Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Carol Service: the melody of the mundane

As you approached the Church this evening you heard the bells ringing, playing Christmas carols and calling you to worship.

In fact, Bells have long been associated with Christianity. They call the faithful to prayer – not only to Church, but through the thrice-daily angelus prayer they call the faithful to prayer in the fields in the shops in their homes. And the bell not only provides a practical function, but it gives a beautiful sound. Just as the candle not only lights the Church but also beautifies it, so the bell not only calls to prayer but does so with charm and beauty.
Yet, in our very fast and practical world, we may say there is no longer any need for the bell or the candle. We have clocks, and timetables, mobile phones and halogen lighting.

But the bell speaks to us not only of another time, it also reminds us that there is harmnony in the practical ordinary things of life. The daily routine is marked by its music.

When we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child we celebrate something mundane, unremarkable and common-place. The birth of a child. The life of a family. The love and concern of his parents. A place of work and not a clean or decorated palace. In this birth God himself enters into the trivial struggles of life. He dwells in the simple and the everyday. Hardly noticed at the time, save for a few curious pilgrims.
And our bells make the mundane melodious. The Word is made flesh. And all creation is filled with the glory of God.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

31st Sunday of the Year (Year C) 4th November 2007

This must be one of the most charming stories in the Gospels. There is Zacchaeus, the miserable little man, small time crook, fiddler, tax collector, friend of no one. Sinner. When he comes to the town, no one will let him get anywhere near Jesus. Why should he want to see the Lord? And why would the Lord want to see him?

In a sense, Zacchaeus was a dead man. He was dead to his community. They ignored him and despised him. He was dead in his sins. Why would Jesus want to see him? He was a nobody and a bad nobody at that.

And then Jesus changed everything. He looked up to him, sat in the branches of the tree, and he spoke. He spoke his name. "Zacchaeus" he said. How did he know? We are not told. But we do know that when the name had been spoken the man came down from the tree and Jesus went into his house. No doubt Zacchaeus was called many names by the crowd, sinner, tax collector and worse, but it was his real name, his given name, which Jesus spoke, and it is the saying of the name which changes Zacchaeus. It is like the speaking of the name of Lazarus which calls him from the tomb, and the speaking of her name to Mary Magdalen, which leads her to recognise the risen Jesus.

Names make such a difference. In this month of November remember the dead. We give thanks for the Saints on all saints' day. We pray for the holy souls on all souls day. We remember those who have died in war time on Remembrance Sunday. Next Sunday afternoon we will visit and bless the graves in our local cemetery. Later in the month we will have a special mass to remember all the loved ones who have died in the past year. At each mass over the weekend we present the November list of those who have died.

And it is so important for us to name them. In Westminster Abbey there is the tomb of the unknown soldier. Part of the horror of war is that the body buried there has no name, though he represents so many. Names call us to life. We name a child at baptism. We take a name too at confirmation. Our name is spoken again as we are committed to our final resting place.

And we remember our dead by name. We pray for the holy souls, and in our lists we put name after name after name. Parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends and relations, the recently departed and those who have long gone. We write down their names and call them to life in our memories. As Christ calls them to life in his love.

The Lord speaks the name to Zacchaues and enters into his house. We speak the names of our loved ones that they may enter into house of the Lord.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

25th Sunday of the Year (23rd September 2007)

Readings for today

You cannot serve both God and money

In the last couple of weeks we have seen extraordinary events on television as people queued up outside the branches of the Northern Rock bank to withdraw their money. They call it a "run on the bank". Such things have been almost unheard of, in this country at least for more than 50 years. And it seems that those people need not have worried anyway.

But it does lead us to pause and think about this incredible thing called money. After all it is just metal and paper, or perhaps just even plastic, or often not even that. It is numbers and words recorded on computers and spoken over telephone lines. And yet people work for it, and dream of it, and will even kill for it.

But of course, it is not money in itself which they are all after, but what it can do.

It can make us rich. It can make us powerful. It can make us comfortable. It can make us happy.

