Germination

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

Last month, tens of thousands of people from all over the world tuned in to a webcam at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. A rare ‘moonflower’ was expected to bloom at any moment – and watchers were caught off guard when this happened not during the night, but in broad daylight.

In ancient Jerusalem, people from afar were also looking for a rare attraction – some Greeks arrived, pagans with an interest in Judaism, and declared “We want to see Jesus.” Maybe they were content to have him pointed out to them. Maybe they wanted an interview with him. Perhaps St John was even using “seeing” to mean “believing and understanding”. Whatever it was they wanted, their arrival was a sign: news of Jesus had passed beyond the Jewish nation and was beginning to attract the wider world. When pressed to perform his first miracle at Cana, Our Lord protested that his hour had not yet come; but now, with the nations watching, the hour was indeed at hand.

When a moonflower blossoms, it is a bittersweet occasion. The beautiful and fragrant bloom soon closes again and exudes a putrid odour. Yet this is necessary for the flower to achieve its purpose and give rise to new life. Jesus too needed to alert his supporters that the path ahead would lead through devastating loss before the new life he had promised could be attained, and he too chose an image from the natural world, an image which warned that what was to come was quite different from what had gone before – as different as an ear of wheat is from a tiny grain.

How do you enable a grain of wheat to burst into new life?

Well, first you have to wait for the right time. Winter wheat and spring wheat each have a right time for planting. Jesus waited until he was 30 to begin his public ministry.

Next, the seed needs to be watered. Jesus began his public ministry with baptism.

A seed cannot grow without oxygen. The Holy Spirit, whose name means ‘breath’, descended upon the newly-baptised Christ.

Some seeds need to pass through a trial before they germinate – a forest fire, a cloud of smoke, or rough treatment in the gizzard of some animal. In all cases the seed must break its outer casing and send a root earthwards and a shoot heavenwards. Jesus was roughly crucified, his body laid in the earth and his divine spirit released to enter heaven, after a visit to the holy souls waiting outside the gates.

A seed does not literally die when it is planted – a truly dead seed will not germinate at all – but it suffers the ‘death’ of losing its old identity. We could choose many other examples of creatures which have shed their old identity – caterpillars becoming butterflies, nymphs becoming dragonflies, tadpoles becoming frogs and toads; all point us to the need to grow and change. Yet each of these creatures changes according to the law written in its very being, the DNA which programmes every cell in its body.

“If anyone serves me, that person must follow me.”

Jesus invites us to follow him through death and resurrection. Everyone who becomes a follower of Jesus faces the trial of openness to change:  if we are truly to be servants of Jesus, he tests us to see if we are willing to live by his standards even when this is far from convenient for us. This might be a challenge to turn away from some obvious sin – but it might be the challenge to stand up for Jesus and for his church in the face of public criticism.

This week, the Vatican issued a statement explaining why the Catholic Church is unable to offer blessings to same-sex couples. We may find ourselves suddenly challenged to justify why the Church is ‘homophobic’. We live in an age which is not interested in what ‘the Church teaches’ so we need to shift the conversation to ‘what Jesus said’. In fact, Our Lord said nothing directly about same-sex relationships, but did say it was God’s plan, made clear in Genesis, that a husband and wife should form a committed bond with one another. So perhaps the best response to a critic is that the Catholic Church exists to bless what Jesus blessed, and we are only trying to be faithful to Jesus; the same statement said that the Church will gladly bless individuals who seek to be faithful to God’s plan. What the church says to all human beings who experience same-sex attraction – as it does to all other people – is that “You are valued. You are loved by God. You are worthy of God’s blessing.” This response will not satisfy all our critics, but it may encourage them to take a fresh look at who Jesus was and what he taught. Our role is only to hold Jesus up in front of the world – he is the one who will ‘draw all people to himself’.

Recently a Zulu king died and was buried – but in the Zulu culture, they use a word to indicated that he was ‘planted’ in the ground and gathered unto his ancestors.

It is not enough that Jesus died and entered eternal life – I too must be planted. The divine law written in my heart must be allowed to shape my growth. It is not about who I am now, but who I am called to be. What part of my shell must be broken? My pride? My selfishness? My desire to conform to the world around me? My fear of change? After the water of baptism, after the infilling of the Holy Spirit, I must face up to the challenge to change.

Do you want to see Jesus? Do you want to follow him, whatever the cost? He is the one affirmed by the voice of the Father. And Christ himself cries out: “Come to me on the cross! Embrace the tree of life! Drink from the source of eternal salvation! But do this and your life will never be the same again.”

The day and the hour of our own blooming into eternal life is as mysterious as that of the moonflower. But the webcam team were ready. Don’t be caught out. Don’t delay. The day to give God permission to break your shell and begin your transformation is today. Our crosses are veiled because today is not the day to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection. Today, we celebrate yours – but only if you are willing to change!

A Whole Glass of Love

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

Some say the glass is half empty.

Some say the glass is half full.

Me? I say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be!

We’ve just passed the half-way mark of Lent. It’s a good time to review our hopes for this Lent, the personal challenges we set out for ourselves. Were they bigger than they needed to be? If you’ve achieved something positive, but not as much as you hoped – I say well done, for taking a step in the right direction. And even if you feel like a failure, remember that it’s better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.

Our first reading points us to a time of failure; the people of Israel, up to and including the Temple Priests, had failed to follow God’s Holy law – and not in a minor way. They’d embraced pagan religions, allowed the poorest members of society to be mistreated, and ignored the prophets sent to correct them. When the Israelites were deported to Babylon – present day Iraq – the Bible sees this as a punishment from God. Yet God is merciful, and merely 70 years later their descendants were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

The current lockdown has dragged on for months since Christmas, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel – and no, it’s not a train coming the other way. We may be unhappy with the state of the world; we might even wonder if what’s happening now is some kind of divine punishment. But we don’t need new prophets to tell us that God’s laws still stand: God expects us to care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, at home and abroad. If we see the state of the world as a punishment from God, it might be that we’re expecting a bigger glass than the one God has provided. Jesus did not come to promise us that we would be safe in this life. He only promises us that we are loved.

