Sunday, June 24, 2018

IN THE WILDERNESS PREPARE A WAY FOR THE LORD: a homily for the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist (2018)

            John the Baptist must've been an extraordinary character.   John was the son a priest of the Jerusalem Temple and through his mother he was a descendent of Aaron, brother of Moses.  That made him a priest and put him at the heart of the Jewish Faith.  The instruction given to John's father before he was born is very like that given to the parents of Samson.  He was to be dedicated to God from birth and so he had never touched alcohol, never cut his hair and lived from an early age in the hard rocky hills and desert of Israel.  John's austere diet of insects and wild honey recalls the stern self-sacrificing, self-denying ministries of the Old Testament prophets, not that of a comfortable and wealthy priest.  John would not have had weight problems!  He chose to wear camel hair clothes and a leather belt, the same clothing as the great prophet Elijah. Therefore his very clothing was a proclamation of his ministry and his mission.             
            There had not been a prophet in Israel for over four hundred years.  John was sent by God as a prophetic herald to prepare the way for Christ and so his clothes were appropriate to the humility of the arrival of the King who was born to an unknown family, laid in an animal trough, and announced to mere shepherds.  In addition John's clothes were an visual parable protesting the barrenness of a people who no longer listened to God and calling them to prepare for the Lord's coming through repentance and conversion of heart.  
            If you read the bible, and I do hope you read it, you may remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  So awful was their behaviour, the story goes, that the screams of their victims were heard in Heaven and God goes down to investigate.  He visits Abraham who, assuming that God is about to destroy them, starts to haggle with God. How many righteous men does God need in a town before he will not destroy it Abraham wants to know? He haggles God down to ten righteous men and since there aren't that many in Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham, Lot and their families have to flee before the Divine wrath descends.  
            That's how the story has often been read. I recently read an article that argued something else.  Abraham is the first of the prophets and as a prophet he has access to God's counsel as God's friend and co-operator.  God gives him the chance to plead for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, to ask for mercy, but since Abraham has yet to grasp just how deep God's mercy is he stops short at ten men.  God accepts Abraham's decision, removes His protection, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed not because God wanted to destroy them but because that's what Abraham had decided.  The later prophets did not make the same mistake and had no hesitancy in pleading with God for mercy, a mercy He wants to give but which He will not force on us.  His hand is extended to us and we must reach out and grasp it.

            So the man whose birth we celebrate today was an outsider, the last of the prophets and among the first of the saints.  John gave up the possibility of marriage and a home, of social status, power and influence, of mere everyday comfort to live on the extreme margins of his society so that he could speak God's word to the people of Israel.  John had the courage to respond to God's grace, to listen to His word, and to put it into practice regardless of the personal cost.  By making those sacrifices John prepared the hearts of his fellow Jews to hear the Word Himself, God Incarnate, Jesus Christ out Lord.
            Celebrating this feast is a way to remind ourselves that if we are truly followers of Christ then we too are called to prepare a way for Him into the hearts and lives of others.  We too are forerunners of God, heralds and ambassadors for Christ.  We too are prophets called to speak the truth, God's word, to our nation, our society and our families.  We too are called to ask for mercy and forgiveness for ourselves and for others.  To do that we need to be in this world but not of it.  
            There are no deserts nor are there even proper wilderness in our little green island.  We have family and vocational commitments, jobs and roles in our society.  Do we need to give them up to be disciples of Christ?  Not at all.  Yet we do need the desert, a wilderness space, in our lives and we can create that desert by withdrawing from unnecessary and distracting activities, conversations and entertainments and giving the time instead to listening to the Lord.  
            The purpose of our life here on earth is not a happy retirement in a comfortable old age but to get to heaven. Getting in to Heaven is not automatic.  There's no easy way in.  You have to choose eternal life with God by having faith in Him, putting His will first here on earth, by avoiding doing evil and actively seeking to do good.   God will not force His love nor will He force Heaven on us.  We have to reach out and grasp His outstretched hand.

            John understood this and he reached out for God's hand will all his might.  His devotion to God's plan cost him his life.  He literally stuck out his neck and put his head on the line. He paid the ultimate price but won a glorious place in Heaven.  Who among us today has a like courage?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

CHRIST IS THE ONLY SOURCE OF TRUE FLOURISHING: a homily for the Eleventh Sunday, year B (Mark 4:26–34)

Full disclosure: I was struggling all week to decide what I should preach on and then on Saturday morning I found the sacred page blog.  I used John Bergsma's reflection on the Sunday readings to construct this Sunday's homily!

