Year A – Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Mary, Mother of God

(Num.6:22-27; Gal.4:4-7; Lk.2:16-21)

Happy New Year! Today we celebrate the life and mission of Mary, the Mother of God.

There’s an old Flemish hymn that says, ‘Love gave her a thousand names,’ and Mary certainly does have many names. [i] St John Chrysostom called her Mary, Help of Christians. To sailors she’s Stella Maris, ‘Star of the Sea’. In our parish she’s Our Lady of the Rosary and Queen of Peace. She is also the Queen of Saints.

But St Therese of Lisieux said that Mary is ‘more mother than queen’, so today we welcome her as Theotokos, the Mother of God. The Council of Ephesus gave Mary this name in 431AD because she is Jesus’ mother, and Jesus is God himself.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Mary is equal to God. She is completely human, just like us. But she is closer to God than anyone in history. We know this from the miraculous way she became Jesus’ mother, and from the sinless and selfless way she lived her life.

Some people think Catholics worship Mary, but that’s simply not true. We only worship God. We do, however, venerate Mary as the Mother of God and as Jesus’ first disciple. When we venerate Mary, we honour her just as God honoured her. And when we honour Mary, we also honour God.

St Louis de Montfort said that whenever ‘we praise her, love her, honour her or give anything to her, it’s God who is praised, God who is loved and God who is glorified…’ [ii] Why? It’s because Mary owes her entire existence to God, and her whole life points to Jesus.

On the Cross, Jesus said to his disciple John, ‘Behold your mother’ (Jn.19:26-27). With these words he gave Mary to us all, and now she is our mother, too. And as our mother, she has a job to do: to bring all her children to Jesus. She does this by modelling for us how to live a life of faith and charity, and by calling us to penance and prayer.

Mary is our model of faith because when the angel Gabriel told her about God’s plan for her, she didn’t understand but still said ‘yes’. She trusted God, and her deep faith shows us how we, too, can journey into the unknown with Jesus.

Mary is also our model of charity because she willingly sacrificed everything to live a simple and humble life for God. And by giving her life to Jesus, she is helping God save the world. 

Mary teaches us that God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Right now, you and I are being asked to do exactly what Mary did – to bring Jesus into the world, but in our own way and in our own circumstances.

And finally, Mary calls us to live a life of penance and prayer. This is the message of Fatima, where Mary appeared to 3 children in 1917. In the Gospels, the word repentance means changing the way we live; it means turning away from sin and turning back to God.

Mary is urging us to change, and to pray well. Each time she appeared at Fatima, she told us all to pray the Rosary, especially for world peace. The Rosary, of course, is the deeply meaningful prayer that focuses on the life of Christ, and we know that it’s powerful.

In 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Everything within 1.5 kilometres was destroyed, except for one small wooden house – a presbytery, only 8 blocks from the centre of the blast. The 8 Jesuit priests who lived there not only survived, they barely received a scratch and weren’t even affected by radiation. Some 200 scientific studies couldn’t explain what had happened.

But one of the survivors, Father Hubert Schiffer, knew the answer. He said, ‘We survived because we were living the message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the Rosary daily in that home’. [iii]

Some people think that Mary’s job ended 2,000 years ago, but that is not so.  St. John Vianney once said, ‘Only after the Last Judgment will Mary get any rest, (because) from now until then, she is much too busy with her children.’

What, then, is Mary doing? She is trying to draw us all back to Jesus.

St Teresa of Calcutta once said, ‘If you ever feel distressed during your day, call upon Our Lady and just say this simple prayer: ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’

‘I must admit that this prayer has never failed me,’ she said.

So, let’s all say this prayer together:  ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’

[i] Waugh, E.H. Dissonant Worlds: Roger Vandersteene Among the Cree, Wilfrid Laurier University Press: Waterloo, Ontario, 1996:257. Also see

[ii] St Louis de Montfort, Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, n. 225.


Year A – Christmas Day

Natalina’s Christmas Wish

(Isa.52:7-10; Heb.1:1-6; Jn.1:1-18)

What is it about Christmas? What is it that fills our hearts with such excitement and joy at this time of year?

In 1892, William Dean Howells wrote a story called ‘Christmas Every Day’. [i] 

It’s about a little girl who wishes that every day could be Christmas Day. Her wish is granted, but she soon learns an important lesson about what Christmas really means.

Jo Fiore, a great friend and fine poet, has kindly turned this story into a poem for us, and I’d like to share it with you today.


Natalina was a girl who just loved Christmas Day
She loved it so, she wished that it would never go away.
Her name meant ‘Little Christmas’ – surely that gave her the right
To ask the Christmas Fairy for a favour one starry night.

