For the Poor!

Homily for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans – World Day of the Poor

Listen!

We can listen with our ears. But we can also listen with our hearts, and we can listen with our eyes.

I’d like to invite you to use your eyes to listen to this prayer.

I wonder what thoughts and feelings that stirred up in you?

Perhaps there are people we don’t really want to accept in our lives, and that makes us feel uncomfortable. They are too demanding, too uncomfortable.

Perhaps we are jarred by the line which addresses God as “Mother”. To be sure, Jesus reserved the name “Father” for God and the best way to understand God, is as the best possible Father. But God is beyond gender, and uncomfortable words teach us something. Rembrandt painted the father of the prodigal son with one motherly hand, and even Jesus compared himself to a brooding mother hen!

The world around us seems full of injustice. The news in recent years has been full of stories of migrants from poor countries reaching rich nations, or dying in the attempt. In our own nation, too, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Just this week, a UN inspector has criticised Britain for not doing enough to address poverty, and the Government’s plans for Universal Credit, which started as a good idea to reward work, have suffered from both cuts in funding and practical difficulties in making the system work well for vulnerable citizens.

In the face of such injustice, our hearts cry out: “Why doesn’t God do something?”

Strangely, today’s readings are partly about God not doing something. If you listen carefully to the Books of Daniel and the Apocalypse, you will hear that God will allow a time of distress to come upon the world before God’s faithful people are rescued. Even so, the saints in heaven, who have faced torture and persecution because of their faithfulness to God, are the ones loudest in singing God’s praises!

Crystal McVea was a woman who had every reason to hate God. She was abused as a child, and although she turned to God for help, and chose to be baptised at the age of nine, her suffering did not end. The emotional wounds of what she had been through continued to scar her teenage years. Later, her six-year-old son suffered severe brain damage because of a traffic accident. Aged 33, Crystal herself was taken into hospital with pancreatitis – and during treatment she was clinically dead for nine minutes.

Now, I’m always cautious about claims of “near death experiences” as proof of anything about God or heaven, but Crystal’s story is truly remarkable. You would have expected her to blame God or ask all the obvious “why” questions. That’s what she expected of herself. But that’s not what happened. As soon as she became aware of the loving presence she identified as “God”, her instinctive reaction was to fall down and worship. The expected questions, “Why didn’t you love me? Why did you let this happen?” melted away, and only one question remained: “Why didn’t I do more for You?” Her life was changed and her love for God was immeasurably deepened!

We are faced with two brutal facts. One is that there is suffering in this world. The other is that we claim “God is love”. So either we are wrong about God, or somehow, that perfect love exists alongside our broken world. Although Jesus worked a few miracles which helped people immediately, his mission was to teach us to give generously. Miracles may happen in answer to prayer, but God is not going to fix all the world’s problems from above. Rather, God has entrusted that work to us.

Listen! Pope Francis has designated today as the World Day of the Poor. His aspiration is that every parish should put on a meal this weekend where we can sit down at table with members of our local community who could never return the favour. We are not yet organised enough as a parish to do this, but today we will acknowledge what we can do. We do collect gifts of food for the foodbank – today you can bring them up personally as part of our collection. We do collect clothes for asylum seekers and refugees living in Cardiff – a bag of such clothes will form part of our collection today. We do have a small “Listening Group”, whose role is to listen to the needs of the local community – first from the volunteers who get involved, but later by going out into the community to meet people. Could you be one of our listeners?

Today’s Letter to the Hebrews starts with an image of the Jewish priests offering daily animal sacrifices, but explains this is no longer needed because Jesus died for all of us. Even so, as Christians, we are called to make a daily sacrifice. Not one of animals, but one of our own time, treasure and talent. The needs of the poor call us to make a daily gift of ourselves to the people we meet. And in our procession of gifts today, our worship of God is entwined with our gifts for the poor. The two cannot be separated. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI once said that “love for the poor is liturgy”.

God will do something about it. He will do something in you and through you. Elaine, who leads our Listening Group, has asked that we should say this prayer together which reminds us of our own responsibility. So let’s pray it, and listen!

Christ has no body but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine.
Mine are the eyes with which he looks,
Compassion on this world.
Mine are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Mine are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Mine are the hands, mine are the feet.
Mine are the eyes, mine is his body,
Christ has no body now but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine,
Mine are the eyes with which he looks
With compassion on this world.

