Catholic in Yanchep

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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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3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A | Jesus Christ: Go where the evidence leads

st-john-the-baptist-in-the-prison-navarette

St John the Baptist in Prison, Juan Fernández de Navarrette, 1565-70, Oil on canvas, 80 x 72 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist has been flung into prison, because he has dared to say that King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife is adulterous.   Persecution has a way of throwing one’s mind into turmoil and confusion.  It’s reassuring to know that even a person as courageous and committed to his mission as John, is now attacked by doubts about whether he has interpreted his task correctly – or indeed whether Jesus has interpreted his task correctly!  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?”

This makes us wonder: what was the nature of the long-awaited Messiah that the Jews were expecting?  Was it a King who would bring about the restoration of Israel and liberation from the Roman occupation, or were they expecting God Himself to arrive – or was it a bit of both?

We know that swirling through the air of first century Judaism was a fever of expectation.  That is why ‘all of Judaea’ (Mt 3:5) had been so willing to go out to the desert to see John the Baptist and prepare the way of the Lord.  What made the Jews so convinced about the timing of the coming of the Messiah?

According to the prophecy in the book of Daniel, the kingdom that would be ushered in by the Messiah – the Anointed One – would arrive in the midst of the fourth empire after the Babylonian deportation.  In Daniel’s prophecy the empires are represented by the parts of a statue.

The head of this statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms were of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet part iron, part clay.  While you were gazing, a stone broke away, untouched by any hand, and struck the statue, struck its feet of iron and clay and shattered them.  Then, iron and clay, bronze, silver and gold, all broke into pieces as fine as chaff on the threshing-floor in summer … and the stone that struck the statue grew into a great mountain, filling the whole world.  (Dan 2:31-36)

These four empires were, successively, golden-headed Babylon, silver-chested Medo-Persia, bronze-thighed Greece and finally, in 63 BC, with Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem, iron-legged Rome marched into the Middle East.  And it is into the Roman Empire that Christ comes, proclaiming the Kingdom.  Yes, the Roman soldiers were clad in iron, but God has a way of using small stones to bring down giants, and the Jews remembered their history.

Not only that, but the Jews could even calculate the approximate time the Messiah was expected.  This is why small communities of Jews such as the Essenes of Qumran had set themselves apart, purifying themselves to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Daniel 9:25 prophesies:

Know this, then, and understand:
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 …

The message that the prophecy refers to, is the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.  You can calculate the dates if you understand that the weeks are “weeks of years”, i.e. seven year periods.  Then the seven weeks and sixty-two weeks add up to 69 weeks of years, i.e. 69 x 7 = 483 years.  Jerusalem’s walls were restored by Nehemiah in about the fourth decade of the fifth century BC, “the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes” (Ne 2:1; 5:14).  So, if we use the Babylonian method of reckoning years as 360 days, we arrive at the coming of the “Anointed Prince”, just about at the time of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in AD 28.

In this fever of expectation, we have John asking in today’s Gospel, “Are you the one who is to come?”

And Jesus says, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me” (Mt 11:4-5).

Jesus is saying, “Look at the evidence!  Look at how I am not only doing miraculous things, but simultaneously fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 35!”

In fact if we read the chapters prior to this, Matthew has just spent the whole of chapters 8 and 9 preparing us for this point by describing a series of miracles that Jesus has performed:

The blind see Cure of the two blind men (Mt 9:27)
The lame walk The centurion’s servant (Mt 8:7); The paralytic (Mt 9:2)
The lepers are cleansed The man with the skin-disease (Mt 8:2)
The deaf hear The dumb demoniac (Mt 9:32)
The dead are raised to life Jairus’s daughter (Mt 9:24)

The fact that these miracles occurred long ago, is no reason for them to be deemed unconvincing or just fables.  Jesus’ miracles are well attested even by non-Christians such as Josephus, who said “For he was one who performed surprising deeds” (Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63).  Then there’s the Babylonian Talmud, (a Jewish text and therefore not pro-Christian), which described Jesus thus, “He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a).  That is, he did things that are, humanly speaking, impossible.

If you’re interested in other ways Jesus fulfills prophecy, Taylor Marshall has come up with a comprehensive list in his book, The Crucified Rabbi.  There’s a list here: prophecies-fulfilled-by-jesus-christ.

I realise now that I haven’t really answered my original question, which was about whether the expected Messiah was understood to be divine.  In fact, he was, and if you want more on this, please read Brant Pitre’s, The Case for Jesus.  (I have a copy of this and The Crucified Rabbi if any of you would like to borrow them.)

