19th April - Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Easter 2020
Whenever a major trauma visits our life, we usually start to see things from a very different perspective. For most of the time life goes on as normal and we simply get on with things in whatever routine we have established for ourselves. Perhaps for much of that time we are oblivious to the world around us. Then something happens to change all of that: the diagnosis of a serious illness, or a diagnosis that one is free from illness; the birth of a new baby in the family, or the death of a loved one; the break-up of a longstanding relationship, or the realisation of a deepening of another one. All of these things, and others besides, can move us to see life differently – lighter or darker, more friendly or hostile, and so on. Our current lockdown and the news of similar situations across the world have brought us to a very different perspective on things than just 5 or 6 weeks ago.
Everything around us seems different and, as with the world around us, our reading of the Bible takes on a different perspective. We are, perhaps, seeing things in the Scriptures that either meant nothing to us before all of this started, or else we never adverted to, even though it was always there staring us in the face.
Now we need to be careful here. We are not, then, trying to trawl through the Bible looking for answers that are simply not there. Many years ago there was a craze in some quarters (and ‘craze’ is the correct word to describe this) for engaging in something often called “Bible Roulette”! People would open their Bibles and, with eyes closed, would then flick through the pages until their finger stopped at a particular page and at a particular verse, looking for a message, a sign. Some of you will remember a priest of our diocese who died a few years ago called Leo Coughlin. He admitted to trying this twice: the first time his finger stopped at the one blank page between the Old and New Testaments; the other time he came across a verse that read, “And Saul fell on his sword and killed himself.”! Needless to say, this is NOT how we are invited to read the Bible!
We are not reading into the text something we want to see because of our current needs. Certainly we bring those needs, we bring ourselves, to our reading of the text but, at the same time, we try to understand how that text, that incident, was received by the people who were either there when it happened, or else were the first to receive the letter. In doing this we might find some depths that were hitherto unknown to us.
We certainly know something of the “fear” felt by the disciples in our Gospel shut away in the Upper Room. For us it is not fear of “the Jews” but of the Corona Virus and the ravage it is causing nearby as well as further afield. Perhaps our faith is also challenged at this time and we are seeking the kind of answers for which Thomas was seeking. Although not suffering persecution in the way that the communities to whom St Peter is writing, we still feel under threat from what is happening all around us. The words of encouragement we find in this letter will be read and heard by us in a different way this year. Finally, we might look with envy at the community described in our First Reading: a community able to meet for the “breaking of bread” and for what is called there, “brotherhood” but is more accurately described as ‘fellowship’. We are unable to meet in this way, for just now, but knowing that at this precise moment we ARE together in prayer, and united in faith (just like that early community) we can gain comfort and strength… just as, in our common practice after Mass on a Sunday morning, we can enjoy coffee together, albeit remotely. There is great encouragement and hope offered in our readings today, and that is not wishful thinking on our part. It is actually part of the reality of this time. Just as Jesus offered his peace to those scared disciples in our Gospel, so too that peace is offered to us, today
Monday of Easter Week
I am constantly irritated by the fact that, for a number of years now, the secular world always refers to Holy Week as “Easter Week”. It is probably a symptom of the avoidance of all uncomfortable ‘realities’ like suffering and death in our society. Until the recent crisis all of this has been carefully swept under the carpet, safely out of sight. Not anymore, however, what is happening at the moment is all too obviously in the public domain. As Christians, even in the midst of the crisis, we have celebrated Holy Week, and now, however difficult we may find it this year, we really do come to “Easter Week” as we welcome Jesus risen from the dead, and the hope for all humankind that this brings.
Throughout this Easter Season our First Reading – on Sundays as well as weekdays – is always taken from the Acts of the Apostles: St Luke’s account of the earliest days of the Christian Community. For this Season the Old (Hebrew) Testament is laid to one side (our usual source for the First Reading on Sundays).
There are very few accounts of the events after Jesus’ death on the Cross. These accounts consist of two distinct themes: the Empty Tomb and Stories of Appearances of the Risen Lord. In fact, by and large, we exhaust the supply of these stories during Easter Week itself.
Easter Monday (Acts 2:14, 22-33; Mt. 28:8-15)
It is hardly surprising given the momentous event of Jesus’ Resurrection that there is some confusion over exactly what happened next. Although St Luke has the disciples stay in Jerusalem in the coming days, St Matthew records here an instruction of Jesus to the women, who had come to the tomb, that they should tell the disciples to go to Galilee where he would meet them. (St John records appearances in both Jerusalem and Galilee, as we shall see.) Eager as ever to counteract any accusations made by the Jewish authorities at the time he was writing his Gospel, Matthew adds the story of the bribe paid by the chief priests to the soldiers to keep quiet about what had happened. They were to tell people that some disciples of Jesus had come and stolen his body.
We go back to the beginning of the preaching ministry of the Apostles today in our First Reading. Peter is speaking on Pentecost Day. According to St Luke the disciples had been holed up in the “Upper Room” for fifty days by now, “for fear of the Jews”. Jesus had appeared to them on a number of occasions but now he has ascended into heaven. Suddenly they are emboldened to burst out of the Upper Room to address the crowd. We are told that Peter spoke “in a loud voice”. Full of confidence he outlines what has happened to Jesus and how he is now risen, vindicated in all that he had said and done. The change from cowering in a locked room to proclaim boldly the message of the Good News is a result of the coming of the Holy Spirit on them. That same Spirit can embolden us in these difficult days. One day, hopefully before too long, we too will be able to move out of our “locked rooms” and proclaim Jesus risen from the dead ourselves!
Our First Reading recounts Peter visiting the house of a pagan soldier called Cornelius. At first the disciples assumed that the call to follow the Risen Lord was for fellow Jews only. It soon became apparent, however, that the message was for all people without exception: Jew and Pagan alike. This was a difficult idea for Peter to take on board. In the lead up to this visit to Cornelius he had resisted and very much doubted the call that he had received to go to Caesarea to a pagan household. He is convinced of the truthfulness of the call, however, in a dream he has the day before this visit.
St Paul, of course, never met Jesus during his earthly life. It is the Risen Christ that he met on the Road to Damascus and who forms the central part of the message he preaches on his various missionary journeys. Today we hear from the letter he wrote to the Colossians urging them, now that they have been “brought back to true life with Christ” to let go of everything that held them back from fully embracing this new reality. Although now “hidden” that new life will be revealed in due course.
All four Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene (of Magdala as St John calls her) was the first to witness the Empty Tomb and, later, to meet the Risen Lord. In ancient times she was called “the Apostle of the Apostles” (the one sent to tell the Good News to those whom Jesus sent out to proclaim that same message). Peter and the ‘other disciple’ (usually taken to be St John himself) dash off to verify what Mary has told them. On seeing the Empty Tomb and the cloths that lay there St John tells us, “He saw, and he believed.” This is the goal of all of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in this Gospel: calling people to belief and thus to the new life promised in the Resurrection. Today we can share that same faith and hope with people who, even more than usual, need that hope now!
Happy Easter and God Bless
Homily for the Easter Vigil 2020
St Matthew tells us, in that Gospel, that it was, “towards dawn on the first day of the week,” when Mary Magdalene and her companions went to the tomb. St Mark puts it like this, “they went to the tomb just as the sun was rising.” Light is the symbol above all others of Easter: light which enables us to see both physically, and with the eyes of faith which bring ‘enlightenment’ into our way of seeing the world around us.
At the beginning of this service we prepared and lit our Paschal (Easter) Candle. The Resurrection was then proclaimed in the Exsultet. The Paschal Candle then shed light on our biblical journey from Creation, through the Exodus, through the Prophets of Israel to the news of Jesus’ Resurrection in our Gospel. Although we need to understand those passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) as they were understood by those who heard them originally, nonetheless, as a Christian People we see them as a continuous account of God’s love across the ages, through to God’s greatest act of love: becoming one of us and dying on the Cross out of that same, incredible love.
The Resurrection is the culmination of this story and it brings light/enlightenment to our own lives. It helps us understand how we are loved by that same God and given a sure means of navigating our way through life. Earlier, in one of his many confrontations with the Jewish authorities in John’s Gospel, Jesus had proclaimed,
I am the light of the world;
anyone who follows me
will not be walking in the dark,
but will have the light of life. (Jn. 8:12)
In our Vigil Service and in the First Mass of Easter we proclaim that light as central to our lives, central to the way in which we see life, and death.
As we celebrate Easter this year other countries in Europe seem to have come through the worst of their experience of the Corona Pandemic. We don’t know this for sure, but we hope and pray that this is the case. We, however, are being told that we are entering the most difficult phase of our experience of this terrible pandemic. The light of the Risen Christ is with us to shine through the darkness of this time… along with one more piece of symbolism…
As we are all well aware of, and are very grateful for, the Postal and delivery services are still functioning. This morning I received a delivery from Royal Mail of this plant placed next to the Paschal Candle. It is a miniature olive tree. There are some very small green olives already in evidence. The olive tree is mentioned innumerable times in the Bible: from Noah receiving an olive branch from the dove as a sign that the Flood was receding, to Jesus meeting his disciples on the Mount of Olives. It is a plant rich in symbolism: symbolism of “longevity, perseverance, peace, healthiness, growth and lots more and it has the ability to survive in droughts and it can even germinate in soils that may look unfavourable.”
Along with our Paschal Candle, the Light of Christ, the olive tree is a very real symbol of hope in this time and that plant will remain as part of our Easter display.
Stations of the Cross
Follow the link above to pray the Stations of the Cross.
Holy week reflections provided by Fr Sean Hall, our parish priest.
“For a people who called themselves “redeemed” you Christians are an awfully miserable lot!” That accusation has been levelled at Christians at different times down through the ages. Ours, we know well enough, is not a cult of death, rather it is one of life, but we are not always very adept at showing this. Today should be one of those days that counteract that accusation. After all we don’t call today “Bad” or “Evil” Friday, we call it “Good Friday” because for all the evil we see done in our Gospel of today, good comes of it for all humankind.
We can take our lead here from the fact that the Church has always chosen St John’s account of Jesus’ Passion and Death to be read at the liturgy of Good Friday. Whereas the other Gospels, following St Mark, have “darkness covering the land from the sixth to the ninth hour” as Jesus is dying on the Cross, John’s Crucifixion takes place in broad daylight. For sure we are told that at the meal on the previous evening as Judas went out to betray him, “Night had fallen.” Jesus is arrested and brought before the Jewish authorities during the dark hours of the night, but as soon as he is brought to Pilate we are told, “It was now morning.” Everything now happens in the full light of day and, even in his trial before Pilate and on the Cross itself, there is a real sense that Jesus is in charge of proceedings.
Jesus dies on the Cross at the same hour the paschal lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple for the Passover Meal to take place that evening. Jesus, then, is the new Lamb of God who saves all people in his death. At his death, when the soldier pierced his side, we are told that water and blood flowed out: symbolic of the two great sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, which give life to the Church, the People of God. Ours is a cult of life, not of death.
Whilst that is true, we should not gloss over the real suffering and tragedy happening in these events. Jesus’ suffering must have been immense, unimaginable. Then there are the effects on those closest to him. Peter is distraught at having denied he even knew the person that he calls “Master”. The women at the foot of the Cross must have been beside themselves with grief: none more so, of course, than Jesus’ own mother.
I can think of nothing more heart breaking than a parent looking on helplessly as their child suffers and dies. Sadly, it is a scene played out as much today: in areas where there is famine, in war zones, in refugee camps, and in places where the Corona Virus is striking young people as well as old. Jesus’ words to his Mother and the “Beloved Disciple”, “Woman this is your son.” “This is your mother.” These have a deep religious significance for us. Mary has, as one of her titles, “Mother of the Church” and she is sometimes referred to as “Our Blessed Mother”. However, they are also rooted in something deeply human: our basic need for comfort, for love. In the words of Jesus, we find not only something of religious significance but also one that speaks to the heart of all human beings.
In these difficult days, when so many of us are isolated, sometimes even when we are living in the same house, the need for comfort and love has never been more keenly felt. Today our act of love consists of keeping our distance, but one day, please God, we will be able to experience once more that physical closeness that we all need. Life, given us in the Cross of Jesus, will prevail.
Maundy Thursday – the Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Love is the theme that links our three Readings this evening: God’s love for the People of Israel in setting them free from slavery in Egypt at the Passover (Ex. 12:1-8, 11-14); The love shown by Jesus sharing his Body and Blood in St Paul’s account of the Last Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26); and Jesus’ example of love at the same Supper by becoming the lowliest of slaves washing the feet of his disciples (Jn. 13:1-15).
The tradition of washing feet that often follows the Reading of the Gospel in our churches is usually accompanied by music. One of the most poignant pieces is the Taize Chant (actually used in the text of this Mass) Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. (Where true love is dwelling, God is dwelling there). We also use a hymn based on words from this same chapter of John’s Gospel,
I give you a new commandment:
that you love one another;
you also must love one another
just as I have loved you.
By this everyone will know that
you are my disciples
if you have love for one another. (vs. 34 &35)
There will be no washing of feet tonight, not even a gathering to commemorate the Last Supper. Instead those of us who are not frontline worker will show our love by our prayers for everyone and by our social distancing. It is currently a strange world we live in but acts of love like this are even more vital than ever.
Wednesday of Holy Week
I have always found the story of Abraham’s Sacrifice (Gen.22:1f.) one of the most difficult to preach on. Some Christians have seen in that story certain parallels with Jesus’ own sacrifice: a father sacrificing his son (Abraham/Isaac; God the Father/Jesus), both sons carry the instrument of their death on their shoulders (wood for the fire/the Cross), ultimately it is a ram (Jesus is the Lamb of God) that is sacrificed, but this is just too much of a stretch for me. Sister Wendy Beckett seems to have similar problems with this passage but what she writes about the painting by Albert Herbert (1994) of this incident makes most sense to me.
The story of Abraham and his only son Isaac has always been a daunting one. Abraham believed that God was calling him to sacrifice his son, and he was saved from this hideous action only at the last minute. I have a personal reading of that story: to me the only one that makes sense. It is that God would never ask us to do something that is evil, and Abraham must have known this. So what we have is two gigantic acts of trust, each based on the knowledge of the other person, and of God. Abraham could only have gone ahead in the absolute confidence that the horror would never happen. Isaac, for his part, submitted to being bound and laid on the altar, believing against all appearances that his father would not harm him. If Abraham had not known God, if Isaac had not known his father, such confidence would have been madness. Love Is not blind, despite the saying, and we cannot confidently give our hearts to the unknown. Love insists that we make a true judgement and then cleave to it, whatever the appearances. (The Art of Lent, p.78)
We can only truly love and trust what we know. Our journey through Lent – now almost complete – has been a journey of growing knowledge about Jesus and the call to trust him. In the next few days we will see the depth of Jesus’ trust of his Father, ultimately vindicated when he is raised from the dead. We are called to a similar trust, this year perhaps more than ever as we celebrate these days in isolation… and yet together in a way!
I have been unable to find a link to the painting of the Sacrifice of Abraham but if you Google the name of Albert Herbert you will find all finds of religious artwork depicting scenes from across the Bible.
Tuesday of Holy Week – Is. 49:1-6
In this second ‘Song’ the Servant is speaking for himself. He recalls his mission and the fact that God keeps offering words of encouragement, “while I was thinking, ‘I have toiled in vain. I have exhausted myself for nothing.’” In fact, he realises that God is sustaining him in his task and is calling him to be nothing less than, “the light to the nations so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” As we continue with this time of ‘social distancing’ and perhaps are wearied of it, we know how important it is and this Servant Song reminds us both of our task to be givers of Good News, and the fact that God is always with us.
In our Gospel (Jn. 13:21-33, 36-38) we find Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. He has just sat down after washing their feet and now talks about betrayal and denial. Judas (whose feet Jesus has just washed!) leaves the table and goes off into the night to do his terrible deed. Whereas Jesus calls himself the “Light of the World” night has fallen, and the symbolism of darkness will prevail for the next few hours. Jesus then goes on to predict Peter’s denials, with the latter’s usual blustering response, “I will lay down my life for you.”
Curiously, you will notice that 2 verses (34 & 35) are missed out in the extract given for us to read. They are used on other occasions, and in one of our popular hymns. They express words very much needed at this time.
I give you a new commandment:
That you love one another;
You also must love one another
Just as I have loved you.
By this shall everyone know that
You are my disciples
If you have love for one another.
