One of the great difficulties that we face in the western church in attempting to appreciate the gift and mystery of the Holy Trinity is the fact that so much of our thinking and even our whole conceptual framework is formed by Greek thinking and the three laws of Greek logic as given to us by Plato and his followers. For all the richness of Plato, his logic gave birth to a form of dualistic thinking that has enabled the particular form of the prosperous western world, but severely limited our ability to move beyond an either/or framework. Dualism is a direct result of the three laws of logic, namely the laws of identity (white is white), contradiction (white is not black) and the excluded middle term (something cannot be both white and black at the same time and in the same way). Now, of all religious systems, Christianity should have been the most immune to this limited way of looking at the world. The fact that we place the Trinity at the centre of our faith and understanding should immediately alert us to the truth that not everything is able to be reduced to either this or that. Yet, we continue to categorise the world into such simple and simplistic categories as right or wrong, black or white, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, etc. To move beyond such simple categories is the first step to a much more richly nuanced and beautiful understanding of the Trinity.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (14 mins)
Flowing directly out of the celebration of Christmas this year we have the opportunity to reflect upon not only the holy family of Nazareth, but also our own conceptions and ideas of family. In my case, I know that many of my most basic understandings of family came from comparing the idealised image of family that came from watching perhaps far too many mainly American sitcoms and family dramas as a child – with my experience of family. And it would be fair to say that it seemed that my family rarely measured up to the esteemed heights of the Walton family or the Brady bunch. We never seemed to be able to solve all of our problems within the allotted half-hour or hour, and things sometimes seemed more complicated than ensuring that we all said goodnight to each other would fix. As I have grown older and experienced many more family situations, I have discovered the often-quoted declaration that there are only two kinds of families in the world – the dysfunctional families and the very-dysfunctional families. Thankfully in the scriptures that we are presented with today, we discover that being a holy family and being a dysfunctional family may not be incompatible.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (8min)
Feast of the Holy Family, Year C.
1 Sam 1: 20-28; 1 John 3:1-2; 21-24; Luke 2: 41-52
Video reflection: Gift of Life (LifeWay Media)
On Trinity Sunday we celebrate the heart of our faith – an encounter with a God of love. The Trinity has often been described using images that in the end always limp and fail to capture the glory and sublime beauty of a doctrine that is only able to be encountered in prayer, rather than described by theology. The divine dance between the three persons of the Trinity is capable of holding and sustaining every one of us, as we share in this call to be loved and share that love with others.
Perhaps on a Sunday when we celebrate the experience of love at the heart of God, it is proper to reflect on another love that is in the news with the results of the referendum in Ireland and the new private members bill by the leader of the Opposition to legislate for so-called Gay Marriage. In response, the Australian Bishops have released a document (available on the parish website). It is a good document, but like the public sentiment that it is responding to, the arguments are not deeply convincing. Because we have ostracised anyone who is different and actively discriminated against certain people – whether that difference relates to skin colour, gender, nationality, religion, size, shape, height, weight, dominant hand, looks, wealth, and of course by sexual orientation – for so long, the debate has centred around questions of equality, fairness and discrimination. As much as the church attempts to argue that this is not a case of discrimination, the fact that this is where the debate has (wrongly) landed the church in arguing for a traditional understanding of marriage appears to be discriminating. Which is unfortunate, to say the least.
The word marriage in our society has already been misappropriated. What the state understands as a legal or valid civil marriage can be radically different from the fullness of the Catholic appreciation for the beauty of sacramental marriage. For example, it is perfectly legal in a civil understanding for a man and a woman to enter into a marriage with no intention (borne out by the pre-nuptial agreement) for permanence, fidelity or fruitfulness. The exclusion of any one of these essential ends of marriage automatically annuls a marriage in the Catholic understanding – but not for the civil variety. A couple in a civil marriage can agree to ‘marry’ for as long as the love lasts, not to have any children, and have other partners when the desire arises. That this kind of arrangement has been allowed to wear the (false) title of a marriage is one of the significant problems in this debate. If this kind of relationship can be called a marriage, then it quickly descends into a question of discrimination when a similarly described same-sex relationship is not able to be celebrated. Is marriage the most appropriate word to describe either relationship? No, of course not. And this strikes at the heart of our dilemma as we continue to move forward as a society without adequately addressing the state of our history and the discrimination and hatred that continues to lurk just beneath the surface.
