Sunday, 29 November 2015

1st Sunday of Advent, Year C

Lk 21:25-28.34-36
Christmas is less than a month away!
For some of us, this approaching date is a matter of excitement and hope. The people I will meet, the presents, and more!
For others of us, it is an approaching deadline, a time to panic, a time to feel uneasy in the stomach. To panic about those same things: The people I will meet, the presents, and more!

It occurs to me that this is rather similar to the way that different people think about the Second Coming of Christ, about the End of Time.
For some of us, to mention this is to give a cause for hope, for anticipation. I have a friend who will frequently and eagerly tell me about the latest prophecies he has heard of on the Internet, of visions, and even of how various natural disasters seem to all fulfil private revelations.
To such people, thoughts of the Second Coming are all “GOOD news”: when the Lord returns all will be put right.

For others of us, the mention of the End of Time is a real conversation-killer.
It means that everything we are now enjoying will be ended. How will you know who would have won I’m a celebrity, get me out of here if Time ends before the end of the season?
Worse, such people think of all the BAD things that the Lord warns us will accompany the End Times, some of which we heard recounted in today’s Gospel: “on earth nations in agony… clamour of the oceans and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world”(Lk 21:25-26) –it will all be something we will need to have, to use the Lord’s words, “the strength to survive”(Lk 21:36).
In addition, many worry they they are not prepared: the Lord warns that we need to “stay awake”(Lk 21:34) –but what if I'm not ready when He comes?

So, which approach is right? Is the Second Coming good, or a matter of fear?
Well, it is something of BOTH.
But, fundamentally, the Church starts our Advent season with thoughts of the Second Coming, not to frighten us but to give us HOPE.
Such hope, however, is only received as “good news” if we have our hearts rooted in the right things.

The Second Coming, like Christmas, can either frighten us, or delight us.
Primarily, a Christian should LOOK for the return of Christ.
If we named after Him, Christian;
if we follow Him;
and if we recognise that all that is WRONG with this world lies in how it is estranged from the Lord Jesus, the One through whom it is all made
–THEN we should YEARN for His coming with rejoicing.
I want Him to come at the End of Time, to vanquish suffering and evil, to fulfil the time when “your liberation is near at hand”(Lk 21:28).
I want Him to come at Christmas, to bring peace to all my troubled relationships,to my weariness, to my loneliness, to my problems.
I want Him to come to me in this Mass, that I might experience today a deeper grasp of the reality of all that His Coming can bring.

Let us take a moment today to ask ourselves whether we think of the Coming of the Lord with fear or with hopeful expectation.
And let us deepen and purify our hope by recalling that nothing I experience now, nothing I fear to lose, nothing can compare with “what God has ready for those who love Him”(1 Cor 2:9).

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Terror, Islam, and Christ the King, Year B

Jn 18:33-27; Dan 7:13-14; Rev 1:5-8
It's now been just over a week since the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Last Sunday we prayed for the victims, and for peace.
During this week a good number of you have asked me rather heartfelt questions, more than one of you with tears in your eyes, wanting to know what we, as Catholics, should be thinking about this. So today I'm going to make a few comments.

My first point needs to be this: Not all Muslims are terrorists. Within Islam there is an even greater divergence of opinion than is to be found among Christians: For example, some Muslims hold to the passage of the Koran that says the Jews and Christians shall be saved, “shall have their reward with the Lord”(2:62). Other Muslims, however. point to texts in the Koran that condemn Christians to Hell, the “abode of fire”(5:72) for holding that Christ is God. Similarly, when we think of the atrocities that occurred in Paris last week, and the Beirut bombings of one group of Muslims against another group of Muslims, and the attack in Kenya earlier this year that singled out Christians for execution, it is important to note that not all Muslims believe terrorist violence is appropriate.

My second point, however is that even given the divergence of opinion within Islam, Christianity and Islam believe very different things, including very different things about peace and violence. Even if you look at the Old Testament Christian Scriptures, the Christian Bible simply does not have texts that can be used to justify violence in the way that Islamic texts can be used. Those who imply that all religions are the same can only make such a claim by failing to look at what different religions teach. For example, we might look at the origins our two religions, and note that the Lord Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher; but Mohammed was warlord. The followers of Mohammed claim that his victories in battle are the sign of God’s approval. The followers of the Lord Jesus claim that His healing the sick and His rising from the dead are the signs of His Divine Power.
This said, we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that many Christians have not been true to what Christ taught, many who CLAIM to invoke the name of Jesus have abused His religion to foster, as Pope Francis put it last Sunday, "violence and hatred"(15th Nov 2015). Our religion allows war in self-defence; our religion does not allow many of atrocities that have been committed in its name.

My third point, however, is to focus this on the matter of what today’s feast of Christ the King tells us. The point is this: What sort of king is Christ?
He is a king who allows Himself to be WEAK -He reaches down to us in our weakness and shares in our state. As we heard in our Gospel text, “my kingdom is not of this world”(Jn 18:36) -He allowed Himself to be arrested, tortured and crucified. Islam finds the display of God weak and crucified on a crucifix to be blasphemy. Christ, in contrast, says that this is what shows the depth of His love: that He laid down His life for His brethren (Jn 15:13); that He allows Himself to be weak for our sake.
He is a king who SHARES His kingship with us. As we heard in our first reading, He has “made us a line of kings”(Rev 1:6). The word, “Islam”, means submission, and its followers are “slaves” of Allah. Christ, in contrast, called His followers His “friends”(Jn 15:15).
He is a king who FORGAVE from the Cross, forgave from His position of weakness, saying of His killers, “Father, forgive them…”(Lk 23:34) -and in our hearts we must be willing to forgive, even the Paris attackers.
Finally, let us not forget, I the wake of such horror, that His kingship is “ETERNAL”, it “shall never pass away”(Dan 7:14) -as we heard in our first reading. If media reports make us fear hordes flooding into our nation to attack and overwhelm us, then we must not lose hope: His kinship will never end, and those who hold true to our weak, loving, forgiving king, will share in His “eternal sovereignty”(Dan 7:14).

To sum that up: Not all Muslims are terrorists; many Muslims believe such attacks are abhorrent.
But Christianity and Islam are not the same: We worship a Christ who allows Himself to be weak, to share His Kingship, who loves, who forgives, but whose reaching down to us does not alter His power, and whose allowing Himself to die does not change the eternal nature of reign.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Praying for the Dead, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Mk 13:24-32; Dan 12:1-3
This past year 22 practicing members of our congregation have passed away. As a community, we feel their loss in many ways: in empty seats around us, that once were filled; and most of all, obviously, by the absence of their physical presence among us. The month of November is the month of the year when the Church particularly focuses us on the dead. I want, today, to remind us of how we should face death, and what we should think about the dead, and do for them.

Our first reading and gospel text both focus us on future hope, a hope that our Catholic Faith holds for those who have died. The gospel spoke of the return of the Lord Jesus in glory at the end of time, “coming in the clouds with great power and glory… to gather His chosen”(Mk 13:26-27). The prophet Daniel similarly spoke of the end of time, “Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace”(Dan 12:2). These are two of many texts that remind us that when we think of the dead we should be thinking of a FUTURE for them, not just a past. In our atheistic society it is popular to have “remembrance” services to remember the dead, but a Christian holds to more that just remembrance –we also hold a future hope. And when we hold to such a future hope we grieve in a different way: grieving with hope is not the same as grieving without hope.

Let me focus this more practically and note that there are two “works of mercy” that we are called upon to offer for the dead. The first is the “corporal [bodily] work of mercy” of “burying the dead”. Our Christian religion values the body, believes that we will be resurrected to glorious bodies at the end of time, and so we honour the bodies of those who have died in our burial services. (Thus the Church calls on us to bury the ashes of those who have died if we have a cremation.)

But there is a long-term work of mercy we are called upon to offer: the “spiritual work of mercy” of “praying for the dead”.
As our first reading reminded us, some will be punished in the final judgment rather than rewarded. Our hope thus calls on us to pray that our loved ones with receive MERCY in the judgement. This is an important and on-going thing to pray for.
When I die I hope that people won't say, “Oh, he was a good priest, he doesn't need us to pray for him”. NO! If people love me I hope they will PRAY for me, rather than just presume I'll be OK. And I hope they'll CONTINUE to pray for me, the same way I continue to pray for my grandma who died nearly 20 years ago –I still love her, and still pray for her.
Such prayer does not imply distress or anxiety, but rather a simple awareness that our prayers do good for those who have died. And if we love those who have died then we should naturally want to work for their good, to pray for them.

Our prayers also do something else for the dead: they assist them in the purifications of Purgatory. Heaven is a place of perfection, and apart from a few exceptional saints, almost all of the dead must be purified in order to be ready for heaven. The prayers of the living assist with this purification. Tradition teaches that this happens in two ways: both by offering CONSOLATION to the dead while they are engaging the the difficult purifications; and, by SPEEDING this process of purification.
In praying for the dead we follow the practice of the Early Christians, and the practice of the Jews who lived at the time our Lord. As the second book of Maccabees puts it, we pray “that they might be released from their sins”(2 Macc 12:46). And, we do all of this out of our HOPE in the resurrection. As Maccabees also says, explaining WHY someone prayed for the dead, “if he had not hoped that the dead should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. But because… of the great grace laid up for them it is therefore a holy and pious thought to pray for the dead”(2 Macc 12:44-46).

So, to sum that up, let us not forget those who have died. If we love them, let us continue to do good for them: let us pray for them. Such prayer helps US by keeping our hope for them alive in their hearts. And such prayer helps THEM, that “those who lie sleeping in the dust… will awake to everlasting life”(Dan 12:2).

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Is Father Dylan a Saint?, Solemnity of All Saints

Mt 5:1-12; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Rev 7:2-4.9-14
Today we keep the feast of ‘All Saints’.
Now, as it happens, lots of people in the parish seem to think I’m a saint. People OFTEN say to me, “Father, you’re so holy”.
This, obviously, is very nice. However, what I’ve gradually realised is that this statement almost invariably is rooted in a FALSE view of what a saint is:
People, or some people, think I’m holy because they have a mistaken view of what holiness consists of.
What people ACTUALLY mean is, words to the effect of, “Father, you say Mass very precisely, with great attention, clearly aiming to talk to God. You’re reverent”.
The point I want to make to you today is that there is a difference between being reverent and being holy, being a saint. Reverence is a good thing, and important thing, a vital tool TOWARDS holiness, but holiness itself is something else.

Let me shift focus for a moment and consider I question I have put to you before:
What is the MEASURE of holiness?
If God was to line up all the people in parish, and evaluate the level of holiness of each one of us, the degree to which each one of us is or isn’t a saint, WHAT would be His measuring CRITERIA?
When I was a teenager I thought there was some complex measuring scheme: 35% humility, 12% prudence, 17% faith, 23% generosity etc.
However, when I went off to study theology, to look at truly complicated things, I learnt that God’s measuring tool is simple: LOVE (c.f. St Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II q184 a1).
The measure of merit of a good deed is the degree of love that it is, or isn’t, done with.
And, The measure of holiness of a person is the degree that love is, or isn’t, present in him.
Or, to put it another way, ‘holiness’ consists of being God-like, and “God is love”(1 Jn 4:8).
This is why the Lord Jesus says that the greatest commandment is the twofold command to LOVE God and our neighbour.

Let me add an important practical conclusion that follows from this:
love is something that EACH and every one of us here is capable of.
This means that, each and every one of us can be a saint.
Each and every person here can love in whatever state of life we are in.
Each of us can love God by praying to Him,
and of course this includes reverently attending Sunday Mass, attending the form of worship He established in His Church.
And, each of us can love our neighbour,
by living a life that is more focused on his or her needs than on mine.
There are true and false ways to love, but at root love is not complicated!
And with love comes JOY -the saints are not sad; heaven is a place of joy; and the joy in the heart of the Triune God is inseparable from the love there.

So, to conclude, is Father Dylan a saint? Is he holy?
The answer to this question lies simply in how loving I am.
It is possible for me to say Mass very precisely, but without love.
But I can also say Mass lovingly, and draw the graces from the Mass that can enable me to be stronger, and to love more fully.

Today’s feast, when we recall ALL the saints in heaven, reminds us that saints are called from every walk of life: mums, dads, bus drivers, accountants, and more.
It is love that defines a saint. It is love that measures a saint.
And the saints in heaven are saints for the simple reason that they loved, and still love, in heaven.