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.
June 26, 2015
Frances writes on the readings for the Vigil of SS.Peter & Paul:- These readings are all about life-changing experiences. How this happens to some of us, and the effect we can then have on others, changing their lives forever. It involves being awake, receptive to such offers from God, and allowing ourselves to become vehicles of his grace and change in others. Others indeed will have offers of divine grace and healing made to them, and they in turn will have to be open to God’s call and work in them. Just before Christmas each year, the Divine Office has a reading from St Bernard of Clairvaux, in which he meditates on Our Lady’s answer to God’s call at the Annunciation. Will she respond, and what will happen to a fallen world if she turns her back on the divine plan?
The reading from Acts (3:1-10) recounts the healing miracle worked by Peter and John in the Temple in Jerusalem. They themselves had of course been transformed by their experience of the resurrection of Christ, which had turned them from fearful men – those who believed Christ’s cause completely lost – to active agents in the spreading of his gospel. They approach a beggar, one accustomed to gain his living at the beautiful gate of the temple. He seems to have had no other vision of life and looked expectantly at them, hoping for the gift of a valued coin. Imagine then his amazement when this does not come, but instead he is healed and with it the pathway to a totally different life dawns. How will he react? Is his vision of humanity, of the world, big enough to enable him to grasp the initiative and once more join the productive society? We are not told any of the answers here, but left to meditate on the astounding change wrought by God through his apostles, and invited to travel this route with them. The fact that the man’s joy is recorded bodes well for the new life he can seize upon when he is no longer simply a victim of circumstances and can act independently at last. Similarly, we have to consider the response of the onlookers, described as astonished and unable to explain the miracle.
Our reading from Galatians (1:11-20) similarly speaks of a shattering shift in focus. Paul was born a Jew, into a line of Pharisees- those rigorous for following the minutiae of the law – and as part of his utter conviction that his way was right he persecuted Jews who followed Christ until the extraordinary experience he had on the Damascus road changed his life forever. Our excerpt speaks of his subsequent behaviour, with its emphasis that he avoided any return to Jerusalem and its hard-line Judaism. Indeed, from his description, Paul went off to ‘Arabia’- a pagan province of the Roman Empire – and from there he must have gained instruction in the Christian faith and then went off on the first of his missionary trips which included proselytising in Galatia to pagans. We just take all this for granted, but when we stop to think about it we see the enormity of the shift in the life of Paul the Pharisee. In effect, as we see from his letters, his total reliance on the Jewish law is set aside as he lives out the new Gospel of Jesus Christ – the Son of God and our only redeemer. His entire way of living would have been changed, as he lived and ate with pagan converts to the new faith, something defiling and unthinkable in Judaism, and he gives up his respected and secure life in Jerusalem for the uncertainty of the travelling salesman for Christ, totally at the mercy of others, often persecuted and in danger of death. We too need to recognise these life-threatening and life-changing moments in our own lives and grasp them when they come to us just as Paul and Peter did.
In our Gospel (John 21:15-19) we meet our final life changing incident, where the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at the Sea of Galilee and eats with them – that ultimate mark of friendship – and in it remakes or remoulds Peter, the Peter who had failed him and denied ever knowing him at the passion. Imagine what a tense situation this would have been with the world of knowing between the two. Jesus, who had predicted Peter’s denial, and Peter who had been so certain that he would stand by his friend only to reject him at the fatal moment. Never mind the others who behaved similarly, never mind our knowledge of his human frailty, let’s focus on the intense moment in which these two met once more and Our Lord’s testing “Simon, do you love me?” “Feed my sheep”. Within this three fold questioning and answering there surely lies a profound knowing of each other, an openness and transparency to the truth in which Peter’s heart and mind are searched, known and accepted. This time he will not, cannot, renege on his recognition of the truth.
Let’s think of those life –changing moments we have experienced and how they have changed our lives and those of others we have met. Like Peter, we may have found some of those incidents profoundly uncomfortable, but they will have been necessary and of infinite value.
June 21, 2015
I expect that all of you, like me, love the seaside. For me it is just the sight of that immense amount of water wooshing or crashing again and again onto the beach. We must seek God in all things, but for me it is most easy to feel God’s presence when I hear that gentle sound -the swish swish of the waves. I am lucky to live near some large trees, and so I can hear then swishing too as soon as the wind gets going even a little bit. But when the wind turns into a storm or even a tempest then both the sea and those trees begin to roar, and the sound then can be more than a little frightening.
