Jesus & The Holy Spirit

John Glynn singer & songwriter


 

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JOHN GLYNN'S PREVIOUS THOUGHTS

This weeks thought is now on home page


THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE LORD
6th August 2017

With a silent flicker of dark green saltire the butterfly alighted on the stone bench where I sat, folded its wings and paused while the breeze plucked at its perch. In its fluttering flight, one hardly noticed the delicate emerald body and wingtips which were revealed in its stillness. Together with our elderly black Labrador, we three sat together in companionable silence for what seemed a long time, but was probably only a few moments. Then with a shrug which seemed to say: “Time to move on”, the green visitor flittered away, its colours disappearing into the grass.

When Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain alone, it was in the midst of their everyday routine; there was no hint of what was to come. But on that mountain-top the familiar Jesus became radiantly different from the familiar. Indeed, everything looked different. The ordinary had become extraordinary. And yet, in one sense, nothing had changed, because he wasn’t someone else. In a strange way, they realised it wasn’t Jesus that had changed but their perception of him that had changed. A veil had been lifted from their minds, or cataracts removed from their eyes. It was the reverse of what was to happen at Emmaus, where the risen glorified Lord appeared in ordinary.

Such transfiguration moments in our own lives can never be manufactured or programmed: they are unexpected gifts, glimpses of glory which are pure grace. But often they happen when we are in certain places in our lives, when we have hearts open to an encounter with God: silence on the mountain, a sudden awareness of beauty, creation vibrant with the divine presence, a butterfly pausing on the warm stone.

May the Lord bless you.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
30th July 2017

We met a man who couldn’t wait to tell us that his father was famous for discovering the Hoxne Hoard, a fabulous collection of gold Roman coins now in the British Museum. It was literally “a treasure hidden in a field” at Hoxne in Suffolk, revealed using a metal-detector, and it transformed the lives of an ordinary working family. It was the highlight of their family history.

Who or what is the “treasure hidden in the field” of your life? What is it that compels you to stop complete strangers (as we were to him that day), bursting to tell them the story?

In the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus identifies “the field” with “the world”. The treasure which he calls “the kingdom” is not in heaven or in some other place; it is here, hidden in the stuff of this world. The operative word is “hidden”. How do we find this hide-and-seek God? Is there a “God-detector” to help us?

Yes, there is. First, it is other people whose faith touches us and who share their treasure map. Then there is the searchlight of God’s word in Scripture to look beneath the surface. Then there is prayer, our trusty spade which helps us persevere, accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

If we have found the treasure, others will soon know of our discovery; they will want to know the secret of our joy, our peace, our sense of purpose. Like love, it is impossible to keep our faith in Christ to ourselves. If they do not ask us the reason for the hope we have (cf I Peter 3:15), then we have not yet found the treasure. Keep digging!

May the Lord bless you.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
23rd July 2017

At this time of the year in England, the crops are beginning to be harvested. The fruit of careful planting and nurturing is dependent on both human effort and the vagaries of the weather. I can look at the fields around us here, or even in our own garden, and know how our best efforts will come to nothing unless we cooperate with nature. Similarly, our lives in this created world will only flourish and blossom if we are in harmony with the Creator.

The three images Jesus gives us in today’s parables vividly illustrate this. First, the weed. Gardeners don’t like weeds, because they deprive other, more productive or beautiful plants of space and light, ultimately killing them. But weeds are only flowers growing in the “wrong” place (for the gardener). Understanding the difference between wheat and darnel, which initially look like each other, is a process of discernment over time. Good and evil can look remarkably alike. Why did God create weeds?

Both the yeast and the mustard seed are images of phenomenal growth (gardeners would say that’s true of weeds too!). Yeast works from the inside out, its hidden power fermenting and expanding. Most of what God does in our lives happens within, where it cannot be seen, like the seed sprouting in the darkness of the earth (Mark 4:27). The mustard seed is almost invisible, yet once sown it grows into a large shrub. Don’t underestimate the little, insignificant, seemingly trivial activities of creation; they disguise their divine Creator at work.

Finally, don’t despise gardeners. Didn’t Jesus disguise himself as a gardener so that even Mary Magdalen was fooled (John 20:15)? And Jesus called his Father the gardener of the Vine (John 15:1).

May the Lord bless you.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
16th July 2017

Jesus begins the parable of the sower with the word: “Imagine…” To grasp any of the parables, we need imagination. Imagination is more than simply visualising the sower sowing or the seed sprouting. We are called upon to engage with the deeper meaning of what Jesus is saying. “Why do you talk in parables?” his disciples ask. “Why can’t you tell them straight?” Because they won’t listen. A parable is a subversive way of drawing people into a story before they realise they’re listening. Once they engage with it, there’s the fear (!) they will understand (Matt 13:15). And once they understand, having to make the choice to accept or reject the message, they are already hooked. In the kingdom, Jesus is master of “sales talk” about God.

In a way, the parable of the sower is a parable about how all parables work. If a seed is to grow, it has to put down roots, it has to engage with the soil around it. It is what seeds are designed for. Similarly with God’s word. If it falls among stones or is snatched away before it can take root, it is shut out from making contact with the earth. Stony hearts do not receive but reject the word of God. If the word does take root and grow, but is stifled by the weeds of weariness and the thorns of hostility, we can fail to persevere and lose heart; imagination is crushed and our understanding choked.

Jesus understands all that. He knows how we tick. He is one of us. But because he is Son of God as well as Son of Man, we too who are made in God’s image long for that freedom to grow and bud and blossom, and reach for the sky. Imagine!

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
9th July 2017

“Shoulder my yoke and learn from me…. my yoke is easy”. A yoke is a symbol of servitude and control. Oxen or horses were yoked together to pull the plough. They had to pull together, walk at the same pace, each constrained by the other. Similarly, slaves or prisoners were chained together, hampered or hindered by each other’s movements. In a three-legged race, the secret of success is in synchronised partnership, not self-assertion.

So, when Jesus invites us to shoulder his yoke, we can be afraid he is out to enslave us, to bind us and control us. However, note that it is not a command but an invitation. We freely choose to join him. And note also that he is choosing to join us: he is conditioned by our joining him. We are his body.

In carrying our cross in tandem with Jesus, we are learning his movements, his heartbeat, his rhythm, his reactions and decisions, his joys and sorrows – and we are living up close to his divinity. We become part of him. Sometimes we may want to be independent of him, but we find to our surprise that we are less free than in union with him. As St John says, his love sets us free.

“My yoke is easy,” he says. We walk with him, alongside him. He is our “Paraclete”, the one who stands by us always and steadfastly takes our part – so that when he left his disciples he assured them: “I will send you another Paraclete to be with you always….the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). The prayer attributed to St Ignatius expresses it well: “Lord, help me to remember there is nothing in this world that you and I cannot handle together.”

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
2nd July 2017

“You should make hospitality your special care” (Romans 12:13). These words of St Paul summarise well the theme of today’s readings. The letter to the Hebrews (13:2) adds: “Always welcome strangers, for by doing so, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” The woman who spontaneously provided a welcome at her home for the prophet Elisha was convinced he was a man of God. Offering true hospitality always honours the guest for who they are, without expectation of return. As Jesus says elsewhere, “When you give a lunch or dinner, do not welcome your friends or rich neighbours in hope of return favours; ask the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame who can’t pay you back” (cf. Luke 14:12-14).

But Jesus’ words to his disciples in today’s gospel are not about offering hospitality but about how to accept it. According to St Paul, Jesus said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), but Matthew implies that it is sometimes more blessed to receive. If anyone offers you a cup of water to drink, Jesus says, don’t refuse their kindness or belittle it. Acknowledge the gift graciously, for it is I who am giving it you. There are many of us Christians who are so busy serving others that we never allow time or space for others to serve us. Are we refusing Christ the opportunity to wash our feet?

Likewise, when we do offer hospitality, welcome and kindness to others, it is Christ who is offering these things through us. Others may not recognise this, any more than we do; but that is God’s business. The disciples at Emmaus entertained more than an angel without knowing it. Christ is the unseen guest at every table.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWELFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
25th June 2017

The prophet Jeremiah in the first reading has everything stacked against him. He feels vulnerable and under threat, doubly so, because those who oppose him used to be his friends. They believe they are doing a holy deed in denouncing him. They feel threatened by his message which he claims comes from God. They even quote the saying: “Terror on every side!” Jeremiah is seen as a terrorist. They must be terrified. Revenge is in their hearts. Who is in the right?

Two and a half thousand years later, we are caught in the same dilemma. Terror breeds terror. In the heat of the moment, the tension of fear, the temptation to revenge is simple and overwhelming. Destroy those who threaten us, and we shall be safe. The logic ultimately justifies mass destruction: “Thank God for nuclear deterrence!” Threats can never bring peace.

Jeremiah doesn’t go down the wide road of revenge but the narrow path of peace. And Jesus goes to the root of the tension. First, he disarms the fear. In today’s gospel he says three times: ”Do not be afraid…. do not be afraid…. there is no need to be afraid….” Fear is not a need, but a reaction to our powerlessness. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. He says: ”I am your light. Everything now hidden will be made clear.” Secondly, he reassures: ”Trust me. Your life, however weak and vulnerable, is precious to me. I love you with an everlasting love. If that is true for your unique beauty, then it is true for every unique part of creation.” Thirdly, it follows that each of us should treat his/her neighbour accordingly. Perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18).

“Be not afraid; I am with you always.”

John


SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
18th June 2017

In the wake of the horrendous tower block fire in London this week, there has been anger, grief and blame. But as with the Manchester and London terror attacks in the previous two weeks, there has also been the heroic response of the emergency services and the extraordinary generosity of ordinary people who have given money, basic necessities and their precious time to the victims and their families. It is only natural to react with anger, point the finger of blame and rage against the pain. But if passion is to be transformed into compassion, something grace-ful has to happen. It is instructive to ponder how these events provoke the worst and evoke the best in human nature.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was transformed into compassion when he said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” as they nailed him to the cross. It was transformed in his dying words: “I thirst”, as his yearning love for us knew no death. It was transformed as he broke the bread and said: “This is my body, given up for you.” Yes, it hurts; but only if you don’t care, you don’t notice, or are too absorbed in yourself. It was during the Last Supper that he said: “Love one another, as I have loved you,” St John’s equivalent of the Synoptics’ “Do this in memory of me.”

It was in the breaking of bread that Jesus was recognised at Emmaus. We only receive his Body because we are his Body. He sweated blood for us that we might recognise his Blood in the blood and tears of the earth. Not for nothing is Luke’s account of the early Church called, not words, but Acts.

Behold the Bread of angels!

John


TRINITY SUNDAY
11th June 2017

After World War II the nations of Europe came together in an economic union, to help prevent the divisions in the continent which had led to two major wars in thirty years. Now another generation is presiding over a fragmenting of that union, as Britain seeks to assert its independence from the European Union. And within Britain itself there are calls for Scotland to be independent from the rest of Britain.

“Community” is a word that is bandied around without much thought about its real meaning. It implies a people with a common sense of identity and purpose, working together with shared values. But it is often used today in a much looser sense, as describing merely the people who happen to live in the same area. Do we emphasise the unity or the diversity? Are we a collection of uniformly faceless individuals, or a bunch of fiercely competitive ones, only interested in our own personal agenda? Or somewhere in between?

The Church describes herself, the Christian community, as “koinonia”. This Greek word roughly translates “communion”. We are in communion with God and one another, in a certain way mingled together without losing our unique individuality created by God. The Eucharist, “holy communion”, celebrates this koinonia while deepening and strengthening it. At another level, the sacrament of marriage does the same.

The source and origin of this koinonia is in God who is Love. God is the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, not to condemn the world but to save it” from fragmentation, division, oppression and evil in order to bring life, love, forgiveness, compassion and a share in the divine communion. Are we Christians living our Trinitarian life to the full?

May the Lord bless you.

John


PENTECOST SUNDAY
4th June 2017

Inspiration! Enthusiasm! Take a deep breath…. That’s the Spirit!

The Holy Spirit may appear to us mortals a poor substitute for Jesus, exchanging the flesh and blood reality of an identifiable human person for a….what, exactly? The disciples had finally come to believe that the invisible, ineffable, mysterious Godhead was here among them, communicating directly with them as one like us. And just as this enormous truth suddenly flooded their minds, Jesus had disappeared from their sight, could no longer be touched, the sound of his voice a vivid memory.

Two things happened simultaneously at that moment. The invisible, ineffable, mysterious God became more awesome than ever; and Jesus became closer and more real to them than ever. Far from being a contradiction, these two truths were experienced as one reality: the Holy Spirit.

What happened to those disciples happens to us….doesn’t it? In the end the Holy Spirit is not a theoretical concept but a power for transformation. Jesus disappears from sight because he is now in us, his Body. He is not outside, somewhere else. But we can recognise him when we look within, into our hearts, into the eyes of the poor, in the breaking of bread.

Inspiration, breathing in the Spirit, fills us with new life and hope. Enthusiasm (which means literally “God within us”) energises us with joy and purpose. We take a deep breath, breathe in God’s life, and Jesus comes alive in us, his Word enriches us, our witness to him bears the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, courtesy, gentleness, self-control. The Spirit is not interested in self-advertising – only revealing God to us in Jesus. In a self-serving world full of suspicion, anger, and confusion, it’s a breath of fresh air.

That’s the Spirit!

John


SUNDAY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
28th May 2017

The final five verses of Matthew’s gospel cram an enormous amount into a small space, which needs expanding to discover its richness. In Matthew’s account, this is the first meeting of the apostles with Jesus after the Last Supper. It is a moment of faith: will they acknowledge him as their risen Lord? Most did, “though some hesitated”. Hesitation implies that they did acknowledge him, but doubted a moment. Is this Matthew’s version of the Thomas story of John’s resurrection account? For some, faith is immediate; for others, it takes time. Growing in our relationship with the Lord is a process. It is not always love at first sight.

One would expect the risen Lord, reunited with his apostles, to take the lead. But no. He tells them to take the lead. Hardly have they arrived in Galilee at Jesus’ summons when he says: “Go! You are my body, you are my voice, you are my witnesses. As I have formed you, so go and form others to be my disciples, catching fire through your lives. Don’t restrict yourselves to Galilee and Jerusalem – the ends of the earth await you. And when through the wisdom given you by the Spirit you see these disciples ready to follow me through death to resurrection, baptise them into the community of my Name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As I push you, my fledgling Christian community, out of the nest, do not be afraid of falling. For even if it appears I have withdrawn from you into heaven, know that I am with you always, even to the end of time. Do not look behind you but ahead, at the Way I am before you. Go in my name!”

Come Holy Spirit!

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
21st May 2017

Philip the deacon seems to have been a particularly successful evangelist. Perhaps because he himself was a Greek-speaking Jew of the Diaspora (like his namesake Philip the apostle), he was more familiar with the Gentile world. When his fellow-deacon Stephen was martyred, Philip, like most of the Jerusalem Christian community, fled the city for safety (Acts 8:1). Whether by chance or divine design (one suspects the latter) he ended up in Samaria, whose people were heretics and pagans to the orthodox Jew. Perhaps Philip had heard the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman; in any case he was emulating Jesus’ compassion and love for the despised and marginalised. As a result, his preaching to them of the Christian message, in word and deed, brought about their baptism.

Something of his evangelising technique is demonstrated later in the same chapter (Acts 8:26-40) in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. Just as he “happened” to go to the Samaritans, so Philip “happened” to be walking the road south from Jerusalem to Gaza when a chariot passed by. To be fair, it was an angel who gave him the tip-off. But who was the angel?

The pagan African official from the margins of the known world “happened” to be reading the prophet Isaiah aloud as he rode along. There were questions he wanted to ask about what he was reading, and there was Philip on hand to answer them, right on cue. It led ultimately to the baptism of Ethiopia.

Being there when we are needed, being ready to answer an enquirer’s questions, being aware of the opportunities God is giving us – all these are hallmarks of the evangelist. Where will you “happen” to be when, in the least promising of circumstances, God wants an angel?

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
14th May 2017

“Nations are in tumult, kingdoms are shaken” sang the psalmist two and a half millennia ago, but his words are just as relevant today. So much of the world is plagued by unrest, conflict and violence. Political and social upheavals in countries once thought secure, stable and “civilized” add to the general uncertainty. Britain and the USA are significant examples of the latter.

Into this turmoil the words of Jesus speak directly to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” It is only natural that we are troubled by these things which threaten to overwhelm us. But Jesus says we must not allow this inevitable trouble to disrupt our hearts, that inner place where the Spirit dwells. So his next words are: “Trust in God still, and trust in me.” Trust is what is missing. Once upon a time, trust, respect, compassion and kindness were foundational values of British society. They underpinned our attitudes and behaviour, even when they weren’t always practised. Now these values have become marginal, not central. They are not only harder to find but harder to practise.

Trust in God and trust in me, says Jesus, even when you cannot trust anyone else, including yourself. Even when my closest disciples let me down, says Jesus, I never gave up on my Father, and he never gave up on me, even on the cross.

Jesus uses an image to describe the community of those who follow his trusting example. His Father is a house in which each of us has a room. This room is made ready for us by Jesus himself, who accompanies us to it. He is the Way. Without our trust in him, his mission will never blossom into even greater works.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
7th May 2017

Jack, our elderly black Labrador, has a habit of lying down in doorways, so you have to step over his prostrate form if you are to get through. He has probably two intentions in doing so. The more noble purpose is to protect us from intruders. The more selfish one is to make sure he’s in the way and we won’t forget he’s there, especially if there’s food around.

It was for the more noble purpose that the shepherd of old would sleep at night in the narrow entrance to the sheepfold. If a wolf or other intruder were to try to steal or attack the sheep within, they would first have to get past the shepherd. The “gate” of the sheepfold was not a barrier made of wood or metal, but a human being.

When Jesus refers to himself as the gate, he is fulfilling the shepherd’s double function of keeping the sheep safe while (literally) laying down his life for them. In relation to his first role, he says of his disciples, “Father, I have watched over them and not one is lost” (John 17:12). His second role, seeing off the wolf to save the sheep by sacrificing himself, is described at his arrest in Gethsemane. He says to those arresting him: “If I am the one you are looking for, let these others go” and the evangelist adds: This was to fulfil the words he had spoken, “not one of those you gave me have I lost” (John 18:8,9).

All who follow his voice are called to be like him. What sort of Labrador are you? Are you an opportunist, making sure you don’t miss out? Or are you laying down your life for others?

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
30th April 2017

“He’s dead, mister,” says a disillusioned Thomas being interviewed about Jesus after the crucifixion. “He’s dead, and that’s the end of him.”

Hope is all the harder after hope has been shattered. The gospel today catches two of those disaffected disciples walking away from their broken dreams. The stranger who interviews them begins from that experience: “What are you talking about?” They stop, their faces downcast. They look at the ground, not at the speaker. The larger picture has gone. There is nothing left but the dusty earth. “We had hoped….” they begin.

What the stranger does next is to reconnect them with the larger picture they had lost. He doesn’t condone their pessimism. He challenges them to look again at their experience of discipleship, to reignite the flame of faith, remind them of the evidence of resurrection throughout the scriptures. “Didn’t you realise that the Christ had to suffer? Can’t you see that he had to embrace death with its sting of hopeless finality? Only by passing through death could he overcome it. Only thus could he come to resurrection.”

As the Word unfolded the word, their faces slowly lifted from the earth until at last, as he broke bread at their table, they looked into his eyes. “And their eyes were opened and they recognised him.” For Thomas it had been the sight of the wounds. For the Emmaus disciples it was exactly what we have today: the Word in scripture and the breaking of bread. It seems ridiculously simple and laughably ordinary. But it is the risen Lord. All we have when he has vanished from our sight is the sound of his words and an everyday gesture of sharing food. But that is our hope. He is everything.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
23rd April 2017

The doors were closed, but Jesus came and stood in the midst of them. He did not, as in the Apocalypse (Rev 3:20), stand at the closed door and knock, and wait till we are ready to admit him. For the risen Lord, there are no doors. “With you I can break through any barrier,” says the psalmist (Ps 17:30), “with my God I can scale any wall.” His presence is not an intrusion into our closed world: we have already said yes to him, and he dwells now in our innermost heart. If he’s still knocking on our door, it’s from the inside of our heart where he lives, as if to say: “Don’t lock me away in some secret religious retreat – I want to reach out through you to all creation, and break through the barriers of injustice and scale the walls of selfishness and pride.” “Our life is hidden with Christ in God,” says St Paul (Col 3:3), and God is hidden in Christ in us.

Any closed doors in our lives are of our making; and they betray the presence of fear. St John in his first letter says: “God is love…. In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love” (4:8,18). Trust is the first thing to go when fear and suspicion rule our lives, as is all too evident in our world today. The doors were closed to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born, so he’s no stranger to rejection. But the Divine Mercy still persists, and will never cease. Isn’t that our hope and our model, as nations close their doors to one another and shrink back behind the barricades? Trust has no walls.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


EASTER SUNDAY
16th April 2017

“Why look among the dead for one who is living?” As children of the resurrection we can appreciate these words of the angel to the women at the tomb. We do not visit the cemetery in hope of seeing the living – quite the opposite. The angel makes the point for us when we do: “He is not here – he is risen.” We can visit the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but he is not there. Our temptation is always to pin Jesus down to a place, whether it’s the Holy Land or the tabernacle in our parish church. He is not exclusively here, or there – he is risen. He goes before us into Galilee, wherever that may be for us in any given moment. 

And yet he is everywhere. “Behold I am with you always, even to the end of time.” Wherever we his people are, we are his presence, his body, his being. We have had no problem in identifying with Jesus this last week, in his all-too-human experience of betrayal, loneliness, pain and death. Whether personally or through our share in the passion of the world, these are realities we are comforted to know God has suffered and redeemed. 

But when we move beyond our present experience, to our life beyond death, our journey beyond time and place, the neither here nor there of “he is risen and goes before you”, we hesitate and wonder if it’s the same Jesus we’re talking about. How can we be his body, his presence in the world, if we have not yet risen as he is? 

Through our baptism we share in the death and resurrection of Christ. If we believe in his real presence in the eucharist, why do we not believe his risen presence is really in us now? 

Alleluia! The Lord is risen! 

John 
 


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
9th April 2017

Palms of peace are waving in the light wind. The children cheering, the crowds exultant as the donkey bearing Jesus is coaxed through the narrow bustling streets of the city. Hope is in the air again. He has done so much for us: healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, cast out devils, even raised the dead, some say. Can he be the one to cast off our yoke of slavery, the oppression of sin, and restore the kingdom of God? Everything, everyone, every expectation clusters round this one man. Is he our saviour?

It is five days later. Through the same bustling streets comes another procession pushing through a fearful and hostile crowd. The hated Roman soldiers bully the crowds to one side, hustle the three condemned men bearing their crossbeams through the sullen mob, jeering as the crowd cowers before the terrifying reminder of the cruelty of Rome. One of the condemned wears a crown of thorns roughly thrust into his scalp. Is this our saviour?

Lifeless bodies of children, women, men, old and young, victims of cluster bombs, chemical warfare, ideological anger, fanatical violence. Listless survivors, half-dead from physical and mental torture, homeless refugees. seeking healing, hope, a reason to go on living. The streets of the city are ruinous tatters of their one-time grandeur. It is two thousand years later.

Walk with us, our God, into the streets of our cities and the heavy hearts of the world, where the palms of peace lie scattered and forgotten and hope a distant dream. You have chosen us to bear witness to your Son the Beloved, to be his presence now as he emerges from the tomb. For he truly is the Saviour of the world.

Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
2nd April 2017

Illness and death are an inevitable part of human existence. Because there have been such advances in medicine and healthcare, with people in the developed world living longer and healthier lives, we can find ourselves dismissing or putting off considering these issues until we are forced to face them. But in many parts of the world, not least the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Yemen or the famine-stricken countries of East Africa, death is a daily companion.

What Jesus tells us is that death (and all that goes with it) is part of the journey to God. St Basil uses a vivid image drawn from the Olympic Games of his time: “As in the double course (where the competitors must run to the turning point and back to the start again) a halt, a brief respite separates the outward run and the return, so also for a change of life it seems necessary that death intervene between the two lives, to make an end of all that went before and a beginning of all that follows.”

Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the grave, but it was not so that Lazarus could continue his old life. Resurrection is not simply resuscitation. For the Christian, death is not annihilation but a means of transformation, even as it was for Jesus. The “descent into hell” which is consequent to the cross is our sharing in the suffering and alienation of the weak and the weary, the victims of war and famine and exploitation. In solidarity with them, we choose to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, not around it. Resurrection is not wishful thinking or pie in the sky. It is Jesus saying to us, as he did to Lazarus: “Unbind him, let him go free.”

Happy Lent!

John


Mothering Sunday
26th March 2017

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void; there was darkness over the deep; and God’s Spirit hovered over the waters.”

These opening words of the book of Genesis sketch our beginnings in a dark and shapeless chaos. We can often experience our world in similar images, captured in the poet Matthew Arnold’s lines:

“And we are here, as on a darkling plain / Swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight, / While ignorant armies clash by night.”

But Genesis continues: “And God said: ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” The darkness which clouds our minds as well as our eyes is lifted. The unseen chaos which breeds fear is seen for what it is: the unlikely material over which the Spirit broods to bring forth life.

The opening of John’s gospel, which deliberately echoes the opening of Genesis, takes up the story: “In the beginning was the Word…. All that came to be had life in him, and that life was the light of us all…. a light that darkness could not overpower.”

John’s account of the cure of the man born blind in today’s gospel is the story of all of us. That is why he has no name, for he is Everyman. His journey from darkness to light is the journey of every catechumen in Lent, every child who emerges from the womb, everyone who comes to faith in Christ. We are on that pilgrimage our whole life long; if we think we have arrived already, we are still blind. “The one who lives by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God” (John 3:21).

Happy Lent!

John


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
19th March 2017

Among the last words of Jesus as he hung dying on the cross is the cry “I thirst.” He was not simply expressing a desperate human need as he hung dehydrated in the blistering afternoon sun on Good Friday. In that cry he was giving voice to his deep longing for each one of the human race, as he thirsts for our love and our response to his love. However fervently we pray Psalm 62 (“O God, my soul thirsts for you”) we cannot match the infinite depth of his longing for us.

When the woman of Samaria, thinking no-one else would be about in the midday sun, comes to the well to draw water, she is disturbed to find someone is there. Relieved, she sees it is a stranger, not one of the locals who know her shameful secrets. And he’s a Jew who, like all Jews, avoids and hates Samaritans.

Except this one doesn’t. He initiates the conversation with the cry he will make from the cross: “Give me a drink.” Her thirst for love and acceptance and an end to her isolation and pain is not being met; on the contrary, this hated Jew is demanding his thirst is met. What an insult! “You ask me for a drink!” You can almost hear her unspoken retort: get it yourself!

Jesus’ unexpected response disarms her completely. “If you only knew what God is offering you!” She thinks the only thing God offers her is shame, guilt, condemnation, a wagging finger of disapproval. If only she knew!

Her bucket remains empty, and Jesus doesn’t get his drink. But from being an outcast she brings the whole town with her to Jesus. “He told me everything I have ever done” – and did not condemn me.

Happy Lent!

John


SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

12th March 2017

Three thousand years ago, a nomadic family set out from Ur near the head of the Persian Gulf towards Haran, 600 miles to the north-west. The wandering Aramaean Terah brought with him his son Abram and Abram’s wife Sarai. Haran became their new home, but after Terah’s death God called Abram to move on again. “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you. There I will make you a great nation.” So Abram went.

Abram’s journey is symbolic of our own life’s adventure. St Augustine famously wrote in his “Confessions”: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The danger inherent in the Christian life is that we are tempted to settle down when we find a comfortable place, a conducive church, a cosy spirituality. The season of Lent urges us to our feet again and directs us to the nomadic wilderness, where we can discern what is essential for the journey and jettison what is not. The lighter the load, the easier the journey. Like Abram, we are not going to the land of our dreams, but the place the Lord will show us. O that today we would listen to his voice!

That voice calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He leads us today up the mountainside to be alone with him, to catch a glimpse of his glory, to spur us on to the suffering of the cross and the unbelievable hope of resurrection.

Three thousand years after Abram, refugees from Ur (Iraq) and Haran (Syria) are forced from their homes on the dangerous adventure to an uncertain promised land. Where will Jesus lead us in our Lenten journey?

Bon voyage!

John


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
5th March 2017

Temptation is a normal and necessary aspect of life. If we had no temptation, we would have no choice. Our choices in life depend on weighing up the options. Otherwise we would have no options.

Being tempted is being tested. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation”, we do not believe the Father is leading us into sin, but that when we are drawn in that direction by temptation God is testing our Christian reflexes. We do not want the temptation to sin to overwhelm us. We want rather to succumb to the temptation of grace, to have an in-built tendency to choose the good, to have a spiritual sensitivity. In the words of Paul (Romans 12:2): “…to know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do.”

Victory in spiritual warfare, as in a military campaign, depends on an understanding of the tactics of the enemy. C.S. Lewis’s book “The Screwtape Letters” is a classic demonstration. It is an imaginary correspondence between a senior and a junior devil, the apprentice learning from his experienced master about how humans behave and how to take advantage of their weaknesses.

Jesus’ confrontation with the devil in the wilderness teaches us not only about the devil’s tactics but (far more importantly) about what Jesus does when his Father leads him into temptation. The tempter tries to diminish him, to doubt his divinity (“IF you are the Son of God….”). But Jesus steadfastly refuses to even consider his strengths or weaknesses. He looks only at his Father. His answer is not in terms of himself but of God’s word. We would begin Lent well if Scripture comes first to mind when making our choices.

Happy Lent!

John


EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
26th February 2017

On the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, how do the readings prepare us? The key message is a call to trust in God’s providence. It is instructive to compare the opening of today’s gospel with the readings on the day after Ash Wednesday. Jesus highlights the choice we need to make between God and money. We cannot serve both. Which one has the last word in your life in practice? And likewise Moses in the first reading next Thursday says: “God puts before you life and prosperity, or death and disaster. Choose life, then.…” It sounds obvious, but can we discern what is life-giving from what is death-dealing in every situation?

Trusting God is a choice we make. It is not the default position if we don’t make a choice, like the birds of the air or the flowers of the field who have no option. But in the process of choosing we worry. Will it work out? What if things do not go according to plan? Will we be able to keep it up?

Notice how these questions focus on us and our part. Worry takes over when we take our eyes off the Lord and gaze at our problems. Well, no wonder we’re depressed! So Jesus uses images to help us. “Look at the birds in the sky, or the flowers of the field.” Look. Focus on them, not yourself. Spend time contemplating their existence. Nature has a wonderful way of putting things in perspective. Prayer always puts the focus back on God. “Seek first the kingdom…. and then your needs will be met.”

If our Lent is to be fruitful, we have first to pause and ask God trustfully for his agenda, and have the courage to follow it.

May the Lord bless you.

John


SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
19th February 2017

“Love your neighbour as yourself”. The lawyer in Luke’s gospel famously asked: “And who is my neighbour?” to provoke the parable of the Good Samaritan. That gives a memorable answer to the question, but leaves the crucial last two words “as yourself” in the air.

Love your neighbour as you love yourself. But how, and to what extent, do you love yourself? It can sound like narcissism or self-importance. But that depends on the meaning of that crucial word “love”. To help answer that dilemma, consider Jesus’ words in John 15: “Love another as I have loved you.” Now try saying to yourself: “I am to love myself to the extent that Jesus loves me.” How does that feel?

St Paul’s famous description of love in I Corinthians 13 provides a practical answer to the question: “What do you mean by love?” Love is always patient and kind. Am I patient and kind to others? Am I equally patient and kind with myself? Love is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. Do I criticise and condemn others, or am I ready to excuse them? Do I excuse others readily, but am not so forgiving towards myself? Do I trust myself?

When we are at peace with ourselves, we are more effective in making peace with others. And it all begins by realising that first and foremost we are loved for who we are. God loved us into being. Our life experiences, many of which are beyond our control, have given us a more or less awareness of that truth. Our task is to show people how much God loves them. If I don’t believe how much God loves me, how will they know?

May the Lord bless you.

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
12th February 2017

Fanaticism, with its offspring terrorism, appears on the surface to be in turn the child of passionate conviction. But dig beneath the surface: the roots of this tenacious conviction are buried in a violent reaction to insecurity. The resolution of the conflicting ideologies that tear our world apart today lies in facing honestly these insecurities, naming them for what they are, sharing our fears and concerns in a safe environment, and listening constructively and compassionately to each other. 

The difficulty in following this obvious path is compounded because we have had ample opportunity to do so in the past but for too long have chosen to ignore the signs. We have been too preoccupied with fortifying our own castles and nurturing our own insecurities. The niggling molehill has been allowed to become an overwhelming mountain. 

Jesus is right to say that anger and violent language are on a level with murder. In today’s gospel he reminds us that murder, adultery and breaking solemn promises do not happen out of nowhere. They are the ultimate consequence of a series of attitudes, thoughts and actions that have been allowed to develop unchecked and unquestioned. What Jesus does is to send us back to the beginning of the process, to recognise our underlying attitudes and to question the next step we take. Further, he then proposes effective counter measures. “if you recognise an unhealthy relationship with another, sort it out before you go any further. Be reconciled before you make your offering,” he says. 

Reversing our current trend of violence and confrontation, and substituting reconciliation and respect for one’s neighbour is not easy this far down the road. It seems a pathetically ineffective path. But Jesus took it to the cross. Is there any other way? 

May the Lord bless you. 

John


sFIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
5th February 2017

Jesus concludes the eight Beatitudes with a ninth. Unlike the first eight, which begin: “Blessed are those…” it starts: “Blessed are you…” From then on Jesus addresses us directly. He is not making some generalised observations – he is talking to you and me.

“You are the salt of the earth.” I cannot escape the immediacy of his words. I am not simply on the way to becoming the salt of the earth. Jesus is not calling me to salthood. He is telling me that I am salt, now. But am I salt worthy of the name? Do I taste of Good News? Is my Christian living relished by others?

Salt was so precious a commodity in Jesus’ time it was used as currency – we still refer to our wages as “salary” or salt money. Do I know how valuable is my witness to Christ? Do I make myself available to be gospel currency in our global society?

“You are the light of the world.” In John’s gospel Jesus declares: “I am the Light of the world”, a light that darkness cannot overpower. Here in Matthew he identifies us with himself: we too are “light of the world”, his light. My part is to be his light wherever I am. If I hide my light under a bushel, I am concealing Christ. Perhaps I think I have little to offer compared with others. But if I am comparing myself with others I am taking my eyes off Jesus. Only he knows my full worth, my unique contribution to his kingdom. We may be surprised at the motley collection of people who through our good works (unrecognised by us) are moved to give praise to our Father in heaven.

May the Lord bless you.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
29th January 2017

The Beatitudes are not simply a charter for Christian living. They are primarily a self-portrait of Jesus. Just as the prologue of the gospel of John summarises the themes of his gospel, much as an overture signals the themes of a symphony, so the Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel distill the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). In them Jesus reveals eight aspects of his innermost self and invites his followers to reflect on how these characteristics are mirrored in their own lives.

Jesus is poor in spirit – i.e. totally dependent on God. Are we?

Jesus is gentle, sensitive, humble. He is not aggressive and does not impose his agenda.

Jesus knows the experience of grief and loss. He emptied himself.

Jesus has a passion for justice. He is the advocate of the victims of injustice. He is one of them.

Jesus is merciful, forgiving, non-judgemental. He sees the best in everybody, especially when they fail to see it in themselves.

Jesus has an undivided heart. He is not distracted by the many things which can tear us apart, but focusses on the one thing necessary: his Father’s will.

Jesus is a peacemaker. He works to bring people together, to help them understand each other better. Reconciliation is hard work.

Jesus is persecuted in the cause of right, which is a direct consequence of being a peacemaker. The cross is the price he is willing to pay for it.

How do you feel when you read the above? Are you uplifted by Jesus’ attitudes but back away from translating them into your everyday life? Blessed are those who find it impossible but give it a go anyway! Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
22nd January 2017

When Jesus inaugurated his public ministry, he made his home base at a crossroads. Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee was a meeting place of Jew and Gentile, a melting-pot of different races and cultures. Through it ran the trade highway known as the Way of the Sea, from Damascus to the Mediterranean. The gospels often refer to Jesus “on the borders” of places, mixing with the marginalised.

He came to a people “who walked in darkness, in the land and shadow of death”. It is not unlike our world today. What will an apparently maverick president of the USA turn out to be? What of the unknown future of a post-Brexit Britain? Will the seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East ever be fully resolved? The immediate answers of Trump (“get the foreigners out of America”) and Brexit Britain (“give us our country back”) are turning a crossroads society into a series of cul-de-sac nations. The clarion call is not progress but retreat.

In the land and shadow of death “I will fear no evil”, Psalm 23 confidently proclaims. The people who walked in darkness “has seen a great light”, says Isaiah. Jesus walks with us in the shadows of our fear and confusion to be our light and our strength. The light of his word scatters the distorted images of our shadowy vision. His clarion call is: “Repent! Think again. The kingdom of heaven is here, which has no frontiers, no passports, neither rich nor poor, slave nor free; all are welcome. Do you prefer darkness to light? Can you not rise to the challenge of Good News, and be a people of hope, forgiveness, healing and above all, love? If yes, then come, follow me.”

May the Lord bless you.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
15th January 2017

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by reminding them that they are holy. The Corinth of Paul’s day was not celebrated for its holiness; it was a seedy seaport of questionable moral standards. The fledgling Christian community was drawn from them, yet Paul confidently refers to them as “the holy people of Jesus Christ”.

Paul also wants to remind them that they are not isolated from the wider Christian world. They are called “to take their place among all the saints everywhere”. They are but one cell of the body of Christ, one holy people amidst the holy People of God, one church of the Universal Church. And what distinguishes the Christian, wherever he or she may be, is that they “pray to our Lord Jesus Christ”. “He is their Lord no less than ours”. Jesus has no favourites; there is no Christian community greater than another: all are equally Christ’s.

We might well remind ourselves of this as we begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on Wednesday this week. There is a feeling, at least in Britain, that the ecumenical movement has run out of steam. The great impetus towards unity triggered by the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago seems to have withered as the dialogue between the churches did not produce the expected fruit. The temptation to return, disillusioned, to our embattled little denominations or (worse) dismiss the whole ecumenical endeavour as muddying the pure waters of the “real” (i.e. “our”) Church is divisive and frankly heretical.

I believe we have lost heart, not because we were too far apart but because we were getting too close for comfort. We need this week of prayer more than ever. Now is the time to say to the fainthearted: “Courage! Do not be afraid!” (Isaiah 35).

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
8th January 2017

Unlike the shepherds, who were Bethlehem locals and among the lowliest and despised members of Jewish society, the other visitors to the infant Jesus were from a distant unknown land. In contrast to the shepherds, they were clearly men of rank, wise and learned. Matthew’s gospel calls them Magi, astrologers, trained to interpret the signs of the times. As with the shepherds, we are not told how many Magi there were. Tradition has settled on three, corresponding with the number of gifts they brought.

At the time, Judea was a volatile province on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire. The local Jewish King Herod resented being under the thumb of the Romans. When the Magi appeared, looking for the infant king of the Jews, Herod was terrified. He already felt under threat from the Roman occupation; he was despised by his own people as a Roman collaborator. Now there was a potential usurper in his kingdom. A desperate situation demanded drastic measures – a wholesale slaughter of infants. Unlike the shepherds, Herod never heard the angel say: “Do not be afraid!” The Magi came to worship the Prince of Peace, but as far as Herod was concerned, all he heard from them was the threat of war.

When we come to worship the Christ child today, we do so in a world full of fear, insecurity, political instability and terror. The message of peace and reconciliation sounds hollow and helpless, an impossible dream. Can emperor and king, wise man and shepherd, terrorist and peacemaker, sit down together to listen to each other’s fears and hopes? At the crib we face in wonder who we really are, and meet only love. How can we help others to encounter that same Love, however distant it seems to them?

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
8th January 2017

Unlike the shepherds, who were Bethlehem locals and among the lowliest and despised members of Jewish society, the other visitors to the infant Jesus were from a distant unknown land. In contrast to the shepherds, they were clearly men of rank, wise and learned. Matthew’s gospel calls them Magi, astrologers, trained to interpret the signs of the times. As with the shepherds, we are not told how many Magi there were. Tradition has settled on three, corresponding with the number of gifts they brought.

At the time, Judea was a volatile province on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire. The local Jewish King Herod resented being under the thumb of the Romans. When the Magi appeared, looking for the infant king of the Jews, Herod was terrified. He already felt under threat from the Roman occupation; he was despised by his own people as a Roman collaborator. Now there was a potential usurper in his kingdom. A desperate situation demanded drastic measures – a wholesale slaughter of infants. Unlike the shepherds, Herod never heard the angel say: “Do not be afraid!” The Magi came to worship the Prince of Peace, but as far as Herod was concerned, all he heard from them was the threat of war.

When we come to worship the Christ child today, we do so in a world full of fear, insecurity, political instability and terror. The message of peace and reconciliation sounds hollow and helpless, an impossible dream. Can emperor and king, wise man and shepherd, terrorist and peacemaker, sit down together to listen to each other’s fears and hopes? At the crib we face in wonder who we really are, and meet only love. How can we help others to encounter that same Love, however distant it seems to them?

May the Lord bless you.

John


SOLEMNITY OF MARY, MOTHER OF GOD
1st January 2017

Eight days after his birth, a Jewish boy would be circumcised and given his name. The name is not just a descriptive label; it is the unique identity of a human individual. When you hear your name being called, you instinctively respond. As with many other races and religions, Jewish names have a meaning. And so the Son of Mary is named “Yahweh saves”. It is the same name borne by the warrior leader who led the Chosen People into the promised land of Canaan: Joshua. But our Joshua, or Jesus, is the one who saves us from our sins and leads us and all humankind into the Promised Land of heaven. Jesus tells us who he is and what he has come to do when he comes into this world. And his mission continues to the end of time. 

The beginning of a new calendar year signifies new beginnings in our lives – hence the custom of new year’s resolutions. Unlike the Son of Mary, we are not always faithful to our calling, we do not always live up to our name of Christian. We need to start over again and again. 

“Jesus, mercy! Mary, help!” To these holy names we can add the names of other holy men and women, perhaps those saints whose names we ourselves bear. For example, I take my own name, John (Johanan), which means “God’s gracious gift”. Am I always gifting God to those around me? Am I a gracious giver? 

The proof that we are sons and daughters of God, Paul says in Galatians, is that we have the Spirit of God in our hearts. This Spirit cries out continually “Abba! Father!” Allow the Spirit to keep crying out in your heart, until your “Yes!” to God is as complete as Mary’s. 

May the Lord bless you in 2017. 

John
 


CHRISTMAS DAY
25th December 2016

“Do not be afraid.” According to Luke, these are the first words spoken after the birth of Jesus. The shepherds were terrified at the angel’s appearance. When something unexpected or unusual breaks into our life, our first reaction is often fear. The terror attack on a Christmas market in Berlin this week, for example, was designed to instil and increase fear. But the angel has a radically different purpose to a terrorist, and so we hear: “Do not be afraid!”

This is but one of the 365 times the Bible uses this phrase, so I draw two conclusions: (1) God knows we are constantly beset by fear as a default human reaction to what is beyond our knowledge or control and (2) God assures us that everything is in his hands and we can trust him completely.

“Do not be afraid. Listen!” Fear paralyses us, reduces us and closes our minds. When fear is lifted, then we are open to listen, to hear and understand what God is saying to us in the situation in which we find ourselves. Our busy world seems intent on denying us the space to listen. But what happens if we do listen to the angel?

“Listen, I bring you news of great joy, to be shared by everyone.” Joy? Have we forgotten joy? The poet George Herbert wrote: “Who would have thought my shrivell’d heart could have recovered greenness?” And, like love, joy is infectious. It is instinctively shared. Let its ripples swamp the world. Now. Today. Don’t wait for a tomorrow. “Today a Saviour has been born to us, born of us, born for us.” In a Berlin market, in a refugee camp, in the White House, in the Kremlin. Here. Now. Today. And Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

Peace and joy.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
18th December 2016

The men in the infancy narratives seem to have different reactions when encountering angels. Zechariah must have been deeply moved when he was chosen to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple. In the midst of this privileged duty, the archangel Gabriel suddenly appeared. Things were not going according to plan. And when Gabriel told him the apparently impossible, that he and his barren wife would have a son, he suspected a scam.

Joseph, on discovering his fiancée Mary was expecting, weighed up the situation and decided on an honourable but nonetheless human solution to the dilemma. It was only when he slept on the decision that Gabriel urged him to accept God’s plan instead. Like his namesake of the amazing technicolour dreamcoat, his dreams were the means God chose to speak to him. Sleep is when our defences are down and we are not in control of our lives – an opportunity God will not miss! When Joseph awoke, he changed his mind and courageously chose to accept God’s will, like his beloved Mary. God’s strategy with Joseph worked like a dream: so he used it again and again – the flight into Egypt, the time to return from Egypt, and where to settle on return.

The shepherds were on night shift in the fields when the angel announced to them the good news of Jesus’ birth. As a group they believed, and made the decision to go to the manger. The Magi, like Joseph, were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but find another way, God’s way.

Mary, however, had no problem with angels. Apart from Gabriel’s annunciation to her, she never saw another angel. She didn’t need to. “Let it be done to me according to your word” was enough. Come, Lord Jesus!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
11th December 2016

Sitting on a dish in our downstairs cloakroom is an unassuming square block of soap. I bought it eight years ago in the souk (covered market) in the historic centre of Aleppo in Syria, then famous for its soap manufacturing. At that time Syria was still open to tourists. A man stopped me in the souk and, surprised a Briton was there, asked: “Are you here by chance or by mistake?” In the light of what has happened in Aleppo since, I can see his point.

Advent is about looking forward in hope. As Paul says (Romans 8) we hope because we do not yet see the object of our hope. That hope in Christ’s coming is so real it gives birth to joy, the colour of this third Sunday. When John in prison sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one expected, Jesus’ affirmative response provides concrete examples which lift hope into joy: “the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the poor hear the Good News.” His coming is not wishful thinking or an impossible dream. His presence makes a difference to our world now, in spite of so many signs to the contrary.

Did Jesus come by chance or mistake? God entered our world in a free deliberate act of love; chance is not an act of love. He chose to come. And while a pauper’s birth in an obscure stable in an obscure town in Israel might look like a mistake, today half the world knows where Jesus was born, even if they do not know who he really is.

Are you here by chance or mistake? You are here because God loved you into being, and will never cease to love you. Aleppo, take heart.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
4th December 2016

As the last shrivelled leaves shiver from the trees, leaving gaunt black bones etched against the low sun, autumn turns into the wilderness of winter. Nature seems exposed, bleak, unprotected. There is no hiding place from the ravages of the wind and the storm.

We instinctively want to hide from the exposure, to hibernate into our warm homes or festive shopping malls, to keep busy. Waiting is the last thing we have any time or inclination to do. And yet, if we have the patience and courage to pause and listen, we will hear:

A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord (Isaiah 40).

Why do we need a wilderness before we hear his voice? Because it is in the lean barren places of our lives that we are least able to insulate ourselves from God, where the controls are gently taken from our hands by another hand, where the cacophony ceases and the Spirit whispers in the silence: The Lord is coming! Prepare the way!

In a strange way, the more we drown out that voice with our activities, even ironically our frantic preparations for Christmas festivities, the more barren and shrivelled our hearts. Sometimes our wilderness is provided for us: the loss of a job, the suffering of a loved one, illness, bereavement. It alters our perceptions and attitudes – a process the Bible calls repentance. The challenging words of John the Baptist (not to mention his lifestyle) needed to be shocking to penetrate the self-satisfied minds of his audience.

But the desert is the cradle of new life, new beginnings. Prayer is our nakedness before God, who brings new growth out of our shrivelled hearts. Into our dark world a naked child is born.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
27th November 2016

The time has come. The day is here. Now is the hour. All these phrases are peppered throughout the Scriptures, and they evoke an event, a moment of special significance, what the Greek Bible calls a “kairos” moment.

These are the times when the anticipation of it is still deliciously fresh, the fullness of enjoyment is just beginning to be realised, and the only thing that exists is the present moment.

Our capacity to live in the present is increasingly thwarted by our busy schedules and fraught lifestyles. We find ourselves chasing an ephemeral future or filled with regrets for the past. When we are young there is so much to do and never enough time. When we are old, time races on without us.

Advent is the season to reclaim the present moment, the precious hour of grace. It hasn’t gone. It is there, hidden just below the surface of our lives, awaiting precisely this season to remind us of its face. And as the days darken and the winter chill dampens the human spirit, Advent breaks through into yearning hope. But the real Advent is not hidebound by a date in the calendar: all the Church’s seasons are there in each day. Live as though Christ were being born in you now, as being crucified in you now, as rising in you now. And this “you” is not some individual private experience – you and I are living in and for the crucified in our world today, in and for the vulnerable new-born, being called to rise to the challenge of transforming our world where we are.

Come, let us go up the mountain of the Lord. The time has come. The day is here. Now is the hour.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


CHRIST THE KING
20th November 2016

One of the arguments put forward for Britain leaving the European Union was over “sovereignty”. Does each nation have autonomy in managing its own affairs? Is Britain totally independent? Or are we dependent on other nations to some degree?

The answer to the question devolves on our understanding of the nature of sovereignty. If we regard it as enhancing our freedom and identity, enabling us to grow as a nation, then we will welcome it. But if we see it as dictatorship or even tyranny, whether exercised by a foreign power or our national government, creating fear and distrust, then we will reject it.

As the word implies, a sovereign is one who “rules over” others. When we speak of Jesus Christ as King, what sort of sovereign do we perceive him to be? And can the way he exercises kingship enhance or hinder our understanding of sovereignty today?

In today’s first reading, David is anointed king of Israel. His humbler circumstances as a shepherd in his youth is central to his role as king; he pledges himself to care for the people, foreshadowing Jesus the Good Shepherd. The second reading speaks of the kingdom of the Son of God as all powerful and all-embracing, but Christ brings everything together, not by force of arms, but by making peace through his death on the cross. And the gospel focusses on the cross as the epitome of sovereignty. “He saved others – he cannot save himself.” This image of weakness and helplessness sits uncomfortably with today’s notion of leadership. Are world leaders determined to save others before themselves? Do they have the heart of a shepherd? Are they peacemakers? Ministers are servants, and the prime minister is the servant of the servants. To serve is to reign.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
13th November 2016

One hundred years ago, as the battle of the Somme raged relentlessly across the mud of northern France, many must have thought the end of the world had come. The Irish poet WB Yeats penned a poem entitled “The Second Coming” which describes the feeling of bewildered dissolution and lack of cohesion in society, words which are prophetic for our own times too.

   Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

The same sentiments are evident in the extremism and individualism of today’s world. The Brexit vote in Britain and this week’s election of Donald Trump as president of the USA have been taken by some as portents of the end of the world, reflecting the picture Jesus paints of the end times in today’s gospel. Link that with ISIS and the war in Syria and Iraq, and the dark clouds of Armageddon do indeed loom closer.

“But before all this happens,” says Jesus, you my followers will be subject to persecution and violence. The attack on Christianity across the planet has never before been so widespread, whether open physical violence or more subtle ridicule and belittling of faith. And what does Jesus say about that? “That will be your opportunity to bear witness… Your endurance will win you your lives.”

We Christians need each other more than ever. The attempts to reverse the ecumenical process and withdraw into our own denominational and religious bunkers play right into anarchy’s hand. Keep loving. Keep united. Treasure the vulnerability of forgiveness. Your endurance will win you your lives.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
6th November 2016

If there were a competition to summarise the theology of Christian death in a single sentence, on the short list would surely be this line from the Preface of the Dead: “For your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” November, the month during which we remember those who have gone before us on the path to eternal life, is full of reminders that death and life are intertwined: the leaves fall from the trees, which become gaunt and bare and apparently lifeless, yet the carpet of red green orange purple yellow and wrinkled brown leaves pave the way for new life as yet unborn. Life is not ended, but God has decreed that to attain the life he promises with him for ever, life changes. And death is the Passover from this life to the next.

The paradigm of this transformation is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, surrendered his human life into the hands of his Father. We are not masters of our own destiny. We can and must take responsibility for the unique gift of selfhood we have been given by God. But, following Jesus our pioneer, our ultimate transformation can only happen when we surrender ourselves into the divine embrace.

I remember being terrified as a child by the prospect of eternity, of a life that went on, and on, and on…. Like the Sadducees in today’s gospel, I thought resurrection was simply continuity of this life. As St Ambrose said, deathlessness is not a blessing but weariness.

We have plenty of opportunity in this life to practice that ultimate surrender, in countless acts of love and sacrifice and service of others. And glimpses of resurrection are all along the way.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
30th October 2016

As we draw towards the close of the Year of Mercy, it is comforting to know that although the year may end, God’s mercy is not limited to a year – it is eternal. The first reading today from the Book of Wisdom states that God overlooks our sins so that we may repent. It is his forgiveness which releases us from the grip of sin so that we may change our ways. Too often we think that we have to repent before he forgives us, but it is the other way round. The sign that we are forgiven is our desire to change

This is what happened to Zacchaeus. He was the tax-collector we met last Sunday in the Temple, today hiding in a sycamore tree from the gaze of the hostile crowd but wanting to see Jesus. Wanting to see Jesus is the sign of repentance. Without realising it, he had already been forgiven.

But he couldn’t hide from Jesus, who called on him to witness to his healing before his enemies. When Jesus did the unthinkable and invited himself to a meal in the house of a Roman collaborator, his very public response came from the heart. His extravagance was commensurate with his forgiveness. His many sins must have been forgiven him, or he would not have shown such great love, to adopt the words spoken by Jesus to the woman who wept her tears over his feet.

“This man too is a son of Abraham.” You may regard him as a traitor and a collaborator, but he is one of us. I am here among you as the God who seeks the lost, and I do not give up until I have found you.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
23rd October 2016

Last week we pondered the virtue of perseverance in prayer; this week is about humility in prayer, illustrated by the parable of two contrasting characters praying in the Temple. One of the intercessions used at Evening Prayer paraphrases the first beatitude as “Blessed are those who know their need of God”. This attitude underlies the virtue of humility. The publican/tax collector was well aware of his need of God. In the eyes of the Pharisee he was a despised and unworthy member of society. He had nothing to offer God which could be construed as a worthy offering. And he knew it. He put himself totally at the mercy of God.

The Pharisee could not understand how such a sinner as the publican could dare defile the Temple, let alone pray. By contrast, his own prayer was directed, not to God, but “to himself”, and was full of himself – his achievements and qualifications as an expert pray-er. One wonders how he was going to answer himself! He was a hard act for God to follow.

We can smile at the caricature of the Pharisee, but how God-centred is our own prayer? How can we be “at rights with God” without undue anxiety about our own spiritual temperature? Can we trust God completely when we pray without taking his mercy for granted? Humility is notoriously elusive of definition, but I find some lines of the poet William Wordsworth helpful in describing its effects. He says of a certain old man that “He is by nature led to peace so perfect that the young behold with envy what the old man hardly feels”. Humility is never self-conscious. It is when God is everything to us, and nothing else matters.

God bless you and yours.

John


 

TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
16th October 2016

There is something bizarrely mechanical in the picture of Moses holding up his arms to manipulate God’s power and God dutifully abandoning Moses when his arms drop (Ex 17). But for many people that is their understanding of prayer: go through the right procedures, say the right words and do the right things, and God will hear and answer us. If we don’t get the answer we want or expect, then we’ve done something wrong.

This attitude is the target of many of the Old Testament prophets who try to correct the people. Prayer is not about changing God’s mind or informing him of our needs and desires – it’s about discerning God’s mind and finding out what his will is for us. As God says through Isaiah (55): “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” It’s what Paul in the New Testament described as “putting on the mind of Christ”. And that is not always as obvious or clear-cut as we would like it to be.

But although in the end we can do nothing without God, prayer is not a passive but an active waiting on him. Our part is to persevere in prayer, without knowing when or how God will respond, if at all. TS Eliot in his poem “East Coker” writes: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” And later in the same poem: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE

9th October 2016

Much of the argument for the Brexit vote which has led Britain to seek separation from the European Union centres on protecting its borders. It’s not so much about people leaving the country as monitoring those entering it. Waiting in the wings are the migrants at Calais, seeking their opportunity to cross into Britain. Borders are unstable places where the marginalised live.

Jesus makes a point of visiting such places. On the dangerous West Bank of the Jordan where Galilee and Samaria meet, he is approached by some lepers, driven from society by their feared and incurable condition. They stand “some way off”, longing to draw near to the warmth of human society but cowering at the expectation of rejection. Like Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho, they can’t lose anything by crying out: “Jesus! Take pity on us!” Jesus’ answer to them is surprising: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” It’s like saying to the migrants at Calais: “Go, present yourselves at the British border control point.” You are no longer aliens but citizens (Ephesians 2:19). Passports to the Kingdom will be supplied if you act on my word.

However, one of them is doubly an alien. There’s no point in him showing himself to the Jewish priests because he would be rejected again. The Samaritan recognises that the source of his healing lies not in ritual but in the person of Jesus, who assures him that his faith has saved him. Gratitude is not a formality. At a deeper level we become aware of our indebtedness to another, leading to a recognition of God’s grace or gift. Our response to him is the measure of our thankfulness, which goes far beyond all boundaries.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
2nd October 2016

There is, perhaps, a subtle demand for more power in the apostles’ request of Jesus to increase their faith. Are they after more spiritual muscle in their preaching and healing ministry? Are they impatient for more obvious results? Or are they genuinely seeking total trust and dependence on God, with no thought of their own agenda?

In accompanying Jesus in his journeying and ministering, they must have been impressed by, even envious of, the combination of their Master’s total abandonment to his Father and the amazing signs he wrought. They were beginning to realise that the two were linked, and that without the self-abandonment there could be no miracles. And it tumbled to them that more faith was the key.

Jesus’ answer puts their request in perspective. Faith cannot be quantified. If you want to imagine it, picture a grain of dust or a mustard seed. Littleness and weakness are your strength. Utter trust and dependence on God for everything is what makes it fruitful. But you can’t see how, like the farmer watching his field produce its crop (cf Mark 4:26-29). That’s God’s business. And in today’s gospel Jesus goes on to illustrate the point further by comparing the apostle’s job to that of a slave in a household. Don’t go looking for rewards from God, like a dog expecting treats from its owner. Like Jesus, we offer our lives to God in the service of others out of love. We may from time to time catch glimpses of the divine dimension of what we are about as consolations, but they are pure gift. After her initial call, Mother Teresa spent the rest of her selfless life without any sense of God at all. We are doing no more than our duty.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
25th September 2016

Is it a coincidence that the poor man in Jesus’ parable today has the same name as one of Jesus’ closest friends, the brother of Martha and Mary? Lazarus of Bethany is remembered, not for what he did, but for what Jesus did for him in raising him from the dead. Lazarus, the poor man in the parable, was not able to do anything for himself; he was totally dependent on others. Yet after his death Abraham gives him the care and comfort he was deprived of on earth.

The rich man has no name. On earth he did have a name but it is now forgotten. The words of Ps 48 express it well: “Do not fear when a man grows rich, when the glory of his house increases. He takes nothing with him when he dies; his glory does not follow him below.” The conversation across the gulf between the rich man in Hades and Abraham in heaven is instructive. The rich man represents the viewpoint of many who feel unfairly treated by God, who plead ignorance of the consequences of their actions (or omissions). Surely God is merciful? Surely Lazarus must understand how I am suffering – can’t he help?

The gulf is not simply a physical separation but symbolises the completely different understanding of what the purpose of our lives under God is all about. Today’s world exhibits all the signs of the selfish me-centred culture of the unnamed rich man. Take the situation in Syria, a nation crying out for care while those who have the resources to end their plight are more concerned about hanging on to power and control. At least Lazarus had the sympathy of the dogs that licked him.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
18th September 2016

It is fifty years since the prayers of intercession were restored to the Roman liturgy after centuries of absence. Known colloquially in Britain as ''bidding prayers'' (from the Old English ''biddan''- to ask) they follow Paul's advice to Timothy in todays second reading that ''there should be prayers offered for everyone, petitions, intercessions and thanksgiving, especially for kings and others in authority. To do so is right, and will please God our saviour.''

First, prayer should be offered for everyone; no-one is excluded. Special reference is made to those in authority, because of the greater responsibilities and influence of such people. Individual personal needs are of course included (in the bidding prayers a time of silence is set apart for this); but when the community is praying together, it is an opportunity to widen and deepen the scope of the prayer. Indeed the recommended guidelines suggest beginning with world and national concerns, and then focussing on more local or particular ones.

Paul distinguishes three aspects of this prayer. Petition (from the Latin ''to seek'') is about seeking the mind of God on any concern or desire we bring to him. It implies our desire to seek God's will in the matter, not our own. Intercession goes deeper, and is well suited to a fervent community prayer which might include fasting and works of mercy. It means literally committing ourselves to working with God to bring about his will, to stand in the breach between the situation we fervently pray for and God. And thanksgiving goes one stage further. Not only are we interceding but now we are thanking God that he has heard and answered our prayer, even if we cannot see the result. It is an act of faith. 

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
11th September 2016

The three parables of mercy in Luke 15 are about God. Jesus uses three different images to express how his Father rejoices in finding what was lost. Sin is the condition of being lost; grace is being found by God. Being lost is about disconnectedness from where we belong; we have no anchor; we are alienated from ourselves, from others and from God. Being found restores our sense of belonging, of security and of purpose. The first story of the lost sheep is God never giving up on us. The story of the lost coin is God telling us how precious we are to him. And the two lost sons, each lost in different ways, is God sharing our alienation and travelling with us on our way back home, whether from a distant land or out of our own internal isolation, even as the Father bore the cross of his Son. Reconciliation is the feast that celebrates simultaneously finding and being found. We need to experience both Gods rejoicing and ours together fully to realise the grace of reconciliation. 

In a world (inhabited by Christians) we have lost a sense of sin in the popular understanding of that word, as describing transgression of Gods law and commandments. While many in the Church bemoan this state of affairs, are we not missing the very real sense of lostness, bewilderment and alienation that stalks the scattered sheep of Christs flock as much as the rest of the world? Have we not here a point of evangelical contact, a walking home with others as Jesus joins us on the road back to the Fathers feast? No, we have not lost a sense of sin but a taste for mercy. Can we rejoice in finding it? 

God bless you and yours. 

John


TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
4th September 2016

Today’s gospel might be summarised in the closing words of the Rule of St Benedict: “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ”. The language Jesus uses sounds extreme in urging us to “hate” our neighbours, family and even ourselves, but it was a vivid way of making a point in the forceful language of Jewish culture. His teaching is in the great tradition of the prophets who railed against Israel’s stubborn tendency to entertain other gods alongside the God of the Hebrews. How can I hate my neighbour, hate myself, when the Great Commandment tells me to “love your neighbour as yourself”? Because we can only love our neighbour and ourselves if first we love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

St Paul exemplifies the same approach in his words to the Philippians (3:8): “For Christ I have accepted the loss of everything, and I look upon everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ…” Paul does not say simply “everything is rubbish” but “everything is worthless, pointless and colourless without the presence and action of Christ Jesus my Lord.”

By contrast, the tone of today’s second reading is warm and intimate. Paul’s personal note to Philemon is affectionate. The subject is Philemon’s slave called “Useful”, kindly sent by his owner to help Paul during the latter’s imprisonment. Paul not only found him “useful” but ended up baptising him, “no longer a slave but a dear brother”. Hinting that Philemon grant his slave his freedom, Paul demolishes any remaining discrimination by writing: “Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Both challenging and disarmingly gentle, the gospel breaks through into the heart of our lives. Surrender to Christ is the ultimate peace.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
28th August 2016

Is it insecurity, thoughtlessness or plain selfishness, that lies behind the tendency today for people to think first of what they can get instead of what they can give? For example, calling a company for help with their product begins with their question “How can I help?” and often proceeds by making things as difficult and obstructive as possible for the enquirer. Perhaps their question means “How can help myself and keep the customer at bay?”

The setting of today’s gospel is a Sabbath meal. It’s not about eating; it’s about people-watching. First, Jesus is invited so that his behaviour can be observed. But he in turn notices their behaviour. He sees that the gathering is an opportunity for them to assert their status. While they are thinking, “How can I manipulate this occasion to my own advantage?” Jesus tells them how to avoid embarrassment – by pretending to be humble! In other words, he shows them that conscious self-depreciation is pride in disguise, an ego trip. But for the Pharisees to see it, they need what they lack - a sense of humour.

The way to unmask and deflate pride, Jesus goes on, is in service of others. If you confine the world to yourself, it remains a very small place. But reach out to the disadvantaged, the poor, the sick, the hungry, and enter their world by inviting them into yours – giving and generosity enlarges our hearts and our outlook. We do not expect them to repay us for our kindness – we give without thought of it – but if they do invite us, then we should respond to the privilege.

It is peace with God, consideration of others and generosity of spirit which will transform the world.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
21st August 2016

“Do I know you?” The bishop, whose Mass I had served most mornings for four years and had sent me to the seminary, looked at me quizzically as I was dutifully introduced to him in a line-up of church students. It was an embarrassing moment for both of us which passed off good-naturedly. But it serves to recall those moments when suddenly we are alone or lost in an unfamiliar or hostile environment. Our security, even our identity, is dependent on being known, recognised, affirmed.

Imagine not being recognised by the God who had made us and fashioned in his image and likeness, and you have some idea of the impact of the chilling words of the master in Jesus’ parable today: “I do not know where you come from.” He is addressing those who trust in themselves, who are comfortably settled in their religious world and worship it as their God. No amount of protest that their self-made image of God is the real thing can alter the truth. The old catechism tells us that God made us to know him, love him and serve him. What it omits is that he also made us to know us, love us and serve us. If we never allow him to know and love us first, our religious practice can easily become our achievement, not our response to his loving and challenging call. We have to shed a lot of baggage before we can enter the narrow gate.

The way is open for the most unlikely people from the least expected places to enter the kingdom. The question Jesus puts to us is not “Do I know you?” but “Do you love me?” Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
14th August 2016

As I ponder the fact that there are more years of life behind than ahead of me, I find myself wondering, not so much about the inevitability of death but about the nature of eternal life. As a child, eternity seemed terrifying: it just went on, and on, and on… for ever! Surely it must end somewhere! We are so conditioned to living in time that we cannot think outside the box, so to speak.

When we declare that we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, we proclaim our faith in the God who brings this about. Once I have yielded my life into the hands of the God who brought me into being, resurrection and everlasting life are his business: I am powerless to bring them to pass. And in Jesus he has promised us that that is what he will do.

Today’s feast celebrates that one human being, extraordinarily graced yet mortally human like us, has been raised as we hope to be raised, has entered into the life of the world to come for each one of us. Mary shows us the way, or rather God shows us the way through Mary’s supreme example. God wants us to be with him for ever, for he creates us for himself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. Mary points the way for us through her total faith and trust in God, her “yes” to his design for her, whatever the cost. Her vocation was unique; but so is the calling of each of us. Once we are caught up in the love of God, time ceases to exist. Our restless hearts have come home.

May the Lord bless you.

John


NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
7th August 2016

Last week we asked who or what is the real security of our life, given the deep divisions and polarisation of our world today. Today’s gospel begins by giving us some practical approaches to living in that security: let go of your possessions before they possess you; give freely to those in need; keep safe your treasure. If you really want to identify your treasure, ask yourself: what matters to me more than anything else in the world? The honest answer to that question is where your heart is. It is the opening meditation which begins the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.

Having answered that question and identified your treasure, the remainder of the gospel spells out how best to keep it. Having started with recognising the treasure, the next step is to set the target. Where do you want to end up? If you know that your life, your breath, your very existence is a gift from God and is totally dependent on him, then you are constantly aware of the Master’s imminent return, and your death a homecoming when you surrender everything into his loving hands, when he sits you down and waits on you hand and foot. That is why our living a life of service to others in the meantime is one of the ways we are the image and likeness of God.

God knows our love of him is our choice: he cannot make us love him. That is why Jesus ends this passage by emphasising how much more fruitful is a life built on trust. To paraphrase St John, God trusts us so that we can trust him. “Do not be afraid: it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom.”

May the Lord bless you.

John


EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
31st July 2016

There is much which makes us anxious and fearful in the turmoil of today’s world. Those of us in the West who eyed the violence and terror ripping apart the Middle East, much of Africa and Asia (Sudan and Afghanistan, for example), are now witnessing a taste of the same anarchy and mayhem in our own back yard – France, Germany and the USA. Our natural defensive instincts turn us inwards, make us suspicious of our neighbours, and lead us to seek “security”, blaming anyone and everyone else for not providing it.

But where is our security? Does it lie in building walls between Israel and the West Bank or between the USA and Mexico? Does it lie in stockpiling weapons of mass destruction? Can we purge Britain of “foreigners”, beginning with the first arrivals – the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norman French?

The walls we erect between nations, or neighbours erect between each other’s property, are but symbols of the divisions in the human heart. Each time we ignore, exclude or reject another person, the world becomes a narrower, meaner and insecure place. The rich man in the gospel thought he could use his wealth to give him security, by stockpiling his possessions and living in isolation. As the psalmist says, in God alone is my soul at rest. Who owns us? Who gave us life? Who or what are the abiding realities of our life? What happens when the demand is made for my soul? What am I doing with the one wild, unique and incredible gift which is my life? Am I clinging on to it fearfully, or flinging it out in selfless service of others? One elderly priest in Normandy this week took the latter course. May the Lord bless you.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
24th July 2016

Prayer takes many forms: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, sorrow for sin, intercession and petition, to name the classic ones. Prayer expresses our relationship with God, and God with us. There is no limit to the manifold ways God relates to us.

Praise and adoration is often presented as a “higher” type of prayer than the others, because it focusses purely on God himself, whereas petition, for instance, is more about us and our needs. In today’s readings, however, it seems that God himself encourages us in these “lesser” forms.

In the Genesis reading Abraham intercedes for the people of Sodom. An intercessor becomes the plug to fill the gap between God and the need being brought to him. He is like the good shepherd who makes himself the gate of the sheepfold, protecting the sheep inside from the wolf outside (John 10). Abraham appears to be testing God, to see far divine mercy will go. But of course in the process it is Abraham who gradually discovers that God is far more merciful than he had ever dreamed.

The parable on petitionary prayer in Luke’s gospel carries us back to last Sunday’s theme of hospitality. An unexpected traveller turns up in the middle of the night. Panic – there is nothing in the pantry. Who will help me at this unsocial hour, with no 24-hour stores in town? I won’t be popular, but there’s one friend who might be persuaded….

Jesus assures us that God hears and answers us 24/7, awake or asleep, in season and out of season. Always, without fail. And it will always be an appropriate and generous response. If you get bread when you expected a stone, don’t be too surprised!

May the Lord bless you.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
17th July 2016

Hospitality is an art. It is also hard work. The secret is to welcome guests as if you had all the time in the world for them, and make it appear relaxed and easy. The swan glides serenely over the still waters, while beneath the surface its feet are paddling like mad.

Usually we do at least get some notice of guests arriving, but four thousand years ago Abraham received neither phone call nor email to prepare Sarah and himself for the visit of three men for lunch. No time for a quick dash to the local Tesco’s in the middle of the desert. The fatted calf is slaughtered, bread hurriedly kneaded and baked, milk and cream produced. All this takes time and attention, generously given, the guests waited on by their hosts as if they had nothing else to do. It is an art we have all but lost today in our culture of fast food and hasty snacks on the run.

Two thousand years after Abraham, already busyness and stress have invaded the sacred realm of hospitality. Martha tries hard to glide effortlessly over the still waters, but her furiously paddling feet cannot resist drawing attention to herself. Her sister Mary is listening to Jesus attentively, giving him the space hospitality demands. Martha is chided by Jesus, not for being in the kitchen (essential for hospitality!) but putting her energies into wishing she were somewhere else.

Fast forward the film another two thousand years, and where is hospitality today? Welcoming others appropriately is part of our Christian witness, and we need to be ready for it. If three angels turn up unexpectedly for lunch, or maybe Jesus with a few hungry apostles, how would we react?

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
10th July 2016

We blithely refer to today’s gospel as “the good Samaritan”, but to Jesus’ Jewish audience the conjunction of those two words was a contradiction. The Samaritans were despised as renegade Israelites who had deserted the worship of the true God Yahweh, leaving the Jews, the people of Judah, to continue as the faithful ones. They were not merely “foreigners” but worse – traitors.

In “The Hidden Years”, a novel about Jesus in the twelve years before beginning his public ministry, Peter de Rosa, a Scripture scholar, imagines Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is attacked by robbers. In other words, the parable Jesus tells could well be based on his own personal experience. Who are the people who help us in our hour of need? Often they are the most unlikely, while those we might expect to come forward let us down.

The parable is an answer to the lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbour?” When, after telling the story, Jesus throws the question back to the lawyer, “which one proved to be neighbour?” the lawyer can’t bring himself to utter the dreaded word “Samaritan”, but by answering with the generalisation “the one who took pity”, he gives us a good working definition of “neighbour”.

Loving our neighbour is precisely how we love God. The selflessness of the Samaritan is not only in stopping to help but in putting his own life on hold while he bandages the wounds, carries him to a place of safety, and pays for his on-going care without a thought of return. In the words of Jesus elsewhere, he goes the second mile. Don’t hesitate at the cost, but instinctively respond to Jesus: “Go, and do the same yourself.” May the Lord bless you.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
3rd July 2016

Good news is always welcome, a ray of light in our increasingly confused and darkened world. But when it comes, it is not always recognised: people are becoming suspicious of goodness as if it’s “too good to be true”. And yet, once they experience and embrace the good, their thirst is awakened, their minds are enlightened and they are transformed by the Good News who is Jesus Christ.

The first experience of Jesus comes through his disciple, through people like you and me. In the gospel today the seventy-two are sent out to prepare the way for him. They are the first impression of Jesus others will gain. How do they come across? They come in pairs; they are not alone. Their relationship of love (or lack of it) will determine their reception. They know they are vulnerable, lambs among wolves, but nevertheless they persevere. They have no money, no footwear, and only the clothes they are wearing, because they rely on God for everything. They accept whatever they are given without complaint. They offer healing and comfort, and while standing up to hostility do not respond with hostility.

If that is our job description as Christians, how comfortable do we feel with it? Are we (and our church communities) living our faith in this spirit? How readily do we allow the gloom and doom around us, the cocoon of selfishness, the corrupting bruises of violence, to suppress and annul our witness to Christ? Or are we satisfied with our little religious world, congratulating ourselves on avoiding the suffering outside the door (even the demons submit to us)?

Awaken our thirst, Lord, enlighten our minds and hearts, that our transformation in you may transform the lives of others.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
26th June 2016

Before buying a product, especially an important or expensive item, we would be wise to read the small print and check the conditions of sale. Is there a guarantee? What does it cover and how long does it last? Are there good reviews online?

The small print in last Sunday’s gospel stated that if we’re going to buy into following Christ, then there are three conditions. First, we must want it. Secondly, can we afford it, as we must deny ourselves. And thirdly, are we courageous enough, because we must take up our cross as resolutely as Jesus took up his.

It doesn’t take long, however, to forget these conditions, and start making some of our own. Our trilogy of conditions is typified in the three characters who meet Jesus on the road. The first had read the first condition: he wants to go wherever Jesus leads. But when Jesus reminds him that the second condition is having no security but Jesus, he hesitates.

The second man hasn’t even accepted the first condition. He is tied to his family commitments and will only follow Jesus once his father has died – whenever that may be. The third states the first condition, and then qualifies it with his own: “I will follow you, but….” There’s something or someone else first, and this is his real priority. Jesus will have to wait his turn.

Even the disciples who have left everything and followed him have much to learn about the journey. When their enthusiasm and resoluteness meets opposition or hostility, they react negatively. James and John, the “sons of thunder”, play up to their nickname and want to counter violence with violence. That’s not in the job description. Our duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWELFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
19th June 2016

Luke’s gospel often portrays Jesus at prayer. This Sunday’s extract begins with the curious observation that “Jesus was praying alone in the presence of his disciples”. He is together with his disciples yet alone at prayer. What were they doing while he was praying? Jesus himself, however, seems quite comfortable communing with his Father in any situation: he did not always go off somewhere else to pray free of “distractions”. And we too can pray at any time and in any place, in theory; but most of us find St Paul’s injunction to “pray at all times” (I Thessalonians 5) a tall order, if by that he means we are continually and consciously occupied with holy thoughts.

What Jesus’ prayer in this instance seems to be about is his own identity as a human being, his calling to the cross, his destiny as the suffering servant. He voices his awareness of this destiny to his followers even as he is praying about it. The dialogue with his Father and with his disciples is interwoven in a beautiful glimpse of human/divine intimacy. “Who do people say I am? And who do you say I am?”

Peter’s response on our behalf professes his belief in Jesus as the Anointed One of God. God awaits our profession of faith in his Son, however dimly understood, as a precondition of the invitation to the cross. Jesus spells out his own way of the cross as the template of our own. This is the way I am going, he says. If you want to remain in my presence, if you choose freely, as I do, to take up your cross every day, then I cannot deny you the resurrection.

May the Lord bless you.

John


ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
12th June 2016

In proclaiming a Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is not simply highlighting one of God’s great gifts to us. He is putting us in touch with the inner character of God himself – not just the attitude God has towards us but God’s instinctive way of relating, his default behaviour, to use inadequate human metaphor. In human terms, God’s mercy is Jesus. Just to watch Jesus in action is to know the Father’s heart.

Take today’s gospel for example. Simon the Pharisee criticises Jesus for not treating a public sinner in the conventional manner. If Jesus claims to be a prophet, Simon reasons, then he would know what sort of woman is acting inappropriately towards him. And even if he isn’t a prophet, it’s obvious to all his guests that Jesus is also behaving badly.

Something is wrong here. If Jesus is behaving badly, then so is God. If the sinless Son of God welcomes sinners, then so does God. Simon and his guests are led to the unthinkable thought that they have to change radically their understanding of God. And that is a step too far.

But they have missed the point. Because Jesus is a prophet, he does know who this woman is – a sinner who is forgiven and repentant. What they perceived as her inappropriate behaviour to Jesus was her God-inspired response of love. And the greater her love (bizarrely expressed in Simon’s book), the greater the sins forgiven. Her gratitude is literally out of bounds, boundless.

Isn’t that breathtakingly so like God? God’s instinctive way of relating to us must, in his nature, be infinite, boundless. True love writes outside the box. As a five-year-old reminded me many years ago, God is bigger than we think.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
5th June 2016

The death of a child is a great sadness. What would this child have become? For adults, and especially parents, there is a sense of injustice: here am I, still alive, while my child’s life has ended, the hope of a future extinguished.

Elijah experiences this injustice: after all the kindness a widow showed to him, he finds her now alone, grieving for her only son; and he cries out to God for the child’s life, touching the child’s cold flesh with the warmth of his own in a gesture of intercession. And God restores the child to his mother.

Jesus in the gospel has the same compassion for a widow at her only son’s funeral. Touching the bier with the warmth of his hand, he calls the young man back to life, restoring him to his mother.

What are these two stories telling us? Aren’t they cruelly reminding us that when children die tragically, neither Jesus nor Elijah seem to turn up to bring them back to life?

Compassion it is that brings life, entering into the pain and grief of another and bearing the anguish as our own. Jesus and Elijah did not simply murmur sympathetic words and move on; they “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53). Jesus is the only Son of the Father who suffered an untimely and cruel death, who rose again to restore us all to life. And he does that today as he did in the gospel: through the warmth of his touch in the ministry of his Body, the Church. We are all children of the Father, no matter whether our life spans nine months or ninety years. Be there for one another, as he is eternally there for you.

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST

29th May 2016

Today’s gospel extract from Luke (9:11-17), the feeding of the five thousand, describes a day in the ministry of Jesus with his disciples. But it is more than a chronology of events. It is a framework for the celebration of the Eucharist.

The Mass begins with a greeting and welcome, as Jesus welcomed the crowds who were drawn to him. “He talked to them about the kingdom of God” (v 11), just as the liturgy of the word unfolds the scriptures and allows Jesus to speak to us. “He cured those in need of healing”, as we acknowledge our weakness in the penitential rite.

I have been privileged to be at Eucharistic celebrations in Africa where the liturgy of the word might continue for hours. Justin the Martyr, in his description of the Eucharist circa 150 AD, says that the scriptures are read “for as long as time allows”, so it is no surprise that it was late afternoon before the apostles came to Jesus to suggest it was time to stop. The people were getting hungry.

But the liturgy, like Jesus, doesn’t stop for a meal break. Instead, the meal is part of it, at the heart of it. And he expects us to provide it: “Give them something to eat yourselves.” Without our meagre offering there is nothing to eat. The Eucharist is a joint enterprise between human helplessness and divine bounty; and the one doesn’t happen without the other. Such is God’s graciousness.

“They ate as much as they wanted.” How much is that? Our human longings have no limit, so nothing less than God himself in Jesus. And that is who we receive, with enough left over to share with the world.

God bless you and yours.

John


PENTECOST SUNDAY
15th May 2016

On the day of Pentecost, the Jewish feast of Weeks to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest, the Church celebrates the first fruits of the paschal mystery – her birthday. A people born through the passion, death and resurrection of Christ first emerge from the womb of gestation and nurture in him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

That explosive trajectory could have taken us, over the last two thousand years, further and further away from our roots. Indeed, the urge for independence and self-assertion, the natural condition of human development, make that almost inevitable. But the Holy Spirit has a vision and divine agenda of infinite proportions which goes far beyond our wildest dreams of freedom. Pope Francis’ inspired proclamation of this Year of Mercy encapsulates it. Today the Church, despite her cultural diversity and apparent divisions or internal differences, has a greater understanding than ever of those early Pentecostal days as portrayed in the Acts and the letters of Paul.

Recently astronomy has demonstrated that the solar system of planets around our Sun is not unique. Numerous stars in our local constellation the Milky Way have been found to have planetary systems. Along with the excitement and wonder that we are but one modest planet among millions, and there may be others like the Earth, comes the awareness of how small and fragile we are. And yet two thousand years ago, a tiny fraction of time in a universe billions of years old, God chose to come here in Jesus; and from the sending forth of his Spirit we have been empowered to spread his Good News “to the ends of the earth”. Now we know that we may have to take it a lot further than that.

Come, Holy Spirit!

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
8th May 2016

Because we are human beings, living in time and space, it is inevitable and natural that we should express our relationship with the divine in spatial categories, despite their limitations. Thus the Incarnation is described as God coming down to earth; the return of the risen Jesus to the Father as the Ascension; the sending of the Holy Spirit as a descent; and our ultimate destination our home in heaven, which is “above”. This could be seen as dualistic, a “them and us” between heaven and earth as two separate worlds. But that is not so. Rather, they represent one reality within which is a constant dynamic; God cannot but be involved with us as his image and likeness, loved and loving, and we cannot find rest until we rest in God.

The liturgy this week celebrates Jesus' ascending to the Father, while next week celebrating the descent of the Spirit on the infant Church. Has Jesus deserted us? Isn't the Holy Spirit a poor substitute for the risen Lord? And why the wait in between? Such questions only betray our limited vision, our earth-centred thinking. The apostles ask Jesus if he is now going to overthrow the Romans and restore the Davidic kingdom of Israel, just as he is about to depart. His face must have been a picture. “Haven't you understood a word I've been saying these last three years?”

This feast is not about Jesus separating himself from us, but about our constant tendency to keep him at a safe distance until it suits us. God's presence often feels like an absence; but our very awareness of that absence becomes a Presence. Why else, after Jesus had ascended, did the apostles return to Jerusalem “full of joy” (Luke 24:53)?

