Saturday, December 26, 2009

Feast of the Holy Family, Year C (Gospel: Luke 2: 41-52) -God always encourages

My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old. One time when I was about 4 I was brought to a party of a school friend, but for some reason I decided that I didn’t like the party and that I wanted to go home. I figured that the best way to do this was secretly. So I told my friend that I would hide out in the garden and that he should come and try to find me after a few minutes. I then made my escape and headed home. The only problem was that I had no idea how to get home. So I headed off and asked a post-man how to get to ‘York Road’ in Dun Laoghaire, where we lived. He looked at me suspiciously but told me where to go. When I finally arrived home I found a big police motorbike in the front drive. Everyone was out looking for me. My poor parents were not the better for it. Family life is not easy.

This is a feast day which I often think makes people a bit depressed, although we don’t admit it, because it just seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be. Things go wrong, we want to kill each other, we drive each other crazy. Someone gets into trouble and seems to let the family down. Marriages don’t always work out.

Then we are presented with the ‘holy family’, who we imagine were living in bliss all the time. That is not reality. They were poor. When Jesus was born they were homeless. They then had to emigrate to escape an attempt on the child’s life. When he was brought to the temple, Simeon told them he was destined to be a sign that would be rejected. He would not be a ‘success’. Later they lost him for three days. Can you imagine the stress of losing one of your children for three days?

So why are they supposed to be our model? Perhaps because they had their priorities right. God was at the center of this family. It was the right environment for the person of Jesus to grow and mature. Jesus had to grow up as a person just as all of us do, and that takes quite a long time. It involves a lot of learning on the part of each of us, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on the part of our parents. But how we are formed is vital. We know almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, but no doubt it was very important for his growing and maturing as a person, and to help him be ready for the strange mission that He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God.

The main role of our families is to provide a safe, loving environment for us to grow up in, so that we will blossom as people and learn how to deal with the world. None of us come from perfect families, but that doesn’t matter.

I think we can often get discouraged thinking about how things might have been, or should be, but the bottom line is that we are the way we are. We come from the kind of imperfect families that we come from. The path through our lives often takes unexpected turns and things can work out a lot worse than we had intended. Does it matter? Not in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord is not the one to say ‘You should be different’.

Think of all the people that Jesus dealt with in the Gospels. He took them exactly as they were, including several people who were causing public scandal. God always encourages, but Satan discourages. What is important is not how we should be, but how open we are to change. If we are listening and open, then the Lord can lead us forward. All God needs is our openness. The Lord knows well that we often mess up, but that is not important. The only thing that is important is that we are willing to get up again, to begin again and turn to the Lord for help as often as is necessary.

God always encourages and will always welcomes us back.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas 2009 (Gospel: John 1:1-18) God will always be with us

About a year ago I heard the following story about the Jewish people, and I was quite shocked when I heard it. Someone was explaining that for the Jewish people the three most terrible things that happened to them in their history were: both times the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the holocaust during the second World War when several million Jews were killed. When I heard this first I found myself thinking, 'how on earth could the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem be as bad as the Jewish Holocaust?', Then the man went on to explain that for the Jewish people the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was as terrible as the holocaust because it was like having God taken away from them. They could no longer offer sacrifice to God for their sins. They felt that they were cut off from God, in some sense. One of the jobs of the prophets at that time was to help them to understand that just because they had lost the temple and they had been sent into exile, didn’t mean that God was no longer with them. God was with them just as much, but in a different way. It took them a while to get their heads around this.

All throughout history God continues to surprise us in the ways that He comes among us and in the way that God works among us. No one expected God to visit his people in the person of Jesus, beginning in the womb of Mary and then as a totally helpless newborn baby; then to spend only 33 or so years on earth and for the last three years as a wandering preacher, eventually being tortured and killed. How could that be God? But we believe it was.

Since the time of Jesus we say that in each mass Jesus is present to us in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. I always think of the words of St. Paul in the earliest account of the mass that we have (1 Cor 11:23), when he says, ‘this is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you...’ and then he goes on to describe the mass. He is saying ‘I didn’t make this up’ and neither did any of the other disciples of Jesus. ‘Jesus himself did this and told us to keep doing it,’ so that he could be with us in this bizarre ritual we call the mass. That is why we don’t replace it and do something else, because we believe it was Jesus who gave this to us, and through this ritual he continues to make himself present to us.

So what has all this got to do with Christmas you may ask? I’m getting to that! The Lord continues to come to us in the most unexpected ways and when the structures on earth which represent him, such as the Church, begin to get caught up in the wrong things, such as power and prestige, then God pulls down those structures and starts again, because so often God seems to prefer to work through simple, humble means, such as a new born baby in a crib. No grand entrance, but quietly walking among the ‘little people’ you could say. That’s also what Jesus spent his ministry on earth doing, walking among the little people, the people who weren’t considered important.

