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Sunday thoughts.com

30 November, 1999

Martin Tierney has gathered together personal reflections based on the Sunday and feastday readings for the three year Liturgical cycle. They are both inspirational and a good resource for people preparing Sunday Liturgies.

382pp, Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie .




1st (A) The Disappeared
1st (B) Stay Awake
1st (C) Waiting
2nd (A) A Powerful Message Of Repentance
2nd (B) Sin Hurts Others
2nd (C) Che Guevara Leads The Way
3rd (A) John Needed Reassurance
3rd (B) Sunday In Hyde Park
3rd (C) We Cannot Mock God
4th (A) The Only One To Have Chosen His Own Mother
4th (B) The Virginal Conception
4th(C) A Feast Of Fruitfulness


Nativity (A) The Strangest Christmas Ever
Nativity (B) The Mystery Of Christmas
Nativity (C) Christmas – A Time of GraceHoly Family (A) Love Is A Decision, Not A Feeling
Holy Family (B) Bringing Out The Best In Your Marriage
Holy Family (C) Families Are To Be Communities Of Life And Love
2nd (A,B,C) ‘In The Beginning…’
Epiphany (A) This Man Was Born To Die
Epiphany (B) Building A Counter-Culture
Epiphany (C) Follow Your Star
Baptism (A) The Baptism of the Lord
Baptism (B) Personal Testimony – Baptism In The Spirit
Baptism (C) Why Did Jesus Get Baptised?


1st (A) The Real World
1st (B) Temptation
1st (C) Lent Is A Good Time To Begin Again
2nd (A) A Mountain-Top Experience
2nd (B) Not Guilty!
2nd (C) Transfigured
3rd (A) Aids And The Samaritan Woman
3rd (B) Sacred Places
3rd (C) The Doctrine Of The Second Chance
4th (A) Jesus Heals On The Sabbath 4th (B)
4th (C) He Died So That We Might Live
5th (A) A Story Of Estrangement And Reconciliation
5th (B) Friends
5th(C) What We Have And What We Need Adultery
Palm Sunday (A) Living The Paschal Mystery On A Daily Basis
Palm Sunday (B) Symbol And Tradition
Palm Sunday (C) Defeat Is Turned Into Victory


Easter Triduum Why Did Jesus Die?
Easter Sunday (A) The Indispensable Nature of Light
Easter Sunday (B) There Is No Need For Alarm
Easter Sunday (C) The Resurrection
2nd (A) Emigrant Faith
2nd (B) The Resurrection, Cookham
2nd (C) Thomas The Doubter
3rd (A)  The Pilgrim Journey
3rd (B) Faith, God’s Gift To His People
3rd (C) Peter – ‘Master of the Universe’
4th (A) The Priest
4th (B) The Good Shepherd
4th (C) Sheep And Shepherds
5th (A) ‘I Am The Way, The TruthAnd The Life’
5th (B) What It Means To Be The Body Of Christ
5th (C) I Am Your Brother Joseph
6th (A) If You Love Me …
6th (B) The Courage To Change
6th (C) Link In To The Power
Ascension (A) The Glory Of The Final Promise
Ascension (B) If The News Is ‘Good’ Why Don’t We Share It?
Ascension (C) What About Those Who Have Left?
7th (A) Prayer – Who Am I Lord And Who Are You?
7th (B) Idolatry Gets In The Way Of Love
7th (C) Dead Man Walking
Pentecost (A) The Feast Of Pentecost
Pentecost (B) The Holy Spirit
Pentecost(C) Hurricane Andrew


