Friday, December 29, 2017

Feast of the Holy Family (Gospel: Luke 2:22-40) Our imperfect families

My family: L-R Eoin, Me, Eadain, Donnchadh, Mom, Gormlaith, Dad, Fionnuala, Cathal

My family lived in Dublin until I was six years old. One time when I was about five I was brought to a party of a school friend, but for some reason I decided that I didn’t like the party and that I wanted to go home. I figured that the best way to do this was secretly. So I told my friend that I would hide out in the garden and that he should come and try to find me after a few minutes. I then made my escape and headed home. The only problem was that I had no idea how to get home. So I headed off and asked a post-man how to get to York Road, in Dun Laoghaire, where we lived. He looked at me suspiciously but told me where to go. When I finally arrived home I found a big police motorbike in the front drive.  Everyone was out looking for me. My poor parents were not the better for this experience.  Family life is not easy.

This is a feast day which I think can often make us feel disappointed with our own families, although we don’t admit it, because it seems to tell us that our families are not what they should be. Things go wrong and we drive each other crazy. Someone gets into trouble and lets the family down. Marriages don’t always work out. We are afraid what others will think of us.

Then we are presented with the ‘holy family’, who we imagine were living in bliss all the time. That is not reality. They were poor. When Jesus was born they were homeless. Then with a new baby they had to flee to Egypt to escape an attempt on the child’s life and became refugees. When Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon told them he was destined to be a sign that would be rejected. He would not be a ‘success’. Later they lost him for three days. Can you imagine the stress of losing one of your children for three days?

So why are they presented to us as a model? Perhaps because they had their priorities right. God was at the center of this family. It was the right environment for the person of Jesus to grow and mature. Jesus had to grow up as a person just as all of us do, learn to be responsible, learn the Jewish traditions and that takes a long time. It involves a lot of learning for each of us, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on the part of our parents, but how we are formed is vital. There is an African proverb which says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We all have a part to play, even if that is just encouraging those who are struggling. If there are young families around you who are struggling financially, especially one parent families, look out for them. There is a couple I know who were telling me recently that at one stage, because one of their children was sick, they lost their home in order to pay hospital bills. The husband told me that for several months they lived on next to nothing. We never know how people are struggling and we must look out for each other.

We know almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, but no doubt it was very important for his growing and maturing as a person, and to help him be ready for the mission that He lived out for the last three years of his life, teaching people about God and sacrificing himself for us.

The main role of our families is to provide a safe, loving environment for us to grow up in, so that we will blossom as people and learn how to deal with the world. None of us come from perfect families, but that doesn’t matter. It is easy to become discouraged, thinking about how things might have been, or should be, but the bottom line is that we are the way we are. We come from the kind of imperfect families that we come from. The path through our lives often takes unexpected turns and things can work out a lot worse than we had intended. Does it matter? Not in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord is not the one to say ‘You should be different’. That is what people will say, but that is not what the Lord says. He is the one who always encourages, reassures and gives us new strength to keep going.

Think of all the people that Jesus came across in the Gospels. He took them exactly as they were, including many people who were causing public scandal. It didn’t matter what faith or cultural background they came from. He always showed great sensitivity to their dignity. Satan discourages, but God always encourages. What is important is not how we should be, but that we remain open to God. If we are listening and open, then the Lord can lead us forward. All God needs is our openness. The Lord knows well that we often mess up, but that doesn’t matter. Everything that we go through plays a part in forming us as people. The only thing that is important is that we are willing to get up again, to begin again and turn to the Lord for help as often as is necessary. 

Let us give thanks to God for the families that we grew up in, no matter how they are.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas 2017 (John 1:1-18) The Word was made flesh and lived among us

Several years ago on Christmas day after I had celebrated the two morning masses, I went to visit some friends, took a short walk and then went back to my house looking forward to a nap as I was exhausted. When I opened the front door I was horrified to see water pouring down through the ceiling. The pipes had burst!  So I spent most of the rest of the day trying to mop up the house. Compared to many people I know I got away lightly, but it still did a lot of damage. However, in spite of the damage, one of the things it made me realise was that you don’t really need very much. I still got a Christmas dinner, I had a place to stay and I was warm enough. What more could I ask for? We will always have inconvenience and problems, but if we have the basics we are ok and most of us have a lot more than just the basics.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the feast of Christmas is what the feast says about us as human beings. God didn’t sort everything out before He took on human flesh and came among us. He came into all the inconvenience, injustice and chaos that is all around us all the time and he was born into a human family with all the ups and downs that goes with any family. Mary and Joseph were away from home because of the census that was being taken and then Mary ended up having to give birth in a far from ideal place: a stable or cave. It must have been very upsetting, especially for Joseph whom I sure felt frustrated at not being able to provide a better place for his wife to give birth to their first-born. Soon afterwards they had to flee the country as refugees because of a death threat. There were difficulties from the start, and yet God was happy to come right into the middle of all that.


