The letter D
I have always been a reader of, and remain fascinated by words. Have you ever noticed the power of words, and how a word can sum up how we are feeling?
How many negative mood states we can have - and how many of these begin particularly with the letter D?
We can be depressed, disappointed, disillusioned, disaffected, despondent, dismayed, in disarray, debilitated, defeated, deflated, dejected, in dread and doubt.
These are just a sample and I am sure you could think of more!
These negative states may be due to marital, domestic, financial, employment circumstances, ill health, bereavement, as well as the continuing downturn in the economy, the drip feed of bad news in the media, as well as the undeniable crisis conditions in the Church.
We must not rule out entirely the other D source - the demonic, diabolical, deranged, devil who wants us in fact - who has an agenda for us - to be deterred, discouraged, and distracted as we strive to remain in our important D role as self-denying Disciples of Jesus Christ – the demon who ultimately wants us to give into the most awful d words of all - to despair and be damned in eternal darkness!
Jeremiah, the prophet in today’s First Reading, experienced what might be called ‘the threshold of despair.’ It was a pivotal crisis of faith moment for him so beautifully and poignantly recorded and worth reading often. Perhaps he had many more of these in his past and after he reflected here in this passage on them. We know we do have these moments. We too are called to be prophetic by virtue of our baptism. And like Jeremiah we experience derision, criticism and hostility when we speak up for the truth and when our statements or way of life (not modelled on the behaviour of the world that we read about in the Epistle) are scrutinised and found to be a sign of contradiction. St Paul speaks elsewhere of ‘hardships worries, insults and persecutions for Christ’s sake’. To be a prophet is to suffer the fear of isolation when comfort, popularity and acceptance are overriding attractive alternatives.
Yet for all that, there was for Jeremiah as there is within us the unmistakeable, immovable abiding presence of the spark of the divine. God has left in all of us a desire for Him that no earthly happiness can match because we are body and spirit. Ultimately all our desires, be they natural or sinful inordinate desires, point to our desire for Him who is the source of all ultimate happiness. Jeremiah‘s hesitation and thoughts of giving up his call are momentary. The love of God within him is too great and outweighs any fleeting happiness to be gained by a life of fashionable conformity to worldliness. The fire of the love of God burning in his heart could not be quenched. He perseveres.
These are sentiments also beautifully reflected in the Psalm at today’s Mass:
O God you are my God for you I long
For you my soul is thirsting
My body pines for you like a dry weary land without water...
God alone can satisfy our longings. We cannot deny his Presence in ourselves because we are made in His image and likeness. But the source of strength and determination as we once more lift up our heads, and our crosses, is in Christ’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The psalmist is prophetic when he continues:
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory...your right hand holds me fast.
How often we can gain comfort in church in time spent before the Real Presence of Christ and the lit red sanctuary lamp reminding us of this ‘living flame of love’ as St John of the Cross puts it.
There is a stirring line in the Divine Office – in the Office of Readings for the Dead (!) which I love to recall often:
‘Anything that happens in our lives without Christ is mere emptiness’.
Have you ever been surprised by an impression that has been created in your mind of someone by others only to have that impression unexpectedly and surprisingly shattered by actually meeting that person face-to-face? We can be introduced to someone after having heard so much about them, maybe in a positive or negative way. Our own experience and encounter may be so radically and positively different and surprisingly so. I certainly have learned that I must be open and receptive to being pleasantly surprised – as it is so easy to pigeon-hole other people with labels and tags. I must try to open to what they have to say, rather than believe hype and distortions, and prejudices though gossip, and ignorance.
There is therefore a difference between knowing ABOUT SOMEONE through what you have heard about them, or seeing them from a distance and getting to KNOW THEM first hand.
There can also be a public impression created of someone that is totally the opposite of our own experience of that person.
Just as we should never act on second hand information, we would be wrong to form a conclusive impression of someone or act on that weak knowledge simply on the basis of others’ impressions of them without having been in conversation or having spent some time with them. We ourselves would not like to be dismissed or labelled unfairly, neither should we harbour that attitude to others.
