13 December 2017

'Strange blessings never in Paradise.' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B

St John the Baptist, Donatello [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)


There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.


Mary, Queen of Heaven
Master of the Legend of St Lucy [Web Gallery of Art]

In the Philippines the Misas de Gallo, also known as Simbang Gabi or Aguinaldo Masses, the novena of pre-dawn Masses leading up to Christmas, will begin on Saturday the 16th. For the last 15 years I have celebrated these in the chapel of St Joseph, Espinos Village, Bacolod City. But this year, as I am now based in Ireland, I won't have to get up at 3:30am in order to start Mass at 4:30am. These are votive Masses in honour of our Blessed Mother and in thanksgiving for the gift of our faith. The Spanish word 'Aguinaldo' means 'gift' and in this context refers to the gift of faith.

The Church over the centuries has reflected on gifts we have received from God that we could not have received had our First Parents never sinned. A song included among poems for Advent and Christmas in the Breviary published by the hierarchies of Australia, England &
 Wales, and Ireland is one of those reflections, Adam lay y-bounden. In the Breviary it is given the title O Felix Culpa, 'O Happy Fault'.

This particular song marvels at the fact that but for the reality of the sin of Adam we would never have had Our Lady as Queen of Heaven.

The poem reflects part of the Exultet, the Easter Proclamation: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, /quod Christo morte deletum est! O truly necessary sin of Adam,/destroyed completely by the Death of Christ. O felix culpa,/quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptionem! O happy fault/that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer.

At Easter we proclaim the great reality that God has given us a Redeemer and that he is now risen from the dead.

Coming up to Christmas we reflect on the birth of our Redeemer through the consent of Mary, his and our Mother. Mary is part of God's eternal plan and if we sideline her we distort that reality, as we also do if we put her in the centre and sideline her Son. In the painting above Mary, while being honoured as Queen of Heaven by the angels and saints is adoring God with her whole being, inviting us to do the same. The song too invites us to sing Deo gratias! Thanks be to God!

That is what the Church invites us to do every time we celebrate the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving. It invites Filipinos in particular at this time of the Aguinaldo Masses to thank God for the great gift of faith and to share it with others. One way in which Filipinos have been doing that is introducing this centuries-old practice to other countries, adapting the custom to local circumstances.



O Felix Culpa (O Happy Fault)

Adam lay y-bounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter,
Thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took.
As clerkes finden written
 In theiré book.
Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne hadde never our Lady,
A been heaven’s queen.
Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we may singen.
Deo gratias!


This song from England dates from the 15th century. The text here is an adaptation of the original Middle English and the musical setting is by Boris Ord.

Scottish poet Edwin Muir's One Foot in Eden, included in the Breviary for Lent and Easter, also reflects on the theme of felix culpa. 


What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise.


Antiphona at introitum  Entrance Antiphon (Philippians 4:4-6)
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. 
Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus:
Let your gentleness be known to everyone: 
Dominus enim prope est. 
for the Lord is near.
Nihil solliciti sitis:
Do not worry about anything 
sed in omni oratione petitiones vestre innotescant apud Deum.
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be maked known to God.

Ps. 84 [85]:2 Benedixisti, Domine, terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.
Lord, you were faorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. 
Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus:
Let your gentleness be known to everyone: 
Dominus enim prope est. 
for the Lord is near.
Nihil solliciti sitis:
Do not worry about anything 
sed in omni oratione petitiones vestrre innotescant apud Deum.
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.



The text in bold above is the Entrance Antiphon in the Ordinary Form of the Mass (the 'New Mass'). The longer text is the Entrance Antiphon in the Extraordinary Form (the 'Old Mass').

06 December 2017

'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' Sunday Reflections, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B

St John the Baptist, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]


Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings, (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)


The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    “Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight”’.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Old Road to AuversNorbert Goeneutte [Web Gallery of Art]

Charles Kuralt was a reporter with CBS TV in the USA whose On the Roadstories were a regular part of the Evening News for 25 years. These were offbeat stories about real persons and were often uplifting. I remember one in particular from about 1970 when I, then a young priest, was studying in the USA. It featured an elderly man in a small town in one of the Midwestern states. His town was about 10 kms from the next town but in order to go from one to the other you had to travel 20 or 30 kms. The authorities in both towns were unwilling to build a road to connect them.

