Sunday, December 25, 2016

WHAT WE CELEBRATE: a homily for Christmas Day (John 1)

As usual you can hear the homily here
I remember one Christmas day as we were having breakfast my mother heard a child crying and when she went outside there was a young traveler boy just outside our front door.  He had hurt his ankle and could not walk.  It was bitterly cold and he had only a thin jacket and shorts on while on his feet were a pair of wellys.   My mother brought him in and sat him down at our table.  She took the boot off the injured foot and checked it for any injury.  Once she had made sure he was ok, that it was only a sprain and she had strapped it up, she gave him breakfast.  I wasn’t too happy having a traveler sit at our breakfast table but the memory has stayed with me and its lesson: charity comes first and one never turns away a human being in need.   It was also a lesson in the real meaning of what it is to be a Christian.

Do you ever ask yourself what is this day that we celebrate?  Do you ever wonder what is this day about?  Why do we decorate our houses, give gifts and eat so well?   It’s an old tradition that the wood of the Cross was made from the same tree as was his cradle.  There is a truth in that.  Christ is conceived, born and lives in the shadow of the Cross that He will suffer and die on.  It means that this day is about what God has done to keep us out of Hell.  We are celebrating that God the Father has sent the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity into the world to save us from eternal damnation through His death and resurrection.   Or least that is what one school of theology says anyway and they are right but it’s not the whole story.  Being intelligent and discerning persons you have chosen to worship in a Franciscan church and in Franciscan theology the answer to our questions about this day is much richer. 
You see, God made us for Himself.  The Son did not become man for us because we fell but He created us for Himself so that He could become one of us and unite us to Himself forever.  He did this because of His own goodness and love.  Whether we had fallen or not He would still have become human, still have become the man Jesus for us.  We are made for communion with God and it is through Christ that all creation has its existence.  It is through Him that even the angels are preserved from falling.  It is through Him that every good thing comes to us: every grace, every blessing and every joy.  That our first parents fell into sin merely gave Him another reason to become one of us and, to go further, to show us His love for the Father and for us by dying on the Cross.
God could’ve just forgiven us but that was not enough for Him.  The Son became fully human for us and was born of the Virgin Mary but that was not enough for Him.  He walked and lived amongst us but that was not enough for Him.  He suffered and died on the Cross for us but that was not enough for Him.  God the Father raised Him from the dead but that was not enough for Him.  He unites us to Himself in Baptism and Confirmation but that was not enough for Him.  He remains with us, really and truly Present, body and soul, humanity and divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament that we receive at Holy Communion but that was not enough for Him.  He cleanses us of our sins and sanctifies us through Confession but that was not enough for Him.  He has sanctified Marriage and made it holy, and given us the Priesthood so that we could have Him in the Sacraments but that was not enough for Him.  He even offers us bodily and spiritual healing in this world but that was not enough for Him.  He has invited us to take the narrow way of faith into the Kingdom and into Eternal Life with Him and only that, only that is enough for Him.  Only if we are with Him forever in Heaven will He be satisfied.  Our salvation was the primary objective of His suffering and death and His becoming truly human and being born is the beginning of that work.  Without His intervention, without His grace we cannot attain salvation and are destined for the horrors of eternal damnation, cut off from God and without hope, without blessing of any kind, lost forever.  Through His birth as man we are offered a lifeline, a chance to be truly and eternally happy and at peace.  This is what we celebrate and this is why we decorate our homes, why we give gifts and feast so well.  We celebrate the greatest gift ever given: God has given us Himself.

Since He is so good to us, since He loves us so much how then ought we to respond?  What thanks can one offer the One who saves you from eternal death?   He has given us the answer: to believe in Him, to love Him and to love our neighbour, to avoid evil and to do good.  These are the simple steps that mean we are following Christ.  These are the steps to holiness, to eternal life.
If we are not seeking to be holy then we are not really Catholic.  By holy I do not mean ‘pious’ or ‘devout’; those are good things but not necessarily signs of holiness.  Holiness is being right with God and our neighbour.  To be holy is to seek the will of God in everything and that is not hard to know – just do the duties of your state of life while seeking to avoid evil and do good, to avoid sin and maintain oneself in a state of grace.  That’s it in a nutshell.  The greatest gift we can offer the Lord on His birthday is to seek to do the will of His Father. 

