Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holy Family

Christmas is really for Children. So people say. And certainly our celebrations seem to say that - Santa Claus, the sales of toys, the children’s faces on Christmas morning … it’s all about children - and in our religious celebrations too - the crib, the Nativity play, the story of the birth of a child - that’s all about children too. And today - when we remember the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we see as the centre of that family the Christ-Child, the Son of God himself.

Yes, that is at the heart of what Christmas is all about. But today’s Gospel reminds us that family is not just about children, not only our families, but also the holy family. In today’s Gospel we meet two elderly and holy people: Simeon and Anna. Old. Faithful. Devoted to prayer and full of wisdom.

Christmas is not just about children - it is about the elderly too. When I think back to my childhood Christmasses I can see my two grandmothers and my widowed Uncle Norman sat round the family table sharing in our Christmas dinner. Sitting in front of the telly during the afternoon snoring loudly while the Queen spoke about the Commonwealth. One of my earliest memories must be of my Great-Grandad sitting on my chocolate which I’d put on the settee and it melting to the back of his trousers. That was, I think, Christmas Day 1961.

Christmas is about old people too. Earlier this week I visited a number of our elderly parishioners who are in nursing homes or sheltered accommodation, taking communion, praying, having a chat. The variety, amongst the people and the homes is great. Most have some form of ill-health or disability. There is some sadness in their situation, and some anxiety for their relatives, perhaps. But there is also great joy, a few laughs, and many smiling faces. I’ll not forget the sheer joy of one or our parishioners, aged 92, as she joined in the waltz and the fox-trot with the young people from a dancing school who were visiting the sheltered accommodation where she now lives.

Sadly, we live in a society which values youth well above age. Our society thinks, perhaps we think, that the elderly live in the past. Sometimes, perhaps often, elderly people themselves feel useless because they cannot do what they used to do. We value action above thought. Activity above reflection. Activism above prayer. And yet thought and reflection and prayer are the beginning of wisdom, and a lot of activity for activity’s sake becomes what Shakespeare called ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Look again at the Gospel. Simeon and Anna rejoice because in the wisdom of their years they can see what the future holds better than the young people of their own day. They rejoice because they know the future offers not doom but salvation, and the difficulties it may hold are not to be feared because they will bring great rewards.

Only the wisdom of years can see the flimsiness of the present and have a realistic vision of the future.

Let us pray that we may all reach the years of Simeon and Anna, and share their wisdom and their vision.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Advent 4

“Nothing is impossible to God” - “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me”

We have to keep these two sayings - of the angel, and of Mary - close together. They explain so much and tell us so much.

And at the other extreme, we live in a world which far from believing Nothing is impossible to God, believes that nothing is impossible to man. All diseases can be cured, we believe, it is just a matter of time. Perhaps it is. Scientific and technological advance is without limit. We can clone human beings - if we wish. We may experiment with the basic stuff of like. And the only moral law that exists is the law of choice, nothing is impossible to man.

Yet this is not what the Angel says to Mary. And it might seem to us that the Angels is saying that because nothing is impossible to God - or supposed to be - that human beings play little part. We may misunderstand miracle stories in the Gospels, or we may pray as if it were the case, that God just speaks from the clouds, drops events, or thunderbolts out of heaven. We may struggle to understand - if nothing is impossible - why so much seems imperfect, why good things are left undone. Why does God allow this to happen, we might say. Or, similarly, why doesn’t God change things?

Yet God doesn’t act in quite this way. Look at the miracle stories - time and time again Jesus says “Your faith has healed you”. When God calls Isaiah, the prophet responds “Here I am Lord”. When he dwelt amongst us he didn’t parachute down, unexpectedly out of the sky, but he was born of a virgin, a woman who was not used, but who gave her consent and obedience and her love. Remember the time when Jesus visited his home town and the Gospel tells us “He could do few miracles there, because they were hard of heart”, they lacked faith in him. God gives grace - but we must make it work - we can refuse his love.

The Gospel teaches us that indeed nothing is impossible - but only if human beings act in accordance with God’s will. We can create or destroy. We can use the gifts and talents which God has given us, or we can waste them. No artist, or skilled sportsman, or great actor, or poet made those talents for themselves - but through their efforts they apply them magnificently. This is what we call God’s grace. A gift that  brings heaven to earth - for nothing is impossible to God.

Homily for the Annual Carol Service

A light that shines in the dark (John 1:5)

Earlier this year I celebrated a milestone birthday. I won’t say which one … but though I’m a way off the state pension yet, life began again for me quite a few years ago. And I now think, yes, I am getting old.

But as we all know, especially at this time of year, the only difference between a man and a boy is how expensive are his toys, and I am pleased to say that I got an expensive but wonderful toy for my birthday - a Camera!

