Year B – 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Breaking the Chains

[Deut.18:15-20; 1Cor.7:32-35; Mk.1:21-28]

Today in Mark’s gospel, Jesus begins his public life in Capernaum by preaching in the synagogue, and it’s clear that he’s engaged in a war against the cosmic forces of evil.

While Jesus is preaching, a man possessed by an ‘unclean spirit’, a demon, calls out, ‘What do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come here to destroy us?’ Jesus commands the demon to leave that man’s body. The demon obeys, and the poor distressed man finally gets his life back.

Some people are fascinated by the demonic. C.S. Lewis once wrote that some people make two mistakes when it comes to demons:  they either ignore them, thinking they don’t exist, or they give them too much attention. [i]

What Lewis means is that denying the existence of demons is unwise. It’s like pretending that terrorists don’t exist, and that means you won’t be alert when you need to be.  

But he’s also saying that giving them too much attention is also unwise, because it can distract you from healthier and more important things in life.

Whatever the source, though, there are dark forces lurking about in our lives.  There are forces of evil both inside and outside us that can control our life. They can make us sick and miserable and sometimes they make us behave badly.  We see this in people trapped by things like crime, addictions, guilt, toxic relationships and fear.

Some people think they can fix such situations by themselves. They believe they have the capacity to think themselves into psychological and spiritual freedom. But very often that’s impossible.

Consider, for example, the story of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Austrian psychoanalyst who researched the subconscious mind.  He tried to develop a method to free people from the dark urges and desires that control their conscious lives. 

Freud believed that we can all think ourselves into good health.  But despite all his knowledge and research, he couldn’t stop himself from smoking cigars and he died of mouth cancer. He simply didn’t have the power to control himself.

That’s so often the case.  Many people want to change their lives; they want to break free from something, and they even know what they need to do. But all too often they’re powerless to do so.  That’s where we need the grace of God (Eph.6:10-18).

The Bible is full of people who found themselves in situations they couldn’t control. Moses, Paul, the Woman at the Well, Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus the tax collector and the Ten Lepers were all trapped by something awful and they needed God’s help to escape.

The Apostle Peter was in an impossible situation when Herod locked him up in Jerusalem. He was chained by the wrist to two guards, he had another two guards at his cell door, and he was destined for trial and execution. But one night as he slept, an angel silently arrived, removed his chains and quietly led him through unlocked gates out into the street (Acts 12:1-17). God had set Peter free to begin again.

In the 1700’s, the life of the slave trader John Newton was a complete mess.  One day as he sailed through a violent storm, he was sure he was going to die.  He cried out, ‘Lord have mercy on us!’ and at that point his life changed.  The storm abated, he went on to become a priest and he encouraged William Wilberforce to campaign against slavery. 

Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.  In the third stanza, he says:

Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; / ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home. [ii]

That’s what we need to remember.  We all face dangers, toils and snares in our lives, and too often we’re powerless to overcome them.  It’s grace that has brought us safe this far, and it’s grace that will lead us home.

In one of her Letters, St. Catherine of Siena wrote: ‘It’s necessary that we see and know, in truth, with the light of faith, that God is supreme and eternal Love, and he wants nothing else but our well-being’.[iii]

That’s what Mark is saying in today’s Gospel. He’s telling us that Jesus’ mission is to free people like us from enslavement to sin and evil, in whatever form it might take.  He wants us to live life to the full (Jn.10:10).   

The truth is that none of us has the power to control our own lives. We all need God’s grace to lead us safely home (Heb.4:16).

So, if you want to break the chains that bind you, admit your weakness and ask Jesus for his help.

[i] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Harper Collins, London. 1996:ix


[iii] St Catherine of Siena. The Letters, Vol. 3, Bologna 1999:206 Ep. 13

Year B – 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Holy Interruptions

[Jon.3:1-5, 10; 1Cor.7:29-31; Mk.1:14-20]

Some people simply hate interruptions. In the movie Darkest Hour (2017), there’s a scene where Winston Churchill shouts at someone: ‘Will you stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you!’ [i]

We all get interrupted. The phone rings, a child cries or someone calls out our name, and we’re obliged to stop what we’re doing. It can be frustrating.

One day in 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge fell asleep and dreamt of a new poem, including all the verses. When he woke up, he started writing it down quickly, but there was a knock on the door. An hour later, he returned to his poem, but only vaguely remembered the lines. He did his best, though, [ii] and the result was the poem Kubla Khan. [iii]

The spiritual writer Melannie Svoboda suggests three reasons why we don’t like such intrusions. Firstly, they force us to change what we’re doing, and some people don’t like change. Secondly, they infringe upon our sense of freedom and control, and we don’t like being reminded of what little control we have in our lives. And thirdly, they involve some form of sacrifice, and self-sacrifice isn’t always easy to do. [iv]

But interruptions can also be good things. They can help us become more patient, they teach us to let go, they remind us that life isn’t only about ‘me’, and they can be pleasant when we like the interrupter.

There are many interruptions in Scripture. During the Wedding at Cana, for instance, Mary asks Jesus to get more wine (Jn.2:1-12). And while Jesus is teaching in Capernaum, a sick man is brought in through the roof for healing (Mk.2:1-12).

But Jesus never considers anyone an annoyance or an intrusion. Every encounter with every person is always important to him.

And sometimes Jesus interrupts others. In today’s gospel, he approaches four fishermen while they’re working. This turns out to be a major interruption for them, because they suddenly leave everything behind to follow Jesus. And not only are their lives changed, but as we know, the whole world is changed, too.

These stories remind us that every now and then, when we least expect it, God interrupts what we’re doing. He might put an idea in our head, or he might speak through someone, or something really inconvenient might happen to us.

But the point is that God loves us, and he’s more involved in our lives than we might think. He’s constantly trying to change us and shape us (Jer.29:11; Prov.19:21), and he’s trying to use us to channel his grace into the world (Jer.29:11; Jn.15:5).

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that we must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, for he’ll be constantly crossing our paths and cancelling our plans by sending us people who claim our attention. However, we may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, he says, for it’s a strange fact that Christians often consider their work so important and urgent that they’ll allow nothing to disturb them. They think they’re doing God a service, but actually they’re avoiding God’s ‘crooked yet straight path’. [v]

Henri Nouwen used to complain that his work was constantly being interrupted, until he realised that the interruptions were his work. He said that the unpleasant things, the hard moments and the unexpected setbacks carry more potential than we usually realise. [vi]

So, let’s close with a story.  An elderly monk once lived a solitary life in the hills of Italy. He never left his monastery, and he prayed every day that someday he might see the face of God.

One day, his superior asked him to go into the village for supplies. He resisted, saying that he’d never left the monastery. Yet he went, though he was determined to only get the supplies on the list and then return to seek the face of God.

As he approached the village gates, a blind man said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’

‘Oh no,’ said the monk, ‘ask another’. He then went on his way, purchasing the first item on his list when a hungry boy said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’

‘Oh no,’ said the monk, ‘ask another’.

As he came to the last item on his list, an elderly woman in obvious disarray said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’

‘Oh no,’ said the monk, ‘ask another’. He returned to the monastery and said to his superior: ‘I got the supplies, but I never want to go into the village again.’

‘Why?’ asked the superior.

“Well, every time I tried to do something someone said: ‘Pardon the interruption, but can you help me?’ I’ll never see the face of God that way.” [vii]





[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. HarperOne, NY, 1954:99.

[vi] Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing. Thomas Nelson, Nashville. 2001:11

[vii] Frank Freitas, Are We There Yet? Catholic Register Books, Toronto. (Abridged).

Year B – 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Discerning God’s Quiet Voice

[Sam.3:3-10, 19; 1Cor.6:13-15, 17-20; Jn.1:35-42]

One day in Milan, St Augustine heard a child sing: ‘Take it and read. Take it and read’. He wondered, was this God talking to me? He opened a Bible and his eyes fell upon these words: ‘…put on the Lord Jesus Christ… spend no more thought on nature’s appetites’ (Rom.13:13-14). In an instant, his heart flooded with light; it was a message from God. His life changed and he went on to become a great theologian, bishop and writer. [i]

Last week I explained how God speaks to us in different ways, including through Scripture, art, music and nature. But how can we be sure it’s God’s voice we hear and not something else?

Here are some basic principles we should remember when we’re discerning God’s quiet voice in our lives.

Firstly, God is spirit, so he doesn’t have a voice like ours. However, he’s also omnipotent, which means he can communicate with us in many ways, including through images, ideas, events, other people and even through our own thoughts. We just need to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open for him.

Secondly, God is always speaking to us. He’s always expressing his love for us, encouraging us and inviting us to come closer to him, for he is love itself (1Jn.4:8). So, any still and prayerful time we spend listening for his quiet voice has the potential to be fruitful.

Thirdly, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the ‘exact representation of God’s nature’ (Heb.1:3). So, if we want to understand how God thinks and what he’s saying to us, then we need to get to know Jesus and his teachings (Jas.4:8). Indeed, the more time we spend with Jesus, the easier it will be to identify his voice (Mt.17:5; Jn.10:27).

Next, God is truth (Jn.1:14) and he’s always consistent (Lk.21:33). So, one good way to check if you’re hearing God’s voice is to see if the message you receive aligns with Scripture and the teachings of the Church. [ii] God will never say anything or ask us to do anything that contradicts his Word (1Jn.4:1).

And finally, St Ignatius of Loyola tells us that God’s voice can be identified by two signs: peace and joy, because God wants us to be happy (Jn.10:10). So, if a message makes you feel anxious, sad or angry, it’s not from God (1Cor.14:33). As St. Francis de Sales once said, ‘No thoughts which cause us disquiet and agitation come from God who is the Prince of Peace. They are, rather, temptations of the enemy, and therefore we must reject them and take no notice of them’.

All through Scripture God calls people to do special things, and every calling is different. Abraham was 75 years old (Gen.22:11-13), but Jeremiah wasn’t even born (Jer.1:5) when God called them. Isaiah was of noble birth (Is.6:8), but Amos was a poor shepherd (Am.7:15). And yet they all became great prophets.

In today’s first reading, Samuel is a boy, and he’s sleeping in the temple at Shiloh. Someone whispers ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ in his ear and he thinks it’s the old priest Eli, but it’s not. It’s God calling. Samuel starts listening and he grows up to become a priest, prophet and judge. 

And in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist points Jesus out to Andrew and his friend, saying ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. They follow Jesus and become his first disciples. But note that God doesn’t speak directly to Andrew. He uses John the Baptist to invite them to follow Jesus. 

God often does that. He often speaks to us through someone else. But are we listening?

Let’s close with this story from Max Lucado:

Once there was a man who dared God to speak. Burn the bush like you did for Moses, God. And I will follow you. Collapse the walls like you did for Joshua, God. And I will fight. Still the waves like you did on Galilee, God. And I will listen.

And the man sat by a bush, near a wall, close to the sea and waited for God to speak.

And God heard the man, so God answered. He sent fire, not for the bush, but for the church. He brought down a wall, not of brick, but of sin. He stilled the storm, not of the sea, but of the soul.

And God waited for the man to respond. And he waited…and waited.

But because the man was looking at bushes, not hearts; bricks, not lives, seas and not souls, he decided that God had done nothing.

Finally, he looked to God and asked, ‘Have you lost your power?’

And God looked at him and said, ‘Have you lost your hearing?’ [iii]

[i] St Augustine, Confessions. Penguin Books, London, 1961:177-178.

[ii] St. Joan of Arc once said, ‘All I know about Christ and His Church is that they’re the same thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter’.

[iii] Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder. W Publishing Group, Nashville, 1995.

Year B – Baptism of the Lord

On God’s Quiet Voice

[Is.55:1-11; 1Jn.5:1-9; Mk.1:7-11]

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. This event marks a turning point in Jesus’ story: the end of his hidden life, and the start of his public ministry.

How do we know it’s significant? It’s because of what happens when Jesus emerges from the water: the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and he hears a voice: ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’

In the Jewish tradition, this heavenly voice is known as the bat kol, which literally means ‘the daughter of a sound’, or ‘the echo of a voice’. In Latin, it’s the ‘vox dei’, the divine voice that proclaims God’s will or judgement.

