Friday, January 31, 2014

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Gospel: Luke 2:22-40) Raising a family

Something I have often heard a couple say when their first child arrives is this: ‘Nothing could have prepared us for this!’  I have heard it so often that it makes me smile and I don’t doubt that it is true.  It usually seems to be the man who says it.  I suspect that women are better prepared for a child than men, especially considering they have already carried the child for 9 months, which must be a wonderful but difficult thing.  In fact I have the greatest respect for every couple or single parent I know who are trying to raise a child or children.  While the children bring great joy, they also require 100% sacrifice.  Apparently professional thieves don’t usually bother targeting homes with children because they know there won’t be much there in the line of money or jewellery, since it is all spent on providing for the children!

Although it is a big sacrifice, it is also a wonderful sacrifice, one which our parents made for us and I’m sure you cannot know what it involves unless you have been through it.  Apart from the financial strain and worry of trying to provide the best for your children, there is also the emotional strain of hoping you will parent them properly and raise them to have a good chance in life too.  As we all know too, parents never stop worrying about their children even when they are grown up with their own families.   I suppose it is part of the vocation.  The strange thing is that although people have been raising children since the beginning of the human race, it seems that each parent still has to learn from scratch.  I guess each generation has to learn for itself.

Today we have the feast of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, where Mary and Joseph come to the Temple to dedicate their child to God, which was required of them by the Jewish law.  It wasn’t required that this be done in the temple in Jerusalem—any synagogue was sufficient—but they wanted to do it this way.  No doubt they wanted to do the very best thing for their child, like all parents.  So the Son of God is presented to the Father in heaven by Mary and Joseph.  At the same time the Father is presenting his Son to the human race. 

As with so many events in the life of Jesus, various signs accompanied this event.  This time the old man Simeon takes the child and recognises that this baby is the chosen one of God for whom all the people have been waiting for centuries.  How could he tell this baby from any other one?  Because the Spirit had told him when to go to the Temple and that the baby he would see would be God’s anointed one, the Christ (which means ‘anointed’).  The prophetess Anna also recognises the infant Jesus as the chosen one of God and they both give thanks to God for being allowed to witness this wonderful thing: God coming among us.

Like any other parents I’m sure Mary and Joseph went through all kinds of stresses and strains in trying to raise Jesus, worrying about whether they would be able to provide for him and teach him the Jewish faith properly.  No doubt they also had all kinds of hopes for him as to what he would become when he grew up, after all the angel Gabriel had told Mary that he would be great and would be called Son of the Most High.  But also like so many parents Mary and Joseph were faced with all kinds of unexplained things, like today’s event in the temple, then when Jesus goes missing for three days.  Later when Jesus is publicly preaching it says at one point his family came to take charge of him because 'they thought he had taken leave of his senses!'  And finally what must Mary have gone through seeing her own son arrested, tortured and executed in such a brutal way?  Many of her hopes and dreams for Jesus must have been turned on their head along the way.  And yet all of these events had their place.  The most horrible event of all turned out to be the one that saved the human race from eternal death, opening the way to heaven for us.

Maybe these things are also a reminder to us that what can seem to us to be terrible changes, or ‘everything going wrong’, are not necessarily so.  What seem to be disasters can be seen in a different way with the eyes of faith.  There is so much we don’t understand about a person’s life, but perhaps we don’t need to understand.  Maybe that can also help us to be open to the many unexpected changes that take place along the way, both for ourselves and others.  We have a part to play in our children’s journey, an important part, but it is only a part.  It is not for us to decide how someone’s life should be.  Ultimately we are all in God's hands.

Friday, January 24, 2014

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A (Matthew 4:12-23) Repent and believe the Good News: the search for happiness

One thing that everyone has in common is the search for happiness.  Everyone wants and hopes to find happiness.  We may have very different ideas as to what happiness is, but we are all looking for it.  The biggest problem seems to be where to find it.  We will look for it in a partner, through children, through work.  When we fall in love we may think we have found it.  But if we persevere in a relationship we will realize that while it is great to have this other person with us, they won’t fulfill me completely either, because they cannot.  I am asking the impossible of someone if I expect them to completely fulfill me, because only God can do that.  Hopefully our happiness will begin in this life and we will have many happy times, but total fulfillment is in the next life.  I think that even to accept that much is a big step in the right direction.

When Jesus began his public ministry one of the first things he said was, ‘Repent and believe the good news’, or in today’s Gospel it says ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’  We usually understand the word ‘repent’ to mean, ‘ask forgiveness for sin and do some kind of penance.’  That is certainly part of what it means, but there is also more to it than that.  It can also be understood to mean, ‘change the direction in which you are seeking happiness.’  ‘Turn around and look in the right place.’  Jesus is telling us that we certainly aren’t going to find happiness if we look in the wrong place, which sounds obvious enough.  And then he also says, ‘and believe the good news.’  What is the good news?  It is the message that God is interested in us and that God has created us to be happy, but we will only find that happiness in God.

You know the way it says in many of the Gospel passages, ‘Jesus was speaking to the people when a man came up who was sick…’ or ‘Jesus was preaching the word to them, when…’  What was Jesus saying to the people all those times that He preached to them?  No doubt He was teaching them about God and about how God relates to us and explaining why God invites us to follow a certain path and what that path involves. That path is the one that leads to God, which is where we will find happiness.

