When we hear the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, we find ourselves asking: what was the matter with this man? Didn’t he understand that he just had a huge debt forgiven him? So how could he be so cruel to his fellow servant, who owed him just a fraction of what he himself had owed the king? And we cap off our reaction with the classic line: Well, of course, I would never behave like that!
In monetary terms, it seems senseless to have a £10,000 debt forgiven, and then to hassle someone who owes us a few pence. But the issue gets murkier when the topic changes to forgiving someone who has hurt or offended us. For some reason, we tend to find it harder to forgive personal offences against us, despite the fact that God has forgiven us a multitude of sins. If we are forgiving at all, our mercy tends to be limited to those who are close to us, or to those whose offences are very minor.
So how can we get out of this trap? Well, by taking up the practice of Blind Mercy. The principle behind blind mercy simply says: ‘If anyone hurts me or offends me in any way—big or small—I will forgive them, just as Jesus has forgiven me.’ Now, this will obviously be easier on the small, insignificant offences. But on the larger ones, where trust has been broken through infidelity or abuse, it will obviously take longer and be more difficult.
And so, we need to take little steps each day, asking God, who shows equal mercy to all, to heal us. If we keep forgiving, and if we keep asking forgiveness for our own sins, then we will see progress. Anxieties will fall away, and we will know a sense of freedom that can sustain us no matter what challenges we face.
In the evenings I like to sit down and listen to a good audiobook, and I’ve noticed on the Audible website that the science-fiction and fantasy section is getting much bigger. People still love to read about Harry Potter or the Chronicles of Narnia, or the Lord of the Rings. Bookshops are heaving with fantasy novels, as well as science fiction and other kinds of imaginative writing. The human desire for enchantment is a desire for other levels of life, that there might be other possibilities for humanity.
Today’s Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, of her being taken up body and soul to the glory of Her Son’s eternal Kingdom, meets this desire in us for a level of life that transcends the ordinary realities, a thirst for something beyond the reality we experience right now, the things easily understood and manipulated by us. Fantasy speaks to our sense of wonder about hidden mysteries.
For example, the first reading from the Book of Revelation, presents us with a dramatic story worthy of the latest Dan Brown novel. The Book of Revelation is full of symbols, perfect for nourishing the artistic and poetic imagination. And the symbolism is easy to interpret and understand: the new-born child represents Christ and the woman who gives birth represents Our Lady. But she also symbolises the Church, the community of the followers of Christ, who are destined to follow a difficult road in this world. And how the imagination thrills at an adventure, a quest, a search for hidden treasure. The road is rich with possibilities but it’s also dangerous and there are many obstacles to be overcome. It’s a work of the apocalyptic imagination but it’s a true fantasy, if we can put it like that, it’s an accurate diagnosis of the situation of the Christian in the material world, of the promise which is our treasure, and of the dangerous adventures along the way.
In the second reading Saint Paul teaches us that the new life, the life of the resurrection, already established in Jesus Christ in the moment of his own resurrection: this new world and new creation is not just for Our Lord but has been won by him for us. The grace of the Christian faith is this: to accept the promise of a level of living which reaches beyond our imagination. The Assumption of Our Lady is the guarantee of this: the new creation is not just for Christ but for all who belong to him, in the first place Mary who is next to him in all things, but also to all God’s people. Our Lady, as we hear in the Preface of today’s Mass, is ‘a sign of hope and comfort for God’s people on their pilgrim way’.
The gospel includes Mary’s great prayer, the Magnificat, in which she praises God for all His graces. Our Lady is a unique individual with a unique role in the unfolding of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. But she is ‘full of grace’ and is also a symbolic figure, representing the Church and all who are with her in the Church. Again, the Preface of the Mass speaks of her as ‘the beginning and pattern of the Church in its perfection’. Symbolizing and realizing this perfection she is quite rightly called ‘Mother of the Church’.
Already during this pilgrimage to the land pursued by the Christian imagination, we see signs of the new creation, sparks of the glory that is to come, premonitions of the dawn. Wherever there is compassion, work for justice and peace, care of the poor, unexpected generosity, faithful love, spontaneous and creative benevolence: in all of this we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, for these are the effects of God’s life-giving love. Our Lady, whose following of her Son was marked by all these things, is the most beautiful creation of the Holy Spirit, and is, as Saint Luke describes her: ‘the highest honour of our race’.
For the moment these signs and sparks encourage us to continue and to persevere on our own pilgrimage. The full and clear revelation is yet to come. In the meantime, we continue to thirst, we continue to desire and to imagine, living in the hope of the resurrection that is still to come. In this we are comforted and strengthened beyond measure by the prayers and the example of Our Lady, already assumed into heaven – she who is our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
Today we honour the memory of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who was arrested by the Nazis in 1941 and sent to Auschwitz. Following the escape of a prisoner the Nazis retaliated by randomly selecting ten men to starve to death. Fr. Kolbe offered to take the place of a married man who had a family. And because they were taking so long to die, he and three other men were injected with carbolic acid. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was canonised in 1982.
