Sunday, 29 January 2017
If someone was to say to you, "You're a Christian, How does Jesus tell me I should live?"
I imagine that most of us would START by saying, "Jesus said that you must love God and love your neighbour". However, the point I want to make to you today, is that this is NOT what Jesus said -this is not how Jesus STARTED His explanation of how we should live.
We just heard in today's gospel text how Jesus started His great moral discourse: The great Sermon on the Mount –the long moral discourse He gave near the start of His ministry; and over the next few weeks we are going to hear some of the details of that moral discourse, of that description of how we are to live.
But my point to you today is that Jesus STARTED His moral discourse by addressing something else:
The question of HAPPINESS: How and where do we find happiness?
We just heard ‘the Beatitudes’, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit… etc’,
People often find the Beatitudes rather odd, or not helpful, to be calling the mourners ‘happy’ etc.
I want to point out to you a very ancient teaching about the Beatitudes, but one that most of you may not have heard about, despite the fact that Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis have all taught this point:
The point is this: the Beatitudes describe Jesus Christ.
They do not so much describe a package of moral behaviour as they describe a PERSON. They are, as Pope St John Paul II put it, the “self-portrait” of Jesus, of the Lord describing Himself to His disciples. As quoted in the newsletter, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have made the same point, and it's actually the ancient Patristic interpretation of this text.
‘Blessed are the meek’. Who is THE Meek One? Jesus Christ
Who is the Pure of heart, who is the Merciful, who is the Peacemaker? Jesus
Who is the afflicted, the poor of spirit, the one hungering and thirsting for righteousness? Jesus
Who is the one who suffers? The Lord
In all of this is described our crucified Lord, the Lord who pointed out the path of the Cross to us, who showed us that it is only the Royal Road of the Cross that leads to the Resurrection, that leads to TRUE happiness.
People look for happiness in money, and sex, and pleasure, and beauty.
But it is only TRULY found in Him who Blessedness itself.
What IS true ‘Blessedness’?
True happiness, "blessedness", consists in sharing the very life of God, seeking God and becoming what Scripture calls “partakers in the divine nature”(2 Pet 1:4).
God is happiness itself because (1) He is love, and (2) He is loved, in (3) perfection.
To BE loved, to KNOW we are loved, and to GIVE ourselves in love –this is true spiritual JOY.
In the relationship of the Father and the Son: He is eternally loved and eternally knows Himself to be loved, and rejoices in this in the Holy Spirit.
This is the glorious goal that we are called to, and it is in as much as we possess this that we possess happiness.
BUT to live that out involves turning this world upside down.
To live this out involves dying to ourselves, that we might give ourselves in love.
So, to come back to the opening question: How did Jesus start His explanation of how we should live?
He started it by addressing the universal desire for happiness.
He came to bring true happiness, inverting the values of this world on their head,
dying for us that He might offer a path to follow to a resurrection.
Dying to self-seeking that we might live in meekness, humility, suffering.
Dying to selfish false happiness that we might live in true happiness, the happiness found in Him alone.
Quotes on the Beatitudes by the last three popes:
The Beatitudes “are invitations to discipleship to communion of life with Christ” since they are a “sort of self-portrait of Christ” (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993) n. 16)
“In truth, the blessed par excellence is only Jesus. He is, in fact, the true poor in spirit, the one afflicted, the meek one, the one hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker. He is the one persecuted for the sake of justice. The Beatitudes show us the spiritual features of Jesus and thus express his mystery, the mystery of his death and Resurrection, of his passion and of the joy of his Resurrection. This mystery, which is the mystery of true blessedness, invites us to follow Jesus and thus to walk toward it.” (Pope Benedict, Homily for All Saints, 1st Nov 2006)
"In these words is all the novelty brought by Christ, and the whole novelty of Christ is in these words. In fact, the Beatitudes are Jesus’ portrait, his way of life, and they are the way of true happiness, which we also can live with the grace that Jesus gives us."(Pope Francis, General Audience, 6th August 2014)
Sunday, 22 January 2017
I want to say a few words today about why religion is a force for peace and good in the world.
