Who is it?: a reflection on this weeks gospel (Mat 16:13-20)

A marque quote for papal apologetics (a topic which I have already addressed) this week’s gospel also poses the question, “Who do you say I am?”: a question frequently answered though not always asked.

I personally find this question challenging. Who do I say Jesus is? I know the right answers – Lord, Messiah, the Christ, Rabbi, Saviour, teacher, master, friend, and many more. But who do I say he his?

Jesus calls me to a deeper and more personal relationship. He is all these things and he can be all things for all men all the time. But for each of us at different times our relationship with him will have a different slant. By this I mean that as we grow our perception of things will change and in this way Jesus will be different things to us at different times.

Having thought about this deeper than I had in many years I still am unsure. I do not say this out of a wilful ignorance nor of a lack of personal relationship (for that though there is still plenty of room). But nonetheless, I was no closer to finding who I say Jesus is for me at this time.

Given that Jesus is the head of the Church, which is his body, I looked at the way I most profoundly experience Jesus in the context of the church. Surprisingly I most profoundly experience Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation. I say “surprisingly” because I have a love for the Eucharist. Yet there have been moments in my life where I have gone to confession in tears (quite literally) and walked out on an emotional high.

This has shown me that I experience Jesus most as merciful Redeemer.

Even with this self awakening, it is not to the level of Peter’s proclamation “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But I don’t think it has to be. To Peter he is one thing, to me another: neither of these are wrong nor contradictory.

Who is he to you? It really is a challenging question, but with the answer comes clarity. So again, who is he to you? 

   

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Meet you in the middle: a reflection on this weeks gospel (Matt 13:44-52)

My time of late has been consumed with the thoughts of the state of the world. I seriously believe we are on the verge of World War III. The plane down over Ukraine, a result of a Russian military exercise; the escalating war between Palestine and Israel; the persecution of Iraqi Christians by ISIS. It’s hard to get my head around it all and I have my suspicions and theories, none I will get into right now. Keep them in your prayers.

Anyhow…

Continuing somewhat from the agricultural theme of previous weeks we depart from the harvester and welcome the fishermen, the merchant and the discoverer. And each is clearly distinct yet point to a central theme.

Let’s address the first part of the gospel: the discovery of treasure in a field. Heaven is likened to the treasure, not the discoverer as some will say. The treasure lies dormant, overlooked and perhaps overgrown. Someone may stumble upon it but upon noticing it’s worth gives up all he has to attain it. Heaven is the reward for those who recognize its worth and do all they can to attain it. He who, with vigor, seeks heaven.

The second part of the gospel turns the tables around. Heaven now is like a merchant. Merchants travel widely looking for things of value. These riches are usually traded for greater riches but not all things were. Things seen too valuable were kept for themselves and not traded. However the merchant here has found something of far exceeding worth. We are the riches of heaven. Heaven seeks us.

The last part echoes the harvester in the fields of wheat but uses a new metaphor. The net is heaven dragging through the water and collecting all types of fish, perhaps even debris. Judgement is explicitly the selection of the good fish from the rest of the catch which when deemed unacceptable is thrown into a fire and the angels are the ones who do the separating.

The three parts meet in heaven. The first, heaven lies hidden; once it’s discovered is worth everything. The second, heaven is looking for us; once we’re discovered is worth everything. The third is the happy union of the two pursuits.

The pursuit of the heaven of great worth will cost everything. It’s easy to say that at home with my family around me. It costs so much more to so many. Martyrs today continue to witness silently to a deaf world. But with our pursuit of the same great treasure we can recognize both it’s value and it’s cost.

Are you willing to pay the same price that has been asked of so many? I would hope that many of us would say yes. But it is easier to die for the faith than to live it. Death thankfully where I live is not a necessary price to pay, at least not yet. I am reminded to pay in small things as well as in the big. It still takes cents to make the dollar. Or we might say, it still takes coins to make a treasure, no matter how small.

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Simplicity, two ways: a reflection on this weeks gospel (Matt 11:25-30)

Fathers have many unique gifts however some are more applauded than others. There are the standard ones that fatherhood demands like providing and protecting. But teaching, witnessing and being an example of fatherhood are other lesser known demands of the father. Each father has a unique way of expressing these to the capacity he is capable.

What has all this got to do with the gospel of the week?

