Alleluia: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Alleluia

This was the text of Fr Neil’s homily at the Solemn First Mass of Easter in the evening of 3 April

God is love

Fr Neil’s homily on the Sixth Sunday after Easter (Rogation Sunday), 9 May 2021

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.

Christ in these words makes it utterly clear that although we have the free will to respond to the call of God we are not self-chosen or self-appointed disciples of Christ. The invitation to discipleship is wholly the initiative of Christ alone. The body of Christ, the Church, is therefore no mere human institution but divinely inspired, formed of God and therefore holy.

As citizens of the kingdom of God we are also called to be holy after the manner of Christ who has appointed us as his disciples. That means we are called to live out, in the body here on earth, the will of our Father in heaven. Thus we bear witness to the spiritual realities of God to those who sit in darkness without the light of Christ.

As children of God we have the extraordinary privilege of not being seen as mere servants, which in itself is more than we deserve, but are called friends of God in Christ.

‘No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.’

The Church through the apostles bears the deposit of faith, the will and purpose of the Father, revealed in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the life blood of the Church. The disciple who is rooted in the revealed will of God will bear the marks of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity. These virtues are the fruit that are gifts of God to his disciples that abide unto eternal life. As St Paul says, everything else will pass away ‘So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.’

These virtues are so fundamental to the life of genuine discipleship that they are the spiritual hermeneutics by which we discern our actions in accordance to the will of Christ. There is even a hierarchy within these gifts of God: the greatest is love, for without love any good action gains me nothing. Without the virtue of charity I am nothing but a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. Why? Because God in his very being is love and if we are without love we are without God who is the source of life itself.

Satan’s greatest fault is justly identified as the sin of pride. Pride was his downfall because of his failure to love and trust in God’s will and purpose. Pride corrupts charity which is rightly directed towards God. Pride becomes self love above all else.

How easy for our faith to slip into doubt and give false attributes to God by doubting his goodness or the sufficiency of his mercy and grace to overcome our sins. How easy for hope to give way to despair and struggle to see beyond the horror of our own trauma or the events taking place within the Church and the world. How easy for charity to surrender to hate and the despising of others who, however flawed, bear within themselves the image of God.

No wonder Christ repeats and emphasise again and again; “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” To seek to obey this command is the means by which we abide in his eternal love.

Icon of the Divine Mercy; anonymousThis is what divine charity looks like: while we were still sinners, ungodly, enemies of God, Christ, knowingly, willing and deliberately died for us. The cross reveals the heart of the Father in Christ and the depth of his love for the fallen world. This divine charity is articulated in the words of Christ upon the cross; “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And to the murderous thief who asks to be remembered; “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

It is a love that undoes death, reconciles heaven and earth and gifts eternal life to those who willingly embrace it with penitent hearts. But O how can I love like this when bitterness, resentment, shame and anger are so often my default position? Yes, there are times when tables need to be turned over but how often am I angry about the wrong things and indifferent towards that which should actually anger me? If I say that I have love yet transgress one of the Ten Commandments, then I have misunderstood what love truly is. Love is the key to all the commandments and it is the lack of faith, hope and especially charity that leads me into transgressing God’s laws.

If we understood this properly there would be queues outside every confessional — led by the priests themselves! — not moved by guilt alone but by the knowledge that the sacrament of confession is an intimate encounter with God’s divine love and mercy, the triumph of Easter. It is the place where we truly know the grace of forgiveness and reconciling charity — the embrace of Christ our Saviour.

St Gregory the Great said ‘this love has the ability to make a friend out of an enemy.’ Such charity brings life out of death, heals the broken hearted, reconciles the estranged, brings eternal heavenly joy and happiness, despite the hardships of life. Charity is divine, of God, and makes us citizens of heaven and even by his grace, saints of God.

‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.’

The Day of the Lord

Arms of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales

A Reflection by the Bishops of England and Wales, 22 April 2021

Gathering as Bishops in Conference this week, we wish to pay tribute to all in the Catholic community who have shown such courage, generosity and understanding in the face of adversity this past year. Across England and Wales, families and parish communities have risen to the challenge of sustaining one another through times of great isolation, loneliness and grief in an impressive variety of ways, spiritual, emotional and practical. We thank all who have worked tirelessly in prisons, in hospitals, care-homes and across the medical profession for giving of themselves so generously. We thank all who have worked valiantly in our schools, facing unforeseen demands and meeting them with characteristic professionalism and dedication.