God’s love sometimes comes in unexpected forms. In the days of Moses, the people grumbled that their journey to the Promised Land was taking too long. The Bible tells us that God permitted fiery serpents to come among the people and smite them with poisonous venom, as a punishment. But God also instructed Moses to create a bronze serpent held high on a pole, so that those who looked upon it would be healed. I wonder which surprises us more – that God would allow a punishment to be inflicted in this way, or that God would use an image of something apparently evil as a tool of healing?

For St John the Beloved Disciple, that ancient bronze serpent was a prophecy of Christ. Another symbol of evil – the crucifix – would become a sign of healing. We lift up the Cross – we place it on our walls – we exalt the Crucified one – as an act of love.

We should remember that in the ancient Roman Empire, a crucifix had the same significance as a noose, a guillotine, an electric chair or a gurney prepared for lethal injection. It was a sign that a person of the deepest wickedness was being punished for their crimes.

An ancient Roman transported to the 21st Century would gaze at any cross around your neck with the same incredulity we would give to someone sporting a miniature gallows as fashion jewellery. Yet that same cross is a place of incredible love. Jesus embraced the Cross because of love. Mary stood steadfast at the foot of the Cross, because of love. St John the Beloved kept vigil with Mother and Son because of love. Yet of these, the greatest love is that shown by Jesus – causing so much pain to his Beloved Mother and Beloved Disciples by offering his life as a ransom for all the wretches in the history of humankind.

God’s offer is simple. Put your faith in the man upon the Cross. Do this, and you shall live for ever. Perhaps that sounds too simplistic, in the same class as believing that looking at a bronze pole could cure your snakebite. But God’s ways are not our ways. In fact, they are so different from our own ways that God needs to grab our attention. Look at the man upon the cross! Look at the humility of God! Look at what he was willing to do, knowing that it opens the door for you to be forgiven all your sins, cleansed of all your curses, and admitted to unending happiness in heaven. Jesus did this, and he did it for you!

Some decades ago, a Christian poet, one John Williams, was travelling on a train when he noticed one passenger suffering a fit – and another one tending to him. The patient was a wounded soldier from the British Army. The carer was also a soldier, an American who had dedicated his life to caring for the wounded Englishman who had saved his life; indeed, the fitting was due to the wound received in that moment. The American explained to poet Williams how he had abandoned his plans for marriage and life in the United States to remain in Britain for his comrade in arms: “He did that for me! There’s nothing I can’t do for him.”

Today being Mother’s Day, I would be at fault if I didn’t invite you to pause and ponder the honour due to your mother. She endured the pains of labour for you, and most likely changed your soiled underwear, kissed your wounded knee, and soothed your aching spirit on many occasions. If she has passed into God’s hands, offer a prayer for her. If she’s still with us, what can you do today to show your love and your gratitude?

But once your mother has been honoured, remember also the one who loved you so much he gave up his life for you. He doesn’t ask the impossible from you. Nor does he worry about receiving a half-empty glass. He only asks for your all – 100% of what you can give him, and not one drop more. We don’t earn our way into heaven by our good works, but we do demonstrate our love for Christ by loving others in our turn. And it’s fitting on this Mother’s Day that I give the last word to my own Mum, whose words of wisdom to me on many occasions were these: “Gareth, always do your best, for you can’t do better than that.”

Thanks Mum. I’ll drink to that – a whole glass!


Acknowledgments – quotes in today’s homily were drawn from three episodes of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, by Ann Atkins (22 Sep 2020) , Giles Fraser (30 Sep 2020) and Bill Arlow (10 Nov 2020).

A Greater Time

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

Time is greater than space.

That’s one of Pope Francis’ favourite expressions, and it’s worth thinking about.

We’ve just heard how Jesus cleared out the traders from the Temple. What was happening there was wrong on so many levels. At the simplest, the Temple was meant to be a holy space – trading wasn’t appropriate there. But at a deeper level, the whole moneychanging business was corrupt. Middlemen profited from poor people who wanted to buy clean animals for their sacrifices. The very poorest couldn’t afford to do so at all!

If you know a holy place which has become cluttered with things that shouldn’t be there, maybe this is the week to do something about it. But… time is greater than space. So on this day of Lent, we can also ask, is my time filled with things that shouldn’t be there?

“On the seventh day, God rested.” Among the Ten Commandments, we find one which is about stopping to rest. Observant Jews keep a sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. By God’s law, they avoid labour. By ancient custom, they make it a family day, beginning on Friday evening with the sabbath meal marked by special blessings.

You won’t find a law in the New Testament about Sunday being a day of rest. Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning. The first Christians met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the evening each Sunday, which was a working day in the Roman Empire. Later, when Christianity was no longer an underground religion, Sunday became a public day of rest.

So what’s at the heart of the idea of a sabbath? Is it a day for rest, a day for worship or a day for families to be together? The Christian Sunday is for all of these things.

St John Paul II wrote a whole reflective letter on what Sunday means. He challenged all followers of the Lord to make this a day for spending time together in a leisurely way. Now this can take a bit of planning, but families who keep Sunday well develop traditions: maybe the whole family bakes together. Maybe Sunday’s food is prepared on Saturday. Or if you’re living alone, it might be a day when you plan to make a longer phone call to someone.

It’s a day when you could plan to do more – and to do less.

