Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010 (Gospel: John 1:1-18) The dignity of the flesh

Last year on Christmas day after I had celebrated the two morning masses, I went to visit some friends, took a short walk and then went back to my house looking forward to a nap as I was exhausted.  When I opened the front door I was horrified to see water pouring down through the ceiling.  The pipes had burst!!  So I spent most of the rest of the day trying to mop up the house.  Compared to many people I know I got away lightly, but it still did a lot of damage.  However, in spite of the damage, one of the things it made me realise was that you don’t really need very much.  I still got a Christmas dinner, I had a place to stay and I was warm enough.  What more could you ask for?  We will always have inconvenience and problems, but if we have the basics we are ok and most of us have a lot more than just the basics.

One of the things that is beautiful about the feast of Christmas is what the feast says about us as human beings.  God didn’t sort everything out before He took on human flesh and came among us.  He came into all the inconvenience, injustice and chaos that is all around us all the time.  Mary and Joseph were away from home because of the census that was being taken and then Mary ended up having to give birth in a far from ideal place: a stable or cave.  It must have been very upsetting.  Soon afterwards they had to flee the country as refugees.  There were difficulties from the start, and yet God was happy to come right into the middle of all that.

Perhaps the fact that is easiest to overlook is the significance of him taking on flesh.  God didn’t take on the nature of an animal, or of an angel, but of a human being.  We are not animals, but we are not angels either and we are not meant to be.  The Word became flesh, and that tells us that we are good as we are.  We are meant to be ‘flesh’.  I think many of us have grown up with the idea that spirit is good, but flesh and all to do with it is bad.  However, that is not what God teaches us; in fact He is telling us the complete opposite by taking on human flesh.  This is how we are meant to be, and not only that but in our flesh, as we are, we imitate God, especially in the way we love.

The beginning of John’s Gospel, which we read on Christmas morning, tells us a few wonderful things.  It is speaking about the person of Jesus, God the Son, which it calls 'the Word'.  It says that the eternal Word—who becomes Jesus—was there from the beginning.  God the Son has always been there.  It also says that apart from him we would not exist at all.  We only have life because He is there, which also means that our life has no meaning apart from him.  Then it says a most encouraging thing for the times that we live in.  It says that Jesus (the Word) is the Light (the one who brings meaning, purpose, hope) that shines in the darkness and ‘the darkness could not overcome this light’.  In other words, no matter what happens in the world around us, no matter how much evil there appears to be, it will never be able to overcome Jesus, who is God.  God is stronger.  God will have the last say. 

In the book of Revelations Jesus says,
I am the First and the Last, the Living One.  I was dead, but now I am to live forever and ever.  I hold the keys of death and of the underworld (Rev 1:17b-18).

All things are subject to God and yet he was pleased to come among us as one of us, to teach us about God, about the afterlife, about how we should live, and of course to die for us.  If God was prepared to come among us in this way it means that we must have enormous worth in his eyes.  This also means that we are not just here by accident, but for a definite reason.

So although the world around us may seem to have lost its way, it has not.  God doesn’t need to make it all perfect to be with us.  He didn’t when Jesus was born and he doesn’t have to now either.  Instead he shows us a different way; the way of love and the way of sacrifice, which may seem to be insignificant, but is in fact the more powerful way.  This is the path that can be followed even when the world around us is far from perfect.  Earthly rulers need to show how strong they are, but God does not.  God is powerful enough to be able to work away quietly in the background, mostly unnoticed.  It also says this in the same Gospel passage of John.  ‘He came among his own and his own didn’t recognise him.’  Many didn't recognise him then and many still don't now, but it doesn’t matter because he is with us no matter what and he goes on teaching us no matter what.  The Lord will continue to teach anyone who is willing to listen that we were created by him out of love and at the end of our time on earth we will return to God if we are open to it.  That is the purpose of our life and the reason why we are here.  For our time on earth we simply do our best to follow the path that He points out to us.

The Word was made flesh and lived among us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

4th Sunday Advent Year A (Matthew 1:18-24) The difference our individual response makes

1600 years ago a man boarded a ship in Wales and sailed to Ireland.  He didn’t particularly want to come back here, but he believed that God was asking him to, because of a dream.  When he got here he began teaching people about the Christian God, about the death and resurrection of Jesus, about why this happened and about the eternal life that God now offers us.  His name was Patrick.

About 2000 years ago a different man found himself in a very difficult situation.  He was promised to a woman in marriage, already legally bound, but now she was pregnant.  If he divorced her, as he was entitled to do, then she would be shamed and he didn’t want to do this.  If he did not divorce her then he would be shamed as it would look like he had had sexual relations with her before they were fully married., which would have been quite a scandal at that time.  This was of course Joseph and Mary.  But then an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to take Mary as his wife and it says that ‘when he awoke he did exactly as he had been commanded to do.’ 

Both of these men responded to a dream, prompting them to do the opposite of what they had intended to do, but look at what happened as a result.  Because Patrick responded to the dream, Christianity was brought to Ireland.  Because Joseph responded to his dream, Jesus was given the proper parents that God intended for him.  No doubt the reason both of these men responded to God in this particular way was because they were open to God.  They wanted to do what was right and to live as God asked. 

What God asks of us can be difficult, but it will always be the most worthwhile path.  We may be asked to give up all kinds of attractive opportunities in order to be faithful to our wife or husband and families.  We may be asked not to be involved in certain kinds of activities which are against the teaching of God.  Standing up for what we believe in can be difficult, but sometimes God asks this of us.  And all of us have a role to play as fathers or mothers, single or married.  You might be tempted to say, ‘yes but God does not speak to us like that.’  The truth is that God is speaking to us all the time, through the Scriptures, through each other and God is still asking us to live by his commandments, even though it may mean going against the tide, being the minority.

I think that I can safely say that pretty much everyone is very disturbed by the things we are hearing on the news every day.  It seems that even here in Ireland there are one or more murders every day now, something we would never have heard of twenty years ago.  Why is that?  Could it be because many people have abandoned the way of life that God calls us to live?  What can we do about it?  What we can do about it is to make sure that we respond to God's call ourselves.  You can be cynical and say that it won’t make any difference, but I think that deep down we know that it will  make a difference.  In fact  the  response of each individual  is precisely what makes the difference in any society. 

