Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent 2014: 'O Adonai'

Moses and the Burning Bush by Marc Chagall

"O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.  Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us."

Yesterday’s antiphon hailed Jesus as “Wisdom”, the eternal Word of God, the "logos" John described in the opening of his Gospel. Today, we rightly acknowledge and hail Jesus as our “Lord” (in Hebrew Adonai). With this second antiphon we progress from creation to the recollection of God manifesting himself by name to Moses and giving his law to Israel as their way of life, the precursor to His fullest manifestation as Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Antiphon recalls how in Exodus 3:2 “An angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in fire flaming out of a bush” and how in Exodus 6:6 the Lord promised to free Israel from bondage under the Egyptians and to rescue them by His outstretched arm and with might acts of judgment. This image of God’s saving outstretched arm prefigures Jesus’ saving action, arms outstretched, on the Cross.

The Lord is the fulfilment of all that was promised to Israel and to Moses, and yet in many ways like nothing they could have imagined. A humble Messiah, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross”. (Philippians 2:7-9)

This is the Lord who shows us that the Law is so much more than a series of legal strictures, but rather finds its fulfilment in Him (Matthew 5:17). The Law paradoxically becomes stricter and yet so much more beautiful and attractive because it is the gateway to a personal relationship with God. No longer do we just seek to appease God, but with his coming in human form, we can know him and we can strive to become most fully ourselves, by becoming more like Him.

If we ponder this just for a moment we realise how momentous the Incarnation is. God became like us, so that we might become more like Him.

Advent may have rushed by, with Christmas ready to take us by surprise, but it is never too late to heed the Baptist’s cry to repent and turn to the Lord  . . . and if we do; we will find Him there waiting for us with outstretched arm, calling us by our name and loving us much more than we could ever imagine.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advent 2014: 'O Sapientia'

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

The first of Advent's 'Great Antiphons' hails Jesus as the Wisdom spoken forth by the Father. It is the Divine Son, the antiphon proclaims, who governs the universe and brings all things 'powerfully and sweetly' to their appointed end in accordance with Divine Providence.

Providence can be a challenging concept and we regularly see or hear about things which make us question if there really is a loving God tending to everything in creation, a God who has counted each hair on our heads and knows every sparrow in the skies (Matthew 10:29).

Indeed, even those who acknowledge and praise God for his benevolence towards creation sometimes forget the extent to which he cares. We can accept God has a 'long term' vocation planned for each of us but are sceptical that he really has much interest in the little things we do, it doesn't concern God whether or not we brush our teeth at night or if we read that book instead of this one, we might think.

One mistake which can lead to this sort of minimizing of our appreciation of God's active interest in the affairs of the world is to think of him only as a judge concerned solely with moral acts, acts which are either obviously right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful. It's easy to appreciate why people might make this assumption: after all, isn't gossip the most interesting of information? Don't we tell people to skip the details and 'get to the juicy bits' when they're telling us a story?

Does God care about the 'details' of our stories? Perhaps we need to reflect upon how we talk with people we love. When we love someone we aren't just interested in the 'juicy bits' of the stories they might have, we want to hear every detail. Hours can be whiled away between the best of friends as they talk about little things, inconsequential stories which don't seem to have much of a role in the big plan.

In the Incarnation we see that God is not merely some distant judge but rather the most intimate of companions. His love for us is so great that he came down from Heaven to dwell among us and further to unite us to him by assuming human nature and divinising it, filling it with his own life.

So, Jesus, who 'orders all things from one end to the other' is intimately and personally interested in every detail of our life. He is our closest friend. Perhaps then, as we contemplate his coming among us, we should endeavour to open up our prayer life to encompass all the things we do, big and small, that by welcoming him into our hearts this Christmas with the same fiat by which Mary welcomed him into her womb, he might sanctify every iota of our being with his presence.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Third Tuesday of Advent

Readings: Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13; Matthew 21:28-32

In Edinburgh, a certain cat started visiting the University library. A Facebook group soon appeared with photos of the cat inside the library foyer. A Twitter account posts musings on the happenings of the feline guest, @edinlibrarycat. Scottish TV news even started interviewing students to get to the bottom of who the cat belongs to. Journalists have been on the case in uncovering one of the apparent secrets of the Scottish Catholic Church. Students at the Dominican Catholic chaplaincy know the cat as Jordan, who is one of the two Priory cats. It appears Jordan has been receiving food and attention from a number of sources in addition to the friars.

