Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

Category: Weekly Reflection (Page 1 of 13)

24 June – Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)

“Do not be afraid…”

Throughout history, Christianity has been characterised as the religion of fearful, feeble-minded weaklings. This is particularly evident in our own day, where the criticisms of Nietzsche have become embedded into the modern social imaginary.

Nietzsche’s hatred for Christianity is, in my reading, more of a disappointment in the witness that so many of us Christians do not act as though what we profess to be true, really is so.

So often we lack the courage to really act out of that place of encounter with the Risen Christ. In the face of this constant failure, we have before us two options. The first is Nietzschean – to forcefully assert our power and create our own morals, or, to heed the words of Christ in this Gospel.

Here we encounter Jesus instructing his closest followers to not be afraid in the face of what seem to be some incredibly fearful circumstances.

The words here seem to prefigure the fates that await these men. With the exception of Judas who betrayed Jesus, and of John, the beloved disciple, each of these men, and countless Christians in their wake, men women and children have given their lives for the sake of their faith.

This act of martyrdom is perhaps the most potent moment of Christian witness. It is not a testimony to a kind of stoic stick-to-itiveness exhibited by this rag-tag group of believers. It is instead the attitude exemplified by the Good Thief, who upon seeing the result of our sin (the crucified LORD) courageously steps forward and pleads, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Point to Ponder

 Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it.

So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.

– Pope St John Paul II, Inauguration Homily, 22 October 1978

11 June – Sunday of the Most Holy Trinity (Year A), 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son”

The Gospel before us is a familiar one. It is almost too familiar such that its meaning is all too easily lost.

I am tempted to focus on the part of the reading that speaks of the promise of salvation to those who believe. We can take great confidence from these words, as they reassure us of the reality of eternal life., but there is perhaps a danger here, in that we can read this and think that eternal life is something easily granted – all it requires is believing in Him.

When we press deeper into this though, and couple this reading with a reflection on our own experience, we can see that the first part of this saying opens up to some profound truths about the reality of this love which motivated God to give his only Son.

God’s love for the world, fallen as it is, precedes and in fact precipitates his coming in the person of Jesus. When we consider also his knowledge of the reality of evil, of sin, suffering, and injustice, the fact of the Incarnation awakens us to the depth of the love that God has for us.

This love is a reality that it is much more than a mushy feeling – but it entails an order and a logic that includes vulnerability and inevitably suffering, even unto death, death on the Cross. The greater the love, the greater the suffering.

Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of human existence: We have this infinite desire to be loved, and to love, and yet we are so fearful of the suffering that true love entails. This means that we are often caught up in an interminable restlessness that sees us looking for an elusive risk-free love, that in reality does not exist.

The words of Jesus here portray something of the drama of love, in its most pure and cosmic form. The love with which God loves the world motivates his self-gift in the person of Jesus is one which enters into and experiences the depths of human suffering, only to rise again victorious in the Resurrection.

Point to Ponder

“All my life I had heard preachers quoting John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” They would preach on the second part of the verse, to show the easiness of being saved (“Only believe”). Where I hung now was the first part. If God loved the world even before the event at Bethlehem, that meant He loved it as it was, with all its faults. That would be Hell itself, in part. He would be like a father with a wayward child, whom he can’t help and he can’t forget. But it would be even worse than that, for he would also know the wayward child and the course of its waywardness and its suffering. That His love contains all the world does not show that the world does not matter, or that He and we do not suffer until death; it shows that the world is Hell only in part. But His love can contain it only by compassion and mercy, which, if not Hell entirely, would be at least a crucifixion.”

Wendell Berry, ‘Jayber Crow’

 

4 June – Pentecost Sunday (Year A)

“he breathed on them…”

Jesus breathed on them. Eww. Who does that?

It’s an interesting scene to imagine. Jesus had spent roughly three years with this group of people, wandering the countryside and towns of Judea, preaching, teaching, healing all sorts of people. He had taught some pretty odd things, and yet his presence had commanded that they be taken with absolute seriousness.

They had seen him arrested, tortured, and crucified, then, in the midst of their grief he had risen from the dead, and had begun to appear to this rag-tag group of people who had left everything to follow him three years earlier.

