(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
A short reflection on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.
On this mountain God will destroy
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7-8)
There are a number of things people say to us when we are grieving the loss of a loved one as they try to console our aching hearts, and shield us from the reality of death. They many share their memories of the deceased with us, and tell us that they wouldn’t want us to cry. They may try to comfort us with well-meant thoughts of a spiritual nature saying things like, “He’ll be watching over you”, or “She’s one of God’s angels now”. Even lines from popular funeral poems may be used such as, “He only takes the best”, or “death is nothing at all”. But the thing is, after a while, everything starts sounding like empty platitudes. When the passing of time makes us angry because our memories begin to fade, when the silence of an empty home can seem to drown out every poem or song… In these moments the sadness and harshness of death can leave us even more confused than before. Then, where do we turn?
The Bible does not try to shield us for the sorrow of death. In the Scriptures death is often seen as heart-breaking, but to this sadness is the Bible contrasts the hope, and yes, even the joy, that we can find in God – because it is only through God’s mercy, that this harsh reality of human existence does not have the final word over our lives and over the lives of those who have gone before us.
In our first reading the prophet Isaiah calls death for what it really is. We read that death is like a ‘shroud that is cast over all peoples’; it is a sheet – a funeral cloth – under which everyone is lives; and finally, it is a ‘disgrace’. But, the prophet also says, God will destroy death forever, and he will restore life to his creation. And when we come to end of all things, there is a banquet, a feast, waiting for God’s people where the Lord himself will wipe away every tear form our eyes, as a parent would do consoling his children.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines. (Is 25:6)
I was recently at a funeral of a friend of mine at St Albans Abbey and the Dean used a beautiful phrase; he said, ‘When we are at the Altar we are not defined my death’. Tonight, as we come to this holy place to remember and to pray for our loved ones, we come to the mountain described by Isaiah, to the place where God prepares a feast for his people. The Mass we offer for those who have died and the holy food we receive break the barrier, as it were, between this world and the next. At the altar, we meet in spirit with those who have gone before us, and we are given a pledge of what is to come – of the joy and celebration of being reunited with our loved ones in the presence of God for ever.
So, the message of tonight’s service, much like the slogan for Sky, is “Believe in better”. Don’t let those well-meant poems and those platitudes that are often used at funerals delude you. Put your faith in the words of the Scriptures, in the words of Jesus, and in the Mass we celebrate tonight.
On this mountain God …will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7-8)
Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:21)
The age-old saying ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ plays a key role in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees and the Herodians were two rival factions at the time of Jesus; the first a group of fierce religious nationalists who hated the Romans and their ways, the second a group of collaborators who thrived under the Roman occupation of Palestine, and had embraced many of the non-Jewish customs imported by the Empire. Yet, these two bitterly divided groups found a point of unity in persecuting Jesus and – as Mark’s gospel tells us – in plotting to kill him (cf. Mark 6:3).
Jesus had been a strong critic of sectarian groups such as these, and he had lashed out against their interpretation of religion many times before. Now it was the time for Pharisees and Herodians to hit back. And today’s question about taxation finds its origin in their unlikely alliance. In the minds of both groups, their clever question would have been a catch 22 for Jesus; if the Lord answered that Roman taxation was wrong, he could have been accused before the authorities and put to death; while if Jesus endorsed paying tributes to the foreign super-power of his day, he would have lost the support of many of his followers who were, after all, mostly Jewish. But, as we read, Jesus is not fooled by clever arguments; not then, not now, not ever. And I guess many people still struggle with his response to this day.
Even among us there are those who would find it rather satisfying if Jesus had launched himself into a long discourse about unjust taxes, or if he had laid the foundations of modern democracy saying things like “no taxation without representation”. But he didn’t. Likewise, other people would be rather pleased if Jesus had used this occasion to endorse, one and for all, a specific way of government or another, or if he had laid out some clear guidelines for political leaders. But he didn’t. In fact, Jesus only said then, and says to us now, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
But what does it even mean? Is this some clever trick Jesus used to get out of a tight spot? Are these are the words of someone who wishes to sit on the fence in order not to lose followers? One could definitely interpret the story in this way, but it would not quite fit within the Christian narrative.
Here Jesus is giving us a simple moral commandment. He is establishing some ground rules for the ways in which Christians are to behave in in the world. On one hand, Caesar represents the state, and for Jesus giving back to Caesar means paying the taxes we owe and striving to be upstanding members of society. From the gospels it is clear that Jesus does not endorse the brutalities committed by the Roman Empire, or by any other political system for that matter, but he commands his followers to be good citizens of whatever nation they find themselves living in. This idea of good citizenship is also picked up in the writing of St Paul where he says, ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ (1Tim 2:1-2).
On the other hand, giving to God that which rightfully belongs to him may not seems so clear-cut, so well defined, as filling out an HMRC form or respecting the rules of society. But in Jesus we see that giving to God means paying to him our homage of worship in a way that encompasses everything we do; being constant in prayer, faithful in worshipping together, confident in the faith, generous towards those in need and towards the Church, and pursuing (campaigning for) justice and peace for this world.
In short, today’s gospel recognises that Christians – all of us – are caught up between two competing worlds; between God and Caesar, between the demands of religion and demands of the society we live in; and with his words Jesus strikes some sort of truce between these two worlds. He invites us to play our part in society as good citizens, as long as our duties towards God have the absolute priority, because – as St Paul wrote to the Philippians – at the end of the day ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20).
1Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19
Christians ‘are to do good, and be rich in good works
…generous, and willing to share.’ (1Tim 6:18)
This week, I spent some time with a group of students from All Saints’ Academy helping them to compose a prayer for the whole school. In our conversation we discussed the nature of hope because it features quite prominently in the school vision. We also looked at how hope differs from wishful thinking; and, in the end, we reached the conclusion that hope must relate somehow to the way we live in order to be different from simple wishful thinking.
In the Christians sense hope is a virtue; it is something that we must put in practice, not an abstract concept. Hope has to inform what we do, so that we can dedicate our efforts into realising or attaining that which is hoped for. So for example, in the case of our students, if I hope for good GCSE results, I must also work towards getting good results and not just sit there waiting for divine inspiration to hit me during exams. Or, in the case of believers, if I hope in the life of the world to come, then I must work to live here and now some of those things I will fully experience in heaven, such as justice, union with God, and peace…
But as we the students and I talked about this, our attention instinctively turned towards many of the terrible world events that would seem to work against any bright hope for the future; terrorism, hurricanes, and mass shootings to name a few. Where does practicing hope fit in all this? And can we even dare to pray for those affected by such tragedies when so many people say that our “thoughts and prayers” are just meaningless words? These are old questions, really. But, as the students were, so some of you might also be aware of the debate which flared up again this week, particularly on social media, about those who pledge their thoughts and prayers when something terrible happens. We see and hear this continually as natural disasters are followed by acts of terrorism, or other downright evil events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. “Thoughts and prayers”, or “Pray for this city”, “pray for that place”; these are the the refrains many people use in such situations, but once the heat of the moment has passed they move on with their lives as if nothing actually happened. And this is really what can puzzles non-believers and turn them away from religion altogether. But, like hope, if prayer is not followed by action, then it risks remaining a sterile act; a list of proposition and requests to an omnipotent being in the sky. Instead, prayer has to inform what we do. Just as being people of hope, should inspire us to build here and now the future we hope to attain, so it is with prayer. If we pray for an end to conflicts, we should be people of peace – peacemakers, even; if we pray for an end to terrorism, we should endeavour to soothe our peoples’ fears; and if we pray for justice, we should in turn campaign for it and begin to act justly ourselves.
But what has this got to do with Harvest? Well, as it is with hope and prayer, so it is with gratitude. This morning we come together to give thanks for the bounty of food and means at our disposal every day; but if all we did today was to just sit here sending up very Anglican, half-asked, “thank yous” to God, I don’t think that would quite be enough. Gratitude, must relate to what we do; it must inform the way we live as Christians. Gratitude must inspire us to show our thankfulness to God in some meaningful, tangible way. So, if we really are grateful for what the Lord provides us, if – as St Paul says in our second reading – we are genuinely content with what we have (cf. 1Tim 6:6) then we ought to show it by offering generous gifts to God out of the plenty we have received from him: gifts that today will provide sustenance to our neighbours in need.
