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.
‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.’ John 15:4
A couple of years ago, when it was revealed by the press that Justin Welby’s biological father was not the man who raised him, the Archbishop was asked how did this make him feel, how did it impact on his sense of identity. He replied, ‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’
We might think of this response as very pious and archbishop-like but, of course, Justin Welby’s reply does not apply to him alone. Our family relationships and situations may be completely fine and within traditional parameters, but they could also be happily unconventional or sometimes even down right problematic to say the least, but like the archbishop pointed out, our identity should not be determined by where we come from, our birth certificate, how we were raised, or what society thinks of us. Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And from this point of view we are able to see ourselves as children of God, sons and daughters of the eternal Father, regardless of our background or social history. Only a couple of weeks ago we read a passage from 1John which said,‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ 1John 3:1a.
If we are in Christ the words of Scripture are fulfilled in us when they say,
‘Even if my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up’ (Ps 27:10).
‘Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you’ says the Lord (Isaiah 49:15).
Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And today’s gospel reading gives us a surprising picture of what it means to have our identity in Christ, as Jesus likens himself to a vine and each of us to its branches. This comparison might sound slighly odd to us, or a bit farfetched; “In what sense is Christ like a vine?”, but it comes from an image which would have been very familiar to the first disciples. In the Old Testament the vine was a symbol for the people of Israel, of all God’s chosen people;
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade… (Ps 80:8-10)
And today we here the Lord saying that he himself is the true vine; and so, like in times of old, God’s people are part of him, the new vine. We are the branches; by Baptism we have become part of the true vine which is Christ. We were grafted into Christ through the wounds that were cut into his body on the Cross. We receive nourishment from Jesus through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, which is gifted to us by the Lord as the sap we need to thrive. And finally, as branches we are ‘pruned’ (John 15:4) by the words of the gospel; that is, we are directed in what to do, and trained in order to bear fruit.
Issues around personal identity are particularly strong in our society; maybe even more so than what they were in the past. And a lot of people, particularly young people, seem to be burdened by anxiety and social pressures stemming from simple questions such as “Who am I?” “What is unique about me?” “What is my sense of self-worth?” “How do I fit in or stand out?” “Where can I find home and acceptance?” To all these questions, Jesus simply and calmly replies, “I love you. Make your home in me, and let me make my home in you.”
Our sense of who we are is founded in who we are in Christ, and this means being inextricably part of him and to grow in him; it means being one in Jesus as children of God, one in him and God’s people, one in him as the beloved of the Father.
1 John 5:1-6
Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God: Jesus Christ who came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood. (1 John 5:5-6)
During Eastertide we begin the Parish Mass with the sprinkling with Holy Water which replaces the usual introduction and prayers of penitence. As we receive the water we are reminded of our Baptism and we sing praises to Christ, who says in John’s Gospel, ‘The water that I will give will become in [believers] a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14b). This rite of sprinkling is properly called the “Vidi Aquam” (Latin for “I saw water”) because the chant that usually accompanies it sings,
‘I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, alleluia;
and all they to whom that water came were saved,
and they shall say, alleluia, alleluia.’
This chant and the sprinkling are clears echo of the words of the prophet Ezekiel which we read during the Easter Vigil where the prophet has a vision of the Temple at Jerusalem and says this, ‘there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple … south of the altar’ (Ezekiel 47:1), and that water brought life and healing to all.
This idea of flowing, life-giving water finds its fulfilment on the Cross. The first three gospels describe the moment when Jesus died as the moment in which the curtain of the Temple is torn from top to bottom. As this barrier rips we can glimpse directly inside the sanctuary, inside the holiest part of the Temple, and look, as it were, upon God and his mercy. However, this dramatic moment is not reported be the evangelist John, who at that time was standing near the Cross of Jesus; instead he focuses his attention on something else; the piercing of the side of Jesus with a spear. For John this is the very moment when the true curtain of the true temple is torn. As the skin and flesh of Jesus are cut by the spear blood and water pour out, and here we can genuinely look upon God and upon his mercy.
