It seems that even Saint Paul had heard the old adage that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. Instead of opening his First Letter to the Corinthians with a list of the serious issues he needed to confront in the community, he called to mind the many ways that the Holy Spirit had enriched the people’s lives.
Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had done so much in their lives. He also told them that whatever changes needed to be made in no way cancelled or diminished these blessings. In fact, Saint Paul’s correction of their sin flowed from his confidence that Christ was with them: he had already given them the spiritual gifts they needed to purify what was still out of order.
We can learn a lot from Saint Paul’s teaching. When we are faced with our sin, we need to remember that God dwells within us, that he has redeemed us, and that he has given us the grace of forgiveness. If we find ourselves falling to the same temptation over and over again, we can remind ourselves that God has always been faithful to us; and that he will continue to see us through our struggles.
Things go much easier in our lives when we approach situations from the right starting point. There is a greater humility, a deeper gratitude to God, and a greater openness to change—and that means the Holy Spirit is more free to bring healing and reconciliation. Instead of looking down on others or falling into self-pity, we should raise our eyes to heaven and proclaim God’s faithfulness and love.
The old saying is true that a little knowledge can go a long way. It’s certainly true of our knowledge about Saint Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel. We may wonder what he had been doing under the fig tree when Our Lord first saw him, and yet our little knowledge tells us it was customary for Jewish scholars to study the scriptures sitting in the shade of a fig tree. Nathaniel may even have been meditating on God’s promises. If so, it was the perfect prelude to meeting the Messiah.
For centuries, God’s promises had sustained Israel with powerful visions of hope for the future. A radiant bride, a city and temple shimmering with the glory of God—these images pointed to a peaceful future when God would live among his people and make them into a light for the other nations. Nathanael must have drawn strength from reflecting on this life to come, even as his nation suffered under Roman occupation. Perhaps this gave him eyes to recognize Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’ who would set things right.
Like Nathanael, we have wonderful images of the life to come. And we even know that this life has already begun. Baptized into Christ, we have been saved; we are God’s people and citizens of heaven. Saint Catherine of Siena reflected that: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Just as Nathanael sat under a fig tree contemplating God’s promises, we too can set aside time for quiet, hopeful contemplation. We can try to imagine what heaven will be like. We can even think about those who have gone before us and imagine them praying for us, cheering us on, and rejoicing every time we act in faith.
Our Lord wants us to have experiences similar to Nathanael’s. He wants us to respond to him with faith and love, and he knows that this will happen as we immerse ourselves in the study, reading, and praying of the Scriptures. Like Nathanael, our hearts will be open and ready when he speaks.
Today we honour the memory of Saint Rose of Lima. Saint Rose was the first South American to be canonised, and she led to say the least, a very interesting life, and devoted much of it to prayer and penance, especially for those who had fallen away from the Church, and for the holy souls in purgatory. Good works that we should perform every day.
Life can be unpredictable at times. Just think about how illness and disease can sneak up on us and catch us completely by surprise. Many problems can go undetected until they are too advanced, while we have been going about our lives as if nothing were wrong. I suppose this is why doctors stress the importance of regular check-ups. They urge us not to concentrate only on how we look on the outside, while ignoring the danger signs inside of us.
The scribes and Pharisees who opposed Our Lord had a similar problem, only theirs was a spiritual issue. They suffered from a disease called hypocrisy that was eating at them from the inside. Our Lord didn’t challenge them because they were too religious, but because their lives were out of balance. By focusing so much on external piety, rules and disciplines, and so little on the interior life, they were leading others away from the true purpose of the Law that they claimed to love so much.
Our Lord’s warning is meant for us, too. But we shouldn’t read it as a condemnation or judgment. It’s really intended to get us to come in for a check-up: to examine what is in our hearts so that we can be whole. Do I let little resentments pile up inside, allowing for the risk that I will become a bitter person? Am I experiencing the fruits of the Holy Spirit, or do I need more joy, peace and patience in my life?
The only way that we can clean the inside of the cup is to make sure that we remain in close contact with Our Lord. We need to hear his voice, and if we can’t, then it’s time to slow down and listen. When we allow ourselves to be filled up with his word, our prayers are raised to a whole new level of worship. And just as importantly, we are able to love the people around us as he loves us: with the love of the Cross that can change hearts and bring heaven down to earth.
Today we observe the Memorial of the Queenship of Mary, and we acknowledge that the highest place any creature holds in heaven is occupied by a woman. Our Lady sums up her life in one word, “Fiat” which means “Let it be done.” We ask Our Lady’s protection and intercession as we seek to be as generous as her in our response to God’s will for us.
We hear a lot about the Pharisees in all four gospels and it’s interesting to discover what made some of them tick. After all, we are all conditioned by the circumstances of our lives. The Pharisee party formed just after the Maccabean Revolt around 175 BC when Jews were under intense pressure to abandon their faith and adopt Greek religious practices. The Pharisees were dedicated lay people, many of whom loved God and tried to help their people be faithful to the Law of Moses. The word ‘Pharisee’ comes from a Hebrew word meaning ‘separate’, emphasizing their desire to stay pure and uncontaminated.
By the beginning of the first century AD the Pharisees were an elite, educated group who studied the Scriptures and taught their fellow Jews how to follow God’s laws. After the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, the Pharisees survived as the predominant Jewish religious group, and they are considered the precursors to modern Judaism.
So what was the problem with the Pharisees? Well, some of them—though not all—had a very hard time accepting the idea that Jesus could be the Messiah. He didn’t fit into their expectations of ritual purity or strict adherence to Jewish traditions. Many of them saw Jesus as a revolutionary whose new teachings threatened their people’s identity as the chosen race. Their zeal for the Law kept them from being open to the new thing God was doing through Jesus.
