Sunday, 30 August 2009

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Deut 4:1-8, Mk 7:1-23, James 1:17-27
What would you say if someone asked you if you were wiser than the people in society around you? Or, more precisely, rather than claiming to be personally wiser: would you say that you follow a wisdom that is wiser than the secular society around us?
Obviously, this is a fairly bold claim, what many would say is an arrogant claim, but the real issue is not whether such a claim is arrogant or bold but whether it is simply true. And, our Scripture readings today very directly refer to such a claim.

In the book of Deuteronomy we heard Moses challenge the people to compare their "laws and customs", the laws and customs that had been given to them by God, to compare the wisdom of this way of life with that of the pagan cultures around them. As Moses put it, "no other people is as wise and prudent as THIS great nation”. This wisdom, of course, not being their own invention, but having been revealed to them by God. Now, as Christians, we are of the heirs of the moral life revealed by God to His Chosen People to the Jews: the Lord Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, fulfilled and completed the revealing of that way of life by superseding the regulations of the Old Temple while affirming the moral code in the 10 Commandments and others that live it out. This is the great wisdom that we Christians are called to follow.

In the gospel, we heard Jesus denounce the Pharisees. And he denounced them for a very specific offence: they were ranking "human traditions" above the commandments of God. After all, Moses had warned, “add nothing”, “take nothing”. While you and I may not sprinkle ourselves and we return from the marketplace, and may not wash our arms precisely up to the elbow before eating, we too run the risk of placing the "human traditions" of the society around us above the way of life revealed to us by God. Do we adhere to “human tradition” of comfort and gluttony of modern living or do we adhere to the self-denial fasting we seen the saints? Do we adhere to a "human tradition" where an evening without television is almost unthinkable? Do we judge the sexual impurity of what we see on our television screens according to the “human traditions” of 21st-century Britain or do we judge them according to the standard of Christ? Let us not ignore the fact that the list of vices Christ referred to as coming out of man's heart, that list started with "fornication". Do we adhere to a "human tradition" that gives excessive concern to the preservation of a certain image of a middle-class lifestyle?

To be a Christian, just like being a Jew before us, means to live according to different traditions to those in the non-Christian society around us. And it means remembering, as we heard in the letter from St James, that what we have received is not a mere "human" wisdom, but has come "from above", it has been revealed to us by God, in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is precisely because it is "from above" that we need to acknowledge that it is a greater wisdom than that of the secular society around us.

And if we use the test that Moses offered to compare the Christian way of life without the world around us, we should not hesitate to say that it is more "wise". Family stability is best aided by the sexual and personal conduct taught by Christians. Society stability is best aided by being founded on the foundation of stable families. Personal stability is best aided by acknowledging that there is a God above us, that we need to exercise self-control, and we need to put aside love of self in order to love our neighbour and to love God.

So, it is an arrogant claim to Christians to claim to follow a greater wisdom than that of the society around us? No. While it is a bold claim, if Christ is who He says He is, if he is truly God, truly the long-awaited Messiah, then his wisdom must indeed be wiser than the wisdom of this passing Age. The continual challenge to us as Christians is to endeavour to live out the wisdom that we have received, because if we do not live it out then people will not say that Christians as Moses said of the Jewish people of old, “no other people is as wise and prudent as THIS great nation”.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

We just heard a Scripture passage that many people dismiss, the one from Ephesians where St Paul says that women should "submit "to their husbands. I want to point out that it's DANGEROUS to just dismiss Scripture, even when it's a scriptural passage that is not easy to interpret. It's dangerous to dismiss Scripture because when we divorce ourselves from Scripture we divorce ourselves from one of our primary contact points with God Himself.

Of course, there are many Scripture passages that are difficult to understand. That is as true for me as a priest as much as for anybody else, I need to seek help if I'm to understand them.