Every life, every era has its own particular trials, tribulations and challenges.About 600 years before Christ Ezekiel wrote the words of the first reading to console the Jews as their world fell apart.  The Kingdom established by David had long split in two and now only the southern part, Judah and Jerusalem, remained and that wouldn't last long.  The Jews of Northern Israel were exiles in Syria, and Babylon had already deported many Judeans.  A few years later in 587 BC, Jerusalem and the Temple would be completely destroyed.  
            It was a quite depressing time in the history of God’s people and Ezekiel gives a prophesy of hope: God has a plan and his promise to David is not forgotten. There be will growth once more.  However no dynasty had ever re-established itself having been brought down.  How could this happen?  Surely Ezekiel was mad?
            The “just one” that we heard about in the psalm is compared to a tree that flourishes, grows, and bears fruit.  It's a not uncommon image in the psalms.  Behind it is the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil in Eden, the primordial garden-temple of God.  The “just”—those who live their lives according to God’s will become like the Tree of Life.  They will bear the fruit that Adam and Eve didn’t taste, because they chose to take what had not been offered, what did not yet belong to them.  
            The “just one” is first of all Jesus Christ—the only one who is truly “just.”  He is truly the Tree of Life who bears good fruit in all seasons, eternally. There's an Irish prayer that goes "O King of the Friday, whose arms were stretched on the Cross.  O Lord who did suffer the bruises, the wounds, the loss.  We stretch ourselves beneath the shield of Thy Might.  May some fruit from the Tree of Thy Passion fall on us this night."  It is Christ who has made the Cross and all our personal crosses fruitful. Baptism and the Mass make us His Body and so we too can be the 'just one" flourishing in hard times.  The Lord offers us the means togrow spiritually strong and resilient despite life’s troubles, and bear the fruit of the Spirit and of good works.  

            Again in the Gospel we hear about trees and fruit.  The Lord tells two short parables.  In both of them, the “seed” is the Word of God, in two senses: the proclaimed Gospel is the “word of God”; and Jesus himself is the Word of God.  In the first parable, Jesus tells us that the growth of God’s kingdom is a mystery, the work of the Holy Spirit, and no more dependent on human effort than natural growth depends on us.  A gardener cannot make the seed grow he can only provide the best conditions in his power.  We are responsible for planting the seed by our words and deeds but the growth belongs to the Lord.  We cannot control God's work in our own heart let alone another's. It is the work of God and we must trust Him.
            The Lord also tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree.  Again the “smallest of seeds” and the humblest is in fact Christ himself, who is both the Word of God, and the “seed of David” whom God promised by covenant oath to King David “raise up”:  "When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your seed after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom."  Isaiah prophesied that "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Jesse was David's father and an ancestor of our Lord.

            Christ is the “smallest of seeds” because he is poor, humble and lowly, despised by all: as Isaiah again said:"For he grew up before us like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Those words were fulfilled on the Cross and from the Cross our Lord says to us "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
            After His death on the Cross our Lord was literally planted, that is buried, in the ground.  He said the grain of wheat that dies bears much fruit:  "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  The “mustard seed” of Jesus, planted in the ground in the mountain heights of Israel (Jerusalem), rose from the dead and became the Church, which grew despite persecution and grows throughout the world still.  
            In Christ, the royal Son of David, Ezekiel’s prophecy did come true but not as expected.   Christ turned defeat into victory and the Cross into a throne.  The House of David was reestablished not in Jerusalem but in Heaven, and the Kingdom of David is the Church has spread throughout the world, an international empire of Faith.
            Every life, every era has its own particular trials, tribulations and challenges.Without our Faith in Christ we are no good to anyone.  We need to rekindled our faith and care for it as we would a candle in a cave.  We need to have faith in God and His power to save us.  In this dark time when the Church seems to be failing it’s helpful to remember that times were frequently dark in the past as well. Ezekiel prophesied under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire.  Our Lord ministered under the oppression of the Roman Empire.  How many centuries were our people oppressed and persecuted here in our native land?  The Lord prefers to work through the small, the weak and the powerless: mere mustard seeds. He prefers to work in and through ordinary people in ordinary situations.  In unseen ways He makes things grow and change.  He does not die, He grows; He fills the whole earth, brings eternal life to those that seek His shade.  He is the Tree of Life and if we turn to Him He will feed us with Himself and we will live forever.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

