The Mass of Glory

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

What would God look like if you could see Him?

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

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

“It’s a picture of God!”

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

“They will when I’ve finished!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think the answer is twofold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you feeling excited yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a Fan

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

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

It turns out, I’m not a fan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guidance for Guiders

Sermon for members of the Catholic Guide Advisory Council at a vigil Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday

Look at them! Aren’t they great! Everyone respects them! I’m not sure I could do what they do, though…

Who am I talking about?

In our age it could be the Salvation Army, or the RNLI Lifeboat crews… maybe even volunteers who work with uniformed groups. The attraction is the evident good fruit. The hesitation is the knowledge that there is a cost to getting involved… a cost which may take a person outside their comfort zone. A cost which requires someone to face a challenge and learn from her experience!

2000 years ago it was the first followers of Jesus. There was something attractive about them – a kindness and compassion which went beyond the tough society in which they lived. It didn’t hurt that miracles of healing took place regularly among them too! But there was also a hesitation – to become one of THEM required a declaration that the troublesome Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was God-made-flesh, and that just didn’t fit Jewish or Roman ideas!

Every Guide, and Guiding Volunteer, makes the same promise: “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. You who have gathered here today are here because you are true to your own beliefs as Catholics, and you are asking how to be faithful to those beliefs in the world of Guiding today. This is a crucial question!

In Britain today, we claim to champion diversity. But I’m not sure there are many people who hold diversity as their highest value. Perhaps such a person exists… if so, imagine them giving a quick introduction to our culture?

Welcome to Britain. Here we prize diversity above all other things. Some of our people are physically disabled – it’s important to us that we provide reasonable adjustments at no personal expense. Some of our people experience same-sex attraction, and it’s important to us that they be allowed to pursue whatever adult relationships they wish with no harassment or legal restrictions. And some of our people belong to religions which teach the only proper place for a sexual relationship is in a marriage between a man and a woman, and it’s really important to us that parents should be able to pass on those values to their children without schools telling them otherwise!

Do you see the problem?

Deep down, most of us either believe in values which come from inside us, or outside us. Our society is shifting from Christian values to self-defined values. We can’t impose our Christian values on others, but we can ask for a mutual respect where we tolerate other values without being asked to celebrate different values. One of the great challenges for Catholics in our generation is to stand up and require that our British respect for diversity means that traditional moral values must be prized as highly as new liberal values. Doing this in a culture conscious of the need to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is even more important.

It’s not enough for us to open our mouths and ask for respect, though. Like the Christians we read about in Acts this evening, we must live our faith in a way which makes others respect us. We should stand out by the way we encourage struggling married couples to stay together and work attentively on their relationship. We should stand out by the way we not only chant pro-life slogans but work to give practical support to children born to reluctant parents of little means. We should stand out by the way we care for elderly relatives rather than rushing to the care home. We should stand out by behaving as generous employers and loyal employees.

Setting such an example will be attractive, but others will not flock to join us immediately. They will have questions about whether Jesus is the one to whom they are to entrust themselves. Is He Alive? Can He be trusted? You can lead people to Jesus, but not overnight.

It struck me as I prepared this sermon that:

  • A scout is someone who finds the way.
  • A guide is someone who shows others the way.
  • Jesus IS the way.

Your task is to develop and be true to your Catholic beliefs, but above all to show Jesus to the people you work with. He is the Way; you are the Guides of Guides. Do this, and you will have the respect of many.

The Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace

Mass for a group of pilgrims in Medjugorje on Easter Monday, at the Cenacolo Community Chapel

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

This week, we’ve heard a lot about visions and apparitions.

The women in today’s Gospel, and Peter in Acts, claimed to have seen the Risen Jesus, very soon after he was nailed to a Cross and buried.

Visionaries in this place and in others have claimed to meet with his Mother – two thousand years after her life on earth came to an end.

Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’ in that English way we can nod at something and park it at the back of our minds. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life.

If you choose to let them in, there’s a cost.

Jesus will ask to be your personal coach. He will settle for nothing less than holiness. That doesn’t mean saying 10,000 prayers every day. It does mean he will challenge you to be the best version of yourself. His coaching plan includes a special diet, mental exercises and practical drill. The diet is that he wants to feed you with His Word and His Body, which are given to you in Mass. The mental exercises are to connect with God through prayer – he taught us the ‘Our Father’. The drill is called ‘loving others as yourself’ – and to do that well he wants to help you love yourself.

