Desperately Seeking Fruitfulness

Hannah was barren. She longed for a child. As a Jewish wife, she knew her God-given calling was to be a mother of children. She knew her husband loved her – more so, we’re told, than his other wife who had borne him children. But for Hannah, it wasn’t enough to be loved – she longed to be fruitful, and she was depressed because she wasn’t.

What about us? Are we fruitful or barren?

The fruit that God is looking for, is the fruit of healings and prophecy.

In these last four days, Fr Pat has taught us much about what prophecy can achieve in the Church. We must put his teaching into practice. It seems to me that we are not totally barren, but we can be pruned so that we bear grater fruit. In our prayer times, we often seem to receive pictures without clear application, or give words that are generally encouraging. That’s a good start – we are like Hannah, receiving her one share of her husband’s sacrifice. Like Hannah, we know that we are deeply and profoundly loved, by a Divine Spouse who gave his life for us.

But we’ve barely begun. How often do we receive a word which leads directly to a miracle taking place? How often do we speak a prophecy which is specific information about another person’s life? How desperate are we to see this happen?Hannah didn’t want to settle for a single portion. She wanted to bear life, and rightly felt hurt that she hadn’t fulfilled her calling.

I want us, this morning, to feel as dissatisfied as Hannah. I want us to lament, to cry out to the Lord that we are not prophetic enough. And I’d like to offer us three steps which will lead us to be more fruitful in our prophecy.

Purification

Fr Pat has suggested that we lack openness to the prophetic because we lack sufficient unity with one another. Michelle gave us much to think about yesterday, about how we share responsibility in the community. If this community is our place of work, then we might imagine going somewhere else for our day off. But if this community is where we are brothers and sisters in the Lord, then a ‘rest day’ is about how we renew ourselves while spending time with our family.

I want to invite ourselves to ask one question which will help us see how far we have grown in love. In recent days we have had guests among us; guests from Slovakia and guests from Milton Keynes. How many times did you choose to go and speak to these guests – not waiting for them to approach you first? If the answer is ‘none’ then ask the Lord to increase your love for the stranger in our midst.

Desire

Next, ask yourself, “Do I want to prophesy?” Don’t you know that Scripture says that you should “eagerly desire the gift of prophecy”? Don’t you wake up every morning, bounce out of bed, and pray: “Lord, I’m desperate that you should give me a word today so I can bless someone else?” Don’t you? So you aren’t eagerly desiring the gift of prophecy.

There was a Protestant minister called John Wimber who studied the Bible and realised that to be faithful to God, we must pray for people to be healed. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. But John was desperate. The members of the congregation thought he was foolish an fruitless: six months offering healing prayer at the end of his services, and no-one got healed. Then he got one amazing result. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982. As John Wimber learned to co-operate with God, it was about learning to listen; most of his healing ministry was by declaring what God wanted to heal. Sometimes God spoke clearly; other times Wimber had to press in for an answer. The struggle itself is a witness that prophecy and the power that flows from it comes not from ourselves but from God: prophecy can be like listening for the voice of the one you love on the other side of a crowded room.

Ten years ago, I spoke to about 200 members of an Irish Prayer Group. On the last day I challenged them to be open to God’s prophetic word, and asked them to pair up and pray silently for two minutes, asking God to show them what to pray for, for their random partner. Then they were asked to share with their partner what they had prayed about. At least half the people present felt God had inspired a very relevant prayer! Even allowing for the reality that some will just be feeling good because of vague affirmations, I think that’s significant. But I also want to put in a word for honest feedback. Let’s affirm accurate prophecy for being accurate but generally upbuilding words with gratitude. Always be grateful for goodwill and prayerful care. But only affirm accuracy for accuracy.

Obedience

We can never be fruitful ministers of prophecy, and the healing which flows from it, without obedience to God’s will. Obedience means being willing to listen, and following the instructions.

Think back to Mass last Wednesday. For the bidding prayers, I invited us to seek a word from the Lord and pray into that word. Now most of the prayers I heard at that Mass were the things I would expect us to pray for – personal friends in need, and things in the news headlines. But if we truly open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, we’ll be following God’s agenda, not our own. I didn’t get the sense on Wednesday that many of us had tuned into God and received an unexpected word.

