The first Gospel that we hear as we plunge back into the season of the year with Mark in year B is not from the Gospel of Mark, but from the first chapter of the Gospel of John (John 1:35-42). The Gospel opens with John seeing Jesus walking by and John declares to two of his disciples “behold, the lamb of God” – and they began to follow Jesus, instead of John. When Jesus sees them following after him, he turns to them and asks them a brilliant question: “What are you looking for?” I like their answer – in part because it seems like a very awkward question and not the one that they are really wanting to ask – “Rabbi, where are you staying?” I guess that they really want to ask something like – “Can we become your followers?” Jesus responds to their question, not with a direct answer, but he doesn’t ask them another question – which as a good Rabbi, Jesus is very good at. No he offers a lovely invitation to “Come and See.” It is an invitation that leads to life with Jesus, and it is the beginning of an answer to the first question of Jesus (which are also the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of John). The invitation to life with Jesus opens the door for one of the disciples, Andrew, to then invite someone else. The Gospel is never really experienced until we extend the encounter that is central to the gospel to another person. So Andrew invites his brother, Simon, to also come and see the one the one who is the Messiah. Simon comes into the circle of Jesus’s influence and into the gaze of his love. When Jesus gazes at Simon, he doesn’t only see what has happened in the past, he also sees the full potential of the person who stands there before him, and Simon is no longer only the son of John, he is now called by his future destiny to be Cephas (in Aramaic), or Peter (in Greek).
Sunday 02, Year B. John 1:35-42; 1 Sam 3:3-10,19; 1 Cor 6:13-20.
The key to understanding what this feast day of the Epiphany is all about is not so much in the specific details of these strange visitors from the East coming to offer gifts and worship to the newborn king of Israel, but in the bigger picture of what these magi represent. We heard last Sunday about the promise that the Lord made to Abram when he called him from his own people and his own family to go to a new place, a land that God will show him, where God will make Abram to be the patriarch of a new people, and a new nation, but also to be the source of blessing for all the nations.
God began to reveal this plan for all the nations slowly. Just as a human baby takes time to develop and mature, so also the human family who received this message of covenant love and faithfulness needed time – generation upon generation – to make sense of the radical call and identity that God was inviting them into. We should not be surprised that when we read the ancient Hebrew scriptures now that many of the teachings and claims strike us as crude and perhaps barbaric. But they were mere steps along this journey towards what God originally intended for all the nations to be part of.
So what began with one family, gradually developed into a larger and more complex reality that became one tribe, then twelve tribes, which grew into a new people during the time of slavery in Egypt, so that as the people escaped and made their Exodus journey through the wilderness and into the promised land, they became a new people and then became slowly one nation and one kingdom during the days of King David. But this was only the beginning. Paul (or one of his disciples) tells us today in Ephesians 3 that the original plan of God, that was hidden for so long, began to be revealed in glimpses through the Prophets, but in our time was finally revealed through the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul saw himself as the great evangelist of this new announcement: that what was understood as exclusive and particular, was now to be experienced as inclusive and universal – a blessing that belongs to all people, nations, languages, cultures, genders, sexuality, colours, social status, education levels, ethnicity and creeds. A message that some magi from the East happened to stumble across in Bethlehem, was now made available for all people. But now the work of Christmas needs to begin – to bring this inclusive and universal gospel into the lives of all people.
Feast of the Epiphany. Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6.
When we first meet Abram, it is in Genesis 12, and he is invited by the Lord to leave his kindred and his father’s house and go from that country to a land that God will show him. Abram is mostly faithful to this – he probably brings to many of his possessions and his kindred along for the journey – but at least he sets out. He is promised that he will become a great nation, with a great name – a name that will become a blessing for the nations and for all families of the earth. Yet, when we meet Abram in our reading today from Genesis 15, it is not just 3 chapters and many adventures that have passed – it is also many years later, perhaps more than two decades. So when God appears again to him, and the word of the Lord is addressed to him (a phrase that is unique here to the Torah; normally it is only used in the Prophetic writings) we finally hear a reply from Abram (rather than only passive listening). And his question seems valid – where are my descendants that you have promised?
At this stage, God invites Abram to take it outside. Go outside and count the stars – if you can – for such will your desendants be. Now, as difficult as it is to count the stars on a very clear night – and having spent time in the southern Negev desert away from electrical lights and pollution I can attest that you can see many stars there on the typically clear nights – it is even more difficult during the day. It is only in verse 12 that we are told that the sun begins to set, and verse 17 that the sun fully sets. So when Abram goes outside to see and count the stars, he can only see one star – the sun. The other stars are still there, but hidden from his eyes. It is a beautiful image of faith. Sometimes we cannot see the promises of God being fulfilled, yet that doesn’t mean that the stars are not still there beyond our ability to see them. And it is for this reason, that Abram is able to trust in God even when he doesn’t see the answer that he is hoping for, that God takes on a priestly role to declare that he is justified, and his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness.
It is often in being faithful to God in these small details in our lives that we can encounter God in the great things. Joseph and Mary demonstrate this in the Gospel today. They just go about the ordinary details of the law of the Lord, naming and circumcising Jesus, and then presenting him at the temple as part of the purification ritual that was required of women after they had given birth. Rituals help to remind us that God is part of our ordinary lives. There is no great division between the secular and sacred aspects of our lives. In praying in thanksgiving our morning offering, or in offering thanks for the food that we are about to receive, we remind ourselves that God is part of our everyday lives.
Christmas can be a very confusing time. We have mixed together a veritable plethora of traditions, myths, consumer ideals and cultural detritus along with vestiges of gospel stories and religious music and artwork to create this weird celebration of this annual holiday. The end result is not very satisfying for anyone.
During the month of November, I was privileged to be in Jerusalem staying at the Tantur Center for Ecumenical Studies on the southern edge of Jerusalem, looking out over the towns of Bethlehem, Bayt Jala, Bayt Sahur, Beit Safafa and the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa. The problem is that the dry and rocky landscape as you look out across it is dominated by only one thing – the so-called Separation Barrier, or the Apartheid Wall that began to be built by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) during the second Intifada. It was meant to follow the 1949 Armistice Line, commonly called the Green Line, but it often strays many kilometres into the territory of the occupied State of Palestine. So for example, while I was staying there, our group visited the Wi’am Peace Center which has no access to half of its lands, because they are on the wrong side of the wall. A large section of wall juts into Bethlehem to provide access for Israeli citizens to Rachel’s Tomb, which is located next to a Palestinian Cemetery and is therefore a source of constant tension – as I discovered firsthand when I strayed in between members of the IDF and Palestinian youth on my first visit to Bethlehem. Nevertheless there are signs of hope in this very depressing situation, and there are many Jews who do pray the Torah and Ketuvim (Prophets) and know that they have moved far away from the situation of being a remnant people, to the occupying oppressors. Street artists such as Banksy also provide continued hope for change.
Unfortunately, we are not able to look on this situation and speak of how foreign such oppression is to us. The Australian story of abominable treatment of refugees, both onshore and in our offshore processing centres on Manus Island (even if now closed) and Naura remain as a significant stain upon our social conscience.
On Friday an article was published in the New York Times entitled “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas”, written by Stephanie Saldana. During my time at Tantur I was very privileged to meet and become friends with Stephanie, who is married to the program director at Tantur, Frederic Masson. Stephanie is American, from San Antonia in Texas; her father is the Diocesan director of Caritas and has been working successfully for decades to find homes for refugees from all over the world, but especially from the middle east, among the Catholic community there. Frederic is French, but since they have been married they have decided to live in the middle east, in Iraq, Syria and most recently in Jerusalem. Frederic is now a Syrian Catholic and is studying to be a priest. They have three wonderful children, JoJo is the oldest, then Seb and the youngest cutie is Carmel. The whole family is fluent in French, English and Arabic. Through a grant, Stephanie has been able to devote the last two years trying to document and save as much of the cultural and social heritage that she can, by visiting and documenting the stories of refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Greece, as well as visiting other refugees who have managed to now settle in Europe. I want to quote from three sections of her article – which is linked below, as also is the website where Stephanie shares some of the stories of heritage restoration – Mosaic Stories.
I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.
If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married. Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside. If we want to see today’s flight to Egypt, we needn’t look far: Nearly every refugee I’ve ever met has a story about escaping in the middle of the night.
If we want a miracle, I’d suggest looking at Anwar, who despite crying while recounting the destruction of Mosul, still paused in the middle and offered me a clementine. [A fruit like a mandarin] As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.
Christmas continues to challenge us to be faithful to these much deeper stories. Once we have looked into the eyes of our brothers and sisters, we can no longer treat them only as statistics, or problems that are over there. We continue to be challenged to see Christmas as a story of a God who loved the world too much to allow it to remain locked in despair and hopelessness. Christmas reminds us that God wants to be involved in our messy world.
Christmas – Vigil Mass; Midnight Mass; Mass during the day
The Gospel from Luke 1:26-38 presents the familiar scene of the Angel Gabriel being sent by God to announce to Mary that she would become a mother to the Son of God. This is one of the passages that I spent many hours pondering during my recent thirty-day Ignatian retreat, and the first thing that really struck me is the opening line. Luke takes us from the universal and the general and slowly reveals more and more details about the circumstances and locations and people until we finally zero in on the person of this virgin Mary. I also developed a system of highlighting the scriptures, using different colours and symbols to highlight the words that signify location, the words spoken by God or an Angel, other key characters, as well as the different responses of people, ranging from positive, through neutral to negative and even sinful and demonic responses. This passage features the Angel acting as a direct instrument of God, and Mary, responding as best as she can. We will see the dialogue is almost entirely that of Gabriel, with only two responses recorded of Mary – yet both continue to resonate very strongly with those who follow the way of Jesus.
Despite her confusion, fear and doubtless anxiety, Mary becomes for us the perfect model of Advent and thus of Christmas. She questions the basic possibility of a virgin conceiving, yet her final answer calls every Christian to a similar response of trust and openness.
Read more: Advent, Sunday 4, Year B. Luke 1:26-38
On the third Sunday of Advent there is the cry of joy and the imperative call to rejoice and be glad. In the midst of the craziness of this time of year it might all seem to be too much. Yet Paul quietly calls us to focus in the series of short commandments that he offers in 1 Thessalonians for our second reading. Let us take time to listen to each of the eight short teachings that Paul offers, all of which can help us to focus on this call to rejoice always, keep on praying, give thanks in all things while remaining open to the work of the Spirit, and testing all things.
The Gospel of Mark was written, most likely, around the year 65 in the city of Rome. It was a very turbulent period, after the great fire that had raged for seven days through the city in July 64. The Emperor Nero needed someone to blame for lighting the fire – although many suggest that he was the most likely arsonist – and the Jewish Christians who lived across the Tiber and were untouched by the devastating fire were an easy target. A persecution against the followers of Jesus began, that resulted in many, including both Saints Peter and Paul, being martyred.
The death of so many of the early leaders is the likely catalyst for wanting to put down in writing the good news of Jesus the Messiah. The oral stories of the life and ministry of Jesus that kept the faith alive, now needed to be kept for future generations as well.
What a story it is! Many people in the Jewish world had been looking for signs from God. Most of them wanted a Messiah that would lead them in a revolt against Rome. Few if any expected the sign would be a prophet like John the Baptiser calling them (in Hebrew) to t’shuvah.
Across the pages of the Jewish scriptures is told again and again a story of freedom from oppression and slavery. John is retelling the story of the Exodus and inviting his hearers to join in the action, to come down into the water and find life and freedom for themselves.
Just as Moses had invited the people to leave behind the slavery of Egypt, so John is now inviting anyone who will listen to leave behind their world of sin and rebellion against God. God had invited them to walk along the straight path of freedom, but they had wandered away and forgotten who they were created to be. John invites them to ‘come on home’ – to return to the path that leads to life, joy and wonder. This is what t’shuvah means. John invited his people then, and we are invited today to turn around and stop going down a road that will only lead to destruction, pain and hurt. T’shuvah he says. Stop dreaming and wake up to the new reality of the bright light of the one who is to come. He will lead you into the new life of the Holy Spirit.
+ Jesus, you call us to wake up to the good news that you are the Messiah, the Son of God. Thank you for the freedom that only you can offer. Amen.
Advent 2, Year B.
Happy new year! (Such a geeky liturgical thing to say!) We begin this new season of Advent today, and with this Sunday the whole cycle of the church’s year begins again. We switch from listening to the gospel of Matthew and begin to listen to the first of the gospels to be written, the gospel of Mark. It has been three years since we have heard the unique voice of Mark as part of our Sunday readings.
But wait, if we begin reading from Mark’s gospel today in this season of Advent, then why aren’t we beginning with the opening verses of the Gospel? Why are we in chapter 13? And if Advent is all about preparing for Christmas, why aren’t we reading about the birth of Jesus – you know, from the infancy stories that Mark tells?
In fact, if you open to chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, you find there are no stories about the birth of Jesus. The opening lines – which we will hear next Sunday – are brilliant, but they are all about the ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist.
Today Jesus uses an image of the fig tree in full blossom as a sign that summer is near. He points to all the events that were going down around him as a reminder that the community needs to stay awake, be alert, and keep watch. The image is like soldiers standing on the fortifications that surrounded the towns of old, keeping vigil as they gazed across the landscape.
There will be no signs that we can read to know when the Son of Man will come again. Jesus is very clear that only the Father knows when the right time will be – so our task is simply to remain faithful to God, no matter how dark the night, and to keep awake, watching for the new day to dawn.
+ Jesus, keep us focussed on the new dawn of your day of justice, and help us to be attentive to all that really matters in our lives. Amen.
Advent, Sunday 1, Year B. Mark 13
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, as now, this passage provides great encouragement for all who work for justice in the name of the kingdom of God.
+ Jesus, as this year draws to a close, help us to rest in your amazing love. Take away any fear or anxiety, because we know that you’ve got this whole world under your care and protection. Amen.
Sunday 34, Year A. Christ the King. Matthew 25:31-46
** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **
When you get to the end of the year, there are always tests and exams and assignments for students. Some of these may be less serious – merely serving to help teachers know what they will need to spend more time revising in the new year. But for others, these tests will assess everything that the student has learnt over the whole of their schooling and the results will shape much of the life for the student for some years.
Some people think that God has given us a syllabus to study, rules to follow, and lessons to learn. They think that when God returns he’ll set a test to work out who will fail and who will pass. We might imagine that the really good people will get a special award; the really bad ones a decent kick up the pants.
Jesus today tells a parable about a rich man heading abroad, who entrusts his property with three of his servants. A talent was a measure of money – equivalent to what a worker would earn over the course of 15 years – think of it as a million dollars. God wants us to be wise and shrewd in using the talents that he has given us. But this is not a parable that encourages capitalism or becoming an investment banker. The treasure that is spoken of is the good news about the love of the Lord.
While we must read this parable – like all of them – in the light of all that Jesus says about coming for the sick and the sinner, this parable is certainly making a positive judgement on the first two servants who have heard the message of Jesus and have responded to all that God has given to bring about something new. The parable also judges the ones who have hidden their light and kept it for themselves – the worthless servants who do not share the good news of God’s love with others.
+ Jesus, you are such a treasure for us. Help us to freely share the abundance of your love with all those around us. Amen.
Sunday 33, Year A.
** This month I am in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical program. Please pray for me! **