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Today in our Gospel we are presented with a series of sayings by Jesus which it is generally regarded come from quite different sources and indeed from very different situations. Matthew has put them together and presents them as a series of instructions given by Jesus to the Twelve Apostles about how to carry out their mission. This raises the question of Matthew’s authenticity as a Gospel writer.
I suppose the ordinary person who doesn’t give the matter much thought probably imagines that Matthew witnessed everything that is recorded in his Gospel account of Jesus’ life. They might fondly think of Matthew as following Jesus around with a notebook, making little jottings whenever he had a spare moment.
As soon as you begin to think about this you realise that such a thing could not be remotely true. First of all, we must realise the great problem it was in the ancient world to write anything at all, especially when one was on the move.
Paper or its equivalent was very expensive and fragile and the taking of notes was therefore an extremely laborious process. Writing was, in fact, the work of professional scribes and not something generally undertaken by ordinary folk.
However, the other thing that we are mostly unaware of was the extraordinary memories people had. Today, the ease of writing means that we don’t have to remember very much at all and this has in turn meant that our facility for remembering things is very poorly developed.
If you are anything like me you find yourself making lists of things to do; and even then when looking at it later some of the things on the list don’t make any sense at all!
However, even a few generations ago our forebears had extremely good memories and could recite unaided great screeds of poetry, stories and prayers off by heart. Many years ago, I met an old lady who knew by heart most of the New Testament. She was a Methodist and had been brought up in a family who read the Bible together every evening, so that probably explains it. But what a contrast with the modern family, each watching their own TV programmes in quite separate rooms and never reading the Bible at all!
In the early years of the Church there were plenty of people who had been present at one or other of Jesus discourses and who could remember more or less just what he said. They surely told stories about him to each other, taking great delight in remembering all the details and recounting from memory all the things he had taught them.
Yes, there would have been significant variations between one account and another but gradually an accepted version of the particular teaching or incident in the life of Jesus would have emerged. Those who knew the story would tell others and this became a real feature of Christian life especially in the liturgy. And, of course, this is so right down to the present day.
What we are doing in the first part of the mass when we read from the scriptures is precisely this; telling the story. Telling the story of Jesus’ life with special emphasis on his teachings and miracles and how he brought about our salvation. We rely on the accounts given us by the Evangelists and we place great trust in their reliability even if we are quite well aware of the different emphases that they each give.
So, whatever their original context this particular collection of sayings has been gathered together by St Matthew and presented to us as part of Jesus’ missionary discourse to his Apostles.
There are two particular themes in the text set before us today: the first is that the Apostles should not be afraid and the second is that they are truly Christ’s representatives.
By saying, ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’, Christ is preparing them for a difficult ministry. As we know almost all the Apostles died a martyr’s death. But they do not fear persecution because their faith is in the one who is more powerful than anyone on earth. They are not afraid because they know that they are treasured by God himself and it is he who guides and protects them on their mission.
And they are truly Christ’s representatives. As Apostles, their primary task is to declare themselves for Christ in the presence of men; in fact there is no other way of being an Apostle. A secret Apostle is no Apostle at all!
An Apostle must declare who it is he represents. He must do so in words and also by his actions. He must proclaim the Gospel of Christ from the rooftops; that is his principal task. An Apostle is to continue and extend the ministry of Christ in the world. An Apostle is to do the work of Jesus and to bring as many people as he can to knowledge and love of him.
And Jesus promises that his disciples will be vindicated. They will be vindicated in the place that matters most; and that is before his Father in heaven. The judgement of this world is temporary and superficial; the real judgement occurs on the last day and it is in that court that Christ promises that he will speak up for his disciples. The Court of Heaven is the only court that really counts; and it is in that court where the real judgement will be given.
I remember on several occasions talking to people who were either facing death or the death of a loved one who asked me the simple but devastating question: ‘Is it all true?’ All I could respond in such a situation is to say, ‘What else have we to rely on except the promises of God.’
And this is one of those promises: You stand up for me before men and I will stand up for you before my Father in heaven.
But the opposite is also true; should we neglect stand up for Christ in this world, then how can we possibly expect him to stand up for us on the day of judgement?
So, in conclusion let me make a suggestion, a small challenge for the coming week. Sometime during the week speak up for Christ or for the Gospel to someone who speaks against them. Ordinarily you might let a particular sort of comment or assumption pass; but this week stand up for Christ and make your views known.
Do not let your faith lie hidden. And do not be afraid of the consequences of speaking out. ‘What Christ has told us in the darkness, now tell in the daylight! What you have heard in whispers, proclaim from the housetops!’
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
Today we mark the feast of Corpus Christi, or to give it its full title the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It is an important feast in the Liturgical Calendar and it gives us the opportunity to reflect in more detail on the marvellous mystery of the Eucharist that is celebrated each day in Catholic Churches throughout the world.
Of course, you would be right to think that the most appropriate day to celebrate the Blessed Eucharist is Maundy Thursday. And on that day earlier in the year we thought quite a lot about the theology of the Eucharist. However, the Church gives us this additional feast in the course of the year to reflect once again on the Eucharist so as to give us the opportunity to deepen our thinking on this most vital sacrament.
And perhaps that is exactly where we should start by realising that Eucharist is a sacrament and considering briefly just what a sacrament actually is. When we were children in our catechism classes we were taught that a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace’ and this indeed remains an excellent definition of just what a sacrament is.
The Catholic Church and our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church believe that the sacraments are one of the most important ways that God communicates his divine grace to us, the people of his flock. We believe that each of the sacraments was instituted by Jesus Christ and while God certainly transmits his grace to us by many different and various means we can be absolutely certain that whenever a proper sacrament is celebrated it becomes a real and effective channel of divine grace.
We are bodily creatures, we exist within our human bodies and we perceive the world through our five senses. That definition, that a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, is important because it tells us that the sacraments are signs which are perceivable by our senses.
