Which son of the Father?

palm-sundayThe passion narratives that we are presented with each Palm Sunday are so rich, that is a great shame that the imperative of keeping Mass within the hour time limit precludes a suitable reflection. This year I decided that it seemed best once Jesus had died in the story and I knelt down, that it makes more sense for the Lord to stay ‘dead’ – so I remained kneeling and offered this brief reflection while kneeling and looking at the beautiful stained glass window scene of the crucifixion that adorns the sanctuary. [At the first Mass people remained standing during my reflection; in the second Mass, the other characters also joined me in remaining kneeling as did the whole congregation besides the narrator – who was instructed to invite the community to be seated at the end of the Gospel.]

The Gospel of Mark joins the other Gospels in reporting the choice that was offered to the crowds concerning one prisoner that could be released for the sake of the festival. They are offered the choice between Jesus and Barabbas – a brigand. It is the same word in the Greek text that Luke uses to describe the ‘thieves’ that bookcase Jesus – so it could be thief, or zealot, revolutionary, terrorist… In the Gospel of Matthew, Barabbas is given an extra name: Jesus Barabbas. What makes this interesting is that the name Barabbas – Bar (son of) Abbas (the father) indicates that the crowd is actually presented with the choice between Jesus, the son of the father, and Jesus the Son of God the Father. Which adds to this text that is already laden with irony and sorrow in its description of the reality of human failure.

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Palm / Passion Sunday; recorded at St Col’s (Vigil and 9am; 3 mins)

God proposes a new covenant

Ringed Stem“Then, I will be your God. You will be my people.” This line from the declaration in Jeremiah today is so easily passed over – and yet this covenant declaration lies at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures. Our Lenten journey has been examining the idea of covenant – its achievements and its failures – across the last five weeks. We began in the first week hearing the promise of the rainbow – that God would not punish the world again by flood. In the second week, we saw the covenant with Abraham tested by the request to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son that he loved, Isaac. In the third week, we arrive with the people of God at the holy mountain of Sinai and the fulfillment of the promises as God calls this people and nation to be his special possession: a royal priesthood and a holy nation. But we also know that this covenant promise was not fulfilled because the people were not faithful to the laws and commandments. This is why the promise to Jeremiah in 31:31 is so precious – to receive a new covenant and a new chance to be the people that God has called to himself.

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Recorded at St Col’s, Vigil and 9am (10mins)
Fifth Sunday, Lent, Year B

A God who is rich in mercy

God-loved-the-worldBeginnings and endings are always significant. How you start a story – and how you end a story create so much of the impact of the whole story. We know well how the Bible begins – “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen 1:1) We might even know how the story ends in Rev 22:21: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” A great beginning and a very hope-filled ending. But for the Jewish people, their scriptures do not end with the New Testament book of Revelation, nor do they end with the final prophet Malachi, like most of our English bibles do. No, the Hebrew bible is actually organised into three sections (Torah, Prophets and Writings), not the four sections that most of our bibles use (Pentateuch/Law, History, Wisdom and Prophets). The twenty-four books that comprise the Hebrew Bible (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah which are broken into two books in our bibles are considered one in theirs; and the Twelve Minor Prophets are considered a single work) come to their conclusion in the Book of Chronicles, and the final passage in their bible is what we read today as our first reading. Which if you think about it, doesn’t seem like a very satisfactory ending. The final words are even given to a pagan king, rather than a Jewish hero. Have they really sunk that low? Well, I guess – yes! One of the things that really strikes me about the Jewish scriptures is that they do not eulogise; their story is told with all the gritty and shocking details. They know whose fault it is that they ended up in such a mess: theirs. The own their sin and the claim it as their own. They would agree with St Paul that when God intervened in our lives we were still dead in our sins. We hadn’t done anything to earn God’s grace and mercy. Yet still it was faithfully and freely given: “because it is by grace that you have been saved.”

