Saturday, January 29, 2011

4th Sunday Year A (Gospel Matthew 5:1-12) Blessed are the poor in spirit

All of us are well used to going to specialists for this and that.  If you go to your doctor and there is something he or she is concerned about, you will inevitably be passed on to someone who has more expertise, because we are always trying to find the answer.  It’s great that we do have so much expert knowledge.

When it comes to spiritual knowledge we have many of the great world teachers: the Buddha, Gandhi, Mohammed, and others.  Jesus is often put into this category of wise teachers.  But for us there is one fundamental difference and that is that he is not just another human teacher, even if a very brilliant one.  We believe he really is Son of God.  God who walked among us in the person of Jesus and taught us about himself.  The same God who is present to us in the Eucharist in each mass.  That means that for us there is nothing more important that we can listen to than what Jesus taught, because this is God speaking to us.  If he wasn’t God then we could just as easily listen to any other wise teacher.

In today’s readings we have the Beatitudes, which are the beginning of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount is really the very heart of all that Jesus was teaching his disciples and is teaching us today.  The first two lines of the Gospel which just seem like lines of introduction actually say something quite important.  It says that Jesus 'sat down' to teach.  For a Jewish Rabbi to sit down and teach was to give his official and most important teaching.  In another translation it also says 'then he opened his mouth' and began to teach.  This was also an ancient way of saying that what he was about to say was all important.  And finally, the original Greek says that ‘this is what he was  continually teaching them’.  So what follows is both the ongoing teaching of Jesus, and also the most important thing that he taught his followers.  This is the very heart or core of the teaching of Christ.

I only want to comment on the very first line of the beatitudes which says:
‘How happy (or blessed) are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’  

The word ‘poor’ here actually refers to the destitute poor; those who have absolutely nothing.  Jesus is not saying that it is good that they are poor, rather they have happiness if they recognise their own helplessness and rely on God for everything.  That is the key part, and in fact it applies to all of us.  The key thing is that we realise that it is only in God that we find everything.  If we come to know this, then nothing, not even destitute poverty, can take from our happiness, because God is our security and nothing and no one can take that from us.  The reason why the poorest of the poor are ‘blessed’ in this sense, is because they will be much more aware of how much they need God than anyone else, because they have nothing else.  As you know it is often only when we are in dire straits that we turn to God.  But if we live in a constant state of helplessness then we will be totally aware that only in God can we find happiness and that is the key to coming closer to God.

In modern English it might say, 'O the happiness of the person who has realized his own utter helplessness and who has put his whole trust In God, for only this way can he render to God that perfect obedience which will make him a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.'

All of the Beatitudes are essentially pointing to the same thing: that in God is our complete fulfillment.  Therefore if we realise this, no suffering on earth can take from it.  Knowing this gives us a 'happiness' or 'blessedness' unlike earthly happiness which comes and goes.  But this happiness is permanent and untouchable.  What God offers us does not pass and will not fade, because only God is permanent and no suffering in this life can take God from us .

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A (Matthew 4:12-23) Repent and believe the Good News: the search for happiness

One thing that everyone in this church has in common is the search for happiness.  Everyone wants and hopes to find happiness.  We may have very different ideas as to what happiness is, but we are all looking for it.  The biggest problem seems to be where to find it.  We will look for it in a partner, through children, through work.  When we fall in love we may think we have found it.  But if we persevere in a relationship we will realize that while it is great to have this other person around, they won’t fulfill me completely either, because they cannot.  I am asking the impossible of someone if I expect them to completely fulfill me, because only God can do that.  Hopefully our happiness will begin in this life and we will have many happy times, but total fulfillment is in the next life.  I think that even to accept that much is a big step in the right direction.

When Jesus began his public ministry one of the first things he said was, ‘repent and believe the good news’, or in today’s Gospel it says ‘repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at han.’  We usually understand the word ‘repent’ to mean, ‘ask forgiveness for sin and do some kind of penance.’  That is certainly part of what it means, but there is also more to it than that.  It can also be understood to mean, ‘change the direction in which you are seeking happiness.’  ‘Turn around and look in the right place.’  Jesus is telling us that we certainly aren’t going to find happiness if we look in the wrong place, which sounds obvious enough.  And then he also says, ‘and believe the good news.’  What is the good news?  It is the message that God is interested in us and that God has created us to be happy, but we will only find that happiness in God.

You know the way it says in many of the Gospel passages, ‘Jesus was speaking to the people when a man came up who was sick…’ or ‘Jesus was preaching the word to them, when…’  What was Jesus saying to the people all those times that He preached to them?  No doubt He was teaching them about God and about how God relates to us and explaining why God invites us to follow a certain path and what that path involves. That path is the one that leads to God, which is where we will find happiness.

