Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mary the Mother of God. "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done…"

Today I want to talk about Our Lady who was chosen by God to play such a wonderful role in salvation. When the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary, God asked her something quite extraordinary. First of all it seems that having children was not part of her plan, even though she was in the process of getting married. In fact she was already legally married. It would have been the most normal and natural thing in the world to have children, so why did she question the angel when Gabriel told her she was to bear a son? Her reply was, ‘But how can this be since I do not know man?’ Perhaps it was because she intended to dedicate her life to God without having children; we don’t know exactly. God was basically asking her if she was prepared to forego her own plans for her life and follow the path that God was asking her to take. No doubt Our Lady had wonderful plans for her life, holy plans as to how she would serve God and then she was presented with this strange message from the angel which must have thrown everything into confusion. ‘Will you follow a completely different path to the one you had in mind?’ Although Mary was afraid—and she was afraid—she said yes. ‘Let it be done to me as you have said.’

Now skip a few months further on when it starts to become obvious that she is pregnant. You can imagine the confusion this brought to Joseph when he realised she was expecting. No doubt he knew that Mary was a very holy woman, so this would have made absolutely no sense. Trying to explain it to him would have made even less sense. At that time in their culture a woman who was found to be pregnant outside of marriage could be stoned to death. No doubt people began talking. So there was a lot of suffering for Mary and Joseph from the beginning as neither of them were sure how to handle it, or to explain it, but Mary trusted that God would sort it out and He did, but not in the way she expected and not without difficulty. This was to be the pattern of her life. So many things were to happen that she didn’t expect or understand. 


 When Jesus was born it was in difficult and humiliating circumstances, which must have seemed quite out of place for someone who was to be so important. They heard talk of angels in the sky and shepherds coming to tell them about what they had seen. Then they had to flee the country because the child was in danger of being killed, but Mary trusted that God would look after her. That doesn’t mean that she just accepted all that was happening calmly. Like any of us I’m sure she worried and she was afraid, but at the same time she believed that God would sort it out.

As Jesus was dying on the cross she must have wondered about all the things the angel had said about him. ‘He will be great and will be called “Son of the Most High” and his kingdom will have no end’. Was she not remembering properly; was that all a dream? Now he was dying a horrible death right in front of her and then after three days Jesus rises from the dead; the last thing anyone was expecting. Through all this I’m sure Mary was often afraid, worrying, confused; and yet she trusted. This is what we are also asked to do and that is why Mary is not only our Mother, but a model of faith for us. She has been through it and so she understands us perfectly. More importantly she came out the other side of it. Now we say of her ‘You are the highest honor of our race.’

Believing that God will sort things out doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to worry, or be afraid. They are normal human responses. Sometimes I think we believe that if we really trust God then we should be totally at peace and not at all worried, but that is simply not how we are as human beings. I think our strength is to look at Mary and other saints and see what happened to them. They suffered, but they also went on believing.

At the foot of the cross Our Lady was entrusted to John the apostle. Now in John’s Gospel, John the disciple is presented as the model disciple, the one who is close to Jesus, the one who believes when he sees the empty tomb. He represents all of us, you could say. And Jesus gives Mary to him (to us) as our Mother. She is the one who will guide us, and keep us on the right track. She is the one we often turn to for help. She is not God, she is a human being, but one who was given an extraordinary place in God’s plan for us. 

Mary is also the one who has been sent to us in many different parts of the world—Knock, Lourdes, Fatima, Akita and others—why? To point us back in the right direction, because that is what mothers do and no doubt that is why God sends her. She has always given essentially the same message, that we cannot live without God and if we try to we may well destroy ourselves. God must be at the centre.  Our Lady acts as a signpost for God. ‘He is the one, follow him.’ Just like at the wedding at Cana: ‘Do whatever He tells you.’

When you find yourself confused, afraid, worried sick, remember Our Lady and what she went through. This is why she is such a great source of comfort for us and a great sign of hope. She made it and if we follow the right path, we’ll make it too.

