Saint Lucy

Today we honour the memory of Saint Lucy, one of the first female martyrs to witness to Christ.  Saint Lucy gave her life to God in the act of martyrdom.  Will we offer God our lives and accept the easy yoke which Our Lord offers to those who take the time to listen to him?

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We are all familiar with those short, proverbial sayings that carry a lot of punch: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”   “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”   “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  “What goes around comes around.”  While these sayings may be pertinent at different times in our lives, their overall practical value is limited.  By contrast, Our Lord’s short saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” carries a lot of punch and is a truth that applies to the whole of our lives.  Our Lord calls us to respond to that message by letting its wisdom rule our lives.

There is nothing hit-and-miss about the Christian life.  Our Lord made it clear that if we remain true to him we will not be disappointed, and that his wisdom will be vindicated in us just as it was in him.  Following the Lord and his ways always brings its own rewards.  Even when we have to carry on against all the odds, we experience the Holy Spirit strengthening, encouraging and comforting us.  His life can become the source of power energizing us, no matter what situation or challenge we face.

Some of us may face criticism just as John the Baptist and Our Lord faced those who doubted their different approaches to godliness.  But no matter what kind of criticism we face, we shouldn’t give up.  By holding onto God’s wisdom, remaining flexible and humble, and doing our best to stay faithful to God, we will find the strength we need to continue on day after day.

God loves us, and He will comfort us during times of difficulty.  He will encourage us when we are disheartened.  He will revitalize us when we are weary.  How can we be sure of this?  Well because God never changes: once he makes a promise, he keeps it, and because his wisdom will always be vindicated in those who remain faithful to him.

Thursday of Advent Week 2

In the first reading the prophet Isaiah asks us to take a few moments to reflect upon miracles in our lives. Isaiah paints a picture of a weak nation who, under God’s direction will become a power able to crush mighty mountains, and before which cliffs will blow away like fine chaff.

Isaiah asserts that God can work wonders in the lives of those who are humble; he can turn the desert into marshland; and enable trees to sprout in dry land.  The prophet challenges us to accept that God can work wonders in our lives as well.  The one caveat, the one caution is that we not forget who it is that brings about such marvels.

Too often we can get so caught up in the drama of our own lives, that we either totally overlook the miracles that are there for us to see, or claim them as if they were entirely of our own making.  Isaiah indicates the kinds of signs and miracles the Lord would bring about on behalf of Israel, but then reminds the Israelites (and of course us) that such gifts should lead us to the giver of the gifts.

As we go about our day may we stop for a moment to discover and then reflect on the miracles of this day, from the air we breathe to the gift of faith we are free to practice.  And may we not only celebrate these signs, but may they also bring us closer to God, the giver of all gifts.

Wednesday of Advent Week 2

It’s interesting that Our Lord talks today about his yoke being easy to bear.  We might find this allusion difficult to understand as our preparations for Christmas go up a gear.  Even though Advent is a time for preparation, we can easily become overwhelmed by writing cards, wrapping presents and making lists for Tesco delivery.

For some of us, rest and retirement might sound so much better than a burdensome yoke.  And yet, Our Lord tells us his yoke is easy, his burden is light, and we will actually find the rest we are looking for as we let him place this yoke on our already weary shoulders.  How can this be?

Well, yokes were made to help a team of oxen do their work faster and more efficiently.  Wearing a yoke, the oxen walk side by side; they work side by side.  They still have a job to do, but they share the burden.  Their cooperation makes the task so much easier because they are both pulling together.

When Our Lord invites us to bear his yoke, he promises to be the one walking next to us, working right alongside us.  Sharing a yoke with Our Lord doesn’t make our responsibilities disappear, but it sure does make things easier.  Not only does he help us carry the load, but we learn from him as we spend time walking beside him.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us follow the example of the yoked oxen.  Walking side by side with Our Lord during these remaining days of Advent, our task becomes easy and light as we keep our eyes on the next step.

But, let’s not focus on how many more steps we have to go; far from being a burden, Our Lord’s yoke is there to help us work more effectively, both as individuals and as a community.  We are not alone, because Our Lord is right next to us, sharing the load.

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Tuesday of Advent Week 2

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About five hundred years before the Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote about the long-expected Messiah.  His words tell of a time when all Israel’s sins will be forgiven, and when the times of hardship and pain will be over for Jerusalem.  It’s a message of coming comfort and peace; a message of restoration and hope.