I am sure that part of what we are seeing at the moment is the Lord helping us to rediscover him in simplicity. The big structures are being knocked down, and this is good because they were no longer serving us in the right way. But the Lord is still with us and continues to make himself known to us in each mass, through the Scriptures, through the Eucharist, through each other. However, it is very easy to miss him if we are focused on the wrong thing. If we are only focused on the big impressive (earthly) structures, or only on scandals and how they are reported, then we may think that God is no longer here. But if we are open to seeing him in unexpected places, such as a crib, or in the mass where there are sometimes just a few present, then we will begin to realise that God is just as much with us now, but that perhaps we need to look with new eyes.

This is the beautiful thing about the feast of Christmas. It is so unexpected and so simple. It is definitely not how we would have done it, but it is how God loves to make himself known to us, in simplicity and littleness. It is unimpressive by worldly standards, maybe even disappointing, but God is here and God will always be here as long as we remain open to recognising him.

‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us.’
‘The Light shines in the darkness
and the darkness has not overcome it.’

Wishing you all God's blessing and peace for Christmas and the year ahead.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

4th Sunday of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 1:39-44) - Blessed is she who believed

In the Bible there are several characters who were called ‘blessed’ because of their faith. Abraham was told that he would have a child when he was almost 100 years old and his wife was also an old woman. By our way of thinking it couldn’t have happened, but he believed and it did happen.

Zachariah was told his wife Elizabeth would have a baby, even though she had been barren all her life and was now also an old woman. When the angel Gabriel told him this he found it hard to believe and said so to the angel. The angel Gabriel wasn’t too impressed and said, ‘I am Gabriel who stand before God. Since you have not believed me, here is a sign for you. You will be struck dumb until the time comes for this to happen.’ And he was struck dumb until after the baby was born. So even though he doubted, it still happened!

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would have a baby, but not by human means. She believed, even though she didn’t understand, and it happened. The angel also reminded her that ‘nothing is impossible to God.’

All of these people and many others too, were told to believe even though it didn’t make any sense to them, and they believed, even though they didn't understand. When Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth said to her, ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promises made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ I wonder would many of these things have happened if the people involved had refused to believe until they were sure, until they were able to know these things were true?

At times like these when the very structures of our Church seem to be falling apart, it can be very difficult to believe. God seems to have abandoned us, or the Church suddenly does not seem to be from God any more from what we are hearing. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is difficult to believe at the best of times, but we cling to our faith because it comes from God. The Lord is with us and has always been with us. We must not be afraid of earthly structures that change or indeed collapse, because they are only earthly structures. That is really what we are seeing: earthly and human structures changing. Why is all this happening? Because God loves his people and in his mercy He is bringing about changes that are absolutely essential for us to grow. It is the mercy of God that is allowing all this to happen and it is for our own good. And even though it is difficult and painful right now, that is where we are called to believe that God knows what He is doing and will see us through all of this and out the far side.

I don’t understand but I believe. I believe that the Lord is with us and will always be with us, so there is no reason to be afraid. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by all that is happening, perhaps a good thing to focus on now right now is the mystery of Christmas. God visits his people in the form of a totally helpless new born baby. Angels appear in the sky to announce this strange event. But they don’t announce it to the great people of the time, they announce it to the poorest of the poor who are looking after the animals in the fields. The king goes mad out of jealousy and tries to have the baby killed. All these things are quite bizarre and seem like a fairy-tale from a human point of view. But we believe them because it is God who has made them known to us.

In this mass God becomes present to us in a tiny piece of bread we call Holy Communion. There is so much that we don’t understand, but God has never asked us to understand these things, only to believe them, because He has made them known to us. The Lord has promised us that He will always be with us to guide us, and He has also promised us that the darkness cannot overcome the light. If we believe that, then there is nothing for us to be afraid of. ‘Blessed is she who believed the promises made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’

Saturday, December 12, 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:10-18) What I want is your happiness

I always think it is great that Christmas comes to us in the depths of winter when it is so miserable here. Outside it is dark and dreary, but then we begin to light candles, put up decorations and the Christmas tree. Advent is meant to be a season of hope, and I think perhaps we need that hope more than ever this year. All we are hearing around us is bad news and that can really bring us down.

For the three years I was studying in Rome (2002-05)I was always struck at how much more positive my own outlook was. I think it was partly because I wasn’t all the time hearing bad news. I often heard others priests say the same thing, that it was a relief to get out of Ireland sometimes, because our thinking—and I suppose they were talking about the Church in particular—always seemed to be so negative. We were only hearing about what we hadn’t got, and how awful everything was. The truth is that if we have a roof over our heads, our health and enough to eat we are doing alright. Now hopefully we’ll have a lot more than the bare minimum too, but the point is that we don’t actually need an awful lot to be content.