In today’s reading, we hear of the reluctant son who says he won’t work in his father’s vineyard (but ends up doing it after all) and the other son who agrees to work in the vineyard, but does not. Perhaps the son was more interested in children’s games. We play our games like children in life, but there is a simplicity in either doing what God wants in the vineyard, or playing our games and not working in the vineyard. There are clearly things we do not and indeed probably can never know in this life. Like, what happens after death. We are promised that if we follow Christ and his teachings contained in scripture, we will inherit eternal life with God. This relatively simple message has always been accepted by Christians, on our salvation and resurrection after our death.

However, on occasion the childish questions start to surface. What will happen to our pets when they die? My dog, my cat, my guinea pig. Will they be in heaven with us? Pope Francis has been in the media limelight once again. The world’s media has, in a somewhat childish manner, latched on to something the Holy Father told a distraught boy whose dog had died. Pope Francis supposedly said “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures”. There are doubts over how verifiable this quote is, as the topic of the Pope’s talk at his Papal audience (November 26th), was about the transformation of all creation into a new heaven and new earth. Hardly enough evidence to say that Jordan the cat will go to heaven once he dies. If we are to take a Thomistic approach, the answer is non-rational animals have souls, but not eternal souls. Animals exist and then cease to exist, and the substantial form is lost. This seems to be an important question for many people, but is rather puerile in comparison to questions over the salvation of human souls which are immortal. How we treat others and live our lives does have an impact on what happens once we die, on the day of judgement. As for animals, Jordan can go between the Dominican chaplaincy and the students in the library, it has no consequence either way for him, other than the quality of cat food or the comfort of a chair to lie in. But if we replicate this behaviour of double standards or divided loyalties in our own lives, the consequences for us of course, go into eternity. 

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete): Surprised By Joy

The Virgin and Child.
The Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist, St Dominic, St Peter the Martyr and St. Thomas Aquinas- Fra Angelico c.1387-1455- in the Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico. Florence, Italy.

Gaudete Sunday reminds us that true joy mustn’t become something that we take for granted. True joy is transformative, it may be fleeting in time but it continues to hit our hearts deeply. At this time in our Advent journey we come face to face with a dramatic preacher in the wilderness. St. John the Baptist reminds us that we need to be ‘Surprised by Joy’ as we wait again for the Incarnation. In order to be truly surprised therefore at this charismatic signpost, we must be willing to show and reflect upon the areas in which we are lost.

This phrase ‘Surprised by Joy’ originates in a profoundly personal poem by Wordsworth, in which he reflects upon an incident when he forgot the death of his beloved daughter. The first three lines run as follows,

‘Surprised by joy- impatient as the wind,
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the tomb,’

In this poem Wordsworth is complaining that his visionary gleam has passed away, the fact that the joy of his daughter’s life now is no more.

In stark contrast to this romantic sense of being lost comes today’s Gospel. We witness, with the man sent by God, a heralding towards a new reality. We are given a clear signpost in the form of St. John the Baptist pointing the right way, a way to life everlasting in the light of Jesus Christ. ‘Make a straight way for the Lord’.

C S Lewis, in his autobiography of his early life also entitled ‘Surprised by Joy’, harks back to Wordsworth’s suffering in the light of the Good News of Jesus Christ. He concludes his work with this image,

C.S. Lewis Surprised By Joy.
‘When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare.’

From this, let us not become complacent as we await again God becoming man, this reality has already been revealed to us and has and continues to change the whole of creation back towards God. St. John the Baptist is this signpost that Lewis refers to, pointing to the clear and obvious way.

Lewis also points out in his autobiography his conversion experience, which interestingly sees him returning to the faith of his childhood. So too must we return to an infant like state in order to grow in maturity of understanding the Joy of Christ this Advent. We must acknowledge that to be youthful in the spiritual life and infant like towards God Our Father actually provides us with great tools of humility and prepares the way for the faults that we need to face in order to grow alongside a risen Lord. We learn by doing, so let us think we can nurture God as a child, and in doing so, God will nurture you into new life.

But seriously how much do we really think about the surprising nature of God becoming man?

We as Christians pass this strange signpost every year, and again hear from the strange bearded fellow with interesting dietary requirements, speaking and heralding us again.

Let therefore the familiarity of such a sight, not prohibit us from seeing the redemptive meaning of our salvation. Christ’s Joy was in the crib and on the cross, a journey of anticipation and constant trust in God the Father.

