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“‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?”
And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”
Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”
Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.’”
And so Christ outlines not only where we may find Him, but also the consequences of how we relate to Him. Do we acknowledge or ignore Him? Do we even recognise Him? And if not, why not?
Actions have consequences, as does lack of action. This is an inherent which is not subject to opinion or feeling. It flows directly from the fact that all of Creation is interconnected. Something we do or do not affects other things and people around us. And it affects us. In this case, our direct relationship with Christ, or lack thereof, affects us most directly.
We have responsibility for our actions, but it is good to remember that it starts with gaining this responsibility. We can’t be responsible if we are unaware. Someone who has never heard of Jesus Christ can’t be responsible for not recognising Him. But once we do hear of Him, and have gotten to know Him and established some form of relationship with Him, He asks us to see Him. He sees us, and we must see everyone we are in some form of relationship with.
We encounter Christ in many places: in His Word, in the sacraments, but also in other people, both near and far. In this Gospel passage, He points this out to us. What we do for someone else, especially for the least among us, we have done for Him. Christ tells us that He is among us, He identifies Himself with the least among us.
Aware of that, and part of a relationship with Him, our actions come into play. Do we reach out or do we ignore? Our choice has an effect, in a direct way for the person we help and for ourselves, and also for our relationship with that person, and subsequently with Christ, present in the other person.
We have come to know Jesus. We have responded to His invitation to follow Him. And we follow Him in other people. We are not followers by ourselves. Following Jesus is a relationship, with Him and with our neighbours. Ignoring one or both of those parties means we are not following Jesus fully.
If we don’t follow Christ, if we don’t build our relationship with Him, we can’t expect to enjoy the fruits of fully grown relationship when the time is there. What has not been established can’t be enjoyed, after all.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry, and the tester came and said to him, ‘If you are Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’
But he replied, ‘Scripture says: Human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
The devil then took him to the holy city and set him on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says: He has given his angels orders about you, and they will carry you in their arms in case you trip over a stone.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these, if you fall at my feet and do me homage.’
Then Jesus replied, ‘Away with you, Satan! For scripture says: The Lord your God is the one to whom you must do homage, him alone you must serve.’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels appeared and looked after him.”
It is striking to see how factually the Evangelist presents what are some very frightening and supernatural realities. The way in which the devil appears in this text, not to mention Jesus’ curt and sober responses to him, reflect our own reality, even though we often turn a blind eye to it. The devil is real, and he is out to tempt us with power and control, all in return for one small action: falling at his feet and worshipping him. What’s the harm if we look at all we get in return? Surely worship is harmless enough if we are better off for it?
Exactly how ‘harmless’ such a thing is, we learn if we look at Jesus’ responses. 1: There is far more to ourselves than what the devil offers us. Instead of satisfying our physical hunger, we need more than that to live. 2: Trust in God is absolute. 3: Only God is worthy of our homage, and that worthiness is absolute.
Also of interest is the situation in which Christ confronts the Tempter. After a 40-day fast, hungry and alone. Fasting removes those things from our lives which block us from God. We are thrown back on the essentials, on our true self, so to speak. The upside of this is that there is very little left between ourselves and God, but the same goes – and this is a definitive downside – for us and the evil one. We drop our defenses to speed up the connection, one might say, but we must always be aware of exactly what or Who we connect to. In order to that we need what Christ hands us in this Gospel passage: an awareness of what we need to live, trust in God and knowledge of Him, so that we know that we should worship Him alone.
“When he went out after this, he noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting at the tax office, and said to him, ‘Follow me.’
And leaving everything Levi got up and followed him. In his honour Levi held a great reception in his house, and with them at table was a large gathering of tax collectors and others. The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples and said, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’
Jesus said to them in reply, ‘It is not those that are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have come to call not the upright but sinners to repentance.’”
Jesus calls everyone to follow Him, but in the Gospels we see Him pointing out specific people and presents them with the choice very directly. Apparently, He does not need to have to interact much with people before asking – telling, even - them.. He sees the tax collector at work, and knows enough. This is a man He wants to be seen with.
The world doesn’t understand that, as we see in the reaction of the Pharisees. Why choose to be with these people, these sinners who are spat out by the rest of decent society? But dividing society in wanted and unwanted people is an artificial construct. After all, society is made up by all people, rich and poor, holy and sinful, good and evil. Jesus choose to become a part of this multifaceted society in order to heal it. And just like when our body is sick, we try to heal the parts that affect us adversely, not cut them off. Jesus does the same. He does not cut out the unwanted elements of society, but tries to change them for the better.
Human society, the combined body of all our interactions and relations is not an accident. It flows from our nature as human beings created by God. And as such it is wanted and has a purpose or destination in God. Christ came to put us on the right path to that destination, by healing us from our sins and ills. And he does so first in the ways of society: in the form of a social gathering. He eats and drinks with the tax collectors. We can only imagine what they talked about, but it would be a safe bet to assume that Jesus won Himself a place in the hearts of the sinners He ate with.
