The family tree of Jesus

I wonder how many of you have spent some time exploring your family tree? I have one inherited from my grandfather, but my problem is that I want to know who these people are, what they did, what they were like; and since they largely come from an obscure village in East Anglia, I can never really know. Two of our Gospels – Matthew and Luke – do give us family trees for Jesus, and about these people there is lots to know! For the story of their lives – of how often they messed up in a very human way – of how they often misunderstood what God was like or had false ideas of what God should be like – this story is, of course, the Old Testament, the first part of the Bible. Having it as a background to the new has difficulties, of course, because it is not a pretty story, but what it does do is root Jesus in a real history, showing us that he was a real human being and not a fairy tale.

The greatest difficult in this story of many failures, is that it tells of a people who thought that if only they had the military power that two of their kings had – King David and King Solomon – then all their troubles would be over. We hear this in our 1st Reading today (Micah 5:1-4) which has the great prophecy of someone who would come from the little town of Bethlehem, like King David did, and rule the people like a shepherd “with the power of the Lord”. Now we Christians believe that this has happened, that a man of the line of David born in Bethlehem has come to rule us, BUT, and it is a big BUT, that man – Jesus of course – brings in a rule which is completely different from the one many expected. For his “power” is shown in gentle service, and his rule is the defeat, not of other nations by violence, but of evil through sacrificial love.

Our Gospel too evokes the past history of the family of Jesus. For Elizabeth cries out to Mary, “Blesséd are you among women” which we Christians, of course, have turned into a prayer – the Hail Mary. But the history of that phrase is not a kind or a gentle one! For the two women of whom that phrase is used in the Old Testament both killed the enemy of their people by acts of violence. Here again, we Christians, now believe that such acts prefigure a different kind of power at work. Our Lady, unlike those other women, defeats evil by simply accepting God into her life in a special way; and she calls her son Jesus (Joshua in Hebrew) not because he will fight physical battles as the first Joshua did, but because he will fight the invisible evil that lurks close to each one of us, tempting us to put ourselves first and put others down in the process.

So our Joshua, our battle warrior, the one we know by the Greek version of his name, Jesus, takes on all the hopes of his nation, expressed often in violent or selfish ways, and fulfils them, reinterprets them, in a new way of love and service. It is a way that is also there in the writing of his nation, for the power of love, we believe, may appear “weak and helpless” – yes that is a quote from Once in Royal David’s City – but in the end such love is more powerful than any and every kind of violence that might threaten us or that we might be tempted to use.

One of the greatest of the Advent Hymns expresses all this, using what are called the “O Antiphons” of Advent. In each verse, they take a phrase of hope from the Old Testament, and show its greater meaning as a battle, not of violence and physical war, but a battle of love, against loneliness and gloom and misery, and above all against evil and death and hell.  So we sing to Jesus “O Come, O come”..Emmanuel” which means God with us, Then we think of him as the new but very different kind of King of the line of David, calling him “Rod of Jesse” and “Key of David”. All of this is from the prophet Isaiah (7:4. 11:1 & 22:22) Then we call on him as the “Dayspring” which is a short form for “Radiant Dawn, Splendour of Eternal Light” from the Song of Songs (6:10). And finally we invoke him as the great Moses from Exodus, (3:15) giving the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, as  “Thou Lord of might” who  “Didst give the law… in cloud and majesty and awe.”

Most of you probably don’t know all this history from the Old Testament too well, but never mind. These great words and phrases still have the power to help you to think of the mystery of Jesus, whose birthday we are about to celebrate. The mystery of God, choosing to be born as a weak and helpless baby, choosing to be a real human being, and in this way to “come and cheer our spirits” and bring all those, who respond to him in one way or another, out of darkness and into his eternal and marvellous light. 

God works in his way, not ours

Frances writes on the readings for next Sunday :- Our final week of Advent reflection on the coming of the Lord Jesus really thumps home that the Incarnation, our redemption, the forgiveness of the sin of the world and God’s promise of salvation, his gift of himself to us, is entirely his work and owes very little to human effort.

