Sunday, 23 August 2015
The Gospel text and today’s first reading give us two of the most powerful Scriptural accounts of choosing for or against the Lord.
In the Gospel we heard how the people WALKED AWAY from the Lord Jesus. They had heard Him give His promise to feed them with His flesh in the Eucharist and they said, “this is too much, who can accept this intolerable language”. And they walked away. Walked away from the Lord, right there before them.
In the first reading we heard of Joshua, who succeeded Moses in the Old Testament. Joshua was the one who led the Jewish people into the Promised Land. And he told them that they had to choose: in this NEW land would they follow the gods of that land, the false gods of the Canaanites etc, or would they hold with the one true God, the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, led them through the Red Sea waters, feed them as they wandered in the desert, and finally brought them to this new land?
WHO would they choose to follow? Joshua said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (24:15)
And all “the people answered, ‘We have no intention of deserting the Lord’ ”(Josh 24:16)
The truth, however, as the years ahead would show, was that the people were repeatedly unfaithful to the Lord, constantly mixing a bit of worship of the true God with a bit of worship of the pagan gods.
When we read the Old Testament the need to be faithful to the ONE God, and to not mix it up, and to not serve false idols, is a continual refrain. It is the FIRST of the Ten Commandments that God gave them, “You shall have no false gods”. And yet it was a commandment that He had to repeat to them many times. They served false gods (1) by sacrificing to them, and also (2) they served false gods, as the Old Testament prophets protested, by serving the false idols of money, gluttony, and sexual immorality. And the Lord Jesus would later put it, “You cannot serve both God and money” –you have to choose.
The question I would have you consider today is this:
Which are the false gods you are most frequently tempted to serve in your own life?
Let me suggest two:
First, “the god of being middle class”. This god manifests himself in the pursuit of a certain lifestyle, with defining your life, and defining the success or failure of your life by whether you meet certain middle class criteria, rather than defining the success or failure of your life by whether you live the life the true God calls you to.
This might manifest itself in your concern about your house, or your car, or the school your child goes to, or the exam results your child obtains.
In this and other concerns do you think of them asking by yourself (1) whether you are achieving the middle class dream. Or, (2) do you ask yourself what God would be asking you: have you used the talents He gave you to full effect, but then been humble and content with the results that came.
The middle class god is, I suggest to you, the dominant false idol of Shaftesbury and we need to ask if it is him we serve, or the real God.
Second, a very different god, another god who is much around in this land: “the god of non-commitment”. I hear what the Bible says, what the Church says, and I just don't commit. Non-commitment is another dominant idol of our day: not hostility to the Gospel, but a refusal to engage one way or the other.
Does this God rule your life? Is that where you offer your worship?
To conclude, what are we to do if we realise we have been serving a false idol, either one of these two or another?
Well, the true God, the God who is worshipped in THIS shrine, is a God who offers us many second chances. He has manifested His authenticity in His miracles, His deeds, His gracious words in Scripture. And as often as we turn back to Him with sincere hearts, He will accept us.
So, hearing the call of Joshua, “choose this day who you will serve”, let us make the words of Joshua our words too: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”.
Sunday, 16 August 2015
For today’s feast of the Assumption (when we recall that at the end of her earthly life Our Lady was taken up into heaven, taken up body and soul), for today’s feast I’d like to focus on our first reading, which was from the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse.
In the vision described in that reading, as we just heard, two ”signs” appeared in the heavens, two signs that characterize the Christian life.
One sign was of the “dragon”(Rev 12:3), and the battle with the dragon is a symbol of our lifelong struggle against the Devil. Now, as we all know, its not very fashionable to talk about the Devil, people often get embarrassed if a preacher refers to him as something real. What you might not know, however, is how frequently Pope Francis speaks about the devil: he mentions him almost daily in his homilies. You can Google this quite easily: “Why does Pope Francis talk about the Devil so much?”. The Pope has a very clear awareness that our daily struggles in life have the devil as their ultimate cause. As the Bible puts it, we battle not against earthly powers but spiritual ones (e.g. Eph 6:12).
In acknowledging this we confront the reality that much of life is tough, much of life is suffering, much of life is a battle. But there is a battle BEHIND the visible battles: In my temptations, in my afflictions, and so forth, who is the one who is seeking my downfall? The Devil. Satan.
Back to our first reading: There was another sign referred to as appearing in the skies: “a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, with the twelve stars on her head as a crown”(Rev 12:1). In fact, this is not just ‘another’ sign but the “great” sign.
