Sunday, 24 February 2013
I've just come back from a little half-term break in Rome. I was supposed to be on a conference this week, it was cancelled, so I suggested to a priest friend of mine that we take the opportunity to go and stay at his friend's flat in Rome, just across the road from the Vatican. So off we went!
And as I was heading off I was struck by how excited and RELIEVED I was to going for a break, and was a little surprised to real just how much I clearly needed a break! And it struck me as a bit of a shame that I hadn't been looking FORWARD to it more. Because we all need things to look forward to in life. Having something to look forward to isn't just about enjoying the thing when it happens, but rather, when we look forward to something good I actually changes our experience of the present: It makes the present difficulties become more bearable.
The saints of the Church talk about this in terms of the passion and the virtue of 'hope' (St Thomas, ST I-II q40 a1; II-II q17). We can have natural hope about natural goods that we look forward to. And having our will set upon them, as I said, changes our experience of the present. But, the most important good to have our will set upon is not a natural good, but the supernatural good, God Himself, and our possession of Him in heaven.
I say this today in particular because our Scripture readings want to give us this supernatural orientation to the hope God has promised, and heaven is that ultimate good He has promised. We heard in our first reading (Gen 15:5-12, 17-18) of the Promise made to Abraham in the Old Testament, the promise of the Promised Land. In the new covenant it has been made clear that the ultimate Promised Land is heaven, and that is why our second reading reminded us that our TRUE "homeland is heaven"(Phil 3:20). And the vision of the transfiguration of Jesus that we heard about in the Gospel for today is a vision of what that glory will look like, where, as that reading from St Paul put it, "these wretched bodies of our will be transformed into copies of His glorious body"(Phil 3:21), that glorious body of His that was shown for a brief moment "brilliant as lightning"(Lk 9:29) in His transfiguration.
The account of the transfiguration is always given to us by the Church on this second Sunday of Lent. It is given to us because the Church knows from long experience that it is easy for us to get discouraged in our pursuit of the Christian life, and we need that vision of the end goal put before us to give us hope. In particular, in Lent, we can discouraged by our works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Maybe what you've given up for Lent feels like too much of struggle, maybe you've failed already in your Lenten resolutions. Maybe you're ready to give up, or maybe you've already given up. Well, the vision of the end goal can help us.
There are two things put before us here. First, there is the SIGHT of the end goal in seeing Christ's glory. Second, there is His words, thus our Collect (opening prayer) and that Gospel text told us to "LISTEN to Him"(Lk 9:35). And, what are we to listen to Him about? Well, in this case, we are being directed especially to listen to His promises, that they might give us hope.
If we have the eyes of our mind fixed on the Promise then we are able to have the hope in our heart fixed there too. To be people of hope, to know that there is something promised to those who are faithful -this gives us a REASON to be faithful. It gives us the ability to set our will steadfast through a difficulty, through a disappointment, through the trial of Lent. All that we are doing in this season is about that goal, and He has promised us not merely heaven hereafter but transfigured graces and life within NOW -this should be our hope, because we are set upon what He has Promised. "Listen to Him"
Sunday, 17 February 2013
Someone was telling me recently what she was planning to give up for Lent (and said it was OK for me to mention it), and she said she was planning to give up shouting impatiently at her husband. So I asked her, "If you're giving that up for Lent… at the end of Lent, on Easter Sunday, when you stop giving that up for Lent, does that mean you're going to have a REALLY good scream at your husband on Easter Sunday?"!!!!
The woman's suggestion is a common mistake: to think that giving up a SIN for Lent is what 'giving something up for Lent' is about. But, it's not. Sin is something we should not be doing anyway, full stop. So it’s not logically coherent to think that it can be part of the voluntary ADDITIONAL practices that we take up for Lent and end when Lent is finished.
Let me note: Lent is about sin, but in a particular way. It's not so much about putting aside particular sins, as about applying the three traditional REMEDIES for sin that the Church gives us for this holy season of Lent, which is why the Gospel at the start of Lent (for Ash Wednesday) always has the text (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) of our Lord speaking of the importance of those three: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (giving to the poor). And primary among these three in this season is penance, especially in the form of fasting.
What then is Lent about? It’s a time of 40 days of union with our Lord's 40 days in the desert, as we heard in our Gospel text (Lk 4:1-13), as we hear on the first Sunday of Lent every year. And what did He do in the desert? He fasted and prayed.
When we 'give something up for Lent', be it snacks, chocolate, alcohol, or TV etc, we are engaging in a form of fasting. We are taking something that is good in itself, like food, and choosing to go without it, at least in part. This isn't like putting aside a sin, because we are putting aside something that is good it itself (to repeat myself). In the example of food, there is nothing wrong with food, it is good, it is given to us by God. But there is something wrong in ME in how I relate to food, how I am over-attached to it, there is a disorder in my desires. And part of what fasting does is that it puts discipline into my desires, and I grow in Christian self-control.
Fasting, however, is not just about self-control, otherwise it would be no different from dieting self-help guides. In contrast, fasting is something we do WITH Jesus and for Jesus. We do it with Him in that we are going into the desert with Him. We do it with Him in that we ask His inner grace and strength to do it.
And we do it FOR Him in that we offer our little penances, little acts of self-denial, offer them to Him as spiritual sacrifices, in union with His on the Cross. Little sacrifices of prayer, little sacrifices for our past sins.
And our desire to make such sacrifices is a very good but simple test of how much we really love God -if we love someone we are sorry for offending them, for sinning against them, and we seek to make little consoling acts of reparation to them, as we should in sacrifice to God.
So, we should each be, at least, giving a little something up for Lent, and this should be offered in prayer. But prayer in its own right is another of the three remedies for sin recommended to us in Lent. We should each think of some small extra practice of prayer to take up in this season. Something beyond the bare minimum that any good Catholic should do: Maybe attend Stations of the Cross, or a weekday Mass each week, or a daily extra decade of the rosary, or even just an extra Hail Mary.
Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray, and so should we in this season.
Finally, these two things should change us, should bear fruit in us in better loving, better giving to others, and almsgiving (giving to the poor) is thus the third part of our Lenten practice. That's why we always have a retiring collection in Lent to follow up on our day of fasting, which we had on this Ash Wednesday.
To conclude, Lent isn't about giving up shouting at your husband for 40 days, rather, it's about fasting, giving up something that is good in itself. And doing this in prayer and with prayer, and letting this bear fruit in good deeds to our neighbour.
Sunday, 10 February 2013
Isa 6:1-8; Lk 5:1-11
If you were to go up to heaven and see God, and then come back down to earth and try to describe to us what God is like, what you had seen: What do you think you would be trying to say?
We heard in our first reading just that, what the prophet Isaiah said he had seen in his vision of God in heaven. And he gives the very same description that we hear in the other place in the Scriptures where someone sees a vision of heaven, namely, in the book of Revelation. In both cases they say that God is 'holy'. They do not say that God is love, though we know from Scripture that this also is true of Him too (1Jn 4:8). And they do not say that He's in an eternal inter-relationship of the Father and Son loving each other in the unity of the Holy Spirit, though this too is true. Rather, they say God is 'holy'. So holy that they say it three times -which in the Hebrew language is their way of saying 'most holy', more holy than anything else in existence. And this prayer is so important, this repeating of the prayer heard said by the angels in heaven, that we repeat it in each and every Mass before starting the most sacred and central prayer of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord, God of Hosts" (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8).
So, both Old and New Testament tell us that God is 'holy, holy, holy'. But, unless we know what 'holy' means this in fact tells us nothing. Unless we know what it means we can't know why it's important, what it tells us about ourselves. Linguistically, from its Hebrew origins, the word 'holy' means that something is 'separate'. It means, with respect to God, that He is separate from us, different from us. So different from us that to see Him results in those who see Him saying, not what He is like, but what He is NOT like:
He is not like us, He is different, He is 'holy' separate.
This sense of God being so wholly and utterly different to us causes two effects in people:
First, it causes a sense of fear and uneasiness and unworthiness Thus Isaiah burst out, "woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips..." (Isa 6:5). Similarly, in the gospel text of today, when Peter saw Jesus's divine miraculous power at work he said, "Depart from me for am a sinful man"(Lk 5:8).
Second, even with this, it fascinates and attracts man.
The entire life of the Chosen People of the Old Testament can be described as a calling to make them holy. God, who called and chose them, revealed Himself to be utterly different, utterly awesome, utterly separate, utterly ‘holy’. And He called a people to Himself to be holy, to be separate from the nations, different from the nations. Different by being given a Law and set of customs that made them separate. "You shall be holy for I The Lord your God am holy"(Lev 19:2).
BUT the root of their being separate, their being holy, was not so much their distance from the rest of the world, but their being in CONTACT with the Lord God. He is holy, and contact with Him makes you holy too.
