Monday, 27 July 2015

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Exodus 16:2-4. 12-15; Ephesians 4:17. 20-24; John 6:24-35

Revelation is that part of God’s teaching which cannot be changed because it comes from above, from God himself. We humans can arrive at a certain degree of knowledge of God by thoughtfully reflecting on the truth, the goodness and the beauty we see in creation but this knowledge is limited; we eventually reach a line we cannot cross.
God comes to meet us at that line – and to take us beyond it. What we learn we could never come to know of ourselves; that is why we call it revelation. It is a great gift from God in which he, so to speak, uncovers himself to us, pulls back the veil, and leads us into the deep mysteries of his own being. And, of course, learning about God is always learning about ourselves.
The Scriptures are the history of God’s revelation of himself in the human experience of his chosen people.
The first thing we notice when we begin to read scripture is the clarity, purposefulness, and consistency of God’s revelation. God knows what he is about and what he wants to tell us. This truth is nowhere more comprehensively expressed than in the words of last week’s gospel: he himself knew exactly what he was going to do. God’s revelation unfolds before us, page after page, century after century, as he waits for his people to finally understand, to grasp with heart and mind the riches he offers.
The second thing we notice is that most people, when confronted with the revealed truths of God, manifest a kind of fumbling incapacity which misunderstands, doubts, contradicts, and even rejects. Faced with this historical obtuseness of his people God might well have spoken the exasperated words of Jesus to his disciples (Mtt 17:17): How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?
Yes, indeed, we are very slow to understand, a slowness defeated only by the patient compassion of our God. We truly are the sheep of the shepherd; the helpless children of the loving Father. No wonder Jesus said: Make the people sit down; and then gave out the loaves: to all who were sitting ready. What a beautiful and telling image of our proper relationship to the Lord!
 And so the Lord wants to lead us today further into the truth. With the benefit of hindsight we already know what that truth is even though it will only be fully stated in three weeks time. But let’s not anticipate.
Having given the people bread to eat, bread which filled their stomachs, he now prepares them for the next stage in his teaching but note that Jesus calls not so much for understanding as for belief. This demand, repeated throughout the teaching, is foundational to grasping that it is mystery at stake, not understanding. They actually ask Jesus what God requires of them and he answers: you must believe in the one he has sent.
And so Jesus continues: Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you. Jesus, who has given them bread for the life of their bodies, is now suggesting there is a food for eternal life and that he, the Son of Man, is offering it to them.
They challenge him for a sign to show they should believe and then, recalling how Moses gave their ancestors ‘bread from heaven’ (the manna), they quote the scriptures to him: as scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.
Jesus first corrects them. It was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven but my Father who – and instead of the expected words who gave you bread from heaven – Jesus says: who gives you the bread from heaven. In other words, it is the Father who gave the Hebrews bread from heaven then, and it is the Father who is giving you the bread from heaven now.
This bread is the true bread. Why? Because the first gave life only to the Hebrews while this bread ‘gives life to the world’.
The response of the people is not unexpected. Who among us would not answer with them: Sir, give us that bread always.
But immediately is felt the small tremor preceding the major earthquake. First a strange silence, then a questioning puzzlement, then a ‘What did he say? Did he say that he is the bread of life?’ Yes, that’s what he said.
Jesus answered:
I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me will never be hungry;
he who believes in me will never thirst.
A moment later the tremor passes. ‘Well, remember, he did once say he was the vine, and he did say he was the good shepherd, and he did say he was the gate of the sheepfold so I guess he is just using colourful language again – a metaphor.’

There will be more disquieting tremors next week as Jesus deepens his teaching. For the moment, we who already believe, we who have already experienced the earthquake yet to come can relish the simple, intoxicating beauty of the phrase ‘I am the bread of life’.

