Saturday, April 25, 2015

4th Sunday of Easter Year B (Gospel: John 10:11-18) Our vocation is to live our life in Christ

A shepherd leading his sheep in Palestine

 Last week I had the privilege of going to the Holy Land for the second time.  It was an extraordinary experience to suddenly be standing in the very places that we so often read about in the Scriptures and to see what they look like.  Two things I saw struck me, especially in relation to what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. One day during my first trip, we were celebrating mass in the place that is celebrated as ‘The Shepherd’s Field’ where the shepherds are said to have seen the angels in the sky when Jesus was born.  As we were getting ready to celebrate this mass the heads of two sheep popped up over a hill that was at one end of the field and looked at us.  Then they came towards us and right into the middle of us, sniffing us, poking around in our bags and curious as to what we were about.  They weren’t afraid of us at all.  It struck me that they were a very different kind of animal to the sheep I grew up seeing, which are very nervous of people.  These sheep even looked quite different.  Later in the trip as we drove along in our bus I noticed on one of the dusty hills that we passed, a shepherd walking along with a line of sheep behind him, one after the other.  This is not something you see here either. Where I grew up the sheep have to be herded and driven, but it made much more sense of several things that we hear about Jesus ‘leading’ his sheep and the words in today’s Gospel, “I know my sheep and mine know me.”  In this case they were obviously following the shepherd because they knew him and trusted him.  They had some kind of relationship with him.  I understand that the shepherds who look after those kind of sheep also have individual sounds to call each sheep.

Wilderness around Palestine
 This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and also vocation’s Sunday.  The two are very much linked together.  We usually think of a vocation in terms of a religious vocation, but in fact only a very small percentage of people are called to priesthood or religious life. However, all of us have a vocation, or ‘calling’ (which is what the word vocation means), and that calling is to live the life of faith. 

One of the things that is quite striking about the Christian and Jewish faith is that God is the one who seeks us out first and calls us to be in relationship with him.  God is the one who comes looking for us. In the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve have suddenly become aware that they are naked and they are afraid, it says that God came to the garden and called to them.  “Adam, (which means ‘human being’) where are you?”  But after the first sin (the ‘original sin’) the first humans are now afraid and suspicious of God.  Adam replies, “I heard the sound of you in the garden.  I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid” (Gen 3:10). 

One of the consequences of the first sin (whatever exactly that was we don’t know, except that it was some kind of a rejection of God’s authority, or rebellion against God’s word) was that we became afraid and suspicious of God and of each other.  We still suffer with this fear/suspicion of God.  After a natural disaster, or even a tragic accident, how often do we hear it said, “Why would God do this?”  We are not always convinced that God is good or that God has our best interests at heart and yet this is what God continually tells us through the Scriptures: “My plans for you are for peace and not disaster.”  “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  In spite of our mistrust and confusion, God continues to seek us out, to help us know him.  And in the Gospel today Jesus gives the beautiful words, “I am the good shepherd...the one who lays down his life for his sheep.”  The Lord gives everything for us, including his life.

Our primary vocation or calling is simply to respond to God and to enter into relationship with him.  How we respond to that call is through our life of faith.  It is never forced on us; God simply invites us to follow him.  The wonderful thing is that it can be lived in any way of life and in any circumstance; also that there are as many ways of living it as there are people.  The tragedy is that often we get so caught up with the worries of this life that we lose sight of what our life is about.  Sometimes it is only when a tragedy happens, or we become sick, that we are jolted awake and we begin to realise that we are forgetting what we are here for; that is, to come to know God, to learn to love and serve and to choose God who is our fulfilment.

Our first calling is to be in relationship with God.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

2nd Sunday of Easter, Year B. Divine Mercy Sunday (Gospel: John 20:19-31) Do not be afraid

As a child—I think it was because I had such a vivid imagination—I seemed to be afraid of almost everything.  Maybe it’s because of that, but today I hate to see anyone afraid.  Sadly at the moment there are so many people living in fear, especially fear of not being able to cope or provide for their families because of all that is happening.  It is very understandable and yet it is also one thing that God does not want for us.  366 times in the Scriptures are the words ‘Do not be afraid.’  God wants us to be at peace.

