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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.

People of Inner Unrest

Epiphany of the Lord
Cycle A
8th January 2017
Matthew 2. 1-12
Rev Tony van Vuuren

Those of us of a certain age will remember the TV detective Columbo, the guy wearing the shabby raincoat, who was the master of the parting question. He would finish questioning someone and, as he was going out of the door and their guard was down, he would turn back with a ‘Oh, just one other thing.’ and ask that crucial question.

The Magi are like that final question. Christmas has been well and truly celebrated, the Boney M CD has been packed away together with the decorations, and the New Year is here, life is getting back to its normal routine; but then at the last minute Christmas turns back and throws us one last question, throws us the story of the Magi. The Magi are like that final question.

It seems to us like the Magi just appear at the end of the Christmas story, but for these foreign travellers the journey has been a long one. We don’t really know exactly where they come from, probably Persia, in which case they have travelled a great distance to get to Bethlehem.

We are misled by the fact that they appear, stay briefly, then depart, into thinking that this journey of theirs is a brief one, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a long journey of extortionate cost, fraught with danger. Whatever possessed them to set out on such a mission, just to spend a few moments in Bethlehem?

This question brings us to the heart of the Epiphany Feast. If we can understand why the Magi travel all this way, we will be able to see what this feast is really about. We are rather misled by the romance of the three exotic gifts.

Our focus tends to be on the Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh, so that we come to think of the Magi as little more than gift bearers to transmit these beautiful gifts into the presence of Christ.

But this is not what they themselves say they are doing. Addressing Herod they ask ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews…we have come to worship him?’ and then when they arrive in Bethlehem they first throw themselves to the ground in homage before the Christ child; and only then do they reach into their bags and bring out the gifts. The wise men have not travelled all this way just to bring Jesus gifts; they have travelled all this way to worship him.

If we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the real spiritual significance of this feast. The giving of gifts is very potent; it is a prophetic act, because as we know, these are gifts with a spiritual significance, but this is nothing like as important as the Epiphany as a moment of worship.

The wise men have come all this way, have faced all that danger and discomfort, in order to worship the divine Son of God.

Still, though, we are left asking ‘why?’ Why would they travel so far in search of a God who is outside their culture, outside their territory, outside their experience? Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his book (Jesus of Nazareth Vol 3.
The Infancy Narratives p.95), has a beautiful expression that he uses to describe the Magi. He says that they would never have set out on such a journey unless they were people of “inner unrest”, that is “people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation” They travel all that way, they take all those risks including the great risk of entering Herod’s presence, because they are people of “inner unrest”.

They are not satisfied with their lives, they are driven to seek some deeper meaning, some sense of truths beyond their grasp, some sense that there is a world outside their control which they cannot master, but which they can begin to comprehend. Their minds, their souls, are restless and unable to settle, and this translates into the need to travel, to journey in search of something that will draw them upwards, up towards the truth. They are in a sense disturbed souls, but they feel very at home with that sense of incompleteness, of challenge, because for them it is the doorway to growth.

Contrast them, in this, with Herod. By the time the Magi arrive he is very definitely disturbed.
But whereas the Wise Men are at home with this inner unrest, and are able to feed off the spiritual energy that it brings, Herod does not cope with disturbance. It is at about this time that Herod has three of his sons murdered because he fears they may be a threat to his security, so he is clearly not a man who thrives on challenge and the unknown. The Magi arrive in serenity and ask their questions, throwing Jerusalem into turmoil.

Herod doesn’t just ask about where the Christ is to be born, his enquiries are frantic with evil intent. So he stands as a contrast to the Magi. They are men of inner unrest, certain that there is much they do not know, nor understand, and are anxious to open themselves to a new and deeper vision of reality; Herod already has his own vision of the World, with him firmly at the centre, and he will do anything he can to protect that set up, to make sure it is preserved at all costs.

Now, at last, we are able to understand what the final ‘Columbo question’ is that the Magi ask of us. It is perfectly timed, coming as it does just as we close off the Christmas season but also at the start of the New Year and Ordinary time.

As Christ is presented to us once again through the Gospels in the coming year, will we react like Herod, or like the Magi? Will we insist on bending and twisting and warping Christ so that he fits in with our way of doing things, with what I want to do, with what I want to be, will we try and force him to fit into our plans for the future?

