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.

Let it be done according to your will.

Homily to members and friends of Sion Community on the Solemnity of the Annunciation 2020

“Let it be done to me according to thy will.”

These are dangerous words – powerful words.

With these words, a brave woman puts aside her own will and desires, and yields to another.

We have just lived through the era of “#MeToo” – five million women have stood up and said that things have been done to them against their will. This is a powerful sign of lust and sin being present in the world. Sin is always the responsibility of the sinner, but also of a society which tolerates that which must not be tolerated.

In the age of “#MeToo”, Our Blessed Mother stands apart as ‘That One’ – the name given to her by St Bernadette, Aquerò in her local dialect. She is the one who was always pure, yet accepted suffering for the salvation of others. She risked death in her becoming an unmarried mother, hardship in her exile in Egypt, and heartbreak at the foot of the Cross. Her voice cries out ‘Do whatever He tells you’ and she gives the example of perfect surrender to the will of God.

“Let it be done to me according to thy will.”

Saints through the ages have followed her example and given their ‘fiat’. Saints Francesco and Jacinta, the child visionaries of Fatima, accepted her invitation to suffer for the salvation of souls. They died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20. St Maximilian Kolbe accepted the red crown of martyrdom and offered his life for a Jewish prisoner. St Gianna Molla gave her life to secure her unborn daughter. Fr Giuseppe Berardelli died in an Italian hospital last weekend – parishioners brought a ventilator to the hospital but he insisted it be given to a younger patient also suffering from the coronavirus.

A virus.

What is a virus? My memory stirred with the knowledge that it comes from the Latin word for poison. Before we understood genetics, scientists were aware that there was some harmful ‘substance’ which passed from patient to patient. They gave it this name, which in Latin can mean poison, slime, or – snake venom! This particular kind of virus is a package of genetic material covered with a knobbly surface, like a spiky crown. A coronavirus is literally a poisoned crown, a crown of venom. A virus is also like a seed, in that it plants itself in a body and reproduces itself – the seed of the serpent.

In God’s plan, there are no coincidences. Scripture itself has something to say about the seed of the serpent. When the serpent tempts Eve and she eats of the forbidden fruit, she is cursed yet given a promise:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’

Some ancient manuscripts of Genesis read that she will crush the serpent. It seems to be part of God’s providence that this edit was made. We are familiar with art showing our Blessed Mother standing upon the head of a snake, imagery found in the Miraculous Medal. Our second reading makes it clear that her One Offspring, Jesus Christ, atoned for the sins of the world by perfectly submitting to God’s will. But Mary stands also for the Church, for all God’s faithful children, who as the living Body of Christ play their part in the battle against evil, against the seed of the serpent.

Many Catholics in England have heeded the call of our bishops to entrust themselves, for the first time, or as a rededication, to be tools in the hands of Mary. After following the pathway of ’33 Days to Morning Glory’, today is dedication day. Such an act of personal entrustment is not to be undertaken lightly. As we have seen, two of the Fatima visionaries died early deaths in an epidemic, offering their lives in atonement for others – but Lucia lived into her 90s as a witness. St Bernadette of Lourdes was given a promise to be made happy ‘not in this world but in the next’. The essential message of Fatima is about offering our prayers and fasting in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“Let it be done to me according to thy will.”

To make an act of entrustment to Mary is to give her permission to use you for ‘whatever it takes’.

Whatever it takes to make reparation for a society where lust, pornography and sexual harassment has become routine.

Whatever it takes to make reparation for a society which has not observed the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, despite the warning given by Our Lady at La Salette.

Whatever it takes to make reparation for a society which fills the airwaves with curses and blasphemies, using the Holy Name of Jesus as a casual expletive in the name of authentic entertainment.

‘Whatever it takes’ has no limits. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will find ways to fund Britain through the current crisis ‘whatever it takes’. The recent Avengers Endgame movie had heroes do ‘whatever it takes’ to reverse the erasure of half of humanity. Mary, with the aid of those entrusting themselves totally to her, will do ‘whatever it takes’ to overcome sin in the world.

Some of us may choose to dedicate or rededicate ourselves to Mary today. On Sunday our bishops will make a communal expression of our dedication as a nation. All of us can invoke her protection.

We have read today how King Ahaz is given permission to ask God for a sign! On this day, let us dare to do the same. O Mary, unite your prayers to ours! Beg for a sign of God’s healing power, of protection for your children and for the world!

