04 December, 2016

Homily for the Second Sunday Advent (A) - Repentance

Matthew 3:1-12
John said, ‘If you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit’.
Last Sunday we have begun of a new Christian year with its regular rehearsal of the story of Salvation in Jesus Christ. But a new liturgical year does not mean going back to square one just to repeat of what we did before; it means having the opportunity to gain fresh insights in our faith by tackling different sets of readings and, most importantly of all, a different gospel from last year. Since last week Saint Matthew has become our narrator, replacing the compassionate voice of Saint Luke’s Gospel. Matthew has become our guide, as it were, in our rehearsal of the life and ministry of Jesus – a guide with his own particular accent, agenda, and outlook.

For example, one feature of Matthew’s Gospel that distinguishes quite radically its narrative from Luke’s is the attention the evangelist devotes to the new community of believers that forms around Jesus. It is in the pages of this gospel that we hear the disciples referred to as the Church; it is here that the Lord founds the Church on the ministry of Saint Peter, and it is here that we find the earliest gospel instructions about our life together. Crucially, Matthew sees all of us, the Church, as the New Israel, the new people of God, gathered out of all nations around the central person of the Lord Jesus, and called to be heralds of the Kingdom of Heaven through what we do.
This path to become part of the new people of God begins in today’s reading with a remarkable invitation uttered by John the Baptist; a call to repent. Like all the prophets before him, John the Baptist is urging his hearers to repent of those bad choices and ways of life we call sins. Those who heed this call are invited to be part of a new, deep, and communal relationship with God, identified as the Kingdom of Heaven.
In short the gospel is saying to us today, “Repent” because if we want to be disciples of Jesus, and if we want to be part of the Church, we must abandon our old ways of life and turn to God.

Now, when preachers tackle the theme of repentance it can generally go in either of two ways; either they are going to warn their congregations with fire and brimstone sermons about the downsides, shall we say, of not repenting, or they are going employ a gentler approach, interpreting repentance as a spiritual exercise, a mental resolution to amend our ways. But I think our gospel reading is suggesting third way of looking at repentance as a life-long commitment, a conscious disposition that lays the ground for the good habits of love, justice, and religion to flourish in us.

Yes, John is talking in no uncertain terms terms here, but he is only doing so to set the record straight about the kind of repentance we should strive for. Repentance is not for the proud-hearted; it is for those who in humility are able to acknowledge their faults and confess themselves a fallible creatures. Many of us still approach repentance while harbouring a sense of superiority towards others; the Pharisees in the reading did likewise and they were scolded by John! Repentance is not an arbitrary decision we take in the same way we make New Year resolutions; it is a true commitment to focus our attention each day on God, on others, and away from ourselves. Repentance is not simply a spiritual exercise; it is a practical way of life filled with good works and religious devotion; the gospel shows this we it says, ‘If you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit’.

So, the call to repentance is laid before us from the word “Go”. As we take our first steps into the new Christian year repentance is presented to us as the very foundation of the Church’s life; the key requirement that sets the entire structure of our community – with one-another and with God – on solid footing. As we respond generously to this call the Lord will shape us more and more into the new Israel and into disciples of his love – a people sent to be herald of his coming to a waiting world.

Homily for the First Sunday Advent (A) - A new Christian year

‘Year passes after year silently;
Christ's coming is ever nearer than it was.
O that, as He comes nearer earth,
we may approach nearer heaven!’
(Bl. John H. Newman)
The new Christian year (also called Church or Liturgical year) begins on the First Sunday of Advent; which is the Sunday closest or on the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle. From that date roughly four weeks of Advent prepare us for the celebrations of Christmas, and to begin afresh the yearly rehearsal of the story of salvation in the Lord Jesus. During this time we make various preparations to recall the first coming of Christ to the world as a child at Bethlehem, but as we do this our readings from Scripture lead to look forward with renewed hope to the second coming of the Lord as our judge on the last day. These are the two focal points for Advent; a looking back in thankfulness and celebration to what happened over 2000 years ago in a lowly stable, and a looking forward in hope to the ‘new heaven and a new earth’ God promises (Revelation/Apocalypse 21:1).

