(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
A homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
A short reflection on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.
‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ John 13:1
Over these first three evenings of Holy Week I would like to share with you some thoughts about the liturgies which will mark our celebrations of Easter. These celebrations are spread over four days which will form a single unit of worship, arranged in two complementary parts; the first is what is called the “Easter Triduum” meaning the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday; the second part will be the joyful celebration of Easter Day on Sunday.
On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist in a special Mass that is traditionally named the “Mass of the Lord’s Supper”. This traditional name can create some confusion, because at every Eucharist we celebrate “the Lord’s Supper”. So, why this name? Because on Maundy Thursday we rehears an aspect of Jesus Last Supper which is not normally part of our liturgy; and this is the washing of the feet. The action of the Lord taking off his outer robe, girding himself with a towel, kneeling at the disciples feet (Cf. John 13:4), and performing a duty reserved only to servants is an integral part of the Eucharistic liturgy that follows it. Both the foot washing and the self-offering of Jesus in the Sacrament are a single act preceded in the gospel of John by the words, ‘Jesus… Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1) Jesus loves us with unsurpassable love, and in his love he stoops down to wash away our impurities, however little or great they might be, so that we may have part with him, so that we may share with him at the Easter feast, of which we are given a lasting pledge in the Eucharist. Not by chance then, these actions of Jesus also form the pattern for our Christian life; they inform us that we should be people who partaking of the holy food of the altar are also the ones who devote themselves to the service of others. At the foot washing, the priest – who stands in the congregation in the person of Jesus – takes off his outer vestment, called chasuble, puts on a towel, and washes the feet of those present who are invited to be followers of Jesus just like the first disciples were.
The Mass will be celebrated with joy, the Gloria will be sung, and the vestments will be white or golden; yet this will be a subdued joy, because this is the evening of the Passion of Our Lord. Soon after having eaten the Passover meal with his disciples, Christ is betrayed into the hands of his enemies while everyone escapes the scene. So after having received Communion we will move into the final part of the service, which is the Watch. We will go with Jesus into the garden, leaving the nave of the church for what is called the “altar of repose”. We will go with Jesus to stay with him for a while remembering his sufferings which began long before the beatings, his anxiety, and his tears for our sake. Jesus will be with us in the Sacrament on the altar and we will be with him in the silence of our contemplation. As we do this, the other altars will be stripped, and all music and noise will be hushed – because Good Friday will be upon us. The silence will be interrupted at times by readings from the Passion according to John. There will be no formal ending to the liturgy, so feel free to stay at the altar of repose for as long or as little as you wish.
Take your time during the celebration of the Easter events to meditate on the liturgy, on the signs and gestures of it all. Let God speak to your soul and nurture your faith through them. He is present and he invites you to love him through the liturgy – which, at the end of the day, is his own gift to the Church.
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)
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
This morning we come to the end of our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments by looking at the last two instructions – “two”, if we use the traditional numbering, or “last one”, if we used the Anglican.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Deuteronomy 5:21)
These last two commandments are precisely the reason behind my preference for the traditional numbering over the Anglican one, which tends to lump together people, animals, personal belongings, and everything else under the Sun in the same precept.
In truth, there is a strong similarity between the two commandments, because both tell us not to unhealthily long after someone or something not available to us. But the Old Testament expressed this idea by using two distinct words in order to highlight the difference between the sense of desire we might experience towards someone else’s wife or husband, and the craving we might feel for something. Because, at the end of the day, a person (such as a wife) and a thing (such as a house or a field) do not belong in the same category and neither should the commandments controlling how we relate to them. The last commandment does mentions people, ‘you shall not desire your neighbour’s …male or female slave’ but only insofar as these servants – especially if numerous and capable – were seen as expressions of their master’s social status.
So, the ninth commandment is primarily a call to refrain from lusting after a person not available to us; whilst the tenth commandment forbids us from wrongly desiring anything whatsoever another person might possess. By keeping them both we would go a long way in keeping also the preceding eight rules because healthy, or orderly desires, lead to sound actions as well.
Conversely, failure to keep these two commandments can be understood in terms of the surreptitious vice of envy, or jealousy, which sooner or later will lead us to break the other commandments as well... But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would see that giving in to envy is a daily temptation for many of us – especially since we are surrounded by a culture where we are continually told that to be the object of envy is a great thing, a where envy of other people’s prosperity is the driving forces behind our consumerism, or at least behind most advertising campaigns.
But we would do well to resist this temptation. Envy is unbecoming to a Christian, ‘for just as rust destroys iron, so too does envy destroy the soul that has it’ (St Basil, Homily on Envy). It is a dangerous spiritual illness that makes our greed to grow exponentially. Under its effects we come to desire inappropriate relationships with people not available to us, and to crave the possession of things that do not belong to us. Envy can also drive us to feel distress at the prosperity of others, resentful towards those people that this disease has wrongly made out to be our rivals, and even to feel cheerful at their misfurtunes.