You may object that the scriptures clearly condemn homosexuality – and by extension any version of a same-sex union. Without getting into the arguments about what exactly the six-or-seven verses that condemn sodomy were against – although in that society, homosexuality was more about temple and ritual prostitution, acts of violence, inhospitality and pederasty – so all of these should clearly be condemned. Even so, the fact that it is only six-or-seven verses in a library of 73 books (in a Catholic bible) which together contain some 35,526 verses help put the issue into a scriptural perspective. And although Jesus says many things about money, justice, prayer and some things about human sexuality – he doesn’t actually say anything specifically about homosexuality. Which does leave one wondering…
Recorded at St Col’s, Vigil (10 mins)
Trinity Sunday, Year B.
Bad sheep and good goats
Justice is something that we learn very early as children. We have this strong instinct for when something doesn’t just seem to be fair. Perhaps as a result, justice is one of the most profound longings of the human race. When there is no justice, then we know that something is wrong from deep within ourselves. Justice is both hard to define and hard to enact. This has never stopped humans from seeking it, praying for it, and working hard to find better ways of doing it. Justice means bringing the world back into balance.
The scene of the last judgement that is presented in the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 25 has burned itself deeply into our consciousness – not least because of its depiction in many paintings. The Son of Man is identified as the king who sits on his glorious throne admitting on one side the righteous to the final kingdom of God – prepared from the foundation of the world. In contrast is the other side with the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The common image of a shepherd separating the sheep from the similarly coloured goats is used.
In this present moment, these two kingdoms are interwoven and confused through the ambiguities of history. But the kingdom of God is the only true kingdom. What appears to be the present struggle between the two kingdoms will not last forever, because ultimately only God is King!
Part of what is proclaimed in this gospel is that in the coming of the son of man, justice will at last be done. This passage comes as the climax of a whole series where Jesus has denounced his own people and especially the leaders for their failure to live as God’s people should.
What Jesus wants the church to know is that he is already ruling the whole world as its rightful Lord. This is especially true where the kingdoms of this world treat many of our brothers and sisters with contempt, torture, abuse and too often with death. Then, and now, this passage provides great encouragement for all who work for justice in the name of the kingdom of God.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8min 47sec)
Solemnity of Christ the King (Sunday 34, Year A)
We celebrated the reception of Holy Communion for the first time for 305 Year 3 and older children over 6 special Masses this weekend, when the temperature rose to over 42 degrees (hence the reference to cold weather.)
The Gospel today has Jesus taking the disciples on a very unusual road trip. They walk to the very north of Israel, on the border of Lebanon and Syria to the foothills of Mount Hermon. There in the region of Caesarea Philippi – a town that was being built by King Herod to honour a pagan ruler who was oppressing his people and who identified himself as the ‘son of God’ they came to the source of the river Jordan – the springs of Banias (Panias). The name of the springs point to the reason that the area was famous – it was the site of the Temple of Pan, who in Greek mythology was the son of the god Zeus. Near the temple was the entrance to a cave that was thought to be one of the entrances into Hades (or in Hebrew understanding Sheol) and the place of the dead. Above the temple is a massive rock wall which leads up to the mountain proper.
Understanding this background and geography is very helpful to understanding more clearly what happens when Jesus asks the disciples these two questions: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” The gospel of Matthew is clear that the disciples offer many opinions that were commonly understood by the people, but when Simon steps forward to speak on behalf of all the disciples, he doesn’t only say that you are the Messiah (as in Luke and Mark), but Simon goes on to declare that Jesus was the “Son of the Living God.” Given that this took place in the surrounds of the temples to the Greek god Pan (which was a fertility cult which would have featured ritual prostitution and various expressions of cultic sexuality) and the Emperor Philip, the declaration of Simon that Jesus was not just another son of God, but the true Son of the Living God.
It is then that Jesus provides rare praise for Simon, declaring that it is not flesh and blood that has revealed this to him, but ‘my Father in heaven’ and then he goes on to give to Simon a new name (perhaps referring to the large rock wall behind them as he does): “You are Rock and on this rock I will build by ekklesia.” Even though they are near a famous temple, and the temple in Jerusalem was understood as the meeting place of heaven and earth Jesus chooses to use a new word to describe this new reality that would be built upon the person and faith of Rocky – ekklesia. He could have said this is where I will build by new synagogue or my new temple, but instead he tells the disciples that this was the initiative of his Father in heaven to call a people out from the world and to call them into the new life of the kingdom. This world ekklesia – although accurately translated as ‘church’ is a radically dynamic reality capturing a people that are invited to be the very sign of the presence of God among his good created world.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm Mass (12min)
Sunday 21, Year A.
