Sunday 18th Year of Ordinary Time

During these chilly winter days, many of us, before we venture outside, will put on what is known as a ‘topcoat’ or an ‘overcoat’.

On most occasions, this garment is worn over or on top of the clothes I am already wearing, thus providing an extra layer for warmth and protection from the cold and/or the rain.

A phrase used by St Paul with a degree of frequency is the phrase, “clothe yourself in Christ.” The phrase occurs in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, again in his Letter to the Philippians, in 2Corinthians, and today’s second reading from the letter to the Church at Colossae.

Few of us would consider taking an item of clothing off before we put our outdoor coat on – hence the name “overcoat”. The result is certainly improved warmth. However, it can also mean an increased bulkiness and a somewhat increased weight for our shoulders to carry.

St. Paul’s admonition to put on Christ, I suggest, is not as an overcoat on top of everything else; rather, as he says to us in today’s Second Reading, to the Church community at Colossae, “ you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves in the new self.” (Col. 3: 9 – 10).

Maybe, we are being invited to become snake-like. Snakes shed their skin as much as four times a year. Put simply; snakes shed their skin because it doesn’t fit anymore or because it’s old or worn out. While the snake’s body continues to grow, its skin does not.  The snake will rub its head on something abrasive—like a rock—to tear open the outer layer. It then works on the tear, crawling through tight quarters, sliding out of the skin, leaving the old skin inside out, much like a child peeling off a sock.

There may be a metaphor here as we journey in our life in Christ – to put on Christ, we may need to take something off. There may be a protective layer which is beyond its use by date and prevents the “life of Christ” from being worn!

This is not easy because it has been a ‘protective layer’, and I surmise we are all after protection. To remove our “old self”, as St Paul describes the process, again, we might learn from the snake – it needs to crawl through tight spaces, rub up against something abrasive, and in doing so, the skin is peeled away. A thought, rather than running away from abrasive moments and tight spots, we welcome them as clearing spaces for the old. The intriguing element of the snake shedding its skin is that the new skin is present under the old. That abrasive moment or tight spot may well be the growing and revealing spot. The “life of Christ” is already present. Unfortunately, I am clothed too much to know!

The Irish author and poet John O’Donohue wrote, “The greatest privilege of a human life is to become a midwife to the birth of the soul.”

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

In our First Reading this Sunday we continue with our reading from the Book Of Genesis. I would like to take you back to our Frist Reading from last Sunday from which this Sunday’s follows on.

In the story (Gen. 18: 1 – 8), “The Lord” appears to Abraham as “three men.” Abraham and Sarah seem to see the Holy One in the presence of these three, and they bow before them and call them “my lord” (18:2-3

Their first instinct is one of invitation and hospitality—to create a space of food and drink for their guests. Here we have humanity feeding God; it will take a long time to turn that around in the human imagination. “Surely, we ourselves are not invited to this divine table,” the hosts presume.

This story inspired a piece of devotional religious art by iconographer Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century: The Hospitality of Abraham, as it was originally named, or simply The Trinity as it has come to known. As icons do, this painting attempts to point beyond itself, inviting a sense of both the beyond and the communion that exists in our midst

The icon shows the Holy One in the form of Three, eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves. They are eating because Abraham and Sarah have provided food for them. They all share from a common bowl provided for them. Notice the hand of one of the figures points toward the open and fourth place at the table. Is this hand inviting, offering, and clearing space? I think so! And if so, for what, and for whom?

There is room at this table for a fourth! The hospitality begun by Abraham and Sarah is continued by the three gathered around the table, “Come, sit and eat with us!” That may well be at the heart of our Eucharistic liturgy, “Come, sit, and eat with us!” Is there space at our table for another?

Icons are often referred to as windows, as an opening.    If you look on the front of the table, there appears to be a little rectangular hole which you can hardly notice. Art historians say that there was perhaps once a mirror glued onto the front of the table!  If so, then maybe Rublev had in mind the words of St. Paul: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (icon).” (2 Cor. 3:18). Those who looked at the icon when it was first written would have seen themselves reflected in the icon.  They would not just be looking at an icon, or looking beyond it as through a window, but they would see themselves being invited to join those already gathered around the table.

Andrei Rublev wrote The Hospitality of Abraham in 1411 for the abbot of the Trinity Monastery in Russia. The icon is currently held in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

16th Sunday of Ordinary time

This Sunday’s Gospel from St Luke (10: 38 – 42) recalls for us the story of Jesus visit to the house of Martha and Mary. Some no doubt will immediately take the line that Martha was the active type and Mary the passive or contemplative type, and that Jesus is simply affirming the importance of both and even the priority of devotion to him.

That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story.

However, there is more in the story; a brave preacher may offer a reflection on rule-flouting!

Far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions. It is as though, in today’s world, you were to invite me to stay in your house and, when it came to go to bed, I was to put up a camp bed in your bedroom. We have our own clear but unstated rules about whose space is which; so, did they. And Mary has just flouted them. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is ‘sitting at his feet’; a phrase which doesn’t mean what it would mean today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. To sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself. A position entirely unthinkable for a woman in the social order of Jesus’ time.

Each of these preaching stances is valid.

I am going to suggest a third, and it is imaged for me in the painting I have chosen by the Dutch artist (1632 – 1675). Vermeer is best known, surely, for his painting titled “Girl with the Blue Earring”, and his works are among the greatest treasures in the world’s finest museums. Vermeer began his career in the early 1650s and one of his earliest works is a large-scale biblical scene with the title “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”.  The artwork dates from 1654 and hangs in the National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.


Vermeer’s representation of the theme is focused totally on the three figures. Christ, because of his gesture and the soft glow that radiates from his head, is the dominant figure. Martha leans over to hear his words while Mary sits by his feet, her head resting on her hand.

There is an intimacy of persons in the scene; they obviously know each other well; the relaxed pose of Jesus and his comfort around women is evident. This may well be a lesson for us men, and especially clergy, today, namely to grow in our relationship with women from a position of equality. In Vermeer’s painting, the relaxed posture of Jesus only makes sense because of the presence of Martha and Mary. Jesus is bodily present to each of them. All three are in the same room, and in a sense occupy the same space in an acknowledging and relaxed way. There does not appear to be any competition for superiority in their stance.

Also, Vermeer has both women in a poise of listening – we sometimes have a busy Martha, running around in the kitchen with pots clanging and the fire-spitting in the range!

There is, too, a small detail, within the text, that, at times we can overlook, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” (10:38). Did you spot it? ‘Welcomed him into her home’ – the home belonged to Martha! Our growing into a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus begins with our ‘welcoming [him] into our home’!

Sunday 15th of Ordinary Time

“The Good Samaritan,” together with the story of the Prodigal Son,  may well be the most-read stories/parables Jesus ever told.

It is somewhat intriguing that for all their drama, both parables are recalled only by the author of the Gospel of Luke!

We are familiar enough with the story of the Good Samaritan; a man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, is accosted by robbers, who strip, beat him, and leave him for dead. A priest and Levite are travelling the same road, come to the spot where the man lay and “passed by on the other side” (vv. 31, 32). A Samaritan, also travelling the same road, comes upon the man, and as the text says, “was moved with pity”, and the rest as they say ‘is history’.

What would have leapt out at the first hearers of this story was that Jesus subverted his hearers’ expectations by explaining that it was a Samaritan who helped the man.

Samaritans were known as the ones who would rob Jews on this road as they went “up” to Jerusalem from Jericho for their holy days. The listeners would have not only expected a Samaritan to be unsympathetic to the plight of the victim, but they would also have expected the Samaritan to be the perpetrator!

The Dutch impressionist Vincent Van Gogh painted this Gospel scene.

On May 8, 1889, exhausted, ill, and out of control, Vincent Van Gogh committed himself to St Paul’s psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a small hamlet in the south of France.

A former monastery, the sanatorium was located in an area of cornfields, vineyards and olive trees.

There Van Gogh was allowed two small adjoining cells with barred windows.

One room he used as his bedroom, and the other was his tiny studio.

While there, Van Gogh not only painted the surrounding area and the interior of the asylum, but he also copied paintings and drawings by other artists, making those paintings his own through modifications he made to the painting’s composition, the colours and of course, the brush strokes.

Van Gogh copied and modified Delacroix’s painting of The Good Samaritan.

When Van Gogh was admitted to the sanatorium he had become so difficult, so sick that the townspeople of Arles, where he had been living and painting had given him the name “the red-headed madman.”

Take a look at the ‘good Samaritan’ struggling to lift the wounded man onto his mount – looks very much like “the red-headed madman” from Arles!

And many commentators agree it is!

Van Gogh has assumed the role of the good Samaritan – and when you read a comprehensive biography of Van Gogh, this helping of the downtrodden is not unusual.

Van Gogh had an extraordinary compassionate side to his person.

“The word compassion literally means ‘to suffer with”.

Despite his reputation for madness, Vincent Van Gogh was a compassionate and faith-filled man.

While involved in missionary work among the impoverished population of the Borinage, a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium.

There, in the winter of 1879–80, he experienced the first great spiritual crisis of his life.

Living among the poor, he gave away all his worldly goods in an impassioned moment; he was thereupon dismissed by church authorities for a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching.

Many of us have our favourite Gospel story – what does this story say about me?

Am I somewhere there?

Also, we may well have a story which is our least favourite – equally, we do well to ask, does this particular story expose a part of who I am that I would prefer to remain hidden?