Saturday, January 28, 2012

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:21-28) Understanding the Scriptures

A lady spoke to me one time after mass and told me that she was upset by the second reading, where it said; ‘those who are in mourning should live as though they had nothing to mourn for.  Those who have wives should live as though they had none.’  She was in mourning herself and this reading seemed to be pretty insulting, to say the least.  This week the second reading is a continuation of that same passage, so I would like to try and make sense of what it is about.

If you were to go into a bookshop and pick up a book called Jack and the Bean-stalk, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you would know that they were fairy tales and meant to be read in a certain way; the same with a history book or with a newspaper.  We read them in certain way, because they are all different kinds of writing.  Well the Scriptures are the same and they also have to be read in a certain way if we are to understand them properly.

Today if you watch a news program, the reporters will give you as many details about an event as possible, such as the war in Afghanistan or in any other place.  We will be told how many people were there, how many were injured; where exactly it happened, etc.  Most of the people who wrote the books of the Bible do almost the opposite; they are not interested in the details of what happened, but in the meaning of an event.  In other words, they are looking back at things that happened and trying to understand what God is saying to us through those events.  It can be a great help to know that much when we are reading the Scriptures.  The meaning of many of the books of the Bible is not necessarily that obvious.  Part of what is wonderful about the word of God is that it gets us to think.  It is not just giving us blank facts, but presenting us with stories and events and making us ask, ‘what is God saying to us in this?’

Many times I have heard it said to me, ‘the story of Adam and Eve is childish and ridiculous.  Nobody can be expected to believe it today!’  Well that is true if you read it literally, as if they are the details of exactly what happened, but it is not meant to be read literally.  It is a very clever piece of writing which tells us some basic truths about the beginnings of the human race and our limitations as human beings.  The most important thing it tells us is not that God created everything in seven days, but rather that it was God who created and that what God created was good.  The fact that God created the human being last, is a biblical way of saying that the human being is God’s masterpiece, the most important thing that God created, because we were given free will and the ability to love and even reject God.  So if you know how to read the Scriptures, it can make a lot of sense, but othen people read it literally and then it seems to clash with science and of course it doesn’t make any sense.
As priests, part of our job is to explain the Scriptures, but we don’t always do that very well, which is partly why they are not always understood.  In a way that is our fault.

It is interesting how Jesus—the greatest teacher of all—taught the people.  He used stories and especially parables.  His use of parables is wonderful, because the meaning of a parable is not obvious unless you are open to hear it.  You have to think about it and search for the meaning and that is exactly what Jesus wants us to do.  It is a wonderful sign of how much he respects our intelligence and understanding.  He doesn’t just shove his teaching down our throat, but rather presents it to us in such a way that if we are open to it, we will discover what He is teaching us.  For example the parable of the Good Samaritan: Jesus was getting the people to think about and admit that there could actually be goodness, even in someone they hated such as a Samaritan.  Equally if we are not interested, of if we are closed in our heart, then we will probably not get the meaning.  That’s why he kept explaining the parables to the disciples, to make sure that they did understand properly since they were going to have to go on teaching after he was no longer with them. 

So what we are presented with in the Scriptures is subtle and we have to wrestle with it to some degree, but that in itself is a compliment to us.  God wants us to be actively engaged in searching for the truth.  We are not just being ordered what to do as though we were slaves or servants.  Now of course there are also things that God asks us to do such as the commandments, but God also respects and acknowledges our intelligence.

Finally, going back to the passage that I referred to from last week’s reading where St. Paul wrote: ‘Brothers and sisters, our time is growing short.  Those who have wives should live as though they had none, and those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for...’(1 Cor 7:29)
When he wrote this letter, St. Paul believed that the return of Jesus was about to happen.  Only later on he realised that it would not be so soon.  Meanwhile he was telling the other Christians not to get caught up or worried about the things that affect us in this life, because (as he thought) it was all about to come to an end.  He was telling them to focus totally on the Lord, because nothing else was important any more.  Only if we understand that, does the reading make any sense.

It is tempting to get rid of some of the readings that are more difficult and I know that at times some priests will leave out certain readings and I can well understand why.  However, I think it is also important to remind ourselves that we believe that these writings are the inspired word of God.  They were written by people, but they were inspired by God and that is why we don’t replace them with something else.  They will not always make sense to us (even if you have been studying them for years ) and they may even disturb us, but there is no harm in that.  God has many things to say to us, He says much to us through his word, even though the meaning is not always obvious.  The Lord asks us to be open to him and not to be afraid of what He may say to us.

In today’s readings God tells us that He will send someone to speak to us and teach us about him, and that person is Jesus.  That’s why we continually go back to what Jesus said and taught and we try to understand it, because this is God speaking to us and guiding us through each day.  One thing that it says to us is that God holds us in high regard if God actually wants to teach us and show us the way that leads to him.
As soon as the sabbath came Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach.’

Saturday, January 21, 2012

3rd Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:14-20) The call to follow

I remember reading somewhere that when Mother Teresa began her mission in Calcutta, it was only after the 12th attempt to get permission that her previous Order allowed her to go.  She had great perseverance, you could say, but it was also that the call of God was strong and she was listening.  I also remember hearing that a bishop who knew her before she began this work, said ‘I wouldn’t have put her in charge of the sacristy’, meaning that he didn’t think she was capable of much.  And yet look at what God did through her, not because she was a woman of remarkable ability, rather because she had a great openness to God and that is all God needs.

It is easy for us to get the idea that we have to be particularly talented or special people if God is to be able to use us, but that is not true.  In fact if you read about the lives of many of the holy men and women throughout the ages, most of them are not people that you would probably pick to do anything extraordinary.  God does not need great ability, just an open heart.  That also means that our age, or our physical ability is no hindrance to God.  Moses was called to lead the people of Israel to freedom when he was in his eighties.  A modern day Christian evangelist called Merlin Carothers who has written many books, felt that God was calling him to go back into ministry again when he was in his seventies, and so he did.

We can easily get to a point where we feel there is not much more that we can do because we are getting too old or because our health doesn’t seem to allow us to do much anymore.  But God only needs us to be open to his call.  If we are open then God will do everything else.

The readings today are basically about responding to God’s call to us.  It is a call to respond to God’s invitation, which all of us receive.  It’s interesting too that different people who are called respond in different ways.  In the first reading Jonah took off in the opposite direction when he was called.  But you know the story, he tried to get away from God by taking a ship in the opposite direction, but then he ended up being thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish which eventually vomited him out on a beach.  Only then, after God called him again, did he go and do what he was asked to do, basically because he knew he couldn’t get away.  Jonah was being asked to preach to his enemies, the people of Nineveh.  He didn’t want to preach to them and in fact he was hoping that God would not wipe them out.  At the end of the story when God does forgive them, Jonah goes into a sulk and he says, ‘I knew you would end up forgiving them!’  But God shows him that they deserve a chance too, just like anyone else.

Nearly all of the prophets who were called by God resisted as much as possible.  They were afraid and they felt totally inadequate, but God called them anyway.  Moses even came up with the excuse that he really didn’t have much of a voice so there was really no point in sending him to Pharaoh.  God said, ‘Ok.  Your brother Aaron can speak for you, but you’re still going!’  Apparently Mother Teresa also tried to resist God’s call.  At the beginning of her call she had various mystical experiences of God and she kept saying to God that He should pick someone else, that she really was not the one; but look what happened.

Then in the Gospel reading Jesus calls the first four apostles, two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John.  In this case it says that they followed him willingly, giving up their work.  Jesus must have made quite an impression on them.  Perhaps it was the personal contact with Jesus which gave them the courage to follow him.  Either way they did.

Most of us are not called to follow God in the way that Moses, or Mother Teresa or the Apostles were.  But God calls all of us to enter into a relationship with him.  It may not be a dramatic call, but it is very real.  The very fact that we search for God is a sign of that call.  Very few of us end up in religious life because only a few are invited to live this way of life, but all of us are called to be in this relationship with him.  Most people are invited to live that relationship wherever they find themselves, in married life, or in single life, in their work place and at home.  The most important thing is that we respond and no one can force us to do this.  Even if we have been brought up as Catholics and taught about God and the mass, at some stage we still have to make that choice somewhere in our hearts, to believe in God and to accept this relationship with him.  The more we live that relationship the more God begins to shine through us and that is how we tell other people about God, not by the words we speak, but primarily by the way we live our relationship with God.

