Journey of Faith Paperback edition

A paperback edition of my last series of articles is now available in paperback from Amazon. Just in time for Holy Week.

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The Way of the Cross -8 My August Column

The weeping women

Weep not for me

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

In this series of articles I’m looking at the way of the Cross and I’m trying to find the meaning behind it; the message for us. This is a curious incident on that final journey. Who were these women/ Why were they weeping and why does Jesus speak to them in the way he does? It’s very strange and it needs looking into.

I looked into the gospel accounts to see what I could find there. The only mention of this comes in Luke’s gospel.

Large numbers of people followed him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ’Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the days will surely come when people will say, “Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”; to the hills, “Cover us!” For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?’

Luke 23: 27, 31

The other three evangelists do not mention this incident. Why has Luke picked this out? He must have recognised an important message in this passage. The women in the passage are not the women who followed Jesus from Galilee. They are women of Jerusalem. If they are not followers why are they weeping and why does Jesus seem to discount their sorrow?

The question is one of ritual. Death has many rituals in different societies. In Jewish tradition women would be hired to come and weep and wail at funerals to set the sad, sombre tone of the occasion. This harks back to the story of Rachel whose tears prompted God’s forgiveness. Rituals like this are not uncommon in many societies. In Africa there are many tribes where wailing women are a matter of course.

I recall a story from my friend Father Pat McGuire who was on his first mission station in Ghana when he had to officiate at a funeral. The dead man’s widow jumped into the grave to be with her husband and could not be persuaded to come out. At a loss, Father Pat turned to a local priest for advice. He was told to start filling in the grave. When the first spade of earth was put in the woman jumped out. She was following a local ritual.

This may seem strange to us but we do similar things. Do you remember the film Oliver? Oliver was sold to an undertaker and dressed in black with a top hat, a mummer to precede the hearse and set a sad tone. We are still bound by funeral rituals today. We wear black. We have solemn faces, bells toll a solemn message of sadness. Yet, as Christians, we believe that death is the start of our new life in heaven; surely a happy occasion?

Rituals around death are changing in our society as we reject religion and need something in its place. I remember watching the funeral of Princess Diana and being amazed when people began throwing roses on to the hearse. Laying bunches of flowers, teddy bears or football tops on railings or at the roadside has become a ritual to mark the death of a loved one or even someone we barely knew. People are searching for something to replace a religious ritual. Perhaps the religious ritual really held no great meaning for them in the first place.

I am writing this while we are celebrating (?) the start of the First World War, the Great War as the media are calling it again. We have solemn ceremonies of rembrance of those who dies one hundred years ago. There seems to be little remembrance of those politicians who failed to avert a war in the first place. History shows little evidence of lessons learnt from the slaughter as we have managed to keep fighting wars where there need be none.

Is this false ritual what Jesus was referring to when he told the women not to weep for him? The ritual can hide the truth. Jesus’ words refer the women to another part of the Torah, our old testament, where in Jeremiah it says,

You there! Call the mourning women! Let them come! Send for those who are best at it! let them come! Let them lose no time in raising the lament for us! Let our eyes rain tears, our eyelids run with weeping! Yes, the wail is to be heard from Zion, what ruin is ours, what utter shame!

Jeremiah 9:16,19

 

This is in the face of the punishment that God is to wreak on the Israelites for forsaking the law.The passage about calling on the mountains to fall on us is a reference to another scriptural passage. This one is from Hosea 10:8 warning the Israelites of the punishment God will mete out for their unfaithfulness. Perhaps Jesus is warning the Jews of what is to befall them after rejecting him as the Messiah.

Jesus is the green wood in the quote. He brought the completion of the covenant between God and man a new covenant. The Jews rejected him and stuck with the dry wood, the incomplete covenant. This would not be immediately obvious to the people. After the crucifixion the Jewish religion continued and does to this day. Christianity started small and grew slowly.

The message in Luke’s gospel is really one for us. He is warning us about adopting rituals which, though not bad in themselves, can hide the real message. What do I mean by that? Let’s look at ritual in our Christian lives. Going to mass on a Sunday is a good place to start.

When I was a boy (not really that long ago, surely) we were taught that the obligation was to assist at the sacrifice of the mass. That is a wee bit more than just being there. At the consecration we are witnessing something extraordinary. The bread and wine becomes the second person of the Trinity. Lights don’t flash. There is no booming voice from heaven. Never the less we come into the presence of Jesus, our saviour. This is impossible for us to understand fully. It requires our belief. How do we react to this?