Now when you get into photography in a way that is a bit more serious than just snapping at family occasions, you start to look at things a bit differently. A building, a tree, a sky takes on a different aspect. You start to notice things you might have taken for granted. You see patterns and echoes. You notice expressions. You identify relationships between objects. You begin to open your eyes - open your eyes and see what was always there, but which you hardly noticed.

And you realise the importance of light. An underexposed photo is dark and without distinction. With the wrong light detail is lost, definition is poor. Flash can be harsh - and show us more than we want. What we think we see with our eyes might not be what we get in the picture, if we get the Light just a little wrong.

So when we call Jesus the Light of the World, we are not just using a pretty symbol. When we decorate the Church with candles we are not just trying to create atmosphere. Light can overpower darkness, but darknesss can never overpower light. Light reveals beauty and truth. Light shows every detail, but can also forgive imperfection and flaw. Light can uncover reality, and can display the charm and the grace and the splendour which might otherwise be hidden.

In the book of Genesis, in the story of creation, we are told that one of God’s first acts is to separate Light and Darkness. In this Gospel we have just heard that Light, the true light, the light that enlightens all people, comes to live amongst us.

He is the Light who leads us through the shadowy path of life, who shows us our sins and our failings, but who also brings hope in our darkness.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Advent Three

Advent Three

What season of the Christian year is most charcteristic of the Christian life?

You see, I think that as Christians, we often think life is a sort of perpetual Lent. It is about repentance from sin, and doing without, and suffering in union with Christ. There is a certain drabness - just as the Church is undecorated so the Christian life is about sacrifice. Perhaps that's the kind of idea that we have grown up with.
But as a reflection of the Christian life it is too bleak, too negative, too much about suffering and not enough about victory, too much about sacrifice and not enough about happiness.

Or perhaps Easter is a better idea. If is a time of happiness and rejoicing. After all, through baptism we die and rise with Christ. In Communion we share in his risen life. Christ has saved us from sin, so we rejoice in the new life we share in him. This is our Easter faith. And over and over again we sing alleluia. But is Easter typical of the Christian life? It's full of hope. It's optimistic. It's positive. But perhaps that'see too much. We know all too well about our sins and imperfections and sufferings. We are Easter people - but not quite yet.

No. I think that more than any other season it is Advent which characterises the Christian life. Advent is a time of joy. Not only do we still sing Alleluia, but we also sing Rejoice! Emmanuel will come! And we echo the words of the first Christians 'Come. Lord Jesus!'. We eagerly await his coming. It is a time of joy, but in waiting we also realise that the best is yet to come. This life has its incompleteness, it's shortcomings, its imperfections. We wait for ulness of Christ's presence, yet we do sop with a sure and clear hope. Advent is a time of rejoicing, a time of anticipation, a time of hope, a time when we know what it is to do without, because we know what is
yet to come.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Advent 2 The Time has come!

“The time has come, and the Kingdom of God is near at hand!” (Mark 1:14)

The most famous play of the playwright Samuel Becket is called “Waiting for Godot”. When it was published and first performed in the early 1950s it caused something of a storm. By the 1970s when I studied it for A level, it had become something of a classic.

It has no story really. In two acts, the two principal characters wait by a tree for the arrival of Godot. We never really find out who Godot is, and he never turns up. The two characters are like tramps, or clowns, and they seem very weak or pathetic. Overall, it is not an uplifting play, and then, and since, people have argued about what it means and who Godot is. Is he meant to represent God? Possibly? Is the tree the tree of life? Of the knowledge of Good and Evil? Or of the Cross?

The play is really about waiting, and hope, and what it can do to people. The pair are foolish because their waiting is pointless, and never ending. It drags down their lives so they cannot do anything else other than wait. The waiting weighs them down in boredom. It is a fascinating play, but also quite depressing.

The play is far from being a Christian play, because it seems to mock hope and ends in absurdity. Yet on the other hand it does present a mirror image of Christian hope.

If hope makes us inactive, if it stultifies our lives, if it imprisons and constricts us, then it is no hope at all. We, the Advent people, are waiting. And we know the wait can be long - “to the Lord a day can mean a thousand years”. So what is the difference?

That is simple. For them, they wait for something they hardly know, but which will change their lives in some inexplicable way in the future. For them the present is tedious, but the future will be difference. For Christians it is very different. We wait for someone we do know, who has already visited us, who shares his life with us in the sacraments and the saints. And the waiting, in faith and hope, inspires us and encourages us. The time of waiting, the Advent of this life frees us from hopelessness: it gives us meaning and purpose.

Isaiah’s messenger cries from the mountains, the voice of John cries in the wilderness, and the voice of Jesus in the cities of Galilee to proclaim what is Good News, a joyful message. As St Peter says in the second reading, our waiting for the coming of the Day of God inspires us to live holy and saintly lives, filled with joy.

The problem with the men in the play is for them hope is in something which will change their lives in some vague once upon a time future, whereas for us, hope is in something that is changing our lives now.