The Mass of Glory

Sermon at the Sion Community Chapel for members of the Catholic Parishes of Burnham-on-Crouch and Maldon on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C.

What would God look like if you could see Him?

There’s a story about a little girl who was working very intently, drawing a picture.

Mum came up and said, “What’s that, darling?”

“It’s a picture of God!”

“But, darling, no-one know what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

I can’t help wondering what it will be like when we reach the new Jerusalem we see glimpsed in today’s Second Reading. Most members of the church have a sense that when we die, our souls go to be with God. But fewer of us grasp that for those who follow Jesus and have their sins forgiven, our final destiny is not to be disembodied souls floating in heaven, but raised up to everlasting bodies on the New Earth, that glorious Jerusalem where God lives among human beings. This morning we’ve been asking “How can I make the most of the rest of my life?” – but that’s just the curtain-raiser. How can we have the best possible experience of eternity? What I do know is if we live our life on Earth God’s way, the best is yet to come!

And I do wonder… What will it be like, when God Himself lives among us?

The Bible tells us that God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.

As a scientist, I can tell you that light is one of the purest forms of energy. It has a colour, a brightness and a direction of travel* – and that’s all there is to it!

I once saw a picture of two girls standing on a wet beach – their reflection was visible on the glistening sand, and they also cast a shadow. It struck me that this could be an image of God as Trinity – but I hesitated. I didn’t want to liken the Holy Spirit to a shadow. Then I realised – God was the surrounding light! The ‘original’ form of the girls I could see because light was reflecting off them. The ‘reflection’ I could see because this light was mirrored by the material world, just as Jesus is the human face of God. And what is a shadow if not a shape formed by light, except in that place where the light is not?

In Christian art, we show that a person is holy by surrounding their head with a halo of light. We have good reason for doing this. Moses was said to wear a veil because his face shone with the unbearable glory of God. Jesus himself showed his glory by literally glowing on the mountain of Transfiguration. It’s not unknown for saints through the ages to appear radiant on special occasions.

But today’s Gospel is pointing to something else. It says Jesus and His Father HAVE been glorified and they WILL be glorified. The recent glory is that Judas has betrayed Jesus, and this will be proven with a kiss. The coming glory is twofold: Jesus will die on the Cross and rise to everlasting life. Now, we can understand the Resurrection as glory, but what about Gethsemane and Golgotha, the mountains of agony and crucifixion? How can these moments of horror and darkness be any kind of glory?

I think the answer is twofold.

One is clearer in the language of the New Testament, which is Greek. The same word can mean both ‘glory’ and ‘fame’. Certainly what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane and upon the Cross of Calvary are famous – or shall we say notorious? – in human history.

But the other is that, in a strange way, these moments of utter darkness are illumined by the purest light.Image of the M87 Black Hole - a yellow ring thicker at the bottom surrounding a dark circle.

You may have seen the recent picture of a black hole at the heart of a nearby galaxy – a golden ring encompassing a heart of darkness.

As a scientist I can tell you that a black hole is also a pure form of energy. It’s nothing but mass – you might say, the ‘weight of glory’ – with all other details crushed away. Light falling into a black hole is converted from pure radiance to pure mass. So why do we see an incandescent ring? That light comes not from the black hole itself, but the death throes of the debris falling in. It is in that final agony of matter being crushed out of existence that the cry of pain becomes pure light, sending its signal across the Universe. Human history redounds with the memory of Christ’s agony in the Garden and his anguish upon the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Like a black hole, the Death of Jesus upon the Cross is a mystery hidden from human eyes. We do not see his descent to the realm of the dead, where the souls of all the God-fearing ancestors await with bated breath. We do not witness the moment when the Risen Christ enters once more into the realm of matter. We see only the death throes, and the ripples of what happened next, as they radiate out through space and time. The halo of light beckons us to attend to the mystery within! We are torn between turning our face from the horror and fixing our gaze upon the love it represents. “When I am lifted up [upon the Cross] I will draw all people to myself!” (+ See John 12:20-32.)

There are times in our lives when God asks us to surrender. Trust me! Let go! Don’t worry about looking foolish, or what your friends might think of you. Let me draw you in. You may be crushed. You may be changed. You may shine with my light in ways you do not expect. Let me take your pain. Let me take your sorrows. Let me take the rubbish which pollutes your life and draw it into an abyss from which it can never return. Let me fill you with my Holy Spirit, and with the gifts I have yet to release in your life.

