Saturday, November 29, 2014

1st Sunday of Advent Yr B (Mark 13:33-37) Keeping the focus on Christ

Every Sunday when we come together to celebrate the holy mass we pray the Creed.  And one of the things we always say as part of that prayer is: ‘He (Jesus) will come again to judge the living and the dead.’  That is what we believe.  God came and walked among us in the person of Jesus and Jesus will come again to judge all people.  No one knows when this will happen, but Jesus has told us that this will happen.  Maybe it will be during our life-time, maybe we will already be dead.

Today we officially begin our preparation for Christmas; our spiritual preparation.  We are preparing for two things; we are remembering the first coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are remembering that Jesus will come again at the end of time. 

With so much emphasis on buying gifts it is easy for us to lose focus on what it’s about.  In all the advertising that we hear there is almost no mention of what the feast is really about: the birth of Christ; the coming of the Son of God to set his people free from eternal death; to win the most wonderful thing imaginable for all of us: eternal happiness when we die.  This is what everyone wants, even if we have very different ideas as to what happiness might be, but we all want happiness, for ourselves and those we love.  This is what God has made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is telling us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the bigger things.  It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity.  Even though the worldly affairs are important, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God; the reality that we will die, that life and death are in his hands, and that whenever He does come for us, He must find us ready.

In one sense we can never be ready enough for God.  How do you prepare to meet God?  Is it a scary thought?  It shouldn’t be, because that is what God has created us for and it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams, if we have made any effort to be ready.

Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken the other left.  What does that mean?  It means that although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind.
If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we can miss what it is about.  There is much more to our life than this. 

As you well know it is often when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we are immersed in the world.  Naturally we have to get on with the day to day things of working and living, but we are being told to make sure that we also make time for God. 

I think a good recipe for a ‘happy’ Christmas,  is to keep it simple and spend some time coming up to Christmas remembering what it is about.  Even go to mass once a week, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days.  That way we will remember what we are celebrating.

The Angel said to the shepherds:
Do not be afraid. 
I bring you news of great joy.
Today in the town of David
a Saviour has been born for you;
He is Christ the Lord.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Matthew 25:31-46) Power in weakness

 In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John at one stage has a vision of a being that terrifies him.  He describes what he saw like this:
…I saw one like a Son of man… His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze… out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead.  But then the being in the vision touched him and said: ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld’ (Rev 1:17-18). 

Who was this being?  It was of course Jesus, the one with whom John had lived for three years.  Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this frightening form?  Probably to remind John and us, who he is.  Not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead.  This is the one we believe in.  When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.

At the moment we are seeing huge changes in the world around us.  So much earthly power which seemed to be untouchable has collapsed over night.  Even the great structures of the Church seem to be crumbling.  In many ways it is a very disturbing, even frightening time.  But I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in.  If we put our trust and hope in earthly power we will be disappointed, as we know only too well, because people will let us down.  If we rely too much on the human side of our Church we will be disappointed, as we have been.  But the one we trust in and believe in is Jesus Christ who is God.  All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him. 

Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one.  It is not.  There is no question of evil being equal to God.  All things are subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.

As a priest—especially at the moment—I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus is the one I worship as God and try to serve.  If I stay focused on the world around me I find myself getting depressed or disillusioned.  Also if I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church I also find it hard to keep going.  But the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge.  He is master of all things.  What we see happening in the Church at the moment is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin.  And so He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we see happening.  I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down that God is allowing which will bring many people back to him.  There is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

When people have a certain amount of power they like to show it off and make it felt.  People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off as much.  But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness.  This is an extraordinary thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross.  God did the exact opposite of what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure.  So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realising that what they looked at was a demonstration of the power of God.  This is why we use the symbol of the cross and why it is so powerful.  This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death. 

St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength.  We are never alone no matter what we are going through.  God is with us.

Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we normally understand it and this is why many people find it hard to accept.  We want something that we can see and touch.  We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all.  But God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.

