Clothed in the Garments of Grace

Homily at the Sion Community Family DayFirst Sunday in Lent, Year A

Is it true that God made the first man from the dust of the earth? Wrong question.

Is it true that there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Also the wrong question.

Did God really say “Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge?” Yes – but that’s a diabolical question!

Why does the Bible tell us that Adam and Eve suddenly realised they were naked? Right question!

We believe in a God who can work miracles. Jesus turned water into wine, calmed a storm and raised Lazarus from the dead. We hear reports of creative miracles even in the 21st century, where God’s power to change matter is made evident. So I have no doubt that God has the power to create a human body from the duty of the earth. I do, however, have reason to doubt that that is actually, historically, what happened.

Some of my doubts come from the Bible itself. If it were literally true that God created Adam and Eve and no-one else, who did their sons marry? Why do the first two chapters of the Bible seem to give two different stories about how the world was created? And isn’t a talking snake the kind of character you get in a fantasy story with a moral of a fall and a recovery? I’m thining of Kaa in Disney’s Jungle Book, Nagini in Harry Potter, or the eight-legged Shelob in the Lord of the Rings.

Other doubts come from what we know of the world around us. We believe in a God who speaks through the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture. Our best interpretation of the Book of Nature suggests the universe began in a Big Bang 13 billion years ago – a discovery partly due to a Catholic priest, Mgr Georges Lemaitre – and that the first primitive life formed from the dust and oceans of the earth 4 billion years ago. A slow, step by step process of evolution seems to have taken us from single-celled bacteria to the first human beings – but the scientists argue about whether the title of ‘first human’ should go to our ancestors from 200,000 or 5 million years ago.

And yet… Our Lord Jesus spoke about Adam and Eve in a way that feels literal. St Paul – who had been taken up to heaven and received visions – talks only about Adam, not Eve, in the letter we’ve just heard from Romans. Talking about a singular first human fits rather better with what we know about evolution. However you choose to define ‘first human’ – whether that’s something genetic, or whether it’s about God giving out the first human soul – there will have been a first one somewhere along the line. The message of both Genesis and St Paul is that the first human being failed to obey God perfectly, and that has consequences!

You might hear talk that we human beings suffer more intense temptation because we are children of the Original Sinner. That’s true, but let’s not forget that the first human managed to sin without the excuse of this extra burden, which we call concupiscence; we can’t blame Adam for everything!

More mysterious is St Paul’s statement that ‘death came into the world’ because of human sin. Taken literally, that suggest that no plant or animal or even bacterium had died before Adam’s first sin. But if we take it to refer to human death, we might conclude that God meant to give human beings the miraculous gift of immortality, if they were totally faithful to his commands. And that takes us back to Adam and Eve being naked without shame.

Before they ate the forbidden fruit, before they made clothes for themselves, they were naked. Might it be that when they looked at one another, what they saw was not a human body, but the image of God? Next week, we’ll hear the Gospel of the Transfiguration, reminding us how Jesus was clothed in light when he showed his Godly nature to his closest followers. Does it not make sense that the first, sinless, human would have been clothed like this – entirely lit?

St John Paul II reflected on the meaning of the forbidden tree. He concluded that it represented the power to define right and wrong. As human beings we cannot make wrong things right, or right things wrong – we must accept what God has taught us. By taking the fruit for themselves, and wanting to disagree with God, the first humans became not more, but less like God: they became clothed in sin. Worse than that, they found themselves clothed in a repeating pattern of sin.

Jesus – whose very name means “the one who saves” – did not come to rule the earth, but to help us find our way to heaven. So in today’s Gospel he refuses to take power over the world; at the end of Lent we will celebrate how he opened the door to life by submitting humbly to death.

If you read on in Genesis, you will find that not only did Adam and Eve clothe themselves, but later, God ‘made garments out of skin’ to clothe them – in other words, an animal had to die so that they could be protected from harm. In the fullness of time, when Jesus died for our sins, St Paul would be able to tell the Romans ‘clothe yourself in Christ’.

