Sunday, 17 March 2019

Transfigured Human Flesh, 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C

Lk 9:28-36; Phil 3:17-4:1
Recently I came home to find that someone had put a leaflet through my front door advertising a slimming program. At first I wondered if someone has chosen me specifically. Had someone noticed that my size 15.5” neck shirts have become significantly tight this past half-year? Has someone overheard me mumbling to myself about whether I need to “upgrade” from a 32 to a 34 inch waist trouser? I don't know, but the leaflet was there, all alone, waiting for me.

Diets, as many of us know, are easy to start but harder to stick to. People often start with good and clear intentions, but often after just a week it's all gone!
We’re now just over a week into Lent, and I want to make the very obvious comparison between Lent and such diets. We have finished the first week; we are now in the SECOND Sunday of Lent. Possibly some of us have failed to stick to our resolutions, maybe some of us are wavering. What we need now is a VISION of something to keep us going, or to re-start us on the path.
And, in fact, this is what the Church always offers us on this 2nd Sunday of Lent: we are given the Gospel account of the Lord Jesus transfigured in glory, we are shown His transfigured human flesh on the mountaintop, a vision of what OUR transfigured flesh will look like if we follow Him through the carrying of the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection.

Now, the dieting leaflet that was put through my door similarly had a vision of transfigured human flesh. As is typical, the dieting leaflet had a photo of someone whose body looked absolutely perfect, with words to the effect of, “YOU can look like THIS, in just 40 days on this diet”. Great promises. High expectations.
A 40 day diet... or 40 days of Lent.
Let me point out some similarities and some differences.

Both offer a vision of transfigured human flesh.
Both make a promise.
Both have a trainer: your diet coach, or, the Lord Jesus.
Both involve self-denial and typically abstaining from the pleasure of food.
Both involve suffering: “The Cross” is intrinsic to any form of training and discipleship.
You can't be an athlete unless you undergo the suffering of the gym. You can't be a disciple unless you undergo training. You can't be a follower of the Lord Jesus, He said, you cannot be His disciple unless you take up your cross daily and follow Him (Lk 9:23).

Having noted similarities between Lent and a diet, let me also note that there are very significant differences:
The Lord Jesus has PROVED the truth of His promise, by His many miracles, and in particular, by His rising from the dead,
Whereas far too many diets seem to lack such proof.
In addition, as our training coach, the Lord Jesus ACCOMPANIES us in our suffering much more deeply than a diet instructor. A diet instructor might also be someone who diets, as he or she might tell you to. But the Lord Jesus suffers not alongside us, but WITHIN us, and He strengthens us with His grace. When He tells us that to be His disciple we must “take up our cross and follow Him”(c.f. Lk 9:23), we only ever call our sufferings a “cross” because of their UNION with the Lord Jesus –a union that is spiritual and internal, not just an external example.

A final difference, however, and a difference that is crucial, is that these two practices are aimed at two every different goals. Dieting is aimed at the health of the body, which is a good thing, but a passing thing, not the thing of highest importance. In contrast, the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent are aimed at the good of the soul. And, even saying this is only partly true: they are NOT aimed at “the good of our soul” in the manner of some self-help improvement course. RATHER, they are aimed at UNION with the Lord Jesus.

To conclude:
A vision of transfigured human flesh,
One: a diet, with slimming world -but that flesh will, even after the diet, eventually fade;
Two, fasting and self-denial, with Jesus on the mountaintop, a glory that can ours if we follow His way of the Cross, if we follow Him through Lent.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Into the Desert, 1st Sunday of Lent, Year C

Deut 26:4-10; Lk 4:1-13
This year I feel particularly ready for Lent. Not ready in the sense of being prepared, but ready in the sense of needing a fresh start.
The word ‘Lent’, as you probably know, comes from the old Saxon word for the season of ‘spring’. The word thus focuses us on the new growth that we start to see in this season:
The daffodils are out, tulips are appearing, buds are in the trees. Life is starting afresh.
Spiritually, likewise, this season of Lent is about new growth.

There is an irony here, however, in that to cause our souls to grow we go into the DESERT
-we go into a place where there is little growth, little water, little nourishment.
Why? Well, we might note that the soul is not like the body, it works differently.
But, both body and soul find their true SOURCE of life in the Lord Jesus.
We go into the desert to go be with Him.
He spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert, and so do we in Lent.

