Sunday, 29 November 2009

1st Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 21:25-28;34-36
A friend of mine told me that the world was going to end on the 20th of November –and she had it on good authority: she knew a friend who knew a friend who’d heard that a cardinal had seen a vision of this.
So I waited, went to confession, said my prayers, watched the news of the 19th for any indications, and… woke up on the 20th with nothing changed -and actually, that was 9 years ago in 2000 (in lots of Millennial angst).

It’s very easy to dismiss such prophecies, but it would have to be said that there is an increasing number of them these days. I think myself, that it may well be more likely that the End of the World will come in our lifetime, than it has been in previous centuries.

What if we compare what we see today in the world with what Scripture predicts for the end of time? In the scriptures we’re told there will be PHYSICAL signs like great floods, earthquakes, drought, maybe we could add pollution and the destruction of the environment. We’re told there will be SOCIAL signs, and we see a great breakdown in our modern society, family fragmentation, permissive sexual practices, and the toleration of things like abortion and euthanasia that would have horrified a more civilised people. Scripture also speaks of a Great APOSTASY that will precede the End, and maybe we see that around us too. As numerous Catholic and Anglican bishops have publically said, we’ve become an atheistic society, we’ve turned our backs on God.

We might also note what the great Pope John Paul II used to call the ‘acceleration’ of the pace of history, change being more and more rapid and dramatic. In viewing the whole pattern of history, it’s only reasonable to ask if this is an acceleration towards the final conclusion.

But, of course, none of these things automatically mean that the End is nigh. Many of these things have happened before,
But the central point that I want to make is that just because the End of the World and the Second Coming of Christ hasn’t happened in the last 2000 years doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen, and doesn’t mean that it won’t even happen very soon.

And regardless: for myself, if I die today, if I fall down the dangerously steep set of stairs in the presbytery, if I get hit by one of those cars or buses that recklessly speed past my front door, then for ME the End would be now. Are you ready? And what do we need to do to be ready?

We just heard Jesus tell us what to do when we see the signs of the End. He didn’t say “panic”, or “get really, really worried”. He said, “Stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand”. If we’re at one with the Lord, then we need not fear, because His Coming will be for our glory too.

But we need to ensure that we ARE at one with the Lord. He said, “Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life”. If we would be ready, then we must repent daily, live virtuous lives, obey the Commandments, go to frequent Confession, and return to the Lord’s mercy as often as we find ourselves straying into sin. If we do, then we can, as He said, “stand with confidence before the Son of Man”.

Ever since the Fall of Man people have seen suffering and problems in the world around them. What our faith in the Second and Glorious Coming of Christ tells us is that there is a greater destiny that creation is moving towards. A destiny that is not of THIS world. When Christ comes as Judge, to separate the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned, He will also come to make all things new. He the creator will come to re-create. He will make all things new, and there will be no more problems, no more disasters or pain. Then truly, if we are ready, we will find that our liberation is indeed at hand.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Christ the King, Youth Sunday, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 18:33-37; Dan 7:13-14
When people think of politicians and royalty today, they often get rather cynical. And while such cynicism isn’t always healthy, I think it is a sign that we do tend to want something quite important from our leaders. There is part of us that does want someone to look up to, someone to inspire us, someone we can depend on, someone to guide us, someone that can cure all of our own problems and all of society’s.

In the hymn that we often sing of this Sunday, we ask Christ the King to “Guide the youth”. And the reason that hymn gives for Him to be the one to guide the youth is the fact that He is “King of truth”. It is precisely because He is truth that He can be the king and leader that we hope for, that He can be the one we look to to guide us.

The claim that Jesus is not just honest and truthful, but that He is truth itself is the most complete and exclusive claim that Christians make about Christ. We do not say that He is part of the truth, or even that He is most of the truth, but that He is truth itself. Anything else in the world, any other teacher or prophet, or any other religion, can only possess truth to the extent that it measures up to what Christ Himself said, what Christ did, and what Christ is.

This claim about Jesus isn’t one we arrogantly make ourselves, it was one He made Himself. He said, “I am the way the TRUTH and the life”. We heard Him repeat this in front of Pilate in the gospel passage just read. He said, “I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to MY voice”(Jn 18:37).

