Saturday, 22 April 2017

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday) - Year A

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

By coincidence a few weeks ago I was puzzling over what to say for Divine Mercy Sunday this year when a friend knocked at my door. I put my problem to him and his answer was interesting. He told me he had been to many Divine Mercy celebrations in his parish and the one thing he had never heard the priest speak about was the topic of indulgences. I promised him I would do my best this year and so here goes.

To understand an indulgence we have to understand sin. There are of two types of sin:

Firstly, the kind of sin that is so grave it deprives us of the life of God within us. We lose our friendship with God and become incapable of eternal life – and for this reason this sin is called mortal.

The second kind of sin is called venial. It wounds our relationship with God but does not deprive us of communion with him.

These words, mortal and venial, are not dreamed up somewhere in a Vatican office they are part of every person’s experience of sin. Every married couple know, for example, as does every young person in the school playground, that there are some actions they can do to their friends, or which their friends can do to them, which destroy friendship and some which only wound it. The same applied to our relationship with God.

So, if you want a working definition of sin you can say: Mortal sin destroys our relationship with God, venial sin weakens or wounds it.

Naturally, many questions remain to be answered on this subject of sin but we don’t have time to go into them here. Above all we remember that mortal sin is forgiven in face to face confession and venial sin is forgiven in various other ways – through a good act of contrition, at the penitential rite at Mass, through Holy Communion, and so on.

To understand indulgences we have to realize that sin has a double consequence.

Since mortal sin makes us incapable of eternal life we say that it carried with it an "eternal punishment" unless, of course, and hopefully, it is forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession. But every sin, even venial sin, has its corrupting effect within us which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.

To give a simple example, I might decide I’m going to give up smoking or drugs. The decision I make is a good and wonderful decision but, generally, a huge battle will take place in the following months as my body and mind and will come to accept that it can no longer have the cigarettes or the drugs. Sin is like that.

We have within us a tendency or an attachment to certain sins. Try making a resolution to forgive someone who has hurt us. That’s the easy part. The battle to ‘become’ that forgiving person can often be long and difficult. What the Catechism is wisely saying is that if we don’t complete the process here on earth, the merciful God will give us time to complete it in Purgatory. I, for one, thank God for giving us Purgatory, when he does for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves, and removes every last vestige of attachment to sin in our hearts and minds, since nothing impure can enter heaven.

So we see that the eternal punishment of hell goes on forever; the temporal punishment of Purgatory comes to an end when the soul has been purified from all attachment to sin. There is a difference between having been forgiven for our sins and having been purified of those sins. Or again, there is a difference between having the guilt of sin removed and the punishment due to that sin remitted.

Take another example from daily life. Imagine a man or woman who had stolen money from their workplace for many decades, so that it eventually added up to a very considerable sum. One day they confess their sin. The guilt is removed but justice requires the money be repaid; the guilt is removed but the punishment remains. This money can be repaid here on earth, or, if this is not possible, real prayer and penance can be undertaken until eventually this ‘temporal punishment’ is remitted.

This is precisely where indulgences come in. An indulgence is a gift from the Church by which a person, who fulfils certain conditions and is properly disposed, gains a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to his or her sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.

We must not doubt that the Church has the God given power to do this. The treasury of Christ’s redemption has been put in her charge and she, like her merciful Master, shows mercy to us poor sinners by ‘indulging’ us in this way.

There are two kinds of indulgences: a partial indulgence or a plenary. A partial indulgence removes part of the temporal punishment due to sin and a plenary indulgence removes all punishment due to sin. Furthermore, we can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

So now you are going to ask, ‘Ok, so what are the ‘certain conditions’ we have to fulfil and what are the proper dispositions?’

The usual conditions for every plenary indulgence are:

1. sacramental confession, within abut 20 days before or after.
2. Eucharistic communion, preferably on the day, or the days before or after.
3. prayer for the intentions of the Pope (the prayers are not specified).

The specific conditions for the plenary Indulgence offered for the Feast of Divine Mercy are:

1. in any church or chapel, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, take part in the prayers and devotions held in honour of Divine Mercy.
2. or, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved in the tabernacle, recite the Our Father and the Creed, adding a devout prayer to the merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!").

Saturday, 18 February 2017

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Leviticus 19:1-2.17-18; 1Corinthins 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