In this science-obsessed age, it’s a wonder that more people don’t bother to ‘go where the evidence leads’ where Jesus is concerned.  Blessed indeed are those who do not find Him a cause of falling.

Today’s readings:
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17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | A blueprint for prayer

Abraham-and-the-three-angels-Dore-600x820

Abraham and the Three Angels, Gustav Doré (1832-1883), woodcut.

Have you tried praying?  When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I ask them how much they’ve spoken to God about that.  Why are they so ready to trust their own preconceived ideas on the matter (or is it that deep down, they don’t want God to be true)?  You see, Jesus says in our Gospel today, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  So go on, ask away.

I don’t want to drone on, so I’ll merely refer you to Bishop Barron’s homily for today’s readings, as well as Brant Pitre’s video presentation here:

Today’s readings

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16th Sunday in Ordinary Time | God, are you in control or do I have to take over?

Detail Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha Tintoretto

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (detail), Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1570, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

How often do you want to tell God what he’s supposed to be doing?  I find myself doing this increasingly, especially now in our unusually mixed-up times.

Martha does it, in today’s Gospel:   ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’  James and John did it when they said, of the inhospitable Samaritans, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and destroy them?’  Peter did it, when he rebuked Jesus for foretelling the suffering he would undergo: ‘Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!’  Even Mary and Joseph did it when they said, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this?  Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’

Jesus just doesn’t seem to do what any normal, sensible person would.

But then, perhaps that’s because he’s God, and we are not.

‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:9)

We have to remember that we aren’t God, and that God has ways of doing things that might not occur to us from our cramped and self-indulgent perspective.

A lot of us think we are God (or at least we ought to be).  We want to be able to define things for ourselves.  Some of us want to redefine the scope and purpose of marriage.  Some of us want to define exactly when a baby can be regarded as a human (or not).  Some of us want to be able to decide the manner and the time of our death.  Some of us want to subjugate anyone who refuses to submit to Allah.  Some of us want to hound Christians out of the public square.  Some of us are just very angry at all the other people who are being disagreeable.  With all these people wanting to take over God’s role, it’s enough to make anyone anxious, or at least want to crawl into a hole.

Well, in today’s Gospel, Mary has chosen ‘the better part’.  She is sitting in rapt attention at Jesus’ feet, absorbing everything he says.  Jesus’ advice to Martha?  ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’

If you’re feeling anxious, get close to Jesus.  He knows your problems.  Trust him to have a plan.  If you can’t see his plan right now, immerse yourself in the Gospel and cast all your worries on Him.  It’s easier if we remember that we’re not in Paradise yet, and this life wasn’t meant to be comfortable.  We only get there if we navigate through life, remaining faithful to Him throughout our quest.  God probably hasn’t put you in control of the world, so stick to doing good in the little things you can control – small acts of kindness, for example.

Today’s readings:

Word format: Year C 16th Sunday 2016

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12th Sunday in Ordinary Time | How to Respond to Acts of Hatred

Jesus_washing_Peter's_feet-Ford Madox Brown

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, Ford Madox Brown (1852-56), oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

In the week that added the Orlando Massacre to our violent world, we are confronted as Christians with questions on how to talk about and respond to this kind of act.  The whole conversation is made worse by the identity politics that is rampant in our time.  Our tribal nature as humans makes us want to belong to a particular tribe: LGBTQ, Muslim, Liberal, Labor, Anti-vaccine, All Natural, Pro-Choice, Pro-life, Catholic, Protestant – choose your hashtag.  Identity politics helps us to feel loved, accepted and understood within our chosen group.  It is comforting to us to know that we are not alone in the world, that there are others who see things our way.  I felt this myself when I changed from watching the news on ABC (which, though being our public broadcaster, inclines to a singularly left-wing version of reality) to watching the Bolt Report on Sky Channel.  I thought, “At last, the voice of reason and sanity!”

But an unfortunate side-effect of identity politics is that it sets up any opposing groups as ‘the enemy’.   Identifying with one group often leads to stereotyping of other groups, rather than peaceful encounter.  Pope Francis has the measure of this, when he asks us to go out and encounter others.  Encounter helps us to humanise people; separation helps us to demonise people.  He sets the example by going out of his way to arrange meetings not only with other Catholics but with people like Mahmoud Abbas, gay couple Yayo Grassi and Iwan Bagus, Patriarch Kirill, prisoners, George Clooney, Rabbi Boruch Perton and so on, people with whom he has only a very limited shared set of beliefs, BUT who all share in our common humanity.

