Sunday, 29 January 2012
Sunday, 22 January 2012
Mk 1:14-20; 1 Cor 7:29-31
I’ve been thinking this week about some of the things I need to give up if I am to follow Jesus better.
We just heard of the call of the first Apostles, and that account indicated the things that they "gave up" in order to follow Jesus. They were fishermen, and yet we heard how they "left their nets" in order to follow Him. They had family, and yet St Mark specifies that they "left their father" in order to follow Him.
I want to focus on one aspect of "following" the Lord, namely, the vocation to love. I want to think about why being free to love needs to involve letting go, continually “leaving things behind”.
One of the things that stops me loving other people, even when I might have a general emotional and effective disposition in my FEELINGS to love somebody, one of the things that stops me loving other people is my disordered ATTACHMENTS.
For example, even when with a friend and planning to spend some time together to relax together, it's easy to have my attachments to my preferences stop me being free and to love my friend in a way that gives preference to my friend’s preferences. If sitting down with some alcohol is high on MY list of priorities then I can fail to see the things that my friends needs for HIM to relax. So, my attachment to alcohol, even my attachment to small amounts of alcohol, can stop me being free to love.
Attachment to the things of this world is something we find the saints of the Church repeatedly warning us against. They speak instead of the importance of a spirit of "detachment".
There are, of course, many different types of attachments. In my affections I can have an attachment to individual people, and this can be the kind of properly ordered affection that can remain even in heaven.
But my affections can also attach me to THINGS. I can be too attached to my car, to my favourite seat the sitting room, to my most comfortable shoes. When my affections attach me to such THINGS I have the very real danger that my affections therefore lack their proper affection in love for people and for God.
And, as I've already indicated, my attachment to my personal preferences can prevent me from being free to serve the preferences of other people.
BREAKING our disordered attachments, acquiring that saintly spirit of "detachment", is not an easy thing to do. When we "give things up" for Lent, and in small acts of self-denial, particularly on Fridays, this is one way we can grow in detachment. But sometimes the opportunities to grow in detachment are not things that we choose, they are in things that are thrust upon us, they come in the daily crosses that we do not choose for ourselves, but we can nonetheless choose to accept with good grace, to carry with good grace in our following of the Lord.
To take an example from my own life this week, from one of those things that are so mundane and unexciting and yet unavoidable. Every week I print out my sermon on my computer printer. This week, however, I was not able to print out my sermon on my computer printer, because my computer told me that the printer that has been attached to it for the last four years it no longer "recognises". So I disconnected and reconnected the leads, I uninstalled the software, I reinstalled the software, I uninstalled again, and reinstalled it again, and yet the computer STILL told me that the printer was not there. The end of all this was a lot of wasted time. My point, however, is how this wasted time related to my plans and my preferences and my attachments. Like so many of us, I very easily get attached to my plans for what I'm going to do with my day, with my time, with my energy. And I can let my attachment to my plans prevent me from being open to seeing what else I should be doing, to seeing how else I should be serving my neighbour, my parishioner, my Lord. But, when I find my daily life bringing me up against my attachments, when I find my daily cross denies me those things that I'm attached to, then I find myself in a situation to gain, and sometimes to re-gain, my inner freedom. The freedom I need if I'm to love.
And what is the ultimate value of so many of these worldly things we are attached to? As we heard St Paul remind us in our second reading, “the world as we know it is passing away”(1 Cor 7:31), and so are all the things that our disordered attachments are made of.
If we would follow the Lord, as those first Apostles followed the Lord, then just as they left behind their fishing nets and family, we too must leave behind the disordered affections and attachments.
Sunday, 15 January 2012
For those of you using your "rustle-ette" sheets during the reading of the gospel, you will have noticed that the translation that Deacon Michael just read to us was not the translation on your sheet -it was the RSV translation, which is another of the approved translations for use at Mass, though not as frequently used. I chose to have us use it today because it very directly parallels the new translation the Mass. (The translation of the Bible that we use in our lectionary is supposedly the next task the translators are working on, and maybe in a decade, maybe sometime before I’ve died, that too will change -but not soon.)
The verse I want to draw your attention to is the phrase, "Behold, the Lamb of God!"(Jn 1:35). This verse has John the Baptist repeating what he had said in a longer form the day before, when he baptised Jesus, and declared, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”(Jn 1:29).
Now, why is this significant?