The desert is a place of little food.
In Lent, in union with Jesus, we fast. We “give things up” for Lent -which is a small form of fasting.
We need to go into the desert because the ABUNDANCE of things we experience can DISTRACT us from the Lord.
My chocolate, my alcohol, my TV, my snacks -all these things are good in themselves, but the abundance of them distracts me.
The “noise” of all these pleasures stops me hearing the Lord.
When I deny myself in this season of Lent I QUIETEN my soul.
I reduce that “noise”,
so that as my desires are intensified (as I lack the things that normally satisfy them), my desires might remember that there is a deeper reality that I seek: the Lord.

If this is going to work, then it needs to accompanied by prayer. This is why prayer and fasting go together.
They went together with Jesus in the desert. Even more, do WE need them to go together.
In this season I need to add some extra prayer, even if only small.
Something realistic that I can stick to, but something extra. Something that can make this time in the desert not merely training my desires, but re-focusing them on the only thing that reality matters: God.

Faith and hope need to be part of this.
Our first reading was a creed. It reminded the Jewish people of how God had been active in their lives in the past, how He had led them in the past.
He had called Abraham out of the Chaldees.
He had led Moses and the people out of slavery in Egypt.
For forty years He had led them as they wandered in the desert.
He brought them to “a land flowing with milk and honey”(Deut 26:9).
The church reminds us of this text to remind us that, in Lent, God guides us STILL. He leads us still.
If I am going into the desert, I need the confidence that comes from believing and trusting Him, otherwise the desert will overwhelm me.

Finally, love. Faith, and prayer, and fasting, all this should change me, make me more loving and giving.
And so we give to the poor in the season.

So spring, Lent, new growth.
We go into the place of desert, this place of little life, to encounter in a new way the Lord who is the source of all life.
That removed from the distractions of pleasures, we might find our greatest pleasure: the good God.
Let us go forth in faith and confidence - the land of milk and honey awaits on the far side of that desert.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Love Your Enemy, 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 6:27-38; 1 Sam 26:2-23
Today’s Gospel text gives us one of the most beautiful and yet difficult Christian teachings: to love your enemy.
I want to immediately add that I think its also wonderfully PRACTICAL, rooted in real life:
The Lord does not tell us not to have enemies, rather, He tell us how we should behave towards them.
Having enemies is almost an inevitable part of life: your mother-in-law, the neighbour who just cut down your hedge, the boss at work who makes unreasonable demand and is itching for an excuse to fire you
-at different times in life, almost all of us will have had someone that relates to us as “enemy”.
But how are we to act towards them?

We’ve all heard the saying, “An eye for an eye”, about revenge.
It’s the teaching in the Old Testament -though what is often forgotten is that it was always intended as a LIMITING action: no more than an eye for eye.
The teaching of the New Testament raises us to an even higher standard:
To “love your enemy” -but what does that mean in practice?

Let me return to what a said about love a few weeks ago (4thSunOrdTimeYrC), but from a different angle.
I said that love is not just a feeling, it’s a decision of the will.
If someone is my enemy then I am very unlikely to FEEL loving towards him, but, I can CHOOSE, as a decision of will, to ACT in a loving way towards him.

To love someone, in terms of action rather than in terms of emotion,
to love someone means to “will good” to the other (CCC 1766, citing St. Thomas, ST I-II q26 a4):
Not to will evil upon them, but to will good for them, to will what is good for them.

We were given an example of this in our first reading, with Saul and David.
Who were David and Saul? Saul was king. But who were they to each other?
Saul was David’s father-in-law, and he was hunting down his son-in-law to kill him.
(Saul was neither the first nor the last father-in-law to hunt down his son-in-law.)
But how did David act towards Saul?
We might note, as an initial observation, that he acted justly, he observed the minimum required by God’s law, and he did not kill God’s king, “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam 26:23).
More than this, however, as the full account in the book of Samuel describes, he acted in a way that was loving to Saul:
He did not damage Saul’s position as king;
He did not damage Saul’s relationship with his daughter (David’s wife, Michal);
He did not damage Saul’s relationship with his son (David’s best friend, Jonathan).
He could look and see what was good FOR SAUL, and he acted in a way consistent with that.
He wasn’t reconciled to Saul.
He didn’t become friends with Saul -they remained ‘enemies’, in that sense.
But, in how he acted, he chose what was good for his enemy, he thus LOVED his enemy.

You and I are called to do the same:
whether with your brother, your mother-in-law, or the disagreeable man who lives next door.
First, if possible, we should seek forgiveness and reconciliation -though that’s a different sermon.
Second, if that’s not possible, and someone is clearly going to be our “enemy”,
then, we need to remember that this person is known and loved by God,
We need to remember that God wants and wills what is GOOD for that person -and that means we need to honestly THINK about what is truly good for that person.
And if we do, then not only will we have behaved “beautifully”, not only will be have behaved in a way that will bring peace to ourselves, but, as the Lord Jesus promised, in the final analysis, from God, “the amount you measure out to others is the amount you will be given in return”(Lk 6:38).

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Resurrection, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

1 Cor 15:12.16-20; Lk 6:17-26; Jer 17:5-8
Today I want to reflect on St Paul’s teaching about the importance of the physical reality of the Resurrection, as we heard in our second reading.

The Corinthians that St Paul was writing to lived in the midst of Greek philosophy.  The descendants of the philosopher Socrates valued the mind and the soul, but had a low opinion of the body.  In fact, Plato spoke of the body as being a prison for the soul, something that the soul wants to be liberated from.  For these Greek philosophers, the whole purpose of philosophy was to escape the body.  Death, as a consequence, was seen as a great release, a release from the prison of body.

Imagine, therefore, what these Greeks thought when the early Christians spoke about a resurrection of the body, of the soul be re-united with the body.  To the Greeks, this would sound like being re-imprisoned.  The early Christians came along and spoke of the Lord Jesus being resurrected, and the Greeks laughed -not so much because they thought it unlikely, as because they thought it undesirable (c.f. Acts 17:18).

St Paul, as we briefly heard, was writing to those who were “saying that there is no resurrection of the dead”(1 Cor 15:12) -he was writing to those under the influence of these Greek philosophers.
St Paul was emphatic that everything hinges on the physical resurrection.  In fact, a very large part of the whole first letter to the Corinthians dwells on this truth.

To believe in the Resurrection is to believe in a TRANSFORMATION of this world.  
To believe in the Resurrection is believe not in escaping this world, but of it being made anew.
The body of the Lord Jesus not only came back to life, it was transformed, it became a thing of glory. 
If this is true, it changes the whole manner in which we relate to this world:

On one hand, we treat the things of this world as real.
We care for the sick and poor, because they are real.
We seek to transform the world with love, because the world is real and valuable.
The things of this world will pass and change, but they are real.

On the other hand, we relate to this world as a thing passing, a thing that will be changed and transformed.
Thus, as both our first reading and Gospel texts insisted, we do not live for “riches” (Lk 6:24) or for the pleasures of the “flesh”(Jer 17:5).
The Christian is thus called to “deny himself” (Lk 9:23) if he is to follow the Lord Jesus.

St Paul is very emphatic about a conclusion of all this: if we live “for this life only, we [Christians] are the most unfortunate of all people” (1 Cor 15:19).
-we will have denied ourselves pleasures, we will have regulated and disciplined our bodies, but there will be no future body to come.

For us who live TODAY, in the 21stCentury, there is an implicit challenge in all this:
Do we live for this world, or for the transformed resurrected world to come?
Do we truly deny ourselves in this world, in the hope of the resurrection to come?
Do we give to the poor, to the extent that it affects our ability to enjoy riches ourselves?
If we TRULY believe in the Resurrection, then the answer to these questions should be logical.
If, however, we only half-believe it, 
if we actually live in the same way as those who think there is ONLY this world to live for, 
Then, to apply St Paul’s words differently, “we are the most unfortunate of all people”(1 Cor 15:19).

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Love in Action, 4th Sunday in Ordinary time, Year C

1 Cor 12:31-13:13
For the past month, I’ve been reading the spiritual diary of Pope St John Paul II.
There is a quote that he refers to often, cited in the Catechism (1022), and from St John of the Cross:
“At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love”.

There are many things we do in life, but it is whether we do them in love that will be the basis of our judgment.
This is a very powerful way to focus on the meaning of the second reading we heard from St Paul, which was on love. 
Love needs to be the thing that animates all our activity.

When I start my day, the alarm is going.   I will have ahead of me a range of tasks, 
some complex, some mundane, 
some enjoyable, some taxing.
When the alarm goes off all that lies ahead is before me.
But if it all is to have VALUE, then it needs to be done with love.
Otherwise, to quote St Paul, I might “move mountains, but without love, I am nothing at all” (1 Cor 13;2), 
and my activity is nothing at all.

I might need to clean and tidy things up today.
I might do that efficiently, but with no real consideration of others.
I get the task done, it is finished.
But woe betide anyone in my way!
However, if I clean and tidy up, and do it with love, then I clean and tidy up very differently.
I am aware of the REASON I am doing this 
-so the house will be clean FOR OTHERS
-they come here, or live here, I want it to be nice FOR THEM
And, or, I clean my kitchen
-so my kitchen will be clean FOR GOD 
-it’s God world, it’s Gods house, He wants it to be its best, so I clean it FOR HIM.

Let me pause and define love. The Catechism, quoting St Thomas Aquinas, defines love this way:
"To love is to will the good of another"(CCC 1766, citing St. Thomas, ST I-II q26 a4).
I think of someone;
I think of what is GOOD for that person;
And I choose to WILL the good for that person.
If this is how I am doing every task, then it transforms every task.
Working with love, brings JOY to the task, because I am thinking of the beloved.
Working with love, brings SATISFACTION to the task, because I see its value for the person I am loving.

One final example: relaxing.
Everyone needs to relax, just like the body needs to sleep.  
There is a way of relaxing that is selfish -it’s all about ME.
There is another way of relaxing, that truly relaxes, but knows this relaxation is what enables to serve others at other times.  THIS way of relaxing brings love, even into the relaxation.
Why am I relaxing now?  So I can serve others later.

“At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love”(CCC 1022).
That might sound, on one level, like a sweet thought, but it can also be a fearful one: what if we have not lived a loving life?
In fact, Friday night, the night of the day when I had written the first draft of sermon, I examined my conscience and saw an absence of love that day.
It had felt a busy day, a full day, a day of many divergent parts.  
But I reflected that there had been little love in that busy-ness.
If, near the of life, I have the same sense, the solution is the same: repent.
Confess my lack of love to the God who is love.  

Back to the text from St Paul: love is the only thing that truly lasts.
If we’re busy moving mountains, but not for love, then those mountains will crumble to dust.
But if we move those mountains, or even those molehills, with love, 
then the activity I launch into when my alarm goes off  -the mountains I build will endure in eternity.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

What is the Bible?, 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 1:1-4; 414-21; Neh 8:2-10
Today I’d like us to consider the importance of the Bible, and what the Bible is.
In our first reading we heard how all the people gathered around Ezra and listened as he read the Scriptures to them and explained the ScripturesProverbs Gospel text we similarly heard how the people gathered around the Lord Jesus in the synagogue to hear Him read from the Scriptures.
We are gathered following that same pattern.
But what are we reading? What is the Bible? And, can we trust it?

First, we need to note how our holy scriptures are different from those of other religions.
Our scriptures don’t contain myths, the way Greek fables of their pagan gods did.
Our scriptures don’t, for the main part, contain instructions on how to live -though they do contain a few books of proverbs and a few books of law.
Rather, our scriptures are primarily about recording certain events of HISTORY, records of certain EVENTS.

The Jewish-Christian claim is that God was active in history:
In a particular place, in a particular people, the “Chosen people” of the Jews:
He did things among them, and for them.
He revealed Himself to them, and revealed how He wanted them to live.
If you want to know ABOUT the one true God, then you need to see what He has DONE.
There is a unity of WORD and DEED in Him, as the Hebrew word “dabar” indicates.
As a consequence, if we are to know God, and know what He teaches us, then we need to know what He has DONE in those events called, “salvation history”.

This leaves us with a problem, however, because the scepticism of the modern mind has taught us to doubt everything.
In particular, it has taught us to doubt the accuracy of the history recorded in the Bible.
Now, we can note that not ALL parts of the Bible have the same historical accuracy:
The Genesis accounts often summarise hundreds of years in a few sentences.
The Creation accounts likewise summarise, and mix symbolism with fact. Was the devil a literal serpent? Was the Original Sin eating a literal fruit? There is no need to think so.
That said, the key thing about the Bible is that it is recording a narrative, recording a history of events, a CHAIN of events, recording it from the beginning to the end, from Creation to the Apocalypse.
God showed Himself in what He DID.
And so, when we gather at Mass, we READ about what He did.

The culmination of what He did and said was in Jesus Christ, when God took FLESH.
This is why the historical accuracy and specifics of the 4 Gospels is very detailed.
This is why, as we heard St Luke say at the start of His Gospel:
The Gospels record only what “eyewitnesses” (Lk 1:2) saw -witness that they knew and questioned,
About “events that have taken place among us” (Lk 1:1) -not myths far away,
And recorded in “an ordered account” (Lk 1:3).

The narrative that the Bible unfolds is the account of God’s relationship with His Chosen People, of His “love story” with His chosen people.
YOU are a part of that narrative, a part of that history.
You are called to be grafted onto the life and promises that God gave to His Chosen People.
But you can only become a part of that lifestory IF you know that story,
if you know that history.
And that is why we read the Bible, at home, and at Church
-to know the history and narrative that we are a part of.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

The Epiphany of Cana, 2nd Sun Ordinary time, Year C

Jn 2:1-11
Today I’d like us to consider what God is like, to consider what God has SHOWN Himself to be like, and, in particular, what He has shown Himself to like as He relates to YOU.
It is the unique “arrogance” of the Christian religion is that we claim to know God Himself. We make this claim, not on the basis of what we have figured out ourselves, rather, we make this claim on the basis of what God has said and shown in Jesus Christ, we make this claim because we accept Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus has manifested, shown, what God is like.

Today, in our reading, we close a threefold epiphany, a series of three Sundays of epiphanies.
There is a great hymn, which sadly were not singing this year, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise”, which recounts this threefold epiphany.
The word ‘epiphany’ means a manifesting, a showing.
We had the epiphany to the wise men who came from the east.
What did this manifest? It manifested that God’s plan included all the nations.
His plan was particular, in a single nation, the Jews -this is where and how He showed, manifested Himself.
But His plan reached out from that particularity to call all the nations, to call non-Jews like ourselves.

Then, last week, we had the epiphany at the baptism of the Lord Jesus.
At the Baptism the voice from heaven and manifested, “You are my Son”.
As I said last week, that showed God’s plan for us to become adopted children, to become “sons in the Son”, by becoming united to His only Son, Jesus.

Finally, today, there is another epiphany, at the wedding feast of Cana.
What did the Lord reveal in this miracle? Two things.
First, very basically, that He is a God of power.
He is not simply a source of wisdom, not just teacher of how to live, rather, it showed that He is active, He DOES things, as He DID something in that first miracle He worked at Cana.

There is, however, a deeper symbolism in this miracle, that our first reading points us towards:
Marriage as symbol of how God relates to us, of how God relates to YOU.
From before all time, God chose you.
From before all time, He called you and wanted you.
And the image He uses for how He desires you is MARRIAGE.
All religions across history have marriage.
But only the Jewish-Christian religion has this epiphany that marriage is a symbol of how God desires you and wants you, and wants YOU to want HIM.

This is an amazing thought.
How does God want you? How much does God want you? The way a bridegroom yearns for His bride.
And the relationship He wants us to return to Him is the love of a bride for her bridegroom.

This image is so important in the Bible that it occurs again and again in the Old Testament, and in the New.
The Jewish people, God’s CHOSEN people, were chosen by Him as a bridegroom chooses a bride.
But they were repeatedly unfaithful to Him.
They repeatedly sinned against Him, followed false gods, mixed a bit of true religion with a bit of worldliness, as we can try and try and mix worldliness with our following of Christ.
But the pattern of the Old Testament is that God was a faithful husband even when Israel was an unfaithful wife. He stuck with her, He allowed her to comeback, and come back, and come back.
And HE does the same for you and me.
We, like the wise men who came from the east, have been grafted into the Chosen people.
We, have this beautiful marriage image of how God has revealed Himself:
He loves you, He yearns for you, as a bridegroom for His bride.