2000 years ago on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles all abandoned Jesus, even though they believed He was the Son of God.  Judas betrayed him for money.  Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus.  They all betrayed him.  Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room in fear.  They were afraid first because they knew they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates.  Perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them because they had betrayed Jesus, the Son of God.  It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way either by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens.  Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’  The first thing he does is take away their fear.  There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before.  There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful.  Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’  ‘It’s alright.’

 I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed the Lord by my actions.  Sometimes I even wish I was not a priest, because then I would not have to deal with what is sacred.  It is difficult to have to deal with the sacred when you are aware that you are a sinner.  It is easier to run and hide.  Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish.  Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease.  ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned.  Peace be with you.’  God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out.  He knows what we are like.  He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace.  I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus would not believe the words of others that Jesus was alive.  When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful.  And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe.  No giving out, no words of recrimination, but instead Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe.  No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.

In this gospel Jesus also gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins in his name.  Why? So that we need not ever be living in fear of God.  Through the priesthood we have the concrete reassurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we can move on when we have done wrong; so that we need not live in fear.  No condemnation, only encouragement and love.

This is also what we celebrate today as Divine Mercy Sunday; the extraordinary mercy of God, which is way beyond our understanding. One of the reasons it’s probably so hard for us to understand it is because we never experience this kind of mercy from other human beings, so we don’t know what to make of it and we find it hard to really believe in it. So often I’ve heard people say to me, ‘Will God forgive me?’ And yet that is what the Scriptures are full of. If we have the slightest response to God’s call, He only shows us mercy and compassion.
Peace be with you.  It is I, do not be afraid.’

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter Sunday (Gospel: John 20:1-9) I am the living one and I hold the keys of death

All is ready for Easter Day
 There is an extraordinary line in St. Matthew’s account of the passion.  During the trial of Jesus, because there is conflicting evidence against him which is of no use to them, the High Priest eventually asks Jesus directly:
I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  

And Jesus answered:
 “The words are your own.  Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:63-64).

In other words, Jesus says “Yes I am the Son of God.”  For Jesus to make a claim like that he must have been either a liar, insane, or he was telling the truth, because it is an extraordinary thing to say.  We believe it was the truth and that is exactly who Jesus is, not just a holy man, or a prophet, but the Son of God.

In the book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, St. John the disciple of Jesus who stood at the cross, recalls a vision he had where a man appeared to him.  He says that he saw what seemed to be a man.  His hair was white as wool, or snow.  His eyes were like fire.  His skin was like shining bronze and out of his mouth came a double-edged sword.  He says that he was so afraid when he saw this that he fell down as if dead.  Then this person or being that he saw touched him and said 
Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld” (Rev 1:17b-18).

Springtime Florida
Who was this person?  It was of course Jesus, risen from death.  Not just the Jesus whose name we so often hear used carelessly as a swear word, but Jesus who is the Son of God.  Now John, who had this vision, had known and lived with Jesus for at least three years, so why would Jesus appear to him in such a terrifying way?  Perhaps to remind him and us of  who Jesus really is, that is, the Son of God.

From a human point of view Good Friday is the ultimate sign of despair.  Everything falls apart and everyone is devastated.  There is a terrible miscarriage of justice and Jesus, the one everyone was putting their hope in is tortured in a very savage way and killed.  Even Jesus on the cross feels abandoned by God.  He is not actually abandoned by God but that is how he feels and he cries out “My God, my God why have you abandoned me.”  The ultimate suffering is to feel that we have been abandoned even by God.  From a human point of view it couldn’t get any worse. 

Then we have the silence of Holy Saturday when Jesus is in the tomb.  People are in shock, numb from what has happened and not sure what to do next.  And then we come to Easter Sunday, the opposite of Good Friday and the ultimate symbol of hope.  The unimaginable happens and rumours start to spread that Jesus is alive.  ‘But that is impossible!’ many said. Most of the disciples would not believe it initially, yet that is what happened.  From a human point of view it is impossible and naive to think such a thing could be possible, but there is more than human work here.  The power of God has brought about something extraordinary which no human mind can take in.  This is what God has made known to us.