I'm updating my Volkswagen Golf. Great car! Love it! Except for the indicator switch which is on the left hand side where the window wiper control should be. You’d think Mr Volkswagen would have … oh, never mind!
The point is that this little change has entirely brought me undone a number of times, especially in moments of pressure. Contrary to my instructions, my right hand continues to believe that it alone is permitted to turn on the indicators and habit is adamant there must be no change, no role reversal. To misquote St Paul: I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate.
Habit is a terrible prison because it runs so deep in us. I remember when someone reminded me I should not be saying 'Go forth our Mass is ended.' The correct phrasing is not ‘our’ Mass but ‘the’ Mass. Do you think I can manage to remember the change? Only about once in every ten Masses – but I got there in time because, like changing hands for the indicator switch, this change is only a very minor habit which will not require me to change my inner self.
If only every change were like that! But there are, as we all know from experience, habits that can only be changed by changing ourselves. Anyone who’s ever given up smoking or alcohol will know what I’m talking about. Changing these habits can be very, very daunting. They require motivation, will power, support from others and perseverance. They also require the virtue of hope: hope that the victory can indeed be won.
I gave up smoking 39 years ago and distinctly remember that horrible feeling of waking up to the awful realisation I could never put another cigarette between my lips again. It was like a death in the family. A dark void hovered over me which told me I would never be happy again. It was a lie, of course. Gradually that darkness began to break up and every now and then bits of sunlight broke through until, one morning, I woke up and knew I was free. And this brings us to the real reason for getting rid of bad habits and thereby changing our inner selves: so that we might be free.
So that a man might be free to love his wife faithfully Jesus last week taught that if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. In other words, learn to keep your eyes to yourself – become pure in your heart! How many of us have made a resolution to do this? How many have persevered in the struggle? Those who have will have experienced what St Paul really meant by the words: I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate. \
So that we might be free Jesus says: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. How many of us have sincerely resolved to obey this command of the Lord? – to so change the inner composition of our unyielding, proud, revengeful hearts that we become capable of actually loving our enemies?
Lest we think this is impossible we should recall the opening words of last week’s first reading from Ecclesiasticus: If you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.
Naturally enough we will require the grace of God to achieve every inch of progress. Nothing is possible without God’s help and fortunately, he is always ready to give it.
There are so many areas of life we Christians blithely neglect, either because we think them unimportant or because we believe them impossible to achieve. How many prospective converts are turned away from a parish when they see the lack of inner conversion in parishioners who constantly gossip about one another; who judge others in their community with small-minded nastiness; who criticise whatever fails to meet with their personal approval?
Each of these sins is worthy of insertion into a good resolution to change.
The call to conversion is real; the need to respond is essential. Why? Because we are children of God and much of our behaviour is not worthy of our heavenly Father. Indeed, I imagine he would be ashamed to call many of us his children.
I have made a few resolutions in my life and some, like giving up smoking, I have kept. The Father has a resolution for each of his children and he requires that we give it our full attention. It is slightly more difficult than the one Mr Volkswagen requires of us but it's far more fulfilling: You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Sirach 15: 15-20; 1 Corinthians 2: 6-10; Matthew 5:20-22, 27-28, 33-34, 37

Some time ago I had a lengthy conversation with a Catholic woman about the Church’s authority to teach in the name of Jesus. Her forceful response was ‘I don’t believe that!’ Of course this effectively scuttled the conversation and we moved on to other things.

I don’t believe that! How sad for a Catholic to even dare to say those words! Nevertheless, this is part of the freedom God gives every human being – to accept or to reject: He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.

Fortunately no one can judge another person. We simply pray and trust that light will be given.

The world chooses very differently from the way a Christian chooses. That’s because the world has a different framework of judgment, and a different starting point. The starting point for making choices in the world is self-centred while for a Christian it is other-centred, the other being God.

The world’s choices are pragmatic, driven by money and ideology, and therefore, rather unenlightened and with a short use-by date. They depend on human intelligence and powers of reason, particular circumstances, anticipated outcomes, vested interests, external pressures, and a complex of other considerations, including what was had for breakfast that morning.

For a Catholic the starting point is the teaching of the Church as it comes to us through Scripture and Tradition. We live our lives guided by the Church because we believe she was founded by Jesus Christ. We live by her teachings, her moral precepts, her authority and her way of worshipping God. St Paul’s words to the Corinthians can be quoted here: The hidden wisdom of God which we teach in our mysteries is the wisdom that God pre-destined to be for our glory before the ages began.

The hidden wisdom of God, the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, was given by Christ to his Church. This is why a Catholic cannot turn away from the Church and claim to be still following Christ. For all the faults, the many faults, the horrible faults of her members, including the hierarchy, the Church is still the spotless bride of Christ for whom he gave his very life.

Those who have reached maturity have grasped this truth and have remained faithful; those who imagined that Jesus built his Church on the ‘goodness’ of his Apostles rather than on Peter’s ‘faith’, have discovered the weak link in their understanding and have quit the Church.

But how does an individual make a decision to entirely believe what the Church believes; how does one get to that point? The answer is one which the world cannot and never will understand - it is through the wisdom bestowed by the Holy Spirit. These are the very things that God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.

The Holy Spirit who knows the depths of God is given to us at Baptism and Confirmation so that we ourselves might come to know the depths of God. The Holy Spirit shares with us, to the extent that we are capable, the knowledge of God.

Perhaps you were struck, as I was, by the opening sentence of the first reading from Zephaniah a couple of Sundays ago: Seek the Lord all you, the humble of the earth, who obey his commands. Somehow, seeking or knowing God always goes hand in hand with obeying his commands. If you really desire to know God you will be following his way - what Moses calls: the way I have marked out for you... .

