Sunday, 26 October 2014

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A




Ex 22:20-26; Mt 22:34-40
"Love your neighbour as yourself" -in that phrase we just heard, Scripture repeatedly tells us, in that phrase is the summation of the whole Law (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10) and the Prophets too (Mt 22:40).
Today, however, I'd like to consider one of the reasons WHY we should love our neighbour, namely, to focus on the reason given in our first reading today.
That reason, in my opinion, is one that we should be able to easily grasp as penetrating at an EMOTIONAL level. In this text we are minded of how my neighbour is LIKE myself -and when I see this I can grasp why it makes sense to love him "AS myself"(Mt 22:39). But to grasp this I frequently need to be reminded of our own experience of need, of my own experience of needing to having someone love ME.

Our first reading, from Exodus, contained the command to care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
This command is repeated again and again in the Old Testament Scriptures. This is part of what the Lord formed His Chosen People to care about. His Chosen People were to not be like other cultures and societies:
Whereas other cultures cast off the weak and powerless, they were to care for them.
Whereas other cultures saw the old and frail as "past it", as having already served their purpose, and fit to just be left to die, in contrast, the Jews were formed to think differently, to care for them.
And whereas our own culture today seeks to abort the disabled in the womb, and calls to euthanise them when new-born, and when they are old to make them feel that their life is not worth living, the Chosen People of God, who we Christians are called to fulfil, are supposed to CARE for those most in need -to recognise their innate dignity, a dignity they have simply by being human.

But HOW are we to recognise that innate dignity in the weak and needy? How are we not to look at the diseased and wounded and not just shy away?
Let us note the reason given in Exodus 22:20: "You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, [WHY? BECAUSE] for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt"
The Lord called on His chosen people to think back to their own experience, their own experience of need, and to thus see how the stranger was LIKE THEM -and thus care for the stranger as yourself.
And, when we look at the record of Salvation History in the pages of the Scriptures we find that God dealt with His people in such a way as to teach them this lesson again and again. He REPEATEDLY laid them low, repeatedly made them weak and destitute, IN ORDER that they might, on one level, know their need of God, but also, so that they might learn the experience that enabled them to live out what we called them to:
To care for the weak. To care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

So He caused them to be slaves in Egypt;
He led them in the Wilderness for 40 years until they knew their weakness;
Then, after they lived in the Promised Land but lived forgetful of Him, a life that neglected the calls of the Prophets and oppressed the poor and needy, He then led them into captivity in Babylon.
And, what we see running through all this, and in the details too, is His making a people who knew weakness and need so that they might UNDERSTAND at the level of EXPERIENCE the need to care for others when they are weak and in need.

(Pause)
So, let us pause a moment today and reflect on our own experience, on our own times of being weak and needy.
And, as the Lord had compassion, "feeling-with" (Mt 14:14) us in our weakness (cf my sermon earlier this summer text and audio)
let us also "feel-with" those in need,
and so care for the needy,
For each of us have been poor and needy in our own experiences of "Egypt".

Sunday, 19 October 2014

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A




Mt 22:15-21; Isa 45:1,4-6
I’m going to say a few words today about the best way to polish your shoes, and to use this as an example of how we can ‘render unto God’ while doing some of the things that at first glance seem to be all about ‘rendering unto caesar’. And I’ve been thinking about shoe polish because since Thursday I’ve been seeing Fr Neville’s shoes, and they are polished to an AMAZING degree!

In that Gospel text we heard the Lord Jesus say, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's"(Mt 22:21). Let me note something: the Lord introduced the matter of our duties to God in response to a question that was apparently nothing to do with God, a question that asked about mere human realities: They asked Him about tax and Caesar, He replied by telling them to render GOD what is His due.
So this might be like you asking a simple human question about whether to watch Eastenders or Strictly tonight, and Jesus answering by saying, “Either. But YOU remember to say your night prayers”. Or, you might be asking one of those long and prolonged parental discussions: “Should young Jimmy join scouts or the rugby club?” Only to hear the answer: “YOU remember to put God FIRST in your priorities, and render God His due by keeping the Lord's Day holy by getting Jimmy to Sunday Mass each and EVERY Sunday.”
(And this week's newsletter insert sheet gives 4 explicitly religious duties we need to 'render unto God.)
So, when we are over-immersed in our human concerns the Lord cuts across them by pointing us to our duties to God.

