Saturday, April 25, 2020

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A (Gospel: Luke 24:13-35) “Were not our hearts burning within us…?

Michaelangelo's 'Pieta' , Rome

 One of the hardest things for any of us to face and understand is suffering. The question that always comes up is, ‘If God is good and all-powerful, why is there suffering and evil in the world?’ Why doesn’t God stop it? No good ever seems to come from suffering, so why does God allow it? The answer is free will. God gave us free will, but with freedom comes responsibility.

Today there is a lot of talk about freedom, protecting our freedom at all costs. What is freedom? Real freedom is living in God’s kingdom, living by the teachings of God. Doing whatever you want, regardless of the consequences, does not lead to freedom, it leads to chaos and to evil. Go back to the story of Adam and Eve. God told them they could eat of any tree in the garden, except for the tree of good and evil. He was telling them not to step beyond their limitations—the tree of good and evil. Recognize and respect your limitations. They experienced fulfillment and happiness because they were living in the realm of God, as He asked them to. As long as they didn’t ‘play God’ they were fine. But they were tempted to disobey God and they gave in to the temptation. They didn’t listen to what God told them. They gave in to the temptation that ‘they could be like gods’, in other words, to do whatever they wanted, respecting no limitations and look at what happened. They brought chaos into the world. Sin.

In interviews I have often heard drug dealers and traffickers say, ‘I just bring the drug, it’s up to the people to do whatever they want.’ In other words, I take no responsibility for my actions. We tell our young women that they can dress whatever way want, no matter how disrespectful and if it causes men to sin, that is their problem. I take no responsibility for my actions. Our society tells us that it is ok to sleep around and you don’t have to take responsibility for the consequences. If a young woman gets pregnant, we tell her that she can just destroy the fetus. I take no responsibility for my actions. That was what Adam and Eve did. They were told by the devil that it was freedom, but it wasn’t. God showed them what true freedom was, but they rejected it.

Look at what is happening in our world today. So many people have abandoned the ways of God, refuse to listen to God, even deny God and sin continues to multiply. We see more and more evil. What is good is often called evil—everyone should be able to do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences—and evil is called good: abortion, euthanasia, telling children to choose their own gender. It is against God’s commandments, and they lead to destruction and death.

Throughout history God continually offered the Jewish people the chance to enjoy true freedom, by living his Commandments, but they continually rejected it. Moses said to the people:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. (Deut 30:15-16)

That is true freedom, but it comes with responsibility. We have free will but we have to take responsibility for our actions. So God points out specifically what we need to do and avoid, by giving us the Commandments. This is the path for us to find freedom.

In the Gospel today when the two disciples are downcast and can only see what has gone wrong, Jesus opens their minds to understand the Scriptures. Only in God everything makes sense. He showed them that despite the human evil that led to the betrayal and death of an innocent man, God brought the greatest good imaginable out of it; not only a man rising from the dead, but opening the way for us to return to the original happiness we had lost through disobedience. Even though we sin and cause suffering, God can still bring great good out of any situation, but we will only recognize that in God. That is why it is so important that we keep going back to listen to what God is saying to us in the Scriptures, so that we can see things from God’s perspective and not just from human perspectives. Our life on earth, only makes sense in God.

The two disciples were thinking only in human terms and could only see what had gone wrong and that it hadn’t turned out as they had hoped. ‘Our own hope had been that he would be the one to free Israel…’ ‘We are so disappointed.’ But Jesus helped them to see that God has a much higher purpose that goes way beyond what we can see. His plan for us is happiness and freedom, but not in the way we think. He shows us what we need to do—follow his teaching; be responsible for our actions—and that will lead to the greatest freedom imaginable, but we must listen to what He says. He began to show them how everything fits together in God’s plan. The death of Jesus was meant to happen, so that the resurrection would happen, so that the pathway to heaven could be reopened. But that only makes sense if you see it through God’s eyes. We would never say that good could come out of the terrible injustice of an innocent man being tortured and killed and yet look what happened.

When we are faced with situations of injustice and suffering, try and think of this. From a human point of view, the suffering and death of Jesus makes no sense. ‘Our own hope had been…’ But in God’s plan, the most wonderful thing imaginable happened, but they could only see that once God showed them the bigger picture.

If we hope to not be overwhelmed by the evil that is around us, we must stay focused on God, focused on his teachings. It will always be difficult and it will never fully make sense of it, but if we stay focused on God, we will remember that there is something much greater going on, which will make sense in the end. That is why the Apostles were so zealous in preaching what they had learned, because it made sense of everything and that is why the Lord told them to make it known. Only in God does our life make sense and only in God do we have true freedom.

“Oh, how foolish you are!
How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things
and enter into his glory?”

Friday, April 17, 2020

2nd Sunday of Easter (Gospel: John 20:19-31) Peace be with you


In December 2005 it was announced on the news that a man called Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Féin’s top men (Sinn Féin was the political wing of the IRA), confessed to having been a British spy for the previous twenty years.  People were amazed that this could have happened. The man obviously could not live with this any more and so he went public. He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was murdered 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? First because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates. If you remember in St. John’s Gospel, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it says that some time later they had a dinner for him. Many people came, not only to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus who had been raised from the dead. Wouldn’t you?! But it also says that the authorities decided it would be best to get rid of Lazarus as well as Jesus. 'Tie up any lose ends', as we would say. So, the Apostles had good reason to be afraid, from a human point of view.

