Saturday, November 27, 2010

1st Sunday of Advent Year A (Matthew 24: 37-44) The Lord's coming; a time of hope

Each Sunday when we come together to celebrate the holy mass we pray the Creed, stating what exactly we believe.  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, or maybe not.

Today we officially begin our spiritual preparation for Christmas.  We are preparing for two things: we are remembering the first coming of Jesus at Christmas born as a baby into a human family; and we are remembering that Jesus will come again  in glory at the end of time. 

All around us with so much emphasis on buying gifts, it is easy to forget what this feast is about.  In all the advertising that we hear there is almost no mention of 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: a life of 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.  The feast of Christmas is about the beginning of this event.  Nothing could be more hopeful than this.

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.

Of course in one sense we can never be ready for God.  How do you prepare to meet God?  And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe it will be wonderful beyond all imagining 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 this mean?  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  our life is about, because 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 have become immersed in the world.  And of course 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 and not forget the bigger picture. 

I find that 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 when you are not obliged to, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days.  That way we will remember what we are celebrating. But remember that above all it is a feast of great hope, because it is a reminder that God is with us and that something great awaits us.

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 20, 2010

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) 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 that John had lived with 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 which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him.  Nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power 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.  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.  The Lord God did the exact opposite to 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 understand it and this is where 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 13, 2010

33rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) Prayer - Your endurance will win you your lives

Advent—which is the beginning of the Church’s year—starts in two weeks, and as we approach the end of the Church’s year, we are reminded of the end of time as well.  The readings for the next two weeks are all about the end of time and reminding us that all of the things around us will eventually come to an end. 

Every so often we hear people say that the end of time is coming, or that the Lord is about to come again, or that God is about to punish the earth for all the evil that is around.  Is this true?  We don’t know.  But what we do know is what the Lord himself said about this kind of thing.  We have it in the Gospel reading today.  He said: ‘Take care not to be deceived, because many will come using my name and saying, ‘I am He’, and, ‘the time is near at hand’.  Refuse to join them.’

The Lord simply asks us to persevere; to persevere with the daily struggle of trying to be a Christian, of trying to pray, to go to mass, to get on with whatever the Lord has given us to do, in married life, in single life, wherever we find ourselves.

If you were to ask what is the most important thing for a Christian to do to keep us going from day to day, I would say without a doubt it is prayer.  Prayer is simply our relationship with God and like any relationship with another person it takes many different forms.  It is as important as eating and sleeping. If you stop eating and sleeping you die physically.  If you don’t pray in some form, you die spiritually.  It is the exact same thing.  When we have some kind of relationship with God it puts things in perspective for us.  It helps us to see what is important and what isn’t.  It helps us to remember what our life is about and what we are called to do each day.  It also helps us not to become overwhelmed by all the gloom and doom around us.  If you know what the purpose of your life is, then it is a lot easier to keep going especially when we are hearing so much negativity around us.  Sure we are in difficult times, but if God is with us, guiding us, then what have we to be afraid of?

But how, you might ask, are you supposed to pray in this crazy and very busy world?  Well it’s like anything else, if you don’t make time for it, it won’t happen.  If you just try and fit it in when everything else is done, you won’t pray, don’t be fooled.  If you see it as a necessary thing, you will make time for it; but if you see it as an optional extra, then you will never pray.

Our prayer is the communication line between us and God.  It is our relationship with him.  The more we are in tune with God through prayer, the more we will begin to think like God, the more we will begin to reflect the image of God that is in each of us, which is a very beautiful thing.  People who are close to God are beautiful, because they reflect this light of God which is in each of us.

How do I pray?  Think of all the time you spend in your car, or indeed any time you are alone.  We don’t always have to be listening to the radio.  We can choose to turn it off and simply talk to Jesus and tell him about our fears and hopes.  That is prayer.  Spend some time each day thanking God for all things, good and bad.  Tell God about your joys and ask him for your needs.  Spend time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.  Read the Scriptures, the living Word of God.  Stay on for a few minutes after mass and thank God for coming to you in Holy Communion.  Ask God to bless your families and those people you are worried about.  Prayer doesn’t always change the situations that we are praying for, but it does change us.  So we grow and mature and we learn the ways of God.

There are almost as many ways to pray as there are people, and we will all live our relationship with God slightly differently, but what is important is that we do have this relationship with God in some form. 