Our Lady, refuge of sinners: pray for us.

Friday, December 23, 2016

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

Church of St. Vincent de Paul

In many ways Christmas speaks for itself and doesn’t need a commentary. It is a time of hope and a time of remembering what God has done for us. For many people it is also a difficult and lonely time. It is the time we usually associate with family, but not all of us have family, or we may have been separated from family for one reason or another and it brings up painful memories of what might have been. I find that focusing on the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, helps to keep everything in perspective. God came into the world as it was, not as it should be. God also comes to us as we are and not as we should be. He is with us in whatever way our life is right now.

Here is a story I heard from one of the old Dominican priests I lived with for a year. Simon Roche was his name. Simon 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, a Hindu and Brahman (high cast), went to Mary Immaculate Catholic 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 November and had to be hospitalised. She quickly began to deteriorate. In mid December she went into a coma and on the 23rd December 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 colored 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 Asha's 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.’ Ten 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 16, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent, (Gospel: Matthew 1: 18-24) The unexpected God who comes in littleness

 What exactly is it that we celebrate at Christmas? The birth of the Christ of course, the one anointed by God, but what does his birth mean? First of all it means that God is among us in the ‘messiness’ of our human condition. God took on our humanity as it is. He lived and walked among us with all the chaos of our world, which really hasn’t changed that much since then. We still have plenty of corruption and violence, just as there was in the time of Jesus. Palestine was an occupied country at the time, occupied by the Romans who were known for being extremely brutal. And yet Jesus comes into the middle of this. So he knows what it is like to live in the middle of chaos, injustice, sickness and all the difficulties that we live with. He is with us in this.

The event of Christmas also shows us that He came in the most unexpected way. The Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah, the anointed one of God, but He came in a way that they did not expect. He was as great as they hoped for, but not in the way that they were expecting and so He went largely unnoticed and in fact the Religious leaders rejected him because he didn’t fit their picture of what he should be like.

All through the Bible there are accounts of people whom God chose to work and speak through. They are nearly always people that we would consider weak and unimportant. It seems that God likes to do this, no doubt to remind us that God doesn’t need human strength, greatness or ability. God works through whomever He will so long as we are open to it. One of the beautiful things about this is that it means God is accessible to all of us, from the simplest and least educated to the most brilliant minds. No one is excluded. It says in the first reading, ‘You Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel’ (Micah 5:1). This is an ongoing theme that we find everywhere in the Bible. The Lord uses the least of us, the ones we would never think of choosing. 

The event of Christmas is also the beginning of a new kind of hope for humanity. Jesus would offer his own life for the sins of humanity, so that we could reach the happiness that God created us for. You could say that Christmas and Easter are really two halves of the same event. And the reason it is an event of great joy is not only because humanity is once and for all set free from the prospect of eternal death, but also because Jesus taught us what the meaning of our life is; why we are here. We are created out of love, to share in the happiness of God. That happiness hopefully begins in this life but will be fulfilled in the world to come. Our life here is a time of love and service. We are free to love or not love, to choose for God or not. God has given us that freedom and the responsibility that goes with it, but to know that our life has a purpose is all important. What keeps us going when we are struggling if we feel that our life has no meaning, no purpose? We need to know that we have a reason for being here, and we do. That is why Jesus is the Light of the world. Light shows up what is there in the dark. With light you can see where you are going. Jesus who is this light is the one who helps us to see why we are here.

The preparations for Christmas all around us are wonderful and magical. It is beautiful to suddenly have our town and homes lit up with coloured lights, candles and decorations. All of this is to celebrate the coming of the Saviour and the event that set us free. Even though many people will celebrate Christmas without knowing what they are celebrating, yet in a strange way God is still glorified in all of this. Our society will celebrate the coming of Christ even though many will no longer realise that that is what they are celebrating. 

