Friday, February 23, 2018

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:2-10) Asking the unthinkable

I have often heard people say that the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son is horrific, so horrific that maybe it shouldn’t be read at all. It is meant to be horrific. The point is that God asks the unthinkable of Abraham, but more importantly Abraham trusts God and goes along the path that makes absolutely no sense to him at the time. Not only was it horrific that he should be asked to sacrifice his child, but it was also through this only child that God had promised him many offspring. So, nothing at all made sense. Abraham suddenly finds himself in a situation of complete darkness, where nothing was right, nothing made sense, but Abraham trusts God and then everything changes at the last minute. God ‘put Abraham to the test’ not in the sense of seeing if he was good enough—God knew how much faith Abraham had to begin with—but because God knew that Abraham had great faith and he wanted to stretch that faith to its full capacity.

An athlete won’t reach his or her full potential unless they are pushed to the limit. The trainer will often see more potential in them than they are aware of themselves and if they are a good trainer, they will push them so that they will reach that limit. Sometimes God does the same with us. He knows what we are capable of, more than we do ourselves and sometimes He stretches, or pushes us to the limit, because God wants us to reach our full potential as human beings.

Did you ever notice that sometimes when you pray for a situation to get better, it gets worse first? There is a temptation to panic and not pray any more, but if we believe that God is listening to us and helping us, then we persevere in prayer and we try to trust that the Lord will bring the best out of the situation, even though it often doesn’t make sense to us. That requires faith, and it’s not easy at the best of times.

Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, but in the end he didn’t have to go through with it. Because he was willing to do anything that God asked and because he showed his remarkable trust in God, the Lord said that He would bless him greatly:
I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.

2000 years later God sends his Son, who takes on human flesh as Jesus and allows him to be sacrificed for the human race. The Father allowed his Son to be sacrificed. He did go through with it. It says in the second reading that because Jesus went through with it, the Father would not refuse him anything. That is why we can have such confidence when we pray to Jesus. It says in the second reading that Jesus now intercedes for us before the Father in heaven. If Jesus, the Son of God, is interceding for us before the Father, then what could we possibly be afraid of as long as we remain open to God? Not only that, but we also have Our Lady interceding for us. Is Jesus going to refuse his mother anything? Is the Father going to refuse Jesus anything? And these are the ones who are interceding for us.

In the Gospel the three disciples Peter, James and John are granted this extraordinary vision of Jesus, the Son of God, in all his glory. Why were they given this privilege when none of the others were? This happened just before the Passion, when Jesus would be tortured and killed before their eyes. Peter, James and John were also the three who would be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane watching him fall apart with fear. They were going to need great strength not to despair themselves, but what is especially worth noting is that after the vision was over they suddenly found themselves in a cloud where they could not see anything. Only then did they hear the voice of the Father speaking to them: 
This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’

God spoke to them when they were in a cloud. Have you ever been on a mountain when a cloud suddenly descended? It’s quite frightening because you cannot see anything. You just have to stop and wait. Sometimes it is only when we are in a ‘cloud’ or darkness/confusion that God will speak to us most powerfully. When we cannot see the way forward, and we cannot get any clarity on what to do, then God will show us what the next step is, but often He will only show us the next step, not the whole path ahead. This brings us back to the need to trust that God knows what God is doing when He leaves us in the dark. We are often left in the dark, especially with regard to our faith. That just seems to be how it works. Think of when someone dies. We are left with so many questions and few answers. We don’t understand, but God asks us to trust. God asked Abraham to trust because God knew he would be able to, even though He seemed to be asking the impossible. We are only shown one step at a time, if even that.  If He doesn’t show us the path it is because we don’t need to see it, only the next step.
This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.’

1st Sunday of Lent (Gospel: Mark 1:12-15) Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving

I always think it’s good that Lent is in the Spring, when there is new growth and new life, because Lent is a time of new beginning. It is a beautiful time, because it invites us to reflect on what we are about. In denying ourselves we remember what is really important. Material things are important, but they are not the most important. When we die, none of our spiritual goods will come with us, only the spiritual part of us—our soul—will live on. Denying ourselves helps us to remember this. It is a kind of spiritual purification. We are also preparing for the greatest event in history, when Christ won eternal life for us. If this had not happened, we could not go to heaven when we die. It’s that simple.

The three main components of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Hopefully, denying ourselves will also make us turn more to prayer, because we are reminded more of the spiritual. When we come here each week it is not because the mass is so spectacular and entertaining, or just makes us feel good. It is because we believe that Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist and speaks to us through the Scriptures. Part of the sacrifice we make each week is also the giving of our time to come here. God has given us our whole lifetime and we try to offer some of that time back to him in thanks, taking time to worship him as He asks us to. It always makes me sad when I hear people say that there were other things that they needed to do instead. Even if people are staying with you, what could be a greater witness than to say that you have to go to mass because it’s Sunday. They won’t die without you for an hour.

