Sunday, 28 December 2014

Pastoral Letter on the Holy Family

This weekend there is a pastoral letter from our Bishop, +Mark O'Toole of Plymouth, which should be available at the Diocesan website at some time

Thursday, 25 December 2014


For my Christmas homily this year I'd like to drawn your attention (drawing on Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narratives, p.69) to two of the figures in our nativity set, in the Christmas crib here. Because the statues in the traditional Christmas crib are not random, rather, they are full of great meaning –meaning that lets you and me see various things about what Christmas is all about.
The two statues I want to mention are probably the two figures you'd think, at first glance, are the least important. The ox and the ass, which for those of you who don't know your farm animals, is basically a cow and a donkey.
These two figures are in every nativity set. But, let me note a curious detail: the Gospels them don't mention them. The Gospel says that the baby Jesus was “laid in a manger” (Ml 2:7) because there was “no room in the inn” (Lk 2:7) and so He was born in a stable. But the Gospels don't tell us which animals were in that stable. A manger would have been full of soft hay, for the animals to eat, and the Christian tradition has obviously imagined what sort of animals would have been there. And the choice of an ox and an ass is not random –it symbolises something.

On one level, the fact that ANY animals are pictured with the baby Jesus is deeply significant: it tells us what this child is all about. This child is the Lord God Almighty entering His creation. It is about the restoration and union of that damaged creation with its Creator. The baby Jesus started His human existence in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, but He existed before her, He existed before all His creation. Thus Scripture calls Him, the eternal Son, “the first-born of all creation”(Col 1:15).

We all experience the fact that we live in a broken and suffering world. Thus the importance of the promise of the Old Testament that a child would be born who would bring about the RESTORATION of His creation. The prophecy of Isaiah thus pictures a child leading harmony between the lion and the lamb, the wolf and the goat, with the child able to put His hand into the snake’s lair (Isa 11). Another prophecy pictures the Lord being recognised between two living creatures (Hab 3:2) while Isaiah himself refers to the “ox” and the “ass” knowing “it's master’s crib”(Isa 1:3).
As Scripture says elsewhere, all creation is yearning for this revelation with groaning and “eager longing”(Rom 8:19). And so the statue of the ox and ass here in our crib set symbolise this.

But there is another symbolism too. A symbolism that relates to humanity. Because pious tradition has identified the ox and the ass as symbolising both the Jew and the Gentile coming to same one Lord God. It is not just one human race, or just one type of animal, that Jesus has been born for, but for ALL of us –for you and for me.

Let me offer one final piece of symbolism. St Augustine notes that the manger is what the ox and the ass EAT from, where they get their hay. The fact that the baby Jesus was laid in the manger is symbol of Him coming to be the new food, “the Bread of Life”(Jn 6:35) as He would later say of Himself.
He has come among us, He has been born as one of us, that He might feed us. All of humanity has a SPIRITUAL hunger, a longing for more than this world’s material order. Today many fill our stomachs with turkey, and our trees may have a multitude of worldly possessions under them as presents. But there is more to us that such things.

We are made for love. Made to love, and made to be loved. And to be loved in the most solid and dependable manner by the Creator God come among us. And He HAS come and been born and been laid in the manger.

What the ox and the ass in the manger set signify is the fulfilment of such a need. We long for the Creator to come and enter His creation, to teach us, to heal us, to feed us, to love us. The animals, the ox and ass, symbolises that all creation has come to recognise and be at peace with the Creator born as one of us. “Today a saviour has been born to us, Christ the Lord”(Lk 2:11).

Sunday, 21 December 2014

4th Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lk 1:26-28; 2 Sam 7:1-5,8-11,16
We’re now in the final few days before Christmas, and this Sunday’s readings are given to us by the Church to be our final preparation for Christmas. And, as every year, the Church aids our final focus by turning us towards Our Lady. The Blessed Virgin was the one who first welcomed the baby Jesus into her heart and into her womb, and if we turn to her she can help us do the same for us this Christmas.
There are a great many things things we can learn by imitating Our Lady, a great many things we can gain by turning to her powerful and motherly intercession on our behalf. But this year let me point to just one, one thing that we too can do, can imitate, to prepare for Christmas.
And that thing is believing what God has promised. Because He has promised a great many things, including things that hold for us especially at Christmas.

