16th Sunday

16th Sunday 2019

Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

Have you ever been to one of those gatherings where they ask you to quote the piece of scripture which speaks to you particularly powerfully? I knew of one priest who would invariably reply “A vain hope for safety is the horse”: if I had ever had the misfortune to be made a bishop, I would have taken as my motto “He stinketh, for he is four days buried”.

Taking the question seriously, though, I would opt for the opening sentence of today’s Second Reading: “I rejoice to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ, for the sake of His body, the Church.”

Is that because I welcome suffering? Is it heck as like! I loathe and fear suffering as much as the next person, but I also know that suffering comes: there is no avoiding it. Consequently, I find it consoling to know that it is serving some purpose by being taken up into the redemptive sufferings of Christ, and therefore helping to redeem the world.

As a child, I was taught, if something was painful, to “offer it up”. For a time, that sort of spirituality went out of fashion; I suspect because it was thought to glorify suffering. That I am sure is a misinterpretation: the phrase “offer it up”, with which I grew up, was expressing in a simple way the response which Paul described more eloquently and more accurately as helping to complete the redemptive suffering of the Christ.

We are able to do this because, as Paul states a little further on, Christ is en humin, which is here translated as “among you”. Inevitably, I am reminded here of the late Bishop Brewer, Fiery Jack, who was not redhaired for nothing.  His finger would stab the page and he would declare loudly “Christus IN vobis—Christ IN you”.

Bishop Brewer had a point, though he wasn’t 100% correct in objecting to this translation. The Greek en, like the Latin in can be translated “among” as well as “in”, and maybe a degree of ambiguity is fruitful here: Christ is among us, in the gathering of His people, and He is also in us, dwelling within us with His Father and with the Holy Spirit. Either way, or indeed in both ways, Christ is present, deeply and abidingly, giving us life, and giving value to our suffering.

Mention of the indwelling Trinity provides a link to the First Reading. There is a famous icon which depicts the three men who visited Abraham, and which sees them as, in some way, representing the Trinity. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages the early Christians to practise hospitality because, he says, “by doing this, some people have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). He probably had Abraham’s visitors in mind, and it is worth remembering that, in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) there is often no clear distinction between the “angel of the Lord” and God Himself.

Abraham’s hospitality is linked to the hospitality shown to Jesus by the two sisters. Abraham may have entertained God: Martha and Mary certainly did. Why then does Mary receive a gentle reprimand?

Her problem is that, whilst she is keen to welcome the Lord, she fails to consider how He wishes to be welcomed. His desire at present is more for her company and her attention than for her meat and potato pie. I can’t help thinking of gentlemen of the road and others who have called in the past at my presbytery door. They too are Christ, yet I tend to see them as a nuisance. Rarely have I given such people time and attention, rather than a quickly assembled food parcel, or even a couple of pounds, which I have heard described as “bugger off money”.

Yet it is not only such callers who come to us as Christ. How much attention do we give to anybody, and are we sometimes too eager to leap in with our solutions to what we see as their problems? May the Christ who is within us (and among us) teach us to respond to the Christ who comes to us seeking.......what? We will have to listen to find out.

Posted on July 22, 2019 .

15th Sunday

15th Sunday 2019

Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37

Has it ever occurred to you that you should read this Gospel standing on your head? You see it is upside down. The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbour?” and Our Lord is making the point that everyone is my neighbour, and that the lawyer must love, and go to the aid of, everyone in need. We might have expected then a parable in which a lawyer, or at least an observant Jew, goes to the aid of an outsider, a Samaritan. Instead, the positions are reversed, and it is the outsider, the outcast, the heretic, in the person of the Samaritan, who does the helping, who shows the love, who fulfils the commandment.

I wonder whether we have realised quite how shocking this is. The Son of God is saying that the one who does not have the true faith may be fulfilling the commandments better than the chosen people, and is, presumably, being saved thereby. This should kick into touch the claim of the extreme evangelicals that only those who “have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour” are saved. This has always struck me as too individualistic to fit in with the life and the teachings of that same Jesus Christ, and this parable explodes it completely. The Samaritans were heretics, yet one of them is used by the Saviour as the paradigm for the fulfilment of the commandments.

Do such things as right doctrine, membership of the chosen people, membership of the Church, not matter then? Indeed they do. The First Commandment is still the demand that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and God formed a people, and sent as Saviour His Son, who established a Church, and who declared Himself to be the truth. Love of God, then, demands that we align ourselves as fully as possible with all of that, and I don’t think that we need to give serious consideration to the childish cliché which did the rounds a few years ago—“Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, and it was the Church that came”. That is simply adolescent smart-alickry.

Nonetheless, we need to be aware that right opinion without love of neighbour is not love of God; we cannot fulfil the First Commandment if we are not fulfilling the Second. We do not need to go back into history to realise that some who profess to love God and to follow Christ can be among the harshest, the most intolerant, the most unloving of all. Again that doesn’t mean that we have to accept every daft idea, approve every lifestyle, which comes along. It does mean that our attitude must always be based on love, and that the language of condemnation has no place in our vocabulary.

As in so many things, Pope Francis has shown us the way, embracing the self-professed gay man who, accompanying a group on a televised visit to the Vatican, at first refused to meet the Pope, as he assumed that he would be condemned, only to be reduced to tears and to be completely won over by Francis’ Christ-like attitude.

A few years earlier, Francis fulfilled the Lord’s command “Do not judge” by saying to another homosexual man who approached him, “Who am I to judge?”, which caused uproar among the present day “lawyers”, the neo-Pharisees, who are based largely, though not entirely, in North America, and who are horrified by the Holy Father’s desire to make the Church more Christ-like. Of course we must not judge them, but it is difficult to avoid the feeling that, if Jesus were to return, they would crucify Him anew.

