Saturday, December 29, 2012

Feast of the Holy Family, Year C (Gospel: Luke 2:41-52) Our imperfect families

My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old.  One time when I was about 5 I was brought to a party of a school friend, but for some reason I decided that I didn’t like the party and that I wanted to go home.  I figured that the best way to do this was secretly.  So I told my friend that I would hide out in the garden and that he should come and try to find me after a few minutes.  I then made my escape and headed home.  The only problem was that I had no idea how to get home.  So I headed off and asked a post-man how to get to ‘York Road’ in Dun Laoghaire, where we lived.  He looked at me suspiciously but told me where to go.  When I finally arrived home I found a big police motorbike in the front drive.  Everyone was out looking for me.  My poor parents were not the better for this experience.  Family life is not easy.

This is a feast day which I think can often make us feel disappointed with our own families, although we don’t admit it, because it seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be.  Things go wrong, we want to kill each other; we drive each other crazy.  Someone gets into trouble and lets the family down.  Marriages don’t always work out. 

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

So why are they supposed to be our model?  Perhaps because they had their priorities right.  God was at the center of this family.  It was the right environment for the person of Jesus to grow and mature.  Jesus had to grow up as a person just as all of us do, and that takes a long time.  It involves a lot of learning for each of us, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on the part of our parents.  But how we are formed is vital. 

We know almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, but no doubt it was very important for his growing and maturing as a person, and to help him be ready for the strange mission that He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God, discerning the Fathers will and offering himself for the human race.

The main role of our families is to provide a safe, loving environment for us to grow up in, so that we will blossom as people and learn how to deal with the world.  None of us come from perfect families, but that doesn’t matter. We can often get discouraged thinking about how things might have been, or should be, but the bottom line is that we are the way we are.  We come from the kind of imperfect families that we come from.  The path through our lives often takes unexpected turns and things may not work out as well as we had hoped.  Does it matter?  Not in the eyes of the Lord.  The Lord is not the one to say ‘You should be different,’ or why arent you better?  That is what people will say, but that is not what the Lord says.  He is the one who always encourages, reassures and gives us new strength to keep going.

Think of all the people that Jesus dealt with in the Gospels.  He took them exactly as they were, including many people who were causing public scandal.  He always showed great sensitivity to their dignity.  Satan discourages, but God always encourages.  What is important is not how we should be, but that we remain open to God.  If we are listening and open, then the Lord can lead us forward.  All God needs is our openness.  Several times St. Joseph had to discern the messages he received in dreams about accepting Mary into his home when she was pregnant, then fleeing to Egypt and then not returning to where they had planned.  He was able to do this because he was a man of prayer and listening to the Spirit.  He was open.  We are called to be this way too, so that the Lord can guide us in all that we do.  

God is well aware that we often mess up, but that doesn’t matter.  The only thing that is important is that we are willing to get up again, to begin again and turn to the Lord for help as often as is necessary. 

Let us give thanks to God for the families that we grew up in, no matter how they are.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas 2012 (Gospel: John 1:1-18) The Word was made flesh and lived among us

It may seem strange but I always find Christmas and Easter the two most difficult feasts to talk about, perhaps because they are so profound and also because  they really speak for themselves. 

This is a story I heard recently from one of the old Dominican priests I live with.  He spent 25 years in India and had many fascinating experiences of faith there.  He told me the following story about a young girl called Asha. 

Asha, who was a Brahman (high cast) and a Hindu, went to Mary Immaculate school.  As happens with many children there she got encephalitis, a disease which causes the brain to swell.  Apparently about 500 children in India die from it each year.  Asha got encephalitis in Nov and had to be hospitalised.  She quickly began to deteriorate.  In mid December she went into a coma and on the 23rd Dec the doctors said she was not going to improve.  She only a short time to live.

On Christmas eve, her mother who was staying in the hospital in a bed beside her, saw lots of different coloured lights over her bed and a man standing with his hands extended over her daughter.  The next day, Christmas day, Asha woke up at 7.30am for the first time.  She asked her mother for something to eat.  Then she said, ‘What day is today?’  Her mother said it was the 25th of December.  Asha said, ‘Today is the day of the Christians.  Can you turn on the radio so I can hear some of the Christians’ songs.’  The doctors were astonished and had no explanation for what had happened.  Asha was completely healed.

