Make Me Holy! Fast!

Homily at St Philip Evans for Ash Wednesday, 2014.

A single pea on a plateIt’s a fast day today.

That’s quite a rare thing, actually. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two official Fast Days in the Catholic Year. Every Friday is an abstinence day, but it’s only twice a year we’re asked to fast. I guess that makes today a bit special!

So why are we skimping on food today?

One kind of answer is that God tells us to fast. The first reading says “Proclaim a fast!” and in the Gospel Jesus tells us what to do “when we fast” – he’s taking it for granted that we will. But we can do better than that – fasting is more than blind obedience to a God who says we should fast and a Church which has picked today as the day. So why fast?

Are we trying to bargain with God? “Hey Lord, I’m doing something difficult for you, now it’s your turn to help me out!” – No. Prayer doesn’t work like that.

When we are grieving, we lose our appetites. “Not eating” can be a very natural expression of sorrow. So it makes sense to fast on Good Friday, when the Lord, whom we love, has been slain. But today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of our Lenten season of self-examination. Are we grieving for our own sinfulness? I doubt many of us feel that bad about ourselves!

And yet… sometimes human beings can get so concerned that they are not the person they should be, that they go to extreme measures of fasting – we call that anorexia. I have known families where a child has become anorexic, to the great distress of the parents. The roots are complex. Partly it’s about chasing an impossible body image, not helped by the magic which the media uses to beautify what we see on the screen and on the printed page. Partly it’s about a young person wanting to control things in a life where they cannot be fully in charge. Each case is unique. But as we choose to fast on this Ash Wednesday, let’s take a moment to pray for those families for whom fasting is not an option, but an affliction.

Anorexia takes to extremes what each one us is invited to recognise in a moderate way: not one of us is yet the person we are called to be. We are called to be holy – and a Catholic author called Matthew Kelly describes holiness like this: “Holiness is being the best version of yourself.” It’s being the version of ourselves that our loving Father in heaven is longing for us to be.

So how do we become holy? In Latin, the word for “holiness” is sacra and the verb that means “making” is facire. To make something holy is sacrum-facire – or in English, sacrifice!

If we want to be the best versions of ourselves for God, we are invited to sacrifice some pleasure which, in moderation, is good and enjoyable, for the sake of something better. This is what makes fasting part of our journey to the heart of God. It’s when we take seriously the prayer of Jesus, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm the easier half – God’s will be done. When we fast, we confront the difficult half – for God’s sake, I need to set aside what I want.

Fasting helps us distinguish the different kinds of “want” in our lives.There’s the thing that I desire – and the thing that I choose. “I want a large pizza!” But “I want to lose weight!” They are both desirable. But I want a pizza for the raw pleasure of the taste, while I want to lose weight for the more noble motive of my health. Which will I choose?

It’s very easy to give in to our basic emotions – hunger; anger; lust. It takes effort to say no to those things and choose instead what is best for us and for those we care about. If we are going to say NO to those things which are harmful, it helps to train ourselves to have the will-power to sometimes say NO also to moderate pleasures which are not harmful, yet not necessary. In this way, we show God we are serious about being the best version of ourselves, about being the person God is inviting us to be. When we sacrifice, we are made holy.

It’s a fast day today. That’s quite a rare thing – and Lent comes but once a year.

So what do you want? What will make you holy? What will make you the best version of yourself? Today, begin your journey back to God – begin with fasting, and throughout this Lent, set aside something good as a sign that you are serious about asking God for something better.

A Letter to My God-Daughter

Homily at St John Lloyd for the Friday of the 28th Week of Ordinary Time, Cycle II

I have three godchildren, and I remember them all especially in this month of October. One of my godsons was 2 earlier this month, and another will be 6 next week. I also have a god-daughter – or perhaps that isn’t quite the right term, because I was not godparent at her infant baptism, but chosen by her to be her sponsor when she was confirmed as a teenager. Now she is married with a daughter of her own, and today is the anniversary of her confirmation. When I read today’s Mass readings, I was inspired to write a letter, which I’d like to share with you all.

Dear Annie,

Today, the anniversary of your confirmation, I would like to remind you of who you are in God’s eyes. And this reminder comes not from me, but from the Letter to the Ephesians which the Church throughout the world reads at Mass on this day.

You are one of those precious souls of whom God was thinking at the very beginning of time. Before God created the Universe, in his mind he knew each and every one of his children who would become faithful members of His Church, and you were among them.

In the fullness of time you grew up in this world, and learned the Catholic faith from your family. Through a most mysterious gift, God enabled you to receive and believe his wonderful message…

  •  the message that there is an unending life, filled with joy, beyond this life of trials and challenges on Earth;
  • the message that we are invited to be part of this life, and the door was opened when Jesus Christ died upon the Cross;
  • the message that God offers the Gift of the Holy Spirit to each of his children on earth, to make you strong in the difficulties  which life brings, and to do extraordinary acts of love, in God’s name, to those who surround you.

Live faithful to God’s commands, and on the last day you will discover both the great glory you have won for God, and the immense joy with which God shares with all those who are filled with His Spirit. I pray that even now, God may share with you a foretaste of that joy.

Annie, on the day when you were sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, I became your sponsor, a godparent in Christ for your adult Christian life. Since then, there have been seasons of my life when I have prayed for you every day, and seasons when my remembering has been rather less regular, but I have never forgotten that out of all God’s people, you chose me to be guardian of your spiritual life.

