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Friday, 30 December 2016

Mary Mother of God 2016

Mary, Mother of God (2016)

If, in the spirit of faith, we look closely at Mary’s life as mother in the Holy Family we can learn so very, very, much of the true nature and sublime secret of Christian holiness -- the holiness that alone can assuage the deepest of our human longings and fulfil the most sublime of our human aspirations – because, in Nazareth, Mary shared life with Jesus the Son of God, and that is, precisely, the essence of holiness, life shared with God: which means God’s love actively guiding and ruling us in our daily living.  Let us therefore try to look more attentively at, and learn more deeply from, Mary as the Gospels show her as mother in the Holy Family at Nazareth.
The first essential point to notice is that Mary worked for the Child, constantly and diligently.  However, she would have made nothing of that, considering it to be both her sublime privilege and joyous duty: and in truth, those works were not really hers but rather His because they were totally evoked by, and done simply and solely out of, love for Him.  And in this -- the most basic aspect of her life in the Holy Family at Nazareth – Mary, by so selflessly loving Jesus in and above all things, totally reversed the primeval self-seeking of Eve and trod down most heavily upon the Serpent’s head.   Here, Mary our model, is totally unique and uniquely deserving of all the gratitude, admiration, and love, of all faithful Catholics and Christians and of all, perhaps unknown but truly devoted, children and servants of God in Jesus.
Equally important is it, however, for us to note how Mary watched Jesus, for that watching led her to ever greater admiration of, and delight in, her Child; and by thus loving and delighting in Him she -- unknown to herself -- grew spiritually with her Child.  In this respect, as she loved Jesus above all things, Mary is again the supreme model for all Christians, but also our individual, personal, inspiration … human pride has no place here.  Here we can turn to and invoke Mary’s help in all our earthly needs and spiritual struggles for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth and for the establishment of Jesus’ Gospel as the norm and rule in our individual lives.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, growth in holiness is of supreme importance, but we should understand it aright.   Holiness belongs to God alone, it is His gift exclusively, we cannot follow any discipline, any course of study, any code of ascetical practices, that will make us holy; the best we can do is seek to suitably prepare ourselves for receiving and embracing that gift of God should He, in His great mercy and goodness, ever choose to bestow it upon us.  Our holiness is nothing other than a sharing – in Jesus and by the Spirit -- in God’s life, and, as such, can only be received, not obtained; and even then, because it is not a commodity that can be knowingly accepted like a Christmas gift, we can only receive a share in God’s life in so far as we humbly and faithfully co-operate with God, try to be with God, in our daily moment-to-moment living and loving.  In order to grow in holiness, we must work and watch as did Mary, and with her help.
Working with Mary for Jesus -- doing for Him whatever is required by or adapted to our state of life and seems recommended to us by His Spirit within us -- is not, however, to become a conscious multiplication of good deeds done.  Mary would have done all her household jobs simply for love of Him, loving Him in all things; and, as I insisted, she would have forgotten all about them once done.  There can be no doubt about this; for, after all, did not Jesus teach His apostles:
Does (the master) thank the servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.' (Luke 17:9-10)
This question of meritorious good works was one of the burning questions at the Reformation, when Luther and his followers were loudly asserting that we are saved by faith alone.  The Catholic tradition was and is that our faith has to prove itself, or show its reality, by good works; but those good works are only possible for us thanks to God’s grace: they contribute to our salvation but they are for God’s glory more than ours.  Mary, at home in Nazareth would do her full round of jobs for the Child in all his needs, her thirty-years-long round, gladly …. And, having done them, she would never give them a second thought.   Jesus was her all, and she was all for Him; for all else she trusted absolutely in God’s good, loving, and gracious Providence!   Any thoughts, solicitude, about herself would have been a betrayal!
Hezekiah – one of Israel’s famous, good, kings – fearing that he was going to die when still quite young, appealed to the Lord with prayer and tears, both of which came spontaneously.  That was not all, however, he also came up with something he had thought about, a reminder to God of the good things he had done:
I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.