Springtime and new life.
The reason Easter is the ultimate symbol of hope is because now the worst thing imaginable, which is death, is no longer permanent.  God has opened a doorway for us to something wonderful when we die, so that we can see and be with our loved ones again.  Think of the people you love who are dead.  Without Easter they could not experience happiness now and neither could we when we die.  So now our life has greater purpose than just what happens here and that gives us a greater hope than anything else.  Now we have reason to keep going even when things are difficult.  Now we are given purpose and we have a better sense of what our life is about; that is, our journey that will lead us to God if we remain open to it.
Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld.”

Friday, March 27, 2015

Passion Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:7) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, events which changed the course of history forever.  Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die.  It’s that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet.  They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna!  Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’  Yet within a few days everything changed.  He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed.  Today we read the full account of his passion.  It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one.  That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time.

Everyone suffers, as you know, there are no exceptions.  Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  Sometimes we even feel that God has left us and we are on our own.  This can be so difficult because we believe that at least God won’t let us down even if everyone else does.  But where do we turn when God disappears too?  There is no where left to go.  This is the worst kind of suffering.  Of course the truth is that God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  What does this mean?  It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father.  He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there?  Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God.  By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering, as it were.  After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there.  We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

I think it is also good to remember that even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, that in fact we have not.  But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God.  It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it.

Finally I want to mention Our Lady.  She also was at the foot of the cross.  Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king.  He would be called Son of the Most High God.  What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes?  Although Mary must have suffered terribly at all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope.  She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding.  God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand.  There is so much that we don’t understand, but we try to believe that God knows what God is doing and so we don’t give up.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

5th Sunday of Lent, Year B (Gospel: John 12:20-33) Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies it remains just a single grain

‘Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’

A survey was carried out in America a few years ago to see who were the happiest people and why.  The survey found that the happiest people were old African-American women.  The second happiest people were old Hispanic women.  The third happiest group of people were old women in general.  Why?  Because they had suffered so much throughout their lives. It had taught them so much and they had learned to be at peace and now they were very content and very little would put them out.  I used to notice the same thing with many of the old people when I worked in the hospital. The older people were usually much more patient and tolerant that younger people, even though they would often be suffering more, but they had generally learned to be tolerant and patient.  They weren’t easily phased.

We always wonder when we see people suffering, why we have to suffer so much, especially at the end of someone’s life.  It is the one thing that all of us find hard to face and we have no explanation for.  However, the whole journey of Lent tells us a lot about the place of suffering.

Suffering seems to be an unavoidable part of this life where everything is so imperfect, but it does have its purpose.  God doesn’t want us to suffer, but God brings great good out of the suffering by allowing us to be transformed by it.  However, it is a slow process and we don’t usually see the fruits  of it until afterwards, which makes it all the more difficult.  If at the time of suffering we knew that it would lead to something much greater, it would make it a lot easier, but the problem is that we usually cannot see any point to it at the time and that is part of the suffering.
Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.

The whole life of Jesus is also telling us something about what we are called to.  His life was one of total self-giving.  He lived for others.  Yet in spite of all that he did, he was continually persecuted.  In the end he was betrayed for money, falsely tried, tortured and executed and yet he was totally innocent.  All of this was sickeningly unjust, and yet look at what God brought about from the death and resurrection of Jesus: we are now offered eternal happiness with God when we die.  From the point of view of worldly thinking it makes absolutely no sense, but seen with the eyes of faith we see something quite different and that is why our faith is so important.  It helps us to make sense of what does not make any sense from a human point of view.

You know how angry we all get when we are faced with injustice.  What happened with the economic crash a few years ago is a good example.  The greed of a few causing great suffering for so many and as a result everyone is enraged and rightly so.  It is totally unjust and yet I have no doubt that we will see great good come out of it as well.

