Year C – 1st Sunday of Advent

An Often-Neglected Gift

(Jer.33:14-16; Thess.3:12-4:2; Lk.21:25-28, 34-36)

Every year, in the weeks before Christmas, most of us spend time thinking about gifts – gifts for the people we love and care for.

Every year, however, there’s one gift that too many of us neglect in the run-up to Christmas. It’s the Season of Advent. It only lasts for four Sundays, it starts today, and it really is a gift to each of us from Jesus and his Church.

Advent is a remarkable gift. It marks the beginning of a brand-new liturgical year, and the start of a fresh new journey as we set out once again to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

As we travel together over the next twelve months, we’ll be reliving Jesus’ story, from his birth and early life, to his public ministry, his passion, death and resurrection, and his Ascension into heaven. And along the way, we’ll be listening to his teachings, we’ll be hearing the personal messages he has for us, and we’ll be his witnesses as he sends his Holy Spirit into the world.

Starting a new journey can be a wonderful thing, but to gain the most benefit we must fully engage our hearts and minds, and allow ourselves to embrace new stories and new ways of living.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber used to say that all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware. But before we can reach these secret destinations, we must let go of our old ways of seeing and be prepared to do new things.

Have you heard the folktale of a woman named Bilfina? The Three Wise Men and their camels pass by her house while she is busy cleaning inside. They invite her to join with them as they journey to Jesus in Bethlehem.

          Bilfina, the housewife, scrubbing her pane
          Saw three old sages ride down the lane,
          Saw three grey travellers pass by her door –
          Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior.

          ‘Where journey you, sirs?’ she asked of them.
          Balthazar answered, ‘To Bethlehem,
          For we have news of a marvelous thing,
          Born in a stable is Christ the King’.

          ‘Give Him my welcome!’ she said,
          Then Gaspar smiled,
          ‘Come with us, mistress, to greet the child’.
          ‘Oh, happily, happily would I fare, she said
          Were my dusting done and I’d polished the stair.’
          ….. Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn,
          ‘Then send but a gift to the small Newborn.’

          ‘Oh, gladly, gladly, I’d send him one,
          Were the kitchen swept
          and my weaving done.

          As soon as I’ve baked my bread,
          I’ll fetch him a pillow for his head,
          And a blanket too,’ Bilfina said.

          ‘When the rooms are aired and the linen dry,
          I’ll look at the Babe,’ she said,                                             
          ….. But the three rode by.

          She worked for a day, and a night and a day,
          Then gifts in her hands, she went on her way.
          But she never found where the Christ child lay.

          And she still wanders at Christmastide,
          ….. Houseless, whose house was all her pride.
          Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late;

          ….. She wanders and knocks at every gate.      
          Crying, ‘Good people, the bells begin!
          Put off your toiling and let love in!’

Yes, put off your toiling and let love in. 

year-c-1st-sunday-of-advent-3

Some of us are so busy; we’re so stuck in our day-to-day routines, that we often miss the important things when they come our way. And then, when we do notice them, sometimes it’s too late.

Today, the gift of Advent is being offered to you personally. Accept it. Slow down a while, and perhaps even stop altogether. Take time to listen, to reflect, to pray and to trust Jesus, for he’s reaching out to you right now.

It is important for us to prepare our hearts and homes for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. But it’s also essential that we prepare our souls for when he comes again – at the end of our lives and at the end of all time.  Let’s not make Bilfina’s mistake. Let’s journey to Jesus before it’s too late.

So, put off your toiling, and let love in.

Put off your toiling, and let joy and wisdom in.

Put off your toiling, and accept the wonderful gift of Advent.

Year B – 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Cristeros

[Ezek.34:11-12,15-17; 1Cor.15:20-26,28; Mt.25:31-46]

Today we mark the end of our liturgical year by celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.

Pope Pius XI established this celebration in 1925, at a time when the world was in deep trouble. WWI was over, but Nazism, Communism and Fascism were on the rise, and Pope Pius wanted to warn the world. He wanted to remind us all that life comes only from God and that it’s a mistake to put our faith in politics. 

In that same year, 1925, Blessed Miguel Pro was ordained a Jesuit priest in Belgium. He was Mexican, but he had to study for the priesthood in Europe because Mexico had become very dangerous for the Church.

Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro

The Mexican government had been persecuting Christians for 100 years, but things got much worse in 1926 when President Plutarco Calles tried to destroy the Church completely. He closed all Catholic schools, confiscated all church property, banned any teaching or public expression of the faith and he exiled or executed huge numbers of priests and nuns.

When the archbishop of Mexico City complained, his house and the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe were bombed. Priests and bishops then went into hiding and all public worship stopped for three years.

Fr Miguel Pro returned to Mexico that year, but he had to go ‘underground’, serving the people in secret. In 1927 he was arrested and falsely accused of bombing and attempted assassination. On November 23 that year, without any trial, he was sent for execution. [i]

As he walked from his cell to the firing squad, he blessed the soldiers, knelt and prayed quietly. Then he faced his executioners with a crucifix in one hand and a rosary in the other, and held out his arms like Christ on the Cross. 

