Ecstasy of St Paul, John Liss (d. 1629); Gemäldegalerie [Staatliche Museen] Berlin

Fr Neil’s homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, 12 December 2021

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice…..Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.¹

Could these words come at a more opportune time? The spectre of a new Covid variant running riot through the land is triggering an already-traumatised nation. Media hype and precautionary measures imposed by the Prime Minister limiting people’s freedom, would have seemed unthinkable three years ago. Now they are readily accepted in a heightened atmosphere of fear. Our attention has been directed and fixated on our physical health. The NHS, which I love, has been raised to the position of saviour in this moment of crisis. There is an irony in leading government figures clapping NHS staff and then rewarding their heroics with a two-year pay freeze.

There have been questioning voices raised about the leadership of all the main Christian denominations. Where was the message of hope in the light of this sharp reminder of our mortality? Leaders seemed to rush to close churches rather than have them open as sanctuaries of hope and prayer.

The message of Christ at the heart of the mission of the Church is to proclaim a message that speaks of the spiritual life reunited with God. Addressing our spiritual life at any time is important, but it is especially so during a health crisis. Historically, the Church always put itself at the forefront of these health crises. The Church has something to say about life and death and facilitates the possibility of reconciliation with God for the dying. The emphasis of the Church’s ministry, then, is focused on the spiritual life rather than just the merely physical.

I wonder how much the materialist worldview has filtered into our thinking without our being aware of it? The materialist sees nothing other than the material world and denies any sense of the spiritual. Perhaps our obsession with selfies, body image and diets is indicative of the real poverty of such thinking. If this is our world view it would make sense for the excessive panic, rising anxiety and fear in the light of a pandemic that has a sub-1% death rate². This lack of spiritual awareness would make sense of the inability of police officers to understand the importance of the last rites for MP Sir David Amess.

It’s not that the Church isn’t interested in the physical welfare of people. After all, it is the biggest aid agency in the world, it fights for the unborn life in the womb and argues rightly against euthanasia. However, it recognises that the spiritual health of an individual has eternal consequences. Christ himself in his use of hyperbole tells his listener: “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”³

Physical death for all of us is inevitable, and we need to attend to our spiritual welfare, ignoring it at our peril. The Church has a great deal to say about the human condition that enables us to face our mortality with faith, hope and love. Yet here is the paradox. Giving our attention to the life of the spirit united to God in Christ enables a right perspective on the living-out of our physical life. The spirit and material world are intimately connected.

The more we limit our vision to the material world only, we find it is detrimental to the bodily health of the individual. While Parliament rightly tries to protect the the elderly and vulnerable from this virus, there has been an attempt to get a euthanasia bill into law. It is the elderly and vulnerable who are most at risk from this. While limiting access to health care due to Covid (which has affected cancer sufferers especially), we have made possible home abortion and attempted to allow abortion up to birth for any reason.

In the Gospel today⁴ those who listened to John the Baptist were fundamentally asking the question; ‘what must I do to prepare for the coming messiah so that I might inherit eternal life?’ The Baptist is clear that repentance for sins and the living a moral life, in accord to the revealed will of God, leads to health in mind, body and spirit. It allows the person with two cloaks or extra food to share with person who has none. It enables us to find peace and be content with what we have rather than envying and exploiting others. It prepares the heart and soul to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us ready for eternal life.

It is in the light of the promise of eternal life that we can — even in a time of crisis — “rejoice in the Lord always”. Why? because God is in charge and not even the threat of death can snatch away eternal life found in Christ.

It is our trust in God that can heal our anxieties and fears, that enables us to encounter with thanksgiving the living Lord through the sacraments and prayers of the Church. The Church should be a place of peace that enables us to live in peace with each other rather than scapegoating and blaming others for the situation in which we find ourselves. We are not to worry as those who have no hope.

St Paul was in prison uncertain whether he would live or die, yet he wrote these words ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.’ He could only do so in the knowledge that God has triumphed gloriously over sin and death and opened the way to eternal joy. He was aware that his citizenship was not of this world but was a citizenship of God’s heavenly kingdom. Let joy be the first characteristic of God’s people in this place!

¹ Philippians 4:4–6
² CFR 359.1 per 100,000 population, year to 31 October 2021 (0.36%) (Source: UKHSA)
³ Matthew 18:8
⁴ Luke 3:10–18