Gospel Reflection – 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Welcoming Christ

The attractive themes of ‘welcome’ and ‘hospitality’ running through today’s readings sit a bit uncomfortably alongside the opening words of the Gospel, where Jesus starkly rules out ‘preferring’ family members to loyalty to himself.

The warning reflects the situation of the early church, where the experience, or at least the threat, of persecution was very real, and where some members of a family may have been Christian and some not.

In contemporary societies that are either majority Christian or tolerantly post-Christian, we may not face this challenge so sharply. If, however, we are comfortable in our world, largely sharing its values and aspirations, then some aspect of Christ’s message is not getting through to us.

At this point, the theme of ‘welcome’ in the second part of today’s Gospel comes into play. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is from the start ‘Emmanuel—God with us’ (1:23). This sense of divine presence stands behind the statement: ‘Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me; and those who welcome me, welcome the One who sent me’.

The stranger, then, who stands before us comes as an emissary and representative of Christ and, further, of the Father, who sent Christ to be the divine presence in our world. In dealing with this person, we are in some sense dealing with our God.

As never before, save perhaps immediately after World War II, are so many people being displaced through war, tyranny or economic misery. In the light of this mass movement, Christ’s words about discipleship and welcome hold fresh challenge.

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As a basic human emotion, fear can go two ways. It can be a safeguard and protection. Or it can be a force that cripples and disables. The key thing is to distinguish well-founded fear from that which is illusory or based on deception. A great part of spiritual direction consists in helping people to recognize their fears and see whether they are based on falsehood or reality.

Today’s Gospel addresses challenges believers face in living out and giving witness to their faith. Ringing through it is the refrain: ‘Do not fear’. Jesus acknowledges that there will be much that will dismay believers and make them afraid. He urges them to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate fear.

Disciples need not fear persecutors who can only kill the body. Our physical existence is held in God’s hands; we are precious in God’s sight— infinitely more so than sparrows, none of whose falling to the ground escapes divine notice. In all threats, then, we can be confident that God will see them through to eternal life.

For disciples, the only truly valid fear is that of falling out of God’s favour. The warning, ‘Fear him, rather, who can destroy both body and soul in hell’, may refer, then, to those whose evil influence and deception could bring this about.

God’s only desire is to impart to us eternal life. But we can so alienate ourselves from the outreach of divine love as to face eternal loss. It is of such a consequence that people ought truly to be afraid.

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The Bread of Life

The Gospel for today’s feast comes from Jesus’ long discourse on ‘the Bread of Life’ in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. At this final stage of the discourse Jesus explicitly links the gift of the Eucharist with the manna (‘bread from heaven’) that sustained the Israelites during their time of wandering in the wilderness of Sinai.

For most of the discourse, however, Jesus has been speaking of himself as ‘the Bread of Life’ in a more general sense. The people want him to emulate Moses, who arranged for ‘bread from heaven’ (the manna) to be given to their ancestors. But Jesus refuses to be just another figure like Moses, turning on miracles for the people. He identifies the manna with himself. He is the life-giving ‘Bread’ that God has sent down from heaven.

While the original manna simply sustained the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness, the new ‘Bread from heaven’ sustains life in a far deeper sense. Jesus describes it as ‘my flesh for the life of the world’—an allusion to his death, in which he will lay down his earthly life that the world might share the eternal life of God.

As the words of consecration make clear, the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist are always the body ‘given up’ for us and the cup ‘poured out’ for us. In this sacramental mystery believers encounter a divine communication of sacrificial love and life, foreshadowed by but far surpassing what the Israelites experienced at Sinai.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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The feast of the Holy Trinity invites us to sit back, as it were, and reflect upon the God who has been revealed in the full scope of the paschal mystery.

As sometimes presented, the doctrine of the Trinity can appear to be nothing but an arid theological puzzle. For the early Christians it was nothing of the kind. They held firmly to the Jewish belief that there was only one God. Yet as they reflected upon what they had experienced in all the events surrounding the person of Jesus Christ and the subsequent gift of the Spirit, they could only conclude that they had been addressed and drawn into a divine communion of love.

Today’s feast, then, celebrates the nearness, rather than the remoteness, of God.

Each of the readings explores this in some way. But the Gospel, drawn from the concluding section of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, most clearly brings out the continuity between the act of Christ in the paschal mystery and redemptive love of the Father.

The Father sent the Son, not to “judge” (= condemn) the world, but to rescue it from its captivity to sin and death, and draw human beings into the communion of life and love that is the Godhead.
Judgment is not so much a future prospect as something that human beings determine for themselves by the way they respond to the revelation of God that comes to us through the life of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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Today’s rich array of scriptural readings brings out the Church’s sense of being a community equipped by the Spirit to take up the mission of Jesus.

The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, locates the imparting of the Spirit on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a pilgrimage feast celebrated fifty days after Passover.
In biblical tradition, wind and fire signal the presence and power of God, as when Israel stood before God at Mount Sinai. What is described here seems to be a central fiery mass from which distinct “tongues” (“as if of fire”: not real fire!) separate off and come to rest on individuals.

The sense is that the Spirit, which rested solely upon Jesus during his own life, is now, as he promised (Luke 24:49), being distributed among those who are now to carry on his mission—in first instance to Israel, eventually “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The variety of people who hear and understand the testimony of the apostles in their own language foreshadows this worldwide mission. In many languages the Church will communicate the single message of God’s reconciling love.

The Gospel (John 20:19-23) associates the gift of the Spirit more closely with the resurrection. On Easter Sunday evening the risen Lord breathes out upon his disciples the Spirit that will empower them to take up the mission that he has received from the Father. Central to this will be passing on the reconciliation (“whose sins you shall forgive …”) that he, as Lamb of God (1:29), has brought into the world.

Fr Brendan Byrne

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Unfinished Business – But Hope

Having escaped the clutches of his enemies by rising from the dead, the Lord ascends, like the prophet Elijah, to heaven.

In biblical language and imagery this manner of describing the close of Jesus’ earthly ministry signals that the One who had been crucified on the trumped-up charge of being a political Messiah has now entered into his true messianic glory at God’s right hand.

This entrance into heavenly glory does not mean that Jesus abandons either his disciples or his saving mission in the world. Rather, he will continue to exercise that mission through the ministry of the Church, empowered (at Pentecost) by the same Spirit that rested upon him.

Just before he departs, the disciples voice an understandable concern: “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” The query betrays a strong sense of “unfinished business”. Despite the Easter victory, forces hostile to God and to true humanity continue to hold sway in the world—as the disciples, and we ourselves, remain acutely aware.

Jesus does not give a direct answer. The time of the Kingdom’s full arrival remains shrouded in the mystery of God. The disciples’ task, meanwhile, is to take up the messianic mission of Jesus, bringing the hope of the resurrection to an often despairing world.

The Ascension is not, then, simply something that happened to Jesus. As the Preface of the Mass says so well, he “has passed beyond our sight, not to abandon us but to be our hope; where he has gone, we hope to follow”.

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In last week’s Gospel Jesus reflected on two understandings of his “going away” and “return”: first, his going away in death and his re-appearance three days later as risen Lord; second, his more final departure to the Father, to return only at the end of time. The section from Jesus’ instruction that we hear today focuses upon that second, much longer period of absence.

As far as the non-believing world is concerned, Jesus will simply have ceased to exist. Believers, however, will continue to “see” him with the eyes of faith and experience his presence in this way.
In loving him and keeping his commandments, they will participate in the mutual love that unites Father and Son, both of whom will “make their home” within them. Though deprived of Jesus’ physical presence, they and God will be mutually “at home” in this sense.

In this connection Jesus speaks of ‘another Paraclete’ whom he will ask the Father to give. A ‘paraclete’ is someone who stands beside a person in time of difficulty, a supportive and encouraging presence. We might think, for example, of a highly respected person whom we might ask to go to court with us to act as a character witness. Though Jesus will no longer be physically present to carry out this role, the community will have ‘another paraclete’ in the shape of the Holy Spirit.

In the face of the world’s hostility and doubt, the ‘Spirit of truth’ will offer reassurance that what they believe and seek to live by is the most profound truth.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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Today’s Gospel comes from the long instruction that Jesus, according to the Fourth Gospel, gives to his disciples at the Last Supper. He reflects upon his return to the Father and what his absence will mean for the disciples.

Jesus’ “departure” seems to operate on two levels. The setting of the supper on the night before he dies makes it natural to understand “going away” as a reference to his imminent departure in death; his “coming back”, then, would refer to his appearance on the third day as risen Lord.

At another level, however, Jesus addresses a more permanent “going away” when, following his appearances to the disciples as risen Lord, he finally ascends to the Father (see John 20:17). From this perspective, his “coming back” would refer to his return at the end of time.

At this level the instruction Jesus gives does not bear upon the short space between Good Friday and Easter, but upon the indefinite “time of the Church” that will follow.

During this time—which remains our time—the disciples will not enjoy his physical presence. But Jesus insists that it will be a better time in fact. His death on the cross will defeat the grip of sin and death upon the human race, and open up for us the gift of eternal life.

Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” in the sense that his death supremely reveals the “truth” about God (that God is love) and opens up the “way” to human sharing in God’s (eternal) “life”.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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A feature of the resurrection stories in the Gospels is the way in which the risen Lord appears to people exactly as they are: to the disciples in their fear, to Mary Magdalene in her sorrow, to Thomas in his doubting. The encounter told in today’s Gospel is no exception. Jesus appears to two disciples in their bitter disillusionment and loss of hope

By not revealing himself to them immediately but simply accompanying them as a fellow traveller, the Lord respects their experience, letting them tell their story to the end. Only then does he pick it up and weave it into his own instruction.

He shows them how the recent events in Jerusalem had followed the path indicated for the Messiah in the Scriptures, rather than that of Israel’s political liberation that had been central to their own messianic hope.

