Manchester people see little need to visit Liverpool. However, I know of one compelling reason. The Walker Art Gallery has a small painting, a hidden gem, which captures the moment the lost Jesus is called to account by Mary and Joseph. Why did you do this? Your Father and I were worried. We have been searching for you. Feet apart and arms folded, Jesus replies like a teenager who feels he has been misunderstood. “Why? Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs”.
It doesn’t make sense to think of the Son of God as disobedient. Obedience marked him out during the following years of the Hidden Life. Yet, a certain amount of teenage inquisitiveness is acceptable. How fascinated Jesus must have been with the Temple; with the doctors of the law; with so much that was associated with the God whom Mary and Joseph had spoken about with him. So much so that that he was now able to talk about his “Father’s affairs”. There is a desire, a direction emerging; a longing which will eventually be fulfilled. “I and the Father are One”.
Some Premier League top teams are currently doing badly; one in the south spectacularly badly. The stand-in coach has offered a chat with players who lack the necessary spirit. Clearly, if you are a footballer and don’t have the desire to play well, the team will not do well.
We can come to mass every Sunday; we can say mass as priests every Sunday. If it becomes a routine, a performance, there will be little energy in the Church; in our spiritual lives. “My dear people we are already the children of God but in the future we will be like him; we shall see God as he really is”. Growth in faith, in the things of God, is our inheritance. This seems also to have been Jesus’ experience. As we see the infant Jesus emerge into manhood and become enraptured by the things of God, we might reflect on our own desire for God and our desire for the affairs of God. As we contemplate Jesus growing in stature, in wisdom and in favour with God, we pray that our desire for God will grow and be strengthened.
A few years after the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, a Slovakian Jesuit priest, called Peter, came to the retreat house where I was working. He told me a story of Communist times. As persecution eased, he was at home with his parents on Christmas Eve. “It would be lovely to go to Christmas mass somewhere”, said his mother, “just like we used to do”. Peter said: “I will say mass for you”. His parents were stunned. Stunned! They didn’t know he was a priest. Secrecy during persecution was essential. Peter worked as an anaesthetist, alongside his provincial who was a surgeon. Few people knew he was a priest.
Recently I spoke to a friend on the phone. Her husband of 20 years has just left her. Today she faces Christmas with three angry student-aged children.
Christmas is a priceless gift but it can also be a time of distress. It was true of the first Christmas: “There was no room for them at the inn”. Saint Ignatius of Loyola puts it this way: “Christ comes to be born in extreme poverty, and, after much toil, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, insults and abuse, he dies on the cross – and all this for me”. For me, for you, for each one of us.
There are many beautiful passages in the Old Testament about God’s love for us. For example: “Does a woman forget her baby … yet even if these forget, I will never forget you”. Christmas and the incarnation go beyond this. God is here among us. The Word has become flesh. God now loves us with a human heart. God has become as we are.
We see this loving heart of Christ, healing and helping, when he grows up? Take one example. The Woman taken in Adultery - caught red-handed. How sensitively Jesus deals with her! “Has anyone condemned you?” Jesus asks. “No one,” she replies. “Neither do I,” says Jesus, adding gently: “Don’t sin any more”.
The Year of Mercy has started. Jesus is mercy incarnate. The story of the Woman taken in Adultery impels us to be merciful towards others; a mercy, the passage assures us, we can count on for ourselves. Yet will the Year of Mercy be fruitful. It is a gift for today but also a challenge. Will I allow God to be merciful towards me? Will I be merciful towards others?
“The Lord your God is in your midst” proclaims the prophet Zephaniah to the people of Israel. We can echo this tonight. We have listened to God’s word proclaimed among us. At communion we receive the Lord Jesus, truly present among us, under the appearances of bread and wine.
However, for many of us, God’s powerful presence in church evaporates outside church, before the incessant demands of daily life. For the people of Israel, there was always a sense of a God present to them in daily life. As they marched through the desert God went before them; a cloud by day and fire by night. Today’s OT reading calls God “a victorious warrior”, who drives out their enemies.
Recently a student told me of an enjoyable day’s lab work. I’d like to analyse this experience. She had noticed an enjoyable experience. It hadn’t slipped away down the stream of life. She had noticed it and shared it. The enjoyable experience and the matter/ material she was working with ultimately goes back to God the Creator. This is Christian belief. God saw what God had made and God saw that it was good.
When we experience goodness, enjoyment in the created world, then that is an important venue for meeting God. Quality craftsmanship pleases us. When we touch something that has God’s mark on it, then that can be a moment of delight. Sometimes this is easy – like a glorious sunset. Lab matter/ material may require a more reflective interiority.
No good human experience is foreign to God: good relationships, good food, good weather – all that is good, all that is beautiful, all that is of value, all that is true is underpinned by the Creator’s genius. In daily Christian living it is fundamental to notice and appreciate this goodness; to give God thanks and glory for it. The next step, appropriate for Gaudete Sunday, is to rejoice, even to delight in God’s goodness, often revealed in our everyday experiences.
“Yes, I am a king”. Jesus’ answer to Pilate is clear and unambiguous. Pilate, though not a king, is the representative of a powerful empire, the Roman Empire; an empire dominant for many centuries; an empire that is definitely “of this world”. However, Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world”. It is in the world but not of it. Pilate’s position depends on military might. That is why Jesus was handed over to him. However, Jesus’ followers are “those who are on the side of truth”. Jesus’ vocation was to be a “witness to the truth”.
Because Jesus is a witness to the truth, he is also the way that leads to truth for us. In fact, he embodies truth. In contemplating Jesus, we assimilate the truth. In listening to the word of God in the Gospels, in pondering it, in reflecting on what we find there - perhaps imagining the gospel scene, we come closer to the truth.
The truth that Jesus lived out in his life is both simple and radical. “He loved us and washed away our sins by his blood”. He even forgave “those who pierced him” and crucified him on a cross. “Father, forgive them …” He invites us to give our lives for his Father’s glory; for God’s greater glory. He invites us to work for others; for the common good. This is a simple message but hardly an easy one.
Jesus demands a radical following; a going back to the roots of our faith. Unfortunately radicalisation has acquired a new and pernicious meaning in English recently: an extremism that leads to hatred. Christian radicalisation is totally different. Saint John says: “to hate your brother or sister is to be a murderer” (1 John 3: 15). Rather, Christian radicalism invites us to a “real and active” love for our brothers and sisters. The Feast of Christ the King invites us to follow Christ our leader, the Good Shepherd, the Good Samaritan; to assimilate the Truth that will lead us to Life.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, with his disciples who have left everything to follow him. Persecution is likely. A rich man comes before Jesus with great enthusiasm: he runs, he kneels. Jesus looks at him with love. Yet he is the only person in the Gospels who refuses Jesus’ call. What went wrong?
Was there a touch of the Pharisee in him? Is he saying: “what will guarantee me eternal life?” This attitude is not good enough! Jesus loved him and looks for love in return. Jesus looks for a personal commitment. Nothing less than letting go of his “great wealth” would suffice.
Are we invited to do the same? Jesus’ context needs some reflection. For 30 years Jesus seems to have led a fairly normal life. But then this hectic, on-the-road life; nowhere to lay his head; every minute focused on preaching the good news; doing as much as he could before the showdown in Jerusalem. The rich man would have known about this itinerant life-style. Perhaps he had no family obligations but in the end his “great wealth” held him back.
What are we invited to do? First of all we must look at the context God has given us. Students must study. Married people must care for one another and for their families. God doesn’t expect me to go off next week to preach the good news in, say Leeds, and the week after in London. My work is here! We are invited in our present context to ask how we put our “great wealth” at the service of God and others. As we do so, I think today we are more aware that our “great wealth” includes all the gifts we have; especially the knowledge and skills we possess or, as students, are in the process of acquiring.
