Wednesday, 25 December 2019

God made Visible, Christmas

Today I want to talk about how Christmas shows us what God is like; Christmas tells us what God has shown about Himself.
And this is important because some people think you can’t know God, whereas, in fact, Christmas means the “invisible” God has become “visible”.
Let me note 3 ways.

First, Christmas shows us that God is CLOSE in the details of our lives.
Sometimes we can think that God is far away, and removed from our lives, however, at Christmas we recall:
God, who eternally existed, entered time and was born of the Virgin Mary.
He entered REAL life, hard life: 
There was no room for Him at the inn: He was born in a stable;
When He grew up, He became a carpenter, doing real work;
He wept in sorrow when His friend Lazarus died;
He sweat blood;
He suffered and died on the Cross
-in all this and much more, Christmas shows God to be CLOSE in human existence, present in the details. 

Second, Christmas shows us that God is ACTIVE in our world.
Sometimes we can think that God is powerless, that He doesn’t DO much, however at Christmas we recall: 
Even before He was born, centuries before, there were PROPHECIES of His birth:
WHERE He would be born (Bethlehem); 
WHICH tribe He would be born to (Judah); 
That He would be born to a VIRGIN
-no one else has ever been announced before His birth!
There were miracles at his birth:
angels sang and guided the shepherds to the manger;
a star appeared and led the wise men;
When He grew up:
He cured the sick: the blind saw, the lame walked, the deaf heard;
He taught the ignorant -about life, about heaven;
He even raised the dead, and rose again after His own death.
Christmas shows that God is ACTIVE.

Third, and finally, Christmas shows that God is REAL:
He took FLESH when He was born of the virgin.
You can only take flesh if you are REAL.
Sometimes people think that God is just an IDEA, a nice but vague thought.
However, Christmas shows the opposite.

The eternal God is transcendent, beyond us, invisible.
But in the event of Christmas, He is invisible no more.
When you next wonder, “Can we know God?”
Think of the crib at Christmas:
the God who sometimes seems distant, has shown Himself to be close and involved;
the God who sometimes seems inactive, has shown Himself to do much;
the God who some speak of a vague spirit, has shown Himself to be definite and to take flesh.
In Christmas we recall that we can know God because He has made Himself known.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Asking for a Gift, 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A

Isa 7:1-14
Today I want to say a few words about asking God to give you a gift this Christmas,
and about how this is a good way to PREPARE for what He wants to give you this Christmas.

In our first reading we heard the Lord God tell King Ahaz to ASK Him for something, in his case: “a sign”.
God, in fact, is a generous giver.
He wants to give us things.
He wants us to TRUST Him enough to ASK Him.
God was upset that Ahaz didn’t trust Him enough 
-Ahaz was instead fearful of ‘testing’ God (Isa 7:12).
Lots of physical gifts are going to be given to people in a couple days. 
I’d suggest to you that this is a good moment to consider what SPIRITUAL gift you could ask God for 
-God gives us many different graces through the different liturgical seasons;
we do well to focus ourselves to receive these different graces in these different seasons.  

I remember, when I studied spiritual theology, being struck by the saints and theologians of the Church talking about all the graces that are LOST to us because we don’t ASK God for them.
The Lord, “Ask, it will be given to you”(Mt 7:7)
The saints tell us to be SPECIFIC in what we ask God for (St Thomas ST II-II q83 a5).
to repeat:
-Our heavenly Father wants us to trust Him enough to ask Him for things.

What might I ask God for this Christmas?
I might ask for guidance, as we heard Him guide St Joseph in the Gospel.
I might ask for better obedience, that I might do what others ask me to do, as St Joseph did what the Angel told him, or, to phrase that differently, to be better at accepting what OTHERS want to do rather than what I want to do.
I might ask for more patience
or more strength.
God wants to give me something, and He wants me to ask.

I might ask for a BMW, or something silly and selfish. 
c.f. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly”(James 4:3)
Or, I could ask for something that He knows is good for me, 
something He WANTS to give me 
-but He’s waiting for me to ASK.
Probably not a BMW, but material things are among fitting things to ask Him (St Thomas ST II-II q83 a6).

