28 March, 2017

Homily for Fourth Sunday of Lent (A) - Lent Catechesis 4 - The Ten Commandments

This morning we continue our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments, and because today we also keep Mothering Sunday, we take a step back to look at the fourth commandment (or the fifth in the Anglican numeration)
‘Honour your father and your mother,
as the Lord your God commanded you,
so that your days may be long
and that it may go well with you...’ (Deuteronomy 5:16)
This commandment opens what it traditionally considered the second table or tablet of the law; that group of instructions God sets out concerning our attitude towards others. This is because in most scenarios the very first neighbours we meet are the members of our own family, and within this “molecule of social life”, this mini representation of society, we learn to interact with and to love others. And within the family nucleus our parents hold a distinguished place as the ones who gave us life, nurtured us (in most cases), and looked after us from our conception. Therefore God, who ultimately gave us life through our parents, commands us to honour them, yes, and also to love and respect them, to care for them in their old age, and to cultivate a sense of gratitude towards them. In turn this obligation also expands like concentric circles to include siblings and relatives, the elders, and the leaders and fellow members of the Church.
However, it is reasonable to say that many families are not exactly straightforward, and the fourth commandment acknowledges this by expressing what we have to do in the ‘positive terms of duties to be fulfilled’ (CCC 2198). In other words, this is not a prohibition such as ‘You shall not’ murder’ (Deut. 5:17) and then leave it at that. No, this is an exhortation to go a step further, and to do good regardless of circumstances.

Indeed, the Scriptures remind us time and time again about the importance of our duties towards both parents and the elders. The book of proverbs is particularly good on this topic; for example, there we read,
‘Listen to your father who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old’
(Prov. 23:22).
In the book of Ecclesiasticus we read,
‘My child, help your father and mother in their old age,
and do not grieve them as long as they live;
even if their mind fails, be patient with them;
because you have all your faculties do not despise them.’ (Cf. Ecclus. 3:12-14).
But the ultimate teaching about this comes from Jesus when he condemns those who willingly withdraw their material support from their parents (Matt 15:1-9).

But as well as duties, in this commandment we also read about a promise;
‘Honour your father and your mother
...that it may go well with you’ (Deuteronomy 5:16)
St Paul points this out writing to the Ephesians (Cf. 6:2), and the promise attached to the commandment relates to our welfare as a society. So, showing true charity – that is care, honour, and devotion – to our parents has its own benefits, or its rewards, but not in the sense of immediate personal gains. Instead, for the commandment what we do and choices we make within our families have a wider impact, and have the potential of changing the world for the better, one family at a time. And by fulfilling our duty as sons and daughters, and by contributing positively to family life, we will promote harmony, concord, and peace in the wider society. 

Finally, let us turn for a few moments to the Gospel reading for Mothering Sunday. This is the moment in which Jesus entrusts the community of believers, represented by Saint John, to the maternal care of his Mother – who from that moment becomes our mother as well. Yet, here Jesus provides us also with clear example about following the fourth commandment. Hanging from the Cross, the Lord spends the last moments of his earthly life in honouring his Mother. He ensures that Mary may find the security and stability often denied by ancient society to childless widows by giving her a new son, John, his beloved disciple. Thus, indirectly the gospel asks us, if Jesus could care for his Mother whilst suffering on the cross and close to death, what would prevent us from honouring our parents?

23 March, 2017

Homily for Third Sunday of Lent (A) - Lent Catechesis 3 - The Ten Commandments

Over the last couple of weeks we looked at the first three of the Ten Commandments and what they say about our relationship with God – how, how often, whom, and why we should worship.
Today we continue in our Lenten study of the commandments, and we turn our attention very briefly to the second half of the list;
You shall not murder.
Neither shall you commit adultery.
Neither shall you steal.
Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:17-21)
Expressed all in the negative, these commandments look like a fairly straightforward list of prohibitions encompassing a limited number of offenses that finds a close parallel in our criminal system. Our laws too command us not to murder, not to steal, and not to lie in court; because committing any of these offenses would severely destabilise our society, and deprive victims of a few basic human rights.

But the parallel between the commandments we find in the Scriptures and the regulation of civil society ends here. Because the commandments express much more than simple God-given regulations to help individuals get along with each other. Unlike in the case of criminal laws which command the respect of all subjects, the Ten Commandments are primarily the guidelines, or the if you will, regulating the covenant relationship between God and the people who belong to him through faith – meaning they regulate the relationship between God and us. Therefore, even in the case of commandments that prohibit us from harming others, God is still involved. And every time we break such a commandment we endanger our relationship with God, because God considers our relationship with him dependent on the ways we relate to our neighbours, not just on the ways we relate to him directly, through worship and prayer.