We have been given an infinite gift in Christ.  Like all gifts it must be unwrapped.  If we really know Christ then we cannot keep Him to ourselves but must share Him with others above all in the way we behave.  We will want to share Him with everyone, even the traveler, the immigrant, or the homeless at our door.  So this Christmas day do your best to share the good news that God has become man for us by how you treat those around you: point your anger away from others, try to be patient, kind and generous, forgive others and share with them the mercy God has shown you.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

CONSIDER JUST WHAT HE HAS DONE FOR US: a homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent year A (Matthew 1:18–24)

Unfortunately I did not record this homily!
Who would you pick to look after your child?  Who would God the Father pick?  If you could know everything about them wouldn’t you pick the best of the best?  This is Joseph.   This is the man that God picked to care for His Son and His Son’s Mother.  Joseph is a most extraordinary man – humble, obedient and silent – not one word he said is recorded yet this is the man that the Father chose to be foster father to Christ – God made flesh for us.  Some wits have said he is the perfect model for a good husband – he knew to keep his mouth shut.  Yet as the only sinner with a perfect wife and a perfect son if anything was wrong he knew it was his fault!  In his response to Gabriel Joseph showed both his humility and his obedience for he was not just righteous in exterior matters but in his very heart.
Jewish marriage was a two part process.  Mary and Joseph had entered into the first part but not the second.  They were actually married.  Yet Christ is not Joseph’s son, He has only one Father, the first Person of the Most Holy Trinity.  Christ is the work of God the Holy Trinity, by the Father’s will through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Father became truly human for us in the womb of the Virgin.
Some suggest that Joseph believed Mary had committed a sin in conceiving Jesus but out of compassion was covering up for her.  As a righteous Jew though, obedient to the Law, he was bound to uphold God’s revealed will and expose Mary to justice, and to stoning, yet he did not.  The fathers of the Church say that Joseph was concerned because, knowing her to be holy and pure, he discerned that this was the work of God and he felt himself unworthy to be her husband and a father to her child. Joseph is of the line of David and his adoption of Jesus makes Jesus legally a descendent of King David so that the King of Heaven could also be the King of Israel. 
Now in Joseph’s dream there is a lesson for us.  Most of our dreams are merely our brains sorting out our day and usually it is a waste of time to pay any attention to them! Sometimes, though, the Lord uses them to speak to us, often through our deceased loved ones (as I have myself experienced) and when He speaks YOU WILL KNOW IT, THERE WILL BE NO DOUBT.  ‘Do not be afraid’ is a very common theme in the Gospels and therefore we ought to pay attention.   We are to trust that God has everything worked out and that as long as we are humble and obedient all will be well for us.
Twice we are told that Christ’s conception is a work of the Holy Spirit.  Here is the heart of our Gospel: Jesus is the incarnate Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. Yet he is given the name ‘Jesus’.  ‘Jesus’ is a sacred name to us but although ‘Jesus’ or Yehoshua, means God saves – it was not an exceptional name but rather quite common.  Still for Him it was appropriate for He is the One who is save all mankind.  He is ‘God with us’.   God has not abandoned us.  He remembers His promises and His plan and He remains with us.  He came among us to fulfill His plan for our union with Him in Heaven.  Not only is God with us but God embraced death for us on the Cross, He has poured out His graces on us through the Cross and He remains with us in the Blessed Sacrament and we remain in union with Him through the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, and our unity in the faith of the Church.
As we approach the celebration of the Birth of our Lord we need to keep this mystery central in our hearts and minds: God became truly man for us.  All our symbols we use at this time of year point to this.  The Christmas Tree stands both for the trees of paradise that bear fruit in all seasons and more for the Cross, the Tree of New Life, by which we are saved.  The baubles we hang on the Tree refer to the gifts and graces, His blessings that He has poured out upon us.   That our decorations are bright, colourful and sparkling refers to the glory of His grace and His Presence.  Even the Christmas dinner refers both to the feast of the Eucharist and to the eternal Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Heaven.  All these and more are present in our celebrations.
It is a tradition though to give gifts to the one whose birthday it is!  What will you give to Christ for His Birthday?  He says ‘Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me’.  If you want to offer a gift to Christ make it the gift of charity to the poor and needy.  Begin with your family and friends, making sure no one is alone at this time of year but also do not neglect the stranger.  Offer Christ too the gift of repentance and sincere confession of your faults.  Seek to be reconciled to those you are not at peace with and to forgive those who have hurt you.  Offer these sacrifices to Christ as gifts too and as a response to His immense generosity to you.  What is offered to Him He sanctifies and blesses, making them grow and baring fruit in due season for our healing.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

LISTENING TO JOHN, a homily for the Second Sunday of ADVENT year A, Matthew 3:1–12

As usual you can listen to the homily here.
What’s it like when someone is not speaking to you?  What is it like when having gotten so used to hearing from someone and then they just cut you off?  No word, just silence.  God had not spoken to the Jews, there had not been a prophet , for 500 years!  500 years of silence!  Think about that.  Then comes John, dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey proclaiming a message from God. Camel hair cannot have been very comfortable nor was living out among the rocks of the desert.  A few years ago on pilgrimage in Assisi we met an Italian man dressed in sackcloth and going bare foot.  He  seemed to be genuine and not just a bit ‘gone in the head’.  What would we make of someone were they to dress that way here?  What a strange sight John the Baptist would make even to us Catholics.  Would we  laugh him at or even refer him to psychiatric services not because he was odd or mad but because he just does not fit into our categories of acceptable behaviour?