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who is on the verge of losing her house because she has no job at the moment and is finding it very difficult to pay the mortgage. She was telling me that usually at Christmas she bought herself a new coat and a few other things to celebrate, but this year she can’t afford to do any of that. But she said that she also realised that it really doesn’t matter if she can’t buy any of these things and I think it helped her to realise how much she actually has. If we have our health and a few people around us whom we love, then we have an awful lot.

When I visit people who are dying I am often struck by the fact that the only thing they usually want is to have someone with them if possible, and if it is a loved one it is even better. All the other things that they worked hard for during their lives disappear into insignificance. Very little really matters when it comes down to it.

Perhaps the economic pressure that a lot of people are under right now will help us to discover what is really important. If we have the basics and a few people around whom we love, then we actually have an awful lot. Everything else is a bonus.

Finally in the Gospel today, people are asking John what should they do to prepare for the coming of Christ and he tells them to 'be content with what you have.' It is a simple but powerful message. Then when he is asked if he is the Christ, and he says no, he goes on to paint a pretty scary picture of what the Christ will be like. He will be someone great, someone immensely powerful who will baptise with fire and the Spirit of God. He is the one who will bring true justice and noone will escape his hand. But what is most important is that this one who is coming, who is so powerful and to be feared, is coming to help us. He is on our side, coming to show us which way to go and to tell us again and again, ‘don’t be afraid because I am with you.’

Saturday, December 5, 2009

2nd Sundy of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:1-6) -Why I remain as a priest during times of scandal-

In California where the enormous Redwood trees grow to over 350 feet, they discovered that they had got so good at protecting these trees from forest fires that no new ones were growing. Then they realised that forest fires were actually necessary every once in a while, to crack open the seeds of the Redwoods. Only the heat of the fire was great enough to do this. Sometimes you need complete devastation so that new growth can take place. Maybe that is some of what we are seeing in our Church at the moment.

The day before yesterday (Friday) I wrote my homily for this weekend, but then I had to drive up to Ballina to give a couple of lectures there. As I was driving up and praying, I felt that it would be better to leave that homily aside and tell you why I remain a priest at this time.

Even though this last week has been a difficult time for all of us, especially if your faith means anything to you, one thing that has been amazing is the amount of affirmation and encouragement that I have received. I have met so many people who have told me that they are praying for me, it is very uplifting. That tells me that faith means more to the people of this country than the media would like us to believe. I think it’s good that we recognise that too.

If ever there was a time to quit being a priest, or I needed an excuse to have no more to do with the Church, this would be it. The funny thing is that all these events seem to give me more determination than ever to keep going and I would like to tell you why. The reason is this: first of all I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, Lord of all and master of all. I also believe that this person Jesus called me to serve him as a priest, to pray for people, to offer the mass for people and to pass on his teachings; not my teachings, or the teachings of any other human being, but the teachings of God himself. For centuries now Christians have wanted to come together each week to listen to the teachings of Jesus, to listen to Scriptures and to celebrate the mass. I still want to do this, with you and whoever else wants to come and pray with us. I want to hear the word of God and I want to receive the Eucharist.

I also believe that the Scriptures which we read each week are really and truly the word of God. If that is true, then there is a lot in them that I need to listen to, because through them God continually speaks to me and to all of us here, guiding us and pointing us in the right direction, especially during disillusioning times like these. If I only listen to the voices of the world it will quickly get me down and make me cynical. That is why I try and read some of the Scriptures each day, because they put things in perspective for me and keep me focused on God. ‘In the world you will have trouble, but do not be afraid; I have overcome the world.’

What do the Scriptures say? Jesus said that we would be betrayed, let down by people, just as he was. He also said that we should not be afraid of this because he would be the one to guide us. He said that we would be hated by all people on account of his name. I mentioned to you before that two years ago (3rd June 07) a priest friend of mine was shot dead in Iraq, specifically because he was a priest. They ambushed him after mass and shot him. Those who killed him saw the priesthood and Christianity as evil. They probably believed they were doing a good thing. Jesus said that things like this would happen.

So in a way I should not be surprised when I am faced with hatred or opposition. Peoples' anger is well justified, but of course it is difficult when all of us are blamed together.

If the Lord has called me to serve him as a priest, and if he is all the time calling us to follow him, then even though it is difficult, what could be a greater privilege than to do just that?

‘Lord where else can we go? You have the message of eternal life; and we believe, we know that you are the Son of God.’