Luke understood this as we see in our Gospel (Luke 1:39-45). Now Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah, one of the regular priests serving in the temple in Jerusalem on a rota basis. This distinguished them from the High or Chief priests who belonged to two powerful clans, and for whom priesthood had become a question of dynastic succession and power, and who were corrupt. Luke’s account deliberately separates Jesus from Jerusalem, the centre of power and its temple cult. Now this incident takes place in Luke’s gospel immediately after the Annunciation, and we might have expected Mary to have gone to Jerusalem during Zechariah’s period of service in the temple but, quite to the contrary, she travels some 50 miles from Nazareth, in dubious Galilee, to a small and unnamed town in the hill country of Judah for the meeting of the two would be mothers. Luke has deliberately rejected Jerusalem and its temple and cult as the venue for God’s presence and activity, and in the case of Nazareth was quite deliberately placing these great acts of God away from the heart of Judaism, and by implication finding it wanting – a theme which will feature so profoundly in the ministry of Jesus. In both cases the conception of these two chosen women is not so much due to human activity as to the power of the Holy Spirit, which allowed a barren woman as well as a virgin to conceive.

This point is really pushed home in our Gospel by what happens subsequently. When Elizabeth hears the voice of Mary, she experiences the first movement of her child John, and realises what is to happen in these children, and gives what in Greek is describes as ‘a great cry’. We rather lose the impact of this through familiarity with the Magnificat, but in reality it is very far from the repetitive and bland statement with which we have become so familiar. It was a great scream of triumph, a victory shout, as Elizabeth realises the role she is to play in God’s redemptive plan. She does this by acclaiming Mary with words accorded to only two other women in the Old Testament. They were women who triumphed by bloody murder over the enemies of their nation; Judith (Judith 13:18) who cut off the head of Holofernes, an invading Assyrian general, and Jael (Judges 5:24-27) the prophetess, who cheerfully dispatched another, Sisera, by driving a tent peg through his skull! So not your average Jewish housewife! Mary is then seen by Luke as one whose action will change the face of Jewish history; she is destined to play a very different role from her predecessors in God’s redemptive plan. Both of those earlier women won glory and eternal fame by deeds of vicious power, but Our Lady, it is made clear, by giving her womb as the resting place of the Son of God. Her act is one of full co-operation with grace so different from the force of the two Old Testament women. They chose to act, she to accept God’s action in her. Her co-operative obedience to the Spirit sets the parameters for Jesus’ own mission, and his steadfast rejection of messiahship as understood by the majority in first century Judaism who, like his Old Testament forebears, saw it in terms of violence and power.

Our reading from Hebrews (Heb 10:5-10) follows a similar trajectory. “You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation prepared a body for me. You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin…then I said just as I was commanded…God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.”

Hebrews, you will recall, is all about the Eucharist, Christ’s perpetual gift of himself to us. The author constantly remarks on the utter inadequacy of the priestly cult in the fulfilling of this task according to the Jewish law. In Hebrews, Judaism as practised is declared redundant, made obsolete by the death and resurrection of Christ. All those actions of temple priests and millions of devout Jews who offered sacrifices for sin to placate God in some way are declared finished; it is the action of God the Father in Christ the Son which achieves our eternal relationship with God. If this was a shattering piece of writing in the late first century AD, it remains so for us today, as we contemplate the enormity of God’s coming to us at Christmas in the tiny, helpless baby.

Our reading from Micah (Mic 5:1-4), written in the 8th century BC, at the time of impending conquest by the Assyrians, is the prophet’s thunderous denunciation of a nation he sees fallen into corruption. It was a time when the powerful, who should have known better, oppressed the weak; and our writer sees the Assyrian invasion as God’s judgment. Indeed he writes of Jerusalem being placed under siege, and the rich punished by the invasion and the deportation which followed, and as we know affected the Northern kingdom, Samaria. Yet at the same time he also sees salvation coming to Judah from tiny insignificant Bethlehem, not Jerusalem,  through a restored Davidic line by which God will ultimately save a chastened nation. The emphasis once again is on the divine plan and work in defiance of those human plans we all so love to make.

