‘Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them,’ says the prophet Hosea in today’s first reading (Hosea 14:9). In this season of Lent, though, we seem to focus on the practical rather than the intellectual side of things: as we have already said many times, it is about seeking to grow in love of Christ through our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and works of mercy.
Why do we do this, though? Why do we bother? Surely it is that he has first given us the gift of faith. By this gift we are able to see our God made man and hanging on the Cross for our sake on Good Friday, the mystery of our redemption by which we come to love him, for in it he shows us that he has loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:10).
Thus, at the heart of our Lenten practices, and indeed of our Christian lives as a whole, we must seek to nurture this precious gift of faith: for as we seek to deepen our understanding of the mysteries of our salvation, so we come to perceive more fully the depth of God’s love for us, and thus are drawn, by his grace, to love him with more and more of our mind, as of our heart (cf. Mark 12:30). This love incorporates both the practical and the intellectual – indeed, every human faculty – and if, like the scribe in today’s Gospel, we truly grasp the primacy of this, then to us too are Jesus’ words addressed: ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34).
The prophet Jeremiah paints a bleak and gloomy picture of a people who have, despite God's constant invitations, continued to walk "in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts." This path does not lead to development or fulfillment. In fact it only leads to stagnation and even retardation: rather than going forward we go backwards. The results of this decay are evident in the Gospels. The failure of some of the people to recognise the source of Jesus' authority and power fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah that Truth shall be cut from their lips. The people have become so disconnected from Truth, that when it stands amongst them, they fail to see it and perceive something alien and even diabolic.
During Lent we are given the opportunity to focus on how we have allowed ourselves to be cut off from Truth: how we have allowed ourselves to be blinkered from God's invitation to live in fullness with him, but we can rejoice. To borrow from Tony Blair: God does not have a reverse gear! Not even the despair and suffering of the cross can stop the fruitfulness that it offers to the world to share in. Even situations where it seems Truth perishes are turned by God into something not only positive but the most positive of things: an action that not only heals the world's relationship with the Truth and love of God but allows the world now to be even closer to the Truth which it has rejected. When we enter into this relationship with the paschal mystery we can only move forward. There may be times that we might not be aware of the growth and development that the grace of God brings within us but when we reach our final destination we will be fully aware of its extent
Our Lenten penances can be a great source of spiritual strength to us, allowing us to deepen our relationship with Christ and enter further into the Paschal Mystery. We can allow our daily penitential observances to help us in ‘transcending the good life’ as Herbert McCabe once wrote. On the other hand, we can become a little too obsessed with the externals of observance and forget why we are performing such actions; indeed, the actions themselves can become a source of anxiety and fear and so be rendered meaningless.
Christ shows us in today’s Gospel passage how we are to use Him as a corrective; how we are to take His word as the very source of all we do and so allow it to make sense of our external actions and observances. Often portrayed as a dangerous rebel, we see Christ emphasise that he has not come, ‘to abolish the law or prophets’ but ‘to fulfil’ them. This is a very important notion, if sacred scripture is to have any meaning for us as the revealed word of God. Christ in His very person makes the essential purpose of the law clear, and reveals to us that we must embrace and obey the full spiritual meaning of it, in Him. He brings with Him the New Covenant which completes, fulfils and satisfies the law. As Paul states in Romans 10:4; “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”.
Much like the Pharisees we have to be reminded why we perform such actions and make such observances. We should not follow them simply for the sake of it, rather Christ expects us to make such observances in full by seeking to understand their meaning as revealed in Him. These actions do not hold of their own accord but only have full meaning when we allow them to deepen our relationship with Christ and enter more fully into His saving mystery.
The contrast between the generosity of the king and meanness of the servant in today's Gospel is quite startling. It's as though the servant is trying to claw back £1000 despite just being let off his £500 million debt. It would be more appropriate for him to go out and celebrate with his fellow servant than throw him in prison. Why does he behave in such a despicable manner? Perhaps the reason is that despite being released from his debt, he doesn't like the feeling of indebtedness. Rather than accept the debt cancellation he'd rather say "just give me time and I'll pay back the loan in full." Of course such a plan would be totally futile. Not only would it take hundreds of lifetimes to pay back such a debt, but the way he treats his fellow servant shows he is trying to get the money back in a particularly inefficient and harmful way. Putting his fellow servant in prison probably means it's going to take a lot longer to get back the £1000 from him. But he is willing to go through all this in the hope that one day he might be able to say to the king "We're even. I owe you nothing. Now leave me alone." And this seems to be the real root of the servant's sin. He is sinful not because he is indebted to the king, but rather because he wants to be independent of the king. He wants to be his own king.
The love Christ shows for us on the cross shatters the image of a scrupulous god who we would want to be independent of. We no longer need to try to pay back what God has given us in order to justify our own existence. Rather we should acknowledge our total dependence on God and in all humility ask for even more so that we can more freely give.
As the hind longs for the running waters, so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Send forth your light and your fidelity;
they shall lead me on
And bring me to your holy mountain,
to your dwelling-place.
Then will I go in to the altar of God,
the God of my gladness and joy; Then will I give you thanks upon the harp,
O God, my God!
My soul is longing for holiness and fidelity. My soul is longing for true love. My soul is longing for God. Christ is the prophet who brings us all this. Generously, he grants us all what we are longing for. It is free, and for us to receive. But to be able to open ourselves to God's gifts, we need one thing.
In the first reading, we hear about Naaman the Syrian, the army commander of the king of Aram. He wants to be healed. He is a man of power, a mighty man. But he has got a disease from which there is no cure, leprosy. He sets out from his homeland, with horses and chariots filled with gifts, to ask for help from the prophet Elisha. Elisha sends him a message ordering Naaman to wash himself in the river of Jordan seven times. Naaman gets upset, offended, and cries out: “I thought that he would surely come out and stand there to invoke the Lord his God, and would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy”. The army commander is longing to be healed. But the prescription is just not the way he expected it to be.
