(NUMBERS 6: 22-27; ROMANS 4; 4-7; LUKE 2: 16-21)
Today we celebrate Mary, the Mother of God. Mary we are told in today’s Gospel “treasured all these thing” and “pondered them in her heart”. What things? The visit of the shepherds. They related how the angel of the Lord had appeared to them, telling them to go to Bethlehem to see the new born baby, their saviour. Central to Mary’s reflections must have been the angel Gabriel’s message at the Annunciation, the following months - conception, growth and birth. And now rough, poor shepherds, who come to kneel before her little child and join the angels’ chorus, glorifying God.
What do you treasure? - A powerful question. It would be good to spend time reflecting prayerfully on this. You may find much to thank God for in your life: many reasons to join the shepherds in glorifying God. You might push yourself further. What do I treasure most?
Mary pondered what was happening to her. Why such a difficult journey, while pregnant; Nazareth to Bethlehem? Why birth in a stable? “The child will be holy and will be called Son of God” (Gabriel’s words).
Mary would have much to ponder in the days to come. Simeon’s frightening words in the Temple: “… this child is destined to be a sign that is rejected … and a sword will pierce your own soul too”. Soon she would be a refugee, woken up at night to escape to Egypt, fleeing Herod. Again in the Temple, desperate at having lost Jesus, she will ask in anguish, “Why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you”. Finally John will record: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother…” No need for words but much to ponder on. All this pondering would take place in the context of Gabriel’s treasured words: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you …”
Today is a day for resolutions. As Christians perhaps it would help to pray about our New Year resolutions. This Mary treasured/ Mary pondered dynamic can be helpful. If you want to make a resolution for example, about being more patient or avoiding anger, don’t start by concentrating on your lack of patience or your anger. This can keep you on a negative track. Start with what you treasure, what you value. God’s gifts to you: your family, your parents, your children; your gifts and so on. What you treasure may help you move forward positively. Assured of God’s goodness in the past will give you hope for the future.
The images and concepts of Eastertide often seem more difficult for us to grasp than those of Lent. Christ’s victory over death can elude us, while the stark horror of the cross demands attention. Ashes as Lent begins, fasting during Lent and the disaster of Good Friday we can cope with, yet what resurrection offers can seem nebulous. Likewise glorification, ascension into heaven and eternal life. These are difficult ideas.
The Church often refers to what we do in the mass as the “mysteries”. Before the Eucharistic prayer, we pray today that we will always find “delight in these Paschal and Easter mysteries”; “so that the renewal constantly at work within us may be the cause of unending joy”. That phrase “renewal constantly at work within us” refers to what the word of God has done within us in the scripture readings and to what the Holy Spirit of Jesus is doing within us during the Eucharistic prayer and Holy Communion – a work which continues after we leave the church.
A most important part of the mass comes when, after the words of consecration, the priest announces “the mystery of faith”. Your response signifies that you believe what the words of consecration signify (“this is my body”and “this is my blood”). The mystery of faith and the mysteries of our faith (the sacraments) are not puzzles to be solved. They express what we believe; what we hold to be true; what we live by.
In this time of resurrection Saint John’s gospel offers us images which are simple to understand and which deepen our faith. “I am the bread of life”: bread that strengthens our faith. ”I am the light of the world”: we will not stumble in the dark; we will find the way to eternal life. “I am the gate of the sheepfold”: if you enter through the gate, through Christ, the door of mercy, you will be safe. “I am the good shepherd”: “I know (love) my own and my own know me”. The good shepherd does everything for our good; even giving his life that we might have life; to the full, eternal life; and that we might offer this life to others.
Yesterday I said a jubilee Mass for Loreto sisters, the nuns who are responsible for the Loreto colleges in Hulme and Altrincham. Sister Therese was celebrating 60 years as a nun. She used to be a university chaplain here in Manchester – three years at The University of Manchester and six at Manchester Metropolitan University. She still lives in Hulme. At the service an extract from Mary Ward, the Loreto sisters’ foundress, was read.