One of the things that has started to happen because of the recession is that people are coming together voluntarily and making all kinds of projects happen, many of them for charity.  And because they are not getting paid for it, it is creating great good will.  People are giving of their time and energy freely, and I think this is a wonderful thing, not so much because of what they achieve, but  because of the goodness it draws out of people.  There is good in everyone, and sometimes it takes situations of difficulty to bring it to the surface.  You often see that at funerals, where neighbours are so good to a family when someone has died.

Jesus said ‘you are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth, or the yeast (baking powder) that makes the flour rise.’  We are fewer now but how we live is so important, because it influences the world around us.  Making our society and our world a better place begins with me, where I live, with the people I deal with.  That is what God calls us to.  Remember Patrick, Joseph, Mary and so many others.  Their individual responses to God changed the course of history.  Their responses at the time probably seemed quite insignificant, but in the long run it made all the difference in the world.  It is always the few people in society who try to live as God asks that make the difference.  That is also what God calls us to do: to live by his commandments, to try and do what is right and not to be afraid or ashamed of what we believe in.

‘When Joseph awoke from sleep he did exactly as the angel had told him to do.’

Saturday, December 11, 2010

3rd Sunday of Advent Year A (Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11) There is the Lamb of God; follow him

If you think for a moment of some of the modern day people in our world who were considered holy during their life-time: people like Gandhi, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, John Paul II, and there are many others.  Why did people flock to see them?  Mother Teresa was just a very wrinkly little old lady and yet everywhere she went to speak she drew thousands of people.  Why?  We have plenty of little old ladies here, so why did they go to her?  Because she was close to God; someone who was in tune with the ways of the Lord and who lived by them.  People who met her said it had a profound effect on them.
We are attracted by holiness in people because it gives us a sense of the presence of God.  There is a difference between holiness and piety.  Piety is when people can be very devout and into all kinds of devotions etc.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s not the same as holiness.  And just because someone is pious doesn’t necessarily mean they are holy.  Holiness is really about being close to God. 

We are attracted to holiness because God is attractive.  If He wasn’t we wouldn’t keep coming to mass, we wouldn’t continually seek him out in different places.  You may feel that you come to mass because you are obliged to, or because it’s the thing to do, but that’s not really the reason.  You come here because God draws you here.   God continually draws us to him, but gently.  He will never force us, and so we can resist if we wish.  I have heard told that up to quite recently the biggest area of interest in bookshops was occult and spiritual books.  That is another indication of people’s search for God.

God has created us in such a way that there is what you might call a ‘God shaped hole’ within us that only He can fill.  Nothing else will fully satisfy us.  Material things that we can buy will satisfy for a very short time only.  People will satisfy us for longer, but never completely.  Only the Lord himself will satisfy us completely because God has created us in such a way that we have a capacity for the infinite. Only what is infinite will fill us completely.  So when we meet people who seem to be close to God, we are drawn to them, because we want to get closer to God.  We can’t help it.
Sometimes when people get married they are disappointed after a while because they don’t feel completely fulfilled by their partner.  No other person is going to completely fulfil us, because we would be asking them to do what only God can do.  If we realise this then it’s no problem.  But if we expect another ‘mere human being’ to fill this God shaped hole within us, then we’re going to be disappointed.
In today’s Gospel we are again presented with John the Baptist; this strange man that so many people wanted to listen to.  Jesus said that he was the greatest man ever born of a woman, which is quite a thing to say about someone.  He was a prophet, but also much more than a prophet.  He was the one that God himself sent to announce the coming of Jesus.
So what did John say?  When he saw Jesus he said to the people with him, ‘there is the lamb of God… follow him, not me.  He’s the one you want, I’m not.’ Those words sound familiar, don’t they?  When the priest holds up the host at communion he says, ‘here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’  It’s the same things that John the Baptist said.  John said, ‘follow him.’  Mother Teresa said, ‘follow him’.  Padre Pio said, ‘follow him.’  Our Pope says, ‘follow him.’  He is the one we are looking for, but we often don’t realise it.  Jesus is the only one who can fulfil us, the only one we need to keep our sights on.
The world around us will change, but God won’t.  The world around us will disappoint us, but God won’t.  ‘There is the lamb of God… he is the one to follow.’

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Sometimes you might be given the idea that many of the things that the Church used to teach, or that were parts of our faith, have changed.  You’ll hear people say, ‘oh, we don’t believe that any more, we’ve moved on’.  Well it’s good to know that the content of our faith doesn’t change.  We believe today what we have believed from the beginning, although our understanding of what we believe is deepening all the time.

One of the teachings of our faith is that Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a special grace of God, was preserved from original sin and from personal sin.  This is what the Immaculate Conception means.  It was officially made a dogma (teaching) of the Church in 1854.  That means that it was given the highest recognition of the Church’s teaching authority.  When something is made a dogma, or 'official teaching' of the Church, it doesn’t mean that the Church has just decided that it’s true, rather it’s a recognition that it has always been believed as true and so it is concretized, if you like, by being made an official teaching of the Catholic faith.  This means that for us Catholics we are asked to accept it as a part of the faith. 

Think of your own mother. Hopefully you love her, most people do anyway, even if you fall out with her every once in a while.  Imagine if you could create your own mother, what wouldn’t you do for her and give her.  Imagine how beautiful you would make her.  Well God did create his own mother and so imagine what a master-piece she must be.  And what could be the greatest gift that God could give to his own mother, if not to preserve her from all stain of sin, which affected the rest of us?  And so this is what He did.  It makes a lot of sense.  ‘Our tainted nature’s solitary boast’, Wordsworth says.  How lucky we are to have her as our mother. 

She is the woman of faith.  When the angel Gabriel came to her and told her that she was to be the mother of the most high God, she said, ‘but how can this be, since I do not know man?’  She didn’t understand it, but she believed in the word the angel had spoken.

There are often aspects of our faith which we don’t understand, or struggle with.  We say, ‘how can this be?’  How can it be that the Pope can not err in matters of faith and morals?  He is only a man.  How can it be that bread and wine turns into the body and blood of Christ?  I don’t know, but I believe.  The theologians don’t understand all the teachings of the Church, the bishops don’t, the Pope doesn’t.  So don’t worry if you don’t fully understand these things, we aren’t supposed to.  But we are asked to believe them.

Mary didn’t understand how what the angel said to her could come about.  But she believed it.  And as a result the Word became flesh.  Jesus, who is God, was born of Mary.  Can you imagine if Mary had to fully understand how this could happen before she said yes? I doubt that we would have had Jesus at all, but she accepted it in faith.  She said, ‘let it be done to me according to your word.’  And as a result of her faith, Christ was born.

