Saturday, January 24, 2015

3rd Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:14-20) A personal relationship with Jesus

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 our openness and willingness.  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.

It would be a mistake to feel that 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 or even because we are not particularly talented.  It is not so much about what God may call us to do, it is above all to be in relationship with the Lord. God only needs us to be open to his call.  If we are open then God will do everything else.

The readings today are about responding to God’s call to us. In the Gospel Jesus calls the first four apostles, Peter, 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.

If we are also called to be disciples, what does that mean in practice? It means that we develop a personal relationship with Jesus. A personal relationship means a real, living relationship, just like we would have with any other human being. So it means we begin to learn more about Jesus, we speak to him every day, we spend time in prayer listening to him and speaking to him, every day. We find out what he is teaching us through the Scriptures and we try to live that. The surprising thing is what happens when we begin to do this. 

We may not even believe that a personal relationship is really possible, but it is. Many people here have that kind of relationship with the Lord. But many more probably don’t and this is what we are being called to. Why is that so important? because that is when our faith begins to come alive. Then our coming to mass regularly begins to make more sense. It is no longer just something we have to do because we are Catholic. We come to the mass because we want to worship God and encounter the Lord Jesus in a very personal way. The more people respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, to have a real, living relationship with him, the more alive our whole community becomes. Then it also becomes all the more obvious what in particular we are called to do. That is when our faith begins to transform us and the world around us.

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 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 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.

It is only in God that we will find true and lasting happiness and that’s why He calls us to follow the path that leads to him.  It is not an easy path, but it is the most worthwhile path and all of us without exception can respond to that invitation, but we have to consciously make a decision to do that. 

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2nd Sunday Year B (Gospel: John 1:35-42) ‘Behold the Lamb of God’


The apparition at Knock, Ireland

On Thursday 21st Aug, 1879, at about 8.00pm an apparition was seen at one end of the Church.  What the people saw (about 15 people) was an altar in the centre, with a lamb on it and angels floating around it in the background.  To the left of the altar was Our Lady accompanied by 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 and the people stood there in the pouring rain praying.  One of the young men who studied with me in the seminary, a man by the name of Jarlath Trench, was the grandchild of one of the witnesses who had been at Knock when the apparition happened.  It makes it seem very recent with that connection.

We usually think of this apparition as a Marian apparition, but the truth is that the apparition was really an apparition of Jesus appearing as the Lamb of God on the altar,  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, during the mass 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.’  The reason the priest does this is just to show us Jesus present in the Eucharist.  The priest does the same thing at the consecration so that the people can see the host which is no longer bread but the Body of Christ.

The apparition in Knock happened back at a time when the people were desperately poor and just recovering from the great potato famine (1845-52) which reduced the population by about 25%.  The vision 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 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.  And 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.

Just before we receive Communion during the mass 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.  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. 

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.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Baptism of the Lord Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:7-11)

‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

One of the many benefits that comes from a more mixed society, where we have people from many different parts of the world living together, is that it helps to broaden our minds.   I lived in a religious community for a while and we often had people from different parts of the world.  One morning when we came down for breakfast two of us noticed that someone had cut the loaf of bread not from top to bottom into slices the way we usually do, but from one side to the other across the middle.  In other words they had done the complete opposite of what we were used to.  The two of us who noticed this at the same time both began to complain saying, ‘Who is the idiot that did this!’  But then almost immediately we both began to check ourselves and say, ‘I suppose there is no law that says you can’t do it this way!’ and we laughed at ourselves and how fixed we can be in our ways.  It was a Taiwanese priest living with us whose culture is very different from ours.  Something as simple as this helped us to see how small-minded we can be in our ways. 

In the second reading today St. Peter says he realised how anyone can be acceptable to God if they do what is right.  That might seem obvious enough to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them at that time.  The Jewish people believed that they were specially chosen by God, and that meant anyone else who was not Jewish was not so important to God.  But then the Lord began to teach the Apostles that in fact He was there for everyone, of every nationality and creed.  It took them a while to come around to this way of thinking.  In fact the first few times some Gentiles (non-Jews) received the gift of the Spirit, the Apostles were quite surprised.  They hadn’t expected this.  They didn’t think that Gentiles would be given the gift of the Spirit.  God was helping them to gradually broaden their horizons.  Everyone, of every nationality and creed was being called into God’s family.  The Lord showed this to St. Peter through a vision (See Acts 10:9-16).  Peter saw a vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals and birds.  Then he heard a voice saying:
“Now Peter, Kill and eat!”  But Peter answered, “Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything profane or unclean.”  Again a second time, the voice spoke to him, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane”.  This was repeated three times and suddenly the container was drawn up to heaven again (Acts 10:13-16).

