D Day

Homily at the Sion Community D-Weekend for Pentecost Sunday, 2019.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

This week, many nations have been remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. “D” stood for Decision – the Decision to send a mighty army through the beaches of France to overthrow the Nazi evil which had overtaken the heart of Europe. Most of the warriors who took part were young people – some hiding their true age so they could fight, though not yet deemed ‘adults’. Not only men died that day – women among the nursing corps also lost their lives. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – the moral case to oppose the Nazis was overwhelming.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – within a month, a million allied warriors had landed in Normandy.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, from the words of Winston Churchill to the outrageous leadership of a bagpiper!

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost around AD 33, a group of young people were waiting in an Upper Room, the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper. It’s probable that the fishermen called by Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were in their twenties or possibly even teenagers. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, wished them peace, and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit. St Luke tells us how, 40 days after Easter, Jesus said goodbye – he would no longer be appearing regularly to his chosen followers – but told them to wait in Jersualem until they received power from God. In our first reading, from Acts, we learn that after 9 days of continuous prayer, the promised power came in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young disciples knew they HAD to do it – Jesus their master had given them a command.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – not only the eleven apostles chosen by Jesus, but Mary and the other women who supported them, and very soon, the hundreds who responded and became baptised.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, because God’s power brought healings and words which touched lives.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

Joshua’s army had been given its instructions. For seven days they were to march around Jericho; on the seventh day they should march seven times with the Ark of God’s Presence and then have their priests blow trumpets. No doubt the warriors and bearers of the Ark would have been young people. Joshua wasn’t so young any more, but God had chosen him because when he was a young man, sent to spy in the Promised Land, he had told Moses that although the land was full of formidable enemies, it would be easy to conquer with God’s help. Where most of the spies saw human problems, Joshua saw God’s solutions. Since then, he’d had to wait 40 years to see the children of Israel enter the Promised Land. But now it was time. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – God’s power had led them to this moment.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were twelve tribes.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: Joshua had seen God’s power part the Egyptian Sea and the Jordan River, provide manna from heaven, and speak to Moses face-to-face.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. A few of them had even experienced what the Apostles had also known following the first Pentecost – they had prayed in tongues, received words of prophecy from God. But others among them doubted. And many wondered what their mission was to be.

For Joshua and for the D-Day troops, they had clear missions ahead of them. Joshua was to capture the city of Jericho and secure the Promised Land. The warriors of D-Day were to repel the Nazi troops and restore freedom to the nations of Europe. For the young people at the first Pentecost, their mission briefing was more general – they were to invite everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus Christ – to become a Disciple.

Now what must you do to be a Disciple? We read in the same chapter of Acts that those who said “Yes” on the Day of Pentecost did four things. They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to meeting together to support one another, to Holy Communion and to prayer.

If you want to know the Teaching of the Apostles, you will need to read the whole New Testament of the Bible. But I can sum it up for you briefly. Deal with your anger and live in peace with one another. Protect and cherish human life from conception to natural death. Forgive everyone, even before they ask. Never sleep with another person until you are part of a marriage blessed by God. And never, ever, say something is a rule while doing the opposite.

This teaching will stir up questions in your hearts. Part of what Jesus taught is quite acceptable to the world around us. Who can argue with helping people in need and keeping our promises? But other things will be out of step with today’s world. Some of you will be thinking “Yes! It feels right to go to Mass on Sunday, protect human life in the womb, and wait until marriage, but I don’t quite understand why.” Ask the questions! It’s OK to want to know more, and a good place to start is a book called YouCat.

Others among you will feel angry at some of these ideas. Can’t the old-fashioned Catholic Church get with the times? Well, no, we can’t. Our job is to do what we’ve done for 2000 years, to pass on the teaching of Jesus – and Jesus doesn’t change his mind. But if you’re angry, good! Talk about it with someone. Maybe it’s because following Jesus means you’ll have to disagree with some members of your family or close friends. That’s why Jesus wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit, to be brave and courageous. But if you’re like the milkshake with the film on top*, you’re not going to be an awesome milkshake…

Maybe all of this feels too much for you. You can see that other people on the D-Weekend have had a good time or enjoy the singing and praying. So I say to you: don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. But do ask some basic questions. Do you believe that something dramatic happened on that first Day of Pentecost? That people who knew Jesus received power to heal people and change lives for the better? That Jesus, uniquely among religious leaders, rose from the dead? And do these questions matter?

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to take the next step – God was real, and was inviting them.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were four tribes, able to keep in touch through Sion Community and through social media.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: some of the young people had spoken publicly about how God had touched their lives.

God had a purpose for each of these young people. They couldn’t go until they got the signal – and God will give that in different ways, to do different tasks, when each young person is ready. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? It was D-Day. Decision Day. Disciple Day. They would need to be brave and courageous… but like Joshua, like the Apostles, if they made the right decision, God’s Holy Spirit would be with them. I wonder what decision they are going to make?

