Year C – 4th Sunday in Lent

The Hound of Heaven

(Jos.5:9-12; 2Cor.5:17-21; Lk.15:1-3, 11-32)

What hope is there when we really mess up our lives?

Francis Thompson (1859-1907) certainly messed up his life. He was born in Preston, England into a well-to-do Catholic family.

When he was 11, his father sent him to a seminary, to train for the priesthood. But he was lazy and failed at that, so his father sent him to medical school. But he failed there, too. Then his mother died and he had a nervous breakdown, and after that he became addicted to opium.

Francis feared his father’s anger, and tried to escape by joining the army, but they wouldn’t accept him. So, he fled to the slums of London where he lived on the streets and sold matches to feed himself.

Francis seemed to fail at everything he tried. But there’s one thing he truly did love: writing. He wrote poetry on whatever scraps of paper he could find, and his hunger and suffering sharpened his poetic insights.

After some years of homelessness, he became suicidal and one day a prostitute found him collapsed on a street. She rescued him and gave him a place to stay.

This was a turning point in his life.

In 1888, he sent a grimy and tattered manuscript to a Catholic periodical. The publishers – a married couple – were impressed by his work. They took him in and cared for him, and in 1893 they published his first book, simply called Poems. It included his masterpiece; a poem called The Hound of Heaven. [i]

In 182 lines, it tells the story of a man who tries to escape from God because he’s frightened that he’ll lose his freedom. It begins:


I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him …

Like so many others, Francis had made a mess of his life, and in his guilt and fear, he fled from his family. But in this poem, he realises that it’s actually God he’s been running from. And he discovers that God is very much like a faithful hound chasing after a hare: searching relentlessly and never stopping until he actually finds it.

After years of pain and suffering, Francis had learnt that whenever and wherever he tried to hide, God’s love and mercy was always there, searching for him.

He had run into the slums of London, into hunger, dirt, addiction and disease, but still the hound of heaven was there, pursuing him with all ‘deliberate speed’.

Through his father, God had sent Francis some money via a London library. Through a prostitute, God rescued him from the streets and gave him a home.

Through a generous couple, God helped Francis publish his first book and gave him even more care. And later, when he moved to a Franciscan monastery in the south of England, he was helped to overcome his addiction.

To be prodigal is to be recklessly wasteful. Francis Thompson had squandered the blessings of his early life, and fell into darkness and misery, just like the younger son in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. And just like the Prodigal Son in today’s Gospel, Francis found unconditional love and forgiveness.

So many people today think of God as someone or something distant, perhaps like a mountain waiting to be discovered by intrepid religious searchers.

But that’s not God at all. He is so much more like Francis’ Hound of Heaven, tirelessly searching for the lost and the frightened, always eager to embrace them with his love.

He’s so much more like the father in Jesus’ famous parable, anxiously awaiting his child, and celebrating mightily when he arrives.

The Apostle Peter once asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. Seven times should be enough, Peter thought. But Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’

This is how much God loves us, even when we’ve really messed up our lives.

In the end, Francis Thompson did find happiness. He published three books of poetry and several other stories and essays, but his health was always fragile. He died of tuberculosis in 1907, aged only 47. [iii] [iv]

This Lent, let’s remember that God is the Hound of Heaven, tirelessly searching for us, and always offering his grace and love, regardless of our mistakes.

(For a modern adaptation of this poem, go to:




Year C – 3rd Sunday in Lent

The Fig Tree

(Ex.3:1-8, 13-15; 1Cor.10:1-6, 10-12; Lk.13:1-9)

Have you ever noticed how often trees feature in the Bible? Apart from God and his people, trees appear more often in Scripture than any other form of life.

There’s the Tree of Knowledge at the start (Gen.1:11-12) and the Tree of Life at the end (Rev.2:22). A tree stands near running waters in Psalm 1 (Ps.1:3), and the Wise Men’s frankincense and myrrh come from trees (Mt.2:11).

There’s an almond tree (Ecc.12:5), apple tree (Song.2:3), chestnut and fir (Ez.31:8), and a cedar and myrtle (Is.41:19). Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore (Lk.19:4) and Jesus talks about mustard trees (Lk.17:6).

1,374 Fig Tree Cliparts, Stock Vector and Royalty Free Fig Tree  Illustrations

In fact, every major figure in Scripture is connected in some way with trees. Noah receives an olive branch (Gen.8:11), Abraham sits under the Oaks of Mamre (Gen.18:1), Moses finds a burning bush (Ex.3:2-5), Joseph is a carpenter (Mt.13:55) and Jesus even dies on a tree.

Why are there so many?

Well, trees are a natural part of life, and the Bible reflects real life. But trees also mirror Jesus. Like Jesus, they’re a strong, natural and beautiful part of life. They offer us shelter, nourishment and protection. They clear the air, reduce our stress and anxiety, and have healing powers.

Research has also found that trees help reduce crime and make us more generous and trusting. [i]

But trees also teach us things. They teach us the importance of living in the light, of having strong roots and of getting good nourishment.

And they teach us to be fruitful. That’s what Jesus is talking about in his famous Parable of the Fig Tree, in today’s Gospel.