Christ has no body on earth but mine.


The words of the prayer above are derived from a text often attributed to St Teresa of Avila but in fact more likely to be the work of Mark Pearse and Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree. They must be understood poetically; Christ is of course present in the Blessed Sacrament on earth, but in this form he does not physically go out to minister to the poor.

Acknowledgement: I first read the story of Crystal McVea in Imagine Heaven.

Children in Spiritual Need

Assembly at Corpus Christi High School, 20 November 2017

I wonder how many of you spent Friday night watching the BBC’s Children in Need appeal? If you did, you’ll have seen lots of short films about children in different kinds of need and how money raised has been able to help them. This morning, I’d like to show you two more children in need…

We live in a world where things go wrong. Children are born sick, or get sick, or have accidents and become badly injured. Parents, too, can be struck down by some illness or injury.

It was exactly the same when Jesus was alive! He lived in a world where we didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today. The Bible tells us that twice he raised children back to life when they had died. He healed people who were deaf, blind, or couldn’t walk – in one case, a man who had been disabled for 38 years!

Some scholars look at the world we live in and decide to blame God. They say that if God can’t do anything to fix it, he’s not very powerful and isn’t much of a god. But if God could fix it and chooses not to, he’s a mean god and not worthy of our attention. Me? I don’t think either of those answers are right.

When I was 11 years old, my grandma died. I was hurting, and I had a choice. I could choose to blame God, as the person who took my granny away – or I could turn to God for help, believing he could do something about it. I chose to ask God for help, and that was when I discovered that God was really there and wanted to help me and guide me.

The families in the video we have just seen also chose to turn to God for help. When these children were ill, they found strength from God through the sacrament of anointing the sick.

Jesus came into a world of sick people and said: “God is with you and wants to help you.” How does God want to help us? Sometimes by a miraculous cure – indeed, behind every saint canonized, there’s a story of God allowing someone to become seriously ill, and then receiving a miracle through asking the prayers of that saint. But often God wants to help us by walking with us through the times of darkness. We’re going to learn a song now which helps us understand what God wants to say to us in difficult times.


This assembly uses Children in Need as a cultural starting point and is not meant to endorse Children in Need. There are legitimate concerns about the morality of some of the projects it funds, as articulated by John Smeaton. On the other hand, Catholics are allowed freedom of conscience to choose something largely good which has some negative aspects – you can read my essay on how far we can compromise.

To Know the Mind of God!

SERMON FOR THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God called Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery, and raised up countless prophets to remind the Kings of Israel that they must keep their Covenant with God in order to benefit from divine protection. Then God changed the deal, sending Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today’s Gospel gives us an example. “Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. St Peter nails it – “You are the Christ!” How does Peter know? God-the-Father has planted that knowledge deep in his soul!

Although God reveals some things to us, we don’t have the full understanding of things as God sees them. Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. Before I became a priest, I was a professional astronomer – I have a PhD in astrophysics – so I ought to mention the famous quote by Professor Stephen Hawking. In his book, A Brief History of Time, he concludes by saying that if we had a full explanation of “why it is that we and the universe exist”, we would “know the mind of God”. Later, Hawking clarified that he doesn’t believe in God, but if we knew the rules that govern the Universe, and why they work the way they do, we would know everything that could be known.

Actually, Hawking is half right. The universe around us clearly obeys ordered rules which are, at some deep level, TRUE. Since all truths are part of God (Jesus said “I am the Truth”) then to know the laws of the Universe is to know part of the mind of God. But what Hawking would admit himself, if you pushed him, is that even if we knew those laws fully, we could never predict exactly what the universe, the earth, or an individual human life would look like; within those laws there is space for random outcomes, due to quantum mechanics, and for results that can’t be computed accurately enough, due to what mathematicians call chaotic behaviour, so that each human story remains a mystery to be unfolded only in the telling.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Last Wednesday the universal church celebrated St Rose of Lima – like St Paul, she sometimes received mystical visions. One led her to a deep understanding of why God permits human beings to suffer and how God would use it for good. A similar understanding came to a local Englishwoman, Mother Julian of Norwich, who confidently assures us that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It would be nice if there were a God who stopped all pain and suffering in this life. But there’s no earthly religion which offers that – if there were, we would have all joined up long ago! That leaves only two possibilities – either there is no god, or there is a God who exists alongside this world with all its pains and problems. I wasn’t intentionally looking for God when my granny died – I was 11 years old – but when I cried out to any god who might be there to take care of her soul, something deep and mysterious happened which allowed me to make a connection with Jesus, to become a Catholic, and in due course, to become a priest. There’s no time now to tell my story in depth, but I’d be happy to do so informally, after Mass.

