Thursday, 16 October 2008

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A

Isaiah 45:1.4-6; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21

The Sunday Missal is a combination of two books really - the Sunday Lectionary, this big book right here in front of me on the pulpit, which contains all the readings from Scripture used each Sunday - and the Roman Missal, which contains all the prayers said at Mass each day. It is lying over there on the altar.

A Sunday Missal costs about $50 or $60, depending on which version you get, and it's a very useful thing to own because it enables you to read in advance the Scriptures to be read on Sunday. For those of you who go to Mass during the week there is also a Weekday Missal available.

Each week it is the task of the priest to preach on the set readings; this is not always an easy task. Some people call preaching 'breaking the bread of the word'. This is a bit like when you make your small child a sandwich and you cut it into manageable bite sizes. In the same way the priest is supposed to 'break' the bread of God's word into digestible portions, so that it can be more easily received and understood. Naturally, this requires the priest to do his 'homework'.

This week again I sat down in my comfortable recliner and put the legs up. I put my Sunday Missal on the StediTray on my lap and asked God to give me a heart capable of receiving his word and handing it on to others. I generally start with the Gospel which always sets the theme. Next I read the First Reading which usually relates in some way to the theme of the Gospel and, finally, the Second Reading. This part of the process, this first step, is called lectio, which is a Latin word for reading.

At this point I want to make a confession. Years ago, when I first began preaching, I occasionally came to the end of the week and found I had not read the Sunday readings. So what I used to do was consult a whole series of 'homily books' I used to have. I would go through my collection until I found one I liked and give that homily on Sunday. (Of course I changed a few words here and there so I didn't feel quite so guilty.) Today, I guess, priests can do the same thing on the internet; there are truckloads of good homilies out there, just waiting to be stolen, and it means you don't even have to read the Readings!

Well, thank God, I've wised up a bit. Since I've started reading Scripture for myself, as part of my prayer routine each day, I've come to see how there is no substitue for lectio; it all starts there.

Having read the readings once or twice some simple questions will arise. 'Who are the Herodians? - Who was Cyrus? - Where is Thessalonika?' These questions are easily answered if you have the right book. My New American Bible has a very useful Biblical Dictionary at the back and answered my questions straight away.

From lectio I naturally moved into meditatio (that is, meditation). Over the years I've found that the longer I stay with the reading of the passage the more fruitful and interesting my meditation will be. You just can't hurry the process; I have learned this from my little jaunts to the bush.

You jump in the car, drive to a quiet place in the bush, take your director's chair from the boot and sit in a quiet spot. At first nothing happens. You see the trees round you, the leaves on the ground, the bushes and weeds, the sunlight through the leaves overhead. For maybe 10 minutes you sit there in peace - just looking and listening. In fact, you are doing lectio - reading Mother Nature's book.

Suddenly a noise, a little flutter at your feet, among the leaf litter - a lizard. You can see his face peering at something - a small beetle making its way across a twig. The lizard is beautiful - gleaming blue and purple - and you can see his breathing and his tail twitching every now and then.

Now you are distracted by a sound overhead. It's a wren looking for food. She flies to a branch 10 feet away and stares you in the face. What an amazing little creature! She flits from branch to branch moving around you, getting a good look from every angle - fascinated and fascinating. You know, without a word of a lie, I once had a wren come and sit on my hand which was resting on my knee, and then she flew up onto my shoulder and then my head. I felt so privileged - meditatio at its best.

Meditatio is when the readings begin to speak to you. Give them time and they always begin to speak to you.

Sitting in my recliner with my Sunday Missal I was drawn to how the Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus. I could see their cunning faces and hear their malicious whispers. Like the little lizard they had no idea they were being looked at. I thought to myself, 'You nasty, sneaky things!'

What a contrast the flattering words of those they sent to Jesus to trap him: Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in an honest way , and that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man's rank means nothing to you.

No wonder Jesus replied without hesitation: You hypocrites!

In meditatio we think about these things, we reflect on them, and quite naturally they lead us into the third phase - oratio (prayer).

Lord Jesus, I'm feeling so self-righteous right now, watching those shifty Pharisees plotting your downfall. I find myself condemning them. And yet, as I look at them in their secret huddle I'm somehow reminded of myself and the times I've joined a nasty little group talking about someone, destroying their good name. I see my hypocrisy in theirs as they speak evil behind Jesus' back and then imagine they can flatter him to his face. How sorry I am, Lord! Forgive me! Heal me of all that is hypocritical in me.

Reading leads to reflection which leads to prayer. This is the usual dynamic of what is called lectio divina or sacred reading. There is a final movement in this prayer which follows as gift from God; we call it contemplatio (contemplation). This is basically a cessation of all our activity and a time in which awareness of the God we have been seeking becomes so real for us that we are almost 'paralysed' by it in a peace and joy and rest so real we know it comes from him. The saints tell us that it is during these moments that God does his greatest work in us.

My final word? Get yourself a Sunday Missal.

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