Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

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21 January – 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Gospel Mk 1:14-20

“Follow Me.”

The reading for today recounts an event that occurs very early in Jesus’ public ministry. John the Baptist has just been arrested for speaking some rather unpalatable truths to the reigning King Herod.

Perhaps it was Jesus’ courage to preach about repentance amidst such dangerous circumstances or maybe it was just his own personal charisma. Whatever it was, the force of the man Jesus had an attraction.

The simple words “follow me” directed to these two sets of brothers was enough to have them down tools and immediately follow after him. What on earth could prompt that kind of response?

The person of Jesus awakens a desire in the human heart that is in-built. St Augustine refered to this as a restlessness that drives the human person, and which remains unsatisfied until it rests in Him who created us (i.e. God). This is the great paradox of human existence, that the natural, finite human person has an infinite desire that can only be fulfilled supernaturally.

The presence of Christ, God-made-man, is a completely gratuitous gift from God that Father that takes us by surprise, as it did with the brother in today’s Gospel. He enters into human history and encounters us in the depths of our need, in our joys, and also in our misery, sorrow and even sinfulness. He encounters us and calls us to follow him.

It is exactly this encounter that is the essence of Christianity – in the words of Pope Benedict XVI ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’ (DCE, 1)

The two sets of brothers in today’s Gospel did not make their decision to follow him lightly, nor did they simply weigh up all the evidence empirically – they trusted their innermost desires and followed Him who alone can give their life meaning. Are we in tune with the deepest desires of our heart?

Words of Wisdom

‘God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an actor in that history, one of the thousands of millions of human beings but at the same time Unique! Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning; he has granted that dimension definitively-in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with the full freedom of God-and he has granted it also with the bounty that enables us, in considering the original sin and the whole history of the sins of humanity, and in considering the errors of the human intellect, will and heart, to repeat with amazement the words of the Sacred Liturgy: “O happy fault… which gained us so great a Redeemer!”’

Pope St John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 1

14 January – 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Gospel Jn 1:35-42

It was about the tenth hour…

It’s difficult to imagine a more human, a more earthy, a more mundane beginning to something that was to so profoundly alter the lives of these two men, let alone the history of the world.

It was about the tenth hour (about 3pm by our reckoning, as the people of his day counted the hours from sunrise).

That was the time when they saw Jesus passing by.

We can imagine John the Baptist standing up proclaiming ‘Look, there is the lamb of God’, and his followers, used to him saying some rather mysterious stuff, did not take much notice of him. John and Andrew though were perhaps new, and so they assumed that perhaps the Baptist was speaking more concretely, and seeing to whom he was pointing were immediately drawn to Christ passing by.

Jesus’ response to these men who followed him is staggering in its simplicity. He stops, and rather than simply giving them a method or a formula about how to live, he asks them simply “What do you want?” This question is one that continues to address us today. What is it that we want? What is it that we really want? What do we desire in the depths of our being?

When this was addressed to John and Andrew they had little to say – but it was obvious that they wanted to know more about this person who stood before them. “Where do you live?” they asked, to which the reply came simply, “come and see.”

Here we have, in a very real sense, the beginning of Christianity. ‘Not’, as Benedict XVI says, ‘an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’ (DCE, 1). This encounter is not one that forces upon us a worldview, but an invitation to follow the deepest of the desires of the human heart.

This event is so real, so concrete, so impactful on his life that the beloved disciple John remembered the exact hour when it occurred when he sat down to write his Gospel.

His inclusion of this detail is a testament to the reality of the encounter ‘which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’

Point to Ponder

Everything in our life, today as in the time of Jesus, begins with an encounter. An encounter with this Man, the carpenter from Nazareth, a man like all men and at the same time different. Let us consider the Gospel of John, there where it tells of the disciples’ first encounter with Jesus (cf. 1:35-42). Andrew, John, Simon: they feel themselves being looked at to their very core, intimately known, and this generates surprise in them, an astonishment which immediately makes them feel bonded to Him…

Speaking about the encounter brings to mind “The calling of St. Matthew,” the Caravaggio in the Church of St. Louis of the French, which I used to spend much time in front of every time I came to Rome. None of them who were there, including Matthew, greedy for money, could believe the message in that finger pointing at him, the message in those eyes that looked at him with mercy and chose him for the sequela. He felt this astonishment of the encounter.

The privileged place of encounter is the caress of Jesus’ mercy.

Pope Francis

Audience with Communion and Liberation for the 10th anniversary of the death of Fr. Giussani and the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Movement. Rome, Saint Peter’s Square, March 7, 2015

8 January – The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord – First Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Gospel Mk 1:7-11

The new horizon of love

This is the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, who unlike both Luke and Matthew, leaves out the stories of the Nativity which we have spent the last few weeks meditating on.

