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Welcome Back Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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Mary’s “Yes” to God

With the Gospel of the Annunciation to Mary, we arrive today at the events leading directly to the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Following a greeting and word of reassurance, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the mother of a child, whose title (‘Son of the Most High’) and future role indicate that he will be the long-awaited Messiah.

Mary, understandably, asks how this birth is to occur. She is married but, in accordance with the custom of the time where women married very young, is still living in her parental home and not yet having relations with her husband.

The angel’s majestic explanation lifts everything to a new level. The birth will not come about through relations with her husband but through her being “overshadowed” by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The child to be born from her will be God’s ‘Son’ in a unique way. He will have a divine status far outstripping conventional expectation concerning the Messiah.

The explanation requires of Mary faith in the highest degree. Unlike Zechariah in connection with the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:11-19), she does not simply have to believe that God will overcome barrenness and old age. She has to believe that God’s power will take the place of the male parent entirely. Later, her cousin Elizabeth will say to her, “Blessed is she who believed the the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled” (1:45). Mary’s faith is the channel for God’s presence and power to enter the world in the mystery of the Incarnation.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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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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Risk Taking for God

As we approach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, the focus remains upon the second coming of the Lord. Once again, the Gospel provides a parable (the Talents) instructing us how to live in view of that expectation.

The master in the parable is pleased with the enterprising first two servants. Having realised substantial gains on the amounts entrusted to them, they are welcomed “into the joy of their master”—that is, into the banquet of the Kingdom.

But the third servant, who simply hid his single talent in the ground, displeased his master because he didn’t do what was expected, namely, trade with the money so that it would increase. He didn’t even put the sum in the bank, where it would have at least accrued some interest. Paralysed by a fearful image that he has of his master (an image of God that the parable does not endorse but actually refutes), he sought security in giving back, in strict justice, the exact sum entrusted to him. This, however, was not what the master wanted. Hence the severe penalty.

The parable challenges believers not to rest content simply with not doing anything wrong so that God will not be able to find anything to punish. Such an attitude mistakes the nature of God and neglects what God really wants, which is an enterprising, even risk-taking, practice of the “weightier matters of the law”: “justice, mercy and faith” (23:23). The gifts God has entrusted to us, like our minds and limbs, need active exercise if they are not to atrophy and wither.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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Be Prepared

The parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids addresses the situation of the Church as it awaits the return of its Lord (the “Bridegroom”). The time of waiting has become very long indeed but the Church still proclaims: “Christ will come again”, and lives in that hope and in the sense of accountability that accompanies it. The key thing is to use the time of waiting profitably, so as not to be caught out when the Bridegroom arrives, whether that be at the moment of death or end of time.

The five wise and five foolish bridesmaids depict two possibilities for believers. The oil needed for their lamps represents the good deeds that Jesus commends in this gospel, especially the works of mercy that feature so prominently in the parable of the Great Judgement (Matt 25:41-56). The five wise bridesmaids will meet the Bridegroom with their lamps blazing with this “oil”. The five foolish, on the other hand, represent the kind of believers who cry out, “Lord, Lord” but have no good works to accompany their confession of faith (see 7:21).

The parable—and the Gospel as a whole—remind us that the words of dismissal at the Eucharist, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life”, are no perfunctory conclusion to the rite but a programme for living the twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbour. Those who take them to heart have always with them the “oil” required for salvation; they can “sleep” without anxiety about being caught short by the sudden arrival of the Lord.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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The gospel of the Beatitudes is often read at funerals and weddings. In its own way, it sounds comforting and indeed it is. However, it is also very challenging—which suggests that “Blessed” is a better rendering of the opening word in each case than “Happy”.

Jesus is instructing his disciples concerning the kind of people they must be, not just for themselves but for the benefit of the mass of afflicted people down below the mountain, who he has just healed.

To this end, the beatitudes describe ways of living that mean putting oneself in a vulnerable situation quite contrary to the values of the world. To be “poor in spirit,” rather than proud and dominant; to feel compassion (“mourn”) because other people suffer; to have a passionate commitment (“thirst”) for justice; to exercise “mercy” rather than taking advantage of those in an inferior position; to actively promote reconciliation (as “peacemakers”); and so forth: all these things make one vulnerable here and now, entailing much loss.