Now part of that path is the need to turn from sin and to ask for forgiveness, because sin is what will come between us and God and can prevent us from finding that happiness.  That is why Jesus was so strong about the need to turn away from what is wrong.  ‘If your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off... or if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out!  It is better to enter heaven without one hand than to lose that happiness.’  This is an exaggerated way of speaking, in order to make a point, just like we say, ‘I’ll kill you if you do that again!’  Jesus is saying, ‘don’t let anything cause you to lose the happiness that God has for you,’ because nothing is worth it.

We are up against the difficulty of the world around us telling us that we will not be happy if we don’t live a certain way, or if we don’t have certain lifestyles.  And we are bombarded with these ideas day and night.  But who are we going to listen to:  the Son of God, or our society?  God is telling us to make sure we look for happiness in the right place, so that we won’t be disappointed.

They say that 96-98% of the population suffers from addiction to something.  What is addiction but the search for happiness gone badly wrong, where we become obsessed with something thinking that we will die without it, or be totally unhappy without it, be it alcohol, drugs, work, or whatever.  The interesting thing is that the only program that is known to really be effective in helping people to overcome addictions is the twelve step program.  That program is the Christian life in twelve steps.  Even just the first few steps:
  1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (or sin)—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves (God) could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. (Repentance)
 The truth is that all of us are addicted to sin.  We are all drawn to what we know is not good for us and will probably lead us further from God.  And what God is telling us is that this is not a problem if we continually turn to him.  He is the way out and the way forward and most importantly, it is in him we will find happiness.
 Make sure you look for happiness in the right place.
Repent and believe in the good news.’ 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Baptism of the Lord (Matthew 3:13-17) God among us, as one of us

I had the privilege of living and studying in Rome for three years.  It was a great experience although not easy either.  Living in a different culture can be quite a strain as just about everything you can think of is done differently.  People think and behave in a completely different way.  You cannot take anything for granted and you also find it is easy to insult people without realising it.  It gave me a lot of sympathy for people who come here from other countries and try to settle down.  It can be quite a strain.  One thing it also taught me is that it is important to do as the locals do.  ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, as the saying goes.

It is a strange thing that Jesus came to John for Baptism.  Up to that point the Jewish people themselves never went in for baptism.  It was only for those who were converting to Judaism from another religion.  But then John the Baptist began telling the people to come for baptism as a sign of repentance and a new beginning.  And then something very unexpected happens.  Jesus himself lines up with the other people and comes to John to be baptised for the forgiveness of sins.  As soon as John sees Jesus he recognises that he is the one sent by God, the one John himself had been preaching about without realising it.  And of course he says to Jesus ‘I can’t baptise you; you need to baptise me!’  But Jesus convinces him to let it be that way, who knows why exactly.  Perhaps one of the reasons was that Jesus is showing us that he is here as one of us, walking among sinners and living as one of us, doing what all the people were doing.  It is a very powerful way of Jesus showing that he is with us in everything, although of course he is without sin.  But it says that Jesus is not afraid to identify with us as we are, in our sinfulness and not just coming among us as a great powerful leader who everyone bows to.  Instead he lives and walks among his people as one of them. 

The way of God is not the way of the world, which is a way of power and making your presence felt.  Instead it is an almost hidden way which can be easily missed.  He is also showing us that God’s power is accomplished through the path that involves suffering.  This is something we find very hard to understand, because we instinctively draw back from any kind of suffering.  However, it is through the cross that Jesus atones for all human sin and reopens the way to God for us.

Just after Jesus is baptised a voice is heard saying ‘This is my Son the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’  This simple sentence says two very important things about Jesus.  The first part: ‘This is my Son the Beloved’ is also found in Psalm 2:7 which the Jewish people knew referred to the Messiah.  The second phrase: ‘My favour rests on him’, is from the prophet Isaiah 42:1, which refers to the ‘suffering servant’, the one God would send to free his people through suffering.  So this sentence is saying that Jesus is the Messiah and that he will free his people from their sins through suffering, and not by the ways of the world.

If an adult came to me today and said they wanted to be baptised, I would say ‘wonderful’, but first they would have to learn about the Christian faith.  Then when they had learnt enough about it they would be baptised.  Obviously you don’t commit yourself to a way of life that you know nothing about; it wouldn’t make any sense.  When we baptise an infant—and we do it because we want them to belong to God from the beginning of their life—we baptise them on condition that they are taught about the faith as they grow up.  Otherwise it would be hypocrisy.  Being baptised is a way of saying that we know we are sinners and we want to belong to God and accept all that He has done for us. 

