Testing Times

Homily at Cardiff’s “3 Churches” for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

About once year I have a recurring anxiety dream. I’m back in seminary – priest training college – sitting my exams. Then I wake up and realise – phew – I’ve already been ordained, and it’s OK, I’ve passed the test to become a priest.

Few of us like being put to the test. But tests are important. Just this week one friend of mine passed her basic training to ride a motorcycle on a public road, and another, who is Spanish, passed his English Literacy test to work in a British school. I don’t think any of us would want our children taught by someone who doesn’t speak English well, and still less to encounter an untested rider on the highway. Tests force us to focus and to perform better.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Our Lord teaching us a very familiar prayer, but in unfamiliar language. Both St Luke – whose words we heard today – and St Matthew, recall how the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Luke gives us a shorter version, but both Gospels, after asking forgiveness, say “do not put us to the test”. At least, that’s what they say in the English text of the Bible we use for our Mass readings.*

What did Jesus actually say to his disciples? Most likely he taught them in Aramaic, the later version of Hebrew spoken in Roman times. But the Gospels got written in Greek, and we have identical words in the earliest copies of Matthew and Luke. Three hundred years later, when the offical Latin Bible was written, those words were translated again, as “ne nos inducas in tentationem” – and if you know the Lord’s Prayer, or Pater Noster, in Latin, those words will still sound familiar today. Translations of the Bible as far back as the 14th century borrowed one of those Latin words into English as “temptation”.

Today, whenever we use the word “temptation”, it always has the sense of inviting someone to break a rule, do something unhealthy or commit a sin. You can even get a box of chocolates called Temptations! But that’s because the word has become more specialised over the centuries. The Latin word, and “temptation” when it first became an English word, could mean any kind of trial or test – a test of ability, a test of strength, or a test of moral character. Indeed, almost any kind of test will reveal something about our virtues and vices!

“Pray not to be put to the test.” When Jesus took Peter, James and John to the Garden of Gethsemane, he spoke to them in very similar words. Then they were both tested and tempted. Our Lord was arrested. Would they use violence? Jesus had to tell Peter to put away his sword. Would they deny following Jesus? Three times, before the cock crew, Simon Peter had sworn “I do not know the man!” Most of the apostles fled Calvary, leaving only Our Lady and St John the Beloved at the foot of the cross. Would they believe his prophecies that he would rise from the dead? The joyful words of St Mary Magdalen were scorned at first before the Risen Lord confirmed the truth to his sorely tested disciples.

So when you pray, ask your Father in heaven… well, what exactly? Are we asking Him not to tempt us to sin? Or not to test us in ways where our own weaknesses, with or without help from the Devil, are likely to lead us to sin? At the end of 2017, Pope Francis gave a media interview where he stressed that it is not God, but the Enemy, who tempts us to do evil. Since then, you may have seen irate internet posts from Protestant leaders attacking the Pope for “changing the words of Jesus”.

Of course the Pope isn’t seeking to change anything Our Lord said – he’s only asking how we can best express that in our own everyday language. The Bible text we read at Mass is from a 20th Century translation. “Do not put us to the test” is the best way to put Our Lord’s words into modern English. But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we aren’t praying in modern English, we’re praying in words that have been largely unchanged for centuries. People don’t like being asked to unlearn old familiar prayers – I’m sure we didn’t when the Missal was updated a decade ago – and “lead us not into temptation” are some of the best known words in the English language.

If we turn to another part of the Bible, the Letter of St James, we read that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone.” But God certainly does test his faithful people. In today’s first reading, God has sent angels to warn Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham passes this test by asking God to have mercy even if there are 10 good souls in the town – but there aren’t. The whole of the Bible is about God testing human beings. Will Adam and Eve touch the forbidden tree? Will Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac? Will Moses tell Pharaoh “Let God’s people go?” Will Jonah prophesy to Nineveh? Will Mary say yes to Gabriel? Will Jesus flee from the Garden of Gethsemane? Will you and I use the talents God has entrusted to us to help needy people and grow God’s church?

St Paul tells us clearly that at the end our lives, our works will be tested. He also consoles us by assuring us that God will not test us more than we can bear, and that God will cause all things to work out for good for those who love Jesus. So we are left with this mystery. Our Father in heaven will test us, but also calls us to “pray not to be put to the test”. In our age we may be tested by being required to produce a DBS certificate to prove our good character, or asked to defend something Pope Francis has said. So pray not to be put to the test. But when you are tested – and you will be – pray for God to help you to pass the test with integrity. If you should fail, remember the Lord’s Prayer includes a petition for forgiveness, too!

* Generally on this blog I link to the United States lectionary for the full readings because it provides a stable link that still works years later. However, the translation there this week says “Do not subject us to the final test!” (Luke 11:4 NAB and Matthew 6:13 NAB.) For other in-blog Bible references I tend to use Oremus NRSV Anglicised which offers “Do not bring us to the time of trial!” (Luke 11:4 NRSV-A and Matthew 6:13 NRSV-A). The Lectionary used by most British Catholic Churches uses the Jerusalem Bible (not to be confused with the New Jerusalem Bible) which renders this passage as “Do not put us to the test”.

Further reflections: In the length of a sermon, there is no time to ponder the other part of Our Lord’s phrasing, “ne inducas”, “do not induce / draw towards us / draw us towards” temptation. Part of the controversy about Pope Francis’ comments in 2017 is around his choice of “do not allow us to fall into temptation”, which reflects the common usage he is familiar with in Spanish – “no nos dejes caer en la tentacion”. The Pope’s favoured words imply “Dear God, please make an intervention here to prevent me being tested, or to prevent me failing if I am tested.” Our traditional language implies “Dear God, if you were planning on leading me into a situation where I will be tempted, please change your mind.” Behind this is a complex question of how exactly God intervenes in the day-to-day workings of the world. God permits human beings the freedom to choose sinfully, so everything which occurs is according to the “permissive will of God”. Should God work a miracle or communicate a desire clearly to a particular person, these would be very specific enactments of God’s active will. But what exactly am I expecting God to do, within my mind or in the wider world, to make me less likely to be tested or tempted today? I don’t know – but I do know Jesus felt it was important that I ask this of my Father every day!

One Small Step

Homily for the Closing Mass of the Harrytown School Sion Community Mission – readings Colossians 3:12-17 & Matthew 11:25-30

A year before I was born, the last human being to walk upon the moon – Gene Cernan, who happened to be a Catholic – returned to Planet Earth.

My childhood was the era of the Space Shuttle – the first launch of Columbia when I was 8, and the fatal explosion of Challenger when I was 13. The equally tragic loss of Columbia happened when I was 30. And the last shuttle flight – some of you might be just old enough to remember – took place in 2011. Space Shuttles flew for two thirds of my lifetime.

We now live in a new age of space exploration. Commercial companies are about to fly humans in space. Most of us in this room will live to see the first woman to walk on the moon – and the first human beyond earth orbit who is not a white American. China might land a woman – or a man – on the moon before the Americans manage to go there again. Many of us might live to see a human being set foot on Mars.

Isn’t it exciting, to live to see humans travel in the heavens? It’s not impossible that someone in this room today could become an astronaut. It’s even more possible that some of us could work on the science or technology which makes this possible. But ALL of us are invited to an adventure much greater than exploring the heavens – each one of us is invited by Jesus to go to Heaven. But just as none of us have a guaranteed ride into space, so none of us can take it for granted that we’ll go to heaven either. Listen to what Jesus says: COME TO ME – not ‘stay where you are’ – and I will give you rest.

Now what Jesus says is partly about the Eternal Rest he can give us when our life on earth ends, but is also about the comfort he can give us while our life on earth continues. But what he’s definitely NOT talking about is the kind of rest that happens at the end of a Big Project.

The Moon landings and the Space Shuttle were Big Projects. For a few years, thousands of young American science and technology graduates, still in their 20s, made the Moon landings happen. Then the rocket facilities were closed and they moved on to other things. Similarly, the Space Shuttle launch facilities have now been refurbished for the commercial spaceflight companies.

Sports, too, are a big project. For a few weeks, young athletes pour all their energy into preparing for Wimbledon or the Cricket World Cup. Then, win or lose, they get to take a breather before training for the next round of competitions.

What about Harrytown School? Here there are also Big Projects followed by seasons to recover. We’re about to enjoy the longest break of the school year. Those of you in Year 10 are half-way through the 2-year cycle which ends with your GCSE results.

When Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest,” he’s not talking about this kind of breather. No! He has something else in mind! He talks about an easy yoke and a light burden. That’s not the same thing as taking a holiday! A ‘yoke’ was used to connect two animals – oxen, similar to cows – so they could walk alongside each other and pull a cart or plough a field. An ‘easy’ yoke was one that was carved out to match the shape of the ox’s shoulders so it fitted comfortably. And who are we to be yoked alongside? Jesus himself!

This week, some of us have taken part in team games where we realised that for a team of people to succeed, we need to have someone in charge. Neil Armstrong would never have placed his boot on the moon’ surface without a well-structured team of section leaders and an overall commander making it all happen. If you want to build a new rocket design out of old parts, it’s not enough to bolt them together; you have to test out how the whole system works together and fine-tune the joins. In the same way, Jesus wants to guide us to know peace.

St Paul writes to the Colossians about the peace they can only know by letting Christ reign in their hearts. We all have restless hearts which want to do things our own way – but we can only know the peace Christ brings, the easy yoke he offers, by choosing to live our lives HIS way.

I fell in love with astronomy when I was 7 years old. I said the first serious prayer of my life when I was 11 – ‘Jesus, if you are real, show me.’ He did – and each member of the Sion Community mission team could tell you a similar story. This week we’ve tried to share with you something of our faith: that God really is a loving and forgiving Father in heaven; that Jesus really did die on the Cross, to open the door so that each one of you can go to Heaven if you choose to follow him; that if you ask the Holy Spirit to come into your life, you really will experience joy, peace, patience, trust, understanding and self-control. We believe this matters, because we’ve each experienced it in our own lives.

When I was close to the end of my physics degree, I knew I had to ask Jesus a question. But I was afraid to do it. “What do you want me to do with the rest of my life?” I was afraid he might ask me to do the priest thing. I don’t know why I was so unwilling – but something in me was afraid of saying yes to God. But then, one day during an event rather like this Mission, I sat down and asked myself: do I believe God loves me? Yes – so he won’t ask me to do anything bad for me. Do I believe God is smarter than me? Yes – so he knows the right answer. And do I call him ‘Lord’? I do – but I can only really do that if I am willing to follow ALL his instructions. So I surrendered. “Show me what you want me to do next, Lord, and I’ll do it – even if it is the priest thing.”

You know what? It wasn’t the priest thing – not straight away. Jesus guided me to work for the Church for a gap year in Nottingham, then to go to Cardiff where I spent 4 years studying dust falling into black holes. Only after that, when I once again went to prayer and asked the “What now?” question, was I guided to start training to be a priest.

Jesus had a plan for my life – and he has a plan for each of your lives. Some of you already know what it is – because there is a dream in your heart that Jesus put there. Others will discover it as your life unfolds. But you know what? You can get there the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is to walk alongside Jesus, following his values. Be gentle. Always make up after a fight. And trust God’s plan. If you want to go to heaven, don’t wait until you die to go to Jesus – draw close to him during your life on earth.

A year before I was born, the last human being to walk upon the moon returned to Planet Earth. Two-thousand years before I was born, Jesus Christ returned from death, and ascended to sit at God’s right hand. I doubt I will ever follow Neil Armstrong into space, but I am sure I will be following Jesus Christ into heaven. I hope you’re choosing to come too!

There’s one more piece of advice St Paul gives, and it’s a bit strange. He says always to give thanks to God – and to do it with a song. You’ll have heard some songs this week from the mission team – we sing because we know God has given us many gifts, especially the gift of Jesus walking alongside us, carrying our worries with us, sharing his easy yoke with us. So don’t be afraid to sing – or if you don’t like your singing voice, find another way to say ‘Thank You’ to God. In fact, the very best way to say ‘thanks’ to God was the way Jesus taught his apostles – by being part of Mass. The biggest ‘thank you’ gift we can offer to our Father in Heaven is Jesus dying on the Cross, who comes to us in every Mass!

So as this school year ends, I would like to set you a one-year challenge. Don’t worry, it’s not as ambitious as landing a man on the moon! But it’s this: If you don’t go to Mass at all, try going once a month – and when you go, think of the good things which happened that month to offer as a thanksgiving. If you already go to Mass sometimes, try going every Sunday, dedicating it as a thank-you for the past week. And if you already go every Sunday, then each day at bedtime count your blessings and say ‘thank you’ to God for the good things which happened that day. I challenge you to discover whether a year of thanking God makes your life go better than a year without. And if you’re feeling really brave, you can sing out loud, too!