Saturday, 6 February 2016

1st Sunday of Lent - Year C

Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

The purpose of Lent is to remind us that we are not God and, having renewed us in this awareness, to lead us once again to place all our hope in the One who is. This is what God did to his Chosen People when he led them out of the slavery of Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai. He brought them into the desert where he could speak to their hearts.

In doing this God showed himself to be a good psychologist. As a school teacher I soon learned that if you want to get something through to a naughty child you have to take him away from his classmates and speak to him alone; you have to get his attention.

And so God led his People away from noisy Egypt, with its abundance of food and drink and work, right into the wilderness; a scary place of little food, scant water and savage beasts. Here he would show himself to them and teach them to trust him; no easy task.

When the Egyptians pursued them the People lost faith but God destroyed their enemies. When the water ran out the People lost faith but God gave them pure water from the rock to drink. When the food ran out the People lost faith again but God gave them manna from heaven. When they grew tired of the manna they complained and God gave them quails to eat. When Moses was on the top of Mt Sinai for 40 days and nights the People grew tired of waiting and deserted the God who had saved them and started worshipping a golden calf!

Each time they were unfaithful to him God forgave them, though not always without some punishment. Slowly he taught Israel that their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was a faithful, patient, understanding, forgiving, almighty and eternal God. Above all he wanted them to know that he loved them. In return he wanted the People to love him, and trust him with all their hearts, and to love each another for love of him.

For forty years Israel wandered in the wilderness, climbing the ladder of faith and then shamefully falling back again. Thus the wilderness became:
  • a place of temptation and a witness to the weakness, unfaithfulness and disobedience of the People. It became a place of shame and disgrace, a testimony to their failure to believe.
  • a place of purification of the People, a place where they learned to forsake false gods and cling only to the one, true God.
  • a place of revelation, a place where God revealed himself to his People.
  • a place of intimacy (honeymoon). God bound himself to them, much as a groom to his bride.
  • a place through which wound the roads leading to the Promised Land.
Jesus is the 'new Israel'. He is led by God into the wilderness where he is tempted for forty days:

- feed yourself
- gain glory for yourself
- take the initiative yourself

Where the Israelites fail Jesus succeeds. Not once does he break faith with God. He entirely defeats Satan. After each temptation and against each temptation Jesus recalls Deuteronomy. Jesus is the new, faithful Israel.

We, you and I, face the same temptations as the People, and Jesus, faced; the temptation to 'call the shots', to 'play God'.

How are we doing? How is the 'resistance' going? If you're not having much success the Church suggests - prayer, fasting, almsgiving.

Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.

Ash Wednesday - Year C

Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

By the mere fact that you are here today for this Ash Wednesday Mass I think it’s safe to assume you intend to be serious about Lent this year.

In the first place you have come to Mass. I am well aware that it was much easier for me to get here than it was for so many of you. Good on you: God blesses you.

You have just heard the word of God proclaimed. The word speaks to our hearts and on this day it may be summarised as saying: Come back to me!

In a few moments you will receive the ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross. You will carry them with you during this busy work day. They, too, will speak to you and say: Remember, don’t forget - the day of your death is approaching!

Then we will celebrate the sacramental memorial of all that Christ did for us in his passion, death and resurrection. At the elevation, as the priest holds up the Sacred Host for all to see, God will say: I love you.

In Holy Communion Jesus will speak to you: Do not be afraid, I give you myself.

Lent is a special time of renewal. Set out eagerly, as the prophet Joel says, with all your heart. During the next forty days:
  • Pray with loving attentiveness to the God who sees you.
  • Give to those who are poor and who need you.
  • Fast from all that tempts you to forget your littleness and need for God.
Don’t be alarmed if you should fail. Get up and keep going.

Make a decision to go to Reconciliation sometime during this season of purification.

Trust that your efforts will be pleasing to the Lord.

Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing?

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Isaiah 6:1-8; Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

One of the least popular subjects to preach on is sin. People don’t like it. Some, because it challenges the deep fondness they have for the sense of their own goodness, some because they simply deny the existence of sin, and then there are some who believe God’s infinite love for us makes speaking of sin unnecessary, even ‘sinful’. These people, very obviously, have not read the Scriptures attentively.

The Scriptures are always speaking about sin, and it’s a curious phenomenon of the modern age that a priest should have to make a deliberate effort, like the one I’m making right now, to restore to sin its rightful place in the drama of Christian life.

Right from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible sin struts confidently onto the stage. Hardly has God completed creating them than Adam and Eve disobey the first and only restriction he places on them. From that moment the history of humanity becomes the history also of sin.

The Old Testament goes to extraordinary lengths to ‘convict’ mankind of sin. Like little children, early man actually needed to be taught about sin. ‘That’s a naughty word, Johnnie, don’t use it again’ is roughly equivalent to ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’

The liturgical prescriptions, too, were meant to show the priests, and people, their own unworthiness before the greatness of God:
'God called Moses, and from the Tent of Meeting addressed him, saying, 'Speak to the sons of Israel; say to them, "When any of you brings an offering to Yahweh, he can offer an animal from either herd or flock.'
'If his offering is a holocaust of an animal out of the herd, he is to offer a male without blemish; it is to be offered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, so that it may be accepted before Yahweh. He is to lay his hand on the victim's head, and it shall be accepted as effectual for his atonement. (Lev 1:4)'
The key words - offering, without blemish, at the entrance to the Tent, for his atonement - serve to establish a deep awareness in the People of their need for redemption. Modern man, however, lost in the virtual world of his own unblemished goodness, might be genuinely puzzled by these words. 'Atonement? Atonement for what?’