John the Baptist selected words from the book of the Prophet Isaiah to describe his own vocation.  Just as a king in ancient times had forerunners sent ahead of him to prepare the way, so John was the “forerunner” of the Messiah: he filled in the valleys, smoothed out the rough roads, and turned the eyes of the Israelites towards heaven.  John moved his hearers to repent of their sins and to prepare themselves to receive the One who is greater than he.

In the fullness of time the Messiah did come.  And after he rose from the dead, he promised that he would come again, this time as a King and as a Judge.  In the meantime, we have seen the Holy Spirit at work time and time again.  In every age, the Holy Spirit has raised up prophets who call out to us and tell us to “prepare the way” for Our Lord’s Second Coming.

Some of these prophets have called us to deepen our prayer life.  Others have called us to a greater reverence for the Eucharist.  Still others have called us to repent and turn away from sin.  Who among us hasn’t been touched by the lives of these people?  Through these “forerunners,” the Holy Spirit wants to guide us and protect us.  He wants to help us see our faults and encourage us when we are failing and in trouble.  When we are suffering, he wants to hold our hand and support us.  When we are wandering, he wants to keep us on the right track.

But more than anything else, the Holy Spirit wants to help us keep our hopes high. He wants us to know how bright and how wonderful heaven is going to be.  He wants us to dream about a world without poverty, without war, without hatred, and without sin.  This is why he wants us to pray during these days of Advent: Maranatha – “Come, Lord Jesus.”

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The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Just imagine Our Lady being presented with that awesome choice from God.  Will she obey, or will she choose her own way?  In the pristine beauty of the Garden of Eden, Eve chose to disobey God, and with her choice, sin entered the world.  In Nazareth, Mary chose to obey.  With her “yes” to God, she became the new Eve and began the undoing of Eve’s disobedience, ushering in God’s grace and redemption.  Her yes reversed Eve’s no.

We are all presented with a myriad of choices throughout the course of each day.  These choices can bring grace into the world, or they can bring discord.  Now of course, we don’t have the benefit of being born without the stain of original sin, like Our Lady.  But we are redeemed.  When we were baptized, we were cleansed of original sin.  Saint Paul tells us that through Christ we have also been blessed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavens” (Ephesians 1:3).  And so, like Our Lady, we have all the resources we need to make the right choices.

As Our Lady did, so can we do.  In each yes or no we choose, we can foster grace in our lives, and the lives of those around us, or we can allow sin to damage us.  Will we mess up, and will we say no sometimes?  Of course we will, we are human, and we can be so stupid.  But that doesn’t mean we should give up.  If we say no, or if we fail even to see the choice in the first place, we can still receive God’s forgiveness and restoration.  God will always give us another chance.  And with every yes that we say to him, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us further for the next choice.  And the next one.  And the next one.

As the angel Gabriel presented Our Lady with that awesome choice we commemorate today, so we are presented with many awesome choices through the people with whom we share our lives.  Will we say ‘yes’ to the people who need our help, and will we be bearers of grace to those in need?

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2nd Sunday of Advent

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We have just heard John the Baptist challenge us to prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Christ.  And in preparing to celebrate Our Lord’s birth we honour the one who suffered and died for us, the one who rose from the dead in order that we might experience just how much God loves us.  Almighty God wants to share the fullness of his life with us.  And so, we honour him by welcoming him into our hearts at Christmas.

John the Baptist challenged those Jews who presumed that the mere external practice of their religion assured them of a place in the kingdom of God.  Now you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that external religion isn’t enough, just going through the external motions of being a Catholic won’t save us.  Catholicism is a culture, it’s a way of life and if we are truly rooted in Christ, then our lives will bear the fruit of the kingdom and we will proudly wear the uniform of justice and fidelity.  We will put into practice everything Our Lord asks of us.

Now, if there are places in our hearts and in our lives where the risen Christ doesn’t yet dwell, then Advent challenges us to give some evidence that we mean to reform and change our lives.  I spoke last Sunday about the possibility of being arrested and charged with being a Christian: and whether there would be enough evidence to convict us.  Advent is a great time to make a good confession and to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives by making the crooked path straight again.

