Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Gospel and Homily
Posted on the 24th January 2021 in the category Resources
Sunday 24th January 2021
Readings: Jonah 3.1—5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7.29—31; Mark 1.14—20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
The scriptures are full of big and impressive personalities, and the dramatic circumstances of their lives. This Sunday at Mass we are reminded of the great prophet Jonah, whose life story was far from ordinary; reminded too of the call of the four ordinary trawlermen turned apostles: Peter, Andrew, James and John. And between them we heard a passage from one of the most dramatic of all Christianity’s A-list celebrities, St Paul, once the Church’s severest persecutor who became its most fervent evangelist and architect. Their stories and their reputations are so large, the images of their deeds in two thousand years of Christian art so memorable, that while we admire them and draw great lessons of faith from them, most people are left over-awed, unmoved, untouched, and unchanged by them. However much God teaches us lessons of faith through them, their lives are lived on too large a scale for us mere mortals to be able to connect.
One of the consistent features of such lives is that they seem to have been totally disrupted by God. They dramatically—and often immediately—change direction. Time and again in the scriptures a person’s settled existence, in their land, their tribe, their occupation, their wealth and social status, or even their ability to have children, suddenly changes! No doubt the changes were costly, often involving separations from family and home and routine, as were the uncertain futures to which they were called. But it leaves us feeling all the more that their lives are unlike ours; and as a result we downscale our expectations of what God is ever likely to do in and through us.
And if that is true of all these men and women, how much more true of Jesus. We may be lost in our admiration, love and longing for Him. But He too is perhaps at too great a distance for us to feel able to respond in any meaningful way to His call, ‘Follow me’. How might I do that? we ask ourselves. Follow Him? But how? Most Christians are settled. They belong in a particular community, in particular networks and places. Even allowing for a few new social trends, are we to expect to leave our work, our families, our children and dependents, our possessions and job prospects, to follow Christ? If you are young, or single, or poor, perhaps you might take such a risk. But should all believers be ready to leave their work and family behind, all the important responsibilities that fill our days and our projects?
Well perhaps St Paul in the second reading can help us to see what attitude is proper for a Christian believer.
Paul’s not saying that Christians must all be ready to pull life up by the roots, and give everything up. He’s saying that Christians should give everything over, over to God, and that because the resurrection now fills them they must live in the world without becoming engrossed in it (1 Cor 7.31). They should live as though the kingdom of God was already fully underway.
Let me say just a bit more. Following his conversion (which the Church celebrates tomorrow), St Paul matured in his experience of Christ. It had been the experience that utterly changed his adult life. What happened to him on the road to Damascus is what Jesus asks in today’s Gospel: Paul had repented and believed in the Gospel (cf Mk 1.15). In that moment Paul understood that his salvation did not depend on human things (his good works, the law, wealth, or ideas). It depended instead on the fact that Jesus died for him who had persecuted the Church, and now shares His risen life with him.
That’s the truth that enlightens every Christian life: yours, and mine, and others’. And to be converted (and we all are, because none of us were born Christian!) means for each one of us, to believe that Jesus ‘has loved me, and has given Himself for me’ (as Paul says in Gal 2.20); that He died for me, rose for me, and lives with me, and in me. I can escape life’s quicksands (of pride and sin, deceit and sadness, selfishness and false securities); and I can come to know the richness of Christ’s love, take His hand, and entrust myself to the power of His forgiveness.
Now, Jesus teaches that whoever believes in God like that—as a Father full of love for his children—will want to put the search for God’s kingdom and God’s will first, and seek to live by faith in God’s providence. Of course doing that will not exempt us from the sometimes exhausting struggle to live by faith, but it will free us from anxiety and from the fear of tomorrow.
This teaching of Jesus’s is true for everybody, but it will be lived out in different ways in keeping with the ways in which God calls different individuals. A Franciscan brother or a Carmelite sister is able to follow it in a more radical way, whereas a parent in a family must fulfil their duties towards their spouse and family; and a worker to his or her colleagues. But in every case, Christian lives will be recognized by their absolute trust in the heavenly Father, because that is as it was for Jesus. It is precisely His relationship with God the Father that gives meaning to the whole of His life, and so it must give the same meaning to ours. He has shown that of course we can live our lives with great compassion and attention to the concrete situations of our families and our neighbours. But what truly matters is that at the same time our hearts should always be in heaven, aware of heaven, and immersed in God’s mercy.
