Saturday, September 27, 2014

26th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32) For the forgiveness of sins

I am 16 years a priest this year.  It has been the greatest privilege of my life, although not an easy one, but by God’s grace I am still here.  Ever since I was ordained there is one line in the mass which always strikes me more than any other. It’s the line where the priest holds the chalice in his hands and he says, ‘This is the cup of my blood.  It will be shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins…’ The priest is repeating the words of Jesus at the last supper. That phrase is what explains the whole mass: ‘for the forgiveness of sins.’

We are used to the idea that Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine in each mass.  It is not something we understand, but we believe it.  And although we believe it, I think we can often forget the reason why.  This line of the mass is absolutely central to what it’s all about, the forgiveness of sins.  This is why God the Son took on human flesh and came into our world as a human being, to teach us about God, about what our life is about and to sacrifice himself for us, for the forgiveness of sins.

When you think about it, sin must be pretty serious and the consequences of it must be very serious, if God the Father allowed Jesus to take on human flesh and then come to such a bloody end.  What would cause God to do such a thing? The reason is the seriousness of sin and the fact that the human race was in danger of being lost through its own sinfulness.  What do we mean by being ‘lost’? It means we could no longer reach the happiness that God intended for us, which we call heaven. Can you imagine what it would be like if we believed there was no happiness after death, nothing to look forward to, nothing to give us hope? That is what sin meant. Eternal death.

The Jewish people found it almost impossible to accept the idea that God would become man anyway; the same with the Muslims.  In fact the Muslims consider the idea that God would become man blasphemy.  They say it is impossible.  So if God permitted this to happen there must have been a really serious reason for it.  There was, the forgiveness of sins.  We could not take away our own sins; God was the only one who could do this for us.  What would you not do for your own children if you thought they were about to ruin their own life and their possibility of happiness? I’m sure most parents would do just about anything.  This is what the Lord has done for us, his children.

In some ways we have lost a sense of what sin is and it really comes down to two things.  Either we have no idea of how much damage our sins can do to ourselves, or the mass, which is the sacrifice of Jesus to the Father, is meaningless, a total waste of time. 

When people come to me for confession, people frequently say, ‘It’s three months or three years since I was at confession, but I haven’t really sinned.’  I haven’t sinned.  They might as well say, ‘The mass isn’t necessary father.  Jesus was wasting his time.’  That is really what we are saying if we think we have no sins.

Obviously I am exaggerating to make a point, but I think you see what I’m getting at.  We have become used to sin, so used to it that it no longer occurs to us that there’s anything wrong with it.  The TV and cinema have made us dull to sin, because everything is seen as acceptable.  Yet if we read the teachings of Christ, the commandments of God, we hear something very different.  God tells us that it is wrong to kill, to steal, to commit adultery, to lie.  It is wrong to misuse the name of Jesus, to ignore God.  This is what God teaches us.  This is why we keep reading the Scriptures each week, to remind us of what God is teaching us, which is very different to what the world around us teaches us.

What is so important about confessing our sins is that it is a way of acknowledging that we are sinners and always in need of God’s mercy.  We confess whatever sins we can remember and these are like a representation of our sins, because we can never know them all, but that’s not important.  What is important is that we continually come before God asking for his mercy and thanking him for his mercy.

However, we have also come to see confession as unnecessary, or even a burden that the Church has told us we need.  It is not a burden, but rather one of the  beautiful gifts that God has given us to help us remember what He has done for us and to give us new courage, new strength.

Satan has managed to convince us that it is outrageous that the Church tells us we should confess to a priest.  Why should I have to confess to a priest, and a priest who is probably no better than I am?  I can just tell God I’m sorry myself. Yet it is God who gave us this extraordinary gift, so that we could be reconciled to him and so that we can be healed.

If we want to see less evil in the world and an improvement in the way our society is going, then we must begin by repenting ourselves. I have to begin with myself. We must be reconciled to God ourselves first and the way to do that is by confessing our sins.

The holy sacrifice of the mass is what happened on Calvary. Each time we celebrate it we become present to this extraordinary event where God the Son is offered to God the Father. It is God’s gift to us, so that we can be free from sin, so that we can reach the happiness that the Father wants for us. 
This is the chalice of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’

Saturday, September 20, 2014

25th Sunday Yr A (Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16) Seek the Lord while He is still to be found

An interesting thing is happening in the world at the moment.  A huge number of people are beginning to come back to their faith.  Young people are discovering their faith for the first time.  Not just beginning to go to mass again, but learning to pray and really trying to live their faith every day.  How do I know this?  Because I’ve seen it and know of many people that it has happened to.  There are friends of mine who are converting people at their work place, by the way they live and because of the zeal they have for the Lord Jesus.  There are prayer groups springing up all over the place, with people of all ages.

