Reflection on Holy Family: 29h December 2019

Love

It can seem somewhat strange that we portray Jesus, Mary and Joseph as the ideal family to be imitated. We have to admit that there is nothing normal about this family: the boy was the Son of God, his mother was a virgin and we last hear about Joseph when Jesus was 12 years old. We do believe that they were loving and faithful people and in the second reading Paul invites us to ‘clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’ The supreme work of our entire lifetime is to develop the capacity to know how to love. Love is a science; love is a discipline; love has to be our main priority every day. We are all naturally inclined to think that everything ‘is all about me’. Overcoming our basic self-centredness entails a willingness to say ‘I’m sorry’, a willingness to admit we are wrong and to ask for forgiveness. This comes with great difficulty for most of us. St Paul also reminds us three times of a basic need to say ‘Thank you’ – as often as possible to everyone and for everything in our lives. The author Ann Voskamp, embarked on a daily discipline of being open to the wonders which surrounded her, finding joy in the midst of deadlines, debt, drama, pain, loss and daily duties. She discovered that where there is wonder there is thanksgiving.

More than anything else, love involves the ability to be present. And that takes work: to really be right here, right now, in front of this person and out of myself enough to feel their feelings instead of just mine. That is heroic for most of us. We can be so trapped in our own feeling that we cannot imagine what the other person is feeling right now. To put ourselves ‘in the other person’s shoes’ is the beginning of love. To make this our art form, our science, our daily decision – for love is a decision, not a feeling – we need to draw upon a love that is much bigger than our own, the love of God. The good news is that eternal and perfect Love is within us and we are already one in Love. Thomas Merton tells us that we just need to start becoming what we already are. All that is absent is awareness.

The gospel ‘yardstick’ of true normality is a life lived in a loving response to God, the source of love. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are rightly the ideal family to be imitated.

Adapted mainly from Richard Rohr’s homilies.

Reflection on 4th Sunday of Advent: 22nd December 2019

Emmanuel: God is with us

There is no rational explanation for Jesus’ conception and birth. That’s where most of us get stuck with today’s gospel reading. That’s where Joseph got stuck as well. So he “planned to dismiss Mary quietly.” We shouldn’t be too surprised. Isn’t that what we tend to do when we don’t understand? We dismiss what makes no sense. We turn away from possibilities that don’t fit with our ideas, beliefs, and experiences. In dismissing what makes no sense, that which we don’t understand or can’t explain, we are refusing to open ourselves to something new. Sometimes that means we refuse to open ourselves to the life and opportunities God wants to birth in us and through us. What do we lose when we demand answers and refuse to live with questions, when we limit our lives to what we know, what’s familiar, what makes sense, and close ourselves to the not-knowing, to something new, different, or unexpected? Do we dismiss Emmanuel, God-with-us, by our searching for explanations and understanding rather than trusting and entering into the mystery?

The Marriage of the Virgin by Giotto (circa 1305)
 Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Ultimately, Joseph took Mary as his wife. However, he first had to move beyond what he understood and what made sense. He had to allow God-with-us to transcend the limits of his knowledge. He had to let go of trying to put it all in terms of a rational explanation. This first had to happen within Joseph himself and it must first happen within us as well. It is a shift that happens within us.

That is our preparation for Christmas. It means that we are to see our whole lives through the lens of God with us. Instead of looking for answers let’s ponder what might be born in us, what needs to be born in us, what is waiting to be born in us. That’s how we open ourselves to the life and possibilities God offers us. That’s how we experience Emmanuel, God with us. That’s what Joseph did. He took Mary as his wife and opened himself to something new, something different, something unexpected, something unexplainable. He opened himself to the life and possibilities God offered and he named it all Jesus.

Michael Marsh

May we all have a wonderful Christmas and spend the New Year unwrapping the mystery of the reality of God-with-us.

Reflection on 3rd Sunday of Advent: 15th December 2019

Retribution or Restoration?

Today’s first reading and the gospel speak of two kinds of justice: retributive justice and restorative justice. The gospel offers a very different picture of John from last week. Today he is a prisoner with a question, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” If John did have doubts, it was because of the peaceful way that Jesus behaved, not at all like the violent revolutionary the Jews expected as their Messiah. John preached retributive justice – if people do something wrong, we punish them. That satisfies our need for what we think is justice. It just punishes the person, gets him out of sight. It doesn’t change the person. It restrains them. That’s how most people understand justice. Most people’s notion of purgatory and hell is based on retribution.

