Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pentecost Sunday, Year B (Gospel: John 20:19-23) The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything

There is a priest friend of mine—one of my classmates actually—who does a lot of work with the Legion of Mary calling from door to door speaking to people about faith.  He was a Quantity Surveyor before he became a priest and he is one of the most amazing organizers I’ve ever met.  He often said to me that the hardest places he found to work in were usually the wealthier areas.  When people felt they had all they needed they were generally not as open to hearing about God.  The poorer areas were usually much more open to what he had to say.  It doesn’t surprise me.
From all the various crises that are happening at the moment one of the good things that is coming from them is that they are helping people to ask a lot of questions and to search for God in a new way.  Economic crisis helps us to realise that we are much more vulnerable than we might have thought.  Religious crisis and serious scandals—such as we are seeing at the moment—help us to remember that while religion can be a great help, it is absolutely deadly if it is misused.  Any religion is simply a way to help us live out what we believe in, but unless it is completely focused on God and unless God is at the centre, it can become an end in itself and a very dangerous one at that.
There is one crucial thing that is needed for faith to be alive and healthy and that is the gift of God’s Spirit.  For me the best way of explaining it is to compare the Spirit to electricity.  In any building you can have all kinds of useful  and sophisticated equipment, such as computers, microphones, lights, projectors, MRI and CAT scanners, and so much more.  However, none of these things would be of any use to us if we didn’t have electricity.  They would just sit there like stone.  The power that goes into them is what transforms them into something wonderful.  In a sense the Holy Spirit is the electricity that makes us alive.  Without God’s Spirit we are dead, the Scriptures are just words in a book; the mass is just an empty ritual; marriage is just a legal way of being together.  But with the Holy Spirit our faith suddenly lights up, the Scriptures become the living word of God and the mass becomes the living presence of Jesus among us in the Eucharist. With the Holy Spirit marriage includes the presence of God, present to support, strengthen and encourage.
The truth is that we are nothing without the gift of God’s Spirit.  We would not be able to believe, or pray nor would we even have the desire to know God.  I could stand at the altar and pray all day long, but nothing would happen if the Holy Spirit didn’t transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus; the same with confession.  It is the Spirit who forgives people.  The priest is just an instrument; an important instrument, but only an instrument.
What we see happening in the Church at the moment and over the last 20 years or so is also the work of the Holy Spirit, purifying and renewing his people.  And that is happening because the Lord loves us and won’t allow his people to be overcome with disease.  All the poison is being taken away and this is painful but absolutely essential.  We will all be much better off because of this work which God is bringing about.  God is forcing us to rely much more on the power of his Word and of his Spirit, something which we should have been doing all along.  Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that God’s work is always beautiful and God will make things beautiful again, because God is the master craftsman.
The Lord doesn’t wait until we are ready either.  God acts when the time is right.  He doesn’t just wait for the hierarchy of his Church to decide what to do, He sends his Spirit who inspires people and moves people to act.  That’s not to say that God doesn’t care about his bishops and priests, but God knows how best to act; and so the Lord sends his Spirit to inspire and move people to step out in faith and live the Gospel, and they in turn move others, until soon God's people are alive again with faith.
God knows very well what we are like and that despite our best efforts we continually need to be helped back on the right track, no matter what we are doing.  And this is why Jesus told us before he ascended into heaven, that the Father would send us this ‘Helper’, who would be with us forever, and who would teach us everything.  He knew well that we would need help and so God sent us the best help that we could have, his own Spirit, to guide us and teach us.  And the Lord does teach us constantly through the example of people He inspires, through the Word of God, through prayer when we are open to him and in many other ways we will never even be aware of.  But the Spirit is very gentle and that is why we don’t notice him sometimes.
The gift of God’s own Spirit is really the greatest thing God can give us after life itself, because when we have the Holy Spirit we have everything. 
Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful people,
send forth your Spirit and we will be created,
And you will renew the face of the earth.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Ascension of the Lord Year B (Gospel: Mark 16:15-20) He continued to appear to them and tell them about the Kingdom

In my work as a priest people often tell me about spiritual experiences they have had: sometimes they are experiences of the Lord in some way, sometimes of someone who has died, asking for prayers or something like that.  Quite a large number of people do seem to have spiritual experiences.  However, often after a time people begin to wonder did they really have these experiences, or was it all in their imagination.  Of course it is really impossible to know, and in one way it is even not important.  Usually the experience will have helped them, and that is really the only thing that matters.

