8th of the Year, 27 Feb 22
I’m not quite sure how old I was when I eventually became taller than my Mum. I suspect I was about 15. But still my Mum would hug me and look up at me and say, “You’re still my little boy.” Awww, I know you’re all thinking. There’s something in parents which wants their children to be better than them: wealthier, better educated, healthier, more loved. And this is a jolly good attitude for parents to have, lest children become play things or accessories and we do see this in some instances in our society unfortunately. In business, politics and the Church we know who the truly great people are because they appoint people who are even more capable than them, not threatened by them and keen for true talent to succeed. If I may digress briefly in to Star Wars, just before Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV, the baddie who was Obi Wan’s student says, “Now I am the Master.” Anyway, there seems to be some supposed natural order of things that the student eventually surpasses the person who’s schooled them.
With those points in mind, we should note how surprising Jesus’ words are in the Gospel we’ve just heard: “The disciple is not superior to his teacher.” As so often our Lord is breaking common social expectations. He is referring, of course, not to the hopes of parents concerning their children but to the relationship of those who follow Jesus to Him. We are not to consider ourselves greater than Jesus, realising there will never be a time when we don’t need him. Yes, we get rid of the L plates when we have passed our driving test. Yes, when children have learnt to cross the road themselves they don’t need to hold an adult’s hand. Yes, we crave independence if we’ve been injured and need temporary support. But we don’t try and live this life in our own strength.
That being true we also need to think about this when we consider those whom we follow within the Church and indeed in all the different spheres of our life. We are to be wary of celebrity cults. I don’t just mean pop stars we’re keen on, I mean within our work, within our schools, within our churches: there is not be a sense in which one person is beyond reproach or is perfect. No one is above the rules.
I try to live this out in my ministry by correcting members of the congregation when they refer to this as my Church: I usually gently say to them, “our church.” I try to be increasingly aware of my faults as your pastor and the priest of this parish. I know I am not here to create a major following. This Church will continue to stand when I depart: I will have failed if it were to be other than this. Priests are to be above all men of prayer who lead the people of God in worship. I am here to point people to Jesus and tell them to follow Him. I am here to give God’s people the grace He has ordained shepherds should give to the flock, through Mass offered, instruction given, confessions heard and encouragement offered.
In our society there are many authorities haranguing us with their opinion with twenty four hour news and social media and the ease of publishing books. We may hear someone speaking on these forums and they make some sensible point and we instantly add them to our favourites or our ears stay pricked for the rest of the podcast. This is not how Christian discipleship happens though for these by-chance encounters exist outside of a community. The disciples are sent out by our Lord not to give sound bites but to form communities. The longer you’ve been coming to Mass here, the more you probably know my faults but that exposure also gives you I hope a sense of how I’m utterly convinced that Jesus is head of His Church and that He wants us to gather in love for Him and for each other. Now by all means listen to podcasts and watch YouTube videos to improve your knowledge of Christ and His Church but it is not a substitute for being part of a community where we look out for each other.
Jesus uses the analogy of the blind leading the blind in today’s Gospel and expands on this by talking about hypocrisy, which is saying we’ve never done anything wrong and pointing out the sins of others, while failing to recognise our own need for forgiveness. For this reason the practise of the Church is that priests must always be making their confessions as well as hearing the confessions of those who come to them. At the start of Mass we say the confession together and in doing so we recognise that we have each sinned and that we are surrounded by sinners. In such a context we will need to be patient with each other and with ourselves.
As St John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (I John 1:8-9). The Confession we say at the start of Mass should be a priority for us all, but the Confession we make one-to-one with a priest is necessary if we are to come to terms with the extent of our sin for in saying it out loud we are aware of both the hold sin has on our life and the emptiness of its promises for happiness. As we begin on Lent on Wednesday we should all be planning to wage war on our sins.
In our first reading we have the image before us of the shaken sieve, in which the bits are left after we doing the shaking. The wise person writing Ecclesiasticus says such is the nature of the things we say that we reveal our wickedness. As Jesus says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile,” (St Mark 7:15). We should then be thinking about what we say in terms of things we can give up during Lent. Naughty words - and no, I’m not going to say them - soil our speech. Using holy words like “God” and “Jesus” with malice or despair in our hearts is also something to be ditched.
In our second reading we are reminded that so much of what we now are is perishable. We are to cast that off and put on immortality. In the bits of II Corinthians that we’ll look at in our Study Group on Zoom this week Paul says, “While we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed,” (II Corinthians 5:4). It can be difficult to imagine ourselves without the things we rely on for support or the things we’ve always done or the things we’ve convinced ourselves are no one’s business or which we say never really do anyone any harm. But, as we heard in our Gospel at Mass on Thursday last week, Jesus says, “if your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than to have two hands go to hell,” (St Mark 9:43).
Lent, which begins on Wednesday is a time to get rid of some of these things and maybe we do them again once Easter is here or maybe we realise our life shouldn’t have them ever again. Here are a few suggestions. I’m not saying do them all but choose one or two that are particularly pertinent for you. Reduce looking at your phone until after a certain time of day. Switch off alerts that come through. Watch the news for no more than 20 minutes each day. Go to bed by 10pm. Cut out alcohol, coffee, meat on Fridays, coca cola. Quit talking in Church before Mass.
These actions, removing things from our life is the pruning that needs to happen if we are to bear fruit, an image we heard Jesus use in that Gospel and today’s Psalm 92. We should then have space to do extra things but we must’t just take on stuff in Lent, the removal is an essential part of the process. Here’s some ideas of stuff we might want to take on. Make the sign of the Cross when we first wake up. Say the Angelus last thing at night. Give more of our money to the Church or to other local charities. Attend extra services, especially Stations of the Cross on Wednesdays at 4pm beginning next week. Read the weekday Mass readings even if you can’t get to Mass, using a weekday Missal or the Universalis app. Say the Rosary. Give someone a call you’ve not spoken to. Get to know someone in Church. Knock on your neighbour’s door. Say sorry to someone.
Our Christingle celebrations are a last jolly before Lent, which is also the origins of course of Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, when we use up all the nice things in the cupboard before the self-denial of Lent. Round the orange is wrapped the red ribbon, indicating the Blood of Jesus, poured out for us on the Cross. In six weeks’ time on Palm Sunday, 10th April, we’ll mark with Processions once again Jesus going in to Jerusalem. On Good Friday, 15th April, we’ll be in church to creep to the Cross in sorrow for our sins. On Easter Sunday we celebrate our rebirth in the waters of Baptism, making the risen life of Christ a reality in our own existence. We follow Him faithfully and are never to live our lives as if we are greater than Him. May we be refreshed in our discipleship of our glorious Saviour. Amen.