A Prayer of Padre Pio (after receiving Communion)

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

S. Pio of Pietrelcina

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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 V — I am the true Vine [Acts 8:26-40; 1Jn 4:7-21; Jn 15:1-8]

Meetings and conversations can be important, insofar as they provide opportunities for us to share our faith with others. In this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see a chance encounter which leads to faith, and new life in Christ. When the Apostle Philip, a Greek-speaking deacon, meets an Ethiopian court official on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, he comes across a man reading the prophecy of Isaiah: who is a financial expert, highly trusted, and well-educated, he is a man of power and influence. He’s clearly looking for something, he’s been worshipping God in Jerusalem. Philip asks him if he can understand what he is reading. The Ethiopian replies that he cannot, unless someone shows him the way. ‘Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35 ESV) 

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was open at the fifty-third chapter, a reading which we read on Good Friday, which talks of suffering and death. The Ethiopian was reading ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’(Acts 8:32-33) and asks whether this is about Isaiah or someone else. Philip’s reply is that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus and this is the proclamation of the Church: we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, who suffered and died for love of us.

We read scripture so that we can understand it, and see in its words how it discloses the truth of the Word made flesh, who suffered and died for our sake. Isaiah prophesies Our Lord’s Passion and Death, and thus it makes sense, it can be understood, and the more we come to understand, the more we come to know just how much God loves us. The Scriptures, the entire of the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus Christ, they find their meaning and fulfilment in Him, who is the Word of God made flesh. Just like the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham points to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, where God gives his only Son for love of us, it is prefigured by the ram in the thicket, which points to that moment where John the Baptist can cry out ‘Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’ (Jn 1:29)

How can I understand it unless someone guides me? It is a good question, a difficult question, and a controversial one. How we interpret the Bible matters, and who can or cannot, is a vexed question. There are those who consider it a private matter, that everyone can make their own mind up, but that will only lead to chaos and confusion. In the Church, for two thousand years we have interpreted the words of the Bible in a way which is consonant with Tradition, handed down through the Church Fathers. The Church has always understood the entirety of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures in a Christological way — they point to Christ and they find their fullest meaning in Him: the Word of God discloses the Word made flesh. Such things matter, we don’t just make things up as we go along, or according to our feelings. I don’t preach to you in that way, but rather I try to explain how the Bible talks about Jesus, and how that affects our lives as Christians. 

Having been nourished by the Word of God, our unnamed Ethiopian desires baptism: he points out a water source, a rarity in this desert landscape, and asks what is preventing him from being baptised. Nothing, Philip replies, if you believe in Him. The Ethiopian states his belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and is saved, and reborn in the waters of baptism, something we focus upon in this Easter season.

He desires baptism so that he may be ‘in Christ’ rooted and grafted, close to him, filled with His Spirit, so that he may bear much fruit. It is believed that this man went home, and began the Church in Ethiopia. Something which has continued for two thousand started with one man, and a conversation. 

When we were baptised we were clothed with Christ, we were grafted into the vine, which is Christ, and we abide in Him. It is Christ’s will that we, as Christians bear much fruit, which means that we live out our faith in our lives, so that it affects who and what we are and say and do. We do this because it is what Christ expects of us, but also because, as we heard in the First Letter of John, ‘the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1Jn 4:9 ESV).

 

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When I was a teenager  I went on holiday to Greece with my parents, and while we were there they bought an icon for our home, it depicts Christ and the Disciples as a vine. It is a powerful vision of what the Church is, people who are grafted into Christ, connected to Him, in a relationship with Him. We entered into that relationship in our baptism, and it is a relationship which will continue through and after our life on earth. 

Because we are grafted into Christ we are in communion with Him. He gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, so that we can have life in Him. He gives Himself to us out of love, so that we might have life in Him, and have it forever. It is a pledge of eternal life with Him, united in this world and the next, given to us to strengthen us on the journey of faith. It is given to help us live out our faith in our lives – fed by Him, fed with Him, to live in Him and for Him. 

When we are close to Christ, washed clean by our baptism, nourished by Word and Sacrament, we can truly be Christ’s disciples, living in Him, living for Him, proclaiming Him, and bearing much fruit, 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, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. 

Lent I Year B

It can be all too easy to see the forty days of Lent, the season of preparation for our celebration of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection as a time of sadness and misery. Too often it is seen in entirely negative terms: we focus on what we are giving up — the world around us seems to understand Lent solely in terms of giving up chocolate.

Now, the practice of abstaining from bodily pleasures is a good and ancient one, though it is not simply some sort of holy diet. Rather, we turn away from something which we enjoy so that we may focus upon something else instead — we focus on our sins, and how they separate us from God, and from each other. The other practices of Lent: prayer and almsgiving are there to focus our minds upon God and other people, so that we may enter the desert of repentance with JOY, thinking of the needs of others and growing closer to the God who loves us and longs for our repentance and our healing.

In this morning’s first reading we see a covenant between God and humanity, a sign of God’s love for us, and a promise of reconciliation between God and the world which underlies what Jesus does for us, it allows us to have hope, to see things in an entirely positive way, and to see behind what we do, that it is a means, a means to an end, namely our sanctification, rather than an end in itself. In our second reading from the first letter of Peter, he draws the link between Noah’s ark, which saves people through water, and baptism, which is prefigured in it. Lent is a season of preparation for baptism at Easter, where we can die with Christ and be raised like him and with him to have new life in him. For those of us who have been baptised it is good to have a chance to spend the time in Lent praying, drawing closer to the God who loves us, and living out our faith in our lives — we can all do better, especially when we try, and try together, supporting each other, so that we might grow in holiness as the people of God.

 

When St Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying, ‘Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the tanner who is in Alexandria.’ When he heard this, the old man arose and took his stick and hurried to the city. When he had found the tanner …. he said to him, ‘Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you.’

He replied, ‘I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of the city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds while I will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart.’

When St Antony heard this he said, ‘My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near to the measure of such words.’

It is a very human failure, for far too often we make things far too complicated when all we need to do is to keep things simple. In the story from the Desert Fathers, which we have just heard, St Antony, the founder of monasticism, a great and a holy man, is put to shame by a man who spends his days making leather, treating animal skins with urine, hardly a glamorous job. The key to it all is the tanner’s humility, his complete absence of pride, and his complete and utter trust in God — his reliance upon him alone.

In this morning’s Gospel we see the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry — he is baptised by John in the River Jordan before immediately going into the desert for forty days. He goes to be alone with God, to pray and to fast, to prepare himself for the public ministry of the Proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel.

 

During this he is tempted by the devil: he faces temptation just like every human being, but unlike us, he resists. The devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. It is understandable — he is hungry, but it is a temptation to be relevant, which  the church seems to have given into completely: unless we what we are and what we do and say is relevant to people, they will ignore us. So we conform ourselves to the world around us, we package worship as entertainment, rather than being counter-cultural: offering the world an alternative to selfishness, and consumerism. Being part of the church is not a consumer choice about how we spend our leisure time, it is a call to repent and believe and trust in something greater, a God who loves us, and will die for us, so that we can live in Him.

 

There is the temptation to have power, symbolised by worshipping the devil. It leads to the misuse of power. The church stands condemned for the mistakes of the past, but in recognising this there is the possibility of a more humble church in the future — a church reliant upon God and not on the exercise of power. It is not fun to live through, but the result may actually be something more authentically Christian.

 

There is the temptation to put God to the test — to be spectacular and self-seeking. Whenever we say, ‘look at me’ we’re not saying, ‘look at God’. Worship is not entertainment — it is there to praise God and to help us to love Him.

Jesus resists the temptations because He is humble, because He has faith, and because he trusts in God. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. It’s far easier when we do this together, as a community, which is why Lent matters for all of us. It’s a chance to become more obedient, and through that obedience to discover true freedom in God. It’s an obedience which is made manifest on the Cross — in laying down his life Jesus can give new life to the whole world. He isn’t being spectacular — he dies like a common criminal. He has no power, he does not try to be relevant, he is loving and obedient and that is good enough.

 

It was enough for him, and it should be for us. As Christians we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church, filled with His Spirit, to guide us. We can use this time of prayer and fasting to deepen our faith, our trust, our understanding, and our obedience, to become more like Jesus, fed by his word and sacraments — to become more humble, more loving, living lives of service of God and each other.

The time spent in the desert leads to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ Jesus calls us to turn away from sin, to turn back to God, to trust Him, and to know that He longs for our healing and reconciliation. His Son, Jesus Christ will die for us, so that we may know just how much God loves us. This is the heart of our faith, something we will experience again in a few weeks time, and also which we will experience here, this morning, when we can see, and touch, and taste just how much God loves us.

These words are good news indeed, which the world still longs to hear, and which we need to live out in our lives, 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, glory dominion and power, now and forever

Christmas Midnight Mass

Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν·

Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3

He became human so that we might become divine

If you have seen any of the Star Wars films then you will be used to the idea of a world under the thumb of a despotic tyrannical regime. A world which longs for deliverance.Two thousand years ago the people of Israel were similarly in a bad way. They were occupied by a foreign power, Rome. They were part of a foreign empire, ruled by pagans. They longed to be free. All hope seemed lost. Their souls were crushed. Had God abandoned them? Their prophets had told them to expect the Messiah, who was an anointed Saviour of the house and lineage of David. He would save them, free them, give them hope, light in the darkness. This is exactly what the prophet Isaiah looks forward to in tonight’s first reading. People knew the prophecy but could barely hope that they would see it fulfilled.

We are now in a very different situation: we can say with confidence that a child is born to us, the Son of God, born of the Blessèd Virgin Mary. This helpless baby is our Mighty God and the Prince of Peace, the Creator and Ruler of all that is, all that ever has been, and all that will be. This night, in a small hill town God comes among us, God is with us, Emmanuel.

And so, to comply with the Imperial census demands, Joseph and Mary travel to his ancestral home, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Micah: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.’ (Micah 5:2-4).

Bethlehem in Hebrew means the House of Bread and in the House of Bread is born tonight the one who will be the Living Bread, come down from Heaven. He will be the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd of His people, Israel. We are told in the Gospel about shepherds out in the fields. They are raising the lambs to be used in the Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. When these lambs are born they are wrapped in strips of cloth to keep them safe, so that they may be without spot or blemish, and thus be an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. And so the One who is to save Israel from her sins, Yeshua, which means God saves, is born and treated like a Passover Lamb. He is wrapped in strips of cloth, swaddling clothes, just like the lambs on the hilltops. He is the Lamb of God, the true passover of Israel, who will go to His death willingly, led like a lamb to the slaughter. He was anticipated in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, by the ram caught in the thicket. He is born for us, the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and those of the whole world.

The shepherds are greeted by angels who announce the Good News, that the prophecy is fulfilled, here and now. The Messiah is born in Bethlehem. These hard-working farmers eagerly go to see God come to earth. God meets humanity not in a blaze of glory and triumph, but as a vulnerable new-born baby, who needs a mother to feed him, who needs others 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. In the stillness and darkness something wonderful happens, which we cannot fully understand. God comes among us, born as a baby, to share our life, so that we might share His. Our God longs for a relationship with us, and brings it about, so that we might have life in and through Him.

The Son gives us a life in which to live. He offers up himself for us upon the Cross, where He dies for us. He gives himself to us under the signs of bread and wine so that we might share his divine life. As the shepherds hurried to meet him, let us too yearn for that divine encounter. Let us long to be fed by Him, fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we can share His life, life in all its fullness.

When the Holy Family came to Bethlehem the town was overcrowded. There was no room for them. The weather was cold, and we can speculate that their welcome was too. As we celebrate the birth of Our Saviour we have to ask ourselves: Have we made room for Jesus in 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 true 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 ordinary people living out the love shown to the world in this little vulnerable child.

So, tonight, 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. Happy Christmas

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29th Sunday of Year A, Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: Isa 45 1-7, 1Thess 1:1-10, Mt 22:15-22

People get in a fluster about coins. It is nothing new, currently people are worried that, despite there being about 500 million in circulation, the old round £1 coin is no longer legal tender. Such things are important. They are part of our lives – how we pay for things. Their size, shape and decoration matter too, otherwise those in power would not bother to design the coins we use. Our gospel this morning is all about a denarius, it is a small silver coin, about ¾ of an inch in diameter, the size of a modern 5p, or a penny. It was a day’s wage, the pay given to the labourers in the vineyard , or one thirtieth of the bribe given to Judas Iscariot, and the cost of the Roman poll tax, about £50 in today’s money.

Jesus and the Pharisees have something of a troubled relationship: they just do not seem to be able to understand what he is saying or why he is saying it. All they can do is to try and catch him out, to find a way to entrap him. In the gospel they must think that they have finally got him on the horns of a dilemma. They ask him the question, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ If he says, ‘no’ then he’s allied himself with zealots, religious extremists, he has made a provocative political statement for which he can be denounced. If he says, ‘yes’ then they can write him off as a collaborator, he is not one of us, he is not a real prophet, a true son of Israel. All the Pharisees are interested in is understanding what Jesus says in political terms. Their opening pleasantries ring hollow, they don’t mean what they say; they are just trying to butter him up with empty flattery.

Jesus turns the tables on them by asking them to show him a coin used to pay the tax, so that he can ask ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answer ‘Caesar’s’ allowing him to say, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’. Whereas the Pharisees come filled with malice, with a desire to catch him out, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to show them the proper order of things: pay your taxes but give God what is owed to him – a heart filled with love, love of God and of each other, a life which proclaims this love in the service of others and through the worship of Almighty God. This is where real power lies, this is the truly subversive aspect of Jesus’ teaching, which he proclaims in the Temple, in the heart of the religious establishment – to show people how to live, and live life to the full.

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Jesus does not get drawn into the argument whether it is idolatrous to use Roman coins with pictures of pagan gods on them , and the  inscription, ‘TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F. avgvstvs pontif. maxim.’ Paying a Roman tax with a Roman coin is fine, but what matters more is rendering to God the things that are God’s.

Jesus is asking us all a difficult question. What do you and I, all of us, render to God in our personal lives? If we claim to be disciples, then what does that actually mean in the way we speak and act?

We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We are to be generous, forgiving and kind, to the point of extravagance, because that is how God has been to us. It is a radically different way of living which shows that while we are in this world, we are not of it. Instead, we render to God the worship which is His by right, not just in church, but in all of our lives.

Thus as Christians we follow a differnt set of rules, we show that we can live lives of freedom. In the power of the Holy Spirit the Truth can be proclaimed, the truth which sets us free from the ways of the world, free to love and serve God. This freedom can be seen in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians to whom Paul writes. Rather than worshipping idols, they serve the living and true God, they are an example to Christians of how to live. Their lives proclaim the truth which they serve. This is the dark truth of which the prophet Isaiah speaks, these are the hidden riches.

