Year A – 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Beatitudes

(Is.8:23-9.3; 1Cor.1:1-13,17; Mt.4:12-23)

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has often been described as the heart of the Gospels, and central to this sermon are the Beatitudes.

These famous blessings are at the very heart of Jesus’ teaching. [i] [ii]

Pope St John Paul II once called the Beatitudes the Magna Carta of Christianity.[iii] What he meant is that these eight blessings are a pivotal guide for how we might live our best lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Early in the Old Testament, in the Book of Exodus, Moses climbs Mt Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments from God. These Ten Commandments are ten simple, but profoundly important, rules for how to live a safe and moral life that will both please God and help us all live in community.

In a similar way, early in the New Testament, Jesus, as ‘the new Moses’, climbs another mountain, this one overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and he introduces a new law which we call the Beatitudes. This new law isn’t meant to replace the Law of Moses. Its purpose is to perfect them and help us understand them better. As Jesus says, ‘I’ve come not to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them’ (Mt.5:17)

The essential purpose of the Ten Commandments is to teach us right from wrong, and to show us how to respect God and each other. The purpose of the Beatitudes, however, is to help us take the next step, by doing everything in love.

And living a life of love is living the life of God.

The word beatitude means ‘blessedness,’ and these eight blessings tell us what we need to do, to truly be happy. They are also a challenge, because each is exactly the opposite of what our society today expects us to believe and do.

Our world, for example, says that you’ll be happy when you chase after money. But Jesus says ‘happy are the poor in spirit.’ In other words, those who are truly blessed are those who put God before anything else; and who have the humility to admit that they can’t do anything without God’s grace, because he is ultimately in control.

Our world also says you’ll be happy when you are tough, ruthless and feared, just like in the movies. But Jesus says blessed are the kind and gentle, who refuse to get ahead by hurting others, for gentleness is a form of strength.

Our world says you’ll be happy when you really know how to party. But Jesus says, blessed are those who mourn; who recognise the emptiness of cheap thrills, and who understand that you can’t avoid pain and sacrifice when you focus on what really counts in life.

Our world says happy are those who have a taste for power, status and fame. But Jesus says happy are those who hunger and thirst for justice, who understand the importance of values and standards, and always doing the right thing.

Our world says you’ll be happy if you’re intolerant and refuse to accept or forgive the mistakes of others. But Jesus says happy are the merciful, who try to understand why people do what they do, and then give them another chance, for God’s mercy will shine on them.

Our world also says you’ll be happy if you have the right look, and it really doesn’t matter what you’re hiding underneath, because it’s appearances that count. But Jesus says happy are those who have a good, clean heart, because all our thoughts, words and actions come from there.

Our world says you’ll be happy if you trample all over others, because then you’ll get what you want. But Jesus says happy are the peacemakers; those who welcome the stranger, who pursue justice and help to spread understanding, for they shall be true sons and daughters of God.

And finally, our world says blessed are those who lie, cheat and steal, because they’ll have the last laugh. But Jesus says happy are those who take a stand for what is right, especially in the face of persecution and abuse, for they’ll be honoured on earth and rewarded in heaven.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI called the Beatitudes ‘Jesus’ self-portrait’, for he is ‘the true poor in spirit, the one afflicted, the meek one, the one hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker. He is the one persecuted for the sake of justice.’ [iv]

The Beatitudes may be challenging, but remember this: they are an excellent guide to a good relationship with God and our neighbours.

And they are our pathway to heaven.


[i] Photo: Church of the Beatitudes, Mount of Beatitudes, Galilee.

[ii] http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a2.htm#1716

[iii] https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2002/july/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20020725_wyd-address-youth.html

[iv] https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2006/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20061101_all-saints.html

Year A – 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Shining Light

(Is.8:23-9.3; 1Cor.1:1-13,17; Mt.4:12-23)

The first pot-plant I ever owned was a coleus blumei (aka ‘Painted Nettle’). I had it long ago, but sadly it didn’t survive.