The HEART of what He wants to give us is: HIMSELF.
The child to be born will be Emmanuel, “God-is-with-us”.
Most of us, probably, can say that there are areas of my life where God is ALREADY present.
But, unless I’m going to claim to be a sinless as the Blessed Virgin, 
and to claim that I am super-human and strong and all self-satisfied and complete,
then, there are other areas of my life where He is NOT fully present
-those are places I can pray that He be BORN in me anew this Christmas.

This final Sunday of Advent, Our Lady is presented to us as the perfect Advent figure:
She was ready for the Coming of the Lord, and so He came to us in her.
Asking God, in prayer of petition, is one way of MAKING ourselves READY for what He wishes to give us.
(St Thomas ST II-II q83 a2c)
King Ahaz refused to ask God, let is not make the same mistake:
What gift are you going to ask Him for Christmas?

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Rejoice while Waiting, Gaudete, 3rd Sunday of Advent Year A

James 5:7-10; Isa 35:1-10; Mt 11:2-11
Today I want to speak about how ALL of Christian life is a type of Advent, a type of waiting, and I want to talk about why this should be a reason to REJOICE.

Today is one of my favourite moments in Advent, and favourite moments in the liturgical year:
Today is ‘Gaudete’ Sunday, a Latin word meaning ‘rejoice’.
As a consequence, we interrupt our Advent purple and I wear, not girly pink, but manly ‘rose’.
We interrupt what might seem like the SADNESS of our Advent waiting, and the Church bids us remember our reasons to rejoice -rejoice even while we wait.
 “Rejoice… the Lord is very near” (Phil 4:4-7, second reading Year C) - the words in our entrance antiphon.

We are in Year A, and our readings this year give us a different focus from Year C:
our reason to have PATIENCE in our waiting (James 5:7).
When we wait for something it’s easy to be IMpatient, to be constantly checking our watch.
“Has Jesus come yet?  No?  How much longer is He going to be?”

Let me suggest a different type of waiting:
A waiting in which we are so filled with gladness at what lies ahead, that we are rejoicing in it EVEN BEFORE it comes.
Children often show us this: 
they can be almost as happy in the build up to Christmas as on Christmas itself.
One of the reasons Children can anticipate this joy is that they TRUST their parents 
-trust that Christmas will come.
We, likewise, need to trust that the greatness of God’s coming will be true.
So, our liturgy today gives us some reminders of why we should trust.

Generally speaking, we trust someone because they have shown themselves to be trustworthy:
the way they have behaved in the PAST shows they are RELIABLE.
Our first reading and Gospel text are given to us today to make that point:
In Isaiah, God prophesied that He would come,
He promised that He would give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf (Isa 35:5), and so on.
In the Gospel, we heard the Lord Jesus point out that this is exactly what He was doing:
The blind saw, the deaf heard, the dumb spoke, the lame walked, etc (Mt 11:5)
The Lord proved that He was the fulfilment of the promise that the Messiah would come.

Then, He said something a little obscure, but that is pivotal for us if WE are to rejoice today:
He said, “Blessed is the man who does not lose faith in me”(Mt 11:6).
If we stop trusting in Him, if we ‘lose faith’ in Him, 
then we lose our reason to rejoice.
Whereas, IF we trust Him, confidently trust Him,
then we can rejoice EVEN WHILE we wait -because we are confident in His coming.
and confident in all He has said He will DO when He comes, namely, put all things right.

God promised in the past, and He was faithful to His promises.
He has SHOWN He is trustworthy.
So, let us be patient while we wait.

It’s a wonderful thing to have been promised something great.
It’s a DELIGHT to know that great thing IS coming.
All of a Christian’s life that this FORWARD-looking dimension, this hope-filled dimension.
If we are faithful, then He will be faithful.
‘Rejoice… the Lord is very near” (Phil 4:4-7, second reading Year C).

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Confession, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A

Isa 11:1-10; Mt 3:1-12
We’re now starting the second week of Advent, the second week of our getting ready for Christmas.
Last Sunday, the Church's liturgy focussed on WHO it is we are preparing for -by dwelling on the Second Coming.
This Sunday, the Church’s liturgy focuses us on what we need to do to PREPARE for Him to come.   The collect prayer at Mass this Thursday expressed this very beautifully when it said,
“hasten the salvation which only our sins delay” (current breviary translation).

