Sunday, 28 February 2010

2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury and Blandford

Lk 9:28-36; Gen 15:5-18; Phil 3:17-4:1
I want to say a word today about faith and hope can help us when we are struggling, as seen in Transfiguration.

In order for our religion to enable us to keep going when we are struggling there are at least two very particular things we need: we need the faith to believe that God still has a plan for us even in the midst of our difficulties, and we need the hope to set our will towards a goal that it is possible to achieve. The Transfiguration is about giving us both of these things.

The gospel record of the Transfiguration is of an event that happened at the very particular stage in Jesus’s mission: for three years He had travelled, preaching, teaching, healing the sick, working miracles. And He had attracted many followers, but, He had also made many enemies, and He knew that things were heading for a climax. The Gospels tell us that “He set His face for Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51), He set His face towards the death that He must accomplish and humanity’s salvation. He knew the distress that would come to His disciples when He would be captured and crucified, and so He wanted to strengthen them for this trial. He had just predicted to His disciples that He would suffer and die (Lk 9:22), He had warned them that if they would follow Him they must daily take up their cross (Lk 9: 23), and He Transfigured Himself in glory for them just before the Gospel says that “He set His face for Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). This is what the Transfiguration was and is about.

There is a particular gift of faith that we need when we are in difficulty: we need is to believe that God still has a plan even when, in the midst of our difficulties, it seems that He does not. In the Transfiguration Jesus was manifested talking to Moses and Elijah “speaking of His passion which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). This public “speaking” of it was clearly for a purpose: to show that the apparent disaster of His passion was part of His plan. Jesus showed them that He had a plan so that they would have an opportunity to hold onto their faith when that suffering came.
But for us, this showing that He had a plan has an additional purpose: to enable us to see the clearest possible example of how God can be working even in the midst of suffering. This means that for us we should be able to believe that God has a plan for us even when we are suffering. And this is precisely what we need to still believe, this is exactly the specific gift of faith that we need when we are suffering. We need to see this example, in the life of God’s own Son, of the teaching that we read in Romans 8:28: “All things for the good for those who love the Lord”.

But in addition to faith we need hope: we need to have our eyes set on a better future; this is also what the Transfiguration gives us. In Christ Himself the Transfiguration showed Him in glory, the glory that will belong to His disciples if they are faithful to Him. This is the hope that should keep us going. We need to not only believe that God has a plan for us but to SEE in faith the vision of what this goal is that we should be striving to; and if we see it we can then “set [our] face” towards the goal we must pursue. Jesus “set His face for Jerusalem”, for the Cross as the means to His triumph and glory, which is also our triumph. We each have different crosses that we must “set [our] face” towards. Maybe the cross of our Lenten penance, maybe the cross of bearing the sufferings in our lives with patience, maybe the cross of living the life of Christian love when it’s hard to keep loving and giving.

Whatever our particular cross, the goal of heaven should spur us on, and the sight of His glorious Transfigured body on that mountain should encourage us and give us hope to set ourselves on. As we just heard the promise in Phil 3:20, “For us, our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the saviour we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and He will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of His glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which He can subdue the whole universe”; the same power He manifested on the mountain; the same power He showed forth at His resurrection.
Our faith teaches us that there will be a GREATER glory for us in heaven as a consequence of our sharing in this cross on earth, as a consequence of bearing it patiently and charitably, as a consequence of offering it up as a prayer for others, as a consequence of continuing to struggle to be loving and kind to others even when it is hard, as a consequence of enduring with our Lenten resolutions.

This is the faith and hope we need in our difficulty; the faith and hope manifested in His Transfiguration. If we know this as the GRAND ultimate level, after death, it can help us believe that it also holds in the short term: God has a plan, He is working it out, and there is a better future than the present, IF we work with Him. Glory lay for Him beyond the cross, and it lies beyond for us too.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

1st Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 4:1-13; Deut 26:4-10
This Lent I’m giving up alcohol, chocolate, snacks, sugar in my tea, and much of my favourite television.
You might think this will make Lent gloomy and miserable, but the Church actually calls Lent “joyful”: the phrase in the first of the Lenten Preface prayers calls Lent, “This joyful season”. I want to say why.

