“I don’t believe it!”

2021 Easter Sunday Octave (B)

Those of you who have come to mass during the week have been hearing of the various post resurrection appearances of Christ to Mary Magdalen, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Peter James and John in Galilee, and then finally to all the disciples together. If you heard these accounts you will know that those who saw the risen Lord first weren’t believed. What this does is to underline how difficult it was/is to believe in the resurrection from the dead. We are born 2,000 years after the event, so it’s hard for us to appreciate what it must have been like. 

Thomas, in today’s gospel, could easily represent many of us. He is hard headed. He doesn’t care how many say they have seen him, he refuses to believe. You can imagine how persuasive Peter and the other disciples would have been. Thomas surely noticed the difference in them. But no matter, Thomas had seen Jesus die and no one, not even the collective joy and enthusiasm of the apostles, could convince him otherwise.  There was only one way he could be convinced and that was to see Jesus himself.  And we know that this is in fact what happened. What a shock he must have had when a week later, Jesus did appear to him. Now this hard-headed, stubborn man, had all the proof he needed. The change in him was dramatic. He says, “My Lord and my God.” I am sure there were tears when he said this; tears of pure joy.  And Jesus said to him, “ Doubt no long but believe”.  

Then Jesus said to him and the others who were present, “you believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  He is referring to us: we did not see Jesus but we believe in him. I have heard people say, “if only I could see Jesus for myself, my faith would be so much stronger.” But would it?  We can and do believe in Jesus even though we’ve not seen him. Even though we are here 2000 years after Jesus walked this earth, he is still very much with us. Not only that but he wants us to know him as well as anyone who knew him personally. He wants to be our friend, our companion along the way. This is what gives us life; this is what makes sense of our lives, even when they can be a mess. He loves us as much as he loved John, Peter, Mary Magdalen and the rest of his disciples. The person who really believes in the resurrection of Christ will be a clear witness to him and will be blessed indeed. Jesus repeats for us today; “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The Week That Changed The World

2021 Palm Sunday (B)

This was one of my favourite days in Jerusalem. For five years I attended the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem; retracing the steps of Christ and his disciples. It was a happy event, a celebration just as it was in Jesus’ day. People were cheering him, as he rode  on the colt of a donkey. It was only later in the week that things turned nasty and dark. The Passion narrative that we have just heard is solemn; it is meant to be. What happens is the most important event in the history of humankind.  God the Father, out of love for us, sent His son to redeem us. Even though His son was divine the Father allowed him to become fully human. Do you see the way they treated him? T The soldiers crown him mockingly with thorns, they spit at him: think about that: has anyone ever spat at you? Jesus the Son of God was spat upon! And they got down on their knees and mocked him. They wanted to humiliate him, and to the outside observer they did. But Jesus accepted all this. He was surely thinking of the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults. So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.’ And he went through all this and more for love of us. All of us: the saints and the sinners. 

This week, beginning today, we enter into the most important week of the Church, indeed of the world, when we accompany Christ into Jerusalem. There we watch him being treated with bitter contempt. We will see him suffer and eventually die. But most important of all we shall see him rise from the dead. This gives us hope; a hope that can never be taken from us. We may have contributed to his Passion but we shall certainly share in his resurrection.

Christ’s tears were of a man who was frightened

2021 5th Sunday of Lent (B) 

We are now coming close to the end of Lent; just one more week. The readings at today’s mass reflect something of the drama that is about to happen: Jesus long journey from Nazareth in the north to Jerusalem in the south is about to come to its conclusion. It won’t be a nice ending and Jesus knows this. What courage it took to keep going; surely the temptation was there to run away. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews had some insight into Jesus state of mind when he writes; ‘During his life on earth, Christ offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death.’ Imagine that if you will: Christ crying alone. In his human nature he did not find this easy; on the contrary. He prayed more than once to be saved from what was to come. And yet he kept going  We are told by the same author that ‘he learned to obey through suffering.’ Think about that; it is not an easy phrase to understand: to obey through suffering. 