When you think about God and how God offers a relationship with him, it seems to me that the word encounter is one of the more helpful ways of describing this relationship. Yet, when you look up the word encounter, you discover that it comes into the English language via the Old French word encontre, which in turn was based on Latin roots (in + contra) – suggesting that the word originally had a much more negative meaning. Indeed, in its French usage, it was mainly used in a military context, describing that situation when two armies faced each other across the battlefield. Each commander would presumably be thinking about their own soldiers and resources and making a mental and calculated comparison to the might of the force arrayed on the other side of the field. At the heart of encontre then is a strong sense of fear and anxiety caught up in this moment before the battle. So perhaps it is a very appropriate word to describe the way that people have been in relationship with God across the multitudes – a God who is utterly holy and powerful and mighty and awesome – and then there is little ordinary us. How can we possibly compare and enter into this contest?
Yet with the Patriarchs God began to appear to certain individuals and began to speak in terms of covenant and promise. God began to show a new and different dimension to this relationship – where he demonstrates his tenderness and compassion, caring for this people and protecting them, giving them food and water in the wilderness. He begins to speak to them and teach them and form them – especially through the prophets. Even so, there remains a certain distrust of God and an anxiety not to get too close to him.
Until Jesus arrives. When he is born, the evangelist John tells us that now the very word of God has taken flesh. God is going to feed his people in new ways now. Indeed, the evangelist Luke tells us that when Jesus was born he was laid in a manger – a feeding trough. All of this culminates in the passage that is the Gospel tonight, taken from John 6:51-58. Now in the person of Jesus we are offered a new encounter with God – at a level more personal and intimate than anything anyone could ever have imagined before as we are invited to eat (esthein then trogein) his body and drink his blood.
Recorded at St Paul’s 5.30pm (9’23”)
The recording from St Mary’s, 8am is also available here.
verb: encounter; 3rd person present: encounters; past tense: encountered; past participle: encountered; gerund or present participle: encountering
unexpectedly be faced with or experience (something hostile or difficult).
“we have encountered one small problem”
meet (someone) unexpectedly.
“what do we know about the people we encounter in our daily lives?”
noun: encounter; plural noun: encounters
an unexpected or casual meeting with someone or something.
“she felt totally unnerved by the encounter”
a confrontation or unpleasant struggle.
“his close encounter with death”
Middle English (in the senses ‘meet as an adversary’ and ‘a meeting of adversaries’; formerly also as incounter ): from Old French encontrer (verb), encontre (noun), based on Latin in- ‘in’ + contra ‘against’.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16
2 Sam 23:14-17
The liturgy of Passion Sunday is dominated by the contrasts of the triumphant entry followed by the solemn proclamation of the Passion of our Lord. In between, the church each year provides us with two powerful texts to reflect upon – the first of the servant songs, followed by the Carmen Christi – the song of Christ – found in the letter of St Paul to the Philippians (2:6-11)
The powerful song or poem that Paul either wrote himself or he includes as an incredible testimony to the depth of the early Christian spirituality and understanding stands in stark contrast to the standard understanding of power and authority. Most people in the ancient world would have heard stories about two great heroes – Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and the Emperor Augustus (65 BC – AD 14). Like the first fallen hero of the Bible, Adam, who grasped at equality with God rather than receiving it as a gift – the people of Israel and then the christian church across the centuries has continued to grasp and grab and cling and claim – rather than follow the example of the true God who only on the cross reveals his true divinity.
6 Who, though in God’s form, did not
Regard his equality with God
As something he ought to exploit.
7 Instead, he emptied himself,
And received the form of a slave,
Being born in the likeness of humans.
And then, having human appearance,
8 He humbled himself, and became
Obedient even to death,
Yes, even the death of the cross.
9 And so God has greatly exalted him,
And to him in his favour has given
The name which is over all names:
10 That now at the name of Jesus
Every knee under heaven shall bow—
On earth, too, and under the earth;
11 And every tongue shall confess
That Jesus, Messiah, is Lord,
To the glory of God, the father.