All our readings therefore seem to me to emphasise how God works in his own way, showing us in the events that really happen how his will is done. We like to think that we are in control of things, just as the people of Israel did; and it was the prophets’ job to remind them that this was not and never was the case. Prophets comment on the power of God for our salvation from within even the most depressing and awkward situations, ones where we fear we have completely lost control. The moment of the Incarnation is the moment however when God is entirely and confidently in control of our destinies, and the scriptures show us His plan, his way of working, not always to our liking, but to our eternal good.

 

Rejoice with God in his love for us

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- During this Advent time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child, we can easily misinterpret our bible readings as exhortations to action – things we must DO to prepare for Christmas. In fact, the Incarnate comes among us whether we recognise him or not, and all our febrile worries and activities can all too easily fall into the Pelagian trap that makes us think that we are in control of affairs, when in actual fact what we are preparing for and celebrating is entirely God’s gift. God is not one whose arm can be bent to our will and the Incarnation, the becoming human of Jesus the Son of God, is always about God’s will for us and not the other way round. God the Father is all powerful and loves his creation, and when he saw it fallen away from his will he acted to redeem it; what Leo the Great described as a “Bending down in pity, not a failure of power.” The Father has always intended us for glory, to share his life, and the Incarnation is not a desperate retrieval plan for something gone horribly out of control, but part of his master plan from the beginning, a sharing of his divinity with us through and in the person of the Son.

 

When therefore in our Gospel (Luke 3:10-18) we find the crowd asking John about the right manner of their behaviour, it is not principally a recipe for cleaning up their act that they are given, but a vision of the sharing which is the life of God in Trinity, what it is to be godlike. The actions called for are not primarily about morality but grace, the sharing and mutual adoration which is the Trinity in action. In this free distribution of clothing and food we meet the life of heaven. Our Jerusalem Bible translation does not quite capture the Greek in verse 12 where the tax collectors are advised to ‘exact no more than your rate’. Now the collection of taxes was farmed out throughout the Roman Empire to the highest bidders on the understanding that in addition to collecting the imperial revenues, they would take their cut in recognition for their labours. This often included the purchase of local thugs to enforce collection, and of course the tax officials could charge whatever they wanted in these circumstances and frequently became very rich, as Luke’s story of Zacchaeus suggests (Lk 19). The Greek actually says “Collect no more than you are appointed to do”, actually suggesting that they should not take any cut at all, but only what was previously arranged to be given to the Emperor’s treasury, a truly god-like act! Similarly, with the next verse, we know that troops supplemented their pay by intimidating the locals upon whom they were frequently billeted, and the bit mistranslated by the JB as ‘extortion’, is actually ‘false accusation’, meaning methods used by heavy handed troops to get the locals imprisoned and even executed and seize their property. All these things, expressions of inequality, and so un-god-like, are excluded by John as he prepares real hearers of his message for the coming of Christ. The distinction between grace and humanity in its fallen state is moreover pressed home by John’s comment that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. As this was the job of the lowest of the household slaves, we can appreciate the point John is making, and his awareness of the gift bestowed. It is quite without comparison, grace in all its fullness.

 

Precisely because this is the situation, our reading from Paul to the Philippians (Phil 4:4-7) indicates the right attitude for all Christians to adopt. Not the unfortunate JB ‘be happy’, but rather as it says in Greek, “Kairete – Rejoice!” It is about God’s Kairos, his ‘time’. It speaks of an attitude of tolerance to everyone, something just as difficult for the citizens of pagan Philippi, with its myriad of gods and its Roman values and habits, as it is for us today; a reflection of divine toleration – what God puts up with from us all and what he does all the time. The letter goes on to encourage us not to be anxious (to worry) about anything, but rather to rest everything in God’s hands, and it is surely in the cultivation of this trust that we can ultimately live without fear, knowing we are always in his care and that that will not fail.