‘May God have mercy on you! May God bless you!’ he cried out boldly. ‘Lord, you know I’m innocent! With all my heart I forgive my enemies!’

Then he shouted ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’

Long live Christ the King.

And he died in a hail of bullets. [ii]

President Calles had photos of Fr Miguel’s execution published in all the newspapers, expecting this to scare off any opposition. But it had the opposite effect.

Some 40,000 people attended his funeral procession, while another 20,000 waited at the cemetery. 

Calles had said that after a year without the sacraments, the people would surely forget about their faith. But he was wrong, because they started to rebel. 

For Greater Glory movie review (2012) | Roger Ebert

Have you seen the movie For Greater Glory (2012)? It tells the story of the Cristero (‘soldier for Christ’) Rebellion in Mexico (1926-29). It shows how ordinary people believed that there’s no greater glory than to give one’s life for Jesus Christ. Some chose to fight back non-violently, through economic boycotts or civil disobedience, while others chose armed resistance.

One story in that movie is that of José Sánchez del Rio, a boy who was canonised by Pope Francis in 2016. He was only 14 when the Cristero War broke out. When his brothers joined the resistance, he wanted to offer his life for Christ, too. So, he became the flagbearer for his rebel troop. 

In one battle, the leader of the Cristeros lost his horse and José gave him his own. But he was captured by government troops, and they tried to get him to renounce his faith. They said, ‘If you shout, “Death to Christ the King” we’ll spare you’. But José refused. He said, ‘I’ll never give in. Viva Cristo Rey!’

20th Century Martyrs: Tell Christ the King I shall be with him soon (Jose  Sanchez del Rio)

So, they tortured him violently. A month before his 15th birthday, he was forced to march to the cemetery on cruelly bloodied feet. Just before they shot him, he called out, ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ 

Long live Christ the King.

Now, why did Pope Pius XI want us to celebrate Christ the King?  It’s because our world has been working steadily to banish him. We can see it in the media, in our politics, and in the culture of our society. There’s long been a concerted campaign to banish Jesus Christ from our world, and it continues today.

Our world is full of fear, violence and greed, and vested interests are working hard to control the way we think, speak and live.

Jesus, however, represents something very different. He represents justice, peace and hope. He represents truth, love and mercy – all the things we need to thrive and be happy.

The Feast of Christ the King has nothing to do with crowns, palaces or robes. Rather, it’s about getting our priorities straight. It’s about the way we live, the decisions we make and who we follow in our day-to-day lives. [iii]

Jesus Christ is our king.

Long live Christ the King.

Viva Cristo Rey! [iv]


[i] https://www.jesuits.global/saint-blessed/blessed-miguel-agustin-pro/

[ii] https://aleteia.org/2018/11/23/a-special-novena-prayer-in-honor-of-blessed-miguel-pro/#

[iii] Bausch, W.J. Once Upon a Gospel.  Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT. 2011:315.

[iv] https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2012/07/06/the-true-story-of/   

Year B – 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Prepper’s Handbook

(Dan.12:1-3; Heb.10:11-14,18; Mk.13:24-32)

Today they’re known as preppers, or survivalists, and they’re preparing for the end of the world.

Whether it’s an asteroid strike, nuclear war, climate chaos or some other disaster, they’re all convinced that global catastrophe is coming, and they’re determined to survive. They’re readying themselves by installing underground bunkers and stockpiling food, ammunition and other supplies, and their plan is to ‘ride out the storm’ until life returns to normal.

None of this is new, of course. Ever since Jesus first warned that the world will end one day, countless people have been trying to anticipate the event.

The Mystical Nativity - Wikipedia

In 1501, the Renaissance painter Botticelli was convinced that he lived in the end times, and he hid lots of messages about the world’s end in his painting Mystic Nativity. [i]

In 1524, when the German mathematician Johannes Stöffler predicted a massive worldwide flood, one man built a three-storey ark. [ii]

And in 1910, some people were sure that the poisonous tail of Halley’s Comet would destroy the world as it flew past. [iii]

So far, they’ve all been wrong.

As Christians, we know that our earthly lives are temporary, and we accept that the world will end one day. Jesus confirms this in Mark’s Gospel today. But he also says that even he doesn’t know the day or the hour when the world will end; only his Father knows. So why are these people trying to guess what even the Son of God doesn’t know?

In Luke 21:8, Jesus says, ‘Watch out that you’re not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming… “The time is near”.’ Don’t follow them, he says.

And St Paul says there’s no point waiting for the end because Jesus will only return ‘like a thief in the night’ – when we least expect it (1Thess.5:2). So, there’s no point guessing when that might be. It’s wiser to listen to what Jesus is trying to tell us.