*During the weekend, an illustration was used with three glasses of milk. Film on top (no baptism – no openness to the Holy Spirit) – no milkshake. Powder in but not stirred? (Just baptised and confirmed, not interested.) Lumpy milkshake. Powder in and stirred (stir up the gifts of the Spirit given to you) – awesome milkshake.

Photo credits: D-DayPentecostJoshua.

I Am Bread

“I was praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration, and I came forward to kiss the body of Christ. As I did so, I became bread. Then I was broken and shared for others.”

Recently, a member of my community shared this ‘picture’, a mental image which came during prayer – and it got me thinking. What would it be like, to actually become bread? I would like to offer you a meditation.

You, by virtue of your baptism, are a member of the Body of Christ. Every consecrated Host is also the Body of Christ. We usually think of the Blessed Sacrament as Christ himself, rather than the multitude of saints who make up his body; but given that Jesus said ‘This is My Body’ at the Last Supper, we cannot confine our understanding to the Real Presence making present the Head alone.

What, then, if you became a single consecrated host? And for the purpose of our meditation, let’s suppose that you become a large host which has been consecrated for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. This host is truly you – let’s say that the spirit which inhabits your body has left your body and now inhabits this circular wafer of wheaten bread. Let’s also imagine that your spirit has the same properties which we suppose it will have in heaven, awaiting the resurrection when all spirits are given renewed bodies – you will be conscious, you will be able to communicate mentally with God (at least by ‘sending’ prayers), and you will in some degree be aware of your surroundings.

You are bread. You find yourself lying on a cold golden dish. You are perfectly round, perfectly flat – a pure geometrical form. And as bread, you can do nothing. You cannot move. You cannot speak. Perhaps you are freshly baked – you become aware that a tiny portion of your substance is wafting away into the air, producing a beautiful fragrance; but this will quickly fade. As days go by, you will dry out and become a little stale; perhaps you will experience this as a growing tautness in your body. If you should be left unconsumed for many months, perhaps you will crumble to dust; but that is not your concern now. As surely as a patient in a vegetative state, you are trapped in a passive body. You are aware of your surroundings. You can mentally cry out to God. But this is all you can do.

When Jesus was nailed to the Cross, his power to move became limited. He was fixed in one position, able only to speak, and – with great pain – to breathe. Then he breathed his last, and a moment later his spirit left his body. You are unleavened bread, a body with no ‘breath’ within it. You find yourself suspended like Jesus at the moment of that last breath. You can no longer speak. But your spirit has not yet left the body you now inhabit. You have become a Victim. Now you will be locked away in a tabernacle, alone for many hours. Cold. Dark. But perhaps not totally alone. In your spirit, you are aware that thousands of souls around the world are making a ‘spiritual communion’. They cannot receive Holy Communion in their mouths right now, so in their spirits they are crying out their desire to be joined with you. This, perhaps, brings you some comfort. All you can do is use your mental power of prayer to pray for the world in general and these souls in particular.

Then, after many hours, it is time for Adoration. A deacon opens the tabernacle and places you in a monstrance. The choice of time and place is not yours, but you are on public display. In your helplessness, you can do nothing but be aware of the people present. Many are gazing upon you with looks of love in their eyes. When they look at your wheaten form, they see Jesus. You have become His image. You know you are not worthy of such loving adoration; the pain purifies you as it would if you were in purgatory and a friend was praying for your soul. You also become aware of less attentive worshippers in the chapel – some struggling to stay focussed on their prayers, others happy to be in your presence but giving their attention to a rosary or prayer book; a few bored children ignoring you entirely. All you can do is remember each worshipper and invoke God’s favour upon them. At length, the deacon picks up the monstrance and makes the sign of the Cross over the people with you. You can do no more than intensely beg God to bless each and every one of them, and the families and needs they hold in their hearts.

The deacon returns you to the cold, dark, tabernacle. For the next few weeks, this pattern will repeat: long hours of imprisonment, dimly aware of those calling out for spiritual communion; short periods of exposure to the public gaze. All the while you are suspended in impotence, like Jesus refusing to use his divine power to escape the Cross. But at length it is time for you to be replaced by a fresh host, and when the deacon returns you to the tabernacle, he places you among the hosts for the people’s communion. Your heart leaps, for now you will be able to fulfil your purpose – for Eucharistic bread is meant to be consumed as food for body and soul.

It is Mass. A priest, having fractured a newly-consecrated host to show the Lamb of God to the congregation, realises he has need of more for the people’s communion. He takes you into his hands and breaks you, in half, into quarters. Tiny fragments from the broken edges fly into space and are lost. Some become dust so small that they can no longer be identified as bread, and they disconnect from your sense of self. But you now exist as four quarters upon the altar and some smaller crumbs scattered to obscure corners. Each of these fragments is you.