Sadly, you will find people today, priests, religious and theologians who don’t believe all of our faith.  But we are not asked to accept their opinions, even if they appear to be well founded.  We are only asked to accept the teachings of the Church, which we believe are the teachings of Christ.  There is a big difference between the teachings of a person and that of Jesus Christ, Son of God. 

In 1858, four years after the official teaching of the Immaculate Conception, an uneducated peasant girl called Bernadette Soubirous received visions of Our Lady at a place called Lourdes in the south of France.  She had 18 apparitions altogether.  As a way of trying to confirm the authenticity of what was happening, the local priest told Bernadette to ask the ‘beautiful Lady’ her name, which she did.  Bernadette asked several times, but each time the beautiful Lady just smiled.  I think it was at the last apparition when Bernadette again asked her name, that Mary looked up to heaven and opened her arms, replying: ‘Que soy era la immaculada concepciou’ (I am the Immaculate Conception). Bernadette went back to the priest constantly repeating these words ‘Immaculate Conception,’ since she had no idea what they meant, and repeated them to the priest, who was dumbfounded, because he knew she would never have heard these words, or could have made them up.  Perhaps this was heaven’s way of confirming what we already believed.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

2nd Sunday of Advent Yr A (Matthew 3:1-12) No Christmas without repentance

How would you feel if you got a Christmas card that read like this: 
Our thoughts of you at this time of the year are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist, 'You brood of Vipers! The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.' Happy Christmas from Fr. Murchadh."

I suppose we would add Fr. Murchadh, or whoever sent it, to our list of x-friends!

Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc.  But this is quite different from the original message.  John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was pretty strong.  ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and look for happiness in the right place, that is, in God.’  This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook.  We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent.  Just leave us alone and let us celebrate.  We want absolution, but without having to confess.  We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments.  We want faith on our terms.  That is called ‘cheap grace’.  It is empty and it is not the message of God.

The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one.  We can not come and pick what we like.  Instead we come and ask what is required of us. That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘what must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower.  It is understandable that we are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them.  If you’re not happy, move on.  But this is not the message of the Gospels.  In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us.  We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms. 

Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman.  He was totally focused on God.  He knew what was important and he simply passed on the message he was told to pass on, but it cost him his life.  He was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth.  We don’t always want to hear the truth because it is often demanding and challenges us to change.

We want to be able to celebrate Christmas and rightly so.  But if we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the message of John the Baptist.  ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’  ‘God is coming: get ready.’  The term ‘repent’ can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’  That is a particularly powerful message at this time in history.  So many people have been looking for happiness in the world, but now everything has collapsed and many have been bitterly disappointed and left with a feeling that all is gone.  However, the Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness.  It is only in God that we will find true happiness.  The world will disappoint us; God will not.

The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins.  And yes, most of us don’t like to have to confess our sins, we think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do.  The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless.  It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.  The Lord is still waiting to come to each of us: 
I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone here’s my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20) 

Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways.  The Lord wants to be at the centre of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’

Saturday, November 27, 2010

1st Sunday of Advent Year A (Matthew 24: 37-44) The Lord's coming; a time of hope

Each Sunday when we come together to celebrate the holy mass we pray the Creed, stating what exactly we believe.  One of the things we always say as part of that prayer is: ‘He (Jesus) will come again to judge the living and the dead.’  That is what we believe.  God came and walked among us in the person of Jesus and Jesus will come again to judge all people.  No one knows when this will happen, but Jesus has told us that this will happen.  Maybe it will be during our life-time, or maybe not.

Today we officially begin our spiritual preparation for Christmas.  We are preparing for two things: we are remembering the first coming of Jesus at Christmas born as a baby into a human family; and we are remembering that Jesus will come again  in glory at the end of time. 

All around us with so much emphasis on buying gifts, it is easy to forget what this feast is about.  In all the advertising that we hear there is almost no mention of the birth of Christ; the coming of the Son of God to set his people free from eternal death; to win the most wonderful thing imaginable for all of us: a life of eternal happiness when we die.  This is what everyone wants, even if we have very different ideas as to what happiness might be, but we all want happiness for ourselves and those we love.  This is what God has made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The feast of Christmas is about the beginning of this event.  Nothing could be more hopeful than this.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is telling us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the bigger things.  It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity.  Even though the worldly affairs are important, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God; the reality that we will die, that life and death are in his hands, and that whenever He does come for us He must find us ready.

Of course in one sense we can never be ready for God.  How do you prepare to meet God?  And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe it will be wonderful beyond all imagining if we have made any effort to be ready.

Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken, the other left.  What does this mean?  Although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind.

If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we can miss what  our life is about, because there is much more to our life than this.   As you well know it is often when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we have become immersed in the world.  And of course we have to get on with the day to day things of working and living, but we are being told to make sure that we also make time for God and not forget the bigger picture. 

I find that a good recipe for a ‘happy’ Christmas  is to keep it simple and spend some time coming up to Christmas remembering what it is about.  Even go to mass once a week when you are not obliged to, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days.  That way we will remember what we are celebrating. But remember that above all it is a feast of great hope, because it is a reminder that God is with us and that something great awaits us.

The Angel said to the shepherds:
Do not be afraid. 
I bring you news of great joy.
Today in the town of David
a Saviour has been born for you;
He is Christ the Lord.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) Power in weakness

In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John at one stage has a vision of a being that terrifies him.  He describes what he saw like this:
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 is the one I worship as God and try to serve.  If I stay focused on the world around me I find myself getting depressed or disillusioned.  Also 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 see happening in the Church at the moment 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.  Nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power 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.  But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness.  This is an extraordinary thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

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 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. 
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 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.  But 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).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

33rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) Prayer - Your endurance will win you your lives

Advent—which is the beginning of the Church’s year—starts in two weeks, and as we approach the end of the Church’s year, we are reminded of the end of time as well.  The readings for the next two weeks are all about the end of time and reminding us that all of the things around us will eventually come to an end. 

Every so often we hear people say that the end of time is coming, or that the Lord is about to come again, or that God is about to punish the earth for all the evil that is around.  Is this true?  We don’t know.  But what we do know is what the Lord himself said about this kind of thing.  We have it in the Gospel reading today.  He said: ‘Take care not to be deceived, because many will come using my name and saying, ‘I am He’, and, ‘the time is near at hand’.  Refuse to join them.’

The Lord simply asks us to persevere; to persevere with the daily struggle of trying to be a Christian, of trying to pray, to go to mass, to get on with whatever the Lord has given us to do, in married life, in single life, wherever we find ourselves.