We can never afford to be smug, though. The lawyer spells out the commandments of love of God and of neighbour, and the parable hammers them home. Every day, we must be striving to fulfil both of them, well aware that they cannot be separated.

 

Posted on July 14, 2019 .

14th Sunday

14th Sunday 2019

Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20.

During my time in seminary, one word which cropped up was “pre-evangelisation”, which in effect meant preparing people to hear the Gospel. It is a word which assumes that we are dealing with people who are not yet ready to encounter Jesus the Christ, but stand in need of some degree of preparation. In a way, it is what John the Baptist did, preparing a way for the Lord, and it is what the seventy two disciples are sent to do, visiting towns and villages to prepare the groundwork for Jesus’ own mission.

Increasingly, it seems to be the task of the Church in the Western world today. Successive Popes have called for a new evangelisation—a new preaching of the Gospel—yet so many in the West seem to be at an even earlier stage. So great has been the drift away from faith, and from knowledge of the things of God, that groundwork has to be done even before the Gospel can be preached. It is ironic that a self-professed atheist like Richard Dawkins has deplored the ignorance of the British people with regard to the Bible and to Christian culture.

There is still a vague link to Christian life, belief, and practice in many quarters, but it is becomingly increasingly tenuous. Many people still want to have their children baptised, even though their next visit to church will be when those same children are presented for First Confession and First Holy Communion. A smaller number come to be married in church. In my early days as a priest, it was a cliché that we preferred funerals to weddings, because there was more faith to be found there, but even that scarcely holds true today. As the generations have passed through, it is increasingly the case that, even if the person in the coffin had faith, it has not taken root in their children and grandchildren.

I remember, almost thirty years ago, celebrating a funeral Mass for a lady to whom I had taken communion daily during her final illness. At the requiem, it was noticeable that none of her children came to communion, because they knew that they were lapsed, but that all of her grandchildren did: they didn’t even realise that they were lapsed. I strongly suspect that, when their time comes, those children (and certainly the grandchildren) won’t even bother with a church service, especially now that funeral directors are offering home-made cremations, with whatever music, readings, and tributes the bereaved wish, with the undertaker conducting the entire proceedings, and with no need to approach a priest, or to incur the imagined cost of a religious funeral.

So if we are, as I presume, in a condition of pre-evangelisation, what are we to do about it? Firstly, no doubt, we take to heart Our Lord’s instruction to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to His harvest”. Incidentally, it may be worth recalling the rather scathing rebuke delivered by a colleague of mine on the Junior Seminary staff many years ago to a sixth former whose principal interest appeared to be in dressing up and playing at liturgy: “The Lord wants labourers for His harvest, not fairies for the bottom of His garden”.

Yet, even if we find these labourers, how are they to go about their task? Eighteen months ago, I spent a weekend looking after a parish on behalf of a priest, a member of the Neo-Catechumenate, who, together with his Neo-Cat brethren was, for a fortnight, taking literally the words of today’s Gospel. They were being dropped off, in pairs, the length and breadth of the country, with nothing in their pockets but the return half of a train ticket. They were to spend that fortnight knocking on doors, relying on the hospitality of others. Whether that is the right way to go about things I do not know. What I do know is that it is amazingly courageous, and that I could not do it.

So what can I, what can you, what can anybody do? Is it a cop-out to say that we do what we are able, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves? For a monastic community, in addition to prayer, this will entail hospitality, and a compassionate presence, for those who appear at the door. For me, in my school chaplaincy days, it meant having an open door and a listening ear, and delivering assemblies about wrong buses, scarlet knickers, and girls with beautiful legs.

It means seizing opportunities when they arise. A priest told me, a few years ago, that he had been called in to prepare a funeral. On visiting the family, he was presented with a set of readings (secular) music (secular) and tributes. “There doesn’t seem to be much space for me,” he commented: “You don’t really need me,” and off he went.

I can’t help feeling that he missed an opportunity, however small, for doing something, however little. In general though, what should we be doing? Praying? Of course. But what else? Answers on a postcard.

Posted on July 7, 2019 .

St Peter and St. Paul

Saints Peter and Paul 2019

Acts 12:1-11; 2Tim 4:6-8, 17-18; Mt 16:13-19

Throughout the Catholic world, there are many churches dedicated to St. Peter. The first which comes to mind is obviously St. Peter’s Rome, but we shouldn’t forget our own Cathedral in Lancaster. I love the humorous conceit of one of the smaller stained glass windows in the Cathedral, which depicts St. Peter holding, in one hand, St.Peter’s, Rome, and in the other, St.Peter’s , Lancaster.

I am not sure that there are as many Catholic churches dedicated to St. Paul. There is the Roman basilica of St. Paul’s-outside-the-walls, but are there many others? I decided to run a check of this diocese by way of the Diocesan Directory, but didn’t learn a great deal, as it scored two and a half to a half. In addition to the Cathedral, there are St. Peter’s, Lytham, and Ss. Peter and Paul, Preston, so not much either way.

If, however, my hunch is correct, why might it be so? Clearly, there is considerable Catholic devotion to St. Peter, who is claimed as the first Pope. Why might there be less devotion to St. Paul?

Perhaps Paul suffers in the Catholic mind because Martin Luther was such an enthusiast for him, and it has been said with some justification (if you will pardon the pun) that there is an element in extreme evangelicalism which seems to attach more weight to Paul’s words than to those of Jesus. Certainly, Luther drew heavily on Paul in insisting on justification by faith, but properly understood this is sound Catholic doctrine, and there is enough in St. Paul’s writings to show that for him, as for the Church, love is of the greatest significance: that, in effect, as the Prayer for England expresses it, we are justified by “faith, fruitful in good works”. Nonetheless, it is possible that, in the Catholic mind, Luther has, to an extent, tainted our view of Paul.