Perhaps they were also afraid of what God might 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, about 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 pious by saying this, I am not. I am a sinner, just like anyone else. 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’ and what was Jesus’ response? ‘Do not be afraid.’ Now after the resurrection, after the betrayal, injustice and panic, 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 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. That is so characteristic of Jesus in how he dealt with people. Always compassion, mercy, love and encouragement.

Today is also known as ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’. Let me tell you one short story which to me says it all. There is a story told of 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 replied to Napoleon, ‘If he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’
God’s mercy is a gift. We don’t deserve it, but God longs to show us his mercy and that is one of the reasons He appeared to St. Faustina and asked her to spread this devotion to his mercy, because God does not want us to live in fear, but to be assured that any effort on our part to live as He asks, is enough. We will never manage to live perfectly, but as long as we are striving to grow closer to God, that is enough. God has created us to be with him and God will do everything possible to make that happen, except force us. There is nothing we can do, which God will not forgive if we ask him. That is God’s promise to us. All we have to do is reach out to him.

Peace be with you. It is I. Do not be afraid.’

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Easter 2020 The Covid Virus (Gospel: John 20:1-9)

This has been a strange Lent for all of us; not what we expected, or wanted. And many of you may feel a bit sad that you cannot be with me in our church for the Easter ceremonies. It is such a special time for us. But think of this: the first Easter saw several women coming to the tomb early in the morning, only to find it empty. Mary Magdalene remained at the empty tomb in mourning. Then Jesus appeared to her. When she went to tell the Apostles, Peter and John ran and also gazed into an empty tomb, while the others were locked away in fear of what might happen to them. That was the first Easter. They didn’t automatically believe that Jesus had risen, they just didn’t know what to think. It was only after Jesus appeared to them that they began to realize he had actually risen from the dead and who would blame them, by human thinking it was impossible. That was the first Easter.

In some ways, our Easter is a bit like that. We do believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, but like most of the Apostles, we are locked away in our homes, not sure what to think, not knowing what is coming next. I think it can be a good thing when everything changes and makes us think differently. This time has been very challenging for our faith, but I also think it has helped a lot of people in their faith, as it has made us realize how important it is to us and that it is really the only thing that makes sense of why we are here on earth in the first place.

There is an extraordinary line in St. Matthew’s account of the passion. During the trial of Jesus, because there is conflicting evidence against him which is of no use to them, the High Priest eventually asks Jesus directly: I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

And Jesus answered:
 “The words are your own. Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:63-64).

In other words, Jesus says “Yes I am the Son of God.” For Jesus to make a claim like that, he must have been either a liar, insane, or he was telling the truth, because it was an extraordinary thing to say. We believe it was the truth and that is exactly who Jesus is, not just a holy man, or a prophet, but the Son of God.

From a human point of view Good Friday is the ultimate sign of despair and failure. Everything falls apart and everyone is devastated and horrified at what has just happened. There is a terrible miscarriage of justice and Jesus, the one everyone was putting their hope in, is tortured in a very savage way and killed. Even Jesus on the cross feels abandoned by God. He is not actually abandoned by God but that is how he feels and he cries out “My God, my God why have you abandoned me.” The ultimate suffering is to feel that we have been abandoned even by God. From a human point of view it couldn’t get any worse. 

Then we have the silence of Holy Saturday when Jesus is in the tomb. People are in shock, numb from what has happened and not sure what to do next. And then we come to Easter Sunday, the opposite of Good Friday and the ultimate symbol of hope. The unimaginable happens and rumours start to spread that Jesus is alive. ‘But that is impossible!’ many said. Most of the disciples would not believe it initially, yet that is what happened. From a human point of view, it is impossible and naive to think such a thing could happen, but there is more than human work here. The power of God has brought about something extraordinary which no human mind can take in. This is what God has made known to us.

The reason Easter is the ultimate symbol of hope is because now the worst thing imaginable, which is death, is no longer permanent. God has opened a doorway for us to something wonderful when we die, so that we can see and be with our loved ones again. Think of the people you love who are dead. Without Easter they could not experience happiness now and neither could we when we die. So now our life has greater purpose than just what happens here and that gives us a greater hope than anything else. Now we have reason to keep going even when things are difficult. Now we are given purpose and we have a better sense of what our life is about; that is, our journey that will lead us to God if we remain open to it.

Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld.”

Friday, April 3, 2020

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 an eternal life of happiness and total fulfillment, 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.

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 sometimes 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 farthest extreme of suffering. After this there is no suffering 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 he does.

Even though sometimes we may feel we have been abandoned by God, 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 recoil 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 is 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.

One of the hardest aspects of suffering is that we can see no point to it. It just seems pointless and cruel. If we understood that it had a particular purpose, that would make it easier, but we usually don’t. But in God’s overall plan, everything we go through can serve a purpose, sometimes bringing families closer together, or helping people grow in their faith. But sometimes we will only see that later on when we look back. At the time it just seems meaningless and we often end up crying out in anger, ‘God, why are you doing this to me?’

Another difficulty is that we feel so helpless. We cannot stop it. How many people would have gladly exchanged places with someone they love who is suffering. Not being able to do anything about their loved one’s suffering is a martyrdom in itself. That is when we turn and look at the cross. It reminds us that this is also what Jesus went through; the feeling of total abandonment by God the Father, at the time when he needed him most. When you feel this way, focus on the cross. Hold one in your hands if you can and remember that Jesus went through the same suffering. That is when we ask Jesus for the grace to keep going, even though we do not understand.

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. To trust that in the end it will make sense.

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)