Saturday, June 26, 2021

13th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 5:21-43) God created us for life


Not long after I was ordained, I was working as a hospital chaplain. I remember coming across a young girl of about 12 who was very sick. She was in the hospital several times and she eventually died. I can still see her pale dead body in the intensive care room and her poor parents who were completely devastated. I remember feeling so helpless as a chaplain. I have often prayed for them since. Every time I read today's Gospel I think of that little girl and her parents. 


An event like that always brings up the most difficult questions. Why does God allow these things to happen? Why didn’t God heal her? The readings today address some of these questions. First of all death was not something that God wanted for us. And although it is now a part of our earthly existence, it is only a stage of transformation, a doorway to another stage of our life with God. Our physical bodies die, but we don’t die.


The way that Jesus dealt with sickness and death also has a lot to teach us. Since Jesus was able to heal people and even bring people back from the dead, as he did on a few occasions, why did he always want people to be quiet about it? In this Gospel he only brought three of his disciples with him and when he got to the house he made as if the girl was not dead at all. Then he asked the family to keep the whole event quiet. He did the same many other times when he healed people. Why? You would think that it would be in his favour if people knew and that He would have more respect and that people would listen to him. What it is telling us is that his primary role was not about healing people physically, even though he had great compassion for people who were sick and it seems he never rejected anyone who asked for healing. His main role involved three things:


1.    To sacrifice himself for us for the forgiveness of sins, so that we might have eternal life with God when we die.

2.    To show us that God is with us in our sufferings. Jesus’ freely accepting death on a cross showed us this.

3.    To teach us about God and what our life is all about. 


Jesus wanted to teach us that God is not interested in condemning us, or ‘catching us out,’ rather, that God has made us to be with him and that God will make that happen if we allow him to. During our time on earth God is gradually transforming us and helping us to become holy, or the best version of ourselves that we can be. The teachings that Jesus left us with are the path which leads us through this gradual transformation, so that we become more like God all the time. Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to be transformed inside, then live the way that I am showing you. Spend your life loving and serving the people around you. Don’t put yourself first and don’t spend your whole life trying to store up a wealth that will disappear the day you die.’ If we get too focused on the world around us, we will miss what our life is really about.


It is tempting to think that that kind of holy life is only for a few people and that our own life is too difficult or too demanding to be like that; but that is not true. If it was not possible to live this way of life, then Jesus would not have taught us about it. The truth is that all of us are given endless opportunities to live the way Jesus taught us, because we are all the time being faced with difficult situations where we continually have to make a choice for good or evil. All of these choices are shaping us and making us into better or worse people. The good thing is that even if we have made a mess of many of the choices we’ve been given, God keeps giving us more, because God wants us to grow into the kind of people that He knows we can become. It is the ordinary struggles that we are faced with every day which are shaping us and giving us the possibility of growing in holiness.


Take something as simple as someone cutting you off in traffic. We are angry, because it is dangerous and we often react by swearing at them, or cursing them. Every time it happens we have the opportunity to bless or to curse. The way of God is not to curse someone, but to bless them. Why should we bless them when they have put us in danger? Because God asks us to. It doesn’t mean we are happy about what happened or that it wasn’t wrong, but why should we curse the person? Maybe God allowed that to happen so that you might ask God’s blessing on that person, because they need it.


Often at funerals I hear people speaking about the person who has died as if they are gone forever, their existence extinguished, there is nothing else. But to see it that way is to completely miss the point of what our faith teaches us. What Jesus has taught us is that while we are on earth we are all the time preparing for the world to come, something which is unimaginably wonderful. If we really believe that, then we can be quietly happy for those who have gone before us, because they have already reached it, at least if they have chosen it by the way they live. Knowing that something wonderful awaits us should give us both a comfort and a hope for those who have died. Sooner or later we will also be there and that is why we don’t despair. They have gone before us sooner than we expected. That is a very different perspective from believing that their live is over. It is not over, just their time on earth is complete.


St. Paul says, ‘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 this life is everything, then we have completely missed the point of our faith. Many people live as if this life were everything. If that were true then make yourself and your family as comfortable as possible before it’s all over. That is the opposite of what we believe. Our life on earth is just the time of preparation and we have a task while we are here and that task is to serve; to live by the ways of God and to bring God’s love to the people around us. If the world to come is as wonderful as we say we believe it is, then in some sense it doesn’t matter what happens to us here on earth, as it is temporary. The perspective our faith gives us makes a big difference. That is why Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.’ If we live as Jesus taught us, then we will influence the world around us—just like salt—and help others to see things differently.


