Open Your Eyes, Open Your Heart

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year A.


The Light Is On For You

I wonder what went through the blind man’s mind during this encounter with Jesus? First he suffers the indignity of having mud and spit put on his eyes. Then he doesn’t even seem to be healed! Jesus tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. I bet he was sorely tempted to stop at the nearest well, wash the mud and spit off, and be done with it. But he doesn’t do that – he goes to Siloam, and because of his act of obedience, his sight is restored.

Sometimes, we can recoil in horror from an encounter with Jesus, too. The trouble is, Jesus wants to open the eyes of our hearts, to see ourselves and our behaviour as he sees us. And His ways are not our ways! But the horror of what Jesus confronts us with gives way to the joy of new and clearer sight.

Too many of us have fallen into the trap of thinking that a sin is “something I do, which hurts another person.” If that were true, we could edit our parish prayer to say: “Here I am, Lord, I come to do what I like as long as I don’t hurt anyone.” No. A sin is something which we do knowing that God has asked us not to do it – or a deliberate failure to do what God has asked us to do. It’s always a good idea to ask ourselves, “If the same circumstances came up again, would I be able to make a different choice?” – if the answer is no, that we had no freedom to do otherwise, then we are not looking at a sin. A sin is always a free choice to do wrong.

Of course, it goes without saying that it is a sin to choose to do something that deliberately harms other people.

It is a sin to post unthinking comments on Facebook or some other social media site which needlessly criticise or embarrass other people.

If we have enough income to spend on luxuries, and we understand how FairTrade works, it would be a sin for us to choose to buy regular goods without caring about whether there is a FairTrade alternative available.

It is a sin to buy or promote anything pornographic, because this creates a demand which requires someone to use their body in a way which is both degrading and immodest.

And yes, these are the kind of sins which we can and should take to confession. Not because they are mortal sins – though they might be, if they were committed in total freedom and clear knowledge of how deeply they would harm others. Rather, we should take these and similar sins to confession because God offers us something more than mere forgiveness; God guarantees grace, some divine help so we can begin to raise our standards!

As we mature in faith we might realise that confession is not only a dumping ground for sins but also a moment to celebrate our decision to live a better life. Yes, confession is always there for those bad habits which trip us up time and time again, for which God will always encourage us to get up again and have another go at overcoming them. But in Lent we should also look at ourselves more deeply. For example, if we come to realise that we can do good and bless others by choosing FairTrade goods when we shop, we could celebrate this conversion of heart by acknowledging this to a priest. We would then receive God-given help to live out our new standards, and that is the grace given in confession.

On the other hand, we also need to know how to tell apart sins from temptations. Feelings are not sins. Unwanted thoughts are not sins. We may have angry or lustful thoughts. They only become sins when we start encouraging them. We may have distractions when we are trying to pray. These also are temptations – we only sin once we realise what we are doing and choose to run with the distracting thought rather than the prayer. Remember, a good test for whether something is a sin is this: “Next time, could I choose to do things differently?”

The letter to the Ephesians invites us to “discover what the Lord wants of you.” To know fully what God wants of us, we must be aware of the teaching of Jesus.

When he was asked difficult questions about marriage, Jesus pointed back to Genesis. “God has a plan,” he said, “that one man and one woman should come together and God will join them in an unbreakable bond.” This is why the Church teaches that when two Christians freely and sincerely make wedding vows to one another, no-one on earth has the power to undo this; and the only proper place for intimate relationships is within the security of such a bond. Almost all the Church’s teaching on sexual morality can be traced back to this one teaching point of Jesus. If we have done anything else, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

When he was asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus pointed to the Old Testament law which said we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The First Commandment is that we should have no other God. This is why, in last week’s newsletter, I published a short reflection on whether we had turned to any form of fortune-telling, or the kind of new-age medicine which claims to work by channelling spiritual energy. If we have done anything like this, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

In recent weeks, I have reminded us of the Lord’s challenging teaching that we must love and forgive our enemies. This is so serious that God will only forgive our sins in the measure that we forgive those who have sinned against us. If we have been lukewarm in blessing our enemies, or failed to do so altogether, Jesus asks us to repent and confess our sins to a priest.

