Friday, May 30, 2014

The Ascension of the Lord Yr A (Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20) He continued to appear to them and tell them about the Kingdom

In my work as a priest, people often tell me about spiritual experiences that they have had: sometimes they are experiences of the Lord in some way, sometimes of someone who has died, asking for prayers or something like that.  Quite a large number of people do in fact have spiritual experiences.  However, often after a time people begin to wonder whether they really did have these experiences, or was it all in their imagination.  Of course it is really impossible to know, and in one way it is not even important.  Usually the experience will have helped them, and the rest is irrelevant.

In the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles—or the ‘adventures’ of the Apostles, as you might call them—Luke tells us how after Jesus rose from the dead he continued to appear to the Apostles.  Not just once, but many times.  Why? Probably to convince them that they had not imagined it.  One thing that he did on at least two occasions was to eat something with them.  The first time when he appeared to them in the room, they were all standing there speechless, and he said ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’  So they gave him a piece of fish and he ate it in front of them.  Then they knew it was not just a vision, but a real person, the same real person they had known before.  It was not even food that he had brought with him, which could also have been part of a vision, but it was something they gave him and then they watched him chew it and swallow it.  This was a beautiful and very human thing to do; something that we could completely relate to.

Luke also says that he not only appeared to them, but he also continued to tell them about ‘the Kingdom.’  What is ‘the Kingdom?’  What was he telling them about?  I have no doubt that he was telling them about the reality of heaven: life with God which He has created us for; that it is real and that we could also lose it if we are foolish. There we will be reunited with the people we love and we will experience happiness there in a way that we can not even begin to imagine now.  He was probably also explaining to them what the purpose of his life was on earth, why he had to suffer and die the way he did, what all this meant for the human race; God’s plan for his people.  Also he probably told them that he had a lot of work for them to do and that they must remember that their life here on earth was a time of service and not to worry if things were not easy, because when their work here was done he would bring them home to be with him again.  Why were they suddenly able to go out and start preaching to everyone about a man that most people had never heard of before and not only preach about him for a while, but for the rest of their lives with passion?  I think all of them ended up being martyred, but they didn’t care, because they knew that the only thing that was important was to be faithful to the Lord Jesus as best they could.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the same thing exactly applies to us. The Apostles were real people and these are real experiences that we are reading about. Our life on earth is just as short as theirs was and it is also a time of service, just as theirs was. For most of you it will be serving by looking after your families. For single people and also for priests and religious it will be in a slightly different way. But that is why we are here, to learn to love, to serve, to freely choose for or against God. However, I think it is also worth remembering that we are living in a time when people are very cynical about religion, and they point to the scandals as being ‘proof’ of just how hypocritical the whole thing is. We must not let that put us off. It has always been difficult to believe and probably always will be, but we must ask the Lord himself to help us to persevere and not become negative or cynical. And when our time here is complete God will come and bring us home. I have no doubt that this is probably what Jesus was telling the Apostles about for those forty days. He wanted them to have no doubt about why they were here, so that we also could have a good understanding of our purpose here, through their teaching.

May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call.

Friday, May 23, 2014

6th Sunday Year A (Gospel: John 14:15-21) If you love me you will keep my commandments

Something that I come across quite a lot as a priest is this:  when someone has died or someone has become very ill, it often makes people very angry because they feel that God has let them down.  Not only let them down, but broken his side of the bargain, so to speak.  Working in a hospital for a few years I would often hear people say: ‘I never hurt anyone.  Why has God done this to me?’  It is as if there was a legal contract and if we keep our side of it, then God is obliged to keep his side of it, by looking after us and making sure that nothing happens to us.

Now the problem is that there is no love in this way of thinking.  There is no love in a legal contract.  It is a contract, on paper or by word of mouth, and it is as cold as ice, just as the law is.  However, there is one big difference with the way God works.  God deals with us on the basis of love alone.  Everything that we have is a gift from God.  We do not deserve any of it and we have not earned any of it.  God does not owe us anything and will never owe us anything.  If I manage to be faithful to my priesthood and to all that the Lord Jesus asks me to do as a Christian, then when I die I cannot demand eternal happiness from him.  He does not owe me anything, but God does give it to me as a free gift.  That is why whatever we do on this earth for the Lord is supposed to be done out of love for him and because he asks us to do it.  Our relationship with God is meant to be one of love.

