Friday, February 27, 2015

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:2-10) God speaks in the cloud

I have often heard people say that the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac is horrific.  Maybe it shouldn’t be read at all.  It is horrific. It is meant to be.  The point is that God asks the unthinkable of Abraham, but more importantly Abraham trusts in God and goes along the path that makes absolutely no sense to him at the time.  Not only was it horrific that he should be asked to sacrifice his child, but it was also through this only child that God had promised him many offspring.  So nothing at all made sense. So Abraham suddenly finds himself in a situation of complete darkness, where nothing was right, nothing made sense.  But Abraham trusts God and then everything changes at the last minute.  God ‘put Abraham to the test’ not in the sense of seeing if he was good enough, but because God knew that Abraham had great faith and he wanted to stretch that faith to its full capacity.  An athlete won’t reach his or her full potential unless they are pushed to the limit.  Sometimes God does the same with us.  He knows what we are capable of much better than we do ourselves and sometimes He stretches, or pushes us to the limit because God wants us to reach our full potential as human beings.

Did you ever notice that sometimes when you pray for a situation to get better it gets worse first?  There is a temptation to panic and not pray any more.  But if we believe that God is listening to us and helping us, then we persevere in prayer and we try to trust that the Lord will bring the best out of the situation, even though it often doesn’t make senses to us.  That requires faith, and it’s not easy at the best of times.

Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac his only son, but in the end he didn’t have to go through with it.  Because he was willing to do anything that God asked and showed his remarkable trust in God, the Lord said that He would bless him greatly:
I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.

3000 years later God sends his Son Jesus and allows him to be sacrificed for the human race.  It says in the second reading that because Jesus went through with this, the Father would refuse him nothing.  That is why we can have such confidence when we pray to Jesus.  It says in the second reading that Jesus now intercedes for us before the Father in heaven.  If Jesus the Son of God is interceding for us before the Father, then what could we possibly be afraid of as long as we remain open to God?  Not only that but we also have Our Lady interceding for us too.  Is Jesus going to refuse his mother anything?  Is the Father going to refuse Jesus anything?  And these are the ones who are interceding for us.  Hopefully that will help us not to be afraid.

In the Gospel the three disciples Peter, James and John are granted this extraordinary vision of Jesus in his divine glory.  Why were they given this privilege when none of the others were?  This happened just before the Passion, when Jesus would be tortured and killed before their eyes.  Peter, James and John were also the three who would be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane watching him fall apart.  They were going to need great strength not to despair themselves.  But what is especially worth noting is that after the vision was over they suddenly found themselves in a cloud where they could see nothing, only then did they hear the voice of the Father speaking to them:  ‘This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’

God spoke to them when they were in a cloud.  Have you ever been on a mountain when a cloud suddenly descended on you?  It’s quite frightening because you cannot see anything.  You have just stop and wait.  Sometimes it is only when we are in a ‘cloud’ or darkness/confusion that God will speak to us most powerfully.  When we cannot see the way forward, and we cannot get any clarity on what to do, then God will show us what the next step is, but often He will only show us the next step, not the whole path ahead.  This brings us back to the need to trust that God knows what God is doing when He leaves us in the dark. And most people are in the dark most of the time, especially with regard to their faith.  That just seems to be how it works.  We are only shown one step at a time, if anything, but God asks us to trust him that He knows what He is doing.  If He doesn’t show us the path it is because we don’t need to see the path ahead only the next step.
This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’

Friday, February 20, 2015

First Sunday of Lent

Although this is the first Sunday of Lent the homily today is on the Eucharist as I'm giving a retreat this weekend to those who will be received into the Church as adult Catholics this coming Easter.

I used to work in a hospital and one of the jobs that I did for six days a week, was to bring Holy Communion to the sick and anyone else who wanted to receive.  I often noticed that bringing Holy Communion around to people provoked the most reaction.  People would or would not receive, but they were usually pretty definite about it.  Those who didn’t receive, whether out of pride or guilt or whatever, were always a bit unsettled by the presence of Jesus.  It was very seldom that I would meet someone who was completely indifferent and not in the least bit unaffected. 

One day I came into a room and a patient automatically started crying. Sometimes the relatives would cry when I blessed someone sick who could not receive.  Why was this?  Because they knew, somehow and believed, like we do, that this was really Jesus.  No one else could have that effect on people.  If I brought a loaf of bread around, do you think that it would make any difference?

Even when people don’t receive, you can tell by their faces that they know there is something there, something different, something mysterious.

The Eucharist is a kind of paradox, or contradiction.  It seems to be only a piece of bread, but it isn’t.  It is so simple yet it is way beyond our understanding. How can it be possible that the Lord God who created everything, can become present to us in a tiny piece of bread through the hands of a priest who is a sinner? How can it be that the Lord obeys the words of a priest at the consecration of the mass? This is a great mystery, but we believe it has come from Jesus himself and that is why we believe it. In the earliest description of the mass, St. Paul begins by saying, ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn pass on to you…’ Jesus taught it to Paul directly, after He had risen from the dead. Jesus taught it to the other disciples when He was with them.

Because God wants to exclude no one, He gives himself to us in the most basic and simple way possible: in bread, one of the most basic of foods.  It is so simple that everyone can believe it and yet it is also totally beyond our understanding.  God reveals himself to us ‘in mystery’, like the burning bush before Moses; it was a contradiction.  The Holy Eucharist is there before us, but we can not understand it.

Jesus says in the Gospel, ‘I bless you Father … for revealing the mysteries of the kingdom to mere
children, for that is what it pleased you to do.  We can accept it like children, but if we try to understand it, we will find that it is beyond us.  Sometimes it is very educated who people give up when they come to the teaching on the Eucharist, because they try to understand it and can’t.  ‘It defies logic’, people will say, and they’re right.  To believe in it, we have to recognise that it is beyond us, in other words that God is beyond us.  We have to acknowledge that we are small and very limited in our understanding.  Once we do this, then God can begin to work in us and work powerfully through us, because we have opened the door to him.
The Eucharist is a kind of doorway to our faith.  It is the way in, but it’s also where a lot of people get stuck.  When Jesus first spoke about the Eucharist and said, ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you can not have life within you’, many of his followers left him, they couldn’t take this.  But notice that He didn’t go after them and try to explain it.  He just left it with them as He had spoken.  It requires faith.

I want to finish with the story of St. Margaret Clithero. In the late 1500s this woman lived in the town of York in England.  She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic.  Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth penders, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them.  She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral.  It was an Anglican church at the time.

She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial.  She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors.  She said, ‘If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself’.  The judge said’ ‘Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.’
He handed her the bible and told her to swear on it.  So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, ‘I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’

So, just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered.  It was called in English law, ‘the punishment most severe’.  She was pressed to death under heavy weights.  It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive.  The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken.  She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.
In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times.  It says ‘She died for the mass’.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

6th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:40-45) Beethoven and the mystery of suffering

Today we are given one of the many encounters of Jesus’ healing someone who had the terrible disease of leprosy.  Apart from the fact that leprosy was physically so horrible, with a person’s flesh literally rotting on their body, it also had the added pain of excluding them from the community because of the fear of contamination.  Anyone who had leprosy had to live outside the community.  Notice how it says in the Gospel that when Jesus heals this man he ‘sternly warned him not to tell anyone’.  But in the man’s enthusiasm he couldn’t help himself and began talking about it everywhere.  Because of this people realised that Jesus had been in contact with a leper and so he could now be infected himself.  As a result he then had to stay outside the towns ‘in places where nobody lived’.  This kind of thing must have been very frustrating for Jesus, but he had to put up with it and adapt his mission accordingly. 

I’m sure there were many thousands of people in Jesus’ time who also needed healing, but who didn’t ever get to meet Jesus.  Jesus healed those people who came to him and asked for help, but that would have been relatively few.  Do you ever wonder why the Lord allowed so many others to remain sick, or why He allows us to be sick?  Is it possible that any good can come out of the sicknesses we have to go through?

Recently I came across a beautiful story about the composer Beethoven (1770-1827).  Ludvig Van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany and he really had quite a sad life.  He suffered from a great lack of affection, because his mother died when he was very young and his father was an alcoholic who used to beat him.  His father eventually died as a drunk on the streets.  His biological brother never helped him either and on top of it all symptoms of deafness started to disturb him, leaving him nervous and irritable.  There was however, a German prince who became his benefactor and was like a second father to him.  But then the prince died and between his deafness and loneliness he went into a terrible depression and eventually began to wonder whether there was any point in him going on living.

At that stage Beethoven could only hear using a kind of horn-shaped trumpet in his ear.  He always carried with him a notebook, so that he could write and communicate with others, but many didn’t have the patience for this and so he began to feel more isolated and alone.  Feeling that nobody understood him or wanted to help him, Beethoven withdrew more and more into himself and avoided people. He became so depressed that he prepared his will saying that maybe it was better for him to commit suicide.

But then God’s providence intervened.  A young blind woman who lived in the same boarding house where he had moved to, told him one night, shouting into his ears: “I would give everything to see the moonlight.”  Listening to her, Beethoven was moved to tears because he realised that he could see! And he could compose music and write it on paper!  A strong will to live came back to him and led him to compose one of his most beautiful pieces: “Mondscheinsonate” – “Moonlight Sonata”.