Monday, 20 July 2015

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

For the next five weeks we will be on a journey through a single chapter of St John’s Gospel – Chapter Six, divided into five parts – and the destination of our journey will be a deeper faith in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion.
Chapter Six is commonly called the Bread of Life Discourse because it is all about bread – bread for the body and bread for the soul. The chapter begins with a great miracle of multiplied bread so that as many as five thousand men are able to make a meal from five loaves and two fish. When they were done they collected twelve baskets of scraps.
Later on in the evening the apostles are terrified as they see Jesus coming towards them, walking on the water of the lake. This episode is not included in the readings because, I imagine, it is not directly relevant to the subject of bread. There is, however, one point I would like to make about it. Every time I read that Jesus crosses the lake and is then followed by a crowd of people I automatically think of Moses who crossed the Red Sea with the Hebrews. Moses had parted the waters but Jesus, greater even than Moses, walks on the water.
The following day in the synagogue of Capernaum comes the momentous teaching of Jesus to the same people who had eaten the bread. They had followed him to Capernaum and found him in the synagogue. They had filled their stomachs and wanted more and, as we shall see during the next four Sundays, they got much more than they could handle.
The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is well known. Jesus had crossed the lake followed by a crowd who had been impressed by his miracles of curing the sick. Probably joined by many of the locals they eventually formed a huge crowd of at least five thousand.
John describes what happened but we need to read carefully or we might miss the special words and phrases and allusions he inserts into the narrative which operate like little ‘portals’ into the past and the future and thereby greatly enrich the significance of the present events.
For example, when John says that Jesus ‘climbed the hillside’, a ‘portal’ opens on to Moses who climbed Mt Sinai and brought the Law, the word of God, to the people. As Jesus climbs the hillside John wants us to turn our minds to Moses because he intends to show us that Jesus is the fulfilment of all that Moses did for the people.
It was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover. Now why would John take the trouble to mention that the miracle of the loaves and fishes took place around Passover time? It is because he wants us to understand that what Jesus is about to do is an authentic development of what began with Moses and the people at the first Passover: the saving acts by which God set his people free from slavery in Egypt and brought them into a land of their own with a Law of their own. On their journey he fed them with manna (bread from heaven) and gave them water to drink from the rock, and flocks of quails to eat.
John wants us to understand that what Jesus is about to do has its roots in the Passover but has a fulfilment which is yet to come.
Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching ... . What was he to do? There were only five barley loaves and two fish. He told his apostles: Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass there, and as many as five thousand men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready...
If I may continue with my somewhat banal image of the portal or the ‘wormhole’ we can identify a few more in what John has just said, only this time they look into the future rather than the past.
Firstly Jesus requires the people to ‘sit down’ – as is commonly done for a meal. It seems he intends to feed them. But more than this. When Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all, we find ourselves suddenly transported into the future where Jesus is at table with his disciples at the Last Supper, and even more than this, where we find ourselves sitting at this Mass two thousand years later, waiting to be fed.
The inspired text of John’s gospel shines both the spotlight of the Passover and the spotlight of the Eucharist on the present miracle of Jesus. It illuminates its place in the saving acts of Jesus and prepares us for the teaching which is to follow. It is a mighty teaching, a sublime teaching, a hard teaching but a wondrous teaching. It comes to us directly from God.
Indeed, as the verse before the gospel proclaims:
A great prophet has appeared among us;
God has visited his people. Alleluia!

Monday, 13 July 2015

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
The Twelve rejoin Jesus but now, for the first time, Mark calls them apostles. They had been with Jesus as his specially chosen Twelve but they return from the mission he gave them as his Twelve Apostles. Not only had they made a difference in the lives of those to whom they were sent but they, too, were now different.
When Jesus had begun sending them out it was with the unspoken agreement they would return to him. The Twelve knew that the mission they were setting out on was his mission and not theirs. They had been sent out on his mission in his name with his authority.
This is an immensely important understanding of the ministry, especially for bishops and priests, and even for lay people engaged in the apostolate. We come to Jesus who teaches us, empowers us, authorises us and who then sends us out. There is no mission without the Master.
Furthermore, we might be tempted to think that it is the mission which is of paramount importance but that is not so. It is Jesus, the Lord of the mission, who is of prime importance and it is for this reason that those sent to do his work must continually return to him. The mission is merely a part of our relationship with Jesus and never the other way round.
It can happen, as I have mentioned at another time, that priests, bishops, nuns & brothers, not to mention laypeople, come to forget this important relationship between the Lord and the mission they are engaged in. Very soon the mission degenerates into mere social work while those who forget Jesus become do-gooders. Predictably these unfortunates will seek compensations for their labour other than the joy of rejoining the Lord.
Not so the apostles who rejoined Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Today we call this process ‘debriefing’ though the word does not capture the richness and the depth of wonder and thankful praise of the apostles. They had seen miracles and marvels of God’s power – demons cast out and sicknesses cured – and they would have laid their gratitude at the feet of Jesus.
How important this is for all who imagine they are living the Christian life and labouring in the Lord’s vineyard. How essential to give him all the glory! It is only by doing this that grace is given, strength is renewed, and true humility is learned. Failure to rejoin the Lord every day in prayer is tantamount to being gradually cut off from the vine. Then we can do nothing.
Jesus also invites his excited but weary apostles to come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while. Had they remained among the crowd with so many coming and going that they had no time even to eat they would have lacked the space and time in which to consolidate their many experiences into an integrated and harmonious understanding. This is the reason priests and religious are obliged to do regular retreats; why seminarians have long holidays; why all Christians must put in place for themselves a daily prayer life. This is our way of rejoining the Lord and making sure that our lives and our work continue to be centred on him.
So far we have spoken of the Lord, the apostle and the mission. We must not, however, forget the people to whom the mission is directed.
When Jesus and the apostles went off in a boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves ... the people saw them going, and many could guess where; and from every town they all hurried to the place on foot and reached it before them.
What drove the people to seek out Jesus can be very simply stated: they needed salvation. And because they needed salvation they needed a saviour; one who could rescue them from all that makes human life unable to attain what each human being longs for: wholeness, completion, fullness of life.
So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
The apostles missed out on their solitude and rest, instead they were given front row seats at what must have been a most astonishingly wonderful scene: the shepherd feeding his flock. We can only imagine how quickly the crowds settled as Jesus found a place from which to address them.
They were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
Jesus fed his children on the rich banquet of his words. He nourished them, gave them meaning, gave them hope and, above all, gave them life. The beauty of the moment can be captured a little in the alleluia verse: My sheep listen to my voice, says the Lord; I know them, and they follow me. Alleluia!

Monday, 6 July 2015

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Amos 7:12-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13

The gospel is always simple and straightforward until you start thinking about it. The more you meditate on it the more interesting it becomes. So let's just meditate on the first sentence.

Jesus summoned the Twelve... .

