Not a Tame Lion!

Homily at St John Lloyd for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year B – National Youth Sunday

Imagine a Kingdom not of this world.

Imagine a Kingdom where a Lion is King!

C. S. Lewis did just that. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobeand in his other Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis unfolded a vision of a great Kingdom, called into being by the song of Aslan, the Lion, where animals could speak and lived in harmony. A time came when the land was gripped by evil; it was always winter and never Christmas.

Four children from our own world were brought into that Kingdom. One of them, Edmund, chose the side of evil. Aslan, the Lion King, offered himself as a sacrifice so that Edmund could be restored to his family and to the side of Good.

At the end of the story, Edmund, with his brother and two sisters, are all installed as Kings and Queens of Narnia – not a King attended by a brother Prince and two Princesses, no, but all of them Kings and Queens. They were summoned out of our world to become a royal family in the Kingdom of the Lion.

Imagine a Kingdom not of this world.

That’s the challenge which Our Lord threw out before Pilate. Do you really want to know if I am a King? Are you interested in the answer? Because if you press me, I will admit the charge – but you must be prepared to imagine a different kind of Kingdom.

In Britain, we’ve had a Queen on the throne for sixty years, and we might feel we understand monarchy: Her Majesty launches ships, opens hospitals, and parachutes into the Olympics, accompanied by James Bond.

But our constitutional monarchy is a mere shadow of the power of kings in ages past. For much of Britain’s history, kings had power to tax the people, to declare war, and make decisions on matters of life and death. A whisper from a King might get an enemy executed; a royal pardon could spare the most wretched criminal. In Christian Europe, the King was seen as representing the authority of God Himself, just as the Kings and Queens of Narnia received their authority from Aslan.

Imagine a Kingdom not of this world.

The image on our pulpit which represents Christ in Kingship is a Lion. This represents dominance and authority. If you find yourself faced with a Lion, you will not be able to negotiate with it – you will only survive if you treat the Lion with the utmost respect.

Our Lord asks us on this day, which celebrates His Kingship, whether we are ready to accept Him as our King. If we belong to His Kingdom, we will live in this world, without sharing in its values. The blessing which we’re offered is that in God’s eyes, we are to be reckoned as Kings and Queens. The challenge is that we must exercise this God-given authority in a Christ-like way. This is the way of self-sacrifice, as Aslan gave his life for Edmund. This is the way of forgiveness, as we exercise the royal power of pardon. This is the way of using our riches to bless the poorest among us, as the sainted Queens Margaret of Scotland and Elizabeth of Hungary distributed their wealth to the poor, tending to beggars and invalids with their own hands.

Those saintly Queens were criticised by the court circles of their age for their decidedly non-royal behaviour. In the news this week, many commentators have criticised the Church of England for being “out of touch” with modern values by failing to accept women as bishops. Hardly any voices have pointed out that the mission of a Christian Church is not to follow the trends of society, but to invite that society to accept the rule of Christ as King. To be sure, there’s disagreement even among Anglicans on what they believe the King’s Command to be on such matters – but only a few voices have dared to say that any religion must have the freedom to follow its own principles, as long as non-members are not discriminated against. We must keep Anglican leaders in our prayers as they struggle to work out what it means to be part of a Kingdom “not of this world” while being the Established Church for England.

Imagine a Kingdom not of this world.

Imagine a way of living where the most important question we ask ourselves each day is: What is the command of Christ, our King?

Imagine a way of living where each one of us uses our proper authority – in the workplace, in our family home, in the voluntary groups we belong to – not for own own advantage but to favour the poorest, the most disadvantaged, to give those struggling a helping hand.

Imagine a Kingdom not based on personal advancement or shaped by our fears, but built on selfless love.

When you come to Mass and see the creatures on the front of this pulpit, remember Narnia – remember that you are part of a Kingdom not of this world. And before you leave this building at the end of Mass, look again at the pulpit and let these creatures speak to you of what they represent. These creatures are truly talking animals, for they invite you to go forth to proclaim the Gospel with your whole life!

Plaques on the Pulpit at St John Lloyd Church, Cardiff.

Go forth like the ox, willingly bearing the burdens laid upon you.

Go forth like the angel, ready to speak God’s word wherever it needs to be heard.

Go forth like the eagle, carrying your prayers to the heights of heaven.

Go forth like the lion, thinking of that other Kingdom where Christ is Lord, and where the values are not the selfish ones of the world around us. Remember that such a Kingdom will remain a fantasy, unless you choose to make it a reality.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

Speak Up!

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Prisoners’ Sunday

We’ve just heard some strange and disturbing readings: the Word of God presenting us with mysteries which are not quickly understood. This kind of reading is prophecy – in veiled language, God is telling us something about the future, but also something about the present. Jesus’ words about the fig tree and ‘this generation passing away’ suggest something short-term. But the final end, when Christ will come again, may still be far into the unknown future.

Joan Osborne’s hit song of 1995, One of Us, was inspired by the question of what would happen when Christ returned. What if God came back quietly and slipped in alongside us, just like a stranger on the bus? If God showed us who He really was, if we knew his name and his true glory… it would have consequences! Then, we’d have to believe in things like heaven, and Jesus, and the saints, and all the prophets!

In fact, Osborne didn’t need to ask “What if?” – for we believe as Christians that God has lived among us.

In our journey of learning who Jesus is, and therefore, who we are, we come to Christ the Prophet. On our pulpit, we have an image clearly labelled ‘Christ the Man’ – even though the figure has the wings of an angel. It is meant to represent God dwelling among us, sharing fully in our experience of being human, and speaking to us as one of us – though in an age when he would be a stranger on a donkey rather than an omnibus!

There are a few pages in the Bible where the voice of God-the-Father speaks directly from Heaven – on the days when Jesus is baptised, or transfigured in light alongside Moses and Elijah. But in most cases God speaks to us in human ways. In the Old Testament, God called prophets to bear his word to kings and people alike. In Jesus Christ, God-the-Son walked among us, teaching us both by his words and by his actions. And when he rose from the dead, he taught his apostles for forty days, after which they were entrusted with taking the Christian message to the ends of the earth.

The portion of the Letter to the Hebrews for today reminds us that Jesus came to earth to offer a sacrifice once for all time, through which all the sins of humanity could be forgiven. Now that the work of the Cross is accomplished, Jesus dwells at God’s right hand in heaven. Then the Apostles who first carried the Gospel beyond Israel also died, and went to their heavenly reward. That leaves – us!

We are baptised into Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King. We share in the dignity of Christ the Priest, with the right to stand before our Heavenly Father in prayer at all times. Next weekend we shall celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, reminding us that we are members of a royal family. But we are also sharers in the work of Christ the Prophet, the one with the thankless task of speaking God’s word into a world unwilling to hear it. God has high expectations of us, that we will be the ones who speak up for the poor, the oppressed, and those with no voice of their own. We do not need a God-given vision of the future to be prophets – there is enough to see if we open our eyes to the present.

Our bishops have just completed their November meeting, when all the Bishops of England and Wales confer together. They have made statements based on what they can see. They notice in the world of education, Religious Education is being squeezed from the syllabus, especially in Academy Schools and in the way England is reforming its A-level system. They notice that there’s active political debate about the importance of paying a living wage, and they give this idea their strong backing. They notice that no political party went into the last General Election on a platform of redefining same-sex relationships to be ‘marriage’ and warn politicians to acknowledge that they are engineering a major cultural change if they press on down that road.

On Friday, the BBC held its annual Children in Need Appeal – the British public have already given almost twenty-seven million pounds. and more will follow, for what is clearly a worthy cause. But this week is also National Prisons Week, and on this weekend of the year we are asked to remember and pray for prisoners. Yes, we will pray for victims of crime. Yes, we will pray for families torn apart because one member is behind bars. Yes, we will pray for officers and chaplains with the difficult task of working in prisons. But we will also pray for the well-being of prisoners themselves, not because their actions deserve it, but because we are uncompromising in declaring that every human being is precious in God’s eyes.

We also are allowed to keep our eyes open and speak up about what we see around us. But we’re not speaking up for our own comfort or self-interest; we’re speaking up for God’s values in a world which rejects them. There’s a delicate balance here, but we can rightly demand space not only to hold our religious beliefs, but to live out the moral values which come directly from them. It’s good news that a court case this week found that a Christian manager was wrongly demoted simply because he stated his opposition to same-sex marriage on a social networking website. But we speak out not only for our own rights, but also for the voiceless.

Is a child precious because it is a child or because it is wanted? Ireland’s politicians and people are asking themselves difficult questions this week because absolute respect for the life of an unborn child led to the tragic death of a pregnant mother. But if the life of a child does not demand absolute respect, we find ourselves on a slippery slope on which politicians might suggest that if a couple have too many children, the extra children might not be entitled to benefits… and at the bottom of this slope, society loses sight of the fact that a marriage is a social institution which protects children by inviting their natural parents to keep binding promises to each other, and instead replaces a traditional marriage with a contract between two people based on strongly asserted desires.

Friends, in this age we are called to be a prophetic people who speak up for the rights of the undeserving. We are on the side of convicted prisoners, because we believe in a God who forgives wrongdoing and invites us to embrace a new kind of living. We are on the side of the unborn child because we see the image of God reflected in every human life. We are on the side of traditional marriage because, for all its imperfections, it confirms the identity of the children born to a husband and wife. We are on the side of the undeserving poor because we believe in a God whose love is unconditional.

Our words have consequences. The Prophet Daniel is shown that at the end, when God raises all the dead to life, “The learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who have instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.” As for those who hesitate, I leave you with the speech of Pastor Martin Niemöller, a German Protestant minister active during the Second World War:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I did not speak out, as I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I did not speak out; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out, as I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out, as I was not a Jew.

When they came for me, ah,
then there was no one left to speak out for me.

Where’s the Beef?

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Some years ago, I visited the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, Poland. One of the monks did his best to explain, in broken English, the symbolism of the artwork in their stained glass windows. They had the same four living creatures representing the four Gospel-writers as we have on our pulpit – the man, the lion, the eagle and the ox.

Plaques on the Pulpit at St John Lloyd Church, Cardiff.

“Here is Matthew, with the man,” explained the monk. “And Mark, with the lion. And John, with the eagle. And here is Luke… with the beef!”

Although the monk was struggling with his English, his declaration should give us reason to pause and consider. We keep cows to give us milk – that’s a day’s work and a slight discomfort for the cow – but we keep beef cattle in order that they may be sacrificed on the altar of a roast dinner. And in Old Testament times, bulls were regularly offered as sacrifices in the Jewish Temple.

Last week we considered Christ as the High Priest who offered sacrifice and taught us how to pray. This week, I invite you to consider Christ as the one who himself became the sacrifice for our sins, and what that means for us.

When a child is baptised, we declare that the child shares in the dignity of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. But we never automatically share in the dignity of Christ as Sacrifice, for to be a sacrifice always requires a deliberate act of the will, a mindful choice to do the difficult thing for God’s sake, or for love of those in need.

This weekend marks the poignant time of the year when we remember the sacrifice of those who died in time of war. Behind each fallen soldier lies a personal story – a teenager who lied about their age in order to reach the front line and do their bit; a father drafted into service and accepting his call to defend his children’s homeland; a reluctant conscript fighting only for fear of what would happen if he deserted. In most wars, at least one army is fighting to protect their wives and families. In some, there is a clear moral purpose, the resistance of Nazi ideology or the prevention of ethnic cleansing. In many cases, those most willing to risk their lives do so because they know they’re fighting for a cause greater than their own personal interest. On this Remembrance Sunday, we pause to remember that our freedom, in Britain, depends directly on the sacrifice of our countrymen in two World Wars, and continues to be defended by servicemen and women today.

Today’s readings also present us with stories of sacrifice. The starving widow who met the prophet Elijah had food enough only for one last meal for herself and her son. Certainly, the Middle Eastern culture of showing hospitality to strangers would have drawn her to share even what she had, but I wonder – did she sense that God was offering an invitation to take a greater risk and receive a greater blessing in return? She does choose to share her last meal with the prophet, and because of that choice, God blesses her family with the means to survive a whole season of famine.

As for the widow spotted by Jesus in the Temple, we’re not treated to the ending of the story. We only know that the Son of God on earth noticed her actions, and pointed out that the sacrifice she had made, putting her last pennies into the Temple funds, was very pleasing indeed to God. We are not told whether she received a reward on earth or was called quickly to heaven; we only know that had she died at that moment, she would have been welcomed into paradise with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Since I cannot reflect on the widow’s life, I will instead reflect on my own. The art of Christian giving is one rooted in prayer, and grown through experience. It is a daily part of Christian living to need to pour out the milk of human kindness to others, but there will also be moments when God asks for the beef. There have been times in my life – and I have only ever lived on the income of an academic student or of a priest – when I have felt nudged by God to make donations to particular causes. Not so much as to bankrupt me, but enough to dent my income for a few months. ALWAYS, when I have felt those nudges and responded with my chequebook, I have found myself no worse off, because money has come to me from the most unexpected quarters within days of my gift being given, enough to replenish my gift, and more besides.

