The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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It has been said that a saint is a window through which we get a glimpse of another world, a person through whom God’s light shines.  If it applies to a saint, then surely it applies even more so to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I remember – many years ago now – sitting in the cloister garth of a monastery where I was making a retreat – watching the sun go down.  As the sun dipped lower and lower the shadows began to lengthen; and as the sun retreated, one by one all the colours were extinguished.

As I got up to go back into the house, someone turned on the lights in the church, and my eyes were drawn to one of the stained-glass windows.  When the sun was shining, I hadn’t noticed it, but now against the background of bright lights it glowed with a beauty which previously had been invisible.  The lights inside the church were shining, not so much on the window as through it.  That window had beauty before, but I had to wait until the sun went down and darkness set in to appreciate its true beauty.  This beauty was revealed only because there was light within.

In some ways people are like stained glass windows.  Many glow and shine, but only in the sunlight of the approval and recognition of others.  Many celebrities and politicians suffer this fate. When they fall from favour, and this approval is withdrawn, and nobody pays attention to them anymore, they are plunged into darkness because they have no light within.   Anyway, as these profound thoughts were passing through my mind in that monastery garden, whoever turned those lights on in the church suddenly turned them off.  Now all was in darkness again.  And how dark it is when a light goes out: darker by far than if it had never shone.

When we say that Our Blessed Mother was conceived without Original Sin what are we saying?  We are saying that she was as holy as is possible for a redeemed creature to be.   Like the rest of us Our Lady too had to be redeemed, but she was redeemed in advance.  Unlike us, Our Lady was never subject to the Devil, not even for a moment.  Because from the very moment of her existence, from her conception in the womb of her mother, she belonged to the kingdom of light, the Kingdom of God.  The light of God’s grace illuminated her from within, so that no matter how deep was the darkness that surrounded her, she was still in the light.  And far from extinguishing her light, the darkness merely served to show it up.

It was through the humble and obedient Virgin Mary that Our Lord’s powerful light shone into our world of darkness and shadows.  Christ is the ‘light of the world’.  He it is who enlightens all peoples.  It was his light that illuminated the heart and soul of his mother.

Each of us was conceived and born, not only into a world darkened by many forms of evil, but we were personally subject to the kingdom of darkness.  But when we were baptized the light of God’s grace was kindled within us and Christ began to free us from the grip of darkness.  As Saint Peter put it, “God has called us out of darkness into his own wonderful light.”  And Saint Paul says, “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord; be like children of the light.”

Unfortunately, the darkness still has power over us.  The process of freeing ourselves from it through the grace of Christ is a lifelong process.  It can’t happen at the flick of a switch.  Even though many people are afraid of the dark and it causes us to stumble and lose our way, yet it somehow has a fascination for us.  But Our Lady, even though her inner light always burned brightly, knows what it is to live in a world darkened by greed, hatred, pride, cruelty and selfishness.  Our Lady will help, guide and encourage us to walk in the way of her Son.

And so, what does living in the light consist of?   Saint John tells us, “Anyone who loves his brother is living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling; unlike the man who hates his brother and is in darkness, not knowing where he is going because it is too dark to see.”

Every time we meet our Blessed Mother in the gospels she is seen as someone who was concerned about other people.  Not only did the light of God’s love illumine her own life, but it shone out through her and illuminated the lives of all those around her.  Our Lady will help us to keep the light of Christ burning brightly within us, and she will encourage us to shed light into the path of others.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.  Amen.

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Christ the King

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Once again we stand at that liturgical crossroads at the end of the old and the beginning of the new.  The Solemnity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the Universal King anticipates the end of the current liturgical year.  Today we anticipate the ultimate resolution of all the world’s trials and tribulations, its questions and concerns.  Our Lord promised that He will come again at the end of time, and today’s Solemnity reminds us that He might come for some of us before He comes for us all.

The autumn season and the end of the liturgical year coincide with the message that the world as we know it is passing away.  Today’s feast challenges us to make sure that our priorities are in sync with these eternal realities.  What things will really matter when Christ comes again?

You may have heard the story about Saint Francis of Assisi who was out in his garden hoeing a row of runner beans when he was asked: “What would you do if you knew the world would end today?”  His calm, considered reply was: “I suppose I would finish hoeing this row of beans.”

