Friday, February 26, 2021

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B (Gospel: Mark 9:2-10) God speaks in the cloud


Remains of a girl who had been sacrificed in Argentina aprox 500 years ago
Remains of a human sacrifice found in Argentina from 1500s

I have often heard people say that the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son is horrific, so horrific that maybe it shouldn’t be read at all. It is meant to be horrific. The point is that God asks the unthinkable of Abraham, but more importantly Abraham trusts God and goes along the path that makes absolutely no sense to him at the time.


Human sacrifice was actually very common at the time in other cultures, so it would not have been a total surprise to Abraham that God would ask this of him, but what is most important is that ultimately God is showing us that human sacrifice is not acceptable to him. God does not want human sacrifice, ever.


Not only was it horrific that Abraham should be asked to sacrifice his child, but it was also through this only child that God had promised him many offspring. So, nothing at all made sense. Abraham suddenly finds himself in a situation of complete darkness, where nothing was right, nothing made sense, but Abraham trusts God and then everything changes at the last second. God ‘put Abraham to the test’ not in the sense of seeing if he was good enough—God knew how much faith Abraham had to begin with—but because God knew that Abraham had great faith and he wanted to stretch that faith to its full capacity.


An athlete won’t reach their full potential unless they are pushed to the limit. The trainer will often see more potential in them than they are aware of themselves and if they are a good trainer, they will push them so that they will reach that limit. Sometimes God does the same with us. He knows what we are capable of, more than we do ourselves and sometimes He stretches, or pushes us to the limit, because God wants us to reach our full potential as human beings.


Because Abraham was willing to do anything that God asked and because he showed his remarkable trust in and obedience to God, the Lord said that He would bless him greatly:

I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.”

Sometimes when we pray for a situation to get better, it gets worse? Have you ever noticed that? There is a temptation to panic and not pray any more, but if we believe that God is listening to us and helping us, then we persevere in prayer and we try to trust that the Lord will bring the best out of the situation, even though it often doesn’t make sense to us. That is one of the demands of faith and it is not easy.


When God sent Moses to confront Pharaoh and demand that he should let the Hebrew people go free, Pharaoh not only refused, but he made life much more difficult for them. He increased their suffering. So the people came complaining to Moses asking why he had to open his mouth at all, as they were now suffering more. Now he had Pharaoh angry with him and the people angry with him. Moses turned to God in a panic, even though He was doing what God wanted him to do, why was God allowing the situation to get worse.

Why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people and You have not delivered your people in any way.” (Ex 5:22)


God did bring about what He said He would do, but it took a while and life became more difficult first. The way God answers prayers is not always to our liking.


2000 years later God sends his Son, who takes on human flesh as Jesus and allows him to be sacrificed for the human race. The Father allowed his Son to be sacrificed. He did go through with it. It says in the second reading that because Jesus went through with it, the Father would not refuse him anything. That is why we can have such confidence when we pray to Jesus. It says in the second reading that Jesus now intercedes for us before the Father in heaven. If Jesus, the Son of God, is interceding for us before the Father, then what could we possibly be afraid of as long as we remain open to God? Not only that, but we also have Our Lady interceding for us. Is Jesus going to refuse his mother anything? Is the Father going to refuse Jesus anything? And these are the ones who are interceding for us.


In the Gospel, Peter, James and John are granted this extraordinary vision of Jesus, in all his glory. Why were they given this privilege when none of the others were? It seems they were being given a more intense training than the others. They were also with Jesus when He raised the little girl—Jairus’ daughter—from the dead and they were with him in Gethsemane. This vision happened just before the Passion, when Jesus would be tortured and killed before their eyes. Peter, James and John would be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane watching him fall apart with fear. They were going to need great strength not to despair themselves, as this would be so disillusioning for them, but what is especially note-worthy, is that after the vision was over they suddenly found themselves in a cloud where they could not see anything. Only then did they hear the voice of the Father speaking to them: 

This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.”


God spoke to them when they were in a cloud. Have you ever been on a mountain when a cloud suddenly descended? It’s quite frightening because you cannot see anything. You just have to stop and wait. Sometimes it is only when we are in a ‘cloud’ or darkness/confusion that God will speak to us most powerfully. When we cannot see the way forward and we cannot get any clarity on what to do, then God will show us what the next step is, but often He will only show us the next step, not the whole path ahead. This brings us back to the need to trust that God knows what God is doing, even when He leaves us in the dark.


