26 June, 2016

Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - A Christian response to #PostBrexitRacism

Galatians 5:1, 13-18
‘You were called, to freedom; but be careful, or this freedom will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Serve one another, rather, in works of love’ (Galatians 5:13)
The last couple of weeks have witnessed dramatic events that have shaken this nation and that will have severe repercussions for years to come. Prior to this I felt that as an EU national myself I should not meddle into politics or talk about something for which I was not allowed not vote. Yet, I am now convinced that, as your parish priest, this was the wrong thing to do. But the result of the referendum is not the main reason for my change of heart; rather it is the frenzy of ill feelings that has been stirred up which worries me.

However you decided to vote last Thursday, we now must take stock of what has happened, and of what is happening now in the light of faith. Only if we do this we can clearly chart the route ahead as a Christians. The EU referendum result has stirred up emotions and resentments that are unbecoming to a historically Christian nation. On 16th June, one of the Members of Parliament, Jo Cox was shot by a right-wing activist who killed her seeing her as a traitor. This was an unpreceded act of violence against a democratically elected representative of British subjects. A few days later graffiti appeared on the banks of the river in Durham saying, “Jo Cox deserved it. Durham next.” In other places activists have since been seen holding banners reading “Stop immigration, start repatriation”, countless interviewees on the telly have been heard saying, “I am not racist, but…”, and EU nationals have received notes through their door saying “God away, you scum”. 
On the opposite side, angry young people have taken to the streets of London on Friday to manifest their deep seated resentment towards the older generations accused to have “stolen their future”.

The results of the referendum have been hailed as an “independence day” by many who supported the Leave campaign. If Friday was “independence day”, then whatever independence has been achieved it came at the price of breaking up the United Kingdom, widening the generational divide between young and old and filling it with resentment, thwarting the peace process in Northern Ireland, and fuelling racism. If this is freedom, then whatever freedom has been achieved was spearheaded by great referendum promises (such as more money for NHS and reducing immigration) that were quickly abandoned leading politicians as early as 6:35 on Friday morning; whatever freedom has been achieved was based on by lies.

As Christians we must be able to respond to the hate and racism that has been stirred up, whatever side we decided to support on Thursday. The archbishops have issued a statement on Friday morning using words such as “compassion” and “hospitality”, and inviting people to pray for much needed healing and reconciliation across the rifts that have been opened. That evening, at Mass, I spoke about the need to foster the virtues of patience, generosity, justice, and charity within our society.

“But this is our Country…” If we are Christians, then we are journeying towards a real country, the true homeland, where there will be ‘a great multitude …from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ (Revelation 7:9).
“But I don’t like immigration…” If we are Christians, then in faith we were immigrants in the patriarch Jacob he went into Egypt with his sons to rebuild his livelihood; in faith we were immigrants with the Holy Family when they escaped from the Bethlehem after Jesus was born.
“But young people cannot make good decisions…” If we are Christians, then in faith we were with Jesus when, as still a child, he amazed the teachers of the Law with his wisdom.
“But I am resentful because old people took my future…” If we are Christians, then we should listen to St Paul when he says, ‘Do not speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him as to a father’ (1Timothy 5:1).

Consider the words St Paul writes to the Galatians; ‘You were called, to liberty – to freedom; but be careful, or this freedom will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Serve one another, instead, in works of love’. In fact, the NRSV uses even stronger words, ‘through love become slaves to one another’. Then Paul goes on to say, ‘If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces […] you will destroy the whole community’ (Galatians 5:15). Let us meditate on these words as we move on from the dramatic events of the last few weeks.

As Christians we already have freedom, we already have had our true Independence Day, when Jesus rose from the dead. All the rest is insignificant when compared to this, and this liberty we have received should in itself be an instrument allowing us to build new communities. As Christians we must use our God-given freedom to shape our society, making it a place where hate, generational divides, unjust discrimination, fear of others, and racism cannot thrive because the good habits, the virtues, of patience, generosity, humility, justice, and charity are actively promoted instead.

May Our Lady of Walsingham, protectress of our nation, aid us with her prayers that we may have the courage and strength to do this. Amen.

24 June, 2016

Homily for the Solemnity of the Birth of St John the Baptist

Just a few notes I wrote down for my homily on the Birth of St John the Baptist.

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’ is a much quoted phrase of the early twentieth century British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, but in a sense these words seem to have renewed significance for us too in the immediate aftermath of the EU Referendum. But in fact, we could also slightly amend them and have them read, 
‘The lamps are going out all over [Britain], we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.

However you decided to vote yesterday, it is clear today that the lamps of authentic civil virtues are waning and fading in the fierce storm caused by now busted election lies, volatile economy, and, ultimately, by particularly nasty pieces of nationalist rhetoric used by politicians and members of the public alike. Amidst this utter chaos, the virtues of patience, generosity, justice, magnanimity, and charity – the lamps of a civilised society – are fading. Night seems to be falling fast.