Some people get upset that Pope Francis has met with x, y or z, and think this means that he is showing support for the beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, LGBTQs, etc.  On the contrary, this is where the Catholic understanding of separating the person from their acts is so useful.  It allows us to love the person, while feeling perfectly free to analyse and possibly critique their beliefs, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to do so.  I would say that these things are necessary in any encounter with someone who identifies with a different group from us:

  1. We, as Catholics, must thoroughly understand and be confident about our own Church’s position on any particular point.
  2. We must not be afraid to talk to someone from another identity group, and ask them how they understand their beliefs (listening is always helpful).
  3. We need to be able to explain our beliefs on the same topic, without getting angry or self-righteous!
  4. We should then work out what common beliefs we have so that we can identify our common humanity and foster love, not hatred.
  5. We should pray for our friend with sincerity of heart and leave the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
  6. Note that if you are friends with another person who disagrees with you, it will be harder for them to indulge in hatred themselves.  An important point to understand is that disagreement is not synonymous with hate.
  7. If your friends choose to take a path of hatred towards you for disagreeing with them, then we need to be ready to embrace the cross of rejection or persecution. Jesus did, and he prayed, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”  This is what it will come down to in the end, whether we can embrace the cross.

But maybe, just maybe, they will be converted by our teaching and our behaviour, as, for example, these Muslims converting to Christianity, or even James Parker, the gay Catholic apologist:

Along the journey of acrimonious engagement with different expressions of Christianity I came across some startling, dare I say life-changing, revelations. In short, I came to understand that some of the people and organisations that I had consistently learned to blame and finger-wag for my despair were in fact conduits of my discovering an equal standing with others. This in turn led to a deeper sense of self-acceptance and my despair metamorphosing into a rich hope … It is the last thing I ever imagined doing when I first came out as a gay man in my late teens, especially as I saw the Catholic Church’s teaching as being the most archaic of all. The group’s policy is to refuse to diminish anyone by using labels … while honestly facing the reality of thoughts, feelings and actions. We seek to meet each other on our unique life journeys with authenticity and to bring them to the cross. (James Parker’s Story).

Today’s readings speak loudly about the necessity of embracing the cross in our walk with Christ:

Word format: Year C 12th Sunday 2016

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10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | How the Chaser Made Me a Better Catholic

 

Sacred Heart Sacre Coeur Mosaic

Sacré Coeur Mosaic, Basilica of Sacré Coeur, Montmartre, Paris, Olivier Merson, H. M. Magne and R. Martin, 1923.

Today’s readings are, among other things, about God’s kindness to widows.  As a widow, I have a few things to say about that, but for the moment I actually want to describe how I was made a better Catholic by none other than those scallywags at The Chaser.   (For those of you who are not Australian, the comedians at The Chaser concentrate on political satire – almost always anti-conservative and anti-traditional-values.)

The reason I am raising this is that yesterday was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Several years ago (actually it would have been about 2007), we had a priest in the parish who had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart … and I had a difficulty with this devotion.  It wasn’t that I had an objection to the Sacred Heart per se, but more that it conjured up images of a style of art that offended my good taste.  The Jesus depicted in this particular genre of kitsch is usually a weak and effeminate Jesus who would definitely not make the rugby A team.  And artists have difficulties with interpreting the heart that is so central to this devotion – it appears either as an ugly fleshly pump, or reduced to a cartoon heart-and-thorns.  I think perhaps the only solution is to avoid realism and render it as an icon, along the lines of the beautiful mosaic in the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre.

So you see, my objection was on the most superficial level, and I was aware of this and wondering what to do about it.  Well the best answer I thought was to go straight to the source:  I decided to pray about it.  I said to God, “Look here, God,” (that was the way I used to pray).  “I am having trouble relating to this Sacred Heart caper.  The prayers are so gushingly sentimental and I’m a bit embarrassed by the paintings, which you must admit are not in the most sophisticated of taste.  Now, I am a reasonable person, and I think I am prepared to admit that I may be wrong.  Perhaps you are the sort of God who isn’t an art snob.  If so, I want you to tell me clearly.  I would like you to reveal to me whether I should give a bit more support to these Sacred Heart devotions.  Tell you what, I’ll give you two weeks, and you will have to make it obvious to me that the Sacred Heart is important.  And – second condition – you will have to reveal this to me through a source that is not Catholic!”