In today’s Gospel, he assures us that, like a good shepherd, he will one day return to gather up the elect – the scattered people of God – into one community. And he says, ‘The sun will be darkened (and) the moon will lose its light…’

Now, it’s the sun that gives us our years, and it’s the moon that gives us our months. So, without the sun and the moon, time as we know it will end.  But that doesn’t mean the end of everything. Rather, Jesus is talking about a new beginning, and a new creation.

Fig Leaves Pictures | Download Free Images on Unsplash

He then points to a sprouting fig leaf, which in winter marks the start of a new season. In the same way, these cosmic events will signal the start of a new heaven and a new earth, and the fulfilment of God’s plans for us.  

Now, this is what we should be preparing for. As Christians, our challenge isn’t just to get ready for the next emergency; it’s to prepare for eternal life. And the way to do that isn’t by installing bunkers, but by opening our hearts, strengthening our faith and gathering as much grace as we can, while we can.

It’s also by focusing on those around us, and not just on ourselves.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that at the end of time, when the Son of Man comes in his glory, he’ll be separating the sheep from the goats (Mt.25:31-46). The sheep, of course, are those who cared for ‘the least of his brothers and sisters’, by giving them something to eat, something to drink and something to wear when they needed it. The goats are those who were too selfish to bother.

Our goal is to be counted among the sheep, not the goats.

So, here’s the point: Everything we need to prepare for eternal life can be found in the Gospel, for it’s the ultimate handbook for Christian preppers.

The Gospel is full of inspiring stories and practical advice which together present the great story of Jesus Christ, who not only shows us the way to heaven, but through his Holy Spirit also helps us get there.

But to achieve this, we must stop being so passive. We must take our faith actively in hand and develop it. We must get to know Jesus Christ personally and do all we can to follow him.

The time for passive Christianity is over.

So many of today’s doomsday preppers focus on fear. But St Augustine tells us that fear is the enemy of love, and ultimately, love is what we seek.

The place to find it is in Jesus Christ, because God is love itself (1Jn.4:8).

When we follow the Gospel and that last day comes, we’ll find that there’s nothing else left for us to do.

For we’ll already be well prepared.


[i] Sandro Botticelli, Mystic Nativity, c.1501, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. https://totallyhistory.com/the-mystical-nativity/

[ii] https://www.britannica.com/list/10-failed-doomsday-predictions

[iii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ten-notable-apocalypses-that-obviously-didnt-happen-9126331/

Year B – 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Widow’s Mite

(1Kgs.17:10-16; Heb.9:24-28; Mk.12:38-44)

I once knew a man, a politician, who liked to promote himself. Every week he’d always arrive late for Mass with his large family in tow. Making a grand entrance, he’d walk to the front of the church, look around, and sit down.

It wasn’t long before other churchgoers asked themselves: was he honouring God or himself? Was he looking for faith or votes?

Something similar happens in Mark’s Gospel today. Jesus warns his followers to beware of the scribes in the Temple. These men like to strut around in fine clothes, greeting people and taking the best seats in the synagogue. They like to parade their wealth and importance.

But Mark then contrasts this life of pride and selfishness with another story, about a poor widow. She quietly donates to the Temple two tiny copper coins, each smaller than a fingertip. (These coins are often called Mites today, but in ancient Israel they were known as Lepta). [i]

widows-mite

Two mites were enough to buy two sparrows (Mt.10:29).

It’s not much, but Jesus says her gift is the greatest of all because it’s all she had. This is a real sacrifice, compared to the wealthy who only give from their surplus.

This widow’s tale is the last story from Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s Gospel, before he begins his passion. It’s significant, because it summarises all Jesus has been trying to teach us about following him.

This widow represents Christ himself, because soon afterwards Jesus does the very same thing. He gives up everything he has – his whole life – for the people he loves: you and me. So, this widow is an icon of Christ, a living image of Jesus himself. 

Her two coins represent the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love our neighbour, with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.  This is the selfless sacrifice we’re all called to make.

But can we do it? Can we let go of our worldly attachments and open ourselves up to the life of Jesus Christ? 

Someone once said that if we want God’s kingdom to come, then we need to let go of our own personal kingdoms.

Let me tell you of three people who did just that.

The first is St Elizabeth of Hungary. She was a princess, born in 1207 to the King of Hungary. At the age of 14 she married a German count and they had three children. She was wealthy, but she insisted on living a simple, humble life, just like Jesus and St Francis of Assisi.

She gave food to the poor. She built hospitals and worked in them. She helped a leper colony, and when she ran out of money, she sold her jewellery and gowns and dressed as a commoner. She gave up everything to help others and, at the age of 24, she died. [ii]

The second person who learnt to let go is an American, Tom Monaghan, born in 1937. His father died when he was four. His mother was so poor that she put him and his brother into a foster home. When he was 23, he bought a pizzeria and called it Domino’s. He grew the business, became enormously rich and lived a lavish lifestyle.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Then, one day he read C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. One chapter, especially, changed his life. It was Chapter 8, which is all about pride. In 1998 he sold Domino’s Pizza for $1 billion and he decided to devote his life and fortune to helping the Church.