Now, you might have been surprised that I started today’s homily by sharing some doubts. Surely it’s not the calling of a Catholic priest to preach doubts – isn’t my duty to tell you what’s true? The thing is, the Catholic church doesn’t take a position on whether Adam and Eve were historical figures, or a story-telling way of teaching about the first human being. What’s important is that we can take the same message from the Bible regardless of whether the story is history or another kind of story.

You’ll meet some catholics who insist that we are descended from Adam and Eve because the Bible says so and who are we to doubt the Bible, however inconsistent that seems with scientific evidence?

You’ll meet other Catholics who roll their eyes and say if we want to be taken seriously we have to interpret the Bible in the light of science because we know lot more know than the Bible writers did 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.

Me, I say those are the wrong questions. The devil always uses questions to blind us to God’s word. In Genesis, he succeeded. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Devil failed. I think the right question is, what does God want us to learn from this story?

On Ash Wednesday, we heard the sobering words that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Scientifically, that’s true – we are made of the stuff of the earth, and our bodies will one day return to the earth. We want to live a long and happy life on earth, so we ask questions like: How do we protect our environment? How do we protect ourselves from coronavirus? But our bodies will return to dust, so the most important question is: How do we make sure we go to heaven?

For the next six weeks of Lent, many of us will live differently – perhaps you’ve given up something you like, or perhaps you’re doing something extra. Because we want to be better at loving God and loving our neighbour, we take on extra prayers and extra good works. It’s not wrong to work on improving ourselves. But when we come to Holy Week, we will not be celebrating our small achievement, but Christ’s great one. We can never make ourselves perfect by our own efforts. That’s why today’s psalm starts by saying ‘Yes, I’m a sinner’ but quickly moves to ‘God, create a pure heart within me’. You will never be truly lit until the light of Christ shines upon you.

Today, the 1st of March, is St David’s Day,* so I’d like to leave you with the opening words of the most famous hymn in the Welsh language, Calon Lân. In English, they would be:

I’d not ask a life that’s easy,
Gold and pearls? So little mean!
I would seek a heart that’s joyful,
Heart that’s honest, heart that’s clean.

* This year, St David’s Day is observed by the Catholic Church in Wales on 2nd March to make way for the first Sunday of Lent; in other terrtitories the observance of St David is not kept this year.

Wholly Holy

Homily at St Edward’s, Sutton Park on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Be holy!”

To be holy is to live your life God’s way. But to be truly holy, you must live your life wholly God’s way. Sometimes the Church sets up role models for us – saints – because they show us how to live a life with all its facets dedicated to God.

Last year a man died, who was widely expected to be named as a saint. Jean Vanier, a Canadian, devoted his life to building communities for handicapped adults, known as L’Arche. But towards the end of his life, rumours emerged that he had groomed women who had come to him for spiritual direction. Quite rightly, the leaders of L’Arche quietly and professionally investigated these claims. Yesterday, they announced their findings: there was credible evidence that M. Vanier had manipulated and abused six women over the course of 35 years. This, of course, comes as a terrible blow for the members of L’Arche worldwide  – and it also means that despite his acknowledged “considerable good work”, Jean Vanier will not be acclaimed as a saint of the Catholic Church.

It’s easy to point the finger at a public figure who has been shamed. But you’ll know the old saying – when we point one finger, we find three pointing back at ourselves. So let’s look at ourselves. Lent starts this Wednesday, and to begin Lent well, we need to spend a few days focussing on what we might “give up”. So it’s time to acknowledge that bad habit you’ve been trying so hard not to notice these last few months. Maybe it’s something your husband or wife has been gently nagging you about. Maybe it’s something that makes your children uncomfortable. Whatever it is, you know what it is, because you don’t want to tackle it. You’ve been pushing it to the back of your consciousness. It’s not a big thing – but it’s your thing, and you don’t want to let go.

