Christmas 2019

We have come here this morning because something wonderful happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is the single most important event in human history, summed up in St John’s memorable phrase, ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1:14 ESV). The Word, through which God spoke all creation into being, the Son eternally begotten of the Father, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, took flesh in the womb of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is born for us, and lives among us. The verb translated as ‘dwelt’ means to live in a tent, and thus to settle, which conveys something both temporary and permanent at the same time. This is the paradoxical quality of the Incarnation, which looks back to the Exodus when the people of Israel spent forty years in tents before they got to the Promised Land, and that God’s presence was with them, as then so now. God is with us, Emmanuel, He is with us now in the words of Holy Scripture and will be with us in the Eucharist.

Today is a day to be encouraged, and the message of Isaiah is one of joy. The birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is good news, He comes to bring true peace to humanity. Our God reigns as a little baby, lying in a manger. Christ’s gift to us is peace and goodwill to all humanity. He can give us these gifts because He who is born for us today will die for us. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes will be wrapped in linen cloths in a tomb once He has died for us on the Cross. The beginning of His earthly life points to its end to remind us of the love of God for humanity. With joy the prophet can proclaim, ‘and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isa 52:10 ESV) Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, for in His Birth and Death we are saved. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews understands that God speaks through his prophets, who look forward to the birth of the Son of God as the defining event, the turning point of human history. Prophets tell us both how things are and how they WILL BE, thus we have a vision of God’s future, we have the hope of glory in the one who is born today. We glimpse true glory in the vulnerability of the baby lying in the manger, dependant upon others for love, and food, and warmth. God’s glory confounds our expectations, and that’s the point. God’s ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts ours. In the same way that God saves us not because we ARE lovable, but so that we might become so. Humanity is saved in order to be transformed, and the Church exists to extend that transformation across space and time. 

Such is the mystery of God’s love, something so wonderful that we cannot fully understand it, but we can experience it, and through experiencing it, be transformed by it. As Austin Farrer wrote: 

God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is and it remains for us a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung pp. 27, 28]

As St John says, ‘ In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ (Jn 1:4 ESV) Just as the star gives light to Bethlehem and guides the wise men on their way, so Christ gives light to a world filled with Darkness. Christ is the true light, and comes to give us true life in Him. ‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (Jn 1:12-13 ESV) In the Church we are born again by water and the Holy Spirit, sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, to have new life IN HIM. We are IN CHRIST, and are fed with HIS BODY AND BLOOD so that we may continue to be transformed by Him. Christ comes to give us life, new life, eternal life in Him, so that cleansed from our sins and transformed by the love of God we may live the life of the Kingdom, the life of heaven here and now. This is ‘glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14 ESV) given to humanity so that we may live as God intended us to. To us is offered through Christ the chance to return to Eden, to see Creation restored, and all things set right through Him. This is no pipe dream, but the reality of God’s love freely given to restore our fallen state. So let us live it and encourage others to so that all humanity may 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.

Midnight Mass 2019

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about ninety miles, with some fairly large hills involved. It would probably have taken Mary and Joseph ten days to travel there, walking with a donkey. It was a huge effort: in order to be with family, and to comply with the demands of the census. Amidst the joy and the wonder of this holy night it is good to begin by pondering the fact that the Holy Family were tired, even before the Blessed Virgin Mary went into labour. Tonight is a time for many emotions: joy, wonder, love and fear, as we celebrate God working among us. 

The prophet Isaiah in tonight’s first reading speaks of a future centred upon the birth of a royal baby. It is a message of hope, a light shining in the darkness, which looks forward to the star of Bethlehem, announcing the birth to the world. The boy will free us from burdens and break the rod of our oppressor. The wonderful mystery which we celebrate here tonight is that through Jesus Christ sin will have no power over us. He will bear our burden on the Cross. Christ is born for us so that He may die for us. His life begins lying against the wood of the manger, as it will end against the wood of the Cross. This is the justice and righteousness to which Isaiah looks forward: a God whose entire life and being proclaim the love of God. Christ is the true son of David, a Wonderful Counsellor, in Him God shows His true might, the Eternal Son show us the heart of love of the Everlasting Father, Christ is the Prince of Peace, as He gives us peace from God, not human peace, but something far more wonderful. All that Isaiah proclaims is made manifest tonight in this little child. The world can never be the same.