This weeks gospel gives us a two pronged example of simplicity. How? First, Jesus, talking to his Father in heaven, acknowledges that children can better express the life he longs us to live than the learned. (As someone with a Bachelor of Theology I need to constantly remind myself of this!) With knowledge comes not only responsibility but also risk. I can find myself “above” certain things or correcting others: “I’m better than that! You do it”, “You know, it should really be done this way” and similar comments. Thankfully I go there rarely, but I do go there. The risk of return is real.

The simple – scripture refers to them as child-like – are blessed to have little responsibility and little risk; these are with their Father. These simple ones have a natural ability to soak in the example shown to them. We have a saying here that points out this fact: “Monkey see, monkey do”.

As I become more learned (it is a life-long process not just a tick-a-box achievement) I find myself projecting my understanding on things: I tend to read things in the way that bests suits my understanding and how it fits into my paradigm. Often this is beneficial and convenient but not always right. I tend to prejudge things, people and places because of my learnedness.

This sort of learnedness is above the childlike. They thankfully do not have the innate ability to prejudge with only a few exceptions. They rely on the example of the Father whom they follow. The responsibility and risks fall directly on his shoulders, not the childlike, for they have not the knowledge and the learnedness to fully grasp the occasion but it is not required. Such innocence is a grace that is easily corrodes with knowledge: knowledge, not wisdom.

Placing trust in The Lord lifts this burden from us, the learned. We need not carry the responsibility or the risk that we place on our shoulders. Here The Lord reminds us that while we may partake in this burden we desperately seek (a yoke) we need not carry it alone.

Trust The Lord. He acknowledges simplicity of mind, the unlearned, of not understanding every detail, of not prejudging things to fit our paradigm but The Lord’s. He acknowledges the associated burden in such understanding; a burden made simple when God takes control, if allowed.

The alternative is to find information and knowledge for all things: a know-it-all. We then take the burden of weight in our own shoulders and walk the path to godlessness replacing him with knowledge, or worse still, with ourselves.

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An uncomfortable comfort: A reflection on this week’s gospel – The Ascension (Matt 28:16-20)

(Another introductory note: Clearly I had last week incorrect. What I believe occurred is that last week there was an alternate Gospel; the one on which I reflected. If there was confusion I apologize.)

 

I recently attained a First Aid accreditation certificate as required by my employer. The day long course was filled with bandaging, dressing, splinting, treating, wrapping, resuscitating, and applying all sorts of things in all sorts of situations. I hope I am never in a position where I am required to recall my training, both for the victim and for me (I have this tendency of temporary memory loss in times of pressure. Thankfully it’s counteracted by my coolheadedness, but I digress).

The one take home point was that it was not obligatory for me to help in such situations, but if I did it is obligatory for me to stay until the victim recovers, more help comes or I can give no more. With such a demand I don’t know whether I would stop to help or not. This lack of confidence and resourcefulness adds to my discomfort. Like I said, I hope I am not put in this situation. Would I overcome these fears and do what I can to help others in such desperate cases? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s easy to find excuses not to.

The final words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, often referred to as the Great Commission, is the Gospel for this week’s Sunday, at least for those who are celebrating the Ascension. This passage is thought of, though not explicitly expressed, as the words Jesus said immediately before his Ascension which we celebrate this week either Thursday or Sunday.

The first thing that comes to mind when reading this is that Jesus had arranged for them to meet at a given place but that place isn’t listed: Galilee is given but not the specific location. At a time when people and places had specific names which become clues about the person or place here it is noticeably silent in the matter. Yet the fact that they are only there because Jesus told them to be there is not lost in this detail.

With such intentional vagueness comes an easy path to modern application. It could easily be somewhere up the road to where Jesus calls us. The point is still the same: that they only go because Jesus says. While under instruction we are not obliged to go.

Those that choose to go meet Jesus are rewarded with divine recognition. Although Jesus these days is recognized as divine in his absence this was not the case for the disciples. Their faithful witness of Jesus’ resurrection then testifies to us today. They saw him; they bowed down before him, though some hesitated. We still bow down; some still hesitate.

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Whether we be one who bows or one who hesitates Jesus gives to each the same message, the same commission. This message hits home and brings forth a new reality. Like a bolt of lightning they are suddenly thrust into a situation that demands more from them. Through the authority of Jesus they are commanded to go forth into the world and teach what they have been taught and obey as they have obeyed. Warmth and comfort proceed the shock: I will be with you until the end of time.

