“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
For God’s own reasons (inexplicable to us) God loved the world (all creation) from the very beginning. In more scientific terms God loves all matter and whatever matter produced, developed into or evolved into, from the very beginning.
Love (God’s love) was the trigger, the motivation, the catalyst for creation. Love seeks reciprocation. Inanimate, non-sentient and sentient creation reciprocate God’s love be being true to their nature (e.g. a stone exists as a stone and does not try to be a plant. )
Intelligent creation (human beings) can also recognise and understand God’s goodness and love and reciprocate in like manner.
From the very beginning God’s motivation was, and is, the sharing of God’s life, existence, being and love. This involved God’s revealing Itself (demonstrating what God is like) to creation. Firstly by the work of God’s hands (creation itself), secondly through the writings of Scripture (the Bible etc.) and thirdly through the Incarnation (God becoming a human being and being born, living and dying among us).
The Incarnation was not an antidote, an adjustment, a repair job necessitated by the fall of man ( Original sin). The Incarnation was part of God’s plan from the very beginning (part of God’s ongoing plan of self-revelation). God’s plan for creation was not and never will be disrupted or put in jeopardy by anything human beings did or will do or not do.
Salvation is knowing God through God’s self-revelation and responding to this knowledge in spirit and in truth. “This is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” …… “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light.”
God is light, God is truth, God is straightforwardness, God is genuine, God is authentic. Worshipping God is not about doing certain things or acting in a certain way. It is about being a certain sort of person.
“Jesus said to her. Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
That is why Jesus said; “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This is about genuinely putting others first. Genuinely being compassionate. Genuinely being forgiving. Genuinely being tolerant. Genuinely being generous. It is not just about acting in a loving way but being genuinely loving. Not just about donating to the needy but believing that what is yours is only held in stewardship for helping others. Etc.
This is the cross that Jesus tells his followers they must take up. The cross is self-denial. The cross is selflessness. The cross is putting the needs and the wellbeing of others before one’s own. This is what ‘losing ones life’ for Jesus sake means. By being genuinely
generous, putting others and their needs first, being unselfish, one is taking up one’s cross and following Jesus.
Religion is worshipping God in spirit and in truth.
Religions are human organisations which seek to guide me towards worshiping God in spirit and in truth. Religions are there to constantly reminding me what worshipping God in spirit and in truth means. Religions are there to help me to worship God in spirit and in truth. Religions are there to help me to take up my cross every day and follow Jesus of Nazareth.
All four Gospels relate the incident in the temple in Jerusalem because they saw it as having major symbolic consequences for Jews and Christians alike. The Jews saw it as a rejection of the Temple as the centre of their religion, as the dwelling place of their God, as the major unifying factor of their nation.
Even at that time Jews came in their thousands from all over the world to offer sacrifice and prayer in the temple, especially for the great feast of the Passover when this incident occurred.
It is reckoned that at that time, during Passover week, the population of Jerusalem jumped from 20 thousand to 120 thousand. It was a time of extreme political and religious tension when every available soldier and policeman was on constant duty.
By his actions and words, that day in the Temple, Jesus of Nazareth effectively and openly rejected all this cherished belief and custom.
Being immediately aware of the meaning of his words and actions the temple guards and authorities immediately descended on him demanding a spectacular sign from heaven (some jaw dropping miracle) showing that he had authority from God for doing what he had just done.
Jesus’ reply was ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’
The meaning of these words were understood by the followers of Jesus a week later when he was executed, buried and arose from the dead after three days.
From now on the Temple; the dwelling of God, is the person of Jesus of Nazareth. From now on true worship is not that offered in the old temple in Jerusalem such as burnt offerings and the sacrifice of animals, not long prayers and much singing of psalms, not clouds of instance and solemn and protracted liturgies and cultic warship. From now on the Temple is the person of Jesus of Nazareth who lives among us and in whom God lives in His fullness. From now on the temple or the church or the mosque are just convenient buildings where the children of God meet to give praise and thanks to their God. True worship is following in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, walking hand in hand with Jesus of Nazareth, living in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. True worship is living in constant awareness that we are all one family, God’s Family. That we are all responsible for one another. That all we have is a gift from our God and must be shared with generosity. From now on there is only one commandment, one precept, one teaching – ‘But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who
hate you. bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you …. then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.’
I well know that I will never fully comply with this. Just as I well know that I will never win the half marathon or even the 10 k. fun run. But that need not stop one from running.
Why do we say that the Mass is central to our Catholic Faith?
This is so because everything that God has ever done or said is encapsulated, summarised, condensed, in the one act or event of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
God my Creator’s last word, final testament, definitive act, most visible demonstration of His concern, care and commitment to my total welfare is the crucifixion.
As St. Paul says in Rom. 5; ’For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’
The Mass is what we do to remember, to re-enact, to re-present the crucifixion, in the way that Jesus of Nazareth asked us to do it.
At the Last Supper, taking bread he shared it among them to eat saying ‘this is my body which will be given up for you.’ ( given up for you tomorrow on the cross). Then taking the wine he poured some for each of them to drink saying ‘this is my blood which will be shed for you.’ ( shed for you tomorrow on the cross). Then he added ‘do this in memory of me.’
This act (the Mass) which we do in memory of him is the simple enactment or representation of the Last Supper. The Last Supper is the symbolic reenactment or representation of what was to happen the following day on the cross.
Therefore our eyes and mind should be focused on the crucifix during mass rather than on the bread and wine. The crucifixion is what is really happening, the bread and wine are symbols re-presenting the crucifixion.
(That is why there is always a crucifix on or near the altar during Mass.)
The original Mass was a group of people sitting round the kitchen table in a private house, reading from some part of the Old Testament, singing a few psalms and sharing a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine while repeating the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. The principal emotion or motivation was gratitude and thanksgiving for the great things God had and is doing for them. Then they left, each going their own way, to live and spread the good news of the kingdom of God.
Because of large numbers, big churches and the accumulation over the years of prayers and some out of date symbols, this simple act of remembrance and gratitude is not easily discernible today. One has to work at it and concentrate closely.
Human nature being human nature, one’s motivation and gratitude at any particular Mass, can vary from strong to non existent. The latter is where faith and raw commitment come into play. (One might say, just like married life ).
The first part of today’s Gospel reading is totally symbolic in nature.
I paraphrase it.
Soon after his nomination by John the Baptist as ‘The One Who Was To Come,’ Jesus needed to think and pray about this new calling. So he went off by himself for a while.
He was well aware of the dangers attached to this calling and the many enemies he would make.
He was sorely tempted to just forget about it and disappear back to Nazareth and the quiet life there. But he realised that if he did that he would forever be plagued with regrets and guilt for failing to respond to God’s calling. So trusting in God’s goodness and help he made his decision and went back to join John the Baptist at the Jordan.
The second part of today’s Gospel reading is a very brief synopsis of the public life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Soon after John was arrested and imprisoned, Jesus went to Galilee (his home province). There he spent most of the rest of his short life moving about in the towns and villages doing good and speaking of the Kingdom of God.
If I do not grasp something of the meaning and reality of the Kingdom of God then I have missed what Christ’s coming and his message is about.
The Kingdom of God is here. I am in the Kingdom of God. Those yet to be born, we now alive on this earth, and those gone before us into Eternal Life, are all part of the one reality – the Kingdom of God. Call it God’s family, call it the Mystical Body of Christ, call it Eternal Life, call it the Communion of Saints, call it the Holy Trinity family, call it the Life of God. In the Kingdom of God we are all brothers and sisters. In the Kingdom of God there is no Jew or Gentile, no black or white or brown, no male or female. All are Gods children sharing in God’s Eternal Life. The Kingdom of God is God looking with delight on his beloved children, all different, all loved, all cherished.
The same is true for the whole of creation. All things, great and small, belong to the Kingdom of God.
The message, the invitation, is to live out our lives here on earth as members of, as part of, the Kingdom of God.
Why not let our parish be the visible embodiment of the Kingdom of God.
Why not live here and now as we will live when we rise with glorified bodies.
Why not go about doing good and speaking of the Kingdom of God when the opportunity presents itself.
I did mention last weekend that the Mass is the official, and symbolic act of gratitude, of God’s family in a particular area.
I also mentioned that down the centuries this official act of thanksgiving has accumulated various additives and accretions. The latter did have meaning and relevance at the time. However this relevance faded with time but the accretion remained. ( For example the official opening of parliament while being colourful, is for most people largely unintelligible). The power of symbols tends to be lost as time passes. Then new relevant symbols are needed but rarely initiated.
The original Mass was simply a meal of bread and wine shared together in someones home. The sort of meal shared with family and friends.
This shared meal was in direct response to the meal of bread and wine shared by Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples on Holy Thursday evening just before his arrest and execution. After this meal he asked them to do this in memory of him.
