Scarred Not Scared (But Sacred!)

Homily at the Céilí Community Mission to the Drumraney and Ballymore Parishes

Eucharistic Healing Service – Acts 9:31-35 and Matthew 25:14-30

We’ve just heard the very familiar Parable of the Talents, about three servants – but I’d like to share with you a lost page from the Bible which tells of a fourth servant. Like the others, the Master entrusted this one with some wealth, in this case three talents. And this fourth servant knew very well that the Master expected a return on his investment, so he set out for the marketplace with a plan in mind.

On the way to the market, this servant saw a poor beggar at the side of the road. He was moved with compassion and thought: “I have three talents. I can afford to give one away and invest the rest.” And so he reached into his bag of treasures and drew out one talent and gave it to the beggar with a smile.

When he reached the market, he went to the stall of his friend Reuben, who traded in fine spices, and asked if there was any coming venture in which he might invest. Indeed, said Reuben, he was about to sail a ship to India and the servant would be welcome to invest and share in any return on the spices brought back. This seemed like a good investment, but the servant was cautious, so he drew out just one talent from his bag of treasures, and invested this in Reuben’s trading trip. The third talent he took down to the bankers, and deposited it so it would earn some guaranteed interest.

In due course, word came that the Master had come back from abroad and was looking for a return on his investments. Our fourth servant hastened to the bank, and withdrew his deposit. Enough time had passed that he had doubled his money, so he now had two talents in his bag of treasures. Then he hurried on to the marketplace… only to find all the traders dressed in mourning and wearing long faces. One of them drew him aside. “Have you not heard the bad news? A messenger came this morning. Reuben’s ship has sunk in the Mediterranean, and all hands were lost.”

The servant’s heart sank. His friend had perished – and there would be no return on his investment. He had started with three talents – and now he had only two to show for his troubles. Nevertheless, he was an honest man and he knew the Master would demand an account of what had been entrusted to him, so with a heavy heart he started back up the long road to the Master’s house.

Worse was to come. As he made his way along the road, bandits attacked him, and grabbed his bag of treasures, stealing away the two talents he had left. By the time the poor servant had picked himself up, battered and bruised, and completed the weary walk to the Master’s house, the Master had practically finished dealing with the other servants. From the far side of the door, our servant heard the third servant having his one talent taken away and given to the one who had been most successful – and then being cast out into the dark.

Our servant was nervous. What punishment would await him when he came before the Master, empty-handed? It took him ages to pluck up the courage to open the door – so long, in fact, that they’d finished writing the Gospel story and that’s why you haven’t heard about this servant before. But he was a man of integrity and he knew he had to do the right thing, so he took a deep breath, presented himself before the Master, and poured out his tale of woe just as I have shared it with you.

To his great surprise, as he finished his tale, the Master looked at him and smiled. “O good and faithful servant,” he said, “thank you for your great efforts. I can see that you have genuinely tried to do your best with the gifts I have given you. There is no fault in being generous with what you have. Indeed –“ and he reached into his own treasure bag to draw something out – “I am most grateful for the one talent which you gave to me when I was sitting beside the road, begging. Now take it back and have another go.”

As we go through life, we become victims. Things happen to us which are beyond our control. Our loved ones meet with tragedies which cost them their health, their relationships, or life itself. And sometimes things happen to us precisely because we have stepped forwards and offered our services to the church or some other good cause. Somewhere in the Bible it says “I received these wounds in the house of my friends.” As we journey through Lent and celebrate the Stations of the Cross, we retell the story of how Jesus came among us to do good and was wounded with a crown of thorns, a journey of pain and a cross of wood.

Earlier this week, Mgr Pat reminded us that Jesus will always bear his wounds. How will we recognise the Risen Christ in heaven? His hands, his feet, his side, bear his wounds which are now glorious trophies of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. As you look at the beautiful stained glass windows in the churches of your parishes, how many symbols of Christ’s wounds can you find? The spear, the nails, the pillar where he was scourged… the list is almost endless!

A few years ago, a friend of mine, Canon Matthew, was visiting Ireland for his summer holidays when he had an accident – he fell down some stairs and broke his ankle rather badly. As he recovered from surgery, he realised there was a difference between his two feet. One had needed surgery, and there had been a wound where the operation had taken place – now that wound had become a scar. Although he would always be marked by that scar, a scar is a sign of a wound that was healed, and it wasn’t giving him any more trouble.

