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!