God is aware that the only place we will find true and lasting happiness is in him, and that’s why He wants us to follow the path that leads to him.  It is not an easy path, but it is the most worthwhile path and the good thing is that all of us without exception can respond, because all God needs is that we are open to him.  It’s not about leaving everything and going to work among the poor, although some are called to that, but for most of us it is just about trying to develop that relationship with God, which is really what will make sense of our lives more than anything else.

‘The time has come,’ Jesus said, ‘and the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.’ 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

2nd Sunday Year B (Gospel: John 1:35-42) There is the Lamb of God

When I was training to be a priest in the seminary, one of the men who studied with me initially was a man by the name of Jarlath Trench.  His grandmother was one of the witnesses or 'seers' who had been in Knock, Ireland and had seen the apparition of the Lamb of God and Our Lady in 1879.  It makes it seem very recent with that connection.

On the Thursday 21st Aug, 1879, at about 8.00pm the apparition happened at one end of the Church.  And for anyone who is not familiar with it, what the people saw (about 30 people) was an altar in the centre, with a lamb on it and angels floating around it in the background.  Then to the left of the altar was Our Lady, with St. Joseph on one side and St. John the apostle on the other side.  Apparently the light from the Lamb was far brighter than that of Our Lady and the two others.  It lasted for about two hours in all.  We usually think of this apparition as one of Our Lady, but the truth is that the apparition was really an apparition of Jesus, appearing as the Lamb of God on the altar and it was accompanied by Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John.  This might seem trivial, but it is important because what it is telling us is that Jesus, the Lamb of God is at the centre, and especially for us Catholics it speaks powerfully with the vision of the Lamb on the altar: that is, Jesus coming to us in the mass.  As you know the priest holds up the Sacred Host at Communion and says ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.’

That apparition which happened back at a time when the people were desperately poor and just recovering from the terrible famine of 1845-50, was a beautiful message of hope from heaven, both to let the people know that God was aware of their suffering and also to remind them of the treasure that they had in their midst.  They may have had almost nothing materially, but God was with them and they had Jesus the Lamb of God coming on the altar in each mass, just as we still have today.  Jesus was at the centre and the strongest light was coming from him, as you would expect it to be.  But where Jesus is, Our Lady and the angels and saints are too.

In the Gospel today John the Baptist, whose job was to get the people ready for the coming of the Son of God in their midst, says: ‘There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’  Then the disciples start following Jesus, which is exactly what was meant to happen.  These various accounts are there for us not just for curiosity sake, but they are telling us something now as well.  God is still saying to us through the Scriptures, ‘Jesus is the One to follow.’  He is the only One of importance.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who is given to us in each mass.  When we have him we have everything, because He is what makes sense of our life and why we are here.

Finally, when the priest says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb,’ we all say, ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’  That short prayer says so much.  So often when we become aware of our unworthiness we can be tempted to think, ‘maybe I should not receive Holy Communion because I am a sinner,’ and people sometimes say this to me.  But this prayer says it all.  Yes we are sinners, and yes we certainly are not worthy to receive the eternal God into our own bodies, but it is God himself who makes this possible.  ‘Lord I am not worthy [to receive you] that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’  If God is prepared to come to us, we should not be afraid to receive God in Holy Communion.  Of course we do our best to prepare, and if there is something serious then we should try and confess it first, but apart from a serious sin, we go and receive the One who wants to come to us, because this is God’s gift to us.  He wants to be close to us and He wants us to know this and be encouraged by his interest in us.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Starting again

Dear friends,
Happy 2012 to one and all.  I hope and pray that it is a year of great blessing for all of us. 
As you know I was 'off the air' for the last year.  I have been on sabatical and also discerning where is the best place for me to work as a priest.  I now find myself with the Dominicans (Order of Preachers) in Cork.  I have been with them now since last September and if things work out I may well remain here.  For now I hope to resume sharing my homilies with you and anyone who is interested in hearing some more thoughts on the Gospel of each Sunday.  This Sunday's Gospel (15th Jan 2012) will follow shortly.
Wishing you all God's continued blessing and peace,