Saturday, April 28, 2012

4th Sunday of Easter Year B (John 10:11-18) Our vocation is life in Christ

A few years ago I had the privilege of going to the Holy Land.  It was an extraordinary experience to suddenly be standing in the very places that we so often read about in the Scriptures and to see what they look like.  Two things I saw struck me, especially in relation to what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. One day we were celebrating mass in the place that is celebrated as ‘The Shepherd’s Field’ where the shepherds are said to have seen the angels in the sky when Jesus was born.  As we were getting ready to celebrate this mass the heads of two sheep popped up over a hill that was at one end of the field and looked at us.  Then they came towards us and right into the middle of us, sniffing us, poking around in our bags and curious as to what we were about.  They weren’t afraid of us at all.  It struck me that they were a very different kind of animal to the sheep we have here in Ireland, which are very nervous of people.  They even looked quite different.  Later in the trip as we drove along in our bus I noticed on one of the dusty hills that we passed, a shepherd walking along with a line of sheep behind him, one after the other.  This is not something you see here either. Here the sheep have to be herded and driven, but it made much more sense of several things that we hear about Jesus ‘leading’ his sheep and the words in today’s Gospel, “I know my sheep and mine know me.”  In this case they were obviously following the shepherd because they knew him and trusted him.  They had some kind of relationship with him.  I understand that the shepherds who look after those kind of sheep also have individual sounds to call each sheep.

This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and also vocation’s Sunday.  The two are very much linked together.  We usually think of a vocation in terms of a religious vocation, but in fact only a very small percentage of people are called to priesthood or religious life.  However, all of us have a vocation, or ‘calling’ (which is what the word vocation means), and that calling is to live the life of faith. 

One of the things that is quite striking about the Christian and Jewish faith is the fact that it is first God who seeks us out and calls us to enter into a relationship with him.  God is the one who comes looking for us. In the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve have suddenly become aware that they are naked and they are afraid, it says that God came to the garden and called to them.  “Adam, (which means ‘human being’) where are you?”  But after the first sin (the ‘original sin’) the first humans are now afraid and suspicious of God.  Adam replies, “I heard the sound of you in the garden.  I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid” (Gen 3:10). 

One of the consequences of the first sin (whatever exactly that was we don’t know, except that it was some kind of a rejection of God’s authority) was that we became afraid and suspicious of God and of each other.  We still suffer with this fear/suspicion of God.  After a natural disaster, or even a tragic accident, how often do we hear it said, “Why would God do this?”  We are not always convinced that God is good and that God has our best interests at heart and yet this is what God continually tells us through the Scriptures: “My plans for you are for peace and not disaster.”  “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  In spite of our mistrust and confusion, God continues to seek us out, to help us know him.  And in the Gospel today Jesus gives the beautiful words, “I am the good shepherd...the one who lays down his life for his sheep.”  The Lord gives everything for us, including his life.

Our primary vocation or calling is simply to respond to God and to enter into relationship with him.  How we respond to that call is through our life of faith.  It is never forced on us; God simply invites us to follow him.  The wonderful thing is that it can be lived in any way of life and in any circumstance; also that there are as many ways of living it as there are people.  The tragedy is that often we get so caught up with the worries of this life that we lose sight of what our life is about.  Sometimes it is only when a tragedy happens, or we become sick, that we are jolted awake and we begin to realise that we are forgetting what we are here for; that is, to come to know God, to learn to love and serve and to choose God who is our fulfilment.

Our first calling is to be in relationship with God.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

3rd Sunday of Easter Year B (Gospel: Luke 24:35-48) 'So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer.'

Several times I’ve had the opportunity to go to Medjugorje on pilgrimage (this is the place in Bosnia Herzegovnia where Our Lady has allegedly been appearing since 1981).  Once when I was there I heard the visionary named Ivanka describe the experience she had when Our Lady told her she would no longer be appearing to her on a daily basis, but only once a year.  Before the vision finished she asked Ivanka if there was anything she would like her to do for her.  Ivanka asked Our Lady if she could see her mother again.  Her mother had died just one month before the apparitions had begun.  In Ivanka’s own words she says that just after she asked this of Our Lady suddenly her mother was in front of her and she was able to talk to her and hug her.  Her mother told her that she was really proud of her and to be obedient to what her grandmother told her.  At the end of this testimony Ivanka said, ‘I am living proof that heaven exists.  I saw my mother and spoke with her several months after she died.’  To listen to Ivanka recall this experience was very moving and watching her tell this story it is certainly hard to doubt it.

In today’s Gospel we hear another account of Jesus suddenly appearing to the disciples after the resurrection.  To help them believe that what they were seeing was real Jesus does a lovely and very human thing.  He eats something in front of them.  He takes a piece of fish from them and puts it in his mouth, chews it and swallows it.  He wanted them to be convinced that they weren’t dreaming.  This helped them to believe that this was the same Jesus with real flesh and blood that they had lived with for three years, a bit like Ivanka being allowed to speak with and hug her mother.  They were left in no doubt after that.

Another interesting thing that Jesus did this time was to help the disciples understand that all that had taken place—his suffering, death and resurrection—made sense.  He showed them that the prophets had foretold it and that the Scriptures referred to it.  And then he said to them, ‘So you see how it was written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise again...’  In other words he was saying that all the events that had taken place, which were so horrifying and disillusioning for them, had their place.  They were meant to happen and they fitted into God’s plan for the world.  That was something that took the disciples a while to get their heads around, as suffering never makes sense to any of us.  So Jesus had to help them understand not only that he was alive, but that all that had taken place was meant to happen.

All of us are continually faced with difficult situations of suffering.  Sometimes it is suffering that we ourselves go through, such as sickness or relationships breaking up, and sometimes it is watching people dear to us suffer, like when someone we love dies.  It never seems to make sense and it always seems unfair.  We find ourselves crying out, ‘How can God do this to me?  Why does God allow this?’  When I worked in a hospital as a chaplain I remember often hearing people ask me, ‘Why has God done this to me?’  So often we cannot make sense of why we have to suffer and we may even see it as a punishment.

Even though we don’t have a direct answer to this question, what Jesus says to his disciples in this Gospel is a help, because it reminds us that everything that happens fits into God’s bigger plan.  The struggles we go through don’t make sense to us and sometimes they are even be caused by the wrong-doing of others.  How could this be part of God’s plan, we ask?  The point is that God can bring good out of every situation, even turning the evil work of people into good.  But for the most part we cannot see that.  We are just faced with each individual situation of suffering and that is hard.  However, the Lord is telling us that there is a bigger picture which makes sense of everything that happens.  When we die we will then see that picture and it will all make sense to us. 

St. Pius of Pietrelcina—better known as Padre Pio—used the analogy of a tapestry.  He said that our life is like a tapestry in God’s hands.  We are looking at it from the back, like a child looking up at it while her mother works at it.  All the child can see is the various bits of string hanging out and it doesn't seem very pretty.  But seen from the other side, the Creator’s side, it is a beautiful work of art.  So much of what we go through makes no sense to us, but the Lord asks us to trust that He knows what He is doing.  One day when we see the tapestry from the right side, we will see the beautiful picture that the Lord has created.

'So you see how it was written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise again...' 


Saturday, April 14, 2012

2nd Sunday of Easter, Year B (Gospel: John 20:19-31) Peace be with you

 As a child—I think it was because I had such a vivid imagination—I seemed to be afraid of almost everything.  Maybe it’s because of that, but today I hate to see anyone afraid.  Sadly at the moment there are many people living in fear, especially fear of not being able to cope or provide for their families because of all that is happening.  It is very understandable and yet it is also one thing that God does not want for us.  365 times in the Scriptures are the words ‘Do not be afraid.’  God wants us to be at peace.

2000 years ago on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles all abandoned Jesus, even though they believed He was the Son of God.  Judas betrayed him for money.  Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus.  They all betrayed him.  Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room in fear.  They were afraid first because they knew they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates.  Perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them because they had betrayed Jesus, the Son of God.  It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens.  Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’  The first thing he does is take away their fear.  There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before.  There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful.  Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’  ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed the Lord by my actions.  Sometimes I even wish I was not a priest, because then I would not have to deal with what is sacred.  It is difficult to have to deal with the sacred when you are aware that you are a sinner.  It is easier to run and hide.  Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish.  Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease.  ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned.  Peace be with you.’  God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out.  He knows what we are like.  He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace.  I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus would not believe the words of others that Jesus was alive.  When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful.  And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe.  No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe.  No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.

In this gospel Jesus also gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins in his name.  Why? So that we need not ever be living in fear of God.  Through the priesthood we have the concrete reassurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we can move on when we have done wrong; so that we need not live in fear.  No condemnation, only encouragement and love.
Peace be with you.  Do not be afraid.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Sunday (Gospel: John 20:1-9) Now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld

There is an extraordinary line in St. Matthew’s account of the passion.  During the trial of Jesus, because there is conflicting evidence against him which is of no use to them, the High Priest eventually asks Jesus directly:
I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  And Jesus answered: “The words are your own.  Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:63-64).
In other words, Jesus says “Yes I am the Son of God.”  For Jesus to make a claim like that he must have been either a liar, insane, or he was telling the truth, because it is an extraordinary thing to say.  We believe it was the truth and that is exactly who Jesus is, not just a holy man, or a prophet, but the Son of God.

In the book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, St. John the disciple of Jesus who stood at the cross, recalls a vision he had where a man appeared to him.  He says that he saw what seemed to be a man.  His hair was white as wool, or snow.  His eyes were like fire.  His skin was like shining bronze and out of his mouth came a double-edged sword.  He says that he was so afraid when he saw this that he fell down as if dead.  Then this person or being that he saw touched him and said 
Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld” (Rev 1:17b-18).

Who was this person?  It was of course Jesus, risen from death.  Not just the Jesus whose name we so often hear used carelessly as a swear word, but Jesus who is the Son of God.  Now John, who had this vision, had known and lived with Jesus for at least three years, so why would Jesus appear to him in such a terrifying way?  Perhaps to remind him and us of  who he really is, that is, the Son of God.

From a human point of view Good Friday is the ultimate sign of despair.  Everything falls apart and everyone is devastated.  There is a terrible miscarriage of justice and Jesus, the one everyone was putting their hope in is tortured and killed.  Even Jesus on the cross feels abandoned by God.  Of course he is not actually abandoned by God but that is how he feels and he cries out “My God, my God why have you abandoned me.”  The ultimate suffering is to feel that we have been abandoned even by God.  From a human point of view it couldn’t get any worse. 

Then we have the silence of Holy Saturday when Jesus is in the tomb.  People are in shock, numb from what has happened and not sure what to do next.  And now we come to Easter Sunday, the opposite of Good Friday and the ultimate symbol of hope.  The unimaginable happens and rumours start to spread that Jesus is alive.  ‘But that is impossible!’ many said. Most of the disciples would not believe it initially.  But that is what happened.  From a human point of view it is impossible and naive to think of such a thing, but there is more than the human at work here.  The power of God has brought about something extraordinary which no human mind can take in.  This is what God has made known to us.

The reason Easter is the ultimate symbol of hope is because now the worst thing imaginable, which is death, is no longer permanent.  God has opened a doorway for us to something wonderful when we die, so that we can see and be with our loved ones again.  Think of the people you love who are dead.  Without Easter they could not experience happiness now and neither could we when we die.  So now our life has greater purpose than just what happens here and that gives us a greater hope than anything else.  Now we have reason to keep going even when things are difficult.  Now we are given purpose and we have a better sense of what our life is about.  Our journey that will lead us to God if we remain open to it.
Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld.”