Sunday, 28 December 2008

Feast of the Holy Family, Year B, Shaftesbury

Today, the Sunday after Christmas, is always kept as the feast of the Holy Family, namely, the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Christmas is a time when we typically think of families: many people meet up with their families. I’ve got my own family staying with me at the moment –and let me tell you, that presbytery is fine for one man but it is not fine for a family of 8!
But there are deeper reasons to think about the family at Christmas, theological not just social reasons, and that’s why the Church gives us today’s feast of the Holy Family.
“Family Values” are not fashionable these days, in fact, the Catholic Church gets strongly attacked for being the only body left in this country defending the traditional family.

Today’s feast of the Holy Family reminds us of the simple fact that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were a FAMILY. When the Lord Jesus Christ, eternally existing before time began, when He chose how He would become human, He chose to be born in a FAMILY.
He chose to be raised by a couple who had given themselves to each other in marriage, in a lifelong commitment, a commitment that gave the child Jesus a secure environment to live in.
He chose to be raised by a couple that were married in a heterosexual union, parents that would offer the complimentarily and differences that a man and a woman bring.
He chose to be born amidst a nation and people, God’s Chosen People, a people that God had chosen and formed so that its heterosexual, exclusive, committed, notion of marriage and family life would be the place where He would dwell.
He chose, more particularly, to be raised by a couple exceptional in holiness and virtue. Our Lady, we know as Catholics, was Immaculately Conceived and lived sinlessly all her life, “full of grace”. St Joseph, too, Tradition teaches us, was noteworthy in his goodness, as the examples we see in the Gospels show.

Jesus chose such a family as His home to do two things for us:
To give us an example of what family life is;
And, to make family life holy, to make family life a place where Jesus Himself can come to meet us and help us.

Now, none of this makes family life easy or simple. Though Christ wishes to reign in our families, and wishes to strengthen and help us live family life, this doesn’t happen automatically. But one of the things that today’s feast should remind us is that it is the HOLY Family we should turn to when we need help with our own families. Struggling to be a father? “Go to Joseph”(Gen 41:53): go to his example, go to him in your prayers. Similarly with Our Lady.
In as much as fail in family life, let us remember that Mary and Joseph had their difficulties too, and as we struggle and fail they will help us remedy what we can. They struggled to find a place for Our Lady to give birth –in the stable! They had to flee to Egypt to escape the wicked King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
The Church promotes what is sometimes dismissively called ‘traditional’ family life, but she does not promote this because she foolishly thinks it is easy. No, she promotes it because it is easier than the alternative. Easier than the ever increasing breakdown in society that we see around us. And though the effects of that breakdown effect each of us, by turning to the Holy Family we can help maintain some of those values in our own families.

To conclude, I want to ask you all to join with me in praying for family life, and for our own families in this parish. On Vocations Sunday I asked you to join me in a novena, in 9 days of prayers for priestly and religious vocations. Today, I ask you to join me in a novena for family life. We’ll say this pray at Mass for 9 days, please also say it at home and with your families.
By ourselves we struggle, but with their help Christ can happily reign in our homes too.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas, Shaftesbury

There’re always a lot of films on TV over Christmas, and one of those on recently was the classic Disney movie “Dumbo”, described in the TV guide as “a heart warming tale”. It’s a movie I’ve watched many times and it is, indeed, a heart warming tale. For those of you who can’t remember, it’s about a baby elephant who wants to fly, and learns that it can fly if it just believes it can, and flaps its ears. Victory over the impossible by having faith.

And I say this because many people think that Christmas is like that. A lovely heart-warming tale. But no more true than elephants being able to fly. In fact, a recent survey showed that the majority of people in our now godless nation believe that Christmas is little more than a fairy tale. However, we’re NOT gathered here just because of a STORY.

Now, this, said, it’s true that even as a story, Christmas IS certainly a heart warming tale –all the images of the Christmas accounts make up a good story: Mary and Joseph struggling to find a place to stay, finally being welcomed into someone’s stable, with the cattle lowing. The angels appearing to the shepherds to tell them about the new-born baby boy. The star appearing and guiding the three wise men from the East to come and worship the little boy.
It’s natural that children should hear and understand this tale, natural that Christmas should be especially a time for children. The Christian story has often been referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told” -and it is.

