The Visitation

Below is the text of my second homily, given for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

The Visitation – Jerónimo Ezquerra (1660 – 1733)


Hebrews 10:5-10 & Luke 1:26-38

Christmas is not yet here, and so on this fourth Sunday in Advent, we still have time to prepare our hearts as we wait to recognise the coming of our Lord in the birth of Jesus Christ, son of Mary, and son of the Most High.

Let’s reflect on the gift that we are about to receive and how we might prepare to receive Him.

Giving a gift is an act of love. In giving a gift, weseparate something from our self for the good of another. We make a loving sacrifice. When we are presented with a gift, we are presented with an invitation: an invitation to respond with thanksgiving. We are invited to enter more fully into the promise of a relationship that a gift offers, and this requires that we orient ourselves towards the other, not only in our attitude, but in our action.

Now, try to remember the best gift you’ve ever received. It might have been for your birthday, or Christmas, whatever the occasion, remember that gift. Think about what it felt like as you unwrapped it. Did you carefully peelaway the wrapping, or did you tear it open in excitement? What happened inside you when you saw it for the first time? What did you feel? Were your surprised? Did you laugh? Did you cry? Did you stare at it in wonder?

A carefully chosen gift matches the precise character and needs of the person receiving it. A well-chosen gift makes us feel loved, makes us feel seen for who we are.

The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews has Jesus referencing the burnt offerings and sin offerings that were required according to the Law of Moses, he then adds “See, God, I have come to do your will.”

It is written that Jesus abolishes the first in order to establish the second, and yet Jesus said he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it, and so he does. The coming of Jesus Christ and His victorious work on the cross is the great Yes to all the promises made to Israel.

He is the gift from God that perfectly meets the character and needs of the people of Israel.

For us Christians not to understand the temple, the prophets, the covenant and the Law is not to understand the person of Jesus Christ. All these things bring God and humankind together. They exist to align the will of God’s people with the will of God. At the heart of Christianity, we have the perfection of this alignment in one man, the perfect union of human and Divine, the perfection that Israel had so longed, waited, and hoped for.

And so we also wait, and we prepare.

For the first half of Advent, the readings have focussed our hearts and minds on the second coming of Christ, but in these last two weeks, our focus shifts to his first coming, and on this final Sunday, now so close to Christmas, the Gospel readings hone in on the pregnant mother of our Lord.

We pick up the story just after the Angel Gabriel has announced to Mary that she will bear a son. Mary has responded with her great Yes to God’s promise.

In saying Yes, she has offered herself as the new ark of the covenant, the ark that will hold and keep safe the Word of God until he enters the world at Christmas. She offers her motherly lap as the throne on which the infant Christ will sit. But what does she do then? What should we do once we trust in God’s promises? Mary gives us the model to follow.

The reading starts: ‘Mary set out and went with haste”. Her faithful response to God is followed by action. She sets out. Her faith is not idle. She has been given a promise by God, and in that promise, she finds purpose, which she runs to share in communion with another.

When she entered the house of Zechariah, she greeted Elizabeth. This greeting is an echo of the greeting Mary received from theAngel Gabriel. Mary comes to Elizabeth bearing good news of the gift of Salvation. Mary comes bearing a gift from God.

Upon receiving Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, the Essence of God that is given by the Father, received by the Son, and poured out on the disciples at Pentecost in the self-giving love of the Trinity.

Elizabeth says to Mary “Blessed is she who believed”. But how is she blessed? Blessed here means a joy which is serene and untouchable. It is disconnected from the distractions and trappings of the world, the constant temptation to look away from God.

It is a blessedness which is grounded in faith and in the promises of God, and so cannot be touched, and yet it is a blessedness that would come to pierce the Blessed Mother’s heart as she watched her son die on the cross.

Upon receiving Mary’s greeting, her child leapt in her womb. John the Baptist recognises Christ and rejoices. Even in the womb, John recognised his Lord – such was his purpose.

We know that John will soon call us to repentance and baptism in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. John calls us to repent in order that we too might recognise Christ. So how can we hope to recognise our Lord if we are not facing Him? The first step in preparing to receive the gift of Salvation made present at Christmas, is to confess our sins and turn to Christ.

Is it possible for anyone to know you better than you know yourself? It is a difficult thing to believe, and we easily slip back into thinking that we know what is best for ourselves, and that we must prove ourselves worthy. When we live this way, are we living in the Grace of God? TheGrace of God is not that he has graciously provided some means for us to earn our way into Heaven: that is pride. No, the gates of the Kingdom are already open to all, and yet we all suffer from the blindness of pride. We all think we know ourselves, our desires and our needs better than anyone else, including God. If we think we have nothing to confess, we may well be mistaken. All are called to repentance.

In these last days of Advent, can I encourage you to examine your conscience? Would it help you to prayerfully review your thoughts, words, and deeds at the end of the day? If we can build up a habit of confessing our sins to one another, continually turning to Christ, we might better prepare ourselves to respond to the invitation of God’s love this Christmas.

Left on our own, our natural tendency is to drift along the wide road, away from God. The good news that Mary shares with Elizabeth is that we have not been left alone. We have been called to enter the narrow gate. We will each be given an invitation this Christmas. Will we respond with our lives?

God, in his infinite love, graces us with his eternal presence in a way that precisely meets each of us in our particular character and needs. Christianity is truly catholic, truly universal, the perfect gift given by God to all the people of the world. God knows the desires of your heart, but more than that he sees and shares in your need, and in your suffering, and he offers you Himself.

My heart turns to those who will join us for Christmas, those who have not been here in a while, and those who we might not see again for some time. I ask you to pray about how you might embrace them. I pray that something might stir in them during our Christmas celebrations, that they might hear the call and the beauty of the life of the church, its seasons, and its loving people. I pray that we too might even today as we share communion together, know that we are receiving the perfect gift, the gift that Mary bears for us: God Himself.

The Lord be with you.

The Annunciation

Below is the text of my first homily, given for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

Annunciation – Caravaggio – 1608


Luke 1:26-38 – The Annunciation

‘In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slowly. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention, and in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’ – Pico Iyer (adapted)

Like most people, I used to think that life was about finding happiness. “We don’t mind what you do, son,” my parents would tell me, “as long as you are happy.” At that time I was actively seeking, and happiness was near the top of my list.

At one point, I accidentally stumbled on a secret piece of advice that I have forgotten many times, but try to remind myself of whenever I can. It is this: “I don’t care about happiness!” Now that might sound crazy, but when I honestly said that to myself for the first time what I was actually doing was letting go of the pursuit. It was then that I recognised that what I was seeking was already there, present within me. So it is with God.

Advent is the season of the exalted secret. Within the darkness and hiddenness of the womb is where all the excitement is going on.

In today’s reading, the Annunciation to Mary, the angel announces that God is reaching out to the world. God is extending His divine love into and through the barriers of arrogance, through our enviousness, desperation, and grief; through our possessiveness and confusion.

God has announced his intention to re-form His covenant with humanity, through the humility and faithfulness of this one young woman. This is not the beginning of the story, but it is a beginning; a beginning woven within Mary and her response to God’s call on her life. Today, the angel Gabriel announces news of the imminent beginnings of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Great as this news is, notice that it is not announced in triumphant fanfare for all to hear. It is whispered, in private, by an angel of God.

‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!’

We hear that Mary was perplexed at the way that she was greeted, and the angel said to her “Do not be afraid.” God’s call on our life can be frightening, it can be unsettling and we, in our confusion and need for control so often turn away, back to the patterns of behaviour so ingrained in us over so many years: Our familiar and misguided ways of being.

‘Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word’.

Mary’s response to God’s call on her life has been held up to us by the church as a model to follow in our own responses. One that is full of grace, and favoured by God. Through her example, we are led to a life of devotion, to God and to our neighbours who we are called to love.

The ‘Yes’ that Mary offered was not “Yes, I will do this”, but “Yes, I will gently move aside and allow this to happen in and through me.”

Through humbling herself, Mary was exalted. Mary became for us the living temple through which God humbly entered His own creation.

Christmas is a time of renewal. Our Hope is in God made flesh, and our faith is in humbly turning away from ourselves to pay attention to God whispering in our lives.

The humility of Mary is in the recognition of herself as the one who will never stand against the radiant love of God, for there can be no bounds to the infinity of His love. She lifted herself up to God as the one through whom this divine love was to be poured into Creation in the person of Jesus Christ.

We are all called to be Mary, we are all called to say Yes to God in this way, giving our consent to the presence of God in our lives, and allowing Christ to be born into the world through us.

To follow Christ is to sell all that we have, a message the world is loath to hear, particularly at Christmas. We must empty ourselves so that God may work through us. Our life of following in the Way of the Cross is a life of continual conversion, the daily renewal of your decision, with Mary, to say Yes to God.

At Christmas, we will celebrate and remember the gift God gave us in love: Himself. Today, still in Advent, we celebrate and remember the gift Mary gave God: His humanity.

The gifts that we give at Christmas, as beautiful and thoughtful as they are, will ultimately degrade, break or become lost. They are merely symbolic of the true gifts that we give: the gift of love we are called to have for one another.

Now, of course, I’m sure you’ll immediately think of a few people in your life you find pretty difficult to love. And that’s ok. All you need to do is to say to God, ‘Look, I find myself unable to love this person, but Lord you love them. Please love them through me.’

If there is only one message of the Gospel, it is the message of the love of God. And if there is only one characteristic by which the world recognises us as Christians, it is how we love each other and those we meet along the way.

God chose to enter the world as a man, and Mary gave her assent, choosing to fully participate in the incarnation of the Lord. Christ is not forceful. Christ is gentle. He asks our permission to enter our lives, and through us, to enter the world. Once we give that permission, a seed is planted and our lives slowly grow into the shape of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

As we draw closer to the Eucharist this morning, let us lift up our hearts as a chalice to the Lord. Let us allow Christ to fill us with His grace. Let us be vulnerable in faith before God and let the knowledge of the imminent birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ allow us to love one another in humility.

May we each become bearers of Christ this Christmas, living by the beauty of Mary’s example. Let us say Yes to God and allow Jesus, the Living Word to be born into the world through us.

 The Lord be with you.

Paint a Nativity play backdrop

2017 Nativity Play backdrop

To make this Nativity backdrop, I used a queen-sized, navy blue sheet as the canvas. I chose this colour so that I wouldn’t have to paint the entire sheet and still have a beautiful colour for the silent night sky.

First, wash and dry the sheet. It’s probably also best to iron it, although I didn’t go that far.

To start your design, find an image that you like that you can appropriate. I chose a Nativity icon I found here.

It’s best to sketch out your design in a rectangle with the same proportions as the sheet you’ll be painting on. Divide the drawing with a grid so that it’s easier to upscale your design onto the sheet.

Nativity design sketch (my son decided to help)

When you’re ready, stretch your sheet out on the floor and pin the corners down. I used tables as they were heavy enough and available.

Stretched sheet

Using chalk, mark out the grid intervals on the edges of the sheet, but don’t draw lines across the sheet.

Use a tape measure in place of a grid line if you want to measure the relative position of an element.

Draw out your scene in chalk.

Once you have your scene sketched, start painting. Start with white paint in any areas you wish to be bright (like the stars). I thought I would need to do this under the leaves etc as well, but as I ran out of good quality white paint, and the paint the Sunday school had was watery, I had to go with straight colour, which came out quite nicely anyway.

Don’t be afraid to mix colours and see what works. If you need some advice on painting, check out Mural Joe on Youtube.

2017 Nativity Play backdrop

An Unfamiliar Love

It can be hard to love our family. Our family hold insight into our lives that is often hidden from our friends and enemies. When familial ties are damaged or under strain, we instinctively feel vulnerable. Christmas gatherings can be a time of submerged confrontation. For the sake of our children and ageing parents, we play nicely so as to avoid the hurt and embarrassment of arguments around the table.

This may not be descriptive of your Christmas, and I hope it is not, but for some, it will be. Like any other time of year, this can be one of suffering. It can be difficult to remember the joy of Christmas.

In forming His human body, God the Son glorified Himself and began the process of clarifying and perfecting Creation. The whole of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, is one family. All life shares the same basic molecular structures that allow our cells to replicate and function. As a human being grows in its mother’s womb, the cells that comprise the webbing of its paddling hands and feet are programmed to die, so that fingers and toes capable of dexterity and control can form.

At least at this level, death seems inherent and necessary for the formation of life. We can only assume that in the fullness of His humanity, it was in this way that Jesus Christ, like us, came into the world. It is through death that new life arises. The Divine Invasion at Christmas was, and is, the explosion of hope and life into a muddied and dying world.

This Christmas, as you sit at the other end of the table from whomever it is in your life that has done you wrong, consider their suffering and their need for kindness. Consider the difficulty we all have in bearing the weight of our own lives. Consider His words about those that crucified Him: “Father, Forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Without the love of Christ, the experience of cruelty can drive us to view the world as fundamentally meaningless and deeply scornful. A desire to subjugate the world to the will of the individual is both a cause and symptom of suffering. Loving those who have hurt us means choosing to peer through the veil of cruelty to see the suffering hiding there.

Through the kind eyes of the newborn Christ, we can see afresh those who inflict harm. It is they who are most desperately in need of the tenderness and unfamiliar love of God.

May you bear His gentleness in your actions,

May He bless your family through you, and

May you live in the joy of Christmas.