Saturday, March 25, 2023

5th Sunday of Lent Year A (Gospel: John 11:1-45) Our hope is in the Lord


Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)


A few years ago I saw a program about Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), the English physicist who was confined to a wheelchair because of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but whose brain was working perfectly, and who was an extra-ordinary genius. He wrote A brief history of time, attempting to explain the origins of the universe. At the age of 21 he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and he was told he had at best two years to live. Up until his death in 2018 he was still doing ground-breaking work in physics, although the only muscle he could still move was one of his cheeks. There was a small sensor beside his cheek, which was attached to a computer. By moving his cheek he was able to speak to people and continue working through his computer. No doubt one of the reasons why he was still alive was his will to live. He had an extraordinary determination to keep going.


There is so much more to being alive than just physical health, although that is what we all wish for. Many people would consider that life would not be worth living if you were in the physical state that Stephen Hawking was in, and yet look at what he did.


When I worked as a hospital chaplain in my hometown of Galway, I often saw people who, having lost the will to live, would go down-hill very quickly and die. I also saw people who were told that they would probably not recover, but because they were absolutely determined to keep going, they would recover, often completely against the odds. One of the key differences between those who keep going and those who don’t is something spiritual: hope. When we have hope we can keep going even against the odds. If we have no hope, we may not survive even the ordinary.


Several years ago in a housing subdivision called Moyross, in Limerick city, which is an hour south of where I grew up—one of the toughest and most troubled areas of that city—a new group of Religious moved in. They are called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which were started by Fr. Benedict Goreschel in the Bronx, New York. They live very like the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) in poverty and great simplicity. Apparently the area has been transformed, for the simple reason that they have given the people there new hope. By moving in there, they have shown those people that they are worth something and that in itself has given them new hope.


Franciscan Friars of the Renewal

Because we believe that God wants us to be happy, to live life in all its fullness, that gives us hope, which we are inspired to pass on to others. ‘I came that you may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10). And one of the early Christian writers called Tertullian wrote, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’ The more alive we are in every sense, the more we give glory to God and hope is a big part of being fully alive.


When we have hope we are able to work to promote and strengthen married life even when it goes wrong; we continue to work with young people and encourage them not to give up, even when they have messed up through drugs, or alcohol; we continue to work for justice and peace often in very difficult circumstances. Our faith in God gives us hope, which in turn inspires others to keep going. Think also of the hope that Pope Francis has given people by the way he lives.


In this beautiful Gospel we hear how Jesus deliberately waited when he heard that Lazarus was sick, in order to work this miracle before everyone’s eyes. He wanted to show them something. He wanted to show them that God has power even over death and that when He allows people to die that it is not the end. Just as Jesus called Lazarus out of death, so Jesus will also call us out of death when we die and we will begin a new and wonderful life with him, unless we have rejected God. We make that choice by the way we live, the everyday decisions that we make. 


In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was helping people to believe in him. He is the one who has power over life and death. He is master of all things. He will judge the living and the dead. He was also giving the people hope, showing them that there is a bigger picture that we do not understand. Death is not the end. Physical health is not the end, but a doorway to what we are created for. But having hope is essential if we are to keep going through the many difficulties that we continue to face. Our hope in God and the world to come, gives us strength to keep going even when we are suffering, or struggling, or when everything is going wrong.


Icon of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven

If we lose hope we may despair. If we believe in nothing else apart from this world, then it could be very difficult to keep going when faced with the many difficulties that we are so often faced with, which don’t seem to have any solution: situations of injustice that we can do nothing about; people killed through violence and hatred. If we believe in nothing else, then how are we supposed to keep going? And sadly that is one of the reasons why there is such a high rate of suicide right now, because so many people have lost faith and so have no hope.

In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth in modern day Greece, St. Paul wrote the following: “If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:9). If we think that this life is everything, then we have completely missed the point. But our faith tells us that this life is only a small part of the picture and it is so important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.