The words on the Miraculous Medal were never more appropriate, for now above all we must have recourse to Mary. But I would share with you today the most ancient invocation to Mary – the Sub Tuum Praesidium, found a piece of parchment in Egypt. Egypt was Mary’s adopted home for a time – and England was where she revealed her will for a copy of her holy house to be constructed in Walsingham.

Here in Coventry where we take refuge in Mary’s home, the Ark of the New Covenant, and united in prayer with our extended family across the world, let us invoke her protection once again:

We fly to thy protection, O holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our needs, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

Rejoicing on the Sabbath

Homily to members and friends of Sion Community on the 4th Sunday of Lent (Year A) 2020Laetare Sunday

Why is Jesus spitting on us?

Let’s face it, most of us have had not had a good week.

We are followers of Jesus, we trust in his power to protect us – and yet, with the rest of the UK, and the rest of the world, we are caught up in a global crisis which will last for many weeks, if not months.

The world’s in a mess.

Now I know that’s a cliché – preachers always say the world is in a mess, and the answer is always Jesus. But today, can we all agree that the world really is in a mess? Can I get an Amen?

If you were a skeptic, you might well start doubting the existence of God right now. Like the Pharisees considering how Jesus healed the blind man, you would be asking, “Is this really the kind of thing God does?” Their problem wasn’t the healing – it was the suggestion that God’s power could have worked a miracle on the sabbath day!

We’re not skeptics. We are people who place our firm trust in Jesus Christ. But we too will have questions on a day like today – and if we want answers, we must look to Jesus himself. What does he say today?

The night will soon be here when no one can work.

And again:

It is for judgement that I have come into this world, so that those without sight may see and those with sight turn blind.

Friends, there has never been a time like today, when we can truly say a night is at hand, a night when no-one can work. True, essential services continue, but our way of life, if not our work, is on hold. So what does Jesus want us to see right now?

I see three things which are significant.

First, our Governments have done what they have had to do, in order to protect the lives of elderly people and sick people. Some commentators have pointed out that we are saving the lives of “those who would die soon anyway”. This is largely true – although Covid-19 can sometimes cause complications in younger, healthy individuals – so we can say that our politicians have taken the most massive pro-life action in human history. Our leaders are not willing to sit back and watch our grandparents die a few months or years before their time. On this Mother’s Day, let’s recognise that what is being done is to protect our mothers’ mothers – and our fathers’ fathers.

Second, despite the massive cost of taking these steps, money is being found to shelter the homeless. Hotel rooms are being made available to those who have no choice but to sleep on the streets. Isn’t it strange that in normal times there were no funds available to do that, but now there are?

Third, God is working on the Sabbath, the day of enforced rest. Our Western societies have disregarded the idea of a day of rest, and allowed Sunday to become a day for commerce – but at the same time, they have allowed technology to give some people a permanent sabbath. I am just old enough to remember the days when a petrol-pump attendant filled up your vehicle. Now, computers allow us to self-checkout at the supermarket, taking jobs away from human beings. I have to admit that I have been guilty, on busy days, of choosing the fast self-checkout, because I can, while wishing that as a society we hadn’t provided that option.

When the current emergency has passed, and the world has to rebalance its shattered economy, I hope we will look at the way we’ve used our resources at this time and ask ourselves how we should provide for the elderly, for the homeless, and how we protect a communal day of rest. We might also ask how we should ensure that technology is only used where it doesn’t take away a job opportunity for someone, even if that slows the pace of life a little.

But those are questions for a happier day in the future. Jesus also counselled us to only worry about today, because things will be different tomorrow. That is always true, but even more so today when we are receiving daily updates from our Governments about what we must do and what help we can receive. We really only can plan for one day at a time, so let’s stop worrying about whether our plans for weeks or months ahead can take place, and just focus on the next 24 hours.

There are lots of prayer requests circulating by email and social media right now, invitations to pray this prayer at that time as an act of solidarity. As a pastor, I want to give you permission to ignore all these requests, without guilt. They are invitations. They are suggestions. Please feel no pressure. Yes, we must all pray, each in our own way, at our own time. Our obligation, as Catholics, is to mark each Sunday and each Holy Day with a time of prayer in our own homes when we cannot attend Holy Mass. That is our only obligation to prayer. Thanks to the technology available, we can be part of a streamed Mass and make a spiritual communion when we cannot receive the Body of Christ physically. Beyond that, we are each free to pray in our own way. If someone claims that this prophet or that visionary has asked us to say certain payers, move in peace, not pressure, and look for confirmation online before forwarding any such message.

There is one prayer invitation I do want to pass on, because this one comes from all the Christian leaders in England, including Cardinal Nichols and the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with church leaders from Wales and Scotland. It’s an invitation just for today, 22 March 2020, the National Day of Prayer and Action in response to this global pandemic.