One way in which we can respond to this is via St John the Baptist himself, who is our model given to us by Our Lord today, a model of true humility. We possess, as he did, the truth, let us then like him become beacons of humility in possessing such Joy, ‘I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap’.

St John, who has such a very high degree of perfection, considers himself still not worthy. We should consider his humility and mortification in ourselves, so that as the body of Christ in the world today, we may be voices crying out that should prepare the way and make straight the path of the Lord, so that, as we receive him in this life, we may enjoy Him in the next. May we decrease so he may increase in our life.

Our challenge today then is to joyfully watch for symbols of this new reality right now. Firstly, in our own spiritual life, how am I to respond to a God who reaches out and offers those things that we hear in Isaiah?

‘Being clothed in the garments of salvation, being given a cloak of integrity, wearing his eternal wreath’.

Secondly, how can I this Advent reflect and give those garments to others, in prayer, in action?

Let us be like St. John the Baptist then, less hairy and hopefully with a more balanced diet, but nonetheless, placing into the ground a coherent sign post, that many people have seen and may have already ignored, but you humbly place it in the ground firmly nonetheless, as a marker of truth and new life. And of course one day, they might, just might, stop and stare at the object and see that it was not of unimportance.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Second Saturday of Advent: Coming Down off Tabor

Readings: Matthew 17:10-13.

The disciples of today’s gospel are giving good example to Dominican student brothers! After
witnessing the extraordinary moment of the Transfiguration on the solitude of Mount Tabor, they come down the mountain to take this revelation to the world, trying to make sense as they walk of their experience of God, and the contingencies of human history, in the light of revelation. Quite literally, they enter into dialogue with revelation, quizzing Christ—who is personally the revelation of the Father—and in turn being personally interrogated by His response. Their theories about the identity of Elijah, whose return from the heavenly chambers was anticipated as the pre-cursor to the Messianic revelation, are challenged, qualified and purified in the light of Christ’s advent.

Advent is an invitation to ‘come down the mountain’, to make sense of our lives and of human history in the light of the promise and fulfilment of revelation, and to recognise that, however cherished are our ‘mountains’ of human construction, they stand as radically provisional before God’s ‘mountain’ on which the Truth is revealed. As we survey the hopes and tragedies of life, the joys and the fears of our own, as well as the victories and the defeats that scourge our world, we are invited to hope, to see God himself as the guide and culmination of history.

Each life has ‘mountain’ moments of great significance: moments when God feels especially close, and events such as the births and deaths of loved ones, moments of decision such as marriage or religious profession, after which life cannot remain unchanged. These are moments that must be lived out, for we cannot remain wrapt in the ecstasy of Tabor perpetually, but must allow these graces to flourish and sanctify the ordinary, transfiguring the mundane, transforming the arid. In so-doing we enter into the mystery of Christ’s advent, experiencing how quickly the Annunciation becomes the Visitation. It was in response to the extraordinary and revelatory moment of the angel’s appearance that Mary gave her fiat, her yes to God. But the angel left her.


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Friday, December 12, 2014

Second Friday of Advent: "Bring me flesh and bring me wine", but not yet...

Readings: Isaiah 48:17-19; Psalm 1:1-4,6; Matthew 11:16-19

Somewhat earlier than expected in Dominican life, I find myself in the awkward position of trying to avoid repeating what I’ve already said about a particular Gospel passage. A more textual reflection on today's Gospel reading, which I wrote last year, is available here.

Taking a slightly different tack, the theme I want to focus on this year is celebration. As one who enjoys a celebration or three, I take some comfort from this passage as it is implicit in what is said that Our Lord enjoyed a feast, a drink and kept some fairly disreputable company. How else could he have attracted such adverse criticism? There are many cynical, puritan types who seem disdainful of any such fun. They are much more at home in Lent when sackcloth and ashes are the order of the day. Whilst there is a time and a place for penance and sorrow, a consistently sombre outlook, I want to suggest, misses the point: Christians should exude a spirit of joy. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, recently took pains to underline the Joy of the Gospel.  And what more cause for joy than the coming of God-made-flesh?

But lo! - one can hear the angry clamour of Scrooges and naysayers protest - is it not too soon for all of that? Advent, after all, is a time of preparation for the coming of the Saviour. On this point I must agree, even if department stores and advertising executives might try to persuade us otherwise. On the party theme: it's simply premature to start before the main guest arrives.

