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?


[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.


[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.


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.



Year B – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Road to Greatness

(Wis.2:12, 17-20; Jas.3:16-4.3; Mk.9:30-37)

‘The world offers you comfort,’ Pope Benedict XVI once said, ‘But you weren’t born for comfort. You were born for greatness.’

What, then, is greatness? Most people today would probably use words like visionary, courageous and famous to describe it, but they’re unlikely to mention humility. Yet, so many of the world’s greatest leaders were humble. Just think of Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

Humble leaders, research tells us, make better listeners and are more authentic than those who lack humility. And in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says that humility is a common trait among the leaders of high performing companies.

But our popular culture doesn’t value humility; it equates it with weakness and low self-esteem. It much prefers things like power, position and prestige.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Galilee, on the road to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples that he’s not interested in worldly success. Rather, he is destined to be betrayed and killed, but later he will rise again.

They don’t understand, however, and start arguing about their own ambitions.

But Jesus doesn’t give up. He gathers them together and tries to explain what greatness really means. ‘If anyone wants to be first,’ he says, ‘he must make himself last of all and servant of all’. 

In other words, true greatness comes from serving others, especially the weak and the vulnerable. And herein lies the paradox: If you want to be first, then put yourself last. If you want to be great, then make yourself least. And if you want to lead, then humble yourself by serving others.

To emphasise this point, Jesus takes a little child, hugs her and says, ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’.

The disciples would have been shocked by this statement, because children weren’t so highly valued in those days; they were considered less valuable than slaves. Why? It’s because their mortality rate was very high. Many parents tried to avoid the heartache of losing their children by distancing themselves from them until they reached maturity.

But Jesus’ point is that greatness comes not from power and glory, but from truly caring for the little ones – the most vulnerable in the community.

St James reinforces this message in today’s second reading, by contrasting worldly wisdom with the wisdom of God. He says that the pursuit of worldly power and ambition leads to rivalry, disharmony and conflict. But God’s way of servanthood leads to gentleness, compassion and peace.

Henri Nouwen once wrote, ‘From the beginning of my life, two voices have been speaking to me: one saying, Henri, be sure you make it on your own. Be sure you become an independent person. Be sure I can be proud of you. And another voice saying, Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus; be sure you stay close to the love of God. [i]

We all share this struggle. It’s the struggle between our ordinary human desire to seek success, and the voice that’s always calling us to be faithful, wherever that might lead us.

Padre Pio understood this well. He once said, ‘The life of a Christian is nothing but a constant struggle against the self: there’s no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection, except at the price of pain’.

But that price is worth it. As Michael Casey says in his book Balaam’s Donkey, ‘adults who are at peace with themselves, who are not clamouring for higher status, also make peace for others, building a healthy contentment and preparing the way for the action of God. A person who is content with little is not for sale, and their integrity is difficult to subvert.

‘On the other hand,’ he says, ‘someone who is always climbing has eyes only for the future, will do whatever has to be done to achieve their goal, and may not be aware that slowly the quality of their life is being eroded. One is happy, the other is not. One grows, the other shrinks.’ [ii]

This is a message we all need to savour, deep in our hearts.

Long ago, in the 12th Century, the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux was asked to name the three most important elements of the spiritual life. He replied: ‘humility, humility, humility.’

Humility means being truly honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

Greatness is putting them at the service of others, especially the little ones.

[i] Henri Nouwen, Finding Vocation in Downward Mobility, in ‘Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders’, Vol. XI, No.3, Summer 1990:60 – 61.

[ii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2019:73.

Year B – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Messianic Secret

[Is.50:4c-9a; Jam.2:14-18; Mk.8:27-35]

Quite often in the Gospels, Jesus warns people not to tell anyone who he is. He does this after healing two blind men (Mt.9:30), after healing a leper (Mk.1:43-44), and after his Transfiguration (Mk.9:9).

He said it after healing the deaf man in last week’s Gospel (Mk.7.36).

