Catholic in Yanchep

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8th Sunday, Year A | The depressed person’s guide to escaping from dark times

our-lady-of-walsingham-and-english-saints

Our Lady of Walsingham and English Saints, mural, hall outside Slipper Chapel Shrine, Walsingham. Photo by Norman Servais.

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Whenever today’s Gospel reading comes up it takes me back to 1991.  This was the year my beloved father died and my daughter was born.  We had taken the decision that I would be a full time Mum some years earlier with the birth of my first child, so making ends meet was difficult, since my husband was in the process of building up his own business, with every spare cent being reinvested back into the business and Australia still suffering a loss of confidence following the 1987 share market crash.  But after Elinor’s birth, life was further complicated by my developing post-natal depression.

The winter of 1991 was probably a perfectly ordinary winter, as winter’s go, but inside my head, the landscape was bleak and, at times, terrifying.  It seemed to rain constantly so that I spent much of the time cooped up indoors with a two year old and an infant, and no support family within two thousand kilometres.  Odd things happened, like the Water Corporation invading the park behind our house to fix a sewerage problem, and the whole neighbourhood being filled with noxious odours for days on end, adding to my general feeling of malaise.  Then I had a great fear that I was going to develop a mental condition that was present in my extended family.  And of course I was grieving for my Father who had wasted away over five years until every breath was a struggle.

But God uses these moments of interior misery to bring us back to him. The children and I had joined the local playgroup which was run by some of the young mums from the Neo-Catechumenate group.  On one particular day, when our bank account was down to about $3 and I was wondering how we were going to manage until payday, the ‘Neocats’ invited me round for some Italian macchinetta-brewed coffee as well as prayer round their kitchen table.  By chance, their Bible reading for the day was this:

‘That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing! Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are? Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life? And why worry about clothing? Think of the flowers growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these.

  Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, will he not much more look after you, you men of little faith?

  So do not worry, do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?” It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow, will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble if its own.’  (Matthew 6: 25-34)

Sometimes you just know God is trying to tell you something.  I went home and thought about it.  Depression is different from other medical conditions, in that there is a certain amount of control one can have over it merely through the choices one makes.  No, really.  (I can hear people disagreeing with me.)   I have met people who seem almost to identify with their depression to the point where they describe it as being part of their genetic makeup, and love-love-love telling you about how they and all the members of their family are living on anti-depressants due to congenital deficiencies in their parietal lobe.  Fiddlesticks to that, I say.

The reason I have my doubts is that we are humans who are free agents, and free agents can choose at each moment how they are going to behave.  We might not always be able to control how we think, but we can control how we behave.  I can remember thinking while I was depressed, that I was ever so bored with my brain which seemed to want to go round and round in an endless monologue over the same subject matter.  The trick seemed to be actually to do something which would change the subject.  What helped me escape from my depression was meditating on the above reading, telling God that I needed a hand and then going outside myself to think about other people who were in situations far worse than my relatively mundane and self-centred situation.  At one point, I remember seeing a picture in a newspaper about a young boy from Vietnam whose face had been terribly disfigured through burns, but who was coming to Australia for plastic surgery.  These things made me realise I needed to get out of my own head and start doing something positive, even if emotionally I didn’t feel in the mood.  I decided the cure for feeling miserable and broke was to start helping other people who were even more down-and-out than I was.  I looked up the nearest St Vincent de Paul Conference and went to their next meeting.  Soon I was in training with a senior member, learning how to discern whether someone required a food voucher or other assistance.  I had always been a Mass-goer, but now prayer and scripture reading became more of a daily feature of my life.  And the more I concentrated on helping others, the smaller my own problems seemed.  In addition to this, over time, God helped us to prosper our business and manage on our budget.  I look back on this period as my first great re-conversion to the Faith.

This didn’t just happen once in my life – over the course of decades, there have been several occasions where things have gone pear-shaped and I have been tempted to slip into depression and self-centredness.  And every time, God has reached in and shown me the way forward – because Jesus Christ our Saviour is the Light of the World, He cares about our individual situations, He wants us to come into a right relationship with Him, and He wants us to be filled with an unshakeable joy in the midst of life’s trials.

Lent is about to begin on Ash Wednesday.  This is a perfect time to pre-empt Satan’s plans for our misery by deepening our prayer life, coming close to God and asking Him to place in our path those people whom he wants us to help and encourage.

Today’s readings:
Word format: year-a-8th-sunday-2017
Pdf format: year-a-8th-sunday-2017


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Seventh Sunday, Year A | The Bible and the Love-Justice Dialectic

jesus-teaching-manuscript-francais-916

Jesus Teaching, Michel Gonnot (priest and scribe), 1474, Manuscript Français 916, fol. 69r, National Library of France, Département des manuscrits, accessed at http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8539714c/f143.item.

How do we love perfectly?  Jesus gives us some clear examples in our readings for today – and he doesn’t just talk in abstract and generalised terms, he talks in concrete examples that we can apply to our own situations.

‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away. 

 ‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

Of course, we need to discern each case individually.  Because we are also told in the first reading: “You must openly tell him, your neighbour, of his offence; this way you will not take a sin upon yourself.”  So by ‘offering the wicked man no resistance’, Jesus does not mean that we should avoid educating him about his wickedness – otherwise we would become willing participants in evil.  Jesus is talking here about going above and beyond the call of duty.

