Friday, April 25, 2014

2nd Sunday of Easter (Gospel: John 20:19-31) 'Peace be with you'

In December 2005 it was announced on the Irish news that a man called Denis Donaldson from Northern Ireland, one of Sinn Féin’s top men (Sinn Féin is the political wing of the IRA), confessed to having been a British spy for twenty years.  People were amazed that this could happen.  It seems that he could not live with his conscience any longer and so he came out into the open and confessed his double life.  He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was killed four months later.  God be merciful to him.  I remember thinking at the time that he must have been living in terrible fear.  Fear of being hunted down and killed.  He had betrayed many, and now he would be afraid of what they would do to him.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

2000 years earlier on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, who they believed was the Son of God.  Judas had betrayed him for money.  Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus.  They all betrayed him.  Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room afraid.  Why are they afraid?  One: because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates.  Two: perhaps they were also afraid of what God would do to them.  They had betrayed the Son of God.  It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens.  Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’  The first thing he does is to take away their fear.  There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before.  There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful.  Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’  ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed Jesus and indeed sometimes wish I was not a priest, when my own sinfulness gets the better of me.  And in case you think I am just trying to be holy by saying this, I am not.  I am a sinner.  That is one thing that God has left me under no illusions about.  Sometimes I think it would be better for me not to be a priest as I would not have to deal with what is sacred.  I could run and hide, so to speak.  Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish.  Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease.  ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘Do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned.  Peace be with you.’  God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out.  He knows what we are like.  He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace.  I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus, would not take the words of others to convince him that Jesus was alive.  When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful.  And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe.  No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe.  No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.  That is characteristic of the Lord: He always encourages us and assures us that He is with us to help us in every way.

Today we also celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, which very much ties into this.  The Lord is only interested in showing us his extraordinary mercy.  And no matter how much we have sinned or turned our back on the Lord, it only takes the slightest reaching out on our part to open the flood gates of his mercy.  That is what the Lord teaches us.
Peace be with you.  Do not be afraid.’

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Passion Sunday Year A (Gospel: Mt 26:14-27, 66) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, events which changed the course of history forever.  Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die.  It’s that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet.  They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna!  Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’  Yet within a few days everything changed.  He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed.  Today we read the full account of his passion.  It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one.  That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time.

Everyone suffers, as you know, there are no exceptions.  Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  Sometimes we even feel that God has left us and we are on our own.  This can be so difficult because we believe that at least God won’t let us down even if everyone else does.  But where do we turn when God disappears too?  There is no where left to go.  This is the worst kind of suffering.  Of course the truth is that God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  What does this mean?  It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father.  He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there?  Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God.  By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering, as it were.  After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there.  We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

I think it is also good to remember that even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, that in fact we have not.  But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God.  It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it.

Finally I want to mention Our Lady.  She also was at the foot of the cross.  Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king.  He would be called Son of the Most High God.  What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes?  Although Mary must have suffered terribly at all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope.  She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding.  God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand.  There is so much that we don’t understand, but we try to believe that God knows what God is doing and so we don’t give up.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

5th Sunday of Lent Yr A (Gospel: John 11: 1-45) Hope

Some time back I saw a program about Stephen Hawking, the English physicist who is confined to a wheelchair because of motor neuron disease, but whose brain is working perfectly, and who is an extra-ordinary genius.  He wrote A brief history of time, attempting to explain the origins of the universe.  Over twenty years ago he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease and he was told he had at best two years to live.  Today he is still doing ground-breaking work in physics although the only muscle that he can still move is one of his cheeks.  There is a small sensor beside his cheek, which is attached to a computer.  By moving his cheek he can speak to people and continue working through his computer.  No doubt one of the reasons why he is still alive is his will to live.  He has an extraordinary determination to keep going.

There is so much more to being alive than just physical health, although of course that is what we all wish for.  Many people would consider that life would not be worth living if you were in the physical state that Stephen Hawking is in, and yet look at what he has already done.

When I was first ordained a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain in my home town of Galway.  I often saw people who, having lost the will to live, would go down-hill very quickly and die.  I also saw people who were told that they would probably not recover, but because they were absolutely determined to keep going, they would recover, often completely against the odds.  One of the key differences between those who keep going and those who don’t is something spiritual: hope.  When we have hope we can keep going even against the odds.  If we have no hope, we may not survive even the ordinary.

A few years ago in a housing complex called Moyross, in Limerick—one of the toughest and most troubled areas of that city—a new group of Religious moved in.  They are called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which were started by Fr. Benedict Goreschel in the Bronx, New York.  They live very like the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) in extreme poverty.  Apparently the area has been transformed, for the simple reason that they have given the people there new hope.  By moving in there, they have shown those people that they are worth something and that in itself has given them new hope.

Because we believe that God wants us to be happy, to live life in all its fullness, that gives us hope which we are inspired to pass on to others.  Because we have hope we are able to work to promote and strengthen married life even when it goes wrong; we continue to work with younger people and encourage them not to give up even when they have messed up through drugs, or alcohol; we continue to work for justice and peace often in very difficult circumstances.  Our faith in God gives us hope, which in turn inspires others to keep going.

In this beautiful Gospel we hear how Jesus deliberately waited when he heard that Lazarus was sick, in order to work this miracle before everyone’s eyes.  He wanted to show them something.  He wanted to show them that God has power even over death and that if He allows people to die that it is not the end.  Just as Jesus called Lazarus out of death, so Jesus will also call us out of death when we die and we will begin a new and wonderful life with him, if we have chosen life with God.  We make that choice by the way we live. 

In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was helping people to believe in who he was.  He was also giving them hope, showing them that there is a bigger picture and so much that we do not understand.  Death is not everything. Physical health is not everything either, but having hope is essential if we are to keep going through the many difficulties that we continue to face.  Our faith in God gives us hope and this hope also gives others hope.

‘I shall put my Spirit in you, 
and you will live and I shall resettle you on your own soil; 
and you will know that I the Lord have said and done this.’