Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12) All peoples of all religions will recognise Jesus as God

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 color.  All people will recognise that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The three gifts they bring are symbolic.  They point to something else.  Gold is the symbol of a king.  Jesus is a king, the King of the whole universe.  Frankincense symbolises a God.  Jesus is also God.  And myrrh is a perfume that represents the suffering he will go through to win eternal life for the human race.  The feast is showing us 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 that is not the case.  People of different religions have very different ways of understanding God and God speaks to all people through the different religions. Even for those who will never hear of 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 which will can only be fulfilled in him.  

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.  There is no 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 further away from God.

Christians are simply 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, but it 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. 

We continue to pray that all peoples will begin to recognise that Jesus Christ is Lord even in this life, because this is the truth which God has revealed to us, but either way we try to respect people who believe differently to us, and remember that they are also children of God.
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)

Mary the Mother of God (Gospel: Luke 2:16-21)

For the eternal Father in heaven to choose a human being, Mary, to be so instrumental in God coming among us is truly amazing. If God gave Mary such an extraordinary role and honour, then it makes sense that we should also give Our Lady extraordinary honour. God asked her to be the instrument through which Jesus would come into the world. He didn’t force her, He asked her. That also gives us an idea of how God respects us as human beings. He doesn’t force things on us. He invites us to follow his way, the way that leads to life, but He lets us choose it or reject it. What could be a more wonderful way to begin the new year than by giving honour to that same woman to whom He entrusted so much.

When the angel Gabriel came and told Mary that God was asking her to become the Mother of Jesus, the first words of the angel were: ‘Mary, do not be afraid, you have won God’s favour.’  What the angel then said to Mary might be summed up in a different way.  The Lord was saying something quite startling to Our Lady: ‘Mary do not be afraid...  God is asking you to put aside all your plans for the future and do his will instead.  Will you accept?’  This is what the angel was saying to her, but he started it off with ‘Mary do not be afraid.’  ‘God knows what he is doing.’

No doubt all of us have had various ideas as to what we hoped our lives might involve; different plans and indeed often very good plans.  I believe that one of the greatest challenges facing anyone who tries to be faithful to God, as most of us do, is when God dramatically changes what we thought He was going to do.  God asks us, ‘Will you leave aside all your plans for serving me, and take on my ones instead?’  The thing is we probably weren’t even aware that we had our own fairly definite plans, until He asked us to give them up, by making our lives take all kinds of unexpected turns.  And then what did actually happen may have turned out to be quite disappointing.  ‘I had hoped it would be much more.’  Think of the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection when they meet Jesus but don’t recognise him: ‘Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free’ (Luke 24.21).  ‘We are so disappointed.’  What must Our Lady have been thinking as she watched Jesus being tortured and suffer such a brutal death?  What about all the promises of the prophets and the angel?  Now he was dead.

The plans we had may have been really excellent ones.  I have no doubt that Our Lady probably had really beautiful plans as to how she would serve the Lord, but the Lord may ask us at some stage, ‘Will you follow my plans for you?’  ‘Are you prepared to give up this brilliant work that you are doing at the moment, because I have a different one?’  ‘Are you prepared to accept this disappointment in your family, or your marriage?’  I think that this can be a key moment in anyone’s life.  Two things can happen from it.  We can accept it in faith and go with it, thereby opening the door to allow Jesus to transform us.  Or we can fight it and resent the fact that ‘It all went wrong for us’, which may lead us to great bitterness. 

If we really remain open to accept what God asks, to the many twists and turns that God takes us through, He will bring the greatest good out of our life, because He will transform us through these struggles.  This is really the only thing that is important, that we allow God to transform us.  God’s purpose for us is to fill us completely with himself, to unite us to himself at a far deeper level than we may have ever imagined was even possible and then use us a hundred times more effectively in the world, but God asks for our openness, our consent.

To sum up:  If we are open to following God, He may continually ask us to take different directions, often having to let go of plans or ideas that we thought were very good.  The more open we are, the more quickly the Lord can transform us within.  So if you do find yourself thinking sometimes, ‘Everything seems to have gone wrong.  I never managed to do this or that,’ remember that if you just stay open and allow the Lord to guide you, then not only have your plans not been wasted, but in fact you have allowed the Lord to do far more in you than you might have imagined.  ‘Mary, do not be afraid.’

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas (Gospel: John 1:1-18) The Word was made flesh and lived among us

It may sound strange to you but I always find it hard to preach about Christmas and Easter, maybe because they really speak for themselves. Christmas and Easter are really two halves of the same event. God the Son comes among us in the person of Jesus in order to teach us about God, why we were created and what God asks of us and then to sacrifice himself for us so that we might have eternal happiness with him. He does this for no other reason than that He loves us. With all that’s happening in the world at the moment I think we need to hear that message often. What awaits us, if we choose it, is something wonderful beyond our wildest dreams and we must never lose sight of that. That is what helps us to keep going when nothing else makes sense.

