Sunday, 27 November 2011

1st Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

If you've been following the news, and in particular if you are a follower of science, you will probably noticed a big controversy recently. Supposedly, scientists have sent a little particle called a neutrino travelling at faster than the speed of light, which is something that Einstein and his theory of relativity said wasn't possible.

I've heard it said that there are only three people in the world who understand the theory of relativity, I’m not one of the three, so please don't expect me to explain it to you today! However, I do want to offer you a reflection on the question of time, particularly as it relates to Advent. The theory of relativity, if I remember it correctly, states that every measurement of time is relative, depending on the position of the observer, and in particular depending on the velocity an observer is moving at relative to another observer. Philosophically, this raises the question of whether there is really such a thing as universal time at all, and philosophers have tied themselves in knots about this ever since Einstein.

What, however, does this have to do with you and me, and Advent?
Advent is a season of the Church's year, more than any other time of the year, when we think about TIME: we think about the past and the future and how they affect us in the present. We think about how, in the past, there was a preparation for the first coming of Jesus in His birth. We think about the future, about how Christ will come the second time in glory, as we heard Him referring to in our gospel passage today (Mk 13:33-37). And, we think about how this affects the present, in how we need to make Christ present here today.

Many philosophers have remarked about how Christianity, more than any other religion, has a linear notion of time, of there being the connection between the past and the future, of there being a direction, a linear direction, a goal to which all of creation is heading, namely, the time of the Second Coming of Christ, what we heard St Paul refer to as "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ"(I Cor 1:9).

If what Christ claims is true, namely, that the cosmos was created through Him, that it was created in order that He might enter it, that His first coming was prepared for in a particular way in the events of the Old Testament, and, that all of creation awaits with eager longing for His Second Coming in glory. If this is true, then the point with respect to which all time is relative is Christ.
So, what gives meaning to my life in the present, what gives meaning to my experience of time today, is my relationship to Christ. In particular, my relationship to how His first coming is being made effective in my life, effective in my life in my reception in His sacraments, effective in my life in my living Divine charity, effective in my life in such a way that my life is a preparation for my being ready for His Second Coming. How I live in relationship to the past and the future gives meaning to my today.

Let me explain this with a simple illustration. Many children are already counting the days until Christmas. Many of these children are yearning not so much Christ but for the presents under the tree. The whole of December can be a state of longing for those Christmas presents. But there are two ways that a child can be excited about Christmas presents. There is a type of OVER-excitement that are so focused on Christmas that they fail to enjoy today, and that obviously would be a loss. But there can be another type of excitement where the anticipation of Christmas brings a whole season of joy and expectation that gives greater meaning to the days preparing for Christmas. That manner, of expectation of the future changing how we live in the present, is exactly how we are supposed to make the Second Coming change how we adults live our present every day.

To come back to where I began: I don't know whether a neutrino really has travelled faster than the speed of light, I don't know whether Einstein's theory of relativity has been disproven. But even if all time is relative at the subatomic level, at the cosmic level there is such a thing as a universal measure of time, because there is one event that all time is measured in relation to, and that event is the coming of Christ. And it is the preparation of that event that this season of Advent aims to bring about.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Christ the King, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 25:31-46
I want to say a few words today about something important, something the importance of which I was reminded of just this week, namely, the fact that it is not you or I who decides what is right or wrong but God. And it is because of that that He is the one who will judge us.
At the end of time, as we heard in that gospel passage, the Son of Man will return in glory, escorted by the Angels, sit upon His throne, and He will judge the nations and judge us before Him.

Now, being judged is not a very modern egalitarian image of Christ to have. If we approach this from the contemporary perspective we might well expect somebody to say words to the effect of fifth, "What right does He have to judge us?" What right does He have to tell us what we should do? What right does He have to tell us what we should have done? As the popular phrase goes, "You're not the boss of me. No one is the boss of me. I'm the boss of me."
I was thinking about this in particular this week when I gave a talk to a group of people, a talk about knowing the difference between right and wrong, and it soon became clear that most of them thought that it was entirely up to them to decide what was right and what was wrong. The thought that God had already established but was right or wrong hadn't really occurred to them.

The Lord Jesus will judge us according to our behaviour, according to whether we have done right or whether we have done wrong. He will judge us according to what HE says is right or wrong, and His claim to have the right to do this is that it is HIS world that we live in. God has created this world, made it according to His Wisdom and plan, and the fulfilment of everything in this world, including you and me, the fulfilment of every action depends on being in accordance with His Wisdom. If I say that something is "right" when in fact it is contrary to His Wisdom, contrary to what He says, then I'm wrong.
And, He hasn't made it difficult for us to know what is right or wrong, He has given us the gift of reason to discern His Will, in addition, when He came down from heaven to earth He gave us His example to show us what is right and wrong, and He also gave us His teaching to show us those same truths.
So, to consider the example that this gospel passage focused on, namely, care for those in need, the hungry, the thirsty, etc. Reason alone can deduce that my needy neighbour is made in the same image as I am and has a claim to be treated as I wish to be treated myself. The example of Jesus shows us that He cared most especially for those who are most in need. And His teaching told us that we must do the same.

The Lord Jesus has made it clear to us what we must do, how we must live, what is right and what is wrong. But let me make this further point, He has told us how we must live not so much for His benefit as for ours. It is for our good, our purpose, our fulfilment, that we live according to His Wisdom, according to what He says is right or wrong.
And His judgement at the end of time will simply manifest and proclaim what we have made ourselves to be by our own actions, by our own doing or not doing what is truly right or wrong. If we have been selfish and not caring then His judgement will manifest that this is the kind of person we have become. Conversely, if we have been loving and caring, and have fulfilled ourselves in His image, by His grace, then His judgement will manifest that that is what we have become.
And for some of us this manifestation will come as a surprise: the human capacity for self deceit and pride, to lie to ourselves about what we truly are, perhaps even to give to poor but with bad motives, means that we cannot presume to know how we will be judged. It is His world, He made it, and He will judge it and us within it.

There are those who say there is no God, that there is no one who has established the world, that there is no purpose to life other than what we make of it, that there is no one who has established what is right and wrong, that there is no King who will come to judge. While today's feast of Christ the King, and the portrait of Christ is judge in today's gospel, is one with stern consequences, is also one to give thanks for, because His role as King and judge is what gives solidity, purpose and direction to our lives and the lives of all humanity, if we will but turn to Him.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 25:14-30
We just heard the parable of "the talents". Its message is very simple: that we must use the gifts that God has given us, and use them well.

Let me start with a comparison: I've been thinking a lot about the martyrs of ancient Rome recently. As most of you know a group of 20 of us recently went to Rome on our parish youth pilgrimage, and we saw many of the sites of ancient Rome, and chief among them for a Christian are the sites where the early Christians were martyred, put to death: the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, and so forth. Each of those martyrs sacrificed the greatest "talent" that they'd been given by God, namely, their very lives. They chose to be martyred rather than deny Christ. Many of those martyrs were martyred at a very young tender age, an age when what they were sacrificing would have seemed it all the more poignant –they had not lived long enough to use their lives for anything in particular.
And yet, the point I want draw your attention to is that the early church CELEBRATED their deaths, celebrated their martyrdoms, rejoiced that they had put their lives to this use. They had taken their lives, that “talent”, and laid it down in martyrdom.

Human existence is full of examples of people who manifested the truth that often the greatest use we can make of our life is to lay down in sacrifice for someone else. Today, being Remembrance Sunday, is a day when we recall in a particular way those who have lost their lives in warfare, and those who have lost their lives in many DIFFERENT ways in warfare. Most typically, we recall those who died bravely sacrificing themselves for others. Those who took the "talent" of life and used it to the full.
But we also recall those who had the “talent” of life taken from them in violence.
And both such types of death call on us who live to use our lives well, to use our talents well, to not waste them, to not fritter them away by doing nothing in particular.

Today’s gospel parable of the “talents” is given to us by the church for this Sunday on a cycle that is quite independent of the fact we keep Remembrance Sunday in England today. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this is a fitting connection.

