Sunday, April 29, 2018

BE GRAFTED TO CHRIST AND DRAW LIFE FROM HIM: a homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (John 15.1-8)

My Dad spent a chunk of his working life in a foundry in Dublin. He would say about it that 'once the metal entered your blood you couldn't get it out.'  I would say the same of soil.  Before I joined the Capuchins I worked was a gardener. If you're a gardener then you might understand what I mean.  It never leaves you.  It's more than fresh air and growing things.
I learned to dislike weeds.  Not all weeds are plants growing where they're not wanted. Some weeds entangle, throttle and kill the living things around them.  They grow only for their own benefit and to the loss of others. Thank God most plants are not weeds.  
My favourites are the fruit trees.  Most fruit trees are grafted plants like vines.  I've never grafted plants but I know how it's done. If you look at their base there's always a swollen join where the stock meets the graft.  Plants are grafted together so the strength and vitality of one fuels the potential of the other.  Usually the rootstock is wild and vigorous and the graft is a domesticated variety that lacks vitality.  Graft the two together and you get something vibrant and fruitful.
One still needs to prune.  Pruning isn't just cutting away branches.  It's an art.  It shapes the plant and can determine whether and how much fruit it bears. Careful pruning channels the life of the rootstock into the buds and therefore into the branches and the fruit.  Careful pruning helps keep a plant healthy.  One prunes the diseased and injured branches first and burns them so they don't infect other plants.  
Although it has been years since I pruned or even cared for a plant it still pains me to see them neglected or worse badly tended.  
Trees don't have a nervous system or any means to experience pain but we do.  When I apply our Lord's words on pruning the vine to myself I remember experiences of pruning and shaping.  A number of weeks ago I told you about the time I had to care for the physical needs of brother who was doubly incontinent.  He was a good man and rarely gave trouble but he could not communicate. Having to get him out of bed, wash him and dress him, change his nappies during the day and put him to bed was very hard for me.  I felt trapped.  I felt great relief when I no longer had to do that.  Yet I learned that I could do that.  I got more from him than he did from me.  Through that experience I was pruned and shaped. 
If any of us searches our memories we will find times when we were pruned by others or by our experiences.  Unlike trees we can feel and pruning hurts.  Maybe the pruning has been inexpert and careless. Perhaps it may have helped us to grow and to blossom.  Some of our experiences may have left deep scars that are very hard to heal unless they are tended by the master gardener Himself.
It is the same with our lives as it is with out bodies and with plants. There is within us a wild and rebellious urge to go our own way. If we allow that to happen we end up with lifeless chaos.  If wounds are not treated and healed they become infected and cause more problems.  If diseases are not dealt with they get worse.  If we do not cultivate a healthy way of growing then we become out of shape, and cannot produce the good we should do.  If one part of our life is spiritually or morally out of kilter then all the rest is affected.
Not one of us is perfectly shaped unless we allow the Father, the master gardener, to prune, shape and train us to His plan so that we can bring forth all the potential that lies within us.     Only if we draw our life and resources from our rootstock Christ can we grow, blossom and bear fruit that lasts.  Only through our union with Christ can we be truly alive and avoid the fire.
We remain grafted to Christ through Holy Communion in a state of grace, through prayer, through obedience to His word and to the teaching of His Church, through loving others in the truth and extending to them the love and mercy Christ has extended to us.
God made us so that we should grow, flourish, blossom and bring forth goodness and holiness, let's not turn into weeds.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

DOUBT NO LONGER BUT BELEIVE: a homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, year B (John 20:19–31)

What it must have been like to be alive at that time, to be a believer just as the Church is beginning!  What drama there must have been as they struggled to deal with not only the horrific death of Christ but with the shock of His resurrection!  Remember orthodox Jews had no such expectation of a resurrection before the Last Day. They did expect the Messiah, the Christ to herald a new Jewish Kingdom.  There world was turned upside down by the shameful death of our Lord upon the cross – that’s what the Jewish leaders intended!  Then they find the empty tomb.  Then He starts to appear to believers. Peter sees Him, and the other apostles, then five hundred disciples.  There are many appearances.  This is just one of those.
Christ is not restricted by His humanity or the materiality of His body.  He could work miracles before but He still respected the laws of science and knocked on a door rather than walk through walls.  Now He does not even bother with that.  As Lord and Creator the Universe is His sandbox and as its Creator He can play with the laws He has decreed as a harpist plays with the strings of His harp.  
There is a playfulness in His sudden appearances.  They are in hiding afraid for their lives and He just shows up and confronts them with His reality.   They are incredulous so He gives the evidence of His identity – His wounds – proof of His suffering, His love, His obedience to the Father, of His resurrection.  He eats and drinks with them to show them that He remains truly human.
Peace is His first wish and gift to us – not just any peace but real peace, peace between us and God.  To make that peace effective He gives them, the apostles, the power to forgive sins or to retain them!  Our sins can be forgiven!  Any evil we may fall into can be wiped away if we repent and allow the Church to apply the healing salve of Christ’s grace in the Sacrament of confession.  His Sacrifice of Himself on the Cross, His offering of His eternal worship of the Father on our behalf, infinitely outweighs any and every evil we could commit.  His song to the Father corrects all our errors and makes us fit for the choirs of Heaven.  
Our sins can not only be forgiven but they can be retained!  That’s not a fact that is often mentioned today! Absolution can be withheld if the penitent does not admit his guilt, or denies some article of the Faith, or for some other serious reason.  Let us not fall into that trap!  Let us not take the grace of God for granted.
Thomas, the positivist, one who asserts that only those things that can be proved are worthy of belief, wants his experiential, measureable evidence.   He is much like many in the modern world that thinks it is being scientific and mature by demanding proof for everything it would rather not acknowledge.  
Science can only deal with the material world, it cannot prove quite a number of things, rational beliefs that cannot be subject to scientific measurement or examination.  It cannot prove logical or mathematical truth since it presupposes them.
It cannot prove metaphysical truths such as the existence of minds other than my own, the reality of the world around me or existence of that world prior not only to my existence but to my present self-awareness.  It presupposes these truths.
It cannot prove the truth or falsehood of ethical judgments about right and wrong.  Science cannot tell us whether the Nazis were right or wrong in what they did to the Jews and other minorities in the concentration camps. It cannot tell us why it is wrong to kill or abuse an innocent human being or to steal, or lie.
It cannot prove the truth or falsehood of aesthetic judgments on the beauty of anything.  Scientists can weigh and measure a painting and subject the materials to various tests but as scientists they have no more to say on its beauty than anyone else.
Lastly science cannot prove science! Science assumes and cannot prove the truth of the mathematics and logic upon which it depends.  Mathematics and logic do not proceed from experiment but from self-evident principles.
Christ’s response to Thomas and His doubt is to present him with the tangible proof of His resurrection, His Real Presence.  Thomas still needs faith to see beyond Christ’s humanity to His Divinity and he is not found lacking.  He goes further than the other disciples and confesses Christ’s Divine personhood.  According to tradition he also went further than the others geographically and ended his days in India.
What proofs can we offer the doubters today? What evidence can we present? We must first know our Faith and hold to it.  We should also know how to present it in ways that are rational and reasonable.  I recommend one book: The Case for Christwhich, although written by a Protestant, lays out the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament accounts of our Lord and his resurrection.
We are also called to be the proof of the resurrection by living our faith.  No one will believe what we say if they are not convinced by what we do, by how we behave.  We must seek to be saints, really and genuinely holy, devoted to the will of the Lord.  Not only will people know we are Christians by our love they will know Christ.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

'HE IS RISEN, HE IS TRULY RISEN': a homily for Easter Sunday (John 20:1–9)

            “Christos Anesti!” and the reply is “Aleithos Anesti!”   These are the greetings among the Greek Christians as they greet one another this morning. ‘Christ is risen!’ and ‘He is truly risen!’.   How do we greet one another?  “Happy Easter” A bit lame, is it not?  Not exactly a proclamation of our joy at the great work of the Lord and the central belief of our Faith is it?  We have contemplated the life, sufferings and death of our Lord and now we celebrate His resurrection. Yet for how many of us does this go much beyond a mere piece of information, something else we ‘kind of’ believe?  It is a common place to disparage the Christian faith today but that only shows the ignorance of those who do not believe.  If one examines the evidence the solid foundations of our Faith appear.  
Let us examine the evidence for the resurrection of our Lord then.  We have John’s own account.  John tells us that he entered the tomb after Peter and while Peter could not believe that our Lord had risen from the dead he, John, saw and believed.  What did he see? He saw four things, four facts. He saw that the guards were gone. He saw the heavy stone was rolled away.  He saw the body was missing and he saw the cloths were rolled up, left behind.

I propose to you that there are four facts that alone point to the truth of our Lord’s resurrection: His burial, the empty tomb, His post-mortem appearances and the disciple's belief in His resurrection.  I don’t have the time to go into all the details but there are plenty of reliable videos and books that lay out the evidence more thoroughly than I can. First though I must tell you about the principle of embarrassment which states that if an account includes facts embarrassing to the community it affects then it is likely to be true.  Made up stories do not have details that are embarrassing to the storyteller!
It might surprise you that I begin with the fact of our Lord’s burial.  There can be no resurrection without a burial.  How do we know He was buried?  Well even Jewish archaeologists accept that the Sepulchre in Jerusalem stood in a graveyard and is, I quote, “almost certainly the tomb of Christ.”  There are no other contenders for that.  The Christian community in Jerusalem remembered where the tomb was even after the Roman’s built a pagan temple on top of it.  That the Roman’s went to the trouble of building a temple there is itself evidence that we have authentic tomb of our Lord. We also have multiple independent sources attesting to Christ’s burial.  In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul quotes an early creed and it mentions the burial.  That creed is now dated to within five years of our Lord’s death.  The embarrassing facts are that our Lord died as a condemned criminal by the most dreadful death the Romans could impose and that his tomb was provided by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the very Sanhedrin that had just condemned Him.   
Then there is the empty tomb.  Christ was buried but then the body disappeared.  The apostles, like all Jews, had an obsession with ritual cleanliness and a horror of touching the dead, especially someone who had bled to death. They would not and could not have taken the body and yet no one else had it.  The embarrassing fact in the finding of the empty tomb is that the first people to discover it are women.  These women are listed as witnesses to this.  In first century Israel women were not considered reliable witnesses and some would not even accept their testimony in court.  (There are those who argue they are still not accepted).  The embarrassing fact that they are listed as witnesses is a sign that the story of the empty tomb is true.  Our Lord’s body disappeared.
Thirdly Christ appeared not just to individuals but to large groups of men and women.  The New Testament records the principle names even of the women who saw Him.  As I have just said  women were not considered reliable witnesses so why mention them?  They are mentioned because they had seen the Lord.  These appearances were not visions, for they ate and drank with Him, walked and talked with Him, and even put their hands into His wounds.  Many years later John writes in one of his letters of his amazement at the resurrection.  Paul, in listing those who had seen the risen Lord, including himself, says in passing that many of these witnesses were still alive.  Why does he mention them?  He mentions them so that they could be consulted on what they had seen.
Lastly the apostles and disciples insisted from the very beginning that our Lord had risen from the dead.  It is thecentral point of their preaching: Christ died and is risen!  Jews at that time had no expectation of any resurrection before the Day of Judgment.  In addition their understanding of the Messiah was of one who would establish an earthly Kingdom.  The shameful crucifixion and death of our Lord was seen as a contradiction of this.  That’s why the Jewish leaders had pushed for our Lord to be crucified! Yet the disciples go out to proclaim that our Lord is the Messiah and the evidence they point to is His resurrection.  In return they were persecuted, tortured and all but one of them was martyred.  The gospel, the message of the death and resurrection of our Lord, brought them toil and suffering.  It separated them from their families and communities and sent them all over the known world and beyond.  It even cost them their lives.  It did not make them famous, nor did it make them rich or powerful. Yet they continued to assert Christ rose from the dead.  If someone is willing to put not only his money and his comfort but also his very life where his mouth is then he must be telling the truth.
There are other evidences that support the truth of the resurrection and of our Faith. I could point to the extraordinarily rapid growth of the Church despite persecution.  I could point to the work of His grace in all the saints down the ages.  I could point to the Shroud of Turin and all the recent work on it that reinforces the belief that it is not only Christ’s shroud but also a witness to the resurrection.  I urge you to research these things for yourselves.  Arm yourselves with the truth of the Faith.  

So the resurrection of our Lord is well attested.  In rising from the dead He did not merely resuscitate.  He did not return to His earthly life.  Instead He no longer hid His divinity but rather He began to manifest it through His Church.  His life was one long revelation of His loving obedience to, and His worship of, the Father.  It reached a crescendo on the cross on Good Friday when He offered all of Himself, His humanity and His divinity, to the Father on our behalf.  It was the completion of His 'YES!' to the Father.  Then came silence, the silence of Holy Saturday.  On the third day the Father gave His 'YES' to the Son by raising Him from the dead and in His resurrection we too rise.
Perhaps the most accessible evidence of the resurrection is us.  If we inform and live our Faith, we will come to understand better what we believe.  As we believe more deeply, we will love our Lord more.  As we love our Lord more we will love our neighbour more.  As we love our neighbour more they will come to see that Christ is not dead, He is risen.  Indeed He is truly risen!


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