As opposed to either the collaboration of the Herodians or the rigourist harshness of the Pharisees, Jesus proclaims the freedom and love of the Kingdom of God. It is a place of welcome – the image is that of the wedding feast to which all people are invited. People are too busy or preoccupied to come; others just don’t want to be invited: they mistreat the people who invite them. But this does not stop the invitation being offered to all, it still is. It is why we are here today, so that we can be nourished by Word and Sacrament, we can join in the wedding feast, so that we can be strengthened in love and in faith, to proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God, to be an example to others to draw them in to the loving embrace of God – to be healed and restored by Him.

We see this love and healing most fully in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the costly love in action which restores our relationship with God and each other. Thanks to this we are here today to be restored and renewed, to be built up in love together, it is a reality in our lives.

Let us come to him, to be healed and renewed, strengthened, built up in love, so that we may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever.

18th Sunday after Trinity: Matthew 22:1-14

Oswald Golter was a missionary in northern China during the 1940s. After ten years service he was returning home. His ship stopped in India, and while waiting for a boat home he found a group of refugees living in a warehouse on the pier. Unwanted by anyone else the refugees were stranded there. Golter went to visit them. As it was Christmas-time wished them a merry Christmas and asked them what they would like for Christmas.

“We’re not Christians,” they said. “We don’t believe in Christmas.”

“I know,” said the missionary, “but what do you want for Christmas?” They described some German pastries they were particularly fond of, and so Oswald Golter cashed in his ticket, used the money to buy baskets and baskets of the pastries, took them to the refugees, and wished them a merry Christmas.

When he later repeated the incident to a class, a student said, “But sir, why did you do that for them? They weren’t Christians. They don’t even believe in Jesus.”

“I know,” he replied, “but I do!”

Most people like being invited to attend a party. Almost everyone here would greet an invitation with joy: if it were a wedding, all the more. There will be lots to eat and drink, music, dancing, everything you could want at a celebration. In this morning’s Gospel reading this is the image Jesus uses to introduce his parable, the Parable of the Wedding Feast. We can all sympathise with the king in the parable. He has every right to be annoyed. He has invited people and they are either too busy to bother to come or mistreat those whom he sends to invite them.

The Good News of the Christian Faith, which this parable embodies, is one of generous hospitality: God is generous towards us, and so we are expected to be generous to one another. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem. He has cleansed the Temple, he has healed the sick and the lame, and is preaching about the love of God. In his parable we see salvation history condensed into a paragraph. And we see how God sent the prophets to invite people to God’s feast – but they are too busy, too concerned with matters of this world, they ignore the prophets, some of the prophets are killed, the city, Jerusalem, is destroyed, and still they do not come. So God’s invitation is widened: all are welcome.

And yet, if we turn to our own day, the invitation is still made, but people are ready or unwilling to come to God’s banquet. They are too busy, their lives are too full, and going to a Eucharist on a Sunday morning is seen as one choice among many, with people preferring to read the paper, wash the car, or spend time with their nearest and dearest. Lest we think that we are somehow better for being here are, we can ask ourselves how much have we done? How committed are we? We could all of us, I suspect, do more for the sake of the gospel.

This parable gives us a clear example of one of the main themes of Matthew’s gospel: Jesus comes to feed us. He has found the 5000 and 4000, to show the world the abundant and generous nature of God’s love. The kingdom God is about food in particular food for the poor. This is a feast of God’s abundance. The food given by Jesus is not only to feed the hungry, but to stage a banquet, to which we and all humanity, despite our unworthiness, are invited. God will give himself as both priest and victim upon the altar of the cross, to feed humanity with his body and blood, to heal our wounds – to make us become what he is.

This generous invitation comes with a challenge, how can we sit down at the Lord’s banquet, when there are those who will die for a lack of food? The church is called to be a community of holiness, where Jesus expects those called to his kingdom to bear fruit. Only when we are poor enough in spirit to know our need of God, and yet able to feed others, can we be sent to be living truly Christian lives. We all need to be clothed in wedding garments: a garment of baptism making one in the body of Christ, a garment of generous hospitality, putting God’s love into practice in our lives by showing that love to others, and a garment of repentance and we are sorry for our sins and shortcomings and turn back to a God who loves us and who will never abandon us. This is what the future looks like, and the time of the Lord’s banquet is now, and forever. We are fed by him in the words of Holy Scripture, and most importantly with His Body and Blood, to enter more fully into the very life of God, to be formed by him, strengthened by him – given bread for our journey, and to go out and feed others and invite them to the great King’s feast. We are called to share the generous gift we have received with others, so that they may share in the joy of the Kingdom and give glory to God the Father God the Son of God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed this is most right and just all Might, Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power now and for ever…

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The 23rd Sunday of Yr A: Ezek 33:7-11, Rom 13:8-14, Mt 18:15-20

The Church is hardly out of the media these days for one reason or another. Numbers in the pews are dropping off the cliff and, depending on your point of view, the Church is either too closely aligned with the views of the world, or too much at odds with them. Regardless of where you stand it is fair to say that the church is afraid. Are we actually afraid of the truth of the Gospel? Have we forgotten that Christ comes to set his people free? And yet this freedom is not absolute, it is a limited freedom. The church has always stated that certain behaviours or actions are not in keeping with the Christian way of life. The church has proclaimed certain moral truths: that life is sacred from conception to a natural death, that the only proper place for sexual activity is between a man and woman who are married to each other, based on Holy Scripture as the revelation of God’s will to promote human flourishing. As an ordered society it has the right to discipline its members, for their own good, and the good of their souls, to regulate their behaviour so that it conforms with wth Scripture and ultimately the will of God.

It is not popular to stand up and do this. It never has been, nor will it ever be popular to bear witness to the truth. The prophet Ezekiel has a difficult task: to call the wicked to repent from their evil ways, or to be responsible for them. Through the prophet God calls his people back to Him. Though they are wayward they are given a chance to repent, to return to the ways of human flourishing. Sin can separate us from God and each other, it is divisive, it wounds, whereas the kingdom of God is a place of healing. As Christians we believe that Our Lord and Saviour died upon the Cross bearing the weight of our transgressions: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who once and for all deals with the problem – human sinfulness and its effects upon us and the world. Under the New Covenant St Paul can repeat the same message. Earlier, at the start of Chapter 12 he has reminded the Roman Christians  ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,’ (Rom 12:2). He has criticised where they have gone wrong in the past and is looking to a future where they can put such immorality behind them. He is insistent: ‘Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’ (Rom 13:11-14) . For the Church after Pentecost we await Our Lord’s Second Coming as Judge of All. While He is merciful, for those who reject Him there remains the possible of Hell for eternity.

It is why at the beginning of his public ministry Christ proclaims the same message as John the Baptist: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’. To repent is to turn away from sin, to turn towards God, to be healed and restored by him. It is why our acts of worship as Christians often start with the recognition that we have fallen short; that we need constantly to turn to God, and ask for forgiveness, for the strength to live the kind of lives which lead to human flourishing. It affects each and every one of us, you and me, and we need help – we simply cannot manage on our own, we’re not strong enough. One can and should point out where someone is going wrong, but unless there is a conscious recognition of having fallen short, it is as though the grace of God can be resisted. Such stubbornness is part of the human condition, and it is why for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the Love and Forgiveness of God, and its message can always be lived out better in our lives. The Church exists to continue to call people to repentance, to carry on the healing and reconciling work of Jesus, here and now. It is offered freely, and may be rejected – God is after all not a tyrant who forces us.

We can recognise the problem and its effects but also be assured of a solution in the person of Jesus Christ, whose forgiveness is for all, who gives us baptism so that we might have new life in Him, and gives himself under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we might feed on His Body and Blood to be healed and restored by Him.

This is neither cosy nor comfortable. But  it is rather a radical transformative message, one which has the potential to change not just us, and who and what we are, but the entire world. This is the Good News of the Kingdom.  Here in the Eucharist we are soon to be in the presence of the God who loves us, and who saves us, who heals and restores us. We have a foretaste of heaven; we can come far closer to God than Moses did on Mt Sinai. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives.

At the end of this morning’s Gospel we see a promise made by Jesus firstly that prayer will be answered and of his presence among us. Part of repentance, the turning away from the ways of the world, is the turning towards God in prayer, listening to Him, being open to his transforming love in our lives, so that God’s grace can perfect our human nature, and prepare us for heaven here and now – so let us live the life of the Kingdom, having turned away from all that separates us from God and each other, with tears of repentance and a resolve not to sin, and with tears of joy that God gives himself to suffer and die for love us. We cannot be lukewarm about this: for it is either of no importance or interest to us whatsoever, or the most wonderful news which should affect who we are and what we do.

There can be no complacency, no simply going through the motions, turning up to be seen, to provide a veneer of social respectability. It is a matter of life and death, whose repercussions are eternal. We have a choice to make. Do you wish to follow the ways of the world, the ways of sin and death? Or would you heed the warning?

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The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: Who do YOU say that I am? (Mt 16:13-20)

We live in a strange world, where in a little over fifty years we have experienced more profound and rapid social change than any other generation in history. Such a thing is hard to come to terms with, but there is a vocal group here in the West whose aim is to make the Church conform itself to the world around us. I for one am unable in all conscience to accept their revisionist agenda for a simple reason. In the twelfth chapter Paul’s Letter to the Romans the apostle writes ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds’ (Rom 12:2). Paul tells the Church in Rome, and he tells us not to be like the world around us, not to bow to secular pressure, or follow their lead. Instead, the Church exists to call the world to repentance, to turn its back on the false ways of the world and to be conformed to Christ, and ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Rom 12:1). It isn’t easy, it is challenging and demanding and costly. The Christian Faith does after all make demands on those who follow it, especially regarding what we do and how we live our lives.

One of the most important questions in the entire Bible is found in this morning’s Gospel: who do you say that Jesus is? How we answer this question can tell us a lot about our faith. It matters, in fact it is central to who and what we are as Christians.

Jesus and his disciples ventured into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. The region had tremendous religious implications. The place was littered with the temples of the Syrian gods. Here was the elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then-ruling Herod Antipas. Here you could worship the Roman Emperor as a God himself. You might say that the world religions were on display in this town. It was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.

Jesus looked at his disciples and in a moment of reflection said: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples begin sharing with Jesus what they have heard from the people who have been following Jesus: Some say that you are Elijah; others say John the Baptist, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. It’s always been this way. Jesus has been seen by the masses in so many different ways. But Jesus asks then asks his disciples, ‘But who do YOU say that  am?’ (Mt 16:15) Peter answers ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Mt 16:16) This is a big claim to make. Saying that Jesus is divine was problematic, it undermined what Jews thought about religion, and the claims made by Romans about the Emperor. It is a radical thing to say, that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Hope of Israel, who fulfils the promises in the Prophets.

Nowadays you can speak of Jesus as prophet, holy man, teacher, or spiritual leader, and few will object. But speak of Him as Son of God, Divine, of the same nature as the Father, and people will line up to express their disapproval. This is not a new phenomenon, indeed in the fourth century A.D. it looked as though the church has been taken over by Arians followers of Arius, who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. And yet, in the end, Orthodoxy won the day. But still nowadays Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and others deny Jesus’ divinity. They are WRONG: He is God, consubstantial, and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The reason why the church repeats the words of the Nicene Creed week by week is to remind ourselves of what we believe. As Christians in worship we stand up and make a public declaration of faith, something which would once have led to our death at the hands of the state, and nowadays in some states still does.

As Christians we should not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. But as well as making this public declaration, we need to live lives which show this faith being lived out in practice.

If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God, the Messiah – the anointed one who delivers us from our sins, and who died, rose again, and sends us His Holy Spirit; then this faith should affect who we are and how we live our lives. Only if we take our faith seriously, if we take the time and make the effort to pray regularly and to read the Scriptures, to come to Mass, not because they’re nice things to do, or to be seen to do them, but because they keep as close to Jesus, can we hope to grow in faith. Only then can we become living stones, built as a temple to God’s glory, on the foundation of the church which comes to us from the apostles, believing what the church has always believed, doing what the church has always done, or continuing in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers, as St Luke puts it at the end of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. This is how we live a Christian life, as well as living out our faith in our lives, sharing that faith with others, without being frightened or afraid, rude or triumphalist, but simply, humbly, and patiently. If it were not true, we would be the most pitiable of fools; but as it is true we have to live lives which embody that truth, in our words and in our deeds, so that we may proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, so that they may believe and may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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St Nicholas slaps Arius at the Council of Nicaea for his heresy

The Nineteenth Sunday of Year A Mt 14:22-33

Fear is a very human feeling, we acquire it through learning, and yet it can be overcome, if we trust in God. Christians in Iraq, China, North Korea & Palestine face real danger, real persecution (we’re safe and comfortable by comparison) and yet they trust, they pray (and so should we) and we should do all that we can to help them. The state of politics at home and abroad is troubling, to say the least. We are afraid that this is the closest we have been to the use of nuclear weapons since the 1960s.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

This morning’s Gospel carries straight on from the miraculous feeding which we should have heard last week, as Jesus goes to send the crowds back home, he sends disciples ahead so that they might be ready.

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

Prayer is important, it is as important as the food we eat, the air we breathe, because it is about our relationship with God. Throughout the Gospels Jesus spends time alone, spends time close to the Father as this relationship is crucial. Where Jesus leads we should follow, follow his example.

When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 

It’s getting dark, and the disciples are out in the middle of the lake, in deep water; will the boat sink, what can they do?

And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 

But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

The disciples cannot believe that they are seeing Jesus, they think that it is a ghost. But it is Him, and he encourages them, his presence can give them confidence. He tells the disciples, and he tells us not to be afraid, not to fear the world, but to trust in Him.

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’

As usual, Peter is the first to react, he takes the lead as usual. Jesus speaks a single word to him, ‘Come’ He speaks it to each and every one of us as Christians, to come, to follow him, to be close to him, to live out our faith in our lives strengthened by prayer. Will we trust Jesus enough to follow Him?

“So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, Truly you are the Son of God.’

Peter listens to what Jesus says, and obeys him, and does something miraculous, something extraordinary, until he is distracted by the world around him, and becomes frightened. Likewise we, in our lives can in the power of God do wonderful things, if we are not distracted by the cares of the world around us. If we listen to what Jesus tells us and do it.

Peter becomes frightened; he starts to sink, as do we all when the cares of this world overwhelm us. His reaction is to cry ‘Lord, save me’ which Jesus does, indeed, through his offering of himself upon the Cross he saves each and every one of us, taking the sin of the world upon himself so that we might be freed from sin, fear and death. That same sacrifice will be made present here, so that we the people of God, can be fed by God, with God, with his Body and Blood to be strengthened to have life in him, to be close to him.

Peter is told off for lacking faith, because it is important, we too need to trust God, to have faith in Him, so that He can be at work in us and through us.

At the end, once the wind has died down the disciples worship Him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ The end of it all is worship, it is what we as humans and as Christians are for. We are to worship God, in our love and our prayer, so that all of our lives are an act of worship, drawing us ever closer to the source of life and love. So that all we say or think or do may proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, so that they may believe and may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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The Transfiguration 

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 and making lots of noise, open-topped buses, parades, and the like. God’s idea of glory we will see is something entirely different, in fact it is the exact opposite of human glory. We see God’s Glory this morning on Mt Tabor, and on the hill of Calvary.
In the Prophecy of Daniel we see a glimpse of the glory of God and the worship of heaven. It is the same glory that the Apostles see in the Transfiguration, it is a glimpse of heaven, a foretaste for us of what Christ has given us His Church. The glory of the Transfiguration is something which the Second Letter of Peter stresses – as Christians we do not follow a made-up religion – it is not a work of fiction, but rather through spending time with Jesus, disciples such as St Peter saw their own lives transfigured and transformed by the power and the love of God.
Jesus has been with the disciples in the Jezreel Valley in Galilee and this morning He goes up Mt Tabor and takes his closest disciples with him to show them something of the glory of God. He goes up the mountain to pray, to be alone with God the Father. His public ministry was rooted in prayer, in being close to the Father, listening and speaking to Him. As Christians we are to follow His example, and do likewise.
Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah to show His disciples and the Church that He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. They point to Him and they find their fulfilment in Him: He is the Messiah, the Son of God. Peter responds in a moment with a very human response, he knows that it is good to be here and it helps to change his life. His response points to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jews remembered the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai to Moses. But this experience is not to be prolonged, it is a glimpse of the future glory, a moment to be experienced, and not a place to dwell.
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 – what he says and does should affect us and our lives – we have to be open to the possibility of being changed by God. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until after he has risen from the dead. The detail is important: Jesus will go up another mountain to 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 sacrificial love poured out on the world to heal it and restore it.

“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

That is why we are here this morning – to see the 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, so that God’s love may transform us. We are 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 ourselves to live the life of faith. To help us 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, let us touch and taste God’s glory, let us prepare to be transformed by his love, through the power of His Holy Spirit, built up as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. As those who are healed, and restored, reconciled, and given a foretaste of eternal life with him, so may God take our lives and transform us, so that everything that we say, or think, or do, may proclaim him, let us tell the world about him, so that it too may believe and trust and have new life 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.

The Thirteenth Sunday of Year A

Matthew 10:37-42

Is it easy to be a Christian? No it isn’t, and the answer shouldn’t really come as that much of a surprise. To put it simply God asks a lot of us, and this morning’s Gospel is no exception. Do I love my parents and my wife more than Jesus? Well it’s certainly a close run thing! Am I worthy of Jesus? No, the honest answer is that I’m not. But at least I’m honest about it, and I know that I’m not worthy of Him. I don’t deserve to be saved by Him, and I certainly cannot earn it. I do, however, take up my Cross and follow Him, because Jesus tells me to, and it is the right thing to do, as a Christian. We are people of the Cross, we glory in it, because it proclaims God’s love to the world.

We live in a world characterised by spiritual hunger. A world which has turned its back on Christ and His church. A world which sees itself beset by all manner of spiritual ills, and is desperate for answers and solutions. All we can say to those around us is, ‘Come and lose your life for Christ’s sake’, ‘Come and see’, and ‘Follow Him’. While Jesus is preaching the Good News of the Kingdom in Galilee His mind is on the Cross. He knows what His mission entails – the pain, the agony, the isolation. He calls us to follow Him, to be willing to lay down our lives as He did. In countries around the world right now, Christians know what this means, as they face imprisonment, torture and death for believing in Him. Despite persecution the church is growing in many lands. Sadly the culture of indifference we face here in the United Kingdom means that we are far more likely to be ignored or laughed at than killed, but there is nonetheless a great deal of opposition to us Christians and our beliefs.

So what are we to do? To put it simply our life and our actions, as well as our words need to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. If people can see Jesus in us, they will follow Him. It will not happen overnight, and there is no magic wand to be waved. All we can do is continue to offer the invitation, ‘Come and See’.

It is not surprising that in this morning’s Gospel Jesus talks about welcome – hospitality, making people feel at home and comfortable is part of who and what we are as Christians. It is at the heart of one of the many paradoxes of our faith – Jesus can make us feel both spiritually uncomfortable and challenged, and yet also comfortable, loved and accepted.

We can hardly be surprised that people may be unwilling to listen to or follow Jesus, as what He offers may be seen as too radical, too life-changing, too troubling. It’s too much of an effort! Few people believe in Hell, or life after death, they don’t believe that they have a soul to save, so they are not interested in how to save it!

Indifference means the denial of the distinction between the true and the false, right and wrong. Confusing charity and tolerance, it gives an equal hearing, for example, to speech which advocates the freedom to murder and to speech which advocates the freedom to live. Indifference is never a stable condition, but passes into polarization.

Fulton Sheen Missions and the World Crisis, Milwaukee 1963: 7

Ours is a polarised world where extravagant emotion lives alongside rampant indifference. The position is inconsistent, and so is modernity. The patient is sick, but perhaps the medicine is too bitter. And yet, God continues, through Christ, to welcome us, even when we don’t welcome Him. This is true generosity, as shown by Our Lord’s last words, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ The greatest welcome in the world is when God in Christ opens his arms on the Cross to embrace the world through a love which bears our sin, which reconciles us to God and each other. This foolishness and stumbling block is the heart of our faith:

But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:23-25 (NRSV)

The love of God, like the hospitality of God, is reckless and foolish, it is extravagant, and it doesn’t make sense. Just like serving the best wine at the Wedding in Cana, or feeding us with His Body and Blood, God did not choose to save his people through logic, non in dialectica complacuit Deum salvum facere populum suum, (Ambrose De Fide 1:5 42). God saves us out of love, not that we deserve it, but so that we might have life in and through Him.

This message of love is ours to live out, and we do that by carrying our cross and following Christ, losing our life so that we may find it in Him. We do it by being welcoming to others, inviting them to ‘Come and See’ that we might share it 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, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever.

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Pentecost 2017

The feast of Pentecost was well-known to Jews in Jesus’ time. Fifty days after the Passover, they celebrated God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. It was an important feast as the Jews saw their whole life as tied up with the observance of God’s law. Jerusalem was full of people from all over the Mediterranean world who had come to celebrate this festival.

Although they are present in Jerusalem, the disciples have other things on their mind. Fifty days after our Lord’s death and resurrection, the disciples are carrying out Jesus’ instructions given just before his Ascension, to stay in Jerusalem and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. An amazing thing happens. Suddenly, men who were once afraid to leave a locked room get up and go out to tell people what God has done in his Son, Jesus Christ. They are inspired. They are on fire.  Filled with the love of God, they are able to go and share the Good News of the Kingdom.

At the Annunciation the angel Gabriel proclaims to Mary ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Lk 1:35). Jesus Christ takes flesh in the womb of his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are told that the Spirit hovers over him at his Baptism, like a dove. All His life and ministry is totally connected with God the Father in the power and union of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus’ Ascension God gives the Holy Spirit to the church. This is what we celebrate today!

In the Gospel passage we have heard today Jesus twice greets the apostles with the words ‘Peace be with you’. What he offers them is not simply an absence of noise or distraction but something far more wonderful. It is something we cannot fully understand though it is something which we can experience. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have peace with God and each other. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love and peace. Jesus then gives the apostles a commission: ‘as the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (Jn 20:21). They are sent to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom in word and deed, laying down their lives in God’s service.

Jesus breathes on them, to empower them, that they may receive the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus tells them that whoever’s sins they forgive are forgiven. This is an extraordinary claim. But Jesus can make it because he is God. Through Him the church has become a place of healing, where we may be reconciled to God and to each other. Surely my brothers and sisters, this is is the most tremendous thing, a gift of a truly generous God.

The Jews in the Acts of the Apostles are amazed to hear the Good News in their own language, spoken by a rag-tag assortment of Galilean fisherman and other ordinary men. It is incredible. It is miraculous. And it points towards the present reality where there is not a country on this earth which has not heard the good news of Jesus Christ. But there is still work to do and it is wonderful to read that the Bible is currently being translated into 250 new languages.

Thus the work of proclamation is not finished. It is thanks to the preaching of the Good News started by the Apostles at Pentecost that we are Christians today, and that millions of people have come to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ. So, for those of us who are in Christ, who have entered the church through our Baptism, we have an important job to do. We need to tell people about Jesus.

The church is wonderful in its diversity, because we are all different, we don’t speak the same language, or have the same culture. We don’t look the same, we are not clones or robots. We are empowered through our having received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism, in our Confirmation, indeed through all the sacramental actions of the church; the outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace. This is how the Holy Spirit works, how it builds us up in love. Through the sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, the Eucharist, we are nourished spiritually to keep doing what God wants us to do.

Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth give us a vision of how the Holy Spirit unifies the Church. When we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer every day we are praying for the Church and the world to be filled with God’s love through the Holy Spirit. That we might be drawn ever closer together, so that we may truly be one. This is Christ’s prayer for the Church in the Garden of Gethsemane in John 17. That the church should be one, united in love and in faith. It is God’s will. We cannot ignore it. We have to do all that we can to work towards it, and it is this desire for unity in the church which has seen an initiative ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ started by The Most Rev’d Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, be taken up across the world, so that in the days from Ascension to Pentecost the church has prayed for the gift of the Holy Spirit to bring us closer together, in love and unity, to proclaim the good news, the people may come to know Jesus. It is the start of something great, where the church is renewed through the Holy Spirit, and it is something we can join in with. So let us pray:

Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost.

Grant to your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of Blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen.

Come Holy Spirit, in your power and might to renew the face of the earth.

Almighty God, your ascended Son has sent us into the world to preach the good news of your kingdom: inspire us with your Spirit and fill our hearts with the fire of your love, that all who hear your Word may be drawn to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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Easter VII, The Sunday after the Ascension Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11

So that they may be one, as we are one

The Gospel this morning has taken us back to the Garden of Gethsemane, where in the seventeenth Chapter of John’s Gospel , after celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus goes out to spend time in prayer. It can seem strange to suddenly look back to Maundy Thursday seven weeks after we have celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, but there is a very good reason to do such a thing. The prayer we have just heard is a conversation between God the Son and God the Father. It is a moment of intimacy, a private moment which shows us their relationship, something extraordinary, something wonderful, we don’t often think of prayer in these terms, but currently there is a world-wide initiative, started by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ which calls upon Christians everywhere to do something wonderful together. Between the Ascension and Pentecost there is a period of ten days when we are asked to be like the Apostles in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, just like they did, and for us all to do this together.

Prayer is a funny old thing, and most people probably think of it as asking God for things: please watch over my parents as they travel, please help me pass this examination, hopefully in our language of prayer we can also find time to say thank you for all the good things, and to say sorry for when we’ve not been good enough, and also time to say ‘I love you’ the prayer of adoration that we may be drawn closer to God. It’s a powerful thing, and a wonderful thing, and yet quite ordinary, yet able to do amazing things:

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (PL VII 34 col. 901)

A brother asked an old man, ‘What shall I do, father, for I am not acting like a monk at all, but I eat, drink and sleep, carelessly, and I have evil thoughts, and I am in great trouble, passing from one work to another, and from that work to the next.’ The old man said, ‘Sit in your cell and do the little you can, untroubled. For I think that the little you can do now is of equal value to the great deeds which abba Antony accomplished on the mountain and I believe that by remaining in your cell for the name of God and guarding your conscience you also will find where abba Antony is.’

It can be all to easy in life to think that what God wants is something big and difficult, when actually the opposite is what is required. The monk in the story needs to stay put and pray and that is all, why should we think that we are any different? The key to it all is humility: knowing your need of God. Those who are poor in Spirit, those who are humble can be filled with God’s Spirit, because they rely upon him, they know their need of him.

There it is plain and simple: prayer, it can change the world, and for the last two thousand years it has been changing the church and the world, one soul at a time, the wonderful revolution of God’s love at work in the world. In his prayer before his Passion, Jesus prays that we may be one, as he and the Father are one. He prays for unity, it is Jesus’ will for the church, and it is clear that the first apostles did what Jesus wanted them to do.

‘And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.’ (Acts 1:13-14 ESV)

Here is unity, unity of will and purpose, and we share that here and now, While the church is not as united as we would like it to be, or as God would like it to be, we can at least say that we are trying to do God’s will, and it is something that we can all try and do together. So let’s do it. Let’s pray for unity, and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, to fill the Church with love, with grace, with forgiveness, with reconciliation, that we can heal the wounds of the past, and be drawn into unity and love, by the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing our need of God, and our reliance upon Him.

So as we stay put, and wait and pray with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that God may be at work in us, that he will fill us with his love, and transform our lives, 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. Let us pray that we are strengthened so that we can proclaim in word and deed what wonderful things God has done through his Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ. That all that we are and do may confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father, and that the world may be filled with his love so that all may 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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Third Sunday of Year A [Mt 4:12–23]

If you go to S. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, you can see one of the most popular and reproduced works of Religious Art in the world: Holman Hunt’s painting, The Light of the World. It shows our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ standing at a door with a lantern. The door has no handle; it needs to be opened from the inside: Jesus may be the Light of the World, but he does not force himself upon us, we have to welcome Him into our hearts and our lives. His coming into the world which we celebrate at Christmas, which was made manifest to the world at Epiphany, was not the entry of a tyrant, forcing himself upon the world, but as a vulnerable and loving baby, entirely dependent upon the love and care of others, God comes among us. His coming is foretold by the prophet Isaiah, He is the fulfilment of prophesy, he is the light of the nations, and a cause of great joy: to be a Christian, to follow Christ is it not to be filled with the joy and love which comes from God; we can be serious in our zeal, but should never be miserable: our vocation is to live out our faith, in love, and hope, and joy in our lives, to draw others to Him.

Of our many failings as followers of Christ there is nothing worse than to see strife and division amongst Christians, as S. Paul found in Corinth: it has no place in the church, it isn’t what God intended for us, it’s not how things should be. It has to be resisted: wounds have to be healed, transgressions forgiven, and unity restored. It’s part of how we live out our faith in our lives, it’s why we pray and work for Christian Unity, and why it matters for our proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God.

If we turn to the words of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To repent as Christ is asking us to, as St John the Baptist proclaimed before him is to change our mind, to make a change of direction in our lives, away from sin, and to Christ, it is what we promise in our baptism and it is how we are supposed to keep living our lives. It’s hard, I know, I fail on a daily basis, and yet I keep trying, turning back to a God who loves me, who took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became incarnate for me, and for you, and all who have ever or will ever turn to Him. Ours then is God of love and mercy, a God of forgiveness who calls us to turn to him, so that we may have life and have it to the full.

We turn away from what separates us from God and each other, we turn to God in Christ, to be close to Him in Word and Sacrament, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we might share His divine nature, so that we might be given a foretaste of heaven, so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, so that the world may believe – the Kingdom is close at hand, and Christ calls us, the baptised people of God, to share in the work of His kingdom. He asks that we follow Him, that we go where He goes, that we do what He does – it sounds easy enough, but it’s not, it’s something which we need to do together, and while I can endeavour to help you along the way, I cannot without your help, your prayers, your love, and your support. As Christians we are inter-dependent, we rely upon each other, we’re in it together.

In the Gospel, Jesus sees Andrew and Simon Peter and then James and John the sons of Zebedee and says ‘Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people’. He calls them to share in God’s work of saving souls. They drop everything and follow him: it’s immediate and matter of fact. Jesus goes around preaching the good news of the kingdom, and the need for humanity to repent, and to be baptised, and he heals the sick, just as he can heal the sickness in our souls. This is good news indeed.

We need to be like lights in the world, shining in the darkness, so that Christ can knock on the door of people’s hearts. We need to be like those first disciples who heard what Jesus said, who listened, and did what He told them, who were close to Jesus, so that our faith is a reality in our lives. We need to be strengthened and fed by Him who is the greatest medicine for our souls, who comes to us here, this morning,  in His Body and Blood, to heal us, to restore us and strengthen us to follow him, so that the world may believe and 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.

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Advent with S. Benedict

Ours is a world characterised by noise, and by chatter. It’s hard to escape it’s everywhere, we even have social media to pursue us relentlessly, so that it feels like there is no escape. We long for more silence in our lives, in which case we had better do something about it. It is not for nothing that the first word of the Rule of S. Benedict is Ausculta  ‘Listen’. One cannot listen if one is talking, one needs to be silent, to be attentive, to concentrate on one thing, and the præcepta Magistri the words of the Master are simply a means to end, that we focus upon and listen to God, hence the large amount of quotation from Scripture in general and the Psalms in particular contained in the Rule, so that we are attentive to the Word of God, that’s the point of the Opus Dei, to help us to listen to what God says to us. Listening too lies at the heart of Obœdentia: being obedient, subject to another, listening – one cannot obey if one has not first listened – hence the constant need for silence, in lives and in our hearts, to create a space for God to be at work in and through us. It can sound easy and romantic, but it is tough, a constant battle to combat chatter, gossip, and other forms of idle talk.

De zelo bono quod debent monachi habere

Sicut est zelus amaritudinis malus qui separat a Deo et ducit ad infernum, ita est zelus bonus qui separat a vitia et ducit ad Deum et ad vitam æternam. Hunc ergo zelum ferventissimo amore exerceant monachi, id est ut honore se invicem præveniant, infirmitates suas sive corporum sive morum patientissime tolerent, obœdientiam sibi certatim inpendant: nullus quod sibi utile iudicat sequatur, sed quod magis alio; caritatem fraternitatis caste inpendant. Amore Deum timeant. Abbatem suum sincera et humili caritate diligant. Christo omnimo nihil præponant, qui nos pariter ad vitam æternam perducat.

Concerning the good zeal which monks ought to have.

Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honour (Rom. 12:10); most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another — no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another; may they cherish fraternal charity chastely; fear God in love; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!

The Chapter above, Chapter 72, lies at the heart of, and is the culmination of the Rule, and it is serious wonderful stuff. I know from personal experience that it is all to easy to fall into the evil zeal of bitterness, and it eats up your soul: you become suspicious, cynical, and while you try to kid yourself that such behaviour is in fact justified, borne out by the facts, all we are doing is trying to excuse the inexcusable, to salve our conscience, to save ourselves the difficult and hard task of loving those whom we would rather not. Thus, in the Gospels, Our Lord calls us to love our enemies (Mt 5:44, Lk 6:27-36) which is no small ask, if it were he would not ask it of us, it goes against our deepest nature, we want to hate those who hate and persecute us, we forget their humanity, and are wrapped up in our own pain. It is something which the world around us finds very hard, social media is full of it, it can feed off fear and jealousy, it is corrosive, it damages us, and those around us, and its consequences are toxic, and sinful, that’s what hell and being separated from God means, and its what Christ comes to save us from, from ourselves.

Love then is the key, it is the heart of the Gospel and the Rule: love God, and love one another as I have loved you, with that same costly love. Only then can we truly prefer nothing to Christ, which is the way to life everlasting: believing in Him, following Him, trusting Him, and letting Him guide our thoughts, our words and our actions. So that we may proclaim in word and deed that saving love which was born in Bethlehem, to a world which longs for healing, for love, and for peace.

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Bonhöffer on Cheap Grace

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

The Martyrdom of Saturninus, Bishop of Toulouse

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The following is an anonymously written account of the martyrdom of Saturninus, the Bishop of Toulouse, France, c. 257 A.D.

We revere with due admiration the most blessed sufferings of those who, as we have heard and believe (through the good service of the fame that reports the information), have been sanctified by a happy martyrdom.  We honor with vigils, hymns and even solemn sacraments those days on which they were crowned with [God’s] gift after victory, striving as they bore witness to the name of the Lord, and by their blessed death being reborn in the heavenly realms of the same Lord, who helped them with his own power in their struggle—[and we do this] so that we may ask for their protection and support before the Lord by praying, and deserve it by honoring [them].  With what solemnity, then, shall we revere, with what joy shall we observe that day, on which the most blessed Saturninus, bishop of the city of Toulouse and martyr, earned in that same city a double crown (as God is my witness)—the rank of bishop and the honor of martyrdom—so that his suffering sanctified one whose life had already made him worthy of reverence!

At that time (after the bodily coming of the Savior) the true Sun of Righteousness had risen in the darkness and had begun to illuminate the Western districts—for gradually, little by little, the sound of the Gospels went out into the whole world, and the preaching of the Apostles in its slow advance shone forth in our regions.  A few churches were being built in some cities, through the devotion of a small number of Christians, while numerous temples in all places were sending up the disgusting smoke [of sacrifices], through the lamentable error of the pagans.  Then (truly quite a long time ago, that is, during the consulship of Decius and Gratus, as the faithful report tells), the city of Toulouse had received Saturninus as its first and supreme priest of Christ. By his faith and virtue, the oracles of those demons who were worshiped in this same city began to cease; their fabrications were laid bare; their machinations uncovered; all their power among the pagans, all their deceit, began to decrease, as the faith of the Christians increased.  Since the aforementioned bishop, in his going to and from the church, which was quite small at that time, often went past the Capitol, which was between his house and the house of God, the deceitful crowd of demons was not able to stand the holy man’s presence; and the statues (mute as they were), overshadowed by no apparitions, remained in silence [as their only response] to the impious worship and the customary prayers of those who came to consult them.

All the priests of impious superstition, disturbed by the novelty of such a great thing, began to ask themselves whence this muteness (not usual for such a long time) had suddenly come upon their gods, and who had shut their ever-babbling mouths, so that they, not moved by the prayers of those who called upon them, nor charmed by the shed blood of bulls and so many sacrifices, refused to give any response to those who consulted them—[were they] angry or absent?  They heard from a certain enemy of our religion that some sect hostile to pagan superstition had arisen, which was called Christian, and that it was striving to destroy their gods; also, the bishop of this faith was Saturninus, who passed by the Capitol frequently—it was at the sight of this man that the mouths of their gods were terrified and fell silent; they could not easily be re-opened unless an accelerated death took that bishop away.

Oh unhappy error and blind madness!  They heard that the man was a terror to their own gods, and that the demons went into exile from their temples and their habitations when he passed by.  Not only did they hear—they also understood!  And they would prefer to kill this man, who was terrifying to the idols they worshiped even without making any threats, rather than to honor him.  Miserable people—who did not consider that they ought to worship no one more than him whose servant had given orders to their own divinities!  For what is more foolish than to fear those who are afraid, and not to fear that one who rules over the rulers?

In the midst of this eager questioning and astonishment, as little by little a great multitude of people had gathered and they were all eagerly wanting to find out something certain regarding all this talk, and (a bull having been prepared as a victim) they were desiring either to bring their gods back or propitiate them, by the sacrifice of such a tremendous victim—see!  the holy Saturninus himself, coming to a solemn service, was recognized by one of that malicious crowd, who said:  “Look! the adversary of our worship himself, the standard-bearer of the new religion, who preaches the destruction of temples, who despises our gods by calling them demons, whose constant presence, finally, prevents us from obtaining oracles!  And so, since the end he deserves has presented the very man to us at the opportune time, let us take vengeance for the injury to ourselves and to our gods at the same time!  And now, through our compulsion, may he either be pleasing to them, by sacrificing, or make them joyful, by dying!”

With the urging of such an impious voice, the whole crowd of lunatics surrounded the holy man and, once a priest and two deacons who had accompanied him had fallen away in flight, he was brought alone to the Capitol.  As they were trying to force him to sacrifice to the demons, he bore witness in a clear voice:  “I know only one God, the true God.  I will offer to him the sacrifice of praise.  I know that your gods are demons; and you honor them (in vain) not so much by the sacrifice of cattle as by the deaths of your own souls.  Now, how is it that you want me to fear those by whom, as I hear, you say I am feared?”

At these words of the holy bishop, the whole boisterous, impious multitude was inflamed, and used that bull, which had been prepared as a sacrificial victim, in the service of their savagery, tying a rope around its flanks and leaving it loose in back:  they bound the holy man’s feet with the end of the rope that was hanging down behind the bull, and drove the bull with rather sharp blows to rush down from the upper part of the Capitol onto the plain.  Without delay, during the first part of the descent of that slope, his head having been dashed [against the rocks], his brain having been scattered, and his body having been mangled in every part, his soul, worthy of God, was received by Christ—so that after the victory he [i.e., Christ] might crown with his own laurels [the soul] that pagan fury had wrenched out with torments while he was fighting faithfully for Christ’s name.

The dead body, however, now exposed to no one’s affronts, was led by the bull in its frenzy to that place where, the rope having snapped in two, it received burial in a mound at that time.  For since at that time the Christians themselves were afraid to bury the body of the holy man, on account of the pagans’ agitation, only two women, overcoming the weakness of their sex by the power of their faith, braver than all the men, and encouraged by the example of their bishop, I believe, to endure martyrdom, put the body of the blessed man into a wooden coffin and, after making deep trenches, placed it as far underground as possible.  And so, they seemed not so much to be burying the sacred remains (so worthy of reverence in their eyes) as to be hiding them, for fear that people of impious mind, perchance, if they saw any honors being paid to the buried body’s grave, might immediately dig up the body and tear it to pieces, and even take away the modest tomb.  But the Lord took up his martyr in peace—to him belong honor and glory, power and might for ever and ever.  Amen.

taken from http://www.paleoorthodoxy.org/2016/05/the-martyrdom-of-saturninus-bishop-of.html

Augustine on the works of mercy

Two works of mercy set a man free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.

When you pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down and weeping, hoping to be given something, and that something is God himself.

What does a poor man beg of you? Bread. What do you beg from God? – Christ, who said, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’.

Do you you really want to be forgiven? Then forgive. Do you want to receive something? Then give to another. And if you want your prayer to fly up to God, give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.

But look carefully at what you do: don’t think it is enough to fast if  it is only  a penance for sin, and does not benefit someone else. You deprive yourself of something, but to whom do you give what you do without?

Fast in such a way that you rejoice to see that dinner is eaten by another; not grumbling and looking gloomy, giving rather because the beggar wearies you than because you are feeding the hungry.

If you are sad when you give alms, you lose both bread and merit, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

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30th Sunday of Year C

Humility is not self-contempt but the truth about ourselves coupled with a reverence for others; it is self-surrender to the highest goal.

Fulton Sheen Thoughts for Daily Living, 1955: 121

Most of us, I suspect, almost all of us don’t really like paying taxes; we know that we have to, but we’d rather not. There were taxes in Jesus’ day and tax collectors were privatised in the Roman Empire: they had to pay for the contract to collect the taxes, and recouped the cost of gaining the contract by over-charging people. They were not popular people, they were resented, they were hated, and with good reason.

We know that in this morning’s Gospel that the tax-collector is supposed to be the villain of the piece; the Pharisee, a religious authority, is supposed to be the person to whom we look up, the example one might expect to follow. Jesus’ parable, then, turns our understanding of the world on its head. The key to understanding it lies in Luke’s opening comment regarding those: ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt’ (Lk 18:9). There is a fundamental problem with the difference between how they think of themselves and others. The Pharisee isn’t praying, he isn’t talking to God, he’s praying to himself, justifying what he thinks of himself, saying to God, ‘Look at me, am I not good?’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Lk 18:13). His prayer is that God will be merciful. He is so conscious of his own sin and need of God that he opens up a space in which God can be at work. It is in this space that we all need to be. We need to recognise that we need God to be at work in us, that we need to rely upon him to change us, to transform us – so that we can become the people that God wants us to be. All the prayer, all the rituals, all the externals of religion, are of no use unless they go hand in hand with an attitude which recognises that we need God, that we are sinful, and need his love and his mercy to transform us.

That is why, as Christians, we pray, why we come to Mass each and every week to be fed by word and sacrament, so that God’s grace and transforming love may be at work in us, transforming our nature, making us more like him. Everything that we say or think or do needs to be an outworking of our faith, so that our exterior life and our interior life are in harmony with each other – so that our lives, like St Paul’s, may proclaim the Gospel. This is what we are called to, and how we are to live. Unless we start from the point where we know our need of God and rely upon him, where we too make that space where God can be at work in us, in our souls and our lives, we are doomed to be like the self-righteous Pharisee, talking to ourselves, massaging our own egos, wallowing in selfishness and narcissism, proud and cruel.

Now is this the kind of life we really want to lead? Is this really the path of human flourishing? Or are we called to something better, something greater, something more lovely? So let us put our trust in the God who loves us and who saves us, let us know our need of him and his transforming grace to fill our lives and transform all of his creation so that the world may believe and be transformed to 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.

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S. Francis de Sales on Charity

S. Francis used to say, “I hear of nothing but perfection on every side, so far as talk goes, but I see very few people who really practise it. Everybody has his own notion of perfection. One man thinks that it lies in the cut of his clothes, another in fasting, a third in almsgiving, or in frequenting the Sacraments, in meditation, in some special gift of contemplation, or in extraordinary gifts or graces; – but they are all mistaken, as it seems to me, because they confuse the means, or the results, with the cause.

“For my part, the only perfection I know is a hearty love of God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Without these there can be no real perfection. Charity is the only ‘bond of perfectness’ between Christians, the only virtue which rightly unites us to God and man. Such union is our final aim and end, and all else is mere delusion.

“No virtues, however great they may seem, are worth anything, without charity; – not even such faith as could ‘remove mountains’ or ‘understand all mysteries;’ which has ‘the gift of prophesy, or speaks with the tongue of men or angels;’ which ‘bestows all its gifts to feed the poor,’ or endures martyrdom, All is vain without charity. He who lacketh charity is dead while he liveth, and all his works, however fair to the eye, are valueless, seen from the point of eternity.

“I grant that austerity, meditation, and all such practices are admirable means whereby to advance towards perfection, so long as they are carried on in and through charity. But it will not do to seek perfection by any other means – rather in the end to which they do but lead, else we shall find ourselves halting in the midst of the race, instead of reaching the goal.”

taken from The Spirit of S. Francis de Sales Bishop and Prince of Geneva by Jean Pierre Camus, Bishop of Bellay. tr. H.I. Sidney Lear, London: Longmans, 1921: 1-2

Prayerful Action

Prayer and action can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into deeper unity with the Compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.

Action with and for those who suffer is the concrete expression of a compassionate life and the final criterion of being a Christian. Such acts do not stand beside the moments of prayer and worship but are themselves such moments. Why? Because Jesus Christ, who did not cling to his divinity, but became as we are, can be found where there are hungry, thirsty, alienated, naked sick, and imprisoned people. Precisely when we live in an ongoing conversation with Christ and allow his Spirit to guide our lives, we will recognize him in the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden and will hear his cry and respond to it wherever he reveals himself.

Henri J.M. Nouwen Compassion

Eleventh Sunday of Year C

There are three different ways in which we may judge others: with our passions, our reason and our faith. Our passions induce us to love those who love us; our reason makes us love all people within certain limits; our faith makes us love everyone, including those who do us harm and are our enemies.

Fulton Sheen Way to Inner Peace (1955) 110.

You can tell a man by the company he keeps, or so the saying goes. The Scribes and the Pharisees certainly subscribe to this idea and in this morning’s Gospel are not afraid to express it. They are more than happy to be judgemental – to only be seen with the right sort of people, certainly not with sinners, outcasts, people who ‘aren’t like us’ Well all I can say is that it’s a jolly good thing that God doesn’t treat humanity like it treats itself: as to put it simply the human judgement of others, to which each and every one of us falls prey from time to time, has no place in the Christian Faith at all. God in Christ seeks the lost, the outcast, the people outside the religious in-crowd, God seeks them out and eats with them. How shocking! It offends our human sensibilities and breaks down human distinctions to show us the radical freedom of the Kingdom of God. The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet does so out of love, and through her love and generosity her sins are forgiven. She puts her faith into action, and through her faith she is forgiven.

We are each and every one of us sinners, we are not worth of having God come to and eat with us, but that is exactly what happens day by day and week when Christ feeds us with himself, so that we may become what he is, so that we can be transformed by grace and share in the divine life. That is why we are here this morning to be fed by Him and with Him, to be healed and restored by Him, to share in His life.  God takes the initiative, He goes to seek out the lost, He doesn’t wait for them to come to Him. The banquet of the Kingdom is one to which everyone is invited, if they turn away from sin, if they repent and believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. Thus we can say with the Apostle Paul, it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me, we live for others, and to bear witness to God’s saving love

God does the hard work, so that we have the simpler task of turning away from all that separates us from Him and each other. To do this takes humility – knowing our need of God, and his grace and mercy, knowing that without his help we are and can do nothing.  Our response to His love is to love Him and our neighbour – to put our faith into practice in our lives. This is a cause of joy in heaven, whereas its opposite, the reaction of the Scribes and Pharisees is to moan and begrudge, to criticise. It is a response of misery and bitterness, a smallness of mind and heart. Such feelings should have no place in the Church. The church is called to be generous, so that it follows the example of a generous God, who dies for love of us, who pays the price which we owe, who dies so that we might live, and live for Him.The world around us will be quick to point out out faults, without realising that the point of the Church is to be a place where sinners can encounter and be transformed by the love and mercy of God.

Christ is the Good Shepherd, who goes after the lost sheep to carry them back on his shoulders – likewise the Church is meant to be there for those outside it, to welcome them back inside the fold rejoicing. Our faith then should be the cause of our joy, a deep happiness that comes from being known and loved by Our Heavenly Father, who sent His Son to die for us, so that we might live. This is healing and generosity on an unimaginable scale, which has the power to transform our lives, so that we live for, in and through the God who loves and who heals us.

With our joy there comes freedom, a freedom from being constrained by the ways of the world, from conforming to its ways, a freedom to welcome others to Banquet of the Kingdom, where the clothes that matter are those of baptism, a sign of humility, where God gives himself to feed us to transform our human nature, to prepare us for eternal glory. So let us cast our cares on him so that his grace may be at work in us So that we may believe and be transformed, and share our faith with others that they too may believe and be transformed and give glory to of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Trinity Sunday

Today the Sunday after Pentecost is notable for a number of reasons in 1334 Pope John XXII decreed that the Feast of the Holy Trinity should be kept and in 1162 Thomas Becket was consecrated a Bishop, and as the anniversary of his consecration, it was celebrated. It is something which gets people into a bit of a mess, there is the standard joke that it is a Sunday to get someone else to preach for you, a curate, a visiting preacher, anyone, as though the Doctrine is something of which to be scared.

Well I for one do not ascribe to such nonsense, I never have and I never will, as today gives us an opportunity to contemplate the mystery which is God’s very nature, we know God as the Father, the Creator and Ruler of all, the Son, who redeems humanity, and the Spirit, active in the World, who fills us with the love of God. There is a reason why we started our worship the morning with the words ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, and why it ends with ‘The Blessing of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit’ not three blessings, but one, our baptism, our worship as Christians is Trinitarian: Three persons, One God. It can be hard for some to understand, the church spent hundreds of years arguing of the Divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in the process worked out what we believe as Christians and why. We can Say One Father, One Son, One Holy Spirit, One God, because what we are dealing with is not a mathematical question, Christians are not polytheists, we do not worship three Gods, but One: the Trinity is not a problem to be solved through thought, but a mystery to enter through our worship of God, and a relationship, which through Christ is open to us, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

If anything it is better to approach such things obliquely rather than head on, and in this case with images rather than words. Andrei Rublev painted an icon of the Trinity either around 1411 or 1425-7. It shows the visit of the Angels to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre:

And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (Gen 18:1-8 ESV)

In Andrei Rublev’s icon, the persons of the Holy Trinity are shown in the order in which they are confessed in the Creed. The first angel is the first person of the Trinity – God the Father; the second, middle angel is God the Son; the third angel is God the Holy Spirit. All three angels are blessing the chalice, in which lies a sacrificed calf, prepared for eating. The sacrifice of the calf signifies the Saviour’s death on the cross, while its preparation as food symbolizes the sacrament of the Eucharist. All three angels have staffs in their hand as a symbol of their divine power.

The first angel, shown at left, is vested in a blue undergarment which depicts his divine celestial nature, and a light purple outer garment which attests to the unfathomable nature and the royal dignity of this angel. Behind him and above his head towers a house, the abode of Abraham, and a sacrificial altar in front of the house. This image of the abode has a symbolic meaning: the house signifies God’s master plan for creation, while the fact that the house towers above the first angel shows him to be the head (or Father) of this creation. The same fatherly authority is seen in his entire appearance. His head is not bowed and he is looking at the other two angels. His whole demeanour – the expression on his face, the placement of his hands, the way he is sitting – all speaks of his fatherly dignity. The other two angels have their heads inclined and eyes turned toward the first angel with great attention, as though conversing with him about the salvation of mankind.

The second angel is placed in the middle of the icon. This placement is determined by the position held by the second Person within the Trinity Itself. Above his head extend the branches of an oak tree. The vestments of the second angel correspond to those in which the Saviour is usually depicted. The undergarment is a dark crimson colour which symbolizes the incarnation, while the blue outer robe signifies the divinity and the celestial nature of this angel. The second angel is inclined towards the first angel, as though deep in conversation. The tree behind him serves as a reminder of the tree of life that was standing in Eden, and of the cross.

The angel on the right is the third Person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. His light blue undergarment and smoky-green outer garment represent heaven and earth, and signify the life-giving force of the Holy Spirit, which animates everything that exists. “By the Holy Spirit every soul lives and is elevated in purity” – sings the Church. This elevation in purity is represented in the icon by a mountain above the third angel. (Taken from “Thoughts on Iconography” by monk Gregory Krug, found at http://www.holy-transfiguration.org/library_en/lord_trinity_rublev.html)

This relationship of equals has a space in front of them , and that’s where you and I come in, there is food at God’s table, spiritual food, prefigured in this vision of hospitality, we enter a relationship with the Trinity in our baptism and deepen it in our worship, and our prayer and reading of scripture, but most of all through our response to the Eucharistic hospitality of God, so let us come to Him, to be fed by Him and fed with him to share his life and proclaim his truth so that the world may believe and give glory…

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Easter VII 2016

Can we pray, therefore, for the coming of Jesus? Can we sincerely say ‘Marana tha Come Lord Jesus!’’? Yes we can. And not only that: we must! We pray for anticipations of his world-changing presence. We pray to him in moments of personal tribulation: Come, Lord Jesus and draw my life into the presence of your kindly power. We ask him to be close to those we love or for whom we are anxious. We ask him to be present and effective in his Church. Why not ask him to send us new witnesses of his presence today, in whom he himself will come to us? And this prayer, while it is not directly focussed on the end of the world, is nevertheless a real prayer for his coming; it contains the full breadth of the prayer that he himself taught us: ‘Your kingdom come!’ Come, Lord Jesus

Pope Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth Part Two,  London CTS 2011: 292

The other week week I was doing my shopping in Lidl, putting my shopping up on the belt, as you do, when, all of a sudden this old lady came, walked in front of the man behind me and, without so much as a by your leave, proceeded to put her shopping on the belt. The man behind me was dumbfounded. I wanted to ask her if she wanted to go in front of me, and she carried on regardless, starting a conversation with me, it was really quite something. Clearly she couldn’t be bothered to wait, to queue, I didn’t ask her why she was in such a rush. Waiting is one of those things you love or loathe, it’s a national characteristic that we don’t like fuss and will queue and wait, an American will make a fuss, whereas the British would find such impatience awkward. We might not enjoy it, but at least we aren’t going to make a fuss about it. And yet in these days between the Ascension and Pentecost, the Church waits, waits for her Lord, and her prayer is Maranatha, ‘Come Lord Jesus’. Come Lord Jesus, fill us with your love, with your Holy Spirit, give us life in you.

The prophet Ezekiel has a vision (in Chapter 36) of a messianic future, of the restoration of  Israel, which is found in 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, filled 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, filled 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 – selfishness, 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 first Christians, those who had been with Jesus, needed each other’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 selfishness and sin. It will hate us for doing this, it will despise us and persecute 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, this is love which can transform 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.In his power, with His Truth, filled with His Love we can transform the world, one soul at a time.

So as we wait with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that Christ may come, and send His Holy Spirit, 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.

mostsacredheartofjesus-bruges

The Ascension

One of the loveliest things about today is that it tends to focus, in religious art at least, on feet:  the smelly things we like to keep hidden away from the world. Today we see Jesus’ in all their glory going back to where they came from, but they go back differently than they descended: they go back marked with nails, wounded, bearing the marks of God’s love, it is this love which fills us in the Church, the same love which feeds us in His Body and Blood.

We have come here today to celebrate Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven. The world around us may well find the idea quaint or laughable – or at least physically impossible. But it is no less hard to believe than Our Lord becoming incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or his rising from the dead at Easter. The world, with the greatest confidence, will tell us that what we are celebrating are myths and fairy stories, but they fail to get the point of what’s really going on.

Our Lord ascends, body and soul into heaven, to the closer presence of God the Father, and to prepare for the sending of the Holy Spirit on his disciples at Pentecost. He who shares our humanity takes it into heaven, into the very life of the Godhead; so that where he is we may be also. We have seen the promise of new life in Easter, a new life which is in the closer presence of God, which we celebrate today. We can see where it leads – what started at the Incarnation finds its goal and truest meaning in the unity of the human and the divine.

But rather than seeing this as an end it is surely far better to see in it a beginning – a beginning of the Church as we know it – a church which goes and makes disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Our Lord commanded us. This is exactly where we have been for nearly two thousand years. Inspired by the Holy Spirit they did what their Lord commanded them to do and that is why we are here today celebrating this fact.

But like them we too are called to follow Our Lord’s commands and to share his good news with the world so that it may believe. We are called to live lives where our faith is enfleshed in us – it is not abstract and private, but concrete and public. The Atheist who finds our beliefs laughable now joins forces with an Enlightenment Rationalist who wishes faith to be a private matter rather than a public one. This will not do: Our Lord did not say ‘Don’t do this if it’s inconvenient’ or ‘There’s no need to make a fuss in public about me’. He speaks as one given authority, ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’, so we can gladly place ourselves under His authority, to do his will.

He makes us a promise: ‘Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ He is with us by sending His Spirit on the Church at Pentecost and ever since. He is with us in his Word, Holy Scripture and in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. It is through this (and the other Sacraments of the Church) that God’s grace can perfect our human nature – so that we can prepare to share the divine life of love in Heaven. Where our Lord goes we can hope to follow, through his sacrifice of Himself upon the Cross, a sacrifice made present here and on the altars of churches all throughout the world, to strengthen us, so that we may be close to him, sharing in the divine life of love poured out on us.

Once Jesus has ascended in glory and before he returns as our judge the only place where we can encounter him is in and through the Church, in its sacraments, in the word of Holy Scripture, and in people, filled with His Holy Spirit: it is a huge responsibility, but a movement which started with 12 men in Jerusalem is still going strong nearly two thousand years later. We have been given the gift of faith and it is up to us to pass it on, so that others may come to share in the joy of the Lord.

We can all hope to follow Him, and to spend eternity contemplating the Beatific Vision, caught up in that love which is the Divine Nature, sharing in the praise of all creation of the God who creates, who redeems, and who sustains all. We can have this hope because Christ has gone before us, he has prepared the way for humanity to follow him and share in the divine life of love.

Let us prepare for this by living the life of faith, strengthened by Him, proclaiming his truth, praying for the gift of His Spirit at Pentecost, that the Church may be strengthened to proclaim His saving truth and the baptism of repentance, so that we and all the world 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.

Love one another as I have loved you

God does not love us because we are lovely or loveable; His love exists not on account of our character, but on account of His. Our highest experience is responsive not initiative. And it is only because we are loved by Him that we are loveable.

Fulton Sheen Rejoice, 1984, 9

God loves us; we can say this with the utmost confidence because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it all proclaims the same truth: God loves us, not because we’re worthy of it, but so that we might become what God is. It is what we celebrate at Easter, it lies at the heart, the core of our faith as Christians. It’s why we are what we are, and why we do what we do, to proclaim this simple truth to the world.

We show our love for God by keeping his word, and by loving each other as he has loved us. We are called to exactly the same sacrificial, self-giving love which Our Lord shows us: Love one another as I have loved you, it doesn’t get more explicit. Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a big ask. It should really make us stop in our tracks and realise the enormity of the task and our utter reliance upon God’s grace, and to to stay close to him in Word and Sacrament, and it’s something which we need to do together, as a christian community. We show this love by keeping God’s word, by doing what Jesus tells us to do and not simply going along with the ways of the world.

Our Lord promises his disciples that the Father will send the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name to teach us all things and to bring to our remembrance all that he said to us. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Church so that we can profess our faith in the co-eternal and consubstantial Trinity. His gift to us is His peace – not as in simply the absence of war or violence, but rather something deeper and far more profound. The peace that Jesus promises is that which characterises the life of the Godhead: a peace which passes all human understanding, a peace which the world cannot give.

We can have peace through our relationship with the Trinity, the source of our peace, and joy, and love. Grounded in this relationship we need not be afraid or troubled – we are free to live lives which proclaim God’s love and victory so that the world may believe. Through God loving us, we can truly love him and each other. We experience this most clearly at the Eucharist when Christ feeds us with His Body and Blood, which he as both priest and victim offers on the Altar of the Cross. That self same sacrifice which heals the world through the outpouring of God’s love feeds us here and now. We are fed so that we may be nourished and share in the divine life and the joy of heaven. We receive the free gift of God’s grace so that it may perfect our human nature, so that we may go where Our Lord is going, and share in the joy, and love, and peace of the Triune God.

The values of the Kingdom and those of the world are different, and as Christians we need to be prepared to stand up for them, in the face of opposition by a world which is challenged by the values of that Kingdom, which sees love and mercy as far more important than wealth and power. It isn’t easy, it’s far easier to just go along with the world, like a dead fish carried along by the current, whereas only a live fish can swim against the stream. We should rejoice as we await the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost after Our Lord has ascended, as in this we see the birth and spread of the Church – it’s why we are here, because people filled with the love of God and His Holy Spirit have brought us into His loving embrace. Loved by him, we are to share that love with others, so that the world may believe and share in the source of all love, and peace, and joy. It’s not somebody else’s responsibility but ours as the baptised people of God to follow in the footsteps of the apostles and share what we have received so that we and all the world 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.

Easter V – Love another as I have loved you

God does not love us because we are lovely or loveable ; His love exists not on account of our character, but on account of His. Our highest experience is responsive not initiative. And it is only because we are loved by Him that we are loveable.

Fulton Sheen Rejoice 1984:9

In this morning’s Gospel we begin to see a change in the character of our celebration of Easter, as it begins to look forward to our celebration of the Lord’s Ascension, when He will return to the glory of Heaven and the bosom of the Father, when he will no longer be visibly present among us as he was before, but is also not absent. Before he goes, he gives his disciples teaching which is clear and simple: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures contain 613 commandments, starting with ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis, including the Decalogue, the command to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, to love our neighbour as ourselves. He has come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it, and love is the fulfilment of the law. As Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment he also enacts it Himself, He shows his love for humanity in dying for us, by bearing the burden of our sins, by going to death upon a Cross for love of us: this is what real love means and looks like in action. In this Christ establishes a pattern for Christians to live their lives by, as Christians, those who bear the name of Christ, we are to live like this too.

This is what following Christ means in practice: living and dying like Christ, together, so that by this all will know that we are his disciples, through love lived out in our lives we proclaim the reality and the truth of our faith. It’s something which we do together, and while it sounds easy in theory it is a bit harder in practice, and it is why we need to stay close to Christ in Word and Sacrament, to pray together, to support and forgive each other, so that we can live a life of love, not saccharin-sweet as the world sees it, but real, sacrificial love, the sort which has the power to transform the world so that it becomes more Christ-like.

These are not idealist pipe-dreams but the reason why we are Christians, we want to see a world transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, into a place of peace, and joy, and love. Christ gives us this commandment so that we may have life and have it to the full, in and through Him, the source of all life and love. So as we continue to celebrate Christ’s triumph over sin and the world, over death itself, let us be filled with His life and joy, and share His love 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, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever.

Easter IV

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’  It discloses something important about who and what he is — he is one who tends, who looks after his sheep. The Jews in the Temple for Hanukkah don’t seem to have been listening. Jesus has told them and they do not believe that He is the Messiah. What he does in the Gospels testifies to who and what he is, the Word made flesh, God with us.

Those of us who are in the Church, through our Baptism belong to Him, we are His. So we are to listen to what Jesus tells us, in the words of Scripture and through prayer. Jesus knows us and we know him – in word and sacrament, through the outpouring of His grace, and so we follow Him, we do what He tells us to do, to love, to forgive each other, we are humble, we don’t think of ourselves as better than we are, we know our ned of, our dependance upon God. We put our faith into practice in our lives, so that it becomes a reality in the world.

Christ offers us eternal life, as we share in His death, so we too share in His Resurrection, and are assured of eternal life with Him, something wonderful and freely given, and a reason why we, as the Church, celebrate Easter in an extravagant and exuberant way, because it is a sign that God loves us, and saves us, that salvation first shown to the world by Noah , a man who trusts God, who listens to God, who obeys Him. We are sharing in that Eternal Life here and now, as we are nourished by Him, in Word and Sacrament, strengthened by Him, to live His risen life

We are to bear witness to our faith in the world so that it may believe. We are called to be witnesses regardless of the cost. We may not face persecution in this country; we are more likely to be faced with indifference, a coldness of heart, which denies the fact that what we are and what we say is important or has value. Yet we are to live lives which proclaim the fact that our life and death have meaning and value through Jesus Christ, who loves us, who died for us, and rose again so that we might have eternal life in him. It is a gift so precious that we have to share it, we cannot keep it for ourselves. In sharing it, it becomes a greater and more wonderful gift. In sharing it we are preparing for that moment seen by St John when all of creation will sing the praise of God, filled with his love, healed and restored by him.

We are preparing for that moment here and now preparing to be fed by him, to be fed with him, looking forward to that time when we and all creation will sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as it most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Lent V

This morning’s Gospel asks us some serious questions: do we love Jesus this much? Would we risk being laughed at or criticised for our extravagance in being like Mary of Bethany and pouring ointment on Jesus?

How can we do this for Jesus in our lives? Can we really show him how much we love him, and how much we want to serve him? What might this look like in our lives, and how might we do it together as a Church, to proclaim God’s saving love to the world. As we begin Passiontide we look to the Cross that more radical costly act of generous love, the love of God for us. God does this for us, what are we going to do in return? Are we going to be like Judas and moan about the cost, the extravagance? Do we want to be a penny-pinching miserly church, or do we want to be something else, something which makes the world stop and take notice, which doesn’t make sense, which shows the world that there is another way, and it is the way of the Kingdom. God’s generosity gives his Son to die for us, he feeds us with His Body and Blood so that we might have life in Him. What are we going to do in return?

mary-anointing-jesus-feet-by-peter-paul-rubens

from Rhygyfarch’s Life of David

The holy Father David prescribed an austere system of monastic observance, requiring every monk to toil daily at manual labour and to lead a common life. So with unflagging zeal they work with hand and foot, they put the yoke to their own shoulders, and in their own holy hands, they bear the tools for labour in the fields. So by their own strength they procure every necessity for the community, while refusing possessions and detesting riches. They make no use of oxen for ploughing. Everyone is rich to himself and to the brethren, every man is his own ox. When the field work is done they return to the enclosure of the monastery, to pass their time till evening at reading, writing, or in prayer. Then when the signal is heard for evening prayer everyone leaves what he is at and in silence, without any idle conversation, they make their way to church. When, with heart and voice attuned, they have completed the psalmody, they remain on their knees until stars appearing in the heaven bring day to its close; yet when all have gone, the father remains there alone making his own private prayer for the well-being of the church.

Shedding daily abundance of tears, offering daily his sweet-scented sacrifice of praise, aglow with an intensity of love, he consecrated with pure hands the fitting oblation of the Lord’s body, and so, at the conclusion of the morning offices, attaining alone to the converse of angels. Then the whole day was spent undaunted and untired, in teaching, praying, on his knees, caring for the brethren, and for orphans and children, and widows, and everyone in need, for the weak and the sick, for travellers and in feeding many. The rest of this stern way of life would be profitable to imitate, but the shortness of this account forbids our entering upon it, but in every way his life was ordered in imitation of the monks of Egypt.

Lent III 

God does not love us because we are lovely or loveable; His love exists not on account of our character, but on account of His. Our highest experience is responsive, not initiative. And it is only because we are loved by Him that we are loveable.

Fulton Sheen Rejoice (1984) 9

There exists a great spiritual thirst both outside the church in the world around us and in the church itself. We are like people in the desert, not just in this period of 40 days but throughout our lives. The modern world is deeply consumerist: shopping centres replace cathedrals and yet we are still thirsty, thirsty for the living water, thirsty that our needs may be satisfied. We all of us realise, deep down, that commercialism cannot save us: that what we buy doesn’t really nourish or satisfy us. There can be no commercial exchange with God; we simply have to receive his gifts. We are not worthy of them are, that’s the point: God satisfies our deepest needs and desires out of love for us, wretched miserable sinners that we are, so that enfolded in his love we might become more lovely. Only if we are watered by God can we truly bear fruit, only if we are born again by water and the spirit in baptism can we have any hope. This is what the season of Lent is for: it is a time to prepare for baptism – to share in our Lord’s death and his new life. We do this as individuals and indeed as an institution, so that the church may be born again, renewed with living water, so that it may be poured out over all the world to satisfy the thirst which commercialism cannot.

In our second reading St Paul writes the church in Corinth to warn them to keep vigilant: the church can never be complacent. For us Lent is to be a time when we learn not to desire evil: we have to turn away from sexual immorality and idolatry. In the last couple of generations the laissez-faire attitude in the world around us has not empowered people, it is not made them happier, it has just given us a world of fornication and adultery, where people worship false gods: Reason, Consumerism, Fulfilment, Money and Power. The ways of the world will always leave humanity empty. It’s why the Gospels show Jesus living a radically different life, a life in all its fullness, which he offers to people: to turn their lives around, losing their lives to find true life in him. He suffers and dies for love of us, to heal us, and restore us, so that we may share in his life of love, nourished by his body and blood, strengthened by his word and sacraments, and to share this free gift of the world around us.

This morning’s gospel acts as a warning to us: that we are in danger if we continue to sin. We are, however, not simply condemned but offered another chance. The gardener gives a fig tree another chance. This is grace: the free gift of God, not something which we have earned, and only through God’s grace can we hope to bear fruit. The gardener, who created man in Paradise, who will offer himself as both priest and victim upon the tree of life, to bleed and die for love of us, this gardener will meet Mary Magdalene by the empty tomb on Easter day, so that we all humanity may share his risen life.

So let us turn away from the ways of the world, its emptiness, its false promises, its sexuality immorality, the ways of emptiness and death, to be nourished by the living water, which satisfies our deepest thirst, which makes us turn our lives around, so that we may live in him, who loves us, who heals us and who restores us. The world may not understand this, it may be scandalised by it, it will laugh at us and mock us, in the same way that it mocked our Lord on the way to Calvary and upon the cross. Let us share in his sufferings, knowing that we are loved by him who died for love of us. Let us live as a witness, to share in his work of drawing all humanity to him: so that all people may come to the living water and finds new life 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 do-minion and power, now and forever

Lent II

It is easy to find Truth; it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it.

Fulton Sheen Lift up your Heart, New York 1942: 106

Speaking the truth to power, speaking the uncomfortable word is a main aspect of the prophetic vocation, it is recognisable in Our Lord’s earthly ministry and throughout the history of the church. It is dangerous, and it can be costly but it is something which must be done.

 When we look at salvation history we cannot ignore Abraham, he believes in the Lord, and is reckoned as righteous: he trusts God and his relationship is sealed with a covenant, one which makes the Land of Israel the Promised Land to his descendants. There is a covenant, there is sacrifice, and this points to the cross, where God cuts a covenant with us in his Son’s death upon the Cross, the final demonstration of God’s love, which assures us of our heavenly homeland, Just as Abraham went from deep sleep and terrifying darkness to life in relationship with God, so we in the church have moved the darkness of sin and the terror of hell to new life in Christ.

 Our citizenship is in heaven, as St Paul writes to the Philippians. Heaven is our true and eternal home, where we can be with God forever. And as Christians we try to live lives which imitate the saints, one of the ways we learn is by copying, we’ve seen it, we’ve done it ourselves: it is normal and natural: we follow the example of others, which is why the choice of whom we should imitate matters. Paul writes this letter from prison, he’s seen people being tortured, and his belief in Christ will lead to his death, and yet he is happy, concerned for others more than himself, a wonderful example for us to follow. We don’t want to be like the enemies of Christ, people opposed to who and what Christ is and what he does. The world around us tends to show its enmity towards Christ more by indifference than persecution, we are ignored or patronised, but we can stand against this, together, in Christ, confident in the God who loves us. 

 In the Gospel we see Herod, a ruler who has killed John the Baptist for speaking against him, for standing up for morality which comes from God, turning his gaze towards Jesus. In the face of the threat of persecution Jesus stands up for who and what he is, and what he is doing, he is not intimidated as he has a job to do which speaks of God’s healing love, making the Kingdom of God a reality in people’s lives. Jesus sees Herod for what he is, a nothing and a nobody, a tyrant, interested in the spectacular He speaks a word over Jerusalem as a place which kills prophets, and in this he is looking towards his own death – he has to go away, so that he can come back. He prophesies that he will not return until people say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ he anticipates his entry on Palm Sunday. It makes it all the more amazing that Jesus can face the future in such a calm way, proclaiming the Love of God, and it should inspire us as we walk the journey of faith. In this our Lenten journey towards the Cross, and beyond, we travel with Christ, nourished by word and sacrament, knowing that to follow Christ is to share in His Passion, to take up our cross and follow Him, who is the Way, the Truth , and the Life. It involves standing up for truth, at the risk of persecution and death, and it is something which we do gladly because we can trust in a God who loves us, who heals us, who has made a covenant with us in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. We can have confidence that God loves us, and will never leave us, he is with us no matter what may come our way. It is a great comfort that we can travel on our pilgrimage of faith with one who will not leave us, or fail us, who knows our pain, who suffers and dies for love of us. So let us travel with Christ through Lent, through Life, knowing that we are living out our faith, and let us share that with others that the 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.

A thought for the day from Leo the Great

O dearly beloved, let us therefore thank God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. By means of the great love with which he loved us, he had mercy on us; and since we had died in sin, he gave us life back in Christ, so that in him we would be a new creation and a new work of his hands. Let us strip off the old man and his ways of action; and, given that  we have been admitted to participate I’m the family of Christ, let us renounce the the works of the flesh. Become aware, O Christian, of your dignity; and, having been made a participant in the divine nature, do not return to your prior baseness through behaviour unworthy of your family. Remember who your head is, and of whose body you are a member. Recall that you were stripped away from the power of the shadows and carried into the light of the Kingdom of God. The Sacrament of Baptism has made you a temple of the Holy Spirit: do not cause such a great guest to flee because e of your poor conduct; do not put yourself again into the slavery of the devil, for the price by which you were ransomed is the blood of Christ. he ransomed you out of mercy, but he will judge you in the truth of he who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

Leo  Sermons 21:3

Impress this sign therefore upon your heart, therefore, and embrace this Cross to which we owe the salvation of our souls. It is indeed the Cross that has saved and converted the entire world, banished error, reestablished truth, made the earth into heaven, and made men into angels. Thanks to the Cross, demons have ceased to to be some cause for fear and have become detestable, and dying is longer death, but sleep. Through the Cross, everything that fought against us has been knocked to the ground and trampled over. So if someone asks you whether you adore the man who was crucified, respond with a clear voice and a joyful mien, ‘Yes I adore him, and I will never cease adoring him.’

John Chrysostom  Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 54:4-5

First Sunday of Lent Year C

When St Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying ‘Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the tanner who is in Alexandria.’ When he heard this, the old man arose and took his stick and hurried to the city. When he had found the tanner …. he said to him, ‘Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you.’

He replied, ‘I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of the city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds while I will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart.’

When St Antony heard this he said, ‘My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near to the measure of such words.’

It is a very human failure, for far too often we make things far too complicated when all we need to do is to keep things simple. In the story from the Desert Fathers, which we have just heard, St Antony, the founder of monasticism, a great and a holy man, is put to shame by a man who spends his days treating animal skins. The key to it all is the tanner’s humility, his complete absence of pride, and his complete and utter trust in God – his reliance upon him alone.

In this morning’s Gospel we see Our Lord going into the desert for forty days. He goes to be alone with God, to pray and to fast, to prepare himself for the public ministry of the Proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel.

As he comes out of this he is tempted by the devil: he faces temptation just like every human being, but unlike us, he resists. The devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. It is understandable – he is hungry, but it is a temptation to be relevant, which the church seems to have given into completely: unless we what we are and what we do and say is relevant to people, they will ignore us. 

There is the temptation to have power, symbolised by worshipping the devil. It leads to the misuse of power. The church stands condemned for the mistakes of the past, but in recognising this there is the possibility of a more humble church in the future – reliant upon God and not on the exercise of power.

There is the temptation to put God to the test – to be spectacular and self-seeking. Whenever we say ‘look at me’ we’re not saying ‘look at God’.

Jesus resists these temptations because he is humble, because he has faith, and because he trusts in God. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. It’s far easier when we do this together, as a community, which is why Lent matters for all of us. It’s a chance to become more obedient, and through that obedience to discover true freedom in God. It’s an obedience which is made manifest on the Cross – in laying down his life Jesus can give new life to the whole world. He isn’t spectacular – he dies like a common criminal. He has no power, he does not try to be relevant, he is loving and obedient and that is good enough.

It was enough for him, and it should be for us. As Christians we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church, filled with his Spirit, to guide us. We can use this time of prayer and fasting to deepen our faith, our trust, our understanding, and our obedience, to become more like Jesus, fed by his word and sacraments – to become more humble, more loving, living lives of service of God and each other, 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, glory dominion and power, now and forever

Homily for Sexagesima

The sum of all is that God the Lord of all, out of fervent love for his creation, handed over his own Son to death on the cross. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son for its sake.’ This was not because he could not have saved us in another way, but so that he might thereby the better indicate to us his surpassing love, so that, by the death of his only-begotten Son, he might bring us close to himself. Yes if he had anything more precious he would have given it to us so that our race might thereby be recovered. Because of his great love, he did not want to use compulsion on our freedom, although he would have been able to do so; but instead he chose that we should drawn near to him freely, by our own mind’s love.

St Isaac of Nineveh

Today the church celebrates Sexagesima, in recognition that we are about 60 days from Easter, it’s part of a countdown to Lent, a pre-Lent, which gets us in the mood for a season of fasting and penitence. I suspect that it has over the years raised a smile or a smirk from the first three letters of its name, derived for the Latin word for sixty rather than anything else. Though if you were someone who forms their opinion of the Church through the media you would be forgiven for thinking that it was the only thing that Christians think, talk or argue about. It has become a defining characteristic of how we are viewed by the world around us, and Christians can quite easily begin to believe that it is our sole ethical concern these days.

You may be glad to hear that I have no intention of launching into a diatribe against sexual immorality this evening, as it would be neither useful nor edifying. Instead, as we prepare to celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple this week  It is a feast which sees both Simeon and Anna recognising who and what Christ is, and what he has done and will do, it looks back to Christmas and the wonder of the Incarnation, to the fact that God became human so that humanity might become divine, and looks forward to how this is achieved, once and for all by Christ’s sacrifice of himself upon the Cross. They recognise it and they proclaim it, to anyone who will listen, which reminds us that as Christians we to are to rejoice in these facts and to proclaim them to a world hungry for meaning, which longs for the transcendent, and for an alternative to the gratification of self, and material capitalist culture.

We need to proclaim by word and deed the saving love of God in Christ, through lives lived in ever closer union with him, or to quote the prophet Micah from this evening’s first lesson: ‘and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8) To walk humbly is to know one’s need of God, of his forgiveness, his love, his mercy, and his grace, to ask him to heal our wounds, and forgive our sins. Humility is being close to the ground, from which we were created, not to see ourselves as other than we are, it is to know that we are wretched miserable sinners, whom God loves so much that he was born among us, and he lived and died and rose again for us, not because we are worthy, but so that through Him we might become so, through the transforming power of God’s love.

January is amongst other things a time for self-improvement, people diet and take up exercise, so when I hear the phrase  ‘your body is a temple’ I begin to shudder, perhaps because I’m overweight and unfit, and such phrases sound like the self-righteous and judgemental attitudes of fitness-obsessed, vegetarian teetotallers. Yet when Paul is talking to the church in Corinth he is not concerned with such matters, but rather that Christians, who make up the church, are people who have been baptised, so we have received the Holy Spirit, the indelible character of the sacrament of baptism. We are imbued with the virtues of faith, hope, and love, which we live out in the life of faith. We were bought at a price, namely the shedding of Christ’s blood on the Cross, and as the hymn puts it there is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb. It washes our souls clean, so that we can glorify God in our bodies by living lives of Christian virtue.

We will fail in our attempts to do this, but that’s where God’s love and forgiveness come in: it allows us to keep trying. We are never written off, providing that we do not despair of God’s amazing capacity to love, heal, and restore us. The world around us is not so kind, it is judgemental, it pays lip service to freedom, as the freedom to do whatever we please, reducing freedom to a physical rather than a moral power, whereas Christians are called to live in a servitude which is perfect freedom, God loves us and wills us to love him freely, and to live lives which glorify him, so that we can say with the Apostle Paul ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me’ (Gal 2:20)  We do this by walking humbly, by knowing our need of God, and relying upon him, and in his strength, a people forgiven and forgiving, who can truly offer this world an alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin, which we proclaim by lives lived in and through Christ, nourished by his word and sacraments, close to him in prayer, so let us do this together 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, glory, dominion and power, now and to the ages of ages.

The Fourth Sunday of Year C

The sum of all is that God the Lord of all, out of fervent love for his creation, handed over his own Son to death on the cross. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son for its sake.’ This was not because he could not have saved us in another way, but so that he might thereby the better indicate to us his surpassing love, so that, by the death of his only-begotten Son, he might bring us close to himself. Yes if he had anything more precious he would have given it to us so that our race might thereby be recovered. Because of his great love, he did not want to use compulsion on our freedom, although he would have been able to do so; but instead he chose that we should drawn near to him freely, by our own mind’s love.

St Isaac of Nineveh

Love along with forgiveness are at the heart of our faith, and they characterise our relationships both with each other and with God. The revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is the showing of God’s love, from the Annunciation, through the Incarnation, to His Death and Resurrection, there is not a moment which does not speak powerfully of love and forgiveness. Where Christ leads we should follow, he is the author and perfector of our faith. St Paul can speak to the Christians in Corinth of the centrality of love in the life of Christians. It shows how we are to live, to live in love, together. Christ shows us the cost and reality of self-giving love in His Death and Resurrection. This is the love we have to live in our lives: difficult, costly, and wonderful.

As the Church prepares to celebrate the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and commonly called Candlemas, it is fair to say that nowadays 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. It feels strange and alien. 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, with that same love in our lives, in all that we say, and think, or do, 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, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Third Sunday of Year C ‘The Joy of the Lord is my Strength’

Every person is a precious mystery. An individual cannot be weighed by public opinion; he cannot be measured by his conditionings; he belongs to no-one but himself, and no creature in all the world can penetrate his mystery except the God who made him. The dignity of every person is beyond our reckoning.

Fulton J. Sheen Lift Up Your Heart

January is a time for many things: finding love, losing it, taking up a regime of exercise, of dieting, for turning away from the excess of Christmas, reacting against the short days, the wet and the cold. So at one level, when we hear in this morning’s Old Testament reading ‘Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine’ we could be quite concerned. But we are also told to ‘send portions to anyone who has nothing ready’ – to feast then in the Kingdom of God involves everyone eating. In a world where we produce more than enough food for all to eat and not go hungry, it is good that there is a campaign to put an end to Global Hunger, as this is what the Kingdom of God looks like in action, faith is not some private matter, but affects who and what we are, what we do, how we live our lives.

In St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians we see what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ, through our common baptism. We may be different, but we all need one another, unity does not mean uniformity, after all. We are dependent on one another, in the church which is a place of unity in, through and with Christ. Looking back on this two thousand years later we can see the wounds which mar the Body of Christ  in our sin and division and also how they can be healed: in Christ, through Christ, through His saving death upon the Cross.

In the Gospels recently we have seen Our Lord baptised to sanctify the waters of baptism for the salvation of the human race, and as an act of loving obedience to the Father to show the world how to turn away from sin and how to be reconciled with God; we have seen the Kingdom of God come among us in the Wedding at Cana. It is a place of joy, which we cannot understand, just like the steward in the wedding feast  – the best wine has been kept for now, the new wine of the Kingdom, better than we have ever tasted, beyond our expectations and our efforts. We have seen in Our Lady’s word to the servants, ‘Do whatever He tells you’ that obedience is the key to new life in Christ, that same obedience which His mother recommends and shows, which Jesus Christ shows us, so that we might follow His example.

In this morning’s Gospel we Jesus back on home turf ‘full of the power of the Spirit’ teaching people, showing them the way, and being glorified by them – as they give to God what is due. When he comes to his home town and is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he proclaims ‘good news to the poor’ ‘liberty to captives’ ‘new sight to the blind’ ‘freedom for the oppressed’ and ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’. He, the Word made Flesh is the fulfilment of the Word, of prophesy.

As He will say in the Sermon on the Mount ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God’. The good news of the Gospel is for those who know their need of God, their spiritual poverty. Those who are slaves to sin can find true freedom in Christ; it allows us to see the world with new eyes, where everyone is our brother and sister, where we can be one in Christ.

‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ we, here, today, have heard this among us, we have come to be fed with Word and Sacrament, to be fed by Christ, with Christ, to have new life in Him, and to share that new life with others, a new life and a freedom which the world cannot give. So let us be fed to have new life in him, to live that life and share it with others, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. It is our vocation as Christians to be filled with that joy and to share it with others

As Christians we are to live lives of joy and love in Christ, and through him, rejoicing in our new life in baptism, in the saving sacrifice of the Cross, in the hope of the Empty Tomb, in our unity in the Body of Christ, so that all creation may resound with 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.

Homily for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: 1 Peter 2:9-10

Hold me worthy , O Lord, to behold your mercy in my soul before I depart from this world; may I be aware in myself at that hour of your comfort, along with those who have gone forth from this world in good hope. Open my heart, O my God, by your grace and purify me from any association with sin. Tread out in my heart the path of repentance, my God and my Lord, my hope and my boast, my strong refuge, by whom may my eyes be illumined, and may I have understanding of your truth, Lord. Hold me worthy, Lord, to taste the joy of the gift of repentance, by which the soul is separated from co-operating with sin and the will of flesh and blood. Hold me worthy, O Lord, to taste this state, wherein lies the gift of pure prayer. O my Saviour, may I attain to this wondrous transition at which the soul abandons this visible world, and at which new stirrings arise on our entering into the spiritual world and the experience of new perceptions.

St Isaac of Nineveh

The Apostle Peter is writing to a church which is undergoing persecution on account of their faith in Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. While you could argue that this is not happening to us here, now, openly, it does nonetheless happen to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are called to bear witness to Christ regardless of the cost. If anything the persecution in this country is more to do with apathy, ignorance, and our dismissal from public discourse unless we are in agreement with popular whim or sentiment: such is the tyranny of secularism, which we must, as Christians resist, as we are called to conform the world to the will of God.

We are called to be a holy nation and a chosen race, not in exclusive ethnic terms, like the people of Israel, but rather because we are one in Christ, through our common baptism, having passed through that water greater than the Red Sea, which gives freedom to all the world: we can look beyond the simplistic divisions of the world to something greater, and far more wonderful, and while we are certainly not there yet, we are all nonetheless travelling on a journey towards unity, because it is the will of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and his prayer to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest in John 17.

Our highest allegiance then is not to the powers of this world, for we recognise a higher power, the King of Heaven and Earth, which is Christ. He makes us royal, he gives us entry into that greatest of palaces, that is heaven, through His Precious Blood which was shed to heal us and restore us, there is as the hymn puts it power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb. It is through Christ’s priesthood, a priesthood of the new covenant in His Blood, after the order of Melchisedech, that the church continues a cultic priesthood to offer continually that one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, so that the people of God may be made holy, by being fed with His Body and Blood so that our human nature may be transformed into his divine nature: Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν· ‘He became human so that we might become divine’ Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3.

We are holy, set apart for God’s service and the proclamation of His Kingdom , proclaiming the saving acts of God in Christ, and calling the world to repent, to turn away from the ways of sin and self, and to believe and trust in a God who loves us and saves us. Christ calls us out of the darkness of sin, of the world into the glorious light of His Kingdom. This is the fulfilment of the prophesy of Hosea 1:6 and 1:9 Once we were no people, now we are God’s people (cf. Hosea 1:9 Call his name lo-ammi [not my people] 1:6 Call her name lo-ruhamah [who has not received mercy]) We are God’s people, God claims us for His own, through His Son, who shows us in His life, Death, and Resurrection exactly what mercy is: A God who suffers and dies for love of us, poor sinful humanity, that we might become something better, something greater. God sees that human sinfulness is such a problem that only an outpouring of Divine Love in the sacrifice of His Son can save us.

And having received mercy, love and forgiveness in Christ, we show it in our lives so that ours is a proclamation not only of words but of deeds, so that we play an active part in the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ. Mercy, with joy and peace are the fruit of charity: our love of God and our neighbour, we love because God loved us first, and as we show mercy, we shall receive mercy, we harvest what we sow.

As St Isaac says ‘Do not hate the sinner. Become a proclaimer of God’s grace, seeing that God provides for you even though you are unworthy. Although your debt to him is very great, there is no evidence of him exacting any payment from you, whereas in return for the small ways you do manifest good intention he rewards you abundantly. Do not speak of God as ‘just’, for his justice is not in evidence in his actions towards you. How can you call God just when you read the gospel lesson concerning the hiring of the workmen in the vineyard? How can someone call God just when he comes across the story of the prodigal son who frittered away all his belongings in riotous living — yet merely in response to his contrition his father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave authority over all his possession? In these passages it is not someone else speaking about God; had this been the case, we might have had doubts about God’s goodness. No it is God’s own Son who testifies about him in this way. Where then is this ‘justice’ in God, seeing that, although we were sinners, Christ died for us? If he is so compassionate in this, we have faith that he will not change.’

We show this love first in obedience, like Our Lord’s Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel in her words to the servants ‘Do whatever he tells you’ If we are obedient, like Mary, then model disciple and mother of the Church, the first and greatest Christian, then we can truly be salt and light to the world, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.

The Good News is the announcement of God’s mercy, shown to us in Christ, in Him we see what God is really like, in Him we experience love, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation. Through Him we are healed and restored, we become God’s people, and proclaim God’s Kingdom, so that humanity may come to experience God’s love and mercy, and 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 unto the ages of ages.

The Wedding at Cana – The Second Sunday of Year C

In the marriage act, love is triune: wife gives self to husband and husband to self and out of that mutual self-giving is  born the ecstasy of love. The spirit too must have its ecstasy. What the union of husband and wife is in the order of the flesh, the union of the human and the Risen Christ is in Holy Communion

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests, 1974: 157

The Prophet Isaiah in this morning’s first reading looks forward to a a messianic future, a future which finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ. He uses the language of a wedding, between a man and a woman to express the joy between God and his people, Israel, and by extension, with the church, a new Israel and the fulfilment of prophesy. Though we live in a highly sexualised culture we can still find this imagery strange, and yet it speaks of deep love and joy: the kind which holds nothing back, the complete union, shown to us above all in the passion and death of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. As husband and wife are united in one flesh, we have come so that we may be fed, be fed by Christ, be fed with Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit God is active in our lives, transforming us, by his grace, so that our human nature may be transformed, into His Divine nature.

If we were to listen to the many voices around us which criticise Christianity, we would think that we were of all people the most pitiable, ours is either a weak death-cult of a failed Jewish magician and wonderworker, or a strange oppressive force which actively works against human flourishing and actualisation.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as our vocation as Christians is JOY. The one whom we worship liked nothing better than to hang around at parties with social undesirables, and was accused of being a drunkard. Most of us have outside our houses one or two wheelie bins, which hold about 30 gallons, or 150 litres, or 200 bottles of wine. Multiply that by 6 and you’re looking at 1,200 bottles of wine, a hundred cases, and this after the wine ran out, what we’re dealing with in the wedding at Cana must have been some party, and it is only a foreshadowing of the joy of the Kingdom, it points to something greater than itself.

Our starting point as Christians is Mary’s advice to the servants: Do whatever He tells you. Our life is rooted in obedience: we listen to God and we obey, for our own good, and the good of the Kingdom, so that we are not conformed to the world and its ways, but rather to the will of God, so that we can truly enter into the joy of the Lord, in humble obedience, fed by Him, and fed with Him, who died for love of us in obedience to the will of the Father.

The world around us struggles somewhat with extravagance, and rightly so: when we see Arabian oil magnates riding around in gold-plated supercars we are right to be concerned, yet in the Gospel we see something strange. The steward had a point: you serve the best wine first, while people are sober and can appreciate it, but the Kingdom of God turns human values on their head – the joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine and is lavished upon undeserving humanity, so that it might transform us, so that we might come to share in the glory of God, and his very nature. Thus, at the Epiphany we celebrate three feasts: Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles, the proclamation of the Messiah to the whole world, his baptism, to show us the way to the Father, a sign of love and obedience, and the Wedding Feast at Cana, as a sign of the superabundance of God’s love, shown to us here today in the Eucharist where we drink the wine of the Kingdom the Blood of Christ so that we may be transformed by the power and the grace of God, so that we may share his Divine life, and encourage others to enter into the joy of the Lord.

The Baptism of Christ

Though time is too precious to waste, it must never be thought that what was lost is irretrievable. Once the Divine is introduced, then comes the opportunity to make up for losses. God is the God of the second chance …. Being ‘born again’ means that all that went before is not held against us.

Fulton J. Sheen Peace of Soul

The Baptism of Our Lord in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, which we celebrate today, can leave us asking a question: if we are baptised to be born again by water and the Spirit, for our sins to be washed away, and to become part of the Body of Christ, the Church, why is Our Lord, who is without sin, being baptised. He does not need to be, but in being baptised shows us that God is not constrained by necessity. Christ does not need to be baptised, as we do, but does so to fulfil all righteousness and to sanctify the waters of baptism for those whom he would redeem., to show us the way to new life in him.

In Christ’s Baptism we see a God who walks with us, who is not a cold, remote figure; but who, for love of us, comes among us, and is one with us, and who shows us the way to his Father. Christ’s Baptism is an act of obedience to God the Father, an act of humility and of healing and restoration – the work of God in Christ, done for our sake, and the sake of all humanity. What began at the Annunciation, and was brought about at the Incarnation, and made manifest to the whole world at the Epiphany, is deepened: the world is invited to share in the saving love of God through baptism.

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus shows humanity the way to the Father, through himself. The world sees the generous love of God, which heals and restores us, from the darkness of the dungeon of sin and evil, to the light and life of the Kingdom of God. As our baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so his baptism points to the Cross, where streams of blood and water flow to cleanse and heal the world. We see the love of the Father, the power of the Spirit, and the obedience of Son, and all for us, who are so weak and foolish, and who need God’s love and healing, and forgiveness.

We need this, the whole world needs it, but is too proud to turn to a God of love, for fear of judgement, knowing that they deserve to be cut off forever, and yet it is exactly such people, such lost sheep that Our Lord comes to seek, whom he enfolds in his loving arms on the Cross, whom he washes in the waters of baptism, so that all may be a part of him, regardless of whom or what they are, and what they have done. Salvation is the free gift of God and open to all who turn to him.

In our suspicious modern world that gift is spurned and mocked, by those who feel that they can no longer trust the church, or denounce it is as hypocritical, an oppressor of one group or another. To which we can only reply with open doors, open arms, and open hearts – the church may be full of sinners and hypocrites and there’s always room for a few more! God in Christ is nothing if not generous, and so the Church, his body is called to the same generosity of spirit. With the open invitation comes a call to repentance, to a fundamental change of mind, which sees us turn away from sin to God.

Here is where I suspect it gets difficult for humanity, we know that sin is wrong, but we enjoy it, we can soothe our conscience with the fiction that something is not a sin: that it doesn’t hurt or harm us, we can even twist the Gospel to our own ends. But these will not do, because in them we say that we know better than God – the sin of pride, that primal sin which separates humanity from God. This was the problem Christ comes to fix, to heal and restore our nature, through his grace, to feed us with Word and Sacrament that we might share in the life and love of God.

We need to take to heart the words of advice written by St Paul to Titus and the Church in Crete: given that ‘the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’ (Titus 2:11) the Church has to respond to that grace, that free gift of a loving God, by living in a certain way, the Church is there to train us to renounce, to turn our back on ‘ungodliness and worldly passions’ – using our lives and our bodies which fall short of what is expected of us. Notice the word ‘train’: it’s a process, very few people indeed can run a marathon without training; we need help and practice to turn our lives around together, as a community of faith. It takes time, and hard work and love, but it is something which we can do together – people will fail, but can be picked up, and helped to continue, that’s what healing and repentance are all about. It’s about saying ‘we can be better, we can do better together’ if we truly let the love of God into our hearts and turn away from the past and look forward to a future of hope and glory in Christ. So then, let us live out our faith and our baptism together, turning from sin to new life in Christ, and encourage others so to do, so that all creation may resound with 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.

Fr Stanton on The Miracle of the Christian Faith

 

If there be not God, there is no miracle. If there be no miracle, there is no God, and this is the miracle of Christ crucified. They say, ‘You teach men the miracle of the Mass.’ We teach the miracle of Christ that He was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost for us men and our salvation. We teach the miracle that Christ died on Calvary for all men. For whom did Christ die? Christ died for sinners, and that is the miracle of Calvary. We teach the miracle of the Resurrection, that when Christ all shall rise again in His glorious Resurrection. We teach the miracle of the Ascension, that He who went up into Heaven shall so come again as we have seen Him go up. Our whole faith is miracle from the beginning to the end. It is all miracle. It is the miracle of God. And the greatest of all miracles to me is this: that I can say ‘He loved me and died for me.’ You cannot get any greater miracle than that. And so, dear brethren, death is swallowed up in victory, the sadness is swallowed up in the the gladness of God, and the agony in the peace of God, and the misery in the happiness of God. The redemption of Christ is infinite.

Father Stanton’s Last Sermons in S. Alban’s, Holborn, ed E.F. Russell, London, 1916, p. 295

A Thought from Fr Stanton: Never be ashamed of the Blood of Christ

Never you be ashamed of the Blood of Christ. I know it is not the popular religion of the day. They will call it mediævalism, but you know as well as possible that the whole Bible from cover to cover is incarminated, reddened with the Blood of Christ.

Never you be ashamed of the Blood of Christ. You are Blood-bought Christians. It is the song of the redeemed, of the saints, and of all Christians on earth—redeemed by His Blood. You never be ashamed of it. The uniform we Christians wear is scarlet. If you are ashamed of the uniform, for goodness’ sake, man, leave the service. Oh! never be ashamed of Christ! That is the song of the redeemed: ‘To Him be glory and praise for ever, Amen.’

And the second thing is this: Let us all remember that our religion is the religion of a personal Saviour. It is not a system of ethics, it is not a scheme of philosophy, it is not a conclusion of science, but it is personal love to a personal living Saviour—that is our religion! Why, when you can hear the voice of Christ off the altar to-day at Mass, ‘DO this in remembrance of Me.’ ‘You’ and ‘Me.’ He ‘Christ’—“me”—remembrance’—‘Don’t forget Me here at the Altar’ our Lord says to you—‘I will never forget you—don’t you ever forget Me.’ ‘Do this in remembrance of Me.’ It is a personal religion, by which we can say, ‘He loved me, and gave Himself for me’—‘The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.’ And then, in all your experiences, however deep they may be, when you enter into the shadow of death, and go through the agony of the dissolution of your body—you can say: ‘He loved me, and gave Himself for me.’ He loved me and washed me from my sins His Blood, to Him be glory and dominion and praise henceforth for ever, Amen.

Father Stanton’s Last Sermons in S. Alban’s, Holborn, ed E.F. Russell, London, 1916, pp. 312-3

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 Ephesus ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory..’ 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 Beresith ‘In 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 nice 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 – the recognition of God’s saving love .

‘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.

The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Those who dislike any devotion to Mary are those who deny His Divinity or who find fault with Our Lord because of what He says.

These words of the Venerable and Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen remind us of an important truth when we consider the Blessed Virgin Mary: she is always pointing to God – it’s all about God and not about Mary. But, I hear you cry, we have come here to celebrate the Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God, surely it’s all got to be about her? Well I am sorry to disappoint you, but it isn’t.

People who dislike Marian devotion, because it’s ‘a bit too ‘igh for ‘em’ or ‘it detracts from Jesus’, have got things wrong, and generally they err with how they understand one or all of the three Persons of the Trinity. For the last 1,585 years the Church has referred to Our Lady as the Mother of God, not the Mother of Christ, the Mother of Jesus, or some poor Jewish girl raped by a Roman soldier. The Mother of God, the Theotokos or God-bearer is her title which we celebrate today. The words we use matter. It matters that Mary bears in her womb the Word of God Incarnate, True God and True Man, for our salvation.

We celebrate the wonderful truth that God shows his love for us in being born, in being a vulnerable child who needs a mother’s love and tender care. Mary is obedient and says ‘Yes’ to God – she is the model Christian, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, who as she stands at the foot of the Cross becomes our Mother too.

At the Wedding in Cana she tells the servants ‘Do whatever he tells you’ she urges people to be obedient, to be close to God. She lives a life of faith: treasuring things and ‘pondering them in her heart’ so that we can be adopted children of God, and share in her Son’s gift of new life to the world. We honour her, because she points us to her Son. We rejoice that her obedience brings about the possibility of salvation in her Son. We love her because we love her Son, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ. If we honour him, how can we not honour she who bore him in her womb for our sake? If we believe that He is the Incarnate Word eternally begotten of the Father, and that they are con-substantial and co-eternal, true God and true man in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation, it surely follows that His Mother is the Mother of God. We rejoice that in her, the New Eve, the Ark of the new Covenant, the Tabernacle of the Most High, the possibility of new life in her Son has come about.

So, today, let us pause to ponder the love of God shown to us in Mary, let us be fed by word and sacrament, the Body of Christ, which became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, let us treasure him, and let us respond by loving and trusting God, by living lives of service, of God and of one another, and proclaiming the Good News in Jesus Christ, so that all creation may resound with 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.

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

3689929886_206d540f30_o.jpg

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.

St John Chrysostom on the Incarnation

nativitycardBEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed; He had the power; He descended; He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.

For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature.

For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ¡in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infants food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.