Time and again the gospels tell us that Jesus himself, his very body, is the true Temple in which we are able to encounter God – because in that body divine nature meets and joins our human nature. The Letter to the Hebrews testifies to this saying, ‘we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’ (Hebrews 10:20). And as the spear cuts into the side of Jesus it is as if the tide of God’s mercy and love is released over the whole world purifying and giving life to all whom it reaches. This is the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision, and this is what our sprinkling during Eastertide celebrates.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure…
This Sunday in particular, the second Sunday of Easter, is sometimes called “Divine Mercy Sunday” and, among other things, it leads us to reflect on the marks of the crucifixion, which the Lord Jesus bears of his body even after the resurrection. These are the “visible identification marks” by which the disciples are filled with joy in recognising the Lord, but more importantly, these are the points from which Divine Mercy streams for us, the springs of God’s love.
Are we struggling with something? Let us look at those marks and see the wounds through which every strife has been overcome. Are we suffering? Let us approach those scars which have inflicted a fatal blow to every sorrow. Are we weighed down by guilt or feeling undeserving of love? Let us approach those marks which have brought us divine mercy and love.
Jesus said to Thomas: ‘Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ (John 20:27b) The apostle Thomas approached the marks of Jesus’ passion as a way of testing the Lord, but just by seeing them he was restored to faith. We should approach them with full trust in Jesus, knowing that it is through those wounds that we are saved.
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with water flowing from thy side.
…deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.
‘He had always loved those who were his in the world,
but now he showed how perfect his love was.’ (John 13:2)
Only this afternoon, whilst leading the Easter services for Thomas Whitehead Academy, I joined the children in singing,
Higher than the highest mountain,
deeper than the deepest deep blue sea,
stronger than the love of everyone
is the love of Jesus for me.
And indeed, yes, Jesus’ love for us is higher, deeper, and stronger that anything we can ever imagine. But it is not only those things. Jesus’ love is also perfect – perfect in the sense of being mature, grown-up love; forever unchanging; always preceding our actions; always more generous than what we expect or deserve, and always ready to welcome us; perfect in the sense that it is entirely selfless, and intentionally self-giving.
Tonight we begin to celebrate this perfect love by rehearsing the first chapter of the Easter story where the Lord “gives us the Eucharist as a memorial of his suffering and death”. But as we enter the upper room of the Passover meal with the disciples we see that Jesus does much more than simply sharing a meal with his friends. His love is perfect, so in that love Jesus also prepares us for this meal by washing away our spiritual dirt like he washed the disciples feet; he then feeds us and as food he gives us the gift of his own very self; and finally he makes the Eucharist as the central celebration of his love and as his enduring presence with us for all time.
Yet, so many Christians keep away from this most holy Sacrament; so many parishes have given up almost entirely on celebrating the Eucharist often and with regularity; and so many people seek true life and true love everywhere but here.
Saint Alphonsus in our Offertory hymn speaks of this Sacrament which Jesus establishes tonight as the bond of that perfect love which makes us one with Jesus, as the food of true life, and as the source of only lasting joy.
O Bond of love that dost unite
The servant to his living Lord;
Could I dare live and not requite
Such love? - then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove
Some love for such unmeasured love.
My hope and prayer is that tonight we will encounter afresh this perfect love in the celebration of the Mass and that we will hear the Lord’s encouragement to receive him in the Eucharist as often as possible.
Jesus said to the disciple whom he loved, ‘Here is your mother.’
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:27).
Mothering Sunday has a long tradition according to which the faithful would visit on this day their mother church – the parish church where they had been Baptised and received as sons and daughters of the whole Church of God. Today this tradition has largely been forgotten and the focus of the celebrations has shifted from the Church to motherly love in all its forms.
Our gospel reading invites us to turn our attention towards Calvary to help us in finding the best pattern of motherly love in the most unlikely of places. As we look at the crucifixion scene we find the greatest example of motherhood in Mary, and, recapitulated in the Blessed Virgin, we also find all the unconventional mothers listed in the Scriptures. These are women who loved their children with boundless affection and trusted in God without any reserve. Among these remarkable women we find Sarah the mother of Isaac, Jochebed the mother of Moses, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. But if Mary is the best example of motherhood, why do our readings focus on such a terrible moment? Why do we have to look for a model of motherhood in such a desolated place as Calvary? Well, because it is in this place, at the foot of the Cross, that Mary is given by Jesus as “the” mother-figure for all people – not at Bethlehem, not at Nazareth or in the Temple, but on Calvary.
At first, the whole scene may seem a little distant to our society that mainly associates pretty flowers, jewellery, and pastel colours for “Mother’s Day”. Mary is a widow whose Son has been condemned as an outlaw. Sharing in her son’s pain as only a mother can, she stays by the Cross, refusing to abandon Jesus. Her Son’s friends, many of whom she knew well, have all left apart from the youngest of them – John is little more than a youth. The adoring crowds who often stood between her and Jesus have gone as well. Those who are left do not care for her; they are there to bully her Son, to taunt Jesus even as He hangs from the Cross. Mary finds herself powerless, speechless at the impending, painful, undignified death of her only Son; her immaculate heart is broken, pierced just as Simeon had predicted when she presented Jesus to the Temple. But there is more, in these tragic moments Mary’ social position becomes even more precarious in a society that cared nothing or very little for women without male relatives. At the foot of the Cross, Mary knows that, once Jesus will draw his last breath she will find herself to be a nobody for ancient society.
So, yes. Mary at the Cross does not exemplify motherhood in the most conventional, soft, and rosy sense we are so used to. But as we look closely at this scene, we can find faint echoes of it throughout history, even in our days; women whose love for their children is shown more often through the courage of their actions than through displays of affection; women doing all that is within their powers to be with their children no matter what the circumstances may be; and again women whose social position is determined only by whom they marry or who their sons are. As we look closely at this scene then we see that the challenging model of motherhood expressed on Calvary is able to speak to us all today too.
But we ought to go a little further than this in looking at Mary’s motherhood, because even in this moment all is not lost. Mary may feel devastated and forsaken as she watches her Son. Yet, in this moment of absolute desperation, Mary’s motherhood is changed for good. As Mary feels that in losing her son she has become useless, God still sees her indispensable. In this profoundly dark night of her soul Mary receives from Jesus a new motherhood, the gift of a new son. John becomes her son, and with him Mary receives all followers of Christ in her care and embrace. At Calvary Mary is given as a gift, to all believers.
So today, as we think with affection and gratitude about our own mothers and all the mother-figures we have encountered, the Church invites us to do a twofold task; to take Mary in our homes as our Mother as John did, and also to pray for those mothers who, like Mary, find themselves in difficult, painful situations.
Today and everyday may we hear Jesus saying to us, Here is your mother (John 19:27). Amen.
Jesus said, ‘Take all this out of here
and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’ (2:16)
Being a priest I often hear belittling comments about church worship. There is the timeless “I don’t need to go to church to speak God, I can do it from home”; or again “I don’t go to church because I don’t like x, or y, or z…” This last one is, in my opinion, the best one of all because it crosses boundaries between every Christian denomination. So, this morning I would like you to take a few minutes reflect the attitude we ourselves have towards worship, church buildings, and religion in general. As we do this, John’s gospel presents us with the story of Jesus clearing the temple – a well-known episode in which Jesus gets angry and starts to teach the crowds by using a whip rather than his words. In this reading there are three aspects about Jesus’ attitude towards sacred places, worship, and religion which we would do well to imitate ourselves.
First, we are told that Jesus travels to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and once there he enters the temple. Jesus is God-with-us, God-made-flesh, yet he longs to be in that holy place, as if he was incarnating the words of Psalm 84, ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord’ (Ps 84:2). Jesus burns with holy enthusiasm for that sacred space. Isn’t this bit of a far cry from the apathy many Christians feel towards church buildings?
Then, Jesus speaks of the temple as his ‘Father’s house’ (2:16), the house where Jewish people believed God dwelled among his people from one generation to another. The ‘Father’s house’. How many times Christians employ possessive language about churches saying “my” church, or “their” church, but rarely ‘God’s house’ or the ‘Father’s house’?
Finally, we see that Jesus does something we might not expect. He does not dismiss the temple and its worship; instead he compares it his own body (cf. 2:19). How many self-professed Christians stay away from churches because what goes on inside is not their “cup of tea”, rather than seeing buildings such as these as physical representation of what it means to be Church?
In this text Jesus shows what we might think as un-Jesus-like emotions such as anger and strong disappointment towards the people in the temple. But, looking closely, Jesus drives out of the temple only certain types of people and not others. He drives out neither the worshippers – who bought the animals sold on the market stalls – nor the priests – who offered the sacrifices. In other words, Jesus does not cast out of the Temple those who, like him, used that sacred space for its appointed purposes – for worship and for encountering God. Instead, rather tellingly, Jesus drives out those who use religion in order to pursue personal gain, and are rather cynical about the spiritual significance of the Temple In other words, Jesus casts out those who use religion, worship, and holy places like parasites. For example, Jesus throws out the money changers and overturns their tables because of the corruption that underlined the business of converting different currencies into Temple money. Jesus drives out the animal stock not to put a stop to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant but because by buying them worshippers were encouraged to become lazy, to spare themselves the trouble of bringing a genuine offering, something truly valued, from their own homes. Come to think of it, as well as corruption and personal gain, is it possible that Jesus is casting out “lazy worship”, I wonder?
