Saturday, March 31, 2012

Passion Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:7) 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, events which changed the course of history forever.  Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die.  It’s that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet.  They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna!  Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’  Yet within a few days everything changed.  He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed.  Today we read the full account of his passion.  It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one.  That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time.

Everyone suffers as you know, there are no exceptions.  Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  Sometimes we even feel that God has left us and we are on our own.  This can be so difficult because we believe that at least God won’t let us down even if everyone else does.  But where do we turn when God disappears too?  There is nowhere left to go.  This is the worst kind of suffering.  Of course the truth is that God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  What does this mean?  It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father.  He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there?  Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God.  By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering, as it were.  After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there.  We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

I think it is also good to remember that even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, that in fact we have not.  But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God.  It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it.

Finally I want to mention Our Lady.  She also was at the foot of the cross.  Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king.  He would be called Son of the Most High God.  What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes?  Although Mary must have suffered terribly at all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope.  She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding.  God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand.  There is so much that we don’t understand, but we try to believe that God knows what God is doing and so we don’t give up.

Friday, March 23, 2012

5th Sunday of Lent, Year B (Gospel: John 12:20-30) Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies it remains just a single grain

A survey was done in America a few years ago to see who were the happiest people and why.  The survey found that the happiest people were old black women.  The second happiest people were old Hispanic women.  The third happiest group of people were old women in general.  Why?  Because they had suffered so much throughout their lives. It had taught them so much and they had learnt to be at peace.  And now they were very content and very little would put them out.  I used to notice the same thing with many of the old people when I worked in the hospital. Older people were usually much more patient and tolerant that younger people, even though they would often be suffering more.  But they had generally learnt to be tolerant and patient.  They weren’t too easily phased.

We always wonder when we see people suffering, why we have to suffer so much, especially at the end of someone’s life.  It is the one thing that all of us find hard to face and we have no explanation for.  However, the whole journey of Lent tells us a lot about the place of suffering.

Suffering is an unavoidable part of this life, where everything is so imperfect, but it does have its use.  God doesn’t want us to suffer, but God brings great good out of the suffering by allowing us to be transformed by it.  However, it is a slow process and we don’t usually see the benefit of it until afterwards, which makes it all the more difficult.  If at the time of suffering we knew that it would lead to something much greater, it would make it a lot easier, but the problem is that we usually cannot see any point to it at the time, and that is part of the suffering.
Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.

The whole life of Jesus is also telling us something about what we are called to.  As you know, his life was one of total self-giving.  He lived for others.  Yet in spite of all that he did, he was continually persecuted.  And in the end he was betrayed for money, falsely tried and executed and yet he was totally innocent.  Totally unjust, and yet look at what God brought about from the death and resurrection of Jesus: we are now offered eternal happiness with God when we die.  From the point of view of worldly thinking it makes absolutely no sense, but seen with the eyes of faith we see something quite different and that is why our faith is so important.  It helps us to make sense of what does not make any sense from a human point of view.

You know how angry we all get when we are faced with injustice.  What’s going on with the economy is a good example.  The greed of a few causing great suffering for so many and as a result everyone is enraged and rightly so.  It is totally unjust and yet I have no doubt that we will see great good come out of it as well.

It says in the second reading, ‘Although he was Son, Christ learnt to obey through suffering.’  Jesus didn’t want to suffer any more than we do, but he trusted that the Father knew what He was doing, and so He accepted his will.  He became perfect through suffering.  We don’t want to suffer either, but we try to trust that God knows what he is doing.

Our society continually tells us that we should be able to have everything exactly as we want it and whenever we want it, and that we should never have to give in to anyone.  Everything is for our pleasure.  But that’s not what Jesus taught us.  He said, ‘Try to enter by the narrow door’ (Lk 13.24).  And he said, ‘Anyone who loves his life loses it, but anyone who hates his life in this world, keeps it for the eternal life’.  Jesus is telling us not to invest everything in this life, because it is passing and what we have here is not really important.  The only thing that is important is what will happen to us in the next life.  We are being faced with a long-term investment.  If we try to find total happiness here, we will be disappointed, because it is not to be found.  When Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes she said to her ‘I cannot promise you happiness in this world but in the next.’  That is also why it is so sad when you see people driven by greed, even if they get away with it.  They are trying to find happiness in this life, through money.  But no matter how much they are able to acquire, they still won’t be happy.  It cannot bring happiness, because we are much more than that.

The Lord is telling us not to be afraid of what we have to go through in this life because it is gradually transforming us and helping us to become the best version of ourselves.  God is well aware of the potential we have and God wants us to reach it.  That is why we must trust him with the process of what He allows happen to us.
Unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

4th Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: John 3:14-21) So that sins may be forgiven.