These statements by Jesus are the last of his Six Antitheses from the Sermon on the Mount, where he uses the form, ‘You have learnt how it was said … But I say this to you …”  Marcion, a second century shipping magnate who used his power and influence to cause a schism in the Church, took this to mean that the God of the Old Testament was mistaken, and that Jesus was correcting him.  Henry Chadwick in The Early Church, describes Marcion’s view in these terms:

The Gnostics liked to contrast the God of the Old Testament as the God of justice, whose principle was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, with the loving Father proclaimed by Jesus.  This antithesis was especially worked out by Marcion … He wrote a book entitled Antitheses …  in which he listed contradictions between the Old and New Testaments to prove that the God of the Jews, the creator of this miserable world, was quite different from the God and Father of Jesus of whose existence the world had no inkling until the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar when Jesus suddenly appeared preaching the Gospel. 

Tertullian tells us:

We know full well that Marcion makes his gods unequal: one judicial, harsh, mighty in war; the other mild, placid, and simply good and excellent. (Against Marcion, Book I, Chapter 6

So desperate was Marcion to demonstrate his case, that he (like many other heretics) then had to change Scripture to suit his interpretation: he rewrote Luke’s Gospel to remove any influence of “Judaising influences” and actually drew up the first canon of Scripture – which excluded all of the Old Testament and much of the New.

What are we to make of Jesus’s statements, then?  Pope Benedict XVI, in the Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini says,

The roots of Christianity are found in the Old Testament, and Christianity continually draws nourishment from these roots. Consequently, sound Christian doctrine has always resisted all new forms of Marcionism, which tend, in different ways, to set the Old Testament in opposition to the New.

… It must be observed, however, that the concept of the fulfilment of the Scriptures is a complex one, since it has three dimensions: a basic aspect of continuity with the Old Testament revelation, an aspect of discontinuity and an aspect of fulfilment and transcendence

Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times. 

Back to the Gospel, then.  Jesus is in continuity with the Old Testament in so far as he quotes from it (“you have heard it said”), but then he shows how he is fulfilling and transcending this teaching with something even more demanding.  He is raising the bar and drawing us into greater union with God.

Where the legal codes of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ found in Exodus are suitable for providing legal limits within a societal and juridical setting, if we apply these principles within our own families, we will be engaged in an endless cycle of retribution for wrongs small and large and never be able to escape the cycle of violence and egotistical score-settling.  Jesus is showing us how to love truly – how to have good will even towards those who have no love for us.

In Fr Robert Spitzer’s, New Proofs for the Existence of God, he describes the Five Transcendentals of the Divine Mystery: Perfect Truth, Perfect Love, Perfect Justice/Goodness, Perfect Beauty and Perfect Home, all of which aspects are found in the ultimate unconditioned reality we call God.

So if we relate these attributes of God to our Gospel reading, whereas last week’s antitheses were concerned  with Perfect Justice and Goodness in the areas of murder, adultery, divorce and the swearing of oaths, this week’s antitheses, with their focus on vengeance and hatred, seem to concentrate more on how we can practise Perfect Love.

Fr Spitzer describes love as a movement from autonomy to empathy to self-giving.

Though this unity with the feelings and being of another does not cause a loss of one’s self or self-consciousness, it does cause a break in the radical autonomy one can effect when one focuses on oneself as the centre of one’s personal universe (autonomy).  … This acceptance and identification of the feelings and being of the other give rise to concern for the other, which evolves into care for the other as the relationship grows.  This care, in its turn, can completely reverse the human tendency toward autonomy (over against the other) and give rise to a self-giving that can become self-sacrificial (agapē).

As far as justice/goodness are concerned, Fr Spitzer says,

The “love of justice and the good”  is a natural unifier, for it overcomes the natural barriers and enmity arising out of competition for scarce resources, fear of strangers, natural animosity, survival of the fittest, and suspicion of others’ potential injustice.  It overcomes the natural barriers and enmity of irresponsibility (responsibility to myself alone, or the complete abdication of responsibility), by calling individuals to a higher duty to the just society.  It can also lead to self-sacrifice (the sacrifice not only of one’s advantage and aggrandisement, but of one’s very self) for the sake of the good of society or for goodness and justice within society.

Drawing these two aspects together – Perfect Love and Perfect Justice/Goodness –

… we may do well to pause for a moment and consider the complementarity between love and the good in human self-consciousness.  Three of these complementarities are described in the history of philosophy by the “love-justice dialectic”: (1) Love tends to look first toward care for the individual and through this lens, to move towards care and co-responsibility for the group or even civil society.  Conversely, the good has the connotation of looking first towards the common good, that is, the good of civil society, the culture, and the group, and then moving from this to the good of the individual. (2) Love begins with care and empathy, and from this moves toward co-responsibility and duty.  Conversely, the good tends to move from co-responsibility and duty to empathy and care.  (3) Love proceeds from compassion and mercy, and then moves to justice and the need for law, whereas the good proceeds from justice and respect for the law and then moves to a specific application of the natural law, and then to respect for the individual protected by the law, and then to compassion and mercy under the law.  In sum, love and goodness must eventually overlap, but they overlap each other from opposite directions.

