Homily on supporting parents with little children

I was talking to some couples preparing for Marriage last week, and I pointed out to them that when their children arrive, they will need to be prepared for some very difficult challenges. Those of you who have been through the stage of having little children to look after, or are going through it now, will know what I mean! These challenges include lack of sleep, of course! A young mother I know asked her sleeping husband the other day to take their baby and put him back into the Crib. Imagine her surprise when this half-asleep young man picked up a pillow and gently treated it as if it were the baby! Most women would not have been as kind as she was, letting him go back to sleep and doing it herself! I suspect she may get more brutal as time progresses!

 

There are many other challenges, of course, but one of the toughest for Christian parents, is the challenge of bringing their children to Mass. They have promised to do this, both at their Marriage and at the Baptism of the baby – to bring children up “in the practice of the faith”; but many parents just find this too hard, and soon give up the attempt, especially as the little baby becomes an independent and rather noisy toddler.  Indeed, it can mark the point where they give up coming to Mass at all, and it is therefore terribly terribly important that all of us do all we can to support and help them at this time.

 

Today in our Gospel (Mark 10:35-45) Jesus tells us that Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant.”  But it is amazing how many people who are very happy to help and support people, to be the servants of others, outside church, do not want to do this during Mass. No, they seem to think that the Mass is put on for them, that it is meant to be a quiet time of reflection and prayer, and when children make a noise, they are just irritated by the disturbance and sometimes even let their irritation show! They seem to forget that in doing so they are driving away the very people who are the future of the Church. They are ignoring the teaching of Christ “Let the little children come to me..for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

 

I was sharing this with my fellow priests the other day, and they all said they had the same problem, of people complaining about noisy children. All of us found we gave similar answers. “Do not come to Sunday Mass expecting quiet prayer and reflection.” Sunday Mass is the Mass of the whole community where we offer ourselves to God together. If you cannot, by sitting nearer the front, by concentrating on your inner stillness, find quiet prayer on a Sunday, then come to a weekday Mass, or a time of Adoration as well, and find your quiet there.  Indeed we recommend a weekday Mass, or a time of prayer in some Church somewhere, as an extra to everyone. It is amazing how some busy working people can find time to pop into a church near their place of work, whilst some retired people with much more time, find they are too busy!

 

The Church teaches that parents, with their little children, are what we call “the domestic church”. Their service of sacrificial love for their children, of teaching them to love Jesus and be part of his Church, is one of the most important aspects of the life of the Church; and all of us are called to help them in any way we can. Remember that the parents are not trying to keep their children quiet in church so that you and I can have an undisturbed Mass! No! Gradually, and sometimes very painfully, they are trying to teach their children to take part in the Mass, to join in the prayers. Sometimes this means taking them out for a bit to calm down, and parents have a tough job getting that right. Take them out too quickly and they soon get the idea that if they are noisy they get taken out to play and so they become even more noisy! It is a hard choice.

 

So what do the rest of us have to do in order to serve these children as Jesus tells us to? Well first, we have to set an example. We have to be still, to concentrate on our prayers, however much noise is going on around us. It is equally difficult for the parents if we start waving at the children or pulling funny faces, as it is to look or show irritation. Some of you are wonderful at going and talking to the parents and the children after Mass, and showing them how welcome they are, encouraging them to keep coming, however hard it is. For some of us it may be just a smile and a greeting as we pass by. Little acts of service like this are so so important for the parents in their amazingly tiring work, and we must never neglect our opportunity to support them in some way.  Remember from the Gospel today how James and John seek heavenly glory, and are told that the only way to get this is to follow the way of Jesus in service and sacrifice. That is what we are all called to do in many different ways. So let’s do it.!

Finding God in the storms of life

I expect that all of you, like me, love the seaside. For me it is just the sight of that immense amount of water wooshing or crashing again and again onto the beach.  We must seek God in all things, but for me it is most easy to feel God’s presence when I hear that gentle sound -the swish swish of the waves. I am lucky to live near some large trees, and so I can hear then swishing too as soon as the wind gets going even a little bit. But when the wind turns into a storm or even a tempest then both the sea and those trees begin to roar, and the sound then can be more than a little frightening.

 Our first reading (Job 38:1.8-11) however reminds us that although we may feel God close in the gentler sounds of the natural world, he also speaks and is present in the midst of a storm or a tempest. Then we are reminded that God is a power beyond our imagining, far more powerful than any storm however terrifying that may be. So Job hears God say to the sea from the midst of the tempest, when the sea is roaring uncontrollably  “Come thus far, and no farther: here your proud waves shall break.”

 In our Psalm too (Ps 106:23-32) we hear more about the sea, with similar words He stilled the storm to a whisper: all the waves of the sea were hushed.”, which, of course, points us forward to today’s Gospel. (Mark 4:35-41)

 But let’s look at our 2nd Reading first, where Paul reminds us, as he so often does, that we meet God most of all in and through our fellow human beings, most of all in that one human being Jesus, who brings God close to us in a unique way. So Paul says “The love of Christ overwhelms us”. Yes, overwhelms us. It ought to. We should never get so used to looking at Jesus on the cross, that we forget what an amazing thing that love is.

The power to love like that is something given by God that all of us have within us. It leads people to do something for others that goes beyond just being kind. Think of firefighters or lifeboat crew risking their lives to save others. There we see humanity at its best, and need to thank God that such love, such service of others, exists. It’s something that should lead us to pray every time we hear or see a fire engine or an ambulance pass by. Think too of the many young parents caring for their children when they are sick or frightened in the middle of the night. There too we see powerful love at work, and there too we should recognise the presence of God.