Think of when someone dies, especially a young person. We are left with so many questions and so few answers. We don’t understand, but God asks us to trust. God asked Abraham to trust because God knew he would be able to, even though He seemed to be asking the impossible and God allowed the three Apostles to see Jesus as the Son of God in his blinding glory, to help them believe. We are only shown one step at a time, if even that. If God doesn’t show us the path it is because we don’t need to see it, only the next step.


Finally, think of what God the Father said to the Apostles and what He is saying to us, ‘This is my Son… listen to him.’ Of all the noise and information that is flying around us, listen to Jesus. When you are distressed, or anxious because of what is going on, listen to Jesus. If God the Father is speaking to us then what He is saying to us must be very important.


This is my Son the Beloved.  Listen to him.”


Sunday, February 21, 2021

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:12-15) Healing and the forgiveness of sins



In my work as a priest over the last twenty-two years, I have come across many people who have told me about miracles of healing, which they or someone close to them, have experienced. A close friend of mine by the name of Sandra, who is married with 6 children, saw one of her own children miraculously healed at Lourdes a few years ago. Her son Joe, who was about 7 at the time, was suffering with severe eczema all over his body. It meant that his skin was raw and bleeding a lot of the time. He had to be covered in wet bandages from head to toe which took his mother an hour and twenty minutes to put on each time. They decided to bring him on pilgrimage to Lourdes to pray for him. Lourdes is an international Marian shrine in the south of France where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858. Thousands of sick people are brought there each year and many physical healings have taken place.


While they were there he was brought to the ‘baths’ which is where many of the sick are brought in order to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes as Our Lady told Bernadette to do. After he had been to the baths he started to say, ‘Mom, I’ve been healed!’ She paid no attention to him as he was often playing up, as little boys will. But then he started to say it to others on the bus and eventually he said, ‘Mom I’ve been healed. Why don’t you believe me?’ She started to get suspicious at this point and said, ‘I do believe you.’ When they went back to the hotel she took off the bandages and his eczema was almost completely gone. That is just one of many stories of physical healing that I have heard and I’m sure there are many of you here who could tell me more.


Why is it that we don’t see more miracles of healing? Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, so why doesn’t God seem to heal more today?


For two summers I worked as a confessor in Lourdes; just hearing confessions, nothing else.  It was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had as a priest so far, although it was exhausting. People are amazed when I say that hearing confessions for hours could be such a wonderful experience as most people couldn’t imagine anything more boring. However, the reason it was so great was because it is where a huge number of miracles take place every day and very real miracles too. When people are given the grace to be able to confess sins they have been burdened with for years, you can physically see a change in their faces.  They are being healed and it is usually a much deeper healing that a purely physical healing. The body needs healing, but the healing of the spirit is more important because it affects us much more. Many people came to me and the other priests and confessed sins they were carrying, often for 20, 30 and even 40 years. It is a very moving thing to watch the transformation in people’s faces when they realize they have been forgiven.  A weight is lifted from them and they are made free. I saw this happen right before my eyes many times and you know straight away that this is the healing power of God at work. 


The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was about the forgiveness of sins. In each mass at the consecration the priest holds up the chalice and says, ‘This is the cup of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’  The mass is all about the forgiveness of sins, because at each mass we are at the event of Calvary when Jesus was killed. This was all done so that our sins could be forgiven. That is why the mass is so powerful and that is why we pray for everyone and everything in each mass. God the Son is offered to God the Father, so that sins may be forgiven.


Because of the way we are made with body and spirit we need concrete ways of relating to each other and we need concrete ways of being able to understand God. That is one of the reasons why Jesus gives us his body and blood in the form of bread and wine. They are things we can see and touch and taste. We can relate to them. When it comes to the forgiveness of sins Jesus has given us the gift of confession. Through confession we have a definite way of being able to confess our sins to another person in total secrecy and so to be healed. Confession is an extraordinary gift of healing which the Lord offers us, because He knows how much we need it.  It’s not just about confessing everything so that we can be good enough for God, because we can never be good enough for God.  This is a gift that God has given us for our benefit, so that we can be healed and not be dragging around the mistakes of our past with us. The Lord wants us to be free and to be able to enjoy our lives and this is one of the wonderful ways that the Lord has done this.


