To confess is to be aware of God’s love

Frances writes on next weekends readings :- As this is the time of year when we turn our minds to making our confession before Easter, it is worth looking at what that occasion should really be like. I suspect that for most of us it is a bit of a chore, best got over and out of the way Rarely do you hear of those who came away elated and grace filled from this experience, and even the instructions given in the new rites seem largely ignored by the majority of priests.

In our Gospel (John 8:1-11) we meet such a different picture, such a transforming situation, a great moment of grace to the adulterous woman; and in it we learn so much about God through the behaviour and actions of Jesus. The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees drag a woman before Jesus; not with any real hope for a resolution to the situation, for they had already decided her fate (that of her accomplice male adulterer is left significantly silent).Their hope is to use her as a means of condemning him, for clearly they believe that, liberal on the law of Moses, as he has previously shown himself to be, he will end up digging both the woman and himself into an ever deeper hole. But Jesus is well acquainted with their wiles and appears to feign indifference, being more interested in kneeling down and writing things in the dirt. I am afraid that our Jerusalem Bible lets us down on the choreography of this event. Far from ‘looking up’ to deal with the scribes and Pharisees, the Greek tells us that he stood up, dealing with them as one who was superior and challenging, even magisterial. We note that Jesus made no move to defend the woman, but simply suggested that the one without sin should be the first to throw a stone at her. I will say this for the scribes and Pharisees, they recognised that they too were sinners and could not do so.  Jesus then apparently returned to his exercise in calligraphy in the dirt and appears to have ignored the situation. However, once his enemies had all gone, far from ‘looking up’ as in the Jerusalem Bible, the Greek says quite explicitly he stood erect, as the one who was fitted to judge and yet refused to condemn her, sending her off with the advice that she sin no more. So there he is, God the Son, utterly perfect in grace, who gives her her life back, without conditions, without moralising, without apparently any reference to anything. And off she walked, out of history and into the rest of her life, reconciled, forgiven, graced, and I suspect elated by this encounter.

In his letters from prison in Ephesus, Paul wrote to the Christians of the important town of Philippi in northern Greece about the things which really mattered to him as he awaited possible execution. It was a time for him to sort out his priorities, and he believed that his faith and values would rub off and influence the Christians of this thoroughly Romanised city. He does not significantly bang on about their morals or try to put pressure on them to conform to some supposed Christian ethic. On the contrary, he talks to them of what is of overwhelming value to him self here and now. (Phil 3:8-14). Just prior to this, like a true citizen of Rome, he speaks of the things he has to boast about, focussing on his Jewish origins. Here, however his focus is entirely on Jesus Christ. He accepts that his own efforts at perfection via the law are worthless in comparison with simply having known Christ, and he wants to be a part of the fellowship of his sufferings, (not simply the JB individualistic sharing in Christ’s suffering). In other words, he wants to be part of a community so intimate and focussed on Christ that nothing else matters. Through this Paul believes he will share in Christ’s death and resurrection and he sees this in terms that any Roman could appreciate, that of the Games, more specifically of the great foot race in which competitors trained for months, honing their bodies to perfection, and in which there was only ever one winner, destined to be the glory of his city for ever, as we know from the inscriptions put up in their honour by victorious cities. Immortal glory, in Paul’s and the Christian’s case, won in and by and through their fellowship in Christ, a complete remodelling and remaking of the human being now entirely orientated to the risen Lord Jesus. That is his and our end game.

Such moments of lasting fame and reorientation were part of the Jewish psyche, as we see in Second Isaiah, (Isa 43:16-21), the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. Isaiah wrote to the exiles to help them rethink their experience of being torn from their homeland and all that was of value to them as they were taken off to a life of slavery by the Babylonians. He recalls God’s rescue of his people in the Exodus from Egypt to remind them that their God did not forget them even in times of great despair and degradation and seems to point to a similar deliverance here too with his promise of roads in the trackless wilderness and the taming and subduing of the wild animals, representing all things unclean, fearsome and despoiling. He promises water in the desert and still calls Israel his chosen people, showing that their God has not abandoned them but has a new life to offer them, a new way of being his chosen. The fact that Babylon was to become a great seat of Hebrew study and learning would still be in the future when Isaiah wrote was nonetheless still part of its great epic and its relationship with God.

