Homilies - April 2011

Select a homily to read:
Easter Vigil: April 23, 2011 by Fr. Simon
Maundy Thursday: April 21, 2011 by Fr. Simon
Palm Sunday: April 17, 2011 by Fr. Simon

Easter Vigil

  • April 23, 2011
  • Fr. Simon

  • Genesis 1:1-22
  • Genesis 22:1-18
  • Exod. 14:15–15:1
  • Isaiah 54:5-14
  • Isaiah 55:1-11,
  • Baruch 3:9-15, 32–4:4
  • Ezekiel 36:16-28
  • Romans 6:3-11
  • Matthew 28:1-10

May I begin by wishing you all a very happy and holy Easter, not just this night but the whole season long.

The word ‘context’ is frequently heard today – presumably because it is useful. It’s a rather grey sort of word, much used by professorial-looking people seeking exactitudes and exclusivities. “It depends which context…”, etc. The Oxford American Dictionary gives it as ‘the circumstance that forms the setting for an event, statement or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” Well, if you’re happy with American English then that has to be good enough for us tonight.

Each year we hear read these same texts representing a micro-chip of our salvation history. They are, as it were, all we have time for in one night, in our presentation leading up to and ensuing upon the redemption of our world. In fragments they try to present us with an entire context, a setting for an event, our event and statement, but God’s idea.

Event because our history consists of events, statement because our lives are linked by statements, idea because as the Greek Fathers of the Church would tell us, all this emanates from the One Divine Idea. Perhaps the greatest and most universal contextual statement is our first reading from the book of Genesis about the manner in which God created the heavens and the earth. These two, the heavens and the earth, are inseparably linked. They form a vast cosmic context for everything else and for all history. They are the opening, foreword and dramatis personae of our very own wonderful book, the Bible, the book which we wrote with God. Not God alone, as many Protestants would say, but we sat down with God and wrote it together. That accounts for the many idiosyncrasies, non-sequiturs and apparent conflicts which puzzle us and certainly bring down the disdain of our critics. But you see the human authors kept dying all the time and God did not wish to take away our author’s license by censoring it all the time. It is one huge context but strangely not like a normal book; it is a sort of ‘bibliathon’ with the baton passing from generation to generation. And the baton is God’s Spirit.

When I was a child, Catholics did not customarily have a Bible in the home. We had prayer books and rosaries and the nuns taught us ‘catholic’ Bible stories at school. I remember finding a nice big illustrated Bible on a shelf in the dining room but my sister told me we weren’t supposed to read it because the nuns had said it was a Protestant Bible. So the Bible became an occasional accessory in my life and in the lives of so many other Catholics. Now, thanks be to the Church, due to 40 years of recent teaching and preaching, most practicing Catholics will have a Bible somewhere to hand in the house. Yes / no?

Now tonight is the night of the year when this great cosmic context, illustrated by the Bible, becomes vividly and extraordinarily meaningful. First we heard the wonderful song of our salvation illustrated by the light which is Christ. That light itself is the context of all that was to come before and to follow for we inscribed on the candle the letters ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’, and said ‘all time belongs to Him and all the ages’. Then, with the candle for context, duly lit and incensed, we heard the deacon (Fr. Christopher) proclaim, calling on the heavenly powers, on the earth shining in splendor, and on the church exultant in glory, and all resounding with joy. We heard how tonight is again the Passover feast when the true lamb is slain; it is a night when Christians, washed clean of sin, are restored in grace and grow together in holiness. It is the night when the despised and rejected Jesus, the savior and God’s only Son, rose triumphant from the grave. So joyful is this night that we even call Adam’s sin a “happy sin” for without it we would not have so great a redeemer and we certainly would not be here together rejoicing. You came in here in semi-darkness and you think it is now still more dark but this night is as clear as the day because on this night heaven is wedded to earth and heaven is always alive with God’s light.

So now within the context of the candle we produced our book. There we read of how it all came about, that progression which is far more like Darwin’s theory than it is not. That progression of the earth forming, of lights illuminating, of seas and vaults dividing, of plants vegetating and seeding, of birds on the wing and sea-serpents multiplying, of cattle and of every kind of wild beast. And as if these were not a sufficient image of the creator, we recorded how he made us male and female to be his ultimate images and reflections of his divine being.

Can we now believe that since then we have got it so wrong. Our liturgical redactors do not go on to talk about the “happy fault” but they do present us a with a great advance in our understanding of God – and remember that we were writing this together with him. We thought that God wanted sacrifices, sacrifices of ourselves, human sacrifices that is, but God showed in his faithful servant Abraham that this was not his wish. He wanted his son Isaac to live and to carry on the fatherhood of descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the sea shore.

God was writing redemption into his redaction of our great book, redemption from the ever- multiplying sin which was becoming far from “happy” in his eyes for he who was infinitely happy could see how it was hurting his people. So he singled out a particular people, descendents of the faithful Abraham to be those through whom total redemption would be wrought. He would write into the story a special feast, to be known as the Passover, to be celebrated by this people as they escaped with his chosen leader, Moses, from the agents of oppression, sin and slavery. His people were above all to be free, for how could they free the rest of mankind if they were in slavery and sin themselves But this people just does not seem able to last the pace. Despite his every effort, the people’s sins just keep multiplying and worst of all they apostatize: they think there may be other gods who can do the job better and more cheaply. So he keeps sending messengers, prophets to speak his words. Tonight he sends Isaiah to tell the people that he sees himself as a husband with a forsaken wife, distressed in spirit, whom he is desperate to recall. “Does a man cast off the wife of his youth? Did I forsake you for a brief moment?” “In excess of anger – and remember, anyone who can co-author a book like the bible knows what anger is – “for a moment I hid my face from you but with great love I will take you back. Unhappy creature, my love will never leave you.”

Our prophet Isaiah goes on to illustrate this love further by inviting us to take what we all most want, free water and free food. This is prior to making a new covenant of which our part will be to witness on his behalf before all the nations, and be sure of one thing, the nations will come to us, not for our sakes but for the sake of the One we stand for, for the sake of the Lord our God, of the Holy One of Israel whom they will glorify through us. So if we are unsure of where the Lord is to be found it is not a map we need but a compass of the heart, to turn back to the Lord. For so often his thought are not our thoughts nor our thoughts his thoughts. Above all we can be sure that his word, his statement which goes forth from his mouth does not return to him empty, without carrying out his will and in succeeding in what it was sent to do.”

Not only that but, with Moses’ help, God also wrote into our book a legal context for clearer adherence to his ways, for a clearer path back to him. Our next prophet Baruch reminds us that the commandments bring life; they are not burdensome. At present, by our negative attitude to them we are actually in the land of our enemies who despise our law; we are growing older, “reckoned with those who go to Sheol because (we) have forsaken the fountain of wisdom”. “Had you walked in the way of God you would have walked in peace forever.” Baruch reminds us of our original creative context, the earth set firm, the light, the beasts, the stars. God calls the stars and they gladly shine out saying, “Here we are”. Is that our response, or is that only for stars?

Finally before we switch to an altogether renewed context, our prophet Ezekiel reminds us that in our laxity and sin we have effectively lost faith in God’s Holy Name. How will the nations know which brand to invest in if we are no longer advertising the true product? The only way is a thorough cleansing; a new heart and a new spirit will make us look like and actually be like our God.