Another part of Lent—and indeed the whole of our Christian life—is almsgiving, or put simply; giving to help the needy. Jesus mentioned this many times during his life on earth. ‘The poor will be with you always’. He used the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar who sat at his front gate. Jesus told the story that the rich man was condemned when he died, not because he was rich, but because he completely ignored Lazarus who was right under his nose. In other words, he couldn’t have missed him, but he chose to ignore him and he was condemned for that.

It says in the Acts of the Apostles that when Paul met up with Peter and the other Apostles, they agreed that Paul would preach to the gentiles and Peter to the Jews, but it says that the one thing they insisted on was that they would collect money for the poor, which they did.

We have a responsibility to look out for those around us who are in need and there are more than you probably realize. In south Florida, just under 23% of children go to bed hungry each night. The only proper meal that many of them get is in school. This means that when school is out they won’t get fed properly.

A few years ago, when I was working in St. Martha’s church in Sarasota, I got talking to a homeless man. He told me that he had been in the army and served his country. He had later done time in jail and now he was living on the streets. What struck me most was when he said, ‘If you think living in prison is hard, you should try living on the streets of Sarasota.’ People are struggling all around us.


One of the most organized ways that we are presented with for giving, is through the Catholic Faith Appeal. Each year our parishes are presented with a goal, based on the previous year’s collections. This year it is $126,000. I know that many people are under the impression that this money is going to the bishop and the diocese, but that is not true. The diocese has to process it, but essentially it enables us to run all the programs in the diocese that support so many people. Some of those programs include Catholic Charities, Pastoral Outreach & Ministries; missions, poor parishes and convents; Evangelization; Worship; Respect Life; Peace & Social Justice; Vocations & Seminarians; Catholic Education; Diocesan administrative support services, and many other programs too.

The CFA is also a great opportunity for our parish, because as soon as it is payed off, we get to keep any further donations 100%. We don’t have to pay any assessment on them. I also have an obligation to contribute to the CFA and I will be contributing.

‘Repent and believe in the Gospel.’

Thursday, February 8, 2018

6th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:40-45) Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Today we are given one of the many encounters of Jesus’ healing someone who had the terrible disease of leprosy. Apart from the fact that leprosy was physically so horrible, with a person’s flesh literally rotting on their body, it also had the added pain of excluding them from the community because of the fear of contamination. Anyone who had leprosy had to live outside the community. Notice how it says in the Gospel that when Jesus heals this man he ‘sternly warned him not to tell anyone,’ but in the man’s enthusiasm he couldn’t help himself and began talking about it everywhere.  Because of this people realised that Jesus had been in contact with a leper and so he could now be infected himself. As a result he then had to stay outside the towns ‘in places where nobody lived’. This kind of thing must have been very frustrating for Jesus, but he had to put up with it and adapt his mission accordingly. 

I’m sure there were many thousands of people in Jesus’ time who also needed healing, but who didn’t ever get to meet Jesus.  Jesus healed those people who came to him and asked for help, but that would have been relatively few.  Do you ever wonder why the Lord allowed so many others to remain sick, or why He allows us to be sick?  Is it possible that any good can come out of the sicknesses we have to go through?

There is a beautiful story about the composer Ludvig Von Beethoven (1770-1827). Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany and he had quite a sad life. He suffered from a great lack of affection, because his mother died when he was very young and his father was an alcoholic who used to beat him. His father eventually died as a drunk on the streets. His biological brother never helped him either and on top of it all, symptoms of deafness started to disturb him, leaving him nervous and irritable. There was however, a German prince who became his benefactor and was like a second father to him, but then the prince died and between his deafness and loneliness, he went into a terrible depression and eventually began to wonder whether there was any point in him going on living.

At that stage Beethoven could only hear using a kind of horn-shaped trumpet in his ear. He always carried with him a notebook, so that he could write and communicate with others, but many didn’t have the patience for this and so he began to feel more isolated and alone. Feeling that nobody understood him or wanted to help him, Beethoven withdrew more and more into himself and avoided people. He became so depressed that he prepared his will, saying that maybe it was better for him to commit suicide, but then God’s providence intervened. 

A young blind woman who lived in the same boarding house where Beethoven had moved to, told him one night, shouting into his ears: “I would give everything to see the moonlight.” Listening to her, Beethoven was moved to tears because he realised that he could see and he could compose music and write it on paper! A strong will to live came back to him and led him to compose one of his most beautiful pieces: “Mondscheinsonate” – “Moonlight Sonata”.

