Year A – Baptism of the Lord

On a Name Like No Other

(Is.42:1-4,6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mt.3:13-17)

‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet asks in Shakespeare’s famous play. She loves Romeo, but their families are at war.

Names are just an arbitrary tag, Juliet thinks.  She loves the man, not his moniker: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, she says. [i]  But are our names so unimportant?

The German poet Goethe (1749-1832) once wrote: ‘A man’s name is not like a mantle which merely hangs about him, and which one perchance may safely twitch and pull, but a perfectly fitting garment, which, like the skin, has grown over and over him, at which one cannot rake and scrape without injuring the man himself.’ [ii]

Our names serve many purposes.  They distinguish us from others, they bind us to history, and they underpin our identity and personality. And a good name is especially valuable, for it reflects integrity and it earns trust (Prov.22:1). 

But to lose one’s name can be a wretched thing.  Jean Valjean, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, feels degraded when he’s called ‘24601’ in prison.[iii]  And David Pelzer, in his memoir A Child Called It, finds it dehumanising when his abusive mother starts calling him ‘The Boy’ and ‘It’ when he’s only four. [iv]

Names, however, can also give new life.  In Genesis, God renames Abram and Sarai. They become Abraham and Sarah, the ‘father and mother of many nations’ (Gen.17:5, 15).  God also gives Jacob (meaning ‘cheat’) a new identity.  He becomes Israel (‘struggles with God and prevails’), reflecting his new role as patriarch of the Israelites (Gen.32:28).

And Jesus gives Simon a new name (Jn.1:42), calling him Peter, ‘the rock on which I will build my church’ (Mt.16:18). 

In each case, God embeds his love, and their special mission, in their names. 

Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ, we remember that every baptism starts with the question: ‘What name do you give your child?’  This sacrament is essentially about our identity.  It’s about who we are, and who we will become. 

Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River marks a new beginning for him. He’s filled with the Holy Spirit and his Father announces: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased’.  At that moment, Jesus’ identity changes.

He’s no longer just the humble carpenter’s son.  He’s now the beloved Son of God, and this is the start of his public ministry.

Jesus’ name still sounds the same, but its essence has completely changed.  His mission – his life purpose – is now deeply embedded in his name.

And so it is with us.  At Baptism our identity changes, too.  We’re initiated into the life of Christ and we’re warmly welcomed as members of God’s holy family (Eph.1:5).  

And our mission is embedded in our name, as well.

Bishop Robert Barron says that one of the earliest descriptions of Baptism is vitae spiritualis ianua, which means ‘the door to the spiritual life’.

Christianity, he says, isn’t just about ‘becoming a good person’ or ‘doing the right thing’. Rather, to be a Christian is to be grafted onto Christ and hence drawn into the very dynamics of God’s inner life.  We become a member of his Mystical Body, sharing in his relationship to the Father. [v]

Pope Benedict XVI puts it this way.  He says that Baptism always repeats the last words of Jesus in the Gospels: ‘in the name of the Father, of the Son, of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 28:19).  This expression in the Greek text is critical, he says, for it means an immersion into the name of the Trinity.  Baptism therefore leads to an ‘interpenetration of God’s being and our being, just like in marriage, when two persons become one flesh and a single new reality’ is formed.

Pope Benedict XVI adds that in the Scriptures, God calls himself ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Gen.50:24; Ex.3:15). This is precisely what happens when we’re baptised, he says.  We become inserted into the name of God, so that we belong to his name and his name becomes our name, too, and we’re enabled to be a sign of who he is. [vi]

A name, then, is so much more than a label, especially after Baptism.  Each name tells a story and paves the way for a lifetime of noble purpose.

When we’re immersed in the waters of Baptism, we’re simultaneously immersed in the life of God.  We’re filled with his Holy Spirit and we emerge with a name like no other.  And embedded in it is our own special mission.

At his Baptism, Jesus knows that things have changed.  He goes into the desert for forty days to reflect on what it means and what God wants him to do next.

We should do the same.

So, what is your name? 

And what is your special mission?

[i] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet,


[iii] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables,




Year A – The Epiphany of the Lord

On a Light in the Darkness

[Is.60:1-6; Eph.3:2-3, 5-6; Mt.2:1-12]

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord. In common parlance, an epiphany is a moment of sudden awakening.  It’s a moment of clarity when a light shines in the darkness and we see something new.

The Feast of the Epiphany, however, is much more than that.  It’s the celebration of the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah – God-made-man – and the visit of the Wise Men from the East is his first appearance to the Gentiles.  It reveals that Jesus’ mission is not just to the Jewish people, but also to the whole world. 