This reading has one important thing in common with today’s Gospel. Jesus is back in his home village, where he has grown up. He has played in the streets, participated in feasts and daily life, he has belonged to this little society for years. The people here know him. Now he proclaims his prophetic identity. Sure, the people are hoping for a Messiah, a liberator that will set them free from the Roman domination and restore Israel in its splendour. But surely it cannot be this Nazarene?
Isn’t it often the same in our lives? Oh, I want to serve and work for God, but who said that I’m the one who has to make sure we’ve got bread and milk in the house at all times, that I have to take out the garbage? We just as well say: I’ll do anything for God, as long as I can decide what to do!
To receive the gifts of God, we are challenged to let go of our own view. To follow Christ is to search for his path, to do his will. How can we best serve Him? It is a useful exercise of humility to abandon our limited perspective to search for him whose view is anchored in love and truth.
The psalm expresses our deepest desire in human life, to be close to our creator. Let us then pray with the psalm, as we are on our way to the Holy Mountain, that He will send forth his light and his fidelity; that they shall lead us and we may be united with the God of our gladness and joy…
To be stuck ‘between a rock and a hard place’ is not considered a pleasant situation: the implication is that one is surrounded, hemmed in by adversity, faced only with difficult options, in a situation which offers little prospect of relief and from which one cannot escape, even if one would wish to. Our readings offer us a rock and a hard place, a hard dissatisfying situation – but also a way out, imaged as receiving water. However, close attention is needed to emerge from the seeming trap between a rock and a hard place. Let us explore …
The first reading presents us with the struggle of unbelief and belief, of grumbling and trust, of dissatisfaction and peace, played out in the context of a desert - a hard place - and in the presence of a rock. God causes water to issue from the rock. Closer reflection makes it clear that God provides not just the water, but also the rock and the faith of Moses which is instrumental in God providing water from the rock. The Gospel takes up very similar imagery and themes, if its focus is on a journey from the dissatisfaction of life without faith to entrance into the life of faith and thus to eternal life. Again rock and water feature: rock – in the shape of a well, hewn out of the hard ground – but also as a big mountain which was a place of encounter with God and site of worship, and also as the temple, once again made of stone, built on a mountain, and like a mountain used as a place of worship; and water seen now as spiritual, divine, eternal life, in contrast to physical water.
In looking for a solution to the conundrum of the rock and the hard place, it is tempting to go straight to the water, seeing it as a third option. However, I think the key is to recognise the potential in the rock, but that means seeing the rock the right way. It was very reasonable for the Jews to suppose that water would not emerge from the rock, though every natural spring or well hints that it is not impossible. God knew what could be done and God planted faith in Moses that, working in obedience, meant God provided for the needs of his people and relieved their dissatisfaction. The rock is an example and wider symbol of God’s special provision for his people, even amidst difficulties, that is ‘in hard places’.
What then is the rock in the Gospel scenario? What is the mountain where God is really encountered? What is God’s true temple? Well, the answer to all these questions is to be found in the person of Jesus. And to the Samaritan woman, Jesus did not at first appear to have much more potential than a lump of rock. The woman did not at first see in the dusty, dirty and thirsty Jew who sat next to her, the saviour of her own people, a people long despised by most Jews. But Jesus did make a deep impression on her as the conversation developed, demonstrating he knew not only the details of her life but with these he also knew her inner pain and shame but still accepted her and offered eternal life to her. In his example, and in his words and offer, a spring of life issued forth to her. And she received it. She came to recognise him as sent by God as the Christ. She sensed and in a way named and confessed God within him, beyond and within his humanity, but one with it. She came to faith and so a spring of water, of divine life sprang up in her. This seemed absurd to the apostles who did not see her as fruitful ground. Yet she was so fruitful that others came to believe as well. She watered others with the water now flowing from her and sent them to its source: Jesus. It is Jesus then who is the temple, the mountain, the rock. (See also 1 Cor 10:3-4.)
Let us now return to experiencing life as being between a rock and a hard place. Let me suggest that it is a setting that faces us all at some time. I would suggest that the hard place is life without faith or life when faith is tested. The Israelites faced it, parched in the desert. Would God provide? Moses faced it there too, feeling threatened in his ministry, sensing God might let him down. The Samaritan woman faced it, in the chaos and shame of a life of broken relationships, which probably made her an outcast even amongst a people, seen as outcasts. Where do we face it? We may face it in situations similar to these or in other ones, but sometimes we will face it. We will be in a hard place, seemingly trapped there, seemingly between a hard place and an equally unpromising rock. And what should we do?
Let us embrace the rock! Let us go to where we have heard that God is present. In regard to Jesus, it means embracing what might seem to be the unpromising material of his humanity but in doing so we will find and see God within, offered to us. Grace works that illumination in us - just as it did in the Samaritan woman! Further let us be so bold as to believe that Jesus, especially in his death, affirms just how much God loves us in our brokenness, our sin. Jesus, made into sin, made into seeming hardness, dead, is split open and pours His Spirit into us (cf Jn 19:31-37). Nothing now need separate us from God. Our poverty, our sense of bleak emptiness, our desert dryness enables us to receive him! We can encounter God in any hard place, in any rock. God meets us while we are in our problems, most poignantly, as Paul stresses today, while we are still sinners. Let us take all our hard places to the rock which is Christ. Then we are no longer trapped!
And let us offer the rock to others. Moses most probably felt a bit self-conscious, even silly, when about to strike a rock in front of a sceptical, disillusioned, even angry crowd. We may be tempted to feel similarly awkward in offering Jesus to people, in pointing to him as their best option. But Jesus is capable, by grace, of showing them the divine depths in his warm humanity, of showing the real acceptance his death brings, of touching them with the Spirit such that they see hope in the hard place and a way ahead, of instilling faith and confidence, and of pouring the living water of eternal life into them. The Good News is that God has joined us in the harshness and hardness of our lives and, sharing it, he offers to us the water of divine life.
Let us turn anew, like the Samaritan woman, to the living rock which is Jesus and so receive living water. And let us also bring others to him as well, that they too may receive living water, and be built with us as living stones into the temple of which he is the corner stone.
