading. This transformation comes about through the work of Jesus who enters into the first creation in order to establish within it the seeds of the new creation. It is already intimated in the lives of Jonah and John the Baptist. It will happen decisively in the lives of the Apostles. In all cases the pattern is same: the Father speaks, the Spirit anoints, and the Word becomes flesh in the lives of all who hear and receive this anointing. Everybody who has been baptised is called to this - to see everything in a new light, to experience a new freedom, to contribute to the work of building the civilization of love. We live in the time of fulfillment and we are called to build the kingdom in whatever ways are available to us.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Week 2 Sunday (Year B)

The first reading tells us again about the threefold call of Samuel, and the gospel reading tells us again about the call of Simon who will be Peter or Cephas. Our attention usually goes to these two most important figures, one of the greatest of the prophets of Israel, Samuel, and the chief of the apostles, Peter.

But it is interesting to see how other people are involved in the discernment of their vocations. Samuel needs the wisdom and experience of Eli in order to understand what is happening. He is to be the recipient of revelations, a key leader of God's people, but his preparation for that task and his realisation of his calling are helped along by Eli. Simon who will be called Peter needs the information coming from Andrew who in turn follows the guidance of John the Baptist. Peter is to be a central firgure in the community of believers in Jesus, a key leader of God's people, but his preparation for that task and his realisation of his calling are helped along by Andrew and, behind him, by John the Baptist.

People talk a lot about human dignity, meaning the inestimable value of every single individual human being. We do not talk as often abou the source or foundation of that dignity. Why do we think and talk in the way we do about human dignity? In the world of the Bible it is the fact of being created and called by God that establishes every human being in his or her dignity. To be on the receiving end of God's creative love, and on the receiving end of a call from God, means being established with an identity, a dignity, a recognition, a mission, within the creating and saving work of God. It means to be given a name, sometimes a new name, which encapsulates the dignity, identity, personality that is unique to each one.

It is easy to see this in the cases of Samuel and of Peter. They are VIPs in the history of salvation. But today's readings remind us of the intricate network of human relations within which these great people found their way to the mission that was theirs. So Eli, Andrew, and John the Baptist, have their place, their mission, their dignity within the body of God's people. 

As I was preparing this homily I was remembering people who were important in the discernment and development of my own vocation. Not that I'm comparing myself with Samuel or with Peter. But just to acknowledge that this is the human world in which we all live, a world in which we are forming each other for good or ill, informing and challenging each other, and so helping people to discern and to develop who they are, their particular dignity, vocation, mission, identity. I thought of Michael Condon, my English teacher, who when he heard that I was thinking of the priesthood reminded me that I had a first duty to consider the needs of our local church, the diocese of Dublin. I thought of Eugene Kennedy, then a curate in our parish, who taught me that major decisions about vocation are usually, within ourselves, majority rather than unanimous decisions. And I can quickly think of dozens of others who have helped me along the way, sometimes just by a single comment, affirming or questioning, but each one guiding, shaping, stimulating, helping me to discern and to decide and to grow. In ways beyond my knowledge, and by God's grace, perhaps I have helped others to discern and to decide and to develop. Helped somebody above all to find their way to Jesus, to the one who is supremely good, and true, and beautiful, the source and foundation of all human dignity.

So we can rejoice today in each one's vocation. We are not all Samuel or Peter, but we are all Eli, Andrew or John the Baptist. Or people who have in some way helped the Elis, and Andrews, and John the Baptists. There is a passage in the writings of  Cardinal Newman which summarises beautifully what I think is a central teaching in today's liturgy, a teaching about our calling, our identity and our dignity, no matter what our place in the body of God's people, or what our role in the unfolding of God's purposes:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission - I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his - if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling (John Henry Newman, Prayers, Verses and Devotions, Ignatius Press 1989, pages 338-339).

Friday, 12 January 2018

Week 1 Friday (Year 2)

Readings: 1 Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a; Psalm 89; Mark 2:1-12

Who were the four men who carried the paralytic to Jesus? The gospels do not give us their names but some of the Fathers of the Church were sure that they must have been Peter, Andrew, James and John. We heard earlier this week about the calling of these first four apostles. In Mark's gospel this passage about the healing of the paralytic comes not very long after the calling of the apostles. Matthew's gospel tells us that they not only left everything to follow Jesus but that they did it immediately. It is not a crazy idea, then, to think that this is who brought the man to Jesus, the apostles getting down to the business of helping Jesus in his work.

If we follow this line of thought then we see what the apostolic task involves: it means bringing people to Jesus. This is all that the apostolic Church needs to do, the whole of its task. It is the task of those who belong, as Dominicans do, to a religious order that regards itself as apostolic (living the lifestyle of the apostles). In fact it is the task of every Christian because all who are baptised and confirmed in Christ are by that fact commissioned to be His witnesses and to do what they can to bring others to him.

The men need to be creative to get this particular individual into the presence of Jesus. He is paralysed and lying on a bed. The crowd has filled the place where Jesus was. There is no way they can squeeze in, not with a load as awkward as they are carrying. But someone thinks of the roof. It is another way to get the man into the presence of Jesus and this is what they do.

The gospel tells us that Jesus was preaching the word to the people gathered round him. In writing about the ministry of the Word, our service of the Word of God as preachers of the gospel, the Dominican constitutions use a lovely phrase: part of our work is to seek 'new ways to the truth', they say. The truth, of course, is Jesus. Our task then is to continue searching for new ways to get to Jesus, new ways to bring people to Him and to bring Him to people. There are many obstacles that can obscure our access, block our path, cloud our vision, and tempt us to turn away and give up trying to get to him. But the preachers, the apostles, those called to accompany Christ in his work must be ever active and endlessly creative, on the lookout for new ways of helping people to get into His presence.

We can become weighed down by the many difficulties and disheartened by the many challenges. Questions come from science and philosophy, questions come from politics and social trends, questions come from scandals and the counter witness of so many of us. Sometimes it can seem impossible, the task of speaking well about Jesus in the modern world, the task of witnessing to Him by a life that is prayerful and holy. But we must keep at it and like the men in the gospel be active, be creative, be imaginative about our work. And then be prepared for wonderful things to happen.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Week 1 Thursday

Readings: 1 Samuel 4:1-11; Psalm 44; Mark 1:40-45

You will find here a homily on today's gospel

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 / Isaiah 55:1-11; Psalm 29 / Isaiah 12:2-6; Acts 10:35-38 / 1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11

Solidarity is a word that became very familiar in the 1980s with the famous Polish trade union, and then as John Paul II's term for 'social charity'. It means people standing side by side, brothers and sisters in a common struggle, sharing the same hopes and fears, the same joys and disappointments.

Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in solidarity with the rest of the human race. It was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He entered the waters of the Jordan as the servant of God, and one who was to bear the sins of all. He stood side by side with the rest of humankind. In that event the Holy Spirit descended on him, anointing him for his mission. God's favour rested on him. God was 'well-pleased' with him and acknowledged him as his 'Beloved Son'.

If the baptism of Jesus reveals his solidarity with us, it is also the beginning of our solidarity with him. Just as Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit and strengthened for the task ahead, so all who are in solidarity with him, who are 'baptised' into his death and resurrection, receive the Holy Spirit.

It is not a special feeling, but a certain belief. It is not just Christ coming down to our level but Christ raising us to his level. A traditional way of putting it is to say that all human beings can be 'sons in the Son', adopted children of God, as Jesus is the natural child of the Father.

Our solidarity with him, our living in the Holy Spirit as he did, means a new relationship with God and therefore a new way of speaking to God, a new way of prayer. What is this prayer of the Spirit which is possible to those who are in solidarity with Christ? It is Christ's own prayer, 'Abba, Father'. It is not just 'Father' in a distant, cold and formal sense. It is 'Abba', in the language Jesus spoke, 'Daddy', and maybe even 'Papa'. It means relating to God with trust, with confidence, intimately, warmly - as a little child would to its parent.

It is a prayer which is not afraid to ask for what it needs. It is a prayer which is simple and straightforward. It is the way in which Jesus himself prayed all through his life, asking for strength, asking for guidance, asking that the Father would reveal clearly his will.

The Holy Spirit is the power of God which makes all this possible. It is a gentle power, not bruising the crushed reed or quenching the wavering flame, but strengthening them. In this power we are in solidarity with Christ, we are the children of God, we are able to relate to God in a new way, we are capable of praying in the way that Christ our brother did, calling on God as our Father.

In the most difficult moments of life it is the power of the Holy Spirit which carries us along. For Christ, the experience of the agony in the garden and his dying on the cross, are the moments beyond words, moments of heart-rending confusion and agony, moments when his spirit cries out, 'Father, let this cup pass me by', 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'. In our own moments of difficulty and despair, moments when we do not know how to pray as we ought, it is then, Saint Paul says, that the Spirit himself intercedes for us, 'with sighs too deep for words'.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Feast of the Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 71; Ephesians 2:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

After they have met publicly with the chief priests and scribes, Herod is anxious to meet the wise men ‘secretly’. It is how politics tends to be done, through secret deals and meetings outside meetings. But today’s feast is about the opposite of secrecy. The mystery hidden in God from all eternity is made known to the world in the birth of Jesus. It is a mystery of light, a revelation, and an illumination. Like all politicians, Herod is anxious to control events and he is already devising his strategy. But another hand is guiding these events, another mind is revealed in how they unfold, and a different power is at work here for a purpose beyond anything Herod can imagine. God’s plan – for it is the hand and mind and power of God that are being revealed – will not be frustrated by Herod.

