Sunday, 30 December 2012

No sermon text this week

There is no sermon text this week because there is a pastoral letter from Bishop Budd, the text of which is available from the Plymouth Diocese website.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas, Shaftesbury, 2012

It’s my role to say a few words about why today’s feast is so important, to remind us about what it’s all about. And I want, today, to point out the question that today’s feast provides the answer to. And I want to do this with a summary of the key point that Pope Benedict starts his new book on The Infancy Narratives by addressing.

We keep today a feast that answers the question that was asked repeated when the baby whose birth we celebrate today was grown into a man. That man was not like other men. He was a preacher, but somehow noticeably different to other preachers. He had a wisdom such that people asked, “Where does He get it from?”(Mk 6:2) He was a miracle-worker, but not in the way that fakes or charlatans are. “He went about doing good”(Acts 10:38)
People asked the question, “Where are you from?”(c.f. Lk 23:6; Jn 9:29).
And this is the question that today’s feast answers.

The answer is twofold.
One part of the answer is that, as He said Himself, He is “not of this world”(Jn 18:36). He is the Lord God Himself, the one Son of the eternal Father, come down from heaven to earth.
But, the other part of the answer is that He is from a very definite place and time. Yes, He is God, but He is also truly human. He was born a babe in Bethlehem, of the House of Judah, of David’s royal line. The only son of the Virgin Mary. The timing of His birth is marked historically by the Roman census that brought His family to Bethlehem to be registered. These and many such details address the question, “Where did He come from?”
And these such details are what we celebrate in today’s feast.

There is another point at work here too. As the prophecy of Micah put it, prophesying of His birth centuries before it happened, this child is one whose “origin goes back to the distant past”(Mic 5:2).
We, in the 21st Century, might think of His past going back to His birth as a babe in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
But the point about the prophecy of Micah is that His origin was something ancient long before that, His origin goes back to the promises of the Lord God, His promises that He would save His people.
And, today’s feast, in answering the question, “Where was He from?” points out to us that He is not some vague thing, some unknown thing, some mythical wish. Rather, He comes at a precise recorded point in human history. A point that changes human history –changed it even in the fact that we still measure time before and after His birth: BC or AD.
His coming changed history, as it had been prophesied that His coming would change history. And so this too answers the question, “Where did He come from?” Answer: His “origin goes back to the distant past”(Mic 5:2).

People today still ask about this figure “Jesus”, wonder what the fuss was about, is about.
The events of Christmas remind us WHO this figure is. He is God and man. He is the saviour sent to save us from our sins. He is the one who brings “peace to all those who turn to Him in their hearts”(Ps 85:8). He is so important that it still matters that we ask, “Where is He from?”
He was, and is, “not of this world”(Jn 18:36), yet we celebrate tonight that He has entered our world, that He has chosen to born as one of us, born a child in Bethlehem: Emmanuel, “God is with us”(Mt 1:23).

Sunday, 23 December 2012

4th Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 1:39-44; Micah 5:1-4
I’ve been sick most of the past week. I’m well now, so there’s no need for you to take pity on me. In fact, I had quite enough self-pity for myself that I’m not in need of any more to be given to me. “No one has ever had THIS bug”, “No one understands me”, “No one appreciates me”, “No one cares about me”.
Now, I’m sure that as I’m saying this some of the women here are listening thinking, “Oh, he just had a case of ‘man-flu’”.
While some of the men here are thinking, “Oh, it sounds like he had what I had”!

The thing, really, is that I want to say a word about self-pity, because it’s one of the things that can ruin Christmas. And, if we look to Our Lady, as we heard her described in today’s Gospel, we see her manifesting the very opposite of self-pity.
In today’s Gospel we heard the account of the visitation , of how Our Lady went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. This part of the Gospel occurred just after the Annunciation, and the chronology is something I want to draw your attention to: Our Lady had just agreed to the Archangel Gabriel’s request for her to become the Mother of God, she had just become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and she’d been told as sign that her cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant with John the Baptist. The thing I want to draw your attention to is the way Our Lady responded, in action, to all of this. She was pregnant, yet she thought of someone else, of someone more pregnant that she was, her cousin Elizabeth, and she went to help her.

Now I’ve never been pregnant, for obvious reasons, but I understand that it’s a pretty good reason to be pretty concerned about your own health and condition –it’s even more serious than ‘man-flu’. Our Lady, however, thought of someone else, not herself. This attitude within her is what ushered in the presence of the Lord. When we’re all wrapped up in ourselves, in our self-pity (and we all have plenty of things of be self-pitying about ) when we’re all wrapped up in ourselves then there is no space for the Lord to enter. Our Lady was sinless, “full of grace”, she was NOT wrapped up in herself –and so the Lord came to her. And she brought our Lord to Elizabeth.

Let me point out another angle of this: Our Lady was full of faith, as Elizabeth praised her, “Blessed is she who BELIEVED that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled”(Lk 1:44). To have faith means to accept what God has told us, what He has revealed. This LISTENING attitude is also something that involves us being ORIENTED towards another, rather than just wrapped up in ourselves. Our Lady listened to God’s Word and she believed. She would have listened to God’s Word in the Old Testament, in prophecies like the one we heard in our first reading, of the prophecy of Micah that a saviour would be born of the house of David, of Bethlehem. And so, believing this promise she had a context to be ready to understand and accept the further promise made by the Archangel that this would be fulfilled in her own time, in her.

We, ourselves, have many promises we have heard in the Scriptures. We too can decide whether or not we are going to be attentive to them, to listen, or whether we will be turned in on ourselves instead. Let’s take a simple promise like that of the Lord Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”(Acts 20:35, c.f. Lk 6:38). If we are remembering what Jesus said over Christmas, if we are filled with such faith, then we have yet another reason to be filled with looking at others and not just at ourselves in self-pity.

Our Lady was filled with joy, the next verse in today’s Gospel text has her call out the “Magnificat”. She was filled with joy because she wasn’t just filled with herself.
If we take her as our role-model, if we look to the needs of others over Christmas rather than just to ourself, if we listen in faith to the Lord to hear the deeper meaning of this season, then we too will know the TRUE spirit of the reason.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Women's Ordination?

The Catholic Church only ordains men to the priesthood, something that is often questioned given that the Church of England and other bodies do.  For example, the November 2012 debate in the Church of England synod about whether to ordain women as bishops reawakened interest in the issue.  It's thus relevant to remember some of the reasons that the Catholic Church gives for not ordaining women.  The teaching that the Church can only ordain men to the priesthood was infallibly taught by Pope John Paul II in 1994 and more recently reiterated by Pope Francis.

In summary, the Church teaches that:
Christ chose only men as His 12 Apostles the first priests.  He made this choice freely despite the fact that many other things He did were contrary to the opinions and traditions of His time.  The Church follows His example in continuing to only ordain men because we are His Church and do what He taught us.  This position has been consistently upheld by the Tradition for all of the 2000 years of the Church and repeatedly confirmed by variously definitions of the Church, leading up to the infallible pronouncement by Pope St John Paul II in 1994. 
In addition, theologians offer a number of different arguments as to why it is appropriate to ordain only men to the priesthood.  Primary among these arguments is the notion that the priest stands as a particular 'image' or 'icon' of Christ and that having a priest of the same gender as Christ helps a manifest this.  This notion was cited by Pope Francis when he reaffirmed the teaching on this point in 2013, saying, "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion"(Evangelii Gaudium n.104).
Finally, it's worth noting that the Anglican Communion does not share our Catholic understanding of what a priest is, what the Mass is, or our understanding of the Magisterium's role in transmitting and interpreting Christ's teaching on this and other issues for us.  It's thus, sadly, not surprising that Anglicans and Catholics have come to a different conclusion on this matter.

Many of the best articles written on this subject were written shortly after the 1994 decree of Pope St John Paul II.  Here are links to a few of the briefer articles: 

Why Women Can't Be Priests by Mary DeTurris
DeTurris' article summarises the views of Sister Sara Butler. Sr Sara is well-known for the fact that she used to believe in women's ordination but changed her mind and now argues for the Church's teaching on this matter. 

The All Male Priesthood by Fr William Saunders
Fr Saunders' article  both argues from tradition and explains why this tradition makes sense.