The ultimate unveiling of one’s sinfulness, of course, occurs in the experience of the presence of God because an experience of God is always an experience of self. Perhaps this is one of the reasons so few of us pray.

In our readings today Isaiah experiences the Lord (…I saw the Lord…) and immediately exclaims: What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips… .

St Paul refers to his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus (…he appeared to me...) and how he had discovered his lowliness (...he fell to the ground...) and his sinfulness ( are persecuting me).

So inflexible is this dynamic by which we experience ourselves and our sinfulness in the presence of God that we can rightfully suppose from Peter’s reaction in the boat (Depart from me … I am a sinful man) that he had suddenly experienced the presence of the divinity of Jesus.

None of these men was pretending when they confessed themselves sinners. God didn’t come to them and say ‘Ah, no, you’re OK; you’re not really so bad. Don’t give it another thought.’ It was because they acknowledged their sinfulness that God was able to offer his mercy.
  • Isaiah was cleansed by the live coal which the angel touched to his lips (your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged).
  • Ananias laid his hands on Saul and he recovered his sight and was filled with the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus did not contradict Peter’s self-assessment but said to him: Do not be afraid, and then gave him a mission.
It is perhaps in these words to Peter that the rest of us ‘sinners’ can take most comfort because Peter’s journey is also ours - to confess our sin, to accept forgiveness, to say yes to our mission.

In the spirit of our reflection we conclude with a few questions to reflect on:
  • Do I claim to know God but don’t recognise my sinfulness?
  • Do I acknowledge my sinfulness but haven’t experienced God’s mercy?
  • If my sins are forgiven have I a sense of mission?

Sunday, 24 January 2016

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Jeremiah 1:4-5.17-19; Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

A prophet is a man with a dangerous mission. He is not called to singlehandedly rescue the beautiful princess from the tower, nor to save the world from the killer aliens. The mission of the prophet is far more dangerous because, even though his life will be at risk at every moment, he is not to take any weapons to defend himself.

The prophet is called to stand, unarmed, in the market place, in the church, on the radio or on the television and – speak the word of God.

Jeremiah was a prophet. He was called by God. This is the hallmark of every true prophet, that he is called and commissioned by God himself. You won’t find ‘prophet’ in the list of the government’s career choices for school leavers.

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.

Before Jeremiah has time to draw one self-congratulatory breath God makes it clear this is not to be an all-expenses-paid junket, like those so popular with some of our politicians. So now brace yourself for action. Stand up and tell them all I command you.

Jeremiah is to ‘brace himself for action’ – not only the action of standing up and speaking the word - but the action that will follow when he does so. No doubt our Federal Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott would understand what I’m talking about.

Stand up and tell them all I command you. It’s the ‘standing up’ which is so often our first difficulty, to put our head above the crowd, to climb the stage of public scrutiny and there speak to a godless world a word which comes from God. Not many have the courage either to obey the command or to suffer the consequences. Thank God for his courageous prophets!

Before moving on we need to be attentive to the force of that little word all which the Lord addresses to Jeremiah: Stand up and tell them all I command you.

After listening to a Christian give a rather lengthy explanation of his faith a priest friend of mine replied, ‘What you say is the truth; there’s just not enough of it.’

How often have we listened to our religious leaders (of all persuasions) preaching the word of God and then, like a horse balking at a jump, stop short of the very heart of the message so as not to give offence? To preach the message is one thing; to preach the whole message is entirely another.

The prophetic call is a summons to courage: Do not be dismayed at their presence, or in their presence I will make you dismayed. God will never require of us something for which he does not strengthen us. As the proverb goes: God’s Will will not take you where his grace cannot keep you.

Jeremiah is commanded to speak God’s word of truth to the nations. This word is everything God promises to make Jeremiah: a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze… Jeremiah’s strength, and ultimately his very life, will depend on his faithfulness to the prophetic commission of speaking the invincible truth of God.

Although our reading does not include his response to God’s call it is fitting to remind ourselves that Jeremiah already had the necessary predispositions required of a prophet: Ah, Lord God; look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child! St Paul would have replied, ‘Yes, Jeremiah, you are only a child, but God’s grace is enough for you: his power is at its best in weakness' (c.f. 2 Cor 12:9)

Nothing humbles the proud and mighty more than being overcome by weakness: They will fight against you but shall not overcome you. The seeds of defeat are already planted in the tireless efforts of the mighty to sweep away the truth and the prophets who preach it. No one can destroy truth and if they destroy the prophet it is only a ‘temporary’ setback. We must all die but not all will rise to eternal joy in the Master’s kingdom.

Our Master, too, came as a prophet and suffered the prophet’s fate, but with this difference – Jeremiah spoke the word - Jesus is the Word. This is the essence of the delightful ambiguity with which our first reading ends: It is the Lord who speaks.

Monday, 18 January 2016

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
‘Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.’
(From Mending Wall by Robert Frost)
When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruin he was devastated: On hearing this I sank down and wept; for several days I mourned, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (1:4)

Why would he do this? Why would he react so strongly?

Nehemiah was a just man, faithful to the Law and deeply conscious of himself as a member of God’s Chosen People. In the desecration and destruction of the walls he saw the sins of his people and was deeply ashamed. He fell down before the Lord and on behalf of the People he prayed: I confess the sins of the sons of Israel which we have committed against you: I and my father's House have sinned. We have acted very wickedly towards you: we have not kept the commandments, laws and customs you laid down for Moses your servant. (1:6-7)

For Nehemiah the integrity of the city of Jerusalem, and particularly the integrity of the walls and gates, was an image of the integrity of the People and, clearly, this was in tatters. Moreover, without the integrity that comes from obedience to the Law of Moses the people were no longer the People; they were without identity.