About a week later the mother came to the convent school even though it was still closed for Christmas and asked to see the head mistress.  When the sister came out she said to her, ‘I think your Jesus healed my Asha.’  And she said, ‘Do you have a picture of Jesus?’  The sister showed her a picture on the wall but she said, ‘No that’s not him.’  10 days later Asha’s mother was back in the school for something and she happened to see on the wall a picture of a man getting into a boat.  It was a picture of Jesus getting into a boat in Galilee.  She pointed up at the wall and said, ‘That’s him.’

‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us and we saw his glory.’
Jesus, the Word of the eternal Father, is still among us.

Happy Christmas and God's blessing to you all.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

4th Sunday of Advent, Year C (Gospel: Luke 1:39-44) The unexpected God who comes in littleness

What exactly is it that we celebrate at Christmas?  The birth of the Christ of course, the one anointed by God, but what does his birth mean?  First of all it means that God is among us in the messiness of our human condition.  God took on our humanity as it is.  He lived and walked among us with all the chaos of our world, which really hasn’t changed that much since then.  We still have plenty of corruption and violence, just as there was in the time of Jesus.  Palestine was an occupied country at the time, occupied by the Romans who could be extremely brutal.  And yet Jesus comes into the middle of this.  So he knows what it is like to live in the middle of chaos, injustice, sickness and all the difficulties that we live with.  He is with us in this.

The event of Christmas also shows us that He came in the most unexpected way.  The Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah, the anointed one of God, but He came in a way that they did not expect.  He was as great as they hoped for, but not in the way that they were expecting and so He went largely unnoticed. 

All through the Bible there are accounts of people whom God chose to work and speak through.  They are nearly always people that we would consider weak and unimportant.  It seems that God likes to do this, no doubt to remind us that God doesn’t need human strength, greatness or ability.  God works through whomever He will so long as we are open to it.  One of the beautiful things about this is that it means God is accessible to all of us, from the simplest and least educated to the most brilliant minds.  No one is excluded.  It says in the first reading, ‘You Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel’ (Micah 5:1).  This is an ongoing theme that we find everywhere in the Bible.  The Lord uses the least of us, the ones we would never think of choosing. 

The event of Christmas is also the beginning of a new kind of hope for humanity.  Jesus would offer his own life for the sins of humanity, so that we could reach the happiness that God created us for.  You could say that Christmas and Easter are really two halves of the same event.  And the reason it is an event of great joy is not only because humanity is once and for all set free from the prospect of eternal death, but also because Jesus taught us what the meaning of our life is; why we are here.  We are created out of love, to share in the happiness of God.  That happiness hopefully begins in this life but will be fulfilled in the world to come.  Our life here is a time of love and service.  We are free to love or not love, to choose for God or not.  God has given us that freedom and the responsibility that goes with it.  But to know that our life has a purpose is all important.  What keeps us going when we are struggling if we feel that our life has no meaning, no purpose?  We need to know that we have a reason for being here, and we do.  That is why Jesus is the Light of the world.  Light shows up what is there in the dark.  With light you can see where you are going.  Jesus who is this light is the one who helps us to see why we are here.

The preparations for Christmas all around us are wonderful and magical.  I think that especially in this part of the world where it is so dark and dreary at this time of the year, it is beautiful to suddenly have our town and homes lit up with coloured lights, candles and decorations.  All of this is to celebrate the coming of the Saviour and the event that set us free.  Even though many people will celebrate Christmas without knowing what they are celebrating, yet in a strange way God is still glorified in all of this. Our society will celebrate the coming of Christ even though many will no longer realise that that is what they are celebrating. 

There is a line in one of the Psalms which says, ‘Man’s anger will serve to praise you’ (Psalm 76:10).  It seems like an unusual thing to say.  How could man’s anger be a source of praise to God?  Perhaps what it means is that ultimately all of God’s creation gives praise to God just by the fact that it is there.  All the celebrations of Christmas give praise to God, even if many people aren’t even aware of what they are really celebrating.  It is a reminder to us that God brings good out of everything, even when it is done for the wrong reason.

