Saturday, November 28, 2015

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Lk 21:25-28, 34-36)

I always think that it’s lovely that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the weather is often the most miserable (unless you are in Florida where I am at the moment!).  Outside it is usually dark, cold and wet.  Then we begin to light candles and put up colored lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King.  It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy.  ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things.  We are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time.  Each Sunday in the Creed we say that, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’  We don’t know when that will be, but we believe that it will happen.  The Lord asks us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die, but the important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come, and above all to die for us so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.

The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us.  The Lord is constantly speaking to us but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted.  People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It's usually through other people or through the Scriptures. It has taken me quite a while to learn how to listen so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to try and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us.  That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.

One thing that is characteristic of the Gospels is that they are full of hope.  The message of God to us—the Good News—is always one of hope and it is certainly something we need in a world where we are constantly hearing of so many terrible things happening around us.  However, we don't hear of all the wonderful things that are constantly happening around us.  The many acts of kindness that people continually do for each other, looking out for each other especially when we are struggling.  This is the Spirit at work in us and this is what makes the world bearable, in spite of the awful things that happen.

So for the time of Advent let us ask the Lord to help us hear him again, by being quiet every so often, by stopping what we are doing for a moment and maybe just saying, ‘Come Lord Jesus.’

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (John 18:33b-37) Power in weakness

In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John has a vision of a being that terrifies him. This is how he describes what he saw:
…I saw one like a Son of man… His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze… out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead, but then the being in the vision touched him and said: ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld’ (Rev 1:17-18). 

Who was this being? It was of course Jesus, the one that John had lived with for three years. Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this frightening form? Probably to remind John and us, who He is. Not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead. This is the one we believe in. When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.

At the moment we are seeing huge changes in the world around us. So much earthly power which seemed to be untouchable has collapsed over night. Even the great structures of the Church seem to be crumbling. In many ways it is a very disturbing, even frightening time, but I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in. If we put our trust and hope in earthly power we will be disappointed as we know only too well, because people will let us down. If we rely too much on the human side of our Church we will be disappointed, as we have been, but the one we trust in and believe in is Jesus Christ who is God. All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him. Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one. It is not. There is no question of evil being equal to God. All things are subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.

As a priest—especially at the moment—I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus who is God, is the one I worship and try to serve. If I stay focused on the world around me I could easily get depressed or disillusioned. If I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church I also find it hard to keep going, but the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge. He is master of all things.  What we have seen happening in the Church in recent years is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin. And so He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we see happening. I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him. There is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

When people have a certain amount of power they like to show it off and make it felt.  People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off as much, but God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness. This is an extraordinary thing and difficult for us to understand.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross. The Lord God did the exact opposite to what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure. So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realising that what they looked at was a demonstration of the power of God. This is why we use the symbol of the cross so much and why it is so powerful. This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death forever. 

St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength. We are never alone no matter what we are going through. God is always with us.

Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we understand it and this is where many people find it hard to accept. We want something that we can see and touch. We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all. However, God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.

If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.

Every being in heaven, on earth and under the earth,
shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus;
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Thursday, November 12, 2015

33rd Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mark 13:24-32) Christ will come again

At this time of the year before Advent begins, the readings always focus on the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. We do this because it was one of the things that Jesus taught. Jesus taught that he would come again, and that when He does come it will be for a time of judgement. All people will be judged. Each week we say in the creed, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead’.

It can be tempting to discard what we don’t understand, especially if it sounds a little silly. The idea of Jesus appearing in glory and coming on the clouds to judge the world may seem hard to swallow. However, it would be a great mistake on our part if we began to just take the parts of Jesus’ teaching that seem to make sense and leave the other ones. Perhaps a better approach is to say we accept all his teachings, but we don’t understand many of them. ‘I don’t understand, but I believe.’  That’s what faith is.

If the Lord is to come to judge the living and the dead, it implies two things. First, that there must be a heaven and a hell. Otherwise there would be no point in judging us if it were going to make no difference. Heaven is the total happiness that being in the presence of God will bring. This is something that we can not understand because we have no experience of it yet, but this will be the most complete happiness we could ever know and this is what God has planned for us; that is what He wants for us and God will make that happen unless we consciously and deliberately reject God. Then there is the total loss of God for those who reject him, and this is hell, the loss of everything that can bring happiness. Jesus has taught us that this is real, otherwise it would make no sense that we have free will, the power to accept or reject God.

The second thing that the Lord’s coming implies is that we must make an account of our lives to God. We will be held accountable for our actions. I often think that when we hear about so many of these tribunals which cost millions and show the wholesale corruption that goes on, it can be very frustrating because the people who get away with the most never seem to have to pay, either because they are powerful enough, or because of the legal system, they get off the hook. It’s wrong and it happens every day; but if a young person steals something from the local supermarket, you can be sure he or she will be brought to court and they’ll pay for it with a fine or with jail time. However, even the rich and powerful must remember that their power and wealth won’t be with them when they die. They too will have to make an account of themselves to God and nothing is hidden from God. I find this consoling, not because I wish evil on anyone, but because at least I know that in the end there will be justice.

