Homily on Mary & Death

For us Christians, the day someone dies is also the day when we meet God face to face. As St Paul says “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor 13:12) That’s why we sometimes call the day of death our heavenly birthday. For me, the 12th June is a date I cannot forget, because it is the day my mother died over 40 years ago. I hope and pray that she is now with God in heaven, as I remember the words of St Paul from our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 15:20-26) “Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ” Notice that! We Christians do NOT believe that people pass automatically to heaven. Eternal life with God is a gift given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God dies to defeat death, and so bring us to eternal life with him.

 I’m reminding you of all this standard teaching on the faith, because from the very earliest times Christians have celebrated death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as her entrance into heaven. And just as I can remember the date of the passing of my earthly mother, so they remembered, and have passed on to us, the date – the 15th of August – of the passing of the mother that Jesus gave to us all as he died on the cross. As Mary stood at the foot of the cross, Jesus said to his dear friend John, the only disciple brave enough to stand with her “This is your mother”

 Now we might say “Yes OK.”, and leave it at that. But the Church tells us that Mary is more important than that, and that we need to think and pray regularly about her part in bringing Jesus to the world, if we are to understand more clearly what it is that God offers us through Jesus. A famous Dominican writer, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, points out that when someone asks us home to meet their mother, we’re actually being offered an even closer friendship with them. This may well have happened to you? Think how in this situation, the Mother tells us stories, sometimes embarrassing ones, about her son or daughter from when he or she was younger; and thus we learn things about them that we never knew before.

 Some of the stories of Jesus in the Bible, including our Gospel today (Luke 1:39-56) are clearly one’s that do not come from Jesus, but from Mary : stories she must have told the first Christians, so that they could learn more about how God works through Jesus to bring us to eternal life with him.

 The three most famous stories are told at length in the Bible, and so are clearly very important. They are first the story of the Angel coming to Mary, then Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth (our Gospel today) and then finally the birth of Jesus and the few stories we have of his childhood. Mary’s part in all this reminds us that even the most ordinary human beings, like you and me, can be filled with the Holy Spirit and used by God in wonderful ways. They remind us also how God chooses to become fully human, in Jesus, to be a baby in the womb and a child in his mother’s arms. This is the most remarkable thing about the Christian Gospel that we easily take for granted.  God choosing to work in a special way in one of us, Mary, in order that he might be born as one of us, Jesus.

 Thus we are taught two things. First, that God does not work in us just in a spiritual way, but that he uses our flesh and blood humanity to bring his love and glory to the world – just as he worked in Mary. Second, that, although we are called to a personal faith in Jesus, who died for us, part of the way we are linked to him is by being living members of his family. Remember what Jesus says to us. “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.” (John 15:15) and in another place Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35). That is what we are called to be ,with Mary our mother, a family supporting and loving one another, and together bringing his message of love and salvation to those around us and to world.

 Finally, of course, the message for today is that when we die, we do not die alone. We are drawn through the love of God fully into the family of God that we have been part of whilst on earth. We cannot really ever understand what life after death is like, but we can know that somehow the best things about being human, loving and caring for one another, are something we will experience with God for ever after we die. Before Christianity, life after death, if believed in at all, was an entry into a shadowy ghostly world to be feared more than welcomed. Death for Mary, and for all the family of Jesus is quite different, an enter into life and love and glory. That is what we celebrate today.

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Close friendship with God

It is easy to forget that when Jesus taught us to call God “Father”, he did not mean Grandfather. I always get furious with people who think we Christians believe in a God who is like an old man – a grandfather with a beard – sitting on a cloud! No! What he wanted to share with us was that very special idea that God is very close to us and that through our brotherhood with Jesus we are drawn into the same closeness with God that he has. Listen to the prayer of Jesus just before he is arrested “I pray also for those who will believe in me..  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21) 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that God is so close to us that he is not far away beyond us as well. Jesus prayed regularly in the Synagogue and the Temple where God was always addressed in more formal ways, just as we all do when we say “Holy holy holy, Lord God Of hosts” during Mass. Indeed these are words Jesus knew well, as they are from the great prophet Isaiah’s vision of God, (6:3) a vision taken up by us Christians where we find it in the last book of the Bible as a vision of God in heaven (Rev 4:8)

It is only when we have something of that vision of God – a power quite beyond our understanding eternal and almighty – that we can feel something of the shock and the wonder of the teaching of Jesus, that this same God can also be approached as “Father”. Indeed in our Gospel today, (Luke 11:1-13) when Jesus teaches us to pray, he puts the two images of God side by side. “Say this when you pray : Father, may your name be held holy”