NT Wright (2004). Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (p. 100). London: SPCK.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (5’52”)
Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday, Year A.
No one could deny that the Jewish law sets a very high standard. In this reading from Leviticus chapter 19, we’re told to “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy.” Be holy as God is holy? Seriously? The Gospel today (Matthew 5: 38-48) concludes with Jesus saying: “Be therefore perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) Does anyone here actually think that you have managed to achieve this or accomplish that? Has anyone managed to strike this one off your eternal plan ‘to-do list’ and now you are asking, okay, so what next? This extreme call to model our lives on nothing less than the moral perfection and holiness of God is an extraordinary call. It is extraordinary in part because the Lord obviously believes that we can do this; that there is something within us that enables us to achieve this in some measure, that opens to us the possibility of true holiness and perfection. What is this attribute? It is the way that we have been created with this possibility for God, this openness to the ways of God, or as the Catholic tradition has described it over the centuries: we have a capacity for God because we have been created in the ‘imago Dei’ – in the image of God. The very image and likeness of God that we have been created in calls us into the fullness of God’s very life. This incredible standard has been set by the Jewish law; yet over the centuries, the Jewish people – like us – tried to modify and redefine and narrow down the law to make it more restrictive and therefore easier to fulfill. Without this reinterpretation of the law, all that they could know was the judgement of the law and the truth of their failure before the standard of the law. For example the commandment that concludes our first reading today, from Leviticus 19:18, which is “You must love your neighbour as yourself,” was redefined. Surely, it was argued, that cannot mean that we are called to love everybody equally – surely it doesn’t mean that we have to love all of geographical neighbours because many of those people are offensive to us – the ones who persecute us, or challenge us, or worship in a different way? Surely it doesn’t mean we have to love the people who dress badly, or smell funny, or drive those cars, or live in that neighbourhood, or vote for that party and listen to that music? Surely it only means that we have to love fellow Jews [Catholics] – especially the ones who are striving like us to be faithful to the commandments? No – the Lord calls us to this extraordinary height – calling us into perfection and union in this life with God.
Over the last two weeks, we have had these six examples where Jesus has given us new interpretations of the traditional Mosaic law, saying: “You have heard how it was said…” and then redefining them in radical ways by offering a new understanding of the law by saying: “but I say to you…” He calls us into a deeper observance and a more holistic fulfillment. Today we have the final two examples of these new antithesis. “Jesus begins by saying that ‘You have heard how it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'” The lex talionis as it is called is a very good law for society since it is meant to limit violence and the escalation of revenge. But Jesus gives us a radical challenge by inviting us to ‘offer the wicked person no resistance.’ The challenge has been felt across the centuries whenever Christians have tried to be faithful to this radical teaching.
We need to understand the context of each of the three examples that Jesus offers if we are to make proper sense of them. When Jesus says if someone hits you on the right cheek, it is presumed that they are a superior, treating you as a slave or a child – as a mere object, and shaming you with the back-handed slap across your face. So when Jesus invites us to offer the left cheek as well – he is saying to the person who has just hit him: you may hit me again, but now you will not hit me as someone inferior to you, but you will treat me as an equal. It is an act of peaceful defiance.
In the second example where a person if taking you to court and wants to take away your tunic, Jesus says to offer your cloak as well. In that society, most people would only own and therefore wear these two items of clothing. So by taking off not just your tunic but also your cloak, and offering it to the person in the courtroom, then you are going to be standing there naked before them, and shaming them by the brutality of their claim which is revealed in your nudity. Again, an act of defiance.
Finally in the third example, we know that Roman law allowed a soldier to force a Jewish person to march with them, but they were restricted to only doing this for one mile. By going two miles instead, you are forcing the soldier to breach the law, and perhaps if a commanding officer sees this taking place, then the soldier will probably get in trouble for this offence. All of these are then ways of redefining the violence and providing a people who are persecuted with an intelligent, peaceful response.
This call then for us to love our enemies as well as our friends is a call to remember our original call and the nature of who we truly are, as people who were created in his image and likeness and who he chose to love us first. Just as Jesus, when he was asked what is the greatest of the 613 mitzvah or commandments, he responded first with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and then quickly added the final line of our first reading today, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Those last two words are crucial to this – as yourself. How do we respond to this call to love God and love our neighbour? The only way that we can fulfill these laws is by allowing God to love us first. We need to respond to the call that God places upon our lives and respond to the invitation into a relationship with him. We cannot love God; we cannot love any of our neighbours – until we first respond profoundly to the love of God and open ourselves to this love of God.