But why can’t I just tell God I’m sorry myself?’ Well you can if you want to and I’m sure that the Lord forgives us when we do that, but God knows that in our humanity we have a psychological need to confess to another person. If you don’t believe me listen to the TV and radio shows where you find people ‘confessing’ their sins to the whole world every day.  We have a need to confess, because that is what helps us to heal. It is also an act of humility to come before God in confession and confess and that is what the Lord has asked us to do; to go to one of his priests, whom He has anointed, to confess and receive his grace.


Jesus said to his Apostles, ‘‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23).  Jesus was saying that He would be working in and through them, since it is only God who forgives sins, but the Lord made it in such a way that He would offer his forgiveness through his priests. That is why we have the gift of confession. It is meant to be a gift, not a burden, but Satan is quick to convince us that we don’t need it; that we can go to God ourselves. Why should we have to confess to a priest when he is just a sinner too? Of course priests are sinners like anyone else, but this is the gift that God has given us through the priesthood, in order to help us, to heal us and to help us be free. If the Lord has given us this gift, who are we to say we don’t need it?


The most important thing about confession is the very act of going there in sincerity and confessing whatever you can remember. It is a way of saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner. This is all I can remember.’ The very act of doing that is a beautiful thing. Just telling God I am sorry myself, does not show any humility and it is just convenient for us. Taking the time and going out of the way to confess is an act of humility and the only way we can every come before God is in humility is knowing that He is everything and we are nothing.


Many people carry burdens of sins from the past that they have not been able to confess because of guilt or shame. Remember God never shames us. That’s what Satan does. Jesus called him ‘the accuser’ and that’s what he does. The Lord is always the one to help us back on our feet and that is what confession is about. The Lord is giving us his reassurance and grace to begin again.


People continually ask me why past sins keep coming up in their mind, even after they have been confessed. That is because when we sin, it does damage and leaves scars. Those scars remain as memories. So just as when you see a scar on your arm you remember the wound, although it is now healed, in the same way we see the scars of our past sins, which remain as memories. When they come to mind, that is the time to thank God for his mercy, rather than wondering are they really forgiven.


Not long ago I told you the story of Marino Restreppo, the Hollywood producer who had been very successful, but was living a very sinful and ungodly life. Then one day while visiting his home in Columbia he was captured by FARC rebels and held in the jungle for six months. One night during this terrible ordeal, he had an illumination of conscience. God showed him everything that had happened in his life and all the sins he had committed. It went on for about eight hours. He knew that if he had died at that moment he would have gone to hell, because he had totally rejected God by the way he was living. But what I thought was especially interesting was that at the end of this experience, which completely changed him, he knew he had to go to confession. Even though he knew he had been forgiven, he also knew that he had to confess to a priest.


The Lord has given us confession for a reason and He wants us to use it. Of all the things you do during Lent, nothing could be more important than going to confession. And if you still find yourself thinking that you don’t need to go to a priest, because you can tell God you are sorry yourself, ask yourself one question. Who told you that, because it did not come from God. Who else would want you to stay away from confession, where you receive God’s grace? Satan knows how powerful it is and that’s why he tries to convince us that we don’t need it.


The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.

Friday, February 12, 2021

6th Sunday, Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:40-45) ‘Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God’


Two things I think we often forget, which make a big difference to our outlook are, first, that we live in God’s world, God’s creation and it has been entrusted to us to take care of, not to do what we want with. Second, that we are God’s creation, not our own creation. We are created by him and remain in existence because of him and we are indebted to him for everything.


There is a line that I have heard several times in commercials which says, ‘My world, my way.’ The commercial is trying to convince us that we should have what we want—their product—because it is all about us. ‘My world, my way.’ But this is not what the Lord teaches us. It is his world and his way. Believing and accepting that can make a big difference to how we live.