Almost every time I celebrate the mass there is one line which strikes me more than any other.  It is the line the priest prays over the chalice, ‘this is the chalice of my blood.  It will be poured out for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.’  That short phrase sums up what the whole mass is about, and what the whole celebration of Easter is about.  God takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and dies for his people, so that sins may be forgiven.  The death and resurrection of Christ is all about this.  This is what our faith celebrates above everything else. We believe in a God who not only created us, but is so interested in us and our happiness, that when we had lost it through sin, He made the ultimate sacrifice for his people, so that we would reach the happiness which He had created for us.  If I don’t believe that much, then I am not a Christian, because that is exactly what the Christian faith is all about: a God who loves his people so much that He not only will give everything, but does give everything for them.  That is why we call it ‘good news.’

There is an old Arabic proverb which says: ‘It is easier to see a black beetle, on a black stone, on a black night, than for someone to see the pride in their own heart.’  How true this is.  It also says in one of the Psalms, ‘[the sinner] so flatters himself in his heart, that he knows not his own sin.’

In confession it is amazing how often people will say to me, ‘It is a year (or more) since my last confession, but I don’t really have any sins.’  It says in the first letter of St. John, ‘If anyone says they have not sinned, they are calling God a liar!’  That might seem a bit extreme, but it is not, because if we haven’t sinned, then the death and resurrection of Jesus was pointless; and that would also mean that the mass is meaningless.  For us to deny our own sinfulness is more serious than we might think.  If I fail to admit my own sinfulness, then I deny the need for God and for all that God has done for me.

Of all the ways that we prepare for Easter, abstaining from things, giving to charity or whatever else, there is nothing more important in the eyes of God than confessing our sins.  Why? because this is what God asks us to do.  Confessing our sins is not just about us, it is also a way of saying that I recognise all that God has done for me, and I am responding to that.

Now I know that people say, ‘Well I can tell God I am sorry myself.’  Of course you can if you want, but why did the Lord say to Peter and the Apostles,  
If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven;
If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained (Jn 20:23).

Whoever listens to you listens to me.  Whoever rejects you rejects me, and those who reject me reject the one who sent me (Lk 10:16).

It is good to remember those words.

So if you really want to receive God’s blessing this Easter, then do as He asks you and confess your sins.  God gave us this purely for our benefit, not for his, or to keep the Church happy.  It is a most extraordinary gift to us, to help us come closer to him, to be at peace and to be healed.  The Lord doesn’t want us to be dragging our sins around with us, but He wants us to be free and at peace and that is why He has given us this extraordinary gift.  It is his gift to help us.
This is the chalice of my blood. 
It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.

Friday, March 16, 2012

St. Patrick's Day (Gospel: Matthew 13:24-32) I am Patrick, a sinner...

I am Patrick, a sinner, unlettered, the least of all the faithful, and held in contempt by a great many people… (Confessions of St. Patrick, 1)

Today we celebrate our patron saint.  For many people it is simply ‘Irish’ day.  A day to be proud of being Irish, but from our point of view, it’s a day to celebrate what God has given to us.  It marks the day when Christianity was first brought to Ireland.  And in sixteen centuries the faith in this country has developed to a huge degree, even with penal times and serious persecutions.  So many men and women have been inspired to give their lives to God in the priesthood and religious life and in turn bring it to other countries.  And so many men and women have lived out their faith in ordinary lives, bearing witness to God by the way they live.  St. Patrick was the instrument God used to give us this great gift.

So why did Patrick come to us anyway?  Weren’t we doing OK on our own?’  Did we really need Christianity?  Hasn’t it brought many divisions?  The reason why Patrick came to us was very simple:  The Lord of heaven wanted to make himself known to us, and to know what He had done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God wanted us to share the joy of knowing him. 

So during his time here as a slave, through suffering and hardship, the Lord was helping Patrick to grow in the spirit.  According to himself, when he came here first he did not know the living God.  But somehow God made himself known to Patrick.  He says that he used to get up during the night to pray and no matter what the weather was like, he used to spend time praying each day.  God was inspiring him to do this, to come to know him better, so that later he would be strong enough in his faith to see him through his difficult mission to the Irish people.