It says in the second reading, ‘Although he was Son, Christ learnt to obey through suffering.’  Jesus didn’t want to suffer any more than we do, but he trusted that the Father knew what he was doing, and so he accepted his will.  He became perfect through suffering.  We don’t want to suffer either, but we must also learn to trust that God knows what he is doing.

The society that we live in tells us continually that we should be able to have everything exactly as we want it and whenever we want it, and that we should never have to give in to anyone.  We are told that everything is for our pleasure; but that’s not what Jesus taught us.  He said, ‘Try to enter by the narrow door’ (Lk 13.24).  He also said, ‘Anyone who loves his life loses it, but anyone who hates his life in this world, keeps it for the eternal life’.  Jesus is telling us not to invest everything in this life, because it is passing and what we have here is not really important.  The only thing that is important is what will happen to us in the next life.  We are being faced with a long-term investment.  If we try to find total happiness here, we will be disappointed, because it is not to be found.  It is sad when you see people driven by greed, even if they get away with it.  They are trying to find happiness in this life, through money, but no matter how much they are able to acquire, they still won’t be happy.  It cannot bring happiness, because God has created us in such a way that we will never be completely fulfilled by anything earthly, not even by someone we love dearly. Hopefully we will have many times of great joy, but we will never be completely fulfilled here.

The Lord is telling us not to be afraid of what we have to go through in this life because it is transforming us and helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.  God is well aware of the potential we have and God wants us to reach it.  That is where we must trust him with the process of what He allows happen to us.
Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

4th Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: John 3:14-21) Freedom through the death of Jesus

Will we ever be good enough to get into heaven? I think that is a question that many of us ask and also are afraid of the answer. We know underneath that no matter how hard we try, we keep sinning, we keep struggling with what we know is not right, even if they are small things: gossip, addiction, impurity of one kind or another, resentment and so on. We always seem to fall short of the mark. It is something that I hear a lot in confession. People don’t say it directly, but you can often hear their fear. They know that they don’t seem to be improving.

When Jesus spoke to the Apostles about how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, they asked: ‘Then who can be saved?’ And he gave the disturbing and wonderful answer: ‘For people it is impossible; but not for God. Everything is possible for God.’

St. Paul, to whom Jesus appeared several times , talks about his own struggles with sin: 

I do not understand my own behaviour; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate.  ...the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do. (Cf. Rom 7:14-24)

It is comforting to know that someone like St. Paul also struggled the way everyone else does. You can almost hear his frustration. He finishes up asking, 'Who will save me from this wretched state? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.' That is the key to it.
One of the most central teachings of our faith revolves around this point and so many people miss it. The point is that no matter how hard we try we will always fall short of the mark. We can never be good enough, or holy enough for God. But what’s even more important is that it doesn’t matter, because it is God himself who makes up the difference for us. The perfection that we cannot reach, God makes up  for us and this happens through the death and resurrection of Christ.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.

We hear this message all the time, but I think we don’t always appreciate what that means. It doesn’t just mean that God has won eternal life for us, but also that God makes up for us the goodness that we can not achieve ourselves. So even if we only manage to make it to 70% of the goodness we are supposed to have, God is the one who makes up the other 30%, or 40% or 95%. This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus means. God achieves for us what we cannot do ourselves. That is why we talk about the ‘freedom of the children of God.’ It gives us a freedom so that we don’t have to be afraid of whether we will be good enough to get to heaven or not. God has taken care of that for us. It means that we can be at peace.

Does that mean that we can do anything we want? Certainly not. St. Paul says in the letter to the
Philipians, ‘Continue to work out your salvation in fear and trembling.’ In other words, don’t take it for granted. So we continue to try and live by the Commandments of God and do what is right, so that we will blossom as human beings and become the best version of ourselves that we can be, but as long as we stay open to God we need never be afraid.

God has created us to be with him in heaven. And God will make that happen unless we consciously and deliberately reject him. We do our best and although it will never be good enough for God it doesn’t matter, we can relax. We try to live as we are called to, but we can also be at peace as long as we remain open to God. That’s what it says in the second reading. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.’

