Expectant!

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.

This parish is pregnant!A bronze angel appears to a silver image of Mary, kneeling, on a purple background

A pregnancy is a promise of great changes to come, and a journey from here to there. Usually it begins by noticing that something subtle has changed. Then come the pains of morning sickness. As the child’s body takes form, the mother becomes aware that something is alive – and kicking – within her, but even with ultrasound technology, there will still be a revelation to come when the child is born. Even that’s not the end of the story, for it will take many years for the child to grow to maturity, the parents gradually discovering the person the child will become.

In the same way, we in this parish are on a journey towards next autumn, when we will launch our Parish Connection Programme, which will be both a way for us who worship regularly to re-connect with one another and explore our faith, and also the gateway to baptism, first communion and confirmation for parents, adults, and teenagers who wish to receive these sacraments. Like any pregnancy, it will involve uncertainty and pain. It will take time for the new programme to take shape. And once it is born, it will take time to grow to maturity. People of St Philip Evans, I will be relying on you to support this new project as you would support a mother with a newborn child. I have already been having conversations with key parishioners, and in the New Year I will be ready to roll out more information – but for now I ask for your prayers.

Not only is this parish pregnant, but today is ‘Expectant Mothers’ Sunday’. It’s a day to remember that the church welcomes all human life in the womb, and there are special ceremonies of blessing that families can ask for when a mother is pregnant. But there are also ceremonies we can use when such joy turns to sorrow.

Tomorrow, the whole world will celebrate the birth of a child, and families will be reunited around a meal. Today, it’s only right that we acknowledge that for some of us, this will not be filled with all the joy we would hope for. Some parents – like Elizabeth – will know barrenness, and will have no children to share the celebration. Although childlessness was a stigma in Jewish society of those days, it was not and is not a sign of God’s displeasure. Other parents will celebrate this Christmas conscious that one of their children is missing – lost through miscarriage, or some tragedy later in life – or an older child presumed alive but no longer in touch. Most of us will spend Christmas conscious of generations who are no longer with us, but the absence of a child brings a special pain.

If you’re a mum, or a dad, in one of these situations, I want to say something to you – and I’m happy to donate these words to anyone else who’s not sure what the ‘right thing to say’ is.

I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never fathered a child. I don’t know how you’re feeling right now. But I do care.

As a priest, I only get to know people’s personal stories when I am called to the home or the hospital, so my “caring” has to be quite general. But I hope that if any of you here present today know someone personally who needs to hear those words, you have a chance to use them at the right time in the next few days.

When a pregnancy does go to plan, it still involves great uncertainty. When will the mother go into labour? What will the child be like? In a way, the whole Old Testament is a story of expectant waiting for the Christ-child: the prophet Nathan tells Royal David that he is destined to be the father of a line of kings, but will not be the one who gives birth to a Temple for God.

St Paul was fond of using the image of a pregnant mother. In the letter to the Romans, he used the image of the whole world being ‘in labour’ as we live in an imperfect world awaiting the perfection of heaven, and in today’s extract he gives praise to God because he was alive at the long-prophesied time when God-made-man walked upon the earth.

As followers of Christ, knowing every human being bears his image, we have a solemn duty to welcome every child as we would welcome Christ himself. But that welcome doesn’t just extend to our pro-life stance. It extends to the way we treat every human being, especially the most annoying ones who cross our path!

During the next 24 hours, you’re probably going to attend a Christmas Mass. There will be lots of people there who only come to church once or twice a year. They will do some very annoying things. They will park where you like to park. They will sit in your favourite seat. They might have forgotten what they learned about good manners in church and chew gum or get distracted by their phones. When they do, our job is to make them welcome, for Christ is in them.

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

You are about to give birth to Christ present in a guest in this or another church! Maybe that guest isn’t yet ready to re-connect with church regularly, and whether Christ brings renewed faith to birth in them depends on how well they experience love. So there are still some important gifts you can give this Christmas. You can give your regular seat and parking place to someone who needs to be welcomed. You can give a smile to the person who looks awkward at Christmas worship. You can give guidance with the order of service to the person sitting next to you. And most of all, do it with joy, giving glory to God, it is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be! 

 


Some links useful if you are supporting someone who has experienced a miscarriage:

  • What should you say? Miscarriage Association New Zealand advice
  • Personal account from a woman who’s been there in The Guardian
  • The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity SANDS
  • What if you lose one twin and not the other? The Rainbow Baby signal may help.

Cruse offers advice on how bereavement can impact Christmas.

Royal Proclamation

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Vigil of Christmas 2013.

