Homilies – December 2013
CHRISTMAS, 24/25 DECEMBER 2013
ST CHRISTOPHER’S CATHEDRAL
ISAIAH 9/1-6, Ps96, TITUS 2/11-14, LUKE 2/1-14
His name will be “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace … His dominion is vast and forever peaceful”
This is the promise of the First Reading from Isaiah. The fulfillment of this promise is not a military or political victory; it is not a philosophy or new technique; it is not a way of making more money or becoming more powerful – it is a person – a tiny and vulnerable baby – It is Jesus, the Lord.
Perhaps it is the Gospel of Luke (1/68-79) that best expresses the fulfillment of this promise most eloquently in the incarnation of Jesus amongst us at Bethlehem – that first Christmas night.
We hear the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, speak of the ways of the Lord by proclaiming:
…”the loving kindness of the heart of our God who visits us like the dawn from on high. He will give light to those in darkness, and those who dwell in the shadow of death, and guide us into the way of peace.”
When I reflect on the “loving kindness” of our wonderful God in sending His Only Son, Jesus, into our humanity, I think of three words:
The first word is GRACE.
The second reading today states that “the grace of God has appeared saving all”. In Australia, we have just concluded a Year of Grace. Grace is all God’s loving actions towards us. They are free, gracious, and eternal. God never stops coming to us – regardless of our response. Our Year of Faith has taught us again to open our hearts to God’s loving grace.
When we do this, we are overwhelmed with the tenderness of God. The child Jesus is the tenderness of God himself for us. The most appropriate response to this grace of Godly tenderness is silence. From silence in the divine presence comes reverence. There is also the experience of awe and wonder. This is how Moses felt. This is how Sts Peter and Paul felt. God is tender light and we, who live in the shadows of selfishness and sin, are bathed in this soft and loving light. True conversion means to turn to this graced light. Let us turn in silence in our hearts now to Jesus, our saving Christmas light (silence).
I think it is children who do this best. Over the years I have observed how children respond to being in the presence of the Christmas crib. They are usually fascinated by it. They seem mesmerized by the Christmas figures in the crib. Sometimes they would like to go close to the crib and even seem to want to re-arrange the figures there – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and wise men, the animals – and, of course, the baby Jesus. Like Mary, they seem to want to hold Jesus in their arms and kiss him.
In our own hearts today, let us be like these children. Let us do this kind of “Godly play”. Let us see ourselves in the Christmas story. Not that we are to re-arrange the Christmas personalities to our own wishes. Let them re-arrange us. Let us learn from their humility, reverence and hope.
The second word is JOY.
Joy is why I like Christmas trees. In Psalm 96 we hear “the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord who comes.” When a tree is all festooned with decorations it says to our eyes that it is full of joy and happiness. May we be the same. Somebody once told me that the word JOY can mean J for JESUS, O for OVER, and Y for YOU. When we truly believe that “Jesus is over you / us” then we have discovered the true meaning of JOY. Let us start with our face and – SMILE – a smile that comes from deep within.
Yes, let us be joyful this day. Jesus in not simply over us, but in us and works with us and through us – as we say in the doxology of the Mass. Let us give Jesus, therefore, glory and praise with all our hearts.
Another aspect of joy comes to my heart too. The Christmas Angel said to the shepherds in today’s Gospel, “I proclaim to you good news of great JOY that will be for all the people.” These four last words are so important – “… for all the people.” It is not just for your own family or just this large community gathered in St Christopher’s – but for ALL the people. So those here present that are not practicing Catholics, not Christians or not even believers – you are so very welcome amongst us! Just as the star that first Christmas night shone on ALL creation, may the joy of Christmas shine on all peoples and all creation in our complex and troublesome world of families, communities and societies. We pray for the peace of Christmas to shine on all creation and bring joy into our sadness.
The third word is HOPE.
May Christmas light also shine hope on our world, especially for the poor and marginalized. As Pope Francis says, the poor have the face of Jesus on their faces. To meet the suffering poor in reverence and charity is to meet Jesus.
In regard to suffering, there are subtle indications in the Christmas story that a point of arrival has happened this Bethlehem night but a point of departure is about to happen. There is the hint of future danger and suffering but always filled with the hope that Jesus will be with us on our pilgrimage of life. Not only that he will be with us but that he will be leading this hopeful struggle till he comes again at the end of time.