Do more – that is, do something to mark it out as a special day. You could wear different clothes – I don’t mean “going to church” clothes but “this is a special day” clothes. You could put a different cloth on the dinner table, or decorate it with flowers.

Do less – if there’s a way to avoid chores on a Sunday, avoid them. Or if there’s cooking, cleaning or gardening which has to be done, can you make a fun family activity out of it? And maybe turn off your mobile devices for a few hours, so they don’t get in the way of family time!

But do something. The Lord’s Day exists in time, rather than space. It’s what you do, more than where you do it, which makes this day different. Time is greater than space!

Making Sunday special is possible.

I have a friend in Bristol who makes it clear to her employers that she won’t work on Sundays. She’s willing to be flexible with shifts on other days, but she won’t take overtime on a Sunday. It’s her day for rest and for God.

I have a friend in Newport who runs an award-winning restaurant – which doesn’t open on Sundays. It shares its front access with a busy supermarket which does open on Sunday; but if you want a meal at the famous Gemelli’s on Sunday, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. To the world, this is foolishness; in God’s eyes, this is a very wise position.

I know a couple in Wales who mastered the art of using Zoom to connect with distant family members long before lockdown made us all experts in videoconferencing. By putting a table against a big screen and a video camera, they can share a Sunday meal with their grandchildren in Australia!

St John Paul also asks us what time we give to prayer and to studying our faith on a typical Sunday – either alone, or again, with family. Is it a day to read from a book of saints or a Bible story to young family members? Is it a day to connect with godchildren?

It doesn’t take long to form a habit. For the last two month, schools have been closed and we’ve got into the habit of looking after children at home. Now schools are about to re-open, and the rhythm of the week will change again – even if you don’t have kids at home, you may notice a change in the traffic and the way the world moves around you.

Lent is a time for new beginnings. Is it time to make a good habit for Sundays? It’s better to do something small but meaningful, than to shoot for the moon. Maybe start with half a Sunday – if you’re morning people, no chores after 11 am – or if you work best in the evening, none before 4 pm. If you live with others, have a household discussion… and even if not all of the people at home are people who pray, you don’t have to be religious to do family time well. Just make sure there’s enough time for the people who do want to pray, to pray.

Jesus knows the heart of every person. He knows that part of your heart which yearns for sabbath rest, and that part which is caught up in wanting to get stuff done. This is the season of purification: don’t struggle on your own, but ask him to cleanse the temple which is your very self. This may take time, but relax: time is greater than space, and the Lord of all ages will revive your soul and gladden your heart. And in the words of Pope Francis: “Have a good Sunday and a good lunch!”

Acknowledgements to Sarah Damm’s website for inspiration.

Crystal Clear

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

God loves us.

God tests us.

These two truths are uncomfortable to hold together.

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. The Jerusalem Bible, which we currently use for Mass in England, translates one phrase as “Do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.” It reminds me that Pope Francis recently commented that God cannot tempt us to sin, but he does allow us to be tested. So we pray not to be tested, but we know that sometimes God will politely decline our request. We have only a promise in Scripture that we will not be tested “more than we can bear”.

On the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved Son – but even that doesn’t spare him from testing. We know that Lent is leading us towards Maundy Thursday, when Our Lord will face the temptation to run away from his crucifxion before it begins, and the agony of the Cross, when he will be dared to come down before it is finished.

Jesus, the beloved Son, had a choice. He chose to co-operate with his Father’s plan. Yes, today’s Second Reading says that the Father sent Jesus, his beloved son, to lay down his life for us. But in John’s Gospel we also see Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his own life – indeed, the literal translation would be, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” As we see Jesus today bathed in light on top of the holy mountain, consider his beauty! Could anyone be more loving than Jesus?

It’s a bit harder to see something beautiful in today’s first reading. We have another father and son on a mountain, and this son almost lays down his life, too – but perhaps not so willingly. Abraham believes that God has asked him to slaughter his beloved son, the very boy God gave Sarah as a miracle baby. He must be hoping that this is a test, and at some point God is going to offer him a get-out, but when they reach the top of the mountain, there’s no alternative yet. It’s at this point that the horrible truth becomes clear to Isaac – because now Abraham binds his son and pulls out his knife…

I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which tidies up this story.

Maybe I could tell you that in the ancient cultures around Abraham, it was a normal thing for a father to sacrifice a son to establish a dynasty, and Abraham thought that this would please the Lord too. But that makes no sense of the Bible declaring that God asked for the sacrfiice, or was pleased with Abraham’s obedience.

Maybe I could tell you that Isaac was a willing victim, happy to obey this terrible command from God; but that doesn’t make sense of the full story – we’ve only been given edited highlights today, but read the whole of Genesis 22 and you will discover that Isaac asks Abraham where they will find the lamb to be sacrificed. And if Isaac was a willing victim, he wouldn’t need to be bound.

Yes, I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which explains this Bible passage comfortably. But in the end, I can’t. I can only give you these truths which fit so uncomfortably together.

God loves us.

God tests us.

When we’re faced with something like this, we have a word for it: “Mystery”. Not a puzzle to be solved, but a provoking story inviting us to seek God’s message. And the mystery of the binding of Isaac is mirrored in the mystery of our daily lives. For although we believe that God loves us, we may experience more often the truth that God tests us. And I recently came across a true story which mirrors this mystery.

Crystal McVea had every reason to be angry with God. I won’t share the details of the things that happened to her in her childhood, but they were horrible. She cried out to God, but no help seemed to come. She often boasted that should she ever meet God, she would ask him all the why why why questions. And she got her opportunity. She died.

Or rather, she didn’t die. But she was clinically dead for nine minutes and returned with a remarkable story of meeting God. Now no-one can prove that these ‘near death experiences’ are genuine spiritual experiences, but I think this one’s worthy of a hearing, because of its because powerful impact on her life.