Pope Benedict says that these Magi represent a new beginning for humanity, as people start journeying towards Christ.  This is a procession, he says, that has continued all through history. [i]

But, he adds, although ‘twenty centuries have passed since that mystery was revealed, it has not yet reached fulfilment, (for) an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning’. [ii]

God has always loved us (Ps.136), so how is it that Jesus’ mission is only just starting?  Matthew’s Gospel today helps us to understand.  It reveals that people tend to respond to Jesus in one of three ways – but sadly, only one is positive. 

The first response is fear.  When the Wise Men ask Herod where the infant King of the Jews might be, he feels threatened.  The Romans then were at war with the Parthian Empire, and the previous king of Judea, Antigonus, was a Parthian ally. The Romans had him executed and had Herod replace him. 

Herod knows that the Magi come from Parthia, and he fears for his throne.  So he feigns interest in their search, but secretly he plans to kill Jesus.  When the Magi fail to return, he has every infant boy in Bethlehem slaughtered (Mt.2:16).

This fear of Jesus and his message continues today.  We see it in the Middle East, China and elsewhere, where intolerant regimes persecute Christians.  We see it in some organisations and individuals, too.  Whether it’s fear of the unknown, fear of change or fear of the truth, they’re hostile towards Jesus.

The second response to Jesus is indifference, and we see this in the priests and scribes.  When Herod asks where the infant king might be, they know it’s Bethlehem because they know their Scripture. 

The Jewish people had been searching for the Messiah since Moses first prophesied his coming (Deut.18:15), and Micah even foretold where to find him (Mic.5:2).  So why don’t these religious leaders go to Bethlehem themselves?  After all, it’s only 9 km (6 miles) from Jerusalem.  

It’s because they are too proud and too self-important to bother.  Many people are like this today.  They’ll only accept Jesus on their own terms.  I once asked a young woman if she was Catholic.  She replied, ‘Oh no. I don’t belong to any church. I won’t join any until I find one that agrees with everything I believe.’

Some people don’t want to be challenged.  They don’t want to change, even if it’s for the better.

The third response to Jesus is adoration. In ancient Israel shepherds were outcast because their work was dirty and Jewish society was obsessed with cleanliness. However, when they hear that the Saviour has come for all people, and not just for the few, they rush to welcome and adore him (Lk.2:1-20).

The Magi, too, adore Jesus.  They traverse vast deserts and brave enemy lands to find him.  As St. John Baptist de La Salle said, ‘They feared nothing, because the faith which inspired them… caused them to forget and even scorn all human considerations…’ [iii]

Like the shepherds, the Wise Men can see what Herod and the religious leaders cannot: that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us (Lk.19:10; Mk.2:17; Is.49:16). They realise that to experience Jesus is to know God personally.

Martin Luther King Jr once said, ‘We may feel at times that we don’t need God, but then one day the storms of disappointment will begin to rage and if we don’t have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds.  This is why there’s so much frustration in the world.

‘We’re relying on gods rather than God.  We’ve genuflected before the god of science, only to find that it has given the atomic bomb, producing fears that science can never mitigate. We’ve worshipped the god of pleasure, only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived. We’ve bowed before the god of money only to learn that in a world of possible depressions, money is a rather uncertain deity.

‘These transitory gods cannot save or bring happiness to the human heart,’ he said. ‘Only God is able. It’s faith in him that we must rediscover.’ [iv]

A light is shining in the darkness right now, and Jesus’ manifestation forces us to choose. 

What is your response?  Is it fear? 


Or adoration?

[i] Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Image: New York. 2012:89.




Year A – Holy Family Sunday

On Michelangelo’s Holy Family

(Sir.3:2-6, 12-14; Col.3:12-21; Matt.2:13-15, 19-23)

Today is Holy Family Sunday, so let’s take a moment to reflect on Michelangelo’s famous painting of The Holy Family. [i]  It’s also known as the Doni Tondo [ii] and you’ll find it in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

This is the only finished panel painted by Michelangelo (1475–1564) that’s still in existence.  It’s round (‘rotondo’) and 120 cm in diameter.  Michelangelo finished it shortly before he started painting the Sistine Chapel in 1508. 

Look closely.  It shows Jesus, Mary and Joseph sitting in a field.  They are a close and loving family, but Mary is the central figure here because it’s through her that God worked his miracle of the virgin birth.  

Mary appears young and athletic, while her husband Joseph seems older and wiser.  He’s squatting down and cradling Mary between his legs.  He seems to be embracing her with all his love and protection. 

Mary has a book on her lap; it represents the Word of God.  She’s also sitting on the grass, and this shows that she’s very down-to-earth. But it also tells us that it is Mary who connects the earth with Jesus, the child she’s holding up high. 

Baby Jesus is being passed between Mary and Joseph.  We can’t say who’s passing Jesus to whom, but it’s clear that they share equally in his parenting.  It’s clear that they both adore him.

