Sunday, 28 June 2009

Feast of St Peter and St Paul, Shaftesbury

Mt 16:13-19
I want to say a few words about why Catholics think we have all the answers, because today is the feast day of St Peter and St Paul, the two “Roman” saints associated with the claims of the Roman Church.

St Peter is the man that Catholics hail as the first “Pope”, the first Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ on Earth. We hail him as the “Vicar of Christ” because he is the one that Jesus called the “Rock”, renaming him from “Simon” (Hebrew) to “Cephas” (in Aramaic), or “Peter” (in Latin). I could give an exegesis on the word-play in “rock”, but, the papal or ‘Petrine’ role it establishes can probably be more easily seen in some other things: For example, Did you know that the name that is mentioned more than any other name in the Gospels (apart of that of Jesus Himself) is the name of Peter? -indicating his leading role. Did you know that though 16th Century protestants denied the Pope’s claim that the Bishop of Rome is the successor of St Peter this claim wasn’t denied by any of the ancient Church Fathers? This is significant, because if the papacy was a thing ‘invited’ by the popes then we would expect some ancient historical figure to have said, “No other Bishop of Rome claimed to the successor of St Peter”. And this is because all the ancient sources recognised that the Bishop of Rome is the successor of St Peter, and carries the authority of St Peter -Rome being the place where St Peter spent the end of his life.

But, even if the Pope is the successor of St Peter, why do popes claim to teach with authority? The answer to this question is one that connects us back to the Gospel text of today, and connects us back to the importance of the person of Christ Himself.

Many people in the world today say that there is no “truth” and that there is no single “meaning of life”. They say that the truth is different for every person, that each one has to make up his own meaning to his own life. How this can be reconciled with the fact that people come up with radically opposed ‘truth’ claims, and people come up with meanings and aims that threaten and oppose each other –how this can be reconciled is never adequately answered by such people.
And it can only be answered by saying that there IS a TRUTH that we must all acknowledge, there is a meaning to life that we must all discover if we are to be happy. That meaning to life is only to found in the One who created that life, God, and that truth is only to be found in that creator who came among us saying of Himself that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”(Jn 14:6).

It is only in knowing Christ that we truly and fully know where we came from and where we are called to go. As the Second Vatican Council put it, It is Jesus Christ “who fully reveals man to himself” (Gaudium et spes 22, cited in JPII, RH 10.1). He is the one who as God has full truth, and as perfect man shows us what we, as perfected, are called to be. All answers about life are thus to be found in Him, and all other answers are only partial and fragmentary unless they are The Answer found in Him.

And, who was it that first identified the Christ? Who was it that answered the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
It was the first Pope: “Blessed are you Simon bar Jonah... because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven”(Mt 16: 17).
It was because the first Pope knew Christ that he knew The Answer, that he was one that no doubt the secularists of our day would mockingly say, “Oh, he talks as if he has all the answers”. Well, in knowing THE Answer he did know all the answers.
And in knowing THE Answer, in inheriting the role of making that Answer known to the world, the successor of St Peter, the Pope in Rome, he too knows all the answers. He doesn’t know them of his own power, rather, like St Peter his infallibility is guaranteed from Above not from below, made know by the Father in heaven through the action of the Holy Spirit.

That is why and how the Pope knows all the answers, and it is why and how WE TOO can know all the answers if we listen and accept what the Pope says, trustfully accepting that his authoritative teaching is guaranteed by the Lord, so that “the gates the underworld will never prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

Sunday, 21 June 2009

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

In our second reading (2 Cor 5:14-17) we heard St Paul say, "from now onwards, therefore, we do not judge anyone by the standards of the flesh". And he proceeded to contrast "knowing" Christ in the flesh, with a knowing Him as a Christian knows Him. And there is an application of this in each of our 3 readings.

To "know” Christ in the flesh, is to know part of Him but not know all of Him. It is to know what the flesh can know: to see His humanity, to, as the first Christians could, touch Christ's human flesh, feel the grasp of his hand. And all of this is to "know" something that is true of Christ, namely, that He was and is fully human.
However, if we ONLY know Christ in the flesh then we only PARTLY know Him. He is not only human, is also fully God.

We saw an example of this partial knowledge of Christ in our gospel (Mk 4:35-41). The disciples were in a boat with Jesus, and they were experiencing a terrible storm, and they were with Christ. They already knew Christ: they had seen Him cleanse the leper (Mk 1:42); they had seen Him heal the paralytic (Mk 2:12); they had witnessed Him cast our demons (Mk 3:11); and they had heard Him teach, and issue His call to repentance, the call addressed to sinners and the outcast. They knew many THINGS about Christ, but, it seems, they did not yet know Christ Himself.
They knew enough, however, to realise that when the boat was going down in the storm that Christ might be able to help them, and so they turned to Him, saying, “Master, do not care? We are going down!"(Mk 4:38).

Jesus, as we know, then calmed the storm. But He did more than just calm the storm: He helped open their eyes to faith. He berated their lack of faith, “How is it that you have no faith?" But this reproof was also an invitation, an invitation to judge no longer according to the flesh but with the sight of faith. To see not just what the flesh can see, but to have that piercing discerning sight that can see truths, and The Truth, that lies beyond what can be immediately perceived.