Since then, he has built many schools, a cathedral in Nicaragua, Ave Maria University in Florida and the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan. He has established radio stations and newspapers and many other charities and projects supporting Catholic education and values. [iii]

Monaghan says his goal is to help as many people as possible to get to heaven.

The third person who learnt to let go is Margaret, an ordinary woman I met some years ago. She, too, is a widow. She’s not rich, either, but she is utterly devoted to sponsoring poor African children. Every time she has a spare $20, she sends it to the Missions in Africa. So far, she has sponsored dozens of children. That’s her life’s work. She is like the poor widow in today’s Gospel.

We all have something to offer, even if it’s only a widow’s mite.

We’re not meant to live our lives for ourselves. We’re all meant to live for others, in a spirit of great generosity and love.

Doing whatever we can.


[i] Each Lepton was worth 1/64 of a denarius, which was the daily wage of a common worker.

[ii] https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=45

[iii] https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/ave-maria-founder-tom-monaghan-is-a-man-of-faith-plans-and-action.html

Year B – 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Two Feet and Two Wings

(Deut.6:2-6; Heb.7:23-28; Mk.12:28-34)

People are often surprised to hear that there are 613 commandments in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah). They usually only expect ten commandments.

Long before Jesus was born, Jewish rabbis began arguing about all these laws and their meanings. They also often debated which was the most important commandment of all.

This is the question a scribe puts to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel today. Jesus replies by picking two commandments. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:5: you must love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is from Leviticus 19:18: you must love your neighbour as yourself. ‘There’s no commandment greater than these,’ Jesus says.

Now, why does Jesus mention two commandments, instead of simply saying we should love God above all else? It’s because loving God and loving our neighbour are two sides of the same coin (1Jn.4:7-8).

St Basil the Great used to say that we can only love our fellow human beings because we love God first. If we don’t love God, he said, we will never be open to enemies and strangers. And the only way we can fully express our love for God is by loving our neighbours who have been created in his image and likeness.

St Catherine of Siena talks about this in her famous Dialogues. One day Our Lord said to her, ‘I want you to love me with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved in return … This is why I’ve put you among your neighbours: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me – that is, to love them without expecting any reward. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me’ (Mt.25:40).

‘When you love me and your neighbour,’ Our Lord told her, ‘you’ll be walking with two feet, not one, and you’ll have two wings to fly to heaven.’ [i]

But who is my neighbour? Henri Nouwen says that we often answer that question by saying: ‘My neighbours are all the people I’m living with, especially the sick, the hungry, the dying, and all who are in need.

‘But that’s not what Jesus says. When Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (Lk.10:29-37) … he ends by asking: “Which do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?” 

‘The neighbour, Jesus makes clear, isn’t the poor man lying half dead on the side of the road, but the Samaritan who crossed the road to look after him.’ [ii]

Our neighbour, then, can be anyone at all, anywhere and anytime.

St Teresa of Calcutta made this clear in the story she told of a hungry Hindu family: ‘A gentleman came to our house and said: Mother Teresa, there’s a family with eight children, they haven’t eaten for so long – do something.

‘So, I took some rice and went there immediately. And I saw the children – their eyes shining with hunger … (The mother) took the rice, divided it and went out. When she came back, I asked her – where did you go, what did you do? And she gave me a very simple answer: They are hungry also.’

That Hindu family was starving, but so was another Muslim family. The hungry mother had shared her rice with them.

Mother Teresa said, ‘I didn’t bring any more rice that evening because I wanted them to enjoy the joy of sharing. But there were those children, radiating joy, sharing the joy with their mother because she had the love to give. And you see this is where love begins – at home.’ [iii]

So, how might we ourselves begin?

In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis says: ‘Don’t waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this,’ he says, ‘we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will soon come to love them.’ [iv]

The great theologian Karl Rahner once said something similar. A student who was going through a crisis of faith asked him for some books to read to regain his faith.

‘Forget books,’ Rahner said, ‘go out and join a group of Christians who help the poor.’

What all these good people are talking about is a pure and selfless love; a love that expects nothing in return. This is the kind of love God gives us, and the love God wants us to give our neighbour.

A pure and selfless love that expects nothing in return.

When you love both God and your neighbour, you’ll be walking with two feet, not one, and you’ll have two wings to fly to heaven.


[i] St Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, Paulist Press, Mahweh, N.J. 1980

[ii] https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/who-is-my-neighbor/

[iii] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1979/teresa/lecture/

[iv] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Fontana Books, London, 1969:114

Year B – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Seeing Clearly

(Jer.31:7-9; Heb.5:1-6; Mk.10:46-52)

Our eyesight is such a precious gift; we often take it for granted. But having good eyesight doesn’t always mean we see well, for there are different kinds of blindness.