Jesus is being held up high against the heavenly skies, where he comes from.  This elevation reminds us of the Body of Christ being raised up high in the Holy Eucharist.  At the same time, Jesus is being offered as a gift to us all. 

Joseph is higher in the frame than Jesus and Mary. This tells us that he leads this family.  He’s the protector, the breadwinner and the most senior member. 

Now, notice their heads.  Together they form an inverted triangle that points to the earth.  It also reflects the inseparable communion of the Holy Trinity.  And look at their eyes: there’s a deep intimacy there.  Joseph’s eyes are firmly fixed on Jesus, while Jesus looks at his mother and Mary lovingly returns his gaze.  This is the most tender group of figures Michelangelo ever painted. [iii]

Behind the Holy Family is a low grey wall, and to the right is a child. That’s John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the patron saint of Florence. He’s wearing camel hair, he’s holding a long stick and he’s standing in a pool of water.  That stick, or cane, is a reference to the Crucifixion.

John is also looking straight at Jesus because he knows that their destinies are linked.  One day he’ll be preparing the way for the Lord.

Further back, there are five naked figures sitting on a stone wall.  They seem self-obsessed and they don’t even notice Jesus or his family. These figures represent our pagan world and they’re separated from the Holy Family by that grey wall which symbolises original sin.

Now, look at the flora.  In front of John the Baptist there’s a small plant which looks like a cross between a hyssop and a cornflower.  Hyssop represents baptism and the humility of Christ, while the cornflower symbolises heaven.

In the foreground, the clover represents salvation and the Trinity, and the anemone plant symbolises faith and the Passion of Christ, which is still to come. 

The central focus of this painting, however, is the Holy Family, and their rich fabrics and vivid colours highlight the beauty and the joy of the Christian life.

The colour purple indicates that Joseph comes from the royal line of David.  The golden yellow represents truth and the presence of God.  The pink stands for love and tenderness.  Mary’s blue mantle represents peace and tranquillity, and the green speaks of nature, health and growth.

So, let’s summarise. Starting from the back of this painting, Michelangelo is reminding us that we all live in a pagan and materialistic world that’s really going nowhere. 

He’s telling us that if we want a deeper and more meaningful life – and, indeed, eternal life – then we need to come forward and leave our lives of sin behind.  We need to pass through the waters of Baptism and consciously accept the Word of God.   Only then we can live as members of God’s holy family. [iv] [v] [vi]

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, then, is being offered to us today as the ideal model for our own daily lives.

Now, have you noticed that Mary is pointing to you?  Look at her right elbow.  Her hands are busy, but through her arm she’s drawing us towards Jesus and she’s inviting us to enter into their beautiful life.

We, too, can live like the Holy Family.

[i] The Holy Family, tempera on wood, by Michelangelo, 1506/08; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

[ii] It is known as the Doni Tondo, because it was commissioned by Agnolo Doni, a wealthy merchant, and it is round (‘rotondo’).





Year A – The Nativity of the Lord

On the Baby Asleep on the Hay

(Isa.62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Mt.1:18-25)

Merry Christmas!  Today we celebrate God’s remarkable gift to each one of us.  That gift is Jesus, and he’s being offered to us right now as a baby asleep on the hay. 

This gift is like no other.  Why?  It’s because Jesus is the Prince of Peace who shows us how to live a life of meaning and love.  And he’s the Light of the World who promises us eternal life.  No other present even comes close!

Through the ages, millions of people have accepted this marvellous gift of Jesus and found their lives transformed.  And they have happily shared his story with their family and friends.

But the world has changed, and in many places today you have to look hard to find any reminder of the real Christmas. Sure, there are lots of Santas and Christmas trees and decorations around.  But in many homes and communities now, there’s no mention of Jesus or the Holy Family at all.

It’s sad, because many people have forgotten what Christmas actually means.

Today, I have a story for you, written by Jo Fiore, one of our wonderful parishioners.  It’s about a young boy who lines up for a photo with Santa Claus.  And while he waits with his mother, he sees a beautiful picture in a shop window.

As they waited in line for a photo, and the last minute shoppers rushed by,
A picture displayed in a window attracted the little one’s eye. And he called to his mother, ‘Mum, come look and see! There’s a baby asleep on some hay!
There’s a lady, a man, some shepherds and sheep, and three kings with gifts on the way!’

And the questions poured out, ‘Mum, who is this baby, and do you know his sweet name?
And when was He born, and where did He live, and does anyone know why He came?’
The child’s mother paused, remembering a time when the questions she’d asked were the same.
Her own mother’s words gently came to her mind, and memories lit up like a flame.

‘The name of the baby is Jesus; He came to save people on earth.
He was born in a stable in Bethlehem and at Christmas we honour His birth.
That’s Mary and Joseph right there at His side. See the shepherds bow down to adore.
The Magi bring gifts only fit for a king, and the angels sing ‘Peace evermore.’