Or will we allow him to challenge us and to change us; will we allow his words and his actions to disturb and unsettle us, even to make us change course, to turn life around, to do things differently? Will we allow ourselves to be led on a journey far from the place of comfort, so that we can take our place in God’s plan?

The Magi had to travel a long way on their journey, but most of us can make the journey within, because the real journey takes place in our minds, in our souls. It begins with a change of heart, with a decision to allow the Holy Spirit to help us find God’s presence.

If we can face each situation with confidence and with an open heart, fear and doubt will begin to melt away. We will find Jesus in unexpected, unlikely places; just as the Magi did.

THE GRATEFUL LEPER

28th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME.
CYCLE C
9th OCTOBER 2016
LUKE 17: 11-19
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

Jesus is not afraid to venture into places where he is unwelcome – in this story; it is Samaritan territory — where there is hostility toward him, and where he would not be expected to travel being a Jew. Samaritans were accused by the Jewish people of that day of contaminating their worship. Although they had much in common with the Jews, they were despised as foreigners. Rather than worshiping in Jerusalem, the Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim.

In short, Samaritans did not like Jews, and the Jews did not like the Samaritans. Still, Jesus is unafraid to travel into places where there may be hostility, uneasiness, or darkness. Likewise, Jesus enters into our lives in places where we might be ashamed to meet him — where we might be surprised to find him; for he is unafraid to engage us wherever we are.

We should never think that Jesus will only meet us in sterile, lovely, sin-free places. Over and over Jesus enters into situations where there is sickness, death, pain, sadness, despair, and even hatred. Like the ten lepers, nine Jews and one Samaritan, who shout out to Jesus, we should also never be afraid to call out to Jesus no matter how distant we feel from him because of where we might find ourselves morally or spiritually.

The lepers had many reasons to be alienated from society; yet they have the courage to call out to Jesus for mercy. Jesus knows that the journey back into their family circle requires a declaration of cleanliness by the priest and so, without approaching or touching them, he orders the men to waste no time in beginning this process.

Although we might not suffer from a physical leprosy on the outside, we may suffer a spiritual or a sinful leprosy on the inside. Is there something in our lives that we are carrying around with us that keeps us unclean and made to feel unworthy to be full and active members of our family circle or community? Is there something so hideous to look at or touch within us that we cannot imagine letting Jesus touch it? After all, Jesus is the Messiah; our Lord and Savior. However, Jesus is also the one in this unique Gospel story who is willing to heal.

If Jesus is unafraid to touch our deepest, darkest hurts and impurities, then let us not hide them. Just as the lepers yell out to Jesus for healing; let us also call out to Jesus for our healing. Leprosy was considered a punishment by God for one’s personal or family’s sin.

Lepers were both religious and social outcasts. The visible marks of the disease were the equivalent to a sign around their neck announcing, “I am a sinner.” If a member of the community came in contact with a leper he or she too would become an outcast.

Just as the so called “sinful disease” caused a barrier between the sufferer and his family and friends, so too does sin create personal barriers and division for us, preventing us from being brothers and sister in Christ. It cuts us off from God.

Sin isolates us and can so easily make us focus on ourselves and not on the needs and the love of those around us. We may know a number of people in our lives who suffer from various mental, physical and emotional disorders. Sometimes we may feel that they are responsible for their own problems. Perhaps they suffer from an addiction or from an emotional disorder brought on by a series of bad choices they made. Our job is not to judge, but to love.

Our job is not to condemn, but to bring hope and healing. Our job is to bring them back into the love of their families: biological, the parish family, the neighborhood family. Whilst walking to the temple as instructed to do by Jesus, all the lepers were cured; but only one, the Samaritan, was healed. Oftentimes curing is equated to biomedical betterment and healing is equated to restoring meaning, hope, and wholesomeness.

Nine of the lepers weren’t able to express gratitude, which seems to suggest that their cure was only skin deep. Their leprosy was gone, but they missed out on receiving something far greater than any physical healing. The Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus is both cured and healed. He exhibits both a physical cure and a deeper spiritual, emotional healing that prompts him to express gratitude. Jesus says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” He is already cured, but here Jesus refers to him now as saved.

This is what we long for — both curing and healing. In good times we sometimes forget God, even though we continue to pay lip service to him; but then an illness brings us to our knees and suddenly we are faced with our own poverty, weakness and mortality.