In its main theme, the melody imitates and resembles the slow steps of people, possibly of Beethoven himself and others, carrying the coffin of the German prince, his friend, patron and benefactor. Some music scholars say that the notes that repeat themselves, insistently, in the main theme of the 1st movement of the Sonata, might be the syllables of the words “Warum? Warum”? (Why? Why?) or another similar word. Years later, having overcome his sorrow, Beethoven wrote the incomparable “Ode to Joy” from his “Ninth Symphony”, Beethoven’s magnum opus, which crowned the life work of this remarkable composer.

He conducted the first performance himself in 1824. By then because he was totally deaf, he failed to hear the applause. One of the soloists gently turned him around to see the hall full of a wildly cheering crowd. It is said the “Ode to Joy” expresses Beethoven’s gratitude to life and to God for not having committed suicide.  All this was thanks to that blind young woman, who inspired in him the desire to translate into musical notes, a moonlit night. Using his skill, Beethoven, the composer, who could not hear, portrayed through this beautiful melody, the beauty of a night bathed by the moonlight, for a girl who could not see it with her physical eyes.

We do not know why we have to suffer but perhaps more good comes out of it than we realise. No doubt the blind girl who inspired Beethoven could never have imagined that any good could have come from her being blind and yet look what happened. I am sure that when we get to heaven we will be amazed at how many parts of our life that don’t seem to make any sense now, will all fit together. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

5th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:29-39) Teaching before healing.

It is interesting that 2500 years ago when the first reading from Job (7:1-4, 6-7) was written, they were asking the same questions that we still ask today? ‘Why do we have to work so hard? What is the point of it all? Why is our life often so difficult? Why is it that good people often suffer so much for no apparent reason?’ Throughout the centuries you’ll find that people continually ask the same questions. Sometimes it takes a dramatic event like a tsunami or an earthquake where thousands are killed in an instant, to make people ask themselves these questions. One minute all those people were just getting on with their daily lives, the next minute the tsunami struck and they were gone. If we can suddenly be snatched away like that, then what is the purpose of our being here?  Is there any purpose, or is it all chance? The Lord teaches us that there most certainly is a purpose to our being here.

During his life on earth Jesus continually worked extraordinary miracles—just as we read in today’s Gospel—and as a result thousands of people were drawn to him looking for healing, just like we do today when we hear of someone who has been given a gift of healing, but this was not the main purpose of Jesus’ being here. Of course he was happy to heal people because he had extraordinary compassion for people, but primarily he wanted to teach people, to teach us about God and about the reason why we are here. When you think about it all the people he healed and even brought back to life from the dead, they all eventually got sick again and died. So he wanted to teach us that we are loved by God and we are not here by accident; that our life has a purpose and is going somewhere; that it is worth keeping going even when we are suffering, and above all the mission of his life was to die for us so that we could get to heaven when we die.

When the disciples found him alone praying the first thing they told him was that everyone was looking for him. There was so much work to do, so many people to heal. But look how he responded: ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ That is why I came: to preach and teach. But why is it so important to teach us? Wouldn’t it be much better just to heal us? Physical healing is important and Jesus knew that, but he also knew that if we have meaning, if we have purpose, that is much more valuable to us. 

What is also interesting is the way that he taught. He mostly used parables. The reason why that is different is that a parable does not give you a definite answer; it points you in a particular direction, but you must go on searching for the truth if you are to discover the meaning. Why is that important? Because it engages us in the work of searching for and discovering the truth. It makes us think and also use our imagination. In other words, he didn’t just shove a set of teachings down our throat and say ‘that’s it.’

When I began my ministry as a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain, I remember meeting a man who had been suffering for most of his life. He had had operation after operation and he was in pain most of the time. But when I met him he was smiling and he said, ‘Father I have so much to be grateful for.’ It was very humbling to hear this. Why was he grateful? Because he had faith and he had purpose. He understood that his life had meaning and that it was going somewhere. He believed that this life was not everything and that it was worth persevering. Having that purpose is what makes all the difference. And that is what our faith gives us. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it helps to make sense for us of why we are here. It reminds us that God does want us to be happy, that that is what He created us for. It also reminds us that it is worth putting up with the various struggles we have to go through because they are often what make us into better people. The suffering will not last forever. Sooner or later we will cross over to the next world where our happiness will be complete. Having that hope is what makes all the difference and that is why Jesus kept moving around and teaching people, so that they would have the strength to keep going especially when times were more difficult.

Meanwhile we will continue to pray and look for healing and it is right that we do, but it is also good to remember that the hope we have in God is actually worth more than the physical healing, because that is what will keep us going.  Remember the words of Jesus: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still and trust in me.’ God knows what He is doing.