(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 the feast of Saint Matthias, Apostle - John 15.9-17
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
‘Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ John 12:31-32
This evening we continue to explore the rites and liturgies that accompany our Easter celebration in the Easter Triduum. Yesterday we talked about Maundy Thursday and the institution of the Eucharist as the Sacrament in which the love of Christ for us is manifested ‘to the end’ (John 13:1); today I would like to share with you some thoughts about the Good Friday Liturgy. First of all we call it “liturgy” because it is not a Eucharist. We will indeed receive Holy Communion at the end of that service, but the sacrifice of praise of the Mass will not be celebrated; Communion will be administered from the reserved Sacrament consecrated on Maundy Thursday. This is the only day of the year in which Mass cannot be celebrated at any time. So in some church traditions a rather peculiar name for this service has come about, the “Mass of the Pre-Sanctified”; meaning that the liturgy looks a bit like a Mass – with readings, intercessions, and distribution of Communion – but the Sacrament has been “pre-sanctified”, that is consecrated in advance.
Central to this celebration will be the reading of the Passion of Our Lord according to John. On this sombre day, when the church building is deprived of ornaments, the priests prostrate themselves before the barren altar, and the sorrow of death is palpable, John’s passion offers a unique perspective into the mystery of Calvary. In John, Jesus remains in control of the situation even to the bitter end; he is the new Passover Lamb sacrificed for the sins of all; the One who willingly undergoes the suffering of the Cross as his glorification; the One who is willingly lifted up from the earth to draw everyone to himself. In this Passion reading the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, so that those who looked on it found healing from snake poison, finds its right fulfilment (Cf. Numbers 21:8-9).
After the reading of the Passion and the homily, we will have a time of formal prayer, called the “General Intercessions”, for the needs of the world, the Church, and other faith communities. Sure, we pray for the world all the time; but at the Good Friday Liturgy we will make our prayers especially for those who do not know or who refuse Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we will get to that moment in the service, I ask you to pray earnestly, with all your heart, that unbelievers and lapsed Christians may turn to the Cross of Christ to find healing.
After this, we ourselves we will be invited to draw near the Cross of Jesus, as an image of it will be carried to the altar. We will be invited to go up to venerate the Cross, to kiss the wood, to genuflect or bow towards it so that the outward gestures of our bodies may inspire the inward motions of our hearts to turn anew to the Cross and find healing for ourselves.
The distribution of Holy Communion – under the form of bread alone – will conclude our liturgy and then the Church will be silent again in preparation for the Easter Vigil and the day of resurrection.
Look at Jesus on the Cross and be saved! Look at the Crucified Lord; approach, draw near to the Cross and be saved. This is the message of our Good Friday Liturgy. This we will do both by meditating on the Scriptures, and by venerating that instrument of death and torture, which through the death of Our Lord Jesus has become the instrument of salvation for all.
‘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.
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).