Mary Ward, a 17th century Englishwoman, had taken a vow to enter a strict Poor Clare’s convent, should her spiritual director continue to advise this. One morning she had a two-hour vision, apparently while she was doing up her hair. God insisted she should do something different or more; something which would give greater glory to God. This “something more” was not disclosed at this time. Eventually she became one of the first women to found an order which worked outside of enclosed convent structures. Her nuns taught in schools, worked in parishes and gave retreats.
What interested me was this “something more that would give greater glory to God”. Foremost now in her discernment was not “what does God want me to do?” but “how can greater glory be given to God”; less focus on self; more on God.
God is wonderfully glorified in today’s Acts of the Apostles. The Apostles have filled Jerusalem with their teaching. Peter proclaims “The crucified Jesus has now been raised up: he is our leader; our saviour. Obedience to God comes before obedience to men”. Yet this is the same Peter who in today’s Gospel appears unfocussed (“I’m going fishing” – why wasn’t he thinking about preaching the Good News in Jerusalem?). However, in Acts Peter has clearly found a new ally: the Holy Spirit; “we and the Holy Spirit”. Not the words now of a disorientated man. The miracle of the 153 fish, a clincher for fishermen, the magic of breakfast on the beach and a charcoal fire, the kind and consoling best of hosts – the risen Lord – turn fickle disciples into powerful apostles. The Acts of the Apostles is a wonderful witness to the mighty deeds done to glorify God. Glorifying God need not be difficult. It means doing what we do daily as best we can, whatever our work or study is, always recognising that the gift of life, like all good gifts, come from the Creator.
Someone I respect greatly prays for an hour early every morning. Now in his late seventies, he has done this faithfully since his early twenties. It speaks of a firm, ever-deepening faith. Today’s gospel is about faith, especially growth in faith. Last night at the Easter Vigil service, here and worldwide, Mark’s gospel proclaimed of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified three days ago: “He has risen. He is not here”. The Vigil service proclaims the resurrection. Today’s liturgy restates that: “the Lord has risen indeed, Alleluia”. However, the gospel highlights the as yet meagre faith of Jesus disciples, as Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple scramble around trying to make sense of the empty tomb.
Mary Magdalene is confused. Her explanation of the empty tomb is that there has been a robbery. The body has gone. She foists this conclusion on Peter and the other disciple. “We don’t know where they have put him”. When Peter gets to the tomb, he notices something strange. The head cloth has been rolled up and put in a place by itself. These are remarkably tidy robbers. Did he begin to wonder, “Does the empty tomb have another explanation?” When the other disciple went into the tomb, he came to a deeper conclusion. Putting the evidence together and, relying on his close relationship with Jesus, as the one who was close to Jesus at the last supper, “he saw and believed”. The gospel reminds us that the faith of individual believers can be at different levels.
Today we might ask ourselves about our own faith. Not that we need be too critical. Perhaps we might ask ourselves, “Do I desire a deeper relationship with Jesus?” If the desire is there, Jesus will seek it out. After today’s gospel, the risen Jesus seeks out Mary and Peter. He consoles them and brings them to a deeper faith in himself. The first reading today shows Peter proclaiming to his pagan convert Cornelius that he and the other apostles were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection; they even ate and drank with the risen Jesus. I can remember moments of growth in faith in my own life. Years ago abroad I attended an early morning Mass, beautifully celebrated, in a language I didn’t understand – I came away convinced more than ever before of Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine; the conviction of that moment still stays with me. Not too long ago I suggested in confession to a man in his thirties that he pray to Jesus “as a friend talks to a friend”. This simple suggestion overwhelmed him even to tears. As a community we proclaim the Risen Lord. As individuals we remember that “our lives are hidden with Christ in God”. So perhaps this is a moment of grace to ask the risen Lord to lead us into a deeper friendship.
After the homily I will wash the feet of some members of the congregation: Ugo a Ph. D student; Diana our cook; John a lecturer; another John who works in the two universities; Silvia a religious; Leon a masters’ student; Stephany and Kevin, altar servers. This is not theatre. It is Jesus’ message about how we are to treat one another in the community.
Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. He wiped them with a towel. He needed to kneel down on the floor. During the Passion we often see Jesus “on the floor”. After the Last Supper he retired to the garden of Gethsemane. There, “sorrowful to the point of death,” he fell on the ground and prayed. As he carried the cross up Calvary, Jesus stumbled and fell to the ground three times;. This we remember at the third, seventh and ninth stations of the Way of the Cross. Finally, stripped of his clothing, stretched out on the cross, laid flat on the ground, the soldiers hammered the nails into his hands and feet.
