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.