Epiphany (A) 2017

Todays Gospel reading is a theological narrative.

It is a symbolic narrative or parable with a deep theological meaning which is true for all time.

We do not ask who the Maji were or what country they came from. We do not ask how they travelled or how long they journeyed.

They were Gentiles or non Jews. They knew nothing of the Bible.

They were people who were searching. They were scientists who were seeking to understand the world around them and the cosmos. They were seeking meaning in life and creation. This is the star they were following. A star which at times was bright and beckoning and then again dim or invisible. Firstly they searched in the obvious place for a newborn king (in the royal palace of Herod) They asked questions and took advice in their search.

Eventually they discovered a little helpless child (the newborn son of a very ordinary couple). Certainly not what they were expecting. They were humble enough to bow down and worship. This outlandish behaviour can only be understood by a person who has received the gift of faith.They put their possessions at his disposal. They returned to where they came from satisfied and joyful. This foretells how, although many of the Israelites accepted Christianity, the vast majority of Christians were strangers (non Jews or Gentiles as they were called).

King Herod’s reaction was quite different. He saw the possibility of a newborn king as a threat to his position and power. The chief priests and religious experts were offhand and uninterested in searching for this newborn king. He was an unwelcome nuisance. They went back to their sterile study of the scriptures and their Temple worship.

This foretells clearly the reaction of the political and religious leadership to Jesus of Nazareth.

This foretells the reaction today of the political and religious leadership to anyone who is rash enough to emulate Jesus of Nazareth (the King of the Jews) in his untiring efforts to eliminate poverty, greed and exploitation and to bring freedom and justice to our world. This foretells the reaction to anyone who criticises and continues to criticise our own indifference to the suffering, injustices, unfairness, waste, and exploitation in our own country today and tries to do something about it.

I do not like being made to feel guilty.

I do not like the boat being rocked.

Christmas (A) 2106

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

I must admit that the ‘old time religion’ I was brought up on in Ireland was not good news.

After many years it gradually dawned on me that what I believed to be Christianity was not Christianity.

It eventually became clear to me that what I had been told about God was not true.

The God of love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness which I now know was obscured by a God of judgement, intolerance, punishment and retribution.

I was presented with two totally contradictory Gods. I couldn’t accept both so I rejected one and accepted the other. I have now made it my mission to bring joy and peace into our lives. To reject the false God of anger, revenge and punishment. To embrace the God of peace, joy, forgiveness, compassion, mercy and total commitment to my wellbeing. I embrace the God who loves and cherishes me as I am, who accepts me as I am, who forgives me before I even ask for forgiveness.

I am not blaming those who were instrumental in my upbringing in this way – they themselves were victims of the same disinformation.

Today we are blessed with a Pope who is trying mightily to bring joy, peace, forgiveness and freedom back into our church but he is being strongly opposed by those who use fear of God to keep control over people.

You will hear that the Bible says this and the Bible says that. If you cherry pick you can use the Bible to prove any position you wish to take. The Bible is one Book made up of many parts  and written by many different people, over many centuries. But it must be read, understood and interpreted as one book. Therein lies the difficulty. Misinterpretation is common.

God is love. God is compassion. God is forgiveness. God is truth. God is justice and fair dealing.

But what has often been dished up to us is an angry God, a vengeful God, an unforgiving God, a punishing God. A God who will cast his ‘beloved’ children into eternal fire. If God is like that, then I want nothing to do with God.

The last thing God wants is fear. The thing which we should never experience is fear of God.

Reverence God, praise God, adore God, Bless God, be filled with gratitude towards God, apologise to God but never fear God.

The good news for all the people is that we are loved by God. We are treasured by God. we are forgiven by God. We are God’s beloved children and we will share in Eternal Life with our God.

So let us rejoice and be glad.


4th Sunday of Advent (A) 2106

Today we read in the Gospel that in the Old Testament Isaiah referred to the coming Redeemer as Immanuel which means ‘God is with us.’

In the New Testament the angel instructed Joseph to name the Redeemer Jesus which means ‘God saves.’

These two names tell us what the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was about.

In the Bible there is great significance given to names.

We see in the Book of Genesis how, when God had created everything he brought them to the Man (Adam) so that he could name them. This signified that they were now in the care of the man, he must look after them, care for them, they were his responsibility.

In the Baptism ceremony the first question the parents are asked is ‘what name have you given your child.’

A name is something sacred. It should have significance for the namer. It is now in the care of the namer. It is now the namers responsibility.