So this man started to build a road himself, using logs as a foundation, as I recall.

In 1982 Charles Kuralt gave a lunchtime talk in an auditorium in Minneapolis where I was on a pastoral programme in a hospital for three months, working as a chaplain. I went to hear the broadcaster. Someone in the audience asked him what had become of the road that the old man had begun to build. It turned out that the man had since died. But after his death the authorities completed the road.

This man was engaged in a form of what the Legion of Mary Handbook calls 'Symbolic Action', described in these terms: Observe the stress is set on action. No matter what may be the degree of the difficulty, a step must be taken. Of course, the step should be as effective as it can be. But if an effective step is not in view, then we must take a less effective one. And if the latter be not available, then some active gesture (that is, not merely a prayer) must be made which, though of no apparent practical value, at least tends towards or has some relation to the objective. This final challenging gesture is what the Legion has been calling 'Symbolic Action'. Recourse to it will explode the impossibility which is of our own imagining. And, on the other hand, it enters in the spirit of faith into dramatic conflict with the genuine impossibility.

The sequel may be the collapse of the walls of that Jericho.

The old man featured on TV wasn't thinking of himself but of those coming after him. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

St Mark is repeating the words of Isaiah used in today's First Reading: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40: 3).

Fr Alfred Delp SJ 
(15 September 1907 - 2 February 1945) [Wikipedia]

Fr Alfred Delp SJ, hanged by the Nazis in Berlin on 2 February 1945, is in many ways an Advent figure. Advent of the Heart is a collection of 'Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings - 1941-1944'. The People of Advent is one of his prison meditations, written exactly 70 years ago. I have highlighted some parts.

The herald angel
Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up and down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord's coming to redeem the world and deliver it have a different and much more vivid meaning.

And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me as a present during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: Be of good cheer. The Lord is near. A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor and I often have the feeling that he is rendering me some heavenly aid.

Promises given and fulfilled
It would be impossible to endure the horror of these times - like the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enough - if there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. And the awareness of the angels of good tidings, uttering their blessed messages in the midst of all this trouble and sowing seed of blessing where it will sprout in the middle of the night.

Then angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God's questions and proclaim the wonders of him with whom all things are possible.

Footsteps of the herald angel 
Advent, even when things are going wrong, is a period from which a message can be drawn. May the time never come when men forget about the good tidings and promises, when, so immured within the four walls of their prison that their very eyes are dimmed, they see nothing but grey days through barred windows placed too high to see out of.

May the time never come when mankind no longer hears the soft footsteps of the herald angel, or his cheering words that penetrate the soul. Should such a time come all will be lost. Then indeed we shall be living in bankruptcy and hope will die in our hearts.

Golden seeds waiting to be sowed 
For the first thing man must do if he wants to raise himself out of this sterile life is to open his heart to the golden seed which God's angels are waiting to sow in it.

And one other thing; he must himself throughout these grey days go forth as a bringer of good tidings. There is so much despair that cries out for comfort; there is so much faint courage that needs to be reinforced; there is so much perplexity that yearns for reasons and meanings.

Reaping the fruits of divine seeds 
God's messengers, who have themselves reaped the fruits of divine seeds sown even in the darkest hours, know how to wait for the fullness of harvest.Patience and faith are needed, not because we believe in the earth, or in our stars, or our temperament or our good disposition, but because we have received the message of God's herald angel and have our selves encountered him.

Trial of Fr Alfred Delp SJ [Source]

The example of the life and death of Fr Alfred Delp SJ and his writings continue to help many Prepare the way of the Lord.


Handel's Messiah begins with the the opening verses of today's First Reading (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11), adapted from the Authorized (King James) Version:

Tenor Recitative. — Isaiah 40:1-3
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Tenor Air — Isaiah 40:4
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.



Chorus — Isaiah 40:5
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

The first video above features Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. The second features Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, based in Toronto.


29 November 2017

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.' Sunday Reflections, 1st Sunday of Advent, Year B

Young Jew as Christ, Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)


Jesus said to his disciples:

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Liam Whelan  (1 April 1935 - 5 February 1958)

If this is the end, then I'm ready for it

These were the last words of Liam Whelan who died in a plane crash at Munich Airport on 6 February 1958 along with other members of the Manchester United football (soccer) team as they were returning from a match in Belgrade. About seven years ago I learned from a friend named Brendan whom I have known for more than 50 years that, when they were both aged 14 or so, Liam rescued him when he got into difficulties in a swimming pool in their area. And last year I discovered that another friend, who was a classmate of mine for five years in secondary school and for two years in the seminary, also named Liam, that this talented young footballer had been a neighbour of his and that even when he had achieved fame as a professional footballer he would still play knockabout football on the street with the local boys whenever he would come home.

