The Holy Spirit is in you BUT!

 Most of us have had some kind of Pentecost experience in our lives, probably more than one, even if we haven’t given it that name. Times when we felt the presence of God working in us in a way that we could actually feel. It may have been during times of prayer, or during Mass, or it could have been in our ordinary life when a sudden illumination, about something or someone, gave us a clear idea what God wanted, or gave us the courage or inspiration to take some decision or action that made a big difference in our lives, or in someone else’s life. Even if we didn’t immediately acknowledge that it was from God, we would say, looking back on it, “At that moment, I suddenly knew that this was the right thing to do.” And if this feeling has worked out for you as “a good purpose”, as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading, (1 Cor 12:3-13) then be assured it was the Holy Spirit working in your life.

 

Most of you will know that there are some non-Catholic Churches generally called “Charismatic or Pentecostal” that place these experiences at the heart of their worship, and try to encourage a highly-charged emotional atmosphere where Pentecostal experiences are more likely to happen.

And some of you may also say, “Why isn’t the Catholic Church more like this? Why is Mass so quiet and restrained? And why is the Catholic Church so cautious about those who claim   personal experiences of God?”

 

The first thing I would like to say in response to this is that the Catholic Church is more “charismatic” than many people realise. All over the world, there are groups of Catholics who meet to pray and sing in a more charismatic way. They also run Days of Renewal as well as residential Conferences where Catholics can go and spend time deepening their faith and their relationship with God. Ask me if you want more details.

There is also the great tradition of pilgrimages to Holy Places where again worship of a more intense and emotional kind, often with prayers for healing takes place. Finally there is our great tradition of saints, holy men and women who have had a particularly close relationship with God, often accompanied by personal visions, and healing miracles.

But, and it is a big BUT, the Catholic Church has also, in our 2000 year history, seen many many examples where people or groups have been led into all kinds of evil by such activities. Remember what I said earlier, quoting St Paul. Such things must be for a “good purpose”, and as St Paul says in the Chapter that follows, unless these activities are based in love, then they are “nothing at all.” It is a tragedy to watch good Christians being dragged into such things only to boost the ego of some personality who likes the sound of his voice and is good at playing with people’s emotions, or is using this skill to make himself a lot of money.

 

New churches are often created by such people, especially if they are supported by rich Westerners, as in South America at the moment. Here the prayer of Jesus for unity, is ignored in the desire for liveliness, and more and more different groups spring up, all of whom claim to be the true Christian church. In the Gospel of St John (20:19-23) we need to note that Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit at the same time as he shares his Peace with them. Just so, St Paul speaks of the need for the Church though “made up of many parts” to also be “a single unit”.

We Catholics have seen groups like this, claiming to be the true Church, springing up over the centuries, and we have to warn people who are attracted by them to recognise the downside too. Of course the Church rejoices when anyone says “Jesus is Lord”. Yet we long for all such people to find the full understanding of that expression within the one Church. This is why the Pope John Paul II always encouraged what we call “the new Movements” within the Church and often gathered them together in Rome for great celebrations. Perhaps you have heard of Cursillo or the Neo-Catechumenates, or the Charismatic Renewal that I mentioned earlier?

 

In ordinary parishes we have to be careful about this. People respond to God in many different ways, and some people find worship that is too emotionally charged actually leaves them feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. They may rightly point out that it can mislead people into thinking that faith is just some surface emotion. They stress the quiet ways of responding to God in silence and dignity. Finding the balance for any Parish is a difficult act… think for example of the conflict between those who like jolly noisy music with lots of hand-clapping, and those for whom that is a complete turn-off . We are all different and God’s Holy Spirit comes to us in many different ways. That is St Paul’s message to us today. Be open to God’s Holy Spirit, yes, but always so that the Church may be one body worshipping one Lord.

 

 

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Homily on hard things to do for Jesus

What would you say is the hardest thing to do as a Christian – the hardest thing that Jesus asks us to do? Perhaps it’s “Do this in memory of me” – the Mass? But for most of us, getting to Mass on Sunday may be a challenge, especially when other apparently more interesting things coincide with Sunday Mass times,  but it isn’t that hard…….. once you get into the habit!

