Year B – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Road to Greatness

(Wis.2:12, 17-20; Jas.3:16-4.3; Mk.9:30-37)

‘The world offers you comfort,’ Pope Benedict XVI once said, ‘But you weren’t born for comfort. You were born for greatness.’

What, then, is greatness? Most people today would probably use words like visionary, courageous and famous to describe it, but they’re unlikely to mention humility. Yet, so many of the world’s greatest leaders were humble. Just think of Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

Humble leaders, research tells us, make better listeners and are more authentic than those who lack humility. And in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says that humility is a common trait among the leaders of high performing companies.

But our popular culture doesn’t value humility; it equates it with weakness and low self-esteem. It much prefers things like power, position and prestige.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Galilee, on the road to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples that he’s not interested in worldly success. Rather, he is destined to be betrayed and killed, but later he will rise again.

They don’t understand, however, and start arguing about their own ambitions.

But Jesus doesn’t give up. He gathers them together and tries to explain what greatness really means. ‘If anyone wants to be first,’ he says, ‘he must make himself last of all and servant of all’. 

In other words, true greatness comes from serving others, especially the weak and the vulnerable. And herein lies the paradox: If you want to be first, then put yourself last. If you want to be great, then make yourself least. And if you want to lead, then humble yourself by serving others.

To emphasise this point, Jesus takes a little child, hugs her and says, ‘Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’.

The disciples would have been shocked by this statement, because children weren’t so highly valued in those days; they were considered less valuable than slaves. Why? It’s because their mortality rate was very high. Many parents tried to avoid the heartache of losing their children by distancing themselves from them until they reached maturity.

But Jesus’ point is that greatness comes not from power and glory, but from truly caring for the little ones – the most vulnerable in the community.

St James reinforces this message in today’s second reading, by contrasting worldly wisdom with the wisdom of God. He says that the pursuit of worldly power and ambition leads to rivalry, disharmony and conflict. But God’s way of servanthood leads to gentleness, compassion and peace.

Henri Nouwen once wrote, ‘From the beginning of my life, two voices have been speaking to me: one saying, Henri, be sure you make it on your own. Be sure you become an independent person. Be sure I can be proud of you. And another voice saying, Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus; be sure you stay close to the love of God. [i]

We all share this struggle. It’s the struggle between our ordinary human desire to seek success, and the voice that’s always calling us to be faithful, wherever that might lead us.

Padre Pio understood this well. He once said, ‘The life of a Christian is nothing but a constant struggle against the self: there’s no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection, except at the price of pain’.

But that price is worth it. As Michael Casey says in his book Balaam’s Donkey, ‘adults who are at peace with themselves, who are not clamouring for higher status, also make peace for others, building a healthy contentment and preparing the way for the action of God. A person who is content with little is not for sale, and their integrity is difficult to subvert.

‘On the other hand,’ he says, ‘someone who is always climbing has eyes only for the future, will do whatever has to be done to achieve their goal, and may not be aware that slowly the quality of their life is being eroded. One is happy, the other is not. One grows, the other shrinks.’ [ii]

This is a message we all need to savour, deep in our hearts.

Long ago, in the 12th Century, the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux was asked to name the three most important elements of the spiritual life. He replied: ‘humility, humility, humility.’

Humility means being truly honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

Greatness is putting them at the service of others, especially the little ones.

[i] Henri Nouwen, Finding Vocation in Downward Mobility, in ‘Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders’, Vol. XI, No.3, Summer 1990:60 – 61.

[ii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2019:73.

Year B – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Messianic Secret

[Is.50:4c-9a; Jam.2:14-18; Mk.8:27-35]

Quite often in the Gospels, Jesus warns people not to tell anyone who he is. He does this after healing two blind men (Mt.9:30), after healing a leper (Mk.1:43-44), and after his Transfiguration (Mk.9:9).

He said it after healing the deaf man in last week’s Gospel (Mk.7.36).

And in today’s Gospel, near Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’

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

Then Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Peter replies, ‘You are the Messiah.’

This is the first time anyone in the Gospels gets Jesus’ identity right. But, once again, he warns them not to tell anyone.

Why is Jesus so secretive about his identity?

It’s because his followers still don’t fully understand who he is.

For centuries, the Jewish people had been expecting a great Messiah – a mighty political, military and religious leader – to come and save Israel from its enemies and to restore the glorious days of King David. This is what Peter has been expecting. He’s anticipating earthly glory, worldly triumph, and a man so strong, powerful and attractive that everyone would have to fall at his feet. [i]

But that’s all wrong. Jesus isn’t that kind of Messiah, and he doesn’t want anyone following him for the wrong reasons. And he certainly doesn’t want to be forced into political leadership, attracting the wrath of the Roman authorities. That would cut his mission short.

So, Jesus tries to stop the talk and to explain who he really is. He tells his disciples that he’s destined to endure suffering, rejection and death before rising again. But Peter objects – that can’t be right. Then Jesus gets angry with him: ‘Get behind me Satan! ’ he says, ‘the way you think isn’t God’s way, it’s man’s.’

