Friday, 19 December 2014

The desert shall bloom

The desert in bloom

While listening to the Gospel (Lk 1:5-25) and also the first reading at Mass today (Judges 13:2-7,24-25), I do not think it is easy to not be moved by the plight of both women, whom people called “barren”. It was a terrible label for any woman. Fertility, the ability to bring forth life, has been the essence of marriage in almost every society (excepting our own in the modern west) and the inability to have children is a terrible burden for any married couple. And this burden perhaps falls most heavily upon women who are constantly reminded through their menstrual cycle of their capacity to nurture life within their bodies. Women are created with the gift of being tabernacles of new human life. (Incidentally this is why in Catholic churches women traditionally wear veils. All holy tabernacles are veiled in a Catholic Church: the tabernacle behind the altar, the chalice, statues of Our Lady and thus also all God’s daughters.)

Infertility was seen in their time as a sign of God’s disfavour, but Elizabeth and Monoah’s wife, we hear about in Mass today, are not the only childless women in salvation history who are made fertile by God’s intervention. There was Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah. Thus John’s birth falls in line with that of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel, all of whom were representatives of the Covenant between God and Israel.

And John was to be a Nazarite from birth. The practical consequences of this were that being consecrated he could not drink alcohol nor have his hair cut. In many ways Nazarites were like Old Testament monks and nuns. Nazarites could take lifelong or temporary consecration. John was to be a Nazarite from birth and for his whole life. Nazarites could also be priests or members of the laity.

The conception of John in a womb called “barren” also symbolised his vocation as a desert prophet. For from the barren wilderness would come forth a prophet proclaiming a message to prepare for the coming of He who is the Life. Indeed the desert would blossom and bring forth truth, beauty and goodness.

There is barrenness in all our lives. There are aspects of all our lives I expect that are not bearing fruit, what should we do about them? Like those courageous women of faith in salvation history we need to bring our barrenness to God with all the faith we can muster and ask the Lord to make our lives fruitful according to His Will. Perhaps we do not see how they can be made fertile but God does not see things as we do!

Fr Ian

Thursday, 18 December 2014

A great joy, actually!

Over the years I have come across a number of people who state their opposition to the reality of sin. When I served as an Anglican clergyman various parishioners said that they didn’t believe in sin. When asked to explain this, they said that “sin” was so negative and that talking about sin just made everyone sad. When pushed further they agreed that this meant there was no real need for salvation, and that they believed everyone went to heaven.*

Resigning from the Church of England and entering the full communion of the Catholic Church was motivated not least by the lack of consistency in doctrine in the C of E and so being received into the Catholic Church, I accepted joyfully its Magisterium (teaching authority). Yet I have come to discover a similar problem in the Catholic Church! Many Catholics do not believe sin is 'as bad as all that'. Many do not really think there is mortal sin, or sin that is unto death. One reason why almost everyone who goes to Mass receives the Blessed Sacrament is because many don’t really believe in mortal sin. They just think God is a nice chap and of course He wants us to receive “communion”, no matter what state our soul is in. This diminishing of sin in people’s minds is extremely dangerous and is of course exactly what the Enemy wants us to think.

If we want to know how dangerous sin is we simply need to consider the Incarnation and today’s gospel reading (Matt 1:18-24). The Angel said to Joseph in a dream, “You shall call his name, Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The very reason for the Incarnation, the reason that God became man, is because of sin. Out of His great merciful love, God desires to save us from our sins, and in order to do so, condescended to become Man. In the Blessed and Immaculate Mary the divine and human nature were united in this child, who was to be called Joshua, or Jesus. His name means ‘God saves’, which is not only His mission but also His identity.

Why on earth would God become man if sin were not serious? Why would God condescend to unite Himself with our human nature, if sin were ‘not that bad’ or ‘did not exist’?

The truth is sin is deadly. Sin causes disintegration. Sin causes disintegration between our relationship with God, between our relationships with fellow human beings, between our relationship with the whole of Creation, and even the relationship between our body and spirit. Sin is a comprehensive disaster! There is nothing else that does such a comprehensive and damaging  job as sin!

By saying this I am not being negative! By saying this, the Church’s magisterium is not being negative! By saying this Christ is not being negative! The first words of Christ’s first sermon was “Repent and believe!” This was the proclamation of Christ after His Baptism, at the beginning of His public ministry. And Christ went all the way to Calvary to definitively and completely deal with sin.

Sin is immensely serious and comprehensively disastrous, but we have the Good News that Christ has completely and entirely dealt with our sin, and so His grace is sufficient for us to deal with sin in our lives. Christ has given His Church the authority to absolve sin, especially mortal sin. “Those who sins you forgive, they are forgiven…”, He said to the Apostles on Easter Day.

