Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ordinary Time Sunday 21

Today's Gospel is about conflilct and rejection. It is also about truth, and about faith.

We live in a world where we yearn for compromise, for harmony, for reconciliation. We ask ourselves why Arab and Israeli, Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot live together in peace in the Middle East. Surely, we think, there can be give and take, live and let live. We are confused that there are Muslims, who believe in a merciful God, who in the name of their faith carry out terrible acts. And - before we become too complacent - let us not forget that it is not so long ago that we were troubled and disturbed by atrocities carried out in these very islands by those calling themselves catholics. When there is conflict, we want there to be peace - where there is discord we want harmony. If there is any prayer that sums up the feeling of the age, then it is that prayer of St Francis, 'Make me a channel of your peace'.

And these aspirations are of course good. We feel discomfort in the charge that it is made that religion has been the cause of war and suffering and pain in the world. We feel discomfort because we know that sometimes it is true. However, we feel that faith is about love, forgiveness, harmony, reconciliation - peace. Didn't Christ say 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'?

But there is a problem. Didn't Jesus also say 'I come to bring not peace, but a sword'? Didn't he also say 'He who is not with me is against me'? Did he not also say 'Blessed are those who are persecuted'? Didn't he also say 'Brother will betray brother to death and the father his child'? Didnt he also say "If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple." and in today's Gospel, didn't some of his followers say 'This is intolerable language' - and didn't some of them leave him, and stop following him?

The trouble is that truth is disturbing. It challenges. It threatens those who live with lies. Justice is troubling. It unsettles those who live comfortably off the exploitation of others. The light shines into the dark corners where things are hidden away from the clear light of day.

We could have a kind of peace which is based on lies, ignorance and deceit. We could ignore or hide the truth, pretend it does not matter, or say that there is no such thing as truth anyway. We could fool ourselves that all views are equal, all positions are valid as one another, everything a matter of choice, or private preference.

Or we can be honest.

There is no contradiction in longing for peace and facing rejection. Sometimes love is ridiculed and trust is exploited, but this does not make them worthless or pointless. True peace, true reconciliation must come from truth - but that truth may not always be welcome or comfortable or soothing. But truth is the only way, the only certainty.

Lord, Where else can we go?

You, Lord, have the message of eternal life, and we believe, we know,
that you are the Holy One of God.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Ordinary Time Sunday 20

He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I live in him.

Sometimes the Christian life is called discipleship. It is as if we are one of the twelve, or one of the very many more who followed Jesus around in Palestine and learned from him. Or sometimes, the Christian life is called 'the imitation of Christ' - there is a very famous book by this very title - and so it seems that we should try to copy what Christ did, live as he lived. As some Christians will tell you, when faced with a moral decision, we should ask the question "What would Jesus do?" Indeed, you can even get badges and car stickers that have the letters WWJD, just to make the point.

Well, these ideas are all very worthy, but I'm afraid there is something not quite right about them, or at least, not quite complete. It is not catholic teaching. It does not match up to today's gospel.

The idea of the Christian life being about following, or even imitating (though that is a little better) is that it seems it is all about effort. You know, like the school report which says 'Must try harder'. The Christian life, it seems, is about how hard I work at it, how much effort I put into it, how well I follow, or copy. Just do that little bit more, and - so it might seem - I will be perfect... And if I manage to do that, who should be praised?

Ah! We can see the fault in this approach.

We who receive Christ's body and blood do so, so that we may live in him and he may live in us. The Christian life is not about effort and toil, but about the indwelling of Christ, the working out of the grace of God. To live as people transformed by the eucharist, filled with life with this spiritual food, we have only to let Christ dwell in us and live in us. How can I live like a disciple? - the world has changed so much in two thousand years. How can I copy what Christ did? - my background and my circumstances are so different from his.

Yet I can allow Christ to live in me. I can allow my words and actions be filled with his wisdom and compassion. I can let his love shine on others though what I think and do and say.

