St. Stephen and Our Vocation

‘No-one has ever seen God, the only begotten God, the one being in the heart of the Father, he has narrated him’ (John 1.18 own translation)

This verse from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel takes us to the very heart of the Trinitarian mystery and ‘the great and mighty wonder’ of Christmas. The Son, who is born in that stable is no ordinary human being endowed with great power; nor is he a superman – he is the second person of the Trinity incarnate: ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’ (Heb. 1.3). When the Son is born in the stable, the limitless creative love and power of God is poured into a human life so that the ineffable beauty of the eternal Source is known for a time in human form. The result of this event is an expansion of human potential beyond all imagining – we are given access to the place where the Son stands, which is nearest to the heart of the Father. We are given a home; a hope; a destiny greater than we could ever imagine – ‘we shall be like him’, says the writer of 1 John (3.2). The incarnation is not a superficial thing: neither is he a human being who taught us about God or God pretending to be a human being: instead, we believe that God, in Christ, entered the totality of human experience – gestation, birth, death and everything in between.

The descent of God the Word into our flesh was total and complete. Our rejoicing this season is in our Saviour’s willingness to become totally human and to suffer and die for those who were far off.  All this must be borne in mind when we recall that the day following the great solemnity of Christ’s nativity is the feast of St. Stephen’s death, the first Christian martyr.

Stephen is a martyr of the earliest Church and, as such is rightly known as one of the great witnesses to what faith in the Word made flesh really entails. Our faith is not in a series of propositions or a particular moral code, but in Jesus Christ himself – our faith, our act of trust in him, is that in him is a power that transcends suffering and is more powerful than death. His death is a testimony to his firm conviction that those ‘in Christ’ – in whom works the same power that raised the Lord from the dead – will experience death not as the end of something but as the route of access into the very life of God himself.

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But the manner of his death has other lessons to teach us because we begin to glimpse the human potential unleashed by the incarnation. Treated unjustly and with abject cruelty, Stephen was willing to forgive those who persecuted him – and it is this other worldly ability to forgive that displays how faith in Christ transforms us and how the disciples of the Infant King live in the world but are not of the world. Those who bear the name of the incarnate Lord are called to resist evil, to bear witness to truth in a post-truth world and to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed – but we do so not with vengeance, rhetoric or retribution – but by choosing the path of forgiveness, humility and love.

In the order of Christian funerals we pray that the Lord Jesus ‘will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body’ – this is the final destiny of the Christian; to be like Christ in the heart of the Father. But our decision to be conformed to him begins today – Stephen’s death mirrored the forgiveness and non-violence of his Master’s death –  may our whole lives be conformed to the image of him who came not to be served but to serve.

Stephen ora pro nobis.

The Assumption of Our Lady | Homily

If you happened to turn the news on this week, you will have seen mention of little else than the Olympic Games in Rio – the world is enraptured by this demonstration of human strength and success and we participate in an unadulterated
display of national pride. However, if you turn your eye for a moment from the glistening stadiums and sporting celebrities, you see a city divided. In one half of Rio – a Brazilian elite enjoy a life of luxury on the shores of Copacabana, basking in the power which money affords and the kudos of being an Olympic Host City; in the other half of the city, the Favelas, some of the poorest people in the world – often living without running water and electricity – with children caught up in the midst of brutal gang warfare.

Two completely different worlds – all under the shadow of the Corcovado Mountain and the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. While the world might be looking to the celebrities and stadiums and successes – the Redeemer is looking to the Favelas. The truth is, when you are seeking for God – we cannot look where the world looks for power – if you want to find the great things – look to the margins, to the poor, to the nobodies and you will find the children of God.

assumption-siena-di-sanoHere we turn to our Blessed Mother Mary, who we celebrate today. The Gospels tell us very little about Mary – but what they do make clear, as Mary herself says, is that Christ chose the lowliest of people as his mother.  When God takes on flesh he eschews the royal palaces and centres of imperial power and chooses Nazareth – that town about which the Roman world made jokes, ‘can anything good come from Nazareth?’. And when he’s seeking out a mother, he doesn’t choose a comfortable, married mother who’s had three children and knows what she’s doing. He chooses the least of women – a poor, unmarried girl from a backwater town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire.

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?

This is the beauty and the poetry of the Christian faith – this is the mystery we celebrate every time we look to Mary and honour her as Mother of God. The power that fashioned the cosmos, that strung an infinite number of stars, the one who brought forth all life chooses to be born of Mary – he becomes one with us, and reveals his power in the weakness of a human life. Just imagine… that foetus, which grew silently in the womb of Mary; that newborn baby, nursed at her breast; that child who grew and learnt in her house – that child, completely dependent on his mother, is God. In the incarnation, we see that our God does not identify with the elites of the world but with the lowly – the power of God is known in self-emptying love; his is a power willing to become weak for the sake of others.

