One of the most popular pieces of writing is a little thing called 'Footprints in the Sand'. It's a sentimental piece where God appears to carry us when the storm clouds gather and the wind is trying to bowl us over. It is a favourite of a particular kind of disciple.
However ... The disciple is not asked to say prayers but to become prayer. But the reality for many people is that they only ever 'say' prayers when they are in trouble, or their life is in danger or when they want something badly. Once the storm has passed and they feel lifted out of the raging sea, they are grateful and then drop God until the next crisis or need appears.
The real adventure of faith, as it is outlined in today's Gospel, is to be rooted in Gods Saving Presence with every breath that we take. Danger creates fear and fear is a prison cell which will not allow Gods presence. The boat, Matthew’s great symbol for the Church, is in danger of sinking. The disciples (men of little faith still) become afraid and lose their rudder. But they are not just taking a walk on a dark country lane at night.
We are instead struggling for community in an age of holocaust. Struggling for an end to war and violence, struggling to make poverty, hunger and disease things of the past, struggling to uphold dignity and respect for all of creation, for lives that are pure with love, struggling for beauty and truth in art and education, in healthcare, education and in politics. Working for higher consciousness of the Sacred in our Midst. In Matthew’s language, trying to bring heaven to earth!
As we reach for these things, we become afraid. Afraid for our lives, Afraid of Failure. We notice the winds of change are stronger than we thought. We imagine that the tsunami of violation, greed, injustice, and cruelty will make our own little efforts seems ridiculous.
But we might keep this on the breath of our prayer. Before the outstretched arm of Christ reaches out to hold us up, there is no better way to sink!
Herod misuses his power and kills John. And, like all people who use their power to hurt, destroy or control others, the ghost returns to haunt him. Herod, now panicked by superstition, thinks that Jesus is a ghost. The world has become a dangerous place for the Beloved Son of God.
So Jesus goes to the place which, though useless to those who seek power, is a wellspring for those who seek God.
Jesus is in the desert. And while it is true that He is rejected by some, He is pursued by others. The 'crowd' gather. He does not push them away. His heart goes out to them. As they move toward Him, He moves toward them. Mercy kisses misery and compassion is born. He heals their bodies and their anxious minds, restoring Peace to their community. They see in His Presence, Gods' presence and care, and they come to be bound in a covenant of love to each other and to God.
But the setting sun brings a new hunger, and the desert has little to offer. His closest disciples think that the solution is for them to leave now and go to the markets to buy food. Why, because they think they do not have enough. Jesus asks them to bring what they already have and draws them to understand that they already have enough. Five loaves and two fish. Five plus two equals seven. A Sacred number symbolising that whatever we have is a gift from God. Now they have two choices. To look at what they have and say it is not enough or to recognise that what they have is a gift from God which hides abundance.
When the disciples are no longer overwhelmed by the needs of these people, the desert becomes a garden. People sit on green grass. Jesus looks to heaven and gratitude fills His heart to overflowing. What is freely given is freely given away. Everyone is satisfied!
It does seem to me that there is a powerful teaching for us here. If we always start by thinking that the need before us is too great, and we will never have enough to meet that need, nothing will ever happen. We talk ourselves into doing nothing beautiful for God. Whereas, the Beloved Son of God, moves our attention to what we already have. He asks us not to look outside ourselves for the answer but to turn our gaze within. Going and buying may work for some, but for Jesus knowing what you have is the first step in spiritual transformation. He asks us to bring what we have, He gives thanks for what we have and asks us to join Him in gratitude, then He gives the gift to those who need it, and who, in their turn give it away to others.
This new way of living - self-awareness, gratefulness, generosity and communal love does not only satisfy the need before us, it produces an abundance - twelve baskets. So when we find ourselves in the desert, we know what to do. We either celebrate our assets and live or tell ourselves we will never have enough and die. Powerful teaching! Giving us the strength to say Yes!
Solomon has it all! He even has God talking to him in his dreams! His dreaming self hears the question God is always asking, "What is it that you want?" When we wake up, of course, the question is harder than it looks. Why? Because it can only be answered with great care. The word we speak coming straight from our heart.
I know a lot of jokes about genies wriggling out of bottles or fairies swooshing their wands, who ask the lucky finder the same question. Usually the answer is a request for endless wealth. Solomon does not need to ask for what he already has, so he asks God for the gift of 'Wisdom'. A Wisdom that supports a community to grow. A Wisdom for relating! Notice how this stirs surprise and delight in Gods' own heart. And God is delighted to answer this prayer. The Psalmist must have had a similar experience. You can hear it as she sings, "The law from your mouth means more to me than silver or gold." Or in the words and experience of Saint Paul, God adorns us in Glory. What are they all telling us? What lesson can be learned here?