Sometimes we look in the mirror and we don’t like what we see. We’re ashamed of who we are. Jesus says ‘I love you just the way you are’ – and he likes what he sees. We’ve already been scouted for his training academy! The holy women went to tell the disciples to ‘go to Galilee’. That was the place Jesus called them so they could be trained. In fact Jesus doesn’t wait for them to go back there, he shows himself to the Eleven that same evening in Jerusalem. But his message through the women is, ‘get ready to be trained to spread the news I am Risen!’

Sometimes we look back on our day and we don’t like what we’ve done. Jesus doesn’t like our bad choices either. But if we say sorry and are resolved to make a different choice in future, he will always forgive us. Peter made a bold move when preaching to the Jews. ‘You had Jesus killed!’ he declares. But it’s not going to be a problem! Jesus will still love them and welcome them if they ask for this. ‘I want to help you to make better choices,’ he says. ‘Let’s go around again.’ That’s his style of coaching!

Sometimes we doubt the good news of Jesus and Mary because of the brokenness of the world around us. People we love get sick and die. Wars and famines and natural disasters keep worrying us in the news headlines. These things are not new – they were around when Jesus walked this earth in person. He was even once asked to comment on a tragedy when a tower collapsed killing a team of builders in a town called Siloam. ‘Was it a punishment from God?’ they asked him. Jesus said, “No!”; in effect he was saying ‘these things happen’ – and as far as we know he didn’t rush off to Siloam to raise the workers from the dead. But we also know he did heal some people as a sign that God was at work in him, and Peter isn’t afraid to preach this. In Jesus we meet the mystery of a God who sometimes gives positive answers to our prayers for healing. How does God choose? I don’t know. But I do know this – if we don’t ask, we don’t get. Not every footballer who calls for the ball gets it. But when the circumstances are right and the midfielder can make a clean pass, the striker sends it home and we experience a moment of glory.

Sometimes we take our eyes off Jesus and Mary because we are upset about someone who has died, or worried about our own mortality. Big mistake! Jesus and Mary come as witnesses that Heaven is for real. This week we’ve heard the claims made in Medjugorje that one of the visionaries was allowed to see her late earthly mother, and that the day after the parish priest Fr Slavko died, the Queen of Peace declared him to be in heaven. We don’t want to lose our loved ones, but we take comfort in the good news that they are not lost but kept safe by God, who knows exactly where they are.

This is Good News! Jesus is not dead – today he can forgive our sins, lift us from our shame and feed us with His Body, but only if we accept his coaching plan.

And then there’s Secret Mary*. No-one knows who she is unless she reveals herself to you. In the last two centuries, the Catholic Church has recognised that the Mother of God has visited the earth in many different places. She comes with the heart of a mother. There’s at least one Mum on this pilgrimage who has left a younger child in England in order to be with us, and I know her heart is torn. How much more so is the heart of the Blessed Mother torn at the thought that we won’t be able to spend eternity with her in heaven? So the Queen of Peace asks her squabbling children to make peace with each other and with God. Only those who forgive and ask forgiveness can be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven.

So yes, if we let Mary into our lives, there’s a cost to that, too. She will call upon us to love with the heart of a mother. She will ask us to be peacemakers. She tells us that if we pray the rosary, that will help the world to find peace. I don’t know how that works, but I am happy to leave the details to Jesus and Mary. Have you seen the movie, the Karate Kid? The student has to keep cleaning the master’s car. Wax on! Wax off! Wax on! Wax off! Boring. Repetitive. But in the end the student realises that was training for some smart moves. So: Hail Mary. Hail Mary. Boring? Repetitive? Sometimes – but I trust the Queen of Peace Coaching Academy has a very good reason for training us in the right moves.

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

I’ve heard that the Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace have revealed themselves 2000 years ago and in our own age too. Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life. What happens next is up to you.

* ‘Secret Mary’ on this pilgrimage was a ‘Secret Santa’ gift-giving exercise.