Why is this?  Because we are living in a time of grace, where God is giving us a chance to find him again.  Our Lay has appeared all over the world in the last century and is asking us, as her children, to come back to God, because the world is living as though God doesn’t exist, and we cannot live without God.

The Lord is aware of how lost we are, people young and old committing suicide because they feel they have nothing to live for.  Marriages breaking up because people don’t know where to turn to for help.  A friend of mine, a married man who came back to God several years ago, said to me recently that he would have separated by now only for the fact that he had become a Catholic.  In other words it was his faith that had given him the strength that he needed to keep going when things were difficult.  And now they are going fine.  We are not half as strong as we like to think we are.  And we are not half as independent as we like to think we are.  We are full of pride and slow to admit that we need help and men are usually worse than women this way.

I work a lot with the sick and dying and I am constantly amazed at how much people are consoled when they are sick, when the priest comes to visit them.  It seems to remind them that God hasn’t forgotten about them; and it reminds them of the more important things and so they don’t feel so alone.  God never forgets about any of us.  God is simply waiting for us.  Many people have forgotten about God, but God hasn’t forgotten about us.

No matter what stage we are at in our life, it is never to late to turn to God, even for the first time and to ask him for his help.  But pride prevents us a lot of the time.  We are too stubborn, and we say, ‘Oh I couldn’t begin to pray now, because I’ve never done it before, or because it’s not cool.  What would my friends think?’  What kind of an argument is that?  Who cares what your friends think.  They won’t be there when we are alone before God. 

Some time back I spoke to a man in the hospital who was very sick and he knew it, and I asked him if he would like to receive the sacrament of the sick.  And he began to cry and say that he couldn’t because he had stopped practicing a long time ago and it wouldn’t be right to start again now.  And I knew he wanted to, but he was too proud, too stubborn.  I felt sorry for him, but there was nothing I could do.  Pride is a terrible thing.

The Gospel today is a reminder that all of us have an equal chance, whether we have been walking the path of faith from the beginning of our lives or whether we turn to God at the last minute.  No one has any advantage over anyone else.  This story is an encouragement to us, to persevere and also to help others who are searching themselves.  The best way we teach others about our faith is by the way we live it, not by what we say.  When your children see you trying to live your faith, that teaches and encourages them.  It shows them that God is something real and an important part of what we are all about.

None of us knows what is going to happen tomorrow, we only have today; in fact we only have the present moment.  Right now the Lord is inviting us to begin again; to come closer to him and to remember what’s important. 

‘Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near.’

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Triumph of the Cross (Gospel: 3:13-17) ‘…so that we may have eternal life’

There is a story told of some missionaries who went to a very remote part of the jungle in South America. There they set up a few small huts for living in and also a small chapel.  The local tribesmen were cautiously watching the new settlers from a distance. After a few days one of them got the courage to make his way into the chapel to see what was inside. After a few moments he ran out screaming because of what he saw: on the wall of the chapel there was the image of a man crucified.  What kind of horrible people were these settlers?

The image of the cross is a really horrible one.  It is the image of a man being tortured to death, but we have gotten used to it. We don’t see the gruesomeness of it any more. It is also the greatest symbol of God’s love for us, because it is the symbol of the ultimate sacrifice that God has made for us, so that we might have eternal life with God when we die.  The last line of today’s Gospel sums up what the Christian faith is about: ‘God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life’ (John 3:17). …so that we might have eternal life.

I always think it is very sad when I hear of someone who believes that there is nothing after death.  Trying to face sickness and death must be very difficult if you believe there is nothing afterwards.  For me it would beg the question, ‘Then what is the purpose of our life?’ In one of his letters St. Paul puts it this way, ‘If our faith in Christ is for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19). In other words, if we think our faith is about this life only, then we have completely missed the point. The core message of our faith is that Jesus died for us, so that our sins may be forgiven.  We say this in every mass at the end of the consecration: ‘This is the chalice of my Blood…which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’  That means that we don’t have to live in fear of our sins, so long as we keep coming back to the Lord and asking him to forgive us: so that sins may be forgiven.  If we really believe this, it brings with it a great freedom, because we realize that our getting to heaven when we die does not depend on us being ‘good enough’, but rather our being open to what God has done for us.  Of course we continually repent and ask the Lord to forgive us our sins, but it is God himself who makes it possible for us to get to heaven through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is why the symbol of the cross is so powerful.  The demons are terrified of it because they know what it means.

