Friday, August 30, 2013

22nd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14) What is prayer?

(If you look closely you'll notice the man in the front of this picture is actually on the phone!)

All through our life we are continually in relationships.  It’s what we are about.  Can you imagine having a relationship with someone who only asked you for things and nothing else?  I guess we would hardly even call it a relationship.  If a relationship is to grow it takes work from both sides, otherwise it will break down.

The way we relate to each other and the way we relate to God is very similar.  If we don’t communicate with him, there will be no relationship and the way we communicate with him is through prayer.  Just like a relationship with another person it isn’t limited to certain times and places.  We speak to each other whenever and wherever.  Sometimes people think that prayer is something for priests and nuns, or just for churches and monasteries.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  It is for everyone, everywhere.

How do I speak to God, you might ask?  The same way we would speak to anyone else.  What astonishes people the most, is that when we begin to communicate with God, God also communicates with us.  God is in fact speaking to us all the time, but so often we are not listening.  But as soon as we begin to pray, we start to notice it much more.

The best way to learn about prayer is to look at the Scriptures and see how did the people of the Bible pray.  It says that God spoke to Moses face to face as a person talks to his friend.  As well as talking to God directly, Moses interceded for the people when God was angry with them.  Then he also defended God’s actions when the people were rebelling against God.  So he continually stepped in the breech between God and the people.  We are also called to intercede for the people around us and indeed for so many different needs in the world.  Maybe that is why the Lord has you exactly where you are, so that you can intercede for the people who live around you, or work with you.  There are usually not many people who are doing this and it is a really important role.

Another form of prayer that we see very often in the Bible is prayer of praise, where people simply acknowledge God and praise and thank him for all that He does for us.  One of the most beautiful examples of it is The Magnificat, where Our Lady meeting Elizabeth gives thanks for all that has happened:
My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

The most powerful prayer we have is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  There is nothing greater than this, but you may not even think of this as a prayer, rather as something you just go to.  But there is nothing else like it because it is the offering of God the Son to God the Father at Calvary.  In each mass time stands still and we are present at Calvary with Jesus being offered to the Father.  That’s why it is so powerful and that’s why we pray for everything and everyone in each mass. And of course we also receive Jesus in the Eucharist.  There is no more intimate meeting with God than this.

As well as reading the Sciptures, which are the living and inspired Word of God, there is also praying in silence, or just being still in God’s presence.  We are not used to silence and often not comfortable with it, but this is where it can be a great help to learn some method to help you be still in prayer.  God speaks to us in the silence.  In fact the mystics say that the language of God is silence.

But what about the fact that so many people are just busy with going to work, dropping kids to school or having the ongoing demands of your children at home which doesn’t really leave you with an awful lot of time for prayer?  Well I know a lot of moms who pray with their kids on the way to school or just talk to God themselves at home while working around the house, or maybe taking a minute or two to read part of the Scriptures.  The bottom line is that it’s always possible if we want to.  The Lord never forces us, but continually invites us to grow closer to him.
If you feel that you can’t pray, or don’t want to pray, just ask yourself this: would you really expect to have a relationship with someone without speaking to them at all; and do you really expect to have a relationship with God without speaking to him at all?

Friday, August 23, 2013

21st Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Lk 13:22-30) Try your best to enter by the narrow door

I often get the impression that people see some of the other world religions as much more challenging than our own.  The Muslims often seem to be much stricter in living out their faith than we are and it is very impressive.  Buddhists seem to have great discipline and meditation.  We can appear to be a bit too easy-going sometimes, especially for younger people with high ideals.  However, I think that we forget how demanding our faith can be too.  Jesus was quite definite about what you could and could not do.  And when asked a direct question, he gave a direct answer.

There is an idea around today that really the best thing to do is to make your own of our faith.  Take the bits that work and that suit and dump the rest.  After all, what do those men in Rome know anyway?!  They are out of touch with the real world.  This is a mistake for the simple reason that faith doesn’t work like that.  We can not take certain parts and leave the rest.  We must be prepared to come to the Lord on his terms and not on our terms, even though this can be very difficult sometimes.  This is why Jesus talks about entering by the narrow door.  ‘Try your best to enter by the narrow door…’ It is the more difficult way, but the way that leads to God. 

What is this narrow door?  It is just trying to live as the Lord Jesus taught us; keeping the commandments of God and keeping to what we know is right, regardless of what everyone else is doing.  That is the narrow door.  Not sleeping with someone before you are married, as the Lord taught, keeping Sunday holy, not stealing, or killing, or lying, etc.  The Lord gave us the commandments as a guideline, or a blue print for living.  If we follow these we will flourish, they will help us to do well as people.  They make for a society that works.  But if we just do our own thing, we will get into trouble. 