Our first reading (Job 38:1.8-11) however reminds us that although we may feel God close in the gentler sounds of the natural world, he also speaks and is present in the midst of a storm or a tempest. Then we are reminded that God is a power beyond our imagining, far more powerful than any storm however terrifying that may be. So Job hears God say to the sea from the midst of the tempest, when the sea is roaring uncontrollably “Come thus far, and no farther: here your proud waves shall break.”
In our Psalm too (Ps 106:23-32) we hear more about the sea, with similar words “He stilled the storm to a whisper: all the waves of the sea were hushed.”, which, of course, points us forward to today’s Gospel. (Mark 4:35-41)
But let’s look at our 2nd Reading first, where Paul reminds us, as he so often does, that we meet God most of all in and through our fellow human beings, most of all in that one human being Jesus, who brings God close to us in a unique way. So Paul says “The love of Christ overwhelms us”. Yes, overwhelms us. It ought to. We should never get so used to looking at Jesus on the cross, that we forget what an amazing thing that love is.
The power to love like that is something given by God that all of us have within us. It leads people to do something for others that goes beyond just being kind. Think of firefighters or lifeboat crew risking their lives to save others. There we see humanity at its best, and need to thank God that such love, such service of others, exists. It’s something that should lead us to pray every time we hear or see a fire engine or an ambulance pass by. Think too of the many young parents caring for their children when they are sick or frightened in the middle of the night. There too we see powerful love at work, and there too we should recognise the presence of God.
I always think that the most important part of the story of Jesus in the storm is not when he wakes up and the storm dies down, but the picture of him asleep. I think it is the only time that Jesus is described as being asleep, and it is worth picturing this in our minds. Think of the times you have found yourself in a storm, even in your own house. The wind roars around, the trees sound as if they are falling down, and if you are by the sea, the sound and sight of immense waves roaring and crashing on the beach can be quite terrifying. This is what is happening all around Jesus, and what is more, he is not in a house but in a relatively small fishing boat! Most of us know what it is like to be woken in the night by such a storm, and to find it impossible to go back to sleep. Most of us know too, the times when the worries and anxieties of life have been like a storm waking us in the middle of the night, and leaving us shaken and frightened.
Think of all this, and then think of Jesus, asleep through it all. His sleep reminds us that God is with us however frightened we are made to feel by the storms of this world, whether they are caused by the forces of nature, or happen inside our heads. Jesus knows all the Psalms by heart, as well as The Book of Job; but he doesn’t just know these writings as words, he lives then out in his life, in that utter unity with God the Father into which he is calling each one of us. It is not an accident that in one place (1 Cor 15:12-20) St Paul describes Christian death as “falling asleep in Christ” – as a time of undisturbed sleep. Think of those times when you sleep well and wake refreshed, and you get some idea of what it means to be one with God.
So whatever storms we face in life, we are reminded today that God is always with us. It can be hard to feel this, especially in the middle of the night when we cannot sleep; but just because we cannot feel God’s presence does not mean he isn’t there. The disciples had Jesus right with them in the boat, but his presence did not stop them feeling frightened. In one sense we are thus reminded that feeling frightened is OK. It doesn’t mean we lack faith. It means that we know how much we need God, and that, in the end, is all we do need. In the end there is only God.
June 19, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- These readings all explore the idea that our vision of God is too small, too domesticated and prosaic. We need to rethink it and our whole relationship to the divine. Our Old Testament and Gospel passages do this by way of imagery related to the sea. Now, whilst most of us in the West nip off for seaside holidays at some time or other, and may be rightly impressed by a huge storm at sea, as well as delighting in sunny times, we have to remember that none of this was the experience of Israel. Theirs was a land-locked country, with the pagan Phoenicians on the coast. They were the great sea farers and traders of antiquity and Israel feared the sea as something alien and unknown. Pagans in this area worshipped the storm gods Ta-hunta, in the Bronze Age, and Baal in the time of the Old Testament, and were well aware of the power of sea and storm. In the time of Jesus there were of course fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, but that too called for exceptional skills, as the arrival of sudden storms could easily sink a small boat as we see from our Gospel. (Mark 4:35-41).
