Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. The role of a shepherd is to care for his sheep and keep them safe. A good shepherd is one who looks after the sheep, not simply as a job or a duty, but with love and care. We are Jesus’ flock; he knows each one of us by name, and he loves us so much that he lays down his life for us. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Church around the world prays for vocations to the ordained ministry of priesthood and diaconate, and to male and female religious life. The Church needs shepherds who will care for God’s people with compassion and dedication, following the example of Christ. In his message for today, Pope Francis says: “In the diversity and the uniqueness of each and every vocation, personal and ecclesial, there is a need to listen, discern and live this Word that calls to us from on high and, while enabling us to develop our talents, makes us instruments of salvation in the world and guides us to full happiness.” Let us pray today that men and women will listen to God’s call, discern their response and live out their vocation with a generous heart.
The season of Easter lasts for fifty days. After the joyful celebration of Easter Sunday, we have a whole season to reflect on Christ’s Resurrection, and on what it means for us. And the Gospels show us that Jesus’ disciples, too, needed some time to begin to grasp the meaning of the Resurrection. Today, we hear Luke’s account of Jesus appearing unexpectedly among them. He lets them see that he is truly risen, and not a ghost. He opens their minds to understand the scriptures, showing them that everything has happened to fulfil God’s plan. He brings the disciples peace and forgiveness of sins. And he sends them out to witness to all the nations. The mission of the Church began with the Lord’s commandment to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that mission continues today. By our baptism as Christians, we are witnesses.
Mark’s account of Christ’s Passion is stark and straightforward. Jesus is abandoned by everyone. Judas betrays his friend to the chief priests. Peter, James and John can’t stay awake to watch with him in Gethsemane, and Peter denies three times that he even knows Jesus. The chief priests and the soldiers mock and jeer at him, and the crowd joins in – the same crowd that, a few days earlier, was shouting ‘Hosanna’ as Jesus entered Jerusalem. The only help that Jesus receives comes from Simon of Cyrene, compelled to carry his cross, and the only recognition is from an unnamed Roman centurion, who acknowledges him as a ‘Son of God.’ Jesus dies utterly alone, feeling himself deserted even by his Father. He has emptied himself completely in atonement for our sins. But the Father will raise him up. When we feel most alone and abandoned, or when we are tempted to despair at our sins, the Passion of Christ reminds us that God’s love and mercy reaches into the darkest places of our lives. God our Father will raise us up.
Today’s Gospel begins with some “Greeks” – Greek-speaking Gentiles – asking to see Jesus. It seems that his mission is succeeding. The Good News is being heard, even beyond his own people. But Jesus sees very clearly that the time of his death is approaching. The chief priests and Pharisees are already plotting to kill him. His words to his disciples are both a warning of what is to come, and a prophecy. Of course, Jesus is troubled by the thought of suffering a violent death, but he chooses it freely, in obedience to his Father’s will. Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, God will be glorified, and humanity will be saved from sin. His death will yield a rich harvest, opening up the way to eternal life for us all. Our celebration of Easter reminds us of the price that was paid to set us free from sin. The way to our salvation is through the suffering of Christ.
The season of Lent is also the season of spring. The snow is gone – we hope! – and the world is coming back to life. The first flowers are peeping through, and the days are getting longer – less darkness and more light. Today’s Gospel links the ideas of light and life, when Jesus, speaking to the Jewish teacher Nicodemus, describes himself as the light that has come into the world, and as the one who brings eternal life for those who believe in him.
The light can make us uncomfortable. There are some parts of ourselves that we prefer to keep hidden. But we shouldn’t be afraid of the light. Jesus comes to bring mercy, not condemnation – life and not death. Israel’s dark time of exile ended when God showed mercy to his people. Now is the time for us to step out of the darkness of sin and sadness, into the light of God’s mercy.
It may startle us to see an angry Jesus in today’s Gospel. We are more used to seeing him gently blessing children, or reaching out to the sick with a healing touch. Today, Jesus makes a whip and drives out the money-changers and the animal sellers. But John doesn’t tell us that Jesus hurt anyone – though he certainly caused a commotion.
