Year B – Holy Family Sunday

On God’s Shadow

[Gen.15:1-6,21:1-3; Heb.11:8,11-12,17-19; Lk.2:22-40]

Each year, on the Feast of the Holy Family, we are invited to reflect on the life of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

In the Scriptures, and in the Church’s tradition, it’s Jesus, and to a lesser extent Mary, who get all the attention, while Joseph is always hidden in the background. Today, let’s consider St Joseph. What kind of man was he, and what can we learn from him?

We actually know very little about this man, although there are a few clues. Joseph isn’t quoted at all in Scripture, and he doesn’t appear in Mark’s Gospel. However, he is mentioned in Matthew and Luke, and John refers to him only briefly (Jn.6:41-51).

As a pious Jew, Joseph would have worked 6 days a week. He’s usually described as a carpenter, but in the Greek, Matthew calls him a tekton (Mt.13:55). A tekton works in physical construction and repair, so he’s more likely an artisan, stonemason or builder, working with whatever materials were available, including stone, wood, metal, cement and clay.

Joseph lived in Nazareth, about an hour’s walk from Sepphoris, the wealthy Jewish city that was King Herod’s capital in Galilee. He could well have worked there.[i]

And like most craftsmen in the area, Joseph probably learned some Greek and perhaps Latin to serve his customers. As a native of Nazareth, he spoke Aramaic and as a faithful Jew he would have known some Hebrew.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a descendent of King David, so he had royal blood (Mt.1:1-16). However, he wasn’t rich, for we know that he could only afford a pair of turtledoves to offer as sacrifice in the Temple (Mt.2:24).          

Artists have often portrayed Joseph as an old man, but the mystic Maria Agreda says he was 33 when he was betrothed to Mary. In the culture of the time, bridal couples lived apart for the first twelve months after betrothal. It was during this time that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. [ii]

Joseph was distressed to learn of Mary’s pregnancy, and he planned to divorce her quietly to spare her any shame. But an angel appeared to him in a dream, saying ‘Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home’ (Mt.1:18-25).

Joseph realized that these puzzling events were part of God’s plan, and although he really didn’t understand, he agreed to cooperate. Like Mary at the Annunciation, he trusted God and he allowed himself to be led.

It was quite an honour for Joseph to have been chosen to protect, provide for, and to raise the Son of God. It was also an honour to have been chosen as the husband of the Mother of God.

And he didn’t disappoint. He protected his family during Herod’s ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’. He provided for his family when they escaped to Egypt, and he escorted them back to Nazareth. All that took courage, because there were lions, leopards and bandits about in those days – as well as Herod’s henchmen.

Michael Casey, in his book Balaam’s Donkey, says that people typically get their image of God the Father from their childhood experiences of their own father. Casey suggests that Jesus must have drawn from his own everyday experiences of Joseph to describe his understanding of his divine Father. [iii]

In other words, there’s a great similarity between the loving hearts of Joseph and God the Father.

In his book, Behold the Man, Harold Burke-Sivers compares Joseph with Adam, the first man. Although both are silent, he says, the implications of their silence will have lasting effects on humanity.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam stood by and did nothing while Satan lured Eve away from God the Father, destroying her heart and unleashing sin into this world. Adam was a failure as a ‘husband’, and mankind has lived with the effects of Original Sin ever since.

Joseph, however, was different. He trusted God, and he valiantly served, protected and defended Mary and Jesus in his role as head of the Holy Family.[iv] He is the epitome of fatherhood, and the very model of the ideal husband.

150 years ago, in 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St Joseph the patron saint of the Universal Church. To mark this anniversary, Pope Francis has recently proclaimed 2021 the Year of St Joseph.

Pope Francis describes Joseph as a beloved, tender and loving father, an obedient and accepting father, and a working and courageous father. And he describes Joseph’s fatherhood of Jesus as the earthly shadow of our heavenly Father. [v]

In Hebrew, the name ‘Joseph’ means ‘he increases’. St Bernard of Clairvaux taught that Joseph was rightly named, because God ‘increased’ the gifts and graces in the world through St Joseph. [vi]

In the Year of St Joseph, may we, too, live like God’s earthly shadows.



[iii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN., 2019:240-241.

[iv] Harold Burke-Sivers, Behold the Man. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015:162-164.


[vi] St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Sermons of St Bernard, Hom. 2 Super Missus Est.

Year B – Christmas Day

On Heavenly Peace

(Is.62:1-5; Acts.13:16-17, 22-25; Mt.1.18-25)

Merry Christmas! Today we celebrate something very special: the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Many people simply love Christmas, with all its joy, celebration and colour. And I’m sure many of us hope that Christmas this year will bring a little peace into our challenging lives. We pray for peace several times in our Christmas liturgy, and we sing about it in Christmas carols like Silent Night (‘... sleep in heavenly peace’).

Many years ago, I went on holiday to tropical Queensland. I was quite unhappy at the time, and I’d hoped to find some peace there in the sunshine and the sea. But I didn’t. Why? It’s because I took my unhappy heart with me.

Many people today experience the same thing. They go somewhere wonderful, but inside they still feel awful.

Where, then, is the heavenly peace we all need?

There was once a king who promised a fabulous prize for the best painting depicting peace. Many painters sent in their finest work, but one picture really stood out. It simply radiated peace. It showed a placid lake, mirroring tall snow-capped mountains under a clear blue sky. But it didn’t win.

The picture that won surprised many people. It also had mountains, but they were rugged and bare. And its sky was angry, with lightning and dark clouds. The whole scene looked very threatening. Many people wondered if there’d been a mistake, but what they didn’t notice in a corner of the painting was a tiny bush in the crack of a rock. In that bush, under all that angry weather, a little mother bird was nesting peacefully.

True peace doesn’t mean being in a place without any trouble or noise. It means having a tranquil heart, despite all the chaos outside. That’s what that mother bird had found.

As our world lurches from crisis to crisis, it’s becoming increasingly important for us as Christians to understand that true peace isn’t the absence of trouble. Rather, it’s the presence of Jesus Christ.

In 1942, Etty Hillesum, the Dutch writer who was killed at Auschwitz, wrote: ‘Ultimately, we have just one duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.’

Our world certainly needs heavenly peace right now, but where might we find it?

One very good place to start is with Jesus’ eight Beatitudes (Mt.5:3-12). Each of these Beatitudes is both a blessing and an expression of deep spiritual wisdom. They include docility, affliction, hunger and thirst for justice, mercy and purity of heart.

When we consciously and prayerfully follow the path of the Beatitudes, we will find peace of heart. And it’s then that we’ll be able to fulfil the seventh beatitude: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God’ (Mt.5:9).

It’s only when we are true peacemakers that we’ll be able to live the eighth Beatitude. That is, living joyfully regardless of any persecution and strife – just like that little mother bird.

In his book Fire and Ice, Jacques Philippe says that when our hearts are not at peace, we become vulnerable to all the fear, violence and division in our world. Being agitated and unhappy, he says, is like opening a door to the forces of evil that want to drag the world down to its ruin.

But, he adds, this search for interior peace is much more than searching for peace of mind. It’s really about opening up our lives to the action of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, it’s when our hearts are at peace that God truly works his wonders.[i]

After the Last Supper, Jesus says, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled…’ And later on, he says, ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid’ (Jn.14:1, 27).

This heavenly peace is one of the twelve fruits of the Spirit (Gal.5:22-23) and it’s a gift that’s available to us right now. All we have to do is to open our hearts and our lives to God.

In Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, all the characters on the whaling ship Pequod are frantically busy as Captain Ahab searches in stormy seas for that famous whale.

But one sailor is quite calm. He’s the harpooner. Melville writes: ‘The harpooner sits in tranquillity and rises with a sense of calm to do his work.’ [ii] He’s surrounded by storm and fury, but deep inside he’s very much at peace.

That’s the kind of peace we all need.  But it doesn’t come from this world.

It’s a gift that only comes from God – and our relationship with him.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

[i] Jacques Philippe, Fire & Light. Scepter, New York, 2016:76-79.

