Our Lady of the Most Blessed Trinity

ol1Homily at St Philip Evans on Trinity Sunday, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Mary is Mother, Daughter, Spouse of God.

Miryam, the daughter of Anna and Joachim, loved to listen to the great stories of what God had done for her people. The God of her ancestors has spoken to Moses and revealed his Law for the whole people of Israel. With mighty deeds, he enabled them to escape from Egypt and enter the land long-ago promised to Abraham and to his descendents for ever.

Miryam knew that many times, God had allowed his power to work through great heroines – it was written that “God’s spirit” had come upon them. Sarah, in her old age, had conceived a son for Abraham. Deborah had been a great prophet in charge of all Israel. Hannah, barren for many years, had been granted a child in answer to prayers in the Temple. Judith tricked and defeated the military commander of Israel’s enemies.

On the day appointed by God, Miryam’s life was transformed forever. An angel appeared and declared she had been chosen from all women for a task unique in human history: the God of the Universe was to have a Son on Earth. But for a son to be born, a mother’s womb was needed, and this could not happen without a woman’s consent. The same divine spirit which came upon Israel’s heroines of old, now fell upon Miryam; the words of scripture struggle to express it adequately, that she was filled with the utter fullness of what God could offer.

We know that although all human beings are made in God’s image, it is not correct to say that simply being human makes you a child of God. No, it is when the Holy Spirit comes into the heart of a person, that we are adopted as a Son or Daughter of God-the-Heavenly-Father. Miryam, filled with the fullness of God’s Spirit, was most truly of all people a Daughter of God-the-Father. And because of this utter fullness of the presence of God’s spirit, it has become traditional to speak of Mary as “Spouse of the Holy Spirit”.

“The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary – and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.” In these familiar words of the Angelus prayer we affirm that Mary bore a child by the Spirit’s power.

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord” – Mary made an act of utter obedience to God.

“The Word Became Flesh” – in her womb, the Word of God, a co-equal spirit begotten by the Divine Father before the beginning of time,* irrevocably took on human flesh. A spark of life, an embryo, a child, grew in the womb of Mary. From the moment of the Spirit’s overshadowing, it was true to say that that human life was God-the-Word-made-flesh. Mary’s child was God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Mary did not give her son divinity; and yet his divine nature is so inseparable from his humanity, that we must recognise that Mary was, from that moment, Mother of the child-who-is-God, and so, inescapably, Mother of God.

On the day when the Christ-child was presented in the Temple at Jersualem, a prophet, Simeon, was moved by the Holy Spirit to speak these words: ‘this child will be a sign for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and a sword shall pierce your own soul, too’. So from the earliest days of her child’s life, Mary knew that she would suffer because of Him. The words of St Paul remind us that if we share the suffering of Christ, we shall share his glory. The poet who composed the Stabat Mater well understood what Mary suffered on Calvary: “At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last.”  Mary did indeed share the pain of Christ’s crucifixion; and we believe that, assumed body and soul into heaven, she now shares Christ’s glory in a unique way.

In this month of May, we have honoured Mary by sending her statue around many homes in this parish. Each evening, as the statue was handed on, two families had the opportunity to pray together. We pray to Mary because she dwells in heaven, Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, Spouse of the Holy Spirit. She is not God; she must never be worshipped as God. But in ancient Israel, it was the mother of the reigning King who was honoured as Queen of the Kingdom, and in the same way, we regard Mary, Mother of Jesus, as Queen of Heaven. Just as Queen Bathsheba of old could appear in the throne room of King Solomon to ask for some favour, so we trust that Mary can, if we choose to invoke her aid, pray for us before the throne of God.

On the Day of Pentecost, Mary was gathered with the Apostles when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Could she, already filled to the uttermost, receive any more of God’s grace? She could, and did, receive with the Apostles the commission to make the teachings of Jesus known unto the ends of the earth. And from Heaven she has continued to do this, appearing as a pregnant princess in Guadalupe, as the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, and as the bearer of the Immaculate Heart in Fatima. She appears not to bring glory to herself, but always to point us towards Jesus. When she bore her son, at the angel’s command, she gave him the name ‘Jesus’, meaning the one who saves us from our sins. At Fatima, she requested us to add to the rosary, that great prayer invoking the intercession of the Mother of God, a petition to her Son, our Divine Saviour: “O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those who have most need of thy mercy.”

