Year C – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Fragrance of Love

(Sir.35:12-14, 6-18; 2Tim.4:6-8, 16-18; Lk.18:9-14)

Nothing expresses love quite like a beautiful fragrance. 

Napoleon Bonaparte and his Empress Josephine adored violets.  Every anniversary he gave her a fragrant bouquet of violets, symbolising their passionate love.  And on his deathbed, Napoleon’s locket held a picture of Josephine, a lock of her hair and dried violet petals.

Our noses are closely connected with our memories and feelings about people, places and things.  That’s because the olfactory nerve that controls our sense of smell crosses the parts of the brain that manage memory and emotion.  

This explains why memories and feelings often return to us when we smell familiar aromas, such as certain perfumes or foods.

But sweet fragrances aren’t just romantic. They also connect us with divine love.

We see this in the Bible’s Song of Songs, which is a love poem overflowing with the scent of fragrant perfumes, spices, flowers, fruit, incense and wine. 

At one level, it describes a passionate love affair between a man and a woman.  But at another, it’s an allegory of God’s extraordinary love for his people, and it tells us that God loves gorgeous scents even more than we do (Prov.27:9).

In Exodus 30, God instructs the priests of ancient Israel to keep burning aromatic incense on the golden altar in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.  This golden altar represents our faithful, loving hearts, and the sweet-smelling smoke represents our heartfelt prayers, rising constantly up to heaven.

God gives Moses a recipe for this incense in Exodus 30:34-37.  He must prepare it like a perfumer, by mixing equal parts of certain exotic spices with pure frankincense.  For God likes his incense salted, pure and holy.

In a similar way, today’s readings give us a recipe for our own prayers.  They must be honest and genuine.  They must be borne of faith.  They must express our love and gratitude to God, and they must come straight from our hearts. 

To emphasise the right kind of prayer, Jesus today gives us his Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke’s Gospel.

These two men go into the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him.  He looks up to heaven and loudly thanks God that he’s not like everyone else, and especially not like the Tax Collector.  For he’s a virtuous man who fasts twice a week and he’s generous with his money.

The Tax Collector, however, stays at the back of the Temple.  He’s ashamed of his life and he can’t lift up his eyes (Ez.9:6).  He prays quietly, saying, ‘God, please be merciful to me, a sinner’.

Now, which prayer does God prefer?  It’s the honest, humble one.

The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is that he sees no need for forgiveness.  He has no sense of the distance he still has to go in his spiritual life, and his prayer simply lists all the good things he’s done.

While his good works are commendable, he doesn’t compare himself with the holiness of God that he and we are all called to imitate (Lev.19:2; Mt.5:48).  Instead, he compares himself to the Tax Collector he despises.[i]  The Pharisee’s prayer therefore isn’t a prayer at all.

The Tax Collector, however, is lowly and humble.  He’s honest about his mistakes.  He knows he needs help, so he prays, asking God for forgiveness. 

That’s the kind of prayer Jesus likes.  He wants us to be honest with him and ourselves.  He wants us to love him and share our fears and burdens with him. 

When we pray like this, from deep in our hearts, God always welcomes our words as sweet and precious gifts, rising like the smoke of sweet-smelling incense towards heaven. He remembers and treasures such gifts (Ps.141:2).

In the Book of Revelation (5:8; 8:3-5), John the Evangelist tells us that God likes our prayers so much that he collects them in golden bowls near his throne.  And as our prayers waft upwards, so those golden bowls fill up until they tip over and pour out God’s power, love and mercy onto our world.

Some people think their prayers are of little value, but the truth is that God loves them.  He listens and he responds.  That’s what St Paul is saying in our second reading today (2Tim.4:6-8,16-18). 

Our prayers are precious to God.  They serve as a bridge between heaven and earth, and they move his heart. 

St Therese of Lisieux, the ‘Little Flower’, understood this.  She described prayer as a fragrant spiritual bouquet, given to God. 