Each sacrament has a particular sign such as flowing water for baptism, the outstretched hand of the priest for reconciliation, anointing for confirmation, ordination and the sacrament of the sick, the exchange of vows for marriage and the bread and wine for the Eucharist.
We can recognise these signs and know that when they are accompanied by the correct words spoken by the proper minister they each constitute a sacrament.
Some Churches do not believe over much in sacraments. It was a point of great debate at the Reformation and commonly Protestant Churches recognise only two, namely Baptism and Eucharist. But in the Catholic Church we definitely recognise the importance of the sacraments and indeed we could be called a sacramental Church. We understand in a profound way the value of these concrete signs as ways of connecting ourselves to the sacred.
Lesser signs are also important and we call them sacramentals; these include actions such as blessing oneself with Holy Water, receiving other blessings, the conferral of ministries, the making of sacred vows and indeed also exorcisms. Religious customs such as saying the Grace Before Meals as a family can also be regarded as sacramentals.
There are many other pious actions that help us to connect with the sacred such as the wearing of medals or scapulars or the occasions when we bless ourselves as we pass a Church. These sacramentals and other signs do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the same way as full-blown sacraments do, but nevertheless they are always able to bring us into closer relationship with God.
The Eucharist is perhaps the sacrament that we come into contact with most often and through it we become the recipients of divine grace. Our attendance at the Eucharist is the principal means by which we stay close to God in our lives, it is the best way we know to give him true worship. By reverently receiving our Lord in the Eucharist we feed the life of the Spirit that is within us.
At mass we are once again connected to the Last Supper and we share in that wonderful meal in which Christ made present in a unique way what he was to achieve by his death and resurrection. When we go to mass it is as if we were sitting around the table of the Last Supper with Christ and his Apostles. This is why it is such a holy and important occasion.
While we are talking about the Eucharist, it might be good for us to stress the proper etiquette for attending mass and receiving Holy Communion. When we go to mass it is important to participate by singing the hymns and saying the responses, listening attentively to the sermon as well as using the time for private prayer as well as we can.
We should also show great respect when it comes to the Eucharistic Prayer. This is not the time to suddenly realise that you need to go to the toilet or decide to root around in your handbag for something. No, the Eucharistic Prayer is the time to show deep and prayerful reverence and to acknowledge the miracle that is taking place on the altar.
It might be good to say a word here about receiving Holy Communion. There are two ways of doing so. The first is by joining our hands and reverently putting out our tongue so that the priest can place the host on it.
The second is by resting the left hand on top of the right hand and holding it out so that the priest can place the host reverently on your hand. Please do not grab the host or stand with one hand in your pocket while casually holding the other out to receive the host. This is the Lord Jesus who is coming into your life at that moment and so it is appropriate to show deep respect.
When the priest or minister says, ‘The body of Christ’ the proper response is ‘Amen’. Also before stepping up to receive Holy Communion it is appropriate to make a sign of reverence. A few people genuflect but most simply bow reverently and then step forward to receive the Eucharist.
These things might seem very simple and unimportant but, if you remember, I started out by saying that we are bodily creatures and this means that the things we do affect the way we think and similarly the way we think is often betrayed by our physical actions.
If a person, for example, waltzes up to receive Holy Communion with their hands in their pockets and chewing gum then it will be obvious to everyone that this person does not recognise the fact that they are receiving the Lord Jesus into their lives. This would not be appropriate.
Receiving the Eucharist is the most important thing that we do all week. Going to mass is coming to an encounter with the Living Lord. Our attendance at mass therefore ought to be a profound spiritual experience and we shouldn’t jeopardise this marvellous opportunity by being inattentive or irreverent.
It is obvious to me that the parishioners here at St Joseph do have a good understanding of the proper way to worship God and indeed it is true that the level of reverence and respect for the Eucharist is high in this Church. But it doesn’t do any harm to remind ourselves of the proper etiquette so that we get the most that we can from the liturgy, which is after all one of God’s most wonderful gifts to us.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
Having come to the end of our Easter celebrations we are now invited by the Church to reflect on the mystery of God himself as we celebrate today the feast we know as Trinity Sunday.
It is good for us to reflect on the mystery of the Godhead from time to time. According to me it is actually vital for us Christians to come to a clear understanding of what God is in himself because our doctrine of the Holy Trinity is generally not well understood.
In fact, members of many other religions find our particular set of beliefs about the nature of God quite incomprehensible. Indeed, we might add that even some Catholics are not fully conversant with the faith of the Church when it comes to this point.
We must start by saying that Christianity is essentially a monotheistic religion. This means that, in common with Jews and Moslems, we believe in only one God. However, our faith takes us one step further than this and states that this one God is made up of three distinct persons.
While there is no definitive statement about the make-up of the Trinity to be found in the pages of the New Testament, it is absolutely littered with references referring to both the Father and to the Spirit and on many occasions Jesus himself makes it very clear that he is completely one with the Father.
From the very earliest times in the Church it has been understood that while there is only one indivisible God, he is actually made up of a Trinity of persons. While the three persons of the Trinity are distinct they share one substance or, as it is also called, one nature. So, although the New Testament doesn’t give us a precise definition of the doctrine of the Trinity it does contain all that we need to know to come to a clear understanding of the nature of God.
The most important thing that the persons of the Trinity share is love and it is this overwhelming love they have for each other that overflows and brings about the creation of the universe and all that it contains. We could therefore say that the act of creation and, in particular, the creation of mankind is an act of love.
This is important because it provides us with the vital clue we need to understand ourselves. We need to know that we were created in love and to come to the fulness of love is our true destiny.
Of course, our inclination to sin means that we constantly drift away from loving God but the corollary to this is that when we actually do choose to love God we must be doing so as the result of a direct act of our will and not out of any compulsion whatsoever. Therefore, when we express our love for God it can only be a completely genuine and totally free act, even if we frequently lapse from it.
