Friday, May 26, 2017

The Ascension of the Lord into heaven (Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20)

Why do you come here each week? Why do you give up an hour or so of your time to come to a church, listen to readings that were written thousands of years ago and watch a strange ritual? I’m sure it’s not just to listen to me.

After the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the word began to spread about what had happened and that Jesus had begun to appear to the Apostles and others. He was still alive and He was speaking to people. Anywhere there have been rumors of Jesus, or Mary appearing in different parts of the world, people come in their thousands to find out more. Why, because we always want to know about the other world and what it is like. In Medjugorje, an apparition site where Our Lady is said to have appeared to six children in 1981, over 40 million people have been there to date. It was the same back then. So people began to come together and listen to the stories of the Apostles about what had happened and what it meant. The Apostles began to explain to them what Jesus had taught them, what the point of his life and death was and that He now became present to them in the breaking of the bread. People were eager to hear about this, especially when they saw that the Apostles were so completely dedicated to spreading this message that they were quite happy to sacrifice the rest of their lives for it and even be killed for it, which most of them were.

 What exactly was it that the Apostles were teaching the people? They were fitting all the pieces together going back to the earlier writings of the Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and telling the people what Jesus had taught them. Jesus’ teaching was what made sense of their lives, of our lives, of why we are here and where we are going when we die; that heaven is real and that we have to be careful how we live this life and about the choices we make.

All that, the reading of the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, the breaking of bread, is what we now call the mass which we continue to do each week. It may not always seem that interesting and often we are distracted, but we keep coming back because we also want to try and make sense of our lives and what is going on around us. Why is there so much suffering in our world? It wasn’t a whole lot different in Jesus’ time either. There was also much killing, injustice, wars, disease and famine, just as there is now.

Jesus ascending into heaven was the time when he told the Apostles to start spreading this message, so that we would know and understand the purpose of our life. When we understand why we are here we live differently.

It also says that when Jesus appeared to them just before He ascended into heaven that they worshiped
him, but some doubted. Some doubted even though Jesus had appeared to them and they had witnessed many miracles. It is normal that we doubt and have questions, because we have not seen what the other world is like. Are we imagining it, is this just a way of comforting ourselves. Karl Marx called religion, ‘The opium of the people’, a drug to comfort us. But the Lord has taught us otherwise and continues to speak to us in many different ways.

It might surprise you to know that a many people have spiritual experiences. Sometimes of loved ones who have died, sometimes of the Lord himself. Most people will keep this to themselves, but they will often tell me about it because I am a priest. That is my privilege. A few years ago a man came to me early on a Saturday morning asking if he could speak to me for a few minutes. I thought he was looking for money. He proceeded to tell me that a friend of his who had died some months before had appeared to him in a dream. He was obviously quite shaken by the event and he wanted to go to confession. It was a wake-up call for him. It is good to know that these things happen because it is a sign of how real the spiritual world is, that God is all around us, speaking to us, guiding and encouraging us. It is real and sooner or later we will be shown just how real it is and then everything will make sense.

For now we will continue to come together, to listen to the Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. We don’t understand, but we believe.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

6th Sunday of Easter (Gospel: Jphn 14:15-21) "If you love me you will keep my commandments"

 All of us here make prayers of petition. We ask for what we need: exams, relationships, money worries, work, whatever it is, we all ask God for help and expect to be answered and rightly so since God has told us that we should ask him for what we need. Jesus even says it in this Gospel reading: “…and then the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name,” but if you go back a few lines he also says something else. The Lord says, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love… and then the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name.” God asks us to keep his commandments first, because that’s how it is in any relationship. You ask someone you love for something and you know that they will do their best to give it to you, because of your love for each other, but the love for each other is there first. You don’t ask favors from complete strangers, at least not often. You ask people you love.

Love brings with it obedience and faithfulness. A couple who love each other try to obey each other and try to be faithful to each other and then their love grows and as the love grows they know they can rely on each other for what they need. Our love for God is just the same. The more we come to know God the more we know that we can rely on him for what we need, because it’s based on a loving relationship, with a real person, the person of Jesus. We don’t just believe in a thing, but a person, but we can’t expect to demand our needs from God if we are not willing to do as he asks. What kind of a relationship would that be? It would be just one person using the other.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.” In other words this is how we show God that we love him, by trying to be obedient to him. What are his commandments? Love God, respect his name, keep Sunday holy, honor you parents, don’t kill, steal, don’t commit adultery or lie. If we aren’t prepared to keep these commandments of God, can we still expect him to give us what we ask? Would you expect your husband or wife, or someone you love, to do things for you, if you refused to do what they asked you?  Of course not.