A Balkan Easter

This year I am celebrating the dying and rising of Christ not as a parish priest serving my own people in Wales, but as a pilgrim and shepherd assisting at the shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ah, Bosnia – a country which has suffered much in recent years. Like Israel itself, its geographic position between East and West has made it a convenient buffer between great powers and their vassal states. As Israel stood between Egypt and Babylon, so the dukedom of Hercegovina was able to broker trade between Christendom to the west and the Ottoman Empire to the east; and it was convenient for all the Great Powers after World War II that Yugoslavia should be a non-aligned communist state so that the Warsaw Pact would not site its weapons off the shores of Italy.

For the great Easter Vigil, the parish’s leaders chose four readings from the Old Testament – Creation, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Crossing of the Red Sea (which of course may never be omitted on Easter night) and Ezekiel’s lament over fallen Israel (Ezk 36:16-28).

In Ezekiel’s day, Israel had been conquered by foreign powers and the Jewish people scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. The prophet was inspired to understand that God’s people had lost their divinely-granted security because they had not kept God’s law but turned to violence and worshipped idols. But this in turn meant that God’s Chosen People were now exiles and refugees, which didn’t look good for the God who had chosen them! The solution? God would restore his people to the Promised Land and cleanse their hearts so they could become a people of integrity worthy of His Holy Name. The Biblical Books of Ezra and Nehemiah chart this return from exile – but by the time Jesus Christ was born, Israel enjoyed only limited religious autonomy as a province of the Roman Empire.

Fast-forward to the Balkan conflicts of the late 20th Century. Ethnic Croats who claimed to be Roman Catholic, ethnic Serbs who claimed to be Orthodox Christians, and Bosnian Muslims, descendants of locals who had accepted Islam under Ottoman rule, were held together in an uneasy tension by the iron grip of Marshal Tito. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the death of Tito spelled chaos for the uneasy state of Yugoslavia. The Serbian republic, aspiring to maintain a ‘Greater Serbia’, failed to prevent Croatia from breaking away as an independent state. Bosnia was itself a microcosm of the greater conflict with all three factions present in significant numbers within its borders. The West, in the shape of NATO, eventually intervened – but too late to prevent massive loss of life. No honour was done to the name of Christ by the way Catholic and Orthodox agitated and fought for supremacy.

“My great name has been profaned among the nations,” says the Lord, “but for the sake of my great name I will cleanse you and give you a new heart.” In Medjugorje, something remarkable has happened. A centre for peace has been planted in the heart of war. In due course, Mother Church will pronounce on whether we should truly believe that the Queen of Peace has personally revealed herself to local children. But it is already apparent that the message of peace has taken root in this difficult Balkan soil.

I wonder what the villagers of Medjugorje, and the pilgrims from within the former Yugoslavia, heard in these words of Ezekiel? They have known, as I have not, the pain of their own family members fighting and sometimes dying in a bloody conflict. They have lived with the claims that the Queen of Heaven was calling for ‘peace, peace, peace’ before, during and after the war which ravaged their land. They have seen this isolated Herzegovinan cluster of hamlets become a world-renowned shrine where sins are forgiven, lives are changed, and charitable works bless the nation and the world. What works? One need only mention Mary’s Meals (food for schoolchildren in the developing world), Cenacolo (communities of support for recovering addicts) and the local Mother’s Village (for orphans, refugees and others in distress).

Good works are not without their price. Every charity requires financial giving by many, and an investment of love and labour by a few. At the end of the Jubilee Year 1933, the parishioners of Medjugorje agreed to erect a cross on the hill now known as Krizevac – Cross Mountain. One might imagine Our Lord and the Blessed Mother looking down from heaven and choosing a suitable place to bring a message of peace. There would need to be room for the church to expand its facilities to greet the many pilgrims who would come. There would need to be places for spiritual exercises – a lesser hill to honour the mother of God and a great mountain leading to the Holy Cross. The local people, too, would find a small measure of prosperity from the business of welcoming pilgrims – who should receive this blessing? The soils of Hercegovina, where Franciscan missionary priests sustained the faith despite the oppression of the Ottoman Empire over 800 years, perhaps? The same Hercegovina where 20th century Catholics resisted the status that came with embracing Communism by stubbornly persisting in their Catholic faith and practice?

The choice to be faithful to God is a choice that often brings hardship. The Bible contains wonderful stories of salvation (think of Daniel in the lion’s den, followed by Daniel’s story of the three young men thrown into the firey furnace who escape unscathed) but also of sacrifice. Elijah and Jeremiah received no thanks for standing against the rulers of their times. The Books of the Maccabees include stories of heroic sacrifices including the mother and seven sons who refuse to eat pigs’ flesh under pain of death. In our own age we might think of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS or the 7 Tibherine monks of Algeria who knew they risked death by planting their monastery there.

And Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac – his only son!

Imagine this from Isaac’s point of view! He discovered himself standing in a long line of people who are sorely tested as part of God’s plan. Zechariah struck dumb, Saul blinded, John the Baptist imprisoned and later beheaded, Mary’s heart pierced by a sword, and with St Joseph fleeing to Egypt as a refugee. It is not so easy to love a God who requires one to be treated thus! And yet all of these came through their trials and are recognised as saints.

We find also another level of meaning in these words from Genesis. Abraham stands as a symbol of God the Father. Isaac is a symbol of the human race, bound by sin. Why would God ask for the ‘only son’ (the entire human race) to be destroyed? Earlier in Genesis, we see the same divine sentiment expressed in the parable of the Flood… humanity is not worthy to live. What can redeem it? A ram, caught in a bush. A sheep, fixed to a tree. A grown-up lamb on a cross of wood. Jesus Christ, God-made-man, innocent and of infinite worth.

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should inherit eternal life. The Holy Spirit hovered upon the waters of creation. Noah and Moses passed through water to a place of redemption. Ezekiel prophesied cleansing water to renew the heart. Those who would inherit eternal life are invited to take the waters of baptism and renew their commitment on Easter Night.

God did not spare his own son, but allowed him to enter our human existence and suffer – to suffer tiredness, grief, rejection, betrayal, and even death upon the Cross. The water of baptism is not immunity from the sufferings of this world; indeed, it may call the believer to share with Christ a ‘baptism of fire’ which demonstrates love without limit, incarnate once again in space and in time.

We live as pilgrims between hope and fear; the hope of heaven, and the weight of the Cross we must carry on our way. It has been my personal experience that God often allows me to experience exceptional burdens in Lent and great relief in the season of Easter, but perhaps not everyone’s life is so well attuned to the rhythm of the Christian calendar. If you are still living a personal Lent, may the Risen Christ bring you soon to the joys of Easter. Christ is Risen! Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Do You Believe in Adoption?

Homily to members of the Sion Community 19th March 2019.

Do you believe in adoption?

Today, we celebrate St Joseph, the man who adopted Jesus, Son of Mary, as if he were his own flesh and blood.

It might seem curious to have our first reading, which promises that the line of King David will endure for ever. We know, in fact, that by the time we get to David’s grandson, the northern kingdom of Israel has broken away, leaving David’s heirs to rule over Jerusalem and Judah. Then came the deportation to Babylon, and there were no more kings in Israel. Both Matthew and Luke go to great pains to show us the family line leading from David to Joseph… and yet Joseph is not the blood-father of Jesus. All of this only matters if you believe in adoption.

Jesus becomes the ‘heir’ of David precisely because he is adopted by Joseph into the line of David. This might seem quite a weak link… but in fact, if you don’t believe in adoption, you can’t be a Christian. What happens in baptism? We become adopted into God’s family, and so become co-heirs with Christ, deserving to share in eternal life. This in turn makes all of us brothers and sisters.

One of the animal instincts we have, as human beings, is to preserve our own flesh and blood. Bloody battles have been fought – and the Anglican Church split from the Catholic Church! – so a man can ensure that his own son sits upon a throne. It takes the gift of grace we call divine love to rise above that, to welcome as family someone who is not your family.

In St Joseph’s day, a woman risked death by conceiving a child while unmarried. St Joseph risked great shame by sticking with Mary. Some scholars think that the reason Jesus was born at an inn, even though Nazareth was Joseph’s home town, was that his own family disowned him for sticking with Mary, for being faithful to God’s plan. We, too, may face hostility for being faithful to Christ, and this is why supporting each other as community is so crucial. We are called to live as brothers and sisters to one another, with ties stronger than blood.

I believe in adoption. I am a son of Abraham, even though I am not Jewish. I am a son of God, even though I’m no angel. I am a brother of Jesus, and a child of Mary, because they have invited me into their family, with a love that will never be revoked. I am your brother too… so let us love one another inspired by St Joseph. Adoptive father of Jesus: Pray for us!