The Baptism of the Lord

After hearing the account of Our Lord’s baptism, we might be tempted to think that Our Lord and Saint John are simply going through a kind of social nicety or religious protocol.  But for Our Lord and Saint John this moment goes much deeper than social custom or even religious ritual.  John the Baptist recognises in Jesus the one for whom he has been preparing the way.

The coming of the Kingdom of God means restoring a world of right relationships among all people. And right relationships depend on everyone having a unique role to play in bringing about a better world.  Our Lord knows that his own ministry must begin with John.  The early Church recognised the activity of John the Baptist as inaugurating Our Lord’s public ministry.  Saint Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household saying “I take it you know what has been reported all over Judea about Jesus of Nazareth, beginning in Galilee with the baptism John preached.”  This is the way it had to begin, like a small pebble rolling down a hill, gaining momentum the more it travels.  So it was with the beginnings of the Church.

Time and time again, Our Lord did what was necessary to spread the kingdom, whether or not it was socially acceptable or politically correct.  His followers come to this awareness with more of a struggle.  The Acts of the Apostles tells us of Saint Peter wrestling with the role of Cornelius, who represents the gentiles, the world outside Judaism.  Finally, Saint Peter is able to say: “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality; the one who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

The coming of the kingdom still challenges us to work at right relationships in our world.  Let us pray today and every day that we may truly fear God and be judged worthy of the kingdom.

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The Epiphany of the Lord

Why did you come here today?
For whom do you seek?

Epiphany

After Easter and Pentecost, the Feast of the Epiphany is the oldest liturgical feast in the Church’s calendar, older even than the celebration of Christmas.  The word epiphany is derived from a Greek word that means to manifest or to show oneself.  The Incarnate Word of God has shown Himself to the world.

In the Early Church the Epiphany celebrated three events: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan River, and the changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.  The Magi’s visit is seen as the manifestation of Christ as King of the world, with kings being the first gentiles to see him and worship him.  The Baptism of the Lord, which we will celebrate tomorrow, was remembered because this was the first revelation of Our Lord at the beginning of his public ministry.  The changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana marks the beginning of the miraculous transformation of the world by the Messiah.

Today the main focus in the Catholic celebration of the Epiphany is the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, symbolised by the story of the Magi.  These pagan astrologers went searching for the meaning of the strange star they saw in the night sky.  They completed their journey by worshipping the One who had been predicted by the Jewish prophet Micah as being born in Bethlehem.

The old alternative Collect for today’s Mass integrates the celebration of the Epiphany into our lives: Father of Light, unchanging God, today you reveal to all peoples of faith the resplendent fact of the Word Made Flesh.  Your light is strong.  Your love is near.  Draw us beyond the limits this world imposes to the life where your Spirit makes all life complete.

This prayer tells us that we must go beyond the limits of our world in order to find meaning in our lives, the life where God’s Spirit makes all life complete.

This is so different to the message of our society which tries to convince us that there are no limits in the world.  Clever advertising tries to persuade us that we can master our own little part of the universe simply by buying all that we need.  But we can’t buy lasting happiness.  We are limited because the world is limited.  Saint Augustine saw all this clearly when, after sampling just about everything the world had to offer said, Our hearts are made for you, O Lord and they shall not rest until they rest in you.

The wise men took a step of faith and were drawn to God.  They gave the Son of God gifts to recognise who he is and the role he plays in the lives of all believers.  Gold is the gift for a King.  Jesus is the only One we can allow to direct and rule our lives.  Frankincense is the sign of the priest.  Jesus is the great high priest who bridges the gap between God and man.  Myrrh was the perfume used to anoint the dead.  Jesus is the sacrificial lamb whose death restored life.

When the wise men found the Lord, they were overjoyed.   There are three words in the original Greek text used to express this joy.  They are translated as greatly, exceedingly, and vehemently joyful.  In other words, they were beside themselves with happiness, for now their own lives were complete, because they now had a share in the life of Christ.  King Herod would remain rich and powerful, but he would be spiritually impoverished, for he oppressed the presence of the Messiah.  The chief priests and the scribes would remain in the Temple debating passages of the Law, but refusing to recognise the fulfilment of the Law in the newborn Messiah.  But the Magi were totally transformed by the presence that makes all life complete.

Our lives can only be complete, meaningful and fulfilled, if we allow ourselves to be guided by God’s Holy Spirit.  We can only be truly happy with the happiness that never ends if we share the life of the Spirit.  And we can only receive the Spirit if we allow ourselves to be drawn by the Light of Christ, just as the Magi were drawn by the light of the star.

Epiphany means a manifestation or a showing of the presence of the Lord.  May we be drawn by the presence of Christ in our world.  May we also be manifestations of his presence for others.  In all things may we recognise that only Christ can, as the Collect says, Draw us beyond the limits this world imposes, to the life where the Spirit makes all life complete.

