Thursday, January 31, 2019

4th Sunday Yr C (Gospel: Luke 4:21-30) Witness to Christ

There is a fascinating account given by a man known as Brother Andrew, about his travels around the world visiting the different communities of the Missionaries of Charity. He was a Jesuit priest, who died just a few years ago, and he helped Mother Teresa to establish the male part of that order. For some time he had to go around and visit all the new communities. He wrote a sort of diary called What I Met Along the Way, which is an account of just that; what he met along the way. 

One thing that is so obvious from his book and indeed the accounts of many others too, is the fact that in the western world while we have so much materially, so many people are absolutely starving spiritually. He says that it was always in the wealthiest countries that he met the most hatred, anger, loneliness and despair. He spoke about Sweden in particular, where the government provide just about everything you can think of for anyone in need. They will give you a house, money, food, healthcare. They also have abortion on demand, paid for by the government. Sweden had, at that time anyway, the highest suicide rate in the world. He said that three times the crucifix they had attached to the door of their little community was ripped off. They had the greatest material wealth, but also the greatest spiritual poverty. All over Europe, America and Australia you meet the same thing: people who are spiritually starved and you can see it in their faces: meaninglessness, loneliness and despair.

At funerals I am often struck at the look in peoples faces; people desperate for some meaning and for some way to make sense of what they are being faced with. They are searching for the purpose and hope that we already have come to understand through our faith. Many of them don't practice their faith and often they have plenty of excuses not to, but they are also missing out on one of the greatest things that our faith can give us and that is purpose and hope. Our faith helps us to understand what our life is about.

You might say, ‘So what if they don’t practice their faith? They are good people.’ I have no doubt they are good people, but being good on its own is not enough. We need to have some purpose as to why we are here and even as to why we should be good to others. It is faith that gives us that purpose. It tells us that we are loved and valued, and so that enables us to love others. It reminds us that God has a purpose for us, that God promises us eternal life with him, and that enables us to endure hard times without despairing. Most of all it tells us that our time here on earth is not the whole picture, but is a time of service, where life is not easy a lot of the time, but we are asked to put up with it, knowing that we are heading for a better life. Depending on whether you believe that or not makes a big difference as to how you live your life.

What the people saw at Knock, Ireland in 1879

In 1879, in a small village in the west of Ireland called Knock, fifteen people saw an apparition. They saw a lamb standing on an altar, surrounded by angels; to one side was Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. John. The apparition lasted for two hours, but it was completely silent. What did it mean? The lamb on the altar symbolized the mass and it was surrounded by the angels and saints. It was heaven's way of telling the people that they were on the right track and not to lose heart. At that time the Irish had just come through a terrible time of suffering, between religious persecution and the great famine which wiped out about one third of the population, but the people had remained faithful and heaven seemed to be encouraging them, saying We know that it is not easy, but we are with you.’ We also need that encouragement.

The readings today point to the fact that we are prophets, or ambassadors for Christ, witnesses to Jesus and to the reality of God and the afterlife. The faith that we have, even if you think that your faith is small, helps us to keep going when it is difficult, and God knows it is difficult a lot of the time: work pressure, family pressure, sickness, death, etc. It is easy to forget that many people do not have the faith that we have, even if it is little, which means they don’t have something to turn to when life is difficult and that is a big problem.

So what is our role? Our role is simply to live our faith as best we can, to be faithful to whatever duty the Lord calls us to, be it our families, our work, or religious life, etc. The way we live speaks to other people. We don’t have to open our mouth, people see it in us. They see that we have hope just by the way we live.

Remember the words of Jesus to his followers: ‘You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.’ He is speaking to us and telling us that we have a role to play, a very important one, reminding people of what this life is about, just by living as people who believe in God.

Christians have always been different from the rest of society. They have stood out and been noticed because they live with a different purpose. We have a different vision of the world. Our world at the moment desperately needs that vision. Even little things like blessing yourself passing a church, or saying ‘God bless’, or ‘thank God’ and not using the name of Jesus as a swear word, which is blasphemy. Our world needs the hope that we have. Let us not be afraid to bear witness to the faith that God has blessed us with. It may be the difference that enables someone to keep going, or to lose hope.

Friday, January 25, 2019

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21) The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me

A few years ago a Dominican priest friend of mine told me the following story. He was based in Dublin, and because of renovations to their church, they were using a make-shift chapel at the time, which was a bit cramped. The chapel was jammed as they were celebrating the Easter Vigil and he said that the reader was reading the account of creation in Genesis in a rather posh accent. While he was reading this piece of Scripture a homeless man came up to the top of the chapel and sat down right underneath where the man was reading and listened to the reading. When he got to the part of the reading that says ‘God saw all that He had made and indeed it was very good,’ the homeless man said out loud, ‘You’re havin’ me on!’ (You’ve got to be kiddin’). The reader continued to the next part and again when he got where it says ‘...and indeed it was very good’, again the homeless man said out loud ‘You’re having me on!’  While it might have seemed very ignorant of the man to interrupt the reading like this, what he was saying was that this might be what the scriptures say, but it certainly wasn’t his experience of the world.

