Year B – Holy Family Sunday

On God’s Shadow

[Gen.15:1-6,21:1-3; Heb.11:8,11-12,17-19; Lk.2:22-40]

Each year, on the Feast of the Holy Family, we are invited to reflect on the life of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

In the Scriptures, and in the Church’s tradition, it’s Jesus, and to a lesser extent Mary, who get all the attention, while Joseph is always hidden in the background. Today, let’s consider St Joseph. What kind of man was he, and what can we learn from him?

We actually know very little about this man, although there are a few clues. Joseph isn’t quoted at all in Scripture, and he doesn’t appear in Mark’s Gospel. However, he is mentioned in Matthew and Luke, and John refers to him only briefly (Jn.6:41-51).

As a pious Jew, Joseph would have worked 6 days a week. He’s usually described as a carpenter, but in the Greek, Matthew calls him a tekton (Mt.13:55). A tekton works in physical construction and repair, so he’s more likely an artisan, stonemason or builder, working with whatever materials were available, including stone, wood, metal, cement and clay.

Joseph lived in Nazareth, about an hour’s walk from Sepphoris, the wealthy Jewish city that was King Herod’s capital in Galilee. He could well have worked there.[i]

And like most craftsmen in the area, Joseph probably learned some Greek and perhaps Latin to serve his customers. As a native of Nazareth, he spoke Aramaic and as a faithful Jew he would have known some Hebrew.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a descendent of King David, so he had royal blood (Mt.1:1-16). However, he wasn’t rich, for we know that he could only afford a pair of turtledoves to offer as sacrifice in the Temple (Mt.2:24).          

Artists have often portrayed Joseph as an old man, but the mystic Maria Agreda says he was 33 when he was betrothed to Mary. In the culture of the time, bridal couples lived apart for the first twelve months after betrothal. It was during this time that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. [ii]

Joseph was distressed to learn of Mary’s pregnancy, and he planned to divorce her quietly to spare her any shame. But an angel appeared to him in a dream, saying ‘Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home’ (Mt.1:18-25).

Joseph realized that these puzzling events were part of God’s plan, and although he really didn’t understand, he agreed to cooperate. Like Mary at the Annunciation, he trusted God and he allowed himself to be led.

It was quite an honour for Joseph to have been chosen to protect, provide for, and to raise the Son of God. It was also an honour to have been chosen as the husband of the Mother of God.

And he didn’t disappoint. He protected his family during Herod’s ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’. He provided for his family when they escaped to Egypt, and he escorted them back to Nazareth. All that took courage, because there were lions, leopards and bandits about in those days – as well as Herod’s henchmen.

Michael Casey, in his book Balaam’s Donkey, says that people typically get their image of God the Father from their childhood experiences of their own father. Casey suggests that Jesus must have drawn from his own everyday experiences of Joseph to describe his understanding of his divine Father. [iii]

In other words, there’s a great similarity between the loving hearts of Joseph and God the Father.

In his book, Behold the Man, Harold Burke-Sivers compares Joseph with Adam, the first man. Although both are silent, he says, the implications of their silence will have lasting effects on humanity.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam stood by and did nothing while Satan lured Eve away from God the Father, destroying her heart and unleashing sin into this world. Adam was a failure as a ‘husband’, and mankind has lived with the effects of Original Sin ever since.

Joseph, however, was different. He trusted God, and he valiantly served, protected and defended Mary and Jesus in his role as head of the Holy Family.[iv] He is the epitome of fatherhood, and the very model of the ideal husband.

150 years ago, in 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St Joseph the patron saint of the Universal Church. To mark this anniversary, Pope Francis has recently proclaimed 2021 the Year of St Joseph.

Pope Francis describes Joseph as a beloved, tender and loving father, an obedient and accepting father, and a working and courageous father. And he describes Joseph’s fatherhood of Jesus as the earthly shadow of our heavenly Father. [v]

In Hebrew, the name ‘Joseph’ means ‘he increases’. St Bernard of Clairvaux taught that Joseph was rightly named, because God ‘increased’ the gifts and graces in the world through St Joseph. [vi]

In the Year of St Joseph, may we, too, live like God’s earthly shadows.



[iii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN., 2019:240-241.

[iv] Harold Burke-Sivers, Behold the Man. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015:162-164.


[vi] St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Sermons of St Bernard, Hom. 2 Super Missus Est.

Year B – Christmas Day

On Heavenly Peace

(Is.62:1-5; Acts.13:16-17, 22-25; Mt.1.18-25)

Merry Christmas! Today we celebrate something very special: the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Many people simply love Christmas, with all its joy, celebration and colour. And I’m sure many of us hope that Christmas this year will bring a little peace into our challenging lives. We pray for peace several times in our Christmas liturgy, and we sing about it in Christmas carols like Silent Night (‘... sleep in heavenly peace’).

