Sunday, April 28, 2019

2nd Sunday of Easter Yr A Peace be with you

In December 2005 it was announced on the news that a man called Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Féin’s (the political wing of the IRA) top men, confessed to having been a British spy for twenty years.  People were amazed that this could happen.  The poor man obviously could not live with this any more and so he came out into the open.  He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was killed four months later.  God be good to him.  I remember thinking at the time that he must now be living in terrible fear.  Fear of being hunted down and killed.  He had betrayed many, and now he would be afraid of what they would do to him.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

2000 years earlier on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, who they believed was the Son of God.  Judas had betrayed him for money.  Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus.  They all betrayed him.  Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room afraid.  Why are they afraid?  One: because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates.  Two: perhaps they were also afraid of what God would do to them.  They had betrayed the Son of God.  It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens.  Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’  The first thing he does is to take away their fear.  There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before.  There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful.  Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’  ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed Jesus and indeed sometimes wish I was not a priest, when my own sinfulness gets the better of me.  And in case you think I am just trying to be holy by saying this, I am not.  I am a sinner.  That is one thing that God has left me under no illusions about.  Sometimes I think it would be better for me not to be a priest as I would not have to deal with what is sacred.  I could run and hide, so to speak.  Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish.  Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’  Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease.  ‘Peace be with you.’ 

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned.  Peace be with you.’  God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out.  He knows what we are like.  He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace.  I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus, would not take the words of others to convince him that Jesus was alive.  When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful.  And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping him to believe.  No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe.  No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement.

Today as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, let me finish with this story. There was a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home.  He decided to desert the army, but he was caught.  The punishment for desertion was death.  Now this man was the only son of his mother who was now widowed.  His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person.  She pleaded for her son, and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world.  The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on the man.  Napoleon said in reply, ‘he doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’.  But the mother said back to Napoleon, ‘if he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’

Peace be with you.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Passion Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 22:14-23:56) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today we begin the celebration of Holy Week, a very special time when we reflect on the events that lead us through the death and resurrection of Jesus; events which changed the course of history forever. Because of these events we can now go to heaven when we die. It is that simple.

We begin with a short account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as a great prophet. They threw down palm branches in front of him and shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Yet within a few days everything changed. He was betrayed for money, illegally tried, then tortured and killed. Today we read the full account of his passion. It is the main focus of our mass.

Even though it is a sad event that we remember, it is also a day of celebration, because what we remember is the wonderful event that made it possible for us to experience the eternal life after this one. That is so important, because if we couldn’t hope for a better life after this one, it would be very hard to keep going a lot of the time. In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, St. Paul wrote, ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied.’ If we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point. The truth is that we are preparing for something wonderful that is waiting for us, should we choose it.

Everyone suffers, as we know; there are no exceptions. Probably one of the most difficult things for any of us to experience when we are suffering, is the sense that we have been abandoned by everyone.  But even if everyone else seems to abandon us, at least we can always turn to God. But where do we turn if God disappears too? There is nowhere left to go. This is the worst kind of suffering, verging on despair. God never abandons us, but we may feel that He has.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross, he cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ What does this mean? It is the beginning of Psalm 22 which is a Psalm that ends in victory, but it can also be understood in a different way. It seems to point out that even Jesus felt completely abandoned by the Father. He felt totally alone.

Why would God the Father hide himself from Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed to know He was there? Perhaps it was so that Jesus could experience this worst kind of suffering, the suffering of believing that you have been abandoned even by God. By experiencing this, Jesus is brought to the furthest extreme of suffering. After this there is nothing that he has not experienced and this means that he can understand us in every kind of suffering we go through, even the feeling of being abandoned by God, because he has been there. We can no longer say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like!’ because now he does.

Even though we may feel we have been abandoned by God at times, in fact we have not. But sometimes God allows us to go through this for reasons only known to God. It seems to be part of what forms us, even though it is very difficult and we shrink away from it. Many of the saints went through this feeling of abandonment, including Mother Teresa. Here is something from her own writings to her spiritual director:

Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long  & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—...God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—‘My God’ and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.—p1.

Mother Teresa: Come be my Light, (edit.) Brian Kolodiejchuk, London: Rider Books, 2007.

That’s not what you expect to hear from someone like Mother Teresa, who was such a light of hope for so many people, yet God allowed her to go through this darkness too.