However if this brings us closer to God and makes us more spiritual, it will prove to be a blessing in disguise. Sometimes in life we see loved ones experience sickness or disability and although we pray for a physical cure, the mystery of suffering dumbfounds us when they do not get better. Yet, I am sure many of us have known folk who were never physically cured, but they were certainly healed before they went home to God.

There is a certain peace and hope that can be untouched by physical sickness. We pray for this kind of healing always. The Samaritan who returned to thank Jesus shows us the way to this healing. At mass today, let us be sure to return to Jesus to thank him for what he has done for us and ask for help to overcome our barriers.

The battle for our souls

Feast of the Holy Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael
2 October 2016
Deacon Les Ruhrmund

St Michael is mentioned by name five times in Scripture: three times in the Book of Daniel in the OT and twice in the NT in the Letter from Jude and the Book of Revelation to John.

Following these biblical references Christian tradition believes thatSt.Michael has four responsibilities:

And so it is that in art and sculpture St Michael is usually depicted either killing the dragon representing the defeated figure of Satan or holding a pair of scales in which he weighs the souls of the departed – though this is much less common than St Michael the protector and the leader of the army of God against the forces of evil.

The dichotomy of good and evil has challenged the minds of great thinkers, philosophers, scientists and theologians from the beginning of recorded time and there are many divergent points of view and theories. But on one thing everyone agrees. Evil is real.

In our Christian worldview, evil is any action, thought or attitude that is contrary to the character or will of God. Evil shows itself through deviation from what we believe to be the goodness of God.

St Thomas Aquinas defines evil as the absence of good.

We are engaged continuously in the fight of good against evil;light against the powers of darkness; spiritual warfare.

It’s a difficult and constant struggle. St Paul writes about this in his letter to the Romansin chapters 7& 8.Paraphrasing his words he writes “For even though the desire to do good is in meI do the evil I do not want to do it.….. Who will recue me from this mortal body? ….The answer, thank God, is that Jesus can and does……. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!”

The most potent weapons of war we have against the devil are in easy reach. There’s prayer as a conscious way of rejecting the seduction of temptation to satisfy our anger, frustrations and selfish desires. We have the grace of the Sacraments, and particularly the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist. And we’re armed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we received in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.

I find that reflecting on the seven deadly sins is a good way to check myown battle status.

The first deadly sin is pride which makes us believe that we’re better than other people. Are we not inclined sometimes to judge people of other races or religionsor lifestyles of which we disagree or disapprove?We use derogatory phrases like “you can’t trust the Arabs …or the Chinese ….or the Blacks ….or the Whites ….or homosexuals, or Muslims or Jews, or the French, etc., etc.”

We forget that every human being, of every shape, size and colour, nationality and religion, abled and disabled alike, is a beloved son or daughter of God.We insult God when we berate any one of his beloved.

Envy is another deadly sin. Perhaps there are times when we resent others who have more money, talent, beauty, friends, personalityand so on than we do.May even resent those who are happier or more joyful than we are.

The next is lust which presents enormous challenges throughout our lives. Lust is the abuse of the gift of our sexuality. It’s normal, healthy and essential that we find other people attractive. Without that attraction we’d not be able to enjoy personalrelationships. All relationships are dependent on the gift of our sexuality; that includes parents, siblings, spouses, friends, family and lovers. It’s when we image or treat others, in fantasy or reality, as mere objects to serve our pleasure that we’re playing with fire and courting the deadly sin of lust.

And then there’s anger. I think being a parent teaches us much about the futility of anger. Anger is a normal human response over which we sometimes have little control. But we can control what we do after we’ve become angry. Yearning for revenge or an opportunity to get even or thoughts of hate or a desire to see someone suffer,are all serious sins of anger.

Gluttony is next and most of us have probably fallen victim to this at one time or another. Gluttony is choosing to over-consume; this could be food or drink. Both are good for us in moderation.But over eating or drinking to the point of drunkenness is gluttony. Legitimate eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, aren’t gluttony. They’re medical conditions and require treatment and care.

Greedis the selfish desire for more, more and still more; often prioritising material wealth and possessions ahead of nurturing our relationship with God and our family. I’m reminded of a quote from Warren Buffet, the American multi-billionaire and one of the wealthiest people on earth who when asked how much is enough replied “When I have just a little more than I have now.”

The last deadly sin is sloth which is laziness – particularly when it concerns prayer and spiritual life. Sloth is an aversion to work –physical, mental and spiritual and often breeds indifference which impedesjoy and appreciation in every aspect of our lives.