We all have talents, and yet we all know it is easy to waste our talents. We can tell ourselves, like the man in the parable who had only one talent not 10, we can tell ourselves that our talents are not enough to be worth using. And yet, the very obvious point that the Lord is making to us is that it does not matter how GREAT our talents are, what matters is how FULLY we use them –not least because it is for this that will be rewarded in the next life.
Today's parable gives us a rather frightening motivation to use even our small talents -the fact that will be held accountable for how we use or fail to use them. But we would do well to remember also the lesson of the widow’s might, of the woman that Jesus praised for being more generous than others even though all she had to give were her last few coins.

As we recall today on Remembrance Sunday the great loss of life in warfare, let us ask ourselves how well we are using our talents, how much we are laying them down in service to others, whether we are living our lives as worthy of being offered to God as "a living sacrifice"(Rom 12:1).

Sunday, 6 November 2011

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

1 Thess 4:13-18
This time last week I was still in [or only just returned from] ‘the Eternal City’ of Rome, with our parish youth pilgrimage. While we were there we saw many things, and one of the important things we saw was the ancient catacombs, and I want to say a few words to you about them, for 2 reasons. First, we’re now in the month of November, the month the Church calls us on us to remember the dead, and second, as an example of what we heard St Paul refer to in our second reading, of how to mourn those we have lost, but mourn them with hope and faith, not mourn them with the lack of hope that characterises those without faith.

Back to the catacombs. For those of you who don’t know, the Roman catacombs are the ancient long tunnels in which people were buried. The tunnels are very long: we visited those of St Callistus which consists of 12 miles of tunnels, with half a million graves, each consisting of a niche in the wall, originally covered with marble slabs. Some of these graves were in rooms with elaborate frescos painting religious images conveying their Christian faith in the resurrection. More than this, however, the catacombs were also places where the Christians went to pray –to pray for those who had died, to offer Mass for them. A good number of the ancient martyrs, like St Callistus himself, were actually captured while at Mass in the catacombs, at prayer, and we had the privilege of similarly offering Mass down there.

The point I want to make is this: these elaborate efforts made surrounding death reflected what they believed, and reflected their hope for those who had died.
Most of the pagan Romans did not bury their dead –they cremated them, their ashes scattering as symbol of their dissolution into nothingness in death. For the pagans who did believe in life after death, they typically believed it to be a place of shades, shadows and darkness, a lesser place than this world –most certainly not a place of hope, most certainly not a place you want to go to
In contrast, though the Christian catacombs are dark tunnels they nonetheless proclaimed a confident faith in a place of light and victory beyond death.

It is worth thinking for a moment about our own attitudes to death. Is it something we view with fear of the unknown? Is it something we view with superstition, so that we would be afraid to walk through a cemetery at night? –such attitudes were said to characterise the pagan Romans, unlike the Christian Romans who did not fear to go down into the catacombs.
For ourselves, in as much as we have a definite faith in what death involves, it should not be something of superstition. Whereas, in as much as our faith is vague, then death will be a matter of superstition for us too.

A key part of keeping our faith definite is by making our PRACTICE definite, and in this I would return again to the witness of the Early Christians praying for the dead. To add a personal note, one of the things for which I am very grateful is that my mother and grandparents instilled in me a regular practice of praying for those who had died. I would mentally name and pray for them at Mass, deceased neighbours, deceased family. And this practice gave me a clear sense that I was still united with these people, that my prayers helped these people: helped them by imploring mercy in the Judgement, and helped them by both strengthening them in the midst of their purifications in Purgatory and by helping speed them through those purifications to Heaven. And that definite practice of praying for the dead helped form my faith in what death is about.
And, to come back to those words of St Paul, about grieving with hope, and not “like those other people who have no hope”. Of course we grieve when loved ones die, we grieve because we have been physically separated from them, at least for a time. But to grieve with hope is very different to grieving without hope –and it is hope that we are called to.

So, to return to what those catacombs teach us. They teach us respect for the bodies of those who have died, because we believe that they will rise again to the resurrection of the body. They teach us to pray for those who have died, to aid them on their way. And they teach us about that destination we hold in view –a place of light and refreshment, the light of faith even amidst the dark tunnels of the catacombs.