Saturday, February 23, 2013

2nd Sunday of Lent Yr C (Luke 9:28-36) Listen to Him

My father told me once of a friend of his who was climbing a high mountain in Scotland.  At one stage while he was near a pretty steep drop a thick mist descended on the mountain.  He had to stop and sit down until the cloud lifted as he could see nothing and it was too dangerous to move in any direction.  He just had to wait.  When the cloud lifted there was an eagle perched right in front of him, which flew away as soon as it became aware of the man’s presence.  A beautiful encounter.  But as long as he was in the cloud he could do nothing.

Today we read about this extraordinary event we call the transfiguration, when Peter, James and John for a few seconds were allowed to get a glimpse of who Jesus was.  They saw Jesus in blinding and terrifying glory.  On various occasions Jesus took Peter, James and John with him but not the others.  When he healed the 12 year old girl known as Jairus’ daughter, they were the only ones allowed with him apart from her parents.  Here they witnessed Jesus bringing this girl back to life from the dead.  Can you imagine the effect it would have on you to witness such a thing?  Shortly after the transfiguration they were also to watch Jesus falling apart with fear and stress in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This must have been something terrible to watch not to mention the appalling feeling of not being able to do anything about it.  So it seems they were being given a special training.  It is believed that one of the reasons they were given the experience of the transfiguration was to strengthen them for what they would witness in Gethsemane and during Jesus’ passion.  This would have been one of the most difficult tests of their faith.

When Jesus was transfigured before them on the mountain, two people also appeared with him.  Moses was the one the commandments had been given to.  The commandments were the teaching of God given to us.  The Jewish people believed that if they lived those commandments perfectly they would go to heaven.  That is why they developed the complex system of sub-laws from the commandments, which covered every aspect of life.  So Moses represented this path to God that was given to us by God himself.

Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets.  The prophets were the ones sent by God to keep guiding the people back to him when they had gone astray, or to reassure the people that God was with them in times of difficulty.  So Elijah represented all of these people.  The law and the prophets together were basically the way to heaven for the Jewish people.  This was what God had given them to help them.

Now suddenly the two of these men who had died many centuries before are standing there talking to Jesus.  They are a symbol that Jesus is now the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.  He completes them.  After Jesus there is nothing else needed, because Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.  God reveals himself most completely in the person of Jesus, who is truly God and truly man.  What happens next is another sign of this.

In their wonder and excitement Peter starts talking nonsense: ‘Lord it is wonderful for us to be here…’  Then they are suddenly in a dense cloud and they are afraid.  They cower on the ground in fear and then they hear the voice that says:  ‘This is my Son the chosen one; listen to him.’  ‘Listen to him.’  I think those last three words are perhaps the most important of the whole event.  ‘Listen to Jesus.’  In him is everything you need.  If you have him you have everything.  He teaches us everything about God, about heaven, about the path we need to follow.  There is no other voice that we need listen to apart from him.  Later in one of his letters Peter mentions this event.  He says ‘We ourselves heard this voice from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain’ (2 Peter 1:18).  He was saying, ‘This is all true, we aren’t making it up!  We were there.’

Think for a minute of all the things we listen to and read each day:  newspapers, chatshows, tv programs, the soaps, hundreds of ads.  How many of these inspire us, encourage us, give us direction?  Yet the one thing we really need to listen to continually is often left out.  Perhaps this is an invitation to us to come back to the Scriptures again and again and again.  We have been given the gift of God’s speaking directly to us in his word.  If that is really true as we say it is, what could possibly be more important to hear every day than this?

Jesus is the only one who knows the answers to everything we ask, to all the problems we have, to all the decisions we worry over.  He speaks to us continually through the Scriptures, guiding us, encouraging us, inspiring us.  He is the only one we need to listen to.

'This is my Son the chosen one; listen to him.'

Saturday, February 16, 2013

1st Sunday of Lent Year C (Gospel: Luke 4:1-13) Not the way of wonders

 Since I was ordained a priest almost 15 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of the presence of God.  I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as becoming present in each mass in the bread and wine, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way.  It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it just seems to be some kind of a strange religious ritual.  So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular every once in a while to help people believe?

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is really the explanation as to why God doesn’t do more extraordinary signs and wonders to convince us of his presence.  This is an extraordinary story because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation.  At some stage he must have told his apostles what happened there and what he had to go through. 

Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God.  Now for any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use.  Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers, or otherwise Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to use them.  There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height or to turn stones into bread, because we couldn’t do it anyway.  So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus, to misuse his power.

The first thing he was tempted with was to find satisfaction in material things.  ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’  In this case it was bread to a man who was starving.  But Jesus said, ‘No.  Man does not live on bread alone.’  The human being is not satisfied by material things.  Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by offering them what they want.’  We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God because we are spiritual and not just physical.

