Sunday, 28 August 2016

Nothing Known to the Senses. Goodbye Shaftesbury. 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Heb 12:18-19.22-24
Today I'd like us to consider our second reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, and consider “what [we] have come to” (Heb 12:18) by coming to Mass.
As the unbelieving world sees it, this is a gathering of human individuals.
As the world sees it, there are a hundred people here in a stone building, facing an empty space.
As the unbelieving world sees it, we are gathered to utter words to a Being that is not here.

“What [we] HAVE come to” (Heb 12:18), in fact, is not something capable of being seen.
What we have come to is some ‘Thing’ beyond the realm of the seen.
We have come to the One who is the Creator, as we say in the Creed, of things “visible and invisible”.
We are here because we recognise that there is more to the world than what is seen, there is more to the world than can be known by the senses, more to the world than what my touch and taste and sight can tell me.
And, and this is the crucial point: we are here because we recognise that this ‘Thing’ that cannot be seen or sensed is actually what gives meaning and purpose to everything that we CAN see and sense.
We are here because knowing and meeting the Creator changes how we experience the world of the senses.

How did our second reading put it?
“What you have come to is nothing known to the senses: not a blazing fire [unlike Moses, who had God speak to him from a burning bush],
or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm; or trumpeting thunder or the great voice speaking which made everyone that heard it beg that no more should be said to them [unlike the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness who had the Lord manifest Himself to them in such external glory].”(Heb 12:18-19)
He continues, “You have come to come to God Himself”(Heb 12:23).
That text made many allusions to the Jerusalem and Temple of the Old Covenant, and when we read those words in the Mass, the liturgy of the NEW covenant, it should remind us that God is present HERE.
In the Old Testament He was manifested in power in the Temple, but He was not present in the flesh.
In the NEW Testament, however, as a result of Him having instituted the Mass, He IS present in the flesh, is present “in His physical reality”(Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, n.46)

BUT greatness of His presence, His reality, so far exceed our capacity to see Him that He has taken a small insignificant thing, bread, and made it into Himself. So that we don't confuse worldly glory with His real glory.
But He IS present. Recognising that is a crucial part of realising that there is more to life than the senses.

Let me put that another way, in thinking of the fact that the most important things in life are the things that cannot be seen:
What is more important, the house your family lives in, or, the love in your family? The love, obviously. But love is an unseen thing, though real. Seen in its effects, but not seen in itself.
Even more, this is true of God: He’s the unseen reality that gives meaning to the seen.

Today, as most of you know already, is my last Sunday in Shaftesbury. I've been here 9 years and I've been thinking about what I've done in those 9 years, in the light of this text from Hebrews.
I've not built anything visible. Some priests build new churches, or church halls, or schools. But I'm not leaving the parish with any changed or new building. Any change I have left here will be in the realm of the unseen. But, actually, that's fine. That's actually the more important things.

What have I built unseen?
For a priest, especially, that’s a difficult question to ponder, because any REAL work I've done actually hasn't been MY work, but God’s work.
And, any REAL work I've done, similarly, isn't my work but YOURS –your allowing God to work in you.
That said, I've known in my time here many cases when I've been privileged to a PART of that, to be a help in that happening, to be an instrument in the Lord being active in your lives.
The most important examples are things I can never speak about, which is typically the case for a priest. But, again, that's ok. I deal with the realm of the unseen. I deal with the more important realm.

Thank you, for letting me be a part of your lives, and a part of your encounters with the Lord.
Thank you for your support and encouragement in the apostolate I've sought to work among you and in you.
It's been a pleasure to be here. I feel this is a great parish, and it does a lot, especially for such a relatively small rural congregation.

To return to where I began this sermon: “what [we] have come to” (Heb 12:18) by coming to Mass.
We have come to God Himself.
We have come to Him whose Presence and working are beyond the realm of the seen, beyond the realm of the senses.
He works THROUGH the senses: He takes sensible bread to become Himself.
But He is more than what our senses are capable of detecting.
And what is unseen, be it love, or the presence of God, it is the unseen that is the most important and gives meaning to everything else.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Beauty of Our Lady, Assumption, Shaftesbury

Rev 11:19-12:10
On today’s feast of Our Lady’s Assumption into heaven we think about Our Lady’s being taken up to heaven body and soul. Of course, ALL saints will have bodies in heaven at the resurrection of the dead, but what is different about Our Lady is that HER body was taken up to heaven directly upon her death. And, when her body was assumed it was obviously transfigured and glorified into the state of the glorified bodies that is their heavenly state. I want to say a few words to try to illustrate the glory of Our Lady's heavenly state, and to do so by referring to the BEAUTY of her heavenly body. I want to make that illustration by quoting some words that I heard a few years ago when I went to Lourdes, the words that St Bernadette used when she described how Our Lady looked when she appeared to her in her visions: St Bernadette referred to the BEAUTY of Our Lady:
She was “gracious and smiling”[1], she said
Years later she would recall: “her eyes were blue”[2],
“So beautiful that when you’ve seen her once, you can’t wait to die and see her again”[3]
“When you’ve seen her, you can’t love this world any more”[4]
Speaking of her beauty: “Ah! If men only knew! Ah! If sinners only knew!”[5]
After that, all her life, St Bernadette never found statue that looked beautify enough to be Our Lady.