But can it make us happy? Certainly, many people can be lifted out of misery and suffering but sometimes just a little money – a little to avoid hunger, a little to provide medical care, a little to provide education. And we often suppose that if we just had that lottery win or the unexpected inheritance it would lift us out the need every work again, and give us a life of comfort and luxury.

And yet, the truly rich – do they stop working? Do they stop looking for ways to get more money, more possessions, more power? Not at all, because the pursuit of material things is never ending. It is almost like an addicts compulsion. There can never be enough, because that happiness that we think wealth will bring never actually arrives. They may not suffer from the misery of poverty, they may have all the cars, clothes, gadgets and holidays the rest of us yearn for, but none of these bring true friendship, loyalty, commitment, happiness and love. The most important values and virtues, honesty, courage, reliability, generosity – none of these can be bought.

And this is why Christ says we cannot be slaves of both God and money. To serve God, must always be to put material concerns second. To serve God is to put true human values first. To seek happiness in money, power, possessions, materials things, is to seek fulfilment where it can never be found. It is a pursuit of happiness which will always lead to dissatisfaction, restlessness, bitterness – to unhappiness.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

24th Sunday of the year (16 September 2007)

Readings for today's Mass

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity

There is so much that could be said about today's Gospel – but I want to concentrate on just one aspect, one figure in the story, and even as little as this one verse - While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.

I'm told that the father would have seen his returning son, probably because he could recognise his walk, and probably because he was standing on the flat roof of the middle eastern house. He could also see his returning son because he was waiting for him. The son had fled the home. He had caused great hurt. He had done great sin. He had been foolish, stupid, and also very hurtful. He had turned his back on his father and his family – but his father had always looked out for him.

And when the lad returned, the father was filled not with anger, or bitterness, or resentment. He was not filled with the pain of the hurt caused, nor with a desire that the son should put things right – but with pity, with mercy, with compassion, with a spirit of forgiveness, with joy, with love.

Today is Home Mission Sunday, and the national agency of the Church for evangelisation, called CASE, tells us that with other Christian bodies it is planning a campaign for Christmas called "Come Home for Christmas". In this we are encouraged to reach out to those outside the Church, especially the lapsed, those who were once part of our church, who followed the faith but are not with us now. We need to be ready, like the father, to welcome them and encourage them.

There are many who have left the Church for some many reasons. They got out of the habit after illness or work circumstances. They have had a marital breakdown, or now live in marriage or relationship not blessed by the Church and feel awkward that they cannot receive communion. They had a row with a priest or another parishioner and have stayed away. They drifted away in their teens and now feel it hard to return, though they may like too. They think everyone will stare at them when they turn up for mass.

The trouble is, we can often be like the elder son, rather than like the father. We focus much more on the fact that they should never have left, than on the importance that they return. And when they return, we might pass judgment or make demands.

The Father makes no demands, but waits for the sorrow of the one who is returning. He looks upon him not with anger or resentment, but with pity and love. He yearns for his return and rejoices when he comes.

Like the Father, we need to patient for the return of those who have left, invite them back, not pass judgment or lay down immediate demands or conditions. There is much time for so many things. We need to open welcoming arms to those who have felt cut off from the Church. Our doors are unlocked – but our hearts must be open too.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

23rd Sunday of the Year (9th September 2007)

Readings for today

Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

Some people think that faith is all about comfort. It is about escape from the realities of life. In this point of view, people have faith to escape from the pain of bereavement, or the guilt of wrong-doing, or the misery of poverty or the sadness of loneliness. The promise of heaven, of forgiveness, of the communion of saints and a better life to come all give tremendous comfort. Religion, faith, belief, so this argument goes is all a delusion, as escape from what the world is really like.

Well, like all popular points of view, there is an element of truth in this. Faith does give comfort and hope. It does provide some answer to questions. It does give meaning and hope and strength.