In the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles—or the ‘adventures’ of the Apostles, as you might call them—Luke tells us how after Jesus rose from the dead he continued to appear to the Apostles.  Not just once, but many times.  Why? Probably to convince them that they had not imagined it.  One thing that he did on at least two occasions was to eat something with them.  The first time when he appeared to them in the room, they were all standing there speechless, and he said ‘do you have anything here to eat?’  So they gave him a piece of fish and he ate it in front of them.  Then they knew it was not just a vision, but a real person, the same real person they had known before.  It was not even food that he had brought with him, which could also have been part of a vision, but it was something they gave him and then they watched him chew it and swallow it.  This was a beautiful and very human thing to do; something that we could completely relate to.

Luke also says that he not only appeared to them, but he also continued to tell them about ‘the Kingdom.’  What is ‘the Kingdom’  and what was he telling them about?  I have no doubt that he was telling them about the reality of heaven: life with God which we have been created for; that it is real and that we could also lose it if we are foolish. There we will be reunited with the people we love and we will experience happiness there in a way that we can not even begin to imagine now.  He was probably also explaining to them what the purpose of his life was on earth, why he had to suffer and die the way he did, what all this meant for the human race; God’s plan for his people.  Also he probably told them that he had a lot of work for them to do and that they must remember that their life here on earth was a time of service and not to worry if things were not easy, because when their work here was done he would bring them home to be with him again. 

Why was it they were suddenly able to go out and start preaching to everyone about a man that most people had never heard of before?  And not only preach about him for a while, but for the rest of their lives and with passion.  I think all of them ended up being martyred, but they didn’t care, because they knew that the only thing that was important was to be faithful to the Lord Jesus as best they could.

Why am I telling you all this? because the same thing exactly applies to us. The Apostles were real people and these are real experiences that we are reading about. Our life on earth is just as short as theirs was and it is also a time of service, just as theirs was. For many people it will be lived out in service by looking after their families. For many others and also for priests and religious it will be in a slightly different way. But that is why we are here, to learn to love, to serve, to freely choose for or against God. However, I think it is also worth remembering that we are living in a time when people are very cynical about religion, and they point to the scandals of the Church as being ‘proof’ of just how hypocritical the whole thing is. We must not let that put us off. It has always been difficult to believe and probably always will be, but we ask the Lord himself to help us to persevere and not become negative or cynical. And when our time here is complete God will come and bring us home.

I have no doubt that this is probably what Jesus was telling the Apostles about during those forty days. He wanted them to have no doubt about why they were here, so that we also could have a good understanding of our purpose here, through their teaching.

You might say, ‘But it is too difficult, or not realistic, or too hard to believe.’  God has given us every possible help that we could ask for.  If it seems too difficult it is only because we are not using the help that He has given us.  What help? Above all, the Eucharist, where Jesus feeds us with himself and we are united to him in the most intimate way possible; also through the word of God which guides and teaches us; then there is confession which heals, forgives and encourages us, and there are so many other ways too.  It is all there waiting for us.  The clearer a picture we have in our own head as to what our life is about, the easier it is to keep going.  That is also why we needn’t be afraid of anything in this world.  If we offer ourselves to God, then why should we be afraid? All things are in his hands.
I am going now to prepare a place for you
and after I have gone and prepared you a place,
I shall return to take you to myself
So that where I am you may be too (Jn 14:3).

Saturday, May 12, 2012

6th Sunday of Easter Year B (John 15:9-17) “I call you friends”

A few months ago my brother Cathal who was studying in Canada told me that he had gone to a particular jazz concert where a world famous trumpeter called Wynton Marsalis was playing.  My brother studied music and is a big jazz fan.  After the concert he went to a local jazz bar only to find Wynton Marsalis had also gone there and played for the rest of the night.  At the end of the session Cathal went up to say hello to this guy.  He couldn’t believe that he even had the chance meet Winton.  When he went up Wynton was talking to another man.  After a minute he realised that my brother was waiting to meet him and he just turned around and put his arm around him and said, ‘Hey, how are you?’  My brother Cathal said he felt so chuffed that this famous musician would be so kind as to recognise him and greet him in this way. 

I remember also hearing a story of John Paul II visiting some place in Poland.  And whatever building he had been brought to all the staff were lined up to meet him.  When he came into the room he recognised one woman he knew from years before and straight away he said, ‘Mary, what are you doing here?’  and he gave her a big hug.  She was so overcome to be singled out by the Pope in this way that she just burst into tears.  For whatever reason we love to feel that we are remembered, or recognised; that we’re not just nobody.

In the Gospel today there is a simple phrase which you could easily miss.  Jesus says, “I call you friends,” because he says he has taught us everything about himself and about the Father.  Can you imagine if the Lord appeared in the sky and we were all watching and he singled you out and said, “Oh this is a friend of mine.”  How bizarre, and yet what a wonderful privilege.  The Lord tells us that we are not his servants, but his friends and even children.  We say that often, but I think we forget what it means.  Our friends are the ones who look out for us, do favours for us and stick with us.  Real friends won’t let us off the hook either, even if we are out of line.  They are the ones who will challenge us, because they love us.  Jesus is telling us the same thing.  He treats us as friends, which is a sign of his enormous respect for us.  A servant can be let go at any time if they are not up to standard, but you don’t let go of a friend, even if they are not up to standard.  Jesus is telling us that this is the regard he has for us.  I find that very comforting. 

My best friends are the ones who have stood by me through thick and thin.  And as you know well, you will know who your true friends are when you make a mess of things, or when times are hard.  They are the ones who will stand by you.  That is what the Lord Jesus is saying to us.  He is with us and He will stand by us regardless. 

There is another line in the first reading today that I also want to mention, where Peter says: “The truth I have come to realise is that God has no favourites; but that anyone of any nationality who fears God and does what is right, is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35).  And then as though to prove the point, just after he said this, the Spirit of God came down on all who were present and empowered them and these people weren’t even baptised.  They were pagans.  God was showing them something wonderful:  All people who try and do the right thing, are acceptable to God. 

I know there are a lot of people here who are worrying about their children or loved ones, perhaps because they don’t seem to be practicing, or living their faith in the way that we think they should.  Well remember this line:  ‘The truth I have come to realise is that anyone of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.’  Most people I know, whether they practice or not, do fear God and try to do what is right.  I think this should give us and the people we love great hope. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

5th Sunday of Easter Yr B (Gospel: John 15:1-8) "Cut off from me you can do nothing"

One of the most successful movements ever started which has been able to help people get their lives back together is the group known as Alcoholics Anonymous or AA.  By now there are also many other ‘twelve step’ groups, as they are called, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and others.  The interesting thing is that the twelve step program on which they are based, is basically a summary of the Christian life.  The twelve steps involve admitting that you are powerless over your problem, whatever it might be; that your life is unmanageable, that only God (as you understand God) can help you and so you must turn to him; also that you need to atone for the hurt and damage that you may have caused others.  But the main reason why these groups have helped so many people is because they are based on the idea that we need the support of like minded people if we are to be able to live any kind of way of life.

Our coming to mass on a Sunday has a very similar thinking behind it.  We come together primarily to worship the Lord of course, but also because we need the support of like minded people who also believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Holy One of God.  And this was exactly why the early Christians began to come together in each others houses, so that they could share their faith together, listen to the Word of God, receive the Lord Jesus together in the Eucharist and be encouraged by each others presence and witness.

Today we do the same thing but in a more organised way.  But the reason we still come together is not just because it’s Sunday and we have to go to mass, but because we need the support of others who believe as we do.  We need to listen to God’s word for guidance and inspiration, so that we can learn how God wants us to live.  And of course most importantly to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. We are nourished by Jesus himself when we receive him in Holy Communion and are intimately united with him in the most extraordinary way.  The Lord knows much better than we do how much we need this kind of strength and support and that is why he has set it up for us this way.  All of this is for our benefit, because we need this kind of support.

In the second reading St. John says that what the Lord asks of us is this: to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, that He is the Son of God, and to love one another.  If we can do that much we are doing a lot.

More and more in our society it becomes obvious that we don’t all believe in the same thing and that is alright, there is room for everyone.  But if we are to blossom, we need the support of each other and to know that we are not on our own.  We also need to look out for each other, because that is the practical way of living out our faith.  It is not easy to live as a Christian, but then it never has been.  In the Gospel Jesus says, ‘Cut off from me you can do nothing.’  If we are serious about following this way of life, then we must recognise what it is we need.  Just as with someone suffering from an alcohol or drug addiction, if they want to get well, they need to work the twelve step program.  Well it is the same for us.  If we hope to survive as Christians, we need to stay close to Jesus, to listen to his word, to receive him in the Eucharist and to love one another. Jesus is our source of life in every sense. If we wish to remain alive as Christians, we must be rooted in him. No one else will give us life as He does.

I am the vine, you are the branches... Cut off from me you can do nothing.’