A spotless Rose is blowing Sprung from a tender root, Of ancient seers’ foreshowing, Of Jesse promised fruit; Its fairest bud unfolds to light Amid the cold, cold winter And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing, Whereof Isaiah said, Is from its sweet root springing In Mary, purest Maid; For through our God’s great love and might The blessed babe she bare us In a cold, cold winter’s night.
Another Christmas poem, this time from Germany. The poem takes us back to King David’s father, Jesse, thirty-times great-grandfather to Jesus. The Jesse tree picks out some of the ancestors for art works in stained glass, sculpture or painting, including Ruth, the foreigner from Moab, who was to become the grandmother of Jesse (Matthew 1:5). So much for any idea of pure Israelite blood in David’s line! In fact, the book of Ruth celebrates this foreign woman’s loyalty and goodness down through the ages and generations.
Mary, even more so than Ruth, stands as a Good Woman. ‘Spotless Rose’, like many of the titles given to Mary, may not appeal to your imagination. This lovely Scottish rose, sprung in a canal-side hedge, did not set me thinking about Mary. But when I wanted a photograph for the Spotless Rose, I knew where to find it. And maybe the next time I look at rose, a bell might ring in my mind.
Traditional German carol, translated by Catherine Winkworth.
We have come to the final element in the encounter between the rich young man and Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). It is significant that Jesus, despite – or because of – his love for the young man, does not make an exception for him, does not say, ‘Okay. I like you. I’ll make you a deal. You can keep all your wealth in reserve somewhere. Follow me anyway.’ No. Following Jesus and hoarding wealth are diametrically opposed. The poor have a claim on our material prosperity, according to Jesus (Mk 10: 21). A complete life-change must be undertaken by the wealthy that accommodates itself to others’ needs before a life lived with Jesus can be undertaken.
So: it looks pretty bad for the rich young man, whom I, too, have now begun to love. In losing Jesus he loses everything worth having, and his previously easy life suddenly becomes drenched in sorrow. Mark tells us that his face falls and he ‘goes away sad.’ I am certain that this is true.
But I still wonder: is it as bad as it looks for the rich young man? Is everything really over for him? I think of him reflecting on what he experienced with Jesus. He will not forget this encounter. He will remember it to the end of his life. And this may be his salvation.
Some final thoughts begin to take shape in my mind as I mentally say good-bye to a much-loved young man. I reflect that, ordinarily, the gospels show that some profound sorrow or disease – or both – is actually what opens people up to receive Jesus’ life, his love, his healing, his teaching about the Kingdom. For them, their woundedness, whether physical or moral or spiritual, is an unexpected blessing that enables them to gain the true treasure, which is Jesus.
But for others, the whole thing works in reverse–or it can. In the case of the rich young man, he comes to Jesus ‘nearly perfect,’ not conscious of woundedness or moral failings. When he leaves Jesus he feels much worse than he did when he arrived. He has been afflicted with a profound wound of sorrow. There are many, many untold stories in the gospels. We do not know exactly what happens to the rich young man after he ‘goes away sad.’ We know only that Jesus gives him the gift of a deep sorrow, the likes of which the young man had probably never known before in his life of wealth, comfort and cheer.
But wait. We know something else, too. Jesus gives him another gift to take away–and just as important: a moment of the most perfect human fulfilment. Jesus had been filled with love for him, and had looked at him with love. We are back to the idea with which we began our reflection: Mark’s insistence on Jesus’ look of love. This is of vital importance to Mark and it is even easier now to see why. We are talking about God-made-man looking at the rich young man with love. This look will be deeper and more profoundly moving than anything else he will ever experience. This combination of sorrow and love, it seems to me, is a combination that, given time, cannot fail to have affected the young man, to have opened him up, to have made him rethink his priorities, reconsider his actions. True, there is nothing in Jesus’ loving look to force the young man into acquiescence: he was free to refuse Jesus and he did. But, let’s note that he refused Jesus’ invitation right then. A door remains open to him; Jesus doesn’t stop loving people. There was still a chance to become a Christian later and to be healed of his sorrow and receive the joy of life in Christ. His life after this experience need not be a complete tragedy.