But before I say why, I want to remind you that Lent is a time to ‘give something up’. There is a rather vague notion in circulation that says, “Well, I’m just going to do something POSITIVE instead” –but this notion is not in the ancient saints who first wrote about Lent, it is not in the saints down the ages, and is not in the teachings of the Church today. Now, it is true, prayer and fasting should lead us to be better people with more love, doing ‘positive’ things, so ‘prayer, fasting, and alms-giving’ go together.
But it is a mistake to think that you can bypass the prayer and fasting, bypass the ‘giving things up for Lent’ –we NEED the discipline and self-denial of Lent if we are to ever become good and ‘positive’. And it’s important for children to learn this from a young age. Lent is about going into the desert with Jesus to fast and pray as He did for 40 days -but, this does not make it miserable.

So, being miserable. I’ll admit that when I give up something for Lent I do have a certain type of sadness: already in these last few days, I have had moments when it was my normal time for a snack, I remembered that it was Lent, and I thought, "but I WANT a chocolate cake!”.
But there is a benefit to feeling that type of sadness, and one of the benefits is that it focuses me on what can give me a much truer form of "joy”.

One of the reasons that I am sad about not eating that chocolate cake is that there is a little voice that is saying to me, "the only pleasure that exists is the pleasure you can have right now, is the pleasure in that rich, mouth-watering, chocolate muffin".
But that little voice is lying to me, just as the devil lied when he tempted Jesus in the desert.
The truth is that the greatest pleasures are not those of this world but are the joys that call to us from the next.
So, one of the reasons that Lent is a "joyful season" is that the fasting, discipline, the giving-things-up for Lent –all of this reminds us and focuses us on the truth that our true happiness lies beyond.
Our first reading included the ‘creed’ of the Jewish people, “a wandering Aramaean was my father...”: recalled how God had chosen them, rescued them from Egypt, and brought them to a Promised Land.
Lent can give us joy if it helps us remember the "promised land" of heaven that awaits those who do not spend this life living as if there was no hereafter.

Another reason why giving things up for Lent should be an act of joy is that it should be an act of love, an act that unites us to the loving Lord who suffered and died for us, who ‘gave things up’ for us –on the Cross and in the desert fasting
There is a something that follows on from this, Let me make a comparison: there are many goodhearted unbelievers who choose to give things up for Lent -I hear people on the radio say such things, and I meet strangers around town who say such things. But for such people, without faith, it is just self discipline –without asking the help and grace of Jesus, without the strength of Jesus. And this means that it is much more hard work -to do this alone.
In contrast, if I have faith, then when I give things up for Lent I do so WITH Jesus and WITH His help. So when I want that snack or glass of wine I can pray, “Jesus, the cake that is not here in front of me, but I would normally rather like to have in front of me, this cake that is not here: I offer it to you”.
By transforming that act of self discipline to an act of fasting, an act of prayer, I then have Jesus to help me.

In summary: giving things up for Lent is our share in Christ’s 40 days in the desert, it helps us grow in the self-discipline that the self-denial of fasting gives us, it helps us detach ourselves from the pleasures of this world and orient ourselves in faith to the joys of the next. And in doing all this WITH our loving Lord, it should be a season of joy.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Giving Something up for Lent

The practice of ‘giving something up for Lent’ is an important way of fasting. Fasting is good for us for four reasons:

First, at a human level, like dieting, fasting disciplines our desires. The things of this world are good, but we frequently want them in a way that is bad for us, or we want the wrong things at the wrong time. We need to discipline our desires, and this is what fasting does. This doesn’t mean we fast continually: Christians have feast days as well as fast days, but fasting enables discipline.

Second, at a supernatural level, more than mere dieting, fasting is a prayer. It thus needs to be offered to God; ‘offer your very bodies as a living sacrifice acceptable to God’ (Rom 12:1). In particular, fasting is something we can offer for our sins: in atonement and reparation for past sins, by uniting them to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. In general, fasting is something we can offer as a prayer for matters of great importance, as Christ told his disciples that some things can only be achieved by ‘prayer and fasting’ (Mk 9:29). Also, during Lent, uniting prayer and fasting imitates our Lord who both prayed and fasted in his 40 days in the Desert. Fasting without praying can sometimes just make us grumpy and disagreeable!

Third, fasting (and any form of penance) is also a means of detachment: when we deny ourselves some form of pleasure we help to detach ourselves from it; this helps to orient ourselves more on God and less on earthly things.

Fourth, fasting can change the way we act towards others. If we’re purifying and detaching ourselves, then we should be more free to love. One way we do this is by the traditional Lenten practice of giving to the poor.

Finally, this can be summed up by noting the Church’s threefold Lenten remedy for sin: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving to the poor). These three should all go together, not in opposition, i.e. it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I’m not giving up things, I’m doing something positive!’ Each of us would do well to add a small part of each of these three to our Lenten season: add a small prayer to your usual daily or weekly routine, give something up for Lent, and give some money to a good charity.

Ash Wednesday: Fasting and Abstinence

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are ‘Days of Fasting and Abstinence’, which means that:
All Catholics age 14 and older are required to abstain:
“The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat, but eggs, milk products, and condiments made from animal fat may be eaten. Fish and all cold blooded animals may be eaten, e.g., frogs, clams, turtles, etc.”
All Catholics age 18 and older, but under the age of 59, are required to fast:
“The law of fast prescribes that only one full meal a day is taken. [In addition] Two lighter meals are permitted to maintain strength according to each one's needs. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids, including milk and fruit juices, are allowed.” (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, 1966, (the current law)).

Fasting and abstaining are important ways for us to unite ourselves with Our Lord’s 40 days in the desert. Christ fasted, the Early Church fasted, and Christians down through the ages have fasted. All fasting helps us grow in spiritual self-discipline to prevent future sin and helps us offer up penance in reparation for our past sins. Abstaining is a mild form of fasting in that we deny ourselves a particular pleasure, namely meat. By observing these days as communal fast days we join with the whole Church across the world in acknowledging the importance of these particular days. Children and the elderly are strongly encouraged to fast even when the law does not bind them (Canon 1252), or to offer up some other acts of self-denial.

And in case you were wondering… Canon Law specifies: If your 14th or 18th birthday happens to fall on a ‘day of fasting and abstinence’ then you are not required to fast/abstain. However, if your 59th birthday falls on a day of fasting then you are bound by the law of fasting; the obligation ceases on the next day. Sorry.

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Jer 17:5-8; 1 Cor 15:12-20; Lk 6:17-26.
Recently it seems that I am being frequently reminded of the fact that I'm not as young as I used to be. A while ago I met up with some old school friends, and the talk turned to their various pension plans. We never used to talk about pensions when we went to the pub for a pint! It turned out that I was the only one who hadn't given serious thought to the level of my retirement income.

And it occurred to me that there was something rather ironic about that fact. All my school friends are atheists, and thinking a little further ahead still in life, I realised that I was probably the only one who had started to arrange my plans for what I'd be hoping to do when I'd passed to the great beyond and was no longer able to claim my pension.

Today's readings all point us towards the futility of trusting in material goods, whether they are solid houses or future pensions. Jesus says, "Alas you rich... alas you who have your fill now", and Jeremiah says, "A curse on the man who relies on things of the flesh".
It's very easy for us to put our trust in possessions, especially when we have them. But you don't need to be a Christian to see that worldly fortune can be very changeable, and that ultimately the things of this world do not last. We cannot put our trust in them.

The only one we can trust is the Lord Our God, and we can trust him because of the promises He has made to us, ultimately, the promise of heaven. The most solid sign of that promise is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Saint Paul was writing to the Corinthians because it seems that they had stopped believing that it was possible for life to go on after death, it seems that pagan philosophies had told them that the “body” cannot rise, and St Paul reminded them that the resurrection of Jesus Christ proves that it is possible: “But Christ has in fact been raised from the dead”(1 Cor 16:19). Not only that, Christ's resurrection is the promise of the future glory that awaits those who trust in Him, He is the “fruits fruits”(Ibid).

We too live in a world where few people believe in life after death, at least in any explicit way. And yet this is the most fundamental of all our Christian beliefs, it is the one that affects the whole way we view reality. Jesus pointed this out in the Beatitudes that we just heard: He said happy are the poor, and alas to you who are rich. These are statements that are meaningless nonsense if there is no hereafter. They only make sense as a promise by Our Lord that in eternal life every injustice will be resolved, and the happiness He calls us to will be achieved.

If we really believe this then it turns all worldly values upside down. What matters ceases to be whether or not I possess something, or whether I am financially secure. What matters is whether or not doing or not doing something will help me on the way to heaven. Everything else is secondary. We do, and should, joyfully accept good things as gifts from God, little tasters (appetizers) of the happiness of heaven, and yet we must still not value them as ends in themselves.

The question today's readings put to us is: Where do I put my trust, in God or in my possessions? I may not have a pension plan, but that doesn't mean that I'm not materialistic in my outlook. The real pension plan that I need to save for in the one that only fully matures in heaven

Sunday, 7 February 2010

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 5:1-11
Last week I spoke about something very simple but very important, namely, the need to act with love as the spirit that animates our activity. This week I want to speak about something equally simple and equal important: the INTENTION that motivates our action -because this is another thing that can totally change an activity.

In our gospel today we heard two different ways that Peter went fishing, two different ways that were only different in the fact that they had two different intentions. The first time the intention behind his fishing was just a normal intention most people would have: to do work, to earn money, maybe to support a family. The second time the intention was different: he did it for Jesus, and only for Jesus -as we heard him explain, it seemed hopeless and illogical to him, BUT because Jesus asked it therefore he did it: he did it for Jesus. The first time when he worked for the more mundane intention he worked hard and got nothing: "we worked hard all night long and caught nothing". However, when he did the same thing for Jesus it became easy and it became fruitful.

People sometimes ask me what it means to do something "for Jesus". It means doing it because I know that Jesus wants me to do it, it means doing it to please jesus, it means doing it for love of Jesus. But I want to point out something in this miracle that helps illustrate a further point: Who do you think got to eat and sell the fish that Peter caught in the miraculous catch, the catch that Peter only achieved when he finished because Jesus had told him to fish? It would seem that it was the very same people that would have eaten and sold the fish if they had managed to catch any as they were labouring all through the night, namely, Peter and his companions.

The simple corollary for ourselves is that when we do things "for Jesus" we end up not having less for ourselves but having more, and we likewise don't have less for friends and family because we've offered it to the Lord.
For example, when I seek to love my friend and I seek to do things for my friend I am often, in reality, doing things for myself because of how it will benefit ME to have my friend happy. But if, in contrast, I love my friend "for Jesus’s sake”, then I love my friend more purely and more selflessly -I love my friend in a way that is better for my friend, and is in fact better for me.
If, when you work to earn a salary for your family you offer this work "for Jesus", then your family likewise gets more from this not less.
If you are washing your child's laundry and you offer this work "for Jesus", then likewise your child's clothes are still washed.
And if you doing your own laundry and our own cleaning and your own cooking, and you offer it to the Lord –then it all still gets done –but everything is raised to a higher end: the Lord.

Now, to do this on a habitual basis is difficult because it requires that we continually remember the Lord in order to offer things to the Lord. But, like all habits the more we practice it the easier it becomes.
To do this on a habitual basis also requires faith: it requires believing that God is actually interested in the details of our lives. That this fact is true is something that has been lived out by the saints down the ages. It is also something expressed in practices like that of making a morning offering -I have included in this week's newsletter two examples of morning offering prayers, one for adults and another for children. A morning offering looks ahead to every detail of the day and forms a general intention to offer it all to the Lord, so that even though our concentration will wander through the day we have at least made this our general intention. And we can renew this intention at the end of the day looking back at every detail of the day that has gone and letting go of any attachment to self and giving it to God.
And God is interested in the details of your day because He is interested in you, and your day consists of details not just big things.

And why should we do any of this? We can offer our day and our lives to Jesus because life is easier when we live it for Jesus, just as Peter found his fishing easier and more fruitful when did it the Jesus. But ultimately the real reason we should live for Jesus and offer everything we do to Jesus is because we owe it to Him: Everything we have we have from Him and so it is a simple matter of justice that we should lovingly offer it back to Him.

An Adult's Morning Offering Prayer
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
and in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world,
I offer You my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day
for the love of God,
in reparation for sins,
for the conversion of sinners,
for the intentions of all my friends and family,
for all who have asked me to pray for them, in general and in particular,
and for the intentions of our Holy Father the Pope. Amen.

A Child's Morning Offering Prayer
Good morning, dear Jesus,
I offer you this day
All that I do and think and say.
Dear Mary his mother
See what I do
Give it to Jesus
And be my mother too. Amen.