Sunday, 18 March 2018

Confession & Spring, 5th Sunday of Lent, Year B

Jn 12:20-30; Jer 31:31-34
This Sunday it’s turned cold again, with the second “Beast from the East” weatherfront hitting us. 
But earlier this week it was warmer for a while, and we’ve begun to see the signs of spring. 
I saw some crocuses out when walking with my parents last Sunday on Mother’s Day, and, for me it’s always the yearly sight of crocuses that makes me realise that spring is on the way, that new life is coming after the winter.
But I realised this week, as the sun was out and the temperature up, that I’d almost forgotten what spring LOOKS like.  I’d gotten used to the sight of brown earth in the flower bed.  No flowers.  No leaves on the trees.  No green. 
This winter I just got used to it.  I forgot that it could be otherwise.

And it occurred to me that my soul can be the same.  I can get used to things being lifeless or tepid or barren.  I can get used to the sin. 
Maybe small sins that I’ve gotten used to. 
But I can used to the big sins too.
And then there are so many sins that can start small but become big, or that I can forget how big they’ve become:
Being irritable, habitually, so people are wary of me;
Being impatient, so that I don’t suffer fools gladly;
Being careless, so that people can’t rely on me as they should be able to;
Being lazy, so that things just don’t get done.
All these things and more I can just get used to, I can forget that it possible to be otherwise.

Today’s first reading contains the prophecy of Jeremiah that there would be a “new covenant” to replace the old one.  The Chosen People had broken the old covenant by their unfaithfulness, by their sins. 
And the Church reminds us of this promise of the “new” covenant, even though we already live in this “new” covenant, in Christ Jesus.  The Church reminds us of this “new” offer because she knows that we always stand in need of being re-made. 
In particular, in the season in of Lent, we’d do well to remember that the word “lent” is an old Saxon word for “spring”.  So all of our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving in this season is aiming at achieving a similar new growth in our hearts.

But if we are to have this new growth, if we are to remember what spring feels like in our souls, just like nature is showing us once again what spring looks like in the plants,
if we are to have this new life then something has to DIE within us first, and that something is sin. 
The Lord said, as we just heard, that a grain of wheat must die if it is to bring forth a harvest of new life.  My sins, likewise, must die. 
And they die by my repenting of them, and the Lord forgiving me for them. 

In just over a week, on the Tuesday evening, in preparation for Easter, there will be 4 priests here to hear your confessions.  This is a key moment in the year for us to think about those things within us that we have allowed ourselves to get overly used to, like getting used to the brown barren earth and forgetting what spring greenery and flowers are like.

The great gift of living in the “new covenant” is that we can repent and start again.  And, even more so: the great gift of being in the season of Lent, is that this is a special moment of grace, a special moment to come back to life.
So let’s not get used to barren brown earth in our souls, let’s get to confession, let’s open our souls to Christ that life may spring forth.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Mothering Sunday, 4th Sunday Lent, Year B

2 Chron 36:14-23; Ps 136; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21
Our second reading spoke of the great LOVE of God for us, and I want to run through a few of the SIGNS of that love, in our various readings today.  That love, as St Paul indicates, is shown in His mercy: the mercy that has allowed his people to come back to Him in every age, the mercy that enables us to come back to Him in our Lenten repetence.

In the first reading we heard about how the people defiled the Temple.  And the thing is this: though God punished them for their sins by the Exile in Babylon, He did this to purify them, so that He then rescued them and saved them.
He could have left them in their sin, but no, He purified them so that they could be His own again.
Then in our psalm 136, we heard about how the Children of Israel sang sorrowfully by the waters of Babylon. 
But even there, in the midst of their sorrow, they were neither abandoned or alone: The Lord was with them and preparing them, not least by urging them to recall the Jerusalem they had lost and yearn for the New Jerusalem and our Heavenly Home, and so get them READY for it.
In our Gospel, we heard the reference to the serpent in the desert, which should remind of us of how when fiery serpents came among the people of Israel as they were wandering in the wilderness, God gave them the miraculous image of a bronze serpent, so that anyone who was bitten could look upon it and live (Numbers 21:6-9).
And this, of course, is a sign and foreshadowing of Christ being lifted up on the Cross.  We, now, even in our sin and suffering and difficulties, we can look to Him who suffers with us, and pleads for our forgiveness. 

