10 February, 2016

Homily for Ash Wednesday – Is imposition of ashes against the Gospel?

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
…when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face… (Matt 6:17)
These words of Jesus seem to go completely against what we are going to do in a few minutes because, far from washing our faces or putting moisturiser on them, we will receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads traced with ashes as a visible sign that we are entering in a solemn season of fasting, almsgiving, and personal prayer. So are we really marking our foreheads in spite of what Jesus commands us to do? Is the litugy of imposition of ashes against the Gospel? 
The short answer to this question would be, “No”. But because this question seems to arise with regularity about the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I think we should find a more satisfactory answer to it.

Let us begin by looking at the gospel reading. Matthew 6 contains a variety of instructions concerning how we should live out our faith with particular regard to personal prayer, almsgiving, and fasting and each time Jesus mentions one of these we hear a stern and repetitive warning to keep our own piety in secret between ourselves and God. This is because Jesus addressed his words initially to a culture where pious and religious individuals were greatly praised for their efforts; consequently many people made public displays of their devotions in order to receive respect, status and admiration. But against this cultural trend Jesus warns his followers not to be like them and not to have their personal piety “trumpeted before” them, lest they trade off the reward the Father would bestow on them to gain earthly praise. In our own culture being pious is hardly a cause of admiration and praise, but within the Church, among Christians, we could still run in the temptation to show off our religiosity in order to gain moral high ground. So Jesus invites us as well as to keep our personal piety secret – the money we give to the church, the poor people we help, the fast days we keep, the prayers we say outside church… all these are meant to be between us and God, not an opportunity to gain admiration. So in our gospel reading Our Lord is not condemning any particular religious practice; he is condemning our pride that makes us use personal religious devotions in order to appear better than others.

But let us go back to the liturgy of the ashes; if we were doing this individually in order to be praised by others we would be doing this in spite of Jesus’ commands buecause yes, it is true, in this liturgy we show rather visibly to be sorry for our sins, we show that we are beginning a time of fast, prayer, and almsgiving, and we inevitably show that we are religious but – and here is the catch – we do this corporately.
Call the people together,
summon the community,
assemble the elders,
gather the children,
even the infants at the breast
says the prophet Joel (2:15-16).
We don’t put ash on our heads in spite of Jesus’ commands, because we do it together. In fact, we do this because of Jesus – by calling to all the faithful to a corporate time of repentance the Church limits the possibilities to use personal religious devotions as a means to show ourselves better than others. We do it together so no-one can boast or feel not good enough. At this liturgy no-one is holier-than-thou, no-one is more pious than the next, and everyone is marked with the same symbol of repentance. At this liturgy there is no cause to praise one’s religious efforts to criticise another’s lack of good works – we all have sinned, we all need ashes on our heads to remind us of penitence; we are all in this together.

Ordinary Time 5 – Tuesday Year II – 1Kings 8: 22-23, 27-30

1Kings 8: 22-23, 27-30

In today’s first reading we hear part of the prayer that King Solomon made at the consecration of the first Temple at Jerusalem. Here Solomon takes on a priestly role as he stands to plead before the altar and in front of the people gathered there. There are two significant points in this reading that are of relevance for us as well concerning the way we worship.

First, Solomon says to the Lord, ‘watch over this house, over this place of which you have said, “My name shall be there.”’ There was a belief among the Jewish people that God, although dwelling in heaven, was present in a particular and real way within the temple. God himself promised, “My name shall be there” meaning that God’s name, his essence, would inhabit that holy place unlike anywhere else in creation. This belief was carried on by the Church in a new and even greater way as from the earliest times the Eucharist has been kept within church buildings – here the presence of God continues to be assured not through the Arc of the Covenant but in the very substance of Jesus’ Body and Blood.

Secondly, we should note something about the orientation of both the people and of the king whilst at prayer; they all turn towards the altar and towards the holiest part of Temple as a single body gathered to plead and to worship before the presence of God. This corporate orientation during worship, although challenged by many in the last decades, has also been kept alive by the Church, as for many centuries Christians have celebrated Mass facing East together; oriented, both priests and people, towards the presence Jesus on the altar, and towards the dawn, symbol of our waiting in expectation for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

31 January, 2016

Enid Chadwick - My Book of the Church's Year - February

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus (Candlemas) - Jesus our light

Luke 2:22-40
My eyes have seen the salvation
…prepared for all …to see,
a light to enlighten the pagans (Luke 2:29-32)
In today’s gospel we hear how the child Jesus at just six weeks of age is identified as the light of all people by the holy man Simeon and these words set the scene for our liturgy. The feast of Candlemas (the Mass of Candles) is the first of our yearly celebrations of Jesus Christ as our light – the Easter vigil being the second and more important of these occasions. At this celebration we light candles and we carry them in procession; and as we do this, as we walk perhaps a little unsure of our steps singing and praying with other faithful, we trace with our liturgy a parable of life – even the figure of eight we walked this morning is a representation of our earthly journey. Walking, candle in hand to light up our way, we remind ourselves that as Christians we cannot walk very far without Jesus as our light to guide us. But what are the characteristics of this light?

