Poor Thistle Shopping centre in Stirling! Their decision to turn down a request have a crib in the shopping precinct was covered by all the news outlets from the Scotsman, the Mirror, the Express to the Times. The reason they gave was that they wanted to appear “religiously and politically neutral” and avoid offending customers. They have now reversed their decision. A crib can now appear in the shopping centre.
If you are walking down the high street in Canterbury towards Westgate, “Cafe St Pierre” have painted a large, colourful picture of Mary and the Child Jesus covering most of their front window. This definitely won’t put me off having a coffee and croissant there this Christmas time. We are given a Christmas season to reflect and celebrate the birth of Jesus. First there is the Octave (eight days) and then the days till 6th January when we celebrate the Epiphany. This is a time of joy.
When the angels appeared to the shepherds the night Christ was born they gave them this message. “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” We get much of the Christmas story from Luke. His gospel is known as the gospel of joy. In the gospel today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, Elizabeth says to Mary “the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy.” The birth of Jesus is a cause of great joy not just for Mary and Joseph but for the whole world. We share this joy because he is Saviour, he is the one who sets us free. We, the people who walk in darkness, have the light which is Christ. This is the reason there needs to be images of the birth of Jesus in the world of shopping and consumption. They remind us that our hope and our joy for the world resides in the birth of a child, not any child, but Christ the Lord.
I sometimes used to write in cards for those who were getting married Phillipians 4:4 . Those who were curious had to look up the verse in the New Testament. In the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) it reads “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” In the Jerusalem translation, which we use at Mass, it reads, “ I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord, what I want is your happiness”. The third candle on the Advent wreath which we light this weekend is coloured rose. (Pink). The celebrant at Mass wears rose vestments. This reflects the call to be full of joy, to be happy. The first word in Latin of the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass is “Gaudate”. Rejoice. It is though we are commanded to rejoice. How do we attain happiness? How can we be people who always rejoice especially when we are very much aware of great sadness, poverty and injustice that surrounds us in our world? In our personal lives we might be suffering, full of anxiety and have very little hope. But what gives us joy and happiness is knowing that the one we await, Jesus, who is the Christ, has conquered sin and death. In the resurrection he won the victory over death and redeemed the human race. Christ has taken on what frightens us most. His love is more powerful than anything that can overwhelm us. We rejoice because the king is in our midst and we have no more disaster to fear. This is the very heart of Christianity . As bishop Robert Barron said recently: “Don’t reduce Christianity to the works of social justice, doing good. The heart of the matter is the mystery foreseen by Zephaniah, proclaimed by Paul. Jesus has gone all the way down that we may be brought all the way up. That is the good news, that is the gospel, that is why we rejoice.”
The pressure is on. When am I going to write all those cards? Have I accidentally left off anyone from the Christmas present list? Will I cope this year with the family coming for Christmas dinner? Will I be celebrating alone? Let us leave those anxieties and worries aside for a while. We need to make space for Jesus in our heart. The cry of John the Baptist is “In the wilderness prepare a way.” Mountains and valleys can make our journey awkward and slow. They are barriers that need to be overcome. How do we prepare a way that is straight and smooth this Advent so that we can welcome Christ with great joy into our lives and hearts? As Fr Sylvester Flynn* suggests we need to have a look at our lives or to examine our conscience. What are the paths we need to straighten? Are there attitudes or behaviour that have deviated me from loving God? Are there times when I have allowed anger or resentment blind me to the way of love? The valleys to be filled in are the times when I have wandered from a sense of God’s presence or enthusiasm for God’s work was low. The mountains to be laid low are the obstacles which I imagine to be insurmountable because I have forgotten to trust in God; or the hills to be levelled can be the areas of pride where, because I am good at something, to look down on others in judgement. The winding ways can represent the delaying tactics I employed on my journey back to God. Do I delay, postpone, procrastinate.? Do I say: “tomorrow, Lord”? How do we make the rough ways smooth? We need to acknowledge the jagged edges of our personalities which irritate others or rub them up the wrong way. It could be my insensitivities, my lack of generosity, my unwillingness to compromise or my attempts to dominate others in subtle ways. This coming Tuesday at 7;30pm we have an Advent Penitential Service with an opportunity to go to sacramental confession. The Lord waits for my return. I will receive him a welcome guest into my heart.
* “Good News of Luke’s Gospel”
Our family wasn’t big into Christmas trees. In the living room the focus was the crib and behind it was a fairly insignificant plastic tree covered in tinsel . A friend of mind always has a big tree on which she daringly places candles which are lit occasionally when everyone is in the room. The tree is very much part of any home’s decoration. But there are those who object to a tree being in the Sanctuary of the Church. This year, at St Thomas, the tree appears this Sunday. But there are no lights or decorations. This tree will be our Jesse Tree. What is a Jesse Tree? The Jesse tree helps us connect the custom of decorating Christmas trees to the events leading to Jesus’ birth. The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of King David. We adorn a Jesse tree with illustrated ornaments that represent the people, prophesies, and events leading up to the birth of Jesus. The ornaments of the Jesse tree tell the story of God in the Old Testament, connecting the Advent season with the faithfulness of God across four thousand years of history. This Sunday the children will hang the first seven ornaments on the tree. The Sun recalling God’s creation, an apple reminding us of the story of Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark or a rainbow reminding us that God saved the human family through Noah, a star reminding us of the the promise made to Abraham, a ram recalling Abraham willing to sacrifice his son Issac, a ladder representing the Jacob’s ladder and the coat of many colours recalling how Joseph is used by God to save his people in Egypt. Each Sunday they will add more symbols until the tree is covered with images of our history of salvation.
At the end of the Advent season, as you decorate your own tree, here is a prayer you can say before you switch on the lights.
Lord our God,
we praise you for the light of creation:
the sun, the moon, and the stars of the night.
We praise you for the light of Israel:
the Law, the prophets, and the wisdom of the Scriptures.
We praise you for Jesus Christ, your Son:
he is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the Prince of Peace,
who fills us with the wonder of your love.
Let your blessing come upon us
as we illumine this tree.
May the light and cheer it gives
be a sign of the joy that fills our hearts.
May all who delight in this tree
come to the knowledge and joy of salvation.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
The Christmas lights were switched on this last Friday in Canterbury. Preparations for Christmas are now upon us and we have 35 days before the beginning of the Christmas season. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. This Sunday and next Sunday in the Liturgy we consider the end of time and readings from the apocalyptic book of Daniel before we begin the new liturgical year. It is only after reflecting on the end times that we begin our new liturgical year and celebrate the four weeks of Advent. As we consider the end times or the second coming of Christ, the question for us now is not at what hour or day will Jesus come but am I ready to meet Jesus? So for now it is a good time to consider our own mortality. We need to appreciate the precious gift of our limited time on earth. We pass through times of growth, and maturity and then we decline. We are on our way to be at one with the loving Father. The Canadian priest, Ronald Rolheiser in his column in the Catholic Herald last week wrote that our death is meant to be met and respected as a normal human experience and not as a medical failure. “Death and its inevitability in our lives are to be understood as a growth point, a necessary maturation, something to which we are organically and spiritually destined and not an aberration or unnatural intrusion into the life cycle.” So how are we preparing for our death? You will find lots of practical advice on making a will, having a funeral plan and the like, but I am not talking about this aspect. We come to the inevitability of our death by being ready, by being awake. It is essential for us to live in the present moment and see each day as a gift from God. The way we prepare is to live life with great thankfulness and joy. Perhaps as we wake each morning we could pray these words from Psalm 15. Preserve me God, I take refuge in you. My happiness lies in you alone. You are my portion and cup, you yourself are my prize. I keep you ever in my sight, even at night you direct my heart. With you at my right hand, I shall stand firm. And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad. For you will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever.