The first reading speaks about another kind of justice: restorative justice. This is the way God does justice. Isaiah’s prophecy tells us that God doesn’t come with punishment but in fact He is going to love us, restore us, heal us and transform us by loving us unconditionally. God “punishes” us by loving us more! It is only love that transforms the human heart. Restorative justice is to restore people to who they really are at their best, to change their mind and their heart. This happens when people experience love. Retribution might be a starting point. This was John’s teaching. But Jesus leads us much farther than that. Those who understand that transformation takes place through restoration, those people are ‘greater’ than John the Baptist. Punishment is the best that the unenlightened mind can do. It doesn’t really waken the heart or change the soul.

The third week of Advent is called ‘Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday’ reminding us of the celebration of Christmas soon to come. The readings and text of today’s Mass are full of joy. When we reflect on God’s restorative justice we deepen our awareness that God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. And then we can be good because we draw upon such an Infinite Source. Rejoice!

Adapted : M. Marsh, José Antonio Pagola, R. Rohr Homilies and Meditations

Reflection on 2nd Sunday of Advent: 8th December 2019

Allowing God’s Word to Speak to Us

On 30th September 2019 Cardinal Vincent Nichols officially launched the Year of the Word under the title, ‘The God Who Speaks’.  His prayer is that we may all be enriched and transformed by the living Word of God.  Perhaps we may do no more than read the Scripture passages for each Sunday. But maybe we could spend more time with them, allowing God’s word to speak to us and transform us.

In today’s gospel reading, God speaks to us about repentance which is much more than just being sorry for the past. The word usually translated as “repent” is the Greek word metanoia; this might be best translated as “turn around your mind” or change. It involves a deep and radical change in one’s thinking and behaviour.  But most of us won’t move toward any new way of thinking or actual change until we’re forced to, which usually means some form of suffering or some disturbance that upsets our habitual path. Those are our experiences of inner wilderness where we face the truth of who we are and what our life is like. Sometimes we go to the wilderness, other times it comes to us. Either way it is hard work which most of us would rather avoid. There is no quick fix. There is no way out of or around the wilderness. The only way is through the wilderness. It’s the place where our lives can be transformed, the place we are most open to changing and being changed. For every wilderness there comes the word of God.

In the wilderness of exile the word of God speaks of coming home: ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you.’

John 15:4

In the wilderness of doubting our self-worth the word of God speaks of our divine origin: ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness.’

Gen 1:26

In the wilderness of the restlessness of anxiety the word of God speaks of stillness: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’

Psalm 46

In the wilderness of apparent absence of God the word of God speaks words of presence: ‘Truly Yahweh is in this place and I never knew it.’

Gen 28

Hidden within every wilderness is the beauty of divine presence.

Various sources including Michael Marsh

Reflection on 1st Sunday of Advent: 1st December 2019

The God of Surprises

Sadly, we’re almost programmed (perhaps by childhood conditioning) to hear the Gospel in a threatening or punitive way, as if Jesus is saying, “You’d better do it right, or I’m going to get you.” With that outlook, we are likely to largely miss the point in today’s Gospel. This is the bad fruit of using religion and Scripture to threaten people into love, which is actually a total impossibility. Most people who start with fear stay with fear and never get to the higher motivations. Let’s try to hear it in a much more exciting and positive way. Jesus is not talking about the second coming of Christ. What he’s talking about here is the forever coming of Christ, the always coming of Christ, the eternal coming of Christ…now…and now…and now. Christ is always coming; God is always present. It’s we who aren’t! We’re always somewhere else. Jesus tells us to be conscious, to be awake, to be alert, to be alive. It’s the key to all spirituality.

Other gospels also use the image of God as a ‘thief in the night, as a landlord who returns unexpectedly.’ That sounds threatening but Luke tells us that the landlord on his return ‘will put on an apron, kneel down and wait on you.’ This breaking into our lives is actually good! God gets into our lives best in the interruptions, in the discontinuities, in the unexpected, in the gaps. God has to break into our lives like a thief in the night when we’re not ready, when we’re not prepared, when we’re not defended, when we’re not all in our head, when we’re not in charge, when we’re not steering the ship. Usually it is in times when we are in the presence of silence, in the presence of love or in the presence of suffering. Our preparedness is not the completion of a spiritual tick list in order to win God’s love. God breaks into our lives in moments of freedom, when we are free from our own ego, free from our own fears, free from our own anger, free from our limited perception of Love, of who God is and who we are in him. At this time of year the word ‘surprise’ is often on our lips. Today’s Gospel speaks about a preparedness which is an openness to a God of surprises.