We wish also to pay tribute to those who have given of their time and energy to keep open our churches as havens of peace and prayer. Churches up and down the land have realised the vision of Pope Francis that they be like village-wells where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey; and centres of “constant missionary outreach.” We thank all who have developed diverse new patterns of outreach — of prayer, catechesis, study and spiritual solidarity; all who have made participation in the Mass possible through the internet.

Also prominent in this tribute should be thanks to all who have contributed to the immense effort of providing food for those most in need. The generosity shown in the distribution of so very many meals has given eloquent expression to the mercy, love and compassion which are at the very heart of God. Many have been touched by the joy of meeting Christ in the poor; and many of the poor by the joy of meeting Christ in selfless parishioners. The provision of food is often the first step into a deeper relationship of help and accompaniment, including the sharing of the gift of faith in our Blessed Lord.

‘Vibrant’ is a word which seems to have characterised so many of our parishes throughout the pandemic. We wish to salute our priests in particular for the leadership they have shown in this time of crisis. We thank them for their deep devotion to both the liturgy and to their parishioners. We commend every priest who made of his parish “a ‘sanctuary’ open to all” and with a particular care for the poor; and the many Deacons who have exercised with such generosity their mission of charity.

What will be the pace of our emerging from this pandemic remains as yet unclear. What is clear is the challenge we face of bringing our communities and the practice of the faith to a still greater expression and strength. As your bishops, we are aware of a threefold pattern to this challenge.

  1. There are the fearful and weary, anxious about coming into the enclosed spaces of our churches; those who have simply lost the habit of coming to church. Personal contact, clear reassurance, and sensitive invitations will all be needed.
  2. There are those who will have reassessed their pattern of life and priorities. The practice of faith within the community of the Catholic Church may not be among those priorities. A gap may have opened up, or widened, between the spiritual dimension of their lives and any communal expression of that spiritual quest. They represent a particular focus and concern for our outreach.
  3. There are those whom we might describe as the ‘Covid curious’, those who have come into contact with the Catholic Church through our presence on the internet — a contact we may be able to develop through our continuing presence across diverse media platforms.

In facing these challenges, we are endowed with veritable treasures which serve to resource and enrich us. Among them are our schools, in which so many are regaining confidence to come together with others. We believe our schools can indeed be bridges back to church. There is also the remarkable work of social outreach which has grown exponentially during these long months of pandemic. On this, too, we must build. But the greatest treasure is, of course, the sacramental life of the Church, and, pre-eminently, the Eucharist.

Rorate Mass at Our Lady of Ransom Church, Eastbourne, 11 December 2020

It is the Eucharist, the celebration of the Mass, that makes the Church; and it is the Church, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, which makes the Eucharist. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the lifeblood of the Church. It requires our active participation and, to be fully celebrated, our physical presence.

At this moment, then, we need to have in our sights the need to restore to its rightful centrality in our lives the Sunday Mass, encouraging each to take his or her place once again in the assembly of our brothers and sisters. We face the task of seeking to nurture the sense of Sunday as “a weekly gift from God to his people” , and something we cannot do without; to see Sunday as the soul of the week, as giving light and meaning to all the responsibilities we live out each day; to see the Sunday Eucharist as food for the unique mission with which we have been endowed. In the time to come we can do no better than to rekindle in our hearts, foster and encourage, a yearning for the Real Presence of the Lord and the practice of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, a gift so deeply appreciated in these times of lockdown. We need to begin by fostering this in ourselves. For the Eucharist should be the cause of our deepest joy, our highest manner of offering thanks to God and for seeking his mercy and love. We need to make it the foundation stone of our lives.

The invitation to Sunday Mass resonates all the more deeply when we consider, as Pope St John Paul II reminds us in the Encyclical Letter Dies Domini, that the Sabbath rest is nothing if not a call to remember the gift of God’s Creation. The Eucharist is indeed a celebration of the created world, called into life by the Eternal Word, for the bread and wine of the earth becomes the Body and Blood of Christ who is that same Lord of all life. The Christ to whom we come so close in the Eucharist must be the foundation of our strivings, not least in the urgent task we face of caring for creation and our environment.

Pope St John Paul II spoke of our amazement at the gift of the Mass and the abiding Presence of our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar. Herein lies our treasure, enriching our relationship with Jesus and bringing together every aspect of our life and mission. This is such an important focus for our task in the coming months.

Background and Statement on the Bishops’ Conference website | PDF

Christ is the new creation

Decent to Hell, Duccio di Buoninsegna (c1258-c1318), c1310. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (25 April)

“There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Bookstores are filled with self-help manuals these days. It is a new fashion. Guiding lights are popping up all over the internet to offer the key to self improvement, to conquering our fears, realising our potential, finding inner peace and taking control of our lives and opportunities.

One might be rightly cynical about those who seek to make lots of money off the backs of our insecurities and fears with easy remedies and magical cures. The less cynical might see a restlessness within the human heart that for vast majority, without their knowing it, speaks of their longing for God. For many, this longing is focused on these self-improvement programmes as the answer to their troubles.

It is true that there is often a wisdom found in some which can help an individual to identify problems and can provide a guide through our emotional fears to find a better place in life. Our faith indeed provides for us an order and discipline to develop the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. Critically, however, it does not promise us an easy way to our inner goals and the peace of a trouble-free life. Quite the contrary: Christ has said, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life.” And “he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

How tempting it is to want and offer the Easter joys without the Good Friday sorrows, to want forgiveness for our sins without true repentance and conversion of life.

Nevertheless the offer of cheap grace is no grace at all.

Part of the problem is our inability to perceive and accept the depths to which our inner wounds go. Sorting a few difficulties in our lives cannot heal the deeper wounds caused by the Fall and the original sin we have inherited from Adam.

This deeper truth of humanity’s condition, rejected by so many, and which some in the Church seem reluctant to speak about of late, requires someone and something far more radical than a self-help guru.

Sight for the blind, ears unstopped for the deaf and the leper cleansed are wonderful acts of healing enabling the one healed to have a fuller life in society. However it does not necessarily provide a remedy for the disease of the soul. Ten lepers were healed by Christ but only one came back in praise of God. ‘Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”’

The deeper healing comes through the forgiveness of our sins so that we might, once more, have reconciliation with the Father. This reconciliation moves us from darkness to light and from death to life.

St John speaks of the Father’s love being lavished upon us “that we should be called children of God.” The depth of the merciful heart of the Father is revealed in Christ’s willingness to lay down his life as the Good Shepherd. Out of an act of unparalleled compassion, God is made flesh so that he might embrace the cross and as Lord of life burst open the gates of death.

The resurrection is the guarantee that the spiritual and physical, the infinite and finite, God and humanity are healed and reconciled in Christ. A way back to the Father has been opened for us in a new creation. Christ’s resurrection was no mere resuscitation like that of Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter. Both having returned to life would still eventually know once again ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return.’ Christ’s resurrection was utterly different, and brought about something beyond the normal experience of the natural world. No wonder his disciples struggled to grasp what they were witnessing.

The disciples were familiar with the notions of a new creation but that was fixed at the point when the present created order disappears and new heaven and earth are installed. Christ’s resurrection however, breaks open a new dimension of human existence into a continuing old world. What already exists is not called into question but now there is a further dimension, beyond that which was previously known.

Christ is alive and truly himself as the disciples testify in seeing, speaking and touching him. Yet he is no longer contained by the tangible world but lives anew forever in the power of God and the heavenly realms. The resurrection then cannot be fixed as a isolated event limited to the past; it is a universal event that opens up a new kind of future for all humanity. Jesus can in this new dimension make himself known — body, soul and divinity — in the breaking of bread, in the sacrifice of the mass.

This new reality we access by faith through baptism, dying with him that we might rise with him into this new mode of being, while we yet live in this world. It is the means of our salvation. In him death can no longer hold us. That which is our heart’s desire is opened to us as we take up our cross and follow him. In doing so we fully embrace what it is to be an Easter people living in faith, hope and charity.

The statement ‘There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved’ is therefore not a catch phrase of a ghettoed, exclusive bunch of fundamentalist loons, but a statement of reality. This greater depth of healing and wholeness, that binds the wounds of Adam’s fall, could only be brought about by the God-man Christ. This new dimension of creation, revealed in his resurrection, lends meaning to the so called ‘scandal of particularity’ and Christ’s own words; “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” And it is the basis of our faith, hope and charity.

