Saturday, December 27, 2014

Feast of the Holy Family (Gospel: Luke 2:22-40) The dignity of the family

I grew up in a family of seven children. I am the middle child with two older brothers and a sister and two younger sisters and a brother. My father was a university professor and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Like most families, as children we spent a lot of the time fighting with each other and resenting each others’ presence. The more of us there were, the less attention we each got individually. But now that we are older we are good friends. Now we can also see that all the struggling and fighting we did with each other was part of what formed us. We were learning not to be so selfish, that we can’t have everything our own way, that we had to learn to share and that we also had our part to play in contributing to family life by doing chores, etc.

I am amused sometimes when I visit my brother or sister’s families who have small children and I see how selfish they can be when they are young. They don’t want to share anything, they all want to be first and have all the attention, but they gradually have to learn these things and that is one of the most important aspects of family life; we are learning what it means to love and serve, which is what the Lord calls us to do. That is really what our life is about.

Jean Vanier—who started the L’Arche community which has mentally handicapped people living together—says that it is only when we live in community together that we realise how selfish we are. Others help us to learn about ourselves.

At Christmas we celebrate the Son of God taking on human flesh and being born into a human family and that means that he grew up in a human family just as we all did. It means that they will have had all the ups and downs of any family, the joy of birthdays and celebrations, the sorrow of death and sickness, the worries of finance and providing for each other. I think that we forget that side of things. Jesus grew up in a normal family just like us and that is telling us something. It is telling us that family life is important because it is where we are formed and more than anywhere else it is where we can learn how to blossom as human beings. When you read about the upbringing of many famous people you can see how their family had a part in forming them for good or bad. Mother Teresa said that her mother always taught her that she should never eat anything that she wasn’t prepared to share with someone else. You can see how this influenced her.

We also know that it doesn’t always work out for families as we would like it to and often one parent ends up trying to raise their children on their own, which has to be very difficult. That is where the whole community comes in, offering support and encouragement. There is an African proverb which says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well we are that village and we all help each other to grow. And so at weddings we celebrate and support the couple; at funerals we stand by those who are grieving, and so on. Jesus grew up in a human family like any of us.

Today the idea of the family—which is the most basic unit of our society—is under threat. We are told that a family can be two men or two women raising children, but that is not the teaching of the Lord as we understand it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t respect those who see things differently, but it doesn’t mean that we have to accept it either. We stand by and stand up for what we believe is right. Every child has the right to have a mother and a father. Our children are not just products to be used, but people who deserve the same care and respect as everyone. We do our best to help them grow with dignity and good values and every chance to become the best version of themselves that they can be.

So as we celebrate the family that Jesus was given, let us thank God for our own families, imperfect as they were and let us also pray for the protection of the family so that we can provide as best we can for those who come after us.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Day (Gospel: John 1:1-18)
The dignity of the flesh

A few years ago on Christmas day after I had celebrated the two morning masses, I went to visit some friends, took a short walk and then went back to my house looking forward to a nap as I was exhausted.  When I opened the front door I was horrified to see water pouring down through the ceiling.  The pipes had burst!  So I spent most of the rest of the day trying to mop up the house.  Compared to many people I know I got away lightly, but it still did a lot of damage.  However, in spite of the damage, one of the things it made me realise was that you don’t really need very much.  I still got a Christmas dinner, I had a place to stay and I was warm enough.  What more could I ask for?  We will always have inconvenience and problems, but if we have the basics we are ok and most of us have a lot more than just the basics.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the feast of Christmas is what the feast says about us as human beings.  God didn’t sort everything out before He took on human flesh and came among us.  He came into all the inconvenience, injustice and chaos that is all around us all the time and he was born into a human family with all the ups and downs that goes with any family.  Mary and Joseph were away from home because of the census that was being taken and then Mary ended up having to give birth in a far from ideal place: a stable or cave.  It must have been very upsetting.  Soon afterwards they had to flee the country as refugees because of a death threat.  There were difficulties from the start, and yet God was happy to come right into the middle of all that.