In a few regions of the UK the solemnity of the birth of St John the Baptist came to replace the pagan festival of the Summer solstice – the moment in which days begin to shorten and daylight begins again to fade towards winter. In these regions big bonfires were (and are still) lit and blessed on this occasion in honour of St John the Baptist, remembering that John, like the day-star preceding the sunrise, came to be the forerunner to Jesus – he came to herald the true light that never sets.

As we go move on from this historic and tumultuous day, as our political leaders try to find a way forward, as Christians we too must take on the role John the Baptist in the wider community and point towards the light of Jesus for a nation that now more than ever needs reconciliation and to rediscover the practice of virtue. We must become like John and make every effort to relight lamps of patience, generosity, justice, and charity in our society, preventing the long night of resentment and nationalism from falling.

20 June, 2016

Homily for the Feast of St Alban, Protomartyr of Britain

2Chronicles 24:17-21
Romans 8:35-39
Matthew 10:16-22
‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (Rom 8:35)
The Shrine of St Alban
St Alban was a Romano-British inhabitant of Verulamium, the Roman city which stood below modern day St Albans. The earliest versions of his history say that he gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from anti-Christian persecutions – a priest, originally unnamed but later called “Amphibalus” in the re-telling of the story. Alban was so moved by the priest’s great faith and courage that he converted to Christianity, then still a forbidden religion.
Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. But Alban, inspired by his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with Amphibalus, allowing him to escape. Alban was brought before the city magistrate. When asked to identify himself he declared: 
‘I am called Alban and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things’
As it was custom, he was pressured in offer incense or sacrifice to the emperor and the Roman gods, but he courageously refused to give up the Christian faith in this way. Because of this the magistrate ordered that Alban should be put to death. He was brought out of the city and up the hillside to the site of execution where he was martyred by beheading. So, Alban shed his blood for Christ and for his Church; he became a martyr – the first Christian martyr of these isles

In our society, martyrdom, the very thing that Alban suffered, has become a loaded word in our society – maybe even a dirty word for some – something hijacked by, and mostly associated with, extremists, and a concept often misunderstood. However, the true nature of martyrdom is something inherently linked to the Christian faith – and we only have to look at our readings to see this. Martyrdom is a daily reality for the Church – maybe not in this country and not in Europe, but certainly so in North Africa, and in the Middle and Far East. In these places Christian brothers and sisters are actively persecuted, tortured, and killed because of the faith; many are still put to death like Zachariah the priest for speaking the word of God.
Martyrdom comes from the Greek word “marturia” which simply means testimony, bearing witness, and in their ultimate sacrifice the martyrs do bear witness to God by refusing to desert him; through their actions they give expression to the three virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the ultimate possible way. Out of faith, the martyrs put their trust in God, speaking his truth, regardless of the consequences, regardless of the fear which threats and persecution may instil in them. Out of hope, the martyrs look to God, not to the grave, as their final goal; they strive to reach that crown of glory the Lord has promised to those who follow him to the end. In the midst of their trials and pains they look towards that peaceful city where violence will be no more – the heavenly Jerusalem. Out of charity, that is, out of perfect love, the martyrs forfeit their own lives rather than abandon the Lord and his Church, whom they love above of else. Out of love they lay down their lives – knowing that their selflessness may protect others, and that their blood will be the seed of more Christians. Out of love they bless their persecutors; they pray for those who harm them; they absorb their violence in their bodies as Jesus did on the Cross – who for us accepted the violence of his aggressors and repaid it with forgiveness.

This is the nature of martyrdom, and this is what St Alban endured. For us, gathered here about seventeen hundred years after his death, St Alban is a model of Christian faith and courage, a reminder that love and self-sacrifice, not hate and retaliation, are the only viable Christian responses whenever we encounter violence, threats, and persecutions. May we then strive to imitate St Alban in his faith, in his hope, and in his selfless love.

O glorious Saint Alban, first martyr of Britain,
who, being subjected to bitter torments,
did not lose your faith 
nor your constancy in confessing Jesus Christ;
obtain for us an active and solid faith,
that we may always be courageous followers of Jesus,
and fervent Christians in word and in deed. Amen

A pastoral note about this Feast
This Sunday should have been the Twelfth in Ordinary Time (or the Fourth after Trinity in Common Worship calendar). However, this is also the Sunday closest to Saint Alban’s Day, therefore the liturgy team and myself have decided to keep the Feast of St Alban today. The pastoral rationale behind this decision is twofold, first to get more people celebrating the first martyr of Britain and patron of our diocese; and secondly – and also more importantly – to renew and to foster the Church’s love for her martyrs at a time when Christian discipleship initiatives often seem a little bland, and the struggles of our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world is often ignored.