St Paul writes to Titus to remind him that God’s grace has been revealed. Her tonight we see the kindness of God in giving His only Son to be born for us, making the salvation of the human race possible. Christ gave Himself for us, to redeem us from sin. Here tonight God is born as a baby, so that humanity might become divine. This is generosity on a scale we can hardly imagine, because God’s love is so all-encompassing, so utterly wonderful. As we celebrate His coming in the flesh we also look forward to His Second Coming, when our Saviour will return. We are to prepare for this by celebrating the mystery of our salvation, and allowing it to transform our lives.

So the King of Israel, the Saviour of the World is born not in a palace, but surrounded by farm animals. As Isaiah prophesied, at the very start of his prophecy: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib’ (Isa 1:3 ESV). So the animals kneel to honour their Creator, born in their midst. ‘He whose godhead made him rich became poor for our sake, so as to put salvation within the reach of everyone’ [Theodotus of Ancyra (Homily 1 on Christmas: PG 77: 1360-1361) ]. 

Meanwhile out in the fields there are shepherds, looking after their sheep. Jerusalem is only six miles away, and these are the sheep needed for Passover, and other Jewish festivals. Shepherds are interesting in that David, Israel’s second king was one, and scripture talks of God shepherding His people Israel. The Messiah, the saviour, is prophesied in terms of a shepherd. St Matthew quotes the prophet Micah: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’ (Matt 2:6 ESV quoting Micah 5:2). An angel comes to the shepherds to tell them the wondrous news which has just taken place. They are afraid, terrified in fact, and rightly so. It is so completely out of the ordinary. We have so domesticated this pastoral scene that we forget that here we have ordinary people faced with an angel and the glory of God, something so amazing that humans cannot bear to look at it. It’s too bright, too wonderful. And there’s not just one angel, but a multitude of the heavenly host, an army of angels, thousands of them, more than you can count, singing the praise of Almighty God. The worship of heaven comes down to earth for a moment to celebrate this wonderful event. Words cannot describe it, though we will get close to it this night as we celebrate the Eucharist. For here too heaven and earth will meet, and Christ who is the living bread come down from heaven, born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, will take bread so that it may become His Body, to feed us, so that we might share His divine life.

It’s a radical action, which turns our world upside down. Ours is a God who shows strength and power in His weakness, in His dependance upon others, to show us what true kingship is really like. Whereas Caesar claims the title Augustus, literally one who is worthy of honour, the one worthy of true honour is born not in Rome, but in Bethlehem. As the angel announces to the shepherds, ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:11 ESV). Jesus is our saviour, not some Roman Emperor. He is the Messiah, the one who can save us and all humanity, and he is lying not in a cot in a palace, but in a manger, surrounded by animals. God defies human expectations, and human understanding, to do something wonderful, and unexpected, because this is what the Kingdom of God looks like: it turns our human world on its head. The Son of God is born in a stable, and adored by shepherds. The most important event in human history happens tonight, and for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed its truth, that God is with us, is born for us, to set us free from sin, to give us eternal life, and to pour out God’s love and reconciliation upon a world that longs for healing and wholeness. Tonight the mystery of God’s love is made manifest, may we be filled with that love, and may our voices echo the song of the angels in giving praise 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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Christmas 2018

Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν·

Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3

He became human so that we might become divine

Few of us here today have much experience of living under despotic regimes. We are fortunate indeed. A large part of humanity has not been so lucky, and even today there are plenty of people who are not able to come together as we do, to celebrate the wonderful news given by the angels to the shepherds outside Bethlehem. Peace on earth, and good will amongst men seem in fairly short supply. What can we do? We can pray, and we can worship Almighty God, who comes among us.

We have come here tonight to celebrate something which defies our understanding and expectations. The simple fact that the God who created all that is took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born for us in Bethlehem as the Messiah, the Anointed of God, who would save us from our sins, should still feel strange and odd. It simply doesn’t make sense, nor indeed should it. In human terms, Mary should have been stoned to death for extra-marital infidelity, and some thirty three years later her son is executed as a blasphemer, a rabble-rouser, a trouble maker, in an awkward backwater of the Roman Empire, having gathered round himself a small group of misfits and undesirables appealing to the baser elements of society. There is nothing respectable here. And yet here we are, some two thousand years later, celebrating the birth of a child who changed human history and human nature, because we do not judge things solely by human standards. We come together so that we may ponder the mystery of God’s love for us, a God who heals our wounds, who restores broken humanity, who offers us a fresh start, who can see beyond our failures and shortcomings, and who becomes a human being so that humanity might become divine, so that we may share in the divine life of love, both here on earth and in heaven. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. These few words express what the Christian faith is all about, and how it can change the world.

If that isn’t a cause for celebration, I don’t know what is. We are so familiar with the story of Christmas that I wonder whether we, myself included, really take the time to ponder, and to marvel at the mystery which unfolded two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God, who made all that is, comes among us, taking flesh in the womb of a young girl through the power of His Holy Spirit, so that in His Son we might see and experience God and His love for us. 

God comes among us not in power or splendour but as a weak, vulnerable child, depending on others for love, and food, and warmth. He is laid in an animal’s feeding trough, insulated from the cold hard stone by straw  — hardly a royal birth, and not what we would expect of God, and that’s the point. It is supposed to be surprising, and to shock us. So now God would be with his pilgrim people on earth – sharing all of human life, from birth to death, so that we might, through him, share the Divine Life of Love, that of God the Holy Trinity: a relational God who invites humanity to share that relationship, who offers it freely, and to all. The sheer exuberance of such an offer, is almost profligate: it is generous in a way which defies our human expectation and our human understanding. 

Throughout his life all that Christ says and does shows us how much God loves us. The Word becomes flesh, and enters the world, he dwells among us, a wondrous mystery which provokes us to worship, to kneel with the shepherds and to adore the God who comes among us, who shares our human life so that we might share His divine life, not because we asked for it, not because we deserve it, we haven’t worked for it, or earned it, rather it is the free gift of a loving and merciful God, this then is the glory of God – being born in simple poverty, surrounded by outcasts, on the margins of society, to call humanity to a new way of being together, where the old order is cast aside, turning the world upside down and offering us the possibility of living in a radically different way, a way of peace and love and joy, not one of power. Heaven comes to earth, born in the womb of a Virgin, so that we might behold the glory of God in a new-born child. So that we might experience the love and truth of God.

The word is made flesh so that prophesy might be fulfilled, so that the hope of salvation might be dawn, so that a people who have languished long in darkness might behold the glory of God where heaven and earth meet, in a stable in Bethlehem, where men and angels may sing together ‘Alleluia, Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to people of goodwill’ The worship of heaven is joined with earth on this most holy night, that in the quiet and stillness all the earth might be filled with the praises of Almighty God, who stoops to save humanity in the birth of His Son. 

The Son who lives and dies and rises again for us will be here tonight under the outward forms of bread and wine so that the heavenly banquet may nourish our souls. He gives Himself so that we might share His Divinity, so that God’s love can transform our human nature, having redeemed it in His Nativity. So let us come to sing his praises, and be nourished with His Body and Blood and experience here on earth the joy of Heaven and the closeness and the love of God, let it fill our souls with joy, and let us live lives which recognise the wondrous thing which happens tonight, that it may be a reality in our lives, that we may may proclaim in word and deed the reality of the Word made flesh, so that others may be drawn to kneel and worship like the shepherds, like the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph, and come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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Candlemas 2018

Not all that long ago it was not uncommon to hear of the Churching of Women, sometimes called Thanksgiving after Childbirth, as it was after all a dangerous and risky business. We are perhaps now not quite so used to ideas of ritual purity inherent in the Thanksgiving for a woman after Childbirth, or her re-admission into society after a period of confinement. But the Law of Moses required that forty days after giving birth the mother was purified in a mikveh, a ritual bath and that her son, as a first-born male was presented to the Lord. This week the Church celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and commonly called Candlemas, from the ceremonies which saw the candles for the coming year blessed at this service, so that they may burn as lights which proclaim Christ, the true Light, the light to lighten the Gentiles. They are different titles, but one feast, which make us think about who and what Jesus Christ is, and what he does.

This feast then is the fulfilment of the prophecy spoken by Malachi, which also looks to our purification in and through the death of Christ and his atoning sacrifice of himself, which will be be re-presented here, made present so that we can share in it, so that we can be healed and restored by the very Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it:  ‘Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.’ It is hard to see how it could be any clearer. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac on Mt Moriah, so now God will gladly give His only Son to restore our relationship with Him.

The Holy Family go to the Temple to give thanks to God and to comply with the Law, just as they had in circumcising their baby on the eighth day: and in so doing they demonstrate obedience, they listen to what God says and do it and as such they are a model for all Christian families to follow – we need to be like them, listening to what God tells us and doing it, regardless of the cost.

When they go to the Temple the Holy Family encounter Simeon, a man of faith and holiness. A man devoted to God, who is looking for the consolation of Israel. He knows that he will not die until he sees the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, and the Saviour of the World. As he takes the child Jesus in his arms he prays: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’

The promise made to him by God, revealed through the Holy Spirit, has been fulfilled in the six-week-old infant in his arms. Simeon can prepare to meet his God happy in the knowledge that Salvation has dawned in this little child. As Christ was made manifest to the Gentiles at Epiphany, so now His saving message is proclaimed, so that the world may know that its salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Simeon speaks to Our Lord’s Mother of her Son’s future, and the pain she will endure at the foot of the Cross. Before he dies Simeon is looking to the Cross, the means by which our salvation is wrought, the Cross at which Mary will stand to see humanity freed from its sin through the love and mercy of God, through grace, the free gift of God in Christ. So as Candlemas concludes our celebration of Christmas, and the mystery of the Incarnation, so to it points to that which gives it its true meaning: the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It prepares for the coming season of Lent by changing our focus and attention from Jesus’ birth to His death, for our sins.

That is why we are here this morning, to be fed by Christ, to be fed with Christ, truly present in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. A God whom we can touch and taste. A God who shares His Divine Life with us, so that we can be transformed by Him, built up as living stones as a temple to His Glory, and given a foretaste of Heaven here on Earth. This is our soul’s true food, the bread for the journey of faith, a re-presentation of the sacrifice which sets us free to live for Him, to live with Him, through Him and in Him.

The significance of what is happening is not just recognised by Simeon, but also by Anna, a holy woman, a woman of prayer, a woman who is close to God, she recognises what God is doing in Christ, and she proclaims it, so that God’s redemption of His people may be known. Let us be like her, and let all of our lives, everything which we say, or think, or do, proclaim the saving truth of God’s love to the world.

And finally the Holy Family go back to Nazareth, and Jesus begins to grow up, in the favour of God, obedient to God and His parents in the Gospel we see all of human life: birth, death, work, normality hallowed by the God who loves us, who gives His Son for us. God shares our human life, as He will share our death, to restore us, to heal us,

So let us burn, like the candles which God has blessed, let our faith be active to give light and warmth and hope to the world, so that it may feel that love and warmth, and come to 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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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…

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A Christmas Thought for the Day from Fulton Sheen

Let Christ be formed in You

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 in everyone 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 different you would be. If half the world did this, there would be no war!

How to find Christmas Peace

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An Advent Meditation

The whole problem of our time is not lack of knowledge but lack of love

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

The season of Advent has an interesting character: it is one of joyful waiting, as we await our yearly remembrance of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s Birth, the dawning of the new hope of Salvation for mankind. It is also a season of penitence, when the church considers the Four Last Things, one for each week of Advent: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Such matters are nowadays rather passed over in our Christian discourse, and while this is understandable, it is not a good thing. Human life on earth, is, by its very nature finite: we are born and we die, we may live for minutes, or decades, even a century – but in the end death comes for us all. This is not morbid, it is a fact of life. The world around us finds death strange and scary: it is sanitised, medicalised, shut away in a hospital or a care home. What was once commonplace and domestic has been put out of sight and out of mind as we seem no longer willing or able to face our own mortality.

As Christians we have hope that this earthly life is not all that there is, we believe that Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem, died on the Cross, and rose again on that glorious Easter morn, and after forty days ascended into Heaven to show us that this is our hope, this is the fruit of our reconciliation with God, and each other. As the Preface for the Dead puts it:

Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur: et dissoluta terrestris hujus incolatus domo, aeterna in caelis habitatio comparatur.

For the life of thy faithful people, O Lord, is changed, not taken away: and at the dissolution of the tabernacle of this earthly sojourning, a dwelling place eternal is made ready in the heavens

Hence the Christian talk of a good death, a happy death. It is nothing to be feared, but rather to be embraced, as a means to an end, namely the hope of unity with God.

After death comes judgement, and the simple answer is that no single human being deserves to go heaven (with the obvious exception of the Holy Family). We all deserve to go to Hell, ours is a fallen world and we sin, each and every one of us, every day in a multitude of ways. It is that simple, and we cannot work out way to heaven through works, but rather through God’s grace and mercy, through our Baptism, which makes us one with Christ. He gave S. Peter the power to loose and bind, to remind us that sin is a serious matter, it destroys the soul, hence the sacrament of reconciliation, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God, of forgiveness and mercy. The message Our Lord first declares is exactly the same as John the Baptist ‘καὶ λέγων ὅτι Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mk 1:15 ESV) This is the message of Advent: repent and believe in the Good News of the Kingdom of God, Good News which starts at the Annunciation, which brings about Our Saviour’s Birth. This is why we say Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

This leaves us a question, ‘Will we follow Him?’ There are two ways, one leads to Heaven, one leads to Hell; the road to Heaven, the life of faith is not an easy journey, it’s hard. That’s why we have the Church, a frail body, comprised of sinners, but who trust in God’s mercy, and though we keep failing, yet we stumble on, knowing that Heaven is our goal, that the way of the world leads to a future without God, bleak, cold, and devoid of love.

God is a God of mercy, a God who will judge us, knowing that His Son has paid the price, conquering sin and death, so let us believe in Him, trust in Him, and follow Him, let us prepare to celebrate His Birth with joy, and commit ourselves to walking in His way, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us experience that mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, let us be fed with His Body and Blood, nourished by His Word, and the teaching of His Church, praying together, loving and forgiving together, so that together our hope may be of Heaven, where we and all the faithful may sing the praises 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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Christmas 2015

 

Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν· ‘He became human so that we might become divine

Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3

 

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

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We have come here tonight to celebrate something which defies our understanding and expectations. The simple fact that the God who created all that is took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born for us in Bethlehem as the Messiah, the Anointed of God, who would save us from our sins, should still feel strange and odd. It simply doesn’t make sense, nor indeed should it. In human terms, Mary should have been stoned to death for extra-marital infidelity, and some thirty three years later her son is executed as a blasphemer, a rabble-rouser, a trouble maker, in an awkward backwater of the Roman Empire, having gathered round himself a small group of misfits and undesirables appealing to the baser elements of society. There is nothing respectable here, just the rantings of religious extremists.

And yet here we are, some two thousand years later, celebrating the birth of a child who changed human history and human nature, because we do not judge things solely by human standards. We come together so that we may ponder the mystery of God’s love for us, a God who heals our wounds, who restores broken humanity, who offers us a fresh start, who can see beyond our failures and shortcomings, and who becomes a human being so that humanity might become divine, so that we may share in the divine life of love, both here on earth and in heaven.

If that isn’t a cause for celebration, I honestly don’t know what is. We are so familiar with the story of Christmas that I wonder whether we, myself included, really take the time to ponder, to marvel at the mystery which unfolded two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God, who made all that is, comes among us, taking flesh in the womb of a young girl through the power of His Holy Spirit, so that in His Son we might see and experience God and His love for us.

God comes among us not in power or splendour but as a weak, vulnerable child, depending on others for love, and food, and warmth, laid in an animal’s feeding trough, insulated from the cold hard stone by straw – beginning his life as he will end it placed in a stranger’s tomb.

Throughout his life all that Christ says and does shows us how much God loves us. The Word becomes flesh, and enters the world, he dwells among us, a wondrous mystery which provokes us to worship, to kneel with the shepherds and to adore the God who comes among us, who shares our human life so that we might share His divine life, not because we asked for it, not because we deserve it, we haven’t worked for it, or earned it, rather it is the free gift of a loving and merciful God, this then is the glory of God – being born in simple poverty, surrounded by outcasts, on the margins of society, to call humanity to a new way of being together, where the old order is cast aside, turning the world upside down and offering us the possibility of living in a radically different way, a way of peace and love and joy, not one of power. Heaven comes to earth, born in the womb of a Virgin, so that we might behold the glory of God in a new-born child. So that we might experience the love and truth of God.

The word is made flesh so that prophesy might be fulfilled, so that the hope of salvation might be dawn, so that a people who have languished long in darkness might behold the glory of God where heaven and earth meet, in a stable in Bethlehem, where men and angels may sing together ‘Alleluia, Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to people of goodwill’ The worship of heaven is joined with earth on this most holy night, that in the quiet and stillness all the earth might be filled with the praises of Almighty God, who stoops to save humanity in the birth of His Son.

The Son who lives and dies and rises again for us will be here tonight under the outward forms of bread and wine so that the heavenly banquet may nourish our souls. He gives Himself so that we might share His Divinity, that God’s love can transform our human nature, having redeemed it in His Nativity. So let us come to sing his praises, and be nourished with His Body and Blood and experience here on earth the joy of Heaven and the closeness and the love of God, let it fill our souls with joy, and let us live lives which recognise the wondrous thing which happens tonight, that it may be a reality in our lives, that we may may proclaim in word and deed the reality of the Word made flesh, so that others may be drawn to kneel and worship like the shepherds, like the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph, and come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

Christmas II

We live in a world which is obsessed by time. The pace of modern life is quite different to that of a generation or two ago. Despite the advent of labour-saving devices and technology we seem if anything busier than ever as other things come along to fill our time – we can feel pressured, worried, and anxious. This isn’t good; we can’t help feeling that this isn’t how it is supposed to be. Thankfully God doesn’t work like this. The people of Israel have been waiting for a Messiah, for a Saviour to be born, who will save Israel from their sins, but it isn’t a case of birth on demand. As St Paul writes to the church in Galatia (Gal 4:4-5) ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.’ God’s time is not our time, and the Incarnation happens not at a convenient time, but in the fullness of time – after the message has been proclaimed by the prophets, who prepare the way for the Saviour; after Mary has said ‘yes’ to God, a ‘yes’ which can undo the ‘no’ of Adam and Eve.
            This is why, at the start of his Gospel, St John, the beloved disciple, can begin right at the start of salvation history, indeed with Creation itself: his opening words ‘In the beginning’ point us straight back to the opening words of Genesis, in Hebrew BeresithIn the beginning’. This is where it all starts, where everything that is starts,  and the Word through which God speaks creation into existence, this creative power of God is what will take human flesh and be born of the Virgin Mary. The enormity of this situation should not be lost on us, we cannot think about it too much, the helpless infant born in a stable is God, who created all that is, or has been, or will be, and who comes among us weak, helpless and vulnerable, dependent upon the love and support of father and mother for everything. Christ shares our human existence from birth to death, so that we may know that ours is a God who comes among us, who comes alongside us, who is not remote, but involved, a God of love.
            St John take us back to the beginning so that we can see what we are dealing with, and how it fits into the bigger picture. What we are celebrating at Christmas is something which extends through time, both in its nature and its effects. It is why we as Christians make such a big deal of Christmas – it isn’t just something to do in the middle of winter, but along with Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection , the most wonderful and important moment of history, which affects us here and now. What was made known to the shepherds we now proclaim to the world, what symbolically is shown in the Solemn Feast of the Epiphany, which we prepare to celebrate, where the Wise Men point to the manifestation of Christ’s Divinity to the whole world.
            ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ The reality of the Incarnation, of God with us, Emmanuel, that God lives with us, sharing our human life, shows us the glory of God, that from which Moses hid his face in the Exodus is now made plain, and displayed for all to see, a proclamation of the glory, the love, and the goodness of God, shown in our adoption as children of God, given an inheritance – eternal life and a relationship with God – a humanity restored and healed. This is the light which shines in the darkness of our world, which it cannot overcome. John the Baptist testifies to this, the Wise Men kneel in adoration before Him, bringing gold for a King, Incense for the worship of God, and myrrh which points to His Death on the Cross for our salvation. Their gifts show that they understand and value who and what Christ is, and what He does.
            Are we to be like the world, which though it was created through Him does not know him? Or like his own people, who did not accept Him? Or do we receive Him, and believe in His Name, which is above every name? Do we accept the invitation to become children of God, and do we respond to it? Do we accept the challenge to live as the family of God, loving and forgiving, as those who are loved and forgiven by God, so that our lives, yours and mine, proclaim the glory and truth of God, and the message of salvation for all the world to hear? If we accept our inheritance, the fact that there is now a familial relationship between us and God, we need to understand that with that relationship comes duty and responsibility.

            And yet we do not see this as something imposed upon us, but rather as the truth which sets us free: a relationship with a God whose service is perfect freedom. So let us walk in His light, dwell in His love, and know the fullness of His joy, let us be glad that as a pledge of His love He gives Himself, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to feed us with His Body and His Blood, a sign that His promise is true, that we can have a foretaste of Heaven, food for our journey of faith here on earth, so that we may know his love, and touch it and taste it, so that we can be strengthen to live that faith and to proclaim it by word and deed, so that all the world may enter into His joy, and live His life. 

Homily for Candlemas

Today the Church celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and commonly called Candlemas. We are not quite so used to ideas of ritual purity inherent in the Thanksgiving for a woman after Childbirth, which used to be described as the Churching of Women. The Holy Family go to the Temple to give thanks to God and to comply with the Law: they demonstrate obedience, they listen to what God says and do it – as such they are a model for all Christian families to follow.
            When they go to the Temple the Holy Family encounter Simeon, a man of faith and holiness, devoted to God, and looking for the consolation of Israel, he knows that he will not die until he sees the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, and the Saviour of the World. As he takes the child Jesus in his arms he prays ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’ The promise made to him by, revealed through His Holy Spirit has been fulfilled in the six-week-old infant in his arms. As Christ was made manifest to the Gentiles at Epiphany, so now His saving message is proclaimed, so that the world may know that its salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Simeon speaks to Our Lord’s Mother of her Son’s future, and the pain she will endure. Before he dies Simeon is looking to the Cross, the means by which our salvation is wrought, the Cross at which Mary will stand to see humanity freed from its sin through the love and mercy of God, through grace, the free gift of God in Christ. So as Candlemas concludes our Celebration of Christmas, of the mystery of the Incarnation, so to it points to that which gives it its true meaning: the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
            That is why we are here this morning, to be fed by Christ, to be fed with Christ, truly present in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – God whom we can touch and taste. A God who shares His Divine Life with us, so that we can be transformed by Him, built up as living stones as a temple to His Glory, given a foretaste of Heaven here on Earth. This is our soul’s true food, the bread for the journey of faith, a re-presentation of the sacrifice which sets us free to live for Him, to live with Him, through Him and in Him.
            The significance of what is happening is not just recognised by Simeon, but also by Anna, a holy woman, a woman of prayer, a woman who is close to God – she to recognises what God is doing in Christ, and she proclaims it, so that God’s redemption of His people may be known. Let us be like her, and let all of our lives, everything which we say, or think, or do, proclaim the saving truth of God’s love to the world. Let us burn, like the candles which God has blessed to give light and warmth to 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.

Christmas Midnight Mass 2013

We consider Christmas as the encounter, the great encounter, the historical encounter, the decisive encounter, between God and mankind. He who has faith knows this truly; let him rejoice.

Pope Paul VI, speech, Dec. 23, 1965
The people of Israel longed for salvation: they hoped that God would deliver them as he had from Egypt and Babylon – he had done so in the past, he would do so in the future, but in a way which they could neither expect nor fully understand. The prophesy of Isaiah speaks of light shining in darkness – a time of hope, of new beginnings, of comfort amidst tribulation. It is a light which will shine with the coming of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, a light which the darkness cannot overcome. His coming brings joy and peace, the promise is fulfilled. The promise is fulfilled and yet humanity clings to greed, and lust and selfishness.
The world can seem deaf to the message which was proclaimed over two thousand years ago – there was no room in the inn, no comfort or luxury; but in a stable, surrounded by animals, by shepherds, poor, hungry, shunned by ‘polite’ society, God comes to earth, he meets humanity not in a blaze of glory and triumph, but as a vulnerable baby, who needs a mother to feed him, who needs other 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. God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is and it remains for us a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives up a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung pp. 27, 28]
The Son gives us a life in which to live, and gives us himself to us in bread and wine so that we might share his divine life, so as the shepherds hurried to meet him, let us too long for that divine encounter, let us long to be fed by him, fed with him, so that we can share his life, life in all its fullness. It is not something for us in purely spiritual terms, but rather to form our lives: who we are and what we say and do.
When the Holy Family came to Bethlehem there was no room for them. As we celebrate the birth of Our Saviour we have to ask ourselves: Have we made room for Himin 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 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 living out the love shown to the world in this little vulnerable child. So 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.