She wrote to her, ‘I have a wish, oh! Christmas Fairy, dear,
That Christmas comes every day – and not just once a year’.
So she sent her letter off, and set her mind to things
Like trimming trees and buying gifts and all that Christmas brings.

On Christmas Eve a letter came, ‘I’ll grant your wish my dear,
But you seem a little greedy, so let’s make it for a year’.
The next day Natalina woke and joined her family.
‘Merry Christmas’ they all greeted, as they gathered ‘round the tree.

There were presents going left and there were presents going right;
There were cards and bright red ribbons, there were squeals of great delight.
They dined the whole day long till their tummies cried ‘No more!’
On turkeys stuffed with cranberries, baked potatoes by the score.

Ham and raisins, nuts and puddings, cakes and sweets and at last,
They all thought they ate too much – tomorrow they would fast.
But tomorrow came, and once again, around the tree they came;
It all seemed like the day before; it all just seemed the same.

And only Natalina knew what was really happening
One day she would tell them – ‘twas SHE who changed this thing.
They’d bow and scrape and thank her and throw compliments her way.
They’d all be very happy, for each day was Christmas Day.

But as the months passed by, everyone in that town
Started to feel unhappy – and all began to frown.
They kept on buying presents until everyone was poor,
And as for buying turkeys, they weren’t there as before.

The trees in all the forests did all just disappear,
As people needed Christmas trees ev’ry day of the year.
Natalina saw what she had done, and felt so very sad.
She confessed to all around her: ‘Please forgive me – I’ve been bad!’

‘I’ll find the Christmas Fairy and I’ll beg her please, oh please!
Can she cancel Christmas for at least one thousand years?
Or maybe for a hundred years, or maybe only ten
Or maybe she could make it, like it used to be – and then

I’ll never wish for something out of pride or out of greed,
And Christmas coming once a year is truly all I need.’
The Fairy heard her mournful cry and promised to restore
Natalina’s much-loved Christmas Day to how it was before.

‘There’s one more thing’, the Fairy said, ‘I’d like to say to you,
If you’re really seeking happiness, there’s something you must do.
You must ask the Baby Jesus in your heart to come and stay,
For you’ll find his peace will make each day a happy Christmas Day!’

When you celebrate Christmas today, I want you to remember this story.  Christmas is not about the food. It’s not about the trees or the presents. It’s not even about the fun. 

Christmas is about love – it’s about giving and receiving love.  

For Christmas is about Jesus, the son of God who is love itself. Jesus came to us as a vulnerable little baby, to teach us how to live and how to love.

Jesus is the only true gift at Christmas time.

‘There’s another thing,’ the Fairy said, ‘I need to say to you,
If you really need peace and joy, there’s something you must do.
You must ask our dear Lord Jesus in your heart to come and stay,
For you’ll find his love will make each day, a happy Christmas Day!’

[i] Howell, W.D. Christmas Every Day and Other Stories Told for Children (1892).

Year A – 4th Sunday of Advent

An Open Mind

[Isa.7:10-14; Rom.1:1-7; Mt.1.18-24]

Some years ago, when one of my daughters finished University, the author and academic Nancy Underhill gave the graduates some parting advice.

Using the words of the poet E.E. Cummings, she told them to ‘avoid wallowing in comfortable-mindedness’. In other words, don’t let your mind be lazy.

If you want a good and interesting future, she said, then welcome challenges, welcome the unexpected and be open to new ideas. Having goals is great, she said, but rigid attitudes are not. We must open up our minds and lives if we want the best for ourselves.

Now, these wise words aren’t only for new graduates. They apply to us all.

In our first reading today, it’s 735BC and Ahaz has just become king of Judah. He’s only 20 years old, but already his thinking is rigid – he only listens to himself.

When his kingdom is threatened by the mighty Assyrian empire, Ahaz won’t cooperate with his neighbours in Israel and Syria. He insists on doing things his own way and he soon ends up in trouble.

So much trouble, in fact, that at one point he sacrifices his own son to the pagan gods, hoping they will rescue him. But that doesn’t work, and later, in desperation, he decides to ask the Assyrians themselves for help.

Now, the prophet Isaiah is a wise man. He warns Ahaz to avoid the Assyrians because they are dangerous, just waiting to pounce on him. He tells Ahaz to trust in God instead. But he won’t listen, and history shows that Judah ends up in chaos, enslaved by Assyria.

As Dr Underhill said, having goals is great, but closed minds really don’t help. 

Do you know someone like that?

In today’s Gospel, Joseph the carpenter also finds himself challenged, when he discovers that his wife Mary is pregnant with someone else’s child. But his response is very different to that of Ahaz.