In Mary, God confirms his decision to be with the misfits and ne’er do wells of the world! God chooses to be in the midst of our ordinary, sinful, messy lives. Just as, from all the nations of the world, God chose the slave nation of the Hebrews, so now he chooses to be one with the human race in all its suffering, vulnerability and pain. The world tells us to stay away from the poor, the homeless, the convicts and the refugees – but it is God’s subversive activity to tell us to stand with them. God always stands on the side of the poor and asks us to do the same.

Yet, the Church not only celebrates today the unlikely choice of Mary as the Mother of God but also her final destiny – her being taken up into heaven to reign as Queen of the saints. Mary says, ‘from now on all generations will call me blessed’ – not just because she was involved in chapter one of the Gospel but because she faithfully follows Christ through all his ministry. She ponders the truth of the Gospel in her heart and can therefore be called the first and Mother of all Christians. She stands at the foot of the Cross and shares in the anguish of her Son as he brings the work of salvation to its climax – how could she forget Simeon’s haunting prophecy, ‘a sword will pierce your own heart also’. She remained faithful after the Crucifixion and, although the Gospels fail to give us any detail, was reunited with her Son on the Day of Resurrection and remained in prayer with the Apostles and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today is the Easter of the Summer – the day we rejoice that Mary, who remained faithful to her Son throughout his ministry, has shared in the fullness of the resurrection. In Our Lady, we see the destiny of our human nature! We will be like Christ, with Mary, in glory, crowned with grace – this is the final destination of the pilgrim people of God and the assumption is proof that Jesus is faithful to his promise that he prepares a dwelling place for the human family in his Father’s house.

So, today, on this great solemnity of the Church – we have a twofold reason to rejoice! We rejoice because God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; what is poor in the world to shame the rich – that God always stands on our side, in all our vulnerability and sin.  And we rejoice because God has in store for us more than we can ask or imagine – a room in the Father’s mansion, a crown of glory – a heavenly country where we will be swept up with Our Lady into the life of the eternal Trinity.

Mary, assumed into heaven, Queen of the Saints, pray for the pilgrim Church on earth!

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The Basilica of the Assumption on Mount Zion

St. Dominic | ‘Il Santo Atleta’

Born at Calaruega in Castile, of the ancient Guzman family in 1170, Dominic became an Augustinian or Austin Friar and led a disciplined life of prayer and penance. He became prior in 1201 but three years later, whilst on a trip to Denmark with his bishop, he passed through France and came across Cathars or Albigenses. They claimed to be Christians but held the heterodox belief that flesh and material things were evil, that the spirit was of God and that flesh and spirit were in permanent conflict. Dominic formed an Order of Preachers to combat this belief, although he would have nothing to do with the vengeful Crusade that began to be waged against the Albigenses. The Dominican Order spread to many countries in just a few years and did much to maintain the credibility of the orthodox faith in late-mediæval Europe. Dominic died on this day (August 8th) at Bologna in 1221.          – from Exciting Holiness

iturgaiz 01.jpgDante’s Paradisio speaks of my great name saint, Dominic, not only as a great preacher of the gospel or as a highly educated man but as a force of nature: ‘Then with both learning and zeal and with the apostolic office, he went forth like a torrent driven from a high spring.’ Dominic’s own friends and hearers recognised this torrential force during his own lifetime – one witness at the canonisation process remarked that Dominic was ‘so enthusiastic as a preacher that by day and by night, in churches, houses, fields, on the road, everywhere, he wanted to preach the word of the Lord and he encouraged the brethren to do the same and not to talk about anything except God.’ His compassion and desire to speak to people about God extended far beyond just the faithful, Dominic reached out ‘to pagans and unbelievers and even the damned in hell, and he wept a great deal for them.’

Santo Domingo, as he is known in Spanish, clearly possessed a strong instinct for adventure – Dante again calls him ‘il santo atleta’, the holy athlete. No matter how difficult or unforeseen the challenge of the hour, he was not afraid to take enormous risks for the sake of the Gospel. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that within a few years it could be said of the young friars (known as Dominicans) who followed in his wake, and whom he himself had sent far and wide to preach the gospel, that they had made the ocean their cloister.

When people think about Dominicans we often think about purely intellectual men, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. There is some truth in this; St. Dominic put a previously unseen focus on the place of study in the religious life – seeing it as the central and sacred task of his order, not as merely one facet of consecrated life. However, neither St. Dominic nor the friars who bear his name are detached intellectuals – their studies were shaped by the needs of the Church and of individuals. When St. Dominic founded his order, Cathars were spreading a dualistic (and heretical) understanding of the faith and Dominic recognised the need for a new order of religious to address the spiritual needs of large cities. The Dominican focus on study was a response to this crisis – not an attempt to become distant, learned monks in a cloister – but to care for the souls of faithful Christians by teaching them the Catholic faith.

