Hey, Grab the rope!

Gradualism. In the last week it has been sweeping through Catholic circles quicker than Ebola through the USA. Rebirthed during the Synod of the Family graduality has been like a hot knife through butter dividing the bishops and the faithful into two though somewhat unequal camps. But what is it and what is all the fuss about?

Gradualism is the name given to the understanding that a person is on a journey toward God wherever their path in life leads. Atheists have a particular view of the world interpreted by the facts presented to them. People of other faiths live to the standards of that faith in which some of the truths of God are revealed. Society by and large accommodates and recognises the use of free will though not rarely the source of such a beautiful gift. To whatever their understanding of truth people live their lives. Gradualism recognizes the varied states in life.

The benefit of gradualism lies in pastorally approaching ones recognition of their journey to God; in meeting them where they are. These approaches can change dependant on their place on their journey. Like when discussing the faith one would not talk about the church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to an atheist, the recommendation of annulments do not extend beyond the Catholic community except where such things occur in other church’s law or in secular laws.

The problem with gradualism is when the person is not on the journey to God but away from him. In meeting the person where they are we hope to proclaim the mercy of God in the hope of their repentance, echoing the first proclamation of Jesus. How this is done is one of the concerns of the synod. But the teaching of the church must remain the same. Allow me to use an analogy.

Imagine a cliff with a steep but graduated slope. On the top of the cliff are the people of faith. These hold true to the teachings of the church. Anchored among them is a rope which hangs over the cliff. People are found at various places down the cliff. The rope is there to help them up.

Now the people down the cliff are the people we encounter. To them we preach. Some may choose to grab the rope on which they are saved, some may not. We can only offer the rope not make them take it. The placement of the rope is our pastoral approach. Pastoral approaches change to the need of the person; the positioning changes, the end may feed one place or another. The rope strands are the teachings of the church which together reveal the fullness of the truth. The quality of the rope is unchanging. It is rooted in the church whose hands are secure at the top of the cliff.

Gradualism addresses the recognition of the location of the people on the cliff and the need to move the rope accordingly. What seems to be occurring in the synod is that the vocal minority Kasperian camp wants to weaken the rope by removing a strand. Who wants to grab a fraying rope? The question I pose is with regard to gradualism, who is moving and closer to what?

There have been many examples of the insatiability of liberalism: the latest of these is the pressure to accept a redefinition of marriage. The various attacks against marriage calls for the church to respond. But how will it respond? This will be a defining moment in the papacy of Francis, whatever be his bias. Does he feed into the secular pressures and risk never filling their perceived need or does he hold firm to the truth that will set them free?

Two opportunities exist. First, the church reasserts itself as the bearer of all truth and still changes the pastoral approach accordingly. Second, because of such a lively debate during the synod the bishops return to their postings invigorated in their faithfulness to the church and in their fraternal fellowship. Lets hope the synod can bring consensus in pastoral approach and renewed faithfulness in its teaching. Pray the Holy Spirit guides their hearts and minds. Pray now!

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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? 

   

The Busy Life: a reflection on the last few weeks gospels

Is this cheating? Putting a few reflections in one? Some might say so but I’ll do it anyway! I’ve been busy.

Have you had some busyness in your life? I’m sure you can relate. You may have been more busy I. You may have been less. But there comes a time nonetheless where the ordinary life becomes a memory and the mundane a dream. I wont go into with what my days have been consumed, suffice to say they unfortunately have somewhat limited my alone time with God.

Just as Jesus and the apostles seek time alone to pray, away from the pursuing crowds so we must seek it too. I am reminded of its importance recently and while I try, I am unsuccessful. There have been many who have said things like, “If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy,” or “It is when you’re most busy that you need to pray the most.”

I find this sort of advise more of a shifting of focus more than anything else. Not quite as practical as I would hope. And I’m afraid I cannot help beyond that. I found that if I shave some time off in the mornings, getting up a little earlier, say, or likewise in the evening, then I only rob Peter to pay Paul. It feels as if it is not enough. 

I find it is easy to get disheartened, feel inadequate and give up for a bit. In the last few weeks Jesus has reminded me how much we can get from just a little. It was only five loaves and two fish that feed five thousand: it was the first step that got Peter walking on the water: it is the crumbs from the feast for the people of Israel that heals the daughter of the woman of Gennesaret. It takes courage and obedience to take that first step.

The familiar cycle of willingness, courage, success, trial, then failure is one that is shared by many. Through these last few busy weeks I am reminded to keep my eyes on Jesus. Peter called to be saved by keeping his eyes on Jesus, the crowd was fed through the obedience of the apostles, and the woman saved her daughter through an at of courage.

With each cycle we become a little more courageous and a little more obedient, if we only keep our eyes on Jesus. I know that even the little time I give – as inadequate as I feel it might be – is enough for Jesus to do his work in me. Jesus, I am sure, is not only after quantity of time. A minutes prayer said with sincerity is worth a thousand years of hollow devotion. While time is worthwhile he wants our hearts, if only we are courageous enough to give it.            

This is what its all about! An Easter reflection.

This is what it’s about!

With so many readings available for Sunday’s gospel alone (to say nothing of the vigil) I will need to do something a little different this week instead of the gospel reflection. After all, this week is like no other.