Most of us here were baptised when we were infants and someone else spoke on our behalf.  But now we are adults and we must take responsibility for our own faith.  Although having to follow a particular path as a Christian may not always seem that attractive, remember Jesus coming for baptism himself.  He accepted the culture and traditions of his time and lived in it.  We too are being called to accept this particular path to God and all that it involves.  It is not always easy to do this, and God knows there are many things about it which can be very frustrating, but it is the path that God has shown us and so let us not be afraid to keep going and do our best to live it as well as we can.

This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognise Jesus as God

The feast of the Epiphany is an interesting one.  In the Eastern Catholic Church, it is the main feast of Christmas.  Here we celebrate it as the feast of Christ being recognised by the world.  The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was.  They are supposed to have come from different countries.  They represent all the peoples of the world, since they were not Jewish.  It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and colour.  All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The three gifts they bring are symbolic.  They point to something else.  Gold is the symbol of a king.  Jesus is a king, the King of the whole universe.  Frankincense symbolises a God.  Jesus is also God.  And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering he will go through to win eternal life for the human race.  The point is that all peoples of all religions will recognise that Jesus is God and that we only have eternal life through him.

It might seem a bit arrogant of us Christians to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God.  That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong.  But that is not the case.  People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who will never hear of Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ.  And eternal life is still offered to them, just as it is to us.  When they die they will see this at once.  There can only be one God and this God has created us for happiness.  

Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin (and interestingly most religions have a similar understanding of Original Sin although it is called by different names) God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.   But because God totally respects the freedom He has given us  He does not force this on us but simply offers it to us.  We must accept this gift individually, and we do this through our faith.  All people are offered this possiblility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not.  But it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe.  We accept life with God when we die, which will be our total fulfillment, or we lose it forever, and that is the choice we must make.  

We may have the impression that Jesus died for Christians only and that you have to be a Christian to go to heaven.  This would be to see it backwards. Depending on how we live our life and the choices we make, we accept or reject God.  That is where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong.  Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong.  All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or further away from God.

Christians are simply people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us.  We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way.  But it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else.  That depends completely on how we live our life.  When we die we will realise that all this is really true.  And when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord.  That doesn’t mean that they are all wrong now; rather that they have a different understanding of God.  What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can just as it is for us.  If they do this, God will also draw them closer and closer to himself and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 

Of course we pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us.  But either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us, and remember that they are also children of God.
Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2nd Sunday of Christmas (Gospel: John 1:1-18) Not one thing had its being without him

Happy new year to one and all!

Eleven years ago we celebrated the beginning of the third millennium, which seems hard to believe.  I remember at the time listening to some of the many speeches given by politicians and leaders boasting of all the great things the human race had achieved; and it’s true we have achieved many great things.  But one thing that was noticeably absent was any mention of God.  It was all about what we had done ourselves, by our own strength, by our own power.  I think we can be quick to forget that everything we have and are comes from God.  There is a lovely line at the beginning of Psalm 126 which says ‘If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labour.’  In other words, if God is not with us in what we do, we are wasting our time.

Over the last year we have seen so many changes: the economy collapsing, crazy weather patterns, structures in the Church collapsing, so many people dying of cancer in spite of all our sophistication.  Perhaps one thing that this forces us to remember is how small we are by ourselves, and how easily we can lose everything, even overnight.  While this can be very painful I think it can also be very good, because it reminds us how much we depend on God for everything.  Yes we have achieved great things, but it is thanks to what God has given us: the intelligence, the opportunities, the vision.  All comes from God.
The reading from St. John says it so beautifully, ‘In the beginning was the Word… not one thing had its being, but through him.’ God was there first and we are part of his creation, not the other way around.  God is not an optional extra.  We are the optional extra for him.  God didn’t have to create us.  He didn’t have to give us all that we have.  But God wants us to share in his own happiness, that’s what He has created us for, and we will share in this happiness if we keep to the right path.

We cannot go forward without God.  We will never have peace without God.  We cannot exist without God.  We are nothing without him.  And with Christ there is nothing that we cannot do, because we do not have to depend on our own strength, but on his.

At the beginning of every new-year people make resolutions to begin again, to try to improve their lifestyle, by giving up something, or taking up something.  I would like to put to you the words of Pope John Paul II: in one of his addresses he said, ‘In the name of God I beg you, choose for Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.’  He is the only way, and our only hope of a good future, with peace and prosperity.  Maybe we could include this as part of our new year’s resolution.  Choose to be a follower of Christ, live what you believe, know your faith and teach your children your faith, so that our world may be centered on Christ, whose world it is anyway. 

We go forward with great hope, because there is always great hope for anyone who believes in God.  When God is with us, we have nothing to be afraid of.  ‘In name of God I beg you, choose Christ, who is the way the truth and the life.’