Homily for Ash Wednesday 2019

Today, we gather to wear the ashes that come from the ruins of the palm branches of last year Palm Sunday. What a contrast! What was once fresh and full of life, is now dead, empty of life, and just ashes. We can only remember how beautiful that day was. When we all walked the path, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!” What was once an event, is now a memory. The ruins we shall wear.

We shall wear these ruins, these ashes to remind ourselves of our own mortality. That life on earth is transitory not permanent, as such, every event, experience or achievement is fleeting. Someday, we too will be a memory. I am sorry for being dramatic. But while this may sound scary, it is indeed wisdom. Accepting our mortality helps us to appreciate the gift of life and to prioritise our values. It helps us to focus on what really matters; to focus on God, our destiny.

The ashes also symbolise grief. We grieve because of whom we have lost, that original good, that person God created us to be. Our friendship with God, our friendship with others, the joy, the happiness, the freedom, the peace we once had, all is gone, because we chose to reject God. We chose to follow our ways, instead of His Way. We chose to focus on His creation instead of on Him the Creator. Thus, we are giving in to all sorts of burden, dysfunctionality and evil.

Like the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, our memories not only torment us, they also serve us. They remind of where we have come from or from where we have fallen. They give us hope. They tell us we have a home. We don’t have to keep sinning, rejecting God’s invitation in Joel 2:12-18, “’Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning’. Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn…” i.e. we must repent.

So, while the ashes tell us we are sinners, the cross to be traced on our forehead with ashes symbolises we have Christ, the Saviour. One who not only took on our nature, but also bore the consequences of our sins. One who understands what it feels like to be tempted, because He Himself has been tempted in every way like us. One we can confidently approach knowing that “He didn’t come into the world to condemn us, but to save us, to give us life” (John 3:17).

Although this gift of salvation is free, unmerited grace, it bears no fruit without our cooperation. St. Augustine puts it this way, “God who created us without our help, He will not save us without our consent”. So, we have a responsibility to respond to God’s invitation. We are called to translate our external observance of wearing these ashes into an internal compunction; where we feel the burden of sin and cast our sins onto Christ, for Him to regain us.

This is what Judah and his brothers did in 1 Maccabees 3:47, “They fasted that day, put on sackcloth and sprinkled ashes on their heads, and tore their clothes”. In other words, they rent their hearts, felt the guilt of their sins, confessed their sins and asked God for forgiveness. These ashes urge us to do the same. To ask the difficult question, “Am I doing what God expects of me?” Perhaps, today being Ash Wednesday, we may consider going to confession.

But there is yet another sense to the wearing of ashes. It marks the beginning of the Lenten Season. A season we are expected to practice three spiritual disciplines: Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting. These disciplines address three basic temptations we all experience as human beings. The temptation to disordered attachment to possessions, things; the temptation to disordered attachment to pleasure; the temptation to disordered attachment to self-love, pride.

No doubt, some of us may be experiencing these temptations. We may be struggling with greed, or avarice. We buy things we will never use. And there is that hunger for more things. We feel by having more we will be happy. But we aren’t. Rather, the more we have, the less we become. This is the consequence of the sin of greed. It distorts the vision of who we are. Almsgiving offers us the alternative, “the more we give, the more we become, and the happier we will be”.

Perhaps, we struggle with pride. We are drawn to honour. We want to be recognised. We feel the world rotates around us. We want power by hook or by crook. Suddenly, we have all we want and even more, yet, there is no peace. How can we have peace when we are so self-indulged, when we have nothing to do with Christ, the Prince of Peace? Prayer draws us out of ourselves. It points us upwards, from where shall come the peace self-love, pride can’t offer.

Or maybe we are battling with pleasure. We can’t say no to our cravings. We feel we are free to do what we like, when we like and how we like. But we find ourselves everywhere in chains. We are addicted, abusive and literally in prison all in the name of freedom. How wrong have we gotten it all these years! Perhaps, it is time to fast. To discipline our desires. To experience true freedom, which is “the discipline of one’s desire to make the good possible and effortless”.