Helen Keller was only 19 months old when she became deaf and blind. But she still learned to read, write and speak, and she lived a full life.

One day, when a friend returned from a long walk in the woods, Helen asked her what she had seen. Her friend replied, ‘Nothing in particular.’

Helen couldn’t believe it. ‘How is this possible,’ she asked herself, ‘when I who cannot hear or see, find hundreds of interesting things through mere touch? I feel the delicate shape and design of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly over the rough bark of a pine tree. Occasionally, I place my hand quietly on a small tree, and if I’m lucky, I’ll feel the quiver of a bird in full song.’

‘The greatest calamity that can befall people,’ Keller said, ‘is not that they should be born blind, but that they should have eyes, yet fail to see.’ [i]

Set of 2 eye chart printables. Instant download PDF JPG prints. Be Thou My  Vision. I was Blind but Now I See. Christian wall art. Home decor in 2021 |  Be thou

In Mark’s Gospel today, Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, sitting on the roadside in Jericho, some three hours’ walk from Jerusalem. He may have had conjunctivitis, for it was common in those days.

Jesus of Nazareth walks by with his disciples, and Bartimaeus calls out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!’ The crowd tries to keep him quiet, but Bartimaeus keeps calling out. And then, when he’s invited to approach, he throws off his cloak, he jumps up and goes to Jesus to be healed.

Now, some points in this famous story are worth noting.

Firstly, Bartimaeus lives in darkness, yet he can see the truth, unlike the crowd that tries to keep him quiet. Today, something similar is happening in our own world. There’s a large crowd out there, still trying to keep Christians quiet; still trying to separate us from Jesus. Like Bartimaeus, we must ignore them and stay faithful.

Secondly, Bartimaeus’ cloak is a powerful symbol. It’s all he owns.  He sleeps in it; he uses it to collect coins and he uses it to protect himself. And yet, he leaves it behind. That takes great faith, because he might not find it again.

Compare that to the story of the rich young man who was too scared to leave his possessions to follow Jesus (Mk.10:17-31). Bartimaeus trusted Jesus; the rich young man did not.

And did you notice how Jesus calls Bartimaeus? He doesn’t do it directly. He gets his disciples to call him. That’s an important detail, because Jesus often works through his disciples. Today, we are his disciples. Do we allow Jesus to work through us?

And finally, did you notice how Jesus responds to Bartimaeus? He doesn’t toss a few coins at him, which many of us might do. Rather, Jesus asks, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

John 14:6 Eye Chart, Bible Verse on Canvas – Honeycomb Proverbs

That’s the same question Jesus asked James and John in last week’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t guess what’s in our hearts. He wants us to talk with him personally, to share our deepest hopes and fears with him.

Bartimaeus answers that question by saying, ‘I want to see’. Jesus then says, ‘Go your way; your faith has saved you.’ But Bartimaeus doesn’t go his own way. Instead, he follows Jesus. He becomes a disciple.

Of all the people Jesus helps in the Gospels, Bartimaeus is one of the very few we actually know by name. We should remember him, because at every Mass we say ‘Kyrie eleison’ – ‘Lord have mercy on me’. These are Bartimaeus’ words.

Like Bartimaeus, there are times when we, too, are weak and helpless and simply cannot see what we need to see. Yet, where it counts, Bartimaeus actually sees more clearly than anyone else.

The great gift of faith is that it allows us to see things that even healthy eyes often miss.

As a young man living in Spain, St Josemaria Escriva knew that God was calling him to do something special, but he couldn’t see what it was. However, he was inspired by Bartimaeus’ story, and for years he prayed Bartimaeus’ prayer: ‘Lord, that I might see!’

God heard his prayer and gave him a clear spiritual vision. St Josemaria went on to accomplish many great things in his lifetime.

Today, Jesus is asking us the same question: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

Tell him that you really want to see.


[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies, Year B. Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2017, p.346-347.

Year B – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Second Fiddle 

[Is.53:10-11; Heb.4:4-16; Mk.10:35-45]

In his book Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom tells the story of a university basketball game. Their team is doing well, and the students are chanting, ‘We’re number one! We’re number one!’ 

But Professor Morrie is sitting nearby and he’s puzzled. He stands up and yells, ‘What’s wrong with being number two?’ The students look at him and stop chanting. [i]

Yes, what is wrong with being number two? So many people today think the only place to be is out in front, in first place. Anywhere else, they think, isn’t good enough. Yet, the great American conductor Leonard Bernstein was once asked, ‘What’s the hardest instrument to play?’ He replied, ‘Second fiddle’.