And in today’s Gospel, near Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’

They answer, ‘John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.’ 

Then Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Peter replies, ‘You are the Messiah.’

This is the first time anyone in the Gospels gets Jesus’ identity right. But, once again, he warns them not to tell anyone.

Why is Jesus so secretive about his identity?

It’s because his followers still don’t fully understand who he is.

For centuries, the Jewish people had been expecting a great Messiah – a mighty political, military and religious leader – to come and save Israel from its enemies and to restore the glorious days of King David. This is what Peter has been expecting. He’s anticipating earthly glory, worldly triumph, and a man so strong, powerful and attractive that everyone would have to fall at his feet. [i]

But that’s all wrong. Jesus isn’t that kind of Messiah, and he doesn’t want anyone following him for the wrong reasons. And he certainly doesn’t want to be forced into political leadership, attracting the wrath of the Roman authorities. That would cut his mission short.

So, Jesus tries to stop the talk and to explain who he really is. He tells his disciples that he’s destined to endure suffering, rejection and death before rising again. But Peter objects – that can’t be right. Then Jesus gets angry with him: ‘Get behind me Satan! ’ he says, ‘the way you think isn’t God’s way, it’s man’s.’

This moment represents a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. At the outset, Mark clearly states that Jesus is the son of God (Mk.1:1). At the end, the Roman centurion stands at the Cross, saying, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (Mk.15:39). And in between, Mark records miracle after miracle, but the disciples struggle to grasp who Jesus is. It’s only after the resurrection that they really get it.

Today, countless people still don’t understand.

In his book, Once Upon a Gospel, William Bausch says that in every era, people have tended to see Jesus in their own image and likeness. Some have seen him as a fearsome deity like Zeus, waiting to hurl lightning bolts. Others have seen him as a manicured man hanging from a $22,000 gold cross from Tiffany.

Jesus has also been seen as a revolutionary Jewish Che Guevara. A capitalist. A philosopher. A social worker. A Hollywood idol. And the Lone Ranger riding in to save us from danger.

Today, many people still project themselves onto Jesus, and now see him as Jesus Lite. He’s our buddy, the friend who gives us the thumbs up and winks. He’s sweet, non-judgmental, a ‘live-and-let-live’ kind of guy. A pussycat. A heck of a nice fellow, but not one who, in the long run, inspires you and certainly not someone you’d die for – or live for, for that matter.

Quoting from recent research, Bausch notes the prevailing view of many young people today: ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter. Everyone goes to heaven when they die. Jesus forgives everything we do in the end.’

The problem with this colourless Jesus, Bausch says, is that he doesn’t exist in the Gospels. These people seem never to have heard Jesus telling stories about destroying nasty tenants (Mk.12:9), daring that unbelievers will have to endure God’s wrath (Jn.3:36) and that he has come to set son against father and daughter against mother (Mt.10:34-35). This so-called sweet Jesus calls his opponents liars (Jn.8:55), and has a sustained role as a terrible judge in the Book of Revelation (1:13-14; 1:16; 19:15; 19:17-18).

The real Jesus of the Gospels is countercultural. He’s brave, strong and determined – or he’d never have endured his excruciating passion and death.

And for us today, he’s a way of life. He’s about the decisions we make, about honesty, caring and concern. He’s about whistle-blowing and ethics. He’s about chastity and fidelity. He’s about truth and making relationships work. He’s about keeping one’s word. He’s about life, here and hereafter, for those who listen to him, and not much life for those who don’t. [ii]

Today, there’s no more need for the Messianic Secret. The truth about Jesus is available to us all.

But, like Peter, we need to drop the world’s false ideas about Jesus.

We need to recognise that he’s the humble and self-sacrificing Son of God, calling us to pick up our Cross and follow him towards eternal life.


[ii] William Bausch, Once Upon a Gospel. Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT. 2011:263-265.