2nd (A) Secularising The Sacred
2nd (B) The First Disciples
2nd (C) Can This Marriage Be Saved?
3rd (A) Saints Alive
3rd (B) The Gospel Of Mark
3rd (C) Poverty And Pain
4th (A) A Place For Everyone
4th (B) Leadership
4th(C) To Know God And To Make Him Known
5th (A) The Salt Of The Earth
5th (B) The Healing Power Of Jesus Christ
5th(C) They Left Everything
6th (A) The Masks We Wear
6th (B) The Extraordinary Compassion of Jesus
6th(C) A Charter for Healing
7th (A) Exploring The Topic Of Forgiveness
7th (B) Sickness
7th (C) His Life Said All There Was To Say
8th (A) New Wine, Old Wineskins
8th (B) Change
8th(C) The Mask I Wear
9th (A) The Fall Of The Mighty
9th (B)  Keepin the Sabbath
9th(C) Cancer
10th (A) The Call Of Matthew
10th (B) Sin And Satan
10th (C) The Widow’s Son
11th (A) The Courage Of Terry Fox
11th (B) The Priest – Another Simon Of Cyrene
11th (C) The Pharisee And The Prostitute
12th (A) Declaring For Christ
12th (B) Letting Go To God
12th (C) Who Do The Crowds Say That I Am?
13th (A) Anyone Who Welcomes You Welcomes Me
13th (B) The Healing Ministry Of Jesus Christ
13th (C) The Call Of Discipleship
14th (A) Suffering
14th (B) Jesus Experiences Rejection
14th (C) The Pepsi-Cola Generation
15th (A) The Sunday Sermon
15th (B) Repentance Is A Grace Without Words
15th (C) Moved With Compassion
16th (A) The Weeds And The Wheat
16th (B) The Desert Within
16th (C) Hospitality
17th (A) An Inclusive Church
17th (B) Greatness
17th (C) Teach Us To Pray
18th (A) The Light Of God’s Love Can Never Be Extinguished
18th (B) The Transfiguration
18th (C) Money Makes The World Go Round?
19th (A) Peter – The Impetuous Friend Of Jesus
19th (B) The Bread Of Life
19th (C) Death, Where Is Your Sting?
20th (A) Healing
20th (B) Religious Symbols Have Lost Their Meaning
20th (C) There Is A Price To Be Paid For Tough Love
21st (A) Thou Art Peter
21st (B) The Church
21st (C) The Risk Of Being Shut Out
22nd (A) The Great Challenge
22nd (B) Standing Outside The Fold
22nd(C) Behind The Façade Of Riches Lie Deep Human Needs
23rd (A) To Love Without Measure
23rd (B) There Is A Dialogue Deficit Between The Rich And The Poor
23rd (C) Are We Willing To Pay The Price?
24th (A) Forgiveness Is Healing
24th (B) The Messiahship Of Jesus
24th(C) More Joy In Heaven
25th (A) The Wonderful Promises Of God
25th (B) The Will To Power
25th (C) Life Is A Series Of Choices
26th (A) Prostitutes And Tax-Collectors Are Entering Heaven
26th (B) Exploiting Children
26th(C) There Was A Rich Man
27th (A) The Lost Art Of Listening
27th (B) Is There Any Such Thing As A Marriage?
27th(C) Faith
28th (A) The Wedding Feast
28th (B) Do We Possess Money Or Does It Possess Us?
28th(C) Giving Thanks
29th (A) Taxation
29th (B) Spiritual Leaders
29th(C) Spiritual Nagging
30th (A) Being The ‘Bread Of Life’ For Another
30th (B) The Journey Home
30th (C) The Pharisee And The Publican
31st (A) Spiritual Leadership
31st (B) Love Betrayed
31st (C) No One Is Outside The Scope Of God’s Love And Forgiveness
32nd (A) An Invitation To A Different Kind Of Living
32nd (B) God Loves A Generous Giver
32nd (C) There Is A Homelessness
33rd (A) I Will Give You A New Heart
33rd (B) Expectant Vigilance
33rd (C) A Sacred Place
34th (A) Sheep And Goats – Christ The King
34th (B) The Ignominy Of Suffering
34th (C) The Cross Is A Contradiction


The Immaculate Conception The Immaculate Conception
All Saints (A) The Be-Attitudes
All Saints (B) When Things Fall Apart
All Saints (C) Has Liberation Theology Been Replaced By Prosperity Theology?
All Souls The Feast Of All Souls
Mission Sunday Sharing Our Faith With Others
Trinity (A) The Trinity – The Central Mystery Of The Christian Faith
Trinity (B) The Dropouts
Trinity (C) The Trinity: A Community Of Love
Corpus Christi I Am The Bread Of Life 


This book is an inspirational journey through the readings of the three years of the liturgical cycle. The reflections were initially written to inspire and encourage the reader to see the scriptures as something to ‘power their daily lives’. Martin Tierney draws from his extensive pastoral experience, aims to solidify the connection between what is read on Sunday and the concrete reality of daily living as found in personal experience and in the media bombarding us. They are also a good resource for people preparing or sharing Sunday Liturgies.