Perhaps what is easiest to overlook is the significance of God taking on flesh. He didn’t take on the nature of an animal, or of an angel, but of a human being. We are not animals, but we are not angels either and we are not meant to be. The Word became flesh, and that tells us that we are good as we are. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to improve, but we are meant to be ‘flesh’. I think many of us have grown up with the idea that spirit is good, but flesh and all to do with it is bad. However, that is not what God teaches us; in fact, He is telling us the complete opposite by taking on human flesh. This is how we are meant to be and not only that but in our flesh as we are, we imitate God, especially in the way we love.

The beginning of St. John’s Gospel, which we read on Christmas morning, tells us a few wonderful things. It is speaking about the person of Jesus, God the Son, which it calls the Word. It says that the eternal Word—who becomes Jesus—was there from the beginning. God the Son has always been there. It also says that apart from him we would not exist at all. We only have life because He is there, which also means that our life has no meaning apart from him. Then it says a most encouraging thing for the times that we live in. It says that Jesus (the Word) is the Light that shines in the darkness and ‘the darkness could not overcome this light.’ In other words, no matter what happens in the world around us, no matter how much evil there appears to be, it will never be able to overcome Jesus, who is God. God is stronger. God will have the last say. 

In the book of Revelation Jesus says,
I am the First and the Last, the Living One. I was dead, but now I am to live forever and ever. I hold the keys of death and of the underworld (Rev 1:17b-18).

All things are subject to God and yet he was pleased to come among us as one of us, to teach us about God, about the afterlife, about how we should live and of course to die for us. If God was prepared to come among us in this way it means that we must have enormous worth and value in his eyes. This also means that we are not just here by accident, but for a definite reason.

So although the world around us may seem to have lost its way, God is with us just as much as ever. God doesn’t need to make it all perfect to be with us. He didn’t when Jesus was born and He doesn’t have to now either. Instead He shows us a different way; the way of love and the way of sacrifice, which may seem to be insignificant, but is in fact the more powerful way. Earthly rulers need to show how strong they are, but God does not. God is powerful enough to be able to work quietly in the background, mostly unnoticed. ‘He came among his own and his own didn’t recognise him.’ It didn’t matter and it still doesn’t matter, because He is with us no matter what and He goes on teaching us no matter what. He will continue to teach anyone who is willing to listen, that we were created by God and at the end of our time on earth we will return to God if we are open to it. That is the purpose of our life and the reason why we are here. For our duration on earth, we simply do our best to follow the path that He points out to us.

‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us.’

Friday, December 22, 2017

4th Sunday of Advent Yr B (Luke 1:26-38) Nothing is impossible to God

Before I became a priest I worked in sales  for a couple of years. In one of the places I worked I overheard a conversation between two people about Christmas. One of them was speaking about Mary conceiving by the power of the Spirit and how it was impossible. She said, ‘It’s a nice idea, but I mean it’s just impossible!’ and she dismissed it as not true.

Is it impossible? Medically and scientifically it is impossible. According to the laws of nature it simply can not happen. So why are we expected to believe this story? Mary herself had the same reaction to the angel. She said, ‘But how can this be, since I am a virgin?’ It seems that she didn’t intend to have children, or else why would she have said that since she was already legally married to Joseph, but they weren’t yet living together, which was part of the Jewish culture.

What the angel said to her was, that this would happen by the power of God. God would intervene in nature’s natural course and to prove it to her, or as a sign to her, he told her about the miracle that God had already performed for Elizabeth, who was too old to have children and who had been barren. Elizabeth was now six months pregnant with John the Baptist, even though she was too old to have children. So the angel was saying to her, ‘I realise that this is impossible by your way of thinking, but that doesn’t mean God can’t do it and Elizabeth is the proof.’ So Mary said, ‘OK, I accept,’ even though she didn’t understand how it would happen and that’s what faith is. When we can no longer understand something, then we have to believe it or reject it. But why should we accept such an idea? Because we believe it comes from God. God presents us with these mysteries and invites us to believe, on his authority. God is the one asking us to accept it.

Image from the Hubble telescope
Several years back I was asked to do the wedding of a friend of mine. We were in elementary school together and now he is a pathologist. I asked him if he would be receiving Holy Communion, as I never like to presume. He said he would like to, but that he didn't believe in the resurrection of Christ. He said that he could not accept it as a scientist. He wasn't trying to be offensive, but he was just telling the truth. I admired him for his honesty. Every other day he is doing autopsies and he is being asked to believe that a man who died came back to life after three days! He knew that it was scientifically impossible, but we are asked to go beyond what we understand as being possible, because God asks us to.