Year B – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Listening with the Heart

Is.35:4-7a; Jas.2:1-5; Mk.7:31-37

Many years ago, I worked with a young woman who just wouldn’t stop talking. She was bright, and I wanted her to learn new things, but I got nowhere. She wouldn’t stop talking long enough to listen.

What they say is true: God gave us two ears and one mouth, to listen twice as much as we talk.

In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton says that if our life is poured out in useless words, we’ll never hear anything in the depths of our hearts. We’ll also never be anything, for we’ll have exhausted ourselves talking before we really had anything to say. [i]

But genuine listening is becoming more difficult these days. Life can be so busy and so many things compete for our attention. Indeed, recent research tells us that the typical human attention span has dropped to eight seconds – shrinking nearly 25% in just a few years. [ii]

When we don’t listen well, we make mistakes, people go unheard and relationships suffer. But good listening involves much more than just our ears.

In his book The Gospel of the Heart, Flor McCarthy says that it’s only with the heart that we can hear rightly. ‘The cry of a needy person may reach our ears,’ he says, ‘but unless it reaches our heart, we won’t feel that person’s pain, and it’s unlikely that we’ll respond.’

He also says that it’s only with the heart that we can speak rightly, ‘For our words to ring true, they must come from the heart. If our words come only from our lips, they’ll sound hollow and they’ll have little effect. They’ll be like a wind ruffling the surface of the water but leaving the depths untouched.’ [iii]

In today’s Gospel, a deaf man who can’t speak properly is brought to Jesus for healing. Jesus takes him aside, touches his ears and tongue, and says, ‘Be opened!’ Miraculously, the man’s ears open up and he’s given a voice.

This event marks the fulfilment of Isaiah’s grand vision in today’s first reading, where he prophesies a Messiah who will come to heal the deaf, to give voice to the silent, and to let the lame leap like a deer.

You might not remember it, but at your own baptism, the minister touched your ear and mouth, and said, ‘The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father’.

Touching your ear was your calling to become a disciple, because true disciples listen to Jesus. And the touch of your mouth was your calling to become a new apostle, because apostles generously share their faith with others.

But fundamental to all this is listening with the heart. The Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, used to tell the story of an old man who sat in church for hours on end. One day, a priest asked him if God ever said anything to him.

‘God doesn’t talk, he just listens,’ the old man replied.

‘Well then, what do you spend all this time talking about?’

‘I don’t talk, either. I just listen.’ [iv]

Too many of us, however, aren’t good at listening and we miss the important things. Consider the story of the Greek man found living in a psychiatric institution. They thought he was a hopeless schizophrenic and let him vegetate there for years. No-one knew much about him or where he came from, but everyone thought he was a hopeless case.

One day, the chaplain asked a Greek Orthodox priest to come and talk to the man, because he hadn’t spoken Greek for years. The priest returned from the visit saying, ‘What’s he doing here? He’s as healthy as we are.’

Bit by bit, the story unfolded.

The Greek had jumped ship long before in a nearby port. Speaking no English, he’d got into trouble and as mistakes sometimes happen, he was locked up in an institution. There he slowly learned English, but from the other patients.

Certain language misuse is typical of some psychiatric disorders, and the poor man had learnt totally schizophrenic English. To the hospital staff, he sounded unwell and as removed from reality as the other patients. The priest, however, spoke to him in Greek, the first time anyone had done that to him there, and he spoke perfectly. The staff were humbled by the experience.[v]

So, here’s the point: our ears and our mouths are connected to our hearts (Mt.12:34).

And listening – deep listening – is love.

[i] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island. Harvest, San Diego. 1983:260.


[iii] Flor McCarthy, The Gospel of the Heart. Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2005:167.

[iv] David Foster, Deep Calls to Deep. Continuum, London. 2007:59.

[v] Gerard Fuller, Stories for all Seasons. Columba Press, 1997:82-83.