Chapter One
First Sunday of Advent Year A: The Disappeared
Readings: Isa 2:1-5; Rom 13:11-14; Mt 24:37-44

‘Home’ is taking up where one left off, no matter how long the period away has been. ‘Home’ is where there is someone to welcome us. Advent is the beginning of a journey home to God’s love.

Imagine you are a Jew living in Israel just before Jesus’ coming. Imagine that your teenage daughter is beginning to lose faith in the Messiah. She thinks the idea of waiting for a Messiah for thousands of years is just not credible. She says, ‘I’m not going to the Temple any more. I don’t mind what you or Mammy say!’ This imaginary situation is similar to the situation many Catholics find themselves in today.

We have all noticed the dwindling congregations in our churches in recent years. Where have they all gone? Does anyone know why they left? No goodbyes, no tears, no care! How would you feel if some of your family members closed the hall door and walked out into the night? Wouldn’t you go and invite them back or ask the reason for their leaving? Wouldn’t you think of ways of indicating to them that the door was always open?

As I write there is great joy in the Crennan household in Abbeyleix, County Laois. Kevin hadn’t been heard of by his family for seven long years. He didn’t even know that his father had died. Then, quite by chance, he turned up in Columbia in South America. His sister Ann rejoiced, ‘It is fantastic the way the whole thing happened. We are all over the moon! My mother was especially relieved. She is an elderly person. Maybe she was afraid she would die without seeing her son again: Home, for a Christian, is being with God, in some way. Home is where too many questions will not be asked. Home is taking up where one left off, no matter how long the period away has been. Home is where we experience warmth. Home is where we are meant to be.

This is a beautiful time of the year in religious terms. Our four weeks of preparation, called Advent, are a looking forward to ‘home’, as well as a looking at life from a long-term view. Where do I see myself five, ten, years from now? Is my relationship with God growing or do I d to look anew at the spiritual dimension of my life? The readings at this time focus a lot on John the Baptist – the wild man of the desert. Is there anything I can learn from him?

Much of the activity of the Church is concerned with the converted’. Many of Jesus’ parables, in particular the lost sheep and the lost coin and the prodigal son, invite us to think again. Advent is a time new beginnings. It is a time for seeking our way home again. Perhaps I am one of the ‘disappeared’. Maybe I need to touch base n with my spiritual roots – with the person of Jesus.
During the Pinochet regime in Chile many people just disappeared’. The same happened in Argentina. Empty pews give testimony to the ‘disappeared’ members of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The one time the ‘disappeared’ tend to return to Church is at Christmas. It is such a festive, family time that most people want to be part of it. Advent can be a gently evangelical sort of time. It is a time welcome the stranger back to the loving arms of .Jesus, back to the church, who is mother, who desires to nurture, encourage and assist anyone to grow in faith and love of Jesus.

The Gospel today is about the Second Coming and the subsequent judgement. The judgement is not a Tribunal with all the trappings of a court. It is not an adversarial arena where learned lawyers drag over the details of your life with a fine comb. Your advocate is also your judge. You can’t have a more one-sided structure than that! God’s judgement tempered by love and mercy. Nevertheless, each will have to give an account of his or her life. The only preparation possible and the only preparation necessary is our constant care to live in the light and love bought by our Lord who became like one of us.

First Sunday of Advent Year B: Stay awake
Readings: Isa 63:16-17; 64:1-8; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37

People waiting for a heart or liver transplant always have their bags packed, ready for the call that will bring them a renewed life. Today’s Gospel asks us to stay awake waiting for the Second Coming.

Lough Derg, the pilgrim island in Donegal, was described by Shane Leslie in 1932 as a ‘medieval rumour which terrified travellers, awed the greatest criminals, attracted the boldest of knight-errantry, puzzled the theologian, englamoured Ireland, haunted Europe, influenced the current views and doctrines of Purgatory; and not least inspired Dante!’ For me it means staying awake for two days and a very long night! The weariness of the night vigil, begun on a midge-infested summer’s evening and ending in the cold chill of a new dawn, is painful. Staying awake isn’t at all easy. When I read the Gospels of today’s Mass I was haunted by my memories of Lough Derg. The words of Jesus, ‘And what I say to you, I say to all: stay awake!’, had a very special resonance for me.
This chapter in Mark’s Gospel must be read as a whole. Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which of course happened in AD 70. It was the beginning of the end of that period of Jewish history which culminated in Masada. He was also warning of persecutions to come. His followers would have to learn that the path of suffering would be part of their Christian journey. Then there are warnings of the last days and the Second Coming of Jesus. If we live in the shadow of eternity, with the possibility of the intervention of God at any time, then we have to be prepared. All of this is enfolded in the language and imagery of the Old Testament.
One thing that has always fascinated me about mountaineers is the meticulous preparation that goes into every expedition. In Chris Bonnington’s latest book, Tibet’s Secret Mountain – the triumph of Sepu Kangri, two preliminary exploratory expeditions were made to the area of the proposed climb before the detailed planning even began. On a hot midsummer evening, Americans were joined by 600 million people around the world to watch in awe as Neil Armstrong, aged thirty-eight, from Ohio, lowered his left foot gingerly into the soft dust of the moon’s surface. ‘That’s one small step for man. . . one giant step for mankind’ It was eight years since President Kennedy had promised to set a man on the moon. Eight years of detailed planning and preparation.

Increasingly the Christian life has been described as a pilgrimage, a journey. The most important staging post on that journey is death. The Gospel today tells us to be ready, to try to live as we would wish to die. I know that people who are waiting for a liver or heart transplant always have their bags packed and remain in touch no matter where they are – always waiting for the call that will bring them new life. We are in a queue waiting for a new life that will last for ever.

Funerals are a regular part of daily life. They are painful events for family and friends. In a very vague sort of way such occasions remind us that we too will follow them – but not yet. Death is always just over the horizon. ‘We haven’t here a lasting city but seek one that is to come: The heart that always looks forward will never be truly at peace until it arrives at home. Home is where the heart is meant to be – with God. God, who is infinite love, peace, joy, is the only one who can fulfil our deepest longings and needs.

The fear of death is natural. The journey is from the known, familiar people and ways of life into what? No one has come to tell us What it’s like. Faith is the bridge that straddles time and eternity. Perhaps I haven’t much of that and I am afraid. We know that He has gone before us. His resurrection is the pledge that we too shall rise again. We don’t know when it will be. He will be the one who will beckon and we will go. Life is a preparation for death, the gateway into
a new life.

First Sunday of Advent Year C: Waiting
Readings:Jer 33:14-16; 1 Thess 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28,34-36

Advent is a time of waiting and a time of expectation. We are asked to take a long-term view and look to the Second Coming of Jesus and to our preparedness for it.

We are entering the season of waiting. For some, waiting can be with eager anticipation, for others, it is a matter of daring to hope. This is a letter from Janet who is waiting for a liver transplant.

Dear Malcolm,
I never realised how difficult it was going to be to receive a liver. There’s a lot of competition out there and many more people are in worse shape than I. I just hope I get one when my liver packs in. I keep strong in the belief that God will provide and that there is a reason for this waiting time. Now that I understand the delay in admittance, I’ll put ‘waiting’ in its place and just be patient. I’m feeling OK but these days I’m more fatigued than ever. At times, I don’t have enough energy to sit up. My body feels so heavy. I threw caution to the wind and took an all-day outing (cabin fever gets to me). It took me two days to recover. The outing was so worth it.
Take care of yourself. You’re in my thoughts and prayers.
Love Janet

The diary of Anne Frank has become one of the bestselling books of all time. Cooped up in an annex for almost four years until betrayed in 1944, Anne had a premonition. She was waiting for something terrible to happen. At the age of fifteen she wrote, ‘I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more:

We are beginning our period of waiting, of looking forward. This looking forward is not just to the coming feast of Christmas but also to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the subject of today’s Gospel. Cosmic signs and distress on earth are the stock accompaniment of a divine intervention and especially of the divine judgement of humankind. The cloud of the Second Coming will reveal Jesus’ hitherto hidden glory, which is the glory of God. He comes in the cloud, the vehicle of God, to effect the divine work of judgement and redemption.

The Second Coming really means that there is a goal to the divine plan working itself out in history, a plan that is accomplished in and through Jesus. God has a plan for our lives and for the whole of humanity. The ‘parousia’ is the culmination of that plan. We are asked to be alert for the Second Coming of Jesus. That will be the culmination of the redemption. None of us can afford to be presumptuous. Justice tempers God’s infinite mercy. There needs to be a time when the scales of justice are balanced. At the beginning of Advent we are being asked to set our sights not on the material preparations for the coming feast but to take a more long-term view of our lives and where we are going in our relationship with God.

I remember when I was a small boy in short trousers attending the annual school retreat. The Jesuit priest, who seemed ancient, began the retreat with the words, ‘It is appointed unto man once to die and after death the judgement: At this stage I had never even seen a dead person, not to mind having little idea of death or judgement! It would be unfortunate if we were never to recall the fact that we will all have to give an account of our lives to the good Lord.

The parousia may be delayed, but it will eventually involve us all. How one lives here and now determines how one will ‘stand before the Son of Man’. These words of Luke, apparently so remote, are not at all without reference to our day-to-day lives.

Second Sunday of Advent Year A: A Powerful Message of Repentance
Readings: Isa 11:1-10; Rom 15:4-9; Mt 3:1-12

There is so much to learn from the remarkable figure of John the Baptist – confession, repentance, humility, self-denial and the power of Baptism.

It’s amazing what a ‘wild man’ can achieve! Mahatma Gandhi was one such person. After the terrible massacre of 400 people by the British at Amritsar in 1919, he undertook a personal fast for three weeks. In defiance of punitive salt taxes, this was followed by leading a 320 kilometre march to the sea to collect salt. He was arrested many times for civil disobedience. His fast, to shame the instigators of communal strife between Hindu and Muslim, helped to avert national disaster. He sought an India free from caste and materialism, always through nonviolent means. He reminds me of John the Baptist! The witness of his life was undoubtedly prophetic.

Another modern-day prophet was the late Anton Wallich-Clifford, the founder of the Simon Community, who died in 1963. Through his work as a probation officer, Anton met homeless men and women who were living rough on derelict sites and wasteground in London. He was inspired by other tireless workers for the poor, such as Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, and Abbe Pierre, who founded the Emmaus Community in France. The work of Mario Borrelli with homeless children in Naples also inspired him. He established volunteer work that has given a new beginning to many people who are usually considered the flotsam of the consumer society. Now Anton was a prophet! Who are the prophets we need to listen to today?
I am not a lover of the word ‘prophet’. I think it is used frivolously to describe those who are against the establishment for whatever reason. People are called prophets simply because by their words and actions they invite retaliation from the ‘power brokers’, whether civil or religious. Nevertheless, the God whom we seek, the God whom John the Baptist was proclaiming, ‘spoke through the prophets’. A prophet is one who is called and sent. John was one such person. We cannot ignore his message.

John’s message was a tough one. To change one’s ways isn’t easy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who paid the ultimate price for his faith under the Nazis, put John’s message in this way: ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate: (The Cost of Discipleship)

When we try to change we usually do so relying on will-power alone. It doesn’t have to be like that! There comes a time when we have to ‘claim the promises of Christ’. In the Acts of the Apostles we read: ‘You must repent, and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of power. We need divine power if we are to change our lives. Repentance is a journey towards God. It is a grace rather than an act.

Over the last twenty-five years I have witnessed many, many people turn their lives around through their participation in the ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminars. I have known people who have had their lives turned upside down. The promises of God are that those who turn to him and receive his Spirit will be changed. They will experience new life. ‘The Lord God says this, “I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you. You shall be my people and I will be your God”: People like Gandhi, Anton Wallich-Clifford and John the Baptist turned their lives over to God and a great prophetic work was accomplished through them.

Second Sunday of Advent Year B: Sin Hurts Others
Readings: Isa 40:1-5,9-11; Pet 3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8

The existence of sin is hardly recognised any more. Nevertheless, acknowledging sin is the beginning of the path towards wholeness and freedom.

Lloyd Douglas, author of The Robe, used to tell how he loved to visit an old violin teacher who had a homely wisdom that refreshed him. One morning Douglas walked in and said, ‘Well, what’s the good news today?’ Putting down his violin, the teacher stepped over to a tuning fork suspended from a cord and struck it. ‘There is the good news for today,’ he said. ‘That, my friend, is the musical note A. It was A all day yesterday, will be A next week and for a thousand years.’ I think repentance, mentioned by John the Baptist in today’s Gospel, must be put in the context of good news. Repentance is part of a journey towards wholeness and freedom.