There is the detail in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was “wrapped in swaddling clothes.” The swaddling clothes remind us of “linen cloths” (Lk 24/12) in the empty tomb after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus 33 years later. They also remind us of the “sparkling white” (Lk.9/29) clothing that he wore at the Transfiguration which anticipated a kind of Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. It is not too often that we receive information about the clothing Jesus wore. But these references help us to see that his birth was just the beginning of a pilgrimage that would involve suffering and death, but also resurrection and a kind of second birth of our merciful King of Kings.
So the newborn baby of Bethlehem gives us hope. There will be birth, death but birth again and the hope of eternal life to those who live in Jesus.
So, as we continue with our Christmas Mass, let us live in Jesus like never before. Christmas is our time to start or renew our personal relationship with Jesus – today as he comes as a vulnerable and humble babe in a “manger” – which is a symbol of the Eucharist. A manger is a feeding trough for animals. From the first beginnings of Christianity, Jesus is seen as giving us food. In every Eucharist this ancient belief continues. Jesus gives us his very Body and Blood in this Eucharist to nourish us, to give us His grace, joy and hope.
Let us, therefore, drink and eat deeply from the well of eternal life this Christmas day.
From the depth of my heart where ONLY JESUS dwells, Happy Christmas to you all!
SUNDAY 15 DECEMBER 2013
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT (YEAR A)
ST CHRISTOPHER’S CATHEDRAL
Isaiah 35:1-6, 10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11: 2-11
Today throughout the Catholic world this Sunday is designated as Gaudete Sunday. It is a word meaning “Rejoice”. It’s the first word that comes in the entrance antiphon at this Mass; a rose candle is lit for the Advent wreath; and often around the world rose vestments are worn.
In the midst of our pilgrimage now towards Christmas we rejoice in the coming presence of the Lord Jesus at Bethlehem.
One crucial aspect of today’s readings to recall as we rejoice in the Lord’s coming is that the Lord comes in unexpected ways.
In the first reading from Isaiah we find that we are to rejoice and exult because the wasteland will bloom! Then it is mentioned weary hands will be strengthened! The eyes of the blind shall be opened! The ears of the deaf unsealed! The lame will leap like a deer! The tongues of the dumb will sing for joy!
All these causes for rejoicing are completely unexpected. Who would have thought that this would happen to those who the rest of the world would be described as carrying a condition for the rest of their life that would be extremely difficult. However, in the midst of this scenario comes the unexpected joy that the hearts will be made joyful in the Lord no matter what their difficult situation is.
In the Gospel, a similar aspect of the unexpected Lord coming at a time and a place that we knew not of is present here too.
When the messenger from John the Baptist comes to the Lord to ask him “Are you the one or do we have to wait for somebody else?” Jesus tells him to go back and tell John all the unexpected joy that is happening in his presence………..! The blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Again, the hallmark of the presence of God is that the unexpected will happen.
Next week we will hear not just of John the Baptist but we also hear of Mary. We will hear of the unexpected way in which she cooperates with the impulse of joy of the Holy Spirit coming into our lives.
A key phrase in this Gospel today is that we are not to lose hope but to be strong in expectant faith for “the God of perpetual surprises” as Pope Francis phrases it. We see this in the beautiful phrase “happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”.
As we approach Christmas let us too be ready to expect the unexpected. This is the Sunday were we make a real attitudinal change towards Christmas. If our hearts are not expecting the unexpected from the Lord then, when it does happen in practical ways, how will we see this as a filter of God coming through our lives?
When we begin to see an attitude that expects the unexpected from God then Christmas will not be a burden but will indeed be a joy. When we see the face of Jesus on the face of the poor and marginalised and those who find Christmas a great difficulty for all sorts of reasons, then we can become a real instrument of God’s joy to them. Indeed, rather then we giving the poor something, we will discover that it is the poor that are giving us something – someone, Jesus
It is very easy as Christmas approaches to get caught up with the material side and to diminish the spiritual side of our preparations.
But the spiritual preparations at this time is a preparation of the heart. Opening our hearts to the joy and the presence of Jesus makes us aware that even now we can be building bridges and knocking down walls in our family relationships and the relationships that we have with the wider community and in our society.