Another factor may be the personalities of the two saints. Peter comes across as the struggling sinner, almost as a lovable rogue, constantly getting things wrong and needing to seek forgiveness. Paul, on the other hand, may sometimes appear insufferably arrogant, proud of his own virtue (despite his protestations to the contrary) and intolerant of the shortcomings of others.

One of the antiphons in the Offices for this feast claims “they loved each other in life” a statement which never fails to raise eyebrows. There are times when Paul seems almost contemptuous of Peter’s standing in the Church, and there is Paul’s cringeworthy description, in the Letter to the Galatians, of his dressing down of Peter for the latter’s moral cowardice in bowing to pressure from the Jewish Christians and withdrawing from table fellowship with the Gentiles. Certainly Peter was in the wrong, but it was a very human failure, and less reprehensible than Paul’s behaviour in publicising it in direct contradiction of the Lord’s instructions on fraternal correction. Given Peter’s fairly robust personality, it is to his credit that he didn’t respond by giving Paul a good crack in the mouth: it is tempting to wish that he had.

These were two towering individuals, with huge virtues and huge failings. Peter had that touch of cowardice which, in addition to his fall out with Paul, led to his threefold denial of Jesus, again a failing of which any of us might have been guilty. He also had a tendency to promise more than he could deliver, as when he vowed to die for Christ, and in his attempt to walk across the water. Yet there was an openness and honesty about him, a genuine contrition, a profound love of His Master, and in the end, the courage to die a martyr’s death.

Paul was touchy to the point of paranoia, prone to boast while denying that he was doing so, and lacking in social skills to the extent that, sooner or later, he fell out with everyone. Yet he had immeasurable courage, could write sublimely about love and about our Eucharistic unity in the Body of Christ, and almost singlehandedly spread the Gospel throughout the then known world. Like Peter, he was in love with the Lord.

These were two giants, with both the strengths and weaknesses of giants. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that we owe the existence and survival of the Church to them. Rightly are they honoured.

Posted on June 30, 2019 .

Corpus Christi

The Body and Blood of Christ: 2019

Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 109; I Cor 11:23-26; Luke 9:11-17

Today’s readings take us on something of a magical mystery tour: three very different readings, all important, but not obviously connected with one another. We are taken back in time to the encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek; then forward to the Cenacle, the room of the Last Supper; finally we go back to the field where the five thousand were fed. What do we make of these readings, and how do we link them?

Let’s begin with Melchizedek. He is a somewhat shadowy figure who appears in three books of the Bible: the Book of Genesis, the Book of Psalms, and the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. His meeting with, and blessing of, Abraham is his only appearance “in the flesh” as we might say. He appears, bringing bread and wine; he blesses Abraham (or Abram as he still was at this point); he receives a tithe of everything; then he disappears as suddenly as he came.

Who was he? He is described as both a king and a priest. Does that ring any bells? “Of course it does,” I hear you cry, “Jesus the Christ is both king and priest (and prophet as well). Furthermore,” you add, “the Messiah is described in today’s psalm as ‘a priest for ever, a priest like Melchizedek of old’.”

So Melchizedek foreshadows the priesthood of Jesus, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is at pains to point out. How does Jesus exercise His priesthood? He does it by bringing His own self-sacrifice, says the writer, His own body and blood, into the presence of God.

There is yet another connection with Melchizedek. He brought bread and wine. Who else brought bread and wine? “Don’t ask silly questions” you say: “obviously Jesus, who changed them into His body and blood.” So Melchizedek connects, not only with the priesthood of Jesus, but also with the sacramental exercise of that priesthood, as the body and blood which Jesus offered in sacrifice are made present and offered under the appearances of bread and wine.

So here is our link with the Second Reading, which is Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, the making present of Christ’s sacrifice for us, through the sacramental offering of His body and blood.

There is another point to note: at the moments of consecration, St. Paul, in what is assumed to be the first written, as distinct from oral, account of the institution of the Eucharist, reports Our Lord as saying, over both body and blood, “Do this as a memorial of me”. The people responsible for the current translation of the missal have been very naughty, and deserve to have their legs sharply slapped, for rendering this as “in memory of me” as if we were merely recalling a past event. The Jewish concept of memorial—anamnesis in Greek—is much richer than this, and means the making present here and now of a past event. So, in the Mass, we are not merely remembering the past: we are making the past present.

We have a link, then, joining First Reading, Psalm, and Second Reading. Where does the Gospel fit in? The feeding of the five thousand foreshadows the Messianic banquet described by the prophet Isaiah, when God’s people will feast with the Messiah in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet it also foreshadows the miraculous feeding of God’s people with the Lord’s body and blood, a miracle more glorious than the feeding of the multitude on the Galilean hillside. The Eucharist is itself a foretaste of the heavenly Messianic banquet, and so the feeding of the five thousand is a foretaste of a foretaste.

Perhaps we should note one final point. Before multiplying the loaves and fishes, Jesus says to the apostles “Give them something to eat yourselves.” They cannot, until He intervenes, but His command may serve as a reminder that we, who are fed by Him with His body and blood, have a responsibility, with His help and by His grace, to feed others both materially and spiritually.

 

Posted on June 23, 2019 .

