Year C – 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Essence of Love

[Jer.1:4-5, 17-19; 1Cor.12:31-13:13; Lk.4:21-30]

One word we often hear is ‘love’.  Even the Bible (NRSV) mentions it 538 times.  But what does it actually mean to love someone?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) was an English poet.  In her famous Sonnet #43, she expresses the many different ways she loved her husband, Robert Browning. 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach ….

I love thee to the level of everyday’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise …

In only 14 lines she describes 11 different ways to love.  Before they married, Elizabeth and Robert wrote each other 574 letters in 18 months.  They certainly knew something about love.

But her father didn’t.  He was possessive and controlling and kept her a virtual prisoner at home until she was in her forties.  He wouldn’t let her marry, so she and Robert Browning had to escape to Italy.

St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) also knew something about love.  He was born in an Italian town near Rome.  His family was wealthy, but they were also possessive and controlling.  When he was 19, Thomas announced that he wanted to become a Dominican priest.  They were outraged. They kidnapped him, imprisoned him in a castle and tried to make him change his mind, but he refused.  Eventually he escaped, too.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Nazareth, telling the people about God’s love and his mission to bring hope, healing and freedom to the poor, the blind and the oppressed.   At first they love his preaching, but when Jesus says that God’s love isn’t just for them but for everyone, they become angry and try to kill him.

Jesus escapes, just as Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Thomas Aquinas did.

Many people think they know about love, but really don’t understand it at all.

So many people think they know about love, but really don’t understand it at all.

In our second reading, St Paul is talking to the Corinthians.  The Corinthian church had many talented members, but they came from very different backgrounds and they couldn’t agree on many things.  St Paul tells them that they really don’t understand what love is, then he describes it to them in 15 different ways – explaining what love is, and what it’s not. 

He makes the point that genuine love isn’t just a feeling; it’s a decision, an act of the will.  Love may begin with an intense desire to be with someone, but it only lasts if we behave in ways that strengthen the relationship – like being patient, kind and trusting, and not being jealous, pompous or selfish. 

But the thing to remember is that love isn’t just a feeling.  It’s a decision. St Thomas Aquinas once said something similar – he said that love is in the mind, it’s in the will and in the decisions we make.  It’s not just a feeling.

St Paul adds that regardless of how talented we are, if we are without love, then we’re nothing.  Whenever we do something, if it’s without love, then it’s ultimately empty and worthless.

Then he says that there’s no point saying we love someone unless our actions match our words. We can say the right words about loving God and each other, but if we don’t show it in the way we live, then we’re really just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

And finally, St Paul says that when the time comes for us to go to heaven, the only thing that matters is love.  Everything else is left behind.

Blessed Mother Teresa knew this.  She described love as a one-way street, always moving away from the self in the direction of the other.  It’s the ultimate gift of ourselves to others.  When we stop giving we stop loving, when we stop loving we stop growing, and unless we grow we will never attain personal fulfilment; we will never open ourselves out to receive the life of God.  For it’s only through love that we encounter God. 

Some people say they love their music, their cars or their ice cream.  But this isn’t Christian love.  The essence of Christian love is the decision we make to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of those we truly care about.

That’s what Jesus did, by choosing to die for us on the Cross. 

Christian love isn’t a feeling.  It’s a bold decision to sacrifice ourselves for someone else.

Year C – 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Wedding at Cana

[Is.62:1-5; 1Cor.12:4-11; Jn.2:1-11]

The Church is full of signs. Some are obvious, like signboards on the street, but many are subtle and easily missed.

There’s the bread and wine and the oils.  Fire and holy water.  Altar and ambo, and the tabernacle.  And our vestments tell a story.  The colour green we use today represents life and abundance and God’s kingdom growing quietly but surely.

Our Gospel readings since Christmas have also been full of signs and symbols.  Through these readings, God has been revealing himself to us in several different ways.

On Christmas Day, when Jesus was born, lying in a manger as a homeless refugee, God revealed his solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable and the needy of our world.  His first visitors were poor shepherds who were social outcasts.  They recognised Jesus as God and worshipped him with hearts full of joy.

Then, at the Epiphany, when the Wise Men from the East journeyed to Bethlehem, God revealed himself to foreigners and strangers from remote parts of the world.  They also came to worship Jesus, bringing him gifts and again there was happiness and joy.

Last week, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, God once again revealed something of himself.  As the dove descends on Jesus, he’s filled with the Holy Spirit and God says, ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.  Jesus is empowered and endorsed by his Father, and he then begins his public ministry of healing, teaching and saving souls.

