Friday, April 28, 2017

3rd Sunday of Easter (Gospel: Luke 24:35-48) ‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer...’

Several times I’ve had the opportunity to go to Medjugorje (the place in Bosnia Herzegovnia where Our Lady has allegedly been appearing since 1981) on pilgrimage.  Once when I was there I heard the visionary named Ivanka describe the experience she had when Our Lady told her she would no longer be appearing to her on a daily basis, but only once a year. Before the vision finished she asked Ivanka if there was anything she would like her to do for her. Ivanka asked Our Lady if she could see her mother again. Her mother had died just a few months before the apparitions had begun. In Ivanka’s own words she says that just after she asked this of Our Lady suddenly her mother was in front of her and she was able to talk to her and hug her. Her mother told her that she was really proud of her and to be obedient to what her grandmother told her. At the end of this testimony Ivanka said, ‘I am living proof that heaven exists. I saw my mother and spoke with her several months after she died.’ To listen to Ivanka recall this experience in her own words was very moving and watching her tell this story it is certainly hard to doubt it.

In today’s Gospel we hear another account of Jesus suddenly appearing to the disciples after the resurrection. To help them believe that what they were seeing was real Jesus does a beautiful and very human thing. He not only talks to them and makes sense of what happened to him, but he also eats with them. He wanted them to be convinced that they weren’t dreaming. This helped them to believe that this was the same Jesus with real flesh and blood that they had lived with for three years, a bit like Ivanka being allowed to speak with and hug her mother. They were left in no doubt after that.

Another interesting thing that Jesus did this time was to help the disciples understand that everything that had taken place—his suffering, death and resurrection—made sense. He showed them that the prophets had foretold it and that the Scriptures referred to it and then he said to them, ‘So you see how it was written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise again...’ In other words he was saying that all the events that had taken place, which were so horrifying and disillusioning for them, had their place. They were meant to happen and they fitted into God’s plan for the world. That was something that took the disciples a while to get their heads around, as suffering never makes sense to any of us. So Jesus had to help them understand not only that he was alive, but that all that had taken place was meant to happen.

All of us are continually faced with difficult situations of suffering. Sometimes it is suffering that we ourselves go through, such as sickness or relationships breaking up, and sometimes it is watching people dear to us suffer, like when someone we love dies. It never seems to make sense and it always seems unfair. We find ourselves crying out, ‘How can God do this to me? Why does God allow this?’ When I worked in a hospital as a chaplain I remember often hearing people ask me, ‘Why has God done this to me?’ So often we cannot make sense of why we have to suffer and we may even see it as a punishment.

Even though we don’t have a direct answer to this question, what Jesus says to his disciples in this Gospel is a help, because it reminds us that everything that happens fits into God’s bigger plan. The struggles we go through don’t make sense to us and sometimes they may even be caused by the wrong-doing of others. How could this be part of God’s plan, we ask? The point is that God can bring good out of every situation, even turning the evil work of people into good, but for the most part we cannot see that. We are just faced with each individual situation of suffering and that is hard. However, the Lord is telling us that there is a bigger picture which makes sense of everything that happens. When we die we will then see that picture and it will all make sense to us. 

St. Pius of Pietrelcina—better known as Padre Pio—used the analogy of a tapestry. He said that our life is like a tapestry in God’s hands. We are looking at it from the back, like a child looking up at it while her mother works at it. All the child can see is the various bits of string hanging out, but seen from the other side, the Creator’s side, it is a beautiful work of art. So much of what we go through makes no sense to us, but the Lord asks us to trust that He knows what He is doing. One day when we see the tapestry from the right side, we will see the beautiful picture that the Lord has created.

So you see how it was written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise again... 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

2nd Sunday of Easter (Gospel: John 20:19-31) Do not be afraid

As a child—I think it was because I had such a vivid imagination—I seemed to be afraid of almost everything. Maybe it’s because of that, but today I hate to see anyone afraid. Sadly, at the moment there are many people living in fear, especially fear of terrorism, fear of not being able to cope or provide for their families because of all that is happening. It is very understandable and yet it is also one thing that God does not want for us. 366 times in the Scriptures are the words ‘Do not be afraid.’ God wants us to be at peace.

2000 years ago, on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, even though they believed He was the Son of God. Judas had betrayed him for money. Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus. They all betrayed him. Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room in fear. They were afraid first because they knew they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates. Secondly, perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them because they had betrayed the Son of God. It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens. Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’ The first thing he does is to take away their fear. There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before. There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful. Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed the Lord by my actions. Sometimes I even wish I was not a priest, because then I would not have to deal with what is sacred. It is difficult to have to deal with the sacred when you are aware that you are a sinner. It is easier to run and hide. Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish. Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’ Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease. ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘Do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned. Peace be with you.’ God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out. He knows what we are like. He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace. I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus would not believe the words of others that Jesus was alive. When you are grieving, you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful. And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe. No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe. No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.

In this Gospel Jesus also gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins in his name. Why? So that we need not ever be living in fear of God. Through the priesthood we have the concrete reassurance of God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we can move on when we have done wrong; so that we need not live in fear. No condemnation, only encouragement and love.

Let me finish with this story. There was a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home. He decided to desert, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death and so he was to be executed. This man was the only child of his mother who was now widowed. His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person. She pleaded for her son, and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world as she was widowed. The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on her son. Napoleon said in reply, ‘He doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’, but the mother replied to Napoleon, ‘If he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’

Peace be with you.  It is I, do not be afraid.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Sunday (Gospel: John 20:1-9) ‘Where is your faith in the risen Christ?’


A few years ago a priest friend of mine was working in Rome.  At one stage he had a few minutes talking to Cardinal Ratzinger (Later Pope Benedict XVI). Ratzinger asked him how things were in the Church in Ireland. My friend Fr. John said, ‘Things are terrible. The bishops are useless. All the young people have stopped going to mass. It’s all over!’ Ratzinger said to him, ‘Father, that is not the talk of a Christian. Where is your faith in the risen Christ?’ This completely took him aback and he knew that the cardinal was quite right. When he related this story to me I could hear the power of that question in me as well: ‘Where is your faith in the risen Christ?’ If what we celebrate today is really true, that Jesus rose from the dead and conquered the power of sin and death, then what could we possibly fear? Even if our Church and our world seems to be in a mess—which it often does!—the power of Christ is greater than all of this and it is Christ who is among us and it is Christ who is guiding the Church, even if that is not always clear to us. The key thing is that we remain focused on Jesus who is Lord, and not on the mess in the world, or on the human side of the Church. Jesus, the Son of God, is the head of the Church. The only reason the Church still exists is because this is so.

For the Easter Vigil we have several readings which recall the history of salvation. We begin with one of the accounts of creation. The two key points in this account are that it was God who created and what God created was good. God’s creation is fundamentally good. The fact that the human being was created last, is a biblical way of saying that this was the high-point of God’s creation. We are God’s masterpiece, the greatest thing God created. But then somewhere back along the way we rebelled and lost the harmony that was there. Throughout history even though we continually strayed away from God, the Lord continually brought us back to himself. He continued to show us that the path which leads us to fulfillment and happiness is the path that is leading towards him. 

When God rescues the people of Israel and leads them out of Egypt and leads them across the Red Sea, they cannot go to the left or to the right. They can only go straight on towards God, or back to the ones who enslaved them.
In the reading from Isaiah (55:1-11) we hear the words,
‘Listen, listen to me and you will have good things to eat and rich food to enjoy. Pay attention, come to me; listen and your soul will live. With you I will make and everlasting covenant.’

In the reading from Baruch (3:9-15, 32-4:4) we hear the words:
‘Listen, Israel to commands that bring life: hear and learn what knowledge means.’ ‘Israel, blessed are we: what pleases God has been revealed to us.’ 

What pleases God is that we continue to walk in his way because that is the only way that will lead us to fulfillment. It is so simple and yet we so easily miss it.

In the New Testament reading from Romans (6:3-11) which we read after the Gloria, we are reminded that we now have a new life with God, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since we are joined to Jesus through our baptism we now enjoy the new life He has won for us. What is his is also ours, if we accept it. How could something so enormous be given to us? Simply because it is the generosity of God. In blessing the Easter water and renewing our own vows of baptism we remind ourselves that we totally belong to God. What God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus is extraordinary, but what is even more extraordinary is that He has done all of this for us, so that we may have life in its fullness. It is ours if we accept it.

So now going back to what Cardinal Ratzinger said to my friend: ‘Father, where is your faith in the risen Christ?’ I think God is saying the same thing to us today as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Jesus is Lord and He is among us. He is the one we focus on. It is only in him we will find the fullness of life and if we remain focused on him then there is nothing for us to be afraid of.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Thursday This is what I received from the Lord

Tonight we celebrate a very special mass, the first mass, when Jesus took the bread and wine and told the disciples that this was his body and blood. It is also on this night the first priests were ordained. The Passover meal which they were celebrating was and is a very special meal for the Jewish people. It was the feast that remembered their being set free from slavery. During that meal they sacrificed an animal, a lamb if possible, and the blood of the lamb was marked on the doors of their houses as a sign that they belonged to God, so God would protect them. They were saved by the blood of the lamb.

During this meal Jesus did something totally unexpected, which has left us baffled ever since. He suddenly told them that the bread which was in his hands, was now his body, and the wine was his blood and that they should both eat and drink it themselves, and repeat this ritual to remember him. This is what St. Paul says in the second reading which is the oldest account of the mass in the Bible: ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…’ We did not invent what we call the mass; the Lord Jesus himself gave it to us directly and asked us to repeat it as a way of remembering him. That is why we never change it for something else. That is why we also call it the mass and not a service.

From the very first time that Jesus taught the people about receiving his body and blood, it caused division. It says in John’s Gospel that when he gave this teaching the people complained and said ‘This is too much. Who could accept this?’ and many people stopped following him after that. But he didn’t go after them and say ‘Wait, let me explain!’ He just let them go. 

Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist? I’m sure it was for two reasons. First, because he wanted us to know that He is intimately with us always. We can receive the body and blood of Jesus into our own bodies every day if we wish. And so every time we celebrate the mass Jesus becomes present to us in the form of wine. It is not just a symbol, or a reminder, but this is really and truly the body of Jesus in an extraordinary way. This is completely beyond our understanding, but Jesus doesn’t ask us to understand it, only to believe in it.
The second reason is so that we could be present at the greatest event in history, the sacrifice of Calvary: the offering of God the Son to God the Father. That is what the mass is; the offering of God the Son to God the Father, an offering which the Father can not refuse, and that’s why the mass is so powerful. It is the perfect prayer, the perfect sacrifice which makes up for our inadequacies. Now Jesus makes it possible for us to be present at this event every time we celebrate mass.

Then another crucial thing happened. Jesus got down and washed the feet of the disciples, to teach them something. I always smile when anyone is asked to come up for the washing of the feet because if they do volunteer, you can be sure they will have carefully washed their feet, so really there is no need to wash them. But Jesus got down on his hands and knees and washed dirty, sweaty feet. Why did he do this? To show them that they were being called to a life of service. If he was prepared to serve them, they must also be prepared to serve everyone. That is what our work as priests is supposed to be about: it is meant to be one of service to the people.  It is also the mindset that we are all called to have as Christians; service; looking after whoever is in need. 

Now here is the essential thing. Peter’s reaction explained it all. Peter felt he could not allow Jesus the Lord, to wash his feet, because he was a sinner. He wanted to keep Jesus at a distance because he was a sinner. This is the typical reaction of most of us. We say ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  We don’t really believe that God could love us as we are. We are afraid to allow God to come too close. But Jesus’ answer was to say that he ‘must’ do this. In other words he was saying ‘Peter, you must not allow your unworthiness to keep me from you.’ God is well aware of what we are like and all the things that we’ve done wrong, but it doesn’t stop him from loving us and even from washing our feet. For our part we must not be afraid to allow the Lord to come close to us either. He offers himself to us, so let us never be afraid. ‘This is my body which will be given up for you.’

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Passion Sunday Year A (Gospel: Mt 26:14—27:66) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, events which changed the course of history forever. Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die. It’s that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet. They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Yet within a few days everything changed. He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed. Today we read the full account of his passion. It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience eternal life after this one. That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time.

Everyone suffers, as you know, there are no exceptions. Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone. Sometimes we even feel that God has left us and we are on our own. This can be so difficult because we believe that at least God won’t let us down even if everyone else does. But where do we turn when God disappears too? There is no where left to go. This is the worst kind of suffering. The truth is that God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ What does this mean? It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father. He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there? Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God. By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering, as it were. After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there. We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

I think it is also good to remember that even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, that in fact we have not, but sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God. It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it.

Finally I want to mention Our Lady. She also was at the foot of the cross. Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king. He would be called Son of the Most High God. What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes? Although Mary must have suffered terribly at all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope. She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding. God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand. There is so much that we don’t understand, but we try to believe that God knows what God is doing and so we don’t give up.