Sofa Time

Homily at St Gabriel & Raphael’s for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Two-seater sofa

In the light of today’s readings, I might comment on the fact that Joshua asked the Israelites to make a commitment to do things God’s way. I could point out that the apostles recognised that in Jesus, they had a Teacher who could show them the only safe way to eternal life. Or I might take up what the letter to the Ephesians says about marriage, and ask whether it is unbalanced in the way it asks wives to obey their husbands, while husbands only invited to sacrifice their priorities for the sake of their wives. But I’m going to do none of those things – instead, I’m going to tell you a story which is about marriage, but which can also be applied to other important relationships in our lives.

Betty and George were both practising Catholics when they decided to get married. They attended the Marriage Preparation course which the Church required of them, and during the course, the lead couple suggested that it would be a very good idea for them to schedule a “sofa night” at least once a month when they would make time to sit down together and talk about any frustrations they had with each other, or with life in general – and to affirm the good things, too.

For the first few months after they were married, Betty and George tried “sofa time” but it seemed a bit pointless. They were still in the first flush of romance, and everything was rosy. They didn’t need a special time to communicate affection  because their love for each other bubbled over each day. So they let their monthly sofa date lapse.

Then, along came one, two, three children. All Betty’s attention was on child care, and in the evenings, she was tired. She would have liked to have had a protected opportunity to de-stress by telling George all about it, but it was impossible – either the baby would cry, or the toddler would declare a potty accident, and Betty had to drop what she was doing and attend to their needs. There was no chance of scheduling her monthly sofa time with George. Yet when Betty’s Mum fell ill, somehow she managed to arrange babysitting and spend a whole weekend at Mum’s house, caring for her. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

A few more years went by, and now all the children had learned to keep a reasonable bedtime. George and Betty could have an hour or two for themselves in the evening. But George had accepted a promotion at work, and often had to bring stuff home to prepare for the next day. So when Betty suggested re-starting sofa time, George put it off because he needed the flexibility to set aside an evening for work at short notice. Yet George had also agreed to become a school governor, and his sense of duty and male pride wouldn’t let him quit that when the workload stepped up. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

Fifteen years into their married life, Betty was concerned that she and George were drifting apart. A friend suggested that they go on a weekend retreat for married couples. She timidly suggested the idea to George, but he was embarrassed that they had let their “sofa night” lapse for so long, and didn’t feel that he could spend a whole weekend talking about things which they’d been avoiding until now. Besides, a whole weekend? That was a big commitment. Yet when one of his colleagues at work arranged a stag weekend in Prague, somehow he found time for that. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

Betty felt she was drifting apart from George, and confided more and more in her closest girlfriend. They would spend long evenings together over coffee and cake. Then, an economic downturn forced George on to a reduced-hours contract, and he found he was able to spend more time at home. He suggested they re-start sofa time, but this time Betty was the one resisting. She had grown used to confiding in her friend rather than her husband, and made excuses. She said she was getting tired in the evenings. But on those evenings she wanted to visit her friend, she did so freely. For those things that are really important, you can make time. There’s always a way.

When the youngest of the three children left home and went to University, Betty’s frustrations came to a head. She walked out of the family home and went to live with her elderly Mum. She was angry with God for letting her marriage break down, and stopped going to Mass. A year later, when George received the divorce papers, he stopped going to Mass, too. He thought, wrongly, that just being divorced automatically stopped you from going to Holy Communion, so he didn’t feel welcome at Mass. He had forgotten the Church’s teaching that it’s only entering a new relationship that dishonours marriage vows in God’s eyes.

Eventually, Betty and George died, and passed into that afterlife where time flows differently. Betty and George were both escorted through Purgatory by their own guardian angels. And at the very same moment they arrived in the room which, their angels explained, was the waiting room to enter heaven. Set in the furhest wall was a locked door, with the only handle on the other side.

In this waiting room there was a single piece of furniture – a two-seater sofa. Betty and George were free to spend as much or as little time in Purgatory as they wished, where they would experience the pain of being separated from God. They could enter Heaven whenever they wished, the angels explained, but there was one condition: the door to heaven would only open when they chose to take time to sit down on the sofa, together.

A two-seater sofa against a green wall, a white wall and a wooden floor

Let’s be adult about entertainment

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

When did you last turn off the television, or walk out of the cinema, because the presentation on-screen was simply unacceptable?

The Word of God this weekend calls upon each one of us to leave our folly, walking instead in the ways of perception. With the Ephesians, each one of you is invited to “be very careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people.” The Bible continues: “This may be a wicked age, but you [are invited to] redeem it.”

We could apply this in many ways, but today I’d like us to reflect on our viewing and listening habits. I enjoy a good film; I like to see a good drama or comedy on the television. But our 21st century entertainment leaves little to the imagination. The language and the images we’re offered have become more and more graphic. One of the questions film censors ask themselves is: “Have we already permitted this?” This means that each time new ground is broken on so-called artistic merit, the boundary of what’s officially “acceptable” becomes wider and wider.

One of our bishops has said that nowadays, “the unthinkable has become the acceptable, and the unacceptable has become the norm”.

Did you know that, according to current cinema guidelines –

  • 12-rated film is allowed to use the F-word and to show brief sexual activity?
  • 15-rated film may occasionally use an even more offensive word, and show nudity and sexual activity, the only caveat being “without strong detail”?

When I choose a film, I want to be entertained by excellent storytelling and a decent plot. I don’t want my entertainment spoiled by bare flesh appearing on the screen, or repeated use of foul language. But most consumers don’t object to those things, so that’s what the film producers provide. What can we do?

Some of us may feel called to lobby against what is currently permitted. MediaWatch-UK continues the work of Mrs Mary Whitehouse; there’s also a small lobby group based in Wales with the radical title Catholics Unplug your Televisions, which invites you to do just that.

I don’t think our Catholic faith requires all of us to do that. But our faith does require us to live by God’s standards each day of our lives. It’s by living God’s way that we redeem the world.

If you are planning a trip to the cinema, you might want to check out the American Bishops’ Conference website. They have a film review section, which considers each major new release from the viewpoint of Catholic morals. They’ve also got an archive of older reviews. The site will give you not only a standard review of whether the film is good, but also advice that a parent might value (about what would frighten children). It will say whether the plot turns on ideas that go against Catholic morality, and whether the language, sexual imagery, or violence is offensive. I find these reviews useful, because given what a 15- or even a 12-rated film is now allowed to contain, if I only relied just on the film’s rating to know what to avoid, I’d be stuck with a diet of children’s PG rated films. But thanks to the American bishops, I can make an informed decision.

For a moment, I’d like to speak to the University students among us – those at the University of Glamorgan and those currently at home planning to be at college next month. Each one of you is called to be a witness for Christ in a difficult environment – among young adults willing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. There will be times when you have to push back the other way.

Perhaps you’ll find yourself with a group of friends who decide to watch something which you find too graphic. In these cases, you are being invited to be a witness for Christ. Politely explain that you don’t consider this acceptable viewing, make your excuses, and leave. Don’t condemn and criticise your friends, but do make it clear that you have standards on which you will not compromise. Your friends may call you a prude, or old-fashioned, or worse. But in today’s Britain, there’s a culture of non-discrimination which allows you to demand respect for your stance: it’s an expression of your Catholic faith. Remember – if you’ve received the sacrament of confirmation, you’ve made a commitment to stand up for Christ in this way, in the face of a world which thinks differently. And remember: Jesus promised special blessings to those willing to stand up for what was right, risking possible persecution.

But don’t be a lone voice. Reach out to other people who share the same values. If your University has a Catholic Society, start there. You’ll find that you have a shared set of moral values with the Christian Union and the Islamic Society; at the University of Glamorgan, you’ll find a programme of events at the on-campus Meeting House. Join together with other believers; perhaps even start your own film club. Part of the way you can redeem the world is by creating a place where Christian values can be accepted, celebrated, and lived out.

Finally, a word to both students and to settled parishioners. I’d like to invite you to reflect on the word we use to describe restricted entertainment. It’s commonly called “adult entertainment”, hinting that there’s something positive, something mature, something fulfilling about it. We need to challenge this! It should rightly be called “adolescent entertainment”, meaning it is chosen by those who want to push the boundaries of acceptability. To be truly adult is to take personal responsibility for choosing your entertainment according to God’s law. Truly mature entertainment is that which explores deep themes without the need for gratuitous sex, violence or offensive language. What the world calls “adult” is adolescent trash.

Friends, this may be a wicked age, but Our Lord invites you to redeem it. Do this not by hanging on a Cross, but by choosing good entertainment, and walking away from what is impure. May He give you strength to choose, and to choose well, until whatever is pure and noble once again becomes the acceptable norm.

Escorted within the palace of the King!

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the Solemnity of the Assumption

Who are they, and how did they get there?

If you were listening carefully to today’s psalm, you will have noticed a sudden jump. One moment we were addressing a bride who is about to be married to a King. The next, we were told: “They are escorted amid gladness and joy; they pass within the palace of the King.”

Sometimes, when we are given edited highlights of a text from Scripture, we miss the bigger story. If we look at the full text of the psalm, we find that it starts with verses of praise for a King associated with God’s throne. Such a King could have been a ruler of ancient Israel, but the text also applies very well to Christ. Then we are told that the King is perfumed with certain spices: their names are familiar to us as the same aloes and myrrh brought to prepare the body of Jesus for burial.

“On your right stands the queen in gold of Ophir” – the poet suddenly shifts focus from the King, to the bride standing beside him in the place of greatest honour. The following verses speak of the honour and status heaped upon this royal bride; then we are told that she has ‘virgin companions’ following her. These form the mysterious crowd escorted joyfully within the palace of the King.

It’s easy to see why the Church has chosen this psalm to mark the Assumption. We have a King whose perfume is the spices of the tomb, with a royal bride led to his side – it’s no great leap of the imagination to find a layer of spiritual meaning pointing to Our Blessed Lady entering heaven and taking up a place of honor alongside the buried, risen and ascended Saviour. And this is a psalm which gives us great encouragement, for it hints that the Assumption of Mary is not merely a fact to be noted, but also a source of great hope for us.

Would you like to be one of the companions of Mary, escorted within the palace of the King? There is an implicit promise in this psalm that those who attend upon the Mother of God will find an easy entrance into heaven. Not only do they enter the royal palace, but their path is easy, for they are escorted there!

Christians have been turning to the Blessed Mother as their patroness and escort since the earliest days of the Church. The oldest prayer to Mary for which we have evidence is from the third century – a scrap of papyrus written around the year 250 was discovered in Egypt containing this prayer:

Under thy protection we seek refuge, O Holy Mother of God;
In our needs, despise not our petitions,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer is often known under its Latin name, Sub Tuum Praesidium – ‘under your protection’. Within 200 years of her Assumption into heaven, Christians were addressing petitions to the Mother of God, and asking for her protection. In contrast, we have no firm evidence that the Hail Mary had taken shape and become a common prayer until hundreds of years later.

Today’s celebration of the Assumption is therefore a reminder for us that, to ease our spiritual journey, we are invited to become companions of Mary.

  • We keep Mary company when we meditate on her life and relationship with God, and an excellent way to do this is through the Rosary.
  • We keep Mary company when we declare her to be ‘blessed among women’ or sing her praises through the Salve Regina and Regina Caeli.
  • We keep Mary company when we ask her to pray for our needs – in the second half of the Hail Mary and through devotions such as the Miraculous Medal.
  • We keep Mary company, following the example of the early church, when we ask for her protection from known and unknown dangers in our daily life.

So remember! “They are escorted amid gladness and joy; they pass within the palace of the king.”

Who are they? They are the companions of Mary.

How did they get there? They entered heaven aided by Mary’s prayers and protection from spiritual dangers.

One question remains, and it’s the most important of all. It’s this: Are you among them?

Jesus is Alive – and He loves you!

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

“I am the bread … that comes down from heaven … [you] may eat it and not die. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”

By the time St John’s Gospel had been committed to writing, some 40 or 50 years had passed since the dying and rising of Christ. St John and his community would have been well aware that many who had followed Jesus were now dead. Those who had attended the Eucharist and shared in the bread of life had, in fact, died – as martyrs, or from disease, or of natural causes in old age. No-one would have even suggested that Holy Communion could prevent the physical death of the human body. Instead, the “living forever” which was promised would have been understood as living in the same way as the Risen Jesus. It would be a different kind of living, with God in heaven – until the promised day arrives when God will give transformed bodies to all those who have died. Jesus promised in the words we’ve just read that He will “raise [us] up at the last day”.

Enjoying the fullness of this spiritual life, which never ends, needs us to do something. We must choose to stay connected to Jesus. And that’s not as easy as it sounds, because seemingly petty things can get in the way. “Your fathers ate the manna in the desert, and they are dead,” said Jesus. Why was it that the generation of Jewish people who were led by Moses in person could not receive eternal life from God? In the story of Moses we are told that the people grumbled about the difficult journey which God has asked them to make. Their punishment for failing to trust in God was that an entire generation would live and die in the wilderness before their children could enter the promised land. The Jewish ancestors who ate the manna were not spiritually dead because manna was inferior to what Jesus could offer – they were spiritually dead because they failed to put their trust in God.

Keeping that trust firm is not easy. If you are at a stage in your life or faith where you feel discouraged, where your faith in God doesn’t seem to provide much support any more, then take heart. Faith is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are times during the race when God will seem far away. These are the times when we must make a sheer act of will to continue to put our trust in God.

The first temptation is to say “I’m not worth it. God doesn’t care.” Resist! You can’t go far in the New Testament without seeing that Jesus chooses to love and to care for all people. The Good News is that Jesus’ love extends to everyone who is willing to receive it. NO MATTER HOW INADEQUATE YOU FEEL, God really does love you.

We can, however, distance ourselves from God by our own behaviour. “Everybody who believes has eternal life” says Jesus – but believing here is not just an intellectual act. We might translate it better as “everybody who puts their trust in Christ”, and that trust must be expressed through the choices we make. The Israelites who failed to keep their agreement with God were condemned to wander 40 years in the desert. If we claim to be Catholics but do not follow the instructions left to us by our Master, we are not keeping our end of God’s bargain, either. And what God requires of us is that we must always forgive others – we may, when appropriate, offer a word of correction, but we must not penalise anyone for their failings. We mustn’t maintain grudges against others, or behave harshly or rudely towards any other person, or allow ourselves to express any sort of spitefulness.

The next temptation is to say “I’ve blown it. I’ve held a grudge. I’ve been rude. I’ve acted spitefully.” If so – repent! The only way to true healing is through acknowledging your failings. Don’t be afraid to go to Jesus. He already knows your shortcomings. He died on a Cross so that these faults, these very faults which trouble you so, can be forgiven. He is standing with his arms open, yearning for you – “Come! I long to forgive you. Come to me. Ask me. ASK ME!” There are only two things which can prevent Jesus forgiving us: the first is our unwillingness to ask, and the second is our refusal to extend forgiveness to others.

Whatever guilt we carry for our own wrong choices, let us run quickly to the feet of Jesus and exchange our burden of guilt for the free gift of forgiveness. When we receive Holy Communion today, let us also be mindful of how we have received the message of Jesus into our lives.

The offer of the Bread of Life is not costless. It costs our pride – we must admit that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. We must also give up our diffidence that we are unworthy of a share in God’s life. Of course we’re unworthy – and we acknowledge this at every Mass, in the words we speak just before we receive Holy Communion. But this isn’t about what we deserve. This is about real love, God’s deep desire that we accept the gift which Christ came to offer – his Body, given for the life of the world.

Friends, the Word of God places before you again the choice which all Christians must make: Death, or Life. You can choose to hold on to grudges and spiteful instincts. That way lies spiritual death. Or you can give up your old sins, your spitefulness, your grudges, and choose Life – a life worth living on earth, a life centred on giving and receiving love and forgiveness, a life which, though your body may die, will carry you from glory to glory and into the Heart of God. Choose Life – for anyone who eats this Word, this Life, this Bread, will live for ever.