So allow me to recap: The Light Is On For You – there is a priest ready to hear your confession – every Wednesday night 7 pm until 8 pm in most churches across Cardiff and I am also available on Saturdays 5.15-5.45 pm or will be pleased to make an appointment at a time that suits you – I can even do a home visit if health, childcare or transport difficulties make it difficult for someone to come to the Church for confession.

Today’s Bible readings remind us to “have nothing to do with the futile works of darkness… The things which are done in secret are things that ashamed even to speak of” – but we are told that God judges the heart. You cannot hide your failures from God. Yes, it’s embarrassing to name your sins out loud, even to a priest in confession. You look at the dark parts of yourself and say “Ych a fi!” You are tempted not to go to confession – it’s too shameful – but to wash at the nearest well instead by whispering to God in your heart. But go to the pool of Siloam – go to confession to a priest – and Jesus will open your eyes and your heart, and you will be filled with light. Our loving God even makes us uncomfortable enough to turn from darkness and be filled with light. What better reason than that this to praise God today, Laetare Sunday? The light is on for you!


One brick at a time

Homily at Corpus Christi School for Years 7 & 8 at the conclusion of the Sion Community Mission

Scripture readings: I Cor 12:12-20 (one body, many members) and Matthew 16:13-20 (Who do you say that I am?)

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. I’m going to have a go at answering that. I say that Jesus is a Master Builder!

Every LEGO set is created by a Master Builder. They look at the pieces which are available and they use those to design a new creation – but not quite. No new LEGO set is complete until the Master Builder has invented, from scratch, a unique piece which no previous LEGO set contains.

Each one of you here this morning is as unique as a newly-minted LEGO set. There has never been another you before, never will be again. And each one of you is a part needed for God to complete his design for the full body of Christ on earth. But what is that design?

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. Here’s my second answer. “You are the hero who teaches us what it means to truly love other people.”

Hollywood offers us two kinds of heroes. The first kind makes the ultimate sacrifice. Think of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, or Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic. In these stories, we hold our breath, or weep as the hero pays the ultimate price for staying true to their cause, or saving their loved one.

More often the hero puts their life on the line, but at the very last minute rescue arrives through a twist in the plot. Thanks to a gifted scriptwriter, everyone is happy: the hero lives to enjoy his triumph, the audience breathes a sigh of relief, and the studio gets to cash in on a lucrative sequel. Captain America lands an enemy World War II plane in icy waters, so he can be thawed out to join Marvel’s Avengers. Princess Anna risks her life to save her sister, Elsa, in Frozen. Frodo Baggins struggles to cast the One Ring into the firey depths but is saved when Gollum snatches the ring and falls to his doom.

Jesus does both. Jesus lays down his life and lives forever! It’s only because Jesus keeps nothing back but gives his whole life on the Cross, that he fulfils the mission given to him by his Father. And this teaches us a really important lesson: if we are to become the saints which God is calling us to be, we also must lay down our lives in order to pass through the trials and  sacrifices which will make us perfect.

I haven”t seen the new LEGO movie which has just come out, but I hear there”s a lot in it about the need to work together. I have seen the  LEGO movie which came out four years ago, though! If you don’t know about that one, google The Adventures of Clutch Powers. At the start, adventurer Clutch Powers boasts that he always works alone. By the end, he realises that he can do more as part of a team – a team of builders.

Jesus invites us to be part of his team of builders. He’s already given the project a start by planting a big rock called Peter. So what kind of church do we want to build? And what kind of school do we want to build? What new pieces can we bring to the construction? Let’s not let our imagination be limited by the kind of church, the kind of school, we’ve already seen. In Rome, the successor of Peter, Pope Francis, is daring to do things differently. So can we!

All for one, and one for all!

If you see someone being bullied in school, stick up for them. If you see someone upset or in need, help them.

But don’t fall into the trap of only helping the people you like. If we did that, it would be: one for some, all for some. That’s no good. That’s ordinary, selfish human behaviour.

Jesus came to remind us that every human being matters. Without each unique human being, his design couldn’t be complete.

And without Jesus, we cannot be complete. He is the head of the body. If we are not connected to him, we are not complete.

Strangely enough, it was LEGO which helped me discover that Jesus was real, and that he wants to help us in everyday life.

I discovered that Jesus was real when I was 11 years old, a few months before I started High School. My granny had just died and I prayed the first serious prayer of my life, asking God to look after her soul. For the first time, I wanted to know whether there really was a God out there for me to connect with. And in a way very hard to put into words, I began to sense that there was. So I started praying a bit more. I had a huge plastic bathtub to hold all my pieces of LEGO. So if I wanted to make a particular model, it was really hard to find that one unique piece to finish the job. I could spend half-an-hour rummaging in the tub and not find the unique part I needed. So when I got really desperate, I would pray. “Lord, I really need to find the green antenna to finish this spaceship!” And time and time again, as soon as I prayed, I would find the piece within the next couple of minutes. Prayer worked!

 So who do YOU say Jesus is?

Just a good teacher who lived a long time ago and taught us to be kind to other people?

Or the Son of God, living in heaven, and able to answer our prayers right now?

We started this Mass by singing: If God is for us,what could ever stop us?

So what if we decided to build a community of love? Not wishy-washy soppy love. Real Christian love. The kind of love which looks like a hero or heroine doing what it takes to help others. Being the hero who follows your principles without caring what other people think of you. Being the one who cares for all, knowing that if everyone follows your lead, then all will care for one.

Don’t wait for someone else to be the first. Pope Francis didn’t wait for another Pope to live in an apartment or drive around in a battered old car. Be the one – because you are God’s unique creation, called to help people in the way only you can.  But find out the way that God wants you, personally, to help other people. One day he might ask you to work for a charity, start a family, or even become a priest or a religious sister or brother. I was helped to make the final decision to enter seminary by a Franciscan priest, who said something like this:

Don’t be afraid that God is going to ask you to make a choice which will break you. If this is your vocation, then doing what you are called to do is the one thing that will eventually make you happy. Faithfulness to God does require sacrifices, but God isn’t going to ask you to spend a lifetime of misery serving him, wishing you were something else. You know that something is your vocation because the final ‘you’ will not be an alien being, but the perfection of who you are, even if it’s a struggle to get there.

Without the Cross, Jesus couldn’t have passed to life through death. To take hold of the full life God has in store for us, we must make sacrifices. “One for all, all for one” – but NOT “what’s in it for me”.

Blessed John Paul II often invited young people not to be afraid to be the saints of the third millennium. Yes, if we are to become the saints which God is calling us to be, we will be asked to do hard things to care for others. This is heroism which Hollywood cannot match. The journey will not be easy, but the ending will be amazing – because in Jesus, the Master Builder, we have the greatest director of all!

The Best Pulpit On Offer

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A.

The pulpit at St Philip Evans Church, bearing an open LectionaryOnce upon a time, there were three barber shops on a high street, competing for business. One day the first barber placed a large sign outside his premises, boldly declaring: “This is the best barber shop in the whole of Wales!” Not to be outdone, the second barber rushed to erect an even larger sign: “This is the best barber shop in Europe!”

The third barber thought long and hard about how to respond. He was a good man, an honest man, a modest man, not given to overblown claims; yet he knew that he would lose business unless he, too, put up a prominent sign outside his shop. After much prayer he commissioned a sign in bold, confident letters, not quite as large as his rivals, and hung it at his storefront, and indeed his business increased. What did it say?

“This is the best barber shop in this street!”

Today, I’d like to talk about trust. Each day of our lives, we make decisions about when and whether to trust other people. Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose – it’s been said that “trust arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback.” Our Catholic religion, too, is based on trust.

In part, our faith depends on our own inner experiences. There may have been times in our lives when we felt the presence of that Someone we call God. Or perhaps our faith in God is more intellectual, trusting God as the only One who can answer our deepest questions about why the world is the way it is. But our Catholic religion is not grounded in these inner experiences.

At the heart of our Catholic religion is a person whose death we will be celebrating on Good Friday, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s Gospel tells us an amazing story, a unique moment in human history witnessed only by Jesus and his three most trusted apostles. A voice booms from heaven: “This is my Son – Listen to Him!” This confronts us with some very deep questions.

FIRST – Do you trust Jesus to explain God’s heart?

The Letter to Timothy tells us that Jesus destroyed death and brought us life and immortality. Peter, James and John were left in no doubt about who Jesus was after this amazing encounter on the mountaintop. St Paul also had a powerful experience which caused him to believe that Jesus was God’s true messenger – but only after his trust in his old Jewish beliefs departed on horseback!

Most of us don’t get that sort of experience of Jesus – not even nine of the twelve apostles were privileged to see the Lord clothed in light on the mountaintop. Yet we are challenged to put our faith in Jesus. We are not to rely on our own inner experience of God’s presence, so much as the teaching and example of God’s beloved son – “listen to HIS voice.

SECOND – Do you trust the Bible to tell you the honest truth about Jesus?

Our Lord lived a very long time ago, and most of what we know about his words and actions are found in the New Testament. Yes, there are four Gospels which give us four different perspectives on Jesus. Yes, when we compare ancient copies of the surviving texts we do find spelling mistakes and places where a sentence or phrase has been left out or added in. Yet, insofar as it is humanly possible to make accurate copies of long documents by hand, the scholars agree that the New Testament has been very well preserved from the long-decayed original manuscripts.

Fifty years ago, when our bishops gathered at the Second Vatican Council, they searched for the right words to state what we believe about the Gospels; they did not want to say something too restrictive, nor too loose. They chose the following words:

The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things… reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things… but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that … we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed.

THIRD – Do you trust the Catholic Church to develop the teaching which comes from Jesus?

At the end of St John’s Gospel, we are told that if an account of everything Jesus had said and done were written down, all the books in the world could not contain it. We are also told that Jesus promised not to leave us orphans, but to send the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.

Today, we are faced with many complicated questions which Jesus never talked about – nuclear weapons, genetic technology, and the best way to use social media, to name but three.

As you ponder whether the Catholic Church can be trusted to give teaching about these matters, we need to make an important distinction. It is one thing for the leaders of our Church to give teaching in the name of Jesus. It is quite another for them to get it right when it comes to living it out.

Can we trust our church leaders to live out the teachings of Jesus faithfully 100% of the time? No. Our church has had its fair share of scandals, from the Borgia Popes to the priests in recent years convicted of child abuse. Pope Francis himself has acknowledged that he is imperfect; when a journalist asked him who the man behind the white cassock was, he replied: “I am a sinner.” Yet it’s because Pope Francis has lived out the message of Jesus with a stark simplicity not seen in other Popes that he has captured the attention of the world.

Just like ourselves, Popes and Bishops struggle to live out the teachings of Jesus. When they fail, the media show them no mercy. Right now, we have the positive example of Pope Francis doing things right. Sometimes the leaders of our church teach us by their excellent example; but we are asked to put more trust in the written word than in their lived example. One of the things which makes us Catholic is our belief that God guides the Pope, working with his advisers, when it is necessary to give a formal teaching about the things of God and matters of right and wrong – that this is the way Jesus meant to guide the church into all truth.

In my next Sunday sermon for Lent, I will be inviting us to examine our lives in the light of the teaching of Jesus and of the Catholic Church. But I cannot do this until trust is established. So I ask you, in the light of what you have heard today:

Do you trust Jesus to teach you God’s message?

Do you trust the Bible to tell you the honest truth about Jesus?

Do you trust the Catholic Church, with all its flaws, to teach the message of Jesus for today’s world?

If you wish to know the message which Jesus, through his apostles, has entrusted to the Catholic Church, then allow me to make a modest claim. This may not be the best pulpit in Europe, or even in Wales – but it is the best pulpit on Llanederyn Drive!

The Fraternity of the Bridegroom (a.k.a. Stag Night With Jesus)

The word AWAKEN against a dawnHomily at the Friday Evening Mass of the Youth 2000 AWAKEN event at St David’s Sixth Form College

Did anyone warn you that you were coming to a stag night tonight?

The Gospel we’ve just heard puts it quite plainly. The bridegroom is with us! We are not to fast, but to rejoice!

What kind of things do people do on a stag night? In the world around us, it’s normal to lose one’s inhibitions – usually by drinking too much – and delight our eyes by gazing on flesh. Those who share a stag night are bonded together by a common experience – and often they wear the same T-shirt to prove it!

I wonder what the prophet Isaiah would make of all that? I think he would recognise that the party-goers are looking for something good, but don’t quite know how to find what they’re looking for. It’s good to let our hair down and cheer for something wholesome. It’s good to enjoy true beauty. It’s good to experience being part of the same club. But we human beings have a way of taking good things and giving them a bad twist – and that leads to drunkenness, strippers, bad company and a terrible hangover in the morning.

God had something slightly different in mind. God invites us to be part of his fraternity, the fraternity of the bridegroom: an exclusive club which you can only enter by taking part in three gruelling initiations. First, you must be drowned in water to within an inch of your life. Second, you must eat living flesh! Third, you will be covered in oil and set on fire!

Okay! I have to admit that we don’t quite do things that way any more – at least when it comes to being drowned in water to within an inch of your life. In the early centuries after Jesus, many adults became Christians by being plunged into rivers or baptismal pools and held under the water until they came up truly gasping for breath. It was a powerful sign that when we get baptised, we are plugged into the dying and rising of Jesus. Most of us here were probably baptised as babies with a trickle of water on our foreheads, which isn’t so dramatic; but spiritually, the effect is the same; we have joined Christ in his act of dying and entering a Risen Life that will never end.

The second trial to join the fraternity of the bridegroom, is that you must eat living flesh. Actually, that’s the reason I became a Catholic! I discovered that God was real at the age of 11. I prayed the first serious prayer of my life because my grandmother had died, and because I was seriously looking for God, God answered. I read the Gospels, and learned that Jesus had taken bread and wine and told his followers, “This is my body, this is my blood. Do this in memory of me.” I learned that the Catholic Church has kept the belief, for nigh on two thousand years, that when a priest blesses the bread and wine, they truly become Jesus’ body and blood. I learned that in the last five hundred years, other Christian groups had broken away from the Catholic church saying that Jesus didn’t really mean it. But then I read Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, where Jesus said “anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.” Then, ominously in John chapter 6 verse 66 – yes, the 6-6-6 verse – it says that because of this, “many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.” But Jesus didn’t soften his teaching.

I made my first communion at the age of 16, on Easter night, and was confirmed at the same time. There was an awkward moment at the end of the ceremony. A religious sister who worked in the parish came and asked me how it had been. I was dead embarrassed because, to be honest, it felt very anticlimactic. Yes, I had received Holy Communion for the first time. Yes, the holy Chrism oil had been placed on my forehead and I had been confirmed. But there had been no warm glow, no special sense of God’s presence – only the cold satisfaction of knowing that I had done the things that Christ and His Church had specifically asked me to do. But that’s OK. I’m sharing this with you so that you know that it doesn’t always feel special even “when the Bridegroom is with you”. There will be seasons in our life when we might sense God’s presence close at hand. There will be seasons where God seems silent. We might look at other people in church and assume God is whispering to their hearts in a way that would make us jealous. But chances are, most of the other worshippers are relying on faith rather than feelings too! That’s normal.

To be a full member of the fraternity of the bridegroom, you must be covered in oil and set on fire. The Church provides the oil. The Holy Spirit provides the fire! If you have been confirmed, then the Holy Spirit has set a pilot light in your heart that will never go out. But what that spark does depends on the fuel that you provide – damp wood will never blaze in the way dry kindling will! And some of the things we choose to do in our lives pour cold water on our hearts. If we put leisure activities ahead of giving God one hour each weekend – if we refuse to help those in need when it’s inconvenient but possible for us to do so – if we taste too soon those pleasures which God asks us to keep for our wedding day – if we don’t show the kind of concern for poverty and injustice which Isaiah highlights in our reading tonight – all of these things pour cold water into our hearts. But all is not lost! There is a way to cure our hearts, and that is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through confession to one of the priests who will be available to serve us throughout this weekend.

Ah yes, this weekend – which brings us back to our stag night, letting our hair down, gazing on flesh, spending time with one another doing something epic.

If you’ve not been on a Youth 2000 weekend or a similar event before, what we are doing might feel a bit different from your usual experience of church. Perhaps the music feels a bit more lively. Is this OK for church? Is it cool? Pope Francis thinks so. A few weeks ago, he asked one congregation why they felt OK about shouting when their football team scores a goal, but not about singing loud and strong music in praise to God! Why is it fairly easy for us to say a quiet thank you to God, or to ask for what we need, but so uncomfortable to sing out our praises? Partly it’s the company we keep: in a crowd of football supporters we might do things we wouldn’t dream of doing on our own. In the same way, on this stag weekend we can give each other permission to do radical things for God! If we know that God is worth making a song and dance about, but don’t feel able to do so, this weekend we have permission to let rip!

But perhaps some of us aren’t so sure about who God is, or whether He deserves our praise. That’s where the second aspect of our stag night comes in – gazing on flesh. If the Catholic Church is right – and remember, I changed the whole direction of my life because I realised it was – then the wafer of bread we are about to bless at this Mass is actually going to become Jesus. We will be able to place the bread in a gilded frame, and gaze upon it knowing that when we are looking upon the consecrated material, we are looking at the presence of God.

Hard to swallow? Don’t ask me for proof – ask God. Jesus is the one who said that the bread would become his true flesh. In the quiet moments of this retreat, take time to come to the place where the Bread of Life is raised up for us to gaze upon. If you aren’t sure whether this can be true, ask the One who said it was to speak to your heart, and explain. Our deepest thinkers in the church have struggled to say how it works. But it’s the simplest thing to believe that it works.

You are invited to take part in this retreat at the level which suits you. If you aren’t sure whether God is real, ask Him to show you. If you have come with some great need, pour your heart out to Him and ask for his help. If you have come knowing you need to make a major decision in your life, ask God for the courage and wisdom to know the right way. But know this: ALL are invited to the bridegroom’s party. No-one is excluded. Nothing you have done can make Jesus reject you. If you are willing to be honest with God, God will offer you a new beginning.

Yes, this is epic stuff. Yes, I know some of you will be struggling inwardly because when you admit what you have long known deep down, that God is real, then it will demand some change, some response, in the way you live your life. Be bold! Dare to dream that life can be better, because if God is real – and I am speaking from my own experience here – then you will not be left high and dry when you have made the leap of faith. God will give you the strength and the companions to make the changes you know you need to make. But God has so much respect for you, that the next move is yours, He will never force it on you. There is no hangover after this stag party – only headaches for those unwilling to accept the bridegroom’s invitation.

I will admit, though, that all this talk of stag nights and fraternities might feel all rather masculine. Ladies, fear not, I have been saving the best until last! It’s time to introduce the saints which the Church honours today. Let me take you back to Roman North Africa in the year 203, to meet a 22-year-old, well-educated woman named Vibia Perpetua. She had decided to become a follower of Jesus, even though she knew it could mean her death if the Emperor Septimus ordered a persecution of Christians. Her father was frantic with worry and tried to talk her out of it – what would happen to her baby son if she were martyred? – but Perpetua’s answer was simple and clear. Pointing to a water jug, she asked her father, “See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is?” He answered, “Of course not.” Perpetua responded, “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.”

Perpetua was arrested with four others preparing to become Christians. She was baptized before she was taken to prison. When she was brought before the judge, he recognised that she was a nursing mother and appealed to her to change her mind, but she stood fast, and was sentenced with the others to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.

While praying in prison, Perpetua received a vision of her brother Dinocrates, who had died aged seven, of a disease so disfiguring that those who should have comforted him left him alone. Now she saw a vision that he was even more alone, in a dark place, hot and thirsty — not in the eternal joy she hoped for him. She began to pray daily in prison for Dinocrates. Some days later she had another vision in which she saw him healed and clean, drinking from a golden bowl that never emptied.

One of the others arrested with Perpetua was an 8-month-pregnant slave, Felicity. It was against Roman Law for pregnant women to be executed. Felicity was afraid that she would not give birth before the day set for their martyrdom, leaving her companions to head for heaven without her. But two days before the execution, she began a painful labour. The guards made fun of her, insulting her by saying, “If you think you suffer now, how will you stand it when you face the wild beasts?” She calmly replied, “Now I’m the one who is suffering, but in the arena Another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for him.” She gave birth to a healthy girl who was adopted and raised by one of the Christian women of the town.

On the execution day, Perpetua, Felicity and three companions went to the arena with joy and calmness. They refused to dress in robes dedicated to the Roman gods. The three men were attacked by bears, leopards, and wild boars. Perpetua and Felicity were thrown into the arena so roughly that they were bruised and hurt. The two of them stood side by side as all five martyrs had their throats cut. Perpetua’s last words were: “Stand fast in the faith and love one another.” In this way, they went straight to the heavenly chamber of the bridegroom, and on this anniversary day of their martyrdom, the whole Catholic Church remembers them at Mass.

This Friday night is our stag night with the bridegroom. Enjoy! But we also need to be aware of the “morning after”. We have a whole weekend to spend with Jesus and with many friends of the bridegroom. But this weekend is only the beginning of a greater spiritual journey, the journey of Lent which leads to you celebrating Easter in your local parish church. On Monday morning you won’t have Youth 2000 to help you. So take away from this weekend some ideas on how to keep Lent. Ways of praying. Ways of behaving. And yes, ways of fasting when the bridegroom is no longer with you. But for now, keep that in the back of your mind, for we must prepare to meet the Bridegroom. Let us shout and sing for joy as the bread and wine are brought forward. Let us look longingly on the flesh which must be lifted up for the whole world to see. Let us celebrate Holy Mass. Bring on the Bridegroom!

Make Me Holy! Fast!

Homily at St Philip Evans for Ash Wednesday, 2014.

A single pea on a plateIt’s a fast day today.

That’s quite a rare thing, actually. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two official Fast Days in the Catholic Year. Every Friday is an abstinence day, but it’s only twice a year we’re asked to fast. I guess that makes today a bit special!

So why are we skimping on food today?

One kind of answer is that God tells us to fast. The first reading says “Proclaim a fast!” and in the Gospel Jesus tells us what to do “when we fast” – he’s taking it for granted that we will. But we can do better than that – fasting is more than blind obedience to a God who says we should fast and a Church which has picked today as the day. So why fast?

Are we trying to bargain with God? “Hey Lord, I’m doing something difficult for you, now it’s your turn to help me out!” – No. Prayer doesn’t work like that.

When we are grieving, we lose our appetites. “Not eating” can be a very natural expression of sorrow. So it makes sense to fast on Good Friday, when the Lord, whom we love, has been slain. But today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of our Lenten season of self-examination. Are we grieving for our own sinfulness? I doubt many of us feel that bad about ourselves!

And yet… sometimes human beings can get so concerned that they are not the person they should be, that they go to extreme measures of fasting – we call that anorexia. I have known families where a child has become anorexic, to the great distress of the parents. The roots are complex. Partly it’s about chasing an impossible body image, not helped by the magic which the media uses to beautify what we see on the screen and on the printed page. Partly it’s about a young person wanting to control things in a life where they cannot be fully in charge. Each case is unique. But as we choose to fast on this Ash Wednesday, let’s take a moment to pray for those families for whom fasting is not an option, but an affliction.

Anorexia takes to extremes what each one us is invited to recognise in a moderate way: not one of us is yet the person we are called to be. We are called to be holy – and a Catholic author called Matthew Kelly describes holiness like this: “Holiness is being the best version of yourself.” It’s being the version of ourselves that our loving Father in heaven is longing for us to be.

So how do we become holy? In Latin, the word for “holiness” is sacra and the verb that means “making” is facire. To make something holy is sacrum-facire – or in English, sacrifice!

If we want to be the best versions of ourselves for God, we are invited to sacrifice some pleasure which, in moderation, is good and enjoyable, for the sake of something better. This is what makes fasting part of our journey to the heart of God. It’s when we take seriously the prayer of Jesus, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm the easier half – God’s will be done. When we fast, we confront the difficult half – for God’s sake, I need to set aside what I want.

Fasting helps us distinguish the different kinds of “want” in our lives.There’s the thing that I desire – and the thing that I choose. “I want a large pizza!” But “I want to lose weight!” They are both desirable. But I want a pizza for the raw pleasure of the taste, while I want to lose weight for the more noble motive of my health. Which will I choose?

It’s very easy to give in to our basic emotions – hunger; anger; lust. It takes effort to say no to those things and choose instead what is best for us and for those we care about. If we are going to say NO to those things which are harmful, it helps to train ourselves to have the will-power to sometimes say NO also to moderate pleasures which are not harmful, yet not necessary. In this way, we show God we are serious about being the best version of ourselves, about being the person God is inviting us to be. When we sacrifice, we are made holy.

It’s a fast day today. That’s quite a rare thing – and Lent comes but once a year.

So what do you want? What will make you holy? What will make you the best version of yourself? Today, begin your journey back to God – begin with fasting, and throughout this Lent, set aside something good as a sign that you are serious about asking God for something better.