August 30, 2015
This is a story some of you might find quite familiar. It’s a true story of a good Catholic mother whose very intelligent son went off to University and began to live a wild selfish life. In effect, he enjoyed doing things that he knew were wrong. At first his sad mother simply refused to have anything more to do with him, but then a wise confessor told her to do the opposite, to carry on loving and caring for him, and constantly to pray for him. This she did and she shed many tears in the process. Finally, when I suspect she was near to giving up, when he was in his 30’s, he found the way to change, and eventually, much to the surprise of his mother, he became a priest, and one of the most brilliant preachers and teachers Christianity has ever had. Yes, you may have guessed that this happened 1700 years ago. The young man was called Augustine and his mother Monica, and both are now saints of the Church whose feast days we have celebrated this week.
I tell their story because it’s easy to think that the way we cope with wrong things in ourselves or others is to spend a lot of energy trying to suppress them, just as Monica shunned her son Augustine. But Jesus warns us in our Gospel today (Mark 7:1-23) that we should not try to create a surface respectability – to paper over the cracks as they say. This would be, as Jesus said quoting Isaiah, “to honour me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus takes this further. He says that we need to realise that what matters is what is deep inside us not what is on the surface, and surely this means that the way we become deep down good, is to actively seek to do good and to think about good things rather than bad things, and never to assume we are OK just because everything seems OK on the surface? As St Paul puts it (Phil 4:8) “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”
Let’s look at some examples from the list Jesus gives us in our Gospel. What are the good things we should think on, in order to fight against greed and envy and slander? Three very common sins in our world today. I want to start with slander because quite rightly many people mention this sin when they make their confession. They don’t use the word, of course, but they confess running other people down behind their back, or of gossiping. I am always a bit wary of thinking of gossiping as being wrong, because there is surely good gossiping as well as bad. There’s no harm in having a chat about others, even being critical of others, provided it is kind and loving. Indeed that’s the point isn’t it? If the gossip begins to turn into running someone down and simply speaking ill of them, then just going quiet isn’t good enough. We have to actively turn the conversation in some way into a more positive way of speaking about them. So if someone starts saying that so and so drives them mad because he or she fusses too much, we have to point to the good intentions in the one criticised. It may sound trivial, but saying something like, “I am sure she or he means well” can make all the difference, because it changes our attitude to them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean being naïve about someone’s failings, for sometimes being kindly critical is the path towards helping someone behave better. Monica didn’t say to Augustine. “I don’t mind what you do, I still love you”, for it is clear that he always knew that she didn’t approve of his lifestyle, even though she still loved him. We sometimes forget that the world of Monica and Augustine was like ours in many ways. It was a society characterised by violence, by a lack of respect for life, by loose sexual behaviour, and by some people being able to engage in this kind of lifestyle simply because they had too much money.
Augustine implies that what was wrong about him – and this takes us on to greed and envy – was that he had an unbalanced view of the good things of life, not that the things themselves were not good. He writes about all this in his Confessions. He says (and he is talking to God “In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.” In other words what he had to do was to think about these things in another way, so that he could use and enjoy them, without being enslaving by them.
It’s surely the same with us. If someone has something good that we would like to have, we need to rejoice with them rather than get filled up with envy and greed. This is a tough one isn’t it, because I’m not suggesting that we should rejoice because the rich have millions whilst other live in poverty. Rather that we, by remembering the poor, should not want to become too rich, and should have pity not just for the poor but also for the rich, those who have so much and still want more. Jesus pointed out the foolishness of this when he said “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven ….. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt 6:19-21)
This is precisely why Christianity is not principally about being moral, because that is a surface thing. It is principally about faith, about having a different attitude to life, about having a heart that is linked to God and to the goodness he has created and wants us to share. We come to Mass each week, we pray as often as we can, so that our hearts may be turned more and more towards God, and so that every day we may be transformed by his love, and become more like him.
August 27, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The compilers of our lectionary for today seem to have made their choices through a series of scissors and paste jobs, so their real intention for the Church and its homily writers is difficult to see. What we do have to remember is that our interlude with passages from St John’s Gospel are now left behind and we are back studying Mark’s Gospel, (7:1-8.14-15.21-23) We have already noted in this Gospel that there was a plot headed by the Pharisees to kill Jesus in Chapter Three, and subsequently Mark has been at pains to help his largely Gentile Christian congregation in Rome understand why Jesus had courted such animosity. Consequently, he has shown us a Jesus who is a healer, reaching out to the needs of the poor and unclean in the countryside and away from controlling Jerusalem. There were many miracles and much teaching, and in our Gospel we see scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, that bastion of political and religious correctness, come down to Galilee to confront him. Greco-Romans knew all about power and control from the centre, and those in Rome itself were well aware of the spy networks and the difficulties that involved. Mark seems at pains to point out that Jesus, a devout Jew, was not opposed to following the law of Moses whenever he could, but clearly he was angered and outraged by the application of later laws which by then formed so much of Judaism so excluding thousands from its correct practice. Was there perhaps a covert message of resistance being suggested in Rome, at the very heart of the establishment and its abuse of power?