So finally we accepted cleansing, we accepted to be baptized in Christ Jesus, in the death of the One who died for us. We have become completely united with Him. We are in a new context. We have a new statement. The idea is not new, it was the same from the beginning but it shines out with new purity, like the stars. By doing this we have imitated his death so our former sinful, slavish self has gone. We have finished with sin. No longer does God have a problem with his co-authors dying because in Jesus, his Son, we never die. “He died once and for all for sin and his life is now life with God”. So can ours be. So were the lives of Mary of Magdala and the other Mary on visiting the tomb. He is not to be found in empty tombs – wrong context; he is to be found in Galilee. So, if we go there, whom else should we expect to meet but Jesus, walking towards us and the holy women, saying “Greetings. You will see me in Galilee.” So this is New Galilee (and surely there must be a ‘New Galilee’ in the United States) and that’s why we are here. This is our new context. And here we see Jesus walking towards us.

Prior Simon McGurk
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Maundy Thursday, Mass of the Lord’s Supper

  • April 21, 2011
  • by Fr. Simon
  • Exodus 12:1-8,
    11-14
    1 Cor 11: 23-26
    John 13:1-15

This much loved liturgy comes strangely with two foci, the one the Passover, the Old Testament recording and its New Testament transformation, and the second that most eclectic and unexpected of Jesus’ actions, the washing of the disciples’ feet, or should I say “our feet”. Is the latter just a sort of optional extra to the life of Jesus and his relations with the apostles, or is it as essential as we would consider the Passover and, in a unique sense, the institution of the Eucharist.

Let us look first at the texts. The first reading tells us that this is to be a very special month because on the 10th of this month each man will take an animal, later clarified as a one-year old goat or sheep, for his family; it must be a male animal without blemish, which in the case of a small family can be shared with other families, then on the fourteenth day of the month it is to be slaughtered by the whole community. So far so good, all very communal. The blood however is to be poured out and used to sprinkle on the door post to mark out that house. The flesh is to be eaten roasted but also hastily, with sandals on the feet and a girdle round the waste and a staff in hand, because the people are about to leave in a hurry at the signal of the Lord, as a sign of Passover, the passing over of the angel of the Lord who will kill all the first born of the Egyptians and later we would read of a greater Passover, as the people crossed the Red Sea to safety and 40 years of bonding and trial in the desert.

By the time of St. Paul what had come down via the traditions established by Jesus was that the meal had been transformed into a bread and wine meal. But now an extraordinary difference had taken place – a revolution, you might say. The bread was no longer bread but the very body of the Lord Jesus; and the wine was no longer wine but was the blood of the Lord now poured out, not for salvation from an avenging angel, but for the remission of all sins of all people from Adam till the end of the age.

The first Passover meal was a fitting and powerful commemoration of the original Passover handed down the ages. The second Passover meal was not just a remembrance but was a new covenant in the blood of the Lord, the one whom John the Baptist identified as the Lamb of God, and now the Lamb of triumph. And although the Lord used the expression “Do this in memory of me”, – something which most Protestants hold to while firmly refusing to see the repetition of the Lord’s supper as sacrificial – nevertheless, the tradition of the primitive church down to the present day has been that this memorial act was not simply a souvenir but that it was an active memory, an anamnesis. This action will do today and on any day, infinitely more than the original Passover meal could do, for that same meal now transformed by Jesus has become his very Body given for us and his Blood poured out for us by which actions today our sins are forgiven just as they have been at any Mass in any country between the first apostles and this celebration today. This Mass is the Last Supper made new in our lives. We are redeemed by this Mass just as we are redeemed by Jesus’ Last Supper for it is the same supper.

Our Gospel relates that during that same supper – we are not told whether it was before or after the institution of the Eucharist but it was before Judas dipped his morsel of bread in the dish - Jesus suddenly got up and wrapped a towel around himself and proceeded to do what would normally have been done by a servant on their entry to the room, that is, wash their feet. Perhaps a servant had done it but, yes or no, Jesus, their acknowledged Lord and Master, sees fit to take over the role of the servant at a critical moment in the dinner when Judas appears to be on the verge of leaving for some errand on behalf of Satan.

