THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION (St Mary's) 01709 363753 * email@example.com * Clergy Fr Desmond Sexton Fr Leonard May *
Address The Presbytery 238 Herringthope Valley Road Rotherham S65 3BA
Nineteenth Sunday of the Year
The image in today’s gospel reading of the boat out in the sea battling with a strong wind, the crew almost overwhelmed by the experience and struggling with the boat is perhaps a good description of ourselves as we try and understand our faith, our connection with God and our parish communities during the very different experiences we are all having through Covid 19. It’s not just about whether our local church is open or not, we are facing the questions what’s the purpose, the meaning behind parish communities and our relationship with one another through God? Memorial services, baptisms, weddings, receptions and confirmations can continue but even the way people approach this can give mixed messages, in some cases waiting for when everything gets back to normal whenever that might be. What understanding is there of how Jesus Christ is integrated into all these moments we are currently experiencing in our lives? The disciples in the boat thought they saw a ghost when Jesus walked towards them; maybe He is a ghost for some of us now, only today perhaps He is drifting out of our lives instead of approaching us. Yet the call Jesus makes to the disciples is the same one for us to hear today and, bearing in mind what I have been saying over the past 17 weeks, the call is familiar, ‘Courage! It is I, do not be afraid’
Let’s look at Elijah from the first reading for a moment. He is regarded as the greatest of all the prophets of the Old Testament because he is someone called by God to challenge people in the way they relate to Him. Other prophets of the time inherited the title prophet through the understandings of the tribes. They answered questions about the crops, the weather and any battles to be fought but they did not speak about a faith in God, far from it, often they would compromise their faith with worshipping false idols and truths. Elijah took them all on and won in a great completion at Mount Carmel if you wish to know more go to 1 Kings Ch18:20. However, his zeal got the better of him, he had all 450 prophets of Baal executed. Queen Jezebel who is all for worshipping Baal orders the death of Elijah which sends Elijah into despair. He goes out into the wilderness with no provisions intending to die, in other words this great prophet of God is suffering from suicidal tendencies. But God comes to the rescue. He sends Elijah on a journey to Mount Horeb, a pilgrimage of self-discovery and encounters God not in the wind, earthquake or fire but in a gentle breeze. In other words; will power is good but we do not survive purely on our own strength, sensitivity is good but we should not be governed by our mood swings, and passion and zeal is good but when out of control, it can get us in trouble which is where Elijah found himself.
The great prophet has to learn again that in order to understand how God is operating in our lives we do need to be still and listen. Don’t block out what God reveals to us, it will challenge, it will require change and we do not get our own way, but it is the way to a purposeful and meaningful life.
Getting back to the scene in the storm, when Jesus calls him, Peter attempts to walk on the water. He has to let go of where he might feel safer and more familiar with and of course he starts to drown, calling out for help. We too are either still in the boat, not a sensible thing to do, we might at first feel safe but it is in trouble and will go down, or we respond to Our Lord’s call, walk on the water and not firm ground looking to God, not to our own reason, arguments and definitions and being upheld not by our own resources but through trust in God.
Like Peter we will experience fear and doubt but one thing life teaches us is that the search for God will take us through some insecure and dark moments. Sometimes we have to grope for God. We hold up our empty hands to God in trusting commitment, we learn to lean on, rest on, trust in someone more solid then ourselves. The verb in Hebrew for these actions is Aman, meaning faith, that’s where we get the word Amen.
Earlier on in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit where he faces his human limits and temptations, learning to keep His trust in His Father when under such pressure. Last Thursday we celebrated the Transfiguration of the Lord, His divine glory being revealed and after that Jesus faced Jerusalem and the challenge of His Passion.
Our daily faith journey is about walking on water which we cannot do alone, we need the hand of God. Elijah’s experience teaches us when facing despair, when there is a loss of confidence, when the fall from grace is long, it’s the willingness to listen, be still and hear the gentle breeze, the gentle words of God that begins to help us to start again. There will be challenges and need for changes in the way we approach life but listen again to Jesus’ call:
Courage! It is I, do not be afraid.
Eighteenth Sunday of the Year
Being generous is not easy because it means giving something away, handing whatever it may be to someone else to keep or it can also mean no longer claiming a privilege or a right in a given situation. To be generous means there are no conditions attached. No motive other than to give something or an opportunity to someone else for their benefit.
I remember when as a seminarian priests would be very kind to me and I would say you are too kind, how can I pay you back and they would say, well, hopefully you will be able to help other seminarians in the future. And I hope I have been able to show my gratitude for those kind deeds by being generous to the students for the priesthood that I have met.
Our first reading for today has God saying to his people oh, come… receive the water you need, the food you need and at no cost. Yes you are able to pay but there is no need, what I want to do is give to you what will help you to grow…its free, it’s what you need and I give it to you with a generous heart.
The image of a banquet is an eloquent representation of the communion of life between God and his people. God wishes to gather, to feed and to nurture and take care of his people but he will not force himself on them. No, generosity does not force itself on people, it is an offering, free of conditions and open to rejection which is why God says further on, - listen to me, listen to my words and act on them and you will have good things. Pay attention and your soul will live.
There is the old joke about the guy who goes on a cruise and leans too far over the railings along the deck of the boat and falls into the sea. The crew throw a rope to him as he splashes in the sea, but he says do not worry, God will save me. They then send one of the life boats to him but he still shouts God will save me. Eventually he drowns and goes to the gates of heaven where he is met by God. The man says I called out to you but you did not help me, God says I sent down a rope and then a boat to collect you but you would not cooperate.
And we do not always pay attention to the signs of God present in our lives and perhaps it’s because we do not know how to see the signs. We do not listen always. Perhaps we are afraid of what we might hear.
Maybe the apostles were afraid of what Jesus was saying to them as they thought about what to do with all the people that had been with them through the day. It was getting late, the people were getting hungry.
The whole issue about the feeding of over 5,000 people is a lesson Jesus is giving to all who follow him, don’t abandon people to fate when they are in their hour of need. Don’t turn your back on them. And so first he says to his disciples, you give them something to eat. We are being told at that moment, look within yourself. Discover what you actually have and when the time comes take the opportunity to be as generous to others as God is with you. We are called to act. - We might view ourselves as not doing any harm to anyone but that can also mean we do nothing to or for anyone. Jesus wants his disciples to act and he expects the same from us as well.
Covid 19 has not gone away. Restrictions may have eased over the past few weeks and people have started to talk about going back to something like normal. But the virus has not gone away and the events of the past week are reminding us that for all the cravings to go out and see people and do things we still have to be careful. People are frightened, people are frustrated, and there are people who are still feeling cut off from what is happening around them. There is still the need for the phone call, contact by watts app email or conversation over the garden fence. There is the need to be patience with people, a thoughtfulness behind our actions; is what I am about to do keeping someone else safe or is it putting them at risk?
So, how do we apply the lesson Jesus gives us through the feeding of the 5,000 in the circumstances we are sharing together? How do we continue today with that spirit of generosity towards others? Last Friday was the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola. He wrote a prayer with a message that I feel sums up what Jesus is looking from us as he asks his disciples give something to the 5,000 hungry people before them.
Take, Lord all my freedom, and receive my memory, my understanding and my whole will; whatever I have and possess you have given to me; to you, Lord, I restore it wholly, and to your will I utterly surrender it for your direction. Give me a love of you only and Your Grace, and I am rich enough, nor do I ask for anything besides. Amen.
Seventeenth Sunday of the Year
Between the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the house where I live is a beautiful Silver Birch Tree and for 12 years it has been one of my delights to look upon the tree and enjoy its beauty. Someone told me the other day that it was planted by Fr. Francis Hovarth, one of my predecessors, someone some of the older parishioners will remember. Planting a tree is a long term project and for Fr Hovarth, when he planted the Silver Birch he knew that he would not see it grow or experience how much joy it gave to others years later; but he understood the potential joy that tree would give when he planted it. It was a treasure that would delight others. A treasure given for future generations to enjoy and possibly never know who it was that planted the tree. I find that vision, that generosity of heart so wonderful.