When we have a tough text of Scripture the first thing we need to do is admit that it IS tough. And if something is tough to understand we need to seek HELP to understand it. As Catholics, we should understand that there is a Tradition within which the Scriptures were written and within which the Scriptures are to be understood. Similarly, as Catholics, we should understand that it was the authority of the Catholic Church that composed the Bible, and that discerned which books were truly inspired and to be included in the Bible, and which books were not inspired and not to be included in the Bible. And these two factors are what we need for any proper interpretation of the Bible: we need to look to the Tradition and see how the saints have interpreted any tough text of Scripture, and how the great theologians of the Church have understood this text; and, more authoritatively, we need to look to how the teaching authority, the Magisterium, has interpreted and does interpret any particular text of Scripture.

So if we take that approach to this difficult text from Ephesians: We see first, that the original context, its location within the tradition, was as one of what are called "household codes". It was part of a collection of brief exhortations calling on each member of the household to live his or her role and to live it well. As such, these codes where imbedded within the cultural norms of their time, while purifying them of what was hostile to the Gospel.
When we look to how the saints and theologians of the Church down the centuries have interpreted this text we don't see them establishing as permanently normative the pattern of society living and husband-wife models of ancient Ephesus. To take another example from these household codes of St Paul: the saints and theologians long condemned slavery even though it was normal in St Paul’s culture are he referred to it. Similarly with the teaching Magisterium of the Church.
How then has the Church interpreted this text of Ephesians? The primary thrust of this text, in St Paul’s own time and in our own, is to show what the MOTIVATION of the Christian should be in a household –it has to be a CHRSITIAN motivation. i.e. a husband must not only love his wife but love he must love her as the Christian that he is, because he is a Christian, motivated as a Christian, i.e. in that total self-sacrificing love with which Christ loved his Church and died for her. While wives: a wife is similarly to love AS A CHRISTIAN: in that humble and obedient fashion that the Church must love Christ.

Such an interpretation gives a woman a greater dignity then she possessed in the pre-Christian society. And, historically, it is reasonable to claim that such an interpretation is behind those legitimate aspects of the greater dignity afforded to women today. That said, not every aspect of modern feminism is compatible with the Christian Gospel. In particular, those patterns of thought that treat the body as something irrelevant to what we are, those patterns of thought that suggest that all we really are is our minds -such patterns of thought are actually a reversion to pagan pre-Christian thought patterns. The Jewish and Christian revelation from God indicates that while men and women are of equal dignity they are not the same: fathers and mothers complement each other and together form a whole family, man-man “marriages” or woman-woman “marriages” lack the ability to provide a proper parenting context of children. And this truth is also part of how the Tradition and Magisterium have interpreted texts such as this one from Ephesians.

So when we have a difficult text of Scripture, we need to always remember that Scripture is the inspired "Word of God". We need to listen to it and seek to understand it within the Tradition it was written in, the Catholic Tradition, and interpreted by Catholic Magisterium that first told people that this text was inspired, and today tells us how it is to be interpreted.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Assumption of Our Lady, Shaftesbury

We celebrate today the great feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. Our Lady is often referred to as "our hope" and I want to point how the truth we see manifested in Our Lady’s Assumption indicates WHY Our Lady should give us hope
-and in each case to understand hope we need to understand is the opposite which is fear.

In Our Lady we see the defining example of how Our Lord deals with humanity, so what we see happen to her indicates how we can expect Our Lord will also treat us.
Now, the most simple truth we see in Our Lady's Assumption is the fact that God rewarded her for her goodness: she was not only conceived "full of grace" but she chose to continue, and each moment of her life, she chose to cooperate with that grace, to continue in grace, to continue free from sin.
And because she never allowed the corruption of sin to touch her soul, it was fitting that corruption should similarly not touch her body in death.
When we acknowledge as Catholics that “at the end of her earthly life" she was assumed "body and soul" up into heaven, we are acknowledging that God rewarded her to her faithfulness to His graces, that God rewarded her for consistently cooperating with the graces He bestowed upon her.

So although it is possible to fear that God will not reward us to our own goodness, for our own faithfulness in the midst of difficulty, for our own persevering in virtuous acts even when it is difficult to be patient, difficult to be loving, difficult to be what God calls us to be, what we see in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, what we see in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, gives us reason for us to have hope that our goodness will also be rewarded.

Particular aspects of this "rewarding" for goodness can also be traced in our three Scripture readings:
Our second reading (1 Cor 15:20-26) refers to the fact that Christ's resurrection from the dead made Him the "first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep" -the first fruits of a vast hoped-for harvest of the virtuous resurrected to eternal life. Our Lady’s Assumption gives her the place as the most VISIBLE one to have followed Christ in this resurrection -as is fitting for the one who most perfectly cooperated with His plan.
Our first reading (Apoc 12:1-6.10) referred to the "great sign” that appeared in heaven, the "woman" crowned with 12 stars. And again, this public displaying of her glory is fitting for her who sinlessly cooperated with His plan.
Lastly, our gospel text (Lk 1:39-56) included Our Lady’s great hymn the “Magnificat” –“my soul glorifies the Lord". And, in particular, she proclaimed the greatness of the Lord for the fact that He had exalted the lowly, He had lifted up her who had lowered herself in service to Him and to others. So, in as much as we fear that our lowliness just leads us to being trampled upon and ignored and taken advantage of by others, the Magnificat of Our Lady, and the Assumption of Our Lady, gives us hope.

I started by saying that Our Lady is stereotypically calls our "hope". On one hand she is our hope because we can turn to her powerful motherly intercession to rescue us in our difficulties. But my primary point to you today, is that she is our hope because in her life and Assumption we see that God is faithful to His goodness and that He rewards those who are faithful to Him. Thus none of us should despair even when being good seems tough: God gave her a grace, she cooperated with it, and she was rewarded. The Lord gives us, too, the graces we need, and if we cooperate with them we too will be rewarded.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 6:41-51: "I am the living Bread which has come down from heaven"

I recently heard something I found quite disturbing. A quotation. Something that disturbed me in that it reminded me that I am not what a should be. I heard a quote from a saint talking about what made him happy, and it made me realise that it is rarely what makes me happy. The quote was from St John Vianney, the Cure D’Ars, and it was about how the Eucharist is what gives us happiness. And the quote goes like this:
“Without the Eucharist there would be no happiness in this world; life would be intolerable. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive our joy and happiness”.

At one level, that quote seems impossibly pious. Many of us might hear such a thing and wonder how it could possibly be true. Most of us grasp at happiness in mundane things like food and TV, and so the type of happiness that this saint is speaking of seems impossibly removed from us. So, one of the ways we need to understand such a saying is to see it in the context of that person’s life, to see the type of holiness and the type of happiness that he is speaking of. So let me refer to some elements of his life.

St John Mary Vianney died 150 years ago this year. He lived in France shortly after the bloody French Revolution, at a time when it was frequently dangerous to be a priest. He was assigned to the small village of Ars by his bishop who told him: “There is not much love for God in that place; you will put some there”. And St John Vianney did indeed bring love of God to that place and by his death it was a village transformed from moral laxity and indifference to fervent devotion and love of God.

He brought the love of God to that village, not least, because he knew for himself that there is no other way to happiness. As he said, “Man has a noble task: that of prayer and love. To pray and to love, that is the happiness of man on earth”. We are not like the stones, or the plants, or the beasts: we can pray, this is what we have been made for. Stones, and plants, and animals don’t pray because they can’t pray –its not in their nature. For us, however, to love and to pray are two sides of the same coin, because prayer is an act of love, time spent with the one who loved us and died for us.

When he arrived in his parish his people were indifferent to God and indifferent to him. He started his work with years of days and nights spent in long hours of prayer. When he was asked what he was doing, when he was asked how one prayed, he said, “I look at the good God, and he looks at me”. He said that to be with God was not hard, “prayer makes time pass swiftly”, and it passed swiftly because he was with Someone he loved. He would often be known to walk long hours on lonely journeys through the snow, and yet he said he felt no sorrow, because he spent the time in prayer, lost in prayer “like a fish in water, because [he] was absorbed in God”. Whereas you and I might seek out happiness in food, he would boil a pan of a few potatoes and then live on the same saucepan for ages, even as the potatoes went mouldy, eating nothing else for week and week, year after year.