When Christmas does come, though, let's take the opportunity to celebrate Our Lord’s coming with due solemnity in the liturgies (who doesn't love Midnight Mass?) and with due merriment at the Dinner Table amidst family and friends. Let our witness be one of faith in the Incarnation, hope in the heavenly kingdom and love of God and His children through prayer, charity and almsgiving. How could such a Christian witness be devoid of celebration? How could we fail, in so doing, to radiate joy?

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Second Thursday of Advent: Wandering through the Wilderness

(Readings: Isaiah 41:13-20; Matthew 11:11-15)

Sometimes the spiritual life seems to be stuck on repeat. Again and again we find ourselves walking over familiar paths; we experience the same alienations, we repeat the same sins, we find ourselves asking the same questions and we might well be tempted to think that we're walking in circles.

Perhaps the more we reflect the more we notice that its not just us who are in this predicament. If we talk with our friends or priests we learn that everyone struggles over the same well trodden ground; not only have we been here before but we aren't the first ones to walk this way. We are all, it seems, on a journey through the wilderness.

However this disorientation can be turned into direction. When one walks through a desert there can be two reasons for feeling lost. First, one might actually be lost! They've taken their eyes off the guide and wandered into the midst of some sand dunes. Or the second reason is because, even though they are following the guide, every sand dune they walk past looks the same.

So, what are we to do? Well if we fall into the first category it's quite simple: we shout out for the guide and hope he hears us. This is to say, we turn to God in prayer and confidence that he will hear us: 'When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them' (Isaiah 41:17).

But what if we are in the second group? If one is feeling lost in the midst of following Christ what can one do? We might be trying to pray as often as we can, to keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ by doing good deeds and following his commands. But we can still occasionally feel lost and it exhausts us. In such cases we need to think not so much about what we're doing but where we are doing it. If we're wandering through a desert and we think we'll make the journey more bearable by counting each step we take we will surely go mad! Rather if we get sick of the sight of what is surely the same cactus we saw three days ago we have to remind ourselves it takes three months to cross the wilderness and we've only been walking three days.

It takes us a lifetime to accomplish God's will for us and a lifetime is what he's given us. So let's be realistic, we know we're in the midst of a long journey and we know we're going to get tired along the way. However we also know that other people have crossed the wilderness before us and we can draw inspiration and sustainance from the lives of the saints. True, it is probably quite frustrating to see that the sand dune passed on the penultimate day of the journey looks exactly like that sand dune we passed on day three but that's just how it is. Maybe if we stop looking for mirage of the spiritual crescendo we'll remember it's the end of the journey we're really interested in.
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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Second Wednesday of Advent: The Joy of Waiting

I grew up in the Dutch countryside: green fields, big skies, long straight roads, windmills, a church-steeple at the horizon. One day, I must have been four or five, my mother told me that my grandmother would come and visit us. I rushed outside. Slowly her silhouette materialised against the horizon as she walked towards our house. And I remember the sheer joy I felt in waiting for her to reach our garden gate. Nothing else was on my mind: she's coming!

Waiting today has a very different feeling. It is mostly disrupted with last minute-preparations for whatever I am waiting for. Or interrupted by whatever means of interruption I am carrying with me: a book, a mobile phone, an I-pad. And yet, all these interruptions and distractions have never surpassed the joy I felt as a child while waiting for my grandmother.

In Advent we are told that God is coming: to our world, to our house, in our heart. But how are we spending our time? Is it full of disruptions and interruptions? What do we need to rekindle that child-like enthusiasm, to drop everything, and to rush out, nothing else on our mind: He's coming!


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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Second Tuesday of Advent: Jesus is to come

Readings of the day: Is 40:1-11. Ps 95:1-3,10-13. Mt 18:12-14

Christmas tree

Just boring. Every single year, the same Christmas tree with the same Christmas baubles and the same tinsel comes and places itself near the fireplace. And every single year, everyone is required to be happy for Christmas Eve and to eat the same Christmas pudding with one's family, just because Jesus Christ comes to live among us again and again … 

But, as it is never the will of our Father in heaven that one should be lost, it might be that Jesus Christ has to go in search of us again and again. Actually, Jesus Christ is the one who is and who was and who is to come (Rev 1:8). To come to us is certainly part of his own nature. 
Therefore, one might think that one has more time to start following Jesus Christ. Jesus himself might come again later to call. Or, in a similar way, one can think that one is not worthy to welcome Jesus Christ to one's home today. But Jesus tells us today solemnly: if the Father, through him, finds the one who strayed, it gives him a great joy. And this joy of God is to be shared with all of us. That's why we mustn't wait for another time, and mustn't be afraid. Jesus comes to us, to share with us the joy of God. And this joy might also begin with a delicious slice of Christmas pudding!