‘I can always get plenty of first violinists,’ he said, ‘but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm … now that’s a problem. And yet if no-one plays second, we have no harmony.’ [ii]

Now I’m no musician, but I do know that we can’t all play first violin. In an orchestra, the first violin plays the melody, the tune that everyone listens for and enjoys. But the second fiddle plays the harmony. That’s the supporting role that compliments the first violin, making it look and sound good. But to get that result, the second fiddler has to work hard, doing lots of fancy finger work.

In the end, the first violin usually gets the credit, and the second often goes unnoticed. But the second violinist nonetheless has a vital role to play.

The success of so much in life depends on the skills and commitment of those who labour quietly in the background. Yes, sometimes there’s little recognition, but there is joy to be had from seeing things succeed, from helping others shine and knowing that we’ve played our part well.

One fine example of this is St John the Baptist, the forerunner who spent his life preparing the world for the coming of Jesus (Mk.1:1-8). John was the greatest preacher in the land, and he had many followers. But when Jesus arrived, he chose to play second fiddle and got out of the way (Jn.3:30). Yet Jesus said, ‘Among those born of women, none is greater than John’ (Lk.7:28). 

John’s greatness was in emptying himself in the service of others. That’s exactly what Jesus did, too (Phil.2:5-11).

In Mark’s gospel today, the apostles James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his left and right when he comes into his glory in heaven. In other words, they want to share in his greatness by having honours and privileges given to them. But Jesus replies, ‘You don’t know what you’re asking for.’

He then asks if they can drink the cup that he must drink. They say yes, but really, they don’t understand.

In Scripture, the word ‘cup’ often refers to suffering, especially the suffering that comes from being punished for one’s sins (Ps.75.8; Jer.25:15; Is.51:17). Jesus came to drink this cup on behalf of everyone. He immersed himself in the suffering we all deserve for our sins (Mt.26:39). He calls this immersion his ‘baptism’, because after dying on the Cross he returns to new life.

Then Jesus says, ‘anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all’. And he explains this by saying that he came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk.10:43-45).

In my younger days, I used to think that life was all about making it to the top, becoming number one. But then I started noticing that we can often achieve good things much more effectively when we’re NOT number one. How? By being a positive influence. I also discovered that without the burdens of leadership, supporting roles can often be much more satisfying.

If you think about it, life is much like an orchestra. Like musical instruments, we all have our parts to play, at different times and in various ways. And the music we create is dynamic: sometimes there’s great drama, with crashing cymbals and drums, and sometimes there are quiet interludes, cushioned on sweet violins and flutes.

There are also times, like the harp and bassoon, when no-one notices us, and like the viola, when what we do is so very repetitive. But we’re all designed to work together to support and enrich the main tune, which is where joy and love are to be found – for everyone.

In the orchestra of life, some people insist on being the conductor. But they forget that he can’t make a sound, and he must always turn his back on the crowd.

Like second fiddle, the conductor’s job is to make others shine.

That’s something we can all do, anytime, wherever we are.


[i] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie. Hatchette Australia, Sydney, 2008:136.

[ii] Mark Buchanan, Your God is Too Safe. Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs, 2001:213.

Year B – 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Letting Go

(Wis.7:7-11; Heb.4:12-13; Mk.10:17-30)

In the movie ‘Up in the Air’ (2009), George Clooney’s character is teaching a class of students. He asks them:

‘… How much does your life weigh? Imagine … you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders … Now pack it with all the stuff you have in your life. Start with the little things. The things on shelves and in drawers, the knick-knacks, the collectibles. Feel the weight as it adds up. Then start adding larger stuff, clothes, table-top appliances, lamps, linens, your TV.

‘The backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. And you go bigger. Your couch, bed, your kitchen table. Stuff it all in there. Your car, get it in there. Your home, whether it’s a studio apartment or a two-bedroom house. I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now try to walk. It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living…’ [i]

What he’s talking about here is letting go. Many people today would love to let go of all their burdens, their fears, their obsessions, their disappointments – everything that weighs them down. So, what stops them?

Bill Bausch tells the story of an old monk who’d been teaching a young disciple. After some time, he tells the disciple he’s ready to go out on his own. The young disciple then goes into the wilderness and lives in a simple hut near the river. Every night, happy as a lark, he puts out his simple tunic, his only possession, to dry. One morning he finds it’s been shredded by rats. So, he begs a second tunic from the villagers, but the rats destroy that too. He decides to get a cat. 

But now he must beg food not only for himself but also milk for the cat. To get around that, he buys a cow. Now he needs food for the cow. So he works the land around his hut and it takes all his time to grow the crops to feed the cow. He hires workers and marries a wife who keeps the household running smoothly. Pretty soon he’s one of the wealthiest people in the village. 

Several years later his teacher returns to find a mansion where the hut had been. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ he asks. The disciple replies, ‘Holy Father, there was no other way for me to keep my tunic.’ [ii]

Bausch says this is the perfect parable for us. We all have to keep up appearances, maintain our status and have what everyone else has. And while we’re rationalising the way we live, he says no-one ever suspects that Jesus is looking at us with love, saying we can do better than that, for we’re not everyone else.