We need to take sin immensely seriously but taking it seriously does not mean wallowing in it or just being miserable, it means dealing with it. So let us all repent, get ourselves off to confession, and let us all have our sin dealt with by the grace of Christ in the Church. Dealing with sin through the grace of Christ is actually a great joy!

Fr Ian

*Not everyone in the C of E thinks like this, there are many good Christians who do believe in salvation from sin, but for me there were too many who thought that this way of thinking was entirely compatible with membership of the Anglican church.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A long list

When I was a country Rector in the Church of England I would receive from time to time requests for information from our parish registers. Serving traditional country parishes, the parishes were reluctant to part with their ancient registers into the central diocesan archive, so it was not uncommon for me to receive a request for a register search. Although they didn't always arrive at convenient moments, in a way I quite enjoyed dusting off the old registers and peering through their crisp pages. I was often struck by the beautiful handwriting of all entries before the 1950’s and how the hand-writing went downhill from there! But I was also struck how in the 19th and 18th century so many entries contained signatures consisting of an X and alongside the Rector’s annotation “the mark of…” For some people the researching of their genealogy is very important to them.

Clearly for Matthew the genealogy of Jesus Christ is very important. Today we hear the long list of names read out at mass (Matt 1:1-17). We might think it a little boring. We might think there is nothing of inspiration in today’s gospel. But we need to ask ourselves, “Why?” None of us would miss these 17 verses if Matthew hadn't included them. Well the point is that although we might not, Matthew’s original hearers/readers did appreciate it. Matthew is establishing Jesus’ kingly messianic credentials as he effectively states in verse 1: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” He is establishing that Jesus is in fact of the line of Abraham and of the line of King David.  God promised long before that “kings” would stem from Abraham’s line (Gen 17:6) and later promised, in a covenant oath, that David would always have a dynastic heir (2 Sam 7:16; Ps 89:3-4).

Matthew establishes for us Jesus’ earthly credentials while not undermining His divinity. Jesus is of course not the biological son of Joseph, but Joseph does accept Jesus into his family lineage. Matthew reminds us of this at the end when he says, “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” Despite the long list of “the father of”, now at the end Matthew is preparing to reveal that Jesus was miraculously born of the Virgin Mary, without the contribution of an earthly father, but instead the Holy Spirit.

One final comment on this genealogy is to say that the gospel here is ensuring we understand that Jesus is human as well as divine. It doesn’t use that sort of language, but by establishing Jesus human ancestry we can be in no doubt that His divinity did not exclude His human nature received from Mary and he was part of an earthly family. This is the wonder of the Incarnation, which in this last week before the great and solemn feast, we contemplate. God’s plan for the salvation of mankind was worked out through the lives of real human beings. This is not just for the past, but even now God has a part for us to play, in His great plan.

Fr Ian

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Sentiments towards God do not last - our promises do!

The gospel for today really follows on from yesterday’s gospel when chief priest and elders are questioned by Jesus regarding John the Baptist’s authority. They could not answer Jesus out of fear. So the parable of the Two Sons answers them indirectly.

The sons represent two groups of people. In the context of the gospel they are sinners who repent, and Israel’s leaders who refuse the Baptist’s message (even when tax-collectors and harlots do!).

So the son that initially says “no” to his father, but later thinks better and actually does what the father wants him to do, are the sinners who repent. The other son who initially says “yes” to his father, but does not actually do what his father wants, are the chief priests and elders. They talk a good game, but they do not actually live it out.

All of us for whom our faith is very important need to be reminded of this teaching of Jesus. It is easy to say “yes” and not follow through, especially if we get caught up in a sentiment towards God. Then we might promise all sorts of things; whereas sentiments do not last, our promises to God do. Following through on our promises is hard work and we do not usually have the motivation of warm feelings all the time, yet it is of utmost importance lest we find that we actually deserve the title hypocrite!

Fr Ian

Monday, 15 December 2014

Rejoice - repentance then joy

Gaudate Sunday is the Sunday in Advent we think about rejoicing and about joy. But why do we have a day which has the theme of rejoicing during a season of the Church which is a penitential season – a season about making paths straight, about repentance, about turning away from sinful habits in order to be prepared to welcome the Messiah. It seems a contradiction. Surely Advent is a season of mourning, of weeping, of being sad?

However this is a mistaken way of thinking. It is in fact the way in which the modern secular world regards religion. The modern secular world regards religion to be about restricting freedom, about rules, about being strict, about being uptight, about not doing what you want to do. Sound familiar?

But we really need to wake up to the fact that this is a lie. It is a convenient lie that justifies people in ignoring religion, and not least Christianity.