For those of us who may recognise ourselves in this story, who fear we may have lost the love of Christ forever along with our chance to be his follower, I think we can assume that Mark would hold that it doesn’t work like that. Jesus’ look of love lasts forever. The rich young man was eager, open and willing, but unprepared for the cost involved in following Jesus. He needed to grow up, to grow into Jesus’ love. The gift–the ‘package’–of sorrow and of love is powerful. The young man arrived at Jesus’ feet unprepared, he went away both loved and sorrowing. Through this gift, and over time, preparation for life with Christ was possible to him, as it is for anyone. Let’s hope he made that preparation and returned later, maybe after Jesus’ death, to join the growing community of Christians. Shall we join, too?
Jesus also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come’.
(Mk 4:26-29, translation: The New Jerusalem Bible).
Maybe readers of these posts are wondering why I’ve taken such a round-about path to this beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself. It’s because as I pondered that parable this time it became for me like a vine with tendrils reaching in many directions. I found that it reaches back to that bad day Jesus had with the scribes and with his relatives (Mark 3:20-30). This parable has a powerful message for them – and for all those who have wilfully hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching. The passage about the seeds’ independent growth affirms, in the face of any suggestion to the contrary, that no amount of human – or demonic – obstruction will ultimately prevent the word of God from fulfilling its divine destiny in the wider world. God’s word will succeed, Jesus teaches in this parable. Oh, we remain free; there will be those who refuse to accept him, and he never uses force, but God’s word will ultimately achieve the end for which it entered the world in Jesus.
But there’s more. Not only does this parable reach back with a strong message for those who opposed Jesus. It also, as we said yesterday, reaches back to add a dimension to the passage from Mark 4: 1-9 about the different types of soil. Let’s think about that.
As I confessed in these posts, the parable of the different kinds of soil leaves me with an uneasy feeling. I am always reminded when I read it that I’m a flawed being, a sinner. I see again that as far as good soil is concerned, I am very a very patchy piece of earth, at best. Clearing out the stones and weeds and brambles will be a work in progress until I die. But, the good news is that I don’t think Jesus means the parable about the soil to be the last word on the subject of seeds and soil and the kingdom. It’s important to remember that no parable encompasses the mystery of the kingdom in its entirety. The different parables are like the different facets of a diamond, each one reflecting the light differently, each one contributing in a unique but partial way to the beauty of the whole. So, to my relief, I realise that the parable about the different kinds of soil actually needs the parable about the seed growing by itself in order to be understood.
And this makes me very happy. The parable about the seed growing by itself is a good one for times when we ourselves are feeling discouraged about our weaknesses and failures and sins. In this parable, the Lord is telling us that the kingdom is not about being perfect – about being good soil twenty-four/seven. In fact, it’s not all about us. It is about him, about his word. And secondly, it’s not about us achieving personal goodness all by ourselves for God, climbing to heaven by our own muscle and effort. Not at all. This parable is about the ‘muscle,’ the intrinsic power, the unstoppability of God’s word within us.
So, take heart. Take heart, too, if you are going through a period of deep loss and grief and it feels as though your heart has become completely barren. This parable is for you, too. The seed of the word has been scattered within you, and now it is doing what it does best: ‘night and day, while we sleep and while we are awake, the seed is sprouting and growing.’ You cannot see what the seed is doing below the surface of that bare, black soil, but Jesus assures us here that God’s life in us is progressing according to the creative and ever-active love of God. God’s seed is all-powerful and, as this parable suggests, not as fussy about soil as we might have feared. It will quietly get on with its growth – how, we do not know, says Jesus. And we don’t have to know. The parable promises, however, that there will come a time when we will discover the green shoots of the kingdom beginning to emerge from within our heart – a sign that even in our own seemingly barren and ever imperfect and weedy life, God’s seed will eventually produce ‘the full grain in the ear. And the harvest will come.’ This is reason to sing with gratitude. God’s life is in us. His seed is so powerful, so tenacious of life, so willing to be itself, so supremely able to be itself, that we needn’t worry.
We began this reflection by looking at some of Jesus’ own human difficulties: the misunderstanding of family and the intense hostility of the scribes. We had a glimpse into his humanity and saw him as a feeling being, searching for those who would sincerely respond to his loving teachings. We saw beautiful parables emerge from a man like us, with emotions capable of being hurt by rejection. And yet, he ends his teaching that day not with a message of despair, and certainly not of anger, but with a message of tenderness and profound encouragement for us. This is what Our Lord is like.