In ancient times, Palestinian fig trees were valuable. They bore fruit ten months of the year, and their fruit was very popular. In Jesus’ story, the gardener has spent years nurturing that tree, encouraging it to mature and grow fruit, but it has produced nothing for three years.

The vineyard owner has lost patience and wants it gone. However, the gardener wants to give it another chance. He promises to fertilise it and care for it, and if it’s still unfruitful after another year, then he’ll let it go.

In his book, The Cultural World of Jesus, John Pilch says that the vineyard in this story actually represents the people of Israel, and the fig tree represents Israel’s leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees. The vineyard owner is God, and he’s unhappy that these leaders have been unproductive for much too long. He thinks they’ve effectively been stealing from the people, and should go. [ii]

Jesus, however, is the gardener, and he wants to give them another chance. That’s why this story is often called the Parable of the Second Chance. But it’s not just about ancient Israel; it’s also about us, today.

Indeed, how many of us live unfruitful lives?

The stories at the start of this passage, about people being killed in two tragic incidents, remind us that our lives are fragile and we really aren’t in control. As Solomon wrote, ‘time and chance happen to everyone’ (Ecc.9:11).

So, here’s the point: we need to become more fruitful before it’s too late.

Every Lent gives us an opportunity to nourish our spiritual trees and to produce more fruit. Yes, God is patient, but we don’t have all the time in the world.  For some people, this will be their last Lent, and therefore their last chance to put things right.

Now, what type of fruit does God want us to produce? I’d like to suggest that there are three kinds of fruit he’d like to see from us.

Firstly, there are the Fruits of the Spirit that St Paul talks about: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal.5:22-23). Do you produce all these fruits? Do they reflect your life today?

Secondly, there’s the Fruit of Good Works, which St Paul also talks about (Col.1:10). What good works are you now doing for others? What should you be doing for others?

And finally, there are the Fruits of Praise. It is important that we love our neighbour, but we must love God as well (Heb.13:15; Mt.22:34-40). Do we spend time getting to know God? And how do we express our love for him?

God loves us totally, but true love is never a one-way street. God’s love for us can only become complete when we love him in return.

So, this Lent, let’s remember the trees.

We are all branches of Jesus’ tree. What fruits will you be producing this year? (Jn.15:4-6; Rom.11:17–18).


[ii] John J Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle C. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1997:56-57.

Year C – 2nd Sunday of Lent

The Face of Christ

[Gen.22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Rom.8:31-34; Mk.9:2-10]

What does Jesus look like? The Gospels really don’t tell us. Perhaps the closest we get to a description of Jesus is in Matthew 26:48, when Judas kisses him so that the soldiers can find him in the crowd. This suggests that he looks like most other Jewish men in Palestine. 

In his book The Face of Jesus, Edward Lucie-Smith says that 2nd Century theologians like Justin Martyr thought Jesus was physically quite ordinary. But later on, St Augustine and St Jerome described Jesus as beautiful in face and body. St Augustine said he was ‘beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven’.

Today, most people think of Jesus as handsome, bearded and long-haired, an image strongly influenced by the Shroud of Turin. Over the years, however, Jesus has been portrayed in countless ways, and his image (especially his face) has been called the most important image in Western Art since 312AD. [i]

Image result for face of jesus

St Jerome once said, ‘The face is the mirror of the mind’. We say so much through our faces, even when we’re silent. Perhaps that’s why God says ‘Seek my face’ (Ps.27:8).

Why, then, did God say to Moses on Mount Sinai, ‘You cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live’ (Ex.33:20)?

It’s because God is spirit (Jn.4:24) and has no body (Num.23:19). But as St Paul tells us, the son is the image of the invisible God (Col.1:15). So now we can see God the Father in the human face of his son, Jesus. 

In today’s Gospel, Peter, James and John witness Jesus’ transfiguration atop Mt Tabor. For just a moment, Jesus’ clothes become dazzlingly white; his face shines like the sun, and they can see who he really is – both human and divine.

Since then, many people have sought to know Jesus by contemplating his face. When St Therese of Lisieux became a Carmelite nun in 1889, she adopted the name ‘Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face’.

Jesus’ image was everything to Therese. It inspired her to look for his hidden face everywhere, and she wrote many prayers expressing her love for him. In her Canticle to the Holy Face (1895) she wrote, ‘Jesus, your… image is the star which guides my steps… Your sweet face is for me heaven on earth’.

She also wrote, ‘Make me resemble you, Jesus!’ on a small card and put a stamp of the Holy Face on it. She kept it in a little box pinned near her heart.

Her sister Celine said, ‘Just as the picture of a loved one serves to bring the whole person before us, so in the Holy Face of Christ Therese beheld the entire humanity of Jesus… Her devotion was the burning inspiration of (her) life.’ [ii]

Today, most people really aren’t much interested in Jesus’ Holy Face. The only face they really care about is their own; and some people don’t even like the one they’ve been given. They’d rather spend a fortune changing it.

As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, ‘God has given you one face, and you make yourself another’. [iii]

Indeed, Thomas Merton once wrote that our lives are shaped by what we live for. We become what we desire. [iv] And what did Merton desire? He answers that question in his book, The Sign of Jonas. He said: ‘I have one desire, the desire for solitude, to be lost in the secret of God’s face.’

This must be our desire, too, if we really want to be ourselves, because we’re all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen.1:27). And if you think about it, contemplating the face of Christ is actually contemplating our own identity and destiny.

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis says that the only way to find our real selves, and to be our real selves, is in Jesus. He says we cannot fully be ourselves without Jesus because that’s where we come from.

And he adds that we’re all meant to be different, reflecting different facets of Jesus himself.

But the more I resist Jesus, he says, the more I become dominated by my own natural urges and the influences of the world around me, and we all end up the same.

He asks, ‘Have you ever noticed how monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been, and how gloriously different all the saints are?’

When you focus only on yourself, in the end you’ll only find hatred, loneliness, despair, ruin and decay.

But if you focus on Christ, you’ll find him and everything else your heart is looking for. [v]

In other words, when you lovingly search the face of Christ, what you eventually find is yourself.

[i] Edward Lucie-Smith. The Face of Jesus. Abrams, New York. 2011:14-18.


[iii] William Shakespeare. Hamlet. Act 3, Scene 1.

[iv] Thomas Merton, Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation. Sounds True, Boulder CO. 2008:127.

[v] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. Touchstone, New York, 1996:190-191 (adapted).

Year C – 1st Sunday in Lent

Forty Days, Forty Ways

[Deut.26:4-10; Rom.10:8-13; Lk.4:1-13]

How often is the number 40 mentioned in the Bible? Over 150 times. This is significant, because numbers are never used randomly in Scripture. They always mean something.

Some say that ‘40’ is Biblical code for ‘a very long time’, but if you look carefully, you can see that it’s very often connected with stories of trial or hardship before something new begins.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus fasts and prays in the desert for 40 days and nights before starting his public ministry. But we also know that he later ascends to heaven 40 days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3). 

And going back into Biblical history, Noah’s flood lasts for 40 days (Gen.7:17). The Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years (Dt.8:2-5). And Moses waits for 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai for the Ten Commandments (Ex.34:28).

Each time, this waiting always precedes a new beginning.

After Noah’s flood, a new civilisation begins. After crossing the desert, the Israelites start a new life in the Promised Land. Moses’ Ten Commandments mark God’s new Covenant with all mankind. Jesus’ public ministry marks the beginning of a new way of life for everyone. And his Ascension opens the way for the Holy Spirit to descend on his disciples (Jn.16:7).

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and Lent, of course, is the season of 40 days before we celebrate Easter.

Just as we spent 40 weeks in our mother’s womb before our birth, so now we’re being invited to spend these 40 days preparing for something very new.

Deep down, we all seek a life that’s rich in meaning, purpose and love. We all want to live our best lives. Lent is a good opportunity to work towards that by making time for quiet reflection, by working through our flaws and fears, and by opening ourselves up to the freshness of Jesus Christ. 

But for all that to happen, we must first lose our distractions, and that’s why we’re all encouraged to spend some time in the desert, just as Jesus did.

In the early Church, many religious men and women literally went into a desert for a while. These days, the desert is more likely to be a quiet, spiritual place where we go to reflect. But our focus remains the same.

Traditionally, the focus of Lent has always been on the three ‘pillars’ of fasting, almsgiving and prayer (Mt.6:1-6,16-18). These are excellent ways for us to look beyond ourselves and to strengthen our relationship with Jesus Christ.

But these words may be too vague for some people today. Perhaps that’s why they’ve found past Lents unfruitful. Here, Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s book Forty Days, Forty Ways: A new Look at Lent, could be helpful. [i]

In it, he offers us forty practical suggestions for things to do in Lent, including Lenten resolutions, fasting and prayer, learning, works of mercy and refocusing our priorities. Some people have found this book very helpful.

But if you Google ‘40 ideas for Lent’, you’ll find many other creative things to do, as well. One suggestion, called ‘40 Items in 40 Days’, challenges us to find one thing each day that we really don’t need, and to either give it away or throw it away. Clearing our cupboards helps us clear our minds, and by detaching ourselves from ‘things’, we can much better attach ourselves to God. [ii]

But here’s another suggestion: Commit to a daily time of quiet prayer, but don’t do all the talking. Simply listen to God instead, and one good place to do this is at Eucharistic adoration.

And why not cut back on luxuries, and give the savings to the poor? Or start and end each day free of electronic media? (Focus on people, not pixels.)

Or read or listen to a saint’s story each day. Or write a letter of thanks to someone who has changed your life. [iii]

There are many family activities as well, like everyone one day wearing purple, the colour of penitence. Or working together to design a meatless menu for Fridays.

Or discussing the story of the Last Supper at dinnertime.

Or each day, everyone praying for the same intention, or performing a random act of kindness, or doing something special for the people of Ukraine.

Or even baking pretzels with your family. Did you know that the original pretzel shape mirrored the crossed arms of a child in prayer? [iv]

There are so many interesting things we can learn and do in Lent.

Let’s use these 40 days to prepare ourselves for something very special – a deeper and more loving relationship with Jesus.