Category Archives: Liturgy
Here’s my homily for Good Friday this year. I was preaching at Light to the Nations, which is a biennial pilgrimage held by the Disciples of Jesus Community. The homily was recorded and you can listen to it on the CRADIO website here.
I haven’t been posting too much lately – I’m working on my PhD which, along with my responsibilities with the MGL formation program, doesn’t leave too much time for blogging. Seeing Swans will be back though! And I’ll keep posting the occasional talk here too. In the meantime, I’m using Twitter to send out the occasional message into the social media realm. So follow me there for updates on youth ministry, MGL stuff and my occasional thoughts about God, the world and the love in between.
I would have really liked to have gone to the recent Catholic Media Conference which took place in Sydney last week, but a few different commitments made that impossible. I’ve heard a few reports from friends who went, which were largely very positive. And it got me thinking…
As a Catholic priest who blogs regularly (well, semi-regularly) I am clearly an advocate of the Church’s presence in the new(-ish) world of social media. To say that the Church shouldn’t be a presence on the Web is to turn our back on one of the key places that people gather today. As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the new means of social communication are one of the new areopagi – one of the new sectors of society – that ought to be the focus of the Church’s new evangelisation. We don’t want to disregard the potential of a wonderful tool for the communication of the Gospel. In fact, the Church simply cannot ignore these new means of communication, because like it or not, this is the way people today will want to communicate with us.
At the same time, we cannot afford to be naive about the various concerns and questions raised by the new media, including matters of privacy and safety and the narrowing sources of our information as we are increasingly selective about what and who we read. I’d also like to highlight a different concern.
In a world where everyone is always online and always connected, the Church may be, in fact needs to be, a ‘place’ where people are able to experience community ‘unplugged’. I’m reminded of a comment by Thomas Merton, who suggested that watching television was the antithesis of contemplation. The gaze that the television produces is the polar opposite of the contemplative gaze. What would Merton have made of Facebook? I cannot help think that he would have thought that it was an ersatz form of the community that is produced by the contemplative gaze. Connecting all the time with friends on Facebook is like people forced to drink chicory in deprived, post-World War Europe. Sure it’s a drink, but it isn’t really coffee. Facebook isn’t a substitute for embodied relationship, or what we simply used to call friendship and community before the advent of ‘friends’ whom you never see face to face.
The link between contemplation and genuine community is critical, and being online for hours on end militates against both. And without wanting to deny the human being’s virtually endless capacity for distraction (I’m recalling Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death here) I truly believe that the ersatz form of community to be found online will ultimately prove to be as unsatisfying for people as chicory substitutes for coffee. Which brings us to a magnificent opportunity for the Church… to be the Church. To be a ‘place’ which provides a space for genuine contemplation and which produces genuine community. Our necessary presence on the web can and must meet people in their ‘world’, but it needs to invite them into a different one: the world that is opened up by the Gospel, that is incarnated especially in liturgy, and which produces an alternative and distinctive way of being human. I’m completely aware of the apparent irony of using a blog to make this argument, but it is only an apparent irony. It actually reinforces my point that we should make extensive use of the new media in order to connect with people, but we will do that in order to direct them to the contemplative and embodied community of the Church.
In particular, this means that we need to be careful of uncritically importing the practices of the new media into our lives and into the Church’s life. Let me offer one example: the Facebook timeline encourages us to offer a chronology of our lives online in words and pictures going right back to the moment of our birth. I am sure there are parents who are even now diligently adding to their infant’s Facebook page, getting them ready to present to their child when they are old enough to read or even see the pictures. The timeline concept clearly raises questions about privacy, but the deeper reality is that it is also a liturgical practice in which we tell ourselves who we are – we form our own identity – through what we post about ourselves. The Church offers another kind of liturgy, which cannot compete with the Facebook timeline for being slick, glossy or initially attractive. But the liturgy of the Church and the other practices of faith like contemplative prayer offer a different account of who we are: that our deepest identity is that we are the beloved of God.
This does not mean dispensing with the exciting avenues that the new media offer for proclaiming the Gospel. It means recognising that these avenues are subordinate to the Gospel and not the other way round. The evangelical task for the Church is not to mimic the practices of the new media, but to be authentic to her own identity as the community that is formed by gazing at the face of Christ, who is the face of God.
