Homily Ascension of the Lord

Ascension Day Mass:
Acts 1: 1-11; Ps 46(47): 2-3, 6-9; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28: 16-20

Is there a contradiction between the story of Jesus’ ascension given at the beginning of Acts, our first reading, and the promise given at the close of Matthew’s gospel, that he will be with us always, to the close of the ages?

We’re told of Jesus’ being lifted up. The original says ‘he was taken up … and a cloud took him from the eyes of them [who were] looking up into heaven’. Now the obvious sense might seem to be that Jesus was lifted up into God’s presence beyond the sky, and it is this sense that underlies the charming but ultimately misleading pictures of the Ascension as a pair of shins, feet and sandals disappearing into the roof. That too would imply he is now at a distance from us. But we could perhaps read it a little differently. One group of the Psalms used to be categorised as ‘songs of ascent’, hymns pilgrims would sing as they walked up the ridge to the city of Jerusalem on mount Zion, and the temple, the place of God’s dwelling. And the great in that world tended to be elevated above the common herd, as in Isaiah’s vision of seeing the Lord in the temple ‘high above, and lifted up’. So the language of ascension has more to do with Jesus entering God’s glory, so becoming invisible to our eyes (‘a cloud took him …’), not necessarily that he is now at a distance from us, although our mode of engaging with each other has changed.

And this is the point of Luke introducing the two men in white garments. We have seen these characters before. The same two, introduced by the same phrase, appear to the women discovering the tomb of Jesus empty on Easter day, and before to the privileged disciples seeing Jesus in the glory of his transfiguration, when they are identified as Moses and Elijah, symbolising the Law and the Prophets. Both, as it happens, were assumed to have been taken up into God’s presence at the end of their lives: Moses, in Jewish tradition, because no tomb was ever ascribed to him, and Elijah in a fiery chariot (which still excites some English rugby fans). Admittedly, that still leaves us with a problem – if, like the women at the tomb, we are told not to look into the earth for the risen Lord ‘why do you seek the living among the dead?’, and like the men of Galilee we are told not to look for him in the heavens, where then are we to encounter him? Luke gives us the answer in his other story of Easter day, the two disciples falling in with a stranger on the way to Emmaeus, who recognise him when he opens the scriptures to them, and breaks the bread. Until the Lord comes again, then, we encounter him in the scriptures and in the celebration of the Eucharist.

The ascension of the Lord also points us to where we are going on our life’s journey. Jesus in his humanity has been taken up into the glory of the Father’s presence, but as we say in today’s preface our hope of glory is that where he, the head has gone we as members of his body hope to follow. This is since Jesus returning to the Father pours out on us the Holy Spirit, bringing us into communion, into sharing life with God. And this begins with our Baptism, our being (Paul says) incorporated into the death of the Lord so we can share in his rising into a creation made new. We come to the glory of the Father, of our being gifted with sharing God’s life through the Son in the Spirit. So God brings us into sharing the perfect communion of love that is the blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit.

While this communion is innate in us it is not yet complete – that completion, unless we are already saints, will take our life’s course. For now, we are on the way, catching only glimpses of where we will be, where we hope to be. Yet Jesus in winning the victory over death and sin has already begun the building of the kingdom. We are pointed to this in the essential continuity established: in the accounts of Jesus’ glorified, risen body still bearing the marks of his passion; and in the experience of some of the appearing of those in glory to aid us on our own journey, for example the appearances of the blessed Virgin to Bernadette at Lourdes or to the children of Fatima. In his inauguration of the kingdom Jesus has brought humanity into the communion of the life of God, once for all, irrevocably. Our essential identity as embodied beings is preserved, the bodies through which we reach out in love and care for one another. At this time of trial we are feeling acutely the pain of the absence of our normal embodied presence to one another; might that make us more sensitive to the presence of Jesus to us in the mystery of sacramental sign?

As Paul says, for now we see things indistinctly, as through a glass, darkly. As C S Lewis put it, in this life we are in the shadowlands, in a pale imitation of the renewed creation inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection. But our hope is that as members of Christ’s body we too will join him in the fullness of God’s glory, when our joy in God and in each other will be complete.