In today’s Gospel, a rich young man asks Jesus, ‘Master, what must I do to earn eternal life?’ Jesus reminds him of the Commandments, but he replies that he already obeys them. So, Jesus says, ‘Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’.

But the young man just can’t let go of his attachments, and he walks away, sad.

Why is he sad? It’s because he’s been given a taste of heaven, but rejected it. He’s been given a glimpse of an exciting new world, but he’s too scared to let go of the old one.

Some people think this story means they must discard everything they own.  But not every disciple is asked to do that. Martha and Mary, you might remember, entertained Jesus in their own home.

Jesus isn’t asking us to live in poverty. He’s not expecting his disciples to be destitute. But he is calling us to live a life of simplicity and freedom. That means letting go of anything that holds us back, anything that separates us from God, such as money, status, our inflated self-importance or our unhealthy relationships. [iii]

Bill Bausch says that Jesus is looking on us with love, but it’s not the simpering, gushy love of greeting cards or insipid hymns. 

Rather, it’s a tough love that reminds us that, good people that we are, we can do better, we must do better.

Too many of us today are drifting aimlessly through life.  And yet, deep down, we’re all hungering for meaning and purpose. We’re all yearning for the transcendent beauty of God.

Right now, Jesus is inviting us to follow him. What’s holding us back?

What’s stopping you?

Can you let it go?


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSzVgkGvB1E

[ii] William J Bausch, Once Upon a Gospel. Twenty-Third Publications, New London CT. 2011:283.

[iii] James Martin, Jesus – A Pilgrimage. HarperCollins, NY. 2014:270-271, 306.

Year B – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Language of Love

(Gen.2:18-24; Heb.2:9-11; Mk.10:2-16)

There’s nothing quite like falling in love, is there? It feels so exhilarating, so exciting, so extraordinary.

When two people fall in love, not only do their hearts light up.  Scientists say their hormones fire up, too, as a neurochemical cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine rushes from their brains. The effect is like cocaine, they say, and the lovers feel euphoric. [i] It’s as if nothing can possibly go wrong.

Falling in love feels like the most wonderful thing in the world. But those feelings don’t last, do they?

The author Gary Chapman says that the average romantic obsession lasts for just two years. After that, he says, the hormones start settling down and the lovers find themselves gradually returning to earth and normal life. 

When lovers start seeing things as they really are, their differences become more obvious and they tend to drift apart. That’s when they find themselves in danger of falling out of love and they either withdraw from each other (and maybe split up), or they start the hard work of learning how to love each other in new ways.

Over the years I’ve sometimes been surprised to see couples who love each other break up, and I’ve wondered why. In his book The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman provides one good answer. He says there are five main ways to express our love for someone, and he calls these ‘love languages’.  Everyone enjoys them all to some degree, but each of us has a primary love language, a preferred way in which we tend to give and receive love. 

The first of these is Words of Affirmation. For some people, words are the most powerful way of communicating their love and affection. They do this through thoughtful statements of appreciation, encouragement and kindness. 

For others, Quality Time is more important. This love language is all about giving your partner your undivided time and attention. It’s not just ‘hanging around’; it means being actively and genuinely present to them in meaningful ways.

The third love language is Gifts. For some people, gifts are the very best way to express love, and receiving gifts is their preferred way to be loved.

The fourth love language is Acts of Service. Some people believe that actions speak louder than words, and they like to express their love and affection by doing things for others. They might do a chore, solve a problem or cook a meal for them, and they simply love it when they receive a kind service in return.

And finally, the fifth love language is Physical Touch. For some people, nothing speaks more deeply or beautifully of love than a warm, gentle touch. They like to express their affection by giving a hug or holding hands or sitting close by.

But of course, we need to be careful. Not everyone likes to be touched. Not everyone appreciates a gift or a well-crafted word. 

For a relationship to be successful, we need to know our partner’s primary love language. If I emphasise romantic words when my wife prefers gifts, I could be wasting my time. I might think I’m being loving while she’s feeling neglected. This is why relationships sometimes break up; the partners haven’t learnt how to express their love in the most meaningful and effective way.

So how do we discover someone’s love language? One way is to ask them. But Chapman also says that we should observe the way they express their love to others. And we should analyse what they often complain about and what they ask for. [ii]

But here’s the point: genuine love requires serious thought and effort.

In our first reading today from the Book of Genesis, God is presented as a potter using his hands to create wild beasts and birds from clay. He also creates man in his own image and likeness, and he fills man’s heart with the fire of his love.

This reading reminds us that we were all made to love and to be loved, because God is love itself (1Jn.4:8; 16). And Jesus affirms this fact in Mark’s gospel today, where he talks about the importance of marriage.

But our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that loving others makes us vulnerable to suffering. That’s exactly what happens to Jesus when he opens up his heart to us. He exposes himself to suffering, and he finds himself nailed to the Cross.  However, it’s through his unshakeable commitment to love, and the inevitable suffering, that he is made perfect.

