2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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The trimmings are all gone, the twinkling lights are packed away in boxes, the crib figures are safely wrapped up and stored in the attic.  The Christmas season is well and truly over.  And yet today we have a repeat of last Sunday’s gospel.  After Christmas the liturgy concentrates on the beginning of Our Lord’s public life.  In the gospel we witness John the Baptist point out Jesus and say: Behold the Lamb of God.

Following on from last Sunday’s feast, we are reminded once again of Our Lord’s Baptism which was the curtain raiser to his earthly ministry.  It began his mission of gathering all people into the one family of God, the Church, which exists to lead them back to the Father.  Our Lord spent his whole life doing good, touching human lives, healing people, freeing them from the darkness of sin, and directing them to lives worthy of their calling as children of God.  We too have been chosen to continue this saving work which Christ began, and if we are to be true followers of Christ, then we are to have an active part of that mission to the world we live in.  At the moment of our own baptism the seed of God’s life was planted within us.  And yet, that grace-filled day was only the start of our conversion process.  It takes a lifetime for the seed of faith to grow, mature and blossom.  The only home for a Christian to live in is Christ and his Church, and we should settle for nothing less.  There should be no such thing as a freelance Christian, we have to be full and active members of the Church.  And if we are to enter into this new and exciting experience as members of God’s family, then we must have a clear idea of what kind of family we are meant to be.  To follow the way traced by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ demands, at the very least, a loving response on our part.  Baptism is a dedication of ourselves to the call of Christ who went about doing good.

And so today we should reflect on the extent to which Christ has penetrated our thoughts and influenced the way we live our lives.  We are what we do.  How many of us can honestly say that we are leading lives which are worthy of our baptismal calling?  Are we perhaps, as I said last week, just going through the motions of religion and putting on a pious show to deceive other people?  God’s power shines out when and where we least expect it, and in the most unlikely places.  We preach not only with words, but by the way we live, and by the effort we exert to make the world a better place by our presence in it.  The practice of charity and humility spotlights what is wrong with selfishness, pride and arrogance.  It exposes evil and sinfulness for what they are.  The example we display in our everyday lives paves the way for Christ in others.

And so today we should pray for a greater insight into our own personal role in Christ’s saving work.  Almighty God works through ordinary people like you and me.  As the Baptism ritual states: We are to walk always as children of the light, keeping the flame of faith burning brightly within our hearts.

Being a disciple of Christ demands outstanding service: and it costs no less than everything we possess.

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Saint Margaret of Hungary, O.P.

Today we honour the memory of Saint Margaret of Hungary who joined the Order in 1245.  Margaret had an unusual approach to the religious life, and it’s highly unlikely she would have made it into the novitiate today.  And yet Margaret was considered a saint in her own lifetime and many miracles have been attributed to her intercession.  Today’s feast reminds us that we entered the religious life, not to do our own thing and build our own little empires, but to devote our talents and our lives to the common apostolate.  Margaret died on this day in 1270 and was canonised in 1943.

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The episode in today’s first reading, in which Saul was called in very ordinary circumstances to be king and was anointed by Samuel with utter simplicity, changed the whole course of Israelite history.  It set God’s people upon a turbulent course.  There was a Golden Age under King David, despite all his human weaknesses, but it was relatively brief.  With his son Solomon a decay set in which eventuated in a separation of the kingdom into north and south and led finally to disgrace and exile for the people.  Corruption, lust, and an abandonment of God marked most of the kings of Israel.

In stark contrast is the person who fulfilled kingship in Israel.  Our Lord Jesus Christ – born in poverty in David’s city of Bethlehem.  He lived and died a poor man.  Lust for power was no part of him; rather he was consumed with a passion to serve his people in love.  His whole life was marked by a complete trust in his Father.  Jesus Christ was an unusual king.  He made himself at home with tax collectors and prostitutes and insisted he had come to call sinners, not the self-righteous.

The ideal is that people should love their king and be eager to serve him.  How easy it should be for us to love our king and to be dedicated to his service.

Saint Anthony of Egypt

Today we honour the memory of Saint Anthony of Egypt who took literally the words of Our Lord: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; then come, follow me.”  We honour Saint Anthony as one of the founders of monastic life in the Church.  Saint Athanasius, who knew Saint Anthony well and wrote his biography, said of him: ‘Anthony was not known for his writings, nor for his worldly wisdom, nor for any art, but simply for his reverence towards God.’  May the same be said of us.  Saint Anthony died in the year 356.

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Our Lord forgave this man and healed his paralysis because he saw the faith of his friends.  It wasn’t the paralyzed man’s faith that moved him; it was his friends’ faith.  These men stood with their friend and were convinced that if they could just get him to Jesus, he could be healed.  Even if it meant tearing up the roof, they loved their friend enough—and they believed in Jesus enough—to do it.

