Year A – Holy Family Sunday

On Michelangelo’s Holy Family

(Sir.3:2-6, 12-14; Col.3:12-21; Matt.2:13-15, 19-23)

Today is Holy Family Sunday, so let’s take a moment to reflect on Michelangelo’s famous painting of The Holy Family. [i]  It’s also known as the Doni Tondo [ii] and you’ll find it in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

This is the only finished panel painted by Michelangelo (1475–1564) that’s still in existence.  It’s round (‘rotondo’) and 120 cm in diameter.  Michelangelo finished it shortly before he started painting the Sistine Chapel in 1508. 

Look closely.  It shows Jesus, Mary and Joseph sitting in a field.  They are a close and loving family, but Mary is the central figure here because it’s through her that God worked his miracle of the virgin birth.  

Mary appears young and athletic, while her husband Joseph seems older and wiser.  He’s squatting down and cradling Mary between his legs.  He seems to be embracing her with all his love and protection. 

Mary has a book on her lap; it represents the Word of God.  She’s also sitting on the grass, and this shows that she’s very down-to-earth. But it also tells us that it is Mary who connects the earth with Jesus, the child she’s holding up high. 

Baby Jesus is being passed between Mary and Joseph.  We can’t say who’s passing Jesus to whom, but it’s clear that they share equally in his parenting.  It’s clear that they both adore him.

Jesus is being held up high against the heavenly skies, where he comes from.  This elevation reminds us of the Body of Christ being raised up high in the Holy Eucharist.  At the same time, Jesus is being offered as a gift to us all. 

Joseph is higher in the frame than Jesus and Mary. This tells us that he leads this family.  He’s the protector, the breadwinner and the most senior member. 

Now, notice their heads.  Together they form an inverted triangle that points to the earth.  It also reflects the inseparable communion of the Holy Trinity.  And look at their eyes: there’s a deep intimacy there.  Joseph’s eyes are firmly fixed on Jesus, while Jesus looks at his mother and Mary lovingly returns his gaze.  This is the most tender group of figures Michelangelo ever painted. [iii]

Behind the Holy Family is a low grey wall, and to the right is a child. That’s John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the patron saint of Florence. He’s wearing camel hair, he’s holding a long stick and he’s standing in a pool of water.  That stick, or cane, is a reference to the Crucifixion.

John is also looking straight at Jesus because he knows that their destinies are linked.  One day he’ll be preparing the way for the Lord.

Further back, there are five naked figures sitting on a stone wall.  They seem self-obsessed and they don’t even notice Jesus or his family. These figures represent our pagan world and they’re separated from the Holy Family by that grey wall which symbolises original sin.

Now, look at the flora.  In front of John the Baptist there’s a small plant which looks like a cross between a hyssop and a cornflower.  Hyssop represents baptism and the humility of Christ, while the cornflower symbolises heaven.

In the foreground, the clover represents salvation and the Trinity, and the anemone plant symbolises faith and the Passion of Christ, which is still to come. 

The central focus of this painting, however, is the Holy Family, and their rich fabrics and vivid colours highlight the beauty and the joy of the Christian life.

The colour purple indicates that Joseph comes from the royal line of David.  The golden yellow represents truth and the presence of God.  The pink stands for love and tenderness.  Mary’s blue mantle represents peace and tranquillity, and the green speaks of nature, health and growth.

So, let’s summarise. Starting from the back of this painting, Michelangelo is reminding us that we all live in a pagan and materialistic world that’s really going nowhere. 

He’s telling us that if we want a deeper and more meaningful life – and, indeed, eternal life – then we need to come forward and leave our lives of sin behind.  We need to pass through the waters of Baptism and consciously accept the Word of God.   Only then we can live as members of God’s holy family. [iv] [v] [vi]

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, then, is being offered to us today as the ideal model for our own daily lives.

Now, have you noticed that Mary is pointing to you?  Look at her right elbow.  Her hands are busy, but through her arm she’s drawing us towards Jesus and she’s inviting us to enter into their beautiful life.

We, too, can live like the Holy Family.

[i] The Holy Family, tempera on wood, by Michelangelo, 1506/08; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

[ii] It is known as the Doni Tondo, because it was commissioned by Agnolo Doni, a wealthy merchant, and it is round (‘rotondo’).





Year A – The Nativity of the Lord

On the Baby Asleep on the Hay

(Isa.62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Mt.1:18-25)

Merry Christmas!  Today we celebrate God’s remarkable gift to each one of us.  That gift is Jesus, and he’s being offered to us right now as a baby asleep on the hay. 

This gift is like no other.  Why?  It’s because Jesus is the Prince of Peace who shows us how to live a life of meaning and love.  And he’s the Light of the World who promises us eternal life.  No other present even comes close!

Through the ages, millions of people have accepted this marvellous gift of Jesus and found their lives transformed.  And they have happily shared his story with their family and friends.

But the world has changed, and in many places today you have to look hard to find any reminder of the real Christmas. Sure, there are lots of Santas and Christmas trees and decorations around.  But in many homes and communities now, there’s no mention of Jesus or the Holy Family at all.

It’s sad, because many people have forgotten what Christmas actually means.

Today, I have a story for you, written by Jo Fiore, one of our wonderful parishioners.  It’s about a young boy who lines up for a photo with Santa Claus.  And while he waits with his mother, he sees a beautiful picture in a shop window.

As they waited in line for a photo, and the last minute shoppers rushed by,
A picture displayed in a window attracted the little one’s eye. And he called to his mother, ‘Mum, come look and see! There’s a baby asleep on some hay!
There’s a lady, a man, some shepherds and sheep, and three kings with gifts on the way!’

And the questions poured out, ‘Mum, who is this baby, and do you know his sweet name?
And when was He born, and where did He live, and does anyone know why He came?’
The child’s mother paused, remembering a time when the questions she’d asked were the same.
Her own mother’s words gently came to her mind, and memories lit up like a flame.

‘The name of the baby is Jesus; He came to save people on earth.
He was born in a stable in Bethlehem and at Christmas we honour His birth.
That’s Mary and Joseph right there at His side. See the shepherds bow down to adore.
The Magi bring gifts only fit for a king, and the angels sing ‘Peace evermore.’

He came to show how God loves us, and to teach us the way we should live.
To be kind to all others and if we are hurt, how we should quickly forgive.
The little one looked at his mother, and he noticed a tear in her eye.
‘You’ve never told me that story before, Mum. It makes me feel happy. Don’t cry!’

They lined up again to see Santa, who greeted them both with a smile.
‘And what would you like for Christmas, young man?’ The little one thought for a while.
‘Well, I don’t need any more presents, and I don’t need any more toys,
But I’d like you to pass on a message, to all of the world’s girls and boys.

Can you tell them that in that far corner, there’s something the whole world should see?
And maybe if they paid a visit, they too can be happy, like me!
Can they each ask their mother and father, to tell them the story today,
The story my mother just told me, about Jesus asleep on the hay.

This year, let’s teach our children the real story of the first Christmas, for this is our story, too! 

And let’s make sure they understand all the signs and symbols that are around us at this time of year:

The Christmas Tree, the Star, the Wreath and Candles, the Bells, the Angels, the Shepherds and their Sheep, the Wise Men with their Gifts, Mary and Joseph, and the Baby Asleep on the Hay.

They all mean something very special.

Especially the Baby Asleep on the Hay!

Merry Christmas!

Year A – 4th Sunday of Advent

On Emmanuel

(Isa.7:10-14; Rom.1:1-7; Mt.1.18-24)

At Christmas we often sing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’. This ancient carol refers to Isaiah’s prophecy about a virgin giving birth to a son who will be called Emmanuel (Is.7:14).

In today’s Gospel, Matthew repeats these words as he tells the story of Jesus’ birth. He wants us to know that Jesus is Emmanuel, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prediction.

Why, then, don’t we just call Jesus Emmanuel?

The reason is the angel Gabriel’s instruction to Joseph, ‘You shall name him Jesus’ (Mt.1:21; Lk.1:31). Jesus is his given name, but the name Emmanuel still applies in the same way that some 200 other names and titles have been ascribed to him in Scripture, including Word of God, Bread of Life, Light of the World, Living Water, Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd. Each of these names describes a different aspect of Jesus’ identity and work in our world.

Indeed, the name Emmanuel encapsulates all these other titles, because it means ‘God is with us’. And considered together, they all mean the same as Jesus, which means ‘God saves’.

God sent his only Son to live among us, to show us how to live and how to love (Jn.3:16; 10:10). Sadly, we too often forget this and we treat God as a remote figure who abandons us to our struggles. But the essential message of Christmas, and indeed of all Scripture, is that God is always with us and he really does care.

In the Old Testament, God promised Abraham and his descendants, ‘I will be with you, and I will bless you’ (Gen.12:1-3). Abraham’s grandson Jacob wasn’t so sure, however. So God replied to him in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob, I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you go’. When Jacob woke up he thought, ‘Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it’ (Gen.28:15-16).

When the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, they also asked if God was with them (Ex.17:7). He was, of course, and he gave them many signs, including water and food and he even parted the waters for them.

And in our First Reading today, King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble and he, too, doubts God’s presence. But Isaiah encourages him to trust in God, and he promises that God will send a sign in the form of a child who will be called Emmanuel, for God is always with us (Is.7:13-14).

This is the whole point of Christmas. It’s a reminder of God’s living promise that he’s always with us, in the good times and in the bad. And he’s certainly with us right now.

Avery Dulles SJ said, ‘The incarnation does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape from the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather, it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity.’  [i]

We won’t see God walking through our door, but his spirit will always be around us (Jn.14:16). That’s the important thing about our Christian faith, for ours is a spiritual life. God is Spirit, and for us to live in his presence we need to live spiritually. This means we need to use our minds, our hearts and our wills to establish a meaningful relationship with him. [ii]

In 2015, in Madison Square Garden, Pope Francis said that one special quality of God’s people is their ability to see, even in ‘moments of darkness’, the light which Christ brings.

God’s faithful people, he said, can recognise God’s living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. For Jesus is Emmanuel, the God who walks alongside us and gets involved in our lives, in our homes and in the midst of our ‘pots and pans’. [iii]

When the Dutch writer Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was a little girl, her father used to tuck her into bed at night. He talked and prayed with her, and laid his big hand on her little face. Later, as an adult, when she was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, she asked God to tuck her in and lay his hand on her face. ‘That would bring me peace, and I would be able to sleep,’ she wrote. [iv]

Jesus was there with her. He helped Corrie survive the most awful of times.

When we actively live in God’s presence, we start to recognise all that he does for us. He encourages us (Josh.1:6), he strengthens us (Is.41:10), he comforts us (Jn.14:16-18), he protects us (Jer.15:20), he heals us (Jer.30:17), he provides for us (Ps.113:6-9) and he guides us through the darkness (Ex.13:21; 2 Sam.22:29).

What a remarkable gift Jesus is to us! He is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

This Christmas, let’s welcome Jesus with open arms.




[iv] Corrie ten Boom, Each New Day. Revell, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2013.

Year A – 3rd Sunday of Advent

On Joy

(Isa.35:1-6a; Jas.5:7-10; Mt.11:2-11)

Today is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. This is the day we heartily sing Joy to the World because we’re looking forward to Christmas. Jesus is coming!

But what is joy?

Some people say that joy is happiness. But Henri Nouwen says joy is much deeper than that. Happiness depends on what’s happening around you, but joy is internal. It’s ‘the experience of knowing that you’re unconditionally loved and that nothing … can take that love away from you’. [i]

Others say that joy is pleasure, like a magnificent meal. But C.S. Lewis says that pleasure is more like a substitute for joy. He says that what distinguishes joy from happiness or pleasure is a deep yearning for something agonisingly elusive. It’s the longing for a fulfilment yet to come. [ii]

The Greek word for joy is ‘chara’, which is how we react when we discover the work of God. ‘Chara’ is similar to another Greek word, ‘charis’, which means ‘grace’ or ‘gift’. Together, these words tell us that joy flows when we’re filled with the gift of God’s grace.

St Paul knew this, and that’s why he says that joy is one of the 12 fruits of the Spirit, along with peace and love (Gal.5:22-23). These fruits flow when the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts and we realise that God really is in control of our lives.

Pope St Paul VI once asked: ‘How is it that in our society, with all its wealth, clean water, readily available food, medical achievements and technological advancements – there’s so little joy?’

He says it’s because ‘we’re missing what joy really is’. Our ‘technological society has multiplied our opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. That’s because joy comes from another source.’ [iii]

And what is that source? It’s God.

Some people say that joy means no sadness; that you can’t be both sad and glad at the same time. But Henri Nouwen disagrees. He says that sorrow and joy can exist together, and they are often contained within some of our deepest life experiences, such as witnessing the birth of a child or the death of a friend.

Rick Warren, the American pastor and author, says that we usually think that life comes in hills and valleys, but really it’s more like train tracks. Every day good things happen, bringing us pleasure and contentment and beauty.

But at the same time, painful things also happen, disappointing us, hurting us and filling us with sorrow. These two tracks – joy and sorrow – run parallel to each other all through our lives.

That’s why, he says, when we’re having an amazing experience, we often realise that it’s not perfect. And while we’re experiencing something painful, we realise that there’s still beauty and loveliness to be found. [iv]

Rick Warren says that when you look down train tracks towards the horizon, they become one, and that’s how it will be for us, too. One day, our parallel tracks of joy and sorrow will merge into one. It will all come together for us when we finally meet Jesus, and everything will start to make sense.

Someone once said that if you build a wall to keep out the sadness, you’ll also keep out the joy. They belong together.

But joy doesn’t simply happen. Henri Nouwen says nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It’s a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.

In 1945, before the Nazis executed him, Alfred Delp SJ was locked up in prison in Germany. The conditions were awful, but he still wrote, ‘every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy … Suddenly … my spirits soar again and there’s not a doubt in my mind that all God’s promises hold good’.

He was filled with joy because he chose to put his life in God’s hands. ‘That’s the point’, he wrote. [v] Our happiness is inextricably linked with God.

When we choose to accept God in our life, he opens our eyes to his grace and power in the world, and he fills us with joy (Rom.15:13).

So, here’s the message for today: joy doesn’t come from our secular world. It comes from God. And for our joy to be complete (1Jn.1:4), we must choose to accept him.

If you want real joy, put your life in God’s hands (Is.41:10; Jn.10:28).

[i] Nouwen, H., Christensen, M.J & Laird, R. ‘The Heart of Henri Nouwen – His Words of Blessing’.  Crossroad Publishing, 2003.

[ii] CS Lewis, quoted in Terry Lindvall, Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of CS Lewis. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1996, p.56.

[iii] Pope Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino (On Christian Joy), Apostolic Exhortation, 1975.



Year A – 2nd Sunday of Advent

On Selfies and the New Narcissism

(Isa.11:1-10; Rom.15:4-9; Mt.3:1-12)

Something I find remarkable in my travels is the number of people who photograph themselves in front of major landmarks.  It’s not the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal that interests them. Rather, it’s the chance to get the perfect picture of themselves in a famous place.

Since ancient times people have wanted others to know what they look like, and in the Early Renaissance the rich and powerful began commissioning painted portraits.  Because these paintings can reveal so much, the artists were often asked to highlight or hide certain details, in order to convey an impression about the subject’s wealth, power, status or attitude.

In her article Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism, Christine Rosen says that self-portraits are still popular today, but they’re more likely crafted from pixels than paints.  We call them selfies now, and people like to post them on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, along with musings about their busy lives and details of their hobbies and friends.  

We put these pictures online, she says, because we’re looking for friendship, love and that ambiguous thing called ‘connection’.  And like painters constantly retouching their work, we alter, update and tweak our online self-portraits, adding vital statistics, glimpses of bare flesh and other bits of information.

‘The Delphic Oracle’s guidance was know thyself,’ Rosen says, but ‘today, in the world of online social networks, the Oracle’s advice might be show thyself.’ That’s because what drives these virtual galleries is the desire for attention. [i]

Whitney Houston used to sing that the greatest love of all is learning to love yourself, [ii] and that’s what our social media encourages.  In essence it’s narcissism, but it can lead to cyberbullying, sleep deprivation, lower self-esteem, social isolation, poor concentration, Internet addiction and depression.

The ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught that to live a complete life we must focus on meaning and purpose rather than just happiness, and for that we need to look beyond ourselves. [iii]

Here, Matthew’s Gospel has something to teach us today.  John the Baptist is in the desert wilderness, dressed like a wild man in camel-hair and leather and looking like the ancient prophet Elijah.  People from all over are flocking to him. Why? It’s because they’re looking for a way out of their own personal wilderness. They’re looking for answers.

John the Baptist urges them (and us) to ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand’.  In other words, get ready, because Jesus is coming.

The Greek word for ‘repentance’ is metanoeo, which means turning around or changing.  So, he’s telling us to change the way we think; to change the way we live.

Why should we do that?  It’s because Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (2Sam.23:1; 1Kgs.1:39). He’s the only way to truly escape from our own personal wilderness.  

In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn.14:6).  What he means is that if you’ve chosen another way, then you’re heading in the wrong direction.  If you believe another ‘truth’, then it must be false. And if you’re living another life, then you’re going nowhere (Jn.6:68).

John the Baptist adds that in this process of change you need to produce the appropriate fruit.  That is, you need to show that you really have changed and not just thought about it. Indeed, to live like Christ isn’t a once-only process of transformation.  We must keep changing until we’re totally like him (Rom.13:14; Col.3:12-17).  

That’s the only way to truly escape from our own personal wilderness.

In her book Strange Gods, Elizabeth Scalia reminds us that God is the most high.  She says that if we choose God – his light, his way and his truth – then everything will flow from the highest possible point.  But if we choose something lesser (like ourselves) then our life will flow from a much lesser rise – from a hill, rather than from a mighty mountain. [iv]

In other words, if we reject God, we’re reducing our lives to the limits of our own human weakness.  But if we choose God, we’re opening up our minds, hearts and lives to something far greater and more wonderful than ourselves (Jn.3:16; Mt.19:21; Rom.12:1-2).

Thankfully, some European countries have banned selfies at major landmarks.  

As we prepare for Christmas, let’s ban them, too.

Let’s focus on Jesus instead of ourselves.

[i] Christine Rosen, Virtual Friendship and the New NarcissismThe New Atlantis, Number 17, Summer 2007, pp. 15-31.


[iii] Pattakos, A & Dundon, E., The OPA! Way: Finding Joy and Meaning in Everyday Life and Work. BenBella Books, Dallas. 2015.

[iv] Elizabeth Scalia, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.  Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2013.