The prophet Micah refers to several geographical locations in today's first reading. The lush wooded mountain region of Gilead is on the east side of the Jordan, noted for its dense forests and fine springs of water, its olives, grain, and vineyards. And the water from Gilead nourished the plains of Bashan east of the Sea of Galilee. Bashan was the most fertile belt in the Holy Land, noted for its grain and rich pasture. Across the Jordan river valley is Mount Carmel, renowned for its beauty, its breathtaking views of the sea, and as the holy place where Elijah clashed with the prophets of Baal, and God revealed his power. As such, Carmel is a symbol of beauty, fertility and faith, and the name Carmel means 'garden'. In the Christian tradition, Carmel came to be associated with the Virgin Mary, and was a symbol of spiritual perfection, for on Mount Carmel, the soul encountered God and was united to him.
The first reading thus refers to these places of fertility and life, and asks that God might have mercy, and care for his people once more, and show them his "compassion ... treading underfoot our guilt". And God is to manifest this "clemency", and his "faithfulness to Jacob and grace to Abraham" which he promised "to our fathers from days of old", precisely by bringing his people back from the deadly deserts of sin to the abundance, prosperity, and fecundity of Gilead, Bashan, and Carmel.
It is apposite that these readings come right after the feast of the Annunciation, for on that day God indeed made fertile the closed Carmel (i.e., garden) of the virgin Mary's womb. And through the wondrous act of the Incarnation, God showed his compassion for sinners, and, through grace, restored us to a new and super-abundant life. And in his Son, Jesus Christ, God himself is our Shepherd who leads us to green pastures, and to drink from the living waters of his Spirit. Therefore, everything that Micah prayed for came to pass in an excellent way in the Incarnation of Christ which we celebrated in yesterday's feast. Hence, echoing what the prophet says God will do in Micah 7:18-20, Mary proclaims that God has indeed accomplished them. God has "filled the hungry with good things ... He has helped his servant Israel [i.e., Jacob] in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever".
So, God has shown us "wonderful signs" again, and he does let us "feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old". What remains for us during Lent and indeed, throughout our life, is to make the ascent of Mount Carmel. And this journey to spiritual union with God and the perfection of our faith is accomplished with the grace of God. On our part, we must first come to our senses and repent, as the prodigal son did, and return to the Father who is waiting to embrace us. For he is "the God who removes guilt and pardons sin... who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency".
The Annunciation is the turning point in human history because it is the moment in which the Word became flesh in the womb of Mary. It is at once the fulfillment of Old Testament joy and the beginning of New Testament grace.
What were the greatest joys spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures? One was the joy of a barren woman discovering that she was to have a child. Such was Sarah, the aged wife of Abraham, who bore Isaac, the mother of Samson, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. Mary says to the angel, ‘how can this come about since I am a virgin?’ Here is a different kind of infertility, a conception even more extraordinary than those of Samuel, or of John the Baptist. Here, without any violence or intrusion into His creation, God’s creative power brings into being the human nature that the eternal Son of God took to Himself.
Another great moment of joy is that of being in God’s presence. The most striking example of this is the dance of King David as he welcomed the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. His wife, watching from a window, was not amused that her husband should throw off his clothes to disgrace himself in front of the servants. David’s joy was unrestrained, however, a joy overflowing because God was in the midst of His people (2 Samuel 6). The angel Gabriel says to Mary ‘rejoice because the Lord is in your midst’. God is with us in a new and remarkable way: how could we not be joyful?
A third great experience of joy in the Bible is the liberation of slaves. The defining moment in the history of the relationship between the Hebrews and their God is the crossing of the Red Sea. The Lord brought them out of the land of Egypt and led them from the place where they had been slaves to a place of freedom, a land flowing with milk and honey. This joy too is contained in the Annunciation, for the child who is to be born of Mary will be called Jesus. The child born of Mary is the new Joshua, saving his people from their sins and leading them into the Kingdom of God.
Add to these a final moment of great joy, that of the renewal of the covenant. The people sinned again and again, but just as often God offered a covenant to them and taught them to hope for salvation. The new covenant whose first act is the annunciation to Mary is the one foretold by Jeremiah, an everlasting covenant sealing the everlasting love with which God loves us (Jeremiah 36 and Isaiah 54).
The grace announced here is life in the presence of God, freedom in an enduring relationship of love with God. It is the moment in which the new creation begins. And here is a final, joyful wonder. In the first creation the only one to speak was God. ‘Let there be light’, he said, ‘and so it was’. But in the new creation a new grace appears as God enables His human creatures to participate in the work He is doing for them: ‘Let what you have said be done to me’, Mary says. This is the most remarkable mystery of grace, that God who comes to save us gives us the victory. It is one of us – Mary’s Son, our Brother, Jesus Christ – who has achieved salvation for us. He is truly our joy and our grace.
In today's gospel we find the parable of the unnamed rich man and the destitute Lazarus. During their time on earth these two were separated by the rich man's gates which divided the world of luxury and plenty from the world of poverty, hunger, and humiliation. The rich man chose to cut himself off from his community and from God, and instead devote his attention to 'fine clothes' and 'sumptuous feasting' (Luke 16:19). It is almost as if this choice of material things over communion, over love, has become fixed in eternity in the form of an 'unbridgeable chasm' (Luke 16:26) between the rich man and his neighbour. After his death the rich man is alone, tormented by the flames of his desire, longing for sensual consolation in the form of a drop of water (Luke 16:24). In contrast Lazarus, who suffered so much at the rich man's gates, is taken to Abraham's bosom by the angels. He is in communion with God and neighbour; he is at rest.
The gospel concludes with a sting in the tail: the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his wealthy brothers of the doom that awaits them if they do not change their ways (Luke 16:27-28). Abraham answers:
'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead' (Luke 16:31).
St. Luke, of course, when choosing what to include in his gospel, knew that in fact someone had risen from the dead. Christ had died, Christ had risen - yet many still refused to believe. For Luke, then, this rejection of Christ stems from a failure to 'hear' Moses. It is a failure to recognize that the Incarnation is a fulfillment of the Old law and that, as Aquinas puts it, what has been made explicit by the revelation of Christ was implicitly held by Moses.
Loosely speaking, then, we can speak of the Old Testament as a kind of Lent, a preparation for God's great act of salvation. At the heart of this prophetic preparation was the profound insight that we must put no false god before the one true God (Exodus 20:3), and that we must turn away from evil and do good (Psalm 34(33): 14). Like the people of Israel, we too are prepared, by Moses and the prophets, to receive Christ. We too need to put away our idols, our worship of things which are not God, and renew our commitment to virtue.
It’s quite common nowadays to come across people who ask why we need God in order to have morality, in other words, to be good people. Like those who plot against Jeremiah in today’s first reading, they seem to say that we could do just as well without him: indeed I’ve heard it argued by such people that an atheist-humanist’s good deed is “better” because not motivated by some future reward but only by selflessness.
This objection, in effect, picks up on the paradox in today’s Gospel, where Jesus tells the disciples, ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant’ (Matthew 20:26). We are presented with the path of humility, but seemingly, there’s compensation at the end of it: “put yourself down now, and God will make it up to you in heaven,” as the atheist might caricature it.
A rather different interpretation, though, is also possible. Perhaps Jesus is not so much telling us what to do in order to be great as how to deal with wanting to be great: in order to grow in virtue, to become better people, we must stop desiring greatness and instead do the opposite – become a servant.
What’s more, this can’t be done without God: with our own human wits we are unable to perceive this true path of virtue, but must imitate the Son of Man – God incarnate as the perfect human being – who gave his life as a ransom for many (cf. Matthew 20:28) to make this possible for us. In this season of Lent, Christ’s example of humility unto death is held before us as we too seek, by his grace, ‘to master our sinfulness and conquer our pride’ (Roman Missal, Preface of Lent III).
Two Buddhist monks were travelling through China when they came to a shallow river. Here they found a young woman in beautiful silk robes. They asked her why she was there and she told them that she could not cross the river because she was worried that she would ruin her garments. The older of the monks offered to carry her across on his shoulders and she accepted his kind offer and they crossed the river and the monks carried on with their journey. The younger monk however believed that his partner's behaviour was scandalous and told him so as they traveled on. He continued to criticise his brother, who remained silent, for about an hour, pointing out that their rule did not allow them to talk to or even touch women and that great disgrace had been caused by his act of kindness. The older monk then interjected: 'Brother, are you not also causing disgrace by holding on to this transgression? I have let it go. Which of us is weighed down more by it?'
This little fable has an important message about sin. During Lent we are called to look at how sin weighs us down. We have to humble ourselves and realise that we need to listen to the voice of the Lord and "learn how to do good". However it is not enough to wallow and revel in the fact of our fallen human nature. Jesus did not come only to tell us that we are sinners. He offers the solution. He does not come to bind us with heavy burdens, that are hard to bear, but through the Paschal Mystery he offers freedom and release. Lent allows us to realise our sinfulness but also realise that our sins have been nailed to the cross with Christ. Through His blood "our sins shall be as white as snow ... they shall become like wool". We cannot cross the river alone but Christ offers to carry us over into the promised land. There is no need to hold on to sin!
Comparing ourselves to others is a very human trait and by extension ‘judging’ is also. For much of the time we are, perhaps, unaware of how often we compare ourselves with our neighbours or for what fleeting reasons. At other times we are much more aware, and rather than allowing the example of another to inspire us to greater things, we often seek to drag others down to make ourselves feel or appear ‘better’. It’s a rather twisted logic but there can be few who have not been guilty of judging another, either in thought or word, and then allowing themselves to feel superior as a result. Today’s Gospel is very much concerned with this rather hypocritical and self-serving judgmental attitude that we can exhibit. But does this mean that all ‘judging’ is off limits?
As a general rule of thumb the next time we make a comment that is not ‘for mutual up-building’ and the ‘Glory of God’, we have probably fallen into the trap! As a Church we believe in the truth. In proclaiming the Gospel we seek to articulate the truth and defend it with all our ability. Accordingly, to condone wrongful actions, sinful behaviour – in our own lives as well as others – would not be right. But we must be aware that the spirit of charitable correction is far removed from that of hypocritical judgement. Luke’s Gospel is then, not advocating a spirit of individualism, whereby we all live our lives according to ‘our truths’ and do not speak out for fear of judging another. No, what is at stake here, is how we view one another and whether we are prepared to treat others as Christ would, with hearts full of mercy and charity, with a willingness to forgive and a joyful acceptance of our reliance on His mercy and grace. As Hebrews 10:24 says, 'let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works'.
However we choose to live, we may be sure that we will receive ‘measure for measure’ that which we give. For there is only one Judge, and we may be sure that he will judge ‘with justice and fairness’. This Lent then, provides a real opportunity for us to examine how we view and treat others - what are our hidden motivations - and above all how we live our relationship with God and His Church and endeavour to co-operate with His grace. 'Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap'.
VATICAN CITY, 18 MAR 2011 (VIS) - In the Holy See Press Office at midday today, the presentation took place of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles", an initiative by the Pontifical Council for Culture which will involve two days of meeting and dialogue between believers and non-believers in Paris, France, on 24 and 25 March.
Participating in today's press conference were Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Fr. Jean-Marie Laurent Mazas F.S.J., executive director of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles", and Stanislas de Laboulaye, French ambassador to the Holy See.
Cardinal Ravasi explained that "at the request of Benedict XVI the Church has decided to embark on a new stage of dialogue, exchange and joint activity among believers and non-believers. This has been entrusted to the Pontifical Council for Culture".
The name "Courtyard of the Gentiles" evokes "the image of the vast area near the Temple of Jerusalem reserved for debates between Jews and non-Jews", the cardinal said. "It complements inter-religious dialogue which has been going on for some decades and represents a long-term commitment of the Church which will interest many people in the world, believers and non-believers alike".
"The aim", Cardinal Ravasi continued, "is to help to ensure that the great questions about human existence, especially the spiritual questions, are borne in mind and discussed in our societies, using our common reason".