In today’s first reading we have a young king called Solomon facing the challenge of leading God’s people on this earth. His father, King David, lived through wars and persecutions, uniting two parts of the kingdom that were at odds with one another and there was still the danger that the infighting would start again. So when God askes Solomon what he would like God to give him at the beginning of his reign, Solomon does not ask for the destruction of his rivals, or for more power or wealth or anything that would be just for him alone. Instead Solomon askes for a heart that will understand the people he is to rule so that Solomon will be able to discern what is good and what is evil. And God gave Solomon a heart that was wise and shrewd so that he could serve his people with good and fair leadership. Here is another example of someone with good insights as to what was needed not just for him but for the community he served. They were not there for Solomon to do what he liked; Solomon was there to help his people have a secure future.
So what are our treasures, our values?
I remember some wit saying back in the 1990’s that when people retire they should concentrate on skiing. Meaning, ‘spending their kids inheritance’. In one way that is exactly what Bill Gates is doing after his retirement from Microsoft which he cofounded. He gave something to his children however but he has not indulged himself as other might have done. Instead he has used his vast wealth in all sorts of projects helping people across the world, highlighting our common humanity and trying to address the economic imbalance we live with where so many people around the world still live in poverty. Bill Gates treasure is not in his wealth but in the intentions of his actions.
Our two parables from today’s gospel reading has two people who in different ways discover something of great value and in order to have that object of great value, gave up everything else they had. What Jesus is saying to us through these stories is to look into our hearts and see what it is that we value most. How do we make those fundamental decisions in our lives, what are our motives and desires?
I have mentioned before how Pope Francis wonders about Christians who live their lives with a frown, there seems to not be a genuine sense of joy within. They have a religion, a set of beliefs and practises and devotions to carry out but no sense of joy that comes from knowing deep down, God’s love for them. The treasure hidden in the field, hidden deep down in ourselves, is the discovery that God alone can fully respond to our most vital questions and deepest desires. Remember how again and again over the past 16 weeks we have heard Jesus say through the gospel readings ‘do not be afraid’ ‘I will not leave you orphans’ ‘I am with you always’.
If we can find these words being said to us deep within then we will also find a wonderful source to help us with those fundamental questions we face about our lives. Like Solomon we too can learn how to discern wisely what is the right thing to do and what is the wrong thing to do. We grow out of our own preoccupations and live in relationship with God and through that with each other in ways that celebrates how the Kingdom of God is with us here and now.
We learn, like Fr Francis Hovarth to live each day knowing of God’s love in our hearts and planting seeds that will bring to other people’s attention the mystery of God’s love for them and the beauty that reality holds for them.
Thank you to the person who told me the story behind the silver birch tree for I am now able to understand its fruit which is a treasure of great value.
Sixteenth Sunday of the Year
Some years ago a young woman about my own age told me a story about herself. Her teenage years were happy and carefree, she was part of a family that lived a comfortable life and played a big part in the parish where they lived. She grew up with all sorts of friends, was popular, very good at school, enjoyed all sorts of activities and good at most and got outstanding results for her O’Levels ( we did not call them GCSE’s in those days). Then, during the summer before she was to return to school to start her A levels, she discovered that she was pregnant. The school told her she could not return in the autumn, the gossip went all round the parish, there were whispers, eyes staring at her, the boy’s family blamed her for leading him astray and her parents made the decision that she had to leave and live somewhere else. On to the scene comes the local parish priest, an elderly Irish man, whose sermons were straight down the line, the teachings of the Church are there in black and white, what part of it do you not understand? She had been avoiding him since her discovery, but now there was no escape. The knock on the door the solemn voice ‘where she be?’ and her father’s reply, ‘she is in here’. The old parish priest surprises her as he comes into the room, he calls her by her name, tells her no to be afraid, then stands behind her places his hands on her shoulders, talks over her head, he was a tall man, and says to her parents, ‘I hear you want her to leave this house and live elsewhere…well she can stay with me.’
Silence….the poor girl is trying to take in what she has just heard. Her parents begin to cry… all the fear and sense of shame caused by the gossip, the judgements of others the cold shoulders the silences as the family walked around the parish fell away as their eyes were opened by the words of the priest. In her short 16 years, this was the moment their daughter needed them most. The baby was born, no adoption arranged, she grew up in the family and it was the parish who were shamed and the parish priest baptised the child and remained a sort of unofficial grandfather to her for the rest of his life. After telling me the story, the young woman laughed and said ‘God only knows what the poor old priest would have done if she did have to move in with him, he would not have had a clue’
Today’s parable about the wheat and the weeds growing together in the same field is a lesson to us all. We are prone to making the mistake of identifying those who do not fit in with the correct profile of what a good Christian is. We construct our own understanding of faith and we can either be too harsh with ourselves or too harsh on others. ‘Only God knows his own’ said St Augustine. Only God knows who is living with a heart open to God’s Mystery, responding to his deep desire of peace, love and solidarity among human beings. The kingdom of God is among us giving shelter to our brokenness like the tree that grows from the small mustard seed in another part of today’s gospel reading.
A few years ago Sean Bean played the part of a Catholic priest in the TV series Broken, if you have not seen it then please do. It’s another way of understanding the message in today’s readings. The scriptwriter and director is Jimmy McGovern who admits that he has lost his Catholic faith but remains open to its return. McGovern explains that the title of the series ‘Broken’ refers to the broken bread of the Eucharist. He goes on to say that the breaking of the bread is associated with the breaking of a human body. We have Jesus’ own body broken for us, being offered for our sake and we have our own bodies, broken by the experiences of life and in need of healing and renewing and being nourished by the reception of the bread broken, the person whom that broken bread is. Not bad for someone who has lost his faith!
Pope Francis does not see the Church as an elite army of soldiers but as a Field Hospital, dispensing mercy on those who recognise themselves as sinners. The Church does not exist to condemn people, but to bring about an encounter with the bounteous love of God; God’s abundant love and compassion. A Field Hospital goes out into the combat and looks for the ones that are lost, and a parish lives with the messy contradictions of life, people’s vulnerability and failings, and helps them to discover that they remain beautiful in the eyes of God.
That’s what that old Irish parish priest did for his people and his people helped him in his vulnerability too. A young mother and her teenaged daughter never forgot that.
Feast of Sts Peter and Paul
Tomorrow is the official date for the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul but the feast has been transferred to today and the reason for this is because had it not been for Covid 19 the Feast of St Peter and St Paul would have been a Holy Day of Obligation and this year, as the 29th June is a Monday we transfer to the Sunday. Confused? Join the club. Then there is the question what to base the homily on? An easy option is to give a potted account of the lives of Peter and Paul, a sort of whose who, or who do you say I am? However I have resisted the temptation to Google Peter and Paul and see what is written on Wikipedia, that’s something you can do for yourself. Instead let’s look at what the readings of the mass are saying.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is about the escape of Peter. It’s his second so far and does sound a bit like something from a super hero comic but look again. There are echoes of Old Testament themes here. A ruler is trying to silence God’s people and has already put one of the Apostles to death. Think of the Pharaoh in Exodus who sought to annihilate his Israelite subjects. In the Old Testament Moses goes to Pharaoh and says let God’s people go. There is much resistance from Pharaoh and only after the death of all male first born does Pharaoh let Moses take the people away from Egypt only then to change his mind and chase after Moses and the Israelites with his army. Note that King Herod has Peter arrested during the Passover festival which is a celebration of God’s intervention to free the Israelites from Pharaoh. So looking again at the first reading we have once more the intervention by God this time to free Peter who had great success in converting people to Christianity at a previous festival. Pharaoh died in the waters of the Red Sea as they covered the path by which the Israelites escaped. At the end of chapter 12 in Acts Herod is struck down by an angle of the Lord after continuing to defy God.
The story of Peters escape from such maximum security is reminding us that the work of God will continue despite the persecutions of the early Christians and even Peters own martyrdom later on. We are living with the uncertainties the pandemic has forced upon us and yet God’s work continues to lead us through it as we question what direction are our lives going in? Over the past few weeks I find again and again in the readings the affirmation and certainty of Jesus’ words, I am with you always. Pandemic or no pandemic His work continues.
