Thursday, December 13, 2018

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: Luke 3:10-18) What does God ask of us?

Today we celebrate the third Sunday of advent and we light the rose colored candle. Today 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 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 is interesting how King Herod had John arrested, because he 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 it says, ‘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, what would he say to us? 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. Do you really need all the things you have?’ 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, 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 also killed because he spoke the truth. All the Apostles and most of the Prophets were killed too and thousands of men and women throughout the ages. 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.’

Friday, December 7, 2018

2nd Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:1-6) What is required of us?

A page from the Book of Kells (9th Century,
manuscript of the Gospels)
 How would you feel if you got a Christmas card that read like this:
Our thoughts of you this Christmas are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist, ‘Brood of Vipers! The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.’
Merry Christmas from Fr. Murchadh."

I suppose we would add Fr. Murchadh, or whoever sent it, to our list of x-friends!

Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc, but this is quite different from the original message. John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was very strong. ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and look for happiness in God.’ This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook. We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent. Just leave us alone and let us celebrate. We want absolution, but without having to confess. We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments. We want faith on our terms. That is called ‘cheap grace’. It is empty and it is not the message of God.

The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one. We can not come and pick what we like. Instead we come and ask what is required of us? That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘What must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. We are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them. If you’re not happy, move on; but this is not the message of the Gospels. In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us. We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms. 

Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman. He was totally focused on God. He knew what was important and he passed on the message he was told to pass on, but it cost him his life. He was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth. We don’t always want to hear the truth because it is often demanding and challenges us to change.

If we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the
Book of Kells, detail.
message of John the Baptist. ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ ‘God is coming: get ready.’ The term ‘repent’ can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’ That is a particularly powerful message at this time in history. So many people are looking for happiness in the world, but now so much has collapsed and many have been bitterly disappointed and left with a feeling that all is gone. However, the Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness. It is only in God that we will find true happiness. The world will disappoint us; God will not. People will let us down, but God will not.

The sin of Adam and Eve was a very similar sin to what we see going on today. It involved three things: (1) rejecting the idea that they had to serve God or listen to his commands; (2) that they could have everything they wanted on their terms, (3) that they were like God themselves. That is very similar to what we see going on in our world right now and it is a real temptation. Why should we have to obey commandments? We don’t like being told we have to obey anyone and yet the word obey literally means ‘to listen intently’ (from the Latin, ‘ob audire’). And if you think about it, it says that Jesus was obedient to the Father. Jesus was equal to the Father, but Jesus was also obedient to him. We are being called to listen intently to what God tells us, to acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we must obey—listen intently—to what He tells us if we are to find the path to happiness.
The 'Ardagh Chalice' (8th Century)

The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins. And yes, most of us don’t like to have to confess our sins, we think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do and if God asks us to do it, it is for our benefit. The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless. It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.
I stand at the door and knock. If anyone here’s my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20) 

Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways. The Lord wants to be at the centre of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’

Saturday, December 1, 2018

1st Sunday of Advent, Year C (Gospel: Lk 21:25-28, 34-36)

Advent is a time of waiting with hope, for something wonderful. Think of a time when you were waiting for someone to arrive home, someone dear to you. They have been away for a long time. There is the feeling of anticipation, longing and excitement, just like you see in the arrivals hall of an airport. You are looking at each person as they appear, waiting for your loved one. That is what Advent is meant to be; a time of hopeful waiting. The first candle we light, symbolizes hope. The hope of knowing something wonderful is going to happen. Your long-absent son/daughter, husband or wife, is about to come through the door and you can’t wait to see them.

What exactly are we waiting for that is so hopeful? Generally, we focus on the birth of Christ and that certainly is a big part of it, but it is just one part of it. Christmas and Easter are two halves of the same thing and they cannot be separated. What we are waiting for is a whole package that consists of God coming among us, into the messiness of our world, to share in our human nature, to suffer with us and to re-open the possibility of eternal life, through his death and resurrection. Just the last part of that alone, is mind-blowing. Without this whole event we could not have happiness when we die. That is why Advent is such a hopeful time, because we are waiting for this whole event to begin, the event that finishes in eternal happiness.

The world that Jesus came into, was very similar to ours. He was born to a couple who were away from home, because of a census. He was born into a country which was occupied by a foreign power and who were known for being particularly brutal. The Romans regularly crucified many people just to show who was in charge. Can you imagine living in the fear of those kind of soldiers. Right after his birth, they had to flee to Egypt because of a death threat. They became refugees fleeing from violence, just like we are seeing in so many countries at this time. His world was full of religious hypocrisy, just like ours and yet he wasn’t afraid to come into this world. All of that is showing us that God is with us in the chaos of our world.

Many Christians have a misunderstanding of what our faith is about. I regularly hear people in confession and outside of confession, express their fear of the sins of their past. Maybe they won’t be able to go to heaven when they die. Maybe they won’t be good enough. We joke about it all the time, saying that when we arrive at the pearly gates Peter will look over our life, to see if we are good enough. That is the complete opposite of the teaching of Christianity. What our faith teaches us is that we are not good enough for heaven by our own strength. We can never be good enough for God, by our own strength. But the whole point of our faith is that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, that has now been made possible for us. God now offers us forgiveness and eternal life if we choose to accept it.  God has already done for us what we cannot do ourselves and that is why the message of Christianity is so amazing. Christmas is the beginning of that whole event; Christ taking on human flesh, living among us in our chaotic world and ultimately allowing himself to be sacrificed for us. Eternal life now awaits us. All we have to do is say ask God’s mercy for our sins and say, ‘Yes, I believe and I accept all that God is offering me.’ Knowing this we need never live in fear of our past mistakes again. What God has done for us is what will bring us eternal happiness. That is why Advent is such a hopeful time.

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.