Saturday, January 26, 2013

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (Gospel: Luke 1:1-4;4:14-21) He has sent me to bring good news

A few years ago a Dominican priest friend of mine told me the following story.  He was based in Dublin, and because of renovations to their church they were using a make-shift chapel at the time, which was a bit cramped.  The chapel was jammed as they were celebrating the Easter Vigil and he said that the reader was reading the account of creation in Genesis in a rather posh accent.  While he was reading this piece of Scripture a wino came up to the top of the chapel and sat down right underneath where the man was reading and listened to the reading.  When he got to the part of the reading that says ‘God saw all that He had made and indeed it was very good,’ the wino said out loud, ‘You’re havin’ me on!’  Then the reader went on to the next part and again when he got to the part ‘...and indeed it was very good’, again the wino said out loud ‘You’re having me on!’  While it might have seemed very ignorant of the man to interrupt the reading like this, what he was saying was that this might be what the scriptures say, but it certainly wasn’t his experience of the world.

How do we make sense of a reading like today’s Gospel which says that Jesus, the anointed one of God, came to bring good news to the poor, to free prisoners, etc?  For many people, such as that wino, and indeed many others too, their experience of the world is that it is a difficult place where often things don’t work out.  Think of the families who are living in the middle of war at this time, or even those who are really struggling to survive in our own country.  What could possibly be ‘good news’ for them?

The ‘good news’ that the Son of God came to tell us is that there is a purpose to our lives.  We are here for a reason.  Our lives are not meaningless and the meaning of our lives does not depend on how ‘successful’ or otherwise things seem to be for us in this world.  How well we do on the outside is not really that important.  What is primary is what happens inside us, in the heart.  God has created us to love and to serve and to blossom as people.  Hopefully we will also do well on the outside and be able to provide for our loved ones and enjoy this life too, but whether or not everything works out well for us is really secondary.  The only thing that really matters is that we realise what the purpose of our life is about—to love God and the people around us.  That is something that everyone can do, no matter what their circumstances.

I used to visit a man in prison for a couple of years while I was studying to be a priest.  He was in for a very serious crime and he was doing a life sentence.  As far as I know he is still in prison.  Having got to know him I also realised that he was basically a very good man himself.  The crime he committed, which was a murder, was one of these bizarre things that happened, where 30 seconds either way and he would never have met the person he killed.  Now his life is apparently ruined and he will spend most of it in prison.  Does this mean that his life is meaningless, or totally wasted?  Not necessarily so; it depends on what goes on inside him more than anything else, because that is what God sees and that is what God will judge him by.  That is what God will judge all of us by: how we have loved.  Whether we end up living on the street or being the president of some huge company is really not that important.  Of course we should try to make the most of the opportunities that we are given and hopefully we will do well, but if we can see that the purpose of our lives is much deeper than just what we achieve on the outside, in the world’s eyes, then we will have an inner strength that will help us keep going no matter what happens.

This ‘good news’ that we often talk about, is that we are loved, we are noticed, we are valued, and there is a purpose to our lives.  We are not just here by chance.  God deliberately created us.  God wants us here at this particular time in history, in the particular family that we are part of.  If I cannot see this bigger picture then my life may appear to be meaningless, pointless, especially if things haven’t worked out the way I think they should have.  But that is to limit my purpose to my own very limited way of seeing the world.  If I try to see it with the eyes of faith, then I will see something quite different.  To understand that is to give sight to the blind and freedom to those who are imprisoned.  It’s not just prisons like ‘Mountjoy’ in Dublin either, but the kind of prison of the mind that tells me that my life is a waste of time.  No one’s life is a waste of time if we realise that God wants us here.  Our job here is primarily to love and serve God and the people around us.  The key for us is to see the bigger picture.

I came that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Baptism of the Lord Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)

 ‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

One of the many benefits that comes from a more mixed society, where we have people from many different parts of the world living together, is that it helps to broaden our minds.    I live in a religious community and we often have people from different parts of the world.  One morning last year when we came down for breakfast two of us noticed that someone had cut the loaf of bread not from top to bottom into slices the way we usually do, but from one side to the other across the middle.  In other words they had done the complete opposite of what we were used to.  The two of us who noticed this at the same time both began to complain saying, ‘Who is the idiot that did this!’  But then almost immediately we both began to check ourselves and say, ‘I suppose there is no law that says you can’t do it this way!’ and we laughed at ourselves and how fixed we can be in our ways.  It was a Taiwanese priest living with us whose culture is very different from ours.  Something as simple as this helped us to see how small-minded we can be in our ways. 

In the second reading today St. Peter says he realised how anyone can be acceptable to God if they do what is right.  That might seem obvious enough to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them at that time.  The Jewish people believed that they were specially chosen by God, and that meant anyone else who was not Jewish was not so important to God.  But then the Lord began to teach the Apostles that in fact He was there for everyone, of every nationality and creed.  It took them a while to come around to this way of thinking.  In fact the first few times some Gentiles (non-Jews) received the gift of the Spirit, the Apostles were quite surprised.  They hadn’t expected this.  In fact they didn’t think that Gentiles would be given the gift of the Spirit.  God was helping them to gradually broaden their horizons.  Everyone, of every nationality and creed was being called into God’s family.  The Lord showed this to St. Peter through a vision (See Acts 10:9-16).  Peter saw a vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals and birds.  Then he heard a voice saying:
“Now Peter, Kill and eat!”  But Peter answered, “Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything profane or unclean.”  Again a second time, the voice spoke to him, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane”.  This was repeated three times and suddenly the container was drawn up to heaven again (Acts 10:13-16).

This vision helped Peter to understand that no-one was ‘unclean’ in God’s sight if they tried to live the right way.  The Lord was helping Peter to see a bigger picture, but as with most of us, this happens gradually.  Everyone is called to be part of God’s family.

After Jesus was Baptised in the Jordan a vision was seen of the Spirit coming down on him in the form of a dove.  The Father in heaven was empowering him with the gift of the Spirit, to enable him to live the mission that the Father had given him, to teach the people about God and to offer himself for the sins of the world.  The Spirit gave him the strength and wisdom He needed for this difficult mission. 

Perhaps another reason why people were allowed to see the Spirit descend in bodily form was to remind us of what happens when we are baptised.  We are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life.  It is not a way of life that we can live by our own strength; it would be too difficult.  This is why God gives us the gift of his Spirit to guide, strengthen and teach us.  Jesus said to the Apostles that after He had ascended into heaven He would send the Spirit, ‘Who will teach you everything’ (John 16:13b).  Our minds can only take so much, and we are continually learning about the ways of God.  As we continue to pray and try and live the Christian way of life, the Lord teaches us more and more.  So much of what our faith is about is completely beyond us, and so the Lord teaches us little by little.

When we are baptised we recite what it is we believe in and we commit ourselves to this way of faith.  For many of us someone else will have spoken on our behalf when we were baptised as we were infants, but this is done on the understanding that we will be taught about our faith as we grow up, otherwise it would make no sense.  If we come for baptism as adults we will be examined before-hand to make sure we understand the commitment we are taking on.  But the greatest part of Baptism is the gift of the Spirit who will teach us all we need to know, and who will continue to challenge us in different ways so that we grow ever closer to God.  As long as we remain open to the gift of God’s Spirit we will be drawn deeper and deeper into God.  Only in God will we find our true happiness and fulfilment and so the more we give ourselves to this journey the more fulfilment we will find.

‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognise Jesus as God

The feast of the Epiphany is an interesting one.  In the Eastern Catholic Church, it is the main feast of Christmas.  Here we celebrate it as the feast of Christ being recognised by the world.  The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was.  They are supposed to have come from different countries.  They represent all the peoples of the world since they were not Jewish.  It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and race.  All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The three gifts they bring are symbolic.  Gold is the symbol of a king.  Jesus is a king, the King of the whole universe.  The use of frankincense is a sign of recognising a God.  Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the God-head.  And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering he will go through to win eternal life for the human race.  The point is that all peoples of all religions will recognise that Jesus is God and that we only have eternal life through him. 

It might seem a bit arrogant of us Christians to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God.  That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong.  But that is not the case.  People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who never come to know Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ.  And eternal life is still offered to them, just as it is to us.  When they die they will see this at once.  There can only be one God and this God has created us for happiness.  

Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin (and interestingly most religions have a similar understanding of Original Sin although it is called by different names) God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.   But because God totally respects the freedom He has given us He does not force this on us but simply offers it to us.  We must accept this gift individually, and we do this through our faith.  All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not.  But it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe.  We accept life with God when we die, which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever, and that is the choice we must make.  

We may have the impression that Jesus died for Christians only and that you have to be a Christian to go to heaven.  This would be to see it backwards. Depending on how we live our life and the choices we make, we accept or reject God.  That is where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong.  Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong.  All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or driving us farther away from God.

Christians are the people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us.  We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way.  But it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else.  That depends completely on how we live our life.  When we die we will realise that all this is really true.  And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord.  That doesn’t mean that they are all wrong now; rather that they have a different understanding of God.  What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can, just as it is for us.  If they do this, God will also draw them closer and closer to himself and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 

Meanwhile we pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us.  But either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us, and remember that they are also children of God.

Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)