Homily 6th Sunday of Easter YrA

Fr. Gregory Murphy – Homily 6th Sunday of Easter YrA
Today’s gospel begins and ends with the correlation between love and obedience (14:15, 21). The relationship between disciples and Jesus is not to degenerate into sentimentality or into a wistful nostalgia once he has gone, about “how wonderful things were when Jesus was with us.” Love expresses itself in obedience, in keeping Jesus’ words. The disciples have a clear command about life and relationships from Jesus’ teaching, about washing feet and loving one another. Ignoring or disobeying that command exposes a lack of love.
But this demand for obedience is delivered from legalism by the accompanying promise of the divine presence to be with those who love Jesus and obey his word. We might wonder whether obedience is a precondition for receiving the divine presence, whether the Spirit and the risen Christ come only to those who convincingly demonstrate by their actions that they really love Jesus. Taken in isolation, some verses in the passage could be read this way, except that the entire context is affirmative and not provisional. Jesus wishes to relieve troubled hearts. To be sure, the passage does draw a very sharp contrast between the world and the disciples, but the contrast is not intended to create in the disciples an anxious concern as to whether they have loved and obeyed sufficiently. Obedience and presence are better thought of as a chicken-and-egg proposition. Those to whom the Spirit comes live in love and obedience, and those who live in love and obedience are persons in whom the Spirit dwells.
The language about the divine presence expresses the coming of the Paraclete (14:16–17), the coming of the risen Jesus (v. 18), and, beyond this reading, the coming of Jesus and the Father together (v.23). It is frankly impossible on the basis of this gospel to draw distinctions between these comings as if they represented different experiences, three separate advents of God. Instead, the gospel makes the single point that after his return to the Father, Jesus remains in communion with the disciples through the presence of the Paraclete.
Two critical statements are made about the divine presence. On the one hand, the world does not know or recognize the divine presence. On the other hand, the disciples do know and recognize the divine presence. A sharp difference between the world and the disciples is established, and apparently the disciples need to understand exactly the nature of the difference (since the statements are repeated: (14:17, 19–21). What the disciples cherish, what sustains them and undergirds their life together, what keeps them from being orphaned is a reality that the world cannot discern.
We do well to reflect on this sharp difference drawn by the gospel between the world and the disciples. The church cannot expect the world to appreciate or participate in its reason for being, its mandate for mission, its source of strength. The one who guides the church into all truth remains a secret to the world. The world’s ways of knowing and its criteria for evaluating what is real and important do not allow for such a divine presence as this. This suggests that the church, particularly in its moments of uncertainty and confusion, cannot look complacent about what it is doing. It cannot expect that its way of loving Jesus and obeying his commandments will necessarily be highly valued, that it will receive praise or be popular when it is most faithful to Jesus’ directive. At the same time, the church is prevented from an arrogant aloofness from the world, because it knows that the divine presence is a gift. Jesus looks on a potentially orphaned community and asks the Father to send the Paraclete to be present with them. It is not a reward for the church’s good behaviour or its sincere piety, but an expression of God’s grace, the gift of his Spirit, that the people of God enjoy the presence and direction of God. As pope Francis has said of Holy Communion, this is a gift, not a reward for good behaviour. Are we responsive to the voice of God’s Spirit in us?

Homily 5th Sunday Easter YrA

Homily for Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A.               John 14:1-12                  Fr. Gregory Murphy