So as we celebrate Christmas maybe we can take a moment at some stage to give praise to God in our own way, for all that God has done for us; giving us hope, light, purpose and the promise of eternal happiness should we choose it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:10-18) Forgiveness and repentance

Every time I celebrate the mass there is one line more than any other that seems to stay in my mind.  It is the last line of the prayer the priest says over the chalice at the consecration: ‘This is the chalice of my blood.  It will be shed for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven.’  That phrase ‘so that sins may be forgiven’ is really what the whole mass is about, and indeed what the whole of Jesus life was about: ‘so that sins may be forgiven.’

Jesus came among us so that our sins could be taken away, so that we could be healed.  That fact alone should give us great courage because it means that God is totally for us, even when we have fallen into sin.  The Lord is not interested in our sin, He is interested in us.  He wants us to be healed, to be at peace, to be happy and to reach our full potential.  ‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord’ (Phil 4:4).  And that is also why He challenges us to repent and to keep coming back to God, no matter what happens, because God knows much better than we do that sin is the one thing that can block us from God and God is ultimately our happiness.  If we lose God we will also lose our happiness, because nothing else can fulfil us.

There is a powerful story in the Old Testament about King David.  It has all the ingredients of a good movie.  David—who is now a very powerful king with everything he could ask for—is walking one day on the roof of his house and he sees a beautiful woman in a nearby garden taking a bath.  He asks who she is and he is told that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.  But because he is king and he is used to getting his own way, he has her brought to him and he sleeps with her.  Some time later she sends a message to him to tell him that she is pregnant.  Now he is afraid because he knows he is going to be found out.  So he sends for her husband Uriah, who is away at war fighting for him.  When Uriah comes David asks him how the war is going, how the morale is among the men, etc.  Later he invites him to dinner with him and then he sends him away and says ‘Go home to your wife and tomorrow I’ll let you return to the battle.’  But Uriah doesn’t go to his house.  Perhaps he is suspicious.  Instead he sleeps at the door of the palace with the servants. 

The next day when David finds out that he didn’t go home to his wife he invites him again to come and eat with him.  This time he gets Uriah drunk and then tells him to go home to his wife, but again Uriah sleeps at the gate of the palace.  So the following day David sends Uriah back to the battle with a letter to his senior officer telling him to place Uriah in the thick of the battle and then to pull back so that he is killed.  So Uriah goes back to the war carrying his own death warrant and he is killed.

So we have lust, adultery, lies, betrayal and murder; quite a list of evil, all committed by the so-called ‘great’ King David.  But because God loves David He doesn’t let him away with it and so he sends the prophet Nathan along to David, who tells him the following story: Nathan says to David, ‘There was once a rich man who lived in a city.  He had all he wanted: huge farms, many servants etc.  There was also a poor man in the same city who had just one little lamb.  And he loved the lamb like one of his own children.  One day a stranger came to the rich man, but instead of taking one of his own flock, the rich man took the poor man’s lamb and had him killed for the meal.’  When David heard this he jumped up in a rage and said, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die.’  And Nathan says to David: ‘You are the man.’

Now David is considered one of the greatest kings of ancient Israel and the reason is because of what he does next.  When David hears the Prophet Nathan’s accusation he says, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’  David was powerful enough to be able to do anything he wanted, but when God challenges him he is big enough to confess that he has done wrong and he repents of the sin.

It is because God loves us that He challenges us to acknowledge our wrongdoing and repent of it, so that we can remain close to him.  The Lord doesn’t want our downfall.  On the contrary, the Lord wants us to be able to live in peace, which is why He offers us the extraordinary gift of his mercy and forgiveness through confession.  And we can have this gift as often as we ask for it, but we must ask for it.  Sadly many of us have come to see confession as a kind of burden, or as something inflicted on us.  But this is to see it completely backwards.  Confession is an extraordinary gift that God has given us, so that we can be free and live in peace, because that is what God wants for us.

The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.  ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church... Whoever’s sins you forgive they are forgiven; whoever’s sins you retain, they are retained.’  And now the Lord continues to offer us that forgiveness through the priesthood which is a wonderful thing because it is a very concrete way of knowing, through another human being, that our sins are completely forgiven.  We need that concreteness and God knows that.

As we watch the chaos of our own society around us and the evil that seems to continue to grow, the best way we can begin to bring about change is by repenting ourselves.  We ask God’s forgiveness for our own sins.  That is the way to get ready for the coming of Jesus.  That is the way to begin to improve life in our families, our workplaces and our world.  We must begin with ourselves.