Dear brothers and sisters, every day we ask the Lord, ‘Thy will be done on earth – as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:10). In other words we recognize that there is a will of God with us and for us, a will of God for our life that must become every day, increasingly, the guide of our wills and our beings. ‘Heaven’ is where God’s will is done, and where the earth becomes heaven—a place where love, goodness, and truth are present—God’s will is done. Whatever our life is like, whether we live with lots of limitations and obligations, or we don’t, we are called to let heaven’s will be done on earth.
In the light of these scriptures, I invite you to call upon the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Divine Providence, who all her life pondered and lived out the will of God, to help each of us see more clearly what the will of God is for us and how to embrace it in faith. When that happens, I assure you, you will not be overawed by anyone. You will be filled with joy.
Sermon - 2nd Sunday of Christmas.
Posted on the 3rd January 2021 in the category Resources
3 January 2021 - Sermon given at St James, Hanslope
Lectionary: Sirach 24.1-2, 8-12; Ephesians 1.3-6, 15-18; John 1.1-18
Dear friends: once again we have heard the profound and universal opening of the Gospel of St John. Why? Don’t we know it well enough by now? It’s as if we are being pressed to look deeper at it. We’re not being allowed to rush away from Christmas, into the New Year (as if that means anything to a Christian mind), or into the next disaster scenario that is being pumped out on the news. We’re being made to peer, to ponder, and to puzzle our way through a great mystery. Something that’s simply too big for our minds to grasp all at once. A meaning and a truth so big we can only ever get our arms round bits of it now and then.
But what the Church is asking us to do this morning, keeping us gazing at the Mother and her Divine Child, is good. Being made to stick with Christmas when the world has rushed on to the next thrilling distraction is good! Thinking on the Word becoming human flesh, being born from a virgin womb, is good! And St Augustine gives us a hint as to why.
He distinguished between two ways of celebrating an event in the story of Jesus Christ. We can do it either as as a mystery (the Latin word he uses is ‘sacramento’), or as a simple commemoration, like you would a birthday, the end of a war, or a great tragedy. To celebrate an anniversary like that, he said, we only need to mark a particular day with a solemn ceremony of some sort, on a particular day, and remember. To celebrate a mystery, though, that is a different ball-game. ‘Not only is the event commemorated, but the remembering is done a different way’ he says, ‘so that it’s significance for us is understood and received in our hearts as well as our minds.’ [Letter 55.1-2]
Governments and shopping malls make the mistake of thinking that Christmas is a celebration of the first sort. We’ve seen the proof! When you have to you can cancel that kind of anniversary; even bits of the Church seem to have been thinking that Christmas was cancellable in that way! But the Church knows that Christmas is a celebration of the second sort: a mystery that needs to be understood in terms of its significance for us. St Leo the Great (a contemporary of Augustine) hits the nail on the head, “Just as we have been crucified with him in his passion, been raised with him in his resurrection (which we’ll hear a good deal about later in this service) so too have we been born along with him in his Nativity.” [Leo the Great, Homily on the Feast of the Incarnation, 6.2]
What I want to highlight this morning then, is the fact that although God’s eternal wisdom and purpose is never less than for the whole creation (not just for a bit of it, or for people like us, or even just for people at all), he has consistently chosen to reveal that wise purpose through specific places and circumstances, through a particular race and people, and through actual individuals. We all owe our existence to the one Creator’s ageless plan; but the reality and the truth about him has been revealed to the world in specific, individual human lives. Individuals throughout the old testament, individuals in the circle around Mary; in Joseph; in Mary herself with such amazing consequences; and of course in the one man Jesus Christ, the one who showed us that, out of love for the whole world, God’s love for humanity extends all the way to giving up his Beloved Son to death. What it all shows us is that God wants to unite us to him, and guarantee our freedom from sin and death in a lasting love affair between the Creator and us his creatures.