The president of the pontifical council went on: "That symbol of apartheid and sacral separation which was the wall of the 'Courtyard of the Gentiles' was cancelled by Christ. He wished to eliminate barriers so as to ensure a harmonious meeting between the two peoples. ... Believers and non-believers stand on different ground, but they must not close themselves in a sacral or secular isolationism, ignoring one another or, worse still, launching taunts or accusations as do fundamentalists on one side and the other. Of course, differences must not be skimmed over, contradictory ideas must not be dismissed, or discordances ignored, ... but thoughts and words, deeds and decisions can be confronted, and even come together", he said.
The Court of the Gentiles
Relations between Christians and Gentiles "can follow the paradigm of a duel", the cardinal concluded, "but what the 'Courtyard of the Gentiles' wishes to propose is, by contrast, a duet. A duet in which the sound of the voices may be at antipodes - such as a bass and a soprano - yet manage to create a harmony without renouncing their own identity; in other words, ... without fading away into a vague ideological syncretism".
The inaugural session of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" will take place on the afternoon of 24 March at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, presided by Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, and attended by diplomats and representatives of the world of culture.
A number of initiatives are scheduled to be held on Friday 25 March: in the morning at the Sorbonne University and in the afternoon at the "Institut de France" and the "College des Bernardins". The day will conclude with a celebration on the forecourt of the cathedral of Notre Dame with the theme: "Into the Courtyard of the Unknown". The event is open to everyone, especially young people. The Pope will address those present from giant screens set up for the occasion, explaining the significance and objectives of the Pontifical Council for Culture's initiative.
One detail in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration not mentioned in either Luke or Mark is that Jesus touched the disciples and told them to stand up. They have done what human beings ought to do in the presence of God: bowed down, fallen on their knees, and put their faces to the ground. But the great outcome of the adoration of God, as distinct from the adoration of anything that is less than God, is that we stand up greater for having worshipped.
Whenever we worship something less than God we must hand over some of our identity to that thing. We are then less than we might be for having worshipped an idol. It may be money, or power, or a group of people, or a political ideology, or a religious organisation, or some vague abstraction: to worship an idol, a false god, always makes us less than what we are. We must pay tribute to whatever it is we worship in that way. We must invest something of ourselves and such false gods have big appetites.
But to adore God Living and True does not mean losing anything of our identity. In fact it means the opposite, for we are not rivals to God and God is not a rival to us. To worship God is to live in the truth. This is the reality of our situation, that we are creatures and servants of God, called to follow the way of His Son. In the presence of God, the Son says to us ‘stand up’. Already we get a glimpse of the greatness that is being revealed, not only the greatness revealed in Jesus Himself but the greatness revealed in Him for us. Today's second reading speaks of it as ‘the power of God who saved us and called us with a holy calling not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago’.
Romano Guardini, a theologian working in Berlin at the height of Nazi power there, decided with colleagues and friends to try to disseminate statements to counter-act what was happening. He decided to write first about adoration, for adoration, he says, is ‘the safeguard of our mental health, of our inmost intellectual soundness’. ‘Whenever we adore God’, he writes, ‘something happens within and about us. Things fall into true perspective. Vision sharpens. Much that troubles us rights itself. We distinguish more clearly between good and evil. … We gather strength to meet the demands which life imposes upon us, fortified at the very core of our being, and taking a firmer hold upon truth’.
To fall on our knees before God expresses the truth of our situation. To be enabled to stand up in the presence of the same God, at the invitation of His beloved Son and through His saving work, is the wonderful grace that has been manifested through the appearing of Jesus our Saviour.
If you're struggling to sell your house, perhaps you might consider buying a St Joseph's home sale kit - it contains a little statue of St Joseph which you're supposed to bury at the property you are trying to sell. It's easy to be cynical about such a practice - there's certainly a danger it could lead to the belief that it's possible to twist God's arm through St Joseph's intercession. But on the other hand, we shouldn't be too dismissive. We all need signs of God's loving providence - it may be through the prayers of St Joseph that we receive such signs, and it seems particularly appropriate that this should be the case.
St Joseph was a central figure in the early life of Christ. Although he wasn't Jesus' biological father, it is clear from the New Testament that the relationship of St Joseph to Jesus was that of true fatherhood. The angel commands St Joseph to name Jesus, and it is through St Joseph's genealogy that Jesus is called Son of David. St Joseph's willingness to cooperate with God's divine plan and marry the Blessed Virgin Mary meant that the child Jesus was able to grow up in a loving and secure family environment. The home should be a place of love and security, and if we invite St Joseph in, it will also be a place where our life with Christ will grow and flourish.
Obedience, Patience, Joy - Funeral of Brother Vincent Cook OP
Fr Denis Geraghty OP preached the following homily at the funeral of Brother Vincent which took place at Blackfriars, Oxford on Thursday 17th March 2011:
Religious orders do not exist as an end in themselves. They come and go in the history of the Church. Their purpose is to manifest the holiness of the Church. When discussing the religious vows, St Thomas Aquinas appeared to think that what made the religious was the vow of obedience. Commitment to poverty and to chastity was admirable, but these vows alone did not constitute a religious. It is worth reflecting on this when thinking about the life of Brother Vincent who lived the religious life for 63 years. Vincent was born in 1924 in Blackburn and entered the Dominicans at the age of 24 making his religious profession in 1948.
Why then is obedience central to the religious life? And therefore to the context in which Vincent lived out his Dominican life? Essential to an understanding of Jesus in the gospels is the obediential nature of his relationship to his Father. The giving of Jesus to the world was an act of pure love - unsolicited, unconditional, and unmerited - and whilst it brought us no nearer to an understanding of the divine nature, it brought to us the embodiment in Jesus of the Father's love for the world. The obediential character of Christ's love was his self-emptying, a kenosis, in which he kept back nothing not even his life.