This vision helped Peter to understand that no-one was ‘unclean’ in God’s sight if they tried to live the right way.  The Lord was helping Peter to see a bigger picture, but as with most of us, this happens gradually.  Everyone is called to be part of God’s family.

After Jesus was Baptised in the Jordan a vision was seen of the Spirit coming down on him in the form of a dove.  The Father in heaven was empowering him with the gift of the Spirit, to enable him to live the mission that the Father had given him, to teach the people about God and to offer himself for the sins of the world.  Right after Jesus baptism he was led into the desert and then he began his public ministry. The Spirit gave him the strength and wisdom He needed for this difficult mission. 

Perhaps another reason why people were allowed to see the Spirit descend in bodily form was to remind us of what happens when we are baptised.  We are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life.  It is not a way of life that we can live by our own strength; it would be too difficult.  This is why God gives us the gift of his Spirit to guide, strengthen and teach us.  Jesus said to the Apostles that after He had ascended into heaven He would send the Spirit, ‘Who will teach you everything’ (John 16:13b).  Our minds can only take so much, and we are continually learning about the ways of God. 

When we are baptised we state what it is we believe in and we commit ourselves to this way of faith.  For many of us someone else will have spoken on our behalf if we were baptised as infants, but this is done on the understanding that we will be taught about our faith as we grow up, otherwise it would make no sense.  If we come for baptism as adults we will be examined before-hand to make sure we understand the commitment we are taking on.  But the greatest part of Baptism is the gift of the Spirit who will teach us all we need to know, and who will continue to challenge us in different ways so that we grow ever closer to God. 
‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Epiphany of the Lord (Matthew 2:1-12) Every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord

Epiphany Cathedral, Venice, Florida

The feast of the Epiphany is an interesting one.  In the Eastern Catholic Church, it is the main feast of Christmas.  Here we celebrate it as the feast of Christ being recognised by the world.  The three wise men, or astrologers, were led to this place where Christ was.  They are supposed to have come from different countries.  They represent all the peoples of the world since they were not Jewish.  It is a way of saying that Jesus’ coming is for all peoples of all religions and race.  In the end all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The three gifts they bring are symbolic.  Gold is the symbol of a king.  Jesus is a king, the King of the whole universe.  The use of frankincense is a sign of recognising a God.  Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the God-head or Trinity.  Myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering he will go through to win eternal life for the human race.  The point is that all peoples of all religions will recognise that Jesus is God and that we only have eternal life through him. 

It might seem a bit arrogant of us Christians to say that all people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God.  That seems to imply that we are right and that everyone else is wrong, but maybe that is the wrong way to look at it.  People of different religions have very different understandings of God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who never come to know Jesus in this lifetime, they still have eternal life won for them by the death and resurrection of Christ and eternal life is still offered to them, just as it is to us.  When they die they will see this at once. There can only be one God and this God has created us for happiness.  

Although we lost the possibility of eternal life with God through what we call Original Sin (and interestingly most religions have a similar understanding of Original Sin although it is called by different names) God regained the possibility of eternal life for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.   But because God totally respects the freedom He has given us, He does not force this on us but simply offers it to us.  We must accept this gift individually, and we do this through our faith.  All people are offered this possibility regardless of whether they come to know of God in this life or not.  But it is not as if there is a kind of neutral ground for those who do not believe.  We accept life with God when we die, which will be our total fulfilment, or we lose it forever, and that is the choice we must make.  

We may have the impression that Jesus died for Christians only and that you have to be a Christian to go to heaven.  This would be to see it backwards. Depending on how we live our life and the choices we make, we accept or reject God.  That is where our conscience is so important, because even if we never hear of God during our life, God speaks to us through our conscience, giving us a basic understanding of what is right and wrong.  Our faith and the teachings of Jesus through the Church give us a better understanding of what is right or wrong.  All of the decisions that we make throughout our life are bringing us closer to, or driving us farther away from God.

Christians are the people who recognise that Jesus is the Son of God and has done all these things for us.  We consider ourselves blessed that God has made himself known to us in this way and as Catholics we consider ourselves especially blessed to recognise the gift of the Eucharist, the priesthood, confession, etc, because these are God’s gifts to us.  However, that doesn’t mean that we have a better chance of going to heaven than anyone else.  That depends completely on how we live our life.  When we die we will realise that all this is really true and when other people of different religions die, they will also recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord.  That doesn’t mean that they are all wrong now; rather that they have a different understanding of God.  What is important for them is to live their faith as well as they can just as it is for us.  If they do this, God will also draw them closer and closer to himself and bring them to holiness, just as He will with us if we remain open. 
Every knee shall bow
in heaven, on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)