On Canon Matthew’s other foot, however, he now had an ulcer – a weeping wound which wouldn’t close. That was causing him a lot more trouble; a nurse had to come regularly and dress it. Sometimes we won’t let our own wounds heal – we go back and pick at them and cause more damage. I was 19 when I had chicken pox and it took huge willpower not to pick at the crusts but let them heal in the course of time. If I hadn’t left those wounds well alone, my face might now be visibly scarred.

All of us are wounded. Sometimes we have inflicted wounds on ourselves by our own stupidity or stubbornness. Other wounds are inflicted upon us. Being a follower of Jesus does not make us bulletproof; indeed he promised his friends that the world would persecute them, too. “Rejoice and be glad!” he told them “for this will surely take place.”

Each one of us is honoured with the name of “Christian” – a word which means “a little Christ”. A terrible thing has happened in the English language where sometimes we talk about “Catholics and Christians” instead of “Catholics and Protestants”. No! Any Catholic who is not a Christian is not a true Catholic at all. Being a Catholic doesn’t mean, first and foremost, belonging to a parish – it means being a member of the Body of Christ. It is because we are members of the Body of Christ through baptism – and fed with the Body of Christ in Holy Communion – that we share also in the dying and rising of Christ. None of us will escape being wounded. But what is on offer to us is the power of the Resurrection – the power for our wounds to become scars, healed wounds reminding us of spiritual battles where we have won victory over evil.

We don’t need to be afraid of showing our scars. We have all been wounded by life. The world around us pressures us to look perfect; we need the courage to be ourselves and not hide our wounds – they don’t need to be in control of us. Last summer, when Princess Eugenie got married at Windsor Castle, she had the courage to wear a dress which revealed a scar from a major surgery on her back. Fashion models, too, are beginning to say “We don’t need to hide who we are” – you can find their stories online by searching for #ScarredNotScared. And we don’t need to hide our wounds from the Lord. Whatever life has thrown on us – whatever wounds we may have inflicted on ourselves – like a loving mother, Jesus is less interested in chiding us for getting into trouble and more interested in tending to our wounds – but first, we must ask him for help. So are you battered by life? Wounded by choices that didn’t work out so well, or forces beyond your control? Come to Jesus, the wounded healer whose scars have been made sacred by his Sacrifice upon the Cross.

Tonight is a service of prayer for healing. We are invited to stretch out our hand in faith. In one of the Gospels, we read that a woman suffering a haemorrhage of blood pushed her way through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment. The moment she succeeded, two things happened: she was physically healed, and Jesus felt power go out from him. He knew that he had not merely been touched – but that someone had reached out to him with an act of faith. This woman knew that Jesus had the power within him to heal her wound. She daren’t come to him and ask; in Jewish Law, her condition made her unclean. She ought not to have touched anyone in the crowd, let alone a rabbi. But she came anyway – and far from making anyone unclean, God’s power at work in Jesus made her clean in body and in soul.

Tonight we will place the Body of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament, upon this altar, and you too will have the opportunity to come before Jesus, the Great Healer. You can even touch the “hem of his garment” as the sacred cloths are draped at the foot of the monstrance. This is not a mere ritual of good luck, but an opportunity for you, like the woman with the flow of blood, to come and make an act of faith in Jesus, your Saviour.

When I was an undergraduate, I was commissioned as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. At the University Chapel, we had a large multipurpose hall, where Sunday Mass was celebrated, and a small dedicated chapel for daily Mass. I remember the last Sunday of the academic year: it was my turn to take what was left of the Blessed Sacrament from the main hall to the tabernacle in that little chapel. And for me, that year had been a very difficult one. I had suffered for months from tension headaches. I had fallen in love for the first time in my life, and suffered a double trauma – not only did the girl already have a boyfriend, but she was also in the process of giving up on her Catholic faith. I’d suffered a wobble in my own faith during the year too, but recommitted myself to Jesus after Easter. Now, on that last Sunday of the year, as I placed the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, I knelt down for a moment before I locked the door. “Lord Jesus,” I said, “I offer you all the joys and pains of this past year. I believe that you can take my sufferings and use them for good. I give you all that I am and all that I’ve done.” And as I prayed that prayer, it seemed that Jesus, in the tabernacle, spoke one word to me – not a word out loud, but a word straight into my heart, which resonated through me. And that word was – “Accepted.”