Religious obedience then is a reciprocal self-emptying and it can be as painful as it can be purifying. Why purifying? Because in living in close community with others we face ourselves as we are shed of the temptation to denial. Our reciprocal process of self-emptying and its obediential character is the rooting out of anything that obstructs the living and the preaching of the gospel. It is an obedience to the task to which God has called us. Poverty and chastity help to free us from obstacles that get in the way but religious obedience binds us to God as it bound Jesus. Both personally and communally it is crucial to the religious life and is what makes it possible for us, personally and communally, to show forth the virtues that make the Church holy.
In this connection we can reflect on patience as a concomitant of religious obedience. In a very beautiful sermon on the passion which appears in the Office of Readings for his feast day, Aquinas comments that the cross provides an example of every virtue and is a model for us in our behaviour. St Thomas looks at the greatness of patience. Two kinds of situation evoke patience, 'when someone puts up patiently with grievous things, or when he suffers things that could have been evaded but did not'.
It is the former that should make us think of Brother Vincent. He could not evade his loss of sight but had to bear it with patience which he did. We need to remind ourselves of the fact that all his life he walked in darkness and though he sometimes needed support, especially when he got older, he defended his independence vigorously. On holiday with him I marvelled at the way in which he could enter a room for the first time and within half an hour know where everything was. He was to be found working in the kitchen preparing the vegetables and in community life was rarely absent from choir.
We often think of 'looking after the sick and the disabled' but we should remember that the sick and the disabled have a great deal to teach us. Isn't it a fact that their lives are a constant sermon being preached to us? Surely their self-emptying is manifest in their acceptance of a certain dependency? Not because they sometimes have little alternative but because they accept in obedience the situation in which they find themselves. This is surely the context for the religious life lived out by Brother Vincent.
We are in the season of Lent preparing for the feast of Easter so there is no reason why we should not end on a joyful note. Not a note of slick eschatological comfort but a comfort that does not sanitise the reality of death but gives it meaning in the resurrection of Jesus. In the gospel of John, when Jesus stood before the tomb of Lazarus and shouted out 'Lazarus, come out', Lazarus came out still wearing his grave clothes. Why? Because he would need them again. The resuscitation of a corpse is not he same thing as resurrection from the dead. Contrast the scene at the tomb of Jesus where the linen clothes were lying about. It was is if Jesus stepped out of them, as if to say 'we don't need those anymore'. Because he didn't need them again and there is our hope and that of Brother Vincent.
We can also say joyfully of a brother who lived the religious life for 63 years, 'well done, good and faithful servant; because you have been faithful in little things I will place you over greater'. May he rest in peace, Amen.
Brothers keeping vigil overnight
Vincent's Coffin plate with braille
fr. Vincent Mary Cook O.P.
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace Amen
"The LORD’s way is not fair!" (Ezeziel 18:25). It would seem so, if one thinks that the moral life is some kind of tally of individual deeds, that it is about the legalistic keeping of laws and commandments, or even, of Lenten penances. Then, it would seem unfair that a man who has racked up a hundred points worth of good deeds should lose them all because he slipped up and committed just one bad deed.
But Ezekiel is speaking of something much more fundamental about morality that reaches to the heart of who the person is. For the virtuous man doesn't need to strive to be virtuous. He acts patiently, kindly, courageously (and so on) because he is patient, kind, and brave; this is who he is. Virtue, then, for the virtuous, is the most natural thing. So, when Ezekiel considers the righteous man who "turns away from virtue to commit iniquity" (Ezekiel 18:26) he means effectively a radical change in who that person is.
It is this deep-seated understanding of goodness and virtue that underlies Jesus's challenge to us to go beyond an external righteousness that is based on the law, or the appearence of goodness. Our penances, and the external deeds we perform are exercises which are part of accquiring virtue but should not be mistaken for virtue itself. So, any kind of superficial moral calculus is dangerous, and leads to death because it is self-deceptive and not truly
good, and hence, not actually life-giving.
For Christian morality is not about a Kantian duty to an external moral imperative, nor about gritted-teeth 'good' deeds and penances. Rather, it is about being transformed by grace and developing a life of virtue, because we know and love the good for its own sake. Indeed, we desire to be good because we desire to know and love Christ, who alone is good. Hence Christ wants us to behave in accordance with our heart, and we must let him give us a "new heart and put a new spirit in [us]" (Ezekiel 36:36). The Christian moral life is thus living in the Spirit, loving Christ who is our life. This entails loving our brothers and sisters in Christ for his sake. Anything less reveals our inmost heart, which is still stony, dead, and false; we need a living heart transplant from the Divine Physician. This Lent, let us place ourselves on the operating table, and entrust ourselves to his healing grace.
Readings: 1 Peter 4:7-11; Psalm 96:1- 10; Luke 5:1-11
St Patrick, a pioneer missionary from Britain to pagan Ireland in the early fifth century, played a major part in the initial evangelisation of the Irish people. Today we face the challenge of what is called re-evangelisation or new evangelisation in Ireland and Britain. This means reaching out with the Gospel to people who have heard and accepted the Gospel in previous generations, and even in this one, but are now turning their backs on it. The situation requires us to preach the gospel again, but aware of the new attitudes and issues and making use of new technologies as well.
Is there anything for this new situation that we can learn from St Patrick in his original situation? A lot, I expect, but I will focus on just one thing. Patrick spent about 6 years as a slave in Ireland after being captured around age 16. He had to face and come to terms with an awareness of the problems and poverty of being human and of how limited he was in determining his future. He persisted in prayer during those years and encountered God in a deep way. Rather than make him bitter this experience of slavery made him humble; rather than make him want to cut himself off from his oppressors, it drew him close to them and gave him a great love for them, and a desire to share the Gospel, sensitive to their culture. In a condensed, or more intense, form this is the process that Peter also went through in today’s Gospel.
Why is this relevant? People in our islands sense that the church has failed people and is arrogant and out of touch, not willing to admit its mistakes or limitations. Rather than withdraw, or act as though we are ‘holier than thou’, or even feel that everything depends on us living perfect lives, let us admit our faults both to God and to others. If the Church is genuinely honest, humble and, where necessary, contrite, it will probably establish a point of contact with wider society, and give space for a better acknowledgment of our common humanity with its limits, fragility and vulnerability.