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Monday, December 08, 2014

The Immaculate Conception

Last week I attended an impressive lecture given in Blackfriars, by Sandy Stoddart, the Sculptor in Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland. It had the curious title “The molten calf and the contemporary art world”. Stoddart, whose workshop is based in the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley (near Glasgow), is a neoclassical style sculptor who has created works such as the statues of David Hume and James Maxwell in Edinburgh, as well as other public art and sculpture. Stoddart promotes the idea of public art as a celebration of our heroes, and says such art should be there to embody our ideals and remind us that whatever the fashion of the moment, our lives are shaped by more enduring achievements. Stoddart is outspoken on modern art, particularly a tendency amongst the art establishment to destroy or make a mockery of the neoclassical tradition. It is easy enough to produce work which might be awarded the Turner prize (below). It is extraordinarily difficult to make a figure like David Hume wearing a toga, with only the pose of the figure perched on the plinth and finer details of the statue telling us the story behind it. Did Hume ever wear a toga? No. But that’s not the point. Just as we think of someone we know without seeing a photograph of them, we remember people close to us in a particular way that might not be an exact resemblance. It is however difficult to sculpt someone wearing a toga, and it requires an extraordinary amount of skill in clay craft and sculpture technique to make it work. 

 Public sculpture of Hume in Edinburgh. Below, a graffiti covered bin with screwdriver, produced by the artist who won the 2014 Turner prize, Duncan Campbell

Stoddart is critical of modern artists who he claims are probably not equipped to produce what their predecessors might have, say a century ago. We seem to have lost a mainstream classical art tradition in modernism, but why is that? Coming back to the theme of the molten calf - why the curious title of this lecture? The molten calf of course refers to what the tribe of Israel crafted whilst Moses went up to Mount Sion. On his return, seeing the tribe dancing around it, Moses demanded the statue be destroyed, ground up into dust and those involved executed. Something I have never thought much about before is this: why does the second commandment, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, come before the sixth commandment, Thou shalt not murder? I suppose we need to consider what a graven image might be. Sandy’s lecture discussed the golden calf representing something that goes against the Lord as a life-giving God. Those who are prancing around the molten calf in circles, are not able to speak from dancing, and have descended into something God does not want and is bad for humanity. Idolatry is representative of something apparently worse than murder. If we start drowning out what gives life, we revert back to primal nature and abandon all our progress as a civilisation.

Although the golden calf was a statue and ‘graven image’ of an idol, the Catholic Church from an early stage specified that it is good and acceptable to adorn our homes with statues and holy things. Sandy Stoddart’s main point was that art which embodies our ideals and exhibits a perfect state t owhich we can aspire contradicts the primacy of nature. Unfortunately there seems to be an inner human instinct to destroy public art displayed for this purpose. Think of the ‘ISIS’ Islamists blowing up the ancient mosques and churches, or the Taliban dynamiting the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in the desert wilderness.

And herein lies the challenge. A sculpture or painting might cause us to be captured - it stirs our soul. Throughout human history, there is a tendency to deface and destroy things which hold a certain stillness that grab the viewer’s attention. We have seen this in the past, for example in the iconoclastic period of the reformation, where statues of Mary were obliterated, ornate carvings chiselled out of churches, rood screens dismantled and burned, and priceless stained glass windows smashed apart. Sandy claims that artists, musicians and creative types like him are fighting against a tide. Nature would rather we did not explore the works of art which make us stop and think, and introduce something wonderful to us, something we cannot immediately understand. What is it about humanity which has this resistance to a style of art which makes us stop and think?; statues, paintings or buildings which we can look at and see the truth and beauty which lies in the artist’s work? Sandy’s point was that art which contradicts the primacy of nature seems to be vulnerable to an inner human instinct to destroy it. 