For some of us, last night might have been a key moment when we freely gave to God those things that are stopping us from growing closer to Him, and received the gifts we need to take the next step. For others among us, it will have been the beginning of a struggle to let go and let God. Do not be afraid of the journey yet to come!

And how do we respond to God’s glory? This morning we were invited to “Come, ring out our joy to the Lord!” Every Mass is an invitation to rejoice. A Mass of a Sunday in Eastertide is a summons to celebrate! We have sung the song of the Christmas Angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Soon we will bring bread and wine to this altar. We will declare that we “lift up our hearts to the Lord”, and when I invite you to give thanks and praise, you will declare that it is right and just! We will sing another angel song – our “Holy Holy” comes from Isaiah’s vision of the six-winged seraphs praising God. When I raise up the Body and Blood of Christ, you will be witnesses to the hidden mystery of Jesus defeating Death and rising from the Tomb! When I invite you to “Behold the Lamb of God” I will be declaring that you have a reserved seat at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb which will never end.

Are you feeling excited yet?

Did you ever stop to contemplate that this is what you are invited to every Sunday?

No-one knows what God looks like, because no-one has yet seen God – but that day will come at the end of time. You will see Him face to face, and there will be no more tears, no more sadness, no more mourning.

No-one knows what your life will look like when transformed by God’s light – but that day will come very soon, if you let God in.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen!

+ We have to understand Jesus and His Father as a profound partnership, bound together by the Spirit which proceeds from each in turn. They have but a single aim, the salvation of the human race. Together they plan to pay the price of human sin. Together they agree that the Son will take upon himself human flesh, so he can experience mental anguish, physical torture, and a spiritual experience of disconnection from His Father in that moment of forsakenness upon the Cross. Outside the flow of human time, the Father’s love shines brightly in planning this rescue mission. Within our human history, the Son’s compassion for his fallen brothers and sisters burns brightly when he chooses, in the Garden, to be the victim for our sins, and then blazes upon the Cross when he abandons himself to the Father he can no longer sense. This is the hidden glory to which John’s Gospel points.

* For science purists, please note that I am including the polarization, orbital angular momentum and propagation vector under this one heading! Together with frequency (‘colour’) this fully defines an individual photon; and the ‘brightness’ is the summation of all the photons present on this trajectory.

The inspiration from of the girls on the beach comes from a picture book “To God be the Glory” Bob Stokes 1986, S. John Bacon Pty Ltd, Australia.

Not a Fan

Homily at the Sion Community Men’s Weekend Retreat 20194th Sunday of Eastertide, Year C

Last Sunday, I did something I’ve never done before in my life – I went to a professional football match. My godson’s Dad was away on business, so I stepped into the life of a serious season ticket holder.

It turns out, I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean “a fan of the club who was playing” (and to avoid any unnecessary controversy, no, I’m not telling you who the team was). I mean that the way I am as a person, I am not built to be a fan.

How do football fans behave? They are quick to show their disdain. They don’t like the opposing team – obviously. They don’t like the match officials, and will criticise any decision which doesn’t give their own team the benefit of the doubt. But – and this is even more important – they are fickle friends to their own team. If you are a player, your fans are not supporting YOU – they are supporting their ideal of what they want their club to be. And if you fail to measure up to that impossible ideal – look out! It seems fans are only happy when their dream team scores a goal or at least is awarded a penalty.

I wonder how many of us are fans of Jesus Christ or our Heavenly Father?

As fans, we have our own ideas of how God should be running the universe. Then some natural disaster or personal tragedy takes place, and we are quick to criticise God’s way of doing things. We don’t stop supporting God, any more than a football fan would cease being loyal to their beloved team – but the relationship is one of impossible aspiration and interminable disappointment.

Here’s the thing. Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers. And at the risk of sounding a little sheepish, we are called to be his sheep. If that sounds light and fluffy, think again. Why do shepherds keep sheep? For only two reasons. Some sheep are destined to be lambs to the slaughter. The rest are fleeced – time and time again.

Our Second Reading gives us a glimpse into heaven. We see a white-robed crowd who have passed through persecution. The Good Shepherd has not prevented these sheep from being attacked, assailed and assaulted. These lambs are in white raiment but they have been slaughtered for their faithfulness to the Shepherd. These are not fans – these are faithful followers. And what are they now doing? They are serving God in his heavenly sanctuary – they are waving palms, offering up psalms of praise. They are doing what today’s psalm commands – crying out and singing for joy. They are not booing for the opposition. They are not barracking the manager. Even though it cost them their earthly lives, they are ringing out their joy to the One they have been following, because they recognise the presence of perfect Truth, perfect Beauty and perfect Goodness.

