Year A – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Strange Gods

[Isa.22:19-23; Rom.11:33-36; Mt.16:13-19]

Do you remember the First Commandment? That’s the one which says, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’.

It tells us that God should always come first in our lives. Why? It’s because we owe our lives to Him. We all come from God, and right now we’re all on our way back towards God.

But many people forget this, or they choose to ignore it because they think the Ten Commandments are much too restrictive for our modern world.

GK Chesterton thought differently. He saw in the Ten Commandments not a world full of no, but of yes, and he argued for their beauty. ‘The curtness of the Ten Commandments is evidence,’ he wrote, ‘not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but… of its liberality and humanity because most things are permitted.’

In her book Strange Gods, Elizabeth Scalia writes: ‘We are so conditioned to think of religion as a bunch of rules that Chesterton’s words almost seem absurd. (But the truth is that) there’s nothing wider than God’s mercy or deeper than His love, if we agree to bend to Him rather than towards our own inclinations.’ [i]

So, who or what do you bend to in your life?

Sadly, most people barely give God a thought. They prefer the false gods of money, power, politics, pleasure and even themselves.

But ‘when we’re obsessed with ourselves,’ Scalia writes, ‘all our feelings, desires and thoughts become like gods to us. They lead us down a long winding path that seems to take us somewhere, but really they only take us down into the dungeon of ourselves. [ii]

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, near a very large cave at the foot of Mount Hermon. In ancient times this cave was considered the gateway to the dark underworld of Hades. It had a shrine where the Greeks used nasty rituals to worship Pan, the half-goat, half-man god of animals, nature and fright (hence the word ‘panic’).  

Nearby was a temple where the Romans worshipped Emperor Augustus.

Jesus has been with his disciples for perhaps two years now, but He wonders if they really know him. So, in the shadow of these false gods He asks them, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

They answer: ‘John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

Then He asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter replies, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

Jesus is delighted by this answer. But He knows that Peter’s faith hasn’t come from Him alone, so He makes the point that it’s a gift from God. Indeed, faith always starts with God, not with us. It begins with God opening himself up to us and inviting us to share in His divine life.

But invitations are either accepted or rejected, so today we must decide for ourselves: do we choose a life of faith? Do we accept Jesus as the Son of God?

In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis says that it would be wrong for anyone to say that they accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not as God himself.

‘That’s the one thing we must not say,’ he says, ‘because a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.’ Rather, ‘he would either be a lunatic – (like) the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.’

‘You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let’s not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.’ [iii]

When Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ they were surrounded by the false gods of ancient times.

Today, surrounded by the false gods of our own time, Jesus is asking us the very same question.

Who is Jesus to you?  

How you answer that will shape the way you live your life, both today and tomorrow.

It will also determine how you spend your eternity. 

[i] Scalia, E. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press. 2013:118.

[ii] Op cit. p.23.

[iii] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Fontana Books, London, 1969:52-53.

Year A – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Model of Perseverance

[Isa.56:1, 6-7; Rom.11:13-15, 29-32; Mt.15:21-28]

Irving Stone (1903-89) was a popular American author. He wrote historical novels about many famous people, including Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin.

Stone once explained that he was drawn to writing about people who dreamed of achieving something, and then worked for it. But as they did so, they were typically beaten over the head, knocked down, vilified and for years got nowhere.

When they were knocked down, though, they always stood up again.

You couldn’t destroy these people, he said, and eventually they did accomplish something of what they set out to do.

In other words, they persevered. They simply refused to give up.

Winston Churchill was like that. At school he was a poor student, repeating one class three times. One school report even said ‘this boy will never amount to anything,’ and his father feared that he’d never earn a living for himself.

Churchill twice failed his university entrance exam, and he lost the first time he stood for Parliament. However, his determination was unshakable, and he went on to become one of the greatest leaders in history, beating the Nazis in WWII.

Speaking to Oxford University students one day after the war, Churchill simply said, ‘Never give up!’ That was his mantra.

That is also the approach of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel. She is determined to help her sick daughter, and begs Jesus for help. But he says no – three times – because he has other priorities. The apostles also try to send her away, but she keeps insisting on Jesus’ help.

In the end, Jesus is so impressed by her perseverance that he says, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Your wish is granted.’ And the child is healed.

The message for us today is clear: keep praying to Jesus, even when things seem hopeless.

The classic example of this is St Monica, the mother of St Augustine. She was born in Thagaste, in modern-day Algeria, and raised as a Christian, but she was given in marriage to a pagan named Patricius.

Monica found Patricius to be a hot-tempered womaniser and a drinker, and it distressed her. But she was patient and every day she prayed for him.

