Fifteenth Sunday of Year B [Amos 7:7-15, Eph 1:3-14, Mk 6:14-29]

When the Church talks about calling, it often refers to the call of Isaiah, and Isaiah’s response, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ (Isa 6:8) and while it is good to respond to God’s call in our lives, I suspect that far more people, myself included, feel a lot more like the prophet Amos in this morning’s first reading: ‘I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.’ (Amos 7:14-16 ESV). Ours then is a not a God who calls the qualified, but who qualifies those called. We may well feel unworthy, or unable to carry out what God wants, and that is fine. God works through us, not because we are capable, but because we rely on Him. Amos tells the uncomfortable truth to the priest and to the king of Israel, and reminds them that their actions have consequences. The plumb line is true, it is a mark of the uprightness that God expects of Israel, the standard of the Law, the Torah. They have fallen short, and will be judged. This is what prophets do, they call people back to God, to walk in His ways. 

It is what John the Baptist has done to Herod Antipas in this morning’s Gospel: he has married his brother’s wife, Herodias, while his brother is still alive. Leviticus 18:16 prohibits this, so Herod has broken God’s moral law, he has sinned. John has preached a message of repentance, to turn away from sinful behaviour, and to turn back to God. It doesn’t make for easy listening, especially when we know that we have all fallen short of what God expects from us. While Herod wants to listen to John, he is WEAK, he doesn’t want to lose face and acquiesces to Salome’s demand. 

Rather like John the Baptist, each of us, through our baptism, is called to bear witness to our faith in our lives. This is what martyrdom is, bearing witness, regardless of the cost. We are called by God to be an example and to live out our faith in our lives. In our baptism we put on Christ, we are conformed to him, as priest, when we pray, as king, when we serve, and prophet, when we proclaim His Kingdom. Our prayer, service, and proclamation are the ways in which we live out our faith as something real in our lives, something which Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we do for the glory of God, whatever the cost. Few of us nowadays here in the UK are likely to bear witness to our faith at the cost of our life. Around the world plenty of Christians are, because they value Christ more than anything in this world, even life itself. Nothing is more important or valuable than Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who comes to us in His Word, the bible, and under the outward forms of bread and wine in the Eucharist, to feed us, and to transform us more and more into His likeness. 

When Jesus’ preaching comes to the ear of Herod he thinks that John has been raised from the dead. This anticipates and points forward to the Resurrection when Jesus will rise from the dead. Jesus and John are proclaiming the same message: Repent of your sins, and turn back to and believe in God. They both do marvellous things because they are both filled with the Holy Spirit. What they are, and what they do, is exactly what the church, you and me are called to, the same message, the same proclamation, the same miracles. If we trust in the God who loves us, then God can and will do wonderful things with and through us.

Herod doesn’t want to kill John, his conscience is pricked, he knows that he has done wrong. He is in a position where he does not want to risk losing face, in a culture where honour and shame are still motivating factors this is understandable, even if it doesn’t make it right. So Herod gives in to Salome’s wishes, and John pays the price of telling truth to power. Are we willing to do the same?

We do so as heralds of the Kingdom of God which is still becoming a reality in the world around us, it is a work in progress until Christ comes again and renews all things in Himself. In the meantime we can rest secure that we are a part of God’s plan for the world, a plan of LOVE, which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for our sins, and rise again to give us the hope of heaven. The redemption of the world in and through Jesus Christ is a reality, one which will become visible and present upon the altar this morning, where we obey His command to ‘Do this in memory of Him’ Christs’s sacrifice upon the cross is made present to us, so that we can share in His Risen Life, and the glory of Heaven here and now. We have a foretaste of heavenly glory to strengthen us on our journey of faith. We have hope for the future because of what God has done for us, and we have a pledge of it here this morning, in Christ’s Body and Blood. 

So how are we going to respond to the amazing generosity of God? Are we content to say, ‘Thank you very much!’ and carry on regardless as though none of this matters? Are we content for religion to be a matter of private devotion, rather than the core of our being, who we really are, the centre of our lives? Are we so conformed to the world that we act as though God is not important? If God can do such amazing things for us, can we not do more for God? It’s hard, we can all do better, and try harder; our lives are pressured, but that is why we are a Christian community. We do things together: we support each other, both in prayer and action, we cannot do it on our own, we can only do it TOGETHER, by the grace of God, working in and through us. It is His church, of which we are members, called to love and serve Him. God provides all that we could ever want or need with regard to faith, hope, and love. If we trust Him and rely upon Him alone then we can bear witness so that the world will come to believe in 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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The Prologue to the Rule of Our Holy Father St Benedict

Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.