But not always. Those who embrace the Christian faith have often encountered ridicule, and persecution, and even death. The history of our faith is littered with martyrs. In the last century, it is said, there were more martyrs for the faith than in the whole of the previous 19 centuries. Today, Christians carry their cross in China, in parts of Africa and especially in some muslim countries where churches have been burnt and believers attacked and killed. Christians in Iraq, now suffer far more than they ever did in the past.

And there is another cross which believers may have to carry.

September 5th was the fifth anniversary of the death of  Mother Teresa, or Blessed Teresa of Kolkata as we now call her. There was some fuss over a book published this week, a collection of her diary entries and letters. They reveal something which no one knew – that for most of her life, Mother Teresa was afflicted by what she called 'the dark night of God's silence': it was a deep sense of doubt, of the questioning of God's existence, God's presence, God's love. Mother Teresa was racked by doubt. To be sure, she had a profound experience of the presence of Christ as a younger woman, but for most of her life she sat not in the light of that experience, but in its shadow. Yet her conviction never wavered, he commitment did not shake, she gave her life for the desparately poor and the destitute, the sick and the dying. In an extraordinary way, she carried the cross of darkness and doubt.

One of her biographers put it so beautifully:

Mother Teresa, she said, converted "her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God." She proclaimed that there was "more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread." She lived her doubts, not for an hour on Sunday, but every day as she tended the poor and dying in utter, relentless squalor.

The darkness of God's silence was her cross.

May we be able to carry our crosses with such grace and generosity and love.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

21st Sunday of the Year (26th August 2007)

Readings for this Mass

Try your best to enter by the narrow door.

It may be very mischievous of me, but mention of the narrow door prompts me to think of Winnie the Pooh. You remember the story - Winnie went through the narrow door - actually a window - to get to the Honey. He could only get so far, but far enough to eat the honey. And when he had ate the honey he found he was very tightly wedged in the hole. Perhaps that story had a particular impact upon me as a child. I could have been that bear!

Actually our Old Testament and Gospel readings seem to give something of a contradiction. In the first reading, everyone, all nations, are called to the Kingdom. In the Gospel it is only a few who get past check-in. What are we to make of this?

Well, together they both boil down to the same question: who gets to heaven? And perhaps a second question which we might ask: if God loves everyone, how can he turn anyone away from heaven?

Well the passages - and the Church's teaching - give a fairly clear answer.

Firstly, everyone is called by God to heaven. The first passage, from Isaiah, makes that very clear: 'I am coming to gather the nations of every language'. And the Gospel too: men from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places in the kingdom of God. In fact Isaiah even says that God calls 'the distant islands that have never heard of me or seen my glory'. So God doesn't just call catholics to heaven, but protestants, and sikhs and buddhists and muslims and atheists too. All are invited. Even if they have never heard of him or seen his glory.

But, there is a second point. Just as valid, just as important as the first. Many will try to enter and not succeed, Jesus says. It is a narrow door, and some of you will be turned away. In fact, Christ will say 'I do not know you'. The big difference here, the really big difference, is that while Isaiah talks about them, Jesus speaks to you. They are all invited to the Kingdom - but will You be there to take the place allotted to you?

We tend to want to ask an abstract or theoretical kind of question, becasue we feel more comfortable with it: will other people go to heaven? Ah well, says Jesus, they are all invited. God's love is boundless, his forgiveness is without limit, his will is that all people should be saved. He made us and loved us. Yes, yes, yes. That is a question God can answer.

But then Christ turns to us. And looks us in the eye. And he asks not an abstract theoretical hypothetical question, but a direct one. He ask a question which only we can answer. Indeed - a question only I can answer.

And YOU, he says. Will YOU take your place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Do not judge others. Or ask God to reveal to you his judgement of others. I cannot carry out God's judgement. But I will be judged. Will I be ready? Can I enter through the narrow door?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

20th Sunday of the Year (August 18th)

Readings for today

I come to bring fire to the earth!

Fire is a tremendously powerful thing. And it represents many things to us.

Firstly, it is is comforting.
When we gather in front of the fire, we feel its warmth and a sense of security. If gather around a camp fire there is a strong sense of community. One of the less positive aspects of central heating is that we no longer need the fire in our homes for warmth - yet we still enjoy the logs and the coal fire, especially on a windy, rainy or snowy day. The fire and the hearth speak of home, and comfort and love.
And this is true also of course of our faith. It is a comfort in times of sorrow and distress. It is a refuge for the weak, and not so weak. It is our home, our assurance of God's love, our hope for life beyond this life.

Yet, secondly, fire is also destructive, and because of this, it may also be purifying.
Fire can cause terrible damage - we have seen that in the news all too recently - yet this very power to destroy is also purifying. Fire burns away the dross. It destroys the rubbish and leaves what is really valuable. In days gone fire has been very important to this city. At one time the sky would light up over the whole of this area when the fires of Shelton bar burned hot and red in the manufacture of steel. Fire also bakes the pots and fixes the glaze. Similarly, fire burns away garden rubbish, destroys harmful bacteria.
And similarly, the fire of the faith, casts away the darkness of sin. It reveals the truth, burns away falsehood and bakes the pots of justice. Let us not be deceived that this can be a very painful process. It be decisive and hurtful. Faith might always give us comfort - but it is not always comfortable. Christ brings fire to the earth, and in a purifying fire, something and someone will surely get burnt.

And finally, fire is transforming.
The coal which was hewn from the ground round here went to fire the furnaces and machinery of the factories. Trains and ships crossed the nation and the world, powered by its fire. And still today, fire powers our cars, provides us with electricity and cooks our food - especially the Sunday roast we look forward too. It is a great power which does not only destroy, but it also changes, transforms. And when we are strongly motivated, angry or in love, we say that we have fire within, burning in our hearts.
And so, the fire of faith must burn in our hearts. It enthuses us, encourages us, enlivens us, transforms us. It is no coincidence that when the Spirit was given to the apostles at Pentecost he is described as 'tongues of flame', or when Jesus met the disciples on the road toEmmaus they described their feeling as a burning within. Neither it is coincidence that the Heart of Jesus is so often pictured as a heart surrounded by flames.

The fire of faith burns us, consumes us. It brings us comfort. It challenges, disturbs and purifies us. And it changes and transforms us.

'I have come to bring fire to the earth', says Jesus 'and how I wish it were blazing already'

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Assumption of Our Lady (August 15th 2007)

Today - August 15th - we celebrate the resurrection.

Yes we do - but not simply the resurrection of Jesus, but because of his resurrection which we celebrated at Easter, we now celebrate the resurrection of all humanity, summed up in the Mother of Christ and the Mother of all faithful people, Mary herself.

When we were baptised, we received that gift of grace and the freedom from original sin which Mary rceived at the first moment of her existence, at her (immaculate) conception.

Today we celebrate the ending of Mary's earthly life, when her body joins her flesh, her Son, in heaven. In the Assumption, Mary shares in her Son's resurrection. Our prayer is that when we come to the end of our lives, and our judgement is complete, after a time of purification, the time in purgatory, we too will share in the life of Christ's resurrection, with Mary,

We differ from Mary in really only one respect - that she was always 'full of grace' (as the angel told her) - that she is the most blessed of all women (as Elizabeth told her), that she is the Mother of the Lord, that all generations of people call her blessed. She was able to believe the promise made her by the Lord because she never lost vision of that wonderful gift of grace - as we so often do.

To regain that grace, we must repent, beg forgiveness of our sins, and come to confession to receive those blessings again.

Mary has no need to do this. From her flesh, the Word became flesh. From her obedience, God incarnate dwelt amongst.

And her love and her devotion and her piety and her faith and her sinless is crowned by her entry into heaven. Most blessed of all women. Queen of heaven. Immaculate Mary. Mother of God.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

19th Sunday of the Year (12th August 2007)

‘See that you are dressed for action and have your lamps lit’

This week some of us have been in Lourdes. Those who have been there will know that a highlight of the pilgrimage is the torchlight procession. Each evening, at 9pm, thousands of people gather in Rosary Square to walk in procession in honour of Our Lady, to recite the rosary, to sing hymns and say prayers.

What makes it so wonderful?
Well first, it is so beautiful. As the sun sets in the heat of the evening (unless it’s not raining of course) hundreds of lamps light up the darkness and make sea of light swaying through the evening. If you have not been, have a look at the photographs – it is an amazing sight.
But that of course, cannot be all.
It is also wonderful because we are joined with so many others who share our faith. It is not embarrassing to say the rosary in public, to sing hymns in the open air, to live our catholic faith out in the open. We realise that we are not one or our own, or a small number gathered together, but rather a great cloud of witnesses, a multitude who praise God. Sometimes we can feel discouragement in our faith. Our family members no longer go to Mass. Friends, even good people, do not understand why the faith is important to us. To be part of such a great throng is an inspiration.
And thirdly it is wonderful because we walk. Yes, of course some stand by and watch. Some climb up the arms of the basilica and gaze upon the crowd below. But most of us walk. We join the procession. We do not just watch, but we must do. Happy are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Like those in the gospel we are dressed for action – the master finds us at our employment. We know to believe the catholic faith is not just talk the talk, but to walk the walk. It is about not just what we believe, but even more about what we do.

The night may sometimes seem dark. Shadows may be all around. We may feel we are alone in our worries, or isolated in our faith – but Do not be afraid, says Jesus. We carry our torches high as we sing our Aves for he has given us the Kingdom.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

May 12th (Broadcast Service - the Sacred Heart)

For those who are not Catholics, the devotion to Our Lord’s Sacred Heart sometimes seems exotic, and perhaps a little strange. The pictures and statues, like the one, more than a century old in our own church, are sometimes thought garish, and might look more like a medical photograph or a scene from CSI, than an object for devotion.

But the Heart of Jesus is at the very centre, indeed the heart, of the Christian faith. When we talk of God’s love we do not mean an idea, or a feeling, or a concept. When we speak of his love we do not mean words on the page of a book, or well meaning expressions, or vague hopes. God’s love is not something that might be, or could be or ought to be.

If you want to know what God’s love us, consider the heart of Jesus, beating in a human person, showing compassion for the sick, reaching out to those in trouble and distress. Consider the heart of Jesus which rejoiced with the forgiven. Consider the heart of Jesus which suffered the pain of betrayal and desertion, and which knew the joy of healing, resurrection and new life. Consider the heart of Jesus, which bled for us on the cross.

God’s love is not an idea, or a hope, or a feeling. It is action, not idea. It is real, not imagined. It is physical, because in Christianity the spiritual is physical.

God’s love is a heart which aches for us, yearns for us, is broken for us, and which bled for us.

God’s love is a beating heart.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday

Christ has died.

The eyes which looked from the manger into his mother’s loving gaze
The eyes which looked with compassion on the rich young man
The eyes which wept over Jerusalem
are now cold and lifeless.

The ears which heard the song of the angels
The ears which heard the voice say from heaven “This is my beloved Son”
The ears which heard the crowd cry out “Crucify him”
now hear none of the sobs made over his body

The lips which said to the paralysed man “your sins are forgiven you”
The lips which told the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son
The lips which said “I am the resurrection and the life”
now, drained of colour, smile and speak no more

The hands which stilled the storm
The hands which blessed the children
The hands which healed the blind, deaf and lame
now rest motionless, pierced and bloodied.

The feet which climbed the mountain to pray
The feet which walked on the water
The feet which were washed with the tears of the penitent woman
are now twisted, maimed and mutilated.

The heart which beat for love of sinners
The heart which longs for the peace of the world
The heart which beats with our hearts
beats no more.

Christ has died. He is laid in the tomb. The Great Silence begins.
But the story has just begun.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Epiphany of the Lord (January 7th 2007)

The journey of the wise men is a journey of faith. It is very much like the journey of faith which we may make today.