When the Lord replied, however, He alluded only to the prayer and the tears:
Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will add to your days fifteen years. (Isaiah 38:5)
The prayer and the tears would be answered not because Hezekiah had done so much for God, but because He, the Lord, was faithful: faithful to the promise He had given to ‘David your father’.
Hezekiah, in his self-solicitude, had not truly understood that our good works are themselves a gift from God: it is a privilege to be chosen to do something in the name of God, on behalf of God; but be very careful about saying that it was done for God.  We might do it for family, for the poor, for some Charity, for the Church, but never should we do-things-for-God in that sense.  He calls, chooses us, He gives us the opportunity to do some work by His grace  for His ultimate purposes and for our own blessing and honour, but not for Him as though He would, in any way, be left indebted to us:
Who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)
In Mary we have the perfect model for our work.  In the home at Nazareth we are shown both the necessity and the importance of work, for Mary’s work nurtured the Child and made the house a home for Him, sustaining both Him and Joseph in their labours; but that work was an expression of her love, for her it had no meaning or importance other than love, nothing of itself to think about or boast of.
It is time for us now to turn our attention to watching with Mary.
It is St. John (to whose care Jesus committed His mother from His Cross on Calvary) who speaks most clearly of the sublimely close connection between that watching with love, that observing with delight, – which we have noted in Mary herself -- and holiness, which as I have said, is nothing other than our sharing life with God, our sharing in God’s own life:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2)
That is Catholic and Christian holiness: we shall -- John teaches -- be like God, that is, we shall be truly holy, when and because we can see Him as He is.  Holiness is not something to be ambitiously desired, nor can it be earned or acquired by any number of good works of whatever sort; it is the unnoticed flowing over us and into us of the beauty, truth, and goodness we have come to see and to appreciate in God.
In their home at Nazareth, Mary saw Jesus as He was, she glimpsed Him, that is, not only in His sublimity, but she observed Him also in His needs: wanting comfort, guidance, and help in His earlier years, tired, hungry as He grew older; and therefore Mary both worked to help Him and watched for love of Him.
In His subsequent Public Ministry Jesus taught us, through His dear friends Martha and Mary, the necessity of and the true relationship between that work and watching so perfectly exemplified and lived out daily over thirty years by His beloved Mother.  Martha, for her part, would be so absorbed working hard as she tried to satisfy Jesus’ needs -- as she saw them -- that she found insufficient time to sit quietly and learn from His teaching; Mary, on the other hand, ever watching, would allow herself to be drawn to Jesus’ feet and by listening there to His words learn how to know and love Him more, while – without any shame (to her sister’s great irritation!) -- relying on Martha’s work to help Jesus’ material needs (and her own as it would turn out on this occasion!).
In Jesus’ mother alone could work give full expression to her present love without impeding her watchful admiration and ever-unsatisfied hunger and longing to know and love Him better; her’s was a totally selfless gazing upon, and opening-up to, the loveableness and love of Him Who was for her and is for us the very source and summit of Life and Love.  
As might have been expected with teaching so important, so essential, this had been foreshadowed by inspired words of the Psalmist, for example:
Delight yourself in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.   Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.  Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him. (Psalm 37:4-7)
Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honour him. (Psalm 91:14-15)
Now, our watching is somewhat different from that of Mary, for we are, most of the time, not directly watching Jesus, so much as watching-out for Jesus.  The calm, up-welling, joy which characterized Mary’s watching of her Child can only very occasionally be ours, for we need to lovingly search, perseveringly pray, and patiently wait in order to perchance discover and experience something of the Personal presence of the Lord; and, even in such privileged instants, His presence to us is in no way so immediate as was that of the Infant, the Youth, and the grown Man, to Mary.  In this we are part of the living Church which is, likewise, always seeking for greater appreciation of, and conformity to, the fullness of the maturity of Christ.  There is never any absolute and complete certitude concerning God’s message and its meaning, and that is because God’s message is for all peoples of all times; consequently, no one age, culture, or people, can know the fullness of God’s Being and Providence, for each age is historically conditioned by circumstances and situations that are temporal and changing. That, however, is no detriment to us: for the fact that there is no cast-iron mould, no totally comprehended pattern or procedure, allows each and every one of us to appreciate and exercise our God-given freedom; for each and every individual has a personal destiny and calling to find God in his or her own time and setting.
However, we are neither self-sufficient nor loners, and therefore, to help all of us fulfil our destiny and answer our calling Jesus has bequeathed His Spirit to us in Mother Church, where we all are given teaching that is unique in both its certainty and comprehensiveness, along with sacramental grace that is divine in its purpose and power (especially that of Baptism and the Eucharist) whilst being adapted to, and readily available in, all our human situations and needs. Within those parameters of Mother Church’s teaching and God’s dispensation of grace, each of us is empowered, called, and guided, to find ourselves before God, to fulfil our individual destiny and calling, by interpreting our personal experience of life with an understanding gained from the Scriptures, which remain today what they were for the original People of God, the disciples’ supreme locus for vital contact of mind and heart with God the Father revealing Himself to us, and calling us back to Himself, in His Son and by His Spirit, through those  sacred pages.
Looking back again at Mary in the hidden life at Nazareth, we can, therefore, learn how to go about our search for, and how to respond to, God in Jesus.  Just as Mary first and foremost loved and delighted in Jesus, so that it was her love for, her delighting in, Him that preceded and guided all her thinking, so too, we must always work and pray in Mother Church, lovingly search and reverently study the Scriptures, look at and try to rightly interpret God’s great goodness to us personally throughout our lives; but all with one supreme purpose, and one overriding hope, in mind: that of being enabled thereby to recognize, appreciate, and love our God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- ever more truly, ever more fully.  
We should totally admire, and whole-heartedly aspire to, the model Mary affords us as she worked for and watched Jesus when He was on earth.  As regards our own work, we should forget all about it once it is done; with the watching, on the contrary, we should notice and treasure every little detail! What a strange contradiction!!  Our working with Mary keeps fresh and wholesome what we already have; it is our watching with Mary, however, that opens us up to yet greater blessings God may still wish to bestow on us.
Work and forget, watch and treasure, such is Mary our Mother’s way; and may you, her Catholic children, thus learn to serve and come to delight in Jesus the Lord, our Saviour and God the Father’s Christmas gift to all!

Friday, 23 December 2016

Christmas 2016

Christmas 2016.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, in the course of our Advent preparation Mother Church bade us pray:

Lord, as we walk amid passing things, teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures.

In accordance with the spirit of that prayer I would like to bring to your mind this Christmas morning a very popular character of great importance to Christmas celebrations throughout the world: Father Christmas.  Even though there may be little attention given, in the media at least, to the Person of the Child Whose coming is so blatantly exploited in this season, Father Christmas is, on the other hand, to be seen everywhere feted, surrounded by wondering children, and being questioned about the gifts he is bringing … will his sack be big enough to hold, and his reindeer strong enough to carry, them all?   How the media love to plug Father Christmas and his gifts for the financial advantages such a presentation of Christmas rejoicing brings for their sponsors!
Practicing Christians rightly reject such a distortion of Christmas.  However, many of them, while rejecting the commercial Father Christmas, tend themselves to overlook the real Father of Christmas, the heavenly Father, and in so doing concoct another – admittedly much less objectionable -- distortion of Christmas, by smothering it with excessively human sentimentality centred exclusively on  the birth of the child and the joy of his mother.  You might have noticed that I have not emphasized ‘the child or his mother’, because the Catholics and Christians I have in mind celebrate Christmas much as they would any other mother and baby scenario, and in so doing seem to have no doubt that their emotional extravaganza is a fitting, contemporary, expression of that spirit of devotion which drove the Three Kings across desert wastes; indeed, of that  spirit of holiness which caused the angels from heaven to burst forth into joyful chorus and filled the hearts and minds of Mary and Joseph with wonderment and joy.
Now, whilst that extravaganza might possibly be considered acceptable piety for many who are otherwise preoccupied with the cares and distractions of the tumultuous world around them, it is certainly not satisfactory for those who have the desire, and even perhaps sense a kind of ‘calling’, to seek for themselves a deeper spiritual appreciation of the wonder and the beauty of this joyful season.
Father Christmas …. Father Christmas … I repeat the name, the sobriquet, because I am sure the world will never fail to remind you of him no matter how many future Christmas seasons may lie before you, and I would therefore like to draw some advantage from that very worldly fact in order in order to help you come to love more the things of heaven, by impressing upon your Catholic mind and Christian sensitivity the real, indeed the vital, connection between Father and Christmas.   Moreover, such a purpose is very much in tune with the character of authentic Christian Liturgy which, while recognizing, highlighting, and at times embracing human and worldly realities, always and above all savours, appreciates, and treasures heavenly ones.  As in the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of chaos and creation, still today, for God’s chosen ones, the Spirit of God can be experienced hovering over the world He brought into being, the world which is still recognizable as His creation and still able and ‘eager’ to bear witness to its Creator and Inspiration.
What is the essential character of Christmas?
Those sentimental Christians to whom I earlier referred would say that the beauty of Christmas, its ‘pulling-power’ so to speak, is centred on the Child of both wondrous beauty – which, of course, pulls at the heart strings of every mother -- and of soul-stirring innocence, which disarms all of us who are aware of sin in themselves and in the world around.  However, if we know ourselves well enough, we must admit that many other pictures of tranquil beauty and unstained innocence -- be they pastoral scenes or even perhaps pictures of wide-eyed puppies or playful kittens -- can stir up in us fleeting emotions of a similar nature.  The Christmas spirit must therefore lie deeper, indeed it must be something other than such openly emotional sentiments.
We are told, by the evangelists Matthew and Luke, of some who came in a spirit of joy and wonder to see the new-born Child:
The wise men set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the Child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they knelt down and paid Him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 
When the angels had left and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this Child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
However, the Wise Men and the shepherds, on leaving that scene of innocent and yet solemn beauty, seem to have returned to their former lives, for they are not to be encountered again in our Gospel story.  They admired, wondered at, the fact of Christ’s advent but did not realize its full significance, were not able to appreciate its depth of meaning and purpose.  We have, therefore, to find somehow a way that will lead us deeper than the wondrous beauty and peace of that manger scene, towards the eternal wisdom and divine truth hidden in the silent embrace of the as yet speechless Child and His adoring mother.
I remember when I was a classical singer that those audiences who burst out into immediate applause as soon as a musical item came to an end were not appreciated half so much as others audiences who – at the end of a performance -- were seemingly beauty-bound by a gossamer web of silence, and only reluctantly broke that spell by giving place to applause which was felt, at that moment, to be an almost unworthy sign of appreciation.  On such occasions, the audience were more than mere listeners, they had become fellow travellers sharing with the artist in a beautiful musical experience.
Now let us turn to St. Luke’s observation of Mary and Joseph at the Birth of the Lord:
Mary treasured all these words (that is, all that had happened) and pondered them in her heart.
I suggest, and I have no doubt that you will agree, that Mary’s attitude of awe-inspired reverence and total loving-commitment penetrates most surely and deeply the significance of the Christmas mystery, while most truly and fully rejoicing the heart of the Father in heaven.
Moreover, we find that same attitude to the Incarnation of God’s Son in the Gospel of John, who, as you will remember, took Mary to his home in obedience to the dying words of Jesus.  For John, when speaking of the Birth of the Messiah paints no emotionally moving picture, but simply says:
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father. (John 1:14)
On both occasions, however, notice that he brings the Father into prominence; and from that basis he then goes on to develop all his teaching:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)
In this is love … that (God) loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins … (yes, God) sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.          (1 John 4:9-11)
Dear People of God, the wonder of Christmas is indeed found in the Child but not if we see the Child merely as a child of wondrous beauty and innocence.  Such a child can most certainly stir us emotionally but otherwise has neither character nor teaching to which we can relate or respond.   Christmas is only to be appreciated aright when He, the Child, is seen as the One Who is potentially the fullest possible manifestation, and Who is already the most wondrous expression, of the Father’s love for us; He is the absolutely unique One in and through Whom the Father’s love is preparing to touch, change, and save, all of us.
If we recognize the Child as the Father’s Gift -- the supreme manifestation and expression of the Father’s love for us -- then we will be ever on the alert for the Good News the Child brings, we will watch Him grow up, desiring to know from Him ever more of the Father’s love, and wanting to learn how to embrace and respond to that love in and with Him Who is the only-begotten and well-beloved Son.
All that would be somewhat in the spirit of those words spoken with regard to John the Baptist:
“What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Looking exclusively and emotionally on the Child turns Christmas into an occasion when we can pour out our feelings and affections upon Him and for His mother.  However, like all children, He will grow up; and then, in adult situations having at times to speak hard words and warn of dire punishment, He will lose something of that which so charmed us in His Nativity, with the result that the Gospel’s most treasured message will be for us but the recollection of His past Infancy, and the Christmas season a time for us to re-savour it as much and for as long as we possibly can  before the memory inevitably fades as we have to face up to the bleak reality of His subsequent life and death.
On the other hand, seeing the Child as the expression of the Father’s supreme and astounding love leads us to forget ourselves in immediate and heartfelt gratitude to the Father; whereupon, turning to the Child with wonder and joy, we then experience a deep longing for and anticipation of His future manhood that will reveal to us the deep, mysterious depths of the Father’s ‘incredible’ love for us, the hidden wonders of the Child’s Personality and Being, and the unimaginable destiny God has in store for us.
The greatest moments of the Christian life are not times in which we do something for God or get something for ourselves, rather are they moments when, first and foremost, we humbly receive, before subsequently trying gratefully and patiently to appreciate, God’s marvellous gifts and inconceivable goodness.  Ultimately, no human being could ever have found God; we only come to truly know and really experience Him when He graciously reveals Himself to us, and when we are in a state of such spiritual peace of mind and humility of heart as to be able to welcome Him.   Consequently, since a supremely significant step in God’s self-revelation to mankind is made here in the Incarnation, this Christmas is a time, an occasion, to be lived above all in company with, and in imitation of, Mary.
God originally created us out of love; we sinned, personally becoming subject to Satan, sin and death, and allowing chaos and disruption to enter the beautiful garden that had been entrusted to our care: thereby we involved the whole of God’s ‘good’ creation in the consequences of our own fall and failing. 
Now the great mystery of Christmas is that God -- having originally loved us enough to create us -- showed us, even after such a betrayal in the Garden, yet greater love by sending His only-beloved Son as One-like-us to redeem us.
Now that, that wondrous and mysteriously overflowing love is the driving force of Christmas today, for, it is still being offered anew, still at work, in this Christian year of celebration 2016!   For those who are mature enough to appreciate Mother Church’s yearly celebration of the Child’s coming, Christmas recalls the Father’s love to our minds and offers us grace to open up our hearts to it anew; the liturgical year in its subsequent progress will invite and enable us to grow with the Son-made-flesh in that reverence and love and to respond to it by the power of His Spirit to be poured out upon us!   Christmas, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is, supremely, a time for gratitude to the Father and of hope in the Child … what will this Child of Love become, what will He show us, what will He teach us, where will He lead us??
Father Christmas … Father …. Father …. Heavenly Father, thank you for the Infant Jesus! Help me to follow every stage of His life and teaching that I might learn from Him how to know and love You, because Jesus said that that was the purpose of His coming: He had come to make Your name known!   Father, You give us Jesus, You offer Him anew to us this Christmas … give us, likewise, to Jesus, for He Himself again said that none can draw near to Him unless You, Father, send them, give them, to Him.  Father, give me to Jesus this Christmas, that in Jesus, by the Spirit of Jesus, I might become like Him a true child of Yours!