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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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

Easter IV — The Good Shepherd [Acts 4:5-12; 1John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18]

If you ask people about Wales they will probably mention Rugby Football, Singing, and Sheep. The first two we do with great passion or hwyl, and thanks to the large amount of hills and mountains there are here, it is ideal countryside for rearing sheep. As animals go, they often don’t get a good press: they are seen as simple creatures, unable to give birth without assistance, it’s hardly flattering to be compared to sheep, and yet throughout the Bible we see references to sheep and shepherds, important for a nomadic people.

Sheep are gentle creatures, they need help and protection, so that they don’t wander off, and are protected from wolves. The relationship between God and Israel is often described as like a shepherd and his sheep. They know each other, there is a close bond between them, and they need the care and protection of a shepherd. They love company, they like to be together in a flock. Their needs are simple: grass and water. They are not violent or nasty, but they need to be cared for, and loved, and helped.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (Jn 10:11 ESV) Jesus lays down His life for us. He offers it willingly, and out of love, to die, and to be crucified for us. This is the heart of our faith as Christians: Jesus loves us, Jesus dies for us, and rises again. It is simple, profound and extraordinary. God loves us this much, that he suffers the most painful, shameful, and degrading death for us, to demonstrate love in action. 

Such love requires a response from us, and John, the beloved disciple puts his finger on it in this morning’s epistle, ‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers’ (1John 3:16 ESV). We lay down our lives for each other, in love and service. This is what being a Christian looks like in practice — we do the right thing, regardless of the cost. The world around us will tell us to be selfish, and self-centred, to think of ourselves before others, the ‘I’m alright Jack mentality’. It is selfish, and sinful, and wrong. We offer the world something different, sure it is costly, but it proclaims the simple truth that another way is possible, and that we march to the beat of a different tune. We can have the courage and the confidence to do this because Christ rose from the dead, and offers eternal life to those who follow Him. This life is not all that there is. We are preparing for the hope of Heaven, made possible by Christ, by living out our faith here and now. It has the power to the change the world, a soul at a time, because we ARE revolutionaries. We want people to join us, and be like Jesus. He lays down His life for us, and expects to follow His example, and lay down our lives to follow Him. It takes commitment, it isn’t just something you do in a building for an hour on a Sunday morning, it takes over your entire life. I know, for a variety of reasons. Firstly in ordination I offered my life to Jesus, for the service of his church, and secondly in last twelve months I got married, and we got a dog. Marriage and dog ownership are both lifelong commitments, and are both about learning to love, and forgive. My life is far more wonderful and richer than I could have imagined because of the commitments I have made. Yes, they are costly, but they are wonderful. To a world scared by commitment I would have to say, don’t be afraid, dive in, and have a go. You will make mistakes, but as love and forgiveness go hand in hand, through them you have the chance to change, to blossom, and become something other than you were before. This is true for the Christian faith. It offers salvation, through faith, as St Peter puts it in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, ‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’(Acts 4:12 ESV) Jesus offers what no-one else can, salvation and eternal life to those who believe in Him, and follow Him. This truly is good news, true freedom, which the world needs to hear. No-one else can save them, money in the bank, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, they may be pleasant and useful, but they can’t save you. Only Jesus, the Good Shepherd, can do that. He still offers the chance to become bart of His flock, under the One Shepherd, to have life, and life in all its fulness, eternal life, with Him, forever. Just as the apostles testified to the healing power of His name, so that same healing is offered to all who believe and trust in Him. It’s not a magic wand, but a chance to enter into a relationship which can take away our sins, heal our souls, our bodies and our lives. 

He lays down His life for us, and He gives himself here today, under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we can be healed by Him, and given a foretaste of heaven in His Body, and His Blood. Here today, as on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, we meet to be fed by Christ, and fed with Christ, to be healed, to know his love, love you can touch and taste. 

What more wonderful proof could we ask for than this, to feast on the Body and Blood of Him who died for us, and rose again. Who gives himself so that we might have life. Let us be filled with His Love, and His Life, let it transform us, and all the world that it may come to know Him, to trust Him, to love Him, and be fed by Him, to give 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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Easter III [Acts 3:12-19; 1John 3:1-7] Luke 24:36b-48

This morning’s Gospel account of the post-Resurrection is quite a surprising one. Disciples have just come straight from Emmaus, where they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the Bread, which is confirmed by the disciples, who said that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter. And then, all of sudden, Jesus is there among them, and says, ‘Peace be with you’. They are startled and afraid — they cannot believe it. He was dead. They saw Him die on the Cross. People don’t rise from the dead. And there He is in front of them. It is immediate, and abrupt, and startling. It is no wonder that they think that they are seeing a ghost, a spirit. They need reassurance, they cannot yet believe. Jesus invites them to inspect His hands and feet, to see the mark of the nails, to gaze in wonder at the wounds of love, to see that God loves them. He’s not a ghost, but a living being — flesh and blood. They’re happy, but they still cannot believe, so Jesus says, ‘Have you got anything to eat?’ They give Him a piece of grilled fish, and He eats it in front of them. He’s not a ghost, He’s alive, living, breathing, and eating. God takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and lives among us, dies, and is raised to new life, to show us what God has in store. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which we celebrate at Easter, which we keep celebrating for weeks, truly is Good News. it takes a while for this to sink in to His disciples, they cannot take it in. It is extraordinary, but it is TRUE.

Jesus then reminds the disciples that before His death, he had told them that everything in the Jewish Scriptures about Him must be fulfilled. He has to suffer and die, for our sins. He does this willingly, out of love, because He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It takes them time to understand that He has risen from the dead, and likewise they’re not going to understand the entirety of salvation history immediately. It takes time, even just reading the readings at the Easter Vigil takes time, and this is just a snapshot of what the Old Testament contains in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. Most of the writings of the Early Church do just what Jesus did, they go through Scripture to see how it points to Jesus, how it finds its fullest meaning in and through Him, the Word made Flesh. I could stand here for hours, days weeks even, and only scratch the surface. Obviously I’ll spare you that, but in the rest of the time that I have to live on earth, I know that I can only begin to tell people about Jesus, and explore how the Bible points to Him. But I need to do it, to explain to people who and what Jesus is, and does, and to say to the world around us the words of St Peter from our first reading this morning, ‘Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,’ [Acts 3:19 NRSV]. The call to follow Jesus and to believe in Him requires a change of heart and mind, a change in how we live our lives, something we have to keep on doing all our lives, a constant commitment to turn from the ways of the world, the ways of sin, to turn to Christ, and follow Him.

Christ explains how His Suffering and Death are foretold in Scripture, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in His name to all the world. So all of Scripture points to Him, even the awkward, and hard to understand bits, the bits which we would prefer not to read. And we need to tell people about Jesus, who he is, what He does, and why it matters.

He came to offer people an alternative to the ways of the world. You can find temporary happiness in many things, but shopping isn’t going to save your soul. Only Jesus can do that. Amazon, or the High St can do many things, but they’re not going to save you, forgive you your sins, or give you eternal life. Stuff doesn’t save, Jesus does. Our materialistic culture tries its best to hide from this fact. We fill our time with business and distraction. We do all sorts of things which we enjoy, which provide transitory pleasure. But lasting happiness can be found in Christ, and in Christ alone.

I’m as bad as anyone else at this. I admit it. I don’t deserve to be standing here saying this to you. I’m no better than you, probably I’m worse. I certainly don’t feel worthy to be called a shepherd of Christ’s flock. And that’s the point: I’m not, and it’s alright, none of us is, or ever has been, or ever will be. It’s not about us, but about what God can do through us, if we let Him. This is the reality of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. He does what we cannot do, so that we can live in Him.

We don’t need to worry because we find our JOY in Him, in Jesus, our Risen Lord. We are witness, just like those first disciples in Jerusalem, charged to tell people the same Good News, that Jesus died, has risen, and offers NEW LIFE to all, regardless of who they are, and what they’ve done. This is he demonstration of God’s love for the World, ‘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 sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ [John 3:16-17 RSVCE] God’s grace does not abolish our human nature, but perfects it, through faith, through the sacraments, outward and visible signs of inward spiritual grace, so that through Baptism and the Eucharist in the Church, people come to know Jesus, the Word made flesh, and share His Risen life, and are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, prepared by a loving Father.

People may not wish to come. They may be too busy. It may not mean anything to them, they can write it off as religious claptrap, an irrelevance in the Modern World. But it is still offered to them, and to everybody. To come to know Jesus, to trust Him, to love Him, to be fed by Him, and with Him, to have new life, and the forgiveness of sin through Him, and Him alone. For as St Peter says, ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ [Acts 4:12 RSVCE], so my brothers and sisters in the joy of Easter let us share this so that the world 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, dominion and power, now and forever.

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Duccio, Maesta, Altarpiece, Siena Cathedral

Christ the King, Year A

In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the Universal King to stress the all-embracing authority of Christ and to lead mankind to seek the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ. In a time of great misery and inequality: the Church was reminded of what the coming of Christ as Saviour and Judge meant, as well as ending the liturgical year by looking forward to Advent: the season of preparation for our Lord’s coming, in His Incarnation, and as our Judge. A season of reflection, a season of hope, and new life.

In today’s Gospel we have the last parable in Matthew which also gives us an apocalyptic vision of Our Lord’s Second Coming. The first thing to notice is that, as befits the Kingdom of God, all people will be there. This is not a Christians-only event. In the Holy Land to this day you will see herds of goats and sheep grazing together and at the end of the day they are separated by a shepherd who can tell the difference between them. Jesus does, however, give his reasons for making his judgement: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’ To give food and drink and to make people welcome is fundamental to hospitality and is a sign of Love. Clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned is likewise showing concern for people, and their needs, showing our love to the world.

We believe that God is love and that we are called to show love ourselves in our lives. Our faith, therefore, is not simply private interior devotion, something that we do on Sundays for our benefit, and keep in a box like a Sunday hat. No!It is something we can put into practice in our lives, every day, everywhere.

Now in the parable in this morning’s Gospel the virtuous seem rather surprised and ask our lord when they did this to him. Jesus answers, ‘I tell you most solemnly, insofar as you did this to the least of the brothers of mine you did it to me.’ As St Antony, the founder of monastic tradition once said, ‘Our life and death is with our neighbour – if we win our brother we win God; if we cause our neighbour to stumble then we have sinned against Christ.’ So who are the least of Christ’s brethren? Who are the little people? Or to put it another way, who is the most important person in church? Is it Fr Neil? Or is it me? Is it a magistrate? Or a businessman? No … who are the least amongst our communities and who are the least outside them? And what are we doing to help them?

Some of the people who would have heard Jesus teaching this parable might well have thought, as Jews, that Israel were the sheep, and the gentiles were the goats, and I wonder whether we don’t all of us feel a little complacent at times. By the same token, the standards Jesus sets in this parable seem almost unattainable so we can feel that we simply cannot live up to them. So we need to be careful that we don’t just despair, that we don’t just give up, and don’t let our discipleship become one of apathy.

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God himself, became man and lived among us. He showed humility in washing His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, in eating and drinking with tax-collectors and prostitutes, the social outcasts of His day. He, unlike the society in which he lived, did not judge them. He loved them in order to proclaim in word and deed that the Kingdom of God was for ALL people – the people we might not like, the people we might look down our noses at, and with whom we might not wish to share our table. He gives himself to feed heal and restore them and us.

His love and humility are shown in that being condemned to death by those whom he came to save he does not cry out, he does not blame them, but instead asks, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ The Christ who reigns on the tree, and who will come again to judge the world, bears the marks in his hands, feet, and side, because they are the marks of LOVE. They remind us of God’s love for us, and when we eat and drink His Body and Blood at the Eucharist we are healed, and share in His Divine Life, so that we might become the Body of Christ, His Church. Strengthened by this Sacrament of Love we are called to live out our faith in the world around us. While we may not have lived up to the example He sets us, we can nonetheless try to do what we can. In acknowledging the Universal Kingship of Christ we recognise an authority higher than human power, higher than any monarch or dictator, and we are called to conform the world to His just and gentle rule. We are called to transform the world one soul at a time, and through acts of mercy and a life of prayer to make a difference.

We may not like the idea of judgement: it is big and scary, and most of us, if we are honest feel that we deserve to be condemned. NOw rather than just thinking about judgement as a future event, let’s think about it as a process, something going on here and now. We all live under God’s judgement. Are there things which are hellish in our lives? The problems of cliamte change and how we treat God’s world don’t exactly look great. The way in which we do business with one another, the on-going financial crisis, poverty, hunger and the existence of food-banks show us that all is not well with our country. The wars which our leaders wage against each other seem very far away from the ideal where the lion lies down together with lamb, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. For all this we will be called to account, like the servants in last week’s parable of the talents.

So what are we to do? First, we are to pray to God that we might have the strength and courage to follow the example of His Son, Jesus Christ. Secondly, we are to remember that God’s love and mercy were poured out on the world at Calvary, and continue to be poured out on us who know His forgiveness. Thirdly, that we are fed and strengthened in the Eucharist so that we may be transformed to go out into the world and be active in God’s service.Finally we are to remember that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. The people or the acts may seem insignificant to us, but not to God.

I would like to conclude this morning by asking you, what would our communities look like if we lived like this: giving food and drink to those in need; visiting those who are sick, or in prisons with or without bars – the prison of fear, loneliness, old age, depression, addiction, or abusive relationships? For such is the kingdom of God. Amen

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Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!

Mary’s Fundamental Title

The description ‘Mother of God’ … is … the fundamental name with which the Community of Believers has always honoured the Blessed Virgin. It clearly explains Mary’s mission in salvation history. All other titles attributed to Our Lady are based on her vocation to be the Mother of the Redeemer, the human creature chosen by God to bring about the plan of salvation, centred on the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word.

Let us us think of the privilege of the ‘Immaculate Conception,’ that is, of Mary being immune to sin from conception: she was preserved from any stain of sin because she was to be the Mother of the Redeemer. The same applies to the title ‘Our Lady of the Assumption’: the One who had brought forth the Saviour could not be subject to the corruption which derives from original sin. And we know that all these privileges were not granted in order to distance Mary from us but, on the contrary, to bring her close; indeed, since she was totally with God, this woman is very close to us and helps us as a mother and a sister. The unique and unrepeatable position that Mary occupies in the Community of Believers also stems from her fundamental vocation to being the Mother of the Redeemer. Precisely as such, Mary is also the Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI General Audience 2 January 2008

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Corpus Christi – Dom Gregory Dix on the Eucharist

At the heart of it all is the eucharistic action, a thing of absolute simplicity – the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread, and the taking, blessing, and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before he died. Soon it was simplified still further, by leaving out the supper and combining the double grouping before and after it into a single rite. So the four-fold action Shape of the Liturgy was found by the end of the first century. He had told His friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning ‘for the anamnesis‘ of Him, and they have done it always since.

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, London, 1945p.743-4

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