This is my homily for the Easter Vigil for this year. It was preached at St Benedict’s parish, Burwood, which is the parish in Melbourne that the Missionaries of God’s Love are responsible for. In the homily I explain why the Easter vigil is the night of nights. I suggest that next weekend may be the atheists’ night of nights as the Global Atheist Conference takes place in Melbourne. The theme of their conference is ‘A celebration of reason’. The implication of course is that believers are irrational simpletons. In response to their theme I suggest some reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, and offer some reasons why we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Happy Easter. Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen.
The homily is in two parts below:
Last week’s post was a reflection upon the Crucifixion of Jesus, so this week I thought I’d post this homily from last year’s Easter vigil. It comes from the Light to the Nations Pilgrimage, a biennial pilgrimage to the Redemptorist Monastery in Galong, NSW. The pilgrimage is hosted by the Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community, and in 2011 approximately 900 people camped out and celebrated the Easter liturgies in a large tent. Most of the congregation are young people, and they’re pretty rowdy, but that’s because there’s a fair bit of Easter joy going on. Hope you find the homily edifying. As St Seraphim of Sarov would say, ‘My joy, Christ is Risen’. Happy Easter.
The homily is in two YouTube clips.
Here in Australia, the weather tends to connive with the idea that Lent is a time of self-denial and penance. Or at least that’s true in Melbourne, where I live, and in Canberra, my home town. The deciduous trees seem to be joining in a communal ascetical practice as they begin to lose their leaves. Their act of letting go seems to invite parallel acts of shedding for us during Lent: we too are invited to be stripped of selfishness and pride as we enter into this period of preparation for Easter.
This invitation to self-denial and ascetical practices often seem to some people to capture what is worst about Christianity, and perhaps about Catholicism in particular. It seems to convey all of the gloomiest stereotypes about Christians: as a pleasure-depriving, joyless, and even masochistic people. But is that what Lent, and for that matter Christianity, is really all about?
Let’s look to the liturgy to help us get a better handle on Lent. In the old translation of the preface for Lent we used to say,
Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.
In the new translation which we will use for the first time this year it says:
For each year by your gracious gift your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace you bestow on your sons and daughters.
The intended meaning in both translations is the same: Lent is a joyful time. Of course, the Liturgy of the Word during Lent will also call us to fasting, to alms-giving, to prayer, to reflect upon the temptations of Jesus, to deny ourselves and take up our cross… So which is it? Is Lent a season of self-denial or a time of joy?
The answer of course, is both.
Lent is most definitely a time of self-denial. But it shouldn’t be a case of simply going without something we like for forty days as a kind of endurance test of our wills. The practices of self-denial that we adopt during this time are actually to do with expressing who or what is really master of our lives. And who or what is master of our lives is expressed in and through our bodies, which is why Lent is irreducibly physical and tangible.
When we deny ourselves some food during Lent, we are reminding ourselves that there is more to life than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. When we give alms to the poor during Lent we remind ourselves that the acquisition of wealth is not the goal of our lives. When we decide to devote extra effort to refraining from gossip or detraction of others, and try to speak more edifyingly of others, or when we fast from always having control of the airwaves around us, we are concretely reminding ourselves that we are not the centre of the universe, that our lives are not about us.
I’m not being dualistic or anti-body here. We don’t treat our bodies as if they are slaves that must be whipped into shape, or machines that we must master. If you want that, watch The Biggest Loser. What we are doing is recognising that it is in and through our body that we express our deepest commitments: and to commit to the love of God and of others is not possible if our bodily actions are always directed towards ourselves.
Self-denial will usually cost us something, and it can even be painful at some level. That’s not because we should be damaging our health, but because we often experience withdrawal symptoms from whatever we are trying to cut out from our lives. The little masters that often have hold of our lives do not give up too easily: it can be very painful to be silent when you would rather hog the conversation, to say no to a drink because you feel you need it to relax or unwind, or to pass up on a movie and give the price of the ticket to Project Compassion.
What we begin to discover as we practice these ascetical disciplines is the emergence of true joy. Joy is found in the love of God and of others, which is why prayer and almsgiving are as important a part of Lent as fasting and self-denial. The acts of self-denial are for joy.