6 January

In England the Feast of the Epiphany is transferred to Sunday 7 January

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When we make a cursory comparison between John the Baptist with Jesus, John doesn’t usually come out looking too good.  He tends to be portrayed as the old fashioned fire-and-brimstone preacher-a pulpit thumper-and not a very approachable.  By contrast, Jesus is seen as more of a soft touch.  He’s approachable; he smiles as he heals people and tells us to love each other.  John wants to tell us what we’ve done wrong, but Jesus wants to be our friend.

But is this contrast justified?  Well, we’ve just heard how John is anything but a hardnosed preacher.  All he wants to do is point people towards Jesus, the one who was going to give them the Holy Spirit.  He told the people that the reason for his call to repen­tance wasn’t to heap guilt on them.  Rather, it was so that they would be ready to receive the salvation Jesus had come to bring.  And when Our Lord does begin his public ministry he preaches the very same message of repentance—and in the exact same words—that John did.  It seems that both John and Jesus had more similarities than differences.

These similarities can give us some insights into our own call to preach the gos­pel.  They tell us that we too need to capture the excitement and the hope embodied in the phrase: “The kingdom of God is at hand!”  At its heart, the Gospel is good news about a God who calls us to his side.  It’s the good news about a merciful God who wants to wipe away all our sins and set us free from guilt.  It’s the good news about a God who wants to welcome us into his eternal kingdom.

It’s a privilege to be called to do the same work that John and Jesus did.  It’s a privilege to show people the way into the kingdom of heaven.  As we press on into 2018 how will we share the message of salvation with the people with whom we share our lives?

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5 January

The call to love is at the very heart of our faith.  And what could be a simpler or more effective way of evangelization?  Forget about your multiple academic degrees and qualifications; the relationships we form with each other are meant to be at the source of our ability to evangelise.  No matter that such relationships are rare in the world today.  No matter that they seem virtually impossible if God is not part of them.  The fact remains that peaceful, joyful, united lives are still capable of speaking volumes to the world about the power and the love of God.

There are those who think of evangelization simply as clever and persuasive words that inspire others about Jesus and his Gospel.  As accurate as this may be in theory, in many practical instances, we can have an even greater effect on people’s faith through the witness of our actions than by our many words.  Words without actions are useless.  It’s all very well preaching theory, but without a practical application, what’s the point?  Love, care, concern, compassion, generosity, fidelity, good example; these have the power to melt hearts and convince minds far better than an abundance of eloquent doctrine, theology, or defences of Christianity.

I read, just this morning, that ‘Love is a verb, without action it is merely a word’.  Love shows itself in many practical ways.  As St. John says, we are to love “not only in word or speech, but in truth and action” as well (1 John 3:18).

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Saint Zedislava, O.P.

The Order of Preachers honours Saint Zedíslava as a faithful wife and a loving mother who raised four children, but her care extended to all those in need, especially the sick and the poor.  Saint Zedíslava was one of the first Lay Dominicans and established two Dominican priories.  She died in 1252 and was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1995.  We remember in our prayers today all those people associated with the Order and especially the friends and benefactors of our own community.

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We all know how quickly word of mouth can spread.  The day after John the Baptist publicly testified that Jesus was the Lamb of God, he repeated it privately to two of his disciples, setting off an amazing chain reaction.  First, Andrew went to investigate Jesus.  After just one day with him, Andrew was so excited that he told his brother, Simon.  Coming face-to-face with Jesus, Simon began a new life as Peter, the Rock on which Our Lord would establish his Church.  Philip took his testimony to Nathaniel, who was soon declaring Jesus to be “Son of God” and the “King of Israel”.

The word of a friend, an open heart, an encounter with Our Lord, and the Church began.  Obscure fishermen became empowered Apostles, and nothing would ever be the same again, for them, or for the world.

Like the disciples, we too get to know Jesus simply by spending time with him.  We can talk with him in prayer and meet him in Scripture and in the Sacraments and the teachings of the Church.  We can spend time with him on retreat and on days of recollection; we can kneel before him in the Blessed Sacrament, and at Mass and during the Office.  In these and many more ways Our Lord wants to reveal himself to us as the Lamb of God, the Messiah, our Redeemer, our Saviour.  He invites us to be part of the same adventure that captivated his first disciples.  He wants to see us spark a chain reaction of faith among the people with whom we share our lives.  As the New Year begins to take hold, let us commit ourselves to attitudes and practices that will help us spend more time with Our Lord.

The Most Holy Name of Jesus

As religious we will never experience this joy, but one of the important and more moving moments for parents is the choosing of a name for their child, which is literally giving an identity to a newly born human being.  It may be a name that honours a relative, or a name which creates a bond with a special patron in heaven or a close friend of the family.  As each child grows they will develop their own personal history and meaning to all the people they will ever meet and encounter.

The Holy Name of Jesus wasn’t chosen by Mary and Joseph, but given by the angel Gabriel.  It means the ‘one who saves’.  It embodies the core truth of Our Lord’s mission: to save and redeem a fallen human race.  And it is the great truth to which John the Baptist points: ‘He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’.