Like each of us, it needed healthy doses of sunlight, but I didn’t recognise this at the time, and it slowly perished. I’ve always regretted that.

What does sunlight do for us? It banishes the darkness; it nourishes growth, it heals and it reduces our stress and anxiety. Sunlight also offers us comfort, warmth and safety. And it shows us the way.

But there’s another kind of light we also need. It’s the interior light of faith and hope that shines in our hearts and minds. This is the spiritual light that opens us up to truth, beauty and goodness, and it fills us with joy.

Not surprisingly, light is a theme that runs all through Scripture. At the beginning, at the dawn of Creation in Genesis, God commands ‘Let there be light!’ (Gen.1:3). And at the end, in the Book of Revelation, we’re told that in heaven we won’t need the sun or the moon, because God’s glory will give us all the light we need (Rev.21:23).

About 700 years before Christ, the prophet Isaiah foretold that one day, the Virgin would bear a son who would be called Emmanuel (Is.7:14). And as Matthew reminds us in today’s Gospel, Isaiah also prophesied that those living in darkness would see a great light.

Well, as history shows us, that’s exactly what happened. At midnight, when the world was at its darkest, Jesus was born (Lk.2:8), and ever since then he has continued to bless us as the Light of the World (Lk.2:30-32).

But in what way is Jesus the Light of the World? How does he light up our lives?

Well, Jesus is very much like sunlight, because he banishes the darkness (Jn.8:12), and he shows us the way (Jn.14:5-6).

Like sunlight, Jesus is also warm in the way he reaches out to everyone. He nourishes us and heals the sick and the suffering (Mt.8:3; Mk.10:46-52).

And like the sun, Jesus is pure because his entire life is focussed on only one thing: love. Love for his Father and love for all humankind (Mt.5:8).

Jesus is the Light of the World, and the world needs this light today. So many people are struggling.

The novelist Edith Wharton once wrote that there are two ways to spread light: either to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

Jesus is that candle, and here in our church he is symbolised by the paschal candle. But the Light of Christ is not meant to stop there; it needs to spread. That’s what happens at baptism, when the flame is passed from Jesus’ paschal candle down to our own baptismal candles, which we then take into our own lives.

In other words, at our baptism, Jesus’ Spirit of love is passed down into our hearts, and our challenge is to keep that flame burning brightly all through our lives.

Next week, on 26 January, we celebrate Australia Day. This is always a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on those saintly women and men who have done so much to mirror the light of Christ in our nation.

Think, for example, of the remarkable Mum Shirl Smith who raised 60 children. And St Mary McKillop, who spent her life supporting and educating poor children and their families. And Eileen O’Connor, possibly Australia’s next saint, the severely disabled woman who established a nursing order for the poor. And Caroline Chisholm, who helped countless immigrant families.

But what about us today? How do we let our light shine? Do we give others the hope and encouragement they need? Do we smile and listen to them, and genuinely help them? Each of us can do something to make a difference.

Let’s close with a story. A boy went with his parents to Europe for a holiday. They visited many magnificent Cathedrals, and the boy was fascinated by the way the sun shines through the beautiful stained-glass windows.

‘Who are those people in the windows?’ he asked his father. ‘Oh, those are the saints,’ the father replied.

Back at home, when the boy returned to school, his teacher asked the class, ‘Who are the saints?’

The boy eagerly replied, ‘I know! Saints are the ones the light shines through!’

How do you reflect the Light of Christ?

Year A – 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Lamb of God

(Is.49:3,5-6; 1Cor.1:1-3; Jn.1:29-34)

The Bible is full of lambs. In fact, they’re mentioned over 200 times.

There’s the paschal lamb (Lk.22:7), the sacrificial lamb (Ex.29:38), Isaiah’s lamb led to the slaughter (Is.53:7) and the triumphant lamb in Revelation (Rev.22:3).