This call to perfection is not something that is static. The word in the Greek language presumes a very dynamic relationship and a sense of being called into perfection, completion and wholeness. It is a call that we have seen lived out in the lives of so many saints across the centuries. None of them would ever claim that they had achieved holiness or perfection. But they certainly strove for it and made the desire for holiness to be the habit of their lives. The word for perfection here has a sense of orientation about it. It presumes that we have a particular direction to our lives, and what Jesus calls us to today is to have our orientation and direction firmly focussed upon God the Father. It calls us to have our whole heart and energy directed towards God, so that all we desire and long for is directed towards the holiness and perfection of God. The call to be perfect is an invitation to make this drive towards completion the project of our lives. We are called to be holy because God longs to share his holiness with us. We are called to be perfect and we are able to be perfect, because God shares this perfection with us. Let us long for that. Let us make this the story of our lives. Let us strive to bring our lives into conformity with the perfect and beautiful life of Jesus.
Sunday 07, Year A.
The Jewish law, especially the 613 mitzvah or commandments found in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament) – with 365 prohibitions (You shall not…) and 248 prescriptions (Honour your father and mother; Keep holy the Sabbath day…), was a colossal achievement. The whole of the Jewish nation – and not just the scribes and Pharisees – were rightly proud of their laws and revered and honoured both the Law / Torah and the God who gave it to them through their father Moses. Jesus begins this section of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:17-37) by declaring that he had come not to abolish any of the laws, but to complete them. He goes on to declare that anyone who upholds the law and teaches the law will be considered blessed in the kingdom of heaven; but the opposite is also true.
Bizarrely, Jesus then goes on to make a series of six statements (four of which are included in the Gospel this week; the remaining two will feature next Sunday) where he cites the existing laws using the formula – “You have learnt how it was said” – but then he offers a reinterpretation of the existing law, beginning with an authoritative declaration: “but I say to you…”
Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm Vigil (11’49”)
As Christians, we can take for granted the possibility of knowing Jesus, the son of God, as a human baby. In fact this is an absolutely radical idea. If you were a Jew living in the years before the birth of Jesus, there would be many things that you could know about God. The Hebrew Scriptures reveal a God who is a creator, who brings order out of chaos. This God begins to reveal something of himself through the visions and appearances (usually described as being through the mediation of a messenger or angel) whereby he calls certain people into relationship with himself through covenants. He is known as God almighty, as the all-powerful one. To Abraham he is the one who calls him to leave his own country to journey to a land that he will show him. To Moses he reveals his divine name as ‘I am who I am.’ Very helpful. He begins to extend the covenant relationship from an individual, to a family, to a tribe and finally to a whole nation and people. But all through this journey, God remains somewhat functional. He is so holy and so utterly other, that the people generally are afraid of God. If God ever appears, it seems that the first thing that needs to be said is “do not be afraid!” Moses tries to experience the glory of God one day, but he is rebuffed by God, who offers him only to be placed in the cleft of a nearby rocky-cliff and to be covered by the hand of God while the glory of the Lord passes by. Only after God has passed by will God remove his hand so that Moses is able to see the place where God was. Read the story in Exodus 33.
It is little wonder that King Ahaz in our first reading, while feigning piety, will rebuff the Lord’s invitation to ask a sign of the Lord. He knows that no one is able to see the face of God and live. Perhaps this is an appropriate response of such a wicked King, who we discover in I Kings 16 did not follow in the ways of his father King David. Ahaz engaged in human sacrifice – even of his own son – and set up a pagan altar in the temple. Perhaps he also doesn’t think that he needs a sign from the Lord, since he has just entered into a deal with the Assyrians which included offering them sacred treasures from temple to help him in his fight with Syria. Nevertheless, the prophet Isaiah receives a sign that is in part fulfilled with the birth of the son of Ahaz, Hezekiah, but which St Matthew knows is only more perfectly fulfilled with the birth of the true Messiah, the new Joshua/Yeshua who allows the people to finally be in relationship – not with only a concept or an object any longer, but finally with a person.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm (10’16”)
Advent, Sunday 4, Year A