Listening prayerfully to the word of God is fundamental. God’s word is “alive and active”. Let God’s word into your thoughts and emotions and it will help you. Praying for wisdom is essential. “I prayed and understanding was given me; I entreated and Wisdom came to me”. You too with prayer can be as wise as Solomon. Prayer gives you space and time and help to find God’s will.
I would encourage you to take all the steps you can to deepen you relationship with Christ. I would encourage you to get involved with all the helps provided by the chaplaincy. In some way they will all help to open your mind to the word of God.
“You hypocrites”! This is how Jesus addresses the Scribes and Pharisees. This is Jesus’ response to their criticism of his disciples not keeping Jewish customs; customs which were highly scrupulous and had little spiritual or religious value. In fact these customs were dangerous. They did not honour God. They led to lip-service. Words and actions which did not come from the heart.
“Hypocrite” is originally a Greek word, meaning actor. In classical Greek actors wore masks. If an actor had three parts in the same play, he didn’t have to change his clothes for each different parts but he had to change his mask. A hypocrite was an actor who wore different masks. So you can see how the word hypocrite came to mean the attitudes we put on; especially false attitudes; professing beliefs, feelings or virtues we don’t possess.
The Scribes and Pharisees had collected an endless number of pious practices, which earned them the reputation of holiness. In their actions and in their hearts, many of them neither honoured God nor loved their neighbour. Hence Jesus calls them hypocrites; in the harsh words of Saint Matthew “whited sepulchres“, “blind guides”. You never got through to them; only to the mask they wore.
To some extent in our democratic culture hypocrites are denounced. Some succumb to the persistent probing of the Guardian newspaper; others fall foul of the Daily Mail’s irrepressible ire. But what about us? Could Jesus rightly say to us, “You hypocrites?” My suggestion is that we hold a crucifix in our hands, sit before the Blessed Sacrament or alone in our private room; begging Jesus to reveal any element of self-deception in our lives; begging him to show me clearly if in any way I am living a lie; asking for rigorous honesty. We want an eye-to-eye relationship with Jesus that will melt our hardness of heart, our duplicity, so that Jesus can “nurture in us what is good.”
Complaining is commonplace. Life’s annoyances and problems see to that. Complaining gets things done. The Israelites complained about Moses’ wilderness menu. God provided quails and bread from heaven. Yet complaining, especially constant complaining, is quietly destructive of relationships, of community, of public life.
Jesus had to endure the complaints of the Scribes and Pharisees about the message he preached and his way of life. Sometimes he is very tough with them, calling them hypocrites and whited sepulchres. In today’s gospel he is disappointed that their interest in him focuses on his satisfying their human needs (the bread they received at the feeding of the 5000). Why couldn’t they see that this sign, this miracle, pointed to God’s power, his Father’s power working through him?
We must be watchful and not allow complaining (“God never answers my prayers”), self-depreciation (“I’m not good enough”), spiritual desolation (“I’m cut off from God”) and many such negative assertions to twist and distort our spiritual lives. In Gethsemane Jesus prayed that the chalice of suffering might be taken away. Yet when he realised it was God’s will, he accepted it. He doesn’t complain as he carries his cross to Calvary, but prays for the safety of the “women of Jerusalem”. He doesn’t complain on the cross but lovingly encourages the “good thief”; he even prays for his persecutors. “Father, forgive them…
Gratitude, thanksgiving, not complaints characterise the Christian. If you come to the Eucharist, thanksgiving for God’s gifts (for thanksgiving is what Eucharist means) is what we are about in this church. If you search for the meaning of life, for the bread of life, hear Jesus’ words: “I am the bread of life”. Jesus totally satisfies hunger, quenches thirst. If you come close to Jesus, your life will not be aimless. You will become involved in a spiritual revolution, finding a new self, your best self, caught up in the most certain way to goodness, holiness and truth.