18 June, 2016

Homily for the Mass of Thanksgiving for HM The Queen 90th Birthday - Praying for those in authority

1 Samuel 16 1-13
1 Timothy 2:1-6
Matthew 20:25-28
‘Supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
Coronation Ampulla and Spoon for anointing the Monarch
This instruction to pray for all in position of authority is something that may easily take for granted. In this parish church, as in many other churches across the land, we pray for the Sovereign most of the times we gather for Mass. But for the early Church, praying for those ‘in high positions’ would have meant praying for people who often looked upon Christianity with suspicion or actively persecuted its members. Therefore, Paul’s instruction can be interpreted as a reminder to every Christian about fighting the temptation to be selfish in our prayers, reserving intercessions and thanksgivings only for likeminded people, only for those who were part of the club, as it were.

But, although many centuries have passed since Paul wrote these words, we may still experience the same temptation to pray only for people in genuine physical need, whom we personally know, or whom we arbitrarily deem worthy of our intercession. In other words, there is a temptation of being selective, or even judgmental, in our approach to praying for others. Some may say “Why should we pray for the Queen?” or “Why should we give thanks to God for her?” Specifically, in this case, even though the Queen may be a great example of Christian faithfulness, a few people may object that we should not pray for her, or indeed her family, because of their privileged background or what have you.

As it is, praying for those in authority in the way that Paul recommends requires us to exercise a certain degree of humility – a virtue that has nothing to do with self-abasement, but a habit that simply allows us to see ourselves as part of a wider society, without the illusion of being the sole masters of the universe. Through humility we realise that in society, in a community of individuals with varied vocations, different people are called to do different things so that the collective as a whole may prosper and achieve the highest grade of common good. It is because of this sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, part of a wider society, that we pray especially today, for the Queen – and also for the royal family and for our elected political leaders; so that assisted by our intercessions she may endeavour to pursue wisdom and justice for this nation, to the ultimate end that all may be saved and prosper. 

Paul says, 
‘I urge that …thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions’. 
So, let us give thanks in this Mass for the Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth, for the good work that God has begun in her. Let us give thanks for her example of faith in our uncertain times, for her commitment to duty and vocation, and for her willingness to serve under God for the wellbeing and stability of many nations.
God, save the Queen.

06 June, 2016

Homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (C) – Gratitude

‘The Lord Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it, and said “This is my body, which is for you.”’ (1Corinthians 11:23-24)
One of the very few talks I can still remember from collective worship at school ended with a question, “How often do you thank your parents for preparing your food?” This was a simple, straightforward question but it has remained with me all these years because it truly made me think about my attitude towards what I very much took for granted. How often do we give thanks for our food? Of course we can hurriedly say grace before a meal and say thank you to the person who prepared it, but how often do we demonstrate our thankfulness? By this I mean, how often does our saying “Thank you” move beyond simple politeness to become heartfelt gratitude?
Today the Church celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which in the Church of England calendar is called, in rather long-winded way, “The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion”. This name is in itself a theological compromise, but even so it gives us a much needed chance to reflect on how and how often we thank God for his gift of this Sacrament. Yes, we do say a prayer of thanksgiving after receiving Communion, but by the end of this prayer we have already forgotten how to be properly thankful because there we find ourselves asking for something else – “Almighty God, thank you for feeding us… [and] Send us out in the power of your Spirit…” In this case, being thankful doesn’t seem to also mean being content with what with have received. So, how often do we actually take a few moments to consider, with grateful minds, the incredible thing Jesus does for us at the Mass? How often does our saying “Thank you” move beyond simple politeness to become heartfelt gratitude?

But perhaps, in order to develop true gratitude for the Eucharist we need to understand a little better what is offered to us here. There is a very ancient pagan legend which has been widely depicted in Christian symbolism since the second century. This legend says that in times of famine a pelican would wound him or herself, would literally peck at his own breast in order to feed the young in the nest. As the chicks are starving the pelican provides for them his flesh and blood to revive them. Naturally, our early Christian brothers and sisters saw the Lord Jesus in the pelican and humanity in the chicks. Jesus is the one who says to us “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. Jesus is the one who gives his own very self to us in order to restore us to life – his body, blood, soul, and divinity, all these are present and given in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus is the one who donates himself to us in the Mass every day. We are the ones who, like chicks being selflessly and attentively fed by a parent, have only to approach him with gratitude.

So, today we pull out all the stops to worship our Lord and God present in the most precious Sacrament of the Eucharist. Today we make reparation for all the times we have been ungrateful for this life-giving gift. And today we do our best to express our gratitude to the Lord Jesus for giving to us his own very self as the only food worth eating. May we never cease to worship, adore, and give thanks to the Lord Jesus for this gift.