In ancient times, Jewish marriage was a three-step process. First was the engagement, and the parents usually chose the partners.

The second step was the betrothal, when the couple became legally married, but they lived apart for 12 months.

The third step was a great wedding feast like the one Jesus attended at Cana.  Only then did the couple start living together as husband and wife.

Now, in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is betrothed to Mary and they’re still living apart. When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he gets very upset and has to make a decision.

According to Jewish law, he has two choices. He can accuse Mary of adultery and have her stoned to death. But Joseph loves her and he doesn’t want her to be hurt or shamed. 

Or instead, he can divorce her. He thinks he might do that, without saying why. But that wouldn’t protect Mary from shame, because word would still spread. 

The only way Joseph can protect Mary’s honour is to stay married to her and to adopt her child as his own. This means he must stop thinking about himself, and it means forgetting about what others might think. Instead, he needs to focus on Mary, and this takes great strength and courage.

Thankfully, Joseph has an open mind, because when God sends an angel to talk to him, he’s prepared to listen. He agrees to be a loving husband to Mary, and a loving father to her son Jesus.

Like Mary, Joseph listens carefully to what God has to say and he agrees to do what God wants. Together, Mary and Joseph go on to change the course of history.

These two stories have much to teach us about life.

King Ahaz shows us what can happen when we’re selfish and refuse to change our minds. When we’re inflexible, when we refuse to listen to the voice of wisdom, and when we ignore God, disaster can follow.

Joseph, however, shows us what can happen when we’re selfless and loving and open to new challenges. Like Mary at the Annunciation, Joseph trusted God and allowed himself to be led. He became an excellent husband and father, and now – even after all these years – he’s the patron saint of all fathers and of the universal Church.

And finally, both stories teach us that we aren’t meant to control everything. Indeed, it’s foolish to try because some things are meant to be controlled by God. 

Our challenge, then, is to keep our hearts, minds and ears open – listening to the saints, and to the quiet voice of God.

Year A – 3rd Sunday of Advent


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

2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, the great reformer who led a peaceful revolution in South Africa. He was 95.

He got his name ‘Nelson’ from a school teacher, because his original name, Rolihlahla, means ‘troublemaker’. That name would have been appropriate, however, for he was born to be a revolutionary. He hated apartheid and joined the opposition African National Congress in 1944. That’s when he began organising protests and other forms of civil disobedience.

Mandela at that time believed that the only way to win freedom was through violence, and in 1961 he established the ANC’s military wing. He read widely about other revolutionary figures and planned to start a war. But he was quickly arrested and gaoled for 27 years on Robben Island, near Capetown – a bitterly cold place in winter.

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is also languishing in prison, but this one’s baking hot. He’s in Herod’s desert fortress at Machaerus, 15km east of the Dead Sea. Like Mandela, John is also a revolutionary and he’s fearless about criticising the Roman and Jewish leaders of his day. He’s angry about the Roman oppression of his country, Judea, and he detests the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders. He’s convinced that God is coming to establish his kingdom on earth, and he tells everyone to get ready. 

Like most Jews, John expected the Messiah to be a great warrior, leading an army to rescue God’s people. But now, chained to a prison wall, he’s not so sure. From what he has heard, Jesus hasn’t behaved like a warrior at all, and he wonders if Jesus will come to save him.

So, he sends two of his followers to ask Jesus if he really is the Messiah or whether they should expect someone else.

There are some close parallels between Nelson Mandela and John the Baptist. Both were natural leaders. Both were prophets, filled with fire and conviction, and both gave hope to millions of people.

Mandela helped to bring freedom to an oppressed people, and John the Baptist prepared the way for an even greater kind of freedom, through Jesus Christ.

When Jesus answers John’s question about whether he’s the Messiah, he doesn’t even mention armies or vengeance. Instead, he tells John’s messengers to ‘Go back to him and tell him what they hear and see: the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’.

His message is that only the love of God can give people the life they seek.

Now, Jesus fears that John might not like his reply, so he adds, ‘Happy are those who do not lose faith in me’.

We don’t know how John responded, but we do know that Nelson Mandela didn’t lose faith. While in gaol, he did what so many of us need to do – he opened himself up to God and he allowed himself to be changed from within. 

Indeed, over many years a Catholic bishop became his pastor and close friend.

Like John the Baptist, Mandela came to understand that the only way to lasting peace is through love, forgiveness and reconciliation; not through violence and war.

In a world that so often glorifies violence, this was revolutionary.

And so is living as a genuine Christian. Like Nelson Mandela and John the Baptist, following Jesus today means turning away from the anger, hostility and intolerance of our world. It means rejecting the shallow and selfish obsessions of our society.

