Wednesday, February 28, 2018

CLIMB THAT MOUNTAIN: a homily for the Second Sunday of Lent year B (Mark.9:2–10)

The audio is here.
            I hope that all or most of you have climbed a mountain at some point.  It's one of the things one should do in life.  The view from the top makes the effort worth the while.  It is no surprise then that mountains appear again and again in the history of religions.  They are a natural symbol of the upward journey to God.  We have one here in this church and in every church.  I am standing on top of it.  It is the sanctuary where the altar and the tabernacle stand.  It is a symbolic mountain for it stands not only for Calvary where they crucified our Lord but also for Sinai where Moses received the Law and for Tabor where He was transfigured.
            It was in late Summer that the Lord took His disciples up Tabor.  We know this because Peter talks about making tents or booths for our Lord, Moses and Elijah.  At the harvest festival of Tabernacles, when people stayed out in the fields, they made shelters from the branches of the trees and so Peter thinks of making shelters on the mountaintop. 
            Our Lord brings His closest men up the mountain so when at its top He is transformed, transfigured, they can be reassured and strengthened for the trial to come, the trial of His suffering and death.  He allows His Divinity to shine through His humanity and so illumine these men.  Moses and Elijah appear, Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the greatest of the prophets, speaking to our Lord.  They stand for the whole of Jewish religion pointing to Jesus as its completion and fulfilment. 
            The apostles cannot comprehend what they are seeing.  They are stunned at this mystery.  Peter then, as usual, puts his foot or rather his mouth, in it.  He speaks as if our Lord were merely on a par with Moses and Elijah.  A cloud descends, an event that happened often in the Old Testament when God appeared, and a voice from Heaven speaks: "This is my Beloved Son.  Listen to Him."  What more affirmation does one need?  Still they do not grasp what has been revealed to them.  They are obedient to our Lord but they still argue over what 'resurrection from the dead' means.
            At every Mass we come to the Mountain of the Lord.  At every Mass we are in the Presence of the Lord.  At every Mass the Sacrifice of the Lord on Calvary offered to the Father but that is so much, much more than it appears.  On Calvary our Lord offered to the Father His entire Divine Person through His humanity on our behalf.  He offered the Father His total, absolute and unconditional obedience and His utter worship, the total adoration, obedience and worship that He gives freely in eternity to the Father.  He made it visible, and available to us, in becoming human and, above all, in His suffering and death on the Cross. He offered it freely, gladly, to the Father on our behalf.  His sacrifice infinitely outweighs any and all sins that the human race could ever commit.  It is an inexhaustible fountain of mercy and forgiveness.
            At every Mass therefore we come to adore Him at Calvary and yet more than Calvary.  The Christ we adore and receive is not the crucified Christ, still less the dead Christ, but Christ reigning in glory in the heart of the Trinity.  We receive all of God in Holy Communion for He holds nothing back.  Only the cloud of our weak senses and our weak faith prevents us from seeing that glory.  We are blinded by the dust of this world's smog and choked by the fumes of its lies.  We need to climb up above it by our spiritual warfare, by praying, fasting, and giving to the poor.  By ascending the mountain in Lent we prepare to face the Lord not only on Calvary but on that Holy Mountain that is Heaven.
            Unfortunately we cannot be all the time on the mountain of the Mass not in this world.  We are sent out to our neighbour to draw them to the Lord.  We return to the mountain by taking Lent seriously.  We return to the mountain by prayer.  You may have heard of a 'spiritual communion.'  A 'spiritual communion' can be made whenever circumstances prevent us from going to Holy Communion.  Perhaps we are sick in bed, detained by some urgent act of charity or not in a state of grace with no chance to confess yet we want to receive the Lord.  Then we can turn to Him, repenting of our sins, and ask Him that He still make available to us those graces we would have had if we could receive Holy Communion.  He will not deny us what we ask in faith and repentance.  But one can make such a communion anytime, anywhere, whenever we desire to receive the Lord.  The saints recommend us to do so frequently.  Indeed every time we pray it should involve a 'spiritual communion' where we return in faith to the foot of the Holy Mountain of His Presence and ascend to Him, asking for those graces He desires to pour out upon us.  He delights in blessing us.  All prayer, whenever we lift our heart and mind to God, is an ascending of that mountain, a seeking of God's merciful Presence. 
            Not only at every Mass but whenever we read the Scriptures, and above all the Gospels, the Beloved Son of the Father speaks to us and we are commanded by the Father to listen.  The Father has nothing more to say since He has said everything in His Son.  How can we claim to be Christians if we do not even read or listen to His words?  How can we be His sheep if we do not even know the Shepherd's voice? 
            I often recommend that people read Scripture and to want to know more is a holy and noble desire.  The Bible, Scripture, is not a single book but a library and it can be confusing without a map or a plan for reading it and it helps if one has a guide.  If you want to know more about Scripture then I recommend that you read it with the Church, that is, with Her liturgy.  The best way to do this is to invest in a Sunday Missal and, if your pocket stretches that far, even a daily Missal.  In this way we can read and pray our way through the Church's year, listening to the Lord speaking to us in manageable pieces.  In addition the prayers from the Mass are included so that one can use these as models for one's own prayer.
            No one can climb the mountain for you.  Each of us must choose to go up to the Lord or not.  No one who has made the effort ever regretted the climb.  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

FOLLOWING CHRIST OUT INTO THE DESERT: a homily for the First Sunday in Lent, year B (Mark 1.12–15).

You can listen to the homily here.
            Why did the Spirit drive Jesus out into the desert?  What good could He do out there in all that emptiness?  Who could he preach to or teach?  Who could He heal out there?  The desert (more rocks than sand) was reputedly the home of demons.  Why would our Lord go out there?
            By going out into the desert, driven out there by the Holy Spirit according to St Luke, our Lord is confronting the enemy, our enemy, the evil one.  The forty days should bring to mind the forty years of the Jews in the desert after they fled Egypt and the forty days Elijah travelled to Horeb, where God revealed Himself not in the stormy wind, the earthquake or the raging fire but in the sound of a gentle breeze.   God appeared to Elijah in a whisper.  Our Lord is not only showing the evil one who is boss He is also making a personal and private pilgrimage.  He goes out into the desert to get away from all the distractions so that He pay perfect attention to the voice of Father whispering in His heart.

            From that pilgrimage He comes back with His clear and succinct message: 'Repent and believe in the Good News.'  Not just 'repent' and not just 'believe in the Good News' but 'Repent and believe in the Good News.'  The word for 'repent' in the original Greek actually means to 'change one's mind,' to do a u-turn in one's thinking'.  The new direction we take then must be that of Christ our Lord.  We are to believe in His teaching for it is the Truth, the Way, the Life. 
            So our Lord also goes out into the desert to give example to us.  We too must find the desert in our lives and do battle with the evil there.  We too must make the journey to the Holy Mountain of God's Presence so we can repent and discover His gentle mercy whispering His love in our hearts.  We too must discover that the Kingdom of God is not an abstract concept, a theological opinion, but a reality that dwells within us and all around us.  God, through the Sacraments, has made us His, His body, His tabernacle.  We are called to be His ambassadors, His representatives to others, and our behaviour is meant to be a proclamation of His Presence within us. 

            Yet we are weak and fallen creatures.  We do the very things we advise others not to do, that once we swore we would never do or that we promised we wouldn't do again.  We do again and again the things that hurt those around us and hurt us too.  We are all of us slow learners.  On our own we cannot change.  Only God's grace, His very life dwelling and operating within us, can enable us, empower us to become what He made and redeemed us to be.  Lent is the privileged time for starting that effort afresh, of clearing out the rubbish in our lives and making space for God and our neighbour.