This is the chalice of my blood…It will be poured out for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.’

Saturday, December 1, 2012

1st Sunday of Advent, Year C (Gospel: Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) Rediscovering what God has given us

There is a story told of a terrible flood which left most of a village under water.  One man who lived in the village was a devout Christian and he prayed to God and said, ‘Lord I know you will rescue me and not let me die in this flood.’  He was in the upstairs of his house when a boat came along and the rescue team told him to jump in.  But he said, ‘No, the Lord is going to save me, I know it’.  And he couldn’t be convinced otherwise.  After a few more hours the water had risen higher and by now he was on the roof.  Then a bigger boat came along and they shouted to him to climb aboard, but he said ‘No, I know that the Lord is going to rescue me.’  Try as they might, they couldn’t convince him to get into the boat.  Eventually when he was at the very top of the roof and the water was almost up to him a helicopter came along and they lowered a rope for him to grab.  But he refused and shouted up to them that there was no need as God was going to rescue him, he was quite sure of it.  Shortly after, the man drowned as he was washed away by the flood.

When he came before God in heaven, he said, ‘Lord, I had such faith in you.  Why didn’t you rescue me?’  The Lord said to him, ‘I sent you two boats and a helicopter; what more do you want?!’

Sometimes I hear people complain that the Christian life is too hard, or unrealistic, not with the times.  ‘How can God expect us to live this way?’  The truth is that God doesn’t expect us to live it on our own without his help, but often the help that He gives us is a bit like the story of the flood, not quite as dramatic as we would like it to be.  We would like God to appear to us and explain things to us personally.  And when we pray, we would like to be in ecstasy all the time, enjoying visions of heavenly things.  Sometimes when I pray with people I would love to see them healed instantly.  But faith isn’t like that.  It tends to be much more down to earth.  And a lot of the extraordinary things that God does for us are hidden in the apparently ordinary.

God speaks to me all the time; He really does.  He gives me direction and encouragement.  But He doesn’t appear to me and I don’t hear a voice.  He speaks to me mostly through other people, through nature and often through something I will read in the Bible.

The Lord comes to us in the mass, in a very real way.  In the Eucharist He is really and truly present so that we can receive him.  All we can see is what looks like bread, but Jesus is there.  He grants us his forgiveness through confession, so that we can live in peace and not be dragging the past around with us.  These things might not be as spectacular as we’d like them to be, but God is most certainly there.  So why does He always remain so hidden and come to us in such apparently ordinary ways?  The reason is that if God appeared to us in a dramatic form we wouldn’t need to have any faith, but faith is important, so God remains hidden so that our faith will continue to grow.

Advent is time of preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and also for when He will come again in glory.  Perhaps part of that getting ready for him is to recognise what God has already given us.  It is there for us to use and make use of.  We don’t want to be like the man in the flood and end up saying when we die, ‘Lord, why didn’t you help us as you promised you would?’  Maybe He will say, ‘I gave you all the help you needed.  I gave you my body and blood to feed you, in the mass.  I gave you forgiveness through the priests.  I gave you guidance through the teaching of my Church.  I gave you my own words in the Scriptures.’

May Advent be for us a time of rediscovering what God has given us.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

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.  He passed out.  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 very 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 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 you 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; either could win.  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 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 while there is poison festering under the skin.  And so God 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!

When people have a certain amount of power they like to show it off and make it felt.  People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off as much.  But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness.  This is an extraordinary thing and 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 of all. 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 17, 2012

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

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

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

If the Lord is to come to judge the living and the dead, it implies two things.  First, that there must be a heaven and a hell.  Otherwise there would be no point in judging us if it were going to make no difference.  Heaven is the total happiness that being in the presence of God will bring.  This is something that we can not understand because we have no experience of it yet, but this will be the most complete happiness we could ever know and this is what God has planned for us; it’s what He wants for us. 

Then there is the total loss of God for those who reject him, and this is hell, the loss of everything that can bring happiness.  Jesus has taught us that this is real, otherwise it would make no sense that we have free will, the power to accept or reject God.