 

In the same vein, our reading from Zephaniah (3:14-18) calls the people of Jerusalem to rejoice as their death sentence has been repealed. Now Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of Josiah, 640-604 BC. This reforming monarch succeeded Manasseh under whom religious practices had been allowed to slide and the worship of Yahweh declined. Israel saw this as the reason why they were being threatened by foreign invaders. With this in mind, Josiah instigated a series of religious reforms, record of which we have under the Deuteronomic historians and temple priests, and we must think of Zephaniah as a prophet who played his part in this reforming spirit. Once again we find that theme taken up by St Paul, that the Lord is among them. “You have no more evil to fear’. Such is the goodness and care of God towards his people that, far from any call that Israel (we) brush up our act), we are told that the Lord “Will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” This then is what it means to held in God’s hands. This is the promise of Christmas which we are anticipating and awaiting, and we see precisely where we are and what we are in God’s presence.

Hope in the midst of evil

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- As Advent is meant to be a contemplative time, a learning, time before we greet the Christ-child, I for one found this week’s readings very significant. In a powerful Christmas sermon Pope St Leo the Great once wrote “Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share.” Advent then is perhaps also a time for stripping down to basics, a discovering of what is truly important, especially when we so easily fall into the shopping trap, and the festival becomes a time of excessive spending, rather than a taking on of the person of the Christ-child and his ways of being human.

 

Our Gospel (Luke 3:1-6) really can help in this task. In it we are presented with the tremendous contrast between the world, and the power of rulers and states, and the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke goes to great lengths to locate the incident in Roman and Herodian real time, telling us that it was in the 15th year of Tiberius reign as emperor, i.e. 28 AD; he speaks of the Roman Prefecture of Pilate which ran from 26-37 AD and under which, of course, Jesus was put to death; and he goes on to speak of the division of the kingdom of Herod the Great under his sons and grandsons at his death. Now anyone who knows any of the history of this time will immediately be aware that almost without exception all these people share a terrible track record. They represent power, cruelty and oppression at its worst. We know of Tiberius as a depraved and suspicious monarch killing with impunity those who threatened him. Pilate came to power under the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus and, as we see in John’s Passion, would kill to protect his own back, in times of difficulty. The sons of Herod, all by different wives, had inherited some of their father’s worst traits. Philip, the least awful, ruled the North, the anti-Lebanon from Caesarea Philippi. His capital was a thoroughly Roman city, built for him and in honour of Rome and its gods. Annas and Caiphas represent the High Priesthood in the Temple at its most corrupt and self-serving. Here, authority and power had become a question of dynastic expediency which paid lip service to the Jewish faith. The dramatic shift to the desert and John’s ministry is stunning with its quote from Isaiah 40 and its promise of God’s salvation for his people and the significant and symbolic levelling of the mountainous terrain. Luke intends us to stop and ponder this sharp contrast and its implications. It is where we shall see the salvation of God.

 

In similar vein our reading from Baruch (5:1-9), a late work of the Intertestamental period and very reminiscent of Isaiah, reminds us that redemption can only come from God and from our faith in him.  Significantly we are assured that ‘peace’ will come through integrity, and ‘honour ‘ through devotedness; attitudes so important for the well being of our world, but hardly at the top of the agendas of the powerful and power crazy. The fact that Baruch recalls the exile under the Babylonians, and the shame, disgrace and utter destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem, is no accident. For earlier prophets had all been convinced that the fall of the nation was due precisely to its turning away from God, and the lack of integrity this brought about. His picture of the return of the exiled, so familiar from the works of Isaiah and Jeremiah with the return of the royal families in honour and glory, acts as a reminder that the exile was precisely their fault and that their and our salvation can only be the redemptive work of God. To press home once more the difference between human power and that of God, Baruch will resort to naturalistic imagery, borrowing from Isaiah 40, but emphasising not just the levelling of the terrain but life amidst forests and fragrant trees. This bucolic image is meant to press home the absolute difference in the action of God, a return almost to the time of creation, something innocent, fresh and new.