This moment represents a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. At the outset, Mark clearly states that Jesus is the son of God (Mk.1:1). At the end, the Roman centurion stands at the Cross, saying, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (Mk.15:39). And in between, Mark records miracle after miracle, but the disciples struggle to grasp who Jesus is. It’s only after the resurrection that they really get it.

Today, countless people still don’t understand.

In his book, Once Upon a Gospel, William Bausch says that in every era, people have tended to see Jesus in their own image and likeness. Some have seen him as a fearsome deity like Zeus, waiting to hurl lightning bolts. Others have seen him as a manicured man hanging from a $22,000 gold cross from Tiffany.

Jesus has also been seen as a revolutionary Jewish Che Guevara. A capitalist. A philosopher. A social worker. A Hollywood idol. And the Lone Ranger riding in to save us from danger.

Today, many people still project themselves onto Jesus, and now see him as Jesus Lite. He’s our buddy, the friend who gives us the thumbs up and winks. He’s sweet, non-judgmental, a ‘live-and-let-live’ kind of guy. A pussycat. A heck of a nice fellow, but not one who, in the long run, inspires you and certainly not someone you’d die for – or live for, for that matter.

Quoting from recent research, Bausch notes the prevailing view of many young people today: ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter. Everyone goes to heaven when they die. Jesus forgives everything we do in the end.’

The problem with this colourless Jesus, Bausch says, is that he doesn’t exist in the Gospels. These people seem never to have heard Jesus telling stories about destroying nasty tenants (Mk.12:9), daring that unbelievers will have to endure God’s wrath (Jn.3:36) and that he has come to set son against father and daughter against mother (Mt.10:34-35). This so-called sweet Jesus calls his opponents liars (Jn.8:55), and has a sustained role as a terrible judge in the Book of Revelation (1:13-14; 1:16; 19:15; 19:17-18).

The real Jesus of the Gospels is countercultural. He’s brave, strong and determined – or he’d never have endured his excruciating passion and death.

And for us today, he’s a way of life. He’s about the decisions we make, about honesty, caring and concern. He’s about whistle-blowing and ethics. He’s about chastity and fidelity. He’s about truth and making relationships work. He’s about keeping one’s word. He’s about life, here and hereafter, for those who listen to him, and not much life for those who don’t. [ii]

Today, there’s no more need for the Messianic Secret. The truth about Jesus is available to us all.

But, like Peter, we need to drop the world’s false ideas about Jesus.

We need to recognise that he’s the humble and self-sacrificing Son of God, calling us to pick up our Cross and follow him towards eternal life.


[ii] William Bausch, Once Upon a Gospel. Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT. 2011:263-265.

Year B – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Listening with the Heart

Is.35:4-7a; Jas.2:1-5; Mk.7:31-37

Many years ago, I worked with a young woman who just wouldn’t stop talking. She was bright, and I wanted her to learn new things, but I got nowhere. She wouldn’t stop talking long enough to listen.

What they say is true: God gave us two ears and one mouth, to listen twice as much as we talk.

In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton says that if our life is poured out in useless words, we’ll never hear anything in the depths of our hearts. We’ll also never be anything, for we’ll have exhausted ourselves talking before we really had anything to say. [i]

But genuine listening is becoming more difficult these days. Life can be so busy and so many things compete for our attention. Indeed, recent research tells us that the typical human attention span has dropped to eight seconds – shrinking nearly 25% in just a few years. [ii]

When we don’t listen well, we make mistakes, people go unheard and relationships suffer. But good listening involves much more than just our ears.

In his book The Gospel of the Heart, Flor McCarthy says that it’s only with the heart that we can hear rightly. ‘The cry of a needy person may reach our ears,’ he says, ‘but unless it reaches our heart, we won’t feel that person’s pain, and it’s unlikely that we’ll respond.’

He also says that it’s only with the heart that we can speak rightly, ‘For our words to ring true, they must come from the heart. If our words come only from our lips, they’ll sound hollow and they’ll have little effect. They’ll be like a wind ruffling the surface of the water but leaving the depths untouched.’ [iii]

In today’s Gospel, a deaf man who can’t speak properly is brought to Jesus for healing. Jesus takes him aside, touches his ears and tongue, and says, ‘Be opened!’ Miraculously, the man’s ears open up and he’s given a voice.

This event marks the fulfilment of Isaiah’s grand vision in today’s first reading, where he prophesies a Messiah who will come to heal the deaf, to give voice to the silent, and to let the lame leap like a deer.

You might not remember it, but at your own baptism, the minister touched your ear and mouth, and said, ‘The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father’.

Touching your ear was your calling to become a disciple, because true disciples listen to Jesus. And the touch of your mouth was your calling to become a new apostle, because apostles generously share their faith with others.