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

Is this a reason for us to be afraid?  Not unless we are deliberately trying to fool God.  If we try to live as the Lord teaches us, then we have nothing to fear.  If we just get on with the day to day tasks that we are presented with and try to be honest before God, then we have nothing to worry about.  The fact is that we are all sinners, none of us ever get it exactly right, but God isn’t put off by this. The Lord sees the heart.  God knows when we are doing our best and trying to live as best we can.  He knows all the pressures that we’re under.  He knows how difficult it is to try and survive in the world.  The Lord looks at each of our hearts and judges us by what is in our heart.

It is even more important to remember that God is infinitely merciful, and mercy is something which is not deserved.  God’s justice and mercy go together.  Think of all the times that we see people in the paper convicted of some terrible crime, and we say, ‘I hope he gets life, or I hope they kill him…’  It’s just as well for our sake that God is more merciful with us than we are with each other, or none of us would stand a chance.  Another reason why we can never judge someone else is because we don’t know what’s in their heart.  We don’t know what has influenced another person’s actions, or what pressures they are under.  That’s why Jesus teaches us, ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged’.  Only God can judge, and only God will judge perfectly justly.

There is a lovely story of a young man who was in Napoleon’s army.  He deserted for whatever reason, but he was caught.  The punishment for desertion was death.  But his mother met with Napoleon and pleaded on her son’s behalf.  She explained that this man was her only son and all that she had in the world.  She asked Napoleon to show him some mercy, but Napoleon replied, ‘He doesn’t deserve mercy.’  The woman said to him, ‘If he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’  This is what we also try and remember about God.  God is infinitely merciful and so if we make an effort at all, we have nothing to be afraid of.

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

Saturday, November 10, 2012

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

I heard a story about an old Dominican who died recently.  Maurice Fearan was his name.  He was giving a retreat in Kashmir (India) in a place called Shrinagar beside the Dall lake. It is 7000 feet above sea level and a big tourist attraction; very beautiful.  So many people came to the retreat that they could not give him accommodation where the retreat was being held.  Instead they put him on one of the tourist boats.  So each evening after the retreat he would go back to the tourist boat, have a light meal and sleep there. 

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

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

In the first reading, God is showing us never to be afraid, because if we trust in his word He will never let us down.  The woman had almost nothing left and the prophet Elijah asked her to share it.  She was afraid, but Elijah said, ‘Trust in the word of God and you will be alright.’  So she did trust him and she was alright.

God invites us to do the same.  We are so often afraid that we won’t be able to manage and yet the Lord keeps telling us, ‘Trust in me and I will look after your every need.’ And He does.  ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these other things will be given to you as well.’

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

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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

29th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10: 35-45) The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many

We are living in a time when we are seeing a lot of religious extremism.  You could call it religion at its worst, when people do terrible things in the name of religion and of course it gives religion a bad name.  What it often amounts to is the weakness of human nature and how one group can decide that it is right while everyone else is wrong or that they have the right to force their ideas on others.  It can happen with any religion.  I suppose one thing it brings up is the question of what the purpose of religion is in the first place.

Why do we have a Church and what is its purpose?  We believe the Church is here because Jesus established it.  The reason Jesus established it was to pass on his teaching about God; so that all people might come to know God and what God has done for us. 
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld can never overpower it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mt 16: 18-20).

The difficulty as always, is that the Church is made up of weak, sinful human beings.  In Jesus’ life-time on earth he was let down several times by the very people he chose to lead his Church and that problem continues to this day.  Because we are dealing with the weakness of the human condition, we are continually faced with similar problems.  People in charge forget what they are about, or get caught up in the need for power, or whatever it might be.  It has always been this way and probably always will.

It’s interesting what happens in today’s Gospel.  James and John ask for ‘power’ and recognition.  ‘Grant that we may have places at your right and left hand…’  And then Jesus tells them and us something interesting: 
You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them… This is not to happen among you…  For the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The first reading also confirms this:
The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering. 

What God is saying to us is that his way is very different way to what we are used to.  It is not the way of power and might, but of littleness and of transformation through suffering.  This is something that is very hard for us to get our heads around.  We want our Church to be big and powerful.  We want everyone to be part of it and to see how ‘right’ we are.  But Jesus tells us that that is not how it works.  ‘The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many.’  So the first thing is that we are not meant to be big and powerful.

