Saturday, December 26, 2020

Locating the Heart

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph (B)

Readings: Genesis 15:1-6,21:1-3; Psalm 104(105):1-6,8-9; Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19; Luke 2:22-40

Picture: cc Sarah

My dear friends, have you ever wondered why sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and at other times it’s out of sight out of mind? During the circuit-breaker, for example, when we weren’t able to meet our friends, or to celebrate Mass, or to go to Confession, why did some react with such longing, and others… simply forget? I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me, but I believe that one’s reaction to absence is a good indicator of the location of one’s heart.

Which may help us better appreciate what’s going on in our readings today. As you’ve probably noticed, they are filled with longing. In the first reading, Abraham longs for an heir. In the gospel, Simeon longs for Israel’s comforting. And it’s tempting, for me at least, to conclude that the hearts of Abraham and Simeon find their rest in the respective objects of their longing. But that’s not exactly accurate.

For as the second reading reminds us, much as Abraham desired so much to have an heir, he was still willing to sacrifice Isaac, when God commanded him to do so. And that’s not all. The reading goes on to point out that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, while still believing God’s promise to make Abraham the father of a multitude of descendants through Isaac. This firm belief, this unshakeable trust in God, the reading calls faith. I like to think of it as an indicator of the true location of Abraham’s heart. 

Both his longing and his trust show us that Abraham’s heart finds its rest not in Isaac, the long-awaited heir, but in God, the One who remembers his covenant for ever. Even so, longing and trust are not the only indicators of the heart’s true location. In our readings we find at least two others.

When Jesus appears in the Temple in Jerusalem, his arrival quickly attracts the presence of Simeon and Anna. We’re told that Simeon came because he was prompted by the Holy Spirit, and that Anna, who never left the Temple, came by just at that moment and began to praise God. Presence and praise at the arrival of God. As with longing and trust, aren’t these also indicators of the heart’s true location?

Longing and trust, presence and praise. Reliable signs of restful hearts amid a restless world. Longing and trust, presence and praise. Encouraging signs that we find also in the members of the Holy Family, who even though they had to move repeatedly – from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Jerusalem and back to Nazareth – always had their hearts set on God, the One who had brought and held them together.

Longing and trust, presence and praise. In a world filled with so many shiny and seductive things that often serve to unsettle our hearts, and even to tear our families apart, doesn’t the Holy Family show us what it might look like to truly find one’s rest in God?

Sisters and brothers, if the coming of Christ is indeed like a circuit-breaker, uncovering the true location of our hearts, then where do you find your heart on this Christmas Day?

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Courage to Accept Disruption

Christmas Day (Vigil Mass)

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 88(89):4-5,16-17,27,29; Acts 13:16-17,22-25; Matthew 1:18-25

Picture: cc Mecklenburg County

My dear friends, as you know, several times this past year, the government has distributed masks for free. Did you go and collect them? All of them? Very likely, for many of us, doing so would have meant disrupting our usual routine, at least to some extent. Did you accept the disruption, and claim the gift? What made you decide to do it… or not?

I ask because we find something similar in our Mass readings for Christmas Eve. In the gospel, poor Joseph has to do something that any husband would find difficult. When his plans for a happy family are disrupted by the discovery that Mary is pregnant with someone else’s child, Joseph is told in a dream to accept the disruption. He is asked to do three things: To proceed with the wedding, to name the baby, and to establish both mother and child in his own household.

A wedding, a naming, and the establishing of a household. Strikingly, these are the same three things that we find in the first reading and the psalm. Sinful though Israel may be, God promises to accept her as bride. And not just to accept her, but even to delight in her. To rejoice in the integrity that God promises to bestow upon her. God also promises to give her a new and blessed name, and to establish for her an eternal and royal household. I will establish your dynasty for ever and set up your throne through all ages

In the second reading, we’re told that this incredible promise, made by God to Israel, finds its fulfilment in Christ. Which helps us to see the deeper significance of what Joseph was asked to do. Difficult and disruptive though it must have been for him to accept Mary & Jesus as his own, by doing so, Joseph claimed the gift that God had promised to Israel and, through Israel, to the whole world. Just as Mary’s acceptance allowed God to be born a human being, through Joseph’s acceptance, God was born into a human family.

In short, by accepting disruption, Joseph was able to claim a priceless gift for himself and for his household. The gift of eternal salvation. But what about us? We who dare to celebrate Christmas this year, while the world still reels from the effects of an ongoing pandemic. Could it be that it is precisely within the painful disruption, that Christ is choosing to be born? Could it be that it is only by somehow accepting disruption, as Joseph did, that we may also claim the gift? 

I’m reminded of these lines written by the Dutch Jesuit, Peter van Breemen

(The theologian, Paul) Tillich defines faith as "the courage to accept acceptance" and he means acceptance by God. We may think that such faith does not demand much courage. On the contrary, it may sound sweet and easy. But courage is required and very often it is courage that is lacking…

Sisters and brothers, at Christmas, God offers us something far costlier than a free mask. What must we do to obtain the courage to accept disruption, and to claim the gift, for ourselves, for our families, and for our world today?

