Sunday, 25 November 2012

Catholic Intransigence, Christ the King, Year B, Shaftesbury


Jn 18:33-37
This week there has been a lot of media coverage of the debate in the Church of England about whether or not to ordain women as bishops.
And, lurking in the background of those discussions, there has been the occasional reference to the Catholic Church –to those awkward intransigent Catholics who refuse to ordain women as priests. And on this, and many other issues, people often accuse the Catholic Church of being inflexible, and failing to move with the times, and so forth.
So, I want to say a few words today about why the Church is not only so inflexible, but why she is CONFIDENTLY inflexible.

Let me start by making a comparison. In the recent debate within the Church of England this week we repeatedly heard their highest-ranking archbishops argue that they must ‘move with the times’; that they need to ‘catch up’ with modern society. I want, respectfully, to say that these are deeply mistaken comments for a Christian to be making. It would be one thing to argue that they should ordain women because it is the RIGHT thing to do, but to argue that they should do so because these are the attitudes in our society is to lose sight of what it means to be a Christian in the first place:

To be a Christian means that we look to Christ. It means that we do not look to modern secular society to tell us what is right and wrong. Rather, it means we look to Christ.
We look to Him because He is the meaning of life, He is the One in whose “image” we were made (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18) , He is the One “through whom ALL things were made” –as we say in the creed echoing Scripture (Jn 1:3, Rom 11:36, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2). We look to Him because He is the Lord God Himself come down from heaven to earth. We look to Him because He said of Himself that He is the “truth”(Jn 14:6), and, as we heard Him say in today’s Gospel, He came to “bear witness to the truth”(Jn 18:33). Today we keep the feast of Christ the King, and He is a king beyond all others, a king who does not need the wisdom of others because He is all Wisdom itself.

Christ’s status is such that he does not change or alter from one age to the next. He is a truth more constant that the truths of mathematics. 2+2=4 yesterday, today, and forever. And, as Scripture says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”(Heb 13:8).
It follows that the way of life He offers us is constant and reliable too: The Eucharist is as truly Him today as it was a century ago and as it will be a century from now. The moral life he taught likewise does not change: re-marriage after divorce was adultery when Christ condemned it as such (Lk 16:18), it is wrong today, and it will always be so. Homosexual behaviour was wrong when the early Judaeo-Christian tradition followed our Lord’s embracing of that tradition, and it remains so today.
And, concerning the ordination of women, contrary to the views of our fellow-Christians in the Church of England, the Catholic Church views the behaviour of Christ as normative on this matter too: yesterday, today, and forever. Christ COULD have chosen women as His first priests (the 12 Apostles) had He so wished –He defied contemporary custom and tradition on many other things. But instead Christ chose only men, unlike the pagan religions that had many priestesses.
[If you wish to read more on this point see our parish website]

And the Catholic Church holds that we do not have the authority to do other than Christ did.
And we hold firm on this, we are intransigent in this, because of what we believe about Christ. That He is the one Lord, the true King, “and all who are on the side of truth listen to [His] voice”(Jn 18:37).
We are not intransigent because we like sticking out, or because we like being awkward, and I don’t preach about this or other things because I think it makes me popular or makes my life easy. The Church stands firm because she wishes to stand with Christ, and recognises Him as the One to stand firm with, “yesterday, today, and forever”(Heb 13:8).

Sunday, 18 November 2012

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury


Mk 13:24-32; Dan 12:1-13
A constant feature of human existence, and of each of us, is that we want our problems to go away. We’re all aware that in some manner we live in a world of suffering, we live in a world of problems, that in different ways we see evil all around us. And though we want it to be over, the evil will not go away easily, not the evil of sin, not the evil of suffering, not any evil. It will only go away when it’s finally vanquished.
If this truth is pretty much clear to us today, and it was even more clear to the Jews living in our Lord’s own time. As well as the general evils of suffering and sin, the Jews of our Lord’s own time had for some centuries been subject to various different military occupations, most recently the Greeks, and then the Romans. They yearned for a time when these enemies would be vanquished. They yearned even more, for a time of the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, about the final vanquishing of evil and suffering.
And yet, they also realised that this vanquishing, this final battle, would be a tough battle for them too. The various prophecies of what are called the “apocalyptic literature” all indicate this.

That was the general background to what we heard Lord Jesus speaking of in today’s gospel. We heard Him speaking about a “time of great distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mk 13:24). This text comes after Jesus had been speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem, and of the sacred Temple itself (Mk 13:1ff). To those who heard Him, the thought of a dramatic cosmic battle involving even the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem, such a prophecy had a general context in which to make sense of it: a time of great distress, followed by the establishment of the reign of God.

This text, however, was only one part of the teaching of the Lord Jesus. And in the light of the other things He said, His disciples saw a twofold prophecy in this text: a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, and a prophecy of a later definitive Second Coming in glory.
The first, namely the destruction of Jerusalem, did indeed occur as Jesus promised, “before this generation has passed away”(Mk 13:30). It occurred in the years 70 A.D. when the Roman army leveled Jerusalem and the Temple itself to the ground. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that it was because the Christians had this prophecy from the Lord Jesus, with His advice that when they see these things happening they should flee to the hills (Mk 13:14), that the Christians did indeed flee to the hills and survived the Roman destruction.
The second prophecy, of His final coming in glory, has yet to be fulfilled. However, the fact that His first prophecy was fulfilled gives us confidence to believe His later one will be too.

It’s not fashionable any more, or at least it used to not be fashionable, to talk about the drama of the End Times. To warn of “wars and rumours of wars” (Mt 24:6), to quote visions and saints who warn of coming chastisements for sin, of signs and wonders before the coming of something else.
And yet, unless we have a conviction that there will be a final playing out of the conflict between evil and good, a final battle were good will be triumphant, unless we are convinced that that WILL happen, then we cannot live as a people with hope that the problems of this world will one day end. And this is why it is ESSENTIAL that we as Christians continue to believe in the Second Coming, continue to look forward to it in hope, even through the destruction, the difficulty, the trauma that will be involved. Because without that final context, there will be no final victory, and WE can have no SHARE in that final victory.

But if there will be a final battle, if there will be a final victory, then the difficulties that we live with, real though they are, will one day be over.
Let me conclude by noting WHO it is that Jesus says will be victorious: Himself. He takes the title from the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament, especially as expressed in the book of Daniel as we heard in our first reading this week and will hear again next week, and He says that He who is, THE “Son of Man”(Dan 7:13 c.f. previous sermon), He will “come on the clouds of heaven” in victory.
A victory to set His people free, to set us free from all that burdens us in this life.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury


Mk 12:41-44
Today England keeps Remembrance Sunday when we remember all those who gave their lives in the wars of the past century. The readings we have at Mass today are those chosen by the universal Church on its three-year cycle and are not intended to correspond to Remembrance Sunday. That said, I would like to make at least one connection between the value of the sacrifice of the widow, and that of lives laid down in war. Because in both cases the value of what is laid down might sometimes seem to be something lost, and yet, the words of Jesus remind us that the true value of something lies in God's eyes and not merely in our own.

The widow, as we just heard in that account, had very little money, very little to offer to the God, just two small coins, "the equivalent of just a penny"(Mk 12:42). In the eyes of most of those who saw her what she gave may have seemed not worth bothering about. This, however, is not what the Lord Jesus said about her offering. He said it was worth more than all the other offerings that had been made, "she has put in more than all the other offerings”(12:43), because she was giving all she had to live on, whereas the others were giving merely out of their abundance.
Now, if we consider what the Lord meant here, He clearly was not saying that her penny would buy more gold for the Temple, or more animals to be sacrificed. No, obviously, at a material level her offering would not be more than the other offerings made. Rather, He was speaking about the true value of these things, namely, the value they have in the sight of God.

For ourselves, it can often happen that we have something to do that seems small and not worthwhile. Maybe we offer someone some help, and they are not appreciative. Or maybe we have to wash a child's socks, and, of course, he never thanks you for it.
Or maybe, in a different way, your deed is small because you are not able to do as much as you would like. Maybe you are not physically strong and fit enough to help as you would like, or as you used to when you were younger, and you can only do something that seems small and hardly worth bothering to do. Or, maybe you'd like to give a big sum of money to help a charity, but you only have a small amount to offer, and it seems like it’s not worth doing.