We do, however, believe that God has a plan to deal with pain and suffering. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left us with a promise that one day he will return to remake the world, reversing death and banishing tears – a belief so fundamental that we affirm it every time we say the Creed. I don’t know whether Christ will come again before the happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home! But we are invited, as friends of Christ, to spend this life plumbing the depths of God, so that we can experience greater joy when we meet God in the world to come. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!

If you only knew!

CCRW-roundel

Homily given at Sunday Mass at the Weekend Conference run by the National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales. 

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

Given the readings we’ve just heard from Scripture, we might not be too keen to find out what God can do. The Gospel has just warned us that we must enter by the narrow gate, because the easy way leads to destruction. Before that, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines his children. The first reading was a little more optimistic, reminding us that God will gather in “outsiders” – but if you’re an “insider” there’s little comfort for you in the Gospel!

As we pray together at this year’s conference, I sense that we’re feeling more vulnerable than usual. We’re conscious of all the uncertainties yet to be resolved around Britain’s ongoing relationship with Europe. We have a sense of the church being under attack, following the slaughter of a Catholic priest in France. We’re praying for more personal concerns, which might never make the news headlines but matter greatly in our families and in our communities. So in the midst of all our pain and confusion, what can God do for us?

God can forgive our sins.

It’s easy to hear the lesson from Hebrews and mishear the message as “God wants to punish us”. In fact, God seems slow to punish throughout the Bible. Even in the beginning, Adam and Eve were told that they would “certainly die” if they ate the forbidden fruit; but since the story has Adam live for another 900 years, death took its time coming. Ezekiel warned the wicked that they would die because of their sins – but if they repented they would live. God allows time for repentance rather than enacting punishment. Our faith assures us that on the Cross, Jesus accepted the price of all our sins, so that no Christian needs to be punished by God for anything.

What Hebrews actually says is that God can discipline us. “Discipline” comes from the same root as “disciple”, and reminds us that God wants to train us to be more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit does this by stirring up our conscience to recognise when our choices have not been in line with God’s will. God disciplines us through the gift of guilt.

Yes, guilt is a truly wonderful gift! If it succeeds in causing us to repent, we can receive total forgiveness of all our sins! Because this is the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wants us to celebrate the open door of God’s mercy in a special way, making a pilgrimage to a Door of Mercy if we haven’t done so already.

What else can God do for us?

God can love us just as we are!

Yesterday we were reminded that Jesus “stands at the door and knocks”, but if we’re ashamed of our untidy lives, we fear to let him in. During the last fortnight, I’ve been on holiday, and I’ve visited several friends whose houses were in the midst of DIY or are home to small children. These houses were far from spick-and-span, but did that matter? No! I enjoyed spending time with my friends, and had they said “don’t come, the house is too messy”, I would have had a lonely holiday and they would have missed out on a happy visit. Our pride can be the greatest obstacle to experiencing what God can do for us. The same Jesus who spent time with tax collectors and prostitutes is not ashamed to spend time with you. It’s not for nothing that we have a song called Come As You Are.

What else can God do for us?

God can heal our bruises! 

Many of us carry wounds from our attempts to love others or to work for the church. Sometimes these wounds are self-inflicted, because we’ve had unreasonable hopes or set up impossibly high standards for ourselves. Other times, we’ve been hurt by our church leaders, by our friends, or by our family members. We may feel betrayed, rejected, or ignored. Sometimes that’s because other people really have treated us badly, or accused us falsely. At other times, it’s because we see other people through our own prejudices.

