27 March, 2015

25 March, 2015

Homily for the Annunciation of the Lord 2015 - Humility and devotion

I have preached before on the humility of Mary. This present homily was inspired by a reflection of St Ambrose of Milan on the relationship between the humility of God in Jesus Christ and the humility of his Mother, Mary the Theotokos.

Luke 1:26-38
‘Mary said, “Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”’ (1:38)
All our hymns and prayers rightly see Mary as exalted and honoured. For example, when we ask for her prayers we begin with words from Scripture, with the words the Archangel Gabriel addressed to her, saying ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace…’; another example is found in one hymn we sing today that begins saying ‘O Glorious Maid, exalted far’. In these hymns and prayers we echo the words of the Magnificat as with all generations we call her ‘blessed’ (Luke 1:48).
Yet, in our gospel reading today we see that Mary, after being told that she has been chosen to be the Mother of God, calls herself ‘a servant’. She says to the angel, “Here am I, the handmaid of the Lord” – meaning, “I am the Lord’s personal servant, I am one wholly devoted to fulfilling his will”. So we see that right from the first moment in which Mary could have claimed for herself glory and honour for being so highly favoured by God, she humbles herself before him instead, and speaking in humility she says, “I am his servant”.

St Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, commenting on this verse says ‘Behold now the humility and devotion of the Virgin’; look and meditate on these two qualities of Mary. Humility and devotion come from the fact that Mary is chosen to bring into our world Jesus, the One who himself is meek and lowly. At the Annunciation Mary accepts willingly to become the mother of the One who, as St Paul writes, ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ (Philippians 2:7); so she could not have displayed any other characteristic but the ones displayed by her own Son – humility and devotion to the Father.

So here we have something to meditate upon as we try to live the Christian life. If we were chosen to be a key person in the next cabinet, or selected for a court honour, how would we react? Would we be full of ourselves? Would we be boastful? I think many of us would be. But I am asking this because we have already been chosen for an even greater honour; being a Christian far surpasses any of these examples. In Jesus God invites us to be his adoptive sons and daughters. There is no higher honour than this. But then how should we behave ourselves? Should we be proud and self-righteous? Should we look down on others because of our faith?
By no means. At the Annunciation we have two examples of humility and devotion, one coming from the Blessed Virgin and other coming indirectly from her Son. In Mary we see a woman who could have claimed glory and honour for being highly favoured by God, but decided to remain a humble and devoted servant. In Jesus, who from that moment is taking flesh in her womb, we see the eternal and almighty God becoming a human embryo – something that nowadays society disposes of or destroys at will.

Beholding and contemplating the holiness of Mary is good, but we have to go one step further and put our contemplation into action by living the Christian life according to what we learn from her; that is, living with humility and devotion to God, because only when we will be able to willingly say with her “Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”, only then, we will have understood what it truly means to be a Christian. 

Let us pray,
O Jesus, living in Mary,
Come and live in your servants,
In the spirit of your holiness,
In the fullness of your might,
In the truth of your virtues,
In the perfection of your ways,
In the communion of your mysteries.
Subdue every hostile power
In your spirit, for the glory of the Father. Amen.

22 March, 2015

Homily for Fifth Sunday of Lent (B) 2015 - Passion Sunday - Glorification and the Christian Life

John 12:23-33
‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.’ (12:26)
William Blake - Christ Nailed to the Cross The Third Hour
With Passion Sunday we are invited to turn our attention more closely to the events of Holy Week and Easter which will soon unfold before us. The words of both the Liturgy and the hymns change to focus our minds more sharply on events of Good Friday and on the Cross. Likewise, our readings lead us to meditate more deeply on the suffering and death of Jesus. As the last fortnight of Lent, commonly called Passiontide, begins it seems that dark clouds are gathering and the final journey to Calvary is imminent.

In our gospel reading we find a contrast between the impending glorification of Jesus and his anxiety about the sufferings he will undergo – glory and suffering, exaltation and pain, this is placed before us. Jesus affirms that the hour of his glorification has arrived (v.23); but he also says that his soul is troubled (v.27), and that he is going to be ‘lifted up from the earth’ (v.32) thus pointing his disciples towards the Cross. Yet, all these elements which only superficially seem to contrast one another are part of the same event, the final glorification of Jesus. So what is this “hour of glorification”?
“Glorification” for Jesus means the moment of his Passion ending with his Crucifixion – something quite removed from our way of thinking about glory. In the crucifixion, in this act of final and complete self-giving love, the Father will be fully revealed in and through Jesus; the Father’s love for his creation will be revealed in its fullness thus manifesting real “glory” – the love of a God who chooses to surrender into our hands the most precious good he knows, his own reflection, his only begotten Son, in order to show us that there isn’t anything he would spare for our sake, and for the sake of a relationship with us.