Jesus stands conveniently at the head of this sentence as subject, which is precisely how he should stand in our lives. As a priest I often say to myself, and occasionally to others, 'How I wish more people would make more room in their lives for God and the things of God.' So many of us just seem to 'fit him in' somewhere convenient, so that he doesn't take up too much of the time we like to devote to our favourite preoccupations.

We note that Jesus summoned the Twelve. There is more than a hint of kingly authority in this word summoned. It basically means he brought them into his presence, he made them stand before him. Jesus summons us, too, in many ways. Most simply put he calls us to listen to, to believe, and then to live his word. If we do this we will find ourselves not only with him but in him (cf. Jn 14:17).

Jesus summoned the Twelve. These are the men he chose to draw close to him and become his special collaborators. They are not yet apostles. This will happen to them in the next few words when he begins to send them out. The word apostle, in fact, means those who are sent forth. But for now they are merely the Twelve and we do well to remember that because Jesus generally operates in exactly the same way in our lives. He summons us so that he might make us apostles.

... and began to send them out in pairs...

The word began gives us the sense of the ongoing work of Jesus and of the training of his Twelve. He began to send them out. As far as his own ministry on earth was concerned Jesus had now reached that moment when he was able to involve others in his saving work. He was making progress. As for the Twelve, they had now reached the point where Jesus could begin to send them out because they were making progress.

I like to picture, granted a little piously, the Lord standing with the Twelve kneeling before him. The subject standing before the object. And he might say to them: I ... send ... you.

It is very easy to overlook the significance of this simple transaction. I recall the priest who disobeyed the instructions of the Church in various liturgical matters 'out of loyalty to my people,' as he put it. This priest, and there are many like him, had simply forgotten who it was who sent him, who it was to whom he owed his loyalty. He had not been sent by the people. It was to Christ in the Church to whom he owed his loyalty and his obedience.

And this reflects on every member of the Church involved in the Apostolate. We serve in the name of the Church and not in the name of the people we serve. Any disobedience to the Church can never be justified out of 'loyalty' to the people.

Jesus sent them out in pairs... . The wisdom of this practice has been proven over the centuries. It gives courage to the apostles and in all sorts of ways tends to short circuit ministerial problems as well as promote ministerial growth.

As he sends them Jesus gives them a special gift which will ensure success in the mission. He gives them: authority over the unclean spirits.

One of the things I felt strongly inadequate about in the seminary, after having been for many years a school teacher with rather serious responsibilities, was that suddenly I had no clearly defined identity. I missed the identity which being a member of staff had given me and found myself suddenly 'de-authorised'. Upon ordination to priesthood, which included 'being sent', I regained, but in a new way, that sense of direction and authority. If anyone were to ask I could now say: Jesus sent me.

And finally, it was over the unclean spirits that Jesus gave the Twelve his own authority. What a world of horrible meaning are contained in these two words. Every conceivable evil, every human weakness and failure, and crime - all woundedness and sin - and the spirits who foment it.

Many times over the last three decades have I experienced this authority. It always leaves me a little speechless and greatly humbled. And you, too, every adult Catholic Christian is authorised to confront evil and to set people free.

If I had another ten minutes I would jump into a reflection on the Christian family which is the primary place for parents to exercise of this God-given authority. But I haven't, so I will conclude with the words of a hymn:

Go now you are sent forth,
To live what you proclaim;
To show the world you follow Christ 
In fact, not just in name.

Go now, you are sent forth
To walk the troubled earth.
To share your faith with all you meet
And prove your real worth.

Go now, you are sent forth
As God's ambassador;
By serving Christ in those we meet
We love him more and more.

Go now, you are sent forth
And Christ goes with you, too.
Today you help his kingdom come
In everything you do.

Monday, 29 June 2015

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

Ezekiel 2:5: Whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.

Mark 6:4: A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house.

Today I'd like to reflect a little on the role of the prophet who, arguably, has the most difficult of all vocations. There are two kinds of prophets; false prophets and true prophets.

False prophets support and sustain people in their illusions about life and about themselves; they encourage self-deception. True prophets always attack self-deception and try to lead people, individuals and communities, into the way God sees things.

Every true prophet is a victim, a victim of the word of God which God has placed in his heart and which he is compelled to proclaim. A prophet is a man trapped. If he does not speak the word which turns us against him, the word itself will turn on him.

A prophet must sacrifice everything to the word and, as Jeremiah (20:9) shows us, it is futile to resist: I used to say, 'I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more. Then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not bear it.

Nor can a prophet be misled or disturbed or awed by loud voices or appearances because he has the gift which allows him to identify and keep his eyes on the truth of every matter. He is one who can see in the dark - whose eyes pierce the obscurity created by confusing facts and public opinion.

They said, ‘Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?’

Undoubtedly these were the facts. The people knew them all and listed them carefully and confidently and the end result of their knowing the facts was that: they would not accept him. But prophets don't deal in facts, they deal in truth. They are trapped by truth as we are ensnared by facts. Here are some more facts:
  • Martha said to him, Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day (Jn 11:39).
  • Your daughter has died. Do not trouble the Master any further (Lk 8:49).
  • There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many (Jn 6:9)?
God’s prophet can see past the facts to the truth. He is that rare man who can say of himself: I am not confused. Beyond all human certainty he sees as God sees - from within, from above - clearly.

