Category Archives: Books and Poetry
my book of reflections on Pope Francis’s messages to young people is now available as an “interactive” edition on ITunes for IPads and Macs. The Ebook has all 52 reflections that the hardcopy edition has, but it also has a further 22 video reflections from me about Pope Francis and his conversation with the youth of the world.
I hope this might be a helpful resource for prayer in youth groups and RE classes, as well as for personal reflection. The words of Pope Francis are well worth reflecting upon.
You can get the interactive edition by clicking the link below:
Yesterday I received a royalty cheque from St Pauls, the publishers of In the Light of the Cross. With the cheque came the notification that they have sold the final copies of the book. So there may be the odd copy in bookstores around the country, and I have a small supply left, but otherwise the print run is now exhausted. As the book is closely tied to World Youth Day 08, I’m not envisaging that there will be a second printing.
Fr Tom Rosica, the CEO of WYD Toronto in 2002, once said to me that we need to keep telling the stories of our respective World Youth Days to remind people of the days of grace that we experienced. So with Fr Tom’s encouragement, I hope you find the reflection below on the Triumph of the Cross (today’s Feast) illuminating and inspiring.
Each year on September 14, the Church celebrates the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. We were in Townsville for the actual feast in 2007, but it could sometimes seem like every day was the Triumph of the Cross on the Journey of the Cross and Icon because people frequently chose to celebrate the Mass of the Triumph of the Cross when the WYD Cross came to town.
The First Reading for this feast is strange. It is taken from the book of Numbers and tells the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness. They lose ‘patience’ with God and Moses, complaining that the manna that God had provided was not sufficient. Fiery serpents then ravage the Israelite camp, killing many. At the people’s urging, Moses then intercedes with God to save the people. God tells Moses to make a serpent and raise it on a standard. Moses did as God asked and made a serpent out of bronze and anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent and lived (cf. Num 21:4-9). It seems an odd choice for the First Reading.
One rationale for the choice of this reading is that the Gospel for the feast includes a reference to Moses’ lifting up the serpent in the desert. In the Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:14-15). The Gospel continues with the famous verse: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16).
It might seem then that the reference to Moses in the Gospel and the odd choice of First Reading are just a prelude to this crucial verse. The truth however is stranger and more interesting than that. A helpful key to understanding the relevance and significance of these passages is to remember that the feast being celebrated when we hear these readings is the Triumph of the Cross. In other words, these passages tell us something about the Cross.
Let’s take the First Reading for a moment and reflect on what is happening in this strange tale. When Moses fashions the bronze serpent, he is making an image of the very thing that has been killing the Israelites. The serpents are the agents of death, killing people by their venom, but, at God’s instigation, an image of the serpent – the creature that is killing the people – becomes the instrument that saves them from death. The reason for Jesus’ use of the image in the Gospel is now probably obvious, as he is saying to Nicodemus – and to us – that when he (Jesus) is raised up as the bronze serpent was raised up on a standard, people will be saved from death. The standard that Jesus is hoisted upon is, of course, the Cross. The worst instrument of torture and death known to the ancient world becomes the very instrument that God uses to bring about ‘eternal life’ or salvation.
This is the ‘triumph’ of the Cross – that the means of execution has become the balm of healing. The ‘great reversal’ of the Cross’s meaning that we see here has become a favourite theme of authors down the centuries who have sought to shed light upon the power of the Cross. To take just one example from the tradition, Theodore of Studios, who lived in the eighth and ninth centuries, wrote:
How splendid the cross of Christ!
It brings life, not death; light not darkness;
paradise, not its loss.
It is the wood on which the Lord,
like a great warrior,
was wounded in hands and feet and side,
but healed thereby our wounds.
A tree had destroyed us;
a tree now brought us life.
The strongest symbol of this reversal is in the last sentence, where the Cross is described as the tree of life. The Cross is the tree which undid the damage caused by the fruit of the tree that our first parents ate in disobedience to God. This image speaks of the new life that has flowered from the Cross of Christ. I was reminded of this image throughout the journey whenever flowers were placed on or around the WYD Cross.
(The passage from Theodore of Studios was printed in the booklet for Morning Prayer with the Cross and Icon at the Broome campus of the University of Notre Dame. Sr Jill Shirvington had prepared the text.)
When I was a kid, I was pretty scared of the classic painting of the Sacred Heart that hung on the wall of my grandparent’s home. You know how the eyes of people in some paintings seem to follow you wherever you go? Well, I felt like that bleeding heart wrapped in the crown of thorns followed me. That’s pretty unnerving when you are a little kid.
Fortunately my understanding of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has developed a little over time. There are two scriptural images that are the biblical foundation for this devotion. The first is the image of the beloved disciple resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper. It’s a wonderful icon of intimacy with Jesus, and tells us something vital about discipleship. Following Jesus involves becoming his close companion.
Then there is the image of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ heart after the soldier has pierced his side with the lance. The symbolism here is raw and visceral. The very life-force of Jesus is poured out for the world, for us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart takes us to the very centre of the Redemption. He sheds his blood so that we might share in his life.
The meaning of these two scriptural images come together in an experience of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. She was praying before the Blessed Sacrament one day when she experienced Jesus take her heart and place it in his own, burning heart. He then returned her heart to her, only now hers was burning too. To debate what actually happened to Margaret Mary is to miss the point, because her experience is really Christianity 101. Our hearts are supposed to be set on fire by Jesus’ heart. Filled with the burning love of God.
A few years ago I spent some time on retreat in the town of Paray-le-Monial, where St Margaret Mary Alacoque received her visions of the Sacred Heart. I wrote the following poem as a result of the experience.
Paray- le- Monial
“The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus…”
I wonder, do you pilgrim when you come,
exhale at the ordinariness of it all?
Pews, altar, ambo, tabernacle –
Solid if not stolid, and altogether unremarkable?
Do you wonder:
“will great graces be bestowed upon me here?”
for if not here then where, you
reason, little realising that grace does strike twice.
Are you awaiting wonders and signs in this
House of Apparitions
or do you nakedly seek the Christ
who did bear his heart here once?
Tell me, what manner of wonder
marks your passing pilgrim?
do you catch your breath, then inhale
the peace and power?
Have time and space whittled away to a needle-point
to this moment, at which a new unveiling is taking place?
Do you shudder, anticipation and agony
As truth runs you through
like a rapier-thrust of light
both unforgiving and merciful
Or are you blind to your apocalypse, my friend?
Do not fear, if all or part is hidden still,
Simply tell me this:
Can your heart keep time with his?
You need no other vision.
Seeing Swans is a reference to a poem by the Australian James McAuley. It is titled “Nocturnal“, and consists of a dialogue one evening between the poet and a swan that seems to be flying away, forsaking the world below.
The swan is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (a favourite image of McAuley for a favourite theme of his). The poet cries out anxiously to the Swan,
Do not depart,
bright image of desire
if you forsake us
dishonour in our deeds, death in our art
will overtake us
Then the poet seems to hear the swan reply, telling him not to complain “if absence rules the season”, because the “works of men” are secretly moved by a power beyond this world that, like the tide, ebbs and returns in order to “fight the wars of love”.
The poem gathers together some themes that are important to me, and that I intend to reflect upon in this blog: the brutality and ugliness that ensues when human beings try to live as if God did not exist; the enduring presence of the Spirit, especially when all around us seems dark; and that there is something in this world which is worth fighting for. And that, of course, is Love. Seeing Swans is thus an exercise in cultural exegesis – becoming aware of the Spirit who renews creation, even when night seems to have fallen.