But we’re not gathered here tonight because it sounds beautiful. The early Christians didn’t die for the Faith because it sounded beautiful. The Christian Faith didn’t spread throughout the Roman Empire and to this very land just because it all sounds so sweet. We’re here because it’s TRUE.

We all know that the most inspiring stories aren’t inspiring because they are good stories, they’re inspiring because they are true. Stories about REAL heroes saving REAL people in need, and sacrifices made for others –the BEST stories are those that we know are TRUE.

The REAL reason that Christmas is The Greatest Story Ever Told is that it’s TRUE. And not only is it true, but in hearing it we recognise the elements that can show us what we’re truly looking for as human beings.
In the long prophecies of the Old Testament, we hear of how the Jews were waiting for a Messiah –just as each of us are always longing for something more in life.
In the many miracles and signs we hear of the sort of clear and definite guidance that we all want in life –don’t we all want a star to point us in the right direction?
In the humility and weakness of the little child’s birth we hear an echo of how each of us knows that we are weak, not as strong as we would like to be.
In the struggle against the wicked King Herod, and the rejection when there is no room at the inn, we see our own struggles in life –and we hear that this child is at one with us in them.

Despite the scoffing of unbelievers, the Gospels are one of the clearest and most historical of all written records. They record huge wonders with mild understatement -the way you record facts not fairy stories. Even Jesus’s enemies acknowledged the miracles and proofs he worked. And his greatest miracle was to fulfil his promise to rise from the dead –he said he’d do it and he did. Not just a heart warming tale but a work of power and wonder.

It is no ordinary child whose birth we celebrate today –he is the Lord God himself come as one of us. Not just a tale, but the truth that all creation has been longing for.
“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light… unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”.(Isa 9: 2; 6)

Sunday, 21 December 2008

4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Today is the final Sunday before Christmas, the final Sunday for us to prepare ourselves to be ready for it.
In order that we might prepare ourselves well, every year, on this final Sunday, the Church focuses our intention on the person of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the one who welcomed Christ into the world 2000 years ago, and she is the one who can help us welcome him into our hearts today.
And I want to pick out ONE thing in her that we can take as a role model: her humility, in particular, her humility in doing the will of someone else.

Jesus speaks a lot about humility in the gospels. In fact, humility is the one thing that He tells us to learn from Him, “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart”(Mt 11:29), He said. Humility is a virtue that is put to us repeatedly in the gospels, and in the very life of Jesus. He showed us humility in action in putting others before himself when He washed His disciples feet. He showed us His humble willingness to suffer insult and shame by His death on the cross. He showed us humility in becoming a tiny baby in the manger of Bethlehem. And He showed His humility in the agony of the Garden, in Gethsemane before he died, when He sweated blood but nonetheless said, “Not my will but Thine be done”.
In the Old Testament we hear how God used to come to Moses, and spoke to him face as face, as with a friend, because Moses was humblest man on earth. In today’s gospel we heard how God came in a unique way to Our Lady, she who was humble and obedient, who said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord”(Lk 1:38). When she agreed to do not HER will but the will of someone else, of God.

Jesus does not come to everyone:
Jesus comes to those who have a heart like His heart, a heart that is humble. He doesn’t come to the proud, He tells us that they will be cast from their thrones, while the humble and meek will inherit the earth.

Humility is also what we need if we what there to be peace in our homes this Christmas. A family where everyone is thinking of themselves only can be a nightmare at Christmas. But a family where everyone has the humility to think of other people before themselves, to think of what other people need and what other people want, is a family where there is peace. In fact, a family where just some of the people of thinking of others is peace: we can’t wait for everyone else to be humble before becoming humble ourselves: “I’ll think about what they want when they start thinking about what I want”. No. Jesus was humble first.

In His mother too He showed us humility. She was humble enough to accept the will of God. She was humble enough to accept the will of God before her own. How? Because she was humble of heart there was room in her heart for God to come and dwell. And if we are humble then He will come and dwell in us too. As we sing in the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in”.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Isa 61:1-2.10-11; 1Thess 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8.19-28

Every December I get to the stage where I am now. It’s already half-way through Advent, but I haven’t got half the presents I need to get, I haven’t sent half the cards I need to send. This year I haven’t got any presents and I haven’t sent any cards. And like every year, a panic starts to set in, and I wonder if I’ll manage to achieve it before the big day!