And this is precisely what St Paul says in our second reading. He’s writing about God’s ageless plan for all creation; and then he suddenly says that he wants the Christians in Ephesus to understand what has been revealed ‘so that you may know the hope to which he has called you’, and the riches believers will inherit, and the immeasurable power available to them (Eph 1.18b-19). This is what Christians are trying to do Christmas: trying to get our heads and our arms around the hope to which he has called us! called specifically us, and the will of God for us, a hope specifically for us, which in turn will reveal God’s life and truth to others.
Which brings us to a moment concentrating on our candidates for baptism and confirmation, not to embarrass them, or to pile expectations on their personal experience today. Rather in order to remind ourselves, through them, that God continues to reveal himself, and his universal plan, through the lives of individuals, families, communities, times and places: in people in and around this community, people like us and people not very ‘like us’ at all, and he does it by bringing Jesus to birth in each one of us, and changing each of us to be like him.
There is a big bold question about Christmas that returns generation after generation among believers and in the thinking of the Church’s pastors and teachers. ‘What possible good does it do me, what difference does it make, that Jesus Christ was born of Mary once in Bethlehem, if he is not born by faith in my heart as well?’ [That’s pretty much what Origen asks, for example, in his Sermon 22. There are many more examples one could find.] Echoing this ancient question, in his Christmas message of 1962, then-pope St John XXIII, prayed these words:
O eternal Word of the Father, Son of God and Son of Mary, renew again today in the secret recesses of our hearts the wonderful marvel of your birth.
Jesus is not only born ‘for’ us, but must also be born ‘in’ us in our hearts and minds and flesh and wills. This truth is at the heart of all Jesus’s words and actions, and if we had more time we could explore it better as one of the great themes of the NT, and historic Church teaching. But we haven’t; and so if you want to see the back of this sermon you’ll just have to trust me on that one! Suffice to say that every action in this Mass is based on it that idea: our gathering, our listening to the scriptures – listening even to this sermon! – the baptisms, confirmations and the Eucharist which will follow.
The Holy Spirit invites us, this morning, if I can pick up some more words from St Augustine, to ‘return to our hearts’ [see Confessions 4.19] and in them to celebrate a more intimate and true Christmas, one that begins to make more real in your life (whether you are a new or an older believer, a lay person or a priest or a bishop) the Christmas we celebrate in rituals and tradition; one that celebrates the mystery not just the anniversary.
God’s Will—from the very beginning—was for his Word to grow in us. Mary assures us that that is God’s Will and Way. Jesus himself desires to be born in our hearts. It’s as if he is walking among us, going door to door, knocking, like that night in Bethlehem, in search of a heart in which he can be born spiritually.
If you are devout, dissatisfied with life, spurred on by inspiration, or want to put aside old faults and habits, you can conceive Christ as the Virgin Mary did. But it has to grow as flesh and blood—your flesh and blood, your thoughts and plans, your habits and service toward others—or that conception will miscarry.
Worse still, turning away from Christ and preferring sin or unbelief will bring any growth to an end. Such things cause, as it were, a kind of spiritual abortion, one of the countless postponements of God’s Will that litter all our lives, and are one of the main reasons so few people become saints.
If, like the Virgin Mary, or indeed St Joseph, you do decide to embrace the mystery, to change your lifestyle, and live by new priorities, you will of course face temptation. Either, ‘This is all too hard; you’ll never be able to do it; it will harm your reputation.’ Or ‘You deceive no one; you are a hypocrite; forget it, just be like the rest of us’. To all these temptations for the growth of Christ in us it is necessary only to respond in faith, like Mary, like Jesus, ‘Our Father: thy will be done on earth’, now, in me, for your glory, ‘as it is in heaven’.
We fly to Thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not reject our prayers
in our necessities,
but always deliver us
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.
original Greek, 3rd century
2021 Liturgical Calendar
Posted on the 1st January 2021 in the category Resources
This Calendar sets out how I shall be celebrating the coming liturgical year, day by day. I have been prompted to compile it because many of you have said during the pandemic that you valued the addition of a monthly calendar and daily Gospel references to the Pastoral Letters, and the sense it gives of being a daily praying community. This document (which when printed double-sided makes a small booklet to be kept with your Bible or Breviary) is intended, then, as a tool – first to help support your daily prayers, and hopefully to create a praying community alongside my prayer for you as bishop.
Marking the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph being declared patron of the universal church, in early December Pope Francis proclaimed a year-long celebration (from 8 Dec 2020 to 8 Dec 2021) dedicated to the foster father of Jesus. As a foundation, I invite you to use this prayer which Pope Francis has written, either daily, or at least each Wednesday, a traditional day of prayer with St Joseph.
Daily Reflection - 25th December
Posted on the 25th December 2020 in the category Resources
Sharing the Mystery of Christmas
V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
Hail Mary, Full of Grace,
V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
Hail Mary, Full of Grace,
V. And the Word was made flesh.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
Let us pray:
Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that as we have known the Incarnation of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, by the message of an angel, so by His Cross and Passion we may be brought to the glory of His Resurrection; through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Read this verse – Luke 2: 8-14 [or the Dawn Gospel: Luke 2: 15-20]
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
After a short meditation, say this prayer:
Child of Bethlehem, grant that we may share with all our hearts in this profound mystery of Christmas. Put into our hearts this peace for which we sometimes seek so desperately and which you alone can give us. Help us know one another better, and live as brothers and sisters, children of the same Father. Amen. (Pope St John XXIII)
Christmas Day Sermon 2020
Posted on the 25th December 2020 in the category Resources
Now I am one of you.
There is a beautiful detail in St Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus (Lk 2.7) where it is said that Mary ‘wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger’. It is the moment that every parent longs for throughout any pregnancy: seeing the face of the one who has been so intimate a part of their lives and yet until now hidden. Truth be known at every birth parents long for it and fear it. It is a moment of truth. It will be a face that will be with you a lifetime. And what mother would wrap their new-born, and recline them in even the poorest bed, without first lifting the child and taking a long and wondering look into that face, hoping for those tightly closed eyes to open? Mary was the first to see the face that would address the whole world with the word and love of God. In that moment before he was laid in the crib ‘she saw him who was the manifestation of the living God!’ (Guardini, The Rosary). Α divine mystery hidden at the heart of what is most common and concerns everyman: being born, wrapped for protection, and nursed at a mother’s breast. Mary’s knowing gaze was possible because of her faith. Because she believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled. Because faith recognizes the presence of God in everyday life, especially in helplessness and vulnerability.
And tonight in every virus-torn nation on earth, and those few that might be free of it—among the rich, among the poorest, in hospitals, prisons and refugee camps—men and women are celebrating this birth. This Feast is always what it has always been: a great sign of the love of God in the midst of the often painful and always precarious conditions of our lives.
We are living through a restless and worried time when it is hard to believe in the love of God for the world. What we believe and what we experience don’t seem to fit together, and many even Christian believers are siding with the confusion and anxiety. But the face of the Incarnate God which was first revealed to Mary that night calls for our faith and trust instead, for which we need to use our hearts rather than our minds. We will need to be ready for our ideas of God, and of love, to be changed if we want to grow in faith.
Perhaps some of you know the astounding story of St Damian the Leper (1840-89), a Belgian priest who became a pastor and missionary isolated in a major leper colony in Hawaii in the late 19th century, before there was a known cure. One day, inadvertently putting his leg into scalding water he had no sensation, and he knew (after 11 years of priestly ministry among the lepers who lived in an atrocious condition) he too had become a leper. He is said to have begun his next sermon, ‘Now I am one of you’, and for the remaining four years of his life he addressed them, ‘we lepers’. That is not just inspiring, especially in the time of a virus which touches us all. But it is a parable of the incarnation. Jesus the Son of God, with his uplifted face, addresses us as he did his virgin mother, ‘We humans: now I am one of you.’ How could it be otherwise if God is indeed love and mercy itself?
Not everyone in the New Testament saw that face, and perhaps you remember Jesus’s words to Thomas, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’? But one who did see him, through eyes of faith and often through tears, St Peter, says this to us—and I leave it with you as a motto to hold onto, daily, in the coming months while we learn the unity and compassion that only God’s charity brings: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him … you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and heavy with glory, obtaining already the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Pet 1.8).