Our Lady of Aberdeen, Notre-Dame-du-Finistère, Brussels

Today’s feast is of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the doctrine that the Mother of Jesus was born without sin. I saw this statue of Our Lady of Aberdeen in the Notre-Dame-du-Finistère church in Brussels, on a visit this summer. The statue was sent from Scotland to Belgium in 1625, probably to save it from destruction during the reformation. Catholic Churches have always adorned the Blessed Virgin and had statues, frescoes, paintings and so on, because such statues contradict the primacy of nature - moreover they contradict the original sin in humanity. If Mary was born without original sin, then she is indeed something that will stir our soul. Statues which make us stop and ponder the point of stillness of, say, the appearance at Fatima, help give us this vision of the most perfect. 

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 84:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

When we use the word ‘power’ in relation to God, various images may spring to mind. In the reading from Isaiah today, we are shown the triumphant, regal image of power with the Lord subduing all things with his arm, with his trophies going before him. We also see this mighty power in the imagery of that final, apocalyptic ‘Day of the Lord’ presented to us in the letter of St Peter, where we are told the sky will vanish in a roar, and all the entire earth will be burnt up. Scary stuff, you might say.

Another image of power used across the three readings in the Mass this Sunday is that of the power of repentance and forgiveness. For some people it might be difficult to see how power might be related to repentance and forgiveness; the idea of repenting might seem feeble, and more an image of powerlessness than one of power. So where is the power in repentance? It is to be found, I want to suggest, in the unity of two wills: God’s and ours. It is God who stirs our hearts and encourages our will to turn from those things that we have done which lead us away from Him. God loves you and me so much and desires for there to be no separation between us and Him. Sin introduces a rift into that relationship, but it is repentance that helps make, as our first reading says, ‘a straight highway for God’. Repentance is that turning directly to the heart of the Lord. It is an acknowledgement of our brokenness and falling-short of our vocation to love due to sin, and our confession that God is the one to bring healing. Great is that power which can release one from the bondage of sin. God’s mighty arm and the power of His forgiveness can be encountered today in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: the mighty arm of the Lord now in the form of the arm of the priest, who acts as the minister of God’s forgiving love, who raises his mortal hand, making with it the sign of cross whilst saying the words of absolution. What great power this is: the power to restore to new life.

Advent is a time for us to clear our hearts, to become a little Bethlehem so that Our Lord has somewhere to make his home. Whether we are great or little sinners, we are all called to welcome the Lord into our hearts and to shine like the star of Bethlehem directing all peoples to the promised Saviour of Israel, who is the long awaited Redeemer of all humanity. He has come and He is to come again. ‘Shout without fear’ and ‘with a loud voice’ as Isaiah tells us and let us welcome Our Saviour.

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

First Saturday of Advent: Heralds of the Coming King

Readings of the day: Isaiah 30:19-26. Ps 146:1-6. Mt 9:35-10:1; 6-8

Advent is not just about waiting in hope for Christ to come and being personally ready for this; it is about going out ahead of him with zeal, and actively working so that others may be ready for his coming. In short, Advent is a special opportunity to understand and participate in the work of evangelisation, especially the proclamation of the coming of Christ.

The word Advent means ‘coming’. It refers particularly to the coming of an important person or event. In the ancient world kings and emperors sent heralds ahead of themselves to announce that they were coming. They might come to actually take possession of their kingdom and as such to be recognised properly as king by their subjects, or to share with the people the spoils of their victories over their enemies, or both these things. In both cases, the people had to know he was coming and be ready to accept his rule and receive his blessings. It was the role of heralds to do this by their work of proclamation.

All this is applicable to the ministry of Jesus as well – and is made plain in today’s gospel. Jesus both announced the coming of the Kingdom of God and also brought it in in person. He proclaimed it by word and by sharing its fruit, in the mighty deeds of healing (9:35). He then sent out his disciples to do the same things, as heralds. They were to proclaim that the kingdom of God was coming, and to ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out devils’ (10:6-8).

It became clear that Jesus himself is the King whose coming was to be proclaimed, as the visitation of God in human form to save his people. First the apostles, and now each of us, are sent out as his heralds to announce that he has won the definitive victory over sin, the devil and death; and to announce that he makes the first fruits of that victory available to us now and to be actual channels of these graces to others; and to announce with conviction that he is coming again to make the victory completely manifest and establish his kingdom over all for ever.

Heralds had to be sure of their own role and of the actual coming of their king. Are we? They also had to have a sure sense of the authority and power possessed by the king, and of the authority and power given to them from the king as his heralds. Do we? They then had to be zealous in undertaking their role, pointing to the king, not themselves, happy that they will himself receive a share in the kingdom for doing his task properly. Are we? Advent is an opportunity for us to be renewed as preachers and proclaimers of the gospel.