Then how are we to live this season of Advent, and how do keep focused on both of these two events – one of which is yet to happen? We do this by going forward ourselves to meet the Lord, by ‘approaching nearer to heaven’, filled with that joy which should be the hallmark of all Christian people – a deep joy that comes from knowing Christ, not from the pleasure of passing moments of fun; a joy that makes us retrace each year key points in the lives of the Jesus and the saints; a joy that compels us to live for him; a contagious joy.

Like every penitential season Advent could easily assume dreary tones and morbid fascinations with the last coming of Christ as the judge of all – flowers have gone from church, purple, the colour of penitence, is the colour of the season, and the singing of the Gloria has been muted. But, far from being dreary the psalm appointed for this Sunday says,
‘I rejoiced when I heard them say,
“Let us go to the House of the Lord”’ Psalm 122 (121):1
‘I rejoiced’. This psalm was sung by Jewish pilgrims travelling on dusty and dangerous roads to worship the Lord in the temple at Jerusalem. Through the hardships of the journey, through the uncertainties of the road, they kept their spirits high because they knew that in approaching Jerusalem, however slowly, or precariously, they were going forward to meet the Lord. So these words are given to us to use by the Church today in order to really set the scene for everyone as we begin a new liturgical year together. We rejoice because we go forward to meet the Lord. First, we go in spirit to meet the Lord in the stable of Bethlehem, and there we find him with joy and amazement ever-new. Then, once the Christmas festivities are over we carry on within our hearts the sense of Advent-expectation as we move forward in our lives to approach the Lord Jesus in one-another, in Scripture, and (most of all) in the Eucharist – until the final day when he’ll reveal himself to us face-to-face.

During this new Christian year, we may face many practical challenges as a congregation, such as the restoration and renewal of this House of the Lord and how to respond to an ever growing need for our presence among the people of our town. As individuals too we may worry about the many uncertainties of our lives, but throughout all these things we move forward with joy, because we know that in rehearsing the story of salvation throughout the Christian year we are constantly moving forward, we are constantly approaching heaven to meet the Lord.

20 November, 2016

Homily for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (C) - Christ's Kingship

Colossians 1:12-20
Luke 23:35-43
‘All things were created through him and for him.
Before anything was created, he existed,
and he holds all things in unity’ (Colossians 1:16-17)
One popular topic of work-place small-talk, something almost as common as talking about the weather, is health and safety. Just one throwaway comment about it can spiral out of control into hours of discussions. This is probably because we feel that to some extent health and safety, much like the weather, regulates many aspects of our lives. In the summer of 2009 health and safety guidelines reached their highest peak, probably to date, when they succeeded in influencing even royal protocol. The traditional practice of walking backwards when leaving the Sovereign’s presence was abolished, so that attendants and guests would not injure themselves or inelegantly walk into pieces of furniture. But as it often happens, the change in protocol, disguised in the cloak of health and safety, reflected a particular creeping attitude towards the monarchy, and towards the fuss of ceremonies. For many people it seems that valuing traditional practices and honouring the role of the Sovereign is a thing of the past, and detrimental to progress.

Similarly, many Christians are not happy to talk about Jesus as King. Frequently these brothers and sisters are also not happy about ritual and would much prefer as free-for-all approach, but we’ll leave that to another time. In their minds kingship and monarchy are associated with too many bad events throughout history, and consequently they feel that describing Jesus as King, and particularly as the King of all creation, would be detrimental to the growth of Christianity especially among those who do not yet believe.