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday 2019

Proverbs 8:22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

The liturgy professor of my seminary days, never one to mince words, used to refer to today’s feast as “a liturgical sore thumb”, by which he meant that Trinity Sunday doesn’t celebrate one of the great events of salvation history, such as the Nativity, the Epiphany, the Resurrection, or the descent of the Spirit, or even the events of the great Marian feasts: instead, it is inserted into the calendar to remind us of a doctrine. Admittedly, it is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, but it is a doctrine nonetheless, and not an event.

Or is it? Perhaps the Holy Trinity is best understood as an ongoing event: the Father, continuously and from all eternity, generating the Son in and through the Holy Spirit, who is the love and the power between Father and Son, and that love and interrelationship within the Trinity being the power which sustains the universe.

Perhaps we might express it in these terms: if there were no Trinity, there would be no love and no life. Without the ongoing relationship and activity of the Trinity, the universe would be cold and dead: in fact, it would cease to exist. Everyone is familiar with the saying “It’s love which makes the world go round”. In the case of the love within, and emanating from the Holy Trinity, that is literally true.

We can see this in the practice of our faith, if we consider the Third Eucharistic Prayer, where we observe that everything is rooted in the Trinity. The new translation of the prayer isn’t entirely helpful. The former translation began “Father, you are holy indeed”, making it clear which member of the Trinity we are addressing, whereas the present version uses the term “Lord” which is slightly more ambiguous.

However, as the prayer continues, it becomes clear that the term “Lord” does indeed refer to the Father. The prayer rejoices that the Father “gives life to all things and makes them holy” through the Son, “by the power and working of the Holy Spirit”. Thus it is the Trinity, with each member working in unity, through whom not only holiness comes, but life itself.

In particular, the Mass is shown to be wholly Trinitarian. The Father is asked to make holy the gifts by the Spirit, so that they may become the Body and Blood of the Son, with whose self-offering to the Father we are united. Then, after the consecration, the Father is asked that “we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with His Holy Spirit, may become one Body, one Spirit in Christ.” All the Eucharistic prayers conclude with the doxology (“though Him, with Him, and in Him”) the great proclamation of praise of the Trinity.

Rudyard Kipling makes one of his characters speak of “your cold Christ and tangled Trinities.” Christ is certainly far from cold, and whilst the Trinity may appear tangled, its interweaving is in fact the source of life, of love, of all that exists.

Posted on June 17, 2019 .

Pentecost

Pentecost 2019

Acts 2:1-11; 1Cor 12:3-7, 12-13; Jn 20:19-23

I can’t help feeling that you have to have the gift of tongues to get through that first reading, with its list of peoples who heard the first teaching of the apostles. It is an impressive list, but somewhat challenging for the reader.

Moving on, I have to confess, to my shame, that I am easily irritated, and one of the things which irritates me is to hear or read that, until the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, the disciples were cowering in fear. If you do hear anyone say that, thump them, pummel them, knock them down, and sit on their heads, because it is unmitigated drivel.

Why on earth would they have been fearful after the Resurrection and Ascension? When they returned to the Upper Room after the latter, it wasn’t to cower, but to fulfil the instructions of the Risen Lord. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke wrote: “When [Jesus] had been with them at table, He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised,” and in his Gospel Luke states that, after the Ascension, “they worshipped Him and then went back to Jerusalem FULL OF JOY; and they were continually in the Temple, praising God.”

There is not the slightest hint of fear. Furthermore, in the first chapter of Acts, St. Luke describes what they were doing in the Upper Room: “they joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with His relations.” Are people suggesting that Our Lady was cowering in fear? What a load of nonsense.

Why then do people suggest it? I can only assume that they are misunderstanding, and in fact misplacing, today’s Gospel which does indeed speak of the disciples’ fear. When, though, is this Gospel passage set? Anyone who is reading it with half an eye should be able to recognise that this is an account of the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples on Easter Sunday evening, and strictly speaking has nothing to do with Pentecost at all.

Yet the mistaken view seems to have taken deep root in people’s perceptions. After I had explained everything very carefully in a previous parish, a lady—a former deputy head of a Catholic primary school, no less—came up to me after Mass, and asked triumphantly “Who is right then? You or St. John?” Presumably she had spent her teaching career telling her pupils that the Pentecost disciples were cowering in fear, and she wasn’t going to allow the odd fact to stand in her way.

So why is this Easter Sunday Gospel used today? It is to remind us that there is more than one way, and more than one time, for the Spirit to be given. The Easter Sunday Christ breathes on the disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is a gentle outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a far cry from the spectacular manifestation at Pentecost.

Also the Easter gift of the Holy Spirit is for a different purpose. The Spirit descended at Pentecost in wind and flame to empower the apostles for the preaching of the Gospel: that same Spirit was breathed into them at Easter to enable them to forgive sins.

This is in keeping with St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians which we heard in the Second Reading, “working in all sorts of different ways in different people” and again “the particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose.” The Charismatic Renewal Movement gave the Church many gifts, but it sometimes conveyed the impression that, if you weren’t having spectacular experiences, you hadn’t received the Spirit. Clearly we can see from the scriptures that this is not the case. I can’t help feeling a degree of sympathy with the Shrewsbury  priest who attended a charismatic meeting many years ago in the USA. At some point, a large lady standing next to him turned to embrace him, whereupon he exclaimed “Oh no! Please don’t! I am British!”

We have all received the Spirit. May we respond to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by using the gifts which we have been given, as we pray for a new outpouring of the Spirit on ourselves, on the Church, and on the whole of creation.

Posted on June 10, 2019 .

7th Sunday of Easter

7th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 7:55-60; Rev 22:12-20; Jn 17:20-26

Our Gospel today forms part of what is commonly known as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, and because of its setting in the context of the Last Supper, it may be regarded as His Last Will and Testament. In this prayer, Jesus commends His disciples to the Father: those disciples who were with Him at table, but also those millions of disciples who would join Him at table throughout the ages, including you and me. So this prayer is a prayer for us, something which we must bear in mind as we reflect upon it.