It seems to me that much of the imbalance in society right now, is that empathy towards certain individuals and sectors of the community is drowning out discussion of the common good as far as civil society and culture are concerned.  As Christians, we need to regain our ability to speak without fear about the common good of society, without sacrificing love.   There are arguments to be made about love vs the common good in the areas of immigration policy, the education of children, marriage and family, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, amongst others.  It’s not an easy task, especially when our own sinfulness leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  And in our personal lives, we need to have a good hard look at whether we are practising what Jesus is asking of us, especially in those relationships where we feel the most tension and would rather engage in a culture of avoidance than a culture of encounter.

Today’s readings:
Word format: year-a-7th-sunday-2017
Pdf format: year-a-7th-sunday-2017

 

 

 


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5th Sunday, Year A | Salt, light and the sex abuse crisis

bruegel-pieter-massacre-of-the-innocents

Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1565-67, Royal Collection, United Kingdom.

God has such impeccable timing.  Here we are with a Gospel reading today that proclaims,

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by men.

  You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven (Mt 5:13-16).

while from tomorrow and for the next three weeks  the Church will be reporting to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about its failures, and the policies and procedures that have been put in place to prevent any recurrence of this lamentable period when we failed to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world.

Our Archbishop, the most reverend Timothy Costelloe SDB, has issued a pastoral letter.

I ask you too, to continue to pray for the victims and survivors of sexual abuse in our Church. The heavy burdens they carry, inflicted on them by people who were supposed to be signs and bearers of God’s love and care but who were the very opposite, and the dismissive, disbelieving and insensitive way in which they were treated by so many of our Church leaders, impels us as a community to do all we can to assist them now and into the future. This last public hearing of the Royal Commission will inevitably be a stressful and painful time for many. Paradoxically it might also be a time of healing. 

As a community we are deeply shamed by the failures of so many in our Church in relation to the care of our children and young people. More than this we are horrified by the suffering which has been inflicted on so many innocent people. 

As I have in the past, I want now to again express our profound sorrow and apology for this shocking failure on our part and for the pain it has caused to so many. As a Church we are committed now to doing everything we can to ensure that this evil is eradicated from our midst.

 You can read the rest here.

Francis Sullivan, the head of the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council has also made the point that the data that will be revealed this week will be ‘the first time in the world the Catholic Church’s records on child sexual abuse have been compiled and analysed for public consideration’.  (The Australian, Horrific extent of Catholic child abuse, 2 February 2017).  I’m not sure exactly how Australia’s contribution is unique: there has been a veritable boatload of reports issued in other countries: the John Jay Report, the Murphy Report and the Ferns Report, to name a few.

We, as a Church, can expect to be thoroughly humiliated in the public forum – and deservedly so.

Nevertheless, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is not just a Church problem, but a societal one.  Kelly Richards, writing in Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, No. 429, writes,

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (2005) Personal Safety Survey, of all those who reported having been victimised sexually before the age of 15 years, 11.1 percent were victimised by a stranger. More commonly, child sexual abuse was perpetrated by a male relative (other than the victim’s father or stepfather; 30.2%), a family friend (16.3%), an acquaintance or neighbour (15.6%), another known person (15.3%), or the father or stepfather (13.5%; see Figure 1). It should be noted that these totals add to more than 100 percent (103.7%); this indicates that a small proportion of child sexual abuse victims (3.7%) were abused by perpetrators belonging to more than one category.

In other words, the vast majority of child-sexual abuse perpetrators have not been targeted by the Royal Commission, since it is dealing with institutional not familial responses.  Writing in The Australian, Gerard Henderson makes the point that even among institutions, the Catholic Church may be being unfairly scapegoated (Child Abuse Royal Commission: Don’t Just Target Catholic Church).  And the irony is that even while the government with one hand is busy rooting out this sort of child sexual abuse, with the other hand it is actively promoting the abuse and sexualisation of children through insidious programs such as Safe Schools.

What does all this mean for the ordinary parishioner like you or me?  In practice, the issue has already largely been dealt with, through various Safeguarding offices and through the Diocesan Professional Standards Office.  For my part, I can’t say I have ever actually met either a sexually abused parishioner or an abusive priest, although I do know someone who, as a child, had a teacher who attempted (unsuccessfully) to groom him.  So the problem is not front-of-mind in the experience of currently practising Catholics, as it is to some degree historical, not current.

What parishioners are finding, though, is a certain guardedness in interactions between parishioners, the general public and clergy.  Priests are now more cautious about placing themselves in situations where they might be vulnerable to accusations, and unfortunately in the mind of the general public, the two words ‘priest’ and ‘paedophile’ have become associated with each other.  If ever Satan wanted to undermine the effectiveness of the Church in carrying out its mission of telling the world about Jesus Christ, this would be the way he would have chosen: to insert sufficient paedophiles and unconcerned bishops into our ranks to cause chaos. Fortunately most of the priests I know are  concentrating on serving their communities and living good and holy lives.  And most parishioners are trying to get on with doing the same.

As we see in today’s Psalm, “A light rises in the darkness for the upright.”  We need to go through the darkness of chastisement and purification and pray for our Archbishop, the leadership of our Archdiocese and our priests.  What I think we will find, when the Royal Commission has done its work and people have found closure, is that the task of evangelisation will start to get its legs in Australia, as it has already done in the US.  At the moment, we can’t evangelise effectively, because we’re still undergoing purgation and being rightly shamed for our past mistakes.  But, as Bishop Robert Barron explains in his YouTube video, God will ‘rebuild his Holy City’ through those who have remained faithful through it all.