Since we now live far apart from one another in these British Isles, it is through prayer above all that we now remain connected in Christ; but on this anniversary day I also wish to remind you of who you are, in Christ. He has chosen you; in your turn, be faithful and choose to worship and follow him each day.

May God bless you always.

Your Sponsor in Christ,


Now you who yourselves are godparents, what message do you wish to give your godchildren? And if you do not remember their patron saint’s day or the anniversary of their baptism or confirmation, who will?

The Most Dangerous Question

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Why, O why, would he ask such a question?

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The young man stood before Jesus, and acknowledged that he had indeed kept the commandment to love his neighbour. But something in his eyes, something in the way he lingered there expectantly, asked an unspoken question – “What more must I do to please God?”

We cannot know his motives from such a short exchange. Perhaps he was bothered by the religious enthusiasts in his community. These seemed to say that God expected more. So perhaps he wanted Jesus, the great Rabbi, to reassure him that what he was doing was enough?

Or did he have an inner itch, that ache called a Vocation, which means that something in the core of his being knew he was being called deeper? Was he unconsciously willing the Rabbi to challenge him, to put into words and make indisputable that invitation to go all the way with God?

Perhaps he sought reassurance. Or maybe he yearned to be challenged. But what we do know is that the reply he received was deeply challenging. Sell everything. Give all to the poor. Follow Me. Jesus, the living Word, had judged his secret emotions and thoughts, and spoke accordingly.

On my first full day as your parish priest, I was presented with a question no less challenging. Our Parish Council was beginning to plan our Christmas Dinner. It was explained to me that it had to be on a Friday, as this was the only night on which many people would be able to come. And being on a Friday, would it be OK to set aside the Friday abstinence from meat?

How your priest chooses to answer such a question will tell you a great deal about him.

I could start by pointing out that the bishops themselves have said the failing to abstain from meat on a particular Friday wouldn’t be a sin. I could suggest that a Christmas event was a good enough reason to excuse ourselves from abstaining. The letter of the law doesn’t absolutely require us to avoid meat.

But if I only give you that response, I’ll be sending you a subtle signal that the disciplines of our Church don’t matter very much, and certainly aren’t meant to put us to any trouble.

On the other hand, I could start by saying that since it’s a parish event, it’s something we should do together as a Catholic family following Catholic rules. It’s perfectly possible to have a decent meal on a Friday evening which doesn’t involve meat. I could stamp my authority on the parish by laying down the law, as parish priest, by decreeing that we are all going to follow the rules, and that’s that.

But if I did that, I’d be insisting on something more than the Church’s law requires, and making the decision on behalf of all of us that each one of us was going to abstain. Then your abstinence would not be a freely-offered sacrifice, but an imposition from me.

And there’s another problem. Jesus told us to fast in secret. We’re not supposed to show other people that we’re fasting. Should we hide our abstaining by choosing the turkey menu?

But I don’t think “other people” includes family. It’s almost impossible to hide from your own family the fact that you’re fasting. If I give up Jaffa Cakes for Lent, Mum knows within a week – the packet in the fridge suddenly doesn’t go down! So within our parish family, we should encourage one another in our Catholic practices of fasting and abstaining – but we don’t seek to trumpet what we are doing to a non-Catholic world.

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: WHY do our Church leaders ask us to abstain from meat on a Friday?

It was on a Friday that Jesus died upon the Cross. This followed an epic struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his mind, he knew very well what His Father was asking of him. But his human will first had to say YES, a total, unconditional YES to God. “Not what I want, Father, but what you want.” Only in this way could the humanity in Jesus be totally obedient to God’s will, and only through perfect obedience could the gates of Heaven be opened for us.

We, as followers of Jesus, are invited to remember this epic struggle each Friday, by making our own choice to be obedient. It’s a small sacrifice – a sacrifice of not eating meat, but more importantly, a sacrifice of our freedom to choose. Not obedience to a direct command from God, but obedience to the Church leaders God has placed over us. Yes, it’s irritating. Yes, it does restrict our social choices – especially on a Friday night. If we choose to make the sacrifice and avoid meat, we have made a small but significant offering to God – and we have shaped our own personality away from self-will.

Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because I want to train myself to be a person who lives for God’s will, not to satisfy my own desires.

Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because on this day God saved the world by allowing his own flesh to be tortured and killed.

Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because I choose to remember that it was on a Friday that Jesus was put to death following the most important decision ever made by a human will.

But back the the question at hand – as a parish, should we abstain from meat on the Friday of our Christmas meal, a Friday which occurs in Advent, the season of patient waiting? I could have made the decision for all of us as a parish, and insisted that turkey stays off the menu. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do something much more terrifying! I’m going to remind you that each one of you is an adult Christian with the power to make a sacrifice out of love for God – and your sacrifice ONLY has value if it is made freely.

I suspect if we could ask Jesus directly what we should do, he wouldn’t have given us a straight answer; he’d have told a story. So here’s a true story.

A few years ago, an Archbishop and a Papal Nuncio – Vatican Ambassador – were invited to a civic dinner which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday. The Nuncio suggested that the Archbishop could exempt him from the fasting rules, since the dinner was in the Archbishop’s diocese. In return, the Nuncio could use his special authority from the Pope to exempt the Archbishop.

On the day of the meal, the Archbishop, who had put in a special request for the non-meat option, found himself served with a rather poor quality salad while all the surrounding diners were served lamb.

The Nuncio enjoyed the roast dinner.

Which of the two representatives of Christ chose the course of action more pleasing to God?

As for me, on December 14th, I’ll be having the fish.