Gentlemen, this is the moment where we have to take an honest look at ourselves in the light of God. There’s something in every male psyche which just wants to be in charge. In the workplace, we want to accumulate more power and a higher salary. Even among our friends, we might jockey for status. But as men of God, we have to face one thing that isn’t ever going to change – in the race for power, none of us is going to take God’s place as ruler of the universe. Our choice is to serve our true creator of heaven and earth – or to live the empty life of the self-made man who worships his own creator. Our choice is to become a lonely lord or a satisfied servant. No other ultimate destinations are available to us.

Few of us will face the ultimate test of martyrdom. Most of us will not be lambs to the slaughter, but sheep for the shearing. Scripture makes it clear time and time again that God has high expectations of us – he reaps where he has not sown, and expects a return on the talents entrusted to us. The Good Shepherd promises to walk with us through rain and shine, and protect us from our prowling Enemy – but not to keep us free from all hardship or injury. No, King David said “even if I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me” – when the Lord is my Shepherd he may lead me to still waters but he does so by difficult paths and he expects a fleece from me every so often. We may not want to be tied up, shorn, and left cold and naked afterwards, but such is the life of a sheep – and it is the Good Shepherd who inflicts this upon us.

Why, then, would you choose to follow such a shepherd? Because your only other option is to be a goat, to live independently and to die alone. Only this Good Shepherd can offer you eternal life. This is controversial. When Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch, almost the whole town gathered to hear what they had to say, but the question was – is Jesus the Way to Heaven? If this was true, it was not what the leaders of the Jewish community wanted to hear. But the pagans were open to the message. So we are told that Paul and Barnabas leave “shaking the dust from their feet” – and yet they have left behind new followers of Jesus who are rejoicing and experiencing the power and love of the Holy Spirit.

Gentleman, football requires not only fans but fielders – without players on the pitch, there is no game. But the players are at the mercy of the manager, who can buy and sell, make substitutions and select the squad. Jesus is not looking for fans. He is asking you to be his follower and to play the game. You might get injured in a tackle. Your playing career might end prematurely. The position of manager is not open to you, but if you accept the Good Shepherd as your manager, if you learn to listen to his voice on and off the pitch, then know that in the end, you will be on the winning team. It won’t be easy. There will be thrills and spills, rough and tumble. But only those who have played in the squad will carry off the prize. The transfer window is open. If you haven’t done so already, apply today. Join the Jerusalem Rams!

Children of Light

Homily at the National Convention of Couples for Christ UKfeast of the English Martyrs

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! Live as children of light!

The world around us does not always welcome light. Jesus warned us what would happen to children of light. The rulers of this world, rulers clouded with darkness, will be offended by the light, and will question us. Even religious leaders who don’t share our vision will oppose us. Each age suffers its own kind of darkness.

2000 years ago, Stephen, a child of light, saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Jesus is God’s chosen messenger, the Christ! And for that, the Jewish leaders who had rejected Jesus and had him crucified, killed Stephen too.

500 years ago, King Henry VIII was the ruler of England – and a good Catholic, writing in defense of the Church. He wrote so powerfully that the Pope even gave him the title “Defender of the Faith”! If you look at a British coin, you will see the letters FD (Faith Defender) after the name of Queen Elizabeth II – our kings and queens have kept that title for themselves, but it is no longer the Catholic Faith they are defending.

By the 1530s, King Henry had turned against the Catholic Church because the Pope would not allow him to divorce a wife who had failed to bear him a son and heir. The King separated the Church in England from the leadership of the Pope. But in that age the children of light cried out that the Body of Christ must not be broken. Many priests, along with the laity who sheltered them and attended their secret Masses, were executed between 1535 and 1681 – we call them the English Martyrs.

We are the Children of Light God has chosen to live in England, or other parts of Britain, here and now, in 2019. This is a national conference – we are here because whatever our roots, this is the nation where God has called us to shine. How, then, are we to shine our light?

First, we must be clear vessels. If we are not true to our own faith, others will see that we are dirty vessels and hypocrites. So we must put our own lives in order. If you are a couple for Christ, how is your marriage doing? Is there anything stopping you having the honest conversations with your husband or wife needed to keep your marriage in good order? Are you struggling with temptations to use pornography, or looking for comfort from a person outside your marriage when you should be turning to your husband or wife? Are you civilly married but without your marriage blessed by the Catholic Church? Sort your life out! Children of light go to confession! Children of light ask for help from a brother or sister who can keep you accountable! Children of light live within the church!