But regardless of these concerns, which tantamount to overprotective (if not completely wrong) theological health and safety, Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is King of all. He himself confirmed his royal status when at his Passion he spoke to Pilate about the nature of his kingdom (Cf. John 18:35-37); our first reading describes how David was anointed as king, thus providing a royal lineage for Jesus; and in our second reading we see how St Paul describes Jesus saying that ‘all things were created through him and for him. Before anything was created, he existed, and he holds all things in unity’. If this is not a description of divine kingship, I don’t know what is.

Yet, to be fair to those who do not like the language of kingship applied to Jesus, there are a few considerations to bear in mind. I mentioned how Jesus speaks to Pilate about being a king, and he says this,
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’ (John 18:36).
Christ’s kingship means sovereign power over all creation, but it is unlike any other example of monarchical rule we can think of. For example, Christ’s kingship is self-sacrificing, not self-serving, as Jesus chose to reign first from the Cross, rather than from an earthly throne. His kingship is absolute, but it is not a dictatorship, as Jesus does not impose himself on others through force, but he waits outside the door of our hearts for us to acknowledge him as Lord and let him in. His kingship is open for us to share in it; it is not a jealously guarded treasure, as Jesus invites everyone to become part of his own body, the Church. But most importantly of all Christ’s kingship is spiritual rule, not a political regime; as his undiscussed sovereignty over all creation will be fully revealed only at the end of time.

So today, at the end of the Christian year, we celebrate and reaffirm our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and King; and after Communion we will consecrate our parish to him loving heart. But our belief in Jesus as King cannot be relegated just to this act of worship. Jesus must reign in us. He must reign in our minds and help us to increase our understanding of our faith; he must reign in our hearts to bring us the much needed peace and joy of knowing him; and he must reign in our bodies that whatever we do in this life may be to his glory and the advancement of his kingdom.

13 November, 2016

Homily for Remembrance Sunday - Reminding ourselves

John 15:9-17
The Lord says, ‘No one has greater love than this, 
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13)
Remembrance Sunday brings us to consider these words of Jesus in their stark reality – the highest degree of love a person can show for someone else is to lay down his or her life so that the other might live. Jesus showed us what he meant when he himself laid down his life on the Cross so that we might have true life and true freedom. In turn our fallen service men and women have also shown us what these words mean when they sacrificed their lives to bullets, shrapnel, and explosions, so that we might live lives marked by freedom and peace.

Now, these words of Jesus also provide us with guidance on how to keep true remembrance of the fallen. None of us can actually remember those who have died hundred years ago at the Somme and in the Great War, and with each passing year fewer and fewer people can remember those who have fallen in later conflicts; therefore remembrance cannot be a remembering of faces, voices, and smiles as we would do with departed loved ones, but a reminding ourselves of what the love they shown in laying down of their lives has accomplished for us.
Remembrance should remind us that, when the mindless cruelty of war raged across the whole globe mowing down millions of lives, countless courageous individuals took to battle so that today we might live.
Remembrance should remind us that, when civil liberties were trampled upon by racial hatred and intolerance, they made a conscious sacrifice so that today we might have freedom. 
Remembrance should remind us that, when innocents were slaughtered and the world was darkened by regimes who respected neither the sanctity of human life nor the rule of law, they put their lives on the line so that we today might have peace.
Once we are reminded of these things, our remembrance can come alive in a threefold act of thanksgiving, prayer, and commitment. Thanksgiving for what “the brave and the true” have achieved through their selflessness; prayer that God in his mercy may bring these departed brothers and sisters into a place of everlasting joy and refreshment in his presence; and commitment that we may use the livelihood, freedom, and peace we enjoy for the building up of a tolerant and affirming society, for the relief of those in need, and for the advancement of peace in those areas of both our society and our world where peace seems still far off. 

Jesus says, ‘No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’
May we, who today remember those who died for our sake, demonstrate the same love by laying down our lives every day in the service of others. Amen.