He came to show how God loves us, and to teach us the way we should live.
To be kind to all others and if we are hurt, how we should quickly forgive.
The little one looked at his mother, and he noticed a tear in her eye.
‘You’ve never told me that story before, Mum. It makes me feel happy. Don’t cry!’

They lined up again to see Santa, who greeted them both with a smile.
‘And what would you like for Christmas, young man?’ The little one thought for a while.
‘Well, I don’t need any more presents, and I don’t need any more toys,
But I’d like you to pass on a message, to all of the world’s girls and boys.

Can you tell them that in that far corner, there’s something the whole world should see?
And maybe if they paid a visit, they too can be happy, like me!
Can they each ask their mother and father, to tell them the story today,
The story my mother just told me, about Jesus asleep on the hay.

This year, let’s teach our children the real story of the first Christmas, for this is our story, too! 

And let’s make sure they understand all the signs and symbols that are around us at this time of year:

The Christmas Tree, the Star, the Wreath and Candles, the Bells, the Angels, the Shepherds and their Sheep, the Wise Men with their Gifts, Mary and Joseph, and the Baby Asleep on the Hay.

They all mean something very special.

Especially the Baby Asleep on the Hay!

Merry Christmas!

Year A – 4th Sunday of Advent

On Emmanuel

(Isa.7:10-14; Rom.1:1-7; Mt.1.18-24)

At Christmas we often sing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’. This ancient carol refers to Isaiah’s prophecy about a virgin giving birth to a son who will be called Emmanuel (Is.7:14).

In today’s Gospel, Matthew repeats these words as he tells the story of Jesus’ birth. He wants us to know that Jesus is Emmanuel, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prediction.

Why, then, don’t we just call Jesus Emmanuel?

The reason is the angel Gabriel’s instruction to Joseph, ‘You shall name him Jesus’ (Mt.1:21; Lk.1:31). Jesus is his given name, but the name Emmanuel still applies in the same way that some 200 other names and titles have been ascribed to him in Scripture, including Word of God, Bread of Life, Light of the World, Living Water, Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd. Each of these names describes a different aspect of Jesus’ identity and work in our world.

Indeed, the name Emmanuel encapsulates all these other titles, because it means ‘God is with us’. And considered together, they all mean the same as Jesus, which means ‘God saves’.

God sent his only Son to live among us, to show us how to live and how to love (Jn.3:16; 10:10). Sadly, we too often forget this and we treat God as a remote figure who abandons us to our struggles. But the essential message of Christmas, and indeed of all Scripture, is that God is always with us and he really does care.

In the Old Testament, God promised Abraham and his descendants, ‘I will be with you, and I will bless you’ (Gen.12:1-3). Abraham’s grandson Jacob wasn’t so sure, however. So God replied to him in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob, I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you go’. When Jacob woke up he thought, ‘Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it’ (Gen.28:15-16).

When the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, they also asked if God was with them (Ex.17:7). He was, of course, and he gave them many signs, including water and food and he even parted the waters for them.

And in our First Reading today, King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble and he, too, doubts God’s presence. But Isaiah encourages him to trust in God, and he promises that God will send a sign in the form of a child who will be called Emmanuel, for God is always with us (Is.7:13-14).

This is the whole point of Christmas. It’s a reminder of God’s living promise that he’s always with us, in the good times and in the bad. And he’s certainly with us right now.

Avery Dulles SJ said, ‘The incarnation does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape from the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather, it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity.’  [i]

We won’t see God walking through our door, but his spirit will always be around us (Jn.14:16). That’s the important thing about our Christian faith, for ours is a spiritual life. God is Spirit, and for us to live in his presence we need to live spiritually. This means we need to use our minds, our hearts and our wills to establish a meaningful relationship with him. [ii]

In 2015, in Madison Square Garden, Pope Francis said that one special quality of God’s people is their ability to see, even in ‘moments of darkness’, the light which Christ brings.

God’s faithful people, he said, can recognise God’s living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. For Jesus is Emmanuel, the God who walks alongside us and gets involved in our lives, in our homes and in the midst of our ‘pots and pans’. [iii]

When the Dutch writer Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was a little girl, her father used to tuck her into bed at night. He talked and prayed with her, and laid his big hand on her little face. Later, as an adult, when she was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, she asked God to tuck her in and lay his hand on her face. ‘That would bring me peace, and I would be able to sleep,’ she wrote. [iv]

Jesus was there with her. He helped Corrie survive the most awful of times.

When we actively live in God’s presence, we start to recognise all that he does for us. He encourages us (Josh.1:6), he strengthens us (Is.41:10), he comforts us (Jn.14:16-18), he protects us (Jer.15:20), he heals us (Jer.30:17), he provides for us (Ps.113:6-9) and he guides us through the darkness (Ex.13:21; 2 Sam.22:29).