What stops the Lord coming to me?
Nothing on HIS part -He WANTS to come.
What stops His comes, “impedes” it, is my sins.
Each time I sin I choose to let something else come into my life, something incompatible with Him.
I choose laziness, because I don’t get around to what the Lord wants me to do.
I choose irritability and impatience, because I’m focussed on MY priorities rather than those of other people.
I choose over-indulgence in food, because I value these pleasures more than they are truly worth.

Let me look at this a different way:
Christmas is about peace: 
We hail the child to be born as “the prince of peace” (Isa 9:6);
Our first reading from Isaiah poetically described the peace His definitive reign will bring:
the wolf and the lamb lying down together (Isa 11:6).
When I sin, I damage the peace and harmony that should exist in every one of my relationships:
between God and me;
between my family and me;
between my work-life and me;
and even my inner peace -I damage the harmony within myself.

The solution to this, however, is not complicated:
The solution is to turn to the very One whose coming my sins delay.
To turn to Him and seek forgiveness.
In the Gospel we heard the powerful call of St John the Baptist:
Prepare a way for the Lord”.
If we would prepare for His Christmas coming, then we need to do the very same.
And, like the people who came to St John, we need to “confess” our sins (Mt 3:6).

The sacrament of Confession is a beautiful thing, it reconciles us to God.
When we go to confession we CONTACT forgiveness -not just as words on a page.
It’s 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 we need to HEAR those words of forgiveness, “I absolve you…”, from His living representative on earth: the priest.

Pope Francis, as I think most of you know, goes to confession every 2 weeks.
The standard advice for parishioners is to go every month:
That’s a timeframe that means we can still remember our sins;
That’s a timeframe that can help us be suitably prepared to be ready to receive Holy 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.

Many of you go to confession in other churches -I know because I sometimes see you there when I’m at Ringwood or the Oratory to go to confession myself.
Our newsletter lists the times of nearby confessions, and in just over a week we’ll have 4 priests here for our Advent confessions service.
Our newsletter this week contains an examination of conscience on peace (see here) and our various damaged relationships -I hope it helps prepare you for Christmas.
I urge you, especially in this holy season, to get to confession before Christmas.
“Prepare a way of the Lord”(Mt 3:3).

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

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Winter in the Church: An Analogy

The Faith Movement has a monthly meditation. I wrote this one, for December:

We are now, in terms of weather, in what is usually the grimmest period of the year.  There are many ways in which this might seem a metaphor for the state of the Church today.  In winter, there are few leaves on the trees, and the few there are passing remnants of the summer.  In the Church, there are fewer Catholics than there used to be, and it can sometimes feel as if the few here are remnants of the past rather than tokens of a future.  I want to dwell on this metaphor to consider the hope that lies beneath the apparent gloom.   

The death of winter is never terminal.  The death of winter is always a step towards spring.  The death of winter, in fact, is never as dead as it seems: under the ground, out of sight, nature is working and moving to make possible the new growth that will come with spring.  If the old leaves and mulch didn’t decay in winter, if the worms and bugs didn’t keep working through the cold of January, then the warmth of April would never produce the growth of spring.  This gives us an important, if un-glorious, image of our own apostolate in the Church in our day -we must be the worms and bugs that will create the groundwork to enable more a visibly fruitful apostolate in the future.

To shift from metaphors to history: If our Scottish and Welsh readers will indulge me, our English Catholic past gives us at least two examples for us.  First, we might recall how the pagan Vikings came and conquered the flourishing Catholic faith of Saxon England. It seemed that not merely England but the faith itself was lost.  The monasteries and nunneries were burnt and ruined, the churches desecrated, the bones and relics of saints destroyed. Little could those who lived through those days have envisaged that the splendour of Catholic medieval England was still to come!  Little could they have imagined that in a few generations those Vikings would be converted to the Lord.

