Sunday, 26 February 2012

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Sometimes it seems like life is just tough enough already. I was reminded of this recently by someone who told me how a friend of theirs had gone to Mass awhile back, in the midst of all kinds of difficulties in his life, and he got to Mass only to hear a sermon on the need to "carry your cross" if you are to follow our Lord. And this person thought, "I don't need this right now! I've got difficulties enough already! I don’t need to taking on more!"

This, I think, can be a common attitude that many of us have, myself included, at the start of Lent. I'm sure that there are many of us here, right now, who have got their difficulties that lead them to think that they don't want YET ANOTHER bit of suffering to add to their life.
What I want to say to you, however, is that although this is a common attitude in all of us, it is a mistaken attitude. And it is mistaken because it fails to appreciate that we do not carry our cross alone, rather Jesus carries with us, in fact, He carries it MORE than we do.

The very fact that Jesus, in the Gospels, again and again, uses the word "cross" when He tells us that we must "take up our cross daily", the very fact He uses the word "cross" is the key: because none of us carry PHYSICAL cross, it is a spiritual cross, and we only call it an "cross" because the Lord Jesus carried the Cross, and in our carrying of our daily difficulties we carry them with Him, and He carries them with us, and IN us by strengthening us with His grace.

But how are we to enable the Lord to be the one who is active in us, who is carrying our cross within us, rather than just trying to carry it alone? We can only do this if we allow ourselves to be weak, if we place ourselves weak and in need before our Lord. And, what I wish to suggest to you today, is that, this is one of the things that is achieved in our Lenten penances.

In our Lent of 40 days we are called upon to go out into the desert as our Lord went out into the desert and fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. He allowed Himself to become physically weak. When we go into our spiritual desert, when we "give things up for Lent", and when we accompany this with prayer, and generosity to the poor, when we "give things up for Lent" we allow ourselves to become weaker still. But because we do this in the desert with our Lord, not in the desert by ourself but in the desert with our Lord, then the weakness we experience in the struggles to give things up in self-denial, this very opening of ourselves to weakness opens ourselves to the strength of His grace.

So, for example, this week I've had a particular few problems come my way, problems I don't normally have to deal with. And when Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent arrived, in a very real sense I was not in the mood for it. I was in the mood for a little self-indulgence, for a little taking it easy, for a little comfort eating -not having less but rather having more: more beer, more chocolate, more crisps, more snacks, more! And yet, even at the beginning of Lent, there was something about the experience of denying myself, something about the experience of going without, something about the experience of fighting with my passions and calling on His grace, something in all of that that actually gave me MORE help to carry the daily difficulties I'd been struggling to carry in the first place.
Because we do not carry our cross alone. He carries it.

To bring this to a practical resolution. The Catholic tradition offers us the 3 remedies for sin in this holy season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving –and we should seek a least a little of each of these 3.
(i) “Giving something up for Lent” is a small act of fasting –compare that with the way Muslim fast in Ramadan, or the way Catholics in the past fasted more vigorously. If you want some suggestions for things to give up for Lent look in the list of suggestions here;
(ii) Prayer needs to be the spirit with which we do this “giving up”, but is also something important in itself. Maybe add as little as extra Hail Mary each day in Lent. Or, especially for the many of you who are retired: attending weekday Mass at least one extra day per week in Lent would bring you many graces. The Friday Holy Hour. Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings would also be very valuable. Maybe a decade of the Rosary. Resolve on one!
(iii) Finally, Almsgiving –giving to the poor, to others, in some form. Following our Ash Wednesday fasting we have a retiring collection today, that’s one way of giving. But maybe also some little act around the home or for our neighbour.