If we’re not vigilant we easily fall into habits and behaviours that are contrary to God’s commandments of love.

We are engaged in a furious fight for our souls.

Quoting from the First Letter of Peter (1 Peter 5:8) “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”

Jesus has won the war but we each need to choose for ourselves to win the daily battle for our souls.

We implore the Holy Archangel Michael “St Michael Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protector against the wickedness and snares of the devil.”

Our Father

17th Sunday Ordinary Time
Year C
24 July 2016
Deacon Les Ruhrmund

The dialogue between Abraham and God that we heard in the first reading is a rather enjoyable example of Oriental bargaining at its best but the underlying concerns are serious. The question of justice is at stake: Is it just to destroy the innocent, as few as they may be, along with the majority who are guilty? Is God unfair in threatening to destroy the whole town of Sodom? If we read on further we get a vivid glimpse of the wretched wickedness of the people of Sodom that initiated the outcry against them. Two messengers are sent to Sodom by God to access the situation for themselves and after being welcomed by Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and invited into his home, we’re told that all the townspeople, young and old alike without exception, gather at Lot’s house and demanded that the two visitors be handed over to them for their sexual pleasure. Read chapter 19 of the Book of Genesis to find out what happened next.

And so is God unfair?

Philip Yancey, the widely read contemporary Christian author, suggests that “We seem to have an instinctive expectation that life ought to be fair and that God should somehow do a better job of running the world.”We are living in a particularly difficult and unfair world at the moment. Wherever one looks the ugly spectre of evil is visible instilling fear and hatred; not only on the battle fields of war but in the very heart of civil society; shopping centres, promenades and places where people meet to have fun and enjoy themselves.

Commonly Christians respond to life’s unfairness not by denying it but by watering it done. They search for some hidden motive or reason behind the ugliness of suffering in the world. We say things like “God is trying to teach us something and we should welcome this opportunity to lean on him and deepen our faith” And as you’ve heard me say before – I think statements like this are just unhelpful and nonsense. God is not a puppet master.

We have to see beyond the physical reality of this world to the spiritual reality that is God. While Jesus was in the world he was not of the world. And while God is in the world, he is not of the world. If we confuse God with the physical reality of life on earth – by expecting constant good health or good fortune for example- we’re setting ourselves up for huge disappointment. If we can develop a relationship with God apart from our life circumstances then we’ll truly learn to trust God despite all the unfairness of life.

We know well the story of Jesus. Was life ‘fair’ to him? The Cross demonstrates vividly that life is not always fair. The Cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, a God of sacrificial love.

Throughout his life on earth, Jesus maintained a close, trusting and loving relationship with God the Father. A relationship that was nurtured and sustained by prayer.All through the Gospels we have references to Jesus praying. He prayed alone and in public; he prayed before meals and before important decisions; before healing and after; and he prayed to do the Father’s will.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus teaches us how to pray. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is only 38 words and is shorter than Matthew’s, but teaches us all we need to know about how to pray and what to pray for.

The very first word is the essence of all prayer: “Father”, “Abba”, “Daddy”, “Papa”.

In a recent homily Pope Francis said: “Without speaking, without feeling this word ‘Father’, praying is not possible. To whom do I pray? The almighty God? He is too far away. I don’t feel him; neither did Jesus feel him. To whom do I pray? The God of the cosmos? This is quite frequent nowadays, isn’t it? Praying to the cosmic God. This polytheistic model comes with a superficial culture. Rather, we must pray to the Father, who begot us. But this is not all: we must pray “our” Father,that is, not the Father of a generic and too anonymous ‘all’, but the One who begot you, who gave you life, who gave life to you and me.

“It’s through this Father” he says “that we receive our identity as children. And when I say ‘Father’ this goes right to the roots of my identity: my Christian identity is to be his child and this is a grace of the Holy Spirit.  Nobody can say ‘Father’ without the grace of the Spirit. ‘Father’ is the word that Jesus used in the most important moments: when he was full of joy, or emotion: ‘Father, I bless you for revealing these things to little children.’ Or weeping, in front of the tomb of his friend Lazarus: ‘Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer,’ or else at the end, in the final moments of his life, right at the very end ‘Father (Abba, Dad, Papa) into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Unless we feel that we are his children, without considering ourselves as his children, without saying ‘Father,’ our prayer is a pagan one, it’s just a prayer of words. If we are not able to begin our prayer with this word, our prayer will go nowhere.”