Well, not two weeks had gone by when I was watching The Chaser on the ABC.  And what should come up but mockery of the Catholic Church.  In particular, mockery of people who experience pareidolia – seeing images of Jesus or the saints in natural phenomena: plastered walls, tortillas, intergalactic nebulae and cinnamon buns.  Except the item they chose to ridicule was the Sacred Heart, and not the Sacred Heart appearing ephemerally in the clouds or even in an Indian chapati, but they made great play of zooming in on an image of the Sacred Heart embedded in a simulated lump of human excrement in a toilet bowl.

I was shocked and disgusted – shocked at the Chaser being so totally crass and objectionable (I shouldn’t have been, that is their MO).  And more shocked that Jesus had exactly answered my prayer!  I felt that he was saying to me: “OK. Here is the Sacred Heart.  Here is your non-Catholic source.  This is how they treat me.  And all I offer them is love.  Yet they choose to mock me, reject me, and reject those of my followers who have a simple and trusting loyalty to me.”

After that I was sad – sad about my arrogance, my snobbery, my tendency to look down on those aspects of Christianity that appeal to the ‘less cultured’ or ‘less intelligent’.  I was in danger of being a Pharisee.  Since then, I have found more and more occasions to respect those who don’t have delusions of grandeur.  By the way, I no longer watch The Chaser.  I think my time is more usefully spent offering novenas to the Sacred Heart of our Lord.  He is the one who bends down so lovingly to respond to all our needs.

Just as a postscript, in 2011, my husband and I discovered a pub where you can enjoy a beer and honour the religious kitsch style at the same time.  This is the café In den Ouden Vogelstruys (At the Home of the Old Ostrich) in Maastricht, just across the road from the Basilica to our family saint, Saint Servatius.In-Den-Ouden-Vogelstruys-Bar-110628

Today’s readings:

Word format: Year C 10th Sunday 2016

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Fifth Sunday of Easter | The glory of God is …

Bamberg Apocalypse 55r New Jerusalem

The New Jerusalem, Bamberg Apocalypse, 11th century, Folio 55, MS A.II.42, Bamberg State Library, commissioned by Otto III.

Today’s Gospel reading may at first sight seem a bit repetitive.  But remember, John has a purpose in everything he writes.  He tells us he could have written a whole lot more, but he has selected what he has, ‘so that we might believe’ (John 20:31)

The words he keeps repeating are ‘glorify’ (ἐδοξάσθη) and ‘love’ (ἀγάπη).

Why does Jesus say ‘Now has the Son of Man been glorified?’ What has just happened?  Judas has just received the Eucharist and slipped out of the room to deliver Christ to his enemies! (verse 27: At that instant, after Judas had taken the bread, Satan entered him).

It seems as if John has made a typographical error.  Didn’t he mean ‘Now has the Son of Man been betrayed?’  But no, John wants us to understand that the Glory of Christ is in his willingness to undergo betrayal by a close friend, with all that comes afterwards.

The next few lines read like a poem on the Trinity.  Everything that affects the Son, affects the Father.  Everything of the Father reflects back to the Son.  It’s almost mathematical in its expression.  Let a = Son and b = Father.  x = glorification.  If a has property x, then b has property x.  If b has property x, then a has property x, or to put it in the way John puts it:

Now has the Son of Man been glorified,

and in him God has been glorified.

If God has been glorified in him,

God will in turn glorify him in himself,

and will glorify him very soon.

Jesus turns the focus from this great act of betrayal by Judas into God’s great act of self-giving.  Self-giving is God’s glory.

Jesus is adding a whole new dimension to glory, usually understood as God’s holiness, majesty and power.  How could it be otherwise?  If God were selfish, he would not be glorious.  If God wanted us to love him merely because of his overwhelming power as Creator, that would not constitute greatness.  But a God who loves to the point of allowing himself to experience the most excruciatingly egregious behaviour of his creatures, and giving up everything he has by right, truly deserves our praise and respect.

In this passage the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit are all present.  Where is the Holy Spirit?  He’s not actually mentioned.  But we know the Holy Spirit appears as a Cloud of Glory (the Shekinah cloud) elsewhere in Scripture.   And here John’s crescendo of glorification words describes what amounts to a verbal Cloud of Glory around the Father and the Son: what is this if not the Holy Spirit, the love between the Father and the Son?

Today’s readings (Australia):

Word format: Year C Easter 5th Sunday 2016

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