The First Letter to Timothy is quite clear about this. Christians, satisfied by the Lord’s divine providence, should in turn be generous and willing to share. In fact, Paul says, we should do good and be rich in good works funded by the precious gifts we have received from God. So, the food we have brought to church this morning, the food that the families of Thomas Whitehead Academy have offered, all these are our thanksgiving offerings to God, made – I hope – with a willing and generous heart.
Without action hope remains wishful thinking; without action prayer remains a shopping list we present to God; without action gratitude remains a polite nod to God for something we thought was rightfully ours anyway.
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you. (cf. 1Chronicle 29)
Father Peter Stannard’s homily for the Assumption of Mary that was celebrated on 13th August
Cast your mind back to your school days and I’m sure that like me you can remember the subjects you loved and those you hated. Me, I loved English and hated Maths , for you it may have been the complete opposite. Years later the same rule applied to theological college. Others took to learning New Testament Greek like ducks to water; for me it was a real pain. It was all the more painful because I knew how important it was to be able to read the scriptures in their original languages and to gain important insights as a result.
Take the Greek word Kalos meaning “Good”. It is used in John 10 where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. The word is significant in more than one way. I find the most delightful is that good means handsome or beautiful. The good shepherd is the beautiful shepherd. Jesus is utterly beautiful and it is that sheer beauty that makes him compellingly attractive. It is that amazing charisma that causes the first disciples to instantly drop everything and immediately follow him. The hymn writer got it right with those famous words, “Fix your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the cares of the world will grow strangely dim in the light of his wonder and grace.’ That is the business of heaven: the sheer joy of gazing on the transfigured and transfiguring beauty of Jesus in his glory.
So what has this to do with the Assumption of Our Lady? Well I’m sure you know where I’m going. Jesus derives this beauty not just by being very God of very God, the source of all beauty, but also by being his mother’s son. Jesus is utterly beautiful because Mary is utterly beautiful too. They share a beauty to which countless religious artists fail to do justice. Of course Jesus gains his goodness through Mary in other ways too. Goodness is also a moral quality and Mary , by example, raises Jesus to be good This is rather more important than it first appears. Luke tells us that after losing Jesus for three days, Mary and Joseph find him in the Temple listening and asking questions. He then returns to Nazareth with them and , Luke points out , is obedient to them. Long before Jesus was tested in the wilderness , he learned goodness from Mary and Joseph. Through infancy, childhood, youth and beyond, Jesus’ formation - his capacity to choose the good and resist temptation - is down to Mary and Joseph.
Good means beautiful. Good means of high moral standing. Good also means efficient, effective, fit for purpose. And once again this applies to Our Lady. Mary had a unique and vital role in God’s plan for our salvation. She was chosen, predestined, to be united with Jesus in the victory over sin and death. Without her it would have been impossible. That God enabled her to fulfil this role is implied by the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting, ‘Hail Mary full of grace’. It is by his grace that God enables us to accomplish his will. But to understand this more fully we need to go beyond scripture to the Church’s teaching.
Mary could have said no to God. The good lord does not override our free will. But he predisposed her to say yes not just by his grace but by her redemption in anticipation of what Christ would achieve. Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Thus equipped for her unique vocation, the sinless Mother cooperates with the sinless Son until at the end of her earthly life, she was taken body and soul into heavenly glory there to take her place as Queen of Heaven. Formerly the son was conformed to his mother in obedience to the Father’s will; at her taking her place in heaven she is conformed to her son as conqueror over sin and death. The assumption of Mary is a singular participation in her son’s resurrection and an anticipation of our own resurrection.
And if that language does for you what New Testament Greek did for me, I’ll risk putting it very bluntly: Heaven couldn’t be heaven without Mary as Queen. Christ in all his glory couldn’t bear to be without her. And let me put it more bluntly still with a simple story. Some years ago I took part in a sponsored walk for Christian Aid. We followed what is called St. Cuthbert’s Way from the Scottish borders down to Holy Island on the Northumbrian coast. Even with training (which I wasn’t very good at) it was a killer of a pilgrimage. Finally, finally, finally, we got to the last stretch for the finishing post only to be cheered along by a happy crowd of people waiting eagerly for us to join them, waiting for every last one of us to reach our goal.
Simple enough. But it offers a glimpse of what the Christian pilgrimage and the prospect of heaven are all about. Having gone before us through trial and difficulty, Mary our mother in union with Jesus waits for us in heaven, helping us on our way, cheering us on to completion and joy.
Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14
The Transfiguration of the Lord with all its display of glory and divine beauty forms a watershed in the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke because on the top of this mountain, as we look back, we see the fulfilment of many Old Testament scenes, and looking forward towards, we see what the future has in store for Jesus and then for all of us – we see the Cross, the Resurrection, and the final consummation of salvation history. For example, in the appearance of Moses we find an echo of his ascent to Mount Sinai when he received God’s Word chiselled on stone tablets and was allowed to see the back of God; except that here Moses is able to talk directly to the Word-of-God-made-flesh and to see God’s radiant face. In the appearance of Elijah we find an echo of his encounter with God, when the Lord spoke to him about the mission he had to accomplish, not through ‘the earthquake, wind, and fire’ but with a ‘still, small voice of calm’ (Cf. 1Kings 19:12). And in the bright cloud that engulfs the entire scene we see one of Scripture’s favourite images to describe God’s glory.
Looking to the future, the Transfiguration gives us a sure pledge that Jesus will fulfil Daniel’s prophecy about a man on whom is ‘conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship’ (Dan. 7:13), and that, in his radiant splendour, the Lord will appear at the end of time as a bright lightning that lights up the entire sky (Cf. Matt. 24:27). So in essence, the Transfiguration shows us in no uncertain terms the profound reality of Jesus’ divine nature as ‘God from God’ and ‘Light from Light’. But the reason behind this display is not Jesus’ desire to brag or impress, because he never considered ‘equality with God something to be used to his own advantage’ (Philippians 2:6); but it comes out of the Lord’s desire to instruct and strengthen Peter, James, and John in their faith in preparation for the Easter events and for their mission in the world.
The Transfiguration then can be interpreted as a brief pause, as Jesus’ intimate revelation of his true nature to his closest disciples, before he has to ascend another hill and accomplish a dramatically different event. And it is here that the disciples, though terrified by the experience, realise that being in the Lord’s company was everything they had always desired. Peter’s proposition about staying on the mountain seems perfectly reasonable… As Saint Augustine comments,
‘On the mountain... [Peter] had Christ as the food of his soul. Why should he have to go down to return to his hard work and sorrows while up there he was filled with holy love for God which inspired in him a holy way of life?’ (Sermon 78, 3)
If we too caught and understood even just a glimpse of Jesus’ beauty and glory, who wouldn’t want to bask in his light? And who would want to leave?
I hope that each of us has his or her own Transfiguration moments and spaces in which they can be instructed and strengthened by Jesus by the simple fact of being with him, and having him as “food for their souls”… When we come together to celebrate the Mass – each Sunday and for a few of us here even most days of the week – we spiritually climb the mountain of the Transfiguration to be with Jesus as he comes to us in the Sacrament, and to listen to his voice in the Scriptures. Here we get a glimpse of what the life of heaven will be like, here the Lord displays his glory, and here he nurtures the life of faith. But following Jesus we must come down the mountain with him, and after celebrating Mass, we must return to our labours so that the beauty we have experienced might be replicated in the world.
Over the past weeks we listened to several parables about the Kingdom of God. And even though the Transfiguration of the Lord is a real event in the life of Jesus, it forms for us a further parable about the Christian life; we must continuously ascend the spiritual mountain to meet God and then, coming back down, bear ‘the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love’ (BXVI, Lent Message 2013, n.3).
Through the parables Jesus explained to us how the Kingdom grows and takes hold in subtle, almost unseen ways, until its beauty is fully manifested for all to see. The Kingdom is like yeast in the dough (Cf. Matt. 13:33); like the rarest of pearls (Cf. Matt. 13:45); like a small seed (Cf. Matt. 13:31). These parables mirror most people’s experience of faith as a slow, and sometimes difficult, process of growth accomplished through prayers, learning, and the practice good habits; a life-long commitment to following Christ until his is fully formed in us, until – as St Paul says – we have grown into the full stature of Jesus (Cf. Eph. 4:13), and until God’s Kingdom is clearly manifested in who we are and by what we do. But as today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord we catch a glimpse of what the final manifestation of the Kingdom will be like; we are given a foretaste of the moment when the Lord Jesus will be fully revealed in the glory and majesty of his divine nature.