 I always think that the most important part of the story of Jesus in the storm is not when he wakes up and the storm dies down, but the picture of him asleep. I think it is the only time that Jesus is described as being asleep, and it is worth picturing this in our minds. Think of the times you have found yourself in a storm, even in your own house. The wind roars around, the trees sound as if they are falling down, and if you are by the sea, the sound and sight of immense waves roaring and crashing on the beach can be quite terrifying. This is what is happening all around Jesus, and what is more, he is not in a house but in a relatively small fishing boat!  Most of us know what it is like to be woken in the night by such a storm, and to find it impossible to go back to sleep. Most of us know too, the times when the worries and anxieties of life have been like a storm waking us in the middle of the night, and leaving us shaken and frightened.

 Think of all this, and then think of Jesus, asleep through it all. His sleep reminds us that God is with us however frightened we are made to feel by the storms of this world, whether they are caused by the forces of nature, or happen inside our heads.  Jesus knows all the Psalms by heart, as well as The Book of Job; but he doesn’t just know these writings as words, he lives then out in his life, in that utter unity with God the Father into which he is calling each one of us. It is not an accident that in one place (1 Cor 15:12-20) St Paul describes Christian death as “falling asleep in Christ” – as a time of undisturbed sleep.  Think of those times when you sleep well and wake refreshed, and you get some idea of what it means to be one with God.

So whatever storms we face in life, we are reminded today that God is always with us. It can be hard to feel this, especially in the middle of the night when we cannot sleep; but just because we cannot feel God’s presence does not mean he isn’t there. The disciples had Jesus right with them in the boat, but his presence did not stop them feeling frightened. In one sense we are thus reminded that feeling frightened is OK. It doesn’t mean we lack faith. It means that we know how much we need God, and that, in the end, is all we do need. In the end there is only God.

 

 

 

To be a Mother to the world

In one sense all of us are meant to be like Mary, and this is especially true at this time of the year. But you might have thought that our Gospel today would have told us something of the journey to Bethlehem, a long 60 miles on the road that any heavily pregnant woman would find difficult, or the arrival in the little town to find it full to bursting with visitors, and so no room at the Inn and only a stable to rest in. But, actually, much of that story is not in the Bible at all, because for the writers of the Gospel what is much more important is how Mary came to be expecting this baby in the first place, which is why that is the story in our Gospel today (Luke 1:26-38)

 The first thing to notice is that when God calls us he is already with us. We think of God as a power outside us, and so he is, but he is also already within us. So the angel greets Mary, and instantly reminds her of this truth “The Lord is with you.” And being told this we, like Mary, ought to be “deeply disturbed”.  Why? Because, even we practising Catholic Christians prefer to think of God as at a distance from us. We want God with us on our terms. A power we can turn to for help and encouragement-  Yes.  A power we can thank and praise for the many good things in life – Yes. But we don’t really like the idea of a power that is within us, disturbing and challenging us, when we would prefer to be doing our own thing.

Those of you who are women who have borne children have the advantage of understanding Mary better at this point than the rest of us; and of course, those of us who are men will never know the physical disturbance that is part of this story – to conceive and bear a child. But we do know how disturbing this is from observation, and those who have been, or are, fathers with very young children, know how it transforms and takes over life once the child is born. As one pair of young parents said to me recently, “We are learning what sacrificial love really means, especially in the middle of the night!”

The point however is, that whatever our physical experiences are or have been, spiritually we are called upon to live our life like the pregnant Mary, bearing God within our very being, however disturbing that may be, and being prepared not to keep God to ourselves, but to share him with the world. And this is even more true for the Church as a whole, and not just for us individual Christians within it. The Church, in one sense, is called to be Mary to the world. That is why we often speak of the Church as her, as our Mother the Church, because she, the Church, is called to hold within her the presence of God, to realise the mystery of this calling, to ponder in her heart what this means, and to offer to the world what we have been given, however hard and painful that may be.

Notice that this includes asking God difficult questions. Mary says “But how can this come about?”  The idea that we should accept God’s will without question is not here in this story. That is perhaps an invention by some people who sought unquestioning obedience. Mary’s example is quite different, for after being disturbed, she responds with a tough question, and we should surely be prepared to do the same. Think of little children once they learn to talk. It is delightful, if a bit infuriating, that they ask endless questions. God made us that way, and we should never be ashamed of continuing to ask them, even questions to which we know there is no complete answer.

Mary’s question is like that. God does not explain how this is going to happen within her. All he does is tell her of what is already happening in her cousin Elizabeth. The Jesus who is already a tiny embryo within her is, as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (Romans 16:25-27) “a mystery kept secret for endless ages”. For however much science can and does explain the process by which new life is created, it is still in another sense a mystery. A young and fairly sceptical father once said to me after witnessing the birth of his first child. “After seeing that miracle take place, I just had to believe in God.”

Yes, we think, especially when we are young and strong, that we have our life in our hands. Discovering that life is not like that, is an endless journey. We believers say that this is a journey into God – a journey in which we learn that we are called, like Mary, to a great responsibility, to give birth to God, to co-operate in God’s work of creation and re-creation for the good of all humankind.  I would like to end therefore by reading to you a little of St Anselm’s great meditation on Mary  

To Mary, God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God, who made all things, gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He, who could create all things from nothing, would not remake his ruined creation without Mary. God, then, is the Father of the created world, and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Saviour of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance.”

 We are called as individuals, and as a Church, to be like her. And Mary said “Let it be for me according to your word.”