Now we can prepare to be children of light for the world around us… but what kind of light will we be? There are two temptations we must avoid!

Here is a glow stick. It’s rather fun! We can wave it about and everyone smiles. This represents a lightweight Christian faith, which only does what’s easy and acceptable. We commit ourselves to being good workers wherever we work. We support local charities and ANCOP. We do those good things that everyone will approve, whether they are friends of Jesus or not. All of these things are good, But they are not enough.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! But a sleeping world will not be woken or roused by inoffensive good works. Just doing these things will not fulfil the mission Jesus has given us. This glow-stick is light with no message.

Here is my laser pointer – it’s part of the remote control for my computer. Look, I can control this powerful beam and it goes where I want it. But this is a fearsome light. Shine it in someone’s eye and it can cause damage. We can take our Catholic faith and present it like a laser beam – you must say these prayers, do those devotions, and follow my rules. It looks like danger and control. This is a light with a bad message.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! But we can become sleeping Catholics, following certain patterns without asking why we do what we do. That will not fulfil us either!

Here is my mobile phone. It has a light! But it also has a screen! I can receive messages and educate myself. This is what it means to walk as a child of the light. Let’s understand our Catholic faith in its fulness. We are not here to promote a narrow Catholicism where everyone has to do things my way – nor a wishywashy Catholicism which is only about helping people in trouble. We are children of light with a message, the message of Jesus.

In St Stephen’s day, the great question was – is Jesus God’s true messenger?

In the time of the English Martyrs, the great question was – can we be part of a single worldwide church, united around the Pope?

In our age, Britain in 2019, the great question is this – will you respect my religious beliefs about how human beings should live?

I know many of you work in healthcare, and the great religious questions of our time seem to relate to healthcare matters.

We believe that every human life is sacred to God. British law gives some protection to doctors and nurses who don’t want to perform abortions, but they can still be required to supervise abortions by their junior colleagues. Local Councils are beginning to bring in ‘buffer zones’ so that witnesses to life cannot pray peacefully near the entrances to abortion clinics.

Earlier this year, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its opposition to euthanasia and became officially ‘neutral’ even though more of its members opposed assisted dying than those who supported it.

This week, a Catholic journalist was served with a court order banning her from referring to a certain transgender person with the pronoun appropriate to the way that person was born.

These are difficult issues. If we speak about them in the wrong way we will be seen as messengers of hate rather than children of light.

Awake! KNOW about these issues. We must recognise that every person is loved by God and has their own dignity. This includes persons tempted to seek an abortion, to end their own life, to pursue a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage, or to explore their own gender identity. We are called to show sympathy and understanding at all times – otherwise we become like the laser beam, correct but narrow and dangerous.

Arise! DO something about these issues. Understanding on its own is not enough, otherwise we become like the glow stick, soft and comforting but with no greater purpose. British Law defends our right to manifest our religious beliefs. Let’s use that. Let’s take every opportunity to say that this nation supports diversity of religion, and our religion requires respect for human life and for the gift of the body we were born with.

Fulfil! The road to fulfilment is a challenging one. Each one of us can tell a story of being called to follow Jesus, of being tempted to compromise with the values of the world around us, or else live with the simplicity of a child of the light. If we are living a serious Christian life, we will have struggled, at times, to follow Christ’s values rather than our own. But we will also have discovered the kind of fulfilment that only comes when we let go and let God. This phone represents our ability to share wisdom and share light. Let’s share the stories of our own struggles so we can encourage others to persevere!

Brothers and sisters, we believe in a God who challenges us by asking us to be lights in a dark world. Let us follow the example of St Stephen and the English Martyrs, and walk a path which avoids the two great temptations:

Avoid misplaced compassion. We do not roll over when our Catholic values are unpopular. You are not couples for compromise; you are couples for Christ.

Avoid the temptation to be offensive; never lose your love for your enemy. You are not couples for coercion or control; you are couples for Christ.

This weekend, you will be asking how to use the gifts God has given you. Using charisms in your parish or CFC household is one thing; but living as a child of the light is another. These issues are around us – in our workplaces; in our children’s schools; in our own families. Society covers its ears to our viewpoint; our Christian light from above doesn’t fit the message of the age which is ‘follow your own inner light’. Be singles for Christ – couples for Christ – messengers for Christ. Stand on God’s promise that you will be given the words, but be prepared. Whatever you do, do it for Christ, in Christ, illuminated by the light of Christ.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! Live as children of light!