Monica’s mother-in-law moved in with them, and she turned out to be a gossipy and cantankerous woman. Again, Monica suffered, but she prayed for her, too.

Patricius refused to let any of their three children be baptised. Augustine was the oldest, and Monica was disturbed to see him growing up like his father: rebellious, inclined to immoral living, and resistant to her Christian faith. She often cried, but kept praying anyway.

Many years later, when Augustine was 17, Patricius converted and was baptised. He died soon afterwards. His mother also converted to Christianity, but Monica’s problems weren’t over because Augustine continued to live an immoral life. He also adopted heretical beliefs, and for a while she banished him from home.

Then one night in a vision she learned that Augustine would one day return to the faith. That encouraged Monica to stay close and to keep praying for him.

Augustine subsequently escaped to Rome and then to Milan, where he taught. Monica was heartbroken, but she followed him. In Milan, St Ambrose became her spiritual director and he advised her to be patient and to keep praying.

Then one day as Augustine walked through a garden, he heard a child say, ‘Take and read.’ He randomly opened a Bible and his eyes fell on the words, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom.13:13-14).

This moment changed his life. His eyes and heart opened, and to Monica’s great delight he was baptised at the age of 33. But she died soon afterwards.

St Monica’s prayers really were answered, though, because Augustine was ordained a priest at 36, a bishop at 41, and today he is one of the Church’s greatest saints. It’s all because his mother believed in him and prayed constantly for him, even when all seemed hopeless.

Today St Monica is a universal model of patience and perseverance. She is also the patron saint of grieving mothers, difficult marriages and the conversion of relatives.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine wrote, ‘Our task (as Christians) is to make daily progress towards God. Our pilgrimage on earth is a school in which God is the only teacher, and it demands good students, not ones who play truant.’ [i]

Our challenge in this school of life is to graduate with honors.

We will if we stay faithful to Jesus and keep praying , even when things seem hopeless.

[i] St Augustine, Confessions. Penguin, London, 1961. (Most of what we know about St Monica comes from this book).

Year A – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Camera, Action

(1Kgs.19:9a,11-13a; Rom.9:1-5; Mt.14:22-33)

Have you heard the story of the photographer who took no photos?

That photographer was Jeff Cavins. He used to dream of capturing images of beauty and truth in a way that reflected his faith, so he decided to become a photographer.

He bought dozens of photography magazines and began learning all he could about cameras, camera techniques, the history of photography and the lives of great photographers. He also joined a photography club and mingled with professional photographers, sharing all he had learned.

After five months, his wife asked him, ‘Why don’t you buy a camera?’

‘Yes!’ he thought, but first he had to choose a good one. So, he bought more magazines, read the reviews and finally bought a camera and other gear. After setting it all up at home, his wife asked him, ‘Why don’t you take a picture?’

He’d been a photographer for a year now, but still hadn’t taken a picture. Then the photography club asked him to give a speech and to judge their best images. And someone else asked him to photograph their daughter’s wedding.

Suddenly, Cavins realised that he didn’t know the first thing about photography. He had been a fan, but not a true follower.

He writes about this in his book, The Activated Disciple, and says that it’s just the same with the Christian faith. Many people call themselves Christian, and might be fans of Jesus, but they’re not followers because they don’t actually practise their faith.

There’s a big difference between a fan and a follower, he says. You might be a fan of the Faith, watching and listening to Catholic radio and TV and even having Catholic bumper stickers. But it’s not the same as living the faith, for as St James tells us, ‘Faith without works is dead’ (Jas.2:17).

Cavins says that knowing all about theology, doctrine and Church history is not the point of Christian life. Such knowledge is good, but if we don’t actually use it, we will never really understand it.

So, what is the goal of the Christian faith? It’s to develop a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s walking with Jesus, becoming like him and joining him in his mission in our modern world. [i]

That is the essence of the Christian life.

But if we don’t have such a relationship with Jesus, how might we start? One good place to start is in today’s readings.

In our first reading, the prophet Elijah is hiding in a cave on Mt Horeb. He’s scared because Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, wants to kill him. He asks God what he should do, and waits for an answer. Then some strange things happen: there’s a mighty windstorm, an earthquake, and a fire. But God isn’t in any of these things.

Then in the silence Elijah hears a gentle whisper; he realises that it’s God telling him to go to Syria. From this, Elijah learns that the true God is not the God of mayhem or destruction, but the God of love, because love speaks in whispers.

For us today, this means that if you want to talk with Jesus, then make space for silence in your life. (And note that the words ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ share the same letters.) 