If you were to ask what is the most important thing for a Christian to do to keep us going from day to day, I would say without a doubt it is prayer.  Prayer is simply our relationship with God and like any relationship with another person it takes many different forms.  It is as important as eating and sleeping. If you stop eating and sleeping you die physically.  If you don’t pray in some form, you die spiritually.  It is the exact same thing.  When we have some kind of relationship with God it puts things in perspective for us.  It helps us to see what is important and what isn’t.  It helps us to remember what our life is about and what we are called to do each day.  It also helps us not to become overwhelmed by all the gloom and doom around us.  If you know what the purpose of your life is, then it is a lot easier to keep going especially when we are hearing so much negativity around us.  Sure we are in difficult times, but if God is with us, guiding us, then what have we to be afraid of?

But how, you might ask, are you supposed to pray in this crazy and very busy world?  Well it’s like anything else, if you don’t make time for it, it won’t happen.  If you just try and fit it in when everything else is done, you won’t pray, don’t be fooled.  If you see it as a necessary thing, you will make time for it; but if you see it as an optional extra, then you will never pray.

Our prayer is the communication line between us and God.  It is our relationship with him.  The more we are in tune with God through prayer, the more we will begin to think like God, the more we will begin to reflect the image of God that is in each of us, which is a very beautiful thing.  People who are close to God are beautiful, because they reflect this light of God which is in each of us.

How do I pray?  Think of all the time you spend in your car, or indeed any time you are alone.  We don’t always have to be listening to the radio.  We can choose to turn it off and simply talk to Jesus and tell him about our fears and hopes.  That is prayer.  Spend some time each day thanking God for all things, good and bad.  Tell God about your joys and ask him for your needs.  Spend time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.  Read the Scriptures, the living Word of God.  Stay on for a few minutes after mass and thank God for coming to you in Holy Communion.  Ask God to bless your families and those people you are worried about.  Prayer doesn’t always change the situations that we are praying for, but it does change us.  So we grow and mature and we learn the ways of God.

There are almost as many ways to pray as there are people, and we will all live our relationship with God slightly differently, but what is important is that we do have this relationship with God in some form. 

Do you find that your faith seems empty and boring?  Do you wonder why you even bother with it half the time?  Ask yourself, are you praying, are you reading the Word of God?  And if not, are you surprised that your faith seems boring?

Jesus says to us, ‘do not be deceived…’ the way to him is very ordinary and involves the same perseverance that anything else requires as well, just like any relationship with another person.  But the Lord also says, ‘your endurance will win you your lives.’  The path to God isn’t easy, but it is well worth it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

32nd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 20:27-38) Life after death

 In the old version of Star Trek (and I think it is still the same) captain Kirk and his crew were able to be beamed from the starship Enterprise onto a nearby planet or another ship.  The idea behind this was that the ‘transporter’ (the machine that did this) was a sophisticated computer that was able to scan a person’s complete makeup and memorise the exact structure of the whole person.  Then it changed this information into energy which it beamed to another place and then re-assembled the person.  Pretty clever.  Of course scientists agree that in reality it would be impossible to do this because the human body is way too complicated.  No computer could possibly store or analyse all the information in a single person.

Our Christian faith tells us that God is able to store and maintain the unique pattern that is at the core of each one of us, even after our earthly body dies.  That unique pattern that makes up the core of each of us we call the soul.  Then after our earthly body dies the Lord gives us a new body in the place we call heaven, for those who choose to go there; and we choose to go there by the way we live.

If God cannot do that then our earthly death would be the complete end of us.  But we believe that God can and will do this.  That is what makes the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead such a mind-boggling one.  That is also why the celebration of Easter is such a big event and is often called ‘the great miracle’.  It was not automatic that Jesus would be raised from the dead, but it happened because God worked an extraordinary miracle.

We often wonder what it will be like in the next world.  Will it be like here, but only better?  In this Gospel the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, are arguing among themselves and they put this idea of the resurrection to Jesus.  So they give him a ridiculous example to make a point.  It is a kind of test case.  They presumed that because their example was so absurd, Jesus would have to admit that the idea of the resurrection just did not add up.  But what Jesus basically said was ‘you are trying to figure out the next life in earthly terms; but you cannot do that.’  It is so different that we cannot even begin to think what it would be like.

Think of how a caterpillar makes a chrysalis and then turns into a butterfly. You would not recognise one from the other; they are so different.  You plant an acorn, but then a tree grows out of the ground.  When Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, she didn’t recognise him.  When he appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognise him either.  He was so different.  It wasn’t just a human body brought back to life, but something quite different: what we call a ‘glorified’ body.

I have a friend who I grew up with who is now a consultant pathologist.  They study the science of disease and do the post-mortem’s when someone dies, as you probably know.  Before his wedding we were talking about different arrangements for the mass and he told me that he could not believe in the idea of the resurrection, because from a scientist’s point of view, it was impossible.  I was impressed with his honesty about it.  I suppose he was caught where the Sadducees were also caught.  He was trying to figure out the after-life and the spiritual world, in earthly terms.  This doesn’t work because it is so completely different and we only know what is earthly, so it is very difficult for us to get our minds around the spiritual world because we have no experience of it.

That is why God asks us to believe without understanding.  That’s what faith is.  God is saying, ‘will you trust me on this?’  We would not be able to understand it even if it was explained to us because it is completely beyond our understanding.  It would be like explaining a complicated physics or maths problem to a toddler.  No matter how well you explained it he simply would not be capable of understanding it. 

We believe in life after death because Jesus has taught us about it and because He appeared to the Apostles after his death and to so many others down through the centuries to say, ‘this is real. Believe it and know that this life is waiting for you when you die, if you choose it.’

A surprising number of people, who even call themselves Christian, do not believe in life after death.  If we don’t believe that something happens after death, then it is pretty pointless being here now at this mass, because each mass we celebrate is a continual reminder that we believe in a life after this one which we are already preparing for.  This also gives us great hope for those who have died, that we will be united with them again.  This is a hope that we must hold onto.  Every time we celebrate the mass we become present to the event that made life after death possible.  We become present to the death of Jesus on Calvary.  Time stands still and we are there.  Without this sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary we would not be able to go to heaven when we die and be reunited with those we love.

I want to finish with this quotation from a man called John Owen, who was a great Puritan minister. When he lay dying he was dictating some last letters to friends.  He said to his secretary:
‘Write’: ‘I am still in the land of the living’. 
Then he stopped and said: ‘No, change that to read’:
‘I am still in the land of those who die,
but I hope soon to be in the land of the living.’

Saturday, October 30, 2010

31st Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 19:1-10) The gift of confession

A few years ago I spent three weeks in Lourdes hearing confessions and the following year I spent two.  Nothing else, just hearing confessions.  Many friends of mine were surprised to hear me say that it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have had as a priest so far.  That may sound strange, but it is true.  The Lord showed me two things through this time of hearing confessions.  The first is that the human race is sick, or suffering from sickness, if you like.  I listened to people from every part of the English speaking world, and many from other countries too, and they were all confessing the same things: adultery, injustice at work, broken relationships, dishonesty, abortions, everything.  All the same things in spite of different countries and different cultures.  In one way you could see it is a horrible picture, but that’s not what I saw.  What I saw was the sickness of the human race, but more importantly the mercy of God.  If this is how we are as a race, the mercy of God must be enormous to put up with us; and of course it is.  What I experienced more than anything else was the compassion of God for all these people, because God drew them (and me) to come back to him again in confession, many people coming after several decades.  

I know there are a million reasons we can think of for not going to confession, but God keeps drawing people to him through this extraordinary gift.  And that’s what it is, a gift.  Sadly many of us have come to see it as a burden, as something we have to do, or something that is inflicted on us.  It is in fact the complete opposite.  It is a tool that God has given us to help us, so that we can be at peace, so that when we make a mess of things we can come back to God knowing that we are forgiven.

Now I know that you may say, ‘why can’t I just go and tell God that I am sorry myself, without going to a priest?’  Well of course you can if you want, but it is not the same thing.  First of all the Lord knows what we are like and that we need a concrete way of being able to relate to him.  That’s also one of the reasons why He gives himself to us in the form of bread and wine.  It’s something we can see and touch and taste.  The same is true with confession.  We seem to have a psychological need to confess what we have done wrong to another person.  And if you don’t believe me just listen to the chat shows on TV and radio at the moment where you will regularly hear people confessing their sins, and confessing to the whole country too!  That is why the Lord gives us a means of confessing in complete secrecy, to someone he has specially appointed for this.  It doesn’t mean that priests are holier than anyone else, as we well know, but the Lord has given us this gift through the priesthood, just as He has given us the gift of the Eucharist through the priesthood.  Jesus said to Peter, and the Apostles:
Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whatever sins you forgive, they are forgiven.  Whatever sins you retain they are retained (John 20:23). 

He also said to them:
Whoever listens to you listens to me.  Whoever rejects you rejects me, and those who reject me reject the one who sent me (Lk 10:16).
In other words it is God who forgives through the priest.  The Lord has given us this because he knows how much we need it.  Sadly many of us have neglected it and come to see it as a burden rather than as something the Lord gave us to help us.  I have also heard the argument: ‘Why should I go to a priest when we see what some of them have done?’  That is a false argument, because if we are to reject the gift of the Lord’s forgiveness because he gives it to us through the priesthood, then we should reject the Eucharist for the same reason.  If the Lord God offers us his forgiveness through the priesthood then He does it for a particular reason.  And we priests all have to go to confession too, don’t forget.

Now I know that we have these reconciliation services at Christmas and Easter, and they are a help, but they are not the same as individual confession, because you don’t have the time to listen or talk in the same way.  The weeks that I spent hearing confessions in Lourdes and other places are where I saw real miracles.  They were real miracles because I saw people being relieved of great burdens of guilt and shame and being able to leave in peace again with God.  That is a tremendous gift.

In today’s readings the Lord reminds us first of all that He loves everything He has created.  He also reminds us that He is continually calling us to repent and come back to him.  May we recognise his forgiveness as the gift of healing that it is.
‘Yet you are merciful to all, because you can do all things
and overlook people’s sins so that they can repent’ 
(Wisdom 11:23). 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

30th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 9:1-6) Mission Sunday

In the last few years we have been hearing a lot about religious extremism.  We are seeing a lot of examples of bad practice of religion, when it is used as an excuse for violence or corruption.  It raises the question, what exactly is the purpose of the Church?  Why did Jesus bring about a Church?  Well the mission or purpose of the Church is to make God known to people and to make the work of Jesus Christ known to people. Jesus’ own life was about revealing God to us and of course dying for us in order to re-open the path to God for us.  It is not just about filling churches, it is about teaching people about God and helping people to discover God.  Sometimes it is said to me, ‘I wish such and such a person would just go back to mass.’  But just going back to mass is not enough.  Faith has to come first.  Once someone discovers God and begins to grow in their faith, then they see their own hunger for God and then they come to the church to pray with other people who also believe—like all of us here—to listen to God’s word, and to receive him in the Eucharist.  That’s why we come here: to pray together and to be fed spiritually, because we are all trying to live the same way of life. 
None of us are strong enough to make it on our own.  We need the support of each other.  So we listen to the teachings of Christ and then we celebrate the last supper, where Jesus made himself present in the form of bread and wine, so that he could be with us always.  That is what the mass is.

         The purpose of Christ coming to us was basically two-fold.  First of all to make God known to us, to teach us about him and show us what God is like.  Anything we want to know about God we will discover in Jesus.  It says in the letter to the Colossians, ‘[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God’. 

If I painted a picture of myself, it would just be a picture, but it wouldn’t move or speak.  If God painted a picture of himself it would be the person of Jesus.  Not just a picture, but a real person.  That’s who Jesus is, the image of God.  At one stage Philip, one of the Apostles, said to Jesus, ‘just show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied’.  And Jesus said, ‘do you not understand that to have seen me is to have seen the Father?’  They are one and the same.  So by looking to Jesus and learning about him, we are learning about who God is and what God is like. 

The second purpose of Christ coming to us was to free us from the power of Satan, from the power of sin.  So by dying for us, Jesus reopened the way to God for us.  It is now open to us if we turn to him, but that is a choice that each of us must make.  The mission of the Church is to let people know about this, what God has done for them and what is there for us all, by turning to Jesus Christ.  This is really what makes sense of what our whole life is about.  It doesn’t make any sense without God.
All people have a right to hear about God and to know about him.  And it is our mission to make this known to people, because God has told us to.  It should never be forced on people, but if this is the truth about God, which we believe it is, then people have a right to know that truth.  It is up to them whether they decide to believe it or not.
Sometimes it is argued that we should just be helping the poor but not talking about God.  However, poverty is not just about having enough to eat.  Knowing that my life has a purpose is equally important.  Helping people to come to know that they have been created out of love and that their lives have a reason is just as important as making sure people have enough to eat.  So we are called to do both.
Is this mission still being fulfilled today?  Of course it is.  Here am I speaking to you about it two thousand years later.  How much faith we do or don’t have is not really important.  The fact that we are here at all is what is important.  So the mission of the Church is to pass on this truth about God which God has made known to us.  It is the message which makes sense of our whole life and all people have a right to hear this message.  What is the best way we can pass on this message?  By living it as well as we can ourselves.  The best way we can teach others about what we believe in is by the witness of how we live, rather than by anything we say. 
I will finish with the words of St. Francis of Assisi: ‘let us go and preach the gospel; and if necessary, use words.’