Year B – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On a Change of Heart

[Deut.4:1-2, 6-8; Jam.1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk.7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]

In the 1997 film ‘As Good as It Gets’, Jack Nicholson plays the part of Melvin Udall, a writer who thinks he’s an expert on love because he’s written 62 romantic novels.

In reality, however, he’s a lonely man who’s obsessed with his cleanliness. He’s constantly washing his hands and avoiding people and dogs. And he’s thoughtlessly cruel. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that knowing about love and staying clean just aren’t enough, for it’s the heart that really counts.

Like so many in our society today, Melvin Udall thinks that appearance is everything. But even children know that appearances can deceive.

Some years ago in Shanghai, my wife and I bought a nice blue and white tea set. However, we didn’t notice the seller switch cups when he packed it, and we arrived home to find a broken piece. Clearly, his smile was fake.

In Mark’s Gospel today, some Pharisees are angry with Jesus because his disciples have been seen eating without first washing their hands. ‘Why don’t your disciples follow the traditions of the elders?’ they ask.

Now, these Pharisees aren’t truly concerned about hygiene. What they really want is for everyone to obey their rules. 

The Bible doesn’t say that everyone must wash their hands. It only specifies that priests must wash before going into the temple sanctuary for worship (Ex.30:17-21). By Jesus’ time, however, handwashing before meals had become commonplace and everyone was expected to do the same.

Jesus is annoyed by the Pharisees’ complaint, and he quotes from Isaiah, ‘this people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations’ (Is.29:13).

What he’s saying is that these Pharisees aren’t serious about their faith, because handwashing won’t bring anyone closer to God. These men are only interested in their petty rules.

With these words, Jesus is challenging us to go beyond the superficial, to recognise that our hearts and souls are where God lives, and where love and compassion begin.

Sometimes, what this requires is a change of heart.

The great storyteller Jeffrey Archer tells the story of Stoffel van den Berg, a talented South African cricketer who was born in Capetown.

His family had migrated from Holland in the 18th century, and they lived very privileged lives. [i]

Stoeffel was very supportive of apartheid, and at the age of 30 was preparing for a career in politics. ‘I don’t understand why the government doesn’t hang Mandela and his cronies,’ he once told his friends.

One day in 1989, while rushing to a campaign meeting, he had a head-on car crash. When he regained consciousness several weeks later, a surgeon explained that the driver of the other vehicle had died soon after arriving at the hospital.

‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ he said, ‘because moments later, your heart stopped beating, too. It was your luck that the dead driver’s wife agreed to a heart transplant from her husband to you.’

‘But doctor, wasn’t he black?’ Stoeffel asked in disbelief.

The doctor replied that the black man’s widow had simply said, ‘I can’t see why both of them have to die, if one of them can live.’

‘How long have I got?’ Stoeffel asked.

‘Three years, possibly four, if you take it easy,’ he replied.

After leaving hospital, Stoeffel went to meet that widow in the poor black township of Crossroads, outside Capetown. She refused all the help he offered. ‘Perhaps you and your child would like to come and live with us,’ he suggested.

But she replied, ‘No, thank you, master.’

That same day, with the support of his wife, Stoeffel quit his job and withdrew all his savings. Thereafter, every day he went down into that shantytown, teaching children English in a makeshift school. In the afternoons, he taught them cricket and rugby, and in the evenings, he roamed the streets encouraging teenagers to stay away from crime and drugs.

Four years later, and only days before Nelson Mandela was elected president, Stoeffel died. He had played his part in liberating a downtrodden people. Of the two thousand people who attended his funeral, more than half were black.

Our world considers image more valuable than substance, but it’s the heart that really counts. The heart is the source of all our thoughts, words and deeds.

If our heart is clean and noble, then all that flows from it will be clean and noble, too.

God knows who we really are. Perhaps it’s time for a change of heart.

[i] Jeffrey Archer, To Cut a Long Story Short. Pan Books, London. 2010.

Year B – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Choice and Consequence

[Josh.24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph.5:21-32; Jn.6:60-69]

According to Newton’s third law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Something similar happens when we make decisions, because every choice has its consequences.