And so it is with us. Loving someone else takes courage and commitment, and it makes us vulnerable.

But it’s only through love that we grow to full maturity. 

And it’s only through love that we’ll ever get to heaven.


[i] https://www.powerofpositivity.com/why-falling-in-love-is-good-for-you/

[ii] Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages. Northfield Publishing, Chicago. 2010.

Year B – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Four Chaplains

(Num.11:25-29; Jas.5:1-6; Mk.9:38-43, 45, 47-48)

Some people are surprised to hear that my journey to the diaconate began with the Baptist Church. I have always been a Catholic, but when I worked for the Baptists many years ago, they helped me see my faith in fresh, new ways. I also did most of my diaconal formation while working for Wesley Mission. These good-hearted people were a great influence on me.

Many years ago, my Protestant connections would have been considered scandalous, but thankfully today the sectarian divisions of the past are fading. May they disappear altogether!

Interestingly, there are stories about division in our readings today. In our first reading, Joshua is outraged because two outsiders, Eldad and Medad, have been prophesying without Moses’ authorisation. ‘Stop them!’ Joshua says, but Moses refuses. He says he’d like to see many more people filled with the Holy Spirit and serving as prophets.

And in Mark’s gospel, John complains that someone who is not a disciple has been working as an exorcist, healing people.  But Jesus replies, ‘You must not stop them… Anyone who’s not against us is for us.’

Four Chaplains Chapel & Memorial Foundation

Let me now share with you an inspirational story from the USAT Dorchester, an American cruise liner that was refitted as a US Army troopship during WWII.

Early in 1943, the Dorchester was travelling in convoy from New York to an army base in Greenland, carrying some 900 troops. On board were four army chaplains – a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers.

For two weeks they did what chaplains do: they organised religious services, provided pastoral support and they encouraged the troops, many of whom were seasick. They also became friends.

On 3rd February 1943, as they crossed the North Atlantic, it was bitterly cold, with big seas and gale-force winds. Shortly after midnight, and only 150 miles from their destination, a German U-boat torpedoed them amidships, killing 100 men and destroying the ship’s electrical system. The lights went out and the ship started taking on icy water. The soldiers panicked and scrambled from their beds.

All four chaplains survived the blast and went on deck, tending the wounded, reassuring the frightened and handing out lifejackets. But there weren’t enough lifejackets and few of the lifeboats worked.

6

As the ship listed, some of the men fell into the freezing water, and the chaplains urged the men to jump the rails into the lifeboats. They leapt into the dark, terrified, hoping a lifeboat would catch them.

The rabbi gave away his gloves, and when they ran out of lifejackets, each chaplain gave away his own lifejacket. They tried to help everyone off the ship.

The four chaplains then stood on deck, linked arms, prayed and sang. The bow of the ship rose up, and she slid down into the water. Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, 672 died, including the four chaplains. But they had helped 230 men survive.

One of the survivors said that what they did was the finest thing he’d ever seen or hoped to see, this side of heaven.

On that ship, the religion of the four chaplains didn’t matter. They were all good men, full of compassion and trying to help others survive. In those days such behaviour was revolutionary. In fact, in 1988 the US Congress designated 3rd February each year as ‘Four Chaplains Day’. [i] [ii]

So, what can we learn from this story? Well, it demonstrates what it truly means to have faith. It teaches us that regardless of our faith traditions, we’re all essentially equal and only our attitudes separate us.

This story also reminds us that if our faith is genuine, then our first priority cannot be ourselves. As Jesus tells us, the two greatest commandments are that we love God and our neighbour (Mk.12:30-31).

Jesus also says that there’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn.15:13).

Four Chaplains Day Commemorates Fallen Heroes - Covenant Companion :  Covenant Companion

But what inspires people to love so selflessly? It’s the Holy Spirit, which is the power of God’s love. The Spirit is the wind that blows where it wills. Jesus says that you’ll hear the sound of it, but you won’t know where it comes from or where it goes (Jn.3:7-8).

The Holy Spirit is constantly working in our lives, in our hearts and in our world, trying to draw us all towards God and each other. The question is, however, whether our hearts are open to the divine Spirit. Do we welcome his gentle call, and are we responsive to his urgings?    

When our hearts are filled with the love of God’s Holy Spirit, we too will find ourselves doing the most remarkable things.

Let’s close with this little prayer from Joyce Rupp’s book, May I Have This Dance?

Spirit of God, you are the stirrings in our hearts. You urge us to get going. You prompt us to follow. You encourage us not to give up. You call us to open our minds and our hearts to receive your energizing, transforming radiance. Make us receptive so that we will follow your loving movement within our lives. We trust in your powerful presence within us. Amen.


[i] http://www.fourchaplains.org/the-saga-of-the-four-chaplains/

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ewJp8HhYzA