25 April, 2016

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (C) - The Heavenly Jerusalem

Revelation/Apocalypse 21:1-5
‘You see this city? Here God lives among men.
He will make his home among them;
they shall be his people, and he will be their God’ (Apocalypse 21:4)
For the last two weeks I have been speaking about “cooperating with Jesus”, meaning that our common vocation as Christians is to endeavour to follow the directions and commands Jesus gives us in whatever we do. But at certain points in life, perhaps after a bereavement or when we experience severe difficulties, a few simple, yet niggling, questions may come to cast doubts on our commitments; “Why am I doing this?”, “Why should I cooperate with Jesus?”, or more to the point for some, “What am I going to get out of this?” Oftentimes these are legitimate questions and a possible answer to them is provided by our reading from the book of Apocalypse, also called book of Revelation.
The answer to our moments of hesitation lies in the vision described by the Apostle John of the heavenly Jerusalem as the common dwelling place for both God and his people. And this answer sounds like this, “We try to live faithfully the Christian life because we want to get to that heavenly city God promises for those who love him.” And “We daily do our best to cooperate with Jesus, because we are looking for a new heaven and a new earth.”

The word Apocalypse means literally “to uncover”, or “to reveal”, and this is precisely what our reading does in order to dispel our doubts with its poetic description of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is as if a veil is suddenly lifted, and for a few precious instants we catch a glimpse of what lies ahead for us: a safe space, a truly happy place, a reward for our commitments. Behind this veil we find the unimpaired vision of God for everyone who now endeavours to seek him with a true heart. 
But in reflection this moment of revelation has also something very powerful to say about our human condition. As when drawing back the curtains on a bright summer morning we are bathed in radiant sunlight, so in our reading as the veil is suddenly lifted we can see ourselves drenched in the brightness of the heavenly Jerusalem; in this light we see ourselves not as earthbound creatures but as inhabitants of that promised country, as pilgrims travelling towards a true homeland. That’s our journey’s end. That’s what we are working for.

Outside these walls people have other aims in life, they work for other things and they have other purposes they want to achieve, and consequently they order their existence towards the attainment of their goals. Likewise, if our ultimate goal is indeed the heavenly city; if our journey is a long trek even beyond the grave – as Jesus shows us in his resurrection; then we should do everything that is within our powers to reach our aim. We should daily amend the way we live; rejecting those things that hold us back – such as greed, envy, and resentments – and little by little grow in faith, in courage, in patience, and in service to others; and so inching our way home.

My (possibly) all-time favourite hymn is called O What Their Joy and Their Glory Must Be, and it sings about that heavenly city; in one verse it lays out a plan for us,
Now, in the meantime, with hearts raised on high,
we for that country must yearn and must sigh,
seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
through our long exile on Babylon's strand.

May God, the Sovereign of that heavenly city, sustain us with his grace as we journey on. And may Our Blessed Lady, Queen of Heaven, assist our efforts with her prayers. Amen.

23 April, 2016

Address on occasion of HM The Queen 90th Birthday - "I Serve"

Matthew 20:25-28
(An extract of Princess Elizabeth 21st Birthday message to the Commonwealth was read after two readings from Scripture.)

The greatest among you must be the servant of all. (Cf. Matthew 20:26)
The Coronation Supertunica
This instruction Jesus gives to his followers is echoed in the words of promise spoken by a young Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday. As future Queen pledged to serve her people, little would she have known that 69 years later – after many dramatic world events – her people would still be wishing her “Happy Birthday”. Yet, at that time Princess Elizabeth knew that although God was calling her to the highest and most prestigious office of all, her core vocation was to serve.
“I serve”, she said, and undoubtedly Queen Elizabeth has been true to her pledge. Through the decades she has fulfilled her duty without wavering; she has provided understated counsel to 12 Prime Ministers in this country alone; she has shown inspiring resilience in the face of both national and personal crises; and, it ought to be said, she has remained true to her word even when the Crown was being attacked by disloyal subjects.

All these examples of service to her people would be reasons enough for giving thanks to God. Yet, there is another aspect about the Queen’s promise to serve for which we should thank God all the more, and this is her faith. In her service Queen Elizabeth has pointed out that faith in Jesus Christ, the Christian faith, is the only sure foundation upon which to build our lives. 
Let me remind you of few examples. In the words we have just heard, the Queen’s pledge to service is made in prayer and complete trust in God. Years later, as her Coronation was approaching, she prepared herself through prayer and personal devotion for a whole month to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit as Sovereign. In her broadcasts she has spoken about the life of Jesus Christ. And finally, throughout her life the Queen Elizabeth has been faithful in attending church services.
As a faithful leader and servant, the Queen points out to Christ as the only source of life and stability; and her faith remains an example for us all.