That’s why we sometimes worry when young people make their own decisions. Neurologists tell us that the parts of the brain that control higher order decision-making don’t fully develop until adulthood. So, a young person’s developing brain places them at greater risk of making poor choices. They’re more likely to overestimate the rewards (fun! friends!) and under-consider the risks. [i]

But with time, education and experience, hopefully we all come to develop well and make sound decisions. The sweep of human history does make us wonder, however.

The Bible is full of stories about choices and their consequences. It even begins with Adam and Eve choosing to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. God lets them do this, but we’ve been suffering the consequences ever since.

Eve offering the apple to Adam Biblical vector illustration series, Adam and Eve, Eve offering the apple to Adam adam and eve stock illustrations

There are other stories, too, as Max Lucado points out. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel chose God, but Cain chose murder, and God let him.

Abraham and Lot were both pilgrims in Canaan. Abraham chose God, but Lot chose Sodom, and God let him. 

David and Saul were both kings of Israel. David chose God, but Saul chose power, and God let him.

Peter and Judas both denied Jesus. Peter sought mercy, but Judas sought death, and God let him.

All through history, and all through Scripture, God lets us make our own decisions. He won’t stop us doing the wrong thing, but we need to remember: our choices can have eternal consequences. [ii] 

In our first reading today, Joshua is the man who takes over from Moses after the Israelites enter the Promised Land. But now he’s old, and he tells the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel that they must decide: either to follow the false gods of their new land, or to stay faithful to the God of their ancestors who gave them their new home.

Joshua declares that he will serve the true God, but the others must decide for themselves. And they do decide: they all agree to do the same.

Our Gospel reading for today comes from the end of John’s Bread of Life discourse. It represents a turning point in the life of the disciples, for Jesus gives them a choice: either to stay and accept the Eucharistic gift of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, or to leave with those who can’t understand him or who refuse to change.

‘Do you want to leave me, too?’ Jesus asks, and Peter replies, ‘Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of everlasting life.’

CS Lewis once wrote, ‘If you want to get warm, you must stand near the fire. If you want to be wet, you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace and eternal life, you must get close to or even into the thing that has them.’

‘Once a person is united to God, how could they not live forever?’ he asks. ‘Once a person is separated from God, what can they do but wither and die?’ [iii]

Many people have chosen to leave the Church, and often because of disappointment. But in his reflection on today’s Gospel, Patrick van der Vorst says, ‘It’s precisely in these moments that Christ is asking us to stick with him, to walk with him and his Church.

‘The temptation to flee our Christian duties is at times very real and even attractive. But it’s precisely in those moments when we’re asked to keep a deep commitment going, that we draw the closest to God. 

‘To see so many people leaving our Church can be crushing at times,’ he says, ‘so today’s reading is relevant like never before.’

Going to Work by Lowry  Cross stitch Pattern  bonus image 0

LS Lowry’s painting Going to Work (1943) depicts a multitude of people leaving. Reflecting on this image, van der Vorst asks, ‘Where are they going, what are they walking towards?’ [iv]

We might well ask ourselves that same question, because our choices do have consequences. Where are we going if we’re not walking with Christ towards heaven?

‘For Jesus, being a disciple is all about staying with him and being committed. It’s about discipleship, and not just being a passive follower.’

As William Barclay puts it: Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a younger man. He said, ‘So and so tells me that he was one of your students’.

The teacher answered devastatingly, ‘He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students. You see, there’s a world of difference between attending lectures and being a student’. [v]

In the end, it’s our choices that matter. Not our wishes, not our words, not our promises.


[ii] Max Lucado, He Chose You, Thomas Nelson, Nashville. 2001:71-73


[iv] Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), Going to Work (1943). Imperial War Museum North, Manchester.

[v] Patrick van der Vorst, Reflection on John 6:60-69.