Perhaps what is easiest to overlook is the significance of God taking on flesh.  He didn’t take on the nature of an animal, or of an angel, but of a human being.  We are not animals, but we are not angels either and we are not meant to be.  The Word became flesh, and that tells us that we are good as we are.  Of course that doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t try to improve, but we are meant to be ‘flesh’.  I think many of us have grown up with the idea that spirit is good, but flesh and all to do with it is bad.  However, that is not what God teaches us; in fact He is telling us the complete opposite by taking on human flesh.  This is how we are meant to be and not only that but in our flesh we imitate God, especially in the way we love.

    The beginning of John’s Gospel, which we read on Christmas morning, tells us a few wonderful things.  It is speaking about the person of Jesus, God the Son, which it calls the Word.  It says that the eternal Word—who becomes Jesus—was there from the beginning.  God the Son has always been there.  It also says that apart from him we would not exist at all.  We only have life because He is there, which also means that our life has no meaning apart from him.  Then it says a most encouraging thing for the times that we live in.  It says that Jesus (the Word) is the Light that shines in the darkness and ‘the darkness could not overcome this light’.  In other words, no matter what happens in the world around us, no matter how much evil there appears to be, it will never be able to overcome Jesus, who is God.  God is stronger.  God will have the last say. 
In the book of Revelation Jesus says,
I am the First and the Last, the Living One.  I was dead, but now I am to live forever and ever.  I hold the keys of death and of the underworld (Rev 1:17b-18).

All things are subject to God and yet he was pleased to come among us as one of us, to teach us about God, about the afterlife, about how we should live and of most importantly to die for us.  If God was prepared to come among us in this way it means that we must have enormous worth or value in his eyes.  This also means that we are not just here by accident, but for a definite reason.

So although the world around us may seem to have lost its way, it has not.  God doesn’t need to make it all perfect to be with us.  He didn’t when Jesus was born and he doesn’t have to now either.  Instead he shows us a different way; the way of love and the way of sacrifice, which may seem to be insignificant, but is in fact the more powerful way.  Earthly rulers need to show how strong they are, but God does not.  God is powerful enough to be able to work away quietly in the background, mostly unnoticed.  ‘He came among his own and his own didn’t recognise him.’  It didn’t matter and it still doesn’t matter, because He is with us no matter what and He goes on teaching us no matter what.  He will continue to teach anyone who is willing to listen that we were created by God and at the end of our time on earth we will return to God if we are open to it.  That is the purpose of our life and the reason why we are here.  For our time on earth we just do our best to follow the path that He points out to us.
The Word was made flesh and lived among us. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

4th Sunday of Advent Yr B (Gospel: Luke 1:26-38) Openness to God’s action

One of the things I enjoy most about working in a parish is the chance to be able to talk to the young children who are preparing for their first Holy Communion and Confirmation. What I enjoy especially is their openness and simplicity. They accept things that they do not understand and that is called faith.  Their simplicity is refreshing, although they are well able to ask difficult questions which I often have no answers for!

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of our faith, or of any faith, is that we are constantly dealing with ideas that do not make sense to our way of thinking.  They are beyond our understanding, and even if they were explained to us we still would not be able to grasp them.  The simplest example is the idea of our own spirit or soul: it is not visible to the human eye, it doesn’t take up space and it weighs nothing.  To human thinking that just sounds like ‘nothing’, but it is very real.  The time when it is most obvious just how real it is, is when someone dies.  One moment you have a living breathing person, with a personality and the ability to love.  The next moment there is just a dead body and somehow you know that this is not the person that you knew; and indeed it isn’t, it is just their body.  Their spirit has gone to a different world.  It is very simple yet it is also beyond our understanding.

So much of what we believe is like this.  We don’t understand it, but we accept it because God has told us that it is true and we believe that God only speaks truth.  Sometimes I think that the most educated people can be at a disadvantage when it comes to faith, because they are tempted to want everything explained to them completely, or else they won’t believe it.  A few years ago I did the wedding of a friend of mine I grew with, who is a now a pathologist.  Before the wedding he was saying that he could not accept the resurrection from a scientific point of view, because to him that was impossible. I admired him for his honestly. In a way you could say that his education was an obstacle to him in the ways of faith, though of course that is not always the case. There are so many aspects of our faith that we which we cannot explain.  However, that does not mean that they are not real.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Todays Gospel passage which describes the angel Gabriel presenting Mary with something that she did not understand is more of what we are talking about.  Mary questioned the angel because what the angel said made no sense to her from a human point of view.  It seems that Mary didn’t intend to have children, otherwise why would she have questioned the angel?  Since she was already legally married, it would have been the most natural thing in the world to have children, but this doesn’t seem to have been part of her plan and that is why she questioned the angel.  What the angel Gabriel told her was that this would essentially be an act of God, and not a human act.  ‘The Holy Spirit will cover you with its shadow… and so the child will be called holy.’  And the proof that he offered her was the miracle that God had already worked for Elizabeth who was now six months pregnant, even though she was old, and had never been able to have children, ‘…because nothing is impossible to God.’