What a remarkable gift Jesus is to us! He is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

This Christmas, let’s welcome Jesus with open arms.




[iv] Corrie ten Boom, Each New Day. Revell, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2013.

Year A – 3rd Sunday of Advent

On Joy

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

Today is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. This is the day we heartily sing Joy to the World because we’re looking forward to Christmas. Jesus is coming!

But what is joy?

Some people say that joy is happiness. But Henri Nouwen says joy is much deeper than that. Happiness depends on what’s happening around you, but joy is internal. It’s ‘the experience of knowing that you’re unconditionally loved and that nothing … can take that love away from you’. [i]

Others say that joy is pleasure, like a magnificent meal. But C.S. Lewis says that pleasure is more like a substitute for joy. He says that what distinguishes joy from happiness or pleasure is a deep yearning for something agonisingly elusive. It’s the longing for a fulfilment yet to come. [ii]

The Greek word for joy is ‘chara’, which is how we react when we discover the work of God. ‘Chara’ is similar to another Greek word, ‘charis’, which means ‘grace’ or ‘gift’. Together, these words tell us that joy flows when we’re filled with the gift of God’s grace.

St Paul knew this, and that’s why he says that joy is one of the 12 fruits of the Spirit, along with peace and love (Gal.5:22-23). These fruits flow when the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts and we realise that God really is in control of our lives.

Pope St Paul VI once asked: ‘How is it that in our society, with all its wealth, clean water, readily available food, medical achievements and technological advancements – there’s so little joy?’

He says it’s because ‘we’re missing what joy really is’. Our ‘technological society has multiplied our opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. That’s because joy comes from another source.’ [iii]

And what is that source? It’s God.

Some people say that joy means no sadness; that you can’t be both sad and glad at the same time. But Henri Nouwen disagrees. He says that sorrow and joy can exist together, and they are often contained within some of our deepest life experiences, such as witnessing the birth of a child or the death of a friend.

Rick Warren, the American pastor and author, says that we usually think that life comes in hills and valleys, but really it’s more like train tracks. Every day good things happen, bringing us pleasure and contentment and beauty.

But at the same time, painful things also happen, disappointing us, hurting us and filling us with sorrow. These two tracks – joy and sorrow – run parallel to each other all through our lives.

That’s why, he says, when we’re having an amazing experience, we often realise that it’s not perfect. And while we’re experiencing something painful, we realise that there’s still beauty and loveliness to be found. [iv]

Rick Warren says that when you look down train tracks towards the horizon, they become one, and that’s how it will be for us, too. One day, our parallel tracks of joy and sorrow will merge into one. It will all come together for us when we finally meet Jesus, and everything will start to make sense.

Someone once said that if you build a wall to keep out the sadness, you’ll also keep out the joy. They belong together.

But joy doesn’t simply happen. Henri Nouwen says nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It’s a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.

In 1945, before the Nazis executed him, Alfred Delp SJ was locked up in prison in Germany. The conditions were awful, but he still wrote, ‘every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy … Suddenly … my spirits soar again and there’s not a doubt in my mind that all God’s promises hold good’.

He was filled with joy because he chose to put his life in God’s hands. ‘That’s the point’, he wrote. [v] Our happiness is inextricably linked with God.

When we choose to accept God in our life, he opens our eyes to his grace and power in the world, and he fills us with joy (Rom.15:13).

So, here’s the message for today: joy doesn’t come from our secular world. It comes from God. And for our joy to be complete (1Jn.1:4), we must choose to accept him.

If you want real joy, put your life in God’s hands (Is.41:10; Jn.10:28).

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

[ii] CS Lewis, quoted in Terry Lindvall, Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of CS Lewis. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1996, p.56.

[iii] Pope Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino (On Christian Joy), Apostolic Exhortation, 1975.



Year A – 2nd Sunday of Advent

On Selfies and the New Narcissism

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

Something I find remarkable in my travels is the number of people who photograph themselves in front of major landmarks.  It’s not the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal that interests them. Rather, it’s the chance to get the perfect picture of themselves in a famous place.

Since ancient times people have wanted others to know what they look like, and in the Early Renaissance the rich and powerful began commissioning painted portraits.  Because these paintings can reveal so much, the artists were often asked to highlight or hide certain details, in order to convey an impression about the subject’s wealth, power, status or attitude.

In her article Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism, Christine Rosen says that self-portraits are still popular today, but they’re more likely crafted from pixels than paints.  We call them selfies now, and people like to post them on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, along with musings about their busy lives and details of their hobbies and friends.  

We put these pictures online, she says, because we’re looking for friendship, love and that ambiguous thing called ‘connection’.  And like painters constantly retouching their work, we alter, update and tweak our online self-portraits, adding vital statistics, glimpses of bare flesh and other bits of information.

‘The Delphic Oracle’s guidance was know thyself,’ Rosen says, but ‘today, in the world of online social networks, the Oracle’s advice might be show thyself.’ That’s because what drives these virtual galleries is the desire for attention. [i]

Whitney Houston used to sing that the greatest love of all is learning to love yourself, [ii] and that’s what our social media encourages.  In essence it’s narcissism, but it can lead to cyberbullying, sleep deprivation, lower self-esteem, social isolation, poor concentration, Internet addiction and depression.

The ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught that to live a complete life we must focus on meaning and purpose rather than just happiness, and for that we need to look beyond ourselves. [iii]

Here, Matthew’s Gospel has something to teach us today.  John the Baptist is in the desert wilderness, dressed like a wild man in camel-hair and leather and looking like the ancient prophet Elijah.  People from all over are flocking to him. Why? It’s because they’re looking for a way out of their own personal wilderness. They’re looking for answers.

John the Baptist urges them (and us) to ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand’.  In other words, get ready, because Jesus is coming.

The Greek word for ‘repentance’ is metanoeo, which means turning around or changing.  So, he’s telling us to change the way we think; to change the way we live.

Why should we do that?  It’s because Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (2Sam.23:1; 1Kgs.1:39). He’s the only way to truly escape from our own personal wilderness.  

In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn.14:6).  What he means is that if you’ve chosen another way, then you’re heading in the wrong direction.  If you believe another ‘truth’, then it must be false. And if you’re living another life, then you’re going nowhere (Jn.6:68).

John the Baptist adds that in this process of change you need to produce the appropriate fruit.  That is, you need to show that you really have changed and not just thought about it. Indeed, to live like Christ isn’t a once-only process of transformation.  We must keep changing until we’re totally like him (Rom.13:14; Col.3:12-17).  

That’s the only way to truly escape from our own personal wilderness.

In her book Strange Gods, Elizabeth Scalia reminds us that God is the most high.  She says that if we choose God – his light, his way and his truth – then everything will flow from the highest possible point.  But if we choose something lesser (like ourselves) then our life will flow from a much lesser rise – from a hill, rather than from a mighty mountain. [iv]

In other words, if we reject God, we’re reducing our lives to the limits of our own human weakness.  But if we choose God, we’re opening up our minds, hearts and lives to something far greater and more wonderful than ourselves (Jn.3:16; Mt.19:21; Rom.12:1-2).

Thankfully, some European countries have banned selfies at major landmarks.  

As we prepare for Christmas, let’s ban them, too.

Let’s focus on Jesus instead of ourselves.

[i] Christine Rosen, Virtual Friendship and the New NarcissismThe New Atlantis, Number 17, Summer 2007, pp. 15-31.


[iii] Pattakos, A & Dundon, E., The OPA! Way: Finding Joy and Meaning in Everyday Life and Work. BenBella Books, Dallas. 2015.

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

Year A – 1st Sunday of Advent

On A Fresh Start

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

Would you like a fresh start?  Would you like a chance to begin again, avoiding the mistakes and the pain of the past?  

Consider the story of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81). At the age of 27 he was jailed for his politics, and eight months later he and his fellow prisoners were taken outside to be shot.

Before the execution, they were given a cross to kiss and a chance for confession.  They were then lined up, the soldiers took aim and a drum roll sounded.  And suddenly, out of the blue, a messenger from the Tsar rode in on a horse with a pardon.  

Miraculously, they were all given a second chance at life. In a letter to his brother, Dostoevsky later described how he had changed: ‘When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul – then my heart bleeds.  Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness’. [i]

His priorities changed completely when he faced his own mortality (Prov.4:25-27).

Someone else who needed a fresh start was Dublin-born Matthew Talbot (1856-1925).  He started drinking at the age of 12, and 16 years later he was a chronic alcoholic, broke and deeply in debt.

One night in 1884 he faced the truth that he could no longer afford to drink.  He went home and promised his mother that he would ‘take the pledge’.  He kept that promise, and dedicated the rest of his life to prayer and charitable works.  He’s now being considered for sainthood. [ii]

At some point in our lives every one of us needs a second chance.  But we don’t need a firing squad or a chronic hangover to force the process.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the start of a brand new liturgical year.  Advent is always a time for renewal and new birth, and so this is an ideal opportunity for each of us to pause for a while, to think about our lives and to consider how we might do things better.

In our second reading today, St Paul says, ‘Wake up! The time has come!’  None of us is getting any younger, and we know that one day we’ll all be held accountable.  So now is a good time to start afresh.

Ask yourself: am I a better person now than I was 12 months ago? Can I honestly say that I am improving as a person with the passing of each Christmas?  And is my relationship with Jesus growing?  Or am I stagnating?

The truth is that every one of us can do better. 

