Easter is above all, a festival of light. This light signiﬁes the clarity and understanding brought to us by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. At the time of Jesus it was important to determine the arrival of daybreak when the ﬁrst offerings were to be made in the temple. A rabbi asked his students what criteria might be used to determine that the night had ended. One student said the night had ended when there was enough light to tell a goat from a sheep. Another said when you could distinguish an apple tree from a ﬁg tree. The rabbi gave this answer: `A new day has arrived when you can look at a human face, and see a brother or a sister. If you are unable to see a brother or a sister in every human face, you are still in the darkness of night.’ How do my present day attitudes look in this light? Has a new day arrived for me?
Today is Holy Thursday. Today is the start of the Last Supper, arrest, trial, sentencing, execution, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – God made Man. Today’s ceremony is a representation of His Last Supper. His Last Supper is a symbolic enactment of the events of Thursday evening through to Sunday morning. It is a re-enactment in signs and symbols of the latter events. It is the way he gave us to remember Him and these events. ‘Do this in memory of me’ he said. Today I want to highlight one aspect of receiving Holy Communion which is generally not emphasised. The consecration of the bread and wine separately symbolises the death of Jesus. Separation of body and blood inevitably brings death. Just before Communion the priest drops a small piece of the host into the chalice while saying ‘May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.’ This symbolises the resurrection – the reunion of body and blood symbolises the return of life. So when I receive Communion I am united with the Risen Lord – with the Lord who is now seated at the right hand of the Father in Eternal Life. In more mundane terms it is being given the title deed to the house; to the property. It is now mine. I am already living in Eternal life. I am already a sharer in the Eternal Life of the Father just as Christ is a sharer in the Eternal Life of the Father. Receiving the Eucharist symbolises an already existing situation. Holy Communion symbolises my already possession of eternal life. The actual giving of eternal life now, and the guarantee of the future possession of eternal life. This sounds funny but when I receive Communion I sometimes (in my own mind) wander around in Eternal Life greeting my deceased relatives and friends and chatting with them. ‘Surﬁng the cloud’ as you might say. (Or maybe I am just a candidate for the psychiatric ward!!) So receiving The Eucharist, plants me spiritually and solidly in Eternal Life – in union with my God – I await my physical resurrection to experience this with my physical senses. Christianity is living out this spiritual reality in my daily life. Struggling to get across to the Apostles what Christianity means in practise, Jesus jumped up, grabbed a basin of water and a towel and washed their feet. ‘I have given you an example he said.’ It is a pipe dream or it is what gives meaning and purpose to life.
Today I talk about our spiritual life. For hundreds of years our Christianity has based its spirituality on the monastic model of spirituality. A bunch of men or women living together in community (in a convent or monastery), spending maybe four, ﬁve, six hours each day in prayer and meditation, was seen as the ideal way of life for a Christian. It was regarded as the best and most spiritual way to live. This left 95%-99% of christians struggling with a way of life which was regarded as basically inimical to spiritual development, that is to having a close relationship with God. One was encouraged, even required, to set time aside for prayer, meditation, the mass, sacraments and other cultic practises in order to re-energise ones spiritual life. Just like recharging a battery. Few, immersed in the struggles, joys, duties and responsibilities of family life had the opportunity or the desire to do this on any regular basis . In this way everyday daily life became detached from the spiritual life. Became detached from the things of God. My ﬁrst consciousness of an alternative, and for me, more attractive, spiritual life, came when, in the nineteen ﬁfties I read a book by an American parish priest. Lacking the time or energy for the approved monastic style of spirituality he talked of making his everyday parish activities his prayer and his spiritual nourishment. For example in those days before Eucharistic Ministers were taught of he had to do a lot of bringing communion to the elderly and the housebound. So instead of becoming hassled and annoyed with driving in city trafﬁc and rushing to make time for the required periods of prayer, he would belt out the hymn ‘Sweet Sacrament Divine’ at the top of his voice as he drove along. This not only calmed him down physically but also gave him more spiritual nourishment than the required periods of prayer which he constantly failed to perform. In other words he made his work as parish priest, with and among his parishioners, his prayer and source of spiritual nourishment. I too will always be trying to play catchup, always be experiencing a spiritual lacuna in my life, always feeling that I should be doing something else, someplace else, until such a time as I make my everyday life to be my prayer life and my spiritual life also. For example delivering your children to school in the morning and collecting them in the afternoon can be a hassle, or on the other hand, it can be doing exactly what you should be doing at this particular time, what God wants you to be doing at this particular time, what is the very most important thing for you to be doing at this time. Doing it with good humour, a grateful heart, and gentle demeanour is your prayer at this particular time. That is where you get your spiritual nourishment at this time. Extending this attitude to everything I do and say every day is, I think, the way for us. What I should be doing or have to be doing at this particular time in this particular place must be my prayer and my source of spiritual nourishment. I do it in union with my God by dipping in and out of the presence of my God, even if just momentarily, from time to time. This attitude of mind is also known as walking in the presence of God – living in the presence of God. To set aside time for formal prayer is good and highly recommended but not always achievable, even in ones own home. Making my everyday activities my prayer, turns my whole day into a prayer and keeps the presence of my God at least in the background of my mind and consciousness. With some effort I may ﬁnd myself living my whole day in the presence of my God, even when the amount of time when I am consciously in communication with God may be relatively short. This type of spirituality can work for me whether I am lecturing in philosophy or shovelling manure.