Women Priests? by Fr William Most

A YouTube talk by the Papal Theologian Fr Wojciech Giertych

This article argues, contrary to some dissenters, that the teaching by Pope St John Paul II on this point is infallible.  This argument was formally clarified by the Vatican itself on 18 Nov 1995 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed that this pronouncement "requires definitive assent...(and) has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium."

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Confession and Self-deception, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 3:10-18
I was at someone's house recently and happened to look in their mirror. And I, somewhat apologetically, told them that there was something wrong with their mirror. Because the mirror somehow made it look as if I had wrinkles around my eyes. Then, a few days later, I was at another person's house, and it turned out that they too had a faulty mirror. And I began to wonder if, actually, the problem was that I needed new glasses. And, within my head, the thought process was quite straightforward: “I know I don't have wrinkles. Wrinkles are not nice things. I don't want to have wrinkles. I don't have wrinkles.”
Sadly, whether or not we have wrinkles is not decided by whether we think we want them!

I make this observation because people often make a similar sort of thought process about sin. I've often heard someone articulate it in a way that sounds just like my thoughts about my wrinkles, say, about the sins of 'pride' and 'judging others' and 'gossip':
"I don't judge people. Judging people isn't nice. I wouldn't do that."
Now, like my wrinkles, the issue is not whether we would like something to be the case but whether it actually IS the case.
I would like to be a perfect person. I would like not to commit any sins. But I do. Daily, hourly.

One of the major problems in Christian living, a problem the saints talk about frequently, is the problem of self-deception. We inwardly lie to ourselves. We inwardly tell ourselves that we're alright. There isn't any sin in THIS soul, or at least, there isn't any sin worth bothering about -so we all too often deceive ourselves.
The problem with this is that we end up carrying the guilt of our sins anyway. And, actually, this is something we need to be released from, and released from repeatedly.

I say all this in the context of Advent. I've preached the last two Sundays about different aspects of our need to recognise God when He comes, both at Christmas, and in our daily lives. But, we also need to recognise OURSELVES if He is to come to us, to recognise what IN ourselves is stopping Him from entering our souls, and that is, above all else, our sins. And so, what need is to go to confession, to be forgiven, to be set free of our sins, to be made clean and ready for Christ to come.

Let me briefly address two questions: first, what am I to do if I can't really think of my sins? Maybe you know you're not perfect, you know you must be sinning (not least, because Scripture says so, "he who says he has no sin makes God out to be a liar..."(1 Jn 1:8-10)), but nonetheless, you can't think of WHAT those sins are. Well, pray to the Holy Spirit to "convict" you of your sins, to show you. Ask for the humility to see them. And perhaps start by looking not just for big mortal sins but smaller ones, the venial ones -sometimes, rather ironically, it can actually be easier to see and admit to the small things. The examination of conscience in today's newsletter has the seven deadly sins as its structure, and almost every one of those sins will be in our life to at least SOME degree, and starting with that realisation can help us then look and see WHICH sins of 'pride' etc are present in me.

Second, more briefly, what are we to do when every time we go to confession we confess the SAME things? Is there any point? Yes, there is a point. As long as we offend God we need to confess to Him; we need to be forgiven. And, confession can at least help us avoid getting worse even if we're not yet getting better. And, the standard advice of regular monthly confession will ultimately yield fruit in our lives.

To return to where I began, those wrinkles I refused to see, those sins I refuse to admit are really there. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance because there were sins to repent of, specific things, such that people said to him, as we heard, “What must we do?”(Lk 3:12). That held for the people back then, and it holds for us today. If we are to prepare for His coming at Christmas then repenting and going to confession, to renew our baptismal grace, is an essential way to get ready for the season.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Baruch 5:1-9; Ps 125:1-5; Lk 3:1-6
We're now in our second week of Advent, second week of getting ready for the coming of The Lord. And I want to tell you one of greatest things I have learnt for bringing happiness to my life, for making myself ready for the Lord's coming, ready to welcome Him whose very presence brings that happiness that exceeds all else.
And that thing is not something complicated, but something simple, namely, to give thanks to God every moment, for every little thing –especially to do so AT THAT MOMENT.

I spoke last week about the importance of seeing God, of recognising Him when He comes, and of the importance of doing this if we are to prepare for His coming at Christmas; prepare of His coming at the End of Time;, prepare for His coming in the daily, hourly, moments of our lives.
There are many things we must do if we are to see God when He comes, if we are to recognise Him. One of those things is to not just recognise Him in Himself, but to recognise what He has DONE. And having the habit of thanking God for the small things in life can be a huge help in seeing the reality of His active presence in our lives - as well as being an important thing that we owe Him anyway (we simply OWE it to Him to thank Him for things).
To thank Him for the chair I have to sit in, to thank Him for the warmth of this church, to thank Him for the food I am eating at lunchtime. For every little thing. If I do this, and in as much as I do this, I remember that He is here, and this fact should give me joy –and should prepare me to welcome Him even more.

In the psalm of today's Mass we had the refrain, "What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad" (Ps 125:3). That psalm followed as a response to our first reading from Baruch. The prophecy Baruch had been given was for the people of Israel while they were in captivity in Babylon, telling them that their time of exile was about to be over, that they were about to be led back to the Promised Land. We know, however, that not all of the people went back to the Promised Land. Some of them remained where they were. Some of them had lost their faith, lost their sight of God's activity, lost sight of the "marvels the Lord (had) worked for us", so it became almost meaningless to them to be told they we being rescued.

We, too, can lose our daily faith. We can lose sight of God's activity in our lives, especially if we are not habitually thanking Him for what He is doing for us.
For us, as for the people Baruch was addressing, it can be important to remember the marvels the Lord has done. Doing that 'remembering' can enable us to see God present, can enable us to 'make a path straight' for Him to return to our lives and hearts. Both that prophecy from Baruch and our Gospel text with St John the Baptist called for the people to prepare a way for the Lord to come. The Lord had once rescued His people from slavery in Egypt, He now was offering to rescue them from captivity in Babylon - they needed to look to Him, to remember the "marvels the Lord worked for us".

While some had forgotten, many of the people Baruch addressed remembered the "marvels the Lord had done” BECAUSE they had been singing the psalms while they were in Exile, had been continuing to THANK God, even in the midst of difficulties. Though, others of the people, sadly, had forgotten Him -they did not recognise Him or His activity, they did follow the lead back out of captivity.
For ourselves, if we are not looking for Him, if we are forgetting Him, if we are forgetting to see what He has done, and is doing in our lives, even in difficulties, then we will not be preparing an inner 'way for the Lord' to come. And we will miss out on what that deeper presence of the Lord brings.

To return to where I began, the simple practice that will help us see God's presence, will help us welcome Him even more, that simple practice is the habit of thanking Him: thanking Him for His marvels in the past, and His gifts to us in the present. Thanking Him for the small daily, hourly things He gives us. "What marvels The Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad!"(Psalm 125:3)

Sunday, 2 December 2012

1st Sunday of Advent, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 21:25-28.34-36
There is an old joke you may have heard, that I remembered this week amidst all the rain:
A man was sat on the steps of his front door as heavy rain and flood water was rising, and a man in a Landrover drove by and offered him a lift to rescue him. But he replied, “Thanks, but I trust in God, He will rescue me”. Later, as the waters rose higher, someone in boat came by and offered to rescue him, but again he just said, “Thanks, but I trust in God, He will rescue me”. Later still, as he was sat on the roof of his house, a helicopter came and offered to help him. Again he replied, “Thanks, but I trust in God, He will rescue me”. Finally, he drowned, and went up to the Pearly Gates. And he said to Jesus: "I trusted You. Why didn't you rescue me?" And Jesus replied, "I sent you a Landrover, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you expect me to do!"

On one level it is a joke. But on another level is makes a serious point about how God is present in our lives, even when we don't see Him.
Today we start the season of advent, when we think of the coming of The Lord, in preparation for Christmas. The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning "coming." And in the season of Advent there is a threefold coming we ponder:
The coming of Christ as a child in Bethlehem -our focus for Christmas, where Advent is heading.
The Second Coming of Christ in glory at the end of time –we start Advent thinking of that to remind us that the little baby of Bethlehem is not just a little baby but the Lord God Almighty –that is WHOSE coming we are focussed on.
And the third coming is now –the DAILY coming of the Lord to each and every one of us.