Martin Luther King Jr said that the first step in any journey must be taken in faith.  ‘You don’t have to see the whole staircase,’ he said, ‘just take the first step’. 

As we take that first step, our faith doesn’t have to be strong (Lk.17:6; Mt.17:20).  Real faith grows when we stand honestly and humbly before God as we really are, sharing with him what we think and how we feel. 

And as we go through the process of change (for a new start always involves change), it’s worth remembering that God always has our best interests at heart (Is.43:18-19; Jn.10:10).  And he will help us if we let him (Phil.4:13). That’s important to remember as we face our failures and let some things go (we know what needs to go).

In 2018, Pope Francis said that Advent has three dimensions: the past, the present and the future, and we would be wise to reflect on each of them. 

Jesus was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.  Why did he do that, and what does that truth mean for us today? 

Jesus will also return sometime in the future – at the end of the world, and at the end of our own lives.  Are we ready for him?

And finally, Jesus comes to us each day, in the present, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. [iii]  He is present in the Church (1Cor.12:12-14), in the Eucharist (Mt.26:26-27) and in the faces of everyone we meet (Mt.25:40). 

When we prayerfully reflect on these three dimensions of Jesus Christ, we are actually opening the door to a new beginning for ourselves (2Cor.5:17). 

If Advent is only a time for us to buy gifts and to plan our Christmas holidays and parties, then we’ve missed the point.  

There’s really only one gift of any importance at Christmas, and that gift is Jesus.

Jesus is the key to a fresh start. The only fresh start that really matters.




Year C – Christ the King

On He Who Must Not Be Named

(2Sam.5:1-3; Col.1:12-20; Lk.23:35-43)

In JK Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books, Harry’s arch-enemy is so feared that it’s considered dangerous to even speak his name.  Most of the characters refer to him as ‘You-Know-Who’ or ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’.

It suits the storyline for these novels to include an adversary who is so fearful that he cannot be named.  It reinforces the chasm between good and evil.  

In our society there’s someone else that many people are reluctant to name.  It’s not a businessman or sportsman.  It’s not even a politician.  It’s Jesus Christ.

Certainly, many will use Jesus’ name as a curse or expletive.  And many will use the name of God in all sorts of reckless ways (Ex.20:7). [i]  But few, it seems, are prepared to talk about Jesus Christ as a topic of normal conversation. 

The strange thing is that many of those who dare not speak Jesus’ name actually call themselves Christian.

A survey conducted last year in the United States revealed that although most Americans (70%) identify as Christian, more than three quarters do not have spiritual or religious conversations.  Even among regular churchgoers, only a small fraction (13%) regularly talk about their faith.[ii]  The situation seems to be even worse in Australia, the UK and other Western countries.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to share our faith with others – using both words and actions (Mt.28:19-20; Mk.16:15).  Sherry Weddell tells us why in her book Forming Intentional Disciples.  She says it’s difficult to think about things you’ve never heard anyone else talk about. [iii]  

She tells the story of Sara, a young woman who experienced God’s presence so powerfully one day that she decided to become a Christian.  She joined a faith formation program and was received into the Church at Easter 2010.

About six weeks into that program, she thought she was missing something because they weren’t talking much about getting to know God or Jesus.  She didn’t understand who Jesus was, and assumed it was because of her non-Christian background. 

So she asked some Catholic friends to talk with her about him, one-on-one.  All but one of them got visibly upset and wanted to know why she was asking. 

Most did talk with her, but they didn’t like being asked. [iv]

Weddell says that Sara had discovered the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture that pervades so many parishes.  In this culture, you don’t ask anyone about their faith or interior life, or their experience of Christ, and you certainly don’t share your own faith experience with anyone else. 

Why are we so reluctant to talk about Jesus?  There may be many reasons.  Perhaps it’s driven by the fear of being judged or answering inadequately.  Maybe it’s a response to the growing secularisation of our society and the decline in religious fluency.  Or maybe it’s because of the clergy abuse crisis. 

Whatever the reason, Fr Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest, says that the more he follows discussions, debates and disagreements about the Church, or concerns about the failings of the bishops and clergy, the more he’s become convinced that it’s all simply a distraction. It’s an excuse, he says, for not helping each other and those outside the Church to fall in love with Jesus Christ.  For how easy it is to talk about everything else except Jesus. [v]

St John Henry Newman said that to holy people, the very name of Jesus is a name to feed upon, a name to transport.  His name can raise the dead and transfigure and beautify the living.

For there’s power in Jesus’ name.  It brings peace and forgiveness, love and hope – everything our hearts could wish for.  As Christians we should be proud that we carry the name of Christ.  There’s no greater honour than this, for it’s the name above all other names (Phil.2:9-11).

And when do we use Jesus’ name, we should remember that we actually invoke his presence. So we must use it responsibly.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King.  This is the day when we celebrate Jesus Christ as King of the Universe and Saviour of the World.  Today’s message about Jesus is the culmination of everything the Church has said and done over the past liturgical year.