Today’s Gospel reading is a fascinating and detailed account of the Pharisaic mindset. One’s very erudition in a subject can blind one to reason and right judgement. One’s expertise is ones pride. These two combined to bring tunnel vision and refusal to see the obvious. Today’s Gospel is about seeing. A blind man, born to darkness all his life, sees. The Pharisees, as a group, priding themselves on their knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and their expertise in distinguishing right from wrong and truth from falsehood are blind to the obvious. If I think carefully and truthfully over my life I can ﬁnd occasions when I too have fallen into the same trap. I know what to do, I understand the situation, I know who is at fault, only I can solve the problem, my line of reasoning is the correct one, my response was the only possible response, I know right from wrong etc. (Every taxi driver in the country knows the solution to all the country’s problems) Looking back now I can feel the prods of guilt, the uncomfortable waves of embarrassment, at my failure or deliberate refusal, to see. Parallels of today’s Gospel can be seen all around us in disputes between individuals, companies, tribes, nations, political parties, churches etc. not only between them but internally also. We Catholics must not, as a church or as individuals, be too strident in our claims to being ‘The One True Church.’ History shows, as does our own experience, that our claimed oneness and truthfulness is a well patched garment. Todays Gospel reading illustrates nicely the words of Jesus of Nazareth; “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” It is well known that one can ﬁnd more faith in the pew at the back of the church than in the book lined study of the theologian, the parish priest, the archbishop or the cardinal. The religious Pharisees answered (the once blind man) and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.” ‘Threw him out’ was not just telling him to ‘get the hell out of here’, it was a formal excommunication from Judaism. Jesus hearing this went looking for him until he found him. Having spoken together the man said; “Lord I believe, and he worshipped him.” Jesus did not even bother to see the Pharisees. They were blind and couldn’t see.
Todays Gospel reading is so packed with symbolism, with references to the tribal history of Israel, with allusions to traditional practises, gender inequality, and historical tribal animosities that I will not even try to make sense of it for you. That is unless you have a couple of hours to spare. A great theme or symbol in the Bible are water. For areas like the middle east which are desert, semi-arid or subject to periodic and prolonged droughts, water is very much bound up with life and health. People are accustomed to travelling long distances to obtain water. It is a great blessing, equivalent to life itself. Having a constant and dependable source of water was a very great gift indeed. Even here in England if you have ever experienced dry taps for a short period you will get some idea of the importance of water in our lives. We have all experienced the rejuvenating effects of an early morning shower. Jesus uses this constant preoccupation with water in his teaching and parables. “Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” We all have a great thirst for love, for compassion, for recognition, for appreciation, for respect. We cannot get enough of these things. The lack or denial of these things, especially as we grow up, can have grave consequences in our lives. Can cause great damage. Jesus of Nazareth claims to have, and freely offers us, all these things. As he said “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” But do I have the bucket to lower into the well of living water? There always seems to be this hitch. God’s gifts are there before me. They are freely offered. But I lack the motivation, the ability, the will, the courage, to reach out and take them. I do not have the bucket and am not willing to go to the trouble of going and getting one. I instinctively understand that accepting God’s living water will mean surrendering my life to God. Handing over control to God. Saying goodbye to self-interest. As Jesus said “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me.” But I don’t want this. I am not ready for this. I like to dip in and out as I feel like it. So what’s the solution? I don’t know. I am in the same boat as the rest of you. The saints and Jesus of Nazareth tell us that handing over control to God is the path to true freedom – freedom to love and to be loved.