What a moving illustration of true fraternity and friendship.  While the paralyzed man doubtless had faith himself, it was his friends who actually got him to Jesus.  If it weren’t for them, he would never have been able to walk.  He would never have known the forgiveness of his sins.

Our Lord never intended the Christian life to be a solitary journey.  We are stronger when we are surrounded and supported by other people of like mind.   The world tells us to be independent and self-reliant, but Our Lord tells us to lean on each other—and to let others lean on us.  That’s probably why he sent his disciples to preach two by two.  He knew they needed to balance each other out, with one helping the other in moments of weakness or tiredness.  He knew they needed each other so that they wouldn’t fall to temptations of pride or give up in the face of opposition or hardship.

And isn’t this why we live in community?  We’re not prima donnas, each doing our own thing, rather we support each other as we seek to spread the Gospel.  We encourage others, and in turn, we are encouraged by them in our spiritual journey together.  We are all companions to someone else, and our faith can make all the difference in another person’s life.  May we all be open to the generous gift of one another.

Thursday of Week 1 in Ordinary Time

During their turbulent history the Israelites alternated between two extremes: one was a lack of sufficient trust in God and the other was complacency.  The military defeat of which we heard in the first reading was a result of downright complacency.  This attitude led the people to believe that God would take care of them regardless of whether they were truly faithful to him or not.  Often complacency manifests itself in a flippant reliance on external acts of religion with no real interior devotion.

This same attitude has permeated the lives of so many Catholics over the past sixty years or so.  Too many people find themselves simply ‘going through the motions’ of religion as if the rituals were some kind of good luck charm.  How many parents have brought their children to the church for baptism, making a solemn commitment before God and the Church to bring up the child as a Catholic and you never see them again until First Communion day comes around.  How many of our children are prepared for the Sacraments never to darken the door of the church again?  Granted, it’s a few years since I was in parish ministry, but I can’t believe that situation has changed too much for the better.

In the battle against the Philistines the leaders of the people thought that simply bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the front line of battle would in itself bring about the defeat of the Philistines.  The irony of the situation is even more clear in the fact that the Ark was carried by two totally unworthy priests.  Naturally, the result was disaster.  God had already warned Eli that his two corrupt sons would be destroyed, and God promised: “I will choose a faithful priest who shall do what I have in heart and mind.”  No one fulfils this prophecy more than our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

We witness him in the gospel cure the leper.  We know that Our Lord is more interested in an interior cleansing: a change of heart.  As he did what the Father had in heart and mind, so for us real devotion must be a dedication to the Father’s will.  “Thy Will be done” must be more than just a phrase on our lips.  It must be for us a way of life.

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Dominican Martyrs in China

On 1st October 2000, Pope John Paul II canonised 120 Catholics martyred in China between 1648 and 1930.  Among them were six Dominicans whom we honour today: Saint Francis Fernandez and his companions.  Saint Francis was the first Catholic to suffer for the Faith in China.  May these martyrs of our Order inspire us to put our Faith into practice in a practical way to benefit the Church, the world and our own salvation.

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Have you noticed how most Catholic preachers and teachers seem to gloss over the fact that Saint Peter was married and probably had a family?  They were probably part of the gathering at the house of Peter’s mother-in-law.  No doubt some of the other apostles had wives and children and yet the Scriptures never mention them.  Did their wives and families travel about with them?  Or did the apostles abandon their families after they left everything to follow Our Lord?  We’re simply not told and, I suppose, we can speculate about it until the cows come home.  And yet no matter what the situation really was, there can be no doubt at all that the apostles and many other disciples made a huge personal sacrifice to follow Our Lord.

Something about Jesus compelled these men to give up so much to follow him.  Our Lord’s teachings and his miraculous works convinced them to give up their jobs, their homes, their familiar surroundings, and possibly even their families in order to follow him wherever he went.  It must surely have been their experience of Jesus that helped them sacrifice so much for him—even their very lives.  And it wasn’t just a one-time experience.  As they saw more and more of who he was every day, their deepening relationship with him only served to confirm and strengthen their initial decision to give up so much for him.

And so today, how would we describe our own relationship with Our Lord?  As religious, we follow in the footsteps of the apostles, as we have left everything in order to follow him.  But do we still see him alive and at work in our life and in the world?  After a few decades in the religious life we may feel that something is lacking in our life, and if it is, then we should ask Our Lord for more.  And, unlike poor Oliver Twist, we shouldn’t feel guilty about asking for more.

We shouldn’t be afraid to ask God to fill us with more of his presence.  In faith, and like Hannah, we should go ahead and tell God that we need to know him more and that we need him to touch our lives more fully.  Our Lord was there for the apostles and his early disciples, and he is here for us: a great treasure to be discovered and rediscovered every day of our lives.