Instead, Mark begins with the Baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan and this particular episode is just the first of a number of mysterious and confounding acts undertaken by Jesus over the course of His public ministry.

Why did Jesus seek to have himself baptised?

John’s baptism was a baptism of conversion and repentance, and yet we can be sure that Jesus, in his own person, was in no need of either of those things.

What we learn in this humble act of receiving baptism is that through Jesus, God comes down to meet me where I am. He has no aversion at all at the prospect of entering into the depths of our failings and mistakes, our selfishness and sinfulness.

Jesus’s baptism was, in essence, a prefiguring of the death he was to experience on the cross just three short years later – taking on the punishment due to all human sinfulness of all time.

We are called to emulate Jesus, not in the great miracles that he performed, but in his lowly acts of service and humility. In receiving this baptism he was accepting my guilt.

Point to Ponder

At the Jordan Jesus reveals himself with an extraordinary humility, reminiscent of the poverty and simplicity of the Child laid in the manger, and anticipates the sentiments with which, at the end of his days on earth, he will come to the point of washing the feet of the disciples and suffering the terrible humiliation of the Cross. The Son of God, the One who is without sin, puts himself among sinners, demonstrates God’s closeness to the process of the human being’s conversion. Jesus takes upon his shoulders the burden of sin of the whole of humanity, he begins his mission by putting himself in our place, in the place of sinners, in the perspective of the Cross.

Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Sunday, 10 January 2010

Receiving the Gift: A Way of Life Open to Reality

This essay was previously presented at the National Billings Ovulation Method Teachers’ Weekend. The full text of this paper can be found at Homiletic and Pastoral Review, here.

A baby in utero at about 14 weeks. And, the Blessed Mother visits her relative, Elizabeth.

Receiving the Gift: A Way of Life Open to Reality

If the Christmas Season is about anything, it’s about the salvific nature of the human body, human flesh, the human condition as united to God’s divinely perfect nature in Christ. It is about saying “yes,” fiat, when God breaks into our lives, and it is about bearing new life when the Lord of all life draws near. Unfortunately, contemporary ways of thinking tend to reduce reality, including our own bodies, to merely mechanical things. I am my thoughts, or my mind. My body is not me, but instead something that I possess. It is as if all the material things around me, including my body, is merely dumb stuff which I can technologically manipulate at will to achieve the ends which I see fit. This is played out, for example in contemporary gender theory, which sees people as free to determine their gender, regardless of their biological sex. I am biologically a man, but in my mind, I choose to be, and therefore am a woman. Not only then do I chose to act or behave in ways which I see as being feminine, but I may even begin to take drugs or undergo some kind of surgery to bring about phenotypical or physically observable changes to my body…. Continue reading…

24 December – Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel Luke 1:26-38

‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’

It is the Sunday before Christmas, and the Church puts forward this reading, reminding us of that precious moment when Jesus, the Eternal Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took on flesh in her womb.

Against the backdrop of the readings from the last few weeks where we have been regaled with stories of John the Baptist and his rather harsh delivery of a message of repentance, today’s Gospel is striking in its simplicity. Rather than the bold, bombastic figure of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, here we have the humble virgin of Nazareth, addressed by the angel Gabriel, in what would no doubt be for her some rather troubling discussions.

Mary’s response, despite the troubling nature of the news, is fundamentally a response of receptivity. The humble virgin of Nazareth models for us what is in fact a perfect creaturely posture of active receptivity. ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’

The attitude of receptivity exemplified by Mary in this story, and throughout her life, is not an attitude that draws much praise in contemporary culture. For us (post)moderns it is considered praiseworthy to go out and get what it is that you want, to force our will upon what we come across. Reality has no meaning prior to my encounter with it, and as such we are charged with imbuing this meaning.

Mary however, exhibits a different way pf being. She is content in the reality that she is totally dependent upon God. She is consequently open to receive all of reality as a gift, and as given. Things have an integrity and a meaning prior to her encounter with them, and so she waits as they present themselves to her.

Let us use this time to practice our openness to things as they are, as they are given.

Point to Ponder

“Mary is totally dependent upon God and completely directed towards him, and at the side of her Son, she is the most perfect image of freedom and of the liberation of humanity and of the universe. It is to her as Mother and Model that the Church must look in order to understand in its completeness the meaning of her own mission.”

– Saint Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 37

17 December – Third Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel John 1:6-8,19-28

‘Who are you?’

I like to think of John the Baptist as the patron saint of Advent. His whole purpose is to prepare the way for the coming Christ, and Advent is the time when we are called to do the same –so it is a pretty good match.