In these, or many other things we do, the question raised by the Lord's description of the value of the widow's mite, is, WHAT is it that truly gives value to what we do?
We can answer this question in two parts,
First, the value lies in how GOD, the author of all things, the value lies in how HE values them.
Second, we can go further and actually be bold enough to say that we can know HOW and WHY He values things. Namely, He who tells us that He is love itself, He values things by the LOVE with which we do them. St Thomas Aquinas teaches this point at the theological level, in specifying that the level of MERIT that God assigns to our actions varies, and it varies according to how we love.
If I do a great deed, but with little love, then it has little value in God's eyes.
If I do a little deed, but with great love, then it has great value in God's eyes.

What this calls for, in a way of CHANGING our actions, is this: it calls for us to constantly seek to purify and correct our intentions, so that we do the same deeds but with a greater inner attitude of love, offering them in love, offering them to God, doing them for sake of someone else, not for the sake of how they will benefit us. This is something easy to say, but is a great task to make into a habitual practice, a practice that inwards transforms how we do everything, how we do the same deeds that we do anyway

And that, not the outward physical level of our deeds, that, like the small widow's mite that was worth more than all the other Temple offerings, that is what gives value to our deeds and to our lives.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury


Mk 12:28-34
One thing that can be said for almost all of us is that we know someone who has died, probably someone we love. And this is a thought that the Church focuses on in every November. Love tells us that we want to still do something for those who have died –a something that many people in our secular society today seek for in their grief.

We just heard Jesus give the second commandment to "love your neighbour". And love seeks manifest itself in action. There are various works of mercy that are a part of living out this command, but there is one specific act of spiritual mercy that I’d like to focus on, and that is the need to pray for the dead. If our love leads us to want to do something for our deceased loved ones, then we can find in this practice something that’s not only beneficial to them, and rooted in sound doctrine, but is deeply pastoral as a practice for us who remain. It’s one of those practices that makes me very glad to be a Catholic.

We can read in the Bible (2 Macc 12:45) that it was the Jewish practice to offer us sacrifices for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins. This Jewish practice became the early Catholic practice, and it’s rooted in two simple beliefs: That the dead will actually rise again –that there is an eternal focus and destiny to life, a focus so easily lost in our materialistic world. But also, that the prayers of the living can actually help the dead. The prayers of us who live can help each other, after all, that’s why we pray for each other. And it is no different after death. We remain united in Christ, and this union in the communion of saints enables us to pray for each other.

Someone was asking me about Purgatory this week, asking who goes there, and what it’s like, and is it painful. For those of you who don’t know, ‘Purgatory’ is the name of that place where almost everyone goes before they get to heaven –and it’s a very important place, a lot depends upon it. Let me put it this way: heaven is a place of absolute perfection, otherwise it would not be place of absolute happiness, and yet none of us here are perfect, so something must CHANGE before we get into heaven. If we are judged to not be so evil that we are condemned to hell, then we will, nonetheless, still need some serious changes made to ourselves before we get to heaven. After all, if imperfect people were allowed into heaven they would stop it being a perfect and happy place. And if we went there still imperfect our imperfection would stop us enjoying the happiness it brings.
Thus a change is needed, and this is what purgatory is about.

The word ‘Purgatory’ implies being ‘purged’ of sins, of impurities, of imperfections. The traditional image used for this place is fire -because fire purges away impurities. And, there is no point in avoiding admitting that this must be very painful –because all change is difficult. But, the theologians point out that it is a HOPE-filled pain. Someone in Purgatory knows they are going to heaven, so they have hope and joy. Someone in Purgatory wants to be perfect, and so WANTS the painful purging that is involved –they want to be perfect to enjoy heaven, and they want, even more, to be perfect to please almighty God who they love. They want to be free of the residue of their sins.

But, to return to where I began, what does this have to do with us praying for those in Purgatory?
Well, the teaching of the Church, the practice of the Jews before us, and as confirmed by countless visions to many saints, is that this purging action can be assisted by the praying of the living. We can pray:
First, for mercy in the judgment for those who have died;
Second, for consolation and strength to those undergoing to painful, even if joy-filled pain;
Third, our prayers can somehow assist and speed this cleansing process.
And all of this happens because this change, this purgation, is a work of God’s GRACE, and we can implore God that more of it to be poured out.

So, in this month of November, let us remember to pray for the dead, those we have known and loved, and also for those who have no-one else to pray for them –it’s an important way of loving our neighbour.