Sunday, 27 November 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent - Year A

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

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

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

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

May what is false within us

Before your truth give way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2nd Sunday of Advent - Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

1st Sunday of Advent - Year A

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

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

Today is a Mass of beginnings.

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

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

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

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

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 November 2016

34th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year C

Samuel 5:1-3; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43

One hundred and thirteen years ago, in his first encyclical, Pope Pius X said that he didn’t want to be Pope because he was: terrified beyond all else by the disastrous state of human society today. For who can fail to see that society is at the present time, more than in any past age, suffering from a terrible and deep-rooted malady which, developing every day and eating into its inmost being, is dragging it to destruction? You understand, Venerable Brethren, what this disease is - apostasy from God... .

This holy man could clearly see that to desert God was to court disaster: "For behold they that go far from you shall perish" (Ps 72:17).

Now if you are one of those puzzling individuals who cannot see anything especially wrong with the condition of modern society, or who cannot see any approaching perils, or who continues to cling to a kind of compulsive optimism which is stubbornly determined to look on ‘the bright side’ of every clear sign of impending disaster and destruction for humanity – then you will find these words of Pope Pius X entirely baffling. And, no doubt, you will go on ‘eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building’ (Lk 17:28) as the people in Lot’s day..

But perhaps you may be moved by the words of Pope Pius XI who, in 1925 could see even more clearly the increasing degeneration afflicting society. In his encyclical Quas Primas, he wrote: In the first encyclical letter which We addressed at the beginning of Our Pontificate to the Bishops of the universal Church, We referred to the chief causes of the difficulties under which mankind was labouring. And We remember saying that these manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Saviour, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.

Apostasy from God ... For behold they that go far from Thee shall perish (Ps 72:17).

And then a few years ago Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ², the then Apostolic Nuncio delivered an address to the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). In his address the Nuncio quoted these lines spoken by Pope John Paul II in 1978: We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously…

I believe Pope John Paul II was perfectly right and that his words come from a wisdom and an inspiration which is more than merely human wisdom. I believe also that, as things stand, good is losing; evil is winning.

Of course, you are perfectly free to go on pretending that it isn’t so: that the world is no more in the grip of evil than it ever was. Pope John Paul disagrees with you – and so did Pope Pius XI. And that’s why he instituted the Feast of Christ the Universal King, the feast we celebrate today.

Like most papal encyclicals it was read mainly by the intelligentsia in the Church and not by ordinary Catholics. But the encyclical still had extraordinary power because it also instituted a feast: the Feast of Christ the King. He said at the time: Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.

The Pope goes on to show at some length how the sacred scriptures in both the Old and the New Testaments bear witness to the truth that Christ is the Universal King and therefore has supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.

We Catholics have been, in a sense, duped by false ecumenism into believing that Jesus Christ is King only for those who like to think of him in that way. We say, ‘He is our king. He is king of the Catholics’ but in reality is he king of the Hindus, the Protestants, the Buddhists and the Moslems too. He is King of the whole human race; indeed, heis King of the entire Cosmos – the only way to the Father (cf. John 14:6) – the only name under heaven by which we can be saved (cf. Acts 4:12) and his kingdom will have no end (cf. Lk 1:33).

I am going to leave you with a question to which I will suggest an answer. What change can I make today in my outlook as a Catholic to begin to make the truth of Christ’s Universal kingship real in my life. My suggested answer is this: Begin to love his Church with the love with which she deserves to be loved – total, obedient, faithful love.

The Catholic Church is the kingdom of Christ on earth. Are you comfortable with that truth or does it make you squirm? I assure you it is orthodox Church teaching. Christ as our Redeemer purchased the Church at the price of his own blood and planted her in this dark world as a light on a hill. We are all children of the Church and we should love her because she is our mother.

And we are called to love one another as Christ has loved us and so to clear a way for the kingdom to grow strong among us – so that the kingdom of Christ may then grow among all men.

34th Sunday - Year C - Christ the King

Samuel 5:1-3; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43

The Crucified One hangs on the Cross – centre stage.