These words are the words that John the Baptist chose to use to identify WHO the Lord Jesus was and is. John the Baptist was the one who had the task to "prepare the way"(Mk1:2, c.f. Jn 1:23) for the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. And when, while John was performing his public baptising ministry, and saw Jesus publicly approaching him for all the people to see, the words he chose to describe Jesus are obviously words that must have been important. The most obvious thing we might have EXPECTED him to say was, "Behold, the long-awaited Messiah”.
However, John the Baptist did NOT say that. Instead, he gave Jesus a title that the people were not expecting, a title indicating a ROLE that they were not expecting. Most of them were expecting a Messiah who would be a military leader to free them from the Romans. But John the Baptist indicated that He came to free them from something much more fundamental, He came to free them and free us from our sins.
The title "Lamb of God" would have meant something to the Jews who heard him, even though they would have been unlikely to appreciate what EXACTLY John the Baptist meant by it. THE Lamb of sacrifice they would have been familiar with would have been the Passover lamb, the lamb whose sacrifice heralded the freedom of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. There would have been another lamb they would have been familiar with, actually a goat, the scapegoat of Leviticus over which the priest would lay his hands and cast the sins of the people onto the goat and then cast the goat out into the wilderness so that, as the book of Leviticus says, “the goat will carry on itself all [the people’s] sins to a remote place”(Lev 16:22). And, even more likely, they would have thought of the prophecy of Isaiah that refers to One on whom the sins “of us all”(Isa 53:6) were laid while He was to be led out like a lamb to be slaughtered.
So, not a military Messiah, but One who was “the Lamb of God”, the sacrifice “who takes away the sins of the world”(Jn 1:29). THIS is who Jesus was for the Jews, and who Jesus is still for us.
All of us, whether we admit it or not, need a saviour to take away our sins.
Similarly, all of us, whether we admit it or not, need a saviour who will spiritually feed and nourish us, who will satisfy the hunger within.
The same Saviour does both. In the book of Revelation we are given the image of a huge wedding banquet, a feast to satisfy, and this is described as “the supper of the Lamb”(Rev 19:9).
This is He who comes to us in Holy Communion. This is our Eucharistic Lord. And this is what the priest declares in the Mass.
The words of John the Baptist declaring who Jesus was were words full of meaning, but only for those who could come to understand.
As we hear those words spoken in the Mass let us pray for the grace to likewise fully understand:
“Behold the Lamb of God,
behold him who takes away the sins of the world.
Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
Sunday, 8 January 2012
Isa 60:1-6; Mt 2:1-12
Today we keep a feast of light with the Epiphany. I was considering this during the week as I was pondering a question I often get asked as a priest, “Do you think we’re living in dark times?”
This question usually gets prompted by some recent news report. Maybe yet more grim economic news, forecasting a whole generation of coming economic austerity. Or yet more reports indicating the state of family breakdown in Britain, or the increase in drugs or alcoholism. Or, with the state of religion in our society -the loss the practice of the Faith, and of course the various scandals within the Church herself.
So, are we living in dark times?
If I remember correctly, St Augustine made the observation that there are people in every age who think they are living in "dark times", people in every age who think that things are worse now than they were in their grandparents’ time. He made this observation in the context of the collapse of the mighty Roman Empire, and with it the collapse of civilisation. Surely, that would be a time to think you were living in "dark times".
Today's feast of the Epiphany can remind us of what truly makes a time dark or not. You are living in true darkness when there is no light shining. Yet, today's feast of the Epiphany speaks to us of the shining light of Christ, of the Messiah who HAS truly come.
As our first reading from Isaiah put it, “Arise... Jerusalem, for your light has come... though night still covers the earth and darkness the people. Above you the Lord now rises and above you His glory appears”(Isa 60:1-2)
So, even though darkness remained, there was a light shining that was more significant than the darkness.
That shining light is the coming of God Himself, coming born as a little child in Bethlehem, manifested this day to the nations, to the wise men who came from afar “to do Him homage”(Mt 2:2).
Thinking of the darkness that was still over the Jewish people, we too, all of us, have our problems, and no doubt will have at least some moments this coming year when we will feel some sense of "darkness". Today's feast of the Epiphany reminds us that God has manifested Himself, manifested Himself as present among us, manifested Himself as the light in darkness, the light that darkness could not overpower (Jn 1:5).
The word ‘Epiphany’ is a Greek word referring to the "manifestation, striking appearance", the showing forth of something, as the baby Jesus was shown forth to the wise men from the East. Although this word is not used commonly today it is nonetheless sometimes used to refer to that sense of realising something, realising something we didn't know before. So I might say, "I had a little epiphany this week, I realised that...”
