Gifts of love

The Wedding Feast at Cana, Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), 1563; Louvre

Fr Neil’s homily for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, 16 January 2022

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.¹

The last few Sundays and those to follow carry a theme of epiphany — a revealing of who Christ is. The Nativity shows Christ to be the long-expected new-born Davidic king; his Baptism that he is both Son of God and the anointed Messiah. Today at the wedding in Cana, Christ is revealed as the spouse of the people of God in the eternal kingdom.

It is not insignificant that Scripture opens with the union in marriage of Adam and Eve in the garden and ends with the language of the marriage supper of the Lamb in the new kingdom in the book of Revelation.

Marriage as a means of speaking about the relationship with God and his people is profound and revealing. It speaks of a covenant relationship. Promises are exchanged and received. This language about God is revolutionary. People may have been use to the image of the Almighty rightly imposing a set of demands that they were to follow if they wished for his blessing and to remain his people. The wedding imagery, however, speaks of intimate self-giving, an act of loving faithfulness that God embarks upon in relationship to his people.

It is why, in Isaiah, we hear the promised blessing using language that says, “your land shall no more be called Desolate (‘barren’); but you shall be called My delight is in her, and your land married (‘fruitful’).”² They were not to be a people without a God but to be in a relationship with a God who holds them as close to his heart, with a commitment as great as a husband to a wife.

The use of such profound intimacy stresses another implication. Marriage is the established context within which life is born, nourished and flourishes. We are back to our baptisms where we are reborn into the family of God, and the Church is seen as the mother who brings us into this our new family.

If we are sons and daughters of God it is because by our baptism, we are betrothed to Christ, as a member of the Church, his bride. By covenant we are married into the family of God.

The wedding at Cana is so much more than a story of an awkward social situation. A situation to which Christ comes to the rescue by providing enough booze for the party to carry on — after all we have to remember that this isn’t 10 Downing Street!

There is a powerful meditation alone on the final words of our Blessed Lady: “Do what ever he tells you.”³ However the significance of the water turned into wine reveals that this new wine, that Jesus pours out at today’s feast, is the gift of the Holy Spirit given to His bride and body, the Church.

It is this very same gift that Paul is speaking about in today’s Epistle. The bride of Christ is enriched with many blessings of both the fruits and gifts of this new life in the Spirit. They are given to animate our life in him and to provide a spiritual environment in which all members of the family are able to flourish.

Paul is speaking to a divided community in Corinth who are rather smug about the manifestation of the spiritual gifts they have received. Rather than building up people they use them to differentiate between people, to victimise certain groups, and feed their own ego and pride. There is nothing new under the sun.

Paul is adamant that the gifts of Christ, given to his bride, the Church, are meant for the common good and building up of the community of faith, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Our relationship with Christ is intensely personal as heart speaks to heart⁴. We experience within our very souls Christ’s saving love. His call to follow him as a disciple can only be answered by a personal decision. However, that faith cannot be fully lived out separated from the community of faith. Together we make up the body of Christ; together we walk, support and encourage one another on the road of faith; and together we enable the Church here in this place to be a manifestation of the bride of Christ in whom life is found.

Therefore the gifts that we receive from God are given that we might enable one another to be Church together. It is very easy to come and see what is wrong with the church, the community, indeed the priest and grumble about what it isn’t providing. Some of these insights might well be justified and need to be heard. However, there is the danger of seeing the church merely as a service provider and forgetting that it is a community of faith that stands or falls on the active commitment and genuine faith of its members.

Maybe we can begin by asking, “What gifts have I been given that I can use in this, my community, my church, my spiritual family for the nurture of the common good?”

Christ, as groom, gave everything for the sake of you and me, members of his bride, the Church. What is my appropriate loving response in return?