The Holy Spirit is not given as warm fuzzy ‘I believe’ feeling. The Spirit is given also for keeping God's word. The response to the psalm today shows us what the payoff for doing this is: Happy are they who follow the law of the Lord. Jesus, too, repeatedly made this clear: Still happier those who hear the word of God and keep it! (Luke 11:28)

A few challenging questions to finish with: Do you believe with all your heart that the Church speaks with God’s authority? Do you dissent from important Church teachings? Are you behaving in a way contrary to those teachings? Perhaps it’s time to make a serious and mature examination of conscience about all this?

Thursday, 2 February 2017

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16
A while ago I read of a person who blamed the Catholic Church (that's you and me) for the lack of peace in the world.

He claimed that heaven had many times promised peace to the world if prayer and penances were offered for the sins of the world. These promises, this person said, were made to Catholics and only to Catholics, and since there was still no peace it was obviously their fault.

Now while you are thinking about this you might recall the words of Pope St Pius V who said: All the evil in the world is due to lukewarm Catholics.

And while you're thinking of that you might notice that Jesus in the gospel today exclusively directs his words to one special group of people: his disciples (again, that's us).

It was to 'his disciples' that Jesus said: You are the salt of the earth ... you are the light of the world.

As disciples of the Master we can only take these words seriously. They are spoken to us, they are for us, they are about us. If we don't take these words seriously can we continue to call ourselves disciples? Does a disciple ignore his Master?

Listen again to the words of the Entrance Antiphon of today's Mass: O come, let us worship God and bow low before the God who made us, for he is the Lord our God.

Come ... worship ... bow low. It would be a cruel kind of hypocrisy to say these words but not mean them, to bow low before Jesus but then to ignore his words. That would be a deception which condemns rather than saves.

A disciple is called to be all that the Master is. When Jesus describes us as 'salt of the earth' and 'light of the world' he is not giving us a compliment; he is giving us a vocation, a mission, a responsibility which carries with it serious penalties for failure.

And so now comes the interesting part. How? How do we become like the Master?

There are many answers to this question but all of them might be reduced to this simple, easy, do-able, enticing answer: Spend time with him. This is what God himself wants from us.

The Lord does not need our talents or our gifts however extraordinary and impressive they might be. They are all his anyway. He gave them to us. And he has far more talented and gifted people than us to use for the building up of his kingdom.

Nor does the Lord need our money. The Church needs your money but God doesn't because God does not go shopping. He has no bank account, no fixed deposits, no stocks and shares. Besides, there are people richer and more generous than we are who are ready to give money.

All God needs is our time – your time and my time – particularly my time. I don't know about you but my time is one of my prized possessions. I love my time. My time lets me do all the things I want and so, perhaps selfishly, I prefer to have it all.

No one can give God my time but me and it's the one thing he wants from me. Like all my friends God enjoys my company but more than this, God needs my time if he is to be able to change me – to make me into that disciple we were talking about before.

Just as the sun needs my time to make me tanned, and the fire needs my time to make me warm, so, like a heart surgeon, God needs my time to operate on me.

One last question remains and it's a good question: How much of my time does God want? And the answer is, naturally, as much as you want to give him. It depends on how much work needs doing and how much work you want him to do on you.

When you come to think of it, this question of giving time to God is a great test of our desire for him. Some will say they have no time, they are too busy. Others will make time for God, every day. So perhaps the only real answer to the question – How much time should I give God? – is really: Only you can decide - but beware of the trap of confusing 'I don't have time' with 'I don't want to'.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Isaiah 49:3.5-6; 1Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34

What is your dream? Do you have one? What are your hopes for the future? What are your plans for yourself and your loved ones? Most people have a dream; big or small, elaborate or simple, short term or long term. Ask a young person and they will often have not only a clear goal for their life, some even have it all mapped out in the most precise detail; they have a blueprint for achieving their plan.

My own casual observations lead me to imagine that people look at their future in one of two ways. Watch little Billy in the schoolyard. He clears a patch of ground under a tree and with a stick traces out a road. Along the way he puts little buildings, a school, a petrol station, his own house. Then he spends his time driving the roads he has built, stopping to refuel and make repairs to his toy car which he then parks in the garage at his imaginary home.

Little Bobby has another approach entirely. He drives his car all around the playground on a road which only he can see. He stops every now and then to clear obstacles or turn invisible corners and parks his car wherever his fancy dictates.

Billy lives according to what I call the blueprint model. Many people live their lives this way, especially in their relationship with God. They see themselves as God’s little car which he drives along the predetermined roads he has made for them. All they have to do is make sure they don’t take a wrong turn and spoil God’s plan. These people will say ‘God has a plan for me’ and they ardently beg him to reveal it to them.

People like Bobby live the free range model. They believe God doesn’t mind where they go because he is always with them, like a passenger, no matter which turn they take along the road. Bobby doesn’t ask if God wants him to be a dentist or a vet or a cook, he knows that God will be with him no matter which choice he makes, provided it is within God's law.