Our third article celebrating Saints Peter and Paul is part of a reflection on his own lived-out vocation from Bishop Edward K Braxton, bishop emeritus of Belleville, Illinois. The whole reflection can be found here, on the National Catholic Reporter website. His book is available from on-line booksellers.
Bear in mind that Peter and Paul were leaders of the early church who took the Good News to all peoples, and who called people of every race to serve the church according to their gifts. See 1 Corinthians 12.
My primary goal was to serve the people of God as a good and faithful priest, and bishop, and to build up the church by helping people to grow in their Catholic identity and education. A phrase I use almost every time I visited a parish was the phrase: “Learn your faith, love your faith, live your faith.” And within that context, part of learning your faith is learning about the dignity and value of every human person, which within that addresses racial prejudice, racism, the dignity, the value of unborn life, the value of the life of a person on death row. If you are doing that, you will see that your faith impels you not to support bias and prejudice or racism.
If you want to invite people of colour into the world of the church, couldn’t some part of it look like them? Yet I am not advocating that you go into churches built by German immigrants and take black paint and spray it all over the saints and angels. I am not proposing anything as simple as that. But there is a reason I chose the cover of my book myself. I wanted to show an Afrocentric Jesus washing the feet of an Afrocentric Peter.
Usually we publish this monthly post on the first Friday, but Saint Kevin was already occupying his feast day, while next Friday gives us a peep into someone’s diary entry for the day. So, here we are on Whit Monday with Pope Francis’s monthly prayer.
We pray for Christian families around the world; may they embody and experience unconditional love and advance in holiness in their daily lives.
That is one impossible manifesto. I cannot live up to that. But I don’t have to, not on my own, because my calling is to married life and the graces and gifts I need, or think I need, have to give first place to the graces and gifts of my spouse and family.
Unconditional love is an aspiration which we work towards, mostly without saying so. Earning a living, putting a meal on the table, walking little ones to school, drying up the dishes: there are tasks that parents, children, grandchildren can do without moaning, even gladly, to help in our shared daily lives. We can become better people, or in Catholic jargon, ‘advance in holiness’ in our daily lives, through such co-operation and deeds of kindness, through teaching good manners, please and thank you.
We can reflect on our lives, in Catholic jargon ‘examine our consciences’ and develop what is good, set aside what is no longer appropriate; tend wounds, physical, mental, or of the heart; move on as a family or as a family member, right what is wrong.
All this is ‘advancing in holiness’. All this is prayer.
Corona virus, covid-19, has made itself felt all over the world, with stories we might not hear above the noise of the local news. Here is a story of new growth in Lima, occasioned by the pandemic, told by the Columban missionaries working there. The context is that Fr Tom was stuck in Peru when lockdown came, so he looked around and found something to do, with ‘great success’. Follow the link to read the whole story.
“Tom had gained a lot of experience on the land back in Ireland, so he suggested he would use his time digging and planting part of our grounds. Not only would it keep him occupied, but it would also make us partially self-sufficient. He sowed vegetables, corn, herbs and some potatoes. The experiment was a great success, they all grew like mad!
A jolly, hopeful poem from Christina Rossetti. Laudato Si’.
Every valley drinks,
Every dell and hollow:
Where the kind rain sinks and sinks,
Green of Spring will follow.
Yet a lapse of weeks
Buds will burst their edges,
Strip their wool-coats, glue-coats, streaks,
In the woods and hedges;
Weave a bower of love
For birds to meet each other,
Weave a canopy above
Nest and egg and mother.
But for fattening rain
We should have no flowers,
Never a bud or leaf again
But for soaking showers;
Never a mated bird
In the rocking tree-tops,
Never indeed a flock or herd
To graze upon the lea-crops.
Lambs so woolly white,
Sheep the sun-bright leas on,
They could have no grass to bite
But for rain in season.
We should find no moss
In the shadiest places,
Find no waving meadow-grass
Pied with broad-eyed daisies;
But miles of barren sand,
With never a son or daughter,
Not a lily on the land,
Or lily on the water.
(from "Poems" by Christina Georgina Rossetti)
Fr John McCluskey MHM gave this homily at FISC in December 2015. The call to renew the face of the earth has not grown any the less urgent in that time, so I have kept the topical references.