To judge according to faith and not just according to the flesh is not always easy. We heard the disciples trying to do this but still seemingly struggling, "Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him" –they saw that He was something more, but didn’t yet fully see, didn’t yet say, “My Lord and My God”(Jn 20:28) as they would say by the end of the Gospels.
We, too, need to always be yearning and straining to judge according to faith, to see with the full light of faith, and not to see merely what the flesh can see. This is part of what it means to be the “new creation” that St Paul spoke of: to have our minds renewed.

Of course, seeing with the eyes of faith, even though it means we see more, does not mean that we are not left with some questions. In our first reading we heard about Job, the man who suffered, and wondered WHY he was suffering, the man who was offered 1000 faulty explanations by his philosopher-friends. And in the end, what he got from God was not answers but more questions: Where were you when I made the universe? Who are you are ask me why and how I do things? And even though these were questions and not answers, wiser men than me have noted that Job found the questions of God more satisfying than the answers of men.
The questions of God were more satisfying, at least in part, because they invited him to look beyond merely his own understanding, and judgements, and what he could see according to the flesh, and to look instead with the eyes of faith. Because part of what faith involves is the submission of the human intellect to what God has revealed, rather than what the human intellect alone and unaided can understand by itself. To realise this, in humility, is to open our minds to see MORE because we no longer see only according to the flesh.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Corpus Christi, Year B, Shaftesbury

Today we keep the great feast of Corpus Christi: the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. By coincidence, today is also a day when we will not be administering Holy Communion in the chalice: the Bishop informed us on Friday that because the swine flu has been raised to a pandemic status, the chalice is not to be administered to the congregation for the foreseeable future. This is a precautionary measure and not a reason to panic; it is also, as the Bishop suggested, an opportunity for us to clarify our catechesis on receiving Our Lord fully in just the host.

I want to put 3 simple questions to you. When you receive Holy Communion do you think that you receive a ‘ thing’ or do you think you receive a ‘ person’? Do you think you receive a part or a whole? Do you think you are receive a gift that comes without conditions, what do you think that reception is a COMMITMENT to a covenant, a covenant with very definite conditions? The answer to all three of these questions can be seen in contrasting the Old Testament covenant with the New Covenant in Christ.

In our first reading (Ex 24:3-8) we heard how Moses established the Old Testament covenant with the chosen people; this was a covenant (which is a type of contract) between God and the people God had chosen as His own. To be a "covenant" meant that not only was God committing Himself to His chosen people but also, those chosen people were committing themselves to Him: which meant that they had to commit themselves to abide by, as we heard in that reading, "the commands of the Lord and all the ordinances". Like other covenants it was sealed with two things: a sacrifice and blood. And like any sacrifice it was completed or "consummated" by the sacrifice being eaten, consumed.

In our second reading (Heb 9:11-15) we heard how Christ is “the high priest" of the New Covenant: the sacrifice He offers is the sacrifice of Himself; and the blood He sheds is His own blood, which as we heard in our gospel text is "the blood of the covenant"(Mk 14:24), as we hear in the Eucharistic prayer: "the blood of the new and everlasting covenant". This sacrifice is consummated when we receive Holy Communion. And this blood is not sprinkled on us externally but we partake of its merits by receiving it internally in Holy Communion.
And just as the Old Testament covenant involves committing oneself to the commands of the Old Covenant, the New Testament covenant involves committing oneself to all of the ritual and moral life of the new Christian way of life: when we say "amen" to receive Holy Communion we are saying “yes” in committing ourselves to this new covenant. Committing ourselves to the ritual: to receive Holy Communion means to commit oneself to attend that sacrifice of the Mass each and every Sunday, to do otherwise is to commit the sin of sacrilege against Holy Communion. And committing ourselves to the Christian moral life means committing ourselves to those ethical imperatives, including those of sexual morality, those imperatives that separate the Christian way of life from that of our secular world around us.
None of this commitment to new covenant implies that we are already perfect –we all need to repent and prepare ourselves anew for Holy Communion. And in particular, in as much as we fail in these “bottom line” respects we should not come to Holy Communion until we change our life, repent, go to confession and receive the renewal to adhere anew to the covenant.

I want to explain, using the standard Catholic theological analysis, why it is that each host fully contains the WHOLE Jesus Christ: His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity. I.e. why it is enough to receive Our Lord just in just the host, why we don't need to receive Him from the chalice. Explaining this involves pointing out another key difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant:

The sacrifice of the New Covenant is not a dead sacrifice, not an animal that was slain, but a living sacrifice: the living Lamb of God, who was slain, but was raised to new life, so that he can never die again. He is what the Eucharistic prayer calls the "LIVING sacrifice". In a dead sacrifice body and blood are separate by the very fact of death; each ceases to live by the separation of body from blood. But Christ is risen and can die not more. And so in the living sacrifice there can be no more death, and so Body and Blood can no longer be separated.