Nowhere is this more crucial than our knowledge of Jesus. What is our thinking of our image of God?
Today Jesus asks of the disciples what PUBLIC OPINION of Him is, and then asks the disciples what THEY actually think of Him and who they think He is. We see that public opinion, with all its contrary judgments, is wrong!
Who do others say that I am?
We have been taught about God by parents and religion teachers and have formed ideas of God solely as judge, as one to be feared, as a policeman, as a ready punisher of evil, as an accountant tabulating our offences and sins, as a distant indifferent bemused patriarchal type of heavenly figure on a cloud who is nevertheless ready to pounce and strike lightning bolts on us if we sin. We have to shed false images of Him through our own fears and upbringing. Now rather is truth that God is judge and punisher of sin, but what about love and mercy? As Jesus said to St Catherine of Siena ‘I want you to fly to heaven on both wings’ - justice and mercy.
Who do you say that I am?
What is your own experience? There is no more important question of all the 200 questions Jesus asks of His followers and enquirers in the 4 Gospel accounts.
It is a question He puts to you and to me continuously. Who do you say that I am?
We might ask ourselves ‘why does it matter so much?’ Because it is a matter of faith, and relationship. And maybe too because we are going to meet Him some day! Faith is not just knowing about Jesus intellectually that He is the Son of God and Saviour of the world, second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and the tenets of the Creed but that He is your and my Saviour and my God as well as everyone else’s.
It is a sign of MATURE personal faith that we can be here as adults and stand up and be counted, that I am here not on account of others simply, but because I believe it, I believe in Jesus as My Lord and Saviour.
So it is one thing to ask or to be asked ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ but quite another and far more significant to be asked the question – ‘Who is Jesus Christ for you?’
Peter’s faith and interior inspiration is the strongest, and so he is the rock on which Christ builds His Church. While Peter the first Pope was a weak individual at many levels, yet his faith and love for Christ were unshakeable. The Church’s faith is built upon Peter and the Apostles and therefore our faith in and knowledge of Christ is strengthened and fortified on this foundation. We have a duty to study our faith as adults, in order to deepen and copper-fasten our faith as well as leading to a more authentic love of Christ. I recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church, available for €10 in the Cathedral bookshop, as constant reading besides the Bible. It tells us who Christ is and the implications of that faith – in our personal prayer, in public worship, in our individual and collective moral behaviour, and all the other aspects of our faith.
You might be surprised too to learn exactly what the Church teaches compared to the false impressions created by others.
Which brings us back to the original question of what influences our thinking, the truth of false representations of the truth, particularly about others.
What does Jesus say about Himself? And what may Jesus be saying once more to you and to me today?
Jesus Himself tells us that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, ands ‘no-one can come to the Father except through Me.’ ‘I am the light of the world, anyone who follows me will not be walking in darkness..’. Come follow me.
As an uncle to 17 nieces and nephews I have occasionally been able to babysit and read bedtime stories. It is amazing how the same formulas ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘they all lived happily ever after’ is a perennial favourite with children.
I suppose we as adults lose sight of our once childish imagination of mythical lands and kingdoms far away, and need to ‘put away the things of childhood’ as St Paul put it, yet we are still called to be childlike, although not childish, if we are to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
We continue as adults to love drama and stories, and I suppose their enduring appeal is that they allow us to escape from the humdrum of life. If you like reading as I do then there is no end to the stories we engage in literature of fiction. Movies and TV soaps likewise are a huge source of commercial profit and provide an endless source of income for writers. A recent writers’ strike in the US showed how dependent TV channels and the viewing public depend on the creative output of writers.
Yet the greatest drama of all is our own life and our place in the world and in God’s loving plan of salvation.
The life of Mary which we honour and commemorate today, as well as the lives of the saints, allow us to see in what ways we too can respond to God’s plan in our lives. While Mary was given insights to her future by the angel Gabriel and by Simeon yet she is the one who is blessed by all generations for her faith. Faith means believing in what as yet remains unseen to us. Mary is the ‘Mother of all believers’ according to the Catechism, and so she is a model of trust and hope in what lies ahead in our lives - to trust that God knows what He is doing!
We commemorate in a particular way in the Feast of the Assumption, Mary’s ‘happily ever after’. She is in heaven. She ‘made it’ across the finishing line of what St Paul calls ‘the race’ which is our Christian life.
We mistakenly think that Mary had it easy and could see her way ahead clearly. She had daily tasks and chores in her married and family life, in the household and in her immediate neighbourhood community. The haste with which Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth, the three months stay which clearly implies she was present for John the Baptist’s birth, and her foresight and attentiveness at Cana, all reveal to us a woman of compassion who responded to real life situations and crises as they arose unexpectedly, in a charitable and selfless manner.
Mary’s selflessness challenges us to confront the three Cs in our lives that constantly draw us back into our own little ivory towers. These are the
C of control where I do my own will instead of consulting God in the matter and seek Him above all else.
And the Cs of comfort and convenience that I must overcome in true love of neighbour.
Mary’s overcoming of the C of control is evident at the Annunciation – ‘behold the handmaid of the Lord; and ‘do whatever He tells you’, and ‘pondering these things in her heart’ at the birth of Jesus and at the Presentation..
And her overcoming the Cs of convenience and comfort is implied as mentioned in her joyful haste to meet and look after Elizabeth, as well as the many sacrifices she made as wife and mother in the household. Her comfort and convenience were also shattered by the many sorrows of exile and prophecy, of bereavements and loneliness and much interior suffering during Jesus’ Passion and death.
Mary’s ‘happily ever after’ was costly, yet worth it. Our salvation likewise is not easy but we see it as attainable with God’s grace, and Mary’s intercession in this ‘valley of tears’. We are in the thick of our own story, with our own unique attributes, personalities and tasks, but God the author is in control and who requires our free co-operation. Like Mary, we can say: ‘the Lord has done great things for me, holy is His name’. Where Mary has gone, we hope to follow. Then too with Mary we can live ‘happily ever after’.
Have you ever been at your wit’s end looking for a miracle? Have you ever been so desperate, that you will try anything, novenas, extra rosaries, pilgrimages, fasts, penances, ‘extra stuff’, promised money to St Anthony to get a favour of a petition granted?
We all pray to the Our Lady and saints such as St Anthony or St Jude, even a deceased family member, and a holy person we knew, and so on. Because the Lord seems to be ‘taking His time’ answering a deeply felt need we feel the need to go to an intermediary. At exam time and this week I know without fail I will be asked to pray and or say Mass for someone anticipating their Leaving Cert. results and or their getting the place in third level that they will have enough points to get what they want.
Maybe it shows up the shallowness of our faith if the only time we are on our knees is when we are looking for something. Maybe the Lord is trying to strengthen our resolve and purify our motives in prayer by not granting us instant answers. What will our prayer be next week or in 6 months time?
On the other hand have we taken the time to acknowledge answered prayer? Do we take time to notice the quiet ways in which God has answered our most desperate prayers?
The story of the Gospel this Sunday is about faith tested and faith answered - involving a woman who doesn’t seem to have a chance to have her case heard– she is a woman in a male-dominated society and a pagan among Jews, what hope has she in being heard when even an Israelite Jewish woman wouldn’t dare approach a rabbi in public? A rabbi couldn’t even greet his mother in the street as it was frowned upon.
Yet it her all at once, desperate, persistent, persevering, patience pleading, her determination, directness, frankness, simplicity, selflessness, trust, and faith even in Jesus as the Son of David, and her appeal to his mercy and finally her human wit that wins Jesus over.
A mother will stop at nothing when the well-being of her child is at stake. Something changed in that woman, whether it was seconds, minutes or hours - in the woman’s disposition and faith. From calling Jesus simply ‘Sir’ and from a distance, she calls Him ‘Lord’, on her knees close to Him.