Ever notice in movies when they show an exorcism, what does the priest always hold up? He holds up the crucifix and the person possessed squirms in front of it.  That is one thing that Hollywood got right. That is what happens, although that is generally in extreme cases, but it is real. Isn’t it interesting that this dreadful extremist group ISIS have crucified many Christians in an attempt to mock the Christian faith?  It goes to show you what evil is behind it.

If you don’t have a crucifix in your home, get one, get a priest to bless it and put it in a prominent place, so that whoever enters your home will see that you are a follower of Jesus and that you believe that eternal life has been won for you through the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross.  When we die—and this goes for those who are not Christians too—we will immediately be aware of what Christ has done for us and then we will have the choice to accept or reject God.  That is what the second reading says.
At the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

23rd Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20) Owe one another nothing except the debt of mutual love

A few years ago when I was working in a small rural parish, young man stopped me on the street and said, ‘Father, you know the way when you’re talking at mass on Sunday?’  I said, ‘Yes?’, ‘Well’, he said, ‘I think the only thing you should be telling us to do is that we should be loving each other, not about all the other stuff.’  And with that he just walked away.  He didn’t even give me a chance to respond to him.  Another man said something very similar to me at a wedding one time.  I was thinking afterwards about what he said, and of course in one way he is absolutely right.  The most important thing that we are asked to do, is to love one another.  The Lord said this was the most important commandment after loving God above everything.  ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’  One of the lines in the second reading says, ‘Owe one another nothing except the debt of mutual love.’

The difficult part is that we set out with great intentions but then people hurt us, or do us wrong, often right in our faces, and we find it so hard to forgive them.  And so we pull back, and we say, ‘Yes, I will love my neighbour, but only certain neighbours’!  Needless to mention that is not what the Lord meant.  Since just about all of us experience these kinds of hurts, what exactly does it mean to love your neighbour?

It means first of all that we tolerate the people we find difficult.  It doesn’t mean that we allow ourselves to be walked on, but it does mean that we show people respect, even if they don’t show us respect.  It also means that we don’t wish them evil.  We are asked to be prepared to forgive.  Now that is not easy, and the Lord knows that very well, but God doesn’t ask us to do what is impossible, so it must be possible.  What is key here is that our ability to do this comes from our relationship with God.  If we stay close to God in whatever way we know how, then this difficult command becomes possible.  It is never easy, but it is possible if we stay close to the Lord. 

Most of us expect God to bless what we do: our lives, our family, our work.  But we will not receive God’s blessing if we don’t make some effort to do what He asks of us, to love the people around us, to put up with them, to tolerate them.  So we must be careful if we find ourselves hating certain people we live with or work with, and then turning and asking God to help us.  We have to try to make an effort to love those around us and it is often the people closest to us who hurt us the most.

Loving people also means not being afraid to challenge them when what they are doing is wrong.  That’s what the Gospel presents us with.  If people are blatantly wrong we must challenge them to change.  That is also part of what it means to love someone.

What about some of the extremists such as ISIS that we are hearing about on TV, who are involved in such terrible evil? Surely we can’t be expected to love them too? Well, if to love means to pray for them that they will wake up to the evil they are doing and repent of it, then yes we are meant to pray for them too.  They are also people God created, even if they are very misguided and carrying out terrible atrocities in God’s name. Jesus forgave those who were killing him, while they were killing him, so we too are asked to pray even for those who carry out these terrible things, that they will change and repent of their ways.  God does not want them to be lost forever any more than He wants us to be lost forever and that is what awaits them if they continue on the path of evil.

So going back to what the young man said to me on the street.  Yes, I should be talking about our need to love each other, but this very ability to love others is something that comes from God, not from us.  God is the first and greatest lover.  The key to us being able to love the people around us is that we grow closer to the Lord.  We keep our sights on him, we continually receive the Eucharist and listen to the Scriptures, because that is the spiritual food we need to be able to live the way of Jesus.  If we only listen to the news and the world around us it is impossible, because it doesn’t nourish us.  Only the Lord can give us the strength to love those who are difficult and even those who persecute us.