Category: Christmas


My Homily Given Today on the Feast of the Epiphany 

CHRISTMAS_SHOPPERS1_1AMDG  I am going to let you into a secret – one of the things I like about being a priest at Christmas is that I don’t have to buy a lot of presents.  It’s not that I am means spirited – or stingy …….. honestly …….. but I am very happy that being a priest it allows me to concentrate on what is really important at Christmas.  But even I can’t get totally out of it – I went over to see my sister in Nottingham last week and two of my beautiful nieces, Charlotte and Emily.  Now they are only 4 and 6 so I don’t think they would understand if I turned up without presents – so briefly I had to join the crowds in the Arndale Centre – looking for presents – and it was stressful! Too many people – some very rude people pushing you out the way – and all just to get a couple of presents (they both love Barbie and Moshi Monsters) that I know were made in China – and probably will be forgotten about in a few week and thrown out when my sister decides there are too many toys cluttering up their bedroom.

Does that sound familiar to you?

Let’s contrast that experience with the presents given to Jesus by the wise men at the feast of the Epiphany. Gold, Frankincense and Myrhh – Gold – which represents the Kingship of Christ.  Isn’t it interesting that when there is a period of political or financial instability the price of Gold soars.  People buy Gold when they don’t trust their rulers or their economy – just look at what is happening in India now with such a frustration with corruption.  Gold has a value that lasts – its not another throwaway consumerist trinket.  In this baby in Bethlehem we see that if you invest your hopes and your dreams in his kingship it will bear dividends – not of more money but of peace, of joy, of love.   Frankincense – the gift of priesthood – like the incense that we use at mass to consecrate the altar, which I have just you to consecrate this book of the Gospels.  In this child born into poverty we have what Saint Paul was the ultimate high priest – whose sacrifice on our behalf brings us back into the loving orbit of God our creator.  And in Myrhh – we have an analgesic – a pain killer – something that we still use in dentistry and when we gargle mouthwash. This a prophetic gift which indicates the wise man forsee the suffering that this new king-priest will have to endure suffering to fulfill his Messiahship.

downloadGold, Frankincense and Myrrh – three prophetic, wise gifts laid at the feet of Jesus in the dirt, smell, damp and darkness of the stable in Bethlehem.

Lets compare the vision of the three kings to the that of King Herod.  Herod is the consummate political survivor – even being prepared to kill his own children to maintain his own power. He is ruthless and will do anything to consolidate his power.  That is the extent of his vision – raw power – and anyone or anything that gets in his way will be ruthlessly eliminated. If you read the historians of this time he was notorious for executing three of his own sons – Caesar Augustus even commented ‘It is better to be Herod’s dog rather than one of his sons’   What type of man is that?

We think that the magi came from Persia (Iran), India and Arabia and their exotic caravan would certainly have been noticed even in a bustling Jerusalem,  So Herod assembles his own wise man and discovers the prophecy of the messiah.  The Magi were looking for truth – seeking the star – and their gifts show how deeply they understood the prophecy.  The best gifts we receive come from people who understand us.  Herod – in his ego and his paranoia is seeking for threats to his power and as we will see is ruthless in his reaction.

King-Herod-300x300We all know that we can be like Herod in our lives and relationships – bearing grudges, playing games, manipulating people.  Ok we may not resort to murder or even physical violence – but so many of us like another form of assassination – gossiping, undermining someone’s reputation.  We become so obsessed with maintaining our own comfort that we stop seeking the truth. If you are seeking the truth, if you are seeking Christ, than expect opposition from the Herods of this world.  Expect to be scorned, to be laughed at.  But keep seeking – look for the gifts of the spirit – look for the gifts that will never grow stale – or be thrown away.  Truth, Freedom (and real freedom is spiritual – it is detachment), Peace and Joy.  They are gifts that come from kneeling and adoring – they are gifts that come from following those things that produce wonder in your heart.  You won’t find that Peace and Joy in the Arndale Centre – you may find it at the Holy Name.