DO THE WILL OF THE FATHER: a homily for the Tenth Sunday in year B, (Mark 3.20–35)

            What a homecoming!  Our Lord returns to Nazareth and faces two challenges. The Jewish lawyers and theologians are accusing Him of being possessed while His relatives are putting Him under pressure to conform.  In the intensely clannish climate of Israel the question is this: where does His authority come from?  In other words who is Jesus and what should we do about Him?
            In the midst of all this our Lord offers His defense: He is the strong man who has robbed the robber Satan.  He is the center of history and the source of salvation.  Anyone who does His Father's will is mother, sister, brother to Him.  It is not biology but obedience to the truth that forms the family of God.
            One would have to be totally indifferent to one's salvation or dangerously complacent not to wonder about that sin against the Holy Spirit.  What does that mean?  The sin against the Holy Spirit or the unforgiveable sin is the refusal to admit one's sin or the power and will of God to forgive it.  It is a rejection of God's mercy and forgiveness. A drowning man who resists any help or a dying man who refuses life-saving treatment cannot be saved and likewise those who refuse God's mercy remain in their sin.  It does not mean that God does not or cannot forgive but that His forgiveness is not welcome and until that changes the sin remains and the sinner cannot hope for Heaven.
            All too often we think of sin in terms of breaking rules, especially breaking Church rules.  That in part is due to the Church's practice in the past of using such penalties to enforce discipline.  Sin is not about breaking rules but about doing evil. Sin is a rejection of God's authority, His mercy and His love, and His plan for us.  It follows that any thought, word or deed that freely and consciously rejects God's plan is evil and therefore sinful.
            You will remember that our Lord says that if anyone looks lustfully at another person he or she has already committed sin in their heart.  This is because the one looking with lust has given their will to an act they know to be wrong and though there was no physical action they have turned their will to an evil end.  Each time you or I do such a thing we make it easier to do it in future until we end up so evil that we can no longer do good.  I knew a female student once who could not tell the truth even if it got her out of trouble.    
            Of course the opposite is also true. The more you choose to do good, to do the right thing, the more likely you are to choose good in future until it becomes nearly impossible to do wrong.  It is a habit, that is, a settled disposition of one's charachter. Such a habit is a virtue if it is good and a vice if it is evil.
            As I have pointed out to you before there is an objective moral order. It is Objective because it exists independently of us, Moral because it governs right and wrong and an order because it has a hierarchical structure.  We do good when we live by it and respect it and evil by ignoring it and acting contrary to it even if only in our thoughts.  This is why even seemingly small acts can be morally significant.
            For instance, Adolf Hitler did not, as far as we know, kill anyone.  Yet by his signature he gave power to Himmler and Himmler gave power to Heydrich and Heydrich thought up the 'final solution', that is, the mass murder of millions of innocent Jews.  The pen is mightier than the sword because it so often unleashes it. So even our smallest acts can bring great good or great evil and we will answer to God for the consequences of every one of them.
            The good news is that God has extended to us His mercy and forgiveness in His Son.  In Christ He has given us everything, every grace and every blessing.  It is up to us to avail of it.  He will not force Himself on us.  He will not violate our free will in even the smallest way.  He would not force the scribes and the Pharisees; He will not force us.
            More, any and every sin, no matter how dreadful or disgusting, no matter how shameful, no matter how often committed, no matter how many affected, any sin will be forgiven if it is repented and confessed.  If we cast ourselves on His mercy we will not be disappointed.  But only those sins are forgiven that are repented and confessed in this life.  We cannot confess or repent in the next.  What we hold back, what we refuse to acknowledge as sin, or if we refuse to trust in His mercy and forgiveness, then that cannot be forgiven.  What is not dipped in the water is not washed.
            Through Baptism and Confirmation He has made us one Family, one flesh with Himself.  More, He has given us a share in His own Sonship and a place on the Throne of Heaven.  In Holy Communion He offers us His Body and Blood, His own soul and Divinity as food for us.  He asks that we believe in Him, trust Him and give Him each and every in sin in the Confession. He wants to see, touch and heal each and every wound.  He will not force His love on us and neither will He force His mercy. 
            Don't let pride or false humility, weak faith or laziness, keep you out of heaven.  The more and the swifter we turn to His grace in the Sacrament of Confession the quicker and the greater will we grow in holiness.  That holiness will attract others to Christ and His mercy, especially those we love.  If you really love your loved ones you will strive to get as close to Christ as possible because only through, with and in Him can anyone be saved. 


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