Prophecy comes at a price. Hannah is begging God from a child – but if her prayer is granted, she will not only pay the usual price (the care a mother must give to a newborn) – but also the greater sacrifice of giving her son away to the Temple. To make room for God’s spirit to work, we must sacrifice our own agenda. Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John, to be fishers of men – but they had to lay down their nets, put aside their familiar way of doing things. It is the same with us. If we want to be used by God, we must leave behind our own agendas.

I think I must speak a word to those among us who today begin Exodus 90 or Fiat 90. Why are you doing this? Is it about your will or God’s will? Is it about recognising that God has called you to offer a deep sacrifice, which would be excellent? Or is it about using your own human will to do something challenging to prove you can do it? Remember that the Pharisees were experts in setting up super-hard religious exercises and encouraging each other to fulfil them. Jesus was not impressed. If you have a spiritual director, have you discussed this with them? If not, have you discussed it with your prayer companion? If, together, you agree that God is personally inviting you to 90 days of penance, blessings upon you! But if not, may you have the courage to offer God the sacrifice of stopping!

Now we are going to enter into a time of prayer, like we did last Wednesday. But today, I am going to be strict. I do not want anyone to pray for your own agenda. Think about what the people and situations you would like to pray for today – good, the Lord knows it is on your heart. But I forbid you, at today’s Mass, to speak this aloud. As a sign that we are opening ourselves to the prophetic, you may ONLY speak if God inspires you to pray for something you wouldn’t normally pray for. Now, as Fr Pat has taught us, let’s sit in a still posture, pray in tongues for a few moments, and then enter that inner prayer in tongues – I mean the kind where your tongue is moving but your mouth is closed, or your mind is asking God for the gift but you don’t allow your muscles to move. You have permission to speak out ONLY if a word or picture leads you to pray for something you wouldn’t normally have asked for. Now come, Holy Spirit, come!

Jesus is Passing By

Homily to members of Sion Community on the Wednesday after Epiphany 2019.

I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength! (Phil 4:13)

Would you rather be asked to do something you know how to do, or something that you don’t know how to do?

In this gospel Jesus asked his disciples to do something they should know how to do … at least four of them are experienced fisherman so taking a boat and crossing the lake should be easy. It wasn’t!

Even their own strength and experience wasn’t enough. The weather was wild! A literal translation of the Bible would say that the weather was even torturing them!

And now something strange happens. The Bible tells us that Jesus could see that his disciples were worn out. They had been rowing all night and now it was past 3 o’clock in the morning. Jesus walks on the water towards them… and is about to pass them by!

Why doesn’t Jesus stop? We are given a clue in the last verse. Jesus talks about feeding five thousand people with a few loaves – it’s a direct follow-on from yesterday’s Gospel. “If you understand the bread,” he says, “you’ll understand me.” I think we are meant to read this Gospel as a sign that Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Because we see Jesus doing what God does!

There was a time when the prophet Elijah ran into the desert. The king had not only rejected his message, but threatened to kill Elijah. Elijah fled for his life! He was in the desert, and hungry, so God sent bread by a miracle. Elijah ate the bread, walked through the desert for 40 days, climbed a mountain, and hid in a cave. God sent a mighty wind and then himself ‘passed by’ Elijah – but God was in the stillness, not the rushing wind. (I Kings 19:1-14) Elijah was told to anoint Elisha as his successor, and then causes the River Jordan to part so he can cross to the place where he will be caught up into heaven. Elisha receives Elijah’s mantle and himself parts the river to return. (II Kings 2:8 & 2:14)

There was a time when the great Moses asked to see God’s presence. God had already provided manna from heaven, and sent the sign of his Presence in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. But Moses asked for more – to see God’s glory. God agreed – but Moses would have to hide in a gap in the rocks, while God ‘passed by’. (Exodus 33:22) Moses had already crossed the Red Sea, which was held back by a strong east wind, and met with God on the top of Mount Sinai. Later, his successor Joshua would stop the River Jordan so the chosen people could enter the promised land.

