Friday, February 27, 2015

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:2-10) God speaks in the cloud

I have often heard people say that the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac is horrific.  Maybe it shouldn’t be read at all.  It is horrific. It is meant to be.  The point is that God asks the unthinkable of Abraham, but more importantly Abraham trusts in God and goes along the path that makes absolutely no sense to him at the time.  Not only was it horrific that he should be asked to sacrifice his child, but it was also through this only child that God had promised him many offspring.  So nothing at all made sense. So Abraham suddenly finds himself in a situation of complete darkness, where nothing was right, nothing made sense.  But Abraham trusts God and then everything changes at the last minute.  God ‘put Abraham to the test’ not in the sense of seeing if he was good enough, but because God knew that Abraham had great faith and he wanted to stretch that faith to its full capacity.  An athlete won’t reach his or her full potential unless they are pushed to the limit.  Sometimes God does the same with us.  He knows what we are capable of much better than we do ourselves and sometimes He stretches, or pushes us to the limit because God wants us to reach our full potential as human beings.

Did you ever notice that sometimes when you pray for a situation to get better it gets worse first?  There is a temptation to panic and not pray any more.  But if we believe that God is listening to us and helping us, then we persevere in prayer and we try to trust that the Lord will bring the best out of the situation, even though it often doesn’t make senses to us.  That requires faith, and it’s not easy at the best of times.

Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac his only son, but in the end he didn’t have to go through with it.  Because he was willing to do anything that God asked and showed his remarkable trust in God, the Lord said that He would bless him greatly:
I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.

3000 years later God sends his Son Jesus and allows him to be sacrificed for the human race.  It says in the second reading that because Jesus went through with this, the Father would refuse him nothing.  That is why we can have such confidence when we pray to Jesus.  It says in the second reading that Jesus now intercedes for us before the Father in heaven.  If Jesus the Son of God is interceding for us before the Father, then what could we possibly be afraid of as long as we remain open to God?  Not only that but we also have Our Lady interceding for us too.  Is Jesus going to refuse his mother anything?  Is the Father going to refuse Jesus anything?  And these are the ones who are interceding for us.  Hopefully that will help us not to be afraid.

In the Gospel the three disciples Peter, James and John are granted this extraordinary vision of Jesus in his divine glory.  Why were they given this privilege when none of the others were?  This happened just before the Passion, when Jesus would be tortured and killed before their eyes.  Peter, James and John were also the three who would be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane watching him fall apart.  They were going to need great strength not to despair themselves.  But what is especially worth noting is that after the vision was over they suddenly found themselves in a cloud where they could see nothing, only then did they hear the voice of the Father speaking to them:  ‘This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’

God spoke to them when they were in a cloud.  Have you ever been on a mountain when a cloud suddenly descended on you?  It’s quite frightening because you cannot see anything.  You have just stop and wait.  Sometimes it is only when we are in a ‘cloud’ or darkness/confusion that God will speak to us most powerfully.  When we cannot see the way forward, and we cannot get any clarity on what to do, then God will show us what the next step is, but often He will only show us the next step, not the whole path ahead.  This brings us back to the need to trust that God knows what God is doing when He leaves us in the dark. And most people are in the dark most of the time, especially with regard to their faith.  That just seems to be how it works.  We are only shown one step at a time, if anything, but God asks us to trust him that He knows what He is doing.  If He doesn’t show us the path it is because we don’t need to see the path ahead only the next step.
This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’

Friday, February 20, 2015

First Sunday of Lent

Although this is the first Sunday of Lent the homily today is on the Eucharist as I'm giving a retreat this weekend to those who will be received into the Church as adult Catholics this coming Easter.

I used to work in a hospital and one of the jobs that I did for six days a week, was to bring Holy Communion to the sick and anyone else who wanted to receive.  I often noticed that bringing Holy Communion around to people provoked the most reaction.  People would or would not receive, but they were usually pretty definite about it.  Those who didn’t receive, whether out of pride or guilt or whatever, were always a bit unsettled by the presence of Jesus.  It was very seldom that I would meet someone who was completely indifferent and not in the least bit unaffected. 