Now, my point to you today is that in each of these coming we can fail to see Jesus:
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Jews of old failed to see God present in Christ, in their long awaited messiah.
We, at the end of time, amidst all the trials and tribulations we have been warned of, will we fail to see Christ amidst our suffering? Will we fail to see God reaching out to us, in all His many different ways? Be it a Landrover, a boat, or a helicopter?
And daily, how often are we aware of the fact that He is all around, that He is the Creator holding us in being, that He is the one giving us grace to bear our trials and conquer in our struggles?
He is there, but do we see Him?

Let me make one simple suggestion to you in this regard:
If we want to see God’s presence in our lives then it helps to have religious images of Him in our homes. Those of you married to unbelievers might note that this is an easy time to slip in religious images with the coming Christmas decorations. Those of you who have entirely ‘Christian’ homes, let me ask you if your religious imagery makes it LOOK like a Christian home? A Catholic home should have a crucifix somewhere prominent and natural, a statue of Our Lady, or an image or her or the Sacred Heart –these should be natural things in a Catholic home. Yet, frequently when priests visit homes these days they look like the homes of unbelievers.
Is it then surprising that we struggle to be aware that God is present in our lives?

This season it is easy to bring religious images into our homes. As you plan your decorations plan the place of Christ among them. In particular, if you do not have a Nativity set, a crib, it is easy to buy one. I have found them for £7 on Amazon, and for those of you not on the internet you can sign the sheet in the porch this Sunday and I should have them here for you next Sunday. Similarly for crucifixes. There is no excuse for a Catholic not to have these at home –it’s HIS season after all.
Some links:

To return to where I began, it is easy to fail to see God in our lives. To fail to see Him in things much less dramatic than a Landrover, boat or helicopter. But he IS there. If we want to recognise His presence at the End of Time, if we want to recognise His presence at Christmas, if we want to recognise His presence in our hearts and lives this day, then restoring the place of religious images in our homes is a good and simple place to start.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Catholic Intransigence, Christ the King, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 18:33-37
This week there has been a lot of media coverage of the debate in the Church of England about whether or not to ordain women as bishops.
And, lurking in the background of those discussions, there has been the occasional reference to the Catholic Church –to those awkward intransigent Catholics who refuse to ordain women as priests. And on this, and many other issues, people often accuse the Catholic Church of being inflexible, and failing to move with the times, and so forth.
So, I want to say a few words today about why the Church is not only so inflexible, but why she is CONFIDENTLY inflexible.

Let me start by making a comparison. In the recent debate within the Church of England this week we repeatedly heard their highest-ranking archbishops argue that they must ‘move with the times’; that they need to ‘catch up’ with modern society. I want, respectfully, to say that these are deeply mistaken comments for a Christian to be making. It would be one thing to argue that they should ordain women because it is the RIGHT thing to do, but to argue that they should do so because these are the attitudes in our society is to lose sight of what it means to be a Christian in the first place:

To be a Christian means that we look to Christ. It means that we do not look to modern secular society to tell us what is right and wrong. Rather, it means we look to Christ.
We look to Him because He is the meaning of life, He is the One in whose “image” we were made (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18) , He is the One “through whom ALL things were made” –as we say in the creed echoing Scripture (Jn 1:3, Rom 11:36, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2). We look to Him because He is the Lord God Himself come down from heaven to earth. We look to Him because He said of Himself that He is the “truth”(Jn 14:6), and, as we heard Him say in today’s Gospel, He came to “bear witness to the truth”(Jn 18:33). Today we keep the feast of Christ the King, and He is a king beyond all others, a king who does not need the wisdom of others because He is all Wisdom itself.

Christ’s status is such that he does not change or alter from one age to the next. He is a truth more constant that the truths of mathematics. 2+2=4 yesterday, today, and forever. And, as Scripture says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”(Heb 13:8).
It follows that the way of life He offers us is constant and reliable too: The Eucharist is as truly Him today as it was a century ago and as it will be a century from now. The moral life he taught likewise does not change: re-marriage after divorce was adultery when Christ condemned it as such (Lk 16:18), it is wrong today, and it will always be so. Homosexual behaviour was wrong when the early Judaeo-Christian tradition followed our Lord’s embracing of that tradition, and it remains so today.
And, concerning the ordination of women, contrary to the views of our fellow-Christians in the Church of England, the Catholic Church views the behaviour of Christ as normative on this matter too: yesterday, today, and forever. Christ COULD have chosen women as His first priests (the 12 Apostles) had He so wished –He defied contemporary custom and tradition on many other things. But instead Christ chose only men, unlike the pagan religions that had many priestesses.
[If you wish to read more on this point see our parish website]

And the Catholic Church holds that we do not have the authority to do other than Christ did.
And we hold firm on this, we are intransigent in this, because of what we believe about Christ. That He is the one Lord, the true King, “and all who are on the side of truth listen to [His] voice”(Jn 18:37).
We are not intransigent because we like sticking out, or because we like being awkward, and I don’t preach about this or other things because I think it makes me popular or makes my life easy. The Church stands firm because she wishes to stand with Christ, and recognises Him as the One to stand firm with, “yesterday, today, and forever”(Heb 13:8).

Sunday, 18 November 2012

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 13:24-32; Dan 12:1-13
A constant feature of human existence, and of each of us, is that we want our problems to go away. We’re all aware that in some manner we live in a world of suffering, we live in a world of problems, that in different ways we see evil all around us. And though we want it to be over, the evil will not go away easily, not the evil of sin, not the evil of suffering, not any evil. It will only go away when it’s finally vanquished.
If this truth is pretty much clear to us today, and it was even more clear to the Jews living in our Lord’s own time. As well as the general evils of suffering and sin, the Jews of our Lord’s own time had for some centuries been subject to various different military occupations, most recently the Greeks, and then the Romans. They yearned for a time when these enemies would be vanquished. They yearned even more, for a time of the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, about the final vanquishing of evil and suffering.
And yet, they also realised that this vanquishing, this final battle, would be a tough battle for them too. The various prophecies of what are called the “apocalyptic literature” all indicate this.

That was the general background to what we heard Lord Jesus speaking of in today’s gospel. We heard Him speaking about a “time of great distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mk 13:24). This text comes after Jesus had been speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem, and of the sacred Temple itself (Mk 13:1ff). To those who heard Him, the thought of a dramatic cosmic battle involving even the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem, such a prophecy had a general context in which to make sense of it: a time of great distress, followed by the establishment of the reign of God.

This text, however, was only one part of the teaching of the Lord Jesus. And in the light of the other things He said, His disciples saw a twofold prophecy in this text: a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, and a prophecy of a later definitive Second Coming in glory.
The first, namely the destruction of Jerusalem, did indeed occur as Jesus promised, “before this generation has passed away”(Mk 13:30). It occurred in the years 70 A.D. when the Roman army leveled Jerusalem and the Temple itself to the ground. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that it was because the Christians had this prophecy from the Lord Jesus, with His advice that when they see these things happening they should flee to the hills (Mk 13:14), that the Christians did indeed flee to the hills and survived the Roman destruction.
The second prophecy, of His final coming in glory, has yet to be fulfilled. However, the fact that His first prophecy was fulfilled gives us confidence to believe His later one will be too.

It’s not fashionable any more, or at least it used to not be fashionable, to talk about the drama of the End Times. To warn of “wars and rumours of wars” (Mt 24:6), to quote visions and saints who warn of coming chastisements for sin, of signs and wonders before the coming of something else.
And yet, unless we have a conviction that there will be a final playing out of the conflict between evil and good, a final battle were good will be triumphant, unless we are convinced that that WILL happen, then we cannot live as a people with hope that the problems of this world will one day end. And this is why it is ESSENTIAL that we as Christians continue to believe in the Second Coming, continue to look forward to it in hope, even through the destruction, the difficulty, the trauma that will be involved. Because without that final context, there will be no final victory, and WE can have no SHARE in that final victory.

But if there will be a final battle, if there will be a final victory, then the difficulties that we live with, real though they are, will one day be over.
Let me conclude by noting WHO it is that Jesus says will be victorious: Himself. He takes the title from the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament, especially as expressed in the book of Daniel as we heard in our first reading this week and will hear again next week, and He says that He who is, THE “Son of Man”(Dan 7:13 c.f. previous sermon), He will “come on the clouds of heaven” in victory.
A victory to set His people free, to set us free from all that burdens us in this life.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 12:41-44
Today England keeps Remembrance Sunday when we remember all those who gave their lives in the wars of the past century. The readings we have at Mass today are those chosen by the universal Church on its three-year cycle and are not intended to correspond to Remembrance Sunday. That said, I would like to make at least one connection between the value of the sacrifice of the widow, and that of lives laid down in war. Because in both cases the value of what is laid down might sometimes seem to be something lost, and yet, the words of Jesus remind us that the true value of something lies in God's eyes and not merely in our own.

