29 January, 2017

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus (Candlemas) - The point of living

Luke 2:22-40
Simeon said, ‘Now, Master, 
you can let your servant go in peace,
just as you promised;
because my eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared’ (Luke 2:29-30)
The Presentation of Christ - Giotto Di Bondone
With each passing year January has become more and more a time when we are pressured to question, for good or ill, the way live and to take up new diets, keep a dry month, look for new jobs, book the next holiday, or join the gym in attempts to lead healthier, thinner, fitter, richer, and generally better lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but oftentimes the new-found goals and aspiration that we arbitrarily fix ourselves through these attempts at changing how we live can become smoke screens, ways of procrastinating to deal with more fundamental questions about the very point of living. But it is precisely questions such as “Is this it?” or “What am I doing here?” that form that background to our celebration of the Presentation of Jesus to the Temple. In this solemnity we are encouraged to reassess our ultimate goals and the defining elements of our existence in the light of both our readings and our liturgy.

If we look at Luke’s gospel we encounter two characters, beyond St Joseph and Our Lady, whose life is clearly defined by their encounter with Jesus. The first one is Simeon. Now, although the gospel does not reveal anything about his age, tradition has often pictured him as an elderly figure. But really all we know about him is that he was ‘upright and devout’ (Luke 2:25), and that, as a special grace from God, he had been promised to encounter the Messiah before his death. Up to this point Simeon’s whole life had been an unspeakable yearning for Jesus, and when he eventually does meet him, he is overwhelmed by this encounter – the whole point of his life is fulfilled, everything falls into its proper place, and the ultimate goal is finally achieved. The gospel does not say whether or not Simeon died soon after this, and there is no reason to think he did. All we are told are the prayer and the prophecies he utters. He says 
‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, 
because my eyes have seen the salvation 
which you have prepared’.
That is to say, “Thank you, Lord, for keeping your promise, and for letting me encounter Jesus. Now I can find peace for my longings, because all I wanted to do in life, all I ever wanted to be when I grew up, you have let me achieve it.” And to this day, Simeon’s words of thanksgiving and joy are recited at the end of funerals on behalf of the deceased, and they are prayed daily at Compline as thanksgiving for the day.

The second character is Anna, the prophetess daughter of Phanuel, (Cf. Luke 2:36) whose pious and holy life is provided with crowning glory when she too meets the Lord. Her encounter with Jesus is the fulfilment of a life devoted to serving God in his Temple, and it is the cause of such an uncontainable joy that she begins to speak to all those seeking renewal about Jesus. For Anna the encounter with Jesus is both the fulfilment of her existence and a validation in her service of God.

Finally, in today’s liturgy (a little different from other Sunday Masses) we have begun with a procession recalling Simeon and Anna as they journeyed to meet the Lord. More importantly, by processing in a figure of eight and so tracing the ancient infinity symbol around the church we have represented of our pilgrimage through life guided by the light of the Lord. As it is in this liturgical action, so it is in our daily living; we are encouraged to go forward to encounter the Lord Jesus who comes to meet with us in the Eucharist fulfilling of our ultimate goals and renewing us in his service.

So, we see that today’s celebration of Candlemas provides us with examples of holy living and it goes a long way in answering questions we may have about the point of living. Here both the gospel and the liturgy present us with the same answer, Jesus.
Encountering, being with, and becoming like Jesus is the only point of living; a goal that frees us form the fickle realities of this world and from the burden of self-centredness, enabling us to live life to the full, enjoying and cherishing who we are, our relations, and the world around us.

28 January, 2017

Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - Lamb of God

John 1:29-34
John said, ‘Look, there is the lamb of God
that takes away the sin of the world.’ (John 1:39)
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb -  van Eyck - Ghent
Last Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany, when we recalled the coming of the wise men to worship the Child of Bethlehem. Their precious gifts manifested the Lord Jesus as king, as God made man, and as the one destined to suffer. Today, as we pick up once again the long thread of Sundays in Ordinary Time, our liturgy still retains an element of Epiphany, of manifestation of Jesus to the world. In our gospel reading we see that the Child of Bethlehem has grown up into a man, and John reveals him to us and to the crowd of penitent people huddling on the banks of the Jordan as ‘the Lamb of God’ who has come to deliver us from the power and oppression of sin. The more seasoned Christians might find themselves at a disadvantage here, because we so often hear Jesus described in this way, that we may have become desensitised to the evocative description of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’. Likewise, others may find this expression quite puzzling.

In what way is Jesus a “lamb”, if not the lamb provided by God? In Biblical language, describing Jesus as the Lamb of God does not necessarily attribute to him qualities of meekness and gentleness, but rather it manifests him as innocent, untainted by evil, and above all as one given by God the Father as a victim for a sacrifice. In this particular case, John’s gospel goes on to associate the image of a sacrificial lamb with Jesus throughout its pages, culminating on Good Friday when Jesus dies on Calvary in the same moment that the atoning sacrifice of a lamb was taking place at the Jerusalem temple. So, as John the Baptist says to us, ‘Look, there is the lamb of God’, he is manifesting Jesus to us as the one ‘spotless victim’ who sacrificed himself on the cross so that we may have new life in him. His action on the Cross, performed out of love for us, is the only means capable of freeing us from whatever holds us captive in life, principally from sin, its retribution, and the guilt that originates from it.

But in our reading there is another important element. We read that John starts to speak as he sees ‘Jesus coming towards him’ (John 1:29). Jesus moves towards John, and with him, also towards the crowd of people that had come to him to seek forgiveness and spiritual healing. Jesus goes to them in the same way that he comes to us when we seek forgiveness. Love moves him towards us. He is not afraid of being with us when we feel weighed down by guilt or remorse. He comes to us whenever we look for new life to deliver us from that which holds us down through the power of the blood he shed for us.

‘This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. Every time we come to Mass we hear these words from the priest as he holds up the Body and Blood of the Lord before us as an invitation to Communion. We are given these words as an encouragement to approach with faith and confidence the altar upon which the sacrifice of Jesus is made present once more, and there to encounter and to receive the Lamb of God as he comes to us in his great love.

One rather moving and well known hymn to accompany today’s reading could be Charlotte Elliott’s ‘Just as I am’ and so I leave you with her meditation on the Lamb of God and the Eucharist.
Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.

Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21
‘When the appointed time came, 
God sent his Son, born of a woman’ Galatians 4:4
Papyrus with the prayer 'Sub tuum praesidium'
Last Sunday we began to celebrate the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ with a feast that in the Church’s calendar lasts for eight days. And today, on the last day of this Octave, we honour the Blessed Virgin Mary in a special way because she ushered the Son of God into the world.

The Christmas story we continue to read this morning in our gospel contains a beautiful insight in Mary’s motherhood; we read, ‘As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2:19) Here Mary’s heart is truly revealed as a mother’s heart. She is, in this, like any other mother. She has nurtured her child for nine months, waiting, and longing to finally greet him; and now, as Jesus lays in the manger surrounded by people wanting to see him, she is lost in contemplation of her little, miracle boy. What mother, (and indeed, what parent) does not treasure all the good things she hears about her child? And what mother does not look at her now-born baby wandering about what kind of person they will turn out to be?

Yet, by this stage in the gospel story Mary has even more things to ponder and to treasure in her motherly heart. She knows that in some respects her beautiful child is unlike any other child. For starters, his birth was foretold by an angel; then, though a virgin, she conceived her child through the Holy Spirit; and while in the first few days of pregnancy, her cousin Elizabeth greeted her as the ‘Mother of the Lord’ (Cf. Luke 1:43). As Mary places Jesus in a lowly manger, angels come to visit their Lord, and a star begins to shine over the stable… Her extra-ordinary child is the Son of God, God who enters history to live alongside humanity, and in this Mary is unlike any other mother. She is the one chosen by the Father to be the all-holy and pure mother of his only begotten Son, and to bring forth his Son for a waiting world at the appointed time. In short Mary has become the Mother of God.

