Sunday, 4 December 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A

Mt 3:1-12; Isa 11:1-10
What it is that moves you to repent of your sins?
Last week I pointed out two contrasting responses to the Coming of The Lord that were in our readings: joyfully going out to meet Him; and, fear of His judgement.
This week, similarly, I'd like to point out to you two contrasting motives for repenting of our sins: Fear of judgment, and, a desire to be ready for Him.

Our Gospel text opened with St John the Baptist's call to repent of our sins. Let me point out, however, the first REASON he gives why we should repent: he said,
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand"(Mt 3:2)
This kingdom of heaven is a joyous thing, and, from this angle, our motive to repent is to get ready for such a wonderful place.

St John the Baptist, however, was not all sweetness and light. Even among those who came to him to be baptised and confess their sins, even of these he gave a harsh greeting to those he felt were insincere. Note his response to the Pharisees and Sadducees: "Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming?"(Mt 3:7). Now, we should also note that he did OFFER them repentance, but, his insisting that they produce the "fruits" of repentance might well alarm us. He accused them of complacency, of "presuming to tell [themselves] that, 'We have Abraham for our father'."(Mt 3:9)

We, as Catholics, would do well to ask ourselves how often we similarly "presume" that we're "all right" with God. You might tell yourself that you come to Mass every Sunday, tell yourself that you're the most religious person you know (because it's quite possible that few among your friends and family come to Mass). You might tell yourself that you give to charity. BUT, the Pharisees also gave their dues, and attended their services. However, this was somehow not enough, there needed to be something deeper at right with them before the Lord, even though they did not recognise their faults. And so the Baptist warned that "retribution" was coming to them, as it might well come to us, if we do not produce the "fruits" of repentance.
So, in this holy season of Advent, when we are called to get ready, we should fear the judgment if we do not recognise the sins within our hearts that we need to repent of.

But, to return to the first reason to repent of our sins, the 'happier' reason, so to speak.
Advent is time of waiting, of getting ready for His coming. And His coming will bring with it everything we are yearning for.
For the bored, God will excite and satisfy them beyond our imagining.
For the distressed, God will calm and rest their weary lives.
Yet, He will be unable to offer us any of these things unless are ready for them. A sinless perfect place, heaven, is something we will only be ready for IF we GET ready with "works of repentance".

In a week and a half we'll have our Advent penitential service with 4 priests here to hear your confessions.
Also, after each Sunday Mass all through Advent I'll be available in the confessional for confessions. And, the usual times of confessions either here, or in Wimborne, or in Kinson, are as advertised in the newsletter. In addition,
The washing of sin available to us in this sacrament is much greater than the mere symbolic cleansing offered by the Baptist in the River Jordan. So let is make the most of it.
Whether our repentance is motivated by fear of judgement, or the desire to get ready for the joy of his coming, let us use this season to prepare:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand."

Sunday, 27 November 2016

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A

Mt 24:37-44; Isa 2:1-5; Ps 121; Rom 13:11-14
Every year, we start Advent, start preparing for His coming at Christmas, start by focusing on His final coming in glory at the End of Time.
Let me ask you to consider, today, what your response would be if you heard that Jesus was coming, that His Second Coming in glory was going to be today, before Sunday lunch.
Because we have have presented to us, in our Scripture readings, two rather contrasting approaches.
The first, is to run out and meet Him with joy (Isa 2:1-5; Ps 121);
The second, is the fear of judgment, which the Lord Jesus puts before us in our Gospel text (Mt 24:37-44), with the warning that we need to "stay awake" because we do not know when He is coming, and St Paul amplifies the point with a list of sins we need to put aside to "live decently as people do in the daytime"(Rom 13:13)

On one level, it might seem odd that our Christian Scriptures give us such contrasting ways of responding to Jesus' coming.
Are we to fear Him, or ,to rejoice that He is is coming?
In fact, we should do both, and both are an appropriate and necessary ways to respond to Him if we grasp the FULLNESS of Who and what He is.

Our first reading and psalm both give is the beautiful image of the people "going up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the God of Jacob”(Isa 2:3).
Many people today, as we all know, think that there is no god, no purpose to life. Or, if there is some god then He is isn't really knowable, and thus isn't really loveable
We, however, have the gladness of knowing Him because He has made Himself known.

And, WHAT has He made known about Himself?
Many things, of course, but principally, as Scripture says, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16), and it is as “love” that He has made Himself known.
And when we meet the God who is love, this produces joy.
Pope Francis notes this in the context of the New Evangelisation, he says that the source of ‘joy’ in the believer is twofold: ‘encountering’ Christ (Evangelii Gaudium n.1) and knowing in this encounter that we are loved (n.2, 6, 7 etc).
He notes too that this encounter, if it is genuine, and if the joy is not just some complacency, this joyful encounter sends us forth (n.20). It send us forth to tell of Him to others, but also, as our focus today at the start of Advent recalls, it sends us forth to go out and meet Him when He comes. And, we might note, that if this going to meet the Lord is authentic then, as the image in our first reading from Isaiah indicates, we should want to draw others to go up and meet and worship Him with us.

But, back to that other response, other way we might and should feel about the Lord coming in glory: fear, fear of judgement, concern that if “of two… one will be taken, the other one left”(Mt 24:41), then which ‘one’ will I be?
Well, if we have authentically grasped Who He is, then awe and “fear of the Lord” are fully appropriate -He is my friend, but He is also my lord and judge. And my awareness of this is part of what moves me to change, to repentance, to getting myself ready, to “staying awake”.
So, our collect (opening prayer) at Mass today both asked that we might be granted “the resolve to run forth to meet …Christ” and also asked we might be “worthy” through having “righteous deeds” to bring to Him.
If I have honestly faced what gives me cause for fear, then I can be ready to meet Him with joy.
And, as Pope Francis also reminds us, the mercy of God is what “restores our joy”(n.3).

To conclude, if Christ came before lunch today, would I have fear or joy?
Both are possible responses,
but the more I have grasped Who He is NOW, the more I will be ready with joy both then and now, ready for His coming.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Fortitude & Remembrance Sunday, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 21:5-19
Today our nation keeps Remembrance Sunday, when we recall those who died in the wars of the last century. We recall the horror of war, and our resolution not to repeat the evils of the past century. We recall, also, the bravery of so many who stood firm when they could have given way to evil.
Our Scripture readings today, which are not specially chosen for Remembrance Sunday, nonetheless speak to us of the virtue of fortitude –that virtue that is classically associated with the soldier.
And it's about fortitude that I'd thus like to speak about today.

I recently finished reading a book about fortitude (Gomez, Men of Brave Heart).
The book, obviously, makes repeated reference to the image of the soldier.
But what struck me most in the book is it's description of how fortitude needs to permeate EVERY Christian’s life –there is a battle that we ALL must fight, both within ourselves, with the Evil One, and with evil in general.

Unless we live the life of a couch potato, we all spend our lives STRIVING in the pursuit of ‘goods’.
We all strive for ‘goods’:
The good of passing an exam after extended study,
the good of acquiring a salary to support your family,
in fact, even the couch potato strives for a ‘good’ –just the not very spectacular good of sitting on the sofa.

Some goods are harder to acquire than others, and this is where fortitude comes in:
Fortitude is the particular virtue that gives us strength, “firmness of will” in the pursuit of “the ARDUOUS good” (Catechism n.1808; St Thomas, ST II-II q123ff), strength in the face of fear.
Classically, it is most completely seen in that firmness of will manifested in the face of death by the soldier –pursuing the arduous good of defending others.

In the Gospel today we heard the Lord Jesus speak of the “endurance”(Lk 21:19) we will need to “win your lives” in the midst of the fearful events that will accompany the End of Time.
He tells us to “not be frightened”, even while describing things that might lead to fear.
We might note that elsewhere He speaks of many other more comforting and encouraging parts of the struggle:
If it is an “arduous” good that the Christian seeks, He tells us of the perfect beatitude (c.f. Mt 5), complete happiness, that comes with this good.
If there are things to fear, He tells us that He has “overcome the world” (Jn 16:33) and that His “grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9).
But, nonetheless, His focus in this passage is on the need for that “endurance” if any of this is to be overcome.

The book on fortitude that said I read spoke, at length, about how this battle, this not giving up, this not being overcome by the “arduous” –this characterises ALL Christian existence:
The need to be strong against comfort eating in gluttony,
The need to be strong against selfishness in the need to serve others in love,
The need to be strong against temptations to impatience and irritability etc.

We see that strength typified in the soldier.
We see that strength manifested, in perfection, in Christ in the Cross, who endured all things for love of us, in pursuit of the arduous good of our salvation.
So, today, on Remembrance Sunday, when we think of the fortitude of the soldier,
let us think about how this typifies our whole Christian lives,
And let us look to the Lord’s example on the Cross to endure to the end,
and ask the Lord for the grace to endure with that endurance that will “win you your lives”.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Praying for the Dead, 32rd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year C

See an article on this topic here

2 Macc 7:1-14; Lk 20:27-38
We're now in the month of November, the month of the year when the Church in a more focused way remembers the dead. In particular, we remember to PRAY for the dead. And we pray for the dead not because we despair for them but rather because of the opposite: because of what we HOPE for them. Our first reading and gospel both remind us very clearly of what it is that we hope that the dead: the resurrection of the body.

In the gospel we heard the Lord Jesus say something about the resurrection that His hearers probably found a little unexpected: while He spoke of the resurrection of the body He nonetheless indicated that the body will not be like our bodies are at present. At present, our bodies are prone to sickness, to suffering, to all sorts of limitations -but it will not be so in Heaven. This point is elaborated on in many places elsewhere in the New Testament where it speaks of the changed transfigured glory of the resurrected body. For example, in St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians he says that we "we shall all be changed... the dead will be raised imperishable... because our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality”(1 Cor 15: 52-53).

But it is not only our bodies that will need to change: our souls also will need to be transformed from sinful imperfection to sinless perfection. Heaven is a place of perfection, and it could hardly remain so if imperfect people were allowed into it. So, the logic of the perfection of heaven requires that we be purified before we enter it. And this purification, this purging of our sins, is what happens in the place called Purgatory.

Now, I want to make a point about change: Change is never easy. There are many things in my character now that I try to change, many little bad habits that I try to break, and many new good habits that I try to acquire, and any change is difficult. I say this to make a comparison with the change, the purgation, that we must undergo in Purgatory -that change will be even more dramatic and thus even more difficult. The traditional images used for Purgatory all speak of it in terms of fire and pain, and such images conjure up an image of the difficulty that must be involved in this change.

There are two things, however, that ease the pain of those in purgatory. First, the pain and difficulty of Purgatory is greatly eased by the fact that Purgatory is a place of great hope because those who are there know that they are already guaranteed a place in the joy of heaven, it is only a matter of time for them –by sending them to Purgatory the Judgement has spared them of Hell. Second, and this takes me back to where I began, the difficulty of those in Purgatory can be helped by the prayers of those of us who live.

So what do we pray for when we pray for the dead? We pray that God will have mercy on them in the judgement. We pray that God will speed the through their passage in Purgatory. And, we pray that God will ease and comfort them while they make their purgation. And the Tradition and countless private revelations to different saints have shown us that the prayers of the living are of great help to those who are dead, a point more definitively taught by Scripture itself which says, "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins"(2 Macc 12:46).
There is an insert in this week's newsletter summarising why the Church tells us to pray for the end, and the doctrine of purgatory, see here
And I would commend three particular practices to you as prayers for the dead: have a Mass offered for those who have died (see here); pray the Rosary for those who have died -it is a prayer particularly beloved by our Blessed Mother; and say the Divine Mercy Chaplet –a prayer particularly suited for calling upon God's mercy.

To come back to where I began: Why do we pray for the dead? We pray for them because we have hope for them, hope of the glory of the resurrection. And because we have hope we pray that that hope will be realised with the aid of our prayers.
As St. Ambrose so beautifully put it in the 4th Century, "We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord."

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Joy of Meeting Jesus, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 19:1-10
Today I’d like us to consider the most striking effect of meeting the Lord Jesus.
It may be that you’ve never directly considered what is the most noticeable CHANGE that can be seen in people who have met the Lord, but we just heard a clear example in that Gospel passage, and it is a theme that Pope Francis writes and speaks about frequently:
“JOY … fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus”(Evangelii Gaudium n.1).

