Year B – Palm Sunday

On Wings of Love

[Is.50:4-7; Phil.2:6-11; Mk.14:1–15:47]

Halfway down the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, is a little church called Dominus Flevit (‘The Lord Wept’). It’s shaped like a teardrop, and it marks the place where Jesus stopped and wept on Palm Sunday, on his way into Jerusalem (Lk.19:41).

In front of the altar there’s a circular mosaic of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. And around it in Latin are Jesus’ words from Luke’s Gospel: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ (Lk.13:34).

These words, ‘you were not willing’, are set in a pool of red below the chicks.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus enters Jerusalem, acutely aware of its history of rejecting God’s messengers. He knows that soon it will be his turn, but he’s not angry; he’s just profoundly sad. He wants to gather his people and protect them, like a hen protects its chicks.

Yet they ‘are not willing’.

Just for a moment, though, it does looks promising as Jesus rides into the city on a donkey and the people welcome him as a great hero. They wave their palms about and they cheer him on, and the air is filled with joy.

But soon afterwards, the very same people turn on Jesus. They are so fickle.

Jesus is spat upon, beaten, whipped and mocked. He’s hit on the head and given a crown of thorns. He’s forced to carry that awful Cross. His clothes are stolen. Huge nails pierce his hands and feet. He’s given vinegar to drink. He’s left for dead and, just to make sure, he is speared.

Why does Jesus suffer like this? It’s because the people don’t want to change. They don’t want to hear his message of love. They don’t want to learn about peace, healing or forgiveness.

They don’t want to gather under his protective wings.

They would rather live shallow, worldly lives. So, Jesus is crucified.

Today, Jesus’ mission hasn’t changed. He’s still trying to teach us about love.  He’s still trying to teach us about peace, healing and forgiveness. He’s still trying to gather us under his protective wings.

But so many of us refuse to change. We much prefer to live worldly lives.

That’s why Jesus is still being mocked, beaten and crucified today.

Recently, I read about a farmer inspecting his property after a bushfire. As he searched through the rubble, he found a dead hen, with her wings outstretched. Her feathers had been scorched by smoke and flames.

When he removed her body, four little chicks came out from underneath, chirping and cheeping.

That hen had sacrificed herself, protecting her children.

That’s what Jesus did for us on the Cross. As the psalmist promised, ‘He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Ps.91:4).

Jesus still wants to protect us from the dangers of this world. He still wants to teach us how to live and love.

But are we willing?

‘Flevit super illam’ (1892) by Enrique Simonet (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid). It shows Jesus mourning on the Mount of Olives as he approaches Jerusalem. The title means ‘He wept over it’.

Year B – 5th Sunday of Lent

On the Paschal Mystery

[Jer.31:31-34; Heb.5:7-9; Jn.12:20-33]

In 1963, when he was only 21, Stephen Hawking learnt that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease. The nerves controlling his muscles were dying and his doctors gave him just over two years to live. He was shattered.

He thought his life was over, but he was wrong. He became a professor of physics and mathematics and he wrote 15 books.  He died 3 years ago, aged 76.

Hawking said that before his diagnosis he wasn’t much of a student; he’d been bored with life. But when he learnt that his life would be cut short, he worked hard to complete his research into black holes. [i]

Stephen Hawking’s disease gave him new life. It helped him become another Albert Einstein.

Ron Rolheiser tells us that there are two kinds of death.  There’s terminal death, which represents the end of life and the end of all possibilities.

And there’s paschal death, which is real death because something precious dies. It ends one kind of life, but it’s followed by a new, deeper and richer experience of life. [ii]

Paschal death is what Stephen Hawking had experienced as a young man.

Sometimes something in us has to die, before another part of us can flourish. 

That’s the paschal mystery, and Jesus talks about it in today’s Gospel. He’s in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, talking to some Greek pilgrims. He says, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.’

What Jesus is saying is that if we want to live fulfilling lives, then we must be prepared to let go. We need to surrender ourselves to God, and allow him to work through us. Like grains of wheat, we must let our shells break open and expose our interior lives to God’s transforming grace. 

Jesus says that when we die to ourselves and let God work through us, we’ll start producing a bountiful harvest of fruit.

So, what part of us needs to die? It’s anything that keeps us away from God’s creative spirit. Anything, like our pride, our selfishness, our unhealthy obsessions and our fear. These things stop us from growing.

This paschal mystery is the rhythm of life, and it’s all around us. It’s in every sunrise and in every spring. It’s in the green shoots after every bushfire. It’s in the start of every new career, and whenever a broken heart finds new love.

It’s also in the story of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. His tragic life is transformed by a bishop’s surprising gift. And Oskar Schindler, the Nazi who discovers his soul and sacrifices everything he has to save 1,200 Jews. 