A pious soul comes forward for Holy Communion, and the priest places you upon her tongue. You are baptised in her saliva, which immediately begins to soften your substance. You lose your shape and become conformed to the roof of her mouth, an intimate bond between communion and communicant.

Another friend of God receives you into her hand. You sense that she does not do this lightly, but takes a moment to gaze upon you with love and reverence before tenderly picking you up and placing you on her tongue, where you begin to dissolve.

A third communicant is less delicate, and on receiving you upon his tongue begins to chew. You remember that Your Lord said, literally, ‘take this all of you and munch this’ – and also how St Ignatius of Antioch dreamed of being ‘ground between the teeth’ of the wild beasts who would face him in the Roman arena. Part of your victimhood is to suffer the indignity of being masticated. You are crushed, and ground, and split into a dozen fragments. You suffer no physical pain, but your identity, your presence, is stretched across a growing number of fragments, each of decreasing beauty. It is Your Lord’s will that you should be bread, broken for others.

You, in your final quarter, are placed in the hand of a man who seems confused. Perhaps he has not been to Mass for many years. He hesitates, gazes at you with incomprehension, and eventually lifts you to his mouth. With a press of his tongue you are folded in half, and swallowed intact.

You find yourself simultaneously in the stomachs of four communicants. Here it is your destiny to lose your identity as you dissolve in the potent acid necessary for human digestion and gastric reflux. Your physical substance will be broken down into base sugars, absorbed in the small intestine, and carried through the bloodstream until the sugar finds a living cell crying out for energy. But at that point your substance will have ceased to be bread, so you will no longer be present. You will have given up your body to give life to others. When Christ’s soul left his body on Calvary, he died for all mankind. For you, each little death of withdrawing from physical form is to give a spark of life to but one individual soul.

You become aware that you are still bread. Two small crumbs fell away as you were broken. You are picked up between the finger and thumb of the priest, and reverently placed in what remains of the Precious Blood. You sense yourself dissolving into an ocean of mercy, and for the first time experience spirit-to-spirit communication with Jesus Christ. You recognise in each other what it means to be an innocent victim, to be powerless and lifted up in the sight of others.

The priest has only seen one of the crumbs. The other has fallen from the altar on to the floor, where you will remain unnoticed until you crumble to dust. You panic, but sense the consoling presence of Jesus. No-one has acted with wilful irreverence. It was his choice to become vulnerable, to take the risk of becoming lost fragments of the Divine Presence. You are also a victim of this choice.

After many weeks, you feel your spirit detach from the last crumbling crumb of what can no longer be identified as ‘bread’. But your identity is not lost. Jesus is holding you in being, united with his spirit and yet without losing the distinctiveness which makes you, ‘you’. Because of your union with Jesus, you are present in every consecrated Host throughout the world. You are present in every ordained priest, in every baptised Christian, in every gathering of ‘two or three’ invoking the Divine Name, in every proclamation of the Word of God. One day, Jesus will raise you to a new and glorious body; but for now, you have been broken for others and scattered throughout the world. You have been bread.

Credit: Elisa Pires via JMJ Rio 2013-Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

This meditation uses ‘substance‘ in its everyday meaning of ‘bodily stuff’ rather than in the philosophical sense behind the word transubstantiation.

The Mass of Glory

Sermon at the Sion Community Chapel for members of the Catholic Parishes of Burnham-on-Crouch and Maldon on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C.

What would God look like if you could see Him?

There’s a story about a little girl who was working very intently, drawing a picture.

Mum came up and said, “What’s that, darling?”

“It’s a picture of God!”

“But, darling, no-one know what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

I can’t help wondering what it will be like when we reach the new Jerusalem we see glimpsed in today’s Second Reading. Most members of the church have a sense that when we die, our souls go to be with God. But fewer of us grasp that for those who follow Jesus and have their sins forgiven, our final destiny is not to be disembodied souls floating in heaven, but raised up to everlasting bodies on the New Earth, that glorious Jerusalem where God lives among human beings. This morning we’ve been asking “How can I make the most of the rest of my life?” – but that’s just the curtain-raiser. How can we have the best possible experience of eternity? What I do know is if we live our life on Earth God’s way, the best is yet to come!

And I do wonder… What will it be like, when God Himself lives among us?

The Bible tells us that God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.

As a scientist, I can tell you that light is one of the purest forms of energy. It has a colour, a brightness and a direction of travel* – and that’s all there is to it!

I once saw a picture of two girls standing on a wet beach – their reflection was visible on the glistening sand, and they also cast a shadow. It struck me that this could be an image of God as Trinity – but I hesitated. I didn’t want to liken the Holy Spirit to a shadow. Then I realised – God was the surrounding light! The ‘original’ form of the girls I could see because light was reflecting off them. The ‘reflection’ I could see because this light was mirrored by the material world, just as Jesus is the human face of God. And what is a shadow if not a shape formed by light, except in that place where the light is not?

In Christian art, we show that a person is holy by surrounding their head with a halo of light. We have good reason for doing this. Moses was said to wear a veil because his face shone with the unbearable glory of God. Jesus himself showed his glory by literally glowing on the mountain of Transfiguration. It’s not unknown for saints through the ages to appear radiant on special occasions.

But today’s Gospel is pointing to something else. It says Jesus and His Father HAVE been glorified and they WILL be glorified. The recent glory is that Judas has betrayed Jesus, and this will be proven with a kiss. The coming glory is twofold: Jesus will die on the Cross and rise to everlasting life. Now, we can understand the Resurrection as glory, but what about Gethsemane and Golgotha, the mountains of agony and crucifixion? How can these moments of horror and darkness be any kind of glory?

I think the answer is twofold.

One is clearer in the language of the New Testament, which is Greek. The same word can mean both ‘glory’ and ‘fame’. Certainly what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane and upon the Cross of Calvary are famous – or shall we say notorious? – in human history.

But the other is that, in a strange way, these moments of utter darkness are illumined by the purest light.Image of the M87 Black Hole - a yellow ring thicker at the bottom surrounding a dark circle.

You may have seen the recent picture of a black hole at the heart of a nearby galaxy – a golden ring encompassing a heart of darkness.

As a scientist I can tell you that a black hole is also a pure form of energy. It’s nothing but mass – you might say, the ‘weight of glory’ – with all other details crushed away. Light falling into a black hole is converted from pure radiance to pure mass. So why do we see an incandescent ring? That light comes not from the black hole itself, but the death throes of the debris falling in. It is in that final agony of matter being crushed out of existence that the cry of pain becomes pure light, sending its signal across the Universe. Human history redounds with the memory of Christ’s agony in the Garden and his anguish upon the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Like a black hole, the Death of Jesus upon the Cross is a mystery hidden from human eyes. We do not see his descent to the realm of the dead, where the souls of all the God-fearing ancestors await with bated breath. We do not witness the moment when the Risen Christ enters once more into the realm of matter. We see only the death throes, and the ripples of what happened next, as they radiate out through space and time. The halo of light beckons us to attend to the mystery within! We are torn between turning our face from the horror and fixing our gaze upon the love it represents. “When I am lifted up [upon the Cross] I will draw all people to myself!” (+ See John 12:20-32.)

There are times in our lives when God asks us to surrender. Trust me! Let go! Don’t worry about looking foolish, or what your friends might think of you. Let me draw you in. You may be crushed. You may be changed. You may shine with my light in ways you do not expect. Let me take your pain. Let me take your sorrows. Let me take the rubbish which pollutes your life and draw it into an abyss from which it can never return. Let me fill you with my Holy Spirit, and with the gifts I have yet to release in your life.

For some of us, last night might have been a key moment when we freely gave to God those things that are stopping us from growing closer to Him, and received the gifts we need to take the next step. For others among us, it will have been the beginning of a struggle to let go and let God. Do not be afraid of the journey yet to come!

And how do we respond to God’s glory? This morning we were invited to “Come, ring out our joy to the Lord!” Every Mass is an invitation to rejoice. A Mass of a Sunday in Eastertide is a summons to celebrate! We have sung the song of the Christmas Angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Soon we will bring bread and wine to this altar. We will declare that we “lift up our hearts to the Lord”, and when I invite you to give thanks and praise, you will declare that it is right and just! We will sing another angel song – our “Holy Holy” comes from Isaiah’s vision of the six-winged seraphs praising God. When I raise up the Body and Blood of Christ, you will be witnesses to the hidden mystery of Jesus defeating Death and rising from the Tomb! When I invite you to “Behold the Lamb of God” I will be declaring that you have a reserved seat at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb which will never end.

Are you feeling excited yet?

Did you ever stop to contemplate that this is what you are invited to every Sunday?

No-one knows what God looks like, because no-one has yet seen God – but that day will come at the end of time. You will see Him face to face, and there will be no more tears, no more sadness, no more mourning.

No-one knows what your life will look like when transformed by God’s light – but that day will come very soon, if you let God in.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen!

+ We have to understand Jesus and His Father as a profound partnership, bound together by the Spirit which proceeds from each in turn. They have but a single aim, the salvation of the human race. Together they plan to pay the price of human sin. Together they agree that the Son will take upon himself human flesh, so he can experience mental anguish, physical torture, and a spiritual experience of disconnection from His Father in that moment of forsakenness upon the Cross. Outside the flow of human time, the Father’s love shines brightly in planning this rescue mission. Within our human history, the Son’s compassion for his fallen brothers and sisters burns brightly when he chooses, in the Garden, to be the victim for our sins, and then blazes upon the Cross when he abandons himself to the Father he can no longer sense. This is the hidden glory to which John’s Gospel points.

* For science purists, please note that I am including the polarization, orbital angular momentum and propagation vector under this one heading! Together with frequency (‘colour’) this fully defines an individual photon; and the ‘brightness’ is the summation of all the photons present on this trajectory.

Not a Fan

Homily at the Sion Community Men’s Weekend Retreat 20194th Sunday of Eastertide, Year C

Last Sunday, I did something I’ve never done before in my life – I went to a professional football match. My godson’s Dad was away on business, so I stepped into the life of a serious season ticket holder.

It turns out, I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean “a fan of the club who was playing” (and to avoid any unnecessary controversy, no, I’m not telling you who the team was). I mean that the way I am as a person, I am not built to be a fan.

How do football fans behave? They are quick to show their disdain. They don’t like the opposing team – obviously. They don’t like the match officials, and will criticise any decision which doesn’t give their own team the benefit of the doubt. But – and this is even more important – they are fickle friends to their own team. If you are a player, your fans are not supporting YOU – they are supporting their ideal of what they want their club to be. And if you fail to measure up to that impossible ideal – look out! It seems fans are only happy when their dream team scores a goal or at least is awarded a penalty.

I wonder how many of us are fans of Jesus Christ or our Heavenly Father?

As fans, we have our own ideas of how God should be running the universe. Then some natural disaster or personal tragedy takes place, and we are quick to criticise God’s way of doing things. We don’t stop supporting God, any more than a football fan would cease being loyal to their beloved team – but the relationship is one of impossible aspiration and interminable disappointment.

Here’s the thing. Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers. And at the risk of sounding a little sheepish, we are called to be his sheep. If that sounds light and fluffy, think again. Why do shepherds keep sheep? For only two reasons. Some sheep are destined to be lambs to the slaughter. The rest are fleeced – time and time again.

Our Second Reading gives us a glimpse into heaven. We see a white-robed crowd who have passed through persecution. The Good Shepherd has not prevented these sheep from being attacked, assailed and assaulted. These lambs are in white raiment but they have been slaughtered for their faithfulness to the Shepherd. These are not fans – these are faithful followers. And what are they now doing? They are serving God in his heavenly sanctuary – they are waving palms, offering up psalms of praise. They are doing what today’s psalm commands – crying out and singing for joy. They are not booing for the opposition. They are not barracking the manager. Even though it cost them their earthly lives, they are ringing out their joy to the One they have been following, because they recognise the presence of perfect Truth, perfect Beauty and perfect Goodness.

Gentlemen, this is the moment where we have to take an honest look at ourselves in the light of God. There’s something in every male psyche which just wants to be in charge. In the workplace, we want to accumulate more power and a higher salary. Even among our friends, we might jockey for status. But as men of God, we have to face one thing that isn’t ever going to change – in the race for power, none of us is going to take God’s place as ruler of the universe. Our choice is to serve our true creator of heaven and earth – or to live the empty life of the self-made man who worships his own creator. Our choice is to become a lonely lord or a satisfied servant. No other ultimate destinations are available to us.

Few of us will face the ultimate test of martyrdom. Most of us will not be lambs to the slaughter, but sheep for the shearing. Scripture makes it clear time and time again that God has high expectations of us – he reaps where he has not sown, and expects a return on the talents entrusted to us. The Good Shepherd promises to walk with us through rain and shine, and protect us from our prowling Enemy – but not to keep us free from all hardship or injury. No, King David said “even if I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me” – when the Lord is my Shepherd he may lead me to still waters but he does so by difficult paths and he expects a fleece from me every so often. We may not want to be tied up, shorn, and left cold and naked afterwards, but such is the life of a sheep – and it is the Good Shepherd who inflicts this upon us.

Why, then, would you choose to follow such a shepherd? Because your only other option is to be a goat, to live independently and to die alone. Only this Good Shepherd can offer you eternal life. This is controversial. When Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch, almost the whole town gathered to hear what they had to say, but the question was – is Jesus the Way to Heaven? If this was true, it was not what the leaders of the Jewish community wanted to hear. But the pagans were open to the message. So we are told that Paul and Barnabas leave “shaking the dust from their feet” – and yet they have left behind new followers of Jesus who are rejoicing and experiencing the power and love of the Holy Spirit.

Gentleman, football requires not only fans but fielders – without players on the pitch, there is no game. But the players are at the mercy of the manager, who can buy and sell, make substitutions and select the squad. Jesus is not looking for fans. He is asking you to be his follower and to play the game. You might get injured in a tackle. Your playing career might end prematurely. The position of manager is not open to you, but if you accept the Good Shepherd as your manager, if you learn to listen to his voice on and off the pitch, then know that in the end, you will be on the winning team. It won’t be easy. There will be thrills and spills, rough and tumble. But only those who have played in the squad will carry off the prize. The transfer window is open. If you haven’t done so already, apply today. Join the Jerusalem Rams!

Children of Light

Homily at the National Convention of Couples for Christ UKfeast of the English Martyrs

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! Live as children of light!

The world around us does not always welcome light. Jesus warned us what would happen to children of light. The rulers of this world, rulers clouded with darkness, will be offended by the light, and will question us. Even religious leaders who don’t share our vision will oppose us. Each age suffers its own kind of darkness.

2000 years ago, Stephen, a child of light, saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Jesus is God’s chosen messenger, the Christ! And for that, the Jewish leaders who had rejected Jesus and had him crucified, killed Stephen too.

500 years ago, King Henry VIII was the ruler of England – and a good Catholic, writing in defense of the Church. He wrote so powerfully that the Pope even gave him the title “Defender of the Faith”! If you look at a British coin, you will see the letters FD (Faith Defender) after the name of Queen Elizabeth II – our kings and queens have kept that title for themselves, but it is no longer the Catholic Faith they are defending.

By the 1530s, King Henry had turned against the Catholic Church because the Pope would not allow him to divorce a wife who had failed to bear him a son and heir. The King separated the Church in England from the leadership of the Pope. But in that age the children of light cried out that the Body of Christ must not be broken. Many priests, along with the laity who sheltered them and attended their secret Masses, were executed between 1535 and 1681 – we call them the English Martyrs.

We are the Children of Light God has chosen to live in England, or other parts of Britain, here and now, in 2019. This is a national conference – we are here because whatever our roots, this is the nation where God has called us to shine. How, then, are we to shine our light?

First, we must be clear vessels. If we are not true to our own faith, others will see that we are dirty vessels and hypocrites. So we must put our own lives in order. If you are a couple for Christ, how is your marriage doing? Is there anything stopping you having the honest conversations with your husband or wife needed to keep your marriage in good order? Are you struggling with temptations to use pornography, or looking for comfort from a person outside your marriage when you should be turning to your husband or wife? Are you civilly married but without your marriage blessed by the Catholic Church? Sort your life out! Children of light go to confession! Children of light ask for help from a brother or sister who can keep you accountable! Children of light live within the church!

Now we can prepare to be children of light for the world around us… but what kind of light will we be? There are two temptations we must avoid!

Here is a glow stick. It’s rather fun! We can wave it about and everyone smiles. This represents a lightweight Christian faith, which only does what’s easy and acceptable. We commit ourselves to being good workers wherever we work. We support local charities and ANCOP. We do those good things that everyone will approve, whether they are friends of Jesus or not. All of these things are good, But they are not enough.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! But a sleeping world will not be woken or roused by inoffensive good works. Just doing these things will not fulfil the mission Jesus has given us. This glow-stick is light with no message.

Here is my laser pointer – it’s part of the remote control for my computer. Look, I can control this powerful beam and it goes where I want it. But this is a fearsome light. Shine it in someone’s eye and it can cause damage. We can take our Catholic faith and present it like a laser beam – you must say these prayers, do those devotions, and follow my rules. It looks like danger and control. This is a light with a bad message.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! But we can become sleeping Catholics, following certain patterns without asking why we do what we do. That will not fulfil us either!

Here is my mobile phone. It has a light! But it also has a screen! I can receive messages and educate myself. This is what it means to walk as a child of the light. Let’s understand our Catholic faith in its fulness. We are not here to promote a narrow Catholicism where everyone has to do things my way – nor a wishywashy Catholicism which is only about helping people in trouble. We are children of light with a message, the message of Jesus.

In St Stephen’s day, the great question was – is Jesus God’s true messenger?

In the time of the English Martyrs, the great question was – can we be part of a single worldwide church, united around the Pope?

In our age, Britain in 2019, the great question is this – will you respect my religious beliefs about how human beings should live?

I know many of you work in healthcare, and the great religious questions of our time seem to relate to healthcare matters.

We believe that every human life is sacred to God. British law gives some protection to doctors and nurses who don’t want to perform abortions, but they can still be required to supervise abortions by their junior colleagues. Local Councils are beginning to bring in ‘buffer zones’ so that witnesses to life cannot pray peacefully near the entrances to abortion clinics.

Earlier this year, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its opposition to euthanasia and became officially ‘neutral’ even though more of its members opposed assisted dying than those who supported it.

This week, a Catholic journalist was served with a court order banning her from referring to a certain transgender person with the pronoun appropriate to the way that person was born.

These are difficult issues. If we speak about them in the wrong way we will be seen as messengers of hate rather than children of light.

Awake! KNOW about these issues. We must recognise that every person is loved by God and has their own dignity. This includes persons tempted to seek an abortion, to end their own life, to pursue a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage, or to explore their own gender identity. We are called to show sympathy and understanding at all times – otherwise we become like the laser beam, correct but narrow and dangerous.