I want to share with you a story I heard from an old Dominican priest I lived with for a year. His name is Simon Roche and he spent 25 years in India and had many fascinating experiences of faith there.  He told me the following story about a young girl called Asha. 

Asha, who was a Brahman (high cast) and a Hindu, went to Mary Immaculate school.  As happens with many children there she got encephalitis, a disease which causes the brain to swell.  Apparently about 500 children in India die from it each year.  Asha got encephalitis in Nov and had to be hospitalised.  She quickly began to deteriorate.  In mid December she went into a coma and on the 23rd Dec the doctors said she was not going to improve.  She only had a short time to live.

On Christmas eve, her mother who was staying in the hospital in a bed beside her, saw lots of different coloured lights over her bed and a man standing with his hands extended over her daughter.  The next day, Christmas day, Asha woke up at 7.30am for the first time.  She asked her mother for something to eat.  Then she said, ‘What day is today?’  Her mother said it was the 25th of December.  Asha said, ‘Today is the day of the Christians.  Can you turn on the radio so I can hear some of the Christians’ songs.’  The doctors were astonished and had no explanation for what had happened.  Asha was completely healed.

About a week later the mother came to the convent school even though it was still closed for Christmas and asked to see the head mistress.  She said to her, ‘I think your Jesus healed my Asha.’  And she said, ‘Do you have a picture of Jesus?’  The sister showed her a picture on the wall but she said, ‘No that’s not him.’  10 days later Asha’s mother was back in the school for something and she happened to see on the wall a picture of a man getting into a boat.  It was a picture of Jesus getting into a boat in Galilee.  She pointed up at the wall and said, ‘That’s him. He is the one who healed my Asha.’

The Word was made flesh and lived among us 
and we saw his glory.’

Jesus, the Word of the eternal Father, is still among us.

Friday, December 18, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Luke 1:39-45) Who will save me from this wretched state?

Today I want to address a question that often comes up when people are talking to me in confession and it is related to what we celebrate at Christmas.  Actually it is more of a fear than a question.  Almost everyone talks about a particular thing that they struggle with, whether it be anger, gossip, a sexual weakness, an addiction, or whatever; and it causes no end of suffering and humiliation.  No matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to overcome it.  In fact I’ve often heard people say to me that they don’t feel there is any point in going to confession anymore because they just end up confessing this same sin again and again and they don’t seem to be getting any better, so where’s the point?  It can make us afraid that we won’t be able to go to heaven because of our weakness.  ‘Since I can’t overcome this sin, why would God allow me to go to heaven?’  That is usually the thinking behind it.  However, when we think like that I believe we are really missing the whole point of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The truth is that no matter how hard we try to be holy and overcome our sins, our weaknesses, we continually fall short of the mark.  That is our reality.  When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul put it like this:
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are redeemed by his grace as a gift… to be received by faith (Rom 3:23ff).

In plain English that is saying to us, since all of us have sinned and can never be good enough for God, it is God himself who has made up the difference for us.  God has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The fact that we will always be sinners and will always struggle with various weaknesses is no longer a problem, because God has made us ‘good enough’ through what Jesus did.  That is what being ‘redeemed’ means.  We cannot get to heaven by our own strength, by our own efforts, because we are too weak and too sinful and no matter how hard we try we keep falling, but we don’t have to be afraid of that because Jesus has made up for us, what we cannot do ourselves.

St. Paul also struggled with some kind of weakness that caused him great humiliation, in spite of the fact he had various visions of Jesus and of heaven.  Listen to what he says about it:
I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate.  ...the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do. (Cf. Rom 7:14-24)

Finally he says, ‘Who will save me from this wretched state?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’  That is the exact fear that people keep saying to me in confession: ‘Who will save me from this wretched weakness?  How can I ever come before God in heaven when this is what I’m like?’  This is where God calls us to realize what Jesus has done for us.  He has made up for our weakness himself.  That is why the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas is such an extraordinary event, because it is the beginning of God making up for our weakness, our sinfulness.  We are not able to be good enough for God by our own strength, but it no longer matters because Jesus has made himself the bridge between God and humanity.  Now we can come before God without fear because Jesus has made it possible.  Each time we celebrate the mass we are becoming present to that event—the sacrifice of Jesus—which made it possible for us to go to heaven.  No other sacrifice or offering to God will ever be necessary for us, because the selfless act of Jesus dying for us has done everything necessary.  All we have to do is to accept it.  No wonder we celebrate the mass every day, in every church all over the world.

The mistake we continually make, which causes us to be afraid, is to think that we have to become ‘good enough’ for God.  But the problem is that that is impossible for us by our own strength.  If we stop there, then we would have every reason to despair.  But once we realize that it is Jesus who steps in and bridges the gap, then we have endless hope, because it no longer depends on us being good enough.  All we have to do is accept this extraordinary gift from God.

So is Christmas relevant to us in a practical way in our day to day living?  It totally is, because the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus is what reassures us that no matter how weak or sinful we are, the path to heaven will always remain open to us as long as we ask God for it.  All we have to do is accept from God this amazing gift which He is offering us.

 ‘Who will save me from this wretched state? 
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ’ (Rom 7:24).

Friday, December 11, 2015

3rd Sunday of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:10-18)

If you think for a moment of some of the modern day people in our world who were considered holy during their life-time: people like Gandhi, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, John Paul II, and there are many others. Why did people flock to see them? Mother Teresa was just a very wrinkly little old lady and yet everywhere she went she drew thousands of people. Why? We have plenty of little old ladies here, so why did they go to her? Because she was close to God; someone who was in tune with the ways of the Lord and who lived by them. People who met her said it had a profound effect on them.

We are attracted by holiness in people because it gives us a sense of the presence of God. There is a difference between holiness and piety. Piety is when people can be very devout and into all kinds of devotions etc. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s not the same as holiness. And just because someone is pious doesn’t necessarily mean they are holy. Holiness is really about being close to God. 

We are attracted to holiness because God is attractive. If He wasn’t we wouldn’t keep coming to mass, we wouldn’t continually seek him out in different places. You may feel that you come to mass because you are obliged to, or because it’s the thing to do, but that’s not really the reason. You come here because God draws you here.   God continually draws us to him, but gently. He will never force us, and so we can resist if we wish. I have been told that up to quite recently the biggest area of interest in bookshops was occult and spiritual books. That is another indication of people’s search for God.

God has created us in such a way that there is what you might call a ‘God shaped hole’ within us that only He can fill. Nothing else will fully satisfy us. Material things will satisfy for a very short time only. People will bring us joy for longer, but will never completely fulfill us because they can’t. Only the Lord himself will satisfy us completely because God has created us in such a way that we have a capacity for the infinite. Only what is infinite will fill us completely. 

So when we meet people who seem to be close to God, we are drawn to them, because we want to get closer to God. We can’t help it.

Sometimes when people get married they are disappointed after a while because they don’t feel completely fulfilled by their partner. No other person is going to completely fulfil us, because we would be asking them to do what only God can do. If we realise this it can be a great help, but if we expect another ‘mere human being’ to fill this God shaped hole within us, then we’re going to be disappointed.

In today’s Gospel we are again presented with John the Baptist; this strange man that so many people wanted to listen to. Jesus said that he was the greatest man ever born of a woman, which is quite something to say about anyone. He was a prophet, but also much more than a prophet. He was the one that God himself sent to announce the coming of Jesus.

So what did John say? When he saw Jesus he said to the people with him, ‘There is the lamb of God… follow him, not me. He’s the one you want, I’m not.’

Those words sound familiar. ‘Here is the lamb of God’… When the priest holds up the host at communion he says, ‘Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ It’s the same thing that John the Baptist said. John said, ‘Follow him.’  Mother Teresa said, ‘Follow him’. Padre Pio said, ‘Follow him.’ Our Pope says, ‘Follow him.’  He is the One we are looking for, but we often don’t realise it. Jesus is the only one who can fulfil us, the only one we need to keep our sights on.

The world around us will change, but God won’t. The world around us will disappoint us, but God won’t. ‘There is the lamb of God… he is the one to follow.’

Friday, December 4, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent Yr A (Luke 3:1-6) No Christmas without repentance


The original message of Advent was quite different from what we have now. Now it has become the time of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc, but this is quite different from the original message.  John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was very strong.  ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and look for happiness in the right place, that is, in God.’  This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook.  We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent.  Just leave us alone and let us celebrate.  We want absolution, but without having to confess.  We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments.  We want faith on our terms.  That is called ‘cheap grace’.  It is empty and it is not the message of God.

The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one.  We can not come and pick what we like.  Instead we come and ask what is required of us. That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘What must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower.  It is understandable that we are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them.  If you’re not happy, move on.  But this is not the message of the Gospels.  In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us.  We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms. 

Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman.  He was totally focused on God.  He knew what was important and he simply passed on the message he was told to pass on, but it cost him his life.  He was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth.  We don’t always want to hear the truth because it is often demanding and challenges us to change.

We want to be able to celebrate Christmas and rightly so.  But if we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the message of John the Baptist.  ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’  ‘God is coming: get ready.’  The term ‘repent’ can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’  That is a particularly powerful message at this time in history.  So many people have been looking for happiness in the world, but now everything has collapsed and many have been bitterly disappointed and left with a feeling that all is gone.  However, the Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness.  It is only in God that we will find true happiness.  The world will disappoint us; God will not.

The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins.  And yes, most of us don’t like to have to confess our sins, we think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do.  The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless.  It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus.  The Lord is still waiting to come to each of us: 
I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20) 

Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways.  The Lord wants to be at the centre of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’