That God may be all in all

November 21, 2014

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- We live in a time when the world seems to be in chaos, with vicious wars being fought in Syria, led by its own ruler; and equally in Iraq and the Ukraine.  Many of us are facing serious personal crises with illness and death, and in all these situations where we have no control over events it is very helpful to be reminded that God is in control and that our ultimate fate rests secure in him. This was the situation faced by the great prophets of Israel during the Babylonian exile, among them Ezekiel (Ez 34:11-12. 15-17). These men were surrounded by fools; powerful men, kings of Israel who lacked judgment, and their sycophant courtiers. Judah was by the early 6th century a vassal of the Babylonians but had rebelled, seduced by the vain promises of Egyptian help, and as a consequence Nebuchadnezzar had invaded, sacked Jerusalem and its temple, and deported its elite to Babylon. Clear sighted men like Ezekiel and Jeremiah must have despaired, certainly of any human intervention which could make sense of such monumental folly. We may frequently feel the same about our politicians. From within this despair the prophet had a series of visions, moments of clarity from God, in which he could see that despite all the disaster the God of Israel was actually in control and working for the good of his people. “I am going to look after my flock myself…I shall be a true shepherd to them.”

Ezekiel was uncompromisingly convinced of God’s power, and equally contemptuous of any human intervention. This is not however the view of Jesus, as reported by Matthew. (Matt 25:31-46). I am increasingly convinced that Matthew’s gospel is a very ‘dark’ piece of writing, and it is significant that this parable has no parallels in other gospels but stands out as the last parable of Jesus, given immediately before the Last Supper, the Passover and Jesus Passion. Over the last weeks we have explored parable after parable and incident after incident, in which the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities and the Pharisees and scribes would mount to a crescendo, and end in his passion and death. Other Gospels share some of these incidents but in vastly different contexts and with different emphases.

We have to remember that Jesus was a Jew and had originally intended his saving mission exclusively for his own people whose intelligentsia totally rejected him. By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel in the 80’s, Christianity was rapidly becoming a faith of the Gentiles, pagan converts. The Jews had rebelled against the Romans and their city and temple was a heap of ruins, never to be rebuilt. The apparent failure of Jesus’ mission can be closely linked to Jewish expectations of a ‘saviour’ whom they understood in militaristic terms; a messiah who would lead a huge Jewish army and wipe Israel’s enemies off the map. Matthew’s agony is etched out on every page.

All the way through all of the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry has been especially marked by his concern for those traditionally called ‘sinners’. This included the sick, for illness was deemed due to personal transgression. It encompassed many whose occupations: shepherds; undertakers; dyers of cloth and so on, rendered them ‘unclean’ through their contact with animal excrement and birth materials, the dead, or urine, used in laundering and dying. Then of course there were the tax gatherers, Roman collaborators and prostitutes. All these were people who were never going to become ‘clean’, acceptable to the temple authorities or the religious purists. It was to them that Jesus spoke and ministered with such effectiveness, assuring them of God’s love and care and, above all, he did it away from Jerusalem and its all controlling Temple – no wonder they wanted him dead.

Matthew’s Gospel could well be read as his lament for his rejected people, in which those who cared for the thirsty, the poor and ill, the imprisoned; naked and outcast, refer to the mission to the pagan world – our world. No doubt there were Jews to whom Jesus ministered, but remarkably quickly Christianity became a Gentile affair, as we witness in the work of St Paul. What we get here, unlike Ezekiel’s picture, is the clear confirmation that our response to God’s grace matters. Salvation in God is wholly due to the death and resurrection of Christ, but our willing response through our care of others, modelled on Jesus, is central to our relationship with God.

It is unfortunate that so much of our Christian heritage has misconstrued passages like these, and turned them solely into moral imperatives. All those magnificent medieval ‘Doom’s’ have a lot to answer for. I say this because if we are not careful we can assume that our contribution to our salvation is of overriding importance. By way of contrast, St Thomas Aquinas gives the impression that our contribution is equivalent to a single grain of sand on the sea shore in comparison to God’s overwhelming grace – but it matters. God, we must remember, is all in all and can do with us what he wills, and what he wills amazingly is that we share his life!

St Paul put this beautifully to the Corinthians. (1 Cor 15:20-26.28). Corinth was a ‘new town’ full of arriviste men and women; self-made men and women, with a firm belief in making their own destinies. Try telling them that their salvation lay entirely in Christ! Yet his letters are full of his endeavours to do precisely this inspite of the difficulties he experienced with their appalling morals and behaviour. So Paul wrote these words of explanation and encouragement to the Christians of Corinth, insisting that it is solely through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that anyone can find their eternal destiny in God. We have to remember just what a colossal mind-shift this was to pagans, for whom death was the end; one was literally blotted out – unless of course you were the emperors who became gods. Christianity promised a new and astounding future in God beyond the uncertainties of this life through Christ, real life, godlike association with the One God for everyone. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. Death came through one man and in the same way the resurrection of the dead has come through one man…all men will be brought to life in Christ”. He speaks of an entire universe ‘handed over’ to the Father, a picture of eternal peace and concord. Truly, this Feast proclaims great things for the believer and gives us great hope even in our darkest hours.

 

I am always infuriated when atheists use the Big Bang Theory of the beginning of the Universe to try to prove there is no God. Infuriated because this theory was first put forward by a Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaitre in 1927 (See Wikipedia) It was dubbed “The Big Bang Theory” by atheist scientists who, at the time, saw it as a Christian plot to bring in God. Eventually, of course, the Maths showed that Lemaitre was right. Whether a power called God made the Big Bang happen is open to debate, as some Physicists are theists, and some are not; but the idea that the Big Bang Theory demonstrates that God does not exist is just pure nonsense.

What is even more fascinating is that they can work out, using very complicated Mathematics, how old the Universe is and how far away the Sun and the Stars are from us. How they do it beats me, as I have only to see a very simple Maths formula and immediately get confused, but the fact that they can do it, that there is an order in the Universe that they can discern and calculate from, is just one more reason for believing that there is a God, a power, behind the whole thing.

Science relies on the idea that there is an order in the Universe, that what happens once in an experiment can be predicted to happen again. If the world was a chaos in which one day apples did fall to the ground at a certain speed and the next day they flew upwards, then one could well argue that there is no power underlying anything. The fact that there is predictability, that there is order, means that a force underlying all this is possible.

People tend to think that the idea of God as the power underlying the Universe is a modern idea, getting rid of a rather childlike view of God, as if it were a response to the scientific discoveries of the 20th Century. This is also not true because the idea that God is a power underlying all that exists goes back to St Paul, right at the beginning of Christianity in the 1stC AD, where he speaks of God as the power “in whom we live and move and have our being”. (Acts 17:27-28)

Is it also worth remembering that the chances of a universe with the range of elements that we have is almost unbelievably minuscule. It would take only the minutest change in any of the visible forces in the universe, and we could not have them (we would only have helium). It is also the case that the earth had to be exactly the right distance from the sun, and carbon had to have exactly the right properties for use to exist. The chances of this happening by luck are about 1: 10000000 (adding as many 0s as you feel like!) This is thus another argument for there being some kind of creative force underlying it all with a purpose to create intelligent life.

There is also a lot of ignorance around about the relationship between Creation and Evolution. Some rather stupid Christians do try to read the Bible as literally true, but this has never been the case for the Catholic Church. Actually there are two stories of Creation in the Bible (Genesis 1 & 2) which contradict one another, which shows that neither story was ever meant to be taken literally. The first shows creation beginning with light and darkness, then land and water, then plants and animals and then humans. It certainly gets the order right although it thinks it only took 6 days! The second has man being created first, then all the plants and animals, and then woman who is the only being who can be a partner (that is equal) to man. Another important point! Intelligent Christian biologists have never had a problem over this. Instead they see the fascinating way in which life evolved over millions of years, as yet another possible indication that there is a creative power at work in all this.

When the theory of evolution was first put forward by Darwin in 1859, it did create conflict between literalist Christians and the scientists, but these Christians were mostly not Catholics. Blessed John Henry Newman, a Catholic priest and great thinker of the 19th Century who eventually was made a Cardinal, never saw any problems about this theory, and most Christians today, as I have already said, see Evolution as yet another argument for the existence of God, not the reverse.  The fact is, that the more we discover about the World and the Universe, the more easy it is believe in a power underlying it all. Belief in God would only be irrational if all were chaos, and this is clearly not the case.

 

When I ask parents what it means to bring up their children in “the practice of the faith”  – something they promise when they have them baptised – they often talk about “bringing them to Mass” – “teaching them about love and kindness towards others” – both of which are absolutely right; but they rarely talk about prayer, about praying with their children. I think, that in our modern western society, this is because young people who do pray (and many do) realise that if they tell others about this, they will be made fun of, even mocked. It is, as a teenager said to me not long ago, not trendy to believe in God. So they learn to keep their faith to themselves, and prayer becomes something very personal and private.

The problem with this is that when these same young people become parents, their prayer is so private that not only are they not aware how often and how much they pray, but their children have no idea that Mummy and Daddy actually pray at all, actually have a deep belief in God. So one of the first things I suggest that young Christian parents should do is to pray with their children. Notice this! I did not say “teach their children to pray”. No, I said pray with their children. For if you just bring them to Mass, teach them to say prayers  (all good things of course) they can get the idea that it is all about what you do on the surface; and they do not realise the depth of what is being shared with them.

Now this is not an easy thing to do, is it, because most of us, as I just said, have been conditioned to be embarrassed about our prayer. It’s also difficult because we are being asked to put into spoken words, something that is much deeper than words, something that can feel or sound trivial when brought to the surface. So we might suggest to the little one that we thank God for things that have happened today, but that can easily become a chant of “Thank you God for my scooter or my favourite toy” – often quite trivial things; and the parent then has to bring in things that are deeper in their life, things the child may not yet understand, like “Thank you Lord that I managed not to lose my temper at work today.”

Can I say to those of you whose children are now teenagers or grown up, that most people feel they failed in some way on this. It’s a hard thing to get right. Each parent has to work out how best they can do this, and no-one will get it completely right, because sharing our prayer life with others is very hard. But simple things can be effective. One parent, when discussing this with me, suddenly remembered how her father always made the sign of the cross on her forehead and said a blessing as she went to sleep. “Great idea”, I said, “Do it with your children”, and hopefully, remembering it, she will. Or will adapt it to her own way of doing things.

We forget that the Christian life, and the prayer that makes it real, is always a risk. We are opening ourselves up to things that are deeper than our ordinary surface thinking. We are affirming that we are more than just physical beings. The temptation is to bury it deep within ourselves, as the sad man in the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) buried his master’s money in the ground. Yes, that Parable, is not about being a clever investor in the markets, it’s actually about an attitude to life with God, about taking risks. To slightly misquote Albert Einstein, “The person who never made a mistake, never made anything” or as someone said to me recently “Don’t hide what you have been given, or you may never find it again.” Or as St Paul says (1 Thess 5:1-6) “Do not go on sleeping, as everyone else does, but stay wide awake and sober.”

The Church has its base not in the Church building, nor even in the Mass, however important such things are, but in our homes, be we married or single. The Church has its base in our life of prayer. Unless people share that prayer with their children and their friends, unless they then bring that with them into the Church and into Mass, then what happens here is empty. It is all outward rituals with no depth. It is we, you and I, who by being open to the deep things of life that are God, make the Mass what it is meant to be. The Church is us, people who pray, who bring out into the open, into the light, the marvellous mystery that is God – around us, beside us and within us.

To pray does not just mean “saying prayers” – although this can be good. Prayer, at its heart, is simply sharing our thoughts and feelings with God, thinking things through with him. And also listening to what God is saying to us! That last bit is perhaps the most difficult thing of all, because we tend to want God to give us answers, and when we don’t get them, we get angry and wonder whether God is there at all.

Look instead at the way Jesus answered questions, for he answered them not with an answer, but with more questions, or with a story, a parable, for them to think about. God is not a machine where you pop a question and get one answer. God is much more like our closest friend, who listens as we pour out our troubles, and helps us most, simply by listening not providing answers, and so helps us gradually to work out the answer for ourselves. And sometimes the answer comes when we simply take some risks in our life, and see how they work out.

Sharing this kind of prayer, this kind of faith with our children, and our grandchildren, and with others, is a vital part of our calling as Christians. This is what practising the faith means.

 

Already in Christ

November 14, 2014

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- We have to recognise that Jesus’ parables are never what they seem; they are not about wine production or agriculture, or here, in our gospel (Matthew 25:14-30) about capitalism and the making of money by judicious investment, nor are they fundamentally about morality. The key lies in the introductory phrase Jesus uses time and time again, “The kingdom of heaven is like…They are parables of the kingdom, of our life with and in God.

In this particular case, as my Dominican tutor would constantly say, ‘the context of the particular parable is everything.’ I think in retrospect I would also add that the particular use of the Greek is equally important, a factor the translators of the Jerusalem Bible seem stunningly to ignore.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ actions, such as his healing of the sick and his fraternising with those seen as ‘unclean’, causes the temple authorities and the religious purists to see him as a scandal and one to be removed. In his outreach to the needy, Jesus will be outraged by their lack of care and generosity, and will see those in authority equally as a cause of scandal. He will castigate them as ‘blind guides and hypocrites’, and the tension between them and Our Lord will mount and come to boiling point.

At the time of our gospel passage, Jesus was already in Jerusalem and it was two days before the Passover and his death. This parable is delivered to his disciples, so is for his intimate and close community and its message is sharp and urgent, meant to instruct them precisely on the meaning of discipleship and belonging to the Church. This is why attempts to draw morals from it, or generalise it, devoid it of its power and potency.

First, we notice that the three men involved are ‘slaves’, entrusted with vast sums of money by their Lord, as was common with aristocrats who could not engage directly in commerce but did so indirectly through their slaves. Implied then is that they belong to him body and soul; as we do to God. A talent was a weight of gold or silver, and it is reckoned that it would take the average labourer some 200 years to acquire a single talent. Clearly then these slaves are trusted members of his household, not just any old riff-raff. This is a message for intimates, and the disciples, hearing this parable in this context should have been keenly aware of its significance.

Secondly, we notice in the Greek that the Lord does not ‘entrust’ these colossal sums to his slaves; rather he ‘handed them over, (paradidomi). This is the same verb Jesus has frequently used of himself, as when he three times predicted his passion and death; he would be delivered up, “handed over”, to the Jewish powers and the Gentiles for death. Surely this can be no coincidence. Indeed, this is borne out when the slaves who had doubled their master’s money report back to him. Both the slave with the five talents and the one with the two say ‘Lord, you handed over to me five talents….two talents, here are five more….’ They have amply fulfilled their Master’s trust. They have guarded and enriched what has been handed over to them.

The weight of the Passion hangs heavy over this picture, with the devastating abandonment of the Lord by the disciples, but is redeemed by their subsequent post resurrection rehabilitation and their mission out to the world. In most cases this ended with their deaths, as missionaries and martyrs for Christ. The proximity of this powerful parable to the passion and the resurrection cannot be accidental, and it is surely meant as a lesson to the 12 and as reassurance when they fail at his arrest, but subsequently return to give their lives for Jesus.

This is even more borne out by the sting in the tail; the problem of the slave with the single talent who simply hoards it up. Unlike the two who speak of the Lord’s having ‘handed over’ their talents, this man strives to defend his action by going on the attack, aggressively defending himself. Here is a trusted slave who should have responded well to his Lord’s faith in him, but who contemptuously turns against all that he had been given and graced with. Surely he is Judas. The picture from the perspective of the mechanics of ancient society is appalling, horrific and devastating and we should not dismiss it lightly. Slaves and freedmen who betrayed their master or patron could expect the death penalty.

What we have then is the picture of a tightly structured society, a picture of what the Church is meant to be like and of how terrible it is when we fail to be that community. Our reading from Proverbs 31 looks at this from the perspective of the Good Wife. What we notice there however is that this woman does not merely organise and direct her own household, she is outgoing too, generous in almsgiving, and a member of the community who earns its praise – in this case; unusually for a female, being ‘praised at the city gates’, that bastion of masculine meeting and discussion.

St Paul too (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6) reflects this concern for the Christian community, warning them not to merely observe ‘times and seasons’. For all time is now hallowed in Christ, and the purpose of each and every Christian must be continual preparedness for the Day of the Lord. He will constantly emphasis that we are already ‘in’ Christ, that we are not simply awaiting a far distant advent but live now as redeemed and saved, already members of the Kingdom, and his motif for all this will be ‘watchfulness’. Christians are those who are on the alert, continually living out the grace we have received, handed over.

 

 

 

Why the Church matters

November 9, 2014

When we get fed up with the Church, when the priest says or does something that annoys or upsets us, or when the Media reports something about the Church that we really cannot agree with, our temptation is to join with those many people who say “I can be a Christian without going to Church.” In this Homily I want to try and suggest what we should say to people who have done this -often members of our family- when they ask us why we still carry on going.

Now you might think that I would suggest that the first thing you do is to ask them what it was about the Church that stopped them going. The problem with that approach is that it misses the point. Very few of us can ever be entirely happy about the Church, precisely because it is an institution made up of millions of sinners, people like us who fail to live up to what Jesus calls us to be and to do. And this includes, as Pope Francis has told us since he became Pope, himself and the Bishops. Those who leave the Church because they have discovered it is not perfect, that its leaders sometimes say things that we do not like, or worse, do things that are wrong, need to be asked where they will find any human organisation that is perfect. The higher our ideals are, and the ideals of the Catholic Church are very high, the less likely it is that we will live up to them.

When Jesus attacked the market and money traders in the Temple, (John 2:13-22) and thus attacked the Temple authorities who’d allowed them to be there so they could tax them, he did not stop praying and teaching in the Temple. He did precisely the opposite. Indeed he actually says when he is arrested (Mark 14:49) that he taught in the Temple “every day.” The more often we, as members of the Church, strive to do more for others, both through action and prayer, the more the Church becomes what God wants it to be – “a chosen people.. a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) To cut ourselves off, to say “I can be a good Christian at home” is actually to be incredibly selfish. It’s a failure to realise, that we are Christians, not to make ourselves feel holy or good, but in order to be part of what God wants.

But why does God want us to be the Church? To answer that we need to remember not where the Church has failed, but what the Church has already done for the world. The world would not know that God is a God of love and mercy, that God comes to save us as Jesus, and works in us as the Holy Spirit, unless the Church had told people. It was the Church that early in its history gradually defined which of its ancient writings was the Bible, and it is the Church that has handed down to every generation the teachings that are at the heart of Christianity. People tend to take for granted that every human being has the right to be treated fairly and humanely. They would not know this, had the Church not taught it. People take for granted that we should try to be kind and good to everyone, even people we do not like. They would not know this had the Church not taught it. And so on. Of course the Church has often failed to live up to its teaching. Right from the beginning, St Paul had to cope with its failings. He almost shouts at them in his frustration, “Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you?” (1 Cor 3:16-17) What we need to remember is that the teaching, the teaching that comes from God, still has a power of its own that comes through, despite the Church’s failings.

We were celebrating St Charles Borromeo this week, and he’s an interesting example of this from the seemingly corrupt Catholic Church of the 16thC.  He was appointed Cardinal and Archbishop as a very young man, simply because his uncle was a corrupt Pope! One might have expected him to sit back and enjoy the income and the privileges, as many did; but instead he becomes one of the leading Bishops in reforming and purifying the Church of that time, and ends up as a great saint. Some of you can remember how a fairly sleepy set of Cardinals in 1958 appointed an old Cardinal as a caretaker Pope – now St John XXIII – and found out that God was at work in him to begin renewing the Church in amazing ways!

The point is that we do not GO to Church as Christians, we ARE the Church, and there is no other way of passing on the faith except through the Church despite all our imperfections. It is also however our duty to defend the Church when it is accused falsely of having weird out dated views. The media, especially the media here in the UK, love to attack the Catholic Church, and they often do so in a very ignorant way. I heard recently that there was a piece saying that Pope Francis was changing the teaching of the Church when he said that evolution was an acceptable theory. You all know, because I keep banging on about it, that the Church has held this view for many years.

So when people say to you that they have stopped going to Church because of this or that, you might warn them that although members of the Church fail in many ways, much of what is reported about the Church, or about what the Church, especially the Catholic Church, teaches, is just not true. And then you might remind them that there is no other way of passing on the message of Jesus, unless there is a Church, the Church he founded through his Apostles, to do it. Thinking that their children will simply pick up the good things of the faith from odd comments made by them, or a visit to Church at Christmas, or by looking at things about Christianity as taught at school or on the Internet is to live in cloud cuckoo land.  I will say more about this next week!

Meanwhile let us pray for the Church God has made us part of, especially its leaders.

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In 326 AD, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine gave land in Rome for the first Roman Christian Church and the residence of the Pope. There was something of a backhander in this gift as the Emperor had just executed his oldest son and heir Crispus, and his own wife, for plotting a coup. The site was that of the barracks of the Empress’s guard, which had been destroyed; I think we should assume their implication in this plot. Later centuries saw the place given an unfortunate Baroque make-over, but it retained the bronze doors which originally adorned the senate house in the forum. Every year the reigning pope goes to celebrate Mass in his titular church, uniting the city and the papacy in this great Catholic celebration of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. I suspect that the choice of readings set for today reflect both of these events; the original gift with its dubious circumstances, and the present visit of Francis to his church.

Our reading from Ezekiel (Ez 47:1-2.8-9.12) reflects a similar triumph of the faith over difficult and unpromising circumstances. Ezekiel was among the Jews exiled to Babylon in the 6th century BC, and 25 years into that exile, when things must have appeared intractable and their exile unending, Ezekiel had a vision from God. This vision was of a new temple, built far away from Babylonia. The details of its construction were precise and complex and in all this God revealed his purposes to the defeated and dejected nation. God promised the exiles a new land of their/his own and the ultimate in riches and prosperity: an end to seasons of productivity since the waters flowing from the temple would ensure the year round availability of goods whilst the medicinal leaves of the trees assured the people of abundant health. All would return to security and well being; the vision brought hope and a new confidence to the people, the promise of restoration of those bastions of the faith: land and temple.

Our gospel (John 2:13-22) takes an incident from the life of Jesus normally placed after his entry into Jerusalem for his Passion; what we call ‘the cleansing of the temple’. But John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately after the first of his ‘signs’ or miracles, the Wedding at Cana in Galilee. Now Cana is in Galilee, miles away from Jerusalem and its temple and shows us a picture of Jesus who was prepared to break down the barriers of convention and the respectable; someone whose self-understanding led him to challenge the establishment with its fine structures and who was prepared to go out and perform a sign of his identity as God the Son in the insignificant setting of a rustic, rural wedding, about as hum-drum as you can imagine. Back in Jerusalem he reacted angrily to the profanation of the Court of the Gentiles by the temple authorities who had turned it into a market place full of animals to be sold for sacrifice, and polluting it with their excrement. Far from being the court in which the prayers of the pagans were included in the vast worship of the temple, it had become a scandal and obscenity, and Jesus was having none of it. Already the shadow of the passion hangs heavily over this small incident, wrapped up as it is in this row over who controlled the temple and all that it meant. We must realise that Jesus did not reject the building of sacred spaces nor the manner of worship in them, but he did object very strongly to their abuse, especially as we know there were porticos outside the temple for the selling of the sacrificial animals – but then High Priests would not have controlled this valuable source of revenue. The question of how we use our sacred spaces was clearly as relevant then, as it is now, and perhaps this chimes in with Constantine’s reclaiming of the site of brutal murders by his bequest of it to the Church, a mark of penitence and of his hope for the future in God. It also stands as a sign of the need for the Church’s independence from political power and influence, an issue it has found remarkably difficult to achieve.

When St Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 3:9-11.16-17) he was writing to a very early Christian community; one of about 30 people in a large city overflowing with magnificent pagan temples. There would not be any church buildings for some 200 years and clearly the convert people had an inferiority complex until Paul wrote “You are God’s temple…” the place where God’s Spirit dwells. Suddenly, with Paul as the renowned architect of this magnificent structure, every Christian became a holy temple for God, God living in each of them as in a shrine. Each and every Christian has to come to the realisation of precisely this, their new status and significance.

When Pope Francis goes to the Lateran Basilica he is not going for himself, nor is his triumph a purely Roman celebration, but it symbolises the triumph of God in each one of us. What we all have to do is live up to this great spiritual gift and call, and when we do so we truly honour Constantine’s foundation, and all that it has meant down through the centuries.

 

 

 

 

What is heaven?

November 2, 2014

What or where is heaven, and how do we get there? This is an appropriate topic for the day when we pray that our loved ones who have died may rest in peace. Notice those two words “rest” and “peace”, and we see two of the great images of the place that we Christians call heaven. But first let’s remember that, strictly speaking, heaven is not a place. Jesus has this problem with a group of people called the Sadducess, who made fun of the idea of life after death by asking him which man a woman who had been married more than once would be married to in heaven.  This is a common mistake made by people today who think that we will be walking around in heaven just as if we still had physical bodies. Jesus says this is not true. He says we will be “like the angels” (Matt 22:30) or, as St Paul puts it, when we die we are like a seed in the ground. “We are sown a physical body, we are raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44).

This is terribly difficult for us to understand, because it is easier for us to think in terms of what we experience now, whilst the world of spiritual things is much more mysterious even frightening. This is surely because although we do experience the spiritual world now in our thoughts and our dreams – a world which does not have a physical reality – such dreams, although they can be very vivid, very real,  are not always restful or peaceful. Instead they are often full of confusing and even frightening things. Losing our physical body, never waking up, does therefore seem frightening, and this is precisely why we pray for rest and peace. We Christians believe that dying, death, does not automatically brings us to this peace. That is why we speak of Jesus as defeating death. His peace, is something that is a gift from God, and that is what we mean by heaven – to be at rest in the peace that is God.

It is also important to remember therefore that heaven and hell are things we can experience a bit of even now whilst we are alive. There are moments in our lives when we feel that God is very close, when we feel a real peace in our soul. We sometimes even say of such moments that they were so wonderful that “Time stood still”. Such moments are an experience of the peace that is heaven. This shouldn’t surprise us should it? For if God is everywhere, all around us and even within us, then now and again we should feel this presence and when we do, surely we experience heaven.

Our problem is that as physical beings, with physical desires, we humans very often block out such things. Our very desire to survive at all costs makes us grab for physical pleasures – food, clothes, comfort, etc – often sadly without thinking of other people around us. This innate tendency to be simply selfish – what we call “original sin” – is something we need rescuing – saving – from if we are to get close to God, or in St Paul’s words from our 2nd reading (Romans 5:5-11) to be “reconciled” with God and thus to be brought to the peace of heaven.

Paul says two things in this passage. First we must know that we have been reconciled with God. He also calls this being made righteous - which is a bit confusing because he means by this being made right with God. That’s the first thing. Something God does because he loves us. Then Paul speaks about the process of being saved. The first is simply God’s action, but this second is where we have something to do, for we are meant to co-operate with God’s love and let him work through us all the way through our lives. That’s why doing kind and good things is part of the process. Being good does not get us to heaven, but it is the natural response to God’s work in us. So the more good we do the easier it is for us, for God to work in us, and help us to reach him after death in heaven.

Now there’s our problem. None of us die with that process complete. None of us, as I often say at funerals, are perfect. The final process in which we are perfected  – the traditional word is purged – happens after we have died, which is why we call that process of getting to heaven purgatory. Like heaven this is not a physical place but a spiritual experience that brings us to heaven. This process is all the work of God, but he has created within us the ability to be part of that process – to work out our “own salvation with fear and trembling” (Paul again Phil 2:12).

He has also given us the ability to help one another on this spiritual road, with love yes, but also with prayer. We do this for one another while we are alive, and continue to do it, often with even more fervour when someone has died, that they may come through this process of being made perfect and brought to the peace of heaven. Jesus says “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) This rest is heaven. It is what he offers us. Thanks be to God.

God’s triumph over death

October 31, 2014

Frances writes about All Souls Day :- The non-Christian world, in a piece of quite breath taking miscomprehension, celebrates this season as a ‘black’ time, a time of ghosts and ghouls, of fear and of the supernatural. Quite where they got this totally wrong idea is difficult to see, for our celebration of this great feast is entirely other. It is an affirmation of the triumph of God over death and destruction, a happy time; a positive season in which we rightly rejoice that God has not abandoned even the dead but quite the contrary, has redeemed and saved the departed, and will save those still living.

When in the 8th century BC 1st Isaiah (25:6-9) wrote his great prophetic work, he did so as a warning to a Jewish people he saw had abandoned their God for foreign deities and were rightly to be punished for this crime. Isaiah used the current political upheaval caused by the invasion of the Assyrians to warn them and to get them to change their ways. The devastation and death caused by the invaders, warriors of awesome savagery, served his purpose to draw the people back to God; so that amidst all the destruction and the ruin of prosperous trading cities like Tyre and the deportation of the people, he could envisage a time when all would return to normal. Indeed, when a plague decimated the invader armies and a power struggle back home forced the armies to withdraw, Isaiah could claim that God, their redeemer, had acted on behalf of Israel. A jubilant nation could rejoice and give thanks for their deliverance, and he wrote about this in terms of rich banquets and an end to death itself. Their and his relief are quite tangible; God had restored the nation to its former sense of identity, to its trust in the deity they believed had rescued them.

Some seven centuries later, when many Jews had come to have a belief in life after death, eternal life, the first believers in Christ would see things rather differently. Many Jews did still look to the Messiah in terms of an expectation that still harked back to Isaiah’s values of the restoration of the nation, its land and its temple; but Jesus did not, and understood that such a concept of the God-man relationship was too small. He understood his saving mission in terms of a much more developed relationship between God and his people; of hope that would reside not in material things like earthly power and land and a dominating temple system in Jerusalem, but in the qualities of human behaviour. These would truly reflect the relationship between God the Creator and his people, the redeemed. Jesus wanted everyone to live with the outgoing concern and generosity which was made visible in the Incarnation, in which God the Father gives his Son to the world, the perfection of godliness and grace. Jesus and the Father’s will is that we share his/their life, eternally, here and now, that we be godlike. This, Jesus described as the ‘Kingdom of God’.

Our gospel radiates this hope, hope for the living and those who have died. We see his valuation of things expressed in our gospel. Omitted from our reading are the words which introduce it – ‘At that time’… but we are not speaking of chronological time here, for the Greek has the word Kairos, indicating God’s time, his action in creation and eternity, in which we see Jesus angrily rejecting the elite in Judaism whose valuation of things was fixed on land and temple and law, its fixation on materialism. Jesus has just castigated those who placed all their expectations of things on the continuance of their biological families, and has foretold great divisions within families over their faith and the separation that Christianity would produce. He then went on to speak very tellingly against the cities of Israel, so smug in their sense of their own salvation, comparing them unfavourably with the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon which figured so powerfully in Isaiah’s prophesies, not to mention his comparing Israeli towns with Sodom, that by-word for depravity! Jesus makes absolutely clear that Christian hope for the present and the future lies precisely in the revelation (the Greek word is apocalyptic) of God now shown in the relationship and knowledge shared between Father and Son, and vitally, “Those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This, Jesus claims, is why he has come, why he has been sent by the Father. ”Everything has been entrusted to me” (in Greek “handed over to me”), indicating the extent of his closeness to God, his oneness with him, and God’s wish for us in union with Him. Small wonder then that this part of the entire gospel is so thoroughly overshadowed by the looming sense of the Passion; it is where our entire hope in God is rooted, in the ‘handing –over’ of Jesus to the cross for our salvation.

St Paul too writes (Romans 5:5-11) within ‘his appointed moment’, in Greek, again “Kairos”. Throughout Romans he is grappling with the whole question of what we are and what we are intended for. He knows that the Jewish law is not fitted for the task of our salvation in God, though he will concede in Romans that its task is to point out our failings. Paul will conclude that our only hope lies in our entire reliance on the crucified and risen, vindicated Son of God, Jesus. It is in this unique God-man that we put our entire trust and hope. Our translation has ‘joyful trust’ but the Greek has our ‘boasting’, boasting in God, the only one who can and does fulfil his promises to us, our only hope, and our glory.

So the Feast of All Souls is about our joy, our celebration of God’s goodness and greatness towards us. Without our faith in him we are all utterly lost, but with Him, in and through the sacrifice of Jesus, we have our certain conviction of salvation. Let us rejoice in this great festival.

A few myths about that Synod in Rome are dispelled by this Pastoral Letter. It reads :-

My brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ

Today I would like to tell you a little about the recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops held in Rome on the theme of the pastoral challenges facing the family in the context of evangelisation. I was privileged to take part in this two week meeting. I found it a rich and moving experience.

You may have heard or read that this Synod has been about changing the teaching of the Church on marriage, family life or sexual morality. This is not true. It was about the pastoral care that we try to offer each other, the ‘motherly love of the Church’, especially when facing difficult moments and experiences in family life.

You may have heard that the Synod represented a ‘defeat for Pope Francis’ or that he was disappointed at its outcome. This is not true. At the end of our meeting Pope Francis spoke at length about his joy and satisfaction at its work. He told us to look deeply into our hearts to see how God had touched us during the Synod, and to see how we may have been tempted away from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The Synod, he insisted, has been a spiritual journey, not a debating chamber.

In fact, the very word ‘synod’ means making a walk or a journey together. That’s what we did. Our journey was an exploration of all the problems facing the family today, from the effects of war, immigration, domestic violence, polygamy, inter-religious marriages, to cohabitation, the breakdown of marriage, divorce and the situation of those who have ended a valid marriage and entered another union, another marriage. The vastness of the picture and the suffering it represented was, at times, overwhelming.

We also looked at the great joy of family life and the importance of marriage at its heart. We listened to husbands and wives speaking of the difficulties they had overcome, the struggles they face and the deep joy they experience in their mature marriages and family lives. They were moving moments. A lovely description of the family was offered: the family as ‘a sanctuary of holiness’ with emphasis always on the sharing of prayer at the heart of family life.

Pope Francis set the tone. He asked us to look reality in the eye; to speak openly from the heart; to listen humbly and respectfully to each other. This is what we did. There was no rancour, no contestation. There were disagreements, of course. But he told us to live through the experience with tranquility and trust. And we did. It was a marvellous experience of the Church as a family and of the Church, at this level, hard at work, trying to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and express them in carefully chosen words.

During the Synod we worked on various documents which were trying to catch the views and desires of all the participants. By the end I believe we got there. So the Synod ended with a ‘Synod Report’ on which we voted, paragraph by paragraph. The votes indicated, quite simply, where agreement was more or less total and where it was not. This Report now forms the starting point for the next Synod on the family, to take place in a year’s time. The theme of this next Synod, in October 2015, takes us on from where we left off: ‘The Vocation and Mission of the Family Today’.

Central to the work of the Synod that has just ended was the desire to strengthen and reinvigorate the pastoral practice of the Church. A central principle for this pastoral care emerged clearly: that in trying to walk alongside people in difficult or exceptional situations, it is important to see clearly and with humility all the good aspects of their lives. That is what comes first. From this point, we learn to move together towards conversion and towards the goodness of life that God has for us  and that Jesus opens for us all. This positive approach flows right through the ‘Synod Report’  and I hope will increasingly shape our attitude towards each other.

This is especially true with regard to individuals who, for example, have decided to live together without marriage, or for Catholics in second marriages. These realities are part of their journey in life and while not in keeping with the pattern the Lord asks of us, their lives are often marked by real goodness. This is the basis for our care of them, for our approach to them, our invitation to them, to come closer to the Church and deepen their faith and attend carefully to its call. We say this confidently because it is within the call of our faith, the call of Jesus to each one of us, expressed in the truth of the Gospel and treasured in the Church, that our deepest happiness is to be found.

There has been much talk about how the Synod reflected on the situation of people of a same sex attraction. There was no suggestion that the teaching of the Church might somehow give approval to the notion of ‘same-sex marriage’ or that its teaching on sexual morality is to change. However two things were very clear. The first is that we should never identify people by their sexual orientation. Every person is endowed with unique dignity, both as an individual and as a Christian. This dignity is always, always to be respected. Secondly, it is the teaching of the Church that they are not only to be respected but also always accepted, with compassion and with sensitivity (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2358). This teaching has to be translated into loving care, in our daily life in the Church, in our parishes, and indeed in society.

But Pope Francis went a little further. He spoke of ‘the Church composed of sinners…..that has doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent and not only the just.’ He spoke about the duty of pastors always to welcome into the Church those in difficult situations or in trouble. Then he corrected himself saying that we, as pastors, were not simply to welcome them but to go out and find them, just as the Good Shepherd did for those who had drifted away.

At the end of the Synod, in his closing address, Pope Francis said this: ‘Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families……May the Lord accompany us and guide us in this journey for the glory of His Name.’

So that is what we must do. I hope, in a while, I will be able to put before you ways in which your prayer and reflection on these themes can be a contribution to this ongoing work of renewal in the life of the Church, in response to the unfailing love of Jesus, under the leadership of Pope Francis and always in union with him.

Yours devotedly

X Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Archbishop of Westminster

In my journey in faith, it took me many years to realise that God was even closer to me than I thought. It’s very easy to think of God as a force that only helps us from outside. Yes, in Jesus I know that God is very close; and I know that he will walk alongside me as a friend, giving me the courage, and love and hope I need to face the difficulties and challenges of life. But if we are really to understand the fullness of the God that we believe in, then we need to be aware that God does not simply give me the love I need to live a good life, but that he IS that love, actually dwelling within me.

The love I mean, of course, is that caring love that we can offer to everyone whether we like them or not. Love, not as a feeling, that we might or might not have for someone, but love as an action for the good of others. The interesting thing about this kind of caring sacrificial love is that the medical scientists have shown that it is a very powerful source of healing.  They may not call it love, but they certainly have shown that those who are sick get better much more quickly if they are surrounded by people caring for them, and this applies both to the medical professionals, and also to the patient’s family and friends. This is such an important thing to remember,  for everyone whether they believe in God or not; but we Christians go further, and say that this mysterious power to heal that we all have; this power that can be seen in its results, even if it cannot be identified by normal scientific methods;  is not only a sign to us of what God is like, but is actually God at work within every one of us.

The point I am trying to make therefore is that this power, that we Christians call God the Holy Spirit is so close within us that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from our own being. God is, as St Paul says (Acts 17:28) the one “in whom we live, and move and have our being.” Or as St John writes “God is love and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16) It’s precisely because God the Holy Spirit is so close within us that it is difficult to recognise that this is God at all, and not simply my own mind, my own love, at work.  What I only gradually realised in my life as a Christian is that when one actually recognises that this power of love is God, and turns this power into prayer, then the results can be even more remarkable.

Before we go any further let’s just explore why God as Holy Spirit is as close within us as he is. It’s obvious really. If God is the creative force underlying the Universe – God the Father as we call him – then since we are living beings this creative power must be within us. So God as Creator is not just an immense infinite and eternal power outside us, but is also in a different way inside us. The first story in the Bible of the Creation shows this, for the Bible starts in Genesis (Ch 1) by saying “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And here comes the crucial bit for our thoughts today, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  So God, as Holy Spirit is, as we say in the Creed “The Lord, the Giver of Life”

The Creed then goes on to say that the Holy Spirit can become an active power within our lives, if we let this power work through our actions and our speech. “Hang on”, you might say “Where does the Creed say that?” The answer is there staring us in the face. For we continue by saying that the Holy Spirit is the one “Who has spoken through the prophets.”  We just trip those words of our tongue, don’t we, without realising their meaning? Every Christian is called to be prophetic, to speak and act for God, to allow God’s love to radiate out through us to others. We hear of God’s prophets doing this in various ways in the Bible. They’re officially called “prophets” in the Old Testament, whereas in the New Testament Jesus gives them a new name “apostles”,  meaning those who are “sent out” to bring God to others.

“But I am not a prophet or an apostle.” I hear you say. Oh yes you are. Every time you say a kind word or do a kind action as a Christian you are being prophetic and apostolic. So when we hear Jesus say to us in the Gospel (Matt 22:34-40) “You must love your neighbour as yourself” we must realise that for Jesus this is not just an exhortation to be kind and good, for he has linked it to that other Commandment “To love the Lord your God.” And how?  “With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.”

Deep deep within us then is a power too mysterious and wonderful ever to be fully understood, God the Holy Spirit. One of our main tasks as Christians is to open ourselves up to that power that is within us. St Paul tells us that this power will work in us in all sorts of different ways, (1 Cor 12) but above all he goes on to say that this power works in us as “Love” (1 Cor 13) “If I speak in the tongues of men or angels but have not love, I am nothing.”

We pray “Come Holy Spirit”, or we sing “Come Down O Love Divine” and it might make us think that we are calling on a power outside ourselves. And yes in one sense we are – God is outside us and beyond us. But never forget that God as Holy Spirit is also inside us and deep within us, and we should therefore never underestimate what we can do for others in and through that power. This will bring great joy, not surface happiness, for we may be struggling to support a loved one in pain or sorrow, where there is little happiness. But love, real sacrificial love, given and received even at the hour of death, is always an unending source of joy for every human being. It is the joy that comes from the realisation that all of us live and move in God, and that God lives and moves in us