Finally, I want to mention Our Lady. She also was at the foot of the cross. Years before she had been told by the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be great and would reign forever as king. He would be called Son of the Most-High God. What had happened to all these promises now, as she watched Jesus come to the end of his life before her eyes? Although Mary must have suffered terribly with all she had to witness, she didn’t give up hope. She believed that what God had said would come true and she hoped and believed even without understanding. God invites us to do the same; to hope even when we don’t understand.

The end of Psalm 22, which begins with the cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ ends with the following words:

The Lord reigns, the ruler of nations.
Before him all the prosperous of the earth will bow down,
Before him will bow all who go down to the dust.
And my soul will live for him, my children will serve him;
People will proclaim the Lord to generations still to come,
His righteousness to a people yet unborn.
These things the Lord has done. (Ps 22:28-31)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

5th Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 8:1-11) Baptism and Confirmation

Easter is the time when many adults are baptized and become part of the Church, having completed the time of learning about the faith known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Easter is always focused on baptism and it is the most important time for baptism to take place, as the whole focus is on new life. I always find it very inspiring to see adults lined up for baptism at the Easter Vigil. It is a reminder of what we take for granted. Recently someone asked me to try and explain baptism and confirmation and that’s what I would like to do. In order to make sense of it we need to go way back to the beginning.

We believe that God created everything; the world around us that we see and the invisible world that we cannot yet see. We also believe that God’s greatest creation was the human being. It says in Genesis that the last thing God created was the human being, which is a biblical way of saying that we were the most important thing that God created. We are more like God than anything else that was created, especially because we have free will. But free will also comes at a cost.

We also believe that somewhere way back at the beginning, humanity sinned against God. There was some kind of rejection of God and of his word, which is explained through the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that there was some kind of rebellion against God and we call this Original Sin.

Because of this sin we now lost the possibility of eternal life with God which God intended for us. It says in the story that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. They had lost what God originally intended for them. This was a disaster as we could not resolve this problem ourselves.

Because God loves his creation He would not leave us in that situation and so, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the perfect offering was made to the Father which overcame Original Sin. The power of Original Sin was broken and we were set free, restoring to us the possibility of eternal happiness with God. However, because gave us the extraordinary gift of free will, God does not force this on us, but simply offers it to us. We have to say yes to it. We have to accept this gift which God offers us and we do that by being baptized. When we are baptized we are saying, ‘Yes, I believe this and I want this. Let me be baptized in it, soaked in it,’ That’s what baptism is, but we must consciously ask for it.

If that is true, then why do we baptize infants who don’t yet have the understanding of baptism? We baptize infants because we want this grace for them from the beginning of their lives, but on condition that we will teach them their faith as they grow up. Otherwise it is hypocrisy. To baptize an infant without the intention of teaching them about their faith as they grow up is hypocrisy and that’s why the parents and God-parents make the vows of baptism, promising to pass on this faith as best they can. If an adult comes to me for baptism, they first have to go through what we call the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, during which time they will learn about their faith. Only when they understand it properly will they be baptized. Recently I spoke to a man who was telling me that he and his wife drove two hours each way to go to the RCIA classes so that they could be baptized. Two hours each way, for several months! That is so inspiring to me.

So, to be baptized is to say 'yes, I believe all that God has done for me and I want it all. Let me be soaked in it, baptized in it'.

What about those who are never baptized, such as our brothers and sisters who are Muslim or Hindu? Can they go to heaven too? Of course they can. We understand that it is necessary for us to be baptized in order to enter life with God, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t bring it about for others who have no understanding of baptism. But for us who understand it, baptism is necessary and that’s why it is so important. God’s power is not limited to any one way. God will speak to people of other faiths in ways that we don’t understand.

Where then does confirmation fit in? Confirmation is really the other half of baptism. It is the time when we receive the gift of the Spirit to strengthen us for living the Christian life. One confirms the other; hence ‘confirmation.’ For children we wait until they are old enough to understand what confirmation is, since they were baptized when they were too young to understand, but for adults they usually receive the two together. The important thing is that these are gifts to us from God, to help us. Everything we receive from God is to help us and is given out of love for us. That is why the Apostles baptized people and then prayed with them for the gift of the Spirit, so that they were ready for our life with God on earth.

Every time we pray the Creed we are stating what we believe and that we want this for ourselves and our children. We want all that God is offering us.