Sunday, 30 November 2008

1st Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

I want to say a few words about ‘hope’, REAL hope. Because it seems to me that there’s not a great deal of hope around in the modern world.

I’m part of a generation that doesn’t really believe in hope. We’re not BAD people, but we just don’t think there’s much to hope for. We heard of the naive idealism of the generation before us, of flower-power and hippies, a generation full of an idealism that thought it would make a new world, but we saw that the new world didn’t happen. And so my generation is typified by a kind of practical cynicism: thinking that there is no grand ideal, there’s nothing to live for but myself, and my immediate friends. Not setting out to be evil, but not living with a vision of hope.
And our modern world has little hope because it has little faith.

To journey in hope means to set out in the expectation of something better. That holds for a kind of everyday worldly hope, but also for a grander supernatural hope –to be setting out expecting something better.
Faith, divine faith, is when the intellect grasps the awesome end-goal of human existence that Christ revealed.
Hope, takes that vision of the end goal that Faith has perceived, and then sets out for it.

When I wake up in the morning, if my day is heading towards a joyful goal that evening, then I live in hope. My activity works towards that goal. I do my activity well because I want the goal that the activity is heading towards.
This can hold for some ordinary good thing, like meeting friends and family. The joyful goal means that I live in hope: hope pervades every part of the activity that leads to that meeting.

I say all this today because this is what Advent should be about: rekindling our hope.
Because there is a goal in my life, not just a goal for this evening, but a goal for my whole life, and a goal for the whole of human existence, a goal that the whole of the cosmos is yearning towards.
Advent prepares us for Christmas. But it starts by reminding us not of Christ’s first coming in Bethlehem, but of His Second Coming.
The cosmos was created for a goal, and that goal was Christ: that physical matter would evolve, be infused with a spiritual soul in Adam, and that Christ would come as a descendent of Adam to enter His creation, uniting it to Himself.
But even that goal, Jesus told us, was but a step towards the final goal when He would come in glory.
We live NOW in the time of opportunity. We live in the time when Christ has been made manifest. We live in the time when it is possible to know Christ, to love Christ, to live as he asked us, and to be supported in all this by the sacraments He established for us in the Church –so that we are fed with His very Body, fed with the Bread of Heaven as we live here yearning for Heaven.

And this means that we should be living in HOPE.
When I wake in the morning, the hope-filled joy that should motivate me through each day is the possibility of living this day with Christ and for Christ. That He who came before and will come again can come TODAY in my life IF I make HIM the goal of my life and of my day living and of my working.

But all of this can only happen if we are awake to what is going on, awake to where history is heading, awake to the coming Return of Christ:
“And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!”(Mk 13:37)

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Christ the King, Year A, Shaftesbury

Today is the feast of Christ the King. There aren’t many kings around today. A hundred years ago there were many kings.
When some of our congregation were born Germany had a kaiser, but there is a kaiser no more. Austria-Hungary had an emperor, but that emperor is no more and he went the same way as his empire. Italy had a king. Spain had a king, then didn’t, then did.
Earthly kingdoms come and kingdoms go, and this world's kings come and go with them.

It was in midst of this Twentieth Century falling of kings that the Church instituted today’s feast of “Christ the King”. And the Church did so for a very definite reason: to say that though earthly kings come and go, Christ is King FOREVER, His Kingdom will not fail, and that we are FOREVER called to pay homage to Him.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory” (Mt25:31).
‘escorted by all the angels’ –now that is a key indicator about kind of king he is.
Queen Elizabeth, for all of England’s grandeur, pomp, and circumstance, Queen Elizabeth is not escorted by angels. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is not king become the opinion polls show 77% support a continued monarchy.
He will be ‘escorted by angels’ because He made the angels, He made the cosmos, He made our planet, and He made us. He has a claim to the throne that exceeds anything else imaginable. He made the throne, He established the Kingdom, and though He has seen fit to leave us free to abuse His domain, ONE day, He tells us, He will return as Lord and Judge and His Kingdom will be evident for all to see.

His Kingdom is His and will be His because He has the power.
But, as today’s readings remind us, His kingdom is not about power, at least not about power as we usually think of it.
St Paul tells us about Christ’s rank over “every sovereignty, authority and power”(1Cor15). BUT the basis of the claim that St Paul indicates is that Christ died and rose for us –which is not a normal basis of a claim to the throne. It is His love and active CARE for His dominion, for us, that is the deepest claim he makes to demand our allegiance.
He will judge us not merely because He is our creator and sustainer;
He will judge us because He loves us and died for us, and will ask us how we have loved others in return. As today’s gospel indicates (Mt25), He will ask if we did the things He did: did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and welcome the stranger.

And His requirement that we care for others is not just indicated in the historical fact that He cared for others when He walked in Palestine 2000 years ago,
Or just indicated in the present fact that one of the ways He cares today is through the good members of His Church,
But it’s also indicated in His promise that He WILL care in a definitive way for the needy of those judged worthy to be with Him at the end of time, as we heard in our first reading from Ezekiel, “I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will show them where to rest –it is the Lord who speaks. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong... I shall be a true shepherd to them”(Ezek 34:15).

We have gathered here today, as the Lord calls us to gather and worship Him every Sunday,
And we may not have come here thinking of Him as “king”,
But He IS king, He WILL be king, and His kingdom will not fail.
And we’d do well to remember that fact.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

We’re now in November, the month when the Church particularly calls our mind to thoughts of the dead. Last week we had Remembrance Sunday. And, I want to say a few words about the importance of PRAYING for the dead.