Some quotations make the connection between this reading and the other two. First of all when Peter begins to protest, Jesus says “At the moment you do not understand what I am doing but later you will understand”. How true that was to be of the new Passover which He instituted in their presence and explicitly asked them to continue in his name. Then when Peter refuses to have his feet washed, Jesus says “You can have nothing in common with me” It was precisely the commonality which was essential to being part of Jesus own new transformed Passover, the new covenant in his blood and the ecclesial Body of Christ. So important is this event in our understanding of Jesus’ self-abasement on earth – something which is not obvious in the action of breaking bread, that it is very strange that John alone includes it in his gospel whilst excluding the institution of the Eucharist.

However, we are not here for scripture scholarship; we are here to imitate Jesus and by our partaking in both these profound and moving and historical actions, to become conformed to him in his utter humility and love, in his giving of himself and in the reception of his all-redeeming Blood. The fortunate ones will now have their feet washed. The rest of us will imitate this action in our lives forever after.

Prior Simon McGurk
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Palm Sunday

  • April 17, 2011
  • by Fr. Simon
  • Isaiah 50: 4-7
    Philippians 2: 6-11
    Matt. 26: 14–27: 66

The events which we are about to celebrate this week are all about glory. We have gathered here this morning with Jesus, to give glory to God, and we in our turn are invited to share in that glory to its fullness. That is what we will be doing all week as we commemorate liturgically those great events when Jesus showed his glory, the glory that, as St. John says, was his as the only Son of the Father. Through our baptism God has brought us into the glory of his Son so that we are now incorporated into every prayer and action of His, standing with Him before the Father of lights, all giving Him glory. That is what our liturgy is. Liturgy is the whole divine court, the Body of Christ of which we are full members, gathered in the Holy Spirit around the Father’s throne. It is biblical, Byzantine and medieval imagery but in a fiercely democratic country and age, it has to stand till we find better.

Today is the day which every champion of the people should look forward to. The crowd wild with emotion, the peak of popularity, the ultimate moment of recognitions, glory on earth. Yet how did Jesus feel? Was this popularity not wonderful, was it not all that Satan promised him at his temptation in the wilderness? Should he be a spoil-sport and shirk the limelight, run away from the people, ask them not to speak about him, as he had on occasions before? Why did he allow what is happening today? Every footballer, every actor would have dreamed of this day, but they don’t knowingly face death as a result of it. It was precisely such moments of peak popularity which were leading to the fury of his enemies: it was to stop this kind of public demonstration that he had to be executed. Why did he just walk into it as if reveling in it? Well, as he said himself of the jubilant crowd, “If these keep silence, then even the very stones will cry out”. You couldn’t stop it. This crowd represents the truth and we today are that same crowd, a bit more demur with our stripped-down palms but yes, we are that same happy crowd.

What could Jesus be thinking of, going through with this glory parade? What will he be thinking all week? Isn’t there something we can do that will make it better for him? Can’t we dissuade him? To what purpose? There is so much sin in the world, and we bear our own share of it, so we can either continue with him regardless along his royal road or we can turn aside and leave sin unattended, “find something better to do”.

Jesus had a human mind: he did not know exactly what this Pharisee was going to say or which soldier was going to beat him or where exactly the nails were going to go in. But it was not difficult with his human mind to work out the politics which were to take place and lead to his execution if he were not to dismount from the ass right away and run off into the olive trees.

Glory had a high price for Jesus. Glory is sought by so many today at low price without Jesus. Our glory is here with Jesus at no price. The world may inflict upon us every kind of pain, stress and tragedy but, united with Jesus in this liturgy, there is no further price to pay for he has already paid for us up-front. And what he has bought for us is glory; the glory which now allows us to walk with him in procession into our own Jerusalem, there to hear what he went through, to hear in one stunning narrative both the details of the purchase and of the death warrant. There, having heard the sentence, we will make our own the love feast which he celebrated with his disciples and thus be united until the next episode of glory.

Prior Simon McGurk
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