In case we should doubt that, Our Lord spells it out. “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who, through their words, will believe in me.” So what is the prayer of God the Son for us?

His prayer is that we should be one, not only with each other but with the Father and the Son. So we are to be united with the Father and the Son, an awesome thought if ever there was one, and also with our fellow disciples in a unity so deep that it replicates the unity within the Holy Trinity.

Ponder that for a moment. The unity between Father and Son is so complete that it generates the Holy Spirit. Our unity with God is to be as intense as that. How are we to achieve it? Clearly, WE are not: this is God’s work. All that we can do is to be open to being drawn into that unity.

Likewise, we are to be drawn into an equal unity with one another. Once again, that is going to have to be God’s work, a work which demands openness and prayer on our part. And bear in mind that unity, like charity and measles, begins at home. Unity for us must begin in God and be manifested among the people with whom we live, whether that be community, family, or whatever.

What does unity mean? It has become a cliché that unity does not mean uniformity, but even clichés are an expression of an underlying truth. We are not called to become Stepford Wives, gliding robotically and harmoniously through life, wearing fixed smiles and waiting for the explosion which will reveal our unreality.

We are individuals, with different characters, different opinions, different approaches. Genuine unity will not eradicate these differences, but will entail their contributing to, and enriching, the group.

At the root of this must be charity, the love poured into us by that Trinity with whom each of us must first be in unity. This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, yet if we are honest we will have to admit that it has not always been the case. Any diocesan priest can relate tales, whether at first or second hand, of “curate-breaker” parish priests, who apparently set out to damage if not destroy their assistant priests: many religious sisters will know of harshness, if not downright cruelty, within convents. My late primary school headmistress, a member of a teaching order, once told me ruefully of the difficult character of the Reverend Mother of those days, whom we, as children, had been taught by that same headmistress to regard with awe.

So do you and I contribute to unity within our immediate circle? That question presupposes an even more fundamental query: are we driven by love, a love infused by the Trinity, who dwell within us, with whom we dwell in unity? If that unity with, and indwelling of, the Holy Trinity is not the driving force of our lives, then our desire for unity with one another will be hamstrung from the start. Unity without the love of God will be a pretence, a cold charade.

Our Lord underlines this at the end of His prayer, asking that “the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them.” Thus love may give rise to unity, beginning at home, but spreading throughout the Church, throughout the body of Christians, and throughout the world.

Posted on June 3, 2019 .

6th Sunday of Easter

6th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 15:1-2,22-29; Rev 21:10-14,22-23; John 14:23-29

“If anyone loves me, they will keep my word.” What does it mean to keep Jesus’ word? It means to retain it, to absorb it into ourselves, to let it become part of us, to live by it. It is less a matter of knowing it by heart—a parrot can do that—than of taking it to heart, making it live within our heart.

“And my Father will love them, and we shall come to them, and make our home with them.” To be loved by the Father and the Son is all that we can desire: to have Them make Their home with us is more than we can desire.

God loves us and makes His home with us. Are you and I conscious of the presence of God with us, of His dwelling within us? It may feel that God is far away, that He hides His face from us, yet in reality He is dwelling deep within us. The sense of His absence is the greatest indicator of His presence, for it is a sharing with us of the Passion of His Son, the fullest sign of His love. No matter what our feelings may suggest, the reality is that God lives with us and in us, and that He will keep us from harm.

“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit is constantly at work in us, reminding us of the words of Jesus, reminding us of His presence, constantly confirming us in the love and service of God. We are drawing near to the feast of Pentecost, when we pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, yet we should never forget that the Spirit is poured out on us very day, literally inspiring--breathing into—us, charging and recharging us with God’s life.

“Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you—a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you.”

What is this peace which Jesus promises? It is not peace as the world sees it, not an absence of struggle or stress. During the week, Abbot Cuthbert quoted Cardinal Basil Hume’s Episcopal motto “Pax inter spinas”, peace among thorns, and our own Bishop has taken as his motto some words of Blessed John Henry Newman: “Sanctitas praeter pacem”, holiness before peace.

Jesus’ gift of peace is indeed HIS gift: it is not something of our manufacturing. Nor is it something which we should be looking for as an end. As Newman said, what we should be looking for is holiness, the fulfilment of God’s will: Jesus will bestow His peace as and when He chooses, and it will probably come among thorns, entailing struggle, difficulty, and what may seem to be the opposite of peace.

If our aim is a peaceful life, we shall end up settling for mediocrity. If our aim is to live the life of God dwelling with us, then Jesus will give us His peace, though we may not recognise it as such.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Sometimes we are like Martha, worrying and fretting about so many things when, as the Lord said, “few are necessary, indeed only one.” What matters is that we should be seeking God’s will. Then, He will not let us fall out of His hands, however much we may feel that we are making a mess of things. We need to hold onto that conviction, which should banish fear.

“I am going away and shall return.” The Lord HAS returned, not yet in glory, but in His gentle indwelling, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, standing with us in the turmoil and the pain of life, sharing with us His own puzzling and not always immediately recognisable gift of peace.

Posted on May 27, 2019 .

5th Sunday of Easter 2019

5th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5; John 13:31-35

“They shall be His people and He will be their God.” So says the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. How often have we heard that same promise in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament? And now the promise is fulfilled: we ARE His people and He IS our God. His name is indeed God-with-them—Emmanuel: that was revealed to St. Joseph by the angel in St. Matthew’s Gospel. God is with us.