To conclude, Lent is a time of going into the desert with our Lord. Lent is a time of giving things up, of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to the poor. But all of this does not need to make it a time of MY strength, rather, it should be time of opening myself to HIS strength taking over within me.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 2:1-12
I'm only going to give a brief homily today because at the end of Mass we have an appeal from the SVP.
I want, briefly, to comment on the use that we just heard Jesus make of the title "the Son of Man".
To us, that title probably means nothing. Or, if we think it means something we might mistakenly think it simply means that Jesus was saying that He was a man, that He was human. But that would be very ODD thing for Jesus to claim because it was obvious He was human!
To the Jews who heard Him, however, this title "the Son of Man" would have been a title they were familiar with. More specifically, it was the title that was associated with the expectation of the coming Messiah. So, for example, the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament refers to one coming on the clouds of heaven (Dan 7:13). This title, "the Son of Man", was obscure in its meaning, but nonetheless was loaded with messianic expectations. And, for Jesus to use this title to refer to Himself was an obvious, even if not yet fully explicit, claim to be the Messiah.

Beyond this, however, Jesus added another claim, as we heard. He claimed that He has the authority to do something that Jews clearly knew only GOD could do, namely, He claimed "the authority on earth to forgive sins”(Mk 2:10). And with this claim He thus claimed to be God.
Ultimately, it was for this claim, the claim that He was God, that they put Him to death. During the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus, both of these claims appear together: the Jewish high priest asked Jesus: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?" Jesus responded, "I am: and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:61).
They put Him to death for this claim, but He proved His claim by rising from the dead.
And it is because of the truth of that claim that He can forgive our sins today, as happens every time we go to confession and we are forgiven in His Name.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 1:40-45
Today s the second Sunday in a row that we’ve heard of Jesus curing the sick – so I thought that today might be a useful time for us to think about our own attitudes to the sick, and to ourselves when we are sick. The Lord Jesus’s attitude to sickness and people who were sick was in sharp contrast to the attitude of the cultures that surrounded Judaism. In the ancient world it was common for people to leave the widow and orphan, the weak and the sick to die. There was something shameful seen in sickness and weakness. And this is part of the reason why the ancient Greeks practiced things like Euthanasia, killing off people in old age and illness.

When God was forming His chosen people, the Jews, He formed them to have a different attitude to the weak. He told them that they must care for the poor, the stranger, the widow and orphan. Further, when the Messiah came He strongly condemned the notion that the sick should be seen as cursed by God. Jesus spent a huge amount of His time going around caring for the sick having compassion on them. Because He valued them, He didn’t dismiss them because they were weak and sick –He loved them all the more.

Wherever Christians have gone in the world, bringing the good news of evangelisation, what they have also brought is a care for the weak. Many of the missionary orders in Africa went FIRST with 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. More specifically, 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.

But what can we say of the attitudes of our own time? What of the secularising Western world? How do we value people?
Sadly, our culture tends increasingly to value people for very superficial reasons. We laud the beautiful, the healthy, the wealthy, those who dress with glamour. But how often do we laud people just for what they are? Does our society value goodness in people as much as we value these externals? Sometimes, but not enough.

This is the context in which our modern world is thinking and speaking of Euthanasia, of the so-called ‘mercy killing’ of the sick and elderly, of legalising assisted suicide. It is because we only value people for their externals, for their beauty and health, that we think that their lives aren’t worth living if they lack these external goods. But this is no way to measure the value of a person, it is no way for us to measure the value of someone else, and it is no way for us to measure our OWN value –sadly so many people who come to think that their own life has no value only do so because that is what others around them imply.

Euthanasia, isn’t just something that concerns other people –it’s an issue most us will have to face, either for ourselves or for members of our own family. I remember when my own Grandpa was dying, in Chicago, I had to examine with my Mom the treatment he could be given. What he could have, what the doctor’s didn’t want him to have, what was morally right for him to have in the eyes of God’s Church.
We had to face all this, and think about it when we were already starting to grieve for the father and grandfather we loved. Which is why I’m glad that we insisted that he have everything. As a result he died with better care, better pain relief, and a sense that we hadn’t let him down.

It was important, because my Grandpa was still a human being, he still had value and dignity, even though he was old and sick, and dying. Jesus, when He walked the earth of Palestine cared for the sick, because He saw their value even in sickness. And as Christians we are called to do the same. To see that every human person has value, no matter how weak. It means never saying, or even implying, “Your life isn’t worth living”. That means that I can’t judge other people’s value by their wealth, health and beauty. And it means that I can’t judge my own value by my wealth, health, or beauty.
And if we ourselves live in a way that makes these real values obvious to others, then maybe our culture will also come to see the value of the weak, as Jesus saw their value, and maybe those campaigning for euthanasia might just come to see a new set of values.