As Christians, we’re not meant to just go through the motions or simply learn about our faith.  We’re supposed to absorb the Word of God so deeply into our lives that everything we say and do reflects our love for Jesus.

Christianity is a missionary faith.  We are meant to share it, bringing the joy of Jesus to others (Mt.4:19; Acts 8:4; Rom.1:16).  But if Christians won’t talk about Jesus, who will (Mt.9:37)?

So, do you talk about Jesus?  Do you share your love for him with family and friends?

If yes, well done!  Keep going! 

If no, then it’s time to start.

[i] Hugh Mackay, Beyond Belief.  McMillan, Sydney. 2016:177-179.


[iii] Sherry A Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples.  Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington IN. 2012:141.


[v] Op cit. p.142.

Year C – 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Passing the Dragon

(Mal.3:19-20a; 2Thess.3:7-12; Lk.21:5-19)

‘Absolutely terrifying.’ That’s how one person described the recent bushfires in NSW and Queensland. Tragically, these fires have destroyed many lives, homes and communities.

Most of us hope and expect to live steady-as-she-goes lives, but sometimes we find ourselves facing unexpected, and occasionally frightening, turmoil. 

When this happens, life can be a rollercoaster, perhaps like Indiana Jones’ ride in the movie The Temple of Doom, where he swoops at breakneck speed through a mine in a mine-cart, escaping menacing villains. [i]

And the obstacles we face are a bit like the dangers he braves in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Inside an ancient Peruvian temple, he runs the gauntlet of flying arrows, collapsing walls, cavernous drops and a crushing ball of stone. [ii] 

He survives these tests, of course, but sometimes we wonder if we will.  We look for signs and sometimes we fear the worst.  And others go even further.  Fed by unending media reports about the destruction of our planet, some people have become fixated on visions of the apocalypse.  They even try to predict the end of the world. 

So, how should we respond?  

In Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus gives us some advice.  He says that we can expect to live in troubled times.  Some of these troubles will be natural disasters, such as earthquakes, famines, plagues – and even wildfires.  But, whatever happens, he says, don’t lose faith and don’t be afraid (Mk.4:39-40).

Jesus also says there will be problems caused by people trampling on the rights and lives of others. There will be wars and revolutions, cruelty and injustice.  But whatever happens, don’t lose faith and don’t be afraid.

And many will be persecuted for their beliefs, whether political or religious.  Some will be jailed, churches will be burnt, missionaries will be killed and many will not be able to speak openly, even in their own families. 

But again, whatever happens, Jesus says don’t lose faith and don’t be afraid, for it’s not the end of the world. 

And don’t listen to false prophets who say ‘the time is near’, Jesus says, because they’ll be wrong.  Not even he knows when this will be; only his Father knows (Mt.24:36; 1Thess.5:2-4).  

In his book Bread for the Journey (1996), Henri Nouwen says that in the face of all the world’s calamities, the attitude of spiritually mature people should be to stand erect and to hold our heads high.  Our everyday lives might be full of doomsday thinking and feeling, but we must resist this temptation and stand confidently in the world, never losing our spiritual ground and always being aware that ‘the sky and earth will pass away’, but the words of Jesus will never pass away. [iii]

‘Jesus reminds us,’ Nouwen says, ‘that we don’t belong to this world.  We have been sent into this world to be living witnesses of God’s unconditional love, calling all people to look beyond the passing structures of our temporary existence to the eternal life promised to us.’ [iv]

In other words, don’t dwell too much on worldly things, for they will all pass away.  The earth is not our real home.  Focus instead on the only things that ultimately really matter: love, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. These things are eternal.  They make a difference.  They’re the only things we take with us into the next life.

And whatever happens, don’t lose faith and don’t be afraid (Josh.1:9). 

St Augustine said that fear is the enemy of love.  As Christians, Jesus has promised us everlasting life in heaven.  All we have to do is to embrace his way of life and live in confidence that no matter what happens, we’ll always remain secure in God’s warmth and love.

But in the meantime, we can expect troubles and unpleasant surprises. 

Perhaps he had the lively imagination of Indiana Jones, but referring to the Book of Revelation, St Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386 AD) wrote, ‘A dragon lies in ambush for the traveller; take care he does not bite you and inject you with his poison of unbelief. … In your journey to the Father of Souls, your way lies past that dragon. How shall you pass him? You must have your feet stoutly with the gospel of peace so that, even if he does bite you, he may not hurt you.’ [v]

So, hold firm. 

Don’t lose faith. 

And don’t be afraid (1Cor.16:13). 



[iii] Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey. Darton Longman and Todd, London. 1996:293.

[iv] Ibid. p.284.

[v] Cyril, S. The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (Vol. 1), The Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC. 1969.