A good argument can be made for each of these models and we can switch to them at various times in our lives according to the issues we’re facing. Undoubtedly God does have a plan for each of us. It is, as the Penny Catechism used to say, that we: know him, love him, and serve him, here on earth and be happy with him for ever in heaven. As well, Jesus' answer to the Pharisees: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind … You must love your neighbour as yourself (Mtt 22:37-39). That’s quite enough to be going on with, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, for some of us, God also has what might be called a blueprint, a special means for achieving his plan. To the prophet Jeremiah he intimated: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5). Isaiah, too, was called and sent (Is 6:8). And St Paul in today’s second reading makes it clear to the Corinthians that he was: appointed by God to be an apostle.

Some of us God chooses in a particular way so that his plan for all may be fulfilled. When this happens he intervenes with special helps and charisms so that his plan will not fail. He sends an angel to warn Joseph of Herod’s evil intentions and warns the wise men to return by a different way. He assists John the Baptist by revealing to him that: the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one… .

Our liturgy today is full of evidence of God’s tireless initiative in achieving his plans for us:
  • your watchful care
  • orders all things
  • your loving plans
  • you have nourished us
  • given wine in plenty
And there is ample evidence of our awareness and longing for God’s initiative:
  • hear our prayers
  • show us the way
  • help us to embrace your will
  • give us the strength to follow your call
People are generally very busy trying to make something of themselves; God is infinitely busier working at their project than they are. For each of us God has a plan; for each of us the blueprint is Jesus. To those extraordinary individuals for whom God has a special task he will give an unshakeable call. We need not worry; just keep praying. He will make it all clear.

In the scroll of the book it stands written that I should do your will (Responsorial Psalm), but if you should call me in a special way: Here am I, Lord.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

4th Sunday of Advent - Year A

Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

The liturgy today presents a series of images all of which basically fall into two categories – from above and from below, the divine and the human, heaven and earth.
  • clouds rain down the just one - earth brings forth a Saviour (Entrance Antiphon)
This is a wonderful nuptial image, a marriage of heaven and earth, an impregnation of the rain into the earth which then brings forth life, in this case a Saviour.

Mary is the earth, the cloud is God, the rain is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit overshadows her and she conceives.

It is the earth (Mary’s womb) that brings forth a Saviour, the Word of the Father. As we say in the Angelus: and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It was God’s will that Jesus should take on our human nature because, as Preface III of Sundays of Ordinary Time tells us: He wanted us to be saved by one like us…
  • Ask … a sign for yourself coming either from the depths of Sheol or from the heights above (First Reading)
Ahaz was told to ask for a sign but he refused; a sign from above or below. The Lord gave him both.

The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel, a name which means "God-is-with-us”.

The sign given to Ahaz was both from above and from below – a maiden with child who would be called God-is-with-us. To Ahaz at that point of salvation history the prophecy is not clear. It will become clear as time goes on. Heaven will live on earth in a human child who is truly God.
  • Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart who desires not worthless things. (Responsorial Psalm)
Now we have another image but this time from below to above. From Man to God, from earth to heaven. It is the image of the mountain. The man who climbs the mountain is first of all Christ; he alone has pure hands and clean heart; he alone desires not worthless things. But with Christ are all those who follow him.

The mountain is the Christian life, the mountain of discipleship, which every disciple must climb. Its paths are steep and rocky and dangerous and only purity of heart and blameless life will see us through. If we desire worthless things we will be trapped below and never arrive at its summit.
  • He shall receive blessings from the Lord and reward from the God who saves him. Such are the men who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob (Responsorial Psalm)
We, too, are called to climb the mountain on which God reveals himself to us, the mountain on which we seek the face of the God of Jacob. If we do this we shall receive blessing from above, reward from God who dwells on high.
  • He had made up his mind to do this when the angel of God appeared to him in a dream … and said … do not be afraid … (Gospel)
Joseph was called to climb the mountain of faith and he ascended without faltering. The divine help he received came at precisely the right time. He trusted in the one who never fails the lowly and his trust was rewarded.

The final consequence of the communication between heaven and earth, the final line of the Gospel, is perhaps the lesson we should take to ourselves as Christians:
  • When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do.

4th Sunday of Advent - Year A

Do not be afraid.
I will be with you.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

Most of us can expect to live sixty, seventy, eighty years on this earth. We will have many joys, achievements, trials and sufferings. The journey of life will take us through various terrains, meeting a great number of different people, experiences and challenges until finally we come to the end of the journey, our death.

Now if God were to invite you to ask him for one gift which you could take along the way with you, on the way through all the problems and unexpected difficulties you will most certainly encounter in life, what would it be? What would you ask for?

Well, there is one thing God promised to each man and woman he called into his service. This promise was to be their greatest source of strength and encouragement and confidence. It was a simple promise but an unimaginably great one: I will be with you.

God called Moses to free the Hebrews from Egypt and when Moses complained that he was not the right man for the job, that he was not gifted enough, God said: I will be with you.

They carried a tent with them in the desert, the Tent of the Presence. It contained the Ark of the Covenant and it signified that everywhere the People journeyed, God was with them.