There are two obvious things we can see in today's readings, two ways she trusted in God’s promises. The most obvious is the manner in which she responded to what the Archangel Gabriel asked of her. She said yes. She trusted that this highly unusual thing that the angel was saying would come true. She had just been told that she was to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. This had never happened before in human history, and never since. And yet, she trusted what God said through the angel.
And when she proceeded to go visit her cousin Elizabeth (which we didn't hear read today), Elizabeth praised her for this very thing: for trusting what God had promised her, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord”(Lk 2:45).
And we too need to trust what God has promised for us.

The second, less obvious, thing she trusted in was a promise of God from of OLD. The message from the Archangel Gabriel referred to a much older promise, a promise not made to Our Lady but to King David, a thousand years beforehand. We heard that promise re-read to us today as our first reading, in which God told King David that He would raise up a “House” for him(2 Sam 7:13), meaning that his descendants as a line of kings would continue, and that a great king would arise. Our Lady, as a faithful trusting Jew, trusted and hoped in this promise. She knew that the Scriptures showed countless occasions when the Lord kept His promises, and she expected Him to keep this one too. And so when the angel said that she was to have a child who would be this descendent of David, a new definitive king to fulfil the ancient promise that there would be a king,
when she heard this promise to her personally it made sense to her in the light this ancient promise of old.

Where does this leave us, today? We too have promises that were made of old in the Scriptures.
We can choose to ignore those promises, maybe ignore them because they are old and to people in a far away land.
Or, we can choose to listen to those promises, just as Our Lady trusted in promises that were old and ancient and made a thousand years before her.

And what promises are those, for us, at Christmas?
Let me note just two:.
1) The promise that His “grace is sufficient for you”(2 Cor 12:9), as He was sufficient for St Paul in His trials, and His grace is sufficient even to sustain me amidst the busy hectic pace of Christmas.
2) The promise that He still comes to the lowly and humble of heart (c.f. Lk 2:50), as Our Lady joyfully proclaimed in her ‘Magnificat’. If I am lowly and humble, if I put other people before myself at Christmas, think of their needs and preferences before my own, then the Lord will come to me at Christmas.

So to sum up.
Our Lady trusted in God’s ancient promises in the Scripture, and so was ready to hear and trust the message from the angel, and her faith was rewarded by God coming to her.
If we trust in those many promises of old, if we are trust in His strength, if we are humble and lowly before others in their preferences, then He will reward and come to us this holy season too.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B

Jn 1:6-8,19-28; 1 Thess 5:16-24
If you were given the opportunity to stand before the European Parliament and tell them what you thought was wrong the modern world, and, more particularly, what you thought was wrong with Europe, what would you say?
Two weeks ago Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament and told them what he thought. (You can read a summary here). Many people were surprised at what he said. I, too, was rather surprised when I read his diagnosis.

As we all know, Pope Francis has spoken much about poverty. He has also spoken a lot about evangelisation. However, when he spoke to parliament the issue he focussed on was LONELINESS. He said that Europeans have forgotten that they are “beings in relationship”, instead, they think of themselves as primarily being individuals. And, unsurprisingly, we have created a society of isolated, lonely, individuals. And he attributed the neglect of the poor, the neglect of the elderly, etc, to all be symptoms of this more general social problem.

We are all lonely. And a great many people have sensed the truth of his words, because you can be lonely when you're alone, but you can also be lonely in a marriage, and lonely in a house full of people. You can be lonely in a crowd.

Pope Francis attributes this to something even deeper, namely, to the fact that modern Europe has forgotten God. We have forgotten the One who is our Father, the one in whose image we are all made, and so it is hardly surprising that we have forgotten the deep identity that binds us all together as a family, that makes us –“beings in relationship” (as he put it). We ARE “beings in relationship”, we ARE all made by the same one Lord, but we live in a world that does not SEE it.

On a different note, in the Gospel today we heard about something else that was not seen, was not recognised, namely, John the Baptist told the people that there stood among them, “unknown to” them (Jn 1:26), the One they were waiting for. The Church gives us this text today to give us a reason to “rejoice” as our entrance antiphon and second reading put it (1 Thess 5:16): rejoice because, even while we wait for His Christmas coming, He is already present among us.
Holy Mother Church knows that the preparations for Christmas can be an ordeal in themselves; she knows that we need to be reminded of a reason to “rejoice” –and the reason we are given today is that He who we long for is already with us.