You might also enjoy watching these recent videos on current topics from Bishop Barron, interviewed here by Dave Rubin from The Rubin Report:

Part 1: Belief, Faith and the Church Sex Scandal

Part 2: Abortion, Gay Marriage and Porn 

Today’s readings:
Word format: year-a-5th-sunday-2017
Pdf format: year-a-5th-sunday-2017

 

 


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4th Sunday, Year A | Being peacemakers in a divided society

church_urtijei_with-sermon-on-the-mount

Sermon on the Mount, Franz Xaver Kirchebner, fresco, Church of St Ulrich in Gröden, Urtijëi, Italy.

Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, is fascinated by the liberal-conservative divisions in society.  Although he leans slightly left himself, he describes himself now as having ‘stepped out of the game’, especially since his research among widely divergent cultures led him to revise his preconceptions about conservatives.  Sick and tired of the rancour and demonization so characteristic of social media culture, he has been trying to find ways to help people at opposite ends of the political spectrum understand one another.

What Haidt discovered through his research in a number of different countries, was that there are at least six foundational aspects to the way we reason about morality, common to all humans.  He compares them to our having an audio equaliser with six slider switches, each of which can have the sensitivity turned up to varying degrees.  These switches are:

  1. Care (empathy, compassion, protecting others) versus harm;
  2. Fairness (justice, rights and proportionality) versus cheating;
  3. Liberty versus oppression;
  4. Loyalty to your group, family or nation versus betrayal;
  5. Authority (submitting to legitimate authority) versus subversion;
  6. Sanctity versus degradation.

What he didn’t expect to find, was that left-leaning people prioritised the first two: care and fairness, but right-leaning people endorsed all six approximately evenly.  As a follow-up, he asked his subjects to answer questions while role-playing as people holding ideological beliefs opposite to their own in real life, a technique known as an Ideological Turing Test.  He found that it was the right-leaning people who could correctly explain and defend the beliefs of the left-leaners, while the progressives had great difficulty expressing and understanding the positions of the conservatives.

Haidt argues that for most people, moral choices are decisions based on intuitions or emotional responses, rather than on carefully reasoned arguments.  We are all guilty of confirmation bias: our brains are like lawyers or press secretaries for our emotions, and we send them out scurrying to find the evidence which supports our emotional responses.  The ubiquity of Google now gives us unlimited scope for rapid confirmation of whatever wacky idea our emotions want to defend.  Haidt sees this as ramping up the heat, nastiness and rancour in our political and ideological debates, especially as many of us choose to inhabit ideological enclaves of like-minded people.  He describes the cure as follows:

Individual reasoning is post hoc and justificatory;  individual reasoning is not reliable because of confirmation bias.  The only cure for confirmation bias is other people.  So if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reasoning, and this is the way that the scientific world is supposed to work.  We end up being forced to work together, challenging each other’s’ confirmation biases – and truth emerges.    And this is a place where I think the Christians have it right, because they’re always talking about how flawed we are. (Interview with Bill Moyers)

So why am I bringing this up?  In today’s Gospel, we read what is probably the single most influential speech of all time, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount .  Quoted for 2,000 years and spreading out to every country of the world, the Sermon on the Mount has had an incalculable influence on our morality, particularly the morality of Western Civilisation.  Unfortunately, most children today will never encounter the Gospel in their school curriculum, and will through no fault of their own, be unaware of the transcendent teachings it contains.

Today’s Gospel concentrates on the eight Beatitudes: those things that will help us to be happy in this life and the next.  Of course, they transcend Haidt’s six aspects of morality, but we can also link the Beatitudes to Haidt’s universal moral categories and find some correspondence.  The point about the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus is inviting us to transcend our tribal and egocentric emotional responses and make conscious choices that place God and our neighbour at the centre of our choices.

Beatitude Which aspect in Moral Foundations Theory does it correspond to?
1.       How happy are the poor in spirit;
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Sanctity … the poor in spirit are sufficiently detached from avarice for their choices not to be corrupted by a desire for wealth and comfort.  The poor in spirit are also aware of their spiritual poverty and need for grace.
2.       Happy the gentle:
they shall have the earth for their heritage.
Care … the gentle prioritise kindness and empathy towards others.  They are very aware of how their words impact others.
3.       Happy those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Sanctity … these people are not addicted to pleasure; they are able to pass serenely through the trials of life while trusting in God.
4.       Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied. Fairness … These people care about justice and proportionality in decision-making, for the common good.
5.       Happy the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown them.
Care … these people care about justice, yet are able to temper it with forgiveness and mercy when appropriate.
6.       Happy the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Sanctity … these people are ennobled by their focus on what is edifying.  Pure in their minds, their speech and their actions, they will always attempt to inspire the best in others.
7.       Happy the peacemakers:
they shall be called sons of God.
Loyalty and authority … these people see humanity as sharing in the image and likeness of God.  They want to help all people to live in charity and reconciliation with one another.
8.       (a) Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Loyalty and liberty… these people remain faithful to God’s law and to right conduct in spite of opposition.  They express their liberty by refusing to recant under pressure.
8.       (b) Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Loyalty and liberty … these people remain faithful to Jesus Christ in all circumstances.  They are able to weather mockery and contempt.  They are liberated from attachments to worldly honour, because of their fidelity to and friendship with Christ.