Reactions vary. Some people talk through this part of the mass. Some read the parish bulletin. Some kneel and appear devout but might be thinking about something else. Some are praying in the presence of the Lord. I’m not making any judgements here. I’m just admitting that the ritual sometimes does not highlight the importance of the moment but can fool us (me included) into thinking we have got it right. If we are not offering ourselves with the bread and wine, if we are not joining in the sacrifice at the consecration then we are missing the point.

The rituals are good. They are the signposts that can keep us on the right track, alert us to something important. When we forget to recognise what the ritual is alerting us to then we have lost the plot. We are like the weeping women. The Pharisees were hot on ritual and you know what Jesus thought of them.

This is not about ‘going to communion’ and then carrying on with things as normal. This is our opportunity to accept Jesus into our lives and give that life to him in our sacrifice. We should be going out of church on a mission. We should be out to change the world, starting small, growing slowly. Changing ourselves and becoming an influence on others by our example.

In this station I have learned something Luke wanted to tell us about ritual. We must be able to recognise Jesus there and be alert to his presence in our lives.

 

Joseph McGrath

My August Column – Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem

The weeping women

Weep not for me

My August column is published today in the Scottish Catholic Observer.

The eighth station – Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem. Who were these women and what were they really weeping about? Why do they get a mention today after almost two thousand years?

Is there a message here for any of us? Get the paper this weekend and see for yourself.

Don’t worry if you miss it. The full text will be available here next Friday (5th September). There is a lot more in the paper though.

Joseph

The Way of the Cross 1

Strangers to Christianity often wonder at the symbolism we use. The cross is a reminder of Christ’s violent and ignominious death, a failure in human terms. Similarly, the way of the cross must seem strange to them. We follow the last steps of Jesus as He carries His cross to the place of execution. Why would we wish to remember that?

Of course, as Christians, we understand the significance of this event and we are charged to take up our cross and follow. The Stations of the Cross which we are familiar with originated in the Via Dolorosa followed by pilgrims to Jerusalem. They retraced the path Jesus followed to His crucifixion.

Today we are following a tradition which is reputed to have started with Saint Francis of Assisi who made this a devotion in churches. We don’t need to go to Jerusalem to retrace Our Lord’s last steps we can do it in our own parish. It is so much an accepted part of Catholic life that I have never given much thought to its origins or deeper meanings.

This time last year I was making my preparations for my attempt at the Camino, a testing pilgrimage. When I set off eventually I passed through Lourdes and had a passing thought about starting from there. The train moved off and the thought went. At the end of last year I returned to Lourdes for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a less strenuous pilgrimage.

On that feast day we had Mass in the grotto followed by The Stations in the underground basilica. We were led by Father John Ahern and his commentary had a lasting effect on me. The basilica was dark and cold on that December morning. Perhaps the strange surroundings led me to think again about the Stations as a pilgrimage.

That’s where I’m going this year. I’m going to take each station in turn and see what I find. I hope you can come along.

The First Station – Jesus is condemned to death

I start by looking at what we are told in the Gospels. All four evangelists agree that Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. They go to some length to show that Pilate was reluctant to do this. He said he could find no case against Jesus that merited death. The crowd applied pressure. They howled him down. They applied political threats. They claimed that Jesus’ claim to be a king was a threat to Caesar, Pilate’s boss.

Pilate reluctantly gave in and condemned Jesus to death. In Matthew’s gospel we learn that he washes his hands of Jesus’ blood. Matthew goes further to tell us that the people say “Let his blood be on us and our children.”

So who is guilty of Jesus’ death? The debate resurfaces from time to time. In recent years the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of The Christ” caused furore and accusations of anti-Semitism. Were the Jews to blame or was it the Romans? It is an interesting debate, but I think it misses the point. I was always taught that Jesus died for our sins. He died to redeem us. If there is any blame going then some of it must, surely come my way.

The focus of this station is not on who is to blame. We are asked to look at this situation and imagine what we would have done if we had been there. If I was one of the crowd would I have cried out “Crucify him!” just like the others? It might have proved to be a dangerous thing to do.

If I had been in Pontius Pilate’s place how would I have reacted? Pilate was a powerful man. He had a Roman army at his disposal. He could have sorted out the crowd easily. Pilate was governor to calm down Jerusalem. He didn’t want to stir up crowds. He knew Jesus was innocent and a victim of jealousy. Would I have acted differently? Would I stand up for truth in the face of displeasing my ruler and probably losing my job?

Well, that was then and this is today. It would be easy to say I would have been a man of principle and would have stood for justice. What would I do in a similar situation today? There are innocent people suffering and dying in unjust situations. In Africa there are poor farmers who will remain poor no matter how hard they work because the price of the tea or coffee they grow is decided by the dealers in the rich countries. I buy that tea and coffee. When am I standing up against injustice?

Asylum seekers in our country face inhuman treatment sometimes. I read today of an eighty four year old man in a detention centre for asylum seekers who died in handcuffs. Doctors had declared him to be unfit for detention or deportation but he died, having been in handcuffs for almost five hours. When did I stand up and speak out against inhuman treatment of people in my country?

Some might cite the abortion scandal in our country as another example of killing the innocent while we ignore it. In the light of these things I’m not sure that I could claim to act any differently than Pilate or the crowd who condemned Jesus. Perhaps that’s the point of the first station. It invites us to look, not at Pilate and the crowd, but at ourselves.

The Way of the Cross is a pilgrimage of sorts and it should enable me to see things in a different light. It should enable me to see myself more clearly, let me see who I really am. I think I must take stock and decide whether I want to be one of the crowd or stand up for justice.

Fortunately there are ways of taking action now that may not have been available in the past. If I want to take action against injustice I can join one of the many groups or organisations that combat injustice. I can become a campaigner with Justice and Peace or help organisations that work to help the poor like Mission Matters or Aid to the Church in need. I could volunteer to work for the poor with the Society of Saint Vincent De Paul.

There are lots of ways I could stand up for justice. One of the most effective ways is, of course, through prayer. Prayer must not be seen as an easy way out. Real prayer is not a quick Hail Mary for the poor. Real prayer for justice must be regular and unceasing. There are lots of prayer options for me. Perhaps I could look back to where I started, in Lourdes. The wee shops opposite the grotto are loaded down with rosaries, and for good reason. Regularly praying the rosary (not the mad dash through the decades) could provide me with an effective and powerful means to stand out from the crowd.

Just as importantly, I must become more observant. I should be able to spot injustice, be it at work, at home or in the public arena. I must become prepared to do something about it.

Joseph McGrath

My New Series Starts Today

My monthly column in the Scottish Catholic Observer starts again with a new series on the Way of The Cross. This follows on from last year’s series on a Journey of Faith.

How much do you know about the Way of The Cross? In this series I’ll be looking at what meaning it holds for me. Why not join me every fourth fFriday in the month?

The full text will appear here next week, as usual.

My November Column Full Text – What Faith Does For You

The Year of Faith - a Voyage of Discovery

The Year of Faith – a Voyage of Discovery

This year I’ve been considering the Year of Faith and what we are called to do for the Faith. This month I’d like to have a look at the benefits the Faith brings to us. I’ve heard people talk of the obligations that faith places on us and how it restricts their lives. Their lives would be freer and happier without these restrictions. I must confess that I’ve never felt that way but I know others who have abandoned their faith in search of something better.

It set me thinking about how faith can be a benefit rather than a handicap. Can faith free us rather than restrict us? What evidence is there of this? Now, looking for evidence is a scientific technique and that reminded me of the supposed conflict between science and religion. That is where I find my first bit of evidence.

Science, as we know it, began with pioneers such as Nicolaus Copernicus and Isaac Newton. Copernicus declared that all the planets, including the Earth, revolved sound the Sun. At that time it was assumed that the Earth was at the centre and everything revolved round it. Copernicus’ ideas were not welcomed. The prevailing ideas satisfied the needs of farmers in predicting seasonal changes; why change? Copernicus was more interested in getting a better understanding of creation and the God who was responsible for it. His ideas proved to be correct. Today we talk of the Solar System, planets held in orbit round the Sun.

Newton set out to explain the working of the solar system. He gave a mathematical proof of his theory explaining how bodies move. Both of these men were contradicting accepted wisdom. They contradicted theories that worked well. They were driven by their belief in a God who created everything; a God who made it possible for us to understand what He had done. They were driven by faith to understand God’s creation. This drive resulted in the beginning of Science as we know it.

Their faith freed them to think beyond generally accepted ideas and ultimately changed the way we all think. Rather than restrict us, faith brought about the means for us to understand more.

That’s ok as a general thing, but what benefits can I see on a personal level? This year I have had an experience that gave me an insight into how faith can shape the way we see things and enable us to live life differently. My sister was diagnosed with cancer. This is probably the worst thing anybody wants to hear. It can sound like a death sentence to some, but not my sister.

She accepted the news bravely and faced surgery with a calmness that surprised us all. After the surgery she faced a programme of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. I was lucky enough to accompany her for some of the therapy sessions. I say lucky because it gave me the chance to see people dealing with an extremely difficult situation.

I have to say that I did see some people who were very worried. They faced a threatening situation and medicine, despite all its advances, can never promise everlasting life. My sister took it all in her stride. Losing hair presented no problem, in fact it ended up with three sisters in uncontrollable laughter. Why was this? The simple answer is that her faith gives her an understanding of life beyond the here and now. She knows that life is a gift from a loving God who will not abandon her.

Her faith enables her to live a normal life in the face of extreme danger. She has been a wonderful example of the benefits of our faith.

To see life through the window of God’s love allows us to deal with the changes in our lives. This time last year I was a carefree young man in his sixties. Today I am a grandfather of three boys. What a change! No more clubbing for me. But what a great gift they are. I was apprehensive about the recent birth of two boys, identical twins. They were born more than seven weeks premature. One of the boys had been lying in a position that restricted his growth and that prompted the early delivery.

To see two small boys, still not fully developed, in their incubators brought home to me the nature of this gift of life. Despite the difficulties they faced and with the wonderful help of the NHS professionals they are growing well. Human life is no accident. All our children are a gift to us. They are the future of humanity. Each one has been created by God and each one has a purpose.

What has that to do with faith? Well, we live in a society that increasingly chooses to disregard God’s purpose in creating us. Our faith shows us God’s hand in creation. Absence of faith in God leaves the purpose of each human being with a question mark. Why should a child with a serious disability be allowed to live? Why should old or seriously ill people be allowed to suffer?

In our society we hear of thousands of abortions being carried out. We hear reports of abuse of old people in care homes. We know of people travelling abroad to places where they can legally commit suicide. I hear that another bill has been presented before the Scottish Parliament to change the law here in that respect. Respect for life seems to be an old concept, out of place in our society.

This seems to me to be the great example of the difference that the faith brings. When we have faith in God we see things through His teaching. We know that God has a purpose in creation and even if we don’t fully understand that purpose we feel sure that it is right. Lack of faith leaves an emptiness in us where there is nothing to point us in the right direction. With no purpose in life we don’t see the value of life.

How can we react to current trends? Our response must be to reaffirm the value of each life. Our response will be seen in how we react to threats to life. The recent Typhoon in the Philippines brought a great response from people all over our country. Charities gathered in millions of pounds in a few days. People saw the threat to lives and responded as best they could.

These were not threats to their next door neighbour, but to people at the other end of the world. When we see the worth of complete strangers we are seeing the world as God sees it. We must continue to ask ourselves how we see the needs of others. How do we react to asylum seekers? Do we welcome them or do we see them as a threat? How do we respond to human trafficking, where people are moved around and treated as commodities? Do we see this as modern slavery or are we happy to be able to get cheap goods and services?

As Christians we have been given the gift of faith that enables us to see more clearly the hand of God in our lives. We must make that plain to the world.

Joseph McGrath

My September Column – False Gods

Last month I quoted His Holiness, Pope Francis I, telling us to build the Church. We must be the evangelists spreading the Faith. That sounds exciting and really scary all at the same time. It’s exciting because it places us in the forefront of building the Kingdom of God on earth. It is scary because we don’t really know how to go about it.

A few years ago I was in Liberia with Father Gary Jenkins, an SMA missionary. I was learning about how a mission works, looking at the school, the clinics and the people working there. He was a very experienced missionary and was working in remote villages, bringing the Gospel to people who had never heard the Word.

At that time Liberia was emerging from a disastrous civil war and people were returning to devastated villages to try to pick up the threads of normal life again. I asked Father Gary how he went about introducing people to the Gospel. How do you get them interested? His answer was quite simple. The culture in those African communities was an oral one. Most people could not read and write so everything was in the spoken word. Their culture was passed down through the generations in stories. Father Gary told stories.

His stories were the stories of the Bible. He visited villages and told his stories to generate an understanding of what Christianity was about. He told me that Missionaries did not bring God to Africa. God was already there. The Holy Spirit moved in Africa before the white man and created a thirst for knowledge of God. What was new to Africa was Jesus.

This seemed logical but it all seemed a bit too simple. Father Gary agreed and offered to take me on a visit he was making to a village in the forest where he had started a small Christian group. The village was not too far away but was not easy to reach. We drove off the road and down tracks through the forest until we reached a river. There we were met by a boatman in his dugout canoe.

There were only two men who were allowed to ferry people across the river. He came back and forth until the whole party was across. We found ourselves on the edge of the village and walked in to a great welcome. We celebrated Mass in a hut in the centre of the village before sharing a meal there.

As darkness fell we were treated to a spectacular dance display where Magongo, a forest spirit danced through fire, displaying his power over that element. The boys from the mission who accompanied us stayed close to us in fear. The old religion still carried sway. Magongo is really a man in a suit of grass, not exactly what you would wear to dance through a roaring fire but that’s why it is so impressive.

I wondered what it was about Father Gary that impressed the villagers more than Magongo. It turned out that Magongo is a spirit dedicated to Father Gary and he bowed down before the priest after the dance. Now I was really puzzled. Father Gary eventually told me the story.

He had gone to the village, telling his stories and building a community but there was another group there, an Evangelical group who opposed his presence. They disrupted his attempts to have a Mass in the village and he eventually gave up. He explained to the village chief that the people did not seem to want him there.

That would have been the end of the story but for the start of a new war. The civil war was, as I have said, disastrous for the people. Many fled into displacement camps, seeking safety but often finding very difficult conditions. Father Gary stayed in his post throughout the war and did his best to alleviate the condition of the people and sought aid from many people in the UK. Many of you will have helped him via SIR and Mary’s Meals.

When the war finished and the people were returning a messenger came from the village. The chief wanted Father Gary to come back. He went to the village and asked the chief why he had sent for him. He had tried before but the people had preferred a different group. Why would things be different now?

The chief agreed that the people had been drawn to a different Christian group who had offered prosperity in this life. When the war came that group left. Father Gary had stayed and had continued to work to alleviate their difficult conditions. The people had realised that Father Gary brought more than promises; he brought himself. By his selflessness and good works he had shown them the true meaning of the Gospel message.

It seems to me that it’s not the telling of the story that is important. If we are to build the Church we must be prepared to give ourselves to be used. Evangelisation is the work of the Holy Spirit. We must allow the Spirit to use us to influence other people. We can be an influence by behaving like true Christians in the way we go about our daily lives and in the way we treat others.

Telling the story of Magongo dancing through the fire made me think back to the boys who were afraid of the forest spirit. At the time I was both puzzled and amused. These boys had been boy soldiers in the civil war and had seen dreadful things. They were Christians, firmly believing in one God and yet they still feared this other god.

The apparent weakness of their faith made me think of my own faith in one true god. Do I really have no other gods in my life? If that is the case then why did I make sure I had a lottery ticket last night? If my Faith was strong I would understand that money will not bring me happiness or satisfaction. I tell myself that money is useful and could be used to change the lives of so many poor people. It could do a lot of good.

I’m deluding myself. Millions could be put to good use, but the Gospel message is not about using easy money. It is about the hard reality of sharing the little we have, not the surplus we can’t think how to spend. If I won the lottery would I help the poor before or after buying myself a shiny red sports car?

Yes, there are still some false gods in my life and I need to recognise them for what they are. Only then can I live a life that truly teaches by example. Only then will I be able to live up to the task Christ set for all Christians; to lead the world to Him.

Now I’m not so sure of myself than I was when I started writing this. I need to go off and seek out those other false gods that might be lurking there, somewhere in the back of my mind.

You will find him there. Are there any false gods lurking in your background? They might not be dancing through fire but they could be hiding in that lottery ticket or that bottle of red. Oops, that might be another of mine.

To see the video in YouTube click here