Sunday, February 19, 2017

TAKING IT ON THE CHIN FOR CHRIST: a homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A, (Matthew 5:38–48)

The audio can be heard here.
I have a friend who, once, when he was in his late teens was attacked while on his way to a prayer meeting (very pious I know).  He met a guy he barely knew and when he said hello the other guy responded by trying to beat him up.  The other guy was older, bigger and a lot tougher and meaner than my friend and he got a few digs in before my friend retaliated (good job the other guy was drunk or he might have done my friend in).  My friend had an umbrella with him so he hit him with it.  It was one of those long umbrellas with a pointed metal end and he hit him with the pointy end, right in his ‘most vulnerable spot’.  If you come from where we come from you do not fight clean.  That got the other guy’s attention and he stopped hitting him.  Still my friend felt so guilty then that he helped the man home.   Self-defense is a natural response so it is hard for us to hear our Lord appear to reject it.   So this is one of those Gospel passages that bite hard and deep.  I always find it so.  
Last week we had ‘if your eye causes you to sin tear it out’ and this week we have an ‘eye for an eye’ but what do these sayings mean?  Well, ‘if your eye causes you to sin tear it out’ is a metaphor and it means be prepared to make any sacrifice rather than do evil, that is, commit a sin.  Likewise with ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ we have a metaphor.  Oh how that has been misinterpreted and misused over the centuries!  If you do not know what it really means it can also seem cruel and vengeful.  When one reads it in its original context it appears quite different.  In 1901 archaeologists discovered the Code of Hammurabi, written down 1,750 years before Christ, that’s nearly 4,000 years ago.  In that code the punishment for theft was the loss of a hand much as it is in the Muslim Sharia law.  You can imagine what happens to anyone who does more serious damage!  ‘An eye for an eye’ in that context represents a rejection of the kind of law that the code of Hammurabi and Sharia law stand for.  ‘An eye for an eye’ is not a law of vengeance but a law of moderation and justice; it means that the punishment should fit the crime.  It means that one ought not to seek more than what one has lost.
I heard a story many years ago about a fire in Chicago in the very building where one of the firemen lived.  The man’s little daughter was trapped on a window ledge and he had to urge her to jump and reassure her that he would catch her.  In the end he had to order her, yell at her to jump or she would die.   She jumped and he caught her.  Christ is inviting us to make a leap of faith too.  We are so attached to the things of this world that we fear that we will loose not just what we have but even who we are.  He is not only reassuring us He is demanding of us that we leap in faith to Him and that whatever we lose is far outweighed by what we will gain.  Only in the leap of faith that takes the Gospel seriously and applies it consistently can we really come to know how much He loves and cares for us.
Every era has its difficulties and trials.  At the time of our Lord Israel was under Roman control.  The Roman legionaries could force locals to carry their packs for them and it would have been quite challenging for them to hear that if any of them were forced to do so they should go the extra mile.  Why go this extra mile? For love of the other, concern for their soul and their salvation.  If we truly love another we will lay down our lives in service of them.  We will not be concerned how others serve and look after us but how we look after and serve them.
As with last Sunday’s Gospel passage, the Lord wants us to go beyond the demands of the objective moral order, of justice and right and wrong, to the realm of genuine love, love understood as self-gift and self-sacrifice.  He wants us to make a leap of faith in Him and to trust in His Providence.  The Lord wants us to go beyond worldly moderation and the concern for justice and restitution into the realm of heroism and nonviolence.  He wants us not only to forego vengeance and retaliation but at times to forego even self-defense.  We are to stand our ground and take the licks that come our way and give freely from what we have, especially to those who are in need.
  Why?  Because we are living our life with one foot already in the Kingdom of God.  There is a scene in World War II drama Band of Brothers.  A young paratrooper is sitting in his foxhole terrified.  A lieutenant comes to him and explains that the reason he is afraid is that he still has hope, he still believes he can survive.  It is only when he accepts that he is already dead that paradoxically he can function and perhaps live.  We too must see ourselves as already dead!  But we are the dead who have hope in Christ.  We can bring nothing with us when we die and even our existence will be forgotten within a generation or two.  How many of us can name our great or great-great grandparents?  Once we understand that all we have here is temporary and that our real, lasting home is in Heaven then we can face up to our mission: to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God by our words and deeds.  We are to have our treasure with Him not with this world.  We are to model ourselves on Him as He is the perfect image of His Father.  If we are truly His disciples then we realize that the only real enemies we have and should fear are our sins. 

This mission demands self-sacrifice.  Self-sacrifice can mean difficult discussions with loved ones and time spent learning about the faith.  Sacrifice can mean time given to listening to others, or given in care for others.  Sacrifice can mean losing friends, relatives or even employment.  Our faith can never be private.  It must always have a public dimension.  By our own power this is beyond us but by His power nothing is impossible.  We can be perfect, we can be holy as the Father is perfect and holy through our union with Christ.  Through Him, with Him and in Him we have all the resources we need to fulfill the Lord’s command, to turn the other cheek and  to walk the extra mile.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

THE VOCATION TO LOVE BINDS US: a homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (Matthew 5:17–37)

The audio for this homily is here.
Whoever tells you that the Gospel , the teaching of Christ, is all about being nice to others has never the actually read the New Testament.  Our Lord pulls no punches.  He sets a high standard and expects us to live up to it but He knows we are weak and that’s why He gave given us Himself to strengthen us through the Sacraments.  The standard remains and there’s a very good reason for it.
We know by reason that there is what philosophers call an ‘objective moral order’, a real, knowable, moral law which binds all sentient beings.  In other words, wherever one travels one can expect that people know it is wrong to take what belongs to another, to tell lies or to kill an innocent person.  These are the evidences for such a law and while revelation affirms its existence we do not need revelation to tell us it exists. 
But the knowledge of this moral order is not enough.  There is more.  Christ sent us Moses and the prophets of Israel to prepare the way for the definitive revelation that would come with His Incarnation.  Christ reveals to us that the fundamental human vocation is to love.  Unfortunately that last word is a problem.
I may have said this to you before: English is not a good language for expressing feelings or emotions, nor, more importantly, for talking about deeper concepts such as love.  English more or less applies this one term ‘love’ to a very wide variety of contexts and experiences.  I can say that I love beer, that I love my country, I love my relatives, I love my friends and that I also love God.  One word stretched so far is not very useful.  So we must be very careful about the use of that word ‘love.’ In the Gospel passage today the Lord is spelling out the real meaning of ‘love’.  Real love means giving oneself in service to another; it means treating everyone with respect however much we want to do otherwise and, above all, respecting God’s plan for us.  It also means admitting our sins and seeking to undo the harm we have done.
We must bite the bullet here.  The Lord, the true Lawgiver, now reveals to us that we must go beyond the morality of the Old Testament, beyond the demands of the objective moral order, to a deeper level.   We are called to love, to give ourselves in service of one another as a response to His love for us.  It is not natural for human beings to be in conflict.  Violence, aggression, selfishness are all monstrous distortions of what it is to be human.  Because of the Fall from grace every human being, bar Christ and His Mother, are subject to the drive to put themselves at the centre of everything and have everyone and everything orbit around themselves and subject solely to their will.  Now most of us unconscious of this, most of the time, otherwise we would be megalomaniacs.  Yet if you think about it what else is at the centre of all the moral evils in the world but human selfishness?
Christ has come to us as the remedy par excellence.  He offers us not just His helping hand but His very self as the source of our healing and the power to change, to allow, to acknowledge that God alone is at the centre of everything and only when we orbit around Him, only when we are centered on His will and plan can their be real peace and justice.  Only when we love as He loves are we truly loving.  On the Cross Christ revealed that love is total self-gift.  On the Cross He made visible His total self-gift to the Father and He offered that all-holy gift to the Father on our behalf.  As Christians, those who believe and are baptized into Christ, our vocation is to reveal to the world the true nature of love.  We are called to live love at its deepest meaning, to be people who give themselves in service of others.
That is, of course, a lot harder to say than to do.  It demands heroism and self-sacrifice.  Well, as soldiers of Christ, ask yourself, ‘what do soldiers do?’  What do they do if not sacrifice themselves for others?  To be a Christian is to be someone who suffers in order to love because God has shown His love for us in Christ.  The primary suffering we endure, common to us all, is that our fallen nature resists our efforts to love.  We say and do the very things that we condemn in others or that we would not say or do in the cold light of day.  This is the cross that we are called to carry.
It is because of this high vocation, this mission that comes from the Lord to each and every one of us that all the tough demands in today’s Gospel are addressed to us.  It means we must account not only for our actions but even for our thoughts.  We must not think or imagine anyone in a way that turns them into a thing or a means to an end.  We cannot actually do anything seriously wrong without in some way thinking or imagining it.  Accounting for our thoughts is the first step on loving as we ought. 
The Lord is calling us to heroism.  He wants us to trust that no matter how hard things may get He is always within us if we try to remain faithful and respond to His will.  He wants to discover that when we give ourselves in loving service of others we make more room for His Presence within us.  The more He dwells within us the greater will be our joy.  If you want that joy reach out in service of your neighbour, take Christ seriously and you will not lack for joy, for peace nor for eternal life. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

BECOMING SALT AND LIGHT FOR OTHERS: A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (Matthew 5:13–16)

