Sunday, November 29, 2020

A Slightly Awkward Start to Advent


Welcome home . . . and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I write that, of course, because today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new Church year. 


Have you noticed how many people are saying that they can’t wait to put the disastrous year 2020 behind them? Well, there is a sense in which you and I get to do just that, ahead of everyone else. What I mean is that although it is still 2020 according to the secular world, today we begin the 2021 Church year!

The fact that we have our own starting date for the new year emphasises a special truth. It’s a bit like the way my passport says that I am a citizen of Australia, but the reality is quite different. Writing to the small Church community in the Roman colony of Philippi, (and to all of us who have been baptised) S. Paul says:

‘our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

On top of that, the writer to the Hebrews says,

‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

These are powerful words. They remind us that our life in this world is not all there is, and our real citizenship in whatever country whose passport we carry is totally secondary to our true identity! 


The early Christians in the hostile Roman Empire understood that, as we see in the second or third century Letter to Diognetus, in which a Christian, Mathetes, writes to a man of considerable rank:

‘Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life . . . With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. 

‘And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country . . . They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.’ 

Or, as S. John Vianney, the CurĂ© d’Ars, put it in 19th century France, 

‘Our home is heaven. On earth we are like travellers staying in a hotel. When one is away, one is always thinking of going home.’

During this season of Advent we experience again the reality of being a ‘pilgrim people’ travelling home TOGETHER. In other words, we are not a bunch of rugged individuals who just happen to be on the same path and can’t avoid bumping into each other from time to time. We are a real community of faith and love on pilgrimage together, supporting one another. During Advent we are on pilgrimage to Bethlehem. But we are also on pilgrimage to our true home, and part of that journey is to reflect on the sobering themes of judgment and mortality, while acknowledging - as we dare to do every day at Mass - that because God became Man, both heaven AND EARTH are absolutely crammed full of his glory.


For me, personally, this morning felt really awkward. For nearly all my life I have experienced the start of the Church year on the First Sunday of Advent being overwhelmed by Charles Wesley’s amazing hymn, ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending . . .’, focusing straight away - as do the Scripture readings, not so much on the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem, but on his coming in glory at the end of the age.

This morning, however, the last Sunday of this present ‘lockdown’, I celebrated alone at the High Altar. In a strange quietness I blessed the Advent wreath and lit its first candle before getting on with the Mass. I must confess that in my mind I was thinking how it was happening like this in so many parishes around the world, in contrast to the usual burst of triumph, and the children swarming around the Advent wreath for its particular ceremonies.

Of course, I regained my composure when at the end of Mass I was able to enthrone the Blessed Sacrament on the Nave Altar as the focus for the personal and private prayer of those who would come and go throughout the morning.


But the lockdown will finish at the end of Wednesday this week. Praise the Lord! That doesn’t mean a FULL restoration of worship. But it does mean that Holy Mass can be celebrated in the way we did from the beginning of July until the end of October . . . socially distanced, sanitised hands, face coverings, special precautions in the giving of Holy Communion, no congregational singing, and no morning tea at the end. That all looks a bit draconian, doesn’t it. But it worked before, to the glory of God and for the blessing of his people, and it will work again! The choir will sing anthems during the preparation of the altar (half way through Mass) as well as while Holy Communion is being given. Also, next Sunday’s Mass will include the lighting of the second candle on the Advent wreath.

It does seem as if the Government is wanting some of the things we associate with Christmas to be able to happen, so next week (i.e. the PCC having met this coming Wednesday night) I will announce the actual mechanics of obtaining (free) tickets for our Christmas Eve services. Remember, tickets will be FREE, but in order to ensure the safety of all, ADMISSION WIll BE BY TICKET ONLY. I’m sure everybody understands why this is important, and that it is much to be preferred than to cancel Christmas services. However, I would like to hear from any who do not feel comfortable coming out to Christmas Mass this year, but who still wish to receive their Christmas Communion. I will make arrangements to bring Holy Communion to you at home.

So, ‘Mass with a Congregation’ will resume on Thursday 3rd December, at 10 a.m. Then, as usual, Friday (7.30 a.m.) and Saturday (10 a.m.), leading into a wonderful celebration next Sunday, for the Second Sunday of Advent (8.00 a.m. and 9.30 a.m.)


The custom of lighting candles on the Advent wreath reminds us of God promising right from the time of our original rebellion, that one day he would conquer evil - you remember, through the seed of the woman crushing the serpent's head (Genesis 3:15) - and restore the relationship of love for which he created the human family in the first place.

The popular service of Nine Lessons and Carols, with its selection of readings moving progressively through the Old Testament - the Jewish Scriptures - reminds us of God’s long and patient preparation in the sludge of real human history for the coming of Jesus. In fact, it has been said that the theme of the Old Testament is ‘waiting for God’.

So, during the season of Advent, at the daily Mass, the Church has us read bits of the Old Testament to do with God’s promise to intervene human history so as to bring about – as we heard last Sunday - a kingdom of justice, love and peace. Our prayers are uttered in the language of the Old Testament, expressing that deep longing for the age to come that was reaching a climax in Jewish culture by the 1st century AD..

Even though the first coming of Jesus has already taken place, the Church encourages us to put ourselves spiritually into that period of expectant waiting for him to come. We identify ourselves with the long flow of history through which Jesus entered our world, recognising the light of God shining through the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and Our Lady Mary, who are the high points of his revelation. During Advent we wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, along with those who two thousand years ago longed for his coming. It is good for us to be touched with the joy of that expectant waiting.

