Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas, Shaftesbury

The weather outside has been rather cold and bleak recently, rainy and icy, and you might think that this isn’t very nice and Christmas-like. But I want to point out a few things in our crib scene that remind us that, if you think about, the first Christmas wasn’t very Christmas-like.

Picture, if you will, the room in Bethlehem. There was no room in the inn. The stable was cold, the straw was dirty, and the wood of the manger was as hard as the wood of the cross of Calvary. It was pretty bleak, and it is only such a bleak description that does justice to the reality. But such a description is still incomplete, just as our crib scene here would be incomplete without the baby. Because such a bleak description fails to mention Christ –and that’s what we need to remember today, and why we’ve come to Mass today.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the image on so many Christmas cards, where we see the baby Jesus in the manger with light shining out from Him and lighting up the whole stable. What would have been dark, damp and dingy, is made light and glorious by the presence of Christ. That simple pious image conveys the whole theological reality that we are celebrating today.

Christ's coming changed the whole stable, and not just the stable -but the world. That is why He came.
The scriptures describe Christ as, "a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower"(Jn 1:5). We know that darkness, the devil, did try to overpower Him. He tried at His temptation in the desert, in the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and most conclusively on the Cross. But the light overcame the darkness by His resurrection. And all of this is shown and started in His birth. That's why we have the beautiful symbolism of starting the whole celebration in the darkness of the night, at Midnight Mass.

But we also need to remember that: when God changed the world forever, by entering His creation as a little child, it wasn't just some random or casual event. It wasn't a good thing that just happened to come along. It was what God had planned from the very beginning.

Why did God create the universe, the world, and US on it in the first place? He did it that we might share in His divine life. We were made for life with God. As the great St. Augustine puts in, "You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Since the creation of the first human being, when God breathed the first soul into the first human embryo, we have been waiting for Christ to come among us -to fulfil our destiny.

Our human nature was waiting for Christ. The Jewish people were waiting for Christ -because the scriptures and prophets foretold that He would come. And the darkness of our sins, the darkness of our sufferings and griefs and woes was waiting for Christ too, because we needed to be saved from them.

What we celebrate today is that the waiting is over. Our struggle against the darkness has changed forever because of what happened 2000 years ago tonight. We are never alone in darkness –God is with us, Emmanuel. And we know that in the end darkness will not triumph, over the world, or over us. The victory isn’t finished until the Last Day when he comes again in glory, but the victory is now assured.
In our own time, in all the 2000 years since Christ came, until today, the present is lit up with the presence of God among us. And that holds even in our own personal bleakness and difficulties.

The Word has become flesh. And he has remained with us. Remained with us in the action of his spirit in his Church, in his priests, in his sacraments. And most directly, he has remained with us in his definitive and real presence in the Mass -that's why the Mass is so central to the way that we should celebrate Christmas.
And He remains with us in the hearts of any of us who will receive Him. He didn't just come to the stable in Bethlehem, but as sing in the carol, "where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in".

Sunday, 20 December 2009

4th Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 1:39-44
Today is our final Sunday before Christmas, our final Sunday to prepare ourselves for Christmas. And on this last Sunday the Church always gives us the figure of Our Lady in the readings to help us prepare: she was the one who first welcomed Christ at the first Christmas and she can help us welcome Him now. Although there are many ways Our Lady can help us, I would like to point out two virtues we see in Our Lady that we can imitate to help us prepare: humility and faith.

Our Lady manifested her humility in action in the gospel text we heard. Even though she knew from the angel Gabriel that she had just become pregnant, she didn't think of her own needs but rushed to her cousin Elizabeth to help her in the more advanced stage of her pregnancy. That sort of putting the needs of other people before ourselves is a very simple but important way of being humble, of being ready to celebrate Christmas properly, of being able to live in peace and charity, of being ready in our hearts to welcome Christ this Christmas.

In addition, in order for Christmas to be a SPIRITUAL event, an event that isn't just loving in the way a good atheist can be loving, in order to be an event that recognises the deeper spiritual meaning and reality of what Christmas is about, in order to be that we need to have faith: we need to believe that Christ came and was born at Christmas.

Faith, the Catechism teaches us (CCC 143-144), is our response to what God has revealed. When somebody tells us something we can either believe them or doubt them. Faith, Christian faith, is to hear what God has revealed and believe it. In particular, faith means to accept a truth NOT because we have seen it ourselves, NOT because we have figured it out for ourselves, BUT to accept it on the authority of the one who tells us: divine faith is to accept all the truths that God has revealed in Jesus Christ, and to accept them because He has said to. A standard example of this is our faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: this defies our physical senses, it is not something we could figure out for ourselves, but He said "this is my body" and we believe it because He said so.

