Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mary, Mother of God: Homily / Sermon

Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)


These few words, which occur on a couple of occasions in Luke's Gospel, have had a far reaching impact. They are words which struck Blessed John Henry Newman too, and he preached a famous homily on them, and they inspired him to write one of  his best known works, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

They speak to us about the Heart of Mary, the Immaculate Heart. A phrase not used in Scripture itself, but a phrase which reveals much of what Scripture teaches. They tell us so much not only about Mary, but about our own understanding of God.

In telling us that Mary treasures and ponders these words, St Luke is telling us that she said little, but thought much. Unlike the time when the Angel visited her, she does not ask questions, she does not challenge the message given to her. That was her moment of faith, when she accepted God's will for her. Now she listens, treasures, ponders. She lets the message unfold in all its detail. She reflects and prays. She has already accepted God's will, and now, bit by bit it becomes clear to her just precisely what that means.

And that is how faith works. When we commit ourselves to faith in God, belief in his coming in the flesh, his resurrection, in the Trinity - it does not mean that we instantly and fully understand all these things. The commitment of the heart always comes ahead of the understanding of the mind. Faith leads to understanding, commitment comes before knowledge, for it is the heart that enlivens the mind.

If there are aspects of the faith we do not understand, doctrines and dogmas which puzzle and confuse us, teachings which are hard to listen to or explain, we should never feel inadequate or allow this to undermine our faith, but turn rather in prayer to this simple woman, who listened, treasured and pondered; who served her Son; and who is Mother of Faith, Immaculate Heart, Mother of God.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Carol Service Homily 2011


Apparently, the Scientists in Cern in Switzerland have now got the evidence they need to prove the existence of what is called the "Higgs boson", the basic building block of matter, and therefore everything in the universe. Journalists like to call it "The God Particle", the origin of everything.

We could therefore rewrite today's Gospel:

In the beginning was the Higgs boson:
and the Higgs boson was the God particle.
Through it all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through it.
All that came to be had life through it ...

I could go on.

If you are the kind of person who believes in science, then no doubt this is very exciting. If you are the kind of person who believes that science has all the answers and has made religious belief and religious explanations of the world unnecessary, then no doubt you feel vindicated.

Yes, it is important stuff, a sure example of the extraordinary ingenuity of humanity in formulating such theories and making such discoveries.

But let's not miss the point.

Scientific discovery is one thing. It gives explanations, causation, but it does not uncover motives and purposes.

When I changed that reading, I had to make some subtle changes. I had to get rid of the word "with", and change the "he"s to "it". I had to remove all idea of relationship, all idea of dependence, all sense of hope. I had to remove the personal and make it completely impersonal. I had to remove all sense of purpose, and substitute the mechanical. 
If science is to be an explanation of everything, then we have to do without any sense of meaning or purpose in the world. If we lay bear the mechanism, then all that is left is machinery.

The Gospel reading tells a very different tale. It tells us not how the world came to be - neither does the book of Genesis for that matter - but it tells us that the universe has purpose, the Word has meaning, and that such things as love, and loyalty, honesty and integrity, the powers that bind us together throughout our lives, the forces that confirm our deep intuition of the immortality of the soul, the values that underpin our hope in a greater and almighty power, these are much more than merely the movement of genes, but the force that gives life and light to the universe.

When we hear the words "In the beginning was the Word" - when we celebrate the Christmas story in all its beauty and charm - we are being told that life has a purpose, The Word has Meaning, and however important the Boson may be (and it is) what binds the world together is not a particle but a loving heart.


(Image from the Daily Mail - An LHC image of a Higgs boson decaying into two jets of hadrons and two electrons). 

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Advent 3: Homily / Sermon

The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord. (Isaiah 61:1-2)


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's 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 the fulness of Christ's presence, yet we do so 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 02, 2011

Advent 2: Homily / Sermon

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

NewImageThe 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 different. 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.