This bat kol is often heard in the Scriptures (Heb.1:1). It’s heard at Jesus’ Transfiguration (Mt.17:5), and just before Jesus enters into his passion (Jn.12:28). Paul hears it on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4; 22:7, 9; 26:14). Peter hears it in Joppa (Acts 10:13, 15).

And Elijah hears it in his cave on Mt Horeb, where he faces a strong wind, an earthquake and a fire. But God’s voice isn’t in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. It’s only later, when everything is quiet, that Elijah hears God’s ‘still, small voice’ (1Kgs.19:11-13).

The Hebrew for the voice Elijah hears literally translates into English as a ‘sound of thinnest silence’. So, the ‘daughter of a sound’, the ‘sound of thinnest silence’, and a ‘still, small voice’ are all ways to express something that’s beyond the boundaries of ordinary speech. [i]

Today, God still speaks to us, and not just in the Bible. He speaks to us through his creation (Ps.19:1). He speaks through art, music, the events of our lives and through the wisdom of our family and friends (1 Cor. 12:8-10). He speaks to us whenever we pray or meditate (Prov.8:34), and sometimes he speaks to us through our dreams (Mt.1:20; Acts 2:17).

Some people therefore hear God’s voice not with their ear, but with their heart. It comes to them from deep within. Like an echo, it calls them, urges them and encourages them. But like a whisper, it can be hard to hear.

Richard Rohr writes that in their path to wholeness, both the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the Jewish Auschwitz victim Etty Hillesum learned to trust in and listen to the voice of God in their deepest selves.

Many people, however, are reluctant to do this. They aren’t willing to submit to such ‘indirect, subversive, and intuitive knowing’.

Rohr says such people prefer external law and behaviour to achieve their spiritual purposes, because it feels more ‘objective and solid’. To them, intuitive truth feels too much like our own thoughts and feelings, and they’re not willing to call this ‘God’, even when that voice prompts them towards compassion instead of hatred, forgiveness instead of resentment, generosity instead of stinginess and bigness instead of pettiness. [ii]

‘But think about it,’ Rohr says. ‘If the incarnation is true, then of course God speaks to us through our own thoughts! When accusers called Joan of Arc the victim of her own imagination, she replied: “How else would God speak to me?”’

Rohr says this inner voice is experienced in our deepest and usually hidden selves, where most of us do not go. It speaks at a level ‘beneath’ our rational consciousness; in a place where only the humble – or the trained – know how to go.

He quotes Carl Jung, who late in his life wrote, ‘In my case, Pilgrim’s Progress consisted in my having to climb down a thousand ladders until I could reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am’. Jung knew that any authentic God experience takes a lot of humble, honest and patient seeking.

This is where embracing the Christ Mystery becomes utterly practical, Rohr says. Without the mediation of Christ, we’re tempted to exaggerate the distance and distinction between God and humanity. But because of the incarnation, the supernatural is forever embedded in the natural, making the very distinction false. ‘How good is that?’ he asks.

That’s why mystics like Hillesum, Jung, Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Merton and others link the discovery of their own souls with the discovery of God. It takes a long time to trust and allow such a process. But when it comes, Rohr says, it will feel like a calm and humble ability to quietly trust yourself and trust God at the same time. ‘Isn’t that what we all want?’ [iii]

Our challenge, then, is to develop our sacred listening skills; to learn how to hear, trust and respond to God’s quiet voice deep in our hearts.

When Jesus heard his Father’s voice at his Baptism, his life changed.

When we hear God’s voice, our life will change, too.

[i] Marcus J. Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder: How to Be a Christian in the 21st Century, Harper Collins, NY. 2017:228

[ii] Ron Rolheiser proposes 5 principles for discerning the true voice of God. See

[iii] Richard Rohr, Daily Reflection, 27 May 2019. Accessed 7/01/21.