There is a particular act of prayer that I want to remind you of, however, and that is prayer to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Eucharist, as he is present continually in our tabernacle. As I started by saying, St John Vianney, said that there is no happiness on earth without the Eucharist. And he said this because he knew that it is in the Eucharist that God is among us, it is in the Eucharist that we can come to God and God can come to us. When he said that there is no happiness but in prayer and love, he didn’t say this meaning some prayer to a distant God, or some love to an abstract god we cannot know. Rather, he said this meaning love and prayer for the God we DO know, and who we can love personally, and who we can lovingly pray to personally as he makes Himself present to us. And it is only here that we can find true happiness.

True happiness is NOT shown in those people who possess many things, or those who have many sensual pleasures, or in those who are most successful in the ways that this passing world measures success. Rather, true happiness is shown in the saints, the saints who manifested their true happiness by the fact that they continued to be joyful even eating mouldy potatoes and trudging through the snow -when you or I would be grumbling. True happiness is seen in the saints because they lived the essence of true happiness, love and prayer, and found the Lord where He has made Himself available to be found: “Without the Eucharist there would be no happiness in this world; life would be intolerable. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive our joy and happiness”.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Ex 16:2-15; Jn 6:24-35
In our Gospel today Jesus refers to hunger, refers to our being hungry for the Bread of Life that is Himself. The hunger he is speaking of in a SPIRITUAL hunger. And its importnat to note that it is easy for us to think that we’re not really hungry in our own spirit, just no doubt as there were many people like the Pharisees in Jesus's own time who thought they didn't need this Bread of Life, thought that they were not hungry in their soul, that they were just fine. But, even if we don’t realise that we are hungry, that our soul is ‘skinny’ and unhealthy, Jesus us tells us that our souls ARE hungering for this Bread of Life.

Being hungry in our soul is not something that is necessarily self-evident. If we compare the body to the soul: When we need to feed the body, REALLY needs to feed the body, this is something that is pretty self-evident just by looking at the state of the body: we look overly thin, pale, pasty. But when we need to feed the soul how can we tell what the state of the soul is? Well, there ARE indicators of the state of our own soul, and our need for Jesus, and the way that our soul is better than being with Jesus: so I want to refer to 3 factors that we need to recall.

First, most drastically, there is the fact of sin. In as much as sin is in us then we are in dire need for being fed by Jesus –even though this means we need to get to confession and be forgiven so that we are fit for receive Jesus as the food of our souls.

Second, more subtly, there is the question of EVERLASTING life. Jesus says, "Do not work the food that CANNOT last, but work the food that endures to eternal life". Now, while the existence of a life after death may not be self-evident to those who lack faith, nonetheless, it is self-evident that food for the body does not last for an everlasting life. It is self-evident that the most material food can be is, as Jesus put it "food that cannot last". So, if there is an everlasting life, and there is, then we who recognise this fact need the type of food that only Jesus promises to give, the food that is Himself, as the Eucharist.

And that brings me to the third and last factor, which is not so much a life that is eternal, but a life that is UNSEEN. As we Catholics say in the creed at every Sunday Mass, we believe in the Creator of things "seen and unseen" -we believe that there are things that are unseen even if they are not unknown. “Holiness” is a thing that can be publicly manifest, but it is not something that can be precisely MEASURED. Similarly, the life of grace, the strength that comes from the sacraments, the ability to fight sin and grow in virtue: these are things that relate to our whole life, including our visible life, even are they an effect that cannot be measured.

To come back to the question of us being hungry in our soul even when we do not realise it, to being hungry for the Eucharist.
The vast majority of people recognise that there is more to us than just the body, and there is something that endures beyond death. The issue Jesus raises in these gospel passages, is the FOOD that relates to this life -if there is such a life, and Jesus assures us that there is, then it is only reasonable to acknowledge that this life within us needs feeding.
Jesus is the one who not only tells us that we are hungry, not only tells us that we are ‘skinny’ without Him, but also tells us how we can be fed, namely, by Him, in the Eucharist.