Or not.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Assumption of Our Lady August 15th

Today we celebrate the taking of Our Lady, Body and Soul into the glory of heaven. It is an ancient feast, and an ancient belief, but it was only officially defined by the Church in 1950.
Perhaps you've never really thought much about the meaning behind this feast, but for some people the Assumption is a problem. It is not described - at least not directly - in Scripture itself. For some, outside the catholic church, it seems that we are making Mary into a sort of divine figure. They say we are claiming that Mary did not die. They say we are giving Mary honour which is due only to Christ.
Most of these points are easy to dismiss. To honour a human being, the greatest human being ever, is not to take away from the glory of God. On the contrary, it is to praise him even more for the wonders he performs through his creation. As Mary herself says "All generations will call me blessed, for the almighty has done great things for me". When we honour Mary, we praise God for the great things he has done.
But there is another reason why people might feel uneasy about the Assumption. Not because it expresses the glory of God seen in a human being, but because it seems to say something a little odd. This belief, this feast, says that there is no body of Mary on earth, no bones, no relics, no dust and ashes, but that she was taken up into heaven, whole and entire - that is what 'assumed' means.
Some might say 'why?' After all, don't most people believe that when we die our soul goes to dwell with God in heaven? Isn't our soul, our immortal soul, who we really are? our essence, our personality, our memory and identity? Surely, we have no need of a body in heaven?
This popular belief, that when we die our soul goes to heaven is inadequate for two reasons.
Firstly, because when we die our soul does not go to heaven -- it goes to judgement! This is why we pray for the dead. This is why we try to lead a good life. This is why we say 'pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death'. We trust in God's great love and forgiveness - but we should never rely on our own goodness. We pray that purified by God, our soul may indeed enter heaven to dwell with him.
And secondly this popular belief is wrong because heaven is not the end of the story, or, to put it rather better, our soul is not our essence, our full identity, or whatever we wish to call it. As Christians we do not believe in immortality, certainly not in reincarnation, but we believe in Resurrection - that at the end of time, after the last judgment, soul and body are reunited to live not just in heaven, but in a new heaven and a new earth. God restores his creation and we share in it through our recreated, transformed bodies. This is what Resurrection means - the rising of the body to new life in a new creation.
We might like to think that our bodies are only our temporary dwelling places, somewhere we must dwell just for a while. We might even like the idea that one day we will cast off this ugly and suffering flesh to be truly free. But that is not Christianity. We believe not in a spiritual Lord only, but a risen Lord. We believe that this world is not a temporary dwelling place, but the Lord's creation. We look forward to a new heaven and new earth, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
That is why this world, the way in which we treat it, the way in which we behave in it, is so important. It is not just the stuff which will decay, as if it can be burnt away to be no more. It is the material of the new creation.
And Mary shares in this new creation. Just as she gave from her flesh in the incarnation of the Son, so her flesh shares in his risen flesh. This is a wonderful feast, a glorious doctrine, an awesome truth.

Orindary Time Sunday 19

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

John Henry Newman (Anniversary of Death August 11th)

Preached at the North Staffs Deanery Mass for the beatification and canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman at the Sacred Heart Church, Silverdale, on 11th August 2006.
A Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit: Readings for the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

Although we celebrate a mass of the Holy Spirit with the intention of the beatification and canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman, the readings we have heard are those for the feat of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I have chosen these for very good reason.

Back in his days as an Anglican, when he was Vicar of St Mary's, the University Church in Oxford, he delivered a series of sermons. They still make excellent and inspirational reading. There is one in particular which comes to my mind, when he takes the text which we find in this Gospel 'Mary pondered all these things in her heart'.

Mary pondered in her heart the great mystery of Christ's incarnation. She pondered in her heart the message of Simeon, that he would suffer and her own heart would suffer too. She pondered in her heart as she raised and taught her son, and as she watched him begin his ministry of teaching and and preaching and healing. She pondered in her heart as he suffered on the cross and made her the mother of all Christians. She pondered in her heart as she prayed She could not have explained or predicted all that it meant or all that was to happen, but in her heart she knew. She knew it all.

This understanding, this idea of the Heart, is central to so much of Newman's thought.

At first, this may seem a little strange. Newman might have been Victorian, but he was hardly a romantic (at least not in the modern sense of the word). He was first and foremost an academic, and by all accounts a rather dry and formal person, measured in his writing. His great homilies, many of which have been handed down to us, were not proclaimed with oratory, but written and read. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica admits that Newman was 'no speaker'. His letters, countless hundreds of which survive - for he sent not only a letter to each recipient but made a handwritten copy for himself - cover many subjects, but rarely portray warmth or enthusiasm. He certainly could become fired up with anger or bitterness or zeal: his tremendous autobiographical note, Apologia pro vita Sua, was written in a matter or days after the Revd Charles Kingsley (the author of The Waterbabies) has effectively accused him of deceit. But warmth and tenderness, those human qualities are less easy to find. There is nothing sentimental about Newman.

However, this cannot tell the whole story about Newman, and although we have so much of his writing, this does not mean we have too much of the Man. Although he was an exceptionally intelligent, well educated man with original thoughts and ideas, at the centre of his entire philosophy, his entire life, was the conviction that it is personal encounter, not argument, which makes all the difference. As a young man he underwent an evangelical conversion, and the profound sense of meeting with Christ is something which is reflected in his thought and action thoughout the rest of his life. His first Catholic home in England, after he returned from Rome, was at Old Oscott, on the outskirts of Birmingham. There he would have prayed in the oldest shrine to the Sacred Heart in the British Isles. He renamed the house Maryvale (Santa Maria in valle). Near the end of his life, when he was made a Cardinal, he chose the motto Cor ad Cor loquitur - Heart speaks to heart for his coat of arms.

For Newman, it was never the argument which convinced, however forcefully or thoroughly it may be put. It was always the heart which embraced the truth. Anticipating many ideas which only took full shape in the next century, he developed the idea that Christian truth is not a list of ideas, but first and foremost a person, Christ himself, whose heart speaks to our heart, and calls us to love him and trust him and follow him. In most aspects of our lives, he argued, we do not wait to be convinced that something is so, we simply trust that it is. So much that we easily and without difficulty accept as true what has not been proved to us and perhaps could never be - but we know that it is so, because we trust that it is. This is what he called The Grammar of Assent, the process by which we commit ourselves to accepting and acknowledging the truth.

Heart speaks to heart. So as we come together we pray that this great and holy man may be recognised for what he truly is. A saint and patron, an acknowledgement that rightly awaits the full judgement of the Church, but which is truly and certainly already known in the heart of God.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Transfiguration of the Lord (August 6th)

I have always enjoyed detective stories, plays and dramas, especially TV series. One of my favourites in the past was always Columbo with Peter Falk. Some still get shown on afternoon TV and satellite channels.

Columbo was different not just because of the eccentric detective, nor only because of his detective powers, but especially because in every episode in the first few moments the viewers saw who the murderer and was, and, to a certain extent how he or she did it. Columbo is not a ‘whodunit’ or even a ‘howdunit’, but instead a ‘how-did-he-work--it--out’? For this reason, it was really important not to miss the first few minutes of the show!!

Now - Mark’s Gospel is like this. At the very start in verse one we were told ‘The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ - and yet all the way through the disciples don’t quite get it, the people don’t quite get it, the Jewish leaders certainly don’t get it. Time and time again we hear that the crowds discuss ‘Who can this man be?’, his enemies say ‘Who does he think he is?’ and his disciples fail to understand what he teaches them.

But we, like the Columbo viewer, know exactly who he is, who he thinks he is, and what he means when he teaches them about his suffering, death and resurrection.

And so, in the Gospel, there are the occasional moments of insight, of revelation - the ‘light bulb moment’ when suddenly, and sometimes briefly, all is made clear. His baptism is one, when the voices speaks from heaven. Many of his miracles are like this, especially when someone shouts out ‘You are the Holy One of God!’ - and Jesus silences them.

And today’s Gospel, today’s celebration is especially one of these. The voice speaks from heaven and says ‘This is my Son, my beloved, listen to him!’ In a flash, a bright flash, all is made clear. This is who he is. This is what he has come to do. And what happens? Peter bumbles away, and the disciples puzzle what on earth Jesus could possibly mean.

In many ways we are so like the disciples, in the middle of a drama, a puzzle, to which the answer is very clear if only we can stand outside it. In all the puzzles, struggles, doubts and trials of life we struggle to do something, anything - a bit like Peter - that can make some sense, or we scratch our heads like the disciples trying to work it all out.

When we see the whole picture, the truth will be clear. When we are able to look back on the path we have trod, with all its uncertainties and wanderings, we shall be able to see the guiding hand of God.

What can we do? Build tents. Scratch our heads in bemusement. No - the voice of God which speaks from heaven has the answer. Remember what he says? ... This is my Son, my beloved ...

The proper response may not be frantic activity, searching for something, anything to do - like Peter. And the answer may not be found in our many questions and searchings, our discussions, debates, arguments and reasoning - like the disciples. Both responses suppose that the answer lies within us. It does not. The answer to the struggles of life lies with God. We must wait on him. Be ready for his promptings. Open to his grace.

Don't speak. Don't do.


Ordinary Time Sunday 17

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Ordinary Time Sunday 16

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