Our foray into Deuteronomy (4:1-2.6-8) is surely precisely about this important point. The giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses by God was about a very basic code of honourable living, both in relation to each other and to God. The problem was that after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, when Israel learned to live without temple and sacrifices, her regard for the law, for a set of moral obligations by which to live devoted to God, meant that human made laws multiplied; and for some, especially those concerned with their writing – the scribes, and those who argued for new and modified laws – the Pharisees, their vested influence became paramount, so that their understanding of the law dominated their thinking about God rather than being routes to holiness aiding the faithful. As we see time and time again in our different Gospels, it would be those clashes with these religious purists which would so enrage Jesus and secure his death.
Clearly Jesus was not antinomian for the sake of it, but his deep and enduring relationship to the Father required him to think and act with the love and charity which is supremely the hallmark of God himself. So we see Jesus entirely thoughtless of the defiling touch of lepers and the unclean, be they dead or foreign or just plain sick. He responds instantly to their needs, healing them, frequently by his touch, and therefore defiling himself. He will, for the sake of a change of heart on the part of a wicked man, eat in his house with his dubious friends, chat up foreign women, and defeat death itself. He lives out in his life among us the requirements of the Letter of James (1:17-18.21-22.27). “It is all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given us from above; it comes down from the Father of all light; with him there is no such thing as alteration…”. Our author speaks of not just hearing God’s word, but actively doing it too, and this for him is centred not on any elaborate laws needing to be fulfilled about ritual cleanliness etc, but rather on care for others less fortunate than ourselves, the widows and orphans. The James of our passage does not indulge in any lengthy moralising, or the minutiae of the faith. For him it is all quite simple and straight forward – responding to the needs of others when and where they are manifest. Perhaps we need to live like this too, and not hide behind a veil of carefully constructed Pharisaism, as is so easy to do. If our Gospel from Mark is a call for a radical questioning of prevailing political powers and systems, perhaps we too should be called to a questioning of their values, following the lead of Pope Francis.
August 23, 2015
We may look around on a sunny day – when we have one – and think how wonderful creation is, and as believers praise God ; but it is worth remembering sometimes that life, as we know it in all its forms, need not have happened at all. Indeed the scientists tell us that the chances of life evolving the way it has are very slim. And we Christians would go one step further, and say that God did not need to create life at all, and certainly has no need to create us weird wilful human beings. Yet he did. We believe further that God created us to be aware of his existence, to be able to respond to his love with love.
But love is something we have to choose to do freely, or it is not love; and that is the point of this the last of my Homilies on the Mass. Just as a marriage is not a true marriage if either person is forced into it, so our relationship to God, our response to God’s love, must be something we freely choose to do. That’s why we have Joshua in our 1st Reading (Joshua 24:1-18) telling the people “choose who you wish to serve” And this is what coming to Mass is. It is us choosing to serve and love God. We may try to thank God for all that we have been given – in our own private prayers of thanksgiving wherever we happen to be – in loving and caring for others in all sorts of different ways – and in simply enjoying life to the full. But all this, however hard we try to do it, is inevitably mixed in with a lot of human failures and mess-ups, and is therefore a pretty tiny response to the immensity of love and creative power, that is God.
That is why God comes to us as Jesus, to offer us love in human form, a love that is more accessible for us to understand and to respond to. What is more, we are allowed, indeed even invited, to be drawn into union with that perfect love, and are told that, as we do so, all our imperfections are washed away in the immensity of his love. And the way Jesus draws us into his love is by giving us the Mass. He says, just before the words in today’s Gospel (See John 6:51-69)“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. As I, who am sent by the living Father draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me.”
This is why the great Eucharistic Prayer that consecrates the bread and wine always includes first, praise to God for his Creation, “You are indeed holy O Lord and all you have created rightly gives you praise”, and then links that creative work to Jesus, “for through your Son Jesus Christ…. you give life to all things..” Once then Jesus becomes present with us at Mass in this wonderful way, we can choose to be drawn into union with him, or we can just watch without really appreciating what is being offered to us. We heard in the Gospel that “many of his disciples left him”, so we should expect that to happen today, and it still does; but we also heard Jesus asking his disciples to choose what they wanted to do. He challenges them, and so challenges us “What about you, do you want to go away too?” And Peter responds on our behalf “Lord who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life.”
It is only as we choose to follow Jesus at Mass, not just coming to Mass but choosing to be one with Jesus at Mass, that we are then drawn into union with Jesus and his love, and can make his offering of love the centre of our offering of our lives to him. As I said earlier, our offering by itself can never get anywhere near a full response to God’s creative love, but once our offering is united with the perfect offering of Christ on the cross, then even though what we offer is so little, it is enough. So the priest can say on our behalf “as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son…. We offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice” and later “May he (that is Jesus) make of us an eternal offering to you.”
That is the glory of the Holy Mass, that in and through Jesus we can be drawn into that eternal circle of love that is God. Everything we are, everything that we love and enjoy, is part of God’s offering to us, and all week every week that love is pouring into us and through us. Then, once a week, just for an hour or less, we are invited to be part of that process by which all that glory, all that love, is offered back to him in and through Jesus.
This offering of love is so immense that sometimes the Church uses the word “oblation” to express it – “Look upon the oblation of your Church”. The word actually simply means offering, but it is meant to remind us that this offering is completely different from the ordinary offerings of our daily life. It is, as the priest says or sings, “through him (that is through Jesus) and with him, and in him…. in the unity of the Holy Spirit”, and only in this way, that we can fully offer back to God all that he has given us.
As George Herbert put it in his great poem
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
|Guilty of dust and sin.|
|But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack|
|From my first entrance in,|
|Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning|
|If I lack’d anything.|
|‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’|
|Love said, ‘You shall be he.’|
|‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,|
|I cannot look on Thee.’|
|Love took my hand and smiling did reply,|
|‘Who made the eyes but I?’|
|‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame|
|Go where it doth deserve.’|
|‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’|
|‘My dear, then I will serve.’|
|‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’|
|So I did sit and eat.|
August 20, 2015
Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :- There are times in all of our lives when we take on something little realising the full implications of what we are doing. It may be marriage or a partnership of some kind; a business venture; the bringing into the world of a child with all the uncertainties that means; or the caring for others in different kinds of ways. How are we to remain faithful amidst all the vagaries life chucks at us?
For the people of the time of Joshua (Josh 24:1-2, 15-18) this would be a perennial problem. As they entered the Promised Land of Israel and divided the territory amongst the different clans, they were called upon to decide about their religious belief too, since for ancient people this was never detached from their day to day existence. As our text shows, the people resolutely chose to worship the God of Israel, rejecting the gods of those round about with whom they would have been very familiar. This choice must have been very difficult, for they were the minority among the inhabitants. All those continual imprecations against taking foreign wives and so on were in reality a warning about religious syncretism, something Israel fell into with monotonous regularity, as we hear in the Books of the Kings etc. Quite clearly the battle for the faith of Israel was a continual one, and one that the nation frequently came very close to losing, and with it Israel’s distinct identity.
We tend to read this passage from Ephesians, (5:21-32) with very jaundiced and prejudiced eyes. In a more liberated age, the text can easily fall victim to a feminist agenda which sees this piece as a call to male dominance and the oppression of women. We would be quite wrong to do this however, for in its original context what Paul wrote was alarmingly radical, scandalously subversive and different. The prevailing Aristotelian philosophy taught that women were inferior to men, indeed, that in the process of forming new human beings the female was merely the receptacle for the developing infant and contributed little to its origin and development. What Paul taught was quite different and must have presented the tiny Christian community in Greco-Roman Ephesus with quite a challenging and difficult doctrine, one which demanded great persistence and loyalty to the Christian message, if they were truly to live by it. Paul used the analogy of the husband-wife relationship to explore the relationship of the Christian believer (the Church) to its Lord and Master, Christ. Only when we truly give time to looking at that relationship, in all its many twists and turns, can we truly appreciate the extent of the shift in thinking Paul was suggesting within the Christian married relationship. Paul is in reality speaking of the relationship of Christ to his Father here, when dealing with his self-offering of the Church (us). He speaks of a totality of self giving for the other, something almost unheard of in ancient marriage. He speaks of complete commitment, where some pagans married and divorced with near monotonous regularity, and thought little of resorting to lovers and prostitutes on a frequent basis. The relationship Paul therefore explores between Christ and the Church, and between husband and wife, would therefore have been staggering in its demands and implications, summed up perhaps in that stunning phrase that we “become one body.” Never mind that difficult bit about the headship of men over their wives, this latter passage about becoming one body has surely stood the test of time, and is as difficult and challenging now as it was when it was written in the 1st century AD, our call to live and love as Christ has loved us is a daily challenge for any Christian.