¹ 1 Corinthians 12:7
² Isaiah 62:4b
³ John 2:5
St Francis de Sales, letter to the Archbishop of Bourges, 5 October 1604, in Oeuvres de Saint François de Sales (1834); the motto of St John Henry Cardinal Newman

Baptised into His mission

The Baptism of Christ, Pietro Perugino (1446–1523) and his workshop, c.1482 (detail); Sistine Chapel

Fr Neil’s homily for the Baptism of Christ, 9 January 2022

He saves us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.¹

The Baptism of Christ by John was not, like all the others, a baptism of repentance. Christ’s baptism was to inaugurate him as the long-foretold Messiah. It reveals that he, the anointed one, is affirmed by the signs of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice from heaven: “you are my beloved Son.”²

Here we see Christ step out of from the shadows of his hidden life into the public arena. He is announced to the world with these dramatic signs from heaven and the words of John; “he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”³

The setting of the beginning of Christ’s public ministry couldn’t be any more significant. The Jordan was crossed by the Israelites after forty long years of wandering the desert. Finally they crossed the river to make their last step from a slave people to become the nation of God. Their exodus finished as they took possession of the Promised Land.

Christ’s baptism in the Jordan announces the purpose of his mission. As the Messiah of God he will lead the way into a new exodus. This exodus however, will be to a freedom from spiritual slavery rather than physical freedom. It will lead to a new promised land, a kingdom that is eternal, reaching beyond the bounds of an earthly realm.

This spiritual freedom is to break the bonds of the old curse of the Fall we inherited from our ancient parents Adam and Eve. We are to be liberated as children of God in his heavenly kingdom.

Our celebration of the Epiphany revealed the plan of God. In Christ, all peoples — symbolised by the Magi — would be co-heirs to the blessings promised to Israel. Today we are shown how we claim our inheritance.

His baptism is a decisive point that will illuminate Christ’s mission in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, as he returns to his eternal glory with the Father. As a disciple of Christ there is a daily requirement to make a decision for the Lord as we seek to walk the way of holiness and life. However there has to be a first decisive moment when we offer our ‘Yes’, ‘let it be’⁴ to God. This offering, of our will to be conformed to his, is our first step on our own exodus to freedom and salvation.

That first step is made explicit and effective in our own entering into the waters of our baptism. It is a baptism of repentance where we will renounce “irreligion and worldly passions,”⁵ so that we might, “live sober, upright and godly lives in this world.”⁵ It is also however a baptism of fire that purifies and a “regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.”¹

That first decisive step, for most of us, would have been made by our parents who rightly have a godly authority to make decisions on our behalf while we are still children. In fact baptism, among other things, proclaims that our children are already part of God’s kingdom and retain the full dignity as a child of God that isn’t dependent on the age of reason.

Our baptisms are not just some past event consigned to the pages of the history of our lives but an ongoing present reality.

The act of repentance, regeneration and renewal are a part of the landscape of anyone who wishes to walk the way in Christ to the heavenly promised land. We are fed on the way and spiritually sustained by the heavenly manna of the Eucharist — the very life of Christ himself.

Wisdom that is gained on this our exodus journey becomes aware that; “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy.”¹ Quite simply he loves us and continues to call us out of darkness and enslavement of sin into life in the light of his divine glory. We often struggle to see ourselves as loveable by others, let alone by God himself! Yet here he is, in the flesh, opening a way into life on the banks of the River Jordan and he bids us to follow him. If we can accept that love, that call, undeserved as it is, then we can make a decisive decision for God, as our response of love in return.

Opening up our heart to Christ is to allow the Holy Spirit to seek to change anything that stands in the way of our embracing full life in him. It is to put God at the centre of every decision each of us makes. It is to seek to bear witness to him as the ‘way, truth and life.’ It is to love, the alien, widow, orphan, neighbour and our enemy even to the point of death. It is to be transformed by his love that we are able to love enough to say both ‘yes’ to life and ‘no’ to anything that is not of God for ourselves and for others, “so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”⁶

¹ Titus 3:5
² Luke 3:21–22
³ Luke 3:16
⁴ Cf Luke 1:38; cf Gen 1:3
⁵ Titus 2:12
⁶ Titus 3:7

Kneel and adore him

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano (c1370–1427), 1420; Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Fr Neil’s homily for the Epiphany, 6 January 2022

All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.¹

Matthew is writing to tell the gospel of Christ to a mainly Jewish audience. It influences what he is inspired by the Holy Spirit to include in his account of Christ.

Matthew is at pains to make clear that Christ is the Messiah foretold by the prophets, hence his constant reference to the Law and the prophets in the scriptures. These strange figures that appear from the East have a particular role to play in the unfolding revelation of God.