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
1st May 2016

My laptop has decided to give up the ghost, and I am in transition between      downloading most of its memory and preparing to upload a new machine (not yet acquired). Sorting out what to keep and what to jettison is like spring-cleaning cyberspace. How much memory do I really need? How much data might I lose in the process?

I take heart from the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “I have said things to you I want you to treasure and remember, but when I’m not around the Father will send you the Holy Spirit to teach you everything, and remind you of all I have spoken to you.” Thank God for the Holy Spirit. Spirit of Jesus, teach and remind me of your priorities and not be afraid to let go of unnecessary things.

As if anticipating my anxiety, Jesus’ next words are: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. My Spirit is a Spirit of peace. My peace is all yours. My peace is a free gift to you. No earthly peace or human comfort is this, the Spirit of my peace.”

Perhaps similar fears about losing precious memory led to the first council of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Jewish converts to Christianity were afraid to jettison traditional Jewish practices like circumcision which were considered an unnecessary burden by other Christians. In the debate the Holy Spirit reminded the Church of its priorities: Jesus came to set us free, not encumber us with more burdens.

In our busy, complicated and restless world we have need of that peace which not only comforts the disturbed but challenges our priorities. What are our priorities? What are the key essentials on our Christian hard-drive?

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
24th April 2016

The reason why many people are unhappy is because they have equated happiness with pleasure; and pursuing pleasure in search of happiness have come to grief. Simply getting one's own way or doing things that we like without considering anyone else in the process may be pleasurable for a time, but happiness is not something we achieve; it is gifted to us when we least expect it. Pleasure is on the surface of life; happiness is far richer and deeper, welling up unbidden from the depth of our being.

Consider Paul and Barnabas in our first reading today. Having miraculously survived being stoned to death in Lystra, they pick themselves up and courageously (or foolishly?) go back into the town. When they preach in Lystra again, the force of their message is expressed in a classic understatement: “We all have to go through many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Indeed.

But the question I want to ask is: were Paul and Barnabas happy? Happiness is a fruit of love. Happy people are at peace with themselves, with others and with God. The apostles' experience may not have been pleasurable or comfortable, but they weren't thinking of themselves but of the Good News of Jesus which they were bursting to share.

In the gospel today, on the eve of his passion and death, as Judas goes off to betray him, Jesus declares, not his betrayal but that “now the Son of Man has been glorified” (John 13:31). In the face of suffering and death, he gives us a new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another” (13:34). Our love for each other must be like his for us as he hung upon the cross. That is true happiness.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
17th April 2016

In last week's gospel, we were asked by Jesus: “Do you love me?” Perhaps with Peter we were able to respond sincerely: “Lord, you know I love you.” But Jesus then entrusted us with the care of others: “Look after my sheep.” They are not our sheep, but his. He is satisfied that our love for him, however imperfect, enables him to trust us to show the same love to his precious flock.

But of course we are members of that flock too. It follows that we must love them as we love ourselves. This week Jesus teaches us more about the relationship between sheep and shepherd. “The sheep that belong to me,” he says, “listen to my voice.” As sheep we are attentive to the Lord, our ears attuned to his voice which through love we readily and instinctively recognise. But in tending his flock, we are to be so in tune with the Good Shepherd that when we speak they hear his voice, not ours.

“I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus knows each one of us. That knowledge is individual, personal and intimate. He loves us. And secure in that love we follow where he leads despite our fears and hesitations. Do others recognise that same love in us, finding in our care and compassion for them the same freedom and security we ourselves enjoy in Jesus?

“They will never be lost or stolen from me.” Two fears that haunt us in our Christian journey are here addressed. Will we lose our direction, our enthusiasm, our faith in the confusion and cares of this life? Or will we find these things apparently taken from us by overwhelming odds? Jesus assures you: “You will never be lost or stolen. You are eternally mine.”

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
10th April 2016

It is one of those days which is forever etched in the memory. The light over the lake is mysteriously clear, the hills outlined in green and brown around the still waters in the early morning. The only sound comes from a boat in the midst of the lake, where a group of bleary-eyed friends on a fishing expedition are counting their night's harvest – nothing.

But they are not unobserved. A lone voice from the shore cuts across the surface of the water: “Have you caught anything, friends?” Nothing. “Throw the nets to starboard.” Everything! Who is it that with one word can turn nothing to everything? “Bring some of the everything.” Ashore, there is bread, fish, a charcoal fire on the beach and a fire in their hearts. He invites them: “Come and eat.” Nothing needs to be said; they know. It is the Lord!

In that eucharistic moment of recognition all is suddenly clear and whole. Fed by the risen Lord, relaxing into the delicious post-prandial rest, Simon Peter is caught off-guard by Jesus' question: “Do you love me?” The unwanted memory of another charcoal fire and the question that went with it invades the peace: “Aren't you one of that man's disciples?” Then, fear answered “No”, but today, love wants to say: “You know I love you.” Resurrection does not cancel the Passion; it embraces and transforms it. The honest answer to Jesus' question might be: “I want to love you but I'm not sure I'm good enough.” But instead Peter is finally able to put his total trust in his beloved Lord instead of himself, and say with all his heart: “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

What is your answer to Jesus?

The Lord is truly risen. Alleluia!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
3rd April 2016

Gandhi famously remarked that he could believe in Jesus Christ but was not impressed with what he saw of Christians. This is not the first time in history that the Body of Christ (or at least a part of it) has seemed at variance with its Head. When we look around the congregation at Sunday Mass, we may be aware of certain people who do not appear to rise to the challenge of the gospel, to say the least – even as they are thinking the same thing about us! The gap between our stumbling efforts at witnessing to Jesus and the Son of God himself feels unbridgeable, but of course it isn't. There's always room for improvement, but God does not allow his Church to fail because of our weakness.

The picture of the life of the early Church painted in the Acts of the Apostles can act as an inspiration for Christian communities today. The first reading describes a body of the faithful whose worship and vibrant community life drew the admiration of others. Even these “others” caught the atmosphere of faith when they brought their sick into the street in the hope that Peter's passing shadow would heal them. People “dared not join them”, yet “the numbers of men and women who came to believe in the Lord increased steadily”. Isn't that how the Church at its best works today? People hesitate to join us because they are daunted by the demands of the gospel. It involves a radical commitment. But they are attracted by the love, joy and healing compassion of the faithful as we endeavour to live our faith.

We are not perfect. But we follow One who is. Our fidelity to following him is what matters.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


EASTER SUNDAY
27th March 2016

The three women stood in the empty tomb, not knowing what to think. The spices they had carefully prepared were redundant. Into their bewilderment, two angels speak. One word cuts through their spinning minds: “Remember! Remember what Jesus told you – that he would rise again.” And then they do remember. They in their turn become angels – messengers of the resurrection.

The two Marys and Joanna went first to share their story with the other women, who believed them, and then with the eleven apostles, who did not. Are women angels less believable? Or is it a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”? Is an angel with halo and wings more credible than a woman from whom Jesus has cast out seven devils? Or to put it more briefly, who are the people who nourish our faith in the risen Lord? Are they “so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good”? Or are they people who have persevered in the way of the cross, and in the power of the Spirit have come through to radiate hope and strength?

We believe the resurrection of Jesus to be an event at the heart of the Christian story. But if it remains in our minds an event that happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, and is not an experience which transforms our lives today, we have not remembered what Jesus told us – that he is risen from the dead. We may be stunned by the news of suicide bombers in Istanbul or Brussels, our minds bewildered by our own trials and the sufferings of the world, but into our spinning minds and hearts as we stand in the tomb come the words not of an angel but of Jesus himself: “Courage! It is I. Do not be afraid. I am with you always.”

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

John


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
20th March 2016

Palm Sunday begins with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem accompanied by his disciples. In the subsequent Passion narrative, there is another journey which Jesus takes, from the upper room to the garden of Gethsemane, to the high priest's house, to Pilate, to Herod's palace, back to Pilate, and finally to the cross and sepulchre. After Gethsemane, his subsequent movements are no longer under his control; they are determined by his captors.

As I ponder the way of the cross in Jerusalem, and trace its route as on a map of my life, I find myself today seeing that way mirrored in the flood of migrants converging from Africa and Asia on Europe. This way is not confined to Jerusalem; indeed, it is those fleeing the Middle East and the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who swell the torrent.

The first stage of Jesus' journey was his decision to move from the Last Supper to the Agony in the Garden. The migrants first step is the painful but necessary decision to leave their homeland and set out into the unknown. Once they are at the mercy of people smugglers and border controls, they have begun the second stage which, like Jesus' arrest in the garden, makes prisoners of them. They are tossed from one camp to another, from one country to another, like Jesus being shuttled between the high priest, Pilate and Herod. There is no need to spell out where the cross comes here, nor count the watery sepulchres in the Mediterranean or the Aegean Sea. Why do so many in Europe cry out: “Crucify them!”? Who are the Simons who help carry their cross? Do I dare to believe in Easter for them?

Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set them free.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
13th March 2016

There can be no doubt about it, the Year of Mercy will not go away. After last week's parable of the forgiving father, the Church follows it up this week with Jesus forgiving a sinner. From God's perspective, there is no limit to his forgiveness. We are the ones who set the limits because we cannot quite believe the wideness of God's mercy. Next week, of course we begin the great and Holy Week when, in the words of John, although Jesus “always loved those who were his in the world, now he showed how great his love really was” (13:2). His parables move us, his attitude to the sinner consoles us, but ultimately it is what Jesus actually does by offering his life for saint and sinner alike which leaves us speechless with gratitude, relief and wonder. The Word speaks everything from the cross.

By the time the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, in her own mind she had already died. No stone had yet been flung at her, but the public humiliation of being discovered with her lover, the shame she had brought on her family and the terror of knowing the inevitable outcome in the Law – any self-respect or hope in her had gone. So had her lover.

And now, here she is before Jesus. “If any of you is without sin, then cast the first stone,” he says. The public humiliation of her accusers cancels out her own. One by one they go, until she is left alone with the only sinless one, who says: “I do not condemn you. You are free. And sin no more.”

Like Lazarus walking out of the tomb, she was dead and has come to life; she was lost and is found. Where does she go now?

Happy Lent!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Mothering Sunday
6th March 2016

In this Year of Mercy there is no better illustration of God's magnanimity and forgiveness than today's marvellous parable of the Prodigal Son. Despite its familiarity it always manages to move us. Yet I have often found myself meditating on Rembrandt's famous painting of the subject, moved with pity for the plight of the younger son, admiring the father's capacity for compassion as the son kneels before him, but uneasy and uncomfortable at the smirk on the face of the elder son standing aloof at the side. I am uneasy because, much to my chagrin, I realise I don't love the elder son as the father does. I am uncomfortable because I have more in common with him than I care to admit.

But recently I found a new meaning in the dialogue at the end of the parable between father and elder son. To begin with, the father treats him exactly as the heavenly Father treats his only-begotten Son: “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” I am reminded that there is never a moment when we are not in the heart and mind of God, and everything God has is ours too. Jesus returns the compliment when he says to his Father: “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine” (John 17). And that in turn leads me to Paul's admirably brief but breath-taking words: “All things are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's.” Because we belong to God, because we are his beloved sons and daughters, therefore we have everything. How can we envy another? How can we not be generous? How can I repay the Lord for all he has given to me (Ps117)?

Happy Lent!

John


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
28th February 2016

Last week we were atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Mountain tops have of old been places of divine encounter, a holy meeting-place. Pilgrims in the footsteps of St Patrick will climb Croagh Patrick in Ireland, traditionally going barefoot up the mountainside. Normally the lowly foot, the part of our anatomy nearest to the earth, is clothed with protection whenever we are out and about. We take footwear for granted. Anciently, to wear shoes was a sign of power; slaves and prisoners were deprived of theirs to make it difficult for them to escape. When we enter a mosque or a Buddhist temple, we remove our shoes as a sign of our submission to God and our dependence on him. We should be in no hurry to run away from his presence.

It was just another day in the wilderness for the nomad shepherd Moses when he noticed the burning bush, and was drawn by curiosity. But God bid him not to come too close, and to take off his shoes, for he was on holy ground. The restless nomad was stopped in his tracks. He had to be still, and covered his face with his veil. He could not see; he could not move.

This combination of being attracted yet keeping distance is a hallmark of the human reaction to a divine encounter. While we are about our daily business God has a habit of arresting our attention in many ways. During this holy season we are invited to be still and listen to his voice in the darkness of our uncertainty and fear. Our faces are veiled in the way the apostles were covered with the Cloud on Mount Tabor. Here is our burning bush. Lord, it is good for us to be here.

Happy Lent!

John


SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
21st February 2016

The great mystics have always understood that any encounter between humankind and God will paradoxically involve darkness as well as light. Our “enlightenment” takes place in a “cloud of unknowing”, and the journey necessarily passes, in the famous phrase of St John of the Cross, through “the dark night of the soul”.

Abraham's encounter with God in today's first reading is in the context of offering sacrifice. Heavy with sleep and unsure whether he is dreaming or seeing a vision, in the middle of the night the patriarch sees a smoking firebrand passing through the offerings he has presented, and is terrified. Yet he hears God saying to him: “You have heeded my voice and obeyed: in return I give you this land for you and your descendants.”

Similarly, the three apostles on the mountain see the transfigured Jesus, but as soon as they behold his glory, a cloud came and overshadowed them. The Cloud represents the presence of God's glory, as it did for the Israelites under Moses at Mount Sinai. Like Abraham, in this cloud they are terrified. But also like the patriarch they hear God's voice. “This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.”

Our Lenten journey leads us to the glory of the Resurrection. Today we glimpse briefly our ultimate purpose. But hardly have we “seen” or realised it, it disappears back into the cloud of unknowing. Our sight may be blind, but our ears have been opened. We have only to be faithful to God's Word, to “listen to him”. Staying faithful keeps that tantalising glimpse of glory alive in us, especially in our darkest moments. We may, like the disciples, find ourselves unable to articulate what has happened to us. But Jesus speaks through us when are least aware of it. It is God's glory, not ours.

Happy Lent!

John


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
14th February 2016

Lent is early this year, and seems to have come upon us with hardly a breather since Christmastide. The debate about a fixed date for Easter has once again been aired, and while no doubt it would help our busy multicultural world, its mischievous unpredictability reminds us of a less rigid past when God was time's master, not its slave. The season of Lent is a special time within our ordinary time, which the Spirit invites us to enter once again during this year of grace 2016.

“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” is the image which expresses this movement into a different sort of time. Entering the desert is a response to God's initiative: we are led there by the Spirit. We can find ourselves either over-planning our Lenten self-denial programme or drifting into the season with no resolution at all. “O that today you would listen to his voice....as on that day in the desert” (Ps 95). Where is the wilderness of your life, that unfamiliar place to which you would rather not go (John 21:18), where the Spirit is nudging or daring you to go? Why are we afraid of the emptiness, the silence, the beautiful retreat where “heart speaks to heart”? Why are we afraid of love?

When we try to live the Spirit-life in the context of our everyday routine we inevitably find conflict. This is not a sign of our failure but of our realisation that “God's ways are not our ways”, the way of the world. The image here is the confrontation between Jesus and Satan, in the very place to which the Spirit calls him. Why do we think we should escape what Jesus had to confront?

Happy Lent!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
7th February 2016

Like Jeremiah in last week's reading, Isaiah at his calling feels unequal to the task; but once again God reassures him: “Your sin is taken away.” Thus encouraged, he responds immediately to God's invitation with the words: “Here I am, send me.” Did he realise the full implications of what he was saying? Probably not. But God did, and honoured his generous response.

Isaiah was worshipping in the Temple when he had his mystical encounter with God. He was not expecting it. Neither do we know the day or the hour God may choose to call us in a new direction. He speaks to our hearts constantly but we are not always listening. Peter was trying to keep awake after a fruitless all-night fishing expedition, and heard a carpenter-preacher tell him to put out into deep water and pay out his nets for a catch. Was he hearing right? After his protest, should he have said he would let out the nets and risk being a laughing stock? Did he realise the full implications of what he was doing? No. But Jesus did, and honoured his faith.

Like Isaiah and Peter, Paul knew how unworthy he was before God. As a former persecutor of the Church he felt he did not deserve to be called an apostle. He was right. But by God's grace that is what he was now. God had transformed his life.

Like Isaiah, Peter and Paul, who are we before God? We have responded to him, we perhaps struggle to be faithful to his call, but do we realise the full implications of his word, or of our seemingly inadequate response to it? By God's grace he is right now transforming our lives.

May the Lord bless you.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
31st January 2016

It has been well said that a prophet is rarely a foreteller of the future, but should always be a forth-teller of the truth. The prophets of the Old Covenant were of this kind; if they spoke of future events, it was because they had a bearing on the decisions and behaviour of God's people in the present. They could only speak God's word if they first had heard it and absorbed it and lived it themselves. And that was not easy.

In today's reading about the call of Jeremiah, God begins by telling him that his prophetic vocation began before he was born. But immediately afterwards he informs his reluctant young novice that he must stand up and be strong in proclaiming God's word, because he will get a hostile reception. Prophecy is not for the faint-hearted. When Jesus preached in Nazareth before an admiring home crowd, the moment he challenged them to reach out to Gentiles and foreigners they quickly turned against him. Elijah and Elisha of old had suffered the same fate.

We Christians are prophets by virtue of our baptism. Not that everything we do or say in trying to live the gospel is inevitably going to upset people – after all, the gospel is good news, and we should be positive and cheerful in our witness. But there will be challenges and rejection to deal with, as the Christian message becomes more marginalised and counter-cultural in today's society. Then we remember God's word to us through Jeremiah: “Do not be dismayed, for I am with you to deliver you”.

It is love that conquers all. As St Paul says: “If I have the gift of prophecy but am without love, I am nothing at all.”

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
24th January 2016

A teacher friend of mine used to visit Russia regularly during the Communist era, as he taught Russian in England. He became aware that although the practice of religion was officially banned in the Soviet Union, many people there were secretly gathering for worship. One man he met showed him in secret a few pages torn from a Bible he kept hidden. “We have no access to Bibles or service books,” he said. “Our children are growing up without knowing the word of God. Please help us!”

At great personal risk, my friend was able to smuggle a couple of Russian Bibles into the USSR on his next visit. His Christian contact was overwhelmed. “A whole Bible!” he exclaimed. “There is so much we have to learn!”

His reaction must have been similar to the people of Israel in today's first reading. They had come back from seventy years in exile and the Temple lay in ruins. They had lost contact with their roots and the word of the Law (Torah) was but a hazy memory. Then in the ruins of the Temple a battered copy of the Torah was unearthed. Ezra the scribe gathered the people and read it to them as they stood and listened. They wept when they heard it – tears of sorrow that they had not been observing the Law of which they had been ignorant, and tears of joy that it had been restored to them.

So often we take God's word for granted; we hear it without listening and understanding it. Do we have that thirst for the word which that Russian man had? Are we touched by the word coming fresh to us each day? This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.

May the Lord bless you.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
17th January 2016

Before we launch into Luke's gospel this year, there's a left-over bit of the Epiphany first, and that's in John's gospel. Epiphany is Christ manifested to the world in three related events: the visit of the Magi (he is revealed to the Gentiles), his baptism by John (revealed as beloved Son of the Father) and the wedding feast of Cana (revealed as the foretaste of the wedding feast of heaven). It is this last epiphany which claims our attention today.

Characteristically, the evangelist John uses deceptively simple images and events to convey deep theological truths. Things are not all they seem on the surface. What starts as a joyful village wedding to which Jesus is invited, John turns into the setting for Jesus' first miracle or (in Joannine language) “sign”. A sign points beyond itself to the reality it signifies; it is not an end in itself. The unnamed bride and groom are in the background of the story. In the Jewish lore of the time, when the wine ran out “joy had reached its eventide”. The fruit of the vine represented the blessing of God, and there was no more! Had God deserted his people? Had he broken his marriage bond with them? Where was the promised Messiah?

The mother of Jesus reads the sign: “They have no wine.” And Jesus takes the water of his baptism, already transformed by his immersion into it, and changes it into a superabundance of wine. Not just any wine, but the best. God gives nothing but the best to his people: he gives himself to them. He gives his Son, the true vine. The bridegroom is here for his bride, the Church, and the fruit of the vine is the blood of his cross poured out for her, superabundantly.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
 10th January 2016

God loved us so much, he could not keep distant from us, and sent his Son who entered our world, assumed our weak sinful nature and became one of us. He completely immersed himself in our human condition. Today's feast, at the end of Christmastide, has Jesus beginning his public ministry by enacting a symbol of that total commitment to us. Not only does he take the risk: he embraces it. It is prophetic of his descent into hell. In the words of the canticle, “I have entered the waters of the deep and the waves overwhelm me.”

But “deep is calling on deep in the roar of waters” (Ps 42). He hears our cry in that place of chaos as the Spirit broods over it and the Father's voice affirms him (and us) in the watery tomb: “This is my beloved Son in whom I delight.”

Our baptism plunges us into Christ. We are called to immersion in him, in his mission, in his death and resurrection. Which includes our being immersed into this world he loved to death. Our baptism embraces the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, of all humankind, as the opening words of Vatican II's “Gaudium et Spes” puts it. Like the angel in the furnace with the three young men (Daniel 3) we are to walk in the heart of the fire of the world alongside our brothers and sisters of the earth.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. But the liturgy gives us a few weeks' respite before beginning Lent on that note, so that we may continue to ponder how wondrous it is to be affirmed as daughters and sons of the Father.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
3rd January 2016

It wasn't the journey she wanted to make, but needs must. Three days before Christmas, not a space to be seen in the city store car park. A harassed mother, trolley piled high with children and shopping, was loading her vehicle and would be going soon, so Christine aligned the car, ready to take her place. It was a longer wait than expected. At last, as she was about to reverse into the space, another car shot round her and slid into it.

Annoyed, she walked over to the usurper to find a young man of 19 or 20 busy on his mobile phone. She tapped the window sharply. He looked up, stared defiantly and bristled “Yeah?” “Couldn't you see I was about to reverse in here?” she countered. “And?” he said. “I've been waiting at least three minutes,” she explained. “And?” he repeated more defiantly. “I'm not moving.” “You're very rude” was Christine's parting comment as she retrieved her car and went in search of another space.

Once inside the store, although upset, she was determined to get on with the necessary. Almost immediately, she was aware of the young man approaching her in the aisle. He blurted out: “On my way here I was cut up twice on the road, and someone went through a red light in front of me. I said to myself, is the whole world rude? Now I realise I've been rude to you. Sorry.”

Christine was stunned and felt tears welling up. They shook hands and wished each other a happy Christmas.

The wise men did not want to make their journey, any more than Mary and Joseph. They encountered hostility and disinterest on the way. But they persevered. Something happened at Bethlehem, turned their world round, and they went back by a different way.

Happy New Year!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
20th December 2015

Before we join Mary and Joseph and the unborn Child on their road to Bethlehem, we have one other journey to make. This is the journey Mary took, bearing the newly-conceived Jesus, to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Full of the secret joy that she had been specially chosen to be the mother of the Saviour, Mary goes to share this news with the one other person who might understand. For both women, trying to absorb the immense and mysterious meaning of their divine experience, their meeting would have released them from the sense of aloneness. However ready they were to accept God's design for them, no-one else but God knew of the secret so soon to be born into the world.

The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus and John the Baptist, is not simply a social call. It is the first gathering of the infant Church. We join Mary and Elizabeth in coming together to celebrate that God dwells among his people. Hidden he may be within the darkness of this world and the barely believable hopes of our hearts, but he is here. A child expected is a cause of wonder and joy, news to be shared and celebrated. Like a flower unfolding to the sun, new life opens us to greater things and expands our horizons, dares us to hope.

As we endure the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, open our eyes, Lord, to the light of your face shining in the beauty of your creation all around us. Open our ears to the sound of your voice in the songs and tears of the world. If we but recognise you, you come to birth in us. To whom else can we reveal this amazing joy?

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
13th December 2015

When King David danced before the ark of the covenant as it was being carried into Jerusalem, Michal the daughter of Saul criticised him for being an exhibitionist. But David countered her disdain by saying that whatever way we can celebrate God's glory should be honoured (see 2 Samuel 6:12-22). One wonders what Michal would have made of the prophet Zephaniah's image, not of our dancing for God but of God dancing over us! “He will exult for joy over you, he will renew you by his love, he will dance with shouts of joy for you” (Zeph 3:18).

Before her call to dance with the Lord in heaven, a friend of mine used to say: “Remember, Jesus loves you and his Father's mad about you!” How many of us really believe that? But isn't that what Christmas is all about? God loved us so much he sent his Son to share our human condition. Jesus did not simply put up with the limitations of human nature: he embraced it, celebrated it, redeemed it. He could not have redeemed us if he had not loved us as we are. True love always accepts the other without reserve or condition.

Once we can accept how loved we are by God, we can understand better Paul's injunction to the Philippians to be always happy. This does not mean that we go around with a perpetual grin on our face. It means that, secure in the love and esteem God has for us, we are at peace. “Then the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). There is no need to be afraid, Paul says. Whether you are refugee or terrorist, fear ceases when you know you are loved.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
6th December 2015

When the first Roman emperor Augustus died in AD 14, he was succeeded by Tiberius, in the fifteenth year of whose reign John the Baptist began his ministry. At that time the emperor of Rome was known across most of Europe, the Middle East and north Africa; in one his obscure provinces on the eastern edge of his empire, John the Baptist was barely known to his own people, let alone to the wider world. The people of Judea would have known who Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas were, but John? Who was he?

Luke puts John centre stage with the celebrities as his backcloth. A voice cries in the wilderness. Who is there to hear him in this isolated place? The poet Thomas Gray wrote: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air”. But the desert emptiness resonates. It is not cluttered with the noise and busy confusion of conflicting voices. Only the little ones, the poor in spirit, the listeners and hungry seekers of God's purpose are to be found there. And they heard the Baptist.

Who are the celebrities, the important and influential people who claim our attention? What are the priorities which dominate and shape our daily lives? Are they the backcloth or centre stage? Is this sacred season not the time to return to the neglected wilderness, to listen anew to the call to repent and rediscover our nakedness before God, begging to be wrapped in the swaddling clothes of prayer and humility and child-like trust, empowering us not just to prepare the way for Jesus but to be Jesus to others? Then all mankind will see the salvation of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
29th November 2015

He is coming! Are you ready? Already, long ages ago, the journey began. The God who created humankind in the beginning always wanted to remain with us, united with us, the crown of his creation. But we wanted our independence, to follow our own ways, create our own gods. We were not content with the stewardship of creation. We lusted for lordship of it.

So God began the long journey to seek us out and draw us back to himself. God did not remain in some distant heaven, waiting for us to come to our senses or nursing grievances against us. Instead, God took up the pilgrim's staff and hid himself unrecognised in his own creation. He appeared to Abraham in the heat of the day and promised him a son. He wrestled with Jacob in the darkness. He was a cloud by day and a flame by night on the Israelites' hard road from disillusionment to enlightenment as the gap between them narrowed. The more God shared his people's plight, the more they began to recognise him. God was no longer alone in his quest for us. We had begun to seek him and move towards him as he revealed more and more of his purpose.

The time came when the full awareness of God's daring dream was laid bare. This God of ours came not in power and majesty, overawing us with his splendour, but into the very heart of our vulnerability and helplessness, the one part of us we had never worshipped. And now that God has entered and assumed our human flesh, he joins us on the journey. Advent is not only the coming of God to us, but simultaneously of our coming home to our true self in God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
22nd November 2015

Today's feast is a relative newcomer to the Church's calendar, introduced by Pope Pius XI ninety years ago. At that time Europe was picking up the pieces after the “war to end all wars” (1914-18) and the “roaring Twenties” heralded a new confidence. But within a few years came the depression of the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and another world war. The insertion of the Solemnity of Jesus Christ the Universal King into the mainstream of the Church's life was perhaps Pope Pius' reminder to the faithful of who really ruled the world, and what sort of leadership should be the model for earthly powers.

The most memorable and succinct summary of Christ's style of governance is found in the Preface of today's Mass: “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace”. The gospel presents this King as a prisoner standing before Pontius Pilate, the governor of a remote Roman province who exhibits neither truth, life, holiness, grace, justice, love nor peace. Our living of Christian values today can sometimes feel as if we too are helpless before a violent, selfish and arrogant world. But Jesus the Servant King models for us the primacy of love and peace over power and pride.

The recent horrific events in Paris are the total antithesis of Christ's kingdom, or indeed of Islam, “the way of peace”, the vast majority of whose followers disclaim the perpetrators. Our natural reaction is revulsion and anger and fear, and a desire for retaliation. But look again at Jesus before Pilate. How do we respond in a holy and life-giving way, truthfully, graciously, justly, lovingly and peacefully to the present crisis?

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
15th November 2015

The late Cardinal Suenens of Belgium was fond of saying that God has a dream for each one of us. Not a plan, he insisted, but a dream. A plan is too rigid. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a goal to achieve. But a dream.... now that's different. It holds a promise, a vision of the future, but it is open-ended. It might change. It might grow. It depends on Providence. It also depends on us. Its characteristic language is: “I wonder if....?”.

There are those, I suspect most of us, who feel safest with a plan. We like to know where we're going. We feel uncomfortable with uncertainty because it involves trust. And in today's world trust at the human level is constantly betrayed. Marriages break down, nations are at war, terror stalks on all sides. Cheating and dishonesty are rife. If we cannot trust each other, if we have ceased to dream together, how can we trust God? What hope does God have of daring to share his dream for us?

In today's gospel Jesus points to the signs of the times, the evidence around us in nature, in the seasons, even in the menace and confusion of human conflict. How do we read these signs? Can we believe that, perceiving the earth (and even heaven) as we know it passing away, his words will not pass away? If Jesus himself, the Son of God, asserts that even he does not know the future, only our heavenly Father knows, is he not setting us an example of total trust?

The choice is ours. But I cannot resist the invitation to look beyond what we see and glimpse a possibility of infinite hope.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
8th November 2015

In today's gospel Jesus is engaged in the gentle art of people-watching outside the Temple treasury. The rich are putting in a great deal; a poor widow puts in a pittance. On the surface, there is no doubt about who makes the greater financial contribution to the upkeep of the Temple. But “man looks at appearances; the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16). The worth of any gift is not primarily in its monetary value but in the spirit in which it is given.

This little scene at the treasury illustrates well the word of Jesus: “When anyone has a great deal given them, a great deal will be expected of them: when anyone has a great deal given them on trust, even more will be expected of them.” It is this element of trust that Jesus notices here.

The first reading about Elijah makes this even clearer. Here is a widow about to eat her last morsel of food when Elijah asks her for something to eat. Hospitality to travellers is a sacred duty – she faces a dilemma: do I refuse the prophet in order to feed myself and my son, or do I give him our last meal and entrust my life to God? There is no hesitation in her choice, and through Elijah God rewards her trust by saving her life from the brink of the grave.

By happy coincidence (or is it God-incidence?) today is observed in many countries as Remembrance Sunday, when we recall that same spirit of self-sacrifice in those who gave their lives in the tragedy of war. In purely human numbers it is a tragic waste; but to give one's life for others is an incalculable legacy of trust.

God bless you and yours.

John


ALL SAINTS
1st November 2015

John's vision in the Book of Revelation, from which today's first reading is taken, does not imply that the saints are an exclusive band of the perfect. Even the reference to the 144,000 is symbolic of total inclusion, echoing the full number of the tribes of Israel or of the apostles multiplied by itself and more (12 x 12 x 1000). But John surpasses that astronomical figure with “a huge number impossible to count”. Saints are not the exception but the norm. Sanctity is our destiny and our raison d'être, because that is what God calls us to.

A saint is a redeemed sinner. Christ died for us, not simply to save us from death and hell, but to give us life with him for ever in heaven. That is our destiny and our hope. “We are already children of God,” John tells in his first letter. But if that seems overwhelmingly wonderful, there is more. “But what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed,” he continues. “When it is revealed, we shall be like God.” Not if, but when. For John, it is not wishful thinking but already a certainty.

“We shall see God as he really is.” The Beatitude in today's gospel says the same: “Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.” In our minds we still tend to restrict sainthood to a chosen few because we struggle with being “pure of heart” - being totally centred on God. But we are in the process of becoming saints; the struggle is a sign that the process is happening. But hang on to John's words: even before we get there, “we are already children of God.” In St Augustine's words: “Sing up – and keep on walking!”

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
25th October 2015

We all have blind-spots. But we do not always recognise or acknowledge them. When some of the Pharisees asked Jesus, “We are not blind, surely?” his reply was: “Blind? If you were, you would not be guilty. But since you say 'We see', your guilt remains” (John 9:41).

The first reading today comes from Jeremiah's Book of Consolation, in which he looks forward to the end of the exile in Babylon and the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem. It is the weak and disadvantaged members of the people that he singles out for mention in this repatriation: the blind and the lame, women and children. A people will return who know that, but for the Lord, their chances of homecoming are beyond their strength. The impossible becomes a real possibility.

Blind Bartimaeus is likewise impotent to effect his own cure. He is stuck in the exile of his darkness. But he is not stuck in self-pity or despair. When he hears the crowd surrounding Jesus passing by, he shouts. Despite the disapproval of the crowd, he shouts even louder. The Messiah is here! Salvation is at hand! My exile in blindness is over! Such is his faith. And despite the crowd's deterrence, Jesus hears him. Of course he does. He is on the wavelength of the poor.

Jesus treats him with exquisite courtesy. He does not assume even the obvious, but asks him: “What do you want me to do for you?” The Lord treats us in the same way. He invites to share our concerns in our own way. Do we recognise our own blind-spots? Are we better at identifying others' faults than we are at acknowledging our own? “Master, let me see again.”

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
18th October 2015

Last week, the rich young man realised that following Jesus meant going in the opposite direction to his expectations, and he couldn't take it. The other disciples, however, had accepted Jesus' invitation, even though they were just as mystified by the renunciation of riches. Peter even asked what reward was there for their renunciation: what was the point of it all? But the enigmatic reply of the Master only talked of some vague future happiness at an unspecified time.

This week's gospel has James and John picking up on this promised heaven. If our discipleship is to be rewarded, not in this world but the next, they reasoned, then we want the best places on the top table. They may have renounced earthly riches, but they still hanker for heavenly honours, and set themselves up in competition with the other apostles.

Whenever we feel deprived or insecure, in subtle ways we try to bolster our egos in compensation. The sons of Zebedee are no different. And Jesus recognises it, not by putting them down but inviting them to a challenge, engaging their competitive streak in a new direction. “Can you drink the cup that I shall drink?” Can you follow me by sharing my suffering, my rejection, my death on a cross? That's what my Father offers me. Are you up for it?

“We can!” Their enthusiasm takes them, in the later words of the risen Lord to Peter, where they would rather not go (John 21:18), but there is no other way. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (John 6:68). To go the way of the servant, to take the last place of all, is the way of Jesus. Are you up for it?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
11th October 2015

The rich young man, full of dreams and ideals, focussed on achievement and laudable spiritual ambitions, thirsting for more, meets Jesus. He believes that Jesus is just the right teacher to match his high expectations. “Good master, what must I do?” His eagerness gets straight to the point. But Jesus (like any good Irishman) answers his question with a question: “Why do you call me good?” What is goodness? And why do you think I have it? His next words gently but firmly put the young enquirer on the right track. “No-one is good but God alone.” In Teresa of Avila's words, God alone is enough. You cannot ask “what must I do?” before you have pondered the question “who is God?” The rich young man, to his credit, perceives that “who is God?” is going to be answered when he asks, “who is Jesus?”

Jesus then goes on to give the answer the young man would expect. “You know the commandments.” And he does know them and observe them. But he is not satisfied. Isn't there something more? Aren't there more riches to acquire? His eyes meet the loving eyes of Jesus who says: “Only one thing is missing. Let go of everything you have. Let me be your only treasure.” In that moment the young man's world is turned on its head. All his security is gone. His whole way of thinking and living until now dissolves. All that's left are those steady loving eyes of Jesus gazing at him.

Can you feel that gaze on you now, as the young man did, as the disciples did? Can you admit, as they did, that what Jesus invites us to is humanly impossible, but still say yes to him?

May the Lord bless you.

John
 


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
4th October 2015

The forthcoming Synod in Rome devoted to marriage and family life is meeting at a time of great upheaval in our world, when many certainties we have taken for granted are being questioned or even rejected. Human society has from time immemorial been founded on the bedrock of marriage and the family for its survival and flourishing. Today that model is proposed as only one of many ways of living, and even the concepts of “marriage” and “family” are being redefined. In this melting-pot, what does Jesus' teaching in today's gospel have to say to us?

In Jesus' time there was a similar shift of understanding. Divorce was already accepted in Jewish society, introduced by Moses “because you were so unteachable,” Jesus says, and points back to God's original purpose at the beginning: man and woman “are no longer two, but one body.” And then significantly he adds: “What God has joined together, man must not divide.” Marriage is not only a free human decision between a couple, but simultaneously an act of God. This is the basis of our understanding of marriage as a sacrament. God is not in the business of dividing and destabilising his creation but of uniting it. He invites us, created in his image and likeness, to cooperate in his creative work.

But creation “groans in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8). We are not perfect yet, we are work in progress. It is not easy. The pressures of today's society are not kind to marriages, and they do fail. But God's forgiveness and healing is always there. If the ideal of love and unity in family life can be positively nurtured, then communities, nations and the whole world might come together again.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
27th September 2015

Throughout the twenty centuries of the Church's existence, the teaching of Jesus has been claimed by this or that school of thought as their own. The truth is that, even now, the gospel message defies a final classification. God in Christ is always bigger than we think. A Church that claims to have all the answers to everything limits eternity to a horizon.

Today's extract from the gospel of Mark illustrates well the way Jesus teaches, as he speaks to our human condition. It begins with a lesson in tolerance and openness. A man “who is not one of us” is observed working miracles in the name of Jesus. The Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi gave powerful witness to Christian values in his life but never became a Christian. Jesus embraces such people: “anyone who is not against us is for us.”

Further, this inclusiveness works the other way too. A simple act of kindness and hospitality shown to a Christian by a Moslem, Buddhist, atheist or whatever is rewarded by Christ. It is unkindness and cruelty which is not, whoever is the perpetrator. The tone of the final paragraph is in marked contrast to the first two.

At first glance, the barbaric punishments and bodily mutilation proposed seem ominously like the worst atrocities of the current war in Syria. Justly those men recently convicted in Britain of molesting babies and children should be excluded from society – such depravity is like a millstone round their necks. But note that the other Torah-like amputations are to be self-inflicted. We are a sick society, a wounded Church, with one eye on life, the other on death; one hand in God's, the other in sin. Better to limp into heaven than walk into hell.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
20th September 2015

James comes straight to the point. The author of the letter in the New Testament which bears his name reminds me of a no-nonsense headmaster taking a school assembly. There is no hiding from his shrewd and penetrating wisdom.

His psychological analysis of the divisions within the Christian community is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. “Where do these wars and battles between you first start? Isn't it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves?” (4:1). World wars start with each one of us. The conflicting desires of one person's heart can lead to arguments with others; factions are formed; political power enhances their growth; and the world is engulfed in war. Whereas peacemakers facilitate the kindness, consideration and compassion which heals first their own hearts and spreads to others (3:17).

Jesus knows how to deal with the incipient divisions in the Christian community. Fearful of Jesus' ominous talk of his impending suffering and death, the disciples pretend to one another they are not afraid by competing for recognition of their importance. Jesus gently challenges them to admit their fears. Putting his arms around a small child, he places the child in front of them. Littleness is greatness. Our vulnerability is our strength. The child within us is not in danger, for we are held in the arms of Jesus.

Trust is the key to reconciliation. Because trust is so often betrayed we are gradually disillusioned and our hearts are hardened. The resolution of conflict is not achieved by threats but by persevering in trust, even at the cost of being ridiculed for it. As the child entrusted himself into Jesus' arms, so Jesus abandoned himself into his Father's arms on the cross.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
13th September 2015

The world is on the move. Our planet hurtles through space on its orbit round the sun; the earth spins on its own axis every day. Animals, birds and sea creatures migrate across the face of the earth in a regular pattern. And at this point in history millions of people are on a global march for freedom, security and even their own survival.

Why do we in Europe feel threatened by the influx of migrants, many of whom are refugees? On the surface it is because they may swamp us, force us to share our homes and jobs with them, and diminish our hard-won comforts and resources. But I believe the deeper reason we find hard to recognise is that we too are migrants, that our hearts are restless, that here we have no lasting city. We too are on a journey, towards God. And in the gospel today Jesus leads his disciples across a new frontier in that progress.

The frontier is Peter's profession of faith: “You are the Messiah.” At this mid-point in Mark's gospel, far from having arrived at journey's end, Peter's declaration opens the gates, not to the heavenly city, but to the cross. And Peter's dismay when he realises that his words do not lead to glory but into the valley of death throws him completely. But once over the shock, he knows that wherever Jesus goes is the only way for him, whatever the cost.

The migrants who finally made it to the borders of Europe thought they'd arrived at the end. But often they met hostility and rejection. For many their faith in God and love for their families kept them going. For us, wherever Jesus goes, we go too, in faith and trust.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
6th September 2015

In all the encounters of Jesus in the gospels, especially in his healing miracles, what comes across to me in his sensitivity to each individual, and today's story of the healing of the deaf mute is a good example. One of the effects of deafness is to feel isolated from society, cocooned in perpetual silence. Unable to hear, one cannot speak properly because speech is learned from mimicking the speech we hear. So this man has to be presented to Jesus by others; their concern for him is a sign of their love and their coming to Jesus a sign of their faith.

The man cannot hear Jesus or speak to him, so Jesus relies on the sense of touch. First, he leads the man away from the crowd, because the noise of their excitement when his ears are opened might overwhelm him. Then Jesus puts his fingers into his ears. I am reminded of Jesus' invitation to Thomas to put his fingers into Jesus' wounds after the resurrection. Jesus does not touch the surface of our lives but enters into them, as he wants us to enter more deeply into him.

Then, as with the healing of the blind man in John 9, Jesus uses his own spittle in the healing process. To us today it sounds unhygienic, but anciently (and still in parts of Africa today) spittle contains the life-spirit of a person and sharing it was a sacred act. Jesus' spittle represents the Holy Spirit of God touching the tongue of the man, as does the sigh of breath that follows: “Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Lord, open our ears to hear your word more clearly, and loosen our tongues to proclaim your praise in loving service.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
30th August 2015

“All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, so thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love” is the refrain from one of the songs from the musical Godspell. That call to thanksgiving comes from the opening words of today's second reading from the letter of James. St James, writing in the tradition of Jewish Wisdom literature, is adept at the direct pithy saying which leaves his readers with no doubt about his meaning. Today we have three such sayings. The first recognises that everything good and perfect comes from God, and can be consistently trusted. It echoes St Paul's words to the Philippians: “Fill your minds with everything that is true, noble, good pure, lovely, honourable, virtuous and worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8).

Aware that God has planted the seed of his word in our hearts, James then reminds us that, if we listen to the word, we have not accepted it until we have acted on it. Words are not enough. And in case we're in any doubt about our course of action, his third saying spells it out: keep control of your tongue, offer practical support to orphans and widows (plenty of those about today among the migrants entering Europe) and don't let the values and attitudes of the world around you compromise your witness.

Jesus' words in Mark's gospel pick up this theme. How easy to hide behind platitudes, complain about the state of the world and blame everyone else for its shortcomings. Or worse, make our religion an excuse for our inaction and lack of compassion. The test is to look at our attitudes and intentions, not just everyone else's. Malice, deceit, greed, envy, slander and pride can find no room in us if we are filled with all good gifts sent from heaven above.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
23rd August 2015

Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, followed by forty years in the wilderness, had finally brought the Israelites to the Promised Land. Their God had had a trying time, coping with their groaning and grumbling and grousing at the hard time he was giving them. But once they arrived at their destination, God's problems weren't over. The temptation to settle down and adopt the local gods of the country was the easy option. Come on, God, give us a break! they whined. Hence the moment in today's first reading, when their leader Joshua challenges them. Don't sit on the fence. Make up your mind: will you follow Yahweh your God who has led you so far, or will you abandon him for the local gods? “As for me and my clan,” Joshua declares, “we will serve the Lord.”

Choose today whom you will serve. There is plenty of choice. A bewildering variety of gods beckon us, entice us, even threaten us. Money, sex, greed, selfishness, pleasure, power – the choice is ours. But less strident voices – faith, hope, love, peace, forgiveness – call to us. In our busy world that seeks instant satisfaction, how tempting to choose the easy option. But that way will leave us empty, cheated and disappointed in the end. The richer, deeper more challenging way of the gospel is the way, the truth and the life who is Jesus, who has the graciousness not to bully us or demand we follow his way. When many of his followers could not accept his teaching, his response was not to water down or compromise the teaching but to let them go. What is our response to his heart-rending question, “Will you also go away?”

God bless you and yours.

John


THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
16th August 2015

The Magnificat is a lesson in how to praise God through the circumstances of Mary's life, and so teaches us how to praise God in the midst of our own lives. Mary, newly recognised by Elizabeth as pregnant with the divine Word, “magnifies the Lord”. At first, such an expression sounds odd. How can we make the infinite God any bigger? Our experience of God's greatness can make us realise how small our image of God is; we could also say “the Lord magnifies my soul” as we grow in wonder and gratitude at his blessings.

“All ages will call me blessed,” she says – not because she is showing off and drawing attention to herself, but because through her God will be in our midst; not through her human achievements but precisely because of her littleness, her lowliness. Do we not celebrate likewise that our blessedness comes from our poverty? “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says her Son to us, and no doubt his mother came to mind as he uttered it.

But the Magnificat is not just about our personal poverty. There are social and political dimensions here which accord well with the description of the early Church as “those who turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The powerful and rich are confounded; the poor and hungry are raised up and fed. As mother of the Church, Mary is not only concerned for herself but for the whole world, living out for us the gospel of her Son. As mother of mercy, she recalls God's mercy for his people Israel down the ages past, assuring us of his mercy always and of our mission of mercy to others in his name. Praying the Magnificat is not for the faint-hearted!

God bless you and yours.

John


NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
9th August 2015

Although the Eucharist is a foretaste of the banquet of the kingdom of heaven, it is also, while we are still pilgrims on this earth, food for the journey, wayfarers' bread. It is not simply consolation but nourishment. The distinction is well illustrated by today's first reading. In his distress, tiredness and fear, as he flees the wrath of Queen Jezebel, Elijah first treats the bread and water offered him in the desert as consolation; after eating and drinking he drifts back into his stupor of resignation. The angel has to rouse him again to remind him that now he has a purpose, a new commission to a wider world, and if he does not eat he will not have the stamina.

The commission we have been given is no less challenging, as we contemplate with dismay our world lurching from crisis to crisis, having lost its sense of purpose and direction. Can we not learn from Elijah's experience? He persevered with the journey to Horeb despite the darkness and confusion. And once there, he waited on God, listening until he was still enough to hear God's word in the whispering breeze.

How long will we Christians wring our hands in helpless despair at the problems that beset us, instead of entering into prayer and silence long enough to hear God's word, and then acting on it? The Eucharist not only consoles us that Christ is within us: much more, we become Christ himself and think and act as he does. He is the living bread come down from heaven, for the life of the world. He does not come to fulfil our agenda – we are to do his, as he in turn does the will of his Father.

May the Lord bless you.

John


EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
2nd August 2015

When the Israelites under Moses began their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they had to learn a new way of life. They had been used to a settled civilised existence on the fertile populous banks of the river Nile. Now they were on the move in the unfamiliar hostile wilderness, without the usual sources of food, water and shelter.

So when they first encountered the manna, the bread with which God had promised to feed them, their reaction was predictable: “What's that?” They never quite decided what it was, and continued to call it in Hebrew “man-hu” or “what's that?”

When we are taken away from our usual routines and comfort zones, do we relish the adventure or withdraw into suspicion? Are we inquisitive and curious about the unknown, or terrified and defensive? Is our “what's that?” an expression of interest or revulsion?

In our encounter with the divine, both reactions can occur together. The German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto coined the term “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” -- a mystery overwhelmingly terrifying and immensely attractive.

Today's gospel reveals the fascination the people had for Jesus. But were they drawn simply by his ability to provide bread, or had they glimpsed a deeper significance in his actions? Jesus' words challenge them to look beyond the physical security of a regular supply of bread to the spiritual nourishment of the “bread of life”. What's that? Can this “thing delicate, powdery, as fine as hoarfrost on the ground” really feed us? Isn't God's word too frail, transitory and chimereal for the world, which only tramples on the holy as at best irrelevant and at worst as a terrorist threat?

“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus. “Come to me and you will never be hungry.”

May the Lord bless you.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
26th July 2015

It may be the Year of Mark, but for these next five Sundays we turn to the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, to meditate on the riches of the Eucharist. And we begin with the feeding of the multitude.

John's vocabulary is characterised by both simplicity and depth. Not a word is wasted. Take the words of Jesus in today's gospel, for example. First, an obvious-sounding question:

“Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?”

Hospitality is paramount. The cost will have to borne by the meagre apostolic purse. And where's the nearest wholesale bakery? But John is teaching us to listen to the silence beneath these words. Jesus is really saying: my heart goes out to these people who are hungering for God. How can they be satisfied?

“Make the people sit down.”

This is not a fast-food takeaway or a quick handout. This is a feast which will take time to digest. It parallels the wedding feast of Cana, with its seven hundred litres of the very best wine. Don't rush it. Savour it. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

“Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted.”

I haven't checked to see, but I hazard a guess that Pope Francis quotes these words of Jesus in “Laudato sii”, his encyclical on the environment. I recall several years ago, after lunch each day during a worldwide conference of six thousand priests in Rome, the leftovers were collected and given to Mother Teresa's sisters for distribution to the poor in Rome. That should not be exceptional: that should be normal.

With God nothing is wasted, nothing lost. Treasure every moment, every person, every frail and beautiful fragment of creation.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
19th July 2015

Teaching our children to cross the road safely begins with three vital steps. Stop. Look. Listen. These same three steps can start all of us, at whatever age, on the road to holiness.

In these days of instant communication, with heads bowed in concentrated reverence over our mobile devices, we have no time to think and absorb what we are receiving, let alone consider carefully how we reply or pass on our response. So much misunderstanding, hasty judgement, bad feeling and even hostility can be the result.

Stop. Look. Listen. First, stop. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 47). The word in Hebrew we translate as “be still” really means “stop fighting”, or “don't resist”. We do not know how to stay still. We feel lost when we are doing nothing, guilty even, afraid. Do not be afraid but look. Look at yourself, your feelings, your life. What do you see as you look around the landscape of your heart? If God were your friend on Facebook, what would he write about you? What picture of you would he treasure?

Then listen. Do not be afraid of the silence. Listen to the music of God's deep love for you, the voice of his Word in Jesus. So much you cannot see on social media will be revealed to you, so much that is drowned out in the constant cacophony of noise will be able to sing to you.

When the apostles returned from their first missionary journey, Jesus insisted that they should come away to some lonely place and rest for a while. The same invitation is issued to us today, and is as urgent as ever. Prepare to stop. Look around and within you. Listen.

May the Lord bless you.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
12th July 2015

“Before the world was made,” Paul assures us in Colossians, “he chose us, chose us in Christ.” What an amazing statement. One can almost imagine God saying to us: “I have chosen you. I call you into existence. Well, I'd better make the world now, so you have somewhere to live.” Because his Son chose to become one of us in Christ, the Father treats us as his own.

But how often do we recognise, let alone celebrate, our special status, our calling in Christ? I wonder if even the apostles were always conscious of it. When Jesus in today's gospel sent them out in pairs to preach and to heal, did they go with confidence and assurance that all would go well? Or were they apprehensive, unsure of their reception, terrified of being ridiculed or rejected? Welcoming travellers was a well-respected custom of the Middle East, but Jesus warned they may enter towns where they weren't welcome.

Nevertheless, they went. They trusted that Jesus would not be sending them unless he believed they could do it. And they did not go alone but in pairs. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God said at the beginning. And Jesus further assures us, “Where two or three meet in my name, I am with you.” He has high expectations of us because he loves us so much; and in loving us has empowered us to speak and act in his name. And our love for one another is the litmus test that we are his disciples.

Do we not want to believe how loved and special we are in the sight of God? Surely we want to. The real problem lies in accepting the consequences and living the challenging life of love.

May the Lord bless you.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
5th July 2015

Of course, everybody in Nazareth knows Jesus. You can't live in a small town like this without everybody knowing your business and willing to offer an opinion about you. Especially if you're a celebrity like the carpenter's son. Joseph, now, what a lovely man, always putting himself out for others, honest as the day is long. But some say he's not really Jesus' father. His mother, now. He's the spitting image of Mary. No mistaking that. The rest of the family, well they're like any other, no better, no worse. So where did he get all this wisdom and knowledge? He hasn't been to rabbi school or university. It's not natural. And all these tales of him healing the sick and even raising the dead! Well, he hasn't done that here. You can't believe everything, can you?

Jesus found himself judged and dismissed by the people who thought they knew him better than he knew himself. They had watched him grow up in their midst, learn the carpenter's trade, and more recently seen less of him as his public ministry took him away from Nazareth. John comments in his gospel (2:25) that Jesus did not trust himself to human judgement; “he never needed evidence about anyone; he could tell what a person had in them”. How readily we can forget the secret beauty of each individual, whose uniqueness is known only to God. How easy to judge and dismiss them from our minds. There are two occasions in the gospel when Jesus is amazed – by the faith of the pagan centurion who trusts that Jesus' word will heal his servant, and at the lack of faith of his own people at Nazareth. Does familiarity breed contempt or deepen our wonder?

God bless you and yours.

John


SAINT PETER AND SAINT PAUL
28th June 2015

Both Peter and Paul spent time in prison. Many of our greatest saints have done so, and today even as I write this, many Christians throughout the world are suffering the same fate. Reading, for example, the letters St Thomas More wrote his daughter from the Tower of London before his execution, or those of the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a Nazi prison before he was hanged in 1945, what comes across is not only their faith and courage but their enormous capacity for kindness, forgiveness and love for their captors and persecutors.

The account of Peter's imprisonment under Herod in today's first reading gives us a glimpse of a moment in the apostle's life when death stared him in the face. As a practising Jew he was unable to celebrate the Passover but was kept in suspense until the week was over. Not until the night before his trial did the angel of the Lord appear in his cell, free him from his chains, and chide him for not getting a move on. (Why is it that God often leaves things to the last minute?)

A similar incident in Paul's ministry occurred when Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi, and their chains were broken as they sang God's praises. Here I find a lesson in the power of prayer. I may not be physically confined behind prison bars, but my fears and failures and human limitations can bind me in their chains just as effectively. Prayer (and especially the prayer of praise) takes the focus off our troubles and confirms our decision to put our trust in God. That is what Peter and Paul did. If it worked for them, why not for us?

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWELFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
21st June 2015

The Sea of Galilee is notorious for its sudden storms. Even seasoned fishermen who know it well cannot always predict them. And the same was true in Jesus' day.

Jesus had spent the day in a boat moored off-shore, teaching the crowds. In the evening, at his suggestion, the disciples took him in the boat “just as he was” to the opposite shore. It's good to know that we can take Jesus just as he is, exactly as he takes us just as we are. And he even falls asleep in our company, quite happy to let us take him to his destination.

Then comes the unexpected storm. We can be going about our Christian living, following the Lord's way, when things go wrong. Is our first instinct to assume it's our fault? Or to blame Jesus who should have known the storm was coming? Is it a test God sends to see how we shape up to it? In this last scenario I can picture Jesus pretending to be asleep but watching us through half-closed eyes to see how we react.

The truth is that Jesus accompanies us but never manipulates us. While the waves are swamping the boat, he sleeps through his soaking. His trust in us is like a child in its mother's arms. In fact, it's exactly like the trust he has in his Father. Once the disciples realise that, the storm subsides as suddenly as it came.

Why are we frightened? What has happened to the faith that was so enthusiastic a few moments ago but now dissolved like salt in the leaping waves? What can restore it? Only a sense of immense wonder that this God of ours embraces the universe while sleeping happily in our waterlogged dinghy.

God bless you and yours.

John


ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
14th June 2015

Gardening is an art. It is not a matter of simply following a list of instructions which lead to a predictable outcome. The gardener is not a dictator but a partner dancing with the garden, respecting it, listening to it, loving it.

Into the garden of our souls comes the Word. We did not go out and choose the seed and decide exactly where to plant it. We are not the initiators of the process. Unknown to us, our longing hearts started stirring within us, a new life germinated. At first nothing seemed to happen. Our life continued on the surface as before, but the tiny mustard seed of faith was growing. Day and night, in secret and in silence, enfolded in darkness, the tiny tentacles and roots were thrusting into the earth.

As we meditate upon the word of God, as the rain of the Spirit irrigates the desert of our unawareness, the words of Scripture become Word, come alive, are formed into the image of the Son, Emmanuel, God-with-us. At an unpredictable moment comes the surprise of the tiny shoot emerging into the light. And as we continue dancing, listening, loving, we can decide to destroy it, crush it, prevent it growing, eradicate it from our minds. Or we can admit it, give it more room to grow, say yes to its influence, allowing the Word to shape us and nourish us, until we come to a point where we do not know if we are the garden or the gardener.

Lord Jesus, thank you for revealing yourself to us in the great and small events of our lives, in our waking and sleeping, our dancing and dreaming, until the harvest is ripe and you gather us to yourself. Amen.

May the Lord bless you.

John


CORPUS CHRISTI
7th June 2015

We are all part of the Body of Christ. As Paul graphically describes in I Corinthians 12, we are different members constituting one body of which Christ is the Head. Each time I receive Holy Communion, I am bonded more closely to Christ. But equally and inescapably, I am also bonded more closely to every other member of the Body. Just because I am a toenail, I cannot ignore the shoulder.

The solid image of the body is complemented by the liquid image of blood. Blood flows through every part of the body and keeps it alive, healing disease and stimulating growth. Its fluidity enables it to reach into every crevice of the body. Each time I receive Holy Communion I am filled more richly with the life of Christ. But also I become a channel of healing and growth for others, and they in turn enrich my life in Christ.

In this year's selection of readings for the feast, the emphasis is on the Eucharist as blood of the Covenant. As a sign of the solemn mutually binding agreement between God and his people after the Exodus, Moses sacrifices bullocks and collects their blood. This blood, the life that has been taken from these beasts, becomes a symbol of the living relationship between God and his people. The blood is cast on the altar (representing the presence of God among his people) and over the people themselves. God and Israel are “blood brothers”.

But in the New Covenant the relationship between God and his people is sealed, not with animal blood but the blood of the Son of God himself, poured out on the cross. “Take it,” Jesus says, “for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant. It is for you.”

May the Lord bless you.

John


TRINITY SUNDAY
31st May 2015

Part of the difficulty we often perceive in the doctrine of the Trinity is that we start with a definition or description of God instead of the experience of God. If however instead of trying to grasp the meaning of a dogma from outside, as it were, we allow God to reveal the mystery of himself in our lives, then believing in him becomes a flowering of never-ending wonder which takes us far beyond our mind or imagination.

After all, it is only through our human experience that we can know of God at all: there is no other means available to us, as the scriptures testify. Time and again, from the earliest pages of Genesis onward, there are stories of people who have seen God, heard his voice, sensed his presence. And those experiences not only touched their individual circumstances but through them spread to others.

Yet the deep paradox at the heart of the experience was and is that this God is beyond our grasp, beyond our senses, defying our definitions and descriptions. The mystics speak as much of the darkness of God as his light, his absence as his presence. How can we hold these two things together?

Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, through your divinity we have direct access to God; through your humanity you are one with us. That amazing unity becomes available to us through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that enables us to call God Abba, Father, just as you do. How dare we speak of these things, if you yourself had not become our Word, speaking of things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor mind conceived? Love alone suffices; in the words of your beloved disciple, God is love.

May the Lord bless you.

John


PENTECOST SUNDAY
24th May 2015

Over the dark wild waters of chaos and confusion the Spirit hovers, like the healing hand of God, soothing, calming, ordering, enlightening. So the world began, according to the opening verses of the Bible, and so it is today. Creation is for ever in travail, as Paul reminds us (Romans 8), formed of the very stuff of chaos, longing for a freedom and beauty which cruelly it seems unable to attain of itself. But the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. The very fragility and confusion of the environment touches the mother heart of God. The Spirit cannot resist embracing and transforming the cosmos.

Into the bewildered floundering human condition steps the Word made flesh, born of the Virgin through the Spirit, to love, heal, guide, forgive, redeem and save. For two thousand years the world has struggled to believe in this staggering benevolence of a crucified God, as if the familiarity of darkness were more comfortable than the overwhelming light of love. Who will dare to believe in him, and dare to proclaim him?

On the day of Pentecost a small group dared to do just that in the heart of Jerusalem. The same Spirit who hovered over the waters inspired them in tongues of fire to set alight to the dry tinder of pessimism and small-mindedness and hopelessness, and the Church was born. In the birthplace of Christianity there are those today who would destroy it. But they are too late. Love cannot die again. Throughout every corner of the earth we are called through the Spirit to be God's compassion for the world. There is no other way.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love!

John


THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
17th May 2015

Lord, it was wonderful having you around with us as we travelled through Galilee and Judea, drank in your teaching, experienced your healing touch, the adulation of the crowds, the threats from the powers-that-be, while we wondered where it would all lead. And then your hints of forthcoming passion and death, ominous tidings of bewildering darkness and surreal resurrection. When you sent us out to preach and heal in your name, we marvelled at what happened but knew that without you none of this were possible.

And then the nightmare came: you were taken from us, condemned and nailed to a cross, hurriedly buried in the earth. But after three days you stood among us, risen and glorified. There were no cheering crowds or angry enemies; we did not go around with you as before, but you simply were around with us in unexpected ways and at unpredictable times. Until the day we foolishly asked you: what was the plan? What happens now?

“Unless I go,” you said, “the Spirit cannot come. And without my Spirit you will be for ever limited to this time and place. Be content to wait and pray. For you will be my witnesses to the end of time and the ends of the earth. This is not the end. This is only the beginning.”

We no longer hear your voice, see your face or touch your wounds. We wait and pray, wondering what will happen now. But despite the desolation and the silence, there grows in us each day a conviction that something incredible and powerful is going to happen which goes right against the grain. And if you think I'm going crazy, let me tell you – even Thomas believes it.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
10th May 2015

Love is God. The moment we leave God out of the equation, we no longer know what love is. And the moment we leave love out of the equation, God becomes smaller and more distant.

But, you say, love is a defining characteristic of human relationships. How can God be defined, confined, by human terminology? Through the Son of God becoming Son of Man. Jesus lives for us in our human flesh this Godly love. And the more we begin to understand what this divine love in Jesus is like, the more we have to admit that human love is only a shadow of the real perfect Love.

Jesus did not say simply: “Love one another.” If he had, human nature would have reduced love to civil politeness or mere tolerance. Instead he set the highest standard when he added: “...as I have loved you.” Jesus loved us by giving us everything – his life, suffering, death, divinity, eternal life. How then do we love one another?

If it all sounds impossible, it is. It only becomes possible if we allow God's Holy Spirit to love in and through us. John's first letter reminds us of the right order of things. “Not that we love God, but that God first loved us.” We cannot love unless we have experienced being loved; and because so many of the human race have never experienced that total unconditional love in the first place, it is no wonder that many consider Jesus' new commandment an old wives' tale.

Our response to this amazing love is not a fleeting emotion but a commitment. We have been chosen, commissioned to bear fruit, fruit that will endure. If we say “I do”, then we are his disciples.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
3rd May 2015

Unlike the Synoptic gospels, John's gospel contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper. Instead, Jesus' eucharistic teaching is elaborated in chapter six (“I am the Bread of Life”) and in chapter fifteen (“I am the True Vine”). It is the latter which is chosen for this Sunday's liturgy.

Jesus describes himself as the vine; we are his branches. It is a classic image for the people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Church is the new Israel. But a vine needs to be carefully husbanded; it cannot manage itself. So Jesus reminds us that we are in the hands of the gardener, God himself. Whatever the Father does to his Son, he does to us his branches. The dead branches that produce no grapes are discarded. But further, even the fruitful branches need to be pruned for better production. We do not find this an easy process, but neither does Jesus who suffers it with us; indeed he leads us in our suffering (Hebrews 12). His teaching, he says, has pruned us and prepared us to produce more fruit.

And when finally the ripe grapes are ready they are stripped from the vine, crushed in the winepress, and the juice is fermented into wine. What has been grown through meticulous cultivation by the Father is apparently destroyed, crushed and mangled on the cross to produce the wine of Christ's blood, poured out for us. And Christ takes the cup of his blood and invites us to become one with him in partaking of his blood, which through us will be poured out for the world until the end of time. Our life is fruitless unless it is a life for others.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
26th April 2015

Helpfulness and generous service of others is not always evident in Britain today. Try phoning any large business' helpline, for example. Provided you can overcome the obstacle course of the automated answering service, you are often then passed from person to person without a resolution, because it's always someone else's department. The philosophy seems to be to make the customer feel at best unwanted or at worst a deadly enemy.

Switch the example to sheep-minding. The reluctant employee hired by the Ovine Production Company (OPCo) couldn't care less what happens to the sheep provided he gets his wages; he will quote health and safety regulations if he's warned that wolves might be around, abandon the flock, and take OPCo to court for putting his life in danger.

What a contrast with the Good Shepherd. He treats his sheep as his own flesh and blood. He knows each one of them by name. He does not hesitate to risk his life for them – indeed he does lay down his life for them. And he doesn't stop there; he even goes to the same lengths with sheep who are not Catholic, nor even Christian. His generous unselfish love for his universal flock is identical with the unique intimacy he has with his Father.

If Jesus was at the other end of the service phone line instead of an automated message, how would the conversation go? I hope my reaction would be positive. But if Jesus were the customer and I the call centre receptionist, how would I deal with him? In exactly the same way that I would deal with a demanding difficult and hostile customer. I think I'll stick with sheep....

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
19th April 2015

The appearance of the risen Lord to the disciples in Luke's gospel carries the element of surprise. As the disciples from Emmaus are recounting their amazing encounter to the others, Jesus is suddenly standing in their midst. The reaction is a bewildering concoction of fear and joy which is almost ludicrous. Jesus' greeting “Peace be with you!” is not followed by the customary liturgical response (“And with your spirit/And also with you!”) but with something like “Aaaargh...!!!” Initial agitation and fear give way to relief and joy as he shows them his wounded hands and feet.

Once the truth begins to sink in, Jesus can begin to open their minds to understand the scriptures, as he did on the road to Emmaus. In other words, what he had said to them before his death and resurrection had remained a mystery, incomplete and incomprehensible. But in the light of Easter it all begins to make sense.

In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), it is only after their baptism that the newly-baptised are given an explanation of the sacraments, because they can only see the meaning of the mysteries by the light of faith. It is only after our conversion experience that we can look back and say, “Now I know what I couldn't see then!”

Don't be surprised or disappointed when you don't understand all that the scriptures say or the Church teaches. As with the Easter disciples, agitation and doubt are part of the process of enlightenment, because what we seek is beyond our human reasoning; only the Spirit can make us an Easter people. As the saying goes, “if you can understand what's going on in all this confusion, you haven't grasped the situation at all!”

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
12th April 2015

There is a delightful legend, immortalised in medieval mystery plays, of Thomas' part in the Assumption of our Lady. As in the upper room on Easter Sunday, all the apostles are gathered – except Thomas. Mary is being taken up to heaven by the angels as the apostles wave farewell. Then up rushes a breathless Thomas, bidding his fulsome goodbye from the earth, as the angels pause before drawing her up out of sight.

Thomas is one of those characters who is never there when you want him, but turns up unexpectedly with a surprise. Perhaps he wasn't with the others on Sunday because he needed time on his own to ponder the momentous events. In that sense he has something in common with the apostle John, and indeed with Mary herself whom John took into his care.

What he wanted to see and touch was not simply the risen Lord, but to experience that the risen Lord was one and the same Jesus who had been crucified. A ghost, a reincarnation, an upgraded model was not acceptable. How blest are we that Thomas' no-nonsense approach led to his amazing declaration of faith in the Jesus he could see and simultaneously in the God he could not see.

But Jesus took him (and us) to yet another level: “You believe, Thomas, because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” We have seen the crucified Jesus in a million suffering souls and failed to recognise, or dare to consider, that there too the risen Lord is revealed. We have not yet the eyes to see. But like the Mother of God, perhaps like Thomas too, we need to pause, ponder and pray on these things.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


EASTER SUNDAY
5th April 2015

After the drama of the Passion, with its tensions, tenderness, loneliness, pain, betrayal, brutality, crucifixion and hurried burial, the resurrection feels so amazingly different that one is tempted to think of it as another world. We've had the human Jesus; now we come to the divine Christ, as it were. But that is a travesty of the far more marvellous truth: Jesus is the Christ. We cannot believe in the suffering servant apart from the risen Lord, and vice versa. Already in the Transfiguration the Risen One is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, just as the crucified one is revealed in the wounds of the glorified Lord.

If we struggle to hold these things together, we are no different from the disciples on that first Easter day. But once we believe that the Son of God, made flesh in Mary's womb, who lived among us in Judea and Galilee, who laughed and cried and loved and suffered unto death on a cross, is now seated at the right hand of the Father in glory – then everything is transformed. The pain and violence, injustice and terror, fear and anger, anxiety, insecurity and rejection which dominate the media's narrative of today's world mirror the Passion narrative. But that is not all. They are part of and incorporated into the saving suffering and death of Jesus, the same yesterday, today and for ever. Nothing and no-one is excluded from his redemptive work. Somewhere in there is the personal Passion of each one of us.

Easter is not only the celebration of Jesus' resurrection but ours too – indeed, of the whole cosmos. Bearing witness to the risen Lord is never more urgent. Are people asking you the reason for the light that shines from your transfigured wounds?

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION
29th March 2015

The word “passion” gives us two other words with contrasting meanings: “passionate” and “passive”. The first describes energy, commitment, enthusiasm. The other implies disinterest, a lack of passion. In reading the Passion narrative of St Mark this year, notice how both meanings are evident. There is the passionate love of the woman who anointed Jesus, the passionate campaign by the Jewish leaders to destroy Jesus, the passionate declaration of Peter and the apostles that they would never deny their Lord, the passionate way the chief priests and elders stirred up the passive crowds to yell: “Crucify him!” But there is the torpor of sleep which overcomes the disciples in Gethsemane, the pretence of disinterest in Peter's statement “I do not know the man!”, the guarded passiveness of Pilate's reluctance to get involved, the crowd who couldn't care less that Barabbas, a murderer, was set free while Jesus was crucified.

Where do I find myself in this narrative now? In the midst of all this is Jesus himself, who in the garden struggles to make his final commitment to his Father's will. And once made, he is seized and led away. It appears that from now to his death on the cross he is passive, a captive deprived of freedom. But he is on the path to setting free the whole world. I feel helpless that a passionate and cruel evil of terror and fanaticism has fettered our world in fear, but even more passionately determined to share the secret of the freedom won by the cross of Christ in the jaws of a savage death.

Because this freedom was won by love, not fear. As you tread again the way of the cross, can you not feel the fear overcome by his perfect passionate love?

Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
22nd March 2015

“We would like to see Jesus,” is the request of the Greek-speaking Jews on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, much as visitors to Rome enquire about attending a papal audience today. There is no record that their wish was granted. Instead, Jesus speaks about suffering and dying, and the only public audience he alludes to is when he is “lifted up from the earth” for all to see – on the cross.

If we go looking for Jesus, ours will be a similar experience. “What did you go out to see?” Jesus asks the crowd who went to John the Baptist in the wilderness. Who or what do we expect Jesus to be? Do we have to make an appointment to see him? Where is he?

To answer those questions, first ask yourself: “Why do I want to see him? What attracts me towards him?” As Paschal famously observed of God, “you would not be seeking him if you had not already found him” - or perhaps if he had not already found you. Jesus is not somewhere else; he is already in your heart, drawing you to himself, drawing you to love others with the magnanimity of his own heart, opened for us on the cross.

Do not go looking in the heavens, as the disciples at the Ascension did. We will join him there when our time comes. Rather look for him now in the dust of the earth, a grain of wheat hidden from sight, shrivelled and lifeless, like the forgotten ones among the poor and afflicted of our world today. In this unpromising environment is the Word made flesh who descended into hell. Losing your life is the only way to find Life himself. Will you let go and let God?

May the Lord bless you.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
15th March 2015

If there is one word which sums up the ministry of Pope Francis, it is mercy. How timely that his ministry has come at this critical point in history, because so much that goes on in our world today is anything but merciful. And yet, only the mercy of God in Jesus can save us. “Blessed are the merciful,” says Mercy himself, “for they shall obtain mercy.” Mercy opens doors, while vengeance locks them shut. Resentment and anger bind us, while mercy sets us free.

The classic prayer for mercy is the Jesus Prayer, a prayer which consists of one brief sentence but which, if constantly repeated mantra-like over a period of time, seeps into the soul, transforming us into the Merciful One we invoke. “Jesus, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Such a prayer can only come from the awareness of our own sinfulness, as expressed in one version of the first Beatitude: “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

The Israelites came to see that the disasters and setbacks they experienced in their history often happened as a result of their unfaithfulness to God. It is not so much that God was wreaking vengeance on their infidelity (although that was how they perceived it) but that any attempt to walk in one's own strength is bound to fail. As in today's first reading, mercy came from an unexpected quarter – a pagan king who set them free. God so loved the world in all its brokenness and wickedness and bewilderment and beauty that he sent his own Son to die for all, however unredeemable they may appear to us. “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy” (Ephesians 2:4).

Happy Lent!

John


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
8th March 2015

Travelling on the London Underground trains as a youngster, I remember the words of warning over the sliding doors in each carriage: “Keep clear of the doors. Do not alight from moving train”. But times have changed. It is no longer politically correct to tell people what to do or not to do. So the mood changed from the imperative to the indicative. “Obstructing the doors causes delay and can be dangerous”. Now you know, you can make up your own mind whether to obey or not. Some, knowing that they could cause delay for others by interfering with the doors, delighted in doing so. Thus “causes delay” was dropped from the formula. Now it vaguely threatens: “can be dangerous”.

The Ten Commandments helped to shape a nation from the nomadic tribes as they journeyed through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land. Although eight of the ten tell us simply what to avoid (“you shall not...”), setting boundaries is a first step in our social education. The flouting of those commandments in our world today has led to disintegration, violence and chaos. We have reverted to being bickering tribes in the wilderness, fighting our own corner and complaining against any Moses who tries to call us to order.

“Get all this out of here and stop turning my Father's house into a market!” Jesus challenged not only the decadent religious practice of his own day but comments robustly on our addiction to selfishness and materialism today. If we cannot even agree on the Ten Commandments as a legal and moral framework, how will we make the quantum leap to living the Beatitudes? Our only hope lies in spring-cleaning our hearts to make room for the Spirit of Jesus. Anything else could be dangerous.

Happy Lent!

John


SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
1st March 2015

Mountains have from time immemorial been regarded as “high places” which are nearer to heaven and so places to encounter God. The mystics have described the spiritual life as climbing a mountain – think, for instance, of “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” by St John of the Cross. In Scripture we have ubiquitous examples: today's first reading recounting the journey of Abraham and Isaac to Mount Moriah, or the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land under Moses includes the encounter with God on Mount Sinai, or Elijah's meeting with God on the same mountain.

The Transfiguration takes place on “a high mountain” where Jesus reveals to three chosen disciples his divine glory. The higher the mountain, the more arduous the climb, the more rarified the atmosphere, the more spectacular the view. Although mountaineers claim they climb these peaks “because they are there”, the experience of the mysterious and sacred is somehow more present. Jesus takes Peter, James and John there as he makes his way to Jerusalem with him, predicting his forthcoming passion and death. But away from the crowds, alone upon the mountain, in a place apart, the real meaning of who Jesus is breaks through into their hearts and minds as they gaze upon his glory.

We need places and spaces, times and seasons when and where we too can allow the Lord to reveal himself to us. Lent is not a time to be superficial or casual about living our faith. It is a season to take a wider view of our world and ourselves, to see things “sub specie aeternitatis”, as the Fathers of the Church would say, from a divine perspective. Can we, like Peter on the mountain, say: “It is good for us to be here”?

Happy Lent!

John 


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
22nd February 2015

The forty days of Lent mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the account of Jesus' temptation is couched in the form of a dialogue with Satan, dramatised in three encounters. But in this year, the gospel of Mark encapsulates the whole event in two sentences. After the bald statement that Jesus “was tempted by Satan”, Mark adds two details: “he was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him”.

Of course, Jesus' temptations were not confined to his forty days in the wilderness, any more than we are only tempted during Lent. But perhaps the virtue we need most during this holy season is courage. We make a conscious decision to follow Christ more closely; and to counter the tendency to discouragement when difficulties come, as indeed they invariably do, we need strength to persevere. But note that our difficulties, our wilderness experiences, follow our decision to allow God's Spirit to drive us there, as Jesus was driven. In other words, the problems and obstacles are not primarily a result of our sinfulness but a necessary by-product of obeying the Spirit. Jesus called it “taking up your cross”.

Once we accept we are in this desert place for a purpose, there is both danger and comfort. We allow the wild beasts within us to show their face, to acknowledge the bits of us we do not like or cannot control, and not run away from them. But in entrusting these fears to God, we find ourselves amazingly surrounded by angels who minister to us, protect us, and remind us how much we are loved and forgiven.

What are your fears? And who are your angels?

May the Lord bless you this Lent.

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
15th February 2015

The encounter between the leper and Jesus is a meeting between two people who shared a common experience – of living on the margins of society. The leper by reason of his illness was excluded from society and had to live “outside the camp”, as Leviticus 13:46 puts it. Jesus by reason of his association with outcasts and sinners was regarded with suspicion by the authorities; he dared to challenge the divisions in society, “breaking down the wall that separated them” as St Paul puts it (Ephesians), and ultimately gave his life to destroy the policy of apartheid and institutional segregation that continues to bedevil this world. Even the Church is not immune to this disease, it seems. Unity and reconciliation do not come naturally to humankind; we need a divine hand and heart to heal our hearts and minds, and set us free.

The season of Lent which begins next Wednesday is about that divine agenda. Sometimes being “on the wrong side of the fence”, being branded a leper, an outcast, a sinner, even a Christian, can feel lonely and humiliating. But in that place we will always find Jesus, who has chosen to touch our ebola-ridden bodies and put himself into our isolation ward. He is with us in the desert “places where nobody lived” (Mark 1:45). Did not Jesus' entire ministry begin with forty days in the wilderness, the origin of our Lenten season? The desert is not the place to feel sorry for one's lot, nor is it an escape from life. It is the place where you find your true self. You may not like what you find; you may feel uncomfortable and afraid. But it is where Jesus is, dismantling the barriers in your soul.

Happy Lent!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
8th February 2015

If the Good News is good, it needs to be effective. A message of hope may sound well from the preacher, but if it is only words it is simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. In Jesus the Word made flesh, there is no such contradiction. His healing actions are a sermon in themselves; his preaching heals the hearts and minds of those who believe.

But the seemingly ceaseless round of preaching, healing and exorcisms as portrayed in today's excerpt from Mark draws on the secret source of prayer. To find that spring within which nourishes the demanding work of the gospel, it is necessary to be still and listen, to give the time and space to allow the encounter at the deepest level between us and God. For Jesus in his unique relationship with the Father, it meant getting up before the first glimmer of dawn and slipping away alone to a desert place. If Jesus the Son of God needed it, how much more do we, his all too human disciples. And stillness is increasingly hard to find in our busy world suspicious of silence. As with Jesus, the devils clamour for attention with loud and raucous voices.

When Peter and the others go in search of the praying Jesus, they say: “Everybody is looking for you.” What is so attractive about Jesus is not just what he does – the sensational exorcisms, the healing of the sick, the feeding of the hungry. It is what empowers and underlies all that he does – the hidden life in the Father. It is in our daily exposure to God in prayer that we find the secret of Jesus' attractiveness and lead others to him.

May the Lord bless you.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
1st February 2015

The dramatic exorcism which Jesus performs in the synagogue is not done to show off his power but to demonstrate that evil does not have the last word in our world. The loud, violent reaction of the possessed man is echoed in the raised voices and aggressive behaviour of those today who are bent on imposing their power on others. And they react most violently when they are challenged, or do not get their own way.

No wonder, when Jesus came to serve not to be served, he met a hostile reception from the powers-that-be. He confronted their self-serving agendas with total commitment to and compassionate love for the poor and powerless. It led inevitably to his violent death on the cross, as evil knows no other response to good but to do more evil.

So the way Jesus exercises his authority in the synagogue is to challenge, to bring evil out into the open. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow it will reveal. And Jesus knows that the man before him is not evil, but under the power of the Evil One. However perverse, wicked and cruel a Hitler, a Stalin, or an Osama bin Laden may be to us, to Jesus no-one is beyond redemption. He looks at each one of us and loves us, as he did the rich young man (Mark 10:21). Such a teaching is not a soft option, nor is it for the faint-hearted. There is no other way but the way of the cross. Love cannot avoid it.

As Christians we do not have all the answers to the world's woes. But if we stand together witnessing to the compassion, forgiveness and healing of Christ, even the so-called Islamic State may pause and tremble. But if not, do it anyway.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
25th January 2015

When there is such a relentless accumulation of bad news as reported by the world's media, there is a longing for some ray of light, some sign of hope that is more than a false dawn. Even when such signs appear, we wonder: will they last? Will the light finally conquer darkness, or is it but a moment's respite before the next crisis?

When Jesus was born, very few people knew of it, and even fewer realised the significance of his coming. At the beginning of his public ministry, his first words as recorded by Mark are: “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand.” Is he the light that will finally banish the darkness? Or is he just one more passing prophet, and then we're back to the usual struggle to survive?

It is Jesus' next words which provide the key: “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Repentance means changing our perception, our way of looking at things. This change of attitude can only happen when we believe the Good News. As John puts it in his gospel, “may you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name” (20:31).

The Church is a community of believers who are the embodiment of this Jesus in our world today. If we as Christians are not inwardly transformed by our faith in the Son of God, we will never be credible witnesses to this amazing hope, nor persevere in living it. If we simply nod miserably at the world's woes and retreat into a holy ghetto, how will others be transformed and embrace “the life we have through his name”? Survival? No! Life to the full (John 10:10)!

May the Lord bless you.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
20th January 2015

“Here I am, Lord!” Where else can I be, Lord, but here? How often I try to be somewhere else, wish it were a different time or different place to respond to your will – when it suits me, when I feel ready. But here and now? There is no other place, no other time. After all, you are always present to me. You revealed your name to Moses as “I AM”, not “I was” or “I will be”. So when I, in a moment of enthusiasm and fervour, echo the psalmist and say: “Here I am!” then I am saying that I am present to you now, not as I was or will be. You are here and now.

Samuel in the first reading amplifies the psalmist by adding: “Here I am, since you called me.” I have not taken the initiative in presenting myself to you. You started it, Lord. You invited me to respond. You put me in a place where I could hear your still small voice (I Kings 19), and at first, like Samuel, I didn't know it was you.

But once I did, and declared: “Here I am!” you looked at me with the eyes of Jesus and asked: “What do you want?” I am faced with my true motivation: am I doing this for myself or for you? And like the disciples in today's gospel, I realise I want to be where Jesus is. It is only in “coming to see” where you are that I realise with surprise you've been there all the time. Jesus' prayer to the Father says it all: all I have is yours, and all you have is mine (John 17:10).

Here you are, Lord.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
11th January 2015

During Advent, we spent a week in western Turkey, where Pope Francis had been the week before us. We visited some of the places around Ephesus associated with our Lady, St John, St Paul and the mission of the early Church. The tour was historical, not religious, but occasionally the guide nodded reluctantly in the direction of Christianity. Life is no less difficult for Turkey's Christian minority now that it was two thousand years ago, when Demetrius and the silversmiths of Ephesus protested about Paul's preaching (Acts 19). The perspective sharpens when one remembers that present-day Syria lies across Turkey's south-eastern border.

At his baptism, Jesus comes out of the obscurity of his hidden life in Nazareth into the limelight of his public ministry. And he begins, not with a fiery speech, a manifesto or even the sermon on the mount. He begins not with words but with a symbolic action. By allowing John to immerse him in the waters of the Jordan, he identifies himself with repentant sinners. The first message of his public ministry is: I am with you where you are. I was born in a stable to be with you in your poverty; I have been baptised like you to be with you in your sinfulness. And as the Father declared to me then, so he says to you now in your desire to be immersed in me: “You are my Beloved, in whom I delight.”

Our baptism has consecrated us for mission in our world, and our hearts are so beset with its present evils that we fear being overwhelmed, or at least discouraged. But knowing we are beloved of God, secure in God's delight in us as we are, do not be afraid. Stand firm in faith and trust.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
4th January 2015

A new year, a new birth, with new hope and new opportunities. It is never too late to start again, to embrace new life, to find the tiny green shoot emerging triumphantly from the frozen earth, to fan into flame the dying embers of faith and love.

The birth of every child is the birth of Christ. The Word became flesh so that all flesh may be saved. “Not one tiny sparrow falls to the ground without my Father knowing it,” says the Word to us (Matthew 10:29). The realisation that every life, however frail, insignificant or brief is unique and precious, is a secret hidden in the human heart by God himself. It takes Jesus to reveal it to us. Even then we can scarce believe it. So rich and enormous is this revelation that we spend our lives absorbing and trying to live it.

The journey of the Magi vividly symbolises this search for the Christ Child. It is a journey that takes us simultaneously into our own depths and beyond ourselves in love and service of others. Like the Magi when they set out, we do not know how far we have to travel or how long it will take. Slowly it dawns on us that it will take a lifetime – indeed, it is what our life is all about. We spend the first half our life accumulating baggage for the journey, and the second half letting it go. “Unless you change and become like children” - simplicity of heart, a sense of wonder, delight in the little things, trustfulness - “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). How easy to say and how hard to do! The secret has been revealed to us.

Happy new year!

John


THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY & JOSEPH
28th December 2014

Is Christmas a season of joyful celebration of the birth of hope, or a brief mid-winter escape from the relentless reality of an unhappy world? Put more directly, who or what are we celebrating at Christmas? The answer to that question will depend on our faith. Increasingly, the more the birth of Jesus is treated as a folk-tale, a feel-good fairy-story to entertain us, the less we will be in touch with the stark stupendous truth of Emmanuel, God with us where we are – confronting and overcoming the darkness, not escaping it. The steady stream of bad news emanating from the media – massacres, murders, mayhem – is relentless, and builds into a river, a lake, an ocean of misery which can drown our lives in cynicism and despair. Our thirst for the sensational coarsens our sensitivity to the beauty and gentleness of good news, warming and healing our weary spirits.

At first glance today's feast can appear at best irrelevant or at worst a cruel joke. Family life can be chaotic, unhappy, sometimes violent. And putting the adjective “holy” to it may seem bizarre. But which one of us does not long to find that sense of belonging, of self-worth, of being loved and accepted for who we are, with the space to grow and be healed and forgiven? That dream can become a reality. In Jesus, Mary and Joseph is the lived example of such a family environment. And more than example: they can make it happen for us. Taste it and see. Can you, like Mary or Joseph, say yes to the invitation to trust God in everything? Can you be loving, forgiving and generous in your relationships? If at the least you keep trying, then yours is a holy family.

A blessed Christmas to you and yours.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
21st December 2014

The familiar (perhaps over-familiar) account of the annunciation to Mary in Luke's gospel is placed between the annunciation to Zechariah in the Temple and Mary's visit to Zechariah and Elizabeth. The careful structure of Luke's infancy narrative can make it seem almost as if Gabriel's appearance to Mary of Nazareth was expected. It is easy for us to look back, as Luke did in his gospel, and discern a pattern of events and, with faith and hindsight, appreciate the significance (or otherwise) of particular happenings.

But the young teenager was not sitting in the house awaiting a pre-arranged appointment with an angel. Nor was she daydreaming about being the mother of the Messiah. She had no pretensions to greatness, came of a humble Jewish family in an obscure village in Galilee, and faithfully followed the traditions of her race. God's momentous intervention in her life came as complete surprise. Yet although couched in the conventional image of an angelic visitation, there were no fireworks, earthquakes or thunderclaps. The medieval carol puts it well: “He came all so still where his mother was, as dew in April that falleth on the grass.”

And we are no different to Mary in respect to the opportunities which God's grace offers us. Any moment and every moment can be an annunciation, a visitation, a “birthing” of Christ in us (to use Eckhart's language). We do not always know it, and it may be very ordinary or total amazement. It can work the other way too: we may be the vehicle God uses to touch others while we remain oblivious of our angelic effect on them. All we have to do is be faithful, gently repeating in confident trust with Mary, “let it be done to me according to your word.”

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
14th December 2014

The Church marks this day as Gaudete (Rejoicing) Sunday, anticipating the taste of joy which Christmas promises, like licking the spoon which has stirred the ingredients of the Christmas pudding. Yet our hearts can be so bogged down in the frantic busyness of preparation, the pain of a war-torn world or the short dull winter days that we miss this vital dimension of Advent. But what do we mean by “rejoicing” when in our immediate situation there may be grief, illness, or other sadness?

St Paul seems to advocate the impossible when he urges the Thessalonians to “be happy at all times”. But happiness is an attitude of mind, not a state of euphoria or a perpetual grin. It dwells in those who are at peace with God and themselves; for indeed we cannot be at peace with ourselves if we are at variance with God. And so a constantly happy person, says Paul, is a constantly praying person. Again, Paul is not advocating that we are always on our knees or saying prayers; he is simply asserting that there is no moment or area of our lives that is excluded from our relationship with God, “even if we are troubled or worried, or lacking food or clothing, being threatened or under attack” (Romans 8).

So his third exhortation to the church in Thessalonica is “for all things give thanks to God”. Not some things, the good bits, the obvious moments that prompt us to be grateful, but everything that happens to us, however hard, inexplicable or painful they appear to be. We don't have to understand why, only trust in the One knows what he is about, as Blessed John Henry Newman put it. “God has called you, and he will not fail you” (I Thess. 5:24).

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
7th December 2014

At the beginning of each day the Church proclaims with the psalmist: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” That summons is especially appropriate to Advent. The second reading today is about the coming “Day of the Lord”. The author makes clear that he is not talking of a particular date in the calendar, or even a period of twenty-four hours. “A day can mean a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day”.

In Greek, the word “chronos” refers to continuous “chronological” time. But there is another word, “kairos”, which refers to a special event, a heightened moment, which lifts us outside measured time and connects us with eternity. T.S. Eliot described it as “the intersection of the timeless with time”. The “Day of the Lord” is of this kind. As Jesus said of the kingdom of God, it does not admit of observation (Luke 17:20).

As I said last week about staying awake for the Master's return, do we look towards that Day with dread or with longing? Because we do not know the day or the hour, do we try to put it out of our minds and pretend it will never come, or do we treasure every moment as an opportunity to meet the One who is to come, who has already come to embrace our humanity at Christmas, and who is present in our midst in mystery and sacrament, in our love and service of others?

O that today you would listen to his voice crying in the wilderness, echoing from the mountain-tops, demolishing the hills of our selfishness and fears and filling in the valleys of our unfulfilled longings and yearnings. When is the Day? It is today. Are you ready?

Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay!

John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
30th November 2014

“Stay awake!” says Jesus, not once but four times in today's short extract from Mark's gospel. Is he speaking in the tones of an official pronouncement to watch out for suicide bombers or terrorist activity in the run-up to Christmas, warning us that our lives are in danger? Or is his tone of voice one of excitement, telling us of a great and wonderful opportunity not to be missed?

“Stay awake!” When you read those words, is your gut reaction one of tension, anxiety, consternation? Or do you immediately smile and look forward eagerly to the homecoming of the beloved? Advent is not so much a season of getting ready for Jesus' coming, whether his first coming at Bethlehem or his last at the end of time. It is a time to notice how excited Jesus is at coming home to us.

The gospel parable expects the master's return to be during the hours of darkness – evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn – at times when we are more likely to be asleep. Jesus was born in the stable at night, and rose from the dead before the dawn of Easter day. Only those who were awake, who had the night-vision of faith, noticed these things and realised their significance – the shepherds, the Magi, the women at the tomb. The rest of us slept through them, uncomprehending.

Advent is about reconnecting with our longings and not suppressing them. The desires of Jesus' heart are about his longing to be among us as Word made flesh, not keeping a safe distance. We are invited to make the same commitment. If only we were awake enough to realise how much he loves us, we would be dancing with the angels.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
23rd November 2014

God our Father has chosen not to judge us. He leaves that to his Son. It is the Son of Man who comes to judge us, one who is like us in every way except sin (Hebrews 5). And Jesus only judges us in our humanity, in the context of our life here and now, according to how merciful and compassionate we have been to others. Our love of God is measured by our love of neighbour. And specifically the least of our brothers and sisters. The moment we start judging between neighbour and neighbour, excluding the least deserving or least attractive or least anything, we have excluded the Jesus who is our judge. When the future St Paul was on his way to persecute the Christians of Damascus, he heard Jesus ask him: “Why do you persecute ME?”

How can you feed the hungry if you have never hungered and thirsted for righteousness? How can you welcome the stranger if you do not understand their vulnerability and fear of rejection? How can you clothe the naked if you yourself have never felt unprotected or embarrassed? How can you tend the sick if you are fearful of catching anything, or do not realise your own sickness? If you have never experienced imprisonment in your own fears and prejudices, how can you sit with others in theirs?

Our final judgement is not about ticking enough boxes in some celestial exam, but about our Christ-like attitudes and actions in everyday life. Mercy, compassion, humility, loving service, are not theoretical ideas or philosophies but practical action. Wishful thinking is not enough; the Son of Man did not wish the world saved from heaven, but emptied himself and accepted death on a cross.

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
16th November 2014

Many years ago, I remember seeing a poster depicting a galleon in full sail on the high seas, with the caption: “A ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” It illustrates well today's gospel, Jesus' parable of the talents.

In Jesus' time a talent was a weight of precious silver, used as currency. To be entrusted with such an amount was a sign of great favour. As a result of the parable, the word “talent” has come to mean a gift from God. We did not earn our giftedness; it was given us by God on the understanding that we use it. Elsewhere Jesus says: “When you have had a great deal given you, a great deal will be expected of you; when you have had a great deal given you on trust, even more will be expected of you” (Luke 12:48). The greater the giftedness, the greater the responsibility. The man in the gospel with the one talent was fearful. He was so afraid of losing what he had, he never used it but hid it. But if we take the gift we also have to take the risk of using it. It is no good keeping it nicely wrapped up, gazing at the shiny paper from time to time with longing wonder. A present is designed to be opened. It is an insult to the giver if it isn't.

Risk-taking is in the hard drive of the Christian life. And of course we won't always get it right. The person who never made a mistake never made anything, as the saying goes. Don't stay in the harbour. Unfurl your sails, launch out into the deep, and see where Jesus leads you.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE DEDICATION OF THE LATERAN BASILICA
9th November 2014

Living in a 400-year-old house, I often wonder about the families and individuals who lived here before us, and how their presence altered the character and fabric of the building. Additions and alterations were made to the structure, while the events of history shaped the lives of its occupants.

A church building likewise tells the story of its worshippers and, far more, of their faith in Christ. God dwells there among his people. In the case of the 1,700-year-old basilica of St John on the Lateran Hill in Rome, the Pope's cathedral, we are tangibly reminded of the living stones which constitute the whole Church gathered around the Bishop of Rome, who is the living focus and symbol of unity in the Catholic Church.

After two thousand years the Christian community may be old and venerable but it is ever renewed in the life of the eternal Spirit. In Ezekiel 47, the prophet 's vision of a spring of water flowing from the side of the Temple is a graphic illustration of this. At the time, the Temple was in ruins, awaiting the return from exile of the chosen people. But Ezekiel could visualise it rebuilt, reoccupied by the God of Israel, and a source of new life which would spread further and wider than ever to regenerate a thirsty world.

Is a church simply a refuge from the storm, a place of safety into which we retreat from the nasty world about us? Or is it a place from which the spring of new life flows out through us, the members of Christ's Body, to that world which is parched and dry, longing for hope and peace and purpose?

May the Lord bless you.

John


ALL SAINTS & ALL SOULS
2nd November 2014

Hallowe'en conjures up all manner of ghostly, ghoulish and macabre images, but its real meaning is exactly the opposite. All Hallows is simply the old English name for All Saints. And there is nothing macabre about being a saint – quite the opposite. The irony is that the popular focus of this feast has shifted to the next day (All Souls) and its reminder of our mortality. But unhealthily (because we don't like talking about death) we trivialise the mystery and make fun out of a serious opportunity to face our destiny, our ultimate destination.

And what is our ultimate goal? To become saints, to share the life of heaven, to become divine. That is the way Christ our Lord leads us: but the journey takes us through suffering and death to gain the goal of heaven – the way Jesus took to the Father. Sadly the popular imagination can't see that far; to many, it's just “pie in the sky”. But if we can't face the reality of death, how ever are we going to relish eternal life beyond it?

All Saints and All Souls are two parts of a whole, holding in balance the heavenly and the earthly. Saints include sinners who have “made it” to heaven and sinners who aspire to it but are not there yet. All Souls are part of this latter category; the souls in purgatory are, like us sinner-saints on earth, bound for heaven. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, God doesn't do tricks, only treats.

As the name implies, a saint is a holy person. Holiness is a gift of God which leads us away from self-preoccupation to an unselfish love of God and neighbour. If we were indeed all saints, what a difference it would make. Now there's a treat.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
26th October 2014

The late Cardinal Suenens of Belgium famously wrote: “Happy are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make them come true.” In today's world, where so much can disillusion us and we become increasingly suspicious of each other, it is hard to dream and really believe a world of peace, mutual trust and unselfish love can really exist. But trust we must, if our world is ever going to be reborn. It is an enormous and frightening risk. But there is no other way.

When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment of the Jewish Law, he did not quote one of the Ten Commandments. He quoted two verses of the Torah: one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus. Love God with your whole being, love your neighbour as yourself. He made no apologies for quoting two verses when asked for one, because they are two sides of the same coin. You cannot love God and behead a man, as some Islamic extremists claim. But you cannot love others without God being there, however obscurely. Where there is love, there is God.

To construct the whole Christian life on the foundation of love was a huge gamble on Jesus' part. The whole gospel has been entrusted into frail, febrile and fickle human hands, and the Church is constantly learning to struggle with the challenge of living by the Spirit and not succumb to withdrawing in fear behind the safety barricades of legalism. Love is always risky, and love is about relationship, with God and other human beings without distinction. If that is the dream in which we believe, as Jesus did and does, are we like him prepared to pay the price to make it come true?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
19th October 2014

The Pharisees resented the Roman occupation of Israel and hated being forced to pay exorbitant taxes to pagan foreigners who oppressed them. If they despised anyone more, it was their fellow Jews who supported the Rome-appointed puppet king Herod, whom they regarded as traitors. But it is an unlikely and unholy alliance of Pharisees and Herodians who approach Jesus to trap him in what he says. The trick is to force Jesus to take one side or the other on a current political debate. Should we pay taxes to the Roman authorities? If he says yes, he is clearly on the Herodian side, a traitor to his own people and setting up Caesar's authority on a par with God's. If he says no, he is on the Pharisee side and on a collision course with Rome.

As Christians, should we pay taxes to civil government, even when its policies are unjust? Yes or no? What answer does Jesus give to our dilemma?

Jesus wisely gives us the principles which we have to apply for ourselves to any given situation. He doesn't do it for us. “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Taxes are necessary for many things, not least the many services we expect from government. To that extent, we are helping the common good. But no tax system is perfect or always just, and that aspect of it needs challenging. On the other hand, what has God given us that Jesus asks us to give back to him? Everything. In the light of our total dependence on him in faith, we do what we can for others in his name by sharing our material resources with them.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
12th October 2014

Preparing a meal for a special occasion takes a lot of thought and work. Planning the menu needs to take into account both the tastes of the guests as well as one's own culinary skills. The leisurely browse through recipe books has to be translated into action: shopping for the right ingredients, allowing time for the cooking process, and setting the table in an attractive way. But however much effort goes into it, it is dependant on the guests turning up and enjoying it. Otherwise we wouldn't be doing it.

In Jesus' parable, the guests not only fail to turn up but either ignore or reject the invitation, despite the reminders. They flouted Paul's exhortation to the Philippians (2:5): “Nobody thinks of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people's interests instead.” As a result, however, all the king's special preparation for his son's wedding feast is not in vain. The new set of guests who would never have dreamed of an invitation to a wedding, let alone a royal one, can't believe their luck. “You can't mean me.... I'm not a member of the royal family.... Are you sure the king really wants me?”

Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). Of course the King of kings wants you. He has carefully selected all the best ingredients, and he knows exactly what each guest needs. All he asks of us is to say yes to his invitation, and to come prepared to enjoy his gifts. Dressed for the occasion with gratitude and wonder, may we let every Eucharist nourish us. “You have prepared a banquet for me, you have anointed my head, my cup is overflowing” (Psalm 23).

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
5th October 2014

If we want a summary of the Old Testament, Jesus' parable of the vineyard does it beautifully. He begins by reminding his hearers (the chief priests and elders) that the land of Israel is a gift from God, who has lovingly prepared it for them. It is God's land, not theirs; they are called to tend it, care for it and in return have a share in its fruits. When offering the first-fruits of the harvest each year, each individual would declare this dependency on God before the priest (Deuteronomy 26).

But soon the vineyard tenants started acting as though they were the owners. When God sent the prophets to remind them whose vineyard it was, they were at first ignored. But the reminders kept coming, and couldn't be brushed off like flies. So they were increasingly suppressed, persecuted and killed.

It is an amazing truth that, by giving us free will and creating us in the divine image, God has put himself in a position of trust in relation to humankind. The parable expresses this by telling us the landowner (God) “went abroad” after signing the tenancy agreement. Out of sight, out of mind. How quickly we can become our own god! How quickly we fail to recognise our true origins, the rock from which we were hewn (Isaiah)! Only when our Creator assumes our nature and we come face to face with Jesus can we no longer deny the truth. And by then we are so addicted to power that we even crucify God.

This is no longer a parable of the past. It is frighteningly true of today's world. As Vatican II tellingly said in Gaudium et Spes (1965): “once the Creator is lost sight of, the creature is forgotten too”.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
28th September 2014

If I make an appointment with you, I would endeavour to honour it. If something important prevented me from doing so, I would notify you as soon as possible. Such things are to me common courtesy. But it is becoming a widespread practice not only to not bother to turn up for an appointment but not even apologise for it. Lack of respect for others is eroding the fabric of society and isolating us from one another. Lack of respect leads to lack of trust, and lack of trust breeds suspicion and hostility. Have you noticed the world lately?

Saying one thing but doing another is the theme of the parable of the two sons. It is a commentary on a text of the Sermon on the Mount: “It is not those who say to me, 'Lord, Lord' who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). One son initially refuses to do what he is asked. The second readily agrees to do what he is asked. If we are judged only our verbal response, the second one is the winner. But “man looks at appearances, while the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). The first then crucially “thinks better” of his decision and complies with the request. This “thinking better” (repentance, change of heart) is the key. The second has no intention of doing what his mouth uttered and fails to turn up or even apologise – no change of heart here.

What can we do to combat the horrors of our increasingly violent world? Well, can we be trusted to honour our commitments and show respect for others?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
21st September 2014

As I write, they are harvesting the vineyard next door to us. The moment comes when the grapes are ripe, and then it's all hands on deck. Casual labour is needed at once, so workers turn up from wherever they can be found, from locals to eastern Europeans.

In today's parable of the vineyard, the hopeful labourers gather at the break of day in the local market-place, knowing the standard daily wage of one denarius will be theirs if they're hired. It will be a long day, and after the cooler morning air has evaporated most of the harvesting will have to be done in the scorching heat. It's hard-earned money but it's better than nothing. At least the family will not go hungry that day.

But the owner of this vineyard keeps returning to the market-place throughout the day in search of more workers, promising them a fair wage. It must be a bumper harvest, and he must be desperate to get it in. Even at five o'clock, an hour before sunset and the end of the working day, he is still hiring labourers. But surely the late-comers know they will get only a fraction of a denarius?

As we know, the last-comers receive the same wage as the first – not the minimum but the maximum. God has no favourites; each person is loved with an infinite love for who they are. What God gives us is nothing short of everything, including himself. None of us earned our existence. Each one of us is simultaneously a gift of God and his gift to each other.

Did you know how beyond price you are? And did you know that every other human being is too?

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS
14th September 2014

Most of the taboos of our society have been broken, but the one subject which is rarely mentioned except in an undertone is dying and death. This is strange, given that all manner of films exploit the most violent and gruesome images of death and horror; they attract large audiences who are fascinated by them. But when it comes to the reality of our own death or the death of a loved one, it's a different matter. A way of dealing with our fears is to project them into fantasy.

The cross has become a symbol of our faith in Christ, but we can often forget the fact that two thousand years ago the cross was feared as a degrading instrument of torture and death in the Roman Empire. For St Paul to talk about “being crucified with Christ” and “glorying in the cross” was at that time horrific and obscene. How many people today would proudly display a guillotine or an electric chair on a chain round their neck?

The reason we glory in the cross is because of the One who died upon it, the Son of God who gave his life for us there. Today's feast lets us focus, not on the events of Good Friday alone, but on its amazing outcome. And so the prospect of our own death, with its attendant anxieties of possible pain and perpetual extinction, is not projected on to a fantasy outside us. Through our baptismal faith we are united with Christ's own death and resurrection, which is not an historical memory but lived day by day in our following of him.

Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
7th September 2014

We live in a fragile and volatile world. Conflicts of all kinds beset us on all sides: violence is the new morality in the self-proclaimed Islamic State, while the recently declared cease-fires in Gaza and now in the Ukraine are tendentious and could flare up again at a moment's notice. No wonder Pope Francis feels, not that we are on the brink of a Third World War, but that we are in the midst of it.

Jesus' words in the gospel take us back to the mustard seed which can grow into the huge tree of war. Every international conflict, civil war, gang warfare in our cities, family feuds or one person harbouring a resentment, begins with that tiny seed which, if not dealt with then, can escalate beyond control. If your brother does wrong, confront him with it in all charity. If he doesn't listen, confront him again with two witnesses – their presence will help check the balance of the situation. Don't complain to others about the accused behind his back.

If this doesn't work, it should be reported to the competent authority – what Jesus refers to as “the community” (i.e. the Church, parish community, etc.). Only as a last resort are sanctions imposed. If only conflict resolution were that straightforward!

Today the first premise of Jesus' argument is misunderstood. What is “wrong” or “right”? It's wrong, not because it transgresses God's commandments, but because I don't like it, or because I disagree with it. Morality has been reduced to personal preference. And without agreed standards of conduct, cohesion in society disintegrates. Violence and destruction are inevitable.

But if Jesus' great commandment were followed, a beginning could be made. “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour” (Romans 13:10).

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
31st August 2014

There are two perennial temptations for those who seek to follow the Christian way. One is to keep a low profile, to compromise with worldly standards, to fit the demands of the gospel around one's own lifestyle. The other is to separate oneself from the world and live in a religious cocoon, taking care not to be defiled by “the world”.

The way of the cross is the uncomfortable knife-edge between them which keeps us awake lest we lapse into the sleep of either apathy or self-righteousness. The euphoria of recognising that Jesus is the Messiah is quickly followed by the realisation he is not the Messiah we had in mind. In fact, all this talk of a suffering Christ is bewildering and nightmarish. Like Peter, we try to persuade Jesus to conform to our perceptions of a messiah. At its worst, that approach can even descend into closed-mindedness and arrogance. Isn't the Islamic State movement in Iraq a terrifying example of where such attitudes can lead?

So to jolt us out of our lethargy, Jesus sharply reminds us of our dangerous thinking: “Get behind me, Satan!” As the reading from Romans today says, “Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind.” We put on the mind of Christ so that we can be as he is, go where he goes, and suffer what he suffers. There is no other way. “If you want to be a follower of mine, take up your cross,” Jesus says. And Paul echoes his words: “This is the only way to discover the will of God.” The choice is ours.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
24th August 2014

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus asks his disciples what is the popular opinion about him. But he asks it indirectly, as if talking of somebody else. They answer in the same way: “Some say he is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” They simply pass on the gossip, giving us an idea of what the general public thought of him. He is compared to some great figure of the past. But now comes the direct question to the disciples themselves.

“But you, who do you say I am?” Not people, but you. Not some vague “Son of Man”, but me, your Master. They can't dodge this one. They can't generalise or give an evasive response. And Simon Peter, as is his wont, comes straight to the point. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” By saying this, he has committed himself; he is not merely reciting some formula of belief. From this point there is no turning back, and he will give his life for preaching that Jesus is the Messiah, as will all those who follow his example of faith.

It is a turning point in Jesus' ministry too. He replies to Peter in effect: “You have put your total trust in me, and I now put my total trust in you, despite your human weakness. Just as my coming into the world depended on my Mother's “Yes” to the angel, so my ministry and its future depend on your “Yes” to me today and every day. And so I entrust my Body the Church into your hands, with all the graces you need for this task.”

Two thousand years later, Francis, the successor of St Peter, faithfully continues to do just that.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
17th August 2014

Like Elijah last week, fleeing from Jezebel's death-threats to the safety of the Sinai desert, Jesus too needed to escape from time to time. In today's gospel he travels to foreign parts beyond the borders of Israel – a kind of holiday with his disciples.

But celebrities tend to be spotted when they're on holiday. Jesus is pestered by a local Syrian Palestinian lady to heal her daughter and he tries to ignore her. Embarrassed by the attention, his disciples urge Jesus to accede to her demands. But Jesus clearly states that his ministry is only to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”.

She persists. Like his mother Mary at the wedding of Cana, she won't be fobbed off. But unlike Mary she answers him back when he explains his refusal. Jesus rewards her persistence by granting her desire, saying she has great faith. He might also have commended her quick wit. A sense of humour is a surely one of the gifts of the Spirit.

For me the great significance of this incident is that it illustrates Jesus changing his mind. His teaching is not solemn decrees carved on stone tablets but a love-letter written on the human heart. Perhaps his plan was to leave the preaching to the Gentiles to his followers after his ascension; but a Gentile woman forestalled him. What a wonderful example for today's Church to be less cautious and more adventurous. Why is the Church so fearful of being seen to change her mind on some of her teachings? Her Lord and Master did.

Lastly, a Syro-Phonecian woman reminds us of her compatriots today in Syria and the Palestinian Territories, where there is great need of a change of minds and hearts. Let us pray for them.

God bless you and yours.

John


NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
10th August 2014

Sometimes God can seem close to us, and at other times distant and obscure. As the story of the Old Testament unfolds, we see how the people of Israel interpreted this as reflecting their faithfulness or otherwise to the covenant God had made with them; and we too can readily admit our own waywardness and sinfulness as a barrier to our relationship with God in Christ. But there are times when we have striven to be faithful to the Lord, yet find he has hidden his face from us. Why is that?

Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb expected God to reveal his Presence there. All the usual signs associated with a theophany (God's self-revelation) came to him: a tornado, an earthquake, and a great fire, as God had appeared to Moses in that same place long before. But God chose a whispering breeze as his voice. And Elijah who had been watching and waiting was listening.

We cannot predict, let alone dictate, how, when and where God will communicate with us. The holiday season is a good opportunity to stop, be still, and try to tune in to the divine wavelength. “I will hear what the Lord God has to say, a voice that speaks of peace....” as today's psalm prays in us. We don't need to go to a cave on a desert mountain, like Elijah, but since we live surrounded by noise a quiet environment helps the listening process. Many people are discomforted by silence; yet that very discomfort carries own message. Let the silence reveal the tornado and earthquake of your fears and doubts. Don't be afraid of their thunder within you. Let it rumble. You have only to stand patiently and listen for God's gentle whisper.

God bless you and yours.

John


EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
3rd August 2014

The Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Liturgy enshrines the happy description of the Mass as being fed from two tables: the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist. Both are implied in that lovely line of Isaiah 55: “Listen, listen to me and you will have good things to eat and rich food to enjoy.” To listen to the Lord is to be fed. And our staple diet is his Word – the holy Bible and the Word made flesh in Jesus.

As a good Catholic boy of the fifties and sixties, I grew up unfamiliar with the Bible, which seemed obscure and daunting – we knew the stories, especially the gospels, but never read the book. Only the restricted selection of passages read to us at Mass were familiar.

Thank God, that all changed with Vatican II. Yet when I arrived at a seminary as an eighteen-year-old and was asked to read and discuss a short Bible text, I froze. Whereabouts in the Bible was it? Would it be difficult to understand? It was the reading from Romans 8 which forms today's second reading. I rejoice to report that it was so inspiring I fell in love with sacred Scripture instantly, and that love has never waned.

As at the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus provided gallons of the best wine, so in the feeding of the five thousand he does not provide simply enough for everyone present. He provides an overflowing abundance, and the excess is collected for those who are not there. We are fed at the Eucharist with more than we need, and the Word expects us to share him with the hungry.

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
27th July 2014

Some friends of ours are in the process of selling their house and looking for another. At the moment the housing market in Britain is improving and they hope to find the home they want. But the “dream house” is very elusive. Should they have the rare fortune to find their ideal home, with all the resources they can muster, they would be extremely grateful to God and celebrate it as a blessing. Such is the man who finds a treasure hidden in a field. He goes off happy, sells everything he owns (including even his precious metal detector) and buys the field.

The kingdom parables of today's gospel test the depth of our desire for God. Are we prepared to persevere in our search for him, or do we settle for a mediocre Christianity which saps our enthusiasm for the gospel? Would we recognise the pearl of great price if it were to fall into our hands, quite content as we are with our artificial jewellery?

Recognising the pearl is the theme of the parable of the dragnet. Although there are parallels here with last week's story of the weeds among the wheat, where the two are separated at the end of time, at another level (and parables of their nature have multiple meanings) we too need constantly through prayer to cast the net into the depths of our hearts. What do we find there? Trawling through our experience, can we discern the good from the bad, the weeds from the wheat, the pastiche from the pearl? Do we have the courage to reject whatever does not lead us to God?

Lord, give us your eyes to see, your ears to hear, and your heart to love.

May the Lord bless you.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
20th July 2014

What is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus' parables make it clear that it is at once familiar but different, beyond us but among us, hidden but revealed to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The wheat and the weeds growing together remind the disciple that he or she cannot escape into an ivory tower of perfect religion, nor allow the evil of the world to have the last word. We have to live with this dichotomy and not try to short-cut God's inscrutable designs.

The mustard seed, so tiny it is almost invisible, describes well the apparent insignificance of the kingdom. Our gospel witness as individuals, families, or local Christian communities may seem to us puny and ineffective, but we underestimate the thrust of the tiny mustard seed. Persevere in faith and let God's Spirit produce amazing results in time. Let the Church not restrict the shelter she gives, but grow to embrace all kinds in her branches.

The yeast is another parable of hidden power. Mixed into the dough it disappears, but look at the resultant loaf. The Church is like a Trojan horse in the world, outwardly looking like any other social group of society but ready to infiltrate it with the secret of God's love, forgiveness and hope.

Love has been reduced to self-fulfilment; forgiveness has been written off as capitulation and unrealistic; hope is just a dream. The subversive message of God's kingdom is that all three are not only possible but vitally necessary for human survival and growth. If the parables of Jesus are allowed to germinate in our hearts, there is no measuring the impact they will have in transforming our lives and our world.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
13th July 2014

Our crucial first nine months, from conception to birth, span the most wondrous and yet most vulnerable period of our lives. In that tiny embryo, everything we are and are to become is there. Our care for that precious new life is a measure of our humanity. Yet some would argue that this child in the making is disposable if not fulfilling certain criteria, and can be aborted. How do we answer the crucial question: is this a potential human being, or is it a human being with potential? Am I human in my mother's womb, or not?

Our Christian faith has no doubt about the clear answer.

Jesus taught us about the potential of God's word in the parable of the sower. God sees the potential in each one of us, and wants to give us any opportunity of growth, even if the prospect is not promising. The sower appears to be careless in his scattering of the seed, allowing much of it to fall where its chance of survival is virtually nil. But this is the way of our prodigal God, who holds nothing back and has no favourites. This is the God who loved the world so much he gave us his only Son.

Do we human beings with potential realise our divine genes, as it were, as images of our Father? What gifts to we fail to nurture, but let them die? What chokes our growth, stifling our development? Are we content with a half-fulfilled life, and fail to respond to the challenges of the gospel with courage and faith? God believes we are worth every ounce of our being, and never ceases to give us everything. If we believe that, how can we not believe in ourselves?

May the Lord bless you.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
6th July 2014

After four months' break over Lent and Easter, plus a couple of major feasts falling on a Sunday, we finally return to the Ordinary Sundays of the year and pick up on the gospel of Matthew. In chapter 11 Jesus condemns the hypocrisy and judgemental attitudes of his generation. He names specific towns in Galilee where he has worked miracles but they do not believe in him.

Today's reading is, for Matthew, a rare glimpse of Jesus at prayer after these condemnations. He begins by thanking his Father that they don't understand his message, because they are not child-like enough. Our contemporaries are much the same. We seem to think the more complicated something is, the more important it is. Simple things are regarded with suspicion because.... well, they're too obvious. The lovely story of the emperor's new clothes illustrates it well. Only the child watching the emperor parading naked in public has the honesty to say he has no clothes at all. Have we the courage and honesty of “mere children” in speaking the truth of the gospel to our own generation? How else will the Son choose to reveal the Father to us as our Father too?

The second half of today's gospel is our consolation. When everything gets too much for you, when you finally give up trying to stay in control, come to me, says Jesus, and I will give you rest. I am meek and humble of heart, like a child, and I call you to be like that too. Trust me. I have borne all your burdens, and more, so I know. Learn from me how to be a child of God.

God bless you and yours.

John


SAINT PETER AND SAINT PAUL
29th June 2014

What is a saint? I once heard Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, one of the moderators of Vatican II describe a saint as “a normal Christian”. What he meant by that is that a saint is one who lives according to the norms or teaching of the gospel. We tend to think saints are different from us, exceptionally good and in the divine premier league. But in fact they are just like us. They, like us, are sinners who have responded to God's grace in the particular circumstances of their lives; they became saints by remaining true to their calling.

If saints were not like us, we would not be attracted to them or inspired by their example. Take today's two saints as a case in point. Peter was a fisherman who met Jesus after an unproductive night's fishing, and questioned why a carpenter should tell him where to fish. When Jesus told the disciples about his forthcoming Passion, Peter was the first to try to stop him. He at first refused to have his feet washed, and later that night denied three times he even knew Jesus.

And Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus, sending them to prison and death. He had a reputation as a bully, as comments in his letters imply. But we do not admire or seek to emulate their failures, which remind us of our own weaknesses. It is the fact that by the grace of God they overcame them within the context of their unique personal characteristics. Peter trusted Jesus and cast his net; he allowed his feet to be washed; he repented of his denials and followed Jesus to death. Paul preached Jesus to the far-flung nations with the undoubted energy he had once used to eradicate Christianity.

How are you called to be a saint?

May the Lord bless you.

John


THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
(Corpus Christi)
22nd June 2014

As far as our human nature is concerned, the Eucharist is the ultimate self-giving of God. Last week we contemplated the mystery of the Trinity, God's self-giving in himself who is Love. Not content with that, he wants to pour our himself in his creation, and supremely in us humans, his image and likeness. Not resting even there, he is determined to give us his Son who assumes our weak limited human nature – in the womb and the cradle, the workshop and the market-place, on the cross and ultimately in the tomb.

On the night before he died, Jesus gave himself to us as he was about to give himself for us. Not content with pouring out his life for us, he wants pour his life into us. And the means he chooses is at once the most vital and the most ordinary activity of humankind – eating and drinking. He becomes our food and drink, our bread and wine. Or rather, we become flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood, even – daringly – God of his Godhead. God's ultimate desire becomes clear – he wants no distinction between us poor creatures and the sublime eternal Divinity. Our resistance to being so absorbed is most easily overcome when we submit to the Eucharist, when we accept Jesus' precious gift of himself and take on the mind of Christ.

The words of William Faber's hymn come readily to mind: “Ah, see within a creature's hand, the vast Creator deigns to be, reposing infant-like, as though on Joseph's arm or Mary's knee”.

Like the Israelites in the desert, who asked when they first saw the manna from heaven: “What is that?” we need to keep wondering at this gift.

May the Lord bless you.

John


TRINITY SUNDAY
15th June 2014

Relationships lie at the heart of our human existence. We would not be here without our parents. We cannot grow and flourish without the love and care of others, and we will never become fully human without passing on that love and care in our turn.

The most succinct biblical description of God comes from St John: “God is love.” In other words, God is relationship. God is not self-contained but self-giving. God is everywhere, and so has no boundaries.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are images of divine love, reflecting Jesus the human face of God. Jesus reminds us of our divine origins. All too easily we can make God in our own image and likeness and worship our idea of God. Jesus brings us down to earth when we try to create heaven for ourselves.

The classic image or icon of the Trinity is based on a scene from Genesis, where Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to three strangers who arrive at their tent. As the painting of the icon developed over the centuries, the figures of Abraham and Sarah disappeared from the picture, leaving only their house and tree in the background. The foreground is occupied by the three mysterious “angels” almost dancing around a table, with a gap in the circle at the front. This gap is our invitation to enter and join the dance, as we are entertained at the divine banquet and to “become what we receive” (in the words of St Augustine). We in turn are to be an outpouring of love to others, to nourish human hungers and hearts, and so remind the world of its divine origins.

May the Lord bless you.

John


PENTECOST SUNDAY
8th June 2014

From the moment as a new-born infant we take our first breath to the expiration of our last in surrender to death, the rhythm of our breathing, the rise and fall of the breast in inspiration and exhalation, awake or asleep, continues unbroken. In the same way, the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit, is present in the opening verses of the Bible (Genesis 1:2) and continues breathing through Scripture till the closing verses of Revelation (22:17).

It is said that the sacred name of God in Hebrew, Yahweh, combines our first breath with our last. We breathe in the first syllable, and breathe out the second. Our whole life is the continuous invocation of the divine, whether we are conscious of it or not. Everything is “ruah” (the Hebrew word for breath, wind or Spirit).

But most of the time we live and move and have our breakfast totally unaware of the miracle we are, the extraordinary beauty of creation, the precious gift of each other, the unseen presence and delicate touch of God. Today's feast is another opportunity to relish the wonder of my being alive, to watch the sunlight on a butterfly's wings, to affirm and appreciate those closest to me I take for granted, to praise and glorify God.

The disciples at Pentecost experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit as transformation. They had been asked to wait for the coming of the Spirit after Jesus had ascended, and they waited. They had no idea when the Spirit would come, or in what way. They simply obeyed their beloved Lord. And their attentive obedience was rewarded with a whole new world of meaning and purpose. They still breathed in and out. They were the same people. But now they had a mission to open the eyes and heal the hearts of the world.

Come, Holy Spirit!

John


THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
1st June 2014

When I was learning the art of map-reading, I could pinpoint a place on the map by finding where the lines of latitude and longitude intersected – where the vertical met the horizontal – and take a note of the grid reference. The cross on which Jesus died represents that meeting point between heaven and earth, the transcendent and the immanent. The upright symbolises the relationship of the first great commandment “Love God”, and the cross-beam the second, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Today's feast links these two dimensions: the “ascension” of Christ is about the divine life which we are called to share, and his commission to the disciples to witness to him “to the ends of the earth” is about spreading the gospel.

There is no point in reaching out to the ends of the earth if there is not a corresponding deepening of our life of faith and prayer. Action and contemplation are partners, not rivals. The early disciples did not always realise this. At the very moment Jesus was about to leave them physically so that his Spirit could extend the horizons of their minds and hearts, they still asked him if he'd fixed a date to overthrow the Roman domination of Israel. Our horizons can be equally limited if we look only at the immediate situation and fail to contemplate the eternal dimension. It seems that the world at large today is so terrified of losing control of its destiny that we fail to trust, to dream or to look beyond our immediate problems to the divine perspective. But the God we worship in the Spirit of Jesus is not the caricature our unbelieving neighbours would like to foist on us in ridicule. Our God is too great and too close for that.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
25th May 2014

As the world continues to fragment and people become more isolated from each other (Scotland wants independence from Britain, Britain wants independence from Europe, to give two examples) the way lies open for ruthless individuals to exploit this disunity (Vladimir Putin of Russia laying claim to Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or the military coup in Thailand this week). Extremists are having a field day in this vacuum of self-interest characterised by greed for money and power: Boko Haran in West Africa is one instance currently in the limelight.

Such self-centred attitudes are rife. Whenever anything goes wrong, be it a mining disaster in Turkey or the disappearance of an Indonesian airliner in the midst of the sea, there are riots and angry mobs baying for blood and calling for those responsible to go. Yet whoever replaces them suffer the same fate when they prove ineffective too. There is a deep malaise in society which few seem willing to acknowledge and confront. Everyone points the finger at someone else, but precious few at themselves and ask: why?

Why are we unhappy? Why are we restless and insecure? Why, when we find our self-seeking and greed lead to more unhappiness, do we addictively and ruthlessly embrace its poisonous doctrine? Wouldn't we rather have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the other fruits of the Spirit? Why are they less attractive in today's world? What is the price we have to pay to pluck them from the tree of life?

I have often quoted over the years the answer given by St Dorotheus, a sixth-century abbot of an unruly monastery. He says to his monks: “The reason for all disturbance is that no-one blames himself.” Humility is not popular today, but it is the secret of happiness – if we really want it.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
18th May 2014

The villages of Norfolk where we live are putting on an ambitious series of mystery plays, reviving a medieval tradition of enacting stories from the Bible in a popular idiom. Four plays have been specially written by local writer and story-teller Hugh Lupton, recounting the ancient Legend of the Rood: Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Exodus, and the Nativity and Passion of Christ. Over fifty local actors are involved, plus three of the local primary schools. The plays are being performed outdoors, around an estate in one of the villages, and Christine and I are leading a group of “wandering minstrels” through the woodland, shepherding cast and audience from one venue to the next with music.

This pilgrimage around the estate, from one part of the Bible to another, reflects the journey of life we all take as God reveals his hand to us and we grow in understanding of his ways. But this journey is itself the One who leads us – Jesus. He says of himself: “I am the Way.” Engaging in the journey of discovery is to find, as the disciples to Emmaus did, that Jesus is already accompanying us; he is not just there at the end of the road. In the mystery plays we musicians are called upon to be Jesus the Way to the other participants; yet we did hesitate a few times in the maze of footpaths as we threaded our way singing through the undergrowth.

One of the refrains we sang as we walked invited everyone to “walk the way and take the Tree that will save the day and set us free”. It echoes that now obsolete acclamation of the Mass: “Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free”. As St Augustine said: “Sing up – and keep on walking!”

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
11th May 2014

In biblical times, being a shepherd was one of the lowliest and least-respected jobs. It meant living in close proximity to animals and they were regarded as mean and dirty. In many ways, the shepherds of the Church of God today are regarded as targets for ridicule and persecution, especially when a tiny fraction of their number stand accused of child abuse, or many others are working in places hostile to the Christian gospel. It is no bad thing when bishops and priests find they cannot rely on privilege and status but only on the integrity and holiness of their lives.

David, youngest son of Jesse, was out minding the sheep when he was called to be anointed king. And when Jesus, Son of David, was born at Bethlehem it was the shepherds who first came to worship him. The affinity between Jesus and the poorest and most despised began at his birth.

Like the shepherd, the good pastor knows the voice of his sheep and knows them personally. He listens to them, he listens out for them. As Pope Francis graphically puts it, he will smell of his sheep. Like parents caring for their children, shepherds share the joys and sorrows of their family from the intimacy of within, while at the same time are called to offer and model wise guidance and compassionate leadership. Parents and pastors both look to the same Good Shepherd.

Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold, the way in and out of the ordinary smelly environment of human living which by his Incarnation he has come to share and transform from within. And from that place he declares those generous and heart-warming words: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
4th May 2014

Watching two teenage boys sitting either side of me, I noticed that each one sat engrossed in the i-phone screen in front of him, headphones filling his mind with secret communication to which the rest of us in the room were not privy. Each was oblivious of whatever was going on around him, including what the other boy was doing.

We live in an introverted and self-absorbed society which has lost a sense of mutual care, of community, and even the art of conversation with one another. Such attitudes often develop when people are hurt; they withdraw into themselves as a defensive mechanism. But if they stay there, they become isolated and depressed. Who is there to love them out of it, when more and more of us are joining them?

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were in that place. Jesus their hope had been crucified; the fellowship was falling apart; what else was left but to return home and nurse their wounds? At least they were talking about it to each other, and not buried in their personal gadgets.

And alongside them in this plodding despair walks an unrecognised Jesus. He doesn't slap us on the back and tell us to cheer up. He listens carefully to our story of pain and disillusionment, and then challenges us to look again at our predicament from a fresh angle. He refreshes us with a new understanding of the Scriptures, and an undreamed-of hope and excitement wells up inside us. And in the breaking of bread his extraordinary intimacy bursts into recognition: he is with us always, no matter what happens to us. We want to share his love with others. An i-phone might help, but it's no substitute for the real thing.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
27th April 2014

After the resurrection, the fifty days of Eastertide do not focus much on Jesus' appearances to his disciples, few as they are. They hone in on the life of the early Church and the activity and attitudes of a resurrection people. There is a kind of tension between the first readings from the Acts of the Apostles, recounting the explosion of Pentecost and the rapid spread of the Good News to the “ends of the earth” (or at least as far as Rome) and the gospel readings from John, looking back at Jesus' last days before his Passion and his post-resurrection encounters with his followers.

But in reality there is no tension. It is no accident that the gospel today and the gospel of Pentecost Sunday are the same passage. In John's perception, the giving of the Holy Spirit happens on Easter Sunday – there is no time-lapse of fifty days. The risen Lord is the same “yesterday, today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).

The classic story of “believing Thomas” exemplifies for the fledgling Christian community the question Jesus puts to Martha in John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life.... Do you believe this?” As with Martha, Thomas' response goes beyond a simple “yes”. Faith is not merely an intellectual statement of assent, although it is that too. “My Lord and my God” is a wholehearted commitment to living a resurrection life now, in the power of the Spirit of Jesus. It is that power which seized the infant Church in mission, and enabled those early Christians to be “faith-full” to the apostolic teaching, to loving one another, to sharing Eucharist and to a common life of prayer.

Do you believe this?

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


EASTER SUNDAY
20th April 2014

It's been a tough Lent. There has been no need to impose voluntary penances or ascetic practices – six weeks of bronchitis and chest infection has provided an involuntary alternative. As we have walked with the Lord this week to the cross, it has been a privilege to share a tiny fraction of his weakness and vulnerability, and to wonder how in the midst of his pain he could show such extraordinary love and compassion. At least I didn't have the agony of betrayal and rejection to contend with as well. What amazing love!

But today is the day of resurrection. The Lord is risen! He has come through suffering and death to new life. And maybe that's where we hesitate, like the disciples who met him in Galilee after Easter. We can identify with Jesus' pain, weakness, and human vulnerability because we experience similar limitations. But we have yet to experience what it is to rise again. In our minds, resurrection remains in the domain of the divine. In the end, we say, Jesus is God. He has risen and gone before us, and we mere mortals are left looking wistfully after him.

We have reckoned without grace. Will the One who went through all he did out of love for us desert us now? Jesus knows perfectly well we can do nothing without him, but will we let him lead us “to boldly go” where he is taking us? Surely after seeing his utter dereliction on the cross, we can put our hand in the hand of the man from Galilee and experience through faith the risen life even now. No wonder that the first words of the angel to the women are: “There is no need to be afraid”, followed by Jesus' first words to them: “Do not be afraid.”

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Mothering Sunday
30th March 2014

What has the anointing of David by Samuel (first reading) have to do with the healing of the blind man by Jesus (gospel reading)? To my mind, the word that best describes the link is discernment. Samuel has to discern which one of the sons of Jesse God has chosen, and his natural observation points to the eldest and tallest. But the wise and holy Samuel is sensitive to the whisper of the Spirit: “God does not see as man sees: man looks at appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The man born blind in the gospel has to come to the same realisation as Samuel. How am I looking at the world? At other people? At myself? At God? He begins as one who has never seen anything with his physical eyes, and his perceptions are limited to what he hears or imagines. Once his eyes are opened, he may be amazed at what he sees; he may also be disappointed at its limitations. Our human eyesight looks at appearances. The fox in Saint-Exupéry's novel “The Little Prince” says: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The disciples on the road to Damascus had perfectly good eyesight, yet when Jesus spoke to them on the road their hearts began to burn; when he broke the bread their eyes were opened to a new understanding. “Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.” The words of the opening prayer of the Second Sunday in Lent are apt here: “Purify the eyes of our mind, and fill us with joy at the vision of your glory.”

With the eyes of faith, what do you see?

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
23rd March 2014

There used to be a ninety-foot well in our garden. The people who bought our house in 1979 were advised that, if they wanted mains water supply, they must fill in the well. So they did. But before that, the well had been the only source of water for the residents. It must have been quite an effort, lowering the bucket ninety feet to collect the water, then drawing it up to the surface. All we have to do now is turn on a tap.

Jacob's well in Sychar (the setting of today's gospel) is even deeper. The monk-guardian of the church built over the well obligingly dropped a small pebble into it, and it seemed an eternity before we heard the distant “plink” of its arrival at water. The water itself was cold, clear and refreshing, especially on a hot day in this desert oasis in Samaria. In Jesus' time the well was the main water supply for the whole community. But one member of it was so shunned by the others for her immoral behaviour that she crept out in the hottest part of the day, when her neighbours sheltered indoors, so she would not be seen drawing water.

But today was different. Today a stranger sat by the well, and she approached fearfully. He was a Jew! Her people were sworn enemies of Jews, and she was in turn the disgrace of her people. Expecting rejection, she was utterly confounded when he simply said to her: “Give me a drink.”

When we feel rejected, judged, shunned and ashamed, the last thing we expect is someone putting themselves in debt to us. The deep wells of the eternal gaze of Jesus open up to renew and refresh us, and we are invited to drink.

May the Lord bless you.

John


SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
16th March 2014

Faith can move mountains, says St Paul (I Corinthians 13:2). If it's the size of a mustard seed it can even tell the mountain where to go (“into the sea,” says Jesus in Mark 11:23). But in our experience how does faith actually work? It's a bit of a Catch-22 situation: either you truly believe without doubting and you know God has everything in hand; or you wonder how it's going to work out and are amazed and delighted when God springs the surprise. In the latter case you feel a little guilty that you didn't see it coming. But isn't the surprise an integral part of the gift? Isn't it the loving design of our great and mysterious God?

When Abram was called to leave all his securities of home and country for another life elsewhere, he must have felt the excitement of new adventure plus the daunting fear of the unknown. God left the choice to him. Faith, like love, is a gift but it's also a decision. When Jesus invited his followers to come after him on the road to crucifixion, Peter's decision was to try and dissuade him not to take such a route. But when Peter realised, after Jesus' sharp rebuke, that his decision was born of human fear and ignorance, he must have been in a turmoil. Where will it all end?

Six days later, the cloud lifted on the Mount of Transfiguration. The surprise revelation that this charismatic Messiah-figure was indeed the Son of God shone through in the three disciples' minds. Then the cloud descended and “they saw no-one but only Jesus” (Matthew 17:8).

Remember the transfiguring moment when God sprang the surprise of faith on you. Treasure it. It will feed your faith.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
9th March 2014

The vivid depiction of the garden of Eden in the book of Genesis is not a description of a country estate but of the human heart. What takes place in this vignette is not a singular historical event but the perennial story of our lives right now – our dilemmas and choices, what attracts us and what repels us, how we resolve (or fail to resolve) the conflicts, and the consequences of our decisions. The story is woven deep in the fabric of the human genome.

But we are not condemned in some fatalistic way to be at the mercy of these forces for the rest of our lives. We are made in the image and likeness of our Creator. And that means we are not robotic “clones” of God but share in the divine power of making choices, discerning good from evil, taking responsibility for the unique life we have freely been given. Such is God's love and generosity that we are called through our human nature to a share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1).

Many would wish to abrogate this responsibility and remain infantile, content to follow the status quo and the line of least resistence. At the other end of the scale, others claim God's power as their own, as in the assertion: “I am a self-made man and I worship my creator!” Both extremes and everyone in between can be found in the Church as well as society at large.

Lent is a time to re-examine our motives and underlying attitudes beneath the scrutiny of the gospel spotlight. Are they according to the mind of Christ? Are our eyes open to the realisation of our nakedness, but simultaneously to recognise our risen Lord accompanying us on the road to Easter?

Happy Lent!

John


EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
2nd March 2014

“What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?” These are the cries of the poor, desperate for enough food to keep body and soul together, with no clean source of water to drink, shivering with cold and shame at their nakedness. They are also the cries of the rich, trying to choose a meal from a lavish menu, to decide which vintage of port to have with the Stilton cheese, to consider what outfit to wear to the party which will impress the other guests.

To both groups, and to everyone else in between, Jesus simply says: trust. Anxiety and trust cannot live together, any more than light and darkness. John's gospel (14:1) has Jesus put it this way: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me.” Matthew today adds a strategy to achieve it: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness....” Our hearts must be centred in Christ and gospel values to gain a true perspective, whether we are the poor who are in need or the rich who are never satisfied. The consequence is startling: “....and everything else will be given to you as well.” If we have Christ, we have everything. Or, again in the words of St John (14:14): “If you ask for anything in my name I will do it.”

“What are we to eat?” The Body of Christ. “What are we to drink?” The Blood of Christ. “How are we to be clothed?” With Christ (Galatians 3:27). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever; all time is in his hands. And so he adds: “Do not worry about tomorrow.” There's our agenda for Lent.

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
23rd February 2014

With the side-lining and ignoring of Christian values, vengeance has returned with a vengeance. One of the great legacies of Judaism was the restriction of revenge to “tit for tat”: pay back in equal measure but no more. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (the “lex talionis”). But today there is a worrying escalation of violence in the world which goes far beyond this restriction.

Jesus rejects the restriction of revenge. He dissolves it completely. He advocates behaviour which doesn't simply contain or placate violence and hatred; it deliberately subverts them. Loving your enemy is not smiling grimly at him through gritted teeth. It is to love them as St Francis embraced the leper, to walk the second mile with a spring in one's step, and praying from the heart for one's crucifiers: “Father, forgive them: they know not what they do.”

On the other hand Jesus doesn't ignore or condone violence. He recognises its power to harness our anger and negative energies, and instead of simply condemning them, making us feel guilty about feelings that arise naturally, provides a strategy for channelling them into a positive response. He knows that it's the only way the cycle of violence can be broken and a new paradigm initiated.

Our protest, of course, is that Jesus's programme sounds wonderful but is totally impractical. It's all right for him, we grumble, but we're not the Son of God. But of course it's humanly impossible – unless we accept and practise the gift of faith he gives us. Nothing is impossible to God. To paraphrase St John of the Cross, where there is no faith, put faith, and you will find faith. Try it.

God bless you and yours.

John 


SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
16th February 2014

“The floods of water may reach high, but him they shall not reach. You are my hiding place, O Lord; you surround me” (Ps 32). The floods which have devastated much of Britain recently (and continue as I write) have brought misery to thousands of homes and businesses, and brought the farming community to near despair. But in the midst of it, while some communities have been united in angry condemnation at what the Government has not done, others have worked together to help each other and discover a new level of solidarity. Do we live only for ourselves or each other?

In today's gospel from the Sermon on the Mount we hear Jesus interpret the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai in a new and startling way. When we think of the Jewish Law we can consider it like the British legal system: provided you keep within its parameters, you have not transgressed it. But for Jesus it is not about avoiding wrongdoing. It is about acting in a loving, compassionate and merciful way, and doing so consistently, not only when it is convenient, still less to impress our neighbour. And in today's self-focussed culture, anything purely altruistic and generous is often regarded with suspicion and distrust – what's our ulterior motive, they ask?

Our real motive is Jesus. To be Jesus to others, we need to eat, drink and sleep the gospels, to be nourished by word and Eucharist, to accept the cross and be a sign of contradiction. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). There is our security, our trust, our hope. “Love no flood can quench, no torrents drown” (Song of Songs 8:7).

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
9th February 2014

These days we are careful to limit the intake of salt in our diet, because we are aware that too much of it can damage our health. But in the Middle East in biblical times salt was a precious and expensive commodity, essential for food preservation in hot climates with no refrigeration. So precious was it that wages were paid in measures of salt – hence our word “salary”.

When Jesus describes his disciples as “salt of the earth”, he is saying, first, that they are precious. Elsewhere in the gospel he uses the image of salt to denote enthusiasm. A disciple is one who, recognising their value in God's eyes, is inspired to respond enthusiastically by inspiring others. But if a disciple were to lose the sense of their own worth, that they are chosen by God, then their enthusiasm for the gospel would evaporate. In Jesus' words, the salt would become tasteless, and is only good enough to be thrown out. A useless disciple is no longer a disciple but a countersign of Christ.

These days, especially in the industrialised world, light is available at the flick of a switch, so much so that light pollution deprives us of the beauty of the stars at night or even the sense of alternating light and darkness. But in biblical times light was life, comfort, warmth, direction. A light hidden was a contradiction of its purpose to illuminate. Similarly, the disciple of Christ who hides themselves or is afraid to witness to their Lord has lost the plot.

How readily those around us can succumb to discouragement and fear. And how readily we can be sucked into it. Are you worth your salt? How do you preserve your enthusiasm for Christ?

God bless you and yours.

John


THE PRESENTATION OF THE LORD
Candlemas
2nd February 2014

Forty days ago, in the darkest days of the northern hemisphere year, a people walking in darkness saw a great light, for a Child was born for us. Twelve days later, the Magi from afar were guided to the Child by the light of a star. And today that Child, the Light of the world, is brought to the Temple in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph, and cradled in the arms of old Simeon. As an offering of thanksgiving for their son, Jesus' parents offer a sacrifice of two turtle-doves.

The dove was sent out from the ark and returned to Noah with the olive branch of peace after the flood; the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism “like a dove”. Earlier this week, The Guardian newspaper carried a picture of Pope Francis releasing two doves into St Peter's Square, symbolising peace sent out to the world; in its customary cynical style, it also added two further shots of one dove being attacked by a crow and the other by a seagull. The photographs encapsulate nicely the risks of proclaiming the gospel of peace, as those working to end the destruction of Syria would testify. Jesus' says to be as gentle as doves but also as wise as serpents.

So it is no accident that at Jesus' presentation in the Temple two doves are killed and offered in sacrifice. Jesus is the dove being thrown to the hawk, or (in the Baptist's image) the lamb being thrown to the wolves. And that reminds us that where the Master goes the disciples follow. He is destined to be a sign that is rejected – and as Simeon reminded Mary, a sword will pierce our own hearts too. Are you ready?

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
26th January 2014

Another Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has come to an end, but of course it is not the end of our work for Christian unity. That continues as long as the scandal of disunity abides. In our two thousand year history, the present is notable for the unprecedented level of dialogue between Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed churches, although full communion between us is still a distant dream. But at least we're dreaming of it, as long as we're not restricting “Christian unity” to mean “we've all to become Roman Catholics”.

The fact that the idyllic picture of unity in the first post-Pentecost Church (Acts 2:42 ff) doesn't last very long says something about the seemingly impossible demands of the gospel coupled with a deep yearning to achieve them despite the failures. St. Paul, in tackling disunity among the first generation of Christians in Corinth, discerns this tendency. Great Christian leaders like Peter, Paul and Apollos were living such Christ-like lives that people were drawn to Christ through them, but then restricted their understanding of the Good News to the particular style of teaching they liked best. Christ is always greater than our understanding of him, and his Body the Church is greater than the sum of its parts.

In some ways the growth in inter-religious dialogue has dwarfed the inter-denominational one. It is not just Christians who struggle with internal divisions: Jews, Muslims and other major faith bodies do as well. But increasingly, as the picture gets bigger, the stakes are higher. The human tendency to withdraw from the impossible dream as too much to hope for becomes the breeding ground for divisions and ultimately (as we are seeing today) extremism and fanaticism.

What is the Spirit saying to the Church? Is our God big enough for the enterprise?

May the Lord bless you.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
19th January 2014

The word “apostle” means “one who is sent”, and before he chooses and sends out his apostles Jesus is very aware of his own apostolic calling. He is the one sent by the Father, not to do his own will but to do the will of the one who sent him (John 6:37). The response to today's psalm puts it nicely: “Here I am! I come to do your will.”

But Jesus is no mere puppet manipulated by the Father. He is the beloved Son who is nearest to the Father's heart (John 1:18). What the Father wants is what he wants too, passionately. And he is aware of the enormous gap between the huge breathtaking agenda of God's mercy and salvation for all creation, and the unsuspecting world shrunk in the confines of its narrow expectations. As he says with typical Johannine irony to the Samaritan woman, “If you only knew what God is offering you....!” (John 4:8). A thousand years before that, Gideon complained at the angel's optimistic greeting: “The Lord be with you!” with “Pray, sir, if the Lord is with us, why is all this happening to us?” And two thousand years after the Incarnation we are still more intent on the mud beneath our feet than raising our eyes to the stars.

The vision revealed to the mysterious servant-apostle of Isaiah, that he was to be a light to the Gentiles and not just the Jewish nation, enlarged the horizons of his mind. We are sent on the same mission by Christ today, to open the eyes of the blind, to release captives from despair and fear. Are we on fire with doing the Father's will because we have seen and are the witnesses that Jesus is the Chosen One of God?

God bless you and yours.

John


THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
12th January 2014

The extensive flooding in many parts of Britain in recent weeks has disrupted thousands of lives, destroyed or damaged many properties and inundated the coastline.  In our part of Norfolk we have escaped relatively unscathed, though the river levels have been high and much farmland flooded.  Familiar landscapes have been transformed into a lakeland.

Water may be essential to life but too much of it can be an agent of death.      This dual symbolism is at the heart of the sacrament of baptism.  Our baptism in water celebrates simultaneously life and death – or more precisely our death to sin and our life in Christ.  In our baptism we re-enact Christ's descent into the tomb and his resurrection to new life.  The waters engulf and symbolically “drown” us; as we are raised up from the waters we emerge into life.

Jesus' own baptism which we celebrate today is the baptism of John for repentance; it is a Jewish purification rite to prepare the people for the Messiah. Then why does Jesus need it?  He doesn't, of course.  But he wants to show his solidarity with us sinners.  At the beginning of his ministry he publicly demonstrates that, although he is himself not a sinner, he is immersing himself in our sinful human nature, to be where we are, to be the Word made flesh.

Our own baptism does not take away our human nature but redeems it.  Living the death and resurrection of Jesus happens where I am at any moment, in the concrete circumstances of my daily life, whether I am aware of it or not.  In the storms and floods of my existence, the Father's voice can so easily be drowned out: “You are my beloved; my favour rests on you.”

God bless you and yours.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
5th January 2014

Where will the new year take us? Or, more accurately, where will we allow the Spirit of Jesus to lead us? Do we, like Mary, ponder these things in our hearts or do we simply let the pressures and daily routine determine our direction? Does our faith in Jesus inform our decisions, both great and small? In terms of today's feast, who or what is our guiding star?

Whether it is the ongoing appalling atrocities in Syria or the unfolding tragedy in South Sudan, there is much need of the gospel values of compassion and forgiveness. In the face of the environmental and economic climate change in Britain – extreme weather conditions and extremely small-minded politics battering the land – there is desperate need of the virtues of faith, hope and love. As human beings we all need to be sustained by something much more than ideologies or material comforts. Such things, however trumpeted as the final answer, touch only a small part of our real lives. Who or what nourishes our spirits?

The Magi could not rest until they responded to the promptings of the star they had observed, and found the Child in Bethlehem. Today people know in their hearts a hunger for something deeper and more mysterious than they can put into words, and are restless until they begin the journey to God. When the wise men left the stable, they returned by a different way. The encounter with Christ changes the direction of our lives; and many while searching for the Lord hesitate at the call to change. It is those of us who live by faith to model by example how such a change can transform human living and not diminish it. Can we honestly and gladly affirm that?

May God bless your new year.

John
 


FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
29th December 2013

Many people feel that their own families are far from holy. On Christmas Day they may have struggled with strained family relationships which prove particularly difficult in this season. But for the Church to add to their discomfort and guilt the model of an ideal family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) seems very insensitive.

But is it? On closer examination, the events in St Matthew's gospel portray a family in crisis. The Flight into Egypt is the subject of many classic paintings which can look like a romantic picnic holiday. The reality is of a couple with their young baby having to abandon home, and flee into exile in a foreign land, in order to escape his would-be murderers. They were extremely vulnerable. The journey itself would have been fraught with danger from brigands and meant coping with the treacherous desert environment. Almost certainly they would not be familiar with the Egyptian language, and there was no knowing how the host country would receive them, if at all, or where they might live on arrival.

The thousands of refugees from today's Syria would have no trouble in recognising this scenario. Even here the news reports that hit the headlines can give little idea to the rest of us of the daily struggle in their brief portraits of the refugee camps.

A holy family is not one which is perfect, but one in which its members try to be loving, caring and forgiving towards each other, and is ready to welcome others. In that respect the domestic family mirrors the wider community of the Church. If we have the eyes of faith to see, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are present in every home.

Happy New Year!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
22nd December 2013

There is nothing quite as ordinary, and at the same time extraordinary, as birth, and especially human birth. Apart from your mother, the midwife, and maybe your father or other nursing staff, who else witnessed your birth? Yet that amazing event happens to someone every second of the day on this planet. I hope that your birth day is marked each year with fitting celebration – a card or two, a present perhaps, and a special meal. Not every person is fortunate enough to have such things, yet they deserve it. The wonder of our being does not cease after our birth – it abides for ever. That is true of everyone, independent of our judgement or ignorance of them. God exempts no-one from being made in his image and likeness – it is the divine definition of our humanity.

God knows this because his Son took on our human nature in the most unpromising of circumstances. Even before he was born he was causing embarrassment and heartache. In contrast to St Luke's account of the annunciation to Mary, where the young girl accepted the angel's message, Matthew tells us that the annunciation to Joseph did not go so smoothly. How could his bride-to-be be pregnant? How could he save her life from those who would stone her for being an adulteress? How could he himself save face, if at all? And if he went through with it, where would they live and how could he support his wife and child?

How it all worked out is the over-familiar yet amazing story of Christmas. Today we celebrate the messy birth in a stable with presents and parties and decorations and public holidays. But the truth beneath the tinsel and reality beneath the razzmatazz outshines the trappings. God is with us.

May Jesus be born in you today.


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
15th December 2013

The National Health Service in Britain has an international reputation which is showing its age. Medical science has made amazing progress since the NHS was founded sixty-five years ago, but the cost of making its fruits available to the general population has proved prohibitive. Hospitals in some areas have been shining examples, while others have been woefully inadequate. But even the latter, compared with medical facilities in many parts of the developing world, are better than nothing.

Isaiah had foretold that when the blind shall see, the deaf hear, and the lame leap like a deer, then the promised King had come (35:5). During Jesus' ministry, his acts of healing proclaimed the kingdom more eloquently than words. In addition to Isaiah's list, Jesus declared that the dead would be raised to life and the Good News preached to the poor (Matthew 11:5). Jesus provides much more than a National Health Service, even at its best.

He comes not to simply patch us up or make us feel better but to give us new life. He comes not only to mend broken bodies but to transform our whole world.

For many, such a Messiah is a threat rather than a Saviour. The expectation of John the Baptist was of a judge, a stern rebuker of sin and infidelity, in the mould of the Old Testament prophecies. Others such as the Pharisees imagined a mighty warrior king, who would overthrow the Roman domination of Palestine and restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). But the Christ who comes is neither. He is God himself, the Creator of the universe, greater than the human mind can conceive. And he is a new-born baby in a Bethlehem stable.

Who do you want Jesus to be for you when he comes? And will he oblige you?

Come, Lord Jesus!

John.


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
8th December 2013

The Joy of the Good News. That's the title of Pope Francis' recent exhortation to the Church worldwide. It was written to inaugurate a new drive for evangelisation, following the Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict XVI. And it chimes in well with the Advent message of promise and hope.

And now we have just learned this week of the death of Nelson Mandela, the father of modern South Africa, at the age of 95. In the tributes paid to him from around the world, he is praised not only for his courage and forbearance but his readiness to forgive his enemies, to seek reconciliation and not revenge, to rise above the sectarianism that continues to dominate and divide our planet. There can be no more fitting example of true Christian witness. He fits well his own definition of a saint: “a sinner who keeps trying”.

Both Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela would see themselves as “sinners who keep trying” and who inspire us to join them in the same endeavour. Today's reading from Isaiah paints a picture of creation at peace with itself, an ideal world where the lion and the lamb, the gentle cow and the fierce bear, the little child and the poisonous snake are friends, ruled by a king Messiah clothed with integrity, truth and justice. We long for such a world but how few are prepared to pay the price to give it birth. John the Baptist did in his day. Where are the prophets of today? I am thinking not only of great statesmen or world leaders, but our own neighbourhoods, churches, communities and within our own homes. What about you and me? Joy, promise, hope, good news, integrity, forgiveness? Are we Advent people?

Come, Lord Jesus!

John
 


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
 1st December 2013

At the waning of the year, in the gathering darkness of a northern hemisphere winter, the Christmas lights are switched on and everyone seems to be frantically buying up the supermarkets in a frenzy of Christmas preparation. I often wonder if really we're just trying to counter the winter blues by escaping into an artificial glow. A friend confesses that when the winter weather prevents him working outdoors, he becomes uncharacteristically depressed.

The light of Advent, that wonderful season of anticipation of Christmas, is altogether different. It is more like dawn than dusk, a presage of new beginnings, not impending darkness. Today's first reading implies a journey to the mountain top, not an entry to the valley of shadows. And it's a journey together. At the base of the mountain, we may be aware of only a handful of companions. Only as we come closer to the summit do we realise we're part of a pilgrim people, as all the paths from below converge on the peak. The important thing is to keep raising our eyes and hearts to the God who holds out the promise of hope, a new dawn we do not yet see but long for.

Unlike the bustle and hassle of a commercial Christmas, the Church begins her new year with an invitation to pause, reflect, pray and regain a sense of wonder at the ever old, ever new truth that God is in our midst. To stop while the world is on the go may seem counter-cultural and feel faintly embarrassing. But how else will we recognise the subtle light of divine presence? How else will we enable the world to turn its eyes from the razzmatazz of neon lights to the quiet candle-glow of a poor stable?

Happy New Year!

John


SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
24th November 2013

All his life and throughout his ministry, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. The word “kingdom” is a misleading translation because it implies a place, a geographical territory. Jesus was not inviting people to enter a place but a sphere of influence; he was calling them to total submission to his Father and to a personal relationship with himself. The kingdom is Jesus.

Throughout his ministry, some people had embraced his teaching while others rejected it. Even as he came to the last hours of his mortal life, Jesus met the same conflicts right up to the end. One of those crucified with him mocked and abused him, the other affirmed him and called him by name. Often it is as death approaches that the real meaning of our life and how we have lived it comes into sharpest focus. The first criminal realised his end was near and he was going to die as he had lived – angry, bitter, and resentful, pouring all his pain out by blaming Jesus for his predicament. The second, recognising that he was being justly punished for his crime, realised also that Jesus was innocent yet accepting an unjust punishment. Jesus was dying as he had lived – compassionate, merciful, and loving. The good thief (as we call him) found peace at the last in Jesus' final wordless witness on the cross. His plea, “remember me when you come into your kingdom”, was met by Jesus' words: “today you will be with me in paradise”. The kingdom is not tomorrow, it is now. Paradise is not a distant heaven, it is here. The kingdom is among you. Jesus is in our midst.

How can we better prepare ourselves for that final call into paradise?

May the Lord bless you.

John
 


SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
24th November 2013

All his life and throughout his ministry, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. The word “kingdom” is a misleading translation because it implies a place, a geographical territory. Jesus was not inviting people to enter a place but a sphere of influence; he was calling them to total submission to his Father and to a personal relationship with himself. The kingdom is Jesus.

Throughout his ministry, some people had embraced his teaching while others rejected it. Even as he came to the last hours of his mortal life, Jesus met the same conflicts right up to the end. One of those crucified with him mocked and abused him, the other affirmed him and called him by name. Often it is as death approaches that the real meaning of our life and how we have lived it comes into sharpest focus. The first criminal realised his end was near and he was going to die as he had lived – angry, bitter, and resentful, pouring all his pain out by blaming Jesus for his predicament. The second, recognising that he was being justly punished for his crime, realised also that Jesus was innocent yet accepting an unjust punishment. Jesus was dying as he had lived – compassionate, merciful, and loving. The good thief (as we call him) found peace at the last in Jesus' final wordless witness on the cross. His plea, “remember me when you come into your kingdom”, was met by Jesus' words: “today you will be with me in paradise”. The kingdom is not tomorrow, it is now. Paradise is not a distant heaven, it is here. The kingdom is among you. Jesus is in our midst.

How can we better prepare ourselves for that final call into paradise?

May the Lord bless you.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
17th November 2013

The scale of the super-typhoon that struck the Philippines this week was staggering, and the numbers of people killed, injured, without food or shelter and their homes destroyed is astronomical. In such a short space of time a whole nation has suffered huge devastation. Getting aid quickly to those in need has been a logistical nightmare, but it is heart-warming to see amazing efforts being made by so many volunteers (not least from Church organisations) both within the Philippines and around the world.

It must have seemed to the victims as if the end of the world had come. And tragically, for thousands of them, it had. When Jesus was talking to his contemporaries, especially those who looked at the beauty of the Temple and the material grandeur of their religion, he prophesied that it would all disappear – as indeed it did when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. To his disciples, however, he said that the wars, plagues and natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis which will beset the world till the end of time were not necessarily signs of the planet's demise. They were opportunities for them (and so for us) to witness to his love in the midst of suffering.

We do not have the answers to the problem of suffering. God takes no delight in human pain or tragedy, as can clearly be seen in the Son of God's compassion and care for the weak, the poor and the sick. Jesus never said to anyone in the gospel that he wouldn't heal them. But he himself was a victim of suffering. He himself experienced the end of the world as he died on the cross. But Love conquered death; the end was a new beginning; and now we know the end of the world is the beginning of Life.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
10th November 2013

As the Church's year draws to its close, we are reminded that the resurrection of the dead is not some abstract doctrine that lies in some theoretical future, but the lived experience of the Easter mystery in the here-and-now. The Sadducees, who were more concerned about scoring points over their rivals, the Pharisees, than learning anything from Jesus, tried to rubbish the resurrection. But Jesus answers them, not by pushing the resurrection into some future end-of-world scenario, nor by consigning it to Moses' time in the past. In effect he says: if you believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today and for ever, then all who belong to him are alive in him. God has no past, present or future: he is the eternal Now. Just as Jesus died and rose again, so all who die in Christ are risen with him too. Our personal resurrection may not yet be realised, but it is already assured because Jesus has risen from the dead.

As the British Legion poppy sellers remind us of our mortality by calling to mind our often forgotten dead, or the carpet of autumn leaves paves the way for new growth in the spring, so this month of remembering is about our hope for the future. In our local village church is a seventeenth century gravestone depicting a grinning skull with the pithy Latin words: “Hodie mihi: cras tibi” - “today, this is me: tomorrow, this is you!” A reminder of our mortality needs always to be balanced by a declaration of our immortality. “We are God's children now, but what we are to be has not yet been revealed, except that we shall see God as he really is” (I John 3).

God bless you and yours.

John

 


THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
3rd November 2013

You know what these tax people are like. They're after your hard-earned money, and their favourite trick is to send you a tax demand which is way over the top, just to test your reflexes. Then you're on the phone for hours before you talk to a real person. The secret is, when you do finally hear a real voice, ask their name and write it down.

It happened to me the other day. I asked his name, and he said: “Zacchaeus.” I thought, oh no, that's the guy who squeezes the last drop of life-blood from your veins, and what he doesn't hand over to the Roman governor he spends on himself. Before I could reply he said: “John, don't be afraid. You've overpaid your tax, I know. Four times the amount is being paid back into your account, to prove my good will. Please forgive me for cheating you in the past.”

I was speechless. Was I hearing right? Zacchaeus went on: “Once I met Jesus, I knew there was someone at last who didn't judge or condemn me, who loved me just as I was. That's what changed everything. I was free to make a new start and see everything in a new light. God overlooked my sins so I could repent. I'm a short insignificant guy, but now I walk tall. Have you met Jesus yet?”

Of course I'd met Jesus. I'm a Christian, aren't I? But surely dealing with the Inland Revenue has nothing to do with my Christianity? Everyone knows the game: you try and get away with paying as little tax as possible. All's fair in love and tax! Isn't it, Jesus?

And then I woke up.

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
27th October 2013

The main entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus, is a low narrow doorway. The proud Crusader knight would first have had to dismount his horse, remove his armour, and stoop to enter where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And then kneel in adoration before the silver star set in the floor of the dimly-lit cave where this most ordinary of extraordinary events occurred.

Humility is not about making oneself feel small. It's about recognising the greatness of God. When we are humble we are most truly ourselves and totally unselfconscious. The moment we put the spotlight on our humility we lose it. The wise men and shepherds gazing at the Child in the manger are absorbed in wonder at him; they are not analyzing their reaction to the experience.

Towards the end of this week we celebrate the feast of All Saints. They are the ones who have made the greatness of God and the following of Christ their priority, and everything else, including their own lives, was secondary. We will never know just how many saints there are; like the inscription on the graves of unknown soldiers in the two world wars, they are “known only to God”. And maybe we will be the most surprised of all to find ourselves among their number at the end of time.

“Man looks at appearances: the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16). Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector is about recognising and removing the self-deception that masquerades as holiness. Disarmament is the key. We have to get off our high horse, remove our defences, and stand naked and empty before the God who loves us as we are.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

John

 


 

TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
20th October 2013

Anyone who has tried to contact the Inland Revenue by phone or attempted to book a flight on British Airways by the same method will have some sympathy with Moses in the first reading and the widow in the gospel. Despite all their efforts to put you off, the secret is to persevere. The evangelist puts the message succinctly: the need to pray continually and never lose heart.

God does not hand everything to us on a plate, like a divine fairy godmother. He loves us too much to even consider such condescension. The advice of St Ignatius Loyola puts it well: “Work as if everything depended on you, and pray as if everything depended on God.” Moses did not demand Joshua and the army to join him in prayer but to fight the battle, nor did Joshua insist on Moses abandoning prayer to fight the battle. The widow did not go to the Temple to complain to God about injustice but confronted the unjust judge directly.

“Our sufferings bring patience, and patience bring perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts...” (Romans 5:4-5). These words of Paul describe well the process undergone by both Moses in today's first reading and the widow in the gospel. There is an urgent cause to fight for; the constraint of it brings suffering but, if the cause is worth it, we won't give up. But between suffering and this perseverance, Paul inserts patience. Without patience we will never persevere. It's the same message as in Habakkuk two weeks ago: if it comes slowly, wait.

Lord, give me patience – and hurry up about it, I want it now!

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
13th October 2013

Gratitude is a dying art. Saying “thank you” can be a reflex, a mere habit, and even that seems to be becoming rarer. But true appreciation, a real awareness of what it means to receive a gift, to recognise the kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity of another, demands a sense of wonder. We are the richer for what we have received, and we are touched by it.

Our ingratitude stems from a number of causes. Today the pace of living is such that we rarely find the time to realise the gift, let alone acknowledge the giver. Then again, we do not like to admit our dependence, our indebtedness to the giver, for fear we are somehow at a disadvantage. Pride has many subtle guises.

The Samaritan who came back to thank Jesus knew what gratitude was. He was a member of a despised and outcast race. In addition he was a feared and outcast leper. He had nothing, but he had received enrichment beyond his wildest dreams: he was free of his crippling and shameful disease; his dignity as a human being had been restored; and the gift of faith in Jesus had set him free. He came back to Jesus praising God. What greater evidence of gratitude? For he was not saying: I'm healed, aren't I wonderful? Instead, his focus was wholly on God from whom these blessings had come.

If only we realised how much we have received, and all the people from our parents onward who have shaped and enriched our lives. Every day is a gift. Every breath we breathe is an act of gratitude to our Creator, without whom we would not exist at all.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
6th October 2013

I can sympathise with the prophet Habakkuk who sees nothing but violence and discord around him. He was living in a similar situation to the people of Syria today, wondering if there could ever be a resolution to the endless spiral of destruction.

And now, it seems, on the brink of another Middle East war, the powers-that-be have at last resorted to diplomatic cooperation when all seemed lost. When Habakkuk brought his complaint before the Lord, he did not demand an instant response. He persevered by taking his stand before the throne of Divine Mercy and watched and waited. He was rewarded with the Lord’s word. “My vision for the time to come will be revealed to you. But if it comes slowly, wait; for come it will, without fail.”

We live in an age where we demand instant answers to everything. We don’t like to be kept waiting; we want it now, whether it’s faster internet access or dinner time. But major decisions require time, thought, prayer, and maybe consultation with others. A rushed decision is invariably a bad decision.

Someone once called prayer “wasting time with God”. Stopping, listening, discerning the will of God – all this takes time, and when there’s no quick answers we can become impatient. But it is not a process of discovering how God is going to deal with the situation. It’s about giving God space to change our perspective to his. It’s allowing God to take the initiative, and God knows how long that will take. The saints are those who are so tuned to God by long practice of this surrender to him that they see more clearly than the rest of us.

Lord, increase our faith.

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
29th September 2013

Pope Francis freely admits that what changed him from being an authoritarian young Jesuit (he was a superior at the age of 36) to a caring pastor as Archbishop of Buenos Aires was his encounter with the poor. One of his close aides said recently: “He doesn’t see the poor as people he can help but rather as people from whom he can learn.”

The rich man in today’s gospel did not help the poor man Lazarus, let alone learn from him. He chose to ignore the beggar outside his front door, turning a blind eye to him. Yet significantly Jesus gives no name to the famous rich man (“Dives” is simply the Latin word for “rich man”), but the poor man he calls “Lazarus” – in Hebrew this means “God has helped” – perhaps naming him after his friend who was the brother of Mary and Martha. The rich man had not helped Lazarus, but God has.

Jesus draws his hearers to an encounter with this poor man, describing how he feels and inviting us to enter into his perspective on life. He evokes compassion, a virtue even the dogs displayed by licking Lazarus’ sores. Compassion is not a word with which the rich and powerful of the world feel comfortable. They are threatened by its challenge to their self-sufficiency and demean it as weakness.

Again, some recent words of Pope Francis about leadership in the Church are instructive. “The ministers of the gospel must be those who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and themselves go down into their people’s night but without getting lost.”

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
22nd September 2013

Recently we were arranging a couple more Aquila concerts for the autumn. One of the churches we approached could not quite understand how we could offer a concert free plus encourage them to take a collection for a charity of their own choice without charging a fee for ourselves. Once they realised it was a genuine offer they were delighted to accept. Money is such a controlling influence on our lives that it does not take much to allow it to rule everything.

Yet Jesus’ clear message today is: you cannot serve God and money. Is money your servant or your master? Who or what dictates your relationship with it? The parable Jesus tells is a subtle one; it is about a man who has been careless about his responsibilities towards his employer but tries to salvage his reputation by using his employer’s resources to feather his own nest. Two wrongs do not make a right. But how contemporary and familiar is the scene. The same selfish gene is at work at all levels of society today; people will do anything to justify their position, however much it wrecks other people’s lives.

Jesus, in no way approving of such amoral behaviour, unexpectedly praises the ingenuity of their efforts. In effect he says: if you can expend so much energy and craftiness in doing wrong, why not be more positive? Why not make the same effort at doing good? How much happier and more united our world would be. Whether it be banking scandals or corrupt politicians, the misuse of money is ultimately a misuse of power. Is the power of Christ’s love in our hearts the energy of our lives? Or has money supplanted it?

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
15th September 2013

After a run of challenging Sunday gospels, the familiar parable of the lost son may come as a welcome break. But don’t be deceived: accepting the mercy of God can appear a soft option to embracing the cross, when in truth they are two aspects of the same reality.

Just as Jesus’ death on the cross is not an event to be admired from afar but an invitation to share in it, so God’s mercy is only effective if we are transformed by it, and become his mercy to others. This year, the words of the father to the elder son are haunting me: “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” These words could equally have been addressed to the errant younger son. What day, what hour went by during his absence when the father did not think of him, wonder how he was, longed to embrace him?

Absent in body the younger son was always in his heart, just as the elder son was present in body but distanced himself from his father’s love by his jealousy and judgemental attitude. “All I have is yours.” These extraordinary words of God to us are mind-blowing.

The Father has not simply given us our share, or a limited selection of his gifts. He has given us everything, whether we treasure or trample on him. And just as his mercy is only effective if we are merciful, so all he gives us is only realised if we give our all in his service by serving others. In John 17 Jesus says to the Father: “all I have is yours, and all you have is mine. “ What can I give to the Lord for all he has given to me? (Ps 115)

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
8th September 2013

Strong language in today’s gospel. “If anyone comes to me without hating their nearest and dearest, including themselves, they cannot be my disciple!” How does that square with “love your neighbour as yourself”?

Having had the privilege of studying and reflecting on the Bible and coming to understand the true meaning of texts like these, I’ve spent much of my life trying to unpack them for others. Sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have done a great disservice to the word of God by their literal interpretation of it and so trivialising it. An appreciation of Jewish language and thought shows that “hate” is an emphatic way of saying that Christians are called upon to put their relationship with Jesus before every other relationship of their lives. Or to put it another way, if we love the Lord and love others as we love the Lord, all will be well. In practice of course we find God revealed in God’s creatures. A positive experience of being loved by others reveals God’s love for us; a negative experience of love does not, or worse, can give us a distorted image of God.

Once we realise everything we are and everything we have comes from God, then we experience a tremendous freedom. To give up all my possessions should not be difficult because I haven’t any. I only have what God has entrusted to me, including my life. Once I lose sight of this truth, I cease to be grateful. I become selfish and cling fearfully lest I lose something. I become suspicious and acquisitive. I am no longer at peace. Let go. Let God. And never cease to wonder at his never-failing gifts, freely given to us unstintingly.

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
1st September 2013

Our local parish in Brittany is served by a delightful elderly priest whom we have nicknamed “Père Sourire” (or “Fr Smiley”). He regularly goes down the church just before Sunday Mass and with a broad smile ushers all those at the back to the front.

Unlike the Pharisees whom Jesus observed taking the seats of honour at the head of the table, very few Catholics see sitting in he front of the church as a place of privilege. The competition is often for the back seats, where one can slip out early without being noticed! But transfer the scene to a dinner party. If you are a guest, do you judge your fellow guests or express surprise at your host’s choice of food or table companions? If you are the host, does your seating plan or lack of sensitivity make any of your guests feel intimidated or uncomfortable? Jesus’ comments in today’s gospel to the guests in his day may seem irrelevant and even amusing to us now, but his advice to the host is as pertinent as ever. Our care for the less fortunate and the marginalised should be our priority. We are not to make such people feel patronised or an object of charity; on the contrary we should treat them with love and respect as brothers and sisters – and certainly not in expectation of any gain for ourselves.

All these things may seem small and perhaps trivial compared with events on he world stage at the moment, with the critical situation in Syria and the escalating civil unrest in Egypt, for example. But it is precisely those courtesies and priorities at home which are fundamental to all human relationships; “be gentle in carrying out your business” (Sirach). And a smile goes a long way.

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
25th August 2013

Never before in human history have we had such an awareness of being part of a global community. Through information technology we have instant access to every corner of the earth; our thirst for knowledge has become addictive. But although such knowledge gives us power, it does not necessarily make us any better. Back in 1934, the poet TS Eliot wrote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Without the cohesion of love and a vision of the world that unites us rather than divides, we become the centre of our own perceptions and judge everything from our own blinkered perspective.

The wisdom of God revealed in Jesus opens our natural self-centredness to embrace our world compassionately, enlarging our vision and in the process expanding our own hearts too. Paradoxically, Jesus describes this process as entering by the narrow door. This image evokes two pictures for me: the first is the low narrow entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the second the tiny door to the rose garden, through which Alice passed into Wonderland only by making herself small enough. It is the child, not the warrior; the servant, not the lord; the poor in spirit, not the acquisitive rich, who will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Our arrogance and suspicion of each other diminishes the world; our wonder, respect and willingness to learn expands it. We can feel helpless and frustrated that our puny efforts at loving our neighbour seem so small and insignificant. But every act of love is an act of God. Our compassionate and forgiving hearts in loving like Jesus are infinitely more far-reaching than the Internet. Grace cannot be measured in gigabytes.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
18th August 2013

This week we are in northern France, visiting some of the battlefields of the First World War. It is hardly a holiday, as the extraordinary sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, including our own family members, is ever in our minds. The opening words of the second reading from Hebrews could not be more apt. “With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too should throw off everything that hinders us….. and keep running steadily in the race we have started.” Standing in the midst of a sea of headstones, many inscribed to a soldier whose name is “known only to God”, is an experience of the vast and terrible waste of lives and the heroism of their sacrifice.

The image in the first reading of Jeremiah being thrown into an empty well and slowly being sucked down into the mud at the bottom evokes for me the quagmire of mud through which half a million troops at Passchendaele struggled for nearly three months in 1917. The sense of hopelessness the conditions must have engendered in the stoutest heart is almost unbearable. The psalmist puts on the lips of Jeremiah in his predicament the words: “I waited, I waited for the Lord, and he stooped down to me; he heard my cry. He drew me from the miry clay.”

Without that trust in the Lord, there is no help. We cannot save ourselves from death; only the Saviour can save and has saved us. “Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith. Think of the way he endured the cross, and then you will not give up for want of courage,” Hebrews tells us.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
11th August 2013

This week we went to see a play in the West End of London entitled The Cripple of Inishmaan. Having recently visited Inishmaan, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, we found that the play only used the island as a setting for a comic interaction of a number of larger-than-life but believable Irish characters.

The cripple was a young man, an orphan brought up by his two aunts, who yearned to be free of his condition; as a cripple he was regarded with pity but useless. When an American film crew come to the islands looking for Hollywood material, he is determined to try his chance. Against the odds he is chosen for screen testing in America, and sails away without consulting those he leaves behind. The film crew decide that they would prefer an actor playing the part of a cripple to a real cripple; and months later he returns home with advanced tuberculosis to a mixed reception.

Like Abraham and Sarah in today’s second reading, faith spurs him on. Despite all the obstacles he perseveres. He knows deep down, despite so much rejection, he is worth something. And that is true of each one of us. No-one is a write-off. We are all created in the image and likeness of God. What we make of our weakness and brokenness is the measure of our faith. Where the Spirit leads us on that journey is not always clear. And if that is true of our own life, it is equally true of everyone else’s. Who are we to judge our neighbour?

Jesus says: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And we are his treasure, where his heart is.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
4th August 2013

I have to admit a tendency to hoard. Of all my possessions, books are the most difficult to get rid of, so on the occasions when I’ve moved house I’ve tried to jettison things I haven’t used and make a fresh start. But however much I try to thin out the bookshelves, other volumes sneak into their place over time.

Ultimately, the question I have to ask myself is: do I possess my possessions, or do they possess me? Is all I have, whether material or spiritual, my reputation and talents as much as my home or my car, dictating my life and its priorities? This is the question underlying Jesus’ challenge to the man in the gospel demanding a share in the family wealth. Unencumbered by riches or material goods, Jesus knew that our life is not made secure by what we own, even when it is more than we need.

Yet we live this illusion that unless we have this i-phone or that car we cannot truly be happy. Our security rests, not on the Father’s love for us but on human approval. The more uncertain and insecure our world becomes, the more we need to ask ourselves what our real security is. If we cannot find peace in God’s will, so sublimely exemplified in Jesus, where else can we find it?

All I possess I do not possess. All I have is gift. All I have is what God has given me from the first moment of my existence, and that very existence is his gift too. And we are gifts of God to one another.

Now somewhere on my shelves is a book about that....

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
28th July 2013

Prayer, like breathing, is not a part-time activity. St Paul says: “Pray without ceasing”. But like breathing it has a rhythm: sometimes we are actively engaged in it, as when we draw air into our lungs; and at other times it happens without our awareness, as when we exhale.

Prayer is not primarily what we do; it is first what God does in us. At the beginning God breathed into our nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2) and we became a living being. The new-born baby opens its lungs for the first time involuntarily; prayer is truly our divine reflexes at work. The dying man breathes out that breath first taken at birth and what was given returns to the Giver.

Prayer can be infectious. The disciples experience Jesus praying in their midst, and they want some of it: “Lord, teach us to pray. Can we have an intimate and vibrant relationship with God, just like you?” And he teaches them to address God in the same intimate and personal way he does: “Abba”. The simplest prayers are the best. “As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so is my soul.”

Persevere in prayer. Sometimes it seems to get nowhere. There’s an uncomfortable silence as the echo of our cries fade into the night. Doesn’t God care? In Ireland they currently express their willingness to help with the phrase: “No bother.” The man in the gospel today didn’t want to be bothered to get up in the night. But persistence overcame his reluctance. God wants us to persevere in the darknesses of life and discover the radiant secret: God is there at the heart of everything. Thank you, Abba, that we are no bother to you.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
21st July 2013

Hospitality is hugely rewarding but can be very hard work. Recently we hosted a family gathering of seventy people in our house and garden. Fortunately the weather was kind, but there were other anxieties about having enough food and drink (or too much), and would there be enough chairs?

The danger can be that we spend all our time running around after the guests and never sit down to give them more than our passing attention. This was Martha’s blind spot. Mary on the other hand provided the balance by being a listener to that most special of guests, Jesus. At the same moment Jesus was nourishing hearts and minds with his words, Mary was nourishing Jesus with her attention, and Martha with her culinary skills.

The comparison with Abraham in the first reading is instructive. After laying food and drink before his angelic guests, Abraham stands and waits on them – in both senses of the word. He serves them at table, and waits in listening attention to their words. His hospitality is rewarded with hearing an incredible promise: within a year his barren wife Sarah will be with child.

One hotel we stayed at in Ireland treated us not as clients or customers but as guests. We were honoured members of the family during our forty-eight hour sojourn. The experience of truly being a guest is a salutary lesson in how to be a good host. The wandering Irish monks of old saw themselves as “hospites mundi” – guests of the world, and respected the whole of creation. Our pilgrimage of faith as followers of Christ teaches us both to welcome strangers as if they were angels (Hebrews 13:2) and to make hospitality our special care (Romans 12:13).

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
14th July 2013

Even though the Troubles in Northern Ireland are officially over, July 12th is still a flashpoint when it comes to Orange parades through Catholic areas, and this year was no exception. Having just returned from Ireland last week, including a couple of days in the North, there were certain towns we passed through where the Union Jack was much in evidence and the pavement striped in red, white and blue; but the street names were written in Irish and the tension that used to be in the Ulster air had largely dissipated. No doubt there are still “no-go” areas.

The test comes with the question: “Who is my neighbour?” The parable of the Good Samaritan is about identifying the neighbour, not by race, colour or creed but by behaviour and attitude. Once when we were in Nairobi trying to reach the bus station through a notoriously dangerous part of the city, it was not the one who warned us of the danger who was our neighbour, but the one who took us there himself at his own risk.

Many years ago my mother spotted a woman in the street outside our home wandering up and down looking lost. On enquiry she told my mother that she had come looking for a convent she had known as a child, and my mother knew the convent had closed down thirty years before. She was suffering from dementia and had walked out of a care home in south London. After feeding her and giving her warm clothing, my parents took her to the other side of London whence she came. When Lambeth social services asked the woman if my parents were relatives her face lit up. “No,” Kathleen said. “They aren’t related. They are my friends.”

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
7th July 2013

From Jacob’s well, where Jesus has just been speaking to the Samaritan woman, Jesus invites his disciples to look around them. “Look around you, look at the fields; already they are white, ready for harvest!” (John 4:35). As we look around our world today, do we see a harvest ripe for reaping? Or do we only see a bleak landscape ravaged by war, squabbled over by opposing factions, reduced to poverty and hopelessness?

In Luke’s gospel today, Jesus sends out the seventy-two disciples. He does not start by saying: “It’s a tough world out there; I don’t expect you’ll get very far; but have a try, anyway”! He begins with the hopeful view from Jacob’s well: “The harvest is rich.” And that is the vision he wants us to have now. A harvest does not happen by accident. It is the fruit of much labour and careful planning which we don’t always notice. Down the ages God sent his prophets and messengers to Israel and they seemingly got nowhere. But God was preparing the way for the gift of his Son, and few realised it.

We need the eyes of faith to see in the apparent devastated wilderness of the world an extraordinary harvest. The potential is enormous. All that is needed is to recognise it and to reap it with the sickle of love. The labourers are few, but the grace of God transforms their humble sickles into combine harvesters. Our very weakness and vulnerability is our qualification for the job. And like the disciples of old, we are amazed at the results – if we have the courage to persevere. We are called and empowered by the Lord himself, whose work it is.

Start off now.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

SAINT PETER AND SAINT PAUL
30th June 2013

Over the tombs of these two great apostles in Rome are two splendid basilicas. The scale and decoration of these churches are breathtaking. St Peter’s on the Vatican hill is within the city, the enormous piazza in front of it a place where thousands can gather for significant events in the life of the Church. St Paul’s lies outside the city in a more tranquil greener setting, but is no less imposing a building. Perhaps the setting of these basilicas says something of the saints they commemorate: Peter, the rock at the centre, the focus of the Church on earth; Paul, the pilgrim preacher on the edge, ever ready to set off across the world with the gospel.

In life they do not appear to have met often. After his dramatic conversion, Paul recounts how he spent fifteen days in Jerusalem with Peter, but it was fourteen years later before they met again (Galatians 2). By that time each had adopted their own approach: Peter preached to the Jews while Paul evangelised the Gentiles. While at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) the tensions between the two mission fields were officially resolved, Paul claims in Galatians 2 that Peter did not respect the spirit of the agreement and challenged him accordingly.

Tensions within the Church, and resolving differences, are not confined to the apostolic era. The catholicity of the Church is the mark of its ability to embrace and reconcile. Peter and Paul are rightly celebrated together because the People of God are on a pilgrimage called the Kingdom of God, rejoicing in a variety of gifts for a common purpose. Beneath the two great Roman basilicas, the bones of Peter and those of Paul look indistinguishable, as they share equally the glory of heaven.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

TWELFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
23rd June 2013

I like the story of the bishop who was visiting a nursing home for the elderly. Dressed in his finery, he approached an old lady sitting dreamily in her chair. “Do you know who I am?” he asked with a smile. She looked at him vaguely, shook her head and said: “No, dear. But go and see Matron. She’ll tell you.”

Who am I? Am I simply the information about me in my passport or driving licence? Am I more than my job description or the photograph on my identity card? When Jesus asked his disciples, “who do the crowds say I am?” it wasn’t because he wasn’t sure of himself or wished to check his popularity ratings. He was checking on the level of awareness of his followers. It is significant that Luke puts this episode in the context of Jesus praying. At that moment, communing with his Father, Jesus was more serenely centred in his identity as Son of God and Son of Man.

So his next question to them is direct and inescapable. They could not fudge the answer. “Who do you say I am?” And their answer, whether they realised it or not, was not about Jesus’ identity but their identity as his disciples. “You are the Christ of God.” In that profession of faith they identify themselves as Christians, and who they truly are is revealed.

Who am I? I want to be a follower of Jesus, renounce myself, take up my cross every day and follow him. Therein lies my true self, a “work in progress”. If I want to know who I really am, I don’t consult my passport. I don’t even ask Matron. I pray to my heavenly Father in the Spirit of Jesus.

May the Lord bless you.

John
 


 

ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
16th June 2013

By all accounts, anyone who invited Jesus to dine with them was taking a risk. It’s a puzzle why a Pharisee should want to invite him in the first place, but perhaps his host was trying to observe him more closely, to catch him out in what he said or did. If so, Simon the Pharisee was rewarded – but at the cost of acute embarrassment to himself and his guests.

Simon has completely ignored the usual courtesies of washing his guest’s feet, greeting him with a kiss and anointing his head with oil. The woman “who was a sinner” comes in off the street uninvited to render these services to Jesus as he lay reclining at dinner. While Simon gazes in horror at her actions, Jesus appears totally unfazed. Simon sees blatantly sinful unclean behaviour; Jesus sees enormous love and generosity, and is not afraid of challenging Simon’s perception.

And what do we see? We can see ourselves in Simon’ position, ready to judge and condemn others who “break the rules” or do not conform to expectations – especially if our guests are present. At other times we can see ourselves as that anonymous woman, so aware of how Jesus’ love has transformed our lives that we ignore human disapproval. We become fools for Christ’s sake. That is why Jesus takes her part. When we behave like Simon, we are on our own. But when like the woman we do the loving thing, we are not alone, because Jesus is with us.

Actions speak louder than words. The woman never said a word, but her actions of weeping, kissing Jesus’ feet and anointing him said it all. Even when misinterpreted and misunderstood, she kept loving. And so must we.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

TENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
9th June 2013

There are only two occasions in the gospels when Jesus raises someone from the dead. One is the raising of Lazarus (John 11) and the other is today’s extract from Luke, the raising of the widow’s son at Nain. Yet the way this second event is related is muted. The focus is not really the spectacular miracle of raising a dead man to life, which is amazing enough. What comes across in Luke’s narrative is Jesus’ compassion. He sees a woman who has already lost her husband. Now her only son is cruelly taken from her too, leaving her alone, defenceless and vulnerable. Her future is bleak. The only redeeming factor is that “a considerable number of the town’s people were with her”.

Jesus tells her not to weep. She has suffered enough. Then he lays his hand on the bier carrying the body of her son. “Laying his hand” is an expression implying the gesture of healing and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. Then he tells the dead man to get up. And finally he gives him back to his mother.

Compassion is instinctive. It is not calculated or contrived. How do I respond to others’ grief or misfortune? Like Jesus, we meet situations while we about our daily business that cry out for a response. Do we get involved, or pass by on the other side? First, we can speak an appropriate word from the heart. Then we can show our concern in a gesture of solidarity – a touch or embrace, sending a sympathy- or get well-card. We may not literally tell someone to rise from the dead, but we can give people hope and strength through our loving concern. And we can give them back their dignity as loved children of God.

May the Lord bless you.

John
 


 

TRINITY SUNDAY
26th May 2013

The handiwork of God is everywhere evident in our world; his tell-tale fingerprints show up throughout creation. Some have posited a false dichotomy between science and faith, as if they are opposed to each other; both scientists and religious teachers have wanted to perpetuate that unnecessary myth. But Christianity is not about driving a wedge between heaven and earth; it’s about a God who, having made humanity in his/her image and likeness, is drawing us deeper and deeper into the mystery of the Godhead. And God does that by revealing more and more the wonder and infinite richness of our universe.

Jesus puts it in human language for us. Knowing both our insatiable curiosity and God’s desire to draw us to himself, he says: “I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now.” When we cease to be amazed at the created order, when the pain of human cruelty and suffering causes us to withdraw from the adventure of faith, then we set limits which we expect God to observe too. When we shrink our world to manageable size, we diminish ourselves also.

“But when the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus continues, “he will lead you to the complete truth.” Are we prepared to be led, or do we prefer to dictate the pace and the route? I once wrote a song which begins: “The beauty of not knowing where you’re leading me is more vibrant than the certainty of dawn.” To believe that, even for one wild moment, opens the door to a vista of wonder which is impossible to resist; and if we hesitate, we may for ever regret it. Say yes now, before the solid door of doubt closes on your vision.

May the Lord bless you.

John

 


 

PENTECOST SUNDAY
19th May 2013

Something happened to the 12 disciples gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. They struggled to describe their experience in imagery such as “the sound of a mighty wind” and “tongues of fire”. They were taken by surprise; it happened “suddenly”. And it transformed them. People who heard and saw them subsequently were amazed.

I am forever grateful for my encounter and involvement with the charismatic renewal movement in the early 1970s. It wasn’t that I didn’t “have” the Holy Spirit until then – it’s just that I was unaware of the power of the Spirit in me and in our world, and becoming more aware has enabled me to say the “yes” which released that power in my life. The renewal has allowed me to recognise significant moments – at the time or on subsequent reflection – when God is at work in me, not because of any effort or merit of mine, but purely by his favour and design. Like the disciples at Pentecost, I’ve often found it difficult to describe; it is unpredictable and transformative; and the sign that it’s not simply a personal inner feeling is in the reaction of those I encounter, who see the fruits of the Spirit in my inadequate attempts at loving service.

Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can I identify with Paul’s assertion: “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). To believe in the Holy Spirit is to see God everywhere and in everything, even in the pain and poverty and shabbiness of the world, and letting Christ live and love the world through us. As Mother Teresa is reputed to have said, “God did not say to us: ‘be successful’, but ‘be faithful’.”

Come, Holy Spirit!

John

 


 

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
12th May 2013

On Wednesday last week we drove to Preston and back (a six hundred mile round trip) for the funeral of a very special priest. Peter Dolan was an unforgettable experience, and the manner of his send-off was a perfect match. With standing room only in the packed church plus a video link to the hall next door, the Catholic community in Ingol were saying how much they loved their parish priest who had loved them for almost forty years. As the hearse bearing his mortal remains left the church for the cemetery, people broke out into spontaneous applause, and the children from the local primary school lined the pavement chanting the “Amen!” he had taught them with an enthusiastic Mexican wave. It was sad to say goodbye, yes; but what an inspiring and uplifting occasion, rejoicing that a man who preached Jesus with his life was returning home to the God who loved him to the end.

Isn’t today’s feast full of the same heady mixture of sadness at parting being saturated in joy and celebration? Luke’s gospel ends with Jesus being carried up to heaven, after which his disciples returned to Jerusalem, not despondent at his departure but “full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God” (24:53).

In his reflection at our friend Peter’s funeral, Bishop Cyril quoted St Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian monk, who addressed each of his disciples as “my joy”. Joy was the hallmark of Peter’s ministry, and despite life’s setbacks his joy was irrepressible. About the time I first met him over thirty years ago, I learned that if you put Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last, you will have JOY!

The Lord is risen and ascended. Alleluia!

John

 


 

SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
5th May 2013

The Word was made flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). “Lived” in this context translates a Greek word which literally means “pitched his tent among us”. This implies that the Son of God came not as a permanent resident but a passing pilgrim, a traveller ready to move on, like the Israelites in the desert. But the gospel today speaks of the Son and the Father making their home in each one who keeps Jesus’ word. So while we are pilgrims until we reach our home in heaven, the wonder is this: heaven, our true homeland, is already in our hearts.

Perhaps you find that disappointing. Maybe your experience of this life is far from heavenly, and you’re looking forward to going somewhere better. But heaven is not “somewhere else”. Heaven is where God is. And God, who in Jesus cannot but love us, wants to be where we are, right here in our messy, ordinary, sinful, beautiful world. The Holy Spirit makes this effective in us, opening our eyes to the reality of God’s love which we habitually try to limit to “holy” or “good” people. You can’t mean me, you say.

When we finally trust God and accept the truth that he loves us just as we are, then we experience his gift of peace, a peace “the world cannot give”. The world can give us moments of peace and quiet, but we are such restless creatures we can rarely enjoy them for long. No, the peace Jesus gives is about total trust. We may not feel it, but we believe it. Therefore St. John’s next sentence should not take us by surprise: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” So why are they?

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John

 


 

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
28th April 2013

It is difficult to measure love. Sometimes you do your best for others, only to have it thrown back in your face. At other times you feel you have done so little, yet you are met with overwhelming gratitude. Of course, the love we receive can be equally unpredictable. Love, like the God who is Love, is inevitably beyond our measurement or manipulation – thank God! It is always free gift.

The mystery and uniqueness of each human person is affirmed by love. When Jesus says “Love one another,” he is acknowledging that mystery. But by adding “as I have loved you,” he is specifically pointing to his own self-emptying love which led him to renounce the privilege of divinity and accept the status of a slave. Are you prepared, not only to wash others’ feet, but to be nailed to a cross? Our love is to be as self-emptying as Jesus’ love. If we aim to love each other as Jesus loves us, then he will have the glory, not us. Everyone will know that we are his disciples. The uniqueness of each individual’s love will uniquely embody Jesus.

The more we do this, the more we will see love in new and unexpected places and faces. The more we look at ourselves and our own efforts, anxiously checking our imagined “love achievement index”, the less love we will find, because the focus is on ourselves, not Jesus Christ. That is why daily reflection on God’s word, especially the gospels, is the essential corrective to our faulty vision.

Yes, it is difficult to love, because it costs us much effort and heartache. But is anything less worth having? Our world today needs urgently to rediscover this truth, and therefore our Christian witness is never so timely.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John

 


 

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
21st April 2013

John in the Apocalypse says of the redeemed that “the Lamb....will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water”. A lamb is a baby sheep which needs looking after by older sheep, and all the sheep in turn need the care of the shepherd. But John’s image makes the weakest member of the flock its leader and guide. The good shepherd, therefore, is the one who is the least, not the greatest. As Jesus put it, only those who become like children can enter the kingdom of heaven.

Pope Francis as servant of the servants of God exemplifies this well. His life of poverty and simplicity in the splendid setting of the Vatican shows up how easily the trappings and traditions of high office can obscure our Christian witness, but his example shines through in contrast. Jesus’ message is not always welcome in the world, but it is often most clearly seen when it stands out as a sign of contradiction. We must not be afraid of that.

The on-going civil war in Syria, threats of nuclear war by North Korea, and lately the bombs during the Boston marathon all serve to ratchet up the tension of fear and suspicion in the human community. In such an atmosphere rash decisions can easily be made which only escalate the violence. Non-violence is not an escape, still less despairing apathy, but a vital engagement with space for truth and real discernment. If we do not allow the selfish individualism and lack of compassion rampant in our society to dictate our response to the situation, but reach out in love and care to those in need around us, the gospel message will be heard. If it evokes ridicule and rejection from others, we have truly triumphed.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John

 


 

THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
14th April 2013

What are you doing today? Is it a routine day, much as any other? Is it full of surprises, pleasant or not so pleasant? Is it wearisome, exciting, frustrating, peaceful? However life is for you now, the risen Lord is present with you and within you, whether or not you recognise it. Learning to discern this truth helps to sustain our faith and open us to the Spirit’s call to discipleship.

In the gospel today, the disciples are doing what they were doing when Jesus first called them – fishing in the lake. Luke has this story of a miraculous catch of fish at the beginning of his gospel: John puts it at the end. Luke has Jesus in a boat talking to the fishermen on the shore mending their nets. John has Jesus on the shore calling to the fishermen in their boat out on the lake. “Have you caught anything, friends?” How is life for you now? Is it yielding results? Or is it getting nowhere? Let Jesus direct your efforts. Listen to his voice. He can see the bigger picture. “Throw out your nets in this direction and you’ll find something.”

The next scene has Jesus serving breakfast. Like the washing of the feet, this servant action is a foretaste of the Kingdom when Jesus will put on an apron, sit us at table and wait on us. In this Eucharistic setting, he gives us an example of service for us to imitate. “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.” We are often so busy that we do not allow ourselves to be loved in such a way that we can respond in love. We are too busy doing that we never learn to be.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John
 


 

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
7th April 2013

The Wherryman’s Way is a thirty-five mile footpath from Norwich to Great Yarmouth, following the course of the River Yare as it winds from the city to the sea. It passes not far from our home, and two years ago we walked its full length in five stages. Starting in busy streets, through a sewage works and on to quiet lanes, much of its later length is along riverbank paths where one can meet hardly a soul for hours, if one discounts the swans, geese or occasional shy water deer. Impatient for a break the wintry weather, we have started to retrace this atmospheric way, in hopes it will hasten the tardy spring.

The Acts of the Apostles, the staple lectionary fare of the Eastertide liturgy, marks the route taken by the infant Church from the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to the arrival of Paul in Rome. In spreading the gospel of Jesus, the apostles meet opposition and persecution, but also amazing success; those expected to be sympathetic to the Good News reject it, while outsiders embrace its message in growing numbers. The conversion of the arch-persecutor Saul into the globe-trotting evangelist Paul is a major triumph of grace. The frictions within the early Christian community and the measures to tackle them are heartening, if only because we echo them in the growing pains of the Church today. But the majority of its chapters chronicle the journeys of Paul – through the streets of busy cities, through lonely wildernesses, urged on by the risen Christ who was his everything.

As we revisit the familiar stories, we encounter Jesus afresh. Don’t wait for the wintry seasons of your life to dissolve – set off now, in the sure hope that you will meet him on the way.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John
 


 

EASTER SUNDAY
31st March 2013

It is claimed that this month has been the coldest March in Britain for forty years. Coming at the end of an already long winter, many people are wondering when the snow and icy winds will give way to spring, just as the million refugees from Syria are despairing of ever returning in peace to their homeland. Yet amid the horror stories of war or weather, there are untold tales of kindness, heroism and miracles of growth.

Easter is one huge unexpected surprise – or it should be. Because we travel through Holy Week every year, each year that passes makes the journey more familiar – the Last Supper, agony in the garden, betrayal and condemnation, the carrying of the cross and crucifixion. Then burial in the tomb. Then resurrection, of course. But why “of course”? Are we assuming all the preceding events apply only to Jesus two thousand years ago? Or do they not apply to him (in his Body) now? And (this is the point) do they not apply to me and you? What of our own last suppers, our lonely agonies, the times we’ve been betrayed and condemned? What of the cross each one of us is called to bear, a cross which others may not even be aware of?

When we travel through the events of Holy Week in our own personal history, resurrection is invariably the last thing we think will happen to us. It always comes as a marvellous surprise. It is God’s gift. We cannot achieve it ourselves: it is beyond us, although in a strange way is all we’ve ever dreamed of being. Our belief in Christ’s resurrection is what sustains us in the darkness and opens us to experience the gift when it comes.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John
 


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
24th March 2013

The election and inauguration of the ministry of Pope Francis is a kairos moment in the life of the Church, a moment of joy, hope and new beginnings. His inaugural Mass, with its splendid setting in St Peter’s Square, exuded the atmosphere of the parish church of the world. His homily spoke clearly and simply, drawing on the example of St Joseph, of service, not power; of firmness yet tenderness; of care for each other, especially the poor and the weak, and (in the spirit of St Francis) for all creation.

I was reminded of the first Pope to be elected in my lifetime – John XXIII – who, like Francis, was elected at the age of 76. At the time it was assumed he would be a “caretaker” Pope, in office for a few years after the long pontificate of Pius XII to prepare for another. As we know now, within a few months the benign old gentleman summoned the Second Vatican Council. The same sense of hope and new life that Vatican II engendered has been rekindled by our first South American Bishop of Rome.

Today is the beginning of the Great and Holy Week, walking in the footsteps of Jesus all the way through betrayal, suffering, condemnation and death to the seemingly impossible outcome of resurrection. Almost the first words of our new Pope on his election were an invitation to walk together the way of love and service in a spirit of hope. This week spells out the cost of that way for Jesus, and so also for us who profess to follow him. Our Holy Father has taken the name Francis, and is living the message of the saint of Assisi: “Preach everywhere, and if necessary, use words.”

Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.

Have a fruitful Holy Week.

John
 


 

FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
 17th March 2013

“Quo vadis? Where are you going?” Those words with which Jesus is said to have challenged Peter as the latter fled persecution in Rome are pertinent for us in Lent. Where are we going in our lives, our Church, our world? What direction have we chosen to pursue in this holy season?

The journey theme runs through all today’s readings. God speaks to us in Isaiah as we walk life’s road, telling us not to look back in regret or shame, but forward to God’s new designs and dreams for us. Something new is happening. Paul writes to the Philippians in a similar vein: “I forget the past and I strain ahead for what is to come,” he says, and later, “let us go forward on the road that has brought us to where we are.”

It is never too late to change. The unnamed woman caught in adultery thought the end of the road had come, as she faced the hostile crowd ready to stone her to death. When we face major traumas in life, such as bereavement, serious illness, losing our job, our home or our reputation, the future looks bleak, even terrifying. Something in us has to die in order for the Lord to do a new deed. The seed that dies in the soil is transformed in death to bring forth new life. Do we trust God enough to believe that?

With the election of Pope Francis this week, it feels like the Church has been born again. Hope has been rekindled. A man “from the ends of the earth” (as he described himself) has been chosen to lead us forward just as the Church faced stoning for her scandals. Humility, prayer, justice for the poor – these are the new Pope’s agenda. Can you not hear Jesus challenging us: “Quo vadis? Where now?”

Happy Lent!

John
 


 

FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
10th March 2013
Mothering Sunday
 

It is a sad fact of contemporary life that the world has become a more intolerant, cruel and violent place. Daily we hear of the civil war in Syria (70,000 dead in two years), victims of gun crime, torture and rape, and cries for revenge. Add in the political, sexual and financial scandals (from which even senior members of the hierarchy are not exempt), and we see a bleak and unhealthy scenario. No wonder people retreat into their shells and become suspicious, defensive and lose respect for themselves as well as others.

By contrast, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son reveals a God who is loving, patient, forgiving, all-suffering and compassionate beyond all imagining. It is a story full of hope and light, even in the face of ridicule, cynicism and condemnation (as exemplified by the elder son). One would therefore expect the Church to be a loving, patient, forgiving, all-suffering, compassionate community, countering the darkness and despair of humanity with light and hope. But sadly we are not always perceived that way. We seem to have contracted the virus we most need to fight against, and become fearful, suspicious and defensive.

Finding ourselves sick among the sick, however, may providentially prove a starting point for a new evangelisation. Have we the courage and humility to grasp the opportunity, or do we still persist in telling the world that we’re right and they’re wrong? In this transition time between two popes, appropriately in the middle of Lent, we must pray as never before for our corporate conformity to the Mother- and Father-heart of God, compassionate, kind, forgiving and true. Holy Spirit, we need you; for how can the world be converted unless we are converted too?

Happy Lent!

John
 


 

THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
3rd March 2013

In our garden are two walnut trees, one at the back and one at the front of the house. The one at the back was looking distressed last year and we asked the advice of a tree expert. He reported that the distressed tree should recover this year; but the healthy-looking one at the front was dying. Appearances can be deceptive.

The same is often true of people. Someone of whom we expected much turns out to be a disappointment; another we had despaired of suddenly blossoms. Like the fig tree in the parable today, we have to be patient and give them another chance. After all, isn’t that how God deals with us in his mercy and forbearance? And are not we to be the same in our dealings with others?

Moses had been forty years in the wilderness of Sinai working for Jethro, his nomadic Bedouin father-in-law. Life at the Egyptian court was a distant memory. Now suddenly, at the age of eighty, he meets God in the burning bush and a whole new chapter of his life begins. The letter to the Hebrews describes the elderly Abraham as “one who was as good as dead himself” – a pretty blunt description – and the same epithet might have been applied to Moses. But the eternal God doesn’t seem to notice our age or frailty. When others have written us off, and indeed when we’ve written ourselves off, God doesn’t say in pity: “I’m giving you one more chance.” No, he says much more. He says, in effect: “You are my chosen instrument, the delight of my eyes and the joy of my heart. I am doing a new deed, and unfolding an undreamed-of chapter of your life. To you it may look nothing much now, but just wait till you see it from my divine perspective.”

Happy Lent!

John

 


 

SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
24th February 2013

Lent is an opportunity for transformation. Despite the cold and snow of late February, nothing can suppress or deny the signs of spring waiting in the wings, impatient to appear.

The gospel of the Transfiguration, coming less than two weeks into Lent, reveals the Church’s impatience for resurrection. Lent is a time for rising to the mountain top, not languishing in the valley of self-flagellation. “Our true homeland is in heaven,” says St Paul, and we yearn to be free of all that holds us back from it.

Yet the taste of glory, when it comes as a gift from God and not according to our calendar, manifests certain features. First, we have to allow Jesus to lead us to where he wants us, and climbing mountains can be arduous. Then we are invited to join him in prayer, which enables us to see things from his perspective. His transfiguration is only comprehended as we ourselves are transfigured with him. Our eyes are opened to the bigger picture; Moses and Elijah represent the great cloud of witnesses surrounding and encouraging us on the way.

Thirdly, we become committed to sharing his “transitus”, his passing, his passion; we must be willing to be led, as Jesus said to Peter after the resurrection, where we would rather not go. Despite the heaviness of sleep, the fear and despondency that weighs us down, we sense this is no time to give up. Then comes the Cloud of Unknowing. The glimpse of glory is gone. But we now know that all we have to do is to listen to the Son of God, and follow Jesus.

In wonder and amazement we are lost for words. We need Lent to give us time to digest it all. Then Easter can dawn upon us.

Happy Lent!

John
 


 

FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
17th February 2013

Every Tuesday evening I put out a dustbin which is emptied on Wednesdays. One week it’s a green one with cardboard, plastic, etc for recycling; the next week it’s a black one with general household rubbish. As I placed the bin on Shrove Tuesday ready for collection on Ash Wednesday, I found both dustbins were an apt symbol of the sacred season of Lent.

The ash of Ash Wednesday, the residue of a fire which is spent, seems useless and worthless. Yet it is placed on our forehead to remind us that God took the spent dust of the soil and breathed into it his Spirit, that we might become a living being in his divine image. The discarded waste in the black bin, the “dust” bin, is of no further use to us, only to be thrown out. So much of what we discard is a precious goldmine for the poor and hungry who see treasure in what we see as rubbish. “Waste” is wasted on us. God collects the rubbish of our sins, only to transfigure it into opportunities for grace.

The green recycling bin helps us recognise the value of all we have and are. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus told his disciples: “Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted” (John 6:12). With Jesus nothing gets wasted. Do we discard or write off people who appear useless to society? Can we not see the sapphires in the mud? Take time this Lent to let God tell you that you are not rubbish but his beloved child. Savour that truth, and show those around you how precious they are to God – and to you.

Happy Lent!

John
 


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
10th February 2013

One of the arguments advanced in favour of the new English translation of the Roman Missal is that the language of public worship should be “hieratic”, “elevated” above ordinary speech, and deliberately different. We are addressing God, not a human being, the argument runs, and ultimately God is beyond our comprehension; how can we adequately address the One before whom we come speechless in wonder and awe?

Language has always fascinated me, and a love of literature from an early age led me to read (and attempt to write) poetry. As TS Eliot wrote in an essay, poetry “is occupied with the frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist”. There’s a parallel here with liturgical language, which although using a text should allow us to break through the printed word to the divine Presence, the ultimate meaning of our lives. Words are useless unless they lead us to the Word made flesh.

Isaiah was lost for words as he worshipped in the Temple. The divine Presence overwhelmed him. Likewise, Peter was overcome by the miraculous catch of fish; it went beyond anything he had ever experienced and fazed him. Yet the greater wonder is that the God who bowled him over did not use unearthly or incomprehensible language. Jesus used what the poet Wordsworth called “the language really used by men”. If the Son of God speaks to us in simple yet profound ways, why do we have to speak to him (at least in public) in complex and obscure fashion? Liturgy is not our attempt to approach God; it is knowing we can’t. Worship is letting ourselves be caught up into God by the Spirit of Jesus. Floored in amazement, flawed in our sinfulness, we hear his voice: “Do not be afraid. Come, follow me.”

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
3rd February 2013

Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue began with his listeners’ approval and ended with their condemnation. He began by proclaiming freedom to captives and healing for the broken-hearted: they applauded his vision of openness and new hope. But then he touched a raw nerve and revealed their instinctive prejudice against foreigners. In Elijah and Elisha’s time, he reminded them, a Syro-Phoenician widow and a Syrian army commander were healed by God, but no Israelites. Kindness to strangers is fine, they consider – but not before Jews. After all, they are the chosen people of God.

Today we have similar attitudes. We pride ourselves on being a more tolerant society in Britain – we’ve abolished slavery, given equal rights to women (on paper, at least) and welcomed racial and religious diversity. But in practice many of these “freedoms” are flouted or restricted, or even twisted to mean the opposite. The price of tolerance is tolerance, which implies patience and magnanimity. But if we allow our pride, insecurity, selfishness, jealousy, and other negative emotions to undermine a Christian response, then our prejudices triumph over love.

Today’s second reading, the famous description of love in the first letter to the Corinthians, is an ideal antidote to narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Its breathtaking vision is liberating and challenging. Am I patient and kind, avoiding the clutches of jealousy, boastfulness, conceit, rudeness or selfishness? Am I slow to react to others’ negativity and give no harbour to resentment? Do I see the good in a person despite their faults, and be true to myself? Am I always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes? It may be difficult to live up to all this, but there’s no alternative but to try.

God bless you and yours.

John
 



 

 

THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
27th January 2013

Among the many memorable lines of the Stanbrook Abbey hymns in the Divine Office is the one that occurs to me now. “Lord, God, we give you thanks for all your saints / Who sought the trackless footprints of your feet.” Another heavy fall of snow had descended on an already white Norfolk, and when we went walking we noticed fresh animal tracks. Without the snow their presence went undetected. The usual pace of life had slowed to a crawl because of the weather, and so we became aware of much we would have missed in a hurry.

God too is all around us but his footprints are only visible to the eyes of faith and love. We need time to slow down and become more aware of his presence in our human longings and desires, the wonder and beauty of creation, and the tell-tale tracks of the Bible. Where he is often most hidden is in our dark times of suffering and misery, pain and grief; yet these can be the most formative experiences of our lives if we allow the chapter and verse of them to yield their gold. It is no accident that our English words “patience” and “passion” come from a Latin word meaning “to suffer”.

As Ezra unfolded the re-discovered Torah to the men, women and children gathered to listen, they wept because God’s word touched them deeply. As Jesus read from Isaiah in the synagogue, the assembly heard Isaiah as they had never done before. As the lesson was read, a lesson was learned. We never stop learning to see, hear and touch God’s word in the everyday as well as the unexpected moments of the human pilgrimage, but we must have the courage to accept and bless such moments in thanksgiving to their Source. God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
20th January 2013

The miracle of Cana, like much of John’s gospel, can be read at various different levels, from the surface account of a Galilean wedding through a theology of marriage to the revelation of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Because of this richness it is difficult to decide which strand to follow. After prayer, this was the thought that stood out for me.

On tasting the water turned into wine, the MC summoned the bridegroom to express his surprise at what he thought was the bridegroom’s initiative – to keep the best wine till last. In Jesus’ teaching, the first shall be last and the last first. Secondly, as the guests have had plenty, it might seem a waste to spoil their blunted taste-buds with a vintage reserve. But in Jesus’ book, everyone deserves the best, and plenty of it. John the Baptist commented in the next chapter of John’s gospel, “God gives him [Jesus] the Spirit without reserve” (3:34). In this passage he refers to Jesus as “the bridegroom”. And Jesus in turn pours out the divine life in abundance on all who come to him (10:10).

If the generosity of God is such, who am I to withhold his gifts to others, or judge who has the cream and who has the dregs? If I fail to share or share very little because I am afraid of being open to abuse by others, what does that tell me about my trust in God? In these days of economic hardship and an uncertain future, do I follow the herd, look after myself and, if anything is left after that, feel good about sharing it with others? Are God’s gifts scraps falling from the table, or full participation in the wedding feast of the kingdom?

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
13th January 2013

Luke’s gospel often records Jesus at prayer. It is during his prayer after his baptism in the Jordan that the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, and he hears his Father’s voice affirming him as his Son. It is a threshold moment of his life, as he steps from thirty years of obscurity into the light of his public ministry.

At the major transitions of our lives, when we are moving from the familiarity of the present into an uncharted future, we need affirmation and support. When it’s a radical change, sometimes the only common thread between past and future is God and our faith in him. Then, like Jesus, we need to hear the Father saying to us: “You are my beloved son/daughter, I delight in you and shower the Spirit of my love on you. You are not alone, and whatever may happen to you I am with you always.”

Maybe we think that, if we pray about a major decision, all we have to do is sit back and wait for God to make the decision for us. But only we can decide, and then God can act. “Commit your life to the Lord; trust in him and he will act” (Ps 37:4). Our decision to commit our lives to God and trust him comes before his action. Only after Jesus had stepped forward and decided to be baptised by John did he pray, and the heavens opened.

I was baptised before I learned to pray. And when I do pray, I often find later that the decisions I thought I was making alone were part of the divine plan. St Ignatius Loyola prayed: “Lord, help me realise that there is nothing in this world that you and I cannot handle together.”

God bless you and yours.

John

 


 

THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
6th January 2013

I’ve just returned from a visit to family in Canada for the New Year. It was a wonderful time, but the nine hour flight back to London, the three hour drive to Norfolk, and the jet-lag compounded by illness took some of the gilt off the gingerbread. However, travelling around our world today is a lot easier than it was two thousand years ago, when the Magi were making their way to Bethlehem from Persia (or wherever) and having to find an alternative route home in dangerous circumstances.

The Bible is full of travelling people, from Abraham’s journeys in Genesis, through the Exodus from Egypt and exile in Babylon to the peregrinations of St Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. The infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew record Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the flight into Egypt and return to Nazareth, the journey of the Magi, and the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover.

And we too are there among God’s travelling people. We are at the beginning of another year of our earthly pilgrimage, not knowing where it will lead but trusting in the One who leads us. When the Magi arrived at Bethlehem, they had not completed their journey. They came to offer their gifts and to gaze on the infant King. So also do we. In Jesus God is revealed to us, in the many and unexpected human guises he takes. Do we pause long and lovingly enough to recognise him? Do we offer our treasures – ourselves – in service to others?

Then we move on. Our earthly pilgrimage is not over yet. The travelling may be rough. But we are no longer alone on the road, as the Emmaus disciples discovered.

Bon voyage!

John
 


THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH
30th December 2012

As I grow older, I find that it is the simplest things that give the greatest pleasure. Much I have taken for granted I now notice, perhaps for the first time: the stillness of the heron on the river bank, the texture of a starlit sky, the subtle percussion of the rain on the roof. The colour of a leaf may be arresting; the colour within the colour is a revelation.

Twelve-year-old Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem because he had been captivated by the Temple – or more accurately, the God of the Temple. Others could see and, if they were priests, enter the Holy Place; within the Holy Place was the most sacred place of all, the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest could enter, once a year. But Jesus had sensed overwhelmingly the presence of his Father, the God who is the source of all holiness. He had a revelation of the God within God. Like Peter on the mount of Transfiguration, the almost-teenager wanted to stay because it was so good to be there.

His parents couldn’t understand why he had acted thus, nor was Jesus able to explain to them his experience. That may come as some consolation to families today who universally encounter the same problem. Mary’s response was not to demand a satisfactory explanation but to wait patiently, pondering the matter in her heart. In this Christmas season, with the New Year about to emerge from the chrysalis of the old, perhaps we can get in touch with the vibrancy of the simplest things we take for granted and treasure them. A little more patience, a little more thought and prayer, and we can make our homes and our world a better place in 2013.

Happy New Year!

John
 


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
23rd December 2012

We are a people constantly on the move. The world is restless. Look at the refugees fleeing the ravages of war and persecution, the migrant workers seeking employment, and the sheer volume of traffic on our roads or aircraft in the sky. All this reflects, perhaps, the inner restlessness of the human heart seeking a place to be at peace and at home. We are intent on going somewhere, but not always sure where or how to get there. On the other hand, we may be terrified of arriving and keep running away from ourselves; to stop and face the truth about ourselves can be too painful.

Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary General 1953-61, wrote: ”The longest journey is the journey inwards”. In her innermost being, Mary cherished the Saviour of the world as she travelled to visit Elizabeth and later on the road to Bethlehem. We too carry Jesus within us; we do not have to search for him beyond the seas or above the stars. It can take a lifetime to discover that he is closer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine happily put it. From a divine perspective, the shortest journey is from heaven to earth.

We need to cherish the child within us, the beauty of our own uniqueness, the amazing discovery that nothing, absolutely nothing, of our personal history is irredeemable. At the inner core of our being is not darkness but light, not chaos but peace, neither rejection nor judgement but the loving embrace of a God who cannot keep apart from us. What Mary has is ours too. And, like her, we want to share the life of Jesus with a waiting, yearning world. That’s the message of Christmas.

Peace and joy be with you and yours this Christmas.

John
 


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
16th December 2012

It’s official. The recently published findings of the 2011 census declare that I am living just outside the most godless city in Britain. What a wonderful opportunity for evangelisation. When challenged on television, the Anglican archdeacon of Norwich drew attention to the large numbers of people attending carol services at this time of the year. Is Christianity a cultural residue or a living faith? And if merely a cultural residue, how can its dying embers be fanned into a living flame of faith?

When people heard John the Baptist preach his uncompromising message, calling on them radically to change their priorities and attitudes, they found it impossible to ignore him. He demanded a response. So they asked him, “What must we do?” It’s the same question the crowd put to Peter after his Pentecost sermon. Whether in preparation for the coming of Christ or the coming of the Holy Spirit, a change of mind and heart with a new way of living is called for. If we act on that, it is a true sign that faith, not a nod in the direction of Christian culture, is at work.

Faith engages us in a personal relationship with God in Jesus. Through prayer and service to others, that relationship grows and deepens, is1 celebrated and sustained. Among the people who appear once a year for carol services in our cathedrals and churches are some who are genuinely seeking to begin or revive that relationship. They range from the total outsider to whom the Christian message and culture is unfamiliar yet attractive, to the “practising” Christian who keeps up appearances but has lost their soul. How do our communities engage such people? How sensitive are we to their needs? It is not too much to say that the future of the Church depends on our answer.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John
 


 

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
9th December 2012

Advent is a timely medicine for complacency. Its open-ended searching for something beyond, looking forward without knowing exactly how far or how long, unharnesses us from the bridle of determinism and routine. If it were merely about preparing for Christmas, then it would lose its edge and become predictable. But it is much more. Advent is adventure. Be prepared for surprises.

Take John the Baptist for a start. His appearance in the desert, away from centres of population, meant that no-one would hear his message unless they left their comfort zones and made a specific journey to see him. And people did. Something about his presence and preaching launched them into the unknown. Have you ever had moments when a powerful experience moves you into new territory despite your fears? The Holy Spirit is at work here. Only the Spirit would impel the Word of God to “leave the warm magnificence of heaven” and enter the vulnerability of human flesh. What an adventure for God! Our own lived experience, however colourful, pales before the momentous step that brought about the Incarnation.

I had the privilege this week of attending the funeral of Sister Agatha McEvoy OSF, who was a successful teacher, head of a school and able administrator. Yet in mid-life she gave it all up to found a house of prayer. At the time, many thought her crazy, but like John the Baptist in the wilderness she drew people who were seeking a closer walk with God, and needed space and guidance which she freely shared. Her last years were spent being cared for herself, as dementia took hold of her. Yet perhaps those last years were the greatest adventure of all, surrendering even her mind to the God who had called her from the beginning.

Where next, Lord?

Come, Lord Jesus!

John
 


 

John FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
2nd December 2012

Commercially, Advent begins at the end of August with Christmas goods in the shops; it ends as the Church’s Advent begins. By now Christmas lights are on in the high streets and carols piped through the shopping malls. As I drew our first Christmas card out of the envelope, I read the words: “Waiting for....” Ah, yes, Advent. Who or what are we waiting for? As the card emerged into full view, it became clear: “Waiting for.... SANTA!”

What is the purpose of our seemingly redundant season of Advent? It is a counter to our frenzied commercial culture which puts the emphasis on Winterval/Yuletide/Saturnalia as a party-time to banish the blues of dark midwinter. Next Thursday, countries like Holland will celebrate the feast of St Nicholas (Santa Claus) by giving and receiving presents, particularly with children in mind; this way of practising generosity and care for the vulnerable was the original inspiration of St Nicholas. The idea was transferred to nearby Christmas, and getting presents (and hopefully giving them) has become the main focus. Whatever happened to Mary, Joseph, and (above all) Jesus? Doesn’t Jesus have something to do with Christmas?

Ecclesiastical Advent is designed to stop us in mid-shop, as it were. It is deliberately timed to catch us at the height of our busyness and pause to reflect what it’s all about. Luke’s gospel today speaks of watching: don’t let the “cares of life” coarsen your hearts, he says. Stay awake, don’t miss the things that really matter. The news may be depressing, the outlook bleak; but when you see these things, “stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.” Pause. Pray. Reflect. Let your life be a card that proclaims: “Waiting for.... JESUS!”

Happy New Year!

John
 


 

SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
25th November 2012

When the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury was announced in the media recently, most of the reports focussed on his business credentials, his career before ordination as an oil executive. “At last – a churchman who understands business from the inside!” The perceived other-worldliness of the academic Rowan Williams, the retiring incumbent, had been publicised as a handicap.

Whether or not these perceptions paint a fair picture can be debated. But what I find interesting is the desire that a Christian leader should be able to inhabit both realms and somehow keep them in dialogue. In biblical terms, it means to be in the world but not of the world. How does one avoid being either too heavenly minded as to be no earthly good, or too worldly minded as to point to nothing beyond this world?

Jesus before Pilate faces a similar typecasting. The Roman governor is a politician, not a theologian. In his book, a king is a political animal with power and status. What sort of king is Jesus? His kingdom is not of this world, he says, but it’s about bearing witness to the truth; those on the wavelength of truth will hear and understand. Yet he still uses the word “king” in this dialogue with Pilate.

If we do not carry in us the vision and presence of Jesus, embodying in our lives the faith, hope and love that bring the gospel alive, we have nothing to offer the world. But we need to find the language, however stammering and inadequate, to draw the hungry questioning hearts and minds to touch the “Beyond in our midst”. Without God’s Spirit, we are powerless to do that.

God bless you and yours.

John


 

THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
18th November 2012

Our local spiritual hero in this part of the world is the fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich. Perhaps the most quoted saying from her “Revelations of Divine Love” are the words: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Julian did not write those words lightly, an optimistic dismissal of the darkness and pain of life. When she was six years old the Black Death killed a third of the population; she herself suffered an almost fatal illness in 1373. It was during this illness that she began to experience the Passion of Christ in a way that revealed his love in enduring it. Despite the overwhelming power of sin and death, at the heart of things is God’s love which in the end will triumph.

The “end of the world” scenario sketched in Mark’s gospel today evokes the cosmic fears which are the stuff of nightmares, all the more immediate in the light of climate change and environmental catastrophes today. Science understands much more clearly how such things happen, and especially our contribution to polluting our own planet; but ultimately is powerless to alter the laws of nature. Our greater knowledge gives cause for greater concern.

And even greater love. Not some, but “all manner of thing shall be well” because of God’s love in Jesus. In an unremarkable suburb of Norwich, surrounded by modern housing and the bustle of the city, is the little church where Julian lived as a hermit and learned the secret of love. “You would know our Lord’s meaning? Love was his meaning. Hold on to this, and you will understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else – ever!”

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
Remembrance Sunday
11th November 2012

The current economic plight of Britain and Europe, with huge national debts and a history of scandalously mismanaged finance, has created a climate where insecurity and distrust predominate. In turn, groups and individuals become more inward-looking and self-serving, protecting their interests and suspicious of each other. Charities and voluntary organisations, to say nothing of the poor and marginalised of the world, suffer most in this atmosphere. We hang on to what we have and are reluctant to let it go, for fear of losing it.

The Christian name of this tendency is greed. Yes, prudence is necessary but not at the expense of generosity. We need more compassion, sharing and caring, a willingness to be open to each other, if we are to grow. Letting go is a risky business, but in human relationships risk is part of the proof of trust and love.

The widow who gave everything she had contributed practically nothing to defray the national debt. While the rich, under the self-centred perception they were being generous in contributing from their surplus, were unaffected by their giving, the widow risked her life by giving all she had to live on. If the truth were known, am I not more like the rich donor than the poor widow? I may not brag about my giving, but I am careful not to give too much.

Today we remember the ultimate generosity of those who risked and lost their lives in war. Jesus commended the widow for surrendering her livelihood; he himself surrendered his life on the cross. There is no other way. Like the magic penny, love is something if you give it away. Otherwise, fear prevents us tasting the full freedom of generosity.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
4th November 2012

The clouds power across the sky like vast glacial mountains, leaving the diminutive landscape below grounded, gentle and comfortably familiar. Neither earth nor sky can ignore the other’s presence; the rooted solid earth and the evanescent air are interdependent.

Our Christian faith lives with the constant tension which holds in balance the divine and the human, earth and heaven, God and humankind. The perfect resolution of that tension is in Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man. Because we are made in God’s image and likeness, we carry within us the constant yearning for our heavenly homeland, yet find ourselves constantly restrained by our human limitations. In the history of Christianity, one age may emphasise the divinity, the otherness, the mystery of God in Christ, while another may focus on the nearness, the humility, the human face of God in Jesus. Our present age in the Church is in transition from a more immanent to a more transcendent perception, from Jesus, Son of Man to our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. The reason for this change lies in the cheapening and devaluing of human life generally, and the fear of identifying Jesus with a debased humanity without revealing him as its Saviour and Redeemer, raising us to our full divine potential.

In answer to the lawyer in today’s gospel, Jesus insists on both love of God and love of neighbour as equally central; they are interdependent; they are no longer two, but one. Our love of God with all our being will reveal God as beautiful, awesome and greater than we can imagine – and then we will see our neighbour as beautiful and awesome too; our love and respect for others will magnify the Lord. Isn’t that the gospel?

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
28th October 2012

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bartimaeus, the blind beggar sitting by the road in Jericho as Jesus and his entourage pass by. He reminds me so much of myself. It was because he was blind he needed to beg – no social security or disability benefit in those days. He sat there day after day, knowing he could do nothing about his blindness, relying on the alms of others. He had learned to live with his limitations while holding on to the secret hope that one day it might, just might, all change for the better.

I too cannot see. My sight is limited to this world. I am dependant on others for my survival. But I dream of seeing what I glimpse in the depths of my being – a new world transformed by the touch of the Spirit, where the Good News is not only preached but lived, where the kingdom of justice, love and peace is a reality, where the Church is no longer fearful or closed in on herself.

Then one day, a day that began like any other, Bartimaeus hears Jesus passing by. He has no eyes, but he has a voice, and he will not let anyone shout him down. He dare not miss this moment. “Jesus! Have mercy!” The crowd, at first hostile to him, tell him Jesus is calling him. (Who tells me Jesus is calling me? Are they sometimes the people who scold me?) He runs to Jesus who asks him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

I want nothing more than what you want for me. My own desires are so small compared with your breathtaking vision. You are all I desire. Here I am, Lord.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
21st October 2012

Cutting back the wisteria in the garden, we discovered what we had long suspected – a wasps’ nest in the side of the house. Late in the season, they were still active and had begun to find their way through the wall into our sitting room. Urgent action became necessary. Suddenly it was not comfortable sitting in one’s own home.

James and John, having glimpsed the glory of Jesus at the Transfiguration, aspire to share that glory themselves. And it seems the other apostles fancy the idea too, but unlike the Zebedee brothers they haven’t admitted it (although their indignation gives them away). Whose glory are they seeking? Jesus corrects them. Glory comes from God as free gift; even Jesus’ own glory is dependent on his Father. No-one can earn it. But the only way to be open to receive the gift is by service of others, making oneself the last of all and servant of all. It’s a vulnerable place to be. People can take advantage of you, undermine your self-confidence, test the genuineness of your Christian commitment. You are no longer comfortable sitting in your own ego.

All this might sound a bit depressing. But anyone who tries to serve others humbly and generously will attest to a peace and happiness beyond expectation. If you serve only to gain that peace for yourself, paradoxically it won’t happen. The question Jesus puts to us to clarify our motives is this: can you drink my cup, not yours? Can your share my baptism of fire? Am I the focus and foundation of your life? Suffering is not a penalty for being selfish, but a sign that your motives are being purified. Isn’t that what you want?

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
14th October 2012

Tony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit story-teller, has a tale about an enthusiastic young disciple who approaches a Hindu guru living on the bank of a river. “I want God more than anything else in the world!” he declares. “Are you sure?” enquires the holy man. “Yes, yes, yes!” insists the passionate devotee. “I want God more than anything else in the world!” “Well, if you really mean it, step this way, please,” says the guru, leading him to the river.

They wade into the water until waist-deep, when suddenly the guru yanks the young man’s head by the hair and holds him underwater until the bubbles stop coming. Then he lifts him out of the river, and amid the disciple’s gasps for air, he asks him, “Young man, what do you want more than anything else in the world?” “O for a breath of fresh air!” he gasps. “When you want God more than that air,” is the reply, “I’ll believe you.”

The rich young man in today’s gospel was similarly enthusiastic. He was doing all the right things, acquiring virtue upon virtue. But it never occurred to him that holiness was about surrender, not acquisition. The more gifts we have, the more we have to surrender. Jesus looked at him and loved him; he saw in his enthusiasm tremendous potential for the Kingdom. But the change of attitude from possessing to self-emptying was the crucial conversion he couldn’t make. St Paul put it graphically: “For Christ I have accepted the loss of everything, and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him” (Philippians 3:8-9). We can never be truly happy until we do.

God bless you and yours.

John


 

TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
7th October 2012

Fifty years ago this week, the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome, and the Church has never been the same since. Many aspects of the Church’s life today which we take for granted, such as a vernacular liturgy, a renewed appreciation of the Bible, and ecumenism, were prophetic ideas awaiting their time of birth; in relation to the wider world, inter-faith dialogue, justice and peace and Catholic social teaching were to find a new voice in the Council documents. Not only did the Church herself come to a new and deeper understanding of her meaning and mission, but became more open and transparent to the world.

Openness has its risks, but worth taking for the deeper treasures. When Jesus was questioned about the possibility of divorce, he could see that his questioners (the Pharisees) were looking for his approval. It wasn’t that they wanted to abolish marriage, but to manipulate it to serve their needs or desires. But so precious is the total commitment of partners in marriage, that the attempt or desire to diminish it undermines its security and integrity. “They are no longer two, but one body.” Jesus teaches us that there are bigger issues here, that the unity of man and wife is an image of the oneness of God who created us in his image and likeness – and if human love becomes conditional it no longer reflects God’s love which is always unconditional.

The Council has enlarged our horizons and prompts us to look more deeply and honestly at our gospel faith, and how we live it in today’s world. How can we live Jesus’ radical unconditional love in our society, in such a way that the depths and riches of God in creation are revealed in all their wonder?

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
30th September 2012

As I was reminded by a five-year-old boy many years ago, God is always bigger than I think. The same is true of all God has created, when that creation is used according to the Maker’s instructions. The Church, in different periods of her history, has expanded the horizons of our minds and hearts to recognise the depths and riches of the gospel we proclaim; but she has also shrunk the gospel by fencing it round with conditions and regulations. Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council ended with a renewed vision of Church and world which today is being reinterpreted in a narrow and cautious way. Water from the vibrant spring has been collected in a jar. It’s the same water, but one is free-flowing while the other is restricted.

Both Moses in the first reading and Jesus in today’s gospel warn us not to suppress or limit the working of the Holy Spirit. Expect to find God at work everywhere, even in the most unlikely people or places. Only when they clearly threaten and diminish God’s loving designs do we keep our distance. But that’s our perception. The divine perspective is beyond our grasp.

I was a teenager during Vatican II. Its teaching and vision has coloured my life and given it hope, expanded my horizons, and enabled me to bring new vision to countless people. At this moment in time, it seems that the sunrise I greeted in the morning of my life is fading. But that is only my human way of seeing things. The deeper reality within keeps me faithful to the wider vision of the Church which, in the fullness of time, will dawn again upon the Church. You cannot suppress the Spirit.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
23rd September 2012

At present I am researching the history of the house where I live (it’s about four hundred years old). In the course of visits to county archives and various family records, I’ve become more aware how many people are tracing their family history. Perhaps in this time of insecurity and anxiety in our troubled world, we look for some stability and rootedness to help us feel safer, and give us a greater sense of belonging.

Maybe a similar motive was behind the apostles’ argument among themselves about who was the greatest. Jesus had been talking of his impending suffering and death. They did not understand it but it sounded terrifying. They had left everything and followed him. Was he going to leave them? They dared not ask.

So if Jesus was gone, who would be their leader? No-one was going to admit they were afraid; their fear became the adrenalin of ambition. Who was the greatest? How would they decide it? But bravado and self-seeking soon turned to shame when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about. In the child he set before them, they saw only vulnerability, weakness – and trust. Only by admitting our fears and entrusting them into God’s care can we be truly great in his eyes.

Finding out about the people who have lived in our house over the centuries continues to reveal a similar pattern. They looked for the security of a home and livelihood and struggled with poverty, the early death of their children and more besides. They wanted to be rooted and belong. It is our utter trust in God’s providence in season and out of season that provides the ultimate security, the antidote to fear and mistrust that plagues our world.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
16th September 2012
Home Mission Sunday

In St John’s gospel a man who had suffered a chronic illness for thirty-eight years is cured by Jesus at the pool of Bethzatha. Jesus says to him: “Take up your sleeping mat and go home.” I’ve often thought how smelly, unhygienic and unnecessary it was to carry that mat. Wasn’t it a symbol of his old life, to be left behind as he started a new life? Maybe Jesus was reminding him how his life had now been transformed, and not to forget the lessons of suffering.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says to you and me: “To be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.” The only people who carried crosses in Jesus’ time were slaves and criminals, the most despised and undesirable, on their way to execution. The implication of his invitation to discipleship is to be a “dead man walking”, as prisoners on death row in America hear as they are led to the electric chair.

Isn’t that a bit strong? When I make the sign of the cross, when I refer to some difficulty in my life as a “cross”, am I on my way to execution? Only if I walk with Jesus. He is the one who “bore our sins and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53). But if we are unwilling to unite our sufferings with his, we cannot be his disciple. If, like Peter, we tell the Lord, “This must not happen to you!” we are denying the cross and not picking up our sleeping mat.

Only when the most despised and undesirable in our society know they are loved and embraced by God will the cross of Christ be exalted. They will not know that love except through us. Home Mission Sunday is a timely moment to recognise it.

God bless you and yours.

John


 

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
9th September 2012

Everyone knows the game of Chinese whispers, where a message is whispered from one player to the next, and the end result is often very different from the start. If we do not hear properly, we misinterpret the message. My favourite example is of the solicitor’s secretary typing a dictated letter about a letting agreement. She heard “head lessor” and wrote “headless whore”.

No wonder the deaf man in today’s gospel had a speech impediment. He could not hear, so he couldn’t learn to speak as we all do, by imitating the sounds we hear. When he is brought to Jesus by the crowd, Jesus takes him away from the crowd to a quiet place. With no other sounds around him when Jesus opens his ears, the only sound he does hear at that moment is the voice of Jesus. The first word he hears clearly is the Word of God himself. The first word he speaks clearly is Jesus.

If we are to proclaim the gospel effectively, we have first to hear it clearly. And in order to do that we have to listen without the clamour of distraction. A thousand voices assail us in our busy world, each trying to claim our attention. We need times of quiet to assimilate the word of God in prayer, to discern the Lord’s voice in the confusion and to keep focussed on it. Otherwise we will not know the word we are to speak in Jesus’ name. Elijah heard the thunder, earthquake, and fire on the mountain, but knew the Lord in the sound of a whispering breeze. Can we be still enough to hear him in the silence, and brave enough to believe and proclaim what we hear?

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
2nd September 2012

What is the difference between the commandment of God and human traditions? Easy to distinguish in theory, in practice they can look remarkably alike. God’s word is transmitted to us through human agency; what is infallible depends on fallible channels of communication. God’s word brings life to us; human traditions may help sustain that life, but they are no substitute for it.

Put another way, faith in God implies courage. Faith is walking on water, not hiding under the blankets of religion. Our trust in God is what gives us security; we don’t find security before we trust him. In Psalm 36/37 we read: “Commit your life to the Lord; trust in him and he will act”. Human traditions will not give us faith, although our existing faith may well be nourished by them in a faith-filled life. The theologian Paul Tillich memorably described faith as “the courage to accept acceptance”.

Today, because we live in an uncertain and increasingly unchristian world, the tendency of many in the Church, not least in the Vatican and Church leaders, is to withdraw behind the safety curtain of nostalgia, batten down the hatches and fire arrows of disapproval over the battlements. There’s plenty of talk of “new evangelisation” but what appears is neither new nor particularly good news. Where is faith? Where is the fire of prophecy and courageous outreach? Where are the Spirit-filled harbingers of the gospel, inspiring others to follow Christ in hope, compassion, unity and healing? These are the Christians the world needs today.

Jesus rightly points out that external observances only have value if they come from internal convictions, and he lists the negative results of self-seeking ambitions. The challenge is to seek the values of the Kingdom of God and live positively and courageously by faith. God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
26th August 2012

We do not always know where the Lord is leading us. Sometimes we stumble along in the dark, vaguely wondering whether we’ve got it all wrong and we’ve misheard his voice or missed our turning. But faithfulness is remaining true to his word, being steadfast in prayer and humbly accepting our limitations and weakness.

When people were deserting Jesus in large numbers after his teaching on the Bread of Life, the disciples who remained must have wondered whether they’d backed the wrong horse or followed a chimera. So when Jesus asked them if they too wanted to follow the crowd away from him, Peter spoke up. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life. And we believe you are the Holy One of God.”

Peter was not saying: “We’ll make the best of a bad job; there’s no-one else worth following; we might as well go along with you.” If we follow Jesus in that spirit, we will always be unsatisfied and abandon him when it doesn’t go our way. What Peter was saying was: “We don’t understand all you’re teaching us, but we want to understand. There’s no-one else but you at the centre of our lives. By putting our faith in you, we will always have peace within, knowing it is in you we live and move and have our being.”

As the psalmist says (Ps 73), “What else have I in heaven but you? Apart from you I want nothing on earth. To be near God is my happiness”. There is no other way to happiness apart from Christ. I can personally vouch for that over sixty years, without hesitation. And I still don’t know where he’ll take me tomorrow. Today is enough and more.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
19th August 2012

In Margery Williams’ children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the eponymous toy rabbit wants to know how to become real. The oldest toy in the cupboard, the tattered Skin Horse, tells him that when he’s been loved by his owner long enough, when his fur has worn off from being cuddled and he looks decidedly shabby, then he might become real. It is love which fulfils our potential, takes us beyond ourselves, and transforms us. Outwardly we may look decidedly worn and shabby, but our treasure is within; as the fox tells the little prince in Saint-Exupéry’s story, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

When Jesus speaks in such direct language that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, the instinct of his hearers was right: those who only heard an invitation to cannibalism were those who kept their distance from him; those who heard the deeper message of love instinctively knew he was talking the language of lovers who want to “eat” each other. His flesh is “real” food; his blood is “real” drink. Jesus wants to come inside us, to be consumed by us, to be completely one with us. The extraordinary humility of his desire mirrors the kenosis of his crucifixion. But once we accept him by receiving Holy Communion, we no longer can distinguish if he is inside us or we are inside him. True lovers never can. What matters is that we are one with him as he is one with the Father.

Have we become real yet? Have we allowed the Lord to love us through service and suffering to that place in our lives where we are completely ourselves because completely his?

God bless you and yours.

John


 

NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
12th August 2012

The occasion of our first Holy Communion is a moment of great rejoicing; the annual parish celebration of it is invariably one of the highlights of the calendar, and rightly so. For the first time we take full part in the central act of worship of the Church, the Holy Eucharist or Mass. It is the beginning of a lifetime of communion with Christ our Lord in this wonderful sacrament. Each time we receive him thus, it should nourish and deepen our relationship with him and with his Body, the members of his Church. No wonder the popular motet is entitled “Panis Angelicus” – bread of angels. It’s a foretaste of what lies beyond this life, a share in the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.

So the occasion of our last Holy Communion should be even more of a celebration than our first. It is the culmination of a lifetime’s nourishment of faith before we pass from faith to sight of the heavenly realities. This last communion is called viaticum – the Latin literally means “with you on the way”, or “food for the journey” – and fortifies us for the last and greatest journey of our lives. Elijah in today’s first reading is found languishing in the wilderness, despairing of his life, wishing it were over. But God provides him with food and drink, not simply to comfort but to strengthen him to keep going. “Arise and eat,” says the angel as God provides a second helping, “or the journey will be too long for you.” The Eucharist isn’t a reward for being faithful; it is essential for our spiritual welfare. We go to Sunday Mass not merely to fulfil an obligation but to be fed on word and sacrament. Otherwise the journey will be too long for us.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


 

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
5th August 2012

Luther referred to the letter of St James as “the epistle of straw” because of its emphasis on good works – “faith without good works is dead” (2:17). Faith is a gift; we cannot earn it. But unless that faith is put into practice, how can it be evidenced? It cannot be reduced, as my old Jesuit teacher at school used to put it, to a “funny inner feeling”.

In John’s gospel today, Jesus links faith and works the other way round. To the question, “What must we do to do God’s work?” he answers: “This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent.” Believing in Jesus means nothing if it remains a “funny inner feeling”. An Olympic athlete can have a warm inner conviction they can win a medal. But unless that God-given gift is honed and perfected in disciplined training, it’s a wasted gift. If Jesus’ faith was tested with tears and sweat and fear on the road to Calvary, why should we be exempt?

Working for God implies we are familiar with our employer’s wishes. Do we simply devise our own agenda and then offer it to God? Or do we stop and pray, discerning first what God’s agenda is and doing that? Are we working for God or doing God’s work?

Manna from heaven was God’s gift to his people in the desert, otherwise they would have starved. But they still had to collect it every day – it didn’t fall into their laps, so to speak. The Eucharist is God’s gift to us who believe in Jesus. We believe that he is the Bread of Life. But he comes to us in the humblest of forms. Do we accept Jesus when he doesn’t look much and feeds us through the most ordinary of people?

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
29th July 2012

As the 2012 Olympic Games begin this weekend, whether you are an avid supporter of them, consider them a waste of money, or anything else in between, I trust you would agree that the planning and execution of the Games has been a huge undertaking involving enormous resources and sensitive handling. In the light of the gospel today, John’s account of the feeding of five thousand people, it is worth pondering the way Jesus handles a challenging situation, and how others react to him.

Jesus sees the crowds approaching. If I were in Jesus’ place, I’d say nothing and hope they’ve already eaten or can find something later! But the Middle Eastern hospitality code demands a response. Jesus first assesses the situation to see what resources are needed to meet it. Or rather, he asks Philip where the nearest supermarket is; and Philip implies that, even if they had the money, it wouldn’t go far. (He hasn’t the vision to stage the Olympics.) But Andrew has. “A small boy here has five barley loaves and two fish,” he offers, and smiles at his pathetic contribution. But amazingly, it’s enough. The Olympics are on.

All Jesus wants is our offering, our willingness to share – and a little imagination. Have faith. Trust in me, he says. All too often we give up in despair at our meagre resources, the poverty of our contribution; but put them in the hands of Jesus and watch the transformation. A piece of bread becomes the Son of God. Do we thank him enough for the miracle of the Eucharist, for the possibility of forgiveness and healing, for God’s abounding generosity? “Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted,” he says. Everything is treasure for those who have eyes to see.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
22nd July 2012

When the apostles rejoined Jesus after their first solo mission, they would have been full of it: excited at the amazing healings they witnessed at their own hands; elated that their stumbling attempts at preaching touched so many hearts; dejected at the ridicule, hostility or indifference they encountered; and exhausted by the whole experience. On their return, they discovered it was not only Jesus who was in demand by the people: they were too. They needed a holiday, a time away to rest and recuperate and, together with Jesus, to reflect on their ministry.

Time away from our usual working environment ideally involves three components: relocation, rest and reflection. Finding a setting which can foster rest and reflection is important – beautiful scenery, for example. It helps us to look at things differently. Rest involves a conscious decision not to work and not to feel guilty about it; it is a creative time, not passive inactivity. Reflection allows mind and heart the space to evaluate, preparing the ground for decision-making and affirming or changing current directions in one’s life.

The “holiday” on which Jesus took his disciples was a cruise. When you’re on a boat on the open sea, you can get away from it all – provided you leave behind the mobile phone! Jesus insisted they came away to a lonely place all by themselves. Being alone is one thing; being “all by themselves” implies they weren’t alone but in each other’s company. Family holidays, priests’ retreats, community quiet days can all be opportunities to strengthen our faith and sense of Church. In each case the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in our gathering is what matters.

What are you doing to go away to a quiet place, rest for a while, and reflect and pray?

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
15th July 2012

Without warning, all the lights in the house went out. After a moment to orientate ourselves we found the main fuse box and power was restored. But what was the cause of that temporary loss of power?

When unexpected things happen in our lives, we can find ourselves powerless – illness, a sudden bereavement, redundancy, our home the victim of flood, fire or burglary – and at a loss as to what to do. Nothing is ever the same again. For the sake of our security (and sanity!) we want to “get back to normal”. But only when we acknowledge the reality of the change or loss will we begin to rebuild our lives anew.

The time between the lights going out and the restoration of power is a precious moment of transition, a “liminal” experience. The disciples whom Jesus sent out to preach took nothing for the journey; they went without money or provisions; they were without their Master; they were vulnerable, in virgin territory. Yet that experience transformed and ultimately empowered them for the mission after Pentecost, when they realised that the Holy Spirit made them no longer dependent on the physical presence of Jesus alone.

Those who heard the message they preached were also vulnerable. They too had to choose whether to reject the gospel and return to “normal” or to embrace its message and re-orientate their lives. This is the perennial challenge of Christianity. It is perhaps why people of faith are more able to ride the storms of transition, while the merely “religious” opt for safety and normality. Whatever causes the lights to go out in our life has triggered an opportunity of grace and growth. Can we grasp the opportunity?

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
8th July 2012

The Olympic torch passed through our area this week, a direct link with the runners announcing the Olympic Games in ancient Greece before the Christian era. I was reminded of the candle given us at our baptism. It is lit from the Easter candle and handed to us with the admonition: “Keep the flame of faith alive in your heart.” And we’ve been running with it ever since. How many others have taken a light from us? How many hearts have been filled with the Holy Spirit as we passed their way? How have our own flagging steps been encouraged by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12) spurring us on?

Calling on Olympic imagery, St Paul declared in his old age: “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith.... The Lord stood by me and gave me power....” (2 Timothy 4). Like Paul, our own race will involve faithfulness and endurance, the result of training as arduous and disciplined as any athlete. But the final result is dependent on the Lord who stands by us and gives us power. And that power can feel like weakness and failure, when we find our footsteps faltering, our torch burning low and sputtering in the dark. Divine power cannot have its effect if we insist on being in control.

In today’s second reading Paul is “quite content” with the weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and agonies of his race to the finish. Only when we arrive at that happy moment in our own lives when we can say the same will we experience God’s power, and realise the humbling truth that “when I am weak, then I am strong”.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
1st July 2012

There’s a moment in the Acts of the Apostles when Barnabas fetches Saul (not yet styled Paul) from Tarsus, and they visit the infant Christian community in Antioch. “As things turned out,” the Jerusalem Bible translation runs, “they were to stay there a whole year.” In other words, they hadn’t planned to stay so long, but.... maybe God had other ideas. If ever I write an autobiography, “As Things Turned Out” might be an appropriate title for it.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter who is critically ill, but is waylaid by a woman with an embarrassing complaint. He doesn’t wave her out of the way in his urgency, but alters his plans and spends time with her. As a result, a twelve-year-old girl dies, but what looks like a tragedy becomes a miraculous opportunity when Jesus raises her from death.

More than once in this column I have quoted Ronald Rolheiser OMI who wrote: “Life is what happens to you when you are planning the rest of your life.” Our plans for a given day, a given project, a cherished ambition may not be realised; how often have we complained of an interruption or diversion which we realise subsequently was the action of the Holy Spirit. It’s not that we abandon any attempt at planning and muddle along anyhow – that’s not God’s Providence but laziness! – but we constantly listen for the prompting of the Spirit in a prayerful way each day, alert to the divine nuance. Life is lived in partnership with God; if we make that our habit, life will bring us peace and lots of surprises. At least, that’s how things have turned out for me!

God bless you and yours.

John


THE BIRTHDAY OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
24th June 2012

Last week I reflected on the last days of Helen’s life, how each breath she took was measured and counted as her death drew near; and how the smallest detail of each of our lives is known to a loving God. As the psalmist says, “you have kept a record of my tears – is not each one written in your book?” (Ps 56); “every one of my days was decreed before one of them came into being” (Ps 139).

And today we reflect on a birth. Once again, as a child emerges from the womb of its mother, we await the first breath, the first cry that declares: “I am here! I’m alive!” It was the cry of John the Baptist in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” which alerted his listeners to the presence of the Christ among them. As Augustine beautifully put it, “John was a Voice, but Christ was the Word.” John made himself available for God’s purposes, allowing his presence, his voice, to proclaim Jesus, not himself; “he must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Our call is the same. What words do we utter with the God-given breath of life we are privileged to have? Are they words which proclaim ourselves and our opinions, wounding and deriding others? Or are they words Jesus himself might have said, of kindness and encouragement, courageously speaking the truth and defending the weak while sensitive to each person; words of love, healing and forgiveness?

Just as precious, sometimes more so, are the silences between our words, patiently listening to others. Let the rhythm of our breath be the rhythm of our prayer as we rest in awareness of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

God bless you and yours.

John


ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
17th June 2012

Each and every life is precious. Sitting at a hospital bedside watching Helen’s life slip away from us, it strikes me how much every breath we breathe, every word we utter, every step we take is precious; and how casually and thoughtlessly we take these gifts for granted! And yet, not one feather of a bird falls to the ground without our Father knowing it.

Many people live such tragic and difficult lives that we find it hard to discern any meaning there. Yet their very existence proclaims how valued they are in the eyes of the God who created them. Perhaps, if we substitute the word “presence” for “existence” in that last sentence, we can ask ourselves how present to us is each person we meet? And how present are we to them? Indeed, to shift to another meaning of the word “present”, how far are we a gift to them and they to us?

The two images of the Kingdom which Mark puts before us in today’s gospel are about hidden growth. A seed is planted, watered, grows and produces its fruit. We can’t always predict how quickly it will grow, if at all; as the farmer admits, “how, he does not know.” If that is true of God’s Kingdom, it is true of its earthly members. The seed of faith and love has been planted in each human heart. Why some seem to flourish and others appear to come to nothing, we cannot tell. That’s God’s business. Our part is to treat each person we meet as if we were meeting Jesus.

Become aware of each breath you breathe. Thank God for your life, that you are still alive. And thank God for the secret spring of the Spirit that wells up in every human life, in people like Helen as we count the seconds between each breath she takes.

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
10th June 2012

One of the joys of the restoration of Holy Communion under both kinds is to remind us that we receive not only Christ’s Body, but his Blood also. Yes, we believe we receive the whole Christ even if we partake of only the Bread or only the Cup; but to take both enriches our understanding.