I just said that in the living sacrifice of Christ His Body and Blood can no longer be separated. He is living forever, He is whole forever. What does this mean practically? It means that in Holy Communion the Lord Jesus’s Body and Blood cannot be separated: where one is the other is fully too. We have two different signs but we do not have two different realities. What was bread, after it is consecrated, is changed into Jesus Christ, with its APPEARANCE having the sign value of ‘Body’. While, what was wine, after it is consecrated, is changed into Jesus Christ, with its APPEARANCE having the sign value of ‘Blood’. Two different signs, but the same reality in each.
Just as receiving two hosts does not mean you get twice as much Jesus, or twice as much grace, similarly, receiving from the chalice after the host does not give you more reality –it only gives you another sign, a symbol.

So, when you receive the chalice, as is common in much of this Diocese but is not common in most of the world, you receive an added sign but you do not receive an added reality. You receive the Lord fully in just the host. You receive a ‘whole’ not a ‘part’ because you are receiving a ‘person’ not a ‘thing’.
This great gift is SO great that the gift we are offered in Holy Communion is an offer that only comes with the expectation of commitment to the life of the New Covenant. The New Covenant cost Christ the sacrifice of Calvary, and it costs us the commitment to adhere to it.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Requiem Mass Elizabeth Jean Torrance, 12th June 2009

Jn 6:41-51; Isa 25:6-9; 1 Jn 1-2
Elizabeth chose the readings and hymns that we have at Mass today, which gives us a precious insight into what she wanted to say to us today.
Often we can know someone, but we don’t always articulate what we believe. We might know that someone goes to Mass every Sunday, but not be sure why, or quite what it means to them. But in giving us these funeral readings and hymns Elizabeth has, in a very real sense, expressed what her faith was, and, in particular, what her HOPE was for this very moment.

In our opening hymn we sang “My soul proclaims the Lord my God”, repeating the words of the Blessed Virgin. And those words surely indicate to us that despite whatever difficulties she had she wanted to express gratitude to God: she had a long life, she passed peacefully with friends and family having seen her in hospital, she’d had the chance to prepare herself to go; and this hymn surely indicates that she wants us to thank God for these and other blessings. Our blessings come from somewhere, from some-ONE, and that is why we call them ‘blessings’, and this is the significance of this hymn at a funeral.

There is one theme in particular that runs very strongly through Elizabeth’s choices, and that is Christ as the Bread of Life. It is our Communion hymn, it was our Gospel, and it was in our first reading.
Our Catholic hymns speak often of “the bread of angels” and the “banquet of heaven” that we heard from the prophet Isaiah. That is what we hope for now for Elizabeth, and her choices indicate that it was the hope she had for herself.
Our hymns also speak of that Bread as the “food of travellers”, the food to sustain them on the way. Elizabeth sought that Bread faithfully and regularly. My clearest picture of her was of her needing me to come down to her on the front row to bring her the Bread of Life, of her having to be helped to walk in here for Mass every Sunday, ANY YET, her perseverance in coming for that Bread of Life even when she was frail –and this shows us that she knew it to be important. It is the “food of travellers” in a particular way to sustain us for the final journey, in “viaticum”, the journey through death to eternal life.

But as a Catholic, the KEY thing, is that this ‘Bread’ is NOT ‘bread’ in the ordinary sense. In the Gospel text Elizabeth chose Christ said, “I am the bread of life... and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world”. It is Christ for whom we were created, it is Christ who is the goal and end of our striving, the model we must pattern ourselves upon. But Christ is not only our beginning and end, He is also with us on the way. And He is with us not just in some figurative sense, but in a physical sense, in his “flesh” –He changes the bread and wine into His very self, as we Catholics hold: into His Body and Blood, His soul and divinity. He said, “This IS my body” and we hold Him to mean what He said.
And, in particular, this is what Elizabeth knew to be true. And she knew it was important to recall today because as her Gospel text indicates, the promise of Heaven, of the Heavenly Banquet, holds for those who have sought to be nourished by Christ in His earthly banquet, the Mass, in Holy Communion, “that a man may eat of it and NOT die”. This is the foundation of our hope for her today –Christ promised this.

One final thought, on Elizabeth’s second reading (1 Jn 3:1-2). That text said, “we are already children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He really is”. As long as we live in this world we have something limited in our knowledge of God. Christians hold that we DO truly know God, we know God as He really is, and we know Him because He Himself has made Himself known by becoming one of us: Jesus Christ. If we in faith accept the truth of what He did and taught then we truly know God. But our sight is still limited; the glory of God and the glory of heaven is still beyond our ability to exhaust. We see God, now, but, as St Paul puts it, “through a glass darkly”(1 Corinthians 13:12). However, what the text Elizabeth chose rejoices in is that, for God’s faithful ones, in Heaven, “we shall see Him as He really is”. This is the hope, the completion and fulfilment of the Christian journey, the journey we are sustained on with the Bread of Life, this is the hope that Elizabeth held for herself and that gathers us her to pray for her today, to pray that that hope will become readily fulfilled.