Now, he appears in the room where they had gathered. The room was locked, and yet here he is, standing among them. This is all a bit overwhelming, but they had seen a fair bit of this over the last few weeks – Jesus, their mate who died a public a gory death has appeared to them a number of times of late, each time doing some pretty incredible things. He greets them, and says ‘Peace be with you’, and then he breathes on them. My natural reaction is one of disgust: Who goes around breathing on people?

When he breathes on them he says ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ This is something profound.

We often think of the spirit as some supra-physical reality, but here we see that its communication is deeply incarnational, not unlike some of Jesus’s other miraculous actions (ie. making a mud pie out of dirt and spit and smooshing it into a blind bloke’s eyes, see Jn 9:1-12).

His breath, the very physicality of it should remind us that the faith is an earthy, fleshy reality. It is not an escape from this world, but a mission to sanctify it.

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Come Holy Spirit,

fill the hearts of your faithful

and kindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.

And You shall renew the face of the earth.

 

 

Veni Sancte Spiritus Veni per Mariam

Come Holy Spirit, Come through Mary

28 May – Sunday of the Ascension of Our Lord (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 28:16-20

“When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated.”

After having been with Jesus for three years or so as he carried out his public ministry, after witnessing his arrest and gruesome execution, and then having experienced him resurrected, the Disciples, bound for Galilee saw Jesus, alive and in the flesh, and, while most fell down before him (presumably in worship and adoration) we read that ‘some hesitated.’

This is extraordinary inasmuch as it gives a real emphasis to the reality of the events it reports. The disciples were real guys who, despite all that they had witnessed were even now somewhat reluctant. At least a couple hesitate in bowing down before the Lord Jesus.

Witnessing the bloody death of Jesus, and both the reports of, and actual appearances of the resurrected Lord, these disciples were perhaps supernaturally fatigued. They had seen the depths of human depravity, and the glories of the Risen Lord, and now they hesitate. One can almost feel the weary confusion” “What am I to make of all this?”

Then Jesus speaks. He gives them authority, and bids them to go out and proclaim the Good News of his death and resurrection, and to baptise all in the name of the Triune God. Then he assures them of his ongoing presence, until the end of time.

Jesus puts the responsibility of his saving mission into the hands of this rag-tag group of blokes, some of whom we are told, hesitate.

This should, in fact, be an incredible encouragement for us who strive, and so often fail to live in an awareness of the reality of the ongoing presence of the Lord. Jesus, aware of our own hesitancy as he was of some of his original disciples still commissions us to be the bearers of his salvation to the world around us.

Let us pray that we would remain aware of the presence of the Risen Christ and His Holy Spirit amongst us.

Food for thought

‘The Christian message announces the permanence of the fact of Christ, as a continuous happening – not something that happened once – but as something that still happens.’

  • Luigi Giussani, Why the Church?, 203

21 May – Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Gospel Jn 14:23-29

‘He will give you another Advocate to be with you for ever’

Jesus’ words here have a certain mysticism about them. “I am in the Father, you are in me…”, “I will always be with you, I am going away.” It all seems a little difficult to get my head around.

There is a temptation to dismiss it all as nonsense – Like Thomas, who is known as the ‘Doubter,’ I want to see the Risen Lord with my own eyes. I want to touch his wounds myself to see that they are real.

Here though, Jesus promises an Advocate. One who will always be with us, who will guide and protect. This is, on face value, not what I want.

This Advocate that Jesus speaks of is not the physical/empirical proof I feel that I need.

While we understand here that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity, we are in a situation where we do not simply want a guiding spirit, but something irrefutable that will prove to us, according to our own standard, the existence of, and the love of God.

The mystery of God is such that, by necessity, it must exceed our own desires, expectations, and measurements. While on one level I might desperately want to have irrefutable evidence of God’s existence and His love, I also know that such irrefutable (read empirical) evidence would be inadequate.

The presence of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is an opportunity for trust, an opportunity for faith. ‘Trust [faith] engenders a knowledge that is mediated, a knowledge that comes through mediation, through a witness’ (Giussani, p. 3).

