Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas 2011, Shaftesbury

I had a little crisis this week. I was putting up Christmas decorations in the presbytery, and I was assembling all the pieces of the crib set that I have. I put out the shepherds, the donkey, the cow, some sheep, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph. And that's when I realised my problem: I couldn't find the baby Jesus. I had everything else right about the crib scene, but no Jesus!
And it struck me that this is a perfect image of what all the frantic busyness of Christmas can be like if we don't have Jesus -without Jesus everything else is there, but it's lacking the key thing, and without Him it's empty, without Him it's just hard work

If we think for a moment about that first crib scene in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Without Jesus, there would be nothing to make it different from any other stable. It may well have been cold, damp, smelly, and dark.
But with Jesus present there the scene was utterly transformed. Christmas cards rightly show us images of light radiating from the child Jesus, radiating to CHANGE that crib scene.
If we think of St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, having struggled all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, having been offered no room at the inn, and yet, theirs was not a labour without reward -they had Jesus, the Messiah, God Himself among them.
Our Christian faith tells us that the Lord God entered this world, was born as a weak child in this world, in order to transform this world, transform our lives in this world, transform our lives by being WITH us in this world.

But, back to life without Jesus, to the crib without Jesus:
Life, as we all know, has plenty of difficulties, plenty of work, plenty of busyness. But the question that surely arises in thinking of life with or without Jesus, must surely be, amid all the busyness of life is there a purpose? Is there a direction? Is there a goal?
Life without Jesus can easily be work without a reward, labour without rest, and be a life where we feel left alone with our problems.
This week I've had a number of moments where my life has felt like that empty crib scene. I've had lots of labour, lots of building of ‘the crib’, but I frequently had moments when I had forgotten what this busyness is truly aiming for, namely, to bring Jesus here.
And I've had to periodically stop myself, and refocus myself.

When we refocus ourselves on Jesus then we are refocusing on the One who is our companion in our difficulties, who is our light in darkness, and our strength in weakness.
So often when we feel alone it's because we forgotten that He is with us.
So often when we feel that we are busy with no purpose it is because we forgotten to offer our work and our labour and our strife to Him.
Even today, amidst joyful Christmas celebrations, is Jesus there?
Even today, when the turkey is finished, and the dishes are being washed, is Jesus there?
If I offer my joys to Jesus then my joys are increased because they are united with their ultimate source.
If I offer my work to Jesus then my burden is lightened because it carried with Him.
So let's remember to keep Jesus in the ‘crib’ of our lives.

Back to my crib scene decorations in the presbytery, I eventually found the baby Jesus. It turned out that He was there all along, I just hadn't seen Him. If we want to get the most out of Christmas, then let’s not forget Him.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Lk 1:26-38; 2 Sam 7:1-5.8-12.14.16
We’re now in the final stretch before Christmas –just one week to go. Some of us have already sent all our Christmas cards, and some of us haven’t. Some of us have already bought our presents, and some of us haven’t.
But, as it won’t surprise you to hear me say, none of these things are what Christmas is truly about.
Today, the final Sunday of Advent, the Church always turns to thoughts to Our Lady, each year with a different aspect of the Christmas narrative that involves her in a key moment. And the Church turns our thoughts to Our Lady in order that she might prepare us for Christmas, and I want to focus on two things we see in her that are important for us to imitate: her obedience, and her listening.

In our first reading we heard about the Ark of the Covenant, and how King David planned to build a fitting dwelling place for the Ark. King David, however, was told that he was not worthy to build the dwelling place for the Lord. That can stand as a sign for us that we also need to be properly fit if we are to be, ourselves, a dwelling place for the Lord at Christmas, if He is to come to us. Jesus wants to come to everybody Christmas, but not everybody seeks to make Him welcome.
The person, above all, who is placed before us as the image of being ready for the coming of the Lord is Our Lady. One of the titles that is given to Our Lady is that she is the "Ark of the Covenant", she is the place where He comes to dwell.

If we look at how the Blessed Virgin responded to what the Archangel Gabriel told her, there are two things we see. We see her being attentive to what the angel said i.e. we see her listening. We also see her being obedient, "I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me”(Lk 1:38). If we imitate these two virtues ourselves we will likewise enable the Lord to come to us this Christmas.

If we consider this particularly in a family setting, it is very easy for family gatherings to be occasions where there is a continual conflict of wills. I want this, I want that, he wants something else, and she wants something else again.
Our Lady was fit to have the Lord come to her because she bowed her will to that of the Lord. We, similarly, need to bow our will to that of the Lord, and most of the time that is manifested by bowing my will, surrendering my preference, to that of what other people would prefer. This is a simple fact of living out love, living out the love that involves the Lord’s coming. And so if we would be ready for Christmas then we need to be getting into the habit of compromising, and not being too attached to our own preferences.

But we can only surrender our will, we can only surrender our preferences to others, we can only do this if we have first HEARD what other people's preferences are. And so we need to listen, just as the Blessed Virgin listened to the angel. For ourselves, that listening doesn't just mean not talking, it needs to also involve being attentive enough to others to see what they are thinking what they are wanting. And amid the rush of Christmas activity that can take an effort –but its essential if Christmas is to be happy, if it to be what Christmas is truly about.

So, if we want to get ready for Christmas, if we want our hearts and our lives to be fit dwellings for the Lord, then let us imitate the one to whom the Lord came most completely, let us imitate Our Lady, let us listen as she listened, and having heard, let us obey.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

3rd Sunday Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 1:6-8.19-28
I’d like to say a few words today about two things: rejoicing, and about how God is hidden from us even though He is among us.

Today, the third Sunday of advent, is the day that the Church calls "Gaudete Sunday”, and this word means "rejoice". And this is important for us for two reasons.
First, and most fundamentally, the Church calls us to rejoice halfway through Advent is a sign of the fact that even though Christian existence is characterised by this season of waiting for the Lord to come, of being in continuous expectation of Him coming, nonetheless, in other forms He is already here among us -and so we should "rejoice".
Second, at a simple human level, I always think it's important that we have this reminder to rejoice as we are preparing for Christmas. We live in the midst of a very materialistic world, and many of our preparations for Christmas can similarly be materialistic, and hard work, and stressful, and so it is important to be reminded that there is a reason to "rejoice" even while we are getting ready Christmas. And of course, in different ways, many of us will have particular reasons why Christmas may be a difficult time, or a lonely time, or a time that can crystallise together many weighty issues in our life at the moment. And that too means that it's important to recall the reason that the Church tells us that we have to "rejoice" -to rejoice even in the midst of difficulty.

Our Faith tells us that the end of time Christ will come again in glory, and for those judged to be with Him, all will be well, and there will be rejoicing without end, because we will be with Him who will give us every reason to rejoice, who will give us happiness beyond imagining.
But the Lord whose very presence will bring happiness, He is already with us here today. The problem, however, with rejoicing in His presence is that there is something about His presence that remains hidden.

Let us turn to the scriptural comparison we find in today's gospel. St John the Baptist told the crowds who were coming to him, told the crowds who were responding to his call to "prepare a way for the Lord", he told the crowds that the one they were preparing for was already there, that He “stands among you –unknown to you”(Jn 1:26).
And something of that same truth holds for us today: the Lord is among us, that He is somehow hidden from us, that we somehow do not see Him.

Of course, He is not completely unseen, He is not completely hidden. We have His promise that He is with us in His sacraments, we know too that He is with us in the reading of Sacred Scripture, and that He is with us in the love of friends and family.
And yet, in none of these ways is He with us in the fully visible form He took as a child at Bethlehem, and in none of these ways is He with us as He will be in glory at the end of time.

Why is He unseen to us? Well, we might consider the fact that in as much as He is pure spirit God is beyond being seen –our eyes are not up to the task of seeing spiritual realities. We might also consider the fact that His workings, His providential plan, at the level of our individual lives, part of the reason we cannot see this and cannot see His hand at work in this, is not that He is not present, but rather that His workings are too complex, at too many levels for us to clearly perceive.

Nonetheless, Scripture assures us that He is among us. And most of us have particular moments in our lives when we are more able to look back, look back to earlier events in our lives, and see that the Lord was there all along. Much as the old "Footprints" poem puts it I can look back in my life and see my problems, see times when I felt like I was most alone, see times when it seems that the Lord abandoned me, and yet, it was then that the Lord carried me. I thought I was alone, but I only survived at all by His help, by His carrying me.
And so to remember that the Lord is with me, to remember that the Lord promises that He is with me, to remember that it is a repeated pattern in the Sacred Scriptures that He is there even when He is unseen, to remember this gives us a reason to "rejoice" on this Gaudete Sunday.