Let us think carefully about these matters as Christmas approaches. Let us be like Saint John the Baptist and repent and believe in the Good News……. and prepare a way for the Lord!
PRIESTLY ORDINATION OF LUKE VERRELL
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 13TH 2013
ST CHRISTOPHER’S CATHEDRAL, CANBERRA
JEREMIAH 1:4-10, PSALM 96, 2 CORINTHIANS 4:1-2, 5-7, MATTHEW 20:25b-28
Welcome to the Ordination of Deacon Luke John Verrell here at St Christopher’s Cathedral. We welcome in particular his parents Pauline and John and his brother Sean and wife Kelly and sister, Claire and husband Dennis and their three children Luke, Laura and John.
Let us pray that God’s blessing will come upon not only Deacon Luke in this Ordination Ceremony to the Priesthood but also we pray that there will be an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life as we celebrate this important Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Well dear Luke, the moment of your Priestly Ordination has finally arrived! I do want you to feel our love and prayerfulness surrounding you at this moment. Your good example, please God, will help all of us to see more deeply the vocation God has given each one. We pray for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn.
When I think of God’s work in your life, dear Luke, I can discern at least three distinct phases in your life towards the Priesthood.
These three phases come together in Christ in this Mass. Your Ordination happens at the end of the Year of Grace and the Year of Faith. And yet, grace and faith continues in your life and we see it in your life from a very early age.
The first distinct phase in your life is surely that which comes from own family background. In welcoming your dear parents, Pauline and John, both English immigrants to this new country of Australia, we thank God for their generosity in nurturing you in our Catholic culture from your earliest moments.
In regard to the Year of Grace, we see Grace so much in your life. We are reminded of this from the first reading from Jeremiah 1:4. Here the Prophet speaks of God who says to us “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you came to birth I consecrated you.” Dear Luke, God has known you and consecrated you even before you were first thought of Christianity let alone the priesthood. But this grace particularly came to a deep awareness in your life in your adolescence. A particular key moment in feeling the grace of God stir profoundly within you was during the times when you were in deep prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in your parish of St Gregory’s Queanbeyan. During those times of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament you prayed in silence very often with the Missionary of Charity Sisters. They showed a special interest in you those days. It is almost as if they could feel God calling you to the priesthood before you had consciously thought of it yourself. These days of silence before the Blessed Sacrament were turning points for you. You felt deep in your heart that God has a plan for you.
It has been a long road in responding in faith to this grace of God calling you to something very special and deep within you a vocation to the priesthood.
After your two years at the University of Canberra once you finished your secondary schooling at St Edmund’s here in Canberra you then moved away from a professional career and spent two years as a labourer. You were searching for something that really gave meaning and purpose in your life. You were looking for Jesus without even consciously realising it. But of course, like “The Hound of Heaven”, Jesus has always taken the initiative in your life at the deepest levels of your humanity.
It reminds me of a story a Bishop friend of mine told when I was with him in Sri Lanka a few years ago. As a young boy his hobby was kite flying. One day as he was flying his kite a low dense cloud covered the sky. Unexpectedly the kite itself, although flying in the wind, became lost in the dense cloud. Down below he couldn’t see the kite but he knew it was still flying. Somebody came up the future Bishop and enquired as to how he could believe there was a kite up there when he couldn’t see it. As a young boy he made this response which touched me deeply. He said that although he couldn’t see the kite, every now and then the kite gave a little tug on the string and it registered in the fingers around which the string was wound. He knew the kite was still there, even without seeing it.
Luke, God in your life, even if you haven’t seen him directly, has been tugging gently on the strings of your heart for many years and we have slowly but surely co-discerned with you that this is a call to the Priesthood which you are now opening yourself up to in the Sacrament.
You have been helped immensely by what you describe as the three pillars in your life. The pillars of your family, and then of your parish, and also special people that have come into your life. We thank God for these three pillars and ask that they continue to strengthen you in the years ahead.
One particular way of God “tugging the strings of your heart” towards the priesthood was the way that you felt so much at peace when you began to work with the poor. Whether it was homeless refugees, giving classes at a Sunday School, or visiting those in prison, you felt very much at peace in being the Christ light to them. As a matter of fact, even two days ago, when I visited the Alexander Maconachie Prison, one of the prisoners spontaneously asked me after you. I was able proudly to say I would be ordaining Deacon Luke on the Friday night to the priesthood He wanted to be remembered to you. He wanted me to thank you for the time that you gave him with your listening skills.