Faith is a kind of knowledge, mediated through a witness. In this instance our witness is the generations of believers who have preceded us and with whom we are united.

Point to Ponder

“…We must not forget that in our cultural context, very many people, while not claiming to have the gift of faith, are nevertheless sincerely searching for the ultimate meaning and definitive truth of their lives and of the world. This search is an authentic “preamble” to the faith, because it guides people onto the path that leads to the mystery of God. Human reason, in fact, bears within itself a demand for “what is perennially valid and lasting.” – Benedict XVI, 10

14 May – Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Gospel John 14:1-12

‘Have I been with you all this time… and you still do not know me?’

It is so easy to forget these fundamental things.

Jesus has developed such a large following, and the twelve, including Thomas and Philip, were especially close to him. We often think that they would have been ‘in the know’ the entire time, and yet, it seems that even right up until his death, they continued to misunderstand him – or perhaps they continued to fall back into modes of being that failed to account for the reality before them.

All that they had experienced, as astonishing as it was at the time, seemed to wear off all too quickly. Their ongoing encounter with the LORD, as incredible as it was, would quickly became mundane. Jesus, despite the extraordinary things that would happen in and through him, is so easily thought of for them as really just one of the lads.

This is often our own experience. Even though we may have experienced significant encounters with the living God, through the gaze of a loved one, through the kindness of a stranger, through a graced moment of an experience of beauty in the created world, or through exposure to a profound work of art; even though we are able to encounter God everyday through the Body of Christ on earth, the Church, we are all too easily lulled into a sense of the mundane. Our astonishment wanes, and we think to ourselves, ‘if only I could have been there to see Jesus perform these miracles, to experience Him first hand, this would be a memory that forever changed me, this would be the impetus to forever amend my life and follow him closely always.’

If the example of Philip and of Thomas in today’s reading is to teach us anything, it is that we are often fickle creatures, who struggle to really remember – not simply by calling to mind the things that have happened in the past, but by living out the promises which have been made to us.

Humanity’s encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus, while occurring in a particular way, at a particular time and in a particular place is, and remains ongoing.

Our struggle is to continuously live in the memory that all of existence remains forever changed because of the fact of the Incarnation.

7 May – Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Gospel John 10:1-10

I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.

Sometimes it doesn’t really feel like this is the case. The Christian faith is so often as a straightjacket than a way of life characterised by fullness and freedom. Jesus’ statement here about having life and having it to the full follows what is a fairly stern admonition to abide by his way of doing things. It reads something like a ‘do it my way or else…’ type of reading, with the bit about ‘life to the full’ just thrown in so things don’t sound too harsh.

It seems though, that the fullness of life of which Jesus speaks, is a fullness that is, in a very particular sense, beyond what we can conceive of – it far exceeds our own expectations and hopes.

We often think that a full life is characterised by a freedom that is characterised by doing whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like doing it. When we live like this though we know that, in the end, we remain unsatisfied. We only really feel free when our desires are fully satisfied. Our desires are endless and our desire to love and to be loved is infinite. This is what St Augustine referred to as the restless heart, which cannot rest until it rests in the infinite love of God (Confessions 1.1).

Fr Luigi Giussani wrote that ‘If freedom is the experience of satisfaction, of completeness, then this completeness, this satisfaction, in its total acceptance, comes about in relationship with the Mystery, with the infinite’ (p. 66). Here it all begins to make sense. Jesus, explaining why he has come says, ‘I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’ He came to complete our freedom – to offer us completeness through a relationship with him.

This circumvents and corrects a moralistic reading of the Christian faith and places it squarely back into the realm of relationship – a relationship which gives life. As Pope Benedict wrote,‘[b]eing 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)

30 April – Third Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Gospel Luke 24:13-36

“You foolish men!”

Sometimes Jesus can be pretty harsh.

Two of his closest mates, the names of which we are not given, decide to head off. They’ve witnessed what was a particularly gory public execution of their friend and leader – one whom they were sure was special, perhaps evening the messiah.

The confusion would have been terrible. What do you do when the one for whom you have left everything has suddenly died – and died in a way reserved for the worst of criminals? Peter and the others, we are told, had gone fishing – attempting to return to life prior to that earth-shattering event which was the person of Jesus.

Like Pete, and the lads who joined him fishing, these two sought to return to life ‘as normal’. Thinking that they could resume what they had lived prior to this encounter.

Jesus, though hidden to them at this time, was right it seems to point out how foolish this idea was? How could they not have seen and believed the message of the prophets literally enfleshed and lived out in the person of Jesus?

What strikes me in reading this passage, is that after his miraculous appearance to them at the breaking of the bread, these two come to their senses realising that, in fact, while he had spoken to them, their hearts had ‘burned within them.’ The words of Jesus as he walked with them prior to his unveiling himself at the breaking of the bread were rekindling the fire of divine love which they had experienced and were so reluctantly turning away from. The prospect of returning to life as it was lived prior to this encounter is somehow ridiculous. How can I possibly resume a life without Christ after having encountered him in such a profound way?

Our encounter today is with Christ bodily present in His Church that group of believers who are his ongoing and continuing presence here on earth. In His Church, and through the Sacraments, we encounter Christ, and the truth of the Gospel causes our hearts to burn.

16April – Easter Sunday of the Resurrection (Year A)

Gospel Jn 20:1-9

“They ran together …”

Eugène Burnand, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on Easter Morning, 1898.

Eugène Burnand, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on Easter Morning, 1898

 

Peter and John had witnessed some pretty incredible things in the three or so years that preceded the events of the past few days. This Jesus, that man from Nazareth, had burst into their lives and set them on a new and different path – something exciting had taken hold of them and had deepened their awareness of reality. But the events of the past few days had seen things come crashing down around them. What they knew to be an unshakable foundation had seemingly been rocked. The events of Good Friday would have rattled them to the very core of their being – had they lost all hope?

We can imagine the scene.

It is Sunday. One can imagine the crisp morning air. The grass covered in dew. Motivation levels low. Confusion reigning. An overwhelming sense of deep, deep sorrow. And then, this message from their dear friend, Mary of Magdala. Immediately they set out.

They run. Desperate to see what had unfolded, they couldn’t get there fast enough. Dare they hold out hope for something miraculous?

They run together, but John being younger and obviously fitter got there ahead of Peter. He reached the tomb, but there was given pause – perhaps acknowledging the sacredness of this moment – of this place. But Peter, true to form, reaches the tomb and barrels forward, entering the sepulchre. Seeing evidence of the resurrection.

He, like us, struggled to believe the testimony given to him by Mary. He was not content to live as though the event of Jesus could be merely a memory. He had to experience the Risen Christ for himself. He had to be ‘seized anew’ by this most ‘overwhelming fact of human history’ (PMO, 4).

His honest intensity at which they set out to verify the fact of the resurrection (captured beautifully by Burnand) needs to be our own.

9 April – Passion Sunday of Lent (Year A)

Gospel Matthew 21:1-11

“This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee”

The crowds who accompanied Jesus as he entered Jerusalem shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’

It would have caused quite a stir. Here comes this bloke, riding into town on a borrowed beast, the requisitioning of which he did so invoking a right reserved to kings, accompanied by crowds shouting, and declaring otherwise preposterous things about him.

“When he entered Jerusalem,” we are told, “all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’” The people of Jerusalem, were rightly shaken. And the appearance of Jesus should shake us too.

This is a perennial question, asked by all of us. It is, in fact, a question that demands an answer of us. There is no possibility of neutrality here. His is a presence that demands of us a response.

The week ahead is a unique one in the life of Jesus. His teachings become increasingly apocalyptic and mysterious, he violently cleanses the Temple, causing a tremendous stir. By the end of the week, he has polarised the city, and has few people left to vouch for him. This ‘prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee’ has not found much by way of welcome. In fact, he has so angered the hierarchy, and so disrupted the life of the city that everyone wants him to be gone.

We are often wont to ponder how would this play out in our own day – wondering if Jesus had just been lucky enough to be born into a modern liberal society, would he have avoided this rather ignominious end?

The answer to this can be found in our own response to Jesus – Who is he? What role do I afford him in my own life?

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