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Ash Wednesday

Today we start a new journey; a new Lent, journeying towards the great climax of the Easter Tridiuum. Although many of us have journeyed through Lent many times before, each year presents new opportunities and new challenges. Things have changed over the last 12 months; we have changed. New people have come into our lives and some have left us; new opportunities have materialised and some have disappeared. Perhaps the status of our health has changed; some have improved and some are struggling. Perhaps our relationship with God has changed; for some of us it’s improved and for some we’re struggling.

This Lent is not a repeat of previous Lents; it’s a brand new journey.

At its heart Lent is a journey to wholeness; wholeness of self and wholeness as a beloved child of God. But that journey begins with an acceptance of our brokenness – we must first confront the brokenness in our own lives and in the world around us. We confront the barriers that keep us from loving God and the barriers that keep us from loving each other.

This is not a onetime act. We don’t overcome these barriers in a day or even in 40 days but each year as we go through this Lenten process we hope to find ourselves closer at the end of it than we were when we started…closer to the goal of wholeness; a wholeness in our relationship with God and with each other.

The ashes traced on our foreheads today are a reminded of our brokenness and our human mortality and a sign of humility. A reminder that we are striving for sainthood through our imperfection.

If we journey faithfully and try diligently over the next 6 weeks to draw closer to God, the celebration of the Easter Tridiuum will be a new experience; renewed joy and wonder at the miracle of our salvation.

The Easter Tridiuum, the three days starting with the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday and concluding with the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday are the holiest and most sacred days in the year. The Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord celebrated in the Tridiuum are not separate and isolate events; it’s one event that takes place over three days and we are called and expected to participate fully over all three days not just Easter Sunday.

Lent has been part of the Church’s liturgical calendar for close on 1700 years and traditionally the emphasis has always been on fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Through these disciplines we consciously acknowledge our failings and weaknesses, our struggles and temptations and deliberately focus on being more loving, generous and tolerant through spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

There are many ways to practice these disciplines during Lent and it is important for each of us to search our hearts and figure out what works best to connect us more closely with Jesus in his Passion and Resurrection and with each other in our shared mission to know, love and serve God.

These sacrifices in themselves are not the focus; they are there to serve as prompts and constant reminds to us that we are in a time of penitential reflection, preparation and renewal.

Here are a few ideas we could consider and practice over the next 6 weeks:

  • Carry  a pocket size cross , or pocket rosary or a religious medal with you throughout lent as a reminder of the season
  • Participate in the various liturgies at St Michael’s during Lent:
    • Stations of the Cross on a Friday
    • Adoration for 30 minutes with Benediction on the first Tuesday
    • Spend some time in the Adoration Chapel that’s open throughout the day ever day
    • Mass during the week; we’re privileged to have Mass every day in our parish
    • The Ecclesia program on Thursday evenings
  • Keep a daily journal as a means for self-examination and prayer
  • Abstain from something:
    • perhaps a favorite food, or smoking or alcohol or a favourite TV series
    • Give up sugar and all things sweet
    • No eating or snacking after dinner or between meals
    • Remember that every Friday is a day of abstinence from meat
    • Consider some form of fasting every day; perhaps miss one meal or eat smaller portions at every meal
  • No gossiping. If someone says something negative about another person, either say something nice or say nothing. Make a note in your journal every time you slip up. We could memorize and repeat every day verse 29 from chapter 4 of the Letter to the Ephesians: :  “Do not use harmful words but only helpful words; only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who hear you.”
  • Read completely one of the Gospels (perhaps read Luke together with Luke’s Acts of the Apostles)
  • Pray every day for the poor, the brokenhearted, the hungry, the sick and the dying
  • If you are busy and can’t find time – make time by saying no to some activities and commitments and say yes to spending time with God
  • Clean out the house and the cupboards and donate things you don’t need to those who do need; or perhaps find one thing every day for 40 days to give away
  • Donate generously to the Archbishops Lenten appeal and in this way materially assist the poor and needy
  • Don’t buy anything during Lent that you don’t need and put the money that you save into the Lenten Appeal.
  • Pay your spouse or loved one, your parents and children a compliment every day
  • Replace 30 minutes of TV time with some devotional reading and prayer
    • We could use the book of daily Devotions prepared by the Youth of our Archdiocese including some written by the youth of St Michael’s
  • Replace some of your favourite music with Christian and sacred music and song
  • Keep your activity of all social media platforms to a bare minimum …. And if you really must post something let it always be kind and charitable; less about ourselves and more concern for others

Lent is really about going through a process that should change us, that should bring us closer to being fully the people God has called and created us to be.