Many years ago, I went on holiday to tropical Queensland. I was quite unhappy at the time, and I’d hoped to find some peace there in the sunshine and the sea. But I didn’t. Why? It’s because I took my unhappy heart with me.

Many people today experience the same thing. They go somewhere wonderful, but inside they still feel awful.

Where, then, is the heavenly peace we all need?

There was once a king who promised a fabulous prize for the best painting depicting peace. Many painters sent in their finest work, but one picture really stood out. It simply radiated peace. It showed a placid lake, mirroring tall snow-capped mountains under a clear blue sky. But it didn’t win.

The picture that won surprised many people. It also had mountains, but they were rugged and bare. And its sky was angry, with lightning and dark clouds. The whole scene looked very threatening. Many people wondered if there’d been a mistake, but what they didn’t notice in a corner of the painting was a tiny bush in the crack of a rock. In that bush, under all that angry weather, a little mother bird was nesting peacefully.

True peace doesn’t mean being in a place without any trouble or noise. It means having a tranquil heart, despite all the chaos outside. That’s what that mother bird had found.

As our world lurches from crisis to crisis, it’s becoming increasingly important for us as Christians to understand that true peace isn’t the absence of trouble. Rather, it’s the presence of Jesus Christ.

In 1942, Etty Hillesum, the Dutch writer who was killed at Auschwitz, wrote: ‘Ultimately, we have just one duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.’

Our world certainly needs heavenly peace right now, but where might we find it?

One very good place to start is with Jesus’ eight Beatitudes (Mt.5:3-12). Each of these Beatitudes is both a blessing and an expression of deep spiritual wisdom. They include docility, affliction, hunger and thirst for justice, mercy and purity of heart.

When we consciously and prayerfully follow the path of the Beatitudes, we will find peace of heart. And it’s then that we’ll be able to fulfil the seventh beatitude: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God’ (Mt.5:9).

It’s only when we are true peacemakers that we’ll be able to live the eighth Beatitude. That is, living joyfully regardless of any persecution and strife – just like that little mother bird.

In his book Fire and Ice, Jacques Philippe says that when our hearts are not at peace, we become vulnerable to all the fear, violence and division in our world. Being agitated and unhappy, he says, is like opening a door to the forces of evil that want to drag the world down to its ruin.

But, he adds, this search for interior peace is much more than searching for peace of mind. It’s really about opening up our lives to the action of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, it’s when our hearts are at peace that God truly works his wonders.[i]

After the Last Supper, Jesus says, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled…’ And later on, he says, ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid’ (Jn.14:1, 27).

This heavenly peace is one of the twelve fruits of the Spirit (Gal.5:22-23) and it’s a gift that’s available to us right now. All we have to do is to open our hearts and our lives to God.

In Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, all the characters on the whaling ship Pequod are frantically busy as Captain Ahab searches in stormy seas for that famous whale.

But one sailor is quite calm. He’s the harpooner. Melville writes: ‘The harpooner sits in tranquillity and rises with a sense of calm to do his work.’ [ii] He’s surrounded by storm and fury, but deep inside he’s very much at peace.

That’s the kind of peace we all need.  But it doesn’t come from this world.

It’s a gift that only comes from God – and our relationship with him.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

[i] Jacques Philippe, Fire & Light. Scepter, New York, 2016:76-79.

[ii] Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

Year B – 4th Sunday of Advent

On Giving Birth to Jesus

[2Sam.7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Rom.16:25-27; Lk.1:26-38]

Today, on the last Sunday of Advent, our attention turns from John the Baptist to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Both John and Mary were pivotal in paving the way for the coming of Jesus. John announced his coming, but Mary actually carried Jesus into this world.

The Church has always venerated Mary, because she is the Theotokos (the Mother of God), who is central to our Christian story. But in ancient Israel the king’s mother was always considered special.  She was known as the Gebirah, the ‘Great Lady’ or ‘Queen Mother’, who always had a throne next to her son and who had great influence over him. She was always deeply respected.

That’s why the Bible lists the mother of every king in the House of David (e.g., 1Kgs.14:21; 15:9-10; 22:42), and the word Gebirah is used 15 times (e.g., Gen.16:4; 1Kgs.5:3; Ps.123:2). [i] 

And that’s why, after the Crucifix, the most common Christian image is that of the Madonna and Child.

Today, let’s look closely at one Madonna image: the icon of Our Lady of the Sign, and reflect on what it’s saying to us.

Click image for a larger version

This style of image is ancient, and was found in first century Christian catacombs. It shows Mary during the Annunciation, at the moment in today’s gospel when she says ‘Let what you have said be done to me’ (Lk.1:38). She’s facing us directly, with her arms raised in an ancient gesture of prayer, and she’s presenting her son Jesus to us, at the moment of his conception.

Jesus isn’t shown as a baby, however. He’s a mature person dressed in fine robes, indicating that he’s both human and divine. Indeed, Jesus is the only person in history who chose his own biological mother.

