John the Baptist is naturally despondent in today’s Gospel reading. He’s in prison and unable to pursue his vocation of prophet, reminding people that being God’s chosen nation means living as if they really believed it, calling them to repent and offering them the dramatic sign of baptism – full immersion, not just a sprinkling! But now John needs reassurance and turns to the one man who can provide it.
Look what’s happening, replies Jesus. People are being helped and healed, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
Today the Good News still has to be proclaimed to the poor, and we still need to hear the call to repentance, to take a new direction. Baptised we may have been, but we still need healing. Ponder this extract from an article about the Church in South Sudan, a Church scarred by decades of war and hunger. Fr Michael Heap MAfr goes on to challenge his British readers:
All of us need to be reminded from time to time
that our Baptism, our taking on the name “Christian”,
means much more than just living like everyone else,
apart from some prayers and Sunday Mass.
We have taken on a new direction in life.
We don’t go looking for suffering and rejection,
but if it comes because of our commitment to Jesus Christ,
we accept it without fear.
This is so in South Sudan.
It is so in UK.
It is true in each of our lives.
To live as baptised followers of Jesus
means changing our outlook on everything,
no matter how small.
Good Morning! We make a big mistake if we say that the sacrifice of Christ was what happened on Calvary Hill and leave it at that. As Rowan Williams said, he lived a life-long passion. A passion caught from his parents, Mary and Joseph.
We know that Jesus suffered hardship on the road, but he kept going. As an infant seeking emergency refuge in Egypt, he still had what he most needed, the intimate love of Mary and Joseph. As an adult itinerant preacher, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head.
As an infant he went where his parents chose in order to preserve his life, while for his sake they accepted exile, anxiety, pain, and a double dose of the exhaustion that every new parent knows. No doubt the magi’s gold ran out soon enough, spent on wayside inns, renting a place in Cairo, buying new tools for Joseph. Meagre rations until Joseph had an income.
Every parent can relate to these sacrifices, though many would not recognise their own daily grind as sacrificial, but it is a grind at times, and so it was for the Holy Family too. For some of us exile is leaving, if only for a while, an enjoyable job with interesting and funny colleagues and customers. It is a sacrifice, as is accepting the waves of tiredness, boredom, loneliness, depression that can knock a new father as well as a mother off-balance.
Jesus learned about sacrifice from the sacrificial love of his parents. They prepared him to be about his Father’s business even if they did not realise what it meant in practice to a 12 year old boy, let alone the man he grew into.
We follow Pope Francis to prison on Maundy Thursday.
In 2018, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve inmates in Regina Coeli prison. He told the prisoners that Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet to show that leadership is service: “Those who lead must serve. If so many kings, emperors, heads of state had understood this teaching of Jesus and done this instead of giving orders to be cruel, to kill people, how many wars would not have happened!”
Pope Francis urged the prisoners not to give up hope for there always is the possibility of forgiveness; and even though society discards them, Jesus says: “You are important to me.” And he “takes a risk on each of us.”
Francis got down on his knees to wash the prisoners’, among them two Muslims and a Buddhist. He has in the past washed the feet of non-Christians; and the feet of women.
“I am a sinner but come as Christ’s ambassador,” the Pope told the prisoners. “When I wash your feet, remember that Jesus never abandons you and he never tires of forgiving you.”
At the sign of peace he urged those present to use it as a moment for reconciliation and to think of “those who do not love us” and the people “we would like to take revenge on”.
It would be a good idea to read yesterday’s post if you haven’t already done so – today’s reflection builds on it. We began yesterday by saying that Jesus is doing more than one thing in Luke 12: 1-2. Today we’ll continue by pointing out that in addition to issuing a warning against the Pharisees, Jesus is also dangerously sealing his fate – and he knows it. His public criticism of the Pharisees will not endear him to them; on the contrary, it will eventually result in his execution. Therefore, Jesus takes this conversation way out into deep waters, and he takes his thousands with him. Jesus is talking about death.
Jesus never had any illusions about the risk he was taking in his preaching. He knew before he even began his public ministry that he would be killed. What the crowd thought of him at this point in his career is difficult to fathom. It is unlikely that they were aware of the danger he was in. But certainly to us, who have access to more than two thousand years of Christian history, it should be clear: Jesus is saying to those who have ears to hear, both then and now, that although the religious authorities will want him dead, he is not afraid to criticise them. Then, he goes on to tell us not to be afraid of them either. He is saying this to an extremely large audience – he wants as many people to know this as possible. It is vital information. This is how he puts it:
To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (Lk 12:4).
We are doing lectiodivina in these posts – and lectiois traditionally the very slow reading and praying over sacred scripture. We are not trying to find out what happens next, we are pondering each word of our scripture passage, giving it time to yield up its meaning in relation to our personal life. Let’s give this line twenty-four hours to work on our hearts and return tomorrow to continue this meditation.
Welcome back, Sister Johanna! This is the first of a series of five linked reflections on the passage from Saint Luke 12. We were reminded how dangerous crowds can be by the tragedy at the African Football Cup of Nations just a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile the people had gathered in their thousands so that they were treading on one another. And he began to speak, first of all to his disciples: ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees – their hypocrisy….To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (Lk.12: 1-2,4).
As I read this passage I imagined the crowd of thousands – so many people that they were stepping on each other – and I felt a strange fear. I felt the desperation in that crowd, a crowd that symbolises, perhaps, all of humanity from the beginning of time until now; it is made of people so hurt and needy that in this case they are quickly becoming ruthless, bumping and pushing in their hunger for Jesus. But one thing at least is clear: they know that they need to reach him, that he is somehow their salvation. But they are stepping on each other.
How scary to be part of this crowd. It is not one I’d have wanted to be positioned in the middle of, with no easy exit-route if things had taken a nasty turn. And this already-desperate situation is the one in which Jesus chooses to issue a warning about yet another cause for desperation: that the seemingly venerable authority figures of the religious establishment are, essentially, phonies. This is deliberate on Jesus’ part, like everything he does. Clearly, in Jesus’ estimation, this message couldn’t wait for a smaller, calmer audience to gather at another time. Here is Jesus utilising his ‘social platform’ to the hilt in order to disseminate his message to as many people as possible. It is that important: the Pharisees are not to be trusted.
Let’s take this slowly. In saying this kind of thing so publicly, Jesus is actually saying more than one very important thing. The first is the obvious one: he is warning this crowd of people against the Pharisees. His warning has a sub-text, too. He is saying, ‘Although the Pharisees cannot be trusted to provide a religious understanding of the pain of your existence that you seek, I can; I am that meaning. Come to me. The Pharisees know the letter of the law, but I know its heart and spirit.’ In Matthew’s gospel Jesus will say even more compellingly, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest.’
Here, Jesus speaks first to his disciples, and they, in turn have told the crowd – not only the crowd present on that day, but also the crowd of the Church that has been present ever since the apostles began their ministry, fired by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
And now I turn to my own heart. How willing am I to come to Jesus? He is the meaning of my existence. He now uses the Church, in a direct line from the apostles, to disseminate his message. Do I trust that Jesus is, even now, teaching me, teaching the Church – this ‘crowd’ in their thousands – of which I am a member?
Let’s reflect on this for the rest of the day. Tomorrow we will continue.
A Dominican, also known as a friar preacher, preaching in Canterbury Cathedral, and seven more singing Vespers. Not something that happens every day, but no longer an occasion for demonstrations against such ecumenical hospitality. And it was a shared time of prayer, celebrated at the usual hour for Evensong, with contributions from both Anglican and Catholic clergy, and the choir of St Thomas’ Church, Canterbury with the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin.
The occasion was the 800th anniversary of the arrival of the Dominicans in England. Four of the friars are walking from Ramsgate to Oxford via Canterbury and London. The Preacher was Fr Richard Finn; most of the friars present were young men: fit, we hope, for two weeks of marching. But they were taking a break for refreshment and prayer in the mother city of the English Church.
The vespers were sung and the sermon preached 800 years to the day since the first Dominican sermon preached in England: Archbishop Stephen Langton ordered one of them to give the homily and after hearing it, gave them his blessing and his backing. Fr Richard spoke about joy: a virtue to be cultivated even in difficult times, as the pandemic has been for so many of us. But if we are joyful at heart, we can live and share that joy. For a start, let’s rejoice that these events do take place.
The friars are now walking on to Oxford, where they established their first house in England and where their main house of studies is today, though they are also at Edinburgh and Cambridge.
Chesterton is discussing the impact of the friars mendicant upon the Church in Western Europe. A shock to the system that we can hardly comprehend when Franciscans and Dominicans are part of the establishment. We need to feel a measure of disconcert, a sense of our own lack of balance, before we can learn to get to our feet and move on. And who is afraid of Christ’s message today? Maybe we are, first of all.
It is highly pertinent to recall the modern revolutionists would now call the revolt of the French Jacobins insufficient, just as they would call the revolt of the Friars insufficient. They would say that neither went far enough; but many, in their own day, thought they went very much too far. In the case of the Friars, the higher orders of the State, and to some extent even of the Church, were profoundly shocked at such a loosening of wild popular preachers among the people. It is not at all easy for us to feel that distant events were thus disconcerting and even disreputable.
Revolutions turn into institutions; revolts that renew the youth of old societies in their turn grow old; and the past, which was full of new things, of splits and innovations and insurrections, seems to us a single texture of tradition. But if we wish for one fact that will make vivid this shock of change and challenge, and show how raw and ragged, how almost rowdy in its reckless novelty, how much of the gutter and how remote from refined life, this experiment of the Friars did really seem to many in its own day, there is here a very relevant fact to reveal it. It shows how much a settled and already ancient Christendom did feel it as something like the end of an age; and how the very roads of the earth seem to shake under the feet of the new and nameless army; the march of the Beggars. A mystic nursery rhyme suggests the atmosphere of such a crisis: “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark; the Beggars are coming to town.”
There were many towns that almost fortified themselves against them and many watchdogs of property and rank did really bark, and bark loudly, when those Beggars went by; but louder was the singing of the Beggars who sang their Canticle to the Sun, and louder the baying of the Hounds of Heaven; the Domini canes of the medieval pun; the Dogs of God.
From Saint Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton; via Kindle.
Fifteen minutes walk from my home in England is a gallery in stained glass of healings at the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral. Many miracle stories can still be traced there, almost 500 years since the martyr’s shrine was destroyed under Henry VIII.
In 2020 a shrine was reinstated in Saint Thomas’s Catholic church, a hundred yards away, but I have not yet heard of any miracles there. On the other hand, there have been occasions when each of my children came close enough to accidental death for me to be immediately and eternally grateful to God for their preservation. Divine intervention? It felt like it!
This is a review of Adam Blai: The Catholic Guide to Miracles – Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit. Manchester New Hampshire, SOPHIA INSTITUTE PRESS, 2012.
So what is a miracle? Adam Blai starts with Thomas Aquinas’s definition: ‘a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain’. (p 2) Creation was the first miracle, the Universe made out of nothing.
Adam Blai takes us through Old Testament Miracles: for example, the healing miracles brought about through the prayer of Elisha and Elijah before him, each restoring to life the son of a woman benefactor. Strangely though, Blai does not acknowledge that many of the Plagues of Egypt have plausibly been ascribed to natural causes.
It is the New Testament that tells of the greatest miracle:
And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Cor. 15:14)
In the years before the cross and resurrection, Christ performed many miracles, miracles that Blai tells us ‘were proofs beyond His words of who He was’ (p13). Those who see the Church’s preaching as empty will explain them away, and many of the healings at Thomas’s shrine could now be attributed to natural causes. The Church is well aware of this, which is why so few – 60 or 70 – healings at Lourdes in 160 years have been verified as miraculous, a minute proportion of the pilgrims who visit in hope of healing. Blai, like the Church herself, is not naive in the face of healing miracles, but he points out that they are the miracles most open to investigation and so are resorted to in the process of canonisation of saints.
There are, of course, other miracles – he cites the appearances of Mary through the ages, and the healings and other phenomena that people other than the visionaries themselves have witnessed. There are also apparently supernatural events recorded around certain saints: stigmata, levitation, bodily incorruption, and miracles deriving from the Eucharistic elements. Although many such stories were reverently told in my Catholic school, a more mature faith leaves them open to question. Adam Blai accepts God’s interventions but he would not build his faith on these accounts.
In fact Blai is at pains to point out that there are counterfeit miracles. Discerning the difference between supernatural miracles, counterfeits brought about by demons, and mental illness is an important part of his work for the Church (p129); for example, once correctly diagnosed the mentally ill person may be led to accept appropriate help. Yet there are those whose delusions are deep-rooted but also have the charisma to attract others to what becomes a dangerous cult.
Counterfeit, charismatic faith healers are another dangerous group who use people’s fascination – or gullibility – around miracles to line their own pockets, dividing families in the process.
A greater concern for Blai in his work, if not for the average believer who may live a lifetime without coming across such people, is demonic possession and fake miracles. A devil cannot produce a real miracle, but can set up counterfeits, and during exorcism may cry out in protest at being evicted.
I knew someone who was using a ouija board which went silent when, unknown to her, the local priest called on her parents; another young woman was greatly distressed to be told that her boyfriend was soon to die horribly in a road accident. The spirit that may be conjured up in such seances cannot be relied on to be truthful, as I told her; the accident did not happen, but the distress was real and hurtful. The reader will find a full exposé of the ouija board in this volume.
If miracles and the supernatural interest you, this book will give substance to your enquiries. It’s important not to get carried away by miracles that add nothing to the revelation of God’s love for all women and men in Christ Jesus. See them as a new expression of his love, for one person or for many, often for a limited time, like the miracles at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury.
I was glad to read this wise paragraph from Adam Blai’s conclusion (p164).
Real miracles are proofs of God, but we cannot build a faith based only on them. We need a living relationship with God through His Church. The main vehicles of grace are the Word of God and the sacraments, instituted by Christ. The center and goal of Christian faith is a living relationship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Today and tomorrow we are glad to share two posts from Sister Johanna that follow on nicely from Emily yesterday.
Lord, even the devils submit to us when we use your name (Luke 10:17). The disciples were elated. Seventy-two men had been appointed missionaries by the Lord and had been given their first assignment: to visit towns in the area where the Lord himself would soon be visiting (Luke 10:1f). They were meant to prepare the people for Jesus himself. Jesus gave them explicit instructions about what to wear for this, their first official engagement: normal clothes – nothing to distinguish them from anyone else, and what to pack: nothing. Indeed, they were to bring no food, no money, not even a change of clothing. No place had been arranged for them to stay when they arrived in a town: they would have to work that out when they got there. They were not to equip themselves ahead of time with anything that would allow them to feel self-reliant.
We know this story so well that we can forget how this must have sounded to the seventy-two when they listened to Jesus telling them what to do. Perhaps it seemed exciting – but I should think, too, that when they actually set out, without food supplies and with their pockets empty, they must have felt vulnerable in the extreme. It was their very first journey for Jesus, after all. They had no experience of past successes to give them confidence. They were only told by Jesus to heal the sick and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” Some must have secretly worried that they’d become tongue-tied when they started to preach, or would fail miserably in their first attempt at healing. Maybe they’d even be laughed out of town.