What drove Jesus to such anger? The Temple was God’s house – a place of prayer and worship for the whole Jewish nation (and for foreigners too.) The money-changers converted pagan, Roman money into shekels that were acceptable for offerings to the Temple. The animals sold in the Temple were guaranteed to be without blemish and suitable for sacrifice. Money was being made out of the people’s faith. Jesus, with a dramatic gesture, demanded a purification of the whole system. He was filled with zeal for his Father’s house.
Today’s first reading warns us against the worship of false gods. Money, especially, can easily become a false god that gets in the way of our worship of the one true God. The Gospel reminds us to purify our hearts during the season of Lent. We are called to live by the wisdom of God, not of the world.
God puts Abraham to the test, by asking him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. God’s demand seems shocking to us. It would be shocking to Abraham, too. It was common for pagan nations to offer up their children to appease their gods; but the God of Israel forbade the horror of human sacrifice. For the people of Abraham’s time, the very life of a father himself was bound up with the life of his child and heir. There was nothing more important to Abraham than Isaac, the son whom God had given to him and Sarah when they were well past the normal age of raising a child. If Abraham gives up Isaac, he will have nothing left but his trust in God. But he doesn’t hesitate to offer to God what is most precious to him: and God, seeing Abraham’s faith, rewards him with blessings beyond his imagination.
If we are shocked that God could ask the faithful disciple Abraham to sacrifice his son – even as a test – we should be even more shocked that God would sacrifice his own Son for our sins. There is no limit to God’s love for us.
Before Jesus begins his public ministry, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness for forty days. He is tempted by Satan, and in physical danger from wild beasts, but the angels look after him. He knows that his Father is close to him. As we begin the forty days of Lent, the Spirit invites us to spend some time in the wilderness ourselves; to reflect on our lives and on our need of God. Traditionally, the Church encourages us to make Lent a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer means making time to be alone with God, to listen to God’s Word and to ask God for what we really need. Fasting sets us free: from ‘creature comforts’ that help us to get through the day and cope with its demands, but which can come to control us; and from habits of sin that can tie us down. Almsgiving is a real and concrete response to Christ’s commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ But in order to find space for reflection and contemplation, we need to step back from some of the things that usually keep us busy, and that always seem so important. At the start of Lent, we are invited to go into the wilderness with Christ, so that we can be ready to rejoice at his Resurrection.
This man was not only afflicted with a disfiguring disease. He was also isolated from family and society. The book of Leviticus set out the law for dealing with anyone identified as a leper. They were to be declared ‘unclean,’ excluded from the community, and identified as outcasts by their appearance. People would shun a leper, for fear of catching such a dreadful disease themselves. But Jesus’ reaction is the opposite. He is moved with compassion for the sick man, and reaches out to touch him – an action that makes Jesus himself unclean in the eyes of the Law. Of course Jesus wants to cure him – and thanks to Jesus’ compassion, he is cured.
The story has an ironic twist. Once free of his leprosy, the man can return to society and tell the good news of his cure. But as a result of his growing reputation, Jesus can no longer go anywhere openly, without being mobbed by those who want to see him. He ends up living outside the towns, in lonely places – almost like a leper. And in the end, Jesus will be driven out of Jerusalem, and crucified on a hill. He will become the ultimate outcast, for our sins.
Today’s Gospel shows us Jesus’ compassion for those who are suffering. He cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and restores her to health. He goes on to heal many people in the town of Capernaum who are afflicted by sickness, or possessed by devils. But even when Jesus is working miracles and healing the sick, he doesn’t seek glory for himself. He won’t allow the devils to speak, because they know who he is – he doesn’t yet want to be recognised as the Messiah, and he doesn’t want the crowds to flock to him simply as a wonder-worker. Jesus wants the people to understand that his cures and miracles are signs of God’s salvation coming into the world. The response that he seeks is one of faith.