During that difficult year, I had had to make some important spiritual decisions. I had to choose not to cling to a relationship that I couldn’t have – and that “not clinging” also meant making sure that it didn’t dominate my prayer life. For a few months, my only prayer had been that the Lord would restore the faith of the friend that I loved – but he didn’t do it then, and I’m still in touch with her so I know he hasn’t done it yet, either. I do still pray for her, but not in the obsessive way I did back then.

I also had to make the spiritual decision to forgive. Note that I don’t say “forgive and forget”. Jesus doesn’t ask us to forgive and to forget. Our scars remain with us. But if we don’t forgive, our wounds become not scars but weeping ulcers. We forgive not because we have been asked for forgiveness, but because Christ asks us to be people of forgiveness. Only by choosing to forgive do we choose to stop picking at our wounds, whether the one who inflicted them has said sorry or not.

That year was a pivotal year in my life – it was the year I developed a closer relationship with God, and stopped saying “No” to the priesthood. It was the year that I offered up my wounds to Christ, so they could become scars – and those scars have shaped who I am today. Jesus is the Master of taking the wounds that life inflicts on us and turning them to the good. Indeed, my favourite verse in the Bible is from Romans – God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus.

“Get up and roll up your mat” cried St Peter to Aenas, the man bedridden for eight years. Note he didn’t just say “Get up.” For eight years, that mat had been his place of pity. “Look at me. I’m a cripple. No one is helping me. I’m going to be a professional victim.” Peter didn’t want Aenas to fall back into that place. So he declares healing, and moves him on – take away the place of pity, and let your wounds become scars.

We are an Easter people! In this earthly life, we are living through Lent, but we look forward to the reign of God, when there will be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears. Our Lord sometimes heals us in body during this life as a sign of the world to come; he also offers healing to our minds. Our wounds become scars, and on Easter night, when your priest blesses the new Easter Candle, he will mark it with a cross, declaring “By His holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us!”

Tonight is an early Easter! Tonight the power of Christ is at hand, to heal and to make us whole. Tonight is the night when we can choose to forgive those who have harmed us – not because they have said sorry, but because we choose not to give them any more power to bind us. Tonight is the night when we stop picking at our open wounds and allow them to become glorious scars. Tonight, all of us are called to come before the Lord, no longer scared but willing to be scarred. Hope brings healing. Jesus brings joy. Be scarred, not scared, and your wounds too will become sacred trophies of Christ’s healing power. Come. Come now. Come to the Lord.

Go and Jump off a Cliff!

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day, for the Fourth Sunday of Year C

“Go and jump off a cliff!”

You’d have to be very angry to tell anyone to do that! But there are times we can and do get angry with God.

Our Sion gathering today is themed around the Archangel Raphael, whose very name means “God heals” – but healing stirs up powerful emotions.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus gives his speech, his listeners go from “speaking well of him” when he says “freedom is coming” to total rage when he reminds them of two miracles that God worked to protect pagans while the Jewish people were suffering.

In the Book of Tobit, which is probably a Jewish parable rather than history, we read of the good and generous man called Tobit who suffers years of blindness and a pious Jewish woman called Sarah who, through no fault of her own, is cursed with a demon who kills all her potential husbands. Through the intervention of St Raphael, healing comes to Tobit, and freedom and a happy marriage to Sarah, but not before years of suffering. The Book of Job, too, tells of a good and pious man who was deeply afflicted before receiving healing. Somewhere in the Gospels we read how Jesus cured, as a sign, a man who had been paralysed for 38 years – I’m sure he was grateful for his healing but also, in his prayers, asked God whether 38 days might not have been sufficient?

Last week’s Second Reading told us that some people are given gifts of healing, and some are given gifts of prophecy. This suggests that others among us are not given those gifts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing anyway – but it does mean only certain people in the community will have a high “success rate”. And even for them, success may not come straight away.

After a long period of Bible study, a pastor called John Wimber reached the conclusion, that faithfulness to God required us to pray for people to be healed. He didn’t belong to a church with a tradition of praying for healing, but felt he had to do so anyway. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. Then he got one. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982.