God is with us because He has become one of us, in the person of His Son. He is with us because that same Son has sent us the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Why then does God often seem far away from us?

Part of the answer lies in the words of Paul and Barnabas to the disciples: “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the Kingdom of God.” These hardships are a sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and the closer we draw to Him, the greater our share in His suffering.

Perhaps the greatest suffering of all is the feeling that God is absent. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins summed it up in the words “My prayers must strike a brazen heaven” and in one of the so called “terrible sonnets”, the one beginning “No worst, there is none, pitched past pitch of grief” which continues “Comforter, where, where is your comforting? Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”

Likewise, throughout history, the saints have experienced the apparent absence of God. St. John of the Cross saw the night of the senses and the dark night of the soul as essential stages on the individual’s journey to God. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had wallowed in the sense of God’s love for her, wrote, towards the end of her short life: “What I have written is what I hope is true: for some time now, I have had no feeling of it”, whilst St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta apparently spent forty five years of her much longer live deprived of all awareness of God’s presence.

The late militant atheist Christopher Hitchens who, for some reason, nursed a particular loathing for Mother Teresa, claimed that her feeling arose because she had discovered that there was no one to pray to. If he had known anything either of scripture or of Christian history, he would have realised that precisely the opposite was true. Mother Teresa herself would have known that she was being given a particularly deep share in the Passion of Christ, experiencing at close proximity His sense of desolation in Gethsemane and on the Cross, when the Son of God Himself cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Yet, as Jesus Himself declared at the Last Supper, this very sense of abandonment was His glorification, the revelation of His identity as God. Being betrayed, deserted, raised up on the Cross was His glory, completed and not reversed by His resurrection.

In His glorification, Jesus had one commandment for His followers, those with Him at the supper table: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Couples often choose this or a similar reading for their marriage service. “Love one another” is an appropriate basis for marriage. I wonder, however, how many of them recognise the sting in the tail:”Just as I have loved you.”

Married couples, and the rest of us, must love as Jesus loves us, with a love which took Him to Gethsemane and to the Cross. What He calls for is a self-emptying love, not only for God, but for those whom God puts in our way. Are we capable of that self-denying love? Of course we are not, or rather, we would not be were He not our God and we His people; were He not Emmanuel, God-with-us. Only in and through Him are we capable of loving one another, and of loving God, even when He seems far away.

Posted on May 19, 2019 .

4th Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30

“The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” comments the Acts of the Apostles. These are, by and large, Gentile disciples, non-Jews, as the Gospel begins to be preached to the Gentile world. This outreach to the Gentiles was foreshadowed in the journey of the Wise Men to worship the infant Jesus, Gentiles adoring the Son of God. The disciples of that Son now return the compliment, as it were, bringing the light of the Gospel to the nations, as prophesied by Deutero-Isaiah and by Simeon at the Presentation in the Temple.

We are the descendants of those first Gentile disciples. Are we filled with joy and the Holy Spirit? What is joy? It is a deep-rooted conviction which blossoms in the good times, but which also sustains us in the difficult times, the times of darkness and near-despair. It is, in fact, the indwelling Holy Spirit. Are we conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to endure both light and dark, revealing Himself as that joy which, ultimately, nothing can destroy?

The root of that joy, the presence of the Holy Spirit, is a manifestation of God’s infinite love for us. Jesus speaks of that love today in His role as the Good Shepherd.

He begins by saying “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice”. Do we listen to the voice of the Lord? When and where do we hear it? We hear it daily in the scriptures. Do we allow the scriptures to soak into us? Do we sit with them, chewing the cud with them, allowing them to penetrate our whole being?

We hear the voice of the Lord too when we make time and space for prayer. We hear it also in the teachings of the Church, not least the Social Encyclicals, which lay before us our responsibilities to our neighbour.

Do we also hear that voice in the tones of our neighbour, in his/her challenge, his cry for help, her words of encouragement? I remember from pastoral lectures in the seminary the suggestion that we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other, interpreting each in the other’s light.

Our Lord continues with the words “I know them and they follow me”. He knows us: do we strive to know Him, to follow Him in all the events and situations of life?

Then Jesus goes on to say “I give them eternal life”. Notice the tense—present not future—“I give,” not “I will give”. Eternal life is a present reality if we allow the Holy Trinity to dwell within us.

“They will never be lost, and no one will ever steal them from me.”These are encouraging words, words to banish fear and anxiety. The greatest disaster which could befall us would be to be lost, to fall out of God’s hands. This, promises Jesus, will not happen. We can live without fear, secure in God’s love for us.

Why is this? It is because “The Father...gave them to me.” We belong to the Father, and the Father has given us to the Son. We are held secure by Father and Son in their mutual love and complete unity which is the Holy Spirit. “The Father and I are one” says the Lord, and we are held firm within that unity.

All of this explains why we should be filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. We have total grounds for confidence, no reason to fear. Consequently, we can follow boldly in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, carrying out His will, proclaiming His Gospel, because “no one can steal from the Father”—or from the Son.

Posted on May 12, 2019 .

3rd Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts: 5:27-32, 40-41; Rev 5:11-14; Jn 21: 1-19

“It was light by now, and there stood Jesus on the shore.” Light and darkness are important factors in St. John’s Gospel. When Judas leaves the supper room to betray Jesus, John remarks “Night had fallen”. When Mary of Magdala comes to the tomb, John comments that “it was still dark”: the light of the risen Christ had not yet dawned upon His followers. Now the risen Christ has appeared and is appearing again, and so John can say “It was light by now”.

