Questions, Questions!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

What do you want?

Where do you live?

Who will you follow?

Today we are challenged by three questions. One was asked by Andrew the fisherman. He was hanging out in the desert with John the Baptist – not a great place for fishing – and there was excitement in the camp. For many months John had been preaching that we should get ready because God’s Kingdom was coming close. Yesterday, as John was baptising people, God had spoken to him – a man who had come for baptism was the long-awaited Chosen One, the Lamb of God. That man was still in that desert place, because as Andrew was standing there with John, the Baptist spotted him, and told Andrew: “That’s him! That’s the one God said was the promised Lamb!”

I don’t know how much time Andrew spent on his fishing boat in Galilee, and how much he spent in the desert with John – at “Bethany on the far side of the Jordan”. But Andrew at least was intrigued by this new teacher, God’s chosen one. So Andrew heads off in his direction… we are told he “followed him”, perhaps literally he chased after him. And Jesus sensed Andrew coming! So the Lord turns round and fixes his gaze upon Andrew, and the first question is asked: What do you want?

Was there ever a question so trivial and yet so deep? We want things to satisfy our passing needs, and we want things to quench our deepest desires. I want an ice cream! I want world peace! I want to live a life pleasing to God so I can be happy with him on earth and in heaven for all eternity! You could equally translate the words of Jesus as “What are you looking for?” – well, take a moment to ponder that. In your life right now, what are you looking for? What one thing would transform your life for the better right now? And don’t say “an end to covid-19”; we all want that, but this is a question about your personal needs in the midst of the world’s general needs. So yes, ask yourself now: What am I looking for? What do I want?

I wonder what Andrew was looking for? A Jewish rebellion to expel the Romans from the Holy Land? A teacher to show him how to live a truly good life? In a move worthy of Jesus himself, Andrew answers a question with a question! Had he taken time to prepare his opening line to the Holy One sent by God? Or was he caught unexpectedly when Jesus turned round? Either way, we know what he said to Jesus: Where do you live?

That’s an interesting question, but really it means “How do you live?” Jesus had lived in a number of places by that time… born into a manger… exiled to Egypt as a child… staying three days in Jerusalem’s Temple as a teenager… living in the house of Joseph the Carpenter as a young man… but now clearly he is staying somewhere nearby in the wilderness because at 4 pm he invites Andrew and the other, unnamed, disciple to spend ‘the rest of the day’ with him. I wonder if that ‘one day’ actually represents the forty days Jesus spent in the desert?

Meanwhile… Where do YOU live? That’s a sensitive question right now. Maybe you’re living alone and are tired of isolation. Maybe you’re living in a house where there’s tension between different residents. Maybe you have neighbours whose behaviour disturbs you. Maybe you’re living with someone vulnerable, but you still have to go out to work. All of these things weigh on us at this time.

Whatever Andrew saw, in that time he spent with Jesus he saw enough to make his mind up. Andrew chose to follow Jesus. More than that, he invited his brother, Simon, to meet Jesus too! This leads to our third question today, the one I would ask of you: Who do you follow?

These days, the people we follow are known as influencers, and the way many follow them is on social media. I checked who the ten most followed people were in the last year, and I discovered that they include one football player, six pop stars, one game reviewer and two reality TV personalities. Does it matter that Ronaldo wears Nike trainers, or that Selena Gomez uses Adidas? The brands concerned pay millions of dollars in the expectation that it matters a lot!

Jesus is a first-century influencer in a 21st Century world. We’re not going to rush to wear what Jesus wore or buy the things he bought. But we are invited to live by his values. If Jesus came to spend the rest of the day with you, what would he see? What would he ask you to do? How would he bring his love and peace into the place where you live? We don’t need to hear God’s voice audibly, the way Samuel did – we already know the message of Jesus, that we should bless those who irritate us and make peace wherever we can.

So what do you want, deep down? Ask Jesus to provide it!

Where do you live? What are the joys and sorrows of being in that place right now? Invite Jesus to come and dwell with you, and guide all you do there.

Who will you follow? If it’s Jesus, you’ll need to look beyond social media and meet him in his Word. I can only invite you, as Andrew invited Simon. Jesus would like you to spend some time living with him – why not pick up a Gospel, and come and see!

Good News for Shepherds

Homily to members of Sion Community at the Dawn Mass of Christmas 2020.

It came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

Luke 2:15 KJV

Abel. Abraham. Isaac. Rachel. Jacob. Moses. David. Job. Amos. The story of God’s people is full of shepherds – receiving news of how they were to lead and guide God’s people.

O Corpiño. Vailankanni. Laus. Lourdes. La Salette. Fátima. The story of God’s church is full of the Virgin Mary appearing to children on shepherd duty, with messages to pass on to the world.

The Shepherds of the Christmas story are the first called to be witnesses rather than leaders. In the Old Covenant, God raised up shepherds to lead and guide his people Israel. But at the dawn of the New Covenant, the shepherds become messengers to invite us to accept our true leader, our beautiful shepherd, Christ Our Lord.

Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger… In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Luke 2:7-8

Why were there shepherds in that region? Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, which at that time was the place where God’s people came to make sacrifices of animals. Only ritually pure creatures could be offered in the Temple. We know from an ancient Jewish source, the Mishnah, that cattle in the fields around Jerusalem ‘all the way to Migdal Eder’ were considered acceptable for the Temple. Many Christian commentators have argued that the same applied to sheep, and so these shepherds at Bethlehem were tending those sheep which, if born spotless, would be lovingly raised for one year and then offered as perfect sacrifices.

Some go on to state that when a mother sheep was ready to gave birth, she would be taken to a special cave in Migdal Eder, where the newborn lamb would be washed and wrapped in swaddling bands, and laid in a special bed, or crib, or manger. This birthing place was kept in spotless conditions. Could it be the case that when Mary’s time came and there was no room at any lodging house, she went not to some dirty shed for common animals, but to the space kept clean for the birth of God’s future sacrifices? If so, the shepherds over Bethlehem would know exactly which manger to look in – the one where they laid the pure lambs for the Temple.

The prophet Micah not only named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be found; he also wrote that the Lord’s reign would come to the ‘Tower of the Flock’, which in Hebrew is ‘Migdal Eder’. This tower looks over the fields of Bethlehem and stood over the cave or room where the pregnant sheep were taken to give birth.

So God reveals to shepherds the birth of the Messiah, the future lamb of sacrifice. The story will continue when John the Baptist recognises the Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world.

Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Look,your saviour comes,the prize of his victory with him,his trophies before him.’They shall be called ‘The Holy People’,‘The Lord’s Redeemed.’And you shall be called ‘The-sought-after’,‘City-not-forsaken.’

Isaiah 62:11-12 Jerusalem Bible

So look, children of Sion! Our saviour has come as a Lamb to be sacrified. The prize of our victory is with him – we know if we are faithful to him, whatever happens to us in this earthly life, our eternal future and reward in heaven is secure. We are the Lord’s Redeemed. We are the holy people.

Two days ago, the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen shone strongly over this very building. This gives me confidence to proclaim today that we, in Sion Community, are sought-after and not-forsaken. We have hope. We have a future. Through our work of pastoring and discipling others, we are also shepherds. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God has also spoken to us and called us. We are friends of Christ here and now, justified by his grace, and heirs looking forward to eternal life.

We already know this, but it is good to be reminded of who we are in Christ. Our eternity is secure. Hope shines over Sion Community. The Lord of Angel Hosts is with us. A very happy Christmas to you all!

The Christmas Banquet

Homily to members of Sion Community at the Vigil Mass of Christmas 2020.

Friends, this evening we have gathered in extraordinary circumstances to celebrate not only a birth, but also a wedding.

This is not the Christmas any of us wished to have – not the one we planned, dreamed or expected. The same was true 2000 years ago when a young woman, heavily pregnant, who had dreamed of giving birth at home found herself instead 69 miles from home, delivering a baby in an outhouse with no resting place but a feeding trough for cattle.

The Christmas Eve Mass stops short of these details – St Matthew simply tells us that “she gave birth to a son” – and his adoptive father, Joseph, named him Jesus. We must wait until midnight to read of shepherds and angels. The birth is it hand – but the wedding has begun!

A wedding is something very public, between two more private moments. Before the wedding, a proposal is made – God proposed coming among us in the flesh when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary, who gave her fiat. After the wedding, the bridegroom and bride consummate their love: Our Lord gave his body to the Bride at the Last Supper and upon the Cross of Calvary. But in-between, there is a public declaration of love, with great fanfare.

This evening begins the wedding banquet of the Lamb – in the best traditions of the Middle East, not a single meal but an extended celebration. The bridegroom will appear at midnight, or in the morning, but the festivities are already begun! And this bridegroom is to be wedded not in one place, but to the Church throughout the earth. So wherever we are, the wedding banquet is present. Just as angels broadcast glorious music from the sky to shepherds out in the fields, so our technology today broadcasts the news of the Christ child throughout the Earth, wherever you can receive it today.

Mary had a choice. She could complain about the circumstances, the distance from her family, the decisions made by the government, and the fact that even Saint Joseph‘s family, who were presumably local, weren’t offering her any support. Or she could give thanks to God for the safe birth of her child. We know that Mary is the woman of the Magnificat, praising God. Be like Mary!

The first Christmas reminds us that God’s friends, including Mary and Joseph, are not immune from suffering. In the 2000 year history of the church, there will have been many Christmases marked by famine, plague, war and persecution. But Christmas cannot be cancelled. It is the day to remember the coming of the bridegroom; that God’s love is unstoppable.

Wherever you are, the Bride is present. A bride alone at home, preparing herself for the wedding in the privacy of her chamber, is already celebrating. A bride at home with a few bridesmaids is not at the wedding venue but has already begun to celebrate the wedding. This celebration cannot be cancelled. This celebration cannot be curtailed. The birth of Christ is at hand. The wedding banquet of the Lamb has begun. In this Eucharist we WILL give thanks to God, because the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled. Sion is rejoicing. The one who has built us has wedded himself to us! It happened in Bethlehem so long ago. Yet we acknowledge that even the BEST Christmas we have ever experienced is only a foretaste of the celebrations which await when we meet Jesus when he comes again. Meanwhile, with St Joseph we proclaim: His name is Jesus! He has come to save us! With Mary we proclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

Give Glory to God

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.

They say if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Most, if not all of us, have woken up this morning with our Christmas plans in tatters. Across the UK, a five-day window for family gatherings has been reduced to a single day with no overnight stops. In the South-East of England, even Christmas Day can only be spent with those who live under your own roof. The voice of authority had encouraged us to plan for a relaxed Christmas; now, in the light of new information, that same authority says “No!”

Something similar happened to King David in ancient Israel. He wanted to build a Temple to house the nation’s holiest treasure, the Ark of the Covenant. Even the voice of authority, the Prophet Nathan, said “Yes, go ahead!” – but Nathan hadn’t yet taken time to listen to God. The next day, Nathan would have to go back to the King with God’s message – “Change your plans.” But that wasn’t the only part of God’s message. God also sent tidings of a secure future. In the next generation, that security was through David’s son Solomon building the first Temple. Much later it would come through Jesus Christ, of the line of David, who as true God and true man would be King of the Universe forever.

When we read on in the book of Samuel, we discover how King David responded: he worshipped God. He accepted that he couldn’t build the Temple, without complaining; he thanked God for past and future victories and asked for God to make good this promise of a kingly line which would endure forever. We are invited to respond in the same way: will I choose to spend this Christmas praising God?

“Glory to God” is a common refrain in our Christmas worship. How many carols contain the word Gloria – sometimes extended for effect? We don’t actually pray the Glory to God in the Highest prayer on the four Sundays before Christmas: we rest it, to restore its power on Christmas Night. But do we stop to ask: “What is glory?”

When I was a chaplain to Deaf people and learned to celebrate Mass using British Sign Language, I discovered there were not one but two signs for Glory. When we praise God, the glory goes upwards; but when God glorifies us, the sparkle comes down. Jesus said that God would ‘glorify him’ on the Cross – and we can reveal God’s glory in the way we receive unwelcome news.

The Angel Gabriel came to a young woman called Mary, with an astonishing message. Mary herself was to become the Ark of the Covenant, a human container for the presence of God. We hear her respond with awe and humility. “How can this be? But let God’s will be done!” In giving her YES, her fiat, Mary glorified God. In the long term that glory came through the miracles of her son, and his triumph over death. But in the short term it came through the way she accepted the suffering of embracing God’s plans: being doubted by her fiancé, Joseph; suspected of adultery by her community; and facing exile in Egypt. Each time, her beautiful heart said: “This is God’s plan. Let it be. Glory to God!”

We may not feel like glorifying God when our plans are in ruins. But we can take our lead from King David and from the Blessed Mother.

It may be that we will have to spend Christmas alone. We can still connect with God and with others. It might mean that for the first time ever we can plan Christmas Day around God rather than human visitors. That might be connecting to an act of worship on TV or a livestream; it might be about taking time to pray on one’s own. If the only way we can connect with other people is through technology, we might ask whose need is greatest rather than who lives within travelling distance. In all that you choose to do, give glory to God!

There again, it might be that we will spend Christmas under the same roof as other people we hadn’t planned to share Christmas with. So today I invite you to make a choice. In that spirit of Christmas goodwill to all people, choose today to make a good Christmas with your new companions. Recognise that each person holds dear their own hopes and family traditions about what should or could happen on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Take time to listen to what each person expects – and then create a unique Christmas for your household. It won’t be like any other Christmas – but if you listen to the needs of each person and don’t insist that it has to be the way you’ve always done Christmas before, you will give glory to God. If in the planning you create space to worship God on Christmas Day, the glory will be even greater!

By our baptism, each one of us is a Temple of the Lord, a vessel meant to be filled with God’s glory – meant to reveal God’s power at work in us. Whenever our human plans are challenged by circumstances, we can say two things with absolute confidence: “God has permitted this. God can bring good out of this.” We reveal God’s glory when we have the humility to say, with Mary, “Let it be done to me according to your will.” So take a deep breath. Sacrifice the Christmas you were planning; it’s not going to happen that way. In fact, surrender completely and give your plans as a gift to God, complete with receipt, which the Lord can return to the store for exchange. And once you’ve let go, relax. If you want God to make you laugh, follow his plans! And in the morning, you will see his glory!

Proclaiming God With Us

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B Home Mission Sunday.

Who, me?

John the Baptist grew up knowing that he was special. He was born to a mother beyond childbearing age. As he grew up he would have heard the stories of how an angel prophesied his own birth – and how his cousin Jesus, born to a virgin, was heralded by angels and greeted by shepherds and wise men!

What we don’t know is the journey John took to embrace his calling. He was free to accept or reject the religious role his parents raised him in, with the symbols of uncut hair and drinking no alcohol. He not only embraced it but sensed a call from God to preach a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and teach the coming of the Chosen One, the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world.

Who, me?

You, the baptised, have also been given a calling. Like John the Baptist, you are invited to be a witness to speak for the light, to speak about Jesus in a world wrapped in darkness.

Usually the church takes one Sunday in September to remind all of us that this is part of our calling as followers of Jesus. This year, that date has been pushed back until today. And it’s a wonderful time of year to find opportunities to speak about Jesus. The whole nation is able to take a brief pause from the usual rhythm of life to celebrate Christmas. But this is a double-edged blessing. People may think they know the story of Christmas, but fail to grasp its deeper meaning.

Who wouldn’t sympathise with the story of a heavily pregnant woman forced to travel miles by a Government decree, unable to find decent accommodation when labour comes upon her? Whose heart wouldn’t be lifted by the thought of a baby born safely and welcomed with gifts in difficult circumstances?

A recent survey suggests that in Britain, well over two thirds of people know that baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, laid in a manger and had his birth heralded by angels. But only one third know that the word Emannuel, found in numerous Christmas carols, means “God with us”. As Christmas Missionaries, this is the message we still need to proclaim – that the cherished child in the manger is God-made-man, the God who has not abandoned us, stepping down to be light in our darkness.

In this year, of all years, we will find it harder to speak to people, so we must be creative and find visual images which speak of the light of Christ. So what could we do as witnesses to the light?

You could place a candle or an advent wreath in your window, taking care not to set anything on fire! A light on its own is a sign of hope – but how much more powerful this would be marked with a banner declaring that “Jesus Christ is the light of the world!”

If you have a small nativity set you could place that in your window. But how to make this thought provoking? “God sent choirs of angels to welcome His own Son.”

Maybe you could place a poster in your window. What message would cause people to stop and think? Only a third know the meaning of Immanuel. Maybe this could help:

Here at our community house, our windows are not easy to see from the road, but we have a gate. So each day we’ve been adding a symbol to the gate telling the story of the family tree of Jesus. Often families do this on a tree, a Jesse tree, but we have a Jesse gate. What could you do to present the story of Jesus in a fresh way?

This year, our Catholic bishops are promoting two innovative ways of sharing the Gospel. The One Hope Project, a collective of young Catholic musicians, is running an online event next Sunday afternoon, exploring this question. And the Genesis Mission, pioneered in Plymouth Diocese, offers a seven-week course on why and how Catholics could have conversations about faith with the people they meet.

Words are essential if Jesus is to be known, but words on their own are not enough to make us credible witnesses. If Jesus came to proclaim good news for the poor, what are we doing to help those whose poverty is known to us personally? If Jesus came to bind up the broken-hearted, whose heartbreak can we minister to this month? If Jesus came to set the captives free, how can we offer those in bondage a pathway to prayer wherein they can forgive others, and renounce their own sinful ways?

It’s easy to listen to a sermon, think “Yes, I must do something,” and then let the moment pass. We don’t know what journey John took to reach the conclusion he was called to go and be a voice in the wilderness, but he was faithful to that calling. I don’t know what journey you are on with God, either, but I know God is inviting you to do something, here and now, this Advent.

Is it to reach out to someone in material or emotional poverty?

Is it to place a witness to Christ in your window or at your gate?

Is it to engage with one of the online initiatives I’ve just mentioned, or something else you’ve heard of?

“Pray constantly. Think before you do anything. Never suppress the Spirit.” Mindful of these words of St Paul, I’d like you to stop and pray, right now, “Lord, what are you calling me to do?”

You are special. You are called. You are chosen. Yes, you. Now go and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord.

Spot That Sin!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Imagine living a life without spot or stain! That’s a rather lofty ambition. And in fact only two people in the whole history of the human race have achieved it: Our Lord Jesus Christ, and his Blessed Mother, whose Immaculate Conception we celebrate on Tuesday. “Immaculate” in Latin literally means spotless, for a “macula” is a spot.

As for the rest of us, each one of us is a work in progress. We might want to distinguish the stains from the spots: the stains of the deep rooted sins that corrupt our character, and the spots of the little faults of daily life that we can brush off without much consequence. 

It’s important to remember that we can’t work our way into heaven by being good people. None of us is good enough to deserve to go to heaven; all of us can enter by saying sorry to Jesus for the sins that we’ve committed and placing our trust in His forgiveness. That’s why John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – he prepared a way for the Lord: a way for us to reach the Lord! But once we’ve decided to follow Jesus, God does expect us to do our best to live the life that you would expect of a member of the body of Christ. We are invited to be as perfect as Jesus himself – and that’s a tall order, a lofty ambition. But since we’re going to be perfect saints in heaven, why not start here on Earth?

These days, many people go to counselling and receive what’s called “cognitive behavioural therapy”. That’s a mouthful but it means something simple: recognise what’s not quite right in your behaviour, and choose to do something different next time around. The Catholic Church has known about this for centuries: our traditional name for it is “a firm purpose of amendment”. When a sinner goes to confession, he or she is meant to not only say what they’ve done wrong, but to have a plan in their mind for how they’re going to avoid falling into that trap in future. If you’re not planning to change – however distant the hope of change is – it’s not a proper confession!

You might not be able to get to a Penitential Service this advent, but we’re all capable of offering our own prayers of sorrow to God – and we’re all capable of identifying some areas of our life where there are still spots that need to be dealt with. If you’re not sure what they are, why not ask someone who has the privilege of sharing a home with you, or a colleague at work? They’ll soon tell you what your bad habits are! Perhaps you’re aware of some personal failings that you could work on, but which one should you pick? Maybe it’s the one you get nagged about most! I know you won’t want to, because it feels like giving into the nags – but I’ll let you in to a secret: sometimes the nags are right!

Or maybe it’s that one fault, that one little peccadillo that you just keep turning your gaze away from. You don’t want to tackle it , because deep down you rather like it. But you know it’s not right; you know it needs to be dealt with. Can you hear the voice of God encouraging you to take that step, to put this little spot in sharp focus and to make it the one thing you choose to eradicate in your life? It’ll take time; it’ll need God’s grace. But help is at hand! John the Baptist called us to repent – Jesus came with a baptism in the Holy Spirit, an offer of God’s power working within us to transform us into saints. If you’ve received the Sacrament of Confirmation, you have already been sealed with the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit’s power is tied until you give him permission to transform you into a saint! 

When you know the spot you’re going to work at removing, pray for God’s help – call upon the Holy Spirit! You could say something like this: “Lord, I’m very sorry for this pattern in my life; I renounce it; I wish to be totally free of all its influence. Grant me the grace to break the bonds of sin and be filled with your presence and power.”

Once you’ve prayed, you need to do something, too. You might need to make this your New Years Resolution, or even ask someone you trust to hold you accountable. If you even manage to remove just one small spot from your life in the next few months, you’ll have taken one step towards living that life without spot or blemish to which God invites us all. It’s not easy – we can’t deal with all our faults at once. But we have to start somewhere, and there’s no excuse for not trying.

Our Blessed Mother was totally filled with the Holy Spirit, her great partner in living a life free from all sin. By the prayers of the Spotless One, may we too receive grace to overcome our failings and purify our souls, so that we may be ready for the Lord’s coming. O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

The Now and Future Presence

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the First Sunday of Advent, Year B.

I’d like to begin by sharing with you a very old joke – a story from the Star Wars universe. I’d already planned to tell you this today, but it takes on a special poignancy because of the news this morning of the death of Dave Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader, as well as being Britain’s most famous road safety advocate.

In the world of Star Wars, the agents of dark and of light are bound together by a mysterious Force. The dark lord, Darth Vader opens a channel to his arch nemesis and broadcasts a message. “Luke Skywalker! I know what you’re having for Christmas!” He pauses, but there is only radio silence.

He tries again: “Luke Skywalker! I know what you’re having for Christmas!” This time the viewscreen flicks on and a very annoyed Luke Skywalker appears, but says nothing.

A third time Darth Vader declares: “Luke Skywalker! I know what you’re having for Christmas!” And this time, Luke cracks.

“Darth Vader,” he says, “how can you possibly know what I’m having for Christmas?”

Darth Vader looks directly at the scanner and says: “Luke Skywalker! I felt your presents!”

Christmas presents are a promise, now, of joy yet to come. Their size, their shape, even their feel might suggest some idea of the gifts we’re waiting to discover. But until we take the wrapping off, we can never be entirely sure.

By faith, we know that the best is yet to come. Every Sunday, in our creed, we profess that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. God promises us an eternal kingdom with no more pain, no more suffering, no more tears and no more plague. This is not just the promise of heaven; this is a promise that God will make a new Earth where those have died and gone to heaven will be raised up in imperishable bodies. This is our Christian hope: not pie in the sky when we die, but mirth through rebirth on new Earth! What awaits us is a glorious life – in the body, not just in the spirit – with Jesus and with all those who have ever loved him.

And so here and now at the end of this November we find ourselves in a time of waiting; a time marked by promises so close that we can feel their outline, but where the joy is yet to be fulfilled.

We have the promise of Christmas; this year, the gifts might arrive in the post rather than in the hands of our loved ones. But we will keep the same discipline of waiting until the day of unwrapping, playing guessing games about what they may contain. To open one’s presents before Christmas would be to spoil the joy of the long-awaited moment.

We have the promise of a vaccine which will bring us the long-awaited day when we can embrace and draw close to one another again. But we must first pass through the tunnel of this winter before we reach the light of spring, taking care to keep our distance as we await the time of renewed closeness.

We have the promise of Christ’s second coming. And yet we can already feel his presence. St Paul writes of how the Gifts of the Spirit are poured out in their fullness. What we want is to be with Jesus in the Kingdom where tears, pain and suffering are things of the past. But what we’re offered are those hints of the presence of the Lord, which we can feel even though they are not yet fully unwrapped. We can feel his presence through his Holy Spirit living within us. The same spirit which enabled Jesus to work miracles lives in you and me; and when we learn to yield to the Holy Spirit miracles can be worked through us. If you’ve ever been to an Alpha Course or a Renewal Prayer Group you may have personal experience of this; if not, I strongly recommend you find an Alpha or similar course starting in the New Year – for even receiving prayer online, it’s possible to encounter the presence of the Lord in a new way.

The prophet Isaiah knows that God has the power to rescue us; and yet we are not always rescued from the trials of human life. Isaiah cries out, “If only you’d come with your presence – the very mountains would melt!” But it’s not God’s perfect plan for us to unwrap his presence yet; we are asked to be content with the subtle signs of his Holy Spirit living within us. As we wait, we must ask God for strength; you might wish to take as your own the words of a song we’ll use later in this Mass:

Steady heart that keeps on going / steady love that keeps on holding / lead me on. / Steady grace that keeps forgiving / steady faith that keeps believing / lead me on.

Steffany Gretzinger & Amanda Lindsey Cook

The song begins by saying “I can’t see what’s in front of me” but ends with the promise that we will run together with God. So what I have to offer you this day is not a new hope, but a hope we have known about for 2000 years. For us as Christians, hope is the certain knowledge of things to come, the knowledge that Christ will come again, the knowledge that this world with all its brokenness will come to an end. Just stay awake! Get ready! For you do not know the day or the hour when the Lord will invite you into the fullness of his kingdom.

It may come through the end of the world as we know it; more likely, as for 20 centuries of Christians, the Kingdom will come to us fully at the end of our human life on earth. Admission to God’s New Earth its not automatic; it does depend on us putting our trust in Jesus here now. And although we do not see him, it’s not hard to feel at least some signs of his presence, because we are not be without the gifts of the Spirit even while waiting for Jesus to be revealed! So come, Lord Jesus, come as by a new Christmas – I sense your presence!

The Folly of Autonomy

Today we face three principles which sit uneasily together.

First, Jesus is Lord. We must obey Jesus. Christians have been killed for refusing to trample on images of Jesus, or for insisting that the Pope is his vicar on earth. Jesus made it clear in his teachings that we must stand up for him before men, if he is to stand up for us before God-the-Father.

Second, God’s general instruction, and Christ’s example, is that we must obey civil authorities. This is not absolute – we should resist orders which are evil, such as being a perpetrator of genocide, using weapons of mass destruction, or being complicit in abortion. Yet Jesus paid his taxes ‘so as not to give offence’ while accepting the assertion that, as son of God, he was exempt.

Third, civil society recognises that there is a ‘human right’ to freedom of religious worship. The Catholic Church does not ground this right in the truthfulness of other religions – for insofar as they contradict what God has revealed through the Catholic Church, other religions and other expressions of Christianity are ‘not true’. Yet the Church does recognise that part of our human dignity is a ‘right to be wrong’ about religious matters and to come to the truth of the Catholic faith in one’s own time, without coercion. This requires a civic level playing field for religions to operate.

On 3 November, our bishops, together with other religious leaders, wrote to the Prime Minister. They pointed out that with proper stewarding, there is no strong evidence that public acts of worship present any significant danger. They noted that public worship is good for our sense of hope in the future, for good mental health, and for keeping people connected with one another. By doing this, our bishops have been promoting religion in general, and the right to public worship. Pope Francis has also been promoting ‘religion in general’ in his dialogue with Islam, but drew back from doing so in Fratelli Tutti.

The following day, 4 November, the UK Government did not exempt churches from the current lockdown and the bishops promptly reminded us that we must obey the Government when it commands churches in England to close.

What we ask for and what we want are not always the same thing. By asking for the churches to remain open, the bishops have said, “Hey! Public worship is important!” If schools are important enough to be allowed to stay open, why not churches? But imagine what would have happened if we had got our wish. Then a terrible responsibility would have fallen on our bishops: to exercise the freedom to open, or to support the effort to minimise social interaction to restrict the spread of covid-19, and close anyway?

Western governments are not attacking religious worship because they oppose worship. The blunt truth is that to keep the viral reproductive ratio below 1, only a handful of public activities can be permitted. This does require a value-judgment about borderline activities. Schooling can be done online, but has severe consequences for working parents and in households which lack internet connectivity. Is ‘keeping schools open’ more important than keeping churches open? Theoretically, the command to love God before loving fellow man means that public worship should be the highest priority. But the practical consequences of worshipping at home are less disruptive than the consequences of home-schooling.

There is another issue we must be wary of, when the Church asserts its independence above any earthly authority. That independence has often been abused where it has been granted. Historically, many men applied to enter the ‘clerical state’ for reasons more to do with avoiding capital punishment than for pursuing a religious vocation. Jesus did not seek equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself. It is a very dangerous sign when the Church seeks exemption from civil law without, in the same breath, voluntarily providing an equivalent mechanism for accountability. Who will hold our bishops accountable for implementing best practice in Safeguarding?

Pope Pius XI founded today’s feast in 1925, as a sign that Christ is King, even if earthly governments no longer acknowledged this. But let us remember what kind of King we worship:

  • Did he use his authority to leap off the Temple and prove that angels would catch him? No. He said that he shouldn’t put his Father to the test.
  • Did he assert his right not to pay taxes to any worldly emperor? No. He said that although, as God’s son, he was exempt, he would pay the tax to avoid giving offence.
  • Did he use his power to strike down those who came to arrest him? No, he healed the ear of a servant after his leading disciple, Peter, cut it off!
  • Did he use his divinity to cheat death by rising off the Cross? No, he used it to trick Death so that death itself would die, embracing death so that he could rise again on the third day.

This is our King, the King of contradictions.

“I’m going to look after the sheep myself!” says God, in the first reading.

We sang in the psalm that because the Good Shepherd is looking after us, “there is nothing we shall want”.

But in the Gospel, Jesus has given the work of looking after one another to us. Part of that mutual care is in acting responsibly in the face of a virus, and recognising that fallible human nature needs strong accountability mechanics in areas such as Safeguarding,

In our second reading, Jesus has a plan to take control of everything – angels and demons, life and death – and what will he do when everything submits to him? Give it all to His Father.

We can argue for freedom of worship where it is practical. We must worship God in due obedience. But we can adapt what we do, for the common good, without denying the centrality of God – for we honour Christ the King only by ruling as humbly as he did.

Servants of the King

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year A. (National Youth Sunday)

Commander William Riker definitely wanted an adventure – if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have joined Starfleet. Through seven series of Star Trek – The Next Generation, he repeatedly refused promotion, being content to be the second-in-command of the Starship Enterprise under Captain Picard.

Samwise Gamgee definitely didn’t want an adventure. Hobbits don’t do adventures – they stay at home in their comfortable burrows. But as gardener to Frodo Baggins, when his master set out to destroy the Ring of Power, Sam felt obliged to go with him. On the one occasion when Sam was required to carry the Ring himself, he gave it back to Frodo as quickly as he could.

What Commander Riker and Sam have in common is that they knew who they served, and they were each willing to serve their master because they saw the good values their master stood for. And both of these stories are love stories – not of romantic attraction, but of the kind of love which is willing to lay down one’s life in service of another.

In Star Trek, as in many similar stories of military organisations, the honour code demands that ‘no-one is left behind’. Team members constantly put their lives on the line for one another, and somehow, everyone is rescued to dare another day. But sometimes there are casualties – and if a major character is killed off, fans will cry, because they recognise the beauty of someone who has risked their life for their shipmates so often. There would be no tears and no drama if the crew of the USS Enterprise never explored dangerous places.

Friends, we too find ourselves in the middle of a great adventure. Maybe you’re as daring as Commander Riker; more likely you’re with Sam Gamgee. You didn’t ask to be caught up in a quest to destroy the power of the thing that threatens our freedom. But adventure has come a-calling and now we are stuck within the plot.

This week, we rejoice in good news. An end to our quest is in sight! With news of effective vaccines, there is light at the end of the tunnel – but there are still months of darkness ahead. Every day, we face dangers. Each time we go shopping or head off to work, we might ask ourselves: is today the day I will bring an unwelcome visitor to my home? Have I done everything I can do to protect myself and the people I meet? Or if I’m so vulnerable that I can’t go out and do those things, then perhaps I face the dangers of isolation. One of our young people who contributed to our bidding prayers today reminds us that even ‘home’ is not a comfortable place for everybody.

It’s difficult to rejoice that Christ is King when these things loom large in our minds. In our prayers, we might even turn to Jesus and ask, “How could it happen?” – but as we look upon our Crucified King, the ‘it’ ceases to be our current crisis and becomes his Passion for us.

And Jesus will say, “I only do my Father’s will.”

And then if you ask God, “Why did you allow this terrible thing?” we will have no answer better than that of Fr Romano Guardini, who would shrug his shoulders and say, “Love does such things. Only love does such things.”

Or we might heed Simone Weil, the French philosopher who was drawn to Christ yet who hesitated to become a Christian: “When I look up onto the bloody cross and see him bleeding and dying for me, I say to myself, ‘Now he understands.’”

What does Our Lord understand? That people are suffering on earth, for so many different reasons? Yes. And what can the Lord do about this?

He can send us! We are his only body on earth. We, therefore, are called to be Christ’s love in the world. Like the crew of the Enterprise, like the Fellowship of the Ring, we are the hands to feed the hungry, the smile to visit the imprisoned, the ones to bring justice to the downtrodden. We first rescue our companions when they are in peril, and then we work together for the good of others. In this way we imitate Christ who laid his life down only for one reason: out of love. Our God only knows how to love by giving, by self-sacrifice.

And God has promised us one thing: “I cannot tell you how long it will take. I cannot give you any hope except one: I will be with you all days, even to the end of the world. I have created you for greatness and great you shall be. I have created you to use your time and attention to learn how to love, because in the learning how to love, you are healed and you are saved.”

If Christ is Our King, we must live by his standards. We do not seek to replace him. We know that he will return one day to shepherd his sheep himself. We know he does provide seasons of rest for us, when we will lie by still waters. But we also know that he, the Servant King, expects us to serve others in the meantime. When Riker has a mission, he must fulfil it. When Sam becomes the Ring Bearer, he must press on towards Mount Doom. When we meet someone hungry or thirsty, friendless or forlorn, our path is clear. My mission is to love, here and now, the people around me, and with them, to serve others as best we can. Long live the King.

Much of today’s sermon is inspired by a homily on the same feast by Fr Hanly.

You’re Beautiful!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers friends on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year AWorld Day of the Poor (Messages for supporting the poor overseas and at home.)

I’m looking for a perfect wife!

That may seem a strange thing for a celibate priest to say – but bear with me on this one.

The wife I’m looking for is the Church of God at large. In other words, that’s you. All of you! You’re beautiful! 

You are beautiful when you’re willing to be purified. The perfect wife in the Bible uses a ‘distaff and spindle’ – these are tools for refining wool into yarn. God does ask some difficult things of us: staying pure in our relationships; radical commitment to peacemaking and forgiveness; detachment from possessions and even from the need to be needed. The perfect wife knows that she is beloved and beautiful and needs no affirmation; in our human brokenness we were usually a little more needy.

You are beautiful when you’re part of something greater than yourself. The perfect wife works with wool and flax, weaving the strands together to make fabrics. Within the Church we come with our gifts and talents, able to do different things but needing to work together for the common good. In the Church we might find a cleaner and chief executive, or a doctor and a dockworker, sitting side by side, each bringing their gifts to the Lord.

These days of enforced separation test us to see how well made our fabric is. That someone you haven’t seen from the church you usually attend, would you know how to get in touch with them? If not, should you do something about it when you get the chance?

You are beautiful when you give openhanded to the poor. Now, I can guess what some of you will be thinking today. “It’s the World Day of the Poor! Surely he’s going to preach about helping the poor! Give us a break, we’re stretched already!”

We all know we have a Christian duty to help those less well off than ourselves, even when society is facing unusual pressures. So today you’re probably expecting me to ask you to give more. Relax I’m not! Of course, it’s possible that for some of us, God might be asking us to give more; that is something we each have to discern through prayer. If the subtle voice of conscience is saying “You know you can give a little more to this cause or to that cause,” trust it; we know that God will not be outdone in generosity when we follow his prompting. But that’s between you and God. As a priest speaking to all of you I’m not going to ask you to give more – rather, I’m going to ask you to give smarter. The perfect wife is a wise woman!

There are more needs in the world than any one of us can ever meet. Even when we go to Church, we’ll hear more appeals to support charities than we can ever manage. But each one of us is called to do something to help people in need. So how do we discern? There are two simple questions each one of us can ask.

First: “What gifts and talents has God given to me personally?” The wisest way I can help others is by giving away what’s been given to me. Jesus made it abundantly clear in today’s parable that we are expected to make good use of our talents.

Second: “Knowing that I can’t help everyone, then who am I in a unique position to help? Whose needs are known to me, that might not be obvious to other people?” It might be a member of my family, someone I know through work or school, or someone I come into regular contact with for another reason. Here’s the thing. If I know the needs, and not many other people do, that puts more responsibility on me – because I have the ability to respond! It might be a need for financial or practical support, or a need for emotional support or friendship. It is in the giving that we are transformed and become the beautiful bride!

You are beautiful when you are a pregnant wife – giving birth to new children for the church! We’re all responsible for inviting new and returning members to be a living part of the Church. Let’s remember that it’s important for people to feel they belong, that they are desired and wanted in our Christian community, before they’re ready to share in what we believe, let alone to behave according to our Christian values. Helping people belong takes emotional energy, and we can only give ourselves to a few people at a time. But these are the wise decisions which the perfect wife must make.

You are beautiful when you praise God. Indeed, you are glowing right now because you are taking time to be part of this act of worship.

As a member of the church, a member of the body of Christ, all the things I am asking of you I am also asking of myself. For a few minutes each day I get to stand at the pulpit and the altar ‘in the person of Christ’, coming out of the body to represent the head; but for the rest of the time, as St Augustine famously said, ‘with you, I am a Christian’.

As a priest, as a husband of the Church at large, I’m looking for a perfect wife and I won’t find her in her fullness until the day when the Lord comes again to make all things new. But in the meantime that shouldn’t stop us preparing the bride to be as beautiful as she can be on Earth. So be purified. Build community. Give smartly. Welcome the lost. Worship God. Where can I find a perfect wife? I’m beginning to see her, in you!