In the New Testament the new Chosen People, those who are called to be one with Christ, we become holy by our union with Him, "He chose us that we should be holy"(Eph 1:4).
Now, what does this mean to us? What difference does this make to us?
On one hand it should point out to us the wonderful gift of our calling. God is utterly different and awesome and wonderful, and yet we are called to share in His divine life. And the glory of heaven will be so wondrous that if we saw it now we couldn't even describe it, all we would be able to do is say, like St Paul, that "eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love Him"(1 Cor 2:9).
On the other hand, it should also point out to us that we must be different to the rest of the world. We must live with our eyes set upon the next world, "you must look to the things of heaven"(Col 3:2). We must also NOT look to the things of this earth, nor to the ways and values of the people of this earth. We must be willing to be holy, to be separate from this world and its ways. As we all know, the vote in Parliament this week on same-sex marriage will further marginalise us Catholics in this country, and we must be willing to be marginalised if we would stand with Christ, if we would be holy with God.
God is holy, He is different, He is separate. He calls us to be different, and separate, and holy too.
If we are, are shall enjoy the delights, the differentness, the awesomeness, the holiness of heaven.
Sunday, 3 February 2013
We just heard in that Gospel text the Lord Jesus being rejected by the people, the people He had come to save. They wanted to throw Him from the cliff. This rejection is a familiar pattern that we hear in the Gospels. As we know, He died rejected, on the Cross. Even at His birth the people were rejecting Him –there was no room at the inn of Bethlehem for Him to be born. There was no room for Him there, and there was no room for Him in men’s hearts in the years that followed.
And yet, in that same short passage we heard, it also said, “He won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from His lips”(Lk 4:21). Through His actions and teachings there were many ways that Jesus revealed Himself to be God, claimed to be God. But one of the ways I find most fascinating is simply to read the Gospel accounts see how people reacted to Him –His very personality was so incredible that people could take His claim to be God seriously.
Amazement, attraction, and yet rejection, were all the pattern of His life. Even as He was being rejected in His crucifixion, the soldier who stood at the foot of the Cross said in amazement, “Truly this man was the Son of God”(Mk 15:39).
But WHY did they reject Him? Ultimately, they rejected Him because of who He is: God, perfect goodness. His very presence demanded a response from people, a change, a repentance. We all know ourselves how being in the presence of a really good and generous person can make us uncomfortable, can implicitly tell us we need to do better ourselves. This was even more the case with Jesus: He called us to a new life, a life of holiness, and goodness, to be something better. And that part of our human nature that is resistant to change is what led to His death. It was our sin that killed Him.
Because He is God, He made claims that were not accepted. Claims that seemed too great. One of them is the claim we heard today, the claim to be a prophet not just to the Jews but to all the races and all the nations. While they may not have exactly understood what He meant, they knew that His claim to have a universal significance for mankind was too much.
There are many people TODAY who still think that Jesus’s claims are too much. They are willing to accept Him as something lesser, but not accept Him for what He claimed to be. They are willing to accept that He was a good man, that He was wise, a good moral teacher, a holy man. I’ve often had someone see my priestly collar and come up to me in the pub and start a conversation saying, “Now I believe this ‘Jesus’ was a good man, but I don’t believe… ”
However, you cannot accept this about Jesus without accepting the rest of what He said:
You cannot accept He was a good teacher, if you reject His teaching that He was God.
You cannot accept He was a holy man, if you believe He was fraud in His most central claim.
You cannot accept His morality, if you will not accept the Divinity that gives Him the right to forgive you your sins.
Either His central claim to be God is true (and He produced many miracles, signs, and His own rising from the dead to demonstrate the truth of His claim), or it is all false.
As C.S.Lewis famously summarised it: He is either a liar, a madman, or God.
What we believe about Jesus, what He taught about Himself, is very exclusive. It places Him in a unique position, superior to any other religion. That He alone is God, that He came to teach us, to call us to a new standard of morality, to forgive our sins, and to be Himself the sacrifice that takes our sins away. What we believe about Jesus is so great that many reject it, and many rejected it when Jesus first claimed it.
But that very rejection is for our salvation. He knew we would reject Him. He chose to make that rejection for our salvation, to offer His death for our sins, to make it the means by which we receive grace and are able to change and lead a new life.
We worship a rejected messiah, and it’s a central part of our faith –because it’s His resurrected triumph in this that shows His power to save, and proves His claim.