[ii] Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

Year B – 4th Sunday of Advent

On Giving Birth to Jesus

[2Sam.7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Rom.16:25-27; Lk.1:26-38]

Today, on the last Sunday of Advent, our attention turns from John the Baptist to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Both John and Mary were pivotal in paving the way for the coming of Jesus. John announced his coming, but Mary actually carried Jesus into this world.

The Church has always venerated Mary, because she is the Theotokos (the Mother of God), who is central to our Christian story. But in ancient Israel the king’s mother was always considered special.  She was known as the Gebirah, the ‘Great Lady’ or ‘Queen Mother’, who always had a throne next to her son and who had great influence over him. She was always deeply respected.

That’s why the Bible lists the mother of every king in the House of David (e.g., 1Kgs.14:21; 15:9-10; 22:42), and the word Gebirah is used 15 times (e.g., Gen.16:4; 1Kgs.5:3; Ps.123:2). [i] 

And that’s why, after the Crucifix, the most common Christian image is that of the Madonna and Child.

Today, let’s look closely at one Madonna image: the icon of Our Lady of the Sign, and reflect on what it’s saying to us.

Click image for a larger version

This style of image is ancient, and was found in first century Christian catacombs. It shows Mary during the Annunciation, at the moment in today’s gospel when she says ‘Let what you have said be done to me’ (Lk.1:38). She’s facing us directly, with her arms raised in an ancient gesture of prayer, and she’s presenting her son Jesus to us, at the moment of his conception.

Jesus isn’t shown as a baby, however. He’s a mature person dressed in fine robes, indicating that he’s both human and divine. Indeed, Jesus is the only person in history who chose his own biological mother.

Here, we see Jesus inside a circle, a medallion, which represents Mary’s womb.  In ancient times, subjects of the imperial court typically wore an image of their king embroidered on their breast as a sign of loyalty. Slaves also wore metal medallions around their neck with an image of their owner. [ii] In the same way, this icon reveals the Blessed Virgin Mary’s eternal love for, and loyalty to, her son Jesus.

Jesus’ golden clothes and the red colour symbolise his divine glory, and the blue represents our earthly home. Jesus’ right hand is raised in a blessing and the scroll he’s holding symbolises his teachings.

Inside Jesus’ halo is a cross, representing his crucifixion, bearing the words ‘I am’. This is the answer Moses received on Mt Sinai when he asked God his name. God replied ‘Yahweh’ in Hebrew. In English, that’s ‘I am who am’ (Ex.3:13-14). 

The letters MP-ΘY inscribed above Mary are an abbreviation of the Greek for ‘Mother of God’.  The initials IC-XC above Jesus are the first and last letters of his name in Greek.

The stars on Mary’s forehead and shoulders symbolise her perpetual virginity and they highlight her unique status as the only mother of a divine child.

The golden cuffs on her sleeves point to her royalty and they indicate that she’s constantly interceding for people in need.

But where does the name, Our Lady of the Sign, come from? It comes from Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and will name him Emmanuel (Is.7:14).

Now, some people claim that Mary is but a distraction on our path to Jesus. But in truth, everything about Mary points to him. Outside the Trinity, no-one is closer to Jesus than his mother, and her life mission has always been to reveal Jesus to the world.

This icon, therefore, serves as a sign; indeed, it’s an invitation to each of us to do exactly what Mary did: to bring Jesus to birth in our godless world.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in his book ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’, says that every person’s life contains the hidden life of Christ.  Our challenge, like Mary, is to open ourselves up to him, to discover Christ’s mysterious presence, and to give birth to him (cf. 1Cor.6:20; Gal.4:19).

As Meister Eckhart once said, ‘What good is it that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in me?’

When Mary said Yes to God, her response was a significant turning point for the world.

When each of us personally answers Yes to this very same invitation, it not only transforms our own lives; it can also transform the world around us.

What, then, can you do to give birth to Jesus? How can you open yourself up to him and carry him into your home, your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, your school?

Just before Jesus died on the Cross, he gave his mother to us (Jn.19:26-27).

Ask her now to help you give birth to him.


[ii] Hodgkinson, Paul & Christine, Introducing Icons. Self-published, 1999:25.

Year B – 3rd Sunday of Advent

 On Suffering and Joy

[Isa.61:1-2a, 10-11; 1Thess.5:16-24; Jn.1:6-8, 19-28]

Today is Gaudete Sunday, a day for us to rejoice. Why? It’s because Jesus is on his way. But after such a difficult year, some people find it hard to rejoice. After all, where is the joy in suffering?

Let’s first look at joy. What is it? Most people think that joy is happiness, but it’s much deeper than that. Happiness depends on what’s happening around you, but joy is an internal process. It’s inside you.

Henri Nouwen tells us that joy is an attitude that comes from ‘knowing that you’re unconditionally loved and that nothing … can take that love away from you’. [i] It’s understanding that God is always with you, that he’s in control, and that no matter what happens, he has promised you eternal life.

True joy is a gift from God. Indeed, God is the source of all joy (Jn.15:11), and the closer you get to God, the more joy you’re likely to experience.

To understand how joy works, it helps to spell it out: J-O-Y.

‘J’ is for Jesus, because joy begins with Jesus. We must put him first. ‘O’ is for others, because we must put other people second. And ‘Y’ is for you, because you must put yourself last (cf. Mt.22:34-40).

This is the formula for joy: J-O-Y. When you genuinely put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, joy will come to you. This is the way things are meant to be. This is the nature of love, which is the divine foundation of joy.

Now, let’s look at suffering, through the story of The Teacup. Once upon a time, two grandparents visited a little gift shop, looking for a birthday gift for their granddaughter. The grandmother saw a precious teacup, and said, ‘Look at that lovely teacup, Harry. It’s just the thing!’

Granddad picked it up, looked at it and said, ‘You’re right. It’s one of the nicest teacups I’ve ever seen. We must get it.’

The teacup then startled them by speaking. It said: ‘Well, thank you for your compliment, but I wasn’t always so beautiful.’

The surprised grandparents replied, ‘What do you mean, you weren’t always so beautiful?’

‘It’s true,’ said the teacup. ‘Once I was just an ugly, soggy lump of clay. But one day a man with dirty and wet hands threw me onto a wheel and started turning me around and around until I got so dizzy that I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the man with the wet hands said, ‘Not yet.’

‘Then he started to poke me and punch me until I hurt all over. ‘Stop! Stop! I cried, but he said, ‘Not yet.’

‘Later, he did stop, but then he did something worse. He put me in a furnace and I got hotter and hotter until I could stand it no longer and I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the man said, ‘Not yet.’

‘And just when I thought I was going to get burned up, the man took me out of the furnace. Then a lady began to paint me and the fumes were so bad that they made me sick and I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the lady said, ‘Not yet.’

‘But then she did stop. She gave me back to the man again and he put me back in that awful furnace. I cried out, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But he only said, ‘Not yet.’

‘Finally, he took me out and let me cool. And when I was cool, a very pretty lady put me on a shelf, right next to a mirror. And when I looked into that mirror, I was amazed! I couldn’t believe what I saw. I was no longer ugly, soggy and dirty. I was beautiful and firm and clean. And I cried for joy!’ [ii]

That teacup suffered, but it was only through suffering that it discovered priceless joy.

In his poetic masterpiece, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes:

… Your joy is your sorrow unmasked …

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy … [iii]

Suffering and joy, then, are intimately linked. God is the potter, we are his clay, and God is constantly trying to shape us into the people he wants us to be. Certainly, our sufferings in this life are only temporary, but the promise of joy is eternal if we believe in God.

Right now, though, as we approach the delights of Christmas, the important thing for us to remember is the formula: J-O-Y.

When you always put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, joy will certainly come to you.

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

[ii] William J Bausch, Touching the Heart. Twenty-Third Publications, New London CT. 2007:113-114.

[iii] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet. Alfred A Knopf, New York. 1997: 29.

Year B – 2nd Sunday of Advent

On Truth or Lies

[Is.40:1-5, 9-11; 2Pet.3:8-14; Mk.1:1-8]

In 1974, the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published an essay, Live Not by Lies, in which he encouraged Russians to never support the lies of communism.