We keep falling into a well-known trap. We expect other people to meet our needs, and call on God to fix the flaws in our own character. But God only offers us insight and strength for us to choose to change our own character, and asks us to use our own resources to meet the needs of other people. It’s not easy for any of us to change a long-established pattern in our own behaviour, yet we pray hard for God to change the heart of a stubborn relative or, dare I say it, a parish priest who doesn’t jump to support charismatic prayer. Above all, we’re called to forgive everyone, whether we think they deserve it or not. That includes forgiving ourselves, for not being perfect, and forgiving God – not for doing anything wrong, but for graciously refusing to fit into our limited ideas of what God should do for us.

There’s an old saying that when we point the finger at someone, three fingers point back at us. So think of any relationship in your life which currently feels like a trial. Now ask yourself: “What’s my own contribution to making this relationship difficult?” What could you do differently to conduct that relationship with kindness, respect, and Christian love? Remember that we do not offer these things because the other person has earned them, but because Christ lives hidden inside every human person, however awkward.

On Friday evening, Steve, our new NSC Chair, had a sense in prayer of someone’s arms being upheld. That might remind us of Moses, being supported by Joshua and Caleb when he could no longer hold his arms aloft by his own strength. But it also points us towards the instruction in this letter to the Hebrews. When the Lord helps us see that our behaviour has not been great, we are not to throw ourselves a “pity party”. Rather, we must make a decision, a personal decision, to “hold up our limp arms, steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread” – then each one of us shall receive God’s promise that what was injured will grow into health.

So enter by the narrow door. It’s a small door, and there’s no room for the baggage you’re carrying. There’s no room to carry a grudge against anyone else. There’s no room to carry your dreams for how you wish other people to treat you. There’s no room for the patterns of behaviour you know God is nagging you to leave behind. There’s not even room for the false god you’d like to carry with you – the god who would guarantee perfect health and freedom from difficulties for you and your loved ones. There’s only room to squeeze through to the presence of the true God, who allows you to be tested, though not more than you can bear.

If only you knew what you could do for God! Then you would rush to do what God asks. Each one of you is offering God something unique and irreplaceable, the gift of the love that God can bring into the world when you choose to become the very best version of yourself. The woman of Samaria hastened to tell the people of the village that she had met the Messiah. When Jesus frees you of your burdens, you too will rush to tell your friends and family of your new-found freedom in Christ. You may not even have to use words!

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

It’s a promise! It’s a promise that God will discipline us, that is teach us awareness of our own need to change for the better, so that we can leave behind whatever clings to us and enter through the narrow gate. So don’t be afraid. It is because God loves you too much to leave you as you are, that he invites you to this journey of transformation. As St Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!”

Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News!

Acknowledgement: Many of the ideas in this sermon come from reviewing the Freedom in Christ Discipleship Course.

Going to Heaven

Homily at St Philip Evans for Ascension Sunday, Year C.

God’s got a problem.

God wants us to enjoy eternal life.

But God is also totally just, totally fair.

None of us deserve to go to Heaven.

 

Famously, the Bible says, “The wages of sin is death!” Surely that means horrific sins, like rape and murder?

No! Any sin, even trivial, means that humanity is not the race of perfect beings which God calls us to be. Because we are staining God’s plan for the whole Universe, that deserves a more serious punishment.

God’s original plan was that when the first human beings appeared on earth, each body would be gifted an immortal soul, and through a further miracle, each human body would be kept free from pain, death and suffering.  But to receive the gift, terms and conditions applied – the first humans had to follow all God’s rules. They didn’t, and so the gift was withdrawn. This is why the Bible says that death – meaning the death of human beings – came into the world through sin. When we read the original story, God said “If you eat the tree of knowledge you will die” – it is by God’s mercy that the death did not come immediately, but only after a life of toil.

 

 

The Old Testament contains other deals which God offers to humanity – we call them covenants. On Easter night we celebrated the story of the Exodus. The Angel of Death slays the firstborn of Egypt – the Hebrews have marked their houses with the blood of the Passover Lamb, and are spared. Every year they must tell the story, eat a meal including lamb, and remember. These days it’s easy to object to the idea of God sending an angel of mass destruction. But remember, from the very first generation, humanity is already condemned and is only spared by God’s mercy.

In the desert, Moses receives a Law for the Hebrews. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest must sacrifice a bull for the cleansing of the temple and a goat for the sins of the people. But how can goat’s blood and bull’s blood take away sins? Even in the Old Testament, prophets and psalmists pondered how that worked and realised that it was only a sign of continuing to depend on God’s mercy.