The apostles are largely passive through this episode, though they go from one place to the next, but so much is demanded of them. They have been training for this by their life with Jesus. Though they willing chose Jesus they have not sought out this mission, it was thrust upon them. (Hello, Shakespeare.) But they are turned into men of action and discomfort. Knowing that Jesus will be with them until the end of the age (the end of time) is a comfort, but an uncomfortable comfort: the world will violently hate them, their faith will be shaken, their lives will be taken… and so on. But, hey, this is a great message and we should tell everyone and baptize them. This is what life is though; being uncomfortable for the comfort and benefit of others. Eternal life awaits them after all; a very real hope, a very real driving force into breaking beyond the comfort zone of apathy which is fueled by the Spirit which Jesus leaves.

I don’t know if I could do what I have been trained for. I could apply what I have learnt, but would it be enough? How would I cope if my actions not only failed to help them but made the situation worse? I could find myself in a situation like this at any time, even somewhere up the road. Even then I am not obliged to go. Would I hesitate? Would I go? Would I bow down to help them? Could I cope with the responsibilty when thrust into this situation? Can I become a man of action through discomfort?

In applying First Aid, I don’t know. In faithfully following the call of Jesus…

For the greater glory of God: A reflection on this week’s gospel (Mt 5:13-16)

Recently we remembered the event of the Presentation. Then Simeon took Jesus in his arms raised him up and declared him to be a light for the Gentiles. The same imagery is found in this Sunday’s Gospel. No one, it says, lights a lamp and puts it under a basket (some translate it, tub). The light in the lamp is there to allow sufficient vision for us, for everyone, to see. Clearly, the light is symbol of Christ which can never be put out in a darkened world, though it can be blocked out. But what about the salt?

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“If salt becomes tasteless…” If? If ever. Salt can be stored dry for years and not lose its taste. It can seem to lose its taste in a number of ways; by way of contamination, dilution, and if we fail to sense the salt. The first two require external sources to effectively contaminate or dilute the salt. It is not that hard to see the connection to Jesus being the salt, like the light, and the contamination or dilution as the world which weakens the taste of the salt.

Our failure to sense the salt is likened to our failure to sense Jesus in our lives. Where the evils of the world could contaminate or dilute the message of Jesus, our readiness to receive and accept the message becomes like our awareness of the salt. Strangely though, the same cannot be said for the symbol of light. Our awareness of light sharpens in darkness. In the right proportions we largely take light for granted. It is only in its absence or flooding where we tend to notice it most.

It’s funny you know,  I like to think that God has a salty pallet. What if the whole world became salty? I would hate it – who likes to eat pure salt?! God on the other hand, because of his will for all men to be saved – to be the salt of the earth. He must love the salty taste. If we all are a light, then we might more perfectly channel God who is the source of all light. Taking these to the extreme, salt eliminates the natural flavour of food as it increases. Light too eliminates distinction between objects if the light becomes blinding. These can be seen as the loss of self in the service of God.

Here we come to the point of the reading. Many people will be familiar with the salt and light analogies. But the last line adds meaning to them. Why should we be salt and light? So that seeing our good works, others may come to believe in God. That is one heck of a demand!

It is widely recognized that you don’t have the be “religious” to do good things. And I’m not going to follow that proverbial rabbit hole, but people do things for a reason. Why would someone who doesn’t believe in God do the good things God asks of us? For those that follow God, here is our answer. But with all this good going on in the world how do we become lights or salt? With so much good going on we should aim to be better; but not only better, more consistent; but not only more consistent, faithful. Commitment to God requires action so that through these actions God may be seen. Commitment to God requires we do these actions for God who is seen through them (as opposed to altruistic or hedonistic purposes). Commitment to God requires the loss of self at the service of God. 

The loss of salt or the covering of light happens when actions occur for impure reasons or they are compromised to less than what they ought to be. Let your light of faith shine, and let your actions be salty. And may they never lose their saltiness. 

Fall to Restoration: A reflection on this week’s Gospel (Mt 4:12-23)

A common saying is “pride comes before a fall.” And there is certainly a ring of truth to it, but that doesn’t have to be the end. Frequently in scripture one can find examples of where God reverses human expectations. Here is an instance where this saying is proven to be incorrect, or at least incomplete.

Two places connect the first reading (Is 8:23-9:3) to the gospel: Zebulun and Naphtali. But apart from being listed, why are they there? These places marked the start of the collapse of the kingdom as they were among the first to be taken captive by the Assyrians. Similarly, there is another reference to the far side of the Jordan, province of the nations.