And in today’s Gospel, when John the Baptist sees Jesus, he cries out: ‘Behold the Lamb of God … !’

What does he mean by that? And what’s the significance of all these lambs?

To answer that, we need to go back into history. In ancient times, many cultures believed they were too unworthy to approach God, and the only way to worship him was by sacrificing something valuable, like sheep, bulls and goats.

Now, when the ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, God heard their cry for freedom and asked Moses to arrange for their release. But Pharaoh refused, so God sent ten plagues to soften his resistance. In the last plague, the Angel of Death took the firstborn of every Egyptian family.

But just before that, God instructed every Jewish family to sacrifice a lamb and to use a hyssop branch to smear its blood on their door posts. This was to help the Angel of Death to identify and bypass Jewish homes.

After that, Pharaoh relented and allowed them to leave (Ex.12:1-31). Ever since then, at Passover, the Jewish people have been celebrating their escape from slavery in Egypt. Those sacrificed lambs meant new life for them. [i]

Now, John’s Gospel often mentions the Passover. Indeed, it begins with John the Baptist in today’s Gospel calling Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’, and it ends with Jesus being crucified at the same time as the priests slaughter the lambs in the Temple.

John’s Gospel makes the point that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament Passover lamb. By sacrificing himself on the Cross, Jesus has become the new Passover Lamb and he has inaugurated a new exodus, by opening the door to eternal life for his disciples.

Because of this, animal sacrifice is no longer necessary, and the old Passover has been replaced by a new Passover, the Holy Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.

There are many parallels between the old and new Passover lambs.

In the Old Testament, for example, lamb’s blood saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But now the blood of Jesus saves us from slavery to sin. Jesus’ sacrifice has opened the door to new life for us.

Also, when God gave Moses his rules for the Passover, he insisted that no bones may be broken when the lambs were sacrificed (Ex.12:46). When Jesus was nailed to the Cross, the soldiers came to break his legs, but he was already dead, so they speared him instead (Jn.19:31-34).

As John writes in his Gospel, ‘These things happened so that scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken”’ (Jn.19:36).

Further, as Jesus hung on the Cross, John tells us that ‘a sponge full of vinegar was put on a hyssop stick and held to his mouth’ (Jn.19:29). This reminds us of the hyssop used to smear blood on the Israelites’ doorposts.

And as Brant Pitre writes in his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, in the 1st Century A.D., the Passover lambs in the Temple were not only sacrificed, they were crucified. After sacrificing the lamb, thin staves of wood were driven through the lamb’s shoulders in order to hang it, and then it was skewered from head to tail, so that it was effectively crucified. It was then roasted.

Pitre says that Jesus would have witnessed thousands of Passover lambs being crucified in the Jerusalem Temple, so it’s not surprising that he likened his own suffering and death to that of a Passover lamb.

And finally, Pitre notes that at the time of Jesus, rabbis always saw each Passover celebration as a way to actively participate in the first exodus. So, Passover was not only a sacrifice; it was also a memorial or remembrance (Ex.12:14) by which the Jewish people both remembered and made present the event itself.[ii]

Now, all this is reflected in Jesus’ new Passover, the Last Supper. ‘Do this in memory of me,’ (1Cor.11:25) Jesus says, and we’ve been repeating this ever since, at every Mass. Jesus has placed his body and blood at the centre of this new Passover, and we eat it, just as the original Passover lambs were eaten by those who made the sacrifice.

That’s why Jesus is the Lamb of God.

By his sacrifice, Jesus leads us on a new exodus, from death to eternal life in heaven.


[i] https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1827/jewish/The-Passover-Story-in-a-Nutshell.htm

[ii] Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Crown Publishing, NY. 2016 (eBook).

Year A – The Epiphany

Four Kinds of Epiphany

(Is.60:1-6; Eph.3:2-3, 5-6; Mt.2:1-12)

What does it mean when someone says ‘I’ve had an epiphany’?

