Saturday, October 29, 2016

GOING OUT ON A LIMB FOR CHRIST: a homily for the Thirty-first Sunday in Year C (Luke 19:1–10)

One can listen to the homily here.

What does it mean to see Jesus?  What does it mean to see not only with our eyes but with our faith for faith in Jesus is true sight.  Faith in our Lord is sight that enlightens and saves.  To really see and meet our Lord is to be invited, challenged to change.  Those who really believe are known by the changes they undergo for the better.  They mend what they’ve broken and heal what they have wounded.
Here we have the story of a small man who is not just physically small but morally small too.  The Romans knew all about out-sourcing.  They sold the rights to collect taxes to men like Zacchaeus who would then extract what they could from the local people.  He and his kind are driven by greed, which is a type of idolatry, the worship of wealth.  His greed leads him to collaborate with the oppressors of the Jewish people.  Remember that it was Christ Himself who said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.  How much more so when that wealth is gained through evil?  Zacchaeus, as a tax collector, pays the Romans the money they should get from the local Jews and in return he gets the right to collect whatever he can from the locals.  Zacchaeus’ sin does not end with this extortion because it was also a collaboration with the foreign, pagan, unclean and occupying forces of the Romans.  In fact he was in charge of collecting taxes in his area.  So Zacchaeus has become a traitor to his people and his faith.   The tax collector is a symbol of the sinner: when we sin not only have we done wrong but we have betrayed our God and our neighbour and become morally unclean and spiritually smaller.

Zacchaeus the extortionist and collaborator is the man left out but he has heard of our Lord, of His teaching and His miracles and he is curious.  He searches for Jesus but he is blocked by the crowd.   The Fathers see in the crowd a symbol of our sins and our interior passions.  Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus without understanding what seeing Jesus really means.   Zacchaeus, the small man, must climb the tree, which is a symbol of the Cross.  St Augustine notes that the Sycamore tree was considered the tree of ‘silly fruit’.  St Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block indeed to the Jews but folly to the Gentiles.”  The Sycamore, therefore, is a symbol of the Cross which is a folly to unbelievers and salvation to us who believe.  Indeed Zacchaeus must go further than climb the tree for he must go out on a limb, that is he must risk all, risk his reputation and standing, make himself foolish even, in order to reach and to see Christ.  He must climb above his pride, above his earthly cares and concerns.  Last week we had the proud Pharisee boasting before God and the humble tax collector begging for mercy.  Here we again have the tax collector, the sinner, humbling himself to reach salvation.  Zacchaeus, in climbing the tree, dies to himself and is saved, having rejected the wisdom of the crowd and overcome his fear and his pride.

The Lord calls on Zacchaeus to “come down quickly” for there ought to be no delay in responding to God’s invitation, to His offer of mercy and forgiveness.  Jesus invites Himself to Zaccheus’ home but it is He, the Lord, who is the true rich man and it is He who offers Zacchaeus true wealth, God’s mercy and forgiveness and eternal communion with Him.  Christ is the true and best possible host, the most hospitable, for He has made of His own Self a hospital for sinners.  It is He who offers true healing through the grace of His Sacrifice on the tree of the Cross made available to us in the Sacraments. 
Note now the signs of true repentance and conversion in Zacchaeus.  In giving half his goods to the poor and reimbursing four times the amount to those he has cheated Zacchaeus exceeds the demands of the Law (see Exodus 22:8) which required only that the thief pay back double what he took (there is no chopping off of hands in the Bible!).  In fact Zacchaeus by offering a fourfold restitution is making restitution for his lack of mercy (see 2 Samuel 12:6).  In response to Christ’s love and mercy Zacchaeus brings forth justice and mercy.  He is now a true son of Abraham because he believes in Christ and cares for the poor, seeking to undo the harm he has done.  Our proper response to God mercy’s ought to be the same.
We too are spiritually and morally small.  In our heart of hearts we want to see Jesus and live but we too are blocked by the crowd.  The crowd symbolises those forces within us and outside of us that are opposed to Christ, that mock, obstruct and discourage us.  There are those around us who do not want us to change because it would mean their own lack of change would be obvious.   People want us to change only in so far as comfortable for them.  Real conversion can be threatening.  Then there are the passions within us that resist change and drive us to stay with useless and destructive behaviours regardless of where they lead. 
Our only hope is to turn to the tree of the Cross and to go out on a limb to seek the Lord.  We must lay aside our pride and overcome our fear and by prayer and self-sacrifice climb to where we can meet the Lord.  The best place to meet the Lord’s mercy is the Confessional.  Reflect on your life daily, examine your conscience and go to Confession regularly.  Look for ways, seek advice, on how you can change and beg the Lord for the grace to grow in holiness.  Make reparation for the harm you have done to others through charity to the poor and cast yourself upon the Lord’s mercy.  You will find that He is the best of hosts and will not turn you away.   He has opened His arms to us on the Cross and He will never close them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