Christ’s mission on earth was to do the Father’s will, even when in his human nature he wanted to run away; to get away from what was about to happen. He knew that his confrontations with the scribes and pharisees would lead to his death; he knew this, he didn’t want it but he did it nonetheless; because this is what the Father wanted. His suffering was real. Think of him on his own praying in silent tears.  His tears were of a man who was frightened. He didn’t want this but it had to be and he accepted that. He learned to obey through suffering. 

He gives his disciples a real insight into his death when he said, “unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and died, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’ This is what Jesus must do: he must die in order to produce a rich harvest; which is the salvation of humankind. From a human perspective his death was insignificant; people were being crucified in their hundreds and indeed thousands by the romans; he was just another one. But he, was Jesus, God and man; the Son of God. Others go to the cross kicking and screaming; Jesus went to the cross willingly. From a faith perspective his death changed the destiny of humankind. And that is not all, we too can join him in his suffering for others. Every time we suffer, and we all do, alone and in silent tears, we can join our suffering to Christ’s. And although what we suffering may seem insignificant compared to Christ’s, none the less by sharing our suffering with his we too share in Christ’s redemptive work. Our little effort is transformed when it is joined to Christ’s.  These are profound thoughts but what is happening this week in Lent is the most important event in the history of humankind.  

It was weird

2021  2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

Have you ever seen a ghost?  Have you ever been frightened by something you saw?  I know people who believe they’ve seen ghosts. I’ve been to peoples’ houses to bless them against poltergeists; that’s what some experience: when things begin to move in a room. People are scared. So, you can understand why the 3 apostles were scared when they saw Jesus’ transfigured, then saw him with two people who had died centuries before. Peter was so scared he just kept talking. The gospel tells us, ‘Peter did not know what to say; they were so frightened.’ And they were alone. And they were in a remote place; no one could help them. 

They would never forget this experience, but maybe that was Jesus’ intention. He allowed them to see something no one had seen before; they saw something of his divinity; it was a strange mystical experience; they’d later tell the others “you should have been there. It was weird.” They’d only seen Jesus in one light before. Apart from his teaching and healing he was just like everyone else. They’d got to know him well, which you do when you spend time with someone, especially if you live with them. They stayed together, walked together, washed together, ate together, had fun together. Yes, they knew him; or they thought they did till now.

Was Jesus preparing them for what was to come? He is on his way to Jerusalem where he will see him mistreated, abused, scorned and rejected. Later they will see people spit on him, hit him, laugh at him, then beat and scourge him, before putting him to death like a common criminal. Jesus knew this was going to happen. He knew it would test his disciples’ faith in him, so the transfiguration was a lesson for them: he wanted to open their eyes to see who he really was. And it was shocking. They’d heard God the Father call him His son. But soon they would hear people say, ‘crucify him.’  But these were not two people. Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he chose to suffer, to be humiliated and to die on a cross, even though he was the Son of God. When they saw him on Mount Tabor they were in awe of him but when they saw him on calvary they ran away. Later they would remember the transfiguration. It would help their faith during their own trials. If the transfigured Christ could allow himself to be treated so badly then so could they. The transfigured Christ and the crucified Christ were the same person. The transfiguration was then a preparation for what was to come. 

Just too good to be true?

1st Sunday of Lent (B) 2021

‘The spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness’ Notice that: he was driven; it’s almost like saying he was pushed. It’s not something a person would normally want to do. That’s because the desert is a lonely, hostile place. I remember spending a night in the Sinai desert; sleeping on the ground out in the open; not even a tent.  I have never been so cold in my life. And Jesus endures this for forty nights!  I was so cold I couldn’t sleep. In the night there were all sorts of strange noises; some strange wild animals came into our camp, probably looking for food. I was worried that one of us might have been their food!  To have spent 40 days in that place would have been quite an experience. You can feel very small and vulnerable. 

