Epiphany IV

In the marriage act, love is triune: wife gives self to husband and husband to self and out of that mutual self-giving is  born the ecstasy of love. The spirit too must have its ecstasy. What the union of husband and wife is in the order of the flesh, the union of the human and the Risen Christ is in Holy Communion

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests, 1974: 157

Everyone loves a party, and that is right and proper, and what more wonderful thing is there to celebrate than a wedding, the joining of a man and a woman that they may become one flesh. Marriage is an image used of Christ and his church: it speaks of a deep union, a profound and meaningful relationship, one of self-giving love, commitment, something wonderful and mysterious. We have not come here this morning to celebrate a wedding but rather the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have come to do what he told his disciples to do at the Last Supper, and the church has done ever since, and will until the end of time. We have come so that we may be fed, be fed by Christ, be fed with Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit God is active in our lives, transforming us, by his grace, so that our human nature may be transformed, into His Divine nature.

If we were to listen to the many voices around us which criticise Christianity, we would think that we were of all people the most pitiable, ours is either a weak death-cult of a failed Jewish magician and wonderworker, or a strange oppressive force which actively works against human flourishing and actualisation.

But nothing could be further from the truth, we celebrate love, and forgiveness, we are imbued with faith, hope, and love in and through God at our Baptism, and as our vocation as Christians is JOY. The one whom we worship, the Son of God made flesh liked nothing better than to hang around at parties with social undesirables, and was accused of being a drunkard by religious authorities. Most of us have outside our houses one or two wheelie bins, which are a similar size to the water jars in the Gospel. They hold about 30 gallons, or 150 litres, or 200 bottles of wine. Multiply that by 6 and you’re looking at 1,200 bottles of wine, a hundred cases, and this was after the wine ran out, what we’re dealing with in the wedding at Cana must have been some party, it must have gone of for a couple of days, and it is only a foreshadowing of the joy of the Kingdom, it points to something greater than itself: this is what is in store.

Our starting point as Christians is Mary’s advice to the servants: Do whatever He tells you. Our life as Christians is rooted in obedience: we listen to God and we obey, for our own good, and the good of the Kingdom, so that we are not conformed to the world and its ways, but rather to the will of God, so that we can truly enter into the joy of the Lord, in humble obedience, fed by Him, and fed with Him, who died for love of us in obedience to the will of the Father.

The world around us struggles somewhat with extravagance, we distrust it, and rightly so: when we see Arabian oil magnates riding around in gold-plated supercars we are right to be concerned, yet in the Gospel we see something strange. The steward had a point: you serve the best wine first, while people are sober and can appreciate it, but the Kingdom of God turns human values on their head – the joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine and is lavished upon undeserving humanity, so that it might transform us, so that we might come to share in the glory of God, and his very nature. Thus, at the Epiphany we celebrate three feasts: Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles, the proclamation of the Messiah to the whole world, his baptism, to show us the way to the Father, a sign of love and obedience, and the Wedding Feast at Cana, as a sign of the superabundance of God’s love, shown to us here today in the Eucharist where we drink the wine of the Kingdom the Blood of Christ so that we may be transformed by the power and the grace of God, so that we may share his Divine life, and encourage others to enter into the joy of the Lord.

All this is brought about by Christ on the Cross, where the Lamb of God is sacrificed, a new passover for a new Israel, the people of God, to free us from our sins, and to give us new life in Christ. It’s crazy, it doesn’t make sense: how and why should God love us so much to go far beyond what Abraham did with Isaac on the mountain of Moriah. The ram caught in the thicket points to Christ, who is the Lamb of God, even then, at the beginning God shows us his love for us, he prepares the way, by giving us a sign, to point us to Christ, to his Son.

Such generosity is hard to comprehend, it leaves us speechless, and all that we can do is to stand like the Beloved Disciple S. John at the foot of the Cross and marvel at the majesty of God’s love. It affects S. Paul in his preaching, a man who began persecuting the Church, who was present at the martyrdom of S. Stephen, has his life transformed by Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ saving us does not make sense, it is an act of reckless generosity, like helping a wedding party drink to the point of excess, it is not supposed to make sense. In rational terms we are sinners, who do not deserve God’s mercy, and yet he shows us his love in giving us his Son, to be born for us, to work signs and wonders, to bring healing and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God’s love, his mercy, and forgiveness.

So let us come to him, clinging to His Cross, our ONLY HOPE, let us be fed with him, and by him, to be strengthened, healed, and restored, and to share this is with the world, so that it may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Paul preaches the Cross to the Church in Corinth [1Cor 1:18-2:15]

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

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Thoughts for the day from S. Francis de Sales: on gentleness and anger

‘Learn of me,’ Jesus said, ‘for I am meek and humble of heart.’ Humility perfects us towards God, mildness and gentleness towards our neighbour.

But be careful that mildness and humility are in your heart, for one of the great wiles of the enemy is to lead people to be content with external signs of these virtues, and to think that because their words and looks are gentle, therefore they themselves are humble and mild, whereas in fact they are otherwise. In spite of their show of gentleness and humility, they start up in wounded pride at the least insult or annoying word.

Present life is the road to a blessed life, so do not let us be angry with one another on the way. Never give way to anger if you can possibly avoid it; never for any reason let it enter your heart. It is safer to avoid all anger than to try and guide our anger with discretion and modesty. Directly you feel the slightest resentment, gather your powers together gently. When we are agitated by passion, we must imitate the apostles in the raging storm and call upon God to help us. He will bid our anger be still, and great will be our peace.

One form of gentleness we should practise is towards ourselves. We should never get irritable with ourselves because of our imperfections. It is reasonable to be displeased and sorry when we commit faults, but not fretful or spiteful to ourselves. Some make the the mistake of being angry because they have been angry, hurt because they have been hurt, vexed because they have been vexed. They think they are getting rid of anger, that the second remedies the first; actually, they are preparing the way for fresh anger on the first occasion. Besides this, all irritation with ourselves tends to foster pride and springs from self-love, which is displeased at finding we are not perfect.We should regard our faults with calm, collected, and firm displeasure. We correct ourselves better by a quiet persevering repentance than by an irritated, hasty, and passionate one. When your heart has fallen raise it gently, humbly yourself before God, acknowledging your fault, but not surprised at your fall. Infirmity is infirm, weakness weak, and frailty frail.

Introduction to the Devout Life III:8-9

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Third Sunday of Year A [Mt 4:12–23]

If you go to S. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, you can see one of the most popular and reproduced works of Religious Art in the world: Holman Hunt’s painting, The Light of the World. It shows our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ standing at a door with a lantern. The door has no handle; it needs to be opened from the inside: Jesus may be the Light of the World, but he does not force himself upon us, we have to welcome Him into our hearts and our lives. His coming into the world which we celebrate at Christmas, which was made manifest to the world at Epiphany, was not the entry of a tyrant, forcing himself upon the world, but as a vulnerable and loving baby, entirely dependent upon the love and care of others, God comes among us. His coming is foretold by the prophet Isaiah, He is the fulfilment of prophesy, he is the light of the nations, and a cause of great joy: to be a Christian, to follow Christ is it not to be filled with the joy and love which comes from God; we can be serious in our zeal, but should never be miserable: our vocation is to live out our faith, in love, and hope, and joy in our lives, to draw others to Him.

Of our many failings as followers of Christ there is nothing worse than to see strife and division amongst Christians, as S. Paul found in Corinth: it has no place in the church, it isn’t what God intended for us, it’s not how things should be. It has to be resisted: wounds have to be healed, transgressions forgiven, and unity restored. It’s part of how we live out our faith in our lives, it’s why we pray and work for Christian Unity, and why it matters for our proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God.

If we turn to the words of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To repent as Christ is asking us to, as St John the Baptist proclaimed before him is to change our mind, to make a change of direction in our lives, away from sin, and to Christ, it is what we promise in our baptism and it is how we are supposed to keep living our lives. It’s hard, I know, I fail on a daily basis, and yet I keep trying, turning back to a God who loves me, who took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became incarnate for me, and for you, and all who have ever or will ever turn to Him. Ours then is God of love and mercy, a God of forgiveness who calls us to turn to him, so that we may have life and have it to the full.

We turn away from what separates us from God and each other, we turn to God in Christ, to be close to Him in Word and Sacrament, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we might share His divine nature, so that we might be given a foretaste of heaven, so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, so that the world may believe – the Kingdom is close at hand, and Christ calls us, the baptised people of God, to share in the work of His kingdom. He asks that we follow Him, that we go where He goes, that we do what He does – it sounds easy enough, but it’s not, it’s something which we need to do together, and while I can endeavour to help you along the way, I cannot without your help, your prayers, your love, and your support. As Christians we are inter-dependent, we rely upon each other, we’re in it together.

In the Gospel, Jesus sees Andrew and Simon Peter and then James and John the sons of Zebedee and says ‘Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people’. He calls them to share in God’s work of saving souls. They drop everything and follow him: it’s immediate and matter of fact. Jesus goes around preaching the good news of the kingdom, and the need for humanity to repent, and to be baptised, and he heals the sick, just as he can heal the sickness in our souls. This is good news indeed.

We need to be like lights in the world, shining in the darkness, so that Christ can knock on the door of people’s hearts. We need to be like those first disciples who heard what Jesus said, who listened, and did what He told them, who were close to Jesus, so that our faith is a reality in our lives. We need to be strengthened and fed by Him who is the greatest medicine for our souls, who comes to us here, this morning,  in His Body and Blood, to heal us, to restore us and strengthen us to follow him, so that the world may believe and and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Second Sunday of Year A ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ Jn 1:29-34

‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world’

Sometimes we use words a lot, even to the point of perhaps overusing them. Sorry is a good example: it is perhaps something of a national characteristic – that we as British people apologise for everything just in case. This has led some people to the point of view that familiarity breeds contempt: that the more often we say sorry, the less we mean it, our words are empty and our society debased, rude and squalid. Whereas a more charitable interpretation sees something of love, care, concern, and humility in our apologising: it is a Christian thing to do, and what we say and do affects who and what we are as people, and the more we say or do something the greater its effects upon our lives and characters – the more it can form us and the people that we are. If we genuinely say sorry to God and each other and mean it, and amend our lives accordingly it can only be a good thing.

When John the Baptist greets his cousin in this morning’s Gospel, the words he uses are both familiar and strange. We, as Christians are used to saying and hearing the phrase ‘the Lamb of God’. We are used to it at Mass, we are used to seeing it on the Signs of public houses called the Lamb and Flag, or as the badge of Preston North End Football Club.

While the image is familiar, it is worth spending a few moments to consider exactly what John is saying about Jesus. The image of a lamb brings to mind a passage in the prophet Isaiah, in the Song of the Suffering Servant, who ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb’ (Isa 53:7), a prophecy that will be fulfilled in Holy Week, on Good Friday. Yet here, just after the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan, when the Spirit descends at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, before the first sign of turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana, we see in John’s description of Jesus a prophetic utterance which points forward to Jesus’ death on the Cross for the world. So then, from the very beginning, as with the gift of myrrh at Bethlehem, we see the culmination at Calvary, the beginning points to the end (and beyond). The other image of the lamb which comes to mind is that of the Passover lamb, by which the people of Israel are freed from slavery to journey to the Promised Land. Yet Jesus is the Passover Lamb who will free all of humanity from sin for all time.

In being baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus was doing something which he did not need to do, he who was without sin did not need to be cleansed from sin, but in his baptism Jesus gives us an example, for us to follow. It is a sign of humility and obedience which we as Christians are to follow: it is how we are to shape our lives, in humble obedience to the example and teaching of Christ, it’s how to be a Christian. It is also how God gives us his Holy Spirit, as a gift which we receive and use with humility.

From the beginning of His public ministry, and even from the gifts offered by the Three Wise Men, Jesus’ life and mission is to be understood in terms of the death he will suffer. It is this sacrificial, self-giving love which God pours out on his World, which streams from our Saviour’s pierced side upon the cross. This is the wood, marked with blood which saves not only the people of Israel, but the entire world. This makes our peace with God, and our peace with one another. It is this recognition of who and what Jesus really is that is capable of showing us all who and what we really are. We can live our lives truly, wholly, and fully, loved by God and loving one another.

That is why we are here today, in a church, at a celebration of Mass, so that the sacrifice of Calvary will be re-presented, made as real for us as it was on a hill outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. As we approach the altar, this is what we are to receive, the Body and Blood of Christ, the self same body and blood which were nailed to the Cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Our hands will hold and our lips will touch him who created the entire universe. How can we not fail to be shocked by the generosity of a God who gives himself to us in such a personal way, in a way that we do not deserve? Yet, we can never deserve such a gift, that is why God takes the initiative and gives himself to us, freely and gladly – like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God rushes to meet us, to embrace us and to celebrate with us, to show his love for us. God became a human being at Christmas so that we might become divine, through our baptism and our participation at the altar, the feast of the Lamb, so that we can become what God wants us to be – his people, sharing his body and blood, strengthened for the journey in body, mind, and spirit, to become what God wants us to be – united with him and one another.

The Mass is the sacrament of unity, uniting heaven and earth through the sacrifice of Calvary, making all humanity to share the body and blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, feeding on him so that we may become what he is, to share eternity with him, and to live lives of faith and show this faith in our lives in everything we say, or think, or do, that the world may believe. Our faith must then have an effect upon our lives, which other people can see, it must make a difference, and it will, because of our faith and because God gives himself to strengthen us to be able to do this. So then, let us join the Wedding banquet of the Lamb and enter into the mystery of God’s self-giving love, nourished by Word and Sacrament, to grow in faith and love, and share it with others, so that they may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever.

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A thought from Henri Nouwen

All of this is simply to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be. Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with the darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self , is at stake. Secularity is a way of being dependant upon the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self which is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. ‘Compulsive’ is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by the world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failure and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same – more work, more money, more friends.

These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of the secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger other than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self fabricated by the social compulsions of the unredeemed world.

Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who making them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.

It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, London: DLT, 1990: 14-16

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