1st Sunday of Advent Year B

Stay awake!

We know what it is like to be drowsy especially if we are awake and still up beyond our usual time for bed. As we get older we are no longer as interested in staying up late or out all night as often as we used to because - drink aside - we know all too well the consequences of sleep deprivation, that we’ll be sorry in the morning’, that there will be drowsiness, and an inability to concentrate on our work. The price to be paid for lack of sleep is high when we experience the occasional night of interrupted sleep when called out to an emergency, or more commonly for parents with sick or restless children who cannot settle easily at night, when a day’s work lies ahead.

Keeping vigil.

We know what it is like to keep vigil at the sickbed or the deathbed of a loved one. We want to be there for their passing. We might talk and pray, or say nothing, but we cope in different ways, but we are there keeping watch. We all likewise dread the coming of that phone call to inform us to come quickly as our loved one has not much time left in the world in a hospital or nursing home. This is one kind of keeping vigil.

Another kind of vigilance is that of being ready and at work or on guard. Security of mind comes from the fact that we may have security cameras, alarms, or guards on the watch for the quiet time of the night when burglars and thieves are at work. It is better to have vigilant safeguards in place rather than have to go through the awful feeling of violation at having been burgled at a time when we ask ourselves with regret with the ‘if onlys’ afterwards that we could have done more, that the burglary was preventable. These are safeguards, like life or health insurance.
There is another kind of ‘watch’: more akin to the Gospel today and that is the vigilance that is required of us to be attentive to one’s duty and one’s commission, and not slacking even when the employer/supervisor/inspector is not looking or not in sight.

And so the name ‘watch’ is given to a time of the night when we are to be on the alert for the coming of an anticipated event – in time of war there was the possibility of invasion or attack, the manned watchtowers around the country and around the island of Cobh built during the prospect of foreign invasion of Ireland by Spain or France to be the back-door to invasion of England.

But what does being awake and alert mean for us here and now?

Just as the last few Sundays of Ordinary time also reminded us of vigilance – that of the men with the talents of the bridesmaids with oil for their lamps, because the Master is coming at an hour we do not expect, our whole life – not just some part of it – is meant to be one of prayerful vigilance to keep the commandments, to ward off temptation to commit repeated sins when it strikes, to keep sin at bay, but also in a positive sense we should have vigilance to watch out for all the many occasions during our day when in thought, word or action we can be generous, patient and charitable and not to give into to gossip, pride and unfair judgments through anger and tiredness.

To be watchful therefore is to have a heightened sense that there are opportunities not to be missed where I can be an active Catholic Christian in my attentiveness to the performance of my religious duties but also to be ever active in my resolve to watch of other comings of the Lord in the guise of those in need as last week’s Gospel reminded us. To be hopeful, encouraging, and to be responsive and discerning to the demands of the Gospel, to the keeping of the commandments and to ward off impending evil by humble acknowledgment of our weakness and proneness to sin. Difficult, demanding tasks and even the routine of life and seeming repetitive boredom are challenges to be met head on, that we might not seek novelty and distraction in harmful gratifying compulsions and addictions at the expense of straying from the path God has marked out for us.

All this is what is meant this first Advent Sunday by the alert to watch in our lives and to stay awake as ‘we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.’

Reflections on the Gospel according to Mark

This is a summary of a talk given on Monday November 21st to Lectors of the parish of Cobh

This weekend, November 26th/27th sees the beginning of a new Church Year as we begin Advent. The Gospel for most Sundays of the Year B, as it is known, is taken from the Gospel according to Mark.

The phrase ‘the Gospel according to Mark’ is important because it reminds us that there is after all, only one Gospel, or Good News, but 4 versions of it, admittedly parallel and overlapping.

To use a modern example: We often see, for example, a ‘breaking news’ story as we flick channels on BBC, RTE,CNN, Fox News, ABC etc. the same images flash before us, say, for example, the riots in Egypt or the uprising in Libya that oversaw Col. Gaddafi. There is one news story rolling along the ticker tape at the bottom of out TV screens, but different tellings, and different details come to light.