The important thing to remember is this: God loves us first and that is where we get our strength from, to do as he asks us. What we have to do is to open our hearts. You may find yourself saying “It’s very hard to keep the commandments.  It’s very hard to try and love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s very hard not to shop on Sundays, and not to use the Lord’s name as a swear word. It’s not realistic.”

You’re right, it is practically impossible to live as God asks, if you rely on your own strength, but we are not expected to. We rely on God’s strength for these things. It’s called grace and that’s what makes us different. I could not live as a celibate man by my own strength? I rely on God’s help every day. We cannot say it’s too hard, because we have God’s strength to help us. But how do we get this help, this grace?  We get it from prayer. There are 24 hours in a day, no one can say they can’t spare 20 minutes for God. If you do, it just means you have no interest, no love for God. We get it from fasting, making sacrifices. Lent isn’t the only time to fast. One day a week we can eat less, or don’t watch TV, or give up something you like, until it hurts. We get this strength especially from the Eucharist. Receive Jesus often if you want to grow in the spirit. We get it through spending time with Jesus in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We get it through confession, when we are healed of our sins.  

God constantly offers us this strength, but we have to open our hearts to him. Then you will find a strength that you didn’t know existed; strength to love God, strength to keep his commandments, strength to love other people. We turn to God first to receive from him, then we can live as he asks.
‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’

Saturday, May 13, 2017

5th Sunday of Easter. 100th Anniversary of Fatima

One hundred years ago this weekend, three young children: Francisco Marto aged 9, Jacinta Marto aged 7 (his sister) and their cousin Lucy dos Santos aged 10 were given six apparitions of Our Lady. Initially an angel came to them to prepare them for Our Lady’s visit. Then on May 13th Our Lady appeared to them for the first time. She would appear to them on the 13th of each month until October.

Our Lady told Francisco and Jacinta that they would die young, but first they were asked to pray much and suffer much for the conversion of sinners. Francisco died two years later aged 11 and Jacinta the following year aged 8. Lucy eventually became a Carmelite nun where she spent the rest of her life. She died in 2005 at the age of 98. Our Lady told the children that there would only be peace if her requests were heeded. She asked that people would pray the rosary daily, wear the brown scapular and that Russia would be consecrated to her. She told them that war was a punishment for sin and that only through prayer and penance could war be avoided. She also said that if Russia wasn’t converted it would continue to spread its errors (Communism and atheism) throughout the world. What became known as the three ‘secrets’ of Fatima were also given to the children. The first was a vision of Hell, the second was a prophecy of World War II and the third remained secret but was believed to have to do with the sufferings of the Church and the Holy Father.

On the last day of the apparitions, which was on October 13th, the people who came to the place of the apparition were allowed to see the miracle of the sun. It was raining heavily but then suddenly the rain stopped, the sun came out and many people saw the sun ‘dancing’ or spinning, with many different colors coming from it and finally the sun seemed to be careering towards the earth but then stopped. It is believed that between 30 and 50,000 people witnessed this miracle. The miracle of the sun was granted to them to help the people believe in the reality of the apparitions.

Apart from the fact that it is an interesting story, what has this got to do with us today? Like so many other aspects of our faith it has everything to do with us. If God sends Our Lady to us, there must be a serious reason for it. Our Lady has also appeared in other parts of the world throughout the centuries and the message is always basically the same. It is never about her, it is always her pointing us back to God. She tells us that the world is living as though God does not exist and that if we continue to live that way we will destroy ourselves. If we ignore God and his teachings we just have to listen to the news to see what happens. Greed, corruption, desire for power, all lead to misery and war. God shows us the way, but if we ignore it we bring nothing but suffering on ourselves and as always it is the ordinary people who suffer. Those with power play political games and war games, those at the bottom suffer the consequences.

In the Old Testament Moses says to the people,

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them…” (Deut 30:19 ff)

We are offered the same choice today and the consequences are just as serious. If we want the world to be a better place for us and our children, then we must begin with ourselves. Sorting out the world’s problems is not where we start. We start with ourselves by obeying the Lord’s commandments; by repentance and prayer and keeping God at the center. That is what changes the world.