Jesus’ life on earth is the greatest witness for us. Everything He did pointed to what is to come and to what our purpose here on earth is. Now is the time of service and if you are not sure exactly what you are supposed to be doing, read the Scriptures. God’s word teaches us everything.


For now we live as best we can, we continually try to choose good over evil and to live as God asks us to.


He took the child by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum,”

which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!”

The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walked around.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ ‘Corpus Christi’ (Mark 14:12-66, 22-26)


Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me, it also makes me think of the Eucharist. For those who do not believe as we do, it must seem like the craziest notion of all; that God makes himself present through the hands of a priest, in a tiny piece of bread and some wine. What could be more bizarre than that? And we don’t just believe that it is a reminder of Jesus or that it represents Jesus, but that it really and truly is the body and blood of Christ. I also think that it is a teaching so extreme that only God could come up with it and get away with it, so to speak. What human being would try to convince others that a piece of bread actually becomes the body of Christ when a priest says certain prayers over it?


To help us believe, the Lord has also given a great number of Eucharistic miracles, to date 107 all over the world. And with modern technology many have been studied by scientists and it has always shown that is the real flesh and blood of a man’s heart.


The first time that Jesus gave the people this teaching—“Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life within you”—it says that many of the people who had followed him up to that point left him. They said “This is madness. Who could accept it?” It is interesting how Jesus responded to them. He didn’t say anything. He just let them walk away. He then turned to the disciples and said, “What about you, are you going to go away too?” In other words, “This is my teaching. Take it or leave it.”


In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 11:23-26)—which is the oldest account of the mass that we have, written about 54 or 55AD—St. Paul says, “This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…” He doesn’t say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself. Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul while he was persecuting Christians and the event turned his life around. Jesus appeared to him several other times as well and Paul was so affected by what happened to him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching about this man Jesus, but the line that always strikes me is where he says, “This is what I received from the Lord…” He is saying, “I didn’t make this up and neither did any other person. Jesus himself taught us this and taught us to do this in his memory.” So, every time an ordained priest says the words of consecration at mass, “This is my Body… This is the chalice of my Blood…” Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine. How are we supposed to understand this?  We are not!  I do not understand it, but I believe it. That is why we are meant to fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat or smoke in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else in the world. It is also a beautiful sign of how close God is to us, that He would continually come to us in the middle of our lives, each week, each day, to help and encourage us. He comes to us as we are, not as we should be, but as we are. It is also God himself who makes it possible to receive him, because we could never be ready or worthy enough to even come close to the divine presence, not to mention receive him. That is also why we always say the prayer: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (just as the Roman soldier said when Jesus offered to come to his house to heal his servant).


Mass rock, where masses were celebrated in secret during times of persecution

There are two extremes that I come across with regard to the Eucharist. One is where someone will say to me, “Father, I don’t receive the Eucharist because I really am not worthy enough.” Correct! No one is worthy enough, nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to come to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him. The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance, or need to confess their sins, or change a lifestyle that is sinful. That is also wrong. There is no question of this being a ‘right’ on our part. The Eucharist is pure gift from God and for our part we must try to approach it as worthily as we can, especially by confessing our sins every so often. But the most important thing to remember is that Jesus wants to give himself to us, and so we should not be afraid to come to him. Remember that ultimately it is God himself who makes it possible for us to receive him. “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”


St. Paul also warns us to be careful not to receive unworthily, or we will bring condemnation on ourselves.

Each person must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks condemnation on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick and some have fallen asleep (1 Cor 11:28-30).


If we are living in any way that is not in line with God’s teachings, we need to address it. Several years ago, after I spoke about this, a couple came to me who were 48 years married. They said they had both been previously married, but never got an annulment, so they were never married in the Church. They realized that since they wanted to receive Communion, they really needed to put this right. So, after 48 years, they both applied for annulments, got them and were then married here in the church. I found that so inspiring. And that is the right approach. If you find yourself in a second union, without having got an annulment, then you should try and put it right. Come and talk to me and I will help you sort it out. All of us need to make every effort to do what the Lord asks.


I want to finish with this story: In the late 1500s there lived a woman named Margaret Clithero in the town of York in England. She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic. Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth sellers, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them. She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral. It was an Anglican (Episcopal) church at the time.


She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial. She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors. She said, “If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself.” The judge said, “Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.” He then handed her the bible and told her to swear on it.  So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, “I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”


York Minster Cathedral, England

So just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered. It was called in English law, ‘the punishment most severe’. She was pressed to death under heavy weights. It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive. The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken. She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.


In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times. It says ‘She died for the mass.’


So the next time that you find yourself bored with the mass, or just not too bothered to go because you are tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for saying mass. God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist. May He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.

I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” – St. Margaret Clithero.