This may mean we can enter into such solidarity with the people around us that we will be better placed to listen and learn a language in which to effectively express the hope and mercy and grace that the Gospel still offers us, precisely as broken people. Some, perhaps many, of those with whom we have come into a solidarity of human frailty might well then want to come into a solidarity with us of faith, hope and love for, and in, Jesus.
In short, we may need to begin our new or re-evangelisation by meeting and sharing with people at the level of brokenness. This means facing and learning to live with human limits and brokenness, as St Patrick and St Peter did. Lent is a good time to do this, beginning with ourselves.
In today's gospel according to St. Luke we hear Jesus condemn his own 'evil generation' for seeking 'signs' or miracles. The people wanted absolute proof of Jesus' authority before they were prepared to accept his good news. Jesus disappoints them declaring: 'no sign shall be given except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation' (Luke 11: 29-30).
In contrast to St. Matthew's gospel, then, which draws attention to the parallel between Jonah's three days and nights in the belly of the whale and Jesus' time in the tomb (Matthew 38-42), Luke's gospel emphasises instead that both Jonah and Jesus are preaching a message of repentance. Both are calling on their contemporaries to change their ways. Hence the men of Nineveh 'will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah' (Luke 11: 32). Jesus, on the other hand, was handed over to the Romans and crucified.
Yet the repentance of the people of Nineveh seems to have been short lived. In the book of Jonah we read that God decided to spare the city from the destruction he had threatened (Jonah 3:10). Yet in fact Nineveh was destroyed in 612BC by the Babylonians, and Jesus' contemporaries would have known this. This suggests that the conversion of Nineveh in response to Jonah's preaching was a superficial one: after their fast the people returned to their old ways. The city made outward gestures of sorrow for their sins, but did nothing to correct the injustice at the heart of their society and so eventually their sin destroyed them. True repentance, then, is not primarily about outward rituals but, as we read in today's psalm, a change of heart: 'my sacrifice a contrite spirit, a humbled contrite heart you will not spurn' (Psalm 50(51):19).
Yet if Nineveh's conversion was only superficial, why then will its people rise up and condemn Jesus' generation? The answer offered by Jesus is simple: 'something greater than Jonah is here' (Luke 11:32). Unlike Jonah, Jesus offers more than just a message of repentance or change, he also offers himself as the agent of that change. To be made just, to be justified, is to move away from sin and into a right relation with God. This is not something we can do by our own strength. The people of Nineveh could not 'earn' their salvation. Only God can heal the wounds of our sin. Justification comes, then, when we accept God's free gift of salvation. This free gift is offered to us in Christ. We use our Lenten observances, then, to remind ourselves that we depend on Christ alone: we must never fall into the trap of thinking that the observances themselves will save us.
Those of you from the North of England and Scotland who follow Godzdogz may be interested to know that a day about the vocation of the Dominican Friar will be be held at the Priory of St. Albert the Great, Edinburgh on Saturday 2nd April, from 10.30am to 4.00pm.
The day is aimed at men aged 18-35, and will introduce the Dominican Order and give a snapshot of what life is like as a Dominican Friar. As you have seen from Godzdogz, the English Province is a vibrant and increasingly youthful group of men who live a common life of prayer and study, preaching the Gospel in many different ways. Come and see if God might be calling you to join in this work!
To find out more, or to book a place, email the vocations promoter (email@example.com). The closing date for booking a place is the 28th March.
We hear a lot at the beginning of Lent about fasting, almsgiving and prayer as the three practices which should mark this season. In the case of fasting and almsgiving, at least, it’s fairly obvious what they involve, though that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle to do them in the right way and with the right spirit. With prayer in particular, however, it can be very difficult to know if you’re doing it right, and thus very easy to get downhearted and give up trying.
Today’s readings, though, bring us right to the heart of the question. In the Gospel, Jesus himself says quite simply, ‘This is how you are to pray’ (Matthew 6:9) as he gives to the Church, through the Apostles, the Our Father. As St Augustine says, ‘if we pray rightly and fittingly, we can say nothing other than that which is found in the Lord’s Prayer.’
As we seek during this Lenten season to grow in prayer, let us ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to give us an ever greater insight into the prayer which Jesus taught us. Thus may we be ever more closely united with the prayer of Christ, which reached its consummation on the Cross. So united, we can be sure our prayer will “work”, for Christ is the word that goes forth from the mouth of the Lord, who ‘shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it’ (Isaiah 55:11).
At times it can be hard to see the point of some of the commandments and exhortations within the Torah. It can seem strange to us that God would not want the people of Israel to wear mixed fibres, that wives had to stop their husbands fighting in a certain way (or else lose her hand), or that you could eat a locust but not a beetle. However in today's reading from Leviticus, God's commandments seem to be certainly within the realm of common sense. In fact it seems rather shocking that God would have to tell people not to bear false witness, to be honest in financial transactions or not to be frightful to the disabled. In the 18th-century Immanuel Kant would argue that this sort of behaviour was not only moral but reasonable. As we all know, however, humanity's fallen nature is inclined toward the sort of conduct forbidden by the laws in Leviticus.
This self-knowledge of the short-comings of fallen humanity make the prophecy of the final judgement given by Jesus in the Gospel of Mathew rather terrifying. As God is the source of justice, the verdict of Christ at the Second Coming will be perfectly fair. It will not be characterised by vengeance or hatred. It will be truly impartial. Nevertheless, we are fearful of God's judgement because we feel that we will fall short of the divine commands to visit the sick and the prisoner, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked. We worry that our sinful inclinations will keep us below the bar, but that is the beauty and glory of the paschal mystery. Christ's death and resurrection allow us to go beyond the limitations of the Fall. Whilst our Jewish forebears were guided by the Law, we have the New Law of freedom written on our hearts. The season of Lent gives us time to examine ourselves and deepen our relationship with this true and perfect Law. When we do this we glimpse the face of Christ in all our brothers and sisters.