But in light of the hope for the kingdom of God, whose values the Beatitudes enshrine, disciples who adopt this way of life are already “blessed”. Their future happiness is in the hands of an ever-faithful God.

Moreover, living in this way means that they can be “salt” and “light” for the world, especially for the afflicted. It is those who are prepared to live in the vulnerable way commended by Jesus who make the world a hospitable home for all humanity. This is the legacy of the “saints” who have gone before us.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT

When faced with the question in today’s Gospel concerning which of the commandments of the law is the greatest, Jesus has no hesitation in uniting two commandments already found in the scriptures of Israel.

The command to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind comes from Deuteronomy (6:4-5). It is a command that every Israelite is summoned to recite each morning on rising (the “Schema” prayer). So the Christian tradition has inherited from Israel the truth that God is worthy of love, worship and dedication of life simply for God’s sake alone. Love is the supreme factor in the relationship that God desires to have with us.

The second command, “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”, occurs in Lev 19:18. It is “like” the first because it flows from the nature of Israel’s God, who has identified so intimately with the situation of human beings. To love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind is to love those whom God loves: one’s fellow human beings, especially the vulnerable and the poor.

Down the ages there have been many interpretations as to what loving one’s neighbour as oneself might mean. Primarily it would seem to mean putting oneself—at least imaginatively—in the neighbour’s shoes and asking how would I like to be treated in their situation. Better still, perhaps, it means taking pains to find out from the neighbour what exactly their desire might be. All effective works of charity and justice begin from a similar base: from com-passion (“feeling with”) in the deepest sense of that term.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ

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OBEDIENCE TO GOD

Having entered Jerusalem as its messianic King, Jesus is drawn into a power struggle with representatives of various groups who, under the overall control of the Romans, currently wield power.

To remove the threat he poses, they need to portray him to the Romans as dangerous and, at the same time, to lessen his authority with the people.

The tax question is a perfect stratagem to achieve these ends. If Jesus supports the payment of the unpopular poll tax, he will lose standing with the people; if he forbids payment, he risks being identified with groups rebellious towards Rome and so of appearing as a threat to peace and public order.

Jesus’ majestic response not only frees him from the dilemma, it actually goes onto the offensive. By requiring them to produce a coin with Caesar’s image on it he shows them up as already collaborating with the Romans. They carry around the offensive coinage. He does not.

Then his dual “Render …” instruction throws the dilemma back upon them. They had set the issue simply in terms of obligation to Rome; they had not brought God into the equation at all. Jesus takes possession of the religious and moral high ground by setting responsibility to the civil power (which he does not deny) within the broader and higher framework of obedience to God.

We can find here the beginnings of the later Christian sense of the separation of Church and State. We also have a recognition that believers have responsibilities in both realms that oblige in conscience before God.

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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THE SONG SUNG OVER THE CHURCH

Jesus probably told the parable of the Tenants against the religious leaders in Jerusalem in his day. Having resisted the prophets sent by God, they are now resisting the last of them, namely, himself. As such they have shown themselves to be usurpers, retaining for themselves the “vineyard” (Israel) and its “produce” (the life of the people). For them, the arrival of the Kingdom (of God) will mean dispossession and retribution.

The early Church retold the parable in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and a belief in his status as God’s Son. Also present is a bitter awareness of the No given to the Gospel by the bulk of Israel and a sense of the Church itself, made up of Jews and non-Jews, as the community of the Kingdom. Through the continuing presence of the risen Lord (Matt 28:20), the community can and ought to produce the “fruits” that God desires.

The long and tragic history of Christian intolerance and persecution of Jews calls for sensitivity in handling texts like this that reflect the early Church’s disappointment with Israel. Today we should move on from Christian triumphalism at Jewish expense to concentrate upon the “fruits” that God looks for from us. God has made the “rejected stone”—the crucified and risen Lord—the “cornerstone” of the Church. The question for us is whether the “song” sung by God over this new vineyard (cf. the First Reading) is one of delight or disappointment. Inevitably, perhaps, a bit of both. In either case it will be a song of love.

Fr Brendan Byrne sj

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St James The Apostle