To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.

In the first place, beg of Him by most earnest prayer, that He perfect whatever good thou dost begin, in order that He who hath been pleased to count us in the number of His children, need never be grieved at our evil deeds. For we ought at all times so to serve Him with the good things which He hath given us, that He may not, like an angry father, disinherit his children, nor, like a dread lord, enraged at our evil deeds, hand us over to everlasting punishment as most wicked servants, who would not follow Him to glory.

Let us then rise at length, since the Scripture arouseth us, saying: “It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep” (Rom 13:11); and having opened our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with awestruck ears what the divine voice, crying out daily, doth admonish us, saying: “Today, if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 94[95]:8). And again: “He that hath ears to hear let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches” (Rev 2:7). And what doth He say?—”Come, children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps 33[34]:12). “Run whilst you have the light of life, that the darkness of death overtake you not” (Jn 12:35).

And the Lord seeking His workman in the multitude of the people, to whom He proclaimeth these words, saith again: “Who is the man that desireth life and loveth to see good days” (Ps 33[34]:13)? If hearing this thou answerest, “I am he,” God saith to thee: “If thou wilt have true and everlasting life, keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile; turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps 33[34]:14-15). And when you shall have done these things, my eyes shall be upon you, and my ears unto your prayers. And before you shall call upon me I will say: “Behold, I am here” (Is 58:9).

What, dearest brethren, can be sweeter to us than this voice of the Lord inviting us? See, in His loving kindness, the Lord showeth us the way of life. Therefore, having our loins girt with faith and the performance of good works, let us walk His ways under the guidance of the Gospel, that we may be found worthy of seeing Him who hath called us to His kingdom (cf 1 Thes 2:12).

If we desire to dwell in the tabernacle of His kingdom, we cannot reach it in any way, unless we run thither by good works. But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet, saying to Him: “Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle, or who shall rest in Thy holy hill” (Ps 14[15]:1)?

After this question, brethren, let us listen to the Lord answering and showing us the way to this tabernacle, saying: “He that walketh without blemish and worketh justice; he that speaketh truth in his heart; who hath not used deceit in his tongue, nor hath done evil to his neighbor, nor hath taken up a reproach against his neighbor” (Ps 14[15]:2-3), who hath brought to naught the foul demon tempting him, casting him out of his heart with his temptation, and hath taken his evil thoughts whilst they were yet weak and hath dashed them against Christ (cf Ps 14[15]:4; Ps 136[137]:9); who fearing the Lord are not puffed up by their goodness of life, but holding that the actual good which is in them cannot be done by themselves, but by the Lord, they praise the Lord working in them (cf Ps 14[15]:4), saying with the Prophet: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us; by to Thy name give glory” (Ps 113[115:1]:9). Thus also the Apostle Paul hath not taken to himself any credit for his preaching, saying: “By the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10). And again he saith: “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (2 Cor 10:17).

Hence, the Lord also saith in the Gospel: “He that heareth these my words and doeth them, shall be likened to a wise man who built his house upon a rock; the floods came, the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock” (Mt 7:24-25). The Lord fulfilling these words waiteth for us from day to day, that we respond to His holy admonitions by our works. Therefore, our days are lengthened to a truce for the amendment of the misdeeds of our present life; as the Apostle saith: “Knowest thou not that the patience of God leadeth thee to penance” (Rom 2:4)? For the good Lord saith: “I will not the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live” (Ezek 33:11).

Now, brethren, that we have asked the Lord who it is that shall dwell in His tabernacle, we have heard the conditions for dwelling there; and if we fulfil the duties of tenants, we shall be heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Our hearts and our bodies must, therefore, be ready to do battle under the biddings of holy obedience; and let us ask the Lord that He supply by the help of His grace what is impossible to us by nature. And if, flying from the pains of hell, we desire to reach life everlasting, then, while there is yet time, and we are still in the flesh, and are able during the present life to fulfil all these things, we must make haste to do now what will profit us forever.

We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.

Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui, et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter comple, [2] ut ad eum per oboedientiae laborem redeas, a quo per inoboedientiae desidiam recesseras. [3] Ad te ergo nunc mihi sermo dirigitur, quisquis abrenuntians propriis voluntatibus, Domino Christo vero regi militaturus, oboedientiae fortissima atque praeclara arma sumis.

[4] In primis, ut quicquid agendum inchoas bonum, ab eo perfici instantissima oratione deposcas, [5] ut qui nos iam in filiorum dignatus est numero computare non debet aliquando de malis actibus nostris contristari. [6] Ita enim ei omni tempore de bonis suis in nobis parendum est ut non solum iratus pater suos non aliquando filios exheredet, [7] sed nec, ut metuendus dominus irritatus a malis nostris, ut nequissimos servos perpetuam tradat ad poenam qui eum sequi noluerint ad gloriam.

[8] Exsurgamus ergo tandem aliquando excitante nos scriptura ac dicente: Hora est iam nos de somno surgere, [9] et apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen, attonitis auribus audiamus divina cotidie clamans quid nos admonet vox dicens: [10] Hodie si vocem eius audieritis, nolite obdurare corda vestra. [11] Et iterum: Qui habet aures audiendi audiat quid spiritus dicat ecclesiis. [12] Et quid dicit? Venite, filii, audite me; timorem Domini docebo vos [13] Currite dum lumen vitae habetis, ne tenebrae mortis vos comprehendant.

[14] Et quaerens Dominus in multitudine populi cui haec clamat operarium suum, iterum dicit: [15] Quis est homo qui vult vitam et cupit videre dies bonos? [16] Quod si tu audiens respondeas: Ego, dicit tibi Deus: [17] Si vis habere veram et perpetuam vitam, prohibe linguam tuam a malo et labia tua ne loquantur dolum; deverte a malo et fac bonum, inquire pacem et sequere eam. [18] Et cum haec feceritis, oculi mei super vos et aures meas ad preces vestras, et antequam me invocetis dicam vobis: Ecce adsum. [19] Quid dulcius nobis ab hac voce Domini invitantis nos, fratres carissimi? [20] Ecce pietate sua demonstrat nobis Dominus viam vitae.

[21] Succinctis ergo fide vel observantia bonorum actuum lumbis nostris, per ducatum evangelii pergamus itinera eius, ut mereamur eum qui nos vocavit in regnum suum videre.

[22] In cuius regni tabernaculo si volumus habitare, nisi illuc bonis actibus curritur, minime pervenitur. [23] Sed interrogemus cum propheta Dominum dicentes ei: Domine, quis habitabit in tabernaculo tuo, aut quis requiescet in monte sancto tuo? [24] Post hanc interrogationem, fratres, audiamus Dominum respondentem et ostendentem nobis viam ipsius tabernaculi, [25] dicens: Qui ingreditur sine macula et operatur iustitiam; [26] qui loquitur veritatem in corde suo, qui non egit dolum in lingua sua; [27] qui non fecit proximo suo malum, qui opprobrium non accepit adversus proximum suum; [28] qui malignum diabolum aliqua suadentem sibi, cum ipsa suasione sua a conspectibus cordis sui respuens, deduxit ad nihilum, et parvulos cogitatos eius tenuit et allisit ad Christum; [29] qui, timentes Dominum, de bona observantia sua non se reddunt elatos, sed ipsa in se bona non a se posse sed a Domino fieri existimantes, [30] operantem in se Dominum magnificant, illud cum propheta dicentes: Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam; [31] sicut nec Paulus apostolus de praedicatione sua sibi aliquid imputavit, dicens: Gratia Dei sum id quod sum; [32] et iterum ipse dicit: Qui gloriatur, in Domino glorietur. [33] Unde et Dominus in evangelio ait: Qui audit verba mea haec et facit ea, similabo eum viro sapienti qui aedificavit domum suam super petram; [34] venerunt flumina, flaverunt venti, et impegerunt in domum illam, et non cecidit, quia fundata erat super petram.

[35] Haec complens Dominus exspectat nos cotidie his suis sanctis monitis factis nos respondere debere. [36] Ideo nobis propter emendationem malorum huius vitae dies ad indutias relaxantur, [37] dicente Apostolo: An nescis quia patientia Dei ad paenitentiam te adducit? [38] Nam pius Dominus dicit: Nolo mortem peccatoris, sed convertatur et vivat.

[39] Cum ergo interrogassemus Dominum, fratres, de habitatore tabernaculi eius, audivimus habitandi praeceptum, sed si compleamus habitatoris officium. [40] Ergo praeparanda sunt corda nostra et corpora sanctae praeceptorum oboedientiae militanda, [41] et quod minus habet in nos natura possibile, rogemus Dominum ut gratiae suae iubeat nobis adiutorium ministrare. [42] Et si, fugientes gehennae poenas, ad vitam volumus pervenire perpetuam, [43] dum adhuc vacat et in hoc corpore sumus et haec omnia per hanc lucis vitam vacat implere, [44] currendum et agendum est modo quod in perpetuo nobis expediat.

[45] Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici schola servitii. [46] In qua institutione nihil asperum, nihil grave, nos constituturos speramus; [47] sed et si quid paululum restrictius, dictante aequitatis ratione, propter emendationem vitiorum vel conservationem caritatis processerit, [48] non ilico pavore perterritus refugias viam salutis quae non est nisi angusto initio incipienda. [49] Processu vero conversationis et fidei, dilatato corde inenarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei, [50] ut ab ipsius numquam magisterio discedentes, in eius doctrinam usque ad mortem in monasterio perseverantes, passionibus Christi per patientiam participemur, ut et regno eius mereamur esse consortes. Amen.

 

 

14th Sunday of Yr B Ezek 2:1-5, 2Cor 12:2-10, Mk 6:1-13

Appearances can be deceptive, things are not always what they seem. Much of what we do in church is much more than it seems, what can seem simple and straightforward is, in fact, much more complex. The simple pouring of water in Baptism, or the taking of Bread and Wine in the Eucharist, seem simple enough, and yet through them God is at work in our world, doing wonderful things, pouring out His Grace and His Love on us, to make us Holy. 

Our first reading this morning reminds us that it is not always comfortable or easy listening to a prophet — we have to hear uncomfortable truth. Prophets call us to repent from sin and turn back to God a call which lies at the heart of Christian Baptism It is identical with the message preached by John the Baptist, and Jesus, and the church exists to proclaim the same message, and to call people to be Holy, to live like saints here and now, and encourage others so to do.

In this morning’s epistle we hear the words of the Risen Lord Jesus to Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2Cor 12:9 ESV) They are wonderful words of encouragement, because first and foremost they remind us that it’s not about WE can do, but about what God can do in and through us. This is possibly the most important lesson we can learn as a Christian — we cannot earn our way to heaven, God does that for us, through His Son Jesus Christ, who dies on the Cross to give us life in and through Him. What greater demonstration could there be of weakness than in dying the death of a common criminal. God shows the world that power can paradoxically be demonstrated in abject weakness. As Christians we celebrate something shameful in the eyes of the world, because it is in fact the demonstration of God’s LOVE for us. 

God enters the world in the Incarnation as a weak baby, utterly dependant upon the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph, and dies rejected, and abandoned, a laughing stock, a complete failure in the eyes of the world, and yet it sets us free, it gives us life through His death, power made perfect in weakness. God does wonderful things through Paul, who was once an enemy of the church, no-one is beyond the reach of God’s love and he can do wonderful things through us, if we let Him.

The Christian life starts with Baptism, which is how we enter the church and we are filled with the grace of God, and prepared for the life of faith. It is the start of a process which should lead to heaven: by growing in faith, and being fed by Christ, with Christ, in Word and Sacrament; through prayer, and good works, where faith is lived out in our lives.It sounds simple enough, but it is actually difficult, it requires the love and support of a family, and that wider family we call the church, so that we can all support each other in living the Christian life together. 

In this morning’s gospel people misread Jesus, they fail to recognize who or what he is, they are amazed and in doubting Jesus they doubt God to be at work in the world. We need to believe that God can and will be at work, in and through us. They can only see Jesus in terms of the members of his earthly family. It’s understandable, I can remember going back to the church where I grew up to preach and celebrate for their patronal festival, I was worried how people who had known me all my life would react, would they see a small boy in shorts and spectacles. I needn’t have worried, they saw a priest and were thrilled to see me at the altar. Therein lies the difference, the people of Nazareth see Jesus and can only think, ‘carpenter’s son’. They cannot recognize the Messiah in their midst. 

We need to know who and what Jesus is. The world around us rejects Jesus, rather like the people of Nazareth, or fail to accept him as true God and true man. They doubt who he was, what he did, and what he said. But we are different, we are here because we do not. We can tell people about him, but unless they WANT to believe then they won’t, no amount of forcing will make them. If, however, they see Christians living out their faith in an attractive way, then all things are possible. 

Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs, not alone: their ministry is rooted in co-operation, working together to build up the Kingdom of God. The twelve travel light, and are utterly dependant upon God and the charity and goodwill of others. It looks radical, and it is. They proclaim the need for repentance, turn away from sin and the ways of the world, and to turn back to God. They display the healing of the Kingdom: ours is a God who longs to heal our wounds, to restore us, and offer us a radical alternative to the ways of the world. The church is a revolutionary organisation, which seeks to change the world one soul at a time, so that humanity is transformed more and more into the likeness of the God who loves them, into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who lived among us and died for us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It may sound crazy, but that is what we have been doing for nearly two thousand years, and will carry on doing until Jesus comes again. We continue to offer new life in Christ through baptism, and to feed God’s people with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that they may have life in and through Christ, nourished by Christ and fed with Christ, to be transformed more and more into His likeness so that they and all creation may 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 Prayer of Padre Pio (after receiving Communion)

Stay with me, Lord, for it is necessary to have you present so that I do not forget you. You know how easily I abandon you.
Stay with me, Lord, because I am weak, and I need your strength, so that I may not fall so often.
Stay with me, Lord, for you are my life, and without you, I am without fervour.
Stay with me, Lord, for you are my light, and without you, I am in darkness.
Stay with me, Lord, to show me your will.
Stay with me, Lord, so that I hear your voice and follow you.
Stay with me, Lord, for I desire to love you very much, and always be in your company.
Stay with me, Lord, if you wish me to be faithful to you.
Stay with me, Lord, for as poor as my soul is, I want it to be a place of consolation for you, a nest of love. Amen.

S. Pio of Pietrelcina

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The Nativity of St John the Baptist

Prophets have a difficult job to do: they tell people uncomfortable truths. People don’t like hearing such things: it makes them feel uncomfortable. Being told that you need to repent from your sinful ways and return to the Lord your God isn’t exactly going to make you popular. People prefer to feel comfortable, nice and warm and fuzzy, God loves you, everything is fine, no need to worry! It isn’t surprising that prophets are often ignored, mistreated and killed. They tell people not what they want to hear, but what they NEED to hear. 

This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a Messianic future — it points to Jesus, who He is and what He does, and that is exactly what John the Baptist, His cousin will do. He will be the Voice crying in the wilderness, who will prepare the way of the Lord who by his preaching of the Kingdom, and calling people to repent and be baptised ushers in the public ministry of Jesus, who will tend his flock like a shepherd, because He is the Good Shepherd. 

John is not interested in glory, or riches, or drawing attention to himself. All he wants to do is to point to Jesus, the Messiah. He speaks to a Jewish world which has a corrupt religious establishment, which is so bound up with following the Letter of the Law of Moses, that it has forgotten about the Spirit, that needs to come back to God, and repent of its sinful and foolish ways, which has made following the teaching of rabbis an idol in itself. He will bear witness to the truth, even at the risk of his own life: he will be killed to satisfy the whim of corrupt and sinful rulers. He has a vocation, to call people back to God, to point out where people are going wrong, and show them the right path.  Not only is he a prophet, but also the fulfilment of prophecy: In Malachi 4:4:5-6 we find the following, ‘“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

John comes from a priestly family, his father Zechariah is a temple priest, his mother Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cousin, also comes from a priestly family. They’ve tried to have children for years, and finally their prayers have been answered. When Elizabeth meets Mary, the child in her womb leaps for joy. Even before John is born he announces  that God is with us, he is a prophet from his conception. His father cannot believe that they’re going to have a baby, and when the Archangel Gabriel tells him, he fails to trust God, and is struck dumb as a result. But in this morning’s Gospel Elizabeth announces that her son’s name is John, meaning ‘God is gracious’ not Zechariah, after his father. “‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Lk 1:66 ESV). He will be the last of the prophets, the forerunner, the one who points to Christ, who baptises Him, and who through his proclamation of Baptism and Repentance helps to bring about the movement which Jesus started, which we now call the Church. He recognises that Jesus is the Lamb of God, pointing to His Death, for our sins. 

He is the only saint — with the exception of the Virgin Mary — whose birth the liturgy celebrates and it does so because it is closely connected with the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, from the time when he was in his mother’s womb John was the precursor of Jesus: the Angel announced to Mary his miraculous conception as a sign that “nothing is impossible to God” (Lk 1:37), six months before the great miracle that brings us salvation, God’s union with man brought about by the Holy Spirit.

(Pope Benedict XVI Angelus 24.vi.12 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20120624.html)

John recognises Jesus, that in Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has become human, like us. It is this wonderful mystery which lies at the heart of our faith as Christians. 

John the Baptist was the forerunner, the ‘voice’ sent to proclaim the Incarnate Word. Thus, commemorating his birth actually means celebrating Christ, the fulfilment of the promises of all the prophets, among whom the greatest was the Baptist, called to ‘prepare the way’ for the Messiah (cf. Mt 11: 9-10)

(Pope Benedict XVI  Angelus 24.vi.07 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20070624.html)

We honour John because he points to Jesus, because he proclaims Him, Jesus the Messiah, the fulfilment of all prophecy, the Word made flesh, and the Lamb of God, who dies that we might live. He points the way for us to follow as Christians, so that we can be close to Jesus in Word and Sacrament, and so that we might proclaim Him in our lives. We need to have the same level of commitment as John, and the same depth of love for God. 

That is how we live out our faith in our lives, and that is how we can become saints:

Perhaps the chief mark of sanctity is an utter simplicity in the face of the divine will, and of divine promises. Such was the attitude of Christ himself.

We think of seriousness as something which needs to be forced, or put on. Whereas to genuine faith, seriousness is just naked simplicity; it is non-hypocrisy, non-evasiveness, non-sophistication, in the face of the normal environment of the believing soul, which is the ever-present will of God. To be serious, you have only to open your eyes; a man driving on a mountain road does not relax attention to the hairpin bends, and a Christian finding his way in the will of God does not lose sight of the way-marks.

Sanctity is never out of date; and sanctity is nothing but entire simplicity towards God.  

 Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, London 1976: 153-4

So let us be inspired by the example of St John the Baptist, and love and follow God with simplicity, and encourage others so to do, so that all the world may 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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Eleventh Sunday of Year B

While I like gardening, I don’t do enough of it in practice, I’m sometimes forgetful, and not fond of weeding. There is, however, something wonderful about taking seeds or cuttings and placing them in compost and watching them grow. It never ceases to give me a thrill. Once they have grown you end up with something that you can eat, smell, look at, or even sell: it is a source of joy, of nourishment of body and soul. It is an image used by the prophet Ezekiel this morning to look forward to a future where God’s people are sheltered, it looks to a Messianic future, to one fulfilled by the church, as the Lord plants the twig on the lofty mountain of Calvary. The Cross is our only hope, it is the Tree of Life, through which we have life, and all people can rest secure. Ezekiel’s image is used by Jesus in the parable of the Mustard Seed to show people how his prophecy is being brought about in and through Jesus, the Messiah. This is the promised Kingdom of God, becoming a reality in and through Christ. 

We in the West live in an age of anxiety, where we are all worried: what are we doing? Are we doing the right thing? Could we or should we do something different, something more? The Church is in a mess, numbers are falling, what are we going to do about it? Perhaps rather than worrying, we might pause for a second to consider that people have noticed a downward trend in Christian belief and practice over the last two hundred years. It is not something new, but it is complex and long-standing, and cannot be easily reversed. But it is God’s church, and God calls us to be faithful, and to trust in Him.

In the parable of the Kingdom with which this morning’s Gospel (Mk 4:26-34) starts, the one who scatters the seed does not know how things grow, and for all their sleeping and rising they cannot influence matters, they just have to sit back and let something mysterious and wonderful happen. That is how God works.

The church founded by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and entrusted to his apostles began as a small affair, just a few people in a backwater of the Roman Empire, written off as deluded followers of another charismatic prophet. It isn’t an auspicious start; it isn’t what a management consultant would tell you to do. But a small group of people had their lives turned around by God, and told people about it, and risked everything, including their own lives to do so. The Church has now grown to point where there are several billion Christians on earth. Here in the West the picture may currently look rather bleak, but the global picture is far more encouraging, people are coming to know Christ, to love Him, and serve Him. And even if we have been going through some bad harvests over here, the trick is to keep scattering the seed as they will grow in a way which can defy our expectations. It is after all God’s Church not ours. 

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, a small thing, only two millimetres in diameter, and yet in the Mediterranean climate it could grow into a bush as large as 3’ x 12’. It has a small beginning, but there is the possibility of remarkable growth, and the image of birds nesting in its shade signals divine blessings (cf. Judg 9:8-15, Ps 91:1-2, Ezek 17:22-24) Jesus is taking the imagery of Ezekiel and showing how it will be brought to fulfilment in and through the Church. Such is the generous nature of God, that we have somewhere where we can we can be safe, and where we can grow in faith. Such is Divine Providence that God gives us the Church as means of grace, so that humanity may be saved. Through the saving death of His Son on the Cross, we can be assured of salvation in and through Him, a sacrifice which will be made present here this morning in the Eucharist, where Christ feeds us, His people, with His Body and Blood, to nourish and strengthen us.

Thus we can, like the Apostle Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, always be confident:we can put our trust in God, as we know that we cannot be disappointed. On the Cross, God’s victory is complete, so we please God by following his commandments: loving Him and loving our neighbour, motivated by the love of Christ, shown to us most fully when he suffers and dies for us, to heal us and restore us, to bear the burden of our sins: ‘he died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.’ (2Cor 5:15 ESV) 

And so in the Church we live for Christ — our thoughts, words, and actions proclaim the saving truth of God’s love for humanity. If we seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others, and are forgiving ourselves then we can be built up in love. If we are devout in prayer, nourished by the word of God, and by the Sacrament of his Body and Blood we are built up in love, our souls are nourished and we can grow into the full stature of Christ. So let us come to Him, and be fed by Him, healed and restored by Him, living in love and encouraging others so to do, for the glory of God and the building up of His Kingdom.

If we are faithful, if we keep scattering seed in our thoughts, our words, and our actions, then wonderful things will happen. We have to trust God to be at work in people’s lives, and be there for them when they do respond. If we can be as welcoming as the Mustard Tree then we will have ensured that people have a place where they can come to know Jesus, and grow in love and faith. The trick is not to lose heart, but to trust in the God who loves us, who gave His Son to die for love of us. If we are confident of who Christ is, and what He has done for us, then as people filled with the love of God, we will carry on the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and people will come to know and trust that love which changes everything, 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 Thomas Merton

The basic and most fundamental problem of the spiritual life is the acceptance of our hidden and dark self, with which we tend to identify all the evil that is in us. We must learn by discernment to separate the evil growth of our actions from the good ground of the soul. And we must prepare that ground so that a new life can grow up from it within us, beyond our knowledge and our conscious control. The sacred attitude is then one of reverence, awe, and silence before the mystery that begins to take place within us when we become aware of our innermost self. In silence, hope, expectation, and unknowing, the man of faith abandons himself to the divine will: not as to an arbitrary and magic power whose decrees must be spelt out from cryptic cyphers, but as to the stream of reality and of life itself. The sacred attitude is then one of deep and fundamental respect for the real in whatever new form it may present itself. The secular attitude is one of gross disrespect for reality, upon which the worldly mind seeks only to force its own crude patterns. The secular man is the slave of his own prejudices, preconceptions and limitations. The man of faith is ideally free from prejudice and plastic in his uninhibited response to each new movement of the stream of life. I say ‘ideally’ in order to exclude those whose faith is not pure but is also another form of prejudice enthroned in the exterior man — a preconceived opinion rather than a living responsiveness to the logos of each new situation. For there exists a kind of ‘hard’ and rigid religious faith that is not really alive or spiritual, but resides entirely in the exterior self and is the product of conventionalism and systematic prejudice.

Cistercian Quarterly Review 18 (1983): 215-6