However, many people, including self-professed Christians, shy away from calling Mary the Mother of God. And in their stubbornness they involuntarily reduce her child no more than a moral teacher who was born in poverty, lived a hard life, and taught people nice things about being kind to one-another. As a remedy to this, our belief in Mary must remain a hallmark of sound Christian faith; because to honour the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God means also to worship her Son as God, living and true, made flesh for our salvation.

I would like to conclude this reflection with the oldest surviving prayer addressed to Mary (Sub tuum praesidium or Under your protection) which dates back to AD 250, a time before the great divisions among Christians we know today.
Under your protection, we seek our refuge,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions in our needs,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen.

Homily for Christmas Day - We are not alone

John 1:1-18
The Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14)
Altar with the relic of the manger of OL Jesus Christ - Rome
I firmly believe that children are capable of demonstrating unexpected care for others in ways which we would not even dream of doing as adults. Equally, children are often braver and more selfless that what we ourselves would imagine; and in their child-like instinctive courage they show us a willingness to share other people’s conditions in an attempt to make things better. I am sure each parent can recount an instance when their child has amazed them with unexpected love for others… This desire and willingness to be alongside others originates in a compassion deep seated in the human heart. We might see it expressed more readily in children, but this is the same desire we feel when we see a loved one suffering and we would do anything to trade places with them or to take upon ourselves a share of their pain. And this same desire is found deep in the heart of God; a longing to experience the joys and difficulties of humanity by way of being with them.
The Word became flesh and lived among us
Today’s gospel uses an expression that is as essential to the Christians faith as the Lord’s Prayer: the Word became flesh and lived among us. It literally means that God became one of us and pitched his tent alongside us as a fellow traveller and pilgrim in this world, to share with us uncertainties and fears; and it all begun with the birth of a little baby born on the margin of society.
But what difference would a child make? What difference would the Child of Mary make? Especially when we still see humanity engaged in every sorts of violent and self-destructing behaviour. How exactly is it possible that a little boy from Bethlehem would change these things? What difference can He make? The difference is that Jesus came into the world to share willingly our conditions out of God’s love and deep longing for each one of us. Jesus, God-with-us, did not come into the world as cunning politician who would sort out the welfare state; he neither came to reign from an ivory tower, nor to act as a super hero. He came first as a little child; to grow up as someone like me or you, moving about like we do, and experiencing all that we do; with the end result of totally changing our sense of purpose and direction.
The Word became flesh and lived among us
Or, as a popular carol puts it
...day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.
God came down from heaven to be with us in every situation we face. And so the true message of Christmas is that we are not alone; God is with us because his love for us compelled Him to share in our condition through and through. We are not alone, not in the great joy we experience today, and neither in moments of terrible sorrow. He knows everything, our laughs and our secret scars; and the only thing He wants to do is be with us at all times to protect us and guide us.
Let us open the doors of our hearts to him.
“Do not be afraid!
Open, I say open wide the doors for Christ.”

Homily for Midnight Mass - Prince of Peace

Isaiah 9:1-7
Titus 2:11-14
‘A child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counsellor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ (Isaiah 9:6)
Statue of Mary as Regina Pacis (detail) - Rome
The words of our first reading greet our Christmas celebration with a song of joyful praise about the coming of the Lord in the flesh. Here the prophet Isaiah describes the world redeemed by the coming of the new-born King and lists a number character features for this child on whom authority and divinity rest – he is the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, and Everlasting Father, and importantly, he is also the sole and undiscussed Prince of Peace. He is the one who lifts the heavy yoke from the shoulders of his people – the burden of worries and strife we each carry – and because of his coming into the world families and nations will cease war forever. Similarly, our gospel reading reports the song the angels sang at the birth of Jesus, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ With this the heavenly messengers announced that the Lord’s birth would usher is an age of peace for his people and for the human family. 

Yet, as we all know first-hand, conflicts, resentments, and trouble are far from gone. Indeed, sometimes it may even feel that all these words about peace on earth and goodwill to men, are just empty stories we tell each other at Christmas and then forget just in time for the star of the new year. 2016 alone has witnessed much violence, the mindless cruelty of terrorism, the oppression of civil liberties masked by dictatorial regimes as liberation, and the resurgence of xenophobic hate. So what has this child actually brought to us? And how can his coming redeem the world? Has he come to impose peace on us as the dictators do by quashing all their opponents? Has he come to bring us material gifts? No, the child of Bethlehem come to us, poor, homeless and harmless, wrapped in even poorer clothing to be himself our peace and to be our model – so that in embracing him and learning from him we might be filled with true joy, and extend his peace to the whole world.