But, as we have noted, the Church mostly wants us to await - just as expectantly - that final day when Jesus will return in glory. And as it was important for people to be prepared for his first coming at Bethlehem, so we are encouraged in the New Testament to be no less prepared for his ‘second coming’.

But we have a problem!

So many times over the last 2000 years people have announced, ‘The end is nigh,’ and they have turned out to be wrong! (Remember how Jesus himself said that would happen. He warned of the futility of trying to calculate or predict the End - Matthew 24:36!) The sad reality is that partly as a reaction to extreme sects who have claimed to know exaclty when the End will come, modern Christians tend no longer to be ‘expectant’ about the second coming of Jesus. So, our faith has shrunk and become passive - a shrugging of the shoulders, the idea that he just might come one day  - but we don't live as if we really think there's a possibility of that happening in our lifetime!

If we really love the Lord, and his love and power are real to us, we will have an expectancy in our hearts, an anticipation born of faith. This is not just a ‘cheery optimism.’ It has to do with a deep day to day growth into his love. 

Most Sundays at Mass, in the words of the Nicene Creed, we profess our belief that 


‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

We used to finish by saying that 

‘we look for the resurrection of the dead.’ 

But because the original language has in it the idea of ‘looking ahead with expectancy’, the latest (2010) translation has sought to convey that more adequately in English. I don’t know about you, but I now have a real sense of excitement in my heart as the Creed comes to its close with the words:

I LOOK FORWARD TO the resurrection of the dead  and the life of the world to come.’


Part of our Advent spiritual renewal this year ought to be recapturing that sense of expectancy if we feel we have lost it. So, let’s make sure that our walk with God is in good shape. 

Let’s examine our hearts to see where we’ve become slack. Let’s open them up to the love of the Lord again, and possibly use the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Let’s also ask ourselves if we are growing in our ability to relate to others - especially in the Church family, and if our shared lives are beginning to reflect the love and reconciliation at the heart of the Gospel.

May we all be renewed in the love and joy of the Gospel on our Advent pilgrimage together.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Forty years a priest . . . Ballarat 11th November 1980

Although it had to be celebrated privately at the High Altar here at All Saints' Benhilton (in a locked church!) because of the Covid Lockdown restrictions, for me, today's Mass of S. Martin of Tours was a special celebration of God’s faithfulness over the 40 years I have been a priest in his Church. Ordained on 11th November 1980 at St Paul’s Ballarat (Australia) by Bishop John Hazlewood, I give thanks to God for these words of Father Robert Beal, Dean of Newcastle (later Bishop of Wangaratta, 1985) who was our retreat conductor and preacher at the ordination Mass. I have returned to them so many times over the years:

'It is your task, my brothers, 
to beckon the world’s gaze to the crucifix,
and to point to those wounds 
on the Body of the King of glory. 
We gaze at the God-man, 
and are confronted with the Truth 
that will make men free.'

The photos in this post are from the ordination. The second one is the actual 'moment.' I’m not visible in that one. As was often the case in my fairly poor footballing days (Rugby League) at high school, I'm in the middle of the scrum! With his back to the camera in the foreground is Mark Sumner who was also ordained to the priesthood that night.  

Today I thank God for his saving grace, his forgiveness, his love, his healing power, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I thank him for the thousands of times I have been privileged to 'lead the rejoicing throng to the altar of God' where, united with the Eternal Offering of our Great High Priest, we have been swept into the worship of heaven. I thank him for those who lovingly influenced my vocation from right across the Christian traditions and helped me to respond. I thank him for the love and prayers of Holy Mary, Our Lady of Walsingham and all the Saints. I thank him for family members, parishioners and friends - old and new - whose love, prayers and generosity of support over these forty years have made it possible for me to embrace both the joys and the sorrows of the priestly ministry. I thank him for those who have forgiven my sins, my mistakes and failures. 

Please continue to pray for me, and for all priests, as we try - so often falteringly - to live according to these precious words of S. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:4-10:

We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed - always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.

Finally, I share with you this wonderful hymn of Charles Wesley - one of the first hymns I learned to accompany as a fledgling teenage organist! - which so long ago I made my own. It has never failed to touch my heart, to move me, strengthen me, and nourish me. It has often helped me keep everything else in perspective:

Jesus! the Name high over all,
In hell or earth or sky;
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.

Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,
The Name to sinners giv’n;
It scatters all their guilty fear,
It turns their hell to Heav’n.

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.

O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of his grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.

Thee I shall constantly proclaim,
Though earth and hell oppose;
Bold to confess thy glorious Name
Before a world of foes.

His only righteousness I show,
His saving grace proclaim;
’Tis all my business here below
To cry “Behold the Lamb!”

Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp his Name,
Preach him to all and cry in death,
“Behold, behold the Lamb!” 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Here we go again . . .

A new Lockdown - the Prime Minister hopes it is just for four weeks. Public worship has been banned, but not churches being used for private, personal prayer. So, as in the previous Lockdown, each Sunday morning, Jesus in his Holy Sacrament will be enthroned on the nave altar from 8.30 a.m. to 12.00 noon for private and personal prayer. We encourage the church family as well as our neighbours to slip in for as short or long a time of prayer as you wish. All Saints' Benhilton, Sutton, Surrey, SM1 3DA