This ‘woman” has a twofold symbolism.:
On one level she is the Church, the Bride of Christ. And, as the next verses (which we didn’t hear read) say, the dragon pursues the woman and her descendants (Rev 11:13,17). The dragon makes war against the woman, but is defeated. The woman, however, does not fight in her own defence. Rather, the Lord raises up those who fight to defend her. We didn’t hear it in the short excerpt we were given, but: St Michael and his angels fought against the dragon (Rev 11:7-9); the earth itself opened up to swallow a river sent to drown the woman(Rev 11:16); the woman was given wings to fly to safety (Rev 11:14); and, as we heard in the text, the woman was given a place of safety, “a place prepared by God”(Rev 11:6).
This woman, as I said, is a symbol of the whole Church, of all of us, but at another level, the most IMMEDIATE level, she is Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of the Lord Jesus. The Church sees this text as one of the definitive signs that Our Lady has already been taken up to heaven, as we celebrate on today’s feast of the Assumption. She has been lifted above us, as a sign of hope for us who struggle on. And yet, as Pope Francis noted in a sermon a couple years ago, she also “walks with us always”. She is in travail with us, not distant from us, “struggles with us, sustains Christians in the fight against the forces of evil”. In this context Pope Francis particularly encouraged his listeners to use the Rosary daily in our spiritual warfare. As is often noted, though she is the weak humble woman chosen by God, she has also become, by His power, the mighty powerful woman who crushes the serpent’s head, fulfilling the prophecy made to Eve at the dawn of time (Gen 3:15).
To sum that up:
Our Lady has been assumed into heaven, the woman who is the “great sign” which appeared in heaven.
As an image, she is a symbol of us, the Church.
In hope, she is the sign of the destiny that we are called to pursue.
The battle the woman waged against the dragon is an image of the Blessed Virgin’s victorious struggle against the devil.
And, finally, she is the strong woman who is our assistance in our lifelong battle against the spiritual powers of darkness. So in our daily struggles let us be sure to call upon her.
Sunday, 9 August 2015
It’d like you to consider a question that I recently read in a book on the Eucharist (Abbot Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Chapters 4 & 7):
If the priest at the altar was to call down Jesus Christ from heaven, Jesus in His natural state as a full-grown man, would this be something more or something less that what actually happens in the sacrament of the Eucharist?
It’s a bold image, but Abbot Vonier points out that this would actually be something LESS that the reality we have in the sacrament. Yes, it would be more visually dramatic, but it would lack something that a sacrament has, namely, it would lack the value of SIGN and symbol.
At the level of reality, both would be the same, since the Eucharist is truly Christ: His Body, His Blood, His Soul and His Divinity (Catechism n.1374), as the true Faith professes.
At the level of PRESENCE both would be the same.
But at the level of sign and symbol the sacrament has something that His body in its natural state does not.
Abbot Vonier notes that every sacrament uses signs in such a way that it connects the past, present, and future. The past, meaning the events of salvation history, as recorded in the Bible. The present, that we live in. And the future eternal life, that is opened up to us by our connection with those saving events of past. So, for example, the saving of the Israelites in the parting of the Red Sea is brought into the present by the water of the sacrament of Baptism, opening the door to heaven.
Let me point to just two of the signs that are made present in the Eucharist.
First, there is the sign of food, of nourishment.
If the Lord came down in His body in its natural state then He would be visible as Himself, but He would not be visible as food for our souls.
Yet, being our spiritual food is a vital part of what He is to us: Our souls need feeding, and He provides the food in the Eucharist.
Our first reading, with Elijah being fed with miraculous food that kept him going for his 40 day journey is a foretaste of this Eucharistic feeding. The Eucharist feeds us not for a 40 day journey but for the journey towards our eternal home in heaven.
Second, there is the sign of sacrifice.
Christ instituted the Eucharist under the two appearances of bread and wine, and the Catholic Faith articulates that each is fully Him. It is not that a bit of Him is over here and another bit of Him is over there, rather, He is fully present under each form (Catechism n.1377) -what is called the doctrine of concomitance.
But the form of the two different species is a sign of something else, namely, of death and sacrifice.
In a living person body and blood are together. When they are separated death occurs.
The sign value of separate bread and wine is thus that of the sacrifice of Calvary. And what the Eucharist makes present is the one eternal sacrifice of Calvary, of the Cross, made present and re-presented, offered on our altar.