So then what exactly is the mission or purpose of the Church?  Jesus’ coming among us had a twofold purpose.  He came among us to teach us about God; who God is and how He looks after us; about the reality of life after death; about the reason why we are here in the first place: to love and serve.

The second reason Jesus came among us was to die for us.  Think of the line in the mass where the priest prays over the chalice: ‘It will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’  That is why Jesus came among us; so that our sins could be forgiven and that we would be able to reach the happiness that God created for us.  You could say that Jesus came among us for our happiness.  The mission of the Church is to make that known to all people.  If it is really true, as we believe it is, then all people have a right to know this.  They don’t have to believe it or accept it, but they do have a right to know about it and it is our mission to make that message known to everyone we can because Jesus asked us to.  Is this mission still being fulfilled today?  It certainly is.  Here am I in front of you 2000 years after Jesus walked on earth, proclaiming the same message.

In the news we continually read about all the terrible things that are done in the Church and in the name of religion and there are terrible things done.  But we don’t hear about the wonderful work that is continually done all over the world.  And we don’t hear about the fact that the Church continues to preach this message of Jesus—what we call the Good News or Gospel—all over the world.  I’m sure it will continue to be done in messy, inefficient ways, because we are dealing with human beings, but none the less it is being done.

How do we know that the Church is from God at all?  Well to me the greatest proof of this is the fact that it is still there at all.  When you think of all the great superpowers that have come and gone: the Roman Empire, the Chinese dynasties, the great European superpowers.  All were highly organised and efficient.  Yet the Church, in spite of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc., is still here.  How can that be?  Because it is the power of God working in and through it.  It is not dependent on human beings, but on the power of God.  And so we continually turn to the power of God and pray that we will continue to be the kind of messengers and servants that He calls us to be.

Jesus Christ is Lord, Son of God.  He was born of the Virgin Mary.  He taught us about God and he suffered and died for us.  Because of him we can have happiness with God when we die.  He is the one who makes sense of why we are here.  This is the message we believe in and this is the message we will continue to try and pass on to all peoples.

‘The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Saturday, October 6, 2012

27th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10:2-16) The call to marriage and religious life

One of the things that I did before I became a priest was to work in a jewellery store for a while as a salesman.  During that time I learnt an interesting thing about the way that precious stones like diamonds are polished.  The stones come in roughly cut and they are put into a container along with grit and shaken at high speed.  The grit and the stones rub off each other and they polish each other.  When the stones come out of the container at the end, they are sparkling and beautiful.  But while they are in that container they are just being thrashed about and having the corners knocked off of them.  I always think that this is a good analogy for what happens in married life, and indeed in any way of life well lived. 

Those of you who are married know better than I do that there is a lot of rubbing off each other, which can be difficult.  But all the time you are actually forming each other into better people, or you could say that God is forming you through each other.  The corners are knocked off us, and the trials that we go through are all the time helping us to become the best people that we can be.  That is God’s plan for us; that we reach our full potential.  At the time—just like in the container—we only see the endless trials and struggles that seem to come up.  But as time passes other people begin to notice that (hopefully) we are becoming more patient, tolerant and understanding.  Of course it doesn’t always work that way, but that is the idea.  It is true of any way of life, but I think it is particularly obvious in married life.

One of the things that can also happen after a time in married life and in religious life, is that all the sparkle seems to dry up.  Here I can talk more particularly about religious life, since that what I am most familiar with.  You begin to wonder why it seems so dull.  Did I make the wrong choice?  Should I change?  Would it have been better if I had gotten married?  I think it’s no harm to remind ourselves that this is a normal part of the growth stage in any vocation.  My partner is not as interesting or exciting as I thought they were initially.  Should I have married someone else?  This is also where the commitment is so important and that is why we take marriage vows and religious vows, to give us strength to keep going when things are not easy and to ask God to help us.  Hopefully, if we do manage to persevere we keep growing to a deeper level of commitment and love.  We are maturing and blossoming as people, but as you know it is not an easy path.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile.