He is nailed to the Cross, nearly naked, covered in blood and spittle and open wounds, exhausted.

Above his head is a sign which reads in three languages - Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews. This is puzzling. How are we to understand this man on the Cross?
  • Firstly we need to absorb and understand what the good thief says: This man has done nothing wrong.
From the moment of his conception in the womb of his mother this man has done nothing wrong; he has never committed a single sin. Therefore:
  • This man is a victim. He is being treated most unjustly.
  • He is a man of pain, of intense bodily pain, caused by his torturers. He is cold, thirsty, and needy.
  • He is a man humiliated - stripped, pinned, spat upon, scorned, helpless.
  • He is a man rejected - by his religious leaders, the civil leaders, the people, even, seemingly, by God.
  • He is a man betrayed by one of his closest collaborators, his disciple Judas.
  • He is abandoned by all but one of his disciples.
  • He is a man of sorrows.
If he is King he certainly doesn’t look like one. He looks pathetic. A king is supposed to rule his kingdom and destroy his enemies.

This man seems to have attracted to himself every single one of 'our 'enemies, all the ones we are afraid of - pain, humiliation, rejection, betrayal, abandonment, injustice, cold, hunger, thirst, nakedness, loneliness, death. They are all attacking him - and they are winning. And not only this but he seems to have put aside all his weapons of defence - revenge, power, comfort, popularity, control. Instead he just forgives. Can you believe that?

Beside him hang two criminals, one on the right and one on the left. Around him stand the people, the leaders, the soldiers. The Apostles are absent except for John. His mother Mary and some women stand close by - agonising - a further source of pain for the Lord.
  • The people watched him.
  • The leaders jeered him.
  • The soldiers mocked him.
  • One of the criminals abused him.
What did they say?
  • The leaders said: - let him save himself if he is the Christ.
  • The soldiers said: – save yourself if you are the King.
  • The criminal said: – save yourself (and us) if you are the Christ.
These words spoken so insistently to Jesus are important - save yourself. Come down from the cross and we will believe in you! The three temptations of Satan in the desert at the beginning of Jesus' ministry can easily be reduced to these same words - save yourself!

Now I think we have come to the heart of the matter. In our blindness and ignorance we sinners think that anyone who can, by his own power, escape suffering and death is powerful and to be admired. But Jesus had emptied himself of power. He hung on the cross totally powerless. Instead of making his will prevail over others he had said: Father, your will be done.

Jesus refused to save himself but instead he submitted humbly because he knew that the cry 'Save yourself!' is a lie, an impossibility, that in fact, the man who saves his life will lose it.

On the Cross Jesus was telling us that all power to save comes from God – that we cannot save ourselves - and so he submitted, becoming at the same moment the definitive and flawless icon of the power of God.

A king only becomes King when he conquers and Jesus, helpless on the Cross, conquered everything we most fear and run away from. He humbly submitted to death and therefore God raised him up. In this sense Jesus really became king the moment he died.

We have many difficulties in our life. Some just come upon us and some are our own fault, and there will usually be any number of voices calling out to us: 'Save yourself!'
  • When you are hurt – take revenge, refuse to forgive.
  • When you are wrongly accused - criticise others, justify yourself.
  • When you are insecure - hoard riches, refuse to share.
  • When you fear pregnancy – contracept, abort.
  • When you feel threatened - shoot, destroy, eliminate.
We must remember the truth which kept Christ on the Cross - the man who saves his life will lose it. We must let God do the saving. We have only to keep still, to do his will, to keep his commandments and he will save us.

Christ is our king - our meek, humble, gentle, powerless King. May we be his true subjects.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Malachi 3:19-20; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19

The Extinction Protocol is a favourite website of mine. It documents all those phenomena which might threaten humanity. Here are a few recent headlines from the site, just to give you an example of what you might find there:
The interesting thing is that the ‘Categories’ sidebar on this website is remarkably similar to today’s Gospel which mentions: wars, revolutions, great earthquakes, plagues, famines, fearful sights and great signs from heaven. They are all there – but with one big difference.