Then when Patrick finally became free and returned to his own people he had a dream that the Irish were calling him back to them to teach them about God.  Here is how Patrick describes the dream in which he was called:
I saw in a vision of the night a man coming as it were from Ireland, whose name was Victoricus, with countless letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter, which ran: ‘the voice of the Irish’; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter aloud I thought I heard at that very moment the voice of those who lived beside the wood of Voclut: ‘we beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us’. And I was greatly troubled in heart and could read no further. (Confessions, 23)

[God] came powerfully to my aid when I was being walked upon… for many were trying to stop this mission of mine; they were even talking among themselves behind my back, and asking: ‘Why is that fellow thrusting himself into danger among a hostile people who do not know God?’ (Confessions, 46)

Patrick says that his call to go to Ireland brought him great pain, because understandably he didn’t want to go back to where he had been imprisoned.  Can you imagine how difficult it would be to return to the very people who had enslaved you?  But he believed that God was asking him to do this, and this gave him the strength that he needed.  His faith meant enough to him that he wanted us to have it too.  But it wasn’t easy and he says that he met with great opposition:
Daily I expect to be slaughtered, or defrauded, or reduced to slavery or to any condition that time and surprise may bring.  But I fear none of these things because of the promise of Heaven, for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who rules everywhere. (Confessions, 55)

No one would have known Patrick when he came first and he had to start from scratch.    But he came here and he preached to the people and taught our ancestors about God, about Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, about Mary and the saints.  And his efforts paid off because he was prepared to give up everything so that we might be able to share in the same faith. So it is thanks to him that we are here today praying to the same God, receiving the same Jesus in Holy Communion.  

Then in 1879 during a time of great suffering in Ireland, 30 people in Knock saw a vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God on the altar accompanied by Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John the evangelist.  It was a silent apparition that lasted aproximately one hour but the people understood that it was a message of encouragement not to give up and reassuring them that they were on the right track.

In recent years our faith has been greatly tested through scandals of various kinds.  Many people have fallen away and it is hard to blame them, but we persever in our faith and if we want our children to have this faith too, then we will have to pass it on.  We do that primarily by the way we live, rather than by anything we say.  We may not feel that we are having much affect on the world around us, but if we do our best to live it, then we are planting seeds all the time and perhaps that is all that we are called to do.  There has been faith in this country for sixteen centuries, and please God we will have it for many more centuries as well.  So as we celebrate our patron saint, let us give thanks to God for the faith that He has given to our people and let us also pray for the grace to pass it on to those who come after us.  Happy St. Patrick’s day.
I am Patrick, a sinner, unlettered, the least of all the faithful, and held in contempt by a great many people…

Check out this interesting website on St. Patrick:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

3rd Sunday of Lent, Year B (John 2:13-25) A blueprint for living

I grew up in a large family, with three brothers and three sisters.  It was a strict enough family too and of course most of the time I resented the various rules we were given.  I wanted to have things my way, but I wasn’t allowed to have them my way all the time or there would have been chaos.  Now that I am older I can see the wisdom in a lot of the rules that we were given, but at the time they often seemed unfair, or annoying at the very least.  What we were taught served its purpose and helped to form us as children.  It helped us to learn that there are basic guidelines that we all must adhere to if a family is to work.

A few years ago a friend of mine was at a business conference in Dublin and one of the speakers was saying that as a society we have forgotten some of the basic principles of living, such as honesty and integrity, respect for the human being.  He was saying it is largely because of this neglect that we are in the financial crisis we find ourselves in today.  Honesty and respect for the human being should be the norm and not the exception.  If these are the principles out of which we operate, our society will be a lot healthier. 

A couple of years ago a young man asked me was it wrong to lie?  He was an intelligent man too.  One of the commandments tells us ‘you must not bear false witness’, that is, ‘you must not lie.’  That gives you an idea of the kind of confusion that is around us.

I know that in the past many people have had bad experiences of an over-demanding Church, which for a while focused too much on sin and everything that was wrong.  That is not healthy.  However, God has given us various teachings which are there to help us.  The most basic of these are the commandments.  They are there to help us.  God tells us that if you want to do well as a society, if you want to flourish, then stick to these principles: It is wrong to steal, to lie, to cheat, to kill, to commit adultery.  We must honour God and respect Sunday as a holy day, a day when God is worshiped because God deserves to be worshiped, whether it suits us or not, and that must take priority over anything else. 

The commandments of God are essentially a blue-print for living.  If we follow these commandments and do our best to live them, we will do well as a society.  That is basically what God told the people through Moses, some 4000 years ago and those basic principles have not changed. 

All down through the centuries the people continually strayed away from the commandments and worshipped false gods and when they did this their society began to fall apart.  Then they realised what they had done and they asked forgiveness from God and tried to be faithful again.  The Bible is essentially a collection of stories showing this.  The people continually stray away from God, get into trouble, then realise their mistake and ask forgiveness and God always helps them back on their feet with great compassion.

Another thing that has not changed is that we are still very good at coming up with reasons why we don’t have to keep God’s commandments.  People have always been good at coming up with excuses, but ultimately we are going against the very thing that will help us.  True freedom is not just about being able to do whatever you want, but being able to choose what is good.  Living by the principles God gives us is what leads us to true freedom.  And yes this will mean that I can’t have everything my way, but we must choose who it is we wish to serve.  If God asks us to keep Sunday holy, well what takes priority, worshipping God, or something else?  If we live these commandments it will make us different from many others, but that is where we must decide who it is we wish to follow.

It is tempting to say, ‘I'm sure God doesn’t mind,’ or ‘God will understand.’  But if God doesn’t mind, then why did He give us the commandments in the first place?  Why did Jesus fly into a rage when he saw how the temple was being turned into a business instead of a place of prayer?  God does mind because He knows what is good for us and what will help us. God wants us to develop into the beautiful creatures that He created us to be.
I came that you may have life and have it to the full (John 10:10).

Friday, March 2, 2012

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:2-10) God speaks in the cloud

I have often heard people say that the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac is horrific.  Maybe it shouldn’t be read at all.  Well it is meant to be horrific.  The point is that God asks the unthinkable of Abraham, but more importantly Abraham trusts in God and goes along the path that makes absolutely no sense to him at the time.  Not only was it horrific that he should be asked to sacrifice his child, but it was also through this only child that God had promised him many offspring.  So nothing at all made sense. So Abraham suddenly finds himself in a situation of complete darkness, where nothing was right, nothing made sense.  But Abraham trusts God and then everything changes at the last minute.  God ‘put Abraham to the test’ not in the sense of seeing if he was good enough, but because God knew that Abraham had great faith and he wanted to stretch that faith to its full capacity.  An athlete won’t reach his or her full potential unless they are pushed to the limit.  Sometimes God does the same with us.  He knows what we are capable of much better than we do ourselves and sometimes He stretches, or pushes us to the limit because God wants us to reach our full potential as human beings.

Did you ever notice that sometimes when you pray for a situation to get better it gets worse first?  There is a temptation to panic and not pray any more.  But if we believe that God is listening to us and helping us, then we persevere in prayer and we try to trust that the Lord will bring the best out of the situation, even though it often doesn’t make senses to us.  That requires faith, and it’s not easy at the best of times.

Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac his only son, but in the end he didn’t have to go through with it.  Because he was willing to do anything that God asked and showed his remarkable trust in God, the Lord said that He would bless him greatly: 'I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.'

3000 years later or so, God sends his Son Jesus to us and allows him to be sacrificed for the human race.  It says in the second reading that because Jesus went through with this, the Father would refuse him nothing.  That is why we can have such confidence when we pray to Jesus.  It says in the second reading that Jesus now intercedes for us before the Father in heaven.  If Jesus the Son of God is interceding for us before the Father, then what could we possibly be afraid of as long as we remain open to God?  Not only that but we also have Our Lady interceding for us too.  Is Jesus going to refuse his mother anything?  Is the Father going to refuse Jesus anything?  And these are the ones who are interceding for us.  Hopefully that will help us not to be afraid.

In the Gospel the three disciples Peter, James and John are granted this extraordinary vision of Jesus, Son of God in all his glory.  Why were they given this privilege when none of the others were?  This happened just before the Passion, when Jesus would be tortured and killed before their eyes.  Peter, James and John were also the three who would be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane watching him fall apart.  They were going to need great strength not to despair themselves.  But what is especially worth noting is that after the vision on the mountain was over they suddenly found themselves in a cloud where they could see nothing. Only then did they hear the voice of the Father speaking to them: 
‘This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’

God spoke to them when they were in the cloud.  Have you ever been on a mountain when a cloud suddenly descended on you?  It’s quite frightening because you cannot see anything.  You just have to stop and wait until it lifts.  Sometimes it is only when we are in a ‘cloud’ (darkness/confusion) that God will speak to us most powerfully.  When we cannot see the way forward, and we cannot get any clarity on what to do, then God will show us what the next step is, but often He will only show us the next step, not the whole path ahead.  This brings us back to the need to trust that God knows what God is doing when He leaves us in the dark. Most people are in the dark most of the time, especially with regard to their faith.  That just seems to be how it works.  We are only shown one step at a time, if anything.  But God asks us to trust him that He knows what He is doing.  If He doesn’t show us the whole path it is because we don’t need to see it, only the next step.
‘This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’