At 7pm this Sunday, light a candle in the windows of your homes as a visible symbol of the light of life, Jesus Christ, our source and hope in prayer.

Our leaders go on to remind us to look after our neighbours, and remain in contact with them and support them in their needs, at an appropriate physical distance.

Is what has happened at this time a punishment from God? I don’t know the answer to that. Sometimes, bad stuff just happens because that’s the way the world works. Jesus said that the blind man wasn’t blind because of any fault of his own, or his parents – but that it was part of God’s plan. The Bible does tell us that God ‘does nothing’ without revealing it to his prophets, so if this is a punishment, God will speak through someone with a recognised prophetic gift at an appropriate time. What I do know is that God turns all things to good for those who love his Son, so as with any disaster in our lives, we can be sure of two things: God has permitted this, and God will bring good out of it.

Every Sunday in Lent, the Morning Prayer of the Catholic Church proclaims the words of Nehemiah:

This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not be mournful, do not weep. For this day is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold.

Today, out of all the Sundays in Lent, is marked out as Laetare Sunday – Rejoicing Sunday – a moment to pause and rejoice in the midst of our fasting. We are people of hope, called to be children of the light. The Lord is our shepherd, and even though we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, let us fear no evil. The Lord has permitted this trial to come upon our global community, and the Lord will bring good out of it in due season.

Why is Jesus spitting on us? To open our blind eyes – to pause, to rest, to keep this Sabbath. So today, let us rejoice, and as for the next day – let’s not worry about that until tomorrow.

Not the Second Commandment

Homily at Nazareth House on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Icons are OK: Christ set the precedent.

What is the second of the Ten Commandments?

Divine Mercy, Tilma of Guadalupe, Miraculous Medal and Sacred Heart

Ask a Catholic, and they will tell you that it is, “Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.”

Ask a Protestant and they will say: “No, that is the third one. Before it comes, ‘Do not make an image of God.'”

But both agree that there are Ten Commandments, because we Catholics count “Do not covet your neighbour’s wife” as the ninth and “Do not covet his property” as number ten – the Protestants say they are both part of the Tenth Commandment.

It is very clear that the Old Testament required us not to make an image of anything in Heaven. Moses was horrified when he saw the people of Israel had made a golden calf. Jews and Muslims, to this day, take that commandment most seriously.

Yet from the earliest days of the Christian Church, we have felt free to make both statues and icons of our saints, and images of the crucified Christ.

Why?

Because we know what Jesus looks like.

In Jesus, God took the form of a man and walked among us. God himself chose a physical form to communicate to us the depths of His love. As St Paul says today, we preach Christ crucified.

Notable mystics have claimed that Jesus or Mary have appeared to them and commanded that images be made – St Margaret Mary Alacoque with Our Lord’s Sacred Heart, St Faustina painting Christ as the Divine Mercy, and St Catherine Labouré mass-producing the Miraculous Medal. In the case of Guadalupe, God himself provided St Juan Diego with a miraculous image of the Mother of God. Every time Heaven provides us with such an image, we are given another reminder that in Christ, God truly became man, born of a woman, and we beheld his glory.

We have evidence that images of Jesus were painted in Christian tombs in the Third Century, and one tradition says St Luke himself painted an icon of the Virgin Mary.

In the Eighth Century, this caused an almighty row among Christians. One side said the church had no authority to allow holy images, because Jesus had never said that was OK. The other side said God had given implicit permission by walking among us in human form. Christians turned violent. Images were smashed. Those who took action believed that, like Jesus cleansing the Temple, they were acting in a righteous cause to do God’s will.

Eventually, the world’s bishops met in a Council in the year 787 and agreed that images could be made and treated with honour – though the images themselves must not be worshipped as God should be worshipped.

800 years later, when the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe, the same thing happened. In Wales, as in many other places, statues were cast down and frescos were whitewashed over. The Reformers were acting in obedience to what they read in the Bible.

This issue shows us something profound about what it is to be a Catholic. We do not read the Bible alone. We trust that God also speaks through those traditions which go back to the time of the Apostles and through the bishops of our Church gathered in Council. If St Luke indeed painted an icon, that is reason enough to establish a tradition. If the Bishops in 787 decided that the implicit meaning of Christ becoming man was enough to overcome the explicit words of Moses, then the question is settled.

