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.
Description is of the Journey radio program reflection: Three versions of the homily available here (including radio)
Advent, Sunday 4. Year B.
It is rare for a feast day to bump-off the Sunday liturgy – usually only the feast days and solemnities of the Lord or of our Lady (but only during Ordinary Time) – but today the dedication of a basilica in the city of Rome from back in the fourth century displaces the Sunday cycle of readings and prayers. So this must be some church. Which it is. Not only is it the oldest church in the western branch of Christianity, being the first church dedicated after the so-called ‘conversion’ of the Emperor Constantine, it remains to this day the Cathedral Church for the Diocese of Rome and consequently the mother church of the whole Catholic world and the see for our holy father Pope Francis. But like the universal church, and the papacy, this particular church has a rich and diverse history including being sacked, burnt and destroyed by earthquake. It has also been repaired and rebuilt many times. It has also been the site of five Ecumenical Councils and was the location of the proclamation of the first Holy Year in 1300. Although small parts of the church date to its original dedication in 324, the majority of the present building only dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The readings today help to point us into much deeper mysteries then simply the fate of one particular church – even one as significant and beautiful as this.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm (10min 58sec)
First Reading Eze 47:1–2, 8–9, 12;
Response Ps 46:5; Psalm Ps 46:2–3, 5–6, 8–9;
Second Reading 1 Co 3:9c–11, 16–17;
Gospel Acclamation 2 Ch 7:16;
Gospel Jn 2:13–22
In trying to understand the bible, for me, one of the most important questions to ask about any particular passage is – what is the context? Where does this passage fit within (for example) the ministry of Jesus and in this case – the Gospel of Matthew. Once we do this, it should become quickly clear that the primary interest of Jesus in giving the reply to this unlikely coalition force of the Pharisees and the Herodians is not to answer for all time the question of the proper relationship between the church and the state. Although many more conservative church leaders have used this text in this way, it should be clear that in these final days before his arrest Jesus is dealing with the situations that are being presented to him. The leaders of the Pharisees send some of their disciples with some Herodians – the pro-Roman supporters of King Herod. Since the Pharisees are mostly made up of ordinary and sincere followers of the Torah who would have rejected the Roman rule and authority and would certainly have opposed the hated additional tax that Rome had imposed. The question that is put to Jesus is very clever and brilliant as such things go. Jesus is set up for a fall if he answers this badly, since to say yes – it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor would have put him offside with the majority of the population who hated the tax; but to say no would make him liable to accusations of treason and his immediate arrest by the Romans would have been inevitable. So he asked for one of the denarius coins that were used to pay the tax. These Roman issued coins were forbidden from being in the temple area, because they were considered to be clearly blasphemous and idolatrous, containing as they did the image of the emperor and the title which claimed that he was divine and the high priest. Such coins should have been exchanged outside the temple for the Jewish equivalent which did not contain such images. In declaring that we must ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s’ Jesus reminds us that in fact all things properly belong to God: all of our lives and all that we possess are gifts that we have received from the Lord.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (9m12s)
Sunday 29, Year A. Matthew 22:15-22
King Solomon whose reign is normally dated from around 970/960 BCE to 930/920 BCE is best known for being extremely wise, extraordinarily wealthy and as a supremely powerful monarch. He is also described as a great lover, with the legendary harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. He was probably also very busy 😉
He is listed as the tenth of seventeen sons of King David in 2 Samuel 3, born to Bathsheba as her second son; or in 1 Chronicles 3 he is listed as the tenth son of nineteen sons, being born to Bathshua as her fourth son. He was said to reign for forty years – like his father David – or the equivalent of a single generation. He is still young when he becomes King and has not yet reached adulthood, after a bitter dispute with his other brothers; David is still alive during the first few years of his reign, but he grows increasingly fragile and perhaps even senile. It is in the fourth year of his new reign that Solomon lays the foundation stone of the temple – which his father David had wanted to build but the Lord had not allowed this. When the temple begins, 480 years have passed since the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The temple construction takes seven years, and the building of the rest of the citadel and palace takes another thirteen years so that the project is completed 500 years after the Exodus. Most of these dates should be understood as symbolic which is the reason that the dating of Solomon is so difficult.