But the greatest paschal mystery of all is Jesus Christ himself. He is crucified, dies and is buried, and rises again to new life.

And it’s not only Jesus who is given new life; so are Mary and all the disciples who witness his resurrection, and everyone else who has followed Jesus ever since.

This is the joy of Easter: it’s the start of new life.

Henri Nouwen wrote that we are the people of the resurrection, living our lives with great vision that transforms us as we are living it. [iii]

Every now and then, something in our own lives dies and we’re left feeling shattered. But that’s never the end of the story.

There’s an old Japanese legend of a 15th century shogun warrior who broke his favourite tea bowl.

He sent it away to be repaired, but it came back full of ugly metal staples. He was disappointed, and asked a craftsman for a more elegant solution. 

This craftsman tried a new technique, mending every crack with a resin mixed with gold. The shogun was delighted. Streaks of gold ran through his tea bowl, telling the story of what had happened and adding to its beauty and value. 

They call this method Kintsugi, which means ‘golden seam’. It reflects the Japanese philosophy that an object’s value is not in its outward beauty, but in its imperfections and the story behind them. Every repaired piece is unique and its history is something to celebrate, not hide.

The art of Kintsugi shows us that there is both beauty and value in brokenness. [iv]

By God’s grace we are healed and restored to new life. Our faith in the resurrection is the gold that not only binds us back together, but gives us even more life, depth and meaning.

That is the paschal mystery.

[i] Stephen Hawking. My Brief History. Random House, London, 2013.

[ii] Ron Rolheiser OMI. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Crown Publishing, N.Y., 1999:146.

[iii] Henri Nouwen, Our Second Birth, Crossroad NY, 1998:150.


Year B – 4th Sunday of Lent

On Darkness and Light

[2Chron.36:14-16, 19-23; Eph.2:4-10; Jn.3:14-21]

In the ‘olden days’, the good guys in cowboy films often wore white hats, while the baddies wore black hats. [i] Do you remember that?

Film-makers, writers and artists have long used darkness and light as symbols in storytelling. They’ve used light and white to convey positive things like joy, hope and life, and darkness to signal bad things like fear, evil and death.

We can see this in the Lord of the Rings movies, where the good wizard Gandalf usually wears startling white, while his nemesis, the dark lord Sauron, appears in threatening shades of black and grey.

This theme of darkness and light is present all through the Bible, as it records the universal struggle between goodness and evil. Indeed, the Old Testament begins in darkness, when God creates light and calls it good (Gen.1:4). And in the New Testament, Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness’ (Jn.8:12).

So many biblical stories mirror this model of light following darkness. Joseph, for example, is locked in a dungeon before Pharaoh calls him to public service (Gen.41:14). Jonah is trapped in the dark belly of a whale before he’s freed to become God’s messenger (Jon.1-4). Daniel is locked in a dingy lions’ den when he discovers God’s power and becomes an evangelist (Dan.6).

Lazarus is dead and buried before Jesus gives him new life (Jn.11:38-44). St Paul is blinded before becoming an apostle (Acts 9:1-19). And of course, Jesus dies and is buried before his dramatic resurrection to new life.

This light-after-darkness pattern is also reflected in today’s readings. In our first reading, the Jewish people have been living in exile in Babylon for many years, until the Persian king Cyrus allows them to return home to resume their lives.

And in today’s Gospel, Nicodemus, a wealthy Pharisee, wants to meet Jesus. However, it’s dangerous to be seen talking to him, so they meet under cover of darkness.

There they discuss faith and divine power, and Jesus explains that his incarnation is a sign of God’s profound love for the world.

He puts it this way: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (Jn.3:16).’ This one sentence summarises the whole Bible.

Nicodemus emerges from that dark place a changed man. He has been touched by the light of Christ and he’s on the road to conversion.

Later in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus reminds the Jewish leaders that Jesus is owed a fair hearing (Jn.7:50-52). And after the crucifixion, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial and he donates some very expensive aloes and myrrh (Jn.19:38-42).

Darkness is a natural feature of life. It comes in many forms, from the simple absence of light through to the deepest pain and anguish. Some people try to avoid it altogether, while others try to hide it under a mask.

The British writer HG Wells lived in London during WWII. One evening during the Blitz, a friend found him outside shaking with fear. ‘It’s not the bombs,’ Wells said. ‘It’s the dark. I’ve been afraid of darkness all my life.’

And yet, Kahlil Gibran wrote that the only way to reach the dawn is by the path of night. Everything, from creation and pregnancy to new ideas, begins in darkness. It’s just a question of how you react to it.

The Spanish mystic St John of the Cross (1542-91) was imprisoned for nine months in a tiny, dark and windowless cell in Toledo. The heat, the cold and the hunger were unbearable, but he didn’t become bitter. Instead, he used his time writing poems, including his most famous works, The Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul.

In Dark Night of the Soul, St John explains the steps involved in the journey of the soul from its bodily home to union with God. He calls it The Dark Night because of the difficulty we so often have in letting go of our worldly attachments. It’s not easy burning away our faults and imperfections.

But here’s the thing: it’s in losing that we gain (Mt.10:39), and what we gain is so much more than what we lose.

St John writes: ‘Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!’ [ii]

After escaping from prison, St John said he was forever grateful to his captors. He had learnt that darkness is a gift; it’s an invitation to new life.

He had learnt the truth of Jesus’ promise: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness’ (Jn.8:12).

[i] In the Western movie 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Christian Bale’s good guy wears a white hat, and Russell Crowe’s bad guy wears a black hat.


Year B – 3rd Sunday of Lent

On Cleansing the Temple

[Ex.20:1-17; 1Cor.1:22-25; Jn.2:13-25]

Early in John’s Gospel, after his first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

This Temple is a sacred place. According to the Hebrew Bible, it’s the place where God lives. It’s where sacrifices are made for the forgiveness of sins, and it’s where huge numbers of pilgrims gather to worship God, especially at Passover time.

But when Jesus gets there, he’s horrified.

The Temple has become a noisy bazaar, focussed more on money than on God. The moneychangers, the animal traders and the high priests are all making great profits out of the people.

Jesus is furious. He cracks a whip and tells them all to get out. ‘Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!’ he says. The tables are turned, the animals panic, and coins and pigeons fly everywhere.

The first of the Ten Commandments, which we heard in our first reading today, says, ‘I am the Lord your God… you shall have no gods except me’. But here in the Temple, they are doing just the opposite. Instead of worshipping God the Father, they’re worshipping the false god of money.

Jesus says this must stop. The Ten Commandments aren’t suggestions, they’re commandments, and his mission is to put everyone back on track.

The Jews ask Jesus to justify what he’s done, but they don’t understand his answer. In essence, what Jesus says is that the Temple’s days are numbered.

For hundreds of years, the Temple had been the place where people came to meet and worship God. But God had long promised that he would come one day to live among his people (Ez.43:7; Zech.2:10). He fulfilled that promise by sending us his son, and after his resurrection, Jesus became the new Temple (Jn.2:21; Mk.14:58).

So, Jesus is now the sacred point of contact between heaven and earth. We no longer need to go to the Temple for worship; we simply go to Jesus, for he is the new sanctuary. The Body of Christ, the Church, is now where God lives, and when we are spiritually united to his body, God lives in us, too (Jn.14:23).  

St Paul said to the Corinthians, ‘Don’t you know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy and you are that temple’ (1Cor.3:16-17).

What all this means is that Jesus is actually speaking to us in today’s Gospel.

He’s telling us that we are now his temples, and just like the original Temple, we should be serving God through worship, prayer and sacrifice.

So, here’s the question: do our temples need a good clean out, too?

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said that there’s a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and we’re always looking for something to fill it.

This explains why so many people today seem to worship things like money, pleasure and sport. But doing these things is like trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Ultimately, nothing will satisfy us except God himself. [i]

That’s why St Augustine wrote, ‘you made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’. [ii]

We are now in Lent, and Lent is the perfect time for us to clear out our false gods. It’s the perfect time for us to focus instead on loving God and our neighbour, just as Jesus commands us to (Lk.10:25-28).

But temples are also about prayer, and prayer had become impossible in the noisy Jerusalem Temple. That upset Jesus. Has prayer become impossible in us, too? As Psalm 46 says, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Ps.46:11). We must find some quiet space each day for prayer.

And finally, temples are about sacrifice. When Jesus clears the Temple, he effectively declares that the days of animal sacrifice are over, and that a new kind of sacrifice is coming: personal sacrifice. As Jesus said, ‘If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me’ (Mt.16:24).

If we truly love God and each other, then our first priority cannot be ourselves. This means sacrificing our selfishness, laziness and greed. It means living our lives for others, just as Jesus did.

So, why did Jesus get so angry? It’s because he’d had enough. God loves each of us totally, but unconditional love isn’t the same as unconditional approval.

We are all temples of God. A temple is a very special place, filled with love, prayer and genuine sacrifice.

Does your temple need a good clean out?

[i] Blaise Pascal. Pensees VII #425. Penguin Books, New York. 1966:75.

[ii] St Augustine. Confessions. Image Books, New York. 1960:43.