Arise! DO something about these issues. Understanding on its own is not enough, otherwise we become like the glow stick, soft and comforting but with no greater purpose. British Law defends our right to manifest our religious beliefs. Let’s use that. Let’s take every opportunity to say that this nation supports diversity of religion, and our religion requires respect for human life and for the gift of the body we were born with.

Fulfil! The road to fulfilment is a challenging one. Each one of us can tell a story of being called to follow Jesus, of being tempted to compromise with the values of the world around us, or else live with the simplicity of a child of the light. If we are living a serious Christian life, we will have struggled, at times, to follow Christ’s values rather than our own. But we will also have discovered the kind of fulfilment that only comes when we let go and let God. This phone represents our ability to share wisdom and share light. Let’s share the stories of our own struggles so we can encourage others to persevere!

Brothers and sisters, we believe in a God who challenges us by asking us to be lights in a dark world. Let us follow the example of St Stephen and the English Martyrs, and walk a path which avoids the two great temptations:

Avoid misplaced compassion. We do not roll over when our Catholic values are unpopular. You are not couples for compromise; you are couples for Christ.

Avoid the temptation to be offensive; never lose your love for your enemy. You are not couples for coercion or control; you are couples for Christ.

This weekend, you will be asking how to use the gifts God has given you. Using charisms in your parish or CFC household is one thing; but living as a child of the light is another. These issues are around us – in our workplaces; in our children’s schools; in our own families. Society covers its ears to our viewpoint; our Christian light from above doesn’t fit the message of the age which is ‘follow your own inner light’. Be singles for Christ – couples for Christ – messengers for Christ. Stand on God’s promise that you will be given the words, but be prepared. Whatever you do, do it for Christ, in Christ, illuminated by the light of Christ.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! Live as children of light!

Guidance for Guiders

Sermon for members of the Catholic Guide Advisory Council at a vigil Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday

Look at them! Aren’t they great! Everyone respects them! I’m not sure I could do what they do, though…

Who am I talking about?

In our age it could be the Salvation Army, or the RNLI Lifeboat crews… maybe even volunteers who work with uniformed groups. The attraction is the evident good fruit. The hesitation is the knowledge that there is a cost to getting involved… a cost which may take a person outside their comfort zone. A cost which requires someone to face a challenge and learn from her experience!

2000 years ago it was the first followers of Jesus. There was something attractive about them – a kindness and compassion which went beyond the tough society in which they lived. It didn’t hurt that miracles of healing took place regularly among them too! But there was also a hesitation – to become one of THEM required a declaration that the troublesome Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was God-made-flesh, and that just didn’t fit Jewish or Roman ideas!

Every Guide, and Guiding Volunteer, makes the same promise: “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. You who have gathered here today are here because you are true to your own beliefs as Catholics, and you are asking how to be faithful to those beliefs in the world of Guiding today. This is a crucial question!

In Britain today, we claim to champion diversity. But I’m not sure there are many people who hold diversity as their highest value. Perhaps such a person exists… if so, imagine them giving a quick introduction to our culture?

Welcome to Britain. Here we prize diversity above all other things. Some of our people are physically disabled – it’s important to us that we provide reasonable adjustments at no personal expense. Some of our people experience same-sex attraction, and it’s important to us that they be allowed to pursue whatever adult relationships they wish with no harassment or legal restrictions. And some of our people belong to religions which teach the only proper place for a sexual relationship is in a marriage between a man and a woman, and it’s really important to us that parents should be able to pass on those values to their children without schools telling them otherwise!

Do you see the problem?

Deep down, most of us either believe in values which come from inside us, or outside us. Our society is shifting from Christian values to self-defined values. We can’t impose our Christian values on others, but we can ask for a mutual respect where we tolerate other values without being asked to celebrate different values. One of the great challenges for Catholics in our generation is to stand up and require that our British respect for diversity means that traditional moral values must be prized as highly as new liberal values. Doing this in a culture conscious of the need to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is even more important.

It’s not enough for us to open our mouths and ask for respect, though. Like the Christians we read about in Acts this evening, we must live our faith in a way which makes others respect us. We should stand out by the way we encourage struggling married couples to stay together and work attentively on their relationship. We should stand out by the way we not only chant pro-life slogans but work to give practical support to children born to reluctant parents of little means. We should stand out by the way we care for elderly relatives rather than rushing to the care home. We should stand out by behaving as generous employers and loyal employees.

Setting such an example will be attractive, but others will not flock to join us immediately. They will have questions about whether Jesus is the one to whom they are to entrust themselves. Is He Alive? Can He be trusted? You can lead people to Jesus, but not overnight.

It struck me as I prepared this sermon that:

  • A scout is someone who finds the way.
  • A guide is someone who shows others the way.
  • Jesus IS the way.

Your task is to develop and be true to your Catholic beliefs, but above all to show Jesus to the people you work with. He is the Way; you are the Guides of Guides. Do this, and you will have the respect of many.

The Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace

Mass for a group of pilgrims in Medjugorje on Easter Monday, at the Cenacolo Community Chapel

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

This week, we’ve heard a lot about visions and apparitions.

The women in today’s Gospel, and Peter in Acts, claimed to have seen the Risen Jesus, very soon after he was nailed to a Cross and buried.

Visionaries in this place and in others have claimed to meet with his Mother – two thousand years after her life on earth came to an end.

Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’ in that English way we can nod at something and park it at the back of our minds. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life.

If you choose to let them in, there’s a cost.

Jesus will ask to be your personal coach. He will settle for nothing less than holiness. That doesn’t mean saying 10,000 prayers every day. It does mean he will challenge you to be the best version of yourself. His coaching plan includes a special diet, mental exercises and practical drill. The diet is that he wants to feed you with His Word and His Body, which are given to you in Mass. The mental exercises are to connect with God through prayer – he taught us the ‘Our Father’. The drill is called ‘loving others as yourself’ – and to do that well he wants to help you love yourself.

Sometimes we look in the mirror and we don’t like what we see. We’re ashamed of who we are. Jesus says ‘I love you just the way you are’ – and he likes what he sees. We’ve already been scouted for his training academy! The holy women went to tell the disciples to ‘go to Galilee’. That was the place Jesus called them so they could be trained. In fact Jesus doesn’t wait for them to go back there, he shows himself to the Eleven that same evening in Jerusalem. But his message through the women is, ‘get ready to be trained to spread the news I am Risen!’

Sometimes we look back on our day and we don’t like what we’ve done. Jesus doesn’t like our bad choices either. But if we say sorry and are resolved to make a different choice in future, he will always forgive us. Peter made a bold move when preaching to the Jews. ‘You had Jesus killed!’ he declares. But it’s not going to be a problem! Jesus will still love them and welcome them if they ask for this. ‘I want to help you to make better choices,’ he says. ‘Let’s go around again.’ That’s his style of coaching!

Sometimes we doubt the good news of Jesus and Mary because of the brokenness of the world around us. People we love get sick and die. Wars and famines and natural disasters keep worrying us in the news headlines. These things are not new – they were around when Jesus walked this earth in person. He was even once asked to comment on a tragedy when a tower collapsed killing a team of builders in a town called Siloam. ‘Was it a punishment from God?’ they asked him. Jesus said, “No!”; in effect he was saying ‘these things happen’ – and as far as we know he didn’t rush off to Siloam to raise the workers from the dead. But we also know he did heal some people as a sign that God was at work in him, and Peter isn’t afraid to preach this. In Jesus we meet the mystery of a God who sometimes gives positive answers to our prayers for healing. How does God choose? I don’t know. But I do know this – if we don’t ask, we don’t get. Not every footballer who calls for the ball gets it. But when the circumstances are right and the midfielder can make a clean pass, the striker sends it home and we experience a moment of glory.

Sometimes we take our eyes off Jesus and Mary because we are upset about someone who has died, or worried about our own mortality. Big mistake! Jesus and Mary come as witnesses that Heaven is for real. This week we’ve heard the claims made in Medjugorje that one of the visionaries was allowed to see her late earthly mother, and that the day after the parish priest Fr Slavko died, the Queen of Peace declared him to be in heaven. We don’t want to lose our loved ones, but we take comfort in the good news that they are not lost but kept safe by God, who knows exactly where they are.

This is Good News! Jesus is not dead – today he can forgive our sins, lift us from our shame and feed us with His Body, but only if we accept his coaching plan.

And then there’s Secret Mary*. No-one knows who she is unless she reveals herself to you. In the last two centuries, the Catholic Church has recognised that the Mother of God has visited the earth in many different places. She comes with the heart of a mother. There’s at least one Mum on this pilgrimage who has left a younger child in England in order to be with us, and I know her heart is torn. How much more so is the heart of the Blessed Mother torn at the thought that we won’t be able to spend eternity with her in heaven? So the Queen of Peace asks her squabbling children to make peace with each other and with God. Only those who forgive and ask forgiveness can be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven.

So yes, if we let Mary into our lives, there’s a cost to that, too. She will call upon us to love with the heart of a mother. She will ask us to be peacemakers. She tells us that if we pray the rosary, that will help the world to find peace. I don’t know how that works, but I am happy to leave the details to Jesus and Mary. Have you seen the movie, the Karate Kid? The student has to keep cleaning the master’s car. Wax on! Wax off! Wax on! Wax off! Boring. Repetitive. But in the end the student realises that was training for some smart moves. So: Hail Mary. Hail Mary. Boring? Repetitive? Sometimes – but I trust the Queen of Peace Coaching Academy has a very good reason for training us in the right moves.

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

I’ve heard that the Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace have revealed themselves 2000 years ago and in our own age too. Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life. What happens next is up to you.

* ‘Secret Mary’ on this pilgrimage was a ‘Secret Santa’ gift-giving exercise.