08 May, 2016

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (C) - Praying for the new evangelisation

Acts 7:55-60
Stephen said ‘‘I can see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’’ (Acts 7:56)
As you know the Archbishops have asked the entire Church of England to pray very fervently for a new evangelization of these isles in the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. And here we are. During this time we retrace what the Apostles did in the company of the Virgin Mary and the first disciples; when, after Jesus ascended to the Father, they immersed themselves in prayer waiting for Spirit of God. This is the time when we must pray passionately for the Holy Spirit to descend with power once again over this land; a land that has fathered many great and venerable saints over the centuries. This is the time to align this nation to the Holy Spirit through our prayers; the time to make a way among our people for God’s desire to be fulfilled – that everyone might come to salvation in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But when we ask for the Holy Spirit to descend in this way, what are we really asking for? “Please, God, evangelise this country?” “Please, God, make everyone Christian by tea-time?” No. I would suggest that when we pray for the Holy Spirit we ask God for a two-fold gift, a gift that will involve both us and the people outside these walls; we ask the Spirit to give us courage in manifesting our faith through words and actions, and to open people’s heart to the message of the Gospel.

In our first reading we find a little representation of how evangelisation sometimes works when only one side is open to the action of the Holy Spirit. On one hand we have Saint Stephen, a follower of Christ, who after being cornered and questioned, affirms his faith in Jesus. His speech is summed up in one verse by the reading, but if we looked up this passage in Acts we would notice that Stephen actually speaks for a whole chapter guided by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we have a group of people who strongly oppose the faith, and who do everything they can to avoid hearing about the Lord. In fact, we read that after Stephen affirms his faith these people ‘shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands’ (Acts 7:57) to prevent them from hearing the Christian truth. Their hearts are hardened and closed to the voice of the Spirit. But this representation is not confined to the Bible. I am sure many among us have witnessed situations where we have been ignored or belittled because of our experience of faith, because we have spoken about Jesus and about his Church. Even now many people ‘shout out and stop their ears with their hands’ not wanting to hear about faith; their hearts too, may be hardened and closed to the voice of the Spirit.

Our fervent prayer for evangelisation is the only way to address situations like this and open people’s heart to the action of the Holy Spirit. Through this prayer we ask that we ourselves might be more like St Stephen; that we might have courage to hold fast and to proclaim the faith, to share the joy of knowing Christ with others. Secondly, we ask that people might become more receptive to the Christian faith and to the ministry of his Church, because only the Spirit can break down people’s indifference or resentment towards the Christian faith. “Come, Holy Spirit!” Through this twofold prayer we will receive strength to be the vehicles of a new evangelisation and we will prepare people’s hearts to receive the Gospel with joy.

Come, Holy Spirit!
Pour upon us your gifts of wisdom and knowledge to inspire us;
your gift of understanding that we may desire to deepen our faith;
your gift of courage to help us sharing the faith with others.
In moments of hesitation, remind us:
If not us, then who will proclaim the Gospel?
If not now, then when will the Gospel be proclaimed?
If not the truth of the Gospel, then what shall we proclaim?

Come, Holy Spirit!
Pour upon this land your gift of counsel to reawaken longing for you;
your gift of wonder to breakdown indifference for the faith;
and your gift of devotion to nurture in true religion.
Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.

07 May, 2016

Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (C) – One of us in heaven

Luke 24:46-53
As Jesus ‘blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.’ (Luke 24:51)
If you’d search on the internet for information about the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon you would probably also encounter suggested questions linked to your search. A few typical ones are “How many times have we been to the moon?” or “When did we land on the Moon?” Remarkably most of these questions employ the plural pronoun “We”, even though none of us has ever been near the Apollo spacecraft, let alone setting foot on the actual Moon itself. Similarly, think for a moment how sport fans talk about the teams they each support; “We won on Sunday!” or “We lost to Leicester City”, even though actually doing sports may be the last thing on their minds. Here is that word again. “We”.
It seems that whenever extraordinary things are achieved or whenever something exceptional happen, we as humans feel an innate sense of commonality and kinship with the people who were actually involved in these events.

Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord to heaven, the moment when Jesus left the disciples to return to the Father. Through this mystery we know that our human nature, the very stuff of our being, which Jesus shares with each one of us, has also been taken up to into the Father’s glory with him. Then, we ought to feel a renewed sense of commonality and kinship with Jesus because just as our own death has been destroyed through his resurrection, so our human nature has been given a new horizon, a new end, by his ascension. No more condemned children of earth, in the ascension of Christ, we are revealed as creatures destined for the vision of glory in heaven.
As Archbishop Justin put it today quite concisely,
‘The risen Jesus represents our humanity in the heart of God. One like us is in heaven, praying for us and blessing us always.’