Sunday, 31 January 2010

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

1 Cor 12:31-13:13
We just heard in our second reading St Paul tell us that love is the thing that lasts. Thinking of what ‘lasts’: At the end of the day, as I’m getting ready to go to bed, I often wonder about what will last out of the work I've done that day. Often it can seem in the many little chores that can make up a day that none of them are really worthwhile that none of them are significant enough to say, "I did something WORTHY today! Today I did something that will LAST!"

There are however three things I try to remind myself: that we never know the full results of our actions so we must just do the right thing and leave the results up to God, that many of most important things in life are actually not that glamorous even though they are important, but thirdly, for most good deeds what changes a moderately good deed into an exceptionally good deed is not its exterior grandness but the LOVE with which we do it, and this is one of the ways that love “remains”, as St Paul says.

Pope Benedict, in his recent encyclical, pointed out that some people today can be dismissive of love because they confuse it with mere sentiment and emotion (c.f. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (2009), n.3) -this is one of the reasons that we need to remember that love goes with the knowledge of faith and the motivating direction of hope.

Thinking of what lasts, I want to say a word about heaven.
When the saints have tried to describe for us what heaven is like they frequently point out that the degree of glory and the degree of happiness that we will possess in heaven will be the same measure of the degree of love that we have lived on earth.
One of the symbolic descriptions of this has been to say that heaven is like a fast room full of many chalices, chalices of lots of different sizes, different sizes but with each one filled to the brim. The image of being ‘filled to the brim’ captures the notion that everyone in heaven is perfectly happy in heaven. But the image of the different sizes tells us something too: while we live on earth we are responding and co-operating (and not cooperating) with God's grace in such a way that we are forming and making ourselves, we are making ourselves more or less capable of being filled with God's love. This is like making ourselves into a smaller or bigger chalice -each chalice capable of being filled, but being filled according to how big it has made itself.

Back to love: There is one thing in particular that is the measure of our spiritual ‘size’ on earth and our corresponding spiritual size in heaven, and that measure is love: the divine charity dwelling within us, or not. Speaking more precisely, the theologians of the Church describe this in terms of the doctrine of merit: building on the merits of Jesus Christ on the cross, our degree of merit corresponds to the measure of love in our actions.

So, coming back to my end of day ponderings over what will last out of my day's activity:
the activity that I've done with love will last forever, it will be the measure of my perfection in heaven just as it has been the measure of my perfection on earth. We often feel best when we have done something that feels ‘grand’, but we SHOULD feel best when we recognise that we have done something in a more LOVING manner.
So when I take the garbage out, or when I collect the newsletters that people have yet again left scattered on the pews, the measure of love is what measures how perfect this activity is: if I do it with patient knowing that this simple activity is what God needs me to do because someone needs to do it, if I do it offering it to God is a loving and thus fragrant sacrifice to the Almighty, these are the type of things that make this same act possessed with more or less love; and these are the type of things that leave me filled with more or less love with more or less merit as a bigger or smaller chalice ready to be perfected and filled in heaven. It is the love in me that remains.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 1:1-4;4:14-21; Neh 8:2-10
Often when I visit Catholic homes I can see the family Bible placed somewhere prominent and important on the bookshelf. Prominent, important and dusty. It may have been bought with good intentions, but like many things, reading the Bible can be a neglected part of our faith, and our Bibles can end up with years of dust built on top. Other homes may not have Bibles at all.

I went to the funeral of one of the more popular priests of the Dorset deanery yesterday, Fr Geoffrey Watts, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack age 63. And, as at every funeral, at the start the Gospel book was placed on the coffin and the word, “in life, Fr Geoffrey cherished the Gospel of Christ, may Christ now greet him with these word of eternal life: come blessed of my Father”. And I thought, as these words were said of my brother priest: someday those words will be said of me, but will they be TRUE of me –did I CHERISH the Word of God? Because I say those words over many coffins and it is sometimes less true and sometimes more true.

Today, both our Gospel and our First Reading give accounts of people readings from the Scriptures –and the Jews treasured their Scriptures highly. There was no chance of Jesus getting to Nazareth, asking for the Scriptures, and being told, “Now I’m sure we had one somewhere around the place”.