We have been exploring this particularly in the course I started recently on Theology of the Body, at the chaplaincy. What this course engages with is that of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, chastity and marriage. And one couldn’t pick an area of church teaching that is more misunderstood and misrepresented and hated than Catholic sexual ethics! People truly believe that the Church’s teaching is all about rules of “do not do this…do not do that…” Theology of the Body is not like that however, it views the teaching of the Church first of all from the standpoint of love, and it reveals the Church’s teaching as Good News.

In Theology of the Body we learn why the Church teaches what she teaches and why it is Good News. And it is a joyful revelation; and a revelation that truly sets us free. We’ve also discovered how miserable the world’s approach to sex makes people, and that they really need this Good News; in other words it has made us want to be evangelists of this Theology!
But this isn’t restricted to this area of Church teaching alone. This is generally true of the whole Christian message.

Now this is partly our fault! And it is the fault of recent generations of believers!
People of faith have been too content to reduce their faith to a set of rules. And they have not taken the trouble to find out why the Church teaches what she does. And this is one of the reasons why Christianity has been waning in Europe and North America. People do not respond to rules – rules do not give joy, and they do not communicate Good News!
Rules do have some advantages, and of course we do need rules to keep order and to give us a sense of being together in a community. But they are also in a sense easy – easy to understand. It does not take too much effort to understand a rule. It is usually simple and straightforward. Take the obligation to go to mass on every Sunday for example. It is easy to understand – there is just the question to obey it or not. But if we choose to be obedient (which we know we ought to be) then it doesn’t require any more studying of our faith to comprehend it. Yet there is a reason for the obligation. The Church does not require Sunday Mass attendance arbitrarily. It is in fact good news! The Church, as a good mother, calls all her children together on the Lord’s Day because the Lord wishes to bestow upon us His enormous and generous grace, to enable us to be truly liberated and healed from the misery, sadness and darkness of the world in which we live. It is the Lord’s Day and when we give ourselves to Him in true worship, He gives back far more than what we give Him. He transforms us. It is His design that makes every Sunday His day to offer this to us, and in doing so to transform every other day of the week, and the whole of our lives. Sunday mass is really good news! But it requires much from us!! And the truth is we are lazy, and we are grudging in what we want to give God.

Returning to the theme of Advent then, and the exhortation of John the Baptist to repent, we think of it in wholly negative terms. We think that that sounds miserable, that sounds as though it will make me sad. If I spend time examining myself, spend time thinking about my sins, then it will just make me a negative person and very sad; what we convince ourselves to think is that really we need to stop being so negative and start being a jolly person. So we paper over our sin, we forget about it, we leave it alone, we think that we know we’re not perfect but ‘no one is are they?’ We forget repentance and we ignore our sin. And we try to give ourselves a veneer of happiness – ‘we are free from that negativity, and now we can be happy.’ But the truth is that we are not really very happy at all! Below the surface of superficial jollity we experience misery and sadness.

We can see this in the modern western world we live in. Where is the joy? There is entertainment which is fleeting happiness, but when it is gone we feel even emptier inside!
And the reason for all this is that we have not dealt with the root causes of our problem. The root causes of our problem is within us, and is indeed our sin. That is why when God became Man, when God condescended to become a human being, He was called “Jesus” because “He will save us from our sins.” It is at the very heart of our faith, that the source of our problems is sin.

The Good News is repentance! Repentance is good news because we can actually deal with the problem of sin and really get rid of it! That is what the grace of Christ does for us. But it doesn’t happen without some effort on our part. We must be bothered, we must make the effort, we must not paper over our sin, we must look at it, confess it with sorrow, but then open ourselves to receive forgiveness and healing. And so repentance is good news not least because it gives us joy. Because when we empty ourselves of sin through the gift of Christ, we make room for Christ Himself to dwell within us. And if Christ dwells in us we are truly free, we are truly at peace, we are truly happy. Nothing in all creation can give us real and lasting happiness and joy and peace. Only God can do that, only God in Christ by the Holy Spirit can do that for us. This is the truth. This is the Good News! And it is joyful! Believe in it, my brothers and sisters. The world lies to us when it says dealing with your sin will only make you negative. There are tears on the way but they become tears of joy and happiness, and if we have real peace in our hearts – no one will be able to take that away from us.

So we keep Advent as a season of penitential preparation for Christmas not because we need to punish ourselves a bit before having a jolly festival! Advent reminds us that in order to have real deep and lasting joying we need to repent, and clear out our sin, in order to make room for God Himself, Emmanuel, to dwell within us. That, my brothers and sisters, is truly worth rejoicing about, truly what Gaudete Sunday is for – so now what about doing something about it?


DAY NINE (Eve of Pentecost)