These visitors in the Christian tradition are referred to as both wise men or Magi and kings. This is because Matthew infers a connection to our first reading from the prophet Isaiah and also psalm 72. A king will be born whose greatness will be recognised in gifts of tribute for “they bring gold and frankincense”¹ and “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him.”²

The wise King figures alluded to the greatest wise King of antiquity, Solomon, whose fame reached the ends of the earth. Indeed the Queen of Sheba came to hear his wisdom and be overwhelmed: “she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again came such an abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.”³

Matthew would later record the words of the Lord himself when he stated, “The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”⁴

Matthew is not only connecting up the dots for his readers, but also lays a warning not to be blinded to who Christ is and so fall on the wrong side of God’s judgement.

Creation itself rejoices and seeks to fulfil its vocation by bearing witness too, pointing the way to the king of kings. This is most notable in the appearing of the star, but also with the choir of angels before the shepherds and the ox, ass and sheep that almost certainly would have been stabled near by.

These Gentile kings had read the signs of the times and travelled many miles to offer tribute and worship. If creation and the Gentiles could see this, then surely God’s own people ought to? Here is the promised king who would establish an eternal kingdom that would reach beyond the borders of Israel to the ends of the earth and indeed to eternity itself.

What has this scripture story from two thousand years ago got to do with us today? The attitude which asks that question is also present in Herod who saw these old prophesies as troublesome because they fed the unrest and false expectations of the people he ruled. Any news of a new king would unsettle the people more and threaten his own position of power. If he couldn’t control the people then Rome would replace him. To Herod the scriptures were a dead letter, and not the living word of God that can help transform and lead the one who hears with his heart, as well as his mind, to life.

I wonder what our own attitude to scripture is? The power of God at work in the scriptures and our living tradition can so easily be forgotten. To forget is to be blinded to the movement of the Holy Spirit and can mean we miss the moment of grace and healing for our souls.

These wise men show us that God’s revelation in creation and in the scriptures will always lead those who seek true wisdom to Christ — God made manifest. This is as true today as it was when the magi first appeared. At a point when many in the Church have lost their nerve to speak with conviction about God, and have too often morally capitulated to the whims of the world, there are others raising the alarm. These alternative voices, such as those on the intellectual dark web, while not identifying as Christians, are articulating boldly the dangers of the loss of religion and belief in God.

I would not agree with some or much of what they say, yet the search for truth has led a number of them — to their own surprise — to recognise that the loss of God to society is toxically damaging. The recovery of faith is essential to any community’s long-term health.

Maybe it will need the alien, the stranger and the agnostic, who are searching for true wisdom, to lead many of us back to recognise the King of Kings; that the gospel isn’t just a cultural phenomenon of the Christian community but a revelation for all creation, all humanity, across all times.

Without the King of Kings as the centre of our lives, society will inevitably make idols of riches, pride and honour. That is an unforgiving religion which will seek to destroy all that stands in its way.

The way of life begins with us bringing all that we are and kneeling with the wise men before the Babe of Bethlehem, God’s love and our salvation made flesh.

¹ Isaiah 60:6
² Psalm 72:10–11
³ 1 Kings 10:10
⁴ Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31

Announcement of Easter and the Moveable Feasts 2022

Paschal Candle painted by Fr Bede Price: image by Lisa Johnson via ccwatershed.org
The announcement of the year’s liturgical calendar is made after the Gospel reading in the Mass of the Epiphany. The Council of Nicaea (AD 325) is said to have formalised the tradition — which was ancient even then — of the Patriarch of Alexandria’s mission to send the date of the Paschal solemnity to other Eastern Patriarchs and to the Roman Pontiff, who was then to inform the metropolitans of the West. The customary proclamation is called the Noveritis after the first word in Latin, and it’s sung to the same tone as the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil, giving a taste of the Easter joy to this publication of the date of Easter.

Know, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, so by leave of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his Resurrection, who is our Saviour.

On the thirteenth day of February will fall the Sunday of Septuagesima.

On the second day of March will fall Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the fast of the most sacred Lenten season.

On the seventeenth day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Paschal feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the twenty-sixth day of May will be the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the fifth day of June, the feast of Pentecost.