 

For six weeks we’ve been celebrating Easter – the story of what happened. Today’s letter to the Hebrews helps us understand why it had to happen. Jesus Himself was the perfect sacrifice, the only being whose death could possibly have a moral value sufficient to compensate for the spoiling of a perfect world. It is His blood, offered once, which can accomplish what the sacrifice of a goat and a bull each year could not. Just as the Hebrews whose homes were marked with the blood of the Passover Lamb were spared bodily death, so we are spared spiritual death when we ask Jesus, the Lamb of God, to protect us by his blood.

When the new English translation of the Mass was issued, there was concern that the words said:

THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD,

THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT,

WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY.

 

 

Why “for many”, not “for all”? Was there any person Jesus didn’t die for?

But in the prayers of our Mass, we try to follow faithfully what the Bible says; many parts of our prayers are taken directly from Scripture. This one comes from today’s reading: “Christ, too, offers himself only once to take the faults of many on himself.” This doesn’t mean that there was anyone Jesus didn’t want to save. But it’s not impossible that some souls could refuse to accept the gift. All are offered the chance of heaven; many accept it. More than that, we do not know.

 

Another short but important teaching is present here, too. The Bible is clear that we are not reincarnated – we live once, and then comes judgment. Scripture only says this explicitly once, but once is enough.

 

I won’t often preach a sermon which focuses on simply explaining something, rather than having practical consequences. But today is a good day for explanations. Jesus has just completed 40 days explaining things to his disciples. Sometimes we need the humility to accept that God’s explanation for things is good enough, even if it leaves us with more questions.

God had a problem.

God wanted us to enjoy eternal life.Crucifix by Penanne Crabbe

But God is also totally just, totally fair.

None of us deserve to go to Heaven.

Jesus freely chose to die on the Cross to make up for our unworthiness.

Even if we don’t understand how it works, we give thanks that it did work, and Jesus did it.

 

The mystery of faith:

Save us, Saviour of the World.

For by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.

 

 

 

Comfort the Afflicted!

BishopOdoTrimmedHomily at St Philip Evans, on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

If we want to be merciful, like the Father, we must offer mercy.

If we want to make a good confession this Lent, we must face up to where we’ve failed.

Over these few weeks, we are considering the spiritual works of mercy. Today, I invite you to ask: have I comforted the afflicted?

Right now, some of your friends or family members are in distress. Our world is full of circumstances beyond our control. Disability, cancer, broken families, unemployment, depression – and depending on where your extended family lives, floods in Yorkshire, typhoons in the Philippines, or violence in the Middle East. On the principle of “do unto others what you wish others would do unto you”, it’s rather important to make use of some of your most precious asset – time – to send a bunch of flowers, make a phone call, or pop round for a cup of tea.

To “comfort” literally means to make “with-strength”. It doesn’t always mean a consoling arm round the shoulder. In the Bayeux Tapestry, one panel is labelled: “Bishop Odo comforts his men” (HIC ODO EP[ISCOPU]S BACULU[M] TENENS CONFORTAT PUEROS). The accompanying picture shows a bishop, wielding a club, warning some of his young soldiers not to flee from the battle! In the same way, we must sometimes “comfort the afflicted” by encouraging them to keep on going. God is not the author of their disasters, but the one who offers to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death.

To comfort the afflicted, we must help them to see God is part of the solution, not part of the problem. When things go wrong in our lives, it’s natural for us to look for someone to blame. Who is the easiest target? The Almighty! If God has the power to work miracles and is supposed to love me without limit, then it must be His fault that things have gone wrong.

This isn’t an easy criticism to respond to. So I want to share with you today, an important spiritual secret, one I have learned from the school of life. If you don’t remember anything else from any other sermon you hear this year, remember the next two words I am about to share with you – a truly profound spiritual message.

Ready?

Stuff happens.

There have always been diseases and natural disasters. And there always will be diseases and disasters until Christ comes again. Now I don’t want – not for one single moment – to deny the power of prayer. We don’t know how many natural disasters and terrible illnesses have been prevented or reversed because of the prayers of God’s people. But there’s no point in believing in a God who ALWAYS stops these things, because that God doesn’t exist. The only God which Jesus is willing to offer us is the God who exists alongside a world of pain and suffering – the God who saw the suffering of the Hebrew slaves, but waited until the right time to liberate them from Egypt.

Being Christians, or even churchgoers, doesn’t grant us immunity from disaster. A story often attributed to St Teresa of Avila tells of the day when her saddle broke, causing her to fall off her donkey and into a stream. Being a woman of prayer, she complained to the Almighty. God said to her: “This is how I treat all my friends.” Teresa answered, “And that’s why you have so few of them!”

Today’s Gospel shows us the one time Our Lord was confronted with this problem directly. People come to him with reports of two disasters – a collapsed tower and a massacre conducted by occupying troops. He doesn’t use these words but you can almost hear him thinking it – stuff happens. Jesus didn’t prevent a massacre or an industrial accident even when he was living his human life in Galilee. Nor can we expect him to provide a guaranteed intervention service today. Rather, he walked among his people offering forgiveness of sin, healing diseases – and carrying the consoling news that when bad stuff happens, it is not punishment for our sins or for anyone else’s.

His other words are less consoling. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Is Our Lord threatening us with a collapsing roof or homicidal security forces? I don’t think so. Rather, he asks us to have an eternal perspective. We’re offered eternal happiness in a heaven free of all sickness or disaster. But to be sure of entering heaven, we must turn aside from worldly values and follow Jesus – this is the meaning of “repent”. In God’s eyes, bodily sickness and death is not the worst possible disaster. Failing to enter heaven – that’s the true tragedy.

I wrote this homily before we heard news, on Monday, that a collapsing building in Didcot had injured 4 workers, killed one, and left 3 still missing. It’s not so easy to say “stuff happens” when we’re conscious of families whose grief is current. But this is the stunning thing about how Our Lord reacted – not with words of consolation, but a challenge to live Godly lives.

What, then, should we say to a friend raging at God because of the difficulties in their life? Perhaps you can ask what they really expect God to do about it. If the cause of grief is death, gently ask whether it isn’t true that Jesus came to offer eternal life beyond death? If the source of grief is illness, have they asked for the Sacrament of the Sick? And if their problems seem self-inflicted, sensitively but surely we must offer the only comfort the Lord offered in the face of tragedy – “Repent!”

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

Today, I invite you to ask: have I comforted the afflicted?

If not, make a good confession – and then begin!

Rejoice and Sing!

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C.

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect I’m afraid.

 

 Today, as we continue to build up our Christmas crib, we have some unusual objects to place in it: panpipes, a drum and a didgeridoo. Music is part of the story of the first Christmas: angels appeared in the heights, singing Glory to God in the highest! And although the Bible doesn’t say so, we can make a good guess that when shepherds were watching their flocks by night, they sang and played pipes to pass the time.

When we come together for Sunday Mass, we sing. But perhaps we don’t find that easy. Today I’d like to talk about three things that get in the way of singing, and how we can overcome them.

  • It doesn’t seem right.

Is singing hymns at Mass a Catholic thing to do? It’s certainly a Jewish thing – we read in the Bible that Jesus and his disciples sang psalms at the Last Supper. There are plenty of songs in the New Testament too – most famously Our Lady’s Magnificat but also words in St Paul’s letters which the scholars think were hymns sung by the first Christians.

Things changed 500 years ago when the Protestant Reformers said that worship only made sense if the congregation could fully understand and join in with what was going on. Our Catholic leaders wanted to make a point of saying that even if the priest said prayers in Latin and the people didn’t join in, we were still doing “what Jesus asked us to do”. For the next five centuries, Catholic music at Mass was mostly Latin chants by skilled choirs – and in places like Britain and Ireland where Mass had to be celebrated in hiding, there was good reason not to sing at all. But under Blessed Paul VI, after the Second Vatican Council, we were once again asked to sing together at Mass.

  • We don’t feel like singing.

To be sure, there are days when we don’t feel like rejoicing. The last few weeks have contained many moments of darkness. Terrorists violated Paris with gunfire. Here in Cardiff, Peter O’Brien was killed in an industrial explosion, and our SlimmingWorld organizer, Anna-Louise Bates, lost her husband and young son in a road accident. One of the stranded Filipino sailors whom we supported last summer sadly died on Friday after a long illness. Any loss of life is tragic, and such loss in the weeks before Christmas doubly so.

Now, with this sad news ringing in our ears, we gather to celebrate Eucharist. Every Sunday is meant to be a joyful celebration of Jesus defeating death. This Sunday in particular is called Gaudete Sunday – rejoicing Sunday. Our first reading began with a command: “Shout for joy, daughter of Sion. Rejoice, exult with all your heart!” And lest you be in any doubt, we are the daughter of Sion – members of the Church, the new Israel of God. Rejoicing, exulting, shouting aloud are not optional extras for us – they are divine commands!

There’s a prayer within Mass, where I say to God, as priest of this community, “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your church.” O God, don’t dwell on our failures, but on our trust in you. In the same way, I must say as priest to this community: “Let us not be downcast or dwell on our sorrows. When we gather for Mass, we’re here to celebrate life.” When our thoughts are racing with questions, saying “Why doesn’t God do something about these outrages?” it’s my job to remind us that God has done something about it. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. As Zephaniah put it, “The Lord has repealed your sentence.” Jesus walked among us not to rule this earth with an iron rod, but to fling open the gates of heaven.

I started with a song from the musical, The King and I, where the English governess, Anna, is teaching one of her children to keep his spirits up. “If you feel afraid, whistle a happy tune.” But then she realises what effect the tune is having on herself:

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well.

Sometimes, we sing because we’re happy. Sometimes we sing – or whistle – or smile – because we want to make ourselves feel happy. And what’s true for earthly happiness is even more appropriate for divinely ordained rejoicing. We gather every Sunday to sing Alleluia, Holy Holy, Hosanna, because we know the message is true. Whether we come to worship in the best of moods or bearing the greatest of burdens, we are called to choose to rejoice. Singing for joy is always an appropriate response to God’s love for us, whatever is happening in the world around us.

  • I don’t know the songs!

We have a very real and practical problem here. We come from many different countries and cultures, and for some of us, English isn’t our first language. Together with our parish music leaders, I am looking at different ways we can reflect the different traditions present in our community – that’s why we had some Malayalam songs in October. But even in today’s Mass, we’re trying a few things to make it as easy as possible.

We started Mass with The King of Glory. It’s short and energetic, meant to get us in the mood for rejoicing. It has a simple tune, which repeats five times. If you didn’t know it when it began, you had a chance to listen once or twice, join in gently on the next verse and get the hang of it by verse 5. I’d like to encourage you, do try to join in even if it’s unfamiliar – if you don’t try, you’ll never get comfortable with it. We’re going to finish Mass with another energetic hymn, Long Ago, Prophets Knew – but we’re only singing three verses so we don’t get to Bethlehem before Christmas. Just listen to the first verse if you need to, but please join in as strongly as possible for verse 2.

After communion, we’re going to sing number 90, When the King Shall Come Again. Now that’s a song we might only sing once a year, and the given tune might not be familiar. I’ve asked our musicians to use the tune of Good King Wenceslaus – that’s an old trick called one song to the tune of anotherSo when you open the hymnbook, there’s no need to think “Oh no, I don’t know that one!” – just say to yourself, “This is easy, I know the tune already!”

Our next hymn, 82, is Come Lord, to a world of longing. This is a newer song, and not so familiar to us, but we sang it last week and we are doing again to let it bed in. The music notes are printed in the book, and even if you can’t sight-read, they will give you a sense of when the music goes up or down. The best way to learn is by repetition, so when we come to the end of the song we’re going to start at the beginning again, and keep going until I have incensed the altar.

A final request – if there is just one thing we could do to make it easier to join in with the singing, please tell me or one of our musicians what that one thing would be for you. We all share the responsibility of making this gathering for Mass the most joyful occasion possible. And even in these dark days, let’s choose to worship with all our hearts. If we can choose to sing when we’re sad, lonely or afraid, if we can whistle “Don’t worry – be happy”, if we can even play an uplifting song in the car to lift our spirits, then we can certainly choose to pour out our hearts in song when we gather each Sunday at the Lord’s table. And get this – Zephaniah tells us that God is dancing right now because we’re here to worship Him. The King and I is a musical about an English governess and the King of Siam. Our Catholic Mass is an epic production about an ordinary soul and the Lord of the Universe. But in our case it’s the Lord who leads with a question: Shall we dance?

For further reflection, check out these words of St Augustine!