The First Sunday of Christmas

As we approach the end of another year it is natural both to look backwards and forwards, to what has been, and what will be. Ideally we would do both in a positive fashion, grateful for what has been, and hopeful for the future. It isn’t as easy as it sounds: the world feels a worried, troubled place with the risks of war and terrorism, political instability, economic insecurity, and unpredictable weather, to name but a few. It isn’t pleasant to dwell on such matters, and it seems that there isn’t that much that you or I can do about them.

As Christians we are called to be people of joy and hope, emotions which are encapsulated in the Feast of Christmas, which we continue to celebrate for either twelve or forty days, leading up to the Epiphany or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The Church, unlike the world around us, doesn’t stop celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ for some time yet because it is so important to take some time to think about God has done for us in being born for us. The shops around us have cleared their shelves for Valentine’s Day or Easter Eggs, but we are not so hasty. The awesome truth that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has taken flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that the Son, Jesus Christ has been born for us, should make us pause.

God is not remote, a distant disinterested Creator. He becomes human, and is born like we are. God gets involved, and shares a human life, its joys and its pains, and its end: death. God does this for us. This is grace, an unmerited gift, something we don’t deserve, so that we might know His love. God becomes a human being so that humanity might become divine, so that we might share in the Divine life of love. God loves us, not because we deserve it, or that we have somehow earned our way to Heaven, but so that we can know Him, love Him, and serve Him, in Earth and in Heaven.

God shows his love for us in being born as one of us, sharing our humanity, so that we might share His Divinity. In Jesus Christ we can see and know who and what God is. This is the mystery of the incarnation. It is something we cannot fully understand, in this earthly life at least, but it is something we can begin to experience. We can have hope for the future, in and through Christ, however bad the world around us is. Through Him we can know something of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. No matter how many mistakes we make, and what ever mess we are in, it is something which God in Christ can deal with. This is not to say that God has a magic wand to wave over our problems, but rather that we see our problems in the broader context of God’s love for us, another way becomes possible, and this is where the Kingdom breaks into our lives.

Our first reading this morning sees the prophet Isaiah proclaiming the hope of the Messiah, hope for the people of Israel, which is fulfilled in the baby born in Bethlehem, Jesus, our Saviour. Isaiah trusts God to fulfil His promise, and looks to the future with hope. He sees the future in terms of a wedding – a cause of great joy. It signifies a restored relationship, something Jesus will bring about himself, on the Cross, to heal our wounds through His. This is Good News, and it fills us with joy.

The reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians reminds us that the Incarnation has changed everything. It is an event in history which happens at the right time, when people are mature enough to understand what is happening. God sends His Son, born of Mary, to redeem us, and to adopt us, to bring us into God’s family, so that we can receive our inheritance, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to fill us with God’s love. We are included, we are adopted. Rather than being disinherited, which is what we deserve, men and women are adopted through Christ. In Jewish law inheritance was about passing property from fathers to sons, Paul shows how Jesus has re-written the rules: men and women are treated equally, and brought into the inheritance of the Kingdom of God’s love. This is great news, a departure from the ways of the past, a sign of radical equality in and through Christ – salvation is God’s free gift, restoring the dignity of humanity.

In Luke’s Gospel we see shepherds who have just been told the most wonderful news: the Messiah, the Saviour is born in Bethlehem. They decide to go and see what God has told them. They make haste, they hurry, they are excited. They see Mary and Jospeh and the baby lying in a manger, a stone trough for animal feed. They see a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, just like the lambs they raise to be sacrifices in the Temple. They see One, who from his birth has been marked out to be the sacrifice on the Cross which will restore Israel, and bring about a true passover. The shepherds see something amazing and they tell people about it – it is Good News. God loves us this much. They go back to their flocks praising God for what they have seen – salvation in their midst, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Mary said “Yes’ to God to bring these things about, now she ‘ponders these things in her heart’ she reflects on what has happened. Having been obedient she turns to God in love and worship and prepares to be obedient to the law of Moses, and the covenant, the agreement which God first made with Abraham, two thousand years previously. Mary and Joseph are obedient to the Law and so their Son is circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21). He receives the sublime name, Jesus, that is to say God is our Saviour.

God saves us. We hear His words in Scripture, and here in the Eucharist we are fed by God and  fed with God, with His Body and Blood, broken and shed for us, that through His death we might have life in Him. So let us come and share in God’s generous gift to us, to heal us, to restore us, and give us hope in Him.

God’s salvation, the saving of humanity, is an act of love and obedience. So as we continue to celebrate Christmas and are filled the joy of the Incarnation, let us also reflect upon the fact that Love and Obedience and Suffering go hand in hand. They are costly, and likewise, for us in our Christian lives, following Christ means embracing love, obedience, and suffering, bearing witness to the truth that God loves all of us, gave his life for us, and asks the same of us.

And so may we begin the New Year full of joy and hope, mindful of the costly Love of God. As we recall the obedience of Mary, may we like the ox and ass in the stable kneel and worship the Lord of Creation, the Word of God Incarnate. Let us be like the shepherds and share our faith with others in what we are, and do, and say. Let us fashion our lives after the example of Our Lord and Saviour, to whom with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most just and right, all might, majesty, dominion, power and glory, now and forever…



Christmas Midnight Mass

Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν·

Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3

He became human so that we might become divine

If you have seen any of the Star Wars films then you will be used to the idea of a world under the thumb of a despotic tyrannical regime. A world which longs for deliverance.Two thousand years ago the people of Israel were similarly in a bad way. They were occupied by a foreign power, Rome. They were part of a foreign empire, ruled by pagans. They longed to be free. All hope seemed lost. Their souls were crushed. Had God abandoned them? Their prophets had told them to expect the Messiah, who was an anointed Saviour of the house and lineage of David. He would save them, free them, give them hope, light in the darkness. This is exactly what the prophet Isaiah looks forward to in tonight’s first reading. People knew the prophecy but could barely hope that they would see it fulfilled.

We are now in a very different situation: we can say with confidence that a child is born to us, the Son of God, born of the Blessèd Virgin Mary. This helpless baby is our Mighty God and the Prince of Peace, the Creator and Ruler of all that is, all that ever has been, and all that will be. This night, in a small hill town God comes among us, God is with us, Emmanuel.

And so, to comply with the Imperial census demands, Joseph and Mary travel to his ancestral home, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Micah: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.’ (Micah 5:2-4).

Bethlehem in Hebrew means the House of Bread and in the House of Bread is born tonight the one who will be the Living Bread, come down from Heaven. He will be the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd of His people, Israel. We are told in the Gospel about shepherds out in the fields. They are raising the lambs to be used in the Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. When these lambs are born they are wrapped in strips of cloth to keep them safe, so that they may be without spot or blemish, and thus be an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. And so the One who is to save Israel from her sins, Yeshua, which means God saves, is born and treated like a Passover Lamb. He is wrapped in strips of cloth, swaddling clothes, just like the lambs on the hilltops. He is the Lamb of God, the true passover of Israel, who will go to His death willingly, led like a lamb to the slaughter. He was anticipated in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, by the ram caught in the thicket. He is born for us, the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and those of the whole world.

The shepherds are greeted by angels who announce the Good News, that the prophecy is fulfilled, here and now. The Messiah is born in Bethlehem. These hard-working farmers eagerly go to see God come to earth. God meets humanity not in a blaze of glory and triumph, but as a vulnerable new-born baby, who needs a mother to feed him, who needs others to provide him with warmth and security. The Word of God, through which everything was created, lies silent and helpless. Here we see real love – open, vulnerable, all gift, holding back nothing, but risking all to come among us, to heal our wounds, to save us, to show us how to live.

All the tinsel, and excess, all the consumerism, and even the ignorance and unbelief of the modern world cannot cover up the sheer wonder of this night. In the stillness and darkness something wonderful happens, which we cannot fully understand. God comes among us, born as a baby, to share our life, so that we might share His. Our God longs for a relationship with us, and brings it about, so that we might have life in and through Him.

The Son gives us a life in which to live. He offers up himself for us upon the Cross, where He dies for us. He gives himself to us under the signs of bread and wine so that we might share his divine life. As the shepherds hurried to meet him, let us too yearn for that divine encounter. Let us long to be fed by Him, fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we can share His life, life in all its fullness.

When the Holy Family came to Bethlehem the town was overcrowded. There was no room for them. The weather was cold, and we can speculate that their welcome was too. As we celebrate the birth of Our Saviour we have to ask ourselves: Have we made room for Jesus in our lives? Have we really? If we haven’t, then no fine words can make up for it. We have to let our hearts and our lives be the stable in which the Christ child can be born. We have to see Him in the outcast, in the stranger, in the people which the world shuns, and we have to welcome them, and in welcoming them to welcome Him. This is how we live out His love in our lives. This is the true meaning of Christmas – this is the love which can transform the world. It is radical and costly. It terrified the might of the Roman Empire, and showed human power that it was as nothing compared to Divine Love. Soul by individual soul, for the past two thousand years, the world has been changed by ordinary people living out the love shown to the world in this little vulnerable child.

So, tonight, let us receive the greatest gift which has ever been given and share it with others, living it out in our lives, regardless of the cost, so that the world may believe 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. Happy Christmas



A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Love tends to become like the one loved; in fact, it even wishes to become one with the one loved. God loved unworthy man. He willed to become one, and that was the Incarnation.

Fulton Sheen The Divine Romance New York 1930: 70

As God was  physically formed in Mary, so he wills to be spiritually formed in you. If you knew he was seeing through your eyes, you would see everyone as a child of God. If you knew that he worked through your hands, they would bless all the day through …. If you knew that he wants to use your mind, your will, your fingers, and your heart, how differently you would be. If half the world did this there would be no war!

The Ven. Abp Fulton J. Sheen How to find Christmas Peace,  taken from  Advent Meditations with Fulton J. Sheen, Liguori Publications: Liguori MO, 2007

Advent III Year B

As Christians our vocation is a simple one: joy. This is not, however, worldly joy, the fruit of consumerist excess, a joy of stuff: what we have, what we can buy, or own, or sell, but something far deeper and far richer, which comes from God. We are to be people of JOY, filled with it, and sharing it with others.

We rejoice that our yearly memorial of Our Lord’s nativity is drawing near – a birth which changes everything, which brings about the salvation of humanity. This is the most wonderful news that the world could ever hear, and hear it they must.

In this morning’s Gospel John the Baptist has been preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people to whom he has been preaching find themselves in an awkward situation, and yet they are drawn to the Good News. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ’s gift of His Spirit is coming. He is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives

The state, the church, and the world around us all seem to be in a mess. There is political instability, fears for the future, tyrants and demagogues in power. The peace which the Messiah came to bring it seems as elusive as ever, whereas the human capacity to create misery in the most dreadful ways makes us realise that we still have some considerable distance to travel. One possible answer is the need for repentance: to change our hearts and minds and to follow Christ.

Our readings this morning speak of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of love and freedom: good news to those who are oppressed, a healing love which binds up the broken-hearted, a kingdom of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, which releases prisoners. It turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different: comfort to those who mourn, a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, which we have put on in our baptism.

In all our sadness and sin, we look forward to our yearly remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation. We prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, to go to Bethlehem, to see God come into the world naked, vulnerable, and homeless, utterly reliant on Mary and Joseph. We also prepare to meet him as he will come again, as our Saviour and our Judge. It is a daunting prospect, yet we know and trust that he saves us, that by his wounds on the cross we are healed, our sins are forgiven.

We are to rejoice, strange though it might seem, just like the people of Israel in captivity, in a God who loves us, who heals and restores us, who gives us real hope for the future. In the midst of our sorrow we are to place all our hope and trust in God who loves us, and who saves us.

We are to rejoice, as S. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, we are to be filled with a joy which leads to prayer, to a relationship with God. We give thanks to God for what Christ has achieved and will achieve. It encourages us to hold fast to what is good and abhor what is evil. In living out our faith we are drawn ever closer to the God who loves us and saves us. We draw close to Jesus in His word, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where we are fed with His Body and Blood, so that we can be sanctified by God, and share in his divine life and joy.

We are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people, and not just in our words but our deeds. If we share what we have, if we are generous, if we work for justice and are clothed with humility, showing our joy in mutual love, God’s kingdom will be advanced. We, here, now, know that Jesus will come and will judge us by the standard of love which he set for us to follow. Let us trust God and share that trust in prayer, that his will may be done, and that he may fill us with his love.

The world around us is full of pain and anguish, and the only way for it to be healed is in Christ, who was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities. He still bears those wounds as the wounds of love. As he flung out his arms on the cross, so he longs to embrace the world and fill it with his peace and love. He will not force us; he is no tyrant in the sky. It is the world which must turn to him in love and in trust, and turn away from sin. Our task is always only all things to be joyful in the Lord, and to live out our faith to help the world turn to him.

It isn’t an easy thing to do, and after 2000 years of trying we may seem as far away as when John proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom. We could just give up, or we can try, and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and forgives us. The One who calls us is faithful, and He will do this. Let us trust in Him, be fed and nourished by Him, with Him, filled with His Holy Spirit, so that all the world may come to believe and trust in Him, 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.



A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Lightness of spirit is related to Redemption, for it lifts us out of precarious situations. As soon as a priest goes in for revolutionary tactics in politics he becomes boringly serious. This world is all there is, and therefore he takes political involvements without a grain of salt. One rarely sees a Commisar smile. Only those who are ‘in the world, not of it’ can see events seriously and lightly. Joy is born by straddling two worlds — one the world of politics, the other of grace.

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests 238

Advent II Mark 1:1-8

If you ask children and young people today what they want to be when they grow up most will now answer that they want to be famous, they want to be a celebrity, not famous for being something, just famous. Such isthe power of the modern idea of celebrity, people famous for being famous. Such is the world in which we live: shallow, skin-deep, concerned with self above all else, selfish, self-absorbed, and sinful.

In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, someone who has clearly got something of a reputation: people are coming from all over Judaea to hear him preach. John does not use this as an opportunity for his own glorification, but rather points to the one who is to come after him, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Unlike celebrities who point to themselves John the Baptist points to another – it’s all about Him, not me. This is humility in action – being firmly rooted and knowing your need for God.

Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, saying sorry and getting ready. Recognising that we fall short of what God expects of us, and yet also remembering that He is a God of love and mercy. This is shown clearly in the opening of this morning’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. God speaks through the prophet saying, ‘Comfort my people’ a God who longs for healing and restoration, and who will bring it about in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The prophets look for the coming of one who will ‘feed his flock like a shepherd’ who will ‘gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.’ (Isa 40:11). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and John the Baptist is the one who will say to the people of Judah ‘Behold your God’ (Isa 40:9). In the church we prepare to do exactly the same thing, to say to the world, ‘Here is your God’.

At the heart of it all lies the proclamation of the Gospel, St Mark’s Gospel, which we begin this morning. At the start of a new liturgical year we can proclaim a new beginning, just like John the Baptist. It is a change to start off with a clean, fresh page. The Good News of Jesus Christ is a proclamation, like that in the prophet Isaiah which says, ‘Behold your God’. That is who and what Jesus IS. The Messiah, the Son of God, the one who fulfils, scripture, in this case Malachi (3:1) Moses (Exod 23:20) and Isaiah (40:3). John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He calls the people of Israel to turn away from what separates them from God and each other, and to seek God’s forgiveness. It sounds simple enough, but facing up to the wrong that we say, think, and do, is no easy thing at all. Recognising that we have fallen short of what God expects of us is the first step to turning back. It’s hard to face up to the truth, but we have to if we want God to do something about it. We need to remember that God loves us and is merciful. This is the reason why He sends us His Son, to be born for us, to live for us, to die for us, to rise again for us, to send us His Holy Spirit, and to come again to judge us. Our God is not a tyrant in the sky, but a loving Father.

It probably does us all some good to think like this from time to time, not so that we feel wretched and depressed, but so that we recognise our need for God, that we turn to him again, that this time of Advent is part of our ongoing spiritual journey – turning away from sin and towards Christ. The Christian faith is the work of a lifetime, and of a community: it is something we all have to do together.

In the Gospel the people of Israel recognise the proclamation of John the Baptist; they come to him and confess their sins and are baptised. His message is a simple one, Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. He calls people to turn back to a God of love, and he points forward to the one who is to come, he points to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.

The Church exists to carry on the same proclamation, the same message, to point to the same Saviour. At one level, the idea of judgement worries me deeply, as I suspect if I were all up to me and my efforts, and were I simply to be judged on my own life I would not get to heaven – I cannot earn my way there. I, like all of you, and indeed all of humanity, are simply miserable sinners in need of God’s grace, his love and his mercy. We need Christ to be born, we need Him to die for our sins, and to rise again to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.

Thankfully, we as Christians know that he will come to be our judge is our redeemer, who bore our sins upon the cross, he is loving and merciful. Just as the arms of the prodigal son’s father are wide open to embrace him, so too Christ’s arms are flung wide upon the cross to embrace the world, our judge will come bearing wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, because they are the wounds of love. We can have hope and confidence in this.

John the Baptist’s message is uncomfortable and yet it is GOOD NEWS – our prayers are answered- that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs is truly ours. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is, however, what people NEED to hear. Thus people flock to him, they are aware of their sin, aware of their need of God, of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. His message is one of repentance, of turning away from sin, from the ways of the world, a world which seeks to change our celebration of our Lord’s nativity into an orgy of consumerist excess. His is the birth, his is the way by which we can find true peace, we can turn to Christ, we can be like Him.

How then do we respond? We respond by living lives of godliness and holiness, by striving to be found by him at peace, a peace which prepares for His coming. We are patient, we wait in expectant hope, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do so that all the world may be saved 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 to the ages of ages.



Advent 1 Year B Mk 13:24-37

When I was a child I loved reading books. My favourite place in the world was a library, and I can still remember going there one day and my father gave me a bookmark on which the following words were written, ‘Be alert, the world  needs all the lerts it can get!’  The pun was a good one, I enjoyed it, and can remember it decades later. It makes a serious point, namely how do prepare to meet Jesus? Advent is a season of preparation, when we prepare to meet Jesus, both as a baby born in Bethlehem, and as our Saviour and Judge, who will come to call the world to account.

The world around us sees preparations for Christmas as most concerned with cards, decorations and shopping. The Church sees things somewhat differently. What matters are our souls and our lives: who and what we are, what we do, and why we do it.

We, here, this morning, as Christians are living between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world. We are to be ready, and to spend our time considering the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. They await us all, each and every one of us, so how will we prepare for them?

In this morning’s gospel, our Lord tells us to stay awake, to be on our guard, to be prepared, because we do not know the time when our Lord will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead.

Jesus tells us not to be found asleep, in the sleep of sin. An attitude which says ‘I’m alright’, ‘I don’t need God’. It is this sleep which affects many people, both those who come to church, and the vast majority who do not. That’s not to say they don’t try and live good Christian lives. We all do, instinctively. And yet any mention of the last things tends to conjure up images of fire and damnation, hell and brimstone preachers, thumping pulpits and putting the fear of God into people. Such is the characterisation of the religious as extremists, something increasingly common. Yet, such people have a point – their message is true – but I suspect that they put it across in a way which strikes people as unpalatable, and so they switch off and go to sleep.

And yet, what they say matters, it is true and we could all do with being reminded of it. How we live our lives matters, it affects who and what we are, and the world around us. We have but one life to live on Earth, and we must try, with God’s grace, to do the best we can. We live in a world which does not care about such questions, apparently people’s lives are their own business, and we have no business calling people’s actions into question, but this will not do. Our actions affect us, our character, our lives, and the lives of people around us – our actions have consequences, which is why our lives and how we live them matter. What we do and say matters and the Church exists to call people to repentance – to turn around and change the whole of their lives and follow Christ in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds – for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.

Lest we get too afraid, we can turn in confidence to the words of Isaiah in our first reading this morning. The prophet is looking forward to the redemption of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, a new future after exile. Against a picture of human sin, and rebellion against God, there is the implicit possibility of something better. In those times when God can seem absent, there is the possibility that God as a loving parent is giving us space and time to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced both of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, to enrich us with his grace, and give us the gifts of his spirit, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.

We’re not being left alone in all this. God both tells us the nature and source of the problem, and provides us with a solution. He even helps us along our way: he strengthens and encourages us, to turn our lives around, and follow him. That we be vigilant – and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and those around us, that we are awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.

For God asks of us – that we, this Advent, turn our own lives around, and prepare ourselves to meet our Lord, at the Eucharist, when he meets us at his altar in His Body and Blood, and in His Words proclaimed in Scripture. We also need to look forward to meeting our Lord in the yearly remembrance of His Nativity, and in his coming in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. If we can look beyond the commercialism of a sad, cynical world, we can see that God was prepared to go to any length to meet us, to be with us and heal us. Can we not prepare ourselves, our souls and our lives to meet Him?

Ours is, after all, a God of love and mercy, born as a helpless child in a stable, who gives Himself out of love for us, to suffer and die to restore our relationship with God the Father and each other, who gives us Himself under the outward forms of bread and wine so that we might have life in Him. He sends us His Holy Spirit to strengthen us, so that we can be alert, stay vigilant, and prepare to meet Him.