One day I came into a room and a patient automatically started crying. Sometimes the relatives would cry when I blessed someone sick who could not receive.  Why was this?  Because they knew, somehow and believed, like we do, that this was really Jesus.  No one else could have that effect on people.  If I brought a loaf of bread around, do you think that it would make any difference?

Even when people don’t receive, you can tell by their faces that they know there is something there, something different, something mysterious.

The Eucharist is a kind of paradox, or contradiction.  It seems to be only a piece of bread, but it isn’t.  It is so simple yet it is way beyond our understanding. How can it be possible that the Lord God who created everything, can become present to us in a tiny piece of bread through the hands of a priest who is a sinner? How can it be that the Lord obeys the words of a priest at the consecration of the mass? This is a great mystery, but we believe it has come from Jesus himself and that is why we believe it. In the earliest description of the mass, St. Paul begins by saying, ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn pass on to you…’ Jesus taught it to Paul directly, after He had risen from the dead. Jesus taught it to the other disciples when He was with them.

Because God wants to exclude no one, He gives himself to us in the most basic and simple way possible: in bread, one of the most basic of foods.  It is so simple that everyone can believe it and yet it is also totally beyond our understanding.  God reveals himself to us ‘in mystery’, like the burning bush before Moses; it was a contradiction.  The Holy Eucharist is there before us, but we can not understand it.

Jesus says in the Gospel, ‘I bless you Father … for revealing the mysteries of the kingdom to mere
children, for that is what it pleased you to do.  We can accept it like children, but if we try to understand it, we will find that it is beyond us.  Sometimes it is very educated who people give up when they come to the teaching on the Eucharist, because they try to understand it and can’t.  ‘It defies logic’, people will say, and they’re right.  To believe in it, we have to recognise that it is beyond us, in other words that God is beyond us.  We have to acknowledge that we are small and very limited in our understanding.  Once we do this, then God can begin to work in us and work powerfully through us, because we have opened the door to him.
The Eucharist is a kind of doorway to our faith.  It is the way in, but it’s also where a lot of people get stuck.  When Jesus first spoke about the Eucharist and said, ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you can not have life within you’, many of his followers left him, they couldn’t take this.  But notice that He didn’t go after them and try to explain it.  He just left it with them as He had spoken.  It requires faith.

I want to finish with the story of St. Margaret Clithero. In the late 1500s this woman lived in the town of York in England.  She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic.  Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth penders, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them.  She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral.  It was an Anglican church at the time.

She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial.  She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors.  She said, ‘If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself’.  The judge said’ ‘Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.’
He handed her the bible and told her to swear on it.  So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, ‘I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

So, just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered.  It was called in English law, ‘the punishment most severe’.  She was pressed to death under heavy weights.  It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive.  The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken.  She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.
In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times.  It says ‘She died for the mass’.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

6th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:40-45) Beethoven and the mystery of suffering

Today we are given one of the many encounters of Jesus’ healing someone who had the terrible disease of leprosy.  Apart from the fact that leprosy was physically so horrible, with a person’s flesh literally rotting on their body, it also had the added pain of excluding them from the community because of the fear of contamination.  Anyone who had leprosy had to live outside the community.  Notice how it says in the Gospel that when Jesus heals this man he ‘sternly warned him not to tell anyone’.  But in the man’s enthusiasm he couldn’t help himself and began talking about it everywhere.  Because of this people realised that Jesus had been in contact with a leper and so he could now be infected himself.  As a result he then had to stay outside the towns ‘in places where nobody lived’.  This kind of thing must have been very frustrating for Jesus, but he had to put up with it and adapt his mission accordingly. 

I’m sure there were many thousands of people in Jesus’ time who also needed healing, but who didn’t ever get to meet Jesus.  Jesus healed those people who came to him and asked for help, but that would have been relatively few.  Do you ever wonder why the Lord allowed so many others to remain sick, or why He allows us to be sick?  Is it possible that any good can come out of the sicknesses we have to go through?