This memory of him is, that he was sent by the Father to bring us the Good News and all that this entails (as we saw for the last few weeks). This memory includes God’s total commitment to my welfare even if it requires the ultimate sacrifice – execution on a cross.
So Mass is remembering what God has done for me and us and saying thank you.
This shared meal expresses our unity as God’s family here in Corsham and our shared sense of gratitude.
This is simple, straightforward, crystal clear and effective. Or should be.
Some of the historical and outdated accretions were removed after Vatican 11 but quite a few still remain. These continue to obscure the essential nucleus of the Mass which is a simple shared meal.
Of course we human beings, both laity and clergy, become attached to our out of date, historical, and now irrelevant customs. Down the centuries laws and regulations are formulated as to the clothes that must be worn, what the bread must be like, what strength the wine must be, approved suppliers, what the make up of the candles must be, what the Ash Wednesday ashes must be like and how produced, Mass vessels, altar cloths etc etc must be this way and that way.
What the Mass is and what it is about gets lost in the dense vegetation and verbiage. How much more out of touch can one get than having a get together meal with your family and insisting that you speak in Latin throughout the meal; a language which none of them know!!
For the time being we are more or less stuck with what we have as regards the Mass.
The trick is to train oneself to see through all the shrubbery and recognise the simple meal of bread and wine shared together in grateful remembrance of our God’s goodness to us.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”
This means that salvation is not and cannot be a reward for good works.
Catholic teaching is that faith or justification or salvation is a free gift from God.
Catholic teaching also requires good works for salvation.
This does not mean that by good works I can merit or gain or win eternal salvation.
Faith is a free gift from God. By faith in God I realise and believe in the many gifts which God my Creator has freely given me. I am free to accept or reject these free gifts. Believing in and accepting these free gifts will inevitably bring about a response from me. This response can only be gratitude. Gratitude naturally gives rise to respect and liking. This will naturally lead me to seek to please the giver of the gifts. This seeking to please the giver of the gifts leads to what we call good works. Therefore in this sense only do we understand the phrase ‘faith and good works are necessary for salvation.’
It is a natural progression. They are part of one and the same thing.
This understanding is widely overlooked, but it is a huge and all important difference.
Consider the following carefully;
1) I believe in God and in the free gifts of God. I understand and accept these free gifts. Out of gratitude to God for his goodness and generosity I strive to please God in every way I can.
2) I believe in God and the gifts of God. I want these gifts very badly. I believe that I have to obey God if I want to gain these gifts. My motivation is self interest. I am in constant fear that I will offend God and thus lose these gifts.
The first is the ‘Good News of great joy for all the people’ brought to us by Jesus of Nazareth. The second is the Old Testament belief and understanding of God.
The key here is a sense of gratitude. Gratitude to my God for His many free gifts.
To feel gratitude to someone I must have an understanding of what that person has done for me. I must regularly remind myself of, and think about, what that person has done for me. I must fan this flame of gratitude in my heart until it becomes the principle motivation in my life. This constant recalling of and increasing understanding of God’s free gifts to me must be the principle ingredient of all my prayer. Surely this was why Jesus ‘went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.’
All the above is just common sense. Something we are all aware of in our everyday relationships with people. Do you want your marriage partner and your children to like you and enjoy your company or do you want them to fear and obey you? Do you want your friends to accompany you on your holiday because they enjoy your company or because they are hoping that you will pay for them? Do you want to receive Christmas gifts because of the gratitude the givers feel towards you or because they are expecting much greater gifts in return? You be the judge.
Our weekly Mass is all about gratitude for gifts received.
It recounts to us, it reminds us – we God’s family here in Corsham – of God’s many gifts to us and expresses our gratitude, in an official and symbolic way. It is the act, the official act, not of individuals, but of a whole congregation together.
This is expressed together as a congregation when, led by the presider (the Priest), we all respond with one voice at the beginning of the canon of the Mass; The Lord be with you. And with your spirit. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just.
In all things relating to God and religion it is not what I do that matters. It is why I do it.
Today I continue with what I said last weekend.
Jesus of Nazareth was sent by the Father to bring us ‘Good News.’
The Good news is that I am a child of God. God is intimately involved in my everyday life. God is totally dedicated to my physical and spiritual welfare. As a child of God I will inherit the Kingdom of my Father. This involves resurrection from death and sharing in the Eternal life of my God.
This is good news.
But that is not all. All the above is a free gift. It is not necessary to win or merit or gain it. It is a gift given to, or offered to, every human being by the Creator, with no strings attached.