You above all Luke, are conscious that anything you have to offer, is done in the light of the second reading, by the earthenware jar of your life! The second reading from 2 Corinthians 4, we are reminded of the universal Christian awareness that it is “not ourselves that we are preaching, but Jesus Christ as the Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. … we are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us.”
Luke, you are very much aware of this. From this comes a deep humility which I pray will always be with you in your ministry. The Priesthood does not tolerate well egoisms or arrogance. Following on from the great example of our present pope, Pope Francis, may you always serve mercifully God’s poor in the measure that you yourself have received God’s merciful care in the various poverties of your own life.
The second great distinct phase in your life towards the Priesthood has surely been your experience in the Seminary and your life as a Deacon over these times.
You went to the Seminary at Good Shepherd Seminary in 2005. Most of the ten seminarians that started with you are still on the way to the Priesthood or have already been ordained.
Through your study and prayer life and spiritual formation you have grown in your awareness in your life that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. You are beginning to understand more than before that to be fully Jesus to others is to be fully yourself to others. You comment by saying “I become more Christ like and I also become more Luke-like.” This is a great way of expressing what I have just said. But it is Jesus incarnating himself in you slowly but surely. Not only in this sacrament but in the years ahead as a Priest I pray that every day you surrender your life truly to Jesus so that you can become more Luke -like and at the very same time, more like Christ. May you always be a slave of Jesus. Learning from today’s Gospel passage that “anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must first be their slave, just as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Dear Luke, serve Jesus fully in the Priesthood. Priestly service must always be characterised by mercy and must never be a Priesthood wanting to be served but only to serve.
The third distinct phase in your life towards the Priesthood is your own reflections on the Priesthood itself.
Although we hear so much of our wonderful Pope Francis, I hope we don’t forget about the wonderful example of Priesthood that His Holiness Benedict XVI has given us even this year. He has given us a great example of being the servant Priest.
I have studied over the years many teachings about what Pope Benedict has said about the Priesthood, the one that remains with me at the moment in regard to your ordination is that when Pope Benedict says that in the Priesthood “The HE becomes the I.”
By this he means that when we celebrate the sacraments as priests we say “This is my body, this is my blood. We do not say this is the body and blood of Jesus. When we absolve in the Sacrament of the Reconciliation we do not say Jesus absolves you from your sin. We say “I absolve you from your sin.” In baptism for example, we say “I baptize you”. We do not say Jesus baptizes you.
In all these examples the Priest becomes the other Christ. The He becomes the I. I think this is a marvellous insight which I ask you to reflect on deeply. And I ask all the Priests and Seminarians to do the same. In fact all of us must understand that the Priest is not some sort of celebrity or community leader in the sense that they entertain. It’s not about me, it’s not about my Priesthood. It’s about the Priesthood of Christ working through the Priest. You and I are only the poor imitations of Jesus the High Priest, and victim.
With these three pillars in mind we thank God for all that has happened to bring you to this point in your life, dear Luke. And we pray this new chapter of your life which now begins will be continued to be written in the ink of the Eucharistic blood of Jesus Christ. May you always find a letter of love and mercy to God’s people in this blood ink and may you always feel the ecclesial community supporting you in Jesus’ name.
May all the Saints of God especially Mary and St Lucy, whose feast it is today, lead you to Jesus. St Lucy is the great Saint of Sicily in Southern Italy. The name “Lucy” is derived from the word Light. May you always be a light of Christ to wherever the Bishop sends you as a Priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn. And may that light be only the light that shines through you from Jesus our Lord and Saviour and the Light of the world.
May this Christmas light lead you and others to adore the Child Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem? As you yourself heard the call of the Priesthood most eloquently by the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in your parish church so many years ago, may you always draw strength from Christ within you. In adoring him, loving him and serving him, may you find your true identity and draw others into the greatest relationship all of us can ever imagine – a personal encounter with the risen Lord who then sends us out to the whole world as missionaries of light in the darkness of our times.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT (YEAR A)
SUNDAY 1 DECEMBER 2013
ST CHRISTOPHER’S CATHEDRAL, CANBERRA
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Gospel Matthew 24:37-44
So today we begin our new liturgical year. It is the year of Matthew. It is also the first day of summer.