Recently I came across a beautiful story about the composer Beethoven (1770-1827).  Ludvig Van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany and he really had quite a sad life.  He suffered from a great lack of affection, because his mother died when he was very young and his father was an alcoholic who used to beat him.  His father eventually died as a drunk on the streets.  His biological brother never helped him either and on top of it all symptoms of deafness started to disturb him, leaving him nervous and irritable.  There was however, a German prince who became his benefactor and was like a second father to him.  But then the prince died and between his deafness and loneliness he went into a terrible depression and eventually began to wonder whether there was any point in him going on living.

At that stage Beethoven could only hear using a kind of horn-shaped trumpet in his ear.  He always carried with him a notebook, so that he could write and communicate with others, but many didn’t have the patience for this and so he began to feel more isolated and alone.  Feeling that nobody understood him or wanted to help him, Beethoven withdrew more and more into himself and avoided people. He became so depressed that he prepared his will saying that maybe it was better for him to commit suicide.

But then God’s providence intervened.  A young blind woman who lived in the same boarding house where he had moved to, told him one night, shouting into his ears: “I would give everything to see the moonlight.”  Listening to her, Beethoven was moved to tears because he realised that he could see! And he could compose music and write it on paper!  A strong will to live came back to him and led him to compose one of his most beautiful pieces: “Mondscheinsonate” – “Moonlight Sonata”.

In its main theme, the melody imitates and resembles the slow steps of people, possibly of Beethoven himself and others, carrying the coffin of the German prince, his friend, patron and benefactor.  Some music scholars say that the notes that repeat themselves, insistently, in the main theme of the 1º movement of the Sonata, might be the syllables of the words “Warum? Warum”? (Why? Why?) or another similar word.  Years later, having overcome his sorrow, Beethoven wrote the incomparable “Ode to Joy” from his “Ninth Symphony”, Beethoven’s magnum opus, which crowned the life work of this remarkable composer.

He conducted the first performance himself in 1824. By then because he was totally deaf, he failed to hear the applause. One of the soloists gently turned him around to see the hall full of a wildly cheering crowd. It is said the “Ode to Joy” expresses Beethoven’s gratitude to life and to God for not having committed suicide.  And all this thanks to that blind young woman, who inspired in him the desire to translate into musical notes, a moonlit night.  Using his skill, Beethoven, the composer who could not hear, portrayed through this beautiful melody, the beauty of a night bathed by the moonlight, for a girl who could not see it with her physical eyes.

We do not know why we have to suffer but perhaps more good comes out of it than we realise.  No doubt the blind girl who inspired Beethoven could never have imagined that any good could have come from her being blind and yet look what happened.  I am sure that when we get to heaven we will be amazed at how many parts of our life that don’t seem to make any sense now, will all fit together. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

5th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:29-39) Jesus’ teaching more important than healing

It is interesting that 2500 years ago when the first reading from Job (7:1-4, 6-7) was written, they were asking the same questions that we still ask today?  ‘Why do we have to work so hard?  What is the point of it all?  Why is our life often so difficult?  Why is it that good people often suffer so much for no apparent reason?’  Throughout the centuries you’ll find that people continually ask the same questions.  Sometimes it takes a dramatic event like a tsunami or an earthquake where thousands are killed in an instant, to make people ask themselves these questions.  One minute all those people were just getting on with their daily lives, the next minute the tsunami struck and they were gone.  If we can suddenly be snatched away like that, then what is the purpose of our being here?  Is there any purpose, or is it all chance?  The Lord teaches us that there most certainly is a purpose to our being here.