It means that in a sudden flash, a veil was lifted and something profound was revealed to them. And that experience has changed the way they live.

Today, on the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we celebrate the different ways in which Jesus reveals himself to the world.

We begin by remembering the Wise Men who discovered the child Jesus in Bethlehem, and worshipped him as the Messiah who has come to save us all. This is the original epiphany we celebrate at this time.

But there are other ways in which Jesus’ divine identity and mission have been revealed to us. At his Baptism, God the Father announces that Jesus is his beloved Son (Mk.1:9-11), and at Cana Jesus performs his first miracle (Jn.2:1-11). Each of these events is an epiphany.

But how does Jesus reveal himself to us today?

Let’s go back to the Middle Ages, when St Aelred of Rievaulx [i] was the wise and well-loved abbot of a Yorkshire monastery. He taught that there are four ways to experience an epiphany that could lead us closer to Jesus. [ii]

The first is when we find ourselves mystically touched by God. This is a deeply spiritual moment which can happen anytime and anywhere. We might sense God’s presence while taking in the beauty of art or nature, or recognising a fundamental truth or witnessing some profound goodness and love. Our hearts get a strong sense of God’s presence and we find ourselves drawn to him.

This happened to me once, as a boy. I’d been praying, asking God to prove his existence to me. Rather cheekily, I’d said, ‘If you really exist, then prove it to me by putting two dollars here on my bedside table.’

Now, I know that no-one should ever test God (Deut.6:16), but childishly then I did. Nothing happened for several days, and I wasn’t surprised, because I sensed that maybe I’d done something wrong. Then one day, walking home from school, a two-dollar note came fluttering towards me in the wind. [iii]

I was utterly amazed. Deep in my heart I knew that God had been listening and wanted me to know it.

A second type of epiphany occurs when we hear or read a memorable word or phrase. This, too, can happen anytime and anywhere, but that word or phrase touches us deeply and we find ourselves inspired to do something that brings us closer to God.

This is what happens to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. When Jesus starts reading Scripture, their spiritual hearts burn inside them (Lk.24:32).

The third kind of epiphany is when we find our faith sparked by the example of someone else’s life. We might encounter them personally, or read or hear about them, but their holy life inspires us to do something similar and this has the effect of drawing us closer to Jesus. 

This happened to St Anthony of Padua in Lisbon. When he heard about the 5 missionary martyrs of Morocco, he was inspired to become a Franciscan missionary, too, and he went on to do remarkable things in Italy and France.

St Aelred’s fourth kind of epiphany can occur when a major disaster leaves someone’s life in ruins. It’s only at this point that they discover the possibility of living differently. They’ve lost all their cherished projects, and they discover something new about themselves. 

What at first seemed like disaster turns out to be grace, and what seemed to be the end becomes the beginning, as they find themselves turning to Jesus and starting a new life filled with faith and hope.

These are St Aelred’s four kinds of epiphany, in which Jesus reveals himself to us and draws us closer to him. Have you experienced any of them?

Have you found yourself mystically touched by God, and got a strong sense of his presence?

Have you heard a word or phrase that inspires you to do something which draws you closer to Jesus?

Have you been inspired by the life of a holy person, and wanted to do something similar?

Or have you experienced a disaster that brought you closer to God?

At some stage in our spiritual journey through life, Jesus will approach us and perhaps even appear to us, calling us to him. This can happen anytime and anywhere, and he may appear in a way that makes us wonder.

But if our hearts are open to it, that epiphany will fill us with energy and delight.

And it will change the course of our life.


[i] Rievaulx is pronounced “REE-voh”

[ii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2019:144.

[iii] This occurred just before Australian two-dollar notes were replaced by coins.