John is an intriguing and enigmatic figure, who despite being a real curiosity for the people is, to be perfectly honest, is not always likeable.

He appears in the wilderness and does odd things, and as we see in the passage before us today, gives cryptic answers to even the most rudimentary of questions.

John’s abrupt way of being makes his hearers a little unnerved. It pricks people’s consciences, startling them out of the monotony of their sinfulness and redirects them toward the one who is to come. Ultimately, his rather coarse manner of being sees him meet a pretty gruesome end.

But John’s mission was less about speaking truth to power and being an oddity for the people to gawk at. He preached and practiced a baptism similar to, but unlike our own. His Baptism was a baptism of repentance (cf Acts 19:4), and remained unfulfilled – pointing to the one who was to follow after, and to the baptism which he would initiate.

In Baptism we die to sin and are made anew in Christ. It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). John and his baptism point forward to the one who is to come and to his Baptism.

During Advent, when the Church puts before us a number of readings that speak of John the Baptist, we are called to enter anew into John’s baptism of repentance, so that we can receive again, with the coming of the Chirst-child, the new life He gives us in the Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.

This is a time of waiting. We cannot confuse the signpost for the destination. John is not the Christ, but he is sent to help us make straight the path.

Point to Ponder

Among the beautiful prayers of this time let me pinpoint that of the second Wednesday of Advent: “Almighty God, you call us to prepare the way for Christ the Lord, let us not tire of waiting for the consoling presence of the heavenly doctor through the weakness of our faith.” That we may not tire of waiting, that is, that we may not get tired of entreating. Entreating for what? For His presence to free us, making us more affectionate towards Him; and our life will be more whole, outstretched to the Father’s will, and therefore to forgiveness and mutual help.

Our weakness can become an excuse to give up entreating in the face of all our forgetfulness and all our mistakes: as if Christ were not always a present spring of a greater energy than our fragility. – Luigi Giussani, On the Occasion of Advent, 1991

10 December – Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel Mark 1:1-8

“All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him…”

John the Baptist is an extraordinary, enigmatic figure. Mark tells us that he wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey – essentially he was a wild man, with a hard hitting message.

And yet despite his wild persona, he drew all sorts of people from Judea and Jerusalem, who came out to hear him and his challenging and mysterious message. Something that about him and his message awoke something within those who saw and heard him – it captured the hopes so strongly that many were confused thinking him to be the one that they were waiting for and he had to correct them, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…’

The mission of the Baptist was to prepare the way and point beyond himself to the one who was still to come, namely Christ, the Lord.

In His absolute charity, God deigned it fitting that there would be one sent ahead to prepare the way – not because Jesus needs someone to go before him to work the crowd – but because so often we need to be shaken from the comfortable lethargy which we have fallen into. The preparatory work of the Baptist is in fact what the season of Advent is designed to imitate – to reawaken us from the humdrum monotony of the every-day to the fact that Christ has already, and will again come amongst us.

The danger in this anticipatory time is that we confuse the sign with the thing signified, as many had done with the Baptist. Confusing him with the one who was to come, John had to remind them that there was someone greater to come. In this season of Advent, we are tempted to live as though Christmas has already come. All the talk of the big day and the season which follows, all the preparations etc can fool us into thinking that we have arrived.

Let us hearken to the words of the Baptist today and continue to look forward in hope to the one who is still to come.


Point to Ponder

The liturgical texts for this Season of Advent renew the invitation to us to live in expectation of Jesus and not to stop looking forward to his coming so as to keep ourselves open and ready to encounter him. Heartfelt watchfulness, which Christians are always called to practise in their daily life, characterizes in particular this season in which we prepare joyfully for the mystery of Christmas…. Christians are asked to live Advent without allowing themselves be distracted by the bright lights but knowing how to give things their proper value and how to fix their inner gaze on Christ. Indeed if we persevere in “watching in prayer, our hearts filled with wonder and praise”, our eyes will be able to recognize in him the true light of the world that comes to dispel our gloom.

Benedict XVI, Angelus, 11 December 2011

3 December – First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel Mark 13:33-37

‘Stay awake!’

As a father of two children currently under the age of two, I, unfortunately, have very little difficulty in meeting this request of Jesus. Staying awake simply comes with the territory – despite my best efforts to catch up on some sleep!

Jesus’ words in this passage seem to be a bit ominous though – there a is a threatening tone to it that puts us on edge.

Surely, this is a text that not to be read fundamentally, as if Jesus is prohibiting his followers from the human necessity of sleep. The metaphor calls us to an alertness. But what are we to be alert to?