The widow, as we just heard in that account, had very little money, very little to offer to the God, just two small coins, "the equivalent of just a penny"(Mk 12:42). In the eyes of most of those who saw her what she gave may have seemed not worth bothering about. This, however, is not what the Lord Jesus said about her offering. He said it was worth more than all the other offerings that had been made, "she has put in more than all the other offerings”(12:43), because she was giving all she had to live on, whereas the others were giving merely out of their abundance.
Now, if we consider what the Lord meant here, He clearly was not saying that her penny would buy more gold for the Temple, or more animals to be sacrificed. No, obviously, at a material level her offering would not be more than the other offerings made. Rather, He was speaking about the true value of these things, namely, the value they have in the sight of God.

For ourselves, it can often happen that we have something to do that seems small and not worthwhile. Maybe we offer someone some help, and they are not appreciative. Or maybe we have to wash a child's socks, and, of course, he never thanks you for it.
Or maybe, in a different way, your deed is small because you are not able to do as much as you would like. Maybe you are not physically strong and fit enough to help as you would like, or as you used to when you were younger, and you can only do something that seems small and hardly worth bothering to do. Or, maybe you'd like to give a big sum of money to help a charity, but you only have a small amount to offer, and it seems like it’s not worth doing.

In these, or many other things we do, the question raised by the Lord's description of the value of the widow's mite, is, WHAT is it that truly gives value to what we do?
We can answer this question in two parts,
First, the value lies in how GOD, the author of all things, the value lies in how HE values them.
Second, we can go further and actually be bold enough to say that we can know HOW and WHY He values things. Namely, He who tells us that He is love itself, He values things by the LOVE with which we do them. St Thomas Aquinas teaches this point at the theological level, in specifying that the level of MERIT that God assigns to our actions varies, and it varies according to how we love.
If I do a great deed, but with little love, then it has little value in God's eyes.
If I do a little deed, but with great love, then it has great value in God's eyes.

What this calls for, in a way of CHANGING our actions, is this: it calls for us to constantly seek to purify and correct our intentions, so that we do the same deeds but with a greater inner attitude of love, offering them in love, offering them to God, doing them for sake of someone else, not for the sake of how they will benefit us. This is something easy to say, but is a great task to make into a habitual practice, a practice that inwards transforms how we do everything, how we do the same deeds that we do anyway

And that, not the outward physical level of our deeds, that, like the small widow's mite that was worth more than all the other Temple offerings, that is what gives value to our deeds and to our lives.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

No Sermon this weekend

There is no sermon text this weekend because we had a mission appeal from an SMA priest

Sunday, 21 October 2012

On why it is good to believe, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Isa 53:10-11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45
I've spoken in recent weeks about a couple aspects of what it means to believe. I'd like, today, to conclude that for a while by speaking of another aspect of what is involved in believing, namely, the need to CHOOSE to believe. Cardinal Newman spoke about this when he said that we need to choose to believe, and in order to choose to believe we need to first recognise that there is something DESIRABLE about believing, some reason why we should WANT believe:
reason can show us the reasonableness of believing, can show us why we should believe, but we still need to CHOOSE to believe.
St. Thomas Aquinas likewise spoke about how we need to recognise that it is GOOD to believe. This means, among other things, that we need to recognise the goodness of the One in whom we are called to believe, namely, to recognise the goodness of God. After all, why would someone choose to believe in an EVIL god?

Now, let me pause on that thought for a moment, because when people give reasons for why they DON'T believe the most common reason people give is a reason that basically boils down to saying that if there is a god he is an evil god, namely, people point to the reality of suffering, and people say this is why they don't believe in God. So, how can WE say it makes sense to believe in God in a world of suffering? How can it be GOOD to believe, given the reality of suffering?

These are tough questions, but, they are also questions that ONLY Christianity is able to squarely face. I don't means so much that we have the doctrine of Original Sin to explain that suffering was not created by God but only entered this world with sin, and, I don't mean so much that we have the doctrine of Providence to say that even through suffering God works to bring a good about for us that is even greater than the suffering He permits for us.
Rather, what I mean, is the truth that all three of our scripture readings today make reference to in different ways: that God has entered our world of pain and suffering and become one with us in it.

Our first reading spoke of the prophecy of the Suffering Servant who took our faults upon Himself (Isa 53:11). Similarly, our Gospel text referred to how Jesus gave Himself up, in suffering, to be the ransom for our sins; how He let Himself become a servant for our sakes. And, perhaps most directly, we have the passage in our second reading about Jesus as the supreme High Priest. Our second reading is part of a series of second readings from Hebrews that began 2 Sundays ago and goes on for another 4 weeks. But, from the perspective of what I Have been talking about, namely, God's entering our world of suffering and thus showing Himself to be a kind and loving God, it is today's text that is possibly the focal point: "it is not as if we had a High Priest who was incapable of feeling our weakness with us" (Heb 4:15) - we want a God who is with us in our problems, and this is exactly what He has made Himself.

So, to return to my opening question, about the desirability of believing in Him, about how He has shown Himself to be a good God, and about how it is good to believe in Him:
Evil seems, at one level, to be the ultimate reason to not believe in a loving God.
But, in the face of the incarnation, in the light of seeing that He has entered our world of suffering and pain, in the face of seeing Him upon the Cross,
we see that He has transformed what seems to show Him unloving, and made it into the greatest sign of His love.
He has, in this, shown us that it is good to believe in Him, and to thus by faith share in a communion of love with Him in the midst of a world where suffering otherwise can leave us alone.
So, given this, and given, as in other weeks I've been touching upon, and as our series of talks on faith are articulating, given that reason shows that there are reasons to believe in Him, then, the Cross also shows that it is GOOD to do so as well.
And so we can CHOOSE to believe in Him: He is a good and loving God, and this is what He has SHOWN Himself to be.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

On the Commitment of Faith, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Wis 7:7-11
There are many opinions we have that we only partly commit to. For example, I think that bottled water is not really healthier than tap water. This is opinion I have held for many years. It is an opinion that corresponds to what I read in the newspapers. But it is, nonetheless, not an opinion I am particularly committed to. And my life would not be radically changed if I reversed that opinion.
The point I want to make to you today is that faith is NOT like that, at least not what we mean when we talk about CHRISTIAN faith. Christian faith is something that you have to commit yourself to.

I say this in part because we’re now in the Year of Faith and I want to give a few sermons on what is involved in believing. But I say this also because our first reading speaks about the importance of seeking wisdom, and of seeking it from God rather than other things. The author of the book of Wisdom speaks of it as a “priceless stone” to be valued above worldly riches
However, to value the pursuit of Divine wisdom above other riches means we have to make a serious commitment to accept God’s revelation as true, and not just as a vague nice thought. And, for many of us, we can have made a partial acceptance of the truths of the Faith, but not have done so with that true commitment that means we’ve made an act of faith. So, we might “suppose” that it is true, or “think” that it is true, but not commit ourselves. The problem, however, comes when we meet some test.

To use a comparison from C.S.Lewis: you may say you think a rope is strong if you are only using it to tie up a parcel, but if you find yourself hanging off a cliff on that same rope then you know whether or not you really think it is strong.
And my faith in God: I may say I believe Him, and believe in Him, but some trial can come my way and I suddenly realise I wasn’t that committed to Him after all.

When I was young I thought I had firm faith. I was emphatic that there was a God and happily argued the toss with many an atheist. But when a certain period of suffering came my way I found that my faith crumbled, because it wasn't really faith at all -it was just emphatic opinion.
Let me put it another way: opinion rests upon ourselves, upon our own conviction.
Faith, in contrast, rests upon God and a TRUST in Him.
For myself, in my opinionated youth I thought God was a good and loving God. But the trial of suffering tested that opinion. Could He be good and allow this suffering? It was in the weight of the test that I shifted from thinking He was good because it tidily fit into my own experience of life, and I came to instead accept that God is good and loving because He has said so, and He has proved Himself true in other things so I believe Him about this thing too.

To come back to the question of the commitment of faith, to be committed to what God has revealed to us in Christ, to say, “I believe You” to Him, that commitment involves a mental commitment to prioritise what He has told us above other things. He has said He has the true riches that last in heaven, and living towards THAT goal involves a commitment in how I live in this world. And, to return to my own example, He has said He is a loving God, and to live based on that revealed truth involves accepting suffering and trials in my own life that I cannot understand.

To say, “I believe” is to make a commitment, a commitment that brings the greatest riches, but a commitment nonetheless. To accept what God has said BECAUSE He has said, not just to accept it as supposition.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

On Faith and the 'Year of Faith', 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 9:30-37
We just heard Jesus speak about “the little ones who have faith”(Mk 9:41). And, in a week and half the Church throughout the world is going to be starting a “Year of Faith”. Faith is something that we speak about a lot and yet for many it can seem a mysterious thing. Why it that some people believe and some do not? They live in the same world, can have read the same Bible, hear the same sermons, and yet some believe and some do not. Why? This Year of Faith should help us in this regard.

Today I want to start with a thought about faith itself. What is “faith”? In our un-believing world “faith” is spoken of as something vague and uncertain. However, the classical Christian understanding of “faith” is the very opposite.
Let us consider what the phrase “I believe you” implies. It is something that we say in response to what someone tells us. Some witness of an event comes in and tells me he has seen something, and I respond to what he tells me, I respond either with faith or with doubt. If I judge the person who is speaking to me to be a reliable witness then I believe him. Whereas if I judge him to be an unreliable witness then I doubt him.

Or let me put it this way: there are some things I know because I have seen them for myself. There are other things I know because someone else has told me so. For example, “the planet mercury is the closest planet to the sun”. I have never been there. I have never seen it for myself. But, wise and learned men, reliable witnesses have told me it is so. I believe what they have told me. I judge them to be reliable witnesses. I say, “I believe you” to their witnessing. And, thus, I have knowledge of something I have not seen.

What of God? When we say, “I believe you” in the context of Christianity we are speaking to Jesus Christ. We are saying that we believe what HE has told us, told us of God, of the meaning of life, and so many other things. To give a two specific example, I believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ because He has said so, He has said “This is my Body”. My sight tells me it is bread. But by my hearing, the mechanism of faith, Jesus tells me it is His Body. I recognise that He is a reliable witness, and thus I know it is His Body. Another example, I might well experience suffering in my life, this is what I “see” for myself. But I hear God say in Scripture, “God is love”(1 Jn 4:8) –I trust the reliability of the Divine witness, and so I accept that He is love even though I have not fully seen it for myself.

To return to my opening question: Why do some of believe and some not? At a subjective level each individual person might have different reasons. But there are objective reasons that can help us through our subjective difficulties.
As I’ve said before, this year we’re going to have a series of talks on this and related subjects. At one level, these talks are aimed at enquirers, to help unbelievers come to believe. They are also aimed at believers, to help them deepen their faith. They are also offered to help you know what you might say to help someone who doesn’t have faith to come to faith.
Inside your newsletter there is a list of the talks being offered here between now and Christmas. These talks aim to show:
First, why we can trust Jesus as a reliable witness of those things we have not seen;
how reason and historical facts establish what are called “motives of credibility” for accepting that Jesus is a reliable witness.
Second, how we can know with certainty the content of what He has revealed.
And finally, how, even after reason has shown us the reasonableness of faith, how we then need to make the choice to believe, the commitment to accept something on the authority of someone else, the authority of the Divine witness.
That final step, even though it is not a blind step, even though it is not what critics call “blind faith” or a random “leap of faith”, nonetheless, it is not necessarily an easy final step. And yet fortunate are those who have made it. As Jesus put it, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”(Jn 20:29) –and this is the very nature of faith: to know what we have not seen for ourselves, to know it because we trust the testimony of the Divine witness.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury, 11am Mass

Mk 9:30-37
“Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me."(Mk 9:37) We know that there are many times in the Gospels when we hear Jesus speaking about the importance of being childlike. It can sometimes be difficult to understand what ‘childlike’ means; after all, there are certain things it obviously doesn't mean: being infantile, petulant, throwing a tantrum and stamping our foot when we don't get our way, etc.

In today's gospel the particular context that led Jesus to refer to children was the context of his 12 apostles each claiming to be greater than the others: in this sense, each claiming to be more of an adult than the others. When we look at a child, however, one of the things that a child does NOT claim is greatness -a child may claim the right to our attention, the right to a new toy, and the right to not be punished for fighting with siblings, but it is not typical of a child to claim GREATNESS: a child knows that it is not great -which is why a child looks to the adult for attention, a new toy, justice against siblings and so on.

I want to illustrate this by referring to a saint. As Catholics, we know that one of the ways we can understand the Scriptures is by looking at the lives of the saints, and one particularly useful saint for understanding being childlike is Saint Therese of Lisieux (or ‘St Teresa’ in English not French), the saint whose relics toured England back in 2009 and widely reported even in the secular media. Saint Therese is famously known for teaching what is called "the way of spiritual childhood". And in some ways the spiritual childhood she lived was a pretty tough, manly childhood: she suffered, suffered and died from tuberculosis, but suffered without complaining, suffered with grace.

Thinking of greatness, however, there is one particular aspect of St Therese’s spiritual childhood that I want to refer to: her practice of "hidden" acts of kindness. She says in her autobiography (an autobiography she only wrote because she was commanded to by her superior), that, "I endeavoured above all to practice little HIDDEN acts of virtue, such as folding the mantles which the Sisters had forgotten". And that small little act is typical of the way of life St Therese lived and calls upon us to live: to be content to do many small hidden acts, to do them because somebody needs to do them, and WE can be that somebody.

In contrast, that false adulthood that we saw in the 12 Apostles, far from being willing to be hidden demands rather that its greatness be seen, be seen by others and praised by others. Far from being content with doing good just to do good, mistaken greatness demands that the greatness be seen.
For ourselves, it is all too easy to make being seen all too important, to get in a bad mood when people don't thank us for what we’ve done, to grumble when people take us for granted. I know that I don't like it when people take my work for granted -when I tidy the church and hall up and nobody notices who did it, when if feel like I’ve walked the extra mile to meet many different peoples different spiritual needs in a day, and no one seems to notice. To serve Jesus, however, to love as Jesus loved, means being willing to do goodness to others even when others don't see it.

To come back to Saint Therese, I want to conclude by pointing to an irony that we see in her hidden goodness: the irony is that in seeking to keep her goodness hidden it has been manifested to all the world, manifested not by herself but by the Lord. One of the mistakes that the 12 Apostles made was not only to demands their greatness be acknowledged by men rather than by God, but to demand that it be acknowledged right now. St Therese was content to let her hidden acts be seen by God, and as a consequence of the faithfulness of that good God, the glory and greatness of St Therese is on public display to ALL as she tours our country with a schedule fitting a pop star and adoring crowds to match, but the real glory and greatness of St Therese is on display in heaven and will be on display there forever. As we heard Jesus say, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all". He was true to His word for Saint Therese and if we too are "servants of all" he will be true to us too.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Harvest Festival, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

James 2:14-18
Today we're keeping our harvest festival, and every year I've taken a different theme for our harvest festival. Primary, obviously, is our focus on giving thanks to God for the good things He gives us, as we see them manifested in the good things of the harvest. And this includes our need to give thanks to God when things are good, as well as when the harvest has been less good - as many of our farmers have sadly experienced this summer.

This year, however, I wish to focus on a more particular thing, namely, our need to give to others from the good things that we have received, including the good things of the harvest. Its traditional to have a collection for those in need at our harvest festivals, and this year we have three closely related collections: the dry goods you've donated will go to the the Gillingham Food Bank, and this week the money donated in exchange for the fresh goods you take away will go to CAFOD, and next week my 17 mile sponsored run from Wardour Chapel to Salisbury Cathedral will raise money for our parish fund for the feeding station in the Sudanese refugee camp.

But the question I wish to address is WHY should we give at all? Of course, you might think that's a question with a simple answer: Jesus tells us to love our neighbour, especially when he's in need.

However, there is a complaint that often get expressed something like this: why should I give, it's MY money! I worked to have it. I only have it because I've saved for it. And so forth. And, if we're honest, most of us can have something of that attitude within us.
So, the point I wish to raise today is about what ownership means in general, according to what our Catholic Faith teaches us. Because it’s only because we think we OWN things that we think we have a right to keep them and not give them away.