The Jews treasured their Scriptures with good reason –they knew that it was their Scriptures that recalled their identity to them. It was there that they had a RECORD of what God had done for them, how He had rescued them from Egypt, from Babylon, how He’d taught them, and given them the Law on Mount Sinai.

As Catholics, it is often said that we don’t read the Bible much. And on one level it is true that we are not “people of the book” in the way that Protestants are: as Catholics, we hold that Scripture needs Tradition and the Church with it. The Scriptures need a context in which to be interpreted and understood, so they need to be seen in the light of the Sacred Tradition of the Church. We also need to remember that there are truths of our faith that are passed down by spoken word and tradition as St. Paul puts it (2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 2:2), as well as in what was written in the Bible. In addition, as well as needing the tradition as the context to interpret the Scripture we also need an authority to give an authentic interpretation of the Scriptures, which is especially important for much debated texts, and this is why God gave us the apostles, and their successors the Pope and Bishops.

But we cannot forget the fact that we DO need to know the Scriptures, because otherwise we do not know the true God. We may have our own thoughts, our own memories and images, but the only way we know if they are true is if they measure up to the truth as we find it in the Scriptures. As the great St. Jerome put it, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. Christ is THE Word of God, the complete one Word spoken by the Father, and He has nothing more to say. If we want to know what He has said, then we must read and be familiar with the Scriptures.

This is why, when we come to Mass every Sunday we don’t hear some nice quotes from popular modern poets, and we don’t hear readings from great politicians. We hear readings from the Bible, the Sacred Scriptures, because this is the written record of God’s holy Word.
And we believe that the Scriptures are not JUST records of what Jesus did and taught, but they are the INSPIRED record –so that they are free from all error. While we need to analyse the context and meaning of different texts, distinguishing poetry and imagery in the Old Testament, from historical fact in the Gospel accounts –it is nonetheless all written for our good. As the Good Book itself says, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”(2 Tim 3:17)

If you don’t already do so, I’d urge you all to put aside some regular brief time to read the Bible, preferably daily. Find where that Bible is, blow the dust off it, and set yourself to learn more about the Christ who is eternal life. And if you don’t have one already –we can order you one in the bookstall. Jesus said that that text was being fulfilled even as the people listened –let’s make sure we know the text, so that we can know when it is fulfilled in our hearts.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Jn 2:1-12; Isa 62:1-5
This Christmas I'm sure that a great many of you were given things that you didn't really want. For example, across our entire country I wonder how many men opened the wrapping to find inside a tie that they could never picture themselves wearing. For myself, this Christmas I was giving a pair of "welly warmers” -big loose fleece liners to go inside my Wellington boots. On Christmas day this seemed to be the most useless and unwanted present I had received some time. However, a week and a half ago we had the first of a series of snow falls, I have worn my wellies more this last week than during the entire previous year, and my “welly warmers” have been manifested to be the surprise most useful Christmas gift of 2009!

Sometimes things are revealed to be much more than we first thought them to be. “Welly warmers” might be a supremely trivial example, but I start with that example as an illustration of how Jesus was manifested to be much more than He was thought to be when He worked His miracle at the wedding feast at Cana.

One of the things that we need to recall in considering how Jesus was revealed, manifested at His first miracle, is the simple fact that His followers didn't really know Him yet. They knew that this was the man that John the Baptist said he was preparing the way for, this was the man about whom John the Baptist said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world"(Jn 1:29). They knew enough that Andrew said to his brother Peter, "We have found the Messiah" (Jn 1:41). They knew enough that they were following, that they had responded to His call, “Follow me”(Jn 1:43). And, given that Galilee was a small place and Nazareth and Capernaum small towns, it is conceivable that they would have heard of the events surrounding His birth: the choirs of angels appearing to shepherds, the star in the sky, and the Gentile wise men coming from the east.

There were at least two more things that were revealed to them, and are revealed to us, by His first miracle at Cana. The first, more symbolically, is the significance of the wedding feast is the context for the miracle. When you heard our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, you might have thought it was unrelated to this: it was a description in the Old Testament of the love that God had for His Chosen People, a love such that He called Himself the ‘bridegroom’ and His people the ‘bride’ –“no longer are you to be named ‘Forsaken’... but you shall be called ‘My Delight’ and your land ‘The Wedded’”(Isa 62:4). When Jesus came as the long awaited Messiah He came as the loving bridegroom coming to save His bride. The fact that He worked His first miracle in the context of a wedding feast is taken to be one of the ways that He claimed to be the Messiah. And for us today, we know that the love that the Bridegroom, the Messiah, the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world", was ultimately manifested on the cross. And the role of the Messiah as a LOVING Bridegroom is one of the things manifested at Cana.