This year’s readings focus on the Precious Blood. In all three lessons the word “blood” is inextricably linked with “covenant”. The biblical concept of blood connotes life. Without blood we cannot live. That is why the practice of animal sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures symbolised the offering of human life to God, expressing our willingness to pour out our blood in his service, to give our lives to him.

When Moses took the bulls’ blood and threw it over the altar (the sign of God’s presence among his people) and then over the people themselves, he declared an unbreakable covenant agreement. God would protect his people if they in turn were faithful to him. Both Israel and the Lord were drenched in the same blood; in Jesus the divine DNA is one with us, just as our human DNA is one with him. As his blood is poured out for us, our sharing it in Holy Communion means nothing less than the gift of our life poured into his.

When Jesus says to James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I must drink?” he is inviting them to share in his passion and death. Taking the Cup is always an invitation to embrace the suffering of the cross. Drinking from the chalice at Mass makes that abundantly clear. But along with the Blood of Christ we take the blood of his Body too – including our own.

God bless you and yours.

John


TRINITY SUNDAY
3rd June 2012

“You think you’ve got problems? Well, God’s got problems. And you’re his problem!” The direct words of American Jesuit Bob Faricy make a clear point. When we consider the Trinity, we are not trying to solve a problem. God is not a problem. God is Mystery. And a mystery is not to be solved but to be contemplated.

Although we may be God’s problem, because we are made in God’s image and likeness we are a mystery too. At the most obvious level we are a mystery to ourselves. At age sixty-four I am still discovering new surprises about myself – perhaps more and more the older I get. And instead of wrestling to solve myself, I am more and more accepting of the wonder of my being.

If that is so of one human being, then before God I am speechless with amazement. Like the expanding universe, where the size and number of galaxies, let alone individual stars, goes off the scale of calculation, the Creator of it all is boundless. Yet in Jesus that same God is a mystery like myself in human form. In the Spirit that same God is dynamically present everywhere, making it impossible to make God an object. “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” The God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a God of relationship, otherwise we would be unable to participate in God’s life and so never come into existence. Baptism is the declaration of that truth.

Augustine’s famous prayer at the beginning of his Confessions expresses well that the “God problem” will not go away: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” As the Psalmist says, “If you find your delight in the Lord, he will give you your heart’s desire” (Ps 37:4).

God bless you and yours.

John


PENTECOST SUNDAY
27th May 2012

The Church as well as the world needs a new Pentecost. When we pray again and again in the prophetic words of Psalm 104 (103): “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth”, we are asking something radical and far-reaching. But what exactly does this word “renew” mean in this context?

Looking at the current state of the “face of the earth”, few of us would dare to say “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” (Browning). Thanks to our modern means of communication we have an instant picture of the face of the earth and there is much that distresses and dismays, on the political, economic, moral, religious or environmental fronts: a breakdown of trust between nations, confrontation between great religions, rich individuals gaining power and wealth at the expense of the world’s poor who are ignored, rainforests obliterated and glaciers evaporating. Yet undetected by this Google Earth snapshot are the countless good people and heroic witnesses of beauty and truth who outweigh the evil and decadence, and long for a better, gracious and more loving world, and strive to make it happen.

This is where the Spirit is at work. Our prayer for the renewal of the earth has been heard; the Spirit has been sent, but only recognised by the anawim, those with the eyes of faith to see God’s mysterious agenda. Renewal, whether of the Church or of the world, means not an imposed regime of ruthless change but a flowering of God’s kingdom, where hope is kindled and vision expanded. We want to spread it, yes; but we must not despair that our little efforts, our failing prayer, our acts of kindness, are already a renewal mysteriously hidden from us, but revealed in heaven. Over the chaos of the world and the darkness in the Church, the Spirit is moving.

Come, Holy Spirit!

John


THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
20th May 2012

It is ironic that, just as the Catholic Church is returning to pre-Vatican II mode, the hierarchy of England and Wales have only in recent years moved Ascension Day from the traditional Thursday to the following Sunday. I wonder how soon it will revert to Thursday?

This great feast has much to teach us about faith. When Jesus’ first disciples were drawn to him and chose to follow him, they were tested and challenged by his teaching and example. Above all, to see him condemned and die on the cross looked like the ultimate disaster. But in the resurrection appearances their faith was revived. Even so, Jesus had to remind them: “You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” In the Ascension he was taken from their sight; from that moment the Holy Spirit becomes the Presence of Jesus’ physical absence, and the Spirit’s action is only perceptible through faith. For faith sees more than sight; the eyes of the heart are more searching than our bodily eyes.

I find a parallel here with the last fifty years of the Church. When Vatican II heralded a new dawn in the Church - the biblical, catechetical and ecumenical movements, liturgical renewal and evangelisation, to name but a few tongues of flame of the new Pentecost – how our hearts were quickened! The inevitable testing times followed, as the renewal was purified in the challenge of a rapidly changing world. But now the Church has chosen to retreat once more behind the barricades of fear and batten down the hatches. The sun appears to be setting on Vatican II. Fortunately the Holy Spirit cannot be so suppressed. We walk by faith and not by sight, and God is bigger than our fears.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love!

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
13th May 2012

“Love, love changes everything,” sings Michael Ball in his classic song. “Off into the world we go, planning futures, shaping years; love bursts in and suddenly our wisdom disappears.” Today we often feel powerless to plan our lives the way we want; the perilous state of the global economy, job insecurity, the alarming level of violence in a destabilised world – all play their part in diminishing and disempowering us, and so breeding anger, resentment and fuelling the spiral of violence.

Into this situation Love bursts. Not a wan comfort for our misery or a consolation to cheer us up, this Love transforms everything. This Love is gift, not manufactured, unexpected arrival, not expected guest. “Love will turn your world around.”

Michael Ball may be singing of the power of human love, and that is amazing enough. But his words describe well the even greater impact of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When anger, violence and despair dissolve as we allow compassion, forgiveness and hope to flood into our hearts, Love is changing everything. Our numbed senses gain the courage to risk opening again to new depths; “days are longer, words mean more,” but Love is even able to embrace that “pain is deeper than before.”

Love incarnate is Jesus. The God who is Love embodies the most transforming love of all in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And in today’s gospel Jesus invites us to live that total love through our own lives in the power of the Spirit: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Will we allow Love to flow through us to others? Will we allow the gift so to transform our lives that we cannot fail to set fire to others?

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
6th May 2012

The familiar image of Jesus as the vine and we his branches always makes me think of sunnier climes. But increasingly vines are grown in Britain too, a response perhaps to global warming. Across the road from where we live is a vineyard; to my shame, I haven’t sampled its product (yet!) but it has a good reputation. There are rows and rows of neatly planted vines awaiting what the English weather will throw at them before the grape harvest.

The branches cannot exist without the vine. But the vine cannot be a vine without branches, except at its inception. Branches are the fruit of growth. Jesus needs us as much as we need him; in the language of St Paul, the Head cannot exist without the Body. I’m sure a branch of the vine, if it could think, would not think of itself as distinct from its source, but an integral part of it. We are not simply extensions of Jesus; we are Jesus.

This is an image sorely needed in our fragmented, self-seeking and unhappy world. Where people feel themselves part of something, they can find security; they have roots. But they also have a responsibility of love and care towards other branches, because on others’ welfare depends their own. “Cut off from me,” says Jesus, “you can do nothing.” There are too many withered branches lying around thinking their independence gives them freedom, when in fact they are isolating themselves in their own world.

A healthy vine needs pruning too. But since the Father is the vinedresser, we are in safe and loving hands, for he wants the best for us as would for his own beloved Son.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
29th April 2012

Traditionally (and rightly) we celebrate today those called to be shepherds after the example of Christ the Good Shepherd. The shepherd is not simply to care for his sheep; he is to lay down his life for them. Such dedication is as ordinary and as heroic as parents for their children or soldiers in war. In an age when self-seeking is all the rage and generous self-sacrifice considered unproductive or even foolish, it is not easy to be Christ to others, because the Christian (and especially the priest) is a sign of contradiction; the preaching of the gospel is “an obstacle” and “madness” to the world, as Paul pointed out (I Corinthians 1:23).

Who cares for the carers? Who ministers to the ministers? Priests often find it hard to accept their own limitations. The unrealistic expectations of some parishioners only add to the burden. Yes, we cast our cares upon the Lord. But even Jesus couldn’t please everyone! The priest needs to have his own feet washed too. The experience of being cared for (as I found during an illness this week) is profoundly humbling and renewing. It teaches us a deeper appreciation of our own worth and goodness, as well as the love of those who care for us.

In the middle section of John 10 which is the gospel for today, alongside the call to service is the call to unity (“there are other sheep I have who are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well”). To look out for others, to expand our horizons, to see the bigger picture – this is part of service too. The Church needs to be seen as reaching out in love, and risk being vulnerable and misunderstood. How else can one love?

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
22nd April 2012

How do we recognise the presence of Jesus? How does he reveal himself in our lives today? It would be easy to answer: in the Church, the sacraments, in his word, in his people. That’s all true, of course; but what impact does that truth have on us? Do we in practice reduce Christ’s presence to certain places or “holy” situations?

What is so delicious about the post-resurrection appearances is their unexpectedness. And today’s extract from Luke’s gospel exemplifies this well. The two disciples from Emmaus have just burst into the room to tell the others about their walking and talking with a strange man who shared their table and broke bread – it was Jesus! Peter confirms their story by describing his encounter with the risen Lord. The others are not sure what to believe. Is it just a trick of the imagination, wishful thinking to escape the reality of grief? Even as they are talking excitedly about it all, Jesus is suddenly in their midst.

They weren’t praying or reading the Bible. They weren’t in the Temple but in an ordinary house. They were in turmoil, and into that moment Jesus came. He greeted them with the conventional “Shalom!” and they responded with unconventional terror. “What’s the problem?” he might have said, with an amused look. “I may be in the wrong place in the wrong way at the wrong time – but it’s still me!”

And Jesus is just the same today. The risen Lord is always turning up in the most unlikely situations, as well as the likely ones. But when he’s in the likely “conventional” places such as church, we do tend to keep him in his place. Religion without a sense of surprise and even humour is missing something.

The Lord is risen, alleluia!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
15th April 2012

Apologies that this week’s Thought is so late, but I have just returned from France, visiting the places in Normandy associated with the D-day landings in 1944. After walking on Juno Beach and visualising the boats, large and small, bringing the troops to land on French soil, perhaps the most moving moment was in the British war cemetery at St Manvieu near Caen. Rows of headstones marked the resting place of hundreds of British soldiers (and German ones too), each name a precious memory for someone; but perhaps the most poignant were those stones without names, just a soldier “known only to God”, with no further identity.

In a very real sense, each one of us is known only to God. However well someone knows us, however well we know ourselves, we are always a mystery. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection, he was different yet the same; he ate and drank with them but they didn’t always recognise him. Thomas was upset that he didn’t see the Lord when the other disciples did, and declared he wouldn’t believe them unless he too could not only see but touch him. How graciously Jesus met his demand! It began as Thomas’s need for control of the situation, but it became Thomas’s declaration of awe and wonder at a mystery even greater: “My Lord and my God!”

That’s the beauty of faith. It starts as a puzzle we can’t solve, but it leads us beyond our sight, beyond our control, beyond our dreams, to total surrender into God. It is in the surrender that faith comes to full flower. Those soldiers buried in Normandy probably never thought of themselves as heroes. But in the midst of the chaos of our world stands the risen Christ.

Peace be with you.

John


EASTER SUNDAY
8th April 2012

Because of the uncertainties of our world, made more insecure by political and economic instability, the tendency of the human spirit today is to escapism, trying to avoid or ignore the incessant bombardment of violence, terror, and despair. We can descend into negativity or cynicism; conversely, we can escape into pleasure, the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” syndrome denounced by the Hebrew prophets. Another more subtle form of escape (the Church is tending down this route) is to live in the past, returning to a “golden age” of certainty and cultivating a holy ghetto over against “the world”. It can be very tempting to build the walls around you and hide away from it all in a personal paradise. But it isn’t real. And it doesn’t last.

Easter is looking death in the eye, facing the truth of our mortality and human vulnerability, and choosing to embrace it with and in Jesus. We do not “escape” to some resurrection heaven; we come through to finding new life where we least expected it: where we are now. We go to the tomb of our hopes and dreams only to be told: “No need to linger here, you are risen with Jesus! Death does not have the last word about him, nor about you, nor indeed about the whole creation. Have you forgotten your baptism, by which you not only died with him, but rose again with him? Count everything as loss without him, but with him you have everything!”

It is so easy to cling to our crumbling world like a drowning person to a piece of timber; it seems like all we have. But to let go and trust in God is actually our only hope and safety. And that’s just the beginning.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Happy Easter!

 


John PASSION (PALM) SUNDAY
1st April 2012

The complementarity of the two titles of today is central to the Christian message on the threshold of the Great and Holy Week. “Passion” implies strong emotions, suffering, love, pain, desire. “Palm” speaks of peace, reconciliation, anointing and victory. Jesus is facing the last week of his life, with all the turbulent thoughts and emotions that go with it. We cannot truly enter this week without adverting to our own crises, testing the depth of our own love, admitting our hurt and failure, and even facing the stark reality of our own death. We cannot treat our own lives as anything but united to Christ if we are to be saved.

But Jesus is not a passive victim of these days. He is meekly led like a lamb to slaughter, yes; but he submits to the will of his Father, fully aware of the cost, walking deliberately to the cross in total trust. The agony of the cross is what achieves peace and reconciliation as he offers his life for us; he is anointed priest in his own blood; he wears the excruciating crown of thorns as a palm wreath of royal victory. It is as if he says to each one of us, “What I do for my Father I do for you.” That’s passionate.

Betrayed, deserted, judged, condemned, abused physically and emotionally, reduced to a worm and hardly human, are you forgiving, compassionate, and trusting? None of us can say in what state of mind we will face those final moments of life. Two questions to ponder this week. Who am I living for? And who am I dying for?

Saviour of the world, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
25th March 2012

During the winter months the trees and hedges have looked bare and lifeless; it seemed impossible that life could return to them. But if we did not give up on them too soon, after a while we might have looked more closely, to find the tiny buds forming, ready for the moment the green shoots begin to clothe the stark branches with colour again. The grain of wheat disappears into the dark earth, germinating beyond our sight with no evidence of growth, until one unpredictable day it emerges into light.

Lent can be like that too. Our Lenten discipline doesn’t seem to amount to much. But more is going on than we can see. The seed sown is God’s gift, not work of our hands. It is entrusted to our care. We can’t make the seed grow. But we can and should nurture it with our prayer, self-denial and generosity. Who are we doing it for, anyway? If we are disappointed with our progress, I suspect the focus has been on ourselves. Only God matters: let God be the judge, then.

Zacchaeus, the short little taxman, was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was. The Greek Gentiles in today’s gospel politely asked Philip, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Our curiosity about Jesus is a healthy sign; the curiosity about our own spiritual progress is not. Like the hidden grain or the stark winter branch, Jesus can seem to be absent, unseen; when we do see him, he may not look any different from the one whose feet I am washing at this moment. We have to wait for the unpredictable hour when he unexpectedly reveals himself. And even that can look like death, or resurrection – or both.

Happy Lent!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Mothering Sunday
18th March 2012

I am often touched by the beguiling simplicity of John’s gospel, the throw-away lines that carry a weight and depth revealed only when you stop and savour them. Take that three word sentence at the Last Supper, as Judas leaves the table to go and betray his Lord: “Night had fallen.” Yes, it’s late in the evening and the sun has set; but it’s late in the evening of Jesus’ life and the Sun of Justice is about to be betrayed. Darkness has invaded Judas’ heart and blinds his vision – Jesus has not fulfilled his expectations. So often people absorbed in their own bitterness and disappointment spread darkness around them like a perverted gospel – it’s not good news.

But even this darkness, this night, can be transformed by a single shaft of light. In today’s episode of John’s gospel Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He does not want to be seen or recognised. He is furtive in his approach. But he cannot conceal his curiosity about Jesus, and tries to reduce the risk of being spotted by coming under cover of darkness.

Jesus respects Nicodemus’ motives and reticence, and this acceptance makes Nicodemus more comfortable and able to open his heart more trustingly. We too need to be available to others where they are in their pain and anger; the very fact they can share such feelings with us is a sign of trust. Listening to their pain allows us to project a shaft of light into their darkness.

Encouraging, not condemning others is Jesus’ policy. He can see the infinite worth of every individual. St Paul in the second reading tells us why. “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it” (Eph 2:10).

Happy Lent!

John


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
11th March 2012

As St Paul pointed out in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, the Mosaic Law was a way of containing human attitudes and behaviour until transcended by God’s grace in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. “I came not to abolish but to fulfil the Law,” Jesus said. Law is now at the service of faith. Loving your neighbour has become even loving your enemy.

If in the Bible we see chaos leading to the Law and then to faith in Christ, the whole process is now in reverse gear. The commonly accepted Christian moral code derived from the Sermon on the Mount is more noticeable absent in Britain than ever before. It is simply one minority voice among many competitors. Because common moral values are largely missing, once again law has had to step into the vacuum to give a sense of order and prevent anarchy. But the very process of law-making in this country has no common basic assumptions and becomes more complicated and contradictory by the day. It is, in fact, just like the situation with the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, with this difference – in Jesus’ day at least the Jews had a common basis.

Currently before Parliament is a Bill to re-define “marriage” as something other than the exclusive union of man and woman. I have no problem with the legitimising of unions between same-sex couples. But to call it “marriage” is a step too far. Are we to re-define other words into oblivion? “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a famous example of political manipulation of language. If language is privatised, we can no longer communicate with one another and chaos ensues, and we’re back at the first chapter of Genesis.

Jesus caused chaos in the Temple (John 2) precisely because the Jewish authorities hadn’t noticed the chaos already there. We need the Spirit to breathe afresh over the chaos of our disordered minds and hearts.

Happy Lent!

John


SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
4th March 2012

Recently I was in the west of Ireland for a few days. To drive through the spectacular mountain scenery of Connemara without a drop of rain and with generous glimpses of sunshine was a gift. Mountains have always been places of awe and often associated with holy events and holy people – one such in western Ireland is Croagh Patrick; people still climb to the chapel on the summit where St Patrick is said to have prayed.

The first reading and the gospel of today each feature a mountain where we encounter God. For Abraham it was a traumatic meeting; it looked as if God, having given him an only son Isaac, now wanted him to destroy him. Although at the last moment God stayed his hand, the memory of Abraham’s terrifying ordeal must have shaken him. What next might God do? Can we really mean the confident words of the psalm that follows this reading: “I trusted, even when I said ‘I am sorely afflicted’”?

I can recall many times when God seemed to make impossible demands on me, when to follow his call has led to ridicule or condemnation, judged as anything from disloyal renegade to misled madman. But then I remember the mountain of Transfiguration, the sublime moments of encounter in the “cloud of unknowing” with the same God. And that is the point. The same mysterious God is equally absently present on both mountains. The difference is Jesus. In the Transfiguration Jesus reveals God’s glory in human imagery. But he also reveals a glimpse of our humanity made divine.

Lent is a time to “lift up our eyes to the mountains” (Ps 121/120) and pilgrim forward in hope and trust. We need to keep our focus on our true destination, whatever the weather.

Happy Lent!

John


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
26th February 2012

Lent only exists because baptism exists. During their final weeks of preparation, the candidates for Easter baptism underwent a kind of spiritual retreat, and eventually the already baptised came to join them on retreat as a way of renewing and re-living their own baptism. And baptism is a total immersion in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not a once-for-all event, but an on-going way of living. In other words, once immersed in Christ, I remain in him. Does my life make this obvious? Can I say, with St Paul, “it is not I that live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20)?

To the extent I can’t say this, Lent is a welcome opportunity to re-align my priorities. The very desire to do so is a sign that God’s Spirit is at work. But if I simply mark the gap I perceive between my current lifestyle and that of Jesus, the danger is that I focus on myself, not on the Lord. More positively, in what areas of my life do I see the Holy Spirit at work? Where is the Spirit leading me from there?

St Mark’s brief but poignant account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness is as much part of our experience as it is of his. Temptation is a wild, uncomfortable and unnerving thing. We feel weak and disempowered, torn apart. Like Jesus, we are “driven” into a wild place; it is not freely chosen in the human order. But in this place we encounter the wound of our brokenness and utter dependence on God; we are “with the wild beasts”, yet the angels are looking after us. Here our experience and Jesus’ experience is one; here “not I, but Christ lives in me.” Not a bad place to be at the start of Lent!

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
19th February 2012

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, in his recent anthology Human Chain, has a lovely poem about the paralysed man in today’s gospel. In Miracle he tells the story from the point of view of the four men who carried him to Jesus, “the ones who have known him all along”. It is not the first time they have carried him – they’ve been humping him about for ages, “their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked / in their backs, the stretcher handles / slippery with sweat”. Once they have lowered him in front of Jesus, their task is done. “Be mindful of them,” Heaney says, “as they stand and wait / for the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool, their slight lightheadedness and incredulity / to pass, those ones who had known him all along.”

Those who have known us all along and still carry us, those who love us and bear our burdens despite our ingratitude or grumpiness, who will go to great lengths to bring us to Jesus – what pearls of great price! Like Jesus, they too see the hidden sins and know the real reason we are as we are, and still forgive and go the second mile and more. When we encounter Jesus in such people, we can walk free. But we have to carry our stretcher as we go. It is now our turn to carry others on our shoulders.

Lent, which begins next Wednesday, is a good time to be mindful of those we are called to serve, to express our appreciation for those we take for granted. And not least among them is Jesus himself. Prayer can reawaken and deepen our awareness of him; fasting and penance affirm our dependence on him; generous service display his actions in us. After all, he has known us all along.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
12th February 2012

This week a combination of snowy weather and a heavy cold have kept me indoors. It felt like a combination of physical constriction and disempowerment, amputated from my usual routine and milieu. The leper in today’s gospel would have felt similarly but with far greater intensity. Not only would he have been confined to the boundaries of a leper colony, but he could not escape his progressive deterioration, a then incurable disease which in its advanced form can hideously distort the human body. Added to that, the social stigma of his condition isolated him from society.

Given all that, this leper nevertheless with enormous courage breaks ranks with his colony and risks approaching Jesus. Jesus for his part is (as usual) on the frontier between civilisation and chaos, the “no-man’s-land” which he claims as God’s land, where saint and sinner, Jew and Gentile, woman and man can meet as one; so he too has broken ranks for this encounter. The leper may be desperate but is fully aware of what he is doing; he prefaces his plea for a cure with “If you want to”. He has nothing to lose: his dignity has already been destroyed; he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of him. He literally puts his life in Jesus’ hands. And Jesus reaches out his hands to embrace him. Of course he wants to.

Once restored to society, the leper is no longer a member of the leper colony; he is no longer a leper. Where now does he belong? He has lost his status as leper: who is he now? Will he be a more compassionate member of society, able to reach out to others, inhabit the margins of life like Jesus? Now he has touched you, what will you do?

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
5th February 2012

People have often asked me to describe a typical day in the life of a priest, and invariably I would reply that, while I could recite the kind of activities that might occupy me, each day was different and usually unpredictable – for two reasons: because each person I meet is a unique surprise, and God is the biggest surprise of all.

So the description of a day in the ministry of Jesus which Mark sketches in today’s gospel is a composite picture rather than a daily schedule. After a challenging exorcism at the synagogue, Jesus arrives at Peter’s house and raises Peter’s wife’s mother from her sickbed. An evening meal is followed by more ministering to the sick late into the night. But before the dawn he slips away to a quiet place to pray, which leads to his decision to leave this successful mission territory for new pastures.

Jesus responds to each encounter as it happens. He adapts himself to each situation and makes himself available to serve. How flexible am I to others’ needs, or do they have to fit in with my plans? He makes time to relax with his friends over a meal. Am I too busy to celebrate friendship or feel guilty when I relax? He finds a time and a place for prayer so that he can have quality time with his Father. When and where do I pray? Do I make it a priority in my day, like Jesus? He is not influenced by popular acclaim. Am I always driven by other people’s expectations rather than my own convictions born of faith?

Jesus may not be predictable, but he is always trustworthy. So don’t try to control him, but surrender to his surprises.

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
29th January 2012

You would think that, once society has thrown off a common moral code based on Christian values, everything would be right and nothing would be wrong! But far from happily accepting each and everyone doing what they like, we have become a more judgemental and hyper-critical nation. Scandal is rife – newspapers engaging in phone-hacking, politicians claiming exorbitant expenses, financial corruption from investment bankers to professional sportsmen, even churchmen guilty of gross misconduct – there’s a few examples, without going beyond Britain.

People in public positions (which is most of us; we all relate to one another) are expected to be accountable. Certain standards of behaviour are anticipated. But accountable to whom? And who sets the standards? In the end, it’s the good old-fashioned gospel motto, “Practise what you preach” (cf Matthew 23:3). Are your words consistent with your conduct, and your conduct reflecting your belief? Do you water down the gospel message so that it fits comfortably with your compromised life? To whom then are you accountable? Yourself. You can’t blame anyone else for your personal philosophy.

Jesus made a deep impression on his hearers (Mark 1:22) because he taught with authority. He practised what he preached because he preached what he practised. His miracles were not admired for their wizardry or cleverness, but because through them he demonstrated the compassion and love of God which touched people’s depths, not simply tickled their fancy. The word “authority” comes from a Latin root implying growth and increase. Jesus, by being God’s presence among us in human form, makes it possible for us to grow into God, to become holy, to become who we really are by letting ourselves be transformed.

Yes, the world today is a melancholy mess. But instead of bemoaning it, surrender it (including yourself) to God. Then see how God transforms your problem into an opportunity for grace.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
22nd January 2012

It’s hard to convince unbelievers that religion is not a leisure pursuit or a cosy club of like-minded hobbyists. Sadly some religious people do restrict their faith to certain religious activities. But on the other hand, many non-religious people play golf or follow sport as if their whole life depended on it. Do we live our Christian faith in a way that demonstrates our total dependence on it? Does our belief in Christ touch every moment of our lives and colour everything we do or say?

With the Christmas season behind us and Lent a month away, the readings today provide good remote preparation for Lent. Jesus’ first recorded words in Mark’s gospel are: “The time has come.” The word Mark uses for “time” is kairos, which means a special moment, a graced opportunity. We don’t have to wait until Lent for it. “Every day, every hour, every moment have been blessed by the strength of his love,” the late Estelle White wrote. Cardinal Hume imagined the Lord standing at the foot of his bed each morning and inviting him, “Come, follow me.” Each moment of our life is a kairos moment, if we have eyes to see, a heart to believe it. That moment came for the disciples called from their fishing boats, as it came for Jonah sent reluctantly to Nineveh.

Jesus’ next words are:”The kingdom of God is close at hand.” How close? If Jesus is the kingdom of God in person, then he is closer to us than we are to ourselves: the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). The time is now, the place is here. So here and now, what must we do? “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Every second of my life is an opportunity to grow, and wherever I am is the place to believe the Good News.

God bless you and yours.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
15th January 2012

The endearing story of the call of Samuel never fails to appeal. It is both simple and profound. The boy hears the old priest Eli calling him, and his response is to run to Eli and say “I’m here!” Such a response bears witness to his readiness to obey. The word “obedience” is derived from the Latin obaudire which means “to listen intently”. Eli recognises Samuel’s readiness and guides him to the next step which might sound something like this: next time you hear God call you, don’t assume you know what he wants and rush off to do it immediately. Wait. Say: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening intently.”

It is in the silence of prayer, the pause to reflect, that we are likely to hear God’s word more clearly. The voice of God, as it did for Samuel, may sound remarkably like Eli’s voice; often God speaks to us through those we count wise and holy. But especially that voice will speak to us in the Bible, either in our own prayerful meditation on it or in the accents of the liturgical minister declaring: “The word of the Lord.”

But if we continue to listen intently, to open ourselves habitually to the Lord, then we begin to find him in more and unexpected places. Not only the wise and the holy but the fool and the sinner, the dewfall and the snowfall, birdsong and the cry of the poor – all creation speaks his name. When we pray, God has nowhere to hide. Like a parent playing hide-and-seek with her children, she cannot bear to remain hidden for long for fear of distressing them. Famously, Blaise Pascal puts these words into God’s mouth: “You would not be looking for me if you did not possess me. So don’t be anxious.”

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
8th January 2012

I still possess a book my grandfather gave me when I was about ten years old. He had received it as a school prize when he was young; it was a hefty tome called “The Story of the Heavens”. It’s my earliest recollection of a fascination for astronomy, learning about the vast array of galaxies, stars and planets beyond our tiny Earth.

Looking up into the dark January skies when clear of cloud, the canopy of stars is bewilderingly beautiful. With little light pollution where we live, more and more of heaven’s lamps and the patterns they weave reveal themselves. I wish I knew more of their names, of their movements and their origins; why some are bright and steadfast, others fickle and faint. Astronomers can give us some answers; the discoveries they have made in the century since my grandfather’s book was published are even more astonishing and expansive than ever the Victorians knew. Two thousand years ago the Magi made the stars their business, and they could pick out the ones that mattered. Their expertise and patient watching led them to Christ from distant lands before anyone was aware the Messiah had come. But even they could not have guessed that this child was more significant than the stars, the galaxies, the entire universe.

We are the stars that lead to Christ if we are his Body. To help others around us discern the way is not just a matter of pointing them in the right direction: we must be prepared to walk the way with them, to be Jesus to them. If our faith is only about star-gazing at distant divinity and not being stars that manifest his humanity in ours, we have missed the most amazing truth of the universe: God is with us. We are his epiphany.

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF MARY MOTHER OF GOD
1st January 2012

One of my Christmas presents was a DVD of “The Nativity”, a sensitively made production of the Christmas story in its Jewish setting, which was shown in four parts on BBC TV just before Christmas 2010. What struck me afresh this time, as the story progressed from the betrothal of Mary and Joseph to the birth of Jesus in the stable, was the isolation of the key characters. The close-knit community and family spirit of Judaism served to emphasise it. Once Mary found herself with child through the Holy Spirit, she was shunned and barely escaped stoning as a presumed adulteress. Not even Joseph would believe her; and when he had to go to Bethlehem for the census, Mary’s parents pleaded with him to take their daughter with him to a safer place; and only very reluctantly he agreed. Throughout that long difficult journey they hardly spoke to one another. At last, as Mary was about to give birth, he reached out and clasped her hand.

It’s a believable interpretation of the gospel account, particularly appropriate in today’s culture of isolation and individualism. The estrangement and break-up of family is most keenly felt at Christmas time. If the coming of the Word made flesh is in circumstances of pain, misunderstanding, loneliness and fear, then we can be sure the Son of God is present and familiar with those situations today. But above all it is love that overcomes all this and transforms our darkness into light. Mary’s determination to see through her mission to bring the Messiah to birth against all odds, including her own misgivings, can only be made possible by grace, not stoicism. At the beginning of a new year are we prepared to persevere and see through the mission each one is given as a disciple of Jesus, despite the opposition of others or our own doubts and fears?

Happy New Year!

John


CHRISTMAS DAY
25th December 2011

Above our heads the light fades in the frosty air, and the lanterns are being put in place, lining the path from the lych gate to the porch. It seems like the whole village has crammed into the modest parish church for the annual carol service. The lessons are read by an assortment of readers for whom the language of the classic Authorised Version of the Bible (four hundred years old this year) is unfamiliar and somewhat daunting. But the story they tell is timeless – or, better, immediate and real. The carols, sung without polish but from the heart, are our response – we want to be part of this, even though we are not quite sure how. For many here tonight, it is village tradition, articulated in a language of comfort, wonder, stillness, starkness, peace and warm joy.

Warm joy, too, is in the meeting of old and new neighbours after the service over coffee and mince pies. Something has touched us, and we linger in the bonhomie and togetherness. What has brought us together? Who or what has created this bond we can unashamedly call love?

The appeal of the Christmas story is its simplicity and openness. Jesus’ birth is everyone’s birth, Mary is every mother, the stable the place we all find ourselves in when we too feel rejected or diminished, the angel the one beside us in the coffee queue who kindly offers a mince pie. Good news is readily recognised in such disguises. Why do we make religion so complicated when God chose to come among us in breathtaking beguiling simplicity?

Above our heads the light has vanished to a point in the frosty darkness. By the light of that star we travel gratefully onward, aware that we are now the star-bearers of God’s love into the lives of others, not only today but always.

Peace and joy to you and all you love.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
18th December 2011

Luke’s account of the Annunciation, like his narrative of the Nativity, is so familiar that we can miss the impact of its message. Yet both events still have the power to move us, so that like children we are never tired of hearing of them again and again.

It is the last sentence of today’s gospel reading which always hits me: “And the angel left her.” Once Gabriel has received Mary’s fiat, he goes. In Matthew’s account of the Annunciation, where Joseph is the one who encounters an angel, the angel keeps appearing to him in a dream at various points until he leaves Egypt to return to Galilee with Jesus and Mary. But Mary has only one divine visitation. After that, there are no more angels for her until she enters Paradise. Her Yes to God’s will is so complete that God knows she doesn’t need any external miraculous props, so to speak, to remain totally faithful.

Gabriel’s greeting deeply disturbs her; it has never occurred to her that she is in any way special or marked out for great things. Once the angel begins to spell out God’s intentions for her, Mary’s only interjection is to ask a purely practical question (this girl is no romantic dreamer) – how can I be virgin and mother? Her Yes is not purely passive; she wants to co-operate with God. The angel responds to her practicality by giving a concrete example to engage with – her barren cousin Elizabeth is with child. Once Gabriel has departed, Mary doesn’t sit around in bewilderment or shock at this amazing turn in her life, but sets off immediately to see Elizabeth.

God’s will comes to us disguised in the ordinary events of life, and sometimes in dramatic changes that don’t at first glance look the slightest bit holy. Expect surprises from God, but prepare to be surprised by his presence in the uneventful humdrum routine of daily living.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
11th December 2011

Lord God, thank you for the wonder of the Incarnation, for the gift of yourself in human form – what the poet George Herbert called “heaven in ordinary”. You chose to come among us in a way which directly touched our human experience in all its aspects, although we tend to restrict you to the aspects we consider more consistent with your divinity. And you continue to reveal yourself to us in each generation as you speak to our human condition in Jesus. Open the eyes of our heart to the surprises of the Spirit in our world today.

“For all things give thanks to God,” your apostle Paul writes, “because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus.” You expect it, Lord, because we should be overwhelmed with gratitude. If only we had an inkling of your astounding love and provision for us, beginning with our very existence! But we are too busy pushing you back into a distant and harmless heaven, in order that we may claim the credit for our own existence, weaving the stuff of your creation into our personal plans. Self-advancement has no room for gratitude, except as a threat to its own pride.

A spirit of gratitude is a spirit of freedom and joy. As the Advent liturgy today bids us be joyful, you set us free from the chains of human approval and allow ourselves to be embraced by your divine designs. To discover how wide is that embrace, we have only to surrender everything into your hands. But surrender looks like loss and diminishment, not openness to growth and freedom which you are. And you have shown us how to let go by modelling surrender to us in giving us your Son. How wonderful a love!

Come, Lord Jesus.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
4th December 2011

A voice cries in the wilderness: “Prepare a way for the Lord!” If we are speaking here of a real desert, we would wonder who would be around in such a deserted inhospitable place to hear the voice. And yet, such was the reputation of John the Baptiser that it seems the people flocked to the wilderness to seek him out, just as in later centuries they were drawn there by the presence of the desert fathers and mothers.

The real wilderness today is not in the Sinai or the Sahara. It is in our impoverished so-called civilisation, in the heart of our cities, in the growing rift between rich and poor, in the loss of hope in the oppressed and unemployed, in the marginalisation of the sick, elderly and socially deprived. You don’t have to go far to find it – maybe no further than your own heart.

In that wilderness we hear a voice crying: “Isn’t there something better? Is this all that life has to offer? Who will rescue us from darkness and bring us into light? And can we trust the light to be faithful and true, or will we be deceived by its false promises of instant but transitory happiness?” Last Wednesday’s strike by service industry workers in Britain was such a cry.

What an opportunity for the Church to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s coming. If we are seen to be people of hope and faith, who speak of a God of tenderness and compassion, justice and peace, a God who comes among us truly sharing our predicament, then we can begin to demonstrate the power of the Spirit. Our God is not one who visits us from on high and then withdraws safely to heaven. Jesus shares the pain of weak and oppressed humanity till the end of time. The desert is the place where we come to feel the hungers of the human heart and to rejoice we share them too, waiting in hope.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
27th November 2011

Happy new (ecclesiastical) year! As the northern hemisphere’s days darken and grow shorter, and the weather turns decidedly chilly, a new beginning, new hope dawns on the horizon. This hope does not come of human optimism or a naturally cheerful disposition – heaven knows, there’s not a great deal reported in world news which lifts the spirit. Nor does it come from outside, as if from an alien planet. This new light rises from within the very darkness of the world. The God who creates us is not about to abolish our darkness and replace it with his own glorious light. No, something far more amazing is happening: God is entering the darkness in human flesh and transforming it into light. As the mystics such as Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross experienced and taught, only when we enter the darkness of faith and trust in God’s hidden presence disguised as absence, do we find the Light from Light.

Each year as we begin the Advent journey to Christmas, I think of that scene from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings where the defenceless hobbits Frodo and Sam travel alone and in disguise the perilous journey to Mount Doom within the hostile land of Mordor, carrying the precious Ring under the noses of their unsuspecting enemies. It reminds of those two seemingly insignificant travellers Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem, bearing the Saviour of the world to his birthplace; and apart from the dust disturbed by their passing feet, the universe barely trembles. Who knows where God is to be born this Christmas?

As we go about our daily routine in our world today, however humble and humdrum it may be, the gospel of Mark today tells us four times: “stay awake!” Watch out for the Light of Christ disguised as your darkness, and bid him welcome.

God bless you and yours.

John


CHRIST THE KING
 20th November 2011

What the media have dubbed “the Arab Spring” is a series of popular uprisings in Arab countries in the Middle East, intent on overthrowing autocratic leaders who have held together disparate cultures and factions by force. When first they assumed power, many of these dictators were hailed as saviours by their people: the Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, for example, owed their survival to the protection afforded by Mubarek, Assad and Saddam Hussein. While tyrants have been removed, the question is: who and what is replacing them? Will the replacements unite or further divide these nations? Will the various factions pursue self-interest at all costs, or is there a common bond strong enough to convince them to work together for good? And what is that bond?

What is evident internationally is reflected in Britain too. For example, the media spotlight on protestors against the capitalist regime camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, or on the violent eviction of Irish Travellers from Dale Farm, Essex are symptoms of a sick society, which has no overarching bond or philosophy to affirm, encourage or give hope to its members. “Survival of the fittest” is the slogan for politics, economics, industry and commerce. The human face of care and compassion is conspicuously absent – and yet it is exactly the underlying desire for acceptance and affirmation which fuels protest and violence across the world.

Christ the King is no despot but a shepherd, who cares for his flock and lays down his life for them. If we claim to be his followers, then our actions will prove it: feeding the hungry, assuaging those thirsting for justice and peace, caring for those imprisoned (physically, spiritually, emotionally) and the fearful, sick and vulnerable members of our society (not just our own religion or group). The Body of Christ is the only bond big enough to heal and embrace our torn planet – if only we could be seen in practice to live that truth.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
Remembrance Sunday 13th November 2011

Although even the Second World War is slipping from living memory now, it’s not too difficult to recall the debt we owe to those who gave their lives in 1914-18 and 1939-45. The world may be a very different place now, but we still live with war, terror and death in many parts of the globe. While it often seems a senseless waste of human life, the value of each single person who is prepared to put their own life before that of others is beyond price.

The parable of the talents is about taking calculated risks. To bury your talent is not only an act of cowardice – it deprives the world of your unique gift, however humble. God has made us who we are, loved and gifted us, in order to love and give in the service of others. And loving is always risky, because based on trust. The men and women who gave their lives in two world wars did not bury their talent – they risked all and appeared to lose all, but gained the possibilities for peace which (tragically) we have squandered since.

Jesus spoke of the grain of wheat that only produces fruit if it falls to the ground and dies (John 12). It was a parable about his passion, death and resurrection. Which is why every Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, and at every Mass we do this in remembrance of him. We not only recall a hero’s sacrifice with gratitude for what he has done for us (Eucharist), but enact our own self-sacrifice, and offer our living bodies with Christ to the Father. If we hold back from taking the risks, our gifts remain buried. Let go and be free!

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
6th November 2011

To begin November with bright skies and end-of-summer temperatures, while the leaves are falling amid soporific insects thinking spring has come, is both a comfort and a challenge. We make the most of the good times, but must always be prepared for the sudden turn in fortune without undue anxiety. When the grip of frost or bitter north wind enwraps you, don’t say you weren’t warned!

It’s in that spirit we consider the parable of the ten bridesmaids. We can be deflected from Jesus’ central message by thinking the wise virgins are mean for not sharing their oil with the foolish. But the “oil” here is not a commodity but an acquired skill. If you haven’t done your revision, you can’t walk into an exam on the day and hope to pass with only your neighbour’s crib notes. Nothing can take the place of our own preparation and commitment. Similarly, we can’t live on borrowed spirituality; our growth in prayer and a relationship with God has no substitute.

Wisdom, then, is not about amassing information or buying favours. It’s about being ready to listen compassionately to the voice of the Spirit in the events of daily life, sensitive to the will of God discerned within our own hearts and in the world about us. If our lamps are not lit it’s pointless cursing the darkness. The bridesmaids of the gospel were expected to ready, day or night, for the bridegroom’s coming. We too await the Bridegroom Jesus as he comes to claim his Bride, the Church, and take her into the wedding feast of heaven. If we are not prepared to be surprised by winter, how will we welcome another Advent just three weeks away?

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
30th October 2011

We live on a planet in turmoil: “nations are in tumult, kingdoms are shaken” (Ps 46:7). The world economy is in meltdown; law and order is without authority and teeters on the brink of anarchy; distrust is rampant and cynicism has become a widespread survival technique. There is a desperate search for security, purpose and meaning in human existence and there are plenty who offer political or economic solutions to the seekers, usually with their own agendas in mind. Religion is perceived as either a sideline for the escapists or a fanatical threat.

If this sounds unduly pessimistic, or even cynical, I am simply painting a picture of the scenario in which our Christian faith, our Catholic identity, is called to operate. And because we are mandated to engage with this situation, not build a separate sacral world on another planet, we are in danger of being infected with these negative attitudes, even as the world is desperate to catch the Good News bug from us. The danger we face is twofold: either becoming so engrossed in the present climate as to be ineffective witnesses, or retreating into religious professionalism, like the Pharisees of old.

To keep our faith alive, we need constantly to pause, reflect and pray in order to nourish a living relationship with our God in Jesus Christ. The psalm quoted above, after speaking of tumult, gives us the remedy in verse 11: “Be still, and know that I am God”. It is only in God we will find our ultimate security, meaning and purpose.

Allow the words of today’s responsorial psalm to seep under your skin. “Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace.... Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord” (Ps 130).

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
Mission Sunday 23rd October 2011

“You observed the sort of life we lived when we were with you.... and you were led to become imitators of us and of the Lord” (I Thess. 1:5). Paul clearly indicates that the process of conversion of the Thessalonians began with the impression he and his companions made on them simply by being who they were. This impression led to a desire to be like them. The order of words is instructive; it was by becoming imitators of Paul’s group that they became imitators of the Lord Jesus, not the other way round. At that point, the Holy Spirit filled them with such joy that they embraced the gospel of Christ. They went from observation through imitation to faith commitment. Then they in turn are observed by others who want to become imitators of them, and the process of evangelisation gathers momentum.

The great commandment of love is also descriptive of an organic process; it is not a static monolithic statement. The faculties with which we are to love God are human ones: heart, soul and mind. The evidence of our God-love will be observed in our human loves, in the way we love our neighbour. And the way we love others is in turn dependant on the way we see ourselves. If we have observed God’s love for us in the example of others, if we have become imitators of parents, teachers, priests who have modelled the gospel for us, then we will be secure in heart, soul and mind in our relationship with our neighbour, who in turn may want to know the reason for the hope we have. Pass it on!

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
16th October 2011

The method used by the Pharisees to trap Jesus in today’s gospel was to start by praising him. They could not escape the plain evidence of Jesus’ conduct, even if they didn’t like it. First, they declare him to be honest. Then they say he teaches God’s way honestly. They may not agree with his message or behaviour, but his transparency runs counter to their own way of thinking and acting. Thirdly, they acknowledge of the one who constantly teaches “do not be afraid” that he is not afraid of anyone; he is not in competition in the status race, so he can be himself. By contrast, they are often jostling for position, eager to manipulate the truth to their own advantage. Jesus does not play that game. He doesn’t need to. And neither do we.

Our calling as Christians is not ultimately to follow Jesus’ teaching, but to follow Jesus. Our baptismal grace is not simply to tell others about Jesus. Our mission is to be Jesus, so that others can see Jesus in us, in the lives we lead. We will only become aware of that when we can see Jesus in everyone we meet, when we are no longer afraid of what people think of us, when our love is universal, when we are neither overawed nor in contempt of another.

In the question about paying taxes, Jesus’ answer is based on ownership. Whatever you have that belongs to Caesar, you have no reason to keep for yourself – that’s stealing. But the unanswered question is: what does belong to Caesar? On the other hand, what belongs to God? And here the answer has to be: everything. Are we giving God his due? Or are we holding something back?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
9th October 2011

One of the advantages of living in a Norfolk village is being part of a community. Not all villages retain a sense of neighbourliness, which means that the well-being of those who live around us is important for our own well-being; but here it is so. When I was parish priest in Ingatestone, nurturing a parish community was made easier by the fact that parishioners already had a sense of belonging to the village community – indeed, many had moved there because that was what they sought.

The cult of individualism, which over the years has fragmented society, makes building community an uphill struggle; yet underneath the surface many individuals living lives of quiet desperation are yearning to belong, to be part of a network of relationships where their contribution matters, and where they can find the resources to support their own needs. A hundred years ago, belonging to a community of some kind was necessary for survival; today we can all paddle our own canoe, thank you very much. Or so it seems until you uncover the casualties of that thinking.

Those invited to the king’s son’s wedding feast are too busy with their own little world to respond to God’s invitation to face a bigger reality. But those dragged off the streets into the banquet can hardly believe their luck; from being isolated by their poverty and exclusion from society, suddenly they are at the heart of the Church. All are welcome.

Is that sense of openness and welcome an integral feature of our parishes today? Is the Eucharist, the foretaste of the banquet of heaven, a celebration of belonging, to which all can contribute, and all feel lovingly supported? That is the kind of community Jesus intimated, in that mysterious phrase “the kingdom of heaven”.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
2nd October 2011

“Paradise” is an Arabic word which means “garden”. The Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve dwelt in pre-lapsarian bliss was the primordial Paradise, and a foretaste of heaven. Yet the word originated in the process by which a garden was created, a process outlined in both Isaiah and the gospel reading today. First, you find the place in the wilderness you are going to cultivate. Next, you clear it of rocks and large stones, and use them to create a wall around the site to protect it. Then you dig and fertilise the soil ready for planting.

But the vineyard planted in God’s garden didn’t realise the paradise expected. In the Isaiah reading, the grapes were sour; in the gospel, the tenants robbed the owner of the vineyard. We may have planned carefully to ensure a good harvest or a successful enterprise, but there’s no guarantee that the weather or other people will oblige. From the Garden of Eden onwards, the Bible catalogues God’s frustrated plans for humanity – so why should we expect an easier ride than God? Our true flourishing happens when we adopt God’s attitude to setbacks: endless patience and mercy.

Paul’s advice in the second reading is apt. Don’t allow your mind to be full of vengeful, angry or negative thoughts, or they will fester and turn to sour grapes. Instead, leave no space for them: “fill your minds with everything that is true, noble, good, pure, loving, honourable and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). Then you will not be robbed of the peace of God which passes all understanding. That indeed is paradise.

As Dorothy Gurney wrote: “One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
25th September 2011

Whenever we hit a problem, tragedy or impasse in our lives, we tend to think of it as an obstacle which will have a negative impact on us. This is a natural reaction because our ego is programmed to seek its own comfort and gratification before anything else. All that thwarts that desire becomes a threat to be avoided at all costs.

At the same time we are seeking happiness and fulfilment; and we soon find self-gratification doesn’t always make us happy. But when suffering crosses our path, as inevitably it will, our attitude to it will make us or break us, diminish us or make us into a new creation.

Jesus tells of the sons whose father sent them to work in the vineyard. The second one protected his own agenda at all costs; when threatened with work he did not want to do, he simply said “Yes!” to placate his father but then ignored the request. Many situations like that occur today – people will do anything to avoid responsibility by walking away from whatever they don’t like, and so never grow up. The first son was more honest. “I don’t want to go; I don’t like having to obey; I’ll resist it as long as I can.” But he has a change of heart, a moment of metanoia. Like that other parable of two sons, where the prodigal “comes to his senses”, the first son here grows into a new creation by obedience to the father’s will. He becomes a happier person in the process.

It is those who pause to reflect, those who have the courage to sit in the terrifying silence and refuse to drown out the whisper of God with noisy diversions, who find true peace.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
18th September 2011

When the day of our life fades into dusk and the shadow of death, what will we see if we look back over the contours of our one precious life from the dawn of birth? However short, however long, in poverty or plenty, the Lord has ready our denarius – not so much a reward as a gift, like parents who can’t refrain from giving their children a present simply because they love them, regardless of their merits or otherwise.

I had a lovely message the other day from a gentleman who told me he had misspent his life addicted to gambling, and when his father died two years ago he resolved to start afresh and be the son his father would have been proud to have. He had remembered the hymn “I watch the sunrise” from his days at a Catholic school, although not a Catholic himself, and had the hymn at his father’s funeral. Now he listens to it every day; it keeps him calm and has enabled him over the last two years to live a new life free of his addiction.

Like the labourers in the vineyard who arrived first, or the elder brother of the prodigal son, we can perhaps look back over our lives with a sense, not of gratitude for our achievements and blessings, but of resentment that others have either done better or entered the vineyard at the eleventh hour after a dissolute life. In today’s gospel, the master’s reply to the complaints of such people is a question we need to find an answer to: “Why be envious because I am generous?”

Only God can make a final judgement on anyone’s life, including mine. Why close my fists over my one precious life, instead of opening my hands to receive his generosity?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
11th September 2011

It used to be asked: “What were you doing on the day President Kennedy was shot?” Today, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, there will be similar reminiscences of one of the most unspeakable crimes in living memory. It led to the Iraq war and the campaign against Al Qaeda, to the campaign against the Taliban and the Afghan guerrilla war. Its effects have had worldwide repercussions, tidal waves of terror which have continued to spread.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the words one heard most often were retaliation and revenge – a natural reaction to such an outrage but hardly helpful, let alone Christian. They played directly into the terrorists’ hands and raised the stakes higher.

Even the Old Testament, with its lex talionis (“eye for an eye...”), in its later books begins to see the futility and destructiveness of retaliation. Sirach today is clear: “Resentment and anger, these are foul things.... Remember the last things, and stop hating.” The enormity of the crime demands a response, but surely the bigger the atrocity, the more we need to weigh the situation and consider before we act. “Remember,” Sirach says. How quickly the blindness of rage makes us forget the most important things.

Forgiveness and compassion is at the heart of the gospel teaching. Outside Christian circles it is often perceived as weak and soft, condoning or giving in to wrongdoing. It is of course the only way to reconciliation and requires courage and humility. It is Jesus’ secret weapon for peace, since it defuses tension and anger and sets people free to move forward out of a spiral of retaliation in a new direction.

Don’t let it rankle. Let it go. You don’t need it.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
4th September 2011

With the introduction of the controversial new English translation of the Roman Missal (at least in part) this weekend, it is a moment of testing for the Church in these islands. Will it help to unite or divide the average congregation? After the initial confusion and irritation of an unfamiliar set of words, how parishioners respond to it will depend largely on the health or otherwise of their existing parish relationships: with their priest, bishop, liturgical ministers and with one another. Not only each one’s personal spirituality, but the shared liturgical spirituality of the community will be crucial.

Where there is disruption and destructive behaviour in a Christian community, Jesus gives wise counsel on procedures to deal with it. “If your brother or sister does something wrong, go and sort it out between your two selves.” Where community begins to break down is in ignoring that first critical step. How many of us will complain to a third party before talking to the offender first? Gossip is the enemy of unity. If the offender is open to listen, there’s a chance of reconciliation and the cancer of disharmony is caught early. If it doesn’t work, you may be part of the problem, so go back to the offender with another person as impartial witness. Only if that does not succeed does the injured party go public and report it to the parish council who can then consider the matter and give the offender a third hearing.

While Jesus’ words can be practical wisdom for the local community, it should also apply to the world-wide Church; but sadly this is not always so. If the Church herself is seen to practise what she preaches, she can challenge the world to be reconciled. But if her members are not listening to one another, how will the world listen to the gospel?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
28th August 2011

Some years ago I was asked to give a talk to an ecumenical gathering on the theme: “Why I am still a Catholic”. What prompted me to accept the invitation was the appeal of the word “still” in the title. Why I am a Catholic is probably rooted in my upbringing in that faith from infancy. But what keeps me there? Why am I still a Catholic?

In today’s first reading is part of the answer – I am still a Catholic for the same reason Jeremiah remained a prophet, despite the “insult, derision, all day long”, the embarrassment at the attitude and behaviour of fellow Catholics, not least Church leaders, as well as my own sins, fears and weaknesses. I am still a Catholic because like Jeremiah I let myself be seduced by the Lord despite my hesitations and doubts. As Peter and the apostles said when Jesus invited them to leave after hearing a difficult baffling teaching, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (John 6). I am still a Catholic because I love the Lord and he hasn’t shown me anything better. The perfect Church doesn’t exist – or if it does, it has only one member: me!

I have chosen freely and continue to choose daily to be a follower of Christ, which in gospel terms means I renounce myself and take up my cross. That can sound a negative oppressive path without love, overly submissive. But experience over many years has taught me the opposite: to renounce myself is to “throw off everything that hinders us” (Hebrews 12) and throw myself into the arms of the seductive Lord; to take up my cross is to admit, even boast of, my weakness so that the power of Christ may stay over me (2 Corinthians 12).

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
21st August 2011

This week has seen me in the Outer Hebrides, in the extreme north-west of the British Isles, where Gaelic is an everyday language. It is still fiercely independent and deeply religious; on the Isle of Lewis the shops are closed on Sundays and until recently there was no Sunday ferry service to the mainland. And although religious bigotry has largely gone, the southern Hebridean island of Barra is almost totally Catholic, while Lewis, the most northerly, is very definitely Presbyterian Protestant.

Yet it was while exploring the west coast of Lewis that I found remains of two ancient churches dedicated to St Peter. Both were built on rocky outcrops overlooking the Atlantic, far from the panting heart of Rome. In their precarious existence on the edge of the world they spoke mutely of a link with a wider Church spanning two millennia.

When Jesus asks the apostles “Who do you say I am?” was there an awkward silence? It is a huge question and one capable of a variety of answers. But Peter’s direct and inspired response comes straight from his heart and goes straight to the heart of the matter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Despite his human weaknesses Peter is declared to be the rock on which Christ will build his Church, the one entrusted with the keys of the kingdom of heaven. These are amazing promises, seemingly out of proportion to Peter’s profession of faith.

Today the Church can appear arrogant, out of touch, struggling to survive, or a prophetic voice in the world. Whether perched precariously on the edge or standing confidently at the centre, we the Church need to be united in bearing witness to Jesus, so that he becomes the focus, not ourselves.

God bless you and yours.

John


NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
7th August 2011

There have been many times in my life (and no doubt there’ll be more to come) when I have had to make decisions which not everyone will understand, or taken a course of action in faith without knowing the outcome. But if we spend all our lives choosing the safe option we will always be disappointed, like the man in the parable of the talents who hid his coin in the ground rather than risk trading it.

Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat while he remains on shore to pray. It was his idea to send them, not theirs. And when the storm hits the lake, if they weren’t so preoccupied with fear, they might well complain that it was Jesus that sent them into it. A right course of action, carefully chosen after much prayer, can and often does lead to unexpected darkness and danger. Did I get it wrong? Do I blame myself, or God? In fact, is anyone to “blame” except our inborn instinct to be in control?

Adventure happens when we take risks. Indeed, we would probably not be still alive unless we had. When Jesus walks on the water to the struggling vessel and crew in the middle of the night, the disciples thought they were hallucinating. If it’s you, says Peter, then I’ll act as you do, Lord, and show I believe it’s really you. And off he goes. But like a tightrope walker who looks down at the drop instead of the goal ahead, Peter starts to sink. “Save me!” is the cry of one who finally admits they’ve no further control, and total dependence on another is the only possible option, whether it works or not.

Jesus’ final question always haunts me. “Why do you doubt?” Why indeed, when it’s so much better to trust. Help!

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
24th July 2011

When Jesus tells the parables of the treasure hidden in a field and of the merchant looking for pearls, at first it seems like he’s contradicting the sharing of the gospel. Why keep the Good News a secret and hold it to yourself when it’s supposed to be proclaimed from the housetops?

Before we can preach the gospel we need to own it. In order to make it our own we need to enter its depths and immerse ourselves in it. And the “it” is not a thing but the person of Jesus Christ. Through prayer, the scriptures and the sacraments, we have first to soak ourselves in the mystery of his presence, begin to realise how priceless he is, and sacrifice everything for him. As we do that, we come to understand how breathtakingly rich is the word entrusted to us. We need time alone with Jesus, as he needed it with the Father, to enable this work to germinate and take root in our lives. We buy the field with our lifeblood, as he bought us with his. The treasure is hidden because we are not yet ready for it; we have had a glimpse of heaven, and nothing else matters until our desire for it is satisfied.

Since this is a lifelong process, our proclamation of the Good News is not an end in itself but the means by which bring others to become curious and excited about the real treasure of their lives; and at the same time we test our own commitment to the kingdom of God. If I cease to wonder at the pearl of great price I hold in this earthen vessel, I will not recognise the beauty of Jesus in each person I meet – including myself.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
17th July 2011

The media love a scandal – and never more than when the scandal is about the media. The story of the lengths that News of the World journalists went to in order to obtain a story is mind-boggling. It illustrates well that once we abandon morality, it isn’t long before we see nothing wrong in illegal or even criminal behaviour.

People sometimes rail at the Church for being too soft or failing to confront these issues. The Church does speak out but her voice is often muted by deliberate misrepresentation by the media, or simply because her message is unintelligible or appears irrelevant. The temptation is to shout the gospel message from the battlements of Fortress Church while ensuring the Pagan World stays outside. But true evangelisation is stepping into the place where we are vulnerable, open enough to live Christ’s life with courage and love in the face of ridicule or rejection. Our very vulnerability is the opening for the gospel to flow out of us. It is a risk – yes, but how else can we witness? Do we have to have all the answers before we lower our drawbridge?

Today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat is about having the trust and patience to allow sin and grace to co-exist in this crazy mixed-up world. Our crude human attempts to pre-empt God’s judgement by extricating the tangled roots of good and evil may betray our fears and prejudices, rather than reveal the innate divine tendency to see goodness in the darkest heart and dispense extravagant mercy.

Michael Evans, the Bishop of East Anglia who died this week after a long battle with cancer, put evangelisation as his first priority. His vulnerability and honesty about his suffering was a most powerful witness. The national TV news began with the scandal of the News of the World. But the local TV news led with a moving tribute to Bishop Michael Evans.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
10th July 2011

What strikes me whenever I read the parable of the sower is its reckless generosity. Surely any decent farmer would scatter his precious seed wherever there was a chance of it growing. Why waste it by letting it fall on the path or into the thorns? It carries the same message as many other parables of Jesus; in the story of the vineyard workers, for example, where those who have worked twelve hours are paid the same as those who came at the eleventh hour, the master of the vineyard says: “Why be envious because I am generous?”

God’s prodigal love will risk anything to get to us, even rejection and indifference; trodden underfoot, strangled by thorns, failing to come to anything, he still refuses to give up on us. The Word was made flesh, and his preaching fell on stony ground; he was crowned with thorns, and on the cross appeared to come to nothing. But in the fertile soil of his disciples’ hearts he found a ready welcome; they took all he gave them and, each according to their capacity, scattered the word with the same reckless generosity – thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.

They too encountered in the same measure rejection and indifference, acceptance and growth. And as we in this generation receive the word of God in the patchy soil of our world, we are no different.

Perhaps much of what has given me has been lost in transit, or choked out of my life. But what precious fruit has been born in me, I have a duty to share, to give of it freely without sure hope of return, without counting the cost. It is not mine to keep; it is a gift – it is THE Gift. And the precondition of its giving to me is that I should give it away in the same generous spirit.

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
3rd July 2011

In his letter to the Romans (8:9,11-13, today’s second lesson) St Paul contrasts the spiritual person with the unspiritual one. The spiritual person, he says, is one who lives and breathes in the Spirit; the unspiritual, he implies, is self-centred. Many in our world today glorify self-will, masquerading as self-fulfilment, over submission to God’s will. Submitting to the Spirit looks like weakness, even madness for those who do not believe (cf I Corinthians 1:23-25). Only those who let go and let God experience the real freedom of the Spirit.

A few verses later in I Corinthians, Paul points out that it is to the foolish, the weak and the little ones of this world that God chose to reveal himself as the true wisdom and the real power. Jesus in today’s gospel has the same message. “Are you child-like?” he asks. “Do you have a sense of wonder? Have you realised that you will never understand me unless you give up trying to control and dissect my words?” In a snippet of intimate conversation with his Father, he seems to give God a knowing wink: “However hard they strive to get it, the learned and the clever overreach themselves. The secret is to be humble. Then the light will dawn.”

It is only in the light of this that his next words make sense: “Come to me, all you who labour and are over-burdened, and I will give you rest.” It sounds so inviting, that rest in our frantic busy lives. But its precondition is to come to him. Until we place ourselves in Jesus’ hands, we will never find true peace. “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me.” A yoke is for two to carry the burden: I am on one side, Jesus the other. We pull together.

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
26th June 2011

It’s instructive to analyse the language we use for eating. “Any food?” enquires the ravenous teenager. “Have you anything here to eat?” asks Jesus of his disciples in the upper room on Easter Sunday.

In today’s world with its busy and fragmented lifestyle, food becomes simply fuel for the body. Watch the cars queuing at a petrol station and those queuing at a drive-through McDonalds – they’re both simply refuelling. But necessary as food and drink are for our survival, those of us who have more than enough to eat (and plenty of choice too) can take it for granted.

The best way to appreciate food is to share it, and to do so in the context of a meal. Food and drink become a gift to be savoured, and with it the gift of love and friendship. A meal, more than a take-away, fosters unity and mutual appreciation. The care taken in the setting for it can do as much or more than the menu. Meals are universal settings for celebration, reconciliation, thanksgiving and a host of other occasions; they are a language universally understood in every culture.

Sharing a meal, however, is an act of generosity and often self-sacrifice. In many countries, in the Middle East and Africa for example, it is expected that you will share your resources with a visitor or stranger who happens your way, as Abraham and Sarah welcomed the three angels (Genesis 18). It may be your last crust, but the guest has claim to it according to custom: the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarepheth comes to mind (I Kings 17).

The Eucharist is both sacrifice and nourishment, giving and receiving. It celebrates how much God has given us in Christ, as we drink in his Word and savour his Body and Blood. Yet simultaneously God celebrates our self-giving in Christ, as we feed our brothers and sisters in need.

God bless you and yours.

John


 

TRINITY SUNDAY
19th June 2011

There is only one God. Jews affirm: “the Lord our God is the one Lord”. Islamic faith declares: “there is no god but God [Allah]”. The Christian creed begins: “I believe in one God”. Monotheism asserts that there is only one God.

Yet history shows that humankind has arrived at monotheism via polytheism, a belief in many gods. Primitive man was in awe at the vastness of the known world, and only slowly learned to understand and tame the wildness of it. Each mysterious force – the wind, the sea, earth and fire, and so on – was named and worshipped, appeased lest its power overwhelm. Gradually these coalesced into a pantheon, a “family” of principal gods, each with their particular responsibility in the cosmos.

The Israelites emerged from worshipping many gods to worshipping Yahweh. The process went from polytheism to monotheism through henotheism (Yahweh is the greatest and only God worth worshipping, but the other gods around have to be reckoned with). The whole Old Testament bears witness to the struggle to arrive at true monotheism. Islam too emerged from an Arabic culture of polytheism; its uncompromising monotheism is a conscious and deliberate statement of uniqueness, over against the multiplicity of human ideas and beliefs.

The Christian belief in the Trinity may at first sight seem like a step backwards from monotheism towards polytheism, and this is what Jews and Moslems might suspect. In fact we believe it’s a step forward into a richer expression of monotheism. God is one but God is Love. How can God enter into relationship with us without being a God of relationship in essence? Love is self-giving, and we believe that the Persons of the Trinity are the model of all human relationships: we are made in the image and likeness of God who shares himself with us and wants us ultimately to share his life for ever.

God bless you and yours.

John


 

PENTECOST SUNDAY
12th June 2011

Whenever I visit France, although I can speak a little French, I am frustrated by my inability to communicate fluently. It is even more the case in other countries where I can say “Good morning” and “thank you” but little else. Without a grasp of language, direct communication with and therefore understanding of other peoples and cultures is virtually impossible; we are closed to their world.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that on the day of Pentecost the crowd that gathered to hear the apostles were drawn from “every nation under heaven”. They were amazed that what the apostles said spoke directly to them without being translated first. It is clear that the message God proclaims through the Holy Spirit should not be confined to one language or culture, but be immediately available to everyone, everywhere, without distinction. How that happens is the challenge the Church faces every day. Inevitably we do use human language in communicating, and by so doing we are subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Latin was the language of the later Roman Empire when the Western Church was developing; Greek remained the lingua franca of the Eastern Church. The split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy occurred over the language of doctrine rather than doctrine itself. Now that Latin is no longer a living language in Europe (despite the efforts of a few to revive it) we no longer have a universal alternative. English is widely used across the world today, but its usage has many local variations and nuances.

The rich diversity of culture in our world should not be seen as a hindrance to the Spirit’s work, but as the very stuff with which the Spirit creates unity and harmony. Can we not be amazed at the wonderful variety of this created order, and let the Holy Spirit draw us all together in an even more astounding symphony of praise?

Come, Holy Spirit!

John


ASCENSION SUNDAY
5th June 2011

Time was when Ascension Day always fell on a Thursday, forty days after Easter. Only five years ago in England and Wales, it was moved, along with Epiphany and Corpus Christi, from a weekday to the nearest Sunday, following European practice. The reason given for the change was the poor attendance of congregations at weekday holydays of obligation, and it was felt that having these feasts on a Sunday would bring them to the attention of a people in danger of forgetting them.

Now the bishops of these countries are considering reversing the change, for Epiphany and Ascension at least. The reason? Because the Church of England still celebrates them on the traditional dates. I find that very heartening. At the very time we are introducing a new translation of the Roman Missal deliberately designed not to have any texts in common with the Anglican Church, here at last in a sign that our bishops are bucking the trend to distance the Catholic Church from her ecumenical partners.

Ascension Day is not about Christ distancing himself from us by leaving this earth, but by taking us with him on his journey to the Father. It’s not a farewell, a finale. It’s our moving to a new level in our relationship with him. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t end with tears and goodbyes, but with the great commission to go out to the world, make disciples, baptise in the name of the Trinity, and teach by word and example. As Pope Paul said in 1975, the Church exists to evangelise, to spread the Good News. Thirty-six years later the world needs the Good News more than ever. Squabbles about translations and separate denominations and tinkering with dates while the world is starved of Good News is hardly encouraging. We need to move on to a new and more imaginative living of the gospel by letting Christ take us to a new level. And for that to happen we need the Holy Spirit.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
29th May 2011

It may seem strange that the Church chooses for its gospel readings in the latter half of Eastertide the Last Supper Discourse – the four chapters of St John (13 to 17) in which Jesus addresses his disciples on the eve of his Passion. Surely they should belong to Holy Week?

The wonder of St John’s gospel is that everything he writes is filtered through resurrection-tinted spectacles. Even the saddest and most painful moments of life, from the Christian perspective, are not the end of the story. Resurrection is always round the corner, or even present in the midst of darkness, hidden from all eyes except the eyes of faith. It does not take the pain away, but gives meaning to the moment, a reason to “hang on in there”. Good Friday is always followed by Easter Sunday. It’s just that the Saturday in between can feel like eternity.

This week I went to visit some of the ubiquitous medieval churches dotted around the Norfolk countryside. The last was the saddest – hidden down an overgrown path off the main road was the burnt-out shell of an ancient place of worship. Till then I hadn’t realised it was the victim of an arson attack in May 2004. Rusty provisional fencing prevented entrance to the building, for obvious safety reasons; the graveyard was swamped in nettles over four feet high. The signboard at the churchyard gate leaned languidly into the undergrowth as though falling asleep.

Yet somehow I felt a surge of hope that this melancholy sight was a presage of rebirth. There has been a church on this site for over a thousand years, a centre of pilgrimage in honour of an obscure seventh-century French saint; the monastery he founded in Normandy is today a flourishing Benedictine abbey. “I will not leave you orphans,” says the Lord. “I will come back to you, and your hearts will be full of joy.”

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
22nd May 2011

You read it here first! In September 2009 I wrote in Just a thought... that we were about to have sprung on us a new English translation of the Roman Missal, and that there would be significant changes in the prayers and responses we have been used to at Mass since 1975. Now it’s official. On the first Sunday of Advent this year, the new version will come into play.

Strictly speaking, it is not a translation but a transliteration. The version we are currently using is an attempt, not wholly successful, to render the meaning of the Latin in clear dignified English. It tries to capture the meaning, I believe admirably, using English grammar and syntax, producing a text which reads aloud well. The new “translation” simply reproduces the Latin text word for word in English, paying scant regard for English spoken idiom. Indeed, the authors’ deliberate intention is that it should be different, set apart, “sacral” and “hieratic” language. Then why bother to render it into foreign English? Why not keep it in Latin (which is probably what they really want)?

There are some positive advances. Many of the scriptural allusions were lost in the early translation; the new version has restored them. As a musician I will relish the opportunity to set the new Mass texts to music; but already I’ve found that the rhythm of the new texts is often clumsy, setting composers a real challenge if the people are expected to sing them. At the heart of the problem is the clash between two perceptions: inclusive or dualistic? Isn’t the Incarnation about uniting heaven and earth, not keeping them apart? The rapprochement between Church and world inspired by Vatican II seems have taken a reversal. There are many rooms in my Father’s house, Jesus says. Indeed; and the walls between them are getting thicker.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
15th May 2011

Love, care, vigilance, faithfulness, companionship, compassion, trust, correction, encouragement, initiative, leadership – all these are epithets of the shepherd. They describe not only the qualities of the shepherd in relation to his flock, but also towards himself. “Integrity is the loincloth round his waist” (Isaiah 11:5).

In recent years the shepherds of the flock of God (I Peter 5) have had a rough ride. Just as rogue investment bankers have damaged the banking profession, or dishonest dealings by some MPs has undermined the whole Government, so a tiny minority of abusive clergy have stained the good name of the Church. Instead of spotlighting the majority of honest, hard-working and often heroic people who serve the economy, politics and the Church, the media ignores them.

In St Augustine’s famous sermon on the shepherds in Ezekiel 34, he comments that when a good sheep observes his leader preaching one thing but doing the opposite, he is being starved and tempted to abandon the right way. Good example is vital to a healthy society.

Look at the qualities of a shepherd listed above. Whether we’re talking of priests, office managers, parents, teachers, government officials or the medical profession (to mention a few) these qualities are expected to greater or lesser degree.

This week I had the opportunity to see the award-winning French film Of Gods and Men about a Cistercian monastery in Algeria. The true story of the French monks who lived in peaceful harmony with their Muslim neighbours recounts how they received death-threats from Islamic extremists and were harassed by Algerian authorities to leave the country. They decided to stay and paid with their lives. These are the shepherds we need to hear about – people who are frail and ordinary and obscure, yet get on with the daily task of trying to live the gospel by pointing to Christ, not themselves.

Christ is risen Alleluia!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
8th May 2011

As with so many of the “recognition” scenes after the resurrection, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus has a delicious taste. We know who this stranger is but they don’t. We wait for the lovely moment when their eyes are opened and they know what we know: it’s Jesus!

What makes it so delightful is not our superior knowledge but the fact we’ve been there too. In all our lives there have been moments when it suddenly dawns on us.... when we break through to another level of perception, or simply see things from a different angle. It happens to me when I’m trying to solve a cryptic clue in the crossword, and suddenly the answer clicks into place.

Every moment of every day, Jesus is walking at my side. I am often too busy or preoccupied to notice, but there he is. As in the resurrection appearances he takes many forms: not just a stranger on a walk or beside the lake while we’re fishing or a gardener near the tomb, but countless other “disguises”, from the next person you meet to a piece of broken bread and a cup of wine. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nuisance when we have something else on our agenda; at other times when we cry out to him he is shrouded in darkness and silence. But whatever form the risen Lord takes, it is for our benefit, not his. And yet, however vaguely, it is our searching for him, our desire for meaning, purpose, beauty and love in our lives, that prompts him to reveal himself. As Pascal observed, “we would not be seeking him if we had not already found him”. Or, put another way, Jesus has already found us and waits for the delicious moment we recognise him.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
1st May 2011

Today Pope Benedict is to beatify his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who will henceforth be known as Blessed John Paul. To recognise someone officially as (almost) a saint so soon after his death is unusual but not without precedent; Mother Teresa was similarly “fast-tracked” by Blessed John Paul himself not long ago. But in the first millennium of the Church, when the present lengthy process of canonisation was as yet undeveloped, many a saint was declared by the local Church because of popular acclaim; miracles of healing and other signs were attributed to their intercession, and their graves became centres of devotion and pilgrimage, sometimes immediately after their death.

Saints act as lodestars to the faithful. We do not believe we can ever become saints ourselves but admire the example of their lives; it encourages us to persevere. But the truth is, we are all called to be saints. Our problem is our narrow perception of what holiness is. When we read the idyllic description of the early Christian community in today’s first reading (Acts 4:42-47) we know that the Church does not live like that most of the time, but it’s good to remind ourselves where we should be going, and to know that it is possible to arrive there. Holiness happens not because of our heroic efforts but of God’s gift of his Spirit to us, a gift freely given through the death and resurrection of his Son. Responding to that gift is what makes us holy.

Those the Church has beatified or canonised would be the first to proclaim that humanly they are no different from the rest of us. The more we allow God to have his way with us and not resist, the holier we become. All we have to do is to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to loving one another, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


EASTER SUNDAY
24th April 2011

Nothing of our universal human experience is alien to Jesus. He has shared in the whole gamut of human emotions and thoughts, acts and deeds, from his conception to the grave. It follows that nothing in Jesus’ life from womb to tomb is alien to us. We may live in a different time and in another part of the world; we may not have been born in a stable or died on a cross; but we can readily relate to the human reality of the unique individual he was, just as we recognise the unique and special characteristics of each person.

Today’s feast is central to the Christian faith because it recalls and relives the first event in our human existence beyond our present experience. If we believe that nothing in Jesus’ life is alien to us, this has to include the resurrection. Resurrection is part of our human nature as God created it, even though beyond present experience. The account of the empty tomb graphically illustrates this: he is not here, he goes before us. Jesus is not where he was expected to be, and where he is now is where we’re going. Too many people have consigned the incarnate Son of God to the dustbin of history, and written off the Christian message because Christians are where they expect them to be – tucked out of sight in church. Only when Christians are seen in unexpected places living hope-filled resurrection lives does the world sit up and take notice.

And that is merely the beginning. Resurrection life is not a consequence of stirring ourselves into action or embarking on charitable works, hoping to impress the natives. It is a consequence of following Jesus. And he does not stop at the tomb; he keeps going before us. Don’t lose sight of him!

The Lord is risen, alleluia!

John


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
17th April 2011

The Passion narrative, partly because of its length but also its emotive subject matter, reveals the person of Jesus most vividly. We cannot fail to be touched, even at two thousand years’ remove, with his every thought and movement in the twenty-four hours between the sunset on Thursday and the Last Supper, and the sunset on Friday when his body was laid in the tomb. Those who have been alongside someone in their last hours of life, whether shockingly traumatic as in Jesus’ case, peacefully at home at a ripe old age, or anything in between, can testify to its powerful effect, recalling their last words and actions, and perhaps struggling to understand their meaning.

As the disciples of Jesus reflected on the Passion, writing the story from their perspective and having the honesty to include their abject cowardice and betrayal, they are not at the centre of the picture: Jesus is. A very helpful exercise in Holy Week is to reflect on the story of our own lives, its successes and failures, and tell that story as if we were relating it to Jesus. Then ask Jesus to retell our story as he sees it from his perspective on the cross. Are there any differences in the two accounts, and if so, what are they?

The life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is not complete without including the life, passion, death and resurrection of each of us, of the whole world, of the entire creation “groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8). In the end, it is not finding Jesus in our lives; it is finding our lives in Jesus. That has been the purpose of our Lenten journey. Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.

You are the Saviour of the world.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
 10th April 2011

Lent is about preparing for Easter, and Easter is about resurrection. So it is not surprising that somewhere in Lent we need to focus on the meaning and experience of resurrection: not only Christ’s, but ours too. Today’s gospel could not be more graphic.

To be resurrected, of course, you have first to be dead. Facing the reality of death is particularly difficult in times like ours when medical science is making new advances and the process of dying is often marked by denial (“I’m sure you’ll be better soon”). Surrendering our human faculties until nothing is left (“the terror of perpetual extinction” as Vatican II puts it) naturally makes us recoil. Every night as we fall asleep into unconsciousness we are rehearsing for that ultimate surrender. And throughout our lives we practise many “little deaths” as we let go of something we thought essential to our existence – the dream job, the house where we live, or transitions in life like leaving home or retirement. And most of all when we mourn the death of someone near and dear to us.

Like the Transfiguration three weeks ago, today’s gospel is taking us through the curtain of grief and loss to a glimpse of our ultimate destiny. But only a glimpse. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the tomb, Lazarus resumed life only to die again at some unspecified hour. When Jesus rose again it was to a transformed and eternal life united with God. In the words of St John’s first letter, “what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed. All we know is that when it is revealed, we shall be like God, for we shall see him as he really is.” In the words of Jesus to Martha, do you believe this?

Happy Lent!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
3rd April 2011

We use visual metaphors constantly. If I want to express my opinion, I can speak of my “point of view”; if I come to understand something, I might say, “Oh, now I see!” The Bible also uses language in the same way; light and darkness, seeing and blindness are regular images for belief and unbelief, wisdom and ignorance.

When Samuel is trying to discern which of Jesse’s sons is to be the future king, he naturally looks at the eldest and tallest son as the likely candidate, but God doesn’t go by outward appearances: “man looks at appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart”.

We need a different way of seeing, what the mystics call “the eye of the heart”. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition of icon veneration, a tradition happily being resurrected in the Western Church, you do not look at an icon; the icon looks at you. The eyes of Christ or the saint depicted often appear crossed; the Orthodox will tell you that one eye is turned to God, while the other is looking at you. That is exactly the attitude we should hope to acquire if we want to discern God’s will. I should want to see each person as God sees them, to look at them with the same loving and compassionate gaze of Christ.

Our eyes are designed to focus on an object where the rays of light from each eye meet. An optician once told me that the rays of light from the eyes of an icon are parallel; they meet in infinity (eternity, if you like). The words of a hymn come to mind: “Keep your eyes upon Jesus; let nobody else take his place, so that hour by hour you may know his power until you have run the great race.”

Happy Lent!

John


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
27th March 2011

In the cloister of Chester Cathedral there is a modern bronze sculpture of the scene in today’s gospel, the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus. What struck me about it is that it left me asking the question: who is offering the drink? Is the woman giving the cup to Jesus, or Jesus to the woman? I believe the ambiguity is part of the message.

The story in the fourth chapter of St John opens with Jesus, exhausted, sitting by the well in the midday heat. He is thirsty. He is the first to speak: “Give me a drink.” A basic human need is the starting point of his teaching; he doesn’t come loaded with riches to distribute but with emptiness to be filled. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus also points out the emptiness: “Where can we get food to feed all these people?” and to his disciples’ consternation he replies: “Give them something to eat yourselves.”

As we look at our meagre resources and know that we cannot possibly meet the pressing needs of the world’s hunger alone, it begins to dawn on us that that is exactly what Jesus wants us to discover: our inadequacy and helplessness. His own thirst at the well, his thirst on the cross, becomes the opening through which we glimpse the passion of God for us – passionate love, ravenous for our hearts and minds. Are we willing to give him a drink – not just a cupful but pour our lives into his? And do we then find that his divine life flows into ours, and empowers us to feed the world – the emptier we are, the more space there is for the Spirit to fill?

Happy Lent!

John
 

 

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
20th March 2011

Sitting by the lake in the early afternoon, we listened to the ducks calling to each other as they fed among the reeds. Overhead a phalanx of geese honked as they flew in perfect formation. The water was still. As the silence settled and deepened, we gradually became aware of little rustling sounds in the undergrowth we had not noticed. Even the dog seemed to be tuned to the presence of silence; no-one was willing to break the spell it wove.

From the cloud the Father’s voice was heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” The disciples who heard it fell on their faces in awesome fear. As when the people of Israel heard God’s voice thundering on Sinai, and said to Moses: “You tell us what God says; we are terrified of his voice,” so the disciples found Jesus more approachable than the mysterious voice from the cloud. Note that the Father didn’t say “Listen to me” but “Listen to him.” When we listen to Jesus speaking our human language in his words and actions, we are listening to God. is a time for listening. We need to find space and time for it – hoping it will happen by chance or pausing a few seconds before rushing off to the next activity will not work. We need a place where we can be quiet for a while – a room alone or a walk along the river, for instance – but only to rediscover the place within our heart where God waits for us. At first it can feel threatening, like the thunder on Mount Sinai. But if we persevere with listening to the terror within us as the silence deepens, a clear pool of peace begins to appear. Then we are ready to listen.

Happy Lent!

John


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
13th March 2011

There is a lovely hymn which comes to mind as I read today’s first reading:

In his own image God created man, and when from dust he fashioned Adam’s face, the likeness of his only Son was formed, his Word incarnate, full of truth and grace.

We were reminded on Ash Wednesday that we are but dust of the earth. Dust is nothing but a nuisance; we have dusters to remove it from our furniture and dustbins to put it in. But that useless commodity is the very stuff which God has taken and moulded beyond our dreams into the image of himself. When we look in the mirror, even before shaving or putting on make-up, we are looking at the image and likeness of God. When God looks at you and me, he cannot help but be reminded of Jesus.

Lent is the time given us each year to gaze into the mirror of our baptism and see how clearly Jesus is reflected. We need to grow in faith and love, and we will never do so without testing: am I living an authentic Christian life? When I was younger the test consisted of making sacrifices: if it was easy, it was probably a sin; if it was difficult and distasteful, it was more likely to be of God. Today we don’t have to go rummaging around for penances: life confronts us with them constantly. Temptation always looks good or we would never be attracted by it. It always puts the focus on us. And we are so absorbed by our fascination that we forget - the true good leads us to God via our service to others.

Look in the mirror now. If you can’t see Jesus, Lent isn’t over yet!

Happy Lent.

John


NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
6th March 2011

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable – in other words, a question. Parables are colourful stories which are designed to raise questions and get you thinking. The parable of the two men who built their houses respectively on rock and on sand asks us the question: which one are you? And what is the evidence for your answer?