The story of the clearing of the Temple should make us think of the people driven out by Jesus in a much broader sense. It should remind us as of those who misuse religion and church buildings for other purposes besides worship and the sustainment of the Church. It is in this sense that St Augustine, in interpreting John 2, says ‘Those who sell in Church are those who seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.’ Then, how do we make use of these things?
Our religion, our worship, and our churches are all incredible gifts of grace through which the world can encounter God more readily and build a stable relationship with him. To misuse of this grace in order to be fickle Christians or to pursue personal gains are great sins. So this Lent, let us examine closely how we look at our churches and our worship. Let us God for true repentance and for forgiveness for all the times we have misused of these gifts and we have behaved like parasites of the Temple, so that we may learn again to selflessly put the liturgical worship of God and the service of others before any other pursuit.
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
‘Andrew met his brother and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ and he took Simon to Jesus.’ (John 1:41-42)
The Sunday readings between the Feasts of the Epiphany and Candlemas present us with a number of other epiphanies, other moments in which Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Christ. Last week a star led the Wise Men to the Lord and they adored him as “King, and God, and Sacrifice”. Today John the Baptist and the Apostle Andrew are among the first to lead other people to Jesus – not coldly and from a distance like the star did, but in a warm and personal way. Andrew and the beloved disciple John are the first to become disciples of Jesus after John the Baptist revealed him as the Saviour, the ‘Lamb of God’ (1:35). As Jesus sees the two men literally walking behind him, he says to them, ‘What do you want?’ Jesus didn’t expressly invite them to follow him, so his question might seem entirely reasonable, if a little abrupt. But Jesus implies something more meaningful; “What is it that you actually want? What are you searching for?” And when they tell him, Jesus invites them to become his disciples with a very simple invitation; ‘Come and see’ (1:39). “Come and see where I live, the way I live” the Lord seems to say, “and stay with me as long as you wish.” Then it is Andrew’s turn to reveal Jesus as the Christ to someone else. He finds his brother Simon and leads him to Jesus after announcing to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (1:41). We are not told Simon’s feelings about being taken to meet Jesus; maybe he goes with Andrew out of politeness, maybe he is just curious, but one thing is certain; Andrew’s words change his brother’s life forever, so much so that Simon is even given a new name by the Lord; Peter.
After this, the series of revelations and invitations to follow Christ continues, even though our gospel reading today ends with the joining of Peter. A couple of verses later, it is the turn of another disciple – this time Philip – to go to Nathanael (one of his friends) and to say to him “We have found the Messiah” (Cf. 1:45) followed by the simple invitation first extended by Jesus; ‘Come and see’ (1:46).
John the Baptist, Andrew, and then Philip give us examples of what to do. They all led someone to Jesus, but not someone at random – Andrew and Philip especially did not stand on street corners talking about Jesus like the preachers one finds on Oxford Circus. No. John the Baptist, and Andrew and Philip led to the Lord people whom they already knew; a friend, a family member, a companion… Their invitations were warm and personal, and so should ours be.
But where does this leave us? When I was young my parish priest quite often used the same refrain at the end of a poorly attended service, “Next time” he would say, “if we each invite someone else – a member of our family or a friend – there’ll be a few more of us at Mass”. And this is what today’s gospel invites us to do as well. We are called to act like John the Baptist, Andrew, and Philip. Our common vocation is to reach out, to our family members, friends, and neighbours, showing them something about the joy of having found Christ. We are called to invite the Simons and Nathanaels of our times to “come and see” the Lord Jesus present in our midst, “come and see” how his presence reshapes our lives; “come and see” how he teaches us ways of justice and love.
‘Come and see’ is an open invitation to join that community that the Lord calls “his church” (Cf. Matt 16:18), because it is this unique gathering of extremely different people that Christ has chosen to be a continual epiphany, a constant manifestation of his presence in the world.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
‘He came as a witness to speak for the light’ (John 1:7)
Yesterday afternoon we celebrated the first of our Christingles; earlier this morning we have lit the third candle on the Advent Wreath; and tonight we will come together for our service of Carols by Candlelight. All these liturgies place a very strong emphasis on the belief that Jesus is the Light of the World – a light which darkness cannot overcome (Cf. John 1:5). And as with our candles (in our hands, on top of our oranges, or on the Advent Wreath) we scatter the darkness that surrounds us, we remind ourselves and the world that only through the Light of Christ we are able to see clearly. These candles – whether wonky, propped up with tin foil, or blessed – are only a token witness to that bright, unquenchable, searing, and cheerful light that is Christ. And today’s gospel presents us with an even better example of what it means to be a witness to Jesus as the Light of the World.
St John the Baptist was unquestionably a peculiar figure by any standard. As we heard last week, he wore clothes made of camel’s hair, he fed on insects and wild honey, he was often rather forthright in his speech, and although he lived in the desert he attracted a huge number of people who wanted to be baptised by him. But, what we should find even more remarkable is the way in which we are introduced to him by John the Evangelist.
A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
This description of John the Baptist is an integral part of the gospel’s first few verses where Jesus is proclaimed as the Word of God, the Light of Life, and the Light of the World. And John’s ministry – in fact his whole life – was so intertwined with Jesus’ that the evangelist has to specify that John the Baptist ‘was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light’ (John 1:8).
Like Moses, Isaiah, and the other prophets, John was sent by God to point the way to the Messiah, and to bring a testimony about the true Light which was about to be revealed to the world in the person of the Lord Jesus. But, as the last of the prophets, as a cousin of Jesus, and as a peculiar figure, it would be easy to look past John the Baptist and to think that he had nothing to teach us.
Yet, I strongly believe that this short description of John could and should be a fitting description for every Christian – if we only let our lives become so intertwined with the life of Jesus that others would find it difficult to separate our character from his.
A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
Like our candles we might be a bit wonky in our religious life (maybe not propped up with tin foil and stuck in an orange), but we are all, every one of us, most certainly blessed, and so like our candles we have to bear witness to Jesus as the Light of the World.
Then, how good it would be if people were to say of us, “There was a man (or woman) sent by God. His name was … He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him”? How good would it be, if with our simple faith we could bring the light of Jesus to others, so that those around us might have faith through us?
John the Baptist led a rather odd life, but we do not need to move to the wilderness, and star eating insects, to bear witness to the Light of Jesus. We just have to put into practice the simple advice found in our second reading;
‘Be happy at all times;
pray constantly; and for all things give thanks to God’ (1Thess 5:16).
Our society, perhaps now more than ever, needs happy and positive people whose joy comes from knowing Christ; it needs people who take prayer and the sacraments seriously; and it needs people who know how to be grateful to God for the innumerable blessings we receive from his hand…
If we do this, we will be not only genuine Christians, but we will set the world alight with the true Light that is Christ the Lord.
Jesus ‘said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’
Long before the notes of Pomp and Circumstance were strung together, and its lyrics begun to sing about a Land of Hope and Glory; long before William Blake jotted down the verses of Jerusalem; and before Britannia started to rule any wave; in fact, even before St George’s Cross was borrowed from the Republic of Genoa to become the flag of this land; before that time, England looked to another symbol, indeed to one person, in which to find its unity, its pride, and its comfort in times of need. England looked to Mary.
According to tradition, during the reign of St Edward the Confessor, one thousand years ago, England began to be called “dos Mariae”, Mary’s dowry – meaning that out of all the Christianised countries, out of all the places one could possibly imagine, England was Our Lady’s own possession, her portion which she loved, protected, and offered as her own precious gifts to her divine Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. But what’s more fascinating about this tradition is that “Mary’s dowry” was not an official dedication, some pious slogan that a saintly king or an archbishop came up with, rather this was the fruit of popular devotion to the Mother of God, the product of the faith and love of people like you and me. And if England was Mary’s possession, this sentiment was nowhere more felt than at Walsingham, a tiny speck of village in Norfolk – which many of us know well – where our Lady had a replica of her holy house of Nazareth, and where countless pilgrims from all over the country and even the near continent flocked to ask Our Lady’s intercession.
This morning two of our hymns recall our attention to this tradition.
‘Mary of Walsingham, Mother of Jesus,
Pray for thy dowry, the land that we love.’
and our offertory hymn sings,
‘Joy to thee, Queen, within thine ancient dowry’
But besides the obvious nostalgic sentimentality and emotionally charged devotion of these lines, what can we, in a multicultural twenty-first century England, get out of all this? I mean, we are not it the Middle-Ages anymore and dowries are something that has largely into disuse. So what would be the point of recalling these traditions of times long gone by?
Well, first, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham and its connections to England as somehow being as her special possession, should remind us to pray for a revival of the Christian faith in this land; it should give us confidence in praying, as the Walsingham prayer says, for the ‘conversion of England’ so that more and more people may turn to the Lord Jesus.
Secondly, this feast should inspire us to present Our Lady with gifts of our own. Let us make room for Mary in our lives, giving to her our hearts, our future, and our every good deed, to be her dowry as well, and she will, in turn, present them as precious offerings to the Lord. Indeed, about this second, more personal point, today’s gospel gives us a simple instruction; which is nothing too morally demanding nor too taxing to put into practice. The gospel simply says to each of us, ‘Here is your mother’, and then “take her into your home”.
England may have stopped being widely known as Mary’s dowry, and not many people may know the significance of Walsingham, but the Mother of Jesus, always remains our mother as well. So, when we are pressed down by worries or plagued by indecision; when we find ourselves stuck on top of our own personal calvaries, when we are dejected or discomforted; when, like St John at the foot of the Cross, we feel powerless before the suffering of others; the gospel simply says, ‘Here is your mother.’ Then, in those moments let us take Mary with us and she, Our Lady and protectress, will help us in our every need.
‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’, says the Lord,
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.’ John 6:55-56
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday the Church of England keeps the ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ and this is the solemnity we celebrate transferred to today under the more common name of Corpus Christi.
Churches in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England tend to stand out a little bit more than the others during this feast; but while it would be easy to think that this is all down to the solemnity of our liturgy, or the ancient customs that we observe today, the thing that make churches like ours to stand out is, in fact, the faith and devotion that should inspire our celebration. In other words, what should motivates us to pull out all the stops for this feast is the fact that today we make the point to reaffirm our belief in the most precious of all the gifts we have ever received from the Lord Jesus; the gift of his own very self – body, blood, soul, and divinity – under the simple and very ordinary forms of bread and wine. Faith in what is called the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is what makes us stand out today from others Christian communities where the Eucharist is considered a disposable add-on to the faith.
But in today’s gospel we hear how a number people at the time of Jesus were already uncomfortable and sceptic about this teaching, and how some of them were even scandalised by it, and because of it they stopped following the Lord.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they said (John 6:52). A legitimate question from non-believers that prompted Jesus to affirm many times how his own body and blood are true nourishment from those who receive them, and the principal means of union with him. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them’ (John 6: 56), say Jesus, and the Lord’s own word, should be enough for us.
Again, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, although we cannot see him face to face in this present age, he is always going to be with us. And the Church has come to interpret his words to be a promise that the Lord is indeed always with us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
In the Blessed Sacrament, in the Host we place on the altar after Mass Jesus truly dwells with us; his silent and unassuming presence brings comfort and healing to those who approach him; his humble self-giving to us under the appearance of Bread teaches us to give ourselves for others… A traditional hymn says, ‘Thou art here, we ask not how’ and yes, although we cannot fully contemplate or express this mystery, I do hope that those who took part in the 40 Hours of Prayer two weeks ago, managed to experience what it means to spend time in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The past weeks have borne witness to a considerable number of needless tragedies culminating with the harrowing disaster of Grenfell Tower in the last few days. Confronted by these events, where it seems that it always the poor or innocent people to pay the highest price, it would be easy to despair, to lose heart, or worse, to let sorrow fester into violent anger. But as we sit in this place we should remind ourselves of the words of a beautiful hymn about the Eucharist,
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Here, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is the very place where the Lord wants us to be so that by feeding on him and adoring his presence among us, we may go out and be strengthened to work in diffusing anger, striving for justice, begging for mercy, fostering love, and bring the life and peace of this Sacrament to a suffering world.
Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us
in the sacrament of your Body and Blood.
May we offer to our Father in heaven
a solemn pledge of undivided love.
May we offer our brothers and sisters
a life poured out in loving service of your kingdom
where you live with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.