This is also what the whole mass is about; the forgiveness of sins. Remember the words the priest prays over the chalice at the consecration: ‘This is the chalice of my blood, which will be shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.’ There is no need for us to be afraid. Everything has already been taken care of.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

3rd Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 4:5-42) The waters of life

This Sunday my homily is based on the Gospel of 3rd Sunday of Lent from Year A, as it is used for the first 'Scrutiny' which is for those about to be received into the Church.

All around us we see signs for Tarot card reading, fortune telling, psychics, all kinds of alternative healing and other practices that come under the general heading of ‘occult’.  We are told to stay away from these things that so many people find fascinating.  Why is this?  What is so wrong with it?  Are we just over-reacting because we do not understand it?

If God tells us to stay away from something, there is a good reason for it.  God does not give us rules just for the sake of rules.  There is a reason for everything.  In the Old Testament in the book of Deuteronomy it says:
You must not have in your midst anyone who... practices divination, or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices magic or who consults the spirits, no diviner or one who asks questions of the dead.  For the Lord abhors those who do these things. (Deut 18:10-11)

So what is the problem with these thing?  Anything that is ‘occult’ is generally an attempt to gain knowledge or power of the future. 

One of the greatest things that God has given us is the gift of free will.  All through this life we have the freedom to choose to do what we want, even to rejecting God, which is quite amazing.  God does not reveal the future to us because if He did it would influence our free will.  If I thought there was going to be an earthquake in the city centre tomorrow, the chances are I would avoid the city centre.  If I think I know what is going to happen, I am most likely to make decisions based on that information, but the problem is that then I am not totally free to choose, because my free will has been influenced.  That is the main problem with things such as fortune telling, tarot card reading, etc.  We think we are gaining knowledge of the future, but this influences our freedom.

It is also true that we have no way of knowing whether the information we are given is true or not and perhaps more importantly, where it is coming from.  If God deliberately does not reveal the future to us, then the information is not coming from God.  So where is it coming from and how can we trust that it is reliable?  We are dabbling in the world of the spirit, without knowing what we are dealing with and make no mistake about it Satan is very cunning and knows how to deceives us.  Jesus himself called him ‘the father of lies.’  And don’t be fooled by the fact that a fortune teller starts of with a Christian prayer, as some of them do.  If the Lord tells us that these things are detestable to him, then we would be wise to stay away from them. 

I know of a woman who was given the initials of someone she was told she would marry.  And she met a man with those initials, and she married him, and it was a disaster.  If you have dabbled in any of these things confess them and let them not have any kind of influence over you, spiritual or otherwise.

Now listen to what Jesus says to the woman at the well:
If you only knew what God was offering you and who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.

What is God offering us?  What is this living water?  First of all it is the life of faith, the path to God, the truth about God as given to us by Jesus who is Son of God.  Jesus is either telling us the truth or he is not.  If he is—and we say we believe he is—then we need to listen.  For two thousand years the teachings of Christ have been guiding people on the path to God.  The fact that it has lasted that long is itself a sign that this must be from God, especially when you look at the history of the Church, which is nothing to boast about.  Yet in spite of that, the message of God is still passed on, through sinful people like me it is true, but passed on none the less.  It is there for anyone who wants it.  Many things are continually offered to us, but not all of them are good and not all of them will help us.  What we believe is that what God offers us—the waters of life—is what will lead us to total happiness, beginning now and fulfilled in the world to come.  This is what the Lord is teaching us.  Do we believe that? 

Sometimes I think it comes back to something as basic as asking ourselves, ‘Do I believe the Scriptures are from God?’  ‘Do I believe that Jesus teaches us through his Church?’  If we believe that, then we need to listen to it.  If we don’t believe that, we shouldn’t be here in the first place.  God offers us his word to guide us, his Body and Blood to feed us, his forgiveness to heal us, but if we want to follow the path that He is showing us, then we must listen to what he teaches us and act on it.
If you only knew what God was offering you and who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.