If the world has been entrusted to our care, then we have a duty to take care of it and maintain it for its owner, God, making it as fruitful and beautiful as possible. It is not ours to do what we want with, which unfortunately is often how it is being treated. We exploit all of its resources to suit us, regardless of how much damage it may do. It is interesting how many native tribes in different parts of the world were much more in tune with this than we are. They didn’t cut down all the trees in the forest for their own use, because if they did, they knew they would be burning themselves. They only killed the amount of animals they needed for their survival, to help keep the balance. They recognized that they had to care for the world.


It says in the creation story of Genesis, ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden, to till it and take care of it’ (Gen 2: 15). You could add, ‘because it didn’t belong to the man, but to God.’ It was entrusted to his care. That is a reminder that the world has been entrusted to our care. If we live with that in mind, we will see the world differently and indeed many do.


Also, if we remember that we are God’s creation and indebted to God for everything, it will give us a different perspective. We continually hear that ‘this is my body and my life and I can do what I want with it.’ It is true that we can do whatever we want with our bodies and our life, but our actions do have consequences. If we remember that we have been given the gift of life, then it will help us to remember to use it well and respect it. How do we know what we are to do with it? by reading God’s word. What does God’s word tell us to do? It tells us to acknowledge and worship our Creator.

‘I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange God’s before me.’

‘Do not misuse God’s holy name.’

‘Keep Sunday as a holy day, to acknowledge and worship God’, because everything comes from him.

‘Honor your father and your mother.’ It always breaks my heart when I hear of children who have cut their parents off, because they are angry with them for one reason or another. We may have our differences, sometimes very legitimate ones, but God tells us to honor our parents, ‘so that we may live long and prosper.’

‘Don’t kill, steal, cheat, or lie.’

The Lord is saying, ‘This is how I want you to live in my world.’


If we remember that each human being is God’s creation, then we will be unlikely to think that we have the right to kill a baby in the womb, or someone at the end of their life, because they have become inconvenient, or because we feel they shouldn’t have to suffer. When we do that, we are playing God.


The Commandments of God show us exactly what we are called to do and not to do. If we are God’s creation and we live in God’s creation, then we must keep asking God how He wants us to live in and take care of his creation. If someone entrusts us with something that is very valuable to them, we take it seriously and do everything we can to protect it, so that when they ask for it back, we can return it in the same condition if not better, because it is an honor to be entrusted with it.


There are so many arguments that we are constantly presented with which tell us that we should be able to determine the outcome of this and that. If we want to be faithful to God and do what is right by God—which probably all of us here do—then we keep going back to God’s word, to ask what God wants us to do.


I am reading a commentary on the Bible, by the Jewish scholar Dennis Prager. His commentaries on the Scriptures are fascinating, because the Jewish people will see things from a slightly different perspective. One thing he says is that if I really believe the Scriptures are God’s word, then when I come to a part I don’t understand, or which doesn’t seem to make sense in today’s culture, I will say that the Scriptures are right, but I don’t understand them, as opposed to, the Scriptures must be wrong because they don’t seem to make sense in today's culture. Ask yourself, do you really believe the Scriptures are God’s word? If I do, then I need to listen to them and take them seriously.


You may argue that all your success is your own doing, because you worked hard. ‘I have no one to thank but myself.’ Thank God if you have done well, but remember who gave you the intelligence, the education, the opportunities, the physical health, the motivation. All these things have been given to us as a gift and we are meant to use them, but remember where they come from to start with.


‘Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.’ (1 Cor 10:31)

Monday, February 8, 2021

5th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:29-39) The need for Jesus' teaching



It is interesting that 2500 years ago when the first reading from Job (7:1-4, 6-7) was written, people were asking the same questions that we still ask today? ‘Why do we have to work so hard? What is the point of it all? Why is our life sometimes so difficult? Why do good people suffer so much, often for no apparent reason?’ Throughout the centuries people continue to ask the same questions. Sometimes it takes a dramatic event like a tsunami or an earthquake where thousands are killed in an instant, to make people ask themselves these questions. I often think of the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, because it was devastating. Within a few minutes, 250,000 people were killed. One minute all those people were just getting on with their daily lives, the next minute the tsunami struck and they were gone. If we can suddenly be snatched away like that, then what is the purpose of our being here?  Is there any purpose, or is it all chance? I think the Covid-19 virus has made many people ask similar questions. The Lord teaches us that there most certainly is a purpose to our being here.


During his life on earth Jesus continually worked extraordinary miracles—just as we read in today’s Gospel—and as a result thousands of people were drawn to him looking for healing, just like we do today when we hear of someone who has been given a gift of healing, but this was not the main purpose of Jesus’ being here. Jesus continually healed people, because he had so much compassion for people and it seems there was never anyone brought to him whom he didn’t heal, but that wasn’t his primary work. His primary task—apart from sacrificing himself for us—was to teach people, to teach us about God and about the reason why we are here. When you think about it, all the people he healed and even brought back to life from the dead, they all eventually got sick again and died. Physical healing is important and we will always do whatever we can to find healing, but it is not the most important thing. What is more important is that we have spiritual understanding and strength. We need to know why we are here and what our purpose is and that is why Jesus kept moving on to the next village to teach and preach.


He wanted to teach us that we are loved by God and we are not here by accident; that we were deliberately created out of love, to spend all eternity in his presence; he taught that our life has a purpose and is going somewhere, that we have a specific role to play; that it is worth keeping going, even when we are suffering. He also taught us how God calls us to live: to live from the heart, to love and serve from the heart, not at a minimal level of only doing what is required, but giving of ourselves completely. The ultimate mission of his life was to die for us, so that we could get to heaven when we die, so that God’s plan for our happiness could come about.


When the disciples found Jesus alone praying, the first thing they told him was that everyone was looking for him. There was so much work to do, so many people to heal. But look how he responded: ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ That is why I came: to preach and teach.


What is also interesting is the way that he taught. He mostly used parables. The reason why that is different is that a parable does not give you an obvious answer; it points you in a particular direction, but you must go on searching for the truth if you are to discover the meaning. Why is that important? Because it engages us in the work of searching for and discovering the truth. It makes us think and also use our imagination. In other words, he didn’t just shove a set of teachings down our throat and say, ‘This is it.’ It is a recognition of how God respects our intelligence and freedom. God invites us to look for the truth that He wants to show us, but it is up to us whether we do or not. He is saying, ‘I will teach you more and more if you want to learn.’


When I began my ministry as a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain, I remember meeting a man who had been suffering for most of his life. He had had surgery after surgery and he was in pain most of the time. But every time I met him he was smiling and he said, ‘Father I have so much to be grateful for.’ It was very humbling to hear this. Why was he grateful? Because he had faith and he had purpose. He understood that his life had meaning and that it was going somewhere. He believed that this life was not everything and that it was worth persevering. Having that purpose is what makes all the difference. And that is what our faith gives us. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it helps to make sense for us of why we are here. It reminds us that God does want us to be happy, that that is what He created us for. It also reminds us that it is worth putting up with the various struggles we have to go through, because they are often what make us into better people. The suffering will not last forever. Sooner or later we will cross over to the next world where our happiness will be complete. Having that hope is what makes all the difference and that is why Jesus kept moving around and teaching people, so that they would understand the purpose of their lives.


Very often people ask me how they can know what they are called to, or what God wants them to do. We are mainly just called to live in the circumstances that we find ourselves. For most of us it is pretty ordinary, and may seem unimportant, but it’s not. How we live our life is everything. If I live my life remembering that I am only here for a short while and that my destiny is in heaven, I will live it very differently than if I believe this world is what it’s all about and that is the difference faith makes. If I have the hope that faith in God gives me, then I will not be afraid even when things are difficult. Even if my life is not as exciting, or ‘successful’ as I had hoped, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I try and live it as best I can, loving and serving the people around me. When my time here is complete, I will go to be with God where I will be completely fulfilled in every possible way.


This is what Jesus wanted people to understand. That is why he told the Apostles to go and teach all nations, so that people would know that we have a purpose, and all that He has done for us, and what awaits us. That is why it is so important that we continue to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. All people need to know this. They don’t have to accept or believe it, but they have a right to know it.


Meanwhile we will continue to pray and look for healing and it is right that we do, but it is also good to remember that the hope we have in God is actually worth more than the physical healing, because that is what will keep us going, because that is what makes sense of why we are here.


Let us go on to the nearby villages, so that I may preach there also. For that is why I have come.’