Year B – The Epiphany of the Lord

On the Holy Name

[Is.60:1-6; Eph.3:2-3, 5-6; Mt.2:1-12]

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the day when the Magi discovered the Christ-child in Bethlehem. This marks the end of our 12 days of Christmas with all its joy and celebration.

Many people simply love Christmas. But as the guests leave, the gifts are put away and life returns to normal, some people are left with a sense of emptiness and loss.

This reminds me of the young student who went to his rabbi with a problem. He said, ‘When I study, and when I join others to celebrate the great feasts of our faith, I feel surrounded by light. I feel joyful and alive. But when it’s all over, it all disappears. Everything inside me dies.’

The old rabbi thought for a while, and replied, ‘It’s exactly the same feeling a person gets when walking through the woods at night, when the breeze is cool, and the scent in the air is intoxicating. If another person joins that traveller with a lantern, they can walk safely and joyfully together. But if they come to a crossroads, and the one with a lantern departs, then the first must grope his way alone. That is, unless he carries a light within him.’ [i]

In other words, we all need a light for our journey.

The Magi had a star to guide them. But now that Christmas is over, what light can we follow?

In the Church’s liturgical calendar, today is not only the Epiphany; it’s also the Feast of the Holy Name. [ii] This is a happy conjunction of events, because the holy name of Jesus is itself a bright star for us us to safely follow.

Jesus’ holy name came not from Mary or Joseph, but from God himself (Lk.1:31; Mt.1:21), and he received it in the Temple, eight days after his birth.

In the Old Testament, there’s an intimate connection between God’s name and his power. In the New Testament, Jesus’ name is mentioned 999 times, [iii] and it’s often invoked in miracles like the healing of the sick. Indeed, Jesus emphasises the power of his name when he says, ‘If you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it to you’ (Jn.16:23).

It’s not surprising, then, that Paul says, ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth…’ (Phil.2:10).

St Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) was a Franciscan missionary in Italy. He dearly loved Jesus’ holy name. He often preached about it and carried a banner displaying a monogram of Jesus’ name, surrounded by sunrays.

Today, this image is known as a Christogram, and it bears the letters ‘IHS’, representing the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus: iota-eta-sigma (ΙΗΣ). [iv]

‘IHS’ is sometimes said to mean Iesus Hominum Salvator (‘Jesus, Saviour of men’, in Latin) or In Hoc Signo, which is short for ‘In hoc signo vinces’, meaning ‘in this sign you will conquer’.

St Bernardine used to hold this sign up high whenever he blessed the sick, and many miracles were performed in Jesus’ name. He also said that we should always have this sign on our doors to remind us of God’s many blessings. [v]

In one of his homilies, St Bernardine said that the sweet name of Jesus gives us holy thoughts, it fills the soul with noble sentiments, it strengthens virtue, it leads to good works, and it nourishes pure affections. He also said that all spiritual food leaves the soul dry if it doesn’t contain the penetrating oil of Jesus’ name.

When you take your pen, he said, write the name Jesus. If you write books, include Jesus’ name in them … (because) Jesus is honey in our mouth, a light in our eyes, a flame in our heart … and the cure for all diseases of the soul.

The English hymnist Charles Wesley also recognised the mystical power of Jesus’ holy name. In one of his many hymns, he wrote:

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
  That bids our sorrows cease;
’Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
  ’Tis life, and health, and peace. [vi]

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Jesus is the one name that contains everything, including God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’, it adds, is to invoke him and to call him within us, for Jesus’ name is the only name that contains the presence it signifies. [vii]

And it’s a name that means ‘God saves’ (Mt.1:21). [viii]

So, as we start afresh in 2021, remember that everyone needs a guiding star.

Remember the holy name of Jesus, for he’s the light of the world shining in the darkness.

And always keep his sweet name deep in your heart and soft on your lips.

[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies, Year B. Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2017:53.

[ii] The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus was established by the Franciscans in 1530, and extended to the Universal Church in 1721.

[iii] Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.




[vii] C.C.C. # 2666

[viii] Many people think the name ‘Christ’ is Jesus’ surname, but it’s not. It’s a title that comes from the Greek word ‘christos’. It means ‘messiah’ in Hebrew, and ‘the anointed one of God’ in English.