Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Sunday, Shaftesbury


Col 3:1-4; Ps 117:1-2.16-17.22-24
We are gathered here today because of a change that happened 2000 years ago, a two-fold change: the first, in Christ; the second, in His disciples.
The first change, in Jesus, namely, His rising from the dead –that change tends to be our focus on Easter Sunday. Preachers typically point to the evidence for that change, such as: the fact that the tomb was empty and His body was no longer there, and that none of the various explanations that atheists try and concoct adequately explain why the tomb was empty. Preachers also point to the evidence of the witnesses, of the straightforward and plain style of their testimony, of the way that the witnesses record different details but all report what was clearly the same event -an indication of reliable testimony.

But the second change, in His disciples, is what I wish to focus on this morning, because it also points to us the change that must be produced in OURSELVES if we are to benefit from this incredible event. But, before I continue, let me point out that this also is another piece of evidence: that fact that the followers of Jesus were all changed from being fearful and despondent to being joyful and bold –this change in them demands an explanation. What suddenly made them so altered? The simple answer is that their encounter with the Risen Lord produced a change in them. And, consequently, the fact of this change in THEM is another piece of evidence pointing to the fact that there was truly a change in HIM –because it was their encounter with the changed Him that changed them.

So, this change in them, a change that altered them, as I said, from being despondent and fearful to being joyful and bold. However, the real point I wish to draw your attention to today is that this change was in fact only part of a deeper change within them, a change that we can rightly call the ‘re-creation’ of humanity, the re-creation of all those who seek new life in Christ.
We exist as what we call ‘Fallen’ humanity, in state of suffering, of sin, wounded in our nature. The re-creation of humanity offers us the Resurrected grace of Christ, a grace that can re-make each and every person who turns to Him and seeks to made new in Him.

Our Psalm said, “This day was made by the Lord, we rejoice and are glad”(Ps 117:24). “This day” meaning the day of Resurrection, a day that is “made” more than other days are made in the sense that it is the day of re-making, re-creating, such that, as Christ says in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new”(Rev 21:5).
Our second reading, from Colossians, also elaborated this theme. It said, “you been brought back to true life with Christ”(Col 3:1). This being “brought back to life” implies that you WERE dead, and for many that they STILL are dead –which is something of a problem for the many who refuse to recognise that there is a problem in this world, that there is a sense in which humanity is dead in sin. And, of course, even after the turning to Christ, we need to continually re-turn to Him as often as fall, as often as we succumb again to sin. Thus that reading from St Paul was calling on the Christians, again, to “look for the things of heaven”(Col 3:1).

Christ, the one Eternal Son of the Father, true God, came from heaven to earth and became also true man, and in His death and resurrection He has re-made man. Re-created every one of us in as much as we turn to Him and seek to have Him live in us. That change that can be in us, that change is what Scripture indicates happened in the first disciples by their encounter with the Risen Lord, and that change can also be in us, if we let it, if we recognise what happened this day 2000 years ago. “This day was made by the Lord, we rejoice and are glad”(Ps 117:24).

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Easter Vigil, Shaftesbury


Gen 1:1-2:2
Tonight, in the office of readings, we have just heard some of the most famous and most important passages of the entire Scriptures. We have heard, among other things, of how God created the world, of the sacrifice of Isaac, and of the parting of the Red Sea. The importance of the creation account, the assertion in it that we do not stand here as products of chance, but as the result of the creation from nothing by an all-powerful God - the importance of knowing and understanding this truth is hopefully obvious to all of us. However, what might be less obvious is why we are hearing of it tonight, at the Easter vigil. And it’s on that point that I would like to say a few words at this year’s vigil.

If we are to understand what Easter is about, if we are to understand the power that Christ’s resurrection has wrought, then we need not only to listen to the account of His resurrection from the dead, but we need to understand it as a RE-creation. And to do that we need to think of the original creation.

The structure of tonight’s liturgy is very deliberate. We had the lighting of the Easter candle as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection triumphing over the darkness of death. And then, and this is a pivotal point, it is only then, IN THE LIGHT OF CHRIST, that we read the Scriptures. In a sense we are re-reading in the light of Christ. Looking at those old texts, again, in the light of Christ.

In the context of the creation account, what this means is that we are realising that the all-powerful Christ who rose from the dead is the same Lord and God who was there at the beginning of the creation. And conversely, it is the one all-powerful Christ, who was the Eternal Word “through whom all things were made”(Jn 1;3), it is the same Christ who was working in creation who has worked the re-creation of fallen humanity that has been achieved in His glorious passion, death, and resurrection.
Tonight is not about the Fall of man, and so we do not have the account of the Original Sin.
Tonight is about the restoration, the re-creation of fallen man.