Zacchaeus, as we just heard, welcomed the Lord “joyfully” (Lk 19:6) into his house.
We might also note Zaccaheus’s behavior before and after meeting the Lord Jesus:
Before, we can sense his eagerness:
He was “anxious”(19:3) to see Him, he “ran ahead”(19:4), and “climbed a tree”, and he disregarded the manner in which other people sought to out him off.
After, we can sense the change that meeting the Lord caused in him:
He changed his life, dramatically: he gave half his money to the poor and repaid fourfold all those he had cheated (19:8).
And the Lord declared, “today salvation has come to this house”(Lk 19:9).

Joy and Salvation -Pope Francis writes about how these two things go together.
In the Old Testament, when salvation was promised, when a Messiah was promised who would bring salvation, it was repeatedly said He would bring “joy” (Evangelii Gaudium n.4).
In the Gospels, as we heard one example today, this is exactly what happened. People met the Lord, and it brought joy to them.

Of course, this joy is not automatic:
Some people rejected or ignored the Lord. We might note that the Pharisees and Sadducees who rejected the Lord are never described as joyful.
We night note also the classic example of the rich young man: he went away “sad”(Mk 10:22) because he refused to change his life to follow the Lord.

But, for those who will choose to accept Him and follow Him and, unlike the rich young man, do what is required of those are to follow Him,
What is it about the Lord that brings joy? Let me note two things:
First, love.
We all want to be loved, and we rejoice when we experience that we are loved. The Lord Jesus was full of joy Himself because He always rejoiced in being loved by the Father, being His “Son, the Beloved”(Mk 1:11; 9:7). (c.f. Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino n.iii, my Pentecost sermon 2015). And those who met the Lord met One who loved them more fully than anyone else they had known before -so it is hardly to be wondered at that they experienced joy.
Second, salvation for the “lost”.
We just heard the Lord say that He had come to “save what was lost”(Lk 19:10).
The primary sense of this concerns being lost in sin. And the outcast sinners rejoiced because they experienced salvation for them, the “lost”, salvation in repentence and forgiveness.
There is secondary, more modern sense of “lost” and being saved, and it concerns finding meaning and purpose in life. We live in an age when many have no sense of purpose or direction or meaning, and to experience purpose when you have no purpose is to experience a reason to rejoice. And to encounter someone who sees the potential in you and gives you that purpose is as much a reason to rejoice today as it was for Zacchaeus 2000 years ago.

In summary, meeting the Lord brought “joy” to Zacchaeus as he experienced being sought out, being loved, being saved.
If we would have that same experience then we must constantly renew in ourselves what was visible in Zacchaeus: He knew Jesus offered something more, he sought Him out with energy, he repented of his sin, and “salvation came to this house”(Lk 19:9).

Sunday, 23 October 2016

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 18:9-14
I want to say a few words to help us grasp the surprise that the Lord Jesus’s listeners got in that parable.
When you and I just heard that parable in the gospel, we didn't hear it in the way that the people in ancient Palestine heard it. When they heard it, they heard the beginning without knowing the end, whereas, when WE heard it we knew the ending already, we knew that the sinner was declared righteous by Jesus because he confessed his sinfulness. That, however, would have been an ending that would have come as a total SURPRISE to the people listening to Jesus.

Picture how the telling of the parable would have gone:
The Lord's listeners would have heard the description of the Pharisee, and would have listened to everything he referred to himself as doing, and they would have been impressed:
here was a man doing all the right things. He fasted on the right days, he tithed the right amounts. Here was a man doing things right. And when he said he was not “like the rest of mankind”(Lk 18:11), he was simply stating a fact.
In contrast, there was the man he was being compared to, a tax collector
-such men are not popular today, but they were utterly despised in ancient Israel, despised as collaborators with the Roman oppressors, despised as men opposing God's Chosen People (by collected taxes from them for the Romans).
So, when the Lord says at the end of the parable that it was the tax collector who went home "at rights with God"(Lk 18:14), this would have been an ending that really SURPRISED His listeners.

Jesus was pointing out what it is that TRULY puts a person "at rights with God".
For us to try and grasp the point, try and get that 'surprise' that I said the original listeners got, let us think of the different ways that we each, habitually, tend to define what makes a 'good' person.
I have no doubt that each of us here have different criteria, different things that we look at in other people, the things that lead us to say, "Now, that's a GOOD person".
Some of us might look at someone who gives money to charity on a regular direct debit from the bank,
Or some of us might look at someone who spends a lot of time with his/her family,
Or some of us might look at someone who is hardworking and not lazy.
In each case, some of us here would define 'good' predominately in such terms.
and we would tend to think that such 'good' people are the ones who are "at rights with God".

Each of those things are good things, good deeds.
Yet, if we listen to that parable, the Lord seems to largely cast such things aside.
He is not saying, I think it’s obvious to point out, He's not saying that it's not good to give to the poor, spend time with your family, and be hard working etc.

The point is something else:
'Doing good' isn't what justifies us before God.
Rather, being HUMBLE is what justifies us before God, because it's being humble that accurately acknowledges our status before Him.
I am small, and weak, and a sinner.
And any good I 'do', I only do by His power working within me.

So, to return to where I began: the SURPRISE that the Lord's listeners got.
Of course, some may not have been surprised, they may have already remembered the Old Testament teaching about the humble being precious in the sight of God.
But it would seem that SOME had forgotten.
And if we too have forgotten, then let us take the Lord's words to heart, let us not “pride ourselves on being virtuous” (Lk 18:9) but rather let us seek to make the tax collector's prayer our own:
"God, be merciful to me, a sinner"(Lk 18:13).

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Why Pray? 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 18:1-18; Ex 17:8-13
We just heard Jesus talk about the importance of asking for things in prayer, in particular, we heard Him talk about the importance of PERSISTENTLY asking for things in prayer. People often ask the question, "Why do we need to ask God for something when Him already knows?" And people sometimes push the point further by asking, "Why must I persevere? I asked for it once, why must I ask for it again?" These are good questions, and I want to give a brief summary of some answers that have been given to those questions.

The first, and most important reason why we should ask for things even though God already knows what we need, is that He tells us to: Time and again in the Gospels, not just in the parable we heard, Jesus says "ask”(Mt 7:7). So, even if we do not understand WHY, we should do so because He has told us to -and He is wiser than we are.

In addition, we should ask for things in prayer because it is GOOD FOR US to ask for things in prayer, and it is good for us in two ways:
• it reminds us of the fact that we need Him, i.e. that we are not all-powerful ourselves, that we are small weak and fragile, and that nonetheless there is One who is not small weak and fragile and can help us in our need.
• But, prayer is good for us not only because it reminds us of our need of Him, but because prayer CHANGES US. St Augustine is probably the writer who has written most beautifully on this point, and he notes how when we pray, "thy kingdom come" our very making of the prayer begins to form that Kingdom within us. The more persistently, over the greater period of time, that we are engaged in prayer in petition, the more that prayer will change us. And, the more prayer changes us, the more prayer MAKES US READY to receive the gifts that the Divine Giver wishes to give us.

Finally, I would point out the simple truth that we should pray because God DOES answer prayer:
Our first reading from the book of Exodus records how the prayer of Moses for the people had an effect: as long as he prayed the Israelites were victorious over the Amalekites who were attacking them, when he gave up praying they began to be defeated, yet with his perseverance in prayer they crushed those who would have crushed them.
That pattern that we read again and again in the Old Testament was repeated also in the New Testament. For example, when St Peter was in prison the early Church prayed for him, and it was then that the angel was sent to rescue St Peter from the prison (Acts 12:15).
God does answer prayer:
He promised he would do so, Scripture records His frequent occasions of doing so, the experience of the Church down the centuries is that He does so, and many of us here can testify to this in our own lives too.

God tells us to pray. He tells us that He will answer our prayer. Of course, as wiser men than myself have noted that sometimes that answer is “no”, but He does answer prayer, and answer it for our good.
He is a merciful God yet He tells us to ask for mercy.
He is giving God yet He tells us to ask for gifts.
He is a supportive God yet He tells us to CALL when we need His grace.

So, why should we ask for things when God already knows what we need?
Because (1) He tells us to do so; because (2) doing so reminds us of our need of Him; because (3) praying changes us and makes us ready to receive the gifts He wishes to give us; and (4) last but not least, because He does answer prayer.