Captivated by this companion, the disciples constrain him to be their guest. But once indoors, a reversal takes place: they, who had offered hospitality to him, find themselves guests at a table he provides. The Eucharistic gestures at the breaking of the bread reveal him at last as risen Lord.

Instantly, he vanishes from their sight, and they hurry back to Jerusalem to share with the other disciples their experience of the risen Lord.

This wonderful story perfectly models the life of the Church. Fortified by the Spirit, the Church continues through Word and Sacrament the mission of the Lord. It walks alongside disillusioned, hurt humanity, expounding the Scriptures, and in the Eucharist provides the hospitality of God.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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Source http://web.paulistmissionaries.org/2020/04/18/the-easter-reaches/

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Mark 28: 1 – 15
All of the Gospels do not dwell long on the resurrection narrative. While the story of Jesus’ ministry is relatively well elaborated, the events of the resurrected Christ are kept to the essentials. So much so that the primitive communities felt the need to add a second conclusion to both the Gospel of Mark and John. Yet in their brevity they convey a central message, namely that all manner of death was destroyed by Christ and that a new creation will be manifested in the life of the Christian community. Luke in fact gives us Acts, as the second season of his Gospel, where he basically launches the community of the faithful, the body of Christ, as a transformative force in the world.

If Easter is about new life, new creation and transformation, we know quite well that this process is neither automatic nor sudden. It requires the breath of the Holy Spirit and a true desire on our part to accept God as father. While baptism opens our filial relationship with Him, it goes without saying that this relationship needs to mature in time, for us to become more aware of this new identity and operate from it.

There are two hurdles that need to be overcome and the post resurrection stories are a prime example of our difficulty with transformation (metanoia – change of attitude). In this Gospel, the two Marys are between a rock and a hard place. At their back they have the cross and in front of them the tomb. None of them was their choice and surely there was no way they could have changed the course of history.

We have very often meditated on the crosses in our lives. Naming them is one healthy way forward to deal with them. The crosses are those situations, events and characters that we do not accept in our lives, and if it were for us, we would have chosen otherwise. Mostly these are realities external to us but which inflict a great pain. A cross is a cross when we do not know if or when it will pass away. Giving it a meaning (and most of the time we need to revise that too) might help us to embrace it, but never enjoying it. Jesus suffered the cross with a purpose, but was not destined to stay on it. It was a necessary stage which coupled with the resurrection might give us hope in living our sufferings.

Easter can reach deep and wide into our life.
There is no limit to life except our consent.

If the cross in our spiritual tradition is widely contemplated, written about and preached, the tomb is less of a metaphor in our lives. Yet, many of us carry unopened tombs within which we do not dare to delve. What one day might have been a cross could have easily have been buried in a tomb without any possibility of resurrection. Most probably what lies buried deep down underground and out of sight even from my eyes are those realities which I convinced myself that they are in their place or I do not dare to touch. Mostly they are private and intimate things that somehow define me but which have petrified inside making me more rigid as I grow older. They can be my space, my rhythm in life, the way I interpret events around me, the way I reason things out, what I want from others and what I want from my life, accepted addictions etc… Maybe one day they suited me well and gave me life, but now they became untouchable and go unchallenged.

These types of tombs, like the two Marys, we try to balm with fragrance. For some it can be a forced smile, or a rigid routine, or playing the victim or the saint, or the know-it-all, or the passive, or the pleaser, etc… The variety of perfumes abound. Like the women in the Gospel, if we are not surprised by Christ, our expectations in life are clipped and resigned to the second best, if at all. It is incredible to which extent we go to protect our status quo in life. Like Nicodemus at Jesus burial, in our limited vision, we bring hundred pounds (45Kg) of spices to cover death. We might spend our whole lives tending the corpses, keeping the tombstone clean. And like the madman in Gerasene who lived among the tombs and no one dared to approach.

The challenge of Easter is twofold. First it gives a meaning to our struggles, bringing our crosses on a different level, giving our toil a purpose. Secondly, and this is much more difficult, blowing the Spirit in our dried and buried bones. “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!” (Rev 3: 1b-2a) In the light of the resurrected Christ we will see ourselves as we are and hopefully grow in our desire to abandon our tombs to become true children of God.

Matthew moves me when he says that the angel sat on the rolled back stone. There was no way that the tomb will be closed again. What Jesus opens we should not dare to close. The freedom that comes to us with Easter is beyond our imagination and for sure cannot be compared with our limited narrative of life.

“Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Mt 28:10). These women dared to believe that there is life beyond the tomb. Like them we need to believe that Easter needs to touch the very deepest of our being, those places we thought are beyond redemption or did not even know that they needed salvation. This is freedom, and as missionaries we need this liberty of the children of God to go and bring our brothers and sisters out from their cenacles which they turned into tombs.

Easter can reach deep and wide into our life. There is no limit to life except our consent. Sadly, there is another face of the resurrection and that is the decision of the chief priests to roll back the stone on the tomb. They might have thought that Jesus can be pushed back by their deceits, not realizing that they where closing the stone on themselves and creating out of their holy places another tomb.

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