July 31, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- We are frequently told that ‘we are what we eat’ and, as far as this goes, this can be very good advice, too much sugar, booze or fats are clearly detrimental to our health, but there is surely more to life than food, and this seems to have been the issue Jesus was tackling (John 6:24-35) in our gospel.
Clearly the problem was that after his great feeding ‘sign’ where 5,000 were catered for those who followed him had grossly mistaken both the nature of the sign and its implications for his identity. They thought all their earthly problems were over, no more hunger – just follow this chap and you will no longer need to labour for food, it will all be given you on a plate. They were after a care-free existence and, if they interpreted it at all, as we saw last week, believed Jesus would be a Davidic messiah, lording it over other earthly oppressors. In a similar way they had mistaken the original sign of feeding in the wilderness, (Exodus 16:2-4.12-15). In this text we are shown that it is God who provided the quail and manna in the wilderness, but not as a reward or to promote the power of his prophet Moses. Rather he did it because the people were so unreasonable and ruinous to God’s own plans for Israel and he wanted them to survive and grow in understanding. This feeding was part of God’s education and care of his chosen as he took them to the Promised Land, and all the time, through all their disasters he was helping them to know the One, true God. Israel’s story sadly seems to have been one long tale of the failure of his chosen to get the point, as they messed up time and time again. Sadly, for Jesus, there does not seem to have been any eureka moment for those following him, either in interpretation of the miracle or of perception about the giver of the sign and its origins.
In this passage therefore Jesus continually sets himself to explain the nature of the feeding of the 5,000. Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life. But the people simply refer back to the Exodus miracle and want more of the same. Jesus responds by pointing out that the gift came not from man – Moses, but from God himself. God, he says, is the giver of something, someone far greater than abundance of food, the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And just a little later, I am (using the divine name), the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst. Those of us alert to John’s Prologue will recollect his saying that ‘in the Word was life and the life was the light of men’, so that we recognise that all these different terms, bread, light, life, etc are simply ways of speaking about Jesus, about the Son, one with God from the beginning. Clearly it was their vision of things which was too small, as is the case with us too.
What God is offering us in and through Jesus was never abundance of material goods or power or anything material at all, but a fully developed relationship with himself – the relationship shared between Father and Son. Precisely when we do live as they live in relation to each other we can imagine a situation in which there will be true abundance, represented by messianic banquets and massive feedings, since there will not be have’s and not-have’s but rather perfection of union and an openness to the other which is the life of the Trinity and that surely will be the ‘life’ of which Jesus speaks.
This is not and never was a call to give everything up and starve in a garret or to adopt some crazy hippy existence, for, as the Letter to the Ephesians (4:17.20-24) suggests, real and positive change is and was required among believers in their day to day existence, something Pope Francis speaks about in his encyclical about our approach to our planet. There had to be an active turning away from their former pagan lives, with its ready access to pagan gods and the many excesses that were a common part of that life which would have included easy access to brothels and blood sports including the slaughter of fellow human beings for entertainment; abuse of slaves and the contempt or rather indifference for the human person which was so taken for granted. This surely is a situation mirrored by our present day attitudes to one another as we reject the idea of welcoming refugees into our land.
Our Jerusalem Bible translation speaks of the need for a ‘spiritual revolution’, in Greek ‘the making of a new man/nature created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’. In following the Greek perhaps we are enabled to get closer to the real implications of our putting on Christ and will be in a better position to contemplate our gospel passage about the ‘true bread, come down from heaven to give life to the world.’ Jesus speaks of himself as bread, that commodity most fundamental to survival in the ancient world and he wants people to realise how absolutely essential it is for any human being to be able to reach out beyond their basic needs for subsistence in order for their lives to have meaning and purpose. It is this which we call the search for God, this that the saints long for “our hearts are restless till they rest in you”, as Augustine wrote. Without this longing for something, or someone, a being in whose magnetism we can grow and be stretched we will all lapse into a narrow consumerism, be it that of the endless accumulation of the rich or the scratching survival of the poor. We may lose ourselves in hedonism or waste our lives in heedless violence of one form or another, but as Jesus knew, we are all searching for fulfilment and meaning in our lives, that which anchors us and will endure forever – the bread of eternal life and until we find it or are at least pointing in the right direction there will be dead areas, sadness and emptiness at the heart of our being.
As Irenaeus once wrote; ‘The glory of God is man, fully alive.’
July 26, 2015
I expect all of you know that in some wonderful way Jesus is present for us at every Mass, not just in a general way, but specifically in the bread and wine after it has been blessed – the techie word is “consecrated” by the priest. The priest asks God to “make holy these gifts” and then says the words of Jesus, “This is my Body… this is my Blood.” Today, in the first of my series of Homilies on the Mass, I want us to look at what this really means. One of the reasons we need to do this is that many people dismiss this belief as stupid superstition, not least some of our fellow Christians. But we will see, at the end of the next 5 weeks, as we read through John Chapter 6 as our Gospel, that people found this difficult even when he was physically present with them back then. (See John 6:60)
St John deliberately begins this teaching of Jesus, as in our Gospel today (John 6:1-15) with the story of the Feeding of the 5 Thousand. He does this because he wants us to realise that the presence of God is quite different from the natural, we would now say scientific, way of talking about things. We all know that if we say that salt is present in this or that food, then the scientists can take it away to their laboratory and find after analysis exactly how much salt there is. But I hope we all know that although we say that God is really present in the bread and wine, he is not present in an outward way that these same scientists could analyse. His presence is therefore real, but in a different way.