As it was for the disciples, so for us “it is light by now”. Do we recognise the light of the risen Christ in our lives and in our minds? Do we help Him by our prayer and by our work to shed His light upon the dark places of our world, to lift the darkness of evil and of suffering?

Do we, like the disciples, fish in the dark, striving for success by our own efforts, becoming disheartened by our failure? Are we alert to the call of the risen Lord, directing us when and where to throw out our nets?

As at the empty tomb, it is “the disciple Jesus loved” for whom the light dawns first. Love is the key to enlightenment. He says to Peter, “It is the Lord”, and Peter, the leader, responds at once.

Are we alert to recognise the risen Christ, to say “It is the Lord”? Do we have sufficient love to see Him in the times of pain and darkness, and in the times of light and joy? Do we open ourselves to His presence in our times of prayer? Do we recognise Him in our neighbour, whether that neighbour be friendly or difficult, whether he or she be close to us or unknown, helping us or in need of our help? How often are we sufficiently awake and sufficiently loving to say “It is the Lord” and to respond like Peter when someone else points out His presence?

As the disciples come ashore, they see a charcoal fire, and share a meal of bread and fish. The latter would have recalled for all of them the miraculous feeding of the crowds: the former would hold particular resonance for Peter. The last time he encountered a charcoal fire was in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace, when he denied his Lord three times: the threefold question “Do you love me?” enables him to wipe out that threefold denial.

Some commentators see a significance in the different Greek words which Jesus and Peter use for “love”—for the former it is “agapao”, for the latter it is “phileo”. The suggestion has been made that Peter is somehow dodging the issue by using a word which, it has been said, involves less wholeheartedness, less self-surrender. It is probably fair to say that the majority of commentators dismiss the distinction, pointing out that John tends to use the two words interchangeably.

Likewise, despite what Mrs. Rees told us in the infants—namely that the lamb whom Peter is to feed are the laity, whilst the sheep are the clergy—there seems to be agreement that there is little distinction between lambs and sheep. Sorry, Mrs. Rees, God rest you.

What we do have here is John’s account of Peter’s primacy, as bestowed upon him by the Lord. Despite the role played by the beloved disciple, it is Peter who is singled out for leadership.

But that leader must be prepared, as must all of us, to have a belt put round him, and to be taken where he would rather not go. Again, commentators assert that this was an expression used by both Christian and non-Christian writers to refer to crucifixion.

Surely, too, it has wider resonance. How often have you been taken where you would rather not go, found yourself in situations which you would have preferred to avoid? And have you found that, despite everything, it was where the Lord wanted you to be at that time, that it was a time of purification, of learning, of growth? And whether that was so or not, did you hear and respond to the Lord’s command “Follow me”?

Posted on May 6, 2019 .

Second Sunday of Easter

2nd Sunday of Easter 2019

Acts5:12-16; Rev 1:9-13, 17-19; Jn 20:19-31

It is a truism—but bear in mind that the first thing about a truism is that it is true—it is a truism that the risen Christ is the wounded Christ: after His resurrection, Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and the spear.

Why should this be? His risen body is different in certain ways—He can pass through locked doors, He can appear rapidly in different places, He is not immediately recognised by people who know Him, He will eventually ascend into heaven—yet the holes in His hands and feet, and the gash in His side remain. The Father, had He wished, could have removed the marks of the Passion, restoring His Son’s body to pristine unwoundedness, yet He did not do so. Why did He choose this route?

The first answer, I suppose, is that the wounds help establish the identity and the reality of the risen Christ. As He Himself is reported by St. Luke as saying “A spirit has no flesh and bones as you can see that I have.” This is the real person: the disciples are not seeing a ghost. As soon as He appears the risen Lord shows His wounds, and at His return to the Upper Room on Low Sunday, He grants Thomas’ wish for more than visual proof. Thomas need not simply look; he is also to touch.

Is there, though, more to it than mere proof of identity? “By His wounds we are healed” we read in the First Letter of St. Peter, and those wounds continue to exercise their healing force. The risen Christ will never forget His wounds—will never be without them—and those wounds will continue to provide their healing power as long as this world lasts.

Michel Quoist, the French priest and spiritual writer beloved of my generation of university students, was fond of the quotation (possibly from Pascal, though I stand open to correction on that) “Christ is in agony until the end of time”. Even though Christ is risen, He continues to suffer in His body, the Church; His wounds will continue to throb so long as human beings go through agonies whether physical, mental, or spiritual.

It is because He is the wounded Christ that the risen Christ is able to be COMPASSIONATE, “suffering with”. He is a God who is not merely merciful: He is a God who has borne the pain and the anguish of human life; who literally bears the scars. Because of those scars, His capacity to heal is unbounded, because He is not looking in from outside, but is sharing the pain from within.

As it is for Christ, so it is for us. One of the most popular and most powerful of recent spiritual writers was Henri Nouwen, one of whose books is entitled “The Wounded Healer”. Only when we share the woundedness of Christ can we share His capacity to heal, because we too can be compassionate. It is not true, as Nietzsche claimed, that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger”—there are some forms of suffering which cause permanent damage to the spirit and the personality no less than to the body—but without suffering we shall always lack genuine strength.

Have the wounds of the risen Christ anything further to teach us? It is after showing His wounds that the Lord repeats the words “Peace be with you”, that He breathes the Holy Spirit into the apostles, that He sends them, giving them their mission of forgiving sin. From woundedness comes true peace: in woundedness is the Holy Spirit imparted, and the capacity to bestow that healing forgiveness which comes from God but which takes its human aspect, not merely from the formula of the sacrament, but through, in, and with compassion.