The Feast of the Holy Name used to be kept on 2nd January, but it was removed from the General Calendar of the Church following the reform of the liturgy by the Second Vatican Council.  I am glad to say that the new translation of the missal has restored and included the feast for today, albeit as an optional memoria.  The Holy Name of Jesus has been and continues to be a powerful source of meditation.  There was great devotion to the Holy Name during the Middle Ages.  And in our own time devotion to the Holy Name often centres on restoring reverence for the abuse of Our Lord’s Name.

To know someone by name is to begin to develop a relationship with that person.  As we use the name of Jesus with reverence we develop our relationship with Him.

Today’s feast calls us to that renewed respect for the Holy Name of Jesus and to let it be the subject of our meditation and contemplation so that we can appreciate all that Jesus means in our life.  The Holy Name of Jesus is not just another name.  It gathers, evokes and embraces all that Jesus is and can be for each one of us.

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The Holy Family

What does it mean to be a family?  What does it mean to be responsible as persons in a family?  Well, I suppose it all depends on what we mean by ‘family’ – the concept is so confused in our secular and promiscuous society.  What groupings of people living together should be defined as family?  Same-sex couples parenting adopted children is now considered normal, there are still people just living together outside the bonds of marriage, as well as members of various communes and cults doing their own thing behind closed doors.

I would imagine that more and more children are becoming confused in dealing with multiple parents.  They have to relate now to birth mothers as well as step mothers, along with all of the sets of grandparents, aunties and uncles that come with multiple parents.  Birth fathers and step fathers bring similar sets of problems.  In many urban areas there are children who desperately need adult males in their lives, in order to figure out what it means to be a responsible, caring human being.

We also have the social engineers who want to keep all discussion of morality out of our schools.  They tell us that God, morality and religious values, should be things that children learn about in their own homes.  Now, that sounds very nice and reasonable, until you stop and consider that for countless thousands of children, there is no stable home in which an informed mother and father can teach these things.  For too many children nowadays, home is simply a place to eat and sleep.

I think society is slowly coming to realise that our problems of increasing divorce, drug addiction, alcoholism, children murdering children, shootings and stabbings in schools, sexual promiscuity, teen suicide, and a total lack of conscience in many teens who are hardened criminals, can be traced back to the collapse of what we once knew as family.  The horrific truth is that a high proportion of our children don’t live in what we think of as the traditional family: a married man and woman and their children all living together in one home, under one roof.

There was a time when a man and a woman got married recognizing the truth that they would be seriously involved in a mystery that caused them to share responsibilities with God in fostering the growth of human life.  The Catholic Church recognizes that as a Sacrament: The Sacrament of Matrimony.  In preparing engaged couples for marriage, priests and catechists present couples with the Church’s vision of what marriage is all about.  We try to bring them to the recognition that in marrying they will be seriously involved with God the Creator in fostering the growth of human life.

But what has happened to us as a nation of people here in the UK?  What has been the insidious force that has brought us to the disaster we face in the collapse of the traditional family?

Well, there are multiple causes.  But one cause in particular stands out above all the others.  It’s what Freud called The Pleasure Principle.  It’s the notion that when two people marry, they marry for pleasure, and they stay married only for as long as it feels good.  Any other notions, ideas such as responsibility, commitment and fostering human growth – all ideas vigorously proposed and supported by the Catholic Church – are deemed to be a denial of our personal freedom, a deprivation of our personal right to pleasure, to feel good, and to have fun, free from any and all other considerations, all of which are viewed as constraints.

The Pleasure Principle has done more to harm marriage than any other one thing that is presently attacking what we know to be the traditional marriage and the traditional family.

Recently, I listened to a piece on the radio, and a group of schoolchildren and experts were discussing how, even in today’s society, girls are still given the message that pleasing their boyfriends is their chief responsibility.  If they don’t please their boyfriends, then they can expect to be dumped, cast off as useless, without value.

It’s interesting that our society today, parallels in many ways, the ancient pagan Roman culture.  The early list of Roman martyrs includes a score of young women who were martyred for remaining virgins: St. Agatha, St. Lucy, St. Cecilia, and many others were a direct threat to the pagan Roman value system, a value system that insisted that the only reason for the existence of girls is to give men pleasure.  The value of a woman was measured in terms of her usefulness to men in observing The Pleasure Principle.  When these Christian girls openly declared that their value was more than that, when they openly declared that they were valued in the eyes of God, they were horribly tortured and murdered.  And their martyrdom took place in public because they posed a tremendous threat to that pagan social order and to the prevailing pleasure principle.

I’m sure we were all shocked earlier in the year, when the media revealed the hideous crimes perpetrated by adult men and women against children in Rochdale, Birmingham and Manchester.  At home and abroad, there are those, even in the 21st century, who still suffer a martyrdom of sorts.

And so, on this Feast of the Holy Family I would suggest that there are some things to talk about around the dinner table today.  There are some Christian values at stake in our lives as we live them out in 2017, soon to be 2018.  What values are we transmitting to our children as they face the future?  The idea of what it means to be a husband and a wife, what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a family, are all tremendously important topics for families, and for society, to discuss.  They are not just quaint notions from an antique world, they are principles which are very actively and presently at work shaping the sort of social world in which we struggle to live.

This, it seems to me, is all reason enough for us to consider today just what it means for us to live as a holy family.

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