Jesus told us, as we all know, that we must “Love our neighbour”, and, in reflecting on this command over the centuries, the saints have noted that there are both needs of the body and of the soul. And one of the 7 “Spiritual Works of Mercy” is ‘praying of the dead’ –this is one way that we ‘love our neighbour’.

But WHY should we pray for the souls of the dead? Protestants don’t. However, the Jews of Jesus’s time did. We read in the Bible, in the book of Maccabees about how Judas Maccabees, a great leader of the Jewish people in the 2nd Century before Christ, arranged for a sacrifice to be offered in the Temple, a sacrifice to atone for the sins of those who had died, so that “they would be released from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45). And this stands as a clear written record of the belief and practice of centuries of Jewish, and then Christian thought: the belief that the prayers of the living can be of help to those who have died. And there are two ways that the prayers of the living can help the dead: (i) in the judgement and (ii) in help through Purgatory.

In the Gospel we just heard Jesus say how he will come as judge(Mt 25). He will want to know how we have used our talents. Now, on earth, I can pray for someone who is living, and I can pray in particular that someone be judged leniently. And, after death, this remains true: I can pray for someone who has died, pray that God will judge him leniently. And this is the first reason we pray for the dead.

The second reason is to help souls while they are in place that we call “Purgatory”, to help them on their way to Heaven.
It is a self-evident fact that most of us when we die are not ready for Heaven. Hopefully, we are not so bad as to merit Hell. Yet, we are not really pure enough for Heaven. The Bible tells us that Heaven is a place of perfection, and if imperfect people went there then Heaven would not be perfect. So, we must be purified to be ready for Heaven. And, if we have not purified ourselves enough on earth, then we must be purified in the place called “Purgatory”.
Now, purification is not easy, it involves change. We all know that to change ourselves on earth is not easy, to break bad habits and so forth. Change in Purgatory is not easy either, and that is why the prayers of the living are important –to help them in their process of purification, of purgation, in “Purgatory”.
And this is a CONSOLING doctrine, a doctrine that I take both pleasure and pride in as a Catholic. It is consoling because it gives us hope for all those who die imperfect, like me.

That is why praying for the dead is an act of mercy, a way that we love our neighbour.

But how long should we pray for someone who has died? For a week, for a year? Well, on my Mom’s side, Grandma died 15 years ago and Grandpa 12. On my Dad’s side, Grandpa died when I was just a child. That was YEARS ago, but I STILL pray for them. God is outside time and hears ALL my prayers and are all used to help them. And so I keep praying.

A final thought: WHO should I pray for in praying for the dead? We should obviously pray for our friends and family. But loving our neighbour means also praying for the stranger. The Christian tradition puts an even greater emphasis on the need and value of being a neighbour to those who have no-one else to care for them. And so we pray for those who have no one else to pray for them –it’s how we love our neighbour.

So, in November, when we think of death and of the dead, let us not feel powerless before it, let us use the power God has given us and PRAY for the dead “that they might be released from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45).

Sunday, 2 November 2008

All Saints, Shaftesbury

When most of us think of saints we can tend to think of rather unusual people. People who performed miracles, saw visions, and so on. But what we celebrate today, on the feast of All Saints, should remind us that the truth is that most saints are ordinary, normal people, people like you and me.
Saints only become extraordinary by their good lives, by their holiness, and because of the glory that awaits them in heaven as a result of it.

When we think of the most famous saints here in our own England, we naturally think of the martyrs of the ‘Reformation’. In some countries most of their saints, especially their martyrs, were priests. But one of the most glorious things about the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales is that they came from every walk of life, every sort of social position or job. Men and women, laypeople and priests, lawyers, housewives and doctors. People from the big city in London, people from the country in Dorset. People who ruled the land like, and people who worked on it.

They are most famous to us because of the glorious end they gave to their lives in martyrdom, but they witness to the fact that everyone is called to the same vocation to holiness, the same loyalty to our Catholic Faith in God. The glorious death of a martyr rarely springs from out of a vacuum, it comes at the end of life that has dedicated itself to God –after all, it was the very faithfulness of that lifestyle that led to people martyr them.

The fact that the martyrs of our country came from every walk of life shows us that Catholicism once filled the whole culture of England, and it was only removed by force. If it filled the whole of our society before, then it can do so again, and it can do so in us.

Jesus Christ came to call sinners because he knew that each and every one of us is a sinner (except for his Immaculately Conceived Mother Mary). What he calls us to be is the opposite of being a sinner: being a saint. A call addressed to every human being, something that is possible for everyone -regardless of what they do in life. With the grace that Jesus Christ gives us from the Cross, we can all repent of our sins and live a life of holiness.

To live a life of holiness we must make every aspect of our life holy. We must be able to offer every single thing we do to God. We must sanctify every moment of our day. Our work, our rest, our joys, and our sorrows. We must welcome God into the whole of our lives, and never allow ourselves to be comfortable with habits of sin, even if they only seem to be in certain parts of our life. God made the whole of life, and we can enjoy and offer the whole of it back to him –but only if we avoid sin.

When we think of the feast of All Saints we should be thinking of ourselves, or at least of what we can be. Because you and I can be saints, we can have glory of heaven, we can be holy, we can have the happiness of fulfilment. This feast day of All saints is a day that can belong to each of us.