Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter Sunday Yr C (Gospel: John 20:1-9) Jesus Christ is Lord

A few years ago I got an email from a friend of mine to say that he and some others were setting up a group called ‘Count me in’. This was a group of mostly young people who wanted to stand up for their faith and be counted and to do whatever they could to bring about renewal in the Church in Ireland. They were starting this group partly in reaction to another group called ‘Count me out’ which, as you might guess, was a group of people who no longer wanted to have anything to do with the Church. I must admit I was very heartened to hear of this group ‘Count me in’ especially being started by young Catholics who felt the need to stand up and be counted. As my friend so rightly stated in his letter to me, ‘Though we want very much to count ourselves out from any kind of abuse and cover-up by individual Church members and ministers, there is no way we can count ourselves out from Christ’s Body and from his offer of salvation.’ I was hoping for and half expecting that something like that would happen, as the Holy Spirit always moves people at the right time.

At a time when we are seeing so many very frightening things in the world, it is good to remind ourselves who it is we believe in. We believe in the Son of God who conquered death and evil. If we stay focused on the world and what is going on, we could easily become overwhelmed with fear and even despairing. But if we keep our focus on Jesus we will see the world in a different way. Remember that his death was just like some of the horrific and pointless killings that we are hearing about in the news; the death of completely innocent people.

I can’t help thinking of the time when Jesus gave the teaching about his body and blood, saying that ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life in you.’ It says that ‘After this many of his followers stopped going with him.’ His teaching was too much for them. But when he turned to the disciples and said, ‘What about you. Do you want to go away too?’ Peter said, ‘Lord to whom shall we go, you have the message of eternal life.’ That is very much how I feel myself. I am horrified and disheartened by all the horrors we are hearing about in our world, but I also feel, where else would I go?  I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is Lord and that he has revealed God to us.  Why would I want to go anywhere else?

What has all this to do with Easter you might ask? What is key to the event of Easter is that it was the last thing that anyone expected to happen. As far as the disciples were concerned it was all over. The master had been killed and they didn’t know what to do. It took quite a bit of convincing for them to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. When the women first came to them and told them that they had seen a vision of angels who told them Jesus was alive, the Apostles simply didn’t believe them. Then Jesus began to appear to them himself and it still took quite a while for them to really believe.

Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. If he did, then we have nothing to be afraid of, because it is the Son of God who is guiding his Church, who continues to make himself present in each mass, who continues to minister to his people through the priesthood. If the resurrection of Jesus is not true, then none of us should be here, because everything we believe in is based on the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead.

All that happened at Easter was totally unexpected. The worst disaster—the death of the only completely innocent man—was turned into the greatest event imaginable, an event that changed the course of history. This man Jesus, whom we celebrate, is Lord and he is the one who is guiding us. He is the one we believe in and we must keep going back to his words and his teachings. ‘In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid; I have overcome the world.’ Remember too that several of his apostles let him down badly, but it didn’t stop Jesus from using them and from passing his teaching on to us. 

At the moment our faith is being tested with what is going on in the world, but we must remember the event of Easter. God turned everything around when people least expected it and in a way that they could never have imagined. This is the God we believe in, who is just as powerfully present to us today. So let us never lose heart or be afraid. God has always been with his people and He always will be.

I am with you always.  Yes, until the end of the world.’

Friday, March 18, 2016

Passion Sunday Year C (Lk 22:14-23:56) My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

One of the things that I always find difficult to deal with is injustice. I think it affects most of us in the same way and the closer to home it is the harder it is to take. A few years ago I met a lady friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for some time. She was now separated and trying to finish the house they had been both building. But she began to tell me of how the builder they were dealing with had ripped them off, but now that she was on her own he was even worse. He intimidated her, stole furniture, all kinds of things that were so wrong, and to make it worse he lived just down the street from her new house. I was so angry I could hardly contain myself, and the worst thing was that there was little I could do about it.

No doubt everyone here could tell me different stories of injustice.  It’s all around us and it seems hard to get away from it. The worst thing is that there is often little we can do about it. Why does God allow these things to go on? We say that God is all-powerful and loving; if that is so why doesn’t He intervene?