In my own ministry, I’ve prayer for a lot of people to be healed, but only seen a few tangible results. One day, I went to visit a friend who lived outside the parish: she asked if I would bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence, and the pain went away. Now in my twelve years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. That was six years ago, and I haven’t had a similar powerful experience since.

I once preached a sermon in one of my parishes telling that story to explore the mystery of the God who “heals sometimes”. I wondered out loud whether we limit the power of the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick by our low expectations; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith. On that day there had been a small community of faith – the friend who believed enough to ask me to bring the oil, the sick girl, who was also a fervent Christian, and myself, a priest longing for God to do something.

What I was trying to achieve was to encourage the people in my parish to call for the priest and gather round and pray as soon as any family member fell seriously ill. What actually happened was one angry family spoke to me later: “A few months ago our granny died. We had gathered around her bedside and said lots of prayers. So now you’re saying its our fault for not having enough faith!” – and that family left my parish to go and worship elsewhere.

A few years later, I told that story at a Celebrate weekend. One of the leadership team came up to me afterwards, very worried: if I emphasised the importance of a priest giving the Sacrament of Anointing, it might discourage lay people from laying on hands and praying for healing! Now that wasn’t the message I was trying to give at all – only to say that there’s a time and a place for calling the priest, and it should become a more normal part of our Catholic life! Too many Catholics think the Sacrament of the Sick is only meant as a “last rite” to send our souls to heaven! But in fact it’s for any “serious” illness, one which creates danger of death or limits the quality of life.

There is also a very important role for lay people to pray for healing. There are two ways we can pray for a healing – one is to lay on hands and simply ask God to do something; the other is to ask for a prophecy to guide us. But if we have the gift of prophecy, we can only minister powerfully to the people and diseases which God speaks about – not to the other problems which are present.

Prophecy can also stir up hope and anger. I’ve been to many prayer meetings where people have received words for me; and many where they have received words for other people, but not for me. Plus, as today’s Scripture says, in our limited humanity, we can only “prophecy in part” – many people who pray for us will filter a genuine word from God through their own expectations of what they think God wants to say to us, or in the absence of a clear word, share their own wishful thinking. Moving in prophecy calls for a tricky balance of expectancy – we are called to be hungry for this spiritual gift – and humility: it’s a gift, and God doesn’t always give it!

So yes, healing and prophecy are difficult subjects. It’s hard to preach about these without stirring up strong emotions. How many of us here today know someone who has a testimony of receiving healing? How many of us have at least one person in our lives, now or in the past, for whom we have prayed long and hard, but healing didn’t come? The promise of healing stirs up hope and anger in equal measure. And how many of us have gone to a prayer meeting, hoping that God will have a prophetic word for us today, and come home disappointed?

We should be ambitious for the higher gifts – that God would work miracles of healing and give prophetic words through us. But this is dangerous territory! If we’re going to go there, we need a big dose of love. I’m speaking of the kind of love which is not selfish, jealous or resentful. I’m speaking of the kind of love that rejoices whenever a healing or prophecy comes, but takes no offence when it does not – or comes to someone else, or through someone else’s prayers. The prophet Jeremiah was told to “brace himself like a fighter”. If we want to see prophecy and healing as a normal part of our church, we need to be prepared for disappointment – and expectant of miracles. We need to be ready for other people to tell us to go jump off a cliff. But what we are really called to do is walk on water – and then means we have to fix our eyes on Jesus, wait for the sound of his voice and – when he calles – get out of the boat!

 

For the Love of God!

Homily for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans 

Have you ever fallen in love?

When I was an undergraduate, there was a student who stole my heart. One day (these were the days before mobile phones), I went to her room, and there was a note on the door – “I am in the Library – come and rescue me!” So I hastened to the Library and declared “Rescue is at hand!” – only to be glared at and shushed by the dozen readers close enough to hear my enthusiastic whisper!

When you’re in love, you’ll do all sorts of things for your beloved. Needless to say, I didn’t marry the young lady in question – she married someone else, but we still keep in touch to this day.

Some of you not only fell in love, but did get married. That means you have done a very strange thing. You have stood up in public, and a minister has asked you whether you have ‘resolved to love’ your spouse. A few minutes later you addressed your spouse and said ‘I take you to love and to cherish’.

What kind of ‘love’ is being promised here? Clearly it’s not the kind that propels you to do great deeds whatever the consequences. We know from experience that a few years into a relationship, those strong feelings of passion die down to something less ardent. But while we can’t conjure up strong feelings, we CAN make a decision of the will to communicate to the most significant person in our life that we still care about them. When the Bible uses the word we read as ‘love’ it is using the Hebrew word ‘hesed’ or the Greek ‘agapé’, words that are hard to translate with their full meaning. Imagine a person going to the same lengths to help a stranger as if that person were their own son or daughter – that’s hesed! Imagine the committment made by a volunteer who goes halfway round the world to treat the wounded in a war-zone – that’s agapé!

Now, please take a moment to think of the kindest things you have ever done to help people in need… OK? Now what if you didn’t believe in God? Would you still have done those kind things? Yes? Would a good person do things like that even if they didn’t know there was a God who loved them? Yes? The kind of things you are thinking of are examples of the Second Great Commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.

That’s great… but that means we’ve only covered the second most important thing Jesus asked us to do. And if you only ever remember one thing I preach from the five years I’ve been with you, remember what I ask next: Which things do you do in your life because you believe in God, things that wouldn’t make sense if God didn’t exist? It’s the answers to that question which show how you are fulfilling the First Great Commandment, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Some of us will understand what the Jesuit Gerard Hughes meant when he described a child visiting ‘Good Old Uncle George’. This Uncle lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. Uncle George says ‘I want to see you here every week, and if you don’t come, let me just show you what will happen to you!’ He takes you to the basement, opens a door, and down below you see demons torturing souls in Hell! He then takes you upstairs so Mum and Dad can take you home. Mum leans over us and says, ‘Don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And you tell the biggest life of your life, ‘Yes, I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. Who could love a God like Uncle George?

Doing religious things out of fear for God is not wrong, but it’s not love. The catch is, you can’t obey the command to love God until you’ve first fallen in love with God. The command is like the promise a husband or wife makes to keep on expressing love even when the passion has died down – we can only joyfully accept the command to love God when it’s an echo of passion we’ve already felt for Him! Once you have fallen in love with God, you will want to come to Mass, pray at home, keep Sundays special and give generously to the work of the church.

Jesus was asked to give us a rule for life. The Hebrew Bible contained 613 commandments; Moses famously gave 10 commandments. Jesus knew we couldn’t all take on board long lists of rules, so he made it as simple as possible – but even he couldn’t boil it down to just one. Like the Cross itself, our rule of Christian living has two dimensions – the horizontal, love of neighbour, reaching out into the world around us; and the vertical, stretching from earth to heaven, reaching out to the Father who dwells in heaven above. Jesus can only command us to love His Father if we have already seen the love, beauty and goodness of the Father reflected in Christ. The command is not to kiss a loathesome Uncle George, but to rekindle the passion of the first moment when we knew the depths of the Father’s love for us.

Have you ever fallen in love? If it’s with the person you’re married to, rejoice – and remember to tell them how much you love them tonight. If it’s with God, rejoice – it will be easy for you to fulfil Christ’s command! But if you haven’t yet fallen in love with God, let me offer you a simple prayer to say tonight: “Jesus, show me the Father.” And if you want to see the Father, find him reflected in the face of Jesus. I pray you will fall in love very soon.

You can also read Revd Lucy Winkett’s reflections on Uncle George.

Ephphatha! Be open! (Sunday edition)

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Sunday morning Signed Mass, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

Any story of healing is a challenge when we experience of lack of wholeness. This week, thousands of Deaf Catholics from around the world are gathering in Lourdes for an international pilgrimage. There are well over 100 recognised miracles of healing from Lourdes – but countless thousands of pilgrims who return without the physical healing they have hoped and prayed for. If God has the power to heal, why do we experience it so rarely? Perhaps God grants miracles especially where they will help people see that a bigger issue is at stake – so this man who cannot hear or speak is a sign to us that there are people who cannot hear who Jesus us or speak of him to others.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. We are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus was executed but rose from the dead. (Controversial, but why did were so many of his friends willing to die for insisting this was true?)

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live at a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will pour out upon this altar to nourish us anew with the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

Ephphatha! Be open!

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Saturday evening Mass, with baptisms, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

Every Christian is called to be a bearer of the good news. That’s why, as soon as these two children are baptised this evening, I will carry out the “Rite of Ephphatha”. Just as Jesus did in the Gospels, I will touch their ears and their lips, and commission them to hear God’s commands and tell the world about Jesus.

Godparents, that’s where you come in.

How many of you here this evening are godparents to at least one person?

Your highest responsibility is, by your words and example, to teach your godchildren to talk about Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. Your godchildren are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus died to save you from Hell.

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live in a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will open the fountain of baptism and join two children to the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

50 Years of Renewal in the Holy Spirit

On the eve of Pentecost, a small group of pilgrims from across Wales kept vigil with Pope Francis. We weren’t on our own – we were with 40,000 other Catholics from around the world, who had heeded the Pope’s invitation to come to Rome especially for Pentecost. But why?

Charisms in the Life of the Church

At the first Pentecost, Our Lady, St Peter and the other Apostles experienced a powerful outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. They were filled with a new courage, enabling them to go into the public square and speak about Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that Peter and Paul laid hands on new disciples who responded by prophesying and praying in unlearned tongues. The new enthusiasm that these gifts brought caused some new Christians to be quite unruly in prayer meetings – St Paul dealt with this at length in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

For the first three hundred years of the Catholic Church, these gifts, together with various healing gifts, seem to have been quite common, but over the centuries they became rarer and were eventually seen as the hallmarks of truly exceptional saints, the likes of Catherine of Siena or Pio of Pietrelcina. At the close of the 19th century, however, an Italian nun, Blessed Elena Guerra, felt called to ask Pope Leo XIII to seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo not only used the Veni Creator at the opening of the new century, but wrote a number of encyclical letters on the Holy Spirit, and promoted the use of a novena of prayers on the nine days before Pentecost.

In the first decade of the 20th century, remarkable things occurred. On New Year’s Day 1901 – the very day on which Pope Leo had invoked the Holy Spirit over the worldwide church – a woman named Agnes Ozman asked her congregation to lay hands on her so she could become a missionary. There, in a tiny Protestant church in Topeka, Kansas, she was covered in the glory of the Holy Spirit, and found herself unable to speak or write English, only Chinese (which she had never learned), for three days! A world-famous revival took place in Wales in 1904, where several preachers found their words had unusual power to call people to church and turn away from sin – crime rates plummeted across our nation. Two years later, under the preaching of a minister trained in Topeka, the Azusa Street Mission in California experienced an outpouring similar to what we see described in the New Testament, and from that seed grew the networks of what we now call Pentecostal churches.

Another Pope, St John XXIII, called the world to pray anew for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. The Council closed in December 1965. Just over a year later, some Catholic students made a retreat in Pittsburgh, USA – and 50 years later, two of those students came to Rome to recall what happened next.

The Golden Jubilee Celebrations

David Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield stand at a pulpitDavid Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield were among a group of students making a retreat based on the Acts of the Apostles in February 1967. They were the most enthusiastic members when the leader proposed an act of renewing their confirmation; others were less keen. That evening, when they separately stepped into the chapel, they experienced the power of God’s presence so strongly that they were compelled to fall prostrate; soon, half the students on the retreat came to the chapel, and experienced the same powerful presence. Many prayed in tongues for the first time.

A third speaker on Friday night, Vinson Synon, represented worldwide Pentecostal churches, and spoke of his own journey of conversion from doubting that Catholics were really Christian through to being forced to accept that they had received the very same gifts known in Pentecostal churches for the past 60 years.

David, Patti and their fellow-students were not founders of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal; they were not personally responsible for spreading it to all the places where it quickly flourished. But they stood on a platform in Rome 50 years later as the first fruits of this vast current of grace poured out on Catholics around the world – and 40,000 Catholics from 128 nations rejoiced with them as representatives of what God had done.

The following afternoon, the participants gathered again at Circus Maximus – a location chosen personally by Pope Francis because so many early Christians had given their lives there as witnesses to Christ. This time, leaders from around the world spoke of how the Holy Spirit continued to change lives today – including a testimony from England’s Damian Stayne about the many healings experienced through the ministry of the Cor et Lumen Christi Community. Papal Preacher fra Raniero Cantalamessa reminded all present that Pentecost was a reversal of Babel – there, humanity rejoiced in its own creative power, but as Christians we acknowledge with gratitude the gifts that come from God. Pope Francis himself spoke of the importance of a “reconciled diversity” – the Spirit brings many gifts and we are to recognise, and rejoice, that other individuals and communities are also gifted by God for the work of the church.

The seeds of this great gathering were planted when, just a year after his election as Pope, Francis spoke to a gathering of Italian charismatics in the national stadium and said “I expect all of you, charismatics from around the world, to celebrate your great jubilee with the pope at Pentecost 2017 in St Peter’s Square!” And indeed, not only did the Pope come to the gathering at Circus Maximus, but 40,000 charismatic pilgrims went to St Peter’s for the Wednesday Audience and Mass on Pentecost Sunday.

What else should a Pentecost Jubilee event contain? We cannot require the Holy Spirit to work to our schedules, so inevitably there was a heavy focus on recognising what God has already done. The Friday evening vigil was largely recalling the history of how the Catholic Renewal began – with the pioneers now entering their 70s, this is perhaps the last major occasion where they will be able to testify in person. Saturday was an acknowledgement of our unity-in-diversity, including strong participation from non-Catholic leaders. The organisers commissioned a song contest and an art exhibition – and also offered a workshop on how to propose early pioneers of Renewal as candidates for beatification and sainthood! Many of the other workshops were filmed and can be viewed online.

The TransCambrian Pilgrims

Our small pilgrimage from Wales attended the larger events, but there was not room for all of us to attend the smaller venues, such as the first Mass at St Mary Major or the Ecumenical Congress on Friday morning. Apart from the scheduled events, we took the opportunity to visit venues that connected us with the experience of the early generations of Christian believers, to whom the power of the first Pentecost was still a living reality. On Friday morning we visited the Catacombs of St Priscilla – perhaps not the most famous catacombs in Rome, but the ones most accessible to the one member of our group who relied on a wheelchair.

We chose not to depart Rome hurriedly after Mass with Pope Francis on Pentecost Sunday; rather, on Monday morning we recalled how the first Christians met in house-churches by visiting the remains of such a church under the Basilica of Saints John and Paul (the martyrs named next to Cosmas and Damian in the First Eucharistic Prayer). Finally, we had our own experience of celebrating Mass in a small space, at the Chapel of St John in Oil – this marks the place where tradition has it that the Romans attempted to martyr St John the Apostle in boiling oil, but God miraculously preserved him. We took lunch at the Rosminian House at Porta Latina, mindful that Rosminian missionaries renewed the Catholic Church in South Wales at the end of the 19th Century, and continue to serve several Cardiff parishes today.

There are many ironies about this pilgrimage. Pope Francis invited us to join him at St Peter’s – but then sent us to Circus Maximus for the main events. We recalled St Peter’s sermon which was understood by all on the Day of Pentecost – but relied on FM radios for simultaneous translation at the two main events. We celebrated the Holy Spirit’s charisms of healing – but ensured that the pilgrimage would be accessible for anyone using a wheelchair. We were called to celebrate our “unity in diversity” – but worldwide Catholic Charismatics are still working on merging their two representative bodies, ICCRS and the Catholic Fraternity, into one. Pentecost is the third great feast of the Christian year, but unlike Easter and Christmas has no “tide” of its own. Yet the season for living out Pentecost exists! It is called “Ordinary Time” – but one where Christians are called to use extraordinary charisms for the building up of the Church. And these gifts are not meant to be brought together in Rome, but spread to the ends of the earth. Veni Sancti Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit, come! Dewch, Ysbryd Glân, dewch!

Believe, Beloved (Morning Edition)

Homily at St Philip Evans for Easter Day 2017 – Second Reading from I Corinthians.

“Get rid of the yeast of evil and wickedness, having only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

There’s been a lot of talk about sincerity and truth lately. Like yeast, fake news generates a lot of hot air. Indeed, only last week, Facebook published some guidelines to help us tell whether a news story is true or false. Three of them are helpful to us not only on the Internet, but for life in general.

  • Can we trust the person sharing the news?
  • Does the news include good evidence that it’s true, and few warning signs that it might be false?
  • Is anyone else independently reporting the same news?

We’ve just heard a claim that Jesus has risen from the dead – his tomb is empty, the stone has been rolled away and Mary Magdalen has had a conversation with him!