First of all, in Luke 2:32 the gospel describes Jesus as ‘a light to enlighten the pagans’ meaning that, through Our Lord, God the Father is revealed to all, not just God’s ancient people; through Jesus, our Emmanuel, God-with-us, no-one is denied to follow in the light, and everyone is given access to God. 
Secondly, Luke 2:34 says that Jesus is ‘destined to be a sign that is rejected’ and in these words we find an echo of Christmas morning’s gospel when we heard Jesus described as ‘the light of all people’ (John 1:4) who ‘came to …his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11). Jesus as our light is indeed often rejected because he challenges the world; he wants to wake up with his brightness our societies that seem to sleepwalk into greed and self-destructing practices, but rolling back to sleep, rejecting his radiance, is for too many people a deceivingly easier way to live.
Finally, Luke 2:35 says that Jesus our light shines ‘so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’ Jesus’ brightness is able to bring to light our innermost thoughts, those secret things we hide even from ourselves, but in his blazing presence there is no fear, no shame, and no finger-pointing – regardless of how we may judge ourselves. Here Jesus doesn’t burn with condemnation, but shines so that we may see for ourselves in his light how free we could walk with him as our guide.

Today’s gospel reading remind us that Jesus is the only one able to lead us out of self-absorption into a loving relationship with God; whilst our liturgy reminds us that the path is lit and our guide is ready, we just have to trust his light and follow on until we reach our home. But in some sense gospel and liturgy only work up to a point; it is important that after we hear and do these things we let them inspire us to bring ourselves into the light of Jesus. So I leave you with the words of a hymn written by Blessed John Henry Newman – let these words be our prayer this day and always.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

27 January, 2016

Ordinary Time 3 – Wednesday Year II – Mark 4:1-20

Christ Preaching at the Seaport - Jan Brueghel the Elder
Mark 4:1-20
Between the parable of the sower and its explanation there are a couple of verses that many may find unsettling. Jesus says to the disciples,
‘The secret of the kingdom of God is given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables; …otherwise they might be converted and be forgiven.’ (Mark 4:11-12)
Doesn’t Jesus want everyone to be converted and forgiven? Then why only the disciples are given an insight in the mysteries of God? I would like to offer you a possible reading of this verse. In our reading there are two groups of people; the crowd and the disciples. The first group, though being very large and keen to hear what Jesus has to say, are a fleeting bunch – some may be there out of curiosity, others maybe there to get something out. The crowd cannot understand what Jesus has to say because they can’t look beyond themselves. The second group, the disciples, are those who travel with Jesus and are genuinely committed to his message despite their many failings. They have become part of the new family Jesus has established – only yesterday’s gospel featured him saying, ‘Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Mark 3:35) It is to this group that the mysteries of the Kingdom of God are revealed.

Remember the Lord’s words in Jeremiah,
‘When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart’ (Jer 29:13). 
We mustn’t be like the crowd. We must be like the disciples and be part of the family Jesus has established (his Church) despite our many failings, seeking Jesus with willingness and a right heart. If we do this the treasure of faith will be revealed to us as it was revealed to them.

26 January - Memoria of Ss Timothy & Titus, Bishops

2 Timothy 1:1-8
A verse from our first reading always attracts my attention and it is St Paul’s advice to his disciple Timothy,
‘fan into a flame the gift that God gave you’ (2Tim 1:6).
Here St Paul’s may be referring to the gift of grace given to Timothy at his ordination when he was set apart for a special ministry of oversight within the early Church; but I think that Paul’s advice can be helpful for us as well. We have received many precious gifts from God and above all we have received the gift of faith, like a spark of divine light through which we know him and we can approach him as Father. However, a faith that is not nourished is always at risk of being put out, quenched by the many worries and difficulties of life. So Paul reminds us to fan this precious gift of God, this glowing ember of faith, into a bright flame, so that it may be a guide for ourselves and a beacon for others. But how do we do this? By practicing the good habit, the virtue, that is religion.

St Augustine, one of the greatest Christian thinkers, suggested that the word “religion” may come from the Latin “religare” which means “to bind” (Cf. De Vera Religione. 55). Practicing the virtue of religion does just this; religion binds us to God through daily prayer, through reading the gospels and other spiritual writings, through receiving the Sacraments and keeping the commandments. If we do these things, if we are attentive to the role of religion in our lives, then we will fan the gift of faith into an unquenchable flame that will shine brightly to the glory of God.