Jesus said: “CHANGE! And believe the good news.”

I’ve got good news for you. This Lent you can choose to tackle that little thing you’ve been trying to avoid. Be bold! Throw off your chains! Don’t give the Devil his satisfaction!

The Bible today invites us to “correct our brother” when he sins against us. But Jesus also told us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s. Lent gives us permission to correct our own faults. We know that to be ‘wholly holy’ we need integrity.

So I’d like to invite you to spend the days between now and Ash Wednesday examining your own life, and deciding what your Lenten discipline will be. It might be giving up something – or returning to a diet you’ve let slip. It might be giving up smoking or drinking, whether just for Lent or for good. It might be taking on an extra daily round of prayer, or a weekly stint volunteering in a social project. But pay attention to that small thing you really don’t want to tackle. It’s probably the most important one of the lot.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us of something Jesus said, something which makes our Christian faith stand out from other religions. We’re asked – no, we are commanded – to be passionately committed to doing good for our opponents. But… what happens when you are your own worst enemy?

Do you find yourself really difficult to live with? Do you find it hard to love yourself? Do you doubt that you are a fundamentally good person, even if you do things you regret sometimes?

One in every ten people here today will suffer from clinical depression at some time of life. Maybe you’ve already experienced this, or are being afflicted by it right now. Loosely speaking, the sign of being clinically depressed is that you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy – and these feelings continue for a period lasting more than a few days.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no shame in getting help from your doctor. Often your doctor will recommend some kind of “talking therapy”, but sometimes the treatment will include antidepressant medicine. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of that, either. If you were an insulin-dependent diabetic, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that injection to restore the right chemical balance. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, that’s doing just the same kind of job, restoring a temporary imbalance in those body chemicals which affect your mood.

We might not need medical help, but find support in prayer. Many Bible passages remind us who we are in Christ: we are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know us. We can also find many affirming passages in the Bible we can repeat to ourselves in daily prayer: I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); I am a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); I am raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). Or we might take comfort in the traditional Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity in many traditional Catholic prayer books, such as this Act of Hope:

O Lord God,

I hope by your grace for the pardon

of all my sins

and after life here to gain eternal happiness

because you have promised it

who are infinitely powerful, faithful, kind,

and merciful.

In this hope I intend to live and die.


What I’ve just shared won’t apply to everyone. But if you find that these kind of prayers are useful to give yourself daily reassurance, then use them as often as you need to!

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” In that one part of your life where you know, deep down, you are your own worst enemy, show a little love. Even if you don’t feel lovable, be kind to yourself. After all, God loves you – loves you enough to die for you – and God doesn’t make mistakes. And keep on loving yourself, until “love your neighbour as yourself” starts looking like the challenge it’s meant to be!

Catholic Outreach

How do we reach Catholics on the periphery? Many young people raised in Catholic households have never found the Church and her message attractive; when they leave home they cease to worship, but this is not so much a deliberate rejection of Catholicism as a failure to be drawn by it. In Canada, Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) has been working for 31 years to engage with these dormant Catholics, and founder André Regnier recently gave a seminar in London.

CCO began as, and is still primarily, a movement of University students. Its missionaries seek to reach into University and connect with Catholics who have not yet embraced their spiritual heritage. CCO missionaries take this role on as a long-term calling, not a gap year. The Canadian bishops have asked CCO to help equip parishes over the last decade, so the work has moved beyond the campus – but the focus is always on the periphery.

The Discovery Course from CCO is a simple evangelisation tool which can be studied by a small group of participants in someone’s living room or even in a one-to-one context over coffee. It can fill the gap in contexts which are too small to make viable the running of Alpha or a similar course.

A structural flaw in the way we do church is that we don’t have middle managers. There is no level between the parish priest and the 20+ key people in the parish who are leading catechetical groups and other activities. But we need middle-managers with a heart for reaching individuals and who accompany the leaders to coach them on how to deal with individual participants.