            By going into the desert it is not expected that we head off to the wilder parts of Kerry or Connemara.  We are to create our own desert within our own lives.  We do so by turning off the radio and the TV.  By reducing the time we spend on the computer or our phone and by avoiding unnecessary conversations or reading matter.  We make the desert by removing all those things that distract us from giving time to God and discovering His Presence within us.  He is always there but like the gentle breeze that revealed the Presence of God to Elijah one has to be really still and silent to hear it.  By being gentle, still and silent we discover the gentle stillness and silence where God dwells.  There we will also discover peace and joy and the strength to love others.
            In the meantime though it is not enough for us to repent and ask for forgiveness.  If you hurt a child do you not hurt that child's parents and indeed her entire family?   God is our creator and our Father.  Any and every sin is therefore ultimately and most importantly a sin against Him.  If I broke your window and you forgave me, that would be great but it would not fix the window.  In justice I would need to replace that window.  Likewise, with our sins God has forgiven us but even after we have received absolution in Confession the damage we have done to ourselves and to others remains.  We need to repair the relationships we have broken or harmed, returned what we have taken, and undo the harm done.  For those things we cannot fix and for the harm done of which we are unaware we do penance.  We pray, we fast and we do works of charity especially giving to those in need.  These three are the traditional remedies for the effects of our sins.

            Prayer is the first on our list.  To pray does not mean to rattle off the prayers we learnt as children, even the Our Father that our Lord Himself gave us.  Those and the others we learnt were given as models for us in how to pray but prayer itself cannot be limited to a certain set of words.  To pray is to lift the heart and mind to God.  Whatever enables us to truly and sincerely lift our heart and mind to God is prayer.  In Lent we need to make the desert where we can lift heart and mind to God so that we can face and overcome the evils in our life.
            Fasting and abstinence are not popular today.  Our culture values the personal freedom to eat and drink what we like when we like and as we like as long as we can pay for it.  To fast means to withdraw from all the unnecessary food and drink and other things that deaden us to the voice of the Lord and the needs of our neighbour.  It also teaches us the reality of the hunger in which so many people, children especially, spend so much of their lives.  A little hunger can awaken our compassion for them and if that compassion leads to action on their behalf then it has done its job.
            To give to the poor, though, means far more than giving money to beggars.  You may be better giving your money to known charities like the Penny Dinners anyway.  I am reminded of the man I saw on O'Connell bridge so many years ago who dropped food into the laps of the children begging there.  It was quickly, quietly and effectively done.  Any act of charity is giving to the poor for it is giving to someone in need.  Charity includes giving our time and our attention to those in need.  It includes forgiveness of those who have hurt us and our help to those who need it. 
            Find that desert in your life and seek the Lord's Presence.  He will give you the power to dig deeper than your pocket: He will give you the power to dig down into your heart and find the living water.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

MAKING CHRIST A LEPER: A homily for the Sixth Sunday, year B (Mark 1.40–45).

As usual you can listen to the audio here.
            We don't have lepers today in Ireland.  No one is at serious risk of contracting that contagious disease where one rots from one's extremities inwards.  In the Middle Ages leprosy was here.  Back then they did as was done in ancient times: they excluded the leper (or anyone suspected of having leprosy).  They even held your funeral and distributed your property to your heirs.  A leper could not enter any town nor could one join in any community activity.  The leper died to his family and friends, became the actual 'living dead,' and lived in poverty among his or her fellow lepers, abandoned, feared and hated.  There were no medications to stop the disease back then, nor any to ease its effects.  Lepers were abandoned to their own devices living a violent and savage existence while awaiting a slow and dreadful death.  In the time of our Lord leprosy was often seen as the symbol of sin and the sinner as the archetypal sinner suffering punishment.