Firstly, the wise men are started off on their journey by the observation of nature. They are astrologers, and something in the stars, something in the natural world, stirs their curiosity and spurs their enquiry. So it is for many. The stunning wonder of the created world, the beauty of a sunset, the glory of a landscape, the kindness and generosity and self-sacrifice of another human being - all of these suggest to us that there is more to existence than just this brief life - all of these can stir within us a desire to seek the meaning of all things, the creator, the loving God.

And then, part of the journey completed, having trod the first steps of faith, the wise men listen to the words of scripture, 'for this is what the prophet wrote'. The next turning on the journey of faith involves encountering the revelation of God, listening to the writings which have been handed down. And so it is for us. Marvelling at God's glory in the world is one thing, but then we must seek meaning, hear the words of others and learn from them, seek understanding, hear the teaching found in the Bible and in the Church, to allow him to speak to us and for us to listen to his word.

And next, the third part of the journey, takes them beyond their own findings, beyond the words of prophecy, to a meeting with the child himself. Now they meet Him in person, and they fall to their knees and give him homage. The person hinted at by creation and their own wonderings; the person pointed to by the words of prophecy and the teachings of others, is now present before them, and they must worship him. And so too, for us. Faith is not found in nature - though it intrigues us. Faith is not given to us by scripture and the Church - though they instruct us. Faith is met in a person - who loves us, and we must worship him.

And this may seem to be the end of the journey: but it is not. Having found the subject of their faith, the wise men learn that they are now in danger, and must return by a different way. Faith changes lives, and lives of faith can be fraught with challenges, and dangers, and yes, even suffering - but also filled with great joy. For they have found the Truth, the Meaning of all things, the Word made Flesh, and worshipped him.

Christmas Homily

One of the most charming features of the Christmas season is the Nativity Play.
The children vie for the different roles in the drama: who will be Joseph, or Mary? Who will play the shepherds or kings? Who will be the angels, or the animals? Sometimes it can be very competitive - if not amongst the children, then certainly between their parents.

Let me ask a question. If we were casting a Nativity Play tonight, who would you want to be?
Mary, perhaps? Well, of course, many of the girls want to be Mary: to put on the simple blue robes, to rock the baby in front of the crib, to be the ultimate centre of attention. It is, after all the leading role - to be the one who shows their love for the child Jesus, and so represents everyone there.
Or Joseph? Yes, the lads might want to be Joseph. The most important man in the scene, caring for his wife with some tenderness. Looking on with wonder at the new born child.
What about a shepherd? or a king? Yes, the rest of the lads will fight over who would be a shepherd or a king. Lots of shepherds of course - and that’s easy: a towel for a headdress and some old pyjamas, just about suffices. Rough and ready, the shepherds: that suits most of the lads. The ordinary working folk who come to worship their maker.
And posher people can be the kings - well to do that you have to be a bit more clever. You have to carry important objects, and perhaps even speak, saying “where is the child?” and “follow the star” and remember to say “frankincense” and not “frankenstein”. It’s the kings who remind us this baby is the real Lord of heaven and earth.
And the rest of the girls get to dress up as angels. Oh yes, I know that in the Bible angels are always male, but in a nativity play what lad wants to dress up in a white frock with a halo and wings? Get me an old towel anyday! And so the girls serve as the angels, who bring the worship of all creation before its Lord.
And there are some other roles, especially for the also rans, the last ones to get picked for the team, the ones who can’t be trusted to keep still or who could never remember their lines. They get to be sheep and donkeys and - if they are really naughty - the back end of the camel. In their humility they remind us of the humility of God himself.

So who would you be? Which role would you like to take on?

I’ll tell you who I’d like to be: the innkeeper.

Not because he gets to look after the beer - though that has its attractions. Nor even because his inn is undoubtedly a four star trattoria of culinary excellence.

No - I would want to be the innkeeper because he is the one who gives the Son of God his first earthly home. Simple, basic and makeshift at that. But a roof over his head, a home nonetheless.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the innkeeper did not turn him away. Or ignore him. Or leave him for others to deal with. He welcomed him. Come, let us adore him.