27 January, 2015

Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul 2015 - Being lovers of Community

Acts 9:1-22
‘Saul, why do you persecute me?’
He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. (1:4-5)
Last week I have talked to you about the necessity of becoming courageous disciples and lovers of the Church in order to be credible in drawing others to Jesus. Today, I would like to expand the second point regarding the Church. I said that it is of primary importance for us to learn patiently how to put away the word “I” and to start using the word “We”, which means to stop putting ourselves before other people and to consider ourselves as part of a community. Perhaps, I could have paraphrased the common expression ‘There is no “I” in “Team”’ and said ‘There is no “I” in “Church”’, but this would have been misleading, because the Church community does recognise one “I” but one only; the “I” which makes us all one, and this “I” is Jesus Christ.

The Conversion of St. Paul by Francesco Ubertini
Today the liturgy invites us to celebrate the conversion of Paul, one of the fiercest persecutors of the early Church. In the story of this dramatic and truly life-changing event we encounter the “I” of Jesus Christ. Observe what Jesus says to Paul; He says, ‘Why do you persecute ME?’ and again, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Our Lord does not ask, ‘Why did you persecute me?’ or ‘Why are you persecuting my disciples?’ Jesus asks, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ – Singular and present tense. This question must have come as surprise and as a big shock to Paul just as much as the divine light that shone around him. ‘Persecuting me?’ Paul was not at the crucifixion, he did not flog Jesus on Good Friday, and he did not nail him to the Cross. As far as Paul believed, Jesus was dead. In fact, Paul was intent on wiping out a community, a group of people spread over many, many miles. He was not after one single individual. Yet the first words Jesus speaks to Paul plant in him that seed of community that later Paul will express in his letters comparing the Church to the body of Christ, where all believers are part of the same living organism made one in Jesus.
In our reading Jesus identifies himself in a very intimate way with his Church, with the diverse community of his followers. Jesus alone is the great “I” that unifies the Church in one body, and “We”, his disciples, are inseparably part of him. Jesus alone is the great “I” and we must put away our single selves in order to become ever more fully part of him, and so fully part of his Church community.

However, when we think about it, to put away the word “I” and to start using the word “We” is not something easy to do. It is not easy to accept that our each individuality is only a little part of something much greater than us. But also, it is not easy because we may find difficult to understand that Jesus is truly at one with the Church. It is not easy because the Church at times can be very sinful; she may appear very confused and sometimes unwelcoming. In the end, we focus on the negatives and we struggle to see how Christ would want to be associated with her at all. And so the selfish temptation of going it alone can be very attractive. But we must beware of those who say, ‘I don’t need the Church to be a Christian’. Without the Church Christ is reduced to an ideology and the gospel to a sterile story containing outdated dos and don’ts.
Look at Paul. His dramatic encounter with Jesus is a very personal one, but this does not mean that he can be a Christian without being part of the Church. In our reading we see that from the very begging he is surrounded, helped and ministered to by other Christians. He receives back his sight through the ministry of others; he becomes officially part of the community by being baptised in the faith of the Church; he spends time with the believers in Damascus; he begins his preaching from among them; and he devotes the rest of his life to building up that body he once persecuted. Reading between the lines we see how Paul puts aside his individuality, his deeply held prejudices, his future plans, and his entire self in order to follow Jesus and to minister to his body the Church.

At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we should consider unity also within our Church of England too; Jesus’ question to Paul may be addressed to us, ‘Why do you persecute me?’
Every time we attack our brothers and sisters with uncharitable remarks and we foster divisions we strike the body of Christ with fresh blows; every time we slander our Church and break away from her we hammer the nails into the hands of Christ. Therefore Paul’s conversion must be our own conversion too. Being lovers of community means allowing other Christians, who do not necessarily think like us, to minister to us and to help us regain our sight; it means spending time with our brothers and sisters learning from one another; it means devoting our efforts for the building up of the Church; and it means realising that Jesus Christ is the one “I” in which all our differences can find reconciliation, the one “I” in which we are all one.

22 January, 2015

A Liturgy for Unity - Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

A Liturgy for Unity. A service created for interdenominational worship in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. 
Common Worship: Times and Seasons, material from which is included in this service, is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2006

19 January, 2015

Homily for the Second Sunday of Epiphany (B) - Come and See

John 1:43-51
‘We have found Jesus’. Nathanael said, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip replied, ‘Come and see.’
In the Sundays of Epiphany the liturgy guides us to Jesus as he is revealed to the world as its Saviour. Today, we see a slight break with the earlier narratives of Epiphany – with the coming of the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus. In these previous stories, Jesus is alone or accompanied by his family, but today Jesus manifests himself as the awaited Messiah within the company of his first disciples. This is a subtle break, but an important one nonetheless; as Jesus begins his ministry among us and as he reveals himself to us he chooses to do so with and through his disciples.

Philip and Nathanael - Canterbury Cathedral
Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus encounters his first two followers, Andrew and the beloved disciple, and we are told that, as Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Teacher, where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they abided with him (1:38-39). After this first meeting, Andrew finds his brother Peter and we are told that he announces, ‘We have found the Messiah’, and then that he actually brings his brother to Jesus (1:41). Today, as a continuation of this story, Philip repeats this patter as he begins his work of evangelization by bringing others to Jesus.