We could pause here and ask ourselves how we respond to the images of death, destruction and despair we see on our television screens so often today? What would a Tutsi or a Hutu make of the piles of corpses littering the Rwandan countryside? What would an Iraqi or Pakistani see in the mangled bodies strewn around the crater made by a suicide bomber? What do we see in the overflowing garbage bins of abortionists, if not men and women who have forsaken their God and put themselves in his place? This was the cruel sword which pierced Nehemiah’s heart two and a half thousand years ago and the desolation experienced today by every serious Catholic on seeing the offences, great and small, committed against the merciful God.

Nehemiah, and his compatriot Ezra, set about restoring Israel’s integrity and thus their identity. Nehemiah’s mission was that of rebuilding the city walls and gates, while Ezra’s mission was to move the People to recommit themselves to live the Law of Moses and to worship God according to the prescriptions of the Torah. In other words, they set about purifying lifestyles and restoring the liturgy. Ring any bells?

It should not surprise us that from the first moments of the decision to rebuild the walls there was opposition: When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the walls he flew into a rage, beside himself with anger. What a startlingly different reaction to that of Nehemiah on hearing of the plight of Holy City!

He ridiculed the Jews and in front of his kinsmen and the wealthy men of Samaria he exclaimed, 'What are these pathetic Jews trying to do?... Do they expect to finish in one day? Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?' (3:33-34)

Nehemiah’s opponents, some of whom were Jews themselves(!), tried to stop him by every means at their disposal. Any bishop, priest or layperson who has resolved to restore some sense of the sacred to our noisy, horizontal liturgies will recognise the tactics. Sanballat begins with anger. This is often enough to frighten off the weak. Next comes public ridicule, which no one likes, and which often deters from standing up for what they know to be right those who love their popularity.

Ridicule is followed by personal insults (these pathetic Jews) and a questioning, not only of their ability to finish the task (Do they expect to finish in one day?) but of their very grasp on reality (Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?)

We understand that Nehemiah saw, not charred stones and heaps of rubble, but bruised, demoralised and despairing men and women especially chosen by God to form a Chosen People. With the Lord there are no heaps of rubble; there are only souls waiting to be redeemed.

As the work neared completion opposition grew. Physical violence was planned but Nehemiah avoided falling into the traps set for him and finally the work was completed. God is always on the side of restoration.

Let us turn again to today’s First Reading: … all the people gathered as one man on the square before the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses which Yahweh had prescribed for Israel. Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, consisting of men, women, and children old enough to understand. This was the first day of the seventh month. On the square before the Water Gate, in the presence of the men and women, and children old enough to understand, he read from the book from early morning till noon; all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. …the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law.

We have come back to our beginning - the weeping Nehemiah. But now it is not Nehemiah who weeps, it is the People. They have been restored and renewed and they cry - but their restorer bids them be joyful, as would one day the true Restorer cause us to cry out Alleluia!

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Baptism of the Lord - Year C

Isaiah 40:1-5.9-11; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Most people don’t think about Baptism very deeply. This is manifested clearly at parish Baptism preparation sessions. When asked why they have brought the child for Baptism parents are caught unawares; this is already very telling. They become suddenly uncomfortable. Mum looks at dad, dad looks at his feet.
  • Well, my parents had me baptised and I went to a catholic school and I really enjoyed it and I want my child to have the same opportunity.
  • My grandmother is coming from Europe to visit us in August and she wants to be at the Baptism.
  • Every child should have some religion.
  • Well, doesn’t the child go to Hell if it’s not baptised?
It would be so interesting if one day I asked a group of parents why they brought their child for Baptism and they said:
  • Well, we find such joy in the Faith that we want the same for our child.
  • We are all born in Original Sin and we want God to restore our child to his friendship.
  • We want our child to be born again and made into a new person in Christ.
  • We want our child’s heart to be open to God’s grace. We want God’s Holy Spirit to live in our child.
I can tell you honestly, folks, if that were ever to happen you would see one astonished priest, probably weeping tears of joy.

Most young parents don’t think about Baptism very deeply because they don’t live their Catholic life very deeply. This is not an attack – this is a diagnosis!

A priest friend of mine in a large parish recently told me of a preparation session with fifteen couples: nine of them were either not married, or not married in the Church. This was for a variety of reasons. Three of the nine were Catholic but had simply decided not to get married; six couples were married in the Church and of these six, two were attending Sunday Mass faithfully.

This collapse in the connection between the Sacrament of Baptism and a lived Catholic life is almost universal in Australian society. It’s a horrible phenomenon! And we go on, year after year, baptising the children of parents who have already told us they have no intention at all of practising the Faith. It seems Baptism is now a kind of no-community-attached sacrament, and, therefore, parents have come to see it as a no-responsibility-attached sacrament. This is not as it should be.

The Church herself has something to say about all this, and don’t forget, the sacraments belong to the Church and they belong in the Church, like a fish belongs in water. This is why the Church will not normally allow Baptisms to be performed outside the church building.

The 1980 'Instruction on Infant Baptism' recognised the need for a renewal of our pastoral practices in regard to this sacrament and spoke of two principles.
  • Firstly, considered in itself the gift of Baptism to infants must not be delayed.
  • Secondly, the parents or a close relative must give assurances that the gift of Baptism can grow by an authentic education in the faith and Christian life, in order to fulfil the true meaning of the sacrament.