            Christians always were an argumentative bunch. It may be of some comfort in our present discontents to realise that this has always been the case. Right at the beginning, as our reading from Acts shows, there was dissension and division in the Christian community. And this was because of failure. The Hellenists – Greek speakers, therefore most likely pagan converts – complained, justly, that their vulnerable, their widows, were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food by the church. And the church leaders’ response too has a (regrettably) familiar ring: they were too busy to deal with this, being preoccupied with more important matters. But unlike many later responses they did not stop with the brush-off. Rather, they called a meeting of the whole community of believers and inspired by the Holy Spirit created a new form of ministry to resolve the problem. Out of institutional failure new opportunities for fruitful service arose.
                Precisely this pattern is seen in pope Francis’ dealing with the crisis of Evangelisation in the Amazonian region. Rather than stay with what is not working (parachute in more ordained ministers, never enough); or alternately risk schism in the church by following the calls to ordain women ministers, which also would be insufficient in the long-term, he has in fact called for the development of new ministries, led by the laity, especially the women, who in practical terms there (and here) are already largely both forming the new generations of Christians by inculturation in the home and increasingly also taking responsibility for nourishing and guiding the larger Christian communities. The pope, it seems to me, is recognising the reality on the ground both in the Amazon and in the current religious wasteland of Europe and is encouraging us to find new ways of being the church, of realising our identity as living members in Christ’s body in a manner complementary to, collaborating with but not limited by the decreasing availability of ordained ministers. Maybe the ordained might be increasingly called to a more wandering ministry, travelling and facilitating several Christian communities based in different parishes? Is that so very different from our present situation? With God’s capacity, always, to bring good out of evil might we be able to use this present time of forced estrangement from our usual communities and religious practice to consider how we might do things differently?
                We sometimes talk of our life’s trajectory, our personal histories, as being a journey. But journeys need a route, a plan, a destination. Jesus himself in today’s gospel tells us that he is both the route and the destination: he is the way, and he is in complete communion with the Father, that perfect communion of life and love in which we are empowered to share through the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus’ complete failure in human terms – the crucifixion – makes another good possible, that he acts in the gift of his Spirit so that his followers will become true disciples, who not only serve but also imitate their teacher. Death does not mark the end of his work, his showing the Father’s love and mercy, but its extension in the lives of his disciples. This is what the our becoming living stones is about. If we love Jesus we will keep his commandments, and will rest (abide) in him and he and the Father, through the Spirit, in us. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this in his ‘Kingfisher sonnet’:
“…For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
                To journey is to change, to learn to see things through a new perspective, even if we do not travel, even if as now we must stay home. But if we journey Jesus’ way, into the communion he shares with the Father, we will find our lives and purpose renewed, and will learn to cast off the fears that haunt us and hold us back. Jesus after his death returns to us in the living Spirit so we may find a resting-place in God, respite from the cares which plague us, and from that still place act to show God’s love and mercy to our world.