Joshua, who succeeded Moses and who was asked by God to actually lead the People into the Promised Land was promised: I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not leave you or desert you. For go where you will Yahweh your God is with you.

When the Hebrews entered the Promised Land and had to fight various savage tribes for possession of the land God said to them: I will be with you.

To Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Jonah, Daniel and so many others God said: Do not be afraid, I will be with you.

This was God's greatest promise, the greatest gift he could bestow - his presence.

To Mary the Angel said: The Lord is with you, and then went on to announce to her that she would conceive and bring forth a son. To Joseph the angel revealed: … they will call him Emmanuel, a name which means `God-is-with-us'.

Surely this is the secret of the celebration of Christmas - that in the coming of the infant Jesus in Bethlehem 2000 years ago - God comes as man to be with us.

In addition to this we are aware that the presence of God to his chosen ones, like the patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets, was always ordered to their specific mission. Moses was to set the people free from Egypt, Joshua was to lead them into the Promised Land, King David was to free the people from the Philistines, and so on. God gave each of them a definite mission and then promised: I will be with you.

Now look at the extremely compact movement of the Gospel narrative which begins so matter-of-factly: This is how Jesus Christ came to be born ...! We are told many things, one fact after the other, and without attentiveness we might fail to notice that the specific and unique mission of Jesus is revealed to Joseph: you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.

Astonishing! Amazing! Astounding! He is to save his people from their sins! What kind of child can this be? What kind of man will he grow into? What kind of man can save people from their sins - and how will he do it?

… they will call him Emmanuel, a name which means `God-is-with-us'.

When he returned to the Father he spoke to his disciples, and said: I am with you always ... until the end of time.

Before I finish, let’s get personal. Let me ask you, and please answer honestly, do you believe you have a special 'mission' from God? ... wife, husband, mother, father, son, daughter, single person, priest, religious? Do you believe Jesus is with you? Do you really believe, right now, with all your heart that he is with you?

If your answer is yes, and only if your answer is yes, in these last hours before the celebration of Christmas raise your eyes to the heavens, feel the yearning in your heart for the Saviour who is coming, and yet, who is already with you. Allow this knowledge of his love-filled presence to take from you all fear and apprehension, all burdens and anxiety about yourself and your future, and the future of your family and friends. Hand it all over to the one who is with you and who never leaves you, even at the moment of death.

And having handed all over to him, open your hearts to the love, joy, peace and light that he gives you in return. Let it flood (baptise) you anew and prepare you to welcome him as the Christ-Child.

Our God is with us and we need not be afraid.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

3rd Sunday of Advent - Year A

Isaiah 35:1-6.10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

All three readings today are about the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah announces that he will come; the evangelist Matthew tells us he has come; the apostle James tells us that he will come again.

Isaiah’s prophecy is bursting at the seams with joy: Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy.

C S Lewis has a great character in the Chronicles of Narnia called Tashlan - a figure of the anti-Christ. Tashlan, of course, was pure evil. He had the ugly face of an evil bird of prey and a cloud of noxious insects followed in his wake and wherever he walked the grass would shrivel under his feet, the flowers would wilt, and the trees would die.

In another place Isaiah (52:7) speaks again of the coming of the Messiah in the following words: How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation, and tells Zion, 'Your God is king!’

As the Messiah passes: …the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy; for water gushes in the desert, streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah is the great prophet of hope. His words are directed to the demoralised exiles of Israel but are directed also, prophetically, to us the new Israel exiled from our heavenly homeland, the new Jerusalem. The words of Isaiah give us hope in our own day, in this vale of tears.

Above all he gives hope to the weary, the overburdened, the exhausted: Courage! he exclaims, Do not be afraid.

Although the coming of the Messiah will mean vengeance, retribution and salvation we should understand this not only as the just punishment of evil-doers, Satan and his followers who oppose themselves to God and his people, but also a restoration of the proper order of things - justice, everlasting joy, harmony and peace.

We now turn to the Gospel, to John the Baptist in prison. John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the prophets to announce the coming of the Christ. He had leapt for joy in his mother’s womb at the approach of the as yet unborn Messiah. By the river Jordan he had pointed out the Messiah with great confidence: Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. But now in the darkness of his prison cell John began to question. Perhaps he found it difficult to reconcile the line of Ps 145: the Lord, who sets prisoners free, with his present condition.

The prophet who had immediately preceded John was Malachi. It seems he had expected a fiery Messiah who would come in great power: Who will be able to resist the day of his coming? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he is like the refiner's fire and the fullers' alkali.(Mal 3:2)

John’s own preaching bears witness to this overpowering judgment which he had expected to come among them in the person of the Messiah: Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire … the one who follows me is more powerful than I am …his winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out. (Matt 3:10-11)

Jesus comes to John’s aid and reminds him of another description of the Messiah, the one from Isaiah which we read in our first reading. This is a description of a gentle Messiah who sets people free through love: the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.