We are called to imitate Jesus and introduce Him to the people around us. A good way to start is simply through society, as Jesus did. Not by expounding about the evilness of their ways or pouring boatloads of information about God and faith on them. That can wait, and will come naturally when the time, and everyone involved, is ready. That is the start of evangelisation.
“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’
Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.
Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.
Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.
The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.
“He said, ‘The Son of man is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.’
Then, speaking to all, he said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it. What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world and forfeit or lose his very self?”
A rather gloomy prediction of the future we hear today in our reading of the Gospel. Jesus gives a clear image of what His immediate future will hold; an image of pain and suffering, but certainly also of hope. His ressurection on the third day would have reminded his audience of the prophecies regarding the Messiah, even if most did not yet realise that the Messiah was the one telling them this. The rejection that Jesus foretells is by the hand of “the elders and chief priests and scribes”, the very leaders of the religious establishment and community. These are usually the ones that are trusted to do what is right, but their future betrayal of the ultimate truth that is God shows how deeply the salvation the Messiah brings is needed. This is more than the personal sins of individuals, but extends into the very heart of civilisation. Christ’s sacrifice will bring healing to all of society, to its individual members and to the relationships that unite them.
Christ does not only speak about Himself here, but also about us. The decision to follow Him is a big one, and just like His sacrifice and salvation, it reaches down to the very roots of our humanity and society. We must renounce ourselves, which means that we mustachieve a balance between respecting and making use of what has been given to us by God as His creation, and denying what distracts us from Him and His desire to brings us to Him. In other words, do not put yourself first, but always look at yourself as a being created by and wished by God. We must look at ourselves with His eyes, not our own. That is why Jesus speaks about losing our life “for His sake”. Just losing our lives is a shameful waste without any merit. But losing our lives for Him (in other words: handing over our lives to Him) is essentially the opposite of losing it. God gave us life, and He did not do so by accident. He has given us our very self, which is far more than the mere fact of being alive. Life has a greater meaning than that.
We are asked to lose our lives for God, which means we acknowledge the fact that our life, or being, was not ours in the first place. God will not take it and then ignore us. He will accept our very being and lead it on the path to fulfillment, to reach our full potential. And that path is hard. Jesus is the first to go that path, to show us the way. His death and resurrection foreshadows what he asks us to do. To die for ourselves and be reborn in God.
Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
What better way to start the great season of Lent with some very direct instructions from the Lord Himself? In this passage, Jesus outlines the three main elements of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These three are interlinked, as each one bleeds into the others and makes the others more fruitful. That is why it is important that we do not just pick one or two to focus on during Lent.
The general tone of the Gospel passage above is one of modesty and secrecy. Jesus basically tells us not to show off. The reason for this is that we do not fast, pray or give alms for ourselves; we do it for God and our neighbour. The benefit of our actions is theirs. Once we do it for the benefit of our own public image and social standing, the result of Lent will be strictly negative: we become concerned only with ourselves and ignore those around us. We become islands, egotistical human beings who only act for our own benefit, no matter the cost for others.
Christ also links such behaviour directly to our “reward from our Father in heaven”. Prayer, almsgiving and fasting all have their reward in this passage. Jesus mentions it multiple times. He does not say what that reward will be, but we can gather from this that it is directly related to our actions.
Every action has a result or a consequence. When deciding to do something, we are often aware of that consequence, and the same goes for when we decide not to do something. This is a truth independent of our motivations. When we focus solely on ourselves, the consequence will be that we lose sight of others and become egotistical. When we focus on others and on God, the result will be that we grow in our relations with people and with God, and are able to flourish as human beings. We are, after all, not created as solitary creatures. From the very beginning, God created humans as beings in relation to all of Creation and ultimately in relation with each other and with Himself.
Our Lent must be secretive insofar that it must not become a goal in itself. If we make a show of how prayerful, how generous and how hungry we are, we are only seeking adoration for ourselves. Lent is a means to an end, and that end is what matters. God matters, our neighbour matters, and our relationship with both matters. God calls us to Him, and when we say yes to His invitation, we must prepare ourselves to meet Him. And that means striving for the holiness with which He created us in the beginning, a holiness which must not remain locked up in our hearts, but must be set free to create the links that will make all of Creation holy.
Art credit: “The prayer in secret”, by Alexandre Bida.
It’s almost Lent. Snuck up on you, didn’t it? But it’s true, Less than a week away the great time of fasting and penitence will begin and prepare us for Easter.
Time to plan ahead.
For this Lent and Holy Week I want to take the Gospel readings of every day and do some lectio divina with them, a spiritual reading. I’ll be posting the relevant passage every day (well, that’s the plan) and reflect on it. These reflections will be short, as lectio divina is by definition a personal exercise: we prayerfully read a Bible text for ourselves and are open to learn from it. The reflections are therefore what I take from the text: your experience may be a different one, but I hope that comparing what others learn with what you have learned can set you off on new avenues of thought, prayer and discovery.
For those who want to read and reflect in their own time, or if I am unable to post every day, here is a list of the Gospel reading of every day:
Wednesday 5 March (Ash Wednesday): Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
- Thursday 6 March: Luke 9: 22-25
- Friday 7 March: Matthew 9:14-15
- Saturday 8 March: Luke 5:27-32
- Sunday 9 March (First Sunday of Lent): Matthew 4:1-11
- Monday 10 March: Matthew 25:31-46
- Tuesday 11 March: Matthew 6:7-15
- Wednesday 12 March: Luke 11:29-32
- Thursday 13 March: Matthew 7:7-12
- Friday 14 March: Matthew 5:20-26
- Saturday 15 March: Matthew 5:43-48
- Sunday 16 March (Second Sunday of Lent): Matthew 17:1-9
- Monday 17 March: Luke 6:36-38
- Tuesday 18 March: Matthew 23:1-12
- Wednesday 19 March (Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary): Matthew 116, 18-21, 24a or Luke 2: 41-51a
- Thursday 20 March: Luke 16:19-31
- Friday 21 March: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
- Saturday 22 March: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
- Sunday 23 March (Third Sunday of Lent): John 4:5-42 or John 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42
- Monday 24 March: Luke 4:24-30
- Tuesday 25 March (Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord): Luke 1:26-38
- Wednesday 26 March: Matthew 5:17-19
- Thursday 27 March: Luke 11:14-23
- Friday 28 March: Mark 12:28-34
- Saturday 29 March: Luke 18:9-14
- Sunday 30 March (Fourth Sunday of Lent): John 9:1-41 or John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38
- Monday 31 March: John 4:43-54
- Tuesday 1 April: John 5:1-16
- Wednesday 2 April: John 5:17-30
- Thursday 3 April: John 5:31-47
- Friday 4 April: John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
- Saturday 5 April: John 7:40-53
- Sunday 6 April (Fifth Sunday of Lent): John 11:1-45 or John 11:3-7, 20-27, 33b-45
- Monday 7 April: John 8:1-11
- Tuesday 8 April: John 8:21-30
- Wednesday 9 April: John 8:31-42
- Thursday 10 April: John 8:51-59
- Friday 11 April: John 10:31-42
- Saturday 12 April: John 11:45-56
- Sunday 13 April (Palm Sunday): Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
- Monday 14 April: John 12:1-11
- Tuesday 15 April: John 13:21-33, 36-38
- Wednesday 16 April: Matthew 26:14-25
- Thursday 17 April: John 13:1-15
- Friday 18 April (Good Friday): John 18:1-19:42
- Saturday 19 April (Holy Saturday): Matthew 28:1-10
- Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday): John 20:1-9
It’s much, to be sure, but it is an investment that’s worth the effort. Lent is especially a time to return to the basis, to the Word, and allow the Lord to join us on our way.
They say it’s a law that’s hardly going to be used. But they said the same about euthanasia in the first place: safe and only when necessary. But now we see people opting out of life for various reasons, and the system finds ways to allow them. A slippery slope that just got a little slippier, as Belgium now allows children under the age of eighteen to die when they choose to. Because children are capable of making that choice. We don’t allow them to vote, to marry, to have sexual intercourse when they want, to drink or smoke (in theory…). But to die? Sure, if you want to, we’ll help you. Life is not something that requires thought, consideration, or a well-developed, dare I say, adult sensibility.
The bishops aren’t too pleased either. Last night they published the following:
“The bishops of Belgium are very much disillusioned about the approval in the Chamber of Representatives of the law regarding liberalisation of the euthanasia law for minors. They regret the approval of a law which is, according to many experts, useless and has many flaws.
The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.
The bishops fear that this new law will open wide the door for a future expansion towards people with a handicap, people with dementia, the mentally ill and people who are tired of life. They insist that everything possible be done to fully combat pain and suffering and that all who professionally and voluntarily assist the sick and suffering be supported to the maximum.”
“Fully combat pain and suffering… support for all who assist the sick and suffering.” That is exactly what is not happening today, as a result of allowing euthanasia in the first place. Death has become just a choice, and an easy one at that, certainly preferrable to a slow and painful road to possible recovery. Life has become a right, a commodity, ready to be returned when it becomes inconvenient, and that is not just true about people’s own lives. Another person’s life can be just as inconvenient, after all, so why not get rid of it too?
It won’t come to that? I don’t know. They said it wouldn’t come to this either…
Everyone’s marking the day last year that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Surely, 11 February 2013 was a day that still resounds today.
Personally, Benedict XVI is very much “my Pope”. He was the Holy Father when my curiosity for the faith awoke, when I started the road towards Baptism, the sole Pope whose name I had heard in the Eucharistic Prayer (barring a single slip-up from my priest one time), and when I started my blogging. And suddenly that came to an end.
I now understand those who consider Pope John Paul II to be “The Pope”. For me that is Benedict XVI. I love Pope Francis like a Catholic should, but I am also still getting used to him.
I have created a page collecting my blog posts of the period that started with that shock announcement on 11 February 2013. You may find it here, and under the title bar above.