“Support us, Lord, as with this Lenten fast we begin our Christian warfare, so that in doing battle against the spirit of evil we may be armed with the weapon of self-denial”. With this prayer on Ash Wednesday we began the holy season of Lent. Its military imagery is striking, and it is good to be reminded that we are all engaged in spiritual warfare. In fact, we are engaged in this every day of our Christian lives. The best tactic of the Enemy is to lull us into complacency so that we don’t even believe the war is on-going. But the Church stirs our souls, and strengthens us for battle during Lent, and she arms us with the weapons of prayer and self-denial.
The Enemy is not some vague notion of evil, or just our own weakness, or a psychological construct. Rather, the Devil is a real creature, his will fixed on evil and on thwarting God’s plan. As the Pope said in his Lenten Message this year, “the devil is at work and never tires – even today – of tempting whoever wishes to draw close to the Lord”. We can be sure that if he dares to tempt Christ that he will be even bolder in tempting us, but as the first reading says, Satan is “more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made”. So, we have to be vigilant. It’s also important to note that Satan is a creature, and therefore, subject to God. God allows us to be tempted - but never beyond our strength - so that we will be strengthened through temptation, and shame the Devil by showing him what victory grace can accomplish. In fact, Satan ordinarily only tempts us, and he can only succeed if we let him.
The first reading shows us how Satan works. He sows doubt about God’s command, making it seem unreasonable. He then lies, and directly contradicts God’s Word. Satan appeals to Man's pride, and makes God appear to be oppressive to the human spirit, an obstacle to Man’s greater good. All this is a lie, and contrary to the truth of who God is, and what he desires for us - our final good and salvation. Man then falls for the lie because the Devil has exploited some weakness in us: our desire for power, carnal pleasure, creature comforts; or pride, sense of dignity, or what we think we’re entitled to; rights without duties. Satan’s temptation only works if it is parasitic on some good; it has to be attractive to us in itself, and the Devil perverts whatever good we perceive to his own end, which is that we should rebel against God just as he did. So, Eve actually saw the forbidden fruit to be desirable, and thus she was seduced into believing that her desires overrode the wisdom of God. She stopped trusting in Him. Often Man believes that he knows better than God what is truly good for him. And moreover, having sinned, Man then leads others to sin; Eve shares the fruit with Adam. And then, they blame the Devil for their sin. But we can’t do that. Because although the Devil tempts us, he does not make us sin. Only we can choose to follow our misplaced desires, so the blame falls on us, and the Devil then becomes our Accuser, as he’s called in the book of the Apocalypse.
But Christ does not leave us accused and guilty. His Spirit pleads for us, as our advocate, and his grace is poured into our hearts to protect and strengthen us. So Lent is called a joyful time as we take up the weapons of prayer and self-denial so that we can turn towards God, and so be liberated from guilt and sin.
But first we have to be awakened to see what is happening, and today’s readings spell it out. There is a battle for our souls, and the Devil wants us to believe his lies, and follow whatever we desire. “Just indulge yourself”, we’re told, and there are so many ways to rationalize and justify giving in to our emotions and desires. Jesus was hungry and exhausted by the time the Devil tempted him in the desert, but he set his will on obeying God to the end. And that meant denying himself even what was his due; sacrificing genuinely good things, and mastering the will for the love of God. By his grace - and only through a humble reliance on God’s grace - we too can shame the Devil, and mortify the desires of the flesh and our proud willfulness. Then, having died with Christ, we can be certain on Easter day that God will raise us up with him too.
We most often associate Lent as the season for ‘giving something up’, but simply giving something up for the sake of it can be an empty practice. Rather we should seek to create through this a space in our lives whereby we can take on, or recognise, something of more importance and greater worth. Sacrifice then, can play a wholly fruitful role in our lives if it is made in charity. Some sacrifices are less laudable. In today’s Gospel we can recognise both sides of the coin.
The Calling of St Matthew by Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719)
Luke recounts to us the calling of Levi, a tax-collector, later more familiar to us as Matthew. He is presumably a man who knows about ‘sacrifice’. To take on such a role effectively meant placing yourself outside of your own community as a despised collaborator of the Roman government. Tax collectors had a poor reputation among the Jews, to say the least. Taxes are never popular but those taxing on trade from their customs posts were doubly despised: their reputation for dishonesty was legendary. After they had a reached the quota demanded by the Roman authorities they could keep whatever else they made; it was a sure way to make money, and lots of it. So being a tax-collector made you wealthy, secure in possessions, but you had to be prepared to sacrifice family, friends, and the whole Jewish cultural-religious system in which you were raised. Men like Levi were prepared to make that sacrifice, and once made, there was no going back.
When Jesus sees this despised figure sitting at his booth He does not shun him. In fact, He does the unthinkable and asks that he follow Him. He gives him an opportunity that no one else can or will. Levi responds by following: “And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him.” Leaving his post, Levi effectively abandons his old life but without promise of worldly security; his own people do not recognise him and his old post will soon be filled by another. It is a brave decision and his trust in Jesus is remarkable. He once sacrificed everything he had, his very reputation for material wealth, now he makes another choice involving great courage and risks the only thing he has left – his material security – for Christ.
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” In Jesus’ response to the Pharisees we see that no one is beyond Christ’s mercy, not even the tax-collector. We, however, regardless of the nature of our sins, are called to respond. Inevitably, a response to Christ’s call will involve sacrifice, possibly of a radical nature, but if we make the right choice and listen to Him then He will not abandon us and the rewards will be far greater that those that can be given by earthly powers. Like Levi, we all have a choice – sit in our ‘booths’ or rise and follow Him.
"Blessed Jordan, worthy successor of St Dominic, in the early days of the Order, your example and zeal prompted many men and women to follow Christ in the white habit of Our Holy Father. As patron of Dominican vocations, continue to stimulate talented and devoted men and women to consecrate their lives to God. Through your intercession, lead to the Order of Preachers generous and sacrificing persons, willing to give themselves fervently to the apostolate of Truth. Help them to prepare themselves to be worthy of the grace of a Dominican vocation. Inspire their hearts to become learned of God, that with firm determination they might aspire to be 'champions of the Faith and true lights of the world'. Amen."
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