Our Gospel reading, John (6:60-69) is the ending of the great Bread of Life Sermon of Jesus. Once again our Jerusalem Bible translation has completely let us down, and removed the stark pressure that Jesus deliberately imposed upon his disciples – even at the risk of losing all of them. “Does this upset you?” He has been speaking of the absolute necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist. The Greek text speaks quite clearly of our being ‘scandalised’ by his words, and Jesus goes on to explain that this is all about a spiritual reception of himself – something which his disciples largely ignored or totally failed to understand. If we are ever to begin to grasp the significance of the sacrament of the Eucharist, we surely must be prepared to enter into its awful and awesome meaning, going beyond the merely outward reception of the bread and wine, and entering into the mystery of the crucified and risen Christ who is so much at one with us that he gives himself totally to us at every Eucharist. Our text moreover remarks that Jesus knew his followers and knew that one of the 12 would betray him, literally, from the verb paradidomi, hand him over to death. There is a remarkable degree of self-giving in this word which lends a richness of the whole of this great Sermon. Our role, our vocation is to enter into the self offering of the one who threw away not just his life, but, as John’s prologue puts it ‘Life’ for our salvation. For the implications of this unique self–offering, which we choose to explore at every Mass, is that reality itself is a changed dimension. We in entering into it are no longer the people we believed ourselves to be.
August 16, 2015
Was Holy Mary, the mother of Jesus, present at the last Supper, the supper on which we base our celebration of Mass? The answer must be a resounding Yes, because we know she was in Jerusalem the following day, the Friday when Jesus was crucified. We know that, because St John tells us that he stood at the foot of the cross with her.(John 19:25-27) I suspect that the reason her presence is not mentioned on the night before, is probably that anyone reading it in those days would have taken it for granted that she and the other women would be present. Minds at that time, and until quite recently would have thought “Who else would have cooked the food and laid the table?” But further, if any of you have been to a Jewish Sabbath meal or Passover meal, or seen it on the TV, you would know that the mother of the house has a specific role in the ceremonies, and not just in the cooking.
Our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) however takes us right back to before the birth of Jesus, when a pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, and clearly proclaims that in some way her son Jesus is going to defeat the evil powers of the world. “He has routed the proud of heart. …pulled down princes from their thrones” etc. – and “princes” here means evil powers, not Prince William or Harry! Knowing this, Mary will not want Jesus to avoid the coming confrontation that she, like he, knows must happen. But she can also remember the words spoken when she presented her baby in the Temple (Luke 2:29-35) “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel ….. (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.)” So, unlike the disciples, Mary knows that her son’s defeat of evil will come through suffering and sacrifice, and that she will have to watch and suffer alongside him, before a greater glory appears beyond his death.
So when at the Last Supper, Jesus says “This is my body.. broken for you… this is my Blood.. shed for you”, Mary is more aware than anyone else there what that must mean. Yet there is no sign of her trying to stop him, only a deep faith that somehow, as she watches her son go forward into suffering, God will be at work; only a realisation that, as she suffers agonies as she watches her beloved one die, somehow that death will defeat all the evil that oppresses the human world. As St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.”
This is why one of the most important things we must realise about the Mass is, that it is the way above all ways in which we, like Mary, are drawn into the sacrifice of Christ. The Mass is the way in which we can become one with that suffering that, though so dreadful, defeats all the evil we human beings either suffer ourselves, or inflict on others, through our own greed, and anger and stupidity.
The Church therefore often refers to the Mass as a sacrifice, but we must be careful about the use of this term, as it is one of the misunderstandings that led to the Protestants splitting from the Church at the Reformation. The Mass is a sacrifice not in its own right, like the sacrifices the priests used to offer in the old days; but because it is the bringing into the present of the one perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews (7:26-27) “We have.. a high priest, (Jesus) holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily…. he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” (on the cross)
So the priest at Mass prays to God on our behalf, “Look upon the oblation (which means the offering) of your Church (that’s us) and, recognising the sacrificial Victim (that’s Jesus on the cross)… we may become one Body, one Spirit in Christ.” In other words we ask that we may be drawn into his sacrifice, that like Mary at the foot of the cross, we might be certain, despite the tragedy which pierces our soul, that this will ultimately lead to glory. But the Prayer at Mass makes this even more explicit, for the Priest says a few seconds later “May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation,,, advance the peace and salvation of all the world.” In other words, what we celebrate at Mass, which includes our own offering, our own little sacrifices of love and service (more on that next week) is not just for us, it is celebrated for the whole world.
