Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas (Gospel: John 1:1-18) The Word was made flesh and lived among us

This is a story I heard recently from an old Dominican priest I lived 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.  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 to one and all.

Friday, December 20, 2013

4th Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 1:18-24) Who will save me from this wretched state?

Today I want to address a question that often comes up when people are talking to me in confession and it is related to what we celebrate at Christmas.  Actually it is more of a fear than a question.  Almost everyone talks about a particular thing that they struggle with, whether it be anger, gossip, a sexual weakness, an addiction, or whatever; and it causes no end of suffering and humiliation.  No matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to overcome it.  In fact I’ve often heard people say to me that they don’t feel there is any point in going to confession anymore because they just end up confessing this same sin again and again and they don’t seem to be getting any better, so where’s the point?  It can also make us afraid that we won’t be able to go to heaven because of our weakness.  ‘Since I can’t overcome this sin, why would God allow me to go to heaven?’  That is usually the thinking behind it.  However, when we think like that I believe we are really missing the whole point of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The truth is that no matter how hard we try to be holy and overcome our sins, our weaknesses, we continually fall short of the mark.  That is our reality.  When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul put it like this:
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are redeemed by his grace as a gift… to be received by faith (Rom 3:23ff).

In plain English that is saying to us, since all of us have sinned and can never be good enough for God, it is God himself who has made up the difference for us.  God has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The fact that we will always be sinners and will always struggle with various weaknesses is no longer a problem, because God has made us ‘good enough’ through what Jesus did.  That is what being ‘redeemed’ means.  We cannot get to heaven by our own strength, by our own efforts, because we are too weak and too sinful and no matter how hard we try we keep falling.  But we don’t have to be afraid of that because Jesus has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves.  He has bridged the gap.

St. Paul struggled with some kind of weakness that caused him great humiliation in spite of the fact he had various visions of Jesus and of heaven.  Listen to what he says about it:
I do not understand my own behaviour; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate.  ...the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do. (Cf. Rom 7:14-24)

And finally he says, ‘Who will save me from this wretched state?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’  That is the exact fear that people keep saying to me in confession: ‘Who will save me from this wretched weakness?  How can I ever come before God in heaven when this is what I’m like?’  This is where God calls us to realise what Jesus has done for us and that can be a key turning point in our faith, because once we realise this then there is nothing for us to be afraid of.  It no longer matters that we struggle with sin.  God has made up for our weakness himself.  That is why the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas is such an extraordinary event, because it is the beginning of God making up for our weakness, our sinfulness.  Jesus has made himself the bridge between God and humanity.  Now we can come before God without fear because Jesus has made it possible.  

Each time we celebrate the mass we are becoming present to that event—the sacrifice of Jesus—which made it possible for us to go to heaven.  No other sacrifice or offering to God will ever be necessary for us, because the selfless act of Jesus dying for us has done everything necessary.  All we have to do is to accept it.  No wonder we celebrate the mass every day, in every church all over the world.

The mistake we continually make, which causes us to be afraid, is to think that we have to become ‘good enough’ for God by our own efforts.  But the problem is that that is impossible for us by our own strength.  If we stop there, then we would have every reason to despair.  But once we realize that it is Jesus who steps in and bridges the gap, then we have endless hope, because it no longer depends on us being good enough.  All we have to do is accept this extraordinary gift from God.

So is Christmas relevant to us in a practical way in our day to day living?  It totally is, because the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus is what reassures us that no matter how much we struggle, the path to heaven will always remain open to us as long as we ask God for it.  All we have to do is accept from God this amazing gift which He is offering us.

‘Who will save me from this wretched state? 
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ’  (Rom 7:24).

Saturday, December 14, 2013

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11) Prepare a way for the Lord

Today we celebrate the third Sunday of advent and we light the rose coloured candle.  It is also called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ which means ‘rejoice.’  Advent was originally a penitential time like Lent, in order to prepare for Christmas.  This Sunday was meant to give everyone a break from the penitential focus in order to remind us that the Lord’s coming is near and it is something to rejoice in.

Advent is also meant to be a time of hope for us, because the one who is coming to help us is Lord of heaven and earth, the master of the whole universe and all things are subject to him.  John the Baptist painted a pretty frightening picture of him as the one who would come to judge all people and bring justice to the earth.  But what is also important to remember is that this extraordinary person of Jesus is coming to help us, not to condemn us.

I wonder if John the Baptist came here today what he would say to us.  One thing I am pretty sure of is that it would disturb us, because that is what he did.  He disturbed people by what he said.  He preached with passion and told people to change, to repent, to begin again.  What exactly did he ask people to do?  He asked them to repent of their sins, to change their way of life, to be open to God.  He challenged the religious leaders (the equivalent of bishops and priests) to beware of how they lived, as they would be accountable before God.  Their lives must bear fruit.  Wearing religious clothes (like the Roman collar I wear as a priest) is no guarantee that a person is pleasing to God.  What is important is how I live my life.  It’s interesting how King Herod had John arrested because he denounced him for doing what was morally wrong, namely marrying his brother’s wife.  But Herod was troubled by John because he knew he was a holy man and liked to listen to him.  He knew that John was right.

The message of the Gospels which we read and talk about each week is a wonderful message of hope, but it is also a message which never lets us get too comfortable, because if we get too comfortable in ourselves we stop growing.  This is something that Pope Francis is reminding us of in no uncertain terms.  We must live what we profess, especially looking out for those who are poor. 

If John the Baptist came here and preached today I think he would probably say things like, ‘Confess your sins to the priests, as God asks you to;  be faithful to your marriage; sacrifice yourselves for your children; learn to forgive each other and don’t be seeking revenge when things go wrong.  Stop suing each other.  Be just to your employees.’  To us priests he would probably say, ‘Make sure you are living what you preach and sacrificing yourselves for the people you have been sent to serve; don’t let yourselves get too comfortable and make sure God is at the heart of all that you do.  Be obedient to your bishops.’  We don’t usually want to be challenged in this way, but this is what the Lord presents us with.

Every year as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, when God ‘pitched his tent among us’, the most important preparation we can make is the preparation of the heart.  We begin again.  We look honestly at ourselves and how we live.  Do we need to change?  Probably; because it is easy to become lax and indifferent to the struggles of the people around us.

When the Lord challenges us to look at ourselves and begin again, it is not to make us feel guilty or inadequate; rather it is to help us to grow.  God pushes us, if you like, helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.
Because John the Baptist spoke the truth and challenged people with strong words, it cost him his life.  Jesus was killed because he spoke the truth.  All the Apostles and most of the Prophets were killed too.  We don’t like to be told we need to change, but if we wish to continue to grow closer to God then we must remove everything that prevents us from coming closer to him.
Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’