Today’s readings take us to the heart of what Advent is about: longing and preparing for the coming among us of our Saviour, God coming to save us from our sins and their consequences, to restore peace and right order in our world, balance and integrity to creation.
It’s a familiar theme, but one that surely rings out much more clearly and urgently this Advent, coinciding as it does with the crucial international conference on Climate Change currently meeting in Paris. As we reflect on the readings today we can without difficulty recognise how apt and relevant they are to the discussions and negotiations going on there between all the countries of our world, rich and poor.
We share a common concern about our future and the future of our planet. But that concern is expressed and experienced in quite different ways.
The meeting in Paris is focussing our attention on the drastic measures needed to save ourselves from the disaster that is waiting for us if we continue to create deserts as a consequence of the way we are misusing the resources of our common home.
The Advent readings acknowledge the deserts but hold out the hope and promise of a new creation, or a creation renewed. Isaiah assures us that a time is coming when desert land will be made fertile, wasteland will rejoice, bloom and sing for joy; the blind, deaf, lame and dumb will be healed and strengthened; peace and justice will flourish again (Psalm 84). In a word: our world will become God’s creation again.
What accounts for this difference – the difference between the Hope of Advent and the fear and near despair driving the discussions and negotiations in Paris?
I think today’s Gospel points to the answer, since it clearly shows the difference there is between the way we see our problems and the way Jesus/God sees them.
A crippled man’s friends go to no end of trouble to bring him to Jesus, because they believe he can cure him. Jesus does cure him, but not right away. First he does something they hadn’t expected or even thought about. Seeing their faith, he said to the crippled man, ‘My friend, your sins are forgiven you.’
They received something they hadn’t thought of asking for, because they had a limited view of what they needed, and equally limited expectations. They simply wanted their friend to walk again. Jesus went much further, freeing him from everything that bound him, healing him through and through. Jesus saw sinfulness as much more deep-rooted that sickness.
I think there is a parallel here with our expectations of what will come out of the Paris meeting. We know that much more is needed than what we are asking for.
We need brave decisions, major changes in policy and practice around the world.
But we know also that whatever is decided will be limited, not enough – compromises, steps along the way, and there is a long way still to go.
We know that changes of policy will never of themselves be enough. Something much more radical and demanding is required: a recognition of the sinful, wasteful ways of modern living; and not only recognition but repentance and a real change of heart, and of the values by which we live – a conversion.
It is down to us – as individuals, families, communities – to make the changes in our way of living that anticipate and even go beyond what we expect and hope for from Paris. As the CAFOD slogan has it, ‘Live simply, that we may simply live.’
This means seeing with the eyes of faith what is really wrong, and acting accordingly. As Jesus always said, in response to those who asked for healing: It is your faith that has saved you.
It is that faith that he looks for and responds to in each of us; a faith that may begin by our turning to God for help as we experience some specific need, but that grows into something stronger, deeper; grows into a daily awareness of God’s life-giving, healing presence in our lives and in our world.
Here’s a story that follows on naturally from Dr Johnson’s wise words yesterday.
The first lady had just celebrated her birthday. ‘I always buy myself a present from my mother out of the money she left me when she died 14 years ago. This year I bought myself a red rose bush.’
Her friend’s reaction was quite different. ‘I can’t bear roses in the garden, they were my mother’s favourite flowers and I just can’t look at them now. And you remember that I gave you all my lilies of the valley for the same reason. Those pretty little bells and the gorgeous scent. It was too much for me. But they are creeping back in the corner by the shed. I don’t like to think of ripping them out again.’
The rose shown here has a story of grief and remembrance, which you can find here. You can find Elizabeth’s rose next to Saint Mildred’s church in Canterbury.
78. Judaeo-Christian thought no longer saw nature as divine. But in doing so, it emphasises all the more our human responsibility for nature. If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.
80. Yet God, who wishes to work with us and who counts on our cooperation, can also bring good out of the evil we have done. “The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, including the most complex and inscrutable”. Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator. God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs. His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation”.
82. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26).
Francis invites us to take the long view, both in terms of time, and of space, including what used to be called outer space. I find it frightening that rich men should be unchecked in their pursuit of profit in the sky, not just with expensive joy rides into near orbit, but also the arrays of small satellites, launched, it seems, with little regard for what is already up there, doing valuable but not necessarily dollar-earning work.