How do we make sense of a reading like today’s Gospel which says that Jesus, the anointed one of God, came to bring ‘good news’ to the poor, to free prisoners, etc?  For many people, such as that homeless man and indeed many others too, their experience of the world is that it is a difficult place where often things don’t work out. Think of the families who are living in the middle of war at this time, or even those who are really struggling to survive in our own country. What could possibly be ‘good news’ for them?

The ‘good news’ that the Son of God came to tell us is that there is a purpose to our lives. We are here for a reason. Our lives are not meaningless and the meaning of our lives does not depend on how ‘successful’ or otherwise things seem to be for us in this world. How well we do on the outside is not really that important. What is primary is what happens inside us, in the heart. God has created us to love and to serve and to blossom as people. Hopefully we will also do well on the outside and be able to provide for our loved ones and enjoy this life too, but whether or not everything works out well for us is really secondary. The only thing that really matters is that we realize what the purpose of our life is about—to love God and the people around us. This is something that everyone can do, no matter what their circumstances.

I used to visit a man in prison for a couple of years while I was studying to be a priest. He was in for a very serious crime and he was doing a life sentence. As far as I know he is still in prison. Having got to know him I also realized that he was basically a very good man himself. The crime he committed, which was a murder, was one of these bizarre things that happened, where 30 seconds either way and he would never have met the person he killed. Now his life is apparently ruined and he will spend most of it in prison.Does this mean that his life is meaningless, or a total failure? Not necessarily so; it depends on what goes on inside him more than anything else, because that is what God sees and that is what God will judge him by. That is what God will judge all of us by: how we have loved. Whether we end up living on the street or being the president of some huge company is really not that important. Of course we should try to make the most of the opportunities that we are given and strive to succeed and hopefully we will do well, but if we can see that the purpose of our lives is much deeper than just what we achieve on the outside, in the world’s eyes, then we will have an inner strength that will help us keep going, no matter what happens.

This ‘good news’ that we often talk about, is that we are loved, we are noticed, we are valued, and there is a purpose to our lives. We are not just here by chance. God deliberately created us. God wants us here at this particular time in history, in the particular family that we are part of. If I cannot see this bigger picture then my life may appear to be meaningless, pointless, especially if things haven’t worked out the way I think they should have. But that is to limit my purpose to my own very limited way of seeing the world. If I try to see it with the eyes of faith, then I will see something quite different. To understand that is to give sight to the blind and freedom to those who are imprisoned. It’s not just prisons like ‘Mountjoy’ in Dublin where my friend was either, but the kind of prison of the mind that tells me that my life is a waste of time. No one’s life is a waste of time if we realize that God wants us here. Our job here is primarily to love and serve God and the people around us. The key for us is to see the bigger picture.

‘I came that you may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)

Friday, January 18, 2019

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C (Gospel John 2:1-12) The superabundance of God’s goodness

All of you, I’m sure, have been to weddings. They are happy occasions and we want the best for the couple starting out on their journey. We try and provide them with gifts to help them establish their new home. Older people try to pass on some wisdom to the bride and groom, to help them on their way. Just like at a child’s first Communion, you would never want them to be embarrassed. Once in a while you may have come across a wedding where something went wrong and the bride and groom were embarrassed and it’s awful. It is a day which should be as perfect as possible.

Mediterranean weddings during the time of Christ would have lasted about a week and have involved the whole village. Who would want their wedding to be remembered for the one that ran out of wine, the sign of celebration. It would be considered a bad omen.

Mary the mother of Jesus, becomes aware of the problem and points it out to Jesus. She intercedes for the couple, just as she intercedes for us. Would Jesus refuse something asked by his mother? He didn’t refuse her request on this occasion either, even though he objected that this was not the time for his public ministry to begin. That is one of the reasons why we continually turn to Mary for help, because we know that she is looking out for us.

In the bible, wine is a sign of God’s blessing, a sign of celebration, a sign of happiness. What is amazing is the amount of wine that Jesus made. 6 stone water jars containing 20 to 30 gallons amounts to over 800 bottles of wine. Even for a big wedding that is an awful lot of wine. What is this telling us? It tells us that not only is God with us in the ordinary things of life, but that God wants to bless us lavishly, with great abundance, not just to give us what we need, but far more.