Remember the words Jesus said earlier in John’s gospel – in fact, don’t just call them to mind, but brand them on your heart, because there are the key to understand the events of Easter. Jesus said,
‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16) 
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. This is the hour is which these words come to pass. This is the hour of glorification. In the Cross the Father gives Jesus into our hands, so that we may find eternal life in him.
But how can this be glorification for the Son who undergoes pain and humiliation? you might ask. Again, “Glorification” for Jesus means doing the Father’s will in everything and to the very end; therefore, the Passion and the Cross come as the climax and final seal of a life uniquely devoted to obeying the Father. As much as we struggle to believe it sometimes, and to understand it even more often, the Cross is the crowning glory of Jesus, and the lasting proof that the Father loves us with infinite love. The resurrection will come into play into this as the demonstration that such a great love cannot die and that eternal life is the fitting reward promised to those who do the Father’s will.

So too, Jesus tells his disciples that glorification and honour from the Father will come to us if we endeavour to do his will just as He does. Observe what Jesus says about the grain of wheat.
‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (v.24)
Christ is the grain of wheat, who in dying on the Cross produces fruit by bringing many to life. But in our little we too are called to do likewise. If you have ever sawn a seed in your garden you will know exactly the meaning of this short parable. A single seed, in this case a single grain, will produce new life germinating; it will develop, flourish, and it will eventually multiply by bearing fruit. Yet, in order to do so I must to let go of the seed; I have to stop holding on to it with tightly clenched fists; in a sense I have to take a risk, I have to entrust it to the ground, so that, once its shape has been destroyed by the new roots and shoots, it will be able to bear fruit in new life.

On the Cross Jesus is glorified as the true grain of wheat, but as his disciples we are asked to be where he is. For a few people being where Jesus is may mean accepting the Cross of martyrdom just as Jesus did; but broadly for every Christian “Glorification” will mean letting go of self-serving and self-centred attitudes, of vanity and pride, of gossip and selfish machinations. “Glorification” will mean serving others (particularly those in need) with genuine love, helping our church ungrudgingly, being constant and diligent in attending church worship and in personal prayers, and persevering in the Father’s will until the very end; or as Charles Wesley put it, to be
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.

AAB Resources - Liturgy for Stations of the Cross

A liturgy for the Lenten devotion of Stations of the Cross with material taken from the Church of England liturgical books. This liturgy can work for both forms of the Via Crucis - the traditional and the Scriptural. It includes a form of gathering, prayers for each station, a concluding response, and a blessing. Common Worship: Times and Seasons, and Common Worship: Daily Prayer, material from which is included and adapted in this service, is copyright The Archbishops’ Council 2006, rediliy available at Church of England PDF files page. Liturgical formatting by anotheranglicanblog.com

Also available, a selection of hymns for Passiontide, suitable for Stations of the Cross, Good Friday Liturgy, and other Lenten devotions.
Hymns: Glory be to Jesus,
My song is love unknown,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
When I survey the wondrous cross
Hymns readily available on the internet; liturgical formatting by anotheranglicanblog.com

Stations of the Cross artwork has been published previously, HERE.

The Way of the Cross, as we understand the term today, dates to the late Middle Ages. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (+ 1153), Saint Francis of Assisi (+ 1226) and Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (+ 1274), with their loving, contemplative devotion, prepared the ground on which the devout practice was to develop.
The Way of the Cross or Via Crucis, in its present form, with the same fourteen stations placed in the same order, is recorded in Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century especially in Franciscan communities. From the Iberian peninsula it spread first to Sardinia, at that time under the dominion of the Spanish crown and then to Italy. Here it found a convinced and effective apostle in Saint Leonard of Port Maurice (+ 1751), a friar minor and a tireless missionary; he personally erected more than 572 Via Crucis, including the famous one erected inside the Colosseum at the request of Benedict XIV on 27 December 1750 to commemorate the Holy Year.