But this is not a charter for reckless giving! Hear me right! I am NOT calling on you to empty your bank accounts so that God can double them. God’s blessing is not automatic, but a dimension of our prayerful relationship with Him. We must develop a willingness to give, and a listening ear that can pick up God inviting us to give to particular causes at particular times. It is when we respond generously to these invitations that we discover that God cannot be outdone in generosity. And the gifts which God may ask from us concern are gifts not only of our money, but also of our time or of our talents.

The life of Jesus Christ is punctuated by many small sacrifices – of time, of comfort, of popularity – and the one great sacrifice offered on the Cross. In the same way, we as followers of Christ are called to a daily lifestyle of making little sacrifices for our family, our neighbours, and yes, even for our church community – but also a willingness to make the big sacrifices when God invites us.

Faith is not an intellectual exercise, it doesn’t mean sitting on a pew and thinking “OK God, I believe in you,” or even standing up and reciting the Creed. Real faith is jumping into those places where God invites us, trusting Him to catch us. If we allow God to draw us deeper, we can tell personal stories of how God has provided for us. Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice on the Cross, and experienced the glory of the resurrection. If we respond to God’s call by doing the difficult things, we too will have stories of glory to tell.

Friends, the people in the world around us are hungry to know that God is real. If we tell them what’s in our heads, they won’t be impressed. But if we can share a story of taking a risk and allowing God to catch us – then we can present a powerful reason for our neighbours to believe. They want to believe, but these days they are deterred by a skeptical society You know what they’re asking? “You Christians – you believe that if you make sacrifices, God will bless you. Is that true? You tell me: Where’s the beef?


Christ and Our Common Priesthood

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Who is Jesus? And who are we?

Over the next four weeks, I’d like to invite you to take a fresh look at who Jesus is. It’s very appropriate in this Year of Faith to seek to get to know Jesus better. And the better we know Jesus, the better we know ourselves – because Jesus teaches us what it is to be truly human. When we’ve made a mistake, we might excuse ourselves by saying, “well, I’m only human” – but that would be the incorrect answer! When we get something wrong, we are being less than human, because we’re made in God’s image, and God is perfection.

On the front of this pulpit are four images – four plaques representing different aspects of Our Lord Jesus Christ: as a man, as a King, as a sacrifice, and as the one who is connected to heaven. Each of these images also teaches us something about what it is to be human. Today, I’d like to focus on Christ who is the bridge between heaven and earth – Christ the Great High Priest.

Plaques on the Pulpit at St John Lloyd Church, Cardiff.

From the beginning of recorded history, human communities have identified certain members as priests and priestesses, men or women understood to be in touch with the spiritual world. We have a deep-seated human instinct that we need to make some kind of connection with our Creator, and we naturally seek help from someone who might help to make that connection. In part, those priests and priestesses were responding to a genuine sense of God’s presence; but in part, they also brought their own limited understanding of God and their own human weaknesses to the role.

In the fullness of time, God began to speak to human beings, to teach them the kind of priesthood that would truly worship God. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there are few priests – significant figures like Cain and Abel, and Abraham, offer their own sacrifices to God. Abraham does, however, recognise one priest – the mysterious figure of King Melchizedek, whose name you will hear alongside Abel’s in the Eucharistic Prayer which I’ll use today.

When Moses led God’s chosen people out of Egypt, he received instructions from God for a new kind of priesthood, the Jewish priesthood. The family of Aaron would become the new high priests of Israel; one of the twelve tribes of Israelites, the tribe of Levi, was not to have a share of land to cultivate, but instead would become priests offering prayers for the people. They were to keep and eat a portion of the meat and crops offered in sacrifice to God, as their wages. For a thousand years and more, barring invasions, priests offered sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. Once a year, on the day of atonement, the High Priest would first sacrifice a bull as an offering for his own sins, and then sacrifice a goat as an offering for the sins of the whole people. And each Christmas, when we read the Nativity story, we remember how Mary and Joseph had to offer two pigeons for the priest to sacrifice, as a thanksgiving for the safe birth of Jesus.

When the first Christians tried to make sense of who Jesus was, they realised that although he wasn’t from the tribe of Levi, or a descendent of Aaron, he’d become the perfect priest of the Jewish religion. The priests who served in the temple had to make sacrifices for their own sins, and eventually grew old and were replaced by the next generation of priests. But Jesus, the sinless one, was worthy to pray for the whole world; and now that he had risen from the dead, his priesthood could never end.

If Jesus was the true high priest, what about those Christian leaders who took bread and wine and celebrated the Eucharist in memory of Jesus? The early Christians called their leaders “presbyters”, which is Greek for “elders” and the word from which we get Presbytery (Priest’s House). But later, after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewish priests no longer offered sacrifices, Christians became more comfortable calling their leaders “priests”. Every Catholic Priest stands in the place of Jesus, connecting the community to God through the power to make Christ present in the form of bread and wine, and to declare forgiveness for sins. But there are two kinds of priesthood, and today I will speak not of the priesthood which a few men receive through ordination, but of the other kind of priesthood, which the Church calls “the common priesthood of all believers”.

When Jesus died on the Cross, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that the curtain covering the holiest part of the Jewish Temple was torn in half. In a part of the Letter to the Hebrews which we don’t hear in our Sunday readings, God’s Word explains this: we now have a direct connection to God which wasn’t available to us before Jesus died. ALL of God’s people, baptised and connected to Jesus, now have the right to come into God’s presence and pray. That’s worth remembering!

We can pray to God in the familiar words “Our Father”, but let’s not take God for granted. If we become blasé and pray the Our Father casually, we’re forgetting what an awesome privilege it is to be able to address the God of the Universe at all. It’s as if Queen Elizabeth or President Obama gave you their mobile phone number and said: “Any time, you can call me!” – that’s the privilege we’ve got as children of God. It also means that if another religious believer – a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Sikh – wanted to join in our prayers, we can’t simply say “go ahead”. Only those who have been baptised have the right to address God as “Father”. We are bold to do so!

So when we come to the Lord’s Prayer at this Mass, listen carefully to the priest’s words of invitation. Our Missal first says “At the Saviour’s Command” – that’s a good reason for being bold – and then “formed by divine teaching” – because God has taught us that we have become his children. Then the launchpad words are “we dare to say…” – yes, it’s a bold thing indeed to call God, “Father”, but that’s our privilege as a royal priesthood, as baptised members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

One of the ancient Christian writers once said: “Fish swim. Birds fly. People pray.” Praying is the one thing we can do, which no other creature on God’s earth can – it’s our unique privilege. Because Christ is now seated at the right hand of God in heaven, we can reach up to heaven by our prayers at any time. And when Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, he is asking us not only to commit ourselves to service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also to approach God directly through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way we possibly can.

So take a good look at yourself. You have a status in God’s eyes which is not shared by three-quarters of the billions of inhabitants of planet Earth – you are baptised, with the right to stand before God in prayer and call Him Father. You have the right to thank God for all that is good in the world, to plead for those in distress, and beseech God to have mercy on all sinners. You are a priestly people, a holy nation, a people set apart for God. So I leave you with a question: how are you going to live out your priesthood during the week to come?

Bonus material for those reading the homily online:

The Great Commandment: Matthew 22:35b-40

… Jesus said, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself…

The Great Commission: Matthew 28:16-20

Jesus said, ‘Go, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. ‘

The Response of the Disciples: Acts 2:37b-47

These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. The faithful … went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.


Flowing from the readings above, there are certain things which every Christian Community must do in order to be the kind of community which God is calling it to be.

LOVE OF NEIGHBOUR requires us to invest some of our time, our talents and our money in serving others. Our “neighbour” encompasses both our local community, and the poorer nations of a global economy in which the UK, despite the current recession, is still relatively rich.

LOVE OF GOD is expressed not only through service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way possible.

There are two traps we can easily fall into.

PIOUSNESS is the trap of paying so much attention to the fine details of how and when to pray that we neglect our neighbour’s needs, or treat members of our community who don’t share our piety, with disdain. Scripture warns us that if we have no love for our neighbour, there is something inadequate about our love for God. (The whole of the First Letter of St John is a meditation on this theme, and see also James 3:18.)

HUMANITARIANISM is an exclusive concern with the well-being of our neighbour. The world is full of humanitarians, and we applaud the work they do. Some are motivated by religious beliefs, others by a simple care for their fellow human beings. But for us as followers of Jesus Christ, the trap is to say that if we have exercised humanitarian care, we have done everything which God asks of us. No! Jesus gave us two great commandments which are inseparable yet distinct. For us as believers, Humanitarianism may be motivated by love of God but is, by its nature, an expression of love of Neighbour. We must remember that we are also called to the First Commandment, which is to remember, love, worship and obey God for God’s own sake.

Praying for the Dead

Homily at St John Lloyd for All Souls’ Day 2012


  • II Macc 12:43-45 – the offering made for the dead.
  • Rom 6:3-9 – if in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection.
  • Luke 12:32-48 – give alms. Be ready for action. The punishment of an unready servant.