Because he speaks the truth and because we are steeped in lies, a prophet is always confronting. He speaks truths that are hidden from us and from which we hide. He takes us by surprise, catches us off guard. His words are confronting because they are always about the God we forget, or about ourselves, whom we think we know.

We live sometimes so deeply embedded in untruths or half-truths that to hear the words of a prophet is to feel assaulted, insulted, humiliated. In his words we see a thief who is trying to steal from us our carefully crafted illusions and though his words may be whispered, the whisper of truth, we hear them as the shout of a bully.

Each age seeks its own ways to dismiss the prophet. He is never welcome; he must be eliminated from the scene. A prophet says precisely what we do not wish to hear. He spoils our fun. He warns us of consequences we deny. He tells us we are wrong.

A prophet is the arch-enemy of the liar, even should the liar be an entire nation, a whole planet. He still overturns us because he cares for us and about us. He loves us.

He has responsibility for us because he is one of us. His life is bound to ours. He takes us more seriously than we take ourselves. He is our shepherd - the shepherd of God's flock. The prophet is a sentry who never sleeps. He warns us about the enemy who approaches from afar and the one who emerges from within - fuelled by the power of our disordered hearts and our evil actions.

The prophet is therefore always warning us about ourselves who are so ready to displease God - to find our own way. He is close to God and calls us to be close to God - to listen and obey. A prophet calls us to be reconciled to God - and to one another.

Monday, 22 June 2015

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-242 Corinthians 8:7.9.13-15; Mark 5:21-43
The First Reading tells us: Death was not God's doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living ... it was the devil's envy that brought death into the world ...
We need constantly to remind ourselves of this. Death was not God's doing ... it was the devil's envy that brought death into the world...
As a hospital chaplain, almost every day I saw people struggling to come to terms with the suffering and death of a loved one, or with their own impending death. A common question, almost an accusation, at such times is 'Why is God doing this?'
My simple response was always 'God is not doing this' and I left it up to the grieving person to pursue the issue or not. Mostly they didn't but sometimes, hours or days later, some would ask 'What did you mean, Father, when you said "God did not do this?"'
Our Catholic faith presents us with a very clear picture of God's loving creation and his concern for us all. At the very beginning it is clear he made us to be imperishable, as the Book of Wisdom affirmed just now. Death was never God's plan for us, and neither was its partner, suffering. Both suffering and death entered the world because mankind, through the temptation of the devil, turned away from God. This turning away had dire consequences.
To understand this we need to remember that when we turned away from God we turned away from everything good – love, wholeness, innocence, light, life - and we found instead: fear, brokenness, guilt, darkness, suffering and death.
Satan tempted us and we fell for his lie and one of the worst consequences of this falling is that from that moment on we found it difficult to take responsibility for sin. So we blame everyone except ourselves - the woman made me do it - the serpent made me do it.
Even today we hide from the truth about suffering and death and blame God for it all. At the least we accuse him of failing us because he doesn't just simply take it all away, make it all better, fix it! which, of course, is precisely what he has done, and in a way which wonderfully satisfies both mercy and justice.
What God did was to send his own Son, Jesus, to take upon himself the very scourge we brought into the world through our sin. He took upon himself suffering and death and made them a path to eternal life for those who follow his steps. In other words, the very suffering and death which led to our ultimate destruction now leads to eternal life - but we have to believe!
Suffering and death still come to us in this life but now, hand in hand with Jesus, they lead us to the resurrection and heavenly light. The Scriptures and the saints teach us this lesson over and over again, telling us to walk the painful journey of life in the footsteps of our loving Master, carrying the cross of our sufferings in faith, and we will find ourselves sanctified and blessed, already here on this earth, and in the world to come.
That's why people flocked to Jesus. Their deafness and paralysis and demon possession and illness were the sufferings which caused them to come to the one who alone could give health and life. As he took these away he taught them there was a disease greater than those of the body, and a health and a life greater than the one they were seeking.
This is what makes sense of that mysterious question of Jesus to the disciples in the sinking boat last week - 'Why are you so frightened?'
We can imagine the disciples responding 'Why are we so frightened? What do you mean? The boat was filling up with water, it was going down, we were going to die! WE WERE GOING TO DIE!' And then Jesus mysteriously, challengingly, 'So, why are you so frightened?'
In our own lives the question repeats itself over and over. But, Lord, I have cancer! So, why are you so frightened? But, Lord, I have heart disease! So, why are you so frightened? Lord, we are out of money, my husband lost his job, my wife had an accident, I am pregnant again .... THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO BE DESTROYED! So, why are you so frightened?
This is the question which brings us to the outer limits of our faith in God. In the face of the problems and uncertainties of my life, in the face of the problems and uncertainties confronting the world - why am I so frightened? Do I believe or not?
Jesus invites us to a faith which transcends present suffering and future death. He invites us to the peace and joy of total faith in a future which is in his loving hands. No matter what we may suffer, even death, he invites us, not to fear, but to rejoice because our names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20).

Monday, 15 June 2015

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Job 38:1,8-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Mark 4:35-41

The gospels show Jesus in all sorts of situations as he travels the dusty roads of Palestine preaching the Kingdom of his Father. We, too, walk with him, we listen to what he says, we see how he acts, we observe how the Apostles respond – and we learn who he is.

So today, for no apparent reason, he says to them (and to us): Let’s cross over to the other side.