It is thought that our second reading, Paul’s second letter to Timothy is of Paul communicating in his old age. He has fought the good fight to the end he has run the race to the finish. We could say he has batted well at the crease he is almost at the 18th hole. What I love about this reading is that after a hard life, experiencing ship wrecks, persecutions imprisonment and loosing friends, all because of his missionary work, Paul remains with so much hope in his heart, his final years are not in bitterness but are optimistic. He has embraced what Jesus has made possible through His resurrection, living life fully as a human being and looking forward to the promise made by Our Lord to share in His Divine Glory. It can be tempting to look back on our lives with regrets and yes, there will be painful mistakes that we have to come to terms with, but Paul reminds us that at the centre of our wellbeing is God’s love for us, something Paul himself learned to discover through all the highs and lows he experienced in life.
Finally, it may appear we are back to the question I tried to avoid answering at the beginning of this homily, ‘Who do you say I am’? This time it is from the lips of Jesus and though we are reading about an exchange between Jesus and Peter, today the question is being addressed to us. We could say you are the Son of God incarnate or some other doctrinal answer but Jesus does not want to know our opinion, he is looking into our attitude towards him. Is Jesus a historic figure for us, or is he the One who gives ultimate meaning to our existence, provides decisive guidance for our life and offers us definitive hope?
The question, ‘Who do you say I am?’ is not about Jesus it is about ourselves: it asks us what is the essence of our faith in Jesus, what is the North on our compass? It is asking each of us, how do you live, what do you aspire to, what commitments do you hold close to your heart? Normally after a homily on Sunday we then stand to recite the Creed, that’s making a solemn profession. How we answer the question from Jesus, ‘Who do you say I am?’ will show if our solemn profession is separate from how we live or is the spirit that drives our daily living.
Enjoy looking up Peter and Paul on Wikipedia but also spend a little time in prayer with one of our readings from mass today; the exercise will nourish our faith and relationship with God.
Twelfth Sunday of the Year
I was listening to a friend of mine called Jack the other evening. Mentioning Jack I’d better come clean, Jack is an imaginary friend but before you start wondering if Fr Desmond is Billy no mates without a social bubble to join then let me explain, Jack is for the purpose of this homily an amalgamation of a number of real live friends, Jack helps to maintain their anonymity.
Anyway, Jack was telling me that the day had not been an easy one for him. He had to meet and listen to a number of people who were not happy they were angry, frustrated, blaming anyone and everyone and not taking responsibility for themselves. Jack told me it was uncomfortable to listen to and he felt drained by the negative energy that had been dumped on him. I suggested we pray. It was a silent prayer, a moment to allow Jack to connect with God’s love deep within him. It’s a prayer that helps to unburden ourselves of other people’s issues. In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells his followers ‘don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’. We don’t often hear people talk about the soul, of guarding our soul from the one who can destroy it. We hear a lot about our wellbeing and rightly so. Our relationship with God teaches us that the most important contribution to our wellbeing is understanding God’s love for each of us individually and learning to trust that love.
When I was preparing this sermon my memory took me back to Class Two, Holy Rood Infant School Barnsley. I can clearly recall the classroom: where I sat and our teacher Sr. Collette and of her explaining to us that each of us had a soul within; it was part of God that God had placed in us; it was God’s love for us. I can picture her telling us, her eyes closed, she always closed her eyes when she spoke to us of anything profound. That memory is so clear, someone explaining to me God’s love for me and I being impressed by this at that young age. We all grow older and come across other lessons on life but no matter what our experiences what always remains is the desire for love. When it comes to the body and soul, what Sr. Collette was telling us 6 year olds was that deep within us is the love God has for each one of us.
St Marys primary school have a social media app called Dojo and the staff have let me loose on it and last Friday morning I videoed a short liturgy for the school about the Sacred Heart of Jesus and told them of a line from the First letter of St John, it’s not our love for God that is so incredible, its God’s love for us, here already and freely given.
Jesus also tells his followers not to be afraid, a comment he makes often, remember we can across it in Johns Gospel during Holy Week and Easter. When the books of the New Testament were being written the followers of Jesus were being persecuted and that message ‘do not be afraid’ became so important. It is a sober reminder to us all that to follow Our Lord is not an easy life option, but it is the option that gives meaning to our lives because whatever we are going through, deep in here remains God’s love for us.
Our second reading today is from Paul’s letter to the Romans and to get a hold on what Paul is telling us it would be good to read the whole of Chapter Five in order to get a sense of what he is on about. In the part we listen to today Paul makes reference to Adam and through mentioning Adam Paul is explaining to us that life offered to us by Christ’s resurrection is not about a return to how things were, the paradise that Adam enjoyed before Eve and himself were expelled. The change is far more radical, Jesus Christ is the new Adam and the resurrection is the way in which all people can now share in not simply human life, but divine life and that is only possible through the grace freely given by God. Our soul, that part of God within us can help us to believe in this divine destiny.
These days the phrase ‘the new normal’ refers to a new way of living and it will be upon us whether we like it or not, the Pandemic has far reaching consequences. We are rediscovering how to be a community in different ways and at the same time holding on to what is its essence which is God’s love for us. There is the soul within each one of us and there is also the ‘soul of our worshipping community’. We take for our inspiration once again those words of Jesus, ‘do not be afraid’, and by developing our understanding that God’s love for us is deep within we learn to look to the future not with fear but with open minds and hearts trusting in the Risen Lords promise of a divine destiny.
Jack was able to lay down the load once he reconnected with God’s love for him. He understood he was not expected to carry the negativity of others. Finding within himself Gods love for Jack, his body might be weary but not his soul.
It is good to know that as from tomorrow places of worship can be open for private prayer. It is important that the preparations for the opening of our churches are done correctly making them safe for people to visit and thereby build people’s confidence in coming and this is why we are cautiously moving towards opening some of our local churches in Rotherham over the next two weeks or so. Over the past twelve weeks I have sensed in people a growing appreciation of the Blessed Sacrament, the Real Presence of Christ Our Lord within the tabernacle and how this presence of Christ helps to make our local churches sacred spaces for us to be still and quiet with God. We still wait for the opportunity to gather and celebrate the Eucharist, to be together, listening to God’s Word, present as He makes His sacrifice for our sake and then to receive the Lord in Communion and this waiting, this yearning for the Eucharist is all the more acute as we celebrate today’s feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, also known as Corpus Christi which is the Latin for Body of Christ.
What the Church intends to celebrate on this feast is not the corpse of Jesus on the cross, his body during his earthly ministry or even the sense that each of us is part of the Body of Christ. Instead as we can tell from the gospel reading, the church celebrates the presence of Christ in the form of bread and wine. The Body and Blood of Christ we celebrate today is the consecrated bread and wine that has become Christ himself.
The gospel reading today is not from the Last Supper as we might expect. Instead the reading is from part of the ‘bread of life discourse’ of the Gospel of John. The message is up front and very clear. Jesus proclaims that he is the living bread come down from heaven. And to be certain that his listeners understand, he states clearly that this is true food and true drink. The imagery is stark, disturbing for some and a stumbling block for others. If later today you pick up your bible and read further on the events of this episode in John’s gospel you will discover how people walked away from Jesus because of this teaching.
In our time there are people do not walk away but only seek a landmark in the life of their family as children make their First Holy Communion and unfortunately the significance of what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel is not understood or in some cases no effort is made to appreciate it’s meaning. The cultural and social celebrations overtake the significance of God feeding our faith with Himself. But for those who receive the Body and Blood of Christ faithfully believing in who it is they are receiving, Jesus maintains that they will live for ever.
Living with the pandemic has caused problems when it comes to receiving Holy Communion but it has created opportunities for us to imitate what Christ is doing for all of us in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not simply something to receive nor is it enough merely to admire the Eucharistic, though Eucharistic adoration is a good spiritual encounter with God. Corpus Christi is a self-giving of Christ so that he is bread broken and wine poured out in service and in love. To truly celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi we must also answer the call to become an alter Christus, (another Christ) and to do this in the midst of the daily lives we experience here and now, so that we are bread broken and wine poured out for the needs of humanity. As followers of Christ we too allow ourselves to be broken for others, to be poured out.
During the lockdown people have rediscovered friendships with others and made contact with neighbours they hardly knew. We became more aware of the service others provide so that we can work our way through our daily lives; the sort of things like refuse collecting, postal and courier deliveries we perhaps took for granted. And many people have shown kindnesses and thoughtfulness to others. As the lockdown is eased gradually we have to be careful that we do not lose all this awareness, appreciation of other people and acts of generosity. Today’s feat of Corpus Christi reminds us not to lose sight of those daily opportunities to allow ourselves be broken, be poured out for the sake of others and to look out for the hidden stresses in people’s lives and give practical support where possible. When we offer a listening ear, a thoughtful message and the willingness to work with people and not look out only for our own benefit we will discover that this makes a big difference in all our lives.
As we honour Corpus Chrisit we might not be able to receive Our Lord in Communion but we can be ‘other Christs’ to people around us. The giving of oneself for the sake of others is what Jesus shows us through the Eucharist and that is something each of us can do. Not even a pandemic can stop us from doing this.
This is a picture of the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Roublev and my favourite depiction of this great mystery of God, allowing for obvious limitations. In the Book of Genesis Chapter 18 begins with God appearing to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre. Abraham sees three people and prepares a meal for them yet when he addresses his guests Abraham speaks in terms of the singular and not the plural, the three are one. This encounter is the story of the icon I am showing you. A good guided meditation on the icon brings to mind the richness of God’s mystery and relationship with humanity. You will find some good guides on You Tube but be aware there will also be some bad ones. During these few moments I wish to draw your attention towards how the three figures are sat around the table in such a way that there is a space right opposite to where we are positioned looking at the scene. The space is there for you, for you to join the gathering and become one with God. God is inviting us to come nearer, to participate and not withdraw.
You may recall that last year on Trinity Sunday I spoke about this powerful icon and the invitation it makes to the one looking at it to enter into the mystery of God. I spoke also about the Divine Dance, how the ancient Greek Fathers of the Church depicted the Trinity as a Round Dance: a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three – a circle dance of love and then do you remember how on the Sunday morning I asked everyone to stand up in the church and we made a circle that went all round the building and we danced. We were one, not just with each other but together we were one with God and it was so joyful. As I wrote this homily I hoped and prayed that folk were making short videos of themselves dancing to a song by Matt Maher called ‘Your Grace is Enough’ and sending them in to produce a short film this time of dancing around the parish, once again together and one with God.
In the first reading for today Moses has gone up the mountain of Sinai to meet God a second time after discovering on the decent of his first climb that God’s people had in his absence made an idol and worshipped it. Moses destroyed the image grinding it to powder mixed it with water and made the people drink it. Now Moses has returned to the top of Mount Sinai to intercede for his people. God passes before Moses tells Moses that before him is a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and mercy and Moses askes for forgiveness of his people. From God there is no castigation but instead an invitation to start again. The story should make each one of us think about how we handle arguments and disputes as disciples of God. Do we pick up the pieces and seek to begin again, healing and restoring? Or are we vengeful, castigating and dividing? Which actions are closer to that image of the three persons sat round the table in Andrei Roublev’s icon inviting the one who looks at it to join them at the table?
St Paul did not find the Corinthians easy to get on with, they had a lot of issues and their major fault was their ego claiming the centre of their lives instead of making space for the Spirit of God. Have you ever had to explain to someone that life is not just about them? Well you have met a Corinthian! Yet despite all the difficulties St Paul still writes and encourages them to grow in to perfection by helping one another, living in peace with each other and then they will find real happiness. And he concludes by saying the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you. We are all parts of the Body of Christ and we are called to live in unity. To forgive each other, heal one another through the grace of God and strive for the harmony that turns our faith from some belief in a moral code to a living relationship with God and when that relationship really is alive then our lives are changing each day and we help one another along the journey.
Nichodemus comes to Jesus in the night, he is looking for a sense of direction and Jesus gives him the message he needs to hear. That God sent his Son into this world not to condemn, but to save the world. These are strange and challenging times we are living in and like Nichodemus we can feel that we are seeing into the dark when we look to the future. Remember those words of Jesus, He has come not to condemn but to save. Remember also those words from the gospels a few weeks ago, ‘Do not be afraid’ ‘I am with you always’. Whatever we face, we face together. We heal and restore one another in the name of the Trinity and by the grace that flows from that perfect union. We are the children of God who is all tenderness and compassion. Let go of anger and frustrations, take a chair sit at the table of the Divine. Dance with Father, Son and Holy Spirit the Divine Dance and you know what? You don’t need to worry about social distancing.
I should have spent the past week in Swaffham which is in the east part of Norfolk, giving a retreat to the Congregation of Daughters of Divine Charity. I was looking forward to it, I’d never led a retreat before and I thought the Sisters were very brave to ask me. The retreat still went ahead though this was thanks to Zoom; virtual spiritual direction to four households from my dining room. It was a first for all of us in more ways than one.
I based the retreat on the message that comes from a document produced by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life – quite a title for a gathering. The document itself has a more straightforward title, New Wine In New Wineskins and the core message within is learn to recognise the reality you are facing and deliver your message, the charism of your community in ways that relate to the reality before you. So the core ethos of the Daughters of Divine Charity is to ‘make God’s love visible to all’ and our retreat focussed on learning the importance of listening to what the Spirit of God was saying to the Congregation and to each individual member of the Congregation when it comes to making God’s love visible in the situation they found themselves in.
The same can be asked of each one of us. Through our Baptism and Confirmation we are called to be authentic disciples of Our Lord, our way of living is to have the intention of making visible God’s love for others. I suppose that’s why I was looking forward to the retreat, it was an opportunity to make me think and reflect on how I am to be an authentic disciple, messenger of God’s love for the people I have been sent to serve. That means you, please send answers on a postcard and if you are younger than 40 look up postcard on google.
This weekend we are celebrating Pentecost and are reminded of how the first members of Christianity were so aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It was a power that helped them to move forward and not stand still or go backwards. As I said last week, when the followers gathered with Mary the Mother of God in prayer in a room, it was not out of fear but in preparation to receive the Holy Spirit who gave them the courage and strength to live the Mission entrusted to them by Our Lord. And once the Holy Spirit came to them, out they went taking the message of God’s love to the people around engaging with the realities they experienced and delivering that message in ways the people they met could understand. That’s the lesson we are to learn from the account of the disciples being able to communicate to so many people in their first language.
Of course, the lockdown and life with Covid 19 was the background I drew from when leading the retreat, helping the Sisters to have the tools necessary for them to discern the calling God had for them at this current time.
The same applies to us as well. The Spirit of God is within us and we begin to learn what the Spirit of God has to say to us in these circumstances when we take moments to be still and quiet. And if we start saying no, I have not got the time for such indulgence then we are being very foolish for without a sense of the direction the Lord is calling us to go forth we will wander through each day without any purpose or any understanding of what is going on around us. So take a moment each day and be still. Focus on your breathing, go with the rhythm of your chest moving in and out. Each breath is a gift from God it is the Spirit of God giving you the gift of life. Take time to savour this gift, the ability to breath and thank God for it. Jesus breathed on the disciples giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, God now breaths on you and so each day quietly ask God what it is you are called to do with this gift of life.
Lord Jesus may the Spirit of God rest on us. Grant us the gift of understanding and enlighten our minds.
Grant us counsel so that we will know your path and follow it. Grant us courage to be true to you.
Grant us knowledge and be able to know what is good. Grant us the ability to pray and learn how to have compassionate hearts.
Grant us fear so that we withdraw from temptation
and grant us wisdom so that we live to the full each breath you give and taste the sweetness of your love. Amen.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
The four gospels show to us the surprise, uncertainty and fear of Jesus’ followers when they realised He is risen from the dead.
The separation from their Lord through His death has been devastating; His resurrection and appearances to them seems to have unsettled them even more. What turns the situation around is His Ascension to heaven. It’s a second separation only this time they realise Jesus is returning to His Father. It’s a moment when they begin to understand that their experience of His companionship has indeed been in the presence of God.
Though the physical presence of Jesus being with them was now over they knew the Divine had come into their human lives. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still and trust in me’. He was not leaving them as orphans nor does Our Lord leave us on our own today. This is why the scene in the 1 st reading for today’s mass is so important for us. This time the small community of His followers gather together not out of fear, but in preparation for the reception of grace to continue the mission entrusted to them.
Last Ascension Thursday’s gospel reading from Matthew tells us to go, make disciples, baptise in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and ends by assuring us that Our Lord will remain with us until the end of time. And as I reflect upon that gathering in prayer I think of our parish watts app group, bringing us together in prayer over the past ten weeks. Again and again within the watts app group the question is asked, are we contacting those who do not have an iphone or are not on the internet? Are we linking everyone up. Who is missing?
This work cannot be done by just a few of the faithful helpers it has to be something each of us is doing. If each person connected by their iphones is in contact with five people of the parish who are not connected by iphone or watts app then the network can grow. And when we meet family and friends or a familiar face from the parish we can tell them about the parish watts app group and invite them to join. We cannot stay with only the family or social bubbles we are comfortable with. There is the call to speak to someone we do not know that well.
These sorts of contacts are the mortar that puts the bricks of the Church together and the bricks are the people. We know we are not being called to stand still, we are realising that how to be a parish, the local church community in this area during these times is going to be very different and we also need to be listening. As that gathering of Jesus’ faithful followers came together in prayer, they waited first for the Spirit of God to fill them with the wisdom and strength to begin their mission.
They were the labourers of the harvest and not the masters. We can only do God’s work when we pay attention to Him. In our gospel reading for today Jesus is praying for us, He is interceding for us and as we read his words we realise that we are important to Him. The relationship we have with Him matters to Jesus. We also learn from His prayer for us that in taking the time to be still and to listen we begin to understand His Word, the path to follow and how to travel on it. We make the mistake of being always active in our life of prayer, for example we decide to do this novena, that devotion, a particular penance. Whilst these can be good, more beneficial to us are patience, endurance, acceptance and perseverance through difficulties - the passive night, in faith, hope and love. By this path we allow God to make space within us for a deeper relationship with Him. In very practical terms at this moment of time, we could be thinking of so many distractions to look for to take away the challenge of the present moment.
We can hold on to frustrations and anger about the disruptions in our daily living. Alternatively we stop, listen, open ourselves to what the Lord may be doing in our lives, what it is he showing to us about the importance of prayer, silence, family, listening to each other, courtesy within relationships, simple acts of service. Be still before the Lord and ask for his Spirit within us to show the way. In a recent sermon I recall suggesting each one of us make the sign of the Cross before leaving the home, before talking to someone, before emailing or texting a message. It can be enough to remind us to allow the passive dark night to come to us and let the Mystery of Our Lord’s relationship within, guide us.
Let’s pray together like the followers with Mary His mother, not just on watts app, or on zoom but also in our words and actions and that can only happen when we are willing to listen.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
In last week’s first reading we learned that in the early Christian community those of a Greek background complained to their Hebrew members that the Greek widows were not getting a fair deal. The community agreed to select seven people with Greek names to administer the distribution to all of the widows. Lessons in openness and trust were learned. However there were others outside of the community who were determined to break it up. Stephen, one of the seven people chosen to help with the distribution was martyred and everyone else had to scatter. But in persecuting the community, the perpetrators only managed to spread the message of Our Lord’s resurrection further.
Our first reading for today introduces us to Philip another one of the seven mentioned in last week’s reading. He goes to preach to a Samaritan community; the Samaritans were regarded with great distaste by the wider Jewish community at the time of Jesus; they welcome his message and when word gets back to the community in Jerusalem they send Peter and John to find out, they in turn prayed with the Samaritans and called on the Holy Spirit to come down on them. This young Christian community is now growing, Hebrew, Greek and Samaritan, Jew and none Jew, the lessons of last week are being developed further. But the opposition towards what they are doing will continue, in fact the writings of the New Testament all come from periods of persecution and trial and still these texts communicate to us all a great sense of hope, a belief in community in the name of Christ and trust in His love and the power of His resurrection.
In another New Testament reading for today, the letter of St Peter tells us to always have our answer ready for people who ask for the reason for hope that we all have in Christ. He also warns us that the answer we give will not always be accepted, that in fact we can face slander and suffering; ‘it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong’ we are reminded. It’s a tough message and when we reflect on how we may have acted in the past we might see examples of where we shied away from doing what was right because of fear.
Many people are now beginning to recognise that living with the threat of the virus will be with us for some time. There are many questions unanswered about how to adjust; we are all on a journey where no ready answers are available. We cannot just take down a policy from the shelf and adapt it.
Yet we still need to learn how to move forward in to a future that is not easy to prepare for. Just as momentous was the experiences of the disciples, how do they live their lives once they witness the resurrection of Christ? The answer was not to be found in going back to what they were doing before because they could not go back. Their experience of Our Lord is so deep and life changing and we see changes of attitudes within members of the early Christian community towards one another’s differences and instead of holding back they come together.
We are learning the same things, how to live together in an environment that is beyond what we had expected, that has ripped up what until a couple of months ago we thought was normal. We are not in control and we have to live together with risks around us. We have to assess and manage risks and learn to live with the dangers . So how will each of us answer the question as to why we can still live with hope?
In John’s gospel Jesus tells us how. We are not being left as orphans. We have within us the Spirit of God, the resource that will give each of us the courage, strength, understanding, wisdom and counsel to work together, discover the new openings to go through in order to find the means to grow in faith and trust in God’s presence with us here and now. There will be opposition from some people. A fear of the future and frustration with not being able to return to the past will lead to persecuting people who are seeking how to live new ways in these strange times. But do not give up hope, we are not alone, we are not orphans. God’s Spirit is within each one of us. We have to let go at trying to be in control, managing everything and instead listen to what the Spirit of God has to say and be not afraid to live our faith in new ways and different means.
Community, parish, being church, never did come on a plate and maybe we are all guilty of taking these gifts for granted. Today we know for certain that like Stephen, Philip and their five other companions we are now the messengers of God, his deacons for today. Do not be afraid, trust in God still, let go of differences between us and rediscover how to be the Body of Christ today.
Firth Sunday of Easter
An important lesson for each of us is recognising that changes occur all through our lives. Some changes we look forward to and others we may wish did not happen. There are those changes that are upon us which are beyond our control and whatever our outlook at the time we still need to learn how to adapt and adjust to new experiences.
In our gospel reading for today Jesus is preparing His disciples for a momentous change. The setting is the Last Supper. He has just washed the feet of the disciples; already a humbling experience for them with one notable attempt to resist from Peter and Jesus has given them the command to continue serving one another with the same unconditional commitment as He had shown them. If the disciples thought that Jesus’ vision of living was already big enough to adjust to then they were in for a shock because there was more.
Jesus knows that his followers will experience the trauma of witnessing to His passion, death and resurrection. It’s a journey they have to embark on but Jesus says to them ‘do not be afraid, trust in God still, and trust in me’. He goes on to describe the strength he gains from the relationship He has with his Father in heaven. Jesus knows what is ahead. How he will cope with all that is about to happen will depend on His trust in His Father in heaven and at the table with his disciples He explains they will also have to follow this other example He is about to reveal to them.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we have another example of facing a need to change that requires from people a willingness to open their horizons of what is required of them and the possibilities available. It’s a practical and down to earth challenge for this early Christian community comprised of people with a Jewish background. Some have grown with a Hebrew culture and others with a Hellenistic or Greek culture. The Hellenists are the ‘in-comers’ and they have a gripe, they feel that their widows are not being treated equally in the daily distribution of food. You could say that the first Christian Food Bank was running into a problem with fair distribution. The community faces up to the need to embrace one another no matter what their background and after prayer seven people are nominated to ensure that the distribution is done fairly and interestingly all seven have names of Greek origin which suggests that the community have entrusted the care of all widows to those who first raised the issue which is a brave thing to do.
All of us across our three parishes along with the rest of the world are undergoing a huge change to our way of living with many challenges ahead. One big challenge is how do we continue to nurture our parish life and mission? Do we wait and tread water until a vaccine comes? Well, Frozen Three is not an option!
We need to learn new ways of activating our trust in the relationship we have with Our Lord. We need to bring the words ‘do not be afraid, trust in God and trust in me still’ deep within us and then as in the example of the community facing the problem of distribution of aid to their widows, work together, trust each other, inspire one another to continue to be active in the mission of the church today in our lives and the lives of those around us in Rotherham and to do so in ways that will be new, unexpected and which at first will be unfamiliar and which people might be unsure of.
Yet, this is what the Spirit of God is calling us to do as our second reading today encourages; continuing to build on the precious corner stone that is Our Lord, not down tools until someone else come to take away the challenges facing us. If I may be inspired by HMQ’s VE speech: it’s not about our churches being empty, it’s about our parishes being filled with love.
On Saturday 16th May our parish renewal group will be meeting to look at how to begin to deal with some of the challenges ahead. How do we continue with Alpha? How do we develop a new approach to helping parents prepare for their children’s baptism? How do we introduce to people young and old the concept of Godly Play? If you would like to take part in our meeting on Saturday then please do email me, join us on zoom and let’s work together. We have other questions that are to be addressed soon. What about First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and Weddings? And we still have the calling to reach out to people who are not part of the life of the parish and help people to feel a sense of belonging to the parish through which they can encounter Christ in their lives in a deep and nourishing way.
Leaving things to the few in parish life is the practice of old and we cannot return there. This pandemic has made us all awaken to what we can do for one another, so do not be afraid, trust in God still and discover how we are called to work together in His name.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
You may recall that the new inside doors to the church building at the Immaculate Conception were blessed during the New Year and called the St John XXIII Doors in memory of St John XXIII who as he began the sessions of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 asked for the Church to be opened and to let the Holy Spirit in. The doorways of churches are very important. They are where parents of children to be baptised stand as they are received by the parish and then ask their local church to baptise their child; it is where the bride is met before she walks down the aisle; and it is where we meet the body of someone as their funeral begins and remember the person’s baptism. At all times the church doors is where we meet people. What happens to them at the doors can have a profound effect on their lives. Depending on our behaviour the doors can be a point of welcome or a means of keeping people out. Likewise as we leave the church building the doorway is where we go out into the world to minister in God’s name or to return our own little bubble where we hide our light.
Today’s gospel has Jesus introducing Himself as the gateway where His sheep can pass through and pasture in safety. They listen out for His voice and follow His call ignoring the call from others who will distract them from where they should be and from what they should be doing. These words of Jesus follow after the incident where he healed a man born blind and enabled him to see. Jesus had seen the man’s suffering while those around Jesus only saw someone who was blind because he must have done something wrong to deserve it. They were ready to talk about the blind man but not to help him.
In the first reading Peter addresses the crowd telling them that the man they had rejected just a few days earlier and had crucified was in fact the Christ and encouraged them to change the direction of their lives, to begin their journey of conversion and be baptised. Their baptism was not simply a ritual for membership of a new group of believers but the gateway to pass through, the door to open and enter into a whole new way of living. At the end of each mass we hear the words ‘glorify the Lord by your lives’. We go through the doors of the church and out into the world after hearing those words hopefully to witness to a way of living that is very different to the expectations and value given to life by other parts of our wider society. Going back to John’s gospel the man born blind was helped to see. In our relationship with God we have passed through the doors of the place where we gather to worship him and if we are hearing His voice we too will be helped to see with his eyes the world in which we live.
Today we are not passing through the doors of our church but we do pass through the doors of our homes. We enter into the lives of others on our walks, or when we are shopping; when we are doing voluntary work or when working. We also enter into the lives of others through our phone calls and through our social media. Again these can become opportunities to glorify God’s presence in one another’s lives by the messages we give to each other. People are looking for something positive in each encounter. The words we use, the things we speak of and our actions towards one another can give sustenance and hope. We can help each other to find the green pastures in the present situation we are sharing in; the restful waters to revive our spirits and guide each other along the right path that gives light and hope; all in the name of our Lord. All are ways of serving God by our service to one another.
Let’s not be thieves taking away the opportunity to give hope, company and support to someone else. Let’s not be brigands absorbed in ourselves like those who were with Jesus when He saw the blind man for the first time. They failed to recognise the poor mans need.
So, when you step out of the door of your home and when you return, when you are about to ring someone or call on them through the social media make the sign of the cross first. Let the Spirit of God be expressed in both your heart and mind and enter through that gateway in His Name. Glorify the Lord by lifting up someone else’s life so that they can see signs of hope. Amen
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Yesterday’s early morning Farming programme on Radio Four was being broadcasted by the Presenter from her kitchen in a suburb of London. She drew the listener’s attention to the silence outside; it was unusual even at that early time of the morning. The only sound to hear was her voice and the clatter of cup and saucer as she drank her first cup of tea for the day ahead.
There are all sorts of little silver linings around us as we live our routines during the lockdown and many of them can help us to think a little more deeply as to how we have been living our lives before the pandemic began. What lessons can we learn and take with us into the future when the lockdown begins to ease so that our lives and the lives of other people can benefit?
But we also know that this lockdown is bringing pain and suffering into our lives. There is the pain of the physical separation from loved ones, the worry about jobs, the questions around how do we live with the threat of the virus around us and of course, people have suffered serious effects from the virus and many have died. Loved ones have to endure their grief within the limitations of social distancing and the restrictions on how to conduct the funeral rites.
Today in Luke’s gospel we are introduced to two people who are suffering. They are filled with grief as they walk to Emmaus just a couple of days after the death of their friend. A stranger joins them on their travels and picks up on their depression and despondency. He askes them what has happened? They are not pleased with his question and are amazed at his lack of awareness as to what has happened to their friend Jesus of Nazareth however it is they who are not aware. They have not recognised that the stranger is him. In response Jesus takes them on a journey through the scriptures explaining to them examples of disruption, suffering and pain that do not lead to the loss of life but instead to its renewal and salvation.
The last few days of Lent, the Holy Week and now Eastertide have taken us through painful experiences but at the same time they are teaching us something new about our relationship with God and through this, our relationship with one another. Like Thomas in last week’s gospel there is a voice within telling each of us that we cannot just go back to how things were before, because despite the disruption and suffering we experience now there is also a new way of living. The Risen Lord is being revealed to us. It’s an opportunity to rediscover how to nurture our relationship with God and through this, our relationship with one another.
Earlier in the lockdown someone shared on the parish watts app a prayer in the form of a poem composed by an Italian priest. It was called ‘Today I stay In’ and in the poem he spoke of inviting Jesus to stay
with him when the evening comes to help the priest with his isolation. That line was inspired by the invitation the two travellers make to Jesus as they arrive at Emmaus. They have been inspired by how the stranger has explained the scriptures but now as they gather around the table something more incredible is about to happen. As their guest breaks the bread they realise who he is and although at that
moment Jesus physically disappears, his presence still remains with them. They are no longer despondent for their suffering has led them to the Risen Lord. They are now sharing in his resurrection as well as
in his passion and death.
He has helped them to unburden themselves, listening with understanding and love. He has brought to their lives redemption and healing. As a result they are now on the road again only this time in the opposite direction. They are no longer despondent or feeling any sense of loss; they go to Jerusalem to share the good news.
One of the many graces of our parish watts app has been the opportunity for people to go on the journey together and also taking with them people who do not have access to the technology. Heartbreak and sorrow have been shared along with inspiring messages, laughter and hope. The risen Lord walks with us pouring into our hearts his love through the presence of his Holy Spirit in our lives. We are learning to listen to one another in the same way our Lord did to the two travellers, with understanding, and compassion. We help to unburden one another of the load. We take away the isolation and bring healing and redemption into each other’s lives in his name. We are still on the journey but like our two travellers we are not heading to Emmaus, we go instead in the opposite direction with hope and courage in our hearts. It’s another silver lining to be thankful for when we have the opportunity to enjoy another quiet moment in the day.
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
If technology has been kind to me I will have earlier today managed to send you a cartoon via the parish app that depicts a modern version of St Thomas’ reaction when he heard that Jesus had risen. The cartoon shows the gallery scene familiar to any of us who have discovered Zoom these past three weeks. There are twelve boxes, eleven with the faces of the disciples on and a blank one with Jesus’ name attached. The caption reads ‘The Lord has risen’ followed by Thomas saying ‘unless I can see his face on the screen....’
Today the screen of our ipads, phones, laptops and computers are the only place where we can see some of our loved ones. I have been able to host some liturgies through zoom and it has been moving to see parishioners greet their brothers and sisters in Christ with a real sense of delight. In our gospel reading Thomas has the opportunity to place his figure into the side of Our Lord. We cannot touch, hold, hug or kiss some of our loved ones but we still know they are real. It is as if our current experience of life is in reverse to what Thomas was going through. He could not believe in the risen Jesus’ love for him unless he could touch Jesus, we had the experience of human contact and now without it we are learning to believe in their love for us based memories; and our relationship with the risen Christ is similar. In our second reading today we hear how people have a love for the risen Lord though they had not seen him.
I recently read a poem written by a woman whose husband had died some years ago. The poem spoke of his zest for life, his sense of fun and his passions. He was not able to spend the lockdown with her doing what he would have normally done, growing veg, being creative with wood and later in the evening enjoy a meal and a glass of wine, appreciating the company of his wife and family. However, she had accepted this, understanding that she cannot go back to the past. So she begins a new page in her life; together with her husband in her heart and mind she is able to turn over to that new page.
You may recall how in past years on this Second Sunday of Easter I refer to the painting by Caravaggio of Thomas meeting the risen Lord. The figure of Thomas is inside the wound of Jesus but it is the expression on the face of Thomas at that moment which communicates an important message. He is looking awayfrom the wound, as if into space, realising that life as he had known it cannot ever be the same. He is now a witness of the fact that Jesus is risen.
As people of faith we have journeyed together through three weeks that have been so very different to what we have experienced before. We are living the pain of not celebrating the Eucharist as we would normally do; of not gathering together in prayer; of Baptisms, Receptions, First Holy Communion, Confirmation and Weddings being on hold. We have travelled through a Holy Week and into Easter in ways we never thought we would have to do. Yet, we have been creative in finding the opportunities to draw closer together in shared prayer, have opportunities to rediscover what it means to speak of the domestic church and to have those moments of quiet contemplation when we do not speak but listen for the presence of the Lord in our lives. Fr. Chris Aelar at the US National Shrine of the Divine Mercy puts across in a very reassuring way how a sincere act of contrition and our Spiritual Communion keeps us connected with the grace of God. In other words, do not make the mistake of trying to contain the love and mercy of God within rituals. Be open to how the Spirit of God can stay with us whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in. As well as our spiritual wellbeing, the parish community and beyond has also been attentive and imaginative in caring for people around them and it’s often the small acts of kindness that lift people up. When the lock down is over do we then return to how things were before? If we have lived through these moments in a state of permanent anger then yes we will return to how we were before and look for someone to blame. But if these past weeks and the time ahead are being spent experiencing and sharing insights of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our daily lives in ways that are deep and personal then like Thomas we will know we will not be returning to how we were before.
Lord, help our encounter with you during these times be decisive. Help us to continue to exercise the ears of our hearts, may we not live with hearts of stone but with understanding hearts only you Lord can give. Help us not to be afraid to walk along the pathway in to the future you are revealing to each of us at this present moment and may we do so with hope and courage, humble trust in you and a growing love for our neighbour.
I am writing these words on the morning of Holy Saturday. Normally on this morning I would have gathered with people in the Church to pray the Office of Reading and Morning Prayer after which there would be a lot of activity during the rest of the morning to get everything ready for the Easter Vigil and Sunday Morning Mass. People would be cleaning, hoovering, flower arranging, uncovering statues, getting Orders of Services ready and the sanctuary prepared. And while all of that is going on, musicians would be having a last minute rehearsal, people excited about being baptised or received into the Church, Confirmed and receiving Our Lord for the first time in Communion would also be having their rehearsals. In past years somewhere in the middle of all that I would have my last practice on the Exsultet. For the past two years my warbling has not been needed thanks to Eve who sings it beautifully, or in her words ‘smashes it!.
This year, Holy Saturday morning is different; different in the sense that nearly all the above is not happening. Yet in other ways it remains the same because it is a time of waiting. Although we cannot gather to participate in the liturgies we still wait on Holy Saturday morning in joyful anticipation of celebrating the Resurrection of Our Lord, because whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in today, the Lord has truly Risen! While the liturgies help us to express our joy it is the Resurrection we celebrate. Although we may be by ourselves or with members of the same household, reminding ourselves that ‘Jesus the victory has won’ is still a joyful expression of our faith.
Holy Saturday morning is also different in terms of waiting because we will still be waiting on Easter Sunday and well on into the Eastertide. The stay at home policy has been extended by our government, a necessary action to slow down the spread of the pandemic in our country and ease the pressure on the NHS.
In Matthew’s gospel reading for Easter we have Mary of Magdala and another Mary going back to visit where Jesus had been buried on the morning after the Sabbath. When they get there the experience they have is described as like an earthquake as the angel of the Lord rolled to one side the stone to the entrance of the tomb where Jesus lay. At first the women were frightened but the angel reassures the women. ‘Do not be afraid’ says the angel,’ he is not here, he has risen.’ Their fear turns into awe and great joy and then Jesus himself appears to them. He repeats what the angel has already said to them, ‘do not be afraid.’ He then sends them to tell His brothers (the disciples) to meet him at Galilee. Later in the gospel when the disciples do meet Jesus at Galilee they are told ‘go make disciples of all nations, baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they are to teach people everything He had taught them and the last words of Matthew’s gospel are ‘and remember, I am with you always, to the end of time’.
We experience this extended waiting in the company of the risen Lord. Believing in the risen Christ does not mean believing in something that happened to the dead Jesus. It means hearing these words from the depth of our being: ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever’ (Rev1:17-18). We are not alone. Medical teams in this country and around the world having to make major decisions as to how to use limited resources while so many lives are in need are not alone; families and friends unable to be with their loved ones and comfort them are not alone; all of us waiting together are not alone; the whole world wondering what life will be like after the pandemic is not alone. The risen Lord stands by us, blesses what we can do and holds everyone safely in His arms. It is not a matter of the right decisions or the wrong decisions but the best people can do for the good of all in His name under these difficult circumstances.
This Easter is different to others in some ways and yet the message of Easter remains the same; and the message is to joyfully sense that the Risen One is here, in the midst of our fears and worries, forever upholding the moments of goodness and beauty that continue to flower within us as a foretaste of the infinite even in these difficult times.
Eve will still ‘smash’ for us the Exsultet. It is recorded and will be on the parish app for all to hear. In the words of the theologian Karl Rahner, ‘the Risen Lord remains the heart of the world’
May God bless you and all who share in your life this Easter.
PALM SUNDAY 5thAPRIL 2O2O
Palm Sunday has two gospel readings from the same author. This year the readings are from Matthew. The first reading begins the mass, (Math 21:1-11) and describes Jesus entering Jerusalem amidst jubilant crowds welcoming Jesus as he returns to establish his heavenly kingdom in full. In our lives there are moments when we too catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God breaking in and experience a foretaste of that joy in the conversion of a loved one, an answer to a prayer, or a surprising manifestation of God’s justice and love for His people in a real life event or experience. These moments help sustain our hopes as we also, like Jesus, must endure testing, suffering and the cross as we wait for the coming of our King.
Between the two gospels are readings from Isaiah (50:4-7) and the letter to the Philippians (2:6-11). It is Isaiah who introduces us to the Servant of God who will face suffering as he follows the call he is given. In the reading the Servant shows us that he has been prepared by God, he knows what to expect because his life is in tune with the calling he has received. For the Servant to live on his own terms will mean rebellion, keeping close to God will mean that no matter what he will face he knows the Lord is with him. He has tasted something of God’s glory and closeness; that experience will help him to face what comes.
The second reading also echoes this development only this time the text is speaking of Jesus. Though He is divine Jesus does not cling onto His divinity in order to avoid the pain and suffering his human life will experience. He does not follow his own agenda and instead engages with what He has to do so that whatever state our lives are in we will have the opportunity of redemption thought His saving grace. So far the readings are preparing us for a truth we perhaps would rather not be reminded of. Yes we will experience glimpses of the glory of the Kingdom of God but if those insights and hopes are to be realised we also have to accept the cross when it comes into our lives because it is through the cross that we learn to let go of the false notion that we can be in control of our lives. If the current pandemic teaches us anything it will be that.
Pope Francis warns us of the temptation to follow a Christ without a cross. It would be copying Peter’s mistake when he said to Jesus ‘No, this will neverhappen’ for there is no true love without self-sacrifice. Pope Francis calls on us to embrace suffering, because as Christ told his disciples ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’ Pope Francis goes on to tell us not to become absorbed by the world’s vision to live an easy life, but rather to go ‘against the current’ pointing out the challenge to self-centeredness found in Christ’s words, ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my cause will find it.’ (Vatican City Sep 3 2017)There are people today risking their lives to save others; there are people today who are enduring the terrible sorrow of not being able to be with a loved one to comfort them as they die; and we are all experiencing major disruptions to our daily lives creating great uncertainties about what is in store for the future. We ask the question, ‘in all of this suffering and turmoil where are you Lord?’ and the answer is, ‘I am hanging on the cross’
In Matthew’s account of the passion Jesus is mocked, ‘come down from the cross’ ‘save yourself’. He does not react to the provocation, He does not say a word, He remains silent. That is until with a horrifying cry He shouts aloud ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ He does not ask God to save Him, he only asks God not to be hidden. And God is silent. We need Jesus on the cross we cannot be alone in our affliction. How can God help us without feeling our suffering? Who else can give hope to victims of torture in many prisons around the world? In whom can defenceless victims of abuse place their hope in? Whose image can someone have before them as they gasp for breath on a coronavirus ward? When Christ suffers on the cross, the Father suffers with Him.
Christ suffers death in His human flesh the Father suffers the death of His Son in His Heart. In this way as Christ hangs on the cross He brings God’s communion to those who are suffering and thereby brings hope. Jesus’ life of commitment up to and including death shows us the way to liberation and salvation for us all. We began the liturgy for Palm Sunday with Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem with crowds cheering the coming of His Kingdom.
We end experiencing the reality of the Cross with Jesus on it. It is this that brings the Kingdom into our lives when we need it most.
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT 29 th MARCH 2020
In Douglas Adams book ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ a computer called Deep Thought is asked what is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?
True to its name the computer goes into a deep thought and 7 and a half million years later comes up with an answer. 42.
A lesson there for us all, if you are annoyed with an answer then before you say anything else check with yourself as to why you asked the question?
We are all coming to terms with living the current way of life which is imposed upon us and faced with the very question ‘what is the meaning of life, the universe and everything ?’
Hopefully we will not be stuck in our houses for 7 and a half million years before arriving at an answer, however, we are faced with the question as to how we approach life, what is it that we have regarded as important in the past and what is it we now find ourselves missing?
We are learning what really matters to us.
On Friday evening Pope Francis led all of us to the Blessed Sacrament to be together, silent before the Lord and to place all out trust in Him.
Before the Adoration the Holy Father in his address spoke of how the storm in which we are all in the same boat and trying to sail through, exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.
The first reading for this Sunday places a great emphasis on the gift of life and its meaning.
Ezekiel is living at a period of great trauma for the people of Israel. A captive himself, he saw his earlier prophecies fulfilled in the taking of large numbers of the people into captivity. In exile his pre-exilic warnings gave way to the message of hope. His imagery of the dry bones being filled with the Spirit of God bears witness to his faith and hope in the life- restoring power of God after the disaster of the exile.
Our lockdown will last for as long as is necessary,we can use this time to discover how the Spirit of God can enlighten
within us a deeper awareness of God’s call to us and our purpose in life.
In the gospel reading the raising of Lazarus proclaims the great truth that Jesus is Lord of life.
He can call us out of our tombs; our Christian life becomes alive when we begin to listen out for and obey the Word of God. We know from experience that we don’t have to be dead physically to be in need of being raised up. We can feel dead in the midst of life hoping for a word and a community that will put us together again.
The voice of Jesus calls us away from making the tomb our natural habitat. It challenges us to take responsibility for our brothers and sisters who, like Lazarus, is loved by Jesus. We might not be seeing many people at this moment but we are becoming more aware of others and concerned no doubt for the wellbeing of family members
There will be those we can contact through social media and give each other support but we will also have on our minds those who have no access to social media. We have to use our imagination to work out how to keep in touch with them. Perhaps it will be through the phone via a land line, or a talk over the garden fence or maybe by rediscovering the art of one of the earliest forms of written social interchange which is writing a letter.
Our exile will come to an end and when it does will our priorities, our understanding of the meaning and purpose of life deepened by the new and reclaimed discoveries we have experienced during the lock down continue to influence the way we will walk into the future or will the false and superfluous certainties Pope Francis mentioned come back and lead us off in the wrong direction again?
Jesus tells us that he is the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in him even if that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in the Lord will never die.
The meaning of life and everything is found in two important relationships; firstly our relationship with God and then our relationship with our neighbour.
The number 42 was a random number picked by Douglas Adams to give an amusing answer to the question of the meaning of life. For every Christian there is nothing random about the relationships between ourselves and God and with our neighbour.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – LAETARE SUNDAY MARCH 22 nd 2020
First Reading: 1 Sam 16:1, 6-710-13. Psalm 22 Second Reading: Eph 5:8-14 Gospel: John 9:1-41
There are moments when perhaps we feel we have been overlooked, ignored even forgotten; we may also have done the same to others. We are never overlooked by God or ignored or forgotten by Him. We are chosen by God who sees more in us than meets the eye.
In today’s first reading the prophet Samuel is commissioned by God to choose a successor to King Saul. He is sent to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of his eight sons as the future King. Samuel is impressed by the eldest son and presumes that this young man of great height will be God’s choice. But no, in fact none of the seven sons presented is the one God wants as King. The eighth son, the youngest, has been left in the fields to mind the sheep. Samuel calls for him to be brought to him and so a new chapter in David’s life begins. The prophet learns: God does not see as man sees, man looks at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart. The Lord sees in David something more then what meets the eye. The young boy is to become King.
John gives to us today in our gospel a well-crafted and beautiful story about how a blind beggar man comes to see the light in Jesus. When Jesus’ disciples see the blind man begging they presume that his sorry state is a result of sin. But Jesus sees the blind man as something else. The road side beggar who has inhabited a world of darkness is to be the one to display the works of God and point to who Jesus really is.
Both the story of the blind man and the story of David speak to us of God’s choices. Because God sees the heart, God chooses differently from the way that we do. Both David and the blind man are remembered and celebrated by the Christian community because they point beyond themselves to the reality of the divine. We honour David as the one who points ultimately to the Son of David; we recall the man born blind as the one who points to the Son of Man, the light of the world.
In her book Forming Intentional Disciples Sherry Weddell reminds us that God has given to each of us a vocation, a calling. In other words God can see more in each one of us then what meets the eye. When we fail to help each other to develop as disciples, we are unwittingly pushing away the vast majority of the vocations God has given us. She goes on to remind us that a vocation is a transforming sanctifying path and work of love to which God calls us. She refers to an observation the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar makes: Simon the fisherman, before his meeting with Christ, however thoroughly he might have searched within himself, could not possibly have found a trace of Peter.
Over the past few days as the lives we have known are being radically disrupted and changed we are finding within our parish communities and beyond, great acts of kindness and thoughtfulness towards other and a desire to keep in contact with each other through our prayers. Last night I was talking to someone on the phone, I happened to mention that a young family I know with little resources was struggling to find flour. What the young mother can do with four to help feel her children is amazing. This morning as the church was opened he was there with a bag of flour!
What we need to do now is not only be grateful for all these acts of kindness, we need to learn what God is saying to each one of us through them. To take the time to prayerfully reflect what it is God is telling us, reminding us, calling us to become. Maybe in the past we have been overlooking God’s grace in our daily words and actions. Let’s listen to what His grace is saying to us, let’s find out what it is that God sees in each one of us that is more then what meets the eye.