The Soviet secret police responded immediately, by breaking into his apartment, arresting him and expelling him from the country the very next day. [i]

Ten years later, in communist Poland, three government agents faked a car breakdown and flagged down Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko. When he stopped to help them, they beat him savagely, tied him up, locked him in the boot of their car and dumped him in a reservoir where he drowned.

Why did they do that? It’s because Fr Jerzy had fearlessly preached the truth. ‘It’s not enough for a Christian to condemn evil, cowardice, lies and the use of force, hatred and repression,’ he said. ‘He must always be a witness to and defender of justice, goodness, truth, freedom, and love.’ [ii]

Totalitarian regimes always try to control what people think, believe and do. They don’t like people knowing the truth of what’s really going on. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, many people thought that was the end of totalitarianism. But they were wrong. Today, the Chinese Communist Party is actively using technology, prison camps and fear to control its own people, and it’s bullying countries like Australia to bend to its will.

This is hard totalitarianism. But there’s another kind of totalitarianism we should all be aware of.

Rod Dreher, in his book Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (he took this title from Solzhenitsyn’s essay) warns us of a soft-totalitarianism that’s spreading through post-Christian Western nations. [iii]

This soft-totalitarianism is basically atheism with a smiley face, and it expects us all to accept an ideology that’s incompatible with our Christian faith. It’s presented as helping and healing, and it uses words like ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusivity,’ ‘equity,’ and other egalitarian jargon, but beneath it all is a hatred of anyone who thinks differently. It’s especially hostile towards Christianity, because it doesn’t believe in objective truth or forgiveness or repentance. And it thinks that good and evil can simply be measured by whoever controls the power.

Pope Benedict XVI has described this as a ‘worldwide dictatorship of seemingly humanistic ideologies’, that pushes dissenters to society’s margins. ‘It’s a manifestation of the spiritual power of the anti-Christ,’ he says.

Dreher says this new form of totalitarianism won’t be imposed with rifles, but it will come upon us gradually, using online technologies and popular opinion to nudge us all into line. 

He also predicts that it will be like the Social Credit System that China is now using to collect data on people, to pressure them into behaving in certain ways.

It will be a time of painful testing and even persecution, he says, and lukewarm or shallow Christians will find it hard to put up any resistance.

Dreher admits that he had thought the menace of totalitarianism had passed. But several men and women who’d survived communist oppression told him that they thought Americans were ‘hopelessly naïve’ in not recognising the ‘pre-totalitarian’ conditions of their country.

One professor said to him: ‘I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, and frankly I’m stunned at how similar some of these developments are to the way Soviet propaganda operated’.

Another professor, from Czechoslovakia, said that he began noticing a shift a decade or so ago: friends would lower their voices and look over their shoulder when expressing conservative views … they’d constantly scan the room to see who might be listening.

Many Western societies today are vulnerable to soft-totalitarianism, because so many people are only interested in their own comfort and happiness. They’ve lost their Christian backbone.

‘One of the biggest mistakes people make,’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, ‘is assuming that totalitarianism can’t happen in their country.’

So, how should Christians respond? Dreher says that Christians today must dig deep into the Bible and church tradition, and start to understand how and why today’s self-centred post-Christian world is being set up as a rival religion to authentic Christianity. He says we must put our spiritual lives in order and begin to mount a resistance.

2,000 years ago, Pontius Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ (Jn.18:38) and standing before him was the answer: Jesus, ‘The way, the truth and the life’ (Jn.14:6).  But Pilate couldn’t recognise the truth, and neither can many people today.

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is in the desert, calling us to change the way we live and to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.  This call is urgent, because in Luke 13:5, Jesus says that unless we change the way we think and live, we ‘will all perish’. 

But why should we change?  St Peter tells us why.  He says that the day of the Lord will come upon us like a thief, when we least expect it.  And when that time comes, it’s important that God finds us ready for him ‘without spot or blemish, and at peace’ (2Pet.3:10-14).  Our eternal life depends on it. 

So, here’s the choice: either we stand tall and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, or we allow ourselves to be seduced into a totalitarian trap.

Which do you choose?



[iii] Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. Sentinel: New York, 2020.