Tuesday of Week 1 in Ordinary Time

The first reading and the responsorial psalm today give us before and after snapshots of Hannah that can help us understand how dramatically God changed her heart. Hannah went from weeping bitterly to joyfully proclaiming God’s faithfulness. But what happened in between? Well, Hannah tells us that: “The tottering are clothed in strength”, strength from God (1 Samuel 2:4).

Now, that’s easy for Hannah to say, because we know that God answered her prayer. But if we read her story carefully we’ll discover that Hannah changed before she conceived Samuel. After a few words from the priest Eli, Hannah’s despair began to lift, and she could eat and drink again. The next morning, she returned to worship with her husband, free from grief. God had strengthened her even while she waited for the answer to her prayer.

This is a hopeful image for us. We all experience uncertainty when our faith is weak. But just as with Hannah, God stands ready to strengthen us and steady us with his peace. All he asks is that we lean on him and let him fill us with his grace. And Hannah can show us the way.

First, Hannah persevered. Year after barren year, she went with her husband to offer sacrifice and beg God for a child. Like Hannah, we can persevere in seeking God’s strength, even when we question whether anything will come of it.

Second, Hannah was honest with God. She didn’t bury her anxiety and put on a pious show. She poured out her complaint and admitted her unhappiness. What does this teach us? Well, just like Hannah, we can feel free to tell God exactly how we are feeling. He won’t be surprised or put off. He sees it all anyway. He may not always grant our requests, but he will always give us his peace. And God’s peace will give us the strength to trust him, even in our challenges. If, like Hannah, we persevere and are honest with God, we too can hear the words that Eli told Hannah: “Go in peace” (1 Samuel 1:17).

Monday of Week 1 in Ordinary Time

As we move into the Ordinary Time of the Church’s liturgical year, we hear two stories from the scriptures that can help us all make a new beginning.  The story of Samuel begins with barrenness and emptiness.  Hannah considers herself cursed because she is unable to conceive a child.  But Hannah’s emptiness will be filled.  In fact, her emptiness is the fertile condition that allows something wonderful to happen.  Saint Mark’s Gospel begins with fullness.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, who came upon him at his baptism, Our Lord is full of Good News.

Our Lord’s invitation to the fishermen is an invitation to the fullness of the Gospel.  But it’s also an invitation to emptiness.  In effect Our Lord says: Repent, empty yourselves and make room for the Good News.   He asks Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave everything behind and invites them to the fullness of following him.

For both Hannah and the fishermen emptiness enabled them to be open to fullness.  In just the same way we have to become empty in order to be filled.  We have to reform and change our lives in order to be open to receive the Gospel, and to be happy and fulfilled in our vocation.  2020 is still fresh and the new year gives us the incentive to make a fresh start.  The questions to ask today are: What do I have to empty out in order to make room for growth?  What is holding me back from moving forward?  What has to happen this year, so that I can let more of the Lord’s fullness into my life?

Baptism of the Lord

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Baptism was the way in which Our Lord presented himself to the world at the outset of his mission.  By the banks of the River Jordan we see him, the sinless one, joining the crowds of sinners and taking his place in the long queue of people who were turning towards God and repenting of their sins.  By being baptised Our Lord identified himself with us and he took upon his own shoulders the tremendous burden and responsibility of our sins, and he began gathering all people into the family of God: the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  It was such an important moment that we see the heavens opened and we hear the voice of God the Father himself confirming for the whole world that: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.  Our Lord’s Baptism was the event to which mankind had been looking forward to, because it brought God’s light into a world of shadows and confusion, and it opened up the possibility of a new relationship for people with their Creator: a relationship which had been lost through the sin of our first parents, what we call Original Sin.  This restored relationship unites us so intimately with Christ that we too can be called God’s children.

On this feast we are reminded of our own Baptism and we should reflect on the implications of leading a good Catholic life; that is, a good, moral, and upright life.  We all know that Baptism is so much more than just a social formality to be gone through by parents of new-born children.  Baptism marks our spiritual birth: the beginning of Almighty God literally humbling himself, reaching down from the glory of heaven and touching our finite lives, claiming us for his own and adopting us as his children.  Our parents and godparents spoke on our behalf when they introduced us into the life and community of the Church as infants, but as adults we have to ratify and act out in our daily lives that decision made on our behalf.  And we do that when we ask for and receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Through Baptism Our Lord introduces himself into our lives with the message that we are free from the debt of Original Sin and that we have been restored and reconciled with the God who loves us so much that he died for us.  And so through Baptism we belong to God’s Family, the Church, and we can truly call God our Father.