Lent is not a means and end in itself… today is the beginning of a journey to Easter; the journey of the rest of our lives; our journey home to God.

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Love Our Enemies

7th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
CYCLE A
19th FEBRUARY 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

We are naturally inclined to resent those who do us wrong. But hatred, if we nurture it, can come between us and our loving God, who wants us to be loving, kind and forgiving.

In today’s Gospel passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus condemns even the mild form of the “Law of the Talion, (Lex Talionis),” the Babylonian tribal law which prescribes a retaliation in kind. In other words it sets limits on punishment; the punishment not to exceed the crime.

In its place, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation. For Jesus; retaliation, or even limited vengeance, has no place in the Christian life, even though graceful acceptance of an offense requires great strength, discipline of character as well as strengthening by God’s grace.

The second part of today’s Gospel passage is perhaps the central and the most famous section of the Sermon on the Mount. It gives us the Christian ethic of personal relationships: love one’s neighbors and forgive one’s enemies. Above all, it tells us that what makes Christians different is the grace with which they treat others with loving kindness and mercy, even if they don’t deserve it.

The Old Law never actually said to hate enemies, but that was the way some Jews understood it. Jesus commands that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us to demonstrate that we are children of a merciful heavenly Father.
We are commanded to love our enemies as Jesus loves us.

The Greek word used for loving enemies is agápe, which is the invincible benevolence or good will for another’s highest good. Since agápe is not natural, practicing it is possible only with God’s help. Agápe love is a choice, an act of will, more than a feeling.

We choose to love, not because our enemies deserve our love, but because Jesus loves them so much that he died for them as He did for us. When Jesus talks about “the enemy” he is not necessarily referring to an enemy as in war. He is talking about someone who is possibly close to me —to you; someone in our family; in our community, our neighbourhood, in our workplace; someone who is making life difficult for us.

Who are the people we try to avoid at all costs, whom we find hard to forgive, who awaken in us feelings of unease, fear and anger, which can easily turn into hatred? Hatred is a very dangerous thing. It burns up a hundred times more energy than love. It can drive out everything else and will corrode and warp our mind and soul; creating a legacy of bitterness, hostility and resentment.

Christ’s way is a better way. To be able to forgive and turn the other cheek is not a soft way. It’s a hard way that calls for great strength and toughness and sacrifice. A perfect example of this of course is our witness to Christ during his trial and crucifixion “Love your enemies!” –this is one of the most revolutionary things ever said. Love our enemies? Most of us find it hard enough to love our friends and family all of the time.

How can we be expected to love our enemies? To love’ in the Gospel context means to ‘wish the well being of’. It is a unilateral, unconditional desire for the deepest wellbeing of another person. It does not ask any of us ‘to be in love with’, to have warm fuzzy feelings for someone who is doing us serious harm. But we can sincerely wish the well being of those who harm or persecute us.

We pray that they may change, not just for our sake but also for their own. We pray that from hating, hurting people they become loving and caring people. Further, Jesus tells us that the basic reason for doing this is to manifest God’s love towards us. He points to the fact that the action of God is unconquerable benevolence.

He is the one who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and when the rain finally arrives here it will fall on the good and on the bad.
The Gospel passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” On the face of it that sounds like a commandment which cannot possibly have anything to do with us. Surely no one of us can even faintly connect ourselves with perfection.

(Except maybe when we fill in our CV’s) But seriously though this obviously is an ideal, a goal to be aimed at. The perfection intended is not total perfection for us, but rather to pray for ourselves for that total impartiality of a God who extends his providential care and love equally to all; good and bad, and he does not love the bad less than the good people. So, if we want to identify with Him, we have no right whatever to withdraw our love, that is, our desire for wholeness, from a single person.

Whether a person returns our love or God’s love is not important. If we reflect on it, we will begin to see that this is the only reasonable way for us to deal with people both for our own personal growth and fulfillment and as contributing also to that of others. Jesus is not asking us to do something impossible and unreasonable.

He tells us to open our eyes and see the reality and discover the most sensible way of relating ourselves with the people around us. Our faith assures us that in our relationship with God we will be able to do as he did and now instructs us: to be generous to those in need; not retaliate when offended; pray for our persecutors and even, with God’s grace, love our enemies.

St Joseph

Our Lady of the Flight into Egypt 2017
Deacon Les Ruhrmund

One of the things that struck me when I looked at the First reading and the Gospel was that a central figure in the events recalled in both readings was a man with the name Joseph; and interestingly that both of their fathers shared the name Jacob.

