Machnamh – April 2006

Archbishop Joseph Cassidy – from his book of homilies “These might help”

Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 2nd, 2006

The Grain of Wheat

I’m going to be very brief – and I mean very brief – because if I talk too much I’ll cover today’s message with confusion.  And it’s such an important message that it needs to be very clear

Our Lord says two things that are linked: “Unless a wheatgrain falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest”.  That’s the first thing.  And then he says, “Anyone who loves his life loses it; Anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.

Take the grain of wheat – leave it on the mantelpiece; it will do no good there, it won’t even decorate the place.  Put it in the earth, let it die, and it will increase and multiply.  In dying it bears fruit.  The dying gives life.  Death for us is cold and pale and rigid and final, the end of things! Death isn’t dead really!  It can be very productive.  Seeds die – come the harvest!

The next point Our Lord is making when He talks about “being glorified” is that his death is going to be similarly fruitful, only much more so.  And wasn’t He right?  His death led to Resurrection for him and for us.  His death brought new life to the world.  The finest grain that was ever planted.  No death in human history ever yielded such a rich harvest!

The third and last point he makes is that what’s true for the grain of wheat, what’s true for himself, is also true for us.  In order to live a fruitful life we have to die too – die to selfishness!  If you love yourself too much you lose out, but if you hate the selfish side of your life – the egoism, the self-centredness, the sinfulness – then you find a richer life here below, and eternal life to come!  If you give yourself to the service of the Lord and other people, the harvest is yours.

Do you know people like that?  We all think of Mother Teresa.  You know, your own mother mightn’t  be far behind, or your father or some single person who devoted an entire life to other members of the family.  We are not talking here about an impossible ideal.  We’re talking about people around us!  They give rather than grab!  They serve rather than seek!  What Our Lord is saying is “to be like them and like myself”.

There’s tremendous challenge here.  Sometimes death comes swiftly as in martyrdom.  For most of us it’s a slow dying.  A reluctant dying, a difficult dying.  Selfishness hangs on to life too, never releases its grip, makes wonderful, if predictable, recoveries at regular intervals.  “It’s not that easy to die”, the old people used to say.  They were dead right.  They meant in the physical sense.  It’s true in the spiritual sense as well.  It goes against the grain.

I came across two quotations lately that make dying a little easier for us.  One is from a man called Albert Schewietzer.  “One thing I know”, he said “the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found who to serve”.  The wittier of the two quotations comes from a man called John Ruskin.  He said “When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package”.  A grain of wheat makes a pretty small package too.  But if it dies it yields a rich harvest.  Lord, that we may live for you and other people – help us to die!

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Palm Sunday – April 7th, 2006

I sat at the desk on Friday morning to put a homily together for this Mass. Before I began, I put a mug of tea at my right hand and some books and old sermons on my left. I shuffled through the sermons and sifted through the books. I was trying to find an old idea that I might disguise, dress up and represent. I didn’t succeed. I sipped the tea and wondered if I should take something stronger. The temptation passed and I turned my mind to clever sayings or funny incidents that might catch your attention. Several hours and mugs of tea later I was still staring at a blank page, with a blanker mind. At that stage I said prayers for you all – though I doubt it very much if they did you any good.

And then I did something I should have done at the very beginning. I read the readings for today’s Mass. And quite suddenly my mood changed. I found that I was touched and affected by them in a way that hasn’t happened to me for many a long year. What came over me was sadness really. I found myself caught up in the great unfolding drama of the Passion. There was no time for flippancy or cleverness. I found myself chastened and silenced by the most poignant story the world has ever known.

What moved me first of all was the suffering and humiliation to which Jesus was subjected. A good deal of it was predicted in the first reading and the psalm. “I have not resisted, I have not turned away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who plucked at my beard”. “All who see me jeer at me”, the psalm continues, “they sneer and wag their heads”. In the second reading St. Paul tells us what Our Lord was doing “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… He was humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross.” The details from the Passion are the most harrowing of all. “Herod, together with his guards, treated him with contempt and made fun of him”. All the verbs in the story that encapsulate the attitude of His enemies are charged with derision and malevolence. The leaders jeered at Him, the soldiers mocked Him, even the criminal hanging beside Him had the surviving gall to abuse Him. All of these different verbs, these fragmented hatreds, were subsumed, concentrated and amplified in one soaring, irrational demand: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” It’s not possible to feel the impact of today’s readings and not be moved.

The second thing that moved me very much was the attitude of Our Lord. His was a composite attitude that went outwards and upwards. In going outwards He didn’t strike back. He didn’t retaliate. He didn’t return evil for evil. There was no attempt to outdo them in bitterness and vituperation. There malice was swallowed up in His mercy. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing”. And in going upwards, He wasn’t throwing up His hands in helpless surrender. What He did He did positively. What He did, He did creatively. He offered His suffering, indeed His whole life, not in the timid capitulation or even in stoical acceptance, but in generous, redemptive sacifice for humankind. In that combined or composite movement of His life, He was forgiving people and glorifying His Father. He was stretching out His hands and joining his hands in salvation and prayer.

That story of the Passion is not just description: it’s invitation too. The Passion of Christ is not over at all. It’s meant to be reproduced every day in our lives. St. Paul understood that very well when he said to the Philipians: “That I may come to know Him and the power of His resurrection, and partake of His sufferings by being moulded to the pattern of His death”. St. Paul wasn’t inventing that for himself. What he was doing was echoing Christ. “If anyone want to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.

So the important question for you and me today is this: How do we enter more fully into the Passion of Jesus Christ? How do we reproduce in our lives the pattern of His death? Some years ago I attended a youngish woman who was dying of cancer. I don’t thing I have ever seen anybody suffer as much. She died inch by inch over three years. Every day was a prolonged encounter with pain. It was frightening. But every day too, when the pain was at its worst, she asked for her prayer book. Only after she was dead did her family discover, and did I discover, the prayer she was actually saying. It was a prayer to St. Francis, a sacrificial prayer, a mystical prayer. It said that God had looked at her cross, that He saw that it wasn’t an inch too long or an ounce too heavy, that he had weighed it very carefully before giving it too her. I was staggered. The level of spirituality at which the woman was dying and living! She certainly had the upward movement. She was offering her life with Christ to the Father. “Not my will, but thine be done”.

There is suffering in all our lives – sickness, loneliness, ridicule perhaps. We can have the upward movement too, though it’s never easy. But for full participation in Christ’s Passion, even that won’t be enough. We’ll have to move outward as well, refusing to strike back, refusing to retaliate, but making active in our lives the positive creative virtues of justice, forgiveness and peace. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers”. It’s not enough for us to imitate Christ. We have to try and imitate Him as well.

I’m finishing now. I haven’t asked you to do anything specific, I suppose. I haven’t said “Go home and do this, that or the other”. All I’ve done is invited you and myself to enter more fully into the heart and mind of Christ, to consciously participate in the life-giving, love-giving power of His Passion. You see, the danger is that we’d follow Christ only on level ground, that we wouldn’t go into the valley with Him at all or climb up with Him on the other side. The danger is that we’d live our lives at a superficial rather rather than a spiritual level. Looking like Christians, but not living like them at all. We come together at Mass, among other things, to make atonement for our sins. What I’ve been trying to say to you can be summed up in one sentence: The best form of atonement is at-one-ment that we be at one with Christ in everything we do. May He give us the courage and the strength to do that. May we go down into the valley with him this week and every week. And may we climb up with Him on the other side to the fulfilment and the joy of Easter.

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Easter Sunday – April 16, 2006

And It is true

I often get carried away by the Resurrection – when I’m preaching I mean! I talk about it as if it comes very easy to me to believe in it. I’m not going to do that this morning. I’m going to take a cold, clinical look at it. It’s not an easy thing to believe in. I’ve seen a lot of people die. I’ve never seen anbody rise. I’ve never heard of anyone rising around here or anywhere else. As a notion, it’s completely foreign to my experience.

I have no difficulty believing that Christ was crucified. The details are very convincing – they nailed him to the cross, pierced his side with a lance, blood and water flowed out, he said “it is finished” and gave up his spirit. Anyway it’s easier to believe in death because it’s something with which we are more familiar.

But resurrection! Maybe his followers imagined the whole thing? You know the way people get carried away by rumours about apparitions, for instance! You remember the hullabaloo about the moving statues a few years ago? Maybe Our Lord’s disciples got carried away in the same way?

The trouble is that the account in the four Gospels doesn’t really tally with that! It doesn’t suggest they got carried away. They really didn’t expect him to rise. Nobody was more astonished than they were! They were frightened out of their lives by the Crucifixion and took off into hiding. The women didn’t go to the tomb expecting a resurrection. Matthew tells us that they went to visit the grave – the same as you or I would do when somebody dies. Two of the others, Mark and Luke, said they brought spices with them to anoint the body. And, according to John, Mary Magdalene, who was very close to Our Lord and who would have wanted him to rise, didn’t believe he was risen at first. She thought the body had been stolen. And where do you leave Thomas? Sure Thomas threw buckets of water on the whole thing. Didn’t he say: Don’t be daft! Unless I put my finger into his hands and my hand into his side… And he did that, you see, later on. He did that in the upper room, and it helps me very much that he was totally convinced by what he saw with his eyes and felt with his hands. His doubting helps my faith! And it helps me that he made one of the shortest but most memorable acts of faith in all Scripture when he blurted out “My Lord and my God”!

Allright, that’s their account of it, but maybe Christ’s disciples made it all up? Maybe the whole lot of them got together and made it all up? But why would they do that? Why would they spend their lives preaching something they didn’t believe and perhaps die for it at the end. Why would they do that? It doesn’t make sense! Why would they spend their lives or give their lives for their own fiction? Would you? No! It looks as if something most unusual happened! And in the case of thos who died, martyrdom speaks louder than words!

One final point (and we are only scratching on the surface now)! Who was the greatest preacher of the Resurrection the world has ever seen? Who travelled the length and breadth of the then known world, preaching Christ Crucified and risen? St. Paul! But he began as an unbeliever. He began as an enemy. He was the fellow who held their jackets when they stoned St. Stephen to death! You know how hard it is for a dyed in the wool Fiann Fáiler to vote Fine Gael or vice versa! So what changed Paul? He tells us himself (in his first letter to the people of Corinth). “Christ died for our sins… on the third day he was raised to life… he appeared to Cephas, and later to the twelve, and next to five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still with us… then he appeared to James and then to all the Apostles. Last of all he appeared to me”. From the horse’s mouth, so to speak!

One famous commentator, a man called Westcott, said, “Taking all the evidence together, there is no single historical incident that is better supported than the Resurrection of Christ”.

The only point I want to make this morning is that it’s not easy to believe in the Resurrection, but we have good reason for doing so. As for myself, I got the faith originally from my parents and the people amongst whom I grew up. I accepted it as a child because they gave it to me and I trusted them. But I have additional reasons now for holding on to it! Faith isn’t something you swallow like castor oil – with eyes shut – because other people think it’s good for you. Faith and reason go hand in hand. I believe in the Resurrection now because all the evidence pushes me in that direction. I’m happy to believe it, happy to celebrate it, happy to give thanks for it. I hope you’re happy about it too and that when I give you the Easter greeting (the Russian one), you’ll be happy to respond.

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“The Lord is Risen”. “He is Risen indeed – Alleluja”.

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