The news was written by a man called Matthew, a tax collector who became a follower of Jesus – and one of the friends who ran away when he was crucified.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Yes, Peter saw the Risen Jesus too! We have just heard an account of him speaking to Cornelius – a Roman soldier – about how many people met Jesus after he rose from the dead!

We do find that the accounts given by all these people don’t match up exactly. But that shouldn’t worry us too much. When eyewitnesses agree 100% about what they claim they have seen, that’s often a sign they have colluded to make up a story. Real witness make mistakes about details!

There’s another way of testing the evidence, too. If Jesus is really alive, he should be touching people’s lives even today.

On Good Friday, I saw a post on Facebook about a woman called Natalie. 10 months ago she suffered a brain injury which had life-changing consequences: vertigo, intolerance of light and an inability to read. After coming forward for prayer she was completely healed! Two days later she was still suffering no symptoms at all!

Good news or fake news? Let’s apply the tests.

Do I trust the person sharing the news? I do, because I know him personally. His name is Andrew Fava and he belongs to a Catholic community, Cor et Lumen Christi, with a particular gift for praying for healing.

How good is the evidence? The post included a picture of Andrew alongside a beaming Natalie. I know that this community is careful not to make premature claims about healing – waiting two days to see if the effects are lasting is a good practice.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Not specifically about Natalie, but about Jesus’ power to heal – certainly! At Lourdes, and when saints are canonized, the Catholic Church has a formal process to investigate miracles and establish that the claims are credible.

Still not convinced? You can check out the evidence yourself! Members of the Cor et Lumen Christi community will be running a healing mission here in Cardiff in September.

After listening to Peter’s testimony, the Roman soldier Cornelius chose to be baptised. He accepted Peter’s message that “all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through his name”. In a few moments, I will take the Easter water, blessed last night, and sprinkle all of us with it. Before you receive the water, I will ask you to renew your baptismal promises. But as promises go, these ones sound strange. I will ask, three times, “Do you believe?” and you will answer “I do!” What kind of promise is this?

To believe simply means “to put your trust in”. What I am asking about is not the ideas in your head, but the choices in your life. Do you trust in God the Father, who created heaven and earth? Do you trust in Jesus, who rose from the dead and has opened for you the path to heaven? Do you trust in the Holy Spirit, to live in you and produce a fountain of living water? Do you trust in the Catholic Church, to teach the truth about God and about right living?

When you leave Mass today, you will be handed three invitations. One is for a free showing of a movie this Friday. Another is to come to the Celebrate conference in a fortnight’s time. The third is to a special confession service in Splott next Sunday – Divine Mercy Sunday. Nearly one hundred years ago, the Risen Jesus appeared many times to a Polish nun, Sr Fautina Kowalska, and asked that the Sunday after Easter be kept as a special celebration of his mercy. Jesus promised special blessings to anyone who goes to confession on that day and who venerates the Divine Mercy Image. What is that image? It is Jesus with rays representing baptism and Holy Communion flowing from his breast, and an inscription: “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Often, good news is only a beginning. It contains great hope, but the promise takes time to come about.

So they have discovered a wonder-drug with potential to beat some killer disease? Fantastic! But it will be years before the safety tests are complete and we can benefit from it.

So the reviewer is raving about the best film ever – but that’s no good to me if I can’t get to the cinema to watch it.

This morning we celebrate that Jesus really rose from the dead, and heaven is for real – though we do not yet live in the Promised Land. Mary Magdalen was given a glimpse but had to tell the disciples that they would later “see Jesus in Galilee”.

Jesus said he was the gate for the sheep through which we must enter, the true vine to which we must stay connected, the bread of life we must eat to enter heaven.

How can we tell if this is true news? If it is true that Jesus has overcome death and is alive right now, he can make good on his promise! He can touch your life, brighten your darkness, quicken your heart and stir your soul!

The word “believe” shares its origins with the word “beloved”. Because we’re loved by another person, we can place our trust in that person to be there for us – we can believe in our beloved. We can place our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be there for us, because on Easter Sunday morning, we learned that the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that he is truly in Heaven sitting at the right of the Father. We only know that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven because of the testimony of those first Christians, who paid with their lives for insisting that the news was true.

Christ is Risen.

Heaven is open for business.

Jesus can even heal people today!

That’s not fake news – it’s good news! Alleluia!