Sunday, 31 December 2017

Monday, 25 December 2017

Not like Dumbo. Christmas 2017

There are always a lot of films on TV over Christmas, and one of my favourites is on this Christmas afternoon (4.30pm on Channel 4): the classic Disney movie “Dumbo”, described in many reviews as “a heart-warming tale”.
For those of you who can’t remember, it’s about a baby elephant who wants to fly, and learns that it CAN fly if it just believes it can, and flaps its ears. Victory over the impossible by having faith.

And I note this because many people think that Christmas is like that:
A lovely heart-warming tale. But no more true than elephants being able to fly.
In fact, a recent survey showed that the majority of people in our nation, tragically, believe that Christmas is little more than a fairy tale.
My point to you today, however, is that we’re NOT gathered here just because of a STORY.

Now, this said, it’s true that even as a story, Christmas IS certainly a heart-warming tale –all the images of the Christmas accounts make up a good story:
Mary and Joseph struggling to find a place to stay, finally being welcomed into someone’s stable, with the cattle lowing.
The angels appearing to the shepherds to tell them about the new-born baby boy.
The star appearing and guiding the three wise men from the East to come and worship the little boy.
It’s natural that children should hear and understand this tale; natural that Christmas should be especially a time for children.
The Christian story has often been referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told” -and it is.

But we’re not gathered here tonight just because it sounds beautiful. The early Christians didn’t die for the Faith because it sounded beautiful. The Christian Faith didn’t spread throughout the Roman Empire and to this very land just because it all sounds so sweet.
We’re here because it’s TRUE.

We all know that the most inspiring stories aren’t inspiring because they are good stories, they’re inspiring because they are true. Stories about REAL heroes saving REAL people in need, and sacrifices made for others –the BEST stories are those that we know are TRUE.

The REAL reason that Christmas is The Greatest Story Ever Told is that it’s TRUE. And not only is it true, but in hearing it we recognise the elements that can show us what we’re truly looking for as human beings.
In the long prophecies of the Old Testament, we hear of how the Jews were waiting for a Messiah
–just as each of us are always longing for something more in life.
In the many miracles and signs we hear of the sort of clear and definite guidance that we all want in life –don’t we all want a star to point us in the right direction?
In the humility and weakness of the little child’s birth we hear an echo of how each of us knows that we are weak, not as strong as we would like to be.
In the struggle against the wicked King Herod, and the rejection when there is no room at the inn, we see our own struggles in life –and we hear that this child is at one with us in them.

Despite the scoffing of unbelievers, the Gospels are one of the clearest and most historical of all written records:
They record huge wonders with mild understatement -the way you record facts not fairy stories. Even Jesus’s enemies acknowledged the miracles and proofs He worked.
And His greatest miracle was to fulfil His promise to rise from the dead –He said He’d do it and He did. Not just a heart-warming tale but a work of power and wonder.

It may be that you have come here tonight thinking that Christmas is exactly like the Dumbo movie:
you like them both, but you think they are both just heart-warming tales.
If so, I urge you to think again.
Can I urge you, in particular, to come along to the Alpha course that we’ll be running here starting this January:
Take one of the free books, ‘Rediscover Jesus’ by Matthew Kelly;
Take an invite to our Alpha sessions: a free supper, a video each night, and a chance to discuss it.
There are many facts of history that can only be adequately explained by accepting who Jesus claimed to be.
There are many longings in the human heart that can only be satisfied by acknowledging the identity of the child whose birth we celebrate today:
No ordinary child, but rather, the Lord God himself come as one of us.
Not just a tale, but the truth that all creation has been longing for.
“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light… unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”.(Isa 9: 2; 6)

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Gaudete, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B

Jn 1:6-8.19-28; 1 Thess 5:16-24; Isa 61:1-2.10-11
If there’s anyone here in the mood to start an argument, then, a good opening gambit would be…
To walk up to someone and say, “So, I’m all ready for Christmas, aren’t you?”

For many of us, this can be a very stressful time of year.
Christmas, is supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill among men,
But the build-up to Christmas can be very fraught.
Speaking personally, I’ve not written any Christmas cards yet, I’ve not finished buying my presents, let alone wrapping them, and as for where the turkey will come from -who knows!