It seems that being with Jesus, abiding with him, compels the disciples to imitate him from a very early stage, to become like him, and to invite others into his community. This is what Philip does in today’s story, but in a very special way, that is by using the very same invite Jesus has used with Andrew; after hearing Nathanael sceptic response to his announcement, he confidently yet patiently says to the man, ‘Come and see’ (1:46).
In their work of evangelization both Andrew and Philip do not say ‘I’m a Christian now, you know.’ or ‘Jesus is my personal saviour’. No. They do no flaunt or claim any moral or spiritual superiority over others, but in joy, confidence, and humility they invite those whom they know to ‘Come and see’ Jesus in their midst; to come and see the Epiphany of God among them. They reach out to others and invite them in; they seek to attract them patiently to join in their community.

In this sense, we are all called to be act like Philip. Our common vocation is to reach out, especially to those whom we know already, and to invite the Nathanaels of our times to come and see in the Lord manifested in our midst. 
But there are two conditions we must fulfil in order to do this.
First, we must be courageous disciples, and secondly, we must be lovers of the community Jesus gathers around himself.

To be courageous disciples, sounds really prosaic, but it is a lot easier to say than to really put into practice. We must be those who abide with Jesus constantly and have offered to him our daily life each according to his or her specific vocation. We must go where he goes, do what he does, without holding back or counting the cost. This resolve to be true disciples is very important, anything less, anything less courageous or costly risks to be shunned by others as hypocrisy.

To be lovers of community, means being lovers of the Church – of that unique gathering of extremely different people in and through which Jesus has chosen to manifest himself to the world. It means learning to put away the word “I” and start using “We” instead. John’s gospel highlights this very well. Here Philip is described within the context of the earliest community united around Jesus. So, when Philp begins his work of evangelization he is not a lone preacher, he is not a random character in the story, but he is part of something greater than himself. Also, look at what he says to Nathanael. Does he say, ‘I have found Jesus?’ No. Philip saysWe have found Jesus’. He announces, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus.(1:45) We, not I.
‘We have found Jesus’ is an enthusiastic announcement that plants the seed of community in others; it’s an open invitation to join in.

In order to be like Philip and to call the Nathanaels of our times we must courageous disciples and lovers of community. But I can already hear our families, our friends echoing the scepticism of Nathanael and saying to us, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (1:46) or rather, ‘Can anything good come out of the Church?’ It is a hurtful and sometimes hard question to answer, particularly at a time when the Church may seem tired and a bit confused; at a time when she is hurting in many places and divided. Yet, today’s gospel provides us with a something to respond to it, the simple invitation ‘Come and see’.
If we are courageous disciples and lovers of community then our reaching out and our evangelization will be credible. If we do this, we will be able to respond positively to the scepticism of society and to say in humility, ‘Come and see Jesus in our Church community; come and see how he has changed us from loners into brothers and sisters; come and see how we have found in him all that we have ever truly craved and desired for. Come and see.’

29 December, 2014

Short homily for the Feast of the Holy Family (B) - "Holy"

The feast of the Holy Family is a relatively new item introduced into the Christian calendar on the first Sunday after Christmas as a celebration of family life. This feast should recall our attention to the original family composed by Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. I guess this family could be interpreted in two different ways; at first it could be said that this is a rather peculiar family that has very little in common with our domestic set ups… a wondrous child whose arrival was announced by angels, an adoptive father, and a virgin mother. But then again, at the same time, the holy family displays also very normal traits; dad is a skilled manual worker, mum is a homemaker, and the son is poised to carry on the family business. They are a devout family which – according to the gospel – abided to the religious and social customs of Israel. Also, all of them know first-hand the hardships and tribulations of being refugees and immigrants.

Christ In The House Of His Parents - John Millais
So we seem to have a problem. If we see the holy family mainly as a divine set up, we will never try to imitate their love and commitment to one another and to God, because we might feel that their head-start on us is too great. If we see them as a fairly normal family we will miss the awesome mystery contained within them.
So what should we do? How should we regard the family of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary? I think the solution lies in the middle – in the word “holy”. We should consider their family both as special and normal at the same time; a place both where angels sing and nappies are changed; where the Son of God, the provider of all good things, lives and yet food has to be cooked each day… in other words we should regard this family as truly “holy” – a family where earth meets heaven and where day-to-day things mingle with God himself.

I am sure that on this Sunday there will be preachers who will launch themselves against any type of domestic set up that does not fit into their interpretation of the family. We have seen this recently in our own Church of England with the debate about marriage equality. But I would be very careful of any such comment.
We cannot use the family of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as a moral weapon. Rather we should say, that whatever our family set up is, the Holy Family can provide us with a blueprint of domestic holiness, where our prosaic, daily chores ought to be mingle with a life of prayer, of devoted attention to one another, of constant engagement with God’s will. The family of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary ought to inspire us to make our own families “holy”; sanctuary places where earth meets heaven. 