First of all, something happens. A baby looks at you and smiles and, no matter what you're feeling, you just have to smile back. Because, first of all, something happens. You're standing at a graveside, tears your only prayer, as the storm of grief rages from your heart to your eyes. Someone takes your hand and joins you in that lonely place which is now less lonely. First of all, something happens. A secret weakness is exposed, but the support of a good friend is stronger than the shame that threatens to engulf us. First of all, something happens.
We are unexpectedly kissed, we see an old person refusing to be old. First of all, something happens. These are the 'moments' that throw us into the Mystery we share with each other. We are suddenly face to face with the Presence within which we live our lives. God does not wait for a suitable moment or for a polite introduction. His presence breaks through our routines, demanding our attention, insisting that we talk. When God speaks, we may laugh or cry, we might sing or fall silent. But whatever we do we are praying at our best. The 'moment' the 'encounter' has changed everything.
We pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom. But when it arrives it is always a surprise! In farming a field, a treasure is stumbled upon. A door opens and the perfect pearl is for sale. Out of nowhere there is a gold embossed invitation to the Kings' Banquet! Every genuine encounter with Jesus is always a surprise. Lawyers who expected justification are challenged. A rich young man asks for advice and is offered a vocation. Zacchaeus, hoping for a glimpse of a prophet, dines with his Saviour. A woman at a well leaves with a bucket full of self-revelation. All of them got more than they asked for. Their emptiness suddenly brimming over, their ravaged lives called to greatness.
These experiences bring us to prayer. Our own story now made more by our encounter with Jesus. We begin to make links with the Prophets and disciples who have gone before us. In their company, old worlds are subverted, new worlds rise from the ruins. We are blessed by a Love stronger than death. We are suddenly filled with a new confidence. We have become the prayer.
A handful of wheat, a fistful of mustard seeds, a pinch of yeast. Jesus uses these beautiful things to say something amazing about the Kingdom of God. He begins with the great reassurance that love is invincible. No matter how small the beginning, no matter how vulnerable or threatened the middle, the end is never in doubt. In life and in death, the Kingdom will come and Gods' will, will be done.
Next. He will not allow us to take a simplistic, no grey in the middle, view of the world. We are all complicated. There is no neat division of people into the 'good' and the 'bad'. We are all a strange mixture of both. Take the first disciples as an example. One moment they are all over Jesus like a rash, then they are following at a distance or not following Him at all. And if we are honest, we don't always go along with Holy things. We drift from time to time. The Great Reassurance of God walks with the Great Not-So-Sureness of the human heart.
And so the struggle goes on. Or the struggle goes well. It is a struggle for bread, for shelter and for Compassion. Only the Wisdom which allows the wheat and darnell to remain intertwined can make this happen. This Wisdom puts us in a place of unending repentance as we await the time of harvest.
This invitation to unending repentance is one of the big themes of Saint Matthews Gospel. It is an invitation to shake ourselves free of anything in us which causes hunger, homelessness and despair. And when we have completed this work, we start all over again. This labour goes on and on throughout our lives. This is why, when we leave the retreat centre, full of good intentions and two minutes into the journey home we are screaming at someone who cut us up on the road, we smile. Or we leave Holy Mass full of love, kindness and consideration which evaporates the minute someone presses the wrong buttons. We smile! How many times have we witnessed Saint Peter proclaim his love unto death for Jesus being chastened and illuminated by his own betrayal. Perhaps we dream more than we can do. Perhaps not.
In the teaching of Jesus weeds and wheat grow together. Small seeds become huge trees. Leaven raises dead dough into bread. All are given the gift of time. Time to try again. Time to become repeat repenters and not just repeat offenders. But one day the time will run out and the urgency of the struggle is clear. We all fail and we are all ashamed of the failing within us. But we must not give up on ourselves. Out of our errors and frailty come some of life's most important lessons. There is a freedom that awaits us. It can only be found by those who carry the light, of a certain kind of love, into darkened places.
Jesus leaves the house (church) where the converted are gathered, and goes to sea. He is looking for fish, and they arrive in large numbers. So, Jesus, who likes to fish for people, begins to teach from a boat.
Jesus teaches many things using Parables, which are a soup mix of conventional knowledge and spiritual wisdom. He draws on what is already familiar, what people know best. But Parables are not just stories. They make demands on those who listen to them. They might draw on farming, legal situations, family conflicts and weather etc, but there is always something about them which is a little strange. Today’s Gospel Reading is a great example of this strangeness. It's a farming Parable, but it's not about a careful farmer. This one is wild and reckless and yet, the yield abundant. This is a clue that the listener is being invited to go deeper. The invitation, 'Let anyone with ears listen!' means the Parable is over and the struggle to understand it has begun.
