Sunday, 29 August 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Heb 12:18-24
We heard a line in our second reading that well describes our experience at Mass: “What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”(Heb 12:18).
What we come to in the Mass is God Himself –but this isn’t what we experience directly with our senses:
Our senses say merely that we have come to a gathering of human beings, human beings that in many ways might not seen particularly god-like: they might sing badly, they might mumble their responses inaudibly, some of them might even look bored and distracted. Our senses might also say that what is given out at Mass just looks like wafers of bread, not like the Lord Jesus Himself.
But, and this is the basic point of my sermon today: there is more to the Mass, and more to life in general, than just what immediately strikes our senses. If we limit our appreciation of life to only what is immediately self-evident to the senses then we miss much, in fact, we miss the most important things.

Now, to say that in the Mass, “What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”, does not mean that the senses cannot aid us in helping us appreciate what we have come to.
For one thing, the senses enable us to see the signs and symbols, the sacramentals, that point us towards the reality we have come to.
For example, looking ahead of us to the sanctuary, our sense of sight can see that there is a veil that hangs in front of the tabernacle, a sign indicating to us that God dwells inside –and the tabernacle veil of the Church was pre-figured in the tabernacle veil of the Old Testament: when the Jews wandered in the desert God was in their midst in the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting that Moses would enter to commune with God, and later in the temple in Jerusalem there was a veil in the sanctuary of the holy of holies of God’s dwelling.
Another example, the red hanging sanctuary lamp is another thing that our sense of sight can perceive –this also indicates to us that God dwells here in the Tabernacle, just as in the Old Testament God commanded that a lamp should always burn in the Tabernacle of the tent of meeting(Ex 27:20-21).

But a final and more pivotal example: our sense of hearing hears the priest utter the words that Jesus Himself uttered: “This is my Body”. At this point our sense of hearing conflicts with part of our sense of sight and taste: our hearing tells us that this is the Lord Himself, present because He is faithful to His promise to come when we “do this in memory” of Him, but, our sight and taste mistakenly thinks it looks and tastes just like bread.
Our senses can HELP us perceive what is here, but what is here is BEYOND what our senses can exhaust.
To see what is really here, to see what is really important in life, we need to look more carefully, we need to look with the eyes of faith.

“What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”, Saint Paul said these words of God Himself and of the splendour of heaven. And as he said in another of his letters (1 Cor 2:9): “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, what” wonders there are.
In a few weeks the Pope will be here in England, and many atheists like Richard Dawkins, will be appearing on the BBC to tell us what a fool they think he is. But the Pope is coming to remind Britain, and to remind us, that there is a world beyond our immediate sense perception, and it is this world that gives ultimate meaning to everything our senses are capable of perceiving, and without the eyes of faith we fail to see what is really here. The Lord is here in this tabernacle, here in this church, and He is present in our lives if we will but see Him. To have closed our eyes to such realities is to have missed out on the greatest things there are.
“What you have come to is nothing known to the senses”(Heb 12:18).

Sunday, 22 August 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 13:22-30; Heb 12:18-24
There are some questions that I get asked many times as a priest. One question that comes up again and again, and that I was asked again this week, is, "How many people go to Hell?” or, the reverse, “How many go to Heaven?" This is a good question, an old question, a question that has concerned people down the centuries. It is also a question that Jesus was asked, as we heard in today’s Gospel: "Sir, will there be only a few saved?"(Lk 13:23). But it’s interesting how few people today seem to recall the Lord’s answer.

Jesus’s answer was certainly not comforting to the person who asked the question, because Jesus started by questioning the salvation of the questioner:
"Try YOUR best to enter by the NARROW door, because I tell you, many will TRY to enter and will not succeed"(13:24).
He went on to say that many would knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us” (13:25) but be turned away.
More worryingly still, Jesus said that many who thought they were saved would not be: they will say to the Lord that they knew the Lord (or so they thought), but the Lord will say to them, “I do not know where you come from” and cast them out into the “weeping and grinding of teeth”(Lk 13:28).
And it will be others who will be saved, others from the “east and west”(13:19) who will take the places that the comfortable and complacent thought they had waiting for them.

The Lord’s answer is clearly not one to encourage complacency in His hearers, or in us.
And yet, we ourselves live in an age where popular opinion makes us complacent in such matters. Hell is something that is rarely talked about, even as a possibility -it is often dismissed as being only for people who are so wicked that they only exist as theoretical examples.
But Jesus's teaching does not encourage such presumption. He speaks in this text of a “narrow” door, not a wide one. And as He says elsewhere, “The road is wide that leads to perdition and MANY walk in it"(Mt 7:13).

So, what must WE do?
To repeat the words Jesus said to His questioner: “Try YOUR best to enter by the NARROW door”. We ourselves also need to enter by this narrow door, and we know that it is narrow because it can be HARD WORK to be good, to walk the path of salvation. Our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminded us of the suffering and training that is involved in being a Christian. Just as the athlete suffers and endures so that he may enters the arena and win the game, we too must not shrink from the hard work that is involved in living the moral Godly life that Christ calls us to. Anything good is worth striving for, and eternal salvation is no exception.

But, to conclude, let us remember that though the Lord speaks of hell and tells us that we must “strive”(Lk 13:24) to follow Him, we are striving not against Him but with Him.
Let us remember the text we heard in our second reading from Hebrews, "Have you forgotten that encouraging text in which you are addressed as sons?"(12:5)
If we wish to ponder the question, "How many will be saved?" and more directly, "Will I be saved?", we must not forget that God calls each and every one of us to become His adopted child. For EACH of us He has a special plan, He guides our lives and even our sufferings, to lead us, daily, towards Him and the salvation He desires for us. He wants us to be saved, He calls us to Himself, He has come to us because He is the way, He Himself is the “narrow door” that leads to life.

If we would enter that door, it is not complicated: We must embrace His will, daily repent of our sins, continually call on His mercy.
And, if we are humbly among the little ones acknowledging our sins and weakness and calling on His mercy, rather than presuming on our strength, then we will be among the “men from east and west, north and south, [who] will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God”(Lk 13:29).

Sunday, 1 August 2010

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Eccles 1:-2:23; Col 3:1-11; Lk 12:13-21
Today’s readings warn us of the need to place our hope in the things of heaven, not of the passing things of this world. I’d like to illustrate this point by referring to the life of St Bernadette and a promise made to her by Our Lady.

Two weeks ago I was in Lourdes, a site that attracts 6 millions pilgrims a year, and I was reminded while I was there of the promise made to the little girl Bernadette when Our Lady appeared to her. Our Lady said, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next” –to repeat: not happy in this world, but in heaven.
And, thinking of that promise, I wondered what my own response would have been if Our Lady had said such a thing to me. I think I’d have wanted to say something like, “Thanks for the offer of happiness in heaven, but, could I perhaps have a little bit of happiness in this world too? I was rather set on a cosy little life in Shaftesbury, with the odd glass of red wine. OK?”
But such a response from me would be rooted in the fact that I have an insufficient grasp of the reality of heaven –I know of it, but it is not a thought sufficiently in my continual daily consciousness.

St Bernadette, however, saw more than I have seen. She saw the beauty of heaven, because she saw the beauty of heaven reflected in the beauty of the vision of Our Lady that she saw. This vision of the wonder of heaven enabled her to understand, in a way that is difficult for the rest of us, to understand at an experiential level how wonderful heaven is and how worth while it is to put aside all things in the pursuit of it. We need to strive to see things as clearly as she did, with the thought of the promise of heaven.

Let us think for a moment of that rich man in the Gospel parable. He was saving for tomorrow. In our debt-ridden present economic climate, saving for tomorrow might seem like a prudent, sensible, virtuous thing to do. But there is a selfish way to save, and an unselfish way to save. Part of what can help us see the difference is whether we can look at our actions and see them as laying up more merit for ourselves in heaven than they do for us on earth. And, if we live in the HOPE of heaven then we learn to almost instinctively judge our deeds in the light of heaven.

The promise of heaven is a measure that passes judgement, either positive or negative, on everything we do. Is what I am doing gaining me treasure in heaven, or losing it?
To come back to the promise St Bernadette received from Our Lady, St Bernadette was quite clear, as she said many times[1], that this promise of happiness in heaven was only conditional on her being good on earth. And, at its most basic level, this is true of each of us too:

In our second reading from Colossians we were reminded that, as baptised Christians, we “have been brought back to life in Christ”(Col 3:1), but if this is to mean something then we must have our action oriented towards heaven: “look for the things of heaven”, St Paul added.
Our first reading, with its powerful message from the preacher Quoheleth (Ecclesiates), spoke of the vanity of so much of the activity we pursue in this world: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity... what does a man gain for all his toil under the sun”(Ecc 1:2ff).
What does a man gain for his toil? It depends what toil he is doing, and who he is doing it for, and this was the point made by the Lord in the Gospel. The rich man selfishly toiling for himself, laying up treasure in his barn –what is this worth if he dies and he has not laid up “treasure for himself”(Lk 12:21) in heaven, in the sight of God?

Every deed we do, we need to ask, Is this laying up treasure for myself in heaven?
If my action motivated entirely by the thought of happiness in this world as if there was no world to come? Or, does my faith in the world to come help me detach myself from short-term self-seeking because I have the joy of living in hope of the eternal future: “you must look for the things of heaven, where Christ is”(Col 3:2). If we had such faith and hope we’d be content to have a promise like, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next”.

[1] Rene Laurentin, Bernadette Speaks (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), p.602.