Do you find that your faith seems empty and boring?  Do you wonder why you even bother with it half the time?  Ask yourself, are you praying, are you reading the Word of God?  And if not, are you surprised that your faith seems boring?

Jesus says to us, ‘do not be deceived…’ the way to him is very ordinary and involves the same perseverance that anything else requires as well, just like any relationship with another person.  But the Lord also says, ‘your endurance will win you your lives.’  The path to God isn’t easy, but it is well worth it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

32nd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 20:27-38) Life after death

 In the old version of Star Trek (and I think it is still the same) captain Kirk and his crew were able to be beamed from the starship Enterprise onto a nearby planet or another ship.  The idea behind this was that the ‘transporter’ (the machine that did this) was a sophisticated computer that was able to scan a person’s complete makeup and memorise the exact structure of the whole person.  Then it changed this information into energy which it beamed to another place and then re-assembled the person.  Pretty clever.  Of course scientists agree that in reality it would be impossible to do this because the human body is way too complicated.  No computer could possibly store or analyse all the information in a single person.

Our Christian faith tells us that God is able to store and maintain the unique pattern that is at the core of each one of us, even after our earthly body dies.  That unique pattern that makes up the core of each of us we call the soul.  Then after our earthly body dies the Lord gives us a new body in the place we call heaven, for those who choose to go there; and we choose to go there by the way we live.

If God cannot do that then our earthly death would be the complete end of us.  But we believe that God can and will do this.  That is what makes the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead such a mind-boggling one.  That is also why the celebration of Easter is such a big event and is often called ‘the great miracle’.  It was not automatic that Jesus would be raised from the dead, but it happened because God worked an extraordinary miracle.

We often wonder what it will be like in the next world.  Will it be like here, but only better?  In this Gospel the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, are arguing among themselves and they put this idea of the resurrection to Jesus.  So they give him a ridiculous example to make a point.  It is a kind of test case.  They presumed that because their example was so absurd, Jesus would have to admit that the idea of the resurrection just did not add up.  But what Jesus basically said was ‘you are trying to figure out the next life in earthly terms; but you cannot do that.’  It is so different that we cannot even begin to think what it would be like.

Think of how a caterpillar makes a chrysalis and then turns into a butterfly. You would not recognise one from the other; they are so different.  You plant an acorn, but then a tree grows out of the ground.  When Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, she didn’t recognise him.  When he appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognise him either.  He was so different.  It wasn’t just a human body brought back to life, but something quite different: what we call a ‘glorified’ body.

I have a friend who I grew up with who is now a consultant pathologist.  They study the science of disease and do the post-mortem’s when someone dies, as you probably know.  Before his wedding we were talking about different arrangements for the mass and he told me that he could not believe in the idea of the resurrection, because from a scientist’s point of view, it was impossible.  I was impressed with his honesty about it.  I suppose he was caught where the Sadducees were also caught.  He was trying to figure out the after-life and the spiritual world, in earthly terms.  This doesn’t work because it is so completely different and we only know what is earthly, so it is very difficult for us to get our minds around the spiritual world because we have no experience of it.

That is why God asks us to believe without understanding.  That’s what faith is.  God is saying, ‘will you trust me on this?’  We would not be able to understand it even if it was explained to us because it is completely beyond our understanding.  It would be like explaining a complicated physics or maths problem to a toddler.  No matter how well you explained it he simply would not be capable of understanding it. 

We believe in life after death because Jesus has taught us about it and because He appeared to the Apostles after his death and to so many others down through the centuries to say, ‘this is real. Believe it and know that this life is waiting for you when you die, if you choose it.’

A surprising number of people, who even call themselves Christian, do not believe in life after death.  If we don’t believe that something happens after death, then it is pretty pointless being here now at this mass, because each mass we celebrate is a continual reminder that we believe in a life after this one which we are already preparing for.  This also gives us great hope for those who have died, that we will be united with them again.  This is a hope that we must hold onto.  Every time we celebrate the mass we become present to the event that made life after death possible.  We become present to the death of Jesus on Calvary.  Time stands still and we are there.  Without this sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary we would not be able to go to heaven when we die and be reunited with those we love.

I want to finish with this quotation from a man called John Owen, who was a great Puritan minister. When he lay dying he was dictating some last letters to friends.  He said to his secretary:
‘Write’: ‘I am still in the land of the living’. 
Then he stopped and said: ‘No, change that to read’:
‘I am still in the land of those who die,
but I hope soon to be in the land of the living.’