            A leper comes to the Lord and asks not to be merely healed but to be cleansed.  In a culture that was obsessed with purity to the point of having Mikvahs, special pools or tanks used solely for ritual purification, this man's request is profound.  He is asking our Lord not only to be healed from his sickness but to be restored to complete righteousness, to bring him back from living death.  He wants to go home to own people and live a normal life again.
            Our Lord is more than willing to heal this man. It says in the original Greek that the Lord was moved in His very bowels, His guts, meaning that He was moved in the depths of His being, moved with profound compassion.  Not just willing to heal the leper, to restore him to righteousness, but the Lord reaches out and touches him!  This would render Jesus unclean according to the Jewish law.
            Our Lord then tells him to keep silent, to obey the Law of Moses and show himself to the priests, and thus be reinstated to Jewish society.  He probably did not have to go far to do this.  He probably did not need to go to Jerusalem for there were priests living all over Israel at that time.  Our Lord expects him to obey, a small request considering what the Lord has done for him.  Yet the man does not obey.  Whether he went to the priest we are not told but the man did not keep quiet.  He thought he knew better than God.  He would go his own way and so he started proclaiming what our Lord had done for him.
            The result is that our Lord can no longer go into the towns and villages.  The Lord made Himself unclean by touching the leper so that the leper might be cleansed from his sickness and freed from his living death but the leper by his disobedience has made our Lord a leper.  It is the Lord who is driven out into the wilderness by the crowds, by the hostility of those who are threatened by his teaching, his actions and his miracles.  The wilderness was not just empty space.  The wilderness was the home of outlaws, outcasts and lepers.  It was also believed to be the home of demons.  Our Lord is made a leper, an outcast and an outlaw through this man's disobedience. 

            It is the Lord Who has cleansed us our living death in Baptism and poured His Spirit on us in Confirmation, Who absolves us of the leprosy of sin and restores us to holiness and wholeness in Confession, and Who feeds us with His own Body and Blood in Holy Communion.  He holds nothing back but reaches out to us to offer us wholeness and eternal life with Him in Heaven.  He has come to us and touched us, become one of us that we might be one with Him.  He is the source of every good thing in our life and He wants us to be His witnesses, His ambassadors, to others. 
            Yet our sins have consequences.  They offend not only against our neighbour; they offend against the Lord and His Kingdom.  The Second Vatican Council itself said that the greatest cause of atheism was the behaviour of Christians.  When we disobey, when we are unwilling to take the Gospel and the teaching of Christ and His Church seriously and put it into action daily, then our behaviour becomes a counter-witness to that message.  By our disobedience, by our sins, we drive Christ out into the wilderness of our society and He becomes a leper and an outcast, unwelcome and despised by others.  
            Lent begins on Wednesday.  It is a time for us to make space for God and our neighbour in a more intense way.  Giving up sweets or going to Mass daily will mean nothing if we do not seek to change how we treat our neighbour and our Lord.  I would urge you then to make the decision not only to do a little extra but to go further and decide to inform yourself about your Faith.  Never before have Catholics in Ireland been so highly educated and had such easy access to information about their Faith and yet never before have they been so widely ignorant of that Faith. 

            In addition I urge you to pray that Faith and put it into action.  By our obedience to the Lord we give Him the space to shine through our actions and touch the lives of those around us.  By our obedience we bring the Lord out of the wilderness and make Him present to those who do not know or have forgotten Him.  By our obedience we attain eternal life not only for ourselves but for those whose lives we touch.  Do not make Christ into a leper.  By your obedience make Him present instead.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

LIFT UP YOUR HEART AND MIND TO GOD: a homily for the Fifth Sunday, year B (Mark 1.29–39)

You can hear the audio here.