16 March, 2015

Homily for Mothering Sunday 2015 - The courage of mothers

Exodus 2:1-10
John 19:25-27

Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (19:25)
Jan van Eyck -
Christ on the cross between Mary and John
The coinciding of Mothering Sunday with Mother’s Day is an occasion of dread for many priests called to preach on this day. On one hand, there is a lot to celebrate with truly thankful and joyful hearts for the gift of motherhood. On the other hand, there must be sensitivity for those for who today will be a painful reminder of personal hurts – for children who have not received love from their mothers, to say the least; for women and couples unable to conceive; and for those who are mourning the loss of their mother-figures. Yet, I believe that if we follow the inspiration of the Scriptures presented in the lectionary we may be able to reflect together on a particular aspect of motherhood which is at the same time both a cause for thankful celebration and a sobering reminder about the reality of parenthood. This aspect of motherhood and motherly love is courage or fortitude – that virtue that allows us to persevere and act rightly in the face of uncertainty, pain, discouragement, and opposition.

I our reading we find two examples of courageous mothers. The first one is found in Exodus in the mother of Moses, as she, defiant of any threat of capital punishment, chooses to keep and nurture her child, rather than to dispose of him at his birth like an unwanted thing. At the time the child is born the Egyptian authorities order that all Jewish male children have to be killed upon birth, but Moses’ mother prefers to risk her own life by giving her son the best possible chances of survival, rather than give in to the threats of the Egyptian law. Jochebed, as she is traditionally named, trusts in God with her life and the life of Moses, and her courage is the practical outworking of her trust. Indeed, as Jochebed sees that her plan has miraculously gone unexpectedly better than she would have ever thought and Moses is rescued from the waters, she again has occasion to show courage in her motherly love in a very self-giving way. Jochebed does not claim her maternal rights with Pharaoh’s daughter who saved the child, rather by keeping her identity hidden she is able to ensure that the child will live and prosper. Claiming the baby could have resulted in the murderous law being enforced, so the woman’s courage allows her to deny herself the usual motherly interaction with her son in order to be a true mother-figure to him, looking out for his best interest.

In our gospel reading we are confronted by the second example of courage in the Blessed Virgin Mary as she stands beside her dying Son with a selected, courageous few. As Jesus hangs from the Cross, held up only by the nails which cut through his body in order to fasten it to the wood, everyone has left. All the disciples but the youngest are nowhere in sight; the soldiers who carried out the execution are busy gambling over Jesus’ clothes; even those who taunted him in his agony have gone away. All that is left is a small company of people headed by Mary. It is in this place of death and desolation that the Virgin shows us once again her courage dictated by love for her Son.
She had followed Jesus, maybe at a distance, for most of his life, and that love that prompted her to follow him then won’t allow her to leave his side now. Mary’s courage faces up to the great risk of associating herself too closely with Jesus – at the end of the day this is why the disciples, this is why St Peter, fled so cowardly. Mary’s love prevents her from leaving Calvary; that love commands her to be courageous, and so she stays watching, waiting, trusting in God, her heart filling with sorrow, accepting the words which Simeon spoke to her years before as she presented Jesus to the Temple saying, ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (Luke 2:35). Now that that sword of pain in here, cutting through her soul, it is courage which allows Mary to stand firmly by the Cross of Jesus.

Courage is that virtue that enables us to act rightly in the face of uncertainty, pain, discouragement, and opposition. Courage allows us to do the right thing come what may. The courage often shown by mothers goes a step further, and as a virtue is often commanded by love for another – unconditional, self-self-giving love for their children in the face of adversities. This courage aims to provide children with the best of whatever, great or small, a parent can give – from confronting bullies on the playground, to spending sleepless nights over revisions, to providing comfort in times of need, to working long hours to give them a better future.

It is true; Mothering Sunday may be a painful occasion for those who have been bereaved, orphaned, or, even worse, abused by their parents. Perhaps, it is even more poignant for couples unable to conceive. As a priest I know put it, ‘Mothering Sunday is a pastoral minefield’. But, in a sense, celebrating together great aspects of motherhood such as courage, even with some mixed emotions, is a way of sharing with others the love and attention we have received from our mothers and a way to meditate on motherhood as a great gifts of love and devotion given to us by God.

08 March, 2015

Homily for Third Sunday of Lent (B) 2015 - Misusing church and worship

John 2:13-22
Jesus said, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ (2:16)
Being a priest I often hear belittling comments about church worship and the true nature of church buildings; there is the timeless “I don’t need to go to church to speak God, I can do it from home”, or that old Protestant chestnut “In the Bible, Jesus says to pray in private”, or again, and this is the best one of all, something that crosses all denominations, “I don’t go to church because I don’t like x, or y, or z…” So today I would like to reflect with you on the attitudes we ourselves have towards church worship and church buildings.

How do we see our church buildings and how do we approach worship? Do we see churches as sacred spaces, as temples entirely consecrated to the living God? Or do we see them as financial burdens to be passed on to future generations but not really knowing the reason why? Do we think of our churches as “thin places” where earth meets heaven more visibly? Or do we think of them as tourist attractions to be milked to the last penny? Do we see worship and liturgy as the source and summit of our Christian life, something that binds us together in the body of Christ? Or do we see them as outdated practices that prevent us from indulging into our beloved self-centredness? Do we think of worship as consecrated time sets aside for offerings and prayers – when a pure sacrifice is offered, prayers are made for everyone, and blessings and forgiveness are spoken?

As we consider these questions, today the gospel of John presents us with Jesus clearing the Temple. In the reading we can observe three things about Jesus attitude towards sacred places and what goes on inside. First, we are told that Jesus enters the Temple upon his arrival at Jerusalem – he longs to be there, he burns with holy zeal for that place. Isn’t this bit of a far cry from our apathy towards churches? Secondly, Jesus speaks of the Temple as his ‘Father’s house’ (2:16), the house of God among his people. How many times do we employ possessive adjectives about churches saying “my” church, “their” church, and so on? Thirdly, Jesus does not dismiss the Temple and its worship, but likens it his own body (cf. 2:19). How often do we stay away from churches because they’re not “our cup of tea”, because we would like them to behave exactly according to our own little schemes?

If we look closely to the text, Jesus drives out only certain types of people but not others. For example, He drives out neither the worshippers – who paid for the animals and for the sacrifices, nor the priests – who offered them. In other words, Jesus does not cast out of the Temple those who, like him, used it for its appointed purposes – for worship and for encountering God. Instead, rather tellingly, Jesus drives out those who are using the Temple and religious practices in order to pursue personal interests or even illicit gain; in other words, he casts out those who used the holy place like parasites. For example, Jesus throws out the money changers and overturns their tables because of the corruption that underlined the business of converting different currencies into Temple money. Jesus drives out the animal stock not to put a stop to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant but because through them worshippers were encouraged to become lazy, to spare themselves the trouble of bringing a genuine offering, something truly valued, from their own homes and to buy a token offerings there instead. Come to think of it, as well as corruption and self-centredness, is it possible that Jesus is casting out “lazy worship”, I wonder?

 The story of the clearing of the Temple should really make us think of the people driven out by Jesus in a much broader sense. It should remind us as of all those who misuse religion and sacred buildings for other (or additional) purposes besides worship and the sustainment of the Church. It is in this sense that, in commenting on John 2, St Augustine says,
‘Those who sell in Church are those who seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.’
So if we were to reimagine the clearing of the Temple in our days, we could see other type of people being cast out, other people who are seeking after their own, rather than the things of Christ. Who could these be? Perhaps, we could see those who mistake going to church as an excuse to have moral high-ground in society; those who enter ministry to pursue position of power and influence; those who seek praise for their piety; those who employ the Bible as a weapon to bully others into submission; those who preach intolerance and inequality; and yes, also those who occupy pulpits just to push brands of mega-church built around their own successes, their own theology, and the revenue generated by their copyrighted courses on how to be a Christian.

Our religion, our worship, and our churches are incredible gifts from God so that the world may encounter him more readily and build a stable relationship with him – the God who longs to be physically present in our midst. To dismiss or misuse of these sacred gifts in order to be fickle Christians or to pursue personal gains are great sins.
So this Lent, let us examine closely how we look at church buildings, church communites, and worship. Let us God for true repentance and for forgiveness for all the times we have misused of these gifts and we have behaved like parasites of the Temple, so that we may learn again to selflessly put the liturgical worship of God and the service of others before all other pursuit.