Sunday by Sunday

FAITH Magazine November-December 2006

05.11.06 Mk 12, 28-34

Our Lord adds a phrase to the ‘Shema’ (ie. Dt 6,4-5), which is the holiest text in Judaism and is quoted here to answer the admiring scribe (cf. Mk 12, 28ff). “With all your mind” (Mk 12, 30) does not appear in the original text of the Torah or Pentateuch, and the fact that Jesus should change this is daring and radical in the extreme. Even the Rabbis scrupulously avoided correcting a corrupt text out of reverence for the Word of God (eg. Judg 18,30). Only the God of Israel had authority over the Law of Moses.
Perhaps Jesus wants to take into account the advances of Greek culture, and the consequent influence of Hellenism on Semitic thinking with this addition. Mind and intellect are very much the province of Greek philosophy, and Our Lord is clearly saying that our ability to think and reason should be put at the service of God, along with every other human faculty and talent. He is not detracting from the Law or embellishing it. Rather, he is bringing out its full meaning, using his own authority that both stimulates and repels his audience, according to their pre-disposition towards him.
How we need to see this intimate connection between faith and reason in our own day! The Pope has spoken out bravely against every form of totalitarian fundamentalism, be it religious or secular. Any religion that tends to link religion with violence, denying the God-given necessity of reason in dialogue and thus the ability to accept differences and live in peace, condemns itself as inhuman. Similarly, any use of reason that sees no recourse to the divine, or even any dialogue with religion as necessary, sets itself up as its own god, enslaving the human spirit that seeks God.

12.11.06 Mk 12, 38-44

Of all the sects in Judaism in the early first century AD, Jesus had most in common with the Pharisees. They predominated in the Judean and Galilean provinces, gathering disciples and a reputation for strict observance of the Jewish Law. They believed in spiritual reality and angels, life after death and resurrection, sacrifices offered on behalf of the dead and the power of prayer. They instilled reverence for the Law into their disciples, were learned and often hard working. Their commentaries on the Law were long and painstaking, and they taught the Torah by referring to each other's teaching.
It would have been their tradition that Jesus inherited from the synagogue in Nazareth, although it was also these same Nazarene brothers and sisters who first tried to kill him (cf. Lk 4,28-30). Jesus, who was the fulfilment of the Law himself, saw too the spiritual and moral compromises they allowed in their seemingly virtuous conduct, whilst clinging to man-made traditions which had grown up around the Law like barnacles that weigh down a ship. The Pharisees went to ingenious lengths to maintain a strict outward observance, whilst the demands of justice often went unheeded (cf. Mk 12,38ff).
The juxtaposition of brash outward observance and pride in the Pharisees with the humility, inner devotion and heroic self-sacrifice of the poor widow could not be more striking. Jesus’ attitude recalls the words of God to the prophet Samuel, “God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances but Yahweh looks at the heart” (1Sam 16,7). Our Lord looks beyond the small pennies of the widow to the fact that she has put everything she possessed into the Treasury. It is her love and generosity that shine through. She thinks not of herself, only of God.

19.11.06 Mk 13, 24-32

This text of the eschatological discourse in Mark’s gospel is problematic. Indeed, it was much favoured by the Catholic modernists, Loisy and Tyrrell, as proof of the so-called dubious historicity of the gospels. “I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place” (Mk 13,30) is a clear prophecy about events that have still yet to happen. Indeed, the comment in verse 32
seems to be a gloss that attempts to deal with this problem: “But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it” (Mk 13,32).
Difficulties in Scripture need to be lived with, but there is less need to be alarmed than some might claim. Two events make up the eschatological discourses in the synoptic Gospels: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ. Mark’s Gospel is often dated before the destruction of the Temple (70AD)
because it contains no account of the destruction itself, unlike Matthew or Luke (Mt 24-25, Lk 21). The
unfulfilled prophecy could well refer to the impending Fall of Jerusalem a few years after Mark was writing. The text is difficult, not impossible. If the events Jesus describes here are an appalling prospect, so too was the situation of the early Church. By tradition Mark was close to Peter, who was martyred in 64AD, and if he wrote his gospel to preserve apostolic witness before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, then the period of composition was one of the bloodiest and least stable imaginable. The Jewish Rebellion from 66AD
saw wholesale slaughter in Palestine, as Zealots provoked a bloodbath by withholding taxes from Caesar. Christians needed to hear Mark’s words, “Know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mk 13,29).

26.11.06 Jn 18, 33-37

“All who are on the side of truth listen to my voice” (Jn 18,37). Jesus is either God or a madman. This is not the language of compromise. These are either the most sublime words ever spoken, or the ravings of a megalomaniac intent on world domination. Pilate is caught between anvil and hammer, with no escape. He has no competence to judge on these matters, yet his career as governor of Judaea is on the line. No wonder Matthew should report the words of Pilate’s wife: “Have nothing to do with that man” (Mt 27,19). Who is in charge of this interrogation? The supreme irony here is that Pilate shows his poverty and powerlessness before Jesus, despite having the decision of life or death over the condemned man who stands before him. He is used to having men quaking before him, begging fortheir lives. But not this one. Jesus only talks to Pilate to draw him into the truth, not to save his own life. There is no fear in Jesus, despite the pain he has endured and the malice of the crowd. Despite his bravado, Pilate cannot cope with the sublime doctrine he hears.
The kingship of Christ lies in saving the world from sin and death, not in any vain parade of armies. His trial is a triumphal progress. As he mounts the wood of the cross, Jesus ascends the throne of his glory and exalts the kingship of Christ crucified. On earth they crowned him with thorns, but in heaven his crown will be all the souls of the virtuous who have gained entrance into paradise through his cross. Sin and death no longer obtain, and only through taking up our cross and following the Master do we gain everlasting happiness.

1ST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: C 03.12.06 Lk 21, 25-28.34-36

“Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life” (Lk 21,34). We must all be prepared for the Day of Judgement. There is no other wisdom worth listening to. If our souls are not heaven centred through prayer, the sacraments and the life of grace, then we are diminished as human beings. All our actions, no matter how glitzy and thrilling, merely mask the emptiness within. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. This conversion begins now and is fulfilled in the joy and peace of heaven. Advent is all about taking stock of our lives. It is the season of joy awaiting the birth of the Messiah, and of assessing what impact that event will have on our lives. Will we let the Christ child be born in us again this year, making astable for him in our hearts, or will we lose ourselves in the soul-destroying commercial mess of a secular Christmas? Christmas without religion is like swimming without water, so we need to get wise and let the Holy Spirit master us, leading us more deeply into the stillness of the season.
Our attitude to the first coming of Christ is in many ways determined by our attitude to his second coming. Is our liberation at hand at Christmas, or are we indifferent? The second coming of Christ will be in power - we will recognize him then, like it or not (cf. Lk 21,27). By looking to the future, accepting what Our Lord has told us in prophecy, let us stay awake and pray for the grace to stand with confidence before the Son of Man (Lk 21, 36), whether that coming be at Christmas or the end of time.

10.12.06 Lk 3, 1-6

John the Baptist is the figure most fitting for Advent. There is something ironic about the way Luke announces his public ministry in juxtaposition to the greatest of the Roman Empire. It is as if Luke himself were heralding the coming of Caesar, rather than the coming in poverty of the greatest of the prophets. There is irony here, but no sarcasm, for heaven itself can scarcely do justice to the greatness for which John is preparing us. John bridges the gap between the Old and New Testaments. He both prophesies the Messiah and points him out as well.
Advent is all about preparing a way for the Lord. Our hearts and lives are very like the mountains and valleys which make the path to God obscure and difficult for us. We are so attached to selfish ways, with fear and pride too often shoring up our own wilfulness. John the Baptist cuts across all the excuses, and the Spirit of God speaking through him seeks to lay low the mountains of our sins and straighten the crooked paths that have led us astray. We need to listen and act. Time is short: now is the hour to repent.
Confession is the sacrament proper to Advent because it heals and allows the Lord a straight path into our hearts. Forgiveness is the supreme gift that God has given us in Jesus Christ, and, in the power of that experience of reconciliation, we too can reach out to others. This is truly a season of joy because of this healing, but we need sensitivity because healing means recognizing wounds and weakness, and that is always a painful process. Our joy is not a fixed grin in times of adversity, but peace and self-possession in the Holy Spirit.