I think the brevity of the Lord’s Prayer is also very relevant. There is no need to fill our prayers with hundreds of words and noise; sometimes even trying to tell God what to do. The Lord knows what is in our hearts and what we want to say.

The Lord’s Prayer is a perfect formula and covers all our needs in life.

We should start prayer always addressing our loving Father in intimacy, awe, reverence, love and trust. Then we pray for our daily needs; not the needs of an unknown, uncertain future but our needs for today. We then pray for forgiveness of our past sins for surely every one of us has failed somewhere along the way to love God and love our neighbour. And finally we pray for the strength and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to resist the many temptations and seductions in a secular world that leads us away from God; away from love.

We cannot escape the evils of an unfair world but trusting in“Our Father”we can make the world a better place.

TAKE UP YOUR CROSS

12th Sunday Ordinary Time
Cycle C
19th June 2016
Luke 9: 18-24
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

There is no stock answer to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?” Each and every day we all have to answer that question by the life style decisions we make; a willingness to be identified as Christ’s disciples; and our practice of self-denial for the welfare of others.

It is hard to imagine how one can become a routine Christian or a Christian in name only, if each day Jesus stands alongside us; and we must consider the response we will make. Discipleship is not a decision we make only once in our lives, or as an issue arising only when we are being severely tested. Responding to Jesus is a commitment that happens on a daily basis.

Jesus specified the kind of messiah He would be. He would be the suffering servant to all and give His life to overcome our pre-occupations, indifference, isolation and our submission to evil and sin, by personally taking on that sin and even death to set us free.

We, who declare our faith in Jesus, must then put our lives on the line the way Jesus did for us. Being His disciple is not a part time job; like something we become by just coming to mass on Sunday and occasionally doing a few good deeds during the week. Taking up the cross isn’t a part time practice we do on Good Friday, or when we are feeling strong and resilient. Nor is sacrifice in Jesus’ name something reserved for some specially selected martyrs whose names are inscribed on Christian monuments. Instead, Jesus says losing our lives for His sake; which means surrendering ourselves to Him, must be daily. It is not a part time religion; it’s a full-time following for all disciples!

Jesus asks us all to take up our cross daily and follow Him.

And this is the cross in Jesus’ invitation, “If anyone would come after me…”

This cross is not the suffering against which we have no options.

It is the cross we are free to pick up or put down; the cross that gives us the courage to stand out from the crowd and be brave enough to show our fidelity to Christ and His teachings.

Jesus did say that following Him means accepting a special suffering.

Fr Ron Rolheiser, in this weekend’s Southern Cross, puts the question that we might want to ask.

Why? Why should suffering enter into our lives more deeply because we take Jesus seriously? Shouldn’t the opposite be true? Does true religion somehow stand against our natural exuberance? Is suffering deep and joy superficial? And, what does this say about God? Is God masochistic? Does God want and demand our suffering? Why is a certain inflow of pain necessary for us to take God seriously? Pain will flow into us more deeply when we take God seriously not because God wants it or because pain is somehow more blessed than joy. None of these. Suffering and pain are not what God wants; they’re negatives, to be eliminated in heaven. But, to the extent that we take God seriously, they will flow more deeply into our lives because in a deeper opening to God we will stop falsely protecting ourselves against pain and become much more sensitive so that life can flow more freely and more deeply into us. In that sensitivity, we will stop unconsciously manipulating everything so as to keep ourselves secure and pain-free. Simply put, we are likely to experience deeper pain in our lives because, being more sensitive, we will be experiencing everything more deeply.

The opposite is also true. If someone, is so thick skinned, and so insensitive to life in general, their own insensitivity will surely immunize them against many sufferings and the pain of others will rarely disturb their peace of mind. Of course, they won’t experience personal meaning and joy very deeply either, but that’s the price tag for insensitivity. Fr Rolheiser writes that because of His extraordinary sensitivity; Jesus in His human state was simply not able to protect Himself against pain. He felt things more deeply and consequently was more liable to physical pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, more affected by love and hate; less able to protect himself against the pain of betrayal.

Self-denial and the taking up of the cross is a serious and often difficult decision. But it is a decision we must make; for each of us must respond to Jesus Christ in verbal testimony and in the testimony of our lives. Thankfully we are not on our own to answer Jesus’ question. We are graced by the constant presence of the Holy Spirit and guided in how we answer that vital question as we start each new day.

Ref: Fr Ron Rolheiser: Why Faith can make us suffer.

