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Gospel Reflection – Christ the King

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STANDING BEFORE THE LORD NOW

The Gospel to conclude the Church’s year appropriately evokes the great judgment instituted by the Shepherd-King at the end of time. The Christian tradition, especially in art (Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel) and music (Dies Irae), has often depicted the scene in terrifying literalness.

We may not today feel bound to such a literal understanding of imagery and motifs taken from the apocalyptic Jewish worldview of Jesus’ day. But we have to recognize that what the Gospel wishes to communicate with great seriousness is that the final outcome of one’s existence is irreversibly determined by the attitude and action one adopts in regard to fellow human beings here and now.

Nothing is said about correctness of faith, or the need to be free from, or to have obtained forgiveness for, all kinds of sin. The sole determinant is whether one has acted with care and compassion for people in various situations of need. Here the “greatest commandment of the law”—the twin love of God and of one’s neighbour (22:36-40)—and the sense of Jesus as “Emmanuel” (“God with us” [1:23]) receives its most radical extension. The one who sits upon the throne as Judge, has so identified with even “the least” of his “brothers and sisters” that effective compassion shown or not shown to them has been shown or not shown to him.

There is no need to wait for the Son of Man to come in judgment; every time one encounters a fellow human being in need one already stands before the Judge and King.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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INVITED TO THE BANQUET OF LIFE

The parable of the Wedding Banquet symbolises the story of salvation. The banquet represents God’s intent for human beings, which is simply to have us as honoured guests at the banquet of life.

The bridegroom is Jesus. The servants sent out to issue the invitations are, first, the Old Testament prophets and then Christian missionaries. The response of the king to those who rejected the invitations reflects early Christian belief that the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE was retribution for failure to accept Jesus as Messiah. The new invitees from the highways and byways are Gentiles (non-Jews) who have joined the Church in large numbers.

We should not too readily identify the king in the parable with God. Jesus takes illustrations from life as it is, using aspects of the way people, including kings, behave to illustrate what he wants to convey.

The parable thus serves as an explanation of otherwise disturbing developments. Israel’s No to the Gospel and the fact that the Church includes bad members as well as good has all been foreseen by the Lord.

What about the poor wretch caught out for not wearing a wedding garment? The wedding garment symbolises transformation of life. You don’t have to be good to get into the community of the Kingdom: the invitation to the banquet is a great net of grace enclosing all, good and bad alike. But, once within, we must allow the grace we have received to transform us and make us worthy of final salvation, God’s invitation to the banquet of life.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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A note of foreboding attends the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as told by St. Matthew. We, the readers of the Gospel, know that Mary’s pregnancy has come about “through the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18). But no other actor in the drama, including Joseph, knows that at the time. In Jewish culture betrothal required the same fidelity as marriage. Mary’s situation is therefore precarious: she is liable to the severe penalties laid down by the Law of Moses for adultery.

Joseph knows that obedience to the Law requires him to divorce Mary. But, being a “righteous person”, he wants to do so in a way that will spare her public shame and the full rigour of the Law. In this he “models” keeping the Law in the way in which Jesus, with supreme authority, will interpret it—where what he calls the “weightier matters of the Law” (justice, mercy and faith [23:23]) have priority.

The angel’s announcement turns everything around. Mary’s pregnancy has not come about through infidelity but through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Her child will carry the name of Israel’s former saviour Josue, but his “saving” role will have to do primarily with reconciliation with God (“save the people from their sins”).

It will also involve a new sense of God’s presence, reflected in a second name: “Emmanuel – God with Us”.

In the person of Jesus, people will experience the divine saving presence. And after his resurrection, he will continue to be “with” his Church in its communal life and worldwide mission to the end of time (Mt 28:19-20).

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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Today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke (21:5-19) comes from the discourse on the future that Jesus gives as his days in Jerusalem draw to their climax. In the discourse looks beyond his own death and resurrection to the time of the Church. In this period the disciples will have their own “passion” to undergo in the shape of the trials that await them in the long period before the kingdom of God is finally in place.