There were ethnic groups (maybe still are) who, because of a very high infant mortality rate, did not name a child until it reached about five years old. This was a protection for the parents, family and clan. If the child reached the age of five its survival rate was much improved. Up to the point when the child was named it was not really regarded as a full person, as a member of the family or of the clan or tribe. It was a thing rather than a person. This made losing it a little less traumatic. The naming of the child changed all that. It was now a person. This was its name. It was a member of a family, clan and tribe. Its death would now be a huge loss.

When naming a child the name should reflect the hopes of the parents and family for this child.

It might reflect in some way what the child means to them. Maybe it should remember an ancestor whom the parents would like the child to emulate.

Picking a name from the Bible or the name of some saint whose life one admires, is, for Christians, a traditional way of professing their beliefs.

A person’s name is sacred to that person.

Naming in the Bible is bound up with knowing.

Knowing in the Bible means far more than the word means to us today.

It is not just something to call one by but tells us something of the nature of the person. When Moses asked God, at the burning bush, who he should say sent him to Pharos to demand that he set the Israelites free, God replied, say ‘I am’ sent you. This name tells us a lot about the nature of God. God lives by his own power without reference to or dependence on anything else. God is the only thing who ‘is.’ Everything comes from ‘I am’ and is dependant on ‘I am.’

So in naming our child, as Christians, we should try and keep all this in mind. The naming of the child should be part of knowing the child. Maybe It should, in some way indicate the hopes of the family for this child. Maybe in some way it should indicate the character of this child.

Please, do not come to me and say, we want to name our child ‘brexit.’


3rd Sunday of Advent (A) 2016

Ongoing from last week’s homily on repentance and forgiveness I must emphasise that God is truth, just as God is love and God is forgiveness, irrespective of what I am or say or do.

There can be no duplicity in our dealings with God. There can be no slight of hand. Casuistry and clever arguments are mere self-delusion in the sight of God.

God wants me to know Him/Her. That is the whole point of all revelation, be it in creation, Scripture or the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Knowing, in the Biblical sense, is not the same as it is understood today. Knowing in the Bible is experiencing, is loving, is to know God as one is known by God. We are told in Genesis 4 ‘Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain.’ This will give us some idea of the depth and fullness of meaning in the word ‘know’ as used in the Bible. Knowing God and loving God merge into one. This knowing is without reservation.

Knowing, and thus loving God, in this sense is well beyond my capacity.

Concerning repentance I am in the very same position. How much of my repentance is self pity? How much is self loathing? How much is fear of retribution? How much is embarrassment? How much is an insurance policy against future punishment? How much is just self assurance?

If forgiveness depended on the veracity of my repentance then I would be in a sorry state indeed.

Therefore true repentance, true reconciliation, true conversion are not within my capacity. Therefore a God of truth cannot make forgiveness depend on any repentance on my part because then there would be no forgiveness.

In the very same way God’s love for me cannot be dependent on anything I can say or do because then there would be no love for me in God. How can anyone seriously say; I want you to truly love me and if you don’t I will punish you! Authentic love cannot exist in these circumstances.

We cannot see, hear or touch God. Human beings cannot love, repent, or experience gratitude in a vacuum. It is the experience of being loved that awakens me to the possibility of loving. Receiving gifts opens me to the possibility of experiencing gratitude. Experiencing forgiveness  awakens in me the need for repentance, contrition and reconciliation.

In 1 John we read ‘We love God because he first loved us.’

God’s great hope for humanity is that, experiencing His/Her infinite love, experiencing God’s infinite generosity, tasting God’s infinite mercy, compassion and forgiveness, we may be tempted by His/Her infinite Goodness to imitate, in some small way, this love, this generosity, this mercy, this compassion and forgiveness, in our dealings with each other.

Unfortunately, we human beings, limit our God to acting towards us as we act towards each other.

The Bible has many instances of the latter. God is often depicted by some authors or editors  of the Bible as cruel, vindictive, vengeful etc. This tells us what the author’s attitude and understanding of God was and not what God is actually like. People find it hard to see beyond their own attitudes, motivation, bias, and prejudice when trying to understand or describe others, especially so in the case of our God.

So today – Gaudete Sunday – let us rejoice and be glad for we are loved, forgiven and cherished by our God. All that is expected of me is some sort of acceptance and response. This is the “good news of great joy for all the people” as proclaimed by the Angels on Christmas night.

2nd Sunday of Advent (A) 2016

There is a great contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.

John did all his work in one place, out in the ‘desert’ (uninhabited, infertile region) on the banks of the river Jordan. People came from all over Judea including from the Capital city, Jerusalem, to listen to him. He did not enter the towns and villages. He preached repentance in preparation for the kingdom of God – in preparation for ‘the one who is to come.’ He did not move about.

In contrast Jesus of Nazareth did his work in the towns and villages of Galilee,

He was constantly on the move. His message was one of joy and celebration for he claimed that the Kingdom of God had arrived. It had been inaugurated. ‘The kingdom of God is among you’ he said.

What was the big thing they had in common? They both spoke the truth. Whether it was addressed  to the political and religious elite or to the poor hungry peasants of Galilee their message was the unadorned truth. As we would say they both called a spade, a spade.

Why did the political and religious leaders have them both executed? Why did the poor villagers of Nazareth try to throw Jesus off the precipice on which their village was built?  Because they spoke the truth.

Today we are speaking of repentance and forgiveness.

Nowhere have we been more two-faced with God than when it comes to sorrow for sin and repentance, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Most of us grew up thinking that repentance and forgiveness was a sort of deal with God. I am sorry and then God forgives me. Like telling someone; if you say you are sorry I will forgive you.

( In recent years, The parade of important people queuing up to apologise publicly for being discovered in their wrongdoing and their assurance that ‘lessons have been learned,’ is the best comedy piece I have seen in a long time).

God does not forgive me because I say I am sorry. God does not forgive me because I am really and truly sorry. God does not forgive me because I am really, really, truly sorry and am determined to repair any and all damage resulting from my offences in so far as I possibly can. No.

In short, God’s forgiveness has no connection whatsoever with what I do or say or can possibly do or say.

God forgives. Finish. Just as ‘God is love’ so also God is forgiveness.

Remember when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and sent him to Pharaoh to free the Israelites, Moses asked God whom he should say sent him. God replied, say ‘I AM’ sent you. ‘

‘I am who am.’

This is what I mean when I say ‘God forgives.’ God is forgiveness.

This is how it works. It is only when I realise that I am totally forgiven and loved by My God prior to any sign or expression of sorrow or regret or repentance on my part, that I can hopefully move on to  true sorrow, true regret, true repentance. On this foundation, on this realisation, on this truth only, can I begin to build a liking and even a love for my God.

This is why Jesus said concerning the prostitute who had washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

‘So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’

It was her realisation that her God loved and forgave her irrespective of what she had done, prior to any move on her part, that brought her to repentance and love.

The acceptance of this truth about my God, and the change of attitude it required was the most difficult thing I ever did, but how amazing the rewards.

1st Sunday of Advent (A) 2016

We human beings, sometimes early on in life, or over the years, pick up attitudes and opinions which influence our lives to a great extent. These attitudes and opinions are generally unquestioned and unexamined and can be without foundation in reality or totally irrational.

When I started school in 1943/44 I distinctly remember the children (a minority) who were left handed getting the edge of a ruler across the knuckles for using their left hand to write. Using the left hand to write was somehow wrong although nobody knew why. Teachers were expected to teach all pupils to write of course, but only with the right hand.

It was only later, when it was realised that some people were born left handed just as others were born right handed, that this practise was stopped. Being right handed or left handed did not involve being right or wrong in any way. It was just how God created you.

After much thought and reading on the subject I am pretty sure that ones sexual orientation, be it heterosexual or homosexual, should be regarded and understood as we regard and understand left handedness or right handedness. It is the way you are. It is how God created you.

To accept this, in itself, is a big step for many people, as it is for me. This is so because of the attitudes and understanding, in society generally, as we grew up. As we know, even today in many countries and among many groups of people, homosexual orientation is a major problem.

On moral grounds religious organisations have huge problems with homosexuality. They range from outright and total condemnation to confused and fractious struggling for a solution, to self contradictory statements. The latter is well illustrated in a statement from our own Congregation for Doctrine and Faith some ten/fifteen years ago, and I quote ‘The homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin, constitutes a tendency towards behaviour that is intrinsically evil, and therefore must be considered objectively disordered.’ There was not, and still is not, an explanation as to how the homosexual inclination, though not itself a sin can be considered objectively disordered because it can be used in a sinful way. Surely one can say the same of heterosexual inclination. Do we not read every day, and hear in the news, how heterosexual inclination is used in a sinful way?

Do we not hear and see every day how all the gifts God has given us can be user in an abusive and sinful way?

Pope Francis has indicated a different attitude which our church should cultivate, when in response to questions on the matter he said “who am I to judge,” much to the surprise of his questioners.

In heterosexual relations we expect that there exists a bond of love/liking, mutual respect, mutual support etc. or at least a good possibility of this. It is this which gives it meaning, makes it good for the partners and makes it Christian. Without this a heterosexual relationship is abusive, controlling, exploitative and meaningless.

Can the same standards not be applied to a homosexual relationship?

I believe that this is the way forward. This is the attitude we should cultivate.

I believe that if we are to respect the works of God’s hands. If we are ‘to see all that God made and indeed it is very good.’ If we are to respect and cherish every human being as God’s beloved child. Then homophobic attitudes have no place in our thinking.

Christ the King (C) 2016

Today we approach Jesus of Nazareth as our Lord and King.

John 18. ‘Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus of Nazareth; Our God and Creator, is the king of truth.

Looking back over my life I can see that, by and large, I was fearful of the truth. This is partly to do with my upbringing and the mores of the time. Outward expressions of fear, love, compassion, concern, pity, pain etc. were frowned upon and, especially for men, considered to be unmanly.

The ‘hard man’ attitude was the image to project.

So here I am not talking about overtly telling lies but an attitude of denial that was hurtful to self and to others.

Times have changed and attitudes have changed (for example it seems to be the ‘in thing’ to ‘let it all hang out’ even to the point of invention) to the extent that one invents fears, love, compassion, pain etc. to appear cool.

So here I am trying to walk a thin line between both extremes. A line which, hopefully, will be authentic.

Luke 9. Then Jesus said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Taking up ones cross daily and following Jesus is reiterated many times in the New Testament.

The path taken by Jesus of Nazareth was doomed to failure. This was the path of truth. The truth was that the whole world in which He lived was exploitative, oppressive, elitist and therefore unjust.

His public ministry was an outright condemnation of this not only by what he said openly but by the the very way he lived with his group of followers.

Nobody in authority (religious of civil) wanted to hear or see this. It was too big a threat to their control and privilege.

This led to constant opposition and hostility from the authorities and his eventual arrest and execution.

Today, economic, financial, political and social structures are as unjust, oppressive, and elitist as they ever were depending on who you are and where and how you live.

Being the King of truth guarantees being the king of failure. Being the follower of the King of Truth guarantees failure. Try, as we should and as persistently as we can, we will never succeed in making the world fair and just. Human greed and ambition will guarantee that.

This is taking up ones cross, this is sharing the burden of Jesus’ cross. This is what being a follower of Christ the King of truth means.

Being a Christian is, first and foremost, sharing in the struggle of Jesus of Nazareth to bring justice and fairness to our world. Only secondly is it about prayer, mass, sacraments, pilgrimages, adoration etc. which presuppose an already sharing in the struggle for justice.

This guarantees failure. It means that our main aim in life will fail.

It follows that as the Church of Jesus Christ we will fail in our main reason for existence. This is guaranteed. As Jesus said  “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

We have lost sight of this in our own lives and in the life of our church. Read any Church paper and the successes are highlighted. If I and you and our church were really following in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth then our stories would be a string of failures. Of the twelve Apostles, eleven were arrested and executed for opposing the accepted, oppressive, status quo. Would I not regard their lives as failures.

The Cross is a symbol of failure. What other organisation has a symbol like that!

Perhaps I need to change my attitude to failure?

33rd Sunday of the Year (C) 2016

There is a perpetual tension, in all aspects of life, between the status quo and the necessity for change. Life and growth necessarily means change. But we must decide on the pace of change and on what changes are necessary or desirable at a particular time.

At one end of the spectrum there is the total refusal to change and at the other the urge to throw everything out and start anew. The correct way is somewhere in between. But where?

Recent events in the western world indicate a dissatisfaction with the status quo and the desire for change. I think we must accept this and not only work for change, but look forward to it.

What does not change withers away and dies.

Looking back over the last sixty years of our churches’ history this is bourn out. Vatican 11 brought a sense of freedom and the possibility of change to our church. But before this could filter down to the rank and file great effort was put into suppressing it by those who did not want any change.

We know the result – the greatest fall away from the Catholic Church in Europe since the Reformation.

Luckily we now have a leader – Pope Francis –  who recognises this and is working tirelessly to reawaken the freedom and hope for change experienced during Vatican 11. The main stumbling block to the latter is clericalism, whose position and power is being threatened.

So now to what I want to say. If you want change it will have to come from you. I, and the vast majority of the clergy in the western world are well beyond our ‘sell by date.’

Pope Francis has urged national Bishops conferences to make proposals to him as to what should be done to rejuvenate the Church in their various countries. To my knowledge only one South American conference has done so and Francis has urged them to implement it. For the rest it is silence.

The mind of the laity was made very clear in the questionnaire of a few years ago. So there is no excuse.

So I reiterate, change will have to come from, and be implemented by you. Of course you are very busy. Of course you have very little time to spare. Nevertheless, real, on the ground change will have to come from you. Francis can only indicate the way.

We, the clergy are old, tired and bereft of new ideas.

So do try and come up with ideas as to what our parish should be doing and how we should be doing it.

The two big messages that Pope Francis has for us are care for the poor and oppressed and care for the whole environment of our planet Earth.

32nd Sunday of the Year (C) 2016

People who believe in life after death have always been around.

People who do not believe in life after death have always been around.

Anthropologists tell us that the very earliest human burial sites (dating some 70,000 years ago) contain artefacts in everyday usage such as weapons or household utensils etc. The obvious reason for this would be the belief that if the dead person needed these things in this life then he/she would need them in a life after death.

In the very same way belief in some sort of god or gods (the existence of invisible beings more powerful than oneself) is co-existent with the existence of human beings.

At the time of Jesus of Nazareth the group called the Sadducees believed in the existence of God but not in the resurrection of the dead.

All through the New Testament Jesus of Nazareth and his followers  are most insistent not only on the existence of One God but also on the Resurrection of the dead. In fact death is treated by Christianity as being of no consequence whatever; simply as the passage from this present existence into total union with the Eternal life of God our Creator.

There is a trend in Christian theology down the centuries, and presently coming very much to the fore, that nothing which has been brought into existence by God the Creator will ever cease to exist in one form or another.

Pope Francis has embraced the sacredness of the whole of creation. “God saw all he had made and indeed it was very good.” (Gen. 1; 31) He teaches us that it is necessary to respect and cherish the whole of creation as we should respect and cherish each other. Not only is this the right thing to do but also our very existence on planet Earth depends on it.

Christianity stands on the belief of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth that he had risen from the dead. Experiencing the presence of the Risen Lord turned a bunch of fearful disciples, who up to this point had really no idea of what Jesus of Nazareth was all about, into a close nit group of people willing and eager to stand up in public and declare their belief in the Risen Lord. They abandoned their previous life, travelled the known world and willingly gave their lives for the belief in Resurrection from death.

They fully realised what they were doing and the vital importance of belief in Resurrection from death. As St. Paul said “If Christ has not been raised, then empty (too) is our preaching; empty too, your faith.”

The Church tells us that faith in Jesus of Nazareth and resurrection from death is a gift from God. Personally I find this unsatisfactory. If it is so important and so life changing why is it so haphazard? Why do so many really good people find it very difficult or impossible to believe?

I am afraid I don’t have the answer.

I sometimes find it helpful to consider the alternative. I find it helpful to consider what my life would be like without a belief in God and resurrection from death. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here in Corsham doing the job I do. I find it better to travel in hope of reaching a pleasant, hospitable destination rather than just travelling until the car runs out of petrol.

31st Sunday of the Year (C) 2016

Zacchaeus  was an important man in the city of Jericho. He was the chief tax collector. He was the top civil servant for the Roman Empire in Jericho. He was feared because he could fix the rate of taxation for the people and businesses of Jericho. Because of this he was shown great outward respect while being secretly despised as a traitor and sinner because he worked for the hated Roman Empire. He was corrupt as all tax collectors were because he had the power to fix ones rate of taxation and could skim off the top for himself or demand favours.

He was wealthy, settled and set up for life. The future was a comfortable retirement with a nice fat nest egg.

Not the sort of person one would expect to change.

Not the sort of person one would even bother to try and change.

Imagine this wealthy, well dressed, dignified, short, fat man, waddling up the road as fast as he could ahead of the crowd, panting and slipping in his efforts to climb a small fig tree so that he could see what Jesus of Nazareth looked like!

How ridiculous can one appear!!

We can only imagine what might cause a man like Zacchaeus  to do such a thing.

Perhaps, despite his position, wealth, nice lifestyle etc. he wasn’t as happy as he expected to be, wasn’t at peace with himself as he had hoped to be.

Whatever the reason he was prepared to expose himself to ridicule and to the vicious gossip of his many enemies so as to get a good look at Jesus of Nazareth.

We only know the result.

Zacchaeus, the rich, corrupt, selfish, tax collector has become a paradigm for change. Surely, if he could change, any one of us can change.

And everyone of us here today needs to change in one way or another, to some degree or another.