So what is the remedy against envy? And how can we keep the last two commandments? Sheer will-power can do only so much, but there are other two complementary ways to be immunised against envy. The first one is to take love as our yardstick once again. Loving our neighbours as ourselves will necessarily prevent us from coveting their fortunes in an attempt of making these our own. Furthermore, by loving our neighbours we will learn to exercise kindness, which is the habit diametrically opposed to envy. Instead of being distressed at the prosperity of others or happy at their demise, we will learn to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [and to] live in harmony with one another’ (Rom 12:15-16)
The second way to root out envy and to keep the commandments is learning to depend on God’s Providence. I spoke about this a few weeks back, but putting our ultimate trust in Providence is truly an essential tool for overcoming envy – if we really make God’s love for us the foundation of our existence, then no-one else’s wealth, husband, wife, or social status will ever cause us to be envious. And eventually we will be able to genuinely say with St Paul,
‘we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these’ (1Tim 6:7-8).
Over the last couple of weeks we looked at the first three of the Ten Commandments and what they say about our relationship with God – how, how often, whom, and why we should worship.
Today we continue in our Lenten study of the commandments, and we turn our attention very briefly to the second half of the list;
You shall not murder.
Neither shall you commit adultery.
Neither shall you steal.
Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:17-21)
Expressed all in the negative, these commandments look like a fairly straightforward list of prohibitions encompassing a limited number of offenses that finds a close parallel in our criminal system. Our laws too command us not to murder, not to steal, and not to lie in court; because committing any of these offenses would severely destabilise our society, and deprive victims of a few basic human rights.
But the parallel between the commandments we find in the Scriptures and the regulation of civil society ends here. Because the commandments express much more than simple God-given regulations to help individuals get along with each other. Unlike in the case of criminal laws which command the respect of all subjects, the Ten Commandments are primarily the guidelines, or the if you will, regulating the covenant relationship between God and the people who belong to him through faith – meaning they regulate the relationship between God and us. Therefore, even in the case of commandments that prohibit us from harming others, God is still involved. And every time we break such a commandment we endanger our relationship with God, because God considers our relationship with him dependent on the ways we relate to our neighbours, not just on the ways we relate to him directly, through worship and prayer.
But I say more. As Christians we must interpret these four commandments in the light of the Lord Jesus who, on one hand, gives us newer and more stringent regulations to follow such as in the Sermon on the Mount (Cf. Matthew 5:21-30); whilst, on the other hand, he encourages us to understand that love – and in this case love for our neighbours – is the only possible fulfilment for any commandment (Cf. Matt 22:39). This is why Saint Paul later writes to the Galatians saying ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Galatians 5:14); or again to the Romans ‘[the commandments] are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:9-10)
So, as Christians, our task is not simply to abide to the letter of the commandments and to refrain from doing evil; instead we are called to interpret them in a positive way, according to the royal law, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). In other words, keeping the commandments is a good place to start, but the Lord commands us to actively and intentionally do good. In this way the list of commandments could be expressed in a positive sense saying;
You shall promote life.
You shall live faithfully.
You shall share.
You shall speak truth.
When we take in consideration all these things we can see that in the Ten Commandments God shows himself not as a distant referee who is ready to judge human relationships from a point of lofty neutrality. Rather, here God manifests himself as someone so deeply involved in our day-to-day lives as believers, that the moment we willingly transgress and hurt another person we necessarily wound his gracious love for us; and the moment we willingly do good for our neighbour we also do good for, and honour him.
[At the end of all things] the righteous will say him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the Lord will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:37-40)
This morning we continue our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments, and we turn our attention to the third one;
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy,
as the Lord your God commanded you.
For six days you shall labour
and do all your work.
But the seventh day is a sabbath
to the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 5:12-14)
Last Monday evening, as we begun the Pilgrim Course, we started with the simple exercise of remembering the Ten Commandments as a group, but try as we may, for a couple minutes we only managed to get up to nine. That is, until divine inspiration struck one of us and she said, “Keep the Sabbath holy”. But the forgetfulness of our little group about the third commandment is pretty much indicative of what has been happening for decades within the Church – the idea that corporate worship is somehow optional for a Christian coupled with changes to Sunday trading regulations have severely weakened the religious and moral obligation to attend Sunday worship, and particularly to attend a Communion service; to the point that many people have even forgotten (or never even heard) that there is a commandment about this.
Yet, the commandment to observe the Lord’s Day and to keep it holy remains. Shabbat, the word from which we get the Sabbath, simply means “rest” and it connects us to the primordial origins of a day of rest found in the book of Genesis, when God is said to have rested on the seventh day, after having completed his work of creation (Cf. Gen 2:2-3). The Sabbath also embodies the celebration of how God later rescued the children of Israel from slavery at the first Passover, and it is still celebrated as such by the Jewish people. Both of these Scriptural events – God’s rest after creation and the redemption of Israel – form the backdrop to the new Sabbath, the new Lord’s Day, we keep as Christians. On Sundays we celebrate the salvation Christ won for us through his passion and death, and we rejoice in the new creation being inaugurated in him through his resurrection on the first day of the week.