During his life on earth Jesus continually worked extraordinary miracles—just as we read in today’s Gospel—and as a result thousands of people were drawn to him looking for healing, just like we do today when we hear of someone who has been given a gift of healing, but this was not the main purpose of Jesus’ being here.  Of course he was happy to heal people because he had extraordinary compassion for people, but primarily he wanted to teach people, to teach us about God and about the reason why we are here.  When you think about it all the people he healed and even brought back to life from the dead, they all eventually got sick again and died.  So he wanted to teach us that we are loved by God and we are not here by accident; that our life has a purpose and is going somewhere; that it is worth keeping going even when we are suffering, and above all the mission of his life was to die for us so that we could get to heaven when we die.

When the disciples found him alone praying the first thing they told him was that everyone was looking for him.  There was so much work to do, so many people to heal.  But look how he responded: ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’  That is why I came: to preach and teach.  But why is it so important to teach us?  Wouldn’t it be much better just to heal us?  Physical healing is important and Jesus knew that, but he also knew that if we have meaning, if we have purpose, that is much more valuable to us. 

When I began my ministry as a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain, I remember meeting a man who had been suffering for most of his life.  He had had operation after operation and he was in pain most of the time.  But when I met him he was smiling and he said, ‘Father I have so much to be grateful for.’  It was very humbling to hear this.  Why was he grateful?  Because he had faith and he had purpose.  He understood that his life had meaning and that it was going somewhere.  He believed that this life was not everything and that it was worth persevering.  Having that purpose is what makes all the difference.  And that is what our faith gives us.  It doesn’t take away the pain, but it helps to make sense for us of why we are here.  It reminds us that God does want us to be happy, that that is what He created us for.  It also reminds us that it is worth putting up with the various struggles we have to go through because they are often what make us into better people.  The suffering will not last forever.  Sooner or later we will cross over to the next world where our happiness will be complete.  Having that hope is what makes all the difference and that is why Jesus kept moving around and teaching people, so that they would have the strength to keep going especially when times were more difficult.

Meanwhile we will continue to pray and look for healing and it is right that we do, but it is also good to remember that the hope we have in God is actually worth more than the physical healing, because that is what will keep us going.  Remember the words of Jesus: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God still and trust in me.’  God knows what He is doing.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

3rd Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:14-20) A personal relationship with Jesus

I remember reading somewhere that when Mother Teresa began her mission in Calcutta, it was only after the 12th attempt to get permission that her previous Order allowed her to go.  She had great perseverance, you could say, but it was also that the call of God was strong and she was listening.  I also remember hearing that a bishop who knew her before she began this work, said ‘I wouldn’t have put her in charge of the sacristy’, meaning that he didn’t think she was capable of much.  And yet look at what God did through her, not because she was a woman of remarkable ability, rather because she had a great openness to God and that is all God needs.

It is easy for us to get the idea that we have to be particularly talented or special people if God is to be able to use us, but that is not true.  In fact if you read about the lives of many of the holy men and women throughout the ages, most of them are not people that you would probably pick to do anything extraordinary.  God does not need great ability, just our openness and willingness.  That also means that our age, or our physical ability is no hindrance to God.  Moses was called to lead the people of Israel to freedom when he was in his eighties.  A modern day Christian evangelist called Merlin Carothers who has written many books, felt that God was calling him to go back into ministry again when he was in his seventies, and so he did.

It would be a mistake to feel that there is not much more that we can do because we are getting too old or because our health doesn’t seem to allow us to do much anymore or even because we are not particularly talented.  It is not so much about what God may call us to do, it is above all to be in relationship with the Lord. God only needs us to be open to his call.  If we are open then God will do everything else.

The readings today are about responding to God’s call to us. In the Gospel Jesus calls the first four apostles, Peter, Andrew, James and John.  In this case it says that they followed him willingly, giving up their work.  Jesus must have made quite an impression on them.  Perhaps it was the personal contact with Jesus which gave them the courage to follow him.  Either way they did.

If we are also called to be disciples, what does that mean in practice? It means that we develop a personal relationship with Jesus. A personal relationship means a real, living relationship, just like we would have with any other human being. So it means we begin to learn more about Jesus, we speak to him every day, we spend time in prayer listening to him and speaking to him, every day. We find out what he is teaching us through the Scriptures and we try to live that. The surprising thing is what happens when we begin to do this. 