Saint Paul encourages us to let God alone, who is the source of all patience and encouragement, to enable us to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the Spirit of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

And so, our community, our homes, our places of work, and our society should exhibit the peace and harmony of the Kingdom of God; call it if you will the New Eden.  In the Old Eden, the serpent deceived Eve who subsequently shared the fruit of deceit with her husband Adam.  In the new Eden, the child will lay his hand on the serpent’s lair without coming to harm.  The prophet Isaiah envisions the lifestyle that Christ wants to share with us.  It’s a lifestyle in which there is no harm or ruin.  Have the failed attempts of our human communities to accomplish successful social reform deafened our ears to God’s cry for reform?  Basic human rights continue to be abused all over the world for so many people, and do we think that God doesn’t care anymore about that?  The nations of the west pander to corrupt, dictatorial and abusive regimes for economic considerations, while we turn a blind eye to those who suffer under these regimes.  Just so long as we can make a profit.  St. Paul reminds us that it is God and God alone who will enable us to live in peace and harmony with one another, but only when we are living in peace and harmony with Him.  Advent is a time to centre ourselves in the mystery of Christ, so that we may be properly disposed to allow the mystery of Christmas to affect our everyday life.   And of course, Christmas is not just for one day or for a week, but every day of every week and for every week of every year.  And not just for ourselves, but for the wider world in which we live.

John the Baptist reminds us today that the gifts which are most appropriate for us to offer one another at Christmas are the gifts of the Holy Spirit first announced by Isaiah: gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety, knowledge and an awesome respect for the mystery of God.

The risen Christ wants to immerse us in his life; the life he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  John reminds us that without a fruitful relationship with the risen Christ, we can’t really celebrate the mystery of Christmas.  We will simply go through the external motions while failing to express and manifest to the world the interior values associated with the season.

The fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are the effects of the Holy Spirit active in our lives, are listed by Saint Paul; they are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

As you begin to wrap your Christmas gifts to each other, nurture the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit in your own life and in the lives of those around you.  In this way, we will build up the Kingdom of God and we will begin to change our lives, and our world, for the better.

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Saint Ambrose

Today we honour the memory of Saint Ambrose.  As Archbishop of Milan he guarded the rights of the Church against secular interference, and he defended the faith against the heresy of the Arians who denied the divinity of Christ.  We celebrate his feast today, on the anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, which took place on 7th December 374.  He died in 397.

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When I was out for lunch the other day we went to a place where we were surrounded by fading tinsel and cheap but cheerful plastic Christmas trees, and I bemoaned the fact, as many of us do, that the Christmas festivities seem to start earlier every year.  Advent means nothing to most people; and as my friend went to the bar to order our Ultimate Christmas Burgers, it got me to thinking about what Advent means to me.  The first thought that struck me is that Advent is something of a contradiction in terms.  It’s a time of receiving and welcoming God into our hearts, but it’s also a time to give away what we have freely received from God.

It’s this pattern of divine ex­change that we find in the two groups of people Our Lord addressed in today’s gospel.  The first group received the gifts of his teaching and miracles.  Our Lord saw their need and he responded to that need and had compassion on them.

But there was a second group: the people who knew him best and who had already received his Gos­pel.  To these, his closest friends, he gave the command: “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.  He sent them out to proclaim the Good News and to do the work of the kingdom of heaven themselves.

Now, instead of trying to figure out which of these two groups we belong to, let’s accept that we really belong to both.  On the one hand, we all need deeper healing.  We all need to learn the Gospel message more clearly.  We all have areas of sin that need to be addressed and forgiven.  So we too need to spend time with Jesus, letting him minister to our needs and fill us with his grace.

But on the other hand, we all have much that we can offer to other peo­ple.  How often during this time of year do we hear people talking about how lonely they are or how guilty they feel about some poor decisions they made?  It is to these that we can offer whatever we have already re­ceived from God.  More likely than not they need nothing more than a friendly word of encouragement, or a ready ear.  But maybe they need to hear about how much God can work in their lives.  We serve a generous God, so let us be generous in our service to those in need, beginning with our own community, our families and the people with whom we share our lives.

Saint Nicholas

Today we honour the memory of Saint Nicholas.  Although he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek Church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him except that he was Bishop of Myra in Turkey.  When the Dutch emigrated to the United States, they took with them their Sinterklaus tradition, loosely based on the person of Saint Nicholas.  Once the Americans got hold of him, Saint Nicholas was transformed into Santa Claus, whose duty was to reward good children and punish the bad ones.  It was the Coca-Cola Company who further transformed him into the morbidly obese character we all know today.  The Church honours Saint Nicholas, not as the patron of Christmas cheer and excess, but as a zealous bishop who had a genuine concern for the people under his care.