Then, how should Christians ‘observe Sabbath and keep it holy’? The third commandment does not require us to do anything extraordinary or convoluted. In fact, Jesus says, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). And with this Jesus shows his followers that the point of the Sabbath is not to abide to strict regulations about precisely what to do, or how far one ought to walk, and so on. On one hand, to keep the Lord’s Day “holy” means precisely to set it aside, as it were, from normal or working days, in order to use the free time the Sabbath affords us to nurture our relationships with God and with his people, enjoying the company of the church family, and to recharge our batteries for the new week. Thus, Christians should not work on a Sunday, wherever that is possible and not essential; and we ought to avoid those trivial activities that deprive other workers of the Sabbath rest with their families – even if these should not be Christians themselves. On the other hand, to “observe” the Sabbath means to participate in the corporate worship of the people of God and to remember together the Lord’s redeeming acts for us all. This is particularly relevant in the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Mass, which is the everlasting memorial (the making present in our midst) of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.
But I think there is more to this. The Mass holds a special place in the Sunday pattern of worship as this is the only thing the Lord ever directly told us to do so that he might be present among us;
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ (Luke 22:19)
Do this. Not café church, or sweaty church, or praying at home, or whatever else. Jesus says, “Do this.” And as a consequence Christians have gathered on Sundays to celebrate the memorial of the Christ’s own Passover, which we now know as the Eucharist or the Mass, since the earliest times. Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles tell us this at several points saying that disciples “broke the bread” together every Sundays at the very least, in not more often.
At this service we find ourselves gathered from every walk of life in the presence of the risen Lord as the new people of God. This is “source and summit” of our life as a Christian community; and it really should be regarded as the focal point of our week – the one thing we cannot do without, no matter what. Above all, the “this” the Lord tells us to do is the true fulfilling of the third commandment.
‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.’
May we use this season of Lent to deepen our love and appreciation of the Mass, both on Sundays and on weekdays, so that through this sacrament we may grow ever closer to the Lord. Amen.
‘You must worship the Lord your God,
and serve him alone.’ (Matthew 4:10)
Lent should be a time of spiritual renewal in which we ought to prepare ourselves for ministry in the world, like the Lord Jesus did before us, as he prayerfully fasted in the wilderness ahead of his public ministry. So I thought it might be good and useful for us to spend some time looking at the Ten Commandments together; and to shake the dust off form this core text of the Scriptures that many have forgotten or consider redundant.
The list of the Commandments opens with a short introduction in which the Lord first reminds us about his relation to us. He says,
‘I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery’ (Deuteronomy 5:6)
In saying this, God shows himself as saviour, as the powerful redeemer who breaks the bonds of slavery for those who believe in him. And this important reminder allows us to interpret the rules that follow, not as a mass of incomprehensible regulations limiting our freedom, but as the divine framework ensuring our flourishing as human beings, and our attainment of eternal life. Because God is the liberator of his people, he is not in the business of imposing laws as yet another yoke of slavery; rather he establishes the commandments so that we might find true freedom in following them.
The First Commandment,
‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Dt 5:7),
may be initially thought just as a blanket ban on other gods. But, this is not all that the commandment requires from us. Instead this calls us to firmly centre our faith, love, and hope on God, with the intention of serving him alone. So, even though we do not believe in other gods, we ought to make sure we do not fall to the temptation to worship and serve something other than God, thinking that that something will bring us happiness and fulfilment. Maybe we have let material things to become our (inalterable) points of reference in life; be it an addiction, money, or possessions… Or maybe we have allowed other realities to replace due worship of God; things such as superstitions and indifference towards religion (which is always popular!). But in all these things, today’s gospel shows us what it means to keep this commandment whilst being faced by temptations; food, personal safety, and power can never come between us and obedience to God, because he alone is worthy of our service.
The Second Commandment,
‘You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God’ (Dt 5:11),
could be easily interpreted just as a ban on blasphemy and swearing. But in reality, what is prescribed here goes beyond simply ensuring respect for God and preventing people from cursing him outsight. Instead the second commandment calls us to use carefully, and prayerfully, one of the most precious gifts God gives to those who believe in him – the gift of believing in his name. In the Scriptures God reveals his name, in an intimate way, only to his people; but even then, his name is only used in the context of worship, prayer, and blessing, because to speak God’s name means to confess and to call upon the constant, unchangeable being, …faithful loving and just, without any evil (Cf. CCC 2086) who is above all that exists. Likewise, the name of Jesus is most Holy, as St Paul says, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bend’ (Philippians 2:10), and similar respect should be observed when talking about the saints.
A positive way to express this commandment could be ‘You shall honour the name of God as Holy’. Because this name and the realities connected to it are “set apart” and cannot be used in trivial matters or, as we do so often, as an exclamation. But there is more, remember how Jesus said in the gospel a few weeks back, ‘Do not swear at all… Let your word be “Yes” if you mean Yes” or “No” if you mean No”’ (Cf. Matt 5:33-37). This is because to take an oath falsely, or to make a promise I do not intend to keep, in the name of God is to ask God to be witness to my lie, bringing dishonour upon him.
Far from being redundant, the first two commandments should help us reflect on what it means to be in relationship with God. Do we perceive what is being asked of us as Christians to be a burden? or do we consider serving God as a loving response to him for calling us to be his people?