The second verse of the National Anthem sings,
‘May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen’
On this joyful occasion, as we look back over 90 glorious years of a life devoted to service, we can see that Her Majesty has indeed given us many reasons to sing with heart and voice, “God save the Queen”. And for all these, may God – the almighty Sovereign of all – always be thanked and praised. Amen.

17 April, 2016

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (C) - Vocation Sunday - Priests and Pastors

John 10:27-30
‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice;
I know them and they follow me’ (John 10:27)
Last week we saw how we should learn to “cooperate with Jesus” just as the first disciples did on the Sea of Galilee. By working with Jesus these men succeed in what they previously failed to do, when they worked without the Lord to direct them. Cooperating with Jesus is the vocation common to every Christian, regardless of personal circumstances.
Today we celebrate Vocations Sunday and we turn our attention to the sacred priesthood, as a particular way, but by no means the only one, of cooperating with the Lord. Today we are asked to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for generosity in responding to this call.

It seems that for years the Church of England has wandered in the wilderness with regards to praying for an increase of vocations to the priesthood. Behind this uncertainty there was a pervading idea that singling out one type of ministry might make lay people resentful, belittling their irreplaceable efforts within the Church. Yet, thankfully, this aimless wandering seems to be at an end, and finally the Archbishops are both calling upon all the faithful to pray earnestly for vocations, and committing the Church to form more priests in the coming years. I say “thankfully” because we should never think that putting particualr emphasis on one type ministry would equal to disregarding other ones. Both lay and ordained ministries are vital to the Church, they shouldn’t be poised in competition with one another, and neither of them could exist without the other. As St Paul writes
‘there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord’ (1Corinthians 12:4-5)
Priests do not exist in a vacuum; priestly ministry is inseparably linked to caring for the people of God, by feeding the faithful with his Word and the Eucharist, by administering forgiveness, by providing leadership and focus for mission. Likewise, the people of God work with their priests to share his redeeming love with everyone; their individual ministries in the world are many but they find unity in the celebration of the Eucharist people offer with their priests. But there is more. Congregations play a crucial role in fostering vocations to the priesthood because whatever type of vocation is needed within the Church it necessarily arises from among the people of God – that is to say, priests do not grow on trees. Vocations arise from faithful people praying for them; they are fostered within the parish context, they come to flourish through the loving support of local congregations.

An example of this close relation between priests and their congregations can be found in the title of “Pastor” which is sometimes given to priests who hold responsibilities for a local church community. The word “pastor” comes from the Latin for “shepherd” or “feeder of the flock”: the one who leads the sheep to pasture. As we see in today’s gospel reading, the chief pastor is Jesus himself who shares this ministry with those whom he calls to be priests among his people. As the prophet Jeremiah affirms, ‘I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding’ (Jeremiah 3:15); or as the KJV Bible says, ‘I will give you pastors according to mine heart’. At the moment of ordination, priests are conformed to the pastoral heart of Jesus, and the shepherd-like character of the Lord is branded indelibly on their souls. Then, they are sent into specific congregations or flocks to care for them on his behalf. So without flock the priests’ ministry as a servant and shepherd of God's people could not be entirely fulfilled – they would be wandering shepherds without a flock – and without priests the people of God would be deprived of food and leadership.

On this Vocation Sunday let us pray that the Lord may raise from among us, more and more shepherds to feed and to guide his people so that each of us, through our own individual ministries, may be enabled to share God’s redeeming love with everyone.

May Our Lady Mary, Mother of Priests, pray for every priest that they may always be shepherds after the heart of her Son, and may she gain an increase of priestly vocations for all the Church. Amen.

12 April, 2016

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter (C) - Cooperating with Jesus

John 21:1-14
“Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something.”
So they dropped the net, and there were so many fish that they could not haul it in. John 21:6
If you remember the concluding verses of the last week’s gospel you may also remember the reading ending abruptly and hinting that that could also have been the end of the book. It read,
‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah’ (John 20:30-31).
That was chapter 20, but today as we read together chapter 21 we see that the story continues – at least for a little while longer. The encounter between Jesus and the 11 disciples in the seclusion of the upper room we saw last week was not the end of the story; Jesus has more to offer, more things to do. So, it is as if an alternative conclusion was appended at the end of the previous chapter describing events that occurred later on. Biblical scholars have speculated about the reasons behind this editing choice, but without descending into these theories, we can probably find a spiritual meaning for this continuation of the gospel for ourselves.

At the beginning of the reading we see that Peter has returned to his fishing profession; the disciples are not in Jerusalem anymore, they are back in Galilee, on the shore of the Lake where all had begun a few years before (Cf. Mark 1:16-20). And if we took a careful look at the story we would notice that, although according to John this is the third time that the risen Lord appears to his disciples, there is a clear feeling that this encounter happened quite sometime after the other two meetings, perhaps even weeks later. Overall the story appears under a different, brighter light than when Jesus last met with Peter and the other Apostles. Unlike in those previous encounters it is not evening anymore, and Jesus’ arrival on the scene coincides with the breaking of day.
Reading between the lines we see how the disciples, headed by Peter, have grown tired of waiting around for something to happen, and have taken the matter – in this case their very own livelihood – in their own hands. They go fishing – which is what they did before, and which we already know from the other evangelists as a metaphor for bringing the gospel to the waiting world (Cf. Mark 1:16-20). They go fishing, but they go without waiting for Jesus, and their night on the lake doesn’t yield anything. As a testimony to their physical efforts Peter is naked because garments would impair his labours on-board. And yet it seems that, even though all of them work skilfully and very hard, all their efforts are fruitless. It is in this moment, as the disciples are discouraged and the morale in the boat is inevitably low, that Jesus comes on the scene. But he arrives, not a superhero swooping in to save the day, but as a friend calmly advising the disciples to do things differently; as a friend commanding enough trust from them to cooperate with him.

‘Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something’, says Jesus; but casting the nets from a different side of the boat can hardly make any real difference when you have spent all night fishing but you have caught nothing. So, what is it that causes this miraculous catch? I would suggest that it is the trust the disciples place in Jesus’ advice. It is because they cooperate with Jesus, that they finally achieve what they set out to do. [And ultimately it is this trust and cooperation that leads them to fully recognise Jesus as the risen Lord.] Because the disciples cooperates with Jesus, rather than working without him ‘the darkness is overcome by light, the fruitless work becomes an easy and abundant catch of fish, the feeling of tiredness and loneliness is transformed into joy’ (St. John Paul II) 

As the church here in Houghton Regis we are about to embark on different projects under the loose heading of Restoration and Renewal. For example, we have this holy building – standing to the glory of God and as a reminder of God’s presence in this area – and it needs to be extensively restored and renovated. We have a vocation to grow in number and in holiness that we must fulfil. And soon we will have new neighbours in our town; more people for us to love and with whom to share the joy of knowing Christ. Like the disciples we can’t do this just through our own efforts, we can’t take the matter simply in our own hands, or our work will not yield fruit, and we would labour on our projects in vain. As today’s gospel shows us we have to start with Jesus by trusting and cooperating with him. More specifically still, we have to start by sharing his food through our frequent encounters with the risen Lord at the Mass.
Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’
...Jesus then stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them. (John21:12-13)

04 April, 2016

Homily for the Solemnity of Annunciation of the Lord – Ecumenical Dialogue Through Mary

Luke 1:26-38

‘For us and for our salvation 
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit
and the Virgin Mary and was made man.’
Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation
The Solemnity of the Annunciation owes its name from the Archangel Gabriel “announcement” to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she had been chosen by the Father to be the mother of his only-begotten Son. This is usually kept on 25th March, precisely nine months before Christmas, and it celebrates the incarnation of Jesus, the moment in which God the Son became flesh. Oceans of ink have been spilled on the relevance of this feast and I do not which to repeat their arguments here, but I would just like to meditate with you on a couple of points.