Year B – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

On the Science of Mary’s Assumption

(Rev.11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1Cor.15:20-27; Lk.1:39-56)

Today we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heaven.

Why is this important? It’s because it confirms Jesus’ promise: that if we truly follow him, then we can expect to go to heaven, too (Jn.5:24; 1Jn.5:13).

The Church has believed in Mary’s Assumption ever since the time of the first Apostles, but this teaching was only formally defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950.[1]

Mary’s Assumption isn’t the same as Jesus’ Ascension.  The word ‘assumption’ comes from the Latin ‘assumere’ (‘to take up’), for Mary was taken up into heaven by God’s power. Jesus, however, ascended to heaven under his own power.[2]

Where did Mary’s Assumption occur? It’s generally believed to have been either in Jerusalem or Ephesus, and some 3 to 15 years after Christ’s Ascension. Church tradition also tells us that the Apostles were present when Mary died.

Now, some people wonder about Mary’s Assumption because it’s not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. But Pope Pius XII says Scripture implicitly mentions it several times. In today’s second reading, for instance, St Paul describes Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, and he says ‘in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each in proper order’.

Mary’s Assumption certainly is in proper order, given her role as queen mother and her victory in the battle between good and evil, as told in our first reading.

It’s also significant that no relics of Mary’s body have ever been reported, and no Marian tomb or gravesite has ever been venerated. This is notable, given the historical fascination of Christians for the relics of saints.

But what is interesting today is what science can tell us about the Assumption.

Elizabeth Scalia says that when she studied anatomy and physiology, she was amazed to learn about the biological process called Microchimerism.[3] 

When a woman gets pregnant, the child always leaves within her a microscopic bit of himself in the form of cells. These living cells remain in her bloodstream and organs for the rest of her life, even if the foetus dies. This means that some of Jesus’ cells remained inside Mary all her life.

Recent research has found that these remnant cells aren’t dormant – they help to protect the health and well-being of the mother. They are found around healing wounds, helping with faster tissue repair. And they stimulate the formation of new blood vessels to injured and diseased structures in the body.

Microchimeric cells also improve im­mune system function, and they may lead to longer life for the mother. [iv]

Scalia points out that Psalm 16:10 says that God will not allow his Holy One to see decay, and we know that Jesus’ divine body did not decay because he ascended to heaven. So, it follows that Mary’s body, with cellular traces of Jesus inside her, could not be allowed to decay, either. After all, a particle of God is still God.

So, Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul (Ps.132:8). She really is the Theotokos, the new Ark of the Covenant, containing our living God.

But what does this mean for us today?

When Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950, the world was still recovering from WWII. He hoped that the story of Mary’s Assumption would help us all better appreciate the value of human life, and most especially a life focussed on doing the will of God.

He hoped that we might all be inspired to live like Mary, whose only purpose was to bring God’s love into the world, through Jesus.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said that Mary’s presence in heaven reminds us that the earth is not our final homeland. Heaven is our true home, and if we can stay focussed on the eternal, then one day we will share in the same glory as Mary and the earth will become more beautiful.

In today’s Gospel we are given Mary’s song, the Magnificat. It tells the story of Mary as the lowly handmaid who lovingly submitted to God’s command and agreed to bring Jesus into this world. In response to her fiat, Jesus became a permanent part of her and she was rewarded with eternal life in heaven.

Through the Holy Eucharist, Jesus becomes a part of us, too, though not a permanent one. That’s why we seek to receive him as often as we can.

And so this is our challenge: to become like Mary, the Blessed Mother – filled with Jesus, totally focussed on Jesus, and doing all we can to bring him into our world.

[1] Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus.

[2] Note that Mary’s wasn’t the first assumption. Scripture tells us that Elijah (2Kgs.2:11; 1Mac.2:58) and Enoch (Sir.44:16; 49:14; Heb.11.5) were also assumed bodily into heaven.

[3] accessed 12.05.15

[iv] Timothy Millea, The Eternal Mother-Child Connection, 2019 accessed 12.08.21