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.