As children we were taught to take our medicine no matter how bad it tasted, because it was good for us. I can still remember my mother pinching my nose and forcing a tablespoon of cod-liver oil into my mouth. But how can we explain Ezekiel’s vision? God gives him a scroll with nothing but “lamentation and wailing and woe” written all over it and tells him to eat it. When he does, it becomes “sweet as honey” in his mouth.
God didn’t want Ezekiel to gloat about delivering such a harsh message, and neither did he take any pleasure in it. God never rejoices in our sins or the consequences they bring about. Whenever he warns, rebukes, or chastises us, it’s always because he wants to heal us, restore us, and bring us to new life. His one motivation is to bring us back to himself—and he often uses his word to do it.
We’ve all felt the bitter effects of sin in our lives. And yet we can counteract those effects by letting God’s word transform us. Sometimes that word is like an antiseptic that stings; it can penetrate our defences and reveal issues we might not want to face. But when we accept God’s word and apply it to our situation, it brings us only goodness. The author of the Book of Proverbs tells us that the Scriptures are “life to those who find them, to man’s whole being they are health” (Proverbs 4:21).
There is nothing better for us than the medicine of God’s word. But for it to take effect in our lives, we need to make it our own by digesting it every day. That means not only reading the scriptures but letting God’s word soak into us like a sponge. God’s word will give us the joy, strength, and peace we need to live in him. Then we can become his word of gentleness and mercy to others through what we say and do. So let us always hunger for this word that can help us to grow up in Christ.
Two thousand years ago Jewish men helped to support the work of the Temple in Jerusalem by paying a small annual tax (Mt. 17:24). Paying the tax identified you as a member of the Jewish community, even if you didn’t participate in the worship of the Temple. It’s not surprising then, that Our Lord and his disciples would be expected to pay this tax.
But Our Lord questioned this assumption. He argued that since earthly rulers don’t tax their own relatives, would God require payment from his own children? Peter expected that Jesus, whom he had already confessed as the Son of God, would pay the tax (Mt. 16:16). But Peter hadn’t yet understood fully the freedom that Jesus came to give those who share in his divine sonship.
How often do we, like Peter, lose sight of the benefits of our position as children of God? Our Lord has made us coheirs with himself. Through him, we have access to his Father. God delights in spending time with his children and lavishing his love on them. We need make no further payment of any kind in order to be free to worship him or hear his voice. The financial contributions Catholics make to our churches are not meant to be a ticket price for entrance. Rather they reflect our gratitude for God’s grace and our desire to support the Church in its many works.
Just as Our Lord took care of the payment of the temple tax for Peter and himself by the miraculous catch of a fish (Mt. 17:27), so he has taken care of the price of our entrance into God’s heavenly temple through his suffering, death, and resurrection. The doors of God’s kingdom have been opened once and for all by Christ, through which our heavenly Father now welcomes us with open arms.
Saint John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, whose feast we celebrated a week ago, would often tell the story of how he noticed an elderly man sitting at the back of his church every day. He didn’t seem to be doing anything, just sitting there in the same place every day at the same time. Eventually the priest asked him what he was doing. “I’m praying Father,” he answered. He pointed at the tabernacle and said: “I just look at him, and he looks at me.” Saint John realised that this was truly praying. This man was looking with love to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, for he knew that there in the tabernacle, hidden from our view, was the source of life and love.
The presence of the Blessed Sacrament in our churches and chapels is a reminder of how the Holy Eucharist is, and always has been, the centre of our life and worship as Catholics. This is because the Blessed Sacrament is a perpetual sign of Christ’s presence among us: “Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
Saint John Vianney’s story illustrates a truth that we don’t often consider. Like the Jews who were complaining to each other about Our Lord and questioning him about what he was saying, we are often puzzled and even disturbed as to how Our Lord is present in the Eucharist. We recognise it as a mystery of faith difficult to understand. And over two thousand years the Church’s best theologians and philosophers have attempted to reveal this great truth by means of human words. But, in the end, the most effective way of deepening our faith is simply by being with him where he is really present, right here in our churches, before the tabernacle.
Right from the very beginning of the Church Our Lord’s followers have tried to put into words what it is we believe about Our Lord’s presence in the Holy Eucharist. As part of this process, the phrase ‘Real Presence’ has become a sort of description of what we believe.
Now we don’t say ‘real’ presence as opposed to ‘false’ presence or ‘artificial’ presence. We say Real Presence to emphasise that we believe that the actual person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the God made Man, is present on the altar under the forms of bread and wine.
Now we know, of course, that Our Lord is present to his people in other ways. He is present when we gather as a community for prayer, for he promised that when “two or three are gathered in my name I will be there in their midst.” Our Lord is also present to us when we hear him speak to us in the Scriptures; we stand to hear the Gospel because it is Christ himself who teaches us. Our Lord is also present in the person of the priest who takes the place of Christ at Mass.