 

 

Incarnation

AMDG

My homily for midnight mass – inspired by  Rob Marsh on Thinking Faith 

doctor_1416155cWe can probably identify life –changing moments…..  moments that make us think about life in a profoundly different way.  I would like to share with you a life-changing moment, that most of us have shared.  A few years ago, in Manila the capital of the Philippines, I had my first major operation – on my left knee.  I had worn out the cartilage and after the operation – the surgeon told me my football and running days were over.   My first reaction was – can I still go hill walking?    That hospital in Manila –was a turning point because suddenly my body became an obstacle to my dreams.  My left knee was screwed – and it forced me to reluctantly admit – there was no way I was going to ever going to become a midfield general, and score the winning goal in the Champions League Final……..  Ok maybe I knew that already…. It reminded me of when I was a little boy and coming out of the cinema after seeing Superman and being mildly irritated when I couldn’t fly – I even had the cape on….. but now it was definitive, the doctor told me I had worn my left knee out with training and running for marathons. This was a turning point for me and for so many of us because when  we are young it is as though our bodies are filled with unlimited potential. We admire youth because we see they can dream – and now my body had become an obstacle to my dreams……

downloadeThe opposite is at the heart of Christmas  – that God seems to love human bodies and choose them as the way of fulfilling God’s dreams. God the creator of the universal – and remember according to the Hubble Telescope the observable universe is hundreds of billions of Galaxies – and our Galaxy probably has 2 billion stars in it.  This all powerful – creator God – 2014 years ago (give or take a few years) – took on a finite human body – became a human being – a little baby – vunerable – flesh and blood – crying and going to the toilet – the God who created the universe.

Wow……

How does infinity dwindle to infancy?   Why did God choose to do this – in Bethlehem – in a country that was occupied by a ruthless foreign power? How does God fit into a body without making it explode?  This is the mystery of the Incarnation, remember incarnation – carne – flesh, meat – God became our flesh and blood – no other religion claims that – in fact if you were to claim to be God you are silenced…. Killed, incarcerated, and that is exactly what happened to Jesus.  It is such an amazing thing – to be the infinite God – who has become finitely incarnate.

download (1)Since I have been working at university – listening to so many students – sharing their joys, listening to their fears and worries.  I have seen the pressure so many of themselves are put under – academic pressure, financial pressure. But there is another kind of pressure which is deeper – a terrible kind of desolation – and it is all to do with self image, how they see their bodies.  I listen to beautiful young women telling me how they feel ugly, how they feel fat, their hair is the wrong colour , their breasts aren’t big enough.  And this deep unhappiness with their bodies is growing with men too – IT is being fuelled by the false images they are watching – airbrushed models,  unrealistic portrayals of sex, the culture of celebrity.   The financial and academic pressure will pass – but this type of pressure, self inflicted is much deeper and spiritually much more corrosive.

So remember the Incarnation – remember the real heart of Christmas – God, it seems, doesn’t hate bodies. In fact  God uses the human body – with all its limitedness – and all its mortality – to save the world.   How could we have allowed ourselves to be so far from that? There are websites know that encourage people to harm their bodies …… there is so much poison out there about how we think about ourselves… Christmas is the antidote to that poison.

download (2) And remember tonight is the start of Jesus’s human journey – the infinite all powerful God vulnerable in the hands of his mother – who will soon become refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers as they escape King Herod into Egypt.    Remember how the story ends – the Jesus the sun of God is tortured – his body nailed to the cross – and his heart stops beating, water and blood flowing out of his broken body.  This is no myth – this is history.  And when he rises from the dead – his glorious risen body – which is still carrying his wounds – becomes our hope, becomes our destination.

images Every day in this church – that body is made present to us in a unique way during the mystery of the mass – 365 days a year – twice a day when university term is on – three times a day on a Sunday – the incarnation of Christ during mass.  There is that famous saying – a dog is not just for Christmas – so let us remember the incarnation is not just for Christmas.  So all of you here tonight – who are occasional catholics – or visitors – you are very welcome, and it is great to see you.  Come more often next year – it would be wonderful to see you every Sunday  – this great mystery of God’s love – that he chose to take on the form of this life, on this planet, in this Galaxy – it is a mystery that we can never get used to.  But If we contemplate it, if we live it, if we renew it weekly – it is a mystery that brings us joy, a mystery that makes us appreciate life and our bodies, no matter how old they become.  When we forget it – and get caught up in the cares and worries of life – I can assure you one thing – we become miserable.

In a moment we will express our faith – this great story of God becoming Man – and tonight we will kneel after the words – God became man – to contemplate the immensity of the incarnation – to remember the Joy of Christmas.

AMDG

What is Brian Cox going to say about this wonder?