This is one of the beautiful mysteries that lies at the heart of creation. God gives us our free will so that we might love him as the result of our own free choice and therefore completely in accord with the true nature of love.
The key to the Trinity is to understand that the three persons who make it up totally love each other and are completely involved in each other’s actions. While we principally see the Father as creator, both the Son and the Spirit are involved in creation. While the Son is our redeemer, both the Father and the Spirit are intimately involved with the work of our salvation. So, although each of the persons is completely unique they are each deeply involved in what the others are doing.
This provides us with a pattern to follow. We too, like them, need to be deeply involved in what those whom we love are doing. We too need to be supporting each other and assisting our loved ones in all that they do. We too need to accompany each other in all our actions at the deepest possible level of intimacy.
The other thing we need to learn from the Trinity is that it is not a closed circle. Their love for each other is not an end in itself, it flows out from them into the creation of the universe. It should be the same with us. The fact that a husband and wife love each other deeply finds its true expression in the bringing to birth of children. But their love for each other leads to more than just the creation of a family it results in the creation of a wider circle of friends and brings into being a whole community of love.
I recently saw a programme on TV about astronomy and watching it helped me to come to a greater appreciation of the extraordinary vastness of the universe. I began to realise that the galaxies are in fact without number and that the universe seems to extend infinitely, certainly far further than it is possible for mankind ever to be able to detect.
Realising that the universe is so huge ought to help us to come to an appreciation of the vastness of the love generated within the Trinity.
We are largely locked within the boundaries of our own world and our own perceptions. We tend to simply see and appreciate only that which is around us. Even as human beings we do not find it easy to comprehend the nature of our own being. We find it hard to come to terms with the meaning of death and we often fail to understand the true purpose of much of what we do.
Because of these reasons it is extremely difficult for us to appreciate the nature of God. When we think about God we mostly find that our experience seems to be formed of his absence. We cannot touch him and we don’t feel we are able to know him in any meaningful way. God often feels distant and uninvolved in our lives.
And yet we Christians believe in his presence. We talk to him every single day. We know that he is near to us. We realise that he is closer to us than we even are to ourselves.
I once read some words of Cardinal Hume, although I can’t recall exactly where I found them; they were something along the lines that there is a reverent agnosticism at the heart of true belief in God. What I think Cardinal Hume meant was that we cannot ever truly know God. There always has to be something that is not fully understood or completely known about God. Because we are not divine ourselves we cannot in this world ever come to an adequate understanding or true appreciation of God.
And while this is surely true we should not end up feeling that this leaves us lacking something essential. Taking into account this unknowing, what I believe we are left with is what can only be termed wonder. One definition of wonder that I looked up stated that it was ‘a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar.’
We may never be able to understand God but we certainly can be amazed by him, we can admire his works and without a doubt we can come to the realisation that he is undoubtedly beautiful, remarkable and unfamiliar.
This to me is the true starting point of all real prayer and contemplation.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
The role of the Holy Spirit is the least clear of the three persons of the Trinity. We generally regard the Father as the presiding member of the Trinity who oversees everything and who brings all that exists into being. We see him as the lawgiver and the maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.
We have no trouble either in understanding the role of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity because he took on human form and brought about our salvation through his sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary and his resurrection from the Empty Tomb. He has returned to the Father but now we wait for his second coming at the end of time as the judge of all.
So far so good, but it is when we come to the Spirit that we have a bit more trouble. The Holy Spirit often seems to be rather undefinable and elusive. Actually though, our beliefs expressed in the Creed are quite clear: ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.’ So, although the Father is the creator we see that the Holy Spirit gives life and this is surely why breath is so closely associated with him.
We know too that the Holy Spirit played a vital role in the conception of Jesus and we read in today’s scripture text of how he came upon the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire and impelled them to preach the Gospel to all the nations.
The Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in the sacraments, most particularly in the Sacrament of Confirmation. He enters the lives of the Confirmation candidates in an important way and bestows on them special gifts enabling them to play their full part in the life of the Church.
We could say then that the Holy Spirit is the action of God in the world who leads, inspires and guides the Church down through the ages. Most particularly he plays a crucial role in keeping it free from doctrinal error.
In short, the Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God in the lives of believers. It is his role to keep us faithful to our beliefs and to continually shower us with God’s grace as we pass through the various stages of our life.
We need to see today’s Feast of Pentecost as part of the whole picture. Christ came into the world on the first Christmas Day and then after thirty years of obscurity began his three years of teaching and healing. This culminated in his death on the Cross and then his resurrection from the Empty Tomb. He appeared to his Disciples on quite a number of occasions and then having completed his work on earth he ascends to the right-hand side of the Father.
Then comes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost, occurring fifty days after Easter. It marks the birth of the Church, as it came to the profound understanding that its role was to spread knowledge and love of Jesus throughout the world.
It is no mistake that for the Jews Pentecost was a harvest feast called the Feast of Weeks, in the Christian dispensation it marks the beginning of the new harvest of souls that the Church reaps for Christ. The name Pentecost itself comes from the Greek word Pentēkostē which means the fiftieth day, because Pentecost occurs fifty days after Easter.
The account of Pentecost Day itself comes from the Acts of the Apostles and literally describes what happened on that great day. The Gospel, however, gives us an account from the Gospel of John which tells us about an appearance of Christ to the Disciples in the Upper Room. It tells us how he breathed on them saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. For those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’
We should note a few points. The first is that the Disciples were cowering behind locked doors but they proved to be no obstacle to Jesus. This reminds us that we ought to keep the doors of our lives always open to him. Of course, Christ can break down any barriers that we put up to keep him out, but the prudent thing for a true Christian is to throw open the doors of our lives so that Christ can be welcomed in.
The second thing to note is that we have here the birth of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession, as we commonly call it. This sacrament is closely associated with the Holy Spirit. It is made particularly clear in the words of absolution spoken by the priest, ‘God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.’
So, the Holy Spirit has a vital healing and reconciling and forgiving role in the world.
You will notice too in that passage that when Jesus appears in the room he says the words ‘Peace be with you’ not just once but twice. Pope Benedict has described these words as forming a bridge of peace between heaven and earth. It is this bridge that we climb over to reach our true fulfilment with God in heaven.
But, of course, by these words Christ indicates his purpose of bequeathing the Holy Spirit to his disciples. The Holy Spirit is above all the spirit of peace. The Holy Spirit’s role is to establish peace and reconciliation in the world. It is his aim to bring peace and tranquillity to all who have given the Gospel a home in their lives.
And in a final point we should note that Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to the Disciples by breathing on them. This, naturally enough, alludes to the first breath of life blown into the nostrils of man as recorded in the Book of Genesis. ‘God fashioned man from the dust of the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and this man became a living being.’
We see here then the breath of new life blown into our nostrils so that as part of the Church we can bring the Good News of salvation to the whole world and so build up a community of true believers who will worship God in spirit and in truth.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
The Feast of the Ascension marks the completion of Christ’s work of salvation. Having accomplished his mission on earth Jesus returns to his rightful place at the side of the Father. Even though he no longer lives with us the work of God continues in the world with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles which we celebrate in a week’s time.
You might think that there is something a bit peculiar about the Ascension, something a bit strange about the image of Christ rising vertically to the heavens. The words used in the Acts of the Apostles are that ‘he was lifted up while they looked on until a cloud took him from their sight.’
Even though during his life on earth we know that Jesus could perform miracles and seemingly, after the resurrection, could even appear and disappear at will, the idea of him rising vertically up into the sky is hard to credit. I was once amused at hearing a friend of my father describe the Ascension as, ‘The Feast of the Vertical Take-Off.’
I’ve actually seen rustic sculptures in Bavaria amusingly showing a pair of feet poking out of a cloud in an effort to depict the Ascension. However it is portrayed, the Ascension of Jesus is a historical fact. Whether Jesus actually made a sort of vertical take-off or whether he disappeared in some other way, he had to return to his rightful place with the Father in heaven.
Once his work was accomplished and this included a few post-resurrection appearances, so that there was no mistake that he had actually risen, and some last-minute farewell words, Jesus had to return to the Father. He wasn’t going to die again and so there had to be a mechanism which would permit him to return to heaven; and rising through the clouds is as good a way as any.
The important thing for us is that Jesus has accomplished the work of salvation and it is now our role to get on with making that salvation a reality for everyone in the world. If we think of the Nativity as marking the beginning of Jesus’ work then the Ascension marks its completion and according to me these two feasts ought to be celebrated with an equal amount of joy and feasting.
Sadly, in the liturgy, the Feast of the Ascension ends up being treated as a minor event. Some years ago, when it was a Holyday of Obligation, the Ascension was generally one of the worst attended of them all.
Today in England and Wales the feast has been transferred to the nearest Sunday so at least it is marked by more people who listen to the account of the Ascension in the scripture readings and have its meaning and purpose explained to them by the priest. Nevertheless, the Ascension doesn’t seem to be regarded with the same importance as Pentecost or Corpus Christi which generally occur around the same time.
In our liturgy today we try to celebrate the Ascension with a certain solemnity and we sing appropriate hymns which draw our attention to the importance of the feast.
It is vital to realise that this was a bodily return to heaven. Jesus is not like us who leave a cadaver behind while our souls fly up to God. The significance of the feast is that Jesus returns to the Father with his body intact. We should note that this body is his risen body and although it bears the marks of the Crucifixion in his hands, feet and side it is not exactly the same as our bodies since we know that in this body Jesus was able to appear and disappear at will.
The important point here is that Jesus retains his humanity. As we know Jesus is both fully human and fully divine and the biblical account of the Ascension affirms that Jesus holds on to his humanity, it is not something that he adopts at his birth and leaves off at his death.
The fact that Jesus returns to the Father with his humanity intact tells us that our own humanity is fit for the Kingdom of God. We realise that heaven is our true destiny and that on that final day of days we too will be reunited with our bodies. At that point, we speak of them as glorified bodies because we will be then living in a new and non-physical spiritual realm, nevertheless we understand that they will be recognisably human, identifiably ourselves.
The disciples were told by the angels who appeared immediately after the Ascension, ‘This same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.’ By this we understand that on the Last Day Jesus will return and sit in judgement as a recognisable human person. We will all gather before him on that great day of days in order to face the final and general judgement.
What this means is that the Ascension is the ultimate affirmation of the importance of our bodily existence. Christ adopts our human form, he lives with us, he dies and rises from the dead and with this body he returns to the Father. Jesus remains both human and divine ever afterwards. We in our turn, are on the Last Day reunited with our bodies in a glorified form and are enabled to live with God forever in heaven.
So, you can see that this lovely Feast of the Ascension is celebrating some important things. What it means has great significance for each one of us. The events of the first Ascension Day mean that our humanity is fully recognised and sanctified by God. Despite all that has happened, despite the fall of man, regardless of all the sinfulness, we are now redeemed and the way to eternal life is opened up for us. And this eternal life is not just for a spiritual part of ourselves but it is for the whole of us, for our bodies and for our souls.
It is also instructive to look at the actions of the disciples as Jesus was withdrawn from them. It says in the text that they were still staring into the sky when the angels came to give them an explanation.
I have often heard it said that this is how we should live our lives in the post-Ascension world, with our eyes fixed on heaven. Well, maybe not both our eyes on heaven, as we need one eye to see the things on earth, the things that are in front of us.
What we need perhaps is one metaphorical eye still gazing up at heaven while we live out our lives here in this world. We need to keep one eye on our final destination to make sure that we do not lose sight of it. We ought always to make sure that we keep an eye on our final goal.
Where Jesus has gone we will surely follow and it is vital for us to keep the desire to attain that goal, to be with him for all eternity, as well as throughout the entirety of our lives here on earth.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
We continue our reading from the Farewell Discourse as recorded in the Gospel of John which we began last week. Today we hear some very reassuring words from Jesus. He tells us that he will ask the Father to send us an Advocate to remain with us. This is, of course, none other than the Holy Spirit who will continue to lead and guide us and give us comfort in times of distress.
It is an appropriate choice of reading since we are coming close to Pentecost when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. We will be hearing a lot more about the Holy Spirit as we come up to Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.
I’d like to focus a little on the opening words of today’s text, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’ Notice how this sentence is phrased; it says that if we love God we will keep his commandments. This is opposite to the way we would ordinarily think which is that obedience to the commandments is a precondition to our loving God. We tend to think that we can only truly love God if we are already following his commandments.
But this is not how Christ sees things. According to him having a deep love for God means that we want to please him and so we are filled with the desire to do his will and to follow his commandments. This means that our motive is not fear of a God who will punish us if we disobey him. Our motive is solely one of love and the consequent desire to please God.
We need to be constantly aware that the basis of the Christian faith is love. Of course, we understand that love is what God is all about; we realise too that the only way to achieve harmony with God is to live a life filled with love. It is love which needs to be our motivating force; we need to put our whole energy into living as truly loving persons.
This will inevitably require sacrifice which is the bedrock of all love. No one can love without making sacrifices for their beloved and it is the same with religion. The true believer is constantly making sacrifices for God and for their neighbour; the Christian realises that these sacrifices are the evidence that their lives are filled with love.
You can see here the profound switch from the Old Testament approach with its emphasis on a more wrathful God to the New Testament way of looking at things which understands that God is pure love. This marks a significant growth in mankind’s comprehension of the nature of God.
We can see this gradual growth and development of our understanding of God over many centuries as humanity moved from first worshiping earthly and inanimate objects through to believing in a multiplicity of Gods who lived in a spiritual realm. Only after a long time did mankind come to appreciate the revelation to Abraham that there is only one God. We then made the highly significant move from believing that this one God was harsh and judging into the Christian dispensation where it is revealed to us that God is all love and that he is a Trinity of persons.
Our desire to please God, as we have seen, changes our attitudes to God’s commands. No longer are they seen as a set of laws that a capricious God requires us to conform to. Rather they are seen as the best way to live out our human existence. We see God’s laws as life-enhancing and enriching. We see following them as the way to our true fulfilment rather than anything onerous or burdensome.
I read a little phrase in a book a few days ago, ‘To love the world is no big chore; it's that miserable person next door who is the problem.’ All too often this is our difficulty. We have no trouble with love in the abstract; we often see ourselves as very open, tolerant and loving people. That is until we come across some actual real people, especially those who get on our nerves.
As we encounter this ‘miserable person next door’ we suddenly experience a problem. The way they speak and act annoys us deeply and soon enough our wonderful open and loving attitude comes to a full stop. The little irritations of everyday life can swiftly bring to an end our highest ambitions to live our lives in the way God wants.
Often, we cannot explain just how another person irritates us. We do not understand what is happening, we simply experience an aversion to them. Something they do or say jars or annoys us and we end up very irritated. It then becomes impossible to show love to them.
Some of the things that irritate us about others may have a cause and that cause might be because they don’t feel loved enough themselves. Maybe that’s why they irritate us; they might be somewhat inept in their personal relationships because they don’t feel loved enough.
When we encounter such a person we often don’t react very well and it might also be this reaction that is making them feel unloved. One thing feeds on another and the more we react negatively to whatever it is they are doing leads them to behave in an ever more irritating way.
The only thing to do in these circumstances is to stop in our tracks and to review our own actions. Then we need to try to act more positively towards them, even if we don’t feel that really mean it. We might be surprised how their behaviour changes as a result.
It might be that what was previously a negative spiral now turns into something which is more positive. The upshot might be that we start to see things in them that we like a lot better than those aspects of their character that caused us so much irritation to begin with.
Beginning to realise that those things that irritate us in others might have its origins in our own behaviour may just be the clue we need to put these relationships back on track. The psychologists call this projection; it often happens that we see our own faults reflected in the life of other people. It is always then good when someone irritates you to take a good look at yourself in case the fault lies with you and not the other person.
Showing Christian love might be our highest ambition but it may falter when we encounter actual living people. Christian love is absolutely useless unless it survives contact with the real world.
One possibility when we find ourselves in such circumstances would be, before we do or say anything, to imagine ourselves sitting round that table of the Last Supper together with the Apostles listening to Jesus say the words we have just heard in today’s Gospel.
That brief moment of meditation might be all we need to put us on the right track and help us to overcome our instinctive reactions and lead us to act towards whoever is in front of us in a truly Christian and loving way.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
The Gospel text we are presented with today is the opening passage of what we call the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. At the Last Supper the feet of the disciples have been washed, Judas has left the room and Jesus has predicted Peter’s denial; at this point Jesus begins a long discourse which extends over four chapters.
This Farewell Discourse is a kind of last instruction for his disciples during which Jesus recapitulates his teaching, tries to give them reassurance and prepares them for the dramatic events of the next couple of days. The language used is often very tender and it is clear that Jesus is speaking to them with a heavy heart but with great love.
The opening words today are a good example of this, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me.’ Jesus doesn’t want to cause the disciples any anxiety but he is insistent that they understand just what is about to happen. Most of all he needs to be sure that they fully appreciate the content of his teaching and that they will hold on to it.