    But if these assurances are not really serious there can be grounds for delaying the sacrament; and if they are certainly non-existent the sacrament should even be refused.
Priests should be slow to delay or refuse a Baptism but they should not be unthinking in their pastoral practice. Too many of our parents are not really serious in their assurances that the gifts and blessings of Baptism can grow in their children. I often ask them: Are you ready to become the parents of a Catholic child? The fact is that most don't understand what this means and are in need of a thorough catechesis.

By baptising the child of any parent who asks, without making a serious discernment about the assurances given, we are denying those parents an important opportunity of making a renewed commitment to their own faith.

‘But aren’t you denying an innocent child?’ No. The child is not your or my responsibility. The child is the responsibility of the parents. If neither the parents nor a family member is willing to accept the duties of bringing the child up in the practice of the Faith then they are denying their child.

When couples are challenged about all this in the right way its remarkable how often they are ready to acknowledge they are not yet for real. They will accept further instruction and even invite the priest to their house to explain things more deeply and answer some questions.

Some couples become angry because they don’t want a Church that has ‘terms or conditions’, and they simply walk away. That is their choice. It may be that they will give the matter further thought and, one day, come back. All too often, unfortunately, they will shop around for a priest somewhere who offers less resistance.

We mustn’t underestimate parents; they are not stupid. Given the right explanations and sufficient time to digest the ‘unpleasant news’ they will often nod their heads and agree that the true meaning of the sacrament is not fulfilled if they bring their child into a Catholic Faith which they themselves refuse to practise. There are few joys compared to the joy of seeing such a couple come back to the practise of the Faith.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2:1-11

The wedding celebration at Cana was for Jesus a turning point in his life. It started off seeming ordinary enough but suddenly a much deeper reality made itself clear to him in the voice of his Mother and his life was never the same again.

For me it was an ordinary holiday I took with a priest friend, and suddenly I was heading for the seminary, my whole life turned upside down. Has it happened to you? Where did you meet your wife? Your husband? Was it ordinary? And yet look how it affected your future.

It’s one of the uncanny aspects of existence that our future is often dependent on what seems mere chance; the direction of our lives is changed by a pebble or a cigarette butt; the path to our destiny begins in the most unexpectedly mundane places. What starts off as a chat in the kitchen can become the road to our destiny.

The marriage feast of Cana was for Jesus just such a commonplace event. A time to leave behind the busyness of everyday life and just relax for a bit; to enjoy the company of friends, to drink a glass of wine and join in one of the many conversations. Then the wine ran out.

Mary, always on the alert to the needs of others, notices the problem and says to her son: They have no wine.

Jesus picks up the double meaning. Do I hear you ask ‘What double meaning?’

Notice what has happened! The little wedding feast without wine suddenly becomes an image for something else, something much more. It’s as if Mary flung her arms out to the whole world and said - Son, they have no wine! Mary is now speaking not only about the wedding feast, she is speaking about poor drought-stricken humanity, the whole world: Son, they have no wine!

[We who have had the benefit of 2000 years of meditating on this episode may add our own complaint to Mary’s: And if we have no wine, Lord, how can we make Eucharist?]

In the Scriptures there are other examples of how an innocent statement suddenly punches through to another, broader, deeper level of meaning. Take little Isaac walking beside his father Abraham, carrying on his head the wood for the fire on which he will be sacrificed. He doesn’t yet know that God has asked his father to sacrifice his only son. And he asks: Father, where is the Lamb? Without realising it Isaac had asked the very question the whole cosmos was asking as it waited to be redeemed: Where is the Lamb? Where is the sacrifice that will take away the sins of the world?

We may well wonder if Jesus marvelled, as we do, at the wisdom of his Mother’s Spirit-filled words. Their profound simplicity completely disarmed him. Suddenly he was no longer the guest, he was the Bridegroom – and his beautiful Bride, the Church, stood before him, longing for the nuptial banquet with her Beloved to begin. For Jesus this could mean only one thing, the Passion.

Did the humanity of Jesus falter, as it did in the Garden of Gethsemane? My Father, he said, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. (Mt 26:39)

He answers his Mother: Woman why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.

Mary does not reply to her Son. She has not actually asked him for anything but left him free to respond as he wishes. There is a mystery here, a profoundly mystical moment, and deep within us we imagine we can hear Jesus speak the words: Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.

The first great sign has come, the first epiphany of his public life in the Gospel according to John; there is now no turning back.

Mary tells the servants, that’s us, of course: Do whatever he tells you. A moment later there are six stone jars full of wine, each jar holding twenty or thirty gallons! It’s almost like Jesus exclaims ‘You want wine? I’ll give you wine!’

Three years later the wine would turn into blood, as it still does today on our altars, sufficient for all mankind.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Epiphany of the Lord - Year C

Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3.5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

... we have come to do him homage.

The wise men from the East came to find the infant king of the Jews; we have come to this Mass for exactly the same reason - we have come to do him homage.

Listening when someone speaks is paying them respect. We pay homage to God by listening to his word. We listen to the words of the Scriptures proclaimed in every Mass during the Liturgy of the Word. We listen and then we obey, we live the word in our lives.

Once I met a young man who said 'Oh, you're a priest. Do you give good sermons?' At the time I didn't know what to answer but now, with a little more experience, I would say 'That depends a lot on how well you listen.'

Now you may have noticed that there is a basic tension in the Gospel between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Jerusalem is the busy city, the metro-centre; Bethlehem is the quiet little town in the back blocks. Jerusalem is noisy and profane, ruled over by an arrogant, power-hungry king. The house in Bethlehem in which Jesus and Mary are found by the wise men is ruled over by a powerless infant. It is a place of silence, holiness and peace.