Today is the Epiphany –  the climax of Christmas Celebrations for many Christians.  In Spain today is the day for present giving – the Reyes Magos – remembering the gift of the Wise Men.  Children throng the streets as the wise men throw sweets to them from their motorised floats (having done away with camels).   But the story of the star – in fact much of the infancy narratives – these are just childs stories – not really historical – right?   Think again – there is surprising evidence that might stop you from going down the demythologisation‘ route too quickly.  Astronomy – and its close cousin Astrology – one of the oldest forms of ‘science’ – has a remarkable set of records, of positions of the stars, conjuctions with the wandering planets. So we can delve into history and see what was recorded in the heavens.  It is a spectacular conjunction of planets and stars of this type that some have argued gave rise to the star of Bethlehem. Others point towards a supernova.  If you are interested, two Jesuits working at the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno and Fr Chris Corbally have written fascinating articles about the historicity of the Star.

Why is the Epiphany so important for Christians? it underlies the cosmic significance of the God who crated the universe becoming man, it also shows the universal relevance of the incarnation – Jesus is for all – the Magi, the Wise Men from the East probably came from Iraq. And as the Pope beautifully said, ‘The wise men followed the star. Through the language of creation, they discovered the God of history.’  It is worth also mentioning that after the two volume ‘Jesus of Nazareth’,  Benedict has said he is considering publishing a monograph on the infancy narratives.

Something I discovered a couple of years ago was Arthur C. Clarke’s short story ‘‘The Star’’.  It is a fascinating twist on the Star of Bethlehem story – not very edifying I am afraid – but interesting and thought provoking. Reprinted in a collection of Clarke’s short stories in 1958. In his introduction to this collection, Clarke noted that he wrote the story for a contest in the London Observer on the subject ‘‘2500 AD.’’  The narrative is the interior monologue of the central character, a Jesuit astrophysicist. He is aboard a starship on a mission to investigate the causes of a supernova in a distant galaxy. He and the rest of the crew discover the artifacts of a highly developed civilization, carefully preserved on the only planet that remains in orbit around the supernova. Knowing that all life would be wiped out when their sun flared into a supernova, this advanced race of sentient beings left a record of who they were and what they accomplished. The pictures, sculptures, music, and other relics of a very human-like race doomed to destruction depress the crew and investigating scientists, who are far from their own homes and lonely. What the narrator has learned but not yet communicated to the others is that the supernova that destroyed this civilization was the Star of Bethlehem, which burned brightly in the sky to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. His discovery has caused him to reexamine and to question his own faith.

So I will leave the last words to the Pope – ‘ The great star, the true supernova that leads us on, is Christ himself. He is as it were the explosion of God’s love, which causes the great white light of his heart to shine upon the world. ‘

AMDG

The Hole-y shoes of Tanudan.....

So I am still recovering from a physically arduous Christmas.  As you can see from the photo my trusty hiking shoes couldn’t survive the Christmas – my fingers poking out in strange places.  Here in the Phillipines you can get most things fixed at a very reasonable price (not like our disposable throw away culture) – but even some things have there limits. The local cobbler just laughed at me when I presented my sorry shoes to him.  I have a sentimental connection to these boots having tramped the highlands of Scotland, the highways of India and East Africa and the mean streets of North London with them in recent years – but they met their match in the Cordilleras of the Phillipines.

But a serious point is how impressive the work of the priests and missionaries is in this area – as well as how tough the locals are.  Wherever I went I was always accompanied by catechists / and youth.  They insisted on carrying my rucksack for me – and in the end I was glad as some of the tracks were pretty precarious. I think I would have been pretty unstable on some of the steeper paths.  A Belgian priest – Fr. Leo van de Winkle had gone missing about 10 years ago.  They have found his chalice deep in the forest and it is proudly displayed in the Bishops House, but his remains are still missing – so half-jokingly the Bishop suggested we keep an eye out for them!  It seems he was abducted and killed by local communists – who he was openly very critical of – but as I was walking some of the paths with the mudslides – and the steep drops I was thinking he could have just slipped and that would be it. The wild pigs would take care of the rest!

The CICM missionaries had set up an impressive network of schools and hospitals – and the evidence was the high educational level and cultureal level of the people. Most of my homilies were translated but they didn’t need to be as they seemed to understand even Scouse English and even laughed at my jokes (something I am not used  to).  I have to confess to being scared at times – particularly walking on the rice terraces…. the small paths with stones were not designed for size 11 European feet particularly belonging to a lumbering, lobsided 6ft 2 – 95kg beast like myself. So it was scary teetering – in the rain – in slippery rocks with a 200ft drop on one side of you – I said quite a few prayers to various saints….  What was amazing was seeing our companions dance along these paths and rocks in bare feet.  Here is a taste of the journeys and the welcome we would receive when we would arrive….

AMDG

Greetings of Christmas Joy and Peace Everyone!   I have emerged from the mountains of the Cordillera, exhausted but very happy, with wonderful memories of a very special Christmas with the people of Tanudan.  Thanks for the concerned messages regarding the terrible typhoon that hit the South of the Phillipines.  I didn’t know about it till yesterday which shows you how cut off we have been up in the mountain villages.  It had been raining steadily for 2 weeks as the tail of the Typhoon hit us – which meant landslides and swollen rivers making vehicular access impossible.  As a result we have been without electricity for much of the time (having to ration the remaining gasoline).

As they say a picture paints a thousand words – so below is a small taste of the journey into the mountains – with chickens / pigs / puppies – the last vehicle I saw for two weeks!  From then on it was walking from village to village for the pre-dawn masses, beautiful singing, and a simple lifestyle!

A first Christmas without presents/cards /booze/ TV /even electricity but full of singing, dancing and joy!  It was humbling to see how happy the people where to have mass for Christmas.  Even managed to squeeze some Baptisms in on Christmas day – after the celebratory pig was prepared of course.  Unfortunately the relentless rain seems to have destroyed my boots and my video camera – but I seem to have some footage saved.  So the next few days I will post some more stuff.  What remains with me is the glow of hospitality – unlike the people of Bethlehem, the people in the villages of Tanudan all opened their doors – many gave me their beds or a floor to sleep on, fed me, washed my muddy gear, gave me copious amounts of gorgeous home-roasted coffee.  So there was room at the inn this Christmas for me!

AMDG

Bishop J P Andaya – 15 years a missionary in Africa before being appointed to Apostolic Vicarate of Tabuk. Its remote nature makes it a mission area and thus not a diocesis …. yet!

Well it promises to be a Christmas we will never forget!  In the West we are used to a slightly frenetic round of anxious present buying, potentially hazardous Christmas Parties and then maybe a blow out followed by a few lazy days  in front of the box.  Here in the Phillipines Christmas is celebrated slightly differently.  Come Boxing Day everything is back to normal – all the energy builds up before Christmas. Simbang Gabi,  the nine-days before Christmas in the Philippines, is where all the action happens. Masses begin as early as 4 a.m., a tradition that is said to date back centuries, to the time when Filipino farmers under Spanish rule had to rise early to find time to worship before toiling in the fields. The priests saw that the people attending the novenas were tired and numb from work in the fields, even though they continued to want to come.  As a compromise, the clergy began to hold Mass early dawn when the land would still be dark, a break in tradition prevalent in Spain and her Latin American colonies. This tradition has been enthusiastically embraced and continues till today.

Four of us met the very impressive Bishop of Tabuk this morning, and he has assigned us our places.  I am to be posted to Tanudan, perhaps the most remote parish, although one of my companions has to cross a river more than thirty times to get to his mission station.  The Bishop himself is going to accompany me for the first few days.  I was surprised and very impressed to find out that he tries to visit the more remote areas when he can,  He seems to be a bishop that doesn’t need his comforts!  He informed me that it will be about a 10 hour hike to get to our base.  I was told later told me that the Bishop said 10hrs because he has shorter legs!  Then the daily routine is a five/six hour hike – arrive at a mission station – rest – rise early for mass and then off again to the next stop.  The place has no resident priest at the moment, its thin mountain air makes it a challenge to fill the spot –  so it may be possible that for some of the villages it may be their first mass for months.  We were given a detailed briefing of the different social situations we would encounter/ possible tribal tensions / as well as rather worringly stories of four priests who have been killed in the last 30years. In my place Fr Elias Baleng was caught up in a tribal conflict and was killed protecting two women -he was probably a martyr.  The Church has responded by establish a peace-makers movement, which has significantly reduced tit-for tat tribal killings. Due to this it seems I much safer and stable, and the priest is seen as a valuable commodity – at least at Christmas time!!   It will almost definitely be safer from the streets of North London.  Strikingly hearing about  the tribal tensions and violence reminded me of the gang violence and postcode ‘wars’ in London.

I’m dreaming of a green Christmas!

Everywhere we have been told to expect packed churches. So today I am shedding some weight from my backpack to prepare – but I have invested in a wireless broadband so I am taking my laptop! Hopefully there will be a few mountain tops en route where I can get a signal and post photos and news!  Having just googled Tanudan – I will share one of the images (on the right) which has got the juices flowing! I just hope I can navigate the rope bridges safely – without making too much of a fool of myself!

This may be my last post till Christmas – that is up to the Smart Bro network and how much it penetrates the Cordillera mountains!  If so have a lovely holiday and thanks for reading!

AMDG
We had a powerful celebration of Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary today. This is a big feast here in the Phillipines where Marian devotion is incredibly strong.   In spite of tropincal storms many turned out for a procession to honour the Immaculate Conception last Sunday in central Manila. As you can see from the photo they made sure that the statues were kept dry – unlike most of the faithful.  This is a feast celebrating the sinlessness of the  Mother of God who, we anticipate in this second week of Advent,  will give birth to the King of Kings.  Today the presider was a famous Jesuit called Fr Manoling Francisco.  What is most notable about Manoling,  as well as his writing, his teaching as a theologian, setting up a foundation to support education for youngsters from the Mountain Region (were we depart for tommorrow) is his musical compositions.  His songs seems to be sung everywhere.  Most of them are in Tagalog – I can’t get his Our Father of my head at the moment….

Anyway it is clear he has a wonderful romantic spirit and it was a pleasure to hear him speaking so passionately about Our Lady today.  That her ‘fiat’ her ‘yes’ to God was an act of incredible generosity and purity of heart – considering the punishment off stoning that was given to Women who become mysteriously pregnant out of wedlock. I was musing about this whilst wandering through the campus here at the Ateneo de Manila when I stumbled upon this. Addressed to Lila with the Golden Eyes…..

Wonderful!

Courage certainly!  Purity of heart? – I’d like to think so!

I bet you didn’t realise that Adele was so popular over here (not bad for a Tottenham girl!)

 

AMDG

This has been a lovely few days sharing with each other the consolations of the long retreat. Very inspiring and there is a great joy in the tertianship.  Today the focus has changed, looking forward as we prepare to leave on Friday for our ‘Christmas ministries‘.  We are all travelling north to the Mountain region.  This is a very beautiful region, famous for its 3000 year old rice terraces. In spite of its remoteness – its population speak English as well as their tribal languages, a testament to a truly remarkable networks of schools and hospitals developed by Belgian missionaries.  Half of the group will be based around Bontoc – which is fairly developed.  However four of us (including me) are going further north – to Kalinga region, where the bishop will assign us to various places. A previous tertian reports having to walk 5hours a day to various mission chapels scattered in the mountains to celebrate mass and also how happy the people were to have a priest for Christmas. Excited – I decided to do a bit of research  to find out what the next three week might have in store.  This is what the Lonely Planet  (thanks JP!) says about Kalinga.

This rugged inaccessible province north of Bontoc attracts those who are looking to escape from civilization entirely. Kalinga is a place where weekends aren’t even a concept, let alone a reality; a place where animals are frequently sacrificed in ritual feasts and where traditional law still trumps the laws of the contemporary world. Here you might meet the last of Kalinga’s notorious head-hunters and see tattooed tribeswomen with snake bones in their hair.  You’ll dwell amid free ranging livestock and hike along ancient mountain trails to villages enveloped in rice terraces. 

Reading this has made feel a bit of trepidation as well as excitement.  I sent an email back to the province Treasurer yesterday telling him about the head hunters – he is in charge of our insurance policy :)  –  and he very helpfully told me to make sure I got a picture before I went in the pot! I have lost about 10kgs in weight since arriving here – so I am afraid I won’t be the most tasty Christmas Dinner. Anyway we have been assured that we will be quite safe at the moment because the tribes are not warring, and having a priest come for Christmas is very special for such a remote area.  However the animals might not be so respectful – I have been told not to wander off the paths into the bushes as I might attract hordes of voracious pigs looking for a tasty meal….. Luckily I am assured of a guide with me (catechist or youth worker who will probably be wearing flip flops )

Christmas is very special in the Phillipines – commemorated by a novena of masses that start on Dec 16th – the Misa Aguinaldo.  The one catch – each one starts at 4am!  yes 4am….. So I have invested in a powerful head torch – to help me trudge through the mountains and paddy fields.  At least the stars should be stunning!

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,008 other followers