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One of the major themes of Advent and Christmas is how the light overcomes darkness.  We all experience darkness in our lives, both within us and around us.  News reports seem to cover nothing but gloom and even downright evil.  In our families and in society misunderstanding causes alienation and isolation.  Even in the Church, shadowy pockets of darkness persist, dimming the light of our witness to Christian values.

We’ve just heard how Our Lord healed two blind men, but he delays his response until they are in the best place to receive his healing touch.  In the privacy of a house, he gives them the opportunity to proclaim their faith; then he touches and heals them.

In our own experience we know it takes time for our eyes to adjust to bright sunshine after being in a dull room.  In much the same way it must have taken these men at least a few minutes to get used to their new vision and to make sense of what they were seeing.  And so, Our Lord stayed with them and helped them adjust to their new lives.  But he warned them too, not to speak too soon about what had happened to them.  First, they needed to understand and come to terms with their situation more clearly.

Advent is a time of enlightenment for us too; and our growth in understanding is likely to be as gradual as it was for these two men.  Perhaps we notice that a word or an image keeps repeating itself in the readings at Mass or in the Office; words like renewal, freedom, repentance, conversion, restoration.  As we ponder and meditate on these images, they can shed light on what Our Lord wants us to do.

And yet we shouldn’t be too disappointed if the results aren’t instantaneous.  Our Lord has come into the world and that changes everything; but we still have to give his life time to grow and take root.  How good it is to know then, that Our Lord is always with us, teaching us and helping us to adjust to the light.

Thursday of Advent Week 1

When the Met Office issues a storm warning, some people get worried and anxious.  In certain areas of the world that are prone to severe storms people have built their homes according to strict safety standards so that they can withstand an onslaught of gale and hurricane force winds.

The Year of the Word reminds us that God wants us to build our lives on the rock of his Word: the most solid foundation we can have.  And for this to happen, we must work with Our Lord as we would work with a trusted architect.  As we allow him to ‘build’ us according to his exacting standards, we will have less to fear when the storms of life rise up against us.

It’s not always easy to let Our Lord do the building.  We may want him to use the standards we have already set.  But he wants to start at the very foundation, uprooting whatever is weak and whatever is contrary to his plans for us.  Our Lord knows that if our foundation is weak then we are vulnerable, and we become subject to our fallen nature.

It’s comforting to know that Our Lord is always with us, even when something happens to tear down our old foundations.  We are not doomed to weather the storms of life on our own.  Our Lord wants us to trust in him to such a degree that we always choose to obey his commands, however difficult they may seem.  When the winds begin to blow, he wants us to turn to him and let him strengthen us.  He wants to fight the battles we cannot fight on our own.  All we have to do is trust and obey, and he will build us into a strong and secure dwelling for his Holy Spirit.

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Wednesday of Advent Week 1

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Here’s a question for clever Dominicans to think about today.  Why didn’t Our Lord give the apostles exactly the right amount of food to feed the crowd?  Why did they end up with so many leftovers?  Did Our Lord perhaps think that the disciples might get hungry again?  Did he anticipate more people showing up later?  More than likely, Our Lord wanted to teach them something about leftovers.

The number of baskets gives us a clue.  In Jewish thought, the number seven was an expression of perfection, the kind of perfection found only in God.  The Book of Genesis tells us that it took God six days to create the world, and then he rested on the seventh.  It was a day of satisfaction and plenty.  It was a time for God to enjoy his creation, a creation so good and so complete that it couldn’t be improved upon.  In the same way, the bread Our Lord provided in this miracle satisfied the crowd in a way that no earthly food ever could.

The number seven also reveals God’s limitless generosity.  Our Lord told Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven times, in other words, without limit.  Our Lord knew that Peter could be that forgiving because God’s mercy is boundless.

Our Lord also teaches us that whenever we give to someone, relying on God’s resources, we will never run out.  So these fragments weren’t really leftovers.  They were part of God’s endless abundance, his endless supply of blessings.

Now all of this applies in a special way to the Eucharist; the Bread of Life that Our Lord gives us every day at Mass.  This bread, which is his Body, is unlike any other food we could ever eat.  It is perfect, lacking in nothing.  The Eucharist is full of God’s eternal, unlimited blessings.  When we eat this bread in faith, surrendering our hearts to Jesus, he fills us with everything we need, and he satisfies our hearts’ desires.  And not only that, he gives us plenty of ‘leftover’ grace to share with everyone we encounter.

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