But fundamental to all this is listening with the heart. The Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, used to tell the story of an old man who sat in church for hours on end. One day, a priest asked him if God ever said anything to him.

‘God doesn’t talk, he just listens,’ the old man replied.

‘Well then, what do you spend all this time talking about?’

‘I don’t talk, either. I just listen.’ [iv]

Too many of us, however, aren’t good at listening and we miss the important things. Consider the story of the Greek man found living in a psychiatric institution. They thought he was a hopeless schizophrenic and let him vegetate there for years. No-one knew much about him or where he came from, but everyone thought he was a hopeless case.

One day, the chaplain asked a Greek Orthodox priest to come and talk to the man, because he hadn’t spoken Greek for years. The priest returned from the visit saying, ‘What’s he doing here? He’s as healthy as we are.’

Bit by bit, the story unfolded.

The Greek had jumped ship long before in a nearby port. Speaking no English, he’d got into trouble and as mistakes sometimes happen, he was locked up in an institution. There he slowly learned English, but from the other patients.

Certain language misuse is typical of some psychiatric disorders, and the poor man had learnt totally schizophrenic English. To the hospital staff, he sounded unwell and as removed from reality as the other patients. The priest, however, spoke to him in Greek, the first time anyone had done that to him there, and he spoke perfectly. The staff were humbled by the experience.[v]

So, here’s the point: our ears and our mouths are connected to our hearts (Mt.12:34).

And listening – deep listening – is love.

[i] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island. Harvest, San Diego. 1983:260.


[iii] Flor McCarthy, The Gospel of the Heart. Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2005:167.

[iv] David Foster, Deep Calls to Deep. Continuum, London. 2007:59.

[v] Gerard Fuller, Stories for all Seasons. Columba Press, 1997:82-83.

Year B – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On a Change of Heart

[Deut.4:1-2, 6-8; Jam.1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk.7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]

In the 1997 film ‘As Good as It Gets’, Jack Nicholson plays the part of Melvin Udall, a writer who thinks he’s an expert on love because he’s written 62 romantic novels.

In reality, however, he’s a lonely man who’s obsessed with his cleanliness. He’s constantly washing his hands and avoiding people and dogs. And he’s thoughtlessly cruel. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that knowing about love and staying clean just aren’t enough, for it’s the heart that really counts.

Like so many in our society today, Melvin Udall thinks that appearance is everything. But even children know that appearances can deceive.

Some years ago in Shanghai, my wife and I bought a nice blue and white tea set. However, we didn’t notice the seller switch cups when he packed it, and we arrived home to find a broken piece. Clearly, his smile was fake.

In Mark’s Gospel today, some Pharisees are angry with Jesus because his disciples have been seen eating without first washing their hands. ‘Why don’t your disciples follow the traditions of the elders?’ they ask.

Now, these Pharisees aren’t truly concerned about hygiene. What they really want is for everyone to obey their rules. 

The Bible doesn’t say that everyone must wash their hands. It only specifies that priests must wash before going into the temple sanctuary for worship (Ex.30:17-21). By Jesus’ time, however, handwashing before meals had become commonplace and everyone was expected to do the same.

Jesus is annoyed by the Pharisees’ complaint, and he quotes from Isaiah, ‘this people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations’ (Is.29:13).

What he’s saying is that these Pharisees aren’t serious about their faith, because handwashing won’t bring anyone closer to God. These men are only interested in their petty rules.

With these words, Jesus is challenging us to go beyond the superficial, to recognise that our hearts and souls are where God lives, and where love and compassion begin.

Sometimes, what this requires is a change of heart.

The great storyteller Jeffrey Archer tells the story of Stoffel van den Berg, a talented South African cricketer who was born in Capetown.

His family had migrated from Holland in the 18th century, and they lived very privileged lives. [i]

Stoeffel was very supportive of apartheid, and at the age of 30 was preparing for a career in politics. ‘I don’t understand why the government doesn’t hang Mandela and his cronies,’ he once told his friends.

One day in 1989, while rushing to a campaign meeting, he had a head-on car crash. When he regained consciousness several weeks later, a surgeon explained that the driver of the other vehicle had died soon after arriving at the hospital.

‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ he said, ‘because moments later, your heart stopped beating, too. It was your luck that the dead driver’s wife agreed to a heart transplant from her husband to you.’

‘But doctor, wasn’t he black?’ Stoeffel asked in disbelief.

The doctor replied that the black man’s widow had simply said, ‘I can’t see why both of them have to die, if one of them can live.’

‘How long have I got?’ Stoeffel asked.

‘Three years, possibly four, if you take it easy,’ he replied.

After leaving hospital, Stoeffel went to meet that widow in the poor black township of Crossroads, outside Capetown. She refused all the help he offered. ‘Perhaps you and your child would like to come and live with us,’ he suggested.

But she replied, ‘No, thank you, master.’