The other side for the apostles was the other side of the lake, a potentially dangerous journey across unpredictable waters. To make it worse he decided to make the crossing at night!

We all have ‘another side of the lake'; a part of our lives which we need to attend to and visit with Jesus. What’s yours? A gambling problem? Drink, drugs, lack of prayer, selfishness, temper?

So he says to us ‘Come on, let’s go. Get into the boat! I’ll be with you.’

The Apostles were probably rather glad to be doing something they understood, something they had been doing all their lives. They would have been confident of their skills and of their understanding of the dangers. They would not have been thinking of Jesus as he took his seat out of their way, put his head on the pillow and fell asleep. Were they perhaps thinking ‘This, at last, is something we can do. We are the experts and we don’t need Jesus.’

This, really, is the great temptation – to think we can go where we want, achieve what we want, find the happiness we want – without Jesus. Have you ever given in to this temptation? I think the whole of the Western world is struggling with this temptation right now. ‘Do we need Jesus? Is Jesus still necessary?’

And quite unbelievably, there are some religious denominations, saying the same thing. And if they are not saying it they are certainly practising it. How many funerals have I attended where it seemed they were, de facto, worshipping the deceased and Jesus had to find himself a place on the sidelines with barely a mention? No wonder that in our time he seems to have fallen asleep.

Some commentators will say that Jesus was not really asleep but I disagree. Mark is careful to insist that he was asleep, that they woke him, and that he woke up. But perhaps we can compromise with the beautiful verse from the Song of Songs (5:2): I sleep, but my heart is awake.

And why did Jesus allow himself to fall asleep, especially on such a dangerous voyage? The answer is very simple – he trusted his Father. What a lesson for us! We, poor humans that we are, we need to sleep. It is God who never sleeps. As God, Jesus never sleeps, as the hymn for evening prayer declares so beautifully:
Jesu, Good Shepherd, thou who never sleepest,
But o’er thy sheepfold watch and ward who keepest;

but as a man like us he needs everything we do and that includes rest.

Suddenly it begins to blow a gale and the waves break into the boat, threatening to swamp it.
  • I must have a drink. I need it. I can’t do without a drink for another minute.
  • It happened again, I lost my temper. I can’t do this. I can never win this battle.
  • It feels so pointless when I pray. Nothing happens, no one is there. Jesus is asleep.
St Therese of Lisieux used to say when everything went wrong, when she was cold and sick and suffering, that Jesus was asleep. I suppose in this respect she was much like you and me. In time of calamity and distress we say Jesus is absent, or asleep. But Therese also used to say at such times that we shouldn’t complain, or Jesus might wake up! I guess that’s the difference between a saint and not-yet saints. Her focus was on the Master; ours is too often on ourselves.

And so they woke him up and, can you believe it, accused him of not caring! Master, do you not care? We are going down!

And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!’ And the wind dropped, and all was calm again.

Jesus’ words participate in the power of the words God spoke to the sea in the beginning of creation (First Reading): Come thus far, I said, and no farther: here your proud waves shall break. And the words of Psalm 106 today likewise reinforce the sovereignty of God’s power over the waves: He stilled the storm to a whisper: all the waves of the sea were hushed.

Many of us have had this experience. We found that the storm, whatever it may have been, was stilled to a whisper and the waves of the sea were hushed. The Apostles were ‘filled with awe’ and asked, ‘Who can this be?’ Jesus had led them another step deeper into the mystery of his divine human identity. Thanks to the Scriptures he has led us too.`

Monday, 8 June 2015

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark:26-34

Jesus said to the crowds, 'This is what the kingdom of heaven is like .. . ' I bet they paid rapt attention. Who doesn't want to know what the kingdom of heaven is like?
There are some explanations, of course, which people don't find attractive, and neither do I. Sitting on a cloud, playing the harp and singing holy songs or crying out 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' all day is not my idea of heaven.
But then I don't find the descriptions of heaven you often get from guests at funerals compelling either. A giant golf course; a fisherman's paradise; a pub with free beer. No, as entertaining as these activities may be I am certain their attractiveness would soon wane.
So what is heaven like?
I recall a 4 am call-out to Accidents and Emergency at the RPA during the time I was chaplain there. A middle-aged man had died suddenly. I was there within 12 minutes and administered the rites of the Church. His wife was there with her fourteen year old son. When the mother was called in to fill out some hospital forms I got to have a 40 minute chat with the boy, who told me all about himself and his dad. After a while he asked, 'So what is heaven like?' I told him a story someone once told me. And here it is.
"A man died and came to the pearly gates. St Peter showed him to a huge brick wall with doorway in it. They went in and there was a table and a chair beside a mountain of blank sheets of paper and a mountain of pencils. On the table was a little silver bell.
St Peter told the man that he should sit down and write on the paper all the things he wanted - houses, cars, servants - and so on. He said, 'When you've finished ring the bell and the angels will set it all up for you. Then we'll give you some more time to think of other things you might have overlooked and then we'll have to brick the door in and you'll stay there behind the wall for all eternity.'
The man set to work and didn't stop writing for weeks and weeks until finally he couldn't think of a single thing more he might want. He called St Peter and was amazed to see all his wishes fulfilled in an instant. It was magnificent, beautiful, incredible! What he liked most of all were all the people he had asked for to just be his servants.
After living in his paradise for some weeks he had filled another small mountain of paper sheets with things he had thought of. Then St Peter came to close up the doorway. The man was delighted with himself and his wonderful world. He said to St Peter, 'You know, when I was on earth I have to admit I did some pretty evil and rotten things, and I was never sorry. How come I now get to go to heaven?'
St Peter answered abruptly, 'But this is not heaven'.
'But I have everything I've ever wanted,' said the man, 'so what is heaven like?'
St Peter paused for a moment and then told him in a slightly confidential tone, 'When they were making this wall, I noticed one of the angels was a little careless and left a tiny pinhole in the mortar. I think if you pull that cart up against the wall and put a barrel on it, and stand on tippie toe, I think you might be able to see a micro dot of heaven.'
The door was sealed and the man immediately did as St Peter had suggested. He climbed up on the barrel and peered through the tiny hole. 'Wow!' he exclaimed and his mouth fell open. 'Wooow!' he cried again.
You know this happened many years ago but that man has never stepped off that barrel. He has been standing there on tippie toe all this time just staring at that teensy weensy bit of heaven. And do you know something else, he has never closed his mouth either."

