Friday, February 27, 2009

Homily (Sermon) for the First Sunday of Lent Year B

Our reading this weekend begin with the story of the covenant of God with Noah, and a reminder of the sign of the covenant - the rainbow. How can we understand this story, and what on earth has it got to do with Lent?

Some people will look at this story and try to find the historical evidence to support it, and some of that is intriguing: in many cultures there are stories of great floods, and some archeologists have even tried to find evidence of the Ark, and the mountain on which it landed.

At the other extreme, there are those who reject the story out of hand. It is just a tale from primitive people, they say, to explain the rainbow, and a way to explain the presence of some beauty in the midst of much danger. Such people would also point out that the destruction of men, women and children alike, cities and civilisations, is very unworthy of a God of love.

For the Church though, neither of these paths are satisfactory. The search for historical detail will tell us little of use, and the complete rejection of the story fails to take it seriously at all. Even if one view or the other is true, neither tells us what the story actually means.

No, from ancient times, Christian writers have pointed out that it is the symbolism of the story which gives its underlying message.

It is a wonderful story with which to begin Lent.

Here we have an account of sin and salvation, of destruction and compassion, of faith and hope, of water, and a boat which rides on the water. We hear echoes of the salvation of nations through the waters of the Red Sea, the stilling of the storm by Jesus, and the walking on the water. There are reminders of death and resurrection. We are reminded of the journey of baptism through water, and of the promise of eternal life.

And the 40 days on the boat are the 40 days of Christ in the wilderness and they are our 40 days of Lent. A time of jouneying from sin, a time of patient hope, a time of promise, a time of trial, and a time for redemption.



Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ash Wednesday Homily (Sermon)

When you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites

The message of Jesus in this Gospel is a very clear one: let your giving, your fasting and your praying be done not for show, in public, but in private for love of God. Those who practice their faith in the public eye - Jesus says - already have their reward.

How times have changed! At the time of Jesus - up to perhaps only 30 or 40 years ago - to practice the faith in public, to be seen at prayer, going to Mass, to be observed giving large amounts to the Church, to be seen to be thorough observant - a ‘big catholic’ as they used to say - well that counted for something. And not just for catholics, either. The ladies in the parish churches with their big hats and disapproving looks, the insistence on the Sunday best, attendance at chapel or Sunday School were expected practices in society. Not so any more.

Now the practice of religion might attract curiosity or ridicule. At work or school - even a catholic school - it may be very unfashionable, uncool, to practice religion.

So what does the Gospel say to us?

Well of course, Jesus isn’t saying that it is the open practice of the faith that is wrong, but the practice of the faith for the wrong reasons. The practice of our faith must never be to attract attention to ourself, to gain approval from others, to make ourselves important or respected.

We live our faith not for ourselves, but for God. We help others because it is right to help others. We pray because we need to pray. We fast, or say the rosary or go to Mass or whatever it might be because in that we we draw closer to Christ so that he may grow within us.

And so if we are known for our faith, or looked upon as unusual or strange or odd: to God be the glory!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

7th Sunday of the Year - Year B

We have never seen anything like this!

This week, Lent begins. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when we start our Lenten fast and preparation for Easter.

And Tuesday … Tuesday is what people nowadays call ‘pancake day’.

In many countries, that day is Mardi Gras - or ‘Fat Tuesday’, a day when all the rich food left in the pantry is cooked up and enjoyed. Even the name Mardi Gras has come to mean a party, a celebration, a time of enjoyment and excess. In English, we have a rather different name. Not one that refers to partying or celebration, but rather to something much more serious and rather dour. We call it Shrove Tuesday, the day when we are shriven, absolved of our sins by making our confession to a priest. The English, O the English, we don’t go a-partying like the Europeans, but we glumly traipse to confession, encouraged only by a pancake and some lemon juice.

Actually, this has long ceased to be our custom, and while we are likely to go confession at any time during Lent, we are unlikely to go on Shrove Tuesday.

But I wonder, is the forgiveness of sins so different from the celebrations of the Mardi Gras? We may look upon confession, in a dark box to a stern priest, to be far away from the party, but in today’s Gospel when the man had his sins forgiven - the paralysed man no less - he stood up for joy, held his head high, and walked before the crowd. No doubt there was also a spring his step. Perhaps he tried a little jig. And the astonished crowd praised God.

What better celebration could there be?

Enjoy your pancakes. Go to confession. And celebrate the freedom and forgiveness you receive.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

6th Sunday of Year B

Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.

What is the most amazing thing about this story?

That Jesus healed the man? That he sent him to the priests? That Jesus told him to keep it secret? Or that the man took little notice of this and great crowds came after Jesus?

Is the most notable detail that the man doesn’t seem to be sure whether Jesus would want to heal him? Or that Jesus seems to heal him because he felt sorry for this man, as if he might not feel sorry for others?

I don’t think so. None of these. I think the most interesting detail is in the words ‘Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.’

We can say that we care for those in need. We can express compassion for the homeless, or drug abusers. We care about those who have terminal illnesses. We are moved by compassion for those who have nothing.

But we keep our distance. We might express our concern, but we keep our distance.

Yet before he heals him, Jesus touches him. Before he sends him away Jesus extends his hand on the untouchable person, the one who was meant to keep his distance from others, the one who had been cast out of society for fear that his infection might spread.

Jesus touches the man. He takes a risk. He is not satisfied with kind words, but turns his words into action.

He stretched out his hand and touched him.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

5th Sunday of the Year - Year B

Let us go elsewhere, … so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.

Today’s Gospel presents us with a day in the life of Our Lord - afternoon in the synagogue, then to Simon Peter’s House - in the evening receiving the sick - in the morning moving on to preach and heal somewhere else. He’s a workaholic!

To understand the Gospel, the Church often gives us an insight in the first reading, from the Old Testament. Here is the book of Job, we also hear about a day in the life:

Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service …
 Lying in bed I wonder, ‘When will it be day?’
 Risen I think, ‘How slowly evening comes!’
 Restlessly I fret till twilight falls.

So which are you - the workaholic, relentlessly moving from task to task, need to need, place to place? Or the person who peers carefully through the curtains, praying for another ‘snow day’?

And it needn’t change so much if you don’t have to go to work anymore - after all, some of us get up in the morning eager to embrace the day … while others hide under the sheets, avoiding the day for as long as possible.

Now let’s not be mistaken by our readings today. Some people are so active that they never stop and think. Some are so busy that they forget the needs of the people around them, especially family and friends. That is not the example of Jesus. Jesus is a man of action, but he is also a man of prayer. He embraces the crowds, but also goes off to a lonely place to pray. Preaching without prayer is empty, Activity without reflection is just busy-ness, like ‘a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing’.

We don’t have to be busy, manic activists to please God. We do not need to wear ourselves into the ground to please him. But we must always remember that prayer is not another activity, but the powerhouse, the fuel, the motivation, which gives us our purpose and our focus, and from which all our action flows.