Again, if He appeared in just His natural bodily state this sign and symbol would not be present.
To sum that up, a sacrament is the Lord being present, but more than just this: it is sign also.
The Eucharist is His Presence par excellence. But it is also a sign, and among those signs are those of His feeding us and of His being the sacrifice that takes our sins away.
And when we meet Him this way in the sacrament His saving events of the past are brought into the present to carry us on to heaven.
Sunday, 2 August 2015
As most of you know, I’ve had some minor surgery recently, for a hernia. Even with a few complications, a hernia is a MINOR problem, and I don’t intend to exaggerate my suffering, but, the unpleasantness of the process was grim enough to remind me of a few lessons.
I remember lying on the hospital bed and just wanting the experience to be OVER:
wanting the pain to stop,
wanting the nausea to stop,
and I won’t give you other details, but I just wanted the symptoms to stop.
It was only later, when those symptoms subsided, that I remembered what it was to feel normal and well again.
When I was sick I’d had this yearning to not be sick, but without a clear thought of what it felt like to be normal again.
I offer that to you as an image of how we yearn for God, but don’t really appreciate what it is that we are yearning for.
We yearn for something more in life, even when we don’t quite know what more we are seeking
-just as I yearned to not be sick, even while I’d lost that clear awareness of what it felt like to be well.
Or, let me put it this way:
The SAINT who has FOUND God, realises what he was looking for
even more than the SINNER who knows he is looking for something but has forgotten what the experience of finding God is like.
I can realise that I am sick in my soul, but not quite be sure what I need to be healthy.
In our Gospel text today we heard the Lord Jesus warn the people that they were yearning for the wrong thing, “for food that cannot last”(Jn 6:27).
The people knew they were hungry, but the Lord told them that they were hungering for the wrong thing.
They were hungering for a WORLDLY fullness,
not the eternal heavenly fullness that He alone can offer.
You and I, likewise, can realise that we are hungering, can realise that we are seeking something more in life:
But are we looking for a passing, earthly, feeding?
in comfort, in pleasure, in riches, in a career?
or looking for a feeding that will satisfy us for eternity, in completion?
in a life of cheerful self-sacrifice, in holiness, in grace, in the sacraments?
To return to my analogy with my being sick:
when I was sick I didn’t know what I was seeking for in wanting to be well,
I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be well,
I couldn’t remember because I was sick
and I relied on the nurses and doctor -they got me well again.
The Lord is like the doctor.
He still knows what its like to be normal and healthy,
and He knows the food I need to eat in order to get healthy.
And what is that food?
Nothing less than Himself. HE is the “Bread of life”(Jn 6:35), He says.
If we would be satisfied with the Bread that is Him,
we must choose to NOT be satisfied with this earthly life. We must choose, as St Paul said in the second reading, “not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live”(Eph 4:17),
and instead to choose to trust the words of Him who has shown in His own resurrected glory the vision of what it means to be well again, what it will look like if we feed ourselves on Him.
Sunday, 19 July 2015
I want to say a few words about how we still need to be attentive to the needs of others, even when we’re resting, even when we’re on a holiday.
Like anyone else, I need time to rest to recover from work. As you probably know, I’ve just been on retreat and then on holiday, restoring both my soul and my body. And, with the school holidays about to begin, families all across the UK will be heading off to different places to have a vacation.
But there can be an easy mistake to fall into with such times, namely, to think that it is a sort of selfish “me-time”. And, of course, a real danger with this is that our selfishness can ruin a whole holiday, so that we return in need to another break again!
In the Gospel text we heard today how the Lord Jesus acknowledged His apostles’ need of rest: “He said to them, ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while’.”(Mk 6:31).
This isn’t the only time we hear such a thing of the Lord. The Gospels often record how He Himself would often get away from the crowds early in the morning, to go to pray.
So, they needed rest.
And the Lord took them away to get some rest.
But, the people ruined the plan:
When they crossed the lake they found that “people [had seen] them going, and many could guess where”(Mk 6:33), and there was a crowd of work waiting for the Lord and the apostles when they got off the boat.
The Gospel text doesn’t tell us how the apostles reacted. I’m pretty sure they were disappointed, maybe annoyed.
The point I wish to draw your attention to, however, is how the LORD reacted:
Not annoyed, not disappointed, rather, “He had COMPASSION on them [the crowds]”(Mk 6:34).
