Sunday, 30 January 2011

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury


Mt 5:1-12
If someone was to say to you, "You're a Christian, How does Jesus tell me I should live?"
That would obviously be a big question. Many of us might wonder where we would begin to answer it. I imagine that most of us would start by saying, "Jesus said that you must love God and love your neighbour". However, the point I want to make to you today, is that this is NOT what Jesus said -this is not how Jesus started His explanation of how we should live.

We just heard in today's gospel text how Jesus started His great moral discourse: The great Sermon on the Mount. Over the past few weeks our gospel readings have been telling us how Jesus began His ministry; today our gospel gave us the beginning of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount –the long moral discourse He gave near the start of His ministry; and over the next few weeks we are going to hear some of the details of that moral discourse, of that description of how we are to live.
But my point to you today is that Jesus started His moral discourse by addressing the question of happiness: How and where do we find happiness?
And Jesus did this because for two reasons :
First, He wants us to be happy;
Second, He knows that people are easily mistaken about WHAT happiness is and about HOW happiness is found -that was true 2000 years ago and it is true today.

When Jesus first said those words I just read out, namely the Beatitudes, the people who first heard Him must have been as puzzled as many of us today, because the people that Jesus calls "happy" would seem to include people that are not “happy” in a worldly way at all: those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst, those who persecuted.
The answer to this difficulty lies in the question of what true happiness is. True happiness, "blessedness", consists in sharing the very life of God, seeking God and becoming what St Peter called “partakers in the divine nature”(2 Pet 1:4). This is the glorious end that we are called to, and it is in as much as we possess this that we possess happiness.
This is the happiness we are called to in this life, and in its fullness in the life to come.

Of course, many people seek happiness in very different things: money, comfort, alcohol, and so forth. But none of these things, not even when taken together, none of these things is worthy of us. Only God is worthy of being the end and goal of human life. Only friendship with God is something that can satisfy us. Only friendship with God, the divine lover, can bring a joy to the soul that is more enduring, more profound, and more satisfying than the joy of any earthly lover.

And how does this come back to the Beatitudes? The Beatitudes not only address the question of happiness but they also point out how we should live: they commend to us humility, gentleness, purity of heart. But the way that they point us to live has an even deeper dimension: they point us to live in union with Christ, to live as Christ lived. As Pope Benedict has put it,
“In truth, the blessed par excellence is only Jesus. He is, in fact, the true poor in spirit, the one afflicted, the meek one, the one hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker. He is the one persecuted for the sake of justice. The Beatitudes show us the spiritual features of Jesus and thus express his mystery, the mystery of his death and Resurrection, of his passion and of the joy of his Resurrection. This mystery, which is the mystery of true blessedness, invites us to follow Jesus and thus to walk toward it.” (Pope Benedict, Homily for All Saints, 1st Nov 2006)

So, to come back to the opening question: How did Jesus start His explanation of how we should live?
He started it by addressing the universal desire for happiness. And He taught that that happiness is to be found in values that turn the world on its head. He taught that happiness is to be found in Him alone.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

On Unity and the Mass, 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Shaftesbury


Today we are halfway through the week of prayer for Christian Unity, and in our second reading we just heard that famous appeal for unity that was made by St Paul (1 Cor 1:10-13.17). And I would like to say a few words today about a couple things that non-Catholic Christians take issue with in our Catholic practice, 2 inter-related things: the centrality of the Mass, and our refusal to practice inter-communion with non-Catholics. Both of these things concern the vision of unity that Catholics aspire to. And while it might seem somewhat pointed to refer to what divides us while we are praying for unity nonetheless we can only aspire to TRUE unity if we face the truth, including the truths that divide us -and these are the truths that people see and question precisely on a day like today.

Concerning the first point, the centrality of the Mass, while we are gathered here today for Mass, all the other Christians in Shaftesbury have cancelled the services they normally have in their own churches and are meeting together for a united service. Many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, take umbrage with the fact that we Catholics won’t cancel Mass and join them -and I want to articulate at least part of the reason why this is the case. While the reason has many levels profundity to it, it is not a complicated reason:

We Catholics celebrate Mass each and every Sunday, we Catholics hold that each and every Catholic is morally obliged to attend Mass each and every Sunday, because we hold that the Mass is not just one prayer among many but is rather THE defining prayer for Christians, THE prayer that we should offer the Lord to observe the 3rd Commandment and keep the Lord’s Day holy. It was this prayer about which Jesus said, “Do THIS in memory of me”(Lk 22:19). It was this prayer that the early Christians, from the very beginning of the Church, gathered to celebrate every week. And it is a simple historical fact that it was the unanimous and continual practice of all Christians from the beginning of the Church right up until the Protestant Reformation to gather to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday.

Now, at the Protestant Reformation those who became Protestant claimed that the Christians who had gone before them, i.e. the Catholics, had got it wrong. Classical Protestantism denied that the sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ [denied this is the sense that they no longer understood either the nature of the sacraments, the number of them, or the significance and meaning of their institution in the manner that Catholics did and do acknowledge them], denied that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of the Lord, and similarly most Protestants denied that the Eucharist needs to be THE prayer that Christians celebrated every Sunday. So, it is hardly surprising that so many non-Catholic Christians today should be happy to cancel their normal Sunday service and meet together to celebrate something that is not the Eucharist. But, for them to expect us to join them would be, in effect, for them to expect us to become Protestant -and I think very few of them realise that that is what is implicit in their call for us to cancel Sunday Mass.

But, more briefly, there is a second point that non-Catholic Christians take umbrage with: Why is it that Catholics will not allow non-Catholics to receive Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass, and why is it that Catholics will not receive Communion at a non-Catholic Eucharistic service? In brief, the reason for this is that receiving Communion implies being in communion, being in unity, being in that unity that St Paul spoke about in our second reading: United in "belief and practice"(1 Cor 1:10). Sadly, Christians today are not united in belief and practice. Concerning the Mass itself, Catholics recognise the truth of what Jesus said about the Eucharist, namely that it is His Body and His Blood, while most non-Catholics say that this is just symbolic. And how could it make sense to share in Communion if we do not share a common faith in what Communion is? Further, even among those who recognise the truth of the Real Presence, sharing Holy Communion needs to also involve sharing the common life of the Church in the sense of recognising the common authority that holds that community in being, namely the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. To seek to be in communion with Christ but not be in communion with the Church that is His body would bring a contradiction into receiving Holy Communion. That, briefly summarised, is why Catholics don't practice inter-communion with non-Catholic Christians.

To come back to where I began, all of this may seem odd to talk about and we are praying for unity. And yet it is precisely when we remember to pray for unity that we remember what it is that divides us. And, as Catholics we have to say that these things are not small differences but very big ones, ones that go to the heart of the question of what true unity, true communion is about: true communion brings us to the Mass, flows from the Mass, and has to involve a shared belief in what the Mass is about.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Baptism of the Lord, Year A, Shaftesbury


Mt 3:13-17
I’d like to share with you something I saw my little niece do, something that illustrated to me a point about identity –because today’s feast reminds us that our identity is revealed in baptism.

For Christmas I got my two little nephews costumes to wear: a Batman costume for one, and Darth Vader costume for the other, both kitted out from head to toe complete with masks and flowing capes. And they were a big hit! My niece is only two years old, and she didn't get a costume, but she observed the behaviour of her brothers quite closely, and when the opportunity arose she would grab bits of the costume to wear herself. However, she hadn't quite grasped the significance of the different costumes, and so we were treated to the sight of a child in a Batman mask repeatedly making the sinister heavy breathing noises appropriate for the Darth Vader character in the Darth Vader mask. She had failed to grasp the significance of the identity she was clothing herself in –and this is the point I’d like to relate to today’s feast.

One of the mistakes we can make as Christians is to fail to accurately realise what is involved in the identity we have taken on as a Christian.
One of the things that today's feast of the Baptism of the Lord reminds us is that it was at His baptism that He was first PUBLICALLY identified, reveals to the world for His public ministry. He had no need of baptism for Himself, as we heard Him and John the Baptist discussing, and yet to fulfil "all righteousness", He chose to be baptised, and when He did so the voice of the heavenly Father publicly declared, identified, who He was: “This is my Son, the Beloved”.
There are many things that are important about Jesus Christ, there are many things that are part of His identity, but there is nothing that is as central to his identity as His one-ness with the divinity, as His being THE Son of God.
He is a descendent of David, He is a Jew, He was a carpenter, but while these and other things were important, none of these or other things compares to the significance of His one-ness with the divinity, of His being THE Son of God.

Most of us here have been baptised, and in our baptism we have died and risen in Christ (Rom 6:4), in our baptism we have gone down into the water, down into the tomb, and arisen to a new life and a new identity: by baptism we have become “sons in the Son”, by union with Christ we have become adopted children of the Father.
So, of the many things that identify me, none are as important as this relationship I have with the Father due to my union with Christ in baptism.
I was born in England, the son of two teachers, I have blue eyes and light brown hair, but none of these things are what give me my REAL identity: I am a son of God, a son in the Son.

And yet, what are the things that we define ourselves by? All too often we define ourselves by things that are ultimately of little significance: our appearance, our talents, our job, our money, our schooling, or some such thing.
But what TRULY defines my identity is my relationship with God.
All humanity relates to God as “Lord”, either accepting His Lordship or rejecting it.
But it is only those who have been adopted, become “sons in the Son” in baptism, that have this as our identity.
And if this is our identity then it should pattern our behaviour, direct our hopes and longings: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.”(Col 3:1).

To come back to my little niece. She didn’t know whether she was taking on Batman’s identity or Darth Vader’s. If we know more than a 2 year old, then we need to recall the identity we have taken on. We are “sons in the Son”.