You may have heard of the Ashers' Bakery court case in Belfast and how they lost.  You can read about it here.  Fr Hunwicke has commented on it here.  He makes the interesting point, which the court seems to have missed or disregarded, that the cake was not refused because the customer was gay but because the bakery objected to the message he requested to be put on it. (Set up? one wonders).  In addition Fr Hunwicke points out that 'Gay' marriage is still illegal in the North.  So someone requests a decoration on a cake that advocates an illegal act and the baker who objects gets fined for not acquiescing?  Have we passed through some barrier into another dimension where logic and reason no longer apply?  With the widespread rejection of the Natural Law (isn't such a rejection already implicityl enshrined in our own Constitution?) what kind of monstrous deformation of our society is coming into existence?  Are we now seeing the ascension of an age of unreason?  Perhaps it has been with us for some time (e.g. Fascism, Communism and all other collectivist ideologies).  Prayer is probably our only reliable weapon.  We need to wrap the world in rosaries.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

THROWING OURSELVES UPON GOD'S MERCY: a Homily for the Thirtieth Sunday in Year C (Luke 18:9-14)

As usual one can listen to the homily here.
I suppose we have all come across people “who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else”.  If we are honest we might admit that we too can be that way.  How many of us think that we are not that bad?  How many of us are convinced of our own sinfulness?  How many of us think that God owes us something, that He is unfair and unjust when something bad happens to us and that we do not deserve our misfortunes?   These “Two men” represent the two camps within the human race and perhaps the two sides of the fallen human heart. Both turn to God but only one of them is praying, only one is worshipping.
The Pharisees were a lay movement within Judaism: concerned with ritual and legal purity, rigorist in their thinking, caught up in externals and the keeping of the Jewish Law.  By Law they meant not just the 601 commandments of the Old Testament but the whole body of other laws and interpretations of that Law that had been built up around it over the centuries.  This Pharisee was as socially acceptable, as politically correct, as one could get.
The Pharisee “took up his position”, that is, his usual spot where he could be seen by everyone and spoke this prayer to himself, not to God.   He fails to acknowledge God’s righteousness and his own sinfulness.  He gives thanks to God but stands in judgment on everyone else, especially the tax collector.  He rightly lists the sins of mankind but fails to acknowledge that he too is a sinner in need of God’s mercy.  Instead his real religion is built entirely on his own achievements: his fasting and his tithing (one tenth of all his income).  That’s the full story of his righteousness – fasting and tithing – he has nothing else of which to boast.  He’s devoid of humility, compassion and love.  Here is a danger for all of us, that we pray to God as we want Him to be not as He is.  We can risk praying and relating not to God but to a projection of our own self.
Our era did not invent out-sourcing.  The Romans already understood the concept.  The tax collector was collaborator with the unclean, pagan, and oppressive Romans, an extortionist, and a traitor.  This man made his living by buying the right to collect taxes from the Romans and then extorting what he could from the people in his area.  He would not have been welcome in the Temple.  The tax collector “stood off at a distance and beat his breast” as an expression of sorrow and repentance for sin and humility before God, that we emulate at the Confiteor.  Note that he “would not even raise his eyes to heaven” because of his humility, for we are unworthy of seeing God and he prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ Again the humility and sorrow because his prayer acknowledges his utter dependence on God for mercy.  He has nothing to boast about before God and he knows it.
The humble, repentant tax collector went home right with God because God, in His mercy, has made him just because he humbly asked for mercy.  While the Pharisee, for all his efforts, has failed simply because he could not admit his need of God’s mercy.  The Lord admonishes us that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  The path to holiness is through humble admission of sin and guilt, through throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.