Here, we see Jesus inside a circle, a medallion, which represents Mary’s womb.  In ancient times, subjects of the imperial court typically wore an image of their king embroidered on their breast as a sign of loyalty. Slaves also wore metal medallions around their neck with an image of their owner. [ii] In the same way, this icon reveals the Blessed Virgin Mary’s eternal love for, and loyalty to, her son Jesus.

Jesus’ golden clothes and the red colour symbolise his divine glory, and the blue represents our earthly home. Jesus’ right hand is raised in a blessing and the scroll he’s holding symbolises his teachings.

Inside Jesus’ halo is a cross, representing his crucifixion, bearing the words ‘I am’. This is the answer Moses received on Mt Sinai when he asked God his name. God replied ‘Yahweh’ in Hebrew. In English, that’s ‘I am who am’ (Ex.3:13-14). 

The letters MP-ΘY inscribed above Mary are an abbreviation of the Greek for ‘Mother of God’.  The initials IC-XC above Jesus are the first and last letters of his name in Greek.

The stars on Mary’s forehead and shoulders symbolise her perpetual virginity and they highlight her unique status as the only mother of a divine child.

The golden cuffs on her sleeves point to her royalty and they indicate that she’s constantly interceding for people in need.

But where does the name, Our Lady of the Sign, come from? It comes from Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and will name him Emmanuel (Is.7:14).

Now, some people claim that Mary is but a distraction on our path to Jesus. But in truth, everything about Mary points to him. Outside the Trinity, no-one is closer to Jesus than his mother, and her life mission has always been to reveal Jesus to the world.

This icon, therefore, serves as a sign; indeed, it’s an invitation to each of us to do exactly what Mary did: to bring Jesus to birth in our godless world.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in his book ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’, says that every person’s life contains the hidden life of Christ.  Our challenge, like Mary, is to open ourselves up to him, to discover Christ’s mysterious presence, and to give birth to him (cf. 1Cor.6:20; Gal.4:19).

As Meister Eckhart once said, ‘What good is it that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in me?’

When Mary said Yes to God, her response was a significant turning point for the world.

When each of us personally answers Yes to this very same invitation, it not only transforms our own lives; it can also transform the world around us.

What, then, can you do to give birth to Jesus? How can you open yourself up to him and carry him into your home, your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, your school?

Just before Jesus died on the Cross, he gave his mother to us (Jn.19:26-27).

Ask her now to help you give birth to him.


[ii] Hodgkinson, Paul & Christine, Introducing Icons. Self-published, 1999:25.

Year B – 3rd Sunday of Advent

 On Suffering and Joy

[Isa.61:1-2a, 10-11; 1Thess.5:16-24; Jn.1:6-8, 19-28]

Today is Gaudete Sunday, a day for us to rejoice. Why? It’s because Jesus is on his way. But after such a difficult year, some people find it hard to rejoice. After all, where is the joy in suffering?

Let’s first look at joy. What is it? Most people think that joy is happiness, but it’s much deeper than that. Happiness depends on what’s happening around you, but joy is an internal process. It’s inside you.

Henri Nouwen tells us that joy is an attitude that comes from ‘knowing that you’re unconditionally loved and that nothing … can take that love away from you’. [i] It’s understanding that God is always with you, that he’s in control, and that no matter what happens, he has promised you eternal life.

True joy is a gift from God. Indeed, God is the source of all joy (Jn.15:11), and the closer you get to God, the more joy you’re likely to experience.

To understand how joy works, it helps to spell it out: J-O-Y.

‘J’ is for Jesus, because joy begins with Jesus. We must put him first. ‘O’ is for others, because we must put other people second. And ‘Y’ is for you, because you must put yourself last (cf. Mt.22:34-40).

This is the formula for joy: J-O-Y. When you genuinely put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, joy will come to you. This is the way things are meant to be. This is the nature of love, which is the divine foundation of joy.

Now, let’s look at suffering, through the story of The Teacup. Once upon a time, two grandparents visited a little gift shop, looking for a birthday gift for their granddaughter. The grandmother saw a precious teacup, and said, ‘Look at that lovely teacup, Harry. It’s just the thing!’

Granddad picked it up, looked at it and said, ‘You’re right. It’s one of the nicest teacups I’ve ever seen. We must get it.’

The teacup then startled them by speaking. It said: ‘Well, thank you for your compliment, but I wasn’t always so beautiful.’

The surprised grandparents replied, ‘What do you mean, you weren’t always so beautiful?’

‘It’s true,’ said the teacup. ‘Once I was just an ugly, soggy lump of clay. But one day a man with dirty and wet hands threw me onto a wheel and started turning me around and around until I got so dizzy that I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the man with the wet hands said, ‘Not yet.’

‘Then he started to poke me and punch me until I hurt all over. ‘Stop! Stop! I cried, but he said, ‘Not yet.’

‘Later, he did stop, but then he did something worse. He put me in a furnace and I got hotter and hotter until I could stand it no longer and I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the man said, ‘Not yet.’

