Sunday, 26 April 2009

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B, Shaftesbury

Lk 24:35-48
I spent last week with my family, and saw a lot of my little nephews. The oldest is 5 years old now, and has discovered the question “why”. The sky is blue, “why?” Flowers come out in spring, “why?”
He has also grasped that I’m a priest. As he put it last week, “Priests know lots of stuff about lots of things, because they have to be able to help people”. Which I think means that the rest of the family must hear some of the tough questions and tell him, “Why don’t you save that question for your Uncle Dylan”.

So, last week, in the midst of me assembling, again, the car racing track, he stopped, and rather seriously said, “Can I ask you a question, Uncle Dylan?” And I thought, what? “Why did Jesus rise from the dead?”
Now, “how” He did this, is a big enough question! And I just about answered that by saying that God can do anything, just as big people can do things that little people can’t do.
But, “why” –that’s an even bigger question, and its the one we find in today’s Gospel.

If you recall what had happened before the event recorded in today’s Gospel, Jesus had appeared to the two men on the road to Emmaus, and He had explained to them “all the passages in the Scriptures that were about Himself”(Lk 24:27).
He now appeared again, and indicated three things:
First, that despite the fact they were seeing someone who had died they should not be afraid: “peace be with you”, He said.
Second, that He was not just a phantom or ghost: He ate food, and had them touch His hands and flesh.
Third, and this is my main point, He gave them the “why”: He explained the Scriptures to them, and said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ SHOULD SUFFER and on the third day rise from the dead, ...”(Lk 24:46-48).

Now, it seems to me, that after the Resurrection the big question facing the disciples was not so much, why did He rise, but, why did he die.
If He truly was the Messiah, if He truly had the power to RISE from the dead, surely He had the power to stop them killing Him.
So, why? Why did he have to suffer and die?

To fulfil the Scriptures, that is why.
While that is a complete answer, it is a very brief summary, and could have a much longer explanation (and we can note that the Gospel text does not offer more than the statement of it). In short, “to fulfil the Scriptures” means that everything we see in an incomplete way in the Old Testament, we see in a COMPLETE and perfect way in Christ: It was all waiting for Him to bring it to completion.
I’d like to refer to one part of the fulfilment of the Scriptures, as indicated in our second reading, namely, that the Christ was “To be the sacrifice that takes our sins away”(1 Jn 2:2) –a fulfilment that the Scriptures looked to in many different ways.

The Old Testament Scriptures taught by command that blood sacrifices must be offered for sin;
As St Paul summed it up, “without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins”(Heb 9:22 cf Ex 24:6-8)
But the Old Testament also said that the sacrifices weren’t good enough;
And there was a continual looking for something better, the promise of a NEW Covenant.
The Old Testament ritual had the blood of the Passover lamb shed, but a better more perfect lamb was needed:
Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (Gen 22:7) echoed at a deeper level down the centuries, until finally, John the Baptist cried, “Behold, There is the lamb” who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:35) [c.f. Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s exegesis]
Christ’s dying thus fulfilled the Scriptures –one example of how He made complete what was incompelte.

So, “why?” Well, my little nephew knows that most answers raise still further questions. And while the answer in today’s Gospel does that too, it is the true answer nonetheless. Why? Because “it was written”. Why? That we might be forgiven. Why? “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations... You are witness to these things”(Lk 24:46-48).

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Divine Mercy Sunday (2nd Sunday of Easter), Shaftesbury

Today is the feast of Divine Mercy, a new-ish feast in the Church. In some ways it might be thought of as an odd feast to have in our modern world, so many people don’t think they NEED mercy any more. Well, this is precisely WHY Church has instituted this feast. As Pope John Paul II said of the modern world, “They need mercy even though they often do not realise it” (Dives in misericordia, n.2).
And, of course, we need to remember that we ourselves are part of this modern phenomenon, we ourselves can so easily live and think as if we didn’t need mercy. There is a dilemma in the heart of modern man that is the same dilemma in each of us: we pretend to ourselves that we are alright alone, that we are strong, but in reality we are not.
And answer to the riddle of this dilemma lies in the relevance of mercy to the Resurrection, which is why the Church has this new feast in Eastertide: forgiveness is not just about the Cross, it lies in the Empty Tomb as well.

Today’s feast has its origin in a series of visions to a Polish nun in the World War Two era, and it was Pope John Paul II’s experiences during that era that produced his encyclical on mercy, Dives in misericordia [Rich in Mercy].
JPII noted that modern man of the Twentieth Century was both incredibly powerful and incredibly vulnerable. In industry, in technology, in war, he was MASTER of the world in a way he had never been before. But in destruction, evil, holocausts, and tyrannies, he was EVEN MORE of need of mercy than he ever was. The era when human rights were most spoken of (at the United Nations) was simultaneously the era when those rights were most oppressed.
And this mixture of power and weakness is still with us in the 21st Century. We have the internet and mobile phones, but we also fear climate change and bird flu.
And, closer to home still, I know that this mixture of power and weakness is in my own heart. I think I am strong, but time and again I find that I am weak.

Not all people accept that they are weak.
One of the most significant claims I hear from unbelievers who I stumble across as a priest is: ‘I don’t need God’, or, ‘I find the thought of an all-powerful God repulsive’.
But this is a hollow claim. As hollow and empty as man is vulnerable under his apparent power.
The emptiness that remedies the emptiness of this claim to self-sufficiency is the emptiness of the Tomb on Easter Sunday morning. That emptiness shows us what God is like, and he is revealed as a God of mercy.

Mercy is a particular gift to those who are in need. It was in the pages of the Old Testament, that God first revealed himself as a God of mercy –who in the Exodus, reached out and rescued his people out of the slavery of Egypt (n.4).
But it is in Christ himself, the very image of the Father, that God is shown as “Rich in mercy”(n.1). When Christ first declared himself to be the messiah, he did so by quoting Isaiah (Lk 4:18-19, n.3) saying that he had come to the poor, the deprived, the blind, the lame, the broken hearted, those suffering injustice, and finally sinners. He used this same way to identify himself as the messiah when John the Baptist (Lk 7:19) asked if he was the one. In his words and in his actions –his care for the sick, the unloved, those rejected - he revealed himself as mercy.

There two events above all else in which Jesus reveals God as mercy. On the Cross, the one who had gone about being merciful to others, allowed himself to be in need of mercy (n.7). By his union with our pain, Christ revealed the Father to be intimately linked with us. Further, On the Cross, his superabundant satisfaction of justice compensated for our sins, and opened up mercy to us.
But the final sign of Christ’s mission of mercy was only seen when he ROSE from the dead. In the Resurrection of the one who was weak and crucified, we see the ultimate proof of the Father’s mercy on a world that is subject to evil (n.8) –a love more powerful that death.
And so, the point is: Believing in the Resurrection is about believing in the victory of mercy (n.7). God is not just love: he is love-in-action, i.e. mercy.

In his vision to Sr. Faustina, Jesus called for this feast to be a sign of his mercy in an age that is forgetting its need of mercy. If we will turn to him to this day, this mercy is what the Risen Christ wishes to bestow on us.

Introduction to the Mass: Divine Mercy Sunday
Today, the Second Sunday of Easter, is "Divine Mercy Sunday". This new feast was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000. Like many of the feast days of the Church it draws its inspiration from a visions given to a saint. The feast of the Sacred Heart and the feast of Corpus Christi were both based on apparations of their own era. Similarly, the feast of the Divine Mercy has its origin in a series of visions given by Our Lord to a saint in the 20th Century, a nun called St. Faustina, who had visions during the Second World War in Poland. The image of the Divine Mercy that we have in our church is a copy of the image that was given to Sr. Faustina as a way to make God’s mercy known to our generation, and it has particular relevance for our focus on the Easter mystery.

In a decree dated 23th May 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Disciple of the Sacraments stated: “Throughout the world, the Second Sunday of Easter will receive the name Divine Mercy Sunday, a perennial invitation to the Christian world to face, with confidence in divine benevolence, the difficulties and trials that mankind will experience in the years to come,"

“Humanity will not find peace until it turns trustingly to divine mercy” Pope John Paul II, said quoting Jesus’s words to St. Faustina. “Above all, this consoling message is addressed to those who, afflicted by a particularly difficult trial or crushed by the weight of sins committed, have lost faith in life and are tempted to give in to despair… How many souls have been consoled by the invocation … “Jesus, I trust in You”

After Mass today leaflets of the Divine Mercy chaplet will be available: in addition to showing St. Faustina the image of Himself, He also gave her this prayer to encourage others to say in order to know His mercy.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Easter Sunday, Shaftesbury

We gather here today because of an event that happened 2000 years ago: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
As a historical event, His Resurrection is important to us because it proved everything he ever said or claimed: He said He was God, he said he had the power to lay down His life and take it up again, He would rise from the dead, and He did.
But His Resurrection is also vitally important for us because it shows us what His Resurrected body was like, and thus what our bodies will be like if we are fit to join Him in Heaven. And in order to illustrate that I want to point out what His body was like and what it was NOT like -because the events recorded in the gospels show this for us.