But I say more. As Christians we must interpret these four commandments in the light of the Lord Jesus who, on one hand, gives us newer and more stringent regulations to follow such as in the Sermon on the Mount (Cf. Matthew 5:21-30); whilst, on the other hand, he encourages us to understand that love – and in this case love for our neighbours – is the only possible fulfilment for any commandment (Cf. Matt 22:39). This is why Saint Paul later writes to the Galatians saying ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Galatians 5:14); or again to the Romans ‘[the commandments] are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:9-10) 

So, as Christians, our task is not simply to abide to the letter of the commandments and to refrain from doing evil; instead we are called to interpret them in a positive way, according to the royal law, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). In other words, keeping the commandments is a good place to start, but the Lord commands us to actively and intentionally do good. In this way the list of commandments could be expressed in a positive sense saying;
You shall promote life.
You shall live faithfully.
You shall share.
You shall speak truth.
When we take in consideration all these things we can see that in the Ten Commandments God shows himself not as a distant referee who is ready to judge human relationships from a point of lofty neutrality. Rather, here God manifests himself as someone so deeply involved in our day-to-day lives as believers, that the moment we willingly transgress and hurt another person we necessarily wound his gracious love for us; and the moment we willingly do good for our neighbour we also do good for, and honour him.
[At the end of all things] the righteous will say him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the Lord will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:37-40)

12 March, 2017

Homily for Second Sunday of Lent (A) - Lent Catechesis 2 - The Ten Commandments

This morning we continue our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments, and we turn our attention to the third one;
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 5:12-14)
Last Monday evening, as we begun the Pilgrim Course, we started with the simple exercise of remembering the Ten Commandments as a group, but try as we may, for a couple minutes we only managed to get up to nine. That is, until divine inspiration struck one of us and she said, “Keep the Sabbath holy”. But the forgetfulness of our little group about the third commandment is pretty much indicative of what has been happening for decades within the Church – the idea that corporate worship is somehow optional for a Christian coupled with changes to Sunday trading regulations have severely weakened the religious and moral obligation to attend Sunday worship, and particularly to attend a Communion service; to the point that many people have even forgotten (or never even heard) that there is a commandment about this. 
Yet, the commandment to observe the Lord’s Day and to keep it holy remains. Shabbat, the word from which we get the Sabbath, simply means “rest” and it connects us to the primordial origins of a day of rest found in the book of Genesis, when God is said to have rested on the seventh day, after having completed his work of creation (Cf. Gen 2:2-3). The Sabbath also embodies the celebration of how God later rescued the children of Israel from slavery at the first Passover, and it is still celebrated as such by the Jewish people. Both of these Scriptural events – God’s rest after creation and the redemption of Israel – form the backdrop to the new Sabbath, the new Lord’s Day, we keep as Christians. On Sundays we celebrate the salvation Christ won for us through his passion and death, and we rejoice in the new creation being inaugurated in him through his resurrection on the first day of the week. 

Then, how should Christians ‘observe Sabbath and keep it holy’? The third commandment does not require us to do anything extraordinary or convoluted. In fact, Jesus says, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). And with this Jesus shows his followers that the point of the Sabbath is not to abide to strict regulations about precisely what to do, or how far one ought to walk, and so on. On one hand, to keep the Lord’s Day “holy” means precisely to set it aside, as it were, from normal or working days, in order to use the free time the Sabbath affords us to nurture our relationships with God and with his people, enjoying the company of the church family, and to recharge our batteries for the new week. Thus, Christians should not work on a Sunday, wherever that is possible and not essential; and we ought to avoid those trivial activities that deprive other workers of the Sabbath rest with their families – even if these should not be Christians themselves. On the other hand, to “observe” the Sabbath means to participate in the corporate worship of the people of God and to remember together the Lord’s redeeming acts for us all. This is particularly relevant in the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Mass, which is the everlasting memorial (the making present in our midst) of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.

But I think there is more to this. The Mass holds a special place in the Sunday pattern of worship as this is the only thing the Lord ever directly told us to do so that he might be present among us;
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ (Luke 22:19) 
Do this. Not café church, or sweaty church, or praying at home, or whatever else. Jesus says, “Do this.” And as a consequence Christians have gathered on Sundays to celebrate the memorial of the Christ’s own Passover, which we now know as the Eucharist, since the earliest times. Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles tell us this at several points saying that disciples “broke the bread” together every Sundays at the very least, in not more often.
At this service we find ourselves gathered from every walk of life in the presence of the risen Lord as the new people of God. This is “source and summit” of our life as a Christian community; and it really should be regarded as the focal point of our week – the one thing we cannot do without, no matter what. Above all, the “this” the Lord tells us to do is the true fulfilling of the third commandment.
‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.’
May we use this season of Lent to deepen our love and appreciation of the Mass, both on Sundays and on weekdays, so that through this sacrament we may grow ever closer to the Lord. Amen.