What is repentance? Where does it start? It is relational, in the sense that there is an offender and an offended. Sin is a rupturing or damaging of the relationship between myself and God. Only those who know love, know sin. We have all experienced serious family quarrels. We experience pain and hurt when we fall out with someone we love. We play and replay the drama in our minds. The script is analysed for further hurts. Sadness, anger, resentment and longing are the emotions that well up inside us. We try to devise ways of coming together again. Those who are closest seem to hurt each other with a greater intensity than mere acquaintances would. When we know God’s love with the heart rather than with the head we will know immediately what sin is.

A brother said to the Abbot Poemen, ‘If I fall into shameful sin, my conscience devours and accuses me, saying: “Why have you fallen?” , The old man said to him, ‘At the moment when a man goes astray, if he says, “I have sinned”, immediately the sin ceases.’

We can talk ourselves out of the admission of sin, ‘sure everyone’s doing it, it couldn’t be wrong’, or more subtly, ‘God will understand’, or even self-justifyingly, ‘I am not hurting anyone’. The chief danger for anyone seeking a genuine spirituality is the temptation to change the rules. We do it all the time. Adultery is no longer a sin! Or cohabiting, or evading taxation with an offshore bank account, or driving while drunk. We try to escape our imperfection by redefining or lowering the standards necessary for ‘perfection’ or a full relationship with God. That becomes the slippery slope into amorality.

In the fifth century St Augustine explored the tension between the flesh and the spirit, detailing how in this life everyone is to some extent defective, and he used this point to emphasise that no one is exempt from the need for forgiveness.

The most powerful parables in the Gospels detail the love of God for the sinner. The parables of the prodigal son, the lost coin and the lost sheep dramatise the intensity of God’s love for us. God cannot harden his heart against the repentant sinner! First we have to recognise our sin and experience our need for forgiveness and healing. Some people persist in what they know to be sinful and do not experience the need for forgiveness and healing. Their hearts may have been hardened.

Sin damages our relationship with God. In addition, all sin is social in some way. Sin does hurt others. Because sin is an act of selfishness, by that very fact when I sin I make myself less available to love and I harden my heart a little. Therefore, by being selfish, in some way you are hurting, albeit unknowingly, other people. The joy of today’s message from John the Baptist is that there is a
 forgiveness available for everyone.

Second Sunday of Advent Year C: Che Guevara leads the way
Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Phil 1:3-6, 8-11; Lk 3:1-6

We need heroes, role models. Che Guevara has been such to two generations of young people. Have we been presenting an ersatz Christ to the people?

The year is 2001, the month July; I am walking down O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare. Stuck to a number of lampposts I see the picture of revolutionary leader Che Guevara. A caption entices me to attend a meeting of the Young Socialists to air some grievance they have against the system. Now Che Guevara died well over thirty years ago, long before any of these Young Socialists were born. How is it that the image and person of Che Guevara, Latin American guerrilla leader and revolutionary, became and remains a hero to the radical Left? In 1954 he went to Mexico where he joined Fidel Castro. He played an important part in Castro’s guerrilla war against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He disappeared from Cuba in 1965, reappearing the following year as an insurgent leader in Bolivia. He was captured by the Bolivian army and shot near Vallegrande on 9 October 1967. In Che Guevara is encapusuled the hopes and dreams of people in ‘bondage’. He is seen as the revolutionary and redeemer par excellence. To the Young Socialists he is a Christ-like figure whose ideology motivates their actions and protests. People need heroes.

The preaching and the actions of Jesus were every bit as radical as those of Guevara. He too preached liberty to the captives and sight to the blind. Che, a doctor, from the Argentinian middle class, crossed the boundaries of acceptability. He did something that made him an outcast from his own class. He took his revolutionary activities deadly seriously. Jesus is the leader to whom John the Baptist points in today’s Gospel. His agenda for change is far more radical than that of Guevara’s. It starts with a change of heart rather than structures. It starts with leaving behind the old, and taking on the image and the way of Christ. Indifference or apathy where Christ is concerned is not an option.

The dynamic message of Christ has become confused with what people call organised religion’ or the institutional Church’. They seldom see the radicality of the message and the way of life that Christ preached. This is where John the Baptist comes in. We need to see the gospel lived out in its fullness. John the Baptist did this before the gospel had been preached by Christ. He anticipated the message and the way of life that Christ was to point to. He was a person of influence and therefore could lead people to Christ – ‘behold the Lamb of God’.