Jesus didn’t make this claim lightly or flippantly. He made it because it flowed out of His very being, out of the fact that He was God and He knew it. He knew He had authority over everything in this world because this world is His creation, He is the one who gives it life and direction.

It’s because of this that we can look to Jesus. Look to Him as king of the cosmos, and king of our own hearts. Because He is truth, He is therefore the truth for us, the one who gives meaning and direction to us. If we build our lives on Him then we build them on a firm and sure foundation, a way to happiness and fulfilment.
Youth is a time in life when we make many choices for our future, choices that our long-term happiness depends on. What we need to depend and build on is the truth, and that’s why there is a natural connection between today’s feast as Christ the King, and as its being Youth Sunday. The King of truth is a king fit for youth.

We know, of course, that many people today are cynical of the whole concept of truth. That was true of Pilate too, He responded to Jesus by saying, “Truth –what is that!”. We know too that many young people today are cynical –gone are the days of idealistic youth protests and demonstrations. Our secular society has failed to give young people a hopeful lead and cynicism is a unsurprising result. We who are Catholic, and our Catholic youth in particular need to show that there is a source of value and meaning and truth in life that we can depend on, and so there’s no need for the despair of cynicism.

To be a Christian is to live a lifestyle built on values and beliefs different to those around us. But it’s the only thing that can give real value to the life around us. We just heard Jesus say that His kingdom is not of this world, but it is in this world, and ranks with authority over this world. We may get cynical about some leaders, but He the king that can give us a reason to never be cynical, and always have hope.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembrance Sunday, 32rd Sun Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 12:41-44; 1 Kings 17:10-16
Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we remember all those who died in the wars, and those continuing to die. We recall those who died in bravery and those who died in tragedy, those who died as acclaimed heroes and those who lie unknown.
We often, and rightly, speak of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of their country. But I want, this morning, to speak of the importance of self-sacrifice in general, and to do so in reference to the example we just heard Jesus refer to in what He taught us about sacrifice in the Widow’s Might (Mk 12:44).

The true value of the widow’s gift wasn’t known by the people around her.
If we think, in particular, of those soldiers who gave their lives in World War Two, they didn’t know the FULL effect and value of the sacrifice they made. They knew they were in a terrible war, but they didn’t know the even larger significance of it. When they died, neither they nor the Allies knew the true horror of the Nazi atrocities, of the millions killed in the gas chambers, of the millions in England who would have been killed if the Nazi had won. They didn’t know just HOW much they saved us from, and so their sacrifice had a value far beyond the one they realised.

The same must be said of any sacrifice, any good deed, and this is what the Lord Jesus was teaching about the Widow’s Might. The value of her offering wasn’t the money –after all, it was just a penny. The value of her offering was that it was her everything. And what gives this value is God, the God who watches over all our deeds, who accepts our sacrifices, our good deeds, our prayers, and indeed and our very lives –the God who uses and accepts them as prayers. He is a GOOD God, and prayer does change things.

God wants each of us to offer ourselves to him, to offer our lives as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1; 1 Pet 2:5), a fragrant offering to the Almighty. In him our lives acquire a new supernatural value, one beyond what we can know.

Many of us can get discouraged from time to time over the effort of our lives, or over the way that there seems to be so little gain for the good works we can try to do. We can come to think that it’s not worth bothering. Why should I continue to be nice to that person when he never changes, when he’s never nice to me? Why should I be the only person at work who doesn’t use foul jokes and language, or the only person who refuses to be dishonest in business? Why should I continue to pray when nothing ever seems to change? Why should I clean up after the kids, yet again, when they’ll only mess up the place 2 seconds later?

Such discouragement is natural. But the lesson of the Widow’s Might is that there is more to life than the natural, more than we can see. If we judge ourselves only by what we see then we will grow discouraged, we’ll think that there is no point.
There is MORE to life. There is God, and the value He puts on our works. He accepts them as offerings to Him, and in the cosmic balance these offerings change the universe. In this our deeds have an effect we simply do not know. And there is heaven too, the eternal glory and merit that will be assigned to our deeds and our lives. If we forget this then we forget the true meaning of our life, and what gives true meaning to our actions.