Simple questions propose themselves: Do I live more in Jerusalem or in Bethlehem? Which of these two places do I live in? Which of these two places lives in me?

The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem causes anxiety and upset. Herod was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. The joy of the angels (and of the shepherds) is now forgotten.

Strange, isn't it, the way people can react so differently to the same news! Mary and Joseph put themselves totally at the service of the Child; the angels announce his birth with jubilation; the shepherds leave their sheep and go to see him for themselves; the wise men react with great excitement and joy and undertake a long and arduous journey to find him.

On the other hand we have Herod who is afraid and on guard and ready to kill, while the Jewish elders, astonishingly, are not terribly interested in Jesus at all - they have something far more manageable than a Messiah: the Law and the Prophets.

Yes, indeed, it is very strange the way people react to Jesus.

Some run away and some follow him; some oppose him and some become his disciples; some hate him and some worship him. Jesus is not often ignored!

Take any group of people and put Jesus in their midst and soon, very soon, there is a rearrangement of relationships. Not only will some hate him but they will also begin to hate those who love him.

Herod is fearful and defensive, cunning and deceitful. He attempts to use the naiveté of the wise men to his advantage and do away with this threat to his power. His intention is to remain in charge at all costs, even at the cost of the lives of innocents.

The Lord who humbles the proud simply sends an angel to the wise men to warn them to go home by a different way.

Surely this is the most appropriate punishment for those who consider themselves 'key stakeholders', essential to the workings of the world - simply to be bypassed!

The chief priests and scribes of the people were knowledgeable enough to point out to Herod where the child was to be born. They knew their faith. They knew the Scriptures. These were men who had mastered the Book but who had no intention of letting the Book master them. They believed the Scriptures, they read the Scriptures, but they would not live by the Scriptures. Theirs was a religion of the head, not of the heart. Theirs was a static faith centred on the words of a scroll and not on a living person - even if that person was God.

These men seem to have received the same 'treatment' from God as Herod did; They were simply bypassed. In the end they missed out not only on the joy of welcoming the Messiah, but on the salvation he offered: I have told you already: You will die in your sins. Yes, if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. (John 8:24)

The wise men were pagans, gentiles, dogs (as some Jews called the gentiles). They came from far away, from the distant east. They were open-hearted, truth-seeking, adventurous. They longed to know the true God.

St Augustine says in his writings: You would not be looking for him if you had not already found him.

These men had already surrendered to the Lord even before they met him. No wonder they brought with them extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The wise men are instantly loveable. Their trust in the guidance of the star, their humble readiness to ask for directions, their courageous journey and their generous gifts to the one they were seeking. These men were hungry for worship. They longed to see the face of the One who had been foretold and their longing was satisfied.

So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. (Luke 11:9)

Perhaps we can conclude with another question, a question only each of us can answer for himself or herself: Where am I in my spiritual life?
  • Am I like Herod - frightened to let go and fearful of Jesus?
  • Am I like the elders - knowing my faith but not really letting it touch me?
  • Am I like the wise men - thirsting to know the Lord and setting out afresh every day to draw closer to him?

The Holy Family - Year C

1 Samuel 1:20-22.24-28; 1 John 3:1-2.21-24; Luke 2:41-52

The Gospel writers were not like modern journalists. Journalists today are pre-occupied with facts and photos and 'spin' and, ironically, they get things wrong a scary percentage of the time. The evangelists are interested in what happened only because it reveals the truth - the truth about Jesus.

Indeed, Luke tells us at the very beginning of his Gospel that he drew up his account of the facts, that you may know the truth concerning the things (i.e. the facts) of which you have been informed(RSV). So Luke presents us with what happened in such a way that through his presentation we can identify and receive the truth.

The episode presented in Luke's Gospel today is the only record anywhere of Jesus’ life before he began his public ministry as an adult. We are lucky to have it and we do well to read it attentively and to reflect on it deeply.

Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the feast as usual.

The Holy Family did not need to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover; Joseph because he lived about three days from Jerusalem and only those within a day’s journey were obliged to go; Mary, because women were not obliged to go; and Jesus, because he was not yet thirteen. Still, their gratitude to God who had set the Hebrews free and their love for the feast caused them to make the arduous journey every year. Though we as Catholics are not obliged to go to daily Mass, there are some who have the same need to express their gratitude to God by going every day.

On the way back home Jesus was thought to be with other family members or friends and it was only at the end of the day, when they couldn’t find him, that they knew they had to return to Jerusalem. Frantically they searched for three days and then found him. Remind you of something? Was there another time when Jesus was ‘lost’ for three days?

To be able to understand the torment of Mary and Joseph at the loss of their son we would need to be able to understand how much they loved him. The Holy Family was without one of its members; it was a kind of broken family, and the tip of the sword which would later pierce the sorrowing Mother began to make its way into her heart.

Are you already beginning to see the prophetic truth that is unfolding in this account of the Finding in the Temple? It gets even clearer.

On the third day they found him again. He was discussing with the doctors of the Law and showing himself, as a twelve year old, to be superior to them. He was questioning them and they were astonished.

My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been looking for you. The RSV says: Son, why have you treated us so?

They are Mary’s first recorded words to Jesus and his reply will be his first recorded words to her; their first recorded conversation.

Son, says Mary. She knew he was her son by birth as well as the Divine Son of the Eternal Father. She utters this anguished word as the Mother of God who brings the two Holy Families, the human and the divine, into her tortured question.