In the solitude of his prison John the Baptist would have deeply pondered the Lord’s response. We can confidently hope that it would not have taken him long to realise that every word of the prophets and psalmist was applicable to the Saviour. The violence he had come to execute was against sin and death while the power he had come to exercise was in gentleness, healing, mercy and forgiveness. Definitive judgment would come but that would be reserved to the Day of the Lord which would come soon enough.

The apostle James, too, refers to the prophets in the second reading. They spoke their words with great forbearance and patience as they awaited the their accomplishment. James exhorts us to similar patience: You have to be patient; do not lose heart.

We here in this church are a people waiting for the return of the Messiah. St James says he ‘is already to be seen waiting at the gates.’ Instead of empty musings let us turn our minds often to consideration of the joys of heaven. In faith we can already begin enjoying them as one begins enjoying the pleasures of home after a long trip abroad. Like Malcolm Muggeridge on the cruise ship soon to dock in the harbour we should 'begin packing our bags’.

3rd Sunday of Advent - Year A

Isaiah 35:1-6. 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist still occupies centre stage in the gospel today but now, instead of a striking figure calling to repentance in the wilderness he sits in a dark, stone prison. We are, of course, not surprised. We knew it would happen. No one can speak unpalatable truths to the power brokers of the land without penalty. John is suffering the fate of the true prophet.

Our reflection on this lonely figure, silenced for his obedience to God's word, directs our conscience to the question of our own relationship to those who tell us truths we don't want to hear, as well as our readiness to speak unpopular truths to the world around us. It is a complex question of discernment which can only bear fruit in the light of grace-filled prayer. Our relationship to truth is the very same reality as our relationship to God because - God is truth.

Advent is a time for precisely such reflection. Do I think truthfully. Do I speak truthfully? Do I judge truthfully? Do I live truthfully? For most of us, over these simple yet profound questions there lies the thick blanket of our self-deception. Do not the guilty always proclaim their innocence? Do not the liars always profess honesty? Do not the thieves always assert their integrity?

Only God's breath, the Holy Spirit, can disperse the dark clouds surrounding our corrupted hearts; only the double-edged sword of his Word can cut through our stubborn determination to see things as we are rather than as things are.

Imprisoned in his cell John the Baptist is, nevertheless, truly free - liberated by truth - but he is still human and, it seems, in need of some reassurance. In the darkness of his cell, cut off from the outside world, from Jesus and from his ministry, John needs his certainty to be fortified. The sharp memory of events by the river Jordan, which had allowed him so confidently to point him out as 'the One' .. 'the Lamb of God', that sharp memory had now begun to fade.

Perhaps it was the darkness and coldness of his prison which began to seep into him so that he began to wonder. Perhaps he heard false rumours, or maybe he just grew confused and less confident in his solitude. We could say that Jesus' face and his identity became blurred in the mind of John.

C S Lewis, in his book, A Grief Observed, mentions how when his wife died he had only one photo of her, a really poor one. But he says that he was glad of this because it meant he was in no danger of giving in to the temptation to reduce the memory of his wife to one photo of her. He constantly had to exercise his memory to reach beyond this photo to all the other memories he had of her face, all her different smiles and looks and actions - to the truth of the person she was.

This is what John the Baptist was doing. He was reaching out for the real Jesus - the truth. So he sent his disciples to ask the Lord if he was the One, the One promised by the Scriptures. And Jesus told those disciples to tell John what they saw Jesus doing. Jesus knew that John had an intimate knowledge of the Sacred Scripture and so he described himself in scriptural terms: Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.

John would have rejoiced to hear those words for now he knew that Jesus and the One promised in the Scriptures were the same person. Jesus made himself known to John in the Scriptures, just as he had revealed himself to the Emmaus disciples in the breaking of the bread.

This is truly a matter for rejoicing. What a lesson for us! With utmost confidence we, too, can now turn to the sacred, inspired texts of the Bible and discover there the face of the Master.

C.S. Lewis has provided us with a character in another of his books, The Chronicles of Narnia, which helps us to understand further the joy of John the Baptist. This character was called Tashlan. He was a picture of the anti-Christ who is to come before the end of world history.

Tashlan, of course, was pure evil. A cloud of noxious insects followed in his wake and he had the ugly face of an evil bird of prey. Wherever he walked the grass would shrivel under his feet, the flowers would wilt and the trees would die. Unhappiness and disaster followed in his footsteps. Can you imagine how you would feel seeing him approach, with everything decaying around him?

Now compare the coming of the promised One, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. If you want to contemplate his inner truth - just contemplate in the First Reading what happens around him as he approaches: Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to all faint hearts, `Courage! Do not be afraid. Look your God is coming.' Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy for those the Lord has ransomed shall return. They will come to Zion shouting for joy, everlasting joy on their faces; joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament be ended.

No wonder this is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Advent marked with the joy of expectation. Our God is coming. Soon we will be set free.

Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy ... they shall see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent - Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

[Logan Tom found the children barricaded behind the heavy iron-sheeted door on the fourth floor. It was locked. The children had become wary of strangers and would not open the door. He pleaded with them for some time but they refused to let him in. Finally the leader of the children said she might open the door if he gave her a reason. Logan called out ‘What can I tell you that will help?’ - ‘Tell us everything’ came the reply. ‘We will know if you are telling us the truth, so don’t lie.’]