So, to conclude. As we as are moving closer to Christmas, and as we find in whatever different ways difficulties and pressures upon us, let us remember that the Lord is with us, His presence is with us, and His strength is with us, and therefore let us "rejoice".

Sunday, 4 December 2011

2nd Sunday Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 1:1-18; Isa 40:1-5.9-11
Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, I was asked a very good question by one of the children, I was asked why I was wearing purple –isn’t purple the colour of Lent, she said? Lent and Advent have a number of things in common, not just their colour. In a general sense we can say that they are both sombre seasons that prepare for the joy that follows, so that white is worn at both Christmas and Easter. But there is something else that unites both Lent and Advent and that is their focus on sin. Each of these two seasons is concerned with sin, but each in a somewhat different way. Lent has a slightly more backward looking approach to sin in that it calls us to do penance for the sins we have already committed. Advent's focus on sin is different: Advent is oriented to the coming of Christ, and Advent is concerned with sin because our sins obstruct His coming. A prayer at Mass this week, on the Thursday of the first week of Advent, expresses this very beautifully when it says that “our sins impede” His coming.

We need to turn away from our sins if we are to enable the coming of the Lord: our 1st reading spoke of how, at past time, the people had atoned for their sins and so the Lord would come to them (Isa 40:1-5.9-11); and our Gospel text has John the Baptist’s call to repentance to “prepare a way for the Lord”(Mk 1:1-8).

The joyful coming of the Lord will not happen unless we first ready ourselves by being purified of our sins. That’s why this is season is particularly important for going to confession, and is why we’ll be having our usual penitential service this Friday night with 4 visiting priests here to hear your confessions.

But in order to confess our sins we first need to see our sins, and this is always a problem. Comfort and complacency and self-deceit all prevent us seeing our sins accurately, and that’s why it takes an effort to examine our consciences, and that’s why we need help to do so, and is why I’ve given you again a copy of a sheet I handed out a year or so ago. I was asked recently about a question on that list, “Have I gone to sleep on time?” Someone wanted to know how that could be a sin, so let me try and explain –because it illustrates a great many other things.

Going to sleep -Of course, some things are beyond our control in terms of getting sleep, like illness or needing to care for a child. But nonetheless we do have a great deal of control, and therefore a great deal of responsibility, for planning and achieving our amount of sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is important in order for us to be able to function the next day.

But let me amplify this further in saying why it is important, and important to God, that you're able to function during the day. The point that we all need to have clear before ourselves is that our life is not our own -my life belongs to God and your life belongs to God. As the parable of the talents that we heard not that long ago reminded us, what we have is on loan to us from God, and we will have to render an account to Him of how we used what we have been loaned:
how we have used our abilities, how we have used our time, how we have used our opportunities, how we have used our initiative -whether we have failed to look to see the many ways that we could be helping others, the ways we could volunteer our time and service to others.
And none of these things happen by accident, they take planning and thought, which is why there are other questions on examination of conscience making that very point.
As Scripture puts it, “you have been bought and paid for”(1Cor 6:20), and so we each need to be living a life that is worthy of being offered to God as “a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1).
There is another aspect to this too: our lives and the details of our lives have a vastly increased dignity because they belong to God. Even what might seem like small mundane things have actually a great DIGNITY and value, a value because they have value in GOD’s sight. So, something like washing the dishes, which I never get excited about doing, I can resolve to do this well, resolve to do this with dignity, and OFFER it to God, as part of being a “living sacrifice” offered to Him.

Sometimes, maybe when we’re alone and being a bit scruffy, simply picking ourselves up, using the day the best we can, sometimes just doing a single thing with quality and effort, and then OFFERING this to the Almighty, this very fact can give dignity and meaning to our lives -as well as simply doing the more basic thing of using the talents that God has given us as a living sacrifice to Him.
But none of this, none of this using our time and abilities well, none of this can be done if we we’re not rested –thus the duty to get a good night’s sleep.

To come to back where I began. The purple of Advent signifies a preparation for the white of Christmas. And to prepare a way for the Lord we must purify ourselves of sin. We must see our sins, confess our sins, and being reconciled the Lord will leave us ready for His coming, a coming that “only our sins delay”.

The examination of conscience referred to in the sermon can be viewed at:

and as a Word document at: