Lent 1 - Gospel and Sermon
Posted on the 21st February 2021 in the category Resources
21 February 2021
(As given at North Potteries Team Ministry)
The Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wilderness and He remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after Him. After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There He proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’, He said, ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’
‘All the world’s a stage’, wrote Shakespeare, ‘And all the men and women merely players; … / And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages.’ The ‘seven ages of man’, or as the News of the World used to claim, ‘All human life is here’. That’s what we are reminded of in our gospel this morning, except that, from what we learn from Jesus’s temptations in the other gospels, as someone once remarked there are perhaps not seven but three. Let’s run with that idea.
The first temptation – “If you are really God’s son, then tell these stones to become bread” – corresponds to the first stage of a person’s life, our youth. It’s often said that the front part of our brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last regions of the brain to mature, in our mid- to late 20s. This area is responsible among other things for controlling impulses. In other words, there’s more than ten years difference between being 20 and being 30: your brain is very different. If you are over 30, think back with that in mind.
When we’re young we’re not good at controlling impulses. If there’s an itch, you scratch it. In our youth we learn that passions are not necessarily wrong, but that we should reject passions outside of God’s will, even if we have to go ‘hungry’ for what we want. (As an aside, we might notice that some people never do seem to grow up; or escape this stage of life.)
What of the second temptation, and the second age of human life? – “If you are really God’s son, throw yourself down”. This is a temptation to pride and self-interest. Satan was tempting Christ to show off, to depend on appearances, to do something miraculous just because He could, rather than to reveal God and build up faith. “They’ll not understand sacrifice, a crucified God, a pierced heart. Do some flying instead! That’ll get their attention.”
And so the temptation of the second stage of our lives, when we are concerned to make a name for ourselves, is to impress others: power, influence, self-fulfilment, building the cv. You may have resisted the sins of youthful impulse, and so Satan says, ‘Very well, if you trust God – be a celeb; do something heroic, make a name for yourself!’
Then there’s Satan’s third temptation, the one specially reserved for our ‘third age’! – “If you will worship me, I shall give to you everything.”
In ‘the autumn of our lives’ we want security, and the assurance of possessions. We shiver at Jesus’s words to Peter in John 21.18 “… when you were young, you put your own clothes on and went where you liked; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you, and lead you where you don’t want to go.’
Say then you’ve avoided the traps of the flesh as a young person, and even the snares of pride as your midriff grows, it’s doubtful that in old age you’ll let go completely and leave this world with as little to your name as when you came into it. Storing up goods and money only gives an illusion of control. It distracts millions from the treasure they should be building up with God, Who knows what we are made of without any possessions.
Well, perhaps you don’t believe in the Devil, and don’t take temptation all that seriously either. That will be just fine by him. He’ll be pleased to know he’s dead. God is existence itself, love and truth, and calls Himself “I AM who I AM”. The Devil is quite happy to remain in disguise, calling himself, “I am who I am NOT”.
Dear friends, let us ask the saints, who help us recognise holiness in every age of man’s life, to pray for us and strengthen us to choose He who is, and not him who is NOT.
Ash Wednesday - Homily
Posted on the 17th February 2021 in the category Resources
God sees in secret
Today, Ash Wednesday, Lent begins, in which the Gospel (Mt 6:1–6 16–18) invites us to assume these three penitential ways of behaving: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. They all involve renunciation. Almsgiving involves a partial renunciation of our goods, our money, to meet the needs of people more in need than us. Fasting is a voluntary renunciation of our food, of our tastes, out of a matter of personal hygiene, of education of our most elementary instincts, but also here out of a need for equity and sharing with those who are most without. Prayer, then, is an even more radical renunciation of our will, to place ourselves in the hands of a greater, wiser and more benevolent will for all, not just for us, as our Father teaches.
The sixth chapter of Matthew's Gospel enumerates these three under a shared heading: that is, “Do none of them to be admired by others!” And then Jesus speaks about each of them in a few, very clear words, which repeat a pattern. Three key words emerge in the course of Jesus’s teaching: hypocrisy, reward and secrecy.
Jesus teaches there are two things we must do …
First of all, we must not be hypocrites, or not behave like hypocrites. Hypocrisy would be doing these works publicly, to be praised by the people, to seek the approval of others. In this case, we would have already received our reward, namely the satisfaction, the recognition of others. "Do not be like the hypocrites", says the Gospel (which is certainly a poke at the Pharisees, who gave alms in the synagogues and in the streets or pray standing at the corners of public squares, or take on a sorrowful appearance to show others they fast). But, it is also common behaviour that is warned against here. We ourselves, without even realizing it, can assume behaviour of this kind: advertise ourselves or seek success. This is not the real reward.
Second, we must act out of a secret encounter with God himself. There is indeed a reward, but this happens “in secret”. “When you give alms, your left may not know what your right is doing, so that your alms remain secret”; “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is in secret”; “When you fast, perfume your head and wash your face, so that people do not see that you are fasting, but only your Father who is in secret”.
The utmost secrecy, therefore, to the point of being taciturn - uncommunicative to others: this is the real reward. The real reward is not to receive any external approval, but only internal confirmation from God, of God. This is especially true for prayer. It is significant that the only recommendation that Jesus makes to us in this respect does not concern the need for public, community prayer (which remains formational and necessary for each one), but that of personal prayer, in the silence of our room.
“Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Ask yourself, do you believe it. Are you prepared to go into the secret place and be honest with God, and God be honest with you?
Lent Message 2021
Posted on the 13th February 2021 in the category Resources
A video recording of the Bishop's Lent message (slighty different to the one below) can be found here.
We shall soon be approaching the anniversary of the first lockdown—23 March, just before the Annunciation last year—and we’ll be looking back over an unprecedented year of disruption to our daily lives, not experienced outside wartime. Among the most serious disruptions have been those to the Church’s public worship, and to the deep rhythms of our individual religious experience, not experienced by almost any previous generation of Christians in this country. All the people of God, whether ordained and non-ordained, have had to depend on more or less unsatisfactory ways of praying, worshipping God, and offering ourselves and receiving him in the Sacraments. Now, as we place all our hope in the vaccination programme as our pathway out of the present (and to many people the most difficult) period of lockdown, we find ourselves on the threshold of Lent, that period every year as we approach Easter, when we are instructed to spend some time in self-examination.
Whatever the special challenges of the pandemic and lockdown, it is still true that the season of Lent is about penitence. And penitence always requires us to see ourselves more clearly in the light of God’s holiness and justice. That is true this year like every year. From 17 February, Ash Wednesday, each of us begins again, at the foot of the Cross, recognising that the death of Our Lord is first and foremost my business, the result of my betrayals, my sins. Only as you or I face up to this truth can we begin to open ourselves up to the good news we will hear at Easter – that the debt is paid, the prison doors are unlocked. What I couldn’t do for myself, God in Christ has done for me and done in me. When I know myself, I know how weak I am; and that, as St Paul says, is when we start to use God’s strength. I receive into my broken self the deathless life of Our Risen Lord.
All of us in the parishes of The Society will be making this same journey in the weeks ahead. Indeed it’s a journey very familiar to all Christ’s disciples, his learners: going to the places of our weakness, so that there we may encounter the strength and life of God. For a relatively short spell (it’s only six weeks! so there’s no need to panic) we are asked to look within and find the roots of the world’s disaster in us; not to search for them outside, and pin the blame on others or on unbelievers.
All our hearts are still on the way to full conversion, and so the work of the Cross, finished in itself once and for all on Calvary, is still working itself through in the life of each Christian. Lent is our best opportunity to let God move more deeply and permanently into the areas of our lives that still resist His grace. And it is something we do by prayer, fasting, and being more sacrificial.
During this period I hope that we shall be continuing to think and pray about the challenges that face The Society as a body, our relation to others in the Church of England, and to the global body of the Church catholic. I hope that they will give us a chance to know ourselves better, so that we can more fully encounter the grace and gift of Christ crucified.
But this brings us back to where we started. Self-examination and self-knowledge are needed by all of us, and I trust that this Lent will be a time of spiritual refreshment that will help us find out more of what we need, and how to open ourselves to what God seeks to give. We must pray together that The Society will become a deeper fellowship in which, knowing our weakness, we can gain the strength of God in our lives, and become more and more eager to share the Easter Gospel in a world of suffering and sin.
I hope that you will find the daily devotions below helpful. May God bless you and keep you safe.
1 Daily Gospel Readings
These are the daily Gospel readings for the Eucharist on each day of Lent
2 Rosary Meditations ‘of Holy Week’ (St John Eudes)
Those of you who are familiar with the Rosary will be able to use the following pattern easily.
First Holy Week Mystery / Monday: The Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem / St John 12.12–19
Second Holy Week Mystery / Tuesday: The Anointing at Bethany / St Matthew 26.6–13
Third Holy Week Mystery / Wednesday: The Institution of the Eucharist / St Mark 14.22–26
Fourth Holy Week Mystery / Thursday: The Crucifixion of Jesus / St John 19.18–30
Fifth Holy Week Mystery / Friday: The Death and Burial of the Lord / St Matthew 27.57–60
Those who are unfamiliar with it may prefer to meditate on just one ‘mystery’ (one moment in the life of the Lord) per weekday, Monday to Friday. Better to say one decade of the Rosary prayerfully than the whole mechanically. If you don’t own a Rosary perhaps buy one, but you have ten fingers!
First, find a place and a time of day when you can be quiet and still to pray.
O God, whose only-begotten Son, by His life, death and resurrection, has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life; grant, we beseech Thee, that we, meditating upon these mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may imitate what they contain, and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
3 Two prayers for daily use
Sermon - 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Posted on the 7th February 2021 in the category Resources
On leaving the synagogue, Jesus went with James and John straight to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now Simon’s mother-in-law had gone to bed with fever, and they told him about her straightaway. He went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her and she began to wait on them.
That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; he also cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was.
In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. Simon and his companions set out in search of him, and when they found him they said, ‘Everybody is looking for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ And he went all through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out devils.
Having passed Candlemas (the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple) last week, the Church has now entered into a short period of preparation for the beginning of what the Orthodox call ‘the Great Lent’: the ‘big’ Lent, the big fast, in preparation for the Great Feast, Easter. And thus, on this rather quiet Sunday, while we all remain under tight restrictions waiting for the vaccine to work, and while so many worshippers are hesitant to attend public worship, or find that their local church is once again closed, the gospel reading somewhat ironically and quietly returns our attention to the reality of sickness and its effects on our lives, and to the first instance of Jesus’s power of healing.
This Sunday’s Gospel (Mk 1.29-39) powerfully presents Jesus to us as a healer, without any of the details that normally accompany such moments (special words, spittle and paste, even prayer). He simply takes a person’s hand. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and Jesus, taking her by the hand, helped her to her feet, and healed her. It certainly made enough of an impression that it aroused the gossip and interest of ‘the whole town’ (v.33), for that evening it seems all the sick in Capernaum were brought to him, whatever was troubling them in body, mind or spirit. He ‘healed many… and cast out many demons’. From this first miraculous moment in the earliest of the gospels, all four evangelists agree that liberation from illness and infirmity of every kind was the main feature of Jesus’ public activity, alongside his teaching.
In his world, as in ours, illness was a sign of the action of evil whether in individual lives, in families and neighbourhoods, or in the world at large. Who would challenge that as we see the forces of pain and fear, separation and loss, that have been unleashed in our lives by the pandemic we’re currently battling. In contrast, healing manifests the opposite: it reveals that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Jesus Christ came to pull evil up by the roots, and moments of healing always stand out in the gospel as a manifestation – a display – in individual lives of the triumph that his death and resurrection have brought to all lives.
A few verses on, in the next chapter, Jesus remarks ‘those who are healthy have no need of a doctor, but only those who are sick” (Mk 2.17). On that occasion he was stressing that it was sinners he came to call and save, not those who were sure of their own goodness. But the saying also reinforces what we all know: that when any of us is ill, we cease to be self-sufficient. We begin to know our need of others – their help, their presence, their consolation and encouragement. It is a typical and inescapable human experience, and one that, again, we are all experiencing at the moment whether or not we have succumbed to the virus. We know our need of others, and that others need us. Our minds and anxieties are filled with those whose illness and distress is endured alone, and the help we want to be able to give.
When, as happens often enough in the gospel, illness has become long and difficult, and a person’s suffering is prolonged, human beings become overwhelmed, and alienated from one another. In our present situation, again, we only need to fear becoming ill to experience for ourselves the depression and dehumanization that the virus, like many other conditions, is bringing to others.
So how should we react to such an evil? Well, first, with the appropriate science and treatment of course! Medical skills and therapies arise out of the same desire to alleviate the pain and separation that illness causes. Especially in emergency times like ours new responses are being developed at all times.
But the word of God teaches us that there is one crucial attitude that’s required of us in order for us to face illness and its wide-ranging effects on our own and others’ lives, and that of course is trusting faith in God, and in his oceanic mercy and goodness. Time and again in the gospels Jesus repeats ‘your faith has made you well’ (see Mk 5.34, 36). But faith in what? In the love of God. It is the relationship which God constantly seeks and requires for his wonders to be worked in our lives. This is the real answer which radically defeats evil. It was the relationship between Christ and his Father which defeated sin and death. ‘Just as Jesus confronted the Evil One with the power of the love that came to him from the Father’, says Pope Benedict, ‘so we too can confront and live through the trial of illness, keeping our heart immersed in God’s love.’
Many more of us have come close to the intense suffering and grief of others recently, or know those whose medical and nursing care is being called upon to a hitherto unknown degree. Among them we hear of those who were able to bear suffering because God gave them a deep serenity. As we celebrate this coming Thursday the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, that centre of God’s great promise of healing, let us all hold tight to the truth that it is Christ himself who has taught mankind – at one and the same time – both ‘to do good by his suffering and to do good to those who suffer. In this double aspect he has completely revealed the meaning of suffering.’ (St John Paul II, Salvifici doloris, 30).
May the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes, help us live this mission to the full.
Thursday 11 February, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, is also this year’s World Day of the Sick:
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple - Sermon
Posted on the 31st January 2021 in the category Resources
As given at St Mary's Nuneaton and SS Mary and John, Camp Hill (Final Mass)
Readings: Malachi 3.1-4; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Homily: One with His unique destiny
Most of us have regrets regarding the past. We can learn from our mistakes, but we may regret making them all the same. Sometimes we can put things right, but often we have to accept that something has been lost, which we can never recover. A promising student who fails her course due to a lack of discipline may never get that chance again. A man loses touch with his brother simply through letting time and personality differences fill the gap that he should have been filling.
In view of such regrets the life of a baby offers new hope. The child’s life lies open before us; there are no regrets, no looking back. A child is an open book, a fresh and blank page at every turn. Yet if we look more closely we may see dark clouds already on the horizon. ‘Which health condition will he get from his parents? Will she end up unemployed?’ Soon the child’s life looks over before it has begun.
We could tell a very different story. We could say, ‘Well, there will be difficulties and challenges, but she’ll survive her problems and thrive; he’ll find the courage and humour (and the prayer) to overcome despair with grace?
The problem with both attitudes, with the pessimist and the optimist, is that they measure lives according to a human measure: success or failure.
Today we celebrate a child whose life is measured completely differently. St Luke’s description of the parents of Jesus bringing Him to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after His birth, brings the story of the nativity to an end.
Some aspects of the story are matters of Jewish law, which Luke stresses three times. First, as a woman who has recently given birth Mary had to present herself for her own purification. The law required her to sacrifice a lamb (or, in the case of a poor woman like Mary, just a couple of pigeons: Lev 12.8) after which she would be declared clean by the priest. In fact neither Joseph nor Jesus need have been there.
But there’s a second legal aspect. When the new-born child was a first-born son then the ancient Jewish rule, from the time of the Exodus (13.2), was that the child should be designated holy and set-apart for the Lord service. In that case the parents had to pay a tax to ‘redeem’ the child, to buy them back into the family. But for that the Holy Family need not to go anywhere near Jerusalem.
But the facts are that they are all there, in Jerusalem, and they are there for something that is not in the law: something that’s unique to Jesus.
Luke doesn’t mention any payment to redeem Jesus from the ancient obligation of concerning a first-born son. What he does say—and this is new—is that Jesus is brought to the Jerusalem Temple for the new and clear purpose of presenting Him to the Lord. The point is, this is the one child who cannot be returned to his parents: He belongs to God already, He is the Incarnate Son of God Most High. Everything in the law had been fulfilled, but Jesus could not be exempted from giving his life-long special service to the Lord. This child’s life was not to be measured according to human goals and desires, but in terms of God’s life-giving promises.
But I what I really want you notice is something else about Luke’s story of Jesus’s early life highlighted by today’s gospel. Most of our images of Christmas, all our cribs and cards and carols, focus exclusively on Bethlehem. But that’s rather a thin version of the story. St Luke’s story always widens our vision. First he digs deep into the past. Through Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Luke underlines the centuries’-old expectation of Israel that God would send His Messiah to save them from their sins and their enemies. But as the story progresses, Luke also peers deep into the future too. Through the magi and their gifts, Simeon’s prophecies, Mary’s pondering of Jesus’s destiny, Jesus being found teaching among the rabbis as a boy, Luke points to the time when Jesus will return to Jerusalem to present Himself to His Father upon the cross, as the True Sacrifice for our salvation.
Simeon’s prophecy in today’s gospel sums all this up. Simeon immediately recognizes the child both as the fulfilment of God’s promises in the past, and as the light of revelation for the future of the whole world, Jewish and Gentile. That future will extend God's salvation to all peoples, to the ends of the earth—even to Nuneaton and Camp Hill!—and he tells Mary that, because of her child, the secret thoughts of many will, till the end of time, be revealed. Not just in Jesus’s life time, but here, and now, among us, in me, in you, and among our neighbours.
4 At Camp Hill
All of this makes this an extraordinary moment to be in God’s temple here in Camp Hill, thinking and praying in a building with such a wonderful story of courage, hope and faithfulness, a beloved place linked to great successes as well as some failures over the years, like any parish family. We’re reaching back into the past to see if we can understand how this moment fits in God’s plan for this community and the Church in this place. For God has been, and is (no question about it) a faithful God. We also know that in the present the church building and the parish is struggling, and needs more attention and energy than it seems possible to give it, especially at this moment.
And yet, while we cannot see what God will do here in the future—anymore than Simeon knew how his prophecy would be fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection and mission of the baby he held in his arms—we also know that God finishes what He begins. And so we have every reason to hope, to be at least hearts half-full people not hearts half-empty people. Your PCC is involved in the pastoral discussions in the deanery that will affect you, and we pray for wise and hope-filled outcomes, while those processes move forward. For the time being, even in the present health crisis, our lives with God—our faith and hope—continue, and can do so most obviously with brothers and sisters in your mother parish at St Mary’s who send you their love and welcome.
But you remember that what was new in our gospel story was that Jesus having been presented to God to fulfil a unique destiny, opens up a new and unthought of future. He wasn’t bought back so He could be an ordinary kid in Nazareth. And that unique destiny—that unthought of future—has reached us—and will carry us forward into what still ‘we cannot even ask or imagine’, says St Paul (Eph 3.20).
Jesus is the light from God who has entered into the darkness and despair of human history to shine that light on our lives, on the successes we’ve achieved, the mistakes we’ve made, the hurts we’ve suffered. His presence transforms us, transforms what we can think, what we can believe; and He enables us in return to present, to offer—to sacrifice!—our lives to the Lord. In every Eucharist—and it will happen again in this liturgy, and will happen in the Abbey next week and the weeks after—Christ is presented to God for our salvation, and we offer ourselves with him. And we receive him into our hands, and we consume him so as to be made one with his unique destiny.
In the sacrament of the Eucharist, that small child whom Simeon held in his hands, God enters into and transforms our lives and our histories. He gives back what we had lost in sin and unbelief, and unites us in Jesus so we can see our lives together in the light of eternity.
Dear Friends, the past can burden us. But it (and for that matter the present and the future too) can only truly burden us if we judge our lives by human standards. The hope that is offered to us in Jesus Christ, the gift that is given to us in the Eucharistic body of Jesus, has the power to transform us, so that no matter how life turns out hope is not lost, because the truth is that hope does not rest on our efforts, but upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the heart that offered itself and is offered to God for our sakes. That is not to say that emotional hurts and scars easily go away (Jesus’s wounds didn’t); but it gives us, at the deepest level of our being, the assurance that, no matter how life turns out, God promises unceasingly to present us with a gift beyond all human measure, one that can never be taken away from us: His Only Son, Jesus our Saviour.
Christ our Saviour, in the living flesh and home of blessed Mary you found a dwelling place on earth, and you willed that she should accompany you to the end. Remain with us for ever and free our hearts from sin; and through her intercession strengthen us to rejoice in sharing your sufferings for the sake of the whole world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.