- fr. Andrew Brookes, OP

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Friday, December 05, 2014

First Friday of Advent: Those who believe, see

Readings: Is 29:17-24; Ps 27; Mt 9:27-31

As Jesus passed by, two blind men followed him, crying out,“Son of David, have pity on us!” When he entered the house,the blind men approached him and Jesus said to them,“Do you believe that I can do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they said to him. Then he touched their eyes and said,“Let it be done for you according to your faith.” And their eyes were opened.

For Christians Advent is the time in which we look forward to coming Jesus Christ. Certainly, in the Liturgy we consider the Second Coming of Christ as well as preparing for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. But there can be no doubt that each of us have some places, within our own lives, where we especially long for the coming of Christ. From the depths of these places we often cry out to the Lord like those men from the today’s Gospel. And it is exactly towards these personal places within our hearts that Jesus directs a question: “Do you believe that I can do this?”

We often wait for a spectacular experience of the Lord’s power which might completely change our sufferings, troubles, difficult relationships or being entangled in a sin. But this question: “Do you believe that I can do this?” should free us from a conviction that healing will occur according to our ideas. God has own ways but one thing is certain: just as the Lord did come that Holy Night in Bethlehem, so he will come a second time “at an hour you do not expect”, and so too Jesus wants to come into our individual lives according to his intentions, not ours.

What is more, this “according to his intentions” might mean “according to your faith”, those words which Jesus said to blind men, when they confessed faith in him. “Let it be done for you according to your faith”. For faith is not believing in our ideas but the way of seeing and listening to the Lord’s will. Faith is like light, in which we may see God and his point of view. And this is what Pope Francis wrote in his Encyclical Lumen Fidei - The light of Faith - “Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets.”

Be one who believes! Be one who sees!

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Recommended Advent videos: Made for Glory

A friend just brought my attention to some excellent Advent-themed videos: "Made for Glory". This is another great initiative by the Archdiocese of Southwark Vocations Centre.

They are releasing a new video every day during Advent, which is some going! The stated purpose of the videos is to help young people go deeper in their personal relationship with Christ. And we're very much in favour of that!  You can see the videos already released and watch forthcoming videos on their Made for Glory Youtube Channel.

Here's the promo to give you a flavour: 

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First Thursday of Advent: Solid Foundations

(Readings: Isaiah 26:1-6; Matthew 7:21, 24-27) 

What makes a house secure? If we were to examine the buildings around us we would probably first think about the walls. Do they carry the weight of the roof and floors? Do they withstand the elements? Next we might think about doors and windows, are they locked and watertight? What about the roof? Could a thief sneak his way in through loose tiles? There is a variety of criteria upon which to judge whether or not our house is secure.

When we examine our interior life, the state of our relationship with God, we might go through a similar process. Do I tend to the sick? Do I carry out my civic and domestic duties? Do I do good works of all kinds? As a person works through their life they are building a house, and if they are a kind, generous and all round virtuous person then their house, in itself, might be considered secure: its windows lock and its roof stays on in the storm.

However, a well-constructed house needs something more to be secure, it needs a solid foundation. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus lauds those who do good works, loving thy neighbour is the means of building a secure house but it is through the love of God that one places that house on solid ground.

As the Psalmist says: 'Lest the Lord build the house, they labour in vein that build it' (Psalm 127). Thus, as we go about doing good deeds let us never forget to ask God to strengthen in us the gift of faith because without that, no matter how well constructed our house, we cannot withstand the tempest of the world.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

First Wednesday of Advent: Black Friday vs Jesus' permanent offer

Readings: Is 25:6-10A; Ps 23; Mt 15:29-37

People fighting over a large TV in a box in an Asda store
On Black Friday, tens of thousands came, queued, and left empty-handed. Tesco, or some other outlet, offered the false hope of a cheap 52” plasma screen for all and many were left clutching at a cut-price kettle.

It’s easy to sneer at the pictures and videos of those fighting over TVs and X-boxes in such an uncouth fashion, and then to return to the internet and carry on our search for bargains on Cyber Monday in the more civilised surroundings of our homes, feeling terribly pleased at not having got caught in the physical melee and hysteria. Yet both involve the quest for cut-price consumer goods.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with buying stuff, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to buy it at the best price: as religious in a vow of poverty it’s both necessary and an obligation given that we rely on the donations of others. The motivations behind trying to buy a new Bible commentary to provide more inspiration for Godzdogz posts and a Dad trying to get a plasma TV  in the sale for his kids, which he otherwise couldn’t afford, so that they’ll enjoy their favourite films even more, can both be laudable.