That same day, with the support of his wife, Stoeffel quit his job and withdrew all his savings. Thereafter, every day he went down into that shantytown, teaching children English in a makeshift school. In the afternoons, he taught them cricket and rugby, and in the evenings, he roamed the streets encouraging teenagers to stay away from crime and drugs.

Four years later, and only days before Nelson Mandela was elected president, Stoeffel died. He had played his part in liberating a downtrodden people. Of the two thousand people who attended his funeral, more than half were black.

Our world considers image more valuable than substance, but it’s the heart that really counts. The heart is the source of all our thoughts, words and deeds.

If our heart is clean and noble, then all that flows from it will be clean and noble, too.

God knows who we really are. Perhaps it’s time for a change of heart.

[i] Jeffrey Archer, To Cut a Long Story Short. Pan Books, London. 2010.

Year B – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Choice and Consequence

[Josh.24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph.5:21-32; Jn.6:60-69]

According to Newton’s third law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Something similar happens when we make decisions, because every choice has its consequences.

That’s why we sometimes worry when young people make their own decisions. Neurologists tell us that the parts of the brain that control higher order decision-making don’t fully develop until adulthood. So, a young person’s developing brain places them at greater risk of making poor choices. They’re more likely to overestimate the rewards (fun! friends!) and under-consider the risks. [i]

But with time, education and experience, hopefully we all come to develop well and make sound decisions. The sweep of human history does make us wonder, however.

The Bible is full of stories about choices and their consequences. It even begins with Adam and Eve choosing to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. God lets them do this, but we’ve been suffering the consequences ever since.

Eve offering the apple to Adam Biblical vector illustration series, Adam and Eve, Eve offering the apple to Adam adam and eve stock illustrations

There are other stories, too, as Max Lucado points out. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel chose God, but Cain chose murder, and God let him.

Abraham and Lot were both pilgrims in Canaan. Abraham chose God, but Lot chose Sodom, and God let him. 

David and Saul were both kings of Israel. David chose God, but Saul chose power, and God let him.

Peter and Judas both denied Jesus. Peter sought mercy, but Judas sought death, and God let him.

All through history, and all through Scripture, God lets us make our own decisions. He won’t stop us doing the wrong thing, but we need to remember: our choices can have eternal consequences. [ii] 

In our first reading today, Joshua is the man who takes over from Moses after the Israelites enter the Promised Land. But now he’s old, and he tells the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel that they must decide: either to follow the false gods of their new land, or to stay faithful to the God of their ancestors who gave them their new home.

Joshua declares that he will serve the true God, but the others must decide for themselves. And they do decide: they all agree to do the same.

Our Gospel reading for today comes from the end of John’s Bread of Life discourse. It represents a turning point in the life of the disciples, for Jesus gives them a choice: either to stay and accept the Eucharistic gift of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, or to leave with those who can’t understand him or who refuse to change.

‘Do you want to leave me, too?’ Jesus asks, and Peter replies, ‘Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of everlasting life.’

CS Lewis once wrote, ‘If you want to get warm, you must stand near the fire. If you want to be wet, you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace and eternal life, you must get close to or even into the thing that has them.’

‘Once a person is united to God, how could they not live forever?’ he asks. ‘Once a person is separated from God, what can they do but wither and die?’ [iii]

Many people have chosen to leave the Church, and often because of disappointment. But in his reflection on today’s Gospel, Patrick van der Vorst says, ‘It’s precisely in these moments that Christ is asking us to stick with him, to walk with him and his Church.

‘The temptation to flee our Christian duties is at times very real and even attractive. But it’s precisely in those moments when we’re asked to keep a deep commitment going, that we draw the closest to God. 

‘To see so many people leaving our Church can be crushing at times,’ he says, ‘so today’s reading is relevant like never before.’

Going to Work by Lowry  Cross stitch Pattern  bonus image 0

LS Lowry’s painting Going to Work (1943) depicts a multitude of people leaving. Reflecting on this image, van der Vorst asks, ‘Where are they going, what are they walking towards?’ [iv]

We might well ask ourselves that same question, because our choices do have consequences. Where are we going if we’re not walking with Christ towards heaven?

‘For Jesus, being a disciple is all about staying with him and being committed. It’s about discipleship, and not just being a passive follower.’

As William Barclay puts it: Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a younger man. He said, ‘So and so tells me that he was one of your students’.

The teacher answered devastatingly, ‘He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students. You see, there’s a world of difference between attending lectures and being a student’. [v]

In the end, it’s our choices that matter. Not our wishes, not our words, not our promises.


[ii] Max Lucado, He Chose You, Thomas Nelson, Nashville. 2001:71-73


[iv] Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), Going to Work (1943). Imperial War Museum North, Manchester.

[v] Patrick van der Vorst, Reflection on John 6:60-69.

Year B – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

On the Science of Mary’s Assumption

(Rev.11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1Cor.15:20-27; Lk.1:39-56)

Today we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heaven.

Why is this important? It’s because it confirms Jesus’ promise: that if we truly follow him, then we can expect to go to heaven, too (Jn.5:24; 1Jn.5:13).