The lovely thing is that Mary didn’t go on arguing about how this was impossible, but she accepted it.  Mary was open to God’s action, to God’s plans.  God also asks us to be open to his work, because He is all the time at work in our lives, only most of the time we don’t recognise it, or it doesn’t make sense to us, so we think it couldn’t be God at work.  Children also have this kind of openness and God invites us to have the same kind of openness.  There is so much that is beyond our understanding, but God just asks us to believe, and accept the fact that even if it was explained to us, we still wouldn’t understand.

The virgin will give birth to a child.
God will become man.
The death of a man on a cross will be a sign of God’s power.
The eternal God becomes present in bread and wine.

Friday, December 12, 2014

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28) ‘Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’

 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 among us 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 John had 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 he 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.  Almost all the Apostles and 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.’

Saturday, December 6, 2014

2nd Sunday of Advent Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:1-8) Prepare the way of the Lord

One of the things we do a lot as priests is go to people who are dying to ‘anoint’ them, or give them the sacrament of the sick, which is the same thing. I always think that it is a lovely thing when people request this, because it is a sign that they want to prepare for their journey to meet the Lord when they die. It is not just for when people are dying, it is also for when people are sick, but I think it is usually a great consolation to those who receive it. Often when I am praying with someone who is dying I can see that they are praying with me. Sometimes I see them move their lips and try to say the prayers as well, or sometimes they try and make the sign of the cross. They want to be prepared to meet the Lord as I think probably all of us do.

In one way we all know that we will never be prepared to meet the Lord as we would like to be, but that is not important because the Lord is not looking for perfection. What God is asking us for is the right disposition of heart. Think of the man dying on the cross beside Jesus. He was being punished for whatever crimes he had committed and given the dreadful death of crucifixion and in his own words he said, ‘We are getting what we deserve’ (Luke 23:42). But when he asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus replied, ‘In truth I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). This reminds us that what the Lord wants for us is only goodness, only the best, just as you want for your children, even if they mess up as we all do. It is also good to remember that even when we mess up seriously and we are written off by our society, or put in prison, God does not write us off. The Lord assures us that He is still with us. He asks us to repent in our heart and that is what is most important.

Advent is one of the seasons we have where we are asked to prepare for the wonderful feast of Christmas. But it is not just for Christmas, it is a time of reflection for us to prepare ourselves in our own hearts for whenever we will meet the Lord. None of us know when this will happen, but what is important is that we try to have the right disposition to be open to God for whenever He will bring us to heaven.

The best way we can do this is to go to confession. Although confession is not the most popular thing for most people, I think it is important to remember that this is God’s gift to us so that we can know that we are forgiven and to be encouraged and help us to start again. It is the greatest healing ministry of the Church. In his mercy and love for us, the Lord continually helps us to begin again as often as we need to. Who else could do this? What person on earth would continually allow us to start again no matter how many times we messed up? Not many, I suspect.

The most important thing about going to confession is the very fact that we do go, because each time we come before the Lord in confession it is a way of acknowledging that we are sinners. It is a way of saying, ‘Lord I know that I am a sinner. This is all l can recall right now, but I want to ask for your mercy,’ and that is what the Lord gives us. We confess whatever we can remember, but what is important is the very fact that we come before the Lord in this way. This is what He has asked us to do, even though we may not always feel attracted to it. Who wants to admit that they are a sinner and have done wrong? I certainly don’t! But I know that I need to.

Coming before the Lord in confession also helps us to keep the balance; to remember that
all things are in God’s hands; that God is the creator and we are the creature and without God we are nothing.

Let me just finish by repeating the words of absolution which the priest recites in the confession, because they are words of forgiveness and consolation.

God the Father of mercies,
Through the death and resurrection of his Son,
Has reconciled the world to himself
And sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.
Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace
And I absolve you from all your sins,
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.