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ - Year B

Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16.22-26

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree from which God had forbidden them to eat they committed the first sin. There were terrible consequences. They hid from God and from each other. And where did they hide? They hid behind a lie.

When God asked Adam if he had eaten from the fruit Adam pointed first to Eve and then to God and said: It was the woman you put with me. ‘The woman and you ... you are to blame – but not me. I am innocent, I am good, I am in the right.’

Eve did likewise. She pointed to the serpent and said: The serpent tempted me... .

The point about the pointing is that it was away from self. From now on it would always be that way – it would always be the great lie – it’s your fault.

And so we blame God, our upbringing, our spouse, our parents, our genes, the priest, the politicians, the alcohol, and the other driver while we shamelessly go on living in a permanent state of unacknowledged alienation from ourselves. We tied ourselves up with an undo-able knot. What an awful predicament!

Mankind needed a saviour and the infinite love of God, his creator sent him one.

Jesus could have come and, with a wave of his hand, restored us to our former glory, as though nothing had ever happened. He could have arranged things so that all the consequences of our sin were simply erased so that work and illness and suffering and death just disappeared.

God did not choose this path. He chose instead to send his innocent Son into the world to take upon himself the suffering and death we had caused to enter into the world and thereby to make them a means of transformation and purification and expiation for us. To put it another way, the wisdom of God allowed the scorpion of death to go on stinging us but through the death and resurrection of Christ it had been deprived of its poison. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting (1 Cor 15:55)?

In Jesus we can now see our own destiny. The crucified one hangs torn and bleeding on the cross, pinned and powerless, abandoned, lonely, agonising. And even as he dies he forgives us: Father, forgive them (Lk 23:24), and his opened heart becomes a refuge for all who would believe. He invites us, as it were, to place our wounded hearts in his wounded heart – and believe – that he will restore them in his resurrection.

When Jesus cried from the cross: "It is finished! (Jn 19:30)" he bowed his head and gave up his spirit, and the great work of our redemption was accomplished. Or was it?

Some Christians tell us that all we have to do now is believe; to receive Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour and we are saved. There is much truth in this but not quite enough.

Apologising in advance for my gross oversimplification I would ask you to consider the salvation won for us by Christ as a huge lake. Some would say we are saved simply by believing in the lake. Catholic Christians believe that the waters of the lake find their way into our actual personal lives primarily through the pipeline of the sacraments which Christ gave us. That’s what the sacraments are for us – seven pipelines by which the waters of life find their way into our lives.

Perhaps you will find this little anecdote helpful. It comes from Fr Charles Arminjon’s book, End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life. It was actually St Therese of Lisieux’s favourite book.

“In a picturesque town in Switzerland, surrounded by green, wooded mountains, irrigated by an abundance of clear water, the author of this conference was walking one day in the company of a Protestant minister. The latter acknowledged that he accepted the Real Presence, and could not imagine how Calvin could have denied it; but he refused to accept the truth of the Sacrifice of the Mass, on the grounds that, as the sacrifice of the Cross was, of its nature, superabundant and infinite, all other sacrifices became, by this very fact, useless and superfluous. The person to whom he addressed this opinion asked his interlocutor to consider the waterfalls that flowed down from the rocks, and the limpid streams that gushed from the hills or wound in and out through the meadow. "You see those springs," he remarked to the minister. "They, too, are perfect and plentiful. Will you, then, assert that it was useless to build aqueducts, and provide taps, in order to bring the water inside the town?" The minister, who was a man of great learning and good faith, perceived the allusion and said immediately, "I understand." The Mass is, in fact, an application, not an addition to the Sacrifice of the Cross; it is the means and the channel whereby the infinite power of the sacrifice of Calvary, accomplished once only, flows down upon the Church and the faithful.”

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Trinity Sunday - Year B

Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20

Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God (Rms 8:14).

The Irish vote on gay 'marriage' was a tragedy for Ireland and for the world. 62.1% of the Irish population were in favour. What happened? Were they swayed by a strongly biased press and the silencing of opposition? Or by the arguments of politicians and movie stars? Were they trying to claim a voice on the world stage out of all proportion to their size? Or, as many say, were they expressing their anger at a Church hierarchy which had failed them so badly over the preceding decades?

Whatever the reason I cannot make myself believe the absurd proposition that they were expressing a sincere belief that a relationship between two men or two women could be elevated to the same dignity as that of traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

At any rate, I doubt that too many would say the people of Ireland were ‘moved by the Spirit’. So what was it that moved them?

What moved Eve to take from the forbidden tree and eat? What moved Cain to slay his brother? What moved Saul to seek David’s death? What moved David to spare Saul’s life? What moved Judas to betray Jesus? What moved Peter to deny him three times? What moved the Pharisees and Sadducees to hand Jesus over? What moved Pilate to have him killed?  What moved Saul to arrest every Christian he found? On and on we could go.

Sometimes it is easy to read the heart and to discern what moves people. Pilate, for example, could easily see that it was jealousy that made the Jews want to kill Jesus. Herodias sought John the Baptist’s head out of pride and guilt. The Apostles, after the resurrection, hid in the upper room because they were afraid.

Sometimes it is not so easy to read the hearts and minds of people. What moves them remains a mystery. Sometimes the reasons might be somewhat complex and so we just have to wait and discern and let history uncover motives and causes, as in the present case with the Irish debacle.

There is, however, one aspect of the Irish vote which I would like to emphasise. It frightened me. It gave concreteness to that strange anxiety I have been feeling for a number of years; that apprehension about the way things are moving in the world. I mention this disquiet, this dis-ease, with political, religious and moral developments in the western world because I know many of you share it with me.

I ask myself, what’s wrong with me? Why don’t I just go and join the party? Everyone else is. Why can’t I just say contraception and abortion is OK – and homosexual practice and gay marriage and euthanasia – and missing Mass on Sundays and still going to Holy Communion whenever I want? Why can’t I just go with the flow? What’s stopping me?

And what’s stopping the Catholic Church? The Anglicans and the Uniting and a whole range of other Christian communities are having no trouble whatsoever.

Have you ever read the three act play called Rhinoceros written in 1960 by Eugene Ionesco? It is a study of a single man's transformation, from apathy to responsibility, as the world around him descends into violence and greater and greater levels of absurdity. The play demonstrates how anyone can fall victim to collective, unconscious thought by allowing their wills to be manipulated by others.

One day a rhinoceros runs through the square and shocks all the bystanders. Soon a number of rhinos appear. The people vow to stop them but even as they try they, too, turn into the beasts. Soon there are rhinoceros everywhere.

The main character Berenger vows he will never become a rhino. Some people say the best thing to do is ignore them; others say they will just have to get used to them. However, the rhinos become so numerous and so violent that this becomes harder and harder.

Do you agree with me that somehow this absurd process is in full swing at the moment throughout the western world? Who would have believed that the majority of the Irish nation would one day seriously propose, and even enshrine in their constitution, that two men could marry? The proposal is psychologically, sociologically, biologically and morally absurd.

Those who oppose the rhinoceroses are told that they have no right to interfere in other people’s lives. Even more bizarrely, more and more people begin to find the power of the rhino’s seductive and even their trumpeting becomes appealing.

The "epidemic" of the rhinoceroses serves as a convenient allegory for the mass uprising of Nazism and fascism before and during World War II. Ionesco's tries to explore the mentality of those who so easily succumbed to these ways of thinking. Berenger does not succumb even though all around him seem to be doing so. He feels lonely and out of place and guilty because he has been so apathetic to this point. Now he does not seem to belong anymore – and would you believe – I am beginning to feel the same way. Are you?

The first rhino causes no apparent damage; the second one tramples a cat; later ones destroy more property and finally end up attacking non-rhinos. Christians all over the world are being harassed, mocked, sidelined, beaten and even killed. Are you ready? Or is your nose turning into a horn?

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Pentecost - Year B

Acts 2:1-11; Galatians 5:16-25; John 15:26-27; 16:12-15

St Peter's Basilica in Rome stands like an island in the midst of the world. It is in the world but not part of the world - though it is open to the world. The two great colonnades forming the piazza are like two giant arms reaching into the world inviting all humanity to come to Christ in his Church. I like to imagine the Basilica itself as representing the Father who reaches out through the Son, the colonnades, while the Holy Spirit is that invisible force which powerfully continues to draw men and women of good will into the embrace of the Blessed Trinity.

The colonnades are curved inwards in a protective gesture signifying the salvation offered by Christ through his Church in her teaching and sacraments. The wide opening formed by the ends of the colonnades bears a double symbolism. It reminds us firstly that the Church calls all men and women, without exception, to Christ and secondly, that the call, the invitation, is directed at our individual human freedom. Unlike some religions, no one will be forced to stay.

The enormous piazza formed by these protective colonnades permit us also to imagine a sheepfold in which we, the sheep, live our daily lives in the motherly care of the Church. It is an image of great security. Here, in the ever present shadow of the house of God, we are nourished on the word of God and on his sacraments. Here the Holy Spirit forms us into true disciples and restores in us the likeness to the Master without which we could not enter heaven.

And how do we enter this sheepfold? The answer is clear; through Baptism.

Through baptism we are reborn but we are also, as it were, relocated. We are made new, regenerated in Christ through the sacrament and at the same time made members of his Church, enfolded by the mighty arms symbolised by those mighty columns around St Peter's Square.

But the story does not end here. If Baptism gives us a new life and a new dwelling, it gives us also a new calling. And we have heard this calling so often proclaimed in the liturgy over the last few weeks: Remain in me.

Remain in me. How relevant these words are today when so many are choosing to leave the Church and, as an unavoidable consequence, to abandon Christ who dwells there. Remain in me. How necessary and important to our salvation these words are. Anyone who does not remain in me .... withers.

In this context the magnificent colonnades framing the piazza take on added meaning. Not only do they clearly demarcate the boundaries of the sheepfold, of orthodoxy, of membership in the Church - they also speak to us of the utterly simple means of remaining within - and that is - obedience, or as Jesus puts it - keep my commandments.

Especially in these disobedient times, at the very time the people of Ireland are voting whether to put God's word aside or not, we should meditate deeply on these truths. The colonnades symbolise the limits we must not cross if we are to be part of the fold. They speak to us of God-given authority in the Church, her hierarchical structure, her ways of worship and her sacraments, her moral laws, Tradition and Scripture as well as the unalterable content of her Faith. All these things form a part of the conditions for the Church's greatest gift - communion with Christ - and therefore with one another. This is really what those colonnades point to - obedience to faith.

Which brings us back to the gift of the Holy Spirit whose coming we celebrate today. It was to the profound communion with God of Mary and the Apostles who had all met in one room that the Holy Spirit came. The Apostles immediately arose and, set free and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they began their life's work, preaching the gospel to all creation. Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:41).

Peter and the other Apostles were called to account for their preaching. They stood before the Sanhedrin who ordered them to preach no more. Their reply? We must obey God rather than human beings! (Jn 5:29)

There is that word again. Obey! Peter and the Apostles knew that obeying the Sanhedrin meant they could no longer consider themselves part of the flock of Christ. They well understood the betrayal which was being proposed to them and so instead they resumed their preaching right then and there - to the Sanhedrin.

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.  We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.

Did you hear that?

....the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Ascension of the Lord - Year B

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20

Today we celebrate Jesus going up to heaven and next week we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming down to earth. Just two of the mysteries of our faith – Ascension and Pentecost.

And there are so many more – Incarnation, Nativity, Redemption, Assumption, Baptism, Transubstantiation, Purgatory, Immaculate Conception, Blessed Trinity, Angels, Hell, the Eucharist, the Second Coming and the Final Judgment – to name but a few.

I love the Catholic Faith and I love thinking on its mysteries. I love learning more, immersing myself in the Holy Scriptures and the Catechism, saying the Rosary, the Divine Office, going to Mass and Confession. I am so grateful for the gift God has given me in making me one of his children in the Catholic Church.

For me the Faith is like a huge chest of inexhaustible riches – gold, diamonds, rubies, sapphires – on and on it goes, and they are all mine. I can help myself to as many as I want, and I do, every day. A Catholic is the richest person in the whole world.

And another of the things I love about the Faith is that all these jewels, all these mysteries, fit together seamlessly in a gigantic mosaic of truth which swells the mind and heart to bursting point while always strengthening, always enlarging their capacity to understand and enjoy even more.

The Catholic Faith is so well put together, like a beautiful divine melody. There are no gaps, no contradictions, no false notes, no awkward transitions from one movement to another. Every question is answered and every nuance of human experience enlightened because all has a divine guarantee.

Moreover, I love the way the Catechism is flawlessly meshed with Sacred Scripture which in its turn is so marvellously celebrated in the Sacred Liturgy. This is the radiant mystery of the Catholic Faith – the fullness of God’s revelation to humanity – and it is there for all – no one is excepted.

If the Faith is beautiful so is the Church who preserves and guards it. We cannot love the Faith without loving the Church.

Like you, I know all about the abuse crisis and the scandals; they hurt me as much as they hurt you. They make me equally sad and ashamed and even angry. But I know that this is only the human face of the Catholic Church. This is the human dimension, fractured by weakness and wounded by sin and, to be quite honest, I, and maybe even you, are part of that sinful side of the Church’s reality.

The divine face of the Church is altogether a different matter. Here we see the loving providence of God who forgives and nourishes and teaches and sanctifies all those who approach her. No corruption or evil on the part of humans will cause me to desert the Church who saves me. As St Francis de Sales has said: While those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who take scandal – who allow scandals to destroy their faith – are guilty of spiritual suicide.

If the Faith of the Church, and the Church herself, are such flawless expressions of truth it is, surely, because they express Christ, the flawless expression of the Father.

Truth in Christ is exquisitely integrated into a beautiful whole. We may say almost flippantly: Jesus is ‘put together’ better than anyone. In him there is no imperfection or sin, no wounded nature and no weakness – he is perfect man. And we all love gazing on perfection.

If the truth is beautiful it is because Christ is beautiful – and if the Church is beautiful it is because her Master is beautiful. If the Church has truths it is because Christ is the Truth and if she has the Truth it is because she has Christ.

There is only one more thing I wish to say, though there are many more I could say, and it refers to that sometimes ugly human side of the Church we mentioned earlier.

I will never cease to be amazed, as I gaze in wonder at the peerless beauty of all that Christ has revealed of himself, that he desires, intends, suffers – to make me a part of it. And a part of it not as an inferior gem which spoils the beauty of the whole, but as a unblemished jewel which contributes to the glory given to the Father, so that one day, I, too, will ascend into heaven.