She also saw the Rosary as a shower of fragrant roses, left at the feet of Jesus and Mary.

So, today, let’s open up our hearts.

Let’s shower God with bouquets of fragrant prayers.

[i] S. Joseph Krempa. Captured Fire, Cycle C. St Paul’s Publications, NY. 2005:153.

Year C – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the School of Mary

(Exod.17:8-13; 2Tim.3:14-4:2; Lk.18:1-8)

St John Vianney used to describe prayer as ‘union with God’.  He said it’s like two candles (one for God, the other for the soul) that have melted into each other.

Prayer can also be described as our heartfelt search for the source of all life and love.   When we find that source and absorb all it has to offer, then we ourselves become a source of new life and love for others.  In this way, prayer both refreshes and sustains us.

We can see this in our first reading from Exodus.  The Israelites are being attacked and they’re fighting to defend themselves.  Meanwhile, Moses is on a hilltop, praying hard.  He’s standing with his hands held high, looking towards heaven (that’s how the ancients prayed).  As long as Moses keeps his arms up, the Israelites are safe, but when he drops them, the enemy gains ground.  The message to us is simple:  Keep praying!

Jesus’ message is similar in his Parable of the Unjust Judge in Luke’s Gospel.  ‘Keep praying!’ he says, ‘Never lose heart!’

Now, October is the month of the Holy Rosary, the ancient prayer that focuses so beautifully on the life of Jesus Christ.  When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Fatima in 1917, she asked us all to pray the Rosary every day. [i]

Many people do just that, but sadly, others choose not to.  They think the Rosary is not about Jesus.  But that’s a misunderstanding. 

In 2002, St John Paul II said that praying the Rosary is like sitting in the ‘school of Mary’, learning about her son Jesus.  ‘Through the Rosary,’ he said, we ‘contemplate the beauty of the face of Christ’ and we ‘experience the depths of his love’.

‘The centre of our faith is Christ,’ he said.  Mary does not detract from him.  She is the one who leads us to Christ, the final goal of our life. [ii]

Today, the Rosary is still one of the most powerful and effective tools for Christian prayer and meditation.  The prayer is addressed to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the meditation focuses on all the major events in Jesus’ life, from his birth to his Passion.

Edward Sri, in his book Praying the Rosary Like Never Before, says that we pray the Rosary with Mary and not to Mary.  And he describes the Rosary as ‘a portable chapel we can keep in our pocket and pull out anytime, anyplace.  Whether we have a sudden, urgent situation to present to God in prayer or we just want to fill some of our day with thoughts of God, all we need to do is pull out the beads and turn to the Lord in prayer.’ [iii]

The word ‘Rosary’ means a ‘crown of roses’.  The ancient Greeks and Romans used to place crowns of roses on statues of their gods as gifts of love.

The first Christians continued this tradition.  When Christian women went to their deaths in the Roman Colosseum, they wore crowns of roses symbolising their joy and love for God.  At night, the other Christians gathered these crowns, and for each rose recited a prayer or psalm for the eternal rest of the martyr’s soul.

Thereafter the Church encouraged everyone to use their Rosaries to recite the 150 psalms. God loves the psalms, they believed, because they include all of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Most Christians were illiterate, however, and couldn’t read the psalms, so they said 150 Hail Marys instead.   

That’s why the Rosary is sometimes called the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said the Rosary is almost like words with music.  A lady once complained to him, ‘I think the Rosary is monotonous and I don’t think God likes us to say monotonous prayers.’

Sheen asked who the man was with her.  ‘He’s my fiancé,’ she replied.

‘Do you love him?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘How does he know?’

‘I told him: “I love you”,’ she said.

‘When did you tell him?’

‘Last night.’

‘Did you ever tell him before?’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I told him the night before.’

‘Don’t you think he tires of it?  Isn’t it a bit monotonous?’ asked Sheen. [iv]

He made his point.  These simple words mean something different each time we say them.  

