Saturday, June 26, 2010

13th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 9:51-62) Everyone is called

The readings today are about God’s call to each of us to follow him, or maybe a better way to put it is to say it’s about our call to ‘respond’ to him. We usually associate being called by God with a religious vocation. But only a very small few are called to this way of life. However, all of us are called to respond to God who continually reaches out to us from the beginning to the end of our life. Not everyone responds, but the invitation is always there.

Centuries ago God revealed himself to his people, first through Abraham, then Moses and gradually to more and more people. Ultimately God walked among us in the person of Jesus who is fully divine and fully human and God continues to make himself known to us through all that Jesus taught us, because in Jesus God made himself known to us in the most complete way. You could say that God said all He had to say in the person of Jesus, which is why we keep going back to the teachings of Jesus to see what is God saying to us today.

One question that many people who are trying to take their faith seriously ask me is, ‘What is God asking me to do?’ ‘Am I supposed to do something in particular?’ For most of us God simply calls us to do what is before us each day. To try to raise our families as best we can, or if we are not married just to do our best to live the Christian life wherever we find ourselves. Perhaps it seems kind of dull and maybe it is a bit dull in one way, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important, because all of us have an effect on the people around us. How you live your life makes a difference, even if you are not aware of it yourself. Think for a moment of the people you work with. Some you like, some drive you crazy, some you would prefer were not there at all. But the fact is that you notice each one and they all affect you one way or another. We continually observe each other and we all affect each other too, mostly unknown to ourselves. I saw a sign in a pub recently which read: ‘Everyone brings happiness to this place: some by coming in, some by going out!’ There is a lot of truth in that. We all influence and affect each other by the way we live.

If our faith gives us hope, which it should, others see that hope in us. You may not even consider yourself to be someone of much faith, but the fact that you believe in God at all, and believe in an afterlife means that you have some incentive for living and for trying to live a life that is worthwhile. Otherwise why would we bother? It is easy for us to forget that that hope is something which not everyone has.

One of the great tragedies of our time is the problem of suicide. I’ve no doubt there are many reasons for it and no two cases are the same, but I am sure that a big factor in it for many people who end their own lives is a lack of faith. If we have faith it gives us a certain inner strength to keep going especially when things are difficult for us, because we believe there is something better waiting for us and so it is worth enduring difficult times. If I have no faith it will be very difficult for me to have any kind of hope when this world lets me down, and it will let me down.

Now going back to the Lord’s call to each of us. What does He call us to do? Simply to live and blossom wherever we find ourselves. We go on trying to deepen our relationship with God and as our faith grows other people see the hope that we have, even though they may never express it. I bet you can tell from the people you work with who has faith and who doesn’t, even if they have never said it to you. Our faith makes us live differently and behave differently. Of course none of us manage to live it perfectly—no one ever does—but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying. We just do our best to live the teachings of Christ wherever we find ourselves: Love God above all things, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Finally, I think it’s worth being reminded that it will of course make us different. Christians have always been different—like any group who believe in a particular way of life—but that is not something that we should be ashamed of or apologise for. The Church doesn’t have to apologise for teaching what it teaches. If you don’t want to be part of it you’re free to go. But if you do want to be part of it, and hopefully you do, then try to embrace it fully and not just to take the bits that appeal to you. It’s a complete package and it is the Lord who put that package together. Jesus makes it clear in the Gospel today that it comes at a price, but that’s not something to be afraid of. Everything worthwhile comes at a price and there is nothing more worthwhile than the path that leads to God.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

12th Sunday of Year C (Gospel: Luke 9:18-24) Unless you take up your cross and deny yourself you cannot be my disciple.

You may have come across the book The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck. It is a fantastic read and one of those classic books that everyone should read in my opinion. The book starts with one short sentence: ‘Life is difficult’. Then he goes on to say that if you can accept the fact that life is difficult, then it no longer matters, because you’re not expecting it to be any different. We can then rise above it. There is a lot of wisdom in that.

