Friday, September 15, 2006

Ordinary Time Sunday 24

Who do people say that I am?

On one level, this is a very odd question. Jesus of Nazareth. Son of Mary and Joseph. Carpenter from Galillee. Preacher. Even healer perhaps. They knew exactly who he was. He never stole anyone's identity. He did not impersonate another person for his own, or anyone else's gain. They all knew his name. Where he was from. What he did.

And yet, they kept asking this question. We hear it again and again in Mark's Gospel. When he forgave the sins of the paralysed man, they said 'who is he who forgives sins'. When he stilled the storm, they said 'Who is he, that the wind and waves obey him?' At his trial before the Jewish council, they asked 'Who are you - are you the Christ?' And Jesus asks his disciples the same question - Who do people say I am? Who do you think I am?

Identity runs far deeper than a name, a face. Identity is much more than a fingerprint, a retinal scan, DNA. All they do is say that you are not someone else. They cannot tell us who someone really is.

When we truly know someone, it is not an encounter of the mind and intellect. It is a meeting of the heart. I remember when I was at university I knew a lad, same age as me, who had an identical twin. They weren't always together, so I knew one twin, but not the other. They were identical in appearance. Identical fingerprints and DNA. They moved in a similar way. They even wore similar clothes. And when I once met the other twin, I knew straight away that he was not the brother I knew. Perhaps it was a facial expression, the fact he did not know me. I don't know - but he was certainly different.

Knowing someone, truly knowing someone, is being able to anticipate some of their attitudes, their actions. It is knowing likes and dislikes, dispositions, interests and concerns.

Recognising, knowing Christ, as Peter truly does in todays Gospel, is not appearances, titles, names. It is a matter of faith, of commitment, of love. It is his heart speaking to our heart. It is not so much about ideas. It may be something that is hard to explain or even justify.

But to know Christ is to know that he has given his life for us, and that we give our lives to him.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ordinary Time Sunday 23

Readings for Today

Ephaphtha, Jesus said, be opened

We have a problem with miracles stories, because the first thing we think when we hear them is 'how is this possible'? The sceptical modern mind looks for explanations, methods. We never even get off the blocks in understanding the tale.

We are, of course, asking the wrong question. For an ancient people, for whom the world was still a wonderful and mysterious place, miracles were part of the fabric. They would not ask 'how' because they knew how, by the power of God. They knew the story is not some trick or puzzle to be worked out. They knew the right question to ask: not how is it done? but what does it mean?

What can it mean? Mark makes this very clear to, by giving us not only the sense of what Jesus said, but the actual word, as uttered by the Lord. Ephaphtha. Open up!

So often we close ourselves off to God. We resist his will. We avoid his claims on our lives. We skirt round or steer clear of what challenges the Gospel presents to us. It is not that we are wilful, wicked people. It's just that we prefer to keep something back. We go so far. But only so far. We know that we should be generous, but we cannot be sacrificial. We try to be curteous and tolerant, but we find it hard, so hard, to love our enemies. We like our home comforts, not just the physical, material ones, but also our spiritual comforts and security. Our hearts remain closed.

Open up! Ephaphtha! Jesus calls us to cast off our fears and anxieties, to allow his grace to enter us, to be filled with the love of his most Sacred Heart, to put our own comfort second and the promptings and pushings of his grace first. He calls us not to resist what we know to be right. He charges us not to relax in the security of habit and inaction but to embrace his will.

Courage! Do not be afraid! are the words of Isaiah which begin the first reading. Words with which John Paul II begin his papacy. Words which challenge us now. We need courage not to venture into the unknown, but in order to see clearly what we truly know. We need to open our hearts to hear his heart speaking to us.

Open up! Ephaphtha! Courage! Do not be afraid! For the Lord your God is coming. He is coming to save you!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ordinary Time Sunday 22

This people, Jesus says, honours me with lip-service

Lip-service! We all know what that means. What a wonderful English phrase it is. The service of the lips and nothing more. Words and nothing more. Ritual and nothing more. Empty words and phrases. Worship that is worthless.

There is a way of arguing, of making a point, which by slipping in just one little word seeks to undermine and devalue the other point of view.

Let me explain.

There are several words which can be used, but they all amount to the same thing. The words are just, or mere, or only or perhaps some other word or phrase which means basically the same thing: this, and nothing more. Politicians and campaigners often use this way of speaking. You can read and here them every day in the newspapers, on television and radio.

In this way of arguing, an apology can be said to be 'just words', a great ceremony 'mere ritual', an important person 'just a man'. The little word plays a trick on the listener. It appears to make a statement of fact, whereas actually it is just an opinion: every apology is words - but just words? Every ceremony is ritual, but mere ritual? Every famous person is a human being, but just a man (or woman)?

This way of making a point is basically a form of trickery. It has a technical, latin, name reductio ad absurdum - reduced to the absurd. It is like saying that football is only 22 men chasing a pig's bladder round a field for 90 minutes. The statement is true, but it tells us nothing about why football is important to people. The word 'only' hides a real concern for understanding.

So it is possible to describe things in such a way to make them appear pointless or worthless, empty and foolish. Words and actions, if they are only words and actions, can be very empty. Lip-service. Worthless worship. It does not mean, of course, that the words themselves mean nothing, or that there is no point in ritual at all. Jesus is not condemning here formal worship or spoken prayer. But he is saying that if our hearts are far from God, then we are little more than hypocrites.

True worship, true service, living liturgy must always be filled with love from the heart. We know this from our very ordinary lives. 'Sorry' can be said grudgingly, out of duty, or with deep sorrow. 'Congratulations' can be uttered with joy, out of politeness or even with bitterness. A handshake can be warm and welcoming, or formal and cold. A kiss can express the depth of love, or be an act of betrayal. Because it is possible to give them emptiness, does not mean that they are always so, or are even meant to be.

And indeed, saying the words, following customs, observing the rituals can actually lead us into not only good habits, but good attitudes. By observing our traditions we may actually come first to understand, and then to mean what we say.

The challenge for us is for our words not to be mere utterances, but words which come from the heart. Lying is wrong, not only because it is meant to deceive, but because our words do not match our hearts. It is good to be polite, but it is better to love - even to love our enemies. Taking part in the Mass, in the sacraments is one thing, but to be open our hearts to God's grace is what it is really about.

There is one last thing I want to say. There has been a lot of fuss in the Catholic press in recent weeks about the bishops' dcecision to move some of the Holydays from Weekdays to Sundays, and a lot ot the complaints have talked about the obligation, about people no longer being willing to make sacrifices to go to Mass in the week, and so. Oh, this is all so negative! 'Love the Mass' wrote John Paul II. The obligation of the Mass is to lead us into love - but without love, we are nothing.