Jesus responds: Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father's affairs?

Mary had spoken of ‘your father’ and Jesus had spoken of ‘his Father’. Jesus, too, is aware that he belongs to two families, and that one has precedence over the other. Do we have this awareness? How many parents there are who recognise only the human dimension of their family relationships.

Far from being hurtful this truth was already familiar to Mary and Joseph. Besides, they were well-schooled in the truth that not all is what it at first appears. Joseph learned this when he discovered that Mary was to give birth to a child he had not fathered. He had learned to be silent and to await the unveiling of God’s plan in God’s time. Though neither Joseph nor Mary understood their son’s answer they did not question him further. Instead, as we can well imagine, they would have pondered in their hearts.

What appears to us hurtful is that Jesus seems to be tersely reproving his parents’ anxiety, but it is not so. The RSV translation is more helpful: Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?

Mary knew from the annunciation of the angel that God was Jesus’ Father and that the Temple was his house. What she had seemingly not understood was the prophetic content of Jesus’ need (must) to be in the Father’s house. This twelve year-old lad could see the path of his mission stretched out before him and it ended in his Father’s house. His foray into the Temple of Jerusalem, the place of his future suffering and death, among the doctors of the Law, at Passover time, after which he was ‘lost’ for three days - all spoke of his passion which lay twenty years ahead. His mission would bring him ultimately into ‘his Father’s house’ and it was a mission he must complete. It had not yet happened; it had not yet been fulfilled; and therefore could be understood only in the fullness of time.

Perhaps this is a fitting truth with which to conclude our reflection. There is always something in our family lives, some difficulty, some contradiction, some tragedy which we do not understand. We can choose to act impulsively, destructively, impatiently, proudly – or we can store up all these things in our hearts and humbly ponder their meaning, waiting for God's light to arrive.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Christmas Midnight - Year C

Isaiah 9:1-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

On this holy night the Church invites us to celebrate with joy the great event of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

We know the details well:
  • born of the Virgin Mary in a stable because there was no room in the inn
  • wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger – not a cradle
The outward circumstances are of poverty and anonymity but they conceal a mystery.

This great mystery would have gone by unnoticed and unknown had not heaven opened and the angels come down to sing of Jesus’ birth. After all, as Luke says further on in his Gospel: No one lights a lamp and puts it under a tub or hides it under a bed.

Jesus was God’s light, the light for the whole world, and God his Father wanted him to be seen and known by all. And so he sent the angel to the shepherds tending their sheep in the fields nearby: Listen, I bring you news of great joy … today a saviour has been born to you…

After many years of reflection by the Church we now know that in this child, God himself, has come down to humanity. God has become man in order to give man a share in God's own divinity.

This is the good news of salvation, the message of Christmas, the best news the world has ever heard - the birth of a baby.

But did you notice the first words the angel said?

Do not be afraid!

Of course, in an immediate sense the angel is telling the shepherds not to be afraid of him because the angel's sudden appearance would certainly have startled them. But the angel is speaking also to us, here and now in Sydney. That’s why the Holy Scripture is so powerful and relevant; its spirit-filled words are spoken to every people in every age. Do not be afraid!
  1. Firstly, don’t be afraid of God. That may seem like a funny thing to say but I truly believe there are many people who are afraid of God, and yet there is no need. God is our loving Father, our loving Creator. He loves us with a deep and faithful love. He understands us, our weaknesses and our broken dreams, our sinfulness and our failures, and yet he loves us. I believe this is one of the main things wrong with humanity today - we don’t understand God's love for us. And because of this we don’t know how much we are worth. What a sad situation!
  1. Secondly, do not be afraid of the Gospel. The Gospel is indeed Good News of great joy! Do not let your fear block your ears or harden your hearts. Don’t be afraid to believe these words from heaven. This is God’s word to you.
  1. Thirdly, don’t be afraid of this child; don’t be afraid of Jesus - he means you no harm. Don’t be afraid to open the doors of your heart to him, to give him access to your inner self. Don’t be afraid to let him into your relationships, your marriage, your family, your private life. Talk to him, trust him, confide in him because that is why he came. He is looking for you. He wants you to approach him. He already knows you through and through, every detail of your life, and yet he loves you with a love no other person can equal. Don’t be afraid of his love; it will bring you healing, completeness, joy, peace and life.
Let me finish off by telling you something which I think is so little known that one could almost call it a secret. On Christmas night God gives us a saving message, yes, of course. He gives us a saving truth which we must believe, yes, I won’t argue with that. But most of all God gives us this night a saving relationship, a relationship he invites us to enter.

We are not saved by reading a book or attending a church service. We are saved by entering a relationship.

In the child of Bethlehem God enters a love affair with mankind, a love affair which saves us from our own evil and the evil of others.

He presents himself before us in the manger as a gift of total love and invites us to respond. It is our response that is crucial.

What the angel is saying to us tonight is 'Do not be afraid! This helpless child in the manger is the one you have been longing for, the one who loves you as you need to be loved, as you long to be loved. He alone can satisfy this hunger of yours for love and life. Do not be afraid to enjoy his favour.'

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

4th Sunday of Advent - Year C

Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44

We began our Mass with the Entrance Antiphon. It's on the back of the bulletin and it's wonderful. I'll read it again:
Drop down dew from above, you heavens,
and let the clouds rain down the Just One;
let the earth be opened and bring forth a Saviour.

Isn't that a beautiful prayer! Each year, on the fourth Sunday of Advent we have this same antiphon and it's worth looking at more closely right now.

The first thing we notice is that it is a natural image - an image taken from nature.

The clouds rain down ... the earth brings forth ...

How often have we seen this happen? A dry field, a bare lawn, a thirsty vegetable garden, then a cloudburst. The rain falls, covers the earth, penetrates the soil - and the earth brings forth new life. Rain transforms, rain renews.

Secondly we notice that to this natural image has been added a supernatural dimension. It is the Just One who is rained down - it is a Saviour who is brought forth.

The obvious meaning the Church intends us to take from this is that the Just One, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, has come from above, from heaven, and yet, truly Man, he is brought forth by the earth, from below - God and man - human and divine.

Thirdly, the word let makes the whole thing not just a statement of truth but a graceful prayer: let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Saviour.

Is it possible to say these words without them expressing our longing for the Lord while at the same time increasing our longing for him? I can't imagine that.

Next, we notice that this is a nuptial image in which heaven and earth, the divine and the human, are the groom and the bride. We might see this more clearly if I quote the lines from Isaiah on which this antiphon is based.

Rain righteousness, you heavens, let the skies above pour down; let the earth open to receive it, that it may bear the fruit of salvation .... (Isaiah 45:8)

You can't tell me that is not a clear yet delicate nuptial image, an image of procreation.

If we had time we could reflect more deeply and show a connection to Pope John Paul's Theology of the Body which proposes that our sexuality and the marriage act, being essentially good and holy, are in fact a revelation of God himself. Certainly God here unashamedly associates the coming of his Son Jesus to earth with the nuptial act by which new life is created - in a subtle and alluring natural procreative image.

Finally, we see in this Antiphon a looking forward to that moment of intimacy between God and man, when the Virgin Mary surrendered totally to the Will of God with her yes to the message of the angel, and the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, letting the rain of his grace fall into her open womb, and she brought forth the Saviour of the world - a moment of utter human fruitfulness.

No wonder the Communion Antiphon exalts: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son; and his name will be called Emmanuel.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

3rd Sunday of Advent - Year C

Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

Today is Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday! It is a day for considering all that we as Christians have to rejoice about and, of course, what we have to rejoice about is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. I asked a few people around the place what they especially had to rejoice about and here are a few of the answers I got. I confess that I did edit them a bit to bring a few of their thoughts together more neatly.

"I rejoice mostly when I pray. This is where I meet God and it really makes me happy that he is so available. I love to pray and make an effort to pray every day. I love the Rosary and also the Divine Mercy chaplet."

"I rejoice because God is looking for me. I still remember that young man Stuart Diver and what he must have felt like when he was buried all that time in the avalanche in the snow fields. He felt so helpless and alone. He thought he was doomed. He must have been so glad to hear the noise of the people looking for him. I read in the scriptures and I hear it in the prayers of the Mass that God is looking for me. He has sent his Son Jesus to find me. I lie there trapped in all the weakness of my life and I long to be rescued, to see the face of my rescuer. I know he will find me and that he will come for me and save me. Not everyone has this longing for him or this trust in him. I rejoice that I have been granted this gift."

"I rejoice that the teachings of the Church are so crystal clear. My faith is certain; black and white. So many of my friends move from church to church looking for one which suits their beliefs. They change every few years and never seem content."

"I rejoice because he is near and I find this exciting! He is not far away. He is near because my stay on earth, however young I am, will soon end. Death is not a falling asleep it is waking up. And he is near in his Second Coming. He has promised and I believe his promise. This gives me so much joy. Many people do not have this sense of meaning in their life. They wait for death. Christians wait for life and life is coming; it is near."

"I rejoice because he is here. As the Scripture says 'He stands among you.' Jesus is in our world but he is not recognised. He is here already among us actively working to save us in all sorts of ways. What a gift this presence is! He is present in my heart, in my life."

"I rejoice because He is my Saviour who came to save me from all those things I am so afraid of: my sins, Hell, Satan and death. He is my Saviour and stronger than any other person or thing. He is Lord of all and has power over all. I rejoice that my God is THE God and that I am safe."

"I rejoice that I am a member of such a big lovely family, God’s family. Whenever I meet a catholic who believes I am immediately at home. I click with that person, we are friends. We understand each other and even ‘love’ each other."

"I rejoice that I have a gift to give God that is worthy of him in the Mass. I know that when I give this gift to God it is pleasing to God and it expresses my love for God in a way that God accepts. The Eucharist is the gift that God wants me to give him and it is the gift I want to give him."

"I rejoice that I have a place to confess my sins where Jesus forgives me through the priest. Jesus is waiting for me with the priest. He always forgives me. He understands me. He is gentle with me. He helps me. I rejoice in this sacrament because it gives me a new start. It is God’s mercy at work on my behalf."

"I rejoice that I know where I am going in life. My life is a journey and I know its destination. So many people don’t know where they are going. I do. And I have all the help I need to get there from the Church and from the sacraments."

"I rejoice that Jesus has taken the one thing I don’t like about life, that is, suffering, and given it meaning. He has made it into a kind of treasure for me. I have plenty of sufferings and, with Jesus, they help me grow in love for people and for him. I am so glad that I have found joy in suffering. I never thought it was possible but it is. He has given it meaning because I find him there."

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Why it would be good for your spiritual life to begin receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.

It simplifies things. No longer do you have to worry about whether your hands are clean, whether your writing hand is under your other hand, whether your palms are flat or your fingers bent upward, whether you are going to drop the Host or leave crumbs on your hands. All is simplified. Especially parents carrying children, and elderly people with walking sticks or shaky hands will find receiving on the tongue a better way to go.

