Palm Sunday 2018

If anyone asks you why you are untying it [the ass the disciples were sent to find], this must be your answer, ‘The Lord has need of it’ (Lk 19:31). Perhaps no greater paradox was ever written than this: on the one hand the sovereignty of the Lord, and on the other hand his ‘need’. His combination of Divinity and dependence, of possession and poverty was a consequence of the Word becoming flesh. Truly, he who was rich became poor for our sakes, that we might become rich. Our Lord borrowed a boat from a fisherman from which to preach; he borrowed barley loaves and fishes from a boy to feed a multitude; he borrowed a grave from which he would rise; and now he borrows an ass on which to enter Jerusalem. Sometimes God pre-empts and requisitions the things of man, as if to remind him that everything is a gift from him.

Fulton J. Sheen Life of Christ

Today seems like a triumph. Jerusalem is celebrating: the people treat Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the triumphal entry of the Messiah. People lay down their clothes and wave palm branches The crowd cry out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessèd is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ (Mt 21:9 ESV) They cry out for God to save them, and that is exactly what he will do in a few days time, upon the Cross. This is a God who keeps his promises and who also defies our expectations. The crowd in Jerusalem is expecting a king of the Davidic line. One who would be seen as a challenge to the ruling élite, the status quo. But in Christ God gives Israel something else: a King of the line of David, yes, but one who rules with love, who has no desire for power, or honour. Those who have power are threatened by him: he turns their world on its head, he is awkward, an inconvenience. Jesus does not want their power, as he has come to be and do something completely different: what is taken as a political coup is in fact a renewal of religion, the fulfilment of prophecy, and a new hope for Israel.

In riding into Jerusalem Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah (9:9) and Isaiah (62:11). The King of Israel comes riding on a donkey: a humble beast of burden, which carried his Mother to Bethlehem for his birth, and carried the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. It is an act of humble leadership which fulfils what was foreseen by the prophets. It shows us that Jesus Christ is truly the one who fulfils the hopes of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the deliverance of Israel, which is enacted in front of their very eyes. God is saving His people, but they cannot see it. In a few days time it will all have changed, love will turn to hatred; joy to sadness.

This is why today and throughout Holy Week we will have readings from the prophet Isaiah, which are known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. This morning we see the servant being mistreated, he is struck on the back, his beard is torn out, he is spat at and insulted. This will all come to pass as Our Lord goes to the Cross on Good Friday, it is the fulfilment of prophecy. God will show us how much he loves us by enduring such treatment.It shows US what humanity is capable of: anger, hatred, bitterness, mob rule, the desire to have a scapegoat, someone to blame. This is fallen, sinful humanity at its worst, and we will see more of it over the coming days. It should shock us, we should feel sick to the pits of our stomachs, because it shows us why Christ had to die – to take our human sin, to overcome sin, the world, and the Devil will the redemptive power of God’s LOVE.

And so it begins: a week when Our Lord and Saviour makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is hailed as the Messiah, it is a cause for celebration and joy. It is a week which will see Him betrayed by a close friend, arrested,  abandoned, tried and killed as a common criminal. Strangely enough, the world around us can still be just as fickle, just as quick to turn someone from hero into pariah. Lest we think that somehow we’re better, more advanced, more civilised, as though we’ve learned our lesson. The plain unvarnished truth is that we’re not. We need the annual reminder which the church gives through its liturgical year – a chance to be confronted by stark realities, and to be brought up short by them. What Christ says and does in this coming week He says to us, he does all this for us – to HEAL us, to RESTORE us, so that we can live His risen life HERE and NOW, as the people of God, fed by Him, fed with Him, sharing in His Death and Resurrection though our baptism, trusting in Him.

In our pilgrimage through Lent, through our prayer, our fasting, we hope to increase our closeness to Christ, so that following Him, and meditating upon His Passion, we may be transformed by His love, following in His footsteps, entering into the mystery of God’s LOVE poured out on the world. In the next few days we will go to the Upper Room, to have our feet washed, we watch and wait with Christ, we walk the way of the Cross, we gaze upon Christ crucified to see just how much God in Christ loves us – the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate that love, and make it a reality in our lives. Let us prepare to celebrate Easter: Our Lord’s rising from the tomb, His conquering death, so that we may have new life in Him.

In his Letter to the Christians in Philippi, written in prison in Rome in ad62, St Paul lays great stress upon the Humility of Jesus Christ. It is not a popular virtue these days, in fact the world around us would have us be quite the opposite: full of ourselves, with a high opinion of ourselves. Our is a world which is more and more characterised by sin and selfishness. The individual is all that matters: me and what I want, that’s what counts. At the root of it all is pride, thinking that we are more important than we are, making ourselves the centre of things, whereas we need to put God at the centre of things, and learn to be thankful.

Gratitude is characteristic only of the humble. The egotistic are so impressed by their own importance that they take everything given them as if it were their due. They have no room in their hearts for recollection of the undeserved favours they have received.

Fulton Sheen On Being Human 1982: 325

We need to have the mind of Christ, a mind devoted to love and service of God. Christ doesn’t just do what he wants to, but everything he says and does is the will of God the Father. It is a mind which lays down his life bearing the sins of all humanity, past, present , and future, out of love. This is humility and obedience in action: embracing the most shameful death possible, for love of us. Thus we should love Jesus, we should worship Him, because He is God, and He loves us. It is extraordinary, it goes against everything that we think about God, that scorning majesty, He embraces shame and sin, total utter degradation to save us. The Saviour of the World will suffer and die, and rise again, for us. This is why we are thankful — because God in Christ Jesus has done this for us, poor sinful humanity, to save us from ourselves, to save us from the Hell which we deserve, and to show us that God loves us, and longs to reconcile us to Himself and each other. He des this to heal the wounds of sin and division, so that we might have life, and life in all its fulness, with Him, for ever.  This is why Jesus is willing to suffer, to be vulnerable, to take our human frailty and to redeem it through His suffering, through His vulnerability, to show the World that God’s ways are different from ours, and that this is the only way to sort out our problems, through what Jesus does, and who He is. This is the example for us to follow — the way of suffering love and humility.

Today and in the coming week we will see what God’s Love and Glory are really like: it is not what people expect, it is power shown in humility, strength in weakness. As we continue our Lenten journey in the triumph of this day and looking towards theHoly and Life-giving Cross and beyond to the new life of Easter, let us trust in the Lord. Let us be like him, and may he transform our hearts, our minds and our lives, so that they may have live and life in all its fullness. We are fed by the word of God and by the Sacrament of His Body and Blood to be strengthened, to share in His divine life, to fit us for Heaven, and to transform all of creation that it may resound his praise and share in his life of the Resurrection, washed in His Blood and the saving waters of Baptism: forgiven and forgiving so that all that we say, or think, or do, all that we are may be for 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…

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Lent II Year B

In Mark’s Gospel, just before the passage we have heard Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ After he hears the answers Jesus asks, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ (Mk 8:29) Peter answers that He is the Messiah, and Jesus told them sternly not to tell anyone about this.

He asks the same question of each and every one of us this morning, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is worth taking a few moments to consider just what our answer would be. A very nice man? An inspiring teacher? Yes, all those things, and more; as Christians we can only echo the words of St Thomas after the Resurrection and simply say, ‘My Lord and My God!’

That’s who and what He is, and nothing less. True God, and True Man, who comes among us to proclaim that God’s Kingdom is near, and that we need to repent. We need to turn away from sin, and turn back to God, a God who loves us, and who sent His Only-Begotten Son to show us just who much He loves us.

Jesus teaches that the He must undergo great suffering, like the servant in the prophecy of Isaiah, be rejected by the Jewish  religious authorities, be killed and after three days rise again. It is quite a lot to take in. Peter, who only a few moments earlier has acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, just can’t take this. It isn’t part of the plan. It isn’t supposed to happen. Peter cannot bear the thought of Jesus suffering and dying, he loves Him. Peter just cannot understand that it needs to happen, that it is Who and What Jesus is.

Fundamentally, ours is a God who makes promises, and keeps them. He makes a promise to Abraham, and keeps it. God makes promises because He loves us. We don’t deserve to be loved because we sin, we alienate ourselves from God, and each other. But because God loves each and every one of us, then Jesus goes to die upon the Cross to demonstrate this love to the world.

Jesus says to us, that we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it! But like many things Jesus says it is fine in theory, but in practice it is a lot harder. For two thousand years we’ve been struggling with it, and that’s the point. It isn’t easy, I wish I could say that it was, but quite frankly it isn’t. I know that I struggle, that I’m not a good Christian, that I need to trust God more, but also I know that I am not alone in this, there are several billion Christians alive today, and countless billions through the last hundred thousand successive Sundays who have felt just like this. Rather like Peter, I don’t want Jesus to die for me, I don’t deserve to be saved, such are my many sins, that I should be cast away from God’s presence for all eternity. And yet, Jesus died for me, to save me, and for each and every one of you.

God loves us: frail, weak, sinful humanity. He gives us this time of Lent to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. He gives us a chance to enter the desert of repentance, and, with renewed vigour, to follow Him. It really is good news. And we need to lose our lives for Christ’s sake: living out our faith in all that we say, or think or do — to follow Him, whose service is perfect freedom. We live, not for ourselves, but for the God who loves us, who died for us.

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.

It is that same sacrifice which we see here this morning at the altar, which we can taste and touch, which we can eat and drink, so that our lives and our souls can be transformed more and more into God’s likeness. 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 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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A thought for the day from St Athanasius

Like many people I have found the images in CharlieHebdo which mock religion, and in particular Christianity, somewhat difficult and troubling. The following words of St Athanasius are, however, both a help and a comfort:

Come now, blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us, with the faith of our religion relate things concerning the Incarnation of the Word and expound his divine manifestation to us which the Jews slander and the Greeks mock, but which we ourselves venerate, so that all the more from his apparent degradation, you may have even greater and fuller piety towards him, for the more he is mocked by unbelievers by so much he provides a greater witness of his divinity, because what human beings cannot understand as impossible, these he shows to be possible (cf. Mt 19:26), and what human beings mock as unseemly, these he renders fitting by his own goodnessand what human beings through sophistry laugh at as merely humanthese by his power he shows to be divine, overturning the illusion of idols by his own apparent degradation through the crossinvisibly persuading those who mock and disbelieve to recognise his divinity and his power.

Athanasius de Incarnatione Dei Verbi 1
tr. J. Behr (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press : 2011)