And now in today’s Gospel, God reveals himself once again when Jesus performs his first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Many people think this miracle’s simply a wonderful event.  However, it’s more than that, and that’s why John doesn’t use the word ‘miracle’ in his Gospel.  Instead, he calls them ‘signs’, and he uses this word 16 times in the first part of his Gospel.  Not surprisingly, some people call the first half of John’s Gospel the ‘Book of Signs’.

At the end of chapter 20, John says: ‘These words are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you

The miracles of Jesus are signposts pointing to him and guiding our belief in him.

may have life in his name” (20:30).  And so, the miracles of Jesus are really signposts pointing to him and guiding our belief in him.

John includes 7 miracles in his Gospel, each carefully chosen to point us to Jesus and to reveal something about God’s power and presence. 

According to John, changing the water into wine was Jesus’ first sign.  Here God reveals his power to transform something ordinary into something very special.  He also reveals his deep interest in the affairs of ordinary people, by ensuring the success of this wedding celebration.  And of course, God reveals how generously he blesses his people. 

Think about it – there were 6 stone jars, each holding ‘20 to 30 gallons’.  That means a total of between 450 and 680 litres of excellent wine – the equivalent of 600 to 900 bottles.  For a village party!  God was indeed hugely generous.

Some have wondered why Jesus would ‘waste’ a miracle on providing wine at a wedding.  But all Jesus’ miracles had a purpose beyond relieving immediate suffering:  they were a display of God’s power and glory, and they demonstrated his great love for ordinary people.

At a deeper level, too, these signs teach us about Jesus and help us to build our relationship with him.

At the start of the wedding celebration, Jesus’ disciples were following him for their own reasons.  However, once they witnessed this miracle, they really believed he was someone very special.

So, not only does Jesus transform water into wine, he also transforms his disciples from being mere companions into those who believe in him.  He changed them, and they will never be the same again. 

And so he changes us, too.  If we follow the signs and really get to know Jesus, we will never be the same again, either. 

Year C – The Baptism of Our Lord

On the Sacrament of Baptism

[Is.40:1-5,9-11; Tit.2:11-14;3:4-7; Lk.3:15-16,21-22]

Today we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism. This brings our Christmas season to an end, and it marks the second epiphany, when John the Baptist reveals Jesus to be not just an ordinary man, but also the true Messiah. 

Now, some people wonder why Jesus was baptised at all, since he’s the Son of God and free of sin.  The answer is that he didn’t have to be baptised.  He chose to.

On that day, the Jordan River at Bethany was full of people.  They were all unclean sinners who came to John seeking healing and a new beginning.  But their presence symbolically defiled the water. 

That’s why no community leaders were present. They wouldn’t associate with unclean sinners, and they personally saw no need to repent.  But Jesus was different.  He cared for the people and he wanted to encourage them.  So he showed his solidarity by joining them in the river. 

At that moment, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Baptism, for he brought with him the Holy Trinity to John’s cleansing ritual.  When Jesus waded into that river, his flesh purified and blessed the water.  Then the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove while his heavenly Father looked on and said, ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased (Lk.3:22).’

Jesus’ Baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, and it marks the beginning of our own life in Christ.

There are distinct parallels between Jesus’ Baptism and our own.  At Jesus’ Baptism, God the Father proclaimed him as his ‘Beloved Son’.  At our Baptism, we become the beloved sons and daughters of God the Father, Jesus becomes our brother and Mary becomes our mother (and sister, too).  

At Jesus’ Baptism the heavens opened, and at our Baptism heaven is opened to us.  As well, the Holy Trinity was present at Jesus’ Baptism, while at our Baptism the Trinity makes their home in our soul. 

And finally, Jesus prayed at his Baptism.  At ours, the Church prays for us but we must remember to continue praying if our baptismal gifts are to be effective. [i]

Just before his ascension to heaven, Jesus said, ‘…go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt.28:19).  Many people have forgotten this. They’ve forgotten why their Baptism is important.  But it’s worth remembering what Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘Truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he’s born again’ (Jn.3:1-21).  It’s through baptism that we’re born again.

Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘… no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he’s born again.’

So, what does Baptism do for us?  Firstly, it gives us a fresh start by wiping clean all our sins, including both original sin and any other personal sins we may have committed (Acts 2:38).  This means we no longer have to suffer any punishment for those sins.  We can begin again.

