Saturday, February 27, 2016

3rd Sunday of Lent Yr C Forgiveness and healing

This Friday Pope Francis has asked all parishes to have 24 hours of confessions as part of the ‘Year of Mercy’. So all over the world people are being invited to take the time to go to confession. Here we will start at noon on Friday until 11pm and then 9am on Saturday until noon. Why has the Lord put this idea into Pope Francis’ mind? Perhaps because it is something we have neglected and we need to take more seriously. Let me try and make sense of why it is so important to confess.

Any time I visit people in the hospital or anywhere I always offer to prayer with them. One thing that I nearly always pray for is peace of mind. It is one of the things that people always want to hear, because most of us are not fully at peace. Many of us need God’s forgiveness, to know that we are forgiven, no matter what it’s for. For me as a priest it is always wonderful to see what a relief it is for people when they know they have been forgiven through the priest. Their face is different, they are healed. There is an interesting connection between forgiveness and healing. We look for physical healing all the time and that’s good, but we also look for spiritual healing all the time too, unknown to ourselves.

Jesus was able to work miracles of physical healing, amazing miracles, but that wasn’t his main task. His main task was spiritual healing. Helping people to discover God in their midst, helping people know the healing power of God’s forgiveness so that they wouldn’t be carrying great burdens of guilt. So He taught people about God, about how to live by God’s laws so that they could be better people, healthier, happier people. This is what He spent most of his time doing, helping people put God at the center. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will follow.’ The miracles that he worked were signs to help people believe that he was genuine.

One of the many accounts of Jesus healing someone involves a paralysed man who is brought before him on a stretcher (Luke 5:18ff) and an interesting thing happens when he does. First it says that Jesus was preaching the word of God to the people. That’s why they were listening. Then they brought this paralysed man to him. The first thing Jesus said to him was, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. Now I’m sure if you were there, you’d have been thinking, ‘Who cares about his sins being forgiven, lets just see him healed’!  But Jesus did this deliberately to show us that forgiveness leads to healing, and it is more important than physical healing. What happens to the spirit is more important than what happens to the body. The body is going to get sick and die eventually anyway, but the spirit will live on. Then he says to the people, ‘But to prove to you that I have authority to forgive sins’, in other words, ‘To prove to you that I’m not kidding…’ and then He healed him.

God has passed on this authority to forgive sins to his priests, so that we can all avail of God’s forgiveness and the healing that comes with it.  It is God’s gift to us.  It is there to help us, because God wants us to be at peace and to be happy.

Now there are two tricks that Satan plays on us to prevent us from receiving this forgiveness. Satan hates the human race and does everything he can to destroy it.  He is at war with God’s creation. That is why the Church is constantly under such attack, because it’s where God’s gifts are most powerful. So he attacks it and tries to discredit it continually. Jesus speaks about him many times in the Gospels.

The first things that Satan tells us is that our sin is too big, or too terrible to be forgiven and therefore that we shouldn’t go to Communion any more either. He tries to shame us.  He tries to get many people to become separated from God this way. ‘I couldn’t tell that to a priest.’ God never makes people ashamed. Sin does that and Satan exaggerates it. He also tries to discourage us. ‘There’s no point in continually confessing because you’re not getting any better anyway. You are no good.’

The second thing is this. He says, ‘Why should you confess to a priest? You don’t need to tell a priest. Who is he anyway, what would he know? You can just tell God you are sorry yourself.’ This is pride. Yes priests are just ordinary people, but they are the ones God has chosen to offer his forgiveness through. Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever’s sins you forgive they are forgiven. Whoever’s sins you retain they are retained’ (John 20:23ff). 

The Lord also gives us a concrete way to experience his forgiveness because He knows we need it. Listen to the chat shows on the TV and radio. You continually hear people confessing their sins. We have a psychological need to tell someone what we have done wrong. So don’t let anyone or anything come between you and the forgiveness God offers you. God wants us to be healed and this is one of the most powerful means that He uses. Make the most of it.

Look at the first reading today where Moses sees this strange sign of the burning bush. When he goes to approach it, the Lord tells him to take off his shoes because the ground on which he is standing is holy. It is holy ground because God is there. The Lord is telling us not to be casual about coming into his presence; not to be casual about receiving him in the Eucharist. If you got a chance to personally meet Pope Francis, or someone really important, would you make any effort to prepare for it? Of course you would. Well here at each mass we get a chance to receive Jesus, the Son of God, into our very bodies. The very least we should do is prepare as well as possible because we are approaching the ultimate holiness of God. We must never be casual about it. The best possible way we can prepare to come close to God is by confessing regularly; humbling ourselves before God. That is also why we begin every mass by acknowledging that we are sinners. Confessing once a year is the absolute minimum we are required to do as Catholics. Who lives a relationship at the absolute minimum level?

Forgiveness and healing go together. It’s not always easy to go through with treatment for a disease, but it is necessary if we want healing. It is not easy to admit that we are wrong and to confess, but it is essential if we want to be forgiven. It is God’s gift to you. Don’t let anyone deprive you of it.

          ‘Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven.
          Whoever’s sins you retain, they are retained.’

Saturday, February 20, 2016

2nd Sunday of Lent Yr C (Gospel: Luke 9:28b-36) Hope comes from faith

One of my appointments as a priest was working in a hospital in my hometown. As in any hospital many people died there. One of the readings that I would often read as part of the prayers for the dead is part of the second reading, the part where it says, ‘For us our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the Saviour we are waiting for…’ I’m sure when I read this out it usually wasn’t heard, because the people there were too much in shock, too numb, but the reading is important because it is a reminder to us of the hope that we have, through our faith.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we had no hope; if we didn’t believe in any kind of an afterlife? It would make this life very difficult. How would we keep going when things go wrong, when everything seems to fall apart? One of the greatest things that our faith gives us is hope. We mightn’t think of it this way, but it’s true. You may even think that you don’t have much faith at all, but if you’ve even come this far, to mass, then you have faith. We believe, even if we don’t have it all figured out. We believe that there is a better life after this one, if we choose it by the way we live. We believe that we will see the people we love again. It’s very important that we have this hope.

In the first reading God promises Abram, who later becomes Abraham, the Promised Land: a land for his people, a home, but the Promised Land is also a sign or a symbol of what he is promising us: eternal life in heaven. The Lord is saying that it is there for us if we want it and if we want it, then we are to try and live the way he taught us, because that is the path that brings us there. And so we do, we struggle and try to live as the Lord pointed out to us. It’s not a particularly easy way, but Jesus never said it would be. In fact he said it is the narrow road.

Our faith is what guides us along this difficult path and helps us to keep going, because our faith tells us that it’s worth while. Otherwise why would we bother to try and be different? Trying to live as a Catholic is what this journey is all about for us. It’s not about rules and regulations, it’s about a relationship with God. The rules and regulations and all the moral problems, they come afterwards. When our faith is alive, then these things fall into place. If we start off by focusing on the controversial issues, then we will miss the point and our faith will never grow. Our relationship with God is what comes first. Everything else is secondary.

What is the worst situation that you’ve ever been through? Maybe a death, or a separation. If you had no faith at all, it would be very hard to keep going, because you would have no hope, but we believe that God will see us through.

In this Gospel an interesting thing happens. Jesus let his three closest men see his glory. He let them have a glimpse of who he really was. He showed them that he was God. This happened just before Jesus went to Jerusalem and was arrested, tortured and killed. Do you know why he did this? He showed Peter, James and John his true splendour as God so that they would have hope. They were about to become very confused and disillusioned when he was killed. Everything they had come to believe in was about to appear to fall apart right before their eyes. So he gave them this vision to keep them going and it is also a reminder for us of the hope that we have.

I think it’s lovely to see Jesus giving these men hope even before they needed it. We usually turn to God when we get in trouble, but here, Jesus is anticipating what they will need. He is ahead of them, providing for them and the Lord does the same for us even though we may not be able to see it. 

This is my chosen Son. Listen to him.’