Concerning today's feast, the thing that we need to realise, the thing that we need to have repeatedly manifested to ourselves, is that Christ has come, God does dwell among us, and that He is waiting for us whenever we turn to Him, He is at our side whenever we need Him, and He is a light that is greater than the darkness, the light that the darkness tried to overpower but failed.
So, are we living in "dark times"?
Any time is dark when it fails to see Christ.
Our own lives are dark when we fail to see Christ.
But often it is in the midst of darkness the shining light can be most clearly seen.
And like the star that shone in the night sky to lead the wise men, when we feel in the midst of darkness we should remember to turn to Christ, for He is the Light of the World.
Sunday, 1 January 2012
Today is a day of new beginnings. On one hand, today is New Year’s Day. But, for the Church, today is also a day of new beginnings because of the feast of Our Lady that we celebrate today. And this connection is not accidental.
It's very rare for this feast date for Sunday, once every seven years, and so this is a rare opportunity for the whole of our normal Sunday congregation to be together to focus on the symbolism of this feast.
Today's feast of Our Lady, of her as "Mary, Mother of God", is a very ancient feast. One of those feasts that is so ancient that scholars struggle to be certain when in the early centuries it began to be celebrated. Today's feast celebrates "the part played by [Our Lady] in [the] mystery of salvation" that we celebrate at Christmas (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus). And that part was the part of being the Mother.
But we celebrate this feast of Our Lady today not merely because of the proximity of Christmas but because of the symbolism of the start of the New Year. Our Lady is the one who brought the One who is "new life" itself into the world, and so in celebrating her divine motherhood we celebrate her role in bringing new life not merely into the world 2000 years ago, but through her ongoing role of maternal intercession, praying for us POWERFULLY in heaven, we celebrate her ongoing role in bringing the new life of grace into our souls.
But if we wind the clock back before Christmas we can see that there is yet another reason to think of Our Lady as the one we associate with the new life -because she's the one in whom the new life of grace was FIRST manifested. The Archangel Gabriel hailed her as "full of grace" because grace was already operative in her, in a special anticipation of the merits that Christ would win (for her and for us) on the Cross. She lived a life free at every moment from sin, free from sin because the new life brought by Christ was operative in her already. And in her sinless perfection we see manifested the new beginning for redeemed humanity that WE can all hope for.
She is therefore the "new dawn", THE sign of the hope of new life that redeemed humanity can aspire to.
I want to draw this together by seeing how what was shown forth in the Mother of God can be applied to ourselves, applied to ourselves in terms of making a new beginning, especially at the start of this New Year. In three simple points:
First, as I have already indicated, Our Lady is the new beginning because she was "full of grace". This is a sign to us that whenever we seek to make a new beginning we must seek to do it not by our own strength, but by the strength that comes from the Lord, that comes from grace. And the triumph of that grace in Our Lady is a sign that grace can be powerful in us too.
Second, Our Lady shows us that if we wish to make a new beginning we need to do so by cooperating with God's plan for us. The Lord had a plan for her, a plan for her to be the Mother of God, a plan that led to her glory even though it also took her to suffer at the foot of the Cross. The new beginning and the new triumph that we see manifested in her were not by herself but by her cooperation in the plan the Lord had for her, “Let it be done to me according to your word"(Lk 1:38). For ourselves, that means that in all of our working and striving we need to be seeking to cooperate with His plan, we need to be seeking His Will for us. And, like Our Lady, we need to trust that He does have a plan for each one of us.
Thirdly, and finally, Our Lady shows us that cooperation with God's plan also involves ACTIVITY on our part –“letting God act” does not just mean sitting back and doing nothing. The first thing Our Lady did when the angel left her was to head out to visit and take care of her pregnant cousin Elizabeth -activity.
I mention this aspect of activity particularly today on New Year's Day. Today is a day when people across our land will be making many new resolutions, and this is a good practice for us to take part in also. Keeping special times, special seasons, and special resolutions, like New Year’s Resolutions, is a very sacramental thing, a very Catholic thing. So, if you've not made a resolution yet I'd encourage you to do so, and to do so thinking of the new beginning manifested in Our Lady.
To sum up. New Year’s Day is a day of new beginnings, and this is what we see in Our Lady, the Mother of new life, the Mother of God, the mother of us.