Secondly, Baptism fills us with sanctifying grace.  Sanctifying grace makes us holy and it imprints on us an indelible sign that marks us forever as sons and daughters of God.  As well, Baptism fills us with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, knowledge, reverence, courage and wonder and awe. These gifts give us the graces we need to play our part as members of the Body of Christ, in the Church and in the world.

In 2018, Pope Francis said that Baptism isn’t a magical formula, but a gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us ‘to fight against the spirit of evil’, to make this a better world.  However, as happens with any seed full of life, this gift takes root and bears fruit only in a terrain fed by faith. [ii]

In the Church of Sant’Egidio, in Rome, there’s a crucifix of Jesus without any arms.  It reminds me of St Teresa of Avila’s poem:

Christ has no body now but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks with

Compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours.

When next you use holy water to make the Sign of the Cross, remember your Baptism and how you’ve been ‘Christified’. 

Through your Baptism, you represent Jesus in the world today.


[i] https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2019-01-13

[ii] https://zenit.org/articles/general-audience-baptism-1-full-text/

Year C – The Epiphany of the Lord

On Our Guiding Star

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

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, and the end of the 12 days of Christmas.

In Greek, ‘epiphaneia’ means ‘appearance’ or ‘revelation’, so on the Epiphany we remember the moment when the Wise Men of the East discovered the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. 

Christmas and the Epiphany are like bookends at either end of the 12 days of Christmas.  Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, when he’s revealed to Israel as a little boy.  And at the Epiphany, he’s revealed to all the world as a divine king.  So, together, Christmas and the Epiphany reveal to us the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and his divinity.

Now, some people wonder why the Three Wise Men followed a star.  Today it seems like a strange thing to do, but in ancient times people were fascinated by the sky.  Indeed, the Magi are believed to have been priestly scholars and astronomers who interpreted the dreams of nobles and kings and who studied the movement of the stars.

In those days, changes in the celestial sky were thought to be a sign of major events, such as the birth or death of a king, and the appearance of a bright new star would have been exciting.  And the Magi would have learnt about the Hebrew Bible from the Jews exiled in Babylon.  They’d have known about Balaam’s messianic prophecy that ‘a star shall come forth from Jacob’ (Num.24:17).   

Today, travellers use all sorts of sophisticated technology like GPS to work out where they are and where they’re going.  But in ancient times, people navigated differently.  The Vikings used to interpret the behaviour of birds.  Eskimos studied the snow.  Polynesians watched the waves and the Greeks read the clouds and smelt the air. 

And many cultures, including the Phoenicians, Babylonians and Australian Aborigines used to carefully study the movement of the sun and the stars to work out where they were going. [i]  The Polynesians did, too.  You can see this in Disney’s movie Moana.  Polynesian sailors found their direction by memorising where the stars rose and set, and by using their hands to make calculations. [ii]

Today, we should ask ourselves:  do we know where we are and do we know where we’re going?

Epiphany is a moment when a light shines in the darkness and everything becomes clear.

When the Wise Men of the East followed the Star of Bethlehem, they travelled about 1,000 kilometres and they eventually found Jesus, the ‘bright morning star’ (Rev.22:16).  They took a risk.  They stepped outside their everyday lives, and were rewarded by discovering the source of all wisdom and joy. 

Now, which star will you be following this year?

Many people today spend lots of time following movie stars, pop stars and sports stars, while others chase the stars of fame and fortune.  The problem, however, is that these things are hollow. They might look nice, like rainbows, but they have little or no substance and ultimately they only lead to disappointment.

This year, why not do something far more meaningful?

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI described the Epiphany as a ‘feast of light’, because it reveals Christ as the Light of the World.  Indeed, all our readings today reveal how Jesus shines a bright light into the darkness.

In our first reading, Isaiah has a vision of Jerusalem as a holy city where God’s light will shine, bringing peace and love and hope to all.

In our second reading, St Paul tells the Ephesians that God’s peace and love and hope are available to everyone, regardless of who they are and where they come from.  And in today’s Gospel, Matthew reinforces this message.

The Magi weren’t Jewish; they were complete strangers, yet they still followed the signs to Jesus.  Like the shepherds, they show us that Jesus belongs to everyone, and not just a select few.

In 2014, Pope Francis said that the journey of the Magi symbolises the destiny of every person.  He said that our life is a journey, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way, to find the fullness of truth and love which we recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World.

The novelist Joseph Conrad once described epiphany as ‘one of those rare moments of awakening’ in which ‘everything [occurs] in a flash’.  It’s a moment when a light shines in the darkness, when everything becomes clear and we discover something new.

This year, let’s resolve to follow Jesus …  to really get to know him …  and to let his light shine in our hearts.


[i] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/secrets-of-ancient-navigators/

[ii] https://theconversation.com/amp/how-far-theyll-go-moana-shows-the-power-of-polynesian-celestial-navigation-72375

Year C – Holy Family Sunday

On the Holy Family

[Sam.1:20-22,24-28;1Jn.3:1-2,21-24; Lk.2:41-52]

Today, on the Feast of the Holy Family, we celebrate the divine gift of our families.

The older I get, the more I understand what a gift our families are.  We really should treasure them.

Sure, they can be challenging … the noise, the mess and the emotions can be frustrating … but the family is the one place where we can be ourselves.  Although imperfect, families exist to support us, to make us feel safe, accepted and loved, and to help us grow into mature human beings.

In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (‘The Fellowship of the Family’), St John Paul II says the family in modern times has been affected by profound social and cultural change.  Many families have managed to stay strong, but others have become bewildered and some no longer understand the truth and meaning of family life. [i]

That’s why the Holy Family of Nazareth is so important.  Pope Leo XIII established this feast day in 1893 to remind us that God came to live among us, not as a proud and mighty leader, but as a humble member of an ordinary family – the family of Mary and Joseph.  And this Holy Family is offered to us as a model for how to live our own lives.

God came to live among us as a humble member of an ordinary family.

Jesus spent 90% of his life living simply and quietly at home.  He spent 30 of his 33 years with his family, learning about life, learning about God and learning his father’s trade (Heb.2:17).

As the Son of God, Jesus could have had anything he wanted (Phil.2:6-11).  But instead he chose to live in a small cottage on a hillside in Nazareth, each day fetching water for his mother, sweeping Joseph’s workshop floor and serving his neighbours as a tradesman.

At the end of these 30 years, his heavenly Father said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ (Mt.3:17)

We can learn from Jesus’ humble life.  But we can also learn from the story in Luke’s Gospel today.  After visiting the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, Mary and Joseph join a caravan and start heading home to Nazareth.   

But like in a scene from the movie ‘Home Alone’, they discover that they’ve left 12-year-old Jesus behind.  They rush back and find him in the Temple. 

However, unlike the movie’s Kevin McAllister, Jesus wasn’t running amok and eating junk food. Rather, he was amazing everyone with his intelligence and his understanding of God and Scripture. 

This story of The Finding in the Temple has something to teach us about family life.

Firstly, it tells us that the Holy Family was faithful, for ‘Every year the parents of Jesus used to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.’  The Temple was the house of the Father, and their faith bound them together as a family.  Their faith gave them a focus beyond themselves and it involved them in a rhythm of prayer, worship and community that gave shape and direction to their lives. 

Secondly, this story tells us that Mary spent time reflecting on things she didn’t understand.  It says, Mary ‘stored up all these things in her heart.’  That, too, defines a holy family.  We don’t always understand what’s happening around us.  We don’t always understand what people are doing or saying.  But instead of rushing to judgment, it’s important to spend time in reflection and prayer and allowing the truth to become clear to us.

And finally, this story tells us that Jesus was given space to grow to maturity.  It says, ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature and in favour with God and men.’  This means that the Holy Family was a safe place where Jesus felt loved and accepted, and where he was allowed to mature in his own time.

The lay theologian Rosemary Haughton, who had ten children of her own, said that the happiest of families don’t happen because people concentrate first on the quality of their relationships.  Rather, the best families result when they’re involved in something much bigger than themselves. 

This describes the Holy Family of Nazareth.  They focussed not on themselves, but on God and his hopes and plans for this world. 

Their lives revolved around prayer, worship and community.  They spent time reflecting on the important things in life. 

And they created a home in which everyone felt loved and accepted and allowed to develop in their own way.

The Holy Family is the model of the perfect family. 

Let’s try to live like them!


[i] http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html

Year C – Christmas Reflection

On the Sign of the Manger

[Is.52:7-10; Heb.1:1-6; Jn.1:1-18]

Merry Christmas!  What a happy day this is!  Now, have you noticed our crib?  St Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve back in 1223, three years before he died.

After visiting Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, he recreated the scene in a cave in Greccio, Italy.  He set up an empty manger and added an ox and a donkey.  Then he invited everyone to come and see how poor and humble Jesus and his family were.