Into the desert of our lives, there occasionally slips a John the Baptist – someone who speaks to us at a deeper level, someone who opens our eyes to something bigger than ourselves. It may be a friend, an inspired teacher or someone who radiates something more than the ordinary. Such a person points us towards the Lamb of God.

When John the Baptist was in the desert he called the people to reform their lives, and he helped them to find the way to God. In today’s world we are called to fill this same role with our friends, with our families, and those we meet. This week ask yourself, If Jesus should come to my home and my life today, would he find me ready?’ John’s call for reform and spiritual rebuilding can be your call as well.

Third Sunday of Advent Year A: John needed reassurance
Readings: Isa 35:1-6; Jas 5:7-10; Mt 11:2-11

A poet once described faith as ‘the loneliness of mystery’. We, like John the Baptist, need to be reassured in our faith in the person of Jesus.

At the time of writing, the Sunday Times are running a series of articles entitled ‘Skeletons’. In this series people are encouraged to write about skeletons in the family cupboard, about which they were ignorant for years and years. These secrets reveal apparent paragons of virtue to be, in fact, terrible rascals, unknown to family members. Concurrendy a television series, True Lives, is doing the same about public figures of the past. Florence Nightingale got the treatment last week! There is an iconoclasm, beloved of tabloids, that wants to reduce everyone to the sad and tawdry. No heroes any more!

With Jesus things were different. What you saw was what you got. The man, the life and the message were one and the same. John wanted to be reassured. John was a man used to the wild open places; cooped up in prison his mind may have been playing tricks on him. In Carlisle Castle there is a little cell. Once long ago they put a border chieftain in that cell and left him there for years. In the cell there is one lime window; which is placed too high for a man to look out of when he is standing on the floor. On the ledge of the window there are two depressions worn away in the stone. They are the marks of the hands of the chieftain, the places where, day after day, he lifted himself up by his hands to look out on the green dales across which he would never ride again. Prison must have been like that for John the Baptist. He had invested his life in the message. It was important to him. Jesus pointed to the obvious signs that someone very different was here, ‘The blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life…’.

There are times when we too need reassurance. When I think of faith, I think of St Therese. For about fifteen months she was tortured with doubts against the faith. All she could say was, ‘I know that behind the dark clouds my sun is still shining.’ If we have the eyes to see, there are signs of faith and of the presence of Jesus in the lives of others: the painful suffering of a cancer patient; the brave acceptance of God’s will in bereavement; committed love when a marriage is in difficulty. We also see signs of the transcendent in art, literature, drama and music. We see signs of God in the intricacies of a leaf, or the mottled wings of a butterfly, or the sun dancing on a placid lake. But like John we need reassurance.

Jesus began to talk to people about John. He says, ‘A greater than John the Baptist has never been seen’. What a beautiful passage of praise. Here the humanity of Jesus is demonstrated. There are times when we forget to praise others, especially those closest to us. Praise makes the talents of others fertile. We grow when we are praised. There are times when those who exercise authority are unconscious of the power they have over the lives of others. The negative power can be greater than the positive. To withhold, or to neglect to praise the goodness of others, can diminish them. People can shrivel up and lose heart when their efforts go unrecognised. Jesus was so human and knew the complexities of the heart.

Third Sunday of Advent Year B: Sunday in Hyde Park

Readings: Isa 61:1-2, 10-11; 1 Thess 5:16-29;Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
Like John, there are people who are willing to sacrifice themselves in the interests of the Gospel.

Nearly thirty years ago, whenever I was in London, I visited Hyde Park Corner on a Sunday afternoon. Before more recent developments took place it was a quiet enough spot. Speakers advocating different religious and political viewpoints mounted a soapbox and spoke to the mainly curious bystanders. The speakers were very professional in their presentation, but even more professional were the hecklers. They were witty, knowledgeable and caustic. They tested the speaker’s patience to the limits. Every Sunday the Catholic Evidence Guild wheeled out its stall. Actually it was a ladder with a small platform for the speakers. Here in all weathers wonderful men like Frank Sheed and Fr Vincent McNabb withstood the taunts of the hecklers, as they presented the ‘good news’ of the Gospel. Thirty years ago Catholics had only recently been let out of the catacombs in England into the world of respectable society. Catholicism was a novelty to be explored. At times the arguments became heated and intense. I admired these men, very cultured and literate, in their commitment to the Gospel. They never gave up, even though, in the words of today’s Gospel, they were ‘voices crying in the wilderness’. To be a voice crying in the wilderness is a very lonely place to be.