All three of our readings and the examples they give therefore suggest that confession and reconciliation with God is not about hanging onto our sins or even being greatly exercised about them, but about becoming aware through the confessional experience of being enfolded in the love of God himself. This and only this will change our lives.

How to defend the faith without raising your voice

I have to confess that I have a tendency to get angry when I hear somebody saying things about the Church or the Faith that are simply not true. You probably face this more often than I do, because people often don’t know you’re a Catholic, and so say things to you they wouldn’t say to me. I do however get some of it on the Internet, on Facebook and Twitter etc, where people often do not realise I’m a priest. It’s one of the reasons why it’s important that we priests are there. I had one the other day. – “Catholics believe creation took 7 days” – “Catholics think God punishes people and make them feel guilty all the time” – “Priests won’t baptise babies of unmarried mothers” – “Catholic priests abuse children” and so on.  

 What should we do when such things are said? Well the first thing to say is that we shouldn’t get angry or defensive. Yes, we are called “to instruct the ignorant” – the work of mercy that I want us to look at today – but getting angry never won any argument. I was very pleased to see that this is the approach of an organisation called CATHOLIC VOICES that trains ordinary Catholics to appear on radio and TV when topics like this come up. Their book “How to defend the faith without raising your voice” calls it reframing. In other words, do not attack people for what they say, but look outside the frame they have created, for a different way to explain things.

 Now I expect you’re thinking at this point that you would rather not say anything at all, because you think you will only make a mess of it. Don’t worry if you feel like this, because you are in good company. The great Moses himself, as we heard in our 1st Reading (Exodus 3:1-15) didn’t want to do it either. Sometimes you just have to pluck up your courage just like he did, and go for it. You might simply say, as politely as you can, that the person who is attacking the faith, hasn’t got the story quite right; or if you know them you might contact them later, when you’ve had a chance to look up in the Catechism what the Church actually believes, and give them a suitable quote.

 Let me explain a bit more how this reframing works. If people start going on about how Catholics are against science and evolution, do not attack head on and say “You’re talking nonsense”. Come at it sideways “Well you may be right that some Catholics think that, but none of the Catholics I know do. Did you know that the first person to propose the Big Bang Theory was a Catholic physicist who was a priest?” Or “Did you know that the great Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman had no problem with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?”

 Sometimes reframing means actually agreeing with the critic. You might say “Yes, it’s terrible that some priests have refused to baptise the babies of unmarried mothers, but few would nowadays. Did you know that Pope Francis phoned an Italian woman who was treated like that and offered to come and baptise her baby himself?”   And certainly you might agree about the horrors of child abuse, but speak of all the Church is now doing to safeguard children. Do you know who the Safeguarding Officer is in your Church?

 Our Gospel today (Luke 13:1-9) sees Jesus dealing with another of these ignorant views – that if bad things happen to people they must have done something bad. It’s certainly a view put forward in many Old Testament passages. Jesus makes clear that this view is wrong. In our Gospel he makes it crystal clear in a rather clever way, by reminding people that we are all sinners and that doesn’t means towers will fall down and kill all of us!, Elsewhere, as you all know, he contradicts other Old Testament views by saying “Love your enemies”. The Catholic Church therefore, following Jesus, does not say that we must believe literally every word in the Bible.

 “So”, my man on the Internet said, “If Catholics do not take the Bible literally, they can interpret it any way they like!”   Well, by now we were into a sensible discussion, and I was able to explain that the Church has worked out down the centuries how the Bible should be understood, and that is how Catholics use it. I hope it helped him.

 One more point. When we are trying to explain the faith, we do not have to try to win the argument. Instructing the ignorant must not be an ego trip where we think we must not fail. Simply sharing politely as best we can, is enough. We may think we have failed, but God does not fail, and sometimes what seems a weak explanation can be more powerful than something very clever. God uses us in ways we can never imagine. Think on that!