As we all know, the reverse is often asserted, we are often told that religion divides and brings wars. And sadly, as we heard in our second reading today, there are real divisions: we heard St Paul berating the early Christians for the factions among them. And in different ways there are divisions among the Christians churches today, which is why we’ve been praying for unity in this annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The divisions among us are, rightly, seen as something that contradicts the very message we proclaim, and make it more difficult for us to proclaim that message with conviction. In the light of this we might recall that The Lord Jesus, on the night before He died, prayed that His Church might be one, "in order that the world might believe”(Jn 17:21).
Let me note three things, however. First, the divisions within Christianity are often exaggerated by our non-Christian critics. Yes, they are real. Yes, they are problem. But when unbelievers point to them and say things like, "Religion is the main cause of wars in human history”, they exaggerate to a point that has lost touch with the facts. Don't look at it now, but I've included in the newsletter an article summarising some statistics (that you can check further online here) that indicate that actually the vast majority, 93%, of all wars have not been about religion. http://carm.org/religion-cause-war
Second, it is religious figures more than any other that are the forces for peace and reconciliation in human history. We might think of ancient figures like St Francis of Assisi. We might note that throughout European history it is the Saints, it is the men and women of religion, of GOD, that people have turned to to resolve civil conflicts in communities. Just recently America observed Martin Luther King Day, and we might take him as one of many examples of RELIGIOUS leaders, CHRISTIAN leaders who used peaceful means to resolve discord and injustice.
Thirdly, on a deeper level, let us think about the TYPE of unity and peace that we proclaim as Christians:
The unity and peace Christians proclaim is not primarily a HUMAN unity and peace, it is rooted in something else:
It is union with God, union with the most important being that grounds everything else, that gives a peace in us that enables peace with others.
Let me take an analogy from family life. If a man argues with his wife, argues with the most important human being in his life, then there are consequences: all of his other relationships are thrown out of kilter. If he subsequently resolves his problem with his wife, resolves the problem with the most important person in his life, then all of his other relationships are able to re-acquire balance and their proper place too.
God is even more foundational to our existence than a wife is to her husband.
God is the one our very existence comes from. God is the one who gives us life and grace and strength. God is the one who teaches us how to live and behave.
Our relationship with God is the one we damage whenever we sin.
And, God is the One who, as the ground of everything, is the One who can forgive us, forgive us in a way that restores all our other relationships.
So, to bring this to a focus and conclusion, this is why, far from being a cause of division, God is the One we need to turn to, above all, to heal our divisions:
To have, as ‘little ones’ (Mt 18:3) before Him, the humility to put other people before ourselves, rather than put ourselves first -which is the source of so much human division.
To have, as little ones before Him, the detachment to let go of pet peeves and ideas and preferences that we can often most clearly recognise as small when we place them before the Almighty.
To have, as His inner gift, the love to care enough about the OTHER rather than the self that we enter into dialogue and LISTEN to the other.
Whether the divisions at issue are social, political or religious, this is why being at union with God is the heart of any lasting solution to be in union with each other --far from religion being the enemy of peace, religion is its only solid foundation.
Sunday, 15 January 2017
At every Mass, the priest raises the consecrated host and we say, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof", and I imagine that many of us can say those words without thinking about what they mean -which would be a great shame, because they are profound words that today's gospel has much to tell us about.
What must a non-Catholic think as he hears us say those words? He might see that we are getting ready to go to Communion, and what do we say? "Lord I am ready”?" No! We say the very reverse, AND YET go and receive anyway.
And the reason we receive anyway lies in the very nature of WHO it is that we are receiving, who it is that the priest declares the host to be.
The priest says the words we heard spoken by John the Baptist, "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world" (c.f. Jn 1:29), because the host is one and the same Jesus Christ who John identified 2000 years ago.
The phrase "The Lamb of God", might seem a bit obscure to us, but it was very significant to the Jews that John was speaking to. They knew the role that the lamb had played in their history and still played in their religion, and to call Jesus THE Lamb of God was to proclaim His saving role from sin.