However, Advent is a time to pause and to reflect on priorities, to think about what is ultimately of greatest importance and what moves us towards this and what gets in the way. We need to think about whether we’re looking for happiness in the wrong places, if we’re looking for shortcuts, when what is really needed is time.

In today’s gospel we learn that if we spend time with Jesus we will never go away empty-handed (or with a kettle that we never really wanted in the first place). Jesus says: “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days; and I am unwilling to send them away hungry . . . ." (Matthew 15:32); and then when he does feed us there is a superabundance, there is so much more than what we need, but none of it wasted, it is collected up for others (Matthew 15:37).

Time spent with Jesus is never time wasted. If we keep vigil with Him, then we will be enriched and what will overflow from us will be a greater gift to those whom we love than anything we could possibly buy on Black Friday or Cyber Monday . . . even a novelty Christmas jumper. 

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

First Tuesday of Advent: God's Pleasure

Jesus’s joyful thanksgiving at the start of today’s Gospel is addressed to the seventy disciples who had returned from their mission of proclaiming the Kingdom. The words are sometimes called His “hymn of joy”.

What is the cause of our Lord’s pleasure? He is pleased with these seventy disciples who are carry out His mission because they see His divinity. He then goes on to stress who he is: the one who knows God the Father, and reveals Him. In a similar way, we can please God by carrying out the mission he has entrusted to us, personally - in Bl. John Henry Newman’s words discerning "some definite service... which He has not committed to another.” 

The classic film "Chariots of Fire" contains a memorable line on this theme. Eric Liddell, a committed evangelical runner, explains to his sister, Jenny, why he wishes to postpone Christian missionary work in China for another, subtler mission in competing as a runner at Olympic level: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure."

The Vision of St. Bernard, Fra' Bartolomeo 
The best way to find out the “definite service” to which God has commissioned us, is to come to know Him in prayer, and holy scripture, approaching both with a humble outlook, a child-like faith. St. Bernard writes,  “God was beyond reach and comprehension, invisible and superior to all human thought. But now he has willed to be seen and understood, to make himself known to human understanding. How? By lying in a manger, by preaching on a mountainside, by spending the whole night in prayer, by handing on the cross in the agony of death, and freed from death, overcoming the power of death, rising from the dead on the third day, showing the apostles the marks of the nails as a sign of his victory, and finally, ascending to the heights of heaven before their very eyes. Is any part of his life unworthy of profound and pious meditation? When I contemplate these events, my mind is on God, and through them, my thoughts can reach God."

If we contemplate these events, and fix our minds on God in a special way this Advent, we will not only find our mission, we shall also feel His pleasure.

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Monday, December 01, 2014

First Monday of Advent: A Time for Christians and Non-Christians

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Matthew 8:5-11

It is a time for Christians. It is a time for non-Christians. Whoever you are, Advent is a time for you. This is obviously true in a trivial sense: for Christians and non-Christians, Advent is a time of preparing for Christmas, which has become something of a universal secular holiday. Today is being dubbed 'Cyber Monday' as a day when many people will go online to snap up bargains for their Christmas shopping, in the wake of the 'Black Friday' sales last week, which in turn is connected to the American 'Thanksgiving' festivities. Christians or not, we are all preparing in hope (and perhaps not a little anxiety) for the great Day later this month.

But is there a deeper sense in which both Christians and non-Christians can be united in Advent, as we look forward to Christmas? I think we should avoid the stereotypical opposition between "Christians who are good because they prepare spiritually for Christmas" and "non-Christians who are bad because they prepare materialistically for Christmas"! Christians can be just as materialistic as non-Christians, after all. But is there not a difference in our spiritual preparation?

In today's Gospel, Jesus is amazed by the faith of the Roman centurion: "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." Even the Gentiles could have faith in Christ! This is deeply encouraging to those who are still looking for the spiritual meaning of life and have not yet found Christ. Just as the Israelites were waiting for the promised Messiah, Christians today await the coming of the Son of God who is already known to us. On the other side, the Gentiles are a model for those who are still looking for their Saviour and (we pray) will believe in him when he comes.

Christians or not, let us all make time this Advent to prepare in faith and hope for the coming of our Saviour, confident that "many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven".

The centurion's faith

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