“God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light”(Gen 1:3).
“God said, ‘Let the earth produce vegetation’, … ‘Let the waters teams with living creatures’ … ‘Let the earth produce every kind of living creature’, and so it was”(Gen 1:11; 20; 24).
After the Fall of mankind in sin there was darkness.
But the same God who made light and life re-created, restored, triumphantly, the light of Christ, “a light the darkness could not overpower”(Jn 1:5), the light that is Him who said that He was the “life”(Jn 14:6) itself and “the light of the world”(Jn 8:12).

We live, ourselves, both Fallen and Redeemed. We still experience in ourselves the weakness of the Flesh. But, we can also experience, and we DO also experience, the triumph of grace, the triumph of Him who is “the resurrection and the life”(Jn 11:25) within us.
The Resurrection is not some random event of power that happened once long ago, with no connection to what went before it, and no connection to what happens now.
On the contrary, the resurrection was the definitive work of re-creation that restored what had once been created and made available to us, today, the continual re-creation of each one of us as often as we turn to call on His grace.
And that is what we celebrate in reading the text of the creation in the light of Easter candle, in the light of the resurrected Christ.
Though once there was darkness, “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.”(Gen 1:3)

Friday, 29 March 2013

Good Friday, Shaftesbury


Jn, 18:1-19:42; Isa 52:12-53:12
There is a specific moment, every year during the Good Friday and Passion liturgy when I feel a little odd, and no doubt many of you feel it too: the moment when Jesus dies, and we kneel down.
It’s not just that I feel sad, but I feel kind of funny, odd.
God died on a tree.
We stop in silence.
And there is a much deeper sense in which the whole cosmos must have stood still at that moment.
The ancient hymn that we use in the Office of Readings for tomorrow speaks of how, “The cross stands empty in a world grown silent”.
It feels like all has stopped. It feels like nothing is happening.

What did the people looking on think 2000 years ago? To most who saw it, it would have looked like defeat. To the faithful few who stood by Him at the foot of the Cross, they still kept faith –but faith in what?

But, what did HE says of it?
WE might sense silence, sense absence, sense the defeat of God.
But He, He said, as He gave His last breath, He said, “It is accomplished”.
And as He had said so many times in different ways in the build-up to this event, and as we heard Him say in that account just read, He said, “I was born for this, I came into the world for this.” And now, “it is accomplished”.

Let us consider for a moment, even if only briefly, let us consider WHAT was accomplished.
The prophecies of old were fulfilled, of one who would bear our sufferings and carry our sorrows (Isa 53:4).
A sacrifice was made for our sins:
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”(Jn 1:29)
A definitive confrontation with evil was wrought.
And, the One Eternal God was united to us in OUR pain, in our woes.

I spoke of the silence of the Cross, the silence evoked in us as we behold God dead on a tree.
But there is another silence that suffering evokes. The silence that comes in each one of us in our own troubles, in our own suffering.
How often, in our suffering, are we left thinking: “Why? Why does God let me suffer?” Here too the silence of the Cross is at work.
How does God answer that question, “Why?”
Well, actions are said to speak louder than words. And, on the Cross, in a world gone silent, the action that speaks is the act that says He is with us. Am I suffering? So is He on the Cross. Am I weak? So is He on the Cross. Am I alone? So is He on the Cross?

Or, rather, what the Cross means is that I am not alone. He is with me.
I am not weak, for He will be my strength.
And in that silence, the suffering that seemed to be absence of God is revealed as His most definitive activity.


(Postscript: Can we truly say that "God died"?
Yes, by using “the ancient patristic teaching on the communicatio idiomata. In the Incarnation we recognise the union, in the Person of the Logos, of both the divine and the human natures. Thus, the properties or characteristics of either the divinity or the humanity can be predicated of the divine Person who is the subject of the Incarnation. In this way, even though it is only characteristic of humanity to die, death can nevertheless be predicated of the one God-man in light of the hypostatic union. Since Jesus is a divine person, we can truly say that God suffered and died. The patristic tradition… made use of this doctrine to show the loving involvement of God, through the Incarnation, in our human predicament of suffering and dying.”(Ed. Lewis Fiorelli,OSFS, The Sermons of St Francis de Sales for Lent (Charlotte, North Carolina: TAN Books, 2010), p.207, n.6.)