In its main theme, the melody imitates and resembles the slow steps of people, possibly of Beethoven himself and others, carrying the coffin of the German prince, his friend, patron and benefactor.  Some music scholars say that the notes that repeat themselves, insistently, in the main theme of the 1º movement of the Sonata, might be the syllables of the words “Warum? Warum”? (Why? Why?) or another similar word.  Years later, having overcome his sorrow, Beethoven wrote the incomparable “Ode to Joy” from his “Ninth Symphony”, Beethoven’s magnum opus, which crowned the life work of this remarkable composer.

He conducted the first performance himself in 1824. By then because he was totally deaf, he failed to hear the applause. One of the soloists gently turned him around to see the hall full of a wildly cheering crowd. It is said the “Ode to Joy” expresses Beethoven’s gratitude to life and to God for not having committed suicide.  And all this thanks to that blind young woman, who inspired in him the desire to translate into musical notes, a moonlit night.  Using his skill, Beethoven, the composer who could not hear, portrayed through this beautiful melody, the beauty of a night bathed by the moonlight, for a girl who could not see it with her physical eyes.

We do not know why we have to suffer but perhaps more good comes out of it than we realise.  No doubt the blind girl who inspired Beethoven could never have imagined that any good could have come from her being blind and yet look what happened.  I am sure that when we get to heaven we will be amazed at how many parts of our life that don’t seem to make any sense now, will all fit together. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

5th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:29-39) Jesus’ teaching more important than healing

It is interesting that 2500 years ago when the first reading from Job (7:1-4, 6-7) was written, they were asking the same questions that we still ask today?  ‘Why do we have to work so hard?  What is the point of it all?  Why is our life often so difficult?  Why is it that good people often suffer so much for no apparent reason?’  Throughout the centuries you’ll find that people continually ask the same questions.  Sometimes it takes a dramatic event like a tsunami or an earthquake where thousands are killed in an instant, to make people ask themselves these questions.  One minute all those people were just getting on with their daily lives, the next minute the tsunami struck and they were gone.  If we can suddenly be snatched away like that, then what is the purpose of our being here?  Is there any purpose, or is it all chance?  The Lord teaches us that there most certainly is a purpose to our being here.

During his life on earth Jesus continually worked extraordinary miracles—just as we read in today’s Gospel—and as a result thousands of people were drawn to him looking for healing, just like we do today when we hear of someone who has been given a gift of healing, but this was not the main purpose of Jesus’ being here.  Of course he was happy to heal people because he had extraordinary compassion for people, but primarily he wanted to teach people, to teach us about God and about the reason why we are here.  When you think about it all the people he healed and even brought back to life from the dead, they all eventually got sick again and died.  So he wanted to teach us that we are loved by God and we are not here by accident; that our life has a purpose and is going somewhere; that it is worth keeping going even when we are suffering, and above all the mission of his life was to die for us so that we could get to heaven when we die.

When the disciples found him alone praying the first thing they told him was that everyone was looking for him.  There was so much work to do, so many people to heal.  But look how he responded: ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’  That is why I came: to preach and teach.  But why is it so important to teach us?  Wouldn’t it be much better just to heal us?  Physical healing is important and Jesus knew that, but he also knew that if we have meaning, if we have purpose, that is much more valuable to us. 

When I began my ministry as a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain, I remember meeting a man who had been suffering for most of his life.  He had had operation after operation and he was in pain most of the time.  But when I met him he was smiling and he said, ‘Father I have so much to be grateful for.’  It was very humbling to hear this.  Why was he grateful?  Because he had faith and he had purpose.  He understood that his life had meaning and that it was going somewhere.  He believed that this life was not everything and that it was worth persevering.  Having that purpose is what makes all the difference.  And that is what our faith gives us.  It doesn’t take away the pain, but it helps to make sense for us of why we are here.  It reminds us that God does want us to be happy, that that is what He created us for.  It also reminds us that it is worth putting up with the various struggles we have to go through because they are often what make us into better people.  The suffering will not last forever.  Sooner or later we will cross over to the next world where our happiness will be complete.  Having that hope is what makes all the difference and that is why Jesus kept moving around and teaching people, so that they would have the strength to keep going especially when times were more difficult.

Meanwhile we will continue to pray and look for healing and it is right that we do, but it is also good to remember that the hope we have in God is actually worth more than the physical healing, because that is what will keep us going.  Remember the words of Jesus: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God still and trust in me.’  God knows what He is doing.