Crystal was confronted with the beauty of God, and suddenly understood so many things about his plan for her life. In that light, all questions fell away from her lips except one. Why… oh why… didn’t I do more for you during my lifetime? In that moment of encounter, God showed Crystal a small girl radiant with light, literally playing in the rivers of light in heaven; and Crystal filled with love for this person before realising who it was – it was herself, as seen through God’s eyes. I won’t read out her words here and now; it’s easy to find her speaking for herself, online. But it was through seeing the glory of God, and her own radiance as a child of God, that she found peace with God despite the many, many tests she had endured in her life. Crystal returned from that experience knowing that her horrible past made sense as part of the loving plan of God; she also found strength to embrace a better present, forgiving her enemies and putting her trust in God. That’s the power of God’s beauty.

I can’t explain the mystery of how the Binding of Isaac was a necessary part of God’s plan. But I trust that it was, and one day we will understand, just as we will appreciate all the trials of our life in these times. Though God covers you with shadow, remember the light!

God loves us.

God tests us.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Beyond the Rainbow

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

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

The story of Noah isn’t the most obvious one for the start of Lent. We can see some basic connections – Noah and his family passed through a trial of 40 days – in fact longer, because after the rain stopped it took time for the waters to go down – and they lived with wild animals, as Jesus did in the wilderness. Theirs was quite an extreme form of lockdown – no daily exercise and nowhere to go shopping!

St Peter made another connection. Before Noah’s family boarded the ark, the earth had been populated by wicked human beings who refused to repent of their sins. But when Jesus died on the cross, he went to the afterlife where the souls of the dead were ‘in prison’, waiting for Jesus to win forgiveness for sinners. God could have destroyed all life on earth and created entirely new lines of animals and humans. But God didn’t do that – he gave the existing lines a chance to start again, saved in the Ark and passing through water. In the same way, new Christians are able to start again by passing through baptism. God’s promise not to flood the earth again might be understood as a sign that baptism cannot be repeated; though at Easter we will remember and renew the promises made at our baptism.

The account of Noah, like many chapters in the book of Genesis, is God’s way of teaching us through a story which is easy to remember; it’s not an account of world history. Was there ever a flood which covered the entire surface of planet Earth? The evidence says No. Were there floods in ancient days which wiped out whole civilisations, so that from one tribe’s point of view, their whole world had been destroyed? Most assuredly, Yes. Was there a first rainbow in the history of the world a few thousand years ago? That is hard to believe, unless the universal properties of light or of water were miraculously changed. Rather, God’s Spirit is here inspiring a rebranding exercise, taking what already exists – the rainbow – and charging it with a new meaning.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

We human beings are also good at re-branding the rainbow. When I was a child it was simply a sign of hope and cheerfulness. Kermit the Frog sang of the “Rainbow Connection” while Judy Garland dreamed of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Flowing from God’s promise not to destroy the human race, a rainbow flag was used as a sign of peace. Since 1978, a rainbow flag has taken on a more awkward meaning for Christians, being used as a sign of solidarity with the lesbian and gay community. The Catholic Church agrees that no-one should be discriminated against because of their sexual preferences, while maintaining that God’s plan is that the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy is within the marriage of a man and a woman. During the last 12 months, the rainbow has been rebranded again, as a sign of support for our National Health Service in this time of pandemic.

Rainbows can be a sign of false hope – as in the legend of the crock of gold to be found buried where the rainbow touches earth. Of course, you can never reach the end of the rainbow because it moves to keep its distance from you – rainbows are masters of social distancing! This reminds us that we can be tempted to put our hope in material things which can never really satisfy us.

I was struck by the final words of the first reading – God’s promise never again to “destroy all things of flesh”. There, of course, it means all living creatures – but the Bible never wastes words and I think it is meant to remind us of the other meaning of “flesh” – those bodily instincts which sometimes pull us away from God’s plan for our lives. Anger, our appetite for food and drink, and sexual attraction – all these things can lead us along courses of action which we soon regret. Lent is a time to look anew at the temptations of our flesh and to choose to do what is within our power to destroy them. That may mean joining one of the ‘Anonymous’ 12-Step groups (AA NA GA & SA) or seeking the help of a dieting app. But whatever we need to do, let’s work at it with all our willpower, but never forget, when we succeed and when we fail, to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

Let’s rediscover the rainbow as a sign of hope. A rainbow can only form when sunshine and rain are present in the same sky. Although the clouds are grey, the sunlight finds a way through and is revealed in all its glory after passing through the raindrops. Without the grey there could be no glory. But on many a grey day I’ve seen a rainbow and realised that the sun must be getting through somewhere, and you can find it if you turn and look.

At the start of Mass, we used a song called Oceans. We’ve called upon God’s spirit to lead us where our ‘trust is without borders’ – giving God permission to take us anywhere, however grey, on our journey to glory. Maybe, like St Peter trying to walk on water, our feet will fail. Maybe we haven’t started Lent so well, or faltered in our chosen discipline already.

It’s OK to start now, or to begin again.

Jesus took Peter’s hand to save him from drowning, and reached out to the souls of sinners who had died throughout human history. Do you not think he will do the same for you? If you’ve never been baptised, what’s stopping you asking for it? If you have been baptised, you can be cleansed anew through the sacrament of confession – and priests are available to do this securely, even in current circumstances.

Where is the rainbow leading us today? It offers a promise that God’s anger will pass and our sins can be forgiven. That is the true gold beyond the rainbow; so as Jesus famously said, repent, and believe the good news!

What Are You Carrying?

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

It’s not you – it’s what you’re carrying!

In Bible days, leprosy was a dreaded disease – many different skin conditions could make you a ‘leper’. People didn’t fully understand how the infection was transmitted, but they had a horror of being touched by a leper, or coming into contact with their spittle. So lepers had to cover their top lip and keep their distance from other people. Doesn’t that sound strangely familiar today?

Being a leper wasn’t any reflection on your personal holiness. Of course, some people would ask – there are always people who ask – is this illness a punishment for sin? The answer to this question is always the same, unless God has told you otherwise: “Not necessarily!” Anyone, from a king to a slave, could become a leper. So when Jesus healed a leper, he was doing more than simply restoring health to an individual – he was restoring the individual to the community!

Lepers of old carried a blemish on their body and the stigma of being outcast on their soul. For us today, the concerning covid-cough comes too late to give certainty. Is someone you know carrying the dread disease? If someone at home coughs, is it the cough or just a cough? When we pass someone in the street, or do business with the assistant in a shop, we look at one another anxiously, wondering: what are you carrying?

Now whatever you do, avoid giving offence, but do it for the glory of God.

If you give space to someone you’re passing on the pavement, how can you do so graciously? Moving to avoiding a person could be a sign of hostility in other circumstances, but right now it’s an act of love. So first of all, smile. Yes, it makes a difference – even if you’re wearing a mask! Next, perhaps there’s some gesture of friendliness you can make with your hand. And of course, you can consider saying something cheerful – but check first that the Other isn’t absorbed in a phonecall or podcast. In this strange season of avoidance we have to keep communicating the reassuring message: “It’s not you, it’s just what you might be carrying.”

So let’s pause for a moment, as we stand on the threshold of Lent, to ask: What am I carrying? Fear? Anger? Anxiety?

All of these things are normal and natural in the current season.

Just as we step politely around a passer-by, so we can acknowledge these emotions as companions on our journey, passengers which do not need to define who we are. Perfect love casts out all fear. God has promised his friends the fruits of the Holy Spirit which can burst forth at surprising times, to sustain us: joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, and more! If we have received the sacrament of confirmation, we have every right to turn to God in a season like this and politely but firmly ask for a new release of the graces promised to us through the Seal of the Spirit which we carry.

Covid is not the only thing we can carry, unseen. We are called to be carriers of love, carriers of glory, carriers of God’s grace. This grace breaks forth in the generous way we can treat others, and in the way we deal with our own fears. Our Lord once put things in perspective by warning us not to fear what could harm our bodies, but only to fear the One who has the power to gather us into heaven or cast us out to eternal damnation. In fact, those who follow Christ need have no fear of becoming lepers in Hell, for he has gone before us to prepare a place for us, and He has promised to show us the Way.

We who remain on earth, however, are left with an uncomfortable riddle. Jesus does love us and has prepared a way for us. As a sign of his love for us, he greeted today’s leper with a resounding assurance: “Of course I want to!” – I want to cure you of your disease and restore to you the closeness of human society! Yet this Lord who wants to, doesn’t always act when we wish he would. Do not Jesus Christ and his heavenly Father have the power to rebuke a pandemic and stop it in its tracks? Undoubtedly. Do they love us, as the pinnacle of their creation? Most assuredly! So why is the world today nevertheless in the noose of this new leprosy?

On Thursday the church throughout the world celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, and perhaps it is to Lourdes we can look for the answer. Since Our Lady appeared there in 1854, the Catholic Church has recognised 67 claims of healings as truly miraculous – instantaneous, unaided by medicine, and inexplicable to science. Many thousands more dossiers document strong claims of God’s divine aid, but do not quite meet the threshold for manifesting a miracle. Yet in response to Our Lady’s invitation to let those who sick come and bathe at the shrine, many millions of pilgrims have returned home without a physical cure but with a new peace of mind. And there was no healing for St Bernadette, the young visionary of Lourdes who became a religious sister and died at the age of 35. Her short life was marked by cholera, asthma and a painful death, which she offered up as penance for sinners. The Mother of God told her: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the other.” That other world can be glimpsed when Jesus heals a leper, and also when we lovingly make space for another person, but will only be experienced in its fulness when we slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. Yes, Jesus Christ want to heal us, and he will, but before resurrection comes the Great Lent which began last year and which we enter anew this Wednesday.

So what are you carrying today? I am carrying the promise of a Kingdom yet to come, which breaks through in surprising ways to sustain us in the here-and-now. If you want to, you can ask Jesus for something to carry, too.

Clothed in the Garments of Grace

Homily at the Sion Community Family DayFirst Sunday in Lent, Year A

Is it true that God made the first man from the dust of the earth? Wrong question.

Is it true that there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Also the wrong question.

Did God really say “Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge?” Yes – but that’s a diabolical question!

Why does the Bible tell us that Adam and Eve suddenly realised they were naked? Right question!

We believe in a God who can work miracles. Jesus turned water into wine, calmed a storm and raised Lazarus from the dead. We hear reports of creative miracles even in the 21st century, where God’s power to change matter is made evident. So I have no doubt that God has the power to create a human body from the duty of the earth. I do, however, have reason to doubt that that is actually, historically, what happened.

Some of my doubts come from the Bible itself. If it were literally true that God created Adam and Eve and no-one else, who did their sons marry? Why do the first two chapters of the Bible seem to give two different stories about how the world was created? And isn’t a talking snake the kind of character you get in a fantasy story with a moral of a fall and a recovery? I’m thining of Kaa in Disney’s Jungle Book, Nagini in Harry Potter, or the eight-legged Shelob in the Lord of the Rings.

Other doubts come from what we know of the world around us. We believe in a God who speaks through the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture. Our best interpretation of the Book of Nature suggests the universe began in a Big Bang 13 billion years ago – a discovery partly due to a Catholic priest, Mgr Georges Lemaitre – and that the first primitive life formed from the dust and oceans of the earth 4 billion years ago. A slow, step by step process of evolution seems to have taken us from single-celled bacteria to the first human beings – but the scientists argue about whether the title of ‘first human’ should go to our ancestors from 200,000 or 5 million years ago.

And yet… Our Lord Jesus spoke about Adam and Eve in a way that feels literal. St Paul – who had been taken up to heaven and received visions – talks only about Adam, not Eve, in the letter we’ve just heard from Romans. Talking about a singular first human fits rather better with what we know about evolution. However you choose to define ‘first human’ – whether that’s something genetic, or whether it’s about God giving out the first human soul – there will have been a first one somewhere along the line. The message of both Genesis and St Paul is that the first human being failed to obey God perfectly, and that has consequences!

You might hear talk that we human beings suffer more intense temptation because we are children of the Original Sinner. That’s true, but let’s not forget that the first human managed to sin without the excuse of this extra burden, which we call concupiscence; we can’t blame Adam for everything!

More mysterious is St Paul’s statement that ‘death came into the world’ because of human sin. Taken literally, that suggest that no plant or animal or even bacterium had died before Adam’s first sin. But if we take it to refer to human death, we might conclude that God meant to give human beings the miraculous gift of immortality, if they were totally faithful to his commands. And that takes us back to Adam and Eve being naked without shame.

Before they ate the forbidden fruit, before they made clothes for themselves, they were naked. Might it be that when they looked at one another, what they saw was not a human body, but the image of God? Next week, we’ll hear the Gospel of the Transfiguration, reminding us how Jesus was clothed in light when he showed his Godly nature to his closest followers. Does it not make sense that the first, sinless, human would have been clothed like this – entirely lit?

St John Paul II reflected on the meaning of the forbidden tree. He concluded that it represented the power to define right and wrong. As human beings we cannot make wrong things right, or right things wrong – we must accept what God has taught us. By taking the fruit for themselves, and wanting to disagree with God, the first humans became not more, but less like God: they became clothed in sin. Worse than that, they found themselves clothed in a repeating pattern of sin.

Jesus – whose very name means “the one who saves” – did not come to rule the earth, but to help us find our way to heaven. So in today’s Gospel he refuses to take power over the world; at the end of Lent we will celebrate how he opened the door to life by submitting humbly to death.

If you read on in Genesis, you will find that not only did Adam and Eve clothe themselves, but later, God ‘made garments out of skin’ to clothe them – in other words, an animal had to die so that they could be protected from harm. In the fullness of time, when Jesus died for our sins, St Paul would be able to tell the Romans ‘clothe yourself in Christ’.

Now, you might have been surprised that I started today’s homily by sharing some doubts. Surely it’s not the calling of a Catholic priest to preach doubts – isn’t my duty to tell you what’s true? The thing is, the Catholic church doesn’t take a position on whether Adam and Eve were historical figures, or a story-telling way of teaching about the first human being. What’s important is that we can take the same message from the Bible regardless of whether the story is history or another kind of story.

You’ll meet some catholics who insist that we are descended from Adam and Eve because the Bible says so and who are we to doubt the Bible, however inconsistent that seems with scientific evidence?

You’ll meet other Catholics who roll their eyes and say if we want to be taken seriously we have to interpret the Bible in the light of science because we know lot more know than the Bible writers did 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.

Me, I say those are the wrong questions. The devil always uses questions to blind us to God’s word. In Genesis, he succeeded. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Devil failed. I think the right question is, what does God want us to learn from this story?

On Ash Wednesday, we heard the sobering words that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Scientifically, that’s true – we are made of the stuff of the earth, and our bodies will one day return to the earth. We want to live a long and happy life on earth, so we ask questions like: How do we protect our environment? How do we protect ourselves from coronavirus? But our bodies will return to dust, so the most important question is: How do we make sure we go to heaven?

For the next six weeks of Lent, many of us will live differently – perhaps you’ve given up something you like, or perhaps you’re doing something extra. Because we want to be better at loving God and loving our neighbour, we take on extra prayers and extra good works. It’s not wrong to work on improving ourselves. But when we come to Holy Week, we will not be celebrating our small achievement, but Christ’s great one. We can never make ourselves perfect by our own efforts. That’s why today’s psalm starts by saying ‘Yes, I’m a sinner’ but quickly moves to ‘God, create a pure heart within me’. You will never be truly lit until the light of Christ shines upon you.

Today, the 1st of March, is St David’s Day,* so I’d like to leave you with the opening words of the most famous hymn in the Welsh language, Calon Lân. In English, they would be:

I’d not ask a life that’s easy,
Gold and pearls? So little mean!
I would seek a heart that’s joyful,
Heart that’s honest, heart that’s clean.


* This year, St David’s Day is observed by the Catholic Church in Wales on 2nd March to make way for the first Sunday of Lent; in other terrtitories the observance of St David is not kept this year.

Wholly Holy

Homily at St Edward’s, Sutton Park on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Be holy!”

To be holy is to live your life God’s way. But to be truly holy, you must live your life wholly God’s way. Sometimes the Church sets up role models for us – saints – because they show us how to live a life with all its facets dedicated to God.

Last year a man died, who was widely expected to be named as a saint. Jean Vanier, a Canadian, devoted his life to building communities for handicapped adults, known as L’Arche. But towards the end of his life, rumours emerged that he had groomed women who had come to him for spiritual direction. Quite rightly, the leaders of L’Arche quietly and professionally investigated these claims. Yesterday, they announced their findings: there was credible evidence that M. Vanier had manipulated and abused six women over the course of 35 years. This, of course, comes as a terrible blow for the members of L’Arche worldwide  – and it also means that despite his acknowledged “considerable good work”, Jean Vanier will not be acclaimed as a saint of the Catholic Church.

It’s easy to point the finger at a public figure who has been shamed. But you’ll know the old saying – when we point one finger, we find three pointing back at ourselves. So let’s look at ourselves. Lent starts this Wednesday, and to begin Lent well, we need to spend a few days focussing on what we might “give up”. So it’s time to acknowledge that bad habit you’ve been trying so hard not to notice these last few months. Maybe it’s something your husband or wife has been gently nagging you about. Maybe it’s something that makes your children uncomfortable. Whatever it is, you know what it is, because you don’t want to tackle it. You’ve been pushing it to the back of your consciousness. It’s not a big thing – but it’s your thing, and you don’t want to let go.

Jesus said: “CHANGE! And believe the good news.”

I’ve got good news for you. This Lent you can choose to tackle that little thing you’ve been trying to avoid. Be bold! Throw off your chains! Don’t give the Devil his satisfaction!

The Bible today invites us to “correct our brother” when he sins against us. But Jesus also told us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s. Lent gives us permission to correct our own faults. We know that to be ‘wholly holy’ we need integrity.

So I’d like to invite you to spend the days between now and Ash Wednesday examining your own life, and deciding what your Lenten discipline will be. It might be giving up something – or returning to a diet you’ve let slip. It might be giving up smoking or drinking, whether just for Lent or for good. It might be taking on an extra daily round of prayer, or a weekly stint volunteering in a social project. But pay attention to that small thing you really don’t want to tackle. It’s probably the most important one of the lot.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us of something Jesus said, something which makes our Christian faith stand out from other religions. We’re asked – no, we are commanded – to be passionately committed to doing good for our opponents. But… what happens when you are your own worst enemy?

Do you find yourself really difficult to live with? Do you find it hard to love yourself? Do you doubt that you are a fundamentally good person, even if you do things you regret sometimes?

One in every ten people here today will suffer from clinical depression at some time of life. Maybe you’ve already experienced this, or are being afflicted by it right now. Loosely speaking, the sign of being clinically depressed is that you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy – and these feelings continue for a period lasting more than a few days.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no shame in getting help from your doctor. Often your doctor will recommend some kind of “talking therapy”, but sometimes the treatment will include antidepressant medicine. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of that, either. If you were an insulin-dependent diabetic, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that injection to restore the right chemical balance. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, that’s doing just the same kind of job, restoring a temporary imbalance in those body chemicals which affect your mood.

We might not need medical help, but find support in prayer. Many Bible passages remind us who we are in Christ: we are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know us. We can also find many affirming passages in the Bible we can repeat to ourselves in daily prayer: I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); I am a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); I am raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). Or we might take comfort in the traditional Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity in many traditional Catholic prayer books, such as this Act of Hope:

O Lord God,

I hope by your grace for the pardon

of all my sins

and after life here to gain eternal happiness

because you have promised it

who are infinitely powerful, faithful, kind,

and merciful.

In this hope I intend to live and die.

Amen.

What I’ve just shared won’t apply to everyone. But if you find that these kind of prayers are useful to give yourself daily reassurance, then use them as often as you need to!

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” In that one part of your life where you know, deep down, you are your own worst enemy, show a little love. Even if you don’t feel lovable, be kind to yourself. After all, God loves you – loves you enough to die for you – and God doesn’t make mistakes. And keep on loving yourself, until “love your neighbour as yourself” starts looking like the challenge it’s meant to be!

Preparing to Prepare

We’re now in February, the month which takes its name from a Latin word for ‘cleansing’. This means that Lent is not far away – but in England this year, another spiritual exercise is also on the horizon. On the Sunday following the Feast of the Annunciation, March 29th, this year, the Catholic Bishops of England will rededicate this nation to Jesus through the hands of Mary.

What does it mean to dedicate a nation? In 1381, King Richard II solemnly dedicated England as ‘set apart for Mary among the nations’. Only a monarch, parliament or president has authority to do such a thing in the name of a nation – but for England this was done, and led to the ancient title of ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’. Today a dowry is usually thought of as the price which a bride’s family pays to her new husband – but in mediaeval England, a dowry was a sum of money given to the wife to support her if her husband should die. We seem the same term at work in the title of a dowager duchess.

Here and now, in 2020, our bishops propose a twofold rededication. As bishops, they will gather in Walsingham on Sunday 29th March and together renew their prayers, as leaders of the church, for Our Blessed Lady to continue to keep England under her protection. As a sign of solidarity, at noon on Sunday 29th March they invite all faithful Catholics living in England to make a corporate act of rededication to Jesus through Mary. This can be done on your own, or gathered together with others in your local area. But this should be preceded by a personal act of rededication, which can be made privately on the Solemnity of the Annunciation itself, Wednesday 25th March.

How can we prepare for such a significant moment? We are encouraged to consider a 33-day exercise of prayerful preparation, using the book 33 Days to Morning Glory by Fr Michael Gaitley, MIC. Copies of this are available for the cost of postage and packing only from the Walsingham Catholic Shop. You may also find this enriched version of the Angelus useful. If you wish to complete the 33 days in time for 25 March, you should start on 21 February.

To enter fully into the spirit of what is asked of us, please think of making a personal act of rededication on Wednesday 25th March, and joining with others for a communal act at 12 noon on Sunday 29th March. You can find a local gathering online, or if there isn’t one near you, why not organise one? You don’t need a priest to do this – if there isn’t a church you can meet in, why not do so by inviting others to your home or another suitable place, and registering online? You can also download the official prayer for the act of rededication.