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Recorded at St Col’s, 9am (11mins)

The blessing of children and adults

Just as the Lord teaches us how to pray (and not just one specific prayer) in the Our Father, so also he teaches us how to bless when he instructs Aaron to bless the people in Numbers 6:22-24. There he tells the people to bless each other saying “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”

So when people come forward to Extraordinary Ministers with their arms crossed, it is entirely appropriate to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads (just as parents and godparents are asked to do during baptism) while saying the same prayer of blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”

Note this is appropriately different to a priest’s blessing. 

From the Pastor’s PC – Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today is called Laetare Sunday (from the Latin for ‘be joyful’) and the Gospel reading provides many reasons to indeed rejoice. And to celebrate the fullness of life here at St Col’s. Although the Gospel verse that lies at the centre of our reading this week is so well known that it is almost a cliché, the truth of this verse must be allowed to rest lightly yet deeply upon our souls. We have heard in these weeks something of God’s plan for salvation and his desire to dwell with and among his people. But we also know our failure to respond; our failure to be faithful; our failure to trust; our failure to keep the commandments.

What is astounding about the liturgy today is that God wants to tell us about how much he has loved us and how generous he is with his mercy. Why? Because he is not just rich in grace, but infinitely rich in grace. Which in my book is rather large. In fact, enormous. (Kudos to the Monty Python crew.) Now, if only we could embrace this, and live it. How great would that be?

The first reading today is actually taken from the very end of the Hebrew Bible. Unlike the Greek bible – which English bibles follow – which breaks up the Old Testament text into four basic sections: Law (Pentateuch), History, Wisdom and Prophets, the Hebrew Bible has three sections which provide the name of the Bible: Tanakh. T is for Torah; N is for Nebi’im (the Prophets) and Kethubim is the Hebrew for Writings. The Prophets contain some of what we call history (like Samuel and Kings) and then the Writings contains everything else (like Psalms, Proverbs, later history and then Chronicles to finish everything off.)

The Sunday readings in Lent have given us key points in salvation history. Today we hear that the chosen people abandoned the law God gave them and the destruction of the kingdom established by the final Old Testament covenant – the covenant with David. As a result of their sins, the temple was destroyed, and they were exiled in Babylon. We hear their sorrow and repentance in the exile lament we sing as the Psalm.

But we also hear how God, in His mercy, gathered them back, even anointing a pagan king to shepherd them and rebuild the temple. God is so very rich in mercy. He promised that David’s kingdom would last forever, that David’s son would be His Son and rule all nations. In Jesus, God keeps that promise.

Moses lifted up the serpent as a sign of salvation. Now Jesus is lifted up on the cross, to draw all people to himself (see John 12:32). Those who refuse to believe in this sign of the Father’s love are not condemned by God; no, they condemn themselves.

But just as God did not leave Israel in exile, He does not want to leave any of us dead in our transgressions. We are God’s handiwork, saved to live as His people in the light of His truth. Midway through Lent, let us behold the Pierced One, and renew our commitment to living the “good works” that God has prepared us for.

A covenant people at Sinai

sinaiOne of the great problems with a passage like the Ten Commandments is that we tend to read them with little sense of the context or the who or where of what is happening. Until we do this work, then these commandments, like the rest of the 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) that you find across the first five books of the Bible – called the Torah or Pentateuch – are completely irrelevant to our lives.

So, first the where. The action – and there is lots of action – of Exodus 19-20 takes place on Mount Sinai, also called Horeb – a word in Hebrew that simply means wilderness. Remembering the principle of first mention, that takes us back to Exodus 3, when Moses is at this place, minding his own business as he looks after the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when he sees this weird phenomena of a bush burning but not being consumed. As the curious bloke, he wanders over to get a better view, only to be told by a voice that comes from the bush to come no closer, and to take off his shoes for this is holy ground. The speaker identifies as “The God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” It is verse 7 that things really get interesting. We are told:

“Surely I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry of distress because of their oppressors, for I know their sufferings. And I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from this land to a good and wide land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites…” [Exodus 3:7-8, LEB; emphasis added]