As an ordinand who bears St. Dominic’s name with great pride, it is this twofold charism of the risk-taking, adventurous friar and the loving pastor who responds to the needs of the Church that I hope to imbibe. In Dominic we see a man fully alive in Christ, fired by grace to take bold risks for the sake of the Gospel and to guide and inspire the flock of Christ with the faith of the apostles. This is a model for the Church today: a learning Church, which knows its theology and can answer the questions and challenges of a sceptical world; and a passionate, adventurous Church, which is unafraid to speak about God to all who will listen and take risks to reach out to the world in love.

May God inspire the Church afresh with the example of St. Dominic and strengthen her with his unfailing intercession. Amen.

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On Everyday Sainthood

There was once a great Saint who, realising that God was calling him to a life of silent contemplation, became a hermit in a cave in the wilderness and hoped to live out his calling in mystical communion with God. Eventually, as the world so often All-Saints-for-Podcastdoes, he was forced out of his quiet retreat and founded a monastery to house all the people that sought him out for spiritual direction. After years of austere monastic life, with the recitation of the Daily Office, celebration of the Divine Eucharist and being profligate in all good works, he asks God a simple question, ‘Lord, am I the holiest man in all the world?’ God responds with a visionary experience, and he is taken in the Spirit to the local city, where he is guided to look through a window and he sees a humble, unintelligent and simple old man washing and preparing vegetables for dinner, as he did everyday. And God said to him, in the Spirit, ‘Behold, the holiest man in all the world.’ 

I am grateful for Fr. Robert who preached in Little St. Mary’s, Cambridge about this story recently, as it has sparked all sorts of reflection and prayer for me on the nature of sainthood and the call to sanctity which all Christians share. The story is a stark reminder that holiness is not the preserve of the religious elite; of those who devoutly pray the office or who devote all their time and study to holy things. Sanctity belongs, by God’s grace, to the ordinary people who, often in quiet ways, show something of God’s loving grace and kindness to the world. Of course, the Daily Offices and the Mass are sanctifying but God does not restrict his sanctifying power to those who, let’s be honest, often by luck, are able to participate in the holy things of the Church. If, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, God is an artist and we are his works of art (Eph. 2.10), then all people are masterpieces of that cosmic artist from whom all being and beauty flow. In often quiet and unrecognised ways a myriad people go about revealing the holiness and love and grace of God. In the midst of messy, complicated human lives, a little of the divine light shines out and illuminates the world. They are like fireworks who, although of incalculable diversity, each bear witness to a different aspect of the One who sets them alight. We see this in those named saints who we know and love: in Mary’s sacrificial love we see a glimpse of God’s love for us; in St. Joseph’s faithfulness to Jesus and Mary we begin to comprehend God’s faithfulness; and the list could go on, but God is also manifest in the lives of countless thousands who remain unnamed and who have touched our lives personally.

I think of the stories told about my great grandmother, Nora Herron, whose self-sacrificing, practical faithfulness to the Church, her family and to the Lord whom she loved with childlike simplicity of heart, bears witness to the God who created her and called her and in whose arms she will dwell for eternity. There are glimpses of holiness all around us, we need only open our eyes and see. I often think to myself that Nora’s daughter, my nana, Maureen, reveals something of the tender love of God when she prepares the altar for the Wednesday Mass on Tuesday evenings. With devotion and gentleness, she lays out the sacred vessels and prepares the cloths, ensuring everything is perfect, not with irritable fastidiousness but with pure love for the One for whose revealing this altar is prepared. Open your eyes and the holiness of God is alive in the world around us, as well as in that glorious company who surround our steps from heaven. It this vast innumerable company of which it is said ‘the world is not worthy’, they are strangers and sojourners in this world, although fully committed to it, as their true home is with God eternally and they reveal something of the world to which their citizenship belongs in the everyday comings and goings of their life.

There is no criteria of perfection to be a saint, so if we’re looking for perfect people as examples of living saints, we will be looking forever. Saints, living and departed, are those in whom God’s glory is manifest and visible: I would count my dearly departed great grandmother in their company, as well as countless others who have challenged, inspired and enkindled my faith by revealing something of God to me. We profess Sunday by Sunday that the essence of our faith is that God the Son took flesh in Jesus Christ, and he continues to become incarnate in his disciples today but, if we believe that the Son of God could be found in a stable, homeless in Nazareth or even on a cross, we must be prepared to look for those in whom he incarnates himself today in very unlikely places. In our local shop, in the homeless shelter, on the sofa next to us, and even, despite everything, in our churches.

May all the Saints, known and unknown, pray for us
That we to might be made worthy of the promises of Christ

Of your charity, dear reader, pray for the soul of Nora Herron, a practical saint.