But I say more, the child of Bethlehem comes to us, as we read in our second reading, to ‘train us’ and to make us ‘zealous for good deeds’, so that in following his model we may learn to live not for ourselves, but for God’s glory, doing good works. On this holy night God reaches out to us with the outstretched hand of a new-born baby boy. He is the Wonderful Counsellor, and in him we find the only guidance for our lives worth listening to; he is the Mighty God, and in him we see the image of God the Father, who loved each and every one of us before the ages begun; he is the Prince of Peace, and in him we find our peace. In short, in this most holy child we find the only true joy for our today and the only hope for our tomorrow.

May you discover joy of knowing Christ in your life; and in knowing it may you share it with others through acts of service and self-less love; this is my Christmas wish for you. Then, the Prince of Peace will indeed reign in your hearts, bringing a peace that no worry or anxiety will ever be able to shake.

Happy Christmas!

Homily for the Third Sunday Advent (A) - Rejoicing and Joy

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10
‘They will come … shouting for joy,
everlasting joy on their faces;
joy and gladness will go with them
and sorrow and lament be ended.’ (Isaiah 35:10)
As we move into the second half of Advent, the tone of our liturgical season changes. Gone are the dark readings about judgment we heard in the past couple of weeks – today we are presented with more cheerful readings to remind us that the only cause of lasting joy is ultimately God himself. In a similar way, purple, the colour used by the Church to symbolise penitence and contrition is replaced by a lighter, more cheerful colour – by rose. This brighter, livelier colour invites us to shake off any gloom around us and to turn our eyes with confidence and courage towards the coming days – rose reminds that in all things we ought to be rejoicing because our salvation is ever nearer at hand. 

As our Christmas celebrations approach we should remind ourselves of the lasting joy Jesus came to bring. On that holy day the child of Bethlehem revealed himself as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words we read this morning, ‘Look, your God is coming’. On that holy day our salvation became more visible; heaven and earth appeared as one; and from then on the mercy of our God began to walk among us, freeing us from evil and from fear. On the holy day God became one of us and suddenly we were not lonely anymore in the universe. God revealed himself in our humanity, so that he could be in among us in a very real, tangible way, for ever. These are the reasons why, as Christians, we should rejoice, not matter what we may be going through.

But I say more. The causes of our joy are not just past events, they are also borne out of our present experience of faith and about our confidence in the future. We rejoice because since his first coming Jesus remains present in our midst concealed within the Eucharist, and from there he gives himself to us in a constant and selfless act of love. In this sacrament he still gives himself as a token of his victory over everything that would scare and oppress us, until the day when he will gather us into his kingdom, and as we read, ‘sorrow and lament will be ended’
If we look closely to our first reading, Isaiah tells us quite plainly what the people of God should look like.
‘They will come … shouting for joy,
everlasting joy on their faces;
joy and gladness will go with them
and sorrow and lament be ended.’
Rejoicing in the Lord; delighting in the plan of salvation God reveals to us in Jesus Christ; taking pleasure in God dwelling among us… as I said a couple of Sundays ago, these worthy sentiments should be the hallmark of the Christian life, the natural response to what God has done, and does, for us. But on this point we must be honest; we are not always joyful in our faith, are we? We are not always rejoicing in knowing Christ. And, even though we call ourselves Christians, all too often we let our joy be conditioned by the things we may or may not possess, by what others may think of us, and by the fun we could have if only we… I’ll let you finish this sentence for yourself.

So, mindful of the great salvation that awaits us, let us use the last days of Advent to lay aside any gloom, fear, and fleeting cause of joy. And let us ask God to rekindle in us (and in our loved ones) that true joy, that true happiness, which comes from knowing Jesus, so that we may be ready to greet him when he comes again.

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.