For many reasons, some people get the Parables and some don't. The spiritual teacher helps the disciple to move towards a deeper understanding and a new awareness. But not everyone wants to be helped. Some harden their hearts against the deeper meanings in the Parable for fear that a new and higher consciousness might demand a change in lifestyle. Against such as these, even the Divine Teacher is powerless.
It has been said that there are basically two kinds of teachers; those who love teaching and those who love their students. Those who love teaching are never short of words, details and explanations. They make objections with one breath and answer them in the next. They can often be funny and charming individuals who really like the sound of their own voice. They will take questions but only because it gives them a chance to talk more!
Those who love the students talk less and listen more. They are too busy feeling for the student’s level of understanding, for blocks to their advancement, for paths that may be taken and paths that may be avoided. They are experts is knowing the person who sits beside them. They see what is needed but they do not say it out loud. What they say is said only to support the student to discover the next step. The teacher who loves the student provides the right conditions for an inner revelation. If they can follow the clues, they will come to know for themselves and not be overly dependent on the insights of others. Good Parents are especially good at this.
When Jesus tells Parables, He is clearly a spiritual teacher who loves His disciples. The Parables do not give up their secrets too easily. They invite a wrestling match. They are not just information. They require engagement. But for Saint Matthew there is a third Person in the ring. The Holy Spirit is working from the inside out to 'reveal these things to us?' And the reason we know that Jesus is the kind of Teacher who loves his disciples is that He powerfully introduces them to the presence of God in the depth of their own being.
Jesus found out that, no matter what you do, you just can't please some people. His beautiful teaching is rejected by the religious and political elite. They bypass the beauty of His Word because they prefer to sit in cafes and bars making dark judgements. They are learned and clever about the 613 dictates of the Law. They tithe herbs to God but ignore the justice God longs for. They like being in charge. They like to be seen and seen as movers and shakers. They like telling other people what they ought to be doing. But they are only interested in the outside of the cup. They are masters of the detail, obsessing over surface rather than depth.
If anyone should come to them with a new idea, it is rejected if it doesn't fit in with how they see things. And surely how they see things is the only way to see things. Experts at categorising others for exclusion, they are clever enough to maintain their own position of privilege. They argue endlessly about God, Morality and Theology, not because they want to Grow in Wisdom, but to keep God at a distance. They never ever come to Jesus seeking the truth. They come to compete and to try to trap Jesus in a maze of their own making.
But Jesus teaching is being accepted by those who are not 'learned' or 'clever'. Jesus praises His Father for working in this way and decides that, if the Father hides and reveals in this way, this is how the Mission of the Son should unfold.
The mind of a child is eager and open. It is not cluttered or defensive. The mind of a child is always changing and growing and adapting to novelty. But most importantly, the mind of a child is relational. This openness gives the Father huge pleasure, so He pours life and love into the hearts of those with a child mind. If they find pleasure in God, they will effortlessly walk the pathways of Justice and Peace.
Jesus exemplifies this child mind. He stretches out His hands to those who struggle to be good by conforming to the endless petty laws that defeat, rather than nurture, the human spirit. He calls all who have lost their taste for life to the banquet. He has a special place in His heart for those who are suffering, especially those whose suffering have caused them to lose heart. He offers them the rest which unfolds from a profound intimate relationship with His Father.
I do believe that Jesus still speaks to the many who are weary and exhausted today. Those who have to work too many hours. Those who are so anxious that they cannot rest. Those who believe they have to always be in control, and who can't trust enough to let go. He teaches that we can rest by disengaging from our mighty egos and becoming like children who are pleased to be carried. It's like your starting in Footsteps, but this time, you know you are!
Many poets have played with this experience of inner rest. Rainer Maria Rilke, in his 'Selected Poems' reflects on the experience of inner rest. He describes the awkward labouring steps of the swan walking on land. Who then,
.... let's herself down into the water, which receives her gaily and which flows joyfully under, and after her, wave after wave, while the swan, unmoved and marvellously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown. (p.141)
And DH Lawrence in his 'Pax', speaks of -
... a cat asleep on a chair, at peace, at peace ... Sleeping on the hearth of the living world, yawning at home before the fire of life feeling the presence of the living God like a great reassurance a deep calm in the heart. (p.700)
I always ask people who are celebrating their birthday, if they can hear the Song the Angels Sang on the day that they were born!
After that, we are given the Gift of our Name. I always make something of this in the Celebration of Baptism. I explore that reason a name has been chosen and it's meaning for the little one. Everybody's name means something. Mary (Myriam) has its roots in rebellion and means, 'the one who changes everything'. Peter means Rock and Paul means Small. Having a name means that I am somebody, worthy of tenderness and respect.
But knowing someone's name doesn't mean we know them. It is often recorded that the first disciples of Jesus betrayed him in the end. This can sometimes be used as a 'get out clause' for our own failures. Certainly, they are encouraging. But it is also true that all of them laid down their lives for him in the end. This is inspiring.