The second temptation was to compromise with evil.  This is a huge temptation for most people.  When you hear people say ‘the Church needs to get with the times’ this is often what they mean.  The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings to the more difficult moral demands of our age.  It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow.  But that is not what we are asked to do.  And when Jesus was tempted this way he rejected it outright.  He was being tempted to compromise with evil just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced.  But right is right and wrong is wrong.  We must not compromise on the ways of God.  Yes it is more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.

The third temptation was to work signs and wonders for the people.  ‘Throw yourself down from the temple; since God will save you.’  If he started doing this then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time.  But Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart.  You cannot buy love, as you know, and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way, and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.

Jesus was tempted to ‘bend the rules,’ to settle for less.  But he resisted these temptations even though they must have really been tempting for him to choose.  We are continually presented with similar temptations; the temptation to reject the parts of our faith that don’t suit us: ‘Just take the easier parts, let others worry about the difficult parts’.  But that is not what God asks us to do.  The Lord says, ‘If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me’ (Luke 9:23).  It is not an easy path that leads us to God, but it is the most worthwhile path that there is.  What could be more worthwhile than to follow the one path that will lead us to total fulfillment.  There are many other ‘lesser’ options, apparently easier ways, but they don’t lead to God.  This is why Jesus was quite definite in his teaching.  If you want to follow me, this is the path you must follow.  It is the path of trying to live his teachings, even though we are continually hearing the voices that say, ‘It’s too difficult.  Don’t bother.’  We say we believe this teaching is from God and so the challenge is to take it seriously, even if it doesn’t always suit me; even though I won’t always understand it.

In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders now, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced.  But that is not how God works, and I think it is good to remember that.  The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely.  No one is going to force us.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

5th Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 5:1-11) Put out into deep water

I have a memory from when I was a child—probably about 3 or 4 years of age—of my father, who was standing on the dock edge, handing me to my uncle who was standing on a barge.  It was very frightening for me because I had to be passed over the gap between the dock and the boat and I could see the blackness of the water below and I was scared.  I have always loved water-sports—swimming, kayaking, windsurfing—and I still do, but deep water is still frightening.  When water is deep it nearly always looks black, or dark.  You don’t know what’s down there and there is the reminder that you could easily drown in it, be swallowed up by it.  Maybe it is a reminder to us of death, being swallowed up by something greater than ourselves which is totally unknown to us.

Today’s readings have an interesting message.  In the first reading the prophet Isaiah is afraid when he is given a vision of the holiness of God’s presence.  He is overwhelmed by it and becomes aware of his littleness and his sinfulness.  But through the angel, God not only steadies him, but gives him the courage to offer himself to be God’s messenger.  First God takes away his fear and sense of inadequacy.  Then God says, ‘Whom shall I send?  Who will be our messenger?’  And Isaiah answered, ‘Here I am, send me.’ God makes us aware of our littleness, but God is also the one who reassures us and takes away our fear.

In the Gospel something similar happens, but how it happens is interesting.  Jesus is preaching and then for convenience asks Peter if he can use his boat as a platform.  When he is finished preaching he says, ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.’  Peter seems to have found this a bit insulting or even patronising. He was a professional fisherman and he knew from being out all night that there was nothing to catch.  Besides, the daytime is not the time for that kind of fishing.  He knew his trade.  But so as not to offend this preacher he reluctantly agrees.  ‘Master we worked hard all night… but if you say so…’  And then the miracle happens and they have such a huge catch that they need a second boat to haul it in.  Unheard of!

When Peter realises it is a miracle he becomes afraid, just like Isaiah in the first reading.  Peter is overwhelmed and seems to sense the presence of God, because straight away he says, ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man.’  Isaiah said, ‘What a wretched state I am in!  I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips.’  God’s presence makes us realise what we are really like: we are sinners and the presence of God’s holiness is very frightening.  But Jesus reassures him: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.’

Jesus called Peter, James and John to something completely different to what they knew; He called them to follow him and become his disciples and the ones who would continue his mission after he had returned to the Father in heaven.  But let us go back to the phrase ‘Put out into the deep’.  Jesus was saying, ‘I am taking you into unknown territory, into something you are not familiar with; but I will bring great things out of this if you trust me.’

Throughout the Bible there are many similar instances.  God asked Abraham to leave everything and go to a place that He would show him (Genesis 12:1 ff.).  He called Moses to go back to Egypt to free his people from Pharaoh; an idea which was quite terrifying to Moses (Exodus 3:10).  God asked Our Lady to bear a child in a way that was completely unexplainable (Luke 1:26-38).  But each time God did this with a purpose.  ‘Put out into the deep, for a catch’.