But most importantly, it is the beginning of the Advent season as we move towards the great feast of Christmas. Advent is a liturgical season of hope, waiting, repentance and conversion. It’s a little like the famine before the great feast of Christmas.
Despite all the temptations to think otherwise, the Church is calling us to convert afresh to the living Lord and to meet him in the humble stable at Bethlehem. In the lead up to Christmas in Australia this is not without its great difficulties as we all know.
Indeed, as I was listening to the Canberra TV news the other night I heard a report saying that over the next few weeks people in Canberra will spend over $700,000,000 on gifts for Christmas. This is quite an achievement given there is about 370,000 people in Canberra itself.
We all agree that giving gifts is important but there must be perimeters around this gift giving. Let us consider the real giving that is to take place in this Advent season.
One thing that I have noticed about the working Holy Spirit, is that the Holy Spirit does not like us remaining in some sort of ‘comfort zone’ in our life. Three months ago I would never have thought that I would be now be preaching to you as your Archbishop in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn. The Lord has really dragged me out of my comfort zone. It appears that the Holy Spirit does this to all of us in different ways.
In our comfort zones we become very complacent and everything becomes a routine. We all like that. We find change difficult. We need to rest because we’re tired.
However the scriptures say something quite different. In the gospel today Jesus makes reference to Noah. He was certainly taken out of his comfort zone! When all his contemporaries were enjoying life and having a good time he went against the tide and began building an ark. Can you imagine the ridicule he must have received from others for doing this.? Could you imagine building an ark here in Canberra thinking that a major tsunami was soon to take place! Yet in hindsight now we praise Noah for his obedience to the word of God. He certainly did not remain in any comfort zone of his!
Let us remember out basic Catholic belief that we are in between the two comings of Jesus Christ. We know that Christ has come into the world and we live in faith in his death and resurrection. But we Catholics also say that Christ will come again. We are in the” in between time”. This “in between time” doesn’t allow for comfort zones or being locked into some spiritual or physical routine.
The first reading speaks about movement, about going to the temple of God. It says “come let us go, go up to the mountain of the Lord”. It tells the house of Jacob to “come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” It’s all dynamic images. There are no static images here.
The second reading also reminds us to wake up. It says “you know the time has come you must wake up now our salvation is even nearer than it was when we were first converted”. So its all about waiting for the dawn, waiting for the Lord Jesus, its all about going out to meet the Lord. It is a call to conversion and attentiveness – a wake up call!
How can we do that in Advent? How can we allow the scriptures today to help our everyday life?
Firstly I think Advent must happen in everybody’s heart. There must be tenderness and forgiveness. The kindness and mercy a God expects because this is the type of love Jesus has given us. We must end the bitterness of our heart in this Advent season.
If this happens, there must be some practical expressions, flowing from such ‘heart’ conversion. We must be bridge builders and peacemakers. Every family has their ‘skeletons’. But it is Advent. This is the time to make a commitment to heal the diseases of family life and societal life. Have you ever thought of telephoning up or writing to people in your family or friends you are estranged from? Have you ever thought to mend some of the “fences” in relationships, family and everyday life? Rather than spend all this money on presents just for ourselves and our immediate families, have we thought of really giving some special gifts to those who are poor and marginalised? For many Christmas is a day that is dreaded rather than longed for.
I recall years ago as a seminarian when I worked for a short time for the St Vincent de Paul Society. I often got a shock with the responses of people. One of my duties with others was to sort out the clothes and food stuffs that people gave to the poor. Do you realise we normally had to throw out 70% of the clothes that people gave us. There were torn shirts and shoes were given with holes in them. It was people just giving their rubbish to the poor. But when we give to the poor we give to the Lord Jesus. The face of Jesus is on the face of the poor. We must give the best to the poor. So can I strongly recommend to all of us, think about the heart and the practical acts of charity that must take place over the next weeks. Let us pause for a moment in silence and make some resolutions during this Mass so that we can leave the Church today having a real Advent attitude in our hearts and determine to make this period before Christmas both reflected and practical in the way it reaches out to the lost ones.