Let me draw this to a conclusion by tying those two thoughts together:
I can live the final couple weeks before Christmas in a lonely isolated state, even if I am in the midst of people, full of nothing but pre-Christmas busy-ness. Or, I can recall the presence of the Lord. I can recall that every Christmas card is being written to a person made in His image. I can recall that every present bought is for a person that God wants to relate to as their Father. I can remind myself that every person I am tempted to PUSH and shove past in a queue is actually someone who is called to be part of the same spiritual family that I claim to belong to.
And if I do that, then I will have less of that sense of loneliness that the Pope speaks of, and I will cause less of that loneliness in others, and I will “rejoice” in the presence of the One who “stands among you, unknown to you” (Jn 1:26).

Sunday, 7 December 2014

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B

2 Pet 3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8
Last Sunday somebody picked me up on something I said in my sermon. If you remember, I was preaching about the fact that the Second Coming, the end of time, could come at any moment. And I said that if Jesus came back this afternoon it would make me realise how many of my priorities are all wrong.
Well, this person asked, wouldn’t I be aware of my SINS if the end of time and the Final JUDGEMENT were to arrive this afternoon? Wouldn’t I be asking myself when I’d last been to CONFESSION and whether that confession had been ADEQUATE enough, or whether it had only been half-hearted?
Well, I said, that would be a different sermon. In fact, today’s sermon.

As I said last week, the Church starts our preparations for Christmas by reminding us of the Second Coming. So, as we heard again in our second reading today, St Peter warned that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief” in the night (2 Pet 3: 10, c.f. 1 Thess 5:2; Mt 24:43). There will be a judgement. And so St Peter warns us to “live holy and saintly lives” (2 Pet 3:11) “while you wait”(2 Pet 3:14).

In a related theme, today’s Gospel text has the call of St John the Baptist to “prepare a way for the Lord”(Mk 1:3). That call was issued to prepare for Jesus coming as the Messiah 2000 years ago; and it is re-issued to us today to help prepare us for Christmas –when Jesus can come again into our hearts.
At the end of time He will come whether we want Him to or not –come as Judge.
But now, and at Christmas, when He seeks to come as our loving Saviour, He will ONLY truly come IF our hearts are READY for Him.
And our hearts prepare for Him the same way St John the Baptist said back then: REPENT –turn from your sins, as we do especially in the sacrament of Confession.

But, it seems to me, there is an irony, a difficultly, in seeking to prepare for Christmas by turning from our sins. And the problem I see is this: a great many of us get so caught up in worldly busy-ness before Christmas that we are even LESS able to pause and see our sins than we normally are. As the saints down the ages have frequently warned us, worldliness clouds the intellect, it stops us seeing clearly.

So how do I clear my intellect? How do I remove the fog of worldliness?
One important way is to recall that all these worldly things will not last. As we heard St Peter say, at the Second Coming the sky will roar, the elements will catch fire, and the earth will burn up (1 Pet 3:10) –and all our worldly Christmas purchases will burn up with it.
My possessions, including by Christmas ones, will be burnt up and be gone.
My bodily beauty, such as it is, will all be burnt up and be gone.
The only possession that I will have left is whatever love is, or is not, in my heart and soul.
That, and my sins. My sins will be with me -the sins I have not repented of, the sins I have not confessed to have them wiped away, those sins will cling to me as I face the judgement.

We are not reminded of this just to frighten us. We are reminded of this because it is true. And, in particular, we are reminded of this TODAY because it is essential if we are to enter into Christmas with a heart centred on God, a heart full of love and not a heart full of possessions and turkey.

Let me bring this to a very practical conclusion: Go to confession before Christmas. We are frequently recommended to go at least once a month. We should especially go before Christmas and Easter. Next Saturday morning there will be a visiting priest here for confessions. The Monday after that we will have 5 priests here in the evening for confessions. There will be Polish confessions here the Sunday before Christmas before the Polish Mass. These dates are in the newsletter -note them in your diary. And, before that, think of the burning fire on that terrible Day. Think of what will and will not endure in your life.

Because if we focus on what endures (love endures (1 Cor 13:1)) we will also focus on what is most important for making the Christmas festival true and happy. Let us “Prepare a way for the Lord”(Mk 1:3).