Sunday by Sunday
FAITH Magazine November-December 2007
Our regular guide to the Word of God in the Sunday Liturgy
Sunday 4th November
31st Sunday in ordinary time Year C
The comical character of Zacchaeus points us to hope in God’s grace. The Lord reaches those who seem inexorably distanced from Him. As Pope Benedict pointed out recently, no-one likes to pay tax. But this man has also collaborated with the Romans and by his own admission has defrauded many. Jesus has so often reached over the cultural barriers that appear to be obstacles: Mary Magdalene’s seven devils, Saul’s vitriol against Christians, the worldly milieu of Francis, the atheist-Jewish background of Edith Stein, even the boundless anti-Catholicism of Scott Hahn. Who knows whom Our Lord will reach with our prayers.
“Zaccheus, come down, hurry, because must stay at your house today.” Even given Zachaeus’ curiosity, it is clearly Jesus who takes the initiative. “Behold, stand at the door and knock”. He proves he is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost. But from all eternity God planned to enter the House of Creation to dine with us. He takes the initiative according to a very ancient plan of wisdom and love. When we have our homes blest by the priest, are we not recognising the initiative of God’s desire to visit us with his saving presence?
There is a sort of pseudo-marxist element in some Christianity that puts all the wealthy beyond the pale. Certainly Jesus’ earlier words on riches prompt the apostles to respond: “Who then can be saved?” But here we see Jesus making possible what is impossible. As St Bede says of Zaccheus: “the camel disencumbered of his hump passes through the eye of the needle.” Using his money, tainted as it is, Zaccheus shows how to win friends who will welcome him into the tents of eternity. It is a call for all of us in the West – who live like kings – to be just as prodigal with what we have.
Sunday 11th November 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Saducees were the religious aristocrats. They evidently frowned upon what they saw as the unreasonable, even childish, belief in the resurrection. So they put what seems an unanswerable question to Jesus, to expose this belief for what it is. With the assured dignity and clarity of divine wisdom, Jesus calmly demolishes their apparently unassailable position. How often do the religious intelligentsia of our day dismiss key tenets of Christianity in the same vein as the Saducees. It is still the calm, clear voice of Jesus in the magisterium that destroys the house of cards that human arrogance substitutes for the truth.
Faith in heaven provides a framework for our lives even now. In particular, celibacy witnesses to the life to come. “The celibate person anticipates in his or her own flesh the new world of the future resurrection”: Pope John Paul’s words in Chapter 16 of Familiaris Consortioare well worth reading in full. On one hand he stresses that “when human sexuality is not regarded as a great value given by the Creator, the renunciation of it for the sake of the Kingdom loses its meaning”. On the other, it is the pearl of great price: “it is for this reason that the Church has always defended the superiority of this charism to that of marriage.”
Jesus’ teaching momentarily parts the curtain from what is unseen; we glimpse the world of the resurrection where human beings walk as sons of God. This is the vision that St Paul tried to impart to the world – that even now our true lives are hidden with Christ in God. How often is the dignity of human beings ranked lower than that of animals. Scientists protest that creating ‘cybrid’ embryos will cause no harm to cows. Our culture needs to hear loud and clear a revindication of the unique status of human beings as spiritual creatures
Sunday 18th November 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
As the eschatological discourse begins, Jesus warns first against being deceived by false prophets. We tend to think most immediately of religions and sects that have sprung up over the centuries after Jesus. However, in our own day, false prophecy can take on a far more insidious form, arising even within the ranks of Christians. The Catechism warns in particular of the “intrinsically perverse political form of a secular messianism” at the expense of the truth. How many charities today equate with that description?
(See Guidance in an Age of Unethical Charities)
With what precision Jesus forecasts the future. In a few brief words he presents the pictures conjured up in so many TV news broadcasts. We often hear people dismiss God’s existence because of the suffering that surrounds us. We need to draw them to a deeper vision, one in which our loving Creator respects our freedom as a priceless good. This passage reveals our God as Lord of History. He calls us to bear witness to him especially in the suffering around us.