Saturday, October 16, 2010

29th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 18:1-8) The temptation to turn to the Occult

There is a lot of confusion these days as to what comes from God and what does not. I am talking in particular about things like going to fortune tellers, Tarrot card readers, psychics, playing the Ouija board, or going to mediums, and many other practices that come under the general term of Occult. A lot of people just consider them harmless fun; besides what could possibly be wrong with them?Well the first thing is that God expressly warns us in the Scriptures to stay away from them. 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 enchantments or who consults the spirits, no diviner, or one who asks questions of the dead. For the Lord abhors those who do these things (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

And in another book it says, ‘Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you. I, the Lord, am your God’ (Leviticus 19:31).

Now I would like to try and explain why these things are a problem for us, because the Lord God doesn’t just give us rules for the sake of rules. If God tells us to stay away from something it is with good reason, just like you will tell your children to stay away from the fire or they’ll get burned. The Lord does the same for us, telling us what to avoid if we want to stay healthy.

So why are these things, which are now available everywhere, a problem? The first and most important reason is that they interfere with our free will. Our free will is an extraordinary gift which the Lord has given us, because it means that we have the freedom to do anything we choose, be it good or evil, although of course the idea is that real freedom is freedom to choose what is good. We can even reject God if we choose. It is an extraordinary thing that the Lord who has created us respects us enough even to giving us the freedom to reject him, and sadly some people do this by the way they live. Going to fortune tellers or any of these other things that I mentioned is basically an attempt to gain knowledge of the future. The problem is that if we have any kind of knowledge of the future it is going to influence our freedom to choose, because we will probably start acting out of fear or what we think might be going to happen. The Lord does not want us to be afraid, but to be at peace. That is why the Lord does not reveal the future to us. We don’t need to know it. If we did, He would show us, because He wants the very best for us.

The second reason why these things are a problem for us, is that by dabbling in them we are going directly against something God has asked us, which is a way of creating an obstacle between us and God. We sin when we do this. And spiritually speaking they can also have a hold or influence over us. If God does not reveal the future to us, then where is this information coming from? It is not coming from the Lord, even if the fortune teller starts off by praying the Hail Mary, which I know some of them do.

I worked with an exorcist priest friend of mine for a while and saw first-hand the mess that some people get themselves into by dabbling in these things that the Lord tells us to keep away from. They are very real. Satan is cunning and will do anything to lead us away from God, because he hates us as God’s creation. And yes I did say Satan, which may surprise you, but if Satan is not real then Jesus is a liar, because Jesus frequently mentioned him in his teaching.

I guess we have to ask ourselves do I believe what Jesus said is true or not? Either the Bible (the Scriptures) is the word of God or it isn’t. If it is, we have good cause to listen to it. If it’s not true, then what are we doing here?

The Lord wants the very best for us and will continually guide us along the right path, the path that will help us to reach our full potential as human beings. But sometimes we get misled and go astray. That’s not a problem so long as we recognise it and come back again. I’m sure you want God’s blessing for your lives and for your families, just as I do. But if we mess with what God expressly tells us to stay away from, we will be blocking God’s help from us.

If you have dabbled in any of these things at any stage, confess it, which is what the Lord asks us to do. By confessing it you break any spiritual hold that it can have over you. By repenting of it you also open the door to God’s grace as well.

In the readings today the Lord is assuring us that He does and will answer our prayers. We have to trust the Lord in this. God only speaks truth. If God has assured us of his help, then we would be foolish to look for any spiritual help from any other source. We know that God wants the very best for us and if we believe that then we must also listen to what He tells us to do and what He tells us to avoid.

‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’

Saturday, October 9, 2010

28th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 17:11-19) The need to give thanks to God for everything.

I often find it amusing when it is lashing rain and someone says to me, ‘isn’t it an awful day?’ And I say, ‘yes it is, thank God’. I usually get a weird look that says, ‘what do you mean ‘thank God’?’ But why should we not thank God just because it is raining? The rain may not suit us always, the sun may not suit others always, but that’s no reason not to give thanks to God for it. It is a gift from him, like many other things, even if it doesn’t suit us.

We tend to see our world or universe as being the center of things, often with God as an optional extra as it were; someone on the outside. However, it is in fact the other way around. God is at the center of things and we are the optional extra. We were created by God and we need not be here. Now you might think that that makes us pretty small and insignificant in many ways. Well it does. We are. We like to think of ourselves as extremely important, especially the higher up we get in the world. But the fact is we are all the exact same with the same need for God. Once we begin to recognise this it actually makes life a lot easier because it takes a lot of pressure off us. The world doesn’t depend on us alone to save it. The future of the human race isn’t being sustained by me alone. The people of Galway aren’t depending on me as a priest to say the right thing, to make sure they all get to heaven and it’s just as well!

The governments today often talk about their decisions as though they themselves were God, as though the future of the human race was solely in their hands. Fortunately for us all it is not. We are important of course, and we certainly have a big responsibility to do the right thing in the world and to make sure that there is a good future for those who come after us, but the Lord God of heaven and earth is also there helping us. So we have a lot to be thankful for.

At the moment we are living in a time when we are hearing almost nothing but bad news, how awful everything is and how little hope there is. It is very hard not to be affected by it when we are getting this from the news on an hourly basis, not to mention all the chat shows. By their nature news programs tend to dwell on bad and dramatic news, but I think it is important for us not to let that be the main influence on the way we think, or we will begin to see the world as a very dark place. Sure we are in harder times and there are plenty of problems, but the fact is that most of us are surviving. I would imagine that everyone here has enough to eat, has a roof over their heads at night. We probably have a car to get around in and we are probably able to provide for our children, even if it is not as lavish as we would like. The truth is we have an awful lot to be grateful for.