Mary and Joseph slept in that stable because there was nowhere else for them to stay.  It had a manger, which is a food trough made of wood or stone that’s used to feed cows, horses or donkeys.  (The word manger comes from the Latin ‘manducare’ which means ‘to eat’.) 

Mary didn’t want to put baby Jesus on that cold hard floor, so she used the manger to cradle him.  It was off the ground, the hay was soft and the sides kept Jesus safe.

Now, Luke’s Gospel mentions that manger three times, so it must be significant (Lk.2:7; 2:12; 2:16).  Indeed, nothing happens to God by accident, so we can be sure that he deliberately chose it as a sign. 

What then can we learn from the manger?

Well, as the Son of God, Jesus could have chosen to live anywhere at all.  But instead of glamour and comfort he chose absolute poverty and simplicity, making himself available to everyone, even the lowliest of shepherds (Phil.2:6-8).  So through the manger Jesus is showing us that he’s always open and available to us, and especially to the poor. 

That stable was also dirty and messy, and by his presence there Jesus is signalling that he’s happy to be with us wherever we are, even in the middle of our own dirty and messy lives.  And his manger tells us that there’s light to be found even in the darkest of places, because Jesus is the Light of the World (Jn.8:12).

Wealth, status and prestige mean absolutely nothing to Jesus, and by choosing to live so humbly he’s saying something about the way we live our own lives. He’s showing us that love, mercy, humility and forgiveness are far more important.

And did you know that Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’?  And combined with the symbol of the manger, Jesus is clearly offering himself to us as spiritual food.  He’s the Bread of Life, the cure for our spiritual hunger (Jn.6:35), and the manger reminds us of the Feeding of the 5,000 where Jesus nourished his eager followers (Mt.14:13-21).

Jesus is offering himself to us as spiritual food.

But it also points to the Last Supper where Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist.  That’s where he said, ‘Take and eat it, for this is my body’ (Mt.26:26) and ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’ (Jn.6:53-57).

Jesus is the food for eternal life, and we can see that the manger mirrors our altar, the table of God, where we all come to share in the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, in the Holy Eucharist.

Something else that the manger points to is Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Luke tells us that after Jesus was born, Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in the manger (Lk.2:7).  These swaddling clothes were long strips of fabric, similar to the linen bandages that were wrapped around his body when he was placed in his tomb (Jn.19:40).

So, when you think about Christmas, you must also remember his death and resurrection at Easter.  These events are linked.

And finally, Jesus slept in that manger because he was homeless.  Even as an adult, Jesus says, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Lk.9:57-58).  On Christmas Day – his birthday – Jesus is still homeless. 

Will you take Jesus home with you today? 

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, 
The little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. 
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, 
The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, 
But little lord Jesus no crying he makes. 
I love thee, lord Jesus! Look down from the sky, 
And stay by my side until morning is nigh.

Be near me, lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay 
Close by me for ever and love me, I pray. 
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, 
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Year C – 4th Sunday in Advent

On the Lord of Dance

[Mic.5:1-4; Heb.10:5-10; Lk.1:39-44]

As Christmas approaches, I wonder – have you been singing The Twelve Days of Christmas? ‘On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, ten lords a-leaping …’

Yes, I wonder too about these leaping lords. They remind me of the Maasai people of East Africa. Have you seen their traditional jumping dance, the adamu? The men form a circle, one enters the middle and he starts jumping up and down as high and as elegantly as possible.

It looks strange, but this dance is rich with meaning and purpose. It’s used to mark the rite of passage of a person from one stage of life to another, such as when a young man becomes a warrior or when he’s ready to get married.

I remember wanting to leap with joy at key moments in my life, too, like when I fell in love and got married, when we had children and when I was ordained.

But who are these leaping lords that ‘my true love gave to me’? Some say The Twelve Days of Christmas was written to teach children the Catholic catechism, at a time when our faith was illegal in England. The 10 lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments, and the ‘true love’ is God himself.

Jesus says we can summarise these Ten Commandments by loving God and loving each other (Mt.22:37-40). It’s really quite exciting when we discover that God truly loves us; it feels almost too good to be true. For so many of us, that’s the moment when our lives change and we really do feel like leaping for joy (Rom.5:9-11).

That’s what happens to old Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is so mean that he makes Bob Cratchit work in the cold on Christmas Eve. When Scrooge gets home, the ghost of his business partner warns him that his life needs to change.

The Ghost of Christmas Past then reminds him of his childhood and how he loved money more than his fiancée. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him how his meanness is hurting others, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come terrifies him with visions of his death.

On Christmas morning Scrooge wakes up and he’s delighted to find that he still has time to change his ways. He laughs and dances around the room and says he feels as ‘giddy as a drunken man’.

He’s still got time to change his ways. He laughs and dances around the room.

He buys a turkey for the Cratchits, he donates money to the poor, he goes to church and to his nephew’s party. He’s transformed into a generous and kind-hearted person, and the change makes him want to leap with joy.

In Luke’s Gospel today, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, near Jerusalem. Mary is pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, John leaps in her womb.

Why does he do that? It’s because he feels the powerful presence of God. He’s not even born yet, but already he senses his life’s work: to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ. So he leaps with excitement.
But Mary’s heart leaps with joy, too. She realises what God has done for her, and she breaks into her famous song of praise, the Magnificat (Lk.1:46-55).

These leaps mark the arrival of the Kingdom of God and they announce the start of a new way of life for us all.

When we dance, the boundaries between our body and soul disappear and we begin expressing what’s often much too deep to say in words. St Ambrose said that dance lifts the body above the earth into the heavens.

St Francis of Assisi often leaped about with joy at unexpected moments, simply because he loved God so much.

And when the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments, was brought into Jerusalem, King David was so overjoyed that he started dancing (2Sam.6:14-22).

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I’ve told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (Jn.15:11).

That’s what happens when we’re touched by the hand of God; when we realise just how much he loves us. A new stage of life begins and we feel like leaping … dancing … with joy.

So, as Christmas approaches, we sing:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the dance, said he
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

[1] https://www.godtube.com/popular-hymns/lord-of-the-dance/

Year C – 3rd Sunday in Advent

On Great Balls of Fire

[Zeph.3:14-18; Phil.4:4-7; Lk.3:1-18]

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and Gaudete Sunday.  Pope Francis calls this ‘the Sunday of Joy’.  Why? It’s because Gaudete means ‘rejoice’. 

We rejoice because we’re halfway through Advent and Jesus is on his way.  We rejoice because God is in our lives and a holy fire is burning in our hearts. 

That’s what the prophet Zephaniah’s saying in our first reading, when he tells us to ‘shout for joy and exult with all your heart, for the Lord your God is in your midst’.

To emphasise our joy, we wear rose-coloured vestments today.  This comes from Isaiah who said ‘the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose’ (Is.35:1-6,10). [i]

One important element of joy is laughter.  The French writer Nicholas Chamfort said that the most wasted of days is one without laughter.  When you laugh, your brain produces natural chemicals that lift your mood and relieve your pain and suffering.  It can transform your emotions, cure illnesses and change the way you see the world.

St Philip Neri (1515-95) knew that laughter is good medicine, and that’s why he’s the patron saint of joy.  He spent most of his life in Rome and was ordained a priest at 35.  He used to encourage people’s faith in unusual ways, including by making them laugh.

He once sent a friend to get a bottle of wine, and insisted that he sample every wine in the shop before buying it.  Sometimes St Philip shaved off half his beard and did funny dances to make people laugh.  And sometimes he set penances for young men that required them to make fools of themselves in public.

Why did he do this?  It’s said that he needed these jokes more badly than anyone else, because his love for God was so intense.  He sometimes needed laughter to distract him and help him focus on what he had to do.

But joy isn’t just laughter.  Pope Francis says that Christians breathe joy, but joy doesn’t mean living from laugh to laugh.  It’s much deeper than that.

Joy isn’t just laughter. It’s much deeper than that.

‘Joy isn’t entertainment,’ he says.  Rather, ‘Christian joy is peace, peace that’s deeply rooted… in the heart, the peace that only God can give.’

But fostering Christian joy isn’t easy.  Pope Francis says that Christians must remember what God has done for us, and in that remembering be rejuvenated.  In today’s culture, he says, people often seem to be satisfied by mere fragments of pleasure, but that pleasure isn’t truly satisfying or lasting. It leaves people restless and uneasy. [ii]

CS Lewis wrote that true joy is the ache we feel in our hearts for something beyond this world.  It’s not a satisfied desire but an unsatisfied desire; a deep longing for God, a hungry pursuit of God’s heart that never ends.  And the Holy Spirit uses this restlessness to awaken our spiritual hunger.  

Lewis said that when little moments of life… like the way the light falls on a summer evening… stir you with a deep longing that’s hard to define, don’t look to earthly pursuits to fill the void.  Instead, allow the ache to push you deeper into your relationship with God. Pursue him. Allow that longing for him to become the hottest fire in your heart. [iii]

This is the joy we all long for; the joy that fills us with unimaginable love not only for God himself, but for all his creation, including those around us.

St Philip Neri was often said to have had a heart of fire.  But these weren’t mere words, for people noticed that he was always warm and often flushed.  He often walked about with his cassock unbuttoned at his chest, even in winter.  When he preached or prayed his heart used to beat violently, and some people could hear his heart beating across the room.  No-one knew why, until he was on his deathbed. [iv]

That’s when Philip revealed that on Pentecost Eve in 1544, he’d been praying that God would give him the Holy Spirit.  Then he saw the Spirit approach him as a ball of fire.  It entered his mouth and went straight to his heart, doubling its size and knocking him off his feet.  At his autopsy they found that two of his ribs had been broken and had formed an arch over his enlarged heart. [v]

As St Paul says, when we welcome God into our lives, he opens our eyes to his grace and power and he fills us with joy (Rom.15:13).  

Literally.


[i] Carol Reynolds, Journey through Advent.  Silver Age Music, Bowie Texas. 2015:58.

[ii] https://zenit.org/articles/santa-marta-the-breath-of-joy/

[iii] https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/3253-c-s-lewis-joy/day/1

[iv] http://www.liturgialatina.org/oratorian/bochanski.htm

[v] http://jp2forum.org/2010/05/st-philip-neri-and-gift-of-spirit.html

Year C – 2nd Sunday in Advent

On Waiting in Ice and Heat

[Bar.5:1-9; Phil.1:4-6, 8-11; Lk.3:1-6]

Today’s the second Sunday of Advent, and we’re reminded that it’s time to prepare because Jesus is coming.

Let me tell you a story.

In 1914, the explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed from London on the ship Endurance with 27 men.  He planned to be the first man to cross Antarctica.

But as he and his men approached the frozen continent they were trapped by pack ice.  Ten months later the ice crushed their ship and they had to abandon her.

Taking three lifeboats, they started walking. Six months later they arrived on Elephant Island.  When the ice started breaking up, Shackleton decided to take a chance and get help.  He promised to return, and with five men he sailed 1300 km in a lifeboat to South Georgia.

At the whaling station there he borrowed a boat and tried to return to his men, but the ice stopped him.  He wouldn’t give up, however, because of his promise, and tried another three times.  On his fourth attempt, as he approached Elephant Island the ice briefly opened up.  He took a risk, dashed in and collected his men.  He was in and out of the island in an hour.

As they sailed to safety, Shackleton said to one of them, ‘Well, you were packed and ready, weren’t you?’ 

We never lost hope – we believed you’d come for us.

The man replied, ‘Yes, we never lost hope.  We believed you’d come for us, even though it seemed unlikely.  You’d promised, and we expected you.  Each morning we rolled up our sleeping bags and packed all our equipment, so that we’d be ready’. 

They knew Shackleton would return for them, so they made sure they were ready.  They’d waited for him for 105 days and all were saved.

In our Gospel today, John the Baptist emerges from the desert and tells everyone to get ready, because the Messiah is coming.  He says ‘prepare the way of the Lord, for he is near’.

Now, Jesus is the Messiah, and we know he’s coming.  Not just at Christmas, not just at the end of time, and not just at the end of our lives. 

Jesus wants to come into our hearts right now.  But are we ready for him?

As St Charles Borromeo once put it, Jesus is ready to come again spiritually at any moment.

As Christians, Advent is the time of year when we’re called to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return.  We know he’s coming for us.  In John 14:1-6, Jesus says: ‘Trust in God still, and trust in me. … I’m now going to prepare a place for you, and after I’ve gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; So that where I am you may be, too.’

But will we be ready and waiting for him, like Shackleton’s men?

Even Jesus has his doubts.  In Luke 18:8, he asks, ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Yes, what will Jesus find when he comes this Christmas? 

I think he’ll find that Santa and shopping are more important than sainthood.  He’ll find that food and fun are more important than faith.  He’ll find that the hollow words ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ are more popular than the Word of God.  And he’ll find that many adults have abandoned Christmas to their children.

What would Shackleton have thought if his men had not been ready for him?

In our second reading today, St Paul tells the Philippians that he prays that they might learn to value the things that really matter, and that they might come to love each other, just as Jesus loves them.

The season of Advent is a free gift to each of us.  It’s an invitation to take time out, to reflect on the truth of Jesus Christ: his birth and his life, and what that means for us personally.

In the ice of Shackleton’s Antarctica and in the heat of St John the Baptist’s desert, there are few comforts and few distractions.  The truth is plain to see.

Shackleton’s men knew they had to get ready for his return, and they did.  John the Baptist knew the Messiah was coming, and he warned everyone to get ready.

At the typical Australian Christmas, there’s both ice and heat.  When you see the ice think of Shackleton.  When you feel the heat, think of John the Baptist in the desert.

But whatever you do, make sure you’re ready for Jesus’ return.

For Jesus is coming.

Year C – 1st Sunday in Advent

On the Paradox of Advent

[Jer.33:14-16; Thess.3:12-4:2; Lk.21:25-28,34-36]

Jesus has many names.  He’s the Dayspring (Mal.4:2; Lk.1:78), the dawn of God’s kingdom and light of the world who banishes the darkness.

He’s the Key of David (Is.22:22) who rescues us from hell and unlocks the door of heaven.

He’s the Rod of Jesse (Is.11:1), who springs from a dead stump and frees his people from slavery to sin. 

And he’s Emmanuel (Is.7:14). In Hebrew, ‘immanu’ means ‘with us’ and ‘El’ means God.  So, together Emmanuel means ‘God with us’.

Today marks the beginning of a new liturgical Year C, and a fresh season of Advent.  Advent, of course, is all about preparing our hearts and minds to receive Jesus at Christmas.

Every year at this time we sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’.  The English hymn as we know it today dates from the 1850s, but the words are ancient, dating back to 8th Century Gregorian chant.  The tune is from the 15th Century. 

In the original Latin, this hymn had seven verses, each focussing on one of the Old Testament names for Jesus, like the Dayspring, the Key of David and Rod of Jesse.  Together, they summarise the Bible’s prophecies about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah and his work among us.  They tell us how Jesus ransoms us from our captivity to sin and death, and sets us free. [i]

Each year, in the week before Christmas, Benedictine monks used to sing or chant one verse each day to prepare their hearts and minds for Christ’s coming.

One interesting detail in the Latin hymn is that the first letter of each name for Jesus (Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Oriens, Rex Gentiem, and Emmanuel) spells SARCORE.  Backwards, this acronym reads ‘Ero Cras’, which means ‘Tomorrow I come’. [ii] 

That’s our focus in Advent: the coming of Jesus Christ. 

There are three comings of Christ. The third is invisible.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a French abbot and Doctor of the Church.  He said that there are three comings of Jesus Christ. [iii]  The third coming, he said, is invisible and lies between the other two, which are visible.

Jesus’ first coming is his birth in Bethlehem.  It’s visible and it’s what we celebrate at Christmas.  But Jesus did so much more than arrive as a baby.  He also died for us on the Cross and rose again to new life.  So we also celebrate him as the Son of God who sacrificed everything to demonstrate his love for us and to show us how to join him in heaven.

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

And in between is his third coming.  It’s invisible.  It’s the hidden appearance of Jesus that’s already happening right now, but only some of us can see him.  Where do we see him?   We see him in the Word, in the Holy Eucharist, in the Church, in our neighbours and in our personal lives.

But why can’t some of us see him?  It’s because we haven’t opened our eyes, our minds and our hearts to his presence among us.

St Bernard said that because Jesus’ third coming lies between the other two, it’s like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last.  In the first coming, Christ was our redemption.  In the last coming, he’ll appear as our eternal life.  And in between he’s our rest and consolation.

In his first coming, Jesus arrived in our human flesh and in our weakness.  In the middle he comes in spirit and in power.  And in his final coming we’ll see him in all his glory and majesty.

St Peter predicted that some people would ridicule the idea of Jesus coming again.  He was right; many people do just that.  But don’t forget, he says, ‘that the Lord’s patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’  So he gives us time to prepare ourselves.  But the day of the Lord will come ‘like a thief’, Peter says, when we least expect it (2Pet.3:3-10).

So, whenever we sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, we’re not just celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Saviour.  We’re also preparing our hearts for his return, both in this life and in the next.

For at the very heart of Advent is this paradoxical mystery: 

Jesus was … is … and is still to come.


[i] https://aleteia.org/blogs/deacon-greg-kandra/is-o-come-o-come-emmanuel-anti-semitic/

[ii] https://www.professorcarol.com/o-come-emmanuel/

[iii] https://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/three-comings-of-christ-st-bernard/