Do you see a pattern here? God uses the signs of a strong wind, a high mountain, and bread from heaven to say ‘I am with you’. God’s people pass safely through water and the student takes over from the teacher. God himself is present, not in the mighty wind but in the ghostly silence. And so it is in this Gospel. Jesus chooses his words carefully – “It is I” – another way of saying “I am who am” – the Divine Name. So the message is not only that God is with us, but Jesus is God. This is another epiphany. The message is not that Jesus rescues his disciples, but that he shows himself to be the presence of God!

St Mark does not tell us the story of Peter trying to walk on water. Why not? Mark was Peter’s assistant, and is writing the Gospel the way St Peter himself would tell it to the crowds. I think Peter might not have wanted to tell the story of how he lost faith and nearly sank!

Moses and Elijah had clear missions from God. They didn’t feel up to the task. They wanted reassurance that God was really with them – they asked, and they received.

We also have a mission from God – but we find ourselves wondering if God is really with us. In 1994, I spent a gap year as lay chaplain to Nottingham University. For two terms, I tried to run a prayer group. Eight people came at the start of the year, but the numbers went down and down. At the end of the second term, I had to decide whether we could continue after Easter. I told God that if no-one came that night, I would cancel the prayer group. For the first time, no-one came. I spent that evening having a good shout at God. What was the point of putting all this effort into asking people to come and pray if He wasn’t going to bless it? My decision was made. No prayer group after Easter!

The next morning, there was a knock at the door. The newly elected President of the Catholic Society was there. “Gareth, we’ve been thinking. We probably should have a prayer group next term, but we want a different kind of format, and we want to run it ourselves.” So they did – and praise God, it kept running after I left Nottingham at the end of the year. Typical God – keep me working until breaking point and then provide a sign that my work had not been useless after all.

We are weak. We get discouraged. We try to do things on our own, and God doesn’t rush over to help us. We are in a storm of our own making – and in the stillness alongside us, with the quietness of a ghost, when the night is nearly over, Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. In our inadequacy, or in our fright, we call out, “Lord, I need you!” And then, from that quiet place, our Lord cries out, “I am with you!” and climbs into our boat – or perhaps asks us to try walking on the water.

Yes, I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength! But not by my own strength – I must ask him to take my hand, climb into my boat, give me his strength and refocus my vision.

So as I return to a new season of mission, what am I afraid of? Punishment? Failure? Difficult tasks? With the love of my community supporting me, and with the love of God who is walking near me, unseen, I can do all things through Christ – so Lord Jesus, give me your strength and send me on my mission!

Looking for Jesus

Homily at Our Lady, Queen of Peace (Llanelli) for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2019.

The Wise Men were looking for Jesus. It took some doing, but they found him, and they honoured him.

The future St Paul wasn’t looking for Jesus – but Jesus found Saul of Tarsus and turned him into an apostle.

Herod was looking for Jesus, but only to destroy him. He didn’t succeed.

When Jesus was 12, his earthly parents went looking for him. They found him debating with scholars in the Temple.

When I was 11, I wasn’t looking for Jesus. I was growing up perfectly happily and accepting scientific explanations of why and how the world around me had come to exist. But then, in a time of sadness, I said the first serious prayer of my lifetime and discovered that Jesus was there for me.

Later, after hearing lots of sermons, I became puzzled. So many preachers talked about people having a ‘God-shaped hole’ and a kind of dissatisfaction in their life which went away when they met Jesus and invited him in. But that didn’t match my own experience. Once I’d gotten over my grandmother’s death, things could have gone back to my previous happy existence. But now I had discovered Jesus was really there, and that discovery was going to change the entire course of my life.

Just a few years ago, I was in Manchester and popped into a weekday Mass where a priest said something profound. The Gospel that day declared the the Kingdom of Heaven was like a fine pearl that a merchant went and bought – or like a treasure that someone stumbled over in a field. Some of us, said the preacher, know we’re looking for something of immense value, and recognise Jesus as the answer when we find him. But others, like the person walking in the field, are going through life quite happily when they trip over the treasure which is Jesus and recognise his value. Eureka! At last, here was a priest who understood my journey. Not all of us suffer from a God-shaped hole. But all of us can receive the Gift of Jesus when we find him!