Jesus’ teaching is worthless if I have not listened to it and if I do not put it into action. At present I am participating in a training course for spiritual directors. This month’s session took as its theme: Listening – to yourself, to others, and to God. To listen (in contrast to simply hearing) implies attention; it requires active engagement with the object of one’s listening. It is a form of love. To “love my neighbour as myself” is a command which means I can only love my neighbour to the extent I love myself; to listen to others I have first to listen to myself. And listening to God (a vital part of prayer) is most truly effective when I can listen to myself and to others in equal measure.

When we were buying the house where we now live, one of the questions we asked was: is it well built? Is it above the flood plain? Can it withstand the elements? The season of Lent begins again on Wednesday this week. If I am to live the Christian life and not simply go through the motions, then I have to ask myself: in practice, who or what is the foundation of my existence? Is it strong enough to withstand the storms of everyday life? And how do I access its resources? For me the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and works of mercy can be expressed as listening to God, listening to myself and listening to others – and finding God in each of them.

Happy Lent!

John


EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
27th February 2011

Last November we put in an offer to buy a beautiful old house on the Norfolk Broads, convinced that this was the property God wanted for us. To our delight the offer was accepted, and negotiations proceeded towards exchange of contracts around Christmas time. But the vendor began to hesitate, and in mid-January decided to take the house off the market.

It is easy to say that it wasn’t meant to be, that God had something better for us, or to express some similar sentiment, as a sort of consolation to soothe the disappointment. We can over-rationalise it or over-spiritualise it. But experience of God’s providence over the years has given me ample evidence of its truth. Two hours after the news that we had lost the house, another estate agent phoned unexpectedly and invited us to look at another property elsewhere. It was even better than the first one. To cut a long story short, we bought it and moved in this week, only a month after learning of its existence.

We want to control our destiny, to have some say in the shaping of our lives, and to see the foiling of our plans as disaster. To surrender our future into the hands of a capricious God may seem like folly; but to entrust our hopes and dreams to him is not to abrogate responsibility for the choices and decisions we alone can make. Providence plays her hand in our making of those choices. A prayer of St Ignatius Loyola expresses well this mysterious partnership between God and humankind: “Lord, help me to remember that there is nothing in this world that you and I cannot handle together.”

Worrying, says Jesus in today’s gospel, is unproductive. Only trust allows God full scope. How hard we find it to let go and let God.

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
20th February 2011

The lex talionis or law of retaliation was introduced into Jewish Law to mitigate the effects of human vengeance. Among the peoples of the Middle East it was not uncommon to exact retribution for an offence by disproportionate means – for example, if someone stole your goat you were at liberty to take two or more of his. Lex talionis ensured a proportionate response: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Even then, as has been wryly observed, the whole world would soon be blind and toothless!

Jesus introduced the revolutionary concept of no retaliation at all. “Turning the other cheek” has become the slogan for non-violent response. Indeed it goes even further: if you are forced to go one mile, not only do you go without resistance, but you calmly offer to double the mileage. While this teaching of Jesus is much admired, in practice we Christians are not good at doing it. We resent anyone taking advantage of us, and we don’t like being made to look foolish. So we rationalise Jesus’ words, claiming them as an example of Hebrew exaggeration to make a point.

A second-century homily speaks of the amazement of pagans who hear Christ’s words: “Love your enemies.” But when they see Christians not only not loving their enemies but hating their friends into the bargain, they dismiss this teaching as an old wives’ tale. Nothing much has changed there then! A generation ago there was still a vague respect for the Christian values of tolerance and forgiveness, but today taking revenge is acceptable and even applauded. The escalation of violence and confrontation, from road rage to terrorism, shows no signs of abating. The witness of love is the only antidote.

Try loving the enemy within you for a start.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
13th February 2011

“You have learned how it was said.... But I now say to you....”

This repeated formula Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount starts from the experience of his hearers. As Jews they are very familiar with the Torah, the Law enshrined in the first five books of the Bible, and particularly its essence distilled in the Ten Commandments. Even fifty years ago most people in Britain would know of the Ten Commandments and be able to name a couple of them; not so today. Just reflect a moment. How many of those who do know them actually observe them? Keeping the Sabbath? Honouring parents? Respecting human life? Remaining faithful in marriage? Respecting others’ property? Telling the truth? If we regard such moral imperatives as outdated or unworkable, as many do, we have lost the foundations on which the gospel we read today is based. Before we can pass on Jesus’ teaching which takes us believers to a new level of thinking and acting, we need to ask ourselves if our hearers have even reached to starting line.

That doesn’t mean we can stay at the level of simply keeping the law (“well, he didn’t actually die when I throttled him, so I didn’t break the fifth commandment!”). Jesus’ formula “but I say to you....” implies an invitation to go on a journey with him into new territory, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We identify with him, not merely his words. Who is speaking to us? How does he live? Is it really possible to transcend anger, be reconciled with enemies, build an atmosphere of trust instead of suspicion? If we believe that we have the power of the Spirit within us to do so, people may ridicule our efforts but only because they have noticed and are challenged by our behaviour. Perhaps they’ve reached the starting line.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
6th February 2011

God credits us with far more beauty, intelligence and possibilities than we could ever imagine. That should not be surprising because all we have is a gift from God in the first place; and he is never mean or parsimonious in his bounty. Any restrictions are caused by our lack of vision or faith, not God’s lack of generosity. From our perspective some people have more gifts than others, but God has no favourites and loves each of us with one hundred per cent of his being.

When Jesus informs his disciples that they are the light of the world, he is not exaggerating but affirming our calling to be his witnesses. St John has Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12); today in Matthew’s gospel he applies the same epithet to us. As he reveals God to us in human flesh, so in our fleshly human life we too reveal God to others. Our task is to accept that vocation by being available, not by hiding behind our unworthiness or perceived incompetence (often a disguise for cowardice or complacency). God’s light is in us; it is our duty to put ourselves where that light can be seen.

We are also referred to as “salt of the earth”. We use salt to complement food and enhance its flavour, and helping to preserve its freshness. The spirit of pessimism and discouragement has settled on our world like a wet rag; it’s as if we live under a blanket of depression. Hope, vision and vitality are sorely needed in this climate, and we have those very gifts to offer as Christian people, provided we don’t succumb to the pervasive cloud of negativity. What an opportunity is ours if we can show others that beyond the cloud is the Sun of justice, lifting us from our confusion and fear to the Light who is Christ.

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
30th January 2011

It is said that “actions speak louder than words” but if word and action are in harmony then words have a greater power. The perfect integration of word and action is in the person of Jesus, encapsulated in John’s profound formula: “the Word was made flesh”. Jesus’ ministry is characterised by his teaching and healing, which are not separate compartments of his life; through his sublime teaching he consoled, challenged and healed, and through his healing miracles he taught us of God’s compassionate love.

In Matthew’s gospel, the evangelist intersperses collections of Jesus’ sayings with collections of healing stories. The first major collection of sayings (chapters 5 – 7) known as the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are not simply statements – they are invocations, calling down God’s blessing on those who live them. And the list of beneficiaries is at first glance an unlikely bunch. Can I find myself among them?

In order to receive a blessing I must be open to it, to have a “blessing-shaped hole” within me. To be poor in spirit I have to “know my need of God”, as one of the intercessions in the Divine Office puts it. To be gentle and meek I have to acknowledge my inadequacies, and be sensitive to others when it’s tempting to harden my heart. To be a mourner I need to know grief, loss, and aching emptiness. To hunger and thirst for righteousness, I have to have an appetite for the truth as if I were starving for it. The blessings Jesus promise complete what is lacking in us. The remaining four Beatitudes describe the attitudes I adopt when the emptiness of the first four has been filled by God: the capacity to be forgiving, non-judgemental, single-hearted and patient in suffering.

Hmmm.... I’ve a long way to go!

God bless you and yours.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
Peace Sunday
16th January 2011

The news this week has been pretty grim – militant extremists in Pakistan, riots in Tunisia, tension between Israelis and Arabs in the Gaza strip, and political upheavals plus an attempted assassination in Arizona, USA. The news is usually an account of atrocities rather than niceties. The volatility and unpredictability of human nature is more challenging than its kindness and generosity. The latter makes us more secure: the former more watchful and unsettled; so we need to assess our response to it.

Assessing our response and acting according to it is called responsibility. If our reading of the situation is that these events are nothing to do with us and how dare they upset us – or worse, we ignore them completely and comfort ourselves that they’re somebody else’s problem – then we have failed our responsibility. St Dorotheus, a sixth-century abbot, famously observed that “if we examine the matter closely, we will find that the reason for all disturbance is that no-one blames himself”. If everyone accepted responsibility for their actions, great or small, the world would be a far more peaceful place. Blame is the name of the game.

Our readiness to be at the disposal of God’s will, not our own agenda, is at the heart of the Christian life. John the Baptist was prepared to diminish to let Christ take centre stage. Are we prepared to let go of our own desires and dreams when they are in conflict with the gospel’s demands? And even when they are not, does not the Lord call us to give more when we are tempted to draw back? It is that spirit, born of love, which will ultimately bring peace to our world. Until then, there will always be bad news.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
9th January 2011

Somewhat anxiously, I was persuaded at the age of twelve to attend swimming lessons after school at the local swimming pool. The teacher I was supposed to have never seemed to have much time, so his more advanced pupils were asked to help me. One well-meaning lad of fourteen was supporting me as I tried to float as instructed; he inadvertently let go and I sank into the water before he realised what was happening. I never did learn to swim....

Baptism is about drowning. It involves surrendering our lives to God, trusting that he will uphold us and keep us afloat. But it is much more than that. It is our identifying ourselves with Christ in such a way that his life, death and resurrection are manifested in our daily living. What happens when we entrust ourselves to the loving arms of God, only to find ourselves sinking into the deep, like Peter’s attempt to walk on water? What happens when, like Jesus, our surrender leads us to crucifixion and death?

As the three young men are about to be consigned to the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), the king taunts them: “Where is the god who can save you from my power?” Their reply is to affirm that if God is able to save them, he will; “and even if he does not”, they will not serve any other. Salvation doesn’t always feel like it; it is not a magic formula but a living growing relationship with a God who leads us, as he did Jesus on earth, by mysterious ways. The Son of God at his baptism in the Jordan submitted to the Father’s will and committed himself to seeing it through. We are called to do the same through our baptism.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
2nd January 2011

In the week leading to Christmas, BBC1 TV broadcast Nativity, a dramatic presentation in four half-hour sessions of the events from the engagement of Mary and Joseph to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. What came across for me was the complexity of the relationship between Mary and Joseph, especially with the unexpected conception of Jesus, and the way that relationship developed. Clearly, in human terms, they could not have survived the crisis without trust – total trust in God and in each other.

Today’s feast highlights the mysterious Magi and the trust they showed by travelling into foreign lands without a clear idea of exactly how far they had to go or how long it would take. Our own journey through life is like that too, and the gift of faith in God is the fuel to keep us going in trust. The relationships between the wise men themselves, between them and the people they left behind in the east, and with the people they meet on the way, are the testing ground of faith in practice. Their enthusiasm and perseverance in following the star, despite the raised eyebrows or ridicule of many, must have had an effect on some at least.

Part of our trouble today is the tame apologetic way we witness to our Christian faith. If we’re afraid of upsetting others, we’ve lost the plot. Half-heartedness witnesses to nothing except our lack of faith. The world needs to know that God is where we really are, with all our attendant problems and anxieties. By our love, forgiveness, patience and hope, seasoned with a sense of humour, we can create an atmosphere which leads others to ask about our God in Jesus. If trust and loving relationships can be sustained through faith in such a God, there are plenty of people who long to know it. Who will show them?

Happy New Year!

John

 

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
19th December 2010

Christmas is traditionally a time for tradition. There is something about the preparation for and celebration of Christmas which is deeply conservative; exchanging greetings cards, decorating the house, dressing the tree, what we do or who we visit on Christmas Day, festive meals, the giving and receiving of gifts. Even religion gets a look-in here; it’s cool to go to church at Christmas, and even those who don’t go that far are quite happy singing carols. It’s all the more poignant, then, when a change of circumstances, such as bereavement or redundancy, makes the festive season very difficult to endure, and those put in that position feel out of joint.

They could take some heart from today’s gospel. Mary, engaged to Joseph, suddenly finds she is pregnant. All the carefully scheduled wedding plans, the dreams of the future which looked so predictable and joyful, are cast into confusion. Yes, a child expected should bring joy, but this one is unexpected.... And the spectre of fear hovers because she might (wrongly) be accused of adultery, which carries the death penalty by stoning.

Joseph could have washed his hands of her and left her to her fate. But he took the plunge and had the courage to accept the unexpected by marrying her and welcoming the Child as his own. We too can walk away from our responsibilities, ignoring the needs of neighbour as we seek the easy option, the quick fix. But in doing that we close the door of our hearts and narrow the field of our vision. Thank God, Mary and Joseph did not do that. Thank God, God did not wash his hands of us but entered our world in the most unexpected way and in the least expected place. Surely, welcoming the unexpected should be part of the Christmas tradition.

God bless you and yours this Christmas.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
12th December 2010

If and when the Messiah appeared on the earth, how would the Jewish people recognise him? What evidence are they looking for to prove he is the Chosen One of God? According to Isaiah, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dumb will speak and the lame will dance. In other words, sorrow will be turned to joy and the broken will be restored to wholeness.

In Jesus we see the One who came to do this and much more. His life and ministry are characterised by two cardinal activities: teaching and healing. And in his name today, his Body the Church continues to witness to the presence of God in our midst through those same activities.

During this last week I watched the Panorama programme on BBC1 about the number of people, especially teenagers, addicted to computer games. It seems that while many diseases have been cured and even eradicated by medical science, there are always new ones to take their place – and that applies to mental as well as physical afflictions. What Jesus, and in his name the Church, does is to be available as a channel of healing in its widest sense; how does one bring peace to a soul tormented by compulsive computer games, for example?

Because the Church, being human, is in need of healing herself as well as ministering it, our first action is to walk alongside the broken and the sinful and not stand apart in judgement or condescension. Compassion is its name. Isn’t that what we are preparing for in Advent – the coming of a God who enters a smelly stable and is denied shelter so that we can welcome him in the computer addict and discern the Christ beneath the unlovely surface?

God bless you and yours.

John
 

 


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
5th December 2010

Winter has come early to Norfolk. A generous covering of snow has settled over this corner of the land, transforming the landscape and hampering travel. Picturesque it certainly is; but everything looks different. Familiar landmarks have disappeared. You stop and think more carefully about your journey.

Advent is like that too. We are asked to look at our lives from a new perspective. Instead of moving from day to day according to our usual routine, we are invited to look where we’re going. Our ultimate destination is the Kingdom. And as we pass the milestones decked with unfamiliar snow, we stop and notice them: prayer, sacraments, the word of God, service of our neighbour, the fruits of the Spirit. In Advent our journey towards Christ is matched by his journey to meet us in the Incarnation.

Isaiah in last week’s reading spoke of transforming instruments of war into agricultural tools – swords into ploughshares, spears into sickles. What destructive attitudes do we need to change into constructive virtues? Similarly, this Sunday he speaks of the restoration of peace in creation: the lion and lamb in friendship, the toddler able to play with poisonous snakes unharmed. This is indeed an unfamiliar landscape and, we might think, somewhat naive. But isn’t this what Christ came to bring about? What could be more naive than the Son of God helpless and vulnerable in a stable? Our own faltering steps in an icy terrain may be tentative and careful, and people may caution us to stay at home; but if we are on the right way Jesus will come to meet us, for he is the Way.

Prepare the way of the Lord, we are told. As I shovel the snow from my doorstep, I meet Christ who has already made his way to the door of my heart.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
28th November 2010

As we begin another Advent, the Church’s year has not simply turned full circle but has moved on to a new starting place. T.S. Eliot’s famous lines from his poemLittle Giddingcome to mind: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” We are not the same people who began Advent 2009; we see things a little differently now. The Christian year is not a circle but a spiral. We arrive at the same place but at a different level of experience and understanding.

The image in the first reading of the people of Israel going up the hill to the Temple mount in Jerusalem reflects the idea of the Christian life as an ascent. St John of the Cross describes the stages of the spiritual life like this in hisAscent of Mount Carmel. I recall a holiday in the Italian Tyrol where the church sat on the summit of a mountain, and as the sound of the bell rang clear across the valley on Sunday morning, the congregation climbed from all sides to converge on the summit for Mass.

Where are we going? What is the focus of our path in life? John of the Cross also coined the phrase (in the title of his work)The Dark Night of the Soul,when the way is less clear and fearfully unknown; Blessed John Henry Newman wrote: “the night is dark, and I am far from home: lead thou me on.” Darkness is sometimes of our own making, as we refuse to be led by the light of faith; but if we are genuinely seeking God it is inevitable that we will be led into the cloud of unknowing. Will our Advent see us seeking new ways or settling for the safety of the comfort zone?

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
21st November 2010

The recent massacre of Iraqi Christians as they gathered for Sunday Mass in a church in Baghdad is not just a crime against the Church but against all humanity. All people of faith, of whichever religion, feel it especially. The perpetrators of such violence, whatever justification they claim for their actions, are not people of faith, because ultimately all religion is about enhancing the quality of life God has bestowed on us, not about destroying it. This was brought home to me this week when I attended an interfaith meeting. An Orthodox Jewish rabbi, an Islamic Sufi mystic, a Hindu and a Buddhist were all happy to agree that faith unites far more than divides us. However we understand God, God is not into violence – that’s projecting our human prejudices on to God.

Today’s feast proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus portrays him in the gospel as a victim of human violence. The attitude of the two criminals crucified with him conveys nicely the contrasting approaches to crucial issues in life. The first reacts angrily, taking out his own frustration and despair on Jesus by taunting him. It is easy to blame God when things don’t work out for us. It’s not so easy to be like Jesus and accept the unjustified venom that his followers sometimes receive in his name. The “good thief” counters the other with a more reflective awareness of his predicament. His change of heart as he faces his imminent death leads him to look at Jesus more than himself. In throwing himself on the mercy of God, he enters paradise.

A kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace is how the Preface of today’s Mass describes Jesus’ kingdom. Can this be seen in the lives we lead as subjects of the King of kings?

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
Remembrance Sunday
14th November 2010

While Pope Benedict was in Spain last week, I found myself in Rome. The wonderful thing about Rome is the sheer number of churches, ancient monuments, and works of art one comes across at every street corner – and walking is by far the best way to appreciate this. Naturally as a Christian pilgrim I had come ad limina Apostolorum to venerate the apostles Peter and Paul, and one of the most special moments was the visit to the excavations beneath the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica, where the bones of the Big Fisherman himself were on view. The thought that the huge magnificence of St Peter’s, and its central place in Rome and in the whole Catholic world, is built upon these humble fragments of a human life, I find very moving.

The significance of Peter’s life is beyond question, but were you to tell Peter while he lived that he would have such an impact on world history, he would probably laugh. Remembrance Sunday bids us recall those who sacrificed their lives in war. Few of those who did so would recognise the significance of what they did; they may even, like Peter, not consider they had done a particularly good job. But now we can put those lives into a wider context.

Jesus in today’s gospel teaches us not to look at the immediate surface impressions (such as the facade of the Temple or St Peter’s Basilica) but at the ultimate purpose of our existence. Like the bones in an obscure wall cavity under a basilica, we may not look much. He invites us to catch a glimpse of his divine perspective which raises our ultimate purpose beyond our imagining. And that, I believe, is worth remembering and living by.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
7th November 2010

There is a wonderful line in the first reading today which reverses our usual thinking and describes beautifully the process celebrated in the sacrament of reconciliation. “Lord, you overlook our sins so that we can repent.” We tend to think that we have to repent before God forgives us. But repentance is a process of conversion which can’t even start unless God has overlooked our sins. What a great word, “overlooked”! It’s almost as if God connives at our sinfulness, turning a blind eye and refusing to judge in order to leave us free to change.

In the gospel, Jesus doesn’t say to Zacchaeus, “Tell God you’re sorry, put your life in order, and then I might think of entering your house.” No, he simply observes Zacchaeus’ behaviour before they meet; the tax-collector is desperate to see Jesus but is terrified of being seen. Conversion is like that: you feel torn between going back and going forward. The very fact of the dilemma illustrates that grace is at work. Zacchaeus’ repentance is clear before he has uttered a word.

As he tumbles out of the sycamore tree in front of the jeering crowd, he finds the unconditional welcome of Jesus a lifeline in the sea of condemnation. The judgement and condemnation of others does nothing to help our conversion – often it does exactly the opposite. Indeed it is our judges who show themselves in need of conversion – and they are the last to see it.

Our relationship with Jesus will inevitably lead us to being more compassionate, forgiving and generous because we recognise those qualities in the way God in Christ has revealed himself to us. Zacchaeus was set free and spontaneously and publicly expressed his freedom by giving generously to the poor as well as making restitution for his cheating.

Do we set others free by our loving acceptance or bind them and ourselves by our condemnation?

God bless you and yours.

John


ALL SAINTS
31st October 2010

Who are the people who light up your life? Who do you look to for inspiration? And what is it about them that touches you?

The answer to those questions will tell you as much about yourself as about those you admire. Those we love and respect hold a mirror to our deepest desires and appeal to the best in us. Few of us have an ambition to be nasty, evil and thoroughly bad. Even our temptation to sin is born not out of the nastiness of the sin but the goodness and the pleasure it promises to give, however disordered. No, we want to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness and so on.... but we often find the achievement of those qualities falls short and we can lose heart, settling for a second-rate holiness with a sigh of regret.

That’s why we need the inspiration and stimulus of others who are clearly modelling the fullness of life, love and service we seek. Not everyone will have all the gifts we admire; perhaps one person always seems hospitable, another always seems to have time for us, another whose heroism in coping with a sick child or a family tragedy moves us to be more patient – the examples are endless. These are the people we call saints.

Today’s feast celebrates them and all who have gone before us on the path of the gospel. The Church chooses some of the more remarkable women, men and even children of the last two thousand years to illuminate our own journey: the recent beatification of John Henry Newman adds one more to an illustrious throng. But never forget that you too are called to sainthood. For all that you admire in others, there are others who are inspired by you. Allow the best in you to shine out in the gloom of a November day!

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
24th October 2010

As I read again the familiar story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple, I am reminded of the distance between them. They both stood to pray at the same time in the same Temple, but “some distance away” from each other. This implies not simply physical but spiritual distance. Their attitudes to prayer were poles apart. Note that the Pharisee said his prayer “to himself”. This could imply humility in that he doesn’t boast aloud of his virtue. But I suspect Jesus meant that his thoughts were directed at his own internal God, his ego. The God he felt he served so faithfully was obviously on the same level as himself, so familiar as to be too familiar. “I am not like the rest of mankind,” he says. “Holiness is not easy, but when you get there you’re really someone!”

By contrast, the tax collector notes the distance, not between him and the Pharisee, but between him and God. He is a sinner and he knows it. He doesn’t need a Pharisee to remind him. He has no good works or personal goodness to offer. He has nothing to lose, least of all a reputation. He is nothing and God is everything. All he can do is throw himself totally on the mercy of his Creator.

I confess there is more of the Pharisee in my prayer than I would care to admit. Spiritual ambition can make me covetous of holiness, humbly congratulating myself at receiving God’s blessings. Or it can make me despair of getting anywhere in the spiritual life and make do with routine religion, thinking that God (namely me!) doesn’t believe I’m up to it.

Once I’m out of the picture and everything is surrendered into the hands of the God I can’t control or manipulate, the real prayer can begin. How often do I have to learn that!

God bless you and yours.

John
 


TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
17th October 2010

They say that moving house is one of the most stressful times in life. Not only are the weeks of packing beforehand and unpacking at the other end (in addition to the moving day itself) the problem. The process of launching a house into the sea of the property market, watching it being tossed about between estate agents and potential buyers, and waiting for the unforeseen moment when an offer is made, is only part of the story. There’s no guarantee that the offer, once accepted, may not be withdrawn at any moment. And if and when the sale is agreed and all comes safely to harbour, it’s time to launch out to sea again to seek the house of your dreams.... or at least the one which your limited resources can buy.

Moses needed a great deal of stamina to keep his arms raised in prayer. In fact he could not have done it alone; he relied on Aaron and Hur to hold them up. We need each other in the Christian community to sustain our faith and prayer. Who are the people who hold up your tired arms and steady your trembling knees in the dark times of life?

Jesus promises us that our prayers are always heard, even when it doesn’t look like it. But we will never see the hand of God at work without faith. Faith enables us to persevere and not give up; it reaches out to hope beyond hope and feeds on prayer, Scripture and the example of others’ faith-filled lives and actions. In the maze of life, as in the process of house-buying, we need a clear and consistent guide. In the immortal words of Blessed John Henry Newman:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom: lead thou me on.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
10th October 2010

While leprosy still affects more people on this planet that most realise, the isolation and stigma associated with it have ensured the word “leper” has a universal significance. In the time of Jesus, when leprosy was more prevalent and visible, the terror of catching it led people to ensure its victims were shunned, driven into ghettos; where they did appear in public places, they had to wear their hair dishevelled and shout “Unclean! Unclean!” to give warning of their approach. It reminds me of the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, forced to wear a prominent yellow Star of David and be ridiculed by passers-by. Nearer home, I think of the Irish Traveller community who are judged and condemned for being different.

How does Jesus relate to lepers? We see him going out of his way to meet them. He travels along the border between Samaria and Galilee; he goes to the margins to meet the marginalised, he identifies with the outcast by entering their ghetto. But he doesn’t simply feel sorry for their plight; he challenges them to have faith. “Have you the courage,” he says in effect, “do you trust me enough to believe you are cured, and prove it by going to the priest as if you were?” Someone at last believed in them and gave them hope.

One of their number, however, was a Samaritan. As a leper he shared the same lot as the other nine who were Jews. Once they were cured, he is no longer one of them; he is an outcast again. Yet he is the one to return and thank Jesus, who accepts him unconditionally.

Who are the lepers and outcasts in your life, whom you keep at arms’ length or choose to ignore?

God bless you and yours.

John


 

TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
3rd October 2010

Sometimes I think we Christians have a better strategy for sorting the world’s problems than God has. Why God doesn’t take our advice and act more positively is a mystery that has puzzled humankind long before Christ appeared on earth; once Jesus came and revealed the way of the cross, we began to see things differently but were still bewildered and angry at injustice.

Habakkuk in today’s first reading expresses well this helplessness at the evil state of the world. Outrage and tyranny, oppression and violence are all he sees; “why don’t you DO something, God?” he seems to cry. But instead of reacting precipitously, he decides to watch and wait to see how the Lord will respond. We have no idea how long he had to wait. But eventually he got a reply, in which God said: “Don’t give up. Go on waiting... eventually, however slowly it happens, the will of God will prevail. Keep faithful. Only with faith in me will you be able to persevere when all seems dark and uncertain.”

The apostles in the gospel instinctively know their need of faith, and ask Jesus to increase it. But Jesus points out that it doesn’t matter how little faith you have: the tiniest drop is enough to do amazing things. Faith is proved in action. If you want faith, all you have to do is act as if you have faith, and you have it!

Theologians make a distinction between faith as an assent to a set of beliefs, and faith that really expects God to act, however unlikely it may look. It is this latter type of faith we need to exercise daily, looking to Jesus as the one who enables us to move mountains – or at least mulberry trees...

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
26th September 2010

Poverty has many faces. Mother Teresa famously commented that she had met more poverty on the streets of London and New York than she had in the slums of Calcutta. Spiritual and emotional poverty was worse than material poverty in her eyes. The psychological and emotional distress of a refugee from Darfur or a flood victim from Pakistan may indeed flow from material deprivation and displacement. But financial and material security does not guarantee happiness. Those who amass fortunes seem never to be happy unless they can have more – and they can never have enough. Paradoxically, greed is a form of poverty.

When we can appreciate and be grateful for the simplest things, then we discover our true riches. In today’s gospel the poor man Lazarus suffered hunger and disease at the gates of a rich man’s house; his only relief came from the dogs that licked his sores. The rich man in Hades would have been satisfied with a drop of water on his tongue. Perhaps one of the hallmarks of our Western society is an expectation of getting all we want; when recession hits and we can’t get it, we become angry and blame anything and anyone but our own self-seeking. Gratitude is not smugness that we have got our way; it is a realisation that everything, from the air we breathe to the world we inhabit, is a gift from God. And the smaller the thing we say “thank you” for, the greater our wonder, the greater our genuine riches.

The gap between rich and poor in our world is as wide as ever. Global media ensures we can’t forget it, thank God. But what is our response? Are we more concerned to preserve our own status quo as a precondition of helping the poor?

God bless you and yours.

John
 


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
19th September 2010

On the occasion of Pope Benedict’s Visit to Britain

There is something hugely satisfying in seeing the Pope walking on British soil, entering places of great historical and political importance to the British people, and above all engaging with the whole range of our country’s life, not just the Catholic community. Rome has come to London, Edinburgh, Birmingham; and Catholics, who were beginning to find their central place in national life under Cardinal Hume and whose confidence had wavered under the clergy abuse scandal and relentless media battering, can now raise their heads again and rejoice to be English, Welsh or Scottish citizens witnessing to a living vibrant faith.

The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman which takes place today in Birmingham has a particular significance for ecumenism and for owning a specifically English Catholic genius. As an Anglican Newman discovered Catholicism and endeavoured to nurture its central place in the Church of England through the Oxford Movement. His intuition was right, but ahead of its time; the Anglican Church as a whole could bear the implications but not the logical consequences of a rapprochement with Rome. Newman had to choose, and he chose Rome in 1845. On Friday the wistful possibilities of unity between Canterbury and Rome were touched upon by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his address to Pope Benedict in Westminster Abbey; but the reality remains a dream.

I too recently had to make a decision which involved choosing one of two options I believe should not be mutually exclusive: priesthood and celibacy. I don’t expect it will lead to my beatification! But I find a kindred spirit in John Henry Newman who held such store by the primacy of conscience. Blessed John, pray for us!

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
12th September 2010

They say moving house is one of the most stressful experiences in life, and having just done so, I can believe them. In the process the material contents of your life are packed away and then unpacked in a new environment. Not only do you wonder where something was packed, but once unpacked, where did you put it?

Today’s wonderful gospel relates Luke’s three parables of losing and finding: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. What is it about these stories, especially the third, that makes them justly famous? All three – the sheep, the coin, the son – were missed. They didn’t disappear into oblivion and nobody noticed or cared. It is precisely because they were precious, vital and left a significant gap that led to a search. Nothing was complete until they were restored, whether the sheep, the coin or the son realised it or not.

And with restoration, when the lost have been found, there is celebration. The relief and joy of repatriation outweighs the pain of loss. One almost thinks the reaction is disproportionate. Who would celebrate the safe recovery of a gold coin, only to spend it on coffee and cakes to celebrate with the neighbours? Who would throw an extravagant party for a returned prodigal who had caused such grief?

Losing something or someone makes us realise their true worth. God recognises the true worth of every human being, and he is always looking out for us. A little sparrow falling to the ground matters to God, and Jesus says that in God’s eyes we are worth hundreds of sparrows (Luke 12:7). Fortunately, even when we try to run away from him and get lost, God never forgets us, and will make any excuse for us. If Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, nothing will stop him loving us.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
22nd August 2010

Recently I paid my first visit to Lisieux in Normandy, to the shrine of St Therese. The huge basilica on top of a hill seems out of keeping with the “Little Flower” and her teaching on humility. Once inside, however, her heroic life unfolds through a series of side chapels dedicated to the different stages of her story; a bite-sized quotation from her autobiography illustrates each one. Her greatness lay in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. She spent nine years as a Carmelite nun before a long slow death from TB at the age of twenty-four. In the words of today’s reading from Hebrews, suffering was part of her training, and how well she teaches us through it. Hers is no saccharine spirituality but the devastating openness of a child; try as you might, you cannot avoid the directness of her innocence matured by trial. “Try your best to enter by the narrow door,” are the words of Jesus in response to the enquirer in today’s gospel. These words of Jesus sound restrictive. Doesn’t God want everyone to enter the kingdom? Why not a wide open way without the barrier of a door?

Another gospel image comes to mind: the gate of the sheepfold (John 10). Sheep were protected from the ravages of wolves by the sheepfold, which had one narrow entrance through which one sheep could pass at a time. And the gate was the shepherd himself who lay in the gap at night to guard his flock; then “one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out” (John 10:3).

One by one we enter the kingdom. We enter by the narrow door of the cross, the “little way” of St Therese of Lisieux. May we have the courage and humility to take that path.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
15th August 2010

Where is your life leading? Are you looking forward in hope or fearful of the future? Do you see death as the extinction of your life or the fulfilment of it? Do you even want to think about it?

Today’s feast sheds some light on a shadowy place and lifts the veil of mystery over our ultimate destination. Mary’s entry into glory is not simply one individual’s homecoming to God but a firm promise that all human beings are fully realised in our heavenly homeland. Indeed, that is what heaven is: the fulfilment of our human potential in the One whose image and likeness we bear. The paradox is that death is simultaneously the loss of life and the fullness of life.

Mary’s surrender of herself to God from the moment she made her fiat to her last breath models our own faith journey, surrendering ourselves into God’s hands by seeking to do his will, and finding our true selves in doing so. The more we enter into God, the more complete and integrated we become. This flies in the face of the contemporary desire for self-centredness and pleasure and power which is the opposite of love.

Mary’s Magnificat describes the result of living this amazing love. Human values are turned upside-down; God looks on us in our nothingness, and we are not ashamed or embarrassed at our weakness; it only makes us marvel at God’s greatness in loving us just as we are. And it is that love which makes us realise, as Mary did, the true worth of our human nature.

Mary, teach the joy of following your Son by allowing each moment of our lives to be open to his grace. Then we too will experience the homecoming of a fulfilled life in the eternal company of heaven.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
25th July 2010

Why is prayer often hard work? Surely you would think that if God loves us so much God would be falling over him/herself to hear and answer us. Yet often the heartfelt pleas we make in the most desperate of situations seem to fall on deaf ears. As a result too many of us give up on prayer and our faith withers from lack of exercise. How many atheists are really disappointed believers?

The first reading today about Abraham persuading God to be merciful presents prayer as manipulation of the divinity, like Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow (Luke 18:1-8). Prayer then is an attempt to change God’s mind, to get God on our side. No wonder it’s hard work - little puny me against the Creator of the universe! Not a chance!

Ruth Burrows in her book The Essence of Prayer alerts us to the truth that prayer is ninety-nine percent what God does and one percent us. To pray is to put on the mind of Christ, to get under his skin as it were, and to see things from a divine perspective. The nearest thing to manipulative prayer in the life of Jesus was his prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if possible take this suffering away from me.” Jesus acknowledges the intolerable pain of his anguish and begs to be rid of it. He’s not a masochist. But he goes on to say: “But not my will, but yours.” Father, you know what you’re doing when I don’t, and I trust you. Are we prepared to surrender our will into God’s hands? Do we trust God enough?

St Therese of Lisieux wrote: “God always gives me what I want – or rather, God makes me want what he’s going to give me.” Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer we are not advancing our kingdom, but his. Surrender is not giving up but giving in to God. And our wills do not give in without a fight – our ego is the last bastion against the incursions of Love.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
18th July 2010

What would you do if twenty strangers turned up on your doorstep unannounced? Would you invite them in and entertain them to dinner or (politely or otherwise) suggest they try elsewhere? In the Middle East, Africa and many other parts of the world, a tradition going back thousands of years obliges the first option. I was one of twenty travellers through the Sinai desert in 1998 who “dropped in” on Sheikh Barakat and his family without warning, and he shared with us what food and drink he had, even though it meant he had nothing for himself. Hospitality is sacred. The three men who turned up at Abraham and Sarah’s tent at midday had Abraham’s full attention; he abandoned everything he was doing and gave them of his best. Early Christians were reminded of this tradition; St Paul said “you should make hospitality your special care” (Romans 12:13) while Hebrews 13:2 says: “and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it”.

By contrast, when Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary, he is no stranger but a regular visitor, an honoured guest. But unlike Abraham Martha does not give her guest total attention; she is too busy with her own agenda. Her sister Mary, however, gives the Lord her eyes and her ears. Ignoring Martha’s pleas for help, she knows exactly where she should be. And Jesus takes her part.

Like Martha, so much distracts me. Around me the phone rings incessantly, emails need answering, arrangements need making. Inside me I worry about priorities, try to juggle appointments, wonder about the future. But when I sit before the Lord in prayer and give him my eyes, my ears, my heart and my mind, I begin to glimpse the one thing necessary; instead of berating myself and tying myself in knots, I find peace and a clearer perspective by gently focussing on the presence of Jesus.

Offer him the hospitality of your heart. Don’t send him off because you’re busy.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
11th July 2010

Last week I went to Wintershall near Guildford in Surrey to see the annual outdoor production of the “Life of Christ”. Since 2000 Peter Hutley has been inspired to use his extensive estate in a fold of the North Downs as the setting for a dramatic re-telling of the gospel story from the Annunciation to the Resurrection. From 10am to 4pm the costume drama carries the audience along in such a way that very quickly you realise you are not a spectator but a participant – like the liturgy. For example, Act Two concluded with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. “Where can we find bread to feed these people?” challenges Jesus. And suddenly we (the audience of about a thousand people) are being asked if we have any food to spare.... and it’s just before the lunch break. There’s enough for everyone, of course, with lots left over.

Today’s parable of the Good Samaritan is a lesson in being non-judgemental. To the question “who is my neighbour?” we cannot exclude anyone. Hence Jesus can say “love your enemies” because they too are neighbours. Who isn’t?

The parable highlights our need for compassion towards others. Our neighbour is particularly our concern when he/she is in need. Cultivating an attitude of awareness is crucial to noticing the need. But more is wanted; the priest and Levite noticed the mugged victim but passed by. It was the Samaritan who did the loving thing. Need without deed is empty indeed.

Watching scenes from the Life of Christ or reading his sublime teaching is only fruitful if I endeavour to respond in action. I can write about love and compassion for you to read, but unless I am living a loving life I am a clashing cymbal.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
4th July 2010

Lord, you sent out your disciples in pairs to prepare the ground for the seed of your word. You didn’t go with them; you gave them instructions about what to do, then left them to it. What trust you showed in them! If it was me, I think I would have been terrified to face that task without your presence.

And yet you didn’t expect us to do it alone, any more than your Father didn’t leave you on your own. You sent us with a companion, “in pairs”, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It means we have support, to check with each other that we’re on the right road, that we’re on the same mission; and we can challenge each other if we are tempted to disobey your instructions or compromise your gospel, and comfort one another in times of darkness or uncertainty.

Lord, we do not imagine we can convert the world to your gospel in five minutes; nor do we despair of the enormous task you have entrusted to us. In our world today, there is simultaneously a strong current of self-seeking ambition, violence, cynicism and despair, often expressed as rejection of you; but also a deep hunger, a craving for meaning and purpose beyond ourselves, a spiritual transcendence which, far from escaping from life, stretches the horizons of our human hope to its fulfilment.

How do we service that hunger, Lord? How do we speak to our time in a way that is relevant and attractive? If I am not fired with the way you relate to me in prayer, in word, in sacrament, in loving others and in receiving their love, then I will never learn the language of evangelisation.

God bless you and yours.

John
 


THIRTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
27th June 2010

Every now and then I find there’s a word or phrase in the gospels that stands out afresh, that makes me sit up and take notice. It’s not that I’ve never seen it before; it’s just that, at this moment, I am open to understand it anew, or that God is giving me a nudge in a certain direction.

At the beginning of today’s gospel, Jesus “resolutely” takes the road to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die on a cross. The word reveals something of Jesus’ inner conviction. It implies Jesus has come to a decision after considering the challenges of the road ahead, fully aware of the cost. Now he goes forward with purpose and courage, which does not rule out fear and trepidation – he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t blanch at the horror of its outcome.

In the major decision I have taken which has radically altered the direction of my life, I too know I must go forward resolutely. It is not a fatalistic journey, as if I have no say in the matter; nor is it undertaken blindly or selfishly. It is confidence born of faith which sustains me, the presence of Someone who loves and cherishes me, who has been this way before, and invites my loving trust in his abiding companionship. Without that relationship I can go nowhere, just as Jesus was sustained by his Father’s abiding presence. And just as Jesus on the road to Jerusalem encouraged others to join him but challenged those who only wanted to do so on their own terms, so I have to continue to look to him for strength and continue to discern each stage of the journey.

As St Augustine said, sing up and keep on walking!

John
 


ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
13th June 2010

When Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to his house for a meal, one wonders what was in his mind. Normal Jewish hospitality would include a greeting on arrival with a kiss of peace, the host (or his servant) washing the guest’s feet, and honouring his presence by anointing him with perfumed oil (on the head, the feet, or both). None of these courtesies was shown to Jesus; he simply walks in from the street and takes his place at table – one suspects the lowest place.

Was Simon trying to embarrass Jesus, or because of Jesus’ reputation as a prophet and healer simply showing him off to his friends? Whatever the reasons, it gets worse. A prostitute wanders in from the street and starts paying attention to Jesus in a most unseemly way in front of Simon and his guests. Now who’s embarrassed? Simon? Jesus? The other guests? The only one not embarrassed seems to be the woman who is so intent on her loving service of Jesus that she is oblivious of everything else. One is reminded of Mary busy listening to Jesus while her sister Martha tries to grab her attention.

To be so absorbed with Jesus without saying a word, except through touch, is characteristic of deep loving intimacy. Mystics and contemplatives understand this. Jesus looks at the woman’s love, not her reputation. And that is true of us sinners too. If we allow Jesus to look deeper into us than our shame, embarrassment, lack of self-esteem, and tendency to judge others, we find all those things melt away in his loving gaze. And when to our wonder and delight we find his love in our hearts, we want nothing more than to share it – no matter what others think. Forgiveness is freedom.

God bless you and yours.

John


TRINITY SUNDAY
30th May 2010

The little girl was busily drawing a picture during the art class. When the teacher came round to look she asked her what she was doing. “I’m drawing God,” she said confidently. “But no-one knows what God looks like,” replied the teacher. Without lifting her head from the desk, the girl said: “They will when I’ve finished.”

We smile at that story because we know that any picture of God is totally inadequate. Yet our curiosity will not be satisfied. What is God like?

The Bible describes many ways in which God interacts with humankind, each encounter adding more questions than answers. Yet a picture of sorts emerges. First, right at the start we are told that we are made in God’s image and likeness. So a clue to God’s identity lies in our own human nature. The danger here is that we then jump to the conclusion that God is made in our image, not the other way round. Secondly the very fact that God interacts with us at all would indicate that God is about relationship, not isolation. Indeed the shortest definition the Bible gives us of God is from St John: “God is love”.

The Trinity (literally “Three in Unity”) is the name the early fathers of the Church came up with to describe the mystery of God. It’s a sort of working definition that tries to respect that there is only one God but a God who lives in relationship. Today’s first reading is a delightful picture of a God who loves creating and enjoys our company. Could that be the picture our little girl was busily drawing?

May the Lord bless you.

Fr John
 


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
2nd May 2010

“Just as I have loved you,” says Jesus, “you also must love one another.”

How does Jesus love us? By identifying so closely with our human life that there is no aspect of our frail and varied human existence that is foreign to him. From the moment of his conception in the womb of his blessed Mother to his last breath on the cross, every second of his life revealed the love of God in flesh and blood like ours. While the gospels record some of the events, teaching and miracles of Jesus, they are merely the tip of the iceberg. The details of most of his thirty-odd years are hidden and unrecorded by history; but every breath he breathed was offered to the Father in love and service to the world.

Within the limited lifespan of Jesus of Nazareth, at a particular time and place two thousand years ago, there are restrictions on the effectiveness of his mission of love. But Jesus is more than human. By his resurrection he is now available to all times and places. How does he do this? By choosing us to be part of his Body, the Church. Wherever we are, Christ is. And as Christ loved, so must we if we are to be his effective witnesses. There is no moment of our human existence, from the cradle to the grave, that cannot be available to Jesus’ mission – if we allow him access. As we experience his love for us, our response to that love is in our love for one another. It is impossible to be part of Body of Christ and ignore Christ in one another, equally part of that same Body.

“By the love you have for one another,” says Jesus, “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
25th April 2010

From January to March this year I spent ten weeks at Hawkstone Hall, a pastoral renewal centre run by the Redemptorist Fathers in the depths of the Shropshire countryside. They run three such courses a year aimed at priests and religious men and women seeking sabbatical time, often in transition between different assignments. We were a comparatively small group of sixteen participants, ranging in age from 47 to 80, and drawn from Africa, North and South America, Australia and Europe. It was a wonderful and vibrant experience of the universal Church; and while we in western Europe bemoan the lack of priestly and religious vocations, the evidence of the flourishing Church in Africa especially was heartening.

The recent publicity over sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests and religious has done a lot of damage to the Church. It may only be a tiny minority of clergy who offend, but even one is too many. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered such terrible hurt and betrayal. In such an atmosphere it is difficult for us priests to remember the extraordinary truth that God through his Church has chosen us, weak and inadequate as we are, to be channels of his grace through our ministry of teaching, healing, caring and reconciliation. At the moment the awareness of our weakness could make us retreat into our shells and lick our wounds. But that is negative and lacking faith. Instead, we are more than ever convinced of the miracle that God is strongest when we are weakest. It is his glory we seek, not our own. And if all of us, lay and religious, acted on that belief, new leaders and servants of God’s people would come tumbling into the Church. Why not you?

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
18th April 2010

Memory is a very powerful thing. Listening to a particular piece of music, catching the scent of a particular flower, or seeing a familiar face in a crowd, can trigger an association with some experience either good or bad.

In today’s gospel Peter goes fishing with his friends, just as he used to before they met Jesus. He is trying to forget the pain of his denials, and now that Jesus is risen he is not too keen to look him in the eye. Escape to the familiar old routine is his answer. But a night of fishing proves fruitless. Dispirited, he heads for the shore.

A voice from the shore comes over the water in the half-light of dawn, inviting the disciples to drop the nets to starboard – and a huge catch results. Memories of Jesus doing that when he first called them come flooding back. “It is the Lord!” says John the Beloved. Peter, like Adam in the garden after the Fall, is naked and tries to hide by wrapping his cloak around him and jumping into the water. And what does he find when he comes ashore? A charcoal fire, like the one where he denied his Master, and Jesus preparing breakfast on it. No escape. He resisted getting his feet washed at the Last Supper, but at least he’s letting Jesus serve him breakfast.

Three times Peter denied him. Now three times Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?” There’s no hint of reproach in his voice, no sarcasm, no judgement. Peter knows he is forgiven and reinstated, and his original calling reaffirmed: “Follow me.”

No matter how far you feel from God, allow him to call you by name with no hint of reproach. Like Peter, will you have the courage to respond with all you heart: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John
 


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
11th April 2010

Now that a general election has been called in Britain, Parliament will be dissolved and everything will be on hold until after 6th May. Between now and then, the various political parties will be out to woo the voters with their particular policies for the country. Before we listen to them, however, we might do ourselves a favour by digesting a document recently produced by the bishops of England and Wales for just this moment. It is called Choosing the Common Good.

Let me give you some quotes from it by way of a taster:
• The period before a General Election is a time to reflect on what sort of society we live in and how we would like it to be.
• The common good refers to what belongs to everyone by virtue of their common humanity.
• If anyone is left out and deprived of what is essential, then the common good has been betrayed.
• Society cannot change for the better without restoring trust.
• Virtue is doing good even when no-one is looking.

Politicians often claim that churchmen interfere in politics. But politicians have no qualms about interfering in religion. In truth we cannot divide life into neat watertight compartments; and our faith informs everything about life and even what lies beyond it. When, like Thomas in today’s gospel, we reduce everything to the here and now (“what you see is what you get”), we will never convince politicians or anyone else of the claims of faith. But if we believe, as Thomas came to believe, that Jesus is not just a human super-hero but my Lord and my God, then all creation takes on a deeper meaning. It is out of that meaning that we must live if we are to witness effectively to our faith.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

Fr John
 


EASTER SUNDAY
4th April 2010

On the world stage it has been a bleak year so far. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the long winter in these islands, the unrelenting gloom of industrial disputes and economic uncertainty have painted a dark picture. Add to it the continuing revelations of gross misconduct by some Catholic clergy in different parts of the world, and it seems the Church too is part of the picture, at the very moment we need her light and reassurance.

The events of this Holy Week portray Jesus entering the darkness and seemingly being overcome by it. But the way he does it is far from despairingly or with stoical resignation. To the last he goes to his fate with love, generosity and compassion, forgiving his enemies and surrendering himself into his Father’s hands with total trust that all will be well.

The resurrection of Jesus is not an escape from the tribulations of this world into some utopia when this dreary life is over. Easter is about living the resurrection now. In other words, when we refuse to give in to the pessimism, blame culture, and self-seeking attitudes all too prevalent around us, and instead allow God to fill us with the love, generosity, compassion and trust of Jesus, then we are resurrection people. When we hope against hope, forgive while others condemn; when we pray with expectant faith, and persevere in prayer in the face of adversity and seemingly no answer; when we love those who are so difficult to love, who return us insult for kindness, then we are resurrection people. If, like Mary Magdalen, you stay near the tomb of your disappointments and broken dreams, yet trust in God, expect to see an angel gently reminding you that Jesus is leading you out of the tomb to a new life in him.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

Fr John
 


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
3rd January 2010

By now most of you will know that I am going away from the parish for ten weeks on a pastoral renewal course. After giving out for more than seven years at Wickford I feel the need for some space to be refuelled and receive a bit myself, so that I can be a more effective pastor.

I find it interesting and faintly amusing to hear the reactions of people to this news, ranging from one comment, “it’s all right for you, going off for ten weeks’ holiday!” to another who said, “it doesn’t sound like a break to me – more like a busman’s holiday!” Few people have much idea of what is really involved in a priest’s life; they only see the tip of the iceberg. In this Year for Priests, it seemed an appropriate moment to stand back and give thanks for God’s gift of priesthood, and not allow the pressures and demands to diminish my effectiveness in ministry. As God said to me through a wise prophet some thirty years ago, “you are my son, not my doormat.”

The wise men likewise left their homes and routines to follow a star to unknown lands. It was in having the courage to pursue their dream that they were led to the Christ child. They upset Herod with their search for a new-born king, triggering the massacre of the Innocents. But they were filled with delight when they found Jesus and his mother, and offered their precious gifts. On our journey of faith we too can upset others when we challenge them with the gospel message; but we find our consolation in meeting Christ and his mother in prayer and the sacraments, offering our lives afresh in his service.

May the Lord bless you and yours as we begin this year of grace 2010.

Fr John
 


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
20th December 2009

The snow comes, and predictably the schools close, the roads are treacherous and travel is disrupted. For a moment we are paralysed or severely restricted till we get our snow legs or ice skates. No bad thing to stop and remember what all our frenzied pre-Christmas activity is for – Jesus. Whether or not the first Christmas was really “in the bleak midwinter” with “snow on snow” is beside the point. Yet for the things that really matter we’ll move heaven and earth to get there.

And that’s what God did. Move heaven and earth – or more precisely moved heaven to earth by sending his Son into our midst. Just as when the landscape is covered with snow everything looks different, so when the Word became flesh and lived among us life took on a new meaning and purpose. We are no longer bound by the restrictions of the here and now, the prison of hopelessness, the problems and tragedies of our lives, the fears about the future of our planet or our jobs or our grandchildren. The good news is that God has lifted us into eternity by sending his Son into our time and place, to share our limitations and vulnerabilities and pain, and love us into heaven.

In today’s gospel of the Visitation, Mary was probably not restricted by snow, and certainly not hampered by rail chaos or airport closures. But her journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth some one hundred miles away was not easy. What impelled her was the Good News she carried in her womb and heart; and thoughts not of herself but of God and of others. Our greetings across the miles are so much easier these days with cards and phones and emails and Skype. May we see Christ in one another, and find time for one another.

A blessed and peaceful Christmas to you and yours.

Fr John
 


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
13th December 2009

Have you ever seen God dance? No, I don’t think you will see him competing in Strictly Come Dancing, but the prophet Zephaniah tells the people of Israel, languishing in exile, that the day will come when God will set them free. They will exult and rejoice because God is in their midst. And it seems that not only the people, but God too will be ecstatic about it: “The Lord your God is in your midst... he will dance with shouts of joy for you”.

Of course, God is spirit and cannot literally dance. The prophet is conveying in human language that “the Lord takes delight in his people” (Psalm 149). Can you imagine the Father dancing for joy over you? Do you realise you are that special? What today’s first reading also shows is that when we are happy, God is happy too. In Jesus, who took on our human nature, we can see it literally. While there is no record in the gospels of Jesus actually dancing or laughing, there’s no reason to believe he didn’t – quite the opposite. He is often shown expressing other emotions: fear, tears, anger, love, joy, etc. He is truly “God-with-us” or Emmanuel. Through him we know what God is like in an accessible language, the language of human nature.

To welcome him into our midst this Christmas, we need to ask the question the people asked of John the Baptist when he called them to prepare for the Christ: “What must we do?” Wishful thinking isn’t enough – there’s practical preparation too. John’s answer was to ensure our treatment of others is kind and fair. Let’s hope we’re doing that much already. But why not go a little further, and find joy in doing it? Will you put a dance in your step?

God bless you and tours this Advent.

Fr John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
6th December 2009

Perhaps one of the reasons we have lost our capacity for wonder and surprise is that we have lost our ability to wait. Credit cards were introduced with the slogan: “Take the waiting out of wanting”. You can have it NOW. But what’s wrong with waiting? Yes, of course there are many times where delays can be tiresome, dangerous or even fatal. But getting instant solutions to everything reduces our appreciation and sense of gratitude, and eradicates the future. We have nothing to look forward to.

Once we get what we want, the excitement of desire diminishes, and it’s not long before we want something else. No, we can’t take the waiting out of wanting because wanting is waiting. We long for something we haven’t got, and that longing is of the essence of desire, of our human energy. Ultimately, it is our hunger for God which lies at the root of all our desires, and Advent is the season of the year par excellence when we get in touch with our desires. In the famous words of St Augustine’s prayer in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”

Without waiting we cannot grow. A mother waits nine months for her child to be born. The people of ancient Israel longed for a Messiah, a Saviour to come, but when Jesus was born he took us all by surprise. God did not announce the exact date, but when it did happen is remembered in a specific date and place in history, roughly 2009 years ago.

Has our life of faith become so familiar and predictable that we have lost the capacity to let God surprise us?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
29th November 2009

Happy New Year! As the calendar year (at least in the northern hemisphere) heads into the darkest days and longest nights, the Christian year proclaims a new beginning and the promise of hope. Are we simply optimists pretending all is well when everything around us is sunk in gloom and despondency? Is it just a psychological trick to give us false hope? Is Advent just escapism?

If that were true, then the opening words of Jesus in the gospel today are hardly sweet and gentle – quite the reverse. They speak unequivocally of nations overwhelmed by tsunamis and people unable to cope with the world’s traumas. Is he trying to intimidate us? Is he frightening us into submission? No, of course not. That’s not his style. He is being realistic, making us face our own powerlessness and human limitations which he himself assumed in coming among us. If we put our trust in him we will find a way forward in hope, even when we can’t see the result yet. Put your confidence in me, he says. Hold your heads high; don’t cower at the darkness, but trust that I am your Light leading and guiding you.

Advent is a time to stop and reflect while the commercial world bids us do the opposite – go on a frenzied shopping spree. The pressure this puts on people who can ill afford to spend this Christmas is enormous. Jesus says our hearts can be coarsened by the cares of life; we can allow worry to rob us of the peace Christ came to bring. Make time to pray, read Scripture, and remember what really matters in life. Stay awake to the real meaning of the approaching feast of Christmas.

Happy New Year!

Fr John


OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING
National Youth Sunday - 22nd November 2009

When Jesus stands before Pilate on Good Friday morning, the Roman governor questions him about his authority and status. Pilate thinks of kings and kingdoms in terms of territory and political power; Jesus’ response to him takes Pilate into unknown territory and unearthly power. Yes, Jesus is a king whose mission is to bear witness to the truth. Only those who are on the side of truth listen to his voice and accept his authority. The way to find this kingdom is to find the truth.

Pilate famously asks: “What is truth?” but doesn’t get a reply. The answer is in Jesus’ own words four chapters earlier (John 14:6): “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” We tend to think of truth as an abstract concept, the essence of what is right, good and honest. But today truth is treated subjectively; what is true for you may not be true for me, we might say. In other words, it’s not the whole truth. Truth itself is bigger than your truth or my truth.

We may say as members of Christ that we have the truth. But it might be better to say that the Truth (Jesus Christ) has us. Ultimately Truth is not a concept but a Person. Truth does not consist in simply doing the right thing but being in a right relationship with God. We measure the integrity and sincerity of our lives by comparing them to the life of Jesus and his teaching.

Young people often have a way of challenging the humbug and hypocrisy of our society, and of getting the rest of us to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves, much as Christ himself did in his ministry. May we ask God’s blessing on them in the decisions and direction of their future.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
8th November 2009 - Remembrance Sunday

The human memory is amazingly sophisticated. It records every second of our waking life and in addition holds unconscious material, the extent of which we cannot guess. How much we can recall is only a fraction of what’s there; and while it will not always yield up the particular memory we try to recapture, at the same time it may reveal something we do not like or want.

Most of us were born since the two world wars of the last century, which is why Remembrance Day helps to remind us of events that have radically shaped our lives today. But the wars and conflicts since, which are still in progress in places like Afghanistan, make it difficult to forget that ordinary human lives like our own have been and continue to be lost in the elusive search for peace. As the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II states, “peace is not the absence of war, nor....the balance of power between opposing forces. Instead, it is rightly and properly called ‘the effect of justice.’”

Remembrance is also at the heart of our Catholic faith. Our central act of worship flows from the command of Christ at the Last Supper to “do this in remembrance of me”. We remember his sacrificial death, not so that we may harbour revenge or bitterness, but paradoxically so that we may have life to the full, because he gave his life for us not out of duty but in perfect love. Whether we recall the death of our loved ones, of those killed in battle, or the victims of violence at the hands of others or of environmental disasters, each of them is united with Christ’s death on the cross, and is included in every Mass which re-presents his death and resurrection. It’s good to remember that.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


ALL SAINTS
1st November 2009

Saints are more admired than imitated. We look at their heroic lives, sigh with regret that we could never be that holy, and sigh with relief that God isn’t calling us to be anyway. Sanctity is not for us; only for the chosen few, we believe.

Perhaps the problem lies with our restricting sainthood to those in the premier league of holiness. The saints officially canonised by the Church are exceptional examples, coming from many different cultures, countries and historical settings. The majority, somewhat unfairly, seem to be bishops, priests or nuns, which gives the impression that holiness is better suited to the professional religious. Nothing could be further from the truth. The central chapter of the key document of the Second Vatican Council is entitled “A Call to Holiness”, and reminds us that every single member of the Church, by reason of their baptism, is called to be a saint, to be holy.

What is holiness? Is it about adopting a pious attitude, saying lots of prayers, and being as good as possible? No. Holiness is not our initiative, but God’s. God calls us to become like him, to grow closer to him, to “put on the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). He invites us to come to know him through prayer, Scripture and sacraments, and in love and service of our neighbour. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, we are to do ordinary things extraordinarily well. If that’s what he wants, he will empower us to do it – but in his way, his time. The last thing a truly holy person thinks they are is holy. Only God can see the result of his own efforts in us. As another modern saint, Mother Teresa, used to say, “God never asks us to be successful, only faithful.”

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
25th October 2009

At the beginning of the gospel of St John, as two disciples of John the Baptist start following Jesus, he turns round and asks them, “What do you want?” Again, in last week’s gospel from Mark, Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee who are asking a favour of him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And now it’s the turn of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, who is calling after Jesus, to hear the Master saying, “What do you want me to do for you?”

It might seem strange that Jesus, who was able to read people’s thoughts, should need to ask those questions. Surely he knew what they wanted. We could say the same thing about prayer. God knows our needs better than we do, so why bother to ask him?

The reason he asks is to get us to think about our desires. A good teacher will not simply feed us information; he/she will try to elicit the information from us by asking questions (drawing us out – which is the root meaning of the word “education”). So when Jesus asks a blind man “what do you want?” he is giving him the space to talk about his real desires. Being able to see may be the obvious one, but no doubt he had many others, like “I’d like to stop begging and have a decent job”.

Jesus is doing the same for me and you. Right now he’s asking you what he can do for you. How will you answer? What do you really want? Do you believe he can really do it for you?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
11th October 2009

The rich young man has acquired much in his comparatively short life. And he wants more and more. Not only material goods; he wants the secret of spiritual success too. What do I have to do to add eternal life to the shopping list? What hoops do I have to jump through to get to heaven?

Jesus’ answer is to stand the young man’s thinking on its head. You obtain eternal life by renouncing your life. You become rich by becoming poor and making others rich. But he couches that stark truth in the context of the rich man’s desire. He sees deep inside him a seeking, an insatiable curiosity for real happiness. He sees ultimately what the young man cannot see – that love is the object of his quest. So “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him” (Mk 10:21). Only by engaging us in a relationship of love can Jesus call us to greater things. If you love someone deeply enough, you’ll do anything for them; as St Paul famously reminds us, “love is always ready to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes”.

Love is always an invitation, not forced on us against our will. The rich young man cannot accept Jesus’ invitation, and turns away sad. The sadness comes from being torn in two – he is inspired by Jesus’ love and challenge to him, but he now finds he cannot go that far; the cost is too great. Perhaps we too feel inspired by the gospel of Jesus, but the pressures and constraints of our daily living make us almost despair of being good enough for God. Hence the disciples’ reaction: “In that case, who can be saved?” And Jesus looks steadily at them, gazes at them, and says it’s impossible for us, but God can do it, if you let him.

Let Jesus gaze at you now with love, and ask yourself how you would like to respond.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
4th October 2009

One of the reasons why the Catholic Church holds marriage to be sacred and inviolable is because it is a sacrament. Every married couple is making a statement that every day, “from this day [their wedding day] forward.... till death do us part”, they are mirroring the faithful love that Jesus the Bridegroom has for his Bride, the Church. When marriage is no longer a permanent total commitment for life and ends in divorce, it ceases to be a sign of God’s constant love which never ends.

This is not a judgement on any particular failed marriage, as the reasons for divorce are many and varied. But it does argue for a careful, thorough and prayerful preparation for marriage in the Church. The Church insists on at least four instructions for each couple preparing for marriage. When I consider that I spent six years training for the priesthood, a mere four or five hours in preparing for Christian marriage seems woefully inadequate. It is clear that many, if not most, Catholics do not know that a Catholic is expected to be married in the Catholic Church. If they are married elsewhere without explicit permission the marriage is not recognised by the Church.

Some would say that the Church is being unrealistic in such high expectations marriage. But she is only echoing the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “What God has united, man must not divide.” If God has brought this couple together in unity, what human authority can override God? This is the ideal set before us; and if we fail after giving of our best, we must entrust ourselves to the providence of a loving and forgiving God who can heal our hearts.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
Home Mission Sunday - 20th September 2009

I have been very touched by the kindness and sympathy of so many people following my father’s death just over a week ago. He died peacefully following a stroke at the age of 87, and we his children feel above all a sense of gratitude for his life, for all he has given us; our loss is that much easier to bear as we endeavour to make our lives his legacy.

When in the gospel today Jesus speaks of his forthcoming passion and death, the reaction of his disciples is to pretend they haven’t heard, and ostrich-like bury their heads in the sand. To compensate for their discomfort and insecurity, they compete for power and argue which of them is the greatest – after Jesus, of course. James in the second reading reinforces the damage caused by our aggressive self-seeking. Wars and battles, he says, don’t start with one nation against another, or even one person against another. They start with the conflicting desires fighting in a single human heart. Peace begins with me.

To illustrate how to defuse the time-bomb of ambition and self-will, Jesus takes a little child and, by placing him between himself and his disciples, implies that following Jesus is to be led by a child. That child-like spirit, that being of service to others, that total trust in God’s providence was a hallmark of my father’s life, from which I hope to continue to learn as he goes home to his Creator.

His funeral will be celebrated on Thursday next 24th September 10.30am at Our Lady of Lourdes, Wanstead. May his gentle soul rest in peace.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 13th September 2009

At the heart of the Christian message – indeed, it is the Christian symbol – is the cross. For the first four centuries Christian art did not picture the crucifixion; it was too graphic, too explicit a reminder of a common and cruel instrument of execution in the Roman Empire. But we cannot escape the truth that this was the way Jesus died, that he accepted this degrading and excruciating death as a consequence of his total and unconditional love for each and every person on this earth. He was killed by those who could not accept his refusal to limit God’s love to the worthy, the religious or the good. The cross represents a love too enormous (and costly) to be ignored.

In today’s gospel Jesus foretells his approaching death and resurrection. But even before that ominous prediction is revealed in the stark reality of Good Friday, he invites his would-be disciples to follow the same path. Indeed, he makes it clear: unless we accept the suffering of the cross in our own lives, we cannot be his disciples. Our own reaction, like Peter’s, is quite human – if we’ve got to follow you, then don’t go that way, Lord! Try something less difficult!

But for us, it’s too late. Already we have been baptised into his death, and keep making the sign of the cross to remind us we accept its consequences every day. When suffering comes, when the dark and messy parts of our life threaten to limit our vision and the possibility of God loving us, it is all too tempting to want to explain it, to rationalise it, to make sense of it. But ultimately we can’t. We only know that God in Christ has entered into the heart of suffering not to explain it but to show us how to live with it. And to rise again with him to new life.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 6th September 2009

One of the best-kept secrets of the Catholic Church in this country is that there are some significant changes to the English translation of the Mass about to be sprung on us. Familiar texts such as the I confess, Gloria and the Nicene Creed will be modified, some heavily, and so will some of the responses. For example, to the priest’s invitation The Lord be with you, the congregation will reply And with your spirit. All the Eucharistic Prayers will read differently. While some parts are attractive, much of it is stilted and archaic, in my opinion. It’s as if it is only half-translated, and is yet to be rendered in clear English.

The present translation of the Roman Missal has been familiar to us since its publication in 1975. At that time it was intended as a short-term version while a more thorough and more elegant translation was being prepared – a mammoth task, since it had to be agreed by the Bishops’ Conference of every English-speaking country in the world. In 1995 the final text was submitted to Rome for approval, and there it sat gathering dust until 2001, when a totally new set of guidelines for translation were decreed by Rome. Years of painstaking work was scrapped and the English-speaking hierarchies were told to start again.

At last the new edition is nearing completion and will possibly be published next year (I overheard a conversation in a London Catholic bookshop between an Australian cardinal and a British publisher a few weeks ago, so I know!). In America they are already publishing details of the new version to prepare their people (see www.usccb.org/romanmissal). But there’s not a squeak out of the bishops of England and Wales. You heard it here first!

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 30th August 2009

One of the consequences of an aggressive individualism is the loss of a common moral code of behaviour. The one who makes Frank Sinatra’s song “I Did It My Way” their anthem is not interested in anybody else’s way unless it fits with theirs. Even the laws that have been introduced to regulate a society that has lost a moral compass are flouted or ignored. An amoral society is well on the way to becoming an anarchic one.

Yet there are signs that we not only want to restore order but even regain a moral compass. The pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way. The reaction to the Scottish Justice Minister’s decision to return the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing to Libya on compassionate grounds is instructive. Compassion is a central Christian virtue which appeals not just to legal technicalities or even moral codes, but to the heart. What at heart do we really want for this man? I believe the reaction has revealed the divisions and conflicts in the heart of each of us. I want to be forgiving and compassionate, but what about justice? How do I reconcile the anger and violence welling up in my heart with the love and forgiveness preached by Jesus?

To placate our troubled minds we suppress these feelings and try to live on the surface, like the Pharisees in today’s gospel who insist on legal observance but don’t want to question their motives. What’s going on in your heart? What are the unconscious motivations which colour your judgements? Jesus challenges us, like the Pharisees, to examine the intentions of our hearts. We may not like what we see, but self-awareness is the first step to freedom and growth, and a step nearer the wisdom of compassion.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 23rd August 2009

GK Chesterton famously wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” When Jesus said “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you cannot have life in you”, the reaction of his hearers was repulsion at what sounded like cannibalism. “This is intolerable language. Who can accept it?” Many of his followers left him. Did he run after them and say: “I didn’t mean it like that. Let me try and explain it in more acceptable language”? No. He even expected that his closest friends might leave too, and gave them permission. But Peter on their behalf said: “Without you there is nowhere else to go.”

Much of what we are asked to believe and live by defies explanation. But that doesn’t lessen its importance or impact. Many of our contemporaries shun religion and mock any belief in God. What is it that keeps us going? Perhaps, like Peter, we can tell Jesus that he’s the best we’ve got as far as we can see! But Peter went on more positively to say: “We believe, we know you are the Holy One of God.”

St Paul in today’s reading from Ephesians compares the relationship between Christ and us his Church to the relationship between husband and wife. Marriage is another mystery that has often been found difficult and left untried. But when it is tried and lived, the spouses are a living sign of Christ’s faithfulness to us and our loving commitment to him. We too often forget that it is never achievable by our own human effort alone. Only by allowing God’s grace to work in us can we surrender to him and say: “Lord, who else but you? We believe you are the Holy One of God.”

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY - 16th August 2009

The Assumption is the major feast of our Lady in the Church’s year. Most saints’ days commemorate the day of their death, the day their earthly work was done and the reward of heaven was to follow. In Mary’s case, an ancient tradition of the Church says that after her death she did not decay but was taken body and soul to heaven, to share the same place as her Son whose body she had formed in her womb.

In the Eastern Church the feast is still known by its original name, the Dormition or “falling asleep” of our Lady. You can still visit the church of our Lady near Gethsemane in Jerusalem, where the empty tomb of Mary is venerated. The first time I visited it in 1976, it was at the end of an Orthodox Eucharist, and people were coming out as we entered, handing us pieces of blessed bread (called the antidoron) as a sign of peace. In my ignorance I thought they were sharing Holy Communion, but I now know better.

Whether we refer to the Dormition (falling asleep) or the Assumption (taking up into heaven) we are simply talking about two stages of the same reality. Like her Son, she too really died. She too was laid in a tomb. But she had no power to rise again like Jesus. Only God could take her to the glory of heaven. Although the Assumption has been part of Church teaching since the fifth century, it was never formally declared until 1950 when Pope Pius XII publically honoured the Mother of God with the solemn pronouncement of the dogma.

We who worship in a church dedicated to our Lady have a special joy in celebrating this feast.

May God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


SAINT PETER AND SAINT PAUL 28th June 2009

While these two great apostles are commemorated together, it is appropriate, at the closing of the Year of St Paul, to concentrate on the latter. Both saints stand out from the pages of the New Testament. Of the 27 books of the New Testament, 13 were written by or ascribed to Paul, and another (the Acts of the Apostles) features Paul as a central character from chapter 9. Although he came from a classical Jewish background (he was a Pharisee who studied the Law under the great Gamaliel in Jerusalem) he was brought up in Tarsus (in modern Turkey) as a Roman citizen speaking Greek. He was well placed, after his dramatic conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, to preach the Gospel to the Gentile world.

What comes across in the three extensive missionary journeys recorded in the Acts of the Apostles is Paul’s energy and single-minded commitment to sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. One might almost say he is obsessed with Christ: “I live not now with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) and “All I want is to know Christ” (Philippians 3:10) are two examples. Along with this prodigious enthusiasm Paul was gifted with a brilliant intellect. Not only did he dispense guidance and pastoral advice through his letters to the Christian communities he founded, he also developed a theology of Christ and the Church, of salvation and justification by faith, which forms the foundation of the Church’s teaching today. In that sense he is probably the most original mind in the history of Christianity.

But supremely it is his experience of Christ and his life of prayer and service which counts the most. If we do not have a personal relationship with God in Jesus there is no foundation for a Christian life, however well meaning our intentions and actions.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWELFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK 21st June 2009

Climate change has led us to look seriously at the way we as human beings are exercising our stewardship of the earth. While there have been periods in the earth’s history when the overall temperature has risen or fallen, the scale and speed of the present “global warming” is alarming. But when we see that human greed and misuse of the earth’s resources is the major cause, there are important moral and theological consequences. Not only do we have to change our lifestyle and accept responsibility for the harm done (what we Christians call repentance and conversion) but to recognise the prophetic voice of God in these climate changes, because as the psalmist says: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness”.

With the melting of the polar ice and the consequent rise in sea levels, more and more of the low-lying land masses will disappear beneath the waves. The story of Noah and the Flood is no longer an ancient fable; it holds a lesson for today. How do we cope with powers beyond our control, especially when we have unleashed them ourselves?

“The waves were breaking into the boat,” St Mark’s gospel tells us today, “so that it was almost swamped.” The disciples on board, hardy fishermen well used to handling boats in bad weather, were unable to cope and feared the worst. Where was Jesus? Asleep in the stern – where the tiller was. And it wasn’t the storm that woke him, it was the disciples! Like us, they wanted to be in control, but when they weren’t, they wanted God to restore their control. But Jesus teaches us that only when God is in charge that things work out for good.

Do you trust God? Or do you try to manipulate him?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST 14th June 2009

Today’s feast was instituted by the Church in the Middle Ages and is still known by its Latin name Corpus Christi, which means the Body of Christ. At that time people were going to communion less often, and the practice of receiving from the chalice had become restricted to the priest. It was felt that the laity should only rarely receive communion at the Holy Sacrifice offered by the priest, so as a substitute it was common practice to be present at the Consecration – when the priest elevated the Host – to look at the Lord. The present excellent practice of Exposition and Benediction grew from this desire to gaze on what could not be received.

Since the time of Pope St Pius X a hundred years ago, the Church has strongly urged us to receive communion more frequently, reminding us that all of us, not just the priest who acts in our name, offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with him. And for the last thirty years we have been encouraged to receive the Lord under both forms of bread and wine, a fuller response to the Lord’s explicit words at the Last Supper: “Take and eat.... take and drink”.

As we can see from today’s first reading, the blood of an animal sacrifice represented the offering of a life. The animal had to die before its blood could be taken. In the same way Jesus died on the cross before his blood was poured out for us. On the night before he died he took a cup of wine and said: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant which is poured out for you.” When we are privileged to drink from the chalice, we are not only recalling Christ’s gift of his lifeblood but also pledging our willingness to give of our lives in his service.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


TRINITY SUNDAY 7th June 2009

At the time of going to press the local and European elections were under way and the outcome is uncertain; national government is in disarray and political leadership teeters on the edge of anarchy. The field is ripe for extremists to make serious inroads. An angry and bewildered public flounders around looking for scapegoats to blame, and clutches at any would-be saviour.

Surely the serene contemplation of the Trinity at a moment like this seems so remote as to be absurd. Yet the mystery of God’s being in whose image and likeness we are fashioned lies at the heart of any healing of our human dysfunction. Indeed it was to restore the true dignity of our human nature that the second Person of the Trinity assumed our flesh and identified completely with our human condition, reconciling us with God and with each other through his death on the cross. The dynamic relationship between the Persons of the Trinity is the model of our human relationships; we are social beings because God is a family, not a lone individual.

If we live in a world that destroys or rejects its most vulnerable people – whether by abortion, euthanasia, ethnic cleansing, racism, etc – then we are destroying ourselves. The measure of our love and care for the weakest is the measure of our self-worth. No wonder we have lost a sense of direction and leadership if our selfishness has set us on a course of self-destruction. To counter it, we have to build a community of love, forgiveness, tolerance and generosity of spirit, which can only happen if there is a change of attitude, sacrifice and commitment. That is exactly what the Christian gospel is programmed to do. And we are committed to this programme through our baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


PENTECOST SUNDAY 31st May 2009

Who is the Holy Spirit? There is a perception that, unlike the Father and the Son, whose names immediately invoke concrete relationships, the Spirit is vague, ethereal and frankly spooky (as in the use of the old English name “Holy Ghost”). In practice, however, the Holy Spirit is anything but vague. When Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit when he ascended into heaven, he wasn’t sending a poor substitute for himself. As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer says, “so that we may live no longer for ourselves but for him, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, to complete his work on earth and bring us the fullness of grace.” Jesus’ work cannot be completed without the Spirit.

And neither can ours. The fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians (5:22-24) show that the Spirit active in us produces practical results: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control, for example. The Rev Tom Smail used to say that the gifts of the Spirit are not things, but people, which means the number of spiritual gifts is past counting. Each one of us is a gift of the Spirit endowed with spiritual gifts. Each one of us is expected to use our gifts to produce the fruits of love, joy, peace, etc.
Like the apostles at Pentecost, like those being confirmed today, we can do nothing without the power the Holy Spirit gives us. Perhaps this prayer, composed by the late Sister Josephine Payne OSU (Brentwood Ursuline) might help:

Lord, graft me so deeply on to you that the life of your Spirit may flow through me, through every fibre of my being. Possess me utterly and completely, Lord Jesus, so that I may become a flame burning before you, burning with your life and love, and enkindling all who come in contact with me. Take from me all wrangling and jealousy, all unkindness and pride, and fill me instead with your joy and peace, your patience and love, your goodness and kindness and self-control, so that the new life you have offered me may not be in vain, but may grow and blossom as long as I live. Amen.

Alleluia!

Fr John
 


THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
24th May 20093

The city of Florence in Tuscany is so full of works of art, in galleries, churches and open spaces, that there is only so much one can take in before experiencing cultural indigestion. Six priests of our diocese had only three days there this week, so we had to be selective. The danger is to rush around glimpsing everything but looking at nothing. With visual art I like to focus on one or two pictures and spend time letting them tell me their story.

Some subjects are immediately arresting; others take time before they yield their riches. Among the many scenes from the gospel the Ascension is not as well represented as the Assumption of Our Lady, possibly because the latter subject celebrates the triumph of our human nature – Mary has made it to heaven, but her Son was going there anyway! But the picture which touched me was Botticelli’s Annunciation. The angel reaches out to Mary, inviting her by the gesture of his hand to become the spouse of the Holy Spirit. She in turn is at first fearful (one hand drawn back) then accepting, as her other hand mirrors the gesture of the angel.

Isn’t that familiar? We are anxious, fearful or uncertain about what God asks of us, but at the same time we realise it is only by accepting God’s will on his terms, not ours, that our doubts and fears can be resolved. As we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, may all of us, especially our confirmation candidates, say our Yes to God as Mary did, without knowing all the answers.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen on high.

Fr John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
17th May 2009

The word “love” appears in the second reading and the gospel today no less than eighteen times. You get the impression God is trying to tell us something. There is an apocryphal story about St John in his old age clambering into the pulpit every Sunday to say: “My dear people, let us love another”, then sitting down again. Sunday after Sunday it was the same message. One of the newer members of the congregation nudged his neighbour and asked: “Why does he keep saying ‘Let us love one another?’ to which she replied, ‘Because we’re not doing it yet’.

The second reading contains the shortest description of God in the Bible: “God is love”. Short it may be, but simple it ain’t! We spend a lifetime learning to love, and no doubt we continue our lessons in heaven. God has revealed the meaning of love not in a philosophy or guide book, but in Jesus. God wants there to be no mistaking that love is lived out at the centre of our human lives, and has given his Son to us as a model, and his Spirit as the Enabler: Jesus shows us how to love, and the Spirit gives us the power to do it.

Love is the key to healing the malaise of sadness and general gloom that permeates our society at the moment. Without God there is no hope; without hope the incentive to love is undermined. Jesus says the greatest love we can have is to lay down our lives for our friends, like the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The love we have for each other is the measure of how much we love God.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen.

Fr John
 


ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 10th May 2009

Let’s begin with your answer to a simple question: do you go to Mass every Sunday (or Saturday evening)? If your answer is an unequivocal YES, there’s no need to read further. If you are a Catholic and your straight answer is NO, I would want to ask, in all sincerity, why not? Maybe you are ill, housebound or dependent on someone to bring you to church; if we do not know of your incapacity and are not already bringing you Holy Communion, please let us know. If you cannot come to church, we will endeavour to bring the church to you. Or perhaps you feel alienated from the Church through some tragedy or breakdown of relationship, whether through your own fault or through the hurt of others; or your problem may be with the Church’s perceived attitude or teaching which is difficult to accept.

Your answer, however, may be YES, BUT... or NO, BUT... The “but” can imply the tension between the demands of the Church and of the world. Which of these two definitions of a Christian applies to you: one who lives in the world and goes to church, or one who lives in the Church and goes out to the world? Today’s life-style is competitive and divisive, leading to individualism, selfishness and loneliness. It takes hard work to maintain a sense of family, community and generosity of spirit.

St Paul compares the Church to a body: Christ is the head, and we are the members. In today’s gospel Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” We cannot survive cut off from the vine; we need Christ, and we need each other. Our love for each other, as the second reading tells us, “is not to be words or mere talk, but something real and active.” I find I need to go to Mass to give me the strength to live in love.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen.

Fr John
 


ON THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER, 26th April 2009

The various accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection have one thing in common – he is not expected to appear. There is the element of surprise, and part of the surprise is that he seems quite normal! It’s almost comical, the way Jesus creates consternation at his arrival yet chides his disciples for reacting so fearfully. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” he seems to say to the apostles in today’s gospel from St Luke. Well, yes – but they don’t quite know what to make of him now. Is he the real Jesus they knew before his death, or a new Jesus, a sort of Superman, or even (as many early Christians were tempted to believe) really God pretending to look like a real being? “A ghost!” was their first reaction, but Jesus says, “Have you ever seen a ghost eating grilled fish?” The temptation of our human nature is to categorise Jesus as either a very special human being or a very humble divine being, just as we still tend to split ourselves into “body” and “soul”. Where’s the boundary between the two? Do we not experience ourselves as one person, and is not a split personality a disorder?

The bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth has spotlighted the old conflict between science and religion, a conflict the Church once perpetrated in Galileo’s time but now heartily opposes. Atheists love to isolate religion from life, and try to show it as irrelevant, on the margins of human existence. If we deny the spiritual nature of the universe and focus only on the material, we are impoverishing ourselves, diminishing our human nature. The risen Christ is God continuing to surprise us with his ordinariness.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John
 


ON EASTER SUNDAY, 12th April 2009

During my trip to Syria in February a number of my fellow travellers were not sympathetic to the Christian faith, and in voicing their concerns or criticism it became clear that what they objected to was not what I would recognise as the Christian gospel, but a caricature or distortion of it. One conversation, for instance, was about Christian festivals. The word Easter derives from eostre, a Saxon word meaning “sheepfold”, from a pagan spring festival. “So Easter is really pagan, not Christian,” ran their objection. Yes, the name and date of a pagan feast was indeed adopted by Christianity – but it took on a new and deeper meaning. It’s not just about bunnies and eggs – it’s about the resurrection of Christ symbolised by bunnies (new life) and eggs (the chick breaking from the shell reminds us of Christ breaking from the tomb).

We live too much on the surface of our lives to ponder meanings. There is so much pain and uncertainty in our world today we prefer to keep busy and not think about it. But if we are to meet the risen Christ and find hope and sustenance for living, we have to stop and ask the crucial questions. We think that by doing so we will end in a crumpled heap on the floor of despair – or, in Christian terminology, nailed to a cross. Christ did not rise from a bed of roses but from a dark tomb. When finally we face the darkness of our own lives, the death of our hopes and dreams, we are looking into an empty tomb where we are told: “Jesus is not here. He is risen. He goes before you on your journey of faith. Walk out of the darkness into his light. He is with you always, to the end of time.”

Alleluia! The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Fr John


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
5th April 2009

The G20 conference this week was a bold attempt to bring world leaders together in the face of a global financial crisis. Until the credit crunch, each nation, each financial institution, had been working in competition with each other, trying to grab more and more money for their cause, oblivious of the fact that there is only so much money to grab. It has been a game of Monopoly for real, except that playing with people’s lives and savings is not a game. It is the poorest in the world who have suffered most, and their voice is barely heard.