We can all fall prey to the same challenges that trapped the Pharisees. We can retreat in the face of something that upends our comfortable ways of looking at God or our faith. We can hold on to our traditions so tightly that we can’t accept the possibility that God may doing something new and exciting in our midst.
The Pharisees had lost their way, and so we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn them. In fact we should imitate their devotion and their love of God’s Law, and their heroic efforts to preserve their religion in a hostile culture. But, unlike them, we must always keep our hearts open to the eternal newness of God’s plan.
Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the way in which God corrects and trains us for eternal life, much in the same way as good parents correct and train their children. No good parent would allow a child to do something that is harmful to them. In the same way God trains us to follow the path that leads to eternal life.
Years ago when I was a student in Rome, one of the first year theology students went to a special event lecture entitled ‘God 101’, no doubt given by a wise and learned Dominican. At supper I asked him what the lecturer had said. “I didn’t understand much of it”, he replied, “but I do know that he made God sound very great”.
The first truth of our Catholic faith is that God is very great. The rest of our faith is the development of this first truth; it’s the foundation upon which we build our spiritual lives and everything else. Each Sunday at Mass we recite various truths of our faith with our lips, but do we know what they really mean? The Nicene Creed, which we will recite in a few minutes, contains the basic beliefs of our Catholic Faith. But the Creed is so much more than a statement of faith. The Creed speaks exclusively of God, and not at all of ourselves; we don’t even get the smallest mention. And so the Creed is a statement of belief that gets us out of ourselves and focuses all our attention on God. And that was the whole purpose of the recent Year of Faith. We were asked to focus our attention on God, and not so much on ourselves.
The Nicene Creed gets its name from the Council of Nicaea that was held way back in the year 325, and the Creed has been an integral part of the Mass throughout the Latin Church since the 11th century.
In the very first article of the Creed we state our belief “in one God, the Father, the Almighty”. We believe in God. Many people around us don’t believe in God, and sometimes they ask us why we do. This can be a difficult question to answer. So how do we answer it? Well, I think there are two starting points for us:
Our first starting point is to look at the world around us. Electron microscopes are able to magnify by thousands of times the exquisite detail of nature; radio telescopes enlarge our knowledge of the physical Universe. Our understanding of nature has increased beyond even the imagination of someone fifty years ago. And yet mankind’s skills are primitive when compared to the complexity of a flower-petal or a snowflake. As a result, we are led, inevitably I think, to look for the cause of the universe and for all the wonder it contains. Many people conclude that the universe needs a cause other than itself, a cause that is self-sufficient, and this cause we call God.
It’s possible, in this way, to reasonably explain the existence of God. The God of Nature is accepted by many people, and probably by most people who have the ability to think. Primitive belief in such a God demands only a little thought. And yet throughout history this ‘little thought’ has often led to mankind confusing God with his creation, and people have ended up worshipping creation itself, instead of the Creator.
And so our second starting point for explaining our belief in God demands more than just a little careful thought, rather it demands a change of heart. And this is the acceptance of God as he has revealed himself to us in the Scriptures and in the teaching of the Church. This is not the God of nature but the God who partially revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and fully revealed himself in His Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Belief in such a God means moving from accepting God as an idea to accepting God as our Father; it means we believe, not in something, but in someone. The idea of God really makes no difference at all to anyone. But the person of God makes a great deal of difference.
The kind of difference is illustrated in today’s readings. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us how the good and loving father punishes the child he loves as part of the child’s training. In the gospel Our Lord tells us that the Father is like the master of the house who rejects those who knowingly refuse any personal involvement with him. When we accept God as our Father, we accept the need for a change in ourselves.
And this change in ourselves doesn’t – and cannot – come about by reading piles of profound books, pursuing theological degrees, or by delving into the sciences. If that were the case, then belief in God would be restricted to those with the highest intellects. Rather, it is a change that comes about through prayer. Only through prayer do we accept our childhood, we accept our need to listen, and we begin to accept “that those now last will be first”. Only in prayer, can we come to understand that God is very great: for he is our Father, the Almighty, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Today we honour the memory of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the most notable religious character of the 12th century. Bernard’s life and influence in the Church was more active than we can imagine possible today. His efforts at reconciliation between popes and princes produced far-reaching results. But he knew that his efforts would have achieved little without the many hours of prayer and contemplation that brought him strength and direction. His life was characterized by a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. His sermons and books about Our Lady are still the standard of Marian theology today. Saint Bernard died at Clairvaux in 1153 and was canonised in 1174.
The scribes and Pharisees play a major role in the gospels. We think of them as the ‘bad guys’ that every good story needs. Yet the truth is that these scholars and religious leaders were ordinary people. They had their own strengths and weaknesses, just like us. And they too had their own hopes and desires. Many were probably good family men and very dedicated to their work for the sake of Israel. But, like all of us, they too faced temptations. The problem was that some of them gave in to these temptations and they used their power and influence to persuade Pontius Pilate to crucify the Son of God.
Performing acts of piety in order to be seen, seeking titles and places of honour, making one’s importance noticed and felt, dressing up in fine clothing; these are all marks of someone who has succumbed to pride. Does any of this perhaps sound familiar? Who among us hasn’t been tempted by one or another of these same issues?
The good news is that we don’t have to give in to these temptations. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can say ‘no’ every time we are drawn into sin. And even if we do give in during a moment of weakness, we can be completely forgiven because of Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. It may be hard to believe, but God has made it possible for us to live the same life of love and selfless service that Our Lord lived while he walked the earth.
This means that we can all live extraordinary lives. We can be transformed into spiritual men and women who are filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the day it’s the only way we can hope to rise above the weaknesses and scheming that were part of the Pharisees’ downfall.