“You’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead!”

When I was an undergraduate, the bursar at my college decided to carry out an unscheduled fire drill – at 6 o’clock in the morning! Bleary-eyed students pulled on dressing gowns and coats, and made for the exit. As soon as the statutory 2 minutes for evacuation was up, the bursar stood opposite the main doors and greeted each exiting student with a wagging finger and the unsettling words that they were dead!

It was a powerful reminder for all the residents that mortal peril can come at an hour we do not expect – powerful enough that the memory is still with me clearly after 20 years! In the Gospel, Jesus uses an equally dramatic image to remind us that our immortal souls will also be judged at an hour we do not expect. Many of us attending this Mass will die peacefully in our old age, but any one of us could suffer from a road accident, stroke, heart attack or other cause of sudden death, and find ourself face to face with God – and then what will happen?

St Paul knows something about this. We might imagine him facing a congregation of Christians with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing smile on his lips, glancing lovingly at each one and saying gently: “You’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead!” Because St Paul knows that each member of his congregation, because they’ve been baptised, has already died with Christ. This is also true for us here today. When each one of us was baptised, our first life ended: in God’s eyes we died. For the early Christians, a rectangular walk-in font reminded them of the tomb of Christ, and the minister baptising them would have held their head under the water so they felt like they were drowning. When we emerged from the water of baptism, our eternal life, joined to Jesus Christ, had begun.

When our earthly bodies expire, our souls will continue their eternal life by meeting God. The Gospel uses the image of a Master returning unexpectedly to inspect the work of his household servants. And Jesus – our Saviour Jesus, our loving and caring Jesus – chooses a very strong image, and one we might not expect to hear on his lips: the servant who did not do what the Master required is punished by the strokes of a whip! The one given clear instructions receives a severe beating, but even the one who didn’t know what the Master wanted receives a beating, though less severe. What are we to make of this?

When any human soul stands in God’s presence at the end of earthly life, it can clearly see the perfect love which is God’s nature. It judges itself against this pure love and becomes painfully aware of its own failures to love unselfishly throughout its life on earth. And for those souls who were Christians, who heard God’s message preached in church, who read it themselves in the pages of the Bible, the pain is even greater, for they become fully conscious of having ignored, at least in part, the pleas of their loving and heavenly Father.

This pain is real, and the Bible uses different ways to describe it. Here Jesus uses the image of a beating; elsewhere he speaks of the soul which is “put into prison until it has paid the last penny”. St Paul has written of our life’s work being “tested by fire”. But we should not interpret any of this as God being vindictive or wanting to punish His children; rather, these disturbing images are the best way God can express in human language the experience of a soul entering heaven. For in heaven can dwell only that which is good and perfect and true, and the soul entering must come to terms with the gap between the life which it has lived on earth, and  the pure life which it is now called to live in heaven.

We can help! In fact, this is the whole point of the observance which the Catholic Church keeps today, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. God’s followers have long asked themselves what happens to the souls of those who have died, and whether the prayers of the living can offer them any support. We can sense this conversation going on in the time of Judas Maccabeus, a Jewish leader who lived 200 years before Jesus.

Many Jewish people had been killed when they revolted against their Greek rulers. Some of the community said that there was no point offering prayers for the dead, but Judas disagreed. He sent money from the community to the Temple in Jerusalem to have prayers and sacrifices made for the dead. In a roundabout way, the writer of the history we now call the Second Book of Maccabees says that this is a good thing.

There is no clear statement about praying for the dead in the pages of the New Testament, but the Tradition of the church shows us that from very early times, when Christians gathered for Mass, they often dedicated it for the soul of one who had died. St Monica, mother of the great bishop St Augustine of Hippo, made only one request of her son when she was dying: that he remember her at God’s altar.

It seems to me that when we remember our dead by praying for them, this adds to the love which they experience when they meet God face to face – for they encounter not only God’s perfect love, but the freely given love of we on earth who pause to remember them. The more intense the love focussed upon that soul, the more quickly the pain passes, leaving the soul free to enter the happiness of heaven. It is, as the author of II Maccabees says, “a holy and devout thought to pray for the dead”.

On this one day of the year, therefore, we remember in a special way all those souls who have gone into God’s hands; we invite them to be present to us as we pray. And as we remember each one in prayer we declare: “You are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved!” – and in this way the prayer of the living makes shorter, yet sharper, the purification of those who have died, that they may quickly enter the eternal joys of heaven.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.