After a long day of teaching and healing, Jesus goes off to a lonely place to pray. His ministry is founded on his intimate relationship with his Father, and he needs to spend time alone in prayer, before he goes out again to preach. As disciples of Christ, we should be people of prayer, of witness and of service, as Jesus himself is.
Jesus teaches in the synagogue at Capernaum, the home town of Simon Peter. The people of the town are impressed by the authority with which Jesus speaks. Every week in the synagogue, they heard the teaching of the scribes, who would give an interpretation of the Scriptures based on the opinions of other rabbis and teachers. But for Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures are a living word from God. He teaches on his own authority, and from his own experience of God’s love and power. The words of the Scriptures come to life on his lips. No wonder his teaching makes a deep impression on the people. Even the unclean spirits recognise, with fear, Jesus’ power and authority: a power that is exercised to free those who are in the grip of evil. The kingdom of God is close at hand. Jesus brought healing and hope to the people of his own time, and he brings healing and hope to us today.
In today’s Gospel Jesus calls his first disciples – two pairs of brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John. What did they see in Jesus, that prompted them to follow him? Mark’s Gospel tells us nothing of what the disciples thought or felt. Jesus’ message was a stark and simple one: “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Somehow, this was enough for the four to decide that they would follow him. They left behind their homes and families, and their occupation as fishermen, to become disciples of a wandering rabbi. Jesus was calling them to witness: “I will make you fishers of men.” The disciples would spend the rest of their lives witnessing to the Good News that they had heard from Jesus. They gave their lives to him. Jesus calls each one of us by name, to follow him and to witness to the Good News. What is he asking of us today?
The readings for today’s Mass present us with two stories of a call from God. Samuel was a young boy dedicated to God by his mother, from the day of his birth. While Samuel was living with Eli the priest, and serving him, God called him to become a prophet who would speak God’s words to the people. Andrew, Simon Peter and another unnamed follower of John the Baptist became disciples of Jesus after meeting him. In each case, the call from God is unique and personal. In each case, a guide has a part to play in helping the disciple to respond to God’s call. Eli prepares Samuel to listen to the Lord’s words; John the Baptist points out Jesus to his disciples as the Lamb of God. The guide does his part, and then steps aside to allow God to work. In each case, the disciple has to have a listening ear and an open heart, to recognise God’s call and respond generously. Jesus asks us to come to him without our own agenda – to come to him, listening and receptive, ready to give our whole lives in answer to his call. And he promises us that, if we ‘come and see,’ we will hear the truth, and encounter a love and a joy we would never have known.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, we remember the wise men who came from the East to find the baby Jesus. They are magi – perhaps astronomers, astrologers or magicians. Their study of the stars has led them to seek out the infant King of the Jews. The chief priests and scribes of Israel are experts in the Scriptures, but their knowledge of the prophets doesn’t lead them to recognise the coming of the Christ, and they will oppose Jesus throughout his life. Herod, blinded by worldly ambition, sees the newborn King only as a threat to his own position. The wise men, in contrast, are pagans from a distant country, but they have recognised the sign, given by God, of the Saviour’s birth. When they find Jesus with Mary, they know that they have reached their goal. Jesus is the Saviour for all the nations. The wise men kneel down to worship him, and the revelation of God’s salvation to the whole world has begun. As we begin a new year, the feast of the Epiphany prompts us to ask what goals we are pursuing. Are our eyes, our hearts and our minds open to the signs that God is showing us, and are we ready to meet Christ and worship him?
The shepherds lived in the fields with their sheep, in the countryside outside the town of Bethlehem. Every night, they would be there, keeping watch over their flocks in the pitch darkness. The nights would be long and cold, no doubt boring, sometimes fearful, if thieves or wolves threatened the sheep. So imagine the shepherds’ terror on this night, when without warning, the angel messenger of God appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them.
But the angel is bringing joyful news – news of salvation and peace. The shepherds set out through the dark night, and they find the baby Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem – a light of hope, shining out in the darkness. On Christmas morning, John’s Gospel tells us that Christ is the true light that enlightens all people, a light that darkness cannot overpower.