The Church has believed in Mary’s Assumption ever since the time of the first Apostles, but this teaching was only formally defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950.[1]

Mary’s Assumption isn’t the same as Jesus’ Ascension.  The word ‘assumption’ comes from the Latin ‘assumere’ (‘to take up’), for Mary was taken up into heaven by God’s power. Jesus, however, ascended to heaven under his own power.[2]

Where did Mary’s Assumption occur? It’s generally believed to have been either in Jerusalem or Ephesus, and some 3 to 15 years after Christ’s Ascension. Church tradition also tells us that the Apostles were present when Mary died.

Now, some people wonder about Mary’s Assumption because it’s not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. But Pope Pius XII says Scripture implicitly mentions it several times. In today’s second reading, for instance, St Paul describes Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, and he says ‘in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each in proper order’.

Mary’s Assumption certainly is in proper order, given her role as queen mother and her victory in the battle between good and evil, as told in our first reading.

It’s also significant that no relics of Mary’s body have ever been reported, and no Marian tomb or gravesite has ever been venerated. This is notable, given the historical fascination of Christians for the relics of saints.

But what is interesting today is what science can tell us about the Assumption.

Elizabeth Scalia says that when she studied anatomy and physiology, she was amazed to learn about the biological process called Microchimerism.[3] 

When a woman gets pregnant, the child always leaves within her a microscopic bit of himself in the form of cells. These living cells remain in her bloodstream and organs for the rest of her life, even if the foetus dies. This means that some of Jesus’ cells remained inside Mary all her life.

Recent research has found that these remnant cells aren’t dormant – they help to protect the health and well-being of the mother. They are found around healing wounds, helping with faster tissue repair. And they stimulate the formation of new blood vessels to injured and diseased structures in the body.

Microchimeric cells also improve im­mune system function, and they may lead to longer life for the mother. [iv]

Scalia points out that Psalm 16:10 says that God will not allow his Holy One to see decay, and we know that Jesus’ divine body did not decay because he ascended to heaven. So, it follows that Mary’s body, with cellular traces of Jesus inside her, could not be allowed to decay, either. After all, a particle of God is still God.

So, Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul (Ps.132:8). She really is the Theotokos, the new Ark of the Covenant, containing our living God.

But what does this mean for us today?

When Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950, the world was still recovering from WWII. He hoped that the story of Mary’s Assumption would help us all better appreciate the value of human life, and most especially a life focussed on doing the will of God.

He hoped that we might all be inspired to live like Mary, whose only purpose was to bring God’s love into the world, through Jesus.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said that Mary’s presence in heaven reminds us that the earth is not our final homeland. Heaven is our true home, and if we can stay focussed on the eternal, then one day we will share in the same glory as Mary and the earth will become more beautiful.

In today’s Gospel we are given Mary’s song, the Magnificat. It tells the story of Mary as the lowly handmaid who lovingly submitted to God’s command and agreed to bring Jesus into this world. In response to her fiat, Jesus became a permanent part of her and she was rewarded with eternal life in heaven.

Through the Holy Eucharist, Jesus becomes a part of us, too, though not a permanent one. That’s why we seek to receive him as often as we can.

And so this is our challenge: to become like Mary, the Blessed Mother – filled with Jesus, totally focussed on Jesus, and doing all we can to bring him into our world.

[1] Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus.

[2] Note that Mary’s wasn’t the first assumption. Scripture tells us that Elijah (2Kgs.2:11; 1Mac.2:58) and Enoch (Sir.44:16; 49:14; Heb.11.5) were also assumed bodily into heaven.

[3] accessed 12.05.15

[iv] Timothy Millea, The Eternal Mother-Child Connection, 2019 accessed 12.08.21

Year B – Feast of St Mary of the Cross McKillop

On the Widow’s Cruse

[1Kgs.17:8-16; Col.3:12-17; Mt.6:25-34]

‘We could all do with the widow’s cruse,’ my dear father used to say, and he was right.

What is a cruse? It’s a small earthenware jar for liquids, and the widow’s cruse is a small supply that never runs out.

Text Box:  
Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), Elijah and the Widow
Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), Elijah and the Widow

This expression comes from the story of Elijah and the widow in our first reading today. During a terrible drought, Elijah asks the poor widow of Zarephath for a drop of water and a scrap of bread. But all she has to feed herself and her son is a small handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug.

She knows, however, that God wants her to do this, so she makes Elijah some bread and God rewards her by ensuring that her jars of food are never empty.

There’s a similar story in the life of St Frances of Rome (1384-1440). During a great famine, many poor people came to her seeking alms, but her father-in-law resented her generosity. He cut off Frances’ supplies and left her with only a small amount of corn and wine for herself. But because she was doing God’s work, the corn never ran out, and the wine cask never ran dry. [i]

Today in Australia we celebrate the Feast of St Mary of the Cross McKillop (1842–1909). She, too, was blessed with the widow’s cruse.

Mary was born the first of eight children to Scottish migrant parents, Alex and Flora McKillop, in Melbourne. Alex was a former seminarian, but quite hopeless with money and soon after Mary’s birth they lost everything, including their house.

To help pay the bills, Mary started working as a governess when she was 14. At 18, she moved to Penola, South Australia, to care for her nieces and nephews. There she met the local parish priest, Fr Julian Tenison-Woods, who was very interested in educating poor children.

Mary later wrote: ‘I heard the Pastor … Speak of the neglected state of the children in the parish … I had to go and offer myself to aid him’. And so began her teaching career.

When she was 20, Mary was accidentally locked overnight in a church in Portland, Victoria. She later described this as a graced opportunity, because her all-night vigil with Jesus changed her life.

In 1866, aged 24, she started wearing a simple habit as the first member of a new religious institute, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (the Josephites) that she established with the help of Fr Woods. They were determined to teach and serve the poor and vulnerable, and they opened their first school in a former stable in Penola.

In the following years, and with no government funding, Mary and her growing circle of sisters opened schools all over Australia and New Zealand. They also cared for Aborigines, unmarried mothers and the terminally ill, and established orphanages, shelters for former prostitutes and refuges for ex-prisoners.

As her missionary work grew, so did Mary MacKillop’s problems. Money was always scarce and many civic leaders and members of the public strongly objected to her work. Some powerful churchmen, including Bishop Shiel of Adelaide, objected to her independent spirit and she was falsely accused of alcoholism.

In 1871, Bishop Shiel excommunicated her for alleged insubordination. He also closed most of her schools and dispensed fifty sisters of their vows.

Mary faced obstacles all through her life, but her faith and determination were unshakeable and she refused to speak ill of anyone. In the following year, Bishop Shiel reversed his decision. [ii]

The Perth Mint :: 2008 - 2010 Coin Releases :: 2010 Saint Mary MacKillop  1oz Silver Proof Dollar Coin

Mary MacKillop began with nothing, but by the time of her death in 1909, she had 650 Josephite sisters teaching 12,400 students in 117 schools, and serving poor Catholics and Protestants alike. [iii]

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI canonized her as Australia’s first saint.

Mary MacKillop famously told her sisters, ‘Never see a need and do nothing about it’. And she always encouraged them to ‘strive to please God, rather than men, and always be ready to sacrifice everything for Christ’.

In return for her faithful service, God gave her the widow’s cruse. She always got what she needed, when she needed it.

‘Do not worry,’ Jesus says in our Gospel today. ‘God knows your needs. Just focus on what God wants you to do, and he will supply what you need.’ [iv]

That’s the widow’s cruse. We could all do with it.

Let’s close with this poem, The Meal and Cruse of Oil, by John Newton (1725-1809).

By the poor widow’s oil and meal
Elijah was sustained;
Though small the stock it lasted well,
For God the store maintained.

It seemed as if from day to day,
They were to eat and die;
But still, though in a secret way,
He sent a fresh supply.

Thus to his poor he still will give
Just for the present hour;
But for tomorrow they must live
Upon his word and power.

No barn or storehouse they possess
On which they can depend;
Yet have no cause to fear distress,
For Jesus is their friend.

Then let not doubts your mind assail,
Remember, God has said,
The cruse and barrel shall not fail,
My people shall be fed.

And thus though faint it often seems,
He keeps their grace alive;
Supplied by his refreshing streams,
Their dying hopes revive.

Though in ourselves we have no stock,
The Lord is nigh to save;
His door flies open when we knock,
And ’tis but ask and have. [v]


[ii] Melanie Rigney, Blessed are You. Franciscan Media, Cincinatti OH, 2015:116-119.


[iv] It’s worth remembering that the words ‘Do not be afraid’ occur 62 times in the Old Testament, and 18 times in the New Testament.

[v] John Newton, The Meal and Cruse of Oil. (John Newton also penned the famous hymn Amazing Grace.)

Year B – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Bread of Life

(Ex.16:2-4, 12-15; Eph.4:17, 20-24; Jn.6:24-35)

For most people today, bread is cheap and plentiful, but it wasn’t so in biblical times.

In those days, ordinary families had to make their own bread. They had to plough and sow, seed and hoe, reap and thresh, winnow and sift, grind and sift again, knead and moisten, light the fire and then bake before they had any bread to eat. In fact, the typical housewife spent three hours each day just making enough flour to feed a family of five. [i]

So, it’s not surprising that Jesus included bread in the Lord’s Prayer. When the first Christians prayed ‘give us this day our daily bread’ (Mt.6:11), they weren’t just hoping for good harvests and sufficient flour. They also prayed for the strength to keep making their own bread each day.

In today’s Gospel, the crowds that Jesus had fed earlier are looking for him. They want more of his bread, and we can understand why: it’s easy, it’s free and it’s nourishing.

But Jesus thinks it’s time to offer them something more fulfilling. He says, ‘Don’t work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you’. What does he mean by that?

Jesus is basically saying that these people are following him for the wrong reason. They’re only thinking of their stomachs, just like the ancient Israelites who only followed God as long as there was plenty of food (Ex.16:1-36).

But now it’s time, Jesus says, to focus on something more profound, for we cannot live on bread alone. God created us, he wants us to join him in heaven, and Jesus will show us how to get there.

In other words, if we believe in Jesus and accept his spiritual nourishment, then eternal life will be ours.

But the crowd doesn’t understand. They ask Jesus for a sign, and he tells them that the God who fed Moses and the Israelites in the desert all those years ago is the same God who just fed the 5,000 there in Galilee. 

Then he says:  ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst’. 

Today, many people have everything they need, but they still feel empty inside. They hunger for something more, but just don’t know what it is. So, they keep searching for the latest ‘thing’.

But they’ll never be satisfied because they’re ignoring their souls. As St Augustine said, ‘You made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’

In 2014, Pope Francis said, ‘As well as physical hunger, man also suffers from a hunger that cannot be sated with ordinary food. It’s a hunger for life, a hunger for love, a hunger for eternity. Manna is the sign … that prefigured the food that satisfies this profound hunger present in man.

‘Jesus gives us this nourishment – or rather, he himself is the living bread that gives life to the world. His body is the true food in the form of bread; his blood is the true sustenance in the form of wine. It’s not a simple form of nourishment to sate our bodies, like manna; the Body of Christ is the bread of the last times, able to give life, eternal life, because the substance of this bread is Love.’ [ii]

Jesus cares about physical hunger, but he cares even more about spiritual emptiness. That’s why he’s offering himself to us as the Bread of Life.

The fullness of life we seek is only available from Jesus, and the way to receive our fill is through the Church, through his Word and most especially through the Holy Eucharist.

At the end of World War II, while Europe was being freed from Nazi occupation, there was terrible hunger.

The allied forces grouped many starving orphans together in camps where they were fed and looked after. The children were lovingly cared for, but hardly slept at night. So, psychologists were asked to investigate. They found that the children were anxious because they feared that they’d wake up again to no food.

After that, every child was given some bread to sleep with at night. They were told to hold it and not eat it.

The results were amazing. All the children slept well. Knowing that they would wake up to food calmed their fears and made them trust they were now in good hands. [iii]

That’s what the Bread of Life does for us.

Just hold him close to your heart.

[i] Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible. Palphot Ltd, Herzlia. Undated:26-27.

[ii] Pope Francis, Homily given at Holy Mass in the Square of St. John Lateran, June 20, 2014.


Year B – 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Little Gestures

[2Kgs.4:42-44; Eph.4:1-6; Jn.6:1-15]

It’s amazing what little gestures can do. A gentle touch, a smile, a thank you note can really make a difference.

Today, the fourth Sunday in July, is the First World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. Pope Francis has instituted this special celebration in this Amoris Laetitia Year of the Family, to highlight the importance of the elderly in our lives. It’s so close to the Feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, Jesus’ grandparents (26 July).

The theme chosen for this celebration, ‘I am with you always’ (Mt.28:20), expresses just how close Jesus is to all older people, and how important it is for families to stay connected to their elders.

Many families today have several generations and other close relationships living under the same roof. This is a social reality that’s nicely reflected in John Everett Millais’ painting Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50). [i]

This masterpiece portrays an extended Holy Family working together in Joseph’s workshop, where he’s making a door. Young Jesus has hurt his hand, and Joseph and Mary are gently comforting him while his grandmother Anne is trying to remove the offending nail.

On the right, Jesus’ cousin John (in camel-hair shorts) is kindly carrying a bowl of water to bathe Jesus’ wound. And on the left, a helpful but unnamed young man is assisting Joseph. Is he a future disciple?

This painting is full of gestures of love. It’s also replete with Christian symbols. The wound on Jesus’ hand and the drop of blood on his foot prefigure his crucifixion, as does the wood stacked up against the walls. The tools represent the instruments of Jesus’ passion. [ii] John’s bowl of water points to his future as the Baptist, while the carpenter’s triangle at the rear represents the Holy Trinity. The dove perched on Jacob’s Ladder symbolises peace and love, and the Holy Spirit that fills their home.

The workbench represents an altar, and the door symbolises Jesus’ emerging role as our doorway to heaven (Jn.10:9). The blood stain on the door recalls the ancient Israelites in Egypt who smeared lamb’s blood on their doorposts (Ex.12:24). And the sheep gathered outside are the flock awaiting the Good Shepherd. [iii] [iv]

There was an uproar when this painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850. The reviews were scathing and Charles Dickens was particularly outraged. Never before had the Holy Family been portrayed as poor, hardworking souls in such gritty surrounds. And it was unusual for Jesus’ grandmother and others to be presented as so integral to their family.