The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is teaching us the same thing.  It is saying that as people we have limits which we must not try to go beyond.  If we do we won’t be able to handle it.  That’s why the Lord told them not to touch certain trees.  They are symbols of our limitations.  As soon as Eve took the fruit from the tree of good and evil she was in trouble, she felt guilt and shame, she was confused and she didn’t know why.  The story was explaining that they had gone beyond their limits as human beings and so they couldn’t handle it.  They needed God’s help again.  Then when God came to them in the garden he asked them why they were hiding, what was wrong?  God wasn’t just giving out to them but helping them to see where they had gone wrong.  ‘Have you been eating from the tree from which I forbade you?’  ‘Who told you you were naked?’  Whatever God does is always helping us in the long run, but we often don’t see it that way and we cry out to God, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’

God didn’t give us the ten commandments just for the sake of giving us laws, to make life difficult for us, but to help us.  And then when Jesus came along he helped people to understand these laws at a deeper level.  He began to teach people to live from the heart, to pray from the heart.  You hear in Matthew’s gospel where many times Jesus quotes the Law, which are from the Commandments and then He says, ‘But I say this to you.’  ‘You have heard how it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I say this to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute.’  Jesus is teaching us to live at a deeper level at the level of the heart, so that we’re not just doing the bare minimum.  Outward observances are not enough.

Now the most important part of all this is to realise that before we can do any of these things, we must begin with our relationship with Jesus Christ.  It is not a relationship about a thing but a person.  Once this relationship grows then it makes it possible to live the way he asks us to, not the other way around.  People often get bogged down with Catholicism because they begin with all the controversial issues and of course they get into a black knot and just think that the whole thing is a waste of time.  We are also heavily influenced by the media here because they will keep bringing up the controversial things.  If we focus first on God and on trying to get to know him a little bit more, then the other issues begin to fall into place.  Relationship with God first, through prayer, mass, reading the word of God, then everything else begins to make sense.

Try your best to enter by the narrow door.’

Saturday, August 17, 2013

20th Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Luke 12:49-53) I have come to bring fire to the earth

There is a place near my home town in Ireland called ‘The Bishop’s Chair’. My father brought me there a few years ago.  It is a hard place to find as it really is out in the middle of nowhere.  This ‘chair’ which is in the middle of a field, was where at least two bishops, between 1679-1701, ordained many priests in secret.  At the time it was illegal to be a Catholic priest and if they were caught they could have been executed, so they had to ordain them in secret.  It is very moving to visit it even though there is not much to see today, but just to think of the sacrifice that so many men and women were prepared to make at that time, to pass on their faith.  Priests were prepared to risk their lives so that the people could have the mass, because they had the faith to believe that the mass was everything, because in it we have the gift of Jesus himself.  The people were prepared to risk their lives by going to mass.  The mass had to be celebrated in secret, often on what were known as ‘mass rocks’ out in the countryside.  Many priests died for the mass because they were caught.  But now all that sort of thing is in the past, right? 

Well a few years ago in 2007 a priest friend of mine called Ragheed Ganni, who was my next door neighbour in the Irish College in Rome for a year and a half, was shot dead after celebrating mass in Mosul, northern Iraq.  He was just 35 years old.  He had been threatened several times but he remained on in his parish in order to be there to celebrate mass for the people, even though he knew the danger.  On the Sunday after Pentecost in 2007 after celebrating mass in the parish church Ragheed and three deacons were ambushed by several gunmen. They forced them out of the cars they were driving and shot all four of them.  Persecution for our faith is never far away.

At the moment we don’t live with that kind of persecution in this country, thank God, though we are living with a different kind of persecution, where our faith and our Church is constantly being put down, mocked and lied about.  Maybe it seems strange that something like the Christian faith, which preaches peace and justice, love of neighbour and respect for all people, should face such ongoing persecution?  And it still does in many parts of the world.  Then we have these lines in today’s Gospel:
I have come to bring fire to the earth... Do you suppose I am here to bring peace on earth?  No I tell you, but rather division.

