Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christ the King, Year A



Mt 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17.
Today we keep the feast of Christ the King. I've been pondering this week that being a "king" is a rather old-fashioned concept. And I've been thinking that Shaftesbury is a rather old fashioned kind of place, and we probably have a much higher percentage of monarchists here that there are in other parts of the country.
But, and this is my point today, what KIND of king do we picture Jesus to be? Because His kingship isn't just a cosy nice traditional piece of symbolism. I want to make three brief points: how His kingship is modern, how it is old fashioned, and why it is so vitally important that we think of Him as 'king' at all.

First, His kingship is 'modern'. And by this I mean that He respects our freedom. He lets us do what we choose. He is not a tyrant. So on one level, He is like a modern king in a democratic state.

Second, however, He is also old fashioned. Although He leaves us free to choose whether or not to follow Him, He will also judge us for our behaviour -judge us on how we have USED that freedom. Both our first reading and our Gospel text described Him as judging and separating the sheep from the goats.
Let me specify this further and note that He will judge us according to HIS standards rather than according to our own. In the Gospel description of the judgment, both those who were praised and those who were condemned were told that they had not seen the truth in their actions. So, those who had failed to feed the hungry hadn't realised that they were failing to feed Christ, but The Lord didn't say, "That's alright, I realise you didn't realise it was me you were neglecting". And the Lord didn't say, "That's alright, I realise that you followed your own principles, and that's what counts". No, He condemned them. He condemned them because what they did was wrong. He condemned them because they should have known.
When Christ comes He will judge by His standards, not by ours.

Finally, why is it good for us that He should be king?
It's good because we NEED to have someone in charge in life.
As we know, most of our contemporaries live as if there was no greater purpose in life, as if there was no one watching over us, as if there was no one caring and guiding us.
In contrast, to acknowledge that Christ is King is realise that there IS someone in charge. Someone in charge of the universe;
someone in charge of directing, in Providence, the events of life -even through suffering;
Someone in charge of my life and what happens to me.
And this is a great realisation. It means I am not alone. It means I am not just left to my own devices and my own strength or weakness.

HOWEVER it brings with it a practical conclusion. If I am to acknowledge that He is King then I need to submit myself to Him as His subject. And this is a very old fashioned, non-democratic thing.
But if I am to benefit from what His Kingship brings then I must commit myself to being His subject. I must accept what He teaches, strive to live His commands, call on His mercy when I fall, and rely on His strength amidst the trials of life.

So, to sum that up. Having a "king" may seem the kind of cosy nice traditional thing that we in Shaftesbury "go for". But with Jesus it means something very specific. He is a modern king in that He leaves us to be free. He is an old fashioned king in that He will judge us for how we use or misuse our freedom. And it is GOOD that He is our King, that He is in charge, because He is the loving shepherd of all who choose to be His subjects.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Purgatory, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A




See dropbox sheet on purgatory and another on indulgences

I want to speak about an important way to love, a way that, sadly, many people seem to have forgotten about today, namely, the need to love those who have died by praying for them.
Now, I'm not saying that people don't care about the dead any more. But it does seem that people have lost sense of part of what is INVOLVED in love for them, namely, praying for people who have died. One of the 'seven spiritual works of mercy' is to pray for the dead.
So, let me point out the three things that the dead need our prays for.

First, they need our prayers for MERCY in the JUDGEMENT.
When I die I will stand before the judgement seat of God. It will be decided whether I will be sent to Hell or Heaven.
Part of problem today is that we tend not to really believe in Hell any more, so that we just gloss over the words we heard the Lord Jesus say, as He said many times, of this place where "there will be weeping and grinding of teeth" (Mt 25:30) for all eternity. Likewise, our modern world is so unwilling to face death that we avoid texts like the one we just heard from St Paul referring to our end coming like a “thief in the night”(1 Thess 5:1-16).
We tend, instead, to picture a comfortable middle-class Western lifestyle that will continue past death with no awkward realities like ‘judgement’ getting in the way.
But the simple truth is that I will die. And I will be judged.
And it is the prayers of the living that will assist me in receiving mercy in that judgment. This is what the Jews of our Lord's own time believed (2 Macc 12:42-45). This what the early Christians believed, so we find St Paul praying for a dead man called Onesiphorus that "the Lord will grant him mercy"(2 Tim 1:18).