When I find myself becoming negative and wishing things were better—and believe me I complain just as much as anyone!—I find it a great help to start giving thanks to God for as many things as possible. In the morning I say, ‘thank you Lord for a good night’s rest; thank you for a hot shower and a breakfast to eat. Thank you that I have decent clothes to wear and enough money in my pocket to survive. Thank you for the friends I have and also for the people I don’t like. I also try not to listen to too many news programs during the day as they tend to get me down. Remember that all of the things we listen to during the day do affect how we think and how we see the world.

Think for a moment about the teachings of Jesus during his life on earth. They are very positive, very encouraging and very compassionate. Even when he spoke about the end of the world and the disciples said, ‘when will this happen?’ He basically said, ‘don’t worry about that. It doesn’t concern you.’ The Lord asks us to do our best to love and serve while we are here on earth. Then when our time is complete He will bring us home to be with him. That makes it very simple. We just do our best and try to stay focused on the one who gives us life and gives us everything we have.

So maybe the next time you want to ask God’s help for something in prayer, and rightly so, take a moment first to thank God for the many things He has given you and then ask for your needs. And maybe even thank God for the rain the next time it’s lashing and you’re about to get soaked!

In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid, I have overcome the world.’

Saturday, October 2, 2010

27th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 17: 5-19) Life is sacred

By the age of 18 most people have seen approximately 30,000 murders on TV. That is quite a staggering number. When soldiers went to Vietnam and shot the enemy, they expected to see the enemy get up again. Killing them wasn’t real. Life has become cheap.

As a priest I worked in a local hospital for a few years and also in the hospice for the last four years. When you see many people die in the hospital it makes you think a lot. People say to me, it must be very depressing; but it’s not, it’s just very real. It can be very beautiful, especially if you have faith, because what you see happening is someone going from this life into the next, and that is a great privilege. It is also a very spiritual experience. One minute you are looking at a living breathing person, with a personality and different characteristics peculiar to them. The next minute you are just looking at a body. Something has changed. It’s not just that the body has stopped working, there is much more to it than that. The spirit has gone, the soul has moved on to the next world; and this is so real. What’s left in front of you is only a body. It’s not the person you knew, only part of that person, because we are body and soul.

If we were just a body, just flesh and bones, then we wouldn’t be able to have ideas, or hope, or faith, and above all, we wouldn’t be able to love. Love is very much a mark of the human soul. It is God given. It tells us that there is something of God in us.

If you didn’t know the patient lying in the bed in a personal way, they could be just anybody. But when you know them then their soul speaks to you and that’s why death hurts so much, because of the separation, the loss of love. This is one of the gifts that God has given us which resemble him: the ability to love. It is this ability to love that makes us beautiful. Even if I don’t have the most beautiful body, it doesn’t matter, because the soul is what is really attractive, not the body. The more we learn to love, the more beautiful we become.

When God creates us he gives us a spirit, which will live forever. Imagine all of us here in this church will live forever. The people you know who have died are still alive in a different world. We will see them again. When God creates us, we are created in his image and this means that we have the potential to become more like him. The more like him we become, the more beautiful we become, because God is beautiful. That’s what holiness is: closeness to God. As we come closer to God our spirit or soul becomes more beautiful because we are becoming more like God. Holy people reflect God best and that is why they attract others like magnets, because they are beautiful. That is also why God keeps calling us to holiness, because God wants us to be beautiful.

We believe that our souls are there since the first moment of conception and this is why life is sacred, because it comes from God, and returns to God.

Much of Mother Teresa’s work in India, was taking dying people off the streets and helping them to die with dignity. She didn’t try to convert them, or try to make them live longer, she just helped them to die with people around them who showed them love. Why? because God is in each of us and so each life is sacred.

Sometimes you will hear it said that protecting life has nothing to do with God or religion, but I would say the opposite. It really only makes full sense when you remember where we come from. If God had nothing to do with it, then it couldn’t really be that sacred. But we believe that life is totally sacred and so we must protect it always, no matter what the arguments are against it. Every life is sacred, since it comes from God.

‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

26th Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 16:19-31) Being responsible with what we have

A few years ago I was driving somewhere and I gave a lift to a man. He was a musician, a busker and basically lived by busking on the streets; not an easy way of life. He had practically all his possessions with him. He told me he knew over 350 songs, which was quite impressive. When he realised that I was a priest he began asking me about religion. I can’t remember much of what he said except for one thing. He said that he wasn’t very religious but that he preferred to stay out of it and sit on the fence. When we spoke about death and meeting God he said that he would plead ignorance. That was the thing that struck me the most. He said, ‘I’ll just plead ignorance.’

I suppose if God were just another human being, we might get away with pleading ignorance, but since God knows everything about us, including our motivations, all the things that have influenced us during our life that cause us to act as we do, how free or not we are to make choices, I don’t think that pleading ignorance will be much use! This is not to just focus on the negative as if we should be afraid of God because He is out to get us. On the contrary, the Lord loves us and wants to help us in every way possible. He knows our weaknesses and what we struggle with, but He also knows when we avoid responsibility.

In the readings today we are presented not so much with the rich and the poor, rather with those who deliberately turn their back on justice. We are shown the two extremes. The poor man Lazarus was at this rich man’s gate. In other words the rich man couldn’t have missed him because he was right under his nose. And it says that ‘Lazarus longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table’, which implies that he was offered absolutely nothing, not even a small amount. So it’s not as if the rich man did a certain amount and it wasn’t enough. Jesus is telling us that he did absolutely nothing. That is why he lost heaven, not because he had riches. There is nothing wrong with having riches. What you do with it is what’s important. If I am wealthy then that is the situation God has put me in in this life (provided I acquired it in a just way, of course!). What I do with it is what’s important.

Equally you might think that Lazarus could have got off his back-side and done something for himself. But the fact that he ‘lay’ at the rich man’s gate and that he was covered in sores, tells us that he was sick and helpless. You could say that God put him there deliberately to allow the rich man to help him, but he chose to do nothing. I have no doubt that God often puts people in our path who may need our help, but we always have the choice to help them or not. God has given us that freedom. And the help we give people may not even be financial help. It may be something as simple as a smile or an encouraging word that is needed. All the time we are coming across people who need our help and if we are open to it we will recognise them. If we have plenty, well thank God for it, but it does mean that we also have an obligation to help those who are in need and there is no shortage of them, both in this country and all over the world. ‘The poor will always be with you.’

