Sunday, 27 November 2016

1st Sunday of Advent, Year A

Mt 24:37-44; Isa 2:1-5; Ps 121; Rom 13:11-14
Every year, we start Advent, start preparing for His coming at Christmas, start by focusing on His final coming in glory at the End of Time.
Let me ask you to consider, today, what your response would be if you heard that Jesus was coming, that His Second Coming in glory was going to be today, before Sunday lunch.
Because we have have presented to us, in our Scripture readings, two rather contrasting approaches.
The first, is to run out and meet Him with joy (Isa 2:1-5; Ps 121);
The second, is the fear of judgment, which the Lord Jesus puts before us in our Gospel text (Mt 24:37-44), with the warning that we need to "stay awake" because we do not know when He is coming, and St Paul amplifies the point with a list of sins we need to put aside to "live decently as people do in the daytime"(Rom 13:13)

On one level, it might seem odd that our Christian Scriptures give us such contrasting ways of responding to Jesus' coming.
Are we to fear Him, or ,to rejoice that He is is coming?
In fact, we should do both, and both are an appropriate and necessary ways to respond to Him if we grasp the FULLNESS of Who and what He is.

Our first reading and psalm both give is the beautiful image of the people "going up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the God of Jacob”(Isa 2:3).
Many people today, as we all know, think that there is no god, no purpose to life. Or, if there is some god then He is isn't really knowable, and thus isn't really loveable
We, however, have the gladness of knowing Him because He has made Himself known.

And, WHAT has He made known about Himself?
Many things, of course, but principally, as Scripture says, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16), and it is as “love” that He has made Himself known.
And when we meet the God who is love, this produces joy.
Pope Francis notes this in the context of the New Evangelisation, he says that the source of ‘joy’ in the believer is twofold: ‘encountering’ Christ (Evangelii Gaudium n.1) and knowing in this encounter that we are loved (n.2, 6, 7 etc).
He notes too that this encounter, if it is genuine, and if the joy is not just some complacency, this joyful encounter sends us forth (n.20). It send us forth to tell of Him to others, but also, as our focus today at the start of Advent recalls, it sends us forth to go out and meet Him when He comes. And, we might note, that if this going to meet the Lord is authentic then, as the image in our first reading from Isaiah indicates, we should want to draw others to go up and meet and worship Him with us.

But, back to that other response, other way we might and should feel about the Lord coming in glory: fear, fear of judgement, concern that if “of two… one will be taken, the other one left”(Mt 24:41), then which ‘one’ will I be?
Well, if we have authentically grasped Who He is, then awe and “fear of the Lord” are fully appropriate -He is my friend, but He is also my lord and judge. And my awareness of this is part of what moves me to change, to repentance, to getting myself ready, to “staying awake”.
So, our collect (opening prayer) at Mass today both asked that we might be granted “the resolve to run forth to meet …Christ” and also asked we might be “worthy” through having “righteous deeds” to bring to Him.
If I have honestly faced what gives me cause for fear, then I can be ready to meet Him with joy.
And, as Pope Francis also reminds us, the mercy of God is what “restores our joy”(n.3).

To conclude, if Christ came before lunch today, would I have fear or joy?
Both are possible responses,
but the more I have grasped Who He is NOW, the more I will be ready with joy both then and now, ready for His coming.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Fortitude & Remembrance Sunday, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 21:5-19
Today our nation keeps Remembrance Sunday, when we recall those who died in the wars of the last century. We recall the horror of war, and our resolution not to repeat the evils of the past century. We recall, also, the bravery of so many who stood firm when they could have given way to evil.
Our Scripture readings today, which are not specially chosen for Remembrance Sunday, nonetheless speak to us of the virtue of fortitude –that virtue that is classically associated with the soldier.
And it's about fortitude that I'd thus like to speak about today.

I recently finished reading a book about fortitude (Gomez, Men of Brave Heart).
The book, obviously, makes repeated reference to the image of the soldier.
But what struck me most in the book is it's description of how fortitude needs to permeate EVERY Christian’s life –there is a battle that we ALL must fight, both within ourselves, with the Evil One, and with evil in general.

Unless we live the life of a couch potato, we all spend our lives STRIVING in the pursuit of ‘goods’.
We all strive for ‘goods’:
The good of passing an exam after extended study,
the good of acquiring a salary to support your family,
in fact, even the couch potato strives for a ‘good’ –just the not very spectacular good of sitting on the sofa.

Some goods are harder to acquire than others, and this is where fortitude comes in:
Fortitude is the particular virtue that gives us strength, “firmness of will” in the pursuit of “the ARDUOUS good” (Catechism n.1808; St Thomas, ST II-II q123ff), strength in the face of fear.
Classically, it is most completely seen in that firmness of will manifested in the face of death by the soldier –pursuing the arduous good of defending others.