His response speaks of two things: firstly it speaks to the value of the material work we are called to do.  This work is consistent with and, in some ways, tied to the larger question of eternal salvation.  The work we do each day is not merely to turn a profit or to pass the time—our work has eternal significance.  It matters.  It also matters how we do that work.  If our work, even hoeing a row of beans, is important enough to persevere with until the end of the world, then it needs to be approached with a kind of reverence and respect.

Saint Francis also speaks to the need for a proper and anticipated preparation for the End Times.  If one of us were to reply to the same question Saint Francis was asked, I imagine most of us would immediately run to find a priest and go to Confession.  If our inclination is to do this then the implication is that we are not quite prepared for those last days.  Such a response points to a pressing need for greater readiness and preparation.  Today’s feast reminds us that because “we know not the day nor the hour,” it would be wise to prepare ourselves now and get ready.

The theme of preparation is carried into the Season of Advent which begins next Sunday.  As every beginning has an end, so also every end implies and expects a new beginning.  Winter gives way to Spring.  2018 will give way to 2019.  Life gives way to death.  Death gives way to eternal life.  Flower gives way to seed.  Seed gives way to new growth.  So also in the liturgical year, the end gives way to a new Advent, a new beginning, a new time of preparation for a new birth.

And so this is a time of beginnings and endings, and through it all we are called to be habitually in a state of readiness.  As the Scouts and Guides drummed into some of us when we were children: Be Prepared.  Saint Francis could be calm about getting on with the hoeing of his beans because he was already prepared for his end and he was at peace with that preparation.  He may not have left his hoeing to prepare for the end, but the truer reality is that he didn’t start hoeing until he was prepared for that end.  For us, the tendency to drop the hoe and run to church and find a priest for that last minute confession, is very possibly a sign that we were not yet properly ready to take up the hoe in the first place.

After the spiritual preparation of Advent and when Christmas arrives we will take up another very important work: the Work of God – Opus Dei – the work of worship and praise, the work of coming to the manger, the work of following a star.  And for this we must also be prepared, and the four weeks of Advent are provided for this spiritual preparation.  When Christmas arrives and we remember that we have not yet been reconciled with our neighbour, we are encouraged to leave our gift and seek that reconciliation.  This is the work that precedes the work of worship, because without it our worship is just lip service; this is the work of Advent that precedes the joy of Christmas.

May your Advent work of preparation for Christmas produce for you many wonderful spiritual fruits that will bring you abundant joy and blessings when Christmas arrives.

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Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

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Anniversaries are important to many, if not all of us.  Some of those anniversaries may even be connected to a particular place: the church where we were baptized or married, or the place where we made our religious profession.  Being in these special places stirs up memories, and sometimes inspires us to rededicate ourselves to a special person or to a cause.

But why is the Lateran Basilica in Rome so important that the anniversary of its dedication, way back in 324, is celebrated throughout the Universal Church today as a feast?  For a thousand years, the Lateran Basilica was the residence of the Bishop of Rome.  Even though the pope today celebrates more official functions at the larger St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, St. John Lateran is still the mother and head of all churches of the city and of the world, as the inscription on its façade proclaims.

When we step into a sacred space like a church, especially if we take time to quiet our spirits, we become aware of the presence of God.  But St. Paul reminds us that we are also God’s dwelling-place.  He tells us that we should be just as aware of his presence in us, and in every other believer.

St. Augustine said it best: “As often as we celebrate the dedication festival of a church, if we worship attentively, what is done in temples made with hands is done also in us spiritually. For he lied not who said, ‘The temple of God, which you are, is holy.’ Therefore, since we are the temple of God, not because we deserve it but only by his grace, let us work hard, with his help, to be a fitting place for the Holy One to dwell.”

Those charged with keeping a church clean and in good repair take this responsibility very seriously. We should work just as hard at polishing God’s image in ourselves. And while we’re at it, let’s look at those with whom we share our lives with the same awe, as a holy dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

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The Holy Archangels

The great technological wonder of the Internet is to get people connected.  With the right equipment people can reach out to friends and family and conduct business from deepest Africa to the remotest corner of China.

The vision of angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man is an ancient vision of heaven connected to earth.  Heaven can seem so far away.  But angels are a connectivity understood by believers long before the Internet or fibre-optic phone lines came along.  There is a bridge, a connection, between this earthly life and that heavenly existence.  Angels bridged the gap, and they are a symbol of God’s connectedness with his people.  Michael, whose name means ‘who is like God’ shows us who is in control of the Universe.  Gabriel, whose name means ‘God is strong’, accomplishes his communication with humanity regardless of the faulty lines we humans throw up.  Raphael, whose name means ‘God’s healing’, can bring God’s touch to the hardest of hearts.  Despite faulty phone lines or distance, and regardless of evil, God can still get through to us, if only we are receptive to him.

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is the bridge that allows this kind of heavenly communication.  We are connected to that world through the Mass; Our Lord is the Bread of Life and, as Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us, he is also the Bread of angels.  Today’s feast teaches us that we need to take time out from our busy schedules to get connected to that other world, so that we can draw ever closer to the God who made us.

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Our Lady of Walsingham

Today we celebrate the Memorial of Our Lady of Walsingham and we thank God for the intervention of his holy Mother in the life of the Church.  Today we pray for our own nation, we pray for the church in England, for our community, for our parish, for our relatives, friends and benefactors, and we pray for those at the hour of their death.  May Our Lady’s prayers always assist us as we draw ever closer to God’s Kingdom.

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We all know what happens when you cover up a candle flame: it gets starved of oxygen and it goes out.  But if you leave it alone in the fresh air, it grows brighter and stronger.

We are all tempted to conserve what little we think we have: to save it until we really need it, or to hold it back until it’s more solid or impressive.  Because our theological understanding is imperfect, we may shy away from sharing our faith.  Aware of our own moral lapses, we may hesitate to speak out against the public wrongdoing of others.  We give to charity only if we happen to have money left over at the end of the month.  We don’t obey the prompting of the Holy Spirit because we don’t have the big picture about what God is doing.

On the other hand, when we share the little we have, it not only sheds light to encourage others, it tends to grow stronger and brighter.  We may not be able to discourse about the mystery of the Holy Trinity, but we know how God has been taking care of our needs.  And if this prompts us to talk about our ongoing relationship with God then we all wind up with more insight.

We may not be able to solve the complex problems of a homeless drug addict or a chronic alcoholic, but we can respond when the Holy Spirit prompts us to offer a kind word to a stranger.

The first reading gives us some very practical principles for letting our light shine: “Refuse no one the good on which he has a claim when it is in your power to do it for him.  Say not to your neighbour, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give,’ when you can give at once” (Proverbs 3:27-28).  As Our Lord said to the scholar who could recite the greatest commandments, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

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Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Our Lord makes very clear that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so He must be lifted up so that He could draw all humanity to Himself.  The Cross stands at the very centre point of all human history.  There is no Eucharist without the Cross of Christ.  There is no life without the Cross of Christ.  It’s one of those mysteries, one of the ironies of our faith: how is it possible that we can have life only through death?  But that’s the only way.  Unless we die to self we cannot have life; and anyone who would try to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life will save it.  We save our lives by uniting ourselves with Jesus Christ on His Cross.

When we consider the link between the serpent fixed on the pole and Our Lord nailed upon the Cross, we have to remember what happened to the serpent.  The Hebrews began worshipping the serpent as if it were a god, and Moses had to destroy the serpent because the people were worshipping it as though it had some kind of power of its own.  Now if we pause to consider what we do in this place each day, we worship Jesus Christ, but we also adore His Cross.  But the Cross has no power of itself.  There were many people who were crucified, but none of their crosses has any power to save anyone.  The Cross without Christ on it is completely devoid of power and meaning.  And so, we have every reason to exalt and venerate the Cross during our liturgy on Good Friday.  We don’t worship the Cross as a god of some sort; rather we have the greatest reverence for the Cross because on it our God has consummated His union with humanity.  Now consummation is an old-fashioned word which we don’t much hear in everyday speech, but it best describes what I’m trying to say.  On the Cross, Christ gave His life for His bride, the Church, so that the Church would be without blemish or spot or wrinkle, that we would be made pure and clean so that we would be able to enter into eternity and be united with Christ in that perfect bond of marriage, of that mystical union between Christ and his Church.