An easy way of understanding this is to think of someone who has love within them, as I hope we all have. We care about others, some more some less, but if the scientists were to examine us they would not be able to find something called “love” inside us. They would find that this love affects our physical body in various ways – a rise in adrenalin levels perhaps, or in brain waves – but despite the fact that love can so powerfully influence and change our behaviour, its reality cannot be analysed scientifically. It is no surprise therefore that in one of his Letters St John actually says “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16)
Today’s Gospel also reminds us that this presence of God within the Blessed or the Most Holy Sacrament (as we call it) is not to be seen as just inside it, almost as it were “trapped” inside it, and only accessible to us when we eat it. Because God’s presence is like love, it actually radiates out from the place where it is present, just like the bread shared by the 5 Thousand multiplied so that there was more left at the end than at the beginning. Thus it is like the light we share at Easter, when from one candle the light spreads out to all the other candles, until the darkened Church is full of light. Light, like love, multiplies when it is shared.
This is why we all receive the benefit of God’s Presence at Mass, whether we receive Communion or not. Simply being present is sufficient, provided we believe, provided as St Paul says that we “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29). The Church calls this making a spiritual communion. But St Paul writes about discerning the body actually to warn people that if any of us eat the bread and wine “in an unworthy manner” we are in danger. It’s a bit like someone who, being handed a lighted candle, took hold of the flame. It burns! But be comforted, for being worthy does not mean being perfect; it simply means being open to God’s love and grace.
The other thing the Presence of Christ does to us who believe is that again, like love, it draws us into a closer unity. So the priest prays “Grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son… may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”
We heard this also in our 2nd Reading today where St Paul prays “Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together. There is one Body, one Spirit” (Eph 4:1-6) This is worth remembering when we share the Peace at Mass. Remember that we share it in the special Presence of Christ in the just consecrated elements present on the altar. The Peace we share then is not just us saying “Hello” to one another. It is an affirmation of that binding together in love that God, who is Love, creates within us by his Presence – provided remember that we LET IT HAPPEN. God never forces us, but he is there if we accept him.
I want to finish by clearing up a misunderstanding that stops some Protestant Christians from becoming full members of the Catholic Church. They have often been taught in history lessons at school, or elsewhere, that Catholics believe in “transubstantiation” – which we do. It means that the “substance” of the bread and wine is changed into the presence of Christ. The problem is that when St Thomas Aquinas created this word, back in the 13thC, to explain what happens, he was using substance in a different way from the way we use it today. Substance then meant the inner reality, as opposed to what he called the Accidents – the outward matter. He actually created the word to correct ignorant people who thought that when they bit into the bread they were biting the Flesh of Christ. The bread remains bread outwardly, but its inner reality, is what is transformed, as I hope I have been explaining. Sadly, at the time of the Reformation, this was not properly understood, and so many Protestants reacted by saying God was NOT present in the bread and wine, that his presence was not located there, but only present in a general way, thus sadly making less real the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, where he actually said, holding the bread in his hands “This is my Body” (1 Cor 11:23-26). We believe that what Jesus said, he actually meant, and so we worship him in present in this wonderful way.
July 23, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Our Gospel (John (6:1-15) appears to be almost a direct copy of the account of the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6:35-44. John includes this sign. In Mark it is described as a miracle, and the precursor to the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, as in the other two Gospels, but something significantly different is going on with John’s adaptation of this incident. Mark places it quite early in Jesus’ ministry, immediately after the death of John the Baptist and follows the account, as will John, with the miracle of Jesus’ ‘walking on the water’, but there is a sense in which for Mark this is all simply part of his strategy of piling miracle on miracle to convince us that we are in the presence of the one he calls ‘the Son of God.’ John’s gospel, as we are rapidly coming to discover, is significantly short on ‘signs’, and very strong on explanation, exploring as he does who Jesus is through the words and actions of the one he has already told us is God’s Word made flesh, come to dwell with us. That flesh, that communication through physicality will be very important for John’s portrait of Jesus.
In this account we have already seen the great hostility between Jesus and those John will term ‘the Jews’; those who would both kill Jesus and with whom John’s relations and those of his community would have deteriorated to the point of no return by the time the Gospel was written. Significantly then, we are told that this incident occurs on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, suggestive of an audience of non Jews. At the end of his account John will add that the people were desirous of making Jesus king ‘by force’, and that he escapes them. As we know that many in Judaism at the time of Jesus were looking for a warrior Messiah who would lead the nation in a successful war of liberation from Rome, we can easily understand this both as Jesus’ rejection of their misplaced understanding of his messiahship, and of John’s world view as it came to support a largely Gentile Church after the failed Jewish revolt.
With all this in mind we begin to see that this very familiar story plays a different role in John’s story of Jesus. In John’s presentation, the role of the feeding of the five thousand is not to add to the list of identifying signs of Jesus, impressive as that is, but is the prelude to Jesus’ extensive teaching in John 6 on the meaning of the Eucharist, commonly known as the Bread of Life Sermon. This is especially necessary when we consider that John, unlike the synoptic writers, does not have an account of the institution of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper. Unlike them however, his Eucharistic teaching is lengthy and of vital significance for the life of the Church, and for our appreciation of the nature of Jesus himself. Time and time again in this lengthy sermon we shall see Jesus insist that the Mosaic Law is redundant and that salvation can only come through his own person, a being so intimately connected with God the Father that he consistently rewrites the entire Jewish salvation story. Now no longer is the Exodus/Moses epic the foundation and enduring story of Israel, but the new Israel will be moulded and shaped by the sacrificial death of Christ.
Our reading from Ephesians (4:1-6) picks up one of the central points of Eucharistic teaching, that of Church unity and it’s emphasis – one Body, One Spirit, one and the same hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism – would have been something very close to John’s teaching of Christ. Perhaps Paul found it essential precisely because of divisions, or threats of them, within the churches in the area. Almost certainly such unity would have been essential from a very early date in protecting Eucharistic practice and understanding, as the heart and centre of the new faith.
Jesus is the one who has the power to achieve fantastic miracles. Here, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Now this would immediately have alerted ancient readers and hearers to other equally miraculous God-given feeding events in the Old Testament. The principal one would have been God’s giving of manna and quails to the escapees fleeing from slavery in Egypt. Now the amazing this about this account is that it happened every day and over a long period, represented by 40 years, indicating that the God of the Hebrews continually watched over and fed his people. Moreover, he gave them just enough for their needs every day. In sharp contrast, our Gospel account speaks of enormous abundance with the feeding of the 5,000 plus the 12 basketfuls of left-over’s, truly a messianic banquet, a foretelling of the life of God’s kingdom finally and irrevocably come on earth.
Old Testament stories expound similar themes. There is the one of Elijah and the continually generating food supply granted to the pagan widow who cared for him, and also our first reading (2 Kings 4:42-44). Now the interesting thing about this story, as well as its parallel to the 5,000, lies in the fact that Elisha, like his now dead master Elijah, was not one of the court prophets – indeed was often in fiercest opposition to them. Elisha was loved and respected by the people however, as our reading shows, for one would have expected the first-fruit offerings to have been presented to the priest-prophets of the state temples dotted in profusion all over the land, well before the centralization of Jerusalem hundreds of years later. Elisha, like Jesus, stands out as strangely detached from the state cult, from the respectable and ordered religious life controlled by those in the cities, by the powerful people whom Jesus would continually be at loggerheads with. Perhaps then the parallel between Elisha and Jesus draws our attention to the fact that God’s power and abundance works not where we might expect it, but in out of the way places and among the needy, those desperate for his care rather than with those who already have more than enough.
July 19, 2015
Many of you will remember the Scotsman from “Dad’s Army” who when faced with any difficulty would say “We’re all doomed!” He was, of course, even if he didn’t know it, quoting from Jeremiah, our prophet this week!
Jeremiah’s work ended in 587 BC when the City of Jerusalem was surrounded by the army of Babylon. Now Jerusalem had high stone walls and a good water supply and could hold out against a siege for a long time. So most of the king’s advisers were telling him to do this. Jeremiah was the one prophet who said the opposite. He said that if the King did not give in to the invaders then Jerusalem would be destroyed and the people scattered. Hence we heard today his “Doom for the shepherds” (Jeremiah 23:1-6) – those prophets who said everything would be OK if they held out.
As you can imagine Jeremiah was NOT popular. Hardly anyone believed that God would want them to make peace with the enemy. Gods in those days were meant to bring you victory, and if they didn’t then you turned to a god who was more successful. The fact that Jeremiah was proved right in the end, that the City fell and the people were scattered was a turning point in the history that led eventually to Jesus; to the idea that God was not a magician who could put everything right for us, but was a power that will support us and be alongside us, even when we suffer, and our life appears to be a failure.
Jesus takes this image of a shepherd even further, using another prophet Isaiah to say that not only will people who follow God sometimes have to suffer, but that its leaders too, even Jesus himself must be prepared to enter into this suffering. So Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd… who lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10:11) And we hear this message too in our 2nd Reading (Eph 2:13-18) where we are reminded that Jesus brings us peace – Yes – but it is brought to us “by the blood of Christ”. Christianity has always therefore used this message, which comes originally from Jeremiah, to encourage its Bishops and Priests to be faithful shepherds, even if their message is unpopular just as Jeremiah’s was.
Around this time in the Catholic Church in England and Wales we have our Day for Life. We are being asked to support the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, which happens to be based in Oxford, and that provides academic backing to the Church’s teaching on a lot of tricky and easily misunderstood issues, not least whether people should be allowed, and indeed assisted, to commit suicide if they are faced with a life-threatening illness.
I am glad to see that the slogan this year is not just “Cherishing Life” but also “Accepting Death”, and I want to look at the accepting death teaching first, because without it the Church’s opposition to the Assisted Suicide Bill scheduled for debate in the UK Parliament on September 11th, is easily misunderstood. One of the most difficult things a priest has to do is to help people who cannot face up to the fact that their loved one is dying – that it is actually wrong to give a dying old person another dose of antibiotics rather than let the pneumonia take its course, that the doctors must be allowed to switch off the life-support machine and see if the person can survive unaided. This is the teaching of the Church, that we must not strive to keep someone artificially alive. It may seem sensible to you at this moment in time, but when we are faced with a dying loved-one, it can be an incredibly hard decision to make, even though it is the right one.
Letting someone die naturally does not mean depriving them of proper care, of water when they need it for example. The Hospice Movement, inspired by Christian teaching, has shown how important it is to develop practices that allow us to die with dignity. Watching over a loved one dying can be very hard. It can take a long time, and we should always seek support when faced with this, and especially ask for a priest, even if the time of death may be some days, even weeks away.
Faced with this long drawn-out process, some people say why can’t we shorten the process. Why can’t we just allow people to end their own life with an injection that just puts them to sleep for ever? Hence the Assisted Suicide Bill.
When my atheist aunt was dying she said bitterly “You wouldn’t treat a dog like this!” My reply, even given as gently as possible, was not popular. “But you are not a dog.” I could have said “All human life is sacred.” But although that’s true, it doesn’t really explain why we oppose such things. The point is that if we encourage and assist one dying person to take their own life, we make all old people and severely disabled people vulnerable. Think what it would be like if you were ill, and you began to wonder if your relatives would prefer you to end your life quickly. Why? To reduce your pain, or so they could inherit more of your money?
Thus, instead of dying with dignity, the dying would be worrying about the trouble they were causing, and would die often confused and unhappy. If a dog is put to sleep it does not affect all other dogs, but we humans are different, and that is why the Church says that human life is sacred, is not a thing to be tampered with because it seems more convenient to us.
Yes, both these views, allowing people to die naturally on the one hand, and not making them die artificially on the other, are hard and sometimes unpopular messages; but we Christians, like Jeremiah so many yeas ago, believe that sometimes what is unpopular may be the right thing to do, may be the thing that is actually in the long run, a greater good
July 17, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Readers of the Bible today frequently assume that everything was perfectly understood and well established by the time the particular texts were written down. This runs quite contrary to the evidence, where we frequently find even the disciples clueless as to Jesus’ meaning, and oblivious of the need for any radical alteration in their thinking. Then, as now, there was a need for education, for the instruction of the followers of Jesus. Clearly insight does not spring up out of the blue. It comes after laborious and often difficult work on the part of those whose job it is to teach, and it can often be a frustrating and difficult task. Indeed, most modern Catholics display an unwillingness to work to discern the mystery of God in Christ, preferring to think that they got it sorted at their first Holy Communion classes, or are simply too lazy to do the work. Such an approach leaves us unfitted, disabled to act as the ambassadors for Christ that we are called to be. After all, if we approached other areas of our lives, on line banking; mastery of the internet; with such Luddite attitudes, where would we be?
The Letter to the Ephesians (2:13-18) illustrates just how carefully St Paul, or a later colleague, was to give careful instruction to the tiny Christian community in Ephesus. In our excerpt, he writes about two critical issues, or rather using a fundamental concept – the death of Christ on the cross for our salvation – he then goes on to look at the ecclesiology, the life of the local church, pointing out why and how these two things are so deeply intertwined. The writer speaks of the deep hostility in the city between Jews and Gentiles. Now we know that Jews were given special privileges by Rome. They were not required to offer pagan sacrifices, and were given doles of olive oil for their worship even during times of tension and hostility. Nevertheless, Jews were regarded with suspicion, set apart in their own quarters of great cities, and viewed with contempt by many. As the tension grew over various incidents up to the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in 66AD things gradually got worse, and after all, Palestine was a Roman occupied territory, and had been so for decades. Gentiles and Jews did not mix easily, due to the strict Jewish laws regarding this issue, and could not easily fraternise because of the dietary laws and so on. Christian communities containing both groups would I suspect have become a reality by the time of Paul’s death in 63, and, if as some suggest, this Letter postdates Paul’s life then it would have been written either during or after the Revolt, at a time of maximum hostility. The writer’s argument for understanding the reasons why Church unity and fraternization was not simply desirable but absolutely essential, becomes even more powerful and significant.
Part of his argument becomes clearer when we look at the Greek. Our Jerusalem Bible translation says Christ”In his own person (destroyed) the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the law.” The Greek says Christ in his own sarx – flesh achieved this, that is, in something utterly anathema to Jews, and lowly to Gentiles, emphasising precisely how Christ’s ravaged body became the ultimate sacrifice of unity, not just between the different races, but between God and mankind. Where the Jerusalem Bible translation speaks of his “Uniting them both in a single body”, the Greek uses the word soma, indicative of the entire person(s) remaking in Christ. From now on, all believers in Christ are totally refashioned, remade through and in the sacrifice of Christ’s body, and any sense of division according to race is utterly meaningless.
In the same way, in our Gospel, (Mark 6:30-34), Jesus instructs the apostles about the need for self discipline in their ministries. They cannot serve properly when exhausted and must rest. Shepherds too need proper care and attention to their personal health to avoid burnout. But as our reading from Jeremiah teaches, (Jer 23:1-6) it is also possible for leaders in communities to so lose sight of their task so that it becomes merely an opportunity for self gain and aggrandisement, and then they need to be taken to task, and will be , by the Lord.
July 12, 2015
Our prophet this week is a man called Amos. We have a passage from him (Amos 7:12-15) because it links to our Gospel (Mark 6:7-13) where we are reminded that we do not have to be special or clever people in order to share our faith with others. Indeed Jesus makes the point that his disciples are not to be fussed with a lot of clothing and clutter when they go around telling people about God. I am glad that we are not meant to take this too literally, because whenever I go anywhere I always seem to take an enormous amount of luggage with me – just in case – as I say. No, we needn’t be literalists, and wander round getting smellier and smellier because we have no clean clothes, but we do need to accept the spirit of what Jesus is saying, that is, that we do not need lots of “things” in life in order to serve God.
Think of another saying from Jesus that backs this up “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28) Again we do not have to take this literally, or we would all be wandering around stark naked, but we do need to avoid getting obsessed with these kinds of things.
Our passage from Amos however, is more about who we think we are, than what we wear. Some people can think that they are not good enough or clever enough to do this or that. Maybe they have been put down by over-strict parents or teachers, and have convinced themselves that they are stupid or clumsy – or to use a modern expression they lack self-esteem. I have often found myself trying to help older people who have been oppressed like this as children, and are still living with the harm this has caused them. Those who, in the past, turned the Christian faith into a way of oppressing children, of making them behave, were actually not behaving as Christians at all!
Back in the time of Amos, over 700 years before the birth of Jesus, prophets were basically official political advisers to the kings of the time. They mainly told kings what they wanted to hear, and thus continued to be paid – perhaps like some modern civil servants?? You can hear from the tone of Amos’s reply that he didn’t think much of prophets like that. “I was not a prophet, neither did I belong to any of the brotherhoods of prophets” he exclaims. “I was a shepherd..” He is also being told off for being in the wrong court, as he comes from the southern part of Israel called Judah, and the northern part of Israel wants to send him packing, as an interfering foreigner. People will use any excuse to get rid of someone whose advice they do not like, and one of the classic ploys is to say “You are from somewhere else and cannot possibly understand.” Maybe we have done that sometimes?
The main message of Amos is the same wherever he happens to be. He points out throughout his short book that those who make war on others and thus destroy the livelihood of others will have to answer for it one day before God. The northern king has been doing precisely this, taking advantage of a time when there is a power vacuum in the Middle East to conquer more land. Sounds familiar perhaps? Listen to this passage where Amos warns him and his advisers. He begins with familiar words “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” and then reminds them exactly who God is,
“He who forms the mountains, and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought; who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!” (Amos 4:13)
Amos is particularly concerned that those who make war, are also the rich who oppress the poor. So one of his most famous passages is this one
“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain?
And the sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale,
….. and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 8:4-6)
Yes, we all know from our news daily that when people make war, it is the poor who suffer most, and that is surely why the Catholic Church spends so much of its energy helping the poor and starving. as we do in Eynsham by supporting various projects.
Pope Francis is not the first Pope to take up this theme from Amos where the rich are attacked for oppressing the poor, and where we are all called to live more responsibly and care for the world God has given us. He makes lots of suggestions in his latest Encyclical from proper recycling to making sure we do not use more electricity than necessary. I need to heed this when I forget to turn lights off in the house! But back in the 19thC, the rise of industrialisation led Pope Leo XIII to condemn this kind of thing in his famous Encyclical of 1892 “Rerum Novarum”, and Popes since then have returned again and again to this theme. Pope, now Saint, John Paul II is praised by some for helping to destroy oppressive Communism, which he did, but he also attacked oppressive Capitalism which these same people sometimes conveniently forget; and this is surely an aspect of the faith that must continue to be stressed, as the rich of the world seems to get richer whilst even more people live in poverty.
So there is our message for today. To live simply, to realise that we do not need lots of things in order to serve God, and to be aware that when we relatively rich people waste the resources of the world we are not just being wasteful and lazy, but are actually failing God
July 10, 2015
Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- We all like to think we are in control of our own destinies and easily feel resentment when things happen that we see as thwarting our plans. Our Bible readings remind us that whether we are believers or not, all too often we are not the controllers of our futures. After all, five years ago Syria was a prosperous westernised state with many educated city dwellers working as part of their economy. Now thousands are dead or refugees living in terrible conditions. It was the same for many in Europe in 1939-45, and history shows us that this is an all too familiar pattern of events. Add to this the problems of disease and infirmity and sheer accident and we begin to perceive just how fragile our lives really are.
The Book of Amos (7:12-15) was written in the 8th century BC during a period when Assyria was weak, and Israel had seized the opportunity to war on their neighbouring states like Syria. They thought they were in control of events and powerful. But Amos, a seemingly insignificant prophet of Judah, the southern kingdom, wrote to warn the northern state, Israel, that things were about to change, as indeed they did with the rise of the new king Tiglath-Pelizer and his warrior clan who, as Amos predicted, would sweep over the lands south west of Assyria and enslave them all. Clearly this was not the message the priests of Bethel or the court of the Israelite King Jeroboam wanted to hear. It was not a message Amos was keen to deliver either, but he was compelled by God to obey his command.
The writer of Ephesians (1:3-14), probably Paul or someone close to his theological thinking, had recognised that we are all under the control and foresight of the God who creates and sustains us. Indeed, so great is his reliance on God that he suggests that the plan was in God’s mind even before the creation of the world. What unfolds subsequently in this great praise song in Ephesians is not however the suggestion that we have no freedom at all in our lives, but rather helps to show how each one of us is deeply loved by God, and therefore that within the restraints of our human existence we can live as children of God, creatures so deeply loved that God himself wants to share his life with us.
The writer expresses this in terms highly significant to the people of the time, especially Gentile Christian converts living in the Eastern Imperial city Ephesus, where status, class and wealth would have been all important. He presents the Christian message of redemption and salvation in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ as a mystery of adoption. Now in the ancient world, where death was a frequent and feared occurrence, one could easily find that ones legitimate heirs died prematurely leaving a person without an heir. In these circumstances it was common for wealthy men to adopt others to become their heirs. Sometimes these were already wealthy, but they could also be high status families down on their wealth, or even ex slaves whose masters took a great shine to them. Greco-Roman histories are full of such tales, and it would have been the dream of thousands of poor that such a ‘mystery’ might unfold for them, altering their lives irrevocably. Our writer wants his readers/hearers to appreciate that this is not just a dream for this life, but part of the real and eternal plan of the one true God of Jesus Christ. This greatest of all gifts; life in Christ Jesus is not for this so short temporal life, but that “In him we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning under the predetermined plan of the one who guides all things.” Think for a moment just how magnificent and reassuring such a message would have been – indeed is for us too amidst all the uncertainties of life.
This certainty of living under the seal and grace of the Holy Spirit is also the mark of our Gospel (Mark 6:7-13) in which we see Our Lord instructing his disciples as to how to plan for their missionary journeys. They go out ill equipped in worldly terms, dependent on the support they can find locally, emphasising that this is not their work and mission but God’s, and that they live and die under his grace. The end of our passage indicates quite remarkable success, “They cast out many devils and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.” Like them, we too need to learn to trust more, believing that God will be with us in our every need.
July 5, 2015
Evangelisation is an awfully big word, but for us Christians it is an awfully important word, because it is all about how we Christians spread the Christian message, the Gospel, to others. Indeed, on Saturday 800 people are gathering with the English and Welsh Bishops to spend a day on working out how to do this better. How can we get the truths of the faith over to people (including our own family members) who are so influenced by the ways of the world, or by atheist propaganda, that they cannot grasp why we think our faith is so important, or why we want then to be practising Catholics too. Our Readings today remind us how hard this is, even for Jesus in his home town (Mark 6:1-6) but I want us to look mostly today at Ezekiel whom we heard of in our 1st Reading (Ez 2:2-5)
Ezekiel is one of a number of people called “prophets” who lived about 500 years before Jesus was born, and whose writings can be found in the Old Testament part of the Bible. These readings are important to us because they were important to Jesus. They were written at a time of great agony and disruption for the Jewish people. The golden days of King David and King Solomon had passed, and now the people of Israel lived as two nations divided from one another, but also ravaged by war and invasion from the great Empires of the Middle East. In all this turmoil it would have been easy to give up the faith, as many did ; but the prophets taught that God was bigger than the disasters they were facing, and that in some way, eventually, God’s glory would be revealed.
Perhaps the two most famous passages where Ezekiel says this are his visions : first of a renewed Jerusalem with its desolated Temple restored and the water of life flowing out from it : and second of a Valley of dry bones coming to life. Some of you might know the second story from the Song “Dem Bones, dem bones, dem dry bones https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLi55MV04a8
What is important for us is that both of these visions are fantastical. So, although in the time of Jesus, as now, some people took then literally, Jesus taught people how to understand such stories spiritually. So the renewed Temple in Jerusalem is not a building of wood and stone in a physically rebuilt city, but God’s presence in us the new Jerusalem – the Christian Church. And the new life promised to the bones is not literally skeletons getting up and dancing, but eternal life with God taking us beyond our mere physical existence.
Most of the people at the time were not convinced by Ezekiel’s visions. They preferred to ignore madcap ideas of rebuilding the Temple which might divert them from what was, for them, the more important task of surviving and thriving. But by the time of Jesus, 500 years later, these writings had become accepted, not least because the Temple had been rebuilt. You will remember that Jesus was always in the Temple when he visited Jerusalem, and many around him thought that a rebuilt Temple was a sign that soon the Romans would be defeated and Israel would return to its ancient glory led by a Son of David, an anointed one, a Messiah, a Christ. But Jesus, saw it all very differently. He predicted that before long the Temple, along with the whole of Jerusalem, would be destroyed again, (Matt 24:1) and he was right, because about 40 years later that is what happened. But he also said (John 2:19-21) “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” – and it was this that they mocked him for as he hung dying on the cross.
That mockery, of all that Jesus stood for, all that he eventually died for, is what we have to face today. Mostly the mockery is gentle and polite, a strange bewilderment that we think it’s important to go to Mass every Sunday. They don’t mind us having our private and personal thoughts about God and about Jesus, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the family visit, or the football game, or the trip to the seaside, or the need to go shopping. Then, we are pressurised into silence, forced by them into giving the impression that God and Jesus doesn’t matter very much, and can be accommodated around other more important things.
That is surely why this Gospel passage (Mark 6:1-6) is so important for us. It is the people Jesus knows from his own village who are most resistant to his message, and he knows from Ezekiel and the other prophets, that this is to be expected. But it doesn’t make it easy, does it? We can cope with people we do not know attacking the faith, but when it is our own family or friends, however gentle that attack may be, then it really is hard.
What makes it worse is that people still cannot see that the new Temple that Jesus said he would raise up, despite their mockery, the new Jerusalem that Ezekiel spoke of from which the water of life would flow, is the Church, the Christian people. They see the Church simply as a human organisation with its priests and its Pope – impressive on occasions, useful for weddings and funerals – but only that – nothing more. Whereas for us the Church is the place where God is present in all his glory. The Church is a spiritual entity which is vital for the world and for the world’s future. We, the Church, are the yeast in the flour without which there can be no bread. We are the salt in the food without which there is no taste. We are the lamp in the room without which there is only darkness and death.
That is what we are called to be for the world, whether the world accepts it or not. Evangelisation, sharing this with others, especially those close to us, will always be hard; but we must try to find ways to do it, and that is why we must pray to God for help for such a difficult task.
July 3, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- All too often we have a tendency to button-hole people. It can easily become racist: “All Blacks are stupid and dirty”, or ‘All Islamic people are fanatics”. More locally, as Jesus experienced, (Mark 6:1-6) it is about people thinking that as they know your family and origins, they have got you taped, and the very idea that a person ‘known’ to the community could achieve surprising, nay even miraculous things, is simply unthinkable. Jesus was the local carpenter and had brothers and sisters and it followed therefore that he could not possibly do or be anything special. Indeed, as the Greek puts it, his community were ‘scandalised’ by his actions. This is completely lost by the Jerusalem Bible translation which simply states “They would not accept him”. Yet the Greek original surely captures far more powerfully the enormity of the shift in thinking required by those who knew Jesus, or thought that they knew him, for to be a source of scandal does suggest someone or something that rocks society to the core. What we have to remember is that everyone comes from a local group and that the things they achieve, both for good or evil come from a known community, a society which on the surface appears completely normal.
The whole point of the incarnation, of God’s becoming human in Jesus for our salvation, lies precisely in the very ordinariness of his life. The problem for Judaism was that it thought in such stereotypical terms that it could only think of the Messiah as one from a line of existing powerful men, and as one who would be capable of gathering an army to throw the Romans out of Palestine. They had forgotten the fact that their earlier leaders, like Moses a slave, or even David a shepherd, and indeed those their scriptures recognised as the great prophets, came from unexpected and humble beginnings. What they failed to see was that their history taught them to look to ordinary men and women as saviours of their nation, not to the great and the good whom they mistakenly placed all their reliance upon.
When we lived in Newbury some 30 years ago who would have thought that the two blokes who made electronics in their back shed would become Vodaphone, or in Hull earlier, that the rather eccentric librarian at Hull University, Philip Larkin, would rise to international status as a poet? We need to value the ordinary, really scrutinising it for its true potential. Perhaps too, this is why Pope Francis is causing such a stir. Many think they know what a Pope should be like, and he just refuses to play ball. We are however coming to realise that this man, for all his sense of fun and his very rootedness in the real world, has the steely determination to reform the Church and attempt to get it back on track, even if that track is sadly lacking in tiaras and pomp.
Corinth was a city of the nouveaux riche, the upwardly mobile in the first century AD, and in common with much of the ancient world was given to extravagant boasting. Throughout the ancient world there were statues and inscriptions lauding the famous, often for their great achievements and their building projects and donations to the public life. Anyone who was anyone would record their accomplishments in stone or bronze for posterity to see and admire. When St Paul was dealing with this loved but intransigent community in Corinth, (2 Cor 12:7-10) he realised that to get through to them he too had to boast of his achievements in order to make any impression upon them. But instead of lauding his successes Paul turned the tables on them by ‘boasting’ of the history of his persecution in the cause of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he does it so well in chapter 11 that he begins to think that the Christians there will simply focus on his ‘achievements’, and be in danger of simply thinking his sufferings rather like their own achievements. This being the case he wrote, “In view of the extraordinary nature of these revelations, to stop me from getting too proud I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud.”
Paul wanted his converts to understand that all his great work as a missionary had its origin in the grace of God and came entirely from God. Proud as he undoubtedly was of his work for the Gospel, Paul knew that none of it could ever have come about without divine prompting, that is, it was never something he had dreamed-up for his self aggrandisement, but was entirely the work of God in him. It was God who took this respectable young Jew, well on the road to success as a Pharisee, and turned his life upside down in his service. God took this unlikely man, this persecutor of the Christian sect, and made him the great apostle of the Gentiles. Paul knows to his cost just how easily he could have turned all this to his own advantage, and so he recognised God’s authority over his life as he learnt humbly to accept the thorn in his flesh, something that continually acted to level him and keep him on the right track, a true follower of the humble and insignificant Jesus.
A similar story is located around Ezekiel, prophet of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. Like Paul, he came from a prosperous and well educated family, in his case in Jerusalem, and was from the elite of the first deportation in 593. Once away from home and all that was familiar and secure, he devoted his attention to those left behind in Jerusalem, instructing them and warning them against further rebellion against the Babylonians. Like Paul, his cosy life was thrown into turmoil by historical and political events, and he who previously had every reason for self-congratulation and confidence found himself in a very uncomfortable position, one in which he would frequently stand against the ruling classes and the elite from which he had come. Ezekiel, like Paul, recognised the voice of the Lord God calling him to act in ways unfamiliar and unprecedented for one of his family and priestly origins, and yet he knew he could not refuse. Like these people, we too must be alert, listening for God’s call to us, and be willing to respond when that call comes. Great or small, it will come and we must pray that we shall have the grace to respond when it comes.
June 28, 2015
Some of you may know that I was born and brought up in Wimbledon, and going to watch the tennis was a big part of my teenage life at this time of the year. Even today, although I don’t have time to watch a lot, I keep my eye on what’s going on, and love the chance to watch a really good match. Like any great athlete, these tennis players are amazing aren’t they? Think how fit they must be to keep playing brilliantly for hours as they strive for the big prize! Now they didn’t play tennis in the times when the Bible was written, but they did have the early form of the Olympic Games, which is why St Paul can talk about running a race in our 2nd Reading today. “I have fought the good fight to the end: I have run the race to the finish.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8) So what exactly is he talking about? What race was he running in, and what has that got to do with us?
The Bible is full of the writings of St Paul. He was the man, much more than St Peter, who travelled around from place to place especially in Turkey and Greece telling people about Jesus, and it’s the letters he wrote to some of these people that we now have in the Bible. It was a hard life. He tells us “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked” (2 Cor 11:25)
This was the “race” he was talking about, and it’s the race that all of us who claim to be Christians have to get involved with. I don’t mean that we all have to travel round the world telling people about Jesus like Paul did. But it might be what God is calling some of you here to do. For somebody has to do it. Somebody has to give up their normal life, as St Paul did, and be a priest or a religious. We tend to think that people like that come from somewhere else, but they don’t. Every church must hope and pray that there are some in their midst who may take up this particular challenge for Jesus.
But Paul’s “race”, as I said, is something all Christians have to run whatever kind of life they lead. It’s much easier not to be a Christian, not to be a Catholic. When people find out that we’re Catholics, lots of them will say things like, “But why do you have to bother to go to Mass when there are so many other more interesting things to do?, or “Do you really believe in all that old-fashioned stuff? And we will wriggle uncomfortably, because when we say we do it for God, they will look at us as if we are a little mad! They may even say “Well if you have to believe in God, surely you can say some prayers quietly at home, why bother with all this weird church stuff?
Standing up to this is really hard, and that is why Paul calls it a “race”, because if we are to manage it we have to be prepared, like an athlete is, for these challenging moments. It’s no good just slumping around vaguely hoping we’ll be fit when the moment comes. God, you know, is a bit like a mixture of a sports coach and a physiotherapist. He will help us in our life, but he can’t get anywhere with us if we don’t co-operate. The athlete who fails to turn up for training, or eats the wrong kind of food and gets fat, won’t win any kind of prize! Indeed he or she will be lucky to get into the race at all. Those who think that a vague prayer to God ought to solve all life’s problems are just talking nonsense.
For Christians this training is what Mass is. It is listening to the teaching, really listening. If the coach is trying to teach us something and it gets a bit technical, do we just say it’s too hard to understand? Of course we don’t. For we want to learn anything and everything that will help us. When we are being taught something vital and we go off into a daydream, our coach or our teacher will almost certainly stop and say “ LISTEN TO ME! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” God is much more gentle than that, so we will never hear God shout at us, even if I am sure that sometimes he would like to.
Mass is also the way we receive the spiritual food that sustains us in every part of our life. If our coach says we must eat bananas and we stick to chocolate then we’ll quickly lose our fitness and stick to slumping in front of the TV or the Computer. Again it’s up to us. No-one will force us to come to Mass. This is the food of eternal life but if we decide to try to live our life without this great gift of God, we can do so. We can slump away and ignore the great challenge that God sets before us. God wants us to live life to the full, to recognise what he is calling us to be and to do, to share his love and glory with others. This is a race that is really worth running, and this is the race that Paul encourages us to take part in. May the prayers of St Paul and all the saints help us to truly be the people of God.