A royal message has gone forth to the nations! A message yet to be revealed in its fullness, but hinting at fair play and co-operation between the peoples of many realms.

I’m speaking, of course, about the Queen’s Baton Relay.

In July 2014, the Scottish City of Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games.
A granite stone inlaid with the letter G surrounded by partial circles.Just as before the Olympics, a torch is famously carried around the host nation, so the Commonwealth Games have their own pre-games relay: Queen Elizabeth II writes a message which is rolled up and placed in a baton. This is then carried through all the states and territories of the Commonwealth until it is revealed and read at the Opening Ceremony of the Games.

The Glasgow baton started its journey on October 9th and is currently in the Pacific Island of Vanuatu; it will pass through Wales at the end of May, on its way to Scotland.

Wasn’t there a great feel-good factor last year when Britain did so well in the London Olympics? I wonder if the same thing will happen at the Commonwealth Games? Knowing that good things have happened before helps us look forward to more blessings. Our second reading tonight looked back to the time when God rescued his people from Egypt. The first reading, written to the people of Israel at a time of great struggle, looked forward to the time when God would bless them again. The prophet Isaiah is so sure that God will bless the holy city of Zion, he says that he’s not going to shut up until it happens! But I wonder what the coming blessing might look like?

When a Queen, or a King, wishes to communicate with their subjects, they send a messenger. It’s not uncommon for the messenger to be their own son – indeed, Prince Charles read out the Queen’s Message at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. But the message comes in two parts. The first part is the very fact that the baton is visiting each and every realm. The Queen’s Baton Relay unites the world’s great nations with its tiniest territories; India, with its population of more than one billion citizens, will stand alongside Nauru with its ten thousand. Only when it reaches its destination will the second part, the hidden words, be revealed – and this time, Queen Elizabeth herself will read the message when the baton arrives in Glasgow.

What we are here to celebrate tonight is something strangely similar! Long ago, the King of Heaven wished to communicate a message of love to His subjects on earth below, and sent his own Son among us, as a human being. The first part of the message is “Emmanuel”, the very fact that God is with us in human form – tonight’s Gospel was part of the story of the first Christmas, the birth of Emmanuel to the Virgin Mary.

The second part is not revealed at Christmas, but at Easter: having travelled the length and breadth of Israel, preaching a message of peace and love, the grown-up Christ-child is executed, while calling for his executioners to be forgiven. Yet this marks not the death of God but the death of Death, for the Christ appears restored to life, with a message of how all human beings can renew their friendship with God.

This Christmas is the first which the Catholic Church celebrates under Pope Francis, recently hailed as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Every Pope faces a double challenge: to set out the expectations that God has of us human beings, and to proclaim loudly that God is merciful and always ready to offer us another chance when we fail.

We live in an age of sound-bites, so we must take care! Too often, a person becomes known only for their most prominent actions. Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were best known for setting out the Church’s demanding teachings. Pope Francis has so far published few rules or teaching documents, but carried out many gestures of taking the side of the poor, meek and lowly. He has visited a refugee camp on the island of Lampedusa, embraced a man with severe facial disfigurement, and invited three homeless men from the streets of Rome to join him for breakfast on his 77th birthday. By doing these things, Pope Francis has sent out a strong message that the Church cares about those whom the world considers of no importance.

We should not expect to see Pope Francis change the basic rules of the Catholic Church. But we can expect to continue hearing his message that in a messy world we must give more attention to showing love than to following rules. Because God always offers us a second chance, the Church should not rush to condemn those who struggle to do the right thing. And we can also expect him to ensure that the Church practices what she preaches in the way it runs its own offices at the Vatican.

Gestures are important – but limited. Those runners who spent an hour carrying the Queen’s Baton might have appeared on their local TV station but are now back at their places of work or study. The three homeless men who had breakfast with the Pope are back in their usual cardboard boxes on the streets of Rome.

These gestures matter not because a Queen or a Pope is going to rescue a few souls from obscurity, but because they remind all of us of the value of our neighbour. When the Christ-child came to earth, the angels sang of goodwill to all people. We all matter to God, and God invites us to look after one another. One Pope or one Queen on their own cannot give ongoing support to so many people. But two billion Christians – or two billion Commonwealth citizens – reaching out with a kind word or a Foodbank donation every week; yes, two billion people who care can definitely make the world a better place. Christmas comes but once a year; the baton of spreading goodwill is yours for a lifetime, if you choose to run with it!

A Royal Baby is Coming!

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Vigil Mass of Christmas, 2012

Clipart representing a newspaper

Read all about it! Read all about it! News! Good news! A Royal Baby is coming!