            Our Lord went out into the wilderness and there He prayed.  Why?  Why does God need to pray?  Our Lord prays because He is also man and as man, as a human being, He is never more human than when He spends time, in prayer, with God.  He also goes to pray because as God the Son He wants to spend time with His Father.
            It is said that a couple that doesn't spend quality time together will drift apart and undermine their relationship.  There needs to be communication between spouses, the members of a family or of a community or people lose connection, they drift and stop loving one another.  No human being is truly alive, truly human if they are alone.   The poet said it well: "No man is an island, entire unto himself."
            Yet like our Lord, without time away from those persons and things that drain us, without time given restore our strength and inner peace, we run dry and can give no more.  Our Lord needed to be in the wilderness in prayer so that He could recharge His batteries, so to speak.  He needed the solitude, the silence of the night, so that He could hear what Scripture calls "the still, small voice" of God.
            Our Lord also goes out into the wilderness to give example to His disciples and to us.  He is showing us that prayer is more important even that rest and sleep.  He is showing us that our relationship with our Father in heaven really is vital to us and without that contact in prayer we cannot fulfil our earthly mission; we cannot be truly alive.
            So impressed are His disciples by our Lord's prayer and His commitment to it that they will ask Him to teach them to pray.  So He taught them the Our Father not as the only prayer they should say but as a model for prayer.  When we pray it is ultimately to the Father that we pray even if the prayer we say is to our Lord or the Holy Spirit, to our Lady or one of the saints.  Our prayer should be simple and direct, acknowledging that all good things come from God.  It should be an act of trust and submission to His Holy Will.  It should seek only what is needed for today and entrust everything else into His hands.  It should be said in repentance for sin and forgiveness for others.  It should ask that we not be tested or tempted and trust that He will save us.
            Yet the Church's definition of prayer says that prayer is the "lifting of the heart and mind to God."  For years I thought that a mean and minimalist definition.  Now I realise that it is the essence of prayer.  Whatever enables us to sincerely lift our heart and mind to God is prayer.  If walking in the garden, or in a park or in the countryside helps you to lift heart and mind to God then it is prayer.  If painting yourself blue and standing on your head helps you lift your heart and mind to God then it is prayer though I recommend that you do not do it in public and perhaps you should talk to a professional... 
            Note that the Church's definition says nothing about the words we should use.  The words in our prayers that we learn teach us how to think about God correctly and they give us models for our prayer but it is the heart and mind fixed on God that is the prayer not the words.   If there was one thing the Franciscan tradition would add to the Church's definition is that prayer is lifting the heart and mind to God in faith and love.  

St John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, tells of a farm labourer in his parish who would call into the church to pray before his day's work .  Sometimes he would be so deep in prayer his tools would still be at the church door that evening.  St John asked him one day "How do you pray?"  The man shrugged and said, "He just looks at me and I just looks at Him."  That simple labouring man, who probably could not read or write, was near the heights of prayer.  He understood that prayer is lifting heart and mind to God in faith and love.  He is not that exceptional among those who love God.
            If you read the lives of the saints, or better still their writings, again and again you will hear the same story: they sought the Lord in prayer and they found Him.  He had been with them all along but He waits until we have proven our faith and love before He reveals Himself.  Why does God need proof?  He doesn't.  We need to prove it to ourselves.  We need to make the sacrifice of going out into the wilderness, that is, of getting rid of all the unnecessary things, the noises, the distractions that keep us from lifting our hearts and minds to God.  The great Cardinal Sarah in his book, the Power of Silence, talks about how today we are subject to a dictatorship of noise so much so that we cannot really hear not only God's voice but our own.
            In prayer we discover God and in discovering God we discover our true self.  In making space for God we are actually making space for one who loves us and made us for Himself that we might know Him and be with Him forever.  In neglecting to pray we are not neglecting a mere optional extra.  In neglecting to pray we are neglecting to be truly human, to be truly Christian, to truly follow Christ.  In neglecting to pray we are starving our soul of what we most need: contact with God.
            I urge you make time to pray.  Make time to lift up your heart and mind to God even if you feel a fool.   Lift up your heart and mind to God by whatever means you can.  If you are like the sinner in the temple who could only ask for mercy you will find that He is full of mercy.   If you are weighed down with worries He will ease that weight.  No one has ever sincerely sought the Lord in prayer and come away unheard, unchanged, unblessed.  Persevere in prayer and keep praying until your last breath and you will finish your prayer in heaven.


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