If friendly Protestants challenge us to justify our beliefs from the Bible, our answer must be that God also speaks apart from the Bible. For similar reasons we no longer keep the Sabbath on Saturday but gather to worship on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. In the Bible we read that the first Christians did this, but there is no explicit command to keep Sunday rather than Saturday, either. Yet even Protestants, except Seventh Day Adventists, observe Sundays!

The Bible does not number the Ten Commandments. How we count them is part of our tradition. Given our Catholic stance on images, it is quite understandable that we shy away from affirming that “Do not make an image” is one of the Ten Big Ones.The abridged version of today’s First Reading cuts out this instruction altogether! But it is there, in the Bible, within the text of the Ten Commandments, and in a world where we will meet other Christians who will ask questions, we need to know how to explain ourselves. There is no requirement for any Christian, Catholic or Protestant, to make use of holy images. We can agree to differ, and honour the sincerity (but not the request!) of those Protestants who urge us to clean out our Temple in obedience to the Second Commandment.

Meanwhile, as Lent continues, there are Ten Commandments to attend to, the Second of which asks us about our respect for God’s Holy Name. Perhaps something in our own personal Temple is in need of cleansing. So this week, let us take the Ten Commandments for our examination of conscience, and do so with all the zeal of Our Lord expelling the traders. On the need for this, I hope, all Christians can agree!

Thursday Night is Parish Night! (And Sunday is the Lord’s Day.)

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year A Divine Mercy Sunday.A blue dove with an olive branch - the logo of St Philip Evans Parish

The Lord has risen from the grave! Alleluia!

Errm, OK. Now what?

The friends and followers of Jesus had been on an emotional rollercoaster. For many months they’d travelled with him on the road, listening to his teachings and marvelling at his miracles. They’d been plunged into darkest despair when he was crucified on Calvary; filled with unspeakable joy at the news of his rising; and now they were coming to terms with the bittersweet reality that although he had risen, his plan was not to remain with them as he had been before. He had left them with two gifts – the teaching he had given to the Apostles after his Resurrection, and the Holy Spirit, given to strengthen and comfort the believers on the Day of Pentecost. Armed only with these tools, the friends and followers of Jesus set out to do what the Master has asked of them.

We’ve just read there were four things that mattered to the first Christians. First, they wanted to hear the teaching which Jesus had given his apostles. Second, they built a strong community – our reading said ‘brotherhood’ but the Greek word behind it is not male; it is ‘koinonia’, which means a close-knit community. Third, they practiced the ‘breaking of bread’ – they celebrated Mass. Fourth, they were faithful to prayer.

How did they do this? The first Christians attended the daily Jewish prayers at the Jerusalem Temple, but they also met in their own homes to celebrate Mass. We know from historical sources that Sunday was an ordinary working day. Despite this, the Christians would remember the Lord’s rising by gathering in the morning to sing psalms and again in the evening to celebrate Eucharist. Later, these two parts were combined into a single service more like the Mass we celebrate today.

Because it was important to those first followers of Jesus to celebrate Eucharist on Sunday, it is important to us. This is why, as far as possible, we come to Mass on Sundays – we include Saturday evenings, because the Jews counted a day to begin from nightfall. This is why our Archbishop makes sure that Mass is provided in Welsh and in British Sign Language on the Lord’s day. This is why, in many parishes across South Wales, priests drive between churches to ensure that two or even three different towns can have their own Mass on Sunday. This is why, across Cardiff city, priests ensure that Masses are available on Sunday at many different hours between 8.30 in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening. The priests and the deacons working with them do this because the first followers of Jesus knew it was a sign of our love and our faith to worship him on the Lord’s Day. In this way, we try to provide maximum flexibility so you can schedule other family committments around a Mass time that works for you.

But is Sunday Mass enough for us to do all four of the things which matter to the friends and followers of Jesus? We get a seven-minute sermon, but that’s not a lot of time to explore the teaching of the apostles. You might have a brief conversation in the car park, but is that enough to build the kind of strong community the first Christians had? Are we the kind of parish where everyone helps each other because we knew who is in genuine need? And as for prayer – there are many other forms of prayer besides Mass, so what else can deepen our inner life with God?

Today, therefore, I am launching something new for our parish which will begin in September: Thursday night is Parish Night!

We already have a short Mass at 7 o’clock on Thursday evenings. Each week, there will be something different immediately after that Mass, something that helps us do one or more of the things the first Christians knew were important.

On the first Thursday of each month, there will be an opportunity for deeper prayer. Each month will explore something different – ways of praying with the Bible, or with the rosary, or perhaps using art.

The second Thursday of each month will be parish business night. The key committees which share in the work of leading our parish will usually meet on this night – the Liturgy Planning Group, the Finance Committee, and the Group Leaders’ Forum. I also wish to re-establish a Parish Council and we will have elections later this summer for this. Although committees and councils may sound rather boring, they are crucial if our parish is to be a true community, not a dictatorship under one parish priest.

On the third Thursday of each month, there will be a different guest speaker who will allow us to think more deeply about our faith. I have already arranged for talks about the ancient Celtic saints in Wales, about the message of Divine Mercy – something the church celebrates in a special way this weekend – and for a vicar who is also a conjourer to give us his unique perspective on the Gospels.

When I first arrived here at St Philip Evans, I spoke about my hope to form a parish vision group which would look forward to the years 2020 and 2025, and work with me for long term planning. I am now ready to launch this. On the fourth Thursday of each month, from September until next July, I will be giving talks about the different things Our Lord asked his followers to do, so we build up a rounded idea of what a parish is called to be. I hope that those who wish to be part of the Vision Group will attend these talks, and then continue to meet on fourth Thursdays to work on turning the vision into reality.

Finally, if the month happens to have a fifth Thursday, this will be an opportunity for a social night. We will say more next month about how these could be organised.

So from September this year, there will be something special happening every week following Thursday evening Mass. I am sharing this with you now so we have time to prepare. Thursday nights will be a special time for us to come together in this parish to grow as a Christian community, in the same way as the first Christians in Jerusalem built up their community.

Finally, I know that many of you work in healthcare or in other jobs where you are regularly required to work on Sundays. This is also an opportunity for you! Let us make Sunday the day when we honour the Lord’s resurrection, even if we have to go to another Church for Mass. But let us make Thursday the evening when we build up our parish, grow as a close-knit community, listen to the teaching of the apostles, and gather at 7 p.m. for the breaking of bread. Thursday Night is Parish Night! Are you coming?

Keeping Sabbath

Notes from a Sermon preached at a Night Vigil at St Brigid’s, Cardiff.

A Parking Sign restricting Parking except on SundaysThe Sabbath is God’s idea. In Exodus, God commands us to keep the Sabbath (seventh) day holy. On six days the Israelites collected manna; but the double portion of manna on the sixth day would provide for the seventh.

The Jewish people developed an extensive tradition around how the Sabbath should be kept – sometimes protecting the Sabbath by extending a “hedge around the law”, but sometimes finding scope for greater flexibility, by declaring a group of houses or even a whole village an ‘extended home’ within which domestic tasks may take place.

Jesus suggested a pragmatic approach to the Sabbath – if something can’t wait, it should be done on the Sabbath. So you can certainly rescue a boy or an ox from a pit, or heal a sick person. His disciples casually plucked corn for their own use on a Sabbath, and Jesus said the Sabbath was for humanity’s benefit, not to restrict human beings.

It is good for human beings to have a break from their labours. It is good for society that, as far as possible, we should have a shared day devoted to leisure. This creates space for nuclear and extended families to do things together.

Jesus resisted attempts by the Pharisees to pin everything down to detailed laws. Following his example, we should ask ourselves how we live the spirit of the law concerning Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath run from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday; Christians soon started keeping Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, as their day of worship.

There are many paid jobs which are not time-critical. In most circumstances a factory can pause for a day with no damage to its facilities. There are also tasks which clearly need to continue through Sunday – in healthcare and security. Then there is the interesting question of the leisure industry – should some people work on Sunday in service of the many who are taking their collective leisure?

The UK is now a multicultural society where many people do not feel a religious call to Sunday observance. So there are two questions – one, whether Sunday should be preserved as a common day of rest for British Society. The other, how Christians should assert their religious rights to keep Sunday. If 100 Christians assert that Sunday is their day of rest, British society will dismiss them. If 100,000 Christians do, society will take notice!

So here are some questions we may need to ask ourselves:

  • Should I take this job at all, if it requires me to work Sundays? Is the work the kind that ought to be left to other days?
  • Can I negotiate to not work on Sundays? The story of Dan Walker is inspiring in this regard.
  • If I do need to work on Sunday, can I protect time to put my hour in Church first? Can I negotiate time for worship?
  • If I have leisure pursuits (e.g. sports teams) which need Sunday time, can I keep those committments and put God first?
  • If I work regularly on Sunday, when do I have my personal Sabbath?
  • If one or both parents work on Sunday, can we create a fixed time in the week which is family-together time, when distracting electronic devices are turned off?

No preacher can give clear rules that will cover everyone’s personal circumstances. But these principles will help – and for deeper reflection, see Pope (now Blessed) John Paul II’s Dies Domini.