Homily 4th Sunday of Easter YrA

Homily for Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A.                           Fr. Gregory Murphy
Acts 2:14, 36-41; Ps 22; 1 Pet 2:20-25; Jn 10:1-10
                The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is a very old one – going back to the first Christian centuries. You can see this depicted in the Roman catacombs, and often in surviving decorations of fourth-century churches. So it’s familiar, part of our mental furniture. Familiarity can mislead us. We’re sure we know what something looks like, what it’s about, and so rather than looking or listening carefully we jump to conclusions, and only later realise we’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick.  That’s where I found myself (not for the first time, and certainly not for the last) when I was reflecting on this gospel. I’d thought it was about going in, whereas it’s actually about coming out.
                We can get a handle on this by considering the gatekeeper. In Jesus’s time, one of the deities in the ancient Roman pantheon was the god Janus, who was usually depicted as a figure having two faces – one looking forward, one back. He was the god of beginnings, and was associated with gates or thresholds because one leaves, goes outside, to take action. Taking action for the Romans, of course, usually meant war – sending out the Legions. It was the proud boast of the emperor Augustus that for several periods in his reign the gates of the temple of Janus were closed, the action having been completed, the war over, the world at peace. That was an achievement to be celebrated because, then as now, it’s much easier, as we’re finding once again, to start a war than to bring one to a successful conclusion. And there is also the sense that to step over a threshold, pass through a gate is to start something new. God’s new beginning, his making things new, happened, St Luke tells us, when all the world was at peace, the gates of Janus’ temple closed, nothing was going on, as far as the powerful and the wealthy were concerned, and it was then that Jesus, the Messiah, was born in Bethlehem. God’s way of doing things often isn’t what humans, especially humans of status and power, expect.
                And this is what has happened among Jesus’s audience hearing, like ourselves, these two parables. It’s not immediately obvious from the excerpt the lectionary gives us, but what we have here is the last half of an argument, a slanging match, between Jesus and some of the Pharisees, after Jesus has healed the man born blind. Jesus had done this on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees were divided as to whether Jesus came from God (yet didn’t observe the Sabbath in the way they expected, because he did work, made clay); yet the miracle, the sign of Jesus’s healing power, indicates that God is with him, working through him. Some, we’re meant to infer, become his disciples; others cling to their knowledge of the earlier gift of God through Moses (the Sabbath legislation), and are unable to see that that earlier gift of God is now perfected in Jesus. Just before we pick up the story Jesus has said he’s come into this world to bring people to a crisis or judgement, to the point where they must choose to accept or reject God’s message of salvation. The point is that judgement takes place because of Jesus’s very presence, making God known to us. However some of the Pharisees fail to understand what he means. In their self-sufficiency as ‘disciples of Moses’ they have become blind; had they been prepared to admit their need for light they would have no guilt, but because they claim ‘all knowledge’ there is no room for the revelation that comes through Jesus. Thus they have brought judgement upon themselves.
                In the Old Testament God’s tender care for his people Israel was often described in terms of a shepherd tending his flock, as the psalm reminds us, but there is also another image of the shepherd: the self-seeking shepherds such as those rulers of Israel challenged by Ezekiel in his day, those who, Jesus tells us, “are thieves and brigands” who “come only to kill and steal and destroy”. Against this, Ezekiel proclaims that God himself will seek out his sheep, and care for them. The thieves and brigands come only to destroy. They regard the sheep as their property, which they own and exploit for themselves. The real Shepherd, the good Shepherd, does just the opposite. He does not take life, but gives it “I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full”. Jesus gives life by giving his own life, giving himself; indeed, “he lays down his life for the sheep”. If he is the gate of the sheepfold, that gate is in the form of a cross.
                The good Shepherd, Jesus, “one by one calls his own sheep and leads them out…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice”. How do we know his voice? The Shepherd knows the sheep because they belong to him, and they know him because they are his. In baptism we are made to belong, made members of Christ’s body, he calls us by our name; as part of the body of Christ, we share in his Spirit, in the life of God, that abundant life without which our hearts can find no rest. Unlike the thieves and brigands, the true Shepherd does not ‘possess’ the sheep as if they were things to be used and consumed; rather we ‘belong’ to him because we know each other, and this ‘knowing’ is an inner acceptance, rooted in our being given the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God.
                This, actually, isn’t difficult to understand. It’s so obvious, so familiar, that we tend to overlook it, we tend to develop all sorts of unnecessary hang-ups about our relationship with Jesus. Spouses, children, belong to each other in this kind of way – not as property, but in mutual responsibility. They belong to each other precisely by accepting one another’s freedom and in supporting one another in love and knowledge. Jesus proves that we belong to him by knowing and loving us, by wishing us to live life in abundance, life in the freedom of truth, of the Spirit.
                Which brings us back to the gatekeeper, the one who “who lets the shepherd in”. If Jesus in the parables is the Shepherd, and the gate, who keeps the gate? I want to suggest that we are the gatekeepers. In the semi-desert of Palestine a sheepfold would’ve been a rough enclosure of rocks or branches, and the gate a gap stopped up with a thorn bush or something similar to discourage the brigands and rustlers. Jesus is calling us out of the fold, out of the familiar safe, restricting and limited life to the more abundant life he wants to give us. But we must cross the threshold, step away from our familiar, stuffy, self-sufficient environment, and risk change, risk growth. And that can be painful: the gate, after all, is in the shape of the cross. Augustine, looking back over the years to his conversion, explicitly compares the experience of conversion to that of a child learning to walk “Throw yourself on him. Do not fear. He will not pull away and let you fall. Throw yourself without fear and he will receive you and heal you” (Confessions VIII:11). And it doesn’t matter where we are starting from, providing only that we respond, we answer when Jesus calls us out by name. However much we have gone astray, as the extract from the First Letter of Peter reminds us, we need to “return to the Shepherd and healer of our souls”. As gatekeepers, we can help each other through the obstacles, move from lives of selfishness into lives of loving service by taking that risk, moving out into new pastures through trusting in the help of God. Discerning, trying a specific vocation is a bit like being thrown into the deep end: ultimately, we have to let go, let God lead us into a new life. And the results may surprise us, for nothing is impossible to God.