Let me point even deeper, however, and note that it can be precisely IN the world of Caesar, the realm of human activities, that we can find God and render Him His due. As St Teresa of Avila (whose feast day was this past week) famously said, about working in the kitchen, we must find God “amidst the pots and pans”.

Let us return to the example of Fr Neville polishing his shoes. How can he find God while doing such a small mundane thing?
First, by doing the task well in itself. We live in God’s creation. He wants His creation treated with dignity and care. He wants the material realities He has made to be perfected and done well. This is the first and basic thing: polish the shoes well.
Second, that natural reality can be “supernaturalised”, as St Josemaria used to say. We can not only do the task well but OFFER it to God. Offering an activity to God transforms it:
it acknowledges that the things of creation come from God, and not just from ourselves;
it implicitly calls on God’s grace to help us do those things well, and with His help;
it becomes something I can offer as a sacrifice for others to prayer for them -so I can offer the drudgery and boredom of a task to Him.
and, by changing the act on the inside it also changes it on the outside. It becomes not a selfish ‘me’ thing, but a ‘love’ thing.
Its because this ‘offering’ can change so much that the spiritual tradition of the Church has put such emphasis on the value of making a ‘morning offering’ prayer such as the one on the reverse side of the insert sheet in your newsletter this week.

If that is how Fr Neville polishes his shoes, then not only are the shoes a wonder to behold (which they are!), but the act of polishing them become a place where he meets God.
and similarly: your washing the dishes, your cleaning the floor, your job of work, and also, the pleasures and enjoyments of life -all offered to God, all places where we can meet Him.

And if we do that, then we will not just no longer have the Lord need to cut across our queries about how to do our human matters by reminding us of our duties to God, but rather, we can find IN those human realities the place where we BOTH ‘render unto Caesar’ AND ‘render unto God.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A




Mt 22:1-14; Isa 25:6-10
This Saturday we've just had a wedding here in Shaftesbury, of Angela and James. I've been preparing them for this for some months, which has been a great pleasure, and this Saturday afternoon was finally the big day!
Like every wedding, this one has had its moments of tension in getting the preparations all prepared. I remember a wedding I was at over a decade ago where the bride burst into tears at the night before: Why? Because the flowers were the wrong shade of pink(!). I have observed over the years that the preparations for a wedding can be VERY stressful.
However, and this is a point I wish to stress, I have also observed that on the day itself, it seems almost impossible for things to go wrong. Why? Because all you REALLY need, all that REALLY makes it joyful, all that makes it a SUCCESS is: the presence of the person you love.

Our gospel reading today uses such a symbol of a wedding banquet to describe heaven, to describe what we have been called to. And this gospel text does so by drawing on the many Old Testament texts, like our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, that describe the future banquet that God has prepared for His people.
Those preparations, in history, in pages of the Old Testament, in the workings of the Church of the New Testament striving to our ultimate fulfilment in heaven,
those preparations have been long and arduous -even more so that those of Angela and James, even more so that the poor bride whose flowers were the wrong shade of pink.
But those preparations have been aimed at a wedding in the same sense, namely, a union whose joy is defined by it being a union of LOVE, a union that is JOYFUL because we are WITH the ONE we love.

Like most parables, the one we just heard in the Gospel has many levels.
On one level, Christ chose the image of a wedding banquet to indicate the great JOY that the Messianic banquet of heaven will contain.
In a different sort of symbolism, however, I might notice the number of different places in which this parable is writing about ME (and you).
I am one of those who has turned up lacking the wedding garment of good deeds, and so I deserve to be thrown out.
Conversely, I can also see myself as one of those called and allowed to enter to replace those who failed to turn up -dragged in from the highways and byways despite my initial unworthiness.

Either way, I have been invited to the wedding feast, the wedding feast for the marriage of "the son".
But who is "the Son" marrying?
At its deepest level, "the Son" in the parable is Jesus, and the one He is marrying, His bride, is the Church.
And then, at a specific level, this means I can say that He is marrying ME -that all this fuss is about ME. All the wedding banquet is for ME! Because He loves me.
I have been invited to a wedding banquet only to discover that the one getting married is ME!
Of course, this is also where the mixing of metaphors in parables can get confusing. I am a man, so the symbolism of me "marrying" Jesus only works on some levels -Christians, after all, are opposed to same-sex marriage!

But at its simplest level, this is the point:
God has called you and me to heaven, a place so wondrous that He uses the joyful image of a wedding banquet to describe it.
And, like any wedding banquet, what REALLY makes it joyful, is that it is a thing of LOVE.
He loves me. He died for me. He gives me His forgiveness and grace. And what He is yearning for is that you and I should yearn to love Him too, in this, the wedding banquet of the Lamb.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Bishop Kieran Conry's Resignation, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Isa 5:1-7; Ps 79:9,12-16,18-20; Mt 21:33-43
Many of you, I know, have been pondering the shock resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry last week, and I'd like to address some of the issues that people have indicated it has raised for them, because I think you have a right to more than just an awkward silence from the pulpit when there are headlines like this.

First, some of you have referred to a profound DISAPPOINTMENT on reading about this behaviour from a bishop. And I'd like to acknowledge that I too am saddened and disappointed. Contrary to the impression that the media sometimes create, the Catholic clergy are not some "boys club" where we think this is OK for us, both not OK for others. We too are saddened.

Second, on a more general level, There is a sadness about the general MESS that we can sometimes feel that the Church is in these days. Sometimes it can feel like it's one headline after another. Yes, the media does have an anti-Catholic bias. Yes, they do attack us more than they attack others. But it is also true that they have a right to expect a higher standard from the Church.
And when we look at this mess we can find ourselves asking, "Why does God allow it? Why does God not strike all the sinners and purify His Church?"

That's a good question. And an old question. Our first reading and the Gospel this week both give us images of this with the vineyard that fails to produce its fruit. We, the Church, are that vineyard. And often we fail to produce the fruit God asks of us.
But how many of us would be left here if God reduced the Church to only the choicest fruit, purified the Church till only the super-saints remained?
The truth is that part of God's mercy is that He allows us all to remain together, the weeds with the wheat (c.f. Mt 13:24-30, a different parable). He gives us time to change.
Yes, as that Gospel parable also indicated, He does demand fruit BE produced, and He does threaten to take that special "vineyard" status away if we don't produce fruit. But at this moment in time He is leaving the ripe and the sour grapes together -waiting, so that we sour grapes might have time to ripen to sweetness.

And that brings me to my final point, namely, one of hope. Hope that, despite the failings in the Church, holiness and saintliness is still more properly attributed to her than the crud and sin we are currently having paraded before us.
The Church does produce ripe, sweet, choice grapes, and it is proper to her to do so: she has a supernatural power within her that enables us to do what we cannot do alone:
To keep the promises we have made;
To be faithful to marriage;
To live the beauty and dignity of the life that Christ teaches us.
Yes, we can see examples of those who fail, and of those who struggle.
But we can also see examples of those who succeed.

To sum that up: If you're disappointed, I am disappointed too.
If you see a mess, I see it too.
But we should also remember to be cautious in judging others -let us not assume that we ourselves are ripe rather than sour grapes.
And to be wary of being so aware of the crud on the ground that we fail to see to see the light in the heavens that we are called to.
You don't come here because of me, and you don't come here because of this bishop or that bishop. We come here because of the Lord's call. And let us be grateful that we HAVE been called into this vineyard. "The vineyard of the Lord is House of Israel"(Ps 79:9), and we have been granted to be grafted into that house. Let us pray, and strive, to bear fruit ourselves.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Holy Name, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A





The IHS Christogram pictured below is a monogram of the Holy Name, derived from the first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, which is often also taken as an abbreviation of: Iesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Saviour of Humanity

In our second reading we just heard three references to the significance of the "name" of Jesus (Phil 2:1-11). To us here in this parish that should mean something, because our parish is dedicated to 'The Most Holy Name'.
People in the town tend to refer to us simply as "St Edward's", but our full name is "The Most Holy Name and St Edward, King and Martyr", and this designation is one we are very fortunate to have, indicating the name of God Himself.

Names are things that we hold dear to us. Recently I noticed my mother getting my name wrong and calling me by my young nephew's name -annoying! Even worse was when she called my nephew by MY name -all the more galling because she only seemed to do it when he was misbehaving!
I don't like it because getting my name right is about relating to me as ME, not just as a random person. But with respect to God, and HIS name, I think there is an even greater significance for us today:

For us living in the 21st Century there it is the commonly, but mistakenly, held opinion of the people of our day that it is not possible to know God. They say, "maybe there is a god, and maybe not, but even if there is a god you certainly can't know him". In contrast, we claim, as Catholics, that it IS possible to know God - to know Him because He has revealed Himself to us, and a pivotal sign of this fact is that He has revealed His name: "Jesus".

Sacred Scripture holds that the name of God is of great significance. In the Old Testament the ineffable name of God was first revealed as YHWH [which has no vowels, but is sometimes written in English as 'Yahweh'], “I am who am” (Ex 3:14). Out of reverence for the holy name it was never pronounced. Instead of pronouncing this name, the Jews said, “Adonai”, i.e. “The Lord”. Today, still, in the Catholic liturgy we never say the word YHWH but our Bible translations instead say ‘The Lord’. This unpronounceable aspect of the Divine Name indicates something about the Divine: He is beyond our ability to grasp, He can only be known at all because He REVEALED Himself to us.

And, in the FULLNESS of time, in the New Testament, God FULLY revealed Himself In HiS Son.
We might note further that the New Testament name by which God chose to fully reveal Himself, ‘Jesus’, is a name that incorporated the Old Testament name: 'Jesus' is a name that means ‘YHWH is salvation’. This meaning of ‘Saviour’ (indicated in Mt 1:21 and Lk 2:21) indicates what Jesus is TO US: the one who can save us from all that troubles us, from evil, from suffering, from sin. The name also signifies that there is no-one else who can save us, only Him, because only He is God. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32).

To bring this to a conclusion: you might think that a name isn't very important. After all, in the play Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare famously claimed that it was not: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet - Act II Sc 2). However, the significance that Scripture attaches to the name of God indicates that we need to differ with Shakespeare. The fact is, that if you don't know the name of a rose it might still smell as sweet, but the that you didn't know it's name would indicate that you didn't really know much about it. More relevantly, thinking of persons, if Romeo did not know the name of Juliet it would indicate that he did not really know her, and he could not love her without knowing her. It would be meaningless to speak of loving someone if we did not know them well enough to know their name.
Why is this relevant? Well, because we know the name of God. He is the one "who is" and is the one who "saves". And we know it because He has told us His name when He told us about Himself. And knowing Him we can love Him, love Him who first loved us.
And all of that is encapsulated in the precious title of our church: "The Most Holy Name", Jesus.

See also the page on our parish website: https://sites.google.com/site/shaftesburycatholicchurch/the-holy-name

Sunday, 21 September 2014

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A




Phil 1:20-24;27
Most of us are a little wary of death, and many of us get easily worried about it, while others can only cope with it by refusing to admit that a time will come when death will catch up with them.
And, if I'm honest, I'm rather in the category of those who don't really feel ready to die -some day, but not now -please!
That's why I am always struck by the passage we just heard from St Paul's letter to the Philippians, where he speaks with such amazing indifference about whether he lives or dies. For their sake, he is willing to keep living. For himself, he is ready to die -confident that the life he has lived is such that he will be with the Lord.

This question: Am I WILLING to die today! Am I READY to die today?
This question is a powerful focus, not so much on dying as on LIVING.
Let me illustrate the point this way: Many of the saints have written books to prepare you for death, called "A Preparation for Death". And if you buy one of those books you will almost certainly be surprised. Because they are books not about dying but about how to LIVE: if you live well, you will die prepared for death.

Back to St Paul. His attitude to life should make us think of our own attitude to life.
WHY did he want to keep living?
So he can catch the next episode of Coronation Street? So he can enjoy a quality bottle of red wine?  So he can experience some aspect of human existence that he has not yet experienced? 
No. Such thoughts were very far from St. Paul.
He wished to keep living "for your sake" so that he can keep "doing work that is having good results".
This is very far from spending his days yearning and focussing on being able to sit down and put his feet up in front of the TV!

He closes that little passage by telling us to avoid "anything in [our] lives that is unworthy of the Gospel of Christ".
A life "worthy of Christ" is, surely, a life lived as His was:
Thinking OF other people, not just thinking of myself.
Doing things FOR other people, not just checking off my own errand lists.

Let me conclude by turning our focus to death in a different way.
Today's gospel parable indicates that The Lord is willing to have us turn back to Him, willing to accept us, even if we only turn back to Him just before we die. This simple and pivotal truth of our Faith tells us much about the goodness of God.
The question you and I must constantly address to ourselves, however, is whether we are making use of this opportunity being offered by the Lord: the call to come back, no matter how long we've already put it off.

So, to sum that up:
St. Paul was indifferent to whether he died or lived. And he was ready to die precisely because he lived a good life, a life "for others". Let us examine ourselves today before the Lord and ask how much we do the same. And not put off the change we need to make.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Exultation of the Holy Cross




Num 21:4-9
Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, of the triumph of the Cross of Christ. There are a great many truths we can rejoice in on this day (even if it might seem odd to rejoice in such a bad thing as the DEATH of Jesus), but the thing I wish to focus on this year is how it serves as a model for how God brings good out of bad.

Our Faith teaches us, as a certain and foundational truth revealed in Sacred Scripture, that God created the world perfect: without sin and without suffering. Our experience of life is so marked by these two intertwined realities that we find it hard to imagine existence without them, yet, Scripture attests that God made the cosmos without them, and that these two things entered creation together: sin, and with that disruption to the fabric of the cosmos, suffering.
The point is this, however: that God did not abandon His Fallen creation. Rather, He fashioned the remedy out of the problem.

An image of this was described in our first reading, with the serpent on the staff:
The serpents' bite brought death,
Then, God had Moses fashion an image of a serpent and mount it on a staff, lifted it up, and all who gazed upon it were saved.

Similarly, the death of Christ on the Cross, the putting-to-death of God-made-flesh, this rejection of God was the ultimate expression of all of humanity's rejection of God, the rejection that brings death to the world.
Yet, the death of Christ was “according to the plan and foreknowledge of God”(Acts 2:23), to be the means of our salvation.
So that when we fall in sin we might look upon Him who was 'lifted up', turn to Him and be saved.
God fashioned the solution out of the problem.

And so it is repeatedly in my life.
When I sin, or fail, or suffer: out of this problem my solution is fashioned.
For example, I have some grand scheme, and it fails. But then, in my weakness I let myself be humble, I turn to Him who is 'lifted up', and my weakness brings me to His strength.
More particularly, when fail in those particular 'failings' that are sins: again, my weakness forces me to turn to His strength: to His mercy, His forgiveness. I turn to Him who is 'lifted up', and my sin, ironically, brings me to His grace and virtue.
And my sufferings too, not just the moral ones but the physical ones:
Sometimes they come with such timing that they prevent my sins;
Sometimes they come on such occasions that they make me humble;
And ALWAYS they come in such a way that I can bring them to Christ, I can look to Him 'lifted up' -and find, in Him, something better that what I have lost in my suffering.

So, today, as we celebrate the triumph of the Holy Cross, let us recall how God brings great things out of evil, how He fashions the solution out of the problems we create, and in whatever situation we find ourselves, let us turn to Him 'lifted up' upon the Cross.