Maybe these are the qualities of prayer that we lack sometimes in prayer. We might give up too easily or lack pure motives. Do we have deep faith, do we appeal to Jesus’ mercy? Irrespective of her social standing and nationality Jesus looks at her heart. She is rewarded.
We also have to ask ourselves ‘why the delay?’ is God, as a loving Father, trying to teach me something as any parent teaches a child that we can’t have our way in everything and instantly, that, yes, He is attentive but we haven’t fully surrendered ourselves completely to His will for us? The woman shouts from a distance and when her prayer isn’t heard she annoys the disciples, and the finally she draws closer on her knees.
The unnamed woman is the first pagan to have her prayer answered – she will be the first of many – hence while Jesus alludes to the bread and feeding the people of Israel first, she responds with an image of breadcrumbs. She is seemingly jumping the gun, but she knows that ultimately those outside Israel can benefit from Jesus’ mission.
The Good News of salvation is for everyone, therefore, with the qualities of faith this unnamed woman displayed. How deep is our faith? And how readily can we - as Christians - say to God: Your will be done!?
We have heard the expression ‘timing is everything’. The storm which takes place in the Gospel and the struggle to deal with it is also crucially timed to take place at the fourth watch of the night – in other words during the darkest hour before the dawn.
The storm is an allegory for the storms in our lives – financial, emotional, mental, physical, family, stormy relationships, and even spiritual ups and downs. We are in the middle of an economic storm and the Church is at its darkest hour. But the storms in our own personal individual lives – what are they? For each of us at present, there is perhaps an area of difficulty and challenge. Like the disciples we are making no headway. All is dark, everything is against us.
But help is at hand – in the person of Christ. At first it is hard to see and recognise that He is with us. But He appears and invites us to have courage. We are invited it seems, like Peter, to do the seemingly impossible. But like Peter we so often fail and sink, because we are distracted and discouraged by trying to achieve the impossible by our own poor efforts alone, we doubt that Christ’s power can sustain us. We are in desperate need lest we sink. Pride comes
before a fall.
Christ appears to us – when all seems lost when we make a huge act of faith, like Peter, Christ does not literally appear to us but we find Him in prayer (sometimes in prayer of desperation when there is no-one to turn to) or He may send someone to us in the support, guidance and kindness of a friend, or He may speak to us in a book we read that conveys to us what we need to know, in Scripture for example, or in quiet reflection on what is taking place. God was to be found in the gentle breeze in the first Reading.
Christ says very little, seventeen words in total in fact. These words are hugely challenging and comforting, and worth pondering over as we reflect on past storms. They may help to brace us for storms to come:
‘Courage, it is I, do not be afraid. Come. Man of little faith, why did you doubt?'
These words can have a calming effect on our lives, in our uncertainties.
It is when we take our eyes off Christ, however, that we sink. Looking elsewhere, like Peter, trusting in ourselves alone, we are sure to get frightened, and we are sure to fall and fail (again).
Christ calms all fears, especially concerning things that are outside of our control.
Another point worth pondering is the timing and location of the miracle in the Gospel.
Today’s Gospel passage from last Sunday’s St Matthew’s Gospel follows closely upon the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Timing is everything. Immediately after Jesus performs His greatest miracle with bread (in the feeding of the 5,000) He performs His greatest miracle with His Body – walking on water. This prompts us to think that if Jesus can do ‘what he likes’ with bread and His body – then, surely the changing of bread into His Body is a logical conclusion for believers who have doubts over the doctrine of transubstantiation and what we believe with the eyes of faith in the Holy Eucharist.
The disciples’ attitude in the boat was one of recognition followed by adoration. Such should be our attitude in our reception of Jesus in Holy Communion.
In prayer then, in union with Him in these precious moments after Holy Communion we can hear Him repeat to us: ‘Courage, it is I, do not be afraid. Come. Man (woman) of little faith, why did you doubt?’