This line seems to be a bit of a contradiction to what we usually associate with what Jesus spoke about.  What about peace and tolerance, love and mercy?  Preaching the message of Jesus Christ, which is about peace and justice, etc, brings persecution with it, for the simple reason that not everyone wants to hear it.  The teaching of Christ is a very challenging teaching at the best of times.  It shows us up when we are not living according to the Lord’s word and that often makes people angry.  We don’t like to be shown up.  It says in John’s Gospel: ‘People have preferred darkness to the light, because their deeds were evil’ (Jn 3:19).  There is a tendency in us which draws us to what is wrong.  We often know what is ‘the right thing to do’, but we find it hard to choose it.  And if we have done what is wrong, or are living in a way that is against what God teaches us, then we are not going to be happy with the teaching of Christ because it will confront us.  That is why the message of Jesus always brings persecution with it, because it challenges us to our face to follow one path or another.  There is no middle ground.  But perhaps what is most important to remember is that the Lord’s teaching, difficult though it often is, is there to help us, because the Lord knows what will make us blossom.

I always find it consoling when I read about the calling of any of the prophets in the Bible.  Nearly all of them resisted.  And even if they didn’t resist initially, they usually asked God after a while if they could quit, as it was so difficult.  They suffered for speaking the truth about God.  The prophet Jeremiah said: ‘You have seduced me Lord and I have let myself be seduced... For me the Lord’s word has meant insult and derision all day long’ (Jer 20:7, 8b).  The prophet Elijah, after working one of the most extraordinary miracles then finds himself on the run because Queen Jezebel is trying to kill him and he says: ‘Lord, I have had enough.  Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors’ (1 Kg 19:4-5).  Who would blame them?

If you want to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ it will cost you.  Not everyone in your family is going to like it.  Many of the people you work with won’t like it.  But that is no reason for us to be afraid, because the Lord assures us that He is with us and that He will help us.  For our part we just try to be faithful and live what we believe as best we can.  We follow this path because we believe it is the most worthwhile path, because it is the path that leads to God.  So each day we rededicate ourselves to God and we try to be faithful to the path that He points out to us.  It is not an easy path, but it is the most worthwhile path.  And if not everyone understands us that’s ok.  That’s how the Lord said it would be.

I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.’

Saturday, August 10, 2013

19th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 12:32-48) The Passover and the Mass

(This picture is part of the apparition of Knock, Ireland, where in 1879, 30 people saw a vision of the Lamb of God on the altar, surrounded by angels and accompanied by Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John)

Any time I find myself in a situation of stress or suffering, I always hope and pray that God will show me a way out, or send someone to show me a way out.  I think most of us do that.  The Passover feast for the Jewish people which is mentioned in the first reading, is a reminder for the Jewish people of the time when God gave them a way out.  They were in a desperate situation, enslaved in Egypt and suffering greatly.  They didn’t know what to do but they had been praying to God to help them.  Then out of the blue, God sent this man Moses who was now old, to lead them to freedom.  It is a bit like a lot of the Middle Eastern countries at the moment which are living under dictators.  Not only was Pharaoh a dictator, but he considered himself a god.  The feast of Passover celebrates the night when God gave them a way out of a desperate situation.  The final event that enabled them to go free is a very interesting one because it is so like the mass.  What happened was this:

Moses told the people, to take a goat or lamb and to kill it and have it for a meal.  They were also told to put the blood of the lamb on the door posts of their homes as a sign that they belonged to God, because what was going to happen that night was something terrifying.  That night God sent the angel of death to go throughout the land and kill all the first born as a final warning to Pharaoh, but when the angel saw the blood of the lamb on the doors he would ‘pass over’ that house; hence the name Pass-over.  The people were being saved from death by the blood of the lamb.  This would once and for all make Pharaoh realize that God was real and that God was not to be messed with.  When he saw this sign he would let the people of Israel go free and that’s exactly what happened. 

To our thinking it probably seems terrible that God would send an ‘angel of death’ to strike down the first born in any household, even if they were not the people of God.  But this is also a Biblical way of telling us that if we are not following the true God it will only lead us to death.  Following the path the Lord shows us is the path that leads to life, the path that leads to him.

Now if you jump forward to the time of Jesus a few thousand years later, remember what John the Baptist said when he saw Jesus: ‘There is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’  When Jesus was killed on Calvary it was just after they had celebrated the Passover meal, which was the last supper.  Jesus was the Lamb who was being sacrificed on behalf of his people.  And just like in the Passover meal the people ate the flesh of the Lamb and marked their houses with its blood, so we eat the body of the Lamb of God when we receive the Eucharist.  But what are we being set free from?  From eternal death, from losing God when we die, from meaninglessness.  Each time we receive Holy Communion we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus who is the Lamb.  We are being united to Jesus in an extraordinary way by taking his Body into our body.  We are saying that we belong to God.  He is giving us the chance of life with him in heaven.

God does not want anyone to be ‘lost’, or to put it a different way, to lose the happiness that He has created us for and so God shows us the path to follow.  That path is in and through Jesus.  So we continually unite ourselves to Jesus in each mass.  Just before we receive Holy Communion the priest holds up the host and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.  Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.’