Our Holy Father Augustine taught some sixteen hundred years ago that the Cross is the marriage bed upon which Christ consummated His marriage with the Church.  If we are to be united with Him it means that we have to be pierced with Him, hands and feet, united upon the Cross, stretched in every direction, held between heaven and earth.  This is the way of the spiritual life.  If we are not willing to share in the Cross of Christ, then we will have no share in the life it gives.  It’s just like the bride who has no part in the marriage bed.  How can she be a bride?  How can there be life?  Unless there is a union between the bride and the bridegroom, there can be no life.  If we want eternal life, if we want divine life within our souls then there is only one way, and that is to be united with Christ and to be crucified with Him on the Cross.  Christ humbled Himself taking the form of a slave and was obedient even to death on the Cross.  We have to humble ourselves, but in doing so we will be exalted, we will be lifted up.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your
Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

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The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

In the evenings I like to sit down and listen to a good audiobook, and I’ve noticed on the Audible website that the science-fiction and fantasy section is getting much bigger.  People still love to read about Harry Potter or the Chronicles of Narnia, or the Lord of the Rings.  Bookshops are heaving with fantasy novels, as well as science fiction and other kinds of imaginative writing.  The human desire for enchantment is a desire for other levels of life, that there might be other possibilities for humanity.

Today’s Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, of her being taken up body and soul to the glory of Her Son’s eternal Kingdom, meets this desire in us for a level of life that transcends the ordinary realities, a thirst for something beyond the reality we experience right now, the things easily understood and manipulated by us.  Fantasy speaks to our sense of wonder about hidden mysteries.

For example, the first reading from the Book of Revelation, presents us with a dramatic story worthy of the latest Dan Brown novel.  The Book of Revelation is full of symbols, perfect for nourishing the artistic and poetic imagination.  And the symbolism is easy to interpret and understand: the new-born child represents Christ and the woman who gives birth represents Our Lady.  But she also symbolises the Church, the community of the followers of Christ, who are destined to follow a difficult road in this world.  And how the imagination thrills at an adventure, a quest, a search for hidden treasure.  The road is rich with possibilities but it’s also dangerous and there are many obstacles to be overcome.  It’s a work of the apocalyptic imagination but it’s a true fantasy, if we can put it like that, it’s an accurate diagnosis of the situation of the Christian in the material world, of the promise which is our treasure, and of the dangerous adventures along the way.

In the second reading Saint Paul teaches us that the new life, the life of the resurrection, already established in Jesus Christ in the moment of his own resurrection: this new world and new creation is not just for Our Lord but has been won by him for us.  The grace of the Christian faith is this: to accept the promise of a level of living which reaches beyond our imagination.  The Assumption of Our Lady is the guarantee of this: the new creation is not just for Christ but for all who belong to him, in the first place Mary who is next to him in all things, but also to all God’s people.  Our Lady, as we hear in the Preface of today’s Mass, is ‘a sign of hope and comfort for God’s people on their pilgrim way’.

The gospel includes Mary’s great prayer, the Magnificat, in which she praises God for all His graces.  Our Lady is a unique individual with a unique role in the unfolding of God’s plan for the redemption of the world.  But she is ‘full of grace’ and is also a symbolic figure, representing the Church and all who are with her in the Church.  Again, the Preface of the Mass speaks of her as ‘the beginning and pattern of the Church in its perfection’.  Symbolizing and realizing this perfection she is quite rightly called ‘Mother of the Church’.

Already during this pilgrimage to the land pursued by the Christian imagination, we see signs of the new creation, sparks of the glory that is to come, premonitions of the dawn. Wherever there is compassion, work for justice and peace, care of the poor, unexpected generosity, faithful love, spontaneous and creative benevolence: in all of this we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, for these are the effects of God’s life-giving love.  Our Lady, whose following of her Son was marked by all these things, is the most beautiful creation of the Holy Spirit, and is, as Saint Luke describes her: ‘the highest honour of our race’.

For the moment these signs and sparks encourage us to continue and to persevere on our own pilgrimage.  The full and clear revelation is yet to come.  In the meantime, we continue to thirst, we continue to desire and to imagine, living in the hope of the resurrection that is still to come.  In this we are comforted and strengthened beyond measure by the prayers and the example of Our Lady, already assumed into heaven – she who is our life, our sweetness and our hope.  To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.  Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

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