Todays Gospel reading is full of symbolism. Without understanding the meaning of these symbols it doesn’t make much sense. Jesus goes up a high mountain. Jesus is often depicted as going up a mountain or hill when he wishes to make an important speech or perform an important action. The mountain signiﬁes a place of revelation. It brings to mind mount Sinai where God appeared to Moses and to the people of Israel. Where he made a covenant with them and gave them the ten commandments. Where his presence was signiﬁed by peals of thunder, ﬂashes of lightening and dense clouds. It does not necessarily mean that he actually climbed all these mountains or hills. If it did, then he was quite a mountaineer. He brought along Peter, James and John to witness what was to happen. He was transﬁgured in their sight ; his face and clothes shining brightly. Moses and Elijah appeared with him, talking with him. Moses represents the laws of the Old Testament and Elijah the prophesy of the Old Testament. Moses and Elijah were not transﬁgured. This signiﬁes that Jesus was more important that Moses and Elijah. In the Old Testament nobody was more important than Moses and Elijah except God. Peter, missing this signiﬁcance, suggested that they build three shelters one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. ( This assumes that Peter regarded them as equals.) This building of shelters refers to the very important Jewish feast of Tabernacles which happened at harvest time every year when the grape and olive pickers lived in little shelters in the ﬁelds until the harvest was gathered. It was a time of joy and camaraderie. It harkened back to when the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years and lived in temporary shelters. Peter had no sooner ﬁnished speaking when a bright cloud enveloped them ( the cloud signifying the presence of God) and a voice from the cloud said “this is my son, listen to him.” ( this also correcting Peter’s assumption that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were equals). The great teachers of the Old Testament were Moses and Elijah. Now God has replaced them by sending His own Son to be our teacher and exemplar. The one who must be listened to is now Jesus of Nazareth and not Moses or Elijah. The three Apostles were terriﬁed and fell face down to the ground. But Jesus came and touched them telling them not to be afraid. Jesus touched the sick and brought them healing and joy. Here his touch frees his Apostles from fear of the God, often depicted in the Old Testament as vengeful, cruel and judgemental. The God of Jesus was ‘Abba’ the beloved parent. This clash between the God of Moses (the God of Law) and the God of Jesus of Nazareth (the God of Mercy) was a major problem in the early church. The ﬁrst council of the Church ( the council of Jerusalem) was devoted to solving this clash of opinion and attitude. One section of the church ( Jewish and conservative) wanted Christians to observe all the traditional laws and regulations of the Old Testament ( putting new wine into old wineskins, as Jesus himself described it ). The other section ( mostly Gentiles or non Jews ) wanted none of this, as they regarded such traditions and regulations as irrelevant. It is uncanny that we have the very same problem in our church today. Pope Francis and his followers want us to put the new wine ( Christianity) into new wineskins. A group of cardinals, bishops, priests and some lay people want to hold on to the old wineskins at any cost. That is basically what the present debate and contention in our church is all about. This debate and contention is not necessarily bad. In fact it is good and healthy – as long as my side wins!!!
Today’s gospel reading illustrate symbolically the temptations that Jesus of Nazareth had to contend with all his life.
On examination we will find that they are the very same temptations every one of us has to deal with also, in one way or another, throughout our lives.
The first is the temptation to put my physical desires before the wellbeing of others. To put my self interest first. It concerns my physical appetites. Comfort, eating and drinking, sexual desire, dress, how I look, possessions. As usual, all these appetites are in themselves good and God given gifts. The problem is my allowing all or some of them to rule my life. I allow myself to become the slave of one or some of these appetites. Even worse, it damages or even ruins the lives of those closest to me. Galatians 5. “I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. … Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions. … In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
The second temptation is particularly applicable to religious leadership. Using God or the Church to promote ones own importance is a constant temptation. Religious organisations are tempted to put their own glorification, their own interests, before the glory of God. Church leaders can try and exercise control over everyday matters over which they have been given no authority. For example …… Church authorities have been given authority to lead people to God. They have been given authority to selflessly seek the total wellbeing of the ordinary members. The temptation is to overstep this.This can be true of all human organisations of course. The party, the company, the club, the religious organisation, can become more important than the members it is supposed to serve. People in leadership roles insist on clinging to power when well past their sell by date. I don’t think our Church or our parish should seek to publicise the good work that we do. I don’t think that, alluring as it can be, we should be speaking of how good we think we are, how well we think we are doing, what we think we have accomplished. A good antidote to this acclaim seeking is to read Mark 10: 17-22. “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, … You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honour your father and your mother. He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
The third temptation is the allure of power, of control, be it in the home, the church, the country or the world. Just look at our world today or any day. Is not the desire for more power, for more control, behind every military, diplomatic, political and economic move. Within our own church there is a struggle for control. Losing control is a great fear in each and every one of us.