The second thing revealed at Cana was both simple and important: the Messiah was to be a miracle-worker. We ourselves are probably so familiar with Jesus that we forget the significance of His working miracles. At one level is miracles were significant in proving His claim to be the Messiah and His claim to be God. But at a deeper level His miracles also show us HOW the loving Bridegroom cares for His Bride:

The loving Bridegroom cared for His Bride by healing her many wounds: He healed the sick, He raised the dead, He forgave sin. But the loving Bridegroom also cared for His Bride by satisfying her needs: He fed the 5000 when they were hungry in the wilderness, and, as we recall today, He even provided them with wine when they didn't have enough. And this is a sign of how the Lord provides for US in our needs, TODAY.

As I have said in previous weeks, today’s gospel is the conclusion of a three-week epiphany: His manifestation to the wise men from the east as the King for the Gentiles and not just the Jews; His manifestation at His baptism in the Jordan as the “Son” of the Father; and today, His manifestation as the loving Bridegroom who CARES for His Bride –His Bride being us, being the People who choose to follow Him; His manifestation as the miracle-worker who has the power to give us what we need.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Baptism of the Lord, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 3:15-16; 21-22
Today, in Church, we still have our Christmas decorations: we have the Christmas tree, we have the crib. Today, in Church, we are still within what the Church calls the Christmas season. And yet, today we celebrate a feast that seems to not be a Christmas feast, namely, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We do this with two basic reasons.

First, today's feast is a continuation of the Epiphany. The word "epiphany" means "manifestation": a showing of the baby Jesus to the wise men who came from the East, a showing of the Jewish Messiah to the Gentile nations who had come to worship Him. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord continues this showing by the fact that the voice spoke from heaven at His baptism and publicly declared who He was (and is): “You are my Son, the Beloved”. So today is another epiphany, and it is part of the threefold epiphany that will conclude next week when the gospel for year C maintains the ancient tradition of concluding this epiphany with the showing of Jesus in His first miracle of the marriage feast of Cana, where He changed water to wine (Jn 2:1-11).

But there is a second reason why today's feast belongs in Christmastide, and it's a more subtle reason: His baptism in the River Jordan was another type of birth, a sort of sacramental birth that followed on from His physical birth that was celebrated on Christmas Day. (In saying I follow the Church in drawing on the ancient sermon of St Maximus of Turin, Office of readings for 11th January, between the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord).

At Christmas He was born of a virgin, at His baptism He was ‘generated’ (St Maximus) in the water. In Bethlehem His Blessed Mother presented Him to the Magi, that the Magi might adore Him; in the River Jordan the voice of the Father spoke from heaven and presented His Son to the world, that the world might adore Him. At His physical birth the Virgin Mary embraced Him with a mother's love, in the River Jordan God the Father embraced Him with a fatherly love.

But there is another truth that connects these two mysteries, and that is the fact that Jesus did not do either of these things for Himself, rather, He did them for us. Did the Divine Son of the Father need to leave heaven and be born of a virgin? Not for His sake, only for ours. Did the Incarnate Son need to be purified, reborn in the waters of the River Jordan? Not for His sake (he was sinless), only for ours.

As the liturgy prayers say of the waters of the River Jordan, they were "waters made holy by the one who was baptised" -and those waters were made holy by His baptism so that in our baptism we might be made holy, we might become adopted children of the Father, as sons in the Son. Jesus consecrated Himself in His baptism that we might be consecrated in our baptism: as He said later in the Gospels, “I consecrate myself FOR THEIR SAKE”(Jn 17:19).

Today, therefore, might be seen as a celebration of OUR birthday, our sacramental birthday. In our Christian re-birth we die and rise with Christ, but the means by which we do this is the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament that Christ established by sending out His apostles at the end of the Gospel to baptise “the nations”(Mt 28:19), but that He first made possible by being baptised Himself -that our Baptism might be a union with Him and to Him. That is why it is in Christmastime, in the season of His physical birth, that we celebrate what was both His and our sacramental re-birth.