So often you will hear people say, every day I am still alive is a good day, even when their bodies are old and in pain. I guess it would make you wonder what they believe happens after death. Clinging desperately to life, even  is a sign of not being convinced of what awaits us after death. If we are convinced that what awaits us is something unimaginably wonderful, then we will long for it, or at least look forward to it. Would you rather be clinging to life in pain, than in a world of joy where there is no more pain, or evil, or sorrow? Jesus’ dying and rising was to make sure that we could reach that happiness which awaits us. What greater hope is there than to believe that we will be with our loved ones again, in a place where there is only joy. That’s what all of us want and that is what our faith promises us.


I am sure that was one reason why Jesus deliberately waited until Lazarus was dead, so that he could bring him back to life before everyone; so that everyone would realize that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. All things are in his hands and we place ourselves in his hands too.


I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live and I shall resettle you on your own soil; and you will know that I the Lord have said and done this.”



Monday, March 20, 2023

4th Sunday of Lent, Year A (Gospel: John 9:1-41) God sees the heart



A few years ago I was talking to a man who was telling me about himself. He said that most things in his life were fine, except for one thing. He had a terrible temper, which was so frustrating and caused him great distress. He often lost his temper with his family and he was so ashamed of it. He said, ‘If only I didn’t have this temper, I’d be perfect!’ I couldn’t help thinking that this weakness which was so frustrating to him, was probably also one of the things that helped him to stay close to God. If we thought we were perfect, or even close to it, we would probably not be aware of our need for God. If we are not aware of our weaknesses, we can become very arrogant.


There is a priest known simply as Brother Andrew, who co-founded the Brothers part of the Missionaries of Charity, with Mother Teresa. She asked him to help her found the male branch of her order. He was a Jesuit priest. In one of his books about his experiences, he begins by saying: ‘Few people would believe the weakness on which the Missionaries of Charity is built.’ He writes a lot about his own weakness, although he doesn’t say exactly what it was, but that he suffered from some kind of addiction. But this weakness, which frustrated him so much, was also one of the things that helped him to grow in holiness. He doesn’t say that, but you can see it from his writings. The reason why God did such great work through him, through Mother Teresa and through so many others, was not because they were extraordinarily talented people, but because they were aware of how weak they were and so they came to totally rely on God for everything.


The reason why God was able to do such wonderful things through the saints, is not because they were perfect, but because they were weak people who continually turned to God and so God was able to use them in an extraordinary way. It is very easy to get a false impression of what a holy person is. Books can often give us the impression that they were people who did little or no wrong. The truth is that the saints were and are weak people, with just as many weaknesses as anyone else, but they continually turned to God for help and as a result God was able to work through them in such an amazing way. To understand that, is key to growing in the spiritual life. If the saints were perfect people who never did any wrong, then very few of us would be able to relate to them. But if they were weak people just like any of us—which they were—then not only can we relate to them, but it can help us to see that the exact same path is open to us, because it doesn’t depend on us being good enough, rather it depends on us continually turning to God. That is the key.


There is no one here who doesn’t have weaknesses of one kind or another. It could be some kind of addiction, it could be a need to control, an emotional dependency, whatever. We all have something and it can be extremely frustrating.


I find it comforting that two thousand years ago, St. Paul writes about the exact same thing (See 2 Cor 12:7-10). Paul was a very intelligent man, well educated and obviously very talented. He had a number of visions of Jesus. After he was converted, he went and preached everywhere and many miracles were worked through him, even bringing a boy back to life who had died (Acts 20:7-12). But he too suffered from some kind of weakness, although he doesn’t say what it was. But he understood that the Lord allowed him to suffer this way, because of the extraordinary things God had done through him. He writes: 

That I might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me…”


You can hear his frustration as he says,

Three times I asked God to take this thing away from me, and three times the Lord said ‘No, my strength is at its best in weakness.”


This weakness, whatever it was, obviously helped him more than he realised. It kept him humble and helped him to be aware of how much he needed the Lord’s strength and ask for his help and that is why he and so many other men and women were such powerful instruments in God’s hands, because they relied totally on God and not on themselves, as they were well aware of how weak they were.