The word ‘Lent’ actually means ‘Spring-time’. But maybe we southern hemisphere-dwellers have the advantage here. Which brings me back to the Autumn leaves. Because before they fall from the trees they change colours, from a fairly uniform green to the most dazzling array of reds, oranges, purples and rich brown shades, with many variations in between. The streets of Melbourne and Canberra are breathtakingly beautiful during Lent. The leaves are dying of course, even as they change colour. But the tree is still very much alive. Something is dying during Lent. But that’s so something new can be born. And even the process of dying is beautiful for those with eyes to see.
Yesterday I received a royalty cheque from St Pauls, the publishers of In the Light of the Cross. With the cheque came the notification that they have sold the final copies of the book. So there may be the odd copy in bookstores around the country, and I have a small supply left, but otherwise the print run is now exhausted. As the book is closely tied to World Youth Day 08, I’m not envisaging that there will be a second printing.
Fr Tom Rosica, the CEO of WYD Toronto in 2002, once said to me that we need to keep telling the stories of our respective World Youth Days to remind people of the days of grace that we experienced. So with Fr Tom’s encouragement, I hope you find the reflection below on the Triumph of the Cross (today’s Feast) illuminating and inspiring.
Each year on September 14, the Church celebrates the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. We were in Townsville for the actual feast in 2007, but it could sometimes seem like every day was the Triumph of the Cross on the Journey of the Cross and Icon because people frequently chose to celebrate the Mass of the Triumph of the Cross when the WYD Cross came to town.
The First Reading for this feast is strange. It is taken from the book of Numbers and tells the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness. They lose ‘patience’ with God and Moses, complaining that the manna that God had provided was not sufficient. Fiery serpents then ravage the Israelite camp, killing many. At the people’s urging, Moses then intercedes with God to save the people. God tells Moses to make a serpent and raise it on a standard. Moses did as God asked and made a serpent out of bronze and anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent and lived (cf. Num 21:4-9). It seems an odd choice for the First Reading.
One rationale for the choice of this reading is that the Gospel for the feast includes a reference to Moses’ lifting up the serpent in the desert. In the Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:14-15). The Gospel continues with the famous verse: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16).
It might seem then that the reference to Moses in the Gospel and the odd choice of First Reading are just a prelude to this crucial verse. The truth however is stranger and more interesting than that. A helpful key to understanding the relevance and significance of these passages is to remember that the feast being celebrated when we hear these readings is the Triumph of the Cross. In other words, these passages tell us something about the Cross.
Let’s take the First Reading for a moment and reflect on what is happening in this strange tale. When Moses fashions the bronze serpent, he is making an image of the very thing that has been killing the Israelites. The serpents are the agents of death, killing people by their venom, but, at God’s instigation, an image of the serpent – the creature that is killing the people – becomes the instrument that saves them from death. The reason for Jesus’ use of the image in the Gospel is now probably obvious, as he is saying to Nicodemus – and to us – that when he (Jesus) is raised up as the bronze serpent was raised up on a standard, people will be saved from death. The standard that Jesus is hoisted upon is, of course, the Cross. The worst instrument of torture and death known to the ancient world becomes the very instrument that God uses to bring about ‘eternal life’ or salvation.
This is the ‘triumph’ of the Cross – that the means of execution has become the balm of healing. The ‘great reversal’ of the Cross’s meaning that we see here has become a favourite theme of authors down the centuries who have sought to shed light upon the power of the Cross. To take just one example from the tradition, Theodore of Studios, who lived in the eighth and ninth centuries, wrote:
How splendid the cross of Christ!
It brings life, not death; light not darkness;
paradise, not its loss.
It is the wood on which the Lord,
like a great warrior,
was wounded in hands and feet and side,
but healed thereby our wounds.
A tree had destroyed us;
a tree now brought us life.
The strongest symbol of this reversal is in the last sentence, where the Cross is described as the tree of life. The Cross is the tree which undid the damage caused by the fruit of the tree that our first parents ate in disobedience to God. This image speaks of the new life that has flowered from the Cross of Christ. I was reminded of this image throughout the journey whenever flowers were placed on or around the WYD Cross.
(The passage from Theodore of Studios was printed in the booklet for Morning Prayer with the Cross and Icon at the Broome campus of the University of Notre Dame. Sr Jill Shirvington had prepared the text.)