The Lord’s outlook in life was so other-focused, so focused on the needs of OTHER people rather than Himself, that even when tired and in need of rest He STILL managed to stretch Himself even further to serve others.
This is a HARD lesson for us to learn.
But, if we can take it on board, it can help change and IMPROVE the way we rest.
If our rest has a ready WILLINGNESS to be interrupted, a willing ACCEPTANCE of still being attentive to others, then:
Firstly, we won’t have the IMPATIENCE and irritability that accompanies a selfish ME-time.
And, our rest becomes part of a more big-hearted and content approach to life.
Life’s not all about me.
And even my time of rest isn’t all about me.
So, whether we’re on holiday,
Or on a day out
Or taking a stroll through the town,
We too need to be other-focused, like the Lord, who “had compassion on the crowd” -even when they interrupted His vacation.
Sunday, 12 July 2015
At first glance, the Gospel text for today would seem to be very unrelated to the life of a normal parishioner. But I want to point out that we can make some important applications to ourselves.
In the text, the Lord appointed the Twelve and sent them out with authority over devils, and told them various things not to take with them, no bread, no coins etc.
In addition, we might note that they were not expected to be welcomed: they were given instructions on how to respond when they were rejected, namely, to shake the dust from their shoes. This has been the typical lot of many of those sent by the Lord, as we heard with the rejection of the prophet Amos in our first reading.
What does this have to do with us? What comparison can we apply to our own lives?
First, the notion of being sent.
While we might feel that we have carved out our own pathway in life, actually, the Lord has had a plan for us. Even if we have got to our present situation by sin and repeated vice the Lord nonetheless is able to works His plans even through this, through what theology calls His “permissive will” -He permits certain evils in order to draw greater good out of them, and His plan for us marks out a path, even when the path seems very crooked when viewed from our angle.
Whatever our state in life, there is a sense in which we are called to it, or to turn the angle around, sent to it.
Am I sick? Well, I can say that I am being sent to carry this with patience and love, and with offering it up for the benefit of others.
Am I in sin? The primary “devils” I am being appointed to cast out are those in my own heart. I am “sent” to this task.
And your job. In this too you are “sent”, sent to do it well, to do it for God’s glory.
Whatever our state, there is sense in which we are sent to it by the Lord.
Second, we might note that we are called to not live a life of worldliness. Pope Francs is frequently reminding us of this, as he did in his recent encyclical: that we are to live in this world in such a way as to not be overly-attached to the things of this world.
Thus the injunction to carry no coins, no bread, no haversack, has a symbolic meaning for all of us.
Third, and lastly, He supports us in the task He sends us to.
The Gospel text notes that He worked miracles supporting them as they were about their task: devils were cast out; sick people were cured.
For us, too, the Lord is working for us, supporting us in whatever He has sent us to do.
And as a final aspect of this, let us note the fact that He supported the Twelve by sending them in pairs -they were to have the support of another. And WHO is the ‘other’ that is paired with us in whatever are sent to? Surely, in its deepest sense, it is the Lord Himself, by my side.
So, to sum that up. We are each “sent” to our state in life, to live it well, to live it in love, to offer it up God’s glory. We are to live in an un-worldly manner, even as we are sent through this world heading to the next. And third, He supports us in our task, He is the ‘pair’ by my side.
Sunday, 5 July 2015
I will only speak briefly because there is an appeal at the end of Mass.
In our second reading we heard St Paul pass on the promise from the Lord that he was given:
“My grace is sufficient for you: my power is made perfect in weakness”, to which St Paul adds, “For it is when I am weak that I am strong”
This principle has been reiterated many times by Christians, and it holds not just for us as individual believers in the Lord but also for us as an organization and as a church:
In those centuries and cultures when the Church has been outwardly powerful and materially wealthy she has also been inwardly weak in her spiritual life.
Whereas, when the Church is persecuted and poor she returns with renewed vigour to the source of her REAL strength: the Lord Jesus.
At the end of Mass today, accompanying the insert sheet in your newsletter, Dominic Lavan, the chair of our parish finance committee will indicate that our parish income is far from being at a point of strength:
we are running at a structural deficit.
In some ways this is a good thing, an opportunity:
It can help us not be complacent about the parish and about the parish finances;
It can help motivate the parish finance committee to be even more careful stewards of your money
-and they have been increasingly careful in recent years.
But, it’s not a viable thing if the parish is to have a long-term future,
And so I urge you to listen carefully to Dominic’s words at the end of Mass.