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Maundy Thursday, Shaftesbury

Jn 13:1-15
We've all heard a good number of things about our new Pope by now, and one of the things that has been repeatedly reported by the press has been his washing of feet. It is an ancient Catholic practice to have heads of religious communities go around their community on this day and wash the feet of those they are head of, to symbolise that their headship must also be service -if it is to be a manifestation of the headship of Christ. When he was an Archbishop the pope manifested this by going to wash the feet of AIDS patients, and on another occasion the feet of pregnant women and new mothers. And this evening he is doing so at the juvenile prison 'Casal del Marmo' in Rome (the same facility visited by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007). He did this, and is doing this, manifesting headship as service. More recently, in his homily at his installation Mass, you may have heard the new Pope speak of this when he preached about how the role of the Bishop of Rome is a role of power, but power exercised as service. This must hold for any Christian leader, if he wishes to manifest headship as that of Christ, be it in a church, a family, a school, or any Christian group.

I wish tonight, however, to speak about something else. Not about how a Christian leader is called to serve (I've preached on that point in past years), but about what this action of Jesus tells us about how HE relates to US.
The Gospel text that recounts this event, of Him washing the feet of His apostles, says that He did this "showing the depth of His love"(Jn 13:1). But for us to appreciate quite HOW deep this love is that was manifested in this act we need to recall the rest of the context.

Let us first recall the most basic context: WHO is it that is washing the feet? If we view this account as merely a human event we will miss what is really significant. The "who" who is acting here is GOD. God has come down from heaven to earth, came down and washed our feet.
This tells us something incredible about the nature of God Himself. And it is very different from so many non-Christian notions of God. The pagan gods were typically viewed as remote and detached from us, uncaring of us, toying with the mere mortals they looked down upon. The gods of the philosophers were less malicious, but they were cold and uninvolved in human affairs. In contrast, the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ is a god who comes down and washes our feet.

The act of loving service that is manifested in this act is part of a threefold act manifesting His care and involvement in our affairs. It is coupled with His gift of the priesthood and the Mass -these are the two things, in the sacramental economy, that are the mechanism by which He stays with His chosen people all down through the centuries until the end of time. I.e. He not only cares enough to come down and be involved with us washing our feet once, but He STAYS with us. And the vulnerability He leaves us with in the Eucharist, by which men in every age will ignore Him, disrespect Him, abuse Him, this vulnerable commitment to stay with us is all part of this same loving service in washing our feet.

And, of course, the priesthood of the Mass that He gives is the continuation of that other part of the threefold gift, namely, His gift of Himself in the sacrifice of the Cross. The Cross on which the Lord allowed Himself to be abuse and forsaken for our sakes.

So, to conclude, the act of His washing of the feet, it shows us something about Him, shows us about how God cares for and enters our world. This is the sort of God we worship, this is the sort of God who has made Himself known: He dies for us on the Cross, He remains with us in the Mass, and He comes down and washes our feet. This is what God is like.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

5th Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Jn 8:1-11; Isa 43:16-21; Ps 125:3
I want to say a few words about the JOY of knowing that you are 'A MISERABLE SINNER'. Now, this phrase, being ‘a miserable sinner’, may not strike you as joyful, it may even strike you as odd. Yet, it is a phrase that we find frequently on the lips of the saints, and in their writings(e.g. Imitation of Christ, Book 3, Chapter 18). It was how they thought of themselves and spoke of themselves. And yet, as Frank Sheed used to note, the saints are not sad.

For us who are not saints, we can sometimes struggle to understand what the saints understood, and sometimes fail to rejoice in what they rejoiced in. But, even so, for us who are not saints, we can get occasional glimpses of profound truths when we realise, even if only briefly or partially, when we realise what they grasped all the time. I recently had such an experience about the notion of me being 'a miserable sinner'. I've long found the phrase one that I've not warmed to, that I thought was just old-fashioned, and not really identified myself with.
But recently I have identified myself with it, and I want to say a word about why it has given me great JOY. The kind of joy reminiscent of today’s psalm, "indeed we were glad"(Ps 125:3). Why glad, because of "what the Lord worked for us"(Ps 125:3), namely, in this case, in this Lenten context: forgiveness.

Back to the saints: It's a common feature in the lives of the saints, in the process of conversion, that someone who grasps that they are a sinner experiences joy -not sadness. This experience is one that only can make coherent sense when it occurs in the text of having FAITH, faith in the love and FORGIVENESS of Jesus. To rejoice in the fact that Jesus loves sinners you need to first recognise that this category applies to YOU personally, that YOU are a sinner yourself, and to grasp this truth wholeheartedly -not reluctantly and sadly.

We read in the gospel many cases where this was the case, and we can extrapolate many cases where there must have been joy in a sinner even when it isn't explicitly mentioned because we see it in the dynamism of the action that happens. For example, the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:4-42) RAN through the town to tell everyone about this man who had made her sins known to her. Then there was the tax collector Zacchaeus, who seems to have been hated by everyone because he cheated and defrauded and stole from them, and yet had the joy of the Lord's forgiveness, how true to say that "salvation has come to this house"!(Lk 19:9). Or, more famously, St Mary Magdalene was was initially certainly not a saint, a loose woman, "a woman with a reputation in the town"(Lk 7:36-50) but who felt such love for Jesus that she washed his feet with her tears. And the woman we heard about in today's gospel text, the woman caught in adultery and brought to be stoned, and yet forgiven and set free by the Lord, left with just the words, "Go and sin no more"(Jn 8:11). What JOY must SHE have felt! What thankfulness to the Lord Jesus!

Let me comment on this a bit more: Why should the experience of knowing that you are a sinner bring you joy?
First, because it accompanies the sensation of knowing you are loved -because you know Jesus loves sinners. Jesus does not love the proud, or the self-satisfied, or the complacent. He loves the sinner who admits it and turns to Him.
Second, because it comes with a certain sense of RELEASE from self-denial. To accept that I am weak and sinful involves abandoning a certain pretence, the pretence that I am strong enough alone. Such a pretence can be exhausting, and the release from it is a joyful thing.

Pride, however, stops us recognising that we are sinners. The joy I have had recently had only came with the hard recognition of certain long term failures. The joy only came, almost ironically, with the inner saying, "I am a miserable sinner", and finding that for once I actually meant it rather than just said it. For now, I know such a experience is not firmly rooted in me, that my pride is still working within me to try and say things like, "you're not that bad really, you're a decent chap, you're better than that person over there" etc.

What conclusion do I offer you from this? Well, the importance of striving to admit our sins, to ourselves, to God, and, in particular, in the sacrament of confession. We have our penitential service this Wednesday night, 5 priests here to hear your confessions. It is only when we admit we have sinned that we can be released from our sins, and that the joy of knowing we are lovingly forgiven can be ours.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Mothering Sunday, 4th Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 15: 1-3,11-32
I was thinking this week, and trying to figure out: Who was the first person to ever forgive me? Who was the first person ever to welcome me back after I'd done wrong? When was the first time I ever said, "I'm sorry" and had someone forgive me? It happened so early on in my life that I can't remember. But I feel quite confident in saying that it must have been either my mother or my father. When we are children, they are the ones we first become aware of sinning against. In fact, when we are children, our first, very limited, understanding of sin, of doing wrong, is simply the awareness that doing certain things displeases Mom or Dad

We are now in Lent, when we are taking up our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as the traditional remedies for sin. And we think more about sin in this season that at some other times of the year. We are also, today, on Mothering Sunday, and so it’s suitable to recall, with thanksgiving, the vital, if somewhat unhonoured role that our parents had in teaching us about sin, about right and wrong. How would I know I had sinned if I had not been taught these things? I say this is an ‘unhonoured’ role because I'm pretty sure I never said, "thank you" after being spanked, or after being firmly reprimanded. Yet without such things I would never have learnt was is sin what isn't.

But, to return to my opening question, about the first person to welcome me back after sinning, the first person to forgive me: we heard in our Gospel text today one of the most famous parables in the gospel, the Prodigal Son. It's often remarked, however, that in many ways the parable is less about the son and more about the father, showing us an image of how God the Father wishes to welcome us home after we sin: all we need to do is "come to our senses"(Lk 15:17), confess that we have "sinned against heaven and against you"(Lk 15:18), and we will be welcomed home.
There are many reasons why this is such a famous parable, but I suspect part of the reason is that there is so much about this that, for so many of us, echoes our experience of our own parents, at least for those of us who have been fortunate enough to have been blessed with good parents. And the importance of giving thanks today on Mothers’ Day is echoed in this too.

Of course, there are others elements of this story where the Father seems too good to be true, too good to be like any earthly father. And in as much as that is true, it conveys another point:
God the Father is NOT just like my dad.
When the Lord Jesus reveals God as Father to us He's not just saying that He's like my dad and your dad. God the Father is much better than that, much more than that. When I preached about the holiness, the ineffableness, the utterly different-ness of God a few weeks ago I was speaking of this very thing. When we speak about God there are many things that we say about Him that are true, but He is EVEN MORE than what we are expressing. And, with respect to Him being our loving Father, He is much more than any earthly Father. Such that we can name earthly fathers after Him rather than Him after earthly fathers. C.f. "From whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name"(Eph 3:15).

