17Mar 17th March 2013. St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick, Principal Patron of  Ireland. (see below). In the Ordo,  the Lenten readings have precedence… but both are covered here.

Texts for Lent, 5th Sunday:

Is 43:16-21. The prophet assures his fellow-exiles in Babylon that there will be a new Exodus, and their life as God’s special people will be renewed.

Phil 3:8-14. We tend to see holiness as something that we can achieve by our own efforts. Paul sees it above all as a gift, a “being found in Christ” given in the power of the resurrection.

Jn 8:1-11. When asked to judge the sinful woman, Jesus invites her accusers to look to their own sins before condemning her.

Texts for St. Patrick’s Day:

Jer 1:4-9. Jeremiah’s reluctance towards his prophetic vocation (“Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak”) prefigures Patrick’s modesty about his own abilities.

Acts 13:46-49. Like Paul and Barnabas, St. Patrick was sent bring salvation to the ends of the earth. Ireland, at Europe’s western edge, must have seemed just that.

Mk 16:15-20. The miracles that would accompany the early Christian mission, after the Ascension.

First Reading: Book of Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: John 8:1-11

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Pharisaic Judgment

What should we make of the Pharisees in today’s gospel story? They brought the woman taken in adultery into the Temple precincts, thronged with all kinds of people, and made her stand before everyone in as public a manner as possible. They insisted that her penalty should follow the full rigour of the Mosaic Law, namely death by stoning. But their motive was not so much zeal for the Law, as to use the woman merely as a pawn to discredit Jesus. If his response to their query, “What have you to say?” was, “Leave the woman along; let her go free,” they would accuse him of breaking the Law and condoning adultery. If, however, he were to say, “Let her be stoned to death,” then he would be seen as lacking in mercy, and also as going against the legal restrictions of the Roman authorities, who reserved  the right to impose the death penalty. Jesus saw through their plotting and made them withdraw in confusion.

The intriguing question is what did Jesus write with his finger on the ground. The Gospel account gives us a possible clue. It does not use the normal Greek word for “write” (graphein), but rather one (katagraphein) which means to draw up a condemnation. Possibly Christ may have listed on the ground the sins of each of the woman’s accusers, and so his challenge that the one without sin should cast the first stone met with no response. Although Jesus did not condemn the woman, neither did he condone what she had done. “Don’t sin any more,” was his invitation and warning to her.)

In the case of the Pharisees, as we see, and indeed in the case of most of us, there is the subtle danger of creating God in our own image and likeness, imagining him to be a stern and demanding God, who takes revenge, who loves to punish, who can be persuaded to forgive only after we have made a great show of repentance. Such of course is a mere caricature of God. At best this kind of religion can be cold and loveless. At worst, as St Paul says in the Second Reading, trying to form a right relationship with God by mere adherence to the Law and all its ways can be as worthless as the rubbish one throws away. It is only when we allow the love of God, as seen in Christ, to encompass our lives, to change our inner being, that we begin to understand Christianity.

Contrary to the thinking of the Pharisees, we must fight the tendency to regard ourselves as better than others, no matter what commandments we keep; nor must we judge and condemn others. Rather should we be generous, forgiving and loving towards others. From the gospel story we see that the worst of the seven deadly sins is not lust as so many think. Indeed, Christ’s harshest condemnation was reserved for those who, like the Pharisees, in their pride and self-righteousness shut themselves off from God, who felt no need to ask God for help and grace. We cannot be true followers of Christ unless we acknowledge our frailty, our sinfulness, our need for his help which alone can save us. When we do fall we gain a deeper understanding of the extraordinary mercy God is prepared to extend to the sinner. For our sins make no difference to God’s enduring love for us.

St Paul says that all things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom 8:28).  St Augustine adds, “Yes, even sin!” for from bitter personal experience, he more than most knew all about the false allure of sin, how difficult it is often to break away from it, and how God’s love alone can help us conquer it.

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Texts for St. Patrick’s Day:

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-9

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.

Second Reading: Acts 13:46-49

Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'”

When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers. Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region.

Gospel: Mark 16:15-20.

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.

Qualities of Patrick

The challenge today is to present Patrick as a man for our own times; engaging in a mission and a journey still to be travelled, if the Christian flame is to stay alive, let alone thrive, in today’s Ireland. It is a good idea to weave passages from St. Patrick’s Confession into the homily. See Padraig McCarthy’s lovely translation of the Confession, with key passages highlighted, http://www.biblical.ie/cyberbooks/ConfPatrk.asp, and a perceptive commentary by Ciaran Needham on what is known about St. Patrick.

Among the qualities of our apostle to develope in the homily are these:

Prayerful man of the Spirit: “And again I saw Him praying in me, and I seemed to be within my body, and I heard Him above me, that is, over my inward self, and there He prayed with great emotion. And all the time I was astonished, and wondered, and thought with myself who it could be that prayed in me. But at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying that He was the Spirit; and so I woke up, and remembered the Apostle saying: The Spirit helps the infirmities of our prayer.”

Converted sinner, man of God: “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many … But the Lord opened my unbelieving heart that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him… comforted me as would a father his son. So I cannot be silent – nor should I be – about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity.” He was deeply grateful for the work of grace within him.

His love of the Bible. He shows great familiarity with the most recently available translation of the Bible (St Jerome’s Vulgate) and often quotes or alludes to the text of Scripture. This reverence for the Bible marked the Irish church in the following centuries, and resulted in important early Irish commentaries, as well as lovely manuscript copies of the Gospel, like the Book of Kells.

Inspirational pastor. “For I am much God’s debtor, who gave me such grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere, for a people just coming to the faith, whom the Lord took from the utmost parts of the earth.”

His resolve to remain with the Irish, until his death. “Even if I wished to leave them and go to Britain – and how I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord! God knows that I much desired it! But I am bound by the Spirit, who witnesses against me that if I do this, I shall be guilty. And I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun – no, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord will, and will guard me from every evil way that I may not sin before Him.”

At considerable cost, Patrick left behind the comforts of Roman Britain to fulfil his mission as a wandering preacher in Ireland. He learned the Irish language and the local customs, respected their religious ideals and gave new meaning to their traditional high-places (like Croagh Patrick) and holy wells. In modern mission practice, radical inculturation is seen as essential to gaining a people’s heart for Christ.

Patrick’s spirituality grew out of his personal experience of Christ, of his mission to Ireland of the needs of the newly evangelized. (One can link his Christ-centred “Loricum” with the spirituality of his great apostolic mentor, St. Paul – as expressed in today’s noble passage from Philippians.  Like Paul, Patrick regarded faith as not just knowledge but as a life filled with Christ. Faith is not simply a matter of ‘knowing’ the teachings of Christ and of the Church. It is a ‘sensing of the presence of Christ and a response to that presence. This is an aspect of Patrick which we could do with retrieving in our hectic, electronic-dominated age. Patrick grew to realize that the faith into which he was baptized as a child was more than a belief system which filled the head. It was a relationship with God, an awareness of the presence of the person of Christ sharing his life at every moment.

We might also want to make some link between Patrick’s courageous ministry in Ireland and what we hope and pray for our newly elected Pope Francis – the idea of settling in a foreign land in order to be of loving service to God’s scattered people.