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.’