In the midst of that panic, every year, the Church sends us this Sunday called Gaudete Sunday, a name that means rejoice, a name derived from the ancient entrance antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say rejoice”.
The cynic in me says, “Why should I rejoice?” I’ve had a hard day, I’m tired, and I don’t need someone with a smiling face telling me that I should be happy.
But I also know that there is a reason why centuries of tradition have focused this 3rd Sunday of Advent on the need to rejoice.

As we in the Church wait for the Lord’s coming in glory, and we’ve been waiting for 2000 years now, we can get just a little bit tired. We can forget that even though the Lord is not with us yet in glory, he is with us. Not in glory, but he is with us. John the Baptist had to tell the people that, “There stands among you –unknown to you- the one who is coming”. And it is the same today, even though we can so easily forget it.

As we plough through the crowds in Somerfield for our turkey and Christmas cake, as we wait in the post office queue for the stamps for our Christmas cards, as we buy the fancy chocolates from Tescos, the Lord is with us.
We may have forgotten who it is that gives us the strength to face another day, we may have forgotten who it is that gives us the grace to experience every little joy and happiness that comes our way. But the Lord has not forgotten. He is here with us every moment our lives. He sends our guardian angel to watch over us, he accepts the prayers of the saints on our behalf. He himself is the one who sustains us.

Here in this Mass we are given the clearest expression of Our Lord’s abiding presence -because he comes to us in Holy Communion. Very soon the bread and the wine will be changed so that they are no longer bread and wine but are The Lord Jesus Christ himself, fully present for us, body and blood, soul and divinity. And even now, at this very moment he is present in our tabernacle, present “in his physical reality”(Paul VI)–and how easily we forget!

His presence for us in the Eucharist is not an isolated event in our lives. His perfect and unsurpassed presence here is only a sign to us of the fact that he is continually present to us in many other ways in our lives. If only we would see him –if only, as the call of John the Baptist says, we would recognise the one who is among us but unknown to us.

As we continue to prepare for Christmas, as we continue to wait for his coming in glory, let us remember that he is already here with us. And let us rejoice.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

This week I celebrated by 10th Anniversary of priestly ordination, and there are a number of things I’ve learnt over these last 10 years. And one of the things I’ve learnt is that there is a rather odd truth about the priesthood: to be more of a priest you have to be less of yourself. And this is like St John the Baptist –he said: “I must decrease and He [i.e. Christ] must increase”.
This notion stands in direct opposition to a lot of contemporary thinking. Many people today speak as if the ONLY important thing in life is to “just be yourself”.
But, for a priest, I am nothing UNLESS I am, not myself, but someone else, namely, Christ.
I made this point on Wednesday, speaking about the Mass:
Whose body do I feed the people with? Not mine but Christ’s.
Whose words do I say in the consecration? Not mine but Christ’s.
And as I stand at the altar as the intermediary between God’s people and the Father, in whose person do I stand and whose prayer do I offer? Not mine but Christ’s.

In as much as I am a TRUE priest, this holds for ALL that I do. When I teach, when I preach, when I visit the sick, when I bless a home. If I am doing this things IN REALITY then it is not I who do them but Christ, with me as His instrument.
Of course, it is possible, and easily done, for me to do all these things NOT as Christ but as myself. To fill my sermons with myself, to make my conversation about myself, and, even when I am trying to be helpful, to give MY advice not Christ’s advice.
But in as much as I do that, I am not a real priest.

This, actually, holds true for ALL of us as Christians. We are ALL called to have Christ “formed in” us, as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 4:19).
We were created by Christ, and for Christ, so we can only ever be completed IF we are formed INTO Christ.
By ourselves, we are weak, and small, and insignificant.
But if we are formed into Him then we are formed into something incredible.

(pause) Now, this is something of a mystery. And the mystery is this:
When I die to myself and let Christ be formed in me, instead of ME being destroyed in this process, in fact, I become more fully MYSELF.
As a Christian, I am called to have Christ become incarnate in my own flesh. But he doesn’t do this by destroying my personality, by making me speak with a Palestinian accent or speak the Aramaic he spoke 2000 years ago, or by making me have the same skin complexion and colour that He had.
Rather, He becomes incarnate in my flesh by using my own personality, my quirks, my character, my language, but elevating them and purifying them so that they become something more than they would be by themselves.
So dying to self is truly, as Christ said, dying to self is the only way to come to life.

