Good News for Shepherds

Homily to members of Sion Community at the Dawn Mass of Christmas 2020.

It came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

Luke 2:15 KJV

Abel. Abraham. Isaac. Rachel. Jacob. Moses. David. Job. Amos. The story of God’s people is full of shepherds – receiving news of how they were to lead and guide God’s people.

O Corpiño. Vailankanni. Laus. Lourdes. La Salette. Fátima. The story of God’s church is full of the Virgin Mary appearing to children on shepherd duty, with messages to pass on to the world.

The Shepherds of the Christmas story are the first called to be witnesses rather than leaders. In the Old Covenant, God raised up shepherds to lead and guide his people Israel. But at the dawn of the New Covenant, the shepherds become messengers to invite us to accept our true leader, our beautiful shepherd, Christ Our Lord.

Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger… In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Luke 2:7-8

Why were there shepherds in that region? Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, which at that time was the place where God’s people came to make sacrifices of animals. Only ritually pure creatures could be offered in the Temple. We know from an ancient Jewish source, the Mishnah, that cattle in the fields around Jerusalem ‘all the way to Migdal Eder’ were considered acceptable for the Temple. Many Christian commentators have argued that the same applied to sheep, and so these shepherds at Bethlehem were tending those sheep which, if born spotless, would be lovingly raised for one year and then offered as perfect sacrifices.

Some go on to state that when a mother sheep was ready to gave birth, she would be taken to a special cave in Migdal Eder, where the newborn lamb would be washed and wrapped in swaddling bands, and laid in a special bed, or crib, or manger. This birthing place was kept in spotless conditions. Could it be the case that when Mary’s time came and there was no room at any lodging house, she went not to some dirty shed for common animals, but to the space kept clean for the birth of God’s future sacrifices? If so, the shepherds over Bethlehem would know exactly which manger to look in – the one where they laid the pure lambs for the Temple.

The prophet Micah not only named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be found; he also wrote that the Lord’s reign would come to the ‘Tower of the Flock’, which in Hebrew is ‘Migdal Eder’. This tower looks over the fields of Bethlehem and stood over the cave or room where the pregnant sheep were taken to give birth.

So God reveals to shepherds the birth of the Messiah, the future lamb of sacrifice. The story will continue when John the Baptist recognises the Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world.

Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Look,your saviour comes,the prize of his victory with him,his trophies before him.’They shall be called ‘The Holy People’,‘The Lord’s Redeemed.’And you shall be called ‘The-sought-after’,‘City-not-forsaken.’

Isaiah 62:11-12 Jerusalem Bible

So look, children of Sion! Our saviour has come as a Lamb to be sacrified. The prize of our victory is with him – we know if we are faithful to him, whatever happens to us in this earthly life, our eternal future and reward in heaven is secure. We are the Lord’s Redeemed. We are the holy people.

Two days ago, the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen shone strongly over this very building. This gives me confidence to proclaim today that we, in Sion Community, are sought-after and not-forsaken. We have hope. We have a future. Through our work of pastoring and discipling others, we are also shepherds. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God has also spoken to us and called us. We are friends of Christ here and now, justified by his grace, and heirs looking forward to eternal life.

We already know this, but it is good to be reminded of who we are in Christ. Our eternity is secure. Hope shines over Sion Community. The Lord of Angel Hosts is with us. A very happy Christmas to you all!

The Christmas Banquet

Homily to members of Sion Community at the Vigil Mass of Christmas 2020.

Friends, this evening we have gathered in extraordinary circumstances to celebrate not only a birth, but also a wedding.

This is not the Christmas any of us wished to have – not the one we planned, dreamed or expected. The same was true 2000 years ago when a young woman, heavily pregnant, who had dreamed of giving birth at home found herself instead 69 miles from home, delivering a baby in an outhouse with no resting place but a feeding trough for cattle.

The Christmas Eve Mass stops short of these details – St Matthew simply tells us that “she gave birth to a son” – and his adoptive father, Joseph, named him Jesus. We must wait until midnight to read of shepherds and angels. The birth is it hand – but the wedding has begun!

A wedding is something very public, between two more private moments. Before the wedding, a proposal is made – God proposed coming among us in the flesh when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary, who gave her fiat. After the wedding, the bridegroom and bride consummate their love: Our Lord gave his body to the Bride at the Last Supper and upon the Cross of Calvary. But in-between, there is a public declaration of love, with great fanfare.