But I need to return to my main point, which is about how we can be practical peacemakers, knowing what we know about Haidt’s research into confirmation bias.  It’s supremely important for us as Christians not to retreat into the bubble of our Christian ideological and religious enclave (sometimes called The Benedict Option).  Sure, every Christian should surround him- or herself with Christian friends who provide the mutual support of being collectively loyal to Christ and faithful to the Magisterium.

But we also need to make sure that we encounter all sorts of ‘others’ so that we can learn to understand how they think, respectfully talk about things we disagree on, gently challenge their confirmation bias and create that space where we can be friends in spite of our differences.

Today’s readings:
Word format: year-a-4th-sunday-2017
Pdf format: year-a-4th-sunday-2017

By the way, if you’re interested in the fresco above, it’s a detail of the ceiling of St Ulrich in Gröden in the Italian Alps.  The whole thing is quite stunning.

 

church-urtijei-with-sermon-on-the-mount-reduced


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3rd Sunday, Year A | Prudence and Passion

calling-of-peter-and-andrew-ravenna-mosaic

The Calling of Peter and Andrew, Mosaic, 6th century, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

Calculation and rationality can only take us so far when it comes to following Christ.  Every now and then, Christ calls us to do something which may, to others, seem a bit imprudent.

Consider the disciples in today’s Gospel.  There they were, Simon and Peter, James and John enjoying another humdrum day at the nets, when Jesus summons them to follow him.  And they drop everything and go.  Can this possibly be sensible – leaving the security of their trade, abandoning their family responsibilities?

Surely the prudent person would have been more like the young man in Luke 9:61, to whom Jesus says, ‘Follow me’.

[He] replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’  But Jesus answered, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’

What about the rich young man in Matthew 19:21-22?

The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these [commandments].  What more do I need to do?’  Jesus said, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.’  But when the young man heard these words he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.

Jesus is asking him to do what the world might consider foolish and reckless.

Then there’s the widow in Luke 21:1-4:

 … he noticed a poverty-stricken widow putting in two small coins, and he said, ‘I tell you truly, this poor widow has put in more than any of them; for these have all put in money they could spare, but she in her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

Surely that was imprudent!  Shouldn’t she have kept something aside for herself?

Part of the difficulty in our understanding is that our use of the word prudent in contemporary English has shifted.  It now has overtones of cautiousness, whereas the traditional usage is much richer than that.

Prudence is the ability to decide where an act is on the sliding scale from those acts which are cowardly, over-cautious and self-protective to deeds which are reckless and needlessly risky.  Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes are acts which are courageous.  Too much caution will make you immobile with fear; too little caution and you may end up in hot water.  But Jesus doesn’t seem to mind people making radically incautious choices when it comes to his Kingdom.

prudence

The question is, “What does the Holy Spirit want?”  This is the whole point of the Holy Spirit’s gift of Counsel or Right Judgement – to perfect the virtue of prudence, the ability to choose wisely with this single criterion in mind: “Does it help advance the proclamation of the Gospel?”

So we have to rethink Prudence in the light of an act’s service to the Gospel.  That is why the disciples’ leaving their livelihood, or a person giving his money away to the right cause, or being willing to die rather than renounce his faith, can, in God’s eyes, be supremely prudent.

But prudential decisions are not made merely in a dry, analytical framework.  Today’s readings give us a glimpse of the audaciousness, surprise and joy that accompany a radical decision for Christ.

The people that lived in darkness
has seen a great light;
On those who dwell in the land and shadow of death
a light has dawned.

It’s not easy to describe the inner landscape of a person who has been illuminated by the Holy Spirit.  But it’s as if one now inhabits a mental universe where all things are possible, where the most tricky situations can be entrusted to a loving Father, where self-forgetfulness replaces self-consciousness.  There’s something about Jesus that has enlightened the disciples on this day by the Sea of Galilee and stirred up the courage and the passion to abandon themselves to his plan.

If we look at the lives of holy people, we can get a sense of their joyful, incautious abandonment to Christ.

St Francis of Assisi .. gave up the opportunity to live a life of luxury as the son of a silk merchant, and devoted himself to spreading the Gospel through preaching, living the same life of poverty as the poorest of the poor and restoring several ruined churches.
St John Bosco … had a bold idea to help street children and unemployed boys to find work, safe lodging and a grounding in Christ.  Despite his almost constant lack of resources, he worked tirelessly to establish his Oratory and trusted in God to supply their needs.
St Katharine Drexel … gave up her seven million dollar fortune to join the Sisters of Mercy and found the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, providing schools and missions to native Americans.
St Damien of Molokai … gave up his personal comfort to share his life with the quarantined leper colony in Hawaii, building schools, roads, hospitals and churches to provide for their material and physical needs.
Mother Angelica … despite knowing nothing about broadcasting, had a bold vision to evangelise through television and, starting from small beginnings, went on to develop EWTN, the largest religious media network in the world.

Let’s try having a conversation with God today about his purposes for us – he might be about to inspire us to do something joyfully bold for his Kingdom!

Today’s readings

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2nd Sunday, Year A | Being and remaining in Christ

Jesus-Christ

Christ Blessing Children (detail), Pacecco de Rosa, 1600-1654, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

You would almost miss it if you weren’t looking for it.  There’s a phrase in today’s second reading that is quintessentially Christian: the phrase ‘in Christ’.  It’s the phrase that’s traditionally used when Christians sign letters – or a variation thereof.

This is the opening paragraph of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, and he is giving a quick summary describing the people he is addressing.  It’s very easy to see this introduction as a mere formality to be got out of the way before he gets to the meaty bits, but I’d like to concentrate on pulling apart this single phrase.

In Australia you could be forgiven for missing it altogether, because the Jerusalem Bible translation gives “greetings to the church of God in Corinth, to the holy people of Jesus Christ”.  The New American Bible, however, (used in the USA) translates the Greek more accurately as “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” (τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ Θεοῦ, τῇ οὔσῃ ἐν Κορίνθῳ,  ἡγιασμένοις ἐν Χριστῷ  Ἰησοῦ, κλητοῖς ἁγίοις).

What’s so special about this phrase, ‘in Christ’?

Jesus talks frequently about our remaining in him.  You wouldn’t find Mohamed expecting people to remain in him – he saw himself as only a prophet; God was completely transcendent and by nature not susceptible to unity with humans.  Neither would one expect this in Buddhism – for the Buddhist believes that there is no such thing as the self or the soul which exists in the first place (the doctrine of Annata).  But Jesus is God incarnate, and he stresses the importance of our remaining in Him through obedience to his Word and participation in the Sacraments:

Remain in me, as I in you.  As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, unless it remains part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me”  (John 15:4).

“Remain in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (John 15:10).

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.  As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me” (John 6:56-57).

The theologian, N.T. Wright, points out that Paul never uses the term “in Jesus” or “in the Lord” but the preposition ἐν is always combined with the word, Christ, as in ἐν Χριστῷ (in Christ) – Christ meaning the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of David whose coming had been predicted.

A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse,
a new shoot will grow from his roots.
On him will rest the spirit of Yahweh,
the spirit of wisdom and insight,
the spirit of counsel and power,
the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-3).

This Messiah will be not only for the Jews, but for the world.

… according to Psalms 2 and 72 (the former of which in particular is enormously important in early Christianity), and passages like Isaiah 11 (also quoted by Paul), when Israel’s Messiah arrives he will be the rightful lord not only of Israel but of the whole world. So Paul did not have to abandon his Jewish heritage in order to have a message for the world; he only had to stand at that point in the Jewish heritage which says, ‘From this vantage point all nations are called to obedience to Israel’s God, and to his Messiah.’ That was precisely Paul’s stance.  (N.T. Wright)

That is why in today’s First Reading from Isaiah 49, we have God saying,

‘It is not enough for you to be my servant,
to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel;
I will make you the light of the nations
so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’

The Messiah brings a new way of relationship between God and man.

One of the chief significances which this word [Christ] then carries is incorporative, that is, it refers to the Messiah as the one in whom the people of God are summed up, so that they can be referred to as being ‘in’ him, as coming or growing ‘into’ him, and so forth.  (N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology)

The mystical body of Christ into which we are incorporated gives endless food for reflection – our incorporation into Christ through Baptism, our incorporation into His mission, and our incorporation into each other through Him.  If only we could ‘remain in Christ’ more faithfully, how much more fruitful our parish life would be, and what a sign we would be for the world!  This is why it’s so important to be drawn into a personal relationship with Christ, allowing Him to lead us deeper into Himself.

Some more verses for reflection on this topic:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come  (2 Corinthians 5:17).

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)

You are the children of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus, since every one of you that has been baptised has been clothed in Christ.  There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26-28).

Just as each of us has various parts in one body, and the parts do not all have the same function: in the same way, all of us, though there are so many of us, make up one body in Christ, and as different parts we are all joined to one another (Romans 12:4-5)

Today’s readings:

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The Epiphany of the Lord | A Star shall come out of Jacob

gentile-da-fabriano-adoration-of-the-magi-detail

Adoration of the Magi (detail), Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, Tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

There was a ‘feeling in the air’ in the first century Roman Empire – a sense that something greater was about to invade the world.  The Jews apprehended it and calculated the approximate timing of the coming of the Anointed Prince from Daniel’s prophecy:

From the time there went out this message:
“Return and rebuild Jerusalem”
to the coming of an Anointed Prince, seven weeks and sixty-two weeks … (Daniel 9:25)

Even the Romans were aware of the coming King.  Suetonius (c. AD 69-140) records that the belief in a Judaean King who would rule the world was widespread in the Eastern Empire – the Emperor Vespasian (naturally) applied the prophecy to himself, little realising that the King had already Risen and was rapidly expanding his Kingdom under Vespasian’s very nose.

There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome -as afterwards appeared from the event- the people of Judaea took to themselves. (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 4.5)

That other great historian of the Roman Empire, Tacitus (c. AD 56-120), wrote of this as well:

The majority [of the Jews] were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judaea would go forth men destined to rule the world.  (Tacitus, Histories 5.13)

How typical of God’s action in history, to ensure that all the key elements were in place for the coming of the Messiah: the Pax Romana with its efficient network of roads , a common language – Greek – for the spreading of the Gospel, and a fevered expectation throughout the eastern end of the Empire that a Messiah-King was due.

So when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the infant King of the Jews”, they were taken seriously.  So seriously, in fact, that Herod did his utmost to prevent the prophecy being fulfilled and ordered the Massacre of the Innocents.  He should have read his Sophocles and realised that the more one attempts to circumvent a prophecy, the more one ends up being caught in its net.

Herod is known as “The Great” because he poured money and resources into ambitious construction projects: the vast expansion of the second Temple and the impressive ten hectare harbour at Caesarea Maritima which was the largest open-sea harbour in all the world.

