Manifest faith

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2013

Arise, shine out! With these words, the prophet Isaiah speaks a command to God’s chosen city, Jerusalem – which is therefore a command to us, the Church.

The prophet says that God’s glory is on us in the midst of darkness. We are to look at the friends of God assembling all around us. When we realise that we’re surrounded by God and by God’s people, our hearts will throb and be full.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me excited. I long to be in a place where I see the fingerprints of God’s work all around me. I long to have conversations with people who are willing to speak about the amazing things God has done in their life. I long to be reminded that on those days when my faith is weak and God feels far away, that others are experiencing God’s presence close at hand.

But we’re British. We don’t talk about these things. So instead we rely on old memories.

Today’s Gospel reminds us how the Wise Men from the East were led by a star and recognised God’s chosen leader in the child born to Mary. They sensed God’s presence and the world re-tells the story each year as we celebrate Christmas.

Today’s Second Reading reminds us of how St Paul was converted from being a persecutor of the Christian faith, to being its most fervent advocate. The place where it happened has entered the dictionary – a dramatic conversion is often called a “Road to Damascus Experience”.

Yet these stories of times long ago and lands far away aren’t enough if we are to tell the world about a loving Lord who is alive and active even today.

Fortunately, a few British people have embraced the prophet’s command to shine out, and have been willing to go on the record about the way God has touched their lives.

When I was in seminary, my spiritual director was a priest called Monsignor Keith Barltrop. He was brought up in a family who were Christian but not Catholic. These are his words:

One day, while I was at university, my state of doubt about everything became so intense that I spontaneously cried out, “God, I have no idea if you exist or not, but if you are there, do something!”

There was no immediate response, but a few days later a picture came into my mind apparently from nowhere of the Catholic Church, which I had been brought up to believe was seriously in error. I saw a huge building with many side rooms like chapels in a cathedral, and the thought came into my mind: “somewhere here there is a place for you”. Immediately a sense of peace replaced the doubts I had had for years, and the picture was confirmed when I walked into Westminster Cathedral some weeks afterwards, and was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s presence.

Needless to say, Mgr Barltrop’s journey led him deeper into the Catholic Church, and by the time I came to know him, he was a senior priest in the Westminster Diocese.

Or I could tell you something of the story of Emily Davis, a young lady I met a few times through my work with the Sion Community. Emily grew up in a family where both parents were committed Catholics, and where family prayer was a normal part of daily life. Emily writes:

Spiritual conversations were common place, as were dramatic answers to prayer. During the recessional 80s, there were several times I remember us 5 kids being summoned out of bed early, to pray together before school, and we would return from school, keen to hear how God had provided for us that day. Sometimes there would have been a cheque put through the post that covered a bill we’d received that morning. Other times someone would have dropped food round that was enough for all of us, for supper. I learnt that our God is a God who communicates clearly (as he did with those who blessed us), and is our provider, in a very practical sense.

Emily seriously considered becoming a missionary in Africa, but was guided clearly through prayer to know that she was meant to work in England – and through an unexpected gift from an anonymous donor, money was provided to clear her university debts so that she could work for the Sion Community.

These two stories and more now shine forth for the world to read on a national Catholic website, where you can find links to many other amazing and encouraging stories –

  • Bonnie, who, aged 5, was sent to a Christian holiday club by parents who expected her to learn how to be a “good person” but came back with a faith in Jesus – her parents became Christians a year later.
  • Derrick, an inmate at Wandsworth Prison, who had a vision of Christ on the Cross, of which he says “I experienced total freedom and the assurance that I was loved totally, irrespective of my past.”
  • David Payne, a drug addict who on the 18th of February 1985 asked a Catholic prayer group to pray for him, experienced a touch of God’s presence, threw away his drugs and came through the experience with no withdrawal symptoms.

Now, not everyone has a dramatic story to tell of a vision or sudden healing. Indeed, many stories on the same website begin with words like those of Rev John O’Toole:

My faith journey was and is more a road to Emmaus than a road to Damascus.  There have been no flashing lights and few dramatic events.  Rather it was and is a gradual journey of learning, growing and deepening in faith.

But I’ve chosen some of the more dramatic stories because, as I said a few moments ago, we are to look at the friends of God assembling all around us. When we realise that we’re surrounded by God and by God’s people, our hearts will throb and be full. And when we haven’t had such remarkable experiences ourselves, we are greatly encouraged to know that they really do happen – not as some dubious urban legend doing the rounds on the Internet, but as real stories happening to British people – four of whom I know and can vouch for personally.

We’re not to expect that we should all see a vision of Christ on the Cross or of our home being in a Cathedral. But we can expect that God, our loving Father, wants each and every one of us to know, in our hearts, like Derrick the prisoner, that we are loved by God regardless of what we have done in the past; and if we choose to live our family lives like the Davis family, putting prayerful trust in God and asking for what we need, we too will experience answered prayer in our lives.

Arise, shine out! With these words, the prophet Isaiah speaks a command to God’s chosen city, Jerusalem – which is therefore a command to us, the Church. If you’ve experienced a touch of God’s presence, an answered prayer, don’t be afraid to tell someone – for you may be the star which God will use to bring the light of Christ to a soul yet waiting in darkness – waiting for you to shine!

Bonus material for web readers:

You can also read on-line stories of Catholics who have returned to the faith, and see videos of Catholics giving their testimonies at Faith Nation and the Year of Faith channel.