I believe that the Lord is also saying something similar to us.  The Gospels were not just written to tell us what happened back at the time of Jesus, but also to tell us how God is calling us now.  The Lord is saying to us not to be afraid of ‘deep waters’, of the unknown, of what can be very frightening, because He is with us.  Not only that, but if we trust him, He can bring great good out of it.  To enable us to grow, God often has to lead us to places and situations that we would rather avoid.  Think of all the things a child has to go through as it grows and learns.  Much of it seems frightening at the time, until they get used to it and then they begin to discover the many wonderful things that the world has to offer.  I remember my sister describing the first time she brought her daughter out and let her feel grass under her bare feet.  Initially Úna (her daughter) put down her feet, but as soon as she felt this strange surface she took her feet up again!  She was afraid because she wasnt familiar with it.  This is what God is doing with us, drawing us deeper and deeper into himself if we let him.  It can be frightening, but it is the greatest adventure we could ever embark upon.  Above all remember from both readings that God took away the fear of both Isaiah and Peter.  ‘Do not be afraid.’  God is with us; there is no need for us to be afraid.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

4th Sunday Year C, (Gospel: Luke 4:21-30) I will make you into a pillar of iron and a wall of bronze

I heard a story about a priest who was going to stay with his niece and her partner.  It was a little awkward because they were both into occult practice and he was a priest.  They also knew he knew they were into this.  But for the couple of days that he was with them he never once mentioned a word about it, or made any remarks or comments.  Instead he was just very loving towards them and showed great respect for them.  They were so moved by his that it actually won them over to Christianity.

Frank Duff, the man who founded the Legion of Mary, had a lovely saying: ‘Win an argument, lose a soul.’  Arguments don’t win people over; love does.

Today’s readings present us with two things.  First of all, the prophet, or the person who speaks the word of God, the message of God, is going to meet opposition.  While that applies especially to the one who has to preach it, it also applies to all of us who try to live it.  As you know it is ‘cool’ to be just about anything except Catholic at the moment.  We are in the minority now and the Lord is putting it to us to try and be faithful in the midst of so much opposition.  In the first reading God says to the prophet:
Brace yourself for action… Do not be dismayed in their presence… I will make you into a pillar of iron and a wall of bronze to confront all this land (Jer 1:17-18)

The Lord continues to say the same to us.  ‘Don’t be afraid because people are opposed to you, or to your way of life, or what you believe in.  Instead, stand your ground.’ 
They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you—it is the Lord who speaks (Jer 1:19).

It is a big temptation for us to take what might seem like an easier option, or just to take the bits of our faith that suit us.  After all, that can seem much more ‘reasonable’.  This is 2013 after all.  However, that is not what the Lord tells us to do.  The Lord tells us to try and be faithful to his word, because that is the path that leads to life.  That is the path that will bring us to fulfilment more than anything else.  Following the way of his teachings is not easy, but it is completely worthwhile.

From the beginning of his preaching Jesus met continued opposition.  In today’s Gospel we read how in a matter of minutes the people went from admiring the beautiful words that came out of his mouth, to wanting to kill him.  And another time when the apostles came and told him that everyone was looking for him because they wanted to hear him, he said, ‘Let us go elsewhere to the neighbouring towns.’  He knew what he had to do and whether he was popular or not, he just kept going about what the Father in heaven had sent him to do.

The Lord is telling us something through all this.  He is calling us to be faithful.  Yes we are in the minority and yes there is plenty of opposition, but it doesn’t matter.  God has given us something extraordinary in his teaching and although we are free to take it or leave it we will never find anything else that could compare to his teaching. 

The second thing that we are presented with in today’s readings is the call to love.  Nothing is as important as this.  Love is patient, kind, gentle, tolerant.  This is what we are called to try and live.  We will say more to the people around us by the way we live than by any arguments we could make.  In the beginning the Christians were a small group and people were very suspicious of them.  But it was the witness of their lives that convinced others as to what they were about.  People were amazed at how they loved each other and how they tried to live.  The same holds for us.

In one of his famous speeches, Martin Luther King said something very similar:
To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail, we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead and we shall still love you.  One day we will win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process. (Martin Luther King, Strength to Love)

The ‘secret’ you could say, to be able to live this way, is for us to root ourselves in God, because it is only through our relationship to God that we receive the ability to love those around us; to be tolerant with those who are different to us or who directly oppose us.  That is why each week we keep coming back to listen to God’s word and see what he is saying to us; and we keep coming back to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, because if we try to live the way of Christianity by our own strength we will quickly fail.  The Lord doesn’t expect us to live it by our own strength and neither should we.  Our strength comes from staying close to him.

In the end there are three things that last: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13)