The courage of John the Baptist had been fashioned in the wilderness. He was fearless. People are full of fear. The practice of most large hotels to have no thirteenth floor panders to one of the more irrational fears prevalent today. John the Baptist was one of many competing voices seeking attention. There were numerous ‘prophets and preachers’ around. This did not deter John from warning people to ‘make a straight path for the Lord’.

In Retrouvaille, the programme for married couples experiencing difficulties in their relationship, we have found that fear is a mighty obstacle to reconciliation. The fear to trust again after years of pain must be overcome if a relationship is to be rebuilt. When the leap of trust is made, new undreamt of possibilities open out. We have seen how fear has dogged the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The wounds inflicted by one side on the other are still raw; the fear of trusting again too great, and so a spiral of recrimination frustrates the hoped for reconciliation.

There are many people of faith who allow fear to strangle their desire to share their faith with others. Human respect, political correctness, and a fear of not finding the right words, often mute the desires of the heart. We witness most effectively to our faith by the lives we lead. The example of John the Baptist can be an inspiration to us to believe that in a sense ‘faith is given to be given away!’ I have always thought of faith as a bit like a muscle; the more you exercise it the tougher and stronger it becomes. The more we exercise our faith by prayer, spiritual reading, and above all by sharing it with others, the stronger it becomes.

Third Sunday of Advent Year C: We cannot mock God
Readings: Zeph 3:14-18; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

This Sunday John the Baptist is centre stage with a prophetic message to turn from our sinfulness, repent, and turn to God. A timely message for this time of the year.

I tossed and turned in the bed. Sleep wasn’t easily coming. Turning to a late night/ early morning ‘talk-radio’ show I was catapulted into a world I knew nothing about. The discussion was on whether the manner in which young women dressed today enticed or encouraged men to sexual violence towards women. ‘F..k me! I nearly crashed me car today in the city,’ says the first male speaker. ‘Je..s, I saw this young one and she had practically nothing on. Bleedin’ terrible. Of course it affects men! I wouldn’t let my girlfriend out in that sort of stuff. It affected me!’ A succession of very angry girls then made the wires fairly sizzle. ‘No one is going to tell me what to wear. It’s fashion. I’ll wear what I bleedin’ want! Men are only perverts anyway. They don’t have to look.’ Married women were on the line supporting their daughters in wearing the skimpiest of clothes. An expletive or the Holy Name prefaced every sentence. ‘Where does the gospel fit into all this?’ I puzzled. Was I wired to a different planet? The conversation was fruity and without a sliver of moral content. Where do all the nice pious sermons, and bland hymns carefully chosen, and altar boys scoured and clean, and candles and Catholic newspapers, and announcements about the latest novena, connect with the ‘vulgarity’ of late-night talk-radio? It is the Third Sunday of Advent and the busiest shop in the area is the off-licence!
In Jesus’ time the people who lived on the side of the tracks I live on were first of all ‘the elders’. They were the lay nobility, the old aristocratic families who owned the land. The Sadduccees came next, people of learning, the academics, living in ivory towers, then as now: The scribes and Pharisees were people of learning too – theologians, lawyers and teachers. In the midst of all this one man stood out as a sign of contradiction. John the Baptist was different precisely because he was a prophet; in a way a prophet of doom and destruction. His style of life, his way of speaking and his message were a conscious revival of the tradition of the prophets. John’s prophetic message was a simple one: God was angry with his people and he planned to punish them. He made use of the metaphors of the axe and the winnowingfan. The forest fire mentioned was an image of hell on earth. God’s fiery judgement upon Israel would be executed, according to John, by a human being. John spoke of him as ‘the one who is to come’, ‘He will baptise you with fire’. This was a warning from John that it was time for people to bring order into their lives in accordance with God’s plan. If Israel did not change, the consequences would be disastrous.

In an age of exaggerated political correctness, where the most bizarre behaviour is given a benign and approving nod, perhaps it is time for a prophetic voice warning people that defying God’s plan has consequences. God’s love is tempered with mercy but also with justice. The callers to the radio show need to know that there is a limit to behaviour and there is a time when we need to name sin, acknowledge it, confess and repent. One cannot mock God. The message of the prophet may not be listened to but that is not a reason for remaining silent. The Gospel today has a very serious message that we ignore at our peril

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