This passage (my prĂ©cis) from Volume One of Terry Brooks’ novel Armageddon’s Children brought me to a halt. It was a reprise of a discussion I had been having with some friends only the night before. ‘We will know if you are telling us the truth.’

My first response was to the beauty and power of the image - an impenetrable door whose lock would only surrender to the key of truth. It made me think somehow of the hymn for Morning Prayer in the Divine Office:

May what is false within us

Before your truth give way.

My next thought was ‘How would those children know that what Logan Tom is telling them is true? In fact, how would they even come to imagine that they could spot a lie?’

Judge Judy, with her vast experience, is pretty good at lie-spotting but children are even better, especially teenagers. They can sense dishonesty from a long way off and especially contradictions in behaviour and word, perhaps the most obvious lie. I once asked a teenager why she didn’t practise like her mother who went to Mass every Sunday. She replied, ‘Mum doesn’t really believe.’ She turned out to be right.

There is something within a lie that draws attention to itself because it basically doesn’t ‘belong’. A lie is a red flag in a field of green; a wiggle in a straight line; a false note in a lovely tune. As much as it wants to hide it can’t, at least not for long. Perhaps that’s why the children wanted Logan Tom to tell them ‘everything’. Eventually a lie will betray itself, self-destruct. A lie has no future.

The truth, on the other hand, is eternal. It appears, like John the Baptist, on the horizon of our lives and we, like the people of Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole Jordan district, are irresistibly drawn to it.

And why is this? It is because we know that in truth, and in truth alone, is security, peace, wholeness and life. In truth is every good to be found.

I once met a man about to appear in court for a very serious offence. He was beside himself with anxiety. He asked me what he should do to avoid going to prison. I told him ‘Tell the truth and trust in God.’ The judge rewarded his truthfulness with a mere 300 hours of community work. Truth always attracts mercy.

On various occasions people ask me why I believe Catholicism to be true. It's a good question, perhaps the question, for so many. The Faith is made up of many different elements including – the Bible and its many books, Tradition, the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, Encyclicals and various Apostolic writings, the Liturgy and, very importantly, my own experience. All of these elements form one huge whole, without contradictions, without dissonant notes, without confusion. All fold seamlessly into one peace-giving wholeness. The truth is one, or as the one Master would say, ‘I am the Truth.’

John the Baptist comes in the name of this truth, to prepare his way; the way for the Way. Not only does he preach this truth but he lives it; herein lies his power to awaken within his listeners their love for the truth. People listening and watching catch no hint of masquerade of any sort and obey the message; they repent and confess and are baptised.

The Pharisees and Sadducees cling to a lie, namely: we are children of Abraham. A lie which is half true is still a lie because the truth cannot be divided. Is it important to be a Catholic? Of course it is. Does being a Catholic get you to heaven? No. God can make Catholics out of the stones on the ground as easily as children of Abraham. Having accepted the truth we must allow it to have its way in our lives – we must allow it to ‘make his paths straight’ – what is false within us must before your truth give way.

Advent is a time of restoration and renewal for ourselves. It is a time for us to put an axe to the root of every tree in us which is not bearing the appropriate fruit. You don’t need me to tell you what these might be. Just close your eyes tonight before going to bed and ask the Lord of truth to show you what things in your life you need to stop doing, and what things you need to start doing. He will tell you because he wants one day to be able to gather you into his barn.

2nd Sunday of Advent - Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:1-9; Matthew 3:1-12

The Gospel wastes no time. Before we know it a prophet stands before us - John the Baptist.

He stands in the desert of Judaea, wearing a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food is locusts and wild honey.

Have you ever wondered why Matthew would go to the trouble of describing the clothing and the diet of John the Baptist? It's because they are both signs of repentance, and the penance that goes with it. John lived the message he preached.

In 1974 Pope Paul VI gave an address in which he said: Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.

Apparently this was true also of the people of 2000 years ago because, as the Gospel tells us: Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him.

They came from everywhere, attracted by the man John and the message he proclaimed. In fact, his whole lifestyle was already a message clearly spoken to all who came to know him.

John, like all prophets, is a divisive man. He stands between God and humanity and speaks the truth about both, not an easy or enviable commission.

John has spent years in the silence of the wilderness. From his earliest days in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, ever since the visit of the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of the Messiah, he has been filled with the Holy Spirit. He has understood the Scriptures and the ways of God. From the lofty pinnacle of his wisdom he has surveyed the landscape of poor humanity and understood deeply their, and our, most profound need. And what was it? Food? Security? Political freedom? Health?
He wastes no time telling us - Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and do it now!

The word repent inserts itself like door between two opposed realities - our sins, and the kingdom of heaven. It keeps them both apart and yet stands between them not as an unpassable obstacle but as the promise of reconciliation.

As he cries 'Repent!' he points with one hand to our sins and with the other to the approaching Kingdom. No niceties, no softening of the blow, no gentle preamble, no sensitivity to 'where I'm at', just - Repent!