There is one particular sign of God’s love that I’d like to mention today, however, and that is mothers, because today is Mothering Sunday.  It’s true that not everyone gets to be blessed with a living mother, and not everyone is blessed with a caring mother
-there are some people that God blesses in other ways. 
But it is right today to sing the praises of mothers.

I was thinking recently whether God could have made a world without mothers. 
And I thought about how sea turtles are born:  When the little turtle pops out of its shell it’s all alone on the beach, and has to make its own may in the world.
But that’s not how God has made us.  God has made humans so that we are born WEAK and born in need of someone to CARE for us.
We are inherently SOCIAL beings, and our need for MOTHERS is a sign of our need for LOVE, and a sign of our need to love others back.
We need someone to watch over us from our beginnings, at our weakest.  To know us and know our needs, to worry about us even when we don’t think to worry about ourselves.
  And this is what a mother is called to give us.

Today, in the same way I was earlier recounting the goodness of God, today we should be giving thanks to mothers and to our own mother –to not let love be a one-way street. 
If our mothers have passed on from this life, to thank them beyond the grave.
If there are things we need to forgive our mothers for, to not nurse grudges.
And when there are things to ask forgiveness for ourselves, to not forget this either.

Finally, there is one particular Mother we should not forget, the Mother that EVERYONE has, our heavenly Mother, Our Lady. 
At the end of Mass the children will first present a flower to Our Heavenly Mother, and then take them to their earthly mother.

So when we see the children come up later with flowers for Our Lady, let us pray in our own hearts too, to thank God for Our Lady, and to thank her for all her prayers on our behalf.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Mortify the Old Man, 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year B

1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25
Our second reading, from St Paul to the Corinthians, contained one of the most quoted verses of the New Testament: “We preach Christ crucified”(1 Cor 1:23).
St Paul then spoke of how scandalous the cross was: “to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the pagans madness”(1 Cor 1:24).

I’d like us to focus on why, “Christ crucified” is sheer “madness”, or “folly” as some translations put it.
The message of the Cross is that the “new man” (Rom 6:6), namely, Christ, is so radically better than the “old man” that the “old man must be crucified with Him”(Rom 6:6).
For those rooted in THIS world, who think that THIS world is all there is, then the message that we must put it to death is “madness”.

Yet the New Testament tells us,
you must “put to death what belongs to your earthly nature” (Col 3:5),
you must “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13),
that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the old nature with its desires and passions” (Gal 5:24).
The "the old man" (Col 3:9, Eph 4:22, Rom 6:6)
“of the flesh” (Col 2:11)
“of sin” and “of death” (Rom 6:6; 7:24),
The old man must die.
You cannot have both the old and the new, as the Lord said: unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit (Jn 12:24). 

The Lord Jesus said you cannot serve both God and money (Mt 6:24).
“Whoever would save his life must lose it; and whoever would lose his life will save it” (Mt 16:24).

The scriptural word for the change that must happen to us is “mortification” (c.f. Col 3:5)
-the putting to death of the old man.
This is not a single act, but a process, and it’s to this process that we are dedicated in Lent.
There are three things in “the old man” that the Catholic tradition identifies as needing to be put to death:
The will, the imagination, and the flesh.

My imagination needs to be habitually controlled
if I am to re-direct what my heart yearns for.
My flesh needs to be trained, controlled, re-made,
by the process of fasting and self-denial we enter upon in Lent
-this is why we give things up in this season, to remake our fallen nature.
My will, in all things, needs to have the old man within it subdued.
I put my will to death every time I say ”no” to myself.
I want the chocolate, and I say “no”.
I want to be lazy and do nothing, and I say “no”.
I want to be selfish rather than focus on the needs of someone else, and I say “no”.
If my will is to be habituated to the good, to serving others, to putting God first,
then I need to learn to say ”no” to myself, say “no” to my will.
“Unless you take up your cross daily, you cannot be my disciple”(Mt 16:24)

As I started by quoting, for those who live with their heart set on this world, this is “madness”.
But it is only by tearing down the old that the new might come.
“Tear down this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19) .