For the most part the Gospels present Jesus as active; teaching in synagogues; in the Temple; travelling by land and sea; healing, curing; in charge. But now he is passive; things are done to him; he suffers as a condemned criminal. If we can get a sense of Jesus on the ground, stumbling, falling prostrate, we might begin to comprehend something of God’s love for us; the tremendous love of the Creator for the creature. By humbly yielding to the injustice of the cross, Jesus, God, saved us. He saved us from the effects of sin. He offered us freedom and the gift of eternal life. The cross is truly a love story.
In the Washing of the Feet Jesus reminds us of his love for all men and women by loving his own disciples. Servants, disciples wash their master’s feet; not the master his servants’, disciples’ feet. Why does the priest wash the feet of members of the congregation on this night at the beginning of the Passion? To remind us how we are to relate to one another; how we are to treat one another; to love one another.
This week’s news reminds us of the work of evil in our world: a military leader jailed for crimes against humanity; a footballer jailed for criminal sexual activity; community destruction and mayhem in Brussels. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet has much to teach us.
Strong words from Saint Paul in today’s second reading. Baptised into Christ, we become a new creation. Through Christ, we are reconciled to God. Our sins are taken care of. The world is reconciled to God. We must let the world know this message. “Be reconciled to God”. We are Christ’s ambassadors. As the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, we rejoice in the goodness of our God, passing on this goodness to others.
God’s goodness! God’s goodness appears among us when, whatever the problems, we deepen our faith, our hope and our trust in the God - the centre of our lives. God’s goodness appears among us, when we turn to God with thankful hearts, grateful for all that is beautiful. God’s goodness appears among us when we love the needy but especially when we show mercy.
Why did the prodigal son come home? What brought him back? Hunger, it seems. Though he had hit rock bottom, he remembered a better place. His father’s house! A place of goodness! There, he remembered, even the servants had more food than they wanted. A way home opened up. His father’s goodness shone forth. He could trust him.
This is only a parable. Back in real time Jesus’ goodness shone forth. “The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus”. Jesus’ goodness shone forth; the goodness of God, the goodness of the Father. So what brings about this reversal, this change, in the lives of the tax collectors and sinners; in the life of the younger son? God’ goodness - this is what our hearts desire; what we long for! Ingrained in our souls, at baptism certainly, perhaps even at creation, is this longing for God. We like to play the role of the complaining Pharisee or the obtuse elder brother but the true Christian can never sustain it. Why? Because God’s goodness is always at work developing, deepening this desire for God.
One of the pastimes of those of us, who live in the chaplaincy, is looking out from on high at the many students “marching purposefully” to their next task. As one visitor put it; “they know where they are going”. I know there is at times much confusion, uncertainty and painful growth in student life but at the same time the future demands focus: the next deadline, the next exam: the first job after university.
For Christians God must always be our ultimate focus: the God of our fathers and mothers; the God of our Jewish-Christian tradition. Today’s Eucharistic Prayer reminds us of the moment towards which we are always “marching purposefully”, so to speak. It speaks of “the hour when we will stand before God, in the halls of heaven, freed at last from the wound of corruption, a new creation, thanking God for Christ’s work of redemption among us”. More than ever, modern life distracts us from our final destiny, from “where we are going”; from that moment before God and with God when all our hopes and desires will be fulfilled.
The young Moses stands before God, fascinated, brave, but not altogether at ease. Understandably he is not keen to confront Pharaoh. God, however, doesn’t want theological discussion with Moses about the divine nature. What we learn about God today is that God is gets involved. “I have heard the appeal of my people in in Egypt to be free of their slave-drivers” God want to get them to their final destination: “a land of milk and honey”
God is interested in us and our lives, as much as the Israelites. God wants to work with us on the journey now; on the next deadline, future job hopes. Lent asks for reflection and action: prayer and fasting, so that this relationship with God can grow. Working with God now offers an ever-developing, ever-lasting friendship of surprising joy; perhaps even of milk and honey now.
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.