In our second reading, St Paul says that to inherit eternal life, your faith must be genuine. You must love Jesus and believe in him, and this must be reflected in all your words and actions.

And in our Gospel, Peter starts walking on water towards Jesus, but then he starts to sink. ‘Man of little faith!’ Jesus says, ‘Why did you doubt?’ Peter learns that to keep going, he must keep his eyes fixed firmly on Jesus.

It’s the same with us: we all have to deal with nasty storms, tough decisions, great temptations and sad times. To walk through these things safely, we must keep our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus.

So, try to picture these special moments: Elijah in his cave, listening carefully for God’s quiet voice. Paul telling the Romans that all their words and actions must reflect their faith and love for Jesus. And, Peter walking through storms with his eyes fixed firmly on the Son of God.

These are all good ways to start developing our personal relationship with Jesus.

You don’t need a camera to be a good Christian.

But you do need to become an image of Jesus, reflecting him in all you do.

[i] Jeff Cavins, The Activated Disciple. Ascension, West Chester, PA. Ch.1.

Year A – Transfiguration of the Lord

Message from the Mountain

[Dan.7:9-10,13-14; 2Pet.1:16-19; Mt.17:1-9]

The Holy Land is quite a hilly place, so it’s not surprising that the Bible mentions hills and mountains more than 500 times.

Indeed, mountains play an important role in the unfolding story of God’s love for us. Moses, for example, receives the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai. Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel, and Solomon’s Temple is built on Mt Moriah.

Mountains are also where people go to pray and find safety; they are where God reveals himself to people, and they feature prominently in Jesus’ life.

Jesus is tempted on a desert mountain. He preaches on the Mount of Beatitudes. He prays on Mt Olivet and is crucified on Mt Calvary. And in today’s Gospel, Jesus visits Mt Tabor with his disciples.

There, for just a moment, Peter, James and John see who Jesus really is: the Son of God. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes are as white as light.

Fulton J Sheen says that this luminescence isn’t because of a light shining on Jesus. Rather, it’s because of his divine beauty shining from within him. [i]

The disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. But why is he talking with them rather than someone else? It’s because Moses and Elijah are the greatest of the Old Testament saints.

Moses is the lawgiver who gave God’s law to his people. His appearance today tells us that God’s laws are central to Jesus’ mission, for ‘he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it’ (Mt.5:17).

Elijah is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and a prophet’s job is to remind the people how God wants them to live. His appearance today reminds us that this is Jesus’ job, too: to show us how to live.

Together, these three ‘spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ The Old Testament has always anticipated the Messiah’s coming and suffering on the Cross, and this meeting highlights the fact that Jesus’ mission began with these two great saints.

God has spoken through Moses and through Elijah, and now he’s speaking through Jesus Christ, so listen to him!

The disciples are amazed by this experience, and Peter wants it to last forever. So, he suggests that they erect three tents – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

But such mystical moments aren’t meant to last; we’re all meant to return to ordinary life, and that’s what happens here. Jesus leads his disciples back down into the valley.

Through the ages, people have long associated mountains with the spiritual life. Perhaps it’s because mountains are ‘close to heaven,’ and ideal places for quiet prayer and reflection. But they also have something to teach us.

Firstly, it’s significant that today’s story begins with Jesus and his disciples going up to pray. Something always happens when we pray. Sometimes the effects are subtle and internal (we are changed from within), and sometimes they’re more obvious and external, like Jesus’ Transfiguration. But the point is that something always happens when we pray.

Secondly, some people think they can never be as good as the Biblical saints, but today’s story reminds us just how human the saints are. Peter, James and John go up with Jesus to pray. Do they pray? No, they fall asleep. And when Peter wakes up, he makes a silly suggestion about tents. We should feel encouraged, because God always uses flawed people to do his work. Indeed, we are all flawed, so we should feel quite at home among the saints.

And thirdly, the Transfiguration of Jesus reminds us that this world is not our final home. Like these disciples, we are all journeying towards heaven, our true home. And along the way, these mountains serve as a gift to us. They speak of beauty, vision and challenge, and they symbolise our ascent towards our spiritual home (Ps.24:3-4).

But we’re not meant to stay on the mountain forever. As someone once wrote, rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit. The sun does not shine on itself, and flowers do not spread fragrance for themselves.

In other words, living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other, no matter how difficult that might be. And while life is good when you are happy, it’s much better when others are happy because of you. 

That’s why Jesus leads his disciples off that mountain and back down into the valley.

There, a desperately sick boy is waiting for them, and Jesus heals him.

[i] Fulton J Sheen, Life of Christ, Image Books, NY, 2008:213.