Now I know that it is not always as simple as that, and that a certain percentage of marriages don’t work out and the couple end up separating.  It is sad, but that is life.  The same happens with religious life; a certain number end up leaving for whatever reason.  In the Gospel today Jesus ends up addressing this same age-old question and as always it is interesting what the Son of God has to say to us.  ‘Yes Moses did allow you to divorce, but that was not the original plan.’  I think that this should tell us two things.  Firstly, that it is worth making a lot of effort to help marriages and religious life work, because that is God’s plan for us.  But also to recognise that things don’t always work out and so we should also do our best to help those for whom things have not worked out.  God always wants to help us and offers us a lot of help in every way of life.  That is why marriage is also a sacrament, something that invokes God’s help and blessing, because God knows well that we struggle.  The same is true with religious life.  The fact that marriage doesn’t always work out is no reason to abandon marriage, and the same goes for religious life.  Just because it doesn’t work for everyone is no reason to abandon it.  It is all the time a question of us trying to get the balance right, which is never easy and that is why we need to continually turn to God for his help. 

I think what is really important for us to remember is that God does want our life to work out; that his plans for us are good and that the Lord always continues to help us when things have not worked out.  We are never alone and we are never abandoned.  Our path to heaven does not depend on us getting it right, but rather in continually trying.

‘God saw all that He had made and indeed it was good.’

Saturday, September 29, 2012

26th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:38-43. 45. 47-48) Different paths to God

One of the things I was very blessed with as a young priest was getting to know a Baptist minister and his wife who worked in Galway; Kelly and Susan Curry.  He and his wife had come over from the States because they felt the Lord was calling them there and they set up a centre in Galway to encourage people to come back to their faith.  They weren’t trying to convert people to become Baptist, rather this centre was about encouraging people to take their faith more seriously and of course most of the people who came there were Catholic simply because there were more Catholics around than anyone else.  But the reason I feel very blessed to have come to know them is because it opened my mind to different ways of faith.  I got to know Kelly best.  He wasn’t Catholic, but he was obviously a man of God and filled with the Spirit.  Kelly has been a great source of encouragement and support to me as a priest.  As I got to know him it helped me to realise that God was working in and through him just as much as through any priest I knew.  Now maybe that should be obvious, but when you grow up in one particular way of faith, it is not always obvious and often we can be suspicious of people who don’t see things as we do.  But of course God works through many different people in many different ways.  Many people I know have been greatly helped by the work they do there in that centre.  It is called An Tobar Nua (The New Well).

I know that many parents and grandparents at this time are distressed as they see their children no longer practicing or going to church.  While it is a tragedy to us, it doesn’t mean that they have lost faith.  We believe God offers us an extraordinary treasure in the mass and through the different sacraments and of course we would like that for others, especially for our children.  But at this time many young people have become disillusioned with the Church and with official religion, and for very understandable reasons.  In many ways it is hard to blame them, they have probably more reasons than most to be turned off by it.  But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have faith, or that they are not searching for God.  People are always searching for God. It seems to be an almost instinctual need within us.  While they may find it difficult to relate to the Church at this time, that doesn’t mean that God is not reaching out to them, or guiding them.

Just as getting to know my Baptist friend helped me to realise that here are many ways God speaks to people, I think it is good for us to remember that God is still speaking to them and guiding them, perhaps in ways that we do not recognise or would never have imagined.  I am continually struck by the great goodness that I have met in so many people, often people who have no interest in the Church at all.  But they do their best to live good lives and help the people they meet, often with great generosity.  They do believe in God, but they don’t relate to God through the means that we are used to.

Having said all that, I also think it’s amazing how people are still being drawn to the Church and to religious life.  This year 5 young men joined us here in the Dominicans.  Last year 6 entered.  The year before 2 and the year before that 13.  So God is at work around us all the time and that is something that should help us to take heart.
The readings today are also about how God gives his Spirit to whomever He wishes, often in ways that we don’t expect.  The Apostles were surprised, just as the men in the time of Moses were surprised, when they found others teaching and healing in God’s name.  But Jesus said to them, ‘Don’t stop them…If they are not against us they are with us.’ 

There are many paths and ways to God.  We believe that the one God has revealed to us is an exceptionally rich one, with the most extraordinary gifts to help us: above all the Eucharist; the Word of God; the healing we receive through confession and many other things.  We hope and pray that others will discover these treasures too.  But God goes on reaching out to people all around us in so many ways that we will probably never know about.  I think part of what we are called to, is to pray for the people around us that they will discover God too.  We are blessed to have been given the gift of faith.  So now let us pray that God will help us to be sign-posts to him, by the way we live our faith.  Amen.