The widow who gave her last bit of food to share it with the prophet Elijah didn’t know what lay in store for her. But she had faith to do good anyway, and God transformed her offering into more than enough food. God transforms our offerings too. He said that we will be repaid a hundredfold (Mk 10:30), and He is true to His promises.
To refer again to the sacrifice of those fighting the Nazis, we can see today that the ultimate sacrifice paid by those soldiers had a great value, but it’s full value will only be completely disclosed in heaven. Their sacrifice was greater than the ones that most of us encounter daily –but the same truth holds. We must never let ourselves be discouraged over what can seem like small effects of our good deeds: there’s a value and effect that transcends what we can see, and so it is worth being good.
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
at the going down of the sun, and at the rising
we will remember them.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

All Souls Day, 2nd Nov, Shaftesbury

We keep today a sadly neglected commemoration. It used to be the case that ALL churches would be heaving at the seams today. It was a sound instinct of the faithful that led them to come and pray for the souls of their dearly departed loved ones, and it’s an instinct that we’d do well to try and restore.

The doctrine and practice that we celebrate today is one that makes me proud to be Catholic, with a capital “C”, because it’s not only about solid doctrine, and the way we reach solid doctrine, it’s a doctrine that squares perfectly with the pastoral needs of our heart –a perfect model of how all truth is pastoral. And, of course, it is a definitively "Catholic" doctrine because it was the defining issue that Martin Luther rejected at the Protestant Reformation.

We reach this doctrine about purgatory and the practice of praying for the dead in a solidly Catholic way not least because we find its most direct roots in the part of the Bible that Protestants call the Apocrypha, in the Second Book of Maccabees. “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins”.(2 Macc 16:46) We know there, as we know elsewhere, that this is thus a part of our Judeo-Christian Tradition, something familiar at the time of Jesus. And to be fully Catholic we need to be in touch with the continuity of that Tradition, or else we lose, among other things, a lot of the basis of Christian morals, which are largely Jewish morals, and we can end up saying that all Jesus believed is that you must be nice to each other.
It’s also solidly Catholic in that it’s rooted in private revelations, in the devotion of the saints. And the extent that we feel uncomfortable with these as sources of Faith, we can fear that we’ve been infected by Modernism.

But this practice, what I consider to be one of the crowning glories of Catholicism, is a glory that is, as I said, not only doctrinal and disciplinary, but is also deeply pastoral.

There are certain times in the life of everyone when we wonder what happens to people when they die. For some of us it first comes when we face the prospect of their own death. But probably, for most of us, that time comes when someone we love dies. It’s a time when we are likely to be not only concerned but distressed about the fate of our loved one. That distress can be met and faced by the doctrine of Purgatory and the practice of praying for the dead.

If we were Protestants then we would have to ABANDON our deceased loved ones to the judgement of God, unable to help them in any way. But, as Catholics, we know that the bonds that unite us to the dead are greater than the division brought about by death. In the Communion of Saints we remain united to the dead, because whether are alive or dead we all remain united to Christ. On earth, we can pray for each other while we are alive. I can pray for my friends, my family and those I do not even know. It is the same with the dead. I can pray for deceased friends, and family, and strangers. I can pray that God will have mercy on them in the Judgement. In this way we’re not left powerless and despairing when our loved ones die. We’re still able to help them, just as we could help them while they were on earth.
I often feel sorry for Protestants faced with grief, because it’s important that we have something we’re able to DO in grief. And in the economy of the Communion of Saints God has foreseen this, and arranged for this, and so we maintain our bonds with the deceased by our prayers for them.

The doctrine of purgatory also gives us hope against the fear that we will be judged too harshly. Many of us may fear at some time or another that we’re not good enough to go to heaven. And we’re not good enough for Heaven. And Scripture itself teaches us that there is only perfection in heaven. But this doesn’t need to cause us to give up hope, because otherwise there would be no-one in heaven.
We can go to heaven even though we’re not pure, even though we have sinned. But in order to do so we must go through a time, a place of purification. And that place is Purgatory. There, through the grace that is given to us by and through Jesus Christ, we will be made perfect, and fit to live in the happiness of heaven.
And so Purgatory is a doctrine that gives us hope. Hope because we know that even sinners like you and me can make it into the perfection of heaven.