A few weeks ago, the newspapers were filled with baby-talk. Medical experts discussed different kinds of morning sickness. Fashion editors mulled over maternity-wear. Royal correspondents speculated on the kind of reign this future King, or Queen, might expect. Much of British society was excited watching and waiting, and supportive citizens have already sent cards and romper-suits to Buckingham Palace!

The Duchess of Cambridge’s baby matters because it will be a royal baby, and represents hope for the future. It may be many years before this child comes to the throne; I am now 39, and perhaps this child won’t become King, or Queen, until I am dead and buried. But we fully expect that this child will, in the fullness of time, take up their destined role. This child brings us stability. This child brings us hope. This royal child roots us to the future!

We’ve gathered in this church tonight to celebrate the birth of another royal baby. Tomorrow is the official birthday of Jesus Christ, King of the line of David, and Son of God. It was a coming glimpsed by the Prophet Isaiah in ancient Israel. If they’d had newspapers in Isaiah’s day, the headlines after he wrote his prophecy would have said:

Scroll and Bible

Read all about it! Read all about it! News! Good news! A Royal Baby is coming!

At Christmas, we celebrate this gift of new life. Baby Jesus matters because he is not only a King, but God among us. We proclaim his status by singing carols like Once in Royal David’s City. And he is not only our King but our Saviour, our Rescuer, our Redeemer.

In some parts of Britain this week, floods have trapped ordinary people who have needed to be rescued by boat. But many are trapped by a different kind of flood, a flood of insecurity, a sense that we don’t have complete control over nature, the knowledge that we are limited and our life on earth is finite. Some of us may be struggling with guilt over some foolish action. Many of us may be burdened by a sense of shame, that we are not as good as we ought to be – an ought imposed on us by a parent, or teacher, or society at large.

The angel spoke to Joseph: “You must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people.” The very name Jesus means God-who-saves us. And this is what the Christ-child came to do – Jesus comes among us with a mission to proclaim God’s good will to all mankind. He came to tell us that whatever wrong we may have committed, God is willing to forgive us and offer us a new beginning. He came to tell all who feel deep guilt that God does not hold us responsible – the punishment for our sins would be lovingly borne by none-other than the Christ-child himself. He came to show those of us who doubt ourselves that we are loved, and loved by God. He points us to a Heaven beyond this earthly life which never ends, and where he has gone before us. He is truly our Saviour, our Rescuer, our Redeemer, and he loves us!

Bible, black with gold words

Read all about it! Read all about it! News! Good news! A Royal Baby is coming!

We in the Catholic Church have a communication problem. Half of our message gets through clearly – we’re well known for being a church with clear DOs and DON’Ts. But the other half of our message is a well-kept secret: we are a church for people who don’t always get things right. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace, because he has the power to heal the mind, and to restore the body, too, for those humble enough to seek God’s help.

For a brief and beautiful moment, the media saw the beauty of a 12-week-old child in the womb for what it is; a human life. No newspaper reported that the Duchess was carrying a royal foetus, or a pre-human embryo. Because the child was a wanted child, because it represented the hope of a nation, there was no hesitation in calling it a child and pondering its royal status. Not all children receive such recognition.

Perhaps there’s someone here tonight who, in a moment of darkness, has hurt another human being – a friend, a parent, or an unborn child – and doesn’t know how to find peace. If that’s you, then know that the Prince of Peace wishes to offer you healing, through the Church. There are paths to peace of mind through prayer and counselling. If you ask for help, the Church will not condemn you, but will help you to find the peace which only Christ can bring.

This is news worth shouting about. This is truly Good News. It’s better than a royal baby, better than Britain’s performance in the 2012 Olympics. The great news is that whoever we are, whatever we have done before tonight, God WANTS US! Yes, us, warts and all. Sins and all. Each and every one of us is invited to be a member of the Royal Court – to be a follower of Jesus.

Not to follow Jesus on Twitter – though you can find Pope Benedict there as @pontifex.

Not to follow Jesus on Facebook – though this parish launches there soon.

But to follow Jesus to the altar, where he commanded us to “do this in memory of me”. At Christmas, at Easter, Sunday by Sunday, here in St John Lloyd Church, we do what Jesus asked us to do, we explore his words and message, and we are nourished by his Body and Blood. This church, and every church, is the Royal Court of the Saviour.

You have come here this night to celebrate the birth of a royal child. The stable door is open, the light is on, but you can only experience the full peace and healing which the Christ-child offers if you remain with him to be filled with that light. He is the humble child in the manger, the one who will be your King on the last day of your life. Will you choose to be his companion?

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,

Gareth.

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.