The first relates to the snippet of the creed I have just read. When we think of salvation in Jesus Christ many of us will naturally associate it to the Cross or perhaps to the Resurrection; in short many of us would associate salvation to something that “grown-up Jesus” did willingly on a Cross or mightily coming out of a tomb. This is quite right, because the crowning of Salvation are indeed Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. But I wonder how many of us would associate salvation with the Annunciation?
The Creed affirms that the Lord became incarnate ‘for us and for our salvation’ meaning that this simple, yet truly extraordinary, act is the moment in which our salvation in Jesus Christ started; and it began by taking form, quite literally so, in the womb Mary. By uniting our flesh to his immortal nature God began to redeem every aspect of humanity; and by uniting matter, the stuff of creation, to his spiritual nature, God began to redeem every aspect of creation. So, when we think of salvation, let us not associate it with the Cross and Resurrection alone, but with the whole person and life of Jesus Christ. 
Incidentally, this is the reason behind bowing (or genuflecting) when we recite the part of the Creed I just mentioned. Veneration of this great mistery that started our salvation brings us to lower ourselves before it.

The second point I would like to meditate on is the role Mary necessarily assumes at the Annunciation. In this solemnity we could think of her as Virgin, as expectant Mother of God, and as most blessed among women. But I would like us to think of her also as point of union between unlikely allies.
Many Christians brothers and sisters, though still a minority, criticise the rest of the Church for her veneration, love and affection for the Mary, to the point of seeing in the Blessed Virgin a stumbling block to ecumenical dialogue, but I don’t think this is right, and neither I think we should pay much attention to these criticisms. Mary can only be a point of union for Christians. At the Annunciation she becomes Mother of God and consequently also Mother of the entire Church Jesus establishes; Mother of us all. But there’s more. Mary is necessarily a point of union because within her own body Godhead and creation came together, “the unconceivable became conceivable” within her, and her womb became the forge in which the eternal fire of divinity was inseparably united to the matter of creation in one Person. So, if she was chosen by God as the place for this miraculous union, how could she ever be a cause of later separation for the same body of Christ, the Church?

May Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, help us with her prayers to grow in our understanding of Salvation and in unity with all our Christian brothers and sisters. Amen.

03 April, 2016

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter (C) - Divine Mercy Sunday

John 20:19-31
Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.” John 20:27
In today’s gospel we see how the Apostle Thomas reacts at seeing the risen Lord; how he is restored to faith by the sight of Jesus’ wounds. But our focus should be placed not on him or any other of the Apostles; it should be placed on Jesus, on how and why he engages with this hesitant, doubtful disciple. It would be easy to expect Jesus to reject Thomas in his incredulity, but this is not what he does. In fact, Jesus does not reproach Thomas for wanting proofs, he doesn’t shy away from his enquiries; instead Jesus does the first move, presenting himself willing to dispel doubts, and literally offering his wounded side for Thomas explore. Our attention should be placed on how and why Jesus engages with Thomas because we could all be in the shoes of this Apostle. There are times when even the most seasoned Christian may be seized by niggling doubts, and there are times in which anyone could struggle with faith; so it is to us all that Jesus reaches out for from the pages of the gospel, saying “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter and in many churches this day is celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday in order to draw our attention on the mercy of God so that, with the Easter events still fresh in our minds, we can look back at the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus as the crowning of God’s acts of mercy. ‘Jesus Christ is Divine Mercy in person’ (Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Conclave Homily 2005). In him God makes himself available to everyone in a very real way – to believers and unbelievers alike, even to the soldiers who, on Good Friday, seized his hands and nailed them to the Cross. But Divine Mercy cannot be confined to the events of the Cross and Resurrection; in Jesus, mercy is the availability of God to us; the readiness of God to make the first move, to act as he did with the Apostles to free us from our fears. We encounter Divine Mercy every time we turn to Jesus with our doubts and insecurities. And in those moments it is Divine Mercy that says to us, as he did to Thomas, “Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”

In our moments of doubt we may not be invited to actually put our fingers into Jesus’ wounds; nevertheless Our Lord demonstrates with us the same availability to be tested and probed, as it were, by our enquiring minds as he does in the gospel. “Come,” he says to us, “see and judge for yourself what others have said about me. Doubt no longer but believe.” If we genuinely commit ourselves to study the person of Jesus in the Scriptures, the tradition of the Church, and in prayer; if we approach his wounded side through his Body and Blood at the Mass; if we strive to encounter him in acts of mercy towards those in need; we will find that all these are ways in which Jesus can engage with us should we struggle with faith, and can dispel our doubts through his Divine Mercy.

Lord Jesus,
Divine Mercy flowing to us from your pierced side,
your wounds, as Thomas saw, I do not see;
yet I confess you my Lord and God to be;
make me believe in you evermore and more.
In you is my hope, in you my love to store. Amen.
                   (adapted from Adoro te devote)