You can listen to this homily here.
What very simple images, salt and light.  What does salt do?  It preserves by opposing corruption and it improves the flavour, makes it clearer, and besides our bodies need it.  Likewise what good is a lamp that does not illuminate?  It is no longer a lamp.  Salt that no longer functions as salt is useless and a broken lamp is thrown out. 
Our Lord then seems to take a different tack.  Elsewhere He tells us not to parade our good works and yet here He tells us that all the world should see them.  Is He not contradicting Himself?  Elsewhere He is addressing us as individuals but here is talking to us as the community of the Church.  As individuals we should not look to glorify ourselves or to seek salvation through our own efforts but as a community when we work together to do good we are proclaiming Him and the works that glorify Him ought to be out there where everyone can see.  For instance the Cork Penny Dinners is the work of many generous individuals and they deserve our gratitude but few could name or identify them.  The attention the Penny Dinners gets helps them do their work and gives others a chance to contribute but it does not bring fame and glory to those involved.  Their thanks will come from the Lord Himself!
When you were baptized you were immersed into Christ and when you were confirmed He gave you His Spirit to strengthen you for service.  Among the Eastern Christians Baptism is called Photismos , literally ‘Enlightenment’.  We have been enlightened and empowered by Christ to be His presence to others.  We are here in this world to be, to make a difference, not just any difference but a difference that draws others to know and love the Lord.  We are to be salt that fights corruption, preserving what is good and opposing what is evil.  We are here to be a light so that others can see their way to true health and wholeness.  We are here so that others can know right from wrong in a world clouded with confusion and deception.  We are to be light that illuminates others, that helps them see the truth, the true order of things.  Our faith can never be private or merely personal, it is a public thing by its very nature and demands that we enlighten those around us above all, but not only, by the good we do to others.  This light is not our light, it does not come from us or our nature but from the grace of the Lord working in us.
Receiving Holy Communion in the state of grace is the way to be empowered to truly love and be the bearers of His light to others.
St John of the Cross said that at the end we will be examined in love and it is this love that we are called to show to others.  When we love others because Christ loves us we are growing in that light, that love that is the very air and fragrance of Heaven. 
How do we know Christ loves us?  By prayer and reflection.  When I say prayer I do not mean saying prayers.  So many of us stop our spiritual development at a certain point never moving on beyond it.  Consider the farm labourer whom St John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, tells us about.  He noticed the man would spend hours in church praying so St John asked him how do you pray?  “Oh” said the man,” I just looks at Him and He just looks at me.”  This man had not stopped growing in prayer and achieved real depth in his relationship with the Lord, He had discovered that the Lord loved him and he loved the Lord in return.  The way we pray does not really matter, prayer varies from person.  Prayer should even vary not only with our age, our health and our gender but with the time of day!  The rosary is a powerful prayer when prayed as it ought to be but it is not suitable for every occasion.  There are many ways to pray.
Through Baptism and Confirmation we are united with Christ, one flesh, one Person with Him and when we pray not as a mere creature to our creator we pray in union with Him as Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit.  The purpose of prayer is not to ask for things, still less to get God to change but that we might change.  Real prayer brings conversion and growth; it helps us to become salt and light in a world that is bland and stuck in the shadows of death.
We know that there is a landscape, literally nature as it has been shaped and sculpted by human beings, but there is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, an ‘inscape’ an interior world that we are also called to explore and shape.  So many of us leave it neglected and let it go to wilderness.  Then we wonder why we do things!  That interior world is infinite because it is filled with God.  Each and every one of us, because of our Baptism, is filled with God and prayer is an exploration of that Presence of God within us. 
How ought we to pray?  When the apostles saw Jesus praying they asked Him to teach them.  His answer was the ‘Our Father’.  It is the perfect example of a prayer: short and to the point.  Yet praying is more than prayers.  Praying means consciously being in the Presence of God, it is lifting our heart and mind up to God or rather placing them in His Presence.  Real prayer is time spent with God.  As St Teresa of Avila said “Prayer is time spent with Someone who loves me.”   She taught her sisters to use the ‘Our Father’.  She learned that from the Spanish Franciscans.  One of their greatest saints was once asked about how he prayed the Our Father.  He said he was still on the first two words.
Start small but aim big; start with fifteen minutes set aside for the Lord.  Keep your prayers short but try to lengthen the time, repeating the prayer, if possible in rhythm to your breathing.  What is most important are the moments of silence and stillness before the Lord.  Over time these will grow in number and length and out of them will flow joy and peace. 
Do not be upset if there are distractions.  Everyone gets distracted even at Mass.  Its what you do with those distractions.  Once we notice that we have wandered away from the Lord’s Presence then we return to that Presence even if we have to keep doing it again and again.  This is actually good for us.  If we notice our distraction and do not return to the Lord then we are deceiving ourselves.  We are like someone who claims they love another but then refuse to pay them any attention.  Love that ignores is not love.

You can pray anywhere and anytime but the better the quality of the place and time the more benefit you will get from it.  Remember to keep it simple.  Be like that French peasant: sit with the Lord, let Him look at you with love and love Him in return.  Then you will be salt and light indeed.


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