Now, the Gift of Jesus is not a convenient, comfortable gift. Yes, it brings satisfaction – of seeing the value of who Jesus is, if not how he answers the deep questions some of us have been asking. But when we receive this Gift, it comes at a cost!

For the Wise Men, the cost was a long and difficult journey, an awkward encounter with Herod, and the riches which they left at the manger.

For the Blessed Mother, the cost was giving birth far from home, exile in Egypt, the stress of her Son lost in the Temple, the worry caused by Jesus in his days of preaching, and the pain of Calvary.

For Saul of Tarsus, the cost was a temporary loss of his vision, a humble admission that he had been wrong to reject Jesus as God-made-man, numerous beatings and stonings in the cities where he preached, a shipwreck, and his execution in Rome.

For me, the cost was turning away from the first plan I had made for my life, of a career as a research scientist, and retraining for another seven years to become a priest; and then the cost of priesthood, where a man sacrifices the chance to have a social life at weekends and evenings so that others can feed on the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ.

The prophet Isaiah encouraged God’s people not to look at the difficulty and darkness which surrounded them, but to look up, and see the light of God leading them on. Are you wise enough to look for Christ leading you? When you see him, you too will grow radiant, your heart “throbbing and full”!

Wise Catholics look not at the darkness around them, but at their guiding star – and that star is Christ himself. Today is all about gifts; perhaps it is a good day to ask Christ to renew the gifts of confirmation, which include the courage and fortitude we need for our journey through life.

The question is, have you found Jesus? If you are in pain, anxious, searching, have you said a prayer asking Jesus for what you need? If you’re not in any special need, do you recognise the value of this Holy Child whose birth we celebrated at Christmas? Have you allowed this child to make inconvenient demands of you? Can you rejoice, with St Paul, that you have shared in a message from God about who you are and what God wants you to inherit?

St Peter, in his second letter, encouraged us to think about God’s message ‘until the morning star rises in your hearts.’ This year, 2020, is one which our Bishops have dedicated to the ‘God who speaks’. If to you, the message of Jesus doesn’t feel like a pearl of great price or a buried treasure, then maybe this is a good year to take a fresh look at the Bible, and maybe read one of the Gospels from beginning to end.

Was Jesus really God’s Son?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Did Jesus real heal sick people and cast out demons?

Did Jesus mean it when he told us we must eat his body and drink his blood if we wanted to enter eternal life?

Are you looking for Jesus? I believe that if you lift up your eyes and seek the answers to these questions, as Isaiah prophesied, your hearts will grow ‘throbbing and full’ and Jesus himself will become your heartthrob.

Have you found Jesus? Good. But don’t leave him in the pages of the Bible or locked in the tabernacle here in Church. Take him home with you and share him with your friends.

When the wise men set out on their journey, there were many foolish voices trying to persuade them against it.

Some of the foolish voices suggested that the journey wasn’t worth taking at all.

The wise men knew that this King deserved their personal attention. Will you be wise enough to give him yours?

Can I eat meat on Friday?

Over the recent Christmas season I’ve been asked a few times whether it’s OK for Catholics to eat meat on Fridays “because it’s Christmas”. There isn’t one simple cut and dried answer to that question. How you resolve it depends on the approach to Friday abstinence that you adopt for yourself and your family. Ultimately it depends on where you choose to place the authority for determining your course of action – solely with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with other people who you are called to evangelise, or with yourself as head of your domestic church.

Update December 2020: Friday 1 January 2021 is a solemnity so eating meat is permitted by the Canon Law of the Latin Rite (Western branch) of the Catholic Church.

The Law

You can choose to obey the rubrics of the Catholic Church rigidly. The Canon Law applicable to Western (Latin Rite) Catholics states:

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Canon 1251

The Bishops of England and Wales reinstated this as binding on Catholics in England and Wales in 2011, after a period of some years when Catholics had been free to choose their own Friday penance. Abstinence from meat is binding on all Catholics from their 14th birthday (Canon 1252), unless there is a medical reason why this would be unwise. Younger Catholics are not obliged to abstain but their parents should encourage the spirit of Friday abstinence in an age-appropriate way.

Solemnities are days of the highest rank in the Church’s calendar. Christmas Day and the 1 January celebration of Mary, Mother of God, rank as solemnities, as do all Holy Days of Obligation. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a solemnity which always falls on a Friday. Other saints’ days which are solemnities, such as the Birthday of St John the Baptist (24 June) or St Joseph’s Day (19 March) can fall on a Friday. Each diocese has its own liturgical calendar which might include some local solemnities, and the observance of the patron saint and the anniversary of dedication of an individual church could be solemnities in that parish, unless moved to the nearest Sunday.

The days between 26 and 31 December inclusive are celebrated with the rank of Feast, an important day with a Gloria at Mass – but not as high ranking as a solemnity. (The exact ranking is given at the end of the General Norms on the Liturgical Year.) The Friday of Easter Week (seven days after Good Friday) does, however, rank as a solemnity.

The Rigid Approach

It would be perfectly reasonable to choose to live rigidly according to the rubrics of the Church. Except in rare medical cases (e.g. anaemia, pregnancy), avoiding meat is not harmful or burdensome. Society generally respects those religions that avoid a particular meat absolutely (Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork, Hindus won’t eat beef). You can choose to live your life by declaring “I’m a Catholic and because of my religion, I don’t eat meat on Fridays except those days that the Church has waived.” If you are invited out on a Friday, there would be a strong moral obligation on you to make it clear to your hosts well in advance that this is the case, in order to avoid embarrassment.

The Responsive Approach

When Jesus sent his apostles out to preach, he told them to “eat what is set before them” (Luke 10:8) – though since they were sent to Jewish territory they could expect to be served kosher food. We are all called, by our baptism, to be missionary disciples – and that means building trust with people we want to share faith with. So it would be perfectly reasonable for a Catholic who chooses to practice strict Friday abstinence, when presented with circumstances beyond their control, to respond flexibly. If someone else has chosen to serve you meat, and refusing would give offence, it is quite reasonable to accept it with good grace.

Now here, we must recognise that two principles are in tension with one another. “Eating what is set before you” is as authentically Catholic as “obeying the law of the Church”. One Catholic might choose the witness of accepting hospitality while another might decide, in the context of a particular relationship, that it was more important to witness to keeping the discipline of the Church. This applies with less awkwardness when accepting a Friday night invitation in advance, allowing plenty of time to ask the host to avoid meat. There are sound moral principles behind both courses of action, and Catholics should avoid judging their co-religionists for reaching the opposite conclusion in a particular circumstance.

The Responsible Approach

When the Bishops of England and Wales restored Friday abstinence in 2011, the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference wrote a pastoral FAQ. That document is no longer available on the Bishops’ Conference website (but is preserved within this page at Birmingham’s cathedral); it included the following advice:

  • There is no requirement for us to eat fish instead of meat on a Friday. Our act of abstinence does not mean that we have to eat another particular type of food as the regular substitute for meat on a Friday.
  • If we are invited out for a meal on a Friday, then we should make the most of an opportunity to witness to our Catholic faith. If our friends and colleagues value us they will not be offended or upset if we tell them, ahead of time, that we do not eat meat on Fridays.
  • Our Bishops wish us to focus on the importance of observing penance as a regular and necessary part of our spiritual lives as a whole. If we make it our practice to do penance during the prescribed penitential days and seasons of the Church’s year, then failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin.

The deep question here, therefore, for each Catholic as an individual or as a leader in their domestic church, is how penance fits into the rhythm of their weekly life. Abstaining from meat was never meant to be a mere badge of identity (“We’re Catholics, that’s what we do on Fridays.”) Rather, each Catholic individual and family should pause on Friday and remember how Christ sacrificed his life for our salvation. The choice to abstain is a choice to experience a small hardship in solidarity and gratitude for Christ’s saving death. The very fact that a Catholic is asking ‘Do I have to abstain today?’ is a sign that the penance is noticeable. It should make a small but significant inconvenience to our daily life for it to be what it is meant to be.