The Lord goes on to identify himself as “I am who I am” and to give Moses the additional sign, that he will bring the rescued people out of the slavery of Egypt into the freedom of the wilderness and he will bring the people back to this holy mountain to worship the Lord. We read this part of the story in Exodus 19, after all the events of the ten plagues and the great Passover in Exodus 12-13, and that it was a great mixture of people that escaped the slavery and joined the Hebrew people in the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:37-38). So this people comes to the region of Sinai and camps at the base of the holy mountain. Moses goes up to meet the Lord on the mountain and the Lord tells him to tell the people: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and I brought you to me.” [Ex 19:4, LEB] The Lord goes on to say that “all the earth is mine”, yet this people will be “a treasured possession for me out of all the peoples” [19:5] and they will belong to the Lord “as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [19:6]

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Recorded at St Columbkille’s at 9am Mass (19mins, 36 secs); the slightly shorter Vigil Mass recording (15mins) is also available which also provides a bit of background of the whole idea of covenant and why there are two tablets.

Lent, Sunday 3, Year B.

To prevent the decalogue (the Ten Words, or the Ten Commandments) from being an irrelevant list of do’s and don’t’s we need to look carefully at the context of the covenant that is being entered into – and particularly the two questions of where this happens and with whom it happens. Unfortunately this does take time to do – hence the longer than usual homily today 😉


Abraham and the bound sacrifice of Isaac

821isaacOur first reading from Genesis 22 is often regarded as one of the finest examples of a short story in all or Western literature. In 19 short verses, the reader is taken on a terrible and shocking journey along with Abraham and Isaac – your only son, the son that you love – for three days until they reach the mountain of Moriah (which 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us would become the temple mount in Jerusalem). Although the reader knows that this is a test for Abraham, he is not in on that little secret; so we can only wonder how he endured these three days while he would have been beside himself in grief as he walked along with Isaac, prepared camps, ate meals together and shared stories around a camp-fire – and yet pretended that nothing was amiss in this horrible pilgrimage.

 The lectionary reading skips over some of the details, so it well worth reading the full passage to see all the details – and especially the poignant exchange between Isaac – now carrying the wood that would be used to burn the sacrifice and his father, as in innocence Isaac looks up at his father and asks the powerful question: ‘here is the flint/fire and the wood – but where is the lamb of sacrifice?’ With the faith and obedient trust that has become Abraham’s greatest mark and honour, he answers with powerful prophetic insight: ‘The Lord himself, will provide the lamb – my son.’ We are left to wonder whether ‘the son’ is meant to be ironic – a hint from Abraham to Isaac of the darker purposes that he is being forced to embark upon. When they reach the summit of the mountain, there Abraham binds his son – an act that provides the title for this sacrifice – the Akedah of Isaac (or in Hebrew, Akeidat Yitzchak). We are not told how old Isaac is at this point – at the end of Genesis 21 we are simply told that ‘a long time passed’ so Isaac could be a young boy (yet old enough to carry a pile of branches), or a young man. Whatever his age, it seems that Isaac, who now knows that he is to be the lamb of sacrifice, allows himself to be bound and so offered to the Lord. He also seems to be the stronger one in the pair – since he is the one assigned to carry the wood for the fire of sacrifice.

It is only after Isaac, now bound, and placed upon the newly constructed altar, and as Abraham – presumably racked in grief and tears – reaches out with the knife to lunge it into the neck of his beloved son. As he begins to bring the knife down, it is then that the angel of the Lord intervenes to prevent this heinous crime of human sacrifice from taking place. Then we are informed that a short distance away, a ram is caught up in the bushes, and so is available to take the place of Isaac and be sacrificed. Note it is a ram – not the lamb that Abraham prophesied. After this passage, any careful reader of scripture should be looking for this lamb – when will God come through and answer this promise? When will God finally provide the lamb of sacrifice?

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Recorded at St Columbkille’s 9am – with the assistance of Daniel, a whole lot of rope and a huge knife from the presbytery kitchen.
The recording from the Vigil Mass is also available (where Mark assisted me): http://www.frrick.org/

Lent, Sunday 2, Year B.
Genesis 22:1-19; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10