Obviously, Jesus does not want to upset the disciples but he still wants them to be absolutely clear that he is going to face death. He intends that they realise that death is not the end but the beginning of a new and better life with God in heaven. Hence his roundabout way of speaking, ‘I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be too.’ You might think that this sounds rather elliptical and unclear; but remember the text extends over four chapters and by using non-alarmist words like this Jesus gradually gets his message across to them.
Of course, the disciples are not going to understand everything that Jesus says all at once; however, they will recall much of what he says as they face the events of the next few days and their recollection of these words will give them reassurance at a desperate time.
You can see the disciples' confusion and lack of understanding reflected in Thomas’ words when he says, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way.’ But even by expressing these doubts Thomas gives Jesus the opportunity to utter one of his most profound and most memorable sayings, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’
It will not be a surprise to anyone to realise that the first part of this Gospel passage is very frequently used for funerals. The text reads, ‘There are many rooms in my Father’s house; if there were not, I should have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be too.’
These words have given great comfort to many Christians in their hour of grief when a loved one has passed away. These words of Jesus fill us with hope and the impression they give of heaven being made up of lofty chambers through which our deceased ones can stroll is a very comforting one.
It is very soothing to hear these words of Jesus telling us that he has prepared a place for each one of us in his heavenly kingdom. We feel that this place will be well suited to us, each with our own individual characteristics, and we realise that we will undoubtedly feel at home in God’s celestial city.
These few sentences can be regarded as one of the promises of God. And the promise is that there is a place in the Kingdom of God tailor made for each of us.
Reassuring as these words of Jesus are which tell us about life beyond the grave, we should realise that our faith is not simply about coping with death. Our faith is primarily about how to cope with life and all that it brings us. Here we need to focus on the words, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’
Jesus is telling us that we need to place our whole selves in his hands right now. He tells us that he is the way. By this we don’t just mean that he lays down instructions and guidance on how to live in the world but that what we ought to be doing is imitating him in every aspect of his own life on earth. It is by living our lives like he lived his life that we will attain true fulfilment.
And he is the truth; by this he means not just that we ought not to tell lies but that through following his will we will come to a fuller understanding that all truth radiates outwards from him. While we understand that there is no falsehood or lie to be found in Jesus, these words mean more than that; Jesus means that he is the source and fountain of all that is right and good and true and authentic.
It is from him that all meaning comes and in him that all which exists has its origin. He is the focus of everything in the material world and everything in the world of ideas. All these things take him as their reference point and whatever meaning they contain comes directly from him.
And he is the life. He is the origin of everything that lives. Scientists have explored every facet of human and animal life; they are even able to interfere with DNA, which is the inner structure of every living thing, and yet they have absolutely no idea where life comes from or in what it consists. But we know the answer to this question: all life comes from God and without him there is nothing that can have life or meaning.
What we ought to realise is that without God there is no life worth living and that if we want to reach our full stature as human beings then we need to place our life in his hands and live it as if he were living it in us. This is the very best way for us to live our lives in an authentic way, to live it in complete accordance with the maker’s instructions.
With this rather brief reflection we recognise that in this short phrase of Jesus, which tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life, we find the deepest and most profound source of our being and the meaning behind everything that exists. Brief words maybe, but filled with enlightenment most certainly.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
The first reading and the Gospel text chosen for our Sunday liturgies are usually connected in some way but today this does not at first sight appear to be the case. We are given an extract from the speech Peter made to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost in which we are told that about three thousand were added to their number. The Gospel text is the first part of chapter ten of John’s Gospel telling us about the Good Shepherd.
The first reading is a speech given by the Apostles to the crowd in which they explain what happened to Jesus and with a plea for the people to repent and the Gospel is an explanation by Jesus of his role as the shepherd of his flock. It focusses on his role of protecting and guiding his sheep and expresses the deep love that he has for them.
The Pentecost reading needs to be seen in context and we ought to recognise that it came directly after the great sound of wind and tongues of fire coming to rest on the heads of the Apostles who then go out to the people miraculously preaching in various languages. So then what we have before us is part of the text of the first attempt at evangelisation which we are told was extraordinarily effective.
Although they appear to be very different the two texts are, of course, linked. They are linked because the Good Shepherd who leads and guides the flock works through the words and actions of the Apostles. And on the Day of Pentecost those Apostles were teaching and leading and guiding the people, which are the very actions spoken about in that chapter from John’s Gospel. They were acting as delegated shepherds of the people on behalf of Jesus Christ.
Of course, we know that this continues in the Church right down to the present day. It is the role of the Pope and the Bishops to continue the work of the Apostles as it is of their co-workers, the priests and the deacons.
The role of the Bishops and the priests is to carry on Christ’s work of shepherding his flock. They lead and guide and protect the flock which is the Church but they don’t do this in any authoritarian kind of way but rather with patience and care and concern. It is their duty to explain the scriptures and the doctrine of the Church to the community. It is also their role to warn the people of error and to comfort them in times of need and difficulty.
We see that the role of the ordained leaders of the Church is to help the faithful people to remain close to the Gospel values of love, justice and peace. It is to enable them to grow in their love and knowledge of God. It is to guide them in the ways of truth. They also, of course, lead the people in the worship and adoration of the one true God.
This role of leading and guiding the people of God means also enabling leaders within the Christian community to emerge at every level. It means encouraging those with ability to use their talents in the service of others so that the whole community can grow in the love and service of God.
You can see why then this Sunday is chosen as one on which we stress vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life. This shepherding function is essential to the life and healthy growth of the Church which is why we take the opportunity to point out that the numbers coming forward to fulfil these positions in the Church is declining and that this presents us all with a problem.
If our leadership is being spread thinner and thinner and if it is aging rapidly then we are approaching a crisis in the Church. It will mean that Parishes will have to be merged and masses reduced and ministry limited.
Some people believe that there are easy solutions to this problem such as to ordain married men or to permit women to become priests. Some Churches have already done both of these things but they are still facing a decline in the numbers of those in the ordained ministry. So, there are no easy answers.
The Catholic Church has not taken this approach because it believes that making the sacrifice not to marry is of great value to priests and that the ordination of women was not sanctioned by Christ. This determination to stick to traditional values has actually meant that the vocation crisis has not devastated our Church as much as it might have otherwise. Nevertheless, there is still a sharp decline in numbers of priests and especially religious and this is a problem we need to solve.
What is needed I believe is greater fidelity on behalf of the whole Church. If we were all stronger in our faith, if we were all a bit better at inculcating the faith in our children, if we were all more fervent in our Christian duties then I believe that more vocations would come. If our young people grew up in circumstances which enabled them to be firm and lasting believers then undoubtedly more would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to express a priestly or religious vocation.
What is needed, in my view, is a deepening of the culture of faith. Above everything I believe that this means we need to pray and talk about the faith together. In how many Catholic families have we forgotten how to pray together? In how few Catholic families do we actively encourage discussion about matters of faith? I think that there is a lot of work to be done in both of those areas.
Let me give you two simple suggestions: The first is to make sure you do not start a meal without a grace and a couple of bidding prayers. The second is to discuss what the priest said in his sermon over your Sunday lunch. If not the sermon, then talk about those little quotes I put in the bulletin each week; those little gems of knowledge surely speak to us all.
The problem is that the values of modern day society are so prevalent and all-encompassing that it is hard to resist them. We want to live good, fulfilling and prosperous lives and often we are led to believe that this only goes with worldly success.
The world tells us that success is measured by the amount in our bank account and the size of our property but we Christians know that this is not so. We know that true fulfilment is found in depth of faith and the extent of our sacrifices. We know that true value is not to be found in selfishness but in generosity and love.
So, today let us ask God to bless us with more priests, deacons and religious. And let us support those who are discerning God’s call with our prayers during these days.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
I hear myself so often from this lectern saying that this or that Gospel reading is one of the most beautiful in the Bible. But surely today’s story of the disciples going to Emmaus must be in the Scriptural Top Ten. So many of my friends tell me that it is their favourite reading and I certainly would include it in my own list of Desert Island Bible Stories.
Why? Because it is such a human story, and it is about one of the greatest mysteries we know, the encounter with the risen Lord in the Eucharist. It tells us the about this great sacrament we celebrate here each day.
One writer I know reckons that because it says in the text that there were two disciples but only one name is given ‘Cleopas’, the other disciple must have been his wife. He says that this could be the same Cleopas mentioned in John 19:25 where it gives the names of those who stood at the foot of the Cross and speaks about Mary the wife of Cleopas.
If this scripture scholar is correct then I think it gives a wonderful new dimension to the story. The Eucharist is about sharing, there is no closer sharing of two people than in the sacrament of marriage. What a wonderful thing to have happened that the first celebration of the Eucharist after the Last Supper should by with the risen Lord himself together with a married couple.
‘He made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them. “It is nearly evening” they said “and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.’
Things were no different then to what they are now. It was not safe to continue a long journey on foot in the dark. It was too dangerous. So out of concern for their companion’s welfare and because they were so engrossed in hearing what he had to say about the scriptures and how these made perfect sense of the events they had witnessed in Jerusalem they press him to stay with them.
These are some of the details that give this Gospel story the ring of truth. We have no difficulty in seeing ourselves in the situation and doing the same sort of thing. Two thousand years may have passed by but human nature remains the same.
Jesus stays with them and enjoys their hospitality, and then during the meal he took ‘their’ bread and broke it. This is another little detail which is worth drawing attention to. Jesus did not give them something, he took what they had given him. He said the blessing, broke it and gave it back to them. It is in this wonderful exchange of gifts that the Eucharist takes place. We get back what we give. You will notice how the same thing occurs in the mass.
It reminds me of the story of the rich man going to heaven being shown the mansions in which the poor lived and who was very put out when shown the hovel he was expected to live in. St Peter said to him: ‘But we can only build with what you send on ahead.’
Jesus only gives us what we give him, but he transforms it and becomes part of it. We give him our time in prayer, we give him our tongue when we speak the truth, we give him our hands when we help the weak, we give him our feet when we visit the sick, we give him our minds when we study the Gospels, we give him so many things.
And he blesses them and breaks them and returns them to us. But they are returned transformed. They have been broken which means that they bear the imprint of the Cross. But it also means that they have been shared. Our gifts to him are returned with a blessing. They bring blessings on us and on the whole Christian community. They help to make us one.
You might say that these are nice pious thoughts, but don’t mean much. Well, I’m telling you, you would be wrong. And I suggest that you open your eyes and look around you because this process of transformation is going on around you. Look along the pew and you will see people who are giving their lives to the Lord. And while you are seeing this in others, others are seeing this in you.
There is great work going on in the parish and it is the work of the Lord. He is in our midst, just as he was in the midst of those two disciples at Emmaus. And just as they were galvanised into action through their recognition of him in the Eucharist so are many people in this parish.
For all their solicitude and anxiety that Jesus should not go travelling in the dark, as soon as those disciples realise who he was they set out that instant and now without regard to robbers, muggers or other dangers travelled back the seven miles to Jerusalem. It didn’t seem so dark any more, it didn’t seem so full of danger.
Their faith filled them with fearlessness, they had to tell the Apostles as soon as they could what had happened. So, they set out as it says ‘that instant’ to bring the Good News to them.
What a wonderful sense of urgency; they couldn’t wait till the safety of daylight, robbers, muggers, wild animals didn’t bother them now. It had to be done immediately. Yet we too hear the scriptures explained to us, we too gather together for the breaking of the bread, but unfortunately we don’t always leave with the same kind of urgency to convey the Good News to others.