Every time we pray the Rosary, we are in effect saying ‘I love you’ to the Holy Trinity and to Mary.  And the meaning changes as we contemplate the different aspects of Jesus’ life.

So, now is a good time to join the school of Mary. 

Now is a good time to pray the Rosary.

[i] Pope Francis, Angelus Address, 4 October 2017

[ii] Pope St John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 2002.

[iii] Edward Sri, Praying the Rosary like Never Before: Encounter the Wonder of Heaven and Earth, Servant: Cincinatti. 2017:178.

[iv] Fulton Sheen, Your Life is Worth Living. Image: New York.  2019:402-403.

Year C – 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Attitude of Gratitude

(Kgs.5:14-17; 2Tim.2:8-13; Lk.17:11-19)

The German mystic Meister Eckhart O.P. (1260-1328) once said that if the only prayer we ever said was ‘thank you’, it would be enough.

Why is that?  It’s because gratitude is an attitude that leads us to God. 

In Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus finds ten men suffering from leprosy. It’s a curable disease now, but back then leprosy was frightful.  It meant rotting flesh and complete social rejection.

Jesus heals all ten men, but nine aren’t very grateful.  Only one, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus.  Only he is humble enough to appreciate the gift he’s given.  And when he thanks Jesus, he receives an even greater gift:  his heart and soul are filled with divine grace. He’s not only physically healed, but he’s spiritually transformed as well.

In John 10:10, Jesus says, ‘I’ve come that they may have life, life in all its fullness’.  Our life is a grace that comes from God.  We are like vessels into which this precious life has been poured.  Like the grateful leper, the more we open our hearts, the more of God’s divine life we’ll receive. 

Now, what is the opposite of gratitude?  It’s taking things for granted.  That’s what the nine lepers did.  Because of their hardened hearts, they missed out on something truly remarkable.

Gratitude is powerful.  It’s the difference between just going through the motions and really being alive.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, it’s only through gratitude that life becomes rich.

Etty Hillesum understood that.  She was a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam during WWII.  She was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943, aged only 29.  But she was drawn to Christianity and she kept a diary for three years. 

She wrote, ‘… even if you live in an attic and have nothing but dry bread to eat, life is still worth living. … There’s so much to relish, life is rich …’ [i]

Etty Hillesum had a strong sense of God’s presence everywhere, even in the Nazi death camps.  God’s presence filled her with warmth and vitality.  She cared for the sick and the vulnerable and she became a real source of life and inspiration to others. 

On the day she and her family boarded the train for Auschwitz, she wrote, ‘We left the camp singing’. 

Etty also wrote: ‘Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude’.

Yes, gratitude is an attitude that leads us to God.

Someone else we can learn from is Elizabeth Bartlett, an American University professor who had a heart transplant, aged 42.  

She said, ‘I’ve found it’s not enough for me to be thankful. I have a desire to do something in return. To do thanks. To give thanks. Give things. Give thoughts. Give love. So gratitude becomes the gift, creating a cycle of giving and receiving, the endless waterfall. Filling up and spilling over. To give from the fullness of my being. This comes not from a feeling of obligation … Rather, it’s a spontaneous charitableness, perhaps not even to the giver but to someone else, to whoever crosses one’s path. It’s the simple passing on of the gift’. [ii]

So, gratitude is life-changing.  Elizabeth Bartlett received more than a new heart; her gratefulness gave her a brand new way of living. 

If we want new life, we must open up our hearts, too.  And when we open our hearts, God’s grace flows though us to others. 

G. K. Chesterton once wrote: ‘You say grace before meals.  All right.  But I say grace before the concert and … grace before the play … and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink’.  

He also said, ‘When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas … Why aren’t we grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?’

We have much to be thankful for.  Life is good. 

Gratitude, then, isn’t just a form of courtesy; it’s the force of our faith.  It stems from humility and it’s the source of all joy. 

Gratitude keeps us grounded in the good times and it lifts us up when we’re down.

That’s why gratitude is an attitude that leads us to God. 