Like every gift ( big or small ) it can be accepted or rejected by the intended receiver.
This is the teaching of Christianity. This is the Good News brought to us, from the Father, by Jesus of Nazareth. It is crystal clear. It is transparent. it is straightforward. it is unambiguous.
Today we speak about acceptance or rejection of the Good News. We speak of my response to this Good News. Whether I accept or reject the Good news, the consequences for me are basically unknown and unknowable in any detail.
At this stage we find that what is crystal clear and transparent becomes muddied and opaque. This is the result of human imagination and casuistry. Human beings, be they the authors of Scripture or theologians, try to second guess God. A typical example is the idea of Heaven and Hell. We human beings demand reward for what we consider as doing good and punishment for what we consider as doing bad. We transfer or attribute our own attitudes and biases to God. This is called anthropomorphism. Another example is the attributing to God, in the Bible, of the characteristics and outlook of medieval monarchs and rulers. Hence eternal life with God if you obey Him and the fires of hell if you disobey him. This is all very understandable concerning us human beings but must not be attributed to Our God.
If you want to cling on to the idea of heaven and hell as places of reward or punishment then at least try to understand it as accepting or deliberately rejecting a precious gift.
God is totally free. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God we too share in this freedom. This demands that we have choice. We can accept or reject.
Recently there is a lot of talk about robots especially human like robots or androids. Imagine a marriage partner who is an android. There would be total obedience, total compliance, total dependability. There would be no rows, no inconsistencies, no surprises, no resistance, no compassion, no concern, no love.
God does not want androids. God wants the hurly burly of human relationships. The joy and sorrow of love and rejection. The heat and cold of human interaction.
If I exercise God’s gift of free will to accept God’s gifts then I am using the gift which God gave me. If I exercise the gift of free will to reject God’s gift then I am also using the gift which God gave me. So why should God punish me for using his gift of free will?
I hope I have given you some idea of the futility of trying to second guess God. Once we leave the crystal clear waters of the ‘Good News’ we just stir up mud and have no idea where we place our feet.
So I recommend that rather that wondering about and questioning the ins and outs of the Good News ( Which will only leave you as wise about it as you are now) we concentrate on our response to the Good News. This is the heart of the matter. This is what religion is about.
This again is very simple and crystal clear. It is what my normal, everyday, natural response to any gift is – gratitude. Gratitude gives birth to respect, appreciation and affection which can grow into love. And who knows what delights love will lead to.
Jesus of Nazareth did not come to start a new religion.
He did not come to bring us new doctrine.
He came to bring us ‘Good News.’
What is ‘good news.’
( Imagine you are in a dead end job. You and your family are struggling to make ends meet. You constantly fear eviction from your house because of arrears in rent. Then you get an official letter from an attorney in America informing you that a far out relative, of whom you have never heard, has died leaving three million dollars. After a long search you are found to be the nearest living relative. After costs you are due two million dollars and sixty five cents.)
This will certainly qualify as good news. This well certainly change your life. It will involve a change in attitude.
(Imagine you are diagnosed with cancer. Tests suggest it is very aggressive with a very poor prognosis. You are operated on with little hope of success. Post operatively you are informed that it is nothing as aggressive as feared and was successfully removed in its entirety and there is no reason why you should not live to a ripe old age.)
This will certainly qualify as good news. This will change your life. This will involve a change in attitude.
What ‘Good News’ did Jesus of Nazareth bring me?
For me the Good News is that we are all God’s children. We are all brothers and sisters. My Creator is intimately involved in every aspect of my life. My God is totally committed to my physical and spiritual wellbeing.
This situation is not and cannot be merited, achieved, gained, or earned in any way, no matter what I do. It is pure gift. Given freely with no strings attached. The only input I have is to accept the free gift or reject it.
I think that this is great news.
This Good News has the added perk of involving resurrection from death and sharing Eternal Life with God.
To be authentic the motivation for all religion must be gratitude.
Unfortunately religion is often presented as the way to merit or gain or win Eternal Life.
This is false religion and is insulting to God.
All theology and Scripture must be interpreted in the light of the above facts. If theology, doctrine, or scripture does not seem to fit in with the above then these discrepancies must be reappraised and reinterpreted.
Basically prayer must be contemplation of, thinking about, these gifts from God so that our hearts might overflow with gratitude.
Irrespective of what my life is like, the very fact that I live, have being, exist, am conscious of myself and of things around me is, in itself a fantastic gift.