There is a line in one of the Psalms which says, ‘Man’s anger will serve to praise you’ (Psalm 76:10). It seems like an unusual thing to say. How could man’s anger be a source of praise to God? Perhaps what it means is that ultimately all of God’s creation gives praise to God just by the fact that it is there. All the celebrations of Christmas give praise to God, even if many people aren’t even aware of what they are really celebrating. It is a reminder to us that God brings good out of everything, even when it is done for the wrong reason.

So as we celebrate Christmas maybe we can take a moment at some stage to give praise to God in our own way, for all that God has done for us; giving us hope, light, purpose and the promise of eternal happiness should we choose it.

Friday, December 9, 2016

3rd Sunday of Advent Year A (Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11) What does the coming of Jesus mean?

Bethlehem, Palestine.
Why was the coming of John the Baptist so important? Why is the coming of Jesus at Christmas so important? What exactly does the coming of Jesus at Christmas mean? We always talk about it being the good news, a message of hope, but what exactly does that mean?

Many of us have been taught that as we grow up we should try to live the right way, following God’s commandments and hopefully when we die, if we are good enough we will be allowed get into heaven. Would you agree with that idea? You might be surprised to know that that is not the message of Christianity at all. The truth is that we can never be good enough, or holy enough to come into God’s presence by our own strength. The reason we call it good news is that it is Jesus who makes it possible. The Lord knows that no matter how hard we try we cannot be good enough for God by our own strength and so God comes among us in the person of Jesus to make it possible. Through Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross our going to heaven was made possible. We can get to heaven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Think of it this way. The holiness of the holiest people on earth, the Mother Theresas and others like that, might bring them 80% of the way to being good enough for God, but no one could ever be completely holy enough by themselves. Not even they could. How could anyone be holy enough to be in God’s presence? Think of what Jesus said about John the Baptist: ‘No one greater than John the Baptist has ever been born.’ That’s a pretty extraordinary thing to say about someone. But Jesus goes on to say, ‘Yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is.’ John the Baptist is less than the least of those in heaven? So how are the rest of us supposed to get to heaven? The answer is, because of what God has done for us through Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus means that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. God has made us holy enough to be in his presence if we accept it. Why do I say ‘if’? God shows us the path that we must follow, living according to his commandments as best we can, but we have to choose to do that. We can choose not do and some do. We will never be perfect by our own strength no matter how hard we try, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we do try and when we fall we come back and ask forgiveness and Jesus assures us of his forgiveness and mercy for anyone who asks. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves by his death and resurrection.

In one of the Gospels a rich man comes to Jesus asking him what he must do to get to heaven and Jesus tells him to live the commandments. But the rich man presses him saying, ‘I do that already, what else do I need to do?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, sell what you own, give the money to the poor and come after me.’ It says that the rich man went away sad because he knew he wouldn’t be able to do that. Jesus knew he wouldn’t be able to do that too. Remember he said to him ‘If you wish to be perfect’. None of us are perfect. Then Jesus pointed out to his disciples how hard it was for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples were shocked and said: ‘Then who can be saved?’ And Jesus’ answer is both shocking and wonderful. He said, ‘For people it is impossible, but not for God. Everything is possible for God’. What we cannot do for ourselves, God does for us. That is why we need never be afraid of not being good enough for God when we die, so long as we keep trying. It is God who makes it possible and all we have to do is live as best we can and accept this extraordinary gift from God. It doesn't mean that we can take it for granted though. For our part we must try to live as God asks and keep entrusting ourselves to his mercy, but ultimately it is God who makes possible what we cannot.

Think also of when we are about to receive Holy Communion. We are unworthy to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, but it is God who makes this possible too. That is why we say this wonderful prayer: ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof… but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ ‘Only say the word!’ You can make it possible Lord!

Birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem
That is why the coming of Christ among us is so important. That is why Christmas and Easter are such great feasts, because they are not just about Jesus, but they are also about us. God has won heaven for us. That is why it is called good news.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The Grotto at Lourdes where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858

Sometimes you might be given the idea that many of the things that the Church used to teach, or that were parts of our faith, have changed. You’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, we don’t believe that any more. We’ve moved on’.  Well it’s good to know that the content of our faith doesn’t change. We believe today what we have believed from the beginning, although our understanding of what we believe is deepening all the time.

One of the teachings of our faith is that Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a special grace of God, was preserved from original sin and from personal sin.  This is what the Immaculate Conception means.  It was officially made a dogma (teaching) of the Church in 1854.  That means that it was given the highest recognition of the Church’s teaching authority.  When something is made a dogma, or teaching, of the Church, it doesn’t mean that we have just decided that it’s true, rather it’s a recognition that it has always been believed as true and so it is concretized, if you like.  This means that for us Catholics we are asked to accept it as a part of the faith. The teaching of the Immaculate Conception reads:
From the first instant of her conception, by a singular and privileged grace of Almighty God and in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, the Virgin Mary was preserved intact from every stain of original sin (Pius IX, Bull Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854).

Think of your own mother. Hopefully you love her even if you fall out with her every once in a while. Imagine if you could create your own mother, what wouldn’t you do for her and give her? Imagine how beautiful you would make her. Well God did create his own mother and so imagine what a master-piece she must be. And what could be the greatest gift that God could give to his own mother, if not to preserve her from all stain of sin, which affected the rest of us? And so this is what He did. It makes a lot of sense. The poet Wordsworth describes her as, ‘Our tainted nature’s solitary boast’. We say that she is ‘The highest honor of our race.’  How blessed we are to have her as our mother. 

Mary is the woman of faith. When the angel Gabriel came to her and told her that she was to be the mother of the most high God, she said, ‘But how can this be, since I do not know man?’ She didn’t understand it, but she believed in the word the angel had spoken.

There are often aspects of our faith which we don’t understand, or struggle with. We ask, ‘How can this be?’ How can it be that the Pope can not err in matters of faith and morals? He is only a man. How can it be that bread and wine turns into the body and blood of Christ? I don’t know, but I believe. The theologians don’t understand all the teachings of the Church, the bishops don’t, the Pope doesn’t. That is where faith comes in. We don’t fully understand but we believe. We believe them because they come from the Lord.

Mary didn’t understand how the angel’s promise could come about, but she believed it and as a result the Word became flesh. Jesus, who is God, was born of Mary. Can you imagine if Mary had to fully understand how this could happen before she said yes? I doubt that we would have had Jesus at all, but she accepted it in faith. She said, ‘Let it be done to me according to your word.’  As a result of her faith, Christ was born.

Today you will still find people, including priests and religious who don’t believe all the teachings of our faith, but we are not asked to accept their opinions, even if they appear to be well founded. We are only asked to accept the teachings of the Church, which we believe are the teachings of Christ. There is a big difference between the teachings of a person and that of Jesus Christ, Son of God and that gives us confidence because it means that what is passed on to you does not depend on any one person who teaches you, including me.

In 1858, four years after the teaching of the Immaculate Conception, an uneducated peasant girl called Bernadette received visions of Our Lady at Lourdes. She had 18 apparitions altogether. She was told by the priest to ask the ‘beautiful Lady’ her name, which she did. Bernadette asked several times, but the beautiful Lady just smiled each time. On one of the last apparitions when Bernadette again asked her name, Mary replied: ‘Que soy era la immaculada concepciou’ (I am the Immaculate Conception). Bernadette went back to the priest constantly repeating these words ‘Immaculate Conception’, since she had no idea what they meant, and repeated them to the priest. When Bernadette told him that the beautiful lady said, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’, he was dumbfounded, because he knew she would never have heard these words, or have made them up. This helped to confirm to him and the bishop that the apparitions were real.  Perhaps this was heaven’s way of confirming what we believe.

Friday, December 2, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent (Matthew 3:1-12) No Christmas without repentance

How would you feel if you got a Christmas card that read like this: 
Our thoughts of you this Christmas are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist, 'You brood of Vipers! The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.'
Happy Christmas from Fr. Murchadh."

I suppose we would add Fr. Murchadh, or whoever sent it, to our list of x-friends!

Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense 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 pretty 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 so we should, 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 are looking for happiness in the world, but now so much 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.

It’s interesting that the sin of Adam and Eve, was a very similar sin to what we see going on today. It involved three things: rejecting the idea that they had to serve God or listen to his commands; that they could have everything they wanted on their terms and that they were like God themselves. That’s very similar to what we see going on in our world right now and it is a temptation for all of us. We don’t like to think we have to be obedient to anyone. Why should we have to obey commandments? The challenge for us is to acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we must obey what He tells us if we are to find the path to happiness. The challenge for all of us is to be faithful to that.
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 here’s 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.’

Saturday, November 26, 2016

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Mt 24:37-44)

I always think it’s great that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the weather is often the most miserable (unless you are in Florida where I am at the moment!). Outside it is usually dark, cold and wet. Then we begin to light candles and put up colored lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King. It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy. ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time. Each Sunday in the Creed we say that, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ We don’t know when that will be, but we believe that it will happen. The Lord asks us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die, but the important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come, and above all to die for us so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.

The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us. The Lord is constantly speaking to us but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted. People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It's usually through other people or through the Scriptures. It took me quite a while to learn how to listen so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to try and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us. That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.

One thing that is characteristic of the Gospels is that they are full of hope. The message of God to us—the Good News—is always one of hope and it is certainly something we need in a world where we are constantly hearing of so many terrible things happening around us. However, we don't hear of all the wonderful things that are constantly happening around us: the many acts of kindness that people continually do for each other, looking out for each other especially when we are struggling. This is the Spirit at work in us and this is what makes the world bearable, in spite of the awful things that happen.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is telling us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the bigger things. It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity. Even though the worldly affairs are important, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God; the reality that we will die, that life and death are in his hands, and that whenever He does come for us, He must find us ready.

In one sense we can never be ready enough for God. How do you prepare to meet God? And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams, if we have made any effort to be ready.

Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken the other left. What does this mean? It means that although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind.

If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we have missed what it is about, because there is much more to our life than this. 
As you well know it is often when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we have become immersed in the world. We do have to get on with the day to day things of working and living, but we are being told to make sure that we also make time for God. 

I think a good recipe for a ‘happy’ Christmas,  is to keep it simple and spend some time coming up to Christmas remembering what it is about. Even go to mass once a week, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days. That way we will remember what we are celebrating.

The Angel said to the shepherds: do not be afraid. 
I bring you news of great joy.
Today in the town of David
a Saviour has been born for you;
He is Christ the Lord.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) Power in weakness

In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John at one stage has a vision of a being that terrifies him. He describes what he saw like this:
…I saw one like a Son of man…His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze…out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead, but then the being in the vision touched him and said: ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld’ (Rev 1:17-18). 

Who was this being? It was of course Jesus, the one that John had lived with for three years. Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this terrifying form? Probably to remind John and us, who He is; not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead. This is the one we believe in. When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.

At the moment we are seeing huge changes in the world around us. So much earthly power which seemed to be untouchable has collapsed over night. In many ways it is a very disturbing, even frightening time, but I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in. If we put our trust and hope in earthly power we will be disappointed, as we know only too well, because people will let us down. If we rely too much on the human side of our Church we will be disappointed, as we have been, but the one we trust in and believe in, is Jesus Christ who is God. All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him. Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one. It is not. There is no question of evil being equal to God. All things are subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.

As a priest I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus is the one I worship as God and try to serve. If I stay focused on the world around me I find myself getting depressed or disillusioned. Also if I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church I also find it hard to keep going, but the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge. He is master of all things. What we have seen happening in the Church over the last few years is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin. So He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we have seen happening. I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him. Nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power like to show it off and make it felt. People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off. But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness. This is an extraordinary thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross. The Lord God did the exact opposite to what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure. So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realising that what they looked at was a demonstration of the power of God. This is why we use the symbol of the cross and why it is so powerful. This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death. 
St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength. We are never alone no matter what we are going through. God is with us.
Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we understand it and this is where many people find it hard to accept. We want something that we can see and touch. We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all. But God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.
If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.
Every being in heaven, on earth and under the earth,
shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus;
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Thursday, November 10, 2016

33rd Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) Why do we remember people in each mass?

The greatest thing I can do as a priest, is to bring the Eucharist to you in each mass and offer the forgiveness of sins through confession. There is nothing greater than this for any priest and this is basically what a priest’s life is about. Naturally it will involve a lot of other things too, such as visiting the sick, praying with people, hopefully being a ‘sign-post’ to God in some way, but above all it is to bring the Eucharist to people.

But why do we need to have the mass? Couldn’t we just celebrate mass once a month and then receive Holy Communion every week without a priest? Well we could if we didn’t have enough priests to celebrate the mass, but it is not the same thing for different reasons. It is not just about receiving Holy Communion, although this clearly is the most important part for us.

Every time a priest celebrates the mass, it is Jesus who is working through him on the altar. We say that the priest is alter Christus, ‘another Christ’. I am still a human being and a sinner, but Jesus acts through me as a priest in a unique way, especially when I celebrate the mass. That is why the priest always reads the Gospel, because they are the words of Christ, so it is like Jesus himself is speaking his own words to us, through the person of the priest.

Then at the consecration, when the priest says ‘This is my body which will be given up for you,’ we are present to Jesus being offered to God the Father on the cross.  We are there. We are looking at it, but all we can see is a man holding up a small white piece of unleavened bread. So why doesn’t God clearly show this to us? At least then everyone would believe. Perhaps it is because God wants us to believe, even though we do not understand. That’s what faith is. He wants us to come here and pray, even though we don’t have to.

The mass is also the most perfect prayer there is, the one offering that cannot be refused, since God the Father could not refuse the offering of his Son, which is why we offer up so many things in each mass. We pray for the whole Church, the pope, bishops all of us here, those who are sick and have different needs, those who have died and we often mention someone in particular by name as well.

Like anything else we become familiar with it and take it for granted, but can you imagine if you weren’t familiar with what it was and someone said to you, ‘You have to come down to this place where the Christians have this extraordinary meeting each week. Jesus comes among them in what they call the Eucharist and He speaks to them through the Scriptures and then they actually receive the Body and Blood of Jesus!’ That is what the mass is. That’s what happens every time we come together.

In the year 170AD a man called Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Emperor describing what the Christians were about and what happened at each mass, as people were very suspicious about them especially when they heard about eating the Body and Blood of a man. But in his account of the mass back then, 1800 years ago, he describes almost exactly what we still do today, including the collection! It hasn’t changed because it came from Jesus and not from us.

At this time of the year we focus especially on the dead and we pray for them with the greatest prayer that we know: the holy sacrifice of the mass. We always come back to it because we don’t know of anything greater. If we had something greater, we would do that instead and even though if is only us Catholics who believe that, it doesn’t matter. It is enough. God has given us this gift of faith and shown us this treasure in his world, and He invites us to come together and pray for his people, and for all the needs of the world, and to remember what He has done for us.

It is because we are important to God that He gives us such an extraordinary gift.  We are not worthy of it, and could never be worthy to receive Holy Communion, but it is God who makes it possible. ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ Jesus wants us to receive him and that’s why He gives himself to us. Praise God for such an extraordinary gift.

Friday, November 4, 2016

32nd Sunday Yr C (Luke 20:27-38) Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr (1972-2007)

Fr. Ragheed Ganni

A few years ago I got a phone call from a priest friend of mine in the Irish College in Rome where I had studied for three years, to tell me the sad news that a mutual priest friend of ours had been shot dead in Iraq after celebrating mass. He was my next-door neighbour in Rome for a year and a half. He had just celebrated Sunday mass, and was with three other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them. Their car was ambushed, the woman was taken out of the car and the three deacons and Ragheed were shot. The three deacons had given their time to try and protect Fr. Ragheed, as they knew he was in danger. When he was forced out of the car, one of the gunmen screamed at him:

 “I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?” And he simply responded,

How can I close the house of God?” 

Ragheed was just 34. He is now a martyr of the church. He had studied to be a priest in Rome and spent several summers working in Ireland because it was too dangerous to go back to Iraq, but eventually he decided that it was time for him to go back to his home country as the people needed him. He knew that it would be extremely dangerous and to be honest I wasn’t that surprised when I heard this terrible news. About a year before, he had sent me an email telling me that armed men had come into his house and brought him out at gunpoint and then blown up the church. He sent me a photo of himself standing outside the church and it in flames. Just two weeks before he was shot, on Pentecost Sunday, there had been another bomb attack on the church.

Fr. Ragheed's funeral
 He also told me that over half of his parish had already left, because it was too dangerous. Anyone who could afford it had gone, but the poorer people were still there and the thing that will probably stick with me the most is this: he said that without the Eucharist, the people have nothing. That is why he was prepared to stay, because he believed that the Eucharist was everything, and the people needed this hope and so he was prepared to stay there and risk his life.

Somehow it is when all our material comforts are taken away, that we suddenly realise the importance of having spiritual hope. It is not as obvious to us because we are fairly comfortable and thankfully we can practice our faith freely, but it is not so easy for many people in the world right now. However, often when people are suffering for their faith they are much more tuned in to their need for God, their need for the Eucharist.

Just before the war started in Iraq I asked Ragheed what were his fears for his country. He told me that the problem wasn’t when the US forces moved in, but rather when they would leave again, because then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out. That is exactly what happened. Actually right now on the news we are hearing about the battle to take back Mosul from Isis. Mosul is where he was from. It is the biblical city of Nineveh.

Mosaic in the Irish College which includes a depiction of Fr. Ragheed 
carrying the martyr's palm on the far right

I am not telling you this story about Ragheed’s death to just paint a depressing picture of the terrible things going on in the world, but rather because it reminds me of the enormous treasure that God has given us in the Eucharist and the priesthood and what people will endure because of their hope in God’s promise of life after death. That gives people great inner strength to go through difficulties. We also need to hold onto that hope of the world to come. Hopefully we won’t have to experience that kind of persecution, but even for the ordinary difficulties that we continually face, it makes all the difference if we have the inner strength and hope that our faith gives us. What is that hope? It is the hope that something wonderful awaits us in the world to come if we choose for God. That helps us to keep going, to be faithful, especially when things are difficult.

Today’s readings are about this: religious persecution. In the first reading we hear about a family who are prepared to face torture and death rather than turn their back on their faith in God. And the Gospel Jesus is reminding us that the life after this one is real and worth struggling to reach. People are prepared to die for the mass and for their faith because it is the greatest thing that God has given us. It is what makes sense of why we are here.

As it happens I was in Rome shortly after Ragheed’s death and I was there for a special mass that was celebrated in the Irish College where I studied for three years. It was celebrated by several Iraqi priests, mostly in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke,  and which Ragheed also spoke at home. It was very moving to see several other young priests there from Iraq who could easily face the same fate as my friend Fr. Ragheed.

Irish College Rome where Ragheed studied for several years

 During the mass, the words that kept going through my mind were the words of the consecration: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ Those words reminded me of Ragheed’s life. He was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people so that they could have the Eucharist, the greatest treasure that God has given us. In the same way the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us as well, so that we might have life. May we also have the grace to be faithful and persevere as he did.

Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr, pray for us.