[i] Meins G.S. Coetsier, Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence. University of Missouri Press, Columbia. 2008:159.

[ii] Wilkie & Noreen Au, The Grateful Heart. Paulist Press, N.Y. 2011:5

Year C – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On God in the Gulag

[Hab.1:2-3; 2:2-4; 2Tim.1:6-8, 13-14; Lk.17:5-10]

The famous Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918- 2008) hated communism.  He often criticised its evils and was severely punished for doing so. 

In 1945, at the end of WWII, he was exiled to Siberia.  For 11 years he suffered in prison camps, doing back-breaking work watched over by armed guards.  He was starved, allowed little rest, and forbidden to talk with anyone. He became so isolated and miserable that he thought everyone, including God, had forgotten him.

One day he decided to commit suicide.  But he found he couldn’t do it, because as a boy he’d learnt that suicide is wrong.  So he thought he’d escape instead, knowing he’d be shot.  At least then someone else would be responsible for his death.

On the day he planned to escape, he was sitting under a tree.  He checked the guards’ positions, and just as he was about to run, a prisoner he’d never seen before appeared in front of him, blocking his way.

Solzhenitsyn later said that when he looked into that man’s eyes, he saw more love than he’d ever seen before in any other person.  That prisoner bent down and with a stick silently drew a cross on the ground.  

When Solzhenitsyn saw that cross, he knew that God had not forgotten him. He knew that God was there beside him in that awful place.  What he didn’t know, however, was that Christians all over the world had been praying for his release, and within three days he was a free man in Switzerland. [i]

It’s not unusual for us to sometimes feel abandoned.  Life can be tough.  In our first reading today, the prophet Habakkuk complains about the misery and injustice that’s so widespread in the kingdom of Judah.  In frustration he asks God why he’s not listening or doing anything about it.

But God is listening, for he gives him a reply.  God tells him to have faith and to be patient, for the day of justice will come.

Some of us find that our experience of faith is strong when everything’s fine, but it starts to weaken when we’re struggling.  Like Solzhenitsyn and Habakkuk, we wonder where God might be or if he even exists at all.

But the message for us from Solzhenitsyn and from Habakkuk is that God is listening.  He does care.  He’s with us all the time.  So we must keep our faith, especially when times are tough.  For faith means trust; it means being patient.  Faith means understanding that God is always working, even when we think he’s not.

At the end of WWII, in Cologne, some words were found scrawled on a wall in a cellar where some Jews had been hiding:

I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when he’s silent.

Most of us would like an instant solution every time something goes wrong, but God’s ways are not our ways (Is.55:8).  Sometimes it’s better for us to work through a problem and learn from it.  We know that’s true, don’t we?  We can see it when we look back on our lives and discover that we’ve not only survived the hard times, but the experience has also made us better people. 

As someone said, there’s more growth in the valleys than on the mountain tops.

When Solzhenitsyn saw that cross etched in the dirt, he knew that God had not abandoned him.  In 1963, after he became famous, he wrote this prayer:

How easy for me to live with you, Lord!
How easy to believe in you!
When my mind casts about
Or flags in bewilderment,
When the cleverest among us
Cannot see past the present evening,
Not knowing what to do tomorrow –
You send me the clarity to know
That you exist
And will take care
That not all paths of goodness should be barred.
At the crest of earthly fame
I look back in wonderment
At the journey beyond hope – to this place,
From which I was able to send mankind a reflection of your rays.
And however long the time
That I must yet reflect them
You will give it me.
And whatever I fail to accomplish
You surely have allotted to others.[ii]

It’s faith that sustains us through the hard times, and it’s prayer that nourishes that faith. 

Our faith might only be small, like a mustard seed, but that doesn’t matter. God is happy with small things (Lk.17:5-6). 

Tiny seeds of faith grow into mighty trees when watered with prayer.

[i] Joe B Brown, Battle Fatigue. Broadman & Holman, Nashville. 1995:136.