Homily at St Philip Evans, for 11.30 pm Mass on New Year’s Eve 2013 (Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God).

“Every baptised Christian is called to bless, and to be a blessing.”

So says the Catechism of the Catholic Church!

But what is this thing called “Blessing?”Our Lady of Banneux - Blessing (4)

It is when one person connects another person with the gifts God wishes to pour into that person’s life.

In our First Reading, Moses instructs Aaron, the first High Priest of the Jewish religion, about his priestly duties. He is to bless God’s people, in the words given to him by Moses.

In this way, we see it is part of God’s plan to give great blessings through a priesthood, a group of men set apart for this purpose. To go to a special person, a person not of our choosing, to receive God’s blessing, is irksome! Why make it so complicated? But it is a sign of our trust and dependence on God. To receive God’s blessing we approach God on His terms, not ours. The priest uses God’s words, not his own.

This same humility was shown by Our Blessed Mother when she took the Christ-child to the Temple. Although this child was a heaven-sent child, a true Son of God, she was the Mother of this Child, the Mother of God-made-flesh – the Mother of God. She did what all humble Jewish mothers did on giving birth to a male child: she had him circumcised in humble obedience to God’s covenant with Moses. She did what all humble Jewish mothers did on giving birth to a first-born male: she went to the Temple to redeem the child with an offering.

Mary herself has come as one who blesses. The Catholic Church recognises that 80 years ago, she appeared in the Belgian town of Banneux and designated a spring to be a place of healing. At times she stretched her hands in blessing over the visionary, Mariette Beco (the statue pictured captures this gesture). Is the Blessed Mother a priest? No, but she is one who mediates God’s blessings between heaven and earth. She revealed this more fully to St Catherine Labouré in 1830, when she appeared with rays of light radiating from her outstretched hands – the graces that God allows her to obtain for us from heaven. Yet there were some dark spots. These, she said, were the graces we forgot to ask for.

We, too – because of our baptism – are a priestly people. Every baptized person is called to be a “blessing,” and to bless. We do this when we say grace over a meal, when a mother superior sprinkles her nuns with holy water at compline, when a mother or father makes the Sign of the Cross on their child’s brow at bedtime. And we bless one another in our parish community by praying for one another’s needs.

If we would receive God’s blessing, we must approach God in all humility. We must ask for God’s blessing each day. Yet do we ever ask God to guide us in which blessings to ask for? If we ask for what we would like to receive, we may be granted it. If we pray for what God is guiding us to seekwe shall surely receive it!

So as we stand on the cusp of a new year, the Year of Our Lord 2014, let us ask God to teach us how to bless one another. Let’s stand a moment of silence. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten us. We have just heard that “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” and made us heirs of God the Father. If the Spirit dwells within us, the Spirit can teach us how to pray. Ask the Spirit to whisper into your heart what blessings God would pour on Wales, on the Catholic Church, and on us gathered here tonight. Pray in silence for what you feel God may be giving you. Let’s do that now…

[after a silent pause]

Now, let us offer our prayers for the Church, for the World, and for the local community. Feel free to put into words the thoughts stirred up in our hearts. We can never be sure we have heard God fully, but at worst we will be asking our Heavenly Father for the good things that we would like for one another, and at best – we will have caught the voice of the Holy Spirit and will be united with Christ as one body in praying, humbly, to the Father.

Thought for the web: Continuing the theme of humility, Anglican and other Christian traditions pray a “prayer of humble access” before coming to communion, of which this is one modern form: We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord,trusting in our own goodness, but in your all-embracing love and mercy. We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy. So feed us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your Son, that we may forever live in him and he in us. Amen.

Royal Proclamation

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Vigil of Christmas 2013.

A royal message has gone forth to the nations! A message yet to be revealed in its fullness, but hinting at fair play and co-operation between the peoples of many realms.

I’m speaking, of course, about the Queen’s Baton Relay.