Look at the first words of the Gospel: ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’  ‘If you love me…’
What would you do for someone you love?  Would you keep their wishes?  Would you respect them?  Would you keep their commandments, God’s commandments?

It is interesting too how many people have the idea that you should follow all the demands of your faith ‘in so far as it suits you’.  ‘If it doesn’t suit you then ‘obviously’ you don’t do it.’  That is very much the mentality of the modern world. It is a selfish mentality, but the difficulty is this: Jesus does not tell us to follow him on our own terms, but on his terms.  In other words we must try to live as he asks.  They are commandments and not suggestions.  ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

However, what is also vital for us to remember is this:  anything God tells us to do, is for our benefit.  God knows exactly how we work and also exactly what will help us to grow and blossom.  So He points out the way and tells us the way we need to live.  ‘If you live as I command you, you will be alright.’  Unfortunately we do not always trust God and we often think that we know better.  That is why they are commandments and not suggestions.  God is well aware that we will often think we know better, so He tells us which path is the one to take.  For our part we must trust him, even when it does not seem to make sense to us.

Our faith can certainly be pretty demanding.  But any way of life well lived is demanding.  If I wish to be a Catholic, and to follow the way of Jesus Christ, then this is what is expected of me.  These are the demands of our faith.  But while it is demanding it is not beyond us, because God gives us the strength we need to live it out and also, as it says in the Gospel, ‘The Advocate’ or Holy Spirit, to give us both strength and understanding.  And that is why we need to keep coming back to be renewed by the strength which God gives us through prayer, fasting and especially through the Eucharist.  God shows us what we need to do and He also gives us the strength to do it.  Above all, remember that it is all given to us for our benefit, purely out of love.

‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

Friday, May 9, 2014

4th Sunday of Easter Yr A (Gospel: Jn 10:1-10) I am the gate

Several years ago I had the great privilege of visiting the Holy Land.  It was an extraordinary experience to be able to visit all the places where Jesus lived and preached.  I remember being struck at seeing shepherds leading their sheep, something which you don’t see in my home country (Ireland) because they are a different kind of animal.  In Palestine the shepherd walks in front and the sheep follow in a line behind.  You can still see them doing this in the fields.  It makes more sense of what we read in the Scriptures where Jesus says ‘I know my sheep and mine know me’ and ‘He leads me to green pastures.’

I also remember hearing a story of a tourist who was visiting one of these places and was looking at the sheep.  To his horror he watched as the shepherd took one of the lambs and deliberately broke its leg.  When he saw this he went over and began to give out to the shepherd, saying ‘I saw what you just did.’  The shepherd got angry and said ‘You know nothing about what is going on here’.  He then explained to the tourist what he was doing.  He said that the lamb was constantly running away, because he was afraid of the shepherd.  When this happens the shepherd breaks the leg of the animal and immediately puts it into a splint to heal.  During the time when it is healing he carries the animal on his shoulders.  By the time it has healed the lamb is no longer afraid of the shepherd and stays close to him, and is therefore no longer in danger of getting lost.  They actually do this. 

Today is vocations Sunday also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’; a day when we remember and pray for priests.  St. Therese of Lisieux said she could never understand why people were always saying that we should pray for priests until she went on a pilgrimage to Rome with several priests.  Then she understood!  The priest is meant to be a shepherd in the sense of one who leads people to God, or points people in the direction of God.  If I am to do that, my life as a priest must be completely centred on God to begin with, because I cannot give you what I do not have.  Nothing I have of myself will be of any use to you.  The only thing that I have which is of any use to you is what I receive from God.  I am only a vessel or instrument of God, at least that is the idea.

We also know that we priests are not always as good as we should be.  Sadly we have often let people down in different ways and even led people away from God, which is something that we will be answerable to God for.  In the book of Ezekiel God says to the prophet, ‘Woe to the shepherds who do not feed my sheep.’