When I was studying Christology at uni, I remember the lecturer saying that the message of Jesus (primarily his call to repentance and renewal) was a message that came in and out of fashion prior to his coming. There have been many people who have called the Israelites to repentance. A clear example of this is John the Baptist but there were others.

Naturally the discussion in the common room was, “Well, what made Jesus’ message so special? Much of what he preached was a message already heard.” There were changes and enough unique elements to distinguish his teaching from others, but really, there was nothing new about the general message of repentance, love and relationship.

Then it dawned on us! Oh, it must be that whole resurrection thing! That will make you sit up and take notice!

It can be easy sometimes to overlook the resurrection and especially its significance. Yet it is the core of our faith (when we sometimes skirt the edges); it is the historically pivotal moment (when we are sometimes concerned with the immediate); it is the cause of our hope and joy (when we sometimes despair).

The resurrection is THE sign of everlasting life. It witnesses to the person of Jesus; to who he is.

The resurrection is the singular sign of God. The crucifixion is significant and fundamental for our redemption, don’t get me wrong. But Jesus was not the only person crucified. He was not the first nor was he the last. Though it’s hard to compare it, Jesus may not have suffered as much as others – some early church martyrs went through hell on earth. The crucifixion, though necessary, does not witness to God and the suffering, no matter how redemptive, also falls short of equal witness. It is the act of the resurrection that witnesses to God so profoundly.

But why?

The resurrection reveals to us the uniqueness of Jesus. This is important because it identifies who he is: the second person of the Holy Trinity. It is because of who he is that makes this crucifixion so important. It is because of who he is that makes the suffering redemptive. It is because of who he is that makes the sacrifice efficacious. If the resurrection never happened we would never have recognized Jesus as God.

Incomprehensible! Imagine that. Imagine the joy! You’ve watched your friend, your teacher, your leader die a bloody and public death. And yet here he is; alive more than ever. How in God’s good name…?

Confusion. You’re wanting to believe, but it’s just too unbelievable. Back from the dead? Really? But it was upon seeing when John believed and realized they had failed to understand the scriptures – the scriptures, not the miracle.

As with every other miracle we don’t know how it happened. There is no record of the economy of the resurrection. What we do have is an empty tomb, the cloths and witnesses: witnesses who live in the hope of everlasting life even though they (we) don’t understand it.

Hope is real, as real as love. But this doesn’t have to be a feeling, though it could be. Once a hope has been fulfilled that’s when we encounter a sense of relief, a sense of joy, a sense of awe and wonder. We may not always experience (or rather, feel) these in this life, though we could, but we will in the next. “Our hope is in The Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Do our actions bear witness to the resurrection? Do we live in hope? Do we join our sacrifices to his in an act of redemptive suffering? We live in the knowledge of everlasting life and the privilege of hope post-resurrection. What impact has this had in your life? On the lives of those you know?

 

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.

Image

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?         

The Heart of the Matter: A reflection on this Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 3:1-12)

There seems this week to be a huge dialectic between readings, particularly between the first reading and the Gospel: the prophet Isaiah in the famous “Root of Jesse” passage aligns usual enemies as peaceful friends; the wolf and the lamb, the panther and the kid, the calf and the lion. This notion is picked up again in the second reading; “be tolerant with each other…treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated you….” It seems hard then to adjoin the Gospel where John the Baptist, in a cameo, calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” But fundamentally there is nothing inconsistent with these.

repentant heart

In preparing the way of the Lord, the Baptizer calls all to repentance; which is also the first call of Jesus in the same Gospel (4:17). Repentance is a result of a changing of heart but it does not start from there nor finish there yet is the key for preparation (the heart of the matter) and continuing acceptance of the Kingdom of God which is near at hand.

The process might go something like this: God’s love comes near in the form of his presence; by recognizing his presence we become humbled; in this humility we recognize our failings and repent of our sins (the necessary change); we begin to accept the love of God, as unworthy as we are; this love of God is then shown on our love for others (commonly recognized as good fruits or works); which finally prepare us for a further deepening encounter with God.

This process (as incomplete as it may be) is what John the Baptist is calling the Brood of Vipers to enter. Baptism is the sign of the repentance of sins and a visible sign of our acceptance of God’s love and mercy. However the water baptism of John is only a preparation of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire that will be offered later by Jesus. The paths we are meat to straighten are not literal paths (like clearing the way in a crowd for a king) but rather the internal paths in accepting the love of God and continuing to do his will.

The Pharisees and Sadducees conversely are stuck in their pride. Claiming direct descendancy from Abraham, the father of the faith, they consider themselves above those who otherwise cannot make such a claim. Yet this is a false presumption because they are not producing good fruits. Their pride becomes a stumbling block in receiving what God has to offer, namely himself: they are not making straight the paths. But a faithful God sent his Son regardless to bring hope to those who are willing to accept him.

The wolf and the lamb, the panther and the kid, the calf and lion can only lay in peace because of what God can offer. And what God offers comes from the Root of Jesse. They become symbols (especially the Lion and the Calf which represent Judea and the gentiles) of where accepting God’s love can lead, the breaking down of barriers through which God’s glory is shown. The Pharisees and Sadducees are at one end: the lion and the calf are at the other.

Are you making straight your path to receive God into your heart? Is it any wonder the Advent season is coloured purple. The call of repentance still echoes today. Are you ready?