Note a further headline from The Extinction Protocol:
  • New reality show highlights preppers preparing for doomsday
The article goes on to say: For some people, the end of the world as we know it is upon us, and there is no better time than now to start preparing. Such is the concept of National Geographic Channel’s new reality show Doomsday Preppers, which profiles Americans who have taken extreme measures to plan for a forthcoming apocalypse.

I’ve actually watched a couple of these shows and found myself more than a little uncomfortable with some aspects of what these folks are up to. Not only are they storing huge amounts of food, which seems praiseworthy enough, but they are also purchasing all kinds of deadly weapons to protect their stores.

The philosophy behind all this, of course, is the repugnant heresy and scourge of our modern age: the greatest good is life – my life, to be exact – survival at any cost – my survival, that is. Through the periscope of my bunker I will watch you and your children starve and then shoot you if you approach my storehouse of food and drink.

What they don’t seem to realise is that even now, already, they have retreated into their bunkers, already they are pointing a gun at me, already I am a threat to their survival, already I am their enemy and already their survival is more important than mine. For preppers with a gun we are already at war.

So what is the 'one big difference'? Acknowledging the same catastrophic scenarios Jesus simply counsels: do not be frightened.

Faced with the reality of wars, revolutions, great earthquakes, plagues, famines, fearful sights and great signs from heaven and even betrayal, persecution and death Jesus tells us: do not prepare your defence.

The critical difference, of course, the essential and irreconcilable difference between the preppers and Jesus is that they are wanting to keep their human life safe while Jesus wants us to keep our eternal life safe. This is what he means when he foretells that the Temple (everything) will be destroyed but: not a hair of your head will be lost.

Jesus does not advise us to build bunkers or store food or turn our backs on our neighbours. Jesus’ earnestly desires that we get our heads straight about one unchangeable truth which is that: everything will be destroyed; but that for those who listen to and keep his words: not a hair of your head will be lost.

Jesus relativises wars and earthquakes and persecution and humiliation and loss of life as things that must happen before the great moment of his appearing. He exhorts us to keep this carefully in mind because he himself will give us all that will be necessary at that time.

For those who believe physical safety, self-preservation, is the greatest goal of human life, the greatest enemy will be volcanoes and earthquakes, famines and floods. Anything which endangers their mindless clinging to the things of this world will be seen as an evil.

For those who believe the Good News all these terrible things are not the real enemy; in fact, they are a unique opportunity to give witness to faith in Christ.

So, as one priest blogger said recently: If you are frightened of the future, of the wars and storms and catastrophes that are coming, of gigantic meteors or plagues of viruses, of starvation in famines, of tsunamis or civil chaos or solar flares or any other horrible possibility – there is only one thing to do – find a priest and make a good confession.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Malachi 3:19-20; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19

You notice there are two important contrasting images in the Gospel today, one at the beginning - the Temple, and the other, at the end - the hair on your head.

This is an interesting contrast. One will be completely destroyed - the other? - not a single one will be lost.

Ultimately God doesn’t care too much for buildings and ‘things’; God is more into people, his children.

I remember in another parish one of the parishioners suggested we saw a bit off each of the pews in the small church to make room for side aisles. This would have made the flow of traffic at Communion time much more simple. The ruckus that followed took me completely by surprise. ‘It’s always been this way, so don’t touch it!’

Jesus could not have said that the time would come ‘when not a single stone will be left on another’ because it was a wooden church, but I am sure he would have found the words to warn against too much attachment to the status quo.

God is not too much concerned with the preservation and restoration of Church buildings; he is more concerned with us – the living Church, built of living stones.

Another opposition in the Gospel is - you and them. This is found in the first reading too. And notice! - there is no one in between. There are only those who are for Christ (as the first reading says: those who fear my Name), - and on the other hand are found - the arrogant, the evildoers.

When Jesus says you he is usually speaking of and to his disciples. We often forget that, especially at funerals. People always choose the readings where Jesus makes all those marvellous promises of eternal happiness but forget the important words with which our Gospel readings usually start: Jesus said to his disciples. The promises of Jesus are made always to you, his disciples; not to them, the arrogant and the evildoers.