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 http://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/00/10/27/11/00001/turcotte.pdf

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

[iii] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2015/08/09/the-priests-who-survived-the-atomic-bomb/

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’S CHRISTMAS WISH

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

Revolutionary

(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. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/cotidie/2016/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20161216_the-pointing-finger.html

[iii] https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/what-happened-to-st-john-the-baptists-head-arm-and-finger/

Year A – 1st Sunday of Advent

The Art of Waiting

[Isa.2:1-5; Rom.13:11-14; Mt.24:37-44]

Waiting is something we all do often, but do we appreciate its benefits? Or do we resent it?

In his book, Oh the Places You’ll Go! Dr Seuss describes the ‘Waiting Place’ as ‘useless’. This is the place where we are all –

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
[i]

And as we wait, many of us become bored, anxious, impatient, or even angry. So, we try to avoid it as much as we can.  

But in her book When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd says that waiting is not at all useless. ‘For a world that hovers so delicately between beauty and destruction,’ she says, ‘waiting is something we can’t afford to ignore much longer.’

It’s a natural part of life, she says. Indeed, all through the Bible we can see people waiting. Noah, for example, waits for the floodwaters to recede; Jesus waits in the Garden of Gethsemane; and we are all collectively waiting for his return.

Kidd’s point is that waiting is an important part of God’s plan for us.  

She recounts the story of a retreat she attended at a Benedictine monastery, where she noticed a certain monk, sitting alone and very still. He had a ski cap pulled down over his ears, and he was enjoying the shade of a tree. 

There was such tranquil reverence in his silhouette that she stopped to look at him. He was the picture of waiting. Later, she spoke to him. ‘I saw you today sitting beneath the tree,’ she said, ‘just sitting there so still. How can you wait so patiently in the moment? I can’t seem to get used to the idea of doing nothing.’

Breaking into a grin, he replied: ‘Well, there’s the problem right there, young lady. You’ve bought into the cultural myth that when you’re waiting, you’re doing nothing.’

He placed his hands on her shoulders, looked into her eyes and said, ‘I hope you’ll hear what I’m about to tell you. I hope you’ll hear it all the way down to your toes. 

‘When you’re waiting, you’re not doing nothing. You’re doing the most important something there is. You’re allowing your soul to grow up. If you can’t be still and wait, you can’t become what God created you to be.’ [ii]

Waiting, then, is not the useless in-between time we often think it is. We may find it challenging, but that’s only because God is using it to weave blessing, beauty and wisdom into our lives. If we resist these things, we are the ones who miss out.

Today we begin the season of Advent, and Advent is essentially all about waiting – waiting for the coming of Christ into our lives at Christmas. In these four weeks we are all encouraged to take time out to reflect on our lives, to pray and seek the sacraments, and to think about all the suffering in the world around us.

Our hope is that when Jesus does come, he’ll bring with him all the peace, hope, joy and love that we and our world so desperately need.

To nourish and guide us through this time, the Church offers us a rich selection of readings every day. In today’s first reading, Isaiah shares his dream of God’s kingdom, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears are turned into pruning-hooks. His vision is of frightful weapons of war being reborn as instruments of nourishment and life.

In troubled times, we are all called to be peacemakers, just like Jesus. These are troubled times, of course, so our challenge is to recognise the weapons we tend to use in our own daily lives. Might this include our impatience, our anger and our harsh tongues? And how might we turn these things into instruments of peace?

In our second reading, St Paul tells us to wake up, because the night is almost over; it will be daylight soon, for God is on his way. And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns us not to be unprepared, as the people were at the time of Noah. It’s time to get ourselves ready.

So, this Advent, let’s reflect on the art of waiting, and recognise that its purpose is to reshape and refine us, and prepare us for what is to follow.

Jesus Christ is coming at Christmas.

Let’s make sure our waiting is fruitful.


[i] Dr Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go! http://benavidez5thgrade.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/7/3/86734958/oh-the-places-youll-go-by-dr-seuss.pdf

[ii] Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits. HarperOne, NY. 2016.