Our passage from Job (38:1.8-11) is part of God’s great answer to Job’s bewailing of his lot and his suggestion that God has treated him unfairly. Like many of us, his approach to God, whilst respectful, can be winging and petty, blaming God for our difficulties, even suggesting quite wrongly that God causes suffering, when in fact the Creator, the sustainer of creation, is far above such pettiness. In this part of God’s rebuke of Job, the Lord firmly puts our ‘hero’ in his place by reminding him that it is he, God who is precisely creator of the universe and that Job is merely one of the products of this huge creative power. Only when Job recognises this, can he be reconciled to God and rewarded, drawn close to the wealth which is the divine nature.
In our Gospel we meet a similar situation. The disciples have been properly impressed by God’s work, met in the healing miracles of Jesus, his feeding of the hungry and so on; but, they had stories of other healers, prophets like Elijah, and did not really appreciate who they were meeting in Jesus. With Jesus’ stilling of the storm, quite simply with a word, something quiet and quite undramatic, they are suddenly immersed in the awesome power of God. This man, the one they thought they knew, reveals himself as totally other in his power and outreach. This man is not simply within the created order, he transcends it and is in control of it. He is not just one of us only bigger; he is the maker and sustainer of the universe. He is this in his being, his essence, and he has deigned to come and share our human nature.
Our reading from 2 Corinthians (5:14-17) really spells this out. Unfortunately our Jerusalem Bible translation once more completely misses the point: It reads “For anyone who is in Christ there is a new creation.” But the Greek actually says “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation’, something wholly different, as it insists that our baptism so incorporates us into God, into Christ, that we become divine. In Christ each of us is now of a new order, not looking at the change from the outside, as implied by the Jerusalem Bible, but here and now living as a new creation, as members of the changed humanity redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Each of us now has a new relationship to divinity, being now members of the divine family. Paul will often express this in the two different words Greek has for flesh, in sarx we meet the unredeemed flesh, with its capacity for sin, but redeemed by Christ we become soma, bodies, beings with a capacity for God. We have therefore put aside corruption with all its vices and have taken on the limitless possibilities of the divine. Just as the divine Jesus lived a human life in this world, so each of us is now called to live in and through his image, seeing his creation from God’s vision, alive to the infinite possibilities we all have as the redeemed. Now transformed, we can never claim that something is impossible or too difficult, for in God everything good is possible.
June 16, 2015
Frances writes on last Sunday’s Readings :- Our Old Testament reading and our Gospel (Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-34) are an invitation to meditate on the way in which God works, in contrast to the way fallen humanity approaches things.
The story from Ezekiel stems from the time of the first deportation to Babylon, in the 590’s-570’s BC. Ezekiel had been sent off with the elite to Babylon. He understood the events of the time as God’s judgement on his faithless nation. The religious reforms of Josiah had come too late and the revival of the faith, as seen in the work of the Deuteronomic historians, failed to restore the nation. Whilst they are duly punished, Ezekiel is also a prophet of hope for his people, as we see in his allegory of the cedar.
The cedar tree, which grew in abundance in the Levant and was widely exported from the Bronze Age onward, was a great sign of power and prosperity. The cities of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos had been exporters for hundreds of years. Cedar wood was an aromatic hardwood, ideal for ship building and as a vassal of Egypt in the Bronze Age, Byblos was required to send tons of it to keep the Egyptian fleets and armies in good order and they had done so at the whim of Pharaoh and for little payment. But when the Bronze Age collapsed around 1200 BC, and states like Mycenae, Ugarit and the Hittite empires fell apart, and Egypt was disastrously weakened, these trading kingdoms like Tyre and Byblos came in to their own. The next time the Egyptians made demands they were told firmly to put the cash on the table before any delivery would be made. These nouveaux riche shipper states now called the shots, and cedar wood would become once more the praised means of advancement and power. When Israel’s poets spoke of splendour and wealth, power and dominion, very frequently mention would be made of the valuable cedar wood and its forests. This imagery is to be found in the Books of Moses, the Psalms and the prophets. When therefore Ezekiel spoke of the power of the newly grafted cedar, it was a well chosen and easily recognised sign to his people that Israel would recover and become great again, their slavery would not endure forever.