Our time in purgatory is also something that can be shortened and made easier by the prayers of the faithful. And so we pray for our loved ones. Not only that God will have mercy on them in the Judgement, but also that they will be sped through Purgatory.

So let us rejoice today in the consoling doctrine of Purgatory, and the practice of praying for the dead. It’s one of the great spiritual acts of mercy. And it keeps us mindful and thankful that death does not totally separate us from the dead, and so we remember them in our prayers.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

All Saints Day, 1st Nov, Shaftesbury

Mt 5:1-12; Apoc 7:2-14; 1 Jn 3:1-3
I've been away on retreat this week, which means that I've just spent the last five days in silence, saying nothing.

Now you may wonder what I did on retreat, what I did while I was busy not speaking for five days. Well, I did some walking while I could reflect in the silence. And I did some spiritual reading to give me things to reflect on. But more than anything, and more important than anything, I prayed: I spent five or six hours a day in prayer, which even for a priest is quite a long time! You might think that spending six hours a day in prayer would get a little boring. And, I'd have to confess I did get a little bored. Somehow, the Lord God Almighty, the infinite Creator of the universe, the supreme being who holds all things in being, the one who is perfect beauty itself, and the Saviour who loves me and died for me: sometimes, I find Him boring!
This, of course, is a fault in me not at fault in Him, but it is a common fault in us human beings: If we loved Him more He would not seem boring. We find God boring because our intellect fails to fully grasp how wonderful He is, and, correspondingly, our will fails to be filled with the excitement of loving Him.

One of the reasons God might seem boring us that we easily forget is the character of God as being "personal" –we can think of Him as being just some kind of “thing”. When I went on retreat, I had gone away on retreat to be alone, but one of the things I remembered when I got there is that a Christian retreat is not primarily about going to be silent, and it is not primarily about going to be alone, it is about going to be with someone, a very particular Someone, namely, the Lord. And when we think about the fact that we are going to be with the Lord it is always important that we try to remember who He truly is. As I said, we know that He is the Lord Almighty, the Creator etc, but while we live in this world we don’t fully grasp Him as His is: we only see Him in an unclear manner, as St Paul says, “through a glass darkly”(1 Cor 13:12). In contrast, as we heard in our second reading, if we get to heaven then "we shall see Him as He really is"(1 Jn 3:3).

On today's feast of All Saints we recall the glory of all the saints in heaven. Our gospel reading today (Mt 5:1-12) on the Beatitudes is given to us today to remind us of the promise of the happiness, the Beatitude, of heaven. This is something we need to repeatedly remember when we try to think and understand what God is like, Who He is. God is the one whose very presence gives us that perfect Beatitude that our gospel text so weakly translated as "happiness", and he gives us this happiness -because He is love. At a theological level, St Thomas Aquinas teaches that “joy” within us, true joy, is only ever in us as a fruit of "charity" -the technical name for “divine love” (ST II-II q28 a1). And this is something that we all know the level of our own experience: love is what makes us happy. To be loved by other people, and to be loved by God, this makes us happy. And when we can let go of selfishness and love others and love God, this also makes us happy.

But we can only love somebody, and we can only KNOW the happiness of loving somebody and being loved by that somebody, we can only do this if we actually have knowledge of that Somebody, and if we spend time with that Somebody. And this is why it is important to pray, this is why the saints all prayed, and this is why I went on a five-day retreat: to be with the Lord, and being with Him to know Him better and love Him better.

God is only boring to us to the extent that we don’t know Him. The more we know Him, the more interesting He seems to us. And the more we love Him, the more He is not only interesting but exciting. Today's feast of All Saints reminds us of that fact by reminding us of the happiness of the saints in heaven, the saints who are happy simply because they fully know and love the Lord and are loved by Him.