Homily for the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - The Resurrection Life

2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Luke 20:27-38
‘He is God, not of the dead, but of the living;
for to him all people are in fact alive’ (Luke 20:38)
The Resurrection (Detail) - Holy Thorn Reliquiary - British Museum
November is the month traditionally dedicated to prayer for the departed and consequently also for contemplation about the life to come. The month opens with the twin celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, encompasses Remembrance Sunday and it concludes with the Solemnity of Christ the King, when we look forward to all creation being restored and gathered up under the sovereign rule of the Lord Jesus. So, today’s first reading and gospel helpfully lead us to meditate about one of the central beliefs about the life to come; the resurrection of the dead.
If we put aside the gory details of the first reading, the Second Book of Maccabees shows us how a group of Jewish martyrs readily forfeit their lives rather than to break God’s Law, because of their unshakable faith in the reward of resurrection and new life. In the gospel the Sadducees argue against resurrection because of the limits of earthly existence. They, like many people of our times, cannot imagine another possibility for existence and relationship with God. But Jesus promptly corrects their unsound faith by affirming that to God ‘all people are alive’, meaning that death does not preclude relationship with God or the transformation of human existence. But as we look through these texts and we read expressions such as “resurrection” and “new life” it may be easy to overlook their full meaning because we are so used to hear them that we may have become desensitised. At every Mass we also proclaim the resurrection of the Lord; and every Sunday we put our faith in this new life as we say,
‘We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.’
So, let us look at what faith in the resurrection means. First, the resurrection is a mystery, meaning something which we glimpse in Jesus but that transcends our best and wildest imaginings. So much so that throughout the history of Christianity theologians have advanced many different speculations about the resurrection – some quite helpful, others rather misguided. My favourite one was popular in the middle ages and it stated that we all shall be resurrected at 33 years of age, because that is the age at which Jesus is thought risen.
Second, resurrection is a gift from God to share in his life; it is not individualistic but an invitation to be fully alive with and in God; certainly it is not the belief (quite widespread nowadays) that once I die I’ll have my little cloud or something airy-fairy like that. It is not a vague belief in an afterlife, but faith in attaining direct vision of God in the heavenly Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation.
Third, resurrection is physical, but not about a mere reanimation of bodies; we don’t believe we will be zombies or the actual walking dead. Resurrection is about radical and complete transformation our nature and of the whole of creation by the one who promises ‘a new earth and a new heaven’ (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation/Apocalypse 21:1).
And finally, this transformation is already taking place among us; when we endeavour to live the Christian life – striving to do everything to God’s glory, to be forgiving, generous, faithful, and prayerful – we see the effects of God’s transfiguring power within ourselves. This transformation will go on after death in the purification of our souls and their preparation to enter God’s life ever more fully. Ultimately, this transformation will be completed at the end time, sometimes called the “general resurrection” when we and the whole of creation will be restored to that glory the Father envisaged from the beginning, and “God will be all in all”, as Scripture tells us (Cf. 1Corinthians 15:28).

However, as much as we try to pin down a full picture of the resurrection, we won’t be able to in this life. It is much better to “experience” resurrection through our worship. Yes, experience. At Baptism God raises us from the death of sin to begin to share the risen life of Jesus – or to put it in other terms, at Baptism God enables in us the resurrection-mode. In our vigils, such as the Easter Vigil, we move from darkness into light to manifest the transformation that is happening in us, that we are moving towards the resurrection; in our participation to the Mass we share the Eucharist as a token of that feast which awaits us in God’s presence; and when we pray before the Blessed Sacrament we come into the presence of the Risen Lord, the one who says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25).

A mystery manifested first in the risen Christ and available for us to experience through worship, an invitation to join the life of God, a free gift and reward, a physical and radical transformation of our nature beyond our mortal confinements; these are all ways to interpret the resurrection. To go beyond these with lofty speculations would be to miss the point. The point is that we believe that eternal and fully human relationship with God is possible, for God is the God of the living, ‘for to him all people are in fact alive’.