And this is why Christians must always people of the Cross.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B

Gen 22:1-2,9-13,15-18; Rom 8:31-34; Mk 9:2-10
In our first reading we heard about Abraham and Isaac, and hearing of how Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac is always a little problematic. I'll return to that issue in a minute, but I want to first point to the fact that there are three different sacrifices being alluded to in our liturgy today.

First, there is the sacrifice of Isaac. That Abraham was willing to give up his son, even though he loved him dearly (Gen 22:2).
Second, there is the sacrifice of Jesus, the one eternal son of the Divine Father. As we heard in our second reading, what proves that the Father loves us is that He was willing to sacrifice His own Son for us (Rom 8:32).
Further, in the gospel, we heard of how Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, shown in glory to Peter, James and John. And remember the context: the Lord Jesus had just predicted that He would be crucified (Mk 8:31), had just revealed the horror that lay in wait. And He shows them this vision of future glory to sustain them through that horror.
Now, we might note that His predicting His passion, and preparing His disciples for it, shows that it was part of His plan. So it was not just that the Father was willing to sacrifice Him for us, but that it was His loving plan to allow Himself to be sacrificed for us –to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.

There is a third sacrifice alluded to in our liturgy today, however, one not referred to in our Scripture texts, but one implicit in today’s liturgy:
Our Lenten sacrifices: the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that we are making. The things we are giving up for Lent.
And this vision of the transfigured Christ on the mountain top is offered to us as a reminder of the Easter glory that lies ahead for all believers making their Lenten sacrifices.

Let me return to Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. This seems horrific to us. But why does it seem horrific? After all, many nations and religions in history have sacrificed their children in pagan religions. This, in fact, is the point. We got our idea that child sacrifice was wrong FROM this event. Abraham didn't originally know this. Abraham did not yet know it was wrong to sacrifice his child, the religions around him sacrificed their children, and so he expected to do the same -as the historian and Scripture scholars point out. BUT in this definitive act God taught Him that He, the one true God, did not accept the sacrifice of children. Thus in the centuries after the Jews knew to oppose the child sacrifice that surrounded them, as we oppose it today.

To conclude, there is a Lenten lesson for us here.
On one hand, that God is a god of goodness, not a god of child sacrifice.
On the other hand, that He rewards those who are WILLING to sacrifice to Him, as He rewarded Abraham for his faithfulness by giving him the Promised Land, and countless descendants (Gen 22:17).
You and I need to be willing to make our Lenten sacrifices, to persevere in our giving things up, in our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent.
It's often not easy to make such sacrifices. So let us resolve to be willing to make sacrifices, as He was willing to sacrifice Himself, that we might have our humanity transfigured in Easter glory just as He showed His humanity transfigured on the mountaintop.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Joy of Lent, 1st Sunday of Lent, Year B

Mk 1:12-15; Gen 9:8-15; 1 Pet 3:18-22
This Ash Wednesday I started Lent with a great sense of joy.
At least one person saw me and said this was odd, “Shouldn’t we be miserable in Lent?”
Actually, the liturgy of the Church refers to Lent as a season of “joy” (Lent Preface 1).
But WHY is it joyful? I’ve given up alcohol, and I’m supposed to SMILE about it?

The joy of Lent, it seems to me, is a HOPE-filled joy, a hope that sees what I can DO to improve
-improve myself, improve my life, come closer to God.
This sense of what we can DO is not about SELF-improvement, but about seeing the tools that GOD has given me, given me in this holy season, the threefold remedy for sin:
prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving to the poor).
Now, before I say anything else, I want to note that these three remedies go together. Yet again, I heard someone say this: “I’m not giving anything up for Lent, I’m doing something positive instead!”
-the problem with such a statement is it becomes either/or whereas it should be both/and. These three things go together, work together, and we need a LITTLE of EACH of them in our Lenten practice.

What is Lent? Above all, it’s being with the Lord Jesus.
Not with Him in glory and ease, but with Him in His 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert.
There is a time for feasting, but this is a time for fasting.
ALL the religions of the world fast -everyone except our over-rich, over-fed, over-comfortable Western culture.

Fasting changes me.
It helps me grow in self-control and self-discipline.
It helps me detach myself from worldly pleasures and so remember the ultimate pleasure of life in God.
It’s different from mere dieting in that it is a prayer, something I offer up to God.
When we resolve on various small acts of “Giving something up for Lent”, we are choosing some small act of fasting that we will resolve upon for the next 40 days. And often, going without chocolate or beer becomes BIG not by being for one day, but by the 40 days extended together.

Then prayer. In order to make our “Giving things up” a spiritual act, not just an act of human willpower, we need prayer to go with it.
So it’s very important in this season to add some additional prayer. Maybe as small as a daily extra ‘Hail Mary’, maybe Friday Stations of the Cross, maybe reading from the daily Lenten booklets in the porch, maybe adding a weekday Mass to your usual Sunday Mass
-there are many possibilities, but they all are about union with the Lord who went to pray and fast.

Finally, if I am praying, if I am fasting, this should be changing me in a way that changes how I relate to others. This is why almsgiving is intrinsically linked as the third piece of the puzzle.
Today, our Lenten collection is for our parish SVP Sudan fund,
But there are many other small, or large, “positive” acts we can take up in this season. Children might volunteer for an extra household chore for Lent; adults might need to look for some hidden act of kindness.

To return to where I began, Lent should be a joyful season, a hope-filled joy.
In the first reading, God saved Noah by water, from the flood.
In the second reading, we were told this was a symbol of the re-birth of our baptismal washing.
In the Gospel, we heard of the Lord Jesus in the desert, fasting and praying. If we go into the desert with Him, then the rebirth of Noah, the rebirth of baptism, can start afresh in us again too.
“Prayer, almsgiving and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other. Fasting is the soul of prayer, almsgiving is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you do only one of them or not all together, you have nothing.” (St Peter Chysologus, as quoted by the Church in the Lenten liturgy).

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Loving the ugly sick. 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Mk 1:40-45
Today I’d like us to think about the Lord’s attitude to the sick, and to us as sick, and our own attitude to the sick.
Our Gospel text today is the second week in a row that we have heard about the Lord’s attitude to those who are sick. In particular, this week, we heard about the Lord’s attitude to a leper.

Sickness is pretty disgusting.
When WE are sick then WE become pretty disgusting.
In fact, one of the children was recently describing her (or his…) symptoms in a recent cold, and it was gross, it was disgusting, it made the sweet little child seem much less sweet! And that was just a cold!
In contrast, our readings today speak not of someone suffering from a cold, but of a leper. A disease that can frequently make people unpleasant to look at, disfiguring the skin and worse.
And my point to you is this:
The Lord Jesus did not shy away from the leper, did not get repulsed by his leprosy. Rather, He continued to SEE the PERSON who was suffering; He continued to LOVE the person who was suffering.

This attitude of the Lord Jesus is also the attitude that history marks as characteristic of the followers of Jesus:
Wherever Christians have gone in the world, bringing the good news of evangelisation, what they have also brought is a care for the weak. To use the refrain of the Scriptures: the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
Those that the pre-Christian world left abandoned to die were rescued by the early Christians.
Ancient Romans would leave unwanted babies to die on the hillside -but the early Christians rescued them and gave them homes.
In our own era, we can think of Mother Teresa spreading the Gospel by caring for those people in Calcutta that others had deemed to be ‘untouchable’. But none are untouchable to God; none are beyond His care and love.
Wherever the missionary orders of the Church have gone they have taken not only words but a life -they brought hospitals and basic humanitarian care. Still, today, the predominant work of most missionary orders, where most of the money we donate goes, is spent on care like hospitals.
Christ looked at the sick and ugly and loved them, and those who follow Christ do the same.

Today, however, we live in a post-Christian society, not a Christian one.
The post-Christian society values beauty, glamour, wealth, and youth.
Being old, being sick, being ugly -our culture does not value such people, does not hold them up as models, or, as people to be loved.

What about us?
When we look in the mirror, what do we value?
Do we think we only have value in as much as we have or continue to have beauty, youth, and health?
The Lord Jesus could look at a leper and love him.
Can you look at our own ugliness and still see someone loveable?
Or, Have you reduced yourself, and others, to those things that are actually least important?
Do you just value in yourself those things that pass, that, as the Lord said, like the beauty of the fields that is here today but gone and thrown in the fire tomorrow?(Mt 6:30)

If the Lord could love an ugly diseased leper, then, there must be something in us that is loveable that is NOT the passing glamour of this world.
God made you with great dignity, in His own image and likeness.
You are loved. You are loveable. Is this how we see ourselves and others?

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Bringing our sufferings to God. 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Mk 1:29-39; Job 7:1-4.6-7
Today’s account of the healing of a mother-in-law reminds me of the old joke about St Peter, which you may or may not have heard, but it goes like this:
Why did Peter betray Jesus?  Because he never forgave Jesus for healing his mother-in-law!

A related fact is this:
Sometimes God does things that we don’t really want, and sometimes He seems to “fail” to do the things we DO want.
On one hand, we hear in today’s Gospel one of many occasions in the Gospels when we see Lord caring for the sick by curing them: “He cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another”.
The Lord Jesus very obviously cared for the sick and needy, as He cares for us.
On the other hand, in our first reading, we hear the lament of Job.
Our short text doesn't tell us, but let us remember Job’s situation:
He had lost everything:  his flocks and herds had been destroyed, his house too, and all his children.  In addition, he was covered from head to toe in boils and pain. 
And, after long patience, then he laments, as we heard in that passage.
“Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service,
his time no better than hired drudgery?...
Lying in bed I wonder, ‘When will it be day?’
Risen I think, ‘How slowly evening comes!’…
My life is but a breath,
And my eyes will never again see joy”(Job 7:1-4.6-7)

As most of us know, the entire book of Job is a reflection on why God allows bad things to happen to good people.
The reason that this is a theological problem is that it is CLEAR from so much of the Scriptures, and so much of life, that He is a GOOD God, a CARING God, and yet so often we doesn’t do what I WANT.

The answer, in the book of Job, is that we are not given an answer.
We are told that He is all-wise, all-powerful, all-good -but He does not explain His infinite mind to us.
Rather than giving God an answer, He addresses Job with a  list of questions:
Where were you when I made the earth?
Where were you when I placed the moon in orbit?
-if you didn’t do these things, how can you dare to ask me “why”?

Let me note, however, one of the answers of St Augustine, a proposal he makes in the context of why God tells us to pray:
God DESIRES and intends to give us all that is good for us.
But we are not READY to receive what He desires to give to us.
What makes us ready?
Our very asking, our repeated asking, our asking with longing and desire -this changes us, forms us, and can makes us READY to receive the thing that God desired to give us all along.
By analogy: a child will frequently see some desirable glittering thing, and will scream and shout at his mother for the thing he sees and wants:
Give me -that sharp knife
Give me -that spinning chain saw
Let me -go to the glowing burning fire.
But before the child is ready for any of these things there are many things that need to change, mature, and be learned.  And THEN the child can receive them.
By analogy -God knows better than us, somehow, what is for the best.
So, a twofold conclusion: we need to BRING our suffering to God; & we need to TRUST that He knows best.

Did St Peter want the Lord to cure his mother-in-law?                        The Gospel does not comment.
But we can be sure that if The Lord did it, it was for the best.

And as we seek Him, like the sick and needy crowds, we must approach Him with the same confidence.