‘Look, the Lamb of God!’
‘They followed Jesus.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Where are you staying?’
‘Come and you will see.’
‘They spent that day with him.’
When John the Baptist spoke of the one who was to come and then pointed him out, John’s many followers were naturally curious.
Today we see how two of them became followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
This pattern was probably followed by many others.
They do not seem to have been persuaded by theological arguments, quotations from scripture or miraculous works. They were curious, they saw how he lived and heard what he said and were convinced.
We have the very same when John the Baptist (now in prison) had doubts about Jesus from reports he heard. Jesus told the people John sent to question him, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see.’
This seems to be the pattern that Jesus followed; People heard about him from others. They were curious. They came to him, they saw and heard and became his followers.
What Pope Francis is trying to do – what our own Bishop is trying to do with the new three year programme, ‘A people of Hope’ and ‘A future full of Hope,’ is to persuade us to come to Jesus of Nazareth so that we can see and hear.
As you well know Jesus of Nazareth is no longer visibly present.
Jesus of Nazareth is present today in his followers. In groups of people who are dedicated to living in accordance with the example and the word of Jesus of Nazareth.
‘Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age’ he told his followers.
So if people want to see and hear Jesus of Nazareth they have to do so be looking at us and listening to us. That is by looking at and listening to those groups of people who claim to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth. That includes us – the people of St. Patrick’s parish.
So to put it in a nutshell, what Pope Francis is trying to do and our Bishop is trying to do, is to persuade our church ( St. Patrick’s, here in Corsham) to be a place where people can come to hear Jesus of Nazareth and to see how Jesus of Nazareth lives.
Unfortunately for you and I this cannot be achieved by simply reforming our church’s hierarchy. It must involve a personal conversion for you and I.
We can have a brilliant Vatican leadership and administration, a brilliant Diocesan leadership and administration but if I and you do not reflect the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in our church and in our lives, it is to no avail. We must make it possible for people to come to our parish and there see and hear Jesus of Nazareth.
How just one of us acts, what just one of us says, the attitude of just one of us is what attracts a person to Jesus of Nazareth or puts them off. So each one of us is directly responsible as to whether people can see and hear Jesus of Nazareth in our Church in our parish, or not. This is called evangelisation.
If you like you can take the story of the coming of the Magi as symbolic rather than historical.
For the Jews the Magi would be strange people – pagans who knew nothing of the God of Israel or the Scriptures. Seekers of truth and wisdom through astronomy, astrology, mathematics and other, to the Jews of that time, mysterious sciences.
For the authors of the New Testament they symbolised the coming of peoples from all nations to belief in, and worship of, Jesus of Nazareth; the Messiah.
These authors would have been very conscious of the prophesies concerning the Messiah as found in Psalm 71 and in Isaiah 60 which speaks of dignitaries or kings coming from afar bringing gifts to the Messiah.
It is disputed as to whether some strangers actually came from afar following some astronomical event (which were widely associated with the birth of a king or emperor) or that the authors of Matthew simply put it in as a suitable fulfilment of Old Testament Prophesy.
Either way doesn’t really matter as the aim is not historical fact but theological instruction.
For me there are two lessons in today’s Gospel reading which stand out.
Firstly it is of great importance to be a seeker of truth. My natural attitude should be, to quote Einstein “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.” The Magi travelled a long distance seeking the truth, not fearing what the truth might reveal but ready to accept the truth and change if necessary. Science is the seeking of truth. I have heard many times ‘I do not believe in a God, I am into science.’ Such a one understands neither science nor theology. A great thing about science is that it will debunk false theology. Good theology will always dovetail with good science.
If there is an apparent contradiction then either science or theology must reappraise their conclusions.
The second lesson from today’s Gospel reading is that truth will not always be welcomed.
King Herod and the political establishment of the day did not want truth. (their response to truth was to kill it).
The religious establishment did not want truth – they already knew it all ( they didn’t even bother to send someone to Bethlehem to look into the matter.)
Primarily Christianity is a seeking of truth – truth about God and about man.
Even in today’s allegedly ‘enlightened’ world, anyone who openly professes their religious belief and especially tries to live by it, will encounter ridicule and even persecution of one sort or another. It can often go under the label of ‘peer pressure’ and can be found even in our own schools and homes. Being a Christian requires one to be morally and mentally strong.
As regards the gifts which the Magi brought, one mum remarked ‘typical men. It never occurred to them to bring nappies.’