Jesus love for us is expressed supremely in what he is about to do in the hours that lie ahead
Monday of Holy Week
Naturally, our Gospel Readings throughout this week centre on the events leading up to, and including, Jesus’ death on the Cross: his entry into Jerusalem; the plot against him; and the betrayal of Judas. In our First Readings, however, we meet the mysterious figure of the “Suffering Servant” found in four ‘songs’ in the second part of the Book of Isaiah. We hear the third of the songs at Mass on Palm Sunday and then, in proper order, numbers one, two and three from Monday to Wednesday. Finally, at the service on Good Friday we hear the fourth song where the Servant suffers complete humiliation and death.
Who is this “suffering servant”? Perhaps it is Israel itself, suffering in exile in Babylon when Isaiah is writing the songs. Certainly, Christians have always seen that Servant personified in Jesus himself, and especially in these events of Holy Week.
Today in the first ‘Servant Song’ (Is. 42:1-7) it is God who speaks. We are told that God delights in the servant who is endowed with God’s Spirit. The role of the Servant is to “bring true justice to the nations”, but it is the manner in which he carries out this task that we see fulfilled in Jesus’ own ministry, “He does not break the crushed reed, nor quench the wavering flame.” Saying that, nor does the Servant waver or be crushed himself/herself, “Until true justice is established on earth.” Never before, in our lifetimes, has that same call to be servants to each other been more important than it is today.
Our Gospel today (Jn.12:1-11) gives us the origins of Judas’ decision to betray Jesus at a meal in the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.
Our prayer today could well be lines from the opening verse of the Psalm (27 or 26):
The Lord is my light and my help;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
before whom should I shrink?
As we begin Holy Week Fr Sean, our parish priest is providing us with prayers, readuings and reflections.
In this time of isolation from family and friends, once again I offer a reflection by Sister Wendy Beckett entitled “Courage”. It centres around a painting by a C18th French artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau (I print the link to the image below). The picture itself is called “Gilles” and it depicts a lone actor stood away from his fellow troupe of actors who ignore him in the background. This is what Sister Wendy writes,
Gilles is a man discomforted: he stands exposed, tense and unhappy. Yet we could not call him a man who is not at peace. Something has happened (Watteau does not spell it out) that has removed him from his fellow actors and left him painfully alone. Gilles is ill at ease, but he has no option: what is happening must be lived through, and he sets himself to do it. This courage – this acceptance of powerlessness and decision to await consequences from which we cannot escape – this is an element of the confidence that springs from peace. Gilles is at peace because he does not rage against the inevitable. The wisdom is in knowing what is inevitable and what, with courage and intelligence, can be changed. Fundamentally, though, nothing matters except to be true to what we know is right.
Lord, at this time, grant us some of that inner peace… Lord, in your mercy…
Homily for End of Term Mass – April 2020
“If you make my word your home you will indeed be my friends,
You will learn the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Today (Friday) we should have been celebrating our End of Term Mass in St Aidan’s, but that is not possible at the moment. You have already been off school for two weeks now, and although some of you were, no doubt, excited about not having to come to school and having to do schoolwork all the time, I suspect that the reality of life at home, all day and every day, is not what you hoped it might be. Others will be missing school and I am sure that everyone is missing their friends. I hope that all of you have been keeping up every day with some schoolwork and that you are keeping well.
Free from school, free from schoolwork, might have seemed like a dream come true for some of you, but freedom from school as it is today is not what anyone would have imagined. Freedom to do anything we want to, when we want to never happens, and it is a very poor idea of what true freedom is about, anyway. In our Gospel today Jesus talks about, and offers us, a much better kind of freedom.
Real freedom is not the ability to do anything I want. It is being free from all that stops me being the best person I can possibly be. Now, more than ever, as we are unable to go out to play, to visit friends and to stay with them, it is this freedom: to be the best people we can, that we need.
Jesus, in talking to us and calling us his friends, is saying that if we listen to what he says, and look at what he does, and then try to live it in our own lives, we will learn the truth about what it means to be a really good person. If we can do that, we will be able to enjoy much better this time when we have to stay in the house as much as possible. If we can do this then, hopefully, it won’t be too long before we can see each other’s smiling faces at a School Mass in church again.
In the meantime, perhaps we could remember in our prayers children near at home and further afield who do not have the help and supports that we enjoy because they are in refugee camps, in places without enough food and even drinking water, in places where there is fighting around their doorsteps. We pray that God will keep them safe and that they might soon be able to live safer and more hope-filled lives.
Keep safe and God Bless!
Fr Sean Hall