The problem was however that Israel had become fixated with the idea of power, power and strength by which she could throw off foreign oppressors and bully them in turn. By the time of Jesus near universal hope in the coming of the Messiah lay precisely in this wish for naked aggression and power, for a warrior leader fit to smash the nation’s enemies. So when Jesus wanted to give his followers a symbol or allegory of what the kingdom of God was about he did not follow this time honoured route. He deliberately and very subversively went against the prevailing values of the fallen and unredeemed world. Instead, he opted for the image of the mustard seed, an infinitesimally small thing which could however, given time and patience, action and nourishing, develop into a large shrub, capable of being a home for many birds to shelter in.
Jesus frequently used images taken from the agricultural world, not a scene of glamour, but of heavy toil, hard graft and even disappointment, as one was at the mercy of the elements. A reasonable harvest was a blessing, survival for another year, a sign of God’s goodness and mercy. They were also of course, a message of the co-operation of humanity with God and his creation. Whereas the cedar industry stood for vast economic exploitation, large slave armies of workers constructing fleets of war, and the threat of invasion of others states also to be enslaved; the imagery of the kingdom given by Jesus is quiet and undramatic, so unworthy of comment that it generally passed by the powerful unnoticed.
Perhaps Jesus wanted his followers to see that the coming of the kingdom would also be a similarly quiet event or process, formed from the myriad of tiny actions for the kingdom that each and every one of us can make. In such a situation none of us need fear lest his contribution be too small. The kingdom after all will not ultimately be about the outstanding mark that a few powerful people have made, but the community of grace labouring together. Most of us will never hit the headlines, or be sufficiently wealthy to change the world like Bill Gates, or be amazingly gifted and clever so that we produce some machine which will forever answer the world’s needs, such as cracking the atom or finding the Higgs-Boson or discovering supplies of infinite energy. No says Jesus, ‘But you can contribute’, and that’s what will make the kingdom. In the kingdom of the risen Christ there is room for all, you and me, and the point is that our small efforts are of immense value to God.
June 7, 2015
Over this weekend millions of Catholics throughout the world will take part in a Procession of the Blessed Sacrament. For those who do not know already, let me explain that the Blessed Sacrament is the bread that has become the real presence of Christ at Mass. It is placed in a special container called a Monstrance so it can be seen, and everyone praises God for giving himself to us in this special way. Usually the Procession finishes with what is called Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Benediction is just another word for a Blessing, but this Blessing is special because instead of the priest saying words of blessing, as he usually does at the end of Mass, he gives the Blessing simply by making the sign of the Cross over the people with the Blessed Sacrament.
Some of these Processions are outdoors. There is one in Oxford starting from the Oratory Church at 2.30pm and one in London starting from Farm Street Church at 5.15pm. I was once in Italy for this great Festival, and Benediction was given again and again in different places in the little town of Montefalcioni near Avellino. In each place the men appeared to compete with each other by letting off the loudest fireworks possible to give thanks for the Blessing their area had been given. It was very noisy!
Of course, the point of all this is not to have the best or the loudest Procession, but to remind all of us who are at Mass regularly how wonderful this gift of God actually is. How easily we take it all for granted. I have even seen people arrive so late at Mass that they have, to my horror, walked in the door and straight up to receive Communion. It appeared to me, although I might be wrong, that they had done nothing to prepare themselves for this. They had not been present for the first part of the Mass either in Church or at the Children’s Liturgy, they just simply walked into Church late, and thought it was quite all right to come up for Communion.
St Paul warns people about this. He writes to the Christian of Corinth “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let each person examine themselves, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon themself.(1 Cor 11:27-29) In one sense that would mean that none of us should receive Communion, for none of us are worthy; and I honour people who for one reason or another, not just because they arrive at Mass after the Gospel, sometimes do not come forward to receive.
We can all do more to “examine” ourselves, as St Paul says, so that when we say at Mass “Lord I am not worthy to receive you” we actually mean it, and that’s enough to allow us to receive. After all, what is the point of a Procession to honour the Blessed Sacrament if those who take part do not mean it, if they do not, again as St Paul says “discern the body” – in other words realise that they are meeting Christ in a special way – that they are meeting Almighty God. Jesus didn’t say have a jolly meal to remember me. He said quite solemnly that this is my Body broken for you. This is my Blood poured out for you. And he didn’t say – do this just to remember me, but used a word that means – do this to bring me into your presence.
Later this summer we will be reading through the 6th Chapter of St John’s Gospel at Sunday Mass. There we will see how hard it was even for the closest friend of Jesus to accept that he was actually going to give them his body in this way. It is easy for us to forget the reality of what is actually happening at every Mass. Let’s make a point of really trying to recognise his wonderful presence – today.
June 5, 2015
Frances writes on Corpus Christi :- One of the difficulties faced by modern Catholics in appreciating the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is I think rooted in the fact that we are now allowed to receive the Blessed Sacrament with great frequency, even daily if we wish. Whilst this is a great and marvellous gift from God, it also sets us up with a mindset whereby we do not take the sacrament as seriously as we should, indeed, we rather take it for granted; our right and an automatic thing, given us since first Holy Communion or Confirmation. Long gone are the days when devout Catholics were required to receive the sacrament twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, and we cannot even begin to comprehend the Medieval world where believers literally jostled one another to ‘see Jesus’ at the elevation at the Mass, and understood this as the high point of their Eucharistic connection with the risen Lord. There, seeing rather than receiving the sacrament was everything, and its holiness and the absolute presence of God the Son was a moment of high impact, of personal encounter with the risen Christ. By contrast we have to ask the question that if we are allowed such easy access to the Lord Jesus in the Sacrament, what the point of the Feast of Corpus Christi is. Are we simply to see it as a hangover from the 13th century, when things were very different? Can it serve us in the ways it did in the past, or if not, how can we rediscover and use the feast today?
Our gospel (Mark 14:12-16.22-26) helps us to root the actions of our Mass in real historical time and place. It was Passover, and we are told how Jesus had made very careful preparations for this the greatest of all Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, the yearly celebration of their Exodus, their escape from slavery in Egypt. This was the real beginning of the Jewish nation, as the small vagabond group struggled to become the people of God on their difficult journey to the Promised Land, their home; and in those events discovered more and more about their relationship with the one they recognised as their one true God. Imagine if you will the dramatic liturgical living out of these events at Passover; and ask yourself how you would have reacted if the man you had come to see as the leader of your devout group of Jews suddenly and dramatically high-jacked the service and shifted its long held meaning so that it focussed instead on himself. The high point of the Passover celebration had always been the silent passing round of food and wine. So consider how the disciples reacted when Jesus used this moment to enact out his own death and made it clear that in so doing something quite unprecedented was happening: “This is my body….this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many.” When, only hours later, Jesus was arrested, tried by a kangaroo court and crucified, and then later came back from the dead would this tiny collection of believers understand that in this action all their earlier story of who Israel was came to its fruition in the Jesus events? Would they see those strange actions of his at Passover as absolutely crucial to any understanding of who he IS and of our continuing relationship with him?
Our Old Testament reading (Exodus 24:3-8) helps us to enter into the Judaism which shaped Jesus and his disciples. Like other societies round about, Israel was a nation much addicted to the ritual sacrifice of animals. Indeed, they hedged their entire lives by a myriad of sacrifices, some which dealt with sins, those of the nation or of individuals. There were sacrifices for thanksgiving too, at harvest or as we meet in the offerings of the parents of Jesus, for his birth, and sacrifices ratified treaties. Israel became a society of rules and it was of absolute importance that these were followed to the letter. You might say that its self-definition was marked in and by blood. The problem was, as Israel and their sacrificing neighbours realised, that the system was self-perpetuating and for the temple priests, not to say lucrative. The death and resurrection of Jesus and our reliving out of his sacrifice in the Mass must be seen not simply as a challenge to the old ways, but the gateway to a much deeper understanding of God and of our relationship to him.
This is why the Letter to the Hebrews, (9:11-15) is so significant. Here the writer, possibly Paul, reflects on the difference between those earlier animal sacrifices and that of the person of Jesus Christ. Here, in the single sacrifice of himself Jesus has put aside all earlier meanings of sacrifice and put us in a wholly new relationship with God. Whereas previously people killed animals to placate wilful deities and deal temporarily with their own faults, here the one who is already divine, of God, “Has passed through the greater, the more perfect tent…not made by men’s hands because it is not of this created order”, (meaning it is entirely from God himself) and ensures that we are eternally capable of living with and in God. The Jerusalem Bible translation is less than helpful here, since it makes a modern psychological distinction between what it calls our ‘outward’ and ‘inner’ lives, in a very dualistic understanding of what is redeemed. But the Greek of the text speaks simply of outward offerings purifying from ritual pollution, restoring the cleanness of their flesh, so that they could once again worship God in the temple. But Christ, according to the writer, gives himself in total and unrepeatable sacrifice to God for our sin, sin which affects the entirety of who we are. By this unique action he restores the whole person; our being; what it calls our conscience, so our capacity for God. This means that we can live in union with God through the Holy Spirit and serve him. “He brings a new covenant, as the mediator, only so that the people who were called to an eternal inheritance may actually receive what was promised.” This is what his death on the cross achieved for you and for me and it is this we ritually re-enact every time we join in the sacrifice of the Mass. Corpus Christi is the day on which we give thank for this immense gift by which the Son eternally unites us to the Father. It is an action of unprecedented gift and grace, in which Father and Son together co-operate to fulfil their eternal wish for the humanity they created in an act of outpouring of creative love and self-surrender.
May 31, 2015
On the 12th June, The Feast of the Sacred Heart, we have been asked to pray for the sanctification of all priests.. but what does that long word mean? What are we actually praying for? The word “sanctification” means being made more holy, in other words growing closer to God; and it’s a process that all Christians are meant to be undergoing all the way through our lives, as we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in us. Of course, we are never fully sanctified, we die less than perfectly holy; but the process of sanctification is then completed by God after death, provided we are open to it, so that finally we can be one with God for ever.
What I want to share with you today however is not how you can become more holy, but more specifically some ideas about how priests can become more holy, since that is what we have been asked to pray for ; and I thought I would do so by looking at the nature of God, of God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and showing that what God is like might help to explain what we might expect every Catholic priest to aim for.
God the Father is, of course, God as the Creative Power underlying the Universe. I know a young man who is coming to study for a Doctorate in Astro-Physics here in Oxford next October who explained to me that he would be studying the formation of galaxies, and that there were hundreds of thousands of them – in fact he then gave me a figure so immense that I just lost the ability to understand how big that was. If we cannot grasp what the Universe is like in its immensity, how can we ever grasp what God is like? And that’s the point isn’t it? If we are to be like God, we must always keep in mind how holy, how much beyond us, God the Father is.
The Priest can easily forget this. He can get too familiar with the words he uses every day as he says Mass, and the other Prayers of the Church. If a priest is to be holy he needs to meditate regularly on the mystery and majesty of God that he is called to convey to others through the Holy Mystery that is the Mass. When a priest is ordained, the Bishop hands him the vessels in which the bread and wine are to be consecrated and says “Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate.” Powerful words! But easily forgotten as the Mass becomes more and more familiar. I find I have had to think of different ways throughout my time as a priest to bring to mind what the Mass is. At the moment I am trying to think myself into the person of Jesus as I say his words “This is my Body…This is my Blood.”, but before long I will have to vary this to keep myself thinking in new ways of the mystery of what I am doing.
Moving on then from God the Father to God the Son, we all know that we are meant to be more like Jesus, especially more loving and more sacrificial; but how does this relate specifically to a priest. Most obviously it is is shown to us all on Holy Thursday when the priest washes feet in imitation of Jesus. Remember how horrified St Peter is at seeing Jesus doing the task of the lowliest slave? It’s all too easy for a priest to think of himself as something special. You laity are a bit like St Peter. If you see “Father” doing some lowly job, you are inclined to be a bit shocked. Some of you, not all, can easily put the priest on a pedestal. You honour his office, which is right, but somehow you can end up making a priest think he is more important than he is. To be like Christ means he must be a servant not a Lord, and people who are given power and leadership, as a priest is, can easily allow that to go to their head! This can come out in the Confessional too, as Pope Francis pointed out recently to some priests he had just ordained. How easy it is for a Priest to forget what he is there for. The Pope has clearly heard some horror stories of bad priests, as I have, when he said firmly “You are there to forgive, not to condemn!”
Finally we meet God the Holy Spirit within us, working in all sorts of ways according to what we are like, but always for one goal, as St Paul says, “ To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” – in other words for the good of the Church and its work in bringing God’s love to the world. The Priest can forget this. He has to run his Church, and he can get immersed in all the day to day administration that this brings – from making sure the sick and housebound are cared for to dealing with the sewers or the sound system when they go wrong. But the Priest is ordained principally to be the link with the Bishop and with the worldwide Church of which we are only a small part. He has to remember that when he says Mass, he does so not in his own power, but only in the power of the Church, and in the power of Christ as its Head. It is Christ who celebrates Mass, not the individual priest, and every priest needs to remember that!
The priest also has to remember that when he preaches, he is called to preach the Gospel, not his own opinions. He may, indeed he must, use examples and illustrations that are personal to him, or to the people he is speaking to; but always in order to convey the Faith of the Church, not to promote his own bandwagon. Indeed some of the most dangerous priests are the most successful ones. Success can go to our heads, and can mislead the people, who faced later with a quieter less bouncy priest can drift away from the faith, because their faith has become too dependent on the personality of one priest. In a way, you need to pray that your priest will make mistakes, and own up to them, because then he is likely to be more humble and thus more holy.
Anyway I hope these thoughts have helped you with your prayers and given you some suggestions on how to treat your priest whoever he may be!
May 29, 2015
Frances writes :- Why do we celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Trinity? What does it mean for us to proclaim that God is three persons, three unique beings working together and showing forth the glory of God? Why indeed do we need to think of God in this manner at all. We could simply think of this being as all powerful, all knowing and eternal, and leave it at that.
Christian thinking however never found this answer sufficient, unlike the Jews from which our faith originates. We see one breakdown of their approach in our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy (4:32-4.39-40). This book was compiled by the Temple priests just before the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, and was part of the king’s effort at a clean up in a time of crisis, when approaches to the faith had become slack. In this chapter God reminds his people of his immense power, how he had in the past repeatedly revealed his strength to the faithful through many signs and wonders, and had even rescued the nation from slavery in Egypt. As a result of this he had given them laws by which to live in faithfulness to him and threatened punishment for misdemeanours. Yet throughout all this time Israel had never met God face to face, as he is. His being was forever hidden from them.
The Christian story, to the contrary claims that in Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, God the Father and creator had done something quite unprecedented, he has revealed himself to us in the person of the Son; and moreover, not merely shown ‘what he can do’, as he did in the past, but, and much more significant, what he God IS. Through Jesus the Son, we now have intimate access to the very heart and meaning of God himself. In the relationship eternally existing between Father and Son we see through their great gift of themselves to humanity (in the incarnation of Jesus), what God‘s will is for us human beings. In exploring this gift, through the power of the Spirit we discover the true nature of God both as he is eternally, and as he is in relation to us. That nature is one of loving sharing of everything that the three are, nothing is ever held back and it is precisely this capacity which is gifted to us. Paul writes in Romans (8:14-17) that we are “Heirs of God and coheirs with Christ.” He writes that we are no longer slaves of God, the position of his Jewish ancestors and of the pagans in the past. Now, we have a new identity, one mirroring that of God himself in Trinity, in which we shall share God’s life eternally.
It can be no accident then that we celebrate this great feast at the end of Eastertide, when we have solemnly lived through the terrible sufferings and death of Jesus and celebrated his resurrection, recognising that this act of God the Son is the way in which God draws us into his own life and being. We speak of this as Salvation. We know that in this act Jesus demonstrated his total obedience and self-offering to the Father, and in and through his passion leaves us an example of total commitment to God, and an understanding of the meaning of willing suffering for the truth. The Easter resurrection event is about his absolute vindication by the Father, and Pentecost, with the coming of the Spirit on the disciples emphasises how they and we are drawn into the life of Father and Son through the Spirit. But it was surely far more than that, for it demonstrates that we, under the guidance of the Spirit, grow in the grace and knowledge of God and are fitted for their company.
This ‘doctrine of the Trinity’ is then a pretty awesome thing. For in it we are no longer insignificant things at the mercy of God, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods”, as Shakespeare remarked; rather we have become sharers in this enormous adventure which is God’s life. For most of us this is very frightening, most of us would often prefer an almighty and unknowable deity whom we could at least blame for all the hazards of life. But this is not what we are invited to in our relationship as ‘heirs’ with the Triune God. Sharers in the divine nature, we are called to participate. As our gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) makes clear, when they met the risen Jesus in Galilee, they wanted to worship him, literally, prostrate themselves, but “Some hesitated”, or as the Greek says, ‘doubted’. The gift of understanding we have been given at Pentecost is not cheap grace, but very demanding, and our living out of our lives marked in the knowledge and sharing of God in Trinity and all that that implies for our lives will be taxing, yet it shows how optimistic God is about us. As Paul writes, to be coheirs with Christ we must “Share his sufferings so as to share his glory.” Life for all of us who now live the Easter event in the shadow of the Trinity will never be easy, but it will be the journey to eternity.