20 October, 2016

Homily for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - Faith and Perseverance in Prayer

Exodus 17:8-13
Luke 18:1-8
‘Will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily.’ (Luke 18:7-8)
After a few weeks spent looking at the ways in which we should relate to possessions, our Sunday readings lead us back to that very centre of the Christian life that is prayer. Both the first reading and the gospel encourage us to look at prayer as our primary occupation; an activity intimately connected to the two fundamental Christian virtues, or good habits, of faith and perseverance.
In the reading from Exodus – a reading that at first may appear distant and difficult to understand – we see how the faithful intercession of Moses for the people is the key weapon through which Israel is able to overcome its enemies. This prayer is expressed in the text by Moses raising his arms – something that a priest still does nowadays at the altar of God and whenever he is leading people in prayer. Whenever Moses’ arms were raised in prayer the people of Israel gained advantage over their opponents, whenever these fell, Israel suffered loss. Throughout the struggle Moses had to persevere in prayer even when it became exhausting or physically painful to continue, or else the battle would have been lost. Now, we may not be engaged in military battles, but as Christians we are constantly involved in spiritual warfare, and the significance of this reading should be clear; if we do pray as Moses did and if we support our priests in their intercession for the people, we and the Church will gain the advantage over our opponents.
In the gospel, the Our Lord encourages us to imitate the widow who regularly nagged the unjust judge with her pleas for justice. The woman’s faith in her cause and her perseverance in her requests won her justice even from a corrupt judge; so – Jesus hints – how much more will we be helped by God who is both the just judge of all and our Father? How many more blessings will we win if we pray with perseverance?

Through these readings the Scriptures teach us that our prayer should be marked by the exercise of both faith and perseverance. Wherever there is no faith at all there cannot be genuine prayer – only empty words uttered in times of distress. But wherever faith is, even in its simplest form, there true prayer can be found as well, because whenever we intentionally pray, in that moment we manifest our belief. In this way, through faith we can readily approach God as Father and unburden on him every concern just as children would do with a loving parent. As Scripture says elsewhere, ‘anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ (Hebrews 11:6) So faith is the doorway to prayer; and in turn by praying we strengthen the virtue of faith – the Christian habit of placing all our trust and all our confidence in God alone.
The second good habit, perseverance, allows us to stand firm in our prayers despite a society that overlooks and oftentimes ridicules those who pray. Perhaps, perseverance is more readily associated with our brothers and sisters who endure religious persecution and abuse, but even if we are spared from these trials, we should strive to acquire this way of life for ourselves as well, because perseverance allows us make space for God in our daily routines regardless of what we are going through. At different points in life we all have been tempted to give up on prayer, to give up on God, and to say, “Oh, what’s the use?” Maybe because of peer pressure or maybe because of some tragic loss, prayer can stop, and as a consequence faith can stumble. But perseverance makes us pray even when we find it hard to be in God’s presence and when we are tempted to give up.

But maybe that’s enough theory for one homily. Faith and perseverance are practical habits and I want to look at a couple of examples where these can really benefit the way we pray. Praying for peace is the most obvious of these examples, as so many people would consider it a waste of time – nevertheless let us make every effort to pray for peace daily, to cry out to God as the widow did with the judge in the parable, until we will see ‘justice done and done speedily’, as the gospel says.
The second example is praying for church growth, as there are countless initiatives aimed at spreading the gospel in our society, but none of them is more powerful than you and me praying relentlessly for those whom we know – our families, our friends – that they may come to share the joy of knowing Christ and become part of his Church.

Prayer is our primary occupation as Christians and like any other activity worth doing in this live we must approach it with faith and perseverance.

25 September, 2016

Homily for the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme - Prophets

This morning’s gospel says that we should listen to the words of the prophets in order to attain eternal life (Cf. Luke 16:19-31). I wander, then, if you have ever thought about what kind of person a prophet might be? Would you think that prophet is someone capable of predicting future events? Or maybe someone dressed in shabby clothes shouting about incoming doom on the street corners? The Scripture definitely number examples of people such as these. But a prophet is primarily a person who is so in touch with God, who nurtures such an honest and deep relationship with God that he (or she) is able to interpret world events in the light of faith and to recall people to God’s purpose for his creation. As we gather to mark the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, how do we think prophets responded to the horrible tragedy of the Great War one hundred years ago? Did they predict a victorious end for one specific of the warring factions? Did they take to the pulpit to encourage soldiers in the name of God? Maybe, actually quite possibly, they did such a thing, but these too would not have been prophets. No, true prophets of that time spoke and acted about war by putting God and his kingdom before any other human authority. I would like to give you two examples of such prophets. The first was Archbishop Randall Davidson, a man of the British establishment, dear confidant to Queen Victoria in his early ministry, and the longest serving Archbishop of Canterbury since the English Reformation. Despite these claims to fame and grandeur, Archbishop Davidson visited the front line only a few months before the Somme, in a relatively low-key affair, meeting many of the soldiers, witnessing to their sufferings first-hand, encouraging the chaplains in their difficult pastoral duties, and later reaffirming that human hopes and aspirations can only ever be centred on Jesus Christ, because he alone is able brighten our world and make it a better place (Cf. Sermon at the Service of Thanksgiving for WWI at St Paul’s). 

 second prophet of that time was a remarkably short man, who many would have easily dismissed simply as a scholar, but who on his election as Pope on the eve of WWI took up the name of Benedict XV, re-echoing the name of Saint Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. Benedict XV worked day and night to reconcile the warring factions, and sought to bring practical relief to war victims, even to the point of almost bankrupting the Vatican. Most importantly, however, Benedict described the Great War with words that eventually were recognised as a true reading of the Great War and went down in history; he said, “This is no war, this is a useless massacre”. This was not an insult to the courageous men who fell in the trenches, but rather a powerful wakeup call for the political elite whose deeply personal power struggles had brought a terrible catastrophe to Europe.

Between 1st July and 18th November 1916, 419,654 men from the British Commonwealth, 204,253 French, and about 600,000 Germans fell in the fields of the Somme. As the Battle raged only a few men stood up trying to recall nations to their senses and to God who is the Father of all – these were the true prophets of the age. So, as we gather to mark the Centenary of this Battle, we cannot avoid thinking that the world is still plagued by intense fighting and that the livelihood of so many people are still blighted by conflict. Let us ask God for the same faith and clarity of mind that these prophets had, so that we may be faithful prophets and workers of peace for our times. 

Benedict XV composed a prayer for peace and I would like to pray is with you because its words are still valid for us now.
Lord Jesus, 
as we are dismayed by the horrors of a war
which is bringing ruin to peoples and nations,
we turn to your most loving Heart as to our last hope.
O God of Mercy,
with tears we ask you to end this fearful scourge;
O King of Peace,
we humbly implore the peace for which we long.
From your Sacred Heart
you shed forth over the world divine Charity,
so that discord might cease
and love alone might reign among men;
and during your life on earth,
your Heart beat with tender compassion,
for the sorrows of humanity;
so in this hour, made terrible with burning hate,
with bloodshed and with slaughter,
once more may your Divine Heart
be moved to mercy and pity.
Have mercy on the countless mothers
in anguish for the fate of their sons;
pity for the numberless families
now bereaved of their fathers;
mercy on Europe,
over which broods such havoc and disaster.
Inspire rulers and peoples with counsels of meekness;
heal the discords that break the nations asunder.
You, who shed your Precious Blood
that men might live as brothers,
bring them together once more in loving harmony.
And as once before, as the Apostle Peter cried,
“Save us Lord, we perish”,
you answered with words of mercy,
and stilled the raging waves,
so now hear our trustful prayer,
and give back to the world peace and tranquillity.

And we pray also to you,
O most Holy Virgin Mary,
as in other times of sore distress, 
be now our help, our protection,
and our safeguard. Amen.