This is always a stressful moment for many of us.
Yet, this is the Sunday when the Church bids the priest wear a rose vestment (not girly pink, but manly rose).
This is the Sunday that the Church calls, ‘Gaudate Sunday’ -meaning ‘rejoice’. Thus our second reading was chosen for its opening verse, “Be happy at all times” (1 Thess 5:16).
But WHY should we rejoice amidst the pre-Christmas stress?

In Advent we look ahead to the coming of the Lord.
The Lord has promised He will come.
He has told us of many things He will bring us when He comes, “He will bind up the broken hearted” (Isa 61:1).
This is the hope that Advent looks beyond, to His Coming.

Yet, half-way through Advent the Church bids us pause and remember something:
In a very real way, He is ALREADY here.
He’s not here as He will be in power and glory at the end of time.
He’s not here as fully as He could be in my heart if my heart was more thoroughly cleansed from sin.
YET, He IS already here.

Today’s Gospel gave us a powerful image of this:
It described St John the Baptist talking to the people.
The people were yearning for the coming of the Messiah.
St John the Baptist was there preparing the people by calling them to repent of their sins.
Then, in the midst of that waiting, he says to them, “There stands among you -unknown to you -the One who is coming”(Jn 1:26).
They were waiting, yet He was already there.
They were looking AHEAD, yet He was already there.

If we want to be ready for Christ to come at Christmas, then we need to recognise the ways that He is already here.
If we want to consoled and strengthened as we get ready for Christmas, then we need to recognise the ways that He is already here.

He is here when we pray to Him.
He is here when we read His Bible.
He is here in Holy Communion.
He is here on the Cross when we turn to Him in our suffering.
He is here when we are kind and loving, “to these the least of my brothers”(Mt 25:40).
He is here, already.

So, if you feel ready to have an argument with the next person who asks you if you’re ready for Christmas,
Remember the Church’s “Gaudete” message for you today:
When I’m ploughing through the crowds at Tesco,
When I’m despairing of the time it takes to write cards,
When I don’t know where my turkey will come from, remember:
Rejoice, He is already here.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Why Confession?, 2nd Sunday Advent, Year B

Mk 1:1-18; Isa 40:1-5.9-11
We’re now at the 2nd Sunday on Advent, the second week of preparing for the coming of the Lord.
Today there is one specific thing I want to talk about in terms of preparing, namely, our need to go to confession before Christmas. And I thought I’d talk about this by telling you some of the reasons why I, personally, go to confession.

The first and simplest reason why I go to confession is because I realise that there is something wrong between the Lord, and me, something that is not to do with Him, but to do with me.
And I want to put that right.
I know that even after going to Confession I fall again, and again.
But I also know that, again and again, I can be restored by the Lord, and start afresh.

A second reason relates very directly to Advent: I want the Lord to come to me more fully.
I hear the promises of the Lord, like in our first reading today, offering so much:
“Console my people, console them”(Isa 40:1)
-one of the most beautiful promises of the Old Testament.
-but I know that, so far, that consolation has only come to me in a very partial manner. I know that the Lord WANTS to come more, that His coming isn’t stopped by anything wrong with Him, its stopped by the SIN that is in me.
As a prayer at Mass this week summed it up, “our sins impede” His coming (Thursday of the first week of Advent).
Thus, in this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the Church always repeats to us the call of St John the Baptist:
“Prepare a way of the Lord, make His paths straight”(Mk 1:3).

Another reason I go to Confession is that I seek to rise above the minimum.
I sometimes hear people ask me, “How often to I HAVE to go to Confession?”
Are we only interested in what we HAVE to do? With the minimum?
Rather than with what is GOOD to do?
If a man asked, “What is the minimum I need to do in order for my wife not to leave me?”
-he clearly wouldn’t love his wife much
Yet, this can so easily be our attitude to God: the minimum.
If you seek the minimum:
Church law REQUIRES that you go to Holy Communion once a year, at Easter, and that with this that need to confess once a year.
The Church RECOMMENDS much more: monthly confession, frequent Communion.
As our last Bishop (Christopher Budd, 1998 pastoral letter) put it: It’s not enough to go to confession just at Advent and Lent, we need to go regularly.

Love does not seek the minimum.
Love seek to do MORE.
Love seeks to look within my heart and find the wrong that is the opposite of that “more".
If you look at the examination of conscience inside the newsletter you’ll see a list of the 7 deadly sins, and many others sins that flow from them. Such an examination seeks to help us rise above the minimum, seeks to helps us rise to the demands of love.

A final reason why I go to Confession:
I know that it is part of God’s plan to work THROUGH other people, through His Church, through His priests.
He said, “He who hears you hears me”(Lk 10:16), to His apostles, the first priests.
He said, “Those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them”(Jn 20:23), to His apostles the first priests.
And He knows that I need to hear those words of forgiveness, “I absolve you…”, not as some words on a print page of the Bible, but by His living representative on earth: the priest.

The history of the Church is full of holier men and women than me, men and women who knew their sins and knew their need of confession, even better than I know it.
Pope Francis, like his predecessors, tell us he too goes to confession. He says, "How good it feels to come back to Him whenever we are lost!"(Evangelii Gaudium n.3), to know the JOY of the "encounter"(n.1) with the Lord in this way.

I urge you, especially in this holy season, review your own practice in this regard.
Resolve to come to confession more frequently -times are listed on the newsletter.
And, especially, resolve to come before Christmas.
“Prepare a way of the Lord”(Mk 1:3).

The examination of conscience referred to in the sermon can be viewed at:

Sunday, 3 December 2017

1st Sunday of Advent, Year B

Mk 13:33-37; 1 Cor 1:3-9
I was talking to a friend earlier, and he causally made reference to the fact that the Lord Jesus might come again in glory at any time, that, in fact, He might be coming this afternoon. And I, quite spontaneously, said, “But I’ve got some things I need to finish first”.
This is how I’ve often heard other people refer to the Second Coming of Jesus: as something they don’t want to happen just yet. “Go away Jesus, could you come back later, maybe Tuesday? There are a lot of things I need to do first. I’ve not written any Christmas cards, I’ve barely started to think about presents, and basically I’ve just got a lot on right now.”

Now, when phrased like this, it obviously sounds silly. It is not for us to be telling God when He can or can’t come in glory.
And yet, it is with thoughts of the Second Coming that the Church starts our Advent preparations for Christmas: We are to start our preparations for the celebration of the anniversary of His birthday, of His FIRST coming, by thinking about His future SECOND Coming.
And when we do that a lot of things change their focus. Let me note three.

Firstly, when I think about the fact that Jesus might come, that time might end this afternoon, it suddenly changes what I think is really important. All my priorities shift. So, for example, I might still be aware of the Christmas cards I’ve not sent –but I’d be MORE aware of how much or how little LOVE I have put into those cards.
And I’d still realise that I hadn’t bought many presents yet, but I’d more clearly realise the extent to which this expressed (or not) a lack of love or concern for the people I wasn’t ready for.
So, my priorities would shift if I recalled that Jesus is Coming.

Secondly, I’d be less STRESSED about many of those details. I’d value those details in a different way, in some things I’d value them much MORE -because of the re-focusing on what they mean to others, and what they mean to God. But in MOST things I’d value those details in a way that was less focused on myself and my achievement and was thus less STRESSFUL.

Finally, with all of my life presented before me in the judgement, I think I’d be more aware of what I need to be GRATEFUL for. In our second reading we heard St Paul saying that he “never stop[ed] thanking God for all the graces you have received”(1 Cor 1:4) –and he moved straight from that thought to the revelation of the “last day, the day of the Lord Jesus”(1:8). Seeing things in the light of eternity is a good way to be less focused on our problems and more focused on what God has given us, what we have to be thankful for.

To sum that up: We are to start our Advent preparations for Christmas by thinking about the Second Coming in glory at the End of Time –a moment that could be any moment. Thinking about ‘the end’ helps us re-focus on what is important, and at Christmas it is precisely those ‘important’ things we need to be have before us. So, as we heard the Lord say, “Stay awake, because you do not know when the time will come”(Mk 13:33).