For the Jews it was a time of great expectation and ferment and there were movements seeking holiness and reform as well as political change.  Yet John does not go into the towns and villages.  Instead he preaches out in the desert of Judea.  Not that the desert is all that far away but in the minds of the people it was a place for bandits, wild animals and demons.  By going to the desert John separated himself from the official Jewish religion and the Temple – he stood outside the State and over against the accepted ways of doing things.  John points back to the earlier prophets and their call to holiness.  By going out into the desert John aligns himself with Elijah, the greatest of the prophets.  He is engaging in spiritual warfare.  John, an only son and member of a priestly family, has turned is back on comfort and respectability in order to follow his calling to be the forerunner of Christ, someone totally dedicated to God and attentive to His will.  He gives up all in order to do God’s will and prepare the way for Christ. Remember our Lord said that there was no one born of woman greater than John.  Christ was born not of human will but God’s.
His food was locusts and wild honey.  Nourishing food but not easy to get as you will know if you’ve ever tried to catch a grasshopper (it does not say whether they were eaten raw or cooked) and wild honey is always protected by wild bees.  He is cut off and set apart from the comforts of civilization and so dependent on what God provides through nature.  This separateness means he has the space and time to listen to God’s voice in his heart.  After 500 years God is once more speaking to the Jews, His Bride, His people.  For them and for us it is a call to prepare for the coming of Christ through repentance, change and conversion of life.
John openly and humbly declares his subservience to our Lord.  When he says “I am not worthy to carry his sandals” he means he is unworthy to be the lowest of the lowest of the servants, literally the slaves, of Christ.  This shows his humility and his faith.  It is because of his humility and faith that God enlightens John about Christ.  John knows that what he does is only a foretaste of the work of the Lord.  Christ will take the symbolic water baptism and transform it into a giving of the Holy Spirit and the means of salvation.  He will wash away not just bodily dirt but the contamination of sin.  God in Christ will use baptism to immerse us into the communion between the Father and the Son.  Through baptism He unites us to Himself.  More than that Christ will clear the threshing floor of creation and gather his wheat, His faithful, into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.   He will separate sheep from goats, wheat from chaff, the good from the bad and those who do not belong to Him He will destroy.  The people of faith heard John’s message and responded to it and it is still the same today.  By faith and by humble obedience we can draw down God’s mercy on ourselves and our families.
John did not mince his words.  Those who claim to be religious, to be servants of God but who do not do God’s will, who do not seek to be truly holy and good are like poisonous snakes!
From the voice of God in his heart John gets his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  To repent means literally to rethink our route and do a u-turn, to reverse one’s course and go back to a better way.  Why?  Because God’s Kingdom, His Lordship and long promised, direct governance of man is close.  How do we repent?  We ask for the grace and we examine our conscience.  Every Catholic serious about their faith should do this every day: to pray for the grace of sincere repentance and sorrow for sin and to examine one’s conscience.  There are many ways to do it but to put it simply we look at our day and how we have treated God and our neighbour.  We also need to inform our conscience by learning our faith and not assuming we already know all we need to!
We are to produce the good fruit of good works as evidence of our repentance.  Here is the heart of our Gospel.  If you are truly sorry for your sins then show it by your behaviour – change and do good!  Advent is not about cleaning the house for Christmas and putting up decorations, still less about shopping.  It is about preparing the way of the Lord so that we will be ready to receive Him when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  We must produce good fruit to present to Him.  We cannot appeal to the good our parents or our ancestors did.  We cannot appeal that Ireland is the land of saints and scholars if it ever really was. God has no national favourites.  He does not love one people more than another, nor one person more than another.  God loves us all but He shows His mercy to those who repent of their wrong-doing and do His will.  God does not need us.  He created us out of His own goodness and love and saved us through His Mercy.  Indeed Christ has raised us up, for our ancestors were pagans and now we are to know and do God’s will. We would be spiritually dead but through baptism He has given us life.  Not only are we children of Abraham, spiritual Jews, we are more importantly, children of God.  Yet even more than that we are, in Christ, Sons to the Father for He has granted us this gift that we are to the Father as the Son is to Him.  This great, unexpected, unasked for, unmerited gift demands a great response.  God demands that we listen to Him. He demands good deeds from us, deeds that show our love for Him, that share with others His love and mercy towards us.  He demands that if we are to enjoy being sons to Him we ought to behave as His Son to others.


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