The harvest time is a particularly good time to think about ownership because it's a very easy time to cast our minds back to the creation itself. What our Faith teaches us is that the world did not make itself, and humans did not make themselves - the world was and is a work of the Creator. And the good things of this world come from Him. And He gave the good things of this world to humanity for our use, as we might recall especially at harvest time: "behold I have given you every seed-bearing thing for your food..."(Gen1:29).

The more specific point I want to make, however, and while it is a little technical it's not too complicated, the point I want to make is about ownership. What does I means to 'own' something? Marxism teaches that all ownership is theft. Whereas Adam Smith teaches that the free capitalist market and unrestricted right to private ownership is the only way to wealth creation. Our Catholic Faith teaches us something else, something that is both more ancient and more new.

Our Catholic Faith teaches us that there is truly such a thing as a right to private ownership. It's also teaches, however, that this right is not absolute, and this right is in fact only to be understood in the light of the goal that private ownership seeks to advance. That goal is not the private flourishing of an individual but rather the COMMON good of humanity. And, in this regard, our teaching about the right to private ownership only makes sense if understood within the primary teaching that the goods of creation are destined for the 'Common Good' of all humanity (Catechism 2402-2404) The background question might be put like this: how are the goods of creation to be cared for, to be used, to be developed? By being entrusted to the care of individuals, entrusted to them in what we call 'private ownership'. What this means is that all private ownership needs to look beyond just itself, and our generosity to those in need is not just an act of generosity on our part but is actually a basic work of JUSTICE giving to others what is rightfully theirs.

Many centuries ago the greatest theologian in the history of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas, expressed this when he spoke of how in situations of extreme need the goods of rich belong to the poor by right, because need has put those goods in common. "In cases of need all things are common property... for need has made it common"(Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II q66 a7). This isn't a 19th century Marxist view but the ancient Catholic one.

So, to conclude by returning to that initial question: why should I give, it's MINE anyway? Well, actually, in our Catholic understanding it's only 'yours' in a limited sense to begin with. The goods of creation, even those we have worked hard for ourselves, are all ordered to ALL of humanity, and so our giving on a day like today is a basic work of justice that we owe to others.

So, today, let us give thanks to God for the good things we enjoy, but let us also remember to look at them free from selfishness. "The Lord’s is the earth and everything in it"(Ps 23:1), we only own it in provisional sense, entrusted to our care.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

James 2:1-5
There are a great many places around Shaftesbury where people gather. And if you were to look around and try and think where you'd be most likely to see wealthy person sat next to a person with much less money, a rich person sat in the exact same type of seat as a person with less money and prestige, you might look in many places. You might go and look at the train station, but there you'd find the First Class carriage tidily separately off the better half. Then you might look at where people gather to eat. But here too you would find people separated by class: those who eat at the kebab and pizza take-out on the High Street, and those who can afford to eat at Chutney's Indian restaurant, and then those who eat at the Fleur de Lys - I’ve barely seen the outside of that place, let alone the inside!

But, I think I'm right in observing that, the place in town where you would be most likely to see people of all sorts of social classes sat down in the same place, sat down in the same seats, sat down with no class division at all, that place is the place where you are right now: in the church.
Now, I'm not saying that this is something that is completely and properly lived out ALREADY by us, but, in as much as this is true in church, and I think I’m right in saying that it’s truer in church than anywhere else around here, then it is something all together "right and just". It is altogether as the letter from St James (that we heard as our second reading) would have it. As we heard him say, "do not try to combine faith in Jesus Christ ... with the making of distinctions between classes of people"(James 2:1), and he proceeded to then give some precise examples about not offering different seats for different classes of people.

What I am saying we can observe here in Shaftesbury is something that I can remember observing many years ago when I was a teenage student in London. I studied in South Kensington and around us students there were literally (foreign) princes and paupers, people who slept on the streets and people who slept in silk sheets. But on Sunday I would see people from all those categories and more at Mass together at the Oratory. All coming together because they worshipped the same God. All coming to the same place to worship. All being treated the same when they walked through the church doors. Princes and paupers.

It is, of course, not a truth that's always perfectly lived out. I know that, sadly, there are places, not many places, but sadly I have heard that there are or have been places where there are fancy balconies put aside for the rich. The fact that it is not so here, or anywhere I've seen, is something to be glad about.
However, I would suggest to you, and I'm sure St James would do more than just politely suggest it, I would suggest to you that no matter how true this may be of our seating arrangements in our church there are surely two points that must follow.

First, it is not enough that people have the same seats in church, they also need to be treated with the same dignity, and greeted with the same attention. If, when we come to church, we recognise that each person here has come to worship the same one Lord, has been made by the same one Lord God, loved by the same one Lord God, then surely we should recognise something in common among ourselves and show a common respect for each other. And surely this holds even more when, as we do in this country and in this era, when we come to church as people who have recognisably chosen to acknowledge the same one true God even in an era when others have forgotten Him, then surely we should recognise something in common among ourselves and show a common respect for each other.

Second, St James would remind us that we must also treat each other OUTSIDE church in a way that likewise acknowledges our mutual relationship with the one true Lord. If I recognise that that person is see outside of church is made by the same one Lord God then I cannot fail to see my obligation to love and care for him. To back back to my student observation: if the prince at Sunday Mass at the Oratory sees the homeless at Mass too then surely he should be reminded of his need to care for the homeless. We have other readings in the following weeks that are also from St James as he spells out further details on this point, and it is important that we are listening in the weeks ahead to what he says.

So, to conclude and repeat the observation I started with, it is in our church more than anywhere else in town that someone is most likely to be treated with equal dignity. The challenge to us is to not only live that more FULLY in church but also to live out its implications in our daily lives.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 7:1-23; Dt 4:1-8
We just heard Jesus give hard words of condemnation, and I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think what Jesus will condemn YOU for, but today’s readings give us ONE category: The Pharisees were condemned for ranking their human traditions over the commandments of God. Now, we might think that that doesn’t apply to us –after all, how many of us follow Pharisaic customs like washing up to the elbow, sprinkling ourselves on returning from the marketplace, and scrub our bronze cups? I don’t even have any bronze cups!

But in our society today there are a great many OTHER human traditions that are ranked above the commandments of God. And there are many other gods that are ranked above the one Lord.

There is the god of money, and the tradition of placing our private concerns and desires over the greater needs of the poor, and our neighbour.
There is the god of freedom, and the tradition of not letting anything interfere with my “rights”, the tradition of not letting anyone tell me what to do.
There is the god of convenience, and the tradition of doing right ONLY when it is convenient. Like only going to Mass on Sunday when it doesn’t interfere with other things I want to do.
There is the god of tolerance, and the tradition of not believing in an objective truth, and objective standards of behaviour, in right and wrong, in sin. The contemporary human tradition of endorsing perversion as so-called “alternative lifestyles”. The tradition of ranking political correctness over the Bible, the Church, and the words of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus called re-marriage after divorce “adultery”, but the tradition of our English society calls it normal.
There is the god of sex, and the tradition of seeing physical pleasures as the entire purpose of life, and not wanting any strings attached.

The bulk of our society today thinks that it knows better than the commands of God, and it knows better because it calls itself “modern”. Modern society is so much better and wiser that it has produced a world where families are under such pressure that half end in divorce, where children are offered so little direction that many seek escape in drugs, or more mundane things like endless TV and non-stop Game Boys.

There is nothing wrong with money, sex, freedom, tolerance and convenience –all these are gifts of God, but they are not gods to be worshiped as ends in themselves.

There is a real God, and an authentic Tradition. The authentic Tradition is to be found in keeping to the commandments of God, and they are not hard to find. They were given in Jesus Christ, and Jesus established and infallibly guides His Catholic Church to teach these commandments to us. And as our first reading from Deuteronomy (4:6) said, “No other people is as wise and prudent” as those who keep the commands of the Lord. No other people has “laws and customs to match” (4:8) with the wisdom of the morality Christ’s Church calls us to. No other people “has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to Him”(4:7).

You may worship the god of money, but it is not a faithful god, it can leave you at a moments notice. It may seem attractive, but it is a false and faithless god. And the same can be said of all false gods.