In the first reading Samuel is sent to anoint the person God wants to be the next king. God chooses David, even though he was the youngest in the family and out minding sheep. Samuel was surprised and so was everyone in the family. He was the last one they expected. God doesn’t need our greatness, but the openness of our heart.


I have no doubt that all of us probably feel we would be more pleasing to God if we could overcome our weaknesses, but in God’s wisdom it is often the opposite. To our frustration the Lord allows us to struggle with weaknesses, because they serve a higher purpose. They keep us humble and aware of how much we are in need of God’s mercy, which is how it should be. God is not put off by our weakness.


The Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous—and all the other addiction groups—is essentially the Christian life in twelve steps. It begins by acknowledging that I have a problem, an addiction, which I cannot overcome by my own strength and so I must turn to a higher power, God. I also must acknowledge my past wrongdoing, which is confession and try to make amends, which is penance. Then I must try and live a spiritual life. The reason it is so successful and has helped so many people recover, is because it is based on living the Christian life as the Lord has revealed to us. God knows what works and if we listen to what He tells us, we will succeed and He wants us to succeed.


Success in God’s eyes is often very different from success in our eyes. We tend to think of success in worldly terms, achievements in work and education, making enough money to live comfortably. All those things are good and we certainly should try and use our gifts to the best of our ability, but they are not the most important thing.


In worldly terms, many of the saints would be considered failures. Often their lives were filled with apparent failures, sometimes with them ending up in poverty or sickness, unable to care for themselves. But in God’s eyes they are something very different, because it was often those earthly failures which brought them closer and closer to God.


When we die and come before God, having become president, or ending up on the street will make no difference. What will make a difference is how we have lived and everyone can live as God calls us to live, regardless of their situation.


Many of the saints were only recognised for their holiness after their death. St. Therese of Lisieux (Teresa of the Little Flower), died at the age of 24. When she was dying, she overheard two of the other sisters in her convent talking about her. One sister was saying to the other, “I wonder what mother abbess will say about Therese at her funeral, because she never really did anything.” She was just 24 when she died, unknown in a convent in a small town in France, with no apparent achievements. Now she is a canonized saint and doctor of the Church.


So the very things that cause us the greatest frustration, those weaknesses that we often don’t seem to be able to get past, are often the same weaknesses which can help us to grow in holiness. All that matters is that we keep striving to grow. The saints were not people who didn’t sin, rather people who kept getting up again each time they fell.


So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast, so that the power of Christ may stay over me.”



Sunday, March 12, 2023

3rd Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 4:5-42) The waters of life


This past week (March 9th, 2023) I read that in a school in Columbia, 28 girls had been taken to hospital with fainting and anxiety after playing the Ouija. It was available to them in their school. People think these things are just harmless fun, but they are real.


All around us we see signs for Tarot card reading, fortune telling, psychics, all kinds of alternative healing and other practices that come under the heading of ‘occult’. We are told to stay away from these things that so many people find fascinating. Why is this? What is so wrong with it? Are we just over-reacting because we do not understand it?


If God tells us to stay away from something, there is a good reason for it.  God does not give us rules just for the sake of rules.  There is a reason for everything.  In the Old Testament in the book of Deuteronomy it says:

You must not have in your midst anyone who... practices divination, or anyone who consults the stars, who is a sorcerer, or one who practices magic or who consults the spirits, no diviner or one who asks questions of the dead. For the Lord abhors those who do these things. (Deut 18:10-11)


So what is the problem with these thing? Anything that is ‘occult’ is generally an attempt to gain knowledge or power of the future. One of the greatest things that God has given us is the gift of free will. All through this life we have the freedom to choose to do what we want, even to rejecting God, which is quite amazing. God does not reveal the future to us because if He did it would influence our free will. If I think I know what is going to happen, I am most likely to make decisions based on that information, but the problem is that then I am not totally free to choose, because my free will has been influenced by fear. That is the main problem with things such as fortune telling, tarot card reading, etc. We think we are gaining knowledge of the future, but this influences our freedom.