It says in the first reading that the people knew the Passover and this gave them courage, because they knew that God was with them helping them.  The Holy Mass for us is an even stronger reminder that God is with us, showing us the way forward, the way that gives us hope and most importantly the way that leads to God.  But for us it is not just a symbolic reminder, but we believe it is really and truly the Body and Blood of Jesus that we receive in each mass.  This is an extraordinary idea and one that many people found hard to accept from the first time that Jesus taught this.  It says in St. John’s Gospel that when Jesus taught this first many of his disciples stopped going with him.  They said, ‘It’s too much.  Who can accept this teaching?’  And when many stopped following him Jesus said to his disciples, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’  He didn’t say, ‘Oh let me explain what I really meant.’  That teaching has remained the same to this day and that is why we believe it is really and truly the Body and Blood of Christ we receive at Communion, because it is Jesus himself who taught us this.

Behold the Lamb of God; 
Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.’

Saturday, August 3, 2013

18th Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 12:13-21) Tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance

Any time there is a natural or human disaster it makes me think; like the train crash in northern Spain last week where 80 people were killed.  One minute they were just enjoying the train journey, the next minute they are dead.  Think of any one of those people who died.  One moment they are just getting on with their lives, then suddenly they are before God knowing what their whole life was about. That could be there for any of us.

If I was suddenly told, like in the Gospel, ‘This very night the demand will be made for your soul,’ I wonder what would I focus on for the rest of the day?  Would I be worried about paying off bills, or loans?  I doubt it.  I’d imagine my focus would turn to the people I love and also to wondering how have I lived my life so far.

At the moment many people in our society—including Christians—are living as though there is no after-life, as though our life on earth is everything.  At funerals I often hear people talking about the dead person as though that were it.  There existence is over.  If that were so, then we might as well grab all we can and make our life as comfortable as possible, because we only have one chance.  But our faith tells us something completely different.  Perhaps the most important thing it tells us is that we will not find full happiness in this life, but in the next, if we choose God.  Complete happiness is not to be found in this life.  We will have moments of great happiness, and hopefully we will find overall contentment, but that’s about as good as it gets.

When Our Lady appeared to Bernadette in Lourdes 150 years ago, one of the things she said to her was, ‘I cannot promise you happiness in this life, but in the next.’  The point of that message and of the teachings of Christ is to remind us not to ‘miss the bus’, so to speak.  It’s important that we don’t forget what our life is really about.  We are only on this earth for a short time.

In Jesus’ time the problem of greed for money was just as much of a problem as it is now and it will probably always be this way.  When this man said to Jesus, ‘Tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance,’ straight away Jesus pointed out to the disciples the danger of this desire.  He said, ‘Watch out for this.’  ‘A person’s life is not made secure by what he owns.’  The problem is that our society tells us the opposite.  We are all the time being told that if we have enough of everything we will be happy.  But that is not what the Lord teaches us.  That’s not where our happiness comes from.

There is a priest called Benedict Groeschel who founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx in New York.  He is a great preacher and he tells the story of a man he knew, an extremely wealthy man.  At a particular function this man spoke to Fr. Groeschel, and he said, ‘You know I have more money than I could ever spend or use and I would really like to be able to put it to good use.’  Fr. Groeschel suggested that he could make a donation to one of the orphanages they run, or something similar.  But by the end of the evening the man had not agreed to part with one cent.  It’s as if he was possessed by his wealth.  He knew he had way more than he could use, but he was still unable to part with it.

In confession I have heard so many heart-breaking stories of families divided over inheritance.  It is so sad, because it is not important.  Of course it is not good when someone in a family is left out of their fair share of what is coming to them, but sooner or later we will leave it all behind anyway.  ‘There is no tow-bar (hitch) on the hearse,’ as they say!  Is it really worth causing such division in a family for this?  I suppose it is a sign again that we believe we will find happiness if we have enough of everything materially.  If we get the right car, house, job, furniture, etc, then we will be happy.  The reality is we won’t.  It is very nice to have these things, but these things won’t bring happiness because we are much deeper than this.  Our spirit can never be content with just material things and that is why there is always this deeper longing in us for ‘something’ although we’re often not quite sure what that something is.

God has made us in such a way that we can only be fulfilled in him.  Our time here on earth is a time for love and service; to choose for God or not; and this is a choice that each one of us has to make individually.  That is why each week we come to listen to the Word of God and to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, so that we remember what our life is about.  The key is in making sure that God is at the centre.  Otherwise we will forget what we are here for.

This very night the demand will be made for your soul;
and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?’