The answer, if it is an answer, is given to us in the account of the passion. The last day of Jesus’ life involved, corruption, betrayal, lies, hatred, abandonment, jealousy, torture and murder. Even the trial used to prosecute Jesus was illegal by their own law. Why didn’t God intervene? How can God allow these things to happen?

God gives us an answer, but maybe not the kind of answer that we would like. When we cry out in frustration to God, He points us to the passion of Jesus. Jesus was the only one completely innocent, who only did good during his life. Yet because of jealousy and hatred, he was set up, convicted, tortured and killed in the most brutal way.

I think that God tells us two things through the passion of Christ. Firstly God is well aware that we suffer, and suffer unjustly. God knows the pain it causes us and the frustration at often not being able to do anything about it. When we ask, ‘Why do you allow this Lord?’ God points to Jesus on the cross. For some reason suffering is part of the journey that leads us to God. ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mt 16:24). But perhaps more important is the fact that the suffering that we go through is leading to something else.  It is a suffering that often transforms us, and it will not last forever. It will end and the whole point of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Just One, is so that we can access a life that no longer involves any suffering. That is what God promises us and God only speaks truth. That is where we have to hold on tight in hope and remember that this life is not the whole picture. If we live as if this life were everything, then we will be disappointed. But if we remember that this life is leading to something much better and that it is a time of service, then it will help us to stay close to God and not lose hope. That is the difference that our faith makes. It tells us what our life is about and the purpose of our being here.

The passion of Christ also reminds us that Jesus has experience the greatest depths of suffering, even to the point of feeling that the Father had abandoned him. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46). For us this means that Jesus understands our worst suffering and feelings of despair or abandonment. He has been there and so we know that He is with us. We are never alone.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

5th Sunday of Lent Year C (Gospel: John 8:1-11)
So that sins may be forgiven

Each time I celebrate the mass there is one line that strikes me more than any other. It is when the priest prays over the chalice and says ‘This is the cup of my blood... it will be shed for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven.’ This phrase is what sums up the whole celebration of the mass. The blood of Jesus was shed so that sins could be forgiven. This forgiveness is offered to us until the end of time, but it is up to us whether we accept it or not.

The flip side of this is that it means we have sinned and we sin continually. That is what God has taught us. If you think you haven’t sinned, or don’t sin, remember these words from the first letter of St. John: He says, ‘If anyone says they have not sinned, they are calling God a liar.’ Pretty strong words, but he meant it and you can see why, because if we say we have not sinned then there is no reason for the death and resurrection of Jesus; then there is also no reason for the mass. If we haven’t sinned, then the mass is meaningless. In each mass we become present to the death and resurrection of Jesus and then we can actually receive his body and blood, so that we can be united to the Son of God in the most intimate way possible, receiving his body into our own body.

Now I know that most people will acknowledge that they are sinners. That is a good start, but God also asks us to confess our sins to a priest, the sins that we are aware of. Why? So that we can be reconciled to God in a very concrete way, through another human being, one who is specially appointed by God to do just that. God acts through the priest in a unique way, offering his forgiveness, guidance and encouragement. We believe this is what he did. This is what Jesus said to his Apostles:

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven;
If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained (John 20:23).

Whoever listens to you listens to me.
Whoever rejects you, rejects me (Luke 10:16).

Why is it so important that we are reconciled to God? Because only in God will we find complete fulfilment. God knows that, but the difficult part is that we cannot see that properly. In fact we are even suspicious of it. If we could see what being fully united to God meant, we would do everything to stay as close to God as possible. Sometimes people are given a particular grace to see the importance of this, and they go to the ends of the earth to make this known to others as well. One such person was St. Paul. In the second reading he says:

I believe that nothing can happen which will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him (Phil 3:8-9).

After he had this profound encounter with Jesus who appeared to him, he was completely changed and he spent the rest of his life telling people that this man Jesus, who had been killed, had risen from the dead and was the Son of God; and boy did he suffer for it. He was put in prison several times; many attempts were made on his life; five times he received the 39 lashes, three times he was shipwrecked, etc. But nothing could stop him because God had allowed him to see that everything was worth being united to God.

‘So what are we supposed to do?’, you might ask. ‘We can’t see how important it is.’ Even though we do not see this so clearly ourselves, we listen to the accounts of those who have experienced it—because God is speaking to us through them—and we push on in the same direction. But we would be foolish to ignore the way that is pointed out to us and one of the most important ways to be reconciled to God, is to confess what we have done wrong; not just to acknowledge it, but to actually confess it; the way we constantly judge people, curse, resent others, are selfish, ignore God’s commands, lust, talk about others and so on.

Remember this beautiful Gospel today; the woman caught in adultery. There was no condemnation on Jesus’ part, only compassion. According to the law they were entitled to stone this woman to death, and they believed that the law came from God, but Jesus turned the situation around and showed them that they were in no position to condemn someone else. Neither are we and God has no interest in condemning us either, only bringing us back. That is the meaning of his death and resurrection.

So going back to what I said at the beginning. The blood of Jesus has been shed so that our sins may be forgiven. How do we accept that forgiveness, by asking for it through confession. This is God’s gift to us, so that we can be healed. It is not something forced on us or inflicted on us. Rather, it is an extraordinary gift that God has given to us, so that we may be healed and so that we may draw closer to the only One who can fulfil us.

‘This is the cup of my blood... It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.’

Friday, March 4, 2016

4th Sunday Lent Yr C (Gospel: Lk 15:1-3, 11-32) The Prodigal Son

Entrance to 'Newgrange', a 5000 year old passage grave in Eastern Ireland

Trying to say anything about God is extremely difficult if not impossible, because God is completely beyond our understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas was a great genius and wrote one of the greatest works of theology called the Summa Theologica. Towards the end of his life he had a vision of God or heaven, and after that he stopped writing and he said ‘It’s all trash, we have no idea!’ This is one of the reasons why Jesus spoke in parables, to try and give us some idea of what God is like. Today’s parable of the Prodigal Son is a particularly beautiful one.

This story could also be called ‘The parable of the forgiving Father.’ We usually tend to focus on the rebellious son who basically told his father that he wished he was already dead and so he wanted his inheritance now. Having insulted his father as much as is possible, he eventually comes back in hard times to ask forgiveness. Now the son is looking at all he has done wrong, all the sin, all the insults to his family, but the father looks right beyond the sin and just loves his son. He doesn’t condemn him, he doesn’t ask for an apology, he doesn’t do anything that you would expect him to do. Instead he just celebrates and loves his son. Maybe it should be called ‘The parable of the foolish father’.

This teaches me something about God in a very practical way. When I think of myself before God, I tend to do as the younger son did. I usually think only of the sins I have committed and my failings rather than my strengths; but from the parable I realise that God’s approach to me is very different. God is not interested in my sin, or my weakness, or what I could have done better. He is interested in me as a person, and He rejoices and celebrates every time I come back to him, especially if I have drifted away from him. God rejoices in the child before him, like you would with a toddler. You don’t focus on what a small child has done wrong, you just see the child that you love.

Then there is also the older brother. In many ways I think most of us are probably more like the older brother than the younger. We probably haven’t done anything too outrageous; we may even have been quite faithful to our duties all through our life. But we may well despise those who have apparently walked away from God, and especially those who obviously do what is wrong. It is easy for us to resent the fact that God loves them. This is exactly what the Pharisees (who were the religious people of the time) were doing. They said, ‘Why is this prophet hanging around with those people. They are disgusting, they do everything wrong and they know it.’

However, through the parable Jesus is showing us that that is not how God sees things. God does not act as we do. It may be understandable from our point of view, but we are in no position to judge the heart of another person. We can judge their actions as right or wrong, but we cannot judge their heart. Only God knows what causes another person to act as they do. This was what the older brother did. He resented the Father’s forgiveness, but the Father also loved him, forgave him and reached out to him. 

God is not interested in what we have done wrong. His desire is just that we are reconciled to him so that we can enjoy all that He has done for us and all that He has created for us.  His design for us is that we find happiness. This is the mercy of God that we trust in. That is also why in the second reading the Apostles are at pains to point out that we have already been reconciled to God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing we can do that God hasn’t already forgiven, so long as we turn to God and ask for that forgiveness. That is why we talk about forgiveness and repentance so much, especially during Lent, because this is what God asks us to do. 

What we are appealing to you before God is: be reconciled to God.