But in the elements of the Eucharist Our Lord is present in a different way; in a more real way. It’s not just a spiritual presence, or a symbolic presence; it’s not just that the Eucharist reminds us of Our Lord and makes us think of him and all he does for us. The Eucharist is much more than this: Our Lord, in the Eucharist, is as present as one person to another in the same room. And even when we go away, and the church is empty and silent, he remains here and, for most of the time Our Lord remains here alone.
The bread, which has become his Body, really is his Body for as long as that host exists. And so we use the phrase ‘Real Presence’ and – for those of us who can – we genuflect and we acknowledge his presence among us in the tabernacle.
When life gets too much for us, as it did for Elijah in the first reading, the bread of life is given us to strengthen us in our troubles. The soldiers of Queen Jezebel were hunting down the prophet with orders to kill him on sight. Elijah, exhausted and fed up, cries out to God: “I’ve had enough; take my life!” But God says: “Get up and eat.” The Eucharist is given for us to eat when we feel hunted or harried by the pressures of life.
And it’s not only at Mass that we can take strength and encouragement from the presence and power of Christ. His continual presence in the Blessed Sacrament enables us to come to him at any time during the day and seek his help and to renew our communion with him.
It’s not always possible nowadays, for security and safety reasons, to keep some churches open at all times. But there are still places, like this one, where people can call in during the day and pay a visit to Our Lord present in the tabernacle.
Just consider that the average Catholic spends about an hour in the church each week, less if they come to Mass late or leave early as some still do; and yet Our Lord is here all the time just waiting for his children to come and visit him. And I’m sure if God feels any sadness it is at the number of his sons and daughters who pass him by each day without so much as a thought. We live in an increasingly secular and materialistic world and yet it’s amazing to see people passing by Catholic churches – not so much around here but you see it in the north – people passing the church and making the sign of the cross, or elderly men taking off their cloth caps as they pass the church in recognition of Our Lord within.
It’s great to see so many people coming into church early to visit with Our Lord before Mass begins. Unfortunately, in many of our parish churches this isn’t always possible as there is so much noise from people talking to one another and not to the Lord whom they ignore present in the tabernacle. The church building is, first and foremost, a house of prayer and every encouragement must be given to people who want to pray for a few minutes before and after Mass. Now, I’m not saying that we should ignore one another, but we can say our good mornings quietly and with a smile. We should all, no matter where we go to Mass, promote a spirit of prayer and reverence so that those who wish to pray may do so in peace. There is a constant cacophony of noise in our world and in our everyday life. May our churches be sanctuaries of peace and quiet so that when we enter we can leave the cares of the world outside, if only for an hour and focus our attention on the worship of God. And let’s never forget whose presence we enter when we walk through the church doors. To spend time, on our knees, if we can manage it, before the tabernacle, is good practice for an eternity of worshipping God in the glory of heaven.
When all is said and done it’s only by spending time with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament that we will learn how to pray properly. And the purest form of prayer, what we call contemplative prayer, doesn’t even need words. You may notice how a husband and wife after many years of marriage can quite happily spend time together and not use many words, because they know each other so well. This is exactly the kind of relationship Our Lord wants with us. By spending time with Our Lord, peacefully and quietly, he himself will teach us how to pray, just as he taught the man sitting at the back of Saint John Vianney’s church.
The hallmark of Saint Clare’s sanctity was her complete devotion to the naked poverty of Christ Crucified, which inspired her to embrace a life of penance, expressed through near absolute poverty. In this she was as radical as her mentor Saint Francis. Poverty and penance, along with devotion to Christ’s Passion, is what distinguishes the Franciscan charism from all other schools of spirituality. God calls us all to follow him, each in our own unique way. No matter where we come from, or what our spiritual tradition, what unites us is our celebration of the Mass together.
Earlier today in Florida, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were intending to launch a huge rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe in a bold attempt to collect data from the sun. The countdown was halted due to some technical issue. I’m reminded of the celebrated physicist Albert Einstein who observed the 1919 solar eclipse which confirmed Einstein’s theory concerning the curvature of space, a scientific guess that was based on his general theory of relativity. Some years later, a student asked Einstein, what would you have said if there had been no confirmation of your theory? Einstein replied, “I would have been obliged to pity our dear God, the theory is correct.”
Now, some people might be tempted to view his response as arrogance bordering on blasphemy, but that would have been very much unlike Einstein. Rather, his statement reflects the unshakeable confidence of someone who knows that his basic theory is sound and that whatever is derived from it can be
counted on to be true.
In today’s gospel the disciples are accused of lacking faith, but what they really seem to be having is a crisis of confidence. It isn’t so much that they don’t have any faith
but that they don’t trust in their faith or in themselves. Our Lord seems to be asking his disciples, haven’t you learned anything from me? Don’t you trust what I have been saying and doing?
Mrs Einstein was once asked if she understood her husband’s famous theory of relativity. “No,” she replied, “but I know my husband, and I know he can be trusted.” We may not always understand what we believe or exactly how we are to act on that belief, but we can be confident, even when our faith seems inadequate. And this is because our faith is rooted in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and we know that he can be trusted completely.