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.’