So on this great feast of the Most Holy Trinity, I invite you to look at the God we worship through the eyes of Mary. For surely Mary wants us to know God as Father. With us, she prays “Our Father”. She invites us to know Jesus as brother, Saviour and Lord. As at Cana, so in our church family, she says, “Do whatever he tells you”. She invites us to know the Holy Spirit. She was filled with Spirit from the Annunciation, and longs for us to know the Spirit’s touch, too. Mother of God, Daughter of the Father, Spouse of the Spirit, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

* As a physics graduate, of course, I acknowledge that this statement is physically impossible. But here we are dealing with a truth so profound only poetry can even begin to express it adequately!


Homily at St Philip Evans on Ascension Sunday, Year B.Christ, clothed in red and purple, ascending

The Seven Word Sermon: Jesus, who ascended, said “Lay on hands!”

We believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven.

It’s part of the Creed. We say it every Sunday. But I wonder, if you stop to think about it, doesn’t it seem a little farcical?

Jesus, in his Risen Body, lifting off from terra firma, gliding gracefully upwards, until he disappears into a cloud?

Surely some skeptical part of your mind is resisting this idea. And that part will probably have one of three objections. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Or: he didn’t.

Now, common sense tells us that human bodies simply don’t lift off heavenward, so that will push us towards thinking Jesus couldn’t have done it. But let’s remember who we are talking about. Jesus Christ, born of a Virgin, who healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed storms, turned water into wine, fed crowds from a single picnic basket, and who has just spent the last 40 days appearing to his friends in a death-proof body. Couldn’t is a word we must use cautiously when it applies to Him! Our instincts are quick to believe that Jesus can do something when a person we care about is sick. We pray to Jesus for a cure, and then we are very ready to blame him for failing to deliver a miracle. So we end up blaming Jesus for not answering our prayers, while at the same time doubting that he has the power to do something no less spectacular. If Jesus can glow with light at the Transfiguration and rise from the dead at Easter, ascending into heaven 40 days later shouldn’t be too tricky.

There again, you might read the story of the Ascension and think, “Jesus wouldn’t have done that. Not his style. Too showy.” But how can you possibly know what Jesus would or wouldn’t have done? Only a person who knows Jesus really well could make a decision like that. And the only way to get to know Jesus that well is to meet him in the pages of the Bible. St Jerome once said that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”, and that’s why we offer a monthly Bible Study in our parish Call to Question group and are promoting monthly Scripture Saturdays which start next month in Bridgend. We can’t rely on second-hand things we have heard about Jesus. We can’t rely on our inner light, which tells us more about ourself, than about Christ dwelling within us. The best place to meet Jesus is in the Gospels.

So we know that Jesus could have bodily ascended into heaven, if that was part of God’s plan. We can only find out whether Jesus would have done something like that by getting to know Him through the Bible. And in today’s readings from Scripture, we are told that Jesus did ascend into Heaven. St Mark’s Gospel simply says ‘he was taken up into heaven’. St Luke, in his opening chapter of Acts, says he disappeared into a cloud. Even St Paul refers to Jesus ascending into heaven. In one of his earliest writings, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear that the first Christians were waiting eagerly to see Jesus re-appear in the clouds in the same way he had departed. Slowly and painfully, in the later books of the New Testament, they were beginning to realise this might not happen during their lifetime. We can’t claim that Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven without saying that all these authors in the Bible got it wrong.

So, fight back that attack of common sense that’s getting in the way, and face facts. Jesus ascended into heaven. OK. Why did He do that?

NOT because heaven is a place in the sky. As Catholics, we believe that Our Lord and Our Lady have their bodies in heaven, right now, so whatever we mean by ‘Heaven’, it is a dimension where both bodies and souls can exist. But it was not necessary for Jesus to fly through the air to get there. At Emmaus, he simply vanished in front of the Apostles. Heaven is ‘somewhere’, but not the kind of somewhere we can reach with an aeroplane or a space-rocket.

Rather, on this day, Our Lord made a dramatic gesture to show that the work of God had been passed on to his apostles and disciples. And the work he passed on included the tasks of healing bodies and souls. God cares about our bodies. He wants our bodies to be healthy. Jesus said: “Believers will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.”