This Sunday, 11th November, is Armistice Day and is also known as Remembrance Day. It marks the day World War One ended, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918. Nowadays, we remember those who were lost in the war by holding a two-minute silence and by wearing a red poppy. The act of remembering is important. We are people who keep anniversaries and remember the past. The act of remembrance helps us to understand the events of the past and learn from them. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 41 million. World War II fatality statistics vary, with estimates of total deaths ranging from 50 million to more than 80 million. The higher figure of over 80 million includes deaths from war-related disease and famine. Civilians killed totalled 50 to 55 million, including 19 to 28 million from war-related disease and famine. These staggering statistics impel us to foster a deep desire to work and pray for real and lasting peace. In many Catholic churches a requiem Mass is celebrated for the dead of the two world wars on this day. When we celebrate a requiem Mass we commend the dead to God’s merciful love and plead for the forgiveness of their sins. As a Christian community we affirm and express the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints. Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth and benefit from their prayers and intercession. In this way we recognises the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and we proclaim our belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more. So we remember and we pray for those killed through war and we pray for peace today.
“Let us, then, pray with all fervour for this peace which our divine Redeemer came to bring us. May He banish from the souls of men whatever might endanger peace. May He transform all men into witnesses of truth, justice and brotherly love. May He illumine with His light the minds of rulers, so that, besides caring for the proper material welfare of their peoples, they may also guarantee them the fairest gift of peace.” St Pope John XXIII
On Wednesday night Fr Sylvester and I were at the Mass of Welcome of Fr Hans Puthiakulangara as the Pastoral Administrator of the parish St Simon Stock, South Ashford. He was asked a series of questions by Monsignor Matthew Dickens the Chancellor of the Diocese. The first was “It is the duty of the priest to proclaim the word of God. He must study the bible and meditate on its message; believe what he reads; teach what he believes and practice what he teaches. Are you willing to co-operate with your bishop in preaching Christ in season and out of season, explaining to all the word of God? “ It reminded me of the Vatican II document on priestly life that clearly states that the primary duty of the priest is to proclaim the Gospel of God to all. I am sure that if you asking many people, when asked what is the primary duty of the priest they would answer “to celebrate Mass”. When we affirm that “the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” we are not denying that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. I remember a priest working in Chile said that his one aim as a parish priest was to get people to read and love the Scriptures.
The Mass and the sacraments mean little to anyone who does not know Jesus. We can come to a deep and initiate knowledge of Jesus through the Gospels especially. We as a parish are called to be missionary. We need to ask ourselves “How important is Scripture in my life?” At the end of Mass, the priest says’ Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. We are better able to to do this if it the gospels are part of our life.
Pope Francis, speaking to young people of Argentina earlier this year, said:
“But to travel this path of helping to lift up others, let us not forget, we need personal encounters with Jesus, moments of prayer, adoration and, above all, listening. The word of God; I ask you: how many of you read two minutes of the Gospel each day? Two minutes! Keep a little copy of the Gospel in your pocket, in your wallet … While you are on the bus, while you are on the subway, on the train or you stop and sit at home, open it and read it for two minutes. Try, and you will see how your life changes. Why? Because you will meet Jesus. You will meet Him with the Word”.
Painfully at this time in the Church we are having to deal with sexual abuse of children by some priests. We need to give priority to the special pastoral care to all those effected by this abuse.
This abuse has changed many peoples attitude towards priests. There are those who say that abuse has been allowed to go unchallenged because of clericalism within the Church. I believe that clericalism has been allowed to happen when we disassociate Holy Orders from Baptism. It is when we forget the connection to the baptised. I must remember that I exist as a priest only to serve the baptised. For me my baptism is more fundamental than my ordination. Holy Orders serves the baptised and when you forget that then you have clericalism. Clericalism happens when we cling to honour, power and prestige as a priest. It happens when there is an obsession with holy orders in itself. We all must never forget that the priesthood is a ministry of service. A priest is here to help people become holy. “When we forget that, we become caved in on ourselves, as St Augustine says.” (Bishop Robert Barron)
In the gospel for this Sunday Jesus says: “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Pope Francis said, “We must never see our ministry as a source of self-gain; rather our sacred ministry has to be the means of our self-giving”. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston wrote, “In the life of the priest and deacon, there can be no dichotomy between our cultic role and the humble service we must give as in washing the feet of our brothers and sisters. The towel should be as emblematic as the stole for our priests and deacons, where humble service must reflect the humble and loving service of the Good Shepherd.” Please continue to pray for vocations to the priesthood. We need men who are willing to embrace a life of humble service of the baptised.