Counsel the doubtful

One of the things that we are meant to do when we try to reflect God’s mercy in our lives is “to counsel the doubtful”; for it is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy that I am talking about this Lent. Now the first thing I want to say about this, is that we do not help the doubtful by appearing to be too certain of things ourselves. We have to be very careful about this, because people assume all too easily, if they look at us on the surface, that if we are Catholics and are at Mass every Sunday then we must have a rock steady faith with no problems and no doubts. You all know that this is not the truth, but that’s the impression people have of Catholics, and so we need to work quite hard to deal with these false assumptions. Now if you think it’s hard for you, it’s even harder for us priests. We are supposed to have a rock solid faith; and because of this many people with doubts are afraid to share them with us, because they assume they will simply be told off for being weak.

 One of the ways I suggest that people share the faith with others is by telling them about their own experiences of God. A story of something that has happened to you or me, in which we have felt God’s presence or help, is a million times better than just talking about the faith in a general way. But here too we must tell our story in such a way that people do not think that once we had this experience of God, everything has been plain sailing.

 Abram in our 1st Reading today (Genesis 15:5-18) – Abraham as he was called later – did not have it easy after his vision of God in the midst of his deep sleep. He was to struggle with the fact that, despite this vision, he had to spend many many years without the child, and thus the descendants, he had been promised. Later, when he did have a son late in life, he agonised about whether his love for his son was more important to him than his love of God; and he even thought of killing his son, to show God his love was real. No easy faith for him then!

 In our Gospel too (Luke 9:28-36) Peter, James and John were not given a certain faith after their vision of Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Indeed they simply found the vision confusing; and it was not until they had lost their faith and run away when Jesus was killed on the cross, and then found it again when Jesus appeared to them at Easter, that they could make sense of what they had seen. And Jesus too had to face the agony of that Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the soldiers came and arrested him. How easy it would have been to slip away and avoid the conflict and pain that he feared so much. It took great courage in the midst of uncertainty to choose the hard way, to do the will of the Father.

 So when people are doubtful, they need to know that we struggle with doubts and temptations too, don’t they?  They need to know that we often fail to be good Christians. There is nothing more comforting in the confessional than to hear the priest say of some sin that we are struggling with, that this is one he struggles with too. Of course we must share the joys of the faith too, the sense of the presence of God in little things and unusual places; but we must also share with people that sometimes we come to Mass and feel nothing and wonder why we are here at all. It is like being a parent with a baby. There may be joy, but there is also hard work and sleepless nights; and both are part of the way we show our love. Love is not a nice feeling all the time, it is also an act of will – a choosing to do something for another. or for God, however hard that may sometimes be.

 To say to someone who cannot see the point of coming to Church, that it means so much to us, may not help at all, To say instead “Yes it is hard for all of us sometimes. It is hard to continue believing and trusting in God when sad or bad things happen. It is hard to be at Mass when we would rather be sleeping or watching the football or walking in the countryside.” To say things like that, to share our own struggles, that is surely a better way to help and counsel those who are struggling too.

 Of course there are moments when we must be more definite, and I will say more about this next week when I talk about “instructing the ignorant”; but we must never be definite in a way that makes people think we never struggle or have doubts ourselves. St Paul shows this in our 2nd Reading (Phil 3:17-4:1) as he talks about his tears, and then says to comfort them “Do not give way, but remain faithful” Listening to people, even weeping with them, allowing them to share what they are struggling with, this is the better way.

 

Homily on Marriage and Sex

I expect almost everyone here today has some experience in their own life, or in the life of loved ones, of divorce & remarriage or some other different kind of partnership. This, & the fact that those here today are a mixed group of people of all ages, makes being as explicit as I would like to be more than a little difficult. I have therefore prepared a more explicit and extensive paper on this subject appended to this Homily. But if anything I say upsets anyone today, please forgive me, & ask to talk to me, as it is so easy for people to feel judged or condemned, which is the last thing I want to do. Remember what I said last Sunday. To say that something falls below the ideal does not necessarily mean it is wicked or bad. We all live with things in our lives that are less than perfect, and do all we can to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.