Mark 9. “Then Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to
be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Luke 6. “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
I don’t think that, during this Lenten season, I will run out of issues that need to be addressed in my life.
Last week we spoke about the Canon of the Mass.
The Canon of the Mass makes present again, for our benefit today, the events of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday evening. The bread and wine – things essential for our life and wellbeing and symbolising the offering of our lives and possessions to our God – are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The separation of body and blood signifies the execution which Jesus underwent on Good Friday on a cross.
During the Canon, as well as following the words spoken by the priest, we might find it helpful to picture ourselves reclining at table with Jesus and the Apostles and participating in what is happening. The Apostles, although well aware of the danger they were in from the authorities while they were in Jerusalem, were unaware of events about to happen and the significance of what they were taking part in. We, on the other hand, are well aware of what is happening and of what is about to happen and their significance. The changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ signified his death on the cross which in turn signified the lengths our God was willing to go to in pursuit of our total wellbeing and in his stand in the fight against injustice and oppression. This he has asked me to do in remembrance of His trust-wordiness, faithfulness and total dedication to my welfare.
During the elevation of the body and blood of Christ after the words of consecration (the elevation of the bread and wine) it can be helpful to look on the crucifix and ask myself if this man, Jesus of Nazareth, who is willing to go to such extremes in pursuit of my total welfare, can be trusted. What more could he realistically do to win my total confidence in him and in his promises?
Should I not ask myself if the above is not sufficient to awaken in me a deep and abiding sense of gratitude to my God.
(As an aside, at this stage, it might also be helpful to consider how such a God could possibly be confused with the judgemental, accusatory and punishing god many of us were brought up to believe in).
The concluding part of the canon is when our offerings of thanksgiving now incorporated, or changed, into the total self offering of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is raised up by the priest and presented to God our Father as the ultimate expression of our gratitude.
Raising up the Baby and Blood of Jesus of Nazareth and our self – offering the priest intones:
‘Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.’ And God’s whole family here present respond all together in a joyous chorus; ‘Amen.’
This is called the great Amen and signifies our total agreement with, participation in and response to, all we have done and said.
We then move on directly to the Communion.
The Communion is God’s response to our gifts of gratitude to Him/Her.
God receives our gifts (signified by bread and wine). In doing so they are incorporated with, changed into, the self giving (the gifts) of Jesus of Nazareth and offered to us (God’s family here present) as our food and drink. This food and drink is now God’ only begotten son. This unites us with God the Son and thus unites us with the Holy Trinity. It makes us full participants in the life of God. It Makes us participants in the eternal life of God.
This means that symbolically, spiritually, we have already entered into the Eternal Life of God.
We are already in Heaven but cannot experience it physically until our bodies are glorified at the resurrection of the dead.
Receiving Holy Communion is a time of realisation. Realising that we are already one with our God, have already entered into Eternal Life together with and in unity with all our brothers and sisters here present and throughout the world and from all times, past, present and future.
Realising that we should now treat each other as fellow saints in heaven and as God’s beloved children. Realising that the promises of our God are already fulfilled in our lives in spiritual reality.
For the last seven weeks I have talked on the Mass. There is a lot more to be said about the Mass and many more, and different, approaches. I have given you, in these seven homilies, what I myself have found helpful. Some of it is not easily understood so I recommend that if you are serious about learning more about the Mass and about how you might participate more fully in the Mass I would recommend a rereading of these homilies.
We now come to the central part of the Mass.
This is when we offer praise and thanks to God our Father and Creator , through, in union with and in, Jesus Christ. We start with the preface, which like any preface is an introduction to what is to come.
‘The Lord be with you …..
Lift up your hearts …….
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God ……..’
After the preface we start the Canon of the Mass.
This is when we enter the realm of mystery. Thousands of books have been written, down the ages, about how this works but the element of mystery still remains.
It is all to do with Holy Thursday evening (the Last Supper) through to Easter Sunday morning (the Resurrection).
