Jesus and Nicodemus Lent II

The sight of a crucifix has a continuity with Golgotha; at times its vision is embarrassing. We can keep a statue of Buddha in a room, tickle his tummy for good luck, but it is never mortifying. The crucifix somehow or other makes us feel involved. It is much more than a picture of Marie Antoinette and the death-dealing guillotine. No matter how much we thrust it away, it makes its plaguing reappearance like an unpaid bill.

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests 1974: 101—102

 

Our Baptism is a wonderful thing, and it is why each and every one of us is here today. It is how we enter the Church, how we become part of the body of Christ,  it is how our souls are infused with the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, it is how we are regenerate, born again, sharing in His death, and His resurrection. It is something for which people have traditionally prepared during this season of Lent, for Baptism and Confirmation at Easter, so that they can die with Christ and be raised to new life with Him. We enter into the mystery of Christ’s saving work so that we may conformed to it and transformed by it, by Love, by believing and trusting in Christ, publicly declaring our faith in Him, and praying for His Holy Spirit, so that our lives may be transformed – living for Him, living in Him, and being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

To be drawn into His likeness means coming closer to His Cross and Passion: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (Jn 3:14). Just as the serpent in the desert brought salvation to the people of Israel, so now the Cross is our only hope – the sacrifice of God for humanity, not something we can give God, but something he gives us – a free gift of infinite value. God gives it to us and to all the world for one simple reason – love, for love of us – weak, poor, sinful humanity, so that we might be more lovely, more like Him. God sends His Son into the world not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved through Him – an unselfish act of generosity, of grace, so that we might be saved from sin and death, from ourselves, so that we can share new life in Him.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ John 3:16-17 (ESV) These few words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel encapsulate what we believe as Christians, and why we believe it, may we live them, strengthened through prayer, our study of the Bible, nourished by Our Lord’s Body and Blood, forgiven and forgiving, preparing to be caught up forever in the love of God.

It is that same sacrifice which we see here this morning, which we can taste and touch, which we can eat and drink, so that our lives and our souls can be transformed to live Christ’s risen life. It is something which we treat with the uttermost reverence because it is God, given for us, because it can transform us to live as children of the Holy Spirit, freed from the shackles of this world, free to live for Him, to live as He wants us to, His new creation, of water and the Spirit. This is what the Church has done on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, in memory of Him, to make the holy people of God. To make us holy: so that everything which we say, or think, or do, may be for His praise and glory, living out the faith which we believe in our hearts, as a sign to the world that the ways of selfishness and sin are as nothing compared with the generous love of God.

So great is this gift, that we prepare to celebrate it with this solemn season of prayer, and fasting, and abstinence, to focus our minds and our lives on the God who loves us and who saves us. We prepare our hearts and minds and lives to celebrate the mystery of our redemption, so that our lives may reflect His glory, so that we may live for Him, fed by Him, fed with Him, with our lives and souls transformed by Him. We are transformed so that we can transform the world so that it may live for Him, living life in all its fullness: living for others, living as God wants us to live. Living the selfless love which saves us and all the world, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do, can and will conform us to Christ, so that we may be like Him, and become ever more like Him, prepared for eternal life with Him, so that we all 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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The Sunday next before Lent

“Three important scenes of Our Lord’s life took place on mountains. On one, He preached the Beatitudes, the practice of which would bring a Cross from the world; on the second, He showed the glory that lay beyond the Cross; and on the third, He offered Himself in death as a prelude to His glory and that of all who would believe in His name”

Fulton Sheen The Life of Christ 1970: 158

Over the last few weeks we have been reading through what we generally know as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus goes up to a high place to teach the assembled crowds how to live in a way that is pleasing to God and will bring about human flourishing. This morning we see Christ up a mountain doing something quite different. The world around us has a good idea of what it thinks glory is: most of the time it looks like human success and triumph, just think of people winning a gold medal at the Olympics, people waving flags, noise, pomp, pageantry, all fine and good in its place, but essentially something fleeting and transitory, it goes, it doesn’t last. As Claudio Ranieri the erstwhile manager of Leicester City knows all too well.

Rather than concentrate on human ideas of glory, this morning’s readings give us a glimpse of God’s glory. In the Book of Exodus we see Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, the Ten Commandments to show Israel both what to believe and how to live. Moses spends time in the closer presence of God, so that when he comes back down the mountain he is shining, he is transformed and transfigured by the experience. It’s an experience which takes time, God tells Moses to come up and  wait there, he waits six days before being invited to come up further. He spends forty days on the mountain, which prefigures Our Lord’s forty days in the wilderness before the start of his public ministry and our own forty days of Lent.

Jesus takes his closest disciples with him to show them something of the glory of God. He appears with Moses and Elijah to show them and us that He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of God. Christ is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets because they all look to him, they find their truest meaning in Him, they are fulfilled by Him. That is why the Church has always read the Hebrew Scriptures in a Christological Way: they point to Christ, who is the Word made flesh. The Church has never abandoned them, for in them we see a richness of material, a depth of proclamation throughout the history of Israel and its relationship with God which points to Christ, which can only be explained by Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, he is what the prophets look towards, and their hope, and their salvation.

When God speaks he tells us three things about Jesus: he is the Son of God, he is loved, and we should listen to him –  He is God, the Second Person of the Eternal and Divine Trinity, who created all that is and who will redeem it. We should worship Him, and obey Him. He is loved by God, love is what God is, the relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is one of love, and our human love is but a pale reflection of God’s love for us, shown by his Son Jesus Christ on the Cross, where he dies for our sins. We should listen to him , what he says and does should affect us and our lives. – We have to be open to the possibility of being changed by God, ‘to live is to change, and to live well is to change often’ as John Henry Newman once said, love changes us, it is dynamic not static, it forms who and what we are.

Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until after he has risen from the dead. The detail is important: Jesus will suffer and die upon the cross, taking our sins upon Himself, restoring our relationship with God and each other – this is real glory – not worldly glory but the glory of God’s saving love poured out on the world to heal it and restore it.

As this is the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima, fifty days before Easter we have a chance to spend time time with God, we have the prospect of a penitential season, a chance to focus on what really matters, away from the noise and bustle of normal life, a chance through prayer, reading the Bible and Sacramental encounter to spend time with God, to be close to him, and to let his love and grace transform us more and more into his glorious likeness.

That is why we are here this morning – to see that self same sacrifice here with our own eyes, to touch and to taste what God’s love is really like – to go up the mountain and experience the glory of God, what God is really like, so that God’s love may transform us, given a foretaste of heaven, and prepared to be transformed by God. This is true glory – the glory of the Cross, the glory of suffering love lavished upon the world. The Transfiguration looks to the Cross to help us prepare for Lent, to begin a period of fasting and prayer, of spiritual spring cleaning, of getting back on track with God and each other, so that we may be prepared to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, to behold true majesty, true love and true glory – the kind that can change the world and last forever, for eternity, not the fading glory of the world, here today and gone tomorrow, but something everlasting, wonderful.

So let us behold God’s glory, here, this morning, and let us prepare to be transformed by his love, so that the world may believe and trust 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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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.

11th Sunday of Year B


A monk was asked, ‘What is humility?’ and he said in reply, ‘Humility is a great work, and a work of God. The way of humility is to undertake bodily labour and believe yourself a sinner and make yourself subject to all.’ Then a brother said, ‘What does it mean to be subject to all?’ The monk replied, ‘To be subject to all is not to give your attention to the sins of others but always to give your attention to your own sins and pray without ceasing to God.’
There was an old man living in the desert who served God for many years and he said, ‘Lord, let me know if I have pleased you.’ He saw an angel who said to him, ‘You have not yet become like the gardener in such and such a place.’ The old man marvelled and said, ‘I will go off to the city to see both him and what he does that surpasses all my work and the toil of these years…’
            So he went to the city and asked the gardener about his way of life … When they were getting ready to eat in the evening, the old man heard people in the streets singing songs, for the cell of the gardener was in a public place. Therefore the old man said to him, ‘Brother, wanting as you do to live according to God, how do you remain in this place and not be troubled when you hear them singing these songs?’
            The man said, ‘I tell you, abba, I have never been troubled or scandalized.’ When he heard this the old man said, ‘What, then, do you think in your heart when you hear these things?’ And he replied, ‘That they are going into the Kingdom.’ When he heard this, the old man marvelled and said, ‘This is the practice which surpasses my labour of all these years.’
I rather like gardening, and I would hope that you do too: there is something wonderful about taking seeds or cuttings and placing them in compost and watching them grow. It never ceases to give me a thrill, and once they’ve grown you end up with something that you can eat, smell or 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 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 the tree of life, through which we have life, and all people can rest secure.
       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? 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. The church founded by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and entrusted to his apostles began as a small affair, a few people in a backwater of the Roman Empire, and yet 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. And even if we have been going through some bad harvests, the trick is to keep scattering the seed as they will grow in a way which can defy our expectations.
       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, his 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.’ 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.

Easter VII – Sunday after Ascension – A Radical Alternative

The prophet Ezekiel has a vision (in Chapter 36) of a messianic future, of the restoration of  Israel, which is found in his Son, Jesus Christ and the Church, we are those sprinkled with the clean water of baptism, who have been cleansed. God gives us a new heart and puts his Spirit within us, just as he did on the day of Pentecost, so we are to live as the people of God, lled with his love, and forgiveness, and proclaiming his Truth to the world.

This Sunday in the Gospel we are in the middle of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, which is the summit of his teaching just before his arrest and Passion. Christ has made God’s name known to us, we know him in a different way, we pray to him as ‘Father’ and we are his, we are not our own, despite the Western Liberal infatuation with personal freedom, we are God’s, which affects who we are, and what we do.

Christ speaks to us, and teaches us so that our joy may be complete in him, lled with his love, and the Holy Spirit. The world’s reaction to this is a negative one: because what we are, what we stand for, and how we live as Christians is to be opposed to what the world around us stands for – selshness, greed, which it makes into false gods, as though material wealth, or power, or status could save us – such things are transient and fleeting. It offers us a short-cut, an easy road, whereas if we are following Christ, then we are walking the way of his Passion, we are walking the Way of the Cross, dying daily to sin, and letting God’s grace be at work in and through us. It is not easy, it is difficult, most of us are unable to manage on our own, we need the love and support of the Christian community to help us, even the rst Christians, those who had been with Jesus, needed each 0ther’s help and support, so they can continue what Jesus started.

We need to be together, to meet together to pray for our needs and those of the world, and to be nourished by the word of God, the Bible, and the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, not because they’re something nice to do on a Sunday morning: an add-on, an optional extra that we can opt into and out of as we feel like, but because as Christians they are crucial to who and what we are, if we are to remain in the love of God then we have to live this way. Only then can we offer the world an alternative to the ways of selshness and sin. It will hate us for doing this, it will despise us, it will call us hypocrites when we fail to live up to the example of Jesus, but as Christians who live in the love of God we forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for love of us and all the world. It is a message of such love, such forgiveness that the world cannot or does not want to understand it, we may not understand it, but we know that it can be experienced, and we are living testimony to its power. It turns our lives around and sets us free to live for God and to proclaim his saving truth in our words and actions, calling the world to repentance, to turn to Christ, and to be renewed in and through Him.

So as we wait with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live his life and to proclaim his truth, to offer the world that which it most earnestly desires, a peace, a joy and a freedom which pass human understanding, and the gift of eternal life in Christ.