And it means recognising that the only way to the peace and joy our hearts yearn for is through the love of God and our neighbour, just as Jesus teaches us.

For many of us this is quite a challenge, because it can be hard to break free from our worldly ways.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was gaoled and murdered by the Nazis, once said that Advent is like a prison cell ‘in which one waits and hopes, and … is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.’

Many of us recognise this. We know we need help, and that’s why Advent is such a great gift to us.

Advent is the season of new beginnings. It’s the ideal time for us to invite God into our lives, asking him to release us from whatever imprisons us, and to help us live a life of peace and love.

Now, that’s revolutionary.

Year A – 2nd Sunday of Advent

The Pointing Hand

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

The symbol of the hand with a pointing finger has long been used to direct our attention, perhaps to get us to buy or to notice something.

This pointing hand is called the manicule, and in the days of snail-mail various versions of it were often stamped on redirected letters. We’re less likely to see it these days, except perhaps in the mouse cursor of some software programs.

However, there is one place where a pointing hand can still be found: in paintings of St John the Baptist.

As one of the foremost figures in Scripture (Lk.7:28), John the Baptist often appears in Christian art. He’s been portrayed as a boy; as a desert recluse; as the baptiser by the River Jordan; and as the victim of a cruel execution.

In so many of these artworks, he appears with an unruly mop of hair, holding a reed-cross, wearing camel-skin with a leather belt – and with a pointing hand.

The image of John the Baptist in camel-skin comes from today’s Gospel. By mentioning this detail, Matthew is linking John with the great prophet Elijah, who wore similar clothing (2Kgs.1:8).

The Jewish people long believed that Elijah would return from heaven one day to prepare the way for the Messiah. By emphasising the camel-skin, Matthew is effectively saying that John the Baptist is the new Elijah who has come to tell us that the Messiah is on his way.  

In other words, John’s mission is to point us all to Christ, and this is how we see him in so many paintings – pointing towards a Bible, a lamb or to an image of Jesus himself.

In Leonardo da Vinci’s last painting, St John the Baptist, he’s pointing up towards heaven, reminding us of our need for eternal salvation. He also appears as a beacon of light against a very dark background, reminding us of Jesus’ description of John as ‘a lamp that burned and gave light’ (Jn.5:35).[i]

In his commentary on this description, Pope Francis said that John the Baptist is the lamp pointing towards the light and bearing witness to the light. But he’s not the light itself, for that is Jesus Christ.

He also said that John is ‘the voice’; the ‘voice crying in the wilderness.’ But he is not the Word itself. He is only the voice bearing witness to the Word and pointing to the Word, the Word of God. [ii]

John’s entire life is focussed on only one thing: serving as a messenger, preparing the way for the Messiah. This is his sole purpose, and it explains why his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, waited so long for him to be born.

In God’s divine plan, John could not have arrived any earlier. He had to wait until the time was right for Jesus’ birth, because their lives were inextricably linked. Indeed, when Jesus begins his public ministry, he uses John’s words: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (Mt.3:1). 

John’s message is simple and still very relevant today: it’s time for us to change the way we live, to turn away from sin, because Christ is coming. And he encourages everyone to accept the cleansing bath of baptism as a sign of their repentance (Lk.3:10-14, 18). 

When Jesus arrives at the Jordan River seeking his own baptism, John recognises him at once, saying, ‘Look, there’s the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (Jn.1:29). He baptises Jesus and thereafter encourages all his disciples to follow Jesus instead (Jn.1:35-37). 

This Advent, let’s reflect on John the Baptist, the strikingly bold saint who shows us that it’s okay to be different, especially if we are serious about eternal life. He also teaches us to be alert for signs of the coming of Jesus into our day-to-day lives.

Did you know that John’s right arm is now kept in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Siena, and his finger is kept in the famous Duomo in Florence? [iii]

Why do they keep these things? It’s because John the Baptist’s pointing hand is the model for us all to follow.

Pope Francis once said that if you want to make a picture of this great saint, all you need to paint is the image of a pointing finger.

John the Baptist’s whole life pointed towards Jesus Christ.

Does yours?

Correggio, Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist (1518) 
Michiel Coxie, St John the Baptist in a Rocky Landscape (c16th
 Titian, St John the Baptist (1540)
Carlo Crivelli, St John the Baptist (1435-95) – pointing to the sign ‘Behold the Lamb of God’
Matthias Grunewald & Niclaus of Haguenau, Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–16) 

[i] Leonardo da Vinci, St John the Baptist, Oil on wood (walnut), 56 x 73cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre, c.1513-1516.

[ii] Pope Francis, Homily, 16 December, 2016.