It helps our focus. Because it is such an essentially simple process it sets us free to focus on the reality of what is happening rather than on the mechanics. A parishioner who switched to Communion on the tongue recently confided, 'It's wonderful. It makes everything so much more intimate ... more meaningful.'

It is different. All day long we are used stretching out our hands to receive various things from others and also to take them for ourselves. In Holy Communion we do not take the Host - the priest (in the name of the Church) gives it to us. That is the symbolism of our hands held out to receive. But we are also used to taking food and placing it in our own mouths. Communion on the tongue interrupts this everyday action. Now it is the priest who places the Lord on our tongue. This is radically different from how things work in daily life and provokes us to think more deeply.

It helps us to see ourselves for who we really are. Some years ago an elderly man told me he would never receive Communion on the tongue because: I'm not a baby, I can feed myself. My inner voice replied: Yes, you are, and so am I.  We are all babies when it comes to the spiritual life - little children of holy Mother Church - and on the rare occasions when I find myself in the Communion line I receive on the tongue, even though I'm a priest. As a hospital chaplain I marvelled at the humility of the sick who, in their weakness, having rediscovered their 'inner child' were so willing to receive in this unique way, so geared to reminding us who we truly are.

It helps to rebuild reverence. There is something so blissfully reverent about those who receive Holy Communion on the tongue. I cannot say this about reception on the hand because, apart from the inevitable danger of distraction and routine, there is an untidiness, a shoddiness, even a careless disrespect which can so easily creep into this method of receiving. Of course it is possible to receive reverently on the hand but it is harder to do. It requires a recollection not easy to achieve in the 'business' of taking care of all the particulars associated with Communion on the hand.

It rebuilds a 'culture of the sacred' around the Eucharist. Not only does communion placed on our tongue by the priest develop in us a deeper experience of such things as sacredness, humility, intimacy, spiritual childhood and dependency, it is such a clear, unambiguous sign of these things that it assists in rebuilding the sense of the sacred which is so commonly absent from our gatherings. How often do I hear children referring to the 'bread' they receive and then put into their mouths. I cannot blame them.

There is no reason the priest should put bread on our tongue, we can do that for ourselves - but there is every reason why the priest should put the Lord Jesus on our tongue, as a gift of God to his children.

It helps prevent abuse of the Blessed Sacrament. All too often I have encountered abuses of the Blessed Sacrament which were facilitated by giving Holy Communion on the hand. The recent events in Spain are just the tip of an iceberg of blasphemous contempt for the consecrated species which make every believer recoil in horror. Communion on the tongue makes many of these abuses if not impossible, at least unlikely. You can do your part by helping create the necessary climate of reverence which will draw others to want to begin receiving on the tongue as well.

So, what's holding you back? Switch to Holy Communion on the tongue - today!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent - Year A

Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-6.8-11; Luke 3:1-6
As we saw the first of our Advent candles lit at the beginning of last week's Mass we got a sense of a new beginning, of a setting out, a sense of journey. To me it was a reassuring affirmation that we are all 'going somewhere'; that we are on our way to meet a future, a glorious future, which lies ahead in the uncertainty of our troubled lives and our troubled times.
Those candles tell us our life has meaning, direction, purpose and a goal - all given to us by Christ. They are candles of hope; giving light and yet, like us, being consumed.
This week it is the second candle, and then soon the third and fourth, and then all too quickly it will again be Christmas. Yes, the liturgical year goes round and round in a circle but it is always an ascending circle, a spiral of longing reaching upward for a moment of fulfilment.
We, who live in great, sometimes terrible, vulnerability besieged on every side by temptation and sin, anxiety, fear of illness or old age or failure, or a thousand other difficulties - we, who, whatever our age, are inescapably approaching the painful moment of our death - we wait for a God who saves.
Yes, that is the nature of our God; he is a God who saves. Indeed, that is what the word Jesus means: God saves.
The prophet Baruch, writing all those centuries ago, knew that Israel, just like you and I, had much to suffer, horrible sufferings; the worst of which was that they were exiled from their homeland, and from Jerusalem. And when you come to think of it, so are we; exiled in this 'valley of tears'.
But Baruch, speaking to Jerusalem as though she were a mother, assures her that her children will return. He addresses Jerusalem as Jesus might speak to heaven, our eternal homeland, and announces the new Jerusalem:
Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress ... arise ... stand on the heights and turn your eyes to the east ...though they left you on foot, with enemies for an escort, now God brings them back to you ... for God will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory with this mercy and integrity for escort.
Our God, as the Lord's Prayer says, means to deliver us evil, every evil, especially death. But we must be patient, we must wait. We must prepare ourselves. We sow in tears; we will reap in joy.
Popular culture would have us believe Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of the Divine Infant to Bethlehem. Not so. He has already come, and gone.
No, though we celebrate, and celebrate again what has already been given us we direct our present desire, under the guidance of the prophet Baruch, to the future coming of the glorious Saviour.
If all eyes turn to Bethlehem where the Virgin gave birth to the Redeemer two thousand years ago it's for the same reason we contemplate the other mysteries of his life, because they reveal the one Lord, the merciful Redeemer and just Judge, who is yet to come in glory.
Our contemplation of the birth, life, suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord is, consequently, a necessary contemplation, which nourishes our understanding and therefore our longing. These ‘mysteries of the Rosary’ are the footsteps of the Saviour in history, leading us to that spectacular moment of completion when the very same Saviour will appear before us in the fullness and splendour of his power over all, including time.
He is coming as he promised; what must we do? I think you already know. We must do the only thing we can - be ready!
Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth.