Epiphany – the choice of the Magi

light abstractIn considering the account of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the gospel is already richly told. Even so, many traditions, legends and carols have added all kinds of details to the story, most of which cannot be supported by the text itself.

When the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they would first have to have made their presence known to Herod, the King of Israel and thereby seek an audience with him. They must have presented as guests of some significance in order for their request to be granted. When they finally had the opportunity to make their request to Herod and ask their question of the place of birth of the prophesied king “of the Jews”, no doubt they would have been surprised that this king did not know something so basic in the spiritual and religious law and traditions of the people that Herod was supposed to serve. When the chief priests and scribes are called, they give the obvious answer of the city of David: Bethlehem. When they finally arrive at the house of the holy family, they do the only thing that they can: they kneel in worship before the child Jesus and offer the most previous gifts that they can provide.

The response of the magi stands in stark contrast to that of Herod. Although he talks sweetly and feigns religious allegiance, Herod is insanely threatened by the birth of this child as a potential and likely claimant to the throne that he had worked so hard through political intrigue to achieve. So rather then contemplating worship or blessing, Herod’s response is the one that we see all too commonly around us: to curse the unknown threat and strike against it with hated and violence.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9:30am

Epiphany Sunday

Video reflection: Epiphany (Shift Worship)

Co-workers in the kingdom

cross+vineThe Feast of Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in the Catholic scheme of things. This is the ninetieth time that it has been celebrated, since Pope Pius XI instituted the feast day through an encyclical letter called Quas primas (In the first) which was published on 11 December 1925. Initially the feast was celebrated on the last Sunday in October (the first 45 years), but with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the revised celebration of the liturgical year in 1969, it was moved from 1970 to the thirty-fourth and final Sunday in ‘Ordinary Time’ each year (the last 45 years). Many Anglican churches have now also adopted the feast day. It seems that in the wake of the First World War, that Pope Pius was concerned about the continuing secularisation of the world and the decline in temporal power of the church, especially in Italy after the reduction of the Papal Estates. So this very ‘spiritual’ feast day has a fairly political history.

The second problem is the place that the monarchy has in Australian society. Although we live in a Constitutional Monarchy, the place and power of the monarch within Australia is very carefully defined and constrained by the constitution and even more so by custom and tradition (especially after 1975). Even the visit last week of the likely future King of Australia in the person of Prince Charles and his wife impacted us very little – perhaps I should read certain magazines directed at women to get a better idea of what went on?

As we know, in most of the ancient world for most of the time, Kings were the total thing – they controlled every aspect of a person’s life. For Jesus to claim this title of being the King of the Jews is so totally huge. Step by step we need to begin to make sense of what kind of kingdom we are living in and how we are meant to be part of this great, beautiful world that God has given us to be stewards and co-builders of the kingdom and co-creators of the world.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (7.30am also available)
Sunday 34, Year B – Solemnity of Jesus Christ as Universal King

Apostles breaking down barriers

Jesus-Shepherd-TissotWe meet the disciples of Jesus today as they return from their missionary journeys where they went out in pairs to not only proclaim the message of salvation but they were also tasked to heal the sick and bring release to those bound with evil spirits. They return no longer as disciples – but they are now called for the first time ‘apostles’ – that is ones that are sent. Seeing how tired and stressed they are, Jesus invites them to go across the lake to a wilderness area (eremos topos) – the same phrase that is used to describe the wilderness that Jesus spent the forty days at the beginning of the Gospel. But when they cross the lake they find the even larger crowd has hurried even more than they did and are waiting for them when they step ashore. Jesus models the ministry of shepherd by having compassion on the crowd and he sets about to teach them at some length. (So a long homily is a sign of the preacher’s compassion on the crowds.)

Paul also offers us an insight into the ministry of the shepherd by describing the alienation that his audience used to live in – they were both spiritually and physically excluded from the life of the Jewish people by the commandments of Moses and the wall that surrounded the inner courts in the Jerusalem temple which bore an inscription which warned any Gentiles (in Greek) that if they entered into the inner courts they should prepare to die. Sorry about that.

What happens in the life and death of Jesus is the beginning of the incredible process of reconciliation – the tearing down of all barriers to allow both Jews and Gentiles to no longer be two separate streams, but now one newly recreated humanity able to live in the grace and peace of God.

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Recorded at St Col’s, Saturday Vigil and Sunday morning (9mins)

Sunday 16, Year B

Continuing to leave our nets behind

canadian-lakeGrowing up on a farm that had been in my family for several generations on the south coast of NSW, my brothers and I were aware of the desire that my father had that one of us would continue the tradition and farm the land. Once we had each moved away to study and work, this expectation quickly faded into the distance and we had to accept as a family that no one would take over the farm and it would be sold. But within living memory, this expectation was much more closely followed and farms and businesses would be handed on from one generation to the next with the easy expectation that the future of the children was assured as long as they were prepared to work hard enough. Certainly there is evidence that in the region around the Sea of Galilee during the first century, fishermen would hand on the trade not just across a few generations but some may have even operated over several centuries. That this seemingly unknown preacher from Galilee would call the two sons of Zebedee (who is named surely because he is well-known to the readers of Mark within the region) and James and John would immediately leave behind their father and his servants in the boats and follow Jesus is meant to be very shocking. What is the message that Jesus proclaims as he walks along the shore of the lake and why is it so attractive to those who first hear it?

The proclamation of Jesus is not just good advice, or about a new social order or spirituality. It includes these things – but it is the declaration that the kingdom of God is now on the move and in the person of Jesus the future kingdom is beginning to break into the lives of ordinary people. We are called likewise to be the receivers and bearers of this gift and to continue to say yes to being used by the Lord to share this precious gift with the world.

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Sunday 3, Year B.
Jonah 3:1-5,10; Mark 1:14-20
Recorded at NET training, Weyba Downs, Qld (8min, 35secs)

Twenty five years ago this week (1990), I became a Seminarian and began my long formation journey towards priesthood and service in the kingdom of God when I joined Fr (Archbishop) Julian in his consecrated life house in Wahroonga. Nine years later, on this day in 1999, the conversion of St Paul, I became a brother with the Discalced Carmelites at Varroville. Then ten years ago in 2005, also on this day, I met with Bishop Peter Ingham who welcomed me into the Diocese of Wollongong, going on to be ordained a deacon later that year and a priest in 2006. So although I don’t know exactly what this year will hold, I do know that whenever I stay close to the heart of the Lord, his grace and mercy is always enough to allow the abundance of life to be experienced and shared.

Mary and Gabriel

The scene that is presented in the Gospel today is one of my favourites. We read from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 26-38. The angel Gabriel appears to announce the birth of a child and follows the pattern established in the Hebrew Scriptures: the angel says, ‘do not be afraid’; the recipient is called by name and reassured of God’s favour; the birth and name of the child is disclosed and then the future role of the child is revealed.

But the similarity between this scene and the announcement of the birth of John also invites us to closely reflect on the differences. While the announcement of John came as the fulfilment of fervent prayer, the announcement to Mary of the birth of Jesus was completely unanticipated. Even more so, while John would be born to parents who were past the age of child bearing, the miracle of the birth of Jesus would be far greater – he would be born to a virgin. The announcement spirals down and through time from the general to the specific: from God to the region of Galilee to a town called Nazareth to a virgin who is betrothed to a man named Joseph – and finally to Mary.

According to the customs of the time, the marriage would have been arranged by her father. Mary would live at home for a year, then the groom would come to take her to his home and the wedding celebrations would last a week. But legally the marriage was already sealed after the engagement. For example, if Joseph had died before the wedding, Mary would have been treated as a widow.

The birth of this child would not only be extraordinary – but he would be the Son of the Most High God. Although Mary had not had sexual relations with any man, this child would be born by the power of God.

These scenes remind us that God works in the lives of ordinary people like Zechariah and Mary. Gabriel was not sent to the home of a queen or princess, but to the insignificant home of a girl betrothed to a labourer. Her significance lies in her answer: “Let it be done unto me, according to your word.” Let our significance be the same.

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Description is of the Journey radio program reflection: Three versions of the homily available here (including radio)

Advent, Sunday 4. Year B.

Good goats did it for me

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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.

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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.)

Sharing Talents

A GiftThe parable of the talents has a number of unusual qualities. Unlike most of the parables, which seem to be aimed at farmers and fishers and other country folk, this parable is aimed at people who are familiar with the workings of a market economy. So while it was good, prudent and standard Jewish practice to bury treasure in a field to safeguard it, within the market-based understanding that operates in this parable’s worldview, all that results in this practice is the diminution of the market value of the item – in this case a single measure of money called a talent, equivalent to 15 years of wages of a labourer (4500 denarii). This is a rare parable because it praises the risk-taking activities of the first two traders who both manage to double their master’s investment. The problem is that this pro-capitalist reading also tends to leave us wondering if the Christian life is simply going to culminate in a great test that will measure how great a return on the Lord’s investment we have managed to make as the basis of our salvation. Such a reading tends to move in the direction of a heresy called Pelagianism that imagines that we are essentially responsible for our own salvation. As a more careful reading of this parable demonstrates – which is confirmed by the rest of the gospels and the Christian scriptures – the God that we worship is a generous and gracious God who freely offers us all that we need and more. We cannot claim to truly possess anything that we can offer – since all is based on what we have received directly from the Lord. (All that we can claim any credit for is our own sin!) What we can offer in return are acts of thanksgiving and service that flow out of our experience of salvation.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm (11min 5sec)

King for the world

The sense of royalty that we have is very muted. We live in Australia in a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as our head of state. Yet, the role of the Queen (or her representatives in the Governors and Governor General) within our lives is very limited, and severely restricted under the constitution and conventions to offering particular suggestions and guidance. In the time of Jesus, almost every person lived under the direct and immediate influence of a king or emperor. People understood the nature and scope of royal authority and the way that this was normally exercised through military might and power.

Although there was the usual system of transferring kingship from father to son, the Jewish people were aware that revolution was also possible. Around 200 years earlier, the line of token kings was replaced by the revolutionary action of Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucid empire to establish a new Jewish kingdom; some thirty years before Jesus was born king Herod had replaced the Hasmonean dynasty with his own creation, acting as a client for the Roman Empire.

So when this Jesus stood before Pilate this morning, it was possible that he was wanting to create a new line of Jewish kings by revolution, rather than by birth right. But the man who stood there would have looked nothing like a king that Pilate would expect. Although he had gathered a large group of followers around him, they had all but fled, to leave him completely alone. He was not dressed in any finery, but would have shown the effects of a night without any sleep, and perhaps already some cut and bruises from being arrested and taken away by the Roman soldiers. So it is probably with great irony that Pilate looks with disdain at the man who stands shackled before him as he asks: “are you the king of the Jews?”

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Recorded at Good Shepherd Church, Hoxton Park, 10am (9’50”)

Who is Jesus the Messiah?

The Gospel passage today is taken from the centre of the Gospel of Mark – not only is it the literal centre chapter, but it is also the place in Mark where the ministry of Jesus takes a definite turn. Jesus and his disciples are on the move. Last week, in Mark 7, we heard that Jesus travelled from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon and the Decapolis region of the ten cities. This week, after leaving Bethsaida, where Jesus has healed a blind man in two stages after taking him first out, away from the crowd, it seems that Mark wants us to see that perhaps we are also blind to who Jesus really is, and we need to take time to journey with Jesus away from the crowds and ponder who he really is. Let journey with Jesus and the disciples towards the slopes of Mount Hermon, and ponder the questions that Jesus asks the disciples: “who do you say I am?”

Like the blind man, who when Jesus first lays hands on him is able to see – but people look like trees walking around – perhaps the disciples have seen little more of Jesus than the crowds. Perhaps they think that all his mighty deeds make him like one of the great prophets of old – like Elijah or Elisha – who also have great miracles attributed to them. Just as Jesus takes the man away from the crowds in order for his eyes to be open, so he takes the disciples away on a two-three day walk to the pagan region of Caesarea Philippi. It was not the kind of place that good Jewish boys would normally go – associated as it was with the worship of the god Pan, and more recently (as the name suggests) with the new worship of the Roman Emperor. (more…)

David, Mary and the Ark

After journeying through this season of Advent with the prophet Isaiah, and then for the last two weeks with the witness of John the Baptiser, it is only on this fourth Sunday of Advent that we finally are presented with the figure of Mary to accompany our Advent reflection. When we encounter her in the gospel of Luke 1:26-38, we are invited to reflect upon her in the light of the desire by King David to build a temple for the Lord – as a suitable dwelling place for the Lord (2 Sam 7:1-16). Clearly the church wants us to reflect upon these two figures together in order to understand the prophecy that David receives from Nathan about the House of David.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (11’27”)