Friday, February 24, 2012

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:12-15) Beginning again

Last Wednesday we began the season of Lent, which is meant to be a time of spiritual new beginnings.   Do you ever wonder why we have to do this every year?  Why not once every five or ten years?  I think the Lord knows that we have short memories and we need to remind ourselves what our faith is and is not about.  So each year we celebrate the big feasts of Christmas and Easter and we also try and prepare for them because they are so special to us.  Most religions have a time of fasting and penance, such as Ramadan for Islam. So during Lent we remember all that God has done for us and that all we have comes from God as pure gift. 

We live in a time where people are quick to boast of their own greatness and self-importance.  It is easy for us to forget that we are nothing without God.  In fact when we recognise that everything we have comes from God it actually takes a lot of the pressure off us to be successful and to be able to do everything, because we remember that we are not the ones at the center, but God.   And so during Lent we take stock of how we are and as a way of showing thanks and beginning again, we give to God by doing some kind of penance or fasting.  This is one way of showing our gratitude.  It is also a way of acknowledging that God is the Creator and that we are just the creature.

As He was about to begin his public ministry Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to fast and be 'tested' spiritually.  Being 'tested' in this sense doesn't mean being checked to see if He was up to standard, rather being strengthened for the mission that the Father had sent him to do.  Jesus was being made ready for the greatest mission ever, to teach us about God and to lay down his life for the human race.  We try to imitate Jesus' life and so we fast too in whatever way we feel we are able. Note that it was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness. It is also the Spirit that inspires us to begin again.

Probably the most important thing that Jesus taught us about fasting and penance, is that it must come from the heart.  The Lord says, ‘don’t insult me with big fasts and penances, if you are not going to improve your lifestyle.  Justice and the love of other people are more important than sacrifices.’  In other words, it must come from the heart.  Any kind of sacrifice is absolutely useless, unless it comes from the heart.  You know how annoying it is if someone who has hurt you tells you they're sorry when you know they don’t mean it.  You would rather they said nothing.  In the same way God asks us to be sincere in whatever we do and that it not just be outward actions, but something that comes from the heart.  It is not really important what we do, but that we do it with love and that we do it for God, asking him to strengthen and renew us in our faith.  The smallest act of denial or giving done with love, is worth more than the greatest sacrifices done without love.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B (Gospel: Mark 2:1-12) Forgiveness and healing

One of the most frequent things that people say to me when they come to confession is: ‘...and for all the sins of my past life’.  Many of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not, live in dread of the mistakes we have made in our past.  We cannot undo them, but will God forgive us?  In spite of the fact that we talk about a merciful God, we don’t seem to be too convinced of this when it comes down to ourselves.  Why is this?  Probably because of two things:  First of all the image of God that we develop over the years is usually not from what we have been told about God, so much as from what we have experienced in practice from our seniors, our parents and our authority figures.  I remember hearing about a young man whose father was a devout Christian and was constantly telling him about the love of God.  But this man's father used to beat him regularly.  Now you can imagine what kind of image of God he grew up with; a terrifying one.  It is what we experience more than what we are told, that forms us.  Our parents do their best to raise us as well as they can; a task that is difficult even in the most ideal circumstances.  But our parents and authority figures are as human and weak as any of us, so inevitably what happens is that we develop a subconscious picture of God that is usually very like what we have experienced growing up; and often this is not a very healthy picture. It is frequently the image of an angry policeman, or a judge or even a monster who is just waiting to catch us out.

Another reason why we often find it hard to believe in a merciful God is from what we see happening in the Church.  People who make mistakes in the Church are often shown very little mercy or understanding, and yet we go on talking about a merciful, loving God.  This is a real problem.  So how are we supposed to develop a healthier picture of God? 

When we try to take our faith seriously in any way at all God begins to help us unlearn the unhealthy images of him that we have developed over the years.  God then also helps us to discover him anew.  Probably the best place to discover the kind of image that God wants us to have of himself is in the Scriptures, the inspired word of God, because this is one of the most powerful ways that God reveals himself to us.  The very first line in the first reading today says so much:
No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before. 

And then at the end of the same reading it says:
I it is, I it is, who must blot out everything and not remember your sins.

The truth is that God has no interest in our sins.  God is interested in us, but sin is what can separate us from God, from the only place we will find true happiness and so God does not want this to be an obstacle for us.  That is why God continually gives us a way out of our mistakes, through healing of confession.

The most perfect way that God has spoken to us is in the person of Jesus.  The life and death of Jesus is the most perfect way that God has revealed himself to us.  His life was a life of total self-giving for others; of compassion, understanding and immense hope; and above all the greatest act of love for another, which is to offer your very life for them.  That is what we must keep coming back to when we become afraid of our mistakes/sins.  God has done everything to remove our sins from us, and all we have to do is accept that, by confessing what we are aware of and then we have nothing to worry about.

In the Gospel Jesus heals a man who was completely paralysed.  Notice that the first thing he says to him is, ‘My child, your sins are forgiven.’  Why did he say this?  Nobody cared about his sins, they just wanted to see him healed!  But Jesus knew that this is far more important than just physical healing.  Sickness is hard to live with, but inner torment and suffering is much worse.

I will finish with this story about Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, the saint associated with devotion to the Sacred Heart.  It is a beautiful devotion which expresses the burning love of Jesus for us. St. Margaret Mary lived at a time when many people had come to fear God in a very unhealthy way, and people were also afraid to receive Holy Communion.  Jesus appeared to her many times during her life and helped her to understand the extraordinary love that God has for each person.  While Margaret Mary was having these visions, naturally the bishop was concerned to know if they were real or not.  So one day he said to the priest who was dealing with her to ask her for a sign.  The sign was this: he said, ‘Tell her to ask Jesus what is my most serious sin.’  So the priest told Margaret Mary to ask Jesus what was the bishop’s most serious sin.  And the next time Jesus appeared to her, she did.  Naturally the bishop was very curious to know what the answer would be.  Eventually the priest came back to him and the bishop asked straight away, ‘What did Jesus say to her?’  The priest reported to him that when Margaret Mary said to Jesus, ‘What is the bishop’s most serious sin?’ ‘Jesus said to her, “I can’t remember”.’  When the bishop heard this he knew that it must be real, because he had been to confession, which meant that the sins he had confessed were gone forever.  That is what the Lord wants us to know.  He is not interested in our sins.  He is interested in us.
No need to recall the past,
No need to think about what was done before.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

6th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:40-45) Beethoven and the mystery of suffering

Today we are given one of the many encounters of Jesus’ healing someone who had the terrible disease of leprosy.  Apart from the fact that leprosy was physically so horrible, with a person’s flesh literally rotting on their body, it also had the added pain of excluding them from the community because of the fear of contamination.  Anyone who had leprosy had to live outside the community.  Notice how it says in the Gospel that when Jesus heals this man he ‘sternly warned him not to tell anyone’.  But in the man’s enthusiasm he couldn’t help himself and began talking about it everywhere.  Because of this people realised that Jesus had been in contact with a leper and so he could now be infected himself.  As a result he then had to stay outside the towns 'in places where nobody lived'.  This kind of thing must have been very frustrating for Jesus, but he had to put up with it and adapt his mission accordingly. 

I’m sure there were many thousands of people in Jesus’ time who also needed healing, but who didn’t ever get to meet Jesus.  Jesus healed those people who came to him and asked for help, but that would have been relatively few.  Do you ever wonder why the Lord allowed so many others to remain sick, or why He allows us to be sick?  Is it possible that any good can come out of the sicknesses we have to go through?

Recently I came across a beautiful story about the composer Beethoven (1770-1827).  Ludvig Van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany and he really had quite a sad life.  He suffered from a great lack of affection, because his mother died when he was very young and his father was an alcoholic who used to beat him.  His father eventually died as a drunk on the streets.  His biological brother never helped him either and on top of it all symptoms of deafness started to disturb him, leaving him nervous and irritable.  There was however, a German prince who became his benefactor and was like a second father to him.  But then the prince died and between his deafness and loneliness he went into a terrible depression and eventually began to wonder whether there was any point in him going on living.

At that stage Beethoven could only hear using a kind of horn-shaped trumpet in his ear.  He always carried with him a notebook, so that he could write and communicate with others, but many didn’t have the patience for this and so he began to feel more isolated and alone.  Feeling that nobody understood him or wanted to help him, Beethoven withdrew more and more into himself and avoided people. He became so depressed that he prepared his will saying that maybe it was better for him to commit suicide.

But then God’s providence intervened.  A blind young woman who lived in the same boarding house where he had moved to, told him one night, shouting into his ears: “I would give everything to see the moonlight.”  Listening to her, Beethoven was moved to tears because he realised that he could see! And he could compose music and write it on paper!  A strong will to live came back to him and led him to compose one of his most beautiful pieces: “Mondscheinsonate” – “Moonlight Sonata”.

In its main theme, the melody imitates and resembles the slow steps of people, possibly of Beethoven himself and others, carrying the coffin of the German prince, his friend, patron and benefactor.  Some music scholars say that the notes that repeat themselves, insistently, in the main theme of the 1º movement of the Sonata, might be the syllables of the words “Warum? Warum”? (Why? Why?) or another similar word.  Years later, having overcome his sorrow, Beethoven wrote the incomparable “Ode to Joy” from his “Ninth Symphony”, Beethoven’s magnum opus, which crowned the life work of this remarkable composer.

He conducted the first performance himself in 1824. By then because he was totally deaf, he failed to hear the applause. One of the soloists gently turned him around to see the hall full of a wildly cheering crowd. It is said the “Ode to Joy” expresses Beethoven’s gratitude to life and to God for not having committed suicide.  And all this thanks to that blind young woman, who inspired in him the desire to translate into musical notes, a moonlit night.  Using his skill, Beethoven, the composer who could not hear, portrayed through this beautiful melody, the beauty of a night bathed by the moonlight, for a girl who could not see it with her physical eyes.

We do not know why we have to suffer but perhaps more good comes out of it than we realise.  No doubt the blind girl who inspired Beethoven could never have imagined that any good could have come from her being blind and yet look what happened.  I am sure that when we get to heaven we will be amazed at how many parts of our life that don’t seem to make any sense now, will all fit together. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

5th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:29-39) Jesus’ teaching above healing

Isn’t it amazing that 2500 years ago when the first reading from Job (7:1-4, 6-7) was written, they were asking the same questions that we still ask today?  ‘Why do we have to work so hard?  What is the point of it all?  Why is our life often so difficult?  Why is it that good people often suffer so much for no apparent reason?’  Throughout the centuries you’ll find that people continually ask the same questions.  Sometimes it takes a dramatic event like a tsunami or an earthquake where thousands are killed in an instant, to make people ask themselves these questions.  One minute all these people were just getting on with their daily lives, the next minute the tsunami struck and they were gone.  A recent example was the rioting during the week in Egypt at a football game which left 74 people dead.  If we can suddenly be snatched away like that, then what is the purpose of our being here?  Is there any purpose, or is it all chance?  The Lord teaches us that there most certainly is a purpose to our being here.

During his life on earth Jesus continually worked extraordinary miracles—just as we read in today’s Gospel—and as a result thousands of people were drawn to him looking for healing, just like we do today when we hear of someone who has been given a gift of healing.  But the interesting thing is that this was not the main purpose of Jesus’ being here.  Of course he was happy to heal people because he had extraordinary compassion for people, but primarily he wanted to teach people, to teach us about God and about the reason why we are here.  When you think about it all the people he healed and even brought back to life from the dead, they all eventually got sick again at some stage and died.  So he wanted to teach us that we are loved by God and we are not here by accident; that our life has a purpose and is going somewhere; that it is worth keeping going even when we are suffering, and of course above all he came to die for us.

When the disciples found him alone praying the first thing they told him was that everyone was looking for him.  There was so much work to do, so many people to heal.  But look how he responded: ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’  That is why I came: to preach and teach.  But why is it so important to teach us?  Wouldn’t it be much better just to heal us?  Physical healing is important of course and Jesus knew that.  But he also knew that if we have meaning, if we have purpose, that is much more valuable to us, because meaning will help us to keep going and not to lose heart especially when we are suffering.

A few years ago when I worked as a hospital chaplain, I remember meeting a man who had been suffering for most of his life.  He had had operation after operation and he was in pain most of the time.  But when I met him he was smiling and he said, ‘Father I have so much to be grateful for.’  It was very humbling to hear this.  Why was he so grateful; you would expect him to be angry?  He was grateful because he had faith and he had purpose.  He understood that his life had meaning and that it was going somewhere.  He believed that this life was not everything and that it was worth persevering in spite of his sickness. He was also able to see the good things that he had, rather than just what was wrong.

Having that kind of purpose is what makes all the difference.  And that is the purpose that our faith gives us.  It doesn’t take away the pain, but it does help to make sense of why we are here.  It reminds us that God does want us to be happy and that that is what He created us for.  It also reminds us that it is worth putting up with the various struggles we have to go through because they are often what make us into better people.  The suffering will not last forever.  Sooner or later we will cross over to the next world where our happiness will be complete.  That is what Jesus has taught us. Having that hope is what makes all the difference and that is why Jesus kept moving around and teaching people, so that they would have the strength to keep going especially when times were more difficult; so that they would have some sense of what their life was about and what was important.

So we will continue to pray and look for healing, and it is right that we do, but it is also good to remember that the hope we have in God is actually worth more than the physical healing, because that is what will keep us going.  Remember the words of Jesus: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.  Trust in God still and trust in me’ (John 14:1).  God knows what He is doing so there is no need for us to be afraid, even when we often can’t make sense of what our life is about.  ‘Trust in God still and trust in me.’