These three days encapsulated the reason for, the meaning of, and the results of the Incarnation.
For the two or three years of his public ministry, how Jesus of Nazareth lived, what he said and did throughout Galilee, guaranteed him the enmity of the political and religious leadership of the land. If today, I and you were to live, act and speak as He did, we too would incur the enmity of the political and religious leadership of this land.
He knew this. His Apostles and followers knew this. His mother and relations knew this.
His mother tried to talk sense to him. His relatives tried to talk sense to him. His apostles tried to talk sense to him and prevent him from going to Jerusalem. He could have quietly slipped away into any one of the neighbouring countries and lain low for a couple of years or so until the authorities forgot about him.
But that would mean surrendering to the forces of injustice, to the forces of oppression. Then the forces of evil would have vanquished him. The forces of evil would have won over the forces of good. Hatred would have defeated love, intolerance would have overcome tolerance, vengeance would have suppressed forgiveness.
So He remained true to the will of His Father irrespective of the consequences for Himself.
He lived as God lives, right up to the end.
And just as the forces of evil, injustice and oppression were congratulating themselves for their success in conquering Him and what He stood for, He arose triumphant from the tomb to lead his Apostles and followers and us today into His Kingdom of light, love and mutual forgiveness and to share in the eternal life of the Father.
This is what the canon of the Mass is about. It makes present for us today the events of Holy Thursday evening to Easter Sunday morning. We are able to relive these events in symbol. We are able to participate in and witness these events in signs.
This is a mystery.
We do it because He, Jesus of Nazareth, told us to do what He did at the Last Supper in memory of Him. In memory of his whole life among us. And especially in memory of his last three days.
At the Last Supper he did, in a symbolic way, what was about to happen to him in reality, starting that evening in the Garden of Gethsemane.
We continue with the talks on the Mass.
Having completed the first part of the Mass, we are anxious to forge ahead and demonstrate to our God how grateful we are for what our God has done for us.
The greatest way to thank someone for gifts received is to reciprocate with something which the giver of the gift has not got and very much desires.
We were brought up to believe that God has everything. But that is not true.
God is our Father and our Mother. What does a parent desire most in life? Above all else a parent desires the gratitude, respect, appreciation and if possible, the love of their children.
This is something which the parent has not yet got or has not yet received the fulness of. It is something which the parent cannot get a surfeit of. It is something which makes up for, which makes worth while, all the sacrifices, heartache and worry of child rearing. It brings fulfilment and joy to the parent.
God is my parent. My God can never get a surfeit of my gratitude, respect and love. It is the only thing my God desires from me and has not yet got or has not yet got a fulness of.
Now we move on to the second part of the mass – the bringing of the gifts.
What are these gifts? What is actually and visibly brought to the altar is bread and wine.
These are symbols. Bread and wine are food and drink. Food and drink are the two absolute necessities for life and wellbeing. By offering our God these things I are saying to God ‘I offer you my very life and being as a symbol of my gratitude for what you have done for me. From now on my life will be lived through, with and in Christ, in gratitude for your gifts to me – existence, life, resurrection from death and sharing in your eternal life,’ etc.
The offertory procession is a time of decision. Deciding for Christ. Breaking from a way of life that separates me from Christ. Deciding to try and abandon my hostilities, my envies, my jealousies, my greed, my selfishness and self – absorption. Deciding, to try to be forgiving, to be tolerant, generous and kind.
Mentally, I place these decisions for Christ in the hands of the bearers of the bread and wine, to be placed on the altar with the bread and wine, as an expression of my gratitude to my God. This, of course, is done in symbols. Symbols which I understand and which are meaningful to me.
In short, what I am doing and saying during the offertory is placing myself on the altar, with the bread and wine, as an offering to my God, for God to do with as God wishes. This is the sign or symbol of my gratitude. This is my way of saying thank you to my God and my Creator.
So the offertory procession is not for looking at the people who bring the gifts or seeing what they are wearing. The offertory procession is the time when I offer to my God something of myself as a sign of my gratitude.
The presider – the president – the priest, then takes the bread and wine, and raising them up offers them to our God as gifts brought by His family, here present, in gratitude for God’s goodness.
Then the priest says ‘Prey, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.’ And all of you, God’s family here present, respond with one voice; ‘May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good, and the good of all his holy church.’
Our sacrifice, our gifts, are always acceptable to our God as long as they are sincere and authentic and not just empty promises.