André is not only a campus minister. As a father, he has raised a family of missionary disciples. The whole family co-authored a book about how that happened! See Brick by Brick by the Regnier Family.

How to Have a Conversation

Can you share a meaningful message about Jesus if you only have 2 minutes for a conversation? As Catholics we suffer an embarrassment of riches in our theological heritage – but Evangelium Gaudium (35) calls us to be good at proclaiming the essentials. Can you make a concrete invitation to say a prayer or connect with a church at the end of what you say? Do you expect to provoke a conversion experience through this encounter?

It’s all too easy to enter a conversation with judgement and expectation (Why don’t you go to Mass? Why aren’t you pro-life? Don’t you believe Mary is appearing at such-and-such a place?) – when we have something much simpler to share. “You are loved. God created you to have a relationship with you. We human beings don’t love perfectly, but Jesus came to show us perfect love and to re-connect us with God.” CCO distributes a little booklet called The Ultimate Relationship which can be helpful for these kinds of conversations.

In our evangelistic conversations, we must be intentional about what we want to achieve, and respectful of where the other person is at. Start by building rapport – look for a common point of interest. Survey the situation – get to know the person, or the place, you are going to work with. “What” questions are good open questions – not demanding an emotional response, nor triggering an ‘agree or fight’ response. (Jesus often taught using questions!) You can often ‘zoom in’ using a follow-up question. Or you can present images of Christ being close to, or further from, a person and say “Where do you think you are at?”

Beware of programmes! If a participant is wrestling with a basic issue like the divinity of Christ, there’s no use in moving on to a deeper subject just because the programme says it’s time to do it or because it’s what I learned in last week’s leadership training. Respectful listening requires attentiveness to the other person. André’s book Clear and Simple offers further insights on having a conversation which leads to conversion.

Our call, as Catholics, truly is to invite all people to experience a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is not an alien, Protestant, idea – but one which numerous official Catholic documents on evangelisation reiterate. Pope Benedict XVI, preaching to the thousands gathered for World Youth Day 2011, invited young people to respond to Jesus by saying a prayer like this:

Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.

Not all religious experiences are conversion experiences. A religious experience is about the presence of God or someone/something holy. Sometimes, but not always, this provokes a conversion – a sorrow for sin, a desire for confession, a new fervour for following Jesus.

A healthy relationship is rooted in consent. But in practice we present the Catholic faith as a duty. Like a marriage, a personal committment to the Catholic faith should be a free act of will to enter into a relationship.

In Western cultures, we might find that 15% of the baptised Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday – but some of those are going only once a month. Only 5% of those regular Massgoers are deeply committed missionary disciples. But… if these disciples could be formed, inspired and given the right tools, they could double their number in mere months!

Spiritual Accompaniment

I’ve just been at an overnight gathering of key leaders in Catholic Charismatic Renewal in England & Wales. We meet each year in February, and this year’s gathering focussed on how we raise up young people as leaders in the Church.

Young people in leadership have their own ‘network’ gatherings, and one such gathering fell into a conversation about ‘Why are we still committed, when other young people have fallen by the wayside?’ They realised that all the young adults who had persevered had someone investing in them personally as a coach, spiritual director or mentor. This model of personal accompaniment is one advocated by Pope Francis in Christus Vivit, and is also the bedrock of The Ascent, a three-year scheme for forming young disciples aged 14 thru 17. This kind of personal commitment takes time but bears fruit in the longer term – more than 200 young people have now benefitted from spiritual accompaniment through the three Ascent centres at Brentwood (Essex), Worth Abbey (West Sussex), and Wigton (Cumbria).

Leaders from The Ascent commented on how girls are very ready to engage in one-to-one accompaniment, and starting a session with an open question (‘what do you want to talk about’) avoided the mentee feeling any pressure to give the ‘right’ answers to a more focussed question. Boys are often more reluctant to open up but will do so when engaging in a shared activity with a mentor. For safeguarding reasons, it’s no longer possible for an under-18 to have the kind of ‘sideways conversation’ that can happen on a private road trip, but faced with a problem-solving task like a Jenga tower or a Lego build, the mentee and mentor can work together while establishing a rapport.