But our Gospel takes us further into the teaching of Jesus on the closeness of the Father with his story of the two neighbours. Our problem here is that we are so concerned with our own desire to pray better, that we concentrate on that aspect of the story; so we need to look more closely at the relationship between the two neighbours. Think about it!  Nobody would have the nerve to go banging on their neighbour’s door late at night unless they knew them very well indeed.  Jesus emphasises how inconvenient it is, by having the disturbed person cry out from inside the house, “Go away, we have all gone to bed.”  By this time Jesus has all his listeners laughing. But then he takes the story further, for the man outside continues knocking and calling until .. finally.. his friend, with a sigh I guess, gives way and gets out of bed and gets him what he wants.  Did you notice how I put in that word “friend” because that’s the point. That neighbour would never have got up unless they had actually been friends as well.

Remember that Jesus says in another place “I have called you friends”? (John 15:15) This is so important to him, he wants us to see God as our friend, to see God as someone whose door we would feel happy to knock on in the middle of the night. So God is not only a Father to us, but also the kind of father who we feel really comfortable with, the kind of father who we would be happy to phone up and chat to, even in the middle of the night. I know of one person who sometimes does this, and knows that her father is always happy to hear her voice and listen to her problems even if he is far away. We may not have a father like that, but we can imagine what it is like, and that is the God that Jesus gives us, as he calls us to be his friends, and thus the friends of God.

We might end by looking at what we are given if we do pray like that. We might think that Jesus is teaching us that if we persist in prayer we will get what we want. But that is not what he says. He says “If you then…  know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Did you hear that? What God will give us if we persist in prayer is not what we ask for but himself as Holy Spirit. In other words he will fill us with his strength and his wisdom and it is that which will answer our prayer. We may not get what we want, but what we will get is his even closer presence to guide us and probably show us that what we were asking for is not necessarily the riht thing for us.

 I remember when I was in great pain in hospital asking God again and again to take away the pain so I could sleep. Finally I realized that I was going to have to live with the pain at least for a while, and instead of crying out for relief, I had to simply relax in his presence. and in that knowledge manage that living with the pain that I did not really want. God sometimes answers prayer this way. It may be hard but if God is with us, we can and will manage.

 

Homily on what Corpus Christi means

Corpus Christi means ‘the Body of Christ’. It is the day when the Church celebrates the promise of Jesus, at his Last Supper with his disciples, that he would be with them in a special way whenever they took the bread and blessed it and ate it together as he did on that holy night. From then on this is what the true followers of Jesus have done. We give this event a number of special names. The Mass from the same word as Mission means the ‘sending out’ event – the event that empowers us to go out and share his presence and love with others. But also we call the actual receiving of this holy bread ‘Holy Communion’, because in and through it we actually receive Jesus and are drawn into ‘Union” with God and with one another, as we heard Jesus say in the Gospel. (John 6:51-58) “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.”

But there is another important word we use describe this event, a word which is less well known. We call it ‘The Eucharist” which means ‘The Thanksgiving’ (Efharisto in modern Greek). For although we may thank God for life and beauty and goodness and love in many ways, this is THE WAY above all ways to thank and praise him for everything he is and everything he does. For the Bread and Wine, as well as being examples of the food and drink that keeps us physically alive, are also transformed by the Holy Spirit into his Body and Blood, so that as Jesus says “Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:58)  So every Mass is above all a great song of praise and thanksgiving to God. For we will not receive the full benefits of what God gives us at Mass if we just come to receive. No, we must come most of all to give, to give our lives in thanksgiving to God and thus to the world. For the more we give the more we will receive.

Today’s feast is therefore a great reminder of all this. But it has also been the tradition of the Church for hundreds of years to extend our thanksgiving and praise on this day by other acts of praise to Jesus for coming to us in this wonderful way. So today in many many churches throughout the world, we take the holy Bread in which Jesus is present – the bread that we call the Blesséd Sacrament – and place it in something called a Monstrance so that everyone can see it. Then in song and prayer and in procession we thank God for his wonderful gift.

Finally we receive Benediction, or what is called by its full title ‘Benediction of the Blesséd Sacrament’. “Benediction” is actually just another word for “Blessing”, and the normal way the priest gives us all a blessing is by making the sign of the cross as he says the words “May Almighty God bless you etc.” But when Jesus is present in this special way, in the Blessed Sacrament, words become unnecessary, and so he simply makes the sign of the cross with the Blessed Sacrament in silence.