If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.

Every being in heaven, on earth and under the earth,
shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus;
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Saturday, November 15, 2014

33rd Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30) Parable of the talents

In 1998 in Rome, Pope John Paul II invited 54 different groups within the Church to come together in Rome to celebrate what God is doing for them and to share their experiences.  These were all groups that were started by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to really try and live the Gospel in daily life.  As a result these movements have now spread all over the world and are continually inspiring people to live as Christians and they are also acting as a powerful witness to many others to put God at the center.  To give you an example, some of these groups are the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, L’Arche community, Charismatic Renewal, Cenacolo.  They all have different focuses.  For example Cenacolo is a movement that was started to help people work through addictions, particularly drug addiction.  They have 27 fraternities.  They live quite a monastic lifestyle with no TV, newspapers, or magazines.  Their day to day life is based around prayer and hard work. Over 400,000 people came to Rome that day, representing these different groups.

All over the world this is and has been happening for some time.  God’s Spirit has been moving people to step out and live their faith.  In Ireland in the last 30 years there have been a huge number of prayer groups and all kinds of groups started by lay people.  This is God’s doing, and I think that it’s good for us to remember that it’s going on, because you never hear about it in the papers or on the TV, but it’s happening all around us.  Great things are happening.

The Lord doesn’t wait for the hierarchy of the Church to feel that the time is right, or for lay people to say that we’re ready now.  The Holy Spirit just moves people when the time is right. Of course it’s important that the priests and bishops work with these groups, because that is a sign that they are on the right track, but quite often they are not the ones to start them.

Many people today are saying that the laity should be more involved in the Church and that is very true; but I also think that many lay people frequently overlook one of the most important roles that they have, that you have and that is to bring Jesus to the world in a way that priests and religious can not: in the work place and in the home, when you go out shopping and socialising.  This is one of your most important tasks, which we priests can not do and it is absolutely essential that it is done, because there are so many people today who have lost sight of God and are crying out to him, but don’t know where to look.  If you, who believe in God, don’t bring your faith with you, then all the people you work and live with may not find out about God. People need to experience Christianity as lived out by ordinary people. This is where you come into your own as lay people.  You can bear witness to Christ by the way you live.  You don’t have to open your mouth, just live your faith.  I’m sure some of you have experienced this already, the more you live what you believe, the more it speaks to people and gets quite a lot of reaction, because we all constantly observe each other and notice each other.  And if you live your faith, you will be different and you will be attractive, because God is attractive, holiness is attractive.  That’s why all these lay groups have borne such fruit, because God is behind them, so they attract people.

Another reason I believe, why the Lord has inspired people to start all these different groups is to help each of us to realise that it is possible to live as God asks us to live.  Many people today don’t believe that any more, which is why so many have turned their back on the Church, because they think that it’s silly and unrealistic, just something to help you when you’re old or sick.  But God is showing us that this isn’t so, by inspiring people all over the world to really live the Gospel, to live by the teachings of Christ.  And of course it’s possible, and it’s not just for priests and religious either.  We have our part to play and it’s important, but so is your role and all that God has in mind for you to do. 

Today's Gospel reading refers to this too.  God is saying to us that we all have potential to develop what He has given us.  No one is exempt.  But just be careful that you are not the one who is quite happy just to hand back what you got having done nothing with it.  That is the person who says ‘I’m alright thanks very much, I’m not going to bother anyone else, and let no one bother me.’  If that’s our attitude, if we are happy with the absolute minimum, we must be careful, because then we are the ones that Jesus is pointing the finger at.

When we die and meet the Lord Jesus we will only be accountable for ourselves and our own actions, so let us make the most of what God has given us.  The best thing any of us can do, is to bring our faith with us to work and wherever we are. 


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (Gospel: John 2:13-22) On the priesthood

Today we celebrate the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. It is the official church of the Pope, even though the Pope lives in the Vatican at St. Peters basilica. Celebrating the dedication of the Lateran Basilica is a recognition of the unity of all churches throughout the world with our mother church in Rome.