There had always been a universalist strand in Jewish thought. We find it in the prophets, who issue frequent reminders that the choosing of Israel, and her re-establishment after the Exile, are not just for Israel but are, through her, for all the nations. So the first reading already provides much of the imagery and meaning of today’s feast: your light has come, the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. In the darkness of this world’s night the nations see and are led by the light that has risen over Israel. This universalism is there from the beginning, in the original call of Abraham. He is promised a land and a people so that all the nations of the earth might be blessed through him.

With the birth of Jesus the mystery of God’s love for humanity is revealed definitively and uniquely. In this mystery, the Gentiles, represented by the three pagans who present their gifts to the Holy Family, are fellow heirs with the chosen people, members of the same body and partakers of the same promise. Following their own best understanding of how truth is to be sought, they find their way to Bethlehem. All who seek truth with a sincere heart will, sooner or later, find their way to Bethlehem. The clamorous human world gathers at the feet of this Child, not just the Jewish world of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds but the Gentile world from Midian, Ephah and Sheba. The revelation and the promise are for everybody.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Weekday of Christmas - 3 January

Readings: 1 John 2:29-3:6; Psalm 98; John 1:29-34

Jesus cannot be understood apart from the history of Israel. God's covenant relationship with the chosen people -- 'I will be your God and you will be my people' -- is the golden thread running through that history. Everything recounted in the Old Testament, whether in the law or in the prophets or in the writings, records the fortunes of that covenant-relationship and looks forward to its consummation in the coming of Messiah, the Christ. Jesus himself tells us that 'salvation is from the Jews' (John 4.22).

In identifying him, John the Baptist describes him as 'the Lamb of God' (John 1.29). Lambs were slaughtered and eaten by the Hebrews in the moment of their deliverance from the land of Egypt. The blood of those lambs marked the houses that the Lord 'passed over'. The annual remembrance of the Passover that began their journey towards a promised land, still involved, in Jesus's day, the slaughtering of lambs in the Temple.

In Jesus's day also the title 'lamb of God' had become a way of referring to the 'servant of God', the figure who is the subject of four great poems in the Book of Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50 and 52-53). The servant is 'the beloved' and 'the chosen one of God', another description used by the Baptist to identify Jesus (John 1.34). These titles are uttered by the Father at the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus, according to Matthew 3 and 17, Mark 1 and 9, Luke 3 and 9.

These are thoroughly Jewish titles, then, and they take us to the heart of Jewish experience and faith. Jesus is the lamb, the servant, the chosen one, and the beloved. In Jesus the promise of an everlasting covenant (Jeremiah 31) is fulfilled. In Jesus, God visits His people in a 'once and for all' sealing of the covenant (Hebrews 7.27), its establishment on a foundation that can never be shaken.

We can even say that Jesus is Israel. The servant of Isaiah is an individual from among the people but represents the whole people, and stands for them so that what happens between him and God is happening between the whole people and God. But this Jewish messiah, this servant of the chosen people, carries through a work that is not just for the Jews but is for all human beings, for all creation even. He is to bring back Jacob and to gather Israel but he is also to be the light of the nations so that God's salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

The Christian faith presents us with this paradox, that it is particular and universal. It is a call of particular individuals and communities to be witnesses to the light of Christ in the world and in its history. But this call has a universal reach because God's salvation is to reach the ends of the earth. The journey taken by Jesus in response to his call was from the outlying reaches of the Holy Land, Galilee of the nations, through Samaria and Judea to Jerusalem with its temple. There, in that very particular place, a particular story reached its climax, the covenant-history of the God of Israel.

We believe that climax to be of universal and eternal significance, relevant to all people in every time and place. From Jerusalem the word goes out, the news of our reconciliation, and it is preached in Judea, in Samaria, in Galilee and eventually to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8).

The phrase lumen gentium has become very familiar in recent decades as the title of Vatican II's constitution on the Church. Christ is 'the light of the nations' and the Church is the sacrament -- sign and instrument -- of Christ in bringing that light to bear on human lives everywhere. 'He is their Lord no less than ours', Paul says, referring to all who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere (1 Corinthians 1.3). He takes away not only the sins of his own people ('ours the sins he bore, ours the sufferings he carried', as Isaiah puts it). He takes away 'the sin of the world' (John 1.29).

We are in Christmastide, between the great feasts of Nativity, Epiphany, and Baptism. We see Jesus revealed to his own people -- Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. We see Jesus revealed to foreigners and outsiders -- the magi who followed their understanding to find their way to him. Those of us who believe have seen his glory as the only Son from the Father. We have, therefore, a responsibility to be 'phosphorescent'. We are called to be 'carriers of light', signs and instruments of the light and love which the Lamb of God has brought into the world.

This homily was first composed for the Second Sunday of Year A which has the same gospel reading. It may be found also on