However, we have no way of knowing whether the information we are given is true or not and perhaps more importantly, where is it coming from? If God deliberately does not reveal the future to us, then the information is not coming from God. So where is it coming from and how can we trust that it is reliable? We are dabbling in the world of the spirit, without knowing what we are dealing with and make no mistake about it Satan is very cunning and knows how to deceive us. Jesus himself called him ‘The father of lies’ and ‘the deceiver.’ Sometimes a fortune teller may give you information that only you could know, but then they have won your confidence. If God forbids us to be part of these things, then the knowledge is not from God. If the Lord tells us that these things are detestable to him, then we would be wise to stay away from them. 


Now listen to what Jesus says to the woman at the well:

If you only knew what God was offering you and who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.


What is God offering us? What is this living water? First of all it is the life of faith, the path to God, the truth about God as given to us by Jesus who is Son of God. The only thing that will fulfil us completely is God. No earthly thing or even the person we love most in the world, is capable of completely fulfilling us. To expect them to is to ask them to do what only God can do. But to realize that nothing on earth will completely fulfil us takes a lot of pressure off. Then we can enjoy the things of earth and the people of love, while knowing that we will only be completely fulfilled in God, beginning in this life and completed in the world to come.


When people turn away from God, as so many have today, they continue to search for God without realizing it. They are searching for fulfilment, but they are going to be disappointed. That is one reason why we see so much anger and rage at the moment. People are more and more frustrated because they cannot find satisfaction in anything and they don’t know where to turn. The only place we will find that fulfilment is in God.


Jesus is helping the woman at the well to see this. He points out that she has had five husbands and the man she is now with is not her husband. She has been trying to find happiness in relationships but has not been able. Jesus tells her and us, that it is only to be found in him. The ‘thirst’ that we have, can only be satisfied with the living water that comes from God.


For two thousand years the teachings of Christ have been guiding people on the path to God. The fact that it has lasted that long is itself a sign that this must be from God, especially when you look at the history of the Church, which is nothing to boast about. Yet despite that, the message is still passed on through sinful people like me, but passed on none the less. It is there for anyone who wants it. Many things are continually offered to us, but not all of them are good and not all of them will help us. What we believe is that what God offers us—the waters of life—is what will lead us to total happiness, beginning now and fulfilled in the world to come. This is what the Lord is teaching us. Do we believe that? 


Sometimes I think it comes back to something as basic as asking ourselves, ‘Do I believe the Scriptures are from God?’ ‘Do I believe that Jesus teaches us through his Church?’ If we believe that, then we need to listen to it. If we don’t believe that, we shouldn’t be here in the first place. God offers us his word to guide us, his Body and Blood to feed us, his forgiveness to heal us, but if we want to follow the path that He is showing us, then we must listen to what he teaches us and act on it.


If you only knew what God was offering you and who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.



Saturday, March 4, 2023

2nd Sunday of Lent Yr A (Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9) This is my Son the Beloved, listen to him



A few years ago I was out with some friends having a drink. There was an American tourist there, a man about my own age, and he was on his own. So eventually he joined us and began chatting. He told us he a bit about himself and his wife and children at home. Then he asked me if I had any children. So I said ‘No, I am a priest.’ He was not expecting that reply, but then he said, ‘Yes, Jesus was a good man.’ I was thinking to myself, ‘You are right, Jesus was a good man, but he was also much more than that: he was and is the Son of God.’ That makes a big difference. 


