Wednesday, 16 November 2011

October 2011

Homily for Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time 23 October 2011

In today’s Gospel we see another example of the way the Pharisees and others who were hostile to Jesus tried to set traps for him- as far as they knew, he was just another wandering freelance preacher, someone with no formal theological training, just the carpenter’s son from some remote village, and they thought it would be easy enough to make a fool of him, to show him up as an ignoramus. And so they ask him very loaded questions; last week, they asked, “Should we pay taxes to this dreadful government or not?” and today they pose a question that many Jews were forever mulling over at this time – “Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”
This question was on people’s minds so much because there were just so many commandments- the Jews had of course begun with just ten, the big ten we all know as the Ten Commandments, but they had gone on and on developing more and more, we can find them all through the first five books of the Bible, until they had, believe it or not, 613! There were laws for this and laws for that, and this was forbidden and so was that. And Jews who wanted to follow take their religion seriously found themselves caught up in trying to remember to do, or not do, hundreds of things. The Pharisees in particular paid great attention to every little minor rule – you remember Jesus speaking scornfully of the way they would carefully tithe even a bunch of herbs: Luke has Jesus say “woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb and neglect justice and the love of God” (Lk 11 xlii). As well as these 613 commandments, there had grown up over the centuries a whole body of interpretation of them- rather like we have the Code of Canon Law springing from our tradition and Scripture- and all these examples and case studies that the rabbis had accumulated had also come to have as it were the force of law. This is what Jesus is referring to when he says, in the very next chapter of this Gospel “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Mt 23 iv) and he denounces them in strong language: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (ibid xiii).

This is of course the great danger of religion, of any religion- we always run the risk as we try to become more faithful to our faith, of getting bogged down in the detail – which means that either we reach a point where we can’t see the wood for the trees anymore, or the details assume such importance for us that the whole purpose of our faith is fatally undermined and we forget why we are believers in the first place. And let’s face it, talking about and getting obsessed with the minutiae of religion, is always far safer and easier than actually living it and facing its real challenges. The great example of this I always think is the encounter Our Lord has with the Samaritan woman at the well, which we find in John’s Gospel, chapter 4. You remember, Our Lord asks her for a drink, thus breaking several taboos in one go but that’s another story. He talks to her of the living water, the life in the Holy Spirit that he wants to give her, and he sees deep into her very soul and into her life: “you have had five husbands and he whom you now have is not your husband”. This is the start of the kind of encounter Jesus wants to have with each one of us, a conversation based on reality, the reality of our present situation in life, no holds barred, no varnish. It is all too much for this woman, and so she retreats at once into discussing religion, let’s not talk about me and who I actually am and the muddle I am really in, let’s talk instead about the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship”(Jn 4 xx).
And so this muddle in the Jewish people’s minds, of how many rules and regulations have we got and do they all carry equal weight, and this terrible tendency all devout people have, of losing their way in their own smokescreen of religiosity, is what Our Lord now cuts through with his reply. He begins by quoting from Deuteronomy (6 iv,v) the great Jewish statement of faith that is always known by its first Hebrew word, the “Shema” – Jesus reminds them “ The Lord your God is one God and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” – but he changes the last word from might to mind. This is interesting, because the rabbis interpreted this as follows: your heart means your will, your soul means your life, your might means your wealth. Jesus is saying now instead, you must show your real love of God by your mind, your whole attitude to life, not just by what you put in the collection. He goes on to quote another Old Testament text, this time from Leviticus (19 xviii), which up to this point the Jews had not regarded as a first rank commandment so to speak: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord”. Jesus brings this sentence out of the shadows and from now on in the Christian religion it will stay in the foreground, because as he goes on to tell us, “on these two commandments hang the whole law and the prophets also”.
Why are we Christians at all? Why are we here this morning? Well, either we are here and we identify ourselves as Catholic Christians because we want to live in a close relationship with God and develop that intimacy until it irrigates our whole life, or we might as well stay in bed and forget the whole thing. “Simples!” And if we are serious about being friends with God, and I know we are, even if we have a certain timidity about the prospect some days, if we want to be friends with God we will want to show him our love in the way we treat our fellow human beings – and this doesn’t mean just thinking lovely thoughts about the starving millions but how we actually treat the people we live with and work with day by day. Remember, we can only encounter Our Lord meaningfully when we do so in the reality – not the pious fiction, the reality- of our lives. That is where he waits for us, as he waits for us at the communion rails this morning. Our communion antiphon says it all: “if anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we shall come to him”. Jesus, we love you, we keep your word, come to us this morning, in the reality of your Body and Blood, in the reality of our lives. Amen.

Remembrance Sunday 2011

Homily for Remembrance Sunday 13 November 2011

We gather at this Mass to remember the dead of the two World Wars. In some countries in Europe they speak of Armistice Day, as we do sometimes, or of Victory Day or Heroes Day – only in this country I think have we always spoken of Remembrance Sunday, and of course each year at this time the British Legion holds its Festival of Remembrance. I’m reading at the moment a book about Athens in the fifth century BC, the time of Socrates, and I was fascinated to discover that in Athens they actually had a law against remembering bad things, so I don’t think the ancient Greeks would have approved of all this remembering that we do every November. Or would they? It all depends, doesn’t it, what we are doing all this remembering for. The Greeks at that time were against going on about all the terrible things that had happened in recent wars, because they were trying to stamp out the desire in people for revenge, for vendettas- don’t keep going on about the wrongs of the past, they said, let’s try and move on! They knew the power over us that memory has.
I want to share with you some thoughts about the power of memory, a subject that our Holy Father is very interested in and has written much about. Perhaps he became so fascinated because his hero, St Augustine, also wrote a lot about memory, which he describes in his “Confessions” as “the fields and roomy chambers of memory, where are countless treasures and images, imported into it by all manner of things by the senses”. (Bk X, viii) For Augustine memory and its power over us was all part of the problem of evil, he saw the evil that we do as individuals coming about because of our minds getting into a sort of rut, so that bad behaviour becomes a force of habit- and even eventually a compulsive force of habit that we cannot control, “consuetudo”, which “derives its strength entirely from the working of the human memory” (Peter Brown: Augustine of Hippo p149). We all experience the truth of this in our own lives.
This dark side of memory is what those Greeks wanted to ensure didn’t poison their chances of promoting a new way of living. And the Holy Father would agree. The Pope says “The Past is present through memory. Memory gives it its dangerous power in the present and causes the poison of yesterday to become the poisoning of today”. (Principles of Catholic Theology p211) He tells us that we need to find a way of looking at the past that will be what he calls a “purification of memory, that will serve to heal”. Where there has been hatred, we must put love, and in a wonderful phrase Pope Benedict says “love is made possible by a changed memory”. That is what we have to try and do, change our memory: remember the bad things- yes, without trivialising them -certainly, without pretending they didn’t happen or didn’t hurt us- but remember them if not in a good light with a positive spin as we might say then at least in some sort of neutral way, with some sort of detachment. That famous follower of St Francis, St Francis of Paola, such a great preacher in southern Italy in the 15th century, says in one of his homilies “memory of evil is an injustice, it is a sentinel who protects sins, it is the alienation of love, a nail that pierces the soul, a wickedness that never sleeps, a daily death”. Forgetting the past is not something that we can ever actually achieve, it is quite beyond us, and rightly so, because our past has made us who we are today, but the secret is, I suppose, not to let the past become a burden – what unreal, shallow people would we be if we only lived and behaved as if we had no past, only somehow creatures of the present? We cannot imagine it. So we cannot forget – but we can forgive, or try to, and then that hard and hateful past can lose its sting, lose its power over us that will otherwise poison every thought we have and reduce our lives to a “daily death”.
And so Pope Benedict speaks of the importance of the “selection of memory”, which he calls “the foundation of hope”- remembering the good things, there must have been some surely, and using these good memories to counterbalance the bad. We need hope in our lives as much as we need love, and how will we ever begin to hope, until we have freed ourselves from remembering the bad things as somehow inevitable, either as what always happens to me, because nothing I ever do comes right, I never have any luck etcetera, or because in some especially damaging way I have come to believe that bad things are all that should come to me, all some worthless person like me deserves. No, we have a past, and it contains many bad and harmful episodes for each one of us, that is sure, but we must get hold of the antidote to that poison, and the antidote is a mixture of hope and love.
And so we remember those two terrible conflicts of the last century today, and we remember also the conflicts that continue to wreck our world, we think of the bloody upheavals, far from over, all across North Africa and the Middle East. We remember them in order to pray and to work for peace. Leaders of every religion, and humanists and atheists too, have recently met at Assisi at Pope Benedict’s request, to renew their commitment to peace, to moving on from the hostile stances of the past, to being witnesses for another way of living with each other and our differences, a world in which the dignity of every human being is respected, for as the Pope said “War is a wound to human dignity”. The Archbishop of Canterbury was there and quoted a Welsh poet, Waldo Williams: “What is it to forgive? To find a way through the thorns to stand alongside our old enemy”. To remember those thorns but to get through them somehow, to come out the other side!
What is the Mass after all, but the supreme example of all this? Every Mass is a remembering isn’t it, when we return to Calvary, where we relive the injustice of Our Lord’s death on the cross, and where all of that evil, all the evil there ever has been or ever will be, is transmuted into the Good, the good of the human race, and the good of you and me. “Do this in memory of me” the priest says in persona Christi, and we must go out from Mass living that memory, making that memory real, doing that memory, in our daily lives. Dear Jesus, help us to be your memory, a force for hope and for reconciliation, in our wartorn world, for you have said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”. Amen.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

23 sunday in ordinary time 2011

Homily for 23 Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 4 September 2011

Today’s Gospel seems to me to be describing the Christian Community, the Church, in all its main aspects and functions. Here we see the Church as what it ought to be, as what it should be- what we should be at our best. A community of love, of prayer and of forgiveness. And when we live as the Church in this way, in faithfulness to God, there is Our Lord in our midst.

Let’s look at how this passage unfolds. It begins with Jesus telling us that if our brother does something wrong, we are to “go and have it out with him”. Does it matter what our brother does? Do we care? One of the first results of the Fall, as we read in Genesis 4 ix, is that we lose interest in our fellow human beings, we cease to care even to the point of killing them- you remember Cain’s great lie when God says to him “Where is Abel your brother?” – “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?” Here Jesus tells us yes, we should care, we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. Our love for them must be such that we feel able to speak frankly to them when we see them going wrong. And even, maybe, we might need reinforcements- this isn’t supposed to be a kind of ganging up, bullying tactic, this bit about “take one or two others along with you”, or “take it to the whole community”, this isn’t grassing somebody up, this is partly asking us to check our take on things against the opinions of others, thinking with the mind of the Church as we might say today, making sure that we are not getting into anything too personal, too much of our own agenda and so on, and partly because in Jewish law, to make a case stick you needed two or three witnesses (Deut 19 xv says “a single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime….only on the evidence of two witnesses….shall a charge be sustained”. (Incidentally, this is why Mary Magdalene rushes off to get Peter and John to come to the empty tomb, she knows they will need two or three witnesses to be believed.) And Our Lord does not expect we will always succeed in correcting our fellow human beings- we all have free will after all, and some of us can be very stubborn when it comes to going our own way. If someone just can’t be reasoned with, well, “treat him like a pagan or a tax collector”. Now that obviously means, if someone has deliberately put themselves outside the mainstream of the Christian community, so be it, they will have to be outsiders – but please I beg of you notice that it is the person himself who has put himself out of the community, not the community which has turned its back on him – the decision has come from the person concerned, to be on the outside. And please notice one more thing- a pagan or a gentile, and a tax collector are the examples Jesus gives of outsiders – and yet, earlier in this Gospel Matthew gives us examples of gentiles and tax collectors who actually become people of great faith- you remember the centurion in chapter 8 who wants his servant healed- his words to Jesus are newly restored to our Mass this very day with the new translation- Our Lord says to him “Not even in Israel have I seen such faith” (Mt 8 x) and the gentile woman from Tyre who asked Jesus to heal her daughter (Mt 15 xxviii) makes him say “O woman , great is your faith!” while I am sure you are already thinking of the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple, in Luke’s Gospel where it is the humble tax collector who can only bring himself to stand at the back and say ”God be merciful to me a sinner” who receives Our Lord’s approval, “this man went down to his house justified” (Lk 18 xiii-xiv). So, people who have put themselves outside the community for whatever reason may still be capable of great faith- we are not to dismiss them even if they have dismissed themselves.
Part of this love for our brothers and sisters, part of our concern for each other is of course the need we all have to forgive and be forgiven, to let bygones be bygones, to move on, not to be forever shackled to the past. We want our brothers and sisters, however far they may be wandering from the Church, to know that nevertheless they are still in the orbit of God’s infinite mercy- the same unconditional mercy that we are rather hoping will naturally be coming our way! We need to ensure that we are the channels of pardon, not the harsh critics, for these people too. The pardon, of course, that can be fully operational for them, as for all of us, in the sacrament of confession, where the priest hearing our true contrition will loose on earth and loose in heaven our burden of guilt and free us to move on.
So we have had love and we have had pardon. Finally we have prayer, the hall mark of the Church above all- we have to be, to want to be, people of prayer, people who talk to God and let him talk to us, we need our lives to be a long unending conversation we are engaged in with God. Bur personal prayer is not enough, is it, we need to come together with our brothers and sisters in the Faith, as we are here this morning at this Mass, because here we know we can meet Our Lord in the fullest possible sense- when the priest says those words of consecration over the bread and wine, we know indeed that “where two or three meet in my name I shall be with them”. This phrase is –like the stuff about getting witnesses earlier on- also from Jewish law. The Talmud says (‘Abot 3 ii) “If two sit together and words of the Law pass between them, the divine presence abides with them”.
Dear Jesus you show us in this gospel the hallmarks of an authentic Christian community; we ask you to make us at St Saviour’s into a people who see all men and women as our brothers and sisters, worthy of our love, make us channels of forgiveness to each other and as we come together to turn our minds to the things of God, and recognise you in the Host at this Mass may your divine presence abide with us. Amen.

19th sunday in ordinary time 2011

Homily for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time 7 August 2011

Today’s gospel is from that crowded chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel, the same chapter that gave us last week’s reading about the Feeding of the 5000. Both that episode and today’s account of Jesus walking on the water are telling us the same thing in different ways- they are revealing to the disciples and to us the divinity of our Lord, they are showing to us that Jesus is divine because we can see him doing god-like things, things that only God can do. Last week miraculously feeding his followers in the desert, conjuring up food out of nowhere for them, like God fed the Israelites with the manna from Heaven; this week walking on the water and ignoring the wind and the waves, as the Old Testament shows God doing again and again, controlling the elements, from that first setting of the waters behind their boundaries that allows the dry land to emerge and the world to get started in Genesis, on through the parting of the Red Sea – I’m sure loads of examples are springing to mind! A verse in Isaiah (43 xvi) speaks of “the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” and that is exactly what Matthew shows Jesus doing here.
But there is more in this passage to show us that Jesus is God. When they see Jesus walking towards them, the disciples are panic-stricken and think he’s a ghost. So to reassure them Our Lord calls out to them- and what does he say? In this translation, he says “it is I”, but in the Greek original he just says “I am” – ego eimi – “I am”. This of course is the name of God, “I am”. Do you remember when God first manifests himself to Moses in the burning bush, Moses asks God to tell him his name- (Exod 3 xiii-xv) and “God said to Moses ‘I am who I am’ and he said ‘say this to the people of Israel, I am has sent me to you’….’this is my name for ever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’.” So God’s name is I am- funny sort of name, you may be thinking, but I think it means existence, life, being – God is all of that, isn’t he? The force that maintains all of life in being? But we digress. Here Jesus uses the divine name of himself- we get this a lot in John’s gospel more than in the others, lots of “I am” quotes from Jesus, you can think of plenty of them I know: I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth and the life. Here in Matthew just on its own “I am”. Another proof of his divinity- and there is one more to come.
Peter gets in a mess in this story doesn’t he, he loses his nerve and starts to sink in the water. He cries out “Lord, save me!” And we read “Jesus put out his hand at once and held him”. This too is a godlike moment, because God saves his people, and the favourite way the Jews had of describing this was to use the phrase “God stretched out his hand”, and the usual image they used of being in trouble was being in the water. For instance, Psalm 144 (vii) asks God to “stretch forth thy hand from on high, rescue me and deliver me from the many waters….” Psalm 18 (xvi) says God “reached me from on high, he took me, he drew me out of many waters” and another psalm, 107 (xxviii-ix), has “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed”. So in this reading today we see Matthew determined to show us Jesus in his divinity- we have a Jesus who is in control of the forces of nature, and a Jesus who is always ready to save us.
And now I think we must look for a moment at Peter in this story. We are so used to thinking of Mark’s gospel as the place where we have all the little extras about Peter- after all, long tradition assures us that Mark was the confidant of Peter and that Peter’s memoirs underlie Mark’s Gospel- it is a bit of a surprise for us to realise that this episode, so typical of the rash and impetuous Peter and all the scrapes his enthusiasm got him into, is unique to Matthew. I think- I go out on my own here- that Peter is in this story standing for every Christian, he is here as an example of the typical follower of Our Lord, he is here as a representative of ordinary Christians like you and me. He is as Jesus calls him the “man of little faith”. We blow hot and cold, don’t we; we want to be good and loyal followers of Our Lord, we want to be good catholics, we want to do our bit for the Kingdom of Heaven and its advancement, but that’s on a good day! There are other days when we are not so keen on the whole damn business of the Christian life, when we feel we’ve had enough of the Church thank you, when our lives are not serene and calm but there’s a few storms brewing up and the cares of the world or the lure of its easy pleasures seem suddenly very strong and likely to blow us off course once and for all. Had any of those days? I get them quite often I must say! But here’s the important thing: we are like Peter in that we want to jump in and follow Our Lord right now, of course we do and here we go, but we are like him in that once we have set out on the Christian life, we feel the force of the wind, and we take fright and like him we start to sink. When we get that sinking feeling, we must be like Peter too- we must not hesitate but cry out “Lord, save me!” because Our Lord is there, isn’t he, always waiting to catch us!
Dear Jesus, we recognise you in all your humanity and in all your divinity. We know that shortly you will come upon this altar and be truly present to us in your body and blood, soul and divinity. You know we are people of little faith, we often feel the force of the wind, we often begin to sink. Come to us, dear Jesus, when we call upon you! Come to us, put out your hand at once and hold us! In St Saviour’s we are in the boat with Peter, the boat that is your Catholic Church, and here we bow down before you and say with those first disciples “Truly you are the Son of God”. Amen.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

14th Sunday of Year 3 July 2011

Homily for Fourteenth Sunday in ordinary Time 3 July 2011

Two weeks ago it was Trinity Sunday when the Church asked us to reflect on the very nature of God- what is God like, what kind of god is our God? We have to stretch our minds a bit when we try to understand God and to get our heads round the implications of this idea that God is Love, as St John tells us in his First Letter. Luckily, Trinity Sunday is quickly followed by the feast we celebrated Friday of the Sacred Heart and that Letter of John is read at Friday’s Mass to put into simple language for us what all this means- you remember, it contains those wonderful words “everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God” and again “no one has ever seen God but as long as we love one another God will live in us”. God will live in us! That is the extraordinary thing that St Paul tells us in today’s reading from his Letter to the Romans, when he says “the Spirit of God has made his home in you” and again “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you”.
You see, the great thing about the Trinity, which as you know is only our technical term for the inner life of God and nothing to do with clover leaves at all, the great thing about the Trinity is that it is the constant momentum of love, the give and take of love between the Father and the Son, and that give and take, that flow of love, that fountain of love, is the Holy Spirit, a fountain which gushes out and inundates us all. Because one of great things about God is that he is not some remote aloof deity, about whom we know nothing and who wants to be left alone on some mountain top or in some grove as the pagans thought of their gods, whom you approached at your peril. God is forever approaching us one way or another, approaching us of course in the Incarnation, taking human form, and being one of us, so to speak, so we could get a better idea of what he has destined each one of us for by looking at the life of Our Lord Jesus; but approaching us constantly too in the form of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us from our baptism onwards and forever prompting us towards the good and helping us to steer clear of the bad, so that as St Paul says today “there is no necessity for us to obey our unspiritual selves or to live unspiritual lives”. We have the Spirit, forever enlightening our minds if we will let him, so that the things of God become a bit clearer. That is why in the early centuries of the Church baptism was often called simply enlightenment; the fathers thought that once you had been baptised and had the Holy Spirit living in you, you would inevitably see things a bit clearer – a bit like having your eyes fixed by laser treatment!
You know I expect that famous icon of the Trinity, by the 15th century Russian monk Andrei Rublev, which is based on the famous story in Genesis 18 of Abraham entertaining the three young men who suddenly turn up at his tent hungry and thirsty. From earliest times the Church saw in these three young men a hint if you like, a foreshadowing, of the Trinity- especially as although they are three, Abraham talks to them as if they are one, saying “My Lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant” (Gen 18 iii). This is God calling on Abraham, God hungry and thirsty, God wanting something from us. This is the God we know, isn’t it, this thirsty God, this is what St Margaret Mary understood in her visions of the Sacred Heart, when she saw Jesus thirsting for our souls, and the great desire he has for our love. This is the God we know who is forever patient with us, forever waiting for some response from us, some flicker of interest, however slight! A modern French writer says “devant notre mediocrité, Dieu attend” – confronted by our mediocrity, God just waits! And of course in this story in Genesis, Abraham does respond, he prepares a meal in the shade of the oaks of Mamre for his divine guests. This icon of Rublev’s shows the three young men sitting down to their refreshment, and one of them is looking out of the picture at us- the one dressed in green. Now we use red as our liturgical colour for the Holy Spirit, don’t we, because we think of the tongues of fire at Pentecost, but our orthodox brothers and sisters use green for the Holy Spirit, the colour of growth, of the green shoots springing up that signify rebirth. So it is the Holy Spirit who is the part of the Godhead who is forever looking out at us, not snooping on us to catch us out in some sin so he can jot it down, he is not a traffic warden, no, he is just gazing out at us with a look of love, and with perhaps an invitation in his look too. I say an invitation because if you look at this icon you see that there is a space at the table where the young men are sitting, because you see the Holy Spirit is asking us to join them, come into the life of God, come and take your place at the table, come on in, make yourself at home – you know that old music hall song, “put your feet on the mantel shelf, go to the cupboard and help yourself!” Come on in, says the Holy Spirit, don’t be out there in the cold, come on in and be at home with God who wants above all to live with us!
How do we take up this pressing invitation? How do we step into the life of God and sit at God’s table, how do we enjoy the companionship of God? St John in that first Letter of his shows us the answer, and the answer is love- when we do anything from an impulse of love, when we act lovingly and kindly towards someone, especially if they are someone we don’t like or fancy or don’t approve of very much, then we are doing something godlike, and in that moment, in the doing of that act of love, we are caught up into the life of God- the more acts of love we do, the more our life is oriented to this way of loving, the closer we shall be to God – we shall be, whether we realise it or not, slap bang in the middle of the life of the Trinity, seated at the table sharing in the heavenly banquet.

Dear friends, think of St Saviour’s as the oaks of Mamre, where our hungry and thirsty God is waiting for us to greet him and to offer him our companionship. The word companion you know is from Latin words that mean “with bread”, someone you share bread with. God is waiting for our response of love tonight, he is waiting to show us his love in the breaking and sharing of bread, the bread that is the sacred Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord. God in Three Persons, we welcome you, we say with Abraham “My Lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass your servant by”. Come to us, make our home with us, live in us and let us live in you, help us to accept our place at your table, to take on our part in the outpouring of your love out into our world. “Do not pass your servant by”. Amen.

trinity sunday 2011

Homily for Trinity Sunday 19 June 2011

Today is Trinity Sunday (whatever that means, do I hear you say?). During the course of the year the Church proposes many aspects of God for us to consider in the various feasts that come and go - last week the great mystery of the work of God the Holy Spirit claimed our attention at Pentecost. Now today what are we supposed to be focussing on? The Trinity, but what is the Trinity? This word is quite simply the technical term the Church has been using for nearly two millennia to describe the life of God, the nature of God. So today we need to refresh our memories about God- who is this God who is our God? What kind of a god is God? And does it matter?
The best place where we find the answer is in the two creation accounts in Genesis, where we find that God is the benevolent Creator, who approves of everything that he makes and whose desire is for intimacy with the human race which he has created in his own image and likeness- yes, God wants us to be his friends, that is the whole point of creating this world and us in it. That is what God does all day- creating, sustaining, loving us. The great Dominican mystic of the 13th century Meister Eckhard said “I never give God thanks for loving me, because he cannot help it”. In the early 18th century an English spiritual writer from the Anglican tradition, William Law, has this to say: “from eternity to eternity no spark of wrath ever was or ever will be in the holy triune God….and this, for this plain reason, because he is in himself in his Holy Trinity nothing else but the boundless abyss of all that is good and sweet and amiable” He says too that God is in “an eternal impossibility of willing and intending a moment’s pain or hurt to any creature”. What wonderful words, and they are true. If you look at the two forms of the Opening Prayer for today’s mass, you see all this spelt out. In the first one, we hear that God the Father sends us the Word (Jesus, of course) to bring us truth and the Spirit to make us holy- that is how we can come to know the mystery of God’s life. The second one speaks of God “drawing us to share in your life and your love”.
And look at our first reading today. In this episode from Exodus, Moses has just told God that, far from welcoming the ten commandments as the start of a close and binding relationship between God and his people, the Israelites have rejected them and have made themselves a nice new god, a Golden Calf they can dance around. You remember, Moses got so angry he smashed the first lot of tablets up. What we have here is God saying to Moses, it’s OK, I can cope- I am “a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness”. And he gives Moses two new tablets, just as good as the old ones- this time, try not to break them! – and so this contract that God so desperately wants to have with his people is back in force, as if it had never been spoilt. That is what happens when we go to Confession isn’t it- we have broken a few commandments I daresay (in fact, I wonder if you examine your conscience by going through the ten commandments, that used to be a very common and very good practice), we have messed up, but we know that the priest we confess to will be the voice of the “God of tenderness” who is “slow to anger” – when we say like Moses “forgive us our faults and our sins” and ask to be back in the close friendship of God Our Lord will indeed “adopt us as his heritage” and all will be well again, as if –just as if- we’d never gone off the rails in the first place. Now that is exactly what this Gospel of ours today is saying, isn’t it. “God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved”.
Why send his Son at all? That is another question, and one to which books of devotion give usually quite crazy answers- paying the ransom for sin, settling mankind’s debt with the Devil, I can’t bear it! God, being goodness itself, is forever communicating that goodness- it is as simple as that. And Jesus is the good that God the Father wants to communicate to us. This man William Law speaks of “the goodness of God breaking forth into a desire to communicate good….He is the Good, the unchangeable, overflowing fountain of all that is good that sends forth nothing but good to all eternity”. And of course the greatest good he communicates to us is that aspect, that humanly knowable aspect, of himself that is Our Lord Jesus.
Of course, such is the madness, the perversity of the human race that we run a mile at the prospect of a God offering us relentless love- just as we often do when our fellow human beings offer us love, it is just too frightening, we think, to fall into that embrace of Someone who claims they will never let go of us no matter what. We want more independence than that, because surely all this constant loving is going to be stifling, isn’t it going to curtail my freedom severely? So thought the Israelites at Mt Sinai, who, when they first heard that Moses and God were holding this great converse from which came the Ten Commandments, “were afraid and trembled and stood afar off” (Exod 20 xviii- xix) and begged to hear no more- “let not God speak to us”. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews refers to this episode too when he speaks of “a Voice, whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them”. (Heb 12 xix) Bring on the Golden Calf we say, we know where we are with that! Our dear Holy Father spoke only last week about this very phenomenon, the Golden Calf- he says “this is a constant temptation on the journey of faith: to avoid the divine mystery by constructing a comprehensible god who corresponds with one’s own plans, one’s own projects”. (8 june 2011 gen aud)
No, dear friends, we don’t want to avoid the divine mystery, we want to meet it and live in it! We want our full destiny as children of God, and that is nothing less than to be drawn into the divine mystery that is the life and love of God. Heavenly Father, we keep smashing up the tablets of the law that are written on our hearts, but we recall today that you are “a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness”; we are indeed in the words of Moses “a headstrong people, but forgive us our faults and our sins and adopt us as your heritage” Amen.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Good Friday 2011

Good Friday 22 April 2011

The question that I keep wrestling with as I have been pondering on the Passion narrative we have just heard, is that question that someone asks Peter after Jesus has been arrested and is being detained for questioning at the High Priest’s house: “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” St John is alone of the four evangelists in using this word garden- today’s Passion opened with Jesus crossing the Kedron valley to go to the Mount of Olives, and immediately we read “There was a garden there, and he went into it with his disciples”. At the end of the Passion too, we are back in a garden- because John tells us “at the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been buried”. What are we to make of this? What is this garden?

I am sure your minds have immediately turned to the first time in the whole Bible when we hear about a garden- the ancient account of the creation of the world that we have in Genesis chapter 2 where the best way the Jews of those distant centuries could think of to describe the way things ought to be, the easy, harmonious relationship humanity ought to have with God, was to call it a garden. A place of beauty, order, calm. We read “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden….and there he put the man whom he had formed”, (Gen 2 viii). Of course, this happy innocent state of being at peace and at one with God did not last, for as we know the garden was the place of the yielding of Adam and Eve to the blandishments of the Devil, of the initial and far-reaching disobedience of mankind, which resulted in exile from the garden. From now on, our human destiny was going to be a far more complicated affair, our relationship with God hard to discern and maintain, our basic sinfulness forever getting in the way – “therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden….to till the ground from which he was taken”. (Gen 3 xxiii).

All this has been discussed by the Holy Father in his latest book- I quote “John’s use of the word garden is an unmistakeable reference to the story of Paradise and the Fall. That story, he tells us, is being resumed here” (J of N II p149). The place of Adam’s disobedience will now be the place of the new Adam’s obedience – “even to accepting death, death on a cross”. The place where Adam and Eve are tempted and decide just to do their own thing and hang the consequences will be the place where Our Lord was, as it tells us in Hebrews “tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin” and where he prays to the Father “Not as I will, but as thou wilt….thy will be done” (Mt 26 xxxix, xlii). As Pope Benedict comments “It was in the garden that Jesus fully accepted the Father’s will, made it his own, and thus changed the course of history”. (ibid p150)

Of course in the garden of Eden everything depends on one thing: the Tree. What is this tree, and what is our attitude to it? Genesis speaks of “the tree of life….in the midst of the garden….the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2 ix). This tree is what everything revolves around in the drama of the Fall, everything depends on it, hangs on it- God says to Adam and Eve leave these things to God, accept that there are moral absolutes of good and evil, that it is not a question of “Does it feel good to me?” but “Is it good?”. Accept these limits to your freedom and all will be well. Do not interfere with the Tree! Do not start rearranging what is good and what is evil, leave well alone or we shall have chaos, a world where nothing is certain but everything, good and evil, just a matter of opinion. Well, we’ve got that!

And now in another garden there stands another Tree, a Tree on which everything depends, a Tree on which everything- everyone even- hangs in the tortured body of Our Lord Jesus himself. This Tree, the Cross, is the Tree of Life isn’t it, this is the place where good and evil are known, where good and evil meet for their ultimate combat. As we shall shortly be singing “This is the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world”. There is an Anglo-Saxon poem, I think from the 9th century, “The Dream of the Rood”, one of the glories of the pre-Reformation devotional literature of this country, in which the Tree, the Cross, speaks. Here is a bit of it: “Men shifted me on their shoulders and set me on a hill….I saw the Lord of Mankind hasten with such courage to climb upon me. I dared not bow or break there, against my Lord’s wish, when I saw the surface of the earth tremble….Then the young warrior, God Almighty, stripped himself, firm and unflinching. He climbed upon the cross, brave before many, to redeem mankind.” The poet shows us a Christ who is not coerced by soldiers, not forced onto the cross, but a Jesus who is serenely in control, “firm and unflinching” as he climbs onto the Tree as a warrior ready to do battle.

Dear friends, we are in that garden today, at this Solemn Liturgy we step, as at every Mass, outside of time and stand in eternity- this is the hour, this is the moment! We are in the garden, we are up against the reality of the garden, the reality of how we can be reconciled to God and live again in his friendship, that reality as we know is the Tree, the Cross! How we want to stay in this garden, to live our lives always in friendship with God, in the garden of his intimacy. And at the end of our earthly lives, when we too come to die, let us have our answer ready to that question put to Peter- “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” “Yes, I was there, I was there when they nailed him to the Tree”. Dear Jesus, help us! Help us to stay close to you in the garden, even if that means, as we know it does, that we have to stay close to the tree that is your Cross. Amen.