At the heart of the Church’s teaching on the most intimate side of human life is the teaching in the Bible. We heard a passage as our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 6:13-20) today, in which St Paul warns against what he calls “fornication”. But what is more important is why he does so. Sadly this is lost in English, since we use the word “body” to mean our physical body, whereas the word in Greek that Paul uses is “soma”, which means our whole being (physical/psychological/spiritual etc). So the point he is making is that what we do with our physical body affects our whole being. This is certainly the experience of many people who have come to me in tears at various times. From “I thought he loved me but he just wanted the physical side” to “I can’t get those things I did out of my head”.

In the world where Christianity began, there was much abuse of others both inside and outside marriage, including abuse of women by men. The high Christian view of marriage where the husband and wife are called to commit themselves to each other for life in a relationship of mutual respect & care was a challenge to them as to us.

We tend to think that St Paul encouraged the dominance of women by men because he uses the word “obey”. But if you read the whole passage about this. (Eph 5:21-33) you will see a picture of mutual care in which both husband and wife must be prepared to die for one another. The obedience Paul speaks of is like the obedience we owe to Christ, which is one of love not of abuse.

Note also that marriage is seen as a “calling”, not something we just drop into without thinking about it. I still remember the tears of one young woman whose husband had left her three days after they got married. I was shocked, until I asked how long they had known one another. “3 weeks!” she answered. I became less sympathetic!  Yes, the word “calling” is meant to make clear that marriage is just as important as being called to something more explicitly religious, like being a priest, or like Samuel in our 1st Reading (1 Sam 3:3-19) & the disciples in our Gospel (John 1:35-42).

The other thing we need to avoid is the idea that marriage requires people to love one another in the romantic sense. Those who have mutually agreed arranged marriages, as in some traditional societies; or those who arrange their marriage first over the Internet, as many more people are doing nowadays ; these people often end up with the most successful marriages, precisely because they are based on mutual respect and care, and not on some “feelings” of “being in love” that people THINK they need to have to stay married to one another.

All this shows is that the traditional teaching of Christianity is right. People should get to know one another first, and be sure of the full commitment of both sides, before they enter into a physical relationship. Last year Pope Francis, much to the surprise of some, conducted a number of marriages, including some where the couples had already been living together, and in one case already had children. It wasn’t a surprise to me, as he was only doing what priests have done down the ages : encouraging people to move towards the full commitment & calling of marriage, rather than condemning people for things of the past.

The most difficult thing for the Church is the situation of those whose second marriage is not yet recognised because of a previous marriage. More often than people realise, this can be sorted out eventually by the annulment process; but it still leaves some people saddened that the Church cannot fully recognise what has become so precious and special to them. There’s no easy answer to this. The Church must proclaim that marriage is a permanent lifelong commitment. To simply accept what has happened without looking into it would give the impression that divorce doesn’t matter. But we all know that divorce is a sad and messy business not least for the children. So simply saying divorce is OK is not possible. Of course there are cases where it has to happen, but we cannot say that it is right just because in some cases it is the best thing to do in the circumstances.

We’re all called to recognise that our physical body is a precious gift from God and that misusing it, or someone else’s body, is to be avoided. I always remind couples nowadays that they need to be aware how most of the intimate relationships presented on films and TV are not between married people. Thus the idea that the physical side of life is unrelated to marriage is pushed deep into our minds without us realising it. So I tell couples that if they are to approach marriage properly they have to fight against this casual attitude to such things, and make a determined and daily effort in their minds to commit themselves fully to the one with whom they have chosen to spend the rest of their lives.

APPENDIX on SEX AND MARRIAGE

Too often people start to explain the Christian view about sex the wrong way round. We should always start by looking at what is the best expression of our sexuality, and only then go on to talk about other sexual practices that might be described as a less than full expression of what sex is for, rather than using that emotive word “sin”.

For Christians, the best expression of our sexuality is an activity where a man and a woman who are deeply committed to one another use their sexuality to strengthen and enhance that relationship, and in the process, and when the time is right, produce children that they can then bring up together in a good family life. Notice that this kind of sex is not principally a way of getting pleasure but of giving it. We may well get pleasure in the process but this is not what it is for. Recreational sex (as it is called) where one or both of the people simply wants to get physical pleasure for themselves (even in marriage) is therefore an imperfect expression of what sex is for.

Imperfect expressions of sex vary in their imperfection. We would all agree that using a child to get sexual pleasure is wrong, whereas when a wife allows her husband to have sex for pleasure, even when she doesn’t really want it herself , provided she is not being forced into it, then this sex is simply less perfect than it could be. The Church has a technical term for anything that is less than perfect. That term is the word “sin”. But the world thinks that “sin” means something evil, which is simply often not the case. Many many things that we do are less than perfect, but only some of them can really be described as evil.

We then have to look at a whole range of sexual activity that is less than perfect. Clearly the nearer sexual activity is to the perfect expression of it, as described above, then the less sinful it is. So sex outside marriage between two people who really love each other, and where neither is pretending love, is quite near to really good sex, but its problem is that full commitment isn’t there, and too often one or other of the people involved hasn’t really committed himself or herself as fully as they should. This is hard for young people who really think they love each other and then get let down, so to wait until marriage is the best way, but it is understandable when people fail here. But this less than perfect expression of sex can happen inside marriage too, and it is worth remembering that the Church would say that if it can be shown that one or other of the partners in marriage never intended full commitment then that marriage can be annulled.

Other kinds of sexual activity become more and more imperfect the further they move from its perfect expression. The Church would describe all such activity as “sinful” but note what I have already said about that word “sin”.  Failing to be perfect is part of being human. God wants us to move towards what is perfect, not spend our time agonising or feeling guilty about what is less than perfect. So for many things like this, we will go to Confession, as part of the process of asking God to help us move towards a more perfect expression of our humanity. To concentrate on our sexual failings, and ignore other failings, like anger, deceit, greed, unkindness is to have an unbalanced view of ourselves.

The Church argues that the best way to stop having too many children is to use the Natural method. That means using something like “Persona” that can be bought in most Chemist Shops, where the couple can identify the wife’s natural cycle of fertility, and then abstain from full sexual intercourse for the short period each month when she is fertile.  This method can also be used by couples having difficulty conceiving making sure they have sex at the optimum time. As for the Pill, most women would surely prefer not to have to put a drug into their body over a long period if there was some easy alternative. In the same way most couples will tell you that having sex with a condom is not as good as having sex without it. In both cases the Church is arguing that such means of contraception are a less than perfect way of having sex.

The best sex is when a couple do not have to worry about whether the woman might get pregnant or not. It is pleasure freely given to one another, and open to the possibility of a child if one should come along. This is the kind of sex the Church encourages, but the Church understands that this perfection is not always reached : that we all have to live with what we are as humans, and accept the need for God’s love and mercy in every aspect of our lives, not just the sexual one.

It is worth pointing out that of all the explicit sex portrayed on Film and TV, there is little is shown where the couple are married. We are therefore presented from quite an early age with the idea that this less than perfect sex is the normal way of having sex. This must affect our sex life when we begin to have sex with a permanent partner, and we need to be aware that this can lead us into the temptation to be unfaithful in certain circumstances. Being faithful to one’s partner is an attitude to be worked at, not something we should take for granted.

We have therefore to face the fact that we may well have all sorts of sexual feelings. Most men (I can only speak for men) tend to have feelings about having sex with people other than their partner, but would not want to be defined by these desires. In the same way those who have homosexual or bisexual feelings or desires are actually restricting their freedom if they decide to be defined by these desires. But Jesus warns us to be aware that we do have certain feelings – like anger or lust – and that we need to face the fact that this could lead to putting those feelings into action. That is why the Church encourages people to share these feelings in the Confessional, not least because it is a way of honestly facing up to them, rather than hiding them away until they come bursting out at one of our weaker moments.

To talk further on this:-

 Contact Father Martin Flatman , Priest at St Peter’s, Abbey Street, Eynsham OX29 4HR frmartinflatman@gmail.com

 

Homily on Giving and Receiving

One of the lovely things about the birthday of Jesus is that the best present we can give him is to give presents to others; and by presents I don’t just mean things we buy in the shops, but more importantly things we actually do for one another. And when we do that, when, as Isaiah says so beautifully in our 1st reading (61:1-2.10-11) we “bind up hearts that are broken”; then the more we give the more God comes and fills us with his love, and wraps us in a “cloak of integrity”. Yes, we tend to think that when God comes to us, to support us in the trials of life that we all have, he simply comes within us ; but Isaiah reminds us the he also surrounds us like putting on a warm coat and hat on a wintry day.

 

This is why we can rejoice in the Lord, even when things are difficult for us. I always retranslate our 2nd Reading (1 Thess 5:16-24) because we cannot always be happy. Sadness is part of what it means to be human, to care deeply about our fellow human beings who are suffering and need our aid. Someone asked me the other day why he had to suffer so much, and that was my answer. If we do not suffer, then we do not care. I watched a Video clip from the UK Lifeboat Charity (RNLI) and was moved almost to tears by the sight of people running from their work to respond to the call of the Lifeboat. That is what it means to be human, and although it almost made me cry, it also made me rejoice. “Rejoice” says St Paul and “Pray constantly”.

 

Think what it feels like when an Ambulance or a Fire Engine zooms past with its blue lights flashing and its siren blaring. It is an amazing mixture of sadness for the people who are in trouble, and yet excitement and joy that someone is racing to help them. It should surely be the same when we think of suffering of other kinds. “For all things give thanks” doesn’t mean that we should thank God for suffering; rather it means that we should look beyond the suffering to the many acts of help and care that are taking place, to bring to those poor people some comfort and support. This is surely why most Christians in the run-up to Christmas are considering what we can do to help others, what charity we might send some money to, instead of spending all of it in the shops!

 

One person told me she was going to spend 48 hours over this period working in London for Crisis at Christmas feeding the poor in this festive season. Yes, there is always something more that we can do, something more that we can give in response to God’s love; and St Paul reminds us today that our journey towards perfection only takes place if we are helped along this road by God himself – “May the God of peace make you perfect and holy.”  Well there’s something to mention when we make our Confession before Christmas, how much more we could do that we have not yet done, how much more we can give that we have not yet given. How much more we should be open to the God of peace working in our lives.

 

 I always get a little irritated by these big charity campaigns – like the BBC Children in Need Appeal – that run at this time of the year. Why? Because I think “Why can’t people give to charity without all this hoo-ha?” But then I say to myself, “All of us need to be jerked out of our sleep by such things. It is so easy to think nice thoughts and not actually to turn them into real action. To think about that charity I should give to, and never get round to doing it” That’s precisely why we Catholics have so many 2nd Collections throughout the year. We all need constant reminders.

 

Our Gospel however (John 1:6-8.19-28) reminds us of something else, that is that when we do give, when we do do something good and caring, we can easily get more than a bit complacent about how kind we have been ; to think of ourselves as somehow better than those “other people” who are busy spending money (as we think) on themselves.

 

John the Baptist was a very holy man doing a wonderful job of persuading people to turn from their selfish ways and become better human beings. Crowds of people flocked to hear him preach, and no doubt told him what a great job he was doing, and how much they had been helped, and so on. But his example to us is far greater than that, because instead of thinking highly of himself (as we might do), he says “No! I am not anyone special. I am certainly not the Christ.”  Then he does what we should do whenever we do good. He points beyond himself – to God. I am just – “a voice”  – he says “Make a straight way” – for what?  “Make a straight way……………. for the Lord.”

 

Actually Jesus does the same. We know him as Our Lord and God, but even though he is the Christ, the one often proclaimed by others as “The Holy One of God”, he deliberately will not promote himself. He often actually tells people not to talk about him, and not to tell others about some healing that he has performed. God himself acts in this way. He does a most amazing thing. He chooses to show his love for us by becoming one of us, he gives himself in love. You might think that this marvellous action of the invisible eternal power underlying the Universe should happen to the sound of trumpets, with crashes of thunder and lightening etc etc. But instead he is born quietly with hardly anyone to see, to an unknown woman hidden in a stable.

 

Such is the way of the God we worship, and in this we rejoice, we give thanks, and try to reflect that love in our own lives.

 

An Ice Cream Homily

When I  see a footballer or an athlete make the sign of the cross, I am always very pleased indeed, as I hope you are. Pleased, because it is a great shame that most of us Catholics are not very brave at doing such things in public. Signing ourselves with the sign of the cross is the best way of all of reminding ourselves in all sorts of situations that we put our trust in God. The sportsman or woman who does this uses it, sometimes as a prayer to help them do well, and sometimes in thanksgiving after they have scored that goal or won that race; but there are lots of other situations in our ordinary lives where we can do this, and realize God is with us.

The most obvious one, that links with what I was saying about Muslims last week, is to make the sign when we visit a grave or hear of a death, and that extends to making the sign if a hearse passes us if we are driving, our out in the street. Last week I said how impressed I was that a young Muslim man I was with in Pakistan knew instantly what to do in such a situation. He opened his hands and prayed, and we Catholics cannot do less, because when we make the sign of the cross we are linking ourselves, and the person who has died, with the power of God made present for us in Jesus Christ our Lord – the power that through his Cross and Resurrection defeats death and gives eternal life.

That power is described in our Gospel today (Matt 16:13-20) when Jesus says “I will give you (that’s Peter and thus us the Church) the keys of the kingdom of heaven;… whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven”. Wonderful words about how much God loves us and forgives us. I said it was given to us, because although Peter and his successors, the Bishops and Priests of the Church, have a special calling to do this in the Confessional – making the sign as we are told that we are absolved from all our sins; it is also something that every one of you is called to do as well, to proclaim to the world the love and forgiveness of God, for the dead and for the living. And one of the simplest ways you can do this is by making the sign of the cross.

Another obvious place to do this is just before we eat a meal. It is not too difficult to pray at home as we sit down at the table but what about when we  eat out, surrounded by other people. Are you brave enough then? Or, like me, do you either conveniently forget to pray, or make the sign of the cross very quickly when you hope no-one is looking?

I have to confess further that if I am out and buy an Ice-Cream I do not normally thank God for it before I eat it, so I am going to have to try to do that now, rather than tell you to do it. Maybe this is too trivial for the sign of the cross – Hold the Ice-Cream in your left hand and make the sign of the cross before it starts melting! – but at least a quiet thank you to God might be a good idea?

On a  much more serious note, I do make the sign of the cross whenever an ambulance or fire engine passes by. I think of the people who are desperately in need of help, and make the sign of the cross, both as a prayer that they will be helped, and also as a prayer of thanksgiving for the ambulance or fire engine and its crew that do such a marvelous job for us. I am always moved, aren’t you, at the way cars and lorries make way when they see the blue light flashing and hear the nee-naw asking for a way through. There, for a moment, we see the goodness of our fellow humans helping one another. God at work in us every day.

So my message today is to say that we should all be much braver at showing our faith in public in this way. Muslims say words, words from the Koran, when they pray because they believe that God is specially present in all Koranic words. But we Christians believe that God is especially present not in words – however important they are – but in a person – Jesus. So don’t think of the cross just as a thing you do whilst you say words – such as “In the Name of the Father etc”. No, the sign used by a faithful Christian links us with Jesus without the need of words, and thus is a powerful prayer in itself.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself “But I am not a good enough Christian to do this kind of thing” or “My faith is too shaky”. Well I am sorry but that is not a good excuse if you look at the person who was first given this power – St Peter. He was not always very good. He certainly had a very muddled faith and he let down Jesus and denied him at the crucial moment. God knew this. It was no good searching for an absolutely brave person with a perfectly worked out faith, because such people do not exist. God chose Peter, and he has also chosen us, and so we must just get on with it.

Opening the eyes of our mind

I was sitting saying my prayers the other day, and I suddenly realised that I needed to thank God for my mother! Crazy really, because I often think of her with thankfulness and love, but somehow I felt I had never really turned this into thanking God – from whom all good things come. Actually it came up in my prayers, because I was preparing for my Confession which was later that morning, and as you may know, preparing for Confession, is just as important as actually making it, although not quite as important as hearing from the priest that God loves me and forgives me!

Strangely, I got another revelation later that same day.  Straight after making my Confession, I shot off to Leamington to an overnight Conference for priests, and there heard a talk by a priest who has been asked to prepare the case for proposing that GK Chesterton should be made an official saint!

I have a feeling that he would find the idea that he should be called a saint more than a little amusing, but here is the quote “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

As you can imagine, it was swimming that caught my attention. How awful that until now I never thought of saying grace, thanking God, before I jump in the swimming pool most mornings! Yet I regularly say to youngsters who play football, “Remember to thank God, because without God, there wouldn’t be any football.”  How typically human to hand out advice to others, and forget to apply it to myself!

Now what has all this got to do with today’s readings? Well, quite a lot actually, because all the readings are about learning to see more clearly. Look at what happens when Jesus heals the blind man. (John 9:1-41) Most of the story is not about physical healing at all, but about the conflict that follows between the Pharisees, who think they know everything and can tell others how to live their lives, and the blind man who can now see; and of course with Jesus. As Jesus says very sharply at the end : “Blind? If you were you would not be guilty, but since you say “We see”, your guilt remains.”

The other two readings make the same point. Samuel has to be told (1 Sam 16:1-13) that “God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances, but God looks at the heart.” Then we heard St Paul say (Ephesians 5:8-14)  that we must be like children of the light; which means that we must try to see things in God’s way, using his light, because only then can we discover what God wants of us.

“But what does God want of me?” you might well ask. Well, look at my experience last week. It wasn’t to preach at you about how wonderful mothers are, or that you should thank God for football. No, it was to apply these lessons to myself – to remember to thank God for my mother, and to remember to thank God for the ordinary fun things in my life, that I too easily take for granted.

This is one of the dangers that we Catholics do so easily get into, isn’t it? How easily it appears that, like the Pharisees, we tell other people how to behave, as if we were perfect and everyone else wasn’t! I know that’s not what we mean to do, but that is what we are accused of when we say, for example, that Gay Marriage should not be the same as ordinary Marriage, or that dishing out the morning after Pill to teenagers is not a good idea. It’s so difficult isn’t it? Not just for us, but even more difficult for our Bishops and for the Pope. Clearly the Church is called to teach what we believe is right and good for all people, but always we have to apply the medicine first to ourselves.

That’s one of the things Pope Francis has been trying to do, hasn’t he? He says that it is no good making moral pronouncements if they are made outside the context of God’s love and mercy.  It is so important therefore for us to convey to the world that when we say something that someone does is wrong, we do not mean that we condemn or judge the person who does it. If we thought that then we would have to condemn everyone! For all of us do wrong, or to put it another way, we “all fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and need his grace and mercy. It is surely the words “we” and “all” that are so important here. Something we should all remember. Beware of saying “they” and “them” or “you” and “your”, of blaming others!  Always, as Jesus said, (Matthew 7:3-5) look for the block in our own eyes rather than the speck of dust in someone else’s.

It all reminds us how hard it is to be a Christian, doesn’t it, or at least to be a public Christian, a public Catholic. That’s surely why most people sadly keep the fact that they are a Catholic as quiet as possible. We have however one advantage at the moment. Confession time is upon us, and telling people you are going to make your Confession is always a good way of sharing your faith with others without condemning anyone. We can even turn it into a bit of a joke against ourselves, and in doing so gently share the Gospel with others. Lots of laughter about how easily we get irritated with the people we work with or live with, how easily we start making cracks against people behind their backs, how easily we are tempted by the latest thing in the shops, that dress, that latest tekkie gadget or computer game. How easily we eat too many biscuits!  Confession then is not just good for us, it is also a good way of sharing the Gospel that God loves us, even when we find it hard to love ourselves!