Today, however, we can relate to the earnest simplicity of Jesus, Mary and Joseph working at home with their extended family. Each person clearly is highly valued and has something important to do, and central to it all is Jesus himself.

For indeed, in a happy and holy family everything centres on Jesus.

At the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, Pope Francis said: ‘Like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded,” says Jesus (Mk.9:41).

‘These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children, by brothers and sisters. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work.

‘Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That’s why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and for life to grow into faith.’ [v]

The American writer Louisa May Alcott once wrote, ‘A house needs a grandma in it’.  And someone else said, ‘A grandpa has silver in his hair and gold in his heart’. But we’re not always good at showing our appreciation.

The little, loving gestures that Pope Francis refers to come from Gentleness, which is one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul writes about in Galatians 5:22. Gentleness is a mark of strength, and a quality that God would like to cultivate in our lives.

It’s also a quality that can make a real difference to those who feel overlooked and unloved in our busy world.

Today, let’s do something gentle – perhaps a small but kind gesture – to honour our elders and make them feel special.

Let’s make sure they feel loved and appreciated.

[i] Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50: Oil on Canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm. Tate Collection, London. (Public Domain, Wikipedia).





Year B – 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Sabbath Rest

(Jer.23:1-6; Ps.23; Eph.2:13-18; Mk.6:30-34)

Perhaps one unexpected benefit of the current Covid pandemic is the way it’s making us rethink our use of time.

Before the restrictions, many of us lived very busy lives. We packed far more into our days than we needed to.

Why do we do this to ourselves when we don’t like stress or anxiety? Why do we ignore the doctors who tell us to slow down? We know that without rest, our bodies can’t recharge themselves and we risk getting sick.

Long ago, before they had machines, underground miners used horses and donkeys to pull coal-wagons. 

A visitor to a coalfield once asked why so many of these animals were grazing outside the coal-pits. The answer was that they work underground six days a week and every Sunday they’re brought to the surface. If they didn’t come outside periodically, they’d go blind.

Why don’t we schedule such breaks? Without them, we risk becoming blind, too – blind to what’s important in life: our families, our friends, our health and our souls.

In Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus tries to take his disciples to a quiet place for rest, reflection and prayer. They must have been disappointed to find a crowd waiting for them, but Jesus doesn’t turn them away.

The 3rd Commandment is important to Jesus: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Ex.20:8). [i] But he’s not rigid about its observance like the Pharisees. They won’t lift a finger on the Sabbath, but Jesus always puts others first. Whenever he can, however, he takes time out to connect with his Father.

Resting on the Sabbath was, and is, fundamental to the Jewish people. When God rescued them from Egypt after 400 years of slavery, he commanded them to take a day off every week. They were not to live as slaves any more.

This was unlike most ancient societies, where the wealthy worked as little as possible and the peasants worked constantly, except during religious festivals.

By the first century, however, the idea of the Sabbath had spread right across the Roman Empire, and people started giving themselves a day off.

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote: ‘The masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt our religious observances; and there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread.’

The idea of the Sabbath caught on, not just because people were religious, but because it was the sensible thing to do.

In 1928, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would reduce the working week to 15 hours within 100 years. Clearly, he was wrong because people today seem to work as hard as ever, and our electronic devices encourage us to work even harder.

The theologian Walter Brueggemann says that people who remember and keep the Sabbath find that they are less driven, less coerced, less frantic to meet deadlines, and free to be, rather than to do.

Instead of compromising productivity, he says, the Sabbath can increase it. But to use it for that purpose misses the point. The Sabbath is designed not only to make us more efficient and fruitful in our work, but more fundamentally to challenge our obsession with efficiency and with productivity. [ii]

On this point, William Barclay says there are two dangers in life. Firstly, there’s the danger of too much activity. We can’t work without rest; and we can’t live the Christian life unless we spend time with God. The whole trouble of our lives, he says, may be that we don’t let God speak to us, because we don’t know how to be still and listen. We give God no time to recharge us with spiritual energy and strength, because we never wait upon him.

The second danger, he says, is too much withdrawal. Devotion that does not issue in action is not real devotion. Prayer that does not result in work is not real prayer. We must never seek God’s fellowship in order to avoid human fellowship, but in order to fit ourselves better for it.

The rhythm of the Christian life, then, is the alternate meeting with God in the secret place and then serving one another in the marketplace. [iii]

It’s interesting to note that of the Ten Commandments, the command to keep holy the Sabbath day comes before any mention of murder, property and sex.

Clearly, God thinks it’s a major priority for us to take time out each week. We should spend at least one seventh of our lives doing something other than work. Otherwise, we risk burning ourselves out and forgetting our life’s purpose.

They say that if you can’t rest from something, then you must be a slave to it.

Is it time to start scheduling regular rest breaks?

[i] This is the 3rd Commandment in the Augustinian system of numbering the Ten Commandments. It’s the 4th Commandment in the Philonic and Talmudic systems. The Catholic Church accepts all three approaches.


[iii] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KY, 2001:179.