Generally, when we pray for our needs, we hope that God will answer us, although we often wonder if He will. Does God even hear us when we pray? That is question that many people ask. From what the Lord tells us through the Scriptures, He assures us that He always answers us. ‘Ask and it shall be given to you. Knock and the door shall be opened to you. Seek and you shall find’ (Matt 7:7). He doesn’t say ‘Ask and it might be given to you.’

In another parable Jesus tells us to pray for what we need to the point of annoyance (Luke 18:1-8). He uses the story of the unjust judge, who fears neither God nor man. But a widow keeps demanding her rights. It says that initially he refuses, but in the end the judge gave her what she asked simply because she was wearing him down. And Jesus says, that is how we should pray. We should pray to the point of annoyance.

Then we go back to the miracle of water and wine at Cana. Not only did God come to the couple’s rescue, but he did so with outlandish generosity. The Lord is telling us the same thing. Keep asking for what you need and God will answer you and with great generosity. We may not always recognize the answer given, or it may not be the answer we hoped for, but God always answers when we ask.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Baptism of the Lord Year C (Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)

‘The truth I have now come to realize is that God does not have favorites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

One of the many benefits that comes from a more mixed society, where we have people from many different parts of the world living together, is that it helps to broaden our minds. For 18 months lived in a religious community and we often have people from different parts of the world. One morning  when we came down for breakfast, two of us noticed that someone had cut the loaf of bread not from top to bottom into slices the way we usually do, but from one side to the other across the middle. In other words they had done the complete opposite of what we were used to. The two of us who noticed this at the same time both began to complain saying, ‘Who is the idiot that did this!’ But then almost immediately we both began to check ourselves and say, ‘I suppose there is no law that says you can’t do it this way!’ and we laughed at ourselves and how fixed we can be in our ways. It was a Taiwanese priest living with us whose culture is very different from ours. Something as simple as this helped us to see how small-minded we can be in our ways. 

In the second reading today St. Peter says he realised how anyone can be acceptable to God if they do what is right. That might seem obvious enough to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them at that time. The Jewish people believed that they were specially chosen by God, and that meant anyone else who was not Jewish was not so important to God. But then the Lord began to teach the Apostles that in fact He was there for everyone, of every nationality and creed.  It took them a while to come around to this way of thinking. In fact the first few times some Gentiles (non-Jews) received the gift of the Spirit, the Apostles were quite surprised. They hadn’t expected this. They didn’t think that Gentiles would be given the gift of the Spirit. God was helping them to gradually broaden their horizons. Everyone, of every nationality and creed was being called into God’s family. The Lord showed this to St. Peter through a vision (See Acts 10:9-16). Peter saw a vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals and birds. Then he heard a voice saying:
“Now Peter, Kill and eat!”  But Peter answered, “Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything profane or unclean.” Again a second time, the voice spoke to him, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane”. This was repeated three times and suddenly the container was drawn up to heaven again (Acts 10:13-16).

This vision helped Peter to understand that no-one was ‘unclean’ in God’s sight if they tried to live the right way. The Lord was helping Peter to see a bigger picture, but as with most of us, this happens gradually. Everyone is called to be part of God’s family.

After Jesus was Baptised in the Jordan a vision was seen of the Spirit coming down on him in the form of a dove. The Father in heaven was empowering him with the gift of the Spirit, to enable him to live the mission that the Father had given him, to teach the people about God and to offer himself for the sins of the world. The Spirit gave him the strength and wisdom He needed for this difficult mission. 

Perhaps another reason why people were allowed to see the Spirit descend in bodily form was to remind us of what happens when we are baptized.  We are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life. It is not a way of life that we can live by our own strength; it would be too difficult. This is why God gives us the gift of his Spirit to guide, strengthen and teach us. Jesus said to the Apostles that after He had ascended into heaven He would send the Spirit, ‘Who will teach you everything’ (John 16:13b). Our minds can only take so much, and we are continually learning about the ways of God. As we continue to pray and try and live the Christian way of life, the Lord teaches us more and more. So much of what our faith is about is completely beyond us, and so the Lord teaches us little by little.

When we are baptized we state what it is we believe and we commit ourselves to this way of faith. For many of us someone else will have spoken on our behalf if we were baptized as infants, but this is done on the understanding that we will be taught about our faith as we grow up, otherwise it would make no sense. If we come for baptism as adults we will be examined before-hand to make sure we understand the commitment we are taking on. But the greatest part of Baptism is the gift of the Spirit who will teach us all we need to know, and who will continue to challenge us in different ways so that we grow ever closer to God. As long as we remain open to the gift of God’s Spirit we will be drawn deeper and deeper into God. Only in God will we find our true happiness and fulfillment and so the more we give ourselves to this journey the more fulfillment we will find.

‘The truth I have now come to realize is that God does not have favorites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).