In the Gospel today we heard the Lord Jesus speak of the “endurance”(Lk 21:19) we will need to “win your lives” in the midst of the fearful events that will accompany the End of Time.
He tells us to “not be frightened”, even while describing things that might lead to fear.
We might note that elsewhere He speaks of many other more comforting and encouraging parts of the struggle:
If it is an “arduous” good that the Christian seeks, He tells us of the perfect beatitude (c.f. Mt 5), complete happiness, that comes with this good.
If there are things to fear, He tells us that He has “overcome the world” (Jn 16:33) and that His “grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9).
But, nonetheless, His focus in this passage is on the need for that “endurance” if any of this is to be overcome.

The book on fortitude that said I read spoke, at length, about how this battle, this not giving up, this not being overcome by the “arduous” –this characterises ALL Christian existence:
The need to be strong against comfort eating in gluttony,
The need to be strong against selfishness in the need to serve others in love,
The need to be strong against temptations to impatience and irritability etc.

We see that strength typified in the soldier.
We see that strength manifested, in perfection, in Christ in the Cross, who endured all things for love of us, in pursuit of the arduous good of our salvation.
So, today, on Remembrance Sunday, when we think of the fortitude of the soldier,
let us think about how this typifies our whole Christian lives,
And let us look to the Lord’s example on the Cross to endure to the end,
and ask the Lord for the grace to endure with that endurance that will “win you your lives”.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Praying for the Dead, 32rd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year C

See an article on this topic here

2 Macc 7:1-14; Lk 20:27-38
We're now in the month of November, the month of the year when the Church in a more focused way remembers the dead. In particular, we remember to PRAY for the dead. And we pray for the dead not because we despair for them but rather because of the opposite: because of what we HOPE for them. Our first reading and gospel both remind us very clearly of what it is that we hope that the dead: the resurrection of the body.

In the gospel we heard the Lord Jesus say something about the resurrection that His hearers probably found a little unexpected: while He spoke of the resurrection of the body He nonetheless indicated that the body will not be like our bodies are at present. At present, our bodies are prone to sickness, to suffering, to all sorts of limitations -but it will not be so in Heaven. This point is elaborated on in many places elsewhere in the New Testament where it speaks of the changed transfigured glory of the resurrected body. For example, in St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians he says that we "we shall all be changed... the dead will be raised imperishable... because our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality”(1 Cor 15: 52-53).

But it is not only our bodies that will need to change: our souls also will need to be transformed from sinful imperfection to sinless perfection. Heaven is a place of perfection, and it could hardly remain so if imperfect people were allowed into it. So, the logic of the perfection of heaven requires that we be purified before we enter it. And this purification, this purging of our sins, is what happens in the place called Purgatory.

Now, I want to make a point about change: Change is never easy. There are many things in my character now that I try to change, many little bad habits that I try to break, and many new good habits that I try to acquire, and any change is difficult. I say this to make a comparison with the change, the purgation, that we must undergo in Purgatory -that change will be even more dramatic and thus even more difficult. The traditional images used for Purgatory all speak of it in terms of fire and pain, and such images conjure up an image of the difficulty that must be involved in this change.

There are two things, however, that ease the pain of those in purgatory. First, the pain and difficulty of Purgatory is greatly eased by the fact that Purgatory is a place of great hope because those who are there know that they are already guaranteed a place in the joy of heaven, it is only a matter of time for them –by sending them to Purgatory the Judgement has spared them of Hell. Second, and this takes me back to where I began, the difficulty of those in Purgatory can be helped by the prayers of those of us who live.

So what do we pray for when we pray for the dead? We pray that God will have mercy on them in the judgement. We pray that God will speed the through their passage in Purgatory. And, we pray that God will ease and comfort them while they make their purgation. And the Tradition and countless private revelations to different saints have shown us that the prayers of the living are of great help to those who are dead, a point more definitively taught by Scripture itself which says, "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins"(2 Macc 12:46).
There is an insert in this week's newsletter summarising why the Church tells us to pray for the end, and the doctrine of purgatory, see here
And I would commend three particular practices to you as prayers for the dead: have a Mass offered for those who have died (see here); pray the Rosary for those who have died -it is a prayer particularly beloved by our Blessed Mother; and say the Divine Mercy Chaplet –a prayer particularly suited for calling upon God's mercy.

To come back to where I began: Why do we pray for the dead? We pray for them because we have hope for them, hope of the glory of the resurrection. And because we have hope we pray that that hope will be realised with the aid of our prayers.
As St. Ambrose so beautifully put it in the 4th Century, "We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord."