Friday, November 29, 2019

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gospel: Lk 21:25-28, 34-36)

I always like the fact that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the evenings are short and it is usually cold (unless you live in Florida!). Then we begin to light candles and put up colored lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King. It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy. ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time. 

Normally we think of Advent as waiting for the event of Christmas, but that is just part of it. Christmas and Easter are two halves of the same event and they cannot be separated
Each Sunday in the Creed we say that, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ We don’t know when that will be, but we believe that it will happen. The Lord asks us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die, but the important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come and above all to die for us, so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.

The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us. The Lord is constantly speaking to us but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted. People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes, God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It's usually through other people, or through the Scriptures. It took me quite a while to learn how to listen, so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to try and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us. That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.

One thing that is characteristic of the Gospels is that they are full of hope. The message of God to us—the Good News—is always one of hope and it is certainly something we need in a world where we are constantly hearing of so many terrible things happening around us. We don't hear of all the wonderful things that are constantly happening around us: the many acts of kindness that people continually do for each other, looking out for each other especially when we are struggling. This is the Spirit at work in us and this is what makes the world bearable, in spite of the awful things that happen. Just a few years ago (Nov 2016), several serious fires were started in different parts of Israel, just to cause suffering. Then, to everyone’s amazement one group that came to help out were firefighters from Palestine. As you know there is a lot of tension and hatred between these two countries at the best of times, but there is more goodness in people than evil. We just don’t usually hear about it.

Jesus reminds us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the eternal 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. 
Sometimes it is when someone becomes seriously ill, or dies, that we suddenly start realizing how much we have become immersed in the world. Naturally 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 Savior has been born for you;
He is Christ the Lord."

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King (Luke 23:35-43) Power in weakness

In the book of the Apocalypse (also known as Revelations) Saint John has a vision of a being that terrifies him. He describes what he saw like this:
…“I saw one like a Son of man…His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze…out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force” (Rev 1:13-16).

John writes that he was so afraid when he saw this being that he fell down as if dead, but then the being in the vision touched him and said:
Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look—I am alive for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and the underworld” (Rev 1:17-18). 

Who was this being? It was of course Jesus, the one that John had lived with for three years. Why would Jesus who was so close to John, appear to him in this terrifying form? Probably to remind John and us, who He is; not just the Jesus whose name we carelessly throw around as a swear word, but Jesus who is Son of God, who will come to judge the living and the dead. This is the one we believe in. When we die we will all come before him face to face and all people of every religion will understand who He is and what He has done for us.

At this time we are seeing great changes in the world around us. So much violence and hatred. It is a very disturbing, even frightening time, but I think that we need to remember who it is we believe in and who it is we put our trust in. If we put our trust and hope in earthly power, we will be disappointed, because people will let us down. If we rely too much on the human side of our Church, we will be disappointed, as we have been, but the one we trust in and believe in, is Jesus Christ, who is God. All things are in his power and all things are completely subject to him. Sometimes you get the impression especially from Hollywood, that the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is an equal one. It is not. There is no question of evil being equal to God. All things are subject to God and I think we need to be reminded of that.

As a priest I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus is the one I worship as God and try to serve. If I stay focused on the world around me, I find myself getting depressed or disillusioned. Also, if I spend too much time worrying about the state of the Church, I can also find it hard to keep going, but the Lord keeps reminding me that He is the one I need to stay focused on, because He is the one in charge. He is master of all things. What we have seen happening in the Church over the last few years is the work of his power purifying his Church, because He loves us and will not allow his people to continue with poison festering under the skin. So He allows his Church to be purified and renewed, which is what we have seen happening. I have no doubt that what is happening in the world is also a kind of melt-down which God is allowing which will bring many people back to him. There is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind!

People who have a certain amount of power like to show it off and make it felt. People who are really powerful don’t seem to feel the need to show it off. But God who is all-powerful, goes one step further and shows his power in weakness. This is an mysterious thing and something we find very difficult to get our heads around.

The greatest demonstration of God’s power was shown to us in the death of Jesus on the cross. God did the exact opposite of what we would do and showed his power by not doing anything; by appearing to be a failure. So the people laughed at him and mocked him, not realizing that what they looked at was a demonstration of the power of God. This is why we use the symbol of the cross and why it is so powerful. This is also why Satan hates the symbol of the cross, because it is a symbol of the extraordinary power of God and it is a reminder of the event that broke the power of sin and death. 

St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians says,
We are preaching Christ crucified; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jew or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:22).

What the power of Jesus on the cross also shows us is that in the bleakest and darkest situations of pain and suffering, loneliness and abandonment, Christ is there with us, in his strength. We are never alone no matter what we are going through. God is with us.
Jesus Christ is our king, the most powerful king on earth. If we accept him as our king, we also share in his power, but it is not a power as we understand it and this is where many people find it hard to accept. We want something that we can see and touch. We want to know that we are important and that our King is the greatest of all. But God in his wisdom knows that this isn’t the most important kind of power.

If Jesus is Lord and God as we say we believe He is, then we have nothing to be afraid of.
Every being in heaven, on earth and under the earth,
shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus;
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Thursday, November 14, 2019

33rd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 21: 5-19) You are Peter...

There is some confusion at the moment regarding what Pope Francis has and has not said.  A number of people have mentioned it to me, so I would like to try and clarify a few things.

Several years ago, Pope Benedict XVI said that in the Gospels there was no mention of the animals in the nativity scene, but that they are referred to in the Old Testament. Either way, no one knows what was there, as these are traditions. The media reported that the Pope had said there were no animals in the crib. Not correct.

In Regensburg, Germany, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture encouraging dialogue between Christianity and Islam. In it he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor, who said, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." It was presented as the Pope saying that Islam had only evil to offer, which was not what he said and not what the Church teaches. He later apologized for the confusion and any offense he had caused, as he said this was not what he believed himself, but that is what was reported.

Pope Francis is unusual in that he is willing to step outside the box and reach out to people on the margins of society. This is a wonderful thing and it is exactly what Jesus did, but the difficult side is that it is often open to misinterpretation, but he has not changed any Church teaching.

On the flight home from World Youth Day in Brazil, the Pope was asked about the ‘Gay Lobby’ in the Vatican. One part of his reply was this:
“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully where it says… these persons must never be marginalized and “they must be integrated into society.”

It was reported that Pope Francis’ approach to homosexuality was going away from Church teaching. Not only was it not going away from it, but he quoted Church teaching.

In the last few weeks the ‘Amazon Synod’ was held, which addressed many of the issues of spreading the Gospel to the people of the Amazon and the difficulties with that. One thing that they concluded was that it would be acceptable to ordain men to the priesthood, who are deacons and already married. This was because of the huge shortage of priests in the Amazon region. We were given the impression that there were now going to be married priests. Not exactly true.

Perhaps the most controversial was a recent event in the Vatican. As part of the Amazon Synod and by way of showing respect for what is important to the natives there, a statue—which was reported as being Pachamama; a pagan goddess important to the indigenous people, though also representing Mother Earth—was brought into the Vatican. The Pope and cardinals were showing respect for what is important to these people, who are Catholic and the natives lit candles in front of it. In no way was there any kind of worship done, as this would be idolatry. It would be very similar to us lighting candles before the statue of Our Lady and singing a hymn to her. Some Christian groups consider that idolatry. But that is what was portrayed through the media. What the Pope is doing, is reaching out to people and showing respect for others and their backgrounds. These things are important to the Catholic natives of the Amazon.

Figurine brought into the Vatican
The same thing has been done for centuries. St. Paul did something similar in the Acts of the Apostles (17:23). While he was in Greece and speaking to the intellectuals there, he mentioned that among all their statues, he had noticed one statue with the name, ‘To an unknown God.’ He said this statue was in fact referring to the true God. In other words, he was using what these people could relate to, as a bridge, to try and teach them about God.

In a private comment afterwards, the Pope said that it was never his intention to give the impression that there was any kind of worship of this statue. Many people were upset by what happened and it is understandable. I think that one mistake the Vatican made in regard to this, was that they didn’t properly explain what had happened and so people were left to come to their own conclusions.

Recently it was reported, that in an interview with an Italian journalist by the name of Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis told him he did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The interview had taken place two years previous and he was recalling what was said from memory. On other occasions the same journalist acknowledged that some of his reports were not true to what had been said. The idea that the Pope doesn’t believe in the bodily resurrection is ridiculous.

So to conclude, don’t be afraid of what you hear reported in the media, as it is often not true to what actually happened. Pope Francis has not changed any part of Catholic teaching. What he is doing is reaching out to people in the ‘grey area’, and that is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus was also heavily criticized because he did not do everything exactly according to the Law, such as healing people on the Sabbath. Many people were scandalized by what Jesus did and said, because they had a very narrow understanding of their faith.