Friday, February 12, 2016

1st Sunday of Lent (Gospel: Luke 4:1-13) The way of service

 Since I was ordained a priest almost 18 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of the presence of God.  I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as becoming present in each mass in the bread and wine, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way.  It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it just seems to be some kind of a strange religious ritual.  So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular every once in a while to help people believe?

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

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

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

The second temptation was to compromise with evil.  This is a huge temptation for most people.  When you hear people say ‘the Church needs to get with the times’ this is often what they mean.  The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings to the more difficult moral demands of our age.  It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow, but that is not what we are asked to do.  And when Jesus was tempted this way he rejected it outright.  He was being tempted to compromise with evil just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced, but right is right and wrong is wrong.  We must not compromise on the ways of God.  It may be more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.
The third temptation that Jesus was presented with was to work signs and wonders for the people.  ‘Throw yourself down from the temple; since God will save you.’  If he started doing this then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time.  But Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart.  You cannot buy love, as you know, and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way, and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.

In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders now, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced, but that is not how God works. I think it is good to remember that, especially when we live in times of great change when God often seems to be very quiet.  The Lord knows what He is doing and He invites us to follow the same path that He took, the path of humility, the path that is often misunderstood.

Friday, February 5, 2016

5th Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 5:1-11) God’s glory and our sinfulness

 A few years ago I sat beside a man at a wedding reception who began telling me about all the wonderful things his family had achieved. They were very impressive. He went on to say that he really felt that we should do away with that part of the mass at the beginning when we say that we are sinners. We shouldn’t be putting ourselves down. We should be focusing on the fact that we are good.

He is right that we shouldn’t put ourselves down, but to acknowledge that we are sinners is not to put ourselves down. That is simply to acknowledge what we are.  God is holy and we are not. That is the reality. God is the Creator, and we are the created. That is also why we acknowledge our sinfulness at the beginning of every mass and why the Lord asks us to confess our sins and to receive his grace. It is arrogant of us to think that we don’t need to.

In the readings of the mass today we are being given the same message in different ways. The first reading was written hundreds of years before Jesus came.  This man Isaiah, whoever he was, had a vision of God in his glory and he was terrified.  His first reaction was to realise that he was a sinner. He says, ‘I am doomed for I am a man of unclean lips.’ The holiness of God which he was allowed to experience made him realise straight away that he was a sinner. Then the Lord sends an angel to cleanse him of his sins. He doesn’t say to Isaiah ‘Don’t worry about it’,  but instead he takes away his sinfulness. And then God is happy to use this man Isaiah as his messenger, but first He needed him to see that he was nothing of himself.

Something similar happens in the Gospel reading. Peter, James and John were fishing. Jesus used their boat as a stage to preach from and then Jesus tells them to put out for a catch. Now the fishermen knew their trade and you can tell from what Peter says to Jesus that he was politely saying, ‘Look preacher, we know our trade, why don’t you stick to your trade, but so as not to offend you we will drop the nets.’ And then Jesus shows them who they are dealing with by working a miracle they would understand. He made the impossible happen and through a miracle they could relate to. What is interesting is Peter’s reaction. Wouldn’t you imagine that he would say something like, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’ He was an expert fisherman and he knew that this was a miracle, but the first thing he said was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man’. He became aware straight away of his own sinfulness and the holiness of Jesus. However, it was Jesus who said, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Jesus didn’t say ‘It doesn’t matter’, he said, ‘Do not be afraid.’

One of the most basic experiences we have in the presence of God’s holiness is to recognise that we are sinners before God. To acknowledge that and to confess it is what God asks us to do. Not to confess it, is arrogant on our part, because we are basically saying I don’t need to confess that I am a sinner.

Every time that Jesus met someone who was possessed by an evil spirit, they nearly always cried out, ‘What do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth? We know who you are; the holy one of God.’ The demons knew who he was and they knew their place.

What is beautiful in both of these accounts is that God is not afraid to use us because we are sinners. On the contrary, He tells us not to be afraid. We must repent, yes, but we must also realise that God is happy to work with us as we are, in our weakness. God doesn’t need us to be perfect, but only to be open to him.
Peter said: ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man.’ 
Jesus replied: ‘Do not be afraid.  From now on it is men you will catch.’