I have often heard people speak about God’s mercy as if they will be able to appeal to it when they are dead.  Even priests seem to speak as if God’s mercy comes into play after we leave this world.  While it is true that when we die we will really come to understand His mercy that will not be the time to appeal to it.  The time to appeal to God’s mercy is now.  This is the time of His favour when we can call on Him and make use of His generosity towards us.  Leaving off repentance until our deathbed or later is the height of stupidity.  When we are dead we face not God’s mercy but His justice.
Sin is not about breaking the arbitrary laws made up by the Pope.  Sin is a violation of that moral order I spoke of some weeks ago.  Sin is fundamentally an attempt to place ourselves in God’s place, at the centre of everything and to have everyone and everything orbit around us.  If you think about it anything that is wrong is rooted in human self-centeredness.   As creatures who are fallen we are prone to confuse the good with our own selfishness.  We have this disordered drive to be at the centre.  The paradox is that God, the true source and centre of everything, is all gift.  The Holy Trinity is all love, each of the Three Persons eternally giving themselves away.  It is God, because of His love and mercy, that has created us and sent His Son to us and offers us His mercy through the Church and the Sacraments.
Therefore we ought to avail ourselves of that which He has provided: especially Confession!  This is such a neglected Sacrament.  Yet we cannot make progress in holiness without it.  To make a good confession it is required that we have sincere contrition, that is sorrow, even partial sorrow, for our sins, confess them, especially mortal sins, in kind and in number and receive absolution.  None of us can guarantee that we have sufficient sorrow for our wrongdoing.  Perfect contrition is when we are sorry for the offence we have given to God’s goodness and love.  God is not personally offended like some cantankerous old man but we owe God as our creator and redeemer, we owe Him respect, love and worship not just in our words but in our actions.   
When we are asked to confess our sins in kind and number it is not because God does not already know nor because the priests are keeping a record!  It is because God wants to be intimately involved in everything we are and to heal each of our wounds individually.  Just as a mother will kiss her child’s bruise better so in confession God wishes to kiss each of our sins away.  Unlike a mother’s kiss though God’s grace can heal and restore any wound.  In addition naming our sins in kind and number helps the priest help us.  If one has stolen once then that is wrong but if one has stolen a hundred times then one is either a professional thief or a cleptomaniac.  Yes it can be embarrassing to name ones sins just as it is painful to let the doctor examine our wounds but if we do not let the doctor near the wound how can he heal it?
            Some say they find they only repeat a shopping list of sins, always the same.  Of course you do – they’re your sins.  Our fallen state affects us all but it expresses itself differently in different ways.  Just as each of us has a particular way of speaking, walking and thinking so each of us has his or her own particular way of sinning.  Don’t be surprised that you confess the same sins be surprised that you make no effort to change!

There are two things that the Church has long recommended as aids to changing, that is, growing in holiness: that we examine our conscience daily and that we go to confession regularly.  There are many ways to examine your conscience (check the internet) but here is a simple one.   Begin by counting your blessings and give thanks for them.  Then ask how yourself whether you have been a blessing that day?   How have you treated God and the things of God, how you have treated your neighbour and your neighbour’s property?  Was there anything good that you could have done, or done better, but didn’t?  Then ask God’s forgiveness for your failings and resolve to do better.  The bare minimum required of a Catholic, apart from Sunday Mass, is to confess once a year and receive Holy Communion in a state of grace, that is, without a mortal sin on ones conscience.  Once a year is the bare minimum.  A good average is about once a month.  It does not take long but then the tax collector’s prayer was short and he went away right with God.
Now is the time to appeal to God’s mercy and avail of it.  Now is the time to form and check our consciences and make the changes we need to make so that we grow in holiness.  Let us not be like the Pharisee and assume we are right with God.  Let us be like the tax collector and cast ourselves on the Lord’s mercy.  We will find that He has a warm embrace.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

PRAISING THE WONDROUS WORKS OF GOD: A sermon for the Twenty-Eight Sunday in Year C (Luke 17:11-19)

I don't know who made this painting! I will update it as soon as I find out.

As usual you can listen to the sermon here.
Very few of us are familiar with lepers.  We may have seen pictures but thank God it is not a disease that is found here anymore.  It was a living death.  Some have suggested that our modern fascination with zombies is an echo of our forefathers’ horror of lepers, the real walking dead.  The Gospel taught our ancestors to show compassion and charity to lepers and in many places they founded hospitals to that end.  They listened to the Word of God and put that word into action.  They acknowledged God’s mercy to them by showing mercy on the weak and vulnerable.
They understood that following Christ means giving testimony to want He has done for us above all by how we live.  There can be no separation of our Faith from our private lives.  We cannot be Catholic only in private or only on some issues.  It is all or nothing.  While there are many areas that Catholics can disagree with one another over e.g. immigration, taxation, water charges etc., the fundamental moral teaching is not for negotiation.  The Church does not get her moral teaching from Revelation (that which has been revealed to us above all through Christ and His Apostles) but rather Revelation affirms, expands and deepens what we already know by reason.  That is, Revelation affirms the Natural Law.  The Ten Commandments are a condensation of the Natural Law.  As an aside if anyone ever wonders why there are Ten Commandments then simply count your fingers.  The Ten Commandments were revealed to a people that was largely illiterate.  There is a lot more to right and wrong but most of our morality is an ‘unpacking’ of those Ten Commandments.  Of course our Lord added another commandment that we love one another as He has loved us.  This we could not know by reason but only by Revelation.  It required revelation for us to know about the important of forgiveness, of turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, of imitating Christ in His humility and obedience.  This is why our Lord said that not one iota, not one little dot, of the Law would be changed and that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil, that is, complete it.
Now we must not confuse the Natural Law with the Laws of Nature.  The Laws of Nature are what rule the physical world and are studied through the disciplines of science: physics, chemistry and biology.  The Natural Law is what rules the moral world and it is studied by moral philosophy and moral theology.  The Natural Law is known not so much by experiment (unless all of human history can be understood as an experiment) but it is perceived by reason reflecting on what it is to be human and on the experience of conscience.  Conscience is that capacity of the soul to reflect on and examine our actions, to hold them up to inspection and judge them.  Conscience is not infallible but it is a capacity that we must form and foster, educate and nurture so that it becomes ever more sensitive.  The best education and formation a conscience can get is to be informed by the Word of God in the Catholic Faith.  Indeed to listen to an educated and well-formed conscience is place one’s ear next to the mouth of God.

It is conscience that tells us about the demands of the Natural Law which is also the will of God.  For instance, conscience that tells us, without too many arguments or without much thought, that it is always wrong to deliberately and directly take an innocent human life.  That is why we expect a man to go to prison for shooting his neighbour but not for shooting his neighbour’s duck.  The fact that we are fallen of course has shaped how different societies have understood that Law.  The more civilised the society the wider the understanding of the sanctity of human life has become.  It is said that an atheist once while visiting the South Sea Islands commiserated with a Chieftain on how Christianity had damaged his culture.  The Chieftain listened patiently and then said “You see this rock? Before the Christians came I would have killed you with it and eaten your brains.  It is because of the Christians that you are still alive.” Christianity widened our understanding of ‘innocent human being’ to the utmost.  Yet there remains a constant battle against those who would narrow that understanding again.   Some Catholics call them pagans but I call them barbarians because it is back to barbarism they would take us.
It is the conscience, aware of the Natural Law, that affirms that one ought not to speak badly of others, that it is wrong to take what does not belong to you, that one should not covet not only what one’s neighbour owns but that one should not covet his or her spouse as well.  It is the conscience, attentive to the Natural Law, that recognises that the abuse of anyone, especially the young and vulnerable, is deeply evil.

To say that there is a Natural Law is to say there is an objective moral order.  It is Objective because it is outside ourselves and not dependent on our ideas or feelings.  It is Moral because it concerns the actions of all conscious and sentient persons.  It is an Order because it has structure and it is complex.  Indeed it has a beauty all of its own.  That is why the Israelite King Jeshoshaphat led out his army by singing of the beauty of holiness and he won the victory without lifting a sword. This Natural Law was taken for granted up until a few centuries ago when there began a great decay in the intellectual life of the West.  Now it is openly rejected where once it was taught as truth.  This is why our intelligentsia are so distant from the rest of us mere plebs.  Instead of upholding the idea that there is a Natural Law, an objective moral order, that binds us always and everywhere they have erected various theories of law and morality where whatever the State says is legal is also moral unless, of course, they don’t like it. There are some ideas so stupid only really clever people will believe them.
While I was chaplain to UCC I asked a young Catholic student who was doing a Masters on human rights about where those rights came from and she was unable to answer me.  She didn’t know because they had never told her on her course, the question wasn’t raised.  I explained to her that human rights theory grew out from, is founded on, the theory of the Natural Law and that therefore one cannot merely claim a right one has to show that it is in accord with the Natural Law.  It was by the Natural Law that the Nuremberg trials were held because there was no International Law to try the Nazis for what they had done.  What the Nazis did to the Jews was truly evil but it was legal under German Law.  Much of our legal tradition was based on this Natural Law but that is being dismantled and rejected.  It does not suit the social engineers and ideologues who run our country and much of the West.  They want to be able to do what they must because they can.  They want no limit on their actions except the approval of their own followers.  Where once society held up the virtues for us to emulate and extolled moral goodness now we are subjected to the idolatry of personal freedom and the monstrous worship of depravity.   This goes hand in hand with the rejection of Christ and His Church.  One cannot behave as one wishes and still hold to an objective moral order, a Natural Law nor can one hold to Christ and His Church.  Reject the Natural Law and one necessarily rejects Christ.
There is a battle for the soul of our own nation and that of the whole world.  That is where the matter of the Eight Amendment to our Constitution and other issues come in.  Either we give glory to God, proclaim His Truth and uphold what He has established or we deny Him by our silence and inaction.  The Nazis and Communists came to power in various countries because the good stood by and did nothing when they had a chance to make a difference.  The moral order in our society is under revolution and we are called to action.  A soldier who sits in the trench during a battle might as well be siding with the enemy.  It is not just a matter of voting in the right way or for the right politician.  If you do not speak up and get involved in resisting the evil that is threatening this country and the lives of the most vulnerable then you risk forfeiting Heaven.  We cannot expect a welcome from God if we have stood by and allowed His children to be murdered.  You would not welcome such a person into your home so why should God?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Fanning our Faith into a Flame: A homily for the Twenty-Seventh SUNDAY year C (Luke 17:5–10)

It is not easy to be a believer today.  Our Faith, indeed the idea of faith itself, is under constant attack like never before.  We are told that any faith, especially the Catholic Faith, ought to be a private matter, kept at home and done in private, like knitting.  Whereas once the precious gift sex was spoken of in private and in whispers but now is broadcast on every wavelength so now faith that was once such a major part of public life is under pressure to abandon the public sphere and retreat behind closed doors and pulled curtains and dare I say it to retreat even to the bedroom where not so long ago it was told it was not wanted.  The Son of Man has still no place to lay His head.
In that context in today’s Gospel we hear the disciples asking the Lord not for faith but that He literally “Add faith to us.”  They ask Christ for an addition to their faith and to be strengthened in faith. Faith partly depends on us and partly is the gift of the divine grace.  We respond to God’s grace by accepting what has been revealed to us through His Son and His Church, that we have received from our parents, priests and teachers, and living it day to day.  The beginning of faith depends on us and our maintaining confidence and faith in God with all our power, through prayer and conversion of life.  Faith is a seed that we nurture and a flame that we feed.

The confirmation and strength necessary for this comes from Divine grace. For that reason, since all things are possible with God, the Lord says that all things are possible for him who believes. The power that comes to us through faith is of God, it is a gift and a work of the Holy Spirit. Knowing this, blessed Paul also says in the first epistle to the Corinthians, “For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit, and to another faith in the same Spirit.” You see that he has placed faith also in the catalogue of spiritual graces. The disciples requested that they might receive this from the Saviour, contributing also what was of themselves. Our Lord granted it to them after His death and Resurrection by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost. Before the resurrection, their faith was so feeble that they were liable even to the charge of being of “little faith” but afterwards, thought they remained weak and sinful men, they were made strong enough to proclaim Christ even at the cost of their lives.
The mustard seed is about the size of those little black seeds you see on some kinds of bread.  It has a much stronger taste, though, out of all proportion to its size. To put it in more familiar terms: just as the electrical wires in your house are thin yet carry so much power likewise our faith seems small and thin but when it is empowered by the Holy Spirit it can do wonders.  We are not only asked that we believe that God exists.  That is mere natural faith and it cannot save, it cannot get us to Heaven.  We are asked to believe that Jesus is who He says He is, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity made fully human for us, that He is the one and only Saviour of mankind and that He established His Church.  All of this is encapsulated in the Creed we will recite in a few moments.  You should read it in your spare time, even better, pray it! 
How are we to nurture the seed of faith, to fan into a flame the gift that God has given us?  First through heartfelt prayer, then through charity to our neighbour but also through study and learning either by reading or by listening.  We have immense resources available to us today that our ancestors never had yet never has there been such ignorance of the Faith among believers.  A Christian who does not know what Christ and His Church teaches and why is like a soldier who goes into battle with no bullets in his rifle.  He can shout at the enemy but not much else.

It is because of all that Christ has done for us and the infinite love that He pours out upon us that we are to respond not just as servants, still less as slaves, but as friends and lovers, giving our all in return for His all.  We are soldiers on a battlefield and our captain Christ has won the day, it is for us to advance though still under fire from our defeated enemy, and to take souls for Christ.  Even when we have given our all we will not have begun to even approach what He has done for us.  We can never equal His love for us or His generosity but we can at least do our best.  The joy and peace, glory and beauty of Heaven lie ahead of us where we can take our eternal ease but in the mean time we must fight for Christ and take the battle not only into our homes but onto the streets, into our shops and businesses, our jobs and activities and win as many souls for Christ as we can.  He has given us the weapons of the virtues, empowered us with His Holy Spirit and it is He who leads us.  With faith in Him we cannot lose.


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