Notice how, in their moment of Grace, when they meet Him for the first time, Jesus gives them a new name.
We mirror this in the Celebration of Confirmation, when our young people will have a new name from The Lord!
The Psalmist puts it like this,
And you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of The Lord
A Royal Diadem in the Hand of your God
And you shall be called by a new Name which the mouth of The Lord will Give.
Recently, a man heard The Lord call Him by a new name. It was Francis, and he has changed the face of the earth. As we give thanks to God for the keystone lives and work of Peter and Paul, might we ask how our own name gives us a great clue to our own Vocation.
And as for the first line of this reflection, keep listening and then sing along!
After so many Feasts, we return to Ordinary Time. The first words of the Gospel for this Sunday are an Instruction from the Teacher to His disciples. 'Do not be afraid'.
Funnily enough, this instruction is to be found in Sacred Scripture, exactly 365 times! One for every day of the year! (Except a leap year lol)
We must choose to be intentional disciples of Jesus or not. Do you know if you have done this yet? Check to make sure that you have really chosen to follow Him.
If our answer is yes, we must take into account that He does not offer a soft option. Persecution and suffering are as sure to follow the disciple as it did the Master. But, as St Paul reminded Timothy, the Word of the Lord cannot be sent to prison! (2 Tim 2,9). There will always be some who want to silence true disciples. 'They' want the words and deeds of Jesus to be stopped. But this will never happen. Sin may slow down Gods activity but it can never crush it.
Intentional disciples must carry this reassurance with them and deepen it in their hearts. We will have to face those who want to silence us. We might become objects of scorn, or gossip. We may lose our status, we might be laughed at or taken for fools. We might risk losing everything. All these things might make us afraid, but, as we overcome our fear, we will transform darkness into light, silence into sound, death into life.
But here's the thing. When Our Lord instructed his disciples to move without fear into the open with what they knew, he wasn't sending them out with information, facts and figures. He gave them a new identity as daughters and sons of their Father in Heaven. Children of God with hearts on Fire. What they have received, they must share with others. The future of humanity and of the earth depend on their passion and faithfulness.
Every intentional disciple of Jesus is blessed with and burdened with the truth He has revealed. If we choose Jesus, he unseats our souls, and makes us stand on housetops to share what we have received. The fire in our hearts will warm people in different ways. Intentional disciples love God more than the suffering they fear. We finally understand Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He wants the cup to pass. He has no love affair with suffering. But his desire to unleash the power of love and reconciliation in the world means He has to go on. The Beloved Son of God cannot be silent in the face of persecution. What He has heard as Beloved Son of God must be told to every daughter and son. The more He prays, the more he realises what must be done, the more fear falls from Him, like drops of blood, watering the earth.
The Beloved Son of God makes His decision and asks us to do the same. What will we do?
Many are called, but most are frozen in corporate or collective cold.
These are the stalled who choose not to be chosen,
Except to be bought,
Except to be sold.
We eat a piece of bread - We drink a glass of wine - it becomes part of us.
It is evening on the first day of the week. Remember that St. Johns Gospel is rewriting the creation story in Genesis. Earlier, the Beloved Disciple and Mary of Magdala realise that Jesus is with God. Now, they discover that He is also in their midst. Jesus is with God (ascension) and with them (resurrection) at the same time. He is the bridge connecting us with God. The Mediator between the Sacred and the Creation. He is as He has always been. 'And there was evening and there was morning, the first day'. (Genesis 1:5)
Notice how the first words He speaks are words of Peace! These words are spoken with the gesture of opening His hands and showing His side. He shows them what Love has done to Him. How the waters of new birth now flow from His Heart, to them and through them. They are being sent as He was sent. Staying in His Peace, and being faithful to the Love that has no end, will be their guide and their strength.
And then, when all has been said and done, there is really only one message that the new community has to bring. It is a message of forgiveness. This is the word that will make or break the new creation, just as it makes or breaks us. I turn once again to John O'Donoghue, who puts this call to lead in the work of reconciliation more beautifully than I could. It is his 'Blessing for Love in Time of Conflict'.
When the gentleness between you hardens,
And you fall out of your belonging to each other.
May the depths you have reached hold you still.
When no true word can be said, or heard,
and you mirror each other in the script of hurt.
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
may you hear again the echo of your first music.
When the weave of affection starts to unravel,
and anger begins to sear the ground between you.
Before the weather of grief
invites the dark seed of bitterness to find root
may your souls come to kiss.
Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
to allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt.
Reach out with sure hands to take the chalice of your love
and carry it carefully through this echoless waste.
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you towards the gateway to spring.
CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST JOSEPH & ST MARGARET CLITHEROW
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1HA (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1HA (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871