I think we Catholics need to remember how lucky we are to have within our Church this practice of using the Blessed Sacrament in this way as a focus for our prayer and praise. Other Christians mainly think of Jesus as present in a general way, in their prayers and thoughts, and will not accept, despite his words at the Last Supper, that there is a real presence of Jesus in the Bread and Wine. They fear that we are slipping into idolatry, worshipping the Bread, rather than Jesus. When I was a Protestant I thought that was what Catholics did. But then, when I began to meet Catholics, I realized that I was mistaken ; that this focus on the Blessed Sacrament is for all Catholics a focus on the glorious presence of Jesus. For no-one in their right mind spends time worshipping bread!

The other advantage of our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in this way is that we have a special focus for our prayers every time we are in church. There always is the light shining to indicate His presence. But also most churches have times outside Mass when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for us to see in the Monstrance, and then this focus for our prayer is even more explicit. We call these times of silent prayer “Adoration or Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament” and many people find this an easier way to pray in silence than just trying to do so at home, partly because focusing on something that we can actually see before us is easier than just thinking about Jesus in our minds, and partly because in a strange and mysterious way, the power of his presence radiates out to us even when we do not actually receive him in Holy Communion.

So let us give thanks to God today for this wonderful gift.

 

God delighting in the creation

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings:- It appears that the compliers of our lectionary deliberately selected readings for Trinity Sunday which turn our thinking about God in a very Jewish direction. We can all too easily think of God in Trinity in three distinct ways, even, following the Greek sense, as three ‘persons’ in one unique being or essence. But the choice of our first reading from Proverbs (8:22-31) harks back to the personified wisdom of God powerful and active in creation. Wisdom is God’s companion and always party to God’s actions in creating the cosmos. Proverbs appears to have been compiled from very early material assembled together in the late 6th century to the 5th century BCE. As the historians among you will recognise, this places this important Jewish affirmation of the One true God around the time of the Babylonian captivity. As it shares ideas with Second Isaiah and Jeremiah, both prophets of the exile, we can assume it too used thinking gleaned from that experience and the people of the Fertile Crescent, or even demonstrates the insistence of the Jewish exiles in keeping God as One against the plethora of the gods they met there. Our passage from Proverbs aims to stress the solidarity, the unity of the divine purpose, and the solidarity of what might appear different elements in the divine. This is drawn out by the frequently repeated “When he (God) fixed the heavens; the surface of the deep; the springs; laid the foundations of the earth” and so on. Wisdom is, like the Christian understanding of God the Son, ‘from the beginning’ before any created thing, indicating that it is part of the divine himself, intimate and in perfect union with him. Indeed, so intimate is the relationship between God and Wisdom that in reality it appears almost impossible to separate them. Yet this is precisely what Proverbs seems to do, both by emphasising their unity and by indicating that Wisdom is in some way distinct.

 

This manner of speaking acts both to emphasise the unity of God and to allow for distinctive ways of thinking about God’s actions, the creation of things other than himself, and thereby keeping God aloof and separate from the creative action itself, yet its master and Lord. This can be a real help in thinking about the Christian Trinity which often seems so complicated and near impossible for many believers ever to grasp. If we think about the way in which St John for instance uses this concept, we can find both Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit reflected in the wisdom concept. John will speak of Jesus as the creator, saviour and redeemer and also, as we have in our Gospel (Jn 16:12-15) as the Holy Spirit, his spirit, present in the universe after his physical withdrawal to the Father. There, the distinctiveness of each of the persons of the Trinity is emphasised, while at the same time their perfect unity and solidarity is maintained. What we have is always the fullness of divinity, emphasised through different tasks, redemption on the cross by the Son, continual succour and support of the Church by the Spirit.

 

What is significant, I think, is the very antiquity of this way of speaking about God. Some distressingly difficult modern writers on the Trinity seem to give the impression that it was gleaned entirely from Greek philosophy. But if the appeal to Proverbs is right, it appears we are entering a territory altogether more ancient, going right back to the origins of Judaism, in which, far from witnessing a remote and detached deity, Wisdom gives us a picture of God delighting, involved in his creating of the universe, an experience so exhilarating that somehow it had to be shared.

 

Perhaps this is why we are also given the passage from Romans (5:1-5). This brief summary of the relationship between Father and Son, and of Our Lord’s continuing action in us which is the work of the Spirit, is a masterly summing up of the whole purpose of the Trinity. The Greek, rather than the Jerusalem Bible makes rather clearer the Trinitarian nature of this passage. Paul does not claim that we are ‘judged righteous’, suggestive of our behaviour, but instead, “Having been justified by the faith of Jesus Christ”, emphasising that this is not our work, but that of Jesus the Son. Because of his work, we are now able to enter into the glory of God the Father. The certainty of this new and heavenly inheritance is continually affirmed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. In this then, we meet not simply God in Trinity, God as he is, threefold, but also God in Trinity working continually for our salvation. This seems to be why St Paul pops the rather odd bit about our sufferings into the picture amidst all his talk of the divine glory. Perhaps he is emphasising our human solidarity, the solidarity of the redeemed by Christ who won this great glory by suffering himself. Through the work of the Spirit of Christ in us, our human sufferings take on a different hue. It is not that we in any way save ourselves, that is entirely the work of God; yet in solidarity with Christ, our sufferings take on a greater and perhaps eternal dimension, conforming us to the divine outlook and mindset. Indeed, in Colossians 1:24, Paul will even go so far as to claim that in his sufferings “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” For sure, we are not sharers in the Trinity, but we are sharers in God’s glory.

 

In our Gospel (John 16:12-15) taken from the great teaching passages of Jesus in Jerusalem prior to his saving passion, we see him instructing the disciples about the fullness of understanding to be given us through the work of the Spirit after the death and resurrection of Jesus to the Father. At that time, their knowledge, or perhaps understanding, of what Jesus would achieve for them was limited. Later, he says, they will know, and this knowledge and joy will be the work of the Holy Spirit assuring us of the unbreakable union of Father and Son, a gift given to every Christian, to you and to me, through the continual presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Pentecost : a violent wind

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings: The description in Acts (2:1-11) of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is, I think, always something vaguely wafty and esoteric for us today. Yet the Greek, rather than speaking of a ‘powerful wind’, speaks of a violent wind, something like a tornado filling the house as it came upon the disciples. We in the west, for whom so much of our faith has become ‘spiritualised and sanitised’, need to try and recapture something of the life changing event, even the savageness, this bestowal brought.

 

I think we can attempt to do this by looking at Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom 8:8-17). St Paul frequently uses the image of slavery, that most despised group in the ancient world to convey our relationship to God, often to allude to the utter difference between us and God (we are God’s slaves). But here, he speaks of our transformation from slaves to sons and heirs of God. Anyone hearing or reading these words originally would have understood perfectly the enormity of what he was talking about. By the gift of Christ, in the Holy Spirit, we are transformed from a slave to a son.

 

In Greco-Roman society the slave was socially dead, a non person. Because of this they could be bought or sold, worked till they dropped, sexually exploited, and frequently saw their children either sold off or under threat of sale. They could not marry or join in society. Just imagine therefore what being freed implied; suddenly, at the say of one’s master, one became a human being. Masters freeing slaves were said to create them, give them life. Now they were citizens of the empire, albeit frequently still tied to their former master, now patron by business ties. Any children they had who were born in freedom could stand for public office and enter the coveted Roman political system, and aim to improve their status and class. It even affected where you could sit in the amphitheatre and at the races. They could make wills, marry, and some might even be adopted by former masters who were childless, and would thus carry on his family name so that it did no die out. The numbers of Julii all over the empire was enormous, recording ties to the house of Caesar.

 

As if this were not enough of a mind altering and radical shift in actual public prospects, Paul also likeness the coming of the Spirit to adoption. We are now God’s heirs along with Christ. Adoption was quite a common thing in ancient society, and again full of vitality and significance. In elite senatorial or equestrian circles, having an heir was essential, not simply to prevent the death of an all important and powerful and honoured name, but also to protect ones assets. But early death rates, appallingly high in the ancient world, meant that thousands of children did not live to adulthood. Adoption from one elite family with a lucky surplus of sons into one lacking an heir could be the only way to safeguard an important heritage. Julius Caesar adopted Octavian, his nephew as his heir; earlier, the powerful Scipionii gave a son to the Amelii-Paulii and we find this transaction recorded in his name. All classes participated in this system. It was not just about cash, it was about preventing the death of a name and all it implied. Being made a son by adoption had real and tangible effects on all concerned; it was a life changing moment for all of them. St Paul quite deliberately took these images from daily life to illustrate the significance of the Spirit in the lives of recipients. It was real, bodily and tangible; one’s life was never the same again.

 

When therefore, in translation, we read these rather limp passages like the one in our gospel (John 14:15-16.23-26) we need to do so with these powerful images in mind. It was what irretrievably altered lives. The promise by Christ of the Advocate, the Paraclete, of his stand-in, his abiding presence for ever in the world, meant that hereafter the believer is at one with the divine, here expressed most comfortingly by that phrase ‘at home’. It means that the follower of Christ is party to God’s ideas and ways of being, his intimate, his friend and a sharer of his inmost thoughts and dealings, hence, “He will teach you everything.” This is an enormous honour and a great responsibility, and just as freedom or adoption brought a person into a new and demanding status to others and the world about him, so the same is implied here. We are new-made, God-made and the environment we inhabit is forever a changed reality. The advent of the Holy Spirit then is not about being surrounded by some cotton wool comfort blanket, but about our empowerment by God himself and just as these experiences radically altered the disciples, sending them off on missions to convert the world, so too, his presence in our lives is meant to be dramatically transforming, equipping us to work in unison with the creator-redeemer God.

God has placed his trust in us

Frances writes :-  There is often a tendency to wonder precisely why Jesus left us at the Ascension, why at the moment of his resurrected triumph over death he did not stay put. It is only when we really spend time with the implications, both of what his remaining would have meant, and what his departure implies, that we can begin to experience the enormity of his ascension gift to humanity.

This is an issue explored by our reading from Acts (1:1-11). It appears that the disciples, so like us, want to cling onto the risen Jesus and, despite all his talk to the contrary, are still thinking in earthly and very Jewish terms. “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Despite all his teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God they, like their fellow Jews who rejected Jesus’ teaching and understanding of the Father, are still stuck with him as a Roman basher; someone who would gather a huge army and come in power once and for all to throw any would be conquerors out of Israel. In their thinking, the reign of God on earth would still be a very worldly thing, about power and control, and making sure that Israel finally came out on top. The disciples, like us, cling to familiar concepts, and what they think they know, and they cast God in this image too.

This is precisely why the risen, glorified Jesus must leave them. It was time to move on – their time to move out into the great adventure which was to be Christianity. Had Jesus remained they and we would be incurably handicapped, forever overshadowed by the risen Lord, trapped in a world in which his power would have become absolute. There would be no need for any to search for God, for there he was, no need for us to think for we would be trapped; infantilized by his very presence. Instead, we notice that Jesus is looking forward to their baptism in the Holy Spirit, the coming of age of the disciples, and all that that will mean.

In Luke’s gospel (Lk 24:46-53) we get a rather clearer picture of all this, as Jesus instructs the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they had been “Clothed with the power from on high.” Significantly, he reminds them of his death and resurrection, and their task, “That, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Our, and I suspect the disciples’, problem was and is that few of us really take on board the gift of the Father to us. Sure, we have that wonderful promise of eternal life, of even sharing divinity with him in heaven, but in general, we fail to discern the real meaning of the ascension of Jesus.

The whole purpose of the incarnation, of the sending of God the Son in flesh and blood like ours, was to reveal to the world the true relationship between Father and Son and their intention for us. This is made clearer precisely by the ‘loss’ of the physically present Jesus. For in that we experience the full extent of the divine trust in us, in the human creatures God has made. Jesus’ mission is completed by his saving death and resurrection; the divine invitation to believers is that they trust us to make it known, shared and lived out in the world. Had Jesus remained, such a trust, any such call, would have been superfluous, void of meaning; humanity would have remained at best willing and obedient followers, at worst, puppets. But by his ascension, Christ gives this supreme honour to the disciples. That it is our task, our mission, our great act of willing and freely given collaboration with him, to make it known and available to the whole of humanity. God, it appears, is supremely optimistic about humanity. We may not be so, and from our perspective on the world, things can look pretty bleak, but we must remember that God has placed his trust in us, and knows that we will not fail.

The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23), written for what was obviously a predominantly Jewish convert audience, was at pains to take his readers beyond their commitment to God through Jewish temple worship. He may have deliberately seized the opportunity of the Roman destruction of the temple at the end of the great revolt in AD 70, when the void this created gave him an invitation to show how belief in Jesus could transcend the Jewish faith. He points out how the Jewish priests had to offer atonement sacrifices continually, because the sins of the people were constantly reoccurring, and shows how Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred only once and reconciled the entire creation to God for all time. In a spectacular piece of imagery he speaks of Jesus’ sacrificed body as the curtain of the temple, which has now been symbolically torn down, as God and humanity are now inexorably joined. Under the old and now defunct temple system, a huge embroidered curtain hid the people from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. In the synoptic gospels this curtain is ripped apart at the death of Jesus; God and man are now no longer veiled, cut off from each other, but open, redeemed and accessible to each other. The writer of Hebrews picks this up, insisting that every Christian has the free access to God formerly only accorded the High Priests, that our access to God is open, and only limited by our own bad conscience. In principle, he says we are at home with God, familiar with him and he to us, that is the gift of the ascension.

 

Homily on the ordinariness of God

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.