This is why Mass is so important. It’s not a ceremony put on for us to make us feel better or more holy. The Mass exists to draw us into the love of God himself, shown to us most of all by that suffering on the Cross, and shown to us too by the image of Our Lady of Sorrows watching her son suffer and die, and yet believing that this was not the end. We are being called into love, so that we may learn to love like that, every day. No wonder those who come wanting to be entertained at Mass get nothing out of it! They have missed the point!
Today, we celebrate the glory of Mary drawn into the glory of heaven just as we will be, not by our own efforts however worthy they may be, but by the mystery of God’s sacrificial love. We celebrate the dragon– that is the evil of this world – defeated – the dragon we heard of in our 1st Reading (Rev 11:19.12:1-10) But note where that defeat takes us….for the woman there is not just Mary but us the Church and we are taken, not immediately into the glory of heaven, but into the desert. Like Jesus after his baptism choosing to go into the desert, so we choose to follow him into that world of struggle and service that we are called to as members of the Church. Holy Mary, Mother of the Church, you know what suffering means, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen
August 12, 2015
Frances writes : It must be thought odd at first sight that we choose to celebrate the Assumption of Mary into heaven, her death, with two readings about pregnancy and birth. It is left to our reading from 1 Corinthians (15:20-27) – Paul’s thoughts on the significance of the death and then the resurrection of Christ – to put the death and resurrection of every other mortal into context. We must try therefore to pick out some points from our readings that give, if not explanation, at least some context for this choice, thereby enabling us to enter into the doctrine of the Church which we celebrate on Sunday 16th August this year.
We notice first of all from our reading from the Apocalypse (11:19.12:1-6, 10.) that the woman spoken of here appears to be a divine, or heavenly figure, one to whom sun, moon and stars owe obedience, for they are simply part of her panoply, her dress; or almost a sign of her power, suggesting that she is in control of the cosmos or at very least, totally at one with it and in command of its powers. And yet this ‘woman’, whatever she represents, is, for all her awesome stature, vulnerable for she is pregnant and in labour, crying out in pain. At this supreme moment of fragility, whilst her child is born she is confronted by a ‘huge red dragon’, the destroyer of stars and one who threatens the instant demise of her precious child and by implication the entire created order. But we are told that the dragon is thwarted, God’s plan prevails, and this child who is to have universal dominion is taken up to God whilst his mother is whisked off to a ‘place of safety’ already prepared. The extraordinary thing is that this place is described as the ‘desert’, not the normally comfortable or even safe sort of place one might put anyone, let alone one as significant as this woman. Are we meant to compare this ‘desert’ existence with that of Israel during its exodus years, a time of growth in the knowledge of God; or is it a testing time, such as happened to Jesus after his baptism and certainly his chosen place of prayer to the Father? Or is it something to do with the ministry of the Baptist and the austere life he led there? I imagine that the dragon, with its repeated emphasis on the number seven must also relate to the letters to the seven churches in the Roman Province of Asia which the author addresses so vividly and scathingly, for they were all important Greco-Roman cities and places of great power and influence. If so then they are all firmly put in their place during the course of the letters. Earthly power it appears holds no sway in this scene.
Clearly there are links with our Gospel (Luke 1:39-56). Once again we see the situation of pregnant women. Mary, now pregnant by the Holy Spirit has gone to visit Elizabeth, an older woman, formerly barren and therefore especially vulnerable. We have to remember the colossal wastage pregnancy and childbirth brought to the ancient world to appreciate the fragility and stress both to Elizabeth and Mary. One might have expected Mary to cosset herself at this time, filled as she was with the awesome message of God’s trust in her; but no, she is compelled to go on this perilous journey, some distance, to see her cousin and stays some three months, and it is possible she even stayed for the birth of John. Perhaps there are links with the woman of the Apocalypse here, in her travelling, her risk taking and the divine protection she received, for already we feel she is living out her life totally consecrated to God and his plans.
The conversation between Elizabeth and Mary, our Magnificat, stresses precisely how God’s power is accomplished through the small and the weak and not the rich and the powerful. As we know that St Luke had quite a penchant for ridiculing the great and exulting the lowly, (shepherds, not magi visit the infant Jesus; a fondness for despised foreigners in sharp contrast to the powerful in Jerusalem with the story of the Good Samaritan and so on) we can be almost certain that his view of God’s great redemptive act in Jesus would be one which stressed the humility of his lifestyle and associates in sharp contrast to those ultimately responsible for his death in Jerusalem.
It appears that worldly and even demonic power is being compared unfavourably with God’s use of his own power. God’s power, it seems is used not for self glorification, (the problem of the Greco-Romans and ourselves) but entirely in fulfilment of his plan for the salvation of the human race, and it is this stunning act which Paul expounds so confidently in 1 Corinthians 15. We tend to read such passages at funerals and see them merely as vague comforters. Yet the authority and confidence of Paul in this passage is truly awe inspiring. There he was, in Corinth, that bastion of Roman power and superiority, a new city, built near the ruins of its former Greek namesake that the Romans had destroyed in 146BC. It was prosperous, pushy, knowing its masters the rulers of an immense empire at its absolute height who lived in the happy expectation of its continuance. Paul’s promise that the ‘end’ will lie totally in God when Christ will have ”Done away with every sovereignty, authority and power”, and where he will rule supreme until all his enemies are destroyed along with death itself, would have been very surprising not to say threatening to such people. We begin to appreciate just how radical the Christian faith was – and is. Christianity through the death and resurrection of Christ has conquered death, has defeated what even the might of Rome could not touch; for even its emperors died and crumbled to dust and none of their pagan religions could offer any comparable understanding of eternal life – to everyone – as did the Christian life. We are all promised that we shall somehow triumph over our mortality and live in and with God forever. Mary, whose assumption we celebrate today, stands as God’s great promise to us all, that in Christ death, that final enemy is defeated and the stories we tell about her show us a feisty, confident woman, the fitting choice of the divine, and our great role model.
August 9, 2015
When I was a boy, many moons ago, we used to transform sunlight into fire in the school playground. All you need is a small piece of paper and a magnifying glass. You focus the light until it is pinpointed on the paper, and soon the spot of light becomes fire and the paper is burnt up. I use this story because I want to talk today about how God transforms the bread and wine at Mass into his special presence. Note that I say “special presence”, because just as the sunlight is already present shining on the little bit of paper and shining everywhere to give us light, so God as Holy Spirit is already present in the bread and wine and in all created things, including and especially anything and everything that has life or is life-giving.
This is something we easily forget. We tend to want to think of God’s presence as something big and dramatic coming from outside that changes lives, and so it can be ; but we must never neglect his quieter hidden presence in and around us at all times. As St Paul says, when he first preaches in Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Notice in our 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:4-8) that Elijah has to be told not once but twice by God “Get up and eat”. Having experienced God’s dramatic power bringing down fire on a mountain, he has to be shown that God is also present in something as ordinary as food for the journey, and thus the story prefigures (as we say) the way Jesus will give himself to us in the simple sharing of bread and wine. In the Gospel too (John 6:41-51) the people cannot believe the power that Jesus claims he has as the bread of life. They say “We know his father and mother. How can he now say “I have come down from heaven.”
So the presence of God as Holy Spirit is easily missed, and his special coming is so quiet, that we forget that the moment when the priest prays for the Holy Spirit to come in this way is one of the most important moments at every Mass. Some people think the bell rings just before the priest says the words of Jesus “This is my Body..” to wake us up and make us pay attention to something important that is about to happen! But actually, although indeed it may serve the purpose of waking you up, it rings because something important is actually happening! The Priest is praying that God’s Holy Spirit will work in this transforming way NOW; and if you can see the priest at this point, you will see him holding his hands out over the bread and wine as he says “Therefore, O Lord, by the same Spirit… graciously make holy these gifts… that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is, as it were, holding the magnifying glass for us, so that the power, already quietly present, can be focussed more precisely for this equally quiet transformation to take place.
It’s worth remembering at this point, that this is a power given to the Church as a whole, not just to an individual called a priest or a bishop. I do not celebrate Mass by myself. As a priest, I am linked to my Bishop and through him to all my fellow priests, and to the Pope and to the whole Church of which you are all a part. So when I, as a priest, hold my hands out over the bread and wine, it is not just me but the whole Church that prays in this special way. For it is the whole Church that has been promised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even if different people within the Church are called to a specific use of these gifts, as the priest is.
But the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s grace as we sometimes call it, does not just transform the bread and wine, it also transforms us. This is something I know that you all know, because when asked why you come to Mass many of you will say that you are like a car running out of fuel, or to use a more modern example like a phone that needs re-charging. We all know how easily we let things slide, how easily we become obsessed with the next thing we want to do, rather than what God wants us to do. But again, just as we do not notice the Holy Spirit transforming the bread and wine, so we do not notice when we come to Mass that the Holy Spirit is radiating out from the Blessed Sacrament to transform us.
St Paul points this out in the 2nd Reading today. (Eph 4:30 – 5:2) He points out that the Holy Spirit has already marked us with his seal, and because we don’t notice that this has happened we go on with our silly ways. Clearly the Christians in Ephesus way back then were just like us, and so he has to tell them. “Never bear grudges against others, or lose your temper, or raise your voice…or call each other names, or allow any sort of spitefulness.” Yes, the Holy Spirit comes to us in a special way at Mass, through God’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and through his presence in and amongst us gathered in prayer; but we have to realise this or it will make very little difference to our lives.
That’s why, sad as it may be, there are some people who will go to Mass every Sunday, and yet never allow God into any other part of their lives. Whenever we’re like that, we make God sad, we “grieve the Holy Spirit”, (Eph 4:30) or to use more violent language, we hammer nails into Christ crucified for us on the cross. That’s why, like Elijah we need to hear God speaking again and again, not just when we feel like coming to Mass, but again and again every Sunday. Because otherwise, we ever so slowly begin to slip away into nothingness. That is why we cannot just let the Mass happen in front of us and around us, as if it were a bit of religious entertainment. We have to PRAY the Mass, to allow what is happening to penetrate into our thick skulls and hard hearts, so that the Holy Spirit may truly be able to do his transforming work within us.
August 5, 2015
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Isn’t it interesting that when we are called to imitate God (Ephesians 4:30-5:2) most of us think of behaving like God does as requiring some awesome feat of power. Elijah in our present story (1 Kings 19:4-8) had just been very pro-active in the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal; a piece of trickery by which he convinced people to turn back to the God of the Jews. Knowing through observation the likely time for the occurrence of violent thunder storms, he was able to convince his followers that ‘God was on their side’. Faced however with the threatened revenge of Queen Jezebel, he was far less sanguine. He ran away and asked God to let him die. So preoccupied was he with his own schemes, that he failed to notice God’s help in his need. God’s ‘angel’ provided food and drink, and it was only on the second occurrence of this provision that he noticed and acted upon it. In so doing it becomes clear that he has allied himself to the great deliverance moment of Israel’s story, the Exodus, for he travels 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb. Now the Exodus story speaks of 40 years in the wilderness, a period in which the travellers got to know God, and Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, so we can understand Elijah’s trip also as one of education and learning. One, like Israel’s, with its many ups and downs.
I notice also that in Ephesians it is the little things, things we just take for granted as a normal part of daily life, that we are called to work on so as not to grieve God’s Holy Spirit. Grudges, loss of temper, shouting at others or derogatory remarks against those we do not like, and spitefulness. Paul thinks that such common little faults destroy us and our relationship with God, and the antidote, our putting on the new man or the new nature formed in Christ, is something so obvious as to bypass our imagination, fixed as it is on the superhuman and the impossibly great things we think will win us eternal life. “Be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ.” It is an awesome message isn’t it?
Just recently we watched a DVD called ‘In Darkness’, about Polish Jews who hid for 14 months in the sewers of their city to escape the Nazis. The Catholic Pole who enabled them to survive initially did this to make money; he charged them for their food and help every week. He was neither a particularly good man nor especially bad, just a common fellow on the look-out for a fast buck. But as time went on and he had rescued their hidden jewels and converted them into cash and this money too was spent, the day came when the leader told him they had no more money. Unwilling to lose his image as a hard man, our unlikely hero gave the leader the cash each week so that he could be seen to hand it over. When the Russians liberated Poland he suddenly realised how proud he was of ‘his Jews’, for they had become his, his salvation project. What started as something dirty and venial had become a vehicle of grace.
In our Gospel (John 6:41-51) we find Jesus striving to teach the Jews (those in Judaism who were his enemies) that he was uniquely sent from God. Just as our reading from the book of the Kings had appealed to the Moses/Exodus epic, so too Jesus reminds his enemies that God has revealed himself and taught them through his prophets, men inspired by God and loyal to him, people who despite their faults were attuned to his teaching, and he insists that he too is part of this great unveiling of the divine. What was promised by those prophets has been fulfilled in himself. “Not that anybody has seen the Father, except the one who comes from God; he has seen the Father.” Not that this is presumption on his part, but that this is the Father’s manner of acting, just as he had previously worked in Moses and the prophets. His appeal to them relies precisely in their coming to see that the Moses/Exodus epic was but the start of the journey, a journey which continued and progressed through Israel’s prophets, and that he is the end point to which all those previous revelations of the divine were leading. Just as the bread given in the wilderness was not an end in itself; just as the baked scone given to Elijah twice was not the end but given to lead him onwards, so the bread which Jesus gave in feeding the 5,000 was not principally about food for the here and now, but a pointer to the giver, to God’s ultimate presence in Jesus. The tragedy for ‘the Jews’ was that they could not see beyond the ‘sign’, and in particular they could not contemplate doing so because they already knew Jesus’ common earthly origins – or so they thought.
Jesus labours to get them to see that the Exodus story was but the beginning, even just a metaphor, for their far greater journey to God himself. “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh (sarx) for the life of the world.” The bread was and always is God’s great metaphor for himself, handed-over, crucified, smashed to bits in Jesus for the world he created in love, and loves to the end. It is the extraordinary story of God’s love, God’s being. Not the testosterone fuelled imagery to which we are so addicted, but God’s autobiography: “Try, then, to imitate God, as children of his that he loves, and follow Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.”
August 2, 2015
I had a lovely day visiting a beautiful garden on Friday, and the profusion of plants and flowers and bees and birds was quite breath-taking. But then, at the far end of the garden, the visitor suddenly comes out into the open, and a great vista of countryside opens up before you, and on Friday the sky was blue with beautiful white clouds sailing slowly across it. This, to me, is just one way amongst countless others of experiencing just a little of the glory of God – the creative power underlying the Universe.
Last week I spoke a little of the presence of God in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass, but sadly it is easy not to connect that presence with the glorious presence of God in the world. God’s presence at Mass can easily become a little thing – a Presence that is quietly hidden in a tiny piece of bread – a holy moment maybe – but easily fixed in that one short holy moment at Mass.
Equally we may think of God’s presence as something that happened to us in the past – some moment when a baby was born, or we fell in love, or we experienced God’s power within us moving us beyond words. The people Jesus was talking to in the Gospel today (John 6:24-35) thought of God like that. They looked back to their people’s escape from slavery in Egypt some thousand years before. They remembered how their people survived in the desert for years finding food to eat – the food they called “manna”- that kept them alive when they thought they were going to die. They remembered the way Moses found water for them when they were dying of thirst. They did not expect to find that God, the God who they thought of as the mysterious saving power from their past, as close to them in the present, in something, indeed someone, as ordinary as a man from Nazareth called Jesus!
They are thus bewildered when Jesus says that the manna, the bread from heaven that their ancestors were saved by, is present with them now – in him. Jesus says “It was not Moses that gave you bread from heaven…. the true bread is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And then he says a very shocking thing, that he IS that bread of life that they have been talking about.
We Christians, of course, look back to a different saving event from those people. For us, that saving of a few people in the desert was just a foretaste of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the action of God that saves not just a few people but the whole world. For us, that wonderful event from the past, when God showed his love and power on the cross, encompasses every other action of God, from the glory of his creation that I experienced on Friday in that garden, to every event in every human life when people have felt supported or strengthened or inspired, and have known that God is with them
The remarkable thing about every Mass is therefore, that when the Priest holds up that small piece of bread, we are not looking simply at a piece of bread, nor simply at God’s presence with us now however wonderful that may be, but we are looking at God’s creative and saving activity through all time. The Most Holy Sacrament is like a Portal through which we meet all of God’s work – the formation of the Universe with the stars and the Sun –the Creation of life in all its forms, the History of human struggle to be a loving and caring part of that creation, and the culmination of all of that in the life and death and Resurrection of Jesus. We are meeting all of that in and through the Bread of Life, life with a capital L, that is held for us in the hands of the priest.
This action, in which all this is present, is summed up at Mass by one rather ordinary phrase. The Priest prays “We celebrate the memorial”. The problem is that the word “memorial” is for us something that just reminds us of the past. But the actual meaning here is much deeper. It comes from the word in Greek, the word Anamnesis, and celebrating the Anamnesis means much much more than just remembering the past; for it includes the whole process that I have been talking about, in which all the glory of God through time is made present for us in and through the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
But there is more! Because Jesus is not just a past event in history, nor simply God’s presence with us now. Jesus is also our future. Listen to words from the last book in the Bible, words often read at funerals :- “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”” (Rev 21: 3-6)
So not only is all the glory of God in the past made present for us at Mass, but also the glory of our future, beyond suffering and death, the glory that is our future within the glory of God. So the Priest does not just pray “We celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son etc” but he goes on “And… we look forward to his second coming.” Yes, at Mass all the saving action of God is made present for us, his past actions yes, especially in coming to us as Jesus, but also the future when in and through Jesus we are brought to the fullness of glory which is eternal life in him. As Jesus says in our Gospel, “Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life.”
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.’