Great in material achievements Herod might have been, but what is that in the scheme of things?  What do we see about his character from today’s Gospel: deviousness, duplicity, envy and murderous intent;  the use of his power to squash opposition, no matter how small and defenceless;  the recruitment of others to execute his commands, so that, removed from the physical brutality of killing, he could maintain a semblance of dignity.

Josephus tells us that Herod the Great murdered even his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, who had gained great popularity with the people, but whom he suspected of plotting against him.

… he ventured, without any certain evidence of their treacherous designs against him, and without any proofs that they had made preparations for such attempt, to kill his own sons, who were of very comely bodies, and the great darlings of other men, and no way deficient in their conduct, whether it were in hunting, or in warlike exercises, or in speaking upon occasional topics of discourse; for in all these they were skillful, and especially Alexander, who was the eldest; for certainly it had been sufficient, even though he had condemned them, to have kept them alive in bonds, or to let them live at a distance from his dominions in banishment, while he was surrounded by the Roman forces, which were a strong security to him, whose help would prevent his suffering any thing by a sudden onset, or by open force; but for him to kill them on the sudden, in order to gratify a passion that governed him, was a demonstration of insufferable impiety.  (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVI)

So much for Herod.  Meanwhile, the Magi – the priestly astronomers of their day and masters of the night sky – are open to the guidance of the Spirit and attentive to the way God communicates through natural events.  The sight of the star ‘fills them with delight’ – their childlike enchantment is as much like Heaven as Herod’s malice and egocentrism is like Hell.  Nobody was forcing them to make this trip to Judaea – they came in voluntary humility, with the idea of giving homage, paying tribute, showing their allegiance, acknowledging a greatness outside themselves.  This journey was not about them, it was about the newborn King.  We don’t even hear their names in the Biblical account.  There was nothing they gained by the journey – no quid pro quo they were expecting to receive from the newborn in return for their gifts.  This was an act of self-giving.

Were these Magi real or fictional?  Fr Dwight Longenecker has been on a quest to discover the historical truth of the matter.  He says,

What I found was astounding. First I discovered that because of their assumption that the Magi story was a fairy tale very few scholars had taken the time to investigate thoroughly the possible identity of the wise men. My research brought me into contact with new technologies which shed light on the subject. Some fresh archeological findings and new understandings from the Dead Sea Scrolls also contributed to the quest.

As it turns out, it is perfectly probable that there were wise men who had the motive, the means and the method to pay homage to Jesus Christ just as Matthew recorded.  The simple truth is that Matthew’s account is factual not fictional. 

My findings not only stand the established academic orthodoxy on its head, but they should cause everyone interested in New Testament scholarship, ancient history and the historical veracity of the gospels to think again. 

Like the story of King Arthur, the tale of the wise men who visited Bethlehem was embroidered and embellished over many years. The history became legend and the legend became myth. But beneath it all there is a foundation of historical truth which is fascinating and compelling.

Stay tuned for his book, The Mystery of the Magi, which will be released in Advent 2017.

Today’s readings:
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The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God | How Mary helps us to understand Jesus

immaculate-conception-piero-di-cosimo-830x511

The Immaculate Conception, Piero di Cosimo, c. 1500, oil on panel, Uffizi, Florence.

At the ecumenical Bible Study group I attend, we steer very carefully away from any discussion of the Early Church Councils.  If I sail too close to these shores, the usual protestation is, “But where is it in the Bible?” My answer is, “The decisions of the Church Councils are overflowing with quotes from the Bible.  What Church Councils are attempting is the correct interpretation of Scripture.  Just like a geometry theorem, each teaching has to proceed from previous teachings derived from Holy Scripture using deductive logic, without contradicting the previous steps.”

Take for example the First Council of Ephesus.  This was sparked by a popular devotion to the Virgin Mary, which called her “Theotokos” (Θεοτόκος) or God-bearer.  “You can’t say that!” objected one of the factions, led by Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople.  “You have to say “Christotokos” (Χριστοτόκος), i.e. Christ-bearer.  Essentially, the argument was not really about who Mary was, but about who Christ was.

This may seem a little arcane, but it makes a huge difference to our understanding of Christ.  Already at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, it had been affirmed that Jesus was fully divine and of the same essence as the Father (Homoousios, Greek: ὁμοούσιος).   But now the question was whether Christ had one nature or two, one personhood or two, and so forth.

If one drew it as a punnet square, like a problem in genetics, one could visualise the different options like this.  During the 5th century there were a variety of theories milling around, but only one was correct.

nature-person-christology

What on earth do we mean by these words, “nature” and “person”?

Nature (physis, Greek: φύσις) refers to the kind of ‘being’ He is, divine or human.

Person (hypostasis, Greek: ὑπόστασις) refers to an entity or individual reality.

To put it more concretely, these were the different positions on the interpretation of Christ’s death:

nature-person-christology-examples

So, at the Council of Ephesus, Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius faced off against each other (well, sort of; actually Nestorius neglected to show up to answer the charges made against him).  And the argument, in summary went like this:

Cyril:

We too ought to follow these words and these teachings and consider what is meant by saying that the Word from God took flesh and became man. For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and became flesh, nor that he was turned into a whole man made of body and soul. Rather do we claim that the Word in an unspeakable, inconceivable manner united to himself hypostatically flesh enlivened by a rational soul, and so became man and was called son of man, not by God’s will alone or good pleasure, nor by the assumption of a person alone. Rather did two different natures come together to form a unity, and from both arose one Christ, one Son. It was not as though the distinctness of the natures was destroyed by the union, but divinity and humanity together made perfect for us one Lord and one Christ, together marvellously and mysteriously combining to form a unity. So he who existed and was begotten of the Father before all ages is also said to have been begotten according to the flesh of a woman, without the divine nature either beginning to exist in the holy virgin, or needing of itself a second begetting after that from his Father. 