Second, after the particular judgement, if I am to go to heaven I will still almost certainly need to be PURIFIED of my sins, to be ready for the perfection of Heaven. This purification happens in the place that the Church calls 'Purgatory'. It involves CHANGING us, and like any change it is difficult and painful. The classical image for this is of FIRE, as St. Peter puts it, being purified in fire as gold is purified in fire (1 Pet 1:7) –the impurities burned away. Thus the new Catechism quotes St Gregory referring to this "purifying fire"(CCC 1031). Many of the saints have seen visions of this, the earliest recorded being to St Perpetua, who was shown a vision of her brother in this place of "gloominess", "thirst", and "pain", and yet she was also shown how her prayers brought comfort to him in that refining fire -like water in a desert.
So, our prayers for the dead bring them COMFORT in their time of purgation.

Thirdly and finally, the souls in Purgatory need our assistance to SPEED them through this process, to SHORTEN their time there. Thus we read in the book of Maccabees that sacrifices were offered in the Temple for the dead "that they might be released from their sins"(2 Macc 12:42-45). Because if I am there I will not get out until the temporal debt has been paid for my sins.

And because our loved ones are now outside the same 'time reference' as ourselves we should CONTINUE to pray -thus I still pray for my Grandma who died two decades ago, even though that was long ago and even though she was a lovely woman. I pray for her because I still love her, and I expect all my prayers to be counted on her behalf.

Finally, HOW should we pray? Which prayers should we offer? There are some suggestions indicated in the newsletter insert sheet (and last year's sheet on indulgences), but I think the important thing is that we should prayer REGULARLY, even if it is only Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

So, there are three things that the prayers of the living assist the dead in:
Mercy in the judgment; comfort in the purging fire; and in a shortening of the time in that fire.
To failure to offer this assistance is to fail to love.
But to be faithful in offering this assistance is to show both our love and our belief and hope in the resurrection of the dead.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday & Dedication of Lateran Basilica




A couple weeks ago I went up to London and, like some of you, I went to see the poppies outside the Tower of London. For those of you who don't know, it's a special temporary memorial of 888,246 ceramic poppies -one for every British military casualty in the First World War, for the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI.
I mention this because today is Remembrance Sunday. But in the Church today we commemorate another sort of memorial: the Catholic Church’s central church monument: the Lateran Basilica in Rome.
I want to say a few words about both of these things. Because it’s sometime asked: Why build memorials and monuments? Why remember the dead?

The Lateran Basilica in Rome is the Pope’s Cathedral. It is dedicated to the St John, but also houses parts of bodies of the martyrs St Peter and St Paul. But it is a monument not just to them as individuals but to all that they signify. They signify loyalty to Christ as a value above all else, they signify that the Church is a body and unity that transcends all others, that the Church is built on them in ROME –the glue that holds the Church today. They signify that unity which transcends us as mere isolated individuals –for we are not just individuals we are part of a greater whole that has its meaning in Christ.
And the Lateran Basilica is built to remind us lest we forget that our communion comes through our Apostolic roots, lest we forget, forget who died, why they died, and what we are a part of by our union with them.

The many war memorials in our country are dedicated to those who have died.
In honouring them we remember a great many things.
For many, we recall their bravery and self-sacrifice.
For many, we also recall that they died in a great cause: that we free today, that we live under the rule of law not dictatorship today, because of those willing to die.
And we also honour the dead simply as a reminder of the HORROR of the wars they died in -we remember them so that we might be reminded to avoiding repeating such horror in the future.
And let me note this point:
We remember them because if we forget them we become something less ourselves, that England would be diminished if she forgot those who had died.
War memorials may be monuments erected TO the dead, but they are also erected FOR us the living –lest we forget.

In our second reading, St Paul spoke of the people of the church being “God’s building... YOU are that temple”(1Cor3:17). The TRUE monument that is erected to the dead, whether the dead of the wars, or the dead of martyrdom, The TRUE monument erected to them must be the lives of those who live afterwards –and we are called to live WELL by recalling what went before –lest we forget.

There are some people today who speak and think as if they were not just free but individuals that somehow existed ISOLATED from the history that preceded them, removed from the culture and society that surrounds them.
But we are NOT isolated individuals, we are PART of something that has preceded us and remembering the dead is not just an act of gratitude to those who risked their lives defending their country –it is also an act remembering WHAT we are part of: (1) what we do not wish repeated from the past, and, (2) the values we must learn from the past –lest we forget.

When we honour the dead martyrs Peter and Paul at the Lateran Basilica in Rome;
When we honour the dead martyr St Edward in this church;
When we honour the dead of the wars we remember –lest we forget, and by forgetting become something less than their deaths call us to be.
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
at the going down of the sun, and at the rising
we will remember them

Monday, 3 November 2014

All Souls (transferred)



2 Macc 12:43-45; Phil 3:20-21; Lk 23:33-43
We are gathered here today to pray for the eternal repose of those who have died.
Some of us here, if not many, along with millions across the world, will be here today thinking of someone in particular who has died this past year,
And I want to say a brief word about why it is important that we’re here,
And what it is that we hope for those who have died.

It’s important that’s we’re here because prayer is important.
Humans of every age have had some grasp of the need to pray to the deity,
In the fullness of time when Jesus our Divine Teacher came He taught us the importance of prayer,
And told that our Heavenly Father hears our prayers.

And one of the important things to pray for, as we have been taught by our Catholic tradition, and by the Jews before us, as recorded in the 2nd book of Maccabees, is to pray and offer sacrifice for dead, “so that they might be released from their sins”(2 Macc 12:45).

But this practice of praying for the dead is also of benefit to us:
It benefits us by continuing, in action, the action of prayer, it benefits us by uniting us with our deceased loved ones who have gone before us.
And, It benefits us by reminding us of the hope that we hold for the hereafter

Because it is only because of what we hope for that we have reason to pray.
As we heard the 2nd book of Maccabeees put it, it was BECAUSE Maccabees expected “the fallen to rise again”(2 Macc 12:44) that he had sacrifices offered on their behalf.

And that hope that we hold for those who have gone before us is also the hope we hold for ourselves: as we heard in our 2nd reading from St Paul to the Philippians, “our homeland is in heaven”(Phil 3:20).
Yet, this hope that we carry in our hearts is only something we carry if we remind ourselves of it, and this is one of the things achieved by praying for the dead.

So, our prayer benefits them, and benefits us.
And it is for this holy task that we are gathered here today.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

All Saints (transferred)



I'd like to return to a question I posed a while back, and consider for a moment what a saint LOOKS like, which today’s feast of ALL saints makes both easy and appropriate.
We can note that some saints are short and some are tall, some are blonde and some are dark, some are women and some are men.

More than this, we can note that their basic temperament types vary.
There are jolly saints like St Philip Neri, known for his practical jokes (like the fact he once grew a beard on only one side of his face), or like the humorous penances he used to assign to people in confession (like having to take his disagreeable cat out for a walk).
But there are also intense and austere saints, like the great Cure D'Ars, St John Vianney, who used to live on just mouldy potatoes and a glass of milk a day.
Then, there are silent and hermitical saints like St Bruno, who lived in solitude.
Whereas, other saints were wildly engaged with an active life amidst people, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
In short, the saints are as varied as human beings are varied.

To focus on one example of this, namely anger:
When St Thomas Aquinas comments on the basic human personality types as they relate to anger: the colic, the sanguine, the phlegmatic; he notes that each of these are original natural states, and they are each transformed by grace into a DIFFERENT type of saint -the saints DO NOT all look the same.
The colic becomes a saint by both restraining his excessive anger, and, by learning to focus it on activities that serve other –his colic nature is the dynamo that powers the force of his drive for sanctity.
In contrast, the phlegmatic becomes a saint by both learning how to fire himself up, and, by enabling his inherent calmness to calm others –his phlegmatic nature is the calming anointment he brings to troubled situations.

Let me also note, however, that there are certain things that all the saints have in COMMON.
If St Philip Neri was jolly, he also practiced serious penance.
And though the Cure D'Ars fasted so much, he also had a sense of humour, and cracked jokes -he used to joke with the schoolchildren while he drank that single daily glass of milk.
And none of the saints were unloving, even those who lived in solitude.
And none of the saints were unprayerful, even those engaged in active apostolates.

To sum it up to its core:
All the saints loved God while they were on earth, thus they all love Him still in heaven.
Thus, none of the saints were sad on earth, and they rejoice now in the joy of loving, and being loved by, the most loveable Lord in heaven.

What does a saint look like?
They look as varied as you and me.
And there is not one of us here that God does not want to become a saint.

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.