Perhaps the more difficult request is, to “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Yet many people tend to think this is fairly easy, to be kind and loving to others – well, at least most of the time! Of course, they are wrong, aren’t they? Because they conveniently miss out the second bit of that phrase – to love “As I have loved you”. Ah yes, that’s the difficult bit! – to practise real sacrificial love – all the time – to cope, for example, in a kind way with irritating people, as Jesus did with his silly disciples today. They wanted glory now. “Has the time come?” they say. And he gently replies “It is not for you to know times and dates” . Whereas, you and I would probably have said  “You stupid idiots! Why do you never listen to what I say?”  !!!

So yes, real love is very hard. But no, I don’t actually think it is the hardest thing of all. For I think the hardest thing of all is something we hear Jesus asking us today in both the 1st Reading and the Gospel. (Acts 1:1-11/Luke 24:46-53)  He says, “You will be my witnesses….to the ends of the earth.”  

That’s it, isn’t it? We are fine being Christians…. not very good Christians maybe – but still trying our best- until someone finds out about us! Then we wait for one of those difficult questions we so dread! “So why on earth do you believe in God?… or in Jesus?…or in the Bible?… or in the Church with all its failings?”  What makes it doubly difficult is that the person asking these hard questions has usually already got fixed ideas about what God is like. It’s hard enough explaining to a sympathetic person why we believe, but how do we cope with someone who thinks we believe God is like a superman in the sky. Usually we struggle out some kind of an answer – perhaps “Well I just believe there must be something behind all this.. some underlying power” or even “Well I just do, but I can’t explain it.”, and then think later of all the intelligent things we could have said, but we just couldn’t find, when cornered like that!

It is comforting however to remember that the disciples way back then had similar problems – that the hard questions we are asked in the 21st Century are not any harder than those they had to face. They too had to face laughter and scorn and mockery when they tried to explain what Jesus, what God, meant to them. Remember how they despaired when Jesus died on the cross, and how bewildered they were when they began to meet him in a new way again at Easter. Can you imagine people mocking them? “So where is this Jesus then? If he is alive in this new way, why can’t we see him?  And then they had to explain that they could no longer see him, that somehow he was with God and yet still with them in an invisible way. And so we have the stories of the Ascension that we celebrate today, when they use images of Jesus disappearing into a cloud or on a high mountain to convey something far more mysterious than that. “Oh so he literally shot up into the sky? they say, laughing at us. “No” we say “That’s only a way of explaining that he is with God in glory.”

St Augustine said that when Jesus went to heaven he did not leave us, but how can you explain that, or even remember that, when someone questions you? How hard to explain things that cannot be seen, only believed!

In the end, it’s hard, because it’s something we cannot really put into words. because it’s something deep in our hearts. not just a theory in our minds. And we struggle with it too, don’t we? We believe, yet we doubt. With the world, we wonder how can there be a God, a loving power, when there is so much pain and suffering! Explaining why, deep down, we believe, despite all these questions, seems an impossible task, just as we cannot really explain love or beauty to others. They have to find it for themselves.

But be comforted! However ineffective we think our feeble attempts to explain ourselves may be, they are still worthwhile, and sometimes, when we least expect it, it helps. That’s why I leave you with a phrase from one of the Psalms. The Psalmist says “The Lord takes delight in his people”   And we might reply, “What me? God is working in me?” God is working in us stupid stumbling humans as we try to follow him? And God says “Yes, despite all that. You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth”

 

Homily on being loved & prayed for

We Christians quite rightly talk a lot about love, and we try to put into practice what Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel, (John 13:31-35) to “love one another just as I have loved you.” But very easily we turn that into something that we must do. I must be kind to those I meet. I must get on with those I work with. I must help the poor of the world. I must try to tolerate those who I do not like etc etc. Now this is all very fine and good, but there is one thing wrong with it. In order to love others, we must allow ourselves to be loved by them. If I fail to let others love me, even to do things for me, or fuss over me, in ways that I do not much like, I have not yet learnt to love the way Jesus loves.

I notice this particularly when, as today, I encourage people to come forward at the end of Mass for Prayers for healing. Oh yes, lots and lots of people come forward, and it’s very moving to see this ; but few of them ask for prayers for themselves, and if they do it is often as a modest afterthought – “Oh, and a little prayer for me too Father.” Now it is wonderful to know that in the heart of each Christian is so much concern for those who are sick or sad in some way; but we must not make that mean, that we are too modest to mention our own needs and ask for prayers for ourselves.  I even know of some people who like to keep their sickness a secret. Somehow they have got it into their heads that although they will pray for others, they would prefer others not to pray for them.

My guess is that they don’t want people to fuss, and I do understand that, because I find that difficult too. A priest has only to limp a little, or cough a bit too much, and endless people are coming up after Mass to show their concern and offer solutions. My instinct then is to minimise the problem – to say “Oh it’s nothing really.” –whatever it is – probably because I don’t want to be accused of being one of those irritating people who goes on and on about themselves and all their ailments! What I should do is simply accept their love.

Jesus has this problem too. The disciples fuss over him when he disappears early in the morning up in the hills to pray. He simply tells them, without criticising them, that they must all move on. The woman with the ointment comes into a public place and anoints his feet and dries them with her hair – so embarrassing! When others say he shouldn’t have allowed this, especially as the woman has a bad name, he gently defends her action. At Gethsemane he, Jesus the Son of God, with a unique relationship with God the Father, asks his weak disciples to pray for him. What good can their feeble prayers do, compared with his, especially as, just as he suspects, they fall asleep! And yet that is what he does.

Yes, Jesus loves us by allowing us weak silly humans with all our faults to love him, even to pray for him. God chooses to become a human being, and in so doing encourages us into a quite different relationship with him. Instead of simply loving us from a position of superiority, and expecting gratitude and praise and worship in return, he allows us to love him. We then must try to be like that. We must not just allow, but encourage others to pray for us, to love us. When we are sick or sad or facing some medical treatment, we have to overcome our shyness, our modesty, and ask others to pray for us. How dare we do otherwise? How can we spend time praying and caring for others, as if we are some special person distributing God’s love, and not allow them to pray and care for us?

True love is always a mutual thing – a giving and a receiving. We, the Church, must first of all be a community where that mutual love is shown. Have you the courage to turn to the person sitting near you at Mass, someone you may not know, or may only know a little, and ask them to pray for you? Do you ask to be put on the church’s prayer list when you are in need of prayer, or do you hide your problems because you do not want to make a fuss? Some people even say nothing, but are then upset when nobody appears to notice that they are suffering and need prayer. Jesus said “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.”

Love is an immensely powerful force and when linked to prayer it becomes even more powerful, always bringing comfort and support and sometimes also bringing an amazing result for the person prayed for. But if we do not allow ourselves to be loved, if we do not ask for prayer, then we are failing to allow God’s love to come to us through others, and that’s sad, isn’t it?

God’s love overcomes our human weaknesses

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Tertullian opinioned that people could tell who the Christians were by the love they bore for one another. In an age such as ours which either eroticises or sentimentalises that over worked word ‘love’, in Greek, ‘agape’, it is worth our while to explore what it meant to early Christians and indeed, why in our Gospel (John 12:31-35) Jesus should issue his disciples a command to love.

The idea of a care and compassion, a love for one’s fellow men and women, was not universal in the ancient world. These were societies built on slavery, on the ownership of hundreds of thousands of individuals who were socially dead; they had no rights, and could be bought or sold and used and abused with impunity. When they were freed at the behest of a master they become citizens of the Roman Empire, yet they remained clients, with restrictions and obligations to their former masters. Masters, indeed, could inherit a substantial part of their estates on the death of freedmen. There was no state support for the poor and needy, even when they were free born. The wealthy might decide to give gifts to the populace of their cities, (euergetism); and these were often lavish gifts, which could include the construction of public amenities like baths. When it came to cash handouts, typically the richer and less needy were given more than the poor and needy. Gifts such as these were frequently given to secure votes at elections in which powerful men competed for jobs as magistrates – and the opportunities that gave to accrue more wealth. True, people might give a few coins of low denomination to beggars, but many lived in dire poverty, with all the problems that implied for poor diet, disease and an early death. The idea of any equality of help across the social spectrum in any community was very unusual. This was what Christianity called for.

We witness this throughout Paul’s letters, with the collections in Greece, in the Letters to the Corinthians,  for famine racked Judaea; with the letter of recommendation in Romans for Phoebe from Cenchreae; not to mention his harangues over the sharing of the Eucharistic agape meal in First Corinthians. Loving one another as Christ had loved them did not come naturally to the disciples; it was a radical call and a difficult concept in the heavily stratified societies in which they lived. Jesus too told stories illustrating the need for such demanding and different action, with parables like the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. The real sign of how radical and different this commandment was is to be seen above all in its context in John’s gospel, since it follows immediately on the exit of Judas ‘in the dark’, with his intention of betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities which instigated the entire passion story of Jesus’ great saving gift of himself for a fallen world. Jesus did not discriminate between the good and the bad, for his followers deserted him to a man, His resurrection message was precisely that God’s love transcends our behaviour and our human weaknesses. It demonstrates that much of the Christian message of love and care will be born out of struggle and suffering.

This is precisely the picture we see in our reading from Acts (Acts 14:21-27). Missing from our brief bit is the account of how Paul was nearly murdered at Lystra, and the opposition from Jews as the faith in Jesus spread throughout the pagan world. Our story focuses on the establishment of structures –ministries – to enable the communities to develop and carry on with the Christian mission once Paul and Barnabas has left to return to Palestine. Quite clearly difficulties and persecution were foreseen by Paul and Barnabas, for as they said, “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God.” Learning to love, as Christ commanded, is a radical option, and something that does not and did not just come naturally. The notion of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood, stretching across the boundaries of race, class and status was as difficult for them as for us, and no less relevant today when we are debating issues of our European identity and that of the plight of millions of refugees.

In our reading from the Apocalypse, (21:1-5) we see this story taken to its ultimate conclusion as John the Divine writes of the new heaven and the new earth, of the new Jerusalem in which God is finally at home with his creation, his people. It comes from the penultimate chapter (for modern readers) of this astonishing work, so riddled with appalling violence and destruction, when God’s will is finally achieved and his creation is as it was made to be. It is the story of a humanity fit to live with and be with God, a creation which is truly God-like in its love. Those of us familiar with the story will know that among its most terrifying and impressive features is the description of the destruction (Apoc 18) of Babylon, a euphemism for evil, and clearly modelled on the destruction by volcanic eruption of Pompeii and the other cities in the Bay of Naples in 79.AD. John writes of the dramatic and radical transformation of the world as a metaphor for the journey each and every one of us must make as we take on Jesus’ commandment to love as he has loved us, his recipe for making us his new creation.

 

Counsel the doubtful

One of the things that we are meant to do when we try to reflect God’s mercy in our lives is “to counsel the doubtful”; for it is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy that I am talking about this Lent. Now the first thing I want to say about this, is that we do not help the doubtful by appearing to be too certain of things ourselves. We have to be very careful about this, because people assume all too easily, if they look at us on the surface, that if we are Catholics and are at Mass every Sunday then we must have a rock steady faith with no problems and no doubts. You all know that this is not the truth, but that’s the impression people have of Catholics, and so we need to work quite hard to deal with these false assumptions. Now if you think it’s hard for you, it’s even harder for us priests. We are supposed to have a rock solid faith; and because of this many people with doubts are afraid to share them with us, because they assume they will simply be told off for being weak.

 One of the ways I suggest that people share the faith with others is by telling them about their own experiences of God. A story of something that has happened to you or me, in which we have felt God’s presence or help, is a million times better than just talking about the faith in a general way. But here too we must tell our story in such a way that people do not think that once we had this experience of God, everything has been plain sailing.

 Abram in our 1st Reading today (Genesis 15:5-18) – Abraham as he was called later – did not have it easy after his vision of God in the midst of his deep sleep. He was to struggle with the fact that, despite this vision, he had to spend many many years without the child, and thus the descendants, he had been promised. Later, when he did have a son late in life, he agonised about whether his love for his son was more important to him than his love of God; and he even thought of killing his son, to show God his love was real. No easy faith for him then!

 In our Gospel too (Luke 9:28-36) Peter, James and John were not given a certain faith after their vision of Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Indeed they simply found the vision confusing; and it was not until they had lost their faith and run away when Jesus was killed on the cross, and then found it again when Jesus appeared to them at Easter, that they could make sense of what they had seen. And Jesus too had to face the agony of that Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the soldiers came and arrested him. How easy it would have been to slip away and avoid the conflict and pain that he feared so much. It took great courage in the midst of uncertainty to choose the hard way, to do the will of the Father.

 So when people are doubtful, they need to know that we struggle with doubts and temptations too, don’t they?  They need to know that we often fail to be good Christians. There is nothing more comforting in the confessional than to hear the priest say of some sin that we are struggling with, that this is one he struggles with too. Of course we must share the joys of the faith too, the sense of the presence of God in little things and unusual places; but we must also share with people that sometimes we come to Mass and feel nothing and wonder why we are here at all. It is like being a parent with a baby. There may be joy, but there is also hard work and sleepless nights; and both are part of the way we show our love. Love is not a nice feeling all the time, it is also an act of will – a choosing to do something for another. or for God, however hard that may sometimes be.

 To say to someone who cannot see the point of coming to Church, that it means so much to us, may not help at all, To say instead “Yes it is hard for all of us sometimes. It is hard to continue believing and trusting in God when sad or bad things happen. It is hard to be at Mass when we would rather be sleeping or watching the football or walking in the countryside.” To say things like that, to share our own struggles, that is surely a better way to help and counsel those who are struggling too.

 Of course there are moments when we must be more definite, and I will say more about this next week when I talk about “instructing the ignorant”; but we must never be definite in a way that makes people think we never struggle or have doubts ourselves. St Paul shows this in our 2nd Reading (Phil 3:17-4:1) as he talks about his tears, and then says to comfort them “Do not give way, but remain faithful” Listening to people, even weeping with them, allowing them to share what they are struggling with, this is the better way.

 

How hard it is to love!

Ah how we love that passage about love that was our 2nd Reading today, (1 Cor 12:31-13:13) but how easily we forget that love, caring for others, may not always feel nice for us or for them! The surgeon does not want to hurt his patient, but despite modern anaesthetics, the after effects are still painful, and healing can be slow and difficult. The parents who insist that their offspring learn how to use a vacuum cleaner may not be welcomed at the time, but in the end a valuable lesson is learned.

 

Remember too that real love also requires us to say hard things and to be prepared to hear hard truths said about us. I am always saddened when I hear of people in positions of authority, politicians or priests, who think that they should be above criticism, and resent it when someone points out their mistakes. We see Jeremiah doing this in our 1st reading today. (Jeremiah 1:4-5. 17-19) He was prepared to attack the highest in the land, when he thought they were doing wrong, even though he clearly knew that doing so would not give him an easy life. Love, the love of God for his people, was what impelled him and also gave him the strength to say what had to be said. So we hear God encouraging him with the words “Do not be dismayed at their presence, or in their presence I will make you dismayed” and we see Jesus in the same situation as he challenges his own people in our Gospel (Luke 4:21-30)

 

I know of pregnant women who have challenged doctors who have told them after a scan, that the baby will be deformed and they must have “a termination”. I have heard many stories where the woman bravely refused to have this done, and the baby was born perfect. Here is another hard message of love that should be heard by more people. To live with the uncertainty of what your unborn baby will be like is an agony for many women, even when the scan has not shown up possible problems. But when a doctor (and doctors are gods are they not?) tells you something, going against such advice requires immense bravery, and some just do not have that strength.

 

Yes, speaking up for what is right is another example of love at work, and it is often a hard thing to do, even when the people you share it with are your friends and neighbours. Our Confirmation Group all knew last Wednesday, and I hope you know this too, is that one of the things we have to do as members of the Church is to face the hard task of sharing our faith with others. This is rarely easy is it? To say the right thing at the right time when we fear we may be misunderstood is so so difficult

 

But some of the difficulties of sharing the faith are simply the practical problems of reaching the people who need to hear it. This week a young man called Paddy was dying at home, and I had no difficulty in getting to him when the Macmillan nurse phoned. I was able to jump in my car and be with the family in 20 minutes. But there are many parts of the world where that simply cannot happen, because without some kind of transport, walking to another village in the parish would not take hours, but days.

 

Having enough money to buy some kind of vehicle to take the priest, or the sister or some other lay worker to every part of a large parish in Africa or Asia or South America is often quite impossible for the parish concerned, but there is a charity here in the UK that specialises in doing just that. It is called Survive-MIVA. MIVA stands for Missionary Vehicle Association and this is a charity founded and run by ordinary Catholics like you in Liverpool to buy appropriate vehicles for poor parishes all over the world.

Recent purchases include : –

 A 350ccMotor bike for a Parish in Andra Pradesh in India £1500.

A 4 wheel drive van for the Immaculate Heart Clinic & Maternity Hospital in Kogi State, Nigeria. £19,300

36 bicycles for the Catechists of a Parish in Uganda A Parish made up of eighteen outstations, each with a Catechist and Eucharistic Minister, and with a total Christian population of 23,000.   £2700

An aluminium dinghy and 25hp engine for a Parish in Tokelau, an Island in the Pacific Ocean.   £2800

There are lots more like that. This is one of my favourite Catholic charities. Please support them See www.survive-miva.org/

 

 

The real Christmas story

I was a bit startled to discover the other day that about 40% of people in England do not think Jesus is a real person. The problem is, of course, that some of the things we say about Jesus, especially about his birth, are not about the real Jesus of history, but ideas about the birth made up by later generations. We all love seeing little children in Nativity Plays in which Mary arrives on a dear little donkey, after seeing a white fluttering angel, and then they sing Away in a Manger in which the baby Jesus, unlike all other babies, doesn’t cry ; but I am sorry to have to tell you that none of these things are actually part of the real story.

 

I have to inform you therefore that Baby Jesus almost certainly cried and had to have his nappy changed, although I do not know what kind of nappies they used in the 1st Century. I am happy to admit that an angel came to Mary, but the Bible makes it quite clear that most angels do not dress in fluffy white gowns and have wings; for people who see angels in the Bible either mistake them for ordinary people like you and me, or are so overwhelmed, as the shepherds were, that all they see is glory and light.

 

As for that little donkey in the dusty road! Well, Joseph might have been able to afford a donkey, but there is no evidence there was one, because people in those days, even very pregnant women, were quite used to walking long distances to get to where they wanted to go. We only have to look at those poor refugees flooding into Europe at the moment to see the truth of this.

 

Why am I going on about this, and perhaps spoiling the story for you? Well the answer is that since Christmas is about God choosing to come close to us, choosing to becoming one of us; then Mary has to be like those refugees, women on the road at the moment, and Jesus must be a real baby who might have died, like some of these babies have, because he was born in rough conditions with no home comforts.

 

The real story of Jesus is not some phantasy dreamt up by Disney with pretty music in the background. The real story is like the birth of so many babies in the world today, a tough situation where many do not survive, made worse by cruel people who will kill women and children if they think it necessary, just as Herod’s soldiers did.

 

The birth of Jesus is a miracle because it is real. This child did survive to become a man, and that man, that real man, changed the world. For his followers, that is us the Church of the apostles, died for the truth about Jesus that they proclaimed; and in doing so gradually, very gradually, brought more and more people to acknowledge, that his message of love in the midst of suffering and death is more powerful than all the killing that we humans can inflict on one another. This is the real Jesus that we follow, the real Jesus whose birth we celebrate at this time; and oh how much our poor sad suffering world needs to hear this message at the moment.

 

The Gospel for Christmas Night has the shepherds terrified by the “glory” that “shone around them”; and the Gospel for Christmas Day tells us that Jesus is “a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower”. Of course we all know that this doesn’t mean that that Baby Jesus had light and glory shining out of him. Only a very few would have realised that this very ordinary baby would bring the light of love and kindness lived out by ordinary men and women into this sad dark world.  So let’s do our best to share that light, and so make the real Jesus, born 2000 years ago, a living reality for those around us this Christmas. It is a hard job to bring his love to the world, and we too may have to sacrifice much as he did, for that love ; but tonight/today that is what we are here for. We call on him now to help us live his message out every day, for it is only with his power and his glory, that we will be able to bring a little of his glorious but gentle light into a dark world.