Richard Rohr. Homilies. Adapted

Reflection on Christ The King: 24th November 2019

The universe is not a place where evolution happens; it is evolution happening. It is not a stage on which dramas unfold; it is the unfolding drama itself. This great cosmological story shows us in the deepest possible sense that we are all sisters and brothers—fashioned from the same stellar dust, energised by the same star, nourished by the same planet, endowed with the same genetic code, and threatened by the same evils. This story humbles us before the magnitude and complexity of creation. It astonishes us with the interdependence of all things, and makes us feel grateful for the lives we have. And not the least of all, it inspires us to express our gratitude to the past by accepting a solemn and collective responsibility for the future.

Loyal Rue. Philosopher

Do we look at science and conclude, “This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed.” When we stress the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science we might be able to draw forth untapped reserves of reverence and awe.

Carl Sagan. Astrophysicist

“In him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, in him all things hold together.”

Col: 1, 16. Today’s reading

‘When we experience the universe as Christ-soaked, when we know that the universe is both the hiding place and the revelation of God, when we grow in awareness that in Christ all things were made, our lives will reflect our oneness with every thing.’ We will be with Christ in paradise – every day.

Richard Rohr. Adapted

Reflection on 33rd Sunday: 17th November 2019

A Temple Destroyed

We may not like it, we may deny it, we may resist it, but the reality is that things are changing: our world, the church, our lives. Sometimes changes are welcome. But there are days when change brings loss or the fear of loss. We could each tell stories about those days. They are stories about the death of a loved one, the diagnosis, a divorce, the business that failed, the job that was lost. These are the days when the temples of our life and world fall. They are stories of dreams and hopes that never came true. We all have temples. Some have been given to us, others we have built for ourselves. Sometimes our temples are people, places, values and beliefs, institutions, dreams. Regardless, they are the things that we think structure and order our lives, give meaning and identity, provide security and stability. At least we think they do, until they fall.

Change has a way of pushing us into the future, looking for signs. What will happen now? What do I do? How do I get through this? If we are not careful we will soon be living in a future we do not yet have. We will be living in a future created in our heads. When Jesus describes things that will happen he is not asking us to speculate about the future. He invites us to be still, to be quiet and not to be led astray. He tells us not to allow our lives to be controlled or determined by fear, not to listen to the many voices that would cause us to run and go after them. Endure he says. Be faithful, steadfast, persevere here and now. Jesus is calling us to be present and faithful in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. If we cannot find God here, in our present circumstances, even in the midst of our temple ruins, we won’t find him anywhere.

We can all tell the story of the day our temple was destroyed. Too often, however, we believe and live as if that is the end of the story. It will be if we run away, scapegoat, respond with anger, look for quick fixes or try to put it back together like it used to be. But it can be the beginning of a new story, a greater story of how we discovered God with us in the temple ruins It is the ongoing story of God, the source of all being, recreating life out of loss and ruin.

Adapted: Michael Marsh

Reflection on 32nd Sunday: 10 November 2019

Living a resurrected life

In today’s gospel reading we have a familiar scene of Jesus being asked a question by a group or individual with their own opinion about the answer to that question. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection and the problem they presented to Jesus was based on a tradition, known as levirate law, by which a man was expected to marry the childless widow of his brother. This was so that the dead man’s name would be carried on to the next generation. (It was presumed and expected, of course, that a son would be produced.) The Sadducees felt that, without belief in life after death, there is no problem. The dead simply disappear into oblivion. But, for those who did believe in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees felt their hypothetical problem created an insoluble solution. As in similar ‘trick question’ situations, Jesus leads his listeners to a growth in consciousness; he invites them to ‘die’ to religious convictions which prevent them from being fully alive. He explains that life after death is a completely different plane of existence. In Christ we enter into a new relationship with God and with all other people. This relationship transcends blood and marriage and our concept of time. ( “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”) And we can live that resurrected life here and now.

