Year C – 4th Sunday in Lent

On the Greatest Story Ever Told

(Josh.5:9-12; 2Cor.5:17-21; Lk.15:1-9)

An angry young man once lived with his parents on a country property.  He was always fighting with his dad.  One day he shouted at him, ‘That’s it!  I’m leaving home!’

His father was upset, and replied, ‘Son, if you leave like that, don’t bother coming back!’ 

Well, the son did leave, slamming the door. But things didn’t go well for him.  He wandered from town to town, looking for work, drinking and getting into trouble. One night he was with friends.  They were all broke and they decided to rob a store.  But they were caught and sent to gaol.

The young man became really miserable.  Later, he wrote to his parents, telling them what he’d done and apologising sincerely.  He said that he’d understand if they didn’t want to see him again.

He also said that when he’s released he’ll be given a train ticket.  He wanted to catch the train that goes past their house.  If they’d like to see him again, perhaps they could tie something white to their tree near the train line.  If he sees nothing, he’ll just keep going and they’ll never see him again.

Well, the time came and the young man did get on that train.  He was so nervous.  As he got closer and closer to his old house he became even more agitated, pacing up and down the aisle.  At one point he couldn’t take it any more.  He asked another passenger, ‘My house is just ahead.  Could you please see if there’s anything white tied to a big tree?  I just can’t look’.

The passenger agreed and looked out the window.  As the train rounded the bend, he saw the most amazing sight.  He called out, ‘Look!’

There in a field was a large tree, simply covered with white sheets and towels and shirts and table cloths, all flapping in the wind.  His parents had emptied their linen cupboard of everything white and tied it all to that tree.  They wanted him back. 

The young man jumped off the train and rushed to see his parents. They gave him the most loving welcome, much greater than he’d ever imagined.

This is what God’s love is like.  God always loves us, even when we turn away from him.  He will always welcome us back.  How do we know?  Because Jesus tells us so.  He says so in his Parable of the Prodigal Son.

When Charles Dickens was asked about the greatest story ever told, he said it’s this one, the story of the Prodigal Son.

What is a prodigal son?  The word ‘prodigal’ comes from the Latin word ‘prodigo’, which means to waste or squander.  So, a prodigal son is someone who’s wasting something valuable.  That’s something we should think about.

In today’s parable there are two sons.  There’s the younger son who’s unhappy and wants to leave home.  He asks his dad for his share of the estate.  He goes into town and wastes it all.

… a prodigal son is someone who’s wasting something valuable. That’s something we should think about.

Then there’s the older son. He stays at home and works hard, but he’s also unhappy.  He resents his family and he refuses to join the celebration.

So, who’s the real prodigal son?  Well, they’ve both been wasting the many graces their father has given them.  But in the end it’s the one who refuses to come in and accept his father’s love.  The younger son has learnt his lesson.  He has changed.  But the older son hasn’t learnt how to love.  He hasn’t learnt how to forgive.  His heart is stubbornly closed.

Are you like the prodigal son?  Are you wasting the love God has for you?

Jesus once told St Faustina about the mercy he wants to give the world, if only we will believe in His love.  This is a remarkable invitation, but many of us barely give it a moment’s thought.  What a waste!   

We might come to Mass, hear the Gospel and receive our Lord in the Eucharist, but so many of us just walk away afterwards, unchanged.  Jesus is calling us to change our lives and open our hearts up to him, but so many of us aren’t interested.

What an incredible waste!

When Jesus died on the Cross, that was God’s way of emptying heaven’s linen cupboard of everything white.  The Cross is God’s tree.  It’s his way of showing that he wants us home with him. 

It doesn’t matter what we did before.  God is calling us from that tree. 

He’s calling us home.

Year C – 3rd Sunday in Lent

On Eternity

(Ex.3:1-8, 13-15; 1Cor.10:1-6, 10-12; Lk.13:1-9)

Every year at midnight on New Year’s Eve, dazzling fireworks explode over Sydney Harbour, and as bright colours light up the sky a giant image appears on the Harbour Bridge.

In 1999, that image was one word: ‘Eternity’, written in classical handwriting. 

There’s a story behind that word.  It begins with a man named Arthur Stace, born in 1884 in a slum called Balmain.  His family was poor; they were alcoholics and often in gaol, so young Arthur had to look after himself.   To hide from his father he slept under the house. To eat he had to steal food or raid rubbish bins.  He rarely went to school and he couldn’t read or write.

When he was 14 he got his first job, in a coal mine.  But he spent his pay in the pub and often got into trouble.  At 15 he went to gaol for the first time.

During WW1, when he was 19, he joined the army and fought in France.  He was partially blinded by poison gas, and when he came home he returned to drinking and breaking the law.

In 1930, during the Great Depression, he found himself in court. The magistrate said to him, ‘Don’t you know I have the power to put you in gaol, and the power to set you free?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Arthur replied.  But it was the word ‘power’ that got him thinking.  What he needed was the power to give up alcohol.

Soon afterwards, Arthur went to St Barnabas’ Church in Broadway looking for free food.  There in the church, he decided it was time to change.  He went down on his knees and he prayed for the power to change his life.  

His life did change.  He soon gave up drinking and he found a job.

Later on, in Darlinghurst, Arthur heard a sermon about eternal life.  Referring to Isaiah 57:15, the minister preached ‘I wish I could shout ETERNITY through the streets of Sydney!’

That word ‘Eternity’ kept ringing in Arthur’s ears.  When he left the church, he cried and he felt a great urge to write that word down. Remembering that he had chalk in his pocket, he bent down and wrote ‘Eternity’ on the footpath.  

For the next 37 years he wrote ‘Eternity’ wherever he went, first with chalk, then with crayon because it lasted longer. In all, he wrote that word over half a million times.   

He died in 1967, aged 83, but he never understood how he could write this word, because he was illiterate.  The only explanation he had was that God wanted him to do this. 

Jesus changed Arthur’s life.  Jesus gave him hope for heaven, and Arthur wanted everyone to start thinking about their own eternal life. 

Arthur wanted everyone to start thinking about their own eternal life.

This is what today’s Gospel is about.  First Jesus mentions two tragic incidents, and makes the point that God did not cause these people’s deaths.  God does not punish people in this life, he says.  God loves us.

Then Jesus tells his Parable of the Figs, in which the owner of a fig tree wants to cut it down because it has produced no fruit for 3 years.  The gardener, however, wants to give it another chance.  He promises to dig around the tree and fertilise it, and if it still bears no fruit, he says then it should be cut down.

This parable is about us.  So many of us have little or no spiritual life; we bear no spiritual fruits.  Jesus wants us to start fertilising our own personal spiritual tree, so that we might become more fruitful.  

This is how we prepare for eternal life.  We need to change the way we think and feel.  We need to change the way we do things.  We need to start loving God and each other.

Ask yourself – do you want to go to heaven or not?

God is patient with us, but we don’t have all the time in the world.  For some, this is their last year and their last chance to prepare themselves. 

God is love.  He loved Arthur Stace and he loves us too.  But true love is never a one-way street.  God’s love will never be complete unless we love him in return.

Today the word ‘Eternity’ is permanently displayed by the waterfall in Sydney Square.  Let’s remember Arthur Stace and his story.

But let’s also start thinking about our own eternity. 

Let’s start returning God’s love, before it’s too late.

Year C – 2nd Sunday in Lent

On Our Transformation

(Gen.15:5-12, 17-18; Phil.3:17-4:1; Lk.9:28-36)

In Luke’s Gospel last week, Jesus went into the Sinai desert for 40 days to pray, to fast and to reflect, preparing himself for his great mission. 

In Lent, this is what we’re all called to do. 

Today, Luke’s Gospel takes us to the top of Mount Tabor in lower Galilee, where Jesus goes to pray with Peter, James and John.  There the disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and the prophet Elijah.  For a while they’re dazzled as the light of God shines through Jesus’ face and his clothes are as bright as the sun.

Now here’s the question:  If we’re in Lent and meant to be in the desert, why are we today taken to a mountaintop, especially when it’s green?

Well, firstly, when the Bible speaks of the desert it isn’t always a barren place full of sand and stones.  Rather, it’s typically a quiet, mystical place where people go to reflect and pray.

The Holy Land has many mountains, and in ancient times people thought they were the closest point between heaven and earth.  Indeed, in Scripture God often reveals himself on mountaintops and Jesus often goes there to pray.

By taking us there today in our Gospel, God wants us to pray as well.  Along with almsgiving and fasting, that’s what he hopes we’ll do this Lent.   But more than that, God knows it can be a struggle for us to sit quietly in any sort of desert, so he encourages us by giving us a brief glimpse of who Jesus really is. 

There on Mt Tabor, Jesus’ disciples were amazed to see him shimmering with an intense, divine light.  They knew he was different, but previously they couldn’t see beyond his ordinary humanity.  Now they can see who Jesus really is, and we can see that he’s the light at the end of our Lenten tunnel.

It’s significant that Jesus’ transfiguration occurs while he’s praying.  We should remember this.  While he’s praying, Jesus is transformed both inside and out.  His face changes and his clothes dazzle white, and he becomes a mesmerising figure, radiating the glory of God. 

Something similar happens to Moses in Exodus (34:29-35).  After praying on Mt. Sinai, his face shines so brightly that he has to cover it with a veil. 

The message for us here is that if we pray like Jesus, if we pray like Moses, then we too can expect a profound transformation, both inside and out.

But there’s another reason we’re taken to the mountain today. That’s because God wants us to see that Jesus has come to fulfil the promises of the Old Testament.  In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, ‘Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets; I’ve come not to abolish but to fulfil.’  So we see the Old and New Testaments coming together as Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop.

While he’s praying, Jesus is transformed both inside and out. Something similar happens to Moses.

Now, while they’re on the mountain, the disciples are covered by a big cloud and they become frightened.  There’s rich symbolism in the image of the cloud.  The Bible often refers to clouds; they typically represent the invisible God.  In Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites cross the desert, God’s presence is always accompanied by a cloud. 

The message for us here is that if there are any clouds casting shadows on our lives, God is in them.  Indeed, God is always in them.  He’s our silver lining.

And when the cloud appears in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples hear God’s voice say, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him’

Now these words are significant.  Listen to him.  The disciples weren’t good at listening to Jesus.  They really didn’t understand what he was trying to tell them.  Many of us aren’t so good at listening, either.  Listening sounds like an easy thing to do, but it’s not. 

One reason might be because we’re too busy talking.  Some of us are chronic talkers.  And sometimes we’re selective about what we’re prepared to hear. 

St. John of the Cross once wrote that many people who think they’re listening to God are actually only listening to themselves.

This Lent, let’s take this message from today’s Gospel.  Let’s try to find our own private mountaintop.  And in the quiet moments let’s really listen to what God is trying to say to us, in the Scriptures, in the sacraments, and in the ordinary moments of our daily lives.

If we pray well, like Jesus and like Moses, we can be sure that our lives will also be transformed, both inside and out.­

Year C – 1st Sunday in Lent

On the Mystical Desert

(Deut.26:4-10; Rom.10:8-13; Lk.4:1-13)

Sometimes it helps to know where a word comes from.  The word ‘Lent’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘springtime’.  And in Latin, ‘Lente’ means ‘slowly’.  So Lent really is an invitation to us, to slow down and prepare ourselves for the new growth of spring.

Before any spring, of course, there must be some kind of winter, so the Bible often talks about the desert as a place of emptiness and silence where people go to be shaped and purified.

In Exodus, before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they wander in the desert for forty years.  Jesus does something very similar in today’s Gospel.  Before he begins his ministry, the Spirit leads him into the Sinai Desert for forty days to pray, fast and reflect.  There he’s tormented by demons, but ultimately his relationship with his Father is strengthened and he finds himself ready for his great mission.

Early on in the Church, good men and women like St Anthony of Egypt and St Paula actively sought purification, and literally went into a desert for a while. 

Today, the desert is more likely to be a mystical place in the heart than a physical location.  But it’s still an important place to spend some time if you want to refresh your heart and mind and prepare yourself for a major change in your life. 

The Canadian writer Fr Ron Rolheiser says that before we can be filled by God we must first be emptied, and this is what the desert does for us.  The loneliness might seem a bit threatening, but if you have the courage to stay there, things will happen to you.  Slowly and silently, with the help of God, you’ll be transformed from the inside out.

This is what Lent is meant to be for us.  For forty days we’re encouraged to face the chaos inside us that normally we either deny or simply refuse to face – our selfishness, our anger, our jealousies, our distance from others, our greed, our addictions, our unresolved hurts, our unhealthy desires, our struggle with prayer, our faith doubts and our moral mistakes.

In Lent we’re invited to look at ourselves honestly, to recognise our weaknesses, to feel our fears, and to open ourselves up to the fresh air of Jesus Christ.

Our secular society teaches us to avoid all that.  It thinks it’s better to be distracted and entertained than to face our real selves.  And so we too often ignore the mess that festers below the surface of our lives. 

If God’s language is silence, it’s no wonder that so many people have lost the ability to talk with him.

We do this in so many ways.  We’re addicted to work.  We’re glued to our electronic devices.  We turn on the TV or Game Station. We listen to the radio.  We reach for a newspaper or magazine.  We see a movie.  We eat.  And some of us talk incessantly. 

We seem to do everything we can to avoid silence and the truth of our real selves.

The German Dominican and theologian Meister Eckhart once wrote that nothing resembles the language of God so much as silence.  If God’s language is silence, it’s no wonder that so many people have lost the ability to talk with him.

So, this is our challenge this Lent.  Let’s just stop for a while.  Let’s go quietly into the mystical desert and be silent for a while.  Let’s fast as the Church encourages us to, but let’s pray and reflect as well, and be charitable towards our neighbour.

Fr Ron Rolheiser says that in every culture there are ancient stories which teach us that it’s sometimes important to sit in the ashes.  One example is the story of Cinderella.  The name itself literally means the little girl (puella in Latin) who sits in the ashes (cinders). 

The moral of the story is simple:  before you get to be beautiful, before you can go to the great feast, you must first fast and spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, dirty, tending to duty and waiting.

For us, Lent is that season.  It’s our time to sit quietly in the ashes, waiting for the extraordinary joy of Easter.  We began this process a few days ago, on Ash Wednesday, when our foreheads were crossed with ashes. 

So, this Lent, let’s make time to sit humbly in these ashes.  And while we’re there, let’s fast and pray and be charitable towards others, until it’s time for us to rise up in joyful celebration with Jesus at Easter.

For that’s when new life begins.