Our Lady is often referred to as the perfect model of faith: the angel told her something that would be impossible in the natural order of events, namely, that a virgin would conceive and bear a child. She manifested her faith by believing what the angel had told her, in addition, she manifested the active dimension of faith by submitting to do what the angel asked -to be the mother of the Lord. This is what we heard Elizabeth praise Our Lady for: “blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Lk 1:44).

This Sunday, an adult will be received into the Church, Tim Allhusen, and I want to make one final point about how faith is something that needs the Church. If faith is our response to what God has revealed, then the Revelation needs to be transmitted, needs to be handed on, and needs to be handed on with the guarantee of infallibility so that we can trust the accuracy of what has been handed on. As Catholics, this is something that we hold is implicit within the very nature of Revelation -there was no point in God revealing His truth unless He was also going to establish a secure and dependable means for that truth to be handed on. So the fullness of faith is something we can only have through the Catholic Church. This is what Tim will express in his profession of faith when he says, "I believe and profess all the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God".

In conclusion, thinking back to Christmas. If we want to welcome Christ at Christmas, then we need to put aside the scepticism and the scoffing of the unbelieving world, we need to ignore whatever latest pseudo-documentary claims that the BBC will make: we need to believe that the Bible tells us about Christ being born in Bethlehem was in fact true -our salvation depends upon it. And we need to express that faith in action by humble hearts and humble love as Our Lady humbly put Elizabeth's needs before her own.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 3:10-18; Phil 4:4-7; Zeph 3:14-18
I normally buy my groceries here in town, but last week I went down to Waitrose, because I wanted to see how ‘the other half’ lives -pretty good it seems! There were delicious looking battered prawns, a huge selection of chocolate cakes, and quality bourbon of the kind that is simply not available in Shaftesbury. And I began to understand why they say, "This Christmas, there's only one place to be: Waitrose".

And that point is really the only point I want to make today: what is "the only place to be" this Christmas? Well, as a priest, and basically just as a Christian!, I find the Waitrose claim to be highly presumptuous! Now I know I'm preaching to the converted, because you are already here in church, but "the only place to be" this Christmas is the place where you are already today, namely, in church. The meaning of Christmas can only be properly discovered by returning to the words that Christmas comes from: “Christ” and “Mass”. Actually, if we want to be in "the only place to be" this Christmas than we actually need to be very carefully avoiding the materialism that seems implicit in the Waitrose advertising slogan.

If preparing for Christmas is not primarily about going to Waitrose, then what is it about? If we would be ready to Christmas, if we would be ready to celebrate the coming of Christ, then what must we do? This is the same question was put to St John the Baptist 2000 years ago when the people wanted to know how to prepare for the FIRST coming of Christ, as we heard them asking in today's gospel, “What must we do?”

The answers of St John the Baptist strike me as surprisingly practical and surprisingly specific. He told the tax collectors, "exact no more than your rate". He told the soldiers, "no extortion! Be content with your pay!" And he told the people in general that they must share their possessions with those who had none. There's a very simple thread uniting each of these three pieces of advice, and it is a warning against materialism. It is perhaps ironic that 2000 years later the same type of advice needs to be given to us still today. If we would be ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas then we need to also cleanse our hearts of the materialism that can prevent our hearts being ready for Christ to come

The sad reality of much of our Christmas preparations is that we think too much about the things that money can buy for Christmas, and not enough about what really matters. What’s the point in buying my sister the best gift money can buy if I haven’t been considerate and loving to her in the preparation for Christmas?
It’s like getting all the decorations for the Christmas tree, but forgetting to get the tree itself, or just getting it as an afterthought –the last and most pathetic one left in the shop.

The true antidote to materialism, the true way to prepare for Christmas, is to remember the reason that today’s readings give us to rejoice. This is Gaudete Sunday, an ancient Latin name meaning ‘rejoice’, and the reason we are always given to rejoice in this the third week of Advent, is that “the Lord is very near” (Phil 4:4). This is what Christmas is all about, this is what we are preparing for. This is what sets Christianity apart from the other world religions:

We believe that not only is God real, not only does He love us, not only does He watch over each moment of our lives, but He is very NEAR to us –and not only in some vague spiritual way. What we recall at Christmas is that God became flesh, became physical, by fully becoming a little child in the manger of Bethlehem. This is the physical and visible confirmation of all the other ways we believe He is among us and near to us.

“The only place to be this Christmas” is near Him who came near to us in Bethlehem and comes near to us as often as we turn to Him. St. Paul tells us not to worry, the Lord is very near. As we rush around in this final week before Christmas, as we make all our material preparations, let’s try not to worry. Let’s make sure we take the time to rejoice in what we are preparing for, and remember the true spiritual meaning that makes it all worth while.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

On Confession, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 3:1-6
All England is now preparing for Christmas: and while some people are preparing for Santa Claus, hopefully we Christians are preparing for Jesus Christ. We heard in our gospel about how St John the Baptist prepared for the first coming of Jesus Christ, prepared by crying out in the wilderness, "prepare a way that the Lord", and the way he called people to prepare the way for Him was by repenting of their sins.