Suddenly we are beginning to hear from politicians and world leaders that we need to work together, to cooperate, to rediscover a sense of community and solidarity. Such a complete reversal of policy is welcome. This is good traditional Catholic teaching. May these not be empty words but a real sign of hope. Throwing money at the problem is of course only part of the solution. Far more important is a change of attitude, of heart and mind; what is needed are the virtues of compassion, forgiveness, encouragement, sacrifice and generosity. Christians during Lent have a word for this change of heart: repentance.

We begin Holy Week, which commemorates the most profoundly life-changing events in all human history, with the awareness that the way of the cross, the way Jesus dealt with the crisis of a broken selfish sinful world, enfolds everything that matters. He has paid the price of our redemption - not a mere three trillion dollars, but his lifeblood. This week we are called not merely to commemorate a past event but to enter into what Christ has done for us, and apply it to our world today by our sacrifices, love and generosity.
 

Fr John


ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
 29th March 2009

Naturally enough, it was Philip and Andrew, apostles with Greek names, who were approached by some Greeks with the request: "We should like to see Jesus." Like Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus passing by, these Greeks weren¹t just doing a bit of celebrity spotting, so they could tell their friends they¹d met the famous Jesus. What they had heard and seen of him attracted and fascinated them. They wanted to know more, like Andrew himself at the beginning of John¹s gospel, where Jesus turns round to see him following and asks: "What do you want?" Andrew¹s reply, "Where do you live?" expresses the desire to know more, to experience living with Jesus, not just paying him an occasional visit.

By now you will have realised that the journey of Lent is far more than about paying Jesus a few extra visits. At this late stage, as Holy Week looms closer, there is no room for half-disciples or part-time Christians.

We¹re in it all the way or we walk away sad. Jade Goodey may not have led the most exemplary life, but she did die an exemplary death. Anyone who can teach us how to die well is exemplifying Jesus' words: "Anyone who loves their life loses it." We cannot afford to wait till our deathbed to learn how to die; we have to practise letting go of all that leads us away from God every day of our lives. Otherwise, paradoxically, we will never live.

The control freak of the ego will cling on for dear life and all we will reap is a living death. We cannot rise again unless we are first dead.

There is no Easter Sunday before Good Friday.

What is preventing you from letting go of your fears and trusting totally in God?

Happy Lent!

Fr John


ON THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Mothering Sunday 22nd March 2009

One of the distinctive characteristics of the English temperament (and maybe the British one too) used to be a sense of fair play, and a soft spot for the underdog. But in recent years there has grown a hardness in our British society, a less tolerant spirit, quick to find fault and less forgiving. The incidence of road rage is a typical example; another might be the “trial by television”, when news bulletins report on the trials of serial killers, paedophiles, fraudsters and the rest, inviting us indirectly to make our own judgements and condemnations. I am not for a moment condoning the crimes committed or excusing those who commit them. But perhaps we have forgotten that only God knows the heart of each one of us, saint and sinner alike; as St James says: “Who are you to give a verdict on your neighbour?” (5:12).

Sadly even we Christians have been sucked into this insidious way of thinking and abandoned our gospel values of compassion and forgiveness in favour of pagan values like vengeance and retaliation. The first reading today describes the consistent infidelity of generations of the Israelite nation, but nevertheless God sends a pagan monarch to show them the mercy they did not deserve; and all this occurred before Christ came. The words of St John’s gospel today are among the most famous summaries of the whole Christian message: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”
God is the only One who knows our hearts, and has every right to condemn us, but doesn’t. Instead he gives us the life of his innocent Son to save us and restore us to grace. If only we knew how much we are loved and have been forgiven, we would die of amazement or fall over each other in the rush to love and forgive each other.

Happy Lent!

Fr John

 


ON THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
15th March 2009

In a recent lecture at Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O¹Connor who is shortly to retire said that to be human is "to be deeply tempted to be good". So often popular wisdom equates being human with being sinful. But sin makes us less human, not more. Sin diminishes us. So, the Cardinal goes on, "we need to encourage and affirm the good in each person, rather than simply naming the bad."

One of my favourite sayings of our own Bishop Thomas is: "If you speak to the good in a person, you will always get a response." When we judge, criticise or condemn the only response we are likely to get, if at all, is a negative one. A positive constructive dialogue opens up the way to growth; a negative approach closes down any dialogue and it is much more difficult to move things forward. Note that the Cardinal wants us to be deeply tempted to be good. He did not say, to be right. Good people don¹t always get it right, but their basic intention is sound.

The Ten Commandments which constitute today¹s first reading have for the last three thousand years or more provided a foundation for goodness, not just rightness. Law, by itself, doesn¹t make us good; it only provides a framework to contain our behaviour. The Ten Commandments are not laws like those of the land; they are based on a living committed relationship to God and our neighbour, the result of a covenant or agreement. It is this relationship which ultimately deeply tempts us to be good.

The gospel today tells us that many believed in Jesus, but he did not trust himself to them because he knew what they were really like. May this Lent be a time when we can entrust our lives to God, knowing he loves us as we are. Don¹t close the link!

Happy Lent.

Fr John

 


ON THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
8th March 2009

The Golan Heights, which Israel annexed from Syria in 1973, mark the politically sensitive border where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet. The mountain which dominates this area is Mount Hermon, which most biblical scholars agree is the site of the Transfiguration narrated in today's gospel. I have admired its snow-capped peak from the Sea of Galilee while in Israel, and recently glimpsed it again in Syria, on the road south of Damascus, tantalisingly close but always just out of reach.

The transfiguration of Jesus is a moment of joy and hope on the road to Easter. Suddenly he is revealed in glory; suddenly his three closest friends realise who he really is, and everything becomes wonderfully clear. But then the cloud descends, and they can see nothing; all they hear is a voice declaring that Jesus is God?s Beloved Son and that they must listen to him. Then they look around; the cloud has gone, and so has the light. All that?s left is the same old Jesus.

The Christian life is like that, Lent no less so. There are moments when our life of faith makes blindingly clear sense, when prayer is a joy, and we want to love everyone. But they usually don?t last very long. There?s always the danger we will think we are in control of our lives, including the God bit. When the cloud of God?s presence covers us, we think we?ve lost him and he?s deserted us, when he is in fact tantalisingly close and just out of reach. If we can hang on in the darkness, believing and trusting only what we hear (God?s word), then we will find Jesus is with us all the time, looking as ordinary as Monday morning but the real Jesus.

Happy Lent!

Fr John


ON THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
1st March 2009

Perhaps there is no coincidence that the first Sunday in Lent this year falls on the feast of St David, Patron of Wales. Lent conjures up images of austerity, deprivation and penance, at which the early Celtic monks were adept: one of David's favourite pastimes was standing up to his neck in freezing water to make sure he didn't sleep during prayer! The Celtic monks had inherited this bizarre enthusiasm for asceticism from the desert fathers and mothers, the hermits of early Christian Egypt and the Middle East. While in Syria last week I visited the church of St Simeon, a hermit who lived on top of a pillar twenty feet high for thirty-six years - the stump of the pillar is still there!

No, I'm not suggesting we imitate their practices, but we might catch something of their dedication. Their attempts to become holy might be extreme, but their desire to come closer to God was real enough. Do we want to come closer to God? Is our desire only hampered by not knowing how to go about it, or thinking that we are too far away from God to even try?

The three practical tools of Lent Jesus refers to in Ash Wednesday's gospel are prayer, fasting and almsgiving (generosity and mercy). If we make only a token effort to use them, they won't work; but if we genuinely want to grow in faith they are not only effective but essential. So give time to listen to God in prayer; make space for the things that matter by removing the clutter; and make room in your life for others, especially the poor and needy.

Happy Lent!

Fr John
 


ON THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
15th February 2009

In Jesus' day lepers were the outcasts; perhaps today's outcasts are bankers. Indeed part of the effect of the global recession is to make everyone feel alienated - will it be my turn next to lose my job or my home? I had a phone call this week from a friend in the USA whose business is going under and was on the edge of a breakdown - multiply that a few million times and you have a picture of a troubled world. But it is worth remembering that what we used to call the Third World has always been suffering poverty, far worse than what we are experiencing. A little taste of that may put things in perspective.

One of the dangers of feeling alienated and disorientated is to find ourselves cut off from others, and loneliness and depression sets in. We need each other more than ever, and the support of family, community and Church is vital. But we must have the courage and humility to ask for help, and also the generosity and love to reach out to those in need. Never before has the need for true community been greater; the individualism and self-seeking of the last thirty years has almost destroyed it. We must rebuild and resurrect our society with the precious gift of our Christian faith through the Church.

By reaching out and touching the leper in his need, Jesus not only identified with the marginalised but in the process became alienated himself. No more graphic picture of that truth can be portrayed than the cross - the place of death of a criminal and a slave. It was in that place Jesus redeemed the world. Like the leper, we can say to him from our desperation and fear: "If you want to, you can cure me!" Of course he wants to. But are we prepared to let him, and face the consequences of living a new life in him, a life he wants us to share with others?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK,
 8thFebruary 2009,

One of the effects of the "Big Freeze" in the UK, this week, was to slow everyone down.  Road, rail and air transport was severely curtailed or cancelled, and businesses and schools were closed.  Many of the things we planned to do last week never happened.

Martin Luther used to say that if you are a busy person, you should spend one hour a day in prayer.  When someone protested they couldn't find that much time in the day, Luther retorted: "If you're averybusy person, you should spend two hours a day!" In other words, if you're too busy to pray, you're too busy.

The gospel today describes twenty-four hours in the ministry of Jesus.  After a heavy day preaching and healing, he returns home to Peter's house to cure Peter's mother-in-law and minister healing way into the night as "the whole town came crowding round the door".  Yet after that, he doesn't get much sleep.  "Long before dawn" he is up and off alone to pray.  If Jesus the Son of God needed to pray, why do we think we lesser mortals don't need it so much?

Our busyness can often be a smoke-screen keeping us from being still and listening to the voice of God.  There are aspects of our lives we don't want to face.  But Jesus needed to know his Father's will in order to direct his life aright.  However impossible our situation may look, the prayer of St Ignatius gives us courage: "Lord, help me to remember that there is nothing in this world that you and I cannot handle together."

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


John


SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
19th February 2012

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, in his recent anthology Human Chain, has a lovely poem about the paralysed man in today’s gospel. In Miracle he tells the story from the point of view of the four men who carried him to Jesus, “the ones who have known him all along”. It is not the first time they have carried him – they’ve been humping him about for ages, “their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked / in their backs, the stretcher handles / slippery with sweat”. Once they have lowered him in front of Jesus, their task is done. “Be mindful of them,” Heaney says, “as they stand and wait / for the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool, their slight lightheadedness and incredulity / to pass, those ones who had known him all along.”

Those who have known us all along and still carry us, those who love us and bear our burdens despite our ingratitude or grumpiness, who will go to great lengths to bring us to Jesus – what pearls of great price! Like Jesus, they too see the hidden sins and know the real reason we are as we are, and still forgive and go the second mile and more. When we encounter Jesus in such people, we can walk free. But we have to carry our stretcher as we go. It is now our turn to carry others on our shoulders.

Lent, which begins next Wednesday, is a good time to be mindful of those we are called to serve, to express our appreciation for those we take for granted. And not least among them is Jesus himself. Prayer can reawaken and deepen our awareness of him; fasting and penance affirm our dependence on him; generous service display his actions in us. After all, he has known us all along.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
12th February 2012

This week a combination of snowy weather and a heavy cold have kept me indoors. It felt like a combination of physical constriction and disempowerment, amputated from my usual routine and milieu. The leper in today’s gospel would have felt similarly but with far greater intensity. Not only would he have been confined to the boundaries of a leper colony, but he could not escape his progressive deterioration, a then incurable disease which in its advanced form can hideously distort the human body. Added to that, the social stigma of his condition isolated him from society.

Given all that, this leper nevertheless with enormous courage breaks ranks with his colony and risks approaching Jesus. Jesus for his part is (as usual) on the frontier between civilisation and chaos, the “no-man’s-land” which he claims as God’s land, where saint and sinner, Jew and Gentile, woman and man can meet as one; so he too has broken ranks for this encounter. The leper may be desperate but is fully aware of what he is doing; he prefaces his plea for a cure with “If you want to”. He has nothing to lose: his dignity has already been destroyed; he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of him. He literally puts his life in Jesus’ hands. And Jesus reaches out his hands to embrace him. Of course he wants to.

Once restored to society, the leper is no longer a member of the leper colony; he is no longer a leper. Where now does he belong? He has lost his status as leper: who is he now? Will he be a more compassionate member of society, able to reach out to others, inhabit the margins of life like Jesus? Now he has touched you, what will you do?

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
5th February 2012

People have often asked me to describe a typical day in the life of a priest, and invariably I would reply that, while I could recite the kind of activities that might occupy me, each day was different and usually unpredictable – for two reasons: because each person I meet is a unique surprise, and God is the biggest surprise of all.

So the description of a day in the ministry of Jesus which Mark sketches in today’s gospel is a composite picture rather than a daily schedule. After a challenging exorcism at the synagogue, Jesus arrives at Peter’s house and raises Peter’s wife’s mother from her sickbed. An evening meal is followed by more ministering to the sick late into the night. But before the dawn he slips away to a quiet place to pray, which leads to his decision to leave this successful mission territory for new pastures.

Jesus responds to each encounter as it happens. He adapts himself to each situation and makes himself available to serve. How flexible am I to others’ needs, or do they have to fit in with my plans? He makes time to relax with his friends over a meal. Am I too busy to celebrate friendship or feel guilty when I relax? He finds a time and a place for prayer so that he can have quality time with his Father. When and where do I pray? Do I make it a priority in my day, like Jesus? He is not influenced by popular acclaim. Am I always driven by other people’s expectations rather than my own convictions born of faith?

Jesus may not be predictable, but he is always trustworthy. So don’t try to control him, but surrender to his surprises.

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
29th January 2012

You would think that, once society has thrown off a common moral code based on Christian values, everything would be right and nothing would be wrong! But far from happily accepting each and everyone doing what they like, we have become a more judgemental and hyper-critical nation. Scandal is rife – newspapers engaging in phone-hacking, politicians claiming exorbitant expenses, financial corruption from investment bankers to professional sportsmen, even churchmen guilty of gross misconduct – there’s a few examples, without going beyond Britain.

People in public positions (which is most of us; we all relate to one another) are expected to be accountable. Certain standards of behaviour are anticipated. But accountable to whom? And who sets the standards? In the end, it’s the good old-fashioned gospel motto, “Practise what you preach” (cf Matthew 23:3). Are your words consistent with your conduct, and your conduct reflecting your belief? Do you water down the gospel message so that it fits comfortably with your compromised life? To whom then are you accountable? Yourself. You can’t blame anyone else for your personal philosophy.

Jesus made a deep impression on his hearers (Mark 1:22) because he taught with authority. He practised what he preached because he preached what he practised. His miracles were not admired for their wizardry or cleverness, but because through them he demonstrated the compassion and love of God which touched people’s depths, not simply tickled their fancy. The word “authority” comes from a Latin root implying growth and increase. Jesus, by being God’s presence among us in human form, makes it possible for us to grow into God, to become holy, to become who we really are by letting ourselves be transformed.

Yes, the world today is a melancholy mess. But instead of bemoaning it, surrender it (including yourself) to God. Then see how God transforms your problem into an opportunity for grace.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
22nd January 2012

It’s hard to convince unbelievers that religion is not a leisure pursuit or a cosy club of like-minded hobbyists. Sadly some religious people do restrict their faith to certain religious activities. But on the other hand, many non-religious people play golf or follow sport as if their whole life depended on it. Do we live our Christian faith in a way that demonstrates our total dependence on it? Does our belief in Christ touch every moment of our lives and colour everything we do or say?

With the Christmas season behind us and Lent a month away, the readings today provide good remote preparation for Lent. Jesus’ first recorded words in Mark’s gospel are: “The time has come.” The word Mark uses for “time” is kairos, which means a special moment, a graced opportunity. We don’t have to wait until Lent for it. “Every day, every hour, every moment have been blessed by the strength of his love,” the late Estelle White wrote. Cardinal Hume imagined the Lord standing at the foot of his bed each morning and inviting him, “Come, follow me.” Each moment of our life is a kairos moment, if we have eyes to see, a heart to believe it. That moment came for the disciples called from their fishing boats, as it came for Jonah sent reluctantly to Nineveh.

Jesus’ next words are:”The kingdom of God is close at hand.” How close? If Jesus is the kingdom of God in person, then he is closer to us than we are to ourselves: the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). The time is now, the place is here. So here and now, what must we do? “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Every second of my life is an opportunity to grow, and wherever I am is the place to believe the Good News.

God bless you and yours.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
15th January 2012

The endearing story of the call of Samuel never fails to appeal. It is both simple and profound. The boy hears the old priest Eli calling him, and his response is to run to Eli and say “I’m here!” Such a response bears witness to his readiness to obey. The word “obedience” is derived from the Latin obaudire which means “to listen intently”. Eli recognises Samuel’s readiness and guides him to the next step which might sound something like this: next time you hear God call you, don’t assume you know what he wants and rush off to do it immediately. Wait. Say: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening intently.”

It is in the silence of prayer, the pause to reflect, that we are likely to hear God’s word more clearly. The voice of God, as it did for Samuel, may sound remarkably like Eli’s voice; often God speaks to us through those we count wise and holy. But especially that voice will speak to us in the Bible, either in our own prayerful meditation on it or in the accents of the liturgical minister declaring: “The word of the Lord.”

But if we continue to listen intently, to open ourselves habitually to the Lord, then we begin to find him in more and unexpected places. Not only the wise and the holy but the fool and the sinner, the dewfall and the snowfall, birdsong and the cry of the poor – all creation speaks his name. When we pray, God has nowhere to hide. Like a parent playing hide-and-seek with her children, she cannot bear to remain hidden for long for fear of distressing them. Famously, Blaise Pascal puts these words into God’s mouth: “You would not be looking for me if you did not possess me. So don’t be anxious.”

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
8th January 2012

I still possess a book my grandfather gave me when I was about ten years old. He had received it as a school prize when he was young; it was a hefty tome called “The Story of the Heavens”. It’s my earliest recollection of a fascination for astronomy, learning about the vast array of galaxies, stars and planets beyond our tiny Earth.

Looking up into the dark January skies when clear of cloud, the canopy of stars is bewilderingly beautiful. With little light pollution where we live, more and more of heaven’s lamps and the patterns they weave reveal themselves. I wish I knew more of their names, of their movements and their origins; why some are bright and steadfast, others fickle and faint. Astronomers can give us some answers; the discoveries they have made in the century since my grandfather’s book was published are even more astonishing and expansive than ever the Victorians knew. Two thousand years ago the Magi made the stars their business, and they could pick out the ones that mattered. Their expertise and patient watching led them to Christ from distant lands before anyone was aware the Messiah had come. But even they could not have guessed that this child was more significant than the stars, the galaxies, the entire universe.

We are the stars that lead to Christ if we are his Body. To help others around us discern the way is not just a matter of pointing them in the right direction: we must be prepared to walk the way with them, to be Jesus to them. If our faith is only about star-gazing at distant divinity and not being stars that manifest his humanity in ours, we have missed the most amazing truth of the universe: God is with us. We are his epiphany.

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF MARY MOTHER OF GOD
1st January 2012

One of my Christmas presents was a DVD of “The Nativity”, a sensitively made production of the Christmas story in its Jewish setting, which was shown in four parts on BBC TV just before Christmas 2010. What struck me afresh this time, as the story progressed from the betrothal of Mary and Joseph to the birth of Jesus in the stable, was the isolation of the key characters. The close-knit community and family spirit of Judaism served to emphasise it. Once Mary found herself with child through the Holy Spirit, she was shunned and barely escaped stoning as a presumed adulteress. Not even Joseph would believe her; and when he had to go to Bethlehem for the census, Mary’s parents pleaded with him to take their daughter with him to a safer place; and only very reluctantly he agreed. Throughout that long difficult journey they hardly spoke to one another. At last, as Mary was about to give birth, he reached out and clasped her hand.

It’s a believable interpretation of the gospel account, particularly appropriate in today’s culture of isolation and individualism. The estrangement and break-up of family is most keenly felt at Christmas time. If the coming of the Word made flesh is in circumstances of pain, misunderstanding, loneliness and fear, then we can be sure the Son of God is present and familiar with those situations today. But above all it is love that overcomes all this and transforms our darkness into light. Mary’s determination to see through her mission to bring the Messiah to birth against all odds, including her own misgivings, can only be made possible by grace, not stoicism. At the beginning of a new year are we prepared to persevere and see through the mission each one is given as a disciple of Jesus, despite the opposition of others or our own doubts and fears?

Happy New Year!

John


CHRISTMAS DAY
25th December 2011

Above our heads the light fades in the frosty air, and the lanterns are being put in place, lining the path from the lych gate to the porch. It seems like the whole village has crammed into the modest parish church for the annual carol service. The lessons are read by an assortment of readers for whom the language of the classic Authorised Version of the Bible (four hundred years old this year) is unfamiliar and somewhat daunting. But the story they tell is timeless – or, better, immediate and real. The carols, sung without polish but from the heart, are our response – we want to be part of this, even though we are not quite sure how. For many here tonight, it is village tradition, articulated in a language of comfort, wonder, stillness, starkness, peace and warm joy.

Warm joy, too, is in the meeting of old and new neighbours after the service over coffee and mince pies. Something has touched us, and we linger in the bonhomie and togetherness. What has brought us together? Who or what has created this bond we can unashamedly call love?

The appeal of the Christmas story is its simplicity and openness. Jesus’ birth is everyone’s birth, Mary is every mother, the stable the place we all find ourselves in when we too feel rejected or diminished, the angel the one beside us in the coffee queue who kindly offers a mince pie. Good news is readily recognised in such disguises. Why do we make religion so complicated when God chose to come among us in breathtaking beguiling simplicity?

Above our heads the light has vanished to a point in the frosty darkness. By the light of that star we travel gratefully onward, aware that we are now the star-bearers of God’s love into the lives of others, not only today but always.

Peace and joy to you and all you love.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
18th December 2011

Luke’s account of the Annunciation, like his narrative of the Nativity, is so familiar that we can miss the impact of its message. Yet both events still have the power to move us, so that like children we are never tired of hearing of them again and again.

It is the last sentence of today’s gospel reading which always hits me: “And the angel left her.” Once Gabriel has received Mary’s fiat, he goes. In Matthew’s account of the Annunciation, where Joseph is the one who encounters an angel, the angel keeps appearing to him in a dream at various points until he leaves Egypt to return to Galilee with Jesus and Mary. But Mary has only one divine visitation. After that, there are no more angels for her until she enters Paradise. Her Yes to God’s will is so complete that God knows she doesn’t need any external miraculous props, so to speak, to remain totally faithful.

Gabriel’s greeting deeply disturbs her; it has never occurred to her that she is in any way special or marked out for great things. Once the angel begins to spell out God’s intentions for her, Mary’s only interjection is to ask a purely practical question (this girl is no romantic dreamer) – how can I be virgin and mother? Her Yes is not purely passive; she wants to co-operate with God. The angel responds to her practicality by giving a concrete example to engage with – her barren cousin Elizabeth is with child. Once Gabriel has departed, Mary doesn’t sit around in bewilderment or shock at this amazing turn in her life, but sets off immediately to see Elizabeth.

God’s will comes to us disguised in the ordinary events of life, and sometimes in dramatic changes that don’t at first glance look the slightest bit holy. Expect surprises from God, but prepare to be surprised by his presence in the uneventful humdrum routine of daily living.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
11th December 2011

Lord God, thank you for the wonder of the Incarnation, for the gift of yourself in human form – what the poet George Herbert called “heaven in ordinary”. You chose to come among us in a way which directly touched our human experience in all its aspects, although we tend to restrict you to the aspects we consider more consistent with your divinity. And you continue to reveal yourself to us in each generation as you speak to our human condition in Jesus. Open the eyes of our heart to the surprises of the Spirit in our world today.

“For all things give thanks to God,” your apostle Paul writes, “because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus.” You expect it, Lord, because we should be overwhelmed with gratitude. If only we had an inkling of your astounding love and provision for us, beginning with our very existence! But we are too busy pushing you back into a distant and harmless heaven, in order that we may claim the credit for our own existence, weaving the stuff of your creation into our personal plans. Self-advancement has no room for gratitude, except as a threat to its own pride.

A spirit of gratitude is a spirit of freedom and joy. As the Advent liturgy today bids us be joyful, you set us free from the chains of human approval and allow ourselves to be embraced by your divine designs. To discover how wide is that embrace, we have only to surrender everything into your hands. But surrender looks like loss and diminishment, not openness to growth and freedom which you are. And you have shown us how to let go by modelling surrender to us in giving us your Son. How wonderful a love!

Come, Lord Jesus.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
4th December 2011

A voice cries in the wilderness: “Prepare a way for the Lord!” If we are speaking here of a real desert, we would wonder who would be around in such a deserted inhospitable place to hear the voice. And yet, such was the reputation of John the Baptiser that it seems the people flocked to the wilderness to seek him out, just as in later centuries they were drawn there by the presence of the desert fathers and mothers.

The real wilderness today is not in the Sinai or the Sahara. It is in our impoverished so-called civilisation, in the heart of our cities, in the growing rift between rich and poor, in the loss of hope in the oppressed and unemployed, in the marginalisation of the sick, elderly and socially deprived. You don’t have to go far to find it – maybe no further than your own heart.

In that wilderness we hear a voice crying: “Isn’t there something better? Is this all that life has to offer? Who will rescue us from darkness and bring us into light? And can we trust the light to be faithful and true, or will we be deceived by its false promises of instant but transitory happiness?” Last Wednesday’s strike by service industry workers in Britain was such a cry.

What an opportunity for the Church to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s coming. If we are seen to be people of hope and faith, who speak of a God of tenderness and compassion, justice and peace, a God who comes among us truly sharing our predicament, then we can begin to demonstrate the power of the Spirit. Our God is not one who visits us from on high and then withdraws safely to heaven. Jesus shares the pain of weak and oppressed humanity till the end of time. The desert is the place where we come to feel the hungers of the human heart and to rejoice we share them too, waiting in hope.

Come, Lord Jesus!

John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
27th November 2011

Happy new (ecclesiastical) year! As the northern hemisphere’s days darken and grow shorter, and the weather turns decidedly chilly, a new beginning, new hope dawns on the horizon. This hope does not come of human optimism or a naturally cheerful disposition – heaven knows, there’s not a great deal reported in world news which lifts the spirit. Nor does it come from outside, as if from an alien planet. This new light rises from within the very darkness of the world. The God who creates us is not about to abolish our darkness and replace it with his own glorious light. No, something far more amazing is happening: God is entering the darkness in human flesh and transforming it into light. As the mystics such as Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross experienced and taught, only when we enter the darkness of faith and trust in God’s hidden presence disguised as absence, do we find the Light from Light.

Each year as we begin the Advent journey to Christmas, I think of that scene from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings where the defenceless hobbits Frodo and Sam travel alone and in disguise the perilous journey to Mount Doom within the hostile land of Mordor, carrying the precious Ring under the noses of their unsuspecting enemies. It reminds of those two seemingly insignificant travellers Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem, bearing the Saviour of the world to his birthplace; and apart from the dust disturbed by their passing feet, the universe barely trembles. Who knows where God is to be born this Christmas?

As we go about our daily routine in our world today, however humble and humdrum it may be, the gospel of Mark today tells us four times: “stay awake!” Watch out for the Light of Christ disguised as your darkness, and bid him welcome.

God bless you and yours.

John


CHRIST THE KING
 20th November 2011

What the media have dubbed “the Arab Spring” is a series of popular uprisings in Arab countries in the Middle East, intent on overthrowing autocratic leaders who have held together disparate cultures and factions by force. When first they assumed power, many of these dictators were hailed as saviours by their people: the Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, for example, owed their survival to the protection afforded by Mubarek, Assad and Saddam Hussein. While tyrants have been removed, the question is: who and what is replacing them? Will the replacements unite or further divide these nations? Will the various factions pursue self-interest at all costs, or is there a common bond strong enough to convince them to work together for good? And what is that bond?

What is evident internationally is reflected in Britain too. For example, the media spotlight on protestors against the capitalist regime camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, or on the violent eviction of Irish Travellers from Dale Farm, Essex are symptoms of a sick society, which has no overarching bond or philosophy to affirm, encourage or give hope to its members. “Survival of the fittest” is the slogan for politics, economics, industry and commerce. The human face of care and compassion is conspicuously absent – and yet it is exactly the underlying desire for acceptance and affirmation which fuels protest and violence across the world.

Christ the King is no despot but a shepherd, who cares for his flock and lays down his life for them. If we claim to be his followers, then our actions will prove it: feeding the hungry, assuaging those thirsting for justice and peace, caring for those imprisoned (physically, spiritually, emotionally) and the fearful, sick and vulnerable members of our society (not just our own religion or group). The Body of Christ is the only bond big enough to heal and embrace our torn planet – if only we could be seen in practice to live that truth.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
Remembrance Sunday 13th November 2011

Although even the Second World War is slipping from living memory now, it’s not too difficult to recall the debt we owe to those who gave their lives in 1914-18 and 1939-45. The world may be a very different place now, but we still live with war, terror and death in many parts of the globe. While it often seems a senseless waste of human life, the value of each single person who is prepared to put their own life before that of others is beyond price.

The parable of the talents is about taking calculated risks. To bury your talent is not only an act of cowardice – it deprives the world of your unique gift, however humble. God has made us who we are, loved and gifted us, in order to love and give in the service of others. And loving is always risky, because based on trust. The men and women who gave their lives in two world wars did not bury their talent – they risked all and appeared to lose all, but gained the possibilities for peace which (tragically) we have squandered since.

Jesus spoke of the grain of wheat that only produces fruit if it falls to the ground and dies (John 12). It was a parable about his passion, death and resurrection. Which is why every Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, and at every Mass we do this in remembrance of him. We not only recall a hero’s sacrifice with gratitude for what he has done for us (Eucharist), but enact our own self-sacrifice, and offer our living bodies with Christ to the Father. If we hold back from taking the risks, our gifts remain buried. Let go and be free!

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
6th November 2011

To begin November with bright skies and end-of-summer temperatures, while the leaves are falling amid soporific insects thinking spring has come, is both a comfort and a challenge. We make the most of the good times, but must always be prepared for the sudden turn in fortune without undue anxiety. When the grip of frost or bitter north wind enwraps you, don’t say you weren’t warned!

It’s in that spirit we consider the parable of the ten bridesmaids. We can be deflected from Jesus’ central message by thinking the wise virgins are mean for not sharing their oil with the foolish. But the “oil” here is not a commodity but an acquired skill. If you haven’t done your revision, you can’t walk into an exam on the day and hope to pass with only your neighbour’s crib notes. Nothing can take the place of our own preparation and commitment. Similarly, we can’t live on borrowed spirituality; our growth in prayer and a relationship with God has no substitute.

Wisdom, then, is not about amassing information or buying favours. It’s about being ready to listen compassionately to the voice of the Spirit in the events of daily life, sensitive to the will of God discerned within our own hearts and in the world about us. If our lamps are not lit it’s pointless cursing the darkness. The bridesmaids of the gospel were expected to ready, day or night, for the bridegroom’s coming. We too await the Bridegroom Jesus as he comes to claim his Bride, the Church, and take her into the wedding feast of heaven. If we are not prepared to be surprised by winter, how will we welcome another Advent just three weeks away?

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
30th October 2011

We live on a planet in turmoil: “nations are in tumult, kingdoms are shaken” (Ps 46:7). The world economy is in meltdown; law and order is without authority and teeters on the brink of anarchy; distrust is rampant and cynicism has become a widespread survival technique. There is a desperate search for security, purpose and meaning in human existence and there are plenty who offer political or economic solutions to the seekers, usually with their own agendas in mind. Religion is perceived as either a sideline for the escapists or a fanatical threat.

If this sounds unduly pessimistic, or even cynical, I am simply painting a picture of the scenario in which our Christian faith, our Catholic identity, is called to operate. And because we are mandated to engage with this situation, not build a separate sacral world on another planet, we are in danger of being infected with these negative attitudes, even as the world is desperate to catch the Good News bug from us. The danger we face is twofold: either becoming so engrossed in the present climate as to be ineffective witnesses, or retreating into religious professionalism, like the Pharisees of old.

To keep our faith alive, we need constantly to pause, reflect and pray in order to nourish a living relationship with our God in Jesus Christ. The psalm quoted above, after speaking of tumult, gives us the remedy in verse 11: “Be still, and know that I am God”. It is only in God we will find our ultimate security, meaning and purpose.

Allow the words of today’s responsorial psalm to seep under your skin. “Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace.... Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord” (Ps 130).

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
Mission Sunday 23rd October 2011

“You observed the sort of life we lived when we were with you.... and you were led to become imitators of us and of the Lord” (I Thess. 1:5). Paul clearly indicates that the process of conversion of the Thessalonians began with the impression he and his companions made on them simply by being who they were. This impression led to a desire to be like them. The order of words is instructive; it was by becoming imitators of Paul’s group that they became imitators of the Lord Jesus, not the other way round. At that point, the Holy Spirit filled them with such joy that they embraced the gospel of Christ. They went from observation through imitation to faith commitment. Then they in turn are observed by others who want to become imitators of them, and the process of evangelisation gathers momentum.

The great commandment of love is also descriptive of an organic process; it is not a static monolithic statement. The faculties with which we are to love God are human ones: heart, soul and mind. The evidence of our God-love will be observed in our human loves, in the way we love our neighbour. And the way we love others is in turn dependant on the way we see ourselves. If we have observed God’s love for us in the example of others, if we have become imitators of parents, teachers, priests who have modelled the gospel for us, then we will be secure in heart, soul and mind in our relationship with our neighbour, who in turn may want to know the reason for the hope we have. Pass it on!

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
16th October 2011

The method used by the Pharisees to trap Jesus in today’s gospel was to start by praising him. They could not escape the plain evidence of Jesus’ conduct, even if they didn’t like it. First, they declare him to be honest. Then they say he teaches God’s way honestly. They may not agree with his message or behaviour, but his transparency runs counter to their own way of thinking and acting. Thirdly, they acknowledge of the one who constantly teaches “do not be afraid” that he is not afraid of anyone; he is not in competition in the status race, so he can be himself. By contrast, they are often jostling for position, eager to manipulate the truth to their own advantage. Jesus does not play that game. He doesn’t need to. And neither do we.

Our calling as Christians is not ultimately to follow Jesus’ teaching, but to follow Jesus. Our baptismal grace is not simply to tell others about Jesus. Our mission is to be Jesus, so that others can see Jesus in us, in the lives we lead. We will only become aware of that when we can see Jesus in everyone we meet, when we are no longer afraid of what people think of us, when our love is universal, when we are neither overawed nor in contempt of another.

In the question about paying taxes, Jesus’ answer is based on ownership. Whatever you have that belongs to Caesar, you have no reason to keep for yourself – that’s stealing. But the unanswered question is: what does belong to Caesar? On the other hand, what belongs to God? And here the answer has to be: everything. Are we giving God his due? Or are we holding something back?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
9th October 2011

One of the advantages of living in a Norfolk village is being part of a community. Not all villages retain a sense of neighbourliness, which means that the well-being of those who live around us is important for our own well-being; but here it is so. When I was parish priest in Ingatestone, nurturing a parish community was made easier by the fact that parishioners already had a sense of belonging to the village community – indeed, many had moved there because that was what they sought.

The cult of individualism, which over the years has fragmented society, makes building community an uphill struggle; yet underneath the surface many individuals living lives of quiet desperation are yearning to belong, to be part of a network of relationships where their contribution matters, and where they can find the resources to support their own needs. A hundred years ago, belonging to a community of some kind was necessary for survival; today we can all paddle our own canoe, thank you very much. Or so it seems until you uncover the casualties of that thinking.

Those invited to the king’s son’s wedding feast are too busy with their own little world to respond to God’s invitation to face a bigger reality. But those dragged off the streets into the banquet can hardly believe their luck; from being isolated by their poverty and exclusion from society, suddenly they are at the heart of the Church. All are welcome.

Is that sense of openness and welcome an integral feature of our parishes today? Is the Eucharist, the foretaste of the banquet of heaven, a celebration of belonging, to which all can contribute, and all feel lovingly supported? That is the kind of community Jesus intimated, in that mysterious phrase “the kingdom of heaven”.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
2nd October 2011

“Paradise” is an Arabic word which means “garden”. The Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve dwelt in pre-lapsarian bliss was the primordial Paradise, and a foretaste of heaven. Yet the word originated in the process by which a garden was created, a process outlined in both Isaiah and the gospel reading today. First, you find the place in the wilderness you are going to cultivate. Next, you clear it of rocks and large stones, and use them to create a wall around the site to protect it. Then you dig and fertilise the soil ready for planting.

But the vineyard planted in God’s garden didn’t realise the paradise expected. In the Isaiah reading, the grapes were sour; in the gospel, the tenants robbed the owner of the vineyard. We may have planned carefully to ensure a good harvest or a successful enterprise, but there’s no guarantee that the weather or other people will oblige. From the Garden of Eden onwards, the Bible catalogues God’s frustrated plans for humanity – so why should we expect an easier ride than God? Our true flourishing happens when we adopt God’s attitude to setbacks: endless patience and mercy.

Paul’s advice in the second reading is apt. Don’t allow your mind to be full of vengeful, angry or negative thoughts, or they will fester and turn to sour grapes. Instead, leave no space for them: “fill your minds with everything that is true, noble, good, pure, loving, honourable and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). Then you will not be robbed of the peace of God which passes all understanding. That indeed is paradise.

As Dorothy Gurney wrote: “One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
25th September 2011

Whenever we hit a problem, tragedy or impasse in our lives, we tend to think of it as an obstacle which will have a negative impact on us. This is a natural reaction because our ego is programmed to seek its own comfort and gratification before anything else. All that thwarts that desire becomes a threat to be avoided at all costs.

At the same time we are seeking happiness and fulfilment; and we soon find self-gratification doesn’t always make us happy. But when suffering crosses our path, as inevitably it will, our attitude to it will make us or break us, diminish us or make us into a new creation.

Jesus tells of the sons whose father sent them to work in the vineyard. The second one protected his own agenda at all costs; when threatened with work he did not want to do, he simply said “Yes!” to placate his father but then ignored the request. Many situations like that occur today – people will do anything to avoid responsibility by walking away from whatever they don’t like, and so never grow up. The first son was more honest. “I don’t want to go; I don’t like having to obey; I’ll resist it as long as I can.” But he has a change of heart, a moment of metanoia. Like that other parable of two sons, where the prodigal “comes to his senses”, the first son here grows into a new creation by obedience to the father’s will. He becomes a happier person in the process.

It is those who pause to reflect, those who have the courage to sit in the terrifying silence and refuse to drown out the whisper of God with noisy diversions, who find true peace.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
18th September 2011

When the day of our life fades into dusk and the shadow of death, what will we see if we look back over the contours of our one precious life from the dawn of birth? However short, however long, in poverty or plenty, the Lord has ready our denarius – not so much a reward as a gift, like parents who can’t refrain from giving their children a present simply because they love them, regardless of their merits or otherwise.

I had a lovely message the other day from a gentleman who told me he had misspent his life addicted to gambling, and when his father died two years ago he resolved to start afresh and be the son his father would have been proud to have. He had remembered the hymn “I watch the sunrise” from his days at a Catholic school, although not a Catholic himself, and had the hymn at his father’s funeral. Now he listens to it every day; it keeps him calm and has enabled him over the last two years to live a new life free of his addiction.

Like the labourers in the vineyard who arrived first, or the elder brother of the prodigal son, we can perhaps look back over our lives with a sense, not of gratitude for our achievements and blessings, but of resentment that others have either done better or entered the vineyard at the eleventh hour after a dissolute life. In today’s gospel, the master’s reply to the complaints of such people is a question we need to find an answer to: “Why be envious because I am generous?”

Only God can make a final judgement on anyone’s life, including mine. Why close my fists over my one precious life, instead of opening my hands to receive his generosity?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
11th September 2011

It used to be asked: “What were you doing on the day President Kennedy was shot?” Today, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, there will be similar reminiscences of one of the most unspeakable crimes in living memory. It led to the Iraq war and the campaign against Al Qaeda, to the campaign against the Taliban and the Afghan guerrilla war. Its effects have had worldwide repercussions, tidal waves of terror which have continued to spread.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the words one heard most often were retaliation and revenge – a natural reaction to such an outrage but hardly helpful, let alone Christian. They played directly into the terrorists’ hands and raised the stakes higher.

Even the Old Testament, with its lex talionis (“eye for an eye...”), in its later books begins to see the futility and destructiveness of retaliation. Sirach today is clear: “Resentment and anger, these are foul things.... Remember the last things, and stop hating.” The enormity of the crime demands a response, but surely the bigger the atrocity, the more we need to weigh the situation and consider before we act. “Remember,” Sirach says. How quickly the blindness of rage makes us forget the most important things.

Forgiveness and compassion is at the heart of the gospel teaching. Outside Christian circles it is often perceived as weak and soft, condoning or giving in to wrongdoing. It is of course the only way to reconciliation and requires courage and humility. It is Jesus’ secret weapon for peace, since it defuses tension and anger and sets people free to move forward out of a spiral of retaliation in a new direction.

Don’t let it rankle. Let it go. You don’t need it.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
4th September 2011

With the introduction of the controversial new English translation of the Roman Missal (at least in part) this weekend, it is a moment of testing for the Church in these islands. Will it help to unite or divide the average congregation? After the initial confusion and irritation of an unfamiliar set of words, how parishioners respond to it will depend largely on the health or otherwise of their existing parish relationships: with their priest, bishop, liturgical ministers and with one another. Not only each one’s personal spirituality, but the shared liturgical spirituality of the community will be crucial.

Where there is disruption and destructive behaviour in a Christian community, Jesus gives wise counsel on procedures to deal with it. “If your brother or sister does something wrong, go and sort it out between your two selves.” Where community begins to break down is in ignoring that first critical step. How many of us will complain to a third party before talking to the offender first? Gossip is the enemy of unity. If the offender is open to listen, there’s a chance of reconciliation and the cancer of disharmony is caught early. If it doesn’t work, you may be part of the problem, so go back to the offender with another person as impartial witness. Only if that does not succeed does the injured party go public and report it to the parish council who can then consider the matter and give the offender a third hearing.

While Jesus’ words can be practical wisdom for the local community, it should also apply to the world-wide Church; but sadly this is not always so. If the Church herself is seen to practise what she preaches, she can challenge the world to be reconciled. But if her members are not listening to one another, how will the world listen to the gospel?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
28th August 2011

Some years ago I was asked to give a talk to an ecumenical gathering on the theme: “Why I am still a Catholic”. What prompted me to accept the invitation was the appeal of the word “still” in the title. Why I am a Catholic is probably rooted in my upbringing in that faith from infancy. But what keeps me there? Why am I still a Catholic?

In today’s first reading is part of the answer – I am still a Catholic for the same reason Jeremiah remained a prophet, despite the “insult, derision, all day long”, the embarrassment at the attitude and behaviour of fellow Catholics, not least Church leaders, as well as my own sins, fears and weaknesses. I am still a Catholic because like Jeremiah I let myself be seduced by the Lord despite my hesitations and doubts. As Peter and the apostles said when Jesus invited them to leave after hearing a difficult baffling teaching, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (John 6). I am still a Catholic because I love the Lord and he hasn’t shown me anything better. The perfect Church doesn’t exist – or if it does, it has only one member: me!

I have chosen freely and continue to choose daily to be a follower of Christ, which in gospel terms means I renounce myself and take up my cross. That can sound a negative oppressive path without love, overly submissive. But experience over many years has taught me the opposite: to renounce myself is to “throw off everything that hinders us” (Hebrews 12) and throw myself into the arms of the seductive Lord; to take up my cross is to admit, even boast of, my weakness so that the power of Christ may stay over me (2 Corinthians 12).

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
21st August 2011

This week has seen me in the Outer Hebrides, in the extreme north-west of the British Isles, where Gaelic is an everyday language. It is still fiercely independent and deeply religious; on the Isle of Lewis the shops are closed on Sundays and until recently there was no Sunday ferry service to the mainland. And although religious bigotry has largely gone, the southern Hebridean island of Barra is almost totally Catholic, while Lewis, the most northerly, is very definitely Presbyterian Protestant.

Yet it was while exploring the west coast of Lewis that I found remains of two ancient churches dedicated to St Peter. Both were built on rocky outcrops overlooking the Atlantic, far from the panting heart of Rome. In their precarious existence on the edge of the world they spoke mutely of a link with a wider Church spanning two millennia.

When Jesus asks the apostles “Who do you say I am?” was there an awkward silence? It is a huge question and one capable of a variety of answers. But Peter’s direct and inspired response comes straight from his heart and goes straight to the heart of the matter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Despite his human weaknesses Peter is declared to be the rock on which Christ will build his Church, the one entrusted with the keys of the kingdom of heaven. These are amazing promises, seemingly out of proportion to Peter’s profession of faith.

Today the Church can appear arrogant, out of touch, struggling to survive, or a prophetic voice in the world. Whether perched precariously on the edge or standing confidently at the centre, we the Church need to be united in bearing witness to Jesus, so that he becomes the focus, not ourselves.

God bless you and yours.

John


NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
7th August 2011

There have been many times in my life (and no doubt there’ll be more to come) when I have had to make decisions which not everyone will understand, or taken a course of action in faith without knowing the outcome. But if we spend all our lives choosing the safe option we will always be disappointed, like the man in the parable of the talents who hid his coin in the ground rather than risk trading it.

Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat while he remains on shore to pray. It was his idea to send them, not theirs. And when the storm hits the lake, if they weren’t so preoccupied with fear, they might well complain that it was Jesus that sent them into it. A right course of action, carefully chosen after much prayer, can and often does lead to unexpected darkness and danger. Did I get it wrong? Do I blame myself, or God? In fact, is anyone to “blame” except our inborn instinct to be in control?

Adventure happens when we take risks. Indeed, we would probably not be still alive unless we had. When Jesus walks on the water to the struggling vessel and crew in the middle of the night, the disciples thought they were hallucinating. If it’s you, says Peter, then I’ll act as you do, Lord, and show I believe it’s really you. And off he goes. But like a tightrope walker who looks down at the drop instead of the goal ahead, Peter starts to sink. “Save me!” is the cry of one who finally admits they’ve no further control, and total dependence on another is the only possible option, whether it works or not.

Jesus’ final question always haunts me. “Why do you doubt?” Why indeed, when it’s so much better to trust. Help!

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
24th July 2011

When Jesus tells the parables of the treasure hidden in a field and of the merchant looking for pearls, at first it seems like he’s contradicting the sharing of the gospel. Why keep the Good News a secret and hold it to yourself when it’s supposed to be proclaimed from the housetops?

Before we can preach the gospel we need to own it. In order to make it our own we need to enter its depths and immerse ourselves in it. And the “it” is not a thing but the person of Jesus Christ. Through prayer, the scriptures and the sacraments, we have first to soak ourselves in the mystery of his presence, begin to realise how priceless he is, and sacrifice everything for him. As we do that, we come to understand how breathtakingly rich is the word entrusted to us. We need time alone with Jesus, as he needed it with the Father, to enable this work to germinate and take root in our lives. We buy the field with our lifeblood, as he bought us with his. The treasure is hidden because we are not yet ready for it; we have had a glimpse of heaven, and nothing else matters until our desire for it is satisfied.

Since this is a lifelong process, our proclamation of the Good News is not an end in itself but the means by which bring others to become curious and excited about the real treasure of their lives; and at the same time we test our own commitment to the kingdom of God. If I cease to wonder at the pearl of great price I hold in this earthen vessel, I will not recognise the beauty of Jesus in each person I meet – including myself.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
17th July 2011

The media love a scandal – and never more than when the scandal is about the media. The story of the lengths that News of the World journalists went to in order to obtain a story is mind-boggling. It illustrates well that once we abandon morality, it isn’t long before we see nothing wrong in illegal or even criminal behaviour.

People sometimes rail at the Church for being too soft or failing to confront these issues. The Church does speak out but her voice is often muted by deliberate misrepresentation by the media, or simply because her message is unintelligible or appears irrelevant. The temptation is to shout the gospel message from the battlements of Fortress Church while ensuring the Pagan World stays outside. But true evangelisation is stepping into the place where we are vulnerable, open enough to live Christ’s life with courage and love in the face of ridicule or rejection. Our very vulnerability is the opening for the gospel to flow out of us. It is a risk – yes, but how else can we witness? Do we have to have all the answers before we lower our drawbridge?

Today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat is about having the trust and patience to allow sin and grace to co-exist in this crazy mixed-up world. Our crude human attempts to pre-empt God’s judgement by extricating the tangled roots of good and evil may betray our fears and prejudices, rather than reveal the innate divine tendency to see goodness in the darkest heart and dispense extravagant mercy.

Michael Evans, the Bishop of East Anglia who died this week after a long battle with cancer, put evangelisation as his first priority. His vulnerability and honesty about his suffering was a most powerful witness. The national TV news began with the scandal of the News of the World. But the local TV news led with a moving tribute to Bishop Michael Evans.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
10th July 2011

What strikes me whenever I read the parable of the sower is its reckless generosity. Surely any decent farmer would scatter his precious seed wherever there was a chance of it growing. Why waste it by letting it fall on the path or into the thorns? It carries the same message as many other parables of Jesus; in the story of the vineyard workers, for example, where those who have worked twelve hours are paid the same as those who came at the eleventh hour, the master of the vineyard says: “Why be envious because I am generous?”

God’s prodigal love will risk anything to get to us, even rejection and indifference; trodden underfoot, strangled by thorns, failing to come to anything, he still refuses to give up on us. The Word was made flesh, and his preaching fell on stony ground; he was crowned with thorns, and on the cross appeared to come to nothing. But in the fertile soil of his disciples’ hearts he found a ready welcome; they took all he gave them and, each according to their capacity, scattered the word with the same reckless generosity – thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.

They too encountered in the same measure rejection and indifference, acceptance and growth. And as we in this generation receive the word of God in the patchy soil of our world, we are no different.

Perhaps much of what has given me has been lost in transit, or choked out of my life. But what precious fruit has been born in me, I have a duty to share, to give of it freely without sure hope of return, without counting the cost. It is not mine to keep; it is a gift – it is THE Gift. And the precondition of its giving to me is that I should give it away in the same generous spirit.

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
3rd July 2011

In his letter to the Romans (8:9,11-13, today’s second lesson) St Paul contrasts the spiritual person with the unspiritual one. The spiritual person, he says, is one who lives and breathes in the Spirit; the unspiritual, he implies, is self-centred. Many in our world today glorify self-will, masquerading as self-fulfilment, over submission to God’s will. Submitting to the Spirit looks like weakness, even madness for those who do not believe (cf I Corinthians 1:23-25). Only those who let go and let God experience the real freedom of the Spirit.

A few verses later in I Corinthians, Paul points out that it is to the foolish, the weak and the little ones of this world that God chose to reveal himself as the true wisdom and the real power. Jesus in today’s gospel has the same message. “Are you child-like?” he asks. “Do you have a sense of wonder? Have you realised that you will never understand me unless you give up trying to control and dissect my words?” In a snippet of intimate conversation with his Father, he seems to give God a knowing wink: “However hard they strive to get it, the learned and the clever overreach themselves. The secret is to be humble. Then the light will dawn.”

It is only in the light of this that his next words make sense: “Come to me, all you who labour and are over-burdened, and I will give you rest.” It sounds so inviting, that rest in our frantic busy lives. But its precondition is to come to him. Until we place ourselves in Jesus’ hands, we will never find true peace. “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me.” A yoke is for two to carry the burden: I am on one side, Jesus the other. We pull together.

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
26th June 2011

It’s instructive to analyse the language we use for eating. “Any food?” enquires the ravenous teenager. “Have you anything here to eat?” asks Jesus of his disciples in the upper room on Easter Sunday.

In today’s world with its busy and fragmented lifestyle, food becomes simply fuel for the body. Watch the cars queuing at a petrol station and those queuing at a drive-through McDonalds – they’re both simply refuelling. But necessary as food and drink are for our survival, those of us who have more than enough to eat (and plenty of choice too) can take it for granted.

The best way to appreciate food is to share it, and to do so in the context of a meal. Food and drink become a gift to be savoured, and with it the gift of love and friendship. A meal, more than a take-away, fosters unity and mutual appreciation. The care taken in the setting for it can do as much or more than the menu. Meals are universal settings for celebration, reconciliation, thanksgiving and a host of other occasions; they are a language universally understood in every culture.

Sharing a meal, however, is an act of generosity and often self-sacrifice. In many countries, in the Middle East and Africa for example, it is expected that you will share your resources with a visitor or stranger who happens your way, as Abraham and Sarah welcomed the three angels (Genesis 18). It may be your last crust, but the guest has claim to it according to custom: the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarepheth comes to mind (I Kings 17).

The Eucharist is both sacrifice and nourishment, giving and receiving. It celebrates how much God has given us in Christ, as we drink in his Word and savour his Body and Blood. Yet simultaneously God celebrates our self-giving in Christ, as we feed our brothers and sisters in need.

God bless you and yours.

John


TRINITY SUNDAY
19th June 2011

There is only one God. Jews affirm: “the Lord our God is the one Lord”. Islamic faith declares: “there is no god but God [Allah]”. The Christian creed begins: “I believe in one God”. Monotheism asserts that there is only one God.

Yet history shows that humankind has arrived at monotheism via polytheism, a belief in many gods. Primitive man was in awe at the vastness of the known world, and only slowly learned to understand and tame the wildness of it. Each mysterious force – the wind, the sea, earth and fire, and so on – was named and worshipped, appeased lest its power overwhelm. Gradually these coalesced into a pantheon, a “family” of principal gods, each with their particular responsibility in the cosmos.

The Israelites emerged from worshipping many gods to worshipping Yahweh. The process went from polytheism to monotheism through henotheism (Yahweh is the greatest and only God worth worshipping, but the other gods around have to be reckoned with). The whole Old Testament bears witness to the struggle to arrive at true monotheism. Islam too emerged from an Arabic culture of polytheism; its uncompromising monotheism is a conscious and deliberate statement of uniqueness, over against the multiplicity of human ideas and beliefs.

The Christian belief in the Trinity may at first sight seem like a step backwards from monotheism towards polytheism, and this is what Jews and Moslems might suspect. In fact we believe it’s a step forward into a richer expression of monotheism. God is one but God is Love. How can God enter into relationship with us without being a God of relationship in essence? Love is self-giving, and we believe that the Persons of the Trinity are the model of all human relationships: we are made in the image and likeness of God who shares himself with us and wants us ultimately to share his life for ever.

God bless you and yours.

John


PENTECOST SUNDAY
12th June 2011

Whenever I visit France, although I can speak a little French, I am frustrated by my inability to communicate fluently. It is even more the case in other countries where I can say “Good morning” and “thank you” but little else. Without a grasp of language, direct communication with and therefore understanding of other peoples and cultures is virtually impossible; we are closed to their world.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that on the day of Pentecost the crowd that gathered to hear the apostles were drawn from “every nation under heaven”. They were amazed that what the apostles said spoke directly to them without being translated first. It is clear that the message God proclaims through the Holy Spirit should not be confined to one language or culture, but be immediately available to everyone, everywhere, without distinction. How that happens is the challenge the Church faces every day. Inevitably we do use human language in communicating, and by so doing we are subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Latin was the language of the later Roman Empire when the Western Church was developing; Greek remained the lingua franca of the Eastern Church. The split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy occurred over the language of doctrine rather than doctrine itself. Now that Latin is no longer a living language in Europe (despite the efforts of a few to revive it) we no longer have a universal alternative. English is widely used across the world today, but its usage has many local variations and nuances.

The rich diversity of culture in our world should not be seen as a hindrance to the Spirit’s work, but as the very stuff with which the Spirit creates unity and harmony. Can we not be amazed at the wonderful variety of this created order, and let the Holy Spirit draw us all together in an even more astounding symphony of praise?

Come, Holy Spirit!

John


ASCENSION SUNDAY
5th June 2011

Time was when Ascension Day always fell on a Thursday, forty days after Easter. Only five years ago in England and Wales, it was moved, along with Epiphany and Corpus Christi, from a weekday to the nearest Sunday, following European practice. The reason given for the change was the poor attendance of congregations at weekday holydays of obligation, and it was felt that having these feasts on a Sunday would bring them to the attention of a people in danger of forgetting them.

Now the bishops of these countries are considering reversing the change, for Epiphany and Ascension at least. The reason? Because the Church of England still celebrates them on the traditional dates. I find that very heartening. At the very time we are introducing a new translation of the Roman Missal deliberately designed not to have any texts in common with the Anglican Church, here at last in a sign that our bishops are bucking the trend to distance the Catholic Church from her ecumenical partners.

Ascension Day is not about Christ distancing himself from us by leaving this earth, but by taking us with him on his journey to the Father. It’s not a farewell, a finale. It’s our moving to a new level in our relationship with him. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t end with tears and goodbyes, but with the great commission to go out to the world, make disciples, baptise in the name of the Trinity, and teach by word and example. As Pope Paul said in 1975, the Church exists to evangelise, to spread the Good News. Thirty-six years later the world needs the Good News more than ever. Squabbles about translations and separate denominations and tinkering with dates while the world is starved of Good News is hardly encouraging. We need to move on to a new and more imaginative living of the gospel by letting Christ take us to a new level. And for that to happen we need the Holy Spirit.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
29th May 2011

It may seem strange that the Church chooses for its gospel readings in the latter half of Eastertide the Last Supper Discourse – the four chapters of St John (13 to 17) in which Jesus addresses his disciples on the eve of his Passion. Surely they should belong to Holy Week?

The wonder of St John’s gospel is that everything he writes is filtered through resurrection-tinted spectacles. Even the saddest and most painful moments of life, from the Christian perspective, are not the end of the story. Resurrection is always round the corner, or even present in the midst of darkness, hidden from all eyes except the eyes of faith. It does not take the pain away, but gives meaning to the moment, a reason to “hang on in there”. Good Friday is always followed by Easter Sunday. It’s just that the Saturday in between can feel like eternity.

This week I went to visit some of the ubiquitous medieval churches dotted around the Norfolk countryside. The last was the saddest – hidden down an overgrown path off the main road was the burnt-out shell of an ancient place of worship. Till then I hadn’t realised it was the victim of an arson attack in May 2004. Rusty provisional fencing prevented entrance to the building, for obvious safety reasons; the graveyard was swamped in nettles over four feet high. The signboard at the churchyard gate leaned languidly into the undergrowth as though falling asleep.

Yet somehow I felt a surge of hope that this melancholy sight was a presage of rebirth. There has been a church on this site for over a thousand years, a centre of pilgrimage in honour of an obscure seventh-century French saint; the monastery he founded in Normandy is today a flourishing Benedictine abbey. “I will not leave you orphans,” says the Lord. “I will come back to you, and your hearts will be full of joy.”

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
22nd May 2011

You read it here first! In September 2009 I wrote in Just a thought... that we were about to have sprung on us a new English translation of the Roman Missal, and that there would be significant changes in the prayers and responses we have been used to at Mass since 1975. Now it’s official. On the first Sunday of Advent this year, the new version will come into play.

Strictly speaking, it is not a translation but a transliteration. The version we are currently using is an attempt, not wholly successful, to render the meaning of the Latin in clear dignified English. It tries to capture the meaning, I believe admirably, using English grammar and syntax, producing a text which reads aloud well. The new “translation” simply reproduces the Latin text word for word in English, paying scant regard for English spoken idiom. Indeed, the authors’ deliberate intention is that it should be different, set apart, “sacral” and “hieratic” language. Then why bother to render it into foreign English? Why not keep it in Latin (which is probably what they really want)?

There are some positive advances. Many of the scriptural allusions were lost in the early translation; the new version has restored them. As a musician I will relish the opportunity to set the new Mass texts to music; but already I’ve found that the rhythm of the new texts is often clumsy, setting composers a real challenge if the people are expected to sing them. At the heart of the problem is the clash between two perceptions: inclusive or dualistic? Isn’t the Incarnation about uniting heaven and earth, not keeping them apart? The rapprochement between Church and world inspired by Vatican II seems have taken a reversal. There are many rooms in my Father’s house, Jesus says. Indeed; and the walls between them are getting thicker.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
15th May 2011

Love, care, vigilance, faithfulness, companionship, compassion, trust, correction, encouragement, initiative, leadership – all these are epithets of the shepherd. They describe not only the qualities of the shepherd in relation to his flock, but also towards himself. “Integrity is the loincloth round his waist” (Isaiah 11:5).

In recent years the shepherds of the flock of God (I Peter 5) have had a rough ride. Just as rogue investment bankers have damaged the banking profession, or dishonest dealings by some MPs has undermined the whole Government, so a tiny minority of abusive clergy have stained the good name of the Church. Instead of spotlighting the majority of honest, hard-working and often heroic people who serve the economy, politics and the Church, the media ignores them.

In St Augustine’s famous sermon on the shepherds in Ezekiel 34, he comments that when a good sheep observes his leader preaching one thing but doing the opposite, he is being starved and tempted to abandon the right way. Good example is vital to a healthy society.

Look at the qualities of a shepherd listed above. Whether we’re talking of priests, office managers, parents, teachers, government officials or the medical profession (to mention a few) these qualities are expected to greater or lesser degree.

This week I had the opportunity to see the award-winning French film Of Gods and Men about a Cistercian monastery in Algeria. The true story of the French monks who lived in peaceful harmony with their Muslim neighbours recounts how they received death-threats from Islamic extremists and were harassed by Algerian authorities to leave the country. They decided to stay and paid with their lives. These are the shepherds we need to hear about – people who are frail and ordinary and obscure, yet get on with the daily task of trying to live the gospel by pointing to Christ, not themselves.

Christ is risen Alleluia!

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
8th May 2011

As with so many of the “recognition” scenes after the resurrection, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus has a delicious taste. We know who this stranger is but they don’t. We wait for the lovely moment when their eyes are opened and they know what we know: it’s Jesus!

What makes it so delightful is not our superior knowledge but the fact we’ve been there too. In all our lives there have been moments when it suddenly dawns on us.... when we break through to another level of perception, or simply see things from a different angle. It happens to me when I’m trying to solve a cryptic clue in the crossword, and suddenly the answer clicks into place.

Every moment of every day, Jesus is walking at my side. I am often too busy or preoccupied to notice, but there he is. As in the resurrection appearances he takes many forms: not just a stranger on a walk or beside the lake while we’re fishing or a gardener near the tomb, but countless other “disguises”, from the next person you meet to a piece of broken bread and a cup of wine. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nuisance when we have something else on our agenda; at other times when we cry out to him he is shrouded in darkness and silence. But whatever form the risen Lord takes, it is for our benefit, not his. And yet, however vaguely, it is our searching for him, our desire for meaning, purpose, beauty and love in our lives, that prompts him to reveal himself. As Pascal observed, “we would not be seeking him if we had not already found him”. Or, put another way, Jesus has already found us and waits for the delicious moment we recognise him.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
1st May 2011

Today Pope Benedict is to beatify his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who will henceforth be known as Blessed John Paul. To recognise someone officially as (almost) a saint so soon after his death is unusual but not without precedent; Mother Teresa was similarly “fast-tracked” by Blessed John Paul himself not long ago. But in the first millennium of the Church, when the present lengthy process of canonisation was as yet undeveloped, many a saint was declared by the local Church because of popular acclaim; miracles of healing and other signs were attributed to their intercession, and their graves became centres of devotion and pilgrimage, sometimes immediately after their death.

Saints act as lodestars to the faithful. We do not believe we can ever become saints ourselves but admire the example of their lives; it encourages us to persevere. But the truth is, we are all called to be saints. Our problem is our narrow perception of what holiness is. When we read the idyllic description of the early Christian community in today’s first reading (Acts 4:42-47) we know that the Church does not live like that most of the time, but it’s good to remind ourselves where we should be going, and to know that it is possible to arrive there. Holiness happens not because of our heroic efforts but of God’s gift of his Spirit to us, a gift freely given through the death and resurrection of his Son. Responding to that gift is what makes us holy.

Those the Church has beatified or canonised would be the first to proclaim that humanly they are no different from the rest of us. The more we allow God to have his way with us and not resist, the holier we become. All we have to do is to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to loving one another, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

John


EASTER SUNDAY
24th April 2011

Nothing of our universal human experience is alien to Jesus. He has shared in the whole gamut of human emotions and thoughts, acts and deeds, from his conception to the grave. It follows that nothing in Jesus’ life from womb to tomb is alien to us. We may live in a different time and in another part of the world; we may not have been born in a stable or died on a cross; but we can readily relate to the human reality of the unique individual he was, just as we recognise the unique and special characteristics of each person.

Today’s feast is central to the Christian faith because it recalls and relives the first event in our human existence beyond our present experience. If we believe that nothing in Jesus’ life is alien to us, this has to include the resurrection. Resurrection is part of our human nature as God created it, even though beyond present experience. The account of the empty tomb graphically illustrates this: he is not here, he goes before us. Jesus is not where he was expected to be, and where he is now is where we’re going. Too many people have consigned the incarnate Son of God to the dustbin of history, and written off the Christian message because Christians are where they expect them to be – tucked out of sight in church. Only when Christians are seen in unexpected places living hope-filled resurrection lives does the world sit up and take notice.

And that is merely the beginning. Resurrection life is not a consequence of stirring ourselves into action or embarking on charitable works, hoping to impress the natives. It is a consequence of following Jesus. And he does not stop at the tomb; he keeps going before us. Don’t lose sight of him!

The Lord is risen, alleluia!

John


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
17th April 2011

The Passion narrative, partly because of its length but also its emotive subject matter, reveals the person of Jesus most vividly. We cannot fail to be touched, even at two thousand years’ remove, with his every thought and movement in the twenty-four hours between the sunset on Thursday and the Last Supper, and the sunset on Friday when his body was laid in the tomb. Those who have been alongside someone in their last hours of life, whether shockingly traumatic as in Jesus’ case, peacefully at home at a ripe old age, or anything in between, can testify to its powerful effect, recalling their last words and actions, and perhaps struggling to understand their meaning.

As the disciples of Jesus reflected on the Passion, writing the story from their perspective and having the honesty to include their abject cowardice and betrayal, they are not at the centre of the picture: Jesus is. A very helpful exercise in Holy Week is to reflect on the story of our own lives, its successes and failures, and tell that story as if we were relating it to Jesus. Then ask Jesus to retell our story as he sees it from his perspective on the cross. Are there any differences in the two accounts, and if so, what are they?

The life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is not complete without including the life, passion, death and resurrection of each of us, of the whole world, of the entire creation “groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8). In the end, it is not finding Jesus in our lives; it is finding our lives in Jesus. That has been the purpose of our Lenten journey. Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
 10th April 2011

Lent is about preparing for Easter, and Easter is about resurrection. So it is not surprising that somewhere in Lent we need to focus on the meaning and experience of resurrection: not only Christ’s, but ours too. Today’s gospel could not be more graphic.

To be resurrected, of course, you have first to be dead. Facing the reality of death is particularly difficult in times like ours when medical science is making new advances and the process of dying is often marked by denial (“I’m sure you’ll be better soon”). Surrendering our human faculties until nothing is left (“the terror of perpetual extinction” as Vatican II puts it) naturally makes us recoil. Every night as we fall asleep into unconsciousness we are rehearsing for that ultimate surrender. And throughout our lives we practise many “little deaths” as we let go of something we thought essential to our existence – the dream job, the house where we live, or transitions in life like leaving home or retirement. And most of all when we mourn the death of someone near and dear to us.

Like the Transfiguration three weeks ago, today’s gospel is taking us through the curtain of grief and loss to a glimpse of our ultimate destiny. But only a glimpse. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the tomb, Lazarus resumed life only to die again at some unspecified hour. When Jesus rose again it was to a transformed and eternal life united with God. In the words of St John’s first letter, “what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed. All we know is that when it is revealed, we shall be like God, for we shall see him as he really is.” In the words of Jesus to Martha, do you believe this?

Happy Lent!

John


FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
3rd April 2011

We use visual metaphors constantly. If I want to express my opinion, I can speak of my “point of view”; if I come to understand something, I might say, “Oh, now I see!” The Bible also uses language in the same way; light and darkness, seeing and blindness are regular images for belief and unbelief, wisdom and ignorance.

When Samuel is trying to discern which of Jesse’s sons is to be the future king, he naturally looks at the eldest and tallest son as the likely candidate, but God doesn’t go by outward appearances: “man looks at appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart”.

We need a different way of seeing, what the mystics call “the eye of the heart”. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition of icon veneration, a tradition happily being resurrected in the Western Church, you do not look at an icon; the icon looks at you. The eyes of Christ or the saint depicted often appear crossed; the Orthodox will tell you that one eye is turned to God, while the other is looking at you. That is exactly the attitude we should hope to acquire if we want to discern God’s will. I should want to see each person as God sees them, to look at them with the same loving and compassionate gaze of Christ.

Our eyes are designed to focus on an object where the rays of light from each eye meet. An optician once told me that the rays of light from the eyes of an icon are parallel; they meet in infinity (eternity, if you like). The words of a hymn come to mind: “Keep your eyes upon Jesus; let nobody else take his place, so that hour by hour you may know his power until you have run the great race.”

Happy Lent!

John


THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
27th March 2011

In the cloister of Chester Cathedral there is a modern bronze sculpture of the scene in today’s gospel, the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus. What struck me about it is that it left me asking the question: who is offering the drink? Is the woman giving the cup to Jesus, or Jesus to the woman? I believe the ambiguity is part of the message.

The story in the fourth chapter of St John opens with Jesus, exhausted, sitting by the well in the midday heat. He is thirsty. He is the first to speak: “Give me a drink.” A basic human need is the starting point of his teaching; he doesn’t come loaded with riches to distribute but with emptiness to be filled. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus also points out the emptiness: “Where can we get food to feed all these people?” and to his disciples’ consternation he replies: “Give them something to eat yourselves.”

As we look at our meagre resources and know that we cannot possibly meet the pressing needs of the world’s hunger alone, it begins to dawn on us that that is exactly what Jesus wants us to discover: our inadequacy and helplessness. His own thirst at the well, his thirst on the cross, becomes the opening through which we glimpse the passion of God for us – passionate love, ravenous for our hearts and minds. Are we willing to give him a drink – not just a cupful but pour our lives into his? And do we then find that his divine life flows into ours, and empowers us to feed the world – the emptier we are, the more space there is for the Spirit to fill?

Happy Lent!

John

 

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
20th March 2011

Sitting by the lake in the early afternoon, we listened to the ducks calling to each other as they fed among the reeds. Overhead a phalanx of geese honked as they flew in perfect formation. The water was still. As the silence settled and deepened, we gradually became aware of little rustling sounds in the undergrowth we had not noticed. Even the dog seemed to be tuned to the presence of silence; no-one was willing to break the spell it wove.

From the cloud the Father’s voice was heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” The disciples who heard it fell on their faces in awesome fear. As when the people of Israel heard God’s voice thundering on Sinai, and said to Moses: “You tell us what God says; we are terrified of his voice,” so the disciples found Jesus more approachable than the mysterious voice from the cloud. Note that the Father didn’t say “Listen to me” but “Listen to him.” When we listen to Jesus speaking our human language in his words and actions, we are listening to God. is a time for listening. We need to find space and time for it – hoping it will happen by chance or pausing a few seconds before rushing off to the next activity will not work. We need a place where we can be quiet for a while – a room alone or a walk along the river, for instance – but only to rediscover the place within our heart where God waits for us. At first it can feel threatening, like the thunder on Mount Sinai. But if we persevere with listening to the terror within us as the silence deepens, a clear pool of peace begins to appear. Then we are ready to listen.

Happy Lent!

John


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
13th March 2011

There is a lovely hymn which comes to mind as I read today’s first reading:

In his own image God created man, and when from dust he fashioned Adam’s face, the likeness of his only Son was formed, his Word incarnate, full of truth and grace.

We were reminded on Ash Wednesday that we are but dust of the earth. Dust is nothing but a nuisance; we have dusters to remove it from our furniture and dustbins to put it in. But that useless commodity is the very stuff which God has taken and moulded beyond our dreams into the image of himself. When we look in the mirror, even before shaving or putting on make-up, we are looking at the image and likeness of God. When God looks at you and me, he cannot help but be reminded of Jesus.

Lent is the time given us each year to gaze into the mirror of our baptism and see how clearly Jesus is reflected. We need to grow in faith and love, and we will never do so without testing: am I living an authentic Christian life? When I was younger the test consisted of making sacrifices: if it was easy, it was probably a sin; if it was difficult and distasteful, it was more likely to be of God. Today we don’t have to go rummaging around for penances: life confronts us with them constantly. Temptation always looks good or we would never be attracted by it. It always puts the focus on us. And we are so absorbed by our fascination that we forget - the true good leads us to God via our service to others.

Look in the mirror now. If you can’t see Jesus, Lent isn’t over yet!

Happy Lent.

John


NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
6th March 2011

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable – in other words, a question. Parables are colourful stories which are designed to raise questions and get you thinking. The parable of the two men who built their houses respectively on rock and on sand asks us the question: which one are you? And what is the evidence for your answer?

Jesus’ teaching is worthless if I have not listened to it and if I do not put it into action. At present I am participating in a training course for spiritual directors. This month’s session took as its theme: Listening – to yourself, to others, and to God. To listen (in contrast to simply hearing) implies attention; it requires active engagement with the object of one’s listening. It is a form of love. To “love my neighbour as myself” is a command which means I can only love my neighbour to the extent I love myself; to listen to others I have first to listen to myself. And listening to God (a vital part of prayer) is most truly effective when I can listen to myself and to others in equal measure.

When we were buying the house where we now live, one of the questions we asked was: is it well built? Is it above the flood plain? Can it withstand the elements? The season of Lent begins again on Wednesday this week. If I am to live the Christian life and not simply go through the motions, then I have to ask myself: in practice, who or what is the foundation of my existence? Is it strong enough to withstand the storms of everyday life? And how do I access its resources? For me the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and works of mercy can be expressed as listening to God, listening to myself and listening to others – and finding God in each of them.

Happy Lent!

John


EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
27th February 2011

Last November we put in an offer to buy a beautiful old house on the Norfolk Broads, convinced that this was the property God wanted for us. To our delight the offer was accepted, and negotiations proceeded towards exchange of contracts around Christmas time. But the vendor began to hesitate, and in mid-January decided to take the house off the market.

It is easy to say that it wasn’t meant to be, that God had something better for us, or to express some similar sentiment, as a sort of consolation to soothe the disappointment. We can over-rationalise it or over-spiritualise it. But experience of God’s providence over the years has given me ample evidence of its truth. Two hours after the news that we had lost the house, another estate agent phoned unexpectedly and invited us to look at another property elsewhere. It was even better than the first one. To cut a long story short, we bought it and moved in this week, only a month after learning of its existence.

We want to control our destiny, to have some say in the shaping of our lives, and to see the foiling of our plans as disaster. To surrender our future into the hands of a capricious God may seem like folly; but to entrust our hopes and dreams to him is not to abrogate responsibility for the choices and decisions we alone can make. Providence plays her hand in our making of those choices. A prayer of St Ignatius Loyola expresses well this mysterious partnership between God and humankind: “Lord, help me to remember that there is nothing in this world that you and I cannot handle together.”

Worrying, says Jesus in today’s gospel, is unproductive. Only trust allows God full scope. How hard we find it to let go and let God.

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
20th February 2011

The lex talionis or law of retaliation was introduced into Jewish Law to mitigate the effects of human vengeance. Among the peoples of the Middle East it was not uncommon to exact retribution for an offence by disproportionate means – for example, if someone stole your goat you were at liberty to take two or more of his. Lex talionis ensured a proportionate response: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Even then, as has been wryly observed, the whole world would soon be blind and toothless!

Jesus introduced the revolutionary concept of no retaliation at all. “Turning the other cheek” has become the slogan for non-violent response. Indeed it goes even further: if you are forced to go one mile, not only do you go without resistance, but you calmly offer to double the mileage. While this teaching of Jesus is much admired, in practice we Christians are not good at doing it. We resent anyone taking advantage of us, and we don’t like being made to look foolish. So we rationalise Jesus’ words, claiming them as an example of Hebrew exaggeration to make a point.

A second-century homily speaks of the amazement of pagans who hear Christ’s words: “Love your enemies.” But when they see Christians not only not loving their enemies but hating their friends into the bargain, they dismiss this teaching as an old wives’ tale. Nothing much has changed there then! A generation ago there was still a vague respect for the Christian values of tolerance and forgiveness, but today taking revenge is acceptable and even applauded. The escalation of violence and confrontation, from road rage to terrorism, shows no signs of abating. The witness of love is the only antidote.

Try loving the enemy within you for a start.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
13th February 2011

“You have learned how it was said.... But I now say to you....”

This repeated formula Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount starts from the experience of his hearers. As Jews they are very familiar with the Torah, the Law enshrined in the first five books of the Bible, and particularly its essence distilled in the Ten Commandments. Even fifty years ago most people in Britain would know of the Ten Commandments and be able to name a couple of them; not so today. Just reflect a moment. How many of those who do know them actually observe them? Keeping the Sabbath? Honouring parents? Respecting human life? Remaining faithful in marriage? Respecting others’ property? Telling the truth? If we regard such moral imperatives as outdated or unworkable, as many do, we have lost the foundations on which the gospel we read today is based. Before we can pass on Jesus’ teaching which takes us believers to a new level of thinking and acting, we need to ask ourselves if our hearers have even reached to starting line.

That doesn’t mean we can stay at the level of simply keeping the law (“well, he didn’t actually die when I throttled him, so I didn’t break the fifth commandment!”). Jesus’ formula “but I say to you....” implies an invitation to go on a journey with him into new territory, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We identify with him, not merely his words. Who is speaking to us? How does he live? Is it really possible to transcend anger, be reconciled with enemies, build an atmosphere of trust instead of suspicion? If we believe that we have the power of the Spirit within us to do so, people may ridicule our efforts but only because they have noticed and are challenged by our behaviour. Perhaps they’ve reached the starting line.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
6th February 2011

God credits us with far more beauty, intelligence and possibilities than we could ever imagine. That should not be surprising because all we have is a gift from God in the first place; and he is never mean or parsimonious in his bounty. Any restrictions are caused by our lack of vision or faith, not God’s lack of generosity. From our perspective some people have more gifts than others, but God has no favourites and loves each of us with one hundred per cent of his being.

When Jesus informs his disciples that they are the light of the world, he is not exaggerating but affirming our calling to be his witnesses. St John has Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12); today in Matthew’s gospel he applies the same epithet to us. As he reveals God to us in human flesh, so in our fleshly human life we too reveal God to others. Our task is to accept that vocation by being available, not by hiding behind our unworthiness or perceived incompetence (often a disguise for cowardice or complacency). God’s light is in us; it is our duty to put ourselves where that light can be seen.

We are also referred to as “salt of the earth”. We use salt to complement food and enhance its flavour, and helping to preserve its freshness. The spirit of pessimism and discouragement has settled on our world like a wet rag; it’s as if we live under a blanket of depression. Hope, vision and vitality are sorely needed in this climate, and we have those very gifts to offer as Christian people, provided we don’t succumb to the pervasive cloud of negativity. What an opportunity is ours if we can show others that beyond the cloud is the Sun of justice, lifting us from our confusion and fear to the Light who is Christ.

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
30th January 2011

It is said that “actions speak louder than words” but if word and action are in harmony then words have a greater power. The perfect integration of word and action is in the person of Jesus, encapsulated in John’s profound formula: “the Word was made flesh”. Jesus’ ministry is characterised by his teaching and healing, which are not separate compartments of his life; through his sublime teaching he consoled, challenged and healed, and through his healing miracles he taught us of God’s compassionate love.

In Matthew’s gospel, the evangelist intersperses collections of Jesus’ sayings with collections of healing stories. The first major collection of sayings (chapters 5 – 7) known as the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are not simply statements – they are invocations, calling down God’s blessing on those who live them. And the list of beneficiaries is at first glance an unlikely bunch. Can I find myself among them?

In order to receive a blessing I must be open to it, to have a “blessing-shaped hole” within me. To be poor in spirit I have to “know my need of God”, as one of the intercessions in the Divine Office puts it. To be gentle and meek I have to acknowledge my inadequacies, and be sensitive to others when it’s tempting to harden my heart. To be a mourner I need to know grief, loss, and aching emptiness. To hunger and thirst for righteousness, I have to have an appetite for the truth as if I were starving for it. The blessings Jesus promise complete what is lacking in us. The remaining four Beatitudes describe the attitudes I adopt when the emptiness of the first four has been filled by God: the capacity to be forgiving, non-judgemental, single-hearted and patient in suffering.

Hmmm.... I’ve a long way to go!

God bless you and yours.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
Peace Sunday
16th January 2011

The news this week has been pretty grim – militant extremists in Pakistan, riots in Tunisia, tension between Israelis and Arabs in the Gaza strip, and political upheavals plus an attempted assassination in Arizona, USA. The news is usually an account of atrocities rather than niceties. The volatility and unpredictability of human nature is more challenging than its kindness and generosity. The latter makes us more secure: the former more watchful and unsettled; so we need to assess our response to it.

Assessing our response and acting according to it is called responsibility. If our reading of the situation is that these events are nothing to do with us and how dare they upset us – or worse, we ignore them completely and comfort ourselves that they’re somebody else’s problem – then we have failed our responsibility. St Dorotheus, a sixth-century abbot, famously observed that “if we examine the matter closely, we will find that the reason for all disturbance is that no-one blames himself”. If everyone accepted responsibility for their actions, great or small, the world would be a far more peaceful place. Blame is the name of the game.

Our readiness to be at the disposal of God’s will, not our own agenda, is at the heart of the Christian life. John the Baptist was prepared to diminish to let Christ take centre stage. Are we prepared to let go of our own desires and dreams when they are in conflict with the gospel’s demands? And even when they are not, does not the Lord call us to give more when we are tempted to draw back? It is that spirit, born of love, which will ultimately bring peace to our world. Until then, there will always be bad news.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
9th January 2011

Somewhat anxiously, I was persuaded at the age of twelve to attend swimming lessons after school at the local swimming pool. The teacher I was supposed to have never seemed to have much time, so his more advanced pupils were asked to help me. One well-meaning lad of fourteen was supporting me as I tried to float as instructed; he inadvertently let go and I sank into the water before he realised what was happening. I never did learn to swim....

Baptism is about drowning. It involves surrendering our lives to God, trusting that he will uphold us and keep us afloat. But it is much more than that. It is our identifying ourselves with Christ in such a way that his life, death and resurrection are manifested in our daily living. What happens when we entrust ourselves to the loving arms of God, only to find ourselves sinking into the deep, like Peter’s attempt to walk on water? What happens when, like Jesus, our surrender leads us to crucifixion and death?

As the three young men are about to be consigned to the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), the king taunts them: “Where is the god who can save you from my power?” Their reply is to affirm that if God is able to save them, he will; “and even if he does not”, they will not serve any other. Salvation doesn’t always feel like it; it is not a magic formula but a living growing relationship with a God who leads us, as he did Jesus on earth, by mysterious ways. The Son of God at his baptism in the Jordan submitted to the Father’s will and committed himself to seeing it through. We are called to do the same through our baptism.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
2nd January 2011

In the week leading to Christmas, BBC1 TV broadcast Nativity, a dramatic presentation in four half-hour sessions of the events from the engagement of Mary and Joseph to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. What came across for me was the complexity of the relationship between Mary and Joseph, especially with the unexpected conception of Jesus, and the way that relationship developed. Clearly, in human terms, they could not have survived the crisis without trust – total trust in God and in each other.

Today’s feast highlights the mysterious Magi and the trust they showed by travelling into foreign lands without a clear idea of exactly how far they had to go or how long it would take. Our own journey through life is like that too, and the gift of faith in God is the fuel to keep us going in trust. The relationships between the wise men themselves, between them and the people they left behind in the east, and with the people they meet on the way, are the testing ground of faith in practice. Their enthusiasm and perseverance in following the star, despite the raised eyebrows or ridicule of many, must have had an effect on some at least.

Part of our trouble today is the tame apologetic way we witness to our Christian faith. If we’re afraid of upsetting others, we’ve lost the plot. Half-heartedness witnesses to nothing except our lack of faith. The world needs to know that God is where we really are, with all our attendant problems and anxieties. By our love, forgiveness, patience and hope, seasoned with a sense of humour, we can create an atmosphere which leads others to ask about our God in Jesus. If trust and loving relationships can be sustained through faith in such a God, there are plenty of people who long to know it. Who will show them?

Happy New Year!

John

 

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
19th December 2010

Christmas is traditionally a time for tradition. There is something about the preparation for and celebration of Christmas which is deeply conservative; exchanging greetings cards, decorating the house, dressing the tree, what we do or who we visit on Christmas Day, festive meals, the giving and receiving of gifts. Even religion gets a look-in here; it’s cool to go to church at Christmas, and even those who don’t go that far are quite happy singing carols. It’s all the more poignant, then, when a change of circumstances, such as bereavement or redundancy, makes the festive season very difficult to endure, and those put in that position feel out of joint.

They could take some heart from today’s gospel. Mary, engaged to Joseph, suddenly finds she is pregnant. All the carefully scheduled wedding plans, the dreams of the future which looked so predictable and joyful, are cast into confusion. Yes, a child expected should bring joy, but this one is unexpected.... And the spectre of fear hovers because she might (wrongly) be accused of adultery, which carries the death penalty by stoning.

Joseph could have washed his hands of her and left her to her fate. But he took the plunge and had the courage to accept the unexpected by marrying her and welcoming the Child as his own. We too can walk away from our responsibilities, ignoring the needs of neighbour as we seek the easy option, the quick fix. But in doing that we close the door of our hearts and narrow the field of our vision. Thank God, Mary and Joseph did not do that. Thank God, God did not wash his hands of us but entered our world in the most unexpected way and in the least expected place. Surely, welcoming the unexpected should be part of the Christmas tradition.

God bless you and yours this Christmas.

John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
12th December 2010

If and when the Messiah appeared on the earth, how would the Jewish people recognise him? What evidence are they looking for to prove he is the Chosen One of God? According to Isaiah, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dumb will speak and the lame will dance. In other words, sorrow will be turned to joy and the broken will be restored to wholeness.

In Jesus we see the One who came to do this and much more. His life and ministry are characterised by two cardinal activities: teaching and healing. And in his name today, his Body the Church continues to witness to the presence of God in our midst through those same activities.

During this last week I watched the Panorama programme on BBC1 about the number of people, especially teenagers, addicted to computer games. It seems that while many diseases have been cured and even eradicated by medical science, there are always new ones to take their place – and that applies to mental as well as physical afflictions. What Jesus, and in his name the Church, does is to be available as a channel of healing in its widest sense; how does one bring peace to a soul tormented by compulsive computer games, for example?

Because the Church, being human, is in need of healing herself as well as ministering it, our first action is to walk alongside the broken and the sinful and not stand apart in judgement or condescension. Compassion is its name. Isn’t that what we are preparing for in Advent – the coming of a God who enters a smelly stable and is denied shelter so that we can welcome him in the computer addict and discern the Christ beneath the unlovely surface?

God bless you and yours.

John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
5th December 2010

Winter has come early to Norfolk. A generous covering of snow has settled over this corner of the land, transforming the landscape and hampering travel. Picturesque it certainly is; but everything looks different. Familiar landmarks have disappeared. You stop and think more carefully about your journey.

Advent is like that too. We are asked to look at our lives from a new perspective. Instead of moving from day to day according to our usual routine, we are invited to look where we’re going. Our ultimate destination is the Kingdom. And as we pass the milestones decked with unfamiliar snow, we stop and notice them: prayer, sacraments, the word of God, service of our neighbour, the fruits of the Spirit. In Advent our journey towards Christ is matched by his journey to meet us in the Incarnation.

Isaiah in last week’s reading spoke of transforming instruments of war into agricultural tools – swords into ploughshares, spears into sickles. What destructive attitudes do we need to change into constructive virtues? Similarly, this Sunday he speaks of the restoration of peace in creation: the lion and lamb in friendship, the toddler able to play with poisonous snakes unharmed. This is indeed an unfamiliar landscape and, we might think, somewhat naive. But isn’t this what Christ came to bring about? What could be more naive than the Son of God helpless and vulnerable in a stable? Our own faltering steps in an icy terrain may be tentative and careful, and people may caution us to stay at home; but if we are on the right way Jesus will come to meet us, for he is the Way.

Prepare the way of the Lord, we are told. As I shovel the snow from my doorstep, I meet Christ who has already made his way to the door of my heart.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
28th November 2010

As we begin another Advent, the Church’s year has not simply turned full circle but has moved on to a new starting place. T.S. Eliot’s famous lines from his poem Little Gidding come to mind: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” We are not the same people who began Advent 2009; we see things a little differently now. The Christian year is not a circle but a spiral. We arrive at the same place but at a different level of experience and understanding.

The image in the first reading of the people of Israel going up the hill to the Temple mount in Jerusalem reflects the idea of the Christian life as an ascent. St John of the Cross describes the stages of the spiritual life like this in his Ascent of Mount Carmel. I recall a holiday in the Italian Tyrol where the church sat on the summit of a mountain, and as the sound of the bell rang clear across the valley on Sunday morning, the congregation climbed from all sides to converge on the summit for Mass.

Where are we going? What is the focus of our path in life? John of the Cross also coined the phrase (in the title of his work) The Dark Night of the Soul, when the way is less clear and fearfully unknown; Blessed John Henry Newman wrote: “the night is dark, and I am far from home: lead thou me on.” Darkness is sometimes of our own making, as we refuse to be led by the light of faith; but if we are genuinely seeking God it is inevitable that we will be led into the cloud of unknowing. Will our Advent see us seeking new ways or settling for the safety of the comfort zone?

God bless you and yours.

John


SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING
21st November 2010

The recent massacre of Iraqi Christians as they gathered for Sunday Mass in a church in Baghdad is not just a crime against the Church but against all humanity. All people of faith, of whichever religion, feel it especially. The perpetrators of such violence, whatever justification they claim for their actions, are not people of faith, because ultimately all religion is about enhancing the quality of life God has bestowed on us, not about destroying it. This was brought home to me this week when I attended an interfaith meeting. An Orthodox Jewish rabbi, an Islamic Sufi mystic, a Hindu and a Buddhist were all happy to agree that faith unites far more than divides us. However we understand God, God is not into violence – that’s projecting our human prejudices on to God.

Today’s feast proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus portrays him in the gospel as a victim of human violence. The attitude of the two criminals crucified with him conveys nicely the contrasting approaches to crucial issues in life. The first reacts angrily, taking out his own frustration and despair on Jesus by taunting him. It is easy to blame God when things don’t work out for us. It’s not so easy to be like Jesus and accept the unjustified venom that his followers sometimes receive in his name. The “good thief” counters the other with a more reflective awareness of his predicament. His change of heart as he faces his imminent death leads him to look at Jesus more than himself. In throwing himself on the mercy of God, he enters paradise.

A kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace is how the Preface of today’s Mass describes Jesus’ kingdom. Can this be seen in the lives we lead as subjects of the King of kings?

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
Remembrance Sunday
14th November 2010

While Pope Benedict was in Spain last week, I found myself in Rome. The wonderful thing about Rome is the sheer number of churches, ancient monuments, and works of art one comes across at every street corner – and walking is by far the best way to appreciate this. Naturally as a Christian pilgrim I had come ad limina Apostolorum to venerate the apostles Peter and Paul, and one of the most special moments was the visit to the excavations beneath the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica, where the bones of the Big Fisherman himself were on view. The thought that the huge magnificence of St Peter’s, and its central place in Rome and in the whole Catholic world, is built upon these humble fragments of a human life, I find very moving.

The significance of Peter’s life is beyond question, but were you to tell Peter while he lived that he would have such an impact on world history, he would probably laugh. Remembrance Sunday bids us recall those who sacrificed their lives in war. Few of those who did so would recognise the significance of what they did; they may even, like Peter, not consider they had done a particularly good job. But now we can put those lives into a wider context.

Jesus in today’s gospel teaches us not to look at the immediate surface impressions (such as the facade of the Temple or St Peter’s Basilica) but at the ultimate purpose of our existence. Like the bones in an obscure wall cavity under a basilica, we may not look much. He invites us to catch a glimpse of his divine perspective which raises our ultimate purpose beyond our imagining. And that, I believe, is worth remembering and living by.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
7th November 2010

There is a wonderful line in the first reading today which reverses our usual thinking and describes beautifully the process celebrated in the sacrament of reconciliation. “Lord, you overlook our sins so that we can repent.” We tend to think that we have to repent before God forgives us. But repentance is a process of conversion which can’t even start unless God has overlooked our sins. What a great word, “overlooked”! It’s almost as if God connives at our sinfulness, turning a blind eye and refusing to judge in order to leave us free to change.

In the gospel, Jesus doesn’t say to Zacchaeus, “Tell God you’re sorry, put your life in order, and then I might think of entering your house.” No, he simply observes Zacchaeus’ behaviour before they meet; the tax-collector is desperate to see Jesus but is terrified of being seen. Conversion is like that: you feel torn between going back and going forward. The very fact of the dilemma illustrates that grace is at work. Zacchaeus’ repentance is clear before he has uttered a word.

As he tumbles out of the sycamore tree in front of the jeering crowd, he finds the unconditional welcome of Jesus a lifeline in the sea of condemnation. The judgement and condemnation of others does nothing to help our conversion – often it does exactly the opposite. Indeed it is our judges who show themselves in need of conversion – and they are the last to see it.

Our relationship with Jesus will inevitably lead us to being more compassionate, forgiving and generous because we recognise those qualities in the way God in Christ has revealed himself to us. Zacchaeus was set free and spontaneously and publicly expressed his freedom by giving generously to the poor as well as making restitution for his cheating.

Do we set others free by our loving acceptance or bind them and ourselves by our condemnation?

God bless you and yours.

John


ALL SAINTS
31st October 2010

Who are the people who light up your life? Who do you look to for inspiration? And what is it about them that touches you?

The answer to those questions will tell you as much about yourself as about those you admire. Those we love and respect hold a mirror to our deepest desires and appeal to the best in us. Few of us have an ambition to be nasty, evil and thoroughly bad. Even our temptation to sin is born not out of the nastiness of the sin but the goodness and the pleasure it promises to give, however disordered. No, we want to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness and so on.... but we often find the achievement of those qualities falls short and we can lose heart, settling for a second-rate holiness with a sigh of regret.

That’s why we need the inspiration and stimulus of others who are clearly modelling the fullness of life, love and service we seek. Not everyone will have all the gifts we admire; perhaps one person always seems hospitable, another always seems to have time for us, another whose heroism in coping with a sick child or a family tragedy moves us to be more patient – the examples are endless. These are the people we call saints.

Today’s feast celebrates them and all who have gone before us on the path of the gospel. The Church chooses some of the more remarkable women, men and even children of the last two thousand years to illuminate our own journey: the recent beatification of John Henry Newman adds one more to an illustrious throng. But never forget that you too are called to sainthood. For all that you admire in others, there are others who are inspired by you. Allow the best in you to shine out in the gloom of a November day!

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
24th October 2010

As I read again the familiar story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple, I am reminded of the distance between them. They both stood to pray at the same time in the same Temple, but “some distance away” from each other. This implies not simply physical but spiritual distance. Their attitudes to prayer were poles apart. Note that the Pharisee said his prayer “to himself”. This could imply humility in that he doesn’t boast aloud of his virtue. But I suspect Jesus meant that his thoughts were directed at his own internal God, his ego. The God he felt he served so faithfully was obviously on the same level as himself, so familiar as to be too familiar. “I am not like the rest of mankind,” he says. “Holiness is not easy, but when you get there you’re really someone!”

By contrast, the tax collector notes the distance, not between him and the Pharisee, but between him and God. He is a sinner and he knows it. He doesn’t need a Pharisee to remind him. He has no good works or personal goodness to offer. He has nothing to lose, least of all a reputation. He is nothing and God is everything. All he can do is throw himself totally on the mercy of his Creator.

I confess there is more of the Pharisee in my prayer than I would care to admit. Spiritual ambition can make me covetous of holiness, humbly congratulating myself at receiving God’s blessings. Or it can make me despair of getting anywhere in the spiritual life and make do with routine religion, thinking that God (namely me!) doesn’t believe I’m up to it.

Once I’m out of the picture and everything is surrendered into the hands of the God I can’t control or manipulate, the real prayer can begin. How often do I have to learn that!

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
17th October 2010

They say that moving house is one of the most stressful times in life. Not only are the weeks of packing beforehand and unpacking at the other end (in addition to the moving day itself) the problem. The process of launching a house into the sea of the property market, watching it being tossed about between estate agents and potential buyers, and waiting for the unforeseen moment when an offer is made, is only part of the story. There’s no guarantee that the offer, once accepted, may not be withdrawn at any moment. And if and when the sale is agreed and all comes safely to harbour, it’s time to launch out to sea again to seek the house of your dreams.... or at least the one which your limited resources can buy.

Moses needed a great deal of stamina to keep his arms raised in prayer. In fact he could not have done it alone; he relied on Aaron and Hur to hold them up. We need each other in the Christian community to sustain our faith and prayer. Who are the people who hold up your tired arms and steady your trembling knees in the dark times of life?

Jesus promises us that our prayers are always heard, even when it doesn’t look like it. But we will never see the hand of God at work without faith. Faith enables us to persevere and not give up; it reaches out to hope beyond hope and feeds on prayer, Scripture and the example of others’ faith-filled lives and actions. In the maze of life, as in the process of house-buying, we need a clear and consistent guide. In the immortal words of Blessed John Henry Newman:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom: lead thou me on.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
10th October 2010

While leprosy still affects more people on this planet that most realise, the isolation and stigma associated with it have ensured the word “leper” has a universal significance. In the time of Jesus, when leprosy was more prevalent and visible, the terror of catching it led people to ensure its victims were shunned, driven into ghettos; where they did appear in public places, they had to wear their hair dishevelled and shout “Unclean! Unclean!” to give warning of their approach. It reminds me of the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, forced to wear a prominent yellow Star of David and be ridiculed by passers-by. Nearer home, I think of the Irish Traveller community who are judged and condemned for being different.

How does Jesus relate to lepers? We see him going out of his way to meet them. He travels along the border between Samaria and Galilee; he goes to the margins to meet the marginalised, he identifies with the outcast by entering their ghetto. But he doesn’t simply feel sorry for their plight; he challenges them to have faith. “Have you the courage,” he says in effect, “do you trust me enough to believe you are cured, and prove it by going to the priest as if you were?” Someone at last believed in them and gave them hope.

One of their number, however, was a Samaritan. As a leper he shared the same lot as the other nine who were Jews. Once they were cured, he is no longer one of them; he is an outcast again. Yet he is the one to return and thank Jesus, who accepts him unconditionally.

Who are the lepers and outcasts in your life, whom you keep at arms’ length or choose to ignore?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
3rd October 2010

Sometimes I think we Christians have a better strategy for sorting the world’s problems than God has. Why God doesn’t take our advice and act more positively is a mystery that has puzzled humankind long before Christ appeared on earth; once Jesus came and revealed the way of the cross, we began to see things differently but were still bewildered and angry at injustice.

Habakkuk in today’s first reading expresses well this helplessness at the evil state of the world. Outrage and tyranny, oppression and violence are all he sees; “why don’t you DO something, God?” he seems to cry. But instead of reacting precipitously, he decides to watch and wait to see how the Lord will respond. We have no idea how long he had to wait. But eventually he got a reply, in which God said: “Don’t give up. Go on waiting... eventually, however slowly it happens, the will of God will prevail. Keep faithful. Only with faith in me will you be able to persevere when all seems dark and uncertain.”

The apostles in the gospel instinctively know their need of faith, and ask Jesus to increase it. But Jesus points out that it doesn’t matter how little faith you have: the tiniest drop is enough to do amazing things. Faith is proved in action. If you want faith, all you have to do is act as if you have faith, and you have it!

Theologians make a distinction between faith as an assent to a set of beliefs, and faith that really expects God to act, however unlikely it may look. It is this latter type of faith we need to exercise daily, looking to Jesus as the one who enables us to move mountains – or at least mulberry trees...

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
26th September 2010

Poverty has many faces. Mother Teresa famously commented that she had met more poverty on the streets of London and New York than she had in the slums of Calcutta. Spiritual and emotional poverty was worse than material poverty in her eyes. The psychological and emotional distress of a refugee from Darfur or a flood victim from Pakistan may indeed flow from material deprivation and displacement. But financial and material security does not guarantee happiness. Those who amass fortunes seem never to be happy unless they can have more – and they can never have enough. Paradoxically, greed is a form of poverty.

When we can appreciate and be grateful for the simplest things, then we discover our true riches. In today’s gospel the poor man Lazarus suffered hunger and disease at the gates of a rich man’s house; his only relief came from the dogs that licked his sores. The rich man in Hades would have been satisfied with a drop of water on his tongue. Perhaps one of the hallmarks of our Western society is an expectation of getting all we want; when recession hits and we can’t get it, we become angry and blame anything and anyone but our own self-seeking. Gratitude is not smugness that we have got our way; it is a realisation that everything, from the air we breathe to the world we inhabit, is a gift from God. And the smaller the thing we say “thank you” for, the greater our wonder, the greater our genuine riches.

The gap between rich and poor in our world is as wide as ever. Global media ensures we can’t forget it, thank God. But what is our response? Are we more concerned to preserve our own status quo as a precondition of helping the poor?

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
19th September 2010

On the occasion of Pope Benedict’s Visit to Britain

There is something hugely satisfying in seeing the Pope walking on British soil, entering places of great historical and political importance to the British people, and above all engaging with the whole range of our country’s life, not just the Catholic community. Rome has come to London, Edinburgh, Birmingham; and Catholics, who were beginning to find their central place in national life under Cardinal Hume and whose confidence had wavered under the clergy abuse scandal and relentless media battering, can now raise their heads again and rejoice to be English, Welsh or Scottish citizens witnessing to a living vibrant faith.

The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman which takes place today in Birmingham has a particular significance for ecumenism and for owning a specifically English Catholic genius. As an Anglican Newman discovered Catholicism and endeavoured to nurture its central place in the Church of England through the Oxford Movement. His intuition was right, but ahead of its time; the Anglican Church as a whole could bear the implications but not the logical consequences of a rapprochement with Rome. Newman had to choose, and he chose Rome in 1845. On Friday the wistful possibilities of unity between Canterbury and Rome were touched upon by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his address to Pope Benedict in Westminster Abbey; but the reality remains a dream.

I too recently had to make a decision which involved choosing one of two options I believe should not be mutually exclusive: priesthood and celibacy. I don’t expect it will lead to my beatification! But I find a kindred spirit in John Henry Newman who held such store by the primacy of conscience. Blessed John, pray for us!

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
12th September 2010

They say moving house is one of the most stressful experiences in life, and having just done so, I can believe them. In the process the material contents of your life are packed away and then unpacked in a new environment. Not only do you wonder where something was packed, but once unpacked, where did you put it?

Today’s wonderful gospel relates Luke’s three parables of losing and finding: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. What is it about these stories, especially the third, that makes them justly famous? All three – the sheep, the coin, the son – were missed. They didn’t disappear into oblivion and nobody noticed or cared. It is precisely because they were precious, vital and left a significant gap that led to a search. Nothing was complete until they were restored, whether the sheep, the coin or the son realised it or not.

And with restoration, when the lost have been found, there is celebration. The relief and joy of repatriation outweighs the pain of loss. One almost thinks the reaction is disproportionate. Who would celebrate the safe recovery of a gold coin, only to spend it on coffee and cakes to celebrate with the neighbours? Who would throw an extravagant party for a returned prodigal who had caused such grief?

Losing something or someone makes us realise their true worth. God recognises the true worth of every human being, and he is always looking out for us. A little sparrow falling to the ground matters to God, and Jesus says that in God’s eyes we are worth hundreds of sparrows (Luke 12:7). Fortunately, even when we try to run away from him and get lost, God never forgets us, and will make any excuse for us. If Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, nothing will stop him loving us.

God bless you and yours.

John


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
22nd August 2010

Recently I paid my first visit to Lisieux in Normandy, to the shrine of St Therese. The huge basilica on top of a hill seems out of keeping with the “Little Flower” and her teaching on humility. Once inside, however, her heroic life unfolds through a series of side chapels dedicated to the different stages of her story; a bite-sized quotation from her autobiography illustrates each one. Her greatness lay in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. She spent nine years as a Carmelite nun before a long slow death from TB at the age of twenty-four. In the words of today’s reading from Hebrews, suffering was part of her training, and how well she teaches us through it. Hers is no saccharine spirituality but the devastating openness of a child; try as you might, you cannot avoid the directness of her innocence matured by trial. “Try your best to enter by the narrow door,” are the words of Jesus in response to the enquirer in today’s gospel. These words of Jesus sound restrictive. Doesn’t God want everyone to enter the kingdom? Why not a wide open way without the barrier of a door?

Another gospel image comes to mind: the gate of the sheepfold (John 10). Sheep were protected from the ravages of wolves by the sheepfold, which had one narrow entrance through which one sheep could pass at a time. And the gate was the shepherd himself who lay in the gap at night to guard his flock; then “one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out” (John 10:3).

One by one we enter the kingdom. We enter by the narrow door of the cross, the “little way” of St Therese of Lisieux. May we have the courage and humility to take that path.

God bless you and yours.

John


THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
15th August 2010

Where is your life leading? Are you looking forward in hope or fearful of the future? Do you see death as the extinction of your life or the fulfilment of it? Do you even want to think about it?

Today’s feast sheds some light on a shadowy place and lifts the veil of mystery over our ultimate destination. Mary’s entry into glory is not simply one individual’s homecoming to God but a firm promise that all human beings are fully realised in our heavenly homeland. Indeed, that is what heaven is: the fulfilment of our human potential in the One whose image and likeness we bear. The paradox is that death is simultaneously the loss of life and the fullness of life.

Mary’s surrender of herself to God from the moment she made her fiat to her last breath models our own faith journey, surrendering ourselves into God’s hands by seeking to do his will, and finding our true selves in doing so. The more we enter into God, the more complete and integrated we become. This flies in the face of the contemporary desire for self-centredness and pleasure and power which is the opposite of love.

Mary’s Magnificat describes the result of living this amazing love. Human values are turned upside-down; God looks on us in our nothingness, and we are not ashamed or embarrassed at our weakness; it only makes us marvel at God’s greatness in loving us just as we are. And it is that love which makes us realise, as Mary did, the true worth of our human nature.

Mary, teach the joy of following your Son by allowing each moment of our lives to be open to his grace. Then we too will experience the homecoming of a fulfilled life in the eternal company of heaven.

God bless you and yours.

John


SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
25th July 2010

Why is prayer often hard work? Surely you would think that if God loves us so much God would be falling over him/herself to hear and answer us. Yet often the heartfelt pleas we make in the most desperate of situations seem to fall on deaf ears. As a result too many of us give up on prayer and our faith withers from lack of exercise. How many atheists are really disappointed believers?

The first reading today about Abraham persuading God to be merciful presents prayer as manipulation of the divinity, like Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow (Luke 18:1-8). Prayer then is an attempt to change God’s mind, to get God on our side. No wonder it’s hard work - little puny me against the Creator of the universe! Not a chance!

Ruth Burrows in her book The Essence of Prayer alerts us to the truth that prayer is ninety-nine percent what God does and one percent us. To pray is to put on the mind of Christ, to get under his skin as it were, and to see things from a divine perspective. The nearest thing to manipulative prayer in the life of Jesus was his prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if possible take this suffering away from me.” Jesus acknowledges the intolerable pain of his anguish and begs to be rid of it. He’s not a masochist. But he goes on to say: “But not my will, but yours.” Father, you know what you’re doing when I don’t, and I trust you. Are we prepared to surrender our will into God’s hands? Do we trust God enough?

St Therese of Lisieux wrote: “God always gives me what I want – or rather, God makes me want what he’s going to give me.” Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer we are not advancing our kingdom, but his. Surrender is not giving up but giving in to God. And our wills do not give in without a fight – our ego is the last bastion against the incursions of Love.

God bless you and yours.

John


SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
18th July 2010

What would you do if twenty strangers turned up on your doorstep unannounced? Would you invite them in and entertain them to dinner or (politely or otherwise) suggest they try elsewhere? In the Middle East, Africa and many other parts of the world, a tradition going back thousands of years obliges the first option. I was one of twenty travellers through the Sinai desert in 1998 who “dropped in” on Sheikh Barakat and his family without warning, and he shared with us what food and drink he had, even though it meant he had nothing for himself. Hospitality is sacred. The three men who turned up at Abraham and Sarah’s tent at midday had Abraham’s full attention; he abandoned everything he was doing and gave them of his best. Early Christians were reminded of this tradition; St Paul said “you should make hospitality your special care” (Romans 12:13) while Hebrews 13:2 says: “and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it”.

By contrast, when Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary, he is no stranger but a regular visitor, an honoured guest. But unlike Abraham Martha does not give her guest total attention; she is too busy with her own agenda. Her sister Mary, however, gives the Lord her eyes and her ears. Ignoring Martha’s pleas for help, she knows exactly where she should be. And Jesus takes her part.

Like Martha, so much distracts me. Around me the phone rings incessantly, emails need answering, arrangements need making. Inside me I worry about priorities, try to juggle appointments, wonder about the future. But when I sit before the Lord in prayer and give him my eyes, my ears, my heart and my mind, I begin to glimpse the one thing necessary; instead of berating myself and tying myself in knots, I find peace and a clearer perspective by gently focussing on the presence of Jesus.

Offer him the hospitality of your heart. Don’t send him off because you’re busy.

God bless you and yours.

John


FIFTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
11th July 2010

Last week I went to Wintershall near Guildford in Surrey to see the annual outdoor production of the “Life of Christ”. Since 2000 Peter Hutley has been inspired to use his extensive estate in a fold of the North Downs as the setting for a dramatic re-telling of the gospel story from the Annunciation to the Resurrection. From 10am to 4pm the costume drama carries the audience along in such a way that very quickly you realise you are not a spectator but a participant – like the liturgy. For example, Act Two concluded with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. “Where can we find bread to feed these people?” challenges Jesus. And suddenly we (the audience of about a thousand people) are being asked if we have any food to spare.... and it’s just before the lunch break. There’s enough for everyone, of course, with lots left over.

Today’s parable of the Good Samaritan is a lesson in being non-judgemental. To the question “who is my neighbour?” we cannot exclude anyone. Hence Jesus can say “love your enemies” because they too are neighbours. Who isn’t?

The parable highlights our need for compassion towards others. Our neighbour is particularly our concern when he/she is in need. Cultivating an attitude of awareness is crucial to noticing the need. But more is wanted; the priest and Levite noticed the mugged victim but passed by. It was the Samaritan who did the loving thing. Need without deed is empty indeed.

Watching scenes from the Life of Christ or reading his sublime teaching is only fruitful if I endeavour to respond in action. I can write about love and compassion for you to read, but unless I am living a loving life I am a clashing cymbal.

God bless you and yours.

John


FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
4th July 2010

Lord, you sent out your disciples in pairs to prepare the ground for the seed of your word. You didn’t go with them; you gave them instructions about what to do, then left them to it. What trust you showed in them! If it was me, I think I would have been terrified to face that task without your presence.

And yet you didn’t expect us to do it alone, any more than your Father didn’t leave you on your own. You sent us with a companion, “in pairs”, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It means we have support, to check with each other that we’re on the right road, that we’re on the same mission; and we can challenge each other if we are tempted to disobey your instructions or compromise your gospel, and comfort one another in times of darkness or uncertainty.

Lord, we do not imagine we can convert the world to your gospel in five minutes; nor do we despair of the enormous task you have entrusted to us. In our world today, there is simultaneously a strong current of self-seeking ambition, violence, cynicism and despair, often expressed as rejection of you; but also a deep hunger, a craving for meaning and purpose beyond ourselves, a spiritual transcendence which, far from escaping from life, stretches the horizons of our human hope to its fulfilment.

How do we service that hunger, Lord? How do we speak to our time in a way that is relevant and attractive? If I am not fired with the way you relate to me in prayer, in word, in sacrament, in loving others and in receiving their love, then I will never learn the language of evangelisation.

God bless you and yours.

John


THIRTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
27th June 2010

Every now and then I find there’s a word or phrase in the gospels that stands out afresh, that makes me sit up and take notice. It’s not that I’ve never seen it before; it’s just that, at this moment, I am open to understand it anew, or that God is giving me a nudge in a certain direction.

At the beginning of today’s gospel, Jesus “resolutely” takes the road to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die on a cross. The word reveals something of Jesus’ inner conviction. It implies Jesus has come to a decision after considering the challenges of the road ahead, fully aware of the cost. Now he goes forward with purpose and courage, which does not rule out fear and trepidation – he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t blanch at the horror of its outcome.

In the major decision I have taken which has radically altered the direction of my life, I too know I must go forward resolutely. It is not a fatalistic journey, as if I have no say in the matter; nor is it undertaken blindly or selfishly. It is confidence born of faith which sustains me, the presence of Someone who loves and cherishes me, who has been this way before, and invites my loving trust in his abiding companionship. Without that relationship I can go nowhere, just as Jesus was sustained by his Father’s abiding presence. And just as Jesus on the road to Jerusalem encouraged others to join him but challenged those who only wanted to do so on their own terms, so I have to continue to look to him for strength and continue to discern each stage of the journey.

As St Augustine said, sing up and keep on walking!

John


ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF LUKE
13th June 2010

When Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to his house for a meal, one wonders what was in his mind. Normal Jewish hospitality would include a greeting on arrival with a kiss of peace, the host (or his servant) washing the guest’s feet, and honouring his presence by anointing him with perfumed oil (on the head, the feet, or both). None of these courtesies was shown to Jesus; he simply walks in from the street and takes his place at table – one suspects the lowest place.

Was Simon trying to embarrass Jesus, or because of Jesus’ reputation as a prophet and healer simply showing him off to his friends? Whatever the reasons, it gets worse. A prostitute wanders in from the street and starts paying attention to Jesus in a most unseemly way in front of Simon and his guests. Now who’s embarrassed? Simon? Jesus? The other guests? The only one not embarrassed seems to be the woman who is so intent on her loving service of Jesus that she is oblivious of everything else. One is reminded of Mary busy listening to Jesus while her sister Martha tries to grab her attention.

To be so absorbed with Jesus without saying a word, except through touch, is characteristic of deep loving intimacy. Mystics and contemplatives understand this. Jesus looks at the woman’s love, not her reputation. And that is true of us sinners too. If we allow Jesus to look deeper into us than our shame, embarrassment, lack of self-esteem, and tendency to judge others, we find all those things melt away in his loving gaze. And when to our wonder and delight we find his love in our hearts, we want nothing more than to share it – no matter what others think. Forgiveness is freedom.

God bless you and yours.

John


TRINITY SUNDAY
30th May 2010

The little girl was busily drawing a picture during the art class. When the teacher came round to look she asked her what she was doing. “I’m drawing God,” she said confidently. “But no-one knows what God looks like,” replied the teacher. Without lifting her head from the desk, the girl said: “They will when I’ve finished.”

We smile at that story because we know that any picture of God is totally inadequate. Yet our curiosity will not be satisfied. What is God like?

The Bible describes many ways in which God interacts with humankind, each encounter adding more questions than answers. Yet a picture of sorts emerges. First, right at the start we are told that we are made in God’s image and likeness. So a clue to God’s identity lies in our own human nature. The danger here is that we then jump to the conclusion that God is made in our image, not the other way round. Secondly the very fact that God interacts with us at all would indicate that God is about relationship, not isolation. Indeed the shortest definition the Bible gives us of God is from St John: “God is love”.

The Trinity (literally “Three in Unity”) is the name the early fathers of the Church came up with to describe the mystery of God. It’s a sort of working definition that tries to respect that there is only one God but a God who lives in relationship. Today’s first reading is a delightful picture of a God who loves creating and enjoys our company. Could that be the picture our little girl was busily drawing?

May the Lord bless you.

Fr John


FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
2nd May 2010

“Just as I have loved you,” says Jesus, “you also must love one another.”

How does Jesus love us? By identifying so closely with our human life that there is no aspect of our frail and varied human existence that is foreign to him. From the moment of his conception in the womb of his blessed Mother to his last breath on the cross, every second of his life revealed the love of God in flesh and blood like ours. While the gospels record some of the events, teaching and miracles of Jesus, they are merely the tip of the iceberg. The details of most of his thirty-odd years are hidden and unrecorded by history; but every breath he breathed was offered to the Father in love and service to the world.

Within the limited lifespan of Jesus of Nazareth, at a particular time and place two thousand years ago, there are restrictions on the effectiveness of his mission of love. But Jesus is more than human. By his resurrection he is now available to all times and places. How does he do this? By choosing us to be part of his Body, the Church. Wherever we are, Christ is. And as Christ loved, so must we if we are to be his effective witnesses. There is no moment of our human existence, from the cradle to the grave, that cannot be available to Jesus’ mission – if we allow him access. As we experience his love for us, our response to that love is in our love for one another. It is impossible to be part of Body of Christ and ignore Christ in one another, equally part of that same Body.

“By the love you have for one another,” says Jesus, “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Good Shepherd Sunday
25th April 2010

From January to March this year I spent ten weeks at Hawkstone Hall, a pastoral renewal centre run by the Redemptorist Fathers in the depths of the Shropshire countryside. They run three such courses a year aimed at priests and religious men and women seeking sabbatical time, often in transition between different assignments. We were a comparatively small group of sixteen participants, ranging in age from 47 to 80, and drawn from Africa, North and South America, Australia and Europe. It was a wonderful and vibrant experience of the universal Church; and while we in western Europe bemoan the lack of priestly and religious vocations, the evidence of the flourishing Church in Africa especially was heartening.

The recent publicity over sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests and religious has done a lot of damage to the Church. It may only be a tiny minority of clergy who offend, but even one is too many. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered such terrible hurt and betrayal. In such an atmosphere it is difficult for us priests to remember the extraordinary truth that God through his Church has chosen us, weak and inadequate as we are, to be channels of his grace through our ministry of teaching, healing, caring and reconciliation. At the moment the awareness of our weakness could make us retreat into our shells and lick our wounds. But that is negative and lacking faith. Instead, we are more than ever convinced of the miracle that God is strongest when we are weakest. It is his glory we seek, not our own. And if all of us, lay and religious, acted on that belief, new leaders and servants of God’s people would come tumbling into the Church. Why not you?

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John


THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
18th April 2010

Memory is a very powerful thing. Listening to a particular piece of music, catching the scent of a particular flower, or seeing a familiar face in a crowd, can trigger an association with some experience either good or bad.

In today’s gospel Peter goes fishing with his friends, just as he used to before they met Jesus. He is trying to forget the pain of his denials, and now that Jesus is risen he is not too keen to look him in the eye. Escape to the familiar old routine is his answer. But a night of fishing proves fruitless. Dispirited, he heads for the shore.

A voice from the shore comes over the water in the half-light of dawn, inviting the disciples to drop the nets to starboard – and a huge catch results. Memories of Jesus doing that when he first called them come flooding back. “It is the Lord!” says John the Beloved. Peter, like Adam in the garden after the Fall, is naked and tries to hide by wrapping his cloak around him and jumping into the water. And what does he find when he comes ashore? A charcoal fire, like the one where he denied his Master, and Jesus preparing breakfast on it. No escape. He resisted getting his feet washed at the Last Supper, but at least he’s letting Jesus serve him breakfast.

Three times Peter denied him. Now three times Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?” There’s no hint of reproach in his voice, no sarcasm, no judgement. Peter knows he is forgiven and reinstated, and his original calling reaffirmed: “Follow me.”

No matter how far you feel from God, allow him to call you by name with no hint of reproach. Like Peter, will you have the courage to respond with all you heart: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

The Lord is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John


SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
11th April 2010

Now that a general election has been called in Britain, Parliament will be dissolved and everything will be on hold until after 6th May. Between now and then, the various political parties will be out to woo the voters with their particular policies for the country. Before we listen to them, however, we might do ourselves a favour by digesting a document recently produced by the bishops of England and Wales for just this moment. It is called Choosing the Common Good.

Let me give you some quotes from it by way of a taster:
• The period before a General Election is a time to reflect on what sort of society we live in and how we would like it to be.
• The common good refers to what belongs to everyone by virtue of their common humanity.
• If anyone is left out and deprived of what is essential, then the common good has been betrayed.
• Society cannot change for the better without restoring trust.
• Virtue is doing good even when no-one is looking.

Politicians often claim that churchmen interfere in politics. But politicians have no qualms about interfering in religion. In truth we cannot divide life into neat watertight compartments; and our faith informs everything about life and even what lies beyond it. When, like Thomas in today’s gospel, we reduce everything to the here and now (“what you see is what you get”), we will never convince politicians or anyone else of the claims of faith. But if we believe, as Thomas came to believe, that Jesus is not just a human super-hero but my Lord and my God, then all creation takes on a deeper meaning. It is out of that meaning that we must live if we are to witness effectively to our faith.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

Fr John


EASTER SUNDAY
4th April 2010

On the world stage it has been a bleak year so far. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the long winter in these islands, the unrelenting gloom of industrial disputes and economic uncertainty have painted a dark picture. Add to it the continuing revelations of gross misconduct by some Catholic clergy in different parts of the world, and it seems the Church too is part of the picture, at the very moment we need her light and reassurance.

The events of this Holy Week portray Jesus entering the darkness and seemingly being overcome by it. But the way he does it is far from despairingly or with stoical resignation. To the last he goes to his fate with love, generosity and compassion, forgiving his enemies and surrendering himself into his Father’s hands with total trust that all will be well.

The resurrection of Jesus is not an escape from the tribulations of this world into some utopia when this dreary life is over. Easter is about living the resurrection now. In other words, when we refuse to give in to the pessimism, blame culture, and self-seeking attitudes all too prevalent around us, and instead allow God to fill us with the love, generosity, compassion and trust of Jesus, then we are resurrection people. When we hope against hope, forgive while others condemn; when we pray with expectant faith, and persevere in prayer in the face of adversity and seemingly no answer; when we love those who are so difficult to love, who return us insult for kindness, then we are resurrection people. If, like Mary Magdalen, you stay near the tomb of your disappointments and broken dreams, yet trust in God, expect to see an angel gently reminding you that Jesus is leading you out of the tomb to a new life in him.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

Fr John


THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
3rd January 2010

By now most of you will know that I am going away from the parish for ten weeks on a pastoral renewal course. After giving out for more than seven years at Wickford I feel the need for some space to be refuelled and receive a bit myself, so that I can be a more effective pastor.

I find it interesting and faintly amusing to hear the reactions of people to this news, ranging from one comment, “it’s all right for you, going off for ten weeks’ holiday!” to another who said, “it doesn’t sound like a break to me – more like a busman’s holiday!” Few people have much idea of what is really involved in a priest’s life; they only see the tip of the iceberg. In this Year for Priests, it seemed an appropriate moment to stand back and give thanks for God’s gift of priesthood, and not allow the pressures and demands to diminish my effectiveness in ministry. As God said to me through a wise prophet some thirty years ago, “you are my son, not my doormat.”

The wise men likewise left their homes and routines to follow a star to unknown lands. It was in having the courage to pursue their dream that they were led to the Christ child. They upset Herod with their search for a new-born king, triggering the massacre of the Innocents. But they were filled with delight when they found Jesus and his mother, and offered their precious gifts. On our journey of faith we too can upset others when we challenge them with the gospel message; but we find our consolation in meeting Christ and his mother in prayer and the sacraments, offering our lives afresh in his service.

May the Lord bless you and yours as we begin this year of grace 2010.

Fr John


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
20th December 2009

The snow comes, and predictably the schools close, the roads are treacherous and travel is disrupted. For a moment we are paralysed or severely restricted till we get our snow legs or ice skates. No bad thing to stop and remember what all our frenzied pre-Christmas activity is for – Jesus. Whether or not the first Christmas was really “in the bleak midwinter” with “snow on snow” is beside the point. Yet for the things that really matter we’ll move heaven and earth to get there.

And that’s what God did. Move heaven and earth – or more precisely moved heaven to earth by sending his Son into our midst. Just as when the landscape is covered with snow everything looks different, so when the Word became flesh and lived among us life took on a new meaning and purpose. We are no longer bound by the restrictions of the here and now, the prison of hopelessness, the problems and tragedies of our lives, the fears about the future of our planet or our jobs or our grandchildren. The good news is that God has lifted us into eternity by sending his Son into our time and place, to share our limitations and vulnerabilities and pain, and love us into heaven.

In today’s gospel of the Visitation, Mary was probably not restricted by snow, and certainly not hampered by rail chaos or airport closures. But her journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth some one hundred miles away was not easy. What impelled her was the Good News she carried in her womb and heart; and thoughts not of herself but of God and of others. Our greetings across the miles are so much easier these days with cards and phones and emails and Skype. May we see Christ in one another, and find time for one another.

A blessed and peaceful Christmas to you and yours.

Fr John


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
13th December 2009

Have you ever seen God dance? No, I don’t think you will see him competing in Strictly Come Dancing, but the prophet Zephaniah tells the people of Israel, languishing in exile, that the day will come when God will set them free. They will exult and rejoice because God is in their midst. And it seems that not only the people, but God too will be ecstatic about it: “The Lord your God is in your midst... he will dance with shouts of joy for you”.

Of course, God is spirit and cannot literally dance. The prophet is conveying in human language that “the Lord takes delight in his people” (Psalm 149). Can you imagine the Father dancing for joy over you? Do you realise you are that special? What today’s first reading also shows is that when we are happy, God is happy too. In Jesus, who took on our human nature, we can see it literally. While there is no record in the gospels of Jesus actually dancing or laughing, there’s no reason to believe he didn’t – quite the opposite. He is often shown expressing other emotions: fear, tears, anger, love, joy, etc. He is truly “God-with-us” or Emmanuel. Through him we know what God is like in an accessible language, the language of human nature.

To welcome him into our midst this Christmas, we need to ask the question the people asked of John the Baptist when he called them to prepare for the Christ: “What must we do?” Wishful thinking isn’t enough – there’s practical preparation too. John’s answer was to ensure our treatment of others is kind and fair. Let’s hope we’re doing that much already. But why not go a little further, and find joy in doing it? Will you put a dance in your step?

God bless you and tours this Advent.

Fr John


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
6th December 2009

Perhaps one of the reasons we have lost our capacity for wonder and surprise is that we have lost our ability to wait. Credit cards were introduced with the slogan: “Take the waiting out of wanting”. You can have it NOW. But what’s wrong with waiting? Yes, of course there are many times where delays can be tiresome, dangerous or even fatal. But getting instant solutions to everything reduces our appreciation and sense of gratitude, and eradicates the future. We have nothing to look forward to.

Once we get what we want, the excitement of desire diminishes, and it’s not long before we want something else. No, we can’t take the waiting out of wanting because wanting is waiting. We long for something we haven’t got, and that longing is of the essence of desire, of our human energy. Ultimately, it is our hunger for God which lies at the root of all our desires, and Advent is the season of the year par excellence when we get in touch with our desires. In the famous words of St Augustine’s prayer in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”

Without waiting we cannot grow. A mother waits nine months for her child to be born. The people of ancient Israel longed for a Messiah, a Saviour to come, but when Jesus was born he took us all by surprise. God did not announce the exact date, but when it did happen is remembered in a specific date and place in history, roughly 2009 years ago.

Has our life of faith become so familiar and predictable that we have lost the capacity to let God surprise us?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
29th November 2009

Happy New Year! As the calendar year (at least in the northern hemisphere) heads into the darkest days and longest nights, the Christian year proclaims a new beginning and the promise of hope. Are we simply optimists pretending all is well when everything around us is sunk in gloom and despondency? Is it just a psychological trick to give us false hope? Is Advent just escapism?

If that were true, then the opening words of Jesus in the gospel today are hardly sweet and gentle – quite the reverse. They speak unequivocally of nations overwhelmed by tsunamis and people unable to cope with the world’s traumas. Is he trying to intimidate us? Is he frightening us into submission? No, of course not. That’s not his style. He is being realistic, making us face our own powerlessness and human limitations which he himself assumed in coming among us. If we put our trust in him we will find a way forward in hope, even when we can’t see the result yet. Put your confidence in me, he says. Hold your heads high; don’t cower at the darkness, but trust that I am your Light leading and guiding you.

Advent is a time to stop and reflect while the commercial world bids us do the opposite – go on a frenzied shopping spree. The pressure this puts on people who can ill afford to spend this Christmas is enormous. Jesus says our hearts can be coarsened by the cares of life; we can allow worry to rob us of the peace Christ came to bring. Make time to pray, read Scripture, and remember what really matters in life. Stay awake to the real meaning of the approaching feast of Christmas.

Happy New Year!

Fr John


OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING
National Youth Sunday - 22nd November 2009

When Jesus stands before Pilate on Good Friday morning, the Roman governor questions him about his authority and status. Pilate thinks of kings and kingdoms in terms of territory and political power; Jesus’ response to him takes Pilate into unknown territory and unearthly power. Yes, Jesus is a king whose mission is to bear witness to the truth. Only those who are on the side of truth listen to his voice and accept his authority. The way to find this kingdom is to find the truth.

Pilate famously asks: “What is truth?” but doesn’t get a reply. The answer is in Jesus’ own words four chapters earlier (John 14:6): “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” We tend to think of truth as an abstract concept, the essence of what is right, good and honest. But today truth is treated subjectively; what is true for you may not be true for me, we might say. In other words, it’s not the whole truth. Truth itself is bigger than your truth or my truth.

We may say as members of Christ that we have the truth. But it might be better to say that the Truth (Jesus Christ) has us. Ultimately Truth is not a concept but a Person. Truth does not consist in simply doing the right thing but being in a right relationship with God. We measure the integrity and sincerity of our lives by comparing them to the life of Jesus and his teaching.

Young people often have a way of challenging the humbug and hypocrisy of our society, and of getting the rest of us to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves, much as Christ himself did in his ministry. May we ask God’s blessing on them in the decisions and direction of their future.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
8th November 2009 - Remembrance Sunday

The human memory is amazingly sophisticated. It records every second of our waking life and in addition holds unconscious material, the extent of which we cannot guess. How much we can recall is only a fraction of what’s there; and while it will not always yield up the particular memory we try to recapture, at the same time it may reveal something we do not like or want.

Most of us were born since the two world wars of the last century, which is why Remembrance Day helps to remind us of events that have radically shaped our lives today. But the wars and conflicts since, which are still in progress in places like Afghanistan, make it difficult to forget that ordinary human lives like our own have been and continue to be lost in the elusive search for peace. As the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II states, “peace is not the absence of war, nor....the balance of power between opposing forces. Instead, it is rightly and properly called ‘the effect of justice.’”

Remembrance is also at the heart of our Catholic faith. Our central act of worship flows from the command of Christ at the Last Supper to “do this in remembrance of me”. We remember his sacrificial death, not so that we may harbour revenge or bitterness, but paradoxically so that we may have life to the full, because he gave his life for us not out of duty but in perfect love. Whether we recall the death of our loved ones, of those killed in battle, or the victims of violence at the hands of others or of environmental disasters, each of them is united with Christ’s death on the cross, and is included in every Mass which re-presents his death and resurrection. It’s good to remember that.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


ALL SAINTS
1st November 2009

Saints are more admired than imitated. We look at their heroic lives, sigh with regret that we could never be that holy, and sigh with relief that God isn’t calling us to be anyway. Sanctity is not for us; only for the chosen few, we believe.

Perhaps the problem lies with our restricting sainthood to those in the premier league of holiness. The saints officially canonised by the Church are exceptional examples, coming from many different cultures, countries and historical settings. The majority, somewhat unfairly, seem to be bishops, priests or nuns, which gives the impression that holiness is better suited to the professional religious. Nothing could be further from the truth. The central chapter of the key document of the Second Vatican Council is entitled “A Call to Holiness”, and reminds us that every single member of the Church, by reason of their baptism, is called to be a saint, to be holy.

What is holiness? Is it about adopting a pious attitude, saying lots of prayers, and being as good as possible? No. Holiness is not our initiative, but God’s. God calls us to become like him, to grow closer to him, to “put on the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). He invites us to come to know him through prayer, Scripture and sacraments, and in love and service of our neighbour. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, we are to do ordinary things extraordinarily well. If that’s what he wants, he will empower us to do it – but in his way, his time. The last thing a truly holy person thinks they are is holy. Only God can see the result of his own efforts in us. As another modern saint, Mother Teresa, used to say, “God never asks us to be successful, only faithful.”

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


THIRTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
25th October 2009

At the beginning of the gospel of St John, as two disciples of John the Baptist start following Jesus, he turns round and asks them, “What do you want?” Again, in last week’s gospel from Mark, Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee who are asking a favour of him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And now it’s the turn of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, who is calling after Jesus, to hear the Master saying, “What do you want me to do for you?”

It might seem strange that Jesus, who was able to read people’s thoughts, should need to ask those questions. Surely he knew what they wanted. We could say the same thing about prayer. God knows our needs better than we do, so why bother to ask him?

The reason he asks is to get us to think about our desires. A good teacher will not simply feed us information; he/she will try to elicit the information from us by asking questions (drawing us out – which is the root meaning of the word “education”). So when Jesus asks a blind man “what do you want?” he is giving him the space to talk about his real desires. Being able to see may be the obvious one, but no doubt he had many others, like “I’d like to stop begging and have a decent job”.

Jesus is doing the same for me and you. Right now he’s asking you what he can do for you. How will you answer? What do you really want? Do you believe he can really do it for you?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
11th October 2009

The rich young man has acquired much in his comparatively short life. And he wants more and more. Not only material goods; he wants the secret of spiritual success too. What do I have to do to add eternal life to the shopping list? What hoops do I have to jump through to get to heaven?

Jesus’ answer is to stand the young man’s thinking on its head. You obtain eternal life by renouncing your life. You become rich by becoming poor and making others rich. But he couches that stark truth in the context of the rich man’s desire. He sees deep inside him a seeking, an insatiable curiosity for real happiness. He sees ultimately what the young man cannot see – that love is the object of his quest. So “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him” (Mk 10:21). Only by engaging us in a relationship of love can Jesus call us to greater things. If you love someone deeply enough, you’ll do anything for them; as St Paul famously reminds us, “love is always ready to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes”.

Love is always an invitation, not forced on us against our will. The rich young man cannot accept Jesus’ invitation, and turns away sad. The sadness comes from being torn in two – he is inspired by Jesus’ love and challenge to him, but he now finds he cannot go that far; the cost is too great. Perhaps we too feel inspired by the gospel of Jesus, but the pressures and constraints of our daily living make us almost despair of being good enough for God. Hence the disciples’ reaction: “In that case, who can be saved?” And Jesus looks steadily at them, gazes at them, and says it’s impossible for us, but God can do it, if you let him.

Let Jesus gaze at you now with love, and ask yourself how you would like to respond.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John
 


TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
4th October 2009

One of the reasons why the Catholic Church holds marriage to be sacred and inviolable is because it is a sacrament. Every married couple is making a statement that every day, “from this day [their wedding day] forward.... till death do us part”, they are mirroring the faithful love that Jesus the Bridegroom has for his Bride, the Church. When marriage is no longer a permanent total commitment for life and ends in divorce, it ceases to be a sign of God’s constant love which never ends.

This is not a judgement on any particular failed marriage, as the reasons for divorce are many and varied. But it does argue for a careful, thorough and prayerful preparation for marriage in the Church. The Church insists on at least four instructions for each couple preparing for marriage. When I consider that I spent six years training for the priesthood, a mere four or five hours in preparing for Christian marriage seems woefully inadequate. It is clear that many, if not most, Catholics do not know that a Catholic is expected to be married in the Catholic Church. If they are married elsewhere without explicit permission the marriage is not recognised by the Church.

Some would say that the Church is being unrealistic in such high expectations marriage. But she is only echoing the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “What God has united, man must not divide.” If God has brought this couple together in unity, what human authority can override God? This is the ideal set before us; and if we fail after giving of our best, we must entrust ourselves to the providence of a loving and forgiving God who can heal our hearts.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
Home Mission Sunday - 20th September 2009

I have been very touched by the kindness and sympathy of so many people following my father’s death just over a week ago. He died peacefully following a stroke at the age of 87, and we his children feel above all a sense of gratitude for his life, for all he has given us; our loss is that much easier to bear as we endeavour to make our lives his legacy.

When in the gospel today Jesus speaks of his forthcoming passion and death, the reaction of his disciples is to pretend they haven’t heard, and ostrich-like bury their heads in the sand. To compensate for their discomfort and insecurity, they compete for power and argue which of them is the greatest – after Jesus, of course. James in the second reading reinforces the damage caused by our aggressive self-seeking. Wars and battles, he says, don’t start with one nation against another, or even one person against another. They start with the conflicting desires fighting in a single human heart. Peace begins with me.

To illustrate how to defuse the time-bomb of ambition and self-will, Jesus takes a little child and, by placing him between himself and his disciples, implies that following Jesus is to be led by a child. That child-like spirit, that being of service to others, that total trust in God’s providence was a hallmark of my father’s life, from which I hope to continue to learn as he goes home to his Creator.

His funeral will be celebrated on Thursday next 24th September 10.30am at Our Lady of Lourdes, Wanstead. May his gentle soul rest in peace.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 13th September 2009

At the heart of the Christian message – indeed, it is the Christian symbol – is the cross. For the first four centuries Christian art did not picture the crucifixion; it was too graphic, too explicit a reminder of a common and cruel instrument of execution in the Roman Empire. But we cannot escape the truth that this was the way Jesus died, that he accepted this degrading and excruciating death as a consequence of his total and unconditional love for each and every person on this earth. He was killed by those who could not accept his refusal to limit God’s love to the worthy, the religious or the good. The cross represents a love too enormous (and costly) to be ignored.

In today’s gospel Jesus foretells his approaching death and resurrection. But even before that ominous prediction is revealed in the stark reality of Good Friday, he invites his would-be disciples to follow the same path. Indeed, he makes it clear: unless we accept the suffering of the cross in our own lives, we cannot be his disciples. Our own reaction, like Peter’s, is quite human – if we’ve got to follow you, then don’t go that way, Lord! Try something less difficult!

But for us, it’s too late. Already we have been baptised into his death, and keep making the sign of the cross to remind us we accept its consequences every day. When suffering comes, when the dark and messy parts of our life threaten to limit our vision and the possibility of God loving us, it is all too tempting to want to explain it, to rationalise it, to make sense of it. But ultimately we can’t. We only know that God in Christ has entered into the heart of suffering not to explain it but to show us how to live with it. And to rise again with him to new life.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 6th September 2009

One of the best-kept secrets of the Catholic Church in this country is that there are some significant changes to the English translation of the Mass about to be sprung on us. Familiar texts such as the I confess, Gloria and the Nicene Creed will be modified, some heavily, and so will some of the responses. For example, to the priest’s invitation The Lord be with you, the congregation will reply And with your spirit. All the Eucharistic Prayers will read differently. While some parts are attractive, much of it is stilted and archaic, in my opinion. It’s as if it is only half-translated, and is yet to be rendered in clear English.

The present translation of the Roman Missal has been familiar to us since its publication in 1975. At that time it was intended as a short-term version while a more thorough and more elegant translation was being prepared – a mammoth task, since it had to be agreed by the Bishops’ Conference of every English-speaking country in the world. In 1995 the final text was submitted to Rome for approval, and there it sat gathering dust until 2001, when a totally new set of guidelines for translation were decreed by Rome. Years of painstaking work was scrapped and the English-speaking hierarchies were told to start again.

At last the new edition is nearing completion and will possibly be published next year (I overheard a conversation in a London Catholic bookshop between an Australian cardinal and a British publisher a few weeks ago, so I know!). In America they are already publishing details of the new version to prepare their people (see www.usccb.org/romanmissal). But there’s not a squeak out of the bishops of England and Wales. You heard it here first!

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 30th August 2009

One of the consequences of an aggressive individualism is the loss of a common moral code of behaviour. The one who makes Frank Sinatra’s song “I Did It My Way” their anthem is not interested in anybody else’s way unless it fits with theirs. Even the laws that have been introduced to regulate a society that has lost a moral compass are flouted or ignored. An amoral society is well on the way to becoming an anarchic one.

Yet there are signs that we not only want to restore order but even regain a moral compass. The pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way. The reaction to the Scottish Justice Minister’s decision to return the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing to Libya on compassionate grounds is instructive. Compassion is a central Christian virtue which appeals not just to legal technicalities or even moral codes, but to the heart. What at heart do we really want for this man? I believe the reaction has revealed the divisions and conflicts in the heart of each of us. I want to be forgiving and compassionate, but what about justice? How do I reconcile the anger and violence welling up in my heart with the love and forgiveness preached by Jesus?

To placate our troubled minds we suppress these feelings and try to live on the surface, like the Pharisees in today’s gospel who insist on legal observance but don’t want to question their motives. What’s going on in your heart? What are the unconscious motivations which colour your judgements? Jesus challenges us, like the Pharisees, to examine the intentions of our hearts. We may not like what we see, but self-awareness is the first step to freedom and growth, and a step nearer the wisdom of compassion.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK - 23rd August 2009

GK Chesterton famously wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” When Jesus said “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you cannot have life in you”, the reaction of his hearers was repulsion at what sounded like cannibalism. “This is intolerable language. Who can accept it?” Many of his followers left him. Did he run after them and say: “I didn’t mean it like that. Let me try and explain it in more acceptable language”? No. He even expected that his closest friends might leave too, and gave them permission. But Peter on their behalf said: “Without you there is nowhere else to go.”

Much of what we are asked to believe and live by defies explanation. But that doesn’t lessen its importance or impact. Many of our contemporaries shun religion and mock any belief in God. What is it that keeps us going? Perhaps, like Peter, we can tell Jesus that he’s the best we’ve got as far as we can see! But Peter went on more positively to say: “We believe, we know you are the Holy One of God.”

St Paul in today’s reading from Ephesians compares the relationship between Christ and us his Church to the relationship between husband and wife. Marriage is another mystery that has often been found difficult and left untried. But when it is tried and lived, the spouses are a living sign of Christ’s faithfulness to us and our loving commitment to him. We too often forget that it is never achievable by our own human effort alone. Only by allowing God’s grace to work in us can we surrender to him and say: “Lord, who else but you? We believe you are the Holy One of God.”

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY - 16th August 2009

The Assumption is the major feast of our Lady in the Church’s year. Most saints’ days commemorate the day of their death, the day their earthly work was done and the reward of heaven was to follow. In Mary’s case, an ancient tradition of the Church says that after her death she did not decay but was taken body and soul to heaven, to share the same place as her Son whose body she had formed in her womb.

In the Eastern Church the feast is still known by its original name, the Dormition or “falling asleep” of our Lady. You can still visit the church of our Lady near Gethsemane in Jerusalem, where the empty tomb of Mary is venerated. The first time I visited it in 1976, it was at the end of an Orthodox Eucharist, and people were coming out as we entered, handing us pieces of blessed bread (called the antidoron) as a sign of peace. In my ignorance I thought they were sharing Holy Communion, but I now know better.

Whether we refer to the Dormition (falling asleep) or the Assumption (taking up into heaven) we are simply talking about two stages of the same reality. Like her Son, she too really died. She too was laid in a tomb. But she had no power to rise again like Jesus. Only God could take her to the glory of heaven. Although the Assumption has been part of Church teaching since the fifth century, it was never formally declared until 1950 when Pope Pius XII publically honoured the Mother of God with the solemn pronouncement of the dogma.

We who worship in a church dedicated to our Lady have a special joy in celebrating this feast.

May God bless you and yours.

Fr John


SAINT PETER AND SAINT PAUL 28th June 2009

While these two great apostles are commemorated together, it is appropriate, at the closing of the Year of St Paul, to concentrate on the latter. Both saints stand out from the pages of the New Testament. Of the 27 books of the New Testament, 13 were written by or ascribed to Paul, and another (the Acts of the Apostles) features Paul as a central character from chapter 9. Although he came from a classical Jewish background (he was a Pharisee who studied the Law under the great Gamaliel in Jerusalem) he was brought up in Tarsus (in modern Turkey) as a Roman citizen speaking Greek. He was well placed, after his dramatic conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, to preach the Gospel to the Gentile world.

What comes across in the three extensive missionary journeys recorded in the Acts of the Apostles is Paul’s energy and single-minded commitment to sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. One might almost say he is obsessed with Christ: “I live not now with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) and “All I want is to know Christ” (Philippians 3:10) are two examples. Along with this prodigious enthusiasm Paul was gifted with a brilliant intellect. Not only did he dispense guidance and pastoral advice through his letters to the Christian communities he founded, he also developed a theology of Christ and the Church, of salvation and justification by faith, which forms the foundation of the Church’s teaching today. In that sense he is probably the most original mind in the history of Christianity.

But supremely it is his experience of Christ and his life of prayer and service which counts the most. If we do not have a personal relationship with God in Jesus there is no foundation for a Christian life, however well meaning our intentions and actions.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TWELFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK 21st June 2009

Climate change has led us to look seriously at the way we as human beings are exercising our stewardship of the earth. While there have been periods in the earth’s history when the overall temperature has risen or fallen, the scale and speed of the present “global warming” is alarming. But when we see that human greed and misuse of the earth’s resources is the major cause, there are important moral and theological consequences. Not only do we have to change our lifestyle and accept responsibility for the harm done (what we Christians call repentance and conversion) but to recognise the prophetic voice of God in these climate changes, because as the psalmist says: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness”.

With the melting of the polar ice and the consequent rise in sea levels, more and more of the low-lying land masses will disappear beneath the waves. The story of Noah and the Flood is no longer an ancient fable; it holds a lesson for today. How do we cope with powers beyond our control, especially when we have unleashed them ourselves?

“The waves were breaking into the boat,” St Mark’s gospel tells us today, “so that it was almost swamped.” The disciples on board, hardy fishermen well used to handling boats in bad weather, were unable to cope and feared the worst. Where was Jesus? Asleep in the stern – where the tiller was. And it wasn’t the storm that woke him, it was the disciples! Like us, they wanted to be in control, but when they weren’t, they wanted God to restore their control. But Jesus teaches us that only when God is in charge that things work out for good.

Do you trust God? Or do you try to manipulate him?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST 14th June 2009

Today’s feast was instituted by the Church in the Middle Ages and is still known by its Latin name Corpus Christi, which means the Body of Christ. At that time people were going to communion less often, and the practice of receiving from the chalice had become restricted to the priest. It was felt that the laity should only rarely receive communion at the Holy Sacrifice offered by the priest, so as a substitute it was common practice to be present at the Consecration – when the priest elevated the Host – to look at the Lord. The present excellent practice of Exposition and Benediction grew from this desire to gaze on what could not be received.

Since the time of Pope St Pius X a hundred years ago, the Church has strongly urged us to receive communion more frequently, reminding us that all of us, not just the priest who acts in our name, offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with him. And for the last thirty years we have been encouraged to receive the Lord under both forms of bread and wine, a fuller response to the Lord’s explicit words at the Last Supper: “Take and eat.... take and drink”.

As we can see from today’s first reading, the blood of an animal sacrifice represented the offering of a life. The animal had to die before its blood could be taken. In the same way Jesus died on the cross before his blood was poured out for us. On the night before he died he took a cup of wine and said: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant which is poured out for you.” When we are privileged to drink from the chalice, we are not only recalling Christ’s gift of his lifeblood but also pledging our willingness to give of our lives in his service.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


TRINITY SUNDAY 7th June 2009

At the time of going to press the local and European elections were under way and the outcome is uncertain; national government is in disarray and political leadership teeters on the edge of anarchy. The field is ripe for extremists to make serious inroads. An angry and bewildered public flounders around looking for scapegoats to blame, and clutches at any would-be saviour.

Surely the serene contemplation of the Trinity at a moment like this seems so remote as to be absurd. Yet the mystery of God’s being in whose image and likeness we are fashioned lies at the heart of any healing of our human dysfunction. Indeed it was to restore the true dignity of our human nature that the second Person of the Trinity assumed our flesh and identified completely with our human condition, reconciling us with God and with each other through his death on the cross. The dynamic relationship between the Persons of the Trinity is the model of our human relationships; we are social beings because God is a family, not a lone individual.

If we live in a world that destroys or rejects its most vulnerable people – whether by abortion, euthanasia, ethnic cleansing, racism, etc – then we are destroying ourselves. The measure of our love and care for the weakest is the measure of our self-worth. No wonder we have lost a sense of direction and leadership if our selfishness has set us on a course of self-destruction. To counter it, we have to build a community of love, forgiveness, tolerance and generosity of spirit, which can only happen if there is a change of attitude, sacrifice and commitment. That is exactly what the Christian gospel is programmed to do. And we are committed to this programme through our baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


PENTECOST SUNDAY 31st May 2009

Who is the Holy Spirit? There is a perception that, unlike the Father and the Son, whose names immediately invoke concrete relationships, the Spirit is vague, ethereal and frankly spooky (as in the use of the old English name “Holy Ghost”). In practice, however, the Holy Spirit is anything but vague. When Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit when he ascended into heaven, he wasn’t sending a poor substitute for himself. As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer says, “so that we may live no longer for ourselves but for him, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, to complete his work on earth and bring us the fullness of grace.” Jesus’ work cannot be completed without the Spirit.

And neither can ours. The fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians (5:22-24) show that the Spirit active in us produces practical results: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control, for example. The Rev Tom Smail used to say that the gifts of the Spirit are not things, but people, which means the number of spiritual gifts is past counting. Each one of us is a gift of the Spirit endowed with spiritual gifts. Each one of us is expected to use our gifts to produce the fruits of love, joy, peace, etc.
Like the apostles at Pentecost, like those being confirmed today, we can do nothing without the power the Holy Spirit gives us. Perhaps this prayer, composed by the late Sister Josephine Payne OSU (Brentwood Ursuline) might help:

Lord, graft me so deeply on to you that the life of your Spirit may flow through me, through every fibre of my being. Possess me utterly and completely, Lord Jesus, so that I may become a flame burning before you, burning with your life and love, and enkindling all who come in contact with me. Take from me all wrangling and jealousy, all unkindness and pride, and fill me instead with your joy and peace, your patience and love, your goodness and kindness and self-control, so that the new life you have offered me may not be in vain, but may grow and blossom as long as I live. Amen.

Alleluia!

Fr John


THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
24th May 20093

The city of Florence in Tuscany is so full of works of art, in galleries, churches and open spaces, that there is only so much one can take in before experiencing cultural indigestion. Six priests of our diocese had only three days there this week, so we had to be selective. The danger is to rush around glimpsing everything but looking at nothing. With visual art I like to focus on one or two pictures and spend time letting them tell me their story.

Some subjects are immediately arresting; others take time before they yield their riches. Among the many scenes from the gospel the Ascension is not as well represented as the Assumption of Our Lady, possibly because the latter subject celebrates the triumph of our human nature – Mary has made it to heaven, but her Son was going there anyway! But the picture which touched me was Botticelli’s Annunciation. The angel reaches out to Mary, inviting her by the gesture of his hand to become the spouse of the Holy Spirit. She in turn is at first fearful (one hand drawn back) then accepting, as her other hand mirrors the gesture of the angel.

Isn’t that familiar? We are anxious, fearful or uncertain about what God asks of us, but at the same time we realise it is only by accepting God’s will on his terms, not ours, that our doubts and fears can be resolved. As we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, may all of us, especially our confirmation candidates, say our Yes to God as Mary did, without knowing all the answers.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen on high.

Fr John


SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
17th May 2009

The word “love” appears in the second reading and the gospel today no less than eighteen times. You get the impression God is trying to tell us something. There is an apocryphal story about St John in his old age clambering into the pulpit every Sunday to say: “My dear people, let us love another”, then sitting down again. Sunday after Sunday it was the same message. One of the newer members of the congregation nudged his neighbour and asked: “Why does he keep saying ‘Let us love one another?’ to which she replied, ‘Because we’re not doing it yet’.

The second reading contains the shortest description of God in the Bible: “God is love”. Short it may be, but simple it ain’t! We spend a lifetime learning to love, and no doubt we continue our lessons in heaven. God has revealed the meaning of love not in a philosophy or guide book, but in Jesus. God wants there to be no mistaking that love is lived out at the centre of our human lives, and has given his Son to us as a model, and his Spirit as the Enabler: Jesus shows us how to love, and the Spirit gives us the power to do it.

Love is the key to healing the malaise of sadness and general gloom that permeates our society at the moment. Without God there is no hope; without hope the incentive to love is undermined. Jesus says the greatest love we can have is to lay down our lives for our friends, like the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The love we have for each other is the measure of how much we love God.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen.

Fr John


ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 10th May 2009

Let’s begin with your answer to a simple question: do you go to Mass every Sunday (or Saturday evening)? If your answer is an unequivocal YES, there’s no need to read further. If you are a Catholic and your straight answer is NO, I would want to ask, in all sincerity, why not? Maybe you are ill, housebound or dependent on someone to bring you to church; if we do not know of your incapacity and are not already bringing you Holy Communion, please let us know. If you cannot come to church, we will endeavour to bring the church to you. Or perhaps you feel alienated from the Church through some tragedy or breakdown of relationship, whether through your own fault or through the hurt of others; or your problem may be with the Church’s perceived attitude or teaching which is difficult to accept.

Your answer, however, may be YES, BUT... or NO, BUT... The “but” can imply the tension between the demands of the Church and of the world. Which of these two definitions of a Christian applies to you: one who lives in the world and goes to church, or one who lives in the Church and goes out to the world? Today’s life-style is competitive and divisive, leading to individualism, selfishness and loneliness. It takes hard work to maintain a sense of family, community and generosity of spirit.

St Paul compares the Church to a body: Christ is the head, and we are the members. In today’s gospel Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” We cannot survive cut off from the vine; we need Christ, and we need each other. Our love for each other, as the second reading tells us, “is not to be words or mere talk, but something real and active.” I find I need to go to Mass to give me the strength to live in love.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen.

Fr John


ON THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER, 26th April 2009

The various accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection have one thing in common – he is not expected to appear. There is the element of surprise, and part of the surprise is that he seems quite normal! It’s almost comical, the way Jesus creates consternation at his arrival yet chides his disciples for reacting so fearfully. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” he seems to say to the apostles in today’s gospel from St Luke. Well, yes – but they don’t quite know what to make of him now. Is he the real Jesus they knew before his death, or a new Jesus, a sort of Superman, or even (as many early Christians were tempted to believe) really God pretending to look like a real being? “A ghost!” was their first reaction, but Jesus says, “Have you ever seen a ghost eating grilled fish?” The temptation of our human nature is to categorise Jesus as either a very special human being or a very humble divine being, just as we still tend to split ourselves into “body” and “soul”. Where’s the boundary between the two? Do we not experience ourselves as one person, and is not a split personality a disorder?

The bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth has spotlighted the old conflict between science and religion, a conflict the Church once perpetrated in Galileo’s time but now heartily opposes. Atheists love to isolate religion from life, and try to show it as irrelevant, on the margins of human existence. If we deny the spiritual nature of the universe and focus only on the material, we are impoverishing ourselves, diminishing our human nature. The risen Christ is God continuing to surprise us with his ordinariness.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

Fr John


ON EASTER SUNDAY, 12th April 2009

During my trip to Syria in February a number of my fellow travellers were not sympathetic to the Christian faith, and in voicing their concerns or criticism it became clear that what they objected to was not what I would recognise as the Christian gospel, but a caricature or distortion of it. One conversation, for instance, was about Christian festivals. The word Easter derives from eostre, a Saxon word meaning “sheepfold”, from a pagan spring festival. “So Easter is really pagan, not Christian,” ran their objection. Yes, the name and date of a pagan feast was indeed adopted by Christianity – but it took on a new and deeper meaning. It’s not just about bunnies and eggs – it’s about the resurrection of Christ symbolised by bunnies (new life) and eggs (the chick breaking from the shell reminds us of Christ breaking from the tomb).

We live too much on the surface of our lives to ponder meanings. There is so much pain and uncertainty in our world today we prefer to keep busy and not think about it. But if we are to meet the risen Christ and find hope and sustenance for living, we have to stop and ask the crucial questions. We think that by doing so we will end in a crumpled heap on the floor of despair – or, in Christian terminology, nailed to a cross. Christ did not rise from a bed of roses but from a dark tomb. When finally we face the darkness of our own lives, the death of our hopes and dreams, we are looking into an empty tomb where we are told: “Jesus is not here. He is risen. He goes before you on your journey of faith. Walk out of the darkness into his light. He is with you always, to the end of time.”

Alleluia! The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Fr John


PALM SUNDAY OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD
5th April 2009

The G20 conference this week was a bold attempt to bring world leaders together in the face of a global financial crisis. Until the credit crunch, each nation, each financial institution, had been working in competition with each other, trying to grab more and more money for their cause, oblivious of the fact that there is only so much money to grab. It has been a game of Monopoly for real, except that playing with people’s lives and savings is not a game. It is the poorest in the world who have suffered most, and their voice is barely heard.

Suddenly we are beginning to hear from politicians and world leaders that we need to work together, to cooperate, to rediscover a sense of community and solidarity. Such a complete reversal of policy is welcome. This is good traditional Catholic teaching. May these not be empty words but a real sign of hope. Throwing money at the problem is of course only part of the solution. Far more important is a change of attitude, of heart and mind; what is needed are the virtues of compassion, forgiveness, encouragement, sacrifice and generosity. Christians during Lent have a word for this change of heart: repentance.

We begin Holy Week, which commemorates the most profoundly life-changing events in all human history, with the awareness that the way of the cross, the way Jesus dealt with the crisis of a broken selfish sinful world, enfolds everything that matters. He has paid the price of our redemption - not a mere three trillion dollars, but his lifeblood. This week we are called not merely to commemorate a past event but to enter into what Christ has done for us, and apply it to our world today by our sacrifices, love and generosity.

Fr John


ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
 29th March 2009

Naturally enough, it was Philip and Andrew, apostles with Greek names, who were approached by some Greeks with the request: "We should like to see Jesus." Like Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus passing by, these Greeks weren¹t just doing a bit of celebrity spotting, so they could tell their friends they¹d met the famous Jesus. What they had heard and seen of him attracted and fascinated them. They wanted to know more, like Andrew himself at the beginning of John¹s gospel, where Jesus turns round to see him following and asks: "What do you want?" Andrew¹s reply, "Where do you live?" expresses the desire to know more, to experience living with Jesus, not just paying him an occasional visit.

By now you will have realised that the journey of Lent is far more than about paying Jesus a few extra visits. At this late stage, as Holy Week looms closer, there is no room for half-disciples or part-time Christians.

We¹re in it all the way or we walk away sad. Jade Goodey may not have led the most exemplary life, but she did die an exemplary death. Anyone who can teach us how to die well is exemplifying Jesus' words: "Anyone who loves their life loses it." We cannot afford to wait till our deathbed to learn how to die; we have to practise letting go of all that leads us away from God every day of our lives. Otherwise, paradoxically, we will never live.

The control freak of the ego will cling on for dear life and all we will reap is a living death. We cannot rise again unless we are first dead.

There is no Easter Sunday before Good Friday.

What is preventing you from letting go of your fears and trusting totally in God?

Happy Lent!

Fr John


ON THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Mothering Sunday 22nd March 2009

One of the distinctive characteristics of the English temperament (and maybe the British one too) used to be a sense of fair play, and a soft spot for the underdog. But in recent years there has grown a hardness in our British society, a less tolerant spirit, quick to find fault and less forgiving. The incidence of road rage is a typical example; another might be the “trial by television”, when news bulletins report on the trials of serial killers, paedophiles, fraudsters and the rest, inviting us indirectly to make our own judgements and condemnations. I am not for a moment condoning the crimes committed or excusing those who commit them. But perhaps we have forgotten that only God knows the heart of each one of us, saint and sinner alike; as St James says: “Who are you to give a verdict on your neighbour?” (5:12).

Sadly even we Christians have been sucked into this insidious way of thinking and abandoned our gospel values of compassion and forgiveness in favour of pagan values like vengeance and retaliation. The first reading today describes the consistent infidelity of generations of the Israelite nation, but nevertheless God sends a pagan monarch to show them the mercy they did not deserve; and all this occurred before Christ came. The words of St John’s gospel today are among the most famous summaries of the whole Christian message: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”
God is the only One who knows our hearts, and has every right to condemn us, but doesn’t. Instead he gives us the life of his innocent Son to save us and restore us to grace. If only we knew how much we are loved and have been forgiven, we would die of amazement or fall over each other in the rush to love and forgive each other.

Happy Lent!

Fr John


ON THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
15th March 2009

In a recent lecture at Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O¹Connor who is shortly to retire said that to be human is "to be deeply tempted to be good". So often popular wisdom equates being human with being sinful. But sin makes us less human, not more. Sin diminishes us. So, the Cardinal goes on, "we need to encourage and affirm the good in each person, rather than simply naming the bad."

One of my favourite sayings of our own Bishop Thomas is: "If you speak to the good in a person, you will always get a response." When we judge, criticise or condemn the only response we are likely to get, if at all, is a negative one. A positive constructive dialogue opens up the way to growth; a negative approach closes down any dialogue and it is much more difficult to move things forward. Note that the Cardinal wants us to be deeply tempted to be good. He did not say, to be right. Good people don¹t always get it right, but their basic intention is sound.

The Ten Commandments which constitute today¹s first reading have for the last three thousand years or more provided a foundation for goodness, not just rightness. Law, by itself, doesn¹t make us good; it only provides a framework to contain our behaviour. The Ten Commandments are not laws like those of the land; they are based on a living committed relationship to God and our neighbour, the result of a covenant or agreement. It is this relationship which ultimately deeply tempts us to be good.

The gospel today tells us that many believed in Jesus, but he did not trust himself to them because he knew what they were really like. May this Lent be a time when we can entrust our lives to God, knowing he loves us as we are. Don¹t close the link!

Happy Lent.

Fr John


ON THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
8th March 2009

The Golan Heights, which Israel annexed from Syria in 1973, mark the politically sensitive border where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet. The mountain which dominates this area is Mount Hermon, which most biblical scholars agree is the site of the Transfiguration narrated in today's gospel. I have admired its snow-capped peak from the Sea of Galilee while in Israel, and recently glimpsed it again in Syria, on the road south of Damascus, tantalisingly close but always just out of reach.

The transfiguration of Jesus is a moment of joy and hope on the road to Easter. Suddenly he is revealed in glory; suddenly his three closest friends realise who he really is, and everything becomes wonderfully clear. But then the cloud descends, and they can see nothing; all they hear is a voice declaring that Jesus is God?s Beloved Son and that they must listen to him. Then they look around; the cloud has gone, and so has the light. All that?s left is the same old Jesus.

The Christian life is like that, Lent no less so. There are moments when our life of faith makes blindingly clear sense, when prayer is a joy, and we want to love everyone. But they usually don?t last very long. There?s always the danger we will think we are in control of our lives, including the God bit. When the cloud of God?s presence covers us, we think we?ve lost him and he?s deserted us, when he is in fact tantalisingly close and just out of reach. If we can hang on in the darkness, believing and trusting only what we hear (God?s word), then we will find Jesus is with us all the time, looking as ordinary as Monday morning but the real Jesus.

Happy Lent!

Fr John


ON THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
1st March 2009

Perhaps there is no coincidence that the first Sunday in Lent this year falls on the feast of St David, Patron of Wales. Lent conjures up images of austerity, deprivation and penance, at which the early Celtic monks were adept: one of David's favourite pastimes was standing up to his neck in freezing water to make sure he didn't sleep during prayer! The Celtic monks had inherited this bizarre enthusiasm for asceticism from the desert fathers and mothers, the hermits of early Christian Egypt and the Middle East. While in Syria last week I visited the church of St Simeon, a hermit who lived on top of a pillar twenty feet high for thirty-six years - the stump of the pillar is still there!

No, I'm not suggesting we imitate their practices, but we might catch something of their dedication. Their attempts to become holy might be extreme, but their desire to come closer to God was real enough. Do we want to come closer to God? Is our desire only hampered by not knowing how to go about it, or thinking that we are too far away from God to even try?

The three practical tools of Lent Jesus refers to in Ash Wednesday's gospel are prayer, fasting and almsgiving (generosity and mercy). If we make only a token effort to use them, they won't work; but if we genuinely want to grow in faith they are not only effective but essential. So give time to listen to God in prayer; make space for the things that matter by removing the clutter; and make room in your life for others, especially the poor and needy.

Happy Lent!

Fr John


ON THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK
15th February 2009

In Jesus' day lepers were the outcasts; perhaps today's outcasts are bankers. Indeed part of the effect of the global recession is to make everyone feel alienated - will it be my turn next to lose my job or my home? I had a phone call this week from a friend in the USA whose business is going under and was on the edge of a breakdown - multiply that a few million times and you have a picture of a troubled world. But it is worth remembering that what we used to call the Third World has always been suffering poverty, far worse than what we are experiencing. A little taste of that may put things in perspective.

One of the dangers of feeling alienated and disorientated is to find ourselves cut off from others, and loneliness and depression sets in. We need each other more than ever, and the support of family, community and Church is vital. But we must have the courage and humility to ask for help, and also the generosity and love to reach out to those in need. Never before has the need for true community been greater; the individualism and self-seeking of the last thirty years has almost destroyed it. We must rebuild and resurrect our society with the precious gift of our Christian faith through the Church.

By reaching out and touching the leper in his need, Jesus not only identified with the marginalised but in the process became alienated himself. No more graphic picture of that truth can be portrayed than the cross - the place of death of a criminal and a slave. It was in that place Jesus redeemed the world. Like the leper, we can say to him from our desperation and fear: "If you want to, you can cure me!" Of course he wants to. But are we prepared to let him, and face the consequences of living a new life in him, a life he wants us to share with others?

God bless you and yours.

Fr John


ON THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR OF MARK,
 8th February 2009,

One of the effects of the "Big Freeze" in the UK, this week, was to slow everyone down.  Road, rail and air transport was severely curtailed or cancelled, and businesses and schools were closed.  Many of the things we planned to do last week never happened.

Martin Luther used to say that if you are a busy person, you should spend one hour a day in prayer.  When someone protested they couldn't find that much time in the day, Luther retorted: "If you're a very busy person, you should spend two hours a day!" In other words, if you're too busy to pray, you're too busy.

The gospel today describes twenty-four hours in the ministry of Jesus.  After a heavy day preaching and healing, he returns home to Peter's house to cure Peter's mother-in-law and minister healing way into the night as "the whole town came crowding round the door".  Yet after that, he doesn't get much sleep.  "Long before dawn" he is up and off alone to pray.  If Jesus the Son of God needed to pray, why do we think we lesser mortals don't need it so much?

Our busyness can often be a smoke-screen keeping us from being still and listening to the voice of God.  There are aspects of our lives we don't want to face.  But Jesus needed to know his Father's will in order to direct his life aright.  However impossible our situation may look, the prayer of St Ignatius gives us courage: "Lord, help me to remember that there is nothing in this world that you and I cannot handle together."

God bless you and yours.

Fr John

 


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