The commands of God may seem hard, and we know that we sin and fail to live up to them. But that is not enough of a reason to turn from them and follow modern human customs instead. If we sin and fail He will forgive us as often as repent and turn back to Him. It is only if we give up on Him and His law, and devote ourselves instead to other gods, and follow modern human customs instead, that the condemnation of the Pharisees will then apply to us. The Lord gives us His Law because it is the way to life and wholeness. What He asks is that we seek to follow it.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 6:60-69
We just heard one of the most dramatic passages in the Gospels, namely, we heard how a large number of Jesus’s followers abandoned Him. They had heard His teaching and said, “this is intolerable”(Jn 6:61) and “after this, many of His disciples left Him and stopped going with Him”(Jn 6:67).
So, what was this teaching, this “doctrine”(Jn 6:60), that caused this reaction?

We reach today the conclusion of our 5 week series of readings from John 6 on the Eucharist, and the teaching that these disciples found so objectionable was precisely His teaching on the Eucharist. So, let us recall what He had said,
He had said, repeatedly in this chapter alone, not only they He would give them His “flesh” (four times)(6:51,53,55,56) to eat but that UNLESS they ate it they would not have “life”(6:53) but that if they did they would have “eternal life”(three times)(6:50,51,54).
And, we can imagine, if they found these words objectionable they would have been even more horrified when finally at the Last Supper, the first Mass, He said, “This is My Body... This is the chalice of My Blood”(Lk 22:19).
And we know this was all a reference to the Eucharist because of his references to Himself as “THE Bread” (eight times)(6:35,48,50,51,51,51,58,58) “of life”.

Now, the simple point I wish to focus on today is the truth of what He said.
Because, as we know, many people claim that the Eucharist is just symbolic. And, as we know, sadly, even among Christians, this is the pivotal point where the Protestant churches separated from the historical Faith of Christianity held by the Catholic Church. Such people say things like, “Jesus said ‘I am the door’(Jn 10:9) but no-one claims that doors get changed into Jesus”. Well, such arguments miss several points, let me note two.

First, the claim that this is all symbolic misses the fact that Jesus was making a GRAND claim at this point, a claim beyond just claiming to be the “door”, a point that His hearers recognised as significant even if they dis-believed Him. And the obviousness of this is rammed home by the simple repetition and length with which He refers to Himself as “THE bread” and as His “flesh” being that which we must eat.
And, to come back to the Gospel text of today, we need to grasp the HUGE significance of the crowds of Jesus’s disciples who turned away and stopped following Him because of His teaching on this point: He didn’t say to the people walking away, “No! Wait! I was just speaking metaphorically and in symbols, I didn’t mean it literally”.
He didn’t say that. He let them walk away. Because He meant what He had said. This is not just about symbols. It’s about Him coming to us in the Eucharist, under the APPEARANCE of bread but as the reality of being His “flesh”, His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity (Council of Trent: DS 1640; 1651, cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1413)

Second, the claim that this is all symbolic avoids the fact that all of Christianity up to the time of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation held that this was not just symbolic. None of the Protestant Reformers were able to turn to early Christian writers who argued their cause because none of the Early Church did.
Let me give an example from the early saints, what are called “Church Fathers”: St Augustine said that the bread was changed such that we should “adore” it –adoration being that which we give to God alone. He said, “No one should receive the Eucharist unless he first adores it”. You adore God. You do not adore a symbol.

So, to wrap this up, where does this leave us?
It leaves us with a “hard teaching”(Jn 6:6). I believe it with my whole heart, but I know it is a hard teaching. I know that it goes counter to everything else in my normal living: normally I trust my senses, and if it looks like bread I say it is bread. Here, I am supposed to say it is not.
I have a choice, believe my senses, or believe what the Lord Jesus tells me, “this IS My Body”. The very nature of Faith means to accept what God has said BECAUSE God has said, not because it is an easy teaching, but rather despite the fact it is a hard teaching, to accept it because God has said it. Because otherwise, where else do we turn? As St Peter said in that text today, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that You are the Holy One of God”(Jn 6:68-69).

Sunday, 19 August 2012

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 6:51-58; Prov 9:1-6
We’re now in our 4th of 5 weeks of Sundays with Scripture readings on the Eucharist. And I’ve been taking a different focus for each of these Sundays. Last Sunday I preached about how the Lord comes to us in Holy Communion with everything that we need, adapted to each one of us according of what each of us need at this very moment in our lives.
This Sunday I want to shift the focus from receiving to offering, and these things are very intimately related because it is only IF we offer that we are able to receive, and there is a very real sense in which the more we offer the more we receive. In this respect we could quote St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “He who sows sparingly, shall also reap sparingly: and he who sows generously shall also reap generously... for God loves a cheerful giver”(2 Cor 9:6-7).
What is received in the Mass is Holy Communion, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself fully present, under the appearance of bread but actually present with all that He is: His Body, His Blood, His soul and His divinity.
However, in every Mass, well before we receive Holy Communion, there is something that we must offer: the bread and the wine are offered. This offering from us is taken, prepared, offered, and by the power of the Holy Spirit and the action of the priest speaking the words of the Lord (“This is my Body... This is the chalice of my Blood”), this offering is transformed into Christ Himself.
There are 2 simple things I wish to highlight about this process.

First, the offering of bread and wine should be made in union with much more: our WHOLE LIVES should be offered in union with this offering. When the priest raises the paten holding the bread and utters the words of the offertory prayers we should each be mentally and spiritually placing ourselves on that paten to be offered to God. In particular, the needs and intentions that we bring to that Mass should be mentally placed upon the paten. Whether it’s a job problem or a family problem or a sickness, that petition should be offered on the paten, along with things like thanksgiving and sorrow etc.
Linked with this, it’s an important practice to spiritually unite ourselves with this offering many times during the day: Whenever I pause during the day and renew the offering of my day, and of some particular task or need, I should unite that offering to the Mass, because somewhere in the world the Mass is being offered and I can unite myself with that offering.
This Sunday’s newsletter (also printed at the bottom of this text) has a copy of a ‘Morning Offering’ prayer that does just this –offers my day to God IN UNION WITH the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

My second point is about the nature of the prayer being offered in the Mass. At one level it is OUR prayer, we come here to pray, the priest offers Mass for us. However, at a deeper level it is not so much our payer as the prayer OF JESUS, the eternal priestly prayer of the one eternal High Priest offering the sacrifice of Calvary, of Himself on the Cross. As the new Catechism puts it (quoted at end of this text), quoting the Council of Trent, the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrifice of the Cross are “one single sacrifice”. That one single sacrifice that was then offered in a “bloody manner” is now “offered in an unbloody manner”. A different MANNER of being offered, but the same offering.
AND, and this is a pivotal point, it is BECAUSE it is the prayer of Jesus and not just our own private prayer that it is a prayer with such incredible effect:
A prayer that (1) results in bread and wine being transformed into the Lord Himself as our food;
a prayer that (2) is truly effective in making our offering accepted and heard.

To sum up: We come here to Mass, but we come not merely to receive Holy Communion. In fact, the thing that is more important, the thing that fulfils our Sunday obligation of worship, is not receiving Holy Communion but rather it is attending Mass, uniting ourselves to this Holy sacrifice, offering ourselves in union with this offering –that’s what is the bottom line that fulfils our Sunday Mass obligation.
So, to quote St Augustine, “Let us turn to the Lord”, let us offer ourselves to Him and with Him and through Him, that our offering with the bread and wine, transformed in the Holy Sacrifice, may truly transform us too.

Morning Offering
“O Jesus,
through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer You my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day
for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world,
in reparation for my sins,
for the intentions of all my relatives and friends,
and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.”

Bloody and Unbloody Offering
“The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: ‘The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.’
‘And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner... this sacrifice is truly propitiatory’.” ( Council of Trent, cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1367)

Sunday, 5 August 2012

5th August 2012

There is no sermon text today because there was a supply priest preaching.

Next Sunday we'll return to our series of sermons on the Eucharist.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 6:1-5; 2 Kgs 4:42-44
In the Church, we start today 5 week series of Sundays (Weeks 17-21, Year B) where the readings are all about the Eucharist. The Eucharist is God’s greatest gift to us because it is His very self that He gives to us, and during the coming weeks I’m going to draw out some of the quite varied parts of that. But I want to start, as the readings today direct us, to start by focusing on the simple fact that God PROVIDES for us –the Eucharist being the key SPIRITUAL provision He makes for us.
In the Gospel we just heard of how Jesus fed the 5000
But I want to point something out to you: the people did not come to Jesus looking for food.

In the Gospel, the people didn’t get fed because they demanded food from Jesus –
There were times in the gospels when they DID demand food, and demand signs, and Jesus then refused (e.g. Mt 12:39).
They got fed in this case because what they demanded was Jesus Himself. He is the one that life is all about, He is the one who created us, He is the one who came to save us, to shows us what life is truly about. The life we seek with Him lasts for eternity in heaven, it doesn’t just fade away like an old TV screen.
“Seek ye FIRST the Kingdom of God”(Mt 6:33), and these other things will be added too.
The crowds flocked to Jesus because they saw this. They flocked to Him with such eagerness that they went out into the wilderness to be with Him,
with such eagerness that they didn’t think to take food for the body.
And if we’re honest this is rarely our own attitude to the Lord: I can grumble about waking up early in the morning to come down to pray to Him, or about other ways in which going to be with Him ‘interferes’ with my life.
What we NEED is to seek the Lord first.

Having the Lord provide for us is only something that comes about in a secondary way, and in this there is a big principle of the spiritual life. It’s possible for us to spend all our time demanding THINGS of God, praying just for material things –and they may be important material things, but focusing on the material things.
And if we do this, we may get some of these things we need. But we’re putting the cart before the horse, we’re valuing our passing body more than our eternal soul.

This Gospel text, and the first reading that is a foreshadowing of it by the miracle of Elisha, these readings remind us that it is a PERSON who provides for us in life: it’s the Lord. Jesus provided food for the crowds, to feed them even before they seem to have asked for food –the apostles were asking, but the people didn’t seem to have asked yet.
And Jesus fed them so abundantly that there were 12 baskets left over (Mt 14:13-21).
And it is that PERSON that we must seek before all else.

Life is not always easy,
We have times when we are in need, in many different ways,
But the providence of God promises to watch over us in all things, promises that His plan guides us in all things: “all things work to the good for those who love the Lord” (Rom 8:28)
He doesn’t promise an easy life: there will be trials and tribulations. But as St. Paul says, “these are the trials through which we triumph, by the power of Him who loved us”(Rom 8:35ff). If we seek to be close to Him, then He will remain with us, and He will feed us today as He fed the crowds so long ago.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 6:30-34

Probably the common complaint that is ever made about a sermon is that it is too long. While people do complain about boring sermons, or complicated sermons,, or other things, people seem to be most concerned about the LENGTH of sermons.

The Lord Jesus, I would suggest to you, had a different set of priorities, and I think the final verse of today’s Gospel makes that clear:
He came ashore and saw the crowds “harassed and dejected”(c.f. Mt 9:36), “and He took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd”(Mk 6:34). The key fact I want to draw your attention to, however, is what He DID when “He took pity of them”: “He set himself to teach them at some LENGTH”.
He gave them a LONG sermon BECAUSE He took pity on them.

TEACHING is what Jesus came to earth to do. Yes, He came to die for our sins; and to establish the Sacraments and His Church as the means for us to encounter Him down the ages. But TEACHING is an essential part of what He came to do.

And what did He come to teach? He came to teach us the TRUTH. Truth being something so essential to His work that He identified Himself with it: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”(Jn 14:6), He said. Not the truth about football or farming or any other thing that is a PART of life but about life ITSELF: about what “Life” is about, about the “Way” to live, and He put these two together with “Truth” as an indivisible whole.

(pause) Many people today deny there is any such thing as “truth” –it’s all just a matter of opinion they say, or it’s all relative, or the ‘truth’ for you is not the ‘truth’ for me.
Famously, when the Lord said that He had come to witness to the Truth, Pontius Pilate scornfully said, “What is truth?”(Jn 18:38).
Philosophically, the attitude of “scepticism” has dominated much of Western thinking since the 16th Century, with thinkers sceptical of any claim to know the truth.
More recently, the philosophy of Nihilism, a word derived from the Latin for “nothing”, claims not merely that we cannot know the truth but that there is no truth.

Now, it can be noted that these claims are self-contradictory:
The Skeptic's claim that “No-one can know whether something is true” is itself a claim to know that at least that that statement is true -which would then be contradicted.
Similarly, the Nihilist claim that “There is no truth” is itself a statement claiming to be true, which would be a self-contradiction.
But, more existentially, these denials of truth have an immediate effect on our lives:
To believe there is no truth results in the phenomenon of despair –there can be no hope unless there is meaning and purpose, unless there is truth. I’m sure many of us know people who think life in general is pointless, and that their own life in particular is pointless –it’s not a happy state to be in. And this is why truth is not only ‘true’ but IMPORTANT –our happiness depends on us knowing the truth.

Our happiness DEPENDS on us knowing the truth. That’s why, to come back to that scene in the Gospel, when Jesus saw the crowds and “took pity on them” He TAUGHT them –because they needed the truth to be happy.
So the next time we find ourselves grumbling at a long sermon let us remind ourselves that a priest of Christ has that Truth to impart to us, and be grateful for that much at least!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

on Eph 1:1-14; Mk 6:7-13; Amos 7:12-15.
This week a previously secret government report on UFOs and possible aliens was made public. Such things frequently attract a lot of attention.
Many of you will remember the 1990s TV series ‘The X-files’ that was about government dealings with aliens, and claimed to expose a sinister “Masterplan” -a grand conspiracy between aliens and government agencies to eventually set up Earth as an alien colony.
A more recent example, right now in the cinemas, is yet another re-working of this notion of secret alien plans at work in human history in the film Prometheus which envisages that aliens have left ancient secret messages in various records of pre-historic cultures. So the movie characters set off to find “the origins of humanity” in the stars.

And of course, these are just a couple examples of the many alien conspiracy theories that claim to uncover the meaning of human existence in secretive hidden plots: Plots by aliens, plots by freemasons, plots by huge financial companies, revelations made in star signs, or messages telling us that we must prepare for the awakening of galactic consciousness at a date written in crop circles.

One might be tempted to dismiss all this as junk, and say that it is simply an example of G.K.Chesterton's saying that when people reject God, when they start believing in nothing, they end up believing in anything!
But actually all these books and writers point us to a simple fact: People want to know the truth about the plan of life because knowing it is the only way that people can hope to get the best out of life. And most people can see enough to see that there IS some plan in life. Seeing how other people are seeking should remind us Christians about the precious truth that we already know, because we do know the plan and purpose of human life.

In our second reading today, Saint Paul tells us that God's masterplan was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has revealed the mystery of His purpose, and given us the knowledge of the plan of salvation. This plan is no longer something hidden, it has been revealed by Christ so that we can experience it. It's not a plan that is deviously complex, it's a plan that is simple in its aim, and can be briefly stated.

Even before the foundation of the world, God had chosen each one of us and destined us in love to be His sons through Jesus Christ. We were made to share in the one sonship of Jesus Christ -the son of the Father. Christ became incarnate so that by joining our humanity to His divinity, we too might become heirs of heaven. This plan was disrupted by our sin, but Christ redeemed us by His blood. And this redemption becomes effective in us through our incorporation into Christ by faith and the sacramental life in the Church. This is how the Father's plan for us to become His adopted children was realised.

This is the REAL plan that is at work in the world we live in. It's a doctrine that is so familiar to us that we might easily lose sight of its significance. God didn't just give us the gift of life and then left it at that. He didn't choose to later abandon us when we had sinned and abandoned Him. He didn't choose to forgive us but leave us with just an earthly life with no hope of heaven.

God's plan for us is that we should be His adopted children, heirs of heaven. This is the plan and purpose to our lives. None of the animals share this glory, not even the angels have this honour. Only WE have it offered to us in Christ Jesus. Each of us is chosen and called just as certainly as the prophet Amos was called in our first reading and the Twelve Apostles were called in today’s Gospel text. This is the plan at work in creation, once hidden, but now made known to us. Our happiness lies in following this plan.

Back to where I began. If you want to know the secret government plans about what to do if they find alien visitors, then you can now read it online.
If you want to know what happens to the people who go to the stars to find “the origins of humanity” then you can go to the Salisbury Odeon and watch the film Prometheus.
If you want to know the details of the X-files’ masterplan then you can watch it on endless re-runs on SKY television.
But if you want to know the REAL masterplan, God's masterplan, the one revealed in and by Jesus Christ, then we need only recall the words of Saint Paul, "Before the world was made, He chose us, chose us in Christ... that we should become His adopted sons"(Eph 1:5).