When Jesus left the desert he went into Galilee and proclaimed the Good News from God. The message he proclaimed was a good one; one to make people happy and contented; not that everyone listened. “Repent and believe the Good News” he repeated to anyone who would listen. We hear something similar on Ash Wednesday, “turn away from sin and believe the Gospel.’ Repentance means to turn away. And this is what Jesus asks us to do during Lent. He’s not asking us to go into the wilderness, but he is asking us to turn away from sin and believe the Good News.

If we believed the Good News then we would turn away from sin. Because the Good News is just that: that in spite of our sins the God loves us, because He is a God of mercy. Why should that be so hard to accept? And yet it must be because many people cannot believe in God’s mercy. If He were a God of justice they would believe it,  a God who keeps a record of all our sins and will punish accordingly: this is the kind of God many could believe in, because we understand that when you do wrong you deserve to be punished. It’s something we’re taught from our earliest years. In school we are punished if we break the rules. But God isn’t like this. He isn’t like us. He is a God of love and mercy who forgives us our sins, no matter how serious they are or have been.  Is this too good to be true?  No, it is true. It is the Good News. 

So during Lent, knowing that we are loved and forgiven, we strive to avoid sin in our lives; we try not to be selfish, or angry or hard hearted. We try not to judge others.  We try but of course we fail. But to repent means to keep trying; you don’t turn away from sin just once, you keep having to do that. Christ went to a lot of trouble to tell us the Good News: not just 40 days in the desert but so much more. He went through agony for us and then died a cruel death. Why wouldn’t we take the trouble to listen to what he says?  It will make us better, happier people. 

Overworked & underpaid!

2021 5th Sunday of the Year (B) 

The picture of Job we get from the first reading is that he’s not a happy man. Maybe that’s why we like him so much, or at least, identify with him; it’s much easier to identify with someone who is miserable than with someone who is happy all the time. “Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service” Job complains “his time no better than hired drudgery.” No, not a happy soul. Yet I understand where he is coming from. I remember the time before I became a priest, working in an office, and the constant refrain was “we’re overworked and underpaid!” Yes, unhappiness and dissatisfaction are easy to identify with. And yet in spite of the drudgery Christ offers us so much more. 

Christ’s life wasn’t easy either. Look at today’s gospel. See how people won’t leave him alone. The Gospel tells us ‘the whole town came crowding round the door’. All of them looking for something from him. And he saw each one. He healed each one. And still they kept coming. We have an expression ‘no rest for the wicked’, of course, that can’t apply to Jesus; still, he got no rest. Some people were in genuine need; you’d like to presume most of them, but others were just using him in some way or other; seeing him as a soft touch. And yet he treated all alike. He must have been exhausted in the end. But he would have it no other way because he was doing the Father’s will. No wonder the next day he got up early to go to a lonely place, to rest and to pray in order to recharge his batteries. 

Jesus challenges us to be like him, to copy his example. Life for us too can be difficult at times, and never more so than during this pandemic. It can help us to see that we too, as followers of Christ, have a role to play. Not necessarily healing the sick but healing in a wider sense. At this difficult time many people are in need of such healing, the young and not so young. They are at best fed up and bored, or at worst depressed and suicidal. God has put us here to help others. We don’t have to be heroic, just to be kind, compassionate and generous. God is asking us to reach out to others in need. Yes, we have our own needs, but the more you give to others the more you get back. It is by helping others that we ourselves are helped. In the midst of the drudgery that is this lockdown when we help others a ray of light comes into our lives. 

We have a choice: to be like Job, where everything is doom and gloom or to be like Christ, where everything has a purpose, a good purpose , even the drudgery. 

Can God really help?

4th Week in Ordinary Time (b) 

A hospital chaplain I know told me recently that she found it hard to think about God these days. I know her well and know that she is a good catholic. But this pandemic is affecting her in this way. She just finds it hard to think about God. And I suspect she is like many other good catholics at this time.  I remember when my mother was dying, she told me how hard she found it to pray.  It wasn’t exactly the same thing as this young chaplain but here was my mother, a life long catholic, admitting that she couldn’t pray. I told her that she shouldn’t be surprised at this. It is one thing to turn to God and pray when all is rosy, it is another when life is like it is today: difficult, boring, never-ending lockdown. 

It is at times like this that we feel so weak and vulnerable. Our faith can seem so shallow. We know we should think about God, we know we should pray, but we don’t always find it easy. The difficulties and problems that this pandemic have created seem too big, even for God. They are not, of course, but they can seem this way when we are at our lowest.   So, the gospel of today is a reassurance. We see Jesus the teacher and the healer. He teaches because he is a prophet and he heals because he heals with the power of God. He heals a man with an unclean spirit; we would say he was possessed. Not a nice thing to be possessed. You are no longer in control; something else is in control of you. It must be so frightening, also for those who live with such a person. When Jesus heals this man the people are astonished. They have never seen anything like this; “he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.”  This is because Jesus has the power to do this; he is a god-given healer, as well as a teacher. 

And the power of God in Christ isn’t dead. It is true that Christ died 2,000 years ago but his power and authority live on in the Church.  If you feel this lockdown is all getting a bit too much, if you feel lonely and vulnerable, then do make an act of faith. Close you eyes and realize that Christ is with you, near you, to help you. He is not just a friend, he is more than a friend; that is to say, he has the power to lift you out of the doom and gloom that you are experiencing.  So, one might ask, why doesn’t he do it now?  Why does he have to wait till we are at our lowest. I can’t answer that question. But maybe because he wants to show his power in our weakness.  His grace is working in us now, to help us and to make us stronger. We don’t see it. But I dare to say that when this is all over we shall look back and see his hand at work. In the darkness we shall have drawn much closer to him. And, I dare to say, we will say: it was worth it.  It was worth that negative experience so that I could feel the power and love of God over me. This is what we mean by grace; that mysterious yet real power of God working in and through me. Yes, grace is amazing. 

You are loved and lovable

3rd Sunday of the Year (B) 2021

There is a word that I suspect is very off putting for many Catholics, and that word is “repent”. Is it an over-reaction to evangelical preachers. You know the kind that tells us to “repent because the end of the world is nigh”?  It may be. Or maybe we just don’t like the idea of repentance. Yet Jesus uses this word in the gospel today, “repent, he says, and believe the good news”.  I think his words create a different reaction; maybe less threatening. 

Words are important. It’s how we normally communicate. We open our mouths and the words come out. But there are different kinds of words. There are words that build up and words that destroy.  And they can destroy. There is an old saying that children use when they don’t like what someone says about them: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  If only it were true. In my experience words can do more harm than sticks and stones. However, the opposite is true: words can build you up and make you feel good about yourself. And that is what the Word of God does.  Today the Church wants us to reflect on the Word of God; it has set aside this day as ‘The Sunday of the Word of God’.  How important it is to listen to what God is saying to us. 

Thank God we Catholics do this more now. When I was a child we didn’t read scripture, and we weren’t really encouraged to. But this is how God makes Himself known to us: through His words. We should echo the words of the psalmist who says in today’s psalm: “Lord, make me know your ways. Lord, teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me.”  By reading scripture we do get to know the Lord and we learn what he wants us to do. The word of God can be and should be our guide in our journey through life. What God wants to tell us isn’t so much to repent; though that will always apply to some extent, but what He wants to tell us is that we are loved and we are lovable.  Isn’t this what we want to hear: who wouldn’t want to hear that they are loved and that they are lovable?  Such words build us up, make us stronger, boosts our confidence, so that we believe that with God at our side we can do anything.  

Such is the Word of God. It is so positive and so life-giving. Reading the word of God and taking it to heart changes us; it definitely makes us better people, better Catholics, better Christians. So why wouldn’t we spend more time reading scripture when it will make us feel so much better about ourselves and about life; even during this pandemic. 

Do I have to listen to God?!

2nd Sunday of the Year

When I wake up in the morning these Covid days, I have to overcome inertia; a reluctance to start the day. This isn’t like me but it’s what happens now most mornings. In spite of this lack of enthusiasm to face the day I turn to a crucifix opposite my bed and say: “Speak Lord your servant is listening”.  I do this in imitation of Samuel who was told to do this by his teacher Eli. Unlike Samuel I have never heard the Lord speaking to me. And yet I continue to say this prayer because I know the Lord can and does speak to me in all sorts of ways that are non-verbal: he speaks to me through other people, through events and the circumstances of my day. 

As a baptised Christian I, like all Christians,  am called to listen to God and to do his will. He calls us to listen each day. He first called on the day of our baptism. but most of us won’t remember that, as we were babies. However, we grow up and as we do so we grow in faith.   When Christ called the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, he did not just call them once. Every day He called them to follow Him.  And after His resurrection, when he had disappeared from their sight, he continued to call them. “Speak Lord your servant is listening”, is a prayer all Christians should say. 

Today is World Day of Prayer for Peace. The Lord is calling all of us to be peacemakers. He wants us to strive to overcome injustice and violence in our society and in our world. This is not easy and many avoid doing it. It can be so much easier to avoid getting involved. And so we busy ourselves with other things rather than face up to the injustice in our society. The trouble is that violence and war are what happens when good people do nothing. 

“Speak Lord your servant is listening.” He calls us not just to pray, to go to Church, but above all to listen to His gospel message; a message of peace and justice. But this can be disturbing sometimes. Being a peacemaker means getting involved.  It means getting upset when you hear of injustice and violence and warfare. It means trying to do something about this. It is not right to say: “Who am I? what can I do?” To bring about change all that needs to happen is everyone does a little, God will do the rest. Peace doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it. We Christians being followers of Christ, are called to bring peace and justice to our world; I cannot really be a true follower of Christ, if I avoid the suffering of my brothers and sisters

I may be a wimp but God’s power is in me

Baptism of the Lord 2021 (B)

I had the great privilege of living in Jerusalem for almost five years. And one of the highlights of my time there was baptizing someone in the river Jordan. It was the same place and the same river where Jesus was baptized 2,000 years earlier.  What a privilege. I did not see a dove nor hear a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.”  But the person I’d baptized had received the holy spirit, and was now a child of God and co-heir with Christ. He was no longer the same person. 

One might wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised, since he was without sin. We don’t really know except that it marked the beginning of his public ministry.  From now on his life would never be the same again; now he was called by the Father, ‘to serve the cause of right’… ‘to open the eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.’ He was still the same person but he was different. His baptism had changed him. So much so that when he began preaching his relatives thought he had gone mad.  But he hadn’t of course. He was as sane and anyone. But the effect of his baptism was to change his life.  He began to preach and to heal, because the power of God was working in him. 

We too were baptised. I presume most of us were baptised as babies. Probably not in the river Jordan but in a parish font.  Once the baptism was over we were never the same again; the spirit and power of God was in us.  That power is made manifest in ways that are not always obvious.  Most of the time we don’t see it. Indeed, if you are like me, you tend to see more your weaknesses.  And so, for example, during this pandemic I thought I should be above it all; that I should be strong and unaffected by the doom and gloom. “I am an ordained priest,” I said to myself; “surely I should be an example;  someone who was not like others, but I am just like everyone else,  like most people I feel down at times, bored, trapped and fed up.  

Christ’s baptism was a turning point in his life. And so it is in ours. We don’t suddenly become superhuman, above all pain and those things that afflict our world, especially now. No, God’s power given to us in baptism works in us in spite of our weaknesses and failings. The good we do in life is because of God’s grace working in us. We too are called to ‘serve the cause of right… and to open the eyes of the blind.’ God is working in you as He did in Christ. With His power you can do great things; this is what you were called to do; this is why you were baptised.