(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
A short reflection on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A short reflection on the life of Saint Bernardine of Siena (1380 - 1444)
What is friendship with Jesus?
A short reflection on John 15.12-17 where the Lord Jesus calls his followers to be his friends.
A short reflection on the gospel reading set for Mass on Wednesday of the 5th week of Eastertide - John 15.1-8
A short reflection on the gospel reading set for Mass on Tuesday of the 5th week of Eastertide - John 14.27-31
James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
‘Pure, unspoilt religion… is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows… and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’ (James 1:27)
A few weeks ago a fellow priest was filmed on a programme about pilgrimage while making the following statement; ‘I am not religious’. This was a last-ditch attempt to spark a meaningful conversation about faith with another pilgrim, but the contentious nature of that phrase remained the same – a priest of the established Church of this land said, ‘I am not religious’. The whole incident was rather telling; not so much about the priest speaking, but rather about how society views people who might describe themselves as religious. Being religious can be misunderstood as a bad thing; as an alternative description for either being blinkered, or outright killjoys with fundamentalist tendencies. And if that be the case – most definitely – who would want to be labelled as “religious”?
This morning we begin to explore the Letter of James. In writing this letter the Apostle James had in mind a Christian community formed by both long-standing, paid-up, members who needed a little refreshing course, as well as by people who stood on the fringes – sort of half-way in and half-way out of the Church – those who couldn’t quite commit themselves to be “religious” in the Christian sense. Sound familiar? James’ Church is our own Church too, in many respects. Every church community will have both those who attend Sunday services religiously (that word again!) and then forget about God for the other 167 hours of the week, as well as those who would put themselves down as Christians on a census form, but who would come to Mass once or twice a year tops – and, of course, everyone in between. Common to both of these groups is their unwillingness to let the Christian faith actually shape the way in which they live. And to both of these groups James writes a simple set of instructions, a basic guide on how to be a Christian and on what it means to be religious in the way God intended for us to be.
The passage we encounter this morning starts from the very beginning saying that it is not good enough for Christians to listen to God’s word and then do nothing about it. James affirms that if this is our attitude towards Christianity and the Church, this just won’t do; in fact, he says, we are deceiving ourselves (Cf. James 1:22). This type of faith will not save us. Instead, he says, as believers we have to do something, we have to be “religious people” – that is, not narrow-minded individuals, but those who act according to God’s instructions and God’s example. But what are these instructions? We find a clear one at verse 27; ‘coming to the help of orphans and widows’.
As James puts it, God chose each one of us to be his own beloved child in the Lord Jesus. God made us his children in the waters of Baptism. Consequently, as his children, we are called then to do the same works of God our Father does. In the Scriptures God is described as the defender of those who do not have anyone to plead their causes – represented by orphans, widows, foreigners, and people on the margins (Cf. Psalm 85:5). Then, if God our Father does these things, we are to do the same, just as children learn core behaviours by imitating what their parents do. Christian social action becomes part of the way we worship of God; and the way we treat the least in our society becomes the measure of whether we are “religious” or not.
The second instruction we find is to remain ‘uncontaminated by the world.’ As James puts it, our social environment and the wider community we live in are instrumental in forming our characters – and quite often not in a good way. Because of the bad things we experience and the evil that we may endure, over the years, we could change, becoming more cynical and selfish, less disposed to do good, and increasingly blind to the needs of others. But this, James says, should not happen among Christians. God our Father is not influenced or contaminated by the world, nothing can sway him from his generosity and his purpose of doing good… we read, ‘with [God] there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow of a change’ (James 1:17). Therefore we – his children – must make sure that nothing in this world could poison our hearts with bitterness and cynicism.
‘Pure, unspoilt religion… is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows… and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’
Being religious is not a call to be fundamentalists or to be narrow-minded people. In the Christian sense, being religious is a balancing act between worship in church and doing good in the world. It is a loving response to God for choosing us to be his children; the way in which we imitate our heavenly Father, and the way in which we grow into the likeness of God.
All this is summed up in one verse from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel; ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48).
Text: John 6:60-69
‘After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.’ (John 6:66)
We often read together stories from the gospel where the Lord Jesus is revered, sought by many, and listened to. When we hear of opposition, this generally comes from outside, from the people who do not accept him and look for to his demise. John 6 – which we finish today – has so far fitted into these parameters. Jesus has worked miracles, he has been pursued by the crowd who even wanted to make him king by force (Cf. John 6:15), he has taught countless people and he has revealed himself as ‘the living bread that came down from heaven’ (John 6:51). Whilst opposition has come from the usual places and it was summarised last week in a simple question, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52).
However, as we reach the end of the Bread of Life discourse we encounter something different – an unexpected turn of events where both openness and opposition to Jesus come from among the same group, from among his disciples. The reading picks up from where we left it last week and says, ‘After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?”’ (John 6:60).
The disciples hear Jesus saying ‘my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55), they hear him talk of his body as the Bread which give life to the world (Cf. John 6:51), and they are stunned by these words. A rift opens among them. On one side, many disciples – not one or two, but “many” – are sceptic about how Jesus could ever give his own self as food, and they brand his teaching as “intolerable language” – in other translations this is rendered as “unacceptable saying”, or a “hard teaching”… On the other side, we have Peter and the other eleven disciples – whom, far from being perfect, trust in the Lord’s word and remain with him. The rift among the disciples hangs on this; Jesus said,
‘Very truly, I tell you... Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6:53-55).
Think about it. Of course this is could be seen as an unacceptable saying. Many disciples thought they were following a religious leader who would have restored freedom to the people of Israel with his revolutionary ideas. But what they hear now from him is a speech about giving himself up as food and drink to those who believe… What on Earth could this even mean? As a consequence, the gospel tells us, a good number of disciples leave Jesus – they literally do the opposite of conversion; they turn away from him – and stop travelling with him.
The words of Jesus plunge disciples into crisis, and still to this day the Bread of Life discourse is the stumbling block for many Christians. The teaching about the Sacrament of the Eucharist, about Jesus’ Body and Blood, has become a visible rift within the Church for the last 500 years at least – but it has been present since the very beginning. The fact that Jesus is present on our altars with his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is an unacceptable doctrine for many but the cause of hope, consolation, and joy for others. It all depends what side of the divide we decide to go for.
‘The Eucharist is the place where one comes to eternal life. Encountering the broken flesh and the spilled blood of Jesus, “lifted up” on the cross (vv. 53-54), [we] called to make a decision for or against the revelation of God in that encounter (vv. 56-58), gaining or losing life because of it (vv. 53-54)’ (F.J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, p. 224).
The words of Jesus may be a difficult saying to understand, but that should not be an obstacle to faith. Jesus calls us to believe in him and in the mystery of his Body and Blood, not to have a PhD in sacramental theology. Therefore, when he says to us ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ we have a straightforward choice. We can stubbornly rely on ourselves and our cynicism, believing only what we can prove or understand (like the many disciples did), or we can courageously embrace the faith, aiming to rely solely on the Lord Jesus and on his words no-matter-what – never ever letting go of him.
It could be that the Lord Jesus is addressing us today as he did to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ (John 6:67). But, through Saint Peter, the gospel gives us the words with which we should answer him. Kneeling at the altar rail to receive the Body and Blood of Christ it is as if we were saying, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life’ (John 6:67).
Text: John 6:51-58
[They] started arguing with one another:
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52)
In 1263 the small Italian town of Bolsena became the backdrop for one of the most famous miracles of the Middle Ages when, in the ancient church of Saint Christina, the consecrated host inexplicably began to bleed during Mass. The host, the Bread of the Eucharist, bled over the priest’s hands and over the corporal – the square linen placed on the altar. The corporal stained with Lord’s blood was taken to the city of Orvieto and enshrined as a relic in the cathedral where it attracted both pilgrims and sceptics who wanted to see this wonder for themselves. Almost 800 years later that corporal is still there on display; still the cause of much devotion for believers and of speculation for sceptics. Perhaps more remarkable (and relevant for us) than the miracle itself is the back story of the priest who was celebrating Mass when all this took place; the man whose hands were touched by the blood flowing from the host. He himself wasn’t the stuff of miracles or a famous wonderworker; he was just a pilgrim on his way to Rome named Peter of Prague. He was devout and committed priest but, as the story goes, Pater also harboured doubts that the Lord Jesus could be truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And so, this miracle that touched him so literally was soon perceived by people as God’s own intervention to restore the faith of one of his doubting servants. But it didn’t stop there; news of this baffling event spread like wildfire and the Miracle of Bolsena became the cause of much devotion and catalyst for renewed faith in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Today the lectionary presents us with the most important instalment of the Bread of Life discourse from John’s gospel. And as we listen to the Lord Jesus saying, ‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven’ (John 6:51), we too might start to feel a little like Pater of Prague. In fact, we might be tempted to dismiss the entirety of John 6 as nonsense or as a convoluted metaphor, by echoing the words of Jesus’ opposers who say, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
For three-quarters of the Church’s history the vast majority of Christians have believed that Jesus comes to be really and truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist; have believed that the bread and the wine offered on the altar are permanently changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; and have believed that through participation at the altar (by receiving Holy Communion) soul and body are nourished with Christ himself. Then came the various waves and controversies of the Reformation, and with them arrived terrible confusion for the average person in the pew as well as doubts about the presence of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. Ironically, it was precisely those reformers who advocated a form of Christianity based simply on literal teachings of the Bible who brought many Christians to doubt the very words of Christ himself and to ask sceptically once again, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
The result of this dreadful confusion is that so many devout and committed Christians nowadays harbour doubts like Peter of Prague; so many are left confused. They stay away from the Mass, regarding Holy Communion as an optional extra, rather than a necessary, personal, and intimate encounter with the Lord Jesus. A repeat of the Miracle of Bolsena would be a great blessing from God, and it may help Christians to recover faith in the Eucharist. But where would it leave us in the long run? Do we really need another Eucharistic miracle in order to reaffirm the belief that Jesus is present for us on the altar? The truth is that we don’t. If we needed miracles, then God would provide them. We have something greater than miracles here; we have the word of the Lord Jesus… and if we can’t trust the word of Christ, who could we trust?
‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ People might ask, but to this question Jesus simply and unequivocally replies, “the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Cf. John 6:51) and,
‘my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55).
Whenever we approach the altar rail at Holy Communion, or whenever we approach the tabernacle, Jesus is there for us – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The one who loves us, is here for us. The one feeds us, is here for us. The one who saves us, is here for us.
Though the lowliest form doth veil thee
as of old in Bethlehem,
here, as there, thine angels hail thee…
…here for faith's discernment pray we,
lest we fail to know thee now.
Thou art here, we ask not how.
(from Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour)
By Father Diego Galanzino SMMS
Revelation/Apocalypse 11:19,12:1-6,10 - Psalm 44(45):10-12,16
‘On your right stands the Queen in gold of Ophir.’ Psalm 44(45):10
If we opened our Bibles and searched through their many pages we would not find a straightforward description of what we celebrate today; the Scriptures do not give us an account of how the Mother of God was taken up body and soul into heaven.. What we would find instead are scattered clues, glimpses, and prophecies about the Assumption; clues, glimpses, and prophecies which have lead the Church to affirm that at the end of her earthly life Mary was assumed into heaven (and so was preserved from the decay of the tomb) to be with her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be crowned a Queen of all creation.
But it is not all plain sailing. Even though the Assumption has been celebrated by since the 4th or 5th century, it has caused many debates among Christians; and that, which should be the cause of rejoicing for each and every Christian, has often ended up being as a serious bone of contention. Having said this, I don’t think that either Mary in herself, or the belief that she was taken up to heaven are the true reasons for debates and divisions. She who is mother of all believers cannot be the source of quarrelling among her children. Rather, I think that opposition the Assumption of Mary springs from two deeply-engrained misunderstandings many Christians have about faith.
The first misunderstanding is essentially a corruption of the traditional belief that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary to Salvation. It says that Christians should sign up, as it were, only to those matters of faith that are readily and explicitly proposed in the Bible – those things which are plainly laid out in the Scriptures and nothing else. The Assumption of Mary is not in any book, so it cannot possibly be a matter of faith – indeed, for a few Christians, it cannot possibly be real, period. Yet, we believe that the Lord Jesus promised to his Church that the Holy Spirit would lead us in understanding all truth (Cf. John 16:13) – “all truth”, even those things which the Scriptures reveal only through clues, glimpses, and prophecies; those things and that need some prayerful reasoning to be understood.
So it is with the Assumption. It is the Holy Spirit who speaks to interpret the Scriptures. It is him who leads believers in piecing together clues, glimpses, and prophecies to understand the mystery… For example, let us look at today’s readings. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us that, when Psalm 45 describes the coronation procession of an Old Testament princess, it is really pointing forward to the entrance of Mary into heaven and to her coronation as Queen of all creation. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us that in our first reading the ‘ark of the covenant’ found in the heavenly sanctuary (Rev/Ap. 11:19), and the ‘woman clothed with the Sun’ (Rev/Ap. 12:1) are both images of the true ark of the New Covenant, the Mother of God in heavenly glory. And, again, it is the Holy Spirit who tells us that Mary’s words, ‘from this day forward all generations will call me blessed’ (Cf. Luke 1:48), are completely fulfilled the moment she set foot in heaven, the true home of the blessed.
The second misconception is rather more insidious than the first, and certainly more difficult to eradicate. It concerns the person of Mary as a woman, and with her, perhaps every leading woman in the Scriptures. Let me explain. If we opened our Bibles we would see that, actually, ascending or being taken up to heaven is not something completely unheard of. Three examples come to mind. Early in the Biblical narrative, Adam and Eve’s great-great-great-great-great-(I think!)grandson, Enoch, is assumed into heaven because of his spotless way of life. Angels pick him up and take him to be with God (Gen. 5:24) – in a few medieval illustrations Enoch is dragged upward by his hair… This event was so astounding that it is recounted even in the New Testament; the Letter to the Hebrews says ‘By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and “he was found no more because God had taken him’ (Heb.11:5). Later on, in the second book of Kings, it is the turn of the great prophet Elijah to be assumed into heaven in style; he rides upwards towards paradise carried on a chariot of fire (Cf. 2Kings 2:11) provided by God. Finally, Jesus ascends to heaven after his Resurrection. He is not carried there; he goes to the Father out of his own divine power, taking with him our human nature and opening the way for all believers to be with him at the heart of God (Cf. Luke 24:50-53). Let us consider for a moment these examples in which human beings have ascended or were taken up to heaven before Mary. Enoch, Elijah, the Lord Jesus. Heaven is starting to look like an old boys club. I jest, I know, but these examples illustrate very well a male-dominated misunderstanding whereby a few Christians believe that God acts through, exalts, and rewards only men.
Belief in the Assumption of Our Lady shatters this misinterpretation. The Assumption shows us that God acts through, exalts, and rewards everyone whom he freely chooses – regardless of whom they are. Mary cooperated with God’s new creation like no other human before her (‘let it be so’ she said to the Angel Luke 1:38); she brought God’s Son into the world; she emotionally suffered with him on Calvary; she stood by him even as her soul was pierced by a sword; and she gathered the disciples around her in prayerful anticipation of Pentecost. It is only right that a woman who, through the grace of God, participated so closely in the work of redemption, should be the first to experience the fruits of redemption – the life of heaven.
So, if we let go of our misconceptions in order to embrace true faith, what would the Assumption of Our Lady have to say to us? It is a token of our future. It is a sign of hope for all who believe is Christ, a cause of joy for all who struggle through life, a sign of consolation when we encounter sorrows. Our blessed mother is in heaven, free from the corruption of the grave, and from there she helps us with her prayers, guides us with her love, and cheer us on as we too journey home.
Virgin Mother, Mary blessed,
raised on high and crowned with grace,
May your Son, the world's redeemer,
grant us all to see his face. Amen.
By Mother Janet Yabsley - Text: John 6: 24-35
Jesus answered, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never thirst.’ (John 6:35)
It was a difficult time to be living in the East End of London in the early 1940’s. A time when the daily effects of war had been continuously wreaking havoc on its population for many months. But my family, who had lived there for several generations, decided to remain in spite of the troubles. First of all my father was a firefighter in the London Fire Brigade. He had volunteered and needed to be there. From my mother’s perspective, a brief period of evacuation in the peaceful countryside of Wales had proved to be much too quiet for her. Being out of touch was making her anxious, so she brought me back to our home where we could spend at least some time with my father.
Life was far from easy, but community cohesion, friendship, support and helping one’s neighbour were right at the top of the list of things people could do for one another. Many adversities brought people together. Luckily our home escaped damage, but others - on all sides of the conflict - were not so fortunate. During the bombing raids of WW II thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. Some were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and a level of care. But many of these children had lost so much that they couldn’t sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Then someone had the good idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, the children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I had something to eat, and I will eat again tomorrow.’
The knowledge that still today there are people who find themselves in the same predicament as those children, raises questions for us. They are not questions exclusively for Christians but they do affect us acutely when we ask them in the light of the gospel.
What problems beset Christians living in a materialist society? What are the true needs of those who seek after Jesus? How do we understand the ‘spiritual’ in our own abundance?
In the relative comforts of life here in the West we are largely buffered against the harsh realities that millions suffer today. In the protected atmosphere of my own living-room I can choose to put away my newspaper or turn off the T.V. whenever images of conflicts and disasters of all kinds, demand my attention. Unless I physically, bodily enter into the situation, I cannot truly grasp its reality. I may feel a number of emotions - shock, pity, anger etc. I may also experience an acute sense of impotence, for at its core the problem is always a political one. There is hunger and destitution for some because others are greedy, or corrupt, or both. Christian social responsibility demands that the issues are addressed in concrete terms, but nothing will change while nations cannot live in peace with one another. Greed, and yet more greed, is always lurking nearby. (Cf. James 3:16-18)
The question of greed is never far away in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous feedings. As he leaves the scene they follow him - even hound him. They are greedy for yet more miracles. They hope to see some kind of spectacle, but know nothing of his true purpose. Jesus says to them, ‘You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.’ (John 6:26) What Jesus does is never a magic trick but rather a sign of God’s love for them, tangibly demonstrated. They have not yet understood the symbolism in his actions. It is frequently mentioned that Jesus uses Barley loaves, the bread of the poor. One of the first miracles concerns a poor woman who begs for mere crumbs - crumbs that drop from the table to the floor. She will be satisfied with them if her daughter can be made well. Her need is not for bead to eat, but the nourishment that Jesus gives from his capacity to listen, to hear, to understand and to heal every kind of infirmity. (Cf. Mark 7:25-30)
The demanding attitude of the crowd is set against the ancient traditions concerning hospitality. Jesus, who had compassion on them, adhered closely to the tradition. First, the people were made to sit down. Then there were conversations, teachings and prayers. Then the food was set before them and they ate. Spiritual needs were satisfied before the needs of physical hunger (Cf. Mark 6:34-42). First of all, to eat bread, in its deepest meaning, is to taste the very source of all bread and nourishment which is the true and living God. For it was God who created the earth, all living things, all food upon which we depend. Yet we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Deuteronomy 8:3) Out of the mouth of God comes the creative word that makes all life, and nourishment possible. In the beginning God spoke, and it was so. Jesus said a prayer of blessing before he shared the loaves, acknowledging God to be the source of all nourishment, and so conveying to the people the need for a spiritual response to God’s acts of supreme generosity. The God of life has made all things holy - a reflection of the Divine Holiness - therefore all creation is to be revered (Cf. Genesis 1:29-31).
The Christian life is not simply a ‘natural religion’ of thanksgiving for creation, and of good deeds. God, who is Love, has made us a holy people, a redeemed people; accepts our service and our worship. Our prayer confirms and deepens our existing relation of intimate trust between God and ourselves. When Jesus talks about bread in the gospels, the tradition of breaking bread as an act of worship is a strong undercurrent. Of course the Last Supper has not yet taken place - we are only at chapter 6 - but the gospel of John brings these ideas clearly into focus, for the community from which his gospel comes, already had the sharing of bread at the centre of its worshipping life. What we read was set down in writing, in the light of the experience of early Christians (Cf. 1Cor. 11:25-26).
In all four gospels Jesus blesses bread, divides it and shares it among the people. In the crucial words we heard this morning Jesus declares himself to be the true bread. ‘I am the bread of life.‘ In other words, “I, in myself, am true bread, true life.” Jesus, within the bond of covenant with his heavenly Father, is true life; and so can bring about a condition of eternal life in those who feed upon him. Real bread is spiritual, for the followers of Jesus and indeed for all humankind. Yet Jesus will later remind some of those standing nearby that they have seen him and yet do not believe. (John 6: 36).
The Eucharist - a Greek word meaning ‘Great Thanksgiving’, with its Latin equivalent the Mass, meaning ‘Great Feast’ - is always a celebration of the new humanity, the ‘community of gift’ between God and human beings, and between human beings themselves. The new community are to take Jesus Christ as their pattern - in lowliness of heart; in their hunger and thirst for justice; in their compassion; in their role as peacemakers; in their capacity for costly giving of themselves (Cf. Matthew 5:3-12). At the personal, individual level, discipleship means daily seeking to draw closer to Jesus, to learn of him, trust him, and thereby to trust in God (Cf. Matthew 11:28-30). I would like to share something with you that I find helpful, although you may of course have something of your own that you do in your own way.
Perhaps then, later today, in a quiet space, ask yourself this question: “For what moment today am I most grateful?” Think about that for several minutes. Then ask, “For what moment today am I least grateful?” See where those questions lead you. ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1Sam. 3:10). Amen.