The average age of Manchester United's players at the time of the accident was only 22. These young men were earning only £15 a week, about 25 percent more than a tradesman could earn. Endorsements could bring in a little more income for a few talented players whose career would end for most at 35, if not earlier. 

There was snow on the ground at Munich Airport and the plane made three attempts to take off. Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper for Manchester United and who also played in that position for Northern Ireland's international team, was sitting near Liam Whelan. He survived uninjured and helped save a number of people from death. He has often told the story of Liam Whelan's last words: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.

Clearly young Liam had his life focused on what was most important. He was ready to meet death. I have often spoken about him at Mass and in giving retreats. 

Those who knew him describe Liam Whelan as 'a devout Catholic’. I know that he sent his mother some money for her to go to Lourdes. 11 February 1958 was the centennial of the first apparition of our Blessed Mother to St Bernadette. Mrs Whelan, a widow since 1943 when Liam was 8, used the money instead towards a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes over the grave of her son. I pass it each time I visit my parents’ grave.

Liam Whelan's grave (right)

I vividly remember the dark, late afternoon I heard about the crash from a street-singer whom I knew by sight and who was running around agitatedly telling people of the crash. I didn't know whether to believe him or not but the news on the radio confirmed that it really had happened. It was the first time in my life to experience what has been called a 'public-private moment', a public happening, usually a tragedy, that becomes a very personal one for those who learn of it, one that is seared in the memory and often in the heart.

Liam Whelan grew up in the next parish to my own and I remember going to Christ the King Church the evening his remains were brought there. I was outside the church with countless others. An article by John Scally in the February 2008 issue of The Word, the magazine of the Divine Word Missionaries in Ireland that is no longer published, described what many experienced: Their funerals were like no other. Most funerals are a burial of someone or something already gone. These young deaths pointed in exactly the opposite direction and were therefore the more poignant. Normally we bury the past but in burying Liam Whelan and his colleagues, in some deep and gnawing way we buried the future.

I still feel some pain at the deaths of Liam Whelan and his colleagues nearly 60 years after they died but the story of Liam's preparedness for his sudden death is one that continues to inspire me.

Liam's last words, If this is the end, then I'm ready for it, are a perfect response to today's gospel. Jesus is not trying to frighten us but he is telling us starkly to be prepared always for the moment of our death, to do everything with that in mind. Advent is a time when we prepare not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, but to become much more aware of his daily coming into our lives, and to prepare, as individuals and as a Christian community to welcome him when he returns at the end of time in a way that we won't be ashamed.

What would we say if he asked us in the Philippines where I spent most of my life, for example, Have children who have been abused had their court cases finished quickly? I have heard that young Maria, who has gone to the court five or six times for a hearing, something that is quite upsetting for her, has been told on each occasion that the defence lawyer isn't yet ready.

What would we say if Jesus said, I have been told that many forests have been cut down for profit and that this has resulted in many deaths in Leyte, for example, in 1991 and 2003. Is this true?

Tropical Storm Thelma (Uring) [Wikipedia]

More than 5,000 died in a flash flood in Ormoc City, Leyte, on 5 November 1991. Deforestation was blamed as a primary cause of the devastation.

The gospel this Sunday is, literally, a 'wake up call'. Beware, keep alert . . . Therefore, keep awake . . . And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

May the response of Liam Whelan, a young professional footballer who took these words to heart, inspire us and give us a desire to be always prepared to meet the Lord, in this life and in the next: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.


This was recorded on St Columban's Day, 23 November 2011, in the Abbey of St Columban, Bobbio, Italy, where the saint died and is buried.


Antiphona ad introitum  Entrance Antiphon  Cf Ps 24 [25]:1-3

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Ps 24 [24]:4. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstri mihi; et semitas tuas edoce me.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

The longer version is sung or recited when the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated.

[I have told the story of Liam Whelan on this blog a number of times before, originally here.]