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.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

6th Sunday of Easter - Year B

Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

Every mature Christian comes to a point in life when he realises that none of the things he really desires are within his own reach. And what’s more, he comes to understand that the things he can achieve are not the things he really wants, or at least, not the things that really matter.

The world, of course, the godless, materialistic, individualistic world of this age has no hope of understanding this odd predicament of the Christian because it has an unbridled confidence that, all by itself, reason can lead the world to the peace and prosperity humanity longs for. How wrong it is! What a fatal mistake!

Reason has pushed God to the peripheries, ‘retrenched him’, declaring – “Your services are no longer required. We’ll look after things from here. We have think-tanks and summits and experts; science, medicine and technology, and when it comes to peace we have the politicians ... and lethal weapons."

No wonder Christians feel like oddballs in this kind of world! And no wonder the more thoughtful of them are fearful about where things are going because echoing in their ears they have the words of the Master: Cut off from me you can do nothing. Remain in me.

Now in case you are tempted to believe all this is only a difference in our ‘way of looking’ at reality, and that it doesn’t really matter that some people believe in God and some people don’t, so long as we all ‘accept’ and ‘tolerate’ and ‘welcome’ one another – let me point out that it is more than a way of looking, it is also a ‘way of being’.

To say no to the words of Jesus has very real and serious consequences. We see these playing themselves out in the modern world. The more the peace initiatives of the politicians proliferate the more violent and out-of-control the world is becoming.

To say yes to the words of Jesus similarly has very real and serious consequences. To say yes to the person of Christ is to say yes to an entirely new way of life. It is to put all our eggs into a basket which is travelling in a direction entirely opposite to the direction travelled by the world.

Let’s just look more closely at the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel in which Jesus asks us to do three things and gives us three reasons for doing so:
  • To remain in his love - because he has remained in his Father's love
  • To keep his commandments - because he has kept his Father's commandments
  • To love one another - because he has loved us.
The acid test, proclaimed throughout the Old and the New Testaments, for whether our love for God is real or not - is that we keep his commandments. One example from John 14:21 will be enough to demonstrate this truth: Jesus said: He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. To cry “Lord, Lord” will not cut the mustard – we must walk the walk.

We live in a world in which some Christians, inexplicably, have reduced the Gospel to ‘so long as we are nice to one another and do good things.’ The trouble with this is that it sounds so plausible. Who could possibly be against being nice and doing good things? And all too often our heads are nodding in agreement before we have realised the shortcomings of what has been said.

If being nice and doing good, as important as they are, were sufficient for salvation why would we need Jesus, the sacraments, the Church?

No, sooner or later every serious and mature Christian comes to understand that all good is to be found not in us, not in our ‘niceness’ but in the goodness of the Saviour who died for us and rose to life.

It is only by walking faithfully the path of love and obedience to God’s word which Jesus walked that we will find - in their perfection - all those things for which our hearts long – peace, joy, love, life – for all eternity.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

5th Sunday of Easter - Year B

Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

The story of how the young man Saul became St Paul is the ultimate conversion story – not just because Saul was converted to Christ but also because he was converted to the church. Saul hated the church. And this was not the church of 2015, discredited by so many of its priests and bishops and cardinals as well as laity, this was the spotlessly innocent newborn baby church only a few months old.

Luke tells us that Saul set about ravaging the church. Did you hear that? To ravage means to devastate, to wreak havoc on, to destroy.

..By entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison (Acts 8:3). This man was not playing games; he was deadly serious.

A little later, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord Saul went searching for them in Damascus, intending to bring them bound back to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).

Fortunately God intervened. Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This was Saul’s first lesson: if you persecute my church you persecute me!

Saul is already sufficiently impressed with the owner of this voice to call him ‘Lord’ and asks: Who are you , Lord? The voice replies: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

Blinded by the light the now helpless Saul is led into Damascus where for three days he neither ate nor drank. Jesus sends Ananias, his disciple, a member of the church Saul set out to persecute, to go and lay hands on him so that he might regain his sight. Yes, the church heals.

Saul got up and, wonder of wonders, he was baptised, so that now has become a member of the very church he so vehemently hated.

We cannot properly say that he hated Christ. It is entirely probable that Saul had never met him. But it is abundantly clear that Saul hated his followers, the church, who constituted such a danger to the survival of Jewish faith.

Though the nature of Saul’s experience on the road will always remain a mystery for us we can see that by it Saul was entirely changed. This meeting with Jesus somehow captivated his heart and mind.
It actually reminds me of the conversion of Fr Lazarus, the Coptic hermit in Egypt. For forty years he was an atheist, a lecturer at a University in Tasmania. His head was full of all sorts of impressive, well-articulated intellectual objections to the notion that God may exist. But then one day, as a visitor to a monastery, he was invited to make a prostration before an icon of the Virgin Mary. He did it out of politeness but when he stood up again it was as a believer.

And all it took was a smile from the Virgin who, he relates, seemed to come out of the icon and gently offered to be his mother. All his clever arguments evaporated and he knew that the rest of his life belonged to her. He explained that the love which entered deep into his wounded heart from that motherly smile of the Virgin fulfilled all his longing.

What did Fr Lazarus do next? He did what the first reading today says that Paul did. He wanted to join the disciples. He became a member of the church.

There is today a terrible lie that people tell themselves when they stop coming to Mass. They say they have rejected the Church but not Jesus. This is simply not possible.

Jesus himself told the disciples: Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; and whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.

The Church is the body of Christ of which he is the Head. We cannot be joined to the head if we are not joined to the body. To walk away from the Church, from the Mass and the Sacraments, is a fatal error.

To his disciples Jesus says: a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself but must remain part of the vine. To Paul he might say, “If you persecute my Church you persecute me.” To us he might say, “If you leave my Church you leave me.”

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A short reflection for Advent

A priest told me recently, or rather he revealed to me, that he didn't believe in hell. It was clear from the look on his face that he knew he was being naughty, out of line. He smilingly asked 'How could it be imagined that God would allow such a thing? Forever is such a long time, isn't it?'

Like often happens I didn't know exactly what to reply and therefore said nothing. I knew, of course, he was wrong. The existence of hell is de fide and therefore non-negotiable; we are obliged as Catholics to believe in its reality. I guess what confused me was his statement that forever 'is such a long time.'

It's a mistake we can easily make - transferring our earthly way of thinking to heavenly matters, or in this case, to hell. I remembered something I had been taught as a child, God has no birthdays. And when we go to heaven, please God, we will not have anniversaries. We will not be able to say 'Today we have been in heaven five trillion and 6 years' because in heaven there is no time.

Consequently there is no time in hell. Forever is indeed a long time - a very, very, very long time - but forever is not the same as eternity, which is an eternally present now! And so there is no passing of time in either heaven or hell - both are an eternal now - on either side of which there is no past and no future.

Here on planet earth we similarly live only in a now but it is wedged between the past and future. When the Master returns to us it will be precisely and only in this present moment. He will not find us anywhere else.

And this means that to ask 'Will I be ready when he comes?' is actually a silly question. The only meaningful Advent question is 'Am I ready NOW?'

Friday, 17 October 2014

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Isaiah 45:1.4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21

He then said to them, ‘Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.’

One of the things I would like to ask God to do for me when I get to heaven is to put before me all the items (books, CDs, DVDS, and an assortment of other things) which, over the years of my life, I have loaned to people and never got back. I’d love to see how big the pile would be. My memory for these things is not really good. People say, why don’t you keep a record? But I even forget to do that.

I had Canadian lectionary in two volumes which I was very lucky to obtain as there were only limited copies printed. A priest noticed them on my shelf and asked to borrow Volume Two, as he was thinking of buying a set. That was seven years ago and I’ve still only got a widowed copy of Volume One on my shelf. And I have no idea who that priest might be.

To give is, of course, very different from giving back. What we give God is usually only ‘given back’ – unless we give him our sins, the only things which truly belong to us. All the rest, time, life, body, mind, soul, family, health, joy, and so on, are all God’s gift to us.

So what does it mean to give back what belongs to God and why does God command us to do so?

I think the answer to the first part of the question is most easily seen in the lives of the saints.

Take any of them and we can easily see how they gave back to God the gift of time which he had given them. They gave the seconds, the minutes, the hours of their days, and the months and years of their lives to the service of God and his people. They kept nothing for themselves but wholeheartedly surrendered their lives to the Lord of Time.

There is, perhaps, no more revealing and accurate indicator of our relationship to God than the amount and quality of the time we give back to him. Those who are serious about God in their lives know that an hour a week at Sunday Mass and a short prayer before meals, is simply not enough. We could not sustain a meaningful relationship with our wife or husband or anyone else for that matter if we allowed ourselves only this time to communicate with them.

A weekday Mass (daily Mass even, for those who are retired and able), the daily Rosary, some time in silent adoration in the church, are all ways to draw closer to him through the giving back of the time he has given us.

Now pause for a moment and consider the great gift you have from God in the intelligence (the mind) he has given you. When all is said and done that gift is given so that we might come to know and love him. This is its ultimate reason for being, so that the faith we have been given might seek understanding. In other words, if a person lived their whole life on earth but never came to know God and to love God, their intellect would have fallen short of its purpose and therefore failed to reach its fulfilment.

Let us not hesitate to question ourselves on this point. Do we give our minds to God? Do we give time to the reading of, and the study of the scriptures? Do we study the content of the Faith? Do we bring our lives into harmony with the teaching of Christ as he gives it through his Bride, the Church? Can we defend the Faith from those who attack it? We apply our minds to the study of so many material and secular things but do we apply them to the study of the things of God?

St Francis of Assisi deliberately stripped himself of absolutely everything so that he might give himself totally back to God. He did this because he well understood God’s command. He understood that God wants total union with us and that we are completed as human persons by seeking total union with God. After giving away his money, rank, and good name he was ready to offer God what God really wanted: Francis. And it was only then that Francis himself was fulfilled, completed, made whole. It was only then that Francis found himself. But there is a startling truth we must add.

By ourselves, on our own, as sinners before the Lord, none of us is completely pleasing to God, no matter how good we are. That is why we needed a Mediator - and that is why he gave us a Mediator. Jesus is God's greatest gift to us and that is why in its ultimate, definitive meaning, ‘to give back to God what belongs to God’, is to give back to the Father the totally pleasing gift of his only begotten Son, Jesus. And, of course, as Catholics we understand that this gift is made in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Francis’ gift of himself was acceptable to the Father because it was incorporated into the sacrifice of Christ to his Father. We ordinary disciples of the Lord may not have arrived at the perfection of Francis’ self-offering but let us make sure, at least, that we are travelling the road which leads to its destination.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Isaiah 25:6-10; Philippians 4:12-14; Matthew 22:1-14

What is heaven like?

We all have our fantasies but let's not waste time going there because we read in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that when we speak of heaven we are speaking of; things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.

If heaven is beyond the mind of man it must necessarily be beyond the words of man. In other words, heaven is beyond beautiful, fantastic, wonderful, superb or even cool, as the modern youth would say.

Nevertheless, the gospel today does offer us a comparison. I bet you think you know what it is but I bet you are wrong. You are going to tell me that Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast - but let's listen again to what Jesus actually says: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king; to a king - a king who gave a feast for his son's wedding.

Now don't get me wrong. I enjoy wedding feasts just as much as the next person but to say heaven is like a wedding feast is, for me, too much like saying heaven is like all those essentially self-centred suggestions commonly heard at funerals - heaven is like a pub with free beer, or an endless string of sunny days fishing in Bass Strait.

What makes heaven the beyond-the-human-mind and the beyond-human-language reality it is, is the presence of the king - the King - the King who gave a wedding feast for his Son.

So, that is all simple enough. The Blessed Trinity, God himself, sends out the invitations to heaven, or, if you like, to the wedding feast. He will be the host; the banquet table at which we will be seated is his, and he will preside.

The waiter? As the Gospel of Luke (12:37) tells us: He will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them. Our Lord and Master, Jesus himself will serve us.

And the food? Well, here it gets complicated and perhaps you weren't as wrong as I thought. Jesus tells us: My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him (John 6:55-56). The food at the heavenly banquet is the Lord himself - perfect communion with God - and so the King and the Banquet are one.

We cannot understand heaven until we truly understand communion - a oneness with God and one another which no eye has seen and no ear has heard. This is the supernatural reality which is beyond the mind of man, from which flows all peace, joy, and fulfilment.

Nothing defiled will enter there. There will be no enemies, no gossiping, no unforgiveness or feuds. All hearts will be pure; all hearts will be one. All sin will have been banished. We will see God, and one another, face to face, and rejoice.

We are invited to heaven as we are invited to every Sunday Mass - to be together, to be in communion, to be served by Christ with eternal food and drink.

When, incomprehensibly, we refuse God who has prepared a place for us at his table he does not punish us, we punish ourselves. We miss out on all he has made ready for us. We miss out on the 'party', the feast and have to spend eternity outside the Father's house, in the dark.

That would be hell, wouldn't it?