In a nutshell, the ruins of Palm Sunday become a sight that reminds us we need God. We can’t do it on our own. So, we must to take seriously the command of Jesus in Mark 14:38, “Keep watch and pray, so that you may not fall into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. The next 40 days of Lent offer us opportunities to strengthen our weak flesh, by bringing our real selves, our story to the Real God, who loves us. I Wish you a fruitful Lent.

Fr. Francis Afu

pray for those who mistreat you

What is prayer? It is the bringing of the real self to the Real God. The Psalms capture this meaning of prayer. You can hear the Psalmist thanking God in one Psalm and in another Psalm, he is almost cursing God for his woes and troubles. What is happening here? It is prayer. The Psalmist is bringing his real self: his emotion, his story, to the Real God.

So, praying for those who mistreat you is simply bringing our story of pain to God. Now, we bring them to God as children bring bad apples to their fathers. A good father takes the bad apples out his children’s hands, because He knows they will harm them. God takes the memory of mistreatment out of our minds, to free us from its “poison”.

But prayer also does something for the one who has mistreated you. When you are free from the poison of mistreatment, your mind is alert, creative; you begin to think rightly. And since your thinking affects your being and your doing, your attitude towards the one who has mistreated you changes and so you inadvertently change him or her. Pray for them.

Fr. Francis Afu

Homily for the eighth Sunday in Ordinary time, Year c 2019

The past few days have been very difficult for me. I received two phone calls within an interval of three hours. The first call came from a priest friend of mine who called to support me after hearing the guilty verdict of Cardinal George Pell. He was shocked by it. On the other hand, he found the innuendoes of the news reporter very disturbing. She was somehow suggesting that all Catholic priests and Catholics are either paedophiles or are good at covering up abuses.

While these innuendoes in themselves are overrated, false and alarming, they also have the capacity for retraumatising victims whose mental state may be fragile. In addition, he shared with me how he felt about the whole news. He was sad. But he was also honest in telling me the sadness and the anger of his parishioners. I could feel his pain. And I could also feel his helplessness, which for me communicates the powerlessness of many of us these past few days.

We are broken. We are a people bleeding inside and wailing. Asking questions that we may never get an answer. Trust is broken. Faith is tested. Hope is dashed. And love is called to speak. Tell us, we ask, what shall we do? Should we give in to anger, pull down the edifice of our faith, and nail again to the cross the Christ in whose name we bear this pain? God, if you can hear us, you can as well answer us! We are confused. We need your help. Don’t be silent.

The second phone call was also challenging. It came from another friend of mine. She called to tell me about the election results in Nigeria. Her cry could be likened to the cry of a pregnant woman, whose labour pains are prolonged. Her time of giving birth has come, but she can’t deliver her baby because the conditions aren’t favourable for her life nor for her baby’s. She is helpless. And so am I. All I could say is where is God? Can’t He hear the cry of His people?

Why is He silent when He should show up and defend His children? Does He take pleasure in seeing His children suffer persecution? What sort of God is He? These questions while they might have come on the spur of the moment, tell us something of the Gospel reading from Luke 6:45, “For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart”. No doubt, the God questions flow from the recesses of our heart. It is a heart that longs for God like a deer for running streams.

At the same time, we are struggling to reconcile God’s goodness and the reality of evil, in our context, child abuse, corruption, and greed. Or better put, we are struggling to accept the silence of God in a time when we expect Him to speak loudly, clearly. Let Him speak. Let Him just tell us the truth about Cardinal Pell? We are confused. Too many versions of the same story on the media. We don’t know which of them is true. We just want answers and so do victims.

But the Gospel reading also offers us another insight. It is Christ Jesus asking us a question. “Can one blind man guide another?” In our context, can we who are disappointed, confused, frustrated, angry, bitter, resentful, guide another? Surely both will fall into a pit? Yes! We will fall into the pit of evil. That is, we may either enable the evil we are angry about or become perpetrators of that evil. For when we focus too much on evil, it takes flesh and manifest itself.

Christ knows the power of evil. He knows it can blind us and make it difficult for us to see any good. It can leave us in despair. Many have fallen victims, not only of the evil done them, but also of the consequences of being preoccupied with it. We can’t afford to be “double victims”. So, He offers us another insight, “The disciple is not superior to his teacher; the fully trained disciples will always be like his teacher”. That is, we must imitate Christ in the face of evil.

Christ’s attitude toward evil wasn’t that of hate. For hatred begets hatred. It wasn’t also that of anger, because anger is one letter short of danger. It wasn’t equally that of rallying a mob, throwing stones at the perpetrators and returning evil for evil. Rather, it was that of acting, removing the plank from our own eyes. In our context, we may ask, what plank does Christ want us to remove? Could it be that He wants us to remove anger, bitterness, resentment etc?

Perhaps, the words of Martin Luther King Jnr may be of help. “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.” And no one, no one should bear this burden. Not even my brothers and sisters in Nigeria who feel betrayed by the political system. Not even families whose sons and daughters were killed during the election. Hating the perpetrator will not end the cycle of evil. It will perpetuate evil.

So, what shall we do? The Second reading from 1 Corinthians 15:54-48 gives us an answer, “Never give in then, my dear brothers, never admit defeat; keep on working at the Lord’s work always, knowing that, in the Lord, you cannot labour in vain”. Friends, this is our consolation. While the Lord may seem to be silent, He is not incapable of healing our pain and giving us beauty for ashes: scandal, betrayal, abuse. He hears our cry. Let’s not give up. He will speak.

Finally, let’s sum up the courage, to see through what is happening. Let’s see where the Lord is leading us in all this. Let’s block our ears from hearing the voice of the bad spirit, that tells us, we are doomed. Let’s rather listen to the Word, that speaks in Genesis 2:7, Then the Lord God gathered “the dust of the earth”; our mess, and breathed His Spirit into it, and formed a new man, a new woman who can boldly say, “never will the evil of child abuse happen again”.

Fr. Francis Afu

Bless Those who curse you

In very simple terms, a blessing is a package of God’s mercy and grace. In His mercy, God doesn’t give us the punishment our actions or inactions deserve. And in His Grace, He gives us the good we don’t deserve. So, to bless those who curse you has two implications. One, that we give to them the good they don’t deserve like kindness, respect etc.

Two, that we intentionally deprive them of the punishment they deserve. In all, Christ isn’t asking the impossible. He is asking of us what is true, can stand the test of time and will end the cycle of evil. There is nothing as powerful as speaking well of the one who has defamed your character. This isn’t about condoning those who curse. For it’s evil to curse.

And evil has to be called for what it is and overcome. However, we can’t conquer evil with evil. We have to be creative in dealing with it. So, blessing those who curse you, who destroy your reputation is simply giving to them what you have – blessing, just as they have given you what they have – curse. Thus, blessing destroys evil from its root – the heart.

Fr. Francis Afu

Do good to those who hate you

It is very easy to love any one from a distance. After all, it is simple to wish him or her good, to will the good for the other. But when it comes to actually doing good, especially to the one who obviously hates you, it is a very difficult ask. No doubt, we can’t but wonder if Christ really knows what He is asking of us. “Does He know that he or she hates you?”

He knows. He even knows their next move. He knows the bitterness, the scheming and the plans they have against you. He can see through their thoughts, words and actions. But He also knows that returning evil for evil isn’t going to heal the pain they have caused you. Doing good to them is the best way to disarm them, and to stop the circle of hate.

That is exactly what Christ did in His Passion. He could have easily defended Himself and rallied the crowd to go after the Chief Priests and the Pharisees who hated Him and condemned Him to death. But He didn’t. Rather, He took upon Himself their shame and guilt, mounted the cross and forgave them. So, He isn’t asking the impossible.

Fr. Francis Afu

Love your Enemies

I find this commandment very challenging. I totally understand those who struggle to love their friends let alone love their enemies. Come to think of it, how would you look at the person who has hurt you in the eye and wish him or her the good, or understand his or her struggle. Shouldn’t we be thinking of making him or her pay for the wrong done?

Perhaps, many of us might be thinking “an eye for an eye”. The Greeks, and even the Religious Sects at the time of Christ thought this way too. It was the best way of dealing with one’s enemy. Hesiod the Greek poet puts it this way, “I considered it established that one should do harm to one’s enemies and be of service to one’s friends”. Justice…?

No! Justice means giving each man his due. And what is due to every man, every woman is the good; it is love. Why? Because God is good. God is love. We all carry in us the image and likeness of God. So, to give a man, a woman anything other than the good and love is an injustice. This is the point Christ is making by asking us to love our enemies.

Fr. Francis Afu


Dying

Dying freaks many of us out. It isn’t a word we use very often. But it is a word that has power to free us and empower us to live fully. There is so much going on within us. Our minds wonder, our hearts desire things that our bodies reject and vice versa. We are caught up in this battle, and most times, we just get stuck. Dying to these distractions frees us.

Have we ever wondered why we can’t actually do the things we would like to do? It is our inability to die. Until we die to certain things, we can’t live for what truly matters. Christ had to die to the shame, the brutality of the crucifixion to be able live through it and fulfill His mission. We too have to die. Perhaps, what is holding us back is the fear of dying.

For what it’s worth, dying is freeing. Archbishop Mark Coleridge said “until the “man of earth” dies, the “man of heaven” will not be born”. Friends, this is the point. Keeping our addictions, our bad habits alive doesn’t help us at all. If we want to love, we have to die to anger and bitterness. If we want to be successful, we have to die to negative memories.

Fr. Francis Afu

God is Good

What a powerful sentence, “God is good”! Is He good only when He gives us good things? Is He good only when He says “yes” to our prayers? Can we also say God is good when the going is rough and tough? Are we bold enough to say God is good when things get out of hand, and there seems to be no future? Is God still good when He says “no” to us?

These questions challenge our relationship with God. They tell us something about God. He isn’t good just because of what He does. He is good, because of who He is. So, we are expected to trust Him even when good things no longer come our way. For He not only gives us good things, but He also gives us opportunities to be good, to do good.

Or better put, He gives us opportunities to “grow up”, to relate with Him as friends who not only receive good stuff from Him, but also take the initiative to give Him good things. So, the rough and tough times are moments of insight into what is really happening, moments to find God. And when we find Him, we will realise just how good God is.

Fr. Francis Afu

Rise Up, Stay Up

Sleep is a good thing. Medical doctors advise us to have long sleeps. It helps us mentally. But we can’t spend the whole day sleeping. We have to rise up. That is the physical kind of sleep . There is also another kind of sleep, that is the spiritual sleep. However, unlike physical sleep, spiritual sleep is discouraged. We have to rise up, stay awake.

Rise up and encounter God in prayer. Rise up and read His word, meditate on His Way. Rise up and listen to Him speak to you. Rise up and surrender to God. Rise up and do what He will ask of you. Rise up and live. Rise up and fight the good fight of faith. Rise up and get ready for God’s saving action. Rise up and tell of His goodness. Rise up….

So, stay awake. Don’t give in to sleep, lest you stumble. Stay awake, praying your way through life, “looking up to Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Stay awake doing the will of the Father.

Fr. Francis Afu

Prayers you can say

It is very hard to think of what to say when life’s reality hits you. I have often found myself in such situations, and I thought it wise to share with you prayers that have helped me many times to pull through it all. “Lord, I don’t know what lies ahead, I don’t know the details of my journey, but I know You, lead me. For at the end, it is all about You, Lord”.

“Lord, may I rise above my failures so that I can see Your success. Lord, may I rise above my troubles, so that I can see Your solutions. Lord, may I rise above what others have done to me, so that I can see what You are doing. Lord, may I rise above what I am going through, so that I can see where You are leading me. Lord, may I just worship You”.

Warning, these prayers may not change your situation, so don’t get your hopes up high. But I am very sure of one thing… you will be changed by praying. And when you change, your situation will subsequently change. This is the power of prayer. So, go on your knees, pray these or something similar and see the difference God will make through prayer.

Fr. Francis Afu

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