But instead, the gospel tells us that their missionary journey was a smashing success. The actual stories of their successes are just a few of the many untold tales that lie hidden behind what is recounted in the gospels. The evangelist skips them all in this instance, and zeroes in on something else – something of greater depth and importance. Luke tells us what happens after their triumph, when they return to Jesus like conquering heroes. For, when they see him, the first thing out of their mouths seems to have been that “even the devils” submitted to them.
Now, this is truly success on a spectacular scale. Perhaps the hopes of the missionaries had been much more modest: maybe they felt that they’d be doing well if they could make the child with the tummy-ache feel better, and manage to interest a small audience in stories of Jesus’ healings and sayings. But to tangle with devils and come up trumps – would they even have imagined this ahead of time? They must have said to each other as they journeyed home, “Won’t the Lord be overjoyed when he hears! I can’t wait to see his face when we tell him!”
And Jesus is overjoyed, just as they had hoped. He affirms them. It seems that he already knew what had happened – this kind of sensational news must have spread from village to village like wildfire. He declares: ‘I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’ Hearing these words of Jesus must have felt good, very good to the disciples. And Jesus is generous, not only with his praise, but with his promises. He has more to say here about what they will be able to do. “Look, I have given you power to tread down serpents and scorpions and the whole strength of the enemy; nothing shall ever hurt you.” I like to think of the disciples’ silence as they bask for a few minutes in Jesus’ assurances – their sense of wonder and gratitude must have been profound. They would be taken care of by the Lord whenever they were doing his work. They have just had their first experience of this. They would be powerful in his name. This was an important moment for the seventy-two. Let us leave them for twenty-four hours in this state of glowing wonder, and come back tomorrow to continue our reflections.
A reminder of one of our English Saints, one who should not be forgotten, a model bishop.
To Chichester belongs a Sussex saint, Saint Richard, Bishop of Chichester in the thirteenth century, and a great man.
In 1245 he found the Sussex see an Augæan stable; but he was equal to the labour of cleansing it. He deprived the corrupt clergy of their benefices with an unhesitating hand, and upon their successors and those that remained he imposed laws of comeliness and simplicity. His reforms were many and various: he restored hospitality to its high place among the duties of rectors; he punished absentees; he excommunicated usurers; while (a revolutionist indeed!) priests who spoke indistinctly or at too great a pace were suspended. Also, I doubt not, he was hostile to locked churches. Furthermore, he advocated the Crusades like another Peter the Hermit.
Richard’s own life was exquisitely thoughtful and simple. An anecdote of his brother, who assisted him in the practical administration of the diocese, helps us to this side of his character. “You give away more than your income,” remarked this almoner-brother one day. “Then sell my silver,” said Richard, “it will never do for me to drink out of silver cups while our Lord is suffering in His poor. Our father drank heartily out of common crockery, and so can I. Sell the plate.”
Richard penetrated on foot to the uttermost corners of his diocese to see that all was well. He took no holiday, but would often stay for a while at Tarring, near Worthing, with Simon, the parish priest and his great friend. Tradition would have Richard the planter of the first of the Tarring figs, and indeed, to my mind, he is more welcome to that honour than Saint Thomas à Becket, who competes for the credit—being more a Sussex man. In his will Richard left to Sir Simon de Terring his best riding horse and a commentary on the Psalms.
The Bishop died in 1253 and he was at once canonised. To visit his grave in the nave of Chichester Cathedral (it is now in the south transept) was a sure means to recovery from illness, and it quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Very pleasant must have been the observance of Richard’s day in the Chichester streets. In 1297 we find Edward I. giving Lovel the harper 6s. 6d. for singing the Saint’s praises; but Henry VIII. was to change all this. On December 14th, 1538, it being, I imagine, a fine day, the Defender of the Faith signed a paper ordering Sir William Goring and William Ernely, his Commissioners, to repair to Chichester Cathedral and remove “the bones, shrine, &c., of a certain Bishop —— which they call S. Richard,” to the Tower of London. That the Commissioners did their work we know from their account for the same, which came to £40.
from Highways and Byways in Sussex by E. V. Lucas, 2nd edition 1921.