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It is within this context, using namely the symbol of light, that Isaiah prophecies hope, joy and relief of oppression: the opposite of what they were experiencing at the time. It becomes no surprise then that Jesus after his forty days in the desert goes to these places first to begin his ministry, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. He first proclaims repentance. Repentance of what?

Zebulun and Naphtali fell because of the Kings unfaithfulness; he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Jesus’ call for repentance begin with a returning to the ways of the Lord. The light that comes in darkness is seen through the eyes of repentance; first seen by those who marked the beginning of the end of the kingdom, they now are the first to witness its restoration: the first to see the light of Christ who brings salvation.             

Examples of repentance are seen later in the gospel when Jesus calls his first disciples. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and ‘at once… they followed him.’ While the disciples may not have been the first to have had the call to repentance, they were the first to show what repentance looks like. Ultimately the forgiveness of God experienced through repentance draws us to a deeper participation in the mission of Christ: proclaiming the kingdom of God and curing diseases and sickness among peoples.

Even in the days of Paul, well after Jesus’ restoration, there remains those who divide the kingdom. Paul calls these to be united in belief and practice. Those who are not united by belief and practice have serious difficulties among them. The added depth to Jesus’ restorative act is very real to him when he prayed on the night before his crucifixion “that they may all be one.”

Christ proclaims the coming of God’s kingdom first to the source of the downfall of the kingdom of Judah. Do you allow Christ to heal the source of your downfalls (sins)? Repentance leads one to encounter Christ in a very real way. How do you respond? In what ways are you united in belief and practice to others? What does this look like?         

Epiphany to Theophany: A reflection on this week’s Gospel (Mt 3:13-17)

One of the things I really love about scripture is it many historical and contextual layers. Often there are things going on in the text that today’s readers are likely to miss, at least without further study. Despite this, one can take profundity from any of these layers that can make a real impact on lives. In a more humorous and contemporary understanding one might say of scripture that, like Shrek, it has layers like an onion. All parts of the bulb are still the onion and still have the distinctive odour. Likewise scripture remains scripture at every depth. Nonetheless, this week’s gospel of Jesus’ baptism is a great example of this. I will explore just a few of these layers.   

 

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The first words spoken are from John the Baptist, “I need to be baptized by you.” These words on their own may for some create a discord already. For those reading it at the time it was written the discord has a deeper resonance. The context was that those who are baptized become subordinate to those who baptized them. This didn’t sit well with some early Christians because if Jesus was really God them he was not subordinate to anyone. While this was not articulated then, there was an understanding that it was so. A discord then lies: if his baptism could be omitted from the text (because of its implied subordination) why wasn’t it? And yes, some things have been omitted or redacted out of scripture.

The baptism of Jesus was likely a well known, though uncomfortable, fact: a public act which had to be dealt with. (You do know there wasn’t someone following Jesus around and writing everything he said or did, right?) Some speculate that the words of John were added as a way to deal with this: John recognizing his unworthiness and transferring the subordination to himself. While the transfer exists what’s to say it didn’t happen in this way? It would have been a matter for John, Jesus and the disciples to address then too.

Jesus replies, “Leave it like this for time being.” Implied here is an undisclosed future time, after the baptism, when the correcting transfer will take place. At the crucifixion? At the death of John the Baptist? Whenever it is, it will occur. In doing “all that righteous demands” Jesus in his earthly manifestation begins to fulfill his mission; a mission proclaimed from creation and a beginning confirmed by the Holy Spirit and the Father.

There is a technical term used when the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are revealed simultaneously in scripture: Theophany. With a similar root word to Epiphany, which means ‘to show forth’ or ‘to reveal’, theophany is God’s self revelation. There is one other, perhaps two, where thephanies occur. Most scholars agree that the Transfiguration is a theophany and some also include the crucifixion. Here at the baptism, the Son comes out of the water, the Spirit of God descend on him, and a voice in heard from heaven. The presence of the other two in such an explicit form confirms the divinity of the Jesus. Epiphany is God revealing more of himself; theophany is his self revelation.  

More could be said about the act of Jesus’ baptism being the sacramentalising of baptism given that at the time it was symbolic; More could be said about the symbol of water being cleansing and quenching; more could be said about the breaking of the surface of the water from the submersion in the Jordan as a sign of rebirth. But I’ll finish dwelling on the thought of God’s explicit self revelation. Here he is in his fullness, publicly declaring his presence. Do we do the same? Do we declare God? He publicly confirms humanity (and we as adopted sons and daughters); do we publicly confirm him? Do we reveal God?