Something that you will come across quite often in discussions on religion in general is the idea that Jesus is another one of the enlightened masters, like the Buddha, or Gandhi, or others like that. You will come across this in what is generally called New Age thinking as well. He is a prophet and a great teacher and spiritual leader, but that is it. However, for us it can not stop there. We believe that he is a human being, yes, but also fully divine. He is God, revealed to us in human flesh. If this is not true, then we should not be here. And if this is not true then what we do here in the mass is idolatry, because it would mean that we claim that this same Jesus the Son of God becomes present in the form of bread and wine. In a way it is no wonder that many other religions think what we do is completely crazy. It is hard to blame them.  But Jesus himself claimed he was the Son of God. Either Jesus was a liar, he was mad, or what he said was true. We believe that what he said was true, that he is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. God the Son, who took on human flesh becoming the person of Jesus, who sacrificed himself for us so that we could have eternal life with God when we die. No human being could do that, only God.


This vision that the three Apostles Peter, James and John were granted on the mountain tells us a lot. These three Apostles seem to have been given a more intense training than the others. The Gospels tell us that on three different occasions Jesus allowed only them to go with him. Once was when he brought back to life the 12 year old girl, Jairus’ daughter. He only allowed her parents and Peter, James and John to be there. The other time was in the Garden of Gethsemane when he allowed them to see up close the fear and terror that he went through, knowing what was about to happen to him. He sweated blood, which is a real medical condition called hematidrosis.


Why were they given this vision? It was for their benefit, to leave them in no doubt that Jesus was not just another prophet, even if a great prophet. He was the one seen in blinding glory, but then they heard this voice from the cloud saying ‘This is my Son the beloved... listen to him.’ It was another way of telling them, ‘Do not be in any doubt as to who he is. Listen to him.’ He is the only one whose voice we need to listen to. We are constantly being called in different directions. Different voices tell us what to believe, where to go. ‘Don’t listen to the Church because it is corrupt. The teachings of Christ are not real’, etc. But the Father says, ‘Listen to him’.


Then they saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus. How did they know it was Moses and Elijah, since they lived hundreds of years before the Apostles? They were given infused knowledge at that moment. Why did Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus? Moses represented the Ten Commandments, which were known as the Law. This was the law they were to follow. Elijah represented the Prophets. The prophets were the ones whom God sent to continually point people back in the right direction. The Jewish people believed that if they followed the teachings of the Law and the Prophets, that was their path to heaven. Now Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus which was a sign that Jesus was now the new path to heaven. All of us will go to heaven through what Jesus has done for us. He is the new path to heaven, the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus’ own words: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14:6). Only through Jesus can we go to heaven. All people of all faiths will know this the moment they die, even those who have never heard of Jesus. They will understand instantly who Jesus is and that it is because of his sacrifice for us that we can go to heaven. And like all of us they can accept or reject Jesus.


Peter, James and John were also being strengthened for the passion which was to happen shortly after this event and in spite of being granted this vision, they fled when Jesus was tortured and killed. If it was that difficult for them, it is not surprising that we can find it difficult too and that we doubt and wonder are we all daft to believe in these things. But that is why God granted them this vision of Jesus in his glory, which must have been quite terrifying at the time. God allowed them to see this so that afterwards they would regain their strength and courage. They saw Jesus in glory to show them who he was/is and also this is to remind us that this is how we will see him when we die.


We too need the same strength and courage, especially when we are all the time being told of how foolish it is to believe all this stuff and that we should really get with the times. The Church is out of date and full of corruption and scandal, so how could it be from God, etc If Jesus is just a man, or a prophet, then what we do here is wrong, in fact it would be blasphemy. But if Jesus is the Son of God, which we believe He is, then what happens in each mass is the most extraordinary miracle in the world and it is also the most incredible privilege for us to be able to receive his body and blood in each mass. Who could even think up such an idea as this except God? No human would try to convince other humans of something so outrageous. Jesus told us to repeat this ritual this ritual in his memory and so we do, so that we could have him with us continually in a beautiful way, where we can actually receive him into our own bodies. We did not make it up. 


In spite of the difficulty at times to believe and all the confusion that is around us, remember this event on the mountain and the voice that the Apostles heard. And when you find yourself becoming confused or conflicted by things you here in politics, remember the Father’s command:


This is my Son the Beloved... listen to him.