Sunday, 22 February 2015

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B

Mk 1:12-15; Gen 9:8-15; 1 Pet 3:18-22
This week we have started Lent. Lent comes around every year. This year, however, I find myself not in the mood for Lent. I’m not in the mood to enter into a period of 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It somehow feels as if we have only just had Christmas.
So, as I’ve been thinking much of this past week: I’m not in the mood.
But I’ve also been thinking that maybe this makes Lent all the more important for me this year. I was thinking about the phrase in the Gospel we heard, where St Mark describes the Holy Spirit as “driving”(Mk 1:12) Jesus out into the desert for His 40 day trial. I too need to ‘driven’, and when I need to be ‘driven’ its probably all the more important to remember WHY, to remember what Lent is all about.

This year, in the “Year B” lectionary cycle, the image given to us for Lent is that of Noah and the flood, as we heard in both our first and second readings.
The flood was 40 days, and Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness was 40 days, and our union with Him in Lent is 40 days.
The flood was to wash away sinful humanity, just as Jesus went into the temptation to do battle and vanquish sin, and we enter into Lent to purify ourselves of sin.
St Peter, in our second reading, adds a baptismal interpretation to the flood: the flood washed away sin and this was a symbol, a prefiguring, a “type”(1 Pet 3:21), of how baptism washes away sin.
I, like most of us, had the stain of inherited Original Sin washed from my soul in baptism when I was a baby. But, because I have re-dirty-ed my soul many times in sin, what I need is a new washing, and this is what the season of Lent is about.
And this baptismal symbol from Noah and the flood is therefore a hope-filled vision of the cleansing that Lent is about.

So, to recall, how does Lent do this? By the three ‘remedies for sin’: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As Christians we are called upon to take up some form of each of these remedies (not one OR the other -they work together so use them together).
Fasting: when I “give something up” for Lent I am engaging in a small form of fasting. Just as, as we heard St Peter say of Jesus, “in the body He was put to death”(1 Pet 3:18), in a parallel way I put to death my bodily desires in fasting that I might be purified of my sins, and rise a new man.
Prayer: I don’t give things up just by private will-power, but by the power of Jesus, in union with Jesus who prayed and fasted in the desert for 40 days. So, I take up some small additional extra prayer in this season. Maybe just an extra daily Hail Mary, maybe daily Mass, maybe rosary, maybe Friday Stations of the Cross.
Finally, Almsgiving: the battle with sin isn’t just about me, it’s about me and my neighbour, and so I give to the poor in some fashion. Maybe the spiritually poor, in a good deed, or maybe financially as we do today in our Lenten retiring collection for Mary’s Meals.

To return to where I began: maybe you are like me, and you’re not really in the mood for Lent. Well, life not about living according to your moods: Let’s take up the opportunity, the graces that are offered to us in this season.
Let’s take this hope-filled baptismal image of the cleansing flood, and even if we haven’t done so yet, let’s resolve to take up the three Lenten remedies for sin. We were made clean once in baptism, by grace. By grace, In union with Jesus in the desert, we can again be made clean by these three tools of the season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Lent Talk 2: A 'Plan of Life'

Holiness does not happen by accident! This evening's session will examine how to develop "a plan of life" that is a specific and progressive strategy for adapting the tools used by the saints into something small and do-able enough for you to meet God in the hours of your day.
A table mapping out this 'plan of life' can be viewed here
A PDF of the talk slides can be viewed here

The other talks can be heard by clicking here

Sunday, 15 February 2015

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Mk 1:40-45
In won’t preach a full sermon today because we have an appeal at the end of Mass from Mary’s Meals -which is one of my favourite organisations, and I’m delighted that we have someone to come and speak to us about it. Mary’s Meals:

Let me offer a brief thought, however, connecting our Scripture readings with that appeal.
Our readings today are the second week in a row that we have heard about the Lord’s attitude to those who are sick. In particular, this week, we hear about the Lord’s attitude to a leper.

Sickness is pretty disgusting.
When WE are sick then WE become pretty disgusting.
In fact, one of the children was recently describing his (only a boy could rejoice in being this disgusting!) symptoms in a recent cold, and it was gross, it was disgusting, it made the sweet little child seem much less sweet! And that was just a cold!
In contrast, our readings today speak not of someone suffering from a cold, but of a leper. A disease that can frequently make people unpleasant to look at, disfiguring the skin and worse.
And my point to you is this:
the Lord Jesus did not shy away from the leper, did not get repulsed by his leprosy. Rather, He continued to SEE the PERSON who was suffering; He continued to LOVE the person who was suffering.

Mary’s Meals gives food to the hungry.
And desperately hungry people can be unpleasant to look at too -bloated stomachs, pain-filled faces, etc.
And they can be far away.
And we can choose to not look at them as real people.
Or, and this is the point, we can choose to see the person in need, not just see the need that they have.
And seeing the person we can move to help them, raise them up from their need, so that they are no longer unpleasant to look at.
This is what Jesus did to the leper.
And it is what we can do for the hungry, by our offerings that feed them.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Job was not an Englishman, 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Job 7:1-4.6-7; Mk 1:29-39
We just heard in our first reading how the prophet Job complained about his problems. And it occurred to me as I was reading this that Job was clearly not an Englishman. He was not an Englishman because he actually said it like it was.
Our short text doesn't tell us, but let us remember Job’s situation:
He had lost everything: his flocks and herds had been destroyed, his house too, and all his children. In addition, he was covered from head to toe in boils and pain. And then three friends came to visit him.
Now, if he was an Englishman, when theses three friends came to see him, and asked him, “How are you?”, he would have replied, “Fine, thank you”.
In fact, I've often noted that when I visit people in hospital, when they are obviously NOT fine, they nonetheless say, “Fine, thank you” -its just the English thing to do. As the saying goes, “Mustn’t grumble!”

What I like about Job, however, is just how fully he DOES grumble. And, as a Christian, I take heart that our Sacred Scriptures include texts like this that fully acknowledge the difficulties of life. Unlike some Eastern religions that say that suffering is an illusion, and unlike some Western materialistic lifestyles that try to cheerily pretend its not there, CHRISTIAN religion says suffering is real, its bad -and also teaches that it wasn’t in God’s original plan for creation, it’s a result of the Fall in Original Sin.

So Job miserably says, “Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service,
his time no better than hired drudgery?...
Lying in bed I wonder, ‘When will it be day?’
Risen I think, ‘How slowly evening comes!’…
My life is but a breath,
And my eyes will never again see joy”(Job 7:1-4.6-7)

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Job should be our model in everything: we need to have patience, and there are many times when we should spare our neighbour by adopting a "mustn't grumble" attitude. But we do need, like Job, to squarely confront the reality of our suffering.
What Job has to teach us, however, does not end in himself. As the Fathers of the Church taught, he points to Christ -even though he didn’t know Christ.
MY POINT to you today is that we can only come to Christ, can only bring our WOUNDS to Him if we first ADMIT that they are there. If we spend our lives like polite Englishmen, and say, “I’m fine, thank you”, then Christ cannot heal the wounds that we each carry inside of us.
And the DEEPEST wounds, the wounds that need healing for ETERNITY, are the wounds in our souls: the weakness we feel, the burden we carry, the sins that need forgiveness.

Let me highlight one phrase from today’s Gospel text, when the disciples tell the Lord Jesus how the crowds related to Him. They said, “Everyone is LOOKING for you”(Mk 1:37).
What about us? Are we, likewise, “looking for” Him in our need?
And let us remember the REASON the people were looking for Him: because they saw how He CARED for the sick and the suffering, cared for people like poor Job. Christ did not move among them as some powerful regal lord who was INDIFFERENT to their pain. Rather, as the texts say time and time again, He had “compassion” on them (e.g. Mt 14:14). And as the many texts record, that compassion expressed itself in how He SPOKE to them, how he LOOKED at them, and what He DID for them. In particular, how often He cured them.
And though He only sometimes cures our bodies, He ALWAYS wishes to give us that deeper healing for the wound WITHIN.

So, to sum that up. Let us not be overly-polite Englishmen. Rather, let us be like Job. Let us admit our need. And let us bring that need to the Lord, because He cares.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

An Undivided Heart, 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

1 Cor 7:32-35
At the seminary where I go to teach each week (Wonersh) there was a larger-than-usual number of men starting in the first year this year. In addition to there being more of them they were also noticeably younger than last year -a trend that has been noticeable throughout the past decade: the men coming forward for the priesthood are younger: men who are in their 20s or even 19 or even 18.
Now, as you might imagine, these young men are very aware that they embarking on something that the society around them views are very unusual. And a good number of them have described the same type of questionings that I can remember people putting to me back when I was a young man entering seminary. And most of those questions relate to celibacy: It is really possible to be happy if you're celibate? Are you REALLY celibate? Is it really worth it?

It's that final question that really gets to the nub of the matter: The fact that there is something SO important being pursued in a priestly vocation that a man is willing to put aside EVEN the possibility of marriage and children.
I think, myself, that there is no greater single witness being offered by a young priest than this act of renunciation in celibacy,
No greater sign that there is something BEYOND this world,
No greater sign that everything that our unbelieving world holds as essential is actually NOT essential, is actually something that can be put aside in the pursuit of something else,
namely, in the pursuit of God.
The point is this: even before he opens his mouth to preach the celibate's decision to put the possibility of marriage aside for the sake of pursing God makes the un-believer question his common assumption that sex, money, and worldliness is the only way to happiness.
Of course, it's because it's such a powerful sign that the media rejoices to find examples of the priests who fail in their celibacy.
But even those failures can't fully obscure the fact that most priests are faithful to their vows, and are happy doing so.
And being so is a SIGN of the truth that there is MORE than this passing world, there is GOD.

I mention this today because St. Paul speaks of the value of celibacy in our second reading, of being free to cling to the Lord with "an undivided heart"(1 Cor 7:35).
Of course, elsewhere St Paul also speaks of the dignity of marriage -and that it too is a good, a vocation from God. But the Catholic Faith teaches, and popes have reiterated it repeatedly in the past century, that celibacy for the sake of God is a higher vocation than marriage, that it offers a more immediate means of union with God:
In marriage, a person loves God THROUGH loving their spouse,
In celibacy, a person loves God DIRECTLY, with "an undivided heart"
(c.f. Pope St John Paul II: “virginal love goes directly to the person of Christ through an immediate union with him, without intermediaries: a truly complete and decisive spiritual espousal” (St John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio n.16).
Vatican II: "For renouncing thereby the companionship of marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 19:12), they embrace the Lord with an undivided love altogether befitting the new covenant, bear witness to the resurrection of the world to come (cf. Luke 20:36), and obtain a most suitable aid for the continual exercise of that perfect charity whereby they can become all things to all men in their priestly ministry. ...Students ought rightly to acknowledge the duties and dignity of Christian matrimony, which is a sign of the love between Christ and the Church. Let them recognize, however, the surpassing excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ" (Vatican II, Optatam totius n.10);
Pope Pius XII: "This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as We have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent" (Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas n.32, summarising the Council of Trent, Sess. XXIV, canon 10.))

Let me conclude by noting that there is a truth here for ALL of us to acknowledge, because most people and most of you are called to marriage, not celibacy. And yet this point illuminates something in your lives too. Let me note four brief things:
First, the celibate's cleaving to the Lord with "an undivided heart" is a sign that EVERYONE is to value the things of God as HIGHEST. Even if you are enjoying marriage you are to enjoy it in such a way that God comes first (c.f. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” (Mt 6:33)), in such a way that your loving of your spouse is a means to loving God -not a diversion from loving God.
Second, the celibate state of life gives a freedom to be dedicated to God with a focussed and RECOLLECTED mind. This should remind all of us of the need and value of putting aside time for God in prayer. And we need to put this time aside -just to be fully human. Let me recall the words of Pope St John Paul II, “Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ! … Time given to Christ is never time lost, but is rather time gained, so that our relationships and indeed our whole life may become more profoundly human.” (Dies Domini, n.7)
Third, What is called 'the hundredfold'. Our Lord promised that He will reward a 'hundredfold'(Mk 10:28-30), even in this life, anything that someone gives up to follow Him, including the possibility of a spouse. Not only is this the promise of the Lord, and solemnly taught by His Church, but it is something that Christian EXPERIENCE testifies to down the centuries. As is frequently said: God will not be outdone in generosity! And the celibate experiences and testifies to others this fact: When he gives himself to God in this fashion he receives even more back.
Fourth, and finally, let us note that this shows that putting-something-aside to choose God first, whether we are in self-denial in Lent, or denying ourselves some other small thing, self-denial is a way to happiness, not a way to sadness -at least not if we do it with LOVE, love of God.
And so this text from St Paul about loving God with "an undivided heart" has something to teach ALL of us.