The disciples will be persecuted and hauled before law courts. Most poignantly, they will suffer division and betrayal among themselves and within their own families.

In all this they should draw comfort from knowing that Jesus has foreseen such trials and placed them within the context of events leading up to the overthrow of evil and the triumph of God at the time of his own return as cosmic Lord.

The time of the Church has extended vastly beyond anything foreseen by the early believers. We retain the doctrine of the “Second Coming” in our creeds not necessarily because we believe that Jesus will soon appear on the clouds of heaven but because it asserts the eventual triumph of God’s rule in the universe.

Until then, all is provisional. Wars, famines and earthquakes continue. Those who work for justice and a more human life for all people face hostility, imprisonment, even death. There will always be grounds for disillusionment and loss of faith. The Lord’s encouraging message applies as much to our time as it did to the early generations of believers.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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Hardly any statements in the Gospels are more challenging than the Beatitudes and Woes with which Jesus begins his sermon. To understand them we have to attend to the context of the sermon and the biblical meaning of beatitude.

The context is that Jesus is instructing his disciples before a great multitude of burdened and afflicted people who have come from far and near to access his healing power. The implication is that the disciples are to be something for this troubled wider group, and Jesus is going to tell them how.

In the biblical tradition “Blessed …” does not strictly speaking indicate a moral attitude to be adopted. A beatitude declares a person to be in a fortunate or advantageous position. They are “in a good place” because what will soon come about through the faithfulness of God.

Jesus is not endorsing poverty or hunger. He is insisting that what most people reckon to be advantages and disadvantages are relativized because God is on the side of the poor, rather than the rich and well off, and will move to reverse the situation—as Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). What the Beatitudes depict is a preparedness to be vulnerable in view of this sense of God.

This brings us back to the context in which this instruction is given: the afflicted multitude longing for healing. A vulnerable community can become for the afflicted an instrument of healing and life. It is those who approach the wounded with vulnerable love, rather than power, who make the world safe for humanity.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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Luke’s Gospel leaves the call of the first disciples until Jesus’ own ministry has got under way. His ministry then provides a model for them to follow.

So Simon Peter’s call comes in the context of Jesus’ preaching to a crowd eager to hear the Word. Peter, the fisherman, helps Jesus by allowing him to make use of his boat to avoid being pushed by the crowd into the sea.

Jesus, however, has further plans for Peter. He doesn’t call him immediately to a new way of life but challenges him precisely in his area of expertise: catching fish. Peter resists, but eventually goes along with the command to put out to sea and try for a catch. The unbelievable harvest that results, where all night there had been no catch at all, is a clear sign that he is in the presence of the power and limitless generosity of God. Hence his dramatic response: falling at Jesus’ feet, owning his own sinfulness and unworthiness.

It is precisely at this moment of conversion and self-knowledge that Jesus judges Peter ready to receive the call: “Do not be afraid; from now on you it is people you will catch”. Normally, when fish are caught, they die—preparatory to being eaten! To avoid this implication, Luke uses here a rare Greek word for “catch” here, one that has the sense of catching and keeping alive—as when one nets fish for an aquarium.

Peter is now to “catch” people with the Word that will make them truly “alive”.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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Today’s Gospel marks the beginning of a long interaction between Jesus and the Jewish crowd that draws out the deeper meaning of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves that we heard last Sunday.

After the miracle the crowds follow Jesus with enthusiasm but he is dubious about their motivation. They follow him because they have been so marvellously fed, not because they have seen that event’s real meaning. They have not seen it for what it really is: a sign of the presence in their midst of One who is the final gift and revelation of God.

The crowds are trying to understand Jesus within the categories of what they know from the scriptural story of their people. Moses, in their view, arranged for their ancestors to be fed in the wilderness with “bread from heaven” (the manna). They think of Jesus as a new Moses who may turn on for them a continual supply of “bread from heaven”, just as Moses did of old.

Jesus corrects them. They must not be fixated on a repetition of what happened long ago. They must understand that God (the Father) is here and now giving them a Bread from heaven that, unlike the manna of old, will not just last for a day, but will sustain them for eternal life.

Jesus is, of course, as he makes clear at the end, speaking himself as this Bread: “the bread of God … that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”.

In what sense is Jesus for me my daily “Bread of Life”?

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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The Church closes the long Lent—Eastertide season with a feast that invites us to sit back and reflect upon the nature the God revealed in the Paschal mystery that we have been celebrating at such length. It was, of course, through the experience of that mystery and reflection upon it that the early Christians were led to know God as three Persons in the one divine essence. The doctrine of the Trinity is not, then, an arid theological puzzle. It is a necessary conclusion drawn from a sense of being grasped by, and held within, a divine communion of love.

The final paragraph of St. Matthew’s Gospel which supplies today’s Gospel ends on the most explicitly trinitarian note in the New Testament: the command to baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. Having completed his mission on earth, the risen Lord, claims ‘all authority in heaven and earth’. Empowered with that authority the Church is to go out to the nations of the world and “make disciples” of them, communicating to them a sense of the outreach of divine love into the world, and the conquest of sin and death that the mission of Christ has achieved.

People who respond to the Gospel and receive baptism undergo an experience akin to that of Israel in the Exodus as described in the First Reading. Liberated from slavery (to sin), as members of God’s family, we genuinely participate here and now in the divine communion of love that is the Holy Trinity.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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The most familiar scriptural background for today’s feast comes in the First Reading, Acts 2:1-11, a vivid account of the coming of the Spirit upon the Church on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. This was a pilgrimage feast, celebrated fifty days after Passover, when Jews from far and near converged upon Jerusalem to give thanks to God for the gift of the land and its produce. The fact that pilgrims from foreign lands hear the testimony of the apostles in their own languages foreshadows the universal mission of the Church. It also reverses the disunity of humankind symbolized in the episode of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). The Church will speak in many languages but through each one will communicate the same essential message: the outreach of God’s compassionate love to all the world.

In the Gospel, John 15:26-27; 16:12-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit as “Paraclete”— a Greek word not easy to translate. A “paraclete” was a person of upright character, highly respected in the community, who you took to court to vouch for you and advise you what to say—a cross between a character witness and a good lawyer. Though Jesus, after his return to the Father, will no longer be physically present to the disciples, the Spirit will perform a “paraclete” role: strengthening, comforting, advising. In particular, the Spirit will lead the community to “the complete truth” in the sense of unfolding still further the revelation of God brought by Jesus. The teaching office of the Church, guided by the Spirit, has its foundation here.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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There is no joy like that of discovering we are loved by someone from whom we would very much like to be loved but of whose love we never dared to think ourselves worthy.

This is what Jesus is trying to communicate to the disciples. He wants them to experience the joy that he feels in being loved by the Father. They will experience this joy when they realize that he is loving them as he himself is loved by the Father. This is the rationale behind his entire life and mission.

In the Fourth Gospel the ‘commandments’ the disciples are urged to keep reduce simply to the commandment to love the brothers and sisters. Keeping this essential commandment is what is meant by the exhortation: ‘Remain in my love.’ The Greek word (menein) embraces the sense of ‘dwell’ as well as ‘remain’. Believers live within the divine communion of love. They ‘remain’ within it by allowing that divine love to flow through them to one another.

The second half of the Gospel brings out the sacrificial quality of the love required. Despite the vast difference between ordinary human beings and Christ as Son of God, the disciples can think of themselves as his ‘friends’ rather than servants. This is because he has made the supreme gesture of friendship by laying down his life for them and also because he has shared with them the intimacy he enjoys with the Father.

They are Jesus’ ‘friends’ not through their choice but through his: chosen to communicate a sense of God’s love to the world.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

 

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