When Moses and the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, it was the blood of the sacrificed lambs, posted on their doorposts, that caused the angel of death of recognise and spare them. Every year they commemorated this in the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb in the Temple (Dt 16:5-6), recalling (1) their liberation from Egypt, and (2) the covenant bond that God formed with His people, and (3) the communion this gave between God and His people. The Lamb was THE most significant Old Testament animal of sacrifice.
The Lord Jesus is the TRUE Lamb of God, because His sacrifice on the Cross is the complete and total satisfaction for our sins. This sacrifice (1) liberates us from the slavery of sin, (2) restores our union with God, the union broken by sin, and (3) this new union is completed by our receiving the Lord Jesus in Holy Communion –a pattern that was also present in the consuming of the Old Testament sacrifices.
This is what we should recall in the Mass. We, as a congregation, the say the prayer, "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us...", and at the same time the priest BREAKS the host. This is a symbol of Christ's body being broken on the cross, of His being the eternal sacrifice for sins.
It is because HE is the one who takes our sins away that we are able to receive Him, even though we ourselves are not worthy of Him.
This said, we do need to prepare, and we do need to be ready if we are to receive Holy Communion.
If we wish to have the benefits of the forgiveness that Christ's sacrifice can give us, then we must repent of our sins.
St.Paul tells us that those who eat “the Lord's supper” unworthily are eating condemnation upon themselves (1 Cor 11:28). Following this teaching of Scripture, the new Catechism(1457) and the Law of the Church(canon 916) remind us, that if it is a serious sin in question: we must repent and go to confession before we receive Holy Communion. If our marriage state is irregular and unresolved, it must be addressed before we can be ready to receive Holy Communion.
Because we cannot acknowledge Him to be the lamb who takes our sins, if we do not also desire to have our sins taken away.
But ultimately, it is because of who He is that we are able to receive Him. Because we will never be fully worthy on our own grounds, we can never repay Him what we owe Him. We can receive Communion because of the love He has lavished on us, and His sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that can HEAL those who turn to Him,
And so we say in prayer the words once said by the centurion to the Lord Jesus, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul SHALL be healed.”(Mt 8:8)
Sunday, 8 January 2017
Today we recall the wise men, the “magi” who came from the East to worship the baby Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I'd like to describe to you what most scholars considers to be the reason WHY they KNEW to come and do this. No-one else came, no other long list of foreign kings and dignitaries came. So why did THESE men come? The gospel text tells us that these men came because they saw the star (Mt 2:2). And yet, EVERYONE would have seen the star, but only these few knew what the star meant?
They knew because they had been attentive and listened to other things that the Lord had said. But what?
The two things we know about these men are that they were from “the east” (Mt 2:1) and that they are called “magi”, which doesn't mean so much ‘magicians’ as ‘wise men’ of the religion of ‘the east’: magi of the the pagan seer ‘Zoroaster’.
As we know, God had been preparing His Chosen people, the Jews, for His coming as the Messiah, for His birth.
But, God had also been preparing other people to come to recognise this Jewish Messiah, recognise Him because He was to be the saviour of ALL peoples. And, one of the ways He prepared others to recognise this Jewish Messiah as their Messiah too was in a prophecy made by the pagan seer Zoroaster. Zoroaster said, as we can read in their pagan texts,
“A VIRGIN will conceive and bear a son, and a STAR will appear blazing at midday to signalise the occurrence… When you behold the star follow it… Adore the mysterious child, offering him gifts with profound humility” (the magi Zoroaster).
And so, they saw the star, they brought gifts, and they did homage.
We can note this as an example of the Christian claim: there are elements of truth in other religions, but they are only verified as true in as much as they lead to the FULLNESS of truth, lead to Him who said He was truth itself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”(Jn 14:6).
So, these wise men came. But they only were able to do what they did because they were attentive to what had been said. If they hadn't been attentive then they would have been like everyone else and just seen a star without knowing what it meant.
We might make a comparison with the the other small group that the gospels record as having come to do homage to the baby king of the Jews: the shepherds (Lk 2:15-16). They also had heard a message, from angels. They too listened and obeyed.