So the disciples of Jesus, who fear his Name, do all they can to live as followers of the Lord. The others? Well, they oppose the disciples. In the Gospel they are referred to as your opponents, and then, frighteningly, as parents, brothers, relations, friends!

Jesus came to divide those who are for him from those who are against him. That division, most unfortunately, runs through families and friends and even, the Church. And why do they oppose the disciples? Simply on account of his name!

They will persecute the disciples and bring them before governors, and synagogues ‘on account of my Name’ and also ‘you will be hated by all men on account of my name.’

Notice, too, that they will come 'using my name'. How clever! Ever heresy claims to be the truth from God, and every heretic claims to be speaking ‘in his name’.

What will they do to you?

Firstly, they will invite you to join them in their heresy.

‘Do not join them’ says Jesus, and then, later on ‘Take care not to be deceived.’

You know that this command of Jesus is spoken to us too: Take care not to be deceived.

How do we do that today? How do we take care not to be deceived?

Hans Urs von Balthazar once said the truth is like a symphony and when you have listened to it all the way through, and learned it, and enjoyed it, and come to love it, then, when someone strikes a false note you recognise it immediately. ‘Hey, that doesn’t sound right! One of the musicians has made an error, played a false note.’

The easiest to deceive are the ignorant. Each one of us has to get to know the music of our faith and its authentic expression. Then we will be in no danger of ever being deceived.

Secondly, if you don’t join them they will hate you. They will seize you, persecute you, hand you over, imprison you, betray you, and even kill some of you.

But don’t worry! When they do all this they will be doing nothing more than giving you a marvellous opportunity to do what you are supposed to do as a disciple – to witness to his name.

And remember: Not a hair of your head will be lost.

What does Jesus say will happen to them? – The day is coming now, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and the evil-doers will be like stubble. The day that is coming is going to burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, leaving them neither root nor stalk.

And what does Jesus say will happen to you? – But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

We spoke last week of Zacchaeus the tax collector and we referred to him in the words of Cardinal Newman as one of those who walk by their own light. There are all too many in the world who do this, who: pace round and round in the small circle of their own thoughts and of their own judgments.

Zacchaeus the tax collector was just such a man – pacing round and round in the small circle of his own making – collecting gold and silver pieces as he went.

When Jesus found him he was up a tree, a fitting image of the life he had been leading. All too many people are like that, wouldn't you agree? Maybe even you and I?

And what are we to do about that? What can we do about that? The answer is very little! There is very little we can do about most things in life but we must do the little we can. Zacchaeus climbed a tree. That’s all he could think of doing – just a little thing, really. And curiously, that’s all Jesus wanted him to do – the little he could.

Jesus ‘looked up and spoke to him’. Zacchaeus responded and ‘hurried down’ and in the sudden joy which came upon him repented of his sins and welcomed the Lord into his life.

And Zacchaeus teaches us something else – I am responsible for myself first – and here I am touching on an area which has become extremely relevant to my own life. Let me explain.

A priest told me recently that if he were asked to draw a picture of his fifty years of priesthood he would have to draw a line from the top left to the bottom right of the page. I was shocked and saddened but I knew precisely what he meant.

He went on to say: Whatever it is we are doing as priests, it’s not working! We baptise them, celebrate first Reconciliation, first Holy Communion, Confirmation – and never see them again. And people say, ‘They might come back’; but I have seen no evidence of that.

You parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents know what I am talking about; the sadness of seeing children, grandchildren and great grandchildren being lost to Christ - just drifting away, not interested – and worse still, becoming duped by the empty, evil promises of a world which delivers only confusion, brokenness and unhappiness.

As a priest I see it constantly and it is very scary. Families who were once at the heart of parish life – gone, as well as their children. Even those who are still connected to the Church are giving signs of tiredness, weakness, doubt and for the flimsiest of reasons will suddenly turn their back on the Church.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking we priests are somehow exempt from the creeping coldness, indifference and even despair which is overtaking the western world. I would have to draw the same picture of my thirty-two years of ministry as the priest I spoke of earlier: Whatever it is we are doing as priests, it’s not working!