Now part of that path is the need to turn from sin and to ask for forgiveness, because sin is what will come between us and God and can prevent us from finding that happiness.  That is why Jesus was so strong about the need to turn away from what is wrong.  ‘If your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off... or if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out!  It is better to enter heaven without one hand than to lose that happiness.’  This is an exaggerated way of speaking, in order to make a point, just like we say, ‘I’ll kill you if you do that again!’  Jesus is saying, ‘Don’t let anything cause you to lose the happiness that God has for you,’ because nothing is worth it.

We are up against the difficulty of the world around us telling us that we will not be happy if we don’t live a certain way, or if we don’t have a certain lifestyle, or certain material things.  And we are bombarded with these ideas day and night.  But who are we going to listen to:  the Son of God, or our society?  God is telling us to make sure we look for happiness in the right place, so that we won’t be disappointed.

They say that 96-98% of the population suffers from addiction to something.  What is addiction but the search for happiness gone badly wrong, where we become obsessed with something thinking that we will die without it, or be totally unhappy without it, be it alcohol, drugs, work, or whatever.  The interesting thing is that the only program that is known to really be effective in helping people to overcome addictions is the twelve step program.  That program is the Christian life in twelve steps.  Even just the first few steps:
  1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (or sin)—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves (God) could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. (Repentance)

The truth is that all of us are addicted to sin.  We are all drawn to what we know is not good for us and will probably lead us further from God.  And what God is telling us is that this is not a problem if we continually turn to him.  He is the way out and the way forward and most importantly, it is only in him we will find full happiness.

As Jesus began his public ministry he also began calling people to follow him and become his instruments to pass on this message after he had gone back to heaven.  First he called the Apostles.  They in their turn ordained more Apostles who also enlisted priests and many lay men and women.  Why was it so important that this message be passed on?  Because this was and is the message that tells us what our life is about, why we are here, where we are going, and that we have been created for happiness.  The most complete happiness awaits us if we keep turning back to God.  As we grow closer to God in this life, things also begin to make more sense.  That is why the Apostles were willing to give up everything, even their own lives, in order to pass on this message, just as countless men and women have done throughout the centuries.  They understood that this was it, this was what everyone needed to hear and so they dedicated the rest of their lives to preaching this message of Christ so that all of us could hear it.

Today we continue to try and pass on that same message, so that all people may know what God has created us for and so that we have a sense of what our life is about.

‘Repent and believe in the good news.’ 
Change the direction in which you are seeking happiness.

Friday, January 17, 2014

2nd Sunday Year A (Gospel: 1:29-34) There is the Lamb of God

One of the young men who studied with me in the seminary was a man by the name of Jarlath Trench.  His grandmother was one of the witnesses who had been in Knock, Ireland and had seen the apparition in 1879.  It makes it seem very recent with that connection.

On Thursday 21st Aug, 1879, at about 8.00pm an apparition was seen at one end of the Church.  What the people saw (about 15 people) was an altar in the centre, with a lamb on it and angels floating around it in the background.  To the left of the altar was Our Lady accompanied by St. Joseph on one side and St. John the Apostle on the other side.  Apparently the light from the Lamb was far brighter than that of Our Lady and the two others.  It lasted for about two hours in all and the people stood there in the pouring rain praying.  

We usually think of this apparition as one of Our Lady, but the truth is that the apparition was really an apparition of Jesus, appearing as the Lamb of God on the altar and it was accompanied by Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John.  This might seem trivial, but it is important because what it is telling us is that Jesus, the Lamb of God is at the centre, and especially for us Catholics it speaks powerfully with the vision of the Lamb on the altar: that is, Jesus coming to us in the mass.  As you know, during the mass the priest holds up the Sacred Host at Communion and says ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.’  The reason the priest does this is just to show us Jesus present in the Eucharist.  The priest does the same thing at the consecration so that the people can see the host which is no longer bread but the Body of Christ.

The apparition in Knock happened back at a time when the people were desperately poor and just recovering from the great potato famine (1845-52) which reduced the population from by about 25%.  The vision was a beautiful message of hope from heaven, both to let the people know that God was aware of their suffering and also to remind them of the treasure that they had in their midst.  They had almost nothing materially, but God was with them and they had Jesus the Lamb of God coming on the altar in each mass, just as we still have today.  Jesus was at the centre and the strongest light was coming from him, as you would expect it to be.  And where Jesus is, Our Lady and the angels and saints are too.

In the Gospel today John the Baptist, who was sent to get the people ready for the coming of the Son of God, says: ‘There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’  Then the disciples start following Jesus, which is exactly what was meant to happen.  John knew he had been sent to prepare the people for the coming of the Christ, but he didn't know who that was until he saw the Spirit come down on Jesus.  

These various accounts are there for us not just for curiosity sake, but they are telling us something now as well.  God is still saying to us through the Scriptures, ‘Jesus is the One to follow.’  He is the only One of importance.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who is given to us in each mass.  When we have him we have everything, because He is what makes sense of our life and why we are here.

Finally, when the priest says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb,’ we all say, ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’  That short prayer says so much.  So often when we become aware of our unworthiness we can be tempted to think, ‘Maybe I should not receive Holy Communion because I am a sinner,’ and people sometimes say this to me.  But this prayer says it all.  Yes we are sinners, and yes we certainly are not worthy to receive the eternal God into our own bodies, but it is God himself who makes this possible.  ‘Lord I am not worthy [to receive you] that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’  If God is prepared to come to us, we should not be afraid to receive God in Holy Communion. 
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Baptism of the Lord (Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17)

 'Baptised' by the Atlantic ocean!

 ‘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.    Last year I was living in a religious community and we often had people from different parts of the world.  One morning 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.  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 state 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).