Post-Communion prayer (Roman Missal)
Bring those you refresh with this heavenly Sacrament,
most merciful Father,
to imitate constantly the example of the Holy Family,
so that, after the trials of this world, 
we may share their company for ever. Amen.

Homily for Christmas Day 2014 - Accepting Jesus

The Christmas story is a familiar one for many people. A young woman named Mary who had been expecting a child gives birth whilst she is on a long journey with her newlywed husband Joseph. A little child is born as the couple struggle to find a roof for the night. During the same night and in the few days after strangers come knocking on the stable door wanting to see the little child.
Told in this way the Christmas story seems nothing out of the ordinary – perhaps just a set of coincidences, the unfortunate due date for Mary, and nosey shepherds. But is it really the case? If we look at the Christmas story in more detail, looking at each event surrounding the birth of Jesus, we get a completely different picture.

St Joseph, Pray for us!
First, we have the rather extra-ordinary pregnancy of the mother; announced by an angel, begun by the Holy Spirit, and confirmed to Joseph by another angel. Then we have the choice of name for the child. Mary and Joseph call the child Jesus as they were commanded to do, a name that means Saviour, or healing. Then we have an adoptive dad with a distinguished ancestry. Joseph, who quietly lets people assume that he is the father of the child, is himself a descendant of King David. Then we have the location of the birth. Bethlehem is the ancestral seat of the House of David, whose throne Jesus was meant to inherit, according to what the angel Gabriel said. Finally, we have angels singing and greeting shepherds in the countryside around Bethlehem telling everyone about the little child; and we see a wondrous star shining high above which will lead men from far away to the place where Jesus is…
Told in this way the Christmas story has a different meaning. In this way all the bits of the story, all the people touched by the amazing birth, come together as pieces of a complex jigsaw-puzzle; piece that no matter how different they are from one-another, they all have that beautiful, amazing, little child in common. In fact, I have always wondered whether or not these people knew what was really happening in that moment that changed their lives forever. I have always wondered how they reacted to God’s not-so-subtle invitations to be part of his story, and whether or not they knew who they were all welcoming in their lives on that night.

What about Joseph for example? What about the man whom the Bible describes as a ‘righteous man’ (Matthew 1:19) – a description very rarely used in the Scriptures? He seems to be cast aside more often than not in our Christmas narratives; relegated to a B role together with the stable animals.
And yet Joseph plays a vital part in the Christmas story. Jesus is born in Bethlehem because of him. Jesus is born in the city of King David because Joseph had to travel to his ancestral town to be registered for the Roman census. What’s more, because of Joseph’s willingness to be an adoptive father to Mary’s child, Jesus is provided with a distinguished pedigree; with a line to the royal throne of David. Because of Joseph’s willingness to welcome Jesus, God himself finds nourishment and protection in his fatherly care.

The arrival of Jesus in Joseph’s life must have been accompanied by soul-searching moments about the origin of this baby, by doubts about the future he was planning for himself, and by fears about what others may think of him. The arrival of Jesus must have been a truly radical, life changing event for Joseph. Yet, he says his yes to God who invites him to participate in the story of redemption, in the story of Christmas. He welcomes Jesus as his own little son, as that treasure who would change his life forever.

To accept the child Jesus in our lives like Joseph did is what God is asking each of us so that we may all become part of the Christmas story. As Jesus did for Joseph, Jesus comes to each of us as a gift (oftentimes as a much unexpected gift). As the child Jesus did for Joseph, Jesus doesn’t come from ourselves or our own efforts we are just asked to receive him with an open heart, welcome him, and let him reshape our lives. As Joseph did with that little child, we must allow Jesus to grow in us and to change our lives, our habits, our everthings, until we cannot picture ourselves even for a moment without his warmth, without his joy, and without his comfort. 
In fact, we ought to echo in our hearts the words of the familiar carol “O little town of Bethlehem” saying with faith,
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
…o come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Our Emmanuel.
It is my wish for you all that your Christmas may be truly blessed, blessed by the presence of Jesus, the holy Child of Bethlehem, in your life. Amen.

24 December, 2014

Kalenda - The Christmas Proclamation (Modern English Text)

I have uploaded on my Scribd account the text of the Kalenda - the traditional Christmas Proclamation to be read at the very beginning of Midnight Mass (or the main Christmas Service). 
I have only formatted this version to save you some time - the original text is readily available online.
Please feel free to download, print, and use during your services.

23 December, 2014

Rorate Coeli Mass

Yesterday evening I celebrated a Rorate Coeli Mass at St Ia's. It was an intimate service held by candle light.

As we read the Scriptures and celebrated the Eucharist in the darkness of winter we kept a symbolic vigil waiting for the Lord to come as the true dayspring from on high. 
The little candle in our hands also reminded us of the burning lamps of the faithful virgins...
...At midnight there was a shout, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' (Matthew 25:6)

Altar at St Ia's
Prayer over the gifts,
We offer you, O Lord,
these offerings of conciliation and praise,
humbly asking that,
following the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
we may present our very selves
as a holy sacrifice pleasing to you.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.