Mark’s version of the life, ministry death and resurrection is the shortest version. I recommend highly reading the entire Gospel book in a single sitting. It makes a powerful impact, and takes 45 minutes to read through. Mark writes in a very dramatic, direct and simple style, with much of the dialogue and narrative in the present tense. His account is in contrast to Matthew who pads, as it were, to show the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, or Luke who had a Gentile audience in mind, or John’s highly theologised version with few miracles, but long rich discourses of Jesus. It is worth mentioning that John’s Gospel is recalled in several Sundays of the coming liturgical year, especially John, with the Bread of Life discourse in the summer Sundays.

It is a long-standing tradition that Mark’s account was the first to be written and that he used Peter as his principal journalistic source. Mark is not an Apostle, and his name does not feature in the Gospel account that bears his name. He is mentioned, though, in the Acts of the Apostles.

What is interesting is the way Mark excludes the Infancy narrative and we enter at once into the drama of the highlights of Jesus’ life and death. Fully one-third of the Gospel is taken up with the Passion narrative.

The phrase, ‘immediately’, occurs 40 times in the Gospel of Mark. This gives us a sense of urgency and hurry as we read. The work of Jesus is one of dramatic urgency with immediate effect. This gives the reader a sense of wishing to enter into an automatic response of wanting to accept Jesus’ message and identity straight away. Jesus is moved by the Spirit immediately after His baptism into the wilderness. The parable of the sower of the word contains several instances of the word ‘immediately’ for example.

The Gospel is clearly divided into two main sections, with the chapters 1-8 focussing on establishing Jesus’ identity in his hearers and followers, and chapters 9 to 16 leading inexorably to Jesus’ Passion, death and resurrection. The miracles Jesus performs lead people to ask ‘Who is this man’ (that he can forgive sins in chapter 2, that he can calm the storm in chapter 4); and ‘where did this man get all this?’ He is identified uniquely in Mark with the title ‘the son of Mary’. The conflicts with the Pharisees from the outset do not bode well of course for Jesus’ fate, as it were.

The climax comes on chapter 8 with the revealing of what scholars call ‘the Messianic secret’. At a place called Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks his disciples: ‘who do men say that I am?’ This straw poll is then followed by the more challenging question, which is asked of us too, ‘who do you say that I am?’ With Peter’s confession of faith that ‘You are the Christ’ Jesus urges them to tell no-one of this. Then Jesus predicts for the first time to his disciples His impending Passion, or if you will, Jesus then tells us Himself who He is, the awaited Messiah. There are two later predictions. Immediately in the next chapter of Mark (chapter 9), at the Transfiguration, the Father confirms Jesus (for our benefit) as ‘His beloved Son’, and we are urged to ‘listen to Him’.

We might ask ourselves why in so many occasions Jesus encourages silence in His followers as to His true identity. Even the demons exorcised from poor wretches recognise Him as the ‘Son of God’. There are several reasons: it was not the appointed time, Jesus does not want to perceived as having a political, military Messianic plan, or as a magician who performs ‘on tap’. He wishes to confirm as well as elicit greater faith. Many of the wonders He performs take place to confirm faith, rather than to force it out of nothing. The paralytic is cured in chapter 2, because Jesus rewards the faith of the man’s friends.

The title Mark uses for Jesus from the outset is ‘Son of God’, and Jesus refers to Himself as the ‘Son of Man’. We are drawn in, then, gradually to the puzzle or mystery ourselves so that we too might come to a similar conclusion of faith in who Jesus actually is, despite our timidity in the second part of the Gospel in the face of the predictions and inevitability of the suffering the Messiah is set to undergo for our sakes.

Enjoy the Year of Mark, beginning this Sunday, and read Mark for yourself.