And let us note something else that both the wise men and the shepherds had in common: JOY at finding Jesus (Mt 2:10-11, c.f. Lk 2:20).
Let me close by applying this to ourselves.
We, too, have heard a message from God, handed down to us in the Scriptures.
We, too, can choose to either be too busy to pay attention (like those who saw the star but didn't know what it meant),
Or, we can be attentive to the call of the Lord, come to Him, and find joy in worshipping Him.
He is the fullness of what we are yearning for. And we can find it, and find joy in it, if we are just attentive to what has been made known.
“Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ ”(Mt 2:1-2)
Sunday, 1 January 2017
It's rare for this feast date to fall on a Sunday, once every seven years, and so this is a rare opportunity for the whole of our normal Sunday congregation to be together to focus on the symbolism of this feast.
Today's feast of Our Lady, of her as "Mary, Mother of God", is a very ancient feast. One of those feasts that is so ancient that scholars struggle to be certain when in the early centuries it began to be celebrated. Today's feast celebrates "the part played by [Our Lady] in [the] mystery of salvation" that we celebrate at Christmas (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus). And that part was the part of being the MOTHER.
But we celebrate this feast of Our Lady today not merely because of the proximity of Christmas but because of the symbolism of the start of the New Year. Our Lady is the one who brought the One who is "new life" itself into the world, and so in celebrating her divine motherhood we celebrate her role in bringing new life not merely into the world 2000 years ago, but through her ongoing role of maternal intercession, praying for us POWERFULLY in heaven, we celebrate her ongoing role in bringing the new life of grace into our souls.
But if we wind the clock back before Christmas we can see that there is yet another reason to think of Our Lady as the one we associate with the new life -because she's the one in whom the new life of grace was FIRST manifested. The Archangel Gabriel hailed her as "full of grace" because grace was already operative in her, in a special anticipation of the merits that Christ would win (for her and for us) on the Cross. She lived a life free at every moment from sin, free from sin because the new life brought by Christ was operative in her already. And in her sinless perfection we see manifested the new beginning for redeemed humanity that WE can all hope for.
She is therefore the "new dawn", THE sign of the hope of new life that redeemed humanity can aspire to.
I want to draw this together by seeing how what was shown forth in the Mother of God can be applied to ourselves, applied to ourselves in terms of making a new beginning, especially at the start of this New Year. In three simple points:
First, as I have already indicated, Our Lady is the new beginning because she was "full of grace". This is a sign to us that whenever we seek to make a new beginning we must seek to do it not by our own strength, but by the strength that comes from the Lord, that comes from grace. And the triumph of that grace in Our Lady is a sign that grace can be powerful in us too.
Second, Our Lady shows us that if we wish to make a new beginning we need to do so by cooperating with God's PLAN for us. The Lord had a plan for her, a plan for her to be the Mother of God, a plan that led to her glory even though it also took her to suffer at the foot of the Cross. The new beginning and the new triumph that we see manifested in her were not by herself but by her cooperation in the plan the Lord had for her, “Let it be done to me according to your word"(Lk 1:38). For ourselves, that means that in all of our working and striving we need to be seeking to cooperate with His plan, we need to be seeking His Will for us. And, like Our Lady, we need to trust that He does have a plan for each one of us.
Thirdly, and finally, Our Lady shows us that cooperation with God's plan also involves ACTIVITY on our part –“letting God act” does not just mean sitting back and doing nothing. The first thing Our Lady did when the angel left her was to head out to visit and take care of her pregnant cousin Elizabeth -activity.
I mention this aspect of activity particularly today on New Year's Day. Today is a day when people across our land will be making many new resolutions, and this is a good practice for us to take part in also. Keeping special times, special seasons, and special resolutions, like New Year’s Resolutions, is a very sacramental thing, a very Catholic thing. So, if you've not made a resolution yet I'd encourage you to do so, and to do so thinking of the new beginning manifested in Our Lady.
To sum up. New Year’s Day is a day of new beginnings, and this is what we see in Our Lady, the Mother of new life, the Mother of God, the mother of us.