Why did Our Lady show the children a vision of Hell? I'm sure to make us realize that it is real, that we can lose heaven and that our actions do have consequences. We will be accountable for the way we live. Does that mean that we should be afraid? Absolutely not. The Lord promises us that the smallest effort on our part is enough to win his infinite mercy. What is important is that we try and that we don't take it for granted that heaven is ours no matter what. What we have to try and remember is that our time here on earth is the time of sacrifice, of love and service. We will struggle until the day we are brought home to heaven, but we need to remind ourselves that it is not all about us, but about loving and serving the people around us.

The truth is that we don’t take sin and repentance seriously enough. If unrepentant sin is the one thing that could cause us to lose our greatest happiness, which is life with God when we die, then we need to take it very seriously. God gives us all the tools that we need, the Eucharist, the priesthood to give us the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins, but we must choose to use them. If you think back on your time in school: at the time it seemed long, but now it is already in the distant past and seems unimportant. Our life on earth is something similar. Now it often seems long and difficult, but soon our time on earth will be over and then it will seem remarkably short. How we live it is what is really important. Remember the words of Our Lady at the wedding at Cana when the married couple ran out of wine. Mary told Jesus what was wrong she then turned to the servants and said: ‘Do whatever He tells you.’

Our lady of Fatima, pray for us.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

4th Sunday of Easter Yr A (Jn 10:1-10) I am the gate

Several years ago I had the great privilege of visiting the Holy Land. It was an extraordinary experience to be able to visit all the places where Jesus lived and preached. I remember being struck at seeing shepherds leading their sheep, something which I had never seen in any other country, because they are a different kind of animal. In Palestine the shepherd walks in front and the sheep follow in a line behind. You can still see them doing this in the fields. It makes more sense of what we read in the Scriptures where Jesus says ‘I know my sheep and mine know me’ and ‘He leads me to green pastures.’

I also remember hearing a story of a tourist who was visiting one of these places and was looking at the sheep. To his horror he watched as the shepherd took one of the lambs and deliberately broke its leg. When he saw this he went over and began to give out to the shepherd, saying ‘I saw what you just did.’ The shepherd got angry and said ‘You know nothing about what is going on here’.  He then explained to the tourist what he was doing. He said that the lamb was constantly running away, because he was afraid of the shepherd. When this happens the shepherd breaks the leg of the animal and immediately puts it into a splint to heal. During the time when it is healing he carries the animal on his shoulders. By the time it has healed the lamb is no longer afraid of the shepherd and stays close to him, and is therefore no longer in danger of getting lost. They actually do this. 

Today is vocations Sunday also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’; a day when we remember and pray for priests. St. Therese of Lisieux said she could never understand why people were always saying that we should pray for priests until she went on a pilgrimage to Rome with several priests. Then she understood! The priest is meant to be a shepherd, one who leads people to God, or points people in the direction of God. If I am to do that, my life as a priest must be completely centred on God to begin with, because I cannot give you what I do not have. Nothing I have of myself will be of any use to you. The only thing that I have which is of any use to you is what I receive from God. I am only a vessel or instrument of God; at least that is the idea.

We also know that we priests are not always as good as we should be. Sadly we have often let people down in different ways and even led people away from God, which is something that we will be answerable to God for.  In the book of Ezekiel God says to the prophet, ‘Woe to the shepherds who do not feed my sheep.’

 So why does God keep on calling people who are weak? Why doesn’t He pick stronger people, or more reliable people? I have no doubt it is to make it all the more obvious that we are only instruments that He uses. Of ourselves we are nothing, but the message that we pass on to you from God is everything. It is like a glass of really good wine. Whether the glass itself is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, is irrelevant. What matters is the content. I think that that is worth remembering when you find yourself disappointed with a priest. Remember that while of course it is a great help if he is a very holy man, the only thing that is really important is the message that he is bringing. We are only messengers, or as St. Paul says, ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Cor 4:7). We are only cracked jars that carry this extraordinary treasure. What matters is the treasure that we bring to you and not the one who carries that treasure. That treasure is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that He has won eternal life for us through his death and resurrection; that He is Lord of all things and all things are subject to him. Also that He has given us the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins. That is the only thing that matters. Jesus is the one who offers us the fullness of life, and He is the only one who can offer it. We continue to turn to him for life and hopefully we priests will continue to be vessels, or instruments helping people to rediscover these extraordinary treasures which God has given us, in spite of our weakness.

I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’