Death is the doorway to resurrection. There are degrees of death before the physical death. We die when we hit the depths of suffering, beyond where we are in control, when everything falls apart, when nothing makes sense. We all have moments like that and if, like the seed planted in the ground, we allow that darkness to do its work, new life emerges. Until we go through that transformative experience at least once, we do not know about resurrection. We only believe in Resurrection if we have already experienced it beforehand. When our lives fall apart, we move to a deeper level, we find our deeper source which we call God and we start drawing life from that source. That’s resurrection. And we can live that resurrected life now.

Adapted: Richard Rohr meditations and Living Space website

Reflection on 31st Sunday: 3 November 2019

Touching Eternity

When we hear about someone whose words and lifestyle have influenced the lives of many people, we want to find out more about that person and if possible see him or her for ourselves. This might entail getting away from all the pressures that crowd in on us; risk being different; being willing to see things from a different perspective. And often that longed-for encounter – either in person or through that person’s writing or art – brings about a transformation in our lives. Zacchaeus’ story is our story and when he meets Jesus his experience of being loved unconditionally gives him an insight into who he really is in God and who everyone is in God.

“Tradition has passed on a beautiful story about Zacchaeus. It concerns his life after he had met Jesus in Jericho. Every morning, taking a bucket with him, he left his house and about an hour later he returned. Curious to know what he was doing, his wife followed one morning at a distance. She saw Zacchaeus go back to the tree from which Jesus had called him. He filled his bucket with water from a stream nearby, poured the water at the roots of the tree, spent some time in silence and then set off for home. When he returned home his wife asked what this ritual meant. ‘I go back to water the memories,’ he replied. Meeting Jesus was a very significant turning point in his life. It had changed him forever, giving a new direction and impetus to everything he undertook. It was so precious that he wanted to keep the memory alive and continue to be energised by the experience. He had learned the wisdom of watering memories that give inspiration and vision.” (Galway diocese website)

Our personal history of transformation is always linked to particular people, places and moments when least expected our inner being gazes in wonder at a new insight into Creation and to who we are and in whose image we are created. These moments are not limited to quiet times, nor restful environments. Time, place and situation may determine how long we can savour each moment, but each experience transforms us and expands our being. “Those special times of disclosure, of spiritual ‘peak moments’, of maybe fleeting and timeless experiences of ‘otherness’ are sacramental moments. They last forever because they touch eternity.”

Daniel O’ Leary

Reflection on 30th Sunday: 27th October 2019

The prayer of the humble

“God, I thank you that I am not like….” How would we end that sentence? Jesus’ parable sets a trap for us, a trap that stops us and brings us face to face with the reality of our life and our relationship with God. Who is the Pharisee trying to convince – God or himself? His prayer is directed not so much to God but to himself. He is not describing his faith or spiritual practices. He is keeping score. Anytime we begin keeping score of our own life or the life of another we need to know that something deeper is going on. Score keeping can be a way we either deny or try to overcome the feeling of emptiness, the loss of meaning, the brokenness of our life. We use it to deny what is dead within us, as a way of convincing ourselves that we are okay and our life is fine. The problem is that when we think we have everything – answers, doctrine, law, piety, reputation, stuff, success – when we think we have the requisite number of points, then we have no need of God. We have no need of resurrection and we choose to remain dead.

From the outside the Pharisee and tax collector seem very different. They are not, however, as different as we might think, for on the inside they are both dead; lost, broken, and in need of God. The difference is not their place in society. The real difference is that the tax collector knows he is dead and the Pharisee does not. The difference is that the Pharisee keeps score and the tax collector cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner! One who is missing you. One who is in need of you. One who is and has nothing apart from you.” This parable is the invitation to stop keeping score, to acknowledge and hold before God the dead places of our life: the failures and disappointments; the break ups and break downs; the emptiness, sufferings, addictions; the places of our life where we no longer dream dreams, have visions, or prophesy. That is what the tax collector did.

The tax collector went home justified, not because he was good or better than the Pharisee, but because he offered God a dead life not a scorecard. God did not withhold anything from the Pharisee. We don’t know what happened after he got home but we know this: a choice now lay before him, the choice to walk into his own resurrection. That does not tell us how the story ends. It tells us, rather, how it might begin.

Michael Marsh