Saturday, June 30, 2012

13th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 5:21-43) God created us for life

In the first couple of years of my ministry I remember coming across a young girl of about 12 who was very sick.  She was in the hospital several times and she eventually died.  I can still see her pale dead body in the intensive care room and her poor parents who were completely devastated.  I remember feeling so helpless as a chaplain.  I have often prayed for them since.  Every time I read today's Gospel I think of that little girl and her parents.  

An event like that always brings up the most difficult questions.  Why does God allow these things to happen?  Why didn’t God heal her?  The readings today give us some interesting things to think about in regard to this.  First of all death was not something that God wanted for us.  And although it is now a part of our existence, it is only a stage of transformation; a doorway to another stage of our life with God. 

The way that Jesus dealt with sickness and death also has a lot to teach us.  Since Jesus was able to heal people and even bring people back from the dead, as he did on a few occasions, why did he always want people to be quiet about it?  In this Gospel he only brought three of his disciples with him and when he got to the house he made as if the girl was not dead at all.  Then he asked the family to keep the whole event quiet.  Why?  You would think that it would be in his favour if people knew and that He would have more respect and that people would listen to him.  Perhaps it was because his primary role was not about healing people physically, even though he had great compassion for people who were sick.  However, his main role involved three things:
·       First to offer himself for us, so that we might have eternal life with God when we die.
·       Secondly, to show us that God is with us in our sufferings.  Jesus’ freely accepting death on a cross showed us this.
·       Thirdly, to teach us about God and what our life is all about. 

Jesus wanted to teach us that God is not interested in condemning us, or ‘catching us out,’ rather that God has made us to be with him and that God will make that happen if we allow him.  During our life here God is gradually transforming us and helping us to become the best people we can be, at least if we are open to it.  The teachings that Jesus left us with are the path which leads us through this gradual transformation, so that we become more like God all the time.  He is saying, ‘If you want to be transformed inside, then live the way that I am showing you.  Spend your life loving and serving the people around you.  Don’t always put yourself first and don’t spend your whole life trying to store up a wealth that will disappear the day you die.  If you get too focused on the world around you, you will miss what your life is really about.’

Now I know that it is tempting to think that that kind of life is only for a few people and that our own life is too difficult or too demanding to be like that; but that is not true.  If it was not possible to live this way of life, then Jesus would not have given it to us.  The truth is that all of us are given endless opportunities to live the way Jesus taught us, because we are all the time being faced with difficult situations where we continually have to make a choice for good or bad.  All of these choices are shaping us and making us into better or worse people.  The good thing is that even if we have made a mess of many of the choices we’ve been given, God keeps giving us plenty more, because God wants us to grow into the kind of people that He knows we can become.  It is the ordinary struggles that we are faced with every day which are shaping us.

God created us for life, to become beautiful, to become more and more like him, until eventually we leave this world and are united to him for always.  That is our journey, but how we live it is up to us.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

24th June The Birth of John the Baptist (Gospel: Luke 1:57-66, 80) You shall be called a prophet of God the most high

In 1879 in a remote village called Knock in Ireland there appeared at the gable end of the church a vision which 30 people witnessed.  The vision lasted for about an hour.  The people saw a lamb standing on an altar and surrounded by angels.  To the left of the altar was Our Lady with St. Joseph on her left and St. John the Evangelist on her right.  No words were spoken, and yet it said so much.  This happened at a time of terrible poverty and not long after the great potato famine which wiped out most of the population.  It seemed to be a message of hope and encouragement from heaven, saying to the people ‘You are on the right track and God is with you.’  The people then had also been going through terrible suffering for their faithfulness to the mass.  They were persecuted in a savage way, but they did not give up.  They believed, as we do, that the bread and wine really and truly becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus in each mass.  This vision seemed to confirm this.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, was at the centre, being worshipped by the angels and accompanied by Our Lady and the saints.  We usually talk about this apparition as a Marian apparition, but it would be more accurate to say it was an apparition of Jesus on the altar accompanied by Our Lady and the two saints.  Where Jesus is, Mary will always be, but Jesus must be at the centre.

As you know in each mass we refer to Jesus on the altar as ‘the Lamb of God.’  After the consecration—when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ—the priest holds up the host and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.  Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.’  Jesus is the Lamb who was sacrificed for us to take away our sins, so that we could be united to God.

1900 years before the apparition at Knock when John the Baptist was baptizing people, he saw Jesus approaching and he said to the people, ‘Look!  There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’  And later when some of John’s disciples were wondering about who Jesus was, John said to them, ‘He is the one to follow, not me.  I am not important.’ 

John was sent to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus.  He called people to repent, to change their ways and then he pointed to Jesus as the one sent by God; Jesus was the one who would save his people from their sins.  Jesus himself said that a greater man than John had never been born and John’s birth was accompanied by strange and wonderful signs.  His father Zachariah had a vision of an angel who told him that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and have a child.  He was to be called John.  As a sign to Zachariah that this would take place he was made dumb and could not speak until the time when the child was born and named.  When John grew up he went out into the wilderness by himself until he began preaching publicly.  He was so outspoken that he was arrested and eventually killed for telling King Herod that it was wrong for him to live with his brother’s wife.

When you connect the events of Knock with the life of John the Baptist time seems to disappear.  They both speak of the same thing and what they are telling us is that Jesus is the one to follow.  Jesus is the one who comes to us on the altar in each mass and although we suffer and struggle, God is with us so we have nothing to be afraid of.

We have been given an extraordinary gift in the mass: the gift of Jesus himself.  We can receive him every day if we wish.  There is no greater gift than this because it is the gift of God himself.
There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 
Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

11th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 4:26-34) The kingdom of God is like...

There is a story told of Napoleon when he was at the height of his power.  At one stage he met the cardinal of Paris and said to him, “I am going to destroy the Vatican!”  The cardinal replied: “You won’t be able.”  Napoleon said, “I will.  Just you wait and see.”  The cardinal said to Napoleon: “You will never be able.  We priests have been trying to destroy it for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able!”

I often think it is amazing how so many people keep coming back to the Church, or even just remain with the Church, in spite of so many reasons to leave it: scandals, bad example, bad preaching and so on.  Working in Lourdes as a confessor a couple of times I was amazed at how people from all over the world would come and confess their sins, many after being away from the Church for decades.  Why is this?  It is because the Spirit of God goes on moving people, drawing people and inspiring people to keep coming back.  And where the practice of the faith decreases in one part of the world, such as in Europe at the moment, it increases in another and so the cycle continues.

The Lord does not wait until we are ready to act, or to preach, or to reach out to people.  God simply goes on loving his people all over the world and moving people to act where it is needed, whether we are ready or not.  In the Gospel today are these lovely examples of what the kingdom of God is like.  Jesus compares it to plants growing in the ground.  The farmer plants the seed, but the plants grow by themselves, ‘how, he does not know.’  God continues to work and guide people to himself whether we take part or not.

Sometimes I think that our work is a bit like that of the farmer in the parable.  We are called to plant seeds.  We try and be signposts to God, pointing them in the right direction and then God does everything else.  By ourselves we are very limited in what we can do, but the thing is that we do have a part to play.  God invites us to be part of his work, helping others along the road to heaven, perhaps by prayer, by example and for a few of us by preaching.  But all of us are invited to play a part.  For most of us it is a hidden part.  I think we often underestimate the importance of praying for others.  We speak to them about God mostly by the way we live.

Jesus uses the parable of the mustard seed.  It is a tiny seed, but it can grow into something many thousands of times its size.  In other words, although we are small we can have a lasting influence on the world around us, even though we may not realise it in our own lifetime.  The Church is meant to be small.  We are not meant to be big and powerful and we have seen what happens when we get too big and powerful; we forget what we are about and we caught up in prestige and status and our own importance.  But when we are small we remain dependent on God and focused on God.  That is when God can work through us most effectively because we don’t get in the way.  When we are not full of ourselves there is room for God.

I’m sure that one of the things that is happening in the Church at the moment is that God is helping us to become small again.  While once we were big and powerful, now we are despised in many places.  It is painful, but it is also helping us.  The Lord allows this to happen because He loves us and He knows what will help us the most.

The Apostles too wanted Jesus to be big and powerful.  James and John asked if they should call down fire on a town that didn’t make them welcome.  Another time one of them asked Jesus if the time had come for God to ‘restore the kingdom to Israel,’ in other words to kick the occupying Romans out and become powerful once again.  But the way of Jesus was something very different and unexpected.  His was the way of the cross.  He was despised and rejected and appeared to be a complete failure.  The Apostles found this very hard to accept, but eventually God helped them to learn that this was the path that they too must walk.

God goes on making his kingdom grow; drawing people to himself and helping people to find their way; most of the time we don’t know how.  We are invited to play our part by praying for those around us and speaking about God by the way we live. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ ‘Corpus Christi’ Year B, (Gospel: Mark 14:12-16)

Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me it also makes me think of the Eucharist.  For those who do not believe as we do, it must seem like the craziest notion of all; that God makes himself present through the hands of a priest, in a tiny piece of bread and some wine.  What could be more bizarre than that?  And we don’t just believe that it is a reminder of Jesus or similar to Jesus, but really and truly the body and blood of Christ.  I also think that it is a teaching so extreme that only God could come up with it and get away with it, so to speak.  What human being would try to convince others that Jesus was present in a piece of bread when a priest says certain prayers over it?

In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 11:23-26)—which is the oldest account of the mass that we have—St. Paul says straight out, “This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…”  He doesn’t say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself.  Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul while he was persecuting Christians and turned his life around.  He appeared to him several other times as well.  And Paul was so affected by what happened to him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching about this man Jesus.  But the line that always strikes me is where he says, “This is what I received from the Lord…”  He is saying, “I didn’t make this up and neither did any other person.  Jesus himself taught us this and taught us to do this in his memory.”  And so every time an ordained priest says the words of consecration at mass, “This is my Body… This is the chalice of my Blood…” Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine.  

How are we supposed to understand this?  We aren’t!  I do not understand it at all, but I believe it.  That is why we try to fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat or smoke in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else in the world.  It is also a beautiful sign of how close God is to us that He would continually come to us in the middle of our lives, each week, each day, to help and encourage us.  He comes to us as we are, not as we should be, but as we are.  It is also God himself who makes it possible to receive him, because we could never be ready or worthy enough to even come close to the divine presence, not to mention receive him.  That is why we always say the prayer: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (just as the Roman soldier said when Jesus offered to come to his house to heal his servant).

There are two extremes that I come across with regard to the Eucharist.  One is where someone will say to me, “Oh father I don’t receive the Eucharist because I really am not worthy enough.”  Correct!  No one is worthy enough nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to give himself to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him.  The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance or need to confess every once in a while.  Wrong again.  There is no question of this being a ‘right’ on our part.  The Eucharist is pure gift from God and for our part we must try to approach it as well as we can, especially by confessing our sins every so often.  But the most important thing to remember is that the Lord wants to give himself to us, and so we should not be afraid to come to him.  Remember that ultimately it is God himself who makes it possible for us to receive him.  “Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

I want to finish with this story:
In the late 1500s there lived a woman named Margaret Clithero in the town of York in England.  She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic.  Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth penders, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them.  She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral.  It was an Anglican church at the time.

She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial.  She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors.  She said, “If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself.”  The judge said, “Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.”  He then handed her the bible and told her to swear on it.  So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, “I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered.  It was called in English law, ‘the punishment most severe’.  She was pressed to death under heavy weights.  It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive.  The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken.  She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.

In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times.  It says ‘She died for the mass.’

So the next time that you find yourself bored with the mass, or just not too bothered to go because you’re tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for saying mass.  God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist may He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.
I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” – St. Margaret Clithero.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Feast of the Holy Trinity, Year B (Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20) We are made in his image

We believe that God was perfectly happy and content, not in need of anything, before He created the universe and the human race.  Wouldn’t it make you wonder why on earth did God bother to create us at all, since we have proved so much trouble?  And God would have known about all the trouble that it was going to cause.  So why did He create us?

Well this is how it makes some sense to me.  Think for a moment of some time when you were deeply happy about something.  Usually our instinct is to share it.  We want someone else to be a part of that happiness.  That’s why most people have a big party at their wedding, because they want others to share in their happiness.  And that is one of the reasons why God created us, simply because in his goodness he wanted others to share in his own happiness.  And so he created the spirit world, that we understand as the angels and then He created the human race, in order that we could share in his own happiness.  The book of Genesis says that we were the last thing that God created which is a biblical way of saying that we were the most important thing, the masterpiece of God’s creation.  And we were created with the ability to love and reason.
But there was one ‘catch’ as it were.  That is, that in order for us to be able to love God we had to be free, so that we could freely choose to love God, otherwise it wouldn’t be real love at all.  Real love has to be free, since you can never force someone to love you.  You can encourage them, but you certainly can’t force them.  Love has to be free.  So God had to make us free, and this meant that we would have the freedom to love God and gradually find our way to happiness, or to reject God which would ultimately mean we would lose that happiness that God had intended for us.  It’s a strange paradox.  But in his goodness He created us and gave us the freedom, even though He knew that some of his own creatures would reject him. 
I think the most beautiful image we are given of how God loves us is in the story of the prodigal son.  While the Son has gone away and squandered everything his father is constantly waiting and hoping that he will return.  And when he does finally return the father just celebrates.  There is no giving out, no warning that this must not happen again, just celebration and rejoicing.
The Lord knows how difficult it can be for us to make the right choices and so He gives us people to guide us, the commandments, the teaching of his Church, his own Word in the bible and many other things to help us along the way, so that we won’t be short of the direction and encouragement that we need.  He also sends us holy people every so often, like Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio, Therese of Lisieux, Mother Theresa, and many others, because they radiate God and they are a real sign to us of the Lord’s presence among us.  These people seem to radiate God and so many people are drawn to them because they sense that presence.  That is why God sends us particular chosen souls every so often, to inspire us and remind us that we are not alone.  I know of several people who worked with Mother Theresa and it completely changed their life, because they met God through her.
The feast of the Holy Trinity is a celebration of love; the Trinity is a community of Persons who share total love and joy between themselves, and this Holy Trinity reaches out to us with that same love and invites us to join them.  If we respond to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, then we are gradually drawn more and more into that love.  It starts in this world and it will be fulfilled in the next.