Southern Cross. 19th June 2016

Our Lady of the Flight into Egypt

Cycle C
Matthew 2: 13-15,19-23
Tony van Vuuren

This weekend we are celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of the Flight into Egypt; the Patronal Feast of the Archdiocese of Cape Town.

Through the Gospel reading we revisit the nativity scene after the Magi have departed, but now with the emphasis on Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus having to travel the sorrowful road of exile, in search of refuge in a foreign country.

We don’t usually picture the Holy Family as political refugees. But that’s exactly what they were. Jesus, even before he could walk, became a fugitive from the murderous jealousy of a corrupt ruler.

Unfortunately, the reality of refugee people is still very much part of today’s world. Millions of families still encounter this sad reality and we need to keep them in our prayers. In recent years there has been more movement of the earth’s people to find safety and a dignified life for themselves and their families than at any time in its history. The flow of thousands of refugees per day out of Syria and other zones of suffering in the Middle East shows no signs of letting up. For them the threat of death is a constant reality; as it was for the child Jesus being sought by Herod’s soldiers.

The celebration of Christmas is some six weeks behind us and we are well into what deems to be a difficult year in more ways than one. Has the Nativity story already lost its spiritual impact?  Let me suggest a way of praying that may revitalize the story of the birth of Jesus and give it meaning for our lives.

Why not take another look at Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and, in prayer, enter into their story.  They are the Holy Family but they are after all a flesh and blood family and let’s consider their situation when Jesus is born.

Start with the baby Jesus, an infant physically vulnerable and dependent on others for nurture and security.  God through the mystery of the incarnation chose to enter our human world not as a full blown, powerful hero, but as an infant, totally dependent on others for his well being.

How does this truth affect our image and relationship with God?  Can we relate to his vulnerability and dependence?  Perhaps some of us have to rely on the help of others to get by?  Do we resent our dependence on them, do we resent our weakness that requires help?  Are we grateful though for the kindness of others? Especially within our families! Recall Pope Francis once asked us “to remember the 3 key phrases for a life of peace and joy in the family: excuse me, thank you, and I’m sorry.

Consider Mary, how confused and tired she would feel after the pain and discomfort of pregnancy, the long, harrowing journey from Galilee, giving birth in poor, makeshift surroundings; and then almost immediately having to endure another long journey with her child into exile. When she said yes to God she could never have believed it would be like this.  It may be difficult to understand how readily Mary, God’s Masterpiece, accepted without question the sorrows that she was faced with.

Can we do that? Can we kneel at the foot of the cross at any time and accept and believe that Christ is our redemption? And then getup and carry our cross?
Consider Joseph the quiet man of the Gospels.  What a sense of responsibility he must have felt for Mary and the baby.  Joseph was willing to live by his faith in God’s promise, a man willing to take serious risks. It is Joseph who listens to his dreams and takes his family to safety, leaving his own life behind. A stressful time for this righteous man. It is Joseph who listens again and returns to Nazareth to begin a new life with his family.

What message does this aspect of the story have for us?  Perhaps we feel that we personally are being threatened by an evil and are in danger.  Maybe some of us are in a relationship that is not healthy, one in which we are being abused in some way, one that enslaves us and causes us harm mentally or physically.  Maybe someone is struggling with an addiction. If so, then in this Gospel story God may be urging us to flee from this evil and start life anew.

Our reflection on the Holy Family in exile lets us also be drawn by the simplicity of the life they come to lead, on their return to Nazareth, for the next thirty years. No matter what the horrors and uncertainty of the time in Egypt were, the interactions among Joseph, Mary and Jesus, as he grew older, must have remained respectful and loving. It is an example that is good for our families; because whatever the circumstances, when the tough times come, and indeed they will, the shouldering of the problems can be done by all with love.

Let us try to imitate Mary; talking to our Lord, conversing like two people in love, about everything that happens to us, even the most insignificant incidents. Nor should we forget that we have to weigh those words and reflections, consider their value and see them with the eyes of faith, in order to discover the will of God; and if our faith is weak we must turn to Mary for guidance.

Revisiting the Nativity story through today’s Gospel may take on greater meaning and import if we look to the real life struggles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We are invited to live in hope, trusting in a God who is with us in every aspect of life. Entering into the scenes through prayer also means entering into the lives of fully human people, whose experiences can enable us to deepen our relationship with God, who is near us, with us and one of us.