17.12.06 Lk 3, 10-18

“If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none” (Lk 3,11). Luke’s gospel is truly
remarkable. In so much as it follows the same pattern and direction as Mark and Matthew, but then boasts additions and refinements that appear only in Luke. This conversation between the Baptist and those who follow him is one such purely Lucan detail. Concern for the poor is an ever present theme throughout this gospel, and the Baptist’s exhortation to avoid
greed, extortion and intimidation forms part of an important Christian tradition from the earliest times.
There could be no more appropriate Advent message for early third millennium materialistic societies. Power and possessions are given us to serve, not as ends in themselves. Avarice can creep up on us, especially if we are never quite satisfied with what we have. Our hearts are always yearning for the next car or the golden promotion, and gradually our gaze turns from God and sees no further than our latest material craving. Only when we rage at not having what we desire does avarice break the surface. In such circumstances, not getting our way is a great grace.
Humility floors pride and fires up faith. The more we receive this grace, the closer to God we become. John the Baptist was purified of the cravings and lusts of this world through his ascetic solitude in the wilderness. Having overcome Satan’s wiles himself through God’s grace, John’s vision for divine things became crystal clear as he left his desert wilderness to herald the Messiah. There is no compromise in his cry to convert, and its power lies in John’s own turning back to God. He practised what he preached and never pretended to be what he was not.

24.12.06 Lk 1, 39-44

The Infancy Narrative in Luke’s gospel (Lk 1-2) is like a drama in
five acts, where two annunciations (John’s and Jesus’) and two births (John’s and Jesus’) surround the central piece of the action, the Visitation, which is pivotal because it is the only scene where the four principal protagonists, Elizabeth and John, Jesus and Mary, meet and interact. Jesus’ arrival causes John to leap in the womb (Lk 1,44), and both Elizabeth and Mary prophesy in turn (Lk 1,42-43; 46-55). The Magnificat (Lk 1,46-55) sets the tone for the whole gospel and public ministry of Jesus.
The focus of the drama is clearly the origins of the Messiah, but only through the eyes of Mary and Elizabeth and in parallel to the wonder at the birth of John the Baptist. The birth of the Christ has a vital human context, all of which is handled with great sensitivity by the gentile evangelist, Luke. The voice of prophecy, so long silent in Israel, suddenly sounds loud and clear, as it is fulfilled in the coming of Israel’s hope, Jesus. Zechariah is caught unawares by this resurgence and is struck dumb (Lk 1,20). Mary is troubled but accepting, and bursts into song (Lk 1,38; 46-55).
The Visitation is characterized by joy and humility. Elizabeth is poor but “worthy in the sight of God” (Lk 1,6), whilst Mary is the “lowly handmaid” of the Lord (Lk 1,48). God prepares a fitting human environment for his Son, and still seeks to do so in hearts and minds this Christmas. Will he succeed? Will we co-operate with the grace of God like Mary and Elizabeth, offering our whole lives in service to the Lord? Or will we wait till the Virgin made pregnant passes by, looking for a fitting place to bring forth her Son?

13.12.06 Lk 2, 41-52

This is one of the most extraordinary events in the whole of the gospels. Only Luke has it because, as Church tradition holds, he alone had access to the Mother of God in constructing the Infancy Narrative as the preamble to his gospel. The detail included, particularly in the dialogue, is amazing (cf. Lk 1,48ff). Only an eyewitness could have rendered such an account, particularly as this is the only reference to the hidden years of Jesus’ growing up and early life before he starts his public ministry at 30. Every mother can empathize with Mary’s plight.
Luke emphasizes the wisdom and intelligence of Jesus (Lk 2,47). This is not mere boasting, but rather a proper analysis of the maturing spirit of the Christ. Perhaps we detect a physician’s interest here, but Luke is writing as an evangelist primarily. His account highlights the key role of Joseph and Mary in forging the human character of Jesus. Their son’s answers take them completely by surprise (Lk 2,49-50), but his growth in wisdom reflects beautifully on the family environment at Nazareth, as the human nature of Our Lord matures and develops under the watchful eyes of adoring parents. When things go wrong, we go back to basics. Family life is constantly under attack, as our post-modern secular society tries to redefine human nature according to its own permissive agenda. Nuclearfamilies based around life-long commitment in marriage of man to wife may not be fashionable, but the needs of children for stable loving in a family environment do not change. There is not one child in the schools that priests visit who does not wish for his father to be married to his mother. Let us pray through Joseph and Mary that such a cry be heard.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2006