Watch out! That same bit of common sense which laughs at the idea of Jesus ascending is now going to rubbish another idea. What should you do if you fall sick? Ask a Christian believer to come and lay hands on you and pray. But we don’t do that, do we?

If someone is really sick, close to death, we call a priest and ask for the Last Rites. We take comfort from knowing that a person has died with the Church’s blessing and their sins forgiven through the Sacrament for Anointing.

If someone is ill, but able to travel, we might take them to Lourdes, where Our Lady did ask that people should come in procession.

If someone is less severely ill, we write their name into the Bidding Prayers at Mass and perhaps ask the priest to say a prayer for them too.

These are not bad things to do. But they are not what Jesus told us to do. Rather, Jesus said that people who believe in Him will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover. Elsewhere, the Letter of St James says that if a community elder, a priest, does so, the person’s sins will also be forgiven.

If the god you believe in couldn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, your god is too small.

If the god you believe in wouldn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, your god is not the one Jesus was speaking about.

If the god you believe in didn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, have you given God a chance? We are not told that every Christian will have this gift. We are not told that the gift of healing will be granted every single time. But we are told, pretty clearly, that when there is illness in the Church community, the right thing to do is to ask a Christian believer to lay their hands on the sick person, and Jesus also teaches us to be persistent in our prayer.

But the very idea of it! Can you even imagine what our parish community would be like if every time we faced illness, we asked another parishioner to lay hands on us and ask God for the gift of healing? Isn’t that a silly idea, as silly as the very thought of Jesus’ own body disappearing up into the clouds like a Chinese lantern?

I believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven.


For further reading:

  • A story of healing experienced through my own ministry as a priest.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Yuri Gagarin did not say that he had failed to find God when he orbited the Earth.
  • Some claim that sober saints such as Francis and Teresa had the gift of levitating too!

Real Love

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: If you love someone, let them know!Two scented hearts, a melon, and a letter reading 'Dear Nanna'

About ten years ago, my grandmother was taken into hospital. It was a difficult time for me and my family – we thought we were going to lose her. Fortunately, she recovered her strength and came home, but it could have gone either way. It made me very conscious of the things I did want to say to her before it was too late. But there was a problem – Nanna had become profoundly deaf, and it was impossible to have a conversation with her. So I did the only thing I could do. I wrote her a letter. On one side, I wrote about my own decision to become a Catholic and why it mattered to me. On the other side, I spoke about how grateful I was for all the things she had done for me – cooking the family meals when I was a child, and knitting the brightly-coloured pullovers which I loved wearing wherever I went. I told her how proud I was, that she was my Nan, and that I loved her.

I’m glad I did that when I did. A few years later, when Nanna was taken into hospital again and didn’t come out, I had the comfort of knowing I had no unfinished business. Mum told me that Nanna had kept that letter in her handbag and it had been unfolded and refolded many times.

About two years ago, a close friend of mine suddenly got engaged. This is always a bitterwseet moment in a true friendship – of course you want someone you care about to find lifelong happiness in marriage, but it also means a change in when and how you can be together as friends. When I went to visit during the engagement, I stayed in her spare room – which of course was also his room before the wedding night, because they were both committed Christians – and there was a little scented heart hanging on the bedpost. A small part of me inwardly sighed and acknowledged that this was a sign of how things would change.

But then a wonderful thing happened. Before I went home, she handed me a little parcel. “We went to a craft fair recently,” she said, “and these are for your bedroom and your guest room.” Two more, identical, scented hearts! For the next six months, as soon as I woke up in the morning, even before I opened my eyes, the first thing I was aware of was a beautiful perfume which reminded me that I had a friend who loved me. Of course, after two years, that scent has rather faded, but I still occasionally catch a momentary aroma and smile inwardly.

“My children, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.” With these words, St John reminds us that love is at the heart of our Christian faith – and not just love, but love-in-action. There are many kinds of love, including charity towards strangers, but today I invite us to focus on the way we show love within our closer relationships.

Who among us has not felt lonely at times?

Who among us has not wished for a token of love from someone we care about?

And yet, although our hearts are crying out to be loved, we are afraid to communicate the love that we feel, to others.

We may be afraid of rejection.

We may be afraid of being carried away by our stronger urges.

We may be afraid of our best intentions backfiring.

To be sure, love can go wrong. I once shared a house with a man who had a bad temper. We weren’t getting along very well, so I decided to make a peace-offering. He loved eating melon for breakfast, so when he went away for a week’s holiday, I made sure there was fresh melon in the fridge for his return. This did not have the desired effect. My gift was rewarded with a small explosion of anger – “That’s not the sort of melon I like, but now I have to eat it!” Truly, no good deed goes unpunished!

But do I regret what I did? Not at all. At the end of time, when all things will be made clear, he will understand that my gesture was meant as a peace offering and an act of love – and I will finally understand the pressures he was under at the time.

Showing love is always risky. Yes, we make ourselves vulnerable to rejection. Yes, we must guard ourselves against doing more than is appropriate in a particular relationship where our passions run high. But plainly and simply, Our Lord commanded us to love one another. The Greek word He used, agape, especially includes pouring out our strength for the good of others, seeking no return. If we give food to the Foodbank or send a donation to Nepal, we have shown the highest form of love. But only within our closest relationships can we touch the heart of another in a way which brings lasting joy. Our motives will always be mixed – even Pope Benedict XVI commented that it was impossible to totally separate selfless agape from our own desires to love and be loved – but that’s OK, because it’s human.

We feel lonely and unloved because others do not prioritise showing us that they care. If we want to be loved, we must make time for others, for love always needs to be communicated, and, like a fading scented heart, refreshed from time to time.

“My vows I will pay before those who fear him,” says the Psalmist. To those of you who are married, I say this: you had made a vow, to God and your spouse, to continue communicating your love. If you have allowed yourself to become too busy to communicate love, you are breaking your vow. Take immediate action!

And to all of us, I ask this: is there someone who is fond of you, who would be touched to receive a phone call, a card, or a visit – someone you are always meaning to contact but never quite get round to? No-one else can affirm them in quite the way you can. So do something this weekend, don’t delay!

Show love, because your love is real.

Show love, because the person you love needs a reminder that they are loved.

Show love, because God asks us to.

Show love. 

Your Word is a Lamp Unto My Feet

Homily at the Celebrate Catholic Family Conference in Cardiff, 2 May 2015 – using the readings for St Athanasius, I Jn 5:1-5 & Mt 10:22-25

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

John Henry Newman was in trouble. As a young Anglican minister, he travelled to see the great churches of Italy, but just before his return voyage he became ill and was bedbound for three weeks. Desperate to return to England, as soon as he was well enough he managed to start his journey home on a cargo ship bound for Marseilles – only for the wind to drop and for him to be stuck on board this ship for a whole week, going nowhere fast. During this enforced pause at sea, Newman’s mind turned to poetry. Knowing that God’s plans were not our plans, he channelled his frustration into writing the lyrics which became the hymn, Lead Kindly Light.

Another holy man who knew that God’s plans seldom run in straight lines was the saint we celebrate today, Athanasius – a man born in Egypt just before Christianity became legal. Athanasius was deeply convinced of who Jesus was: Jesus was God in human form, and Son of the Father. But in these days when Christian ideas could be openly debated for the first time, there were many opposing voices who said Jesus was not quite equal in stature to God-the-Father. These debates even became the stuff of politics. Successive emperors took different positions. But Athanasius never wavered – which meant that sometimes he found himself at odds with the Emperor, and other leading bishops.
This was a perilous situation for him, since he had become the Bishop of Alexandria. Five times, Bishop Athanasius was exiled. The first exile was to Rome! Later, he fled to a desert monastery! And some say that his final exile included four months in his father’s tomb. Yet five times Athanasius returned from exile, truly earning his nickname, “Athanasius Contra Mundum ” – “Athanasius versus the world!”

We human beings like to know where we are going – we usually make decisions by looking at the likely consequences. But God asks us for faith. We are to trust that God knows where we are going, and will lead us one step at a time.

There’s an Indiana Jones movie where Indy has to be guided by ancient riddles, that he can only survive by being penitent, walking in God’s footsteps and taking a leap of faith. He can’t see all the dangers ahead, but kneels down where he is told to be penitent – and deadly arrows sail harmlessly over his head. When he is told he must walk in God’s footsteps, picking out the Name of God from random letters on the floor helps him find a safe path. And at the end, it’s only by jumping into a seemingly bottomless chasm that he finds the hidden bridge to the end of his quest.
For each of us, there are times in our journey through life that we will only succeed by following God’s instructions. And these we find in God’s Word, which is a lamp unto our feet. Now God’s Word is first and foremost a person – Jesus, our Master, our Teacher.
Who can overcome the world? Only the man who believes that Jesus is Son of God-the-Father.

Do you believe that Jesus is God in human form? This is a gift, a gift of faith, which only God can give. To have this kind of faith is to be ‘begotten by God’. The world around us is happy to recognise Jesus as a wise teacher  – the world has seen many of those – but Jesus is much more than this. If Jesus is God walking among us, then his words have a weight and a security which no other teacher can match. Are you secure in knowing that Jesus is God? If not, my challenge to you this morning is to put the question back to God. Only God can teach your heart this truth. Ask our Heavenly Father to show you who Jesus really is!

And yet, even if we know this, we waver. For half a century Christianity wavered between saying that Jesus was God, or the heresy that Jesus was merely quite similar to God-the-Father, a near-perfect reflection if you like. For this, Athanasius suffered exile five times. In a more practical way, we waver about putting our trust in Christ’s teaching rather than our own understanding of the big picture.

God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet. In the Bible, we have God’s word in human language. Some things in the Bible guide all of us with equal weight. Other things, God shines a spotlight on for certain people at certain times. Athanasius wrote the life-story of St Antony, whom he met in the desert. One day at church, Antony heard the Gospel in which Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Antony realised that message was meant for him in a very literal way, so he sold his home and went to live in the desert, becoming the first monk.

And let’s face it, following Jesus’ teaching is not easy. We are not all going to be summoned to be monks in the desert, but it’s hard enough keeping the teachings which apply to all of us. In his own day, Jesus told his disciples to be ready to be persecuted, and if that happened, just to move on to the next town.

In our day, if we follow Jesus’s teachings, we will be called at best, old-fashioned, and at worst, bigoted.

Some of you have chosen to follow the Church’s teaching to the full in the way you conduct your married life. This is not easy, and no-one gives you affirmation for this. So I say here and now, in the name of the Church: Thank you for your faithfulness.

Some of you have chosen to have large families in our world where there’s an increasing vibe that more than two children is ‘more than your fair share’. For this, you have endured put-downs from your neighbours and colleagues, but I say to you, in the name of the Church: thank you for receiving the gift of life, made in God’s image, and for the daily sacrifices you make in raising your children.

Some of you have worked through difficulties in your married life and stuck together, for the sake of your faith, when the world around you might have said ‘why bother’. In the name of the Church – thank you for your faithfulness to your vows to God and to one another. And remember that the Church is here to walk with you through the dark times, and there are retreats and courses which help couples to renew and deepen their married life together.

Each one of us is called to follow Jesus, and the Gospel gives us the marvellous message that ‘we are called to be like him’! But that does not mean we will be clones. Rather, God has equipped each one of us with a unique mix of gifts and skills. What does God want you, personally, to do? A big clue is to look at the gifts he has already given you. And don’t be shy! We can fall into the trap of a false modesty. We know that as Christians we shouldn’t show off, or seek to impress others for the sake of it. But Jesus also taught us not to hide our light under a jar. There is nothing wrong with going to your parish priest, or a project leader in your church, and saying – ‘actually, I am good at accounting’ or ‘I used to run a playgroup’ – your parish will thrive when each member places their gifts at the service of the community. If the leaders do not know what gifts are present, how can they do that? Don’t be afraid of being prominent for doing something you are good at – true Christian humility is to accept that this will happen when you serve as you should, but to offer your gifts anyway.

Pope Francis says each of us is called to be a missionary disciple, placing one foot in front of the other, following Jesus in the place where we are called to be. For Newman, that meant resigning as a vicar, becoming a Catholic priest and placing his scholarship in the service of the Catholic Church. For Athanasius, that meant sticking to his teaching that Jesus was God, even when that meant exile. And for you – well, God has a plan for you too, each of you individually, for no two of you are called to do the same works.

God’s plan is not like a SatNav. On  a SatNav you can press a button and see the whole route planned out before you. But God’s word does not show us the route – only the final destination, which is Heaven, and the next turning on the narrow and winding path from here to there. God’s Word is a light to our  feet, not a sun illuminating the whole world. There are times when this is frustrating – just ask Newman, becalmed, or Athanasius in exile. But we are disciples, learners, and just as we cannot do our GCSE, A-level and degree all in one go, so the Lord teaches us the path of life one step at a time.

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”