Going into the mess of people’s lives also leaves the pope’s actions open to misinterpretation. The teaching of the Church stays the same, although our understanding of those teachings is constantly deepening, but ultimately it is the Lord’s Church. He is the one guiding us and the Church will continue to exist and grow, because it is the power of God behind it. So don’t be too concerned when you hear about these things. You are usually not being given an accurate picture of what happened.

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Thursday, November 7, 2019

32nd Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 20:27-38) Life after death

In the old version of Star Trek (and I think it is still the same) captain Kirk and his crew were able to be beamed from the Starship Enterprise onto a nearby planet or another ship. The idea behind this was that the machine they used to do this—called the ‘transporter’—was a sophisticated computer that was able to scan a person’s complete makeup and memorize the exact structure of the whole person. Then it changed this information into energy which it beamed to another place and then re-assembled the person; pretty clever. In fact scientists agree that in reality it would be impossible to do this because the human body is way too complicated. No computer could possibly store or analyse all the information in a single person.

Our Christian faith tells us that God is able to store and maintain the unique pattern that is at the core of each one of us, even after the earthly body dies. That unique pattern that makes up the core of each of us we call the soul or spirit. Then after our earthly body dies the Lord gives us a new body in the place we call heaven, for those who choose to go there; and we choose to go there by the way we live.

If God cannot do that then our earthly death would be the complete end of us. But we believe that God can and will do that. That is what makes the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead such a mind-boggling one. That is why the celebration of Easter is such a big event and is often called ‘the great miracle’. It was not automatic that Jesus would be raised from the dead, but it did happen because God worked an extraordinary miracle.

We often wonder what it will be like in the next world. Will it be like here, but only better? In this Gospel the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, are arguing among themselves and they put this idea of the resurrection to Jesus. So they give him a ridiculous example to make a point. It is a kind of test case. They presumed that because their example was so absurd, Jesus would have to admit that the idea of the resurrection just did not add up. But what Jesus basically said was ‘You are trying to figure out the next life in earthly terms; but you cannot do that.’ It is so different that we cannot even begin to think what it would be like.

Think of how a caterpillar goes into the chrysalis and then turns into a butterfly. You would not recognise one from the other; they are so different. You plant an acorn, but then a tree grows out of the ground. When Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, she didn’t recognise him. When he appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognise him either. He was different. He wasn’t just a human body brought back to life, but something quite different: what we call a ‘glorified’ body.

There is a friend of mine that I grew up with who is now a consultant pathologist.  They study the science of disease and do the post-mortem’s when someone dies. Before his wedding we were talking about different arrangements for the mass and he told me that he could not believe in the idea of the resurrection, because from a scientist’s point of view, it was impossible. I was impressed with his honesty about it. I suppose he was caught where the Sadducees were also caught. He was trying to figure out the after-life and the spiritual world, in earthly terms. This doesn’t work because it is completely different and we only know what is earthly, so it is very difficult for us to get our minds around the spiritual world because we have no experience of it.

That is why God asks us to believe without understanding. That’s what faith is.  God is saying, ‘Will you trust me on this?’ We would not be able to understand it even if it was explained to us because it is completely beyond our understanding. It would be like explaining a complicated physics or maths problem to a toddler. No matter how well you explained it he or she would simply not be capable of understanding it. 
We believe in life after death because Jesus has taught us about it and because He appeared to the Apostles after his death and to so many others down through the centuries to tell us, ‘This is real. Believe it and know that this life is waiting for you after you die if you choose it.’

A surprising number of people, who even call themselves Christian, do not believe in life after death. If we don’t believe that something happens after death, then it is pretty pointless being here now at this mass, because each mass we celebrate is a continual reminder that we believe in a life after this one which we are already preparing for. This also gives us great hope for those who have died, that we will be united with them again. This is a hope that we must hold onto. Every time we celebrate the mass we become present to the event that made life after death possible.  We become present at the death of Jesus on Calvary. Time stands still and we are there. Without this sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary we would not be able to go to heaven when we die and be reunited with those we love.

I want to finish with this quotation from a man called John Owen, who was a great Puritan minister. When he lay dying he was dictating some last letters to friends. He said to his secretary:
Write: ‘I am still in the land of the living’. 
Then he stopped and said: ‘No, change that to read:
I am still in the land of those who die,
but I hope soon to be in the land of the living’.’