In July 2014, the Scottish City of Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games.
A granite stone inlaid with the letter G surrounded by partial circles.Just as before the Olympics, a torch is famously carried around the host nation, so the Commonwealth Games have their own pre-games relay: Queen Elizabeth II writes a message which is rolled up and placed in a baton. This is then carried through all the states and territories of the Commonwealth until it is revealed and read at the Opening Ceremony of the Games.

The Glasgow baton started its journey on October 9th and is currently in the Pacific Island of Vanuatu; it will pass through Wales at the end of May, on its way to Scotland.

Wasn’t there a great feel-good factor last year when Britain did so well in the London Olympics? I wonder if the same thing will happen at the Commonwealth Games? Knowing that good things have happened before helps us look forward to more blessings. Our second reading tonight looked back to the time when God rescued his people from Egypt. The first reading, written to the people of Israel at a time of great struggle, looked forward to the time when God would bless them again. The prophet Isaiah is so sure that God will bless the holy city of Zion, he says that he’s not going to shut up until it happens! But I wonder what the coming blessing might look like?

When a Queen, or a King, wishes to communicate with their subjects, they send a messenger. It’s not uncommon for the messenger to be their own son – indeed, Prince Charles read out the Queen’s Message at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. But the message comes in two parts. The first part is the very fact that the baton is visiting each and every realm. The Queen’s Baton Relay unites the world’s great nations with its tiniest territories; India, with its population of more than one billion citizens, will stand alongside Nauru with its ten thousand. Only when it reaches its destination will the second part, the hidden words, be revealed – and this time, Queen Elizabeth herself will read the message when the baton arrives in Glasgow.

What we are here to celebrate tonight is something strangely similar! Long ago, the King of Heaven wished to communicate a message of love to His subjects on earth below, and sent his own Son among us, as a human being. The first part of the message is “Emmanuel”, the very fact that God is with us in human form – tonight’s Gospel was part of the story of the first Christmas, the birth of Emmanuel to the Virgin Mary.

The second part is not revealed at Christmas, but at Easter: having travelled the length and breadth of Israel, preaching a message of peace and love, the grown-up Christ-child is executed, while calling for his executioners to be forgiven. Yet this marks not the death of God but the death of Death, for the Christ appears restored to life, with a message of how all human beings can renew their friendship with God.

This Christmas is the first which the Catholic Church celebrates under Pope Francis, recently hailed as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Every Pope faces a double challenge: to set out the expectations that God has of us human beings, and to proclaim loudly that God is merciful and always ready to offer us another chance when we fail.

We live in an age of sound-bites, so we must take care! Too often, a person becomes known only for their most prominent actions. Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were best known for setting out the Church’s demanding teachings. Pope Francis has so far published few rules or teaching documents, but carried out many gestures of taking the side of the poor, meek and lowly. He has visited a refugee camp on the island of Lampedusa, embraced a man with severe facial disfigurement, and invited three homeless men from the streets of Rome to join him for breakfast on his 77th birthday. By doing these things, Pope Francis has sent out a strong message that the Church cares about those whom the world considers of no importance.

We should not expect to see Pope Francis change the basic rules of the Catholic Church. But we can expect to continue hearing his message that in a messy world we must give more attention to showing love than to following rules. Because God always offers us a second chance, the Church should not rush to condemn those who struggle to do the right thing. And we can also expect him to ensure that the Church practices what she preaches in the way it runs its own offices at the Vatican.

Gestures are important – but limited. Those runners who spent an hour carrying the Queen’s Baton might have appeared on their local TV station but are now back at their places of work or study. The three homeless men who had breakfast with the Pope are back in their usual cardboard boxes on the streets of Rome.

These gestures matter not because a Queen or a Pope is going to rescue a few souls from obscurity, but because they remind all of us of the value of our neighbour. When the Christ-child came to earth, the angels sang of goodwill to all people. We all matter to God, and God invites us to look after one another. One Pope or one Queen on their own cannot give ongoing support to so many people. But two billion Christians – or two billion Commonwealth citizens – reaching out with a kind word or a Foodbank donation every week; yes, two billion people who care can definitely make the world a better place. Christmas comes but once a year; the baton of spreading goodwill is yours for a lifetime, if you choose to run with it!

Fruit of the Womb

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2013.

Wake up to what God is asking of us!

When St Joseph went to bed that night, he was deeply troubled. His fiancée was expecting a baby – and it wasn’t his.

Joseph was a good man, a patient man – some would say even a holy man – but he had his limits. So he was considering his options.

He could express his anger in a very public way. If he made a strong statement in the town square, everyone would know that he hadn’t rushed to Mary ahead of their wedding day – but then she would be taken and stoned to death. Joseph was angry, but he didn’t want blood on his hands.

There again, he could break off his engagement very quietly. Mary would be on her own with this baby – but that was her problem, and serve her right.

There was, of course, another option – but no. What kind of man would pick up the responsibility for a child he hadn’t wanted and hadn’t asked for? That was way beyond the call of duty! So tomorrow, Mary was going to find herself on her own.

Each and every one of us can be like Joseph. We can be committed to caring for others, not causing trouble for them, but setting limits. We can easily be tempted to side with the world around us, which says: “A child is valuable when it is a wanted child.”

God asks us to see things differently. Long ago the Prophet Isaiah spoke of a child named Emmanuel – “God is with us”. That name includes many rich layers of meaning!

The child born to the wife of King Ahaz in Isaiah’s own day was a sign that God was with the people – God would protect Judah and set an heir upon the throne.

The child born to Mary, which we will celebrate this week on Christmas Day, is God-with-us in the most real way possible: God, in human form.

But EVERY child is also a sign that God is with us, for whatever we do to the least of our human family, we do to Christ. New-born babies bring out the best in us. What person wouldn’t manage a smile and a coochie-coo when presented with a babe in arms? Our Catholic faith insists that an unseen baby, in the womb of its mother, is no less deserving of our attention and care.

I’m sure it won’t come as news from this pulpit that the official teaching of the Catholic Church is that every child has a right to be cherished and welcomed from the moment of conception onwards. This is a challenging standard to keep. It makes demands, not only of expectant mothers, but of us as a society. How will we help reluctant mothers to cherish their children? What practical support will we offer? Cardinal Winning of Glasgow realised that words had to be matched by actions, and set up a fund to help reluctant parents raise their children.

Some of us may be tempted to disagree with the Church’s position. There are two things in particular which may make us afraid to embrace it. One is an unwillingness to propose our values to other people. But hear today’s words of St Paul to the Romans: “Through Jesus, we received our mission to preach the obedience of faith to all pagan nations. You are one of these nations!” God expects us to be a prophetic people, speaking up for what is right.

More painfully, a few of us may still experience the guilt from decisions we have made in the past. We can numb that guilt by repeating to ourselves, “But I did the right thing really.” It may be that if we admitted the Catholic official position was right, we would have to say: “That means I made the wrong choice.”

Emmanuel, the Christ-Child, came to our world with a mission of peace, goodwill and healing. Through Christ, there is no bad decision that cannot be forgiven. There are Christian groups that specialise in helping women and men work through the path of guilt and forgiveness which follows any failure to welcome a child in the womb. Our Christian message of hope is that there is always a path to healing, for those who are willing to seek it.An angel speaks to St Joseph while he is dreaming. Above him stands the Virgin Mary with the dove of the Holy Spirit descending upon her.

When Joseph went to sleep, he was resolved to cast aside Mary and her unborn child. But that night, he heeded the voice of God: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” When he woke up, he had realised what God was asking of him, and he took Mary and the unborn child into his home – and protected the Son of God throughout his human childhood. For this, we recognise him as a saint.