05 March, 2017

Homily for First Sunday of Lent (A) - Lent Catechesis 1 - The Ten Commandments

Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus said, ‘You must worship the Lord your God,
and serve him alone.’ (Matthew 4:10)
Lent should be a time of spiritual renewal in which we ought to prepare ourselves for ministry in the world, like the Lord Jesus did before us, as he prayerfully fasted in the wilderness ahead of his public ministry. So I thought it might be good and useful for us to spend some time looking at the Ten Commandments together; and to shake the dust off form this core text of the Scriptures that many have forgotten or consider redundant.

The list of the Commandments opens with a short introduction in which the Lord first reminds us about his relation to us. He says,
‘I am the Lord your God, 
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 
out of the house of slavery’ (Deuteronomy 5:6)
In saying this, God shows himself as saviour, as the powerful redeemer who breaks the bonds of slavery for those who believe in him. And this important reminder allows us to interpret the rules that follow, not as a mass of incomprehensible regulations limiting our freedom, but as the divine framework ensuring our flourishing as human beings, and our attainment of eternal life. Because God is the liberator of his people, he is not in the business of imposing laws as yet another yoke of slavery; rather he establishes the commandments so that we might find true freedom in following them.

The First Commandment, 
‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Dt 5:7), 
may be initially thought just as a blanket ban on other gods. But, this is not all that the commandment requires from us. Instead this calls us to firmly centre our faith, love, and hope on God, with the intention of serving him alone. So, even though we do not believe in other gods, we ought to make sure we do not fall to the temptation to worship and serve something other than God, thinking that that something will bring us happiness and fulfilment. Maybe we have let material things to become our (inalterable) points of reference in life; be it an addiction, money, or possessions… Or maybe we have allowed other realities to replace due worship of God; things such as superstitions and indifference towards religion (which is always popular!). But in all these things, today’s gospel shows us what it means to keep this commandment whilst being faced by temptations; food, personal safety, and power can never come between us and obedience to God, because he alone is worthy of our service. 

The Second Commandment,
‘You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God’ (Dt 5:11),
could be easily interpreted just as a ban on blasphemy and swearing. But in reality, what is prescribed here goes beyond simply ensuring respect for God and preventing people from cursing him outsight. Instead the second commandment calls us to use carefully, and prayerfully, one of the most precious gifts God gives to those who believe in him – the gift of believing in his name. In the Scriptures God reveals his name, in an intimate way, only to his people; but even then, his name is only used in the context of worship, prayer, and blessing, because to speak God’s name means to confess and to call upon the constant, unchangeable being, …faithful loving and just, without any evil (Cf. CCC 2086) who is above all that exists. Likewise, the name of Jesus is most Holy, as St Paul says, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bend’ (Philippians 2:10), and similar respect should be observed when talking about the saints.

A positive way to express this commandment could be ‘You shall honour the name of God as Holy’. Because this name and the realities connected to it are “set apart” and cannot be used in trivial matters or, as we do so often, as an exclamation. But there is more, remember how Jesus said in the gospel a few weeks back, ‘Do not swear at all… Let your word be “Yes” if you mean Yes” or “No” if you mean No”’ (Cf. Matt 5:33-37). This is because to take an oath falsely, or to make a promise I do not intend to keep, in the name of God is to ask God to be witness to my lie, bringing dishonour upon him.

Far from being redundant, the first two commandments should help us reflect on what it means to be in relationship with God. Do we perceive what is being asked of us as Christians to be a burden? or do we consider serving God as a loving response to him for calling us to be his people?

02 March, 2017

Homily for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - Divine Providence

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34
Jesus says, ‘Set your hearts on God’s kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all other things will be given you as well.’ (Matthew 6:33)
Over the last couple of Sundays Matthew’s gospel guided us in exploring few fundamental teachings about the Christian life; namely, a call to deepen good habits by letting them be inspired by charity, and a call to love our enemies (Cf. Matthew 5), which ‘constitutes the core of the Christian revolution’ (BXVI, Angelus, 18 February 2007). Today the gospel presents us with another counter-cultural teaching; to place our trust in God for our livelihood – to depend on what is called Divine Providence

Now, depending on God’s Providence does not mean that we should give up our day jobs, and wait around for what we need in order to survive to fall from the sky. Working, the preparation of food, and clothing are all fairly basic parts of what it means to be human and Divine Providence in not meant to supplant the need for these things. But to rely on Providence means to prayerfully put all our trust in God for our wellbeing, having faith that he will never abandon us, and that he will provide in time of need. Although we live in a society that is all too often concerned simply with improving the ways we look, eat, and generate wealth, as Christians, our existence should be marked by constant improvements, not of material conditions, but of the ways in which we act, pray, and ultimately follow the Lord Jesus. Seeking the establishment of the Kingdom of God in our world, and the welfare of the Church; these should be our priorities, and Christ tells us, if we do this all those other things, what we need will be given to us as well.

In our second reading too, Saint Paul shows us how placing our trust in God also helps us also with any worry we might have about the ultimate odds of life; that is, whether or not the Lord will grant to us the eternal life he promises for his faithful servants. Paul says,
‘I will not even pass judgement on myself. True, my conscience does not reproach me at all, but that does not prove that I am acquitted: the Lord alone is my judge.’ (1Cor 4:3-4)
Here Paul is talking about the judgment Christ will bring for everyone at the end of time, and he affirms that this type of judgment is never ours to make even when we think about ourselves. We cannot honestly say “I am blameless before the Lord” just as much as we can never despair by saying “Oh, there is not hope for me; I am a lost cause”. No. Conscience and self-examination (when they are used in the context of prayer) are essential tools to help us to determine where we fail, where we need to improve, and where we need to ask for forgiveness from the Lord. But these are not tools for us to use to judge ourselves, or others, worthy of eternal life. Like a compass, conscience and self-examination are excellent tools to use on the way, but on reaching the magnetic pole of existence, they would be rather useless in determining where the end of our journey lies.

So, in everything from food to salvation we must prayerfully place our complete trust in the Lord, and in his loving providence. And if we manage do this the great burden of worries about future unknown odds (odds that might never come true) will be lifted from our shoulders, freeing us to put our concerns and efforts to better use in the pursuit of God’s Kingdom, and the welfare of his Church. And this is what truly matters; that we do our best for the Lord today, without worrying what tomorrow will bring.

Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - Love your enemies

Matthew 5:38-48
‘I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:44-45).
Last Sunday Matthew’s gospel showed us how, in order to live the Christian life to its fullness, we must strive to live up to certain moral standards that are considerably more demanding than those developed by society outside these walls. This teaching was summed up by Jesus saying, ‘If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:20). And, in my homily I mentioned that in order for our virtue (our good habits and dispositions) to go “deeper” – to become truly Christian – we must be guided by charity, by the love that God has poured in our hearts. Being guided by love is the more demanding task Jesus requires from us, not simply sticking to a lengthily list of dos and don’ts. Today, our gospel reading continues with the same theme as we hear how Jesus instructs us to take charity as our yardstick, our guiding principle, when dealing, not just with those whom we know and like, but also with our enemies.

‘I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44). Jesus spoke these powerful words first to a Jewish society that was ruled by a foreign power with the aid of an occupation army, and deceitful political leaders. So, we must not think even for a minute that the Lord’s command means just being nice to people we cannot really stomach, not even merely refrain ourselves from hating our enemies. To love one’s enemy means showing them the level of care and commitment to their wellbeing that they deserve as fellow human beings, as fellow creatures of God; not to be spiteful towards their success, or rejoicing at their sorrows; and ultimately, it means learning to pray for them just as often as we pray for our loved ones.

Undoubtedly, this is a tall order, and many people will be quick to dismiss it as an absurdity, especially when we look at the ways in which certain powerful figures today are essentially using hate and fearmongering in their political speeches, or the ways in which we are prone to dehumanising individuals with whom we do not agree, in order to feel morally justified to remove our care form them. Hate, or just apathy, for people we do not like, let alone for those who persecute us, may be the fashionable flavours of the month in many areas of society, but it should not be the guide our virtue; it does not concern us. We are Christians, and as such we are called to go further and to let love transform our actions into those worthy of true sons of the Father in heaven.

Which leads me to another important point… normally I would try to mitigate the gender-exclusive character of our readings, but on this occasion, when the gospel says, “If you do these things ‘you will be sons of your Father in heaven’” it retains an important feature; if we love our enemies and pray for them, charity will transform us into the likeness of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, by guiding us to act as he himself did. In other words, by constantly practicing virtues such as humility, justice, and generosity with the assistance of love, we will daily grow into maturity as Christians in, what St Paul calls, ‘the full stature of Christ’ (Ephesian 4:13).

Our Lord did not just command us to love our enemies, and then left us to our own devices to figure out what that might mean. Jesus applied what he taught; and after that he inspired countless saints to do the likewise. On Good Friday, as cold nails were hammered through his flesh by the Roman soldiers who ruled over his people, Jesus prayed for his enemies saying, ‘Father, forgive them’. In this he gave us both example and courage to be guided by love in the ways we engage even with our enemies, because he loved them first.