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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The Transfiguration of the Lord

If, like me, you got an ‘O’ Level in English Language, you will know that there are two key elements to just about every story: the plot (what happened) and the interpretation (why it happened).  Well, the account of Our Lord’s Transfiguration has a very dramatic what: three Apostles witnessed Our Lord’s heavenly glory.  But what about the why?

There are many ways to answer this question, but one important answer is that this event shows that God has a perfect plan.  In Saint Luke’s version of the story he tells us that while Our Lord was transfigured, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about the plan that Jesus “was going to accomplish in Jerusalem”.  God had a plan for his creation: to save us through his own death on the Cross.  The Crucifixion wasn’t an accident.  It wasn’t a mistake.  It was part of God’s intention all along—all so that we could be set free from sin.

The Transfiguration also confirms God’s love for us.  The imagery of the Transfiguration shows Jesus as a kind of “bridge” between heaven and earth.  He is the Beloved Son who pleases his Father and brings salvation to the world.  Speaking with Israel’s heroes of old, Jesus is also the bridge between God’s covenant with his chosen people and his new covenant with us.

By telling us that Our Lord’s clothes became “white as light” and that his face “shone like the sun,” Saint Matthew also shows us that Jesus transcends the human limitations that we all experience.  He shows us that Jesus truly is God with us.

Through this dramatic story, we can see that God is in control of his creation.  He knows what’s going on in our lives, and he has a plan for us, even if we do have to endure a few crosses along the way.

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Saint Peter & Saint Paul

If the College of Apostles were a sports team, Ss. Peter and Paul would be the most valued players, the captains.  Both were strong and vocal leaders.  They set the direction, and they lived as vibrant examples of Christ-like disciples: they poured out their lives in sacrifice as an offering to God.  Imperfect though they were, they grew in greatness as they fought the good fight every day and remained faithful witnesses until death.  Both were martyred in Rome in June 67 on the orders of the mad Emperor Nero.  St. Peter was crucified upside down on a cross.  St. Paul was beheaded, a few days after St. Peter.

The martyrdoms of Peter and Paul were the culmination of lives spent as witnesses to the life and truth of Jesus Christ; ‘witness’ being the original meaning of the word ‘martyr’.  In that sense, they were martyrs every day—suffering many little deaths.  Peter left his fishing business when Jesus called him.  He trudged the rocky paths of Galilee and Judea where he managed crowds, found food, and learned to love by serving his fellow disciples.  Peter put Our Lord’s directions and needs ahead of his own.  He didn’t always get it right, but he persevered to the end in following Our Lord.

Paul, too, offered his life’s plans to Our Lord, perhaps unwillingly at first, but wholeheartedly at the end.  Each day he chose to serve, even when he was exhausted, sick, or hurt; in peril of his life; or in prison.  He gave up his reputation as one of the brightest Pharisees and the staunchest opponent of the Early Church.  He made plans, only to change them at the Holy Spirit’s prompting.  He listened to and obeyed Our Lord even when his emotions and intellect objected.

None of us will be martyred as brutally as St.  Peter and St. Paul were, but every day presents opportunities to die to self, to share the Gospel, to care for others, to put the needs of the other Sisters before our own, and to hold fast to our faith.  When we put others first, we are conformed to Our Lord as we accept and surrender to these small martyrdoms.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, pray for us.

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Birthday of John the Baptist

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Saint John the Baptist holds a very special place in the Liturgical Calendar of the Catholic Church; so much so that when his Birthday falls on a Sunday, as it does today, his feast takes precedence.  Saint John is the only other saint apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose birthday is kept by the Church as a Solemnity. This is because John’s birth, like that of Our Lady, signalled the end of the Old Testament era, and the beginning of the New Covenant between God and humanity in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Saint Luke tells us the angel Gabriel announced his birth to his father Zechariah who gave him the name John, which means “God is gracious.” (Luke 1:8-23) Even while still in his mother’s womb he recognised the presence of Jesus by leaping when Mary visited Elizabeth (Luke 1:41).

When John grew up he left his parents to live the life of a prophet in the desert.  He preached in the desert dressed like an Old Testament prophet, wearing a garment of camel-skin and eating locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6; Matt 3:4).  He proclaimed the kingdom of God, and a coming judgement, and he invited people to accept baptism as a symbol of their repentance.  His ministry resembled that of the prophets of old, in that he disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed.  The well-known Trappist writer Thomas Merton is supposed to have said, “Every prophet is a pain in the neck; but not every pain in the neck is a prophet.”  John was undeniably a prophet and also a pain in the neck, at least to Herod and the religious leaders of his day. We see him disturbing the comfortable when he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution?  Produce fruit in keeping with your repentance and do not presume to tell yourselves we have Abraham as our father.” (Luke 3:7-8) John’s message obviously disturbed people with a bad conscience, and some of the powerful did repent, as did tax-collectors and soldiers.  Tax-collectors asked him what they must do, and John replied, “Exact no more than the appointed rate.” (Luke 3:13) Soldiers also repented, and his advice to them was “No intimidation!  No Extortion!  Be content with your pay!” (Luke 3:14) John’s message spread far and wide, and his message was definitely attractive.  Saint Mark opens his gospel by saying that all Jerusalem and Judea made their way to him and as they were baptised in the Jordan they confessed their sins (Mark 1:5).

We see John’s humility when he didn’t want to draw attention to himself but directed people to Jesus.  People began to wonder if John was the Messiah, so he reassured them that he was not.  He declared that his ministry was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, “I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) When Jesus came to John asking for baptism, John recognised Jesus at once and said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) These words have found their way into the Mass; when the priest holds up the Sacred Host as we prepare for Holy Communion he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world…”  Our Lord began his public ministry after he had been baptised by John.  An expectation had developed among the Jews that the prophet Elijah would return to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah, and Our Lord later declared that John was that Elijah type person they were expecting (Mark 9:13).  After Our Lord’s baptism, once again we see John turning the attention to Jesus as he declared, “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30) And we are reminded of this fact celebrating John’s birth just days after the summer solstice as now the daylight hours begin to decrease; and we will celebrate the birth of Jesus just days after the winter solstice when the daylight hours begin to increase.

We see John’s great courage in condemning the adulterous marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife.  This is a reminder to us that not everything that is allowed by law is morally right, e.g. divorce and abortion.   Herod had John arrested and thrown in prison.  John stood up for the truth, and unfortunately like many who stand up for the truth today, he had to pay a price.  John’s courage in upholding the dignity of marriage and condemning the adulterous relationship of Herod and Herodias was to result in his martyrdom.

History often repeats itself, and John the Baptist’s beheading was repeated in Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, whose feast we observed on Friday.  If you remember your history, King Henry VIII abandoned his lawful wife and Queen Katherine of Aragon, and illegally married Anne Boleyn.  Parliament passed a law forcing the clergy and the aristocracy to acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England.  In silent protest, Thomas More resigned his post as Lord Chancellor.  Both he and his friend, John Fisher the Bishop of Rochester, were aware that just because something is lawful doesn’t mean it is morally right.  Both refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy.  Both were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Both were subject to a kangaroo trial and found guilty of high treason.  Both were beheaded in July 1535.  Thomas More’s last words were, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

The courage of John the Baptist, John Fisher and Thomas More in upholding the truth about marriage, and their subsequent martyrdoms as a result, challenges us in a time when it’s not popular to speak the truth or live by the truth.  Marriage has become a mockery in many societies.  Until recently everyone recognised that God wills that marriage be a lifelong and exclusive union between a man and a woman.  The blessing that marriage delivers belongs to all humanity.  Breaking the link between gender and marriage makes marriage a different kind of institution altogether.  It no longer tells the story that both male and female are needed to create and then to nurture new human life.  Any interruption to this process causes confusion, especially for children.  Reflecting on this, Pope Francis declared that: “Children have the right to grow up in a family with a father and mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.”

Today we hear John the Baptist, Thomas More and John Fisher remind us that just because certain attitudes and behaviour are enshrined in the law of the land, doesn’t mean that it’s morally right.  John the Baptist, turning attention away from himself and towards Our Lord reminds us to do the same also in our lives.  In each of us, we ourselves are to decrease and Jesus Christ is to increase.

Saint John the Baptist, pray for us.

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The Immaculate Heart of Mary

Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we can reflect on Our Lady’s beautiful witness and on how it sets an example for all believers.  While Our Lady was the mother of the Redeemer, she was also dependent—like the rest of us—on the Redeemer’s saving grace.  We may not be sinless like she was; nevertheless, we are all called to live the life of the new creation that Our Lady so perfectly embodied.

Saint Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).   Our Lady’s heart was set on pleasing God. In everything she did, she demonstrated a childlike faith and trust in God and in his promises to her.  When she accepted the angel’s call to be the mother of the Messiah, Our Lady freely surrendered her rights to a normal life.  Instead, she determined to follow God’s plan wherever it led.  All of us who have experienced the love and forgiveness of God in a personal way understand how dramatically our entire perspective can be changed by one touch from the Lord.

Saint Paul says, “Jesus died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15).  As a new creation living for Our Lord, our lives are drastically different from those whose hearts are set on this world alone.  When we live for God we no longer live for ourselves, or the approval of others.  Our primary desire is to please the One who died for us!  We want to become ambassadors for Christ, bringing his life and light to a world in need.

Our Lady’s entire life was set on fulfilling God’s plan and advancing his kingdom.  In prayer, she sought out his wisdom and direction and then moved in simple, trusting obedience. Neither years of patient waiting nor the painful culmination of Our Lord’s ministry caused her to lose heart.  Let us continue to imitate Our Lady’s example: by faith, she moved in the blessed freedom of a true daughter of God.

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The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

Images of the sun’s surface reveal dynamic surges of fire exploding from its surface in continuous and powerful waves. We don’t have pictures of the sacred heart of Jesus, but by God’s revelation, we know that this heart, like the sun, is also a raging fire—a fire of divine love. It is a constantly burning furnace with charity, mercy, and forgiveness always surging out to all of humanity.

The passionate love contained in the heart of Jesus has no beginning and no end. It is eternal, exalted far above our limited abilities to love. Nothing can stop it or dampen its fervour—not even death on a cross. Jesus loves us so much that he is determined to do anything he can to save us and to empower us to live life to the full. And yet, as high and “other” as it is, this love is also deeply personal and intimate, capable of touching us at every level of our being.

As we surrender ourselves to Jesus, as we ask him to warm our hearts with his divine love, we will begin to experience a new joy and passion, both for the Lord and for life itself. We will find ourselves wanting to spend more time with Jesus in prayer, and we will begin to treasure his words in the gospels. In short, our hearts will begin to burn with the same fire of love that is in Jesus’ own heart.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux once said that the church must have a heart, and that this heart must be on fire with love. “Jesus, my love!” she cried. “At last, I have found my vocation. My vocation is love.”

Something else happens when we encounter Jesus’ Sacred Heart: We find a deeper love and compassion for other people. The author and French priest, Fr. Jean du Coeur de Jesus d’Elbée, imagined that St. John, as he neared the end of his life, repeated only one teaching over and over again: “Love one another!” He said that if you want to love in this way, the only answer is to “plunge yourself into his heart and draw love out of his abyss of charity.” May we all learn to love!

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