Our Catholic leaders ask us to be firm defenders of human life in the womb. It’s one of the key values which set us, as Catholics, apart from the society that we live in. For some of us, our faith makes it obvious that we should defend the unborn child. Others among us have questions. So I invite you to reflect on the story of St Joseph, and pray for God to show you what His opinion is. Then sleep on it – and like St Joseph, wake up to what God is asking of us!

Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the unborn – pray for us.

Saint Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer – pray for us.

St Gerard Majella, patron saint of motherhood – pray for us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At the Masses at which this sermon is preached, a blessing for expectant mothers will be offered at the end of the following Prayer of the Faithful:


We commend our cares and concerns to our heavenly Father through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Deacon or Reader:

For all Christians who work in defence and support of human life, that they may be faithful to the vocation they have received…

For our civic leaders, and for those responsible for international policies, that they may cherish the gift of human life even in the womb…

For parents who have experienced the pain of enduring infertility, of miscarriage, or of cot-death, that they may be comforted…

For all expectant mothers, that as they await the birth of their children, they may experience peace of mind, health of body, and a safe delivery…

For children who are unwanted, unloved, abandoned, or abused, that the Lord may inspire many people with compassion and courage to protect and care for them…

For all families, that they may grow in their faith, strengthened in their love for one another and in their commitment to follow Christ…

Readers may also wish to see the Vatican’s current position on the Church’s hope that unbaptised infants go to heaven rather than a separate place called Limbo.

Preserving Hope

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Friday of the First Week of Advent, 2013.

Change for the better is possible! If you take action, you can make it happen.

Divine Providence has brought us, this morning, the unlikely combination of Santa Claus and Nelson Mandela.Nelson Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela, the first black president of the rainbow nation of South Africa, died last night, the fifth of December. This morning’s news media are filled with tributes to a remarkable man, a politician who championed love above bitterness, peacemaking above revenge. Some have called him “the closest thing to a living saint”; others, struggling to balance journalistic duty with respect for the dead, have gently observed that he did not achieve the same success in his family relationships as he did within the political world. All will agree that in Mandela, a man born in a mud hut rose to become one of the pivotal figures of the 2oth Century.

Meanwhile today, the sixth of December, the Catholic Church honours a saint of a much earlier age, Bishop Nicholas of Myra. The true story of Nicholas is lost in the mists of history; the Church’s official register of saints, the Roman Martyrology, merely states that he was Bishop of Myra (in Turkey) and famous for his holiness and the miracles worked in answer to his prayers to God. An ancient legend tells how he provided dowries for three daughters otherwise unable to marry; out of this and other tales of his generosity emerged the modern figure of Santa Claus.

Today’s Gospel tells of two men who refused to be cowed by the expectations of the crowd among them. They knew that change for the better was possible. Because of their boldness, they received new vision.

Saint Nicholas believed he could change individual lives for the better. In his name, millions of parents arrange for their children to experience the extraordinary generosity of Christmas.

Nelson Mandela believed he could change a nation for the better. The tributes being poured out around the world today confirm that no barriers can stop a man with hope in his heart and love in his soul.

Change for the better is possible! Few are called to change a nation, more to change a neighbourhood, and many to change the life of one or two neighbours. What better day to give the gift of love, than the Feast of St Nicholas? If you take action, you can make it happen.

St Nicholas, pray for us!

Nelson Mandela, rest in peace.

Catching Hold of Jesus

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A – Catholic Bible Sunday.

One day a little girl asked her Mum: “Is it true that God is everywhere?”
A hand placed over a drinking glass.

“Yes, darling,” said Mum. “God is everywhere.”

“OK Mum,” said the girl. “Does that mean that God is in this room?”

Mum wasn’t a Bible expert, so she thought hard for a moment. It was logical, so she said: “Yes, darling, if God is everywhere then God must be in this room.”

The girl had one more question. “OK Mum, if God is everywhere, and God is in this room –” she picked up a glass – “then is God in this glass?”

Now Mum was trapped. There was only one logical answer. “Well, darling,” she said, hesitantly, “If God is everywhere and God is in this room, I suppose God must be in that glass.”

“Goody!” cried the girl, and clapped her hand over the top of the glass. “I’ve got him!”

It’s Advent. It’s the time when we are looking out for God in a special way. Where might we catch Him?

St Paul has given us some clues. His letter today says that we can learn a lot from what is written in the Bible. In another letter, he told us that all the words of the Bible are “breathed by God”. And at Christmas we will hear the words of St John remind us that Jesus is the Living Word of God.

When we put these clues together, we make a discovery. Jesus is in the Bible! Not frozen in ink fixed to a page, though. First we must bring the words of the Bible to life – we must speak them aloud! When someone proclaims the words of the Bible to us, Jesus is speaking to us!

This Gospel Book is beautiful. It contains the words spoken by the human lips of Jesus – these make the Gospels the most important part of the Bible. But after our last Sunday Mass, this book will be put back on the bookshelf in the back room until next weekend. It is only when we are ready to read it aloud that we have servers stand next to it with candles and incense. What is truly important is not the book – it is what is being read from the book. When we receive the message of this book, Jesus is speaking to us. So here is a question: If Jesus is speaking to us, does that mean that Jesus is HERE when the Gospel is being read? YES!

What was proclaimed from this book today? John the Baptist said that Jesus would come and baptise us with the Holy Spirit. That means, if we have been baptised, we have been connected with the Holy Spirit. It means that God’s spirit lives inside us! Unless, that us… we have asked Him to go away! If we choose to commit sins which we know are serious and offensive to God, the Holy Spirit flees from us until we repent. But when we make our peace with God through Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are restored to friendship with God, and the Holy Spirit returns, with all the gifts we had from God before we sinned.

Now for something else St Paul mentioned. He said God’s plan was that “the pagans” should sing and praise God. He’s talking about us! A pagan is anyone who is not Jewish. I don’t know if any member of our congregation comes from a Jewish family, but most of us don’t. That means we are pagans – people from many nations – who have become Christians. Every time we gather in this church and sing God’s praises, we are doing one of the things the Bible said would happen.

In one of the Psalms, it says: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.” Now here is another puzzle. Who is the person speaking? Is the Bible God’s Word? Yes! Is Jesus “the Word of God”? Yes! So does that mean that when a psalm says something, Jesus is speaking? Yes! Jesus is going to sing praises to God-His-Father among all the nations on Earth.

He’s already done it this morning! We sang a hymn at the start of Mass. We are the people filled by the Holy Spirit; the Bible says that we are members of the Body of Christ. Does that mean when we gather as a church to sing God’s praises, Jesus is singing to His Father? Yes!

Exactly 50 years ago, the bishops of the Catholic Church were gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. On the 4th of December, issued a document called Sacrosanctum Concilium. Its 7th paragraph said this:

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross, but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” 

In more complicated language, the bishops are saying the same things that we have worked out this morning. When we receive the words of the Bible being read to us, Jesus is here! When we sing and praise God the Father, Jesus is here! When I stand at the altar, praying the words of Jesus as a priest, Jesus is here! And we haven’t even talked about Jesus being present in Holy Communion!

Yes, the most special presence of all is what happens when bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. If that little girl came into this church and said “Mummy, show me Jesus!” then Mummy would point to the tabernacle – or at Mass, would point to the priest lifting up the Host and then the Chalice – and say, “look, darling – THERE’s Jesus!”

But if that little girl came in to Mass and said, “Mummy, WHERE is Jesus?”, Mummy could also say: He is here! He is all around us! He is in the praises of His people! He is in the proclaiming of His Word! So let us be careful not only to show our love and respect for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament by bending our knee, or at least doing what our bodies will permit us to do. Let us also recognise that there are many other ways Jesus comes to us each time we gather for Mass.

Have you got Him yet? He is nearer than you think!

The “God in the Glass” story is not original; the author is not known but it has been quoted elsewhere as God in a cup or glass.