Sunday, January 29, 2017

RESPONDING TO GOD: THE BEATITUDES, A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A, (A4 Matthew 5:1–12a)

You can listen to this homliy here.
Our Lord went up a mountain.  Unless you know the stories of the Old Testament that may not seem all that significant but it God frequently chose mountainsides to talk to His people.  Moses went up Mount Sinai and came down with the Ten Commandments.   Our Lord goes up this mountain to reveal that He is the true Lawgiver who is God made man.  This new Law that He gives does not replace the old one but surpasses and completes it and it is to His disciples, those who would follow Him, that He reveals it.
On this mountain then our Lord sits down just as the Rabbis and teachers sat to teach.  He teaches them, and us, the beatitudes.  He is promising Divine blessing on those who follow this teaching and put it into practice.  These are not exemplars of individual forms of virtue but different steps on the one path to eternal life: the path of pursuing the Father’s will.
First He tells us that  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.   The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God and seek Him.  As He promises elsewhere they will find Him and His Kingdom.  We seek Him by prayer, uniting our heart and mind in focusing on God’s presence within us and around us.  In addition we seek Him by trying to live a virtuous life, a life without evil that seeks to do good.  Next we are told that “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted”.   He does not mean just any mourning but those who mourn over their sins and the sins of others for the Mercy and Love of God made present in Christ and His Church will comfort and heal them.  The monks of the desert, the fathers of the religious life, cherished the beatitudes and therefore they cherished gift of tears.  Genuine weeping over one’s sins, they understood, brought greater and greater openness to God’s loving mercy and healing. 
Then we are told that “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land”.  The cynical like to say ‘yes after the rich and powerful are finished with it”.  But our Lord is not talking about this world or the land we stand on.  Rather He is talking about the new Earth and the new Heaven that will be revealed at the end of time.  The meek are those who follow God’s example and refrain from violence, force and aggression.  They are those who, like Christ, will not crush the bruised reed, but stand their ground, endure evil without doing evil, and put their trust in God’s faithfulness. 
We are then told that   “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”  True righteousness is being right with God.  If it is part of the path to mourn over one’s sins, another part is longing to be really, truly holy, that is right with God and one’s neighbour.  Real holiness should not be confused with piety (respect and reverence for the holy), which is good but differs from person to person.  Real holiness is unaware of itself and totally given over to the love of God and one’s neighbour.  That is why the saints flee those who admire them and seek out those in need of help.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” means what it says that when we extend to others the mercy we have received from God we make room in ourselves for even greater outpourings of His mercy.  We cannot get to Heaven by prayer alone.   It is not enough to make and act of faith in Jesus.  We must reach out to those around us, especially those who are in need.  Then there is this great promise that “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God”.   The Beatific vision, the sight of God as God in Heaven, is promised to those who have, through the previous steps, purified their hearts, so that the inner eye of their faith, and their own purified eyes can behold the infinite brilliance of God.   This too was cherished by the desert monks for they found that if one is faithful and allows God’s grace to purify one’s heart, one can see God even in this life.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” He tells us “for they will be called children of God.”  Those who are at peace with God want others to be at peace with Him, that is, reconciled to His will and His plan for us.  If we truly believe we cannot keep it to ourselves.  We cannot have a private faith, a faith that we practice only at home, like knitting.  Our faith must shape every aspect of our lives and we should care for the salvation of every person we meet.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” means that we should not expect this path, this new Law to be easy.  Rather we should expect that it will be a struggle, that from within ourselves and from outside ourselves there will come opposition.  We are not creatures who like change.  We find our habits, good and bad, comforting.  Change is hard and demands persistence and patience.  Not everyone will like us to change.  If we change we will no longer be predictable or perhaps manageable.   Perseverance takes time.
The last beatitude, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” is really a summation of the others.  This way is difficult, our Lord is telling us, but His grace is greater still.  What we cannot do by our own power He can do through us if we cooperate with Him.  However small our contribution His grace can work miracles.  The reward that lies ahead of us completely outstrips the effort.  No pleasure, no compensation, no reward in this world can compare with the glory and joy that awaits those who hear His teaching and put it in to practice, persevering and not giving up however often they may fall.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

NOT HAUNTED BUT ALIVE: a homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A

I only found out about this because it was on the front page of a daily newspaper.  On a recent Late Late Show a guest referred to the Blessed Sacrament as  ‘haunted bread’ and the ‘ghost of a two thousand year old carpenter’.  There was a moment of hope when another guest did describe the Blessed Sacrament as “the Body of Christ” but then she went on to state that it scared her as it sounded like cannibalism.  It was also claimed that the Church does not want us to use critical thinking.  Considering that some of the world’s greatest thinkers were Catholic theologians and philosophers and that the Church founded many of the greatest universities of the Western world e.g. Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Salamanca, etc., one can only call such claims pernicious disinformation.  I spent eight years in Catholic colleges getting educated to be a priest and never was I discouraged from thinking critically.  Quite the opposite I was encouraged and thought how to think and to think critically. 
The whole conversation on the Late Late was jocular and irreverent and the priest in Kerry who complained was right to do so.  Such ignorance and disrespect are the by-products of poor teaching both at Mass and in our schools.   I don’t really understand why secular people are worried about the Church’s role in education, since for the last half century her failure in that area has lead to the decline in the Faith in Ireland.  Yet people must also take responsibility for their own ignorance.  Never before in the history of the world have we had such easy access to information even about our Faith.  If people do not know what the Church teaches on some matter it is because they have not bothered to go and find out.
Part of our problem is the practice of having children receive Holy Communion before Confirmation which has lead us to misunderstandings and a failure to appreciate what being Catholic means.  Another problem is that children today are told that Holy Communion is ‘Holy Bread’.  Children’s minds can make great leaps of the imagination and put their trust in the assurances of adults but they are often quite literal in their thinking.  To tell a child that the Blessed Sacrament is ‘Holy Bread’ is risking a fatal misunderstanding.  Apart from the failure of Catholic educators and schools there is the failure of parents to appropriate, understand and hand on their faith to their children – for too long have Irish Catholics assumed that they could live on a minimum diet as regards their faith.  The great English Cardinal Heenan in the 60’s pointed out that Irish Catholics were largely ignorant of their Faith and for too long have Catholic parents assumed that the schools would their do their job for them and do it better.
What do we believe though?  We believe that Christ instituted the Church and the Sacraments for our sanctification, our salvation.  In the Eucharist, the Mass, Christ, through the ministry of the priest, makes the bread and wine into His Body and His Blood so that He is truly present here with nothing lacking.  God is all self-gift and this is just as true in His Eucharistic Presence.  At the words of consecration, when the priest says “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” Christ, truly God and truly Man, is really and completely Present on the Altar.  Nothing visibly changes but it is only the outward appearances of bread and wine that remain.  In Holy Communion we receive Christ whole and entire, body and soul, humanity and Divinity,  - He gives us His whole self not as a ghost, not as an echo, not a ‘blessed’ or ‘holy bread’ but the Bread of Breads, God Himself, whole and entire.  This is not something that one can grasp other than by faith.  Only with the eyes of our faith can we see this reality.  The reality of His Presence does not depend on our faith but our faith depends on Him.
At every Mass, the Sacrifice of Calvary is made present and it is offered to the Father on our behalf.  On Calvary Christ made His eternal adoration of, worship of, perfect obedience to  and love for the Father visible through His suffering and death on the Cross.  He offered that eternal worship to the Father on our behalf.  Whatever is sincerely united to that Sacrifice, however small, takes on the infinite value of the Sacrifice of Christ.  So it is important that we bring our sacrifices, our cares and trials, indeed our whole being, to Mass with us and unite them with the bread and the wine, offering them to the Father with the Priest, the icon and minister of Christ.
We do not eat part of Christ in Holy Communion.  Think what receive means: to receive is to be the beneficiary of a gift but it can also mean to make welcome.  We, each of us, receive all of Him or rather He receives us, He makes us welcome in Himself.  Christ does not benefit from us since He is all-sufficient but He makes us welcome in Himself.  He has made us into Himself in Baptism and Confirmation and in Holy Communion He confirms that welcome with a taste of Heaven, a taste accessible not to the senses but to faith.  We can do this because in Baptism and Confirmation He has made us one with Himself.  As one of the early Church Fathers said “we receive what we will be”.   In Holy Communion we receive what we already are and what we are yet to be because we are already in union with Christ, but in Heaven we will have a complete and perfect union. So the idea of cannibalism is a gross misunderstanding – one cannot eat one’s true self.
Christ has not abandoned us.  His Resurrection and Ascension did not place Him at a distance from us but, because of His power working through the Sacraments, we now have a real, supernatural link uniting our nature with His in heaven.  It is said that we all have one foot in the grave but in truth all the Baptised have one foot in Heaven.  Out task is lift the other and plant it beside the first.  It is through our Communion with Christ that we receive the power, the grace to do this.  If you want to love more, to love better, draw close to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, receive Him in a proper manner, worship Him and attend to Him and He will give you all the graces you need and more.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

GOOD NEWS VERSUS FAKE NEWS: a homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A (John 1:29–34)

As per usual I have recorded the homily and you can hear it here.
            Unless you never look at the news or have been living in an enclosed monastery until today you will probably be sick to the back teeth of American politics at this stage.  Most disturbing is all the talk of ‘fake news’ as if we had any real way of checking how true the news is.  There are seven billion people living on the Earth today and with that many people lots of interesting things happen but the RTE main evening news only lasts half an hour including the weather forecast and the adverts.  All our news is filtered and all of it is filtered by a tiny group of people.  It is they who get to decide what we hear and see.  There has always been fake news since the devil tempted Adam and Eve and lied to them in the garden.  He has added to his lies over the millennia.  How are we to know the truth then?  Might I suggest that he is a credible witness who is prepared to die for the truth.

John the Forerunner, 25 x 20 cm, Maria Bonef, 2007

Is John the Baptist a credible witness?   Is his news worth listening to?  Would you listen to John if he were preaching today?  A man who wears camel skins and eats insects?  Why should we listen to him?  I say we listen to John because he put his money where his mouth was, he paid for his ministry with his life.  The extraordinary thing is that while the Church calls John a martyr he did not die for witnessing to Jesus, at least not explicitly, but for witnessing to the sacredness of marriage and the evil of fornication and adultery.  In this he affirmed what our Lord was teaching just as he affirmed who Jesus is.
John, as a good disciple and a good Jew, testifies to Jesus but although he was his cousin he did not know Him as God before Jesus came to him to be baptised.  It was at Christ’s baptism that Jesus’ true identity was revealed to John.  John, because of his fidelity, was given a vision of the Holy Trinity and therefore an insight into who Jesus is.  The baptism offered by John was not sacramental but merely symbolic of our need and desire for repentance and conversion of life.  Christ had no need of baptism but by submitting to John’s baptism, in an act of humility, He identifies Himself with all of us who do need to repent and to be saved.  The word ‘baptise’ means to immerse and so our Lord, by the act of submitting to baptism, immerses Himself in the waters of the world and thus sanctifies all water and lays the foundation for the Sacrament of Baptism by which we are immersed into Christ and into His death and resurrection.
Our Lord’s act of humility draws down the loving care of the Father who reveals to John that He sends the Holy Spirit upon our Lord as His Son or rather makes the eternal movement of the Spirit from the Father to the Son visible to John, and so affirm our Lord’s identity and mission.  It is into this eternal movement of love that we are baptized for what Christ is by nature we are given by His gift and we become Son to the Father.
To be Catholic, therefore, is to be the beneficiaries of this extraordinary gift and privilege.  We are given so much and so little is asked of us in return.  God the Father has given us His Son, has made us equal to the Son through baptism.  He created us for Him and even though we have fallen into sin He has not abandoned us but sent His Son to us, as one of us, fully human, to make in Himself a bridge that we might be united with Him forever.
We talk of the ‘love’ of God for us and what a pathetic expression that is for it cannot begin to do justice to what God has willed for us.  God has held nothing back from us in giving us His Son.  He has offered us what is most precious to Himself, He is really and truly made present in every Mass, is in every tabernacle in every Catholic church, and we can receive Him every day if we wish and are in a state of grace.  All this for free.  We can see God here under the veil of bread and wine, hidden to our sense but visible to our faith. 

Crucifixion by Ekaterina and Anton Daineko

God has held nothing back so why are we so cold, so lacking in charity?  I suggest it is because we hear and then we forget.  We do not protect the candle of our faith from the winds of disbelief.  We let the fake news of the world drown out the good news of what God has done for us.  How many hours have we given to radio and TV  listening to or watching rubbish and how many minutes to the Lord in prayer and reading?   How often are we late for Mass or arrive rushed and distracted with no time to slow down and focus on what we are about to do?  How often do we rush away from Mass, having received Christ in Holy Communion, with hardly a prayer of thanks?  St John Vianney, patron of priests, said that the most important moments of the day are those fifteen minutes after Holy Communion when we are as close to Christ as we will ever get in this world.  He said that if you want to become a saint give that time to Christ in thanksgiving and adoration!  Cherish and meditate on what God has done for you and you will be drawn ever closer to His Heart and you will know His loving care for you.
As Catholics we are called to be martyrs.  The word martyr means a ‘witness’.  Unlike in Islam one cannot be a witness, a martyr, by killing anyone.  The only way to be a Catholic martyr is to witness with one’s life to the truth of Christ, to stand up for the truth even if it costs one’s life.  All the saints are martyrs, but though not all of them had to die for Christ, all of them lived for and witnessed to Him.  They did so because they listened and believed, they paid attention to Him and discovered His Presence and His love. 

If we give time to Christ we will find the power to really love and forgive others, to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek perhaps even the courage and strength to die for Him.  In getting closer to Christ and what He has done for us we will discover the joy of the Lord and what it means to be truly alive.  We will taste Heaven in this live and gain it in the next.


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