Saturday, March 28, 2009

Homily/Sermon for Lent Five

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain.

There is something so remarkable, I think, at the way Easter falls at this time of year, when we move from the darkness of winter to the brightness of spring.

Because let’s face it, once the beauty of the snow has passed, winter is a dour and dark and cheerless time. It is cold and wet. The hours of daylight are short, and there are many days which are overcast and gloomy. The trees stand bare and lifeless. And the mood of the earth is one that we too might share. February is a miserable time.

And then March moves into April. Still cold, and often windy, the sun may shine. In the midst of showers there is bright sunlight. Shoots emerge from the ground. Leaves form on the trees, and the grayscale around us becomes punctuated with colour: a little green, the yellow of daffodils, the pinks of early blossoms.

As, during Lent, we do without this or that, the loss of colour and warmth which has been forced upon us begins to draw back. Sunlight, warmth, colour, and the freshness of the spring breezes.

Here in nature - even in the nature of our lit streets and our centrally heated homes - here in nature is a vivid parable of the mystery of our faith.

Drabness gives way to colour, darkness recedes in the sunlight, sorrow surrenders to joy and death gives way to life.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.

There is no gain without pain. We must travel through darkness to light, through sacrifice to reward. We must give in order to receive. We must surrender our lives in order to gain them.

In this final fortnight of Lent - what used to be called Passiontide - this is the overwhelming message, written into creation itself, fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and shared in our own lives: it is death which leads to fulness of life, and as we share in His death, so He gives us His life.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Homily / Sermon for Lent 4

For many years, as I watched my favourite Sci-Fi, Star Trek, I wondered what the strange logo or emblem was in the Sick Bay. It just shows how ignorant I was, because the picture I saw, of a stick with a snake wrapped round it, is an almost universal symbol for doctors and medical care. It comes from the story of Moses lifting up a stick with a serpent around it to heal the Hebrews in the desert. And it is mentioned at the beginning of today’s Gospel, as a sort of prophecy of the crucifixion and resurrection. And it is used today - and apparently in the 22nd century - as a symbol of healing.

Now this thought crossed over with another one. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was interviewed last week about his thoughts on his forthcoming retirement and gave his reflections on his time as Archbishop of Westminster and so on. One particular comment stood out to me. He spoke about belief and said that those who denied the exist of the spiritual were actually giving only a partial view of what it means to be human. Kn other words, the atheist does not put humanity at the centre, but actual reduces humanity by denying our spiritual dimension. It’s not a new idea at all and it’s been stated by many others, including the Holy Father, but it struck a chord as explaining why the Church so often seems to find itself in conflict with society - over Church schools, over abortion and euthanasia, over testing on embryos, over human sexuality - all of these ideas deny the spiritual dimension of humanity, and by doing this they make us less than human, more like animals.

Now then, these two thought come together - for me anyway - in today’s Gospel. ‘Men have shown they prefer darkness to the light … but the man who lives by the truth come out into the light.’

To deny the existence of God, and even more to act as if God does not exist, as if there is no spiritual dimension to human existence, is to live in darkness. It is a denial of the truth, a refusal or an inability to see what is there.

Sometimes there is a wilful blindness to the heritage of faith or the spiritual dimension of life, like a sort of rewriting of history. Let me explain. Take that symbol of healing - the serpent on the staff: it is a reminder of the spiritual dimension of our existence, and of the spiritual heritage of culture, but this is being lost, ignored or deliberately wiped out. The symbol is kept, but its meaning forgotten. And in writing about history, there is a fashion not to use AD and BC when identifying dates, but CE and BCE instead - but the numbers, the point of origin (the coming of Christ) remains the same, but deliberately hidden. And in politics, the draft constitution for the EU talked about the heritage of Europe’s history in Ancient Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment - deliberately forgetting to mention more than a thousand years of Christian history.

And when people deny the spiritual dimension of human life then all kinds of terrible consequences may follow. If we are not made in the image of God, than what is that makes us all equal? What then prevents us from claiming that some are superior to others, some have fewer rights than others, some have a greater worth or quality of life than others - whether that be by race, or age, or infirmity? Of course you do not have to be a believer to recognise the basic human dignity of all, but isn’t it odd that so many have no difficulty in asserting the equality of black and white, but not of born and unborn, of healthy and sick?

“God sent his Son into the world” - the Gospel tells us - “not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved”. And he, the light of the world, gives us a way of seeing the full dignity of the human being, and the falsity of those who would keep humanity in darkness.

Note: the symbol mentioned here, called the Nehushtan or Rod of Asclepius, is often confused with the Caduceus which is in fact a different symbol and very commonly used in North America for healing services, though probably by confusion with the Biblical story. It is this symbol, I am sure, which features in Star Trek. The main difference is that the Caduceus has two serpents and is headed by wings. For a fuller explanation see

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Homily for Lent 3 / Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent

You’ve just heard the ten commandments - well a few moments ago - they were the first reading from the book of Exodus.

Here’s a good quiz for the family. Give each person a piece of paper, and ask them to write down the Ten Commandments. See who can get all ten. I bet some of them put down ‘Love your neighbour’ which isn’t one of then. And I also bet that few of them put down about covetting - and might not even know what the word means (it means jealously wanting to have what others have, sort of keeping up with the Jones’. In many ways our society is built on covetousness).

Now we can deplore the fact that few know the Ten Commandments off by heart, and still fewer understand them, and yes, there is a point to be made, but the reciting of words is not quite the same as living them. It’s not that the words aren’t important, of course they are, but far more important than to know the words by heart is to live them from the heart.

It is one thing to know it is wrong to tell a lie - it is quite another to be outraged by the temptation to benefit from a convenient untruth.

It is one thing to know it is wrong to steal - but it is another to turn our backs on the odd scam or bargain from a questionable source.

It is one thing to know that we should keep each Sunday by going to mass - yet another to rejoice in the celebration of our faith.

Sometimes when people hear today’s Gospel - of Jesus clearly angry, overturning the money changers’ tables and driving them out of the temple - people ask if this could be right? But Jesus’ apparent anger is a zeal for truth, a thirst for honest dealing and a yearning for a faith that comes from the heart - not words only, but words that are expressed in deeds.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Homily (Sermon) for Lent 2

Last week it was Noah’s Ark, and this week the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Or not so much the sacrifice, but the attempted sacrifice. The Old Testament can certainly challenge our understanding!
On the face of it, this is a horrific story. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham, out of blind faith, almost carries out the order. Only at the last minute does he hold his hand. Is this the sort of thing God does? It is a challenge to our understanding.
But then we must look at two stories together.
The Gospel reading tells us of another mountain. And another Son. And this time the Father is God himself. On the first mountain faith is clear, but the will of God is not. On the second mountain the voice of God speaks clearly and his Glory is revealed.
In the first reading Abraham is blessed not because of the action he did not carry out, but because of his utter devotion to God. In the ancient world, even more than today, family was everything. The clan, kith and kin, the succession, this was at the heart of the fabric of society. Abraham realised that faith in God is greater even than this.
And in the Gospel we hear that the sacrifice is not the sacrifice of an unwilling son, but the gift of God himself, in the Son. Just as in the Old Testament, God replaces the brutality of human sacrifice with the sacrifice of a Ram, so in Christ it is the Lamb of God the takes our sins upon himself.
Sacrifice is, at the end of it all, not about violence, but about love. It is not about taking a life, but about giving life. It is not about the body of an unwilling innocent, but about the sharing in the Body of Christ. It is not about blind faith, but about the hope of resurrection, the resurrection of the One who is transfigured, clearly seen in all his glory.