I thought I’d explore the role of the two Josephs in our faith.
Joseph is not actually mentioned in the first reading which tells us about the arrival of his father Jacob in Egypt with the whole family and all their belongings, escaping from a devastating famine in Canaan. But it is Joseph who had instigated and made possible their migration.

You’ll remember that Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt as a teenager by his jealous brothers and that they had deceived their father Jacob telling him that his favourite son Joseph had been killed by wild animals producing his multi-coloured coat stained with blood as evidence. In the ensuing years Joseph had risen to a very powerful position of authority in Egypt and was able to offer and provide a new home, food and shelter for his elderly father, brothers and their families who were on the brink of starvation in the Promised Land.

They prospered and multiplied abundantly in Egypt over the next 400 odd years until their number was so great that Pharaoh feared that they might side with his enemies in time of war and so he enslaved them to build cities and roads. And that of courses sets the scene for Moses, the Passover and significantly the return of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land.

In the Gospel reading, Joseph is the central figure. Three times while sleeping he hears the voice of God through an angel and each time he reacts swiftly, decisively and faithfully.

A few weeks ago I did a short course at the UCT Summer School on two great Renaissance painters: Leonardo Da Vinci and Piero Della Francesca. The Church at that time was a major patron of the arts and many works of Renaissance art depicted religious images painted as altarpieces or as devotional objects. In many of the paintings featuring the Holy Family (the Nativity, Presentation at the Temple, Arrival of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt), Joseph is depicted as a comparatively marginal figure alongside Mary and Jesus if not entirely in the background; sometimes looking half asleep or bored or disinterested or disengaged. And we might assume I suppose that that is how his role in God’s plan for our redemption was viewed at that time; very much a secondary role.
But that has changed.

Today St Joseph is highly revered and his essential role as Mary’s husband and protector and Jesus’ human father, guardian and teacher are universally recognised. In 1870 Pope Pius IX proclaimed Saint Joseph as the patron of the Universal Church.

Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of families, fathers, expectant mothers, immigrants and working people in general. The 1st of May, internationally celebrated as Labour Day is celebrated in the Church as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker.
And Joseph is the patron saint of the dying. We believe that Joseph died with Mary and Jesus close to him and that’s the way we all should like to leave this life.

Matthew’s account of the Flight into Egypt reaffirms a lot that we already know about Joseph from earlier references in Scripture. We know that though he came from a royal lineage, a direct descendent of King David, he was poor. When he presented the infant Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth, Joseph was only able to offer the sacrifice of two turtledoves or pigeons; allowed only for those who could not afford to buy a lamb.

We know that he was a compassionate, pious and righteous man. In extreme faith he took Mary as his wife even though she was pregnant with a child that was not his. The social ramifications of that decision would have been humiliating but he believed what the angel had told him about Mary’s pregnancy and acted accordingly. Perhaps even saving Mary’s life.
It takes a strong man or woman to put the will of God before the will of society. There’s a lesson there for each one of us.
Joseph had a remarkable relationship with God and Mary trusted him completely and I think it would be fair to assume the same of Jesus when he was growing up as a boy and then as a young adult with Joseph as his adoring father.

When Joseph woke from the dream telling him to get up and leave immediately and flee to Egypt he must have been very anxious and fearful. The journey would be roughly the equivalent of walking from Cape Town to Jeffrey’s Bay. And that section along the way that we know as the Garden Route would have been harsh desert. Not a journey for the faint hearted. Not a desirable journey for a Mother with an infant. An extremely challenging journey probably taking them 30 days or more. They had little money and only heaven knows how they managed.
Mary put her trust in Joseph and committed her safety and that of her baby boy into Joseph’s hands as they fled to Egypt and then some years later journeyed back to Israel.

God revealed his will to Joseph while he was at rest; while he slept.

Pope Francis has a great love for St Joseph and on his desk in his study he has a large image of Saint Joseph ….sleeping. As it happens, the inaugural Mass for the Pontificate of Pope Francis took place on March 19, Saint Joseph’s Day and one of the first things Pope Francis did after his inauguration was include Joseph, Mary’s spouse, in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass..

Speaking about St Joseph a couple of years ago while on a visit to the Philippines Pope Francis said: “Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church! Joseph’s rest revealed God’s will to him. In our moment of rest in the Lord, as we pause from our many daily obligations and activities, God is also speaking to us. But like Saint Joseph, once we have heard God’s voice, we must rise from our slumber; we must get up and act.”
Our Lady of the Flight into Egypt, pray for us.