‘And just when I thought I was going to get burned up, the man took me out of the furnace. Then a lady began to paint me and the fumes were so bad that they made me sick and I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the lady said, ‘Not yet.’

‘But then she did stop. She gave me back to the man again and he put me back in that awful furnace. I cried out, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But he only said, ‘Not yet.’

‘Finally, he took me out and let me cool. And when I was cool, a very pretty lady put me on a shelf, right next to a mirror. And when I looked into that mirror, I was amazed! I couldn’t believe what I saw. I was no longer ugly, soggy and dirty. I was beautiful and firm and clean. And I cried for joy!’ [ii]

That teacup suffered, but it was only through suffering that it discovered priceless joy.

In his poetic masterpiece, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes:

… Your joy is your sorrow unmasked …

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy … [iii]

Suffering and joy, then, are intimately linked. God is the potter, we are his clay, and God is constantly trying to shape us into the people he wants us to be. Certainly, our sufferings in this life are only temporary, but the promise of joy is eternal if we believe in God.

Right now, though, as we approach the delights of Christmas, the important thing for us to remember is the formula: J-O-Y.

When you always put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, joy will certainly come to you.

[i] Nouwen, H., Christensen, M.J & Laird, R. ‘The Heart of Henri Nouwen – His Words of Blessing’. Crossroad Publishing, New York, 2003.

[ii] William J Bausch, Touching the Heart. Twenty-Third Publications, New London CT. 2007:113-114.

[iii] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet. Alfred A Knopf, New York. 1997: 29.

Year B – 2nd Sunday of Advent

On Truth or Lies

[Is.40:1-5, 9-11; 2Pet.3:8-14; Mk.1:1-8]

In 1974, the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published an essay, Live Not by Lies, in which he encouraged Russians to never support the lies of communism.

The Soviet secret police responded immediately, by breaking into his apartment, arresting him and expelling him from the country the very next day. [i]

Ten years later, in communist Poland, three government agents faked a car breakdown and flagged down Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko. When he stopped to help them, they beat him savagely, tied him up, locked him in the boot of their car and dumped him in a reservoir where he drowned.

Why did they do that? It’s because Fr Jerzy had fearlessly preached the truth. ‘It’s not enough for a Christian to condemn evil, cowardice, lies and the use of force, hatred and repression,’ he said. ‘He must always be a witness to and defender of justice, goodness, truth, freedom, and love.’ [ii]

Totalitarian regimes always try to control what people think, believe and do. They don’t like people knowing the truth of what’s really going on. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, many people thought that was the end of totalitarianism. But they were wrong. Today, the Chinese Communist Party is actively using technology, prison camps and fear to control its own people, and it’s bullying countries like Australia to bend to its will.

This is hard totalitarianism. But there’s another kind of totalitarianism we should all be aware of.

Rod Dreher, in his book Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (he took this title from Solzhenitsyn’s essay) warns us of a soft-totalitarianism that’s spreading through post-Christian Western nations. [iii]

This soft-totalitarianism is basically atheism with a smiley face, and it expects us all to accept an ideology that’s incompatible with our Christian faith. It’s presented as helping and healing, and it uses words like ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusivity,’ ‘equity,’ and other egalitarian jargon, but beneath it all is a hatred of anyone who thinks differently. It’s especially hostile towards Christianity, because it doesn’t believe in objective truth or forgiveness or repentance. And it thinks that good and evil can simply be measured by whoever controls the power.

Pope Benedict XVI has described this as a ‘worldwide dictatorship of seemingly humanistic ideologies’, that pushes dissenters to society’s margins. ‘It’s a manifestation of the spiritual power of the anti-Christ,’ he says.

Dreher says this new form of totalitarianism won’t be imposed with rifles, but it will come upon us gradually, using online technologies and popular opinion to nudge us all into line. 

He also predicts that it will be like the Social Credit System that China is now using to collect data on people, to pressure them into behaving in certain ways.

It will be a time of painful testing and even persecution, he says, and lukewarm or shallow Christians will find it hard to put up any resistance.

Dreher admits that he had thought the menace of totalitarianism had passed. But several men and women who’d survived communist oppression told him that they thought Americans were ‘hopelessly naïve’ in not recognising the ‘pre-totalitarian’ conditions of their country.

One professor said to him: ‘I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, and frankly I’m stunned at how similar some of these developments are to the way Soviet propaganda operated’.

Another professor, from Czechoslovakia, said that he began noticing a shift a decade or so ago: friends would lower their voices and look over their shoulder when expressing conservative views … they’d constantly scan the room to see who might be listening.

Many Western societies today are vulnerable to soft-totalitarianism, because so many people are only interested in their own comfort and happiness. They’ve lost their Christian backbone.

‘One of the biggest mistakes people make,’ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, ‘is assuming that totalitarianism can’t happen in their country.’

So, how should Christians respond? Dreher says that Christians today must dig deep into the Bible and church tradition, and start to understand how and why today’s self-centred post-Christian world is being set up as a rival religion to authentic Christianity. He says we must put our spiritual lives in order and begin to mount a resistance.

2,000 years ago, Pontius Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ (Jn.18:38) and standing before him was the answer: Jesus, ‘The way, the truth and the life’ (Jn.14:6).  But Pilate couldn’t recognise the truth, and neither can many people today.

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is in the desert, calling us to change the way we live and to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.  This call is urgent, because in Luke 13:5, Jesus says that unless we change the way we think and live, we ‘will all perish’. 

But why should we change?  St Peter tells us why.  He says that the day of the Lord will come upon us like a thief, when we least expect it.  And when that time comes, it’s important that God finds us ready for him ‘without spot or blemish, and at peace’ (2Pet.3:10-14).  Our eternal life depends on it. 

So, here’s the choice: either we stand tall and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, or we allow ourselves to be seduced into a totalitarian trap.

Which do you choose?



[iii] Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. Sentinel: New York, 2020.

Year B – 1st Sunday of Advent

On Sleeping Too Long

(Is.63:16-17; 64:1,3-8; 1Cor.1:3-9; Mk.13:33-37)

In the storybook world, a few characters are great sleepers. Rip van Winkle sleeps for twenty years, Sleeping Beauty sleeps for a hundred, and in one ancient myth, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slumber for two centuries. [i]

But it’s not only storybook characters who forever sleep. The Jesuit spiritual writer Anthony de Mello says that most people are asleep, but just don’t know it. ‘They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they raise children in their sleep and they die in their sleep without ever waking up.’

Why does he say this? It’s because they are spiritually unaware. Most people have been conditioned to live mechanical and predictable lives, and never really come to understand the loveliness and beauty of human existence.

‘All mystics,’ de Mello says, ‘no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion, are unanimous in one thing: that all is well. Although everything is a mess, all is well. It’s a strange paradox,’ he says, ‘but tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.’ [ii]

‘They’re just not aware of what’s going on. They might as well be a block of wood, or a rock or a talking, walking machine … They are puppets, jerked around by all kinds of things. Press a button and you get a reaction. You can almost predict how a person is going to react,’ he says. [iii]

Today we begin a brand-new season of Advent, when we start preparing our hearts and minds to receive Jesus, who we know is on his way.

When is he coming? St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a Doctor of the Church, says that Jesus has three comings. The first two are visible, and the third is invisible. [iv]

His first coming is his birth in Bethlehem, which we celebrate at Christmas.  That’s visible, of course, but Jesus did so much more than arrive as a baby.  He also died for us on the Cross and he arose again to new life. So, at Christmas we also celebrate Jesus as the Son of God who showed how much he loves us and who shows us how to live.

Jesus’ second coming will also be visible. This will be at the end of our lives and at the end of all time. That’s when he will come in his glory and we’ll finally see him face-to-face (2Thess.1:6-7).

And in between these two times is Jesus’ third coming, which is happening right now. It’s invisible, and that’s why only some of us can see him. Everyone else is asleep.

Where might we see Jesus? In the Scriptures, in the Holy Eucharist, in the Church, in our neighbours and in the ordinary events of our daily lives.

Most people can’t see Jesus because they are spiritually unaware. They have eyes, but really can’t see. They have ears, but really can’t hear. They have yet to learn how to see beyond our material world. 

Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who found an eagle’s egg. He put it in the nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and he grew up with them.

All his life the eagle did what the chicks did, thinking he was a chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. He thrashed his wings and he flew a few feet into the air.

Years passed, and the eagle grew old. One day he saw a magnificent bird flying high in the cloudless sky. It glided majestically in the wind, barely using its strong golden wings.

The eagle looked up in awe. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked.

That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,’ said a hen. ‘He belongs to the sky. But we belong to the earth – we’re chickens.’

The eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was. [v]

This season of Advent reminds us that too many people today are scratching around in their barnyards when they really should be rising above and flying high, like eagles.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to watch for his return.  He says it three times.  ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come’. 

‘Stay awake,’ he says, ‘for you don’t know when the master of the house is coming … if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep’. 

Then he adds, ‘… what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’

In other words, don’t miss this opportunity: wake up your spiritual selves. 

Open your eyes, open your ears and open your hearts, and start noticing the subtle signs of Jesus’ presence all around you.

Life has a remarkable depth and beauty that too many of us miss.


[ii] Anthony de Mello, Awareness – The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. Image, New York. 1992:5.

[iii] Op Cit. p.67-68.


[v] Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, Image, New York. 1984:96.

Year A – 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Two Princes and a King

[Ezek.34:11-12, 15-17; 1Cor.15:20-26, 28; Mt.25:31-46]

Today, on the Feast of Christ the King, we’ve all been invited to reflect on our lives so far. To help us do this, I have two princely stories for you.