In a lot of literature the Second Coming of Christ is imagined as a triumphant, and even violent event, as though Christ will come again trying to catch us by surprise in the act of wrongdoing so that he can punish us and satisfy some kind of sadistic lust. This imagery though does not adequately align with the vast majority of biblical literature.

Jesus calls us to an alertness to the mystery of Salvation. He calls us to remain interested in what first captivated us – the event of the Incarnation, God come in human flesh.

It is so easy to neglect the wonder of the faith – to allow the trappings of the faith to usurp the place that the person of Jesus should hold in our hearts. We can find ourselves simply going through the motions of saying our prayers, attending the Mass and the Sacraments, and even engaging in acts of service all the while forgetting that presence that first captured our attention.

This is why the popes of recent decades have encouraged us to always return to the contemplation of the face of Christ, to start afresh from Christ.

We must remain awake to the memory of Christ alive, not a dead memory of someone who was once with us and who is no longer, but a presence who remains with us, even “to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).


Point to Ponder

“I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). This assurance, dear brothers and sisters, has accompanied the Church for two thousand years… From it we must gain new impetus in Christian living, making it the force which inspires our journey of faith. Conscious of the Risen Lord’s presence among us, we ask ourselves today the same question put to Peter in Jerusalem immediately after his Pentecost speech: “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37).

We put the question with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!

It is not therefore a matter of inventing a “new programme”. The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This programme for all times is our programme for the Third Millennium.

St John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte

26 November – Thirty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) – The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Gospel Luke 23:35-43

‘In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’

Today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year we celebrate a feast formally titled, The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, simply, the Feast of Christ the King.

To modern ears the language of Kingship can be somewhat jarring. A good friend and colleague of mine, of American extraction, often likes to refer to the fact that as an American he is a citizen, while as members of a constitutional monarchy, Australians are to be considered to be subjects.

Being considered a subject of a monarch is, in our modern ‘Western’ context, something we would see as particularly undignified. As such, we are likely to look on this feast as some bizarre throwback to a tradition that has lost all real meaning – perhaps not realising that this is a particularly modern feast (it was only instituted in 1925!)

The Gospel reading for today though can give us some clues as to the ongoing relevance of this feast, particularly for our time, and how we should in fact be seeking to be subjects in the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is perhaps the key theme in Jesus’ preaching throughout the Gospels. The subjects of the Kingdom are those who work to extend the reign of God across time and space – a task that is achieved through reverent service to God through serving the most marginalised among us.

Choosing not to be a subject of the King, it seems, has some tragic consequences. One would struggle, I would think, to imagine words that are more difficult to hear at the end of one’s life as the words of the King addressed to those on his left in this parable.

If this pricks our conscience, then perhaps we could use this upcoming and graced time of Advent to prepare for the coming of the King – to acclimatise ourselves to being subjects of His Kingdom.

Point to Ponder

Many nations’ rulers you profess
And in a public worship bless;
May Teachers, Judges, you revere,
In Arts and Laws may this appear.

Let every royal standard shine
In homage to your power divine;
Beneath your gentle rule subdue
The homes of all, their countries, too.

All glory be, O Lord, to you,
All earhthly powers you subdue;
With Father and the Spirit be
All glory yours eternally

–  Te saeculroum in principem, from First Vespers on the on the Feast of Christ the King.

19 November – Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Gospel Mt 25:14-30

so I was afraid’

Inevitably, this Gospel reading lends itself to the kind of, ‘don’t waste your God-given talents’ interpretation. And really, that’s not a bad message to take away from the reading this Sunday. But perhaps there’s more to be learned here.

As a matter of fact, the thing that struck me the most when reflecting on this parable of Our Lord is the absolute recklessness of the two first servants, who traded all that they had been given in the hope of making more for their master. Their investment seems to me to be a pretty risky gamble, especially had they known that the was a “hard man”. Just imagine if they’d lost everything!

The one servant who very carefully goes about burying his talent for safekeeping was probably thinking to himself, ‘At least I won’t lose it. I will have something to give back to my master upon his return.’ In the end, we know what happened. The master looked upon his conservative attitude as irresponsible. Why is that?

What is it that Jesus has the master in this parable praise in the first two servants?

It is the fact that these talents are to be utilised, not fearfully protected. Talents are gifted to us not for our safekeeping, but to be put to work for the greater glory of God and the building up of His Kingdom – building a culture of life and love. Like the two first servants, we need to be fearless in putting our talents to work for the good, holding nothing back, clear in the knowledge that God will in fact bless our efforts when they are put to work in furthering His Kingdom.

Reflecting on the lives of the saints who have gone before us, we are given an opportunity to see radical generosity this lived out – Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Blessed Frederic Ozanam who sought to spare nothing as they poured themselves out in service of God through their service to those around them who needed it most.


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