In a similar way we say that he suffered and rose again, not that the Word of God suffered blows or piercing with nails or any other wounds in his own nature (for the divine, being without a body, is incapable of suffering), but because the body which became his own suffered these things, he is said to have suffered them for us. For he was without suffering, while his body suffered. Something similar is true of his dying. For by nature the Word of God is of itself immortal and incorruptible and life and life-giving, but since on the other hand his own body by God’s grace, as the apostle says, tasted death for all, the Word is said to have suffered death for us, not as if he himself had experienced death as far as his own nature was concerned (it would be sheer lunacy to say or to think that), but because, as I have just said, his flesh tasted death. So too, when his flesh was raised to life, we refer to this again as his resurrection, not as though he had fallen into corruption—God forbid—but because his body had been raised again.

[As Brother Michael, MICM summarises it, “The crux of the argument of the Alexandrian bishop is that if the person who died for us on Calvary was not God, then, indeed, we may despair; for then we have not been redeemed, since no mere man could have paid such a price.”]

To this, Nestorius replied with glorious self-righteousness:

Nestorius sends greeting in the Lord to the most religious and reverend fellow-minister Cyril. I pass over the insults against us contained in your extraordinary letter. They will, I think, be cured by my patience and by the answer which events will offer in the course of time …

… For when he was about to mention the death, to prevent anyone supposing that God the Word suffered, he says “Christ”, which is a title that expresses in one person both the impassible and the passible natures, in order that Christ might be called without impropriety both impassible and passible;  impassible in godhead, passible in the nature of his body…Ten thousand other expressions witness to the human race that they should not think that it was the godhead of the Son that was recently killed but the flesh which was joined to the nature of the godhead.

christologyAfter much argy-bargy between the parties, including a situation where John of Antioch and his team from the Antiochene School arrived and proceeded to set up a rival synod, Nestorius’s teachings were condemned by the Council.

 

We have found him out thinking and speaking in an impious fashion, from his letters, from his writings that have been read out, and from the things that he has recently said in this metropolis which have been witnessed to by others; and as a result we have been compelled of necessity both by
—the canons and by
—the letter of our most holy father and fellow servant Celestine, bishop of the church of the Romans, to issue this sad condemnation against him, though we do so with many tears.

Our lord Jesus Christ, who has been blasphemed by him, has determined through this most holy synod that the same Nestorius should be stripped of his episcopal dignity and removed from the college of priests.

The Coptic Acts of the Council of Ephesus tell us that there was great rejoicing in the streets:

… gathered outside the church doors, in enthusiastic anticipation of the assembly’s decision, was what seemed to be the entire population of Ephesus. As soon as the news of what was decided leaked through the portals, the rejoicing was so unparalleled that no historian has failed to report it. The whole city became as though sun-lit with torches, and devotional pageantry exploded in the streets. (Source)

Another win for the people!  They had instinctively known that Mary was worthy of veneration as Mother of God!  And how much more wholesome that they were rejoicing about the Theotokos than yelling, as in Acts 19:28 “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”

Finally, two years later, Cyril and John of Antioch reconciled and declared a common formula:

We confess, then, our lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy virgin to be the mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her.

And Nestorius, poor chap, was exiled to upper Egypt, where he died in obscurity.

So we see how the early Church, in thinking about Mary, was led to understand the Nature and Personhood of Christ more precisely.  My ecumenical Bible Study group is a little nervous that thinking about the role of Mary might diminish Christ in some way.  The reverse is true – she always leads us to a greater understanding of Christ.


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A blessed Christmas to all!

giotto-di-bondone-no.-17-scenes-from-the-life-of-christ-1.-nativity-birth-of-jesus-detail

No. 17, Scenes from the Life of Christ – Nativity: Birth of Jesus, Giotto di Bondone (1304-1306), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Veneto, Italy.

Wishing all of my online followers (especially those in Yanchep-Two Rocks) a most blessed, peaceful and joyful Christmas!  God became flesh out of love for us – so that, attaching ourselves to Him, we might come to share in his glory.  I pray for all of you, that Christ will make himself increasingly known to you, that you can share more and more in his divine life and love.

At the time appointed by God, the only Son of the Father, the eternal Word, that is, the Word and substantial Image of the Father, became incarnate; without losing his divine nature he has assumed human nature. (CCC 479)

It was so beautiful to be able to celebrate the birth of Christ our Saviour with a large crowd at the Yanchep Community Centre last night!  As Fr Augustine said, there was no room in Bethlehem for the Saviour, and there was little room to sit down in the Community Centre.  Please pray that we will be able to find a permanent, larger venue for our Church, and please pray that we can finally have a Pastoral Council to raise funds to do so!  Thank you to all those who joined us for Mass!christmas-2016-collage

I have to go and cook a turkey now, so if you would like some extra reflections on Christmas, I will leave you with these links: