While there is a place for churches and shrines where we can gather as communities to recognise the role of God in our lives, the extraordinary message of the incarnation is that the divine dwelt within Mary and, even now, dwells within each of us, walking the world within our skin. That reality is recognized every time Religious communities of women and men assemble, facing one another, to pray in choir the hours of the Prayer of the Church. By facing one another, they acknowledge the presence of the divine in each other. Jesus is no more present in the tabernacle than he is in each of us.
What we now call the Annunciation has been a favourite subject for artists down through the centuries. However, I suggest that some of them have done us a disservice by sentimentalizing a happening which must have shaken Mary to the core.
So today’s gospel story is for all of us who have found ourselves trying to pick up the pieces after a set-back, hurt or disappointment. But we’ve all had the experience of meeting up with the “stranger on the beach” who turns up unexpectedly and somehow connects with us through a word of encouragement, a smile or an expression of sympathy. For the times when we know failure, emptiness, doubt and uncertainty, this gospel story holds out to us a message of hope.
As I write this reflection, Pope Francis, as if in anticipation of today’s gospel reading, has just released “The Joy of Love” (Amoris Laetitia), an exhortation on family life. The Pope clearly states that the Church - leaders, pastors and all of us - should avoid simply judging people and imposing rules on them without considering their struggles.
The love that Jesus lived was human in shape and expression. We know that when we look at his life and reflect on our own deepest longings. One of the greatest difficulties we have when we look at Jesus is not that he was somehow divine, but that he was relentlessly human. As we take time to reflect on Jesus’ invitation to “love as I have loved you”, we might do well to consider the words of St Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That holds for Jesus every bit as much as it does for us.
To begin with, we are invited to look at a funeral in another very different time and culture, where we are confronted with a funeral procession with a difference, for it is the “funeral” of two people - that of a widowed mother’s only son and of the widowed mother herself! As a widow, this woman knows that she is facing destitution, for, having no right to any inheritance, she has lost her only source of livelihood and will now be totally dependent on charity. With no man left in her family, this woman joins the “walking dead”.
Simon failed to recognize that we are all subject to human frailty, and are in need of forgiveness, healing and compassion. We all hurt and are hurt by others. Yet, we are all invited to be like Jesus and to be instruments of healing for those who struggle, and, at the same time, to acknowledge that we, too, have a need for the kind of acceptance and forgiveness that the woman in today’s gospel finds at the feet of Jesus.
“Dodie and her brother Bill wore the same stuff every day for the first year and a half of high school: black pants and a short-sleeved checked sport shirt for him, a long black skirt, gray knee-socks, and a sleeveless white blouse for her. Some of my readers may not believe I am being literal when I say every day, but those who grew up in country towns during the fifties and sixties will know that I am.
But let’s not forget that penetrating question that Jesus has put to us: “But you - who do you say I am?” It is in answering this question and in pursuing answers to our other deep questions that we will come to discover our identity as Christians and to define who we really are. While they are challenging tasks, let’s not think that Jesus had some short cut to answering his questions and defining for himself who he was. That was part of the cost of being fully human like us.
“We ride bikes for several reasons: First, we don’t have enough money for cars. Second, some villages are only reachable by bike, and lastly, it’s a bit symbolic - the Taliban have at times used bicycles in their bomb attacks, so the message I want to convey is that we can replace this violence with culture…At first I chose very simple books, but now most of the older kids are able to read more serious books - for instance, we’ve got simplified versions of books by Victor Hugo, Jack London, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Samad Behrangi (an Iranian writer) and Ferdowsi (an Iranian poet)…Every time I bring books to children, I try to talk to them about a topic. I mostly talk about the importance of peace, the dangers of drugs and the need for tolerance between people with different beliefs and cultures…These kids lead stressful lives. They live in a society that is full of death and violence…Schools are rarely havens for them - many teachers are uneducated, and dish out physical punishments every day. So we want to keep delivering a bit of joy and calm to their lives through books.”
I suggest the answer is to be found in today’s second reading from Galatians, where Paul points out that the way to discriminate between legitimate excuses and no excuses at all is to be found in whether or not we have genuinely encountered Jesus and his Gospel. Being a disciple of Jesus is a lot more than having a baptismal certificate or a Catholic-school education. But it does have a lot to do with being able to look at ourselves and our world with a God-centred perspective, and acting consistently in accord with that perspective. Paul explains that once we have discovered and experienced the freedom and responsibility that come from knowing Jesus, there is no room for pretending that nonsense, pretense and double standards suddenly make sense. Paul’s words are both eloquent and to the point: “Christ set us free to live a free life. So, take your stand and don’t let anyone put a harness of slavery on you again.” (Galatians 5, 1)
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Now when he was near the gate of the town, there was a dead man being carried out, the only son of his mother and she was a widow. Luke 7, 11-17