First Sunday of Advent, Year A

Homily 1. On Pope Francis' first Apostolic Exhortation (issued on 24th November 2013)

For full text of the Exhortation Click HERE.

For a homily on the Sunday Readings scroll down to Homily 2

Today we celebrate the beginning of a new liturgical year. It is the 1st Sunday of Advent. Last Sunday Pope Francis published his first Apostolic Exhortation in which he presented the results of the Synod of Bishops held last year on the topic of the New Evangelisation. Pope Francis entitled his Exhortation: ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. In it he has taken the opportunity to present some key elements of the agenda he has for his Papacy and for the Catholic Church. On my website I have offered a homily based on the Readings of today’s Mass. Because of the importance of the Pope’s exhortation, I have chosen to reflect with you on what appear to me some key points. You can get the complete document on the Vatican website. Just Google Vatican and follow the prompts

In the opening paragraph Pope Francis writes: ‘The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and the lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept this offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.’ He is asking us to examine our lives. Do we cherish the freedom we are offered as disciples of Jesus and members of the Church. If we do, we must want others to share this freedom and this joy, for surely we realise that it is meant for everyone, no matter how lost we might be, however sinful. Christ, the Pope assures us, never tires of forgiving (paragraph 3). He goes on to ask: ‘if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives how can we fail to share that love with others?’(paragraph 8).

He speaks of three groups who need to hear the Gospel of God’s love. The first group is ‘the faithful who regularly take part in community worship – a group such as us who are present at this Eucharist. Importantly, he includes in this group ‘those members of the faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom taking part in worship.’ This is very encouraging to us, for we all have people who are close to us, who identify as being Catholic, but who do not come regularly to Mass. The second group are people who have been baptised but have no connection with the Church, and the third group are those who ignore or even reject God, for they, too, experience a yearning for love and a yearning for meaning. They need to hear the Good News and surely we want to share it with them.

He reminds us of the privilege we have to share the joy we have and to point others to what he calls ‘a horizon of beauty and a delicious banquet’. Surely we want to attract others to the life we are privileged to know and live (paragraph 14).

After these introductory remarks, in Chapter One of his Exhortation, Pope Francis issues a challenge to each of us and to us as a parish. ‘Go out to others’, her writes, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast’ (paragraph 24). The Church is in constant need of reform. This is obvious because it is a Church of sinners. During his life on earth Jesus ate with sinners. It has always been this way.  What the Pope wants to stress in this Exhortation is the need for the Church to change so that it truly is a missionary Church.

He acknowledges that the Papacy needs to change (par 32), that Dioceses need to change (par 30), that parishes need to change (par 28), and the key change is not for the purpose of a better church organisation, but so that we might be energized to reach out to everyone as a truly missionary Church (par. 31).

A key dimension of this reform is expressed by the Pope as follows: ‘‘I am conscious of the need to promote a sound decentralization’. It is inspiring to note how often he quotes from Bishops’ Conferences. Again and again he states that he doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but he doers want to offer his view, and to be open to listen to others. Only together can we reform our Church to make it truly missionary.

Importantly, he reminds us of what, following the Vatican Council , he calls the ‘hierarchy of truths’. We must concentrate on what he calls the essentials, ‘on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing, and at the same time most essential.’(par. 35). This is true of what we are to believe, but also of what we are to do (par 36). So often we get caught up on matters which , however important they may be, are nevertheless secondary (par 34).

As regards the Eucharist he reminds us that ‘it is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (par 47).

In Chapter 2 he analyses the challenges facing evangelization in today’s world. He speaks of what he calls ‘an economy of exclusion’ (par 54), the idolatry of money (par 55-56). How we are ruled by the financial system (par 57-58), how inequality spawns violence (par 59-60). He reminds us of the wonderful contribution that the Church makes to the world (par 76), but stresses ‘True faith in the Incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.’

He speaks of the sickness of what we call ‘clericalism’ and of the danger of those seeking authority in the Church, not in order to offer their lives in loving service of others, but because of ‘affective insecurity or the pursuit of power, human glory or economic well-being’ (par 107).

In Chapter 3 he shares with us his ideas on the way we are to share the Good News with others and in Chapter 4 he reminds us of the social dimension of spreading the Gospel. Our culture is geared to limit religion to the private domain. We cannot let this happen. Our faith embraces every aspect of human living, and is especially concerned with ensuring dignity and opportunity to the poor, to the disadvantaged, to the vulnerable (par. 209). ‘Life for all’ he writes, ‘must have priority over the appropriation of goods by a few’ (par 188).

He has this to say regarding politics: ‘I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good … I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.  Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society.’(par. 205).

He writes beautifully of the importance of ecumenism: of Christians sharing with each other: ‘Ecumenism is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us. To give but one example, in the dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of Episcopal collegiality and the experience of synods. Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.’(n. 246). This last point is a further indication of his desire to reverse the process whereby power in the Church has tended to locate itself in the centre.

Finally, in Chapter 5 he speaks of ‘Spirit filled evangelizers’.  If we are going to take seriously the call that comes with baptism to share the faith with others, if we are truly committed to building a new world: ‘, we do so, not from a sense of obligation, not as a burdensome duty, but as the result of a personal decision which brings us joy and gives meaning to our lives.’

There is a lot more to this Exhortation that I can present here. We need to come together and discuss its implications for us as persons and as a parish. The fundamental point Pope Francis makes, is that we enjoy intimacy with Jesus, and that we make our contribution to bringing this joy to our needy, yearning, and often confused, but beautiful world.


Homily 2:

Today marks the beginning of the Church’s liturgical Year. Each season has its special grace and today we begin the season of Advent in which we prepare for Christmas and await with expectant longing for God to be born again into our lives, our families, our Church and our world. Saint Augustine summed up the mood of this season well when he prayed: ‘You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you’. Our hearts are made for God. Our souls long for communion with God. During Advent we are meant to taste this restlessness and this longing, to take stock of our lives, to check our direction and to await with expectation the special grace that God promises to offer us at Christmas.

Many of the Advent readings recall the longing of generation after generation of the people of ancient Israel, who experienced a special covenant with God and who longed for the Messiah whom they believed God would send them. We Christians believe that God fulfilled that promise in the person of Mary’s child who said to his friends: ‘Many have longed to see what you see and never saw it, to hear what you hear and never heard it’(Luke 10:24). Whatever else we might do in preparation for Christmas, let us not forget Jesus’ coming. Let us renew our resolve not to be distracted from it by all the razzmatazz that surrounds what has become largely a secular holiday with little or no reference to Jesus.

Other Advent readings focus on our longing for the final coming of Christ in glory. We are advised to avoid useless speculation about the manner and timing of what we customarily refer to as ‘the end of the world’, but we also know in faith that God has promised ‘a renewed creation’. Part of the challenge and privilege of being a human being is to make our contribution to building a better world, a home where human beings can live in dignity and justice, as we nurture each other in love. While we work here to honour the trust Jesus placed in us when he asked us to ‘love one another as I have loved you’, we know that, ultimately, for us as for Jesus himself, our longing is for the life that is beyond death: the life of communion with God we speak of as ‘heaven’. Advent reminds us to look forward to this, for the whole of creation, for ourselves and for those we love, as we prepare and pray for that final personal ‘coming of the Lord’ at the moment of our death. This longing is beautifully expressed by Saint Ignatius of Antioch who was martyred in the Colosseum in Rome in the early years of the second century.

‘He who died for us is all that I seek; he who rose again for us is my whole desire … Here is one who longs only to be God’s; do not delude him with the things of earth. Suffer me to attain to light, pure and undefiled; for only when I am come thither shall I be truly a man. Leave me to imitate the passion of my God. If any of you has God within, understand my longings, and feel for me, because you will know the forces by which I am constrained … Here am I, yearning for death with all the passion of a lover. Earthly longings have been crucified; in me there is left no spark of desire for things of this earth, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father’. There is no pleasure for me in anything that perishes, or in the delights of this life. My heart longs for the bread of God – the flesh of Jesus Christ; and for my drink I crave that blood of his which is undying love.’

Advent reminds us of the past, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and revealed the wonder of God’s love in this world. Advent directs our eyes to the future, to the coming of Jesus in glory to take each of us to himself at the moment of our death and to transform the whole of the created universe into a place of communion with God. But Advent is primarily about the present. The Church is pleading with us be vigilant to the many ways in which Jesus, through his Spirit, is coming into our lives now, filling our hearts with grace and inviting us to a closer union with God and to a more loving relationship with others. Jesus came with a mission to transform this world by revealing God’s loving design and by inviting everyone to join him in responding to the inspiration of God’s Spirit to be instruments in this world of God’s love. Advent invites us to examine the quality of our commitment to this mission.

So, on this First Sunday of Advent, we might ask: What are my deepest longings? for myself? for those I love? Jesus was obviously able to delight in sinners like us when they gave in to their longing and accepted his invitation to believe, and to cry out for release. The Advent liturgy wants us to focus on this longing and this hope. What role does this yearning have when we come to make decisions about ourselves, about our family, or about the contribution we can make to society? Are there any steps I can take to go beyond habit and routine and to engage myself on a deeper search for communion with God and a more faithful response to God’s inspiration? Let us listen to the advice of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, a mystical theologian of the fourth century: ‘The person who wants to see God will do so in the very fact of always following Him. The contemplation of God’s face is an endless walking towards Him … There is only one way to grasp the power that transcends all intelligence: not to stop, but to keep always searching beyond what has already been grasped’(In Canticum Canticorum, Homily 2,801).

Saint Bernard, a twelfth century Cistercian monk, reminded his contemporaries: ‘The psalmist says: “Seek his face always”[Psalm 105:4] … God is sought with the heart’s desire; and when the soul happily finds him its desire is not quenched but kindled. Does the consummation of joy bring about the consuming of desire? Rather it is oil poured upon the flames. Joy will be fulfilled, but there will be no end to desire, and therefore no end to the search. Think, if you can, of this eagerness to see God as not caused by his absence, for he is always present; and think of the desire for God as without fear of failure, for grace is abundantly present’(Sermon 84,2).

In today’s First Reading and in the Responsorial Psalm God’s people are invited to take their longing to Jerusalem to see the face of God in the temple. Since the time of Jesus we are invited to bring our longing here to the new Jerusalem, the new Temple – the community of Jesus’ disciples. For Christ is continually born here in the love we share as we are nourished with the Body of Christ, and as our thirst is quenched at the fountain of the Eucharist.

In the Gospel Jesus tells us to be vigilant. We are to be alert lest he come into our lives and we fail to notice it. The Second Reading is even stronger. Saint Paul tells us that the night is almost over. The light is about to dawn, so we must throw off behaviour that belongs to darkness and prepare to let Christ enlighten us. It was this passage, incidentally, that Saint Augustine read on the night of his conversion. He resolved to take it seriously and to commit himself to ‘put on the Lord Jesus’ - that is to say to allow grace to transform the whole of his life through communion with Jesus. He resolved to ‘walk into the light of the Lord’(Isaiah 2:5 - the final words of today’s First Reading). This text played a significant role in the conversion of Saint Augustine.

Is there something I have been putting off? Do I feel called to commit myself more completely to prayer? to love? to service of others as part of the mission of the Church? Do I recognise certain ways of living as being distractions, or forms of self-indulgence that leave my soul empty? If there are, then why not follow Saint Augustine’s example, and give in to my deepest longings, and pray that this Christmas I will be truly open to receive Jesus into my hearts and into my homes. Our hearts are restless till they rest in God. Let us listen to their longing, and make a commitment to respond to God’s special grace. The deeper our longing the more God can pour his love into our hearts.