The pastoral guidance says that “failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin”. For unplanned failures (absent-mindedly making a ham sandwich on Friday) this means that a careless Catholic should be reassured that they don’t have to rush to confession on Saturday; this lack of perfection is of the kind where an “Oops! Sorry Lord!” in one’s personal prayer is quite adequate rather than a sin requiring absolution. Does this, however, give Catholics latitude to plan to fail on the occasional Friday?

What is not negotiable is the need to observe Friday penance. The pastoral guidance was based on a clarification from the Vatican that missing an individual penitential act is not a grave sin, but failing to practice penance in the course of one’s Catholic life is.

As long as Friday penance is observed in some way, then the spirit of the law is being kept. Personally, I would view it as quite reasonable for a family celebrating some special occasion (wedding anniversary, birthday, patron saint’s day) on a particular Friday night to choose to have a simple ‘abstinence meal’ on Thursday night and keep their penance that week from dusk on Thursday until dusk on Friday – this would also be in keeping with the ancient tradition of ‘fasting before feasting’. Alternatively, a family which didn’t feel comfortable taking this decision on their own authority could ask their parish priest for a dispensation from the rule of abstinence on that occasion. But care must be taken so that a ‘special occasion’ doesn’t become ‘any occasion’. The place of Friday night at the start of the Western weekend makes it a prime time for social gatherings; too casual an approach to excusing oneself from the Friday discipline would be against the spirit of the law.

The Fridays after Christmas

In 2014, Boxing Day fell on a Friday. An unnamed spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales was asked whether Catholics could eat meat that day, and said that it was “contrary to the mentality of what an octave is to consider one of its days as penitential”.

Strictly speaking, the spokesman was misinterpreting liturgical law. In the current Liturgical Calendar, there are two octaves (special periods of eight days). The Easter Octave does indeed have the rank of a solemnity and its Friday cannot be considered penitential. The Christmas Octave, however is assigned a relatively low rank – below saints’ days which are mid-ranking ‘feasts’. (Loosely the word ‘feast’ can indicate any saint’s day but in technical church language a ‘feast’ is an observance ranking below a solemnity and above a memorial.) Friday penance is not waived on feasts, only on solemnities – so it is clearly not the intention of those who drafted that current liturgical calendar to designate the Christmas Octave as a day free from penance. On the contrary Canon 1250 designates ‘every Friday of the year’ as penitential, and that surely includes Fridays in Eastertide as well as the Christmas season.

In the pre-Vatican II liturgical calendars, Friday abstinence also applied during the Christmas octave – though in 1952 and 1958, explicit exemptions were granted by the Holy See when Boxing Day fell on a Friday.

It could be argued, however, that in popular understanding, most Catholics regard the days after Christmas as a season of celebration and aren’t aware of these liturgical niceties. There is also the practical problem of using up Christmas leftovers – Pope Francis has warned against a casual approach to throwing out waste food, both at personal and corporate levels. So I think it would be fair to say that a Catholic who generally practiced Friday penance but relaxed their discipline in the holiday season after Christmas wasn’t doing anything concerning. However, a Catholic concerned enough to have read this article as far as this point will probably want to plan their Christmas season to avoid meat, insofar as it’s under their own control, on Fridays which do not fall on 25 December or 1 January.

Abstinence as a lifestyle

Finally, we should acknowledge that for many Catholics, abstinence is more than a penitential discipline. Some Catholics, out of concern for cruelty to animals or the limited resources of the global ecosystem, have chosen not to eat meat at all. The Bishops of England & Wales have asked such Catholics to choose another suitable penitential act on Fridays. More recently, in promoting awareness of Pope Francis’ ecological teaching in Laudato Si, the bishops have asked the Catholics of England & Wales to consider reducing, if not eliminating, their consumption of meat (especially red meat) altogether. This, of course, is about how we choose an ethical lifestyle rather than observing a penitential discipline. But while we’re thinking about how eating meat interacts with our faith, it’s good to remember it here. Bon appetit!