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 [Lent Wk 3 Tues Office Readings]).

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.