Let us think of John the Baptist again. He said that he was not the Messiah. He said that “Someone is following me... who is more powerful than I am”. He said, “I must decrease and He must increase”. He said that he must “prepare the way”, prepare the way not for himself but for someone else.
But all of this actually made John the Baptist MORE than he was by himself, it made him more because he found his true orientation in Christ. And it made him MORE because CHRIST is so much more.

Advent is the time when we are called upon to “prepare the way” for Christ to come. And that means prepare the way for Him to come in our very lives. As long as we are proudly insisting on “being ourselves”, then we cannot let Him in us or let Him be formed in us. But, if we seek to die to sin, die to self, die to all in us that is not Christ, THEN we will find all that we are created to be.
And it is only then that we will be happy and satisfied, and the message of “console my people console them” that we heard in our first reading from Isaiah, it is only then that consolation will be ours.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

10th Priestly Ordination Anniversary Mass 3rd Dec 2008 (Anniversary itself was the 2nd), Shaftesbury

It’s wonderful to have you come here and join me for this celebration. At the risk of self-absorption I’d like to share with you some of my experiences of the priesthood these ten years.

Many people talk about how things in their life were unexpected. After a marriage people often say it’s not what they expected, or after getting a big job.
But, I’d have to say, for me, priesthood has been largely what I did expect. Now, that said, I was looking towards my priestly ordination from about the age of 5 –one of my earliest memories is kneeling during the Mass, watching the priest offer the Mass, and thinking: I’m going to do that one day.
The priesthood has been much as I expected. I expected many difficulties, and I have had them. I expected long hours praying in cold churches, and I have had them. I expected late night calls to anoint the dying, I expected uncomfortable seats in the confessional, I expected difficult parishioners, I expected that many things that I’d start would fail, and in all these things and more: the priesthood has lived up to my expectations!
But I knew that life has difficulties, that the priesthood would have difficulties, and it’s been as expected.

But there are two things that I didn’t really expect: first, that God’s generosity would exceed anything I had budgeted in from Him, and second, that I would change how I feel about the Mass.

I knew that God promised and promises that “my grace is sufficient for you”. I knew that the Providential ordering of God directs all things and that no difficulty would come to me but those difficulties that the Lord would prepare me for and strengthen me to bear. I knew that wherever the Cross comes the opportunity of the Resurrection comes with it. And I knew that the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and rewards him.
But my experience of these realities has far surpassed the mere statement of these doctrines.
There were many things I feared, in my own weaknesses, that I have been given the unexpected strength to not only cope with but live as if those fears had never existed in the first place.
And for every difficulty that has come there have been joys and satisfactions that made it all seem right.
So, while I knew this as a baseline doctrine, and kind of expected it, my experience opf God’s genroisty has been that it has greatly exceeded what He promised.

But there was second thing I said I didn’t expect in my priesthood, and that was how I’ve changed how I feel about the Mass.
Today it is ten years since I offered my First Mass. And I’ve come to realise that the Mass is much more important than I ever thought.
I always knew that the Mass has infinite value, infinite merits as Christ’s Sacrifice of Calvary made present continually on our altars and offered for us to the Father.
But I have experienced, more and more, that the Mass is what the priest is about.
In one direction: The Mass is what the priest is about because only the priest can offer the Mass.
But in another direction: The Mass is what the priest is about because the priest qua priest is not about what he is doing but about Christ. Whose body do I feed the people with? Not mine but Christ’s. Whose words do I say in the consecration? Not mine but Christ’s. And as I stand at the altar as the intermediary between God’s people and the Father, in whose person do I stand and whose prayer do I offer? Not mine but Christ’s.
And, in as much as I am a TRUE priest, this holds for ALL that I do. When I teach, when I preach, when I visit the sick, when I bless a home. If I am doing this things IN REALITY then it is not I who do them but Christ, with me as His instrument.
It is true that I also am at work, that His presence becomes incarnate in a certain sense in my flesh and in my humanity and my personality –and even in my personal quirks His incarnation becomes manifest in those.
BUT in as much as I am priest qua priest, I must be Christ.
And in as much as ANY Christian is a Christian qua Christian, we must be Christ.
And it is the Mass that SHOWS this most clearly, and by His gifts of grace, makes it POSSIBLE most directly.

So, in this anniversary, I am grateful to you for coming, grateful to God for the priesthood, and grateful that His gifts have even exceeded even what He had promised.