Perhaps one of the strangest things that Jesus did before he ascended to heaven at the end of his earthly life, was to entrust his Church to priests; ordinary, sinful, weak human beings.  This is something that we do not understand, but we believe.  Through the gift of the priesthood He gave us the most extraordinary gift of all, the gift of the Eucharist, which is the gift of Jesus himself really and truly present in the form of bread and wine.  There is no gift greater than this.  But the fact that he made it depend on priests is what is so strange.

I am sure that one reason in particular why he did this was to make it obvious that it is God who is at work and that the Church is in no way dependent on the gifts or skills of human beings alone, especially not us priests.

There is a great story in the Old Testament which explains this; it is the story of Gideon.  Gideon and his people were being wiped out by the Amorites and it was a time of great suffering for them.  Then one day the angel of the Lord appears to this man Gideon and says, ‘Hail valiant warrior.  The Lord is with you.’  In reply Gideon says, ‘If God is with us how come we are being wiped out?’  A fair question!  The angel goes on to tell Gideon that God has specially chosen him to lead his people to freedom from their enemies.  But Gideon asks an interesting question.  He says, ‘Why would God pick me since I am the weakest member of my family and my family is the weakest family in my tribe?’  In other words, why would God pick the weakest of the weak to lead his people to freedom?  It doesn’t make any sense by our way of thinking.  But then the angel convinces him that God has chosen him and he will be alright.  Gideon is then told to raise an army and so he gets together 30,000 men.  But then to his astonishment God tells him to reduce the number of men to only 300 and he tells him why, and this is the crucial bit: lest the people think that it is by their own strength that they have won victory over their enemies.  God chooses the weakest man around with only a handful of men to conquer the enemy so that it will be obvious that it was the power of God that made this happen. If Gideon had been a great warrior and he conquered his enemies with a huge army, then no one would be surprised.  But when the most unexpected person leads a handful of men and conquers a huge army, then everyone says ‘Look what God did!  It’s a miracle.’

I believe that God chooses various men to be priests for the same reason, so that it would be obvious that it is God who is at work.  So He picks weak men to make it all the more obvious that the Church is still there because of him and not because of us priests.

It is said that when Napoleon Bonaparte was taking over Europe he met the cardinal of Paris and he said to him, ‘I am going to destroy the Vatican.’  The cardinal assured him that he wouldn’t be able.  But Napoleon insisted: ‘You will see; I will wipe it out completely.’  But the cardinal said: ‘We priests have been trying to destroy it for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able! So you wont be able either.’

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things of all about the priesthood is that the Holy Spirit of God obeys the words of the priest.  When the priest says the words of consecration at each mass the Holy Spirit immediately and humbly obeys the words of the priest and changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus.  I don’t understand this but I believe it.  And when the priest says I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit immediately wipes away those sins.  God is so humble that He will obey the words of a human being.
Jesus said to Peter:
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.

What if the priest is not a very good man or is in fact quite a sinner?  Is God any less present in the mass if the priest is not a holy man?  Of course not.  God would never allow his power to depend on the goodness of a human being because none of us could ever be good enough or holy enough.  Even if the priest is a terrible sinner, God is just as powerfully present in the mass, in confession, and wherever He calls the priest to work.  Of course it is a great help for our faith if the priest is a holy man, but either way God is just as much present, because God gives himself completely to all of us in this extraordinary way through the priesthood and it doesn’t depend on the priest being good enough.  Thank God!

I think one of the greatest proofs that the Church is from God is simply the fact that it is still here in spite of the fact that there have been centuries of bad example, bad preaching, scandal, etc, and yet it is still here.  How can this be? Because it is the power of God at work in his Church. There is so much we don't understand about how God works among us, but we believe that God continually gives us everything we need and one of the greatest gifts He has given us is the priesthood, because without the priesthood we would not have the Eucharist.