Is this a reason for us to be afraid? Of course not, unless we are deliberately trying to fool God. If we try to live as the Lord teaches us and make even the smallest effort, then we have nothing to fear. If we just get on with the day to day tasks that we are presented with and try to be honest before God, then we have nothing to worry about. The fact is that we are all sinners, we all fall short of the mark and none of us ever get it exactly right, but God isn’t put off by this. The Lord sees the heart. God knows when we are doing our best and trying to live as best we can. He knows all the pressures that we’re under. He knows how difficult it is to try and survive in the world. The Lord looks at each of our hearts and judges us by what is in our heart. So there is no reason for us to be afraid if we make even the smallest effort. 

It is also important to remember that God is infinitely merciful and mercy is something which is not deserved. God’s justice and mercy go together. Think of all the times that we see people in the paper convicted of some terrible crime, and we say, ‘I hope he gets life,’ or ‘I hope they kill him…’ It’s just as well for our sake that God is more merciful with us than we are with each other, or none of us would stand a chance. 

Another reason why we can never judge someone else is because we don’t know what’s in their heart. We don’t know what has influenced another person’s actions, or what pressures they are under. That’s why Jesus teaches us, ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged’. Only God can judge, and only God will judge perfectly justly. We can judge the outward actions of a person, but we cannot judge the heart.

There is a lovely story of a young man who was in Napoleon’s army. He deserted because he was tired of war and afraid, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death and so he was to be executed; but his mother met with Napoleon and pleaded on her son’s behalf. She explained that this man was her only son and all that she had in the world. She asked Napoleon to show him some mercy, but Napoleon replied, ‘He doesn’t deserve mercy.’ The woman said to him, ‘If he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’ This is what we also try and remember about God.  Mercy is not deserved. It is given out of love and compassion.  You can see this from the extraordinary compassion that Jesus showed to the various people he met during his life on earth. Even the ones whose lives were a total mess, he showed such respect and love. God is infinitely merciful and so if we make any effort at all, we have nothing to be afraid of.

Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and it is something that we can rejoice in when it happens, because we belong to him, we are his children.

Friday, November 6, 2015

32nd Sunday, Year B (Gospel: Mark 12:38-44) The Lord provides

I heard a story about an old Dominican who died recently. Maurice Fearan was his name. He was giving a retreat in Kashmir (India) in a place called Shrinagar beside the Dall lake. It is 7000 feet above sea level and a big tourist attraction; very beautiful apparently. It turned out that so many people came to the retreat that they had to give him accommodation where the retreat was being held, so they put him on one of the tourist boats. So each evening after the retreat he would go back to the tourist boat, have a light meal and sleep. 

One evening when he was eating, a young lady from Argentina joined him. While they were chatting a storm started to blow up on the lake and it began to come towards them.  Eventually there were flashes of lightening near them and they were both getting nervous, especially since they were on water. Then the young lady leaned towards him and said, ‘Father, I’d like to go to confession, but before I go to confession I want to tell you something.’  And then she said, ‘Father I don’t believe in hell.’  Maurice said, ‘Why don’t you believe in hell?’  She said, ‘I am an only child and my father loves me completely and I know that no matter what I do, my father would never reject me.  Sometimes he may do things which embarrass me, but I could never do anything which would embarrass him.  No matter what I do he would never reject me and so I don’t believe God would ever reject me either.’  Isn’t that powerful?  And I think that is the approach we should take too. 

I think we often pray ‘too small’ as you might say. We are afraid that we can’t have the very best, or that God might frown on us if we expect too much and yet Jesus taught the very opposite. ‘How many of you would give your child a snake if he asked for a fish; or a stone if he asked for bread?’ And then he said, ‘If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father look after you?’ It is a wonderful teaching and probably one that we could do with reflecting on more. The Father wants to give us everything.  He wants the very best for us always.

In the first reading God is teaching us never to be afraid, because if we trust in his word He will never let us down.  The woman had almost nothing left and the prophet Elijah asked her to share it.  She was afraid, but Elijah said, ‘Trust in the word of God and you will be alright.’  So she did trust him and she was alright. God invites us to do the same.  So often we are afraid that we won’t be able to manage and yet the Lord keeps telling us, ‘Trust in me and I will look after your every need’ and He does.

One thing that the Lord has taught me as a priest is never to be afraid to give away money to people who need it. I don’t just mean people who come to the door asking for money, but people I come across who I know are in trouble. They are the ones who rarely ask, but the Lord often lets me see their need. People often give me money because I am a priest and I believe it is part of my work to pass it on whenever the Lord shows me such need.  But I have always found that every time I have given away money, sometimes reluctantly as I feel maybe it’s too much or that I might be stuck, within 24 hours I will be given the money back by someone else and usually more. This has happened to me so many times that I always believe it is God’s way of teaching me to trust him. He looks after all our needs and He will never be outdone in generosity. 

In the Gospel today Jesus sees the poor woman putting in what seemed to be a very small amount, but He knew it was everything she had. God sees what we do and He constantly encourages us to be generous, especially with those who are in need. Remember God will never be outdone in generosity. If we are generous, God will be far more generous. We forget that Our Father in heaven is the Lord of all the universe. God has lots of money. Any father will give his children whatever they need and with as much generosity as he can.  Our Father in heaven is never outdone in generosity, so let us never be afraid to be generous.