On the nineteenth day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

On the twenty-seventh day of November, the First Sunday of Advent of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Blessing of the House at Epiphany

By Miguel Ángel García via pxhere.com

It’s customary to bless the house each year at Epiphany, with chalk and water which has been blessed for the purpose. You may have been able to obtain some; it’s generally distributed after Mass at Epiphany, and many churches make it freely available during the days afterward. Even if you’re isolating and can’t get it delivered to you, you can use the form here to ask for God’s blessing.


Magnificat

From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now : and ever shall be world without end. Amen.

From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come,
thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

All they from Saba shall come
Bringing gold and frankincense.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
And let my cry come unto Thee.

The Blessing

Let us pray.
O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy Only Begotten Son to the Gentiles: mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith, may be led onward through this earthly life, until we see the vision of thy heavenly glory. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee — Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.
And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendour of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Let us pray.
Bless, O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfilment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Each room is then sprinkled with Holy Water.
Over the main entrance using the blessed chalk inscribe:

20 + C + M + B + 22
This is formed of the numbers of the year (2022) with the initials of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar); it also stands for Christus Mansionem Benedicat (May Christ bless this house).

Sons in the new creation

Mass in the company of heaven, anonymous engraving

Fr Neil’s homily for the Second Sunday after Christmas, 2 January 2022

He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.¹

The wisdom of God speaks in the midst of the assembly to make known the praise and glory of God. It unfolds the mystery of the gospel of God that calls all creation to fulfil its vocation by reaching the fullness of life in obedience to His will.

Creation was called into being when the Word spoke, “let there be…”² That very Word through whom all things have their being becomes flesh.³ The creator enters into the very thing he brings into being, to enable creation to reach its final destiny.

This extra-ordinary act of God is a mystery beyond our comprehension.⁴ Yet he illuminates the minds of humanity as the Light of the world. With the Fall, humanity has fallen into darkness, lost its way and is bound and blinded by sin and death.

Yet as Isaiah promised; “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”⁵

This light the darkness has not and cannot overcome.⁶ It reveals the mystery to which we are called and illuminates the way of the blessed. This way of wisdom is more than just knowledge, but it reveals a movement of the heart and soul to a place of adoration and surrender to the majesty of our Creator in an act of thanksgiving. That act of thanksgiving should be at its most clearest and profound in the celebration of the mass. The mystery of his divine love and mercy is overwhelming as he enters our world so that we might take our place in his new creation.

It reveals that we, and all creation, were in the mind of God even before we came into existence.⁷ It tells us that he has an intimate interest in our present state of life each and every day. He makes known his desire for our healing and wholeness, the desire that our final destiny might be in heavenly glory with Our Lady and all the saints — his body, the Church glorified.

Christ’s incarnation sees the redemption of matter and unveils the mystery that what we do in the body has eternal significance. Heaven and earth are brought together and a unity between the spiritual and physical reveals something of the nature of the end times.

We engage with the spiritual most profoundly in prayer. The life of prayer is not left until we have shuffled off this mortal coil, although we do have the consolation of Our Lady and all the saints interceding for us. Prayer must be integrated into the fabric of our being and be a natural aspect of living out our life here on earth. How Christ himself prayed shows the necessity of prayer in living out a life here on earth which seeks to fulfil the will of the Heavenly Father.

Prayer has a several core elements: adoration, praise and thanksgiving are central; then the acknowledgment of our struggle with sin, seeking God’s grace and healing. Finally there is petitionary prayer that first desires the coming of the kingdom and then asks for what is necessary to welcome it and cooperate with its coming.

This is to unite oneself in the mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit manifested in his body the Church. Via prayer, the vocation of every baptised Christian is to see the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. We are pre­destined to reproduce the image of God’s Son made flesh⁸, who is the image of the invisible God and Father of us all.⁹

How then in my life of discipleship am I, via God’s grace, to make real the sacred? What stands in the way? What do I need freeing from to make incarnate the ways of holiness and salvation more clearly in my life? How might my life become an icon of God to a world gripped by a culture of death that is in desperate need of a way to wisdom and light?

We need to wrestle with these questions daily but a good starting point is to trust that “he destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”¹

¹ Ephesians 1:5–6
² Genesis 1
³ John 1:14
⁴ Cf 1 Timothy 3:16
⁵ Isaiah 9:2
⁶ John 1:5
⁷ Cf Psalm 139(138):15–16
⁸ Cf Genesis 1:27
⁹ Colossians 1:15–16