At the darkest and coldest time of the year, we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into our world, bringing the promise of salvation. In the darkness of our world – the darkness of injustice and conflict, suffering and sin – the newborn Christ shines a light of hope. God sends his Son to bring light to the people who are walking in darkness, and God’s gift challenges us to be a light to others.
In today’s Gospel, the focus is again on John the Baptist. And yet, John does not seek glory for himself. Asked who he is by the messengers from Jerusalem, John’s first response is, “I am not the Christ.” John knows that he has been sent by God to prepare the way for the Christ who is to come. When the Messiah comes, he will bring good news to the poor, heal broken hearts and set prisoners free. Jesus will be the Light, shining into the darkness of our world. The evangelist tells us twice that John the Baptist is “a witness to speak for the light” – sent to make a straight way for the Messiah.
We can use the season of Advent to make a straight way for the Lord by prayer and reflection, preparing our hearts to receive him. And our joy at Christ’s coming should lead us to reach out to those in our own communities who may be poor and marginalised. If we want to be witnesses to the light, we must make sure that there is good news for the poor this Christmas.
Today’s feast of Christ the King directly challenges our worldly understanding of power and majesty. The symbol of Christian faith is the crucifix. God’s love is made visible in the death and resurrection of Christ his Son. The majesty of Christ is founded on the self-giving love of God. It is in pouring out his life for us – scourged, stripped naked and crucified – that Christ reveals his majesty. The King we follow is a King who reigns from the Cross. And his kingdom is built, not on earthly power, but on the power of love. The kingdom of God is revealed, whenever we show love and practical care to our neighbour, and especially to the poor, the weak and the outsider. The kingdoms of this world will fall, but the kingdom of God will last forever. Today’s Gospel makes it clear that our lives will be judged by the way that we treat the least of our brothers and sisters.
Why is it so terrible for the servant to hide his master’s money in a hole in the ground? Isn’t he simply being cautious? But perhaps Jesus calls us to something more than caution. The servant acts as he does out of fear of his master: “I had heard you were a hard man…” The master has put his trust in his servants, placing his wealth in their hands. If the servants respond by trusting their master, they can be creative, take risks, and make the wealth grow. If they are paralysed by fear, they will achieve nothing.
God has given us many gifts and talents. They are given to us to be used for the benefit of others, and to bear fruit, not to be hidden away. Pope Francis says: “Any environment, even the most distant and impractical, can become a place where talents can bear fruit. There are no situations or places that are closed to the Christian presence and witness.” This parable calls us to open our hearts, put our trust in God, and dare to be creative with the wealth that God gives us.
Jesus’ words are a biting criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the people. They are the successors of Moses, but Jesus accuses them of hypocrisy: they do not practise what they preach. Do as they say, but not as they do! – a stinging rebuke for any preacher or teacher.
Paul describes the Christian model of leadership. Those who have a ministry of leadership should watch over the people in their care like a mother or a father. They should give themselves unselfishly, seeking no reward except for the satisfaction of seeing disciples grow in faith and commitment, as the Good News takes root in their hearts.
We are all called to take on responsibility in the life of the Church. But if we find ourselves seeking recognition for what we do, or building up our own power and importance, it’s a warning sign. We have only one Master, one Teacher and one Father. All that we do should be done for the service of God’s people, and the glory of God.
Jesus is faced with a hostile question, designed to trip him up. Which is the greatest commandment of God’s Law? He replies with the Shema, the great prayer of Israel – the words that God spoke to the people through Moses: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.’ Love of God means giving our whole selves to him, without reserve. And loving God means loving our neighbour, too. The two commandments are really one. Our love of God is empty, unless it moves us to love our neighbours, and to treat them as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Jesus’ teaching goes even further. We may manage to love those who are like ourselves. But all of our fellow human beings are our neighbours, especially the poor and those on the edges – the stranger, the widow and the orphan. We are called to love them, too. Jesus gave his life for us, and he asks us to give ourselves for others.