Saturday, December 29, 2018

Feast of the Holy Family (Gospel: Luke 2:41-52) Our imperfect families

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.

Another time, at about the same age, I ran away from school. There was construction going on in the school and the builders had a fire in the yard, to heat tar. I became scared of the fire, convinced that the whole school could burn down. I pointed this out to the teacher. She tried to reassure me, but I wasn’t convinced. So I asked to go to the bathroom and made my escape. When I eventually found my way home, my parents brought me back to the school. My poor parents and my poor teacher! Family life is not easy.

Today we celebrate a feast, which I think can often make us feel disappointed with our own families, although we may not admit it. 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. Children stop talking to parents and won’t allow them to see their grandchildren.

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 then they 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 and they were both working. 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 which 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. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Day (Gospel: John 1:1-18) The dignity of the flesh

Loughrea Cathedral, Loughrea, Ireland

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. Soon afterwards they had to flee the country as refugees. 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 meant 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 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. Everything is subject to him.

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 to die for us, in order to restore God’s original plan for us, which was for eternal happiness with him when we die. If God was prepared to come among us in this way, it means that we must have enormous worth, or 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, it has not. 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 unless we reject him. That is the purpose of our life and the reason why we are here.  For our time on earth we just do our best to follow the path that He points out to us and that is the path of love and service which imitates him more than any other way.

The Word was made flesh and lived among us.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

4th Sunday of Advent Year C (Gospel: Luke 1:39-45) Blessed is she who believed

 In the Bible there are several characters who were called ‘blessed’ because of their faith.  Abraham was told that he would have a child when he was almost 100 years old and his wife was also an old woman. By our way of thinking it couldn’t have happened, but he believed and it did happen.

Zachariah was told his wife Elizabeth would have a baby, even though she had been barren all her life and was now also an old woman. When the angel Gabriel told him this he found it hard to believe and said so to the angel. The angel Gabriel wasn’t too impressed and said, ‘I am Gabriel who stand before God. Since you have not believed me, here is a sign for you. You will be struck dumb until the time comes for this to happen.’ And he was struck dumb until after the baby was born. So even though he doubted, it still happened!

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would have a child, but not by human means. She believed, even though she didn’t understand, and it happened. The angel also reminded her that ‘nothing is impossible to God.’ 

All of these people and many others too, were told to believe, even though it didn’t make any sense to them, but they believed even though they didn't understand. When Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth said to her, ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promises made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ I wonder would many of these things have happened if the people involved had refused to believe until they were sure, until they were able to know these things were true; until they were proved?

At times like these when there is so much upheaval in our Church, it can be very difficult to believe. God seems to have abandoned us, or we find ourselves asking, how could the Church be from God, from what we are hearing. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is difficult to believe at the best of times, but we cling to our faith, because it comes from God. The Lord is with us and has always been with us. We must not be afraid of earthly structures that change or indeed collapse, because they are only earthly structures. That is really what we are seeing: earthly and human structures changing. Why is all this happening? Because God loves his people and in his mercy He is bringing about changes that are absolutely essential for us to grow. It is the mercy of God that is allowing all this to happen and it is for our own good. And even though it is difficult and painful right now, that is where we are called to believe that God knows what He is doing and will see us through all of this and out the far side.

I don’t understand but I believe. I believe that the Lord is with us and will always be with us, so there is no reason to be afraid. Perhaps a good thing to focus on now right now is the mystery of Christmas in its simplicity. God visits his people in the form of a totally helpless new born baby. Angels appear in the sky to announce this strange event. But they don’t announce it to the great people of the time, they announce it to the poorest of the poor who are looking after the animals in the fields. The king goes mad out of jealousy and fear and tries to have the baby killed. All these things are quite bizarre and seem almost like a fairy-tale from a human point of view. But we believe them because it is God who has made them known to us. 

In this mass, in a few minutes, God becomes present to us in a tiny piece of bread we call the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. How can this be? Many people consider the such an idea pure madness. But we believe it because it is the Lord who told us these things. There is so much that we don’t understand, but God has never asked us to understand these things, only to believe them, because He has made them known to us. The Lord has promised us that He will always be with us to guide us, and He has also promised us that the darkness cannot overcome the light. If we believe that, then there is nothing for us to be afraid of.

Blessed is she who believed the promises made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’

Thursday, December 13, 2018

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gospel: Luke 3:10-18) What does God ask of us?

Today we celebrate the third Sunday of advent and we light the rose colored candle. Today is also called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ which means ‘rejoice.’ Advent was originally a penitential time like Lent, in order to prepare for Christmas. This Sunday was meant to give everyone a break from the penitential focus in order to remind us that the Lord’s coming is near and it is something to rejoice in.

Advent is also meant to be a time of hope for us, because the one who is coming to help us is Lord of heaven and earth, the master of the whole universe and all things are subject to him. John the Baptist painted a pretty frightening picture of him as the one who would come to judge all people and bring justice to the earth, but what is also important to remember is that this extraordinary person of Jesus is coming to help us, not to condemn us.

I wonder if John the Baptist came here today what he would say to us? One thing I am pretty sure of is that it would disturb us, because that is what he did. He disturbed people by what he said. He preached with passion and told people to change, to repent, to begin again. What exactly did he ask people to do? He asked them to repent of their sins, to change their way of life, to be open to God. He challenged the religious leaders (the equivalent of bishops and priests) to beware of how they lived, as they would be accountable before God. Their lives must bear fruit. Wearing religious clothes (like the Roman collar I wear as a priest) is no guarantee that a person is pleasing to God. What is important is how I live my life. It is interesting how King Herod had John arrested, because he denounced him for doing what was morally wrong, namely marrying his brother’s wife. But Herod was troubled by John because he knew he was a holy man and it says, ‘he liked to listen to him’.  He knew that John was right.

 The message of the Gospels which we read and talk about each week is a wonderful message of hope, but it is also a message which never lets us get too comfortable, because if we get too comfortable in ourselves we stop growing. This is something that Pope Francis is reminding us of in no uncertain terms. We must live what we profess, especially looking out for those who are poor. 

If John the Baptist came here and preached today, what would he say to us? I think he would probably say things like, ‘Confess your sins to the priests, as God asks you to; be faithful to your marriage; sacrifice yourselves for your children; learn to forgive each other and don’t be seeking revenge when things go wrong.  Stop suing each other. Be just to your employees.’ To us priests he would probably say, ‘Make sure you are living what you preach and sacrificing yourselves for the people you have been sent to serve; don’t let yourselves get too comfortable and make sure God is at the heart of all that you do. Be obedient to your bishops. Do you really need all the things you have?’ We don’t usually want to be challenged in this way, but this is what the Lord presents us with.

 Every year as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, when God ‘pitched his tent among us’, the most important preparation we can make is the preparation of the heart. We begin again. We look honestly at ourselves and how we live. Do we need to change? Probably; because it is easy to become lax and indifferent to the struggles of the people around us.

When the Lord challenges us to look at ourselves and begin again, it is not to make us feel guilty or inadequate; rather, it is to help us to grow. God pushes us, helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.

Because John the Baptist spoke the truth and challenged people with strong words, it cost him his life. Jesus was also killed because he spoke the truth. All the Apostles and most of the Prophets were killed too and thousands of men and women throughout the ages. We don’t like to be told we need to change, but if we wish to continue to grow closer to God then we must remove everything that prevents us from coming closer to him.
Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’