So why does God keep on calling people who are weak?  Why doesn’t He pick stronger people, or more reliable people?  Perhaps it is to make it all the more obvious that we are only instruments that He uses.  Of ourselves we are nothing.  But the message that we pass on to you from God is everything.  It is like a glass of really good wine.  Whether the glass itself is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, the contents remain the same.  I think that that is worth remembering when you find yourself disappointed with a priest.  Remember that while of course it is a great help if he is a very holy man, the only thing that is really important is the message that he is bringing.  We are only messengers, or as St. Paul says, ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Cor 4:7).  We are only cracked jars that carry this extraordinary treasure.  What matters is the treasure that we bring to you and not the one who carries that treasure.  That treasure is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that He has won eternal life for us through his death and resurrection; that He is Lord of all things and all things are subject to him.  Also that He has given us the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins.  That is what matters.  Jesus is the one who offers us the fullness of life, and He is the only one who can offer the fullness of life.  We continue to turn to him for life and hopefully we priests will continue to be vessels, or instruments helping people to rediscover these extraordinary treasures which God has given us.

I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Third Sunday of Easter Yr A (Gospel: Luke 24:13-35) “Were not our hearts burning within us…?

When we’re trying to get to know someone that we like, one of the first things that we have to do, is to try and find out a little about them.  We find out where they’re from, what they do and gradually we begin to form a picture of them.  No one is just a person in an empty space.  To know them we need to spend time with them too.

A friend of mine was waiting for a ride to work and she was offered a ride by another guy from work that she had seen a few times.  Before he dropped her off he had asked her out on a date.  But then she wanted to find out a little more about him, to check him out, as it were.  She needed a picture of him to see what kind of person he was.
The Lord also wants us to get to know him just as we would anyone else and so He has given us the Scriptures, the Bible, so that we can get to know him, check him out, see what kind of a God he is.
One of the best descriptions I heard of the Bible is to say that it’s a collection of love letters from God to us personally.  They are addressed to us personally and they teach us who God is and how God relates to us.  It gives us a picture of what God is like in a way that we can understand.

The Word of God is sacred to us because it teaches us the truth, which everyone is looking and searching for, even unknown to themselves.  Different cults and movements like the New Age movement, offer us ‘half-truths’, but these are no good.  There is only one truth and the Bible teaches the truth, because it comes from God.  The Word of God is so important that we give the whole first half of the mass over to it, with three readings and then the few minutes I spend speaking, are supposed to be based on the readings.  That is how important we consider the word of God.

In the Eastern Catholic Church, they have two tabernacles, one for the Eucharist, because it is the living Jesus in the form of bread, but they also have one for the Scriptures, because it is the living Word.

We consider it a privilege to be able to receive Jesus in Holy Communion and so it is.  We even fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion to show our respect for who it is we are receiving.  It is also a privilege for us to hear the word of God, even though we probably don’t look at it like this.  I think something we need to continually ask ourselves is ‘Do I believe that this really is the Word of God?’  If we believe it is, then it should be something we continually turn to.  Of all the things we listen to each day—TV and radio programs, newspapers, thousands of commercials—what could possibly be more important to be filled with than God’s own word?

In Russia during Communism, it was illegal to have a Bible of any kind.  And young men and women used to travel long distances to be able to spend time learning off parts of the Bible, so that they could go back to their own people and bring the Word of God to them.  Here we have it handed to us on a plate, but a lot of the time we just consider it ‘boring’.  Perhaps it’s not the word of God that needs to change, but rather the way we look at it.
Do you have a Bible in your own homes, and if so do you ever look at it?  God will speak to you through it, but He can’t do this unless you read it.  The Bible teaches us the truth and God wants us to have this truth, but He’s not going to ‘shove it down our throats’, it is an invitation.

In the Gospel it says the disciples hearts’ burned within them when Jesus explained how the Scriptures all pointed to him and spoke about him.  This is because the Word of God is something alive that can have a profound effect on us.  So if you want to know a little more about the God you believe in, and about what he has to say to you, read his letters to you, especially the New Testament and he will speak to you, just as he spoke to those disciples along the road.

Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way
and opened the Scriptures to us?”