Christ the King Year A

Does anybody care?

I suppose that this is a question we all ask ourselves in the hopefully rare, though occasional, moments of tiredness, disappointment, disillusionment, despair that come to us now and then. There are moments of tiredness and stress in all of our lives, when we are at a low ebb, especially after a lot of activity, when we stop and ask ourselves, when left to ourselves, what is it all for? What does it matter? Does anybody care? Does anything I say or do make a difference?

It happens in all walks of life, to the mother of young children pacing the floors with a sick child in her arms at 4 am, to someone who is newly retired and the workplace carries on without them, to someone sick in bed left to their thoughts for a long time without a visitor. At vulnerable times like these, it may just be the mind and body telling us to take much overdue rest or restore some order and balance in our lives if we have been working too hard, or we have been taking ourselves too seriously.

But there are people around us who do ask this question of themselves regularly, ‘does anybody really care?’

This is where God comes in and where we come in. Some people who question the existence of God actually question His presence because they are not convinced that we believe it. They are not convinced by our witness when we fail to see God in others.

The image we are given in the First Reading from Ezekiel today is of a God who cares. The reading (as well as the Psalm) is worth pondering over – God is a shepherd in the midst of us - not some far way off, first and foremost. He cares for all. The images used suggest not only the different kinds of people (sheep) there are, but the various times in my life and yours, when in the terrifying mist and darkness of life, we have become lost altogether, have strayed from the path of God, have been wounded (by others or by ourselves) or have been sick – and God has come to our rescue – to nourish us and to guide us to safety and give us rest.

It is I venture to say only when we have had some experience of rescue by God (directly in prayer or His working through the goodness, patience and kindness of others), that we come to the Gospel teaching that we are called to do likewise to others. We can witness to God’s goodness to ourselves by passing it on. Even if people question whether God exists or cares, at least by our words, our actions, our presence, we can say ‘at least I do’. Very often I don’t think many people are really questioning God’s existence so much as they are crying for help. We are the ones who are called to be the proofs of God’s existence through our concrete acts of care and concern.

Sometimes in the lives of the saints God appeared in disguise as one of 'the least' –as a leper to St Francis, as a poor man in need of a cloak to St Martin, as a starving boy at a kitchen door in the life of St Faustina. Later he would reveal Himself in His glory to them thanking them for the kindness they and ventured to show Him.

As we come then to the end of another year we are called today then to pause and reflect on the extent of our generosity to those less well-off than ourselves in the past year. What resolution(s) can I make to improve?

Finally one last brief story in the life of St Vincent de Paul, when a rich aristocratic lady asked him one day, ‘what can I do for the poor?’ he answered her on word, maybe one word we need to hear too.

'What can I do?' His reply, one word: ‘more’.

33rd Sunday of the Year A

It seems amazing that we have been taken in by vicariously acting out the dramas of The Dragon’s Den, X Factor, Masterchef and America’s Got Talent. We can watch and be entertained because we are not the ones on show facing trial and possible humiliation. Nothing is required of us to sit back and watch and see others cringe, be scrutinised on their performance and work, and be judged. It is pure exploitation.

The parables of these weeks at the end of the Church year and the Gospel and Year of Matthew’s Gospel point us to fact that there is a sense of accountability for all of us when all that is unbalanced, unfair, inequitable and unjust in this passing world will be rectified. They are reminders to the whole Church believing community that there is, after all, a final reckoning of our individual stewardship; that after death comes particular judgment, heaven or hell, also known as The Four Last Things.
A talent originally was a unit of mass, but became a measurement of currency.

According to one estimate, a talent was the wages earned for 20 years labour. So whether it was 20 years, 40 years, 100 years worth of life, there is accountability.
We might wish sometimes that God would have made us differently, or given us more than our seeming limited resources. We often seem more conscious of what others have and what we lack than thanking God instead for what we have been uniquely given. We sometimes doubt our own abilities and question what exactly it is we have to offer in life to others.

For some people in life, who are successful in business, have ambition, drive and initiative, or are academically, musically or athletically gifted, everything to them – at least to our way of seeing it -seems effortless. These correspond to the man with the 5 talents. But the famous tenor Pavarotti once said that after a day without singing practice for 5 hours, he would notice deterioration, and after two days everybody else would. We forget the ongoing effort required even by those at the top. As someone I know often says, brilliance is really 5 % inspiration, and 95% perspiration.

We have obligations, despite temptations to doubt ourselves, to at least make the effort to develop our 1, 2 or 5 talents.

The man with the 1 talent, rather than focussing his energies on the 1 thing given to him, squandered his chance, and buried it. We might identify more readily with this man with the one talent because we can be too self-conscious. Misplaced fear, hesitancy, reluctance, fleeing to safety rather than face ridicule or criticism from others lest we make a mess of things, lack of confidence, self-pity, navel-gazing, and self-absorption are all qualities we can relate to, but there is a sense of urgency and accountability that seems rather unforgiving in today’s Gospel. There is no excuse in God’s eyes. God expects a return for his investment in us. The man is his own self-fulfilling prophecy and receives worse than nothing as his desserts. As King Lear famously said: ‘nothing shall come of nothing’.*

The delay in the Master’s/king’s return today as with the parable of the wise and foolish virgins last week, is meant to correspond to the time and unique opportunity that is given to us to put to good use the talent or talents we have been given. It spurs us to action to make use of what we have been entrusted with. We will each of us be asked to render account for our talents, each of us according to our ability. We must practice an attitude of gratitude. Our talents are there for us either to use, or are there for us to misuse and finally, lose. We must acknowledge, therefore, what we have been given, despite the seeming unfairness and inequity of talent distribution in a family setting, in school, work, or the world as a whole. Rather than wallow in self-pity and anger because at times we have been unfairly compared to a more gifted sibling, we must learn strive to be the best version of ourselves that God has called us to be.

The shame with the man with the one talent is his decision to play it safe: buried talent, of wasted opportunities and untapped potential, of easily giving in to inner negativity, fear of failure, or to outward sarcasm, put-downs, knocking, cynicism, will only lead to later regret at what might have been.

If there is one talent we all possess and must use – it is that of praise and encouragement. It does not come easily to us, because we don’t want to come across as artificial and insincere. We are not a nation of positive thinkers. We can all think of someone though, who, in our formative years, provided inspiring words of praise and encouragement which made all the difference to us, between perseverance and giving up in despair in some area of life. We all can think of a teacher we liked, who appealed to us because of their positive attitude and the time they had for us. We may never have verbally thanked them but we are grateful years later. It is a truism in life that we may remember what people said to us, we might remember what people did for us, but we always remember how people make us feel, good and bad.
Let us not fear, therefore, to encourage, praise and be positive, not artificially but sincerely. It is all too easy to want to knock others off their perch, rather than give credit where it is due. Let be the first talent to cultivate, and watch others bloom.

May we learn to recognise and appreciate our dignity and uniqueness, as well as the opportunity that is being presented to us to make up for lost time, to put all our energies into putting our 1,2 or 5 talents to use, so that one day we can join, with all the other talented people around us, in our Master’s happiness.

*Old King Lear has decided to retire and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. They are required to come forward and flatter him. His two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, flatter and deceive the old king, and receive their rewards. The youngest, Cordelia, who loves him most, cannot find the words to articulate this love. He asks her to speak up and praise him more than her sisters have just done. When asked 'what do you have to say?' Cordelia responds "Nothing." He repeats this answer as a question. She responds the same. Lear is outraged and tells her that "nothing will come of nothing," and banishes her without money, title, or any part of his kingdom.

Sunday 32A

It’s funny when we come across the source of an often cited quotation. We say to ourselves, ‘oh, so that’s where it comes from!’ The saying ‘you do not know the day or the hour’ is one such saying, and comes from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins today.

A number of years ago there was a terrible tragedy that killed a number of high profile Manchester United players – it is called the Munich Air Disaster, which took place in 6 Feb 1958, and is forever etched in the consciousness and lore of that great football club. A few of the players were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who was heard to say "This may be death, but I'm ready" shortly before take-off. It is sobering that he did die that night.

Recently I have presided at, or heard about quite a significant number of, funerals of young people in their 40s. It seems that they are too young to die by our reckoning. All their plans and dreams come to a sudden end, through illness or a tragic accident, and we and their loved ones are left asking: ’Why? Why now? Why not later? Or ‘we weren’t ready!’’ ‘They had so much to offer and to accomplish. Why now, Lord? It seems so unfair.’

This happens to us time and again and one sad funeral after another wears us down. We go on our way tranquilly and then ‘wallop’, we are stunned in the face of untimely death. This month of November we are all too aware of all loved ones gone before us.

Which brings us back to the parable. This parable of the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins, is, in fact, among the last of Jesus and when we look at the context of the Gospel Jesus is preaching towards the end of His own life. Soon He will face what He Himself describes as ‘the hour’. It was for this hour I came into this world’. Up to this point, the gospel writers relate: ‘his hour had not come yet’, all the way back to Cana when He said to His Mother, ‘My hour has not yet come.’

Now His hour has come and He will say to His Father, ‘Father, what will I say, save me from this hour?’ When we take a look at the chapter this parable comes from we see too that there are other similar parables about watchfulness and a divine return at an un-appointed time.

We are all frightened by the shortness of life and our own mortality. We see that much of the glamour, fame, and celebrity around us and in the media is really so much empty show, here today and gone tomorrow. In fact we are reminded anew of the most fundamental important things to us - faith, family, friends, and our health. When we are shaken by death we often see them with a fresh sense of gratitude that we can get up in the morning despite all our whinges at the demands and inconveniences that are made of us. Our worries are short-lived but also placed in a new context of gratitude for what we do have here and now.

The maidens, virgins or young girls in the parable are chosen with a particular duty and joyful task to accompany the bridegroom as He comes to claim His Bride and take up residence with her, which is marked by a midnight feast, in the curious Israelite custom of the time.

There is much symbolism of course. The parable highlights virginity which in turn points to a certain disposition – a cleanliness or detachment from sin and worldly things. All ten have this external quality as it were. They differ however in one crucial respect, which reminds us that the exterior life must be accompanied by an interior watchfulness and preparation. The oil in the lamp is the fuel needed to provide the light in the darkness, to guide the way, which the foolish virgins lack. What is this oil? Wisdom and virtue, the First Reading tells us. This means discernment of what the most important things in life are, as well as a consciousness of why we are here, in this time and space in 2011, and what are our duties to God and neighbour. The oil in fact points to the light we are called to be to others, and pointing to Christ the Light - as well of course being attuned to the source of all Light, Christ, the Light of the world, ourselves. We cannot give what we do not possess ourselves. Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount. ‘You are the light of the world; no one places a lamp under a bed or a bushel, but where it will be seen. You must let your light (your deeds) be seen, so that others may give praise to your Father in heaven.’

When we see the ‘lock-out’ of the foolish ones, by contrast, it is not for us to speculate, though, how many are excluded as in the other parables of Jesus where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and what is meant when ‘many will try to enter’ and will fail. As the other parables we have seen tell us, we need a proper wedding garment, we need to do the Father’s will, we must enter by the narrow gate, and we must be humble.

The Lord is coming for each of us, each in turn; it is only a matter of when. We do not know the day or the hour.

MAy Our Lady pray for us 'now and at the hour of our death.'

Are we ready, with our lamps lit? As we say in the Mass - ‘we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our saviour, Jesus Christ.’