John had no time for excuses or precious sensibilities. He had not come to suggest or invite, he had come to warn. 'Get off the tracks - the train is coming! Spare me the details of your life's story, we all have them, just get off the track!'
  • But my husband is so difficult, he makes me so angry - Of course he does, just you make sure you repent!
  • But I don't like Confession, it's so embarrassing - Yeah, not as embarrassing as hell, repent!
  • But if you only knew the sufferings in my life - Yes, we all have them, repent!
  • But I've tried so often and failed every time - Try again, repent!
  • You just don't understand - I'm not here to understand, I'm here to tell you the kingdom is coming, I don't want you to miss out so, repent!
We are not accustomed to such uncompromising directness. We live in a world in which feeling has taken precedence over thought and if something makes us feel bad it can't be good or true. By canonising our feelings in this way we have subtly made them into gods, and when someone comes along with a truth we don't want to hear we complain: I feel excluded, I feel bullied, I feel uncomfortable.

No wonder John made so many enemies and no wonder he was soon silenced. Look at the way he spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders among the people: Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit ...

Protestations of sorrow and repentance did not impress John. He knew all too well the rocky path that lies between repentance and its fruits, as he knew also our ability to kid ourselves. Unmasking our hypocrisy was John's calling - his service to us.

Let me conclude by pointing out another opposition in this Gospel, the one between heaven and hell. John, again, stands in the breach. His call to repentance is a warning to 'make straight' the path into the first, and to avoid the axe wielded by the one who is coming and the fire awaiting in the second.

Of course we are free to ignore John's warning or to 'explain' it away. The Advent choices, however, remain clear - repentance and the Kingdom or the axe and the fire.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

1st Sunday of Advent - Year A

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

It’s always a pleasure on this day, the first Sunday of Advent, to turn both the Missal and the Lectionary from the very last page back to the very first page, to begin the celebration of the paschal mystery all over again.

Today is a Mass of beginnings.

Firstly we begin a new liturgical year. There are three of them: Year A when we read the Gospel of Matthew; Year B when we read the Gospel of Mark; and Year C when we read the Gospel of Luke.

Today we begin the three year cycle again from the very beginning - Year A – and, in another sense, we are also beginning the journey of the rest of our life.

And so, from all the different areas of the parish, from many different walks of life, and from a great variety of human situations you and I have joined the long procession of Catholics who, throughout the world, have gathered in their own local church to celebrate these three new beginnings as disciples of Christ.

In this context the opening words of our celebration are especially significant. Hundreds of millions of Catholics will begin the Mass with these words: To you, I lift up my soul, O my God. In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame. Nor let my enemies exult over me; and let none who hope in you be put to shame. (Entrance Antiphon)

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.

What beautiful words! We gather for this new season of Advent and the first thing the Church asks us to do is to say together: To you, I lift up my soul, O my God. This is the essence and definition of prayer - raising my soul to God.

There seems to me a special significance in the fact that we were not asked to say this in a plural form today, that is: To you, we lift up our souls, O our God. I wonder if it was intentional? In any event, the use of the singular is very appropriate here. As the millions of believers gather to pray it is fitting that together, each one should address God in a personal way.

Only I can lift my soul to God. It’s a very personal thing. You cannot lift my soul to God. You cannot trust God for me. Your wife or husband can pray for you at Mass but they cannot take your place before God.

Interestingly, the revised Mass translation makes the same point. We no longer say: We believe in one God. We have returned to the original Latin: I believe in one God. You cannot believe for me; I cannot believe for you. I have to believe for myself – as an individual. And we might add here, that even though we make the journey of Advent together, no one can make it for us. You have to make if for yourself; I have to make it for myself.

So let us continue with the Entrance Antiphon. Having lifted my soul to God I now tell him: In you, I have trusted...

Of all the prayers we can say to God this surely must be one of the most pleasing; telling him that we trust him. Saint Faustina confirms this for us in her Diary when she writes that trust in God will unlock the door of his mercy. It was the signature Jesus wanted placed under the image of Divine Mercy - Jesus, I trust in you.

Recognising our own weakness, however, we acknowledge that it can cause us to come to grief and so we plead: let me not be put to shame. No let my enemies exult over me.

And our enemies do exult, they do gloat over us. That’s what enemies do, that’s their job, they can’t help it. And to the degree that they cause us to turn to God we should be grateful to them.

The best kind of enemy to have is one who opposes you for the sake of the name of Christ; as we heard in our readings two weeks ago; You will be hated by all men on account of my name. Jesus then told us: Not a hair of your head will be lost, and that’s why we can pray with confidence, as in the conclusion of our Entrance Antiphon: let none who hope in you be put to shame.

So our themes are clear. Advent will be for us, or should I just say, for me?
  • A time for gathering with the Church for the Sunday Mass.
  • A time of looking forward to and waiting for the coming of Christ.
  • A time of prayer, of lifting my soul to God every day, as often as possible.
  • A time of renewed trust.
  • A time of faith, of knowing that no one who waits for God is ever put to shame.