But, of course, comparisons are invidious and it is unfair to compare the two situations. After all they were confronted with the presence of the Christ they had just seen executed on Calvary.
But, nevertheless, just hearing what those disciples did makes our hearts burn within us.
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
St Thomas the Apostle has long been regarded as the patron saint of doubters. This is fitting for someone who refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he had actually seen Christ himself standing in front of him showing the wounds of his Crucifixion.
We can all identify with Thomas. It is hard for any of us to believe what we cannot see, despite the fact that we know from our own experience that even so reliable a sense as sight can occasionally deceive us. One has only to think of magicians who can through trickery make us believe that the impossible has happened before our very eyes.
Our tendency is always to want to rely on what we can see and touch and experience directly. Society at large tells us that faith is something completely unreliable and not to be trusted before hard and tangible evidence.
So, Thomas is very human; he is very like us, he wants to believe but he prefers to rely on evidence. Lucky enough for him he got the evidence, Christ actually did stand before him with his hands outstretched showing his wounds.
None of us, however, get the opportunity to meet the risen Christ in the flesh. We have to rely on those who saw the Risen Lord two thousand years ago and who have handed down their words through the generations into our own day. Our belief in Christ is solely based on their testimony.
This question of belief is drawn to our attention in the scripture readings quite appropriately on this Sunday right after Easter because it is belief in the reality of the resurrection that concerns us most of all. The existence of Christ in the world is not an issue; not many people question the fact of his birth. People don’t base their faith on his miracles either or even on the content of his teaching.
The key question of faith is whether Christ rose from the dead or not. It is belief in the reality of his resurrection on which our faith is based. Without the resurrection, Christ would essentially be a nobody; a first Century wonderworker who subsequent generations would rightly regard as irrelevant.
The question then arises as to why we believe. Of course, it is in large part because we were taught to by our parents. As we grew up they told us about Jesus and taught us to pray and develop a relationship with God in our hearts. This was reinforced by priests and teachers and catechists. We became accustomed to believing in God, in Jesus, in the saints and in the sacraments. Over a period of time we came to see our faith as a logical and coherent thing, something which made sense of the world and therefore a thing to be greatly cherished.
Most of us will have played our own part in this process and have ourselves been involved in handing on the faith to the next generation. We may have done this by being a parent ourselves or by our role as a Godparent or Sponsor or a member of the wider family.
But if we think about our own journey of faith we will certainly acknowledge the role that others had in handing it on to us; but we will also realise that there was a point in life when we made a decision of our own. There surely was a tipping point when we decided to wholeheartedly accept this faith that was handed on to us.
We will know of people too who when they came to this point decided to reject their faith. But since we are gathered in the Church today we know that this is because when we arrived at that point of maturity we chose to accept our faith in Christ and his Church.
It is for this reason that here in the UK the Church has decided to celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation at the age of fourteen. We reckon that this is the sort of age when we tend to make such decisions about our faith. For this reason we also stress that those who wish to get Confirmed should make the decision to do so themselves and not be under pressure from parents or others.
In our parish we give the candidates a programme of catechesis that reflects the fact that they are at this decision point and our curriculum provides them with the knowledge that they need to make a good and conscientious decision.
While much that goes into making a decision about our faith is based on our upbringing and what we have been told about Jesus by others, we should not think that our decision to believe is any different from that of St Thomas. We know that he was confronted with the actual person of the Risen Lord. But if our upbringing has been a good one and if we were taught to develop our own personal relationship with the Lord when we were children, then we too will be able to profess our faith in a real person.
We will know the Lord in a personal way through our own prayer and through our reception of the sacraments. We will be in relationship with him and we will experience his presence in our lives. This will actually be what enables us to publicly pronounce our belief in him when it comes to the time to be Confirmed.
Another question that comes to mind when we are thinking about St Thomas is that of those who are afflicted by doubts. Quite a lot of people find that after many years of being firm in their faith they suddenly start to experience doubts. This is a serious affliction and can cause a lot of grief for a person.
In my experience people who suffer from this affliction really do want to believe but find that they can’t any more. And the harder they try to believe the more difficult it gets. I tend to think that this is an affliction caused by the Evil One who is trying to drive them away from faith in God. It is not that they don’t believe, but that so many doubts have crept in that they don’t know what to think any more.
In cases like this I tend to counsel people not to try so hard. I suggest that since we belong to a community of faith in which some are stronger than others it might be good to let some of the other members of the Church take the strain as it were. Allowing yourself to be upheld by the faith of others at such a time of difficulty may in fact be the best way forward.
Saying a prayer along these lines might help: ‘Lord, I am assailed by doubts, I want to believe in you but I find it difficult right now. Please accept on my behalf the faith of my brothers and sisters in the Church and continue to sustain me with your love so that I might return to true faith in you.’
At times like this the support of St Thomas the Apostle can be of great help. He is the very best patron for those who doubt and are suffering from lack of faith. So, let me suggest that if you are experiencing this sort of thing to turn to him and ask his intercession so that you can once again say together with him those immortal words: ‘My Lord and my God.’ Amen.
St Joseph's Catholic Church
191 High Road
18.00 (Vigil with Hymns)
09.30 (Family Mass)
11.00 (Solemn Mass)
12.30 (With Hymns)
Weekdays: 07.30 & 10.00
Confessions: Saturday 10.30-11.00 & 19.00-19.30
St Joseph's Catholic Church
T: 020 8427 1955
Saturday: 18.00 (Vigil with Hymns)
Sunday: 08.15, 09.30 (Family Mass), 11.00 (Solemn Mass), 12.30, 18.00
Weekdays: 07.30, 10.00 - additional mass every first Friday at 19.00
Saturday: 11.00 & 19.00-19.30
First Friday: 18.00-18.45
EXPOSITION & BENEDICTION
First Friday: 18.00-18-45