In this weekend's newsletter the following notes were enclosed:


What is euthanasia?
Euthanasia is an act or omission that deliberately causes someone’s death. It is sometimes mistakenly called ‘mercy-killing’ because it ends someone’s suffering.

Why is euthanasia wrong?
Euthanasia is wrong because we do not have the right to intend someone’s death. We have a duty to care for the sick, not to end their life. Ending someone’s life is not an act of genuine love. As Christians, we believe that life is a gift from God and we have a duty to care for it, we do not have the right to end it. Life has value even if we are suffering.
It is right to want to end someone’s suffering and it is important to care for them, but this does not mean that it is right to want someone’s life to end per se.

Are only Christians against euthanasia?
No. Many non-Christians see the moral evil involved in euthanasia. Human reason alone is capable of discerning this truth. This is one of the reasons why we should campaign to have the law prevent euthanasia.

What is the difference between ‘letting someone die’ and euthanasia?
When we let someone die we are acknowledging that there is nothing more that we can do for them, except ease their pain and provide similar comfort. We do not intend to hasten their death. In contrast, euthanasia intends to cause death.

What is the ‘Quality of Life’ approach to euthanasia? Why is it wrong?
The ‘Quality of Life’ argument claims that someone should only live if they possess a certain quality of life. Those who follow this approach think that euthanasia should be practised on people who lack such a quality of life.
This approach is wrong because it reduces human life to questions of economic efficiency, physical beauty, pleasure, and materialism. It takes no account of the spiritual dimension of human existence. In short, it reduces us to the level of animals. In contrast, we hold to a higher view of human life. Our dignity as humans means that life itself is worth living.
Also, it is impossible to specify what exactly defines and measures someone’s exact quality of life, thus, in practice it is a criteria so vague that it will lead many people to be euthanised who do not wish to be.

What is the ‘Quality of Treatment’ approach to caring for the dying?
This aims to always give the best quality of care possible to the sick. But it acknowledges that sometimes the best treatment means not using every possible procedure. When a procedure causes a burden that exceeds the gain hoped for then it cannot be sensibly seen as a good ‘quality of treatment’. We still always want someone to live, but we don’t give a person a treatment that is of no real benefit to them. Our aim is not to kill, we are simply letting the person die. This is the Catholic approach to end of life decisions.

What is ordinary treatment?
Ordinary treatment is the basic care we should be taking of our body. This includes things like antibiotics, and artificial feeding and liquid through tubes. We are morally obliged to undergo ordinary treatment because we must care for the body God that has given us. By definition, we are not obliged to accept extraordinary treatment.

What is extraordinary treatment?
Extraordinary treatment is treatment that does not offer a reasonable hope of benefit to the patient, or treatment that cannot be accomplished without the use of excessive pain, expense, or other grave burden. Another term used to refer to extraordinary treatment is ‘disproportionate’ treatment -because the burden of the treatment is disproportionate to the gain hoped for.
Examples of such treatment are difficult to specify because advances in technology mean that what is ordinary treatment today was extraordinary treatment only a few years ago. Also, a procedure that might be burdensome for very sick person might not be burdensome for someone with minor complications. For example, a kidney transplant might be unnecessarily burdensome for someone already suffering from an advanced cancer, but for someone else the gain would far outweigh the burden.

What about pain killers and side effects?
Until recently, strong pain killers have often had the side effect of shortening someone’s life. If these are given to someone with the intention of shortening their life or killing them, then this is wrong. But on many occasions the pain is serious enough to accept the shortening of someone’s life. This is only accepted as a side effect and not with the aim of killing the patient. The Principle of Double Effect teaches that this second effect or side effect (i.e. of shortening one’s life) can be accepted because: it is not the cause of the first effect (i.e. easing pain is not caused by the shortening of one’s life), the taking of painkillers is not an act evil-in-itself, and, there is a proportionate reason to accept the shortening of one’s life (namely, the severity of the pain is a serious reason and thus a reason proportionate to the shortening of one’s life).
However, more recent methods of administering painkillers seem to suggest that they can prolong rather than shorten life.

What are the ‘success criteria’?
Another approach is to think of the ‘success criteria’ of a doctor giving a pain killer. If the purpose is to kill, then the success criteria is death. If the person fails to die then the doctor will want to do something else, like removing feeding tubes, in order to meet the success criteria of death. But if the purpose is to relieve pain, then the success criteria is simply the relief of pain.

What about withdrawing tubes that provide water and food?
Often when someone is ill in hospital they will be fed through tubes. Contrary to the opinion of some, the Church teaches that this is ordinary care because the right to food and water is a basic human right. The withdrawal of feeding tubes in the case of Tony Bland was widely condemned by the Catholic Bishops in the UK. Pope John Paul II has taught definitively on this matter.

Who can I turn to if I see someone I love suffer?
In prayer we can turn to Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who watched her Son suffer and die on the Cross. She is the Mother of the Sorrowful.
Also, in activity, we can think of Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus as he carried his Cross.

Who can I turn to if I am suffering myself?
In all suffering we should look to Christ on the Cross. There we see that he is with us in our pain. We see the promise that we, like him, can triumph over pain if we unite ourselves to him. In the offering of his prayer as a sacrifice to the Father we can find a positive use for our own suffering. In him we can find the strength to endure the cross. In his suffering and death he has given dignity to our suffering and death.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

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!

I offer that as a little segue into a consideration of the Lord Jesus’s healing work in general. It is, of course, one of the characteristic parts of what the Lord came to do that He healed the sick. As we heard in that passage, He healed not only Peter’s mother-in-law but also the vast multitudes who came “crowding round the door”.
This simple fact tells us a major part of the answer to the problem of suffering, namely, that the Lord God seeks our wholeness, our healing (even though He does sometimes permit suffering).
Our first reading from Job had the despondent poetry of the suffering prophet. Part of what the Messiah came to reveal as the answer the problem of suffering is to reveal that God seeks our healing.

This fact, however, does not illustrate ALL that Jesus came to do. We know that there must have been many sick people in Galilee that He never got around to healing. And we know from this passage that He indicated that there was something more important that He had to get on and do: to preach, “for that is why I have come” (Mk 1:38).

Preaching might seem a much less important thing for Him to be doing than healing, UNLESS we realise what He came to preach, and the DEEPER healing of SOUL that His preaching aimed at.
We say in the new translation of the Mass, shortly before going up to receive Holy Communion, “only say the word and my SOUL shall be healed”. We pray at other times, many times, for healing of the body. But at that pivotal moment we pray for the healing of the soul –the soul that directs and governs our body, the soul that must be healed if we are to have a healing that will last into eternity and not just for our few years on this earth.
And what does my soul need healing from? From sin, healed by forgiveness. From distress and worry, healed by the presence of the Lord Himself whose presence is strength for our weakness.

It is the presence of God Himself that brings this deepest healing, and that brings me to the point about WHAT it was that Jesus came to preach.
His preaching was not just about a message but about a person, about Himself.
His message was that God cares, that God has come, and has come in His very person. Come in the person of the Messiah, and come to remain with us in both the Spirit the Christ would send and in the Sacraments He would establish in His Church.
That message was a message He could only reveal gradually, it would not have made sense to start out by saying “I am God” –it only made sense in the context of His ministry, and especially of His death and resurrection.
Because it was a gradual revelation it is often referred to as “the messianic secret”. A secret He often told others not to make know until after He rose from the dead (e.g. Mk 8:30 and 9:9) –so that often, as we’re used to hearing in the gospels, after He healed someone He would command them not to make Him known, and as we heard an example today, after He drove the demons out He commanded the demons not to make Him known.

And yet, ultimately, He did come to make Himself known.
He came to make Himself known because this is what He came to preach:
God has come among us,
He cares for us and comes to heal us by His very presence, a presence which brings strength and consolation.
That, more than the temporary healing of the body, is what He came to do for Peter’s mother-in-law, and for every one of us.
“only say the word, and my soul shall be healed”