As a priest people often come to me and tell me their problems. Mostly they are not looking for an answer, but just someone to listen to them who will not judge them. That is always a privilege for me, because it is a reminder to me that people see some kind of a link to God in the priest. What is also consoling for me when I keep hearing all these different stories is that it reminds me that we are all the same the world over. We all struggle and no one has it easy.

Hearing confessions in any international place of pilgrimage like Lourdes or Medjugorje is the same. You realise quickly that people from all different parts of the world, no matter what their culture, are all struggling in the same way: problems with relationships, work, marriage, addiction, finances. And somehow it is consoling, because it helps me to realise that this is what this life involves so don’t expect it to be different. Now that is not to give in to despair or just to be negative, but it is the reality of this life. What is really important, however, is where it is going; its purpose.

When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and Peter recognised him as the Christ of God, the first thing he did was to insist that they tell no one. The second thing he did was to tell them that he would suffer and die. And he then spelt it out for them: ‘If anyone wishes to follow me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.’ He was saying, ‘the path is not easy, but don’t be afraid of it because it is worthwhile’.

Now back to where this is all going which is so important. The Lord is teaching us that yes we will struggle, but there is a purpose to it. All the time we are being formed; we are growing; we are learning to love and serve; but as you know that doesn’t happen easily. Then when our time of service is over the Lord comes and brings us home, unless we have deliberately and consciously rejected him. I remember when I was in school the time seemed endless, but now it is almost forgotten. When I was in the seminary for six years the time also seemed pretty long, but now that is already 12 years ago. When our time on earth comes to an end no doubtwe will also look back and say, ‘wow, it wasn’t really that long after all.’ What is important is that it is heading somewhere and there is a purpose to it, which is why we must try and hang on and not give up when the going gets tough.

If we hope to find complete happiness in this life, we will be disappointed, because it is not to be found here. That was apparently one of the things that Our Lady said to Bernadette in Lourdes: ‘I cannot promise you happiness in this life but in the next.’ That doesn’t mean that we won’t find a certain amount of happiness and contentment; please God we will and much of it, but we will never be completely fulfilled here, by anyone or anything. I think if we can accept that, it takes a lot of the pressure off. We just do our best to love and serve for the time we are given here on earth. However, we also remember that the Lord Jesus is with us the whole time, guiding us, teaching us, encouraging us; present to us in each mass in an extraordinary way. So we know that we are not alone and we need not be afraid.

The horrible image of the crucifixion—which we have become so used to—also tells us something very powerful about God. It tells us that God can be found in the midst of human suffering; that the Lord Jesus knows what it is to suffer and feel abandoned by all, even by God himself; and that when we are suffering we can be assured that God is not just looking on ‘from a distance’ as the song says, but that He is right there with us, helping us and encouraging us.

Life is difficult, but it has a purpose and the Lord is with us the whole way.

‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.’

Saturday, June 12, 2010

11th Sunday, Year C (Gospel: Luke 7:36-8:3) The need to ask for forgiveness

There is a powerful story in the Old Testament about King David. It has all the ingredients of a good movie. David—who is now a very powerful king with everything he could ask for—is walking one day on the roof of his house and he sees a beautiful woman in a nearby garden taking a bath. He asks who she is and he is told that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. But because he is king and he is used to getting his own way, he has her brought to him and he sleeps with her. Some time later she sends a message to him to tell him that she is pregnant. Now he is afraid because he knows he is going to be found out. So he sends for her husband Uriah, who is away at war fighting for him. When Uriah comes David asks him how the war is going etc. Later he invites him to dinner with him and then he sends him away and says ‘go home to your wife and tomorrow I’ll let you return to the battle.’ But Uriah doesn’t go to his house. Instead he sleeps at the door of the palace with the servants. Maybe he is suspicious.

The next day when David finds out that he didn’t go home to his wife he invites him again to come and eat with him. This time he gets Uriah drunk and then tells him to go home to his wife and spend the night there, but again Uriah sleeps at the gate of the palace. So the following day David sends Uriah back to the battle with a letter to his senior officer telling him to place Uriah in the thick of the battle and then to pull back so that he is killed. Uriah basically carries his own death warrant with him and he is killed.

So we have lust, adultery, lies, betrayal and murder; Quite a list of evil, all committed by the so-called ‘great’ King David. But because God loves David He doesn’t let him away with it and so he sends the prophet Nathan along to David, who tells him the following story.

Nathan says, 'There was once a rich man who lived in a city. He had all he wanted: huge farms, many servants etc. There was also a poor man in the same city who just had one little lamb, and he loved the lamb like one of his own family. One day a stranger came to the rich man, but instead of taking one of his own flock, the rich man took the poor man’s lamb and had him killed for the meal.' When David heard this he jumped up in a rage and said, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die.’ And Nathan says to David: ‘You are the man.’

Now David is considered one of the greatest kings of ancient Israel and the reason is because of what he does next. When David hears the Prophet Nathan’s accusation he says, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ David was powerful enough to be able to do anything he wanted, but when God challenges him he is big enough to confess that he has done wrong and he repents of the sin.

It is because God loves us that He challenges us to acknowledge our wrongdoing and repent of it. The Lord doesn’t want our downfall. On the contrary, the Lord wants us to be able to live in peace, which is why He offers us the extraordinary gift of his mercy and forgiveness as often as we ask for it, but we must ask for it.

What the Gospel reading shows us is just how much the Lord wants to show us that mercy. God wants us to be at peace, so that we can get on with our lives until our time here on earth is over and then He will come to bring us home to him. But God also knows that in oder to experience this peace we must confess our sins before him and ask for this forgiveness.

The way to look at it is not to focus on our sinfulness so much as to see God’s desire for us to be healed and to be at peace. That is what the Lord wants for us. That is why in the Gospel Jesus points out to Simon the great love that the woman has experienced, because she knows she has been forgiven. The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Gospel: Luke 9:11-17)

Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me it also makes me think of the Eucharist. For those who do not believe as we do it must seem like the craziest notion of all; that God makes himself present through the hands of a priest, in a tiny piece of bread and some wine. What could be more bizarre than that? And we don’t just believe that it is a reminder of Jesus or similar to Jesus, but really and truly the body and blood of Christ. I also think that it is a teaching so extreme that only God could come up with it and get away with it, so to speak. What human being would try to convince others that Jesus was present in a piece of bread when a priest says certain prayers over it?

In the second reading—which is the oldest account of the mass in writing—St. Paul says straight out, ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’ He doesn’t even say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself. Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul and turned his life around. After Pauls's conversion Jesus appeared to him several other times as well. And Paul was so affected by what happened to him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching about this man Jesus. But the line that always strikes me is where he says, ‘This is what I received from the Lord…’ He is saying, ‘I didn’t make this up and neither did any other person. Jesus himself taught us this and taught us to do this in his memory.’ And so every time an ordained priest says the words of consecration at mass, Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine.

How are we supposed to understand this? We aren’t! I do not understand it at all, but I believe it. That is why we fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat or smoke in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else we do in the world. It is also a beautiful sign of how close God is to us that He would continually come to us in the middle of our lives, each week, each day, to help and encourage us. He comes to us as we are; not as we should be, but as we are. And it is God himself who makes it possible to receive him, because we could never be ready or worthy enough to even come close to the divine presence, not to mention receive him into our bodies. That is why we always say the prayer: ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed', just to remind ourselves that it is God who makes this meeting with him possible.

There are two extremes that I come across with regard to the Eucharist. One is where someone will say to me, ‘Oh father I don’t receive the Eucharist because I really am not worthy enough.’ Correct! No one is worthy enough nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to give himself to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him. The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance or need to confess every once in a while. Wrong again. There is no question of this being a ‘right’ on our part. The Eucharist is pure gift from God and for our part we must try to approach it as well as we can, especially by confessing every so often. But the most important thing to remember is that the Lord wants to give himself to us, and so we should not be afraid to come to him. Remember that ultimately it is God himself who makes it possible for us to receive him. ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.’

I want to finish with this story:
In the late 1500s there lived a woman named Margaret Clithero 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 to do either 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’.

So the next time that you find yourself bored with the mass, or just not too bothered to go because you’re tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for saying mass. We have it freely available to us.
God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist may He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.