Now, it goes without saying that belonging to God’s family involves obligations to be undertaken and decisions to be made about how we are going to lead our lives.  In the way we live our lives we have the Church to guide and protect us.  The Church is truly our Mother and it is the role of a mother to form, guide and protect her children.  I’m sure you will all agree that being a good Catholic, especially today, is far from easy; even in the seclusion of the convent we are faced with so many distractions to lead us off the straight and narrow path that we need help to be faithful.  In the Church we have the guarantee that if we are faithful, and if we persevere, and if we live our lives according to God’s Law and the teachings of the Church, then we shall merit a place in God’s eternal presence, and we will hear those consoling words of Our Lord when we are judged: Well done, good and faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Father.

And so, we are all called to follow in Our Lord’s footsteps by living out our faith; and this of necessity requires a certain strength of character and will, and it calls us to stand apart from the crowd and be counted.  A committed follower of Christ is seen by the way he or she lives, not so much by what they say.  After all, words are cheap and ever more disposable.  The greatest sermon or homily we can ever preach doesn’t consist in many moving or inspiring words, but rather in the witness of a Christian life lived well and to the full.  In other words, we are to put into practice what we preach with our lips.

Coming to Mass on Sunday and Holydays is only the beginning for us.  Attendance and participation at Mass is only the foundation upon which we build the rest of our Catholic lives.  Only by putting our faith into practice will we behave as beloved sons and daughters in whom the Father is well pleased.

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Saturday after the Epiphany

In his First Letter, Saint John wrote to a church that was going through a difficult time.  Some people were getting side-tracked by philosophies that didn’t line up with the Gospel, and as a result, they began separating themselves from the larger fellowship of the Church.  One of these philosophies was an early form of Docetism, the denial that Jesus is fully human.  Another was Gnosticism, which placed more importance on so-called interior, spiritual knowledge and not enough on loving one another and following the commandments.

So, John wrote his letter to remind the early Christians that Jesus is “the one who is true” (1 John 5:20).  John was essentially saying, the one you have been baptized into is the true Son of God, not the false Christ described by those confused and confusing philosophies.  His words helped to reassure the people that the false teachings would never be able to prevail over the truth, who is Jesus.

John isn’t the only one in history who has helped guard the Church from heresies and false beliefs.  Take, for example, the fourth-century bishop Athanasius.  He defended the doctrine of the Trinity against the Arians, who believed that Jesus was subordinate, not equal to, the Father.  In the fifth century, St. Augustine refuted the teachings of Pelagius, who denied the doctrine of original sin and believed that people could become holy and achieve salvation on their own.  Through their writings about the love and mercy of God, saints such as St. Francis de Sales and St. Thérèse of Lisieux refuted a heresy known as Jansenism.  Prevalent in the seventeenth century and beyond, this heresy often kept people from receiving Communion because they thought they could never be worthy of it.

Numerous other heresies have plagued the Church over the years, and no doubt more will follow.  But just as St. John reassured his community, he wants to reassure us.  Jesus is the One who is true, and he will not let the gates of hell prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18).  He will always raise up leaders and saints to preserve the truth of the Gospel, just as he has for the past two thousand years.

Friday after the Epiphany

Leprosy is now a curable disease and, according to the World Health Organisation the number of people with Hansen’s Disease has plummeted dramatically over the past twenty years from 5.2 million people to just over 175,000.  Last September, the Vatican opened the cause for the canonization of John Bradburne, from Cumbria who was abducted and killed in 1979 after spending fifteen years serving people with leprosy in Zimbabwe.  Bradburne was known and loved for his ability to look past the disease and the deformities of the people he cared for and treat them with dignity and respect.

But it was a different story two thousand years ago, leprosy was a hideous disease without any means of prevention or cure.  Today even serious cases can be treated, and leprosy doesn’t pose the threat which it did in Our Lord’s day.  Nonetheless the cure of which we heard in today’s Gospel is important to us because the episode tells us something about God.

Our Lord worked his cures out of compassion for the people involved.  And yet he didn’t choose to end all sickness and disease during his life on earth.  What he did for people was intended to unfold gradually who he was.  He was the Almighty God who has come among us in our humanity.  He has entered into the human condition in which he shows his feelings for our weakness and our needs.  In other words, we don’t have a God who is aloof or unconcerned about our situation.  Our Lord wants us to respond to him not merely as a miracle worker but as a God of love.  He doesn’t want us to see him as an extraordinary doctor to whom we turn only when we need him.  Most of us only see our doctor when we are sick.  Our Lord doesn’t want that kind of relationship with us.

We have all received many blessings from God, blessings upon which we should frequently ponder.  All of these blessings should help us to see how good God is and how much we should love him for Himself and not simply for what he can do for us.

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