We may not even believe that a personal relationship is really possible, but it is. Many people here have that kind of relationship with the Lord. But many more probably don’t and this is what we are being called to. Why is that so important? because that is when our faith begins to come alive. Then our coming to mass regularly begins to make more sense. It is no longer just something we have to do because we are Catholic. We come to the mass because we want to worship God and encounter the Lord Jesus in a very personal way. The more people respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, to have a real, living relationship with him, the more alive our whole community becomes. Then it also becomes all the more obvious what in particular we are called to do. That is when our faith begins to transform us and the world around us.

Most of us are not called to follow God in the way that Moses, or Mother Teresa or the Apostles were.  But God calls all of us to enter into a relationship with him.  It may not be a dramatic call, but it is very real. The most important thing is that we respond and no one can force us to do this.  Even if we have been brought up as Catholics and taught about God and the mass, at some stage we still have to make that choice to believe in God and to accept this relationship with him.  The more we live that relationship the more God begins to shine through us and that is how we tell other people about God, not by the words we speak, but primarily by the way we live our relationship with God.

It is only in God that we will find true and lasting happiness and that’s why He calls us to follow the path that leads to him.  It is not an easy path, but it is the most worthwhile path and all of us without exception can respond to that invitation, but we have to consciously make a decision to do that. 

The time has come,’ Jesus said, ‘and the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2nd Sunday Year B (Gospel: John 1:35-42) ‘Behold the Lamb of God’


The apparition at Knock, Ireland

On Thursday 21st Aug, 1879, at about 8.00pm an apparition was seen at one end of the Church.  What the people saw (about 15 people) was an altar in the centre, with a lamb on it and angels floating around it in the background.  To the left of the altar was Our Lady accompanied by St. Joseph on one side and St. John the Apostle on the other side.  Apparently the light from the Lamb was far brighter than that of Our Lady and the two others.  It lasted for about two hours in all and the people stood there in the pouring rain praying.  One of the young men who studied with me in the seminary, a man by the name of Jarlath Trench, was the grandchild of one of the witnesses who had been at Knock when the apparition happened.  It makes it seem very recent with that connection.

We usually think of this apparition as a Marian apparition, but the truth is that the apparition was really an apparition of Jesus appearing as the Lamb of God on the altar,  accompanied by Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John.  This might seem trivial, but it is important because what it is telling us is that Jesus, the Lamb of God is at the centre, and especially for us Catholics it speaks powerfully with the vision of the Lamb on the altar: that is, Jesus coming to us in the mass.  As you know, during the mass the priest holds up the Sacred Host at Communion and says ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.’  The reason the priest does this is just to show us Jesus present in the Eucharist.  The priest does the same thing at the consecration so that the people can see the host which is no longer bread but the Body of Christ.

The apparition in Knock happened back at a time when the people were desperately poor and just recovering from the great potato famine (1845-52) which reduced the population by about 25%.  The vision was a beautiful message of hope from heaven, both to let the people know that God was aware of their suffering and also to remind them of the treasure that they had in their midst.  They had almost nothing materially, but God was with them and they had Jesus the Lamb of God coming on the altar in each mass, just as we still have today.  Jesus was at the centre and the strongest light was coming from him, as you would expect it to be.  And where Jesus is, Our Lady and the angels and saints are too.

In the Gospel today John the Baptist, whose job was to get the people ready for the coming of the Son of God in their midst, says: ‘There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’  Then the disciples start following Jesus, which is exactly what was meant to happen.  These various accounts are there for us not just for curiosity sake, but they are telling us something now as well.  God is still saying to us through the Scriptures, ‘Jesus is the One to follow.’  He is the only One of importance.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who is given to us in each mass.  When we have him we have everything, because He is what makes sense of our life and why we are here.

