Certain Death

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A.

Three times in my life, I’ve narrowly avoided being caught in a terrorist attack.

When I was an undergraduate, the IRA planted a bomb in the Reject Shop in Oxford. That afternoon, I was in a college building which was back-to-back with that shop.

When the 7/7 bombs went off on public transport in London in 2005, I was visiting a friend in Canterbury. But the previous day, I had been on a tube train, at the same time and place where one of those bombs exploded.

At 2 pm a week last Wednesday, I was just leaving Westminster Abbey. I could so easily have headed for Westminster tube station, but the friend I was with suggested we take a bus to Victoria instead. The first I knew of that afternoon’s terrible events was when I was safely on a train out of Paddington.

Once, I was driving along the M4 just outside Cardiff when a driver pulled out right in front of me, forcing me to swerve into the fast lane. My car fishtailed wildly before settling down – fortunately I didn’t hit the crash barrier or any other traffic, but it was quite a fright.

Each of those moments is one where I can rightly say, “but for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Sometimes, the worst does happen. On Tuesday, the BBC showed a personal reflection by the footballer, Rio Ferdinand. His wife died just 10 weeks after being diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and now Rio has to be “Mum” as well as “Dad” to his children.

Lent forces us to face up to the dark side of life. In recent weeks we’ve been challenged to tackle those faults we are only too aware of, and face up to the hidden faults we don’t want to admit. Now we must confront the ultimate challenge: we’re all going to die. That’s why it’s so significant that Our Lord didn’t stop Lazarus from dying.

Jesus could have healed Lazarus by a word, even at a distance, as soon as the messengers came to him.

Jesus could have set out for Bethany immediately, and might have arrived in time to prevent him dying.

But no, Our Lord tarried for two days in the wilderness stating that this sickness “would not end in death”. St John says that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead as a sign for us. God’s plan is that we pass through death and enter into eternal life. St Paul also acknowledges this, speaking about our mortal bodies.

Knowing that we’re going to die forces us to ask important questions. Knowing that it’s possible for any one of us to be taken by a swift disease or a sudden accident means that we shouldn’t wait until we’re retired to face up to them.

First question – Have you made a funeral plan?

If you live without a partner, it’s a great kindness to your family to leave clear instructions about what you want. Do you have ideas about music or Bible readings? Is it important to you that your funeral is a Requiem Mass? It often happens these days that when grown-up children are not practicing Catholics, they choose not to have a Mass for their parent. It’s not essential to have a Mass at your funeral – Masses can be offered at other times – but if you have Catholic friends who will mourn your passing, why wouldn’t you choose a Mass for them to pray at? And suggesting the music is very helpful when your family are not churchgoers. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help to plan your funeral while you are still healthy – Deacon Steve or myself, or a member of our parish bereavement group, would be happy to advise you.

Second question – Have you made a will?

Wills are important. It’s only be making a will that you can ensure that your property is used in the way you wish after your death. You don’t need to use a lawyer to write your will, but it’s probably a good idea to do so if there is a house or land involved. The cheapest way to access a lawyer is to wait until November and find one who is part of the WillAid initiative – instead of paying a legal fee, you make a donation to one of nine nominated charities. There are two Catholic charities in the mix – the Scottish and Irish countparts of CAFOD.

Third question – if you are living with a partner, Are you married?

Marriage is important. Marriage is the way that two people register their relationship with the Government. Being married protects your rights to your partner’s pension, property and possessions. There is no such thing as a “common-law marriage”. Just because two people of similar age live in the same house, this proves nothing. They could be lodgers, lovers, or limbering up to leave. How does the Government know that the relationship is one where you want your partner to inherit everything you own? Simple – you register it. And registering a family relationship is what we traditionally call marriage. This is one of the reasons why our Church says it is so important to be married before starting a family. Why would you want your partner and children to be left without that legal protection if the worst did happen suddenly?

I don’t have time to speak today about the spiritual side of bereavement. I would simply point you to St Martha, who had every right to be furious with Jesus for allowing her to live through the death of her brother. Yet Martha puts her trust the Lord, knowing he will raise her brother to everlasting life at the end of time. At Easter, we will celebrate the amazing news that eternal life awaits us following bodily death.

They say only two things are certain in life: death, and taxes. Most of us will never be anywhere a terrorist attack, so let’s resist the temptation to give worry and energy to something that probably won’t happen to us. Instead, let’s do something positive about something that certainly will happen. By making a funeral plan, we can prepare well for death – and by getting married and making a will, we can even do something about the taxes!

Further reading:

The art of dying well – Catholic pastoral care of the dying.

Planning Your Catholic Funeral – from the Pastoral Care Project.

The Government’s view – speech by Iain Duncan Smith MP.

A Sunday Times article – warning, some crude language!

Family: What’s really important?

Two parents and three children silhouetted against a twilight skyHomily at St Philip Evans, for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Continuing our series on the Family, based on Amoris Laetitia.

Last week, I met a young mother who’d spent a year studying Catholic teaching on the family. I asked her what the one most important message was that Catholic preachers should share. Her answer? “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.”

Today’s Bible readings lead us into the fraught area of family relationships. Martha is at odds with her sister, Mary, and tries to draw Jesus Himself into the conflict. They also remind us that God loves families. God’s unexpected promise to Abraham resulted in the birth of a son, Isaac, grandfather of the 12 children who would be the ancestors of the Israelites. Jesus was born to the family of Mary and Joseph, and befriended the household of another Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

In families, we can find amazing love. And in families, we will experience annoying strife. Martha falls into the trap of putting her own goals first – getting the housework done. Jesus points out that Mary has chosen what is truly valuable. In our own age, Pope Francis has written about family tensions and suggests how we can find joy. What he has written is especially important for relationships between husbands and wives, but much applies also to every group of family members who live under one roof.

Within families, we must use the words “please”, “thanks”, and “sorry” every day. There are no perfect families; but as we address together our limits, defects and imperfections, we grow in our ability to love and can hope that “the best is yet to come”.

One big question young people ask is why two people should bother to get married rather than just living together. Marriage is a declaration that two people wish to start a new social unit: independent of their parents but taking responsibility for each other. Marriage allows each spouse to declare in a public ceremony that they have found their partner to be worthy of unconditional love! More than that, there’s strong evidence that a couple is much more likely to stay together if the partners have made public promises to each other.

Pope Francis notes that lovers are looking for something permanent. Children and friends of married couples long for their love to endure. All humans have an instinct for sealing a permanent bond; for us as Christian believers, we see that such a vow is an image of God’s faithfulness to us. Even so, the Pope reminds us to be realistic: no human marriage can perfectly reflect the love of the Blessed Trinity.

It’s a good thing to grow old together, to care for one another’s needs. This needs a commitment to unselfishness. For many young people, this is a scary thought – if I make a lifelong promise, am I closing off my other options? Yes – but consider the alternative! If I’m not willing to make a lifelong promise, can I reasonably expect another person to always be there for me? No. Marriage isn’t always pleasurable, but there can be joy experienced even amid sorrow as couples deal with ups and downs, growing ever closer in friendship.

Pope Francis knows that the way we do family is changing. In past ages, it would have been normal for a husband to go out to work and make the big decisions, and for a wife to do all the housework. Now, the Pope notes, there’s a more equal sharing of responsibility, and better communication between husband and wife. And communication is key! Mary knew that the most important thing on that day was to sit and listen to Jesus. We too must make time to listen to God – but we must also take time to listen to the important people in our lives.

One great sadness for me as a priest comes when women speak with me about the ups and down of their married life. I often ask whether their husband would be willing to go on a marriage enrichment weekend – or if they are facing serious relationship problems, whether they have considered marriage counselling. The most common reply is “Oh no, my husband would never be willing to go to anything like that.” So just for a moment, I want to speak to the husbands present at this Mass:

As husbands, you have made a promise to love your wife. You cannot love your wife properly unless you take time to understand her needs. It’s natural for us as men to resist the idea that we need help with relationships. That little proud voice in our heads says: “Just give me time, I can figure it out!” But remember that Jesus, the perfect man, sacrificed his life for the Church. You, Christian husbands are called to put aside your pride whenever it gets in the way of making your marriage a great marriage. Men of God, I place before you a challenge: Before this day has ended, ask your wife whether she would like to go with you on a retreat for married couples. Or if you know there is some big unresolved issue between the two of you, ask her whether she would find it helpful to try marriage counselling. Husbands, the question you put to your wife today might just be the best one since you asked: “Will you marry me?”

In any important relationship, we must take time to deeply listen to one another. No matter how much you think you’re in the right, affirm the other person’s right to have their own perspective – indeed, welcome the fact that they see things differently. Don’t raise awkward ideas needlessly, or speak in a tone of voice which could cause offence – and deal with the most painful issues sensitively.

How did Jesus resolve this family dispute? He asked Martha: “What’s really important?” The young mother I met wanted husbands and wives to know “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.” All of us are called to “love our neighbour”. So whatever is causing stress in your family right now, reflect on the Lord’s question: “What’s really important?” Choose your answer carefully, because you will be living with it for the rest of your life!

Further thoughts for this Blog and the Parish Bulletin:

Pope Francis reminds us that we should show affection and concern and concern for those we love – don’t regard the other person as a threat, or someone who needs to be proved wrong. Even something as simple as a glance can signal our care and concern; when this is not offered, when a person becomes “invisible”, they will act up, with a desire to be noticed! (On that note, I will make a pre-emptive apology. One of my personal weaknesses is tunnel vision – if I have ever walked past you in the supermarket without saying hello, please assume it’s because I was scanning the shelves for the next purchase, not because I noticed you and chose to blank you!)

We are called to be witnesses to the love of God and the goodness of marriage. Christians must be seen to be willing to lay down their lives for others, and forgive without condemning; parents do this instinctively.

Violence begets violence within families; each family should foster open and supportive relationships, good communication and shared activities. Broken families lose their ability to shield members from addictive temptations. We recognise the very difficult choices faced by single mothers in situations of poverty; we must not rush to criticise their life-choices but find ways to offer the healing message of the Gospel.

Migration disrupts or destroys families, especially when enforced by violence. The Church has a special call to work with migrants, and is especially concerned about Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

The Catholic Church offers useful resources to support marriage and family life in England and Wales: www.catholicfamily.org.uk – the American Bishops have some very useful resources too at www.foryourmarriage.org. If you are married to a person active in another Christian denomination, you will find support from other people who understand the joys and tensions of this situation at www.interchurchfamilies.org.uk.

If you are ready to go on a weekend which will enrich your marriage, WorldWide Marriage Encounter wwme.org.uk offers residential weekends and SmartLoving smartloving.org offers non-residential weekends or days. If you are feeling more ambitious and can devote six days, the Chemin Neuf community www.chemin-neuf.org.uk runs a “Cana Week” in South-West England each summer. Or if it’s simply not possible for you to go away at the moment, you can work through the REFOCCUS Marriage Enrichment programme from www.foccusinc.com at home.

If you are aware that there are more serious issues in your marriage which you need to address, Marriage Care can help: phone 0800 389 3801 for an appointment or visit www.marriagecare.org.uk. Retrouvaille www.retrouvaille.org is a mainly Catholic group offering retreats and day workshops for married couples in difficulty, and will be running a day in Hertfordshire on 16 September 2016. Finally, if you are not comfortable with the way your partner is treating you, but don’t know where else to turn, be aware that  there is a 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline which you can access on 0808 2000 247.

Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.

  • Marriages in difficulty: 38, 62, 231-252
  • Love in relationships: 89-119
  • Love in marriage: 27-29, 120-141
  • Passion, sexual violence, celibacy: 142-162
  • Violence, refugees, poverty 46, 49, 51

This Is My Body, Given Up For You

Homily for Sunday Mass (13th in Ordinary Time, Year C) for a Couples for Christ Marriage Enrichment Retreat.

“This is my body, given up for you.”

Whenever we attend Holy Mass, we hear the priest pronounce these words.

“This is my body, given up for you.”

All of us who receive Holy Communion are connected; we form the Body of Christ, which is the Church. All of us who receive Holy Communion are heirs to the promise of Jesus that doing this will secure for us eternal life. That is, when our bodies die, our souls – the very essence which makes us who we are – will be safe with Jesus in a life which has no end; and we believe that one day God will give us new and everlasting bodies.

But the God who promises us such wonders in the future also leads us through the trials of daily life in the here-and-now, where our bodies are fragile and our toil is real. We are tempted daily to put ourselves first, to give in to selfishness and self-indulgence. Our Christian message asks us to resist this, and to love one another.

There’s a Christian rap song called F.A.M.I.L.Y. – “forget about me, I love you”. Living marriage well requires a daily decision to put the needs of your spouse ahead of your own. Pope Francis has spoken to the priests and people of Rome, acknowledging how so many parents miss out on time with their children because the parent does not make it home until the child’s bedtime. In his recent letter on family life, he notes that when you choose to marry someone, you take on a whole new family. Pope Francis says this: “Your in-laws are not a threat! You are called to be generous to them – because this is also an act of love towards your husband or wife.” But the Pope also acknowledges that each household is entitled to its own privacy. Respecting your mother-in-law doesn’t mean running your house by her rules!

The Pope has no easy answers to the trials of 21st Century living, but he does offer us some directions: when grandparents can be part of the home life, this is good. When the Church community can be a place of hospitality for young people, this is excellent. Above all, Jesus promises not to leave us orphans. We must do our best to help our children to make a real connection with Jesus, so they know the great gift they have been given: The Lord of the Universe offers them a personal friendship, and says: “This is my body, given up for you.”

These words of Our Lord also have a special meaning for you, who have been called to holiness through marriage. Within the partnership of your marriage, each of you is called to say daily to your spouse, through your words and through your actions, “This is my body, given up for you.”

Part of the genius of St John Paul II was to give us a new focus for married relationships, not based on a list of ‘don’ts’ from Church teaching, but based on the idea of radical unselfishness. Jesus gave us the great commandment to “love one another,” using a Greek word for love, agape, which means self-sacrificing service. St Paul counselled the followers of Jesus to “regard others as better than yourselves”. Listen carefully to what he asks of us! He is NOT calling for us to have a negative self-image, to say “I am not as important as other people.” Rather, from a position of strength, we can say to ourselves: “I am a person of equal dignity and worth, but I am going to treat you as if your needs are more important than mine.” If both halves of a partnership do this, you will meet each other halfway. The alternative is struggling with each other to be the “greatest”, and Our Lord was most unimpressed when he found his disciples arguing over that title!

You are not alone. Our Lord understands your tiredness, your weakness, your search for meaning in toil. Eat of the Lord’s body, draw life from him, find the strength to live this life of daily sacrifice – and remember that Eucharist means “Thanksgiving”, always our appropriate response when we receive the benefits of a sacrifice.

When we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.”

This mystery of our faith reminds us at Mass to be like Jesus, to lay down our lives for others. What Jesus freely gives to us, we can freely give to others.

A husband works long hours at a manual job, and returns home aching and sore. “This is my body, given up for you.”

A mother notices her stretch marks, remembers her youth, looks at her children and says inwardly: “This is my body, given up for you.”

A couple who understand what it means to live their sexual life without selfishness embrace each other on the altar of the marriage bed, and each says to the other: “This is my body, given up for you.”

Our Lord Jesus, who could have called a legion of angels to remove him from his Passion at any moment, embraces the altar of the Cross, and says: “This is my body, given up for you.”

This Eucharist, this Mass, is the Lord’s marital embrace to his beloved, his bride, his church. We are to receive his body into ourselves in the most physical way possible. We do this at the hands of a priest, who has made his own act of sacrifice; forsaking the right to marry to fully embrace the call to priesthood, the priest too says to his parish and to each congregation he serves, “This is my body, given up for you.”

It is my privilege to offer daily the Sacrifice of the Most Holy Eucharist, when I say to the gathered Church, lending my voice to the Lord, “This is my body, given up for you.” It is your privilege, in the family home, in the domestic Church, to offer the Sacrifice of Holy Matrimony. When you toil long hours for your daily bread, when you bathe your children, when you do the household chores, and yes, when you show your love to one another in the physical way which God has reserved for marriage, you, together with Christ living within you, declare to your husband, to your wife, “This is my body, given up for you.” Your marriage too will bear witness to the world as you remember His next words: “Do this in memory of me.”


Why I Did Not Sign That Letter

Recently, 461 Catholic priests signed a letter to the Catholic Herald which ended with the following call: “We urge all those who will participate in the second Synod in October 2015 to make a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed.”

I was not one of them.

Like many other priests in England & Wales, I was offered the opportunity to put my name to this letter. I chose not to do so, because I felt that the letter lacked trust in what the Synod was trying to achieve.

Doctrine has always developed in the Catholic Church. Unlike a democratic Prime Minister or President, a Pope cannot reverse a policy of his predecessor once it has been clearly identified as doctrine. But there is often room to nuance things. I do not believe the Synod – an organ of our Church, guided by the Holy Spirit – is in danger of reversing that which is clearly established. It is clear Catholic teaching that a ratified and consummated sacramental marriage between a man and a woman cannot be dissolved except by death of one of the spouses. It is clear Catholic teaching that a person in mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion. The Synod will not change these teachings, because it cannot.

For the record, I believe that the only appropriate context for a sexual act is between a man and woman married to each other.

For the record, I believe that Jesus did teach us that we are called to a form of marriage which does not admit of divorce.

I have taught and will continue to teach these clear truths as a Catholic priest.

But… I also think there are legitimate questions which the Synod can explore.

We know that there are reasons why a relationship which apparently was a marriage might not have reached the kind of mutual consent required to forge an unbreakable bond. Perhaps there are other grounds, beyond those already accepted, which might prevent something becoming a true Christian marriage in the first place?

We know that while those in mortal sin should not approach Holy Communion, those struggling with venial sin should, because Communion is medicine for the soul. Might there be circumstances where a person in a relationship which is gravely sinful would lack the freedom or knowledge to make that grave sin a mortal sin?

There are no easy answers to these questions; but these and similar questions are precisely those which our bishops should be exploring in a Synod; perhaps there will be innovative answers which develop the Catholic tradition without contradicting it. There again, perhaps it will become clear that there is no room for any practical change on these matters. Whatever position the Magisterium takes, when the Synod process results in a final document with Papal approval, that is what I shall teach.

Meanwhile, I could not, in good conscience, sign a letter asking Synod participants to make a “clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching”. The implication of this would have been that nothing further can possibly change, making the Synod a pointless exercise. I would gladly say to the Synod participants: “Without wavering from those points which are firmly established as the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, please clarify those things which can usefully be clarified at this point in the Church’s development of doctrine.”

May God bless the forthcoming Synod and all who take part in it; and may God also grant grace to those who are called to live out the church’s teaching yet struggle to do so in practice.

Signed – Revd Gareth Leyshon


Only Connect

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Lent, With Scrutinies (Year A Readings).

The Seven Word Sermon: We are spiritual and religious, following Christ.The woman, standing, hands a jar of water to Jesus, seated

Would you prefer to be religious, or just spiritual?

One ancient interpretation of the word “religion” is “reconnect”. Today’s Gospel begins with a connection between two people. Jesus, tired and thirsty, speaks to a woman with a bucket – an unaccompanied woman out in the noonday sun. The place and the time suggest that she is unwelcome in this village. But Jesus makes the first move – He makes a connection.

Simple moments like make a huge difference. I once had a conversation with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness, in which I asked her how she had come to join them. She explained she’d been brought up Church of England, but when her beloved dog died, her vicar was unconcerned; her neighbours, who were Witnesses, expressed a lot of sympathy – so she joined their community.

In every religion, we will find that there are many members whose main reason for being there is a sense of belonging, a familiarity and safety which brings a deep comfort through being with the people, or in the building. They flourish because of this sense of “connection”. This will even be true of some of us in this parish, because we are human beings too.

Jesus takes the conversation to the next level. He starts talking about ‘living water’, an inner experience which is clearly life-giving. Today we might call this ‘spirituality’, which is all about the inner life and our sense of connection with God. The woman is clearly interested – after all, who wouldn’t want this wonderful gift if it were freely on offer? So how is she to become connected to this water supply?

Jesus draws attention to the woman’s marital status, or lack of it. There is something shameful about her current state in life: that’s why she’s out, alone, in the noonday sun. There’s at least a hint that her current relationship is with a man married to someone else. The woman is all too aware of the guilt she feels. So as soon as Jesus begins to hint that receiving this living water depends on her integrity in relationships, she quickly changes the subject. So Jesus wants to be religious? She quickly brings up the obvious problem with religion: Different leaders propose different rules. Who’s to say which rules really matter?

Jesus doesn’t give the answer she expects. Rather than defend the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, he speaks of spirit and truth. ‘Spirit’ is about connection with God. ‘Truth’ means that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. But how is the woman to find the right answer? There is only one person she can trust to bring that, the long-promised Messiah. “Gotcha!” says Jesus (though not in those words!) Suddenly, she realizes that Truth Himself is sitting in front of her, speaking to her!

Annoyingly, this is where the woman’s story stops. We’re not told what she does about her current relationship. We’re not told how she experiences this gift of life-giving water. We only know that she does become a spring of hope for the village, by calling all the local people to come and hear Jesus.

Two weeks ago, I preached about marriage, and explained that it was God’s plan that a man and woman should make a public, lifelong commitment to come together before starting their shared life. Today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus came with an invitation for everyone, especially those who aren’t living by their religion’s rules. Jesus wants EVERYONE to taste the living water. But what Jesus offers is religion, not spirituality. It is an invitation to reconnect with God, and it comes with rules – God’s rules. The woman at the well recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one person with authority to tell her how to live her life.

Jiao, Russell, Dariella, not many weeks from now you are due to be baptised. If what you are really looking for is to belong to this community, think twice about Baptism. You are already welcome among us, and you are getting to know other members of the church community. You will always have a place among us. But Baptism is not simply about being a full member of this parish, about taking communion because the people around you are doing so. Baptism is your declaration that you want to connect with our religion, the religion which recognises Jesus as Messiah, Teacher and Lord.

And to all of us who were baptised on the say-so of our parents, today presents a challenge. Are we proud to be religious? Are we confident followers of Jesus? If we met Jesus in person today, what would he speak to us about? Is there anything in our lives He would challenge? Lent is the season when we challenge ourselves so Jesus doesn’t have to. Jesus has living water on offer, a gift which will refresh our inner spirit and give us new purpose in life.

To receive this living water we must first accept Jesus as Lord and deal with anything in our life which is not connected to his will. To help you with this, there is an examination of conscience from Pope Francis in today’s newsletter. To help you with this, The Light Is On For You in the confessional this Wednesday at 7 pm, and on the coming Wednesdays in March also.

We don’t like being challenged to change. We grumble – we say we like spirituality but not what our religion asks of us. Moses had the same problem in the wilderness. The Israelites liked being rescued from Egypt, but didn’t like the barren desert which God had brought them to. Even Moses doubted that God was going to provide water for their thirst, until it happened.

“It is by faith that we can receive God’s glory”, says St Paul. What does faith mean? It’s not only about the religious ideas in our heads. True faith is when we act believing that Jesus is Lord and his teaching is true. We must take a step of faith, before we can taste the living water.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, God is offering us something truly amazing – His own Spirit living in our hearts, guiding us daily, helping us hear God’s voice. But to receive this gift, we must deal with sin. We must live our life in all respects – in our caring for the needy, in our commitment to prayer, and in our sexual relationships – according to God’s law. We must be religious – followers of the Catholic religion – to make the connection which allows us to receive God’s Spirit in full. If only you knew the gift of God! Once tasted, who would settle for anything less?

Why Marriage?

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

The Seven Word Sermon: Marriage is God’s idea – a permanent bond.

This Lent, we’ll be reflecting a great deal on marriage – it’s something our bishops have asked us to focus on before the next Vatican Synod on marriage and family life this October. It’s something I’ve talked about in recent sermons, suggesting ways to enrich married life, and reminding us that there is no obligation on Catholics to stay in a situation of domestic violence. But today, at the start of Lent, I want to take a step back and ask why the Church is so concerned about marriage in the first place.

Marriage affects all of us. Some of us are currently married. Some of us will never marry. Some of us are no longer married. But all of us will interact with married people on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and our attitudes and actions can either build up or undermine the marriages around us. So whatever your current status, please join me for this journey through Lent which begins with a very basic question: Why marriage?

Today’s readings contain two powerful themes – Kingdom and Covenant. A Covenant is a solemn promise made between two parties. Sometimes this is by mutual consent. But the covenant God makes with Noah and his descendants is one-sided. After sending a flood to destroy the wickedness of the human race, God spontaneously promises never to do so again. There are other covenants in the Bible, too. Some come with conditions – God tells the people of Israel, through Moses, that He will protect them if they follow the Commandments and other laws set out by Moses. Others are unconditional – King David is told that his descendants will be kings forever. That didn’t happen in the politics of Israel, but it is true of Jesus, the everlasting King of David’s line.

In today’s Gospel, hotfoot from 40 days in the desert, Jesus comes into town to proclaim that “God’s Kingdom is close by!” This is good news – surely things will be better with God in charge – but it’s also challenging. If you haven’t been keeping God’s laws very well, do you want God to turn up in your life? Jesus is firm but fair. You can repent, and make a fresh start with God, but you do have to acknowledge that God makes the rules – that’s the Kingdom.

What are God’s rules? In many cases, Jesus undid the work of Jewish religious leaders who had set out rules much more demanding than those given by God. For Jesus it was not a problem to pick your own lunch or cure a sick person on the Sabbath Day, and it was a religious duty to help a leper or a wounded traveller, even if that made you ritually unclean. But when it came to having a pure heart, Jesus set out a law more demanding than Moses. He pulled no punches in warning us that we are in danger of going to Hell if we let lust master our lives, or fail to restrain our anger towards others, or do not give of our resources to help the poor and needy.

And then there’s marriage. When he spoke about that, Jesus gave a teaching so challenging that even his apostles did a double-take and asked if he really meant what their ears were hearing. Yes, said Jesus, this was God’s plan from the beginning. Once two people become one flesh, they are joined by God and no earthly power should separate them. When St Paul pondered this, he came to see that marriage lived out as such a total commitment would reflect the way that Jesus gave his life for the Church – such a marriage would be a sign that God’s Kingdom was present in the world today. For this reason, marriage itself is honoured with the name which the Bible gives to the most solemn of promises – it, too, is a Covenant.

What makes a marriage? It is made by the deliberate choice of a man and a woman who each declare that from that day forward, the most important priority in their life will be their partner’s wellbeing. This is very different from a purely practical decision to have a joint bank account for household expenses, or two parents making a pragmatic decision to share caring duties for their child. Marriage is an irrevocable decision that the most important human being in your life is no longer yourself, but your Significant Other. Such a commitment would be quite dangerous and completely irresponsible, unless it were made to a person making the same kind of commitment to you!

Two years ago, a British High Court Judge resigned so that he could speak up for marriage. Sir Paul Coleridge had served for some years in the High Court’s family division. Late in 2012 he wrote a newspaper article noting that marriage “brings clarity and removes ambiguity” from relationships. He was concerned that couples who merely live together are much more likely to suffer a relationship breakdown than those who have made a positive commitment to stay together. Although there are statistics which back this up, he was given an official warning that this was not an acceptable view for a judge to hold publicly. Rather than compromise his morals, he resigned and now runs the Marriage Foundation, which reminds British Society that there are positive good things about being married, and proposes sound reasons why politicians should not be afraid to say that marriage is a Good Thing.

Today, our bishops offer us a prayer card to take home reminding us of positive things we believe about marriage. Alongside this, it’s good to note that research shows that being married makes a positive difference. Indeed, the evidence is that one in three unmarried couples with an infant will have split up by the time the child is 7, but only one in eight married couples with an infant will break up in the same timeframe. Nevertheless, our core reason for supporting marriage is not based on statistics or our personal political views. The MAIN reason we believe in marriage is one of faith. Jesus wasn’t willing to compromise on the idea of a lifelong commitment being essential for sexual partners. We cannot follow him and do otherwise.

One final thought: Sir Paul’s Marriage Foundation has a logo – an arch made of stones. Sir Paul chose that because arches come in every shape and size and can be very beautiful when well designed and built. Arches usually join together two inherently unstable structures; the two pillars on either side. But when an arch joins the two sides, the whole becomes immeasurably stronger. In times of serious instability – an earthquake – there is no better place to stand than under a well constructed arch. I don’t know if Sir Paul had the rainbow in mind, but remember: God chose an arch as the sign of his covenant with us, too!

A stylized arch of yellow blocks and an orange keystone.

0 Shades of Grey

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, 2015.

The Seven Word Sermon: Reject porn at all costs – it’s sin!a stylized TV set with XXX in red on a black banner

Today God asks us not to be drawn into worshipping false gods. A god is anything which has a controlling effect on our lives, and tonight I am going to speak about one such god: pornography.

In a recent survey, 75% of Christian men admitted looking at porn at least once a month. 42% of Christian men admitted having a porn addiction. That tells me it is something I need to talk about, and with 50 Shades of Grey in the news, it is all too topical.

Why is porn bad?

First, have no doubt that someone sins by making it, someone sins by distributing it and someone sins by selling it. As soon as you get involved, you are asking a whole chain of people to sin on your behalf. Anyone who causes others to sin will answer to God for their actions.

Second, recent research shows that exposure to even not-very-graphic images rewires your brain and raises our expectations of what might be possible. But you will marry a real human being, not a porn star. Your current or future spouse becomes more inadequate each time your expectations are raised. And porn becomes even worse when it suggests violence should be involved in lovemaking. This not only raises our own personal level of what to expect, it subtly raises society’s level of what might be tolerated.

Third, porn makes relationships about sex instead of about a person. But St John Paul II warned us clearly that human dignity means we must never use another person as a means to our own pleasure.

What would happen if you lived the Catholic way, and never tried sex until your wedding night?

First, you would be able to give your life partner the gift of being your first time and your only ever partner. You can only give one person your virginity. Make it count!

Second, you would never be tempted to compare your husband or wife with anyone else’s sexual performance… how would you know? St Paul reminds us that any sexual act forms a bond between two souls. This can be dealt with spiritually. But the memories remain.

Third, good sex wouldn’t be the reason you married that person. This will make your relationship more robust for the times when for reasons of health or avoiding conceiving, sex is off the menu.

Of course, any couple who followed Catholic principles wouldn’t find out if they were sexually compatible until their wedding night. But the church has provision for this – a marriage does not become sealed until it is consummated. Being unable to couple with one another is the one reason which does allow the Church to dissolve a valid marriage.

Meanwhile, what are we to do about pornography? For those tempted to use it, the only answer is self-discipline. Every day, renounce your own desires and choose to do the will of God – just as Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way to be holy. It’s the only way to live a life worthy of God. When you wake up, say to yourself: “Today, I will not look at porn.” Make it a promise to God. Make it a promise to yourself. Make it a promise to your future, or current, wife. And get help. Blocking software helps. Confession helps, but don’t fall into the trap of kidding yourself that “it’s OK, I can always go to confession later.” And look for support on websites like xxxchurch and theporneffect.

All of us, whether we struggle with this or not, can make a point of asking newsagents to move dirty images to less visible shelves; and if someone asks us about 50 Shades, we can say we would never dream of going to see such a movie, because it offends human dignity.

Today God sets a path before us of life or death. Each time we choose porn, we drive a nail into our soul, a nail into our current or future spouse, a nail into the soul of each person who works in the porn industry, and a nail into the body of Christ. Each nail takes us one step closer to death. What gain, then, is it for a man to have won the whole world and to have lost or ruined his very self? Choose life!

Update: comprehensive list of useful websites now available at: www.tinyurl.com/PornPreventionResources