The first is Niccolò Machiavelli’s book The Prince (1532). It’s his guidebook for ambitious people, using everything he’d learnt working as an Italian diplomat.

This story is basically all about power: how to get it and how to keep it. If you’re an aspiring prince, Machiavelli says, be prepared to use all sorts of tricks like secrecy, deception and force to get what you want out of life. You might even have to do something evil from time to time.

Sure, faith and virtuous living are good things, he says, but they can limit you. So, it’s better to separate politics from religion; it’s better to separate private and public morality. After all, naked ambition is an art in itself.

‘A wise prince,’ he says, ‘must build a foundation on what is his own, and not on what belongs to others.’ And he adds, ‘it’s better to be feared than loved’. [i]

Machiavelli’s book is 500 years old, but lots of people still like his ideas. Shakespeare used them to create villains like Iago and Lady Macbeth. And more recently, we’ve seen similar characters like Lord Varys in Game of Thrones and Tony Soprano in The Sopranos.

Today, many politicians and other people use these techniques to get what they want out of life. Are you among them?

The second story is Oscar Wilde’s tale of The Happy Prince (1888). This prince lived a very sheltered, but happy life. When he died, the people erected a statue of him in the town square. This statue was gilded with leaves of gold, it had sapphires for eyes and a large red ruby on the handle of its sword.

One cold evening, a little swallow flying south stopped to rest under that statue. As he rested, some water droplets fell on him. He looked up and saw the prince crying.

‘Why are you crying?’ the swallow asked.

‘When I was alive, I saw no suffering,’ said the prince. ‘But from here I can see lots of unhappiness in the world. I’d like to help, but I can’t because I’m stuck to this pedestal. I need a messenger. Can you help me?’

‘But I have to go to Egypt,’ the swallow replied.

‘Please stay this night with me,’ the prince said.

‘Very well, then. What can I do for you?’ asked the swallow.

‘Nearby, there’s a mother nursing a sick child,’ the prince said. ‘She can’t afford a doctor. Take the ruby from my sword and give it to her.’

The swallow took the ruby and gave it to the woman. She was overjoyed. The doctor came, the child recovered and the swallow returned to the statue.

The next day, the prince asked him to stay another night. He also asked the swallow to give one of his sapphires to a little match girl down the road. She’d sold no matches that day, and was afraid she’d be beaten when she got home. Again, the swallow did as he was asked.

As he ran these errands of mercy, the swallow became aware of all the poverty and suffering in the town. He liked helping the prince. Each day he stripped gold leaves off the statue and gave them to the poor and needy.

Finally, one morning, the little swallow was found dead below the prince’s statue. The statue itself was completely bare, stripped of all its ornaments. The Happy Prince had given away all he had to help others. [ii]

Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, at a time of enormous political upheaval, when tyrants like Hitler and Stalin were leading whole nations astray. Pope Pius wanted to remind everyone that it’s God who created our world, and that Jesus is our only sure hope for the future.

Today, things aren’t much better; the world still has its tyrants. So, this is a good time for us to reflect on our lives so far.

Are we drawn to the style of Machiavelli’s manipulative prince, who does whatever it takes to get what he wants? Or are we more like the Happy Prince, who sacrifices himself for others?

At the Last Judgment, when our turn comes, we’ll be reminded that Jesus had clearly asked us to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, to visit prisoners …

And we’ll remember that whatever we did in love and compassion for others, we did for Jesus himself.

On that day, can you honestly say to Jesus, ‘Yes, I did all I could’?

[i] Nicolo Macchiavelli, The Prince.

[ii] Oscar Wilde, The Young King and Other Stories, Penguin Books, Essex, 2000

Year A – 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Law of the Gift

(Prov.31:10-13,19-20,30-31; 1Thess.5:1-6; Mt.25:14-30)

Isn’t it nice when we get back more than we give?

Pope St John Paul II often talked about this. It’s called the Law of the Gift, and it says that the more you give away, the more you’ll receive in return and the happier you’ll be.

Jeff Goins gives us an example of this in his book Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into your Comfortable Life. When some friends visited him from out of town, he decided to spend his last ten dollars buying them coffee.

‘After that,’ he writes, ‘everywhere I looked people were offering us meals, giving me stuff out of the blue, and anonymously leaving money in places where I would find it.’

‘The strangest incident,’ he explains, ‘was when I found a random envelope pinned to a public message board with my name on it. Inside the envelope was a ten-dollar bill. Later that night, my friends and I went out to dinner. Without offering, someone picked up the bill. So, I did the only logical thing I could think of: I left the waitress a ten-dollar tip.’ [i]

That’s the Law of the Gift, which says that the more you share what you have, the more blessed you will be.

To understand this law, we need to recognise that God himself is a gift. Why? It’s because God is love (1Jn.4:8), and his whole existence is giving. Indeed, Jesus himself said, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (Jn.10:10). Of course, living abundantly is living generously.

The only reason we exist is because of God’s generous love, and everything we have is a gift from him. But we’re not meant to hold onto gifts. They’re meant to be given. So, the Law of the Gift says that whatever you’ve received must be given away, and in return you’ll receive even more – thirty, sixty, a hundredfold (Mk.4:8). [ii]

Jesus taught this law in many different ways.  In his Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes (Mt.14:13-21), the disciples only have five loaves and two fish to offer, but end up with 12 baskets of leftovers.

Jesus also teaches us this law in the Eucharist. We bring a few tiny gifts up to Jesus – a little bread, some wine, and a drop of water – and they come back to us as the Body and Blood of Jesus himself. And when we receive him, he feeds the deepest hunger in our hearts. [iii]

And in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in today’s Gospel, a man is planning to go away and he leaves his money with three servants. In those days, a talent was a measure of gold or silver.

The first two servants use their talents well, and double their investment. But the third man simply buries his talent in a hole. The owner praises and rewards the first two, but he’s not happy with the third man. He confiscates his talent.

The message for us today is that if you’ve received any talents, you must use them, otherwise you will lose them.

But what are these talents? Bishop Robert Barron says we should think of them as everything we’ve ever received from God – our life, our breath, our strength, our abilities and all our many blessings.

Pope Francis adds that these talents also include the Gospel, our Baptism, prayer, forgiveness and the sacrament of Jesus’ sacrificed Body and Blood.

All these things are loving gifts from God. If we share them with others, they will grow. But if we selfishly hold on to them, as the third servant did, they don’t grow. They just wither away and die.

Do you remember Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843)? At the beginning when Scrooge is hoarding all his gifts, he feels sick, miserable and empty inside. But when he starts giving things away, his heart fills with love and he begins to feel happy.

That’s the Law of the Gift. It’s a paradox: the more you give away, the more you receive.

But all this is counter-cultural, because most people don’t think this way. Most people actually do the opposite: they hold tightly onto God’s gifts.  But this isn’t the way things work in the spiritual life. If you want the divine life, then give it away. If you want love, give loads of love. If you want to be happy, then make someone else happy by living the Law of the Gift.

This isn’t just about donating to charity. It’s about adopting a whole new attitude towards the people around you. Instead of wondering what they can do for you, ask instead what you can do for them. How can you really help them?

Whatever you give away in a spirit of love is guaranteed to come back to you.  It might not return immediately, but it will come back to you in some way. 

Your life will become fuller and more complete, and you’ll be much happier.

[i] Jeff Goins, Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into your Comfortable Life. Moody Publishers, Chicago. 2012:56.


[iii] Weigel, G. City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow. Image, NY.  2015:292.

Year A – 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Hourglass

[Wis.6:12-16; 1Thess.4:13-17; Mt.25:1-13]

Something is missing. Researchers have recently found that the number of ‘likes’ on social media for lies and fake information has trebled in the last 2-3 years.

It seems that people are increasingly happy to ‘like’ sheer nonsense, either because it’s popular, or it fits with their personal opinions (or both). Influential leaders have also found that they only have to ‘put it out there’ and their followers will swallow it whole. [i]

How can this be, when our society is reportedly more educated and better informed today than at any other time in history?

In 1948, General Omar Bradley (who led the US 12th Army in WWII) gave a speech that still resonates today. He said: ‘… humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world by its moral adolescence. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have many men of science; too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Man is stumbling blindly through a spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.’ [ii]

Yes, something is missing in our world today. Could it be wisdom?

Wisdom is intelligence combined with deep understanding. It’s something that grows with maturity, experience and age, and it helps us make sound choices and good decisions.  Scripture describes it as being better than gold (Prov.16:16).

The Bible often speaks of wisdom, but it also distinguishes between its worldly and Godly forms (Jas.3:13-18; 1Cor.3:19).

Godly wisdom is characterised by humility, mercy and love. It is peace-loving, gentle, impartial and sincere. It also allows us to see things from God’s perspective, because God is the source and cause of all things. It therefore reflects truth.

Worldly wisdom, however, tends to be self-centred and opinionated. It exalts the self above others, and can lead to jealousy, pride and selfishness. It sees things from the human perspective (Mt.16:23).

Our world is full of ideologies and sayings that sound like great wisdom. They might benefit some, but ultimately, they lead us away from God. As the Book of Proverbs tells us, ‘there’s a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death’ (Prov.14:12).

In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus gives us his Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. In ancient Hebrew tradition, the bride and her bridesmaids wait at the bride’s home for the groom to arrive. He typically arrives in the evening, when it’s dark, and then they go singing and dancing to his home for the wedding celebration.

In this story, the groom is delayed and arrives very late. Five wise bridesmaids are well-prepared, with their lamps ready to go. But the other five have been wasting their time and don’t have any oil. So, they get left behind.

The parable ends with the warning: ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour’.

This parable is essentially about Christ’s Second Coming, which St Paul in our second reading reminds us is sure to happen one day.

The question for us today is whether we have the wisdom to prepare for this significant event, or whether we’ll be left behind because we’ve been too distracted by other things.

Let me close with a story.

There was once a little girl who lived near a beach. She loved her grandpa very much and she enjoyed seeing him. He collected hourglasses and she loved turning them upside down and watching the sand sift through the glass bulbs.

‘Why do you keep them?’ she asked.

‘They remind me that time is the most precious thing in the world,’ he replied.

As Christmas approached, she asked her mother why she hadn’t seen her Grandpa for weeks. She said that he was in hospital and might die.

The little girl wasn’t sure what death meant, so her mother explained that life is like one of Grandpa’s hourglasses, and that he had very little time left.

One morning her mother announced that they would visit Grandpa that day. She asked the girl to make a special Christmas present for him. She did.

When they got to the hospital, the little girl gave her Grandpa a beautiful gift. He unwrapped it slowly, looked inside and smiled. He understood immediately.

She had filled the box with sand. [iii]

So, remember this: time is running out.

True wisdom can take a lifetime to acquire.

[i] Dr Laurie Woods, Australian Catholic University, Weekly Lectionary Commentary, 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

[ii] General Omar Bradley (1893-1981). These words are from his 1948 Armistice Day address in Boston.

[iii] Jay Cormier, Table Talk, Year A. New City Press, New York. 2010:212-213.

Year A – All Saints Day

On a Sweeping Challenge

(Rev.7:2-4,9-14; 1Jn.3:1-3; Mt.5:1-12)

Today, on All Saints Day, let’s begin with two questions. Do you want to go to heaven? And do you want to become a saint?

Most people, I’ve found, will happily say they’d like to go to heaven, but few will actually admit they want to become a saint. Yet, you can’t go to heaven if you’re not a saint.

So, what is a saint? There are two kinds: there are canonised saints, who’ve been officially proclaimed as such by the Church (there are about 10,000 of them). And there are uncanonised saints, who make up the huge majority. They might not be known to anyone but God, but they’re still saints. [i]

The word ‘saint’ comes from the Latin ‘sanctus’ (meaning ‘holy’), which itself comes from the verb ‘sacrare’ (‘to set apart’). Saints, therefore, are holy people who are set apart. But how are they set apart?

St Paul says that Christians are saints who’ve been set apart by their baptism. Baptism makes us children of God, and it also gives us the graces we need to live a holy life. But we should take none of this for granted, because no-one is born a saint. As St Peter reminds us, we must work to achieve this holiness in our daily lives (1Pet.1:14-15).

Indeed, it was St Teresa of Calcutta who said that holiness isn’t the privilege of the few, but the simple duty of each of us.

Now, some people think that the only way to live a holy life is by living as a hermit in the wilderness. But in his meditation, A Short Road to Perfection, St John Henry Newman says that to gain spiritual perfection, all we have to do is perform the ordinary duties of the day well. [ii]

In other words, sainthood isn’t about doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way. Even washing the dishes!

To help us achieve this, Jesus gives us his Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel today. These Beatitudes tell us that the way to live a holy life, and to receive the joys flowing from it, is by living humbly; by recognising our brokenness; by living meekly and gently; by hungering for the truth; by being kind and forgiving; by having a pure heart; by being a peacemaker, and by having the courage to live openly for God.

‘Be holy, as your heavenly Father is holy,’ Jesus says (Mt.5:48).

Ed Bloom, in his book Humdrum to Holy, says that this call to sainthood isn’t really the strange, foreign and externally-imposed standard we may think it is.

The human heart, he says, has an insatiable hunger for Our Lord (Ps.42:1). We may try to replace him with food, sex, power or fame, but these are false gods. They are idols. Deep down, he says, it’s really God whom we seek.

Bloom goes on to say that holiness is something that has to be learned and lived and practised. He explains the Beatitudes and he suggests several ways for us to achieve greater holiness. These include starting every day with morning prayer, praying before every meal, and meditating on the Bible.

He also offers other practical approaches to sainthood, such as cultivating gratitude, cherishing our families, forming a healthy conscience and learning from great saints such as St Faustina and St Teresa of Avila. [iii]

St Therese of Lisieux joined the convent at 15 and died of tuberculosis aged only 24. Like all the other nuns, she lived a very ordinary life, following the daily routines of the convent. However, she did all these things in an extraordinary way, by doing everything out of love for God. She called this her ‘Little Way’. As she explains in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she offered up absolutely everything she did as a beautiful flower for God. [iv]

It’s because of this that in 1998 Pope St John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church. Why? Because she has something significant to teach us about how we might live our own lives.

Shortly before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr said something similar. He said that the secret to living a saintly life is to always do our very best in everything we do. 

‘If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper,’ he said, ‘sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ [v]

So, here’s a sweeping challenge: today, our world desperately needs saints.

What about you?

[i] Ed Bloom, From Humdrum to Holy. Sophia Institute Press, Manchester NH, 2016:3.