Sunday, December 13, 2020


3rd Sunday of Advent (B)
(Gaudete Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11; Luke 1:46-50,53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

Picture: cc Wired Canvas

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like when things come together at the right moment to produce a good result? We see this in sports, for example, when a team finally wins a match, after a long losing streak. When asked how they did it, team members may say that somehow everything just came together for them. And things may come together like this for individuals as well. You may remember the story of Archimedes, who was so overjoyed, after making an important scientific discovery in the bathtub, that he ran out naked into the streets shouting, Eureka! Eureka! (I found it!)

Similarly, our Mass readings invite us to rejoice at how God is able to make things come together to produce good results. The first reading likens this awe-inspiring power of God to that of a garden. For as the earth makes fresh things grow, as a garden makes seeds spring up, so will the Lord make both integrity and praise spring up in the sight of the nations… In case all this sounds too abstract, the gospel shows us, more concretely, what the sprouting of integrity looks like in the life of John the Baptist.

At some point in the history of our world, when everything seemed dark and depressing, especially for the people of Israel, a man named John decides to become a witness to speak for the light. He does this by performing certain surprising actions: He distances himself from ordinary society. He calls everyone to repent. And he baptises people in the waters of the River Jordan.

But it’s important for us to see that these disturbing actions, performed by John externally, are actually inspired by a crucial discovery that he makes interiorly. The nature of this inner discovery is revealed to us in John’s response to the Pharisees’ questions: Who are you? Why are you baptising? I am… a voice that cries in the wilderness… I baptise with water; but… one… is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap… At a certain point in John’s life, things seem to have come together for him, such that he realises his own true identity in the sight of God. And, with that realisation, comes both the insight into what he needs to do, as well as the courage to do it.

My dear friends, isn’t what we see in John an encouraging example of how, even in the darkest of times, God causes both integrity and praise to spring up in the sight of the nations? And isn’t this something that God continues to do even now, amid the depressing darkness of our own time? Motivating merciful activities that bear witness to the Light. Inspiring courageous voices that cry out in the wilderness, calling a sinful world to repent. And isn’t this also what God wishes to do in each and all of us, who make up the Body of Christ? Causing us to discover anew our own true identity before God, and energising us to act accordingly. Giving us good reason to be happy at all times. For even in darkness, the Light of the Lord continues to make good things grow.

Sisters and brothers, on this Gaudete Sunday, what will you do to claim from God your own eureka! moment today?

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Between Adventure & Nightmare

2nd Sunday of Advent (B)

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; Psalm 84(85):9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

Picture: cc susanjanegolding

My dear friends, imagine for a moment that you are a little child on a family outing, and you get separated from your parents. How will you feel if you were to suddenly hear them calling your name, telling you it’s time to go home? How will you react? I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me, but I think your reaction will depend very much on your own awareness of being lost. For it may be that, even before hearing your parents calling, you had already realised they were missing, and had been frantically searching for them. If so, then their voices will bring you great relief. But it’s also possible that you did not realise you were lost, that you still thought you were on some exciting adventure, instead of being trapped in a fearful nightmare. If that’s the case, you may choose to ignore your parents, perhaps even decide to run farther away.

I mention this because, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, in each of our Mass readings, there is a voice crying in the wilderness. In the first reading this voice takes the form of the prophet Isaiah, consoling a people living in the wilderness of exile. In the second reading, the voice is found in the writings of an unknown author, using the name of the apostle Peter, offering guidance to those confused by false teaching. And in the gospel, John the Baptist cries out, not just in a physical wilderness of locusts and honey, and a political desert of foreign occupation, but also the spiritual barrenness of sin.

No matter the exact form it takes throughout history, the voice crying in the wilderness indicates the various ways in which God, our loving and merciful Father, continually calls his wayward children to return. Encouraging them to welcome and to follow Christ, the Way that leads them home. To that glorious place where justice and peace have embraced. But each child reacts according to its own awareness of being lost. Some will eagerly heed the call, while others just keep insisting on going their own way.

And what about us? In what form might this voice be taking in our lives today? In what wilderness is it resounding? Very likely, each of us will have our own personal answers to these questions. Even so, it’s difficult not to think of the pandemic that continues to devastate our world. To see COVID-19 as a desert in which many remain lost. But isn’t it true that, if we were to listen carefully, we might yet hear a quiet voice calling to us in this viral wilderness? Reminding us that we were lost long before the infections began. Highlighting to us the often ignored fault-lines that fracture our apparently ultra-modern world. Painful divisions between rich and poor, elite and common, local and migrant… As well as between humanity and nature, between creature and Creator… Encouraging us to dare to imagine new heavens and new earth… Showing us how urgently we need to change the way we live…

If so, then perhaps it’s also true that how we respond will depend on our own awareness of being lost, our own willingness to see that our modern adventure has turned into a fearful nightmare for so many. Sisters and brothers, this Advent, what must we do to heed the call of our heavenly Father, and to wake from troubled sleep today?