Maybe you don’t live in England. Don’t worry! Our Lady will never refuse anyone who hastens to her and seeks her protection. While March 2020 will be marked by special prayers by the bishops of England entrusting the people who live in England – and they have no special authority to pray on behalf of anybody else – any individual can follow the programme of prayerful and personal rededication and offer oneself to the Mother of God. In this way, anyone can become one of the treasury of souls she offers to Jesus Christ.

Lent begins on Wednesday 26th February. Don’t let it catch you unawares. The 33 Day exercise is a major spiritual act, but if it’s not what you choose as your personal Lenten exercise this year, it’s time to start thinking about what it will mean to keep a good Lent. Is there something you need to sacrifice? Is there a meaningful exercise it’s realistic to take on? What will help you walk more faithfully as a follower of Jesus in this season? It’s time to start asking that question as we begin again to walk through the spiritual wilderness which leads to the joy of the Resurrection. And if want to use the start of Lent to take the Gospel on to the streets, you’ve just got time to organise a local outreach of Ashes to Go!

May we all keep a good Lent this year.

Our Lady of Walsingham – pray for us!

Do You Look Like Jesus?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Do you look like Jesus?

There’s a story about a little girl who was puzzled about God. “Mummy, our Sunday School teacher said that God is bigger than we are. He said God is so big that He could hold the world in His hands. Is that true?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s true, darling.”

“But Mummy, the teacher also said that God comes to live inside us when we get baptised and receive Holy Communion. Is that true, too?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s right. That’s what happens.”

The little girl was now truly puzzled. “So Mum, if God is bigger than us and He lives inside us, wouldn’t He show through?”


When Our Lord took Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor, he wanted them to see something that would help them understand who He was. Jesus glowed with the light of God. But if Jesus is within us, shouldn’t we should glow with God’s presence? If not with ethereal light, then at least by our actions. And this Second Sunday of Lent is the day set out by the Church to invite everyone who wants to live the fullness of our Catholic life to examine our lives and go to confession.

It’s easy to examine our lives against a list of “Don’ts”. Next Sunday our first reading will be the Ten Commandments, many of which are “Thou Shalt Nots”. It’s much more challenging to try to understand what God is asking us to DO. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Did God want a human being to be killed as part of a religious ritual? No, of course not. But was God testing Abraham to see if this faithful man would follow God’s will whatever the cost? Oh yes.

Can you imagine the inner turmoil Abraham must have experienced before setting out with Isaac? Any Dad would have been appalled at the very idea. For Abraham, his son Isaac was already a miracle-baby who carried God’s promise to be father of a multitude. And yet Abraham must have been supremely sure of what God was asking to even set out on this journey of sacrifice.

When God asks us to do something more for him, we might become angry. What do we have to sacrifice within out own ego or comfortable lifestyle? Yet the depth of our anger is itself a sign that God truly is challenging us to change, because we’re also aware of that divine calling within us: “We can’t go on as we are!”

I’m going to run through some headings now… if one of these makes you feel angry, it might just be God inviting you to make a deeper change this Lent. And as I speak of each expectation, ask yourself, “In this area of my life, do I look like Jesus? Is He bursting out of me?”

God expects that we WORSHIP as Jesus honoured his Father. Do we speak to God when we are gathered with our family and friends? Grace before meals? A moment of prayer each day when the family is gathered in one place? In your family, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we CONNECT with other members of our church community. When was the last time you came to a church social event? If you don’t normally stay for coffee after Sunday morning Mass, what stops you? If you are free this Wednesday evening, are you planning on coming to the Station Mass with Archbishop George? Jesus ate and drank and enjoyed time with his disciples. In this community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we EXPLORE our faith and deepen our knowledge. When did you last pick up a Christian book? Are you reading this Lent’s Walk With Me or our Christmas gift of Rediscover Jesus? If you don’t normally come to our parish “Connect & Explore” groups, what stops you? The boy Jesus asked questions in the Temple, and as a man spoke to crowds of thousands. In your hunger to learn God’s word, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we VOLUNTEER our time and talents for the good of this parish and the world around us. Many things can be done even while we are at Sunday Mass – we are blessed with so many altar servers and welcomers. We need more people willing to sing and help with music, though. Some tasks can be done at times which suit you – the church needs to be cleaned at some point in the week, and we need more volunteer cleaners. Jesus stepped up and helped people even when he was weary. In the way you serve this parish and the wider community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVITE people to step into our community. Today’s prayers are a call to confession especially for those among us who, already baptised, now wish to become full members of the Catholic Church this Easter. We rejoice! But our church will not be complete until all the people of Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn, Pontprennau and St Edeyrn’s Village are worshipping with us. One easy thing to do is to take one of these fliers and invite a friend to come to the Friday lunchtime talk at the Cathedral during Lent. Jesus looked at his future disciples and said, “Come and follow me!” In the way you introduce your friends to our Catholic community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVEST in the work of the church. Today we have an opportunity to support CAFOD in its work empowering people in countries who don’t enjoy our level of wealth. Next month we will be looking at the financial needs of our own parish for the coming year. The apostles had a fund to help the poor, and Jesus praised generous giving to the Temple.* In the way you use your money, do you look like Jesus?

God has high expectations of us. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. Perhaps one or two of the things I have mentioned have stirred a sense of discomfort in you. If you’re aware of avoiding something God is calling you do to, I’ve got good news. First, decide in your heart to do it. Next, come and talk to me in the confessional about why you’ve been avoiding God’s call. Most importantly, go and do it! And then, you will look a little bit more like Jesus!

expectations


* A very good summary of how Jesus and the Apostles supported the poor is on this page by Jehovah’s Witnesses. While I don’t share their views about the ‘world to come’, and don’t endorse any links that may go from that page, they do fairly summarise the things that Jesus said and did!