I’ve also seen the New Wine Cymru movement in Wales (heavily supported by Cornerstone Church in Swansea) working hard to fast-track its young people into leadership positions. Not only do young members form the worship band and front-of-house hospitality at many events, New Wine Cymru has a deliberate policy of pairing a young leader with a more seasoned leader to form a double act of MCs at major events.

As a full-time missionary with Sion Community, I am no longer directly responsible for a Confirmation group, but I hope these insights will prove useful to others adopting a preparation-through-mentoring model.

Preparing to Prepare

We’re now in February, the month which takes its name from a Latin word for ‘cleansing’. This means that Lent is not far away – but in England this year, another spiritual exercise is also on the horizon. On the Sunday following the Feast of the Annunciation, March 29th, this year, the Catholic Bishops of England will rededicate this nation to Jesus through the hands of Mary.

What does it mean to dedicate a nation? In 1381, King Richard II solemnly dedicated England as ‘set apart for Mary among the nations’. Only a monarch, parliament or president has authority to do such a thing in the name of a nation – but for England this was done, and led to the ancient title of ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’. Today a dowry is usually thought of as the price which a bride’s family pays to her new husband – but in mediaeval England, a dowry was a sum of money given to the wife to support her if her husband should die. We seem the same term at work in the title of a dowager duchess.

Here and now, in 2020, our bishops propose a twofold rededication. As bishops, they will gather in Walsingham on Sunday 29th March and together renew their prayers, as leaders of the church, for Our Blessed Lady to continue to keep England under her protection. As a sign of solidarity, at noon on Sunday 29th March they invite all faithful Catholics living in England to make a corporate act of rededication to Jesus through Mary. This can be done on your own, or gathered together with others in your local area. But this should be preceded by a personal act of rededication, which can be made privately on the Solemnity of the Annunciation itself, Wednesday 25th March.

How can we prepare for such a significant moment? We are encouraged to consider a 33-day exercise of prayerful preparation, using the book 33 Days to Morning Glory by Fr Michael Gaitley, MIC. Copies of this are available for the cost of postage and packing only from the Walsingham Catholic Shop. You may also find this enriched version of the Angelus useful. If you wish to complete the 33 days in time for 25 March, you should start on 21 February.

To enter fully into the spirit of what is asked of us, please think of making a personal act of rededication on Wednesday 25th March, and joining with others for a communal act at 12 noon on Sunday 29th March. You can find a local gathering online, or if there isn’t one near you, why not organise one? You don’t need a priest to do this – if there isn’t a church you can meet in, why not do so by inviting others to your home or another suitable place, and registering online? You can also download the official prayer for the act of rededication.

Maybe you don’t live in England. Don’t worry! Our Lady will never refuse anyone who hastens to her and seeks her protection. While March 2020 will be marked by special prayers by the bishops of England entrusting the people who live in England – and they have no special authority to pray on behalf of anybody else – any individual can follow the programme of prayerful and personal rededication and offer oneself to the Mother of God. In this way, anyone can become one of the treasury of souls she offers to Jesus Christ.

Lent begins on Wednesday 26th February. Don’t let it catch you unawares. The 33 Day exercise is a major spiritual act, but if it’s not what you choose as your personal Lenten exercise this year, it’s time to start thinking about what it will mean to keep a good Lent. Is there something you need to sacrifice? Is there a meaningful exercise it’s realistic to take on? What will help you walk more faithfully as a follower of Jesus in this season? It’s time to start asking that question as we begin again to walk through the spiritual wilderness which leads to the joy of the Resurrection. And if want to use the start of Lent to take the Gospel on to the streets, you’ve just got time to organise a local outreach of Ashes to Go!

May we all keep a good Lent this year.

Our Lady of Walsingham – pray for us!