I want to comment on this at both a simple and at a technical level.
At a simple level, this beauty of Our Lady’s heavenly body is exactly what we should expect:
The Lourdes vision identified Our Lady as “the Immaculate Conception”;
We should expect the form of her heavenly appearance to match this Immaculate-ness. Her soul was sinless; Her soul was beautiful; How could her body be otherwise? When her body was assumed into heaven it was glorified and beautified even more.

To think of this more techincally:
Theology tells us that the soul is the form of the body;
Philosophy tells us that matter is always proportioned to form.
For example, if you want a chair, the form of a chair cannot work in the matter of jelly
-the form of a chair needs matter like wood or metal

To consider a more human application, in the Resurrection of the Body:
The Resurrected Body will not be like our present body
–it will be glorified, transfigured, free of suffering etc.
But just as we will each have faces that are different and distinct,
So will our bodies be different,
And our bodies will each be appropriate to our souls.
In heaven, our degree of glory will depend on the degree of merit we gained on earth,
and that degree of merit is measured very simply, says St Thomas Aquinas,
is measured by the degree of love, of divine charity, within us.
Our beauty of our bodies will be proportioned to the love in our souls.

And Our Lady, she who was conceived “full of grace”,
She who cooperated with that grace all through her life such that she GREW in grace,
She who cooperated with grace and the plan of God such that,
as the prayers of the Church express it:
“the birth of Christ your Son DEEPENED the virgin mother’s love for you,
and INCREASED her holiness” (Common of the BVM n.1, prayer over gifts)
How beautiful must she be?
She was born beautiful as “full of grace” and her body was planned to be appropriate to that fullness of grace,
by God’s foreknowledge and predestined plan.
Then she was transfigured in Heaven at her assumption to be EVEN MORE beautiful still,
to correspond to the even greater grace that had grown in her.

If WE would be beautiful in heaven, we need to strive to reject sin, strive have grace fill our weakness.
Even in this world, we see how a beautiful soul carries it body with a type of gracefulness & charm;
in heaven, this will be even more so,
and this is what we see in the Lourdes apparition of Our Lady and in so many other apparitions of Our Lady, in the portrayal of her Assumed glory: “Her eyes were blue”, she was “so beautiful”, because she was and is “the Immaculate Conception” and is thus now in glory in heaven.

[1]Rene Laurentin, Bernadette Speaks (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), p.572.
[2] P.448.
[3] P.557
[4] P.567, also on p.437: “I made the sacrifice of not seeing Lourdes again... In heaven it will be more beautiful”.
[5] P.321

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Trust and Faith, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Heb 11:1-2.8-19
I want to say a few words about faith, because people often say odd things about faith.
People sometimes say that faith is a kind of vague thing, or that is a ‘leap in the dark’.
Actually, it’s something simple and concrete.

If we want to know what faith IS we should look at someone who had faith.
This what we heard St. Paul do in our second reading from Hebrews –and he looks at Abraham.
Abraham and Sarah were old, beyond the age of childbearing.
Yet, God promised Sarah she would have a child.
And, God promised Abraham he would be the Father of a great nation
He told Abraham to leave the land he was happily living in, and go to a new land.
A better land that God promised him. The Promised Land.
What shows that Abraham had faith?
It was how he RESPONDED to what God told him that showed his faith:
He TRUSTED in the promises God gave him -this is what faith is all about.
And, What showed that he trusted? He fact that he went out WITHOUT YET SEEING the promised land

The Catechism gives us the same simple truth about the nature of faith:
‘Faith is man’s response to God’ (CCC 26) –response to what He has told us

What does this mean for ourselves?
It means that we, too, must respond to what God has said
We, too, must trust in His promises

That raises the question of “What are His promises?”
I’d suggest two mistaken approaches to faith in our own lives,
First, we can let our faith be too vague –‘we don’t know what God wants us to do’
-‘we don’t know what God’s really like’
-faith is just a feeling, ‘I’m a trusting kinda guy’
This empties the Gospel of content, empties it of its power to save
Second, we can falsely imagine that God’s promises are about things He hasn’t actually said:
“I’m going to get that promotion, God want me to get that promotion, I BELIEVE I’m going to get that promotion”
“God wants my husband to stop being a useless couch potato, just sitting there, I BELIEVE he is going to change”
-I’m sorry, God did not make these promises, so, it’s not a matter of FAITH
-these are good things to pray for and beg God for,
but they are not a matter of Faith –there was no promise

Right now, I’d like to know whether what my new parish will be like:
will I enjoy it? what will the people be like? how much harder will I have to work?
But God hasn’t promised to show me these things.
There ARE things He HAS promised me, and has promised you:
Heaven as the end goal, if we love Him, if we trust Him, if we seek His forgiveness daily
To be with me and strengthen me: ‘I am with you always’; ‘I will not leave you orphans’
That all things work to the good of those who love the Lord
What He asks is that I trust Him now. That I accept that His mind is bigger than my mind, that He knows better than I know.
Just as He promised Abraham the Land, but Abraham did not yet see it
He has not shown us every detail of our own futures
–we know the end destination of those who trust in the Lord: Heaven
-but, we do not know the pathway by which He will lead us there

Faith isn’t a leap in dark. Faith is our response to the promises God has made,
and what ‘having faith’ means is that we trust in His promises.