Without this dimension of the resurrection we might just as well pack up and go home now. For as St Paul says; “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

However, Christ has risen and Alleluia is our song!

The Resurrection of the body

Anonymous icon

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on the Third Sunday of Easter (18 April)

“Handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have”

Christ makes sure that we really can’t misunderstand. It isn’t enough for him to come and visit the disciples to reassure them that his death was not the end. He stood among them, he ate with them, he invited them to look at his hands and feet — he was doing what was needed so that they had no doubts, so that as they went out to the world, they would have complete confidence in what he had done. So that when, for example, on the day of Pentecost S. Peter gave that first sermon, part of which we heard as our first lesson, he could declaim to the assembled crowds without the slightest flinching ‘you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.’

The resurrection of Christ is a reality, indeed one of the most real things which has ever happened in human history. A unique event so far, and so one which stands in need of confirmation — dead people don’t simply come back to life again, and so if S. Peter was going to stand there and preach this message, he needed to sure that this was the truth; so too all of those other Apostles who would in their turn stand in front of various crowds right across the then known world from Spain in the West to India in the East, they would need to be sure that it was the truth.

It isn’t just that he assures them of his resurrection, he takes them through the various different doubts which they might have — he shows that he is not a figment of their imaginations, that he isn’t simply an apparition or a ghost, that it is the same person. All of these to make sure that any doubts which might have lingered, or which might have occurred years later when they thought back, all of these had been taken care of and dealt with.

He begins by proving that he is the same person. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.” Those hands which would have been familiar to them from years of seeing them be laid on people to perform miracles…but which now carried even more certain proof. Those hands now bore the wound which the soldiers had made nailing him to the Cross. Those wounds will never go away, they are an integral part of who Christ is. Christ came to earth to die for us; his incarnation was in order that he could receive those wounds. The wounds would indeed journey to heaven as part of that body — just as those disciples saw the wounds, we too will see them when we face Christ at the final judgment. Wounds which were received in order to draw us back to God, wounds which speak of his boundless love for man. Or, as we shall sing when Advent comes along ‘those dear tokens of his passion, still his dazzling body bears.’ Wounds which remain, but which like the rest of his body have been transformed by his resurrection, so that they are now emblems of his glory.

When those disciples saw the wounds there could be no doubt, this was the same Christ whom they had followed — the same Christ who was killed on the Cross. There is no body double, there is no trickery at work here — this is the same person. “It is I myself.” It’s not difficult to image that the sight of those wounds would be burned into the memories of those disciples. That as they struggled carrying the message of Christ to the ends of the world, they could recall that sight, they could draw strength from contemplation of those wounds.

But Christ doesn’t merely prove that he is the same person, he goes on to prove that this resurrection isn’t just some ghostly apparition. Those wounds, like the rest of his body, were real. This was a body which could take some fish and eat it in front of them. The whole Christ has been raised. Just as it was a human body which was crucified and hung on the Cross — so it is a human body which stands in front of them. The resurrection, just like the incarnation, is a fleshly moment. We proclaim that ‘the Word was made flesh’, and in the resurrection that very same ‘Word made flesh’ was still fleshly. Death is the moment of separation of body and soul, the resurrection was the reuniting of them. To be a whole human takes both a body and a soul — the resurrected Christ was a whole, and indeed a perfect, human. He had a body and a soul and those disciples could see that body standing in front of them. They could see that body doing what a body does — in this case, eating some fish.

The effect of these meetings was to transform the disciples. Immediately before, they had been confused and terrified, but having received this clear reassurance from Christ they would be emboldened to go out and proclaim him in front of the world.

When S. Luke wrote down this account of the meeting he too had been convinced of the truth of the resurrection. He wasn’t there himself, but by talking with those disciples, by hearing their preaching, by seeing in them the fire which burnt with the message of Christ’s resurrection; he too was convinced. So he wrote what he heard from them. They told him how their lives had been changed by meeting with the resurrected Christ, and he wrote it down. They convinced him, and now his account is there to give us that same certainty which the gathered disciples had.

The certainty that this was the same Christ — the same man who had died, had been resurrected and stood in front of them. The certainty that this was no mere apparition — that this was flesh and blood, a true human person, who had been raised from the dead.

And along with that, the certainty that this resurrection is open to us as well. That we are being invited to join with Christ in his death, so that we may join with him in his resurrection — a true, certain, and complete resurrection.

Christ indeed from death is risen

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), c.1602; Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter (11 April)

“My Lord and my God!”

These are the profound words of Thomas as he encounters the risen Christ for the first time. Thomas has somewhat unfairly been labelled as ‘doubting Thomas’. He earned this name for not believing the witness of the other disciples to the risen Christ. Of course Thomas was not unique in his disbelief, as in Mark’s gospel all the apostles had refused to believe the witness of Mary Magdalene and were reproached by the Lord for ‘their incredulity and obstinacy’.

Did Thomas, in demanding signs, do anything more than what we would have done in his place? It’s all to easy to be swept along with the crowd and get caught up in wishful thinking. Perhaps it mattered too much to Thomas to allow that for which he hoped and yet daren’t believe to be decided by the thoughts of others. It’s not surprising that he should say, “Unless I…place my fingers in the marks of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas might have been using hyperbole in his rather dramatic statement to the other apostles. But with our Lord’s appearance, he is forced to make those words a reality. “Put your finger here and see my hands, and put out your hand and place it in my side.”

Thomas is left in no doubt about the physical reality of the resurrection of Christ. This is not just a nice idea, group delusion or hysteria but concrete reality. This physicality of the resurrection is fundamental. Our faith is incarnational: it cannot be reduced to a set of philosophical ideas, however good they are.

Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and social commentator who is not a Christian, uses the Judeo/Christian narrative to combat some of the extraordinary excesses of some modern-day thought and movements. However he is terrified that the narrative and the history might be one, that the narrative is true. He sees the consequences of that as being overwhelming.

Yet the Church rightly and deliberately roots the events of Christ, our salvation, in history. Pilate gets a mention in the Creeds exactly for this reason: to fix our belief in events that took place in time and space. We are not afforded the luxury of being existentialists, toying with ideas alone, but are called to live out that which we believe in our lives. It requires the conversion of our lives after the teaching and manner of Christ.

This embodying of our faith is why — however sophisticated live streaming of mass becomes — it cannot in anyway substitute being physically present at the representing of the sacrifice of the mass. The use of holy water, crossing ourselves, genuflecting before the Real Presence and the receiving of Our Lord in the sacrament are fundamental to our embodied faith.

Our reading from Acts then is not some primitive Socialist or even Communist manifesto, but a lived-out faith that responds with generosity of heart to our brother and sisters in need. It is the realisation that we must bring the internal self and our bodily existence in line with Christ. It is this that marks out the saints and is the means of our salvation. One of today’s great heresies is that the inner life and the body are separate realities often in conflict with each other. The Gospel speaks so profoundly against this. In Christ the spiritual and physical, heaven and earth, are reconciled. The inner conflict caused by the Fall has been overcome in his life, death and resurrection.

Of course some might say “…but Thomas and the apostles were privileged to walk, talk, and eat with Christ, they heard his teaching, saw the miracles and his crucifixion, burial and resurrection.” Yes, they were blessed to be witnesses to these events and as a consequence most were martyred because of it. However, our Lord offers a blessing for those who have not seen and yet believed.

Yet we also occupy a special position in that, as an Easter people, we have the whole of scripture, the Magisterium, the teachings of the Church and the witness of the apostles and saints throughout the ages that help unfold the revelation of the mystery of the resurrection. As Christ himself taught in relation to Lazarus and the rich man, “if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.”

But of course we do encounter the risen Christ — what is it that we think we are receiving in the Eucharist, if it is not the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ? That which we receive upon our tongue and take into ourselves is Christ, our life. We in turn are witnesses of these things and are called to take that which we have received unto the world that is lost without it. Let us reflect on this supernatural reality we participate in by saying to ourselves as we come to receive, that great confession, ‘My Lord and my God.’

John is at pains from the beginning of the gospel to to help us understand the physical and divine nature of Christ and that they matter — In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and was God…..and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Throughout the gospel we have the ‘I am’ sayings that refer back to the divine Name revealed to Moses at the burning bush. As if to book end the gospel, Thomas’ encounter with the physical resurrection of Christ leads to him to proclaim ‘my Lord and my God’. As John states himself ‘these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may life in his name.’

The editorial title to this article is a phrase from the Easter Sequence Victimae Paschali laudes attributed to Wipo of Burgundy (11th Century) in the customary English translation.