Now, there is a certain fashionable notion that Jesus’s resurrection was just ‘spiritual’. This was behind all the talk in the 1980s of the Anglican Bishop of Durham denying the PHYSICAL reality of Christ’s Resurrection. Such people mock the idea that He was a ‘resuscitated corpse‘. But, in fact, this has never been what Christian believed.
Let me make a comparison with Lazarus: Lazarus was raised by Jesus, from true death back to true life. But he was raised with a normal body like you or me, he grew old, and eventually he died again.
The Lord Jesus, however, when He rose from the dead, was also raised from true death to true life, but to a new BETTER body. The kind of body we’ll have in Heaven.
Think of some of the powers that Jesus’s resurrected body had: He no longer bled or suffered, so that He could show His wounds to Thomas, the holes in His hands and His feet, but He no longer bled or had pain; He could pass through walls, as when He suddenly entered the locked Upper Room where they were; He could instantaneously travel immense physical distances, as when He moved from being with the two men on the road to Emmaus to appear to Simon Peter(Lk 24:33-34). These are not things that a normal body can do.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that the Resurrected body of Jesus was just a phantom, just a ghost.
One way we can say that He wasn’t just a ghost is to point out that the tomb was Empty –the ‘old’ body was gone because it had been transformed, re-made, into the new resurrected body. When people talk about what they call ‘ghosts’ appearing, no-one claims that the body is gone -such fantasies are said to be pure spirit. Whereas, the Apostles were very emphatic about the Empty Tomb, and this shows us that they didn’t think the Resurrection was just a ‘spiritual’ thing - they didn’t think Jesus was just some kind of ghost.
And, we know He wasn‘t just a ghost because He did things that ghosts are not supposed to be able to do: He ate, and drank (Lk 24:43); He told His apostles to touch Him and put their fingers in the holes in His hands, and feet, and side.

So, my point is: Jesus’s resurrected body was a material thing, BUT, it is not the same type of body you and I now have. This is important to us because it shows us that the heavenly bodies we will rise with (if we rise to glory) will also be transformed and glorified. Our bodies will be TRUE bodies, truly material, but they will also be transformed and ‘improved’, glorified, without the limitations and sufferings that we know in this life. And this is an important point for us to grasp in thinking about the Lord’s Resurrection.

It is also important, as we recall this Easter Day, because the PHYSICAL nature of Christ’s resurrection, with His new powers and yet still physical manifestations, shows us that the Resurrection of Jesus was a real DEFINITE thing, not just some vague ‘spiritual’ reality. It was definite and physical, an event in time and space, an event that left the Tomb empty, and an event worthy in putting our faith in today.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Easter Vigil, Saturday night, Shaftesbury

One of the distinguishing features of tonight’s liturgy is the Easter Candle.
Last year, I spoke about the symbolism of light in the midst of darkness.
This year, I want to speak about an equally important part of the symbolism, but one that happens so briefly that it is easily missed: The grains of incense inserted into the candle .

Outside, as the Paschal Candle was lit from the Easter Fire, fire grains of incense were inserted into five hole in the candle, five holes for the five wounds in Our Lord’s body (His two hands, His two feet, and His side), and these holes are arranged in the shape of a cross. All year long these five grains for the five wounds remains there, encased in gold metal studs, connecting the symbolism of the wounds to the symbolism of the candle. But most of us probably give little thought to their significance.

The symbolism starts with incense: that thing which is offered up to God, as fragrant smoke rising to Heaven. There is grain of incense for each wound to remind us that the wounds were not random events but sacrifices freely embraced to be offered on our behalf.
And the wounds are connected to candle to remind us that just as light triumphed over darkness, He triumphed over the wounds that killed Him.

But the particular point to note is that it is the WOUNDS that are highlighted.
Wounds are not normally seen as a good thing,
normally, wounds and sickness are something we keep private, even hide,
often, wounds are a thing of embarrassment.
But, what was it that Jesus proudly showed Thomas and the other Apostles after His Resurrection? His wounds.
It was as if He was saying: “This is what I have overcome”,
“This is what I am more powerful than”
Even, “This is what I have done FOR YOU, for love of you”

The light of the Easter Candle, better called the ‘Paschal’ Candle, because that name refers to the WHOLE event of his death and resurrection,
The light of that candle is not just a small light in darkness, but was we symbolism in the spreading of the light to many other lights filling the church, that light overcomes darkness.
Just as, the Victim, adorned with the sign of the 5 things He has been victorious over is signified on the side of the candle.
The wounds are no longer a thing of defeat and darkness, but a thing of light and victory.

Finally, I want to repeat the words that are said as the grains of incense are inserted: “By His holy, and glorious wounds, may Christ our Lord, guard us, and keep us. Amen.”
The wounds are called “holy” and “glorious” because of His triumph.
But they are also called things to “guard” and “keep” us. If you recall the hymn Soul of my Saviour, we sing the words, “Deep in Thy wounds Lord, hide and shelter me”.
We shelter in things that are secure and strong. Normal wounds are not this at all, they are a sign of weakness.
The wounds of Jesus, however, are strong, are the things He proudly points to after His Resurrection, are the things that in visions He points out to saints, such as in the Sacred Heart apparitions –they are strong because of His victory.
So that, in our weakness, in our own wounds, we can hide in His wounds, and draw His strength. A strength whose victory is proclaimed in the shape of a cross of five wounds on the side of this candle.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Good Friday, Shaftesbury

I’ve always had, from my youngest days, a strong knowledge of the compassion of our Saviour. I was raised on the Sacred Heart devotion, I knew that the sign he chose to reveal of his inner life, was to show his heart –a heart on fire with love & compassion for me.

What has taken me much longer to realise is my NEED for compassion –namely my SIN, and need to be forgiven for it.
When we look at the Cross we see something truly awful, and something must have been horrendously wrong with our world to lead God to allow this to happen to him.
And that horrendously awful thing is sin, my sin, and your sin.

At the Last Supper, the apostles sat around the table of the Last Supper wondering who it was who would betray Jesus. Jesus had said one of them would betray him, and they all denied it. We know of course that Judas betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver –but he was not the only one. As we just heard, Peter betrayed him by denying him three times. The others betrayed him by running away from him –abandoning him in the Garden.

But the points we need to remember, today, is that there is not one person here who has not betrayed him too. I have betrayed him, and you have betrayed him, by our sin. Sin is a rejection of all that God has given us –and he’s given us everything, there is nothing good that we have that does not come from him. And we re-pay him by sinning -in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.

Our betrayal of him in sin leaves us standing in need of his forgiveness, and it was to bring us forgiveness that he went to the Cross. The Cross was the rejection of God, and my daily sin is a daily rejection of God. He allowed that rejection to reach its ultimate conclusion in the Cross, so that the Cross could be the means of our forgiveness. As we heard in that prophecy of Isaiah, “OURS were the sufferings he bore, OURS the sorrows he carried… on HIM lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed”(Isa 53:4-5).

When we look at the Cross and see what we have done to him, when we see that we have betrayed him, there are two choices that lie before us: the choice of Judas, or the choice of Peter.
Judas despaired, he refused to face up to what he had done, and he went out and hung himself – and we can do the same in our self-pity over our sins.

Peter took another option. He went out and wept bitterly, wept over his sins, as we too should weep over our sins. But he did not despair. He repented of his sins, and returned to the Lord –and the Lord received him back. And the Lord did more than receive him back –he placed him as head of his flock, as the prince of the apostles, as the first Pope.

The Lord died because he wants to receive each of us back. And he wants to give each of us a new redeemed glory that is better than anything we had before.

When I look at the Cross I see that God loves me –but I see more than this: I see a particular manifestation of love, and that is mercy. A mercy that forgives me. A mercy that has embraced the full horror of my rejection of him, and has overcome that rejection by his Resurrection. A triumph that offers me the grace to rise above my sins.

What I need is not the pride and despair of Judas, but the humility and repentance of Peter. A humility that accepts what I have done, but also accepts the mercy of the saviour who let me do it, and who let me do it so that he might show me the power of true forgiveness.

And there is not one person here who has not betrayed him too. I have betrayed him, and you have betrayed him, by our sin. Sin is a rejection of all that God has given us –and he’s given us everything, there is nothing good that we have that does not come from him. And we re-pay him by sinning -in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.

Our betrayal of him in sin leaves us standing in need of his forgiveness, and it was to bring us forgiveness that he went to the Cross. The Cross was the rejection of God, and my daily sin is a daily rejection of God. He allowed that rejection to reach its ultimate conclusion in the Cross, so that the Cross could be the means of our forgiveness. As we heard in that prophecy of Isaiah, “OURS were the sufferings he bore, OURS the sorrows he carried… on HIM lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed”(Isa 53:4-5).

When we look at the Cross and see what we have done to him, when we see that we have betrayed him, there are two choices that lie before us: the choice of Judas, or the choice of Peter.
Judas despaired, he refused to face up to what he had done, and he went out and hung himself – and we can do the same in our self-pity over our sins.

Peter took another option. He went out and wept bitterly, wept over his sins, as we too should weep over our sins. But he did not despair. He repented of his sins, and returned to the Lord –and the Lord received him back. And the Lord did more than receive him back –he placed him as head of his flock, as the prince of the apostles, as the first Pope.

The Lord died because he wants to receive each of us back. And he wants to give each of us a new redeemed glory that is better than anything we had before.

When I look at the Cross I see that God loves me –but I see more than this: I see a particular manifestation of love, and that is mercy. A mercy that forgives me. A mercy that has embraced the full horror of my rejection of him, and has overcome that rejection by his Resurrection. A triumph that offers me the grace to rise above my sins.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Palm Sunday, Year B

St Mark’s account, that we have just heard, is the most minimal of the 4 Gospel accounts, it gives little commentary. Yet, the meaning of the events is clear enough.

St Mark records the very dramatic words Jesus that spoke from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The man who had calmly predicted His death, three times (as St Mark records), and said that His death was to be “a ransom for many”(Mk 10:45),
The man who had foreseen His death when He referred to the woman who anointed Him as having anointed Him for His burial,
This same man, who had claimed to not just be a man but to be God,
This same man, when He was not just talking about His death but was Himself about to die,
This same man uttered what might seem like words of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I know that many people have heard these words read, and thought that Jesus despaired on the Cross, but this isn’t so.
It’s true that Jesus embraced ALL our suffering on the Cross, it’s true that He who was and is God allowed Himself to enter into the depths of our darkest emotions so that He could cry out as many of us do in darkness, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

But to understand these words, we need to hear them as a First Century Jew would have heard them, we need to imagine them uttered as a First Century Jew would utter them.
It was common practice to utter the first words of a Psalm of the Bible when referring to the whole of the Psalm, just as if a Catholic was to say “Our Father” or “Hail Mary” we would expect them to be referring to the whole prayer.

These words that Jesus spoke were not just any words, they were the first words of Psalm 22, so to understand what Jesus meant and felt saying them we need to know the rest of the psalm.

This psalm was first said as a unknown martyr’s prayer, but it alludes also to things that Jesus was witnessing in front of His very eyes:
“They divide my clothing among them,
They cast lots for my robe”(Ps 22:18-19)
Which is what Jesus saw the Roman soldiers do to his own garments.
The psalm says, “all who see me jeer at me”(22:7), the soldiers, the high priests, and even the thief on His left did.
The psalm even says that they mock Him for His trust in God: “he relied on the Lord, let the Lord save him, if he is his friend”(22:8), which is also what the crowds said.

But, most importantly, the psalm is a prayer of trust in God, and of praise of His greatness.
“in you our fathers put their trust, they trusted and you rescued them”(22:4), “I shall proclaim your name to my brethren, praise you in the full assembly”(22:22).

These words of the Lord Jesus are His final interpretative words on all that is happening to Him. He said that this would happen, it was horrible to endure, but it had a purpose, to be a “ransom for many”(Mk 10:45).
His final words that declare that He knows what He is about, and He knows what His heavenly father is about. He is suffering, He is dying, but this will not be the end.