 

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (1:4-6.8-11) speaks of the integration of the believers in Philippi into the life of God. It is Paul’s most warm and positive of letters but sadly its power is reduced to the sentimental in the Jerusalem translation “God knows how much I miss you all, loving you as Christ Jesus loves you.” The Greek has something far more gutsy and powerful; “I long after all of you in the bowels of Christ Jesus.” The bowel – the guts – in ancient thought being the seat of affection, love and concern. Here he writes of a people so inflamed with the love of Christ, so integrated to his will, that he, Paul who identifies himself heart and soul, gut to gut as it were, with Christ, can see how close they are to God, and how they will grow more godlike through the Christian exercise of their love for each other in the community, which in its turn will increase their knowledge of God and their perception of the right ways of living. Truly, here we are given a vision of those who are at least partially aware of their nobility, open to God and growing in grace. Paul foresees that on Judgment Day such people will be the singers of the Father’s great praise song. It is an exultant and hopeful picture, one of which we too are a part.

Homily on the Year of Mercy

Well I don’t know about you, but I certainly need God to confirm my heart in holiness this Advent! For, as we see from our 2nd Reading (1 Thess 3:12-4:2) we are called to holiness in order to “love the whole human race”. Now loving everyone may be fine as a general idea, but what with evil terrorists on the one side, and then just simply stupid or annoying people on the other, I find it very hard indeed. The terrorists disgust me, and annoying people just infuriate me; so I am really a bit of a wreck. And I expect you aren’t that different?

 

Holiness, remember, means being open to God. It does not mean saying lots of prayers and going to Mass. These outward things should help us to be holy, which is why Jesus told us to do them, but real holiness is an inner thing, isn’t it, not outward observances.  This is surely why Jesus in our Gospel today says “Watch yourselves” and “Stay awake.”  A central message for Advent as we get ready to celebrate the mystery of God coming to us as a tiny baby.

 

Next week the whole Catholic Church begins an Extraordinary Jubilee Year with Mercy as its focus. This was announced by Pope Francis last April because he knows, as we do, how much we need to pray for God’s mercy for ourselves, and to offer his mercy to others. A Year like this encourages all of us to do something else as well as just coming to Sunday Mass, something that will hopefully make us more holy, more open to God; so I want to explain to you some of the things that have been suggested that you might do in response to his call.

 

The first is to pass through an official Door of Mercy. The main door is the one at St Peter’s in Rome, but the Pope, being a merciful man, has declared that every Cathedral throughout the world, and various other important churches, should also have a Door of Mercy that we can visit and walk through. You will be glad to hear therefore that one of these Doors of Mercy will be at the Oratory Church of St Aloysius in Oxford, so none of us at St Peter’s Eynsham will have any excuse for not visiting this Door some time in the year ahead. Of course, it will not be just walking through the door, but using the walk through as an occasion to pray and perhaps make one’s Confession.

 

Yes, clearly making our Confession should be part of the way we grow in holiness, and I am sure you all know that many extra opportunities to do this are available in all Catholic Churches in the run up to Christmas. But here at St Peter’s we have a special opportunity, not just to make our Confession if we want to, but to spend some time in prayer and thought on God’s mercy. This is because we are hosting a Day of Recollection for all the local Catholic Churches in 2 weeks time on Saturday 12th December. This will begin with Mass at 10.30am and then I will give a Talk on Prayer and Mercy. People will bring their own lunch and then in the afternoon there will be a brief Penitential Service and a time for people to make their Confession with two visiting priests as well as me. So even if you cannot come for the whole day you might come in the afternoon.

 

Pope Francis has also suggested that we might mark this Year of Mercy with a Pilrimage to some Holy Place. Some of you might like to go to Lourdes or Walsingham but, being a merciful man a bit like the Pope, I am thinking of organising something a bit easier – a Day Pilgrimage some time in the Spring to the Shrine of Our Lady at Evesham.

 

Pope Francis is also suggesting that we think of something we can do for others during this year. During the first part of the year from January to June he will be offering signs of care to the lonely and marginalised of the world, and he is encouraging us, both as individuals and as local churches, to do the same.

 

He has also suggested that we call on Mary the Mother of Jesus in the words of the Salve Regina (The Hail Holy Queen). This is a prayer ever ancient and ever new which asks Mary to turn her merciful eyes on us and help us to be worthy to contemplate the face of mercy, her Son Jesus. So we will be doing that here at St Peter’s most Sundays as a way of reminding us of this very special year.

 

Prodded by grace

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- With the start of a new Church Year and the coming of Advent, it is worth while exploring what this season is for. Our readings today are particularly helpful in this task, since they are all about people who got things wrong. Like us, they belong to those whom St Augustine would describe as the ‘not altogether bad’, the mediocre Christians, as opposed to Pelagius’ notion that Christian perfection was achievable in this life. Augustine viewed the Christian life as a hospital for the sick, or a convalescent period, a time in which with the right care, we will become fitted for God –with and by his grace.

 

Our reading from Jeremiah (Jer 33:14-16) is about a king, Zedekiah who spectacularly misread the situation at the time and brought about the exile and deportation of his nation to Babylon. His people had been vassals of the Babylonians until the king decided to rebel under the promise of help from Egypt. It proved illusory, despite Jeremiah’s attempts to intervene and argue for a wiser policy. Prophet’s, as we see here, do not gaze into the distant future, but are hands-on political commentators and advisers the powerful would do well to listen too. This is the ‘virtuous Branch’ that Jeremiah looks to, kings who will choose wisely and for the good and preservation of their people, as opposed to hot heads and the easily-led whose actions bring about the ruin of the nation. All the prophet can do is warn and it is from within this warning that our prophet could promise good times to Israel and of course he paid a high price for his counsel, narrowly escaping death in Jerusalem and playing the role of go-between between the defeated Israelites and the Babylonians.

 

It was in a rather different context that St Paul wrote to the tiny Christian community in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:12-4:2). Now Thessalonica was a Roman city, albeit of Greek origin, and had become the capital city of Macedonia. It was rich, and its port Neapolis a major trading city of the Mediterranean. On the great road, the Via Egnatia leading back to Rome, it had huge clout and maintained great temples to the Roman gods and especially its emperors, as well as to those of the Eastern cults. Cosmopolitan and rich, Thessalonica’s way of life was thoroughly Roman, and Paul would have to battle for the hearts and minds of the Christians who lived there, constantly recalling them to the wholly different understanding of daily life that Christianity embodied. He does this first of all by praising the community, assuring them of God’s grace and their already given holiness which he had met in their reception of the faith and their generous hospitality, but also by pointing out that faith and its daily practice are a journey towards holiness in which they must work hard to actually live as icons of Christ. This would have been something which would have been enormously difficult amidst the bustle and coarseness of a Roman city, with its easy resort to other gods, the sacrifices frequently offered them, their Games and bawdy holidays, not to mention the easy access to prostitutes, public displays of violence, and law suits. We modern Christians too are continually beguiled by a different set of pagan attractions which distract us from our belief in Jesus and continually tempt us into unwise and unhelpful ways of living.

 

The message of our Gospel (Luke 21:25-28.34-36) seems to offer similar advice to the Christian. By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for his Passion, and speaks to warn his followers not to be thrown off course by coming events. They were a people who could easily misread situations, just like we do today. Think how easily we might take such bible readings and misinterpret the events of the last few weeks, over reacting and embarking on actions which might be regretted later. Jesus reminds his disciples that we are on the Christian journey to God for the long term, and that no instant solution to our or the world’s problems can easily be found. His advice is that we adopt a policy of continual watchfulness – and that of our own behaviour. We desperately need to do this, following the pattern of Jesus and, as Luke puts it, ‘Praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. The point of all this is not simply our survival, as we see, but rather affects our eternal relationship with the Father; so that we are able to “Stand with confidence before the Son of Man.” Jesus looks continually towards our eternal inheritance, and has confidence that we can make it by grace. Our wills need to be constantly prodded to conform with his.

 

Joy later and now

One of the criticisms often thrown at us Christians is that we are only in it so that we can get to heaven; that the joy we offer is only the joy after death, whilst all we can offer now is struggle and suffering. Now we all know that’s not true, that we Christians will always support anything that brings help to the suffering, anything that can improve the life of our fellow human beings. That’s why in our Gospel today (Matthew 11:2-11) when asked whether he is the Christ, the one bringing in the kingdom of God, Jesus replies by telling them to look at what he is doing – “the blind see.. the lame walk.. lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear…and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

So, yes, we do offer a promise of joy beyond death, a promise that our loved ones who have died are not lost in the darkness, but are drawn into the glory and light of God. But that promise of joy beyond suffering and death is also a challenge to us Christians to bring into this life as much of the joy of God as is possible. To us they are not alternatives : either joy now or joy after death, but two sides of the same coin. The joy that is promised, encourages and inspires us to make that joy present for people now, to help them to see the glory of God in small ways in their own lives now.

However we Christians are also realists. The Old Testament sometimes gives the impression that God will give everyone total joy now before we die. This is because when it was written the Jewish people did not have a belief in life with God beyond death. Christians always read and interpret the Old Testament through the teachings of Jesus, and so the beautiful passage from Isaiah that we have today (Isaiah 35:1-6.10) becomes a promise of help now, yes “Say to all faint hearts. Courage. Do not be afraid.”; but is also a promise, that what we receive now is nothing to what will happen when we meet God face to face : “They will come to Zion shouting for joy, everlasting joy on their faces.” (Zion is another word for Jerusalem, and both are used by us Christians as a way of talking about heaven – the City where God lives in everlasting light)

The realism is shown very clearly in our 2nd Reading (James 5:7-10) where we are told to “Be patient”.  This surely doesn’t mean that we should sit around vaguely waiting for God to do something. We are called to be like Jesus, to bring in the kingdom NOW, with our actions caring for others, and in our attitude to life – bringing God to others with a smiling face.

This chimes in with what Pope Francis has been saying and doing, doesn’t it? No wonder he’s been declared Person of the Year by Time Magazine! His latest piece of teaching is actually called “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelium Gaudii in Latin) where he reminds us that we’re each called, whatever our vocation, to bring the joy of the Gospel to all around us. The Pope challenges you and me to “appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet. [For] it is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’”, just as one is attracted to the light.”

Proselytizing means going on about the teaching of the Church, rather than living it out in joyful caring lives; and it is something we priests have to be very careful about. The temptation is, that because we have the privilege of “going on” about the Gospel up here at Mass, we do “go on” about it, rather than living it out in love and service to others. When therefore I hear of priests who say Mass and preach but hardly speak to, or make themselves available for, those who come to church, I find myself getting angry!

But we priests are sinners like everyone else, we are not perfect – another thing that Pope Francis has pointed out. He recently encouraged people to make their Confession, but he did this not by going  on about it, but just by telling them that this is what he does, every two weeks, and he often asks us to pray for him. So let me do the same for you. I will be going to Confession on Tuesday morning, and hope some of you will come to our Penitential Service onTuesday evening, or make your Confession at some time in preparation for Christmas. We all might think, as we do this, of the areas in which we have failed to bring God’s joy to the world. What more could we have done in one way or another to bring in God’s kingdom? In what way could we have been more generous to the poor and those in need or sorrow? How often have we shown a gloomy rather than a smiling face, have been moaners making others feel sad, rather than people who in simple ways bring a little bit of joy to others?