One particular way we are called on to prepare for Christmas is by going to confession. I thought, today, that rather than just tell you why you need to be going to confession yourself, I would tell you why I go to confession myself.

I go to confession not just because it is a requirement, not just because I fear the fires of hell (though I do), and not just because it's something other people have told me to do. I go to confession because I know that it is good for me, good for my psychological health and for my spiritual health.

Confession is good for me because the opposite is bad for me. The opposite is to fool ourselves into thinking that we never do anything wrong. It's always somebody else's fault: that person’s stupidity is why I am impatient, that person who made the late-night phone call last night has made me tired and so he is the reason why I'm now too lazy to do what I know I should be doing, that person’s gross wealth is the reason why I am envious of him, –and so on, "it's not my fault". In every era of history it has always been easy to refuse to see our own sin, and refuse to accept our own responsibility, but in our own era of history we have, mistakenly, been repeatedly told that guilt is bad for you. But actually, usually guilt is healthy. Normally speaking, guilt and feeling guilty is the healthy reaction to realising that we have done wrong. And I go to confession because it helps me regularly see my guilt, it helps me avoid living in a fantasy world of denial.

Confession is good for me not only because it helps me see my guilt but because it helps me channel that guilt to resolution, to forgiveness. One of the reasons our modern pop psychologists avoid talking about guilt is that they lack the mechanism of knowing forgiveness. Regular confession is the healthiest way to avoid carrying the guilt of my present sins and of my past sins around with me. And there have been many times when I have seen people depressed in the carrying of their guilt that I've been grateful that I've known the forgiveness of the confessional.

When we read the Gospels we hear that the forgiveness of sins was the primary healing work that Christ came to do. When we read the Gospels we hear the joy, the gladness, and the gratitude that filled people who were forgiven by Jesus. That same forgiveness is available to us today. Now it is partly true that at one level we can seek forgiveness by praying to Jesus privately, without confession, however, this is not the FULLNESS of grace that is available to us. Jesus Christ established a mechanism, a means, a way by which He wants His forgiveness to come to us, and that is in the sacrament of Penance, of Reconciliation, of Confession. As Jesus said to the Apostles, His first priests: “Those whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, those whose sins you shall retain they are retained” (Jn 20:23). And so the forgiveness that was once encountered 2000 years ago when Jesus physically walked in Palestine, that same forgiveness from that same Jesus is ours when we physically approach Him in His fullness as He exists in His sacraments. “What was visible in Christ’s life has passed over into His [sacraments]” (St Leo the Great, CCC 1115).

So the third reason why confession is good for me is not only because it helps me see my guilt, not only because it helps me resolve my guilt in forgiveness, but confession is good for me because it gives me the most perfect and complete encounter with the Lord who forgives, and, with that, gives me every grace and strength He has to offer me, every grace and strength to grow in holiness and be helped not to sin again.

Lastly, perhaps you're not sure how often you should go to confession. Well, it might help if I explained the range of possibilities to you. At one end is what we call confessions of devotion, for example, Pope John Paul II used to go to confession every day. I, however, don't go to confession every day, but I do go to confession every week: this is what is recommended by St Frances de Sales in The Introduction To The Devout Life(Part II, Chapter 19) , and this is what is practised in a great many of what are called the New Ecclesial Movements, those groups of predominantly young re-invigorated Catholics who have rediscovered the value and living of our Faith in the midst of our secular world. At the other extreme from weekly confession is to only go once per year: this is the bare minimum required by the law of the Church, and if you only want to do the minimum, if you are concerned to avoid hell but don't really care about heaven, then doing the bare minimum is permissible -and the bare minimum in this context is annual confession of serious sins [peccata sua gravia, Canon 989]. Be warned, however, if you aim for the minimum and miss the minimum then you won’t be in a good place. Beyond that, our own Bishop Christopher Budd noted in one of his pastoral letters (1998) that the Lent and Advent penitential services that have been introduced in recent decades seem to have led to the BAD practice of many people thinking that they only need to go to confession on those two occasions, and he said very simply that it is not enough to just go to confession in Lent and Advent, he said we need to go regularly. And the standard regular timespan recommended to parishioners is to go to confession every month, which is between the legal minimum of once a year at Eastertide and the devout practice of going very week.

To summarise: Confession is good for me because it helps me see my guilt, because it helps me resolve my guilt in forgiveness, because it gives me grace and strength to avoid future sin, and it does all of this because it gives me the fullest possible encounter with the Christ who forgives. Now especially is the time, “prepare a way for the Lord”.