So you could say there is a double message here. First, let us thank God for what we have. Second, let us also ask God to help us make good use of what we have. God has given us freedom to do what we want in this life, but we are also asked to be responsible. There is a common misconception today that being free means being able to do anything you want, good or bad. However, true freedom is the freedom to choose what is good. That is what the Lord wants for us and that is also what will help us the most.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

25th Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 16:1-13) You cannot serve both God and money

In 1929 in a particular part of New York city, several wealthy business men committed suicide, all at the same time. Why? Because of what became known as ‘the Wall Street Crash.’ The New York stock exchange collapsed over night and as a result many people lost millions of dollars. Many of them could not handle this and sadly they killed themselves. Money for them had become everything. It was their god and it had just proved itself to be a false god, an illusion. Then, when their god collapsed, they were left with nothing, no money, no faith and apparently nothing to live for. It seems that many of them despaired.

A few years ago, a woman by the name of Maura Grealish—a good friend of mine—took her final vows in the Poor Clare convent in Nun’s Island. She took four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure. She will never own anything of her own, she will not get married, and she will spend the rest of her life enclosed in a convent, dedicating her time and energy to God and to praying for all of us and for many others. Some would consider this a useless waste; others see it as the gift of God which it is, the highest calling in the Church. Her life lived in this way—as with any religious—is a sign that we believe in the life to come and that it is worth making sacrifices for it. If we didn’t believe in the life to come, then it would be a waste of time.

How are the two related? Well I suppose they are really the opposite of each other. Those in Wall Street and in the business world sometimes put everything into their money. Money becomes the only thing that matters. They work for it, they live for it, they may even lie and cheat for it. On the other hand Sister Gabriel, has given up everything for God, and is depending totally on God for everything.

Most of us are probably somewhere between the two. We are not millionaires, but we have not given up everything for God either. We work and try and put bread on the table and provide for our families and loved ones. This is what we are called to. Most people are also under a lot of pressure to pay their bills and mortgages, etc.

Money is an important tool. It would be very difficult to live in our society without it, but it is only a tool. If we lost everything over night it would be very difficult, but we would still be alive. It happens to people every so often, but we do survive. But if God disappeared, what would we have left? When we died there would be nothing. Thankfully God does not disappear, regardless of whether we have more than we need, or barely enough to survive on. Either way God is with us and God is waiting to bring us home when we have served our time on earth.

In the Gospel Jesus doesn’t say ‘it is not easy to serve God and money.’ He says, ‘you can not’ serve God and money. You must choose who is going to be your master. That doesn’t mean that we can not enjoy our money or the things we have, but we must be careful to use it wisely. It is meant to be a means to help us, but not what we live for. At the end of the day it is only a tool and if it was suddenly taken away from us, we would still survive.

As we live in a world that places so much emphasis on having plenty of money, it’s hard not to be affected by that. There is nothing wrong with having money so long as we remember that it is only a means to help us survive. It will not bring us happiness in itself and it is not primarily what our life is about. God has made us much deeper than just flesh and blood. We also have a spirit and that spirit will never be satisfied with material things alone. This is a reminder that we are not just animals and that we are called to something greater.

I just want to finish with a few verses from Psalm 49.

No one can buy his own ransom,
or pay a price to God for his life.
In his riches man lacks wisdom,
he is like the beasts that are destroyed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

24th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 15:1-32) The prodigal son

What happens to us when we die? I remember thinking in the last parish that it was amazing the number of people I had known who had died over the four years I was there and that is just in Renmore parish alone. Where are they now? Are they anywhere? We usually say they are in heaven and hopefully that is true. That is what God has created us for. I know that today most people are probably very sceptical about the idea of hell. That seems to be a medieval idea that is dead and gone. However, the reality is that if heaven is real and if we have free will, which we do, then it must also be possible to lose what God wants us to reach. God has created us for life with him, which we call heaven. I guess you could say it is the greatest happiness we could imagine, something wonderful beyond our wildest dreams. Every so often God allows a saint or mystic to experience something of what awaits us, no doubt to reassure us that it is real. Think of someone like Padre Pio, or indeed different places where Our Lady has appeared.

If being with God means light, happiness, joy, love, no suffering, no injustice and being with the people we love, then the opposite of that is darkness, isolation, pain, loneliness, etc. Since we have free will it means that we can lose what God wants us to reach. I think it’s important not to forget that. God offers us something wonderful but we have the freedom to accept or reject it.

I think the next thing that comes to most people’s minds is the fear of not being good enough, or perhaps the fear of what we have done wrong. I remember a priest friend of mine who died a few years ago. When he was dying he kept saying ‘I’ll never get into heaven. I’m not good enough.’ I was sorry for him and he was a holy man, but it seems to be a natural fear that many of us have. I’ve heard so many people express this fear.

Then we come to the parable of the prodigal son which we have today. I think it is one of the most wonderful stories in the Bible for several reasons. What it says more than anything is that God does not act the way we do. In spite of the way we can behave the Father in heaven has compassion for us in a way that we do not understand because we never experience that kind of compassion from other human beings. What it says more than anything is that God doesn’t care how badly we mess things up or whether we are the model child. The only thing God is interested in is that we reach the happiness that He has created us for. And God will do everything possible—apart from forcing us—to make sure we reach this happiness which we call heaven. However, because God completely respects the freedom He has given us He will never force us. The death and resurrection of Jesus is all about making sure that our sins can be forgiven and that we can reach this happiness that God wants for us. That’s also what the mass is.

In this story of the Prodigal son, the younger son was a disaster, but it says that ‘while he was still a long way off, the father saw him and was moved with pity.’ The older son appeared to be the loyal child who ‘turned out fine.’ Yet he was seething with resentment, but the father also showed him compassion.

God is not interested in how good or bad, successful or unsuccessful we are, rather that we will keep coming back to him. If we remain open to him, we have nothing to worry about. Think of the younger son, the one who basically said he wanted nothing more to do with his father or his family and took off. I’m sure there are many of you worrying about children who have said they want nothing more to do with the Church or religion. Well remember this parable. The Lord still loves them just as much as any of us and God will go on reaching out to them until the end of their lives, perhaps through ways that we never see or even think of. But that is where we also have a duty to pray for them. That’s what the first reading is about. Moses intercedes for the people and God has mercy on them.

To sum up: God has created us to experience the fullness of life and to reach a happiness that is more than our wildest dreams could imagine. God will do everything possible apart from forcing us, to make sure we and our loved ones get there. So let us have great confidence in this and never be afraid of our mistakes or of how our lives have turned out. All that matters is that we try and stay open to God. The rest is in God’s mercy.

‘While he was still a long way off, the Father saw him and took pity on him.’