This evening begins the wedding banquet of the Lamb – in the best traditions of the Middle East, not a single meal but an extended celebration. The bridegroom will appear at midnight, or in the morning, but the festivities are already begun! And this bridegroom is to be wedded not in one place, but to the Church throughout the earth. So wherever we are, the wedding banquet is present. Just as angels broadcast glorious music from the sky to shepherds out in the fields, so our technology today broadcasts the news of the Christ child throughout the Earth, wherever you can receive it today.

Mary had a choice. She could complain about the circumstances, the distance from her family, the decisions made by the government, and the fact that even Saint Joseph‘s family, who were presumably local, weren’t offering her any support. Or she could give thanks to God for the safe birth of her child. We know that Mary is the woman of the Magnificat, praising God. Be like Mary!

The first Christmas reminds us that God’s friends, including Mary and Joseph, are not immune from suffering. In the 2000 year history of the church, there will have been many Christmases marked by famine, plague, war and persecution. But Christmas cannot be cancelled. It is the day to remember the coming of the bridegroom; that God’s love is unstoppable.

Wherever you are, the Bride is present. A bride alone at home, preparing herself for the wedding in the privacy of her chamber, is already celebrating. A bride at home with a few bridesmaids is not at the wedding venue but has already begun to celebrate the wedding. This celebration cannot be cancelled. This celebration cannot be curtailed. The birth of Christ is at hand. The wedding banquet of the Lamb has begun. In this Eucharist we WILL give thanks to God, because the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled. Sion is rejoicing. The one who has built us has wedded himself to us! It happened in Bethlehem so long ago. Yet we acknowledge that even the BEST Christmas we have ever experienced is only a foretaste of the celebrations which await when we meet Jesus when he comes again. Meanwhile, with St Joseph we proclaim: His name is Jesus! He has come to save us! With Mary we proclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

Give Glory to God

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.

They say if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Most, if not all of us, have woken up this morning with our Christmas plans in tatters. Across the UK, a five-day window for family gatherings has been reduced to a single day with no overnight stops. In the South-East of England, even Christmas Day can only be spent with those who live under your own roof. The voice of authority had encouraged us to plan for a relaxed Christmas; now, in the light of new information, that same authority says “No!”

Something similar happened to King David in ancient Israel. He wanted to build a Temple to house the nation’s holiest treasure, the Ark of the Covenant. Even the voice of authority, the Prophet Nathan, said “Yes, go ahead!” – but Nathan hadn’t yet taken time to listen to God. The next day, Nathan would have to go back to the King with God’s message – “Change your plans.” But that wasn’t the only part of God’s message. God also sent tidings of a secure future. In the next generation, that security was through David’s son Solomon building the first Temple. Much later it would come through Jesus Christ, of the line of David, who as true God and true man would be King of the Universe forever.

When we read on in the book of Samuel, we discover how King David responded: he worshipped God. He accepted that he couldn’t build the Temple, without complaining; he thanked God for past and future victories and asked for God to make good this promise of a kingly line which would endure forever. We are invited to respond in the same way: will I choose to spend this Christmas praising God?

“Glory to God” is a common refrain in our Christmas worship. How many carols contain the word Gloria – sometimes extended for effect? We don’t actually pray the Glory to God in the Highest prayer on the four Sundays before Christmas: we rest it, to restore its power on Christmas Night. But do we stop to ask: “What is glory?”

When I was a chaplain to Deaf people and learned to celebrate Mass using British Sign Language, I discovered there were not one but two signs for Glory. When we praise God, the glory goes upwards; but when God glorifies us, the sparkle comes down. Jesus said that God would ‘glorify him’ on the Cross – and we can reveal God’s glory in the way we receive unwelcome news.

The Angel Gabriel came to a young woman called Mary, with an astonishing message. Mary herself was to become the Ark of the Covenant, a human container for the presence of God. We hear her respond with awe and humility. “How can this be? But let God’s will be done!” In giving her YES, her fiat, Mary glorified God. In the long term that glory came through the miracles of her son, and his triumph over death. But in the short term it came through the way she accepted the suffering of embracing God’s plans: being doubted by her fiancé, Joseph; suspected of adultery by her community; and facing exile in Egypt. Each time, her beautiful heart said: “This is God’s plan. Let it be. Glory to God!”

We may not feel like glorifying God when our plans are in ruins. But we can take our lead from King David and from the Blessed Mother.

It may be that we will have to spend Christmas alone. We can still connect with God and with others. It might mean that for the first time ever we can plan Christmas Day around God rather than human visitors. That might be connecting to an act of worship on TV or a livestream; it might be about taking time to pray on one’s own. If the only way we can connect with other people is through technology, we might ask whose need is greatest rather than who lives within travelling distance. In all that you choose to do, give glory to God!

There again, it might be that we will spend Christmas under the same roof as other people we hadn’t planned to share Christmas with. So today I invite you to make a choice. In that spirit of Christmas goodwill to all people, choose today to make a good Christmas with your new companions. Recognise that each person holds dear their own hopes and family traditions about what should or could happen on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Take time to listen to what each person expects – and then create a unique Christmas for your household. It won’t be like any other Christmas – but if you listen to the needs of each person and don’t insist that it has to be the way you’ve always done Christmas before, you will give glory to God. If in the planning you create space to worship God on Christmas Day, the glory will be even greater!

By our baptism, each one of us is a Temple of the Lord, a vessel meant to be filled with God’s glory – meant to reveal God’s power at work in us. Whenever our human plans are challenged by circumstances, we can say two things with absolute confidence: “God has permitted this. God can bring good out of this.” We reveal God’s glory when we have the humility to say, with Mary, “Let it be done to me according to your will.” So take a deep breath. Sacrifice the Christmas you were planning; it’s not going to happen that way. In fact, surrender completely and give your plans as a gift to God, complete with receipt, which the Lord can return to the store for exchange. And once you’ve let go, relax. If you want God to make you laugh, follow his plans! And in the morning, you will see his glory!

Proclaiming God With Us

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B Home Mission Sunday.

Who, me?

John the Baptist grew up knowing that he was special. He was born to a mother beyond childbearing age. As he grew up he would have heard the stories of how an angel prophesied his own birth – and how his cousin Jesus, born to a virgin, was heralded by angels and greeted by shepherds and wise men!

What we don’t know is the journey John took to embrace his calling. He was free to accept or reject the religious role his parents raised him in, with the symbols of uncut hair and drinking no alcohol. He not only embraced it but sensed a call from God to preach a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and teach the coming of the Chosen One, the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world.

Who, me?

You, the baptised, have also been given a calling. Like John the Baptist, you are invited to be a witness to speak for the light, to speak about Jesus in a world wrapped in darkness.

Usually the church takes one Sunday in September to remind all of us that this is part of our calling as followers of Jesus. This year, that date has been pushed back until today. And it’s a wonderful time of year to find opportunities to speak about Jesus. The whole nation is able to take a brief pause from the usual rhythm of life to celebrate Christmas. But this is a double-edged blessing. People may think they know the story of Christmas, but fail to grasp its deeper meaning.

Who wouldn’t sympathise with the story of a heavily pregnant woman forced to travel miles by a Government decree, unable to find decent accommodation when labour comes upon her? Whose heart wouldn’t be lifted by the thought of a baby born safely and welcomed with gifts in difficult circumstances?

A recent survey suggests that in Britain, well over two thirds of people know that baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, laid in a manger and had his birth heralded by angels. But only one third know that the word Emannuel, found in numerous Christmas carols, means “God with us”. As Christmas Missionaries, this is the message we still need to proclaim – that the cherished child in the manger is God-made-man, the God who has not abandoned us, stepping down to be light in our darkness.

In this year, of all years, we will find it harder to speak to people, so we must be creative and find visual images which speak of the light of Christ. So what could we do as witnesses to the light?

You could place a candle or an advent wreath in your window, taking care not to set anything on fire! A light on its own is a sign of hope – but how much more powerful this would be marked with a banner declaring that “Jesus Christ is the light of the world!”

If you have a small nativity set you could place that in your window. But how to make this thought provoking? “God sent choirs of angels to welcome His own Son.”

Maybe you could place a poster in your window. What message would cause people to stop and think? Only a third know the meaning of Immanuel. Maybe this could help:

Here at our community house, our windows are not easy to see from the road, but we have a gate. So each day we’ve been adding a symbol to the gate telling the story of the family tree of Jesus. Often families do this on a tree, a Jesse tree, but we have a Jesse gate. What could you do to present the story of Jesus in a fresh way?

This year, our Catholic bishops are promoting two innovative ways of sharing the Gospel. The One Hope Project, a collective of young Catholic musicians, is running an online event next Sunday afternoon, exploring this question. And the Genesis Mission, pioneered in Plymouth Diocese, offers a seven-week course on why and how Catholics could have conversations about faith with the people they meet.

Words are essential if Jesus is to be known, but words on their own are not enough to make us credible witnesses. If Jesus came to proclaim good news for the poor, what are we doing to help those whose poverty is known to us personally? If Jesus came to bind up the broken-hearted, whose heartbreak can we minister to this month? If Jesus came to set the captives free, how can we offer those in bondage a pathway to prayer wherein they can forgive others, and renounce their own sinful ways?

It’s easy to listen to a sermon, think “Yes, I must do something,” and then let the moment pass. We don’t know what journey John took to reach the conclusion he was called to go and be a voice in the wilderness, but he was faithful to that calling. I don’t know what journey you are on with God, either, but I know God is inviting you to do something, here and now, this Advent.

Is it to reach out to someone in material or emotional poverty?

Is it to place a witness to Christ in your window or at your gate?

Is it to engage with one of the online initiatives I’ve just mentioned, or something else you’ve heard of?

“Pray constantly. Think before you do anything. Never suppress the Spirit.” Mindful of these words of St Paul, I’d like you to stop and pray, right now, “Lord, what are you calling me to do?”

You are special. You are called. You are chosen. Yes, you. Now go and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord.

Spot That Sin!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Imagine living a life without spot or stain! That’s a rather lofty ambition. And in fact only two people in the whole history of the human race have achieved it: Our Lord Jesus Christ, and his Blessed Mother, whose Immaculate Conception we celebrate on Tuesday. “Immaculate” in Latin literally means spotless, for a “macula” is a spot.

As for the rest of us, each one of us is a work in progress. We might want to distinguish the stains from the spots: the stains of the deep rooted sins that corrupt our character, and the spots of the little faults of daily life that we can brush off without much consequence. 

It’s important to remember that we can’t work our way into heaven by being good people. None of us is good enough to deserve to go to heaven; all of us can enter by saying sorry to Jesus for the sins that we’ve committed and placing our trust in His forgiveness. That’s why John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – he prepared a way for the Lord: a way for us to reach the Lord! But once we’ve decided to follow Jesus, God does expect us to do our best to live the life that you would expect of a member of the body of Christ. We are invited to be as perfect as Jesus himself – and that’s a tall order, a lofty ambition. But since we’re going to be perfect saints in heaven, why not start here on Earth?

These days, many people go to counselling and receive what’s called “cognitive behavioural therapy”. That’s a mouthful but it means something simple: recognise what’s not quite right in your behaviour, and choose to do something different next time around. The Catholic Church has known about this for centuries: our traditional name for it is “a firm purpose of amendment”. When a sinner goes to confession, he or she is meant to not only say what they’ve done wrong, but to have a plan in their mind for how they’re going to avoid falling into that trap in future. If you’re not planning to change – however distant the hope of change is – it’s not a proper confession!

You might not be able to get to a Penitential Service this advent, but we’re all capable of offering our own prayers of sorrow to God – and we’re all capable of identifying some areas of our life where there are still spots that need to be dealt with. If you’re not sure what they are, why not ask someone who has the privilege of sharing a home with you, or a colleague at work? They’ll soon tell you what your bad habits are! Perhaps you’re aware of some personal failings that you could work on, but which one should you pick? Maybe it’s the one you get nagged about most! I know you won’t want to, because it feels like giving into the nags – but I’ll let you in to a secret: sometimes the nags are right!

Or maybe it’s that one fault, that one little peccadillo that you just keep turning your gaze away from. You don’t want to tackle it , because deep down you rather like it. But you know it’s not right; you know it needs to be dealt with. Can you hear the voice of God encouraging you to take that step, to put this little spot in sharp focus and to make it the one thing you choose to eradicate in your life? It’ll take time; it’ll need God’s grace. But help is at hand! John the Baptist called us to repent – Jesus came with a baptism in the Holy Spirit, an offer of God’s power working within us to transform us into saints. If you’ve received the Sacrament of Confirmation, you have already been sealed with the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit’s power is tied until you give him permission to transform you into a saint! 

When you know the spot you’re going to work at removing, pray for God’s help – call upon the Holy Spirit! You could say something like this: “Lord, I’m very sorry for this pattern in my life; I renounce it; I wish to be totally free of all its influence. Grant me the grace to break the bonds of sin and be filled with your presence and power.”

Once you’ve prayed, you need to do something, too. You might need to make this your New Years Resolution, or even ask someone you trust to hold you accountable. If you even manage to remove just one small spot from your life in the next few months, you’ll have taken one step towards living that life without spot or blemish to which God invites us all. It’s not easy – we can’t deal with all our faults at once. But we have to start somewhere, and there’s no excuse for not trying.

Our Blessed Mother was totally filled with the Holy Spirit, her great partner in living a life free from all sin. By the prayers of the Spotless One, may we too receive grace to overcome our failings and purify our souls, so that we may be ready for the Lord’s coming. O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.