When we meet him today in 1 Kings 3, he is still in his youth. The burden of becoming King is weighing heavily upon him. He is deeply aware of his own sin – and as the fruit of the adulterous union between David and Bathsheba, he is also aware of the consequences of sin in his beloved father. So when the Lord appears to him in a dream while he is at the northern shrine of Gibeon and offers him whatever he would ask, Solomon to his credit first acknowledges his frailty and need – yet still requests a heart wise and shrewd.
Solomon probably wrote some of the Proverbs (just as his father David had composed a good number of the Psalms) but the remainder of both books would only achieve final form many centuries later. Other books are ascribed to him – Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (or Canticle, or Songs) and Wisdom of Solomon – but these were all written likewise centuries later. His wisdom comprises three kinds – administrative, encyclopedic and aphorisms and riddles. Although his prayer for wisdom is answered, in his maturity he fails to live from within the blessing of this promise and allows his heart to be led astray, especially because of the influence of so many of his foreign wives and the worship of their gods.
Today we bring to a close the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel which is jam-packed with parables and their explanations with these three short parables drawn from ordinary life. The chapter lies at the very centre of this Gospel, and it seems that we are being invited to be the scribes who draw out of our storeroom things both new and old. The new things are this brand new and magnificent vision that the kingdom of heaven is bringing; the old things are the wisdom of the centuries and the witness of the people of Israel and her stories and hopes. The way of the Gospel is about planting the new deep down within the old and allowing the ancient wisdom to come to fresh and exciting expressions in the new.
The shape of this gospel is meant to remind the careful reader of the first five books of the Bible – the Torah, or the Books of Moses; but the content of this gospel is new and explosive. There is a decision that has to be made urgently. It was fashionable then as it remains fashionable now to imagine that there were many pearls or many treasures that you could collect in the various religions that are on offer; no, says Jesus – there is only one pearl and one treasure which is the Gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus was declaring and living out.
Besides all this Jesus declares that the world is not just going around in circles – but it has a clear direction and is heading in a straight line towards its goal in the final judgement. It continues to move towards that glorious day when God will remake the whole world in truth and justice.
These parables continue to challenge us to both understand them and to place them into action as the wise scribes that we are urged to be. We are called in our thinking, speaking and living to be firmly rooted in the old and also the bearers of the fresh new work that God is doing. Today we are invited to carefully reflect upon our lives to make sure that the fruit of our lives is both old and new.
Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington 8am (10’09”)
Sunday 17, Year A
When Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the day that we call Palm Sunday, the crowds acclaimed him as the Messiah and welcomed him with great joy. But the first three gospels record him doing something very strange as his first act of coming into the city – he goes into the Temple and cleanses it (Matthew 21:12-15; Mark 11:11-16; Luke 19:41-48). But this action is only the first shocking thing that Jesus will do in regards to a Temple that was not only sacred, but also central to the religious, historical, political and economic identity of the Jewish people – and which had been since the time of King David who had first desired to build a temple in honour of the Lord and which his son Solomon had built almost 1000 years before. He tells the people “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) The people respond with a question – it has taken forty-six years to build this temple – and you will raise it up in three days? The first temple (Solomon’s) was a wonder of the ancient world, and people travelled from near and far just to be able to say that they had seen it with their own eyes; but it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC. After the Persians defeated the Babylonian empire, they allowed the Jewish people to return from Exile and to slowly rebuild the city, its walls and the temple. But this second temple was not as large and nowhere near as grand or elegant as the Temple of Solomon, until the time of King Herod who embarked upon a grand rebuilding program that had turned the Jerusalem Temple into a new wonder of the world.
As grand and beautiful as the temple was – made of brick and stone and decorated in silver and gold – it was not this building that Jesus was referring to, but the temple of his body. In fact the temple would be destroyed only a generation after the time of Jesus, when the forces of the Roman Emperor Titus swept through in AD 70 to quell a rebellion that had begun four years earlier in what became known as the First Jewish War. Jesus wanted his disciples and the church to understand that the temple was only a sign of the presence of God – but it was the even more precious temples of flesh and bone that would be the stunning sign of the presence of God – his own body and then the body of each believer was meant to become a place where the very presence of God will dwell. The resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of this, reminding us that the human experience is meant to be a place of transformation and new life.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10.30am (8’02”)
Easter Sunday – Mass of the Resurrection
I played an edited version of this video after the homily: Starting Today – what will you do?
The feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated forty days after Christmas, brings the nativity stories to an end. It is a very Jewish feastday, concerned as it is with the purification of the mother after giving birth to a son (the purification period was doubled for the birth of a daughter – WTF?) and the redemption of the first-born son, in fulfilment of the Mosaic law. The story in the Gospel of Luke also brings the series of stories about the birth of Jesus to a conclusion, with only the final story of the the holy family travelling to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve years old (and on the cusp of manhood). Over the course of these stories, a whole series of figures is given to us in different life situations – from a couple in their middle years (Zechariah and Elizabeth), to a pair of teenagers just starting out (Mary and Joseph) and today two people in their older years who are ready after a faith-filled life to return to their maker. In the midst of all of these examples, Jesus provides the constant theme of a God who is near; a God who fits into all kinds of different situations and circumstances – as an older brother who shares our same human experiences and even our own temptations.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’09”) – includes final blessing at Mass.
Luke 2:22-40; Hebrews 2:14-18.
The readings today reminded me of being in Brisbane at the start of last year, when the devastating flood waters that had claimed too many lives in the Lockyer Valley moved downstream towards the city. Authorities did not want any more lives to be lost, so did all that they could to ensure that the population living in flood-prone areas of the city would prepare and evacuate in time.
Baruch was the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah, and seems likely to have been the writer and editor for Jeremiah. The six chapter work that bears his name is dated to the same period – after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple by the Babylonians in the year 586BC. Baruch addresses the small remnant of people who were not marched off in the chains of slavery and destitution to Babylon, but who remain decked out in their mourning cloaks, lamenting over what has been. Jewish people have a strong sense of history as linear – there was progression and purpose in all that God had done in the past in calling individuals and then the whole nation to be his people, who would worship God in the sacred place of the Jerusalem temple. It seemed that all that was lost. Baruch invites this people to throw off their cloaks, to arise and look to the East – towards the city of Babylon.
He doesn’t promise that some great army will come to help them avenge their loss. There is no ‘cavalry’ in sight. But there is the hope and trust in the God who is faithful to his promises, and who will bring his exiled people back home.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (10’34”)
Advent Sunday 2, Year C
We begin the new liturgical year (Year C) in much the same tone as we concluded Year B – with a focus on the destruction of Jerusalem. So it seems appropriate to reflect on the events that would have so marked the lives of any Christians living in the forty-year period between the wonderful events of the Resurrection and Pentecost to the utter devastation of the destruction of Jerusalem. Unless we take the time to reconstruct this history, we can entirely miss the significance of the celestial signs that Jesus offers in the Gospel or the encouragement that Paul offered to the early Church community in the earliest document in the New Testament.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Camden (8am; 8’53”)
Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) – Baruch 5:1-9; Phil 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6.
Luke begins the account of the ministry of John the Baptist with a list of strange names – what is he doing and why is he doing it and how does it relate to the splendour and integrity of a people lost in a foreign land?
In order to understand why Luke begins this account of the ministry of John, son of Zechariah, with all of those names – we need to do some background work. We need to go back to the first reading – from the prophet Baruch (the secretary of Jeremiah).
Baruch prophesied during the same period – the time of Exile. This was an utterly devastating period in the history of Israel. For us to make any sense of the readings today we need to first attempt to at least get into the mindset of what it would be like for the whole of your life – and of the whole of your country to be turned completely upside down and inside out. They were treated as slaves and they lost all of the land of the promise; the empire of Babylon had swept down upon them and completely destroyed their land, their city and their temple. All that Jerusalem stood for was destroyed and taken away from them when they were escorted under military guard from Jerusalem into exile. Everything that they had based their lives upon was gone. It is hard to appreciate how devastating this was for them.
In the ministry of John the Baptist, the son of the priest Zechariah, we see the ritual washing (the mikvah) take on a new significance, as a sign of God’s new work of creation. Now the presence of God will not be confined to the temple – the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies is torn apart – a foretaste of the great event of Jesus death and resurrection.
Recorded at Sacred Heart, Bomaderry. (12’50”)