There are many parts of our faith which we question and because we can’t understand them it is tempting to disregard them. We don’t understand what happens in the mass, how it is that Jesus becomes present. We don’t understand how Jesus could be God and man. We say that to call something a mystery, is a cop-out. What we are saying is, ‘Since I can’t understand this, it must not be true.’ How small minded we can be. I don’t understand exactly how my car engine works, or how the computer works, or how nuclear power works, but I know it works and I take it on someone else’s authority and because of the evidence.

Christmas isn’t just a nice story. It is a true story, a lot of which is beyond our understanding, but we believe it because God asks us to accept it on his authority. There is nothing wrong with believing something even if you don’t fully understand it. That’s what faith is. We have faith that what God is telling us is true.

In today’s readings, God’s promises from centuries before are starting to be fulfilled through Mary. God promised David almost a thousand years before Jesus, that He would send a great king, whose reign would last forever and in the Gospel, this is the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise. Christmas is about God being faithful to his promises.

I do not understand, but I believe.

I am the handmaid of the Lord, said Mary. Let what you have said be done to me.’

Thursday, December 14, 2017

3rd Sunday of Advent (John 1:6-8, 19-28) 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, ‘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.’
Merry 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 very strong. ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and look for happiness 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. 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 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.

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. People will let us down, but God will not.

The sin of Adam and Eve was a very similar sin to what we see going on today. It involved three things: (1) rejecting the idea that they had to serve God or listen to his commands; (2) that they could have everything they wanted on their terms, (3) that they were like God themselves. That is very similar to what we see going on in our world right now and it is a real temptation for all of us. Why should we have to obey commandments? We don’t like being told we have to obey anyone and yet the word obey literally means ‘to listen intently’ (from the Latin, ‘ob audire’). And if you think about it, it says that Jesus was obedient to the Father. Jesus was equal to the Father, but Jesus was also obedient to him. We are being called to listen intently to what God tells us, to acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we must obey—listen intently—to what He tells us if we are to find the path to happiness.

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.
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.’

Saturday, December 9, 2017

2nd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: Mark 1:1-8) What is God's will for me?

What is God’s will for me?’ This is a question I get asked all the time.Most people who take their faith even somewhat seriously, want to do God’s will, but how are we to know what that is? God’s will for us is primarily to be ALIVE and to love him above all else! Many of us will never know if we have a particular calling or not. I believe that God called me to be a priest. How do I know that? I’ll never know for sure, but the desire to serve God as a priest, was stronger than any other desire, such as to get married, which is the most normal and wonderful thing in the world. But if I had not followed this call, it doesn’t mean that God wouldn’t have been with me. God has given us free will and God will respect the decisions I make, even if they are not good ones. If I had chosen a different path, I may not have been quite as fulfilled, but that doesn’t mean that God wouldn’t have used me in a different way.

Ask yourself this question: What is the deepest desire of your heart? That is probably where you will find the answer. God has created us to be fully alive and to enjoy the wonderful world that God has given us. We are to use our time well, love God above all and love and serve the people around us, but also enjoy all that is good. There is a wonderful quotation from St. Irenaeus which says, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’ We give the greatest glory to God by reaching our full potential as humans. To develop our gifts and talents and to use them for good, gives glory to God. This is what we are called to do above all else.

So, what is God’s will for me? God’s will for us is that we live to the fullest degree, according to his word and that may involve a definite vocation or not. For many people, their vocation may not be that obvious, such as the call to priesthood, or Religious life, but that doesn’t mean that the calling is any less real. If a man or a woman gets married, their calling is to live their marriage to the best of their ability; to sacrifice themselves for each other and their children. If a man or a woman are called to Religious life, then their role is to live that vocation to the best of their ability. There are many people who don’t find a partner, or end up in Religious life. What is their calling? Their calling is to live their lives to the best of their ability wherever they find themselves.
I think that it would be a mistake to start worrying that we may not know what God’s will for us is. God’s will for us is primarily to live fully each moment as we come to it. Our greatest calling is to love; to love God and to love each other.

When Jesus was asked to define the greatest Commandment, He answered by referring to the first and second Commandment, because the two are related:
Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40).

If the thought of being called to the priesthood or Religious life is something that repulses you, then it is very unlikely that you are being called to it. The same applies with any way of life. We will never know for sure, but the most important thing is that we blossom where we are planted. Although we may not think we make much difference in the world unless we are called to something ‘great’, the truth is that all of us make a difference in the world, one way or the other. I may be the only person in my neighborhood, or workplace, who prays for the other people there. I may be the only one who shows encouragement to someone who crosses my path. All of us have been given the potential to do great good, but it may be very hidden and more down-to-earth than we would imagine. We will only know for sure when we get to heaven. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter whether we know what our vocation is or not. What matters is that we live and love to the best of our ability.

I have a close friend who was married, had children, got divorced and annulled and later went into a monastery. What was his vocation? While he was married, it was to live his marriage to the best of his ability. When he became a monk, it was to live his life as a monk as well as he could. Do we really know? Does it really matter? There are many things we will not figure out in this world, but I think we shouldn’t get too preoccupied with trying to figure them out either.

What if I end up being single but I really wanted to get married? There is no answer to this except that that is what happened. Either way, God can do wonderful things through us if we remain open to him. Some people will say that they feel called to the single life and see that as their vocation. Others end up single without intending to be.

If you look at the great characters in the Bible, most of them were very ordinary people and indeed the kind of people that most of us would over-look. The great king David was a shepherd. Moses murdered a man in his youth and then God called him when he was about eighty years old. Mary was about fourteen when she was asked to become the mother of Jesus and play one of the most extraordinary roles in history. Many of the canonized saints of the Church were very ordinary people in their time, but God did extraordinary things through them. One saint in particular that I often think of is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. St. Thérèse was just fifteen when she got special permission to enter the Carmelite convent in Lisieux, northern France. In her own writings she says that she longed to be a great saint, but realized that she wasn’t able to do many of the extraordinary things that many others were able to do. She asked God to show her what her particular role was. As she searched through the Scriptures, she read about all the different callings that people have within the Church; Apostles, preachers, teachers, miracle workers, etc. She realized that she could not do any of these things since she was now living as an enclosed Carmelite nun and she was also quite limited because of poor health. Then she went on to read St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he describes the greatest calling of all, which is to love.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:1-3,13).

Reading this was a turning point for Thérèse, as she recognized that the most important thing in the whole Church is to love and this is something that everyone can do. She understood that her calling was to be love in the heart of the Church. She was a young sister, hidden away in a Carmelite convent, but she could still do great things if she did the most ordinary things with love. Even if we are only able to do very small tasks, so long as we do them with love, then we are fulfilling the greatest calling of all. Thérèse recognized that all of us are given an equal chance, because everyone is capable of doing even the smallest tasks with love. Doing things with love is more important than any earthly achievements, because when we love, we imitate God more than anything else. Love is our greatest calling.

So, what is God’s will for me? To live life to the full and to love and serve the people around me.

Friday, December 1, 2017

1st Sunday of Advent Don’t get left behind

Each Sunday when we come together to celebrate the holy mass we pray the Creed. And one of the things we always say as part of that prayer is: ‘He (Jesus) will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ That is what we believe. God came and walked among us in the person of Jesus and Jesus will come again to judge all people. No one knows when this will happen, but Jesus has told us that this will happen. Maybe it will be during our life-time, or maybe not.

Today we officially begin our preparation for Christmas; our spiritual preparation. We are preparing for two things: we are remembering the first coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are remembering that Jesus will come again at the end of time. 

When there is so much emphasis on buying gifts it is easy for us to lose focus on what this feast is about. In all the advertising that we hear there is almost no mention of the birth of Christ; the coming of the Son of God to set his people free from eternal death; to win the most wonderful thing imaginable for all of us: a life of eternal happiness when we die. This is what everyone wants, even if we have very different ideas as to what happiness might be, but we all want happiness for ourselves and those we love. This is what God has made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The feast of Christmas is about the beginning of this event.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is telling us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the bigger things. It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity. Even though the worldly affairs are important, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God; the reality that we will die, that life and death are in his hands, and that whenever He does come for us, He must find us ready.

In one sense, we can never be ready enough for God. How do you prepare to meet God? And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams, if we have made any effort to be ready.

Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken the other left. What does this mean? It means that although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind.

If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we have missed what it is about, because there is much more to our life than this. 

As you well know, sometimes it is when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we have become immersed in the world. We have to get on with the day to day things of working and living, but we are being told to make sure that we also make time for God. 

I think a good recipe for a ‘happy’ Christmas, is to keep it simple and spend some time coming up to Christmas remembering what it is about. Even go to mass once a week, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days. That way we will remember what we are celebrating.
The Angel said to the shepherds: do not be afraid. 
I bring you news of great joy.
Today in the town of David
a Saviour has been born for you;
He is Christ the Lord.