We recently celebrated Newman’s canonisation, and many will have recalled his hope-filled Second Spring sermon.  My second example, however, draws its lessons from what might be called the ‘Second Winter’ that Bishop Challoner lived through.  Challoner lived in the 18th century, after the time of the glory of the reformation martyrs but before the time when the numbers of Catholics began to increase.  For 40 years he laboured as vicar apostolic, a time period when Catholics statistics were only ever on the decline. The law of the land allowed him and his followers to live, but the establishment stacked everything against them.  Far from being a figure of despair, however, Challoner was determined and visionary. He established patterns of devotion, and books to sustain them, that not merely kept the Old Faith alive but developed it to new counter-reformation heights.  He only ever worked with small numbers of people, but he kept going. He created apostolic centres and pastoral structures that built a new foundation, a foundation that made the likes of Newman and his Second Spring possible. It seems to me that we, today, can chose between spending our time weeping that Newman’s Second Spring didn’t produce a Second Summer, or we can choose do our little part to prepare for a third spring we can’t yet foresee.

The Catholic Church in England went through a winter under the Vikings, under the Protestants, and is in another winter now.  The Catholic Church is Scotland likewise saw winters before St Columba and while Mary Queen of Scots lost her head. Few people like to live in winter, but it would seem it is our lot.

To live in ecclesiastical winter takes both faith and hope.  It takes faith to believe that the truth and the world is different from what those around us would have us think.  It takes hope to continue working amidst small numbers and worshiping amidst declining and elderly congregations. Both only come, and can only bear fruit in love, when we trustingly look to the Lord.  If we do, we can come to see reality with “the eyes of faith”, to “see all things with the eyes of Jesus”(Lumen fidei n.60).  He is the one who told us that His Kingdom works unseen, like a seed under the ground (Mk 4:27).  It is working in the winter, even if it is only seen come spring.  Let us ask the Lord to fill us with the faith and hope, and maybe the humility, to be the worms and bugs that work through the winter, and not despair that we’re not green shoots of spring.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Aslan & Advent, 1st Sunday of Advent Year A

Mt 24:37-44
So we’ve just started Advent, and was thinking at the start of this week, even before Advent began, about how much I LOVE Advent.
Advent is a time of expectation;
A time of looking ahead;
A time of hope;
A time characterised by the fact that although we have the Lord with us, we also look ahead to a time when He will come in a new and definitive way.

Then, while I’m was in this lovely Advent mood,
then, to ruin it all, I read the readings that the Church gives us for this First Sunday of Advent.
And, to put it mildly, they are bit of a downer:
They speak of the judgment -of the fearful warning that the Lord Jesus gave;
He spoke of how many of us will NOT be saved   -50/50 is the ratio that Jesus indicates;
Many of us will not be ready.

Many of us will not be ready.
Then, I also thought about how I’m not ready for Christmas
How many presents do I have sorted? None
How many cards written? None 
There are still 20 shopping days till Christmas
and 16 days when I can still post a second-class Christmas card
But, if Christmas came NOW, I wouldn’t be ready.

The coming of the Lord will be a GREAT thing.
When He comes in glory and might at the end of time, it will be wonderful.
It will also be awesome, in the sense of fearsome.
He will come on HIS terms not on ours.

Yes, He is my friend, my brother, the One who loves me.
His coming will bring delight for His chosen ones.
He is also judge, ruler, master, creator, God.
He can be a GREAT friend because He is indeed GREAT.
But that means we do not relate to Him as equals -we must treat Him with AWE, we must be ready.
The Bible calls Him “the Lion of Judah”(Rev 5:5),
and lions are not tame.
Many of you will be familiar with CS Lewis’s Narnia novels, and their Christ-figure Aslan.  To relate a conversation in that novel that sums this point up: 
Mr Beaver said, “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." 
"Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite SAFE? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"...
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's GOOD. He's the King, I tell you.”

Advent is a time of expectation, of looking ahead.
It’s a time to get ready, to get ready for Christmas.
The Church bids us start to get ready by remembering His FINAL coming in glory and power.
We do this as a way of remembering WHO it that we are preparing for
-not just a cuddly baby in a crib, but our Lord and God.