Of course Christian apologetics have always been an essential dimension of the Gospel proclamation since the beginning. Pope John Paul II’s foreword to the Catechism quotes St Peter: “We should always be prepared to give an account for the hope that is within us” (1 Pet 3:15). We have never understood Jesus’ words as ruling out the need for diligent scholarship. However, we can marvel today at how his words have come true – the eloquent wisdom in the face of persecution of St Joan of Arc; of so many English martyrs; St Paul Miki, and of many more.
Sunday 25th November Christ the King Year C
Rather as we see in Tolkien’s ironic denouement when the enemy destroys the ring, it is in sarcastic mockery that Jesus’ true status is proclaimed at the last. For the one who was destined as King of Creation from the first poising of matter cannot be ultimately frustrated by human sin. Against the darkness of evil the light of God’s plan is yet more brilliant. It is Jesus’ love-to-the-uttermost that vindicates the original wisdom of the Cosmos and his most royal status. The true nature of Christ’s kingship breaks through.
The Russian crucifix has a second diagonal crosspiece representing the two thieves in this gospel – and in them the universal responses to Jesus’ kingship. Through our sins we mock the truth of Christ’s royal image in our human nature. All sinners “crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Heb 6:6). St Gregory points out the saving virtues of the good thief: faiththat God’s reign will come; charity in defence of Jesus and hopei n asking for entrance to the kingdom. It is in practising these virtues that we give the First-born of all Creation his due.
“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well”. Even the good thief – and the apostles – do not realise that that is precisely what Our Lord is doing in front of their eyes. The Cross does not look like a throne. For faith is not just a matter of accepting God exists. We must trust that Our Lord is at work in the very mundane occurrences of our daily lives. It is often precisely through our frustrations, disappointments and pain that Jesus is king.
Sunday 2nd December
First Sunday of Advent Year A
In mentioning the activities of mankind before the flood, Jesus is not condemning them per se, for from them half the people are taken to the kingdom. God calls us to holiness in whichever state we dwell. However, to live as though these things alone fulfil us is blameworthy in God’s sight. By limiting our sights to our bodily needs we not only reduce ourselves to the status of animals; we rudely ignore out true Environer who yearns to fulfil his plan of love and sweep us up to a far more vital existence.
Our human weakness and sinfulness are the most deadly narcotics. By allowing ourselves to be satisfied by superficial pleasures and drawn into bad habits, the eyes of our souls are dulled. On military exercise, soldiers help each other not to nod off. At a time when so many Christians seem to be snoring quite loudly on basic moral issues, we surely have a duty to assist each other. How often do we bring up the subject of confession with our nearest and dearest?
Although Jesus so often tells his disciples not to be afraid, it is quite clear that here he is stirring up a healthy fear through the parable of the burglar. The Good Shepherd has to warn his sheep. It is true that each year the Church has four full weeks to refocus our gaze on our returning master. However it is not a luxury to prioritise our spiritual life in this busy world. At the least, we should be living in a state of grace.
Sunday 9th December Second Sunday of Advent
“The Sun as he approaches the horizon, and before he is yet visible, sends out his rays and makes the eastern sky to glow with light, that Dawn going before may herald the coming day.” So Pseudo-Chrysostom describes this passage. If the universe has been developing over aeons for the coming of the Word, then St John’s place as the ‘Voice for the Word’ is essential to God’s plan. As the last and greatest of all the prophets his arrival is as perfectly timed as the first signs of spring. Or to develop the analogy of the father quoted above, he is the dawn chorus.
John’s role is two-fold. Not only does he come to bear witness to the Christ, but also to prepare the Way. In a unique way, his prophetic voice transcends his own time to reach each individual Christian in Advent, calling us all to repent. For in no way is conversion a one-off event in the past. The writings of St John of the Cross, whom we celebrate next Friday, confirm that each of us must seek constant purification and spend times of night before we see the light of Christ face-to-face. It is an opportune moment to renew our daily practice of examination of conscience.
“Do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘we have Abraham for our father’”. St John distinguishes the true lineage of the Covenant from the presumption of faithless descendants of the Promises. In a parallel fashion, there is a serious temptation to presumption through membership of the Church: “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” is an old chestnut brought out by the lapsed. Although we retain our canonical status through baptism, Our Lord’s words echo that of his cousin: “It is not those who say Lord, Lord who will enter the kingdom of heaven...”
Sunday 16th December Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday
The temperate biome of the Eden project houses a ‘wilderness’ patch that at certain times bursts forth into a luxury of bloom. We’ve seen it all on T.V. There is no more appropriate image in nature for the approach of the Messiah, as the lyrical words of the first reading bear witness. Even from his prison cell, we can sense the joy that John shares with his disciples as the proof of the Messiah’s arrival is plainly before them. Even from the prison cells of all our daily anxieties, the Church lifts our spirits as we reflect upon what the Christ means for the world.
Out-of-context, this Gospel always puzzles us: was John ever in doubt as his martyrdom approached? The beginning of this Gospel (3:13-17) with the certainty of John’s witness reveals the true meaning of this passage. It is the last wonderful gift of the friend of the Bridegroom to his disciples. He is sending them to leave him and encounter the Bridegroom for themselves. With every person that we hope to bring to faith, there comes a time when we must lead them to meet the Lord for themselves, at Mass or in front of the tabernacle.
“The least in the kingdom is greater than he”. Although John is the greatest of all the prophets, indeed of all born of women, the arrival of Jesus ushers in the new era of grace. The grand sweep of the cosmos till the entrance of its Lord and Master has been one of unfolding development. Now the Unity Law of Control and Direction is about to be swept up into a new reality. As St Clement of Alexandria puts it “Just as God’s will in Creation is called ‘the world’, so His intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church’” (CCC 760).
Sunday 23rd December Fourth Sunday of Advent
Joseph’s pilgrimage of faith is played out before us with the greatest economy and in total silence. We can imagine the tension as he makes up his mind to divorce Mary informally. Yet not one word comes down to us from Joseph today. There is something about the way he keeps his counsel, his complete discretion, that goes to explain his description as a man of honour. His silence is more eloquent than words.
Matthew’s Gospel shows quite clearly that the virgin birth was part of God’s plan. Later Pope Pius VI was to condemn interpretations that deny the messianic sense of Isaiah 7:14. Against the backdrop of the wonderful economy of the Unity-Law, it becomes clear how foolish people are to deny the virgin birth as some sort of superstition. Indeed it is supremely rational – in one sense one might say noteven a miracle. For Matter, Earth, Humanity, Israel – and especially the division of the sexes – look up to the womb and personality of Mary. She alonecan co-operate with the will of God to enwrap his pre-existent Self in human nature.
“...You must name him Jesus because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” Our Lord’s name tells us he will rescue us from our tragic condition. However, he will do this only insofar as he is God-man, pre-ordained Principle of Life. In this deeper sense, Saviour includes all that He is for us: Teacher, Healer, Good Shepherd, Bread of Life and Holy Eucharist. Because of these things he is also Redeemer.
Sunday 30th December Feast of the Holy Family
Mt 2, 13-15. 19-23
God needed the goodness of Joseph as head of the household of Jesus and Mary. He needed his self-sacrificial love of his virgin wife, he needed his tender care for the infant Jesus, and, most of all, he needed his decisiveness and holy fear of God for prompt and courageous action. It was not important that he should understand fully, but it was vital that he should obey. There was not one moment of hesitation in that responsible father, who was thus by God’s grace one of the few men during the long and cruel reign of Herod to outwit that wily politician.
No-one who has travelled the uncomfortable ten hour coach trip from Jerusalem to Cairo across the Sinai desert will ever underestimate the faith and bravery of Joseph in leading Mary and Jesus off into that wasteland by night. Not even Herod thought that anyone would dare such a feat. If the king had had only the slightest shadow of a suspicion that his quarry would attempt such foolishness then there can be little doubt that the infant Jesus would have been taken and murdered by the soldiers of this tyrannical ruler. But it was not so due to the courage of Joseph. We are God’s feet, hands and heart. He needs us to do good, but first we must listen like Joseph.Now more than ever we need to pray for families. Breakdown is so rife as to be commonplace, and yet there is no such thing as an easy divorce. Some deal with it better than others, but no-one wholly gets over the rejection that they suffer from an estranged husband or wife. God abundantly blesses family life as the proper environment for the nurture of children and the sanctification of spouses. No vocation is without its cross, but we must all pray nevertheless for a return to basic marital fidelity and a renewed and informed return to lifelong commitment.