So today, let us remember what this parable teaches us about what an incredible heavenly Father God is. And let us also give thanks for what our own parents, and particularly, today, our mothers, give thanks for what they taught us about right and wrong, taught us about sin, and what they showed us about forgiveness and the welcome home.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Cardinal O'Brien, 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 13:1-9
There have been two dominant items in the news this week for the Catholic Church in Britain. The resignation of the Pope due to old age and the resignation of the Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien for rather less honourable reasons. The resignation of the Pope was a glorious sight, with tremendous thankful crowds turning out to support him. In contrast, the resignation of the Cardinal has hit many of us hard, and I think I need to say a few words about it. We have children present so I won't mention the details. I hope, as I hope we all do, I hope the allegations are false. But there is a horrible scandal nonetheless: either he has done grossly immoral deeds, or the priests who have accused him of doing so have concocted a gross set of false allegations. Either way there is a public scandal. [Update: The Cardinal has now admitted to "sexual conduct ...below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal."] Either way there is another example of what the now-abdicated Pope Benedict has referred to as “the filth” in the Church.

How should we feel about this? Well, maybe some of you feel tired at yet another media scandal story. More likely, you feel disgusted. We have been let down, others have been betrayed. You may also feel the taint and embarrassment of being associated with this simply by being of the same religion.

Many of the media reports have tried to create the impression that these events have caused a crisis in the Church, to say that these events are unparalleled. Sadly, over the course of the last 2000 years of the Church's existence these events are not unparalleled. Sin has ALWAYS existed in the Church. Our Faith tells us it will always be so, until the Lord comes again in glory at the End of Time. With this, there have always been at least some leaders in the Church, some bishops, who have been sinned.
Why, we might ask, why does God allow this? Why doesn't He just SMITE those who sin to stop them damaging the rest of us. Let me point out two parables of our Lord in this regard.

First, there is the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24-30). i.e. of the weeds that grow up amid the good plants. In the parable people say to the master: tear up the weeds. But He says, no, if I do that I will tear up some of the good plants too. We might well ponder that if God wiped away all sinners then more than a few of US would be wiped away too. Wiped away before we have repented of various sins that we might otherwise repent of if we are given more time. So the Lord tells us that He, “the Lord of the Harvest” (Mt 9:38), allows the weeds and good plants to grow together, until the final harvest –when there will be a Judgement.
So the Lord does not purge His Church, He is patient. Following His example, the Church only purges very carefully –BUT she does act. In the light of recent events a Vatican official pointed out this week that, during his 8 years as pope, Pope Benedict had removed an average of 2-3 bishops a month in similar circumstances. So if the media try to create the impression that the Church has not been moving then it’s simply not true. The Church acts carefully, but she does act.

Second, we might look at today's Gospel text (Lk 13:1-9), which gives us an image of the Lord's patience in waiting for good growth to come out where none is yet growing. He tends the plant some more, gives it manure and time, and hopes it will bear fruit. He is patient with us.
The Lord's words in today's Gospel suggest that people were coming to the Lord and referring to the destruction that had come upon these people in the tower of Siloam and who had been slaughtered by Pilate. They seemed to think that these things had happened as a punishment for their sins. The Lord Jesus, however, turns that around, and warns His listeners that they too are sinners, and two times He says, "but unless you repent you will all perish as they did". These are harsh words. Very harsh.
But as we think of the sins of others we'd do well to remember these words ourselves, especially in this Lenten season when we have a particular call to repent, a particular call to take up, as our Collect (opening prayer) at Mass today repeats to us, to take up the three remedies of "fasting, prayer, and almsgiving".

To conclude, this recent scandal should shock and disappoint us. Let us do two things with that disgust.
First, let us pray for a strong and worthy new Pope to cleanse the Church.
But, second, let us also turn that disgust with sin inward and ask the Lord to help us turn from our own sins –those sins disgust the good and pure Lord even more than we are disgusted with the sins of our fellow man. And let us ask Him to renew our Lenten resolutions, our Lenten "fasting, prayer, and almsgiving", that what we despise in others we will not find in ourselves.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Novena for the Election of a new Pope

V. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created.
R. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
V: Let us pray.
O, God, who did instruct the hearts of the faithful by the light of the Holy Spirit, grant that by the same Spirit we may be always truly wise and ever rejoice in His holy consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Collect for the election of a Pope:
O Lord, with suppliant humility, we entreat You, that in Your boundless mercy You would grant the most holy Roman Church a pontiff, who by his zeal for us, may be pleasing to You, and by his good government may ever be honoured by Your people for the glory of Your name. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

V. O Mary conceived without sin,
R. pray for us who have recourse to Thee!
V. Saint Peter
R. pray for us.