And so I come back to my earlier statement: I am responsible for myself first. Before I worry about my son or my daughter or my grandchildren or husband or wife I am responsible for myself first. Though all around me fall away from the fullness of the true Faith let me, at least, do the little I can to keep it safe in me.

Every day at Mass, just before Holy Communion, I join my hands, bow my head and pray quietly: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through your death gave life to the world; free me by this your most holy Body and Blood from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.

Keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you. Let me always hear the words of Jesus to Zacchaeus addressed personally to me: I must stay at your house today. Only then will my heart be filled with the joy which makes discipleship possible, and which keeps it faithful.

It all starts with me [and with you, and you, and you]; never mind what the world does. I will make efforts to understand what the Church teaches and why she teaches it; I will familiarise myself with the scriptures; I will say my prayers; I will attend Sunday Mass faithfully; I will confess my sins regularly; I will financially support my parish; I will open my life to the needs of my brothers and sisters; I will be ready to die for Christ and his teachings because I believe in the resurrection of the dead.
We are prepared to die rather than break the laws of our ancestors.
The King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die, to live again for ever.
When he neared his end the fourth brother cried: Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men’s hands, yet relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him; whereas for you there can be no resurrection, no new life.

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

An elderly woman in the oncology ward of the hospital had asked for the priest to bring Holy Communion. On her bedside table there lay a pair of Rosary beads and a book of prayers; around her neck hung a small golden crucifix on a chain. We chatted for a few minutes before I gave Communion. She told me of some of her circumstances. Finally, by way of conclusion I pointed to heaven and said, ‘Well, we can look forward to perfect health when we reach there.’ She responded, ‘I don’t think so.’

After several years as a chaplain I was no longer shocked; other patients in similar situations had told me the same thing in different ways.
  • ‘I don’t believe that.’
  • ‘Do you think so?’
  • ‘When you die you die.’
  • ‘I wish that were true.’
At first I consoled myself with the thought that these poor, suffering people were only struggling with their faith in a dark moment of their life. Though this was certainly true for some I have now realised, like St Paul did two thousand years ago, that there are indeed Catholics who really don’t accept the teaching on the Resurrection! Can you believe it? I always thought this was the hallmark of atheism.

With some exasperation and incredulity St Paul said to the Corinthians: Now if Christ raised from the dead is what has been preached, how can some of you be saying that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1Cor 15:12)

What possible sense can the Christian Faith make if there is no resurrection? Why did this woman want Holy Communion brought to her in hospital if she didn’t believe in the Resurrection?

I reminded her ‘But that’s our Faith; we have a wonderful future to look forward to.’ St Paul would have said: If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ himself cannot have been raised, and if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless. [And so is your receiving Holy Communion!] If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all people. (1Cor 15:19)

But enough of that! Let’s move on to the readings of today, both of which forcefully affirm the truth of the resurrection.

The first reading from 2Maccabees presents us with seven Hebrew boys and their mother who are asked by the king to eat pig’s flesh, which is totally against the Law. Each stubbornly refuses - We are prepared to die rather than break the Law of our ancestors - and each is sentenced to a cruel death. As each one dies he asserts his faith not only in God’s promise of life beyond the grave, but also in a bodily resurrection.

'Inhuman fiend,’ says the second son to the king, ‘you may discharge us from this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die, to live again for ever.’

The third son willingly offers his hands to be cut off saying: It was heaven that gave me these limbs; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.

Likewise the fourth son, to the astonishment of the onlookers, declares: Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men's hands, yet relying on God's promise that we shall be raised up by him… .

In this refusal to sin against God, even at the cost of their lives, is contained a number of truths which lie at the heart of the Catholic Faith.

In The Gospel of Life Pope John Paul states: Certainly the life of the body in its earthly state is not an absolute good for the believer, especially as he may be asked to give up his life for a greater good.

This must be the starting point for the Christian – the life of the body in its earthly state is not an absolute good – and so we must be ready to sacrifice this lesser good (our life) for a higher good (God’s law).

In The Splendour of Life the Pope says: It is an honour characteristic of Christians to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29) and to accept even martyrdom as a consequence.

Obedience to God must be a higher good than our human life. Another rather obvious lesson in all this is the same one we learned last week – faith has little meaning unless we practise it.

John Paul II also wrote a Letter to Children in which he told them: How can we fail to be reminded, for example, of holy boys and girls who lived in the first centuries and are still known and venerated throughout the Church? Saint Agnes, who lived in Rome; Saint Agatha, who was martyred in Sicily; Saint Tarcisius, a boy who is rightly called the "martyr of the Eucharist" because he preferred to die rather than give up Jesus, whom he was carrying under the appearance of bread.

The Gospel today restates the reality of life after death. Jesus instructs the proud Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection, that if God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob they must be living, even though they have died. Otherwise, God would be God of the dead, and this is unthinkable.

So, how about you? Do you believe in the resurrection? What are you prepared to sacrifice for this belief? Your life?

And I guess you would want to ask me the same questions.

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year C

Wisdom 11:22-12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10

The Hubble space telescope might well look with envy on the exquisite focus and clarity of the opening lines of today’s first reading:

In your sight, Lord, the whole world is like a grain of dust that tips the scales, like a drop of morning dew falling on the ground.

Hubble can see size but not significance; it can appreciate magnificence but not meaning - for those we have to turn to God’s revelation in Scripture and Tradition: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gn 1:1); or as the Penny Catechism puts it: Who made the world? God made the world.

Yes, God formed this speck of dust we call earth and then (Hubble could never have discovered this): God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them (Gn 1:27)

More mysterious still is the fact that God loves the world: Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it. And when he had formed it all: God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good (Gn1:31).

The Hubble telescope, for all its power, can offer us only a lens-full of creation, like a slide under a microscope. In every brilliant colour photo on the NASA website there is always more left out than we can even imagine; each awe-inspiring image, therefore, is, in a sense, also a disappointment.

Fortunately, sacred scripture does not suffer from such human limitations. The lens through which we see the universe in scripture is the very eye of God who does not see only snippets of his creation but he sees the whole in its entirety: God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good. So also the opening words of our first reading today: In your sight, Lord, the whole world is like a grain of dust... .

In your sight, Lord – here is the power of all scripture in a nutshell because in scripture we see creation, we see reality, the past, present and future, we see others and ourselves – through God’s eyes.

Hubble sees by the light of the stars; we see and we walk by the light of God. To see our human existence on this planet as God sees it; and to live according to our seeing is to have found the precious gift of wisdom; the treasure hidden in the field.

Of those who walk by their own light Cardinal Newman says: they pace round and round in the small circle of their own thoughts and of their own judgments. What a sad picture! May the good Lord preserve us from such futility! And he does!

Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend,
you admonish and remind them of how they have sinned,
so that they may abstain from evil and trust in you, Lord.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector, pacing round in a small circle of his own – a collector of gold and silver pieces which, through the eyes of wisdom might as well have been pebbles from the road or shells from the beach. It seems he had heard of Jesus and wanted to see him. So, interestingly, having no telescope, he climbed a tree to get a better look.

This first response to Jesus did not go unnoticed by him and so he made the next move, he ‘looked up and spoke to him’. Zacchaeus responded and ‘hurried down’ and in the sudden joy which came upon him welcomed the Lord and repented of his sins.

Ah, yes, Lord, it is true: Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend; and: Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence; because, as you say of Zacchaeus: this man too is a son of Abraham.

Is it not incomprehensible that the God of the universe in whose sight: the whole world is like a grain of dust; should find it in his merciful heart to occupy himself not only with us humans who populate this grain of dust, but with the least of us, the sinner, and show him such infinite, loving tenderness, that he is moved to surrender to God his whole life?

There can be only one answer to this mystery, the answer given by the reading from Wisdom today: You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life, you whose imperishable spirit is in all.