Just before we receive Communion during the mass the priest says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb,’ we all say, ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’  That short prayer says so much.  So often when we become aware of our unworthiness we can be tempted to think, ‘Maybe I should not receive Holy Communion because I am a sinner,’ and people sometimes say this to me.  Yes we are sinners, and yes we certainly are not worthy to receive the eternal God into our own bodies, but it is God himself who makes this possible.  ‘Lord I am not worthy [to receive you] that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’  If God is prepared to come to us, we should not be afraid to receive God in Holy Communion. 

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Baptism of the Lord Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:7-11)

‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

One of the many benefits that comes from a more mixed society, where we have people from many different parts of the world living together, is that it helps to broaden our minds.   I lived in a religious community for a while and we often had people from different parts of the world.  One morning when we came down for breakfast two of us noticed that someone had cut the loaf of bread not from top to bottom into slices the way we usually do, but from one side to the other across the middle.  In other words they had done the complete opposite of what we were used to.  The two of us who noticed this at the same time both began to complain saying, ‘Who is the idiot that did this!’  But then almost immediately we both began to check ourselves and say, ‘I suppose there is no law that says you can’t do it this way!’ and we laughed at ourselves and how fixed we can be in our ways.  It was a Taiwanese priest living with us whose culture is very different from ours.  Something as simple as this helped us to see how small-minded we can be in our ways. 

In the second reading today St. Peter says he realised how anyone can be acceptable to God if they do what is right.  That might seem obvious enough to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them at that time.  The Jewish people believed that they were specially chosen by God, and that meant anyone else who was not Jewish was not so important to God.  But then the Lord began to teach the Apostles that in fact He was there for everyone, of every nationality and creed.  It took them a while to come around to this way of thinking.  In fact the first few times some Gentiles (non-Jews) received the gift of the Spirit, the Apostles were quite surprised.  They hadn’t expected this.  They didn’t think that Gentiles would be given the gift of the Spirit.  God was helping them to gradually broaden their horizons.  Everyone, of every nationality and creed was being called into God’s family.  The Lord showed this to St. Peter through a vision (See Acts 10:9-16).  Peter saw a vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals and birds.  Then he heard a voice saying:
“Now Peter, Kill and eat!”  But Peter answered, “Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything profane or unclean.”  Again a second time, the voice spoke to him, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane”.  This was repeated three times and suddenly the container was drawn up to heaven again (Acts 10:13-16).

This vision helped Peter to understand that no-one was ‘unclean’ in God’s sight if they tried to live the right way.  The Lord was helping Peter to see a bigger picture, but as with most of us, this happens gradually.  Everyone is called to be part of God’s family.

After Jesus was Baptised in the Jordan a vision was seen of the Spirit coming down on him in the form of a dove.  The Father in heaven was empowering him with the gift of the Spirit, to enable him to live the mission that the Father had given him, to teach the people about God and to offer himself for the sins of the world.  Right after Jesus baptism he was led into the desert and then he began his public ministry. The Spirit gave him the strength and wisdom He needed for this difficult mission. 

Perhaps another reason why people were allowed to see the Spirit descend in bodily form was to remind us of what happens when we are baptised.  We are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life.  It is not a way of life that we can live by our own strength; it would be too difficult.  This is why God gives us the gift of his Spirit to guide, strengthen and teach us.  Jesus said to the Apostles that after He had ascended into heaven He would send the Spirit, ‘Who will teach you everything’ (John 16:13b).  Our minds can only take so much, and we are continually learning about the ways of God. 

When we are baptised we state what it is we believe in and we commit ourselves to this way of faith.  For many of us someone else will have spoken on our behalf if we were baptised as infants, but this is done on the understanding that we will be taught about our faith as we grow up, otherwise it would make no sense.  If we come for baptism as adults we will be examined before-hand to make sure we understand the commitment we are taking on.  But the greatest part of Baptism is the gift of the Spirit who will teach us all we need to know, and who will continue to challenge us in different ways so that we grow ever closer to God. 
‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).