Further, it is through touching the wounds of the Redeemer that Thomas is able to utter his great proclamation of faith “My Lord and my God”. The wounds of Christ evoke faith in the divinity of Christ. May the risen yet still wounded Christ be our source of healing, of compassion, and of faith.

Posted on April 30, 2019 .

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday 2019

“It was...still dark when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb.” Why was it still dark? It was still dark because the light of faith, the light of knowledge hadn’t dawned for Mary and the other disciples. The Light of the World was risen, but they did not know: it was their minds, rather than the day, which were dark.

So Mary Magdalene, the woman, runs to Peter, the leader, and John, the beloved. The woman, the leader, and the beloved: representatives of the disciples, representatives of the Church. And they run, and they see, but the light does not yet dawn.

John sees, but he does not go in: he leaves that to the leader. The leader goes in, and sees, but does not understand. The beloved enters, and sees, and understands. It is love, rather than leadership, which brings understanding.

As it was for the first disciples, so it will ever be. It is love, rather than leadership, which will bring understanding. It is love which will make us know that Christ is risen. It is love which will make His risen life a reality in us. Please God, our leaders will always be filled with that love, as Pope Francis clearly is, and as our Bishop is—love and leadership will be combined—but for all of us it is love which will bring light.

But who is the first to be granted full vision, the first encounter with the risen Lord? We are not told in this extract—it is my suspicion that we are not told at all. I have a theory that the risen Christ is not at the tomb because He has gone to visit His mother. I have no evidence for saying that, but it strikes me as not unlikely. In any case, the first meeting of the risen Lord is with a woman, whether it be Mary His mother or Mary of Magdala, and I suspect that the Church hasn’t even begun to understand the implications of that.

Perhaps these are all side issues. What matters is that He is risen, that He has conquered darkness, evil, and even death. Neither evil nor death can have the last word. Evil may afflict us, but it cannot defeat us. Christ is risen: we have no more evil to fear. He is risen indeed ALLELUIA.

Posted on April 23, 2019 .

Easter Vigil April 20th 2019

Easter Vigil 2019

It’s a shambles, isn’t it? The Easter Vigil I mean—a wonderful, exciting shambles. It was clearly designed by a committee: bits stick out at all angles. We keep hitting high points—the lighting of the candle, the proclamation of the light of Christ, and the Exsultet; the Gloria; the solemn Alleluia—yet after each of them we are brought back down to earth until the next high point. It is a sort of liturgical roller coaster, a joyful and magnificent shambles.

That is appropriate, because life is a shambles, and the world is a shambles, and the Church is a shambles, and you and I are a shambles. And it doesn’t matter, because, into the shambles comes a dead man walking, God who died and who rose from the dead. He enters the shambles, and He shows His wounds, the wounds which transform the shambles into glory, wounds which heal the shambles of the world, and of the Church, and of the lives of you and me.

Christ is risen, and the shambles is transformed. Darkness is changed into light, death into eternal life, and every shambles into a meeting point with Christ, who died and who is alive for ever.

Posted on April 22, 2019 .

Maundy Thursday April 18th 2019

Holy Thursday 2019

The sisters carried out the foot washing in community. I hope that they didn’t come as close to disaster as I did on one occasion.

It happened at the Diocesan Youth Centre at Castlerigg Manor. I was principal celebrant, and we were reading the Gospel in dialogue form. As I progressed along the line of “disciples” I noticed that “Peter” had the dirtiest foot I had ever seen in my life. If he had spent a lifetime tramping the dusty roads of Palestine, his foot could not have collected more grime.

Totally oblivious, he entered the dialogue with relish. “Not only my feet but my hands and my head as well” he exclaimed enthusiastically. Er.......! All might have been well had it not been for the Becher’s Brook which constituted my response, and which I could see looming: “No one who has taken a bath needs washing—he is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.”

It was more than flesh and blood could cope with, and I found myself infected with one of those fits of the giggles, which grow worse the more you need to suppress them. I took a run at the words, and pulled up short. I tried again, and eventually poured them out in the sort of falsetto scream with which Brian Johnston attempted to describe Ian Botham’s  mishap in dislodging the bails with his trouser leg in an Ashes Test. Meanwhile the object of this unseemly mirth remained blissfully unaware.

Yet, believe it or not, there was something  appropriate about his condition. As the Church, we are the people of mucky feet. Pope Francis has said as much, insisting that pastors must live with the smell of the sheep, and that all Christians must get our hands dirty.

We so often seek to present ourselves at the banquet of the Lord, instituted this night as Jesus made Himself the true Paschal Lamb, giving His Body and Blood as food and drink, in preparation for the shedding of that blood on the Cross—we seek to present ourselves in pristine condition, worthy to take part in so solemn and so awesome a celebration.

What we are attempting is impossible. We cannot be worthy to receive the living God within ourselves: to believe that we might be so would be blasphemy. That is why we say, not simply as a ritual, but with absolute truth, immediately before receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord: “Lord I am not worthy.”

And it doesn’t matter. He whom we receive makes up for our unworthiness. He transforms us into worthy dwelling places for Him. Nor does He inquire into the cleanliness of our feet—or, if He does, it is to ask whether they are mucky enough. Have we been walking among the sheep? Have our feet become grimy in our service of, and involvement with, others? Or have we floated serenely above the mess and squalor of our world, despising it, disdaining it, failing to recognise the face of Christ among it?

Of course, the nature of our involvement will vary in accordance with our particular vocation. For contemplative religious, that involvement will come mainly through prayer, but it will entail a struggle with God and a compassion with the world which will bring its own share of grime and sweat. For others, there may be a more direct involvement. For all of us, there will be a constant need for the Lord to wash us ever anew, because we are, and must be, the people of mucky feet.

Posted on April 22, 2019 .