Sunday, 26 December 2010

Feast of the Holy Family, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 2:13-23
On today's feast of the Holy Family I’d like to say a few words about God's help to us in family difficulties.

Every year today's feast of the Holy Family comes immediately after Christmas. Christmas, for many of us, is a time when families gather, and so we think of what it means to be a family, and the birth of our Lord in Bethlehem reminds in particular of the family of “the Holy Family” of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
When the Church urges us to think of the life of the Holy Family we have set before us both an EXAMPLE of happy family life, and, and an ENCOURAGEMENT to value family life in a way that sadly too few people in our society today do.
But just because the Holy Family is set before us as a role model that doesn't mean we should either imagine or pretend that their life was not a family life with difficulties.
This year, with the snow, many of us have not been able to meet up with family in the way that we had planned and wanted. And this perhaps is one of many examples of the difficulties we can have in family living.

Thinking of the difficulties faced by the Holy Family it is worth noting the fact that even though the Gospels tell us relatively little about the life of the Holy Family much of what they tell us concerns the difficulties that family faced:
First, there was the unusual nature of Jesus Christ's conception –something that the gospel tells us troubled Saint Joseph.
Second, there was the difficulty of His birth: there was no room for them at the inn, and He was born in poverty, in a stable, and laid in a manger.
Not long after, King Herod tries to kill the boy Jesus, and the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt (Mt 2:14).
Then, when Herod died and they attempted to return to Judaea, they heard that Herod's son had become king there, and so they had to go to live in Nazareth.
Finally, the last difficulty of this period was when the child Jesus was lost for three days in the Temple, a time that must have been of great anxiety for Our Lady and St Joseph.
Our Catholic Faith tells us that family life is to be valued, but does not promise that it will be easy, and it was not easy for the Holy Family.

What our Faith does promise us for family life is divine assistance, and this is also something we see clearly in the life of Holy Family:
In the unusual circumstances surrounding the Lord Jesus's birth, St Joseph and Our Lady were each assisted by dreams and visions.
Though the childbirth was in poverty, messages from angels, adoration from shepherds, and gifts from wise men in the East accompanied it.
Though they had to flee from King Herod, St Joseph was nonetheless warned to do so by another dream. And in a similar manner, it was by yet another dream that he was warned to avoid returning to Judaea.
In summary: Repeated divine assistance in the midst of the difficulties that came upon the Holy Family.

Perhaps the greatest divine assistance, however, must simply have been in their daily living. What must it have been like for St Joseph to have raised such a perfect child? What must it have been like to have had such a perfect sinless wife?
The abiding presence of God among them, the fruitfulness of the inner life of grace in them, the strength of such grace to help them for every difficulty
-this is surely what stands before us as a SIGN of how God is present in EVERY family, and His grace will strengthen and bear fruit in every family, just as long as we turn to Him, and seek Him, the way that St Joseph was attentive and responsive to the promptings of the Lord.

So, on this feast of the Holy Family, let us take inspiration from the life of that family. As we see in the life of that family, family life is not promised to be easy, but we are promised to have the presence and help of the Lord, just as truly as the Lord was present and active in the life of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas, Shaftesbury

I recently asked one of our 10-year-olds in the parish whether he was enjoying the snow. And he said, "Actually, I'm a little bored of it". And I don't think he's the only one! Which is rather odd because for as long as I can remember I've heard people talking about how nice it would be to have a "White Christmas" -after all, isn't that what Bing Crosby sang about? And yet, it turns out that a white Christmas is rather awkward.
As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for: it may come true!”

Christmas is a good time to think about getting what we wish for, about whether what we get matches up to our hopes and expectations. I don't mean this about the size of our Christmas presents, but rather, about the coming of Jesus Christ Himself.
The simple point I want to make is that the coming of Christ exceeds anything we could wish for, hope for, or expect. But in many ways His coming is so different from what we expect that many people fail to recognise it, and even we who profess to be Christians can fail to truly appreciate it.

If we think back in history to shortly before Jesus Christ came, we know that the Jewish people had been awaiting the coming of the Messiah. For many centuries they had the promises of God telling them that the Messiah would come. But, they didn't know what the Messiah would be like when He came. Most of them were expecting a worldly king, who would freedom from their bondage to the Roman Empire. And their notion of the salvation that He would bring was almost entirely focused on the material world, much as people today easily make Christmas too much about presents, about food and feasting, and so forth –these are part of celebrating Christmas but they are not Christmas itself.

When the Messiah came the manner of His coming was not what the Jews were expecting, even though He fulfilled all of the prophecies to the letter, and the salvation He offered was not what they expected either.
They expected the Messiah to come as a conquering king. In reality, as our Christmas readings remind us, He came as a little child, born in poverty in a stable and laid in a manger. And when, many years later, He was proclaimed king it was as He hung on the wood of the cross (Jn 19:19).
They expected that the Messiah would bring them instant material abundance. In reality, He came in poverty and simplicity, and taught us the way to heaven by showing us a wiser way to use the things of earth. Heaven is a place of happiness so vastly superior to the material happiness that this world promises that as long as our eyes are fixed on this world we will fail to comprehend the happiness of heaven, and fail to properly order our lives to achieve it.

Heaven consists of life with the loving God, the love of God whose very presence awakens a joy in the soul that surpasses our presence comprehension.
If heaven consists of life with the loving God, then it is not surprising that the way to heaven consists of living with the loving God even while we are in this world. And Jesus, the Lord God Himself, came among us in order that He might always be among us, to lead us to the fullness of life with Him in heaven.

His coming will exceed all our wishes, our hopes, and our expectations.
But He can only do this for us if we recognise His coming.
He came to us 2000 years ago born as a little child;
He comes to us still today, in the Mass, and in the hearts yearning to receive Him;
He comes to lead us to heaven, which exceeds all we wish for, even a white Christmas.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

4th Sunday Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 1:18-24
There are just five shopping days left before Christmas and, like many people, I have a slight feeling of panic. I still haven't sent all my Christmas cards. I fear that the light sabres I have bought for my nephews, while they be good enough for them to hit each other with, may not be quite the right brand of light sabres they were supposed to be. And as for my 2½ year old niece's doll, well, getting that right would be anybody's guess. And that's not to begin to start thinking about my Christmas PRIESTLY duties: there is much to worry about!

And I know that I'm not alone in thinking that this last week before Christmas is a time to worry. So, I'd like to point out how the figure of St Joseph that the Church gives us this year on this last Sunday of Advent teaches us a number of things to help us not worry, and to help us properly focus ourselves to celebrate Christ's birth.

As our gospel passage indicated, St Joseph had much to worry about, because "before they came to live together [Our Lady] was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit". Now, that's not a very normal thing to happen in a marriage, it's not a very normal problem for a husband-to-be to face, and the gospel does not tell us much detail about how St Joseph FELT about all this.
The gospel does tell us, however, that, "the angel of the Lord appeared to [ St Joseph] in a dream", appeared to him, explained to him who this child would be, and told St Joseph "do not be afraid".

The key point to learn from this is not what the angel said to him but rather how he RESPONDED to what the angel said to him. He responded with faith; he believed what the angel told him; he didn't even ask "how" this was to happen, he just got on with doing what he had to do, he got on with doing what was his part, and he left the details to God's care.
We, of course, can see with hindsight how right he was to trust in God's care because in the difficulties that unfolded before him in the years that lay ahead God continued to guide him through them: for example, when Herod sought to kill the child Jesus, St Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt.

Faith consists of our response to what God has told us, and for us today, that means that faith consists in believing what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ: in His Bible, and in the teaching of His Catholic Church.
A person of faith is a person who listens more to the promises of God than he does to the things of this world. In contrast, there are many things this week that are not of faith that we can listen to: we can listen to the television, we can listen to the cravings of our belly yearning for the food luxuries that abound at Christmas, and, we can listen to the worries and panic of the next week.

If we take St Joseph is our role model then we will spend this next week not focusing on our worries, not focusing on the distracting peripherals, but focusing on the things of faith, focusing on what God has made known to us and what God has promised to us:
He has made known to us his love and care by coming among us born as a little child;
He has promised to remain forever in hearts that will receive Him.
Let us, like St Joseph, be people of faith who listen not to our worries but to the words of God, and entrust the details of the outcome to Him.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

3rd Sunday Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 11:2-11; Isa 35:1-6.10
Today’s Gospel starts by asking a question about who Jesus is. In our modern Britain it might well seem that people are more infested in who Santa Claus is than in who the baby in the crib was. But the question of “who” He was was a question that was uppermost in the minds of everyone who met him 2000 years ago.

You don’t need to know every detail of the Christmas accounts to know that it was a question people asked as Jesus was born. The shepherds who were told to go and see Him by the angels on the hillside must have wondered –because the angels didn’t give them any details. The Kings who came out of the East saw His star, and must have realised He was important, but they also didn’t know fully who He was. “And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them”(Lk 2:18).

And the same was true with the other major figure in today’s Gospel, in the birth of John the Baptist: there were signs and miracles there too. His father was struck dumb for his lack of faith, and then given back his speech. “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’" (Lk 1:66). The question of the “who” of the child John and of the child Jesus were very much linked. John the Baptist came to make Christ known.

We just heard Jesus say that John the Baptist was the greatest “of all children born of women”(Mt 11:11). He was the last of the prophets of the OLD Testament, the final voice calling the people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. But we also heard Jesus say that “the least in the kingdom of heaven”(Mt 11:11), the least of US, is greater than John –because they are not just born of the flesh, “of women”, but born of God.

That kingdom of heaven can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ, and that’s why John spent his whole life trying to make Christ known. John wanted his disciples to follow Christ, and that’s why he sent them to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for another?”(Mt 11:3)

“Are you the one?” The answer Jesus gave was more than just saying “yes” –He pointed to all the wonderful signs that would accompany the coming of the Messiah. The Jews knew that many promises had been made, and we heard some of those promises in our first reading in that prophecy from Isaiah (Isa 35:5-6). And that’s why Jesus said,
“Go back and tell John what you hear and see;
the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear,
and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor;
and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”(Mt 11:4-6).

Jesus not only proved that He was the Messiah, He also proved that the kingdom of heaven had begun to reign here on earth. We’ve been thinking the last couple of weeks about the Second Coming of Christ, in glory and power, and it is only then the reign of heaven will be fully established. But even now that reign of heaven is present.
Because He came as a little child in Bethlehem He can come to our hearts now –come especially in Holy Communion. Come to work is us all the things He worked so publicly long ago. Healing for the wounded heart, peace for the troubled mind, rest for the weary soul.

Jesus, the wonder-worker, proved Himself to be the answer to the Jews hopes and prophecies. And if we would have those same hopes and prophecies be real in us today, then that is the baby we must prepare our hearts for this Christmas.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Rom 15:4-9
I want to say a few words today about hope. Hope is one of the defining characteristics of the season of Advent: in Advent we look forward hopefully to Christmas, and, in particular, in this first part of Advent we look forward, in hope, to the Second Coming of Christ.

It may be that you've never thought that much about what "hope" is, but it’s something that has been greatly analysed by the saints and theologians of the Church, and it is important because it concerns what moves us ONWARD in our activity.
Many people today, if they think of hope at all, think of hope as being just sort of ‘feeling’, however, the saints speak of hope as being something much more definite, and much more important.

St Thomas Aquinas defines hope has that movement of the will (ST I-II q62 a3) by which we direct ourselves towards “a future good, difficult but possible to attain”(ST II-II q17 a1). As such, hope is something we can have on both a natural level and on a supernatural level.
For example, with natural hope: someone who buys a house and gets a mortgage has "hope" that he will pay off the mortgage, not today not tomorrow but as a “difficult but possible” future good. And he measures and directs his present activity towards that possible, difficult, but important future good.
Supernatural hope directs us to the ultimate good of heaven, “by means of the Divine assistance”(ST II II q17 a1).

In our second reading today we heard St Paul writing to the Romans about hope, he said, "Everything that was written long ago in the Scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope from the examples Scripture gives of how people who did not give up were helped by God”(Rom 15:4).
So, in the Old Testament, we read about how the people of Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert, 40 years before they finally entered the Promised Land. And they serve as an example to us because they "did not give up". Further, they serve as an example to us because they were "helped by God" as they struggled on: God gave them manna from heaven, quails to eat, cures for the bite of a fiery serpents, and help in battle. Finally, because they "did not give up" they achieved that “difficult but possible” good because they were finally allowed to enter the Promise Land. They “did not give up” and they “were helped by God” to that goal.

For ourselves, St Paul gives a much more immediate and concrete example of how we must apply this to our lives. He notes that it is possible for us to "give up" in the struggle to be good to our neighbour, to be "tolerant with each other". But he encourages us by urging us to set our hope on the good that is both present and future, namely, the mercy of the Lord. The mercy of the Lord that is tolerant with us in our weakness and sin and inadequacy. And the mercy of the Lord that continues to give us His grace and strength in order that we might do good. Yes, it can be difficult to be tolerant and loving and giving to friends, family, to those we daily live with a brush up against, but he urges us to "to treat each other in the same friendly way is Christ treated you”(Rom 15:7).

This aspect of hope has a simple but twofold application to our lives. On one level it orients us towards the Second Coming and towards that ultimate "difficult but possible" good of heaven: if we persevere in being loving to others then God will be loving to us and give us the reward of heaven. And, in the much shorter term, thinking of Christmas coming: if we persevere in being loving to others then Christmas will be a more loving, pleasant, joyful experience; and Christ will find a place to come to us this Christmas.

To come back to where I began, the nature of hope: hope is what sets us towards that difficult but possible ultimate good, relying on God’s help. Let us prepare ourselves in this Advent season by deepening our hope, by deepening our focus on that good which is beyond ourselves, that good which is possible to attain because we, like the examples given to us in the Scriptures, will be "helped by God”(Rom 15:4).