Today we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is not the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary, but the conception of Mary herself. It’s not Jesus’ beginning we’re marking today, but Mary’s. And we mark it, not because there was anything biologically unusual about her conception, but because of who she was from that moment on, in the sight of God: a human being untouched by original sin, graced. There is an Old Testament Psalm with the line, ‘Glorious things are said of you, O city of God’. The ‘city of God’ was Jerusalem, and the prophets did have ‘glorious things’ to say about her. The same line is often applied to Mary too. Our faith says many ‘glorious things’ of Mary, and one of them is what it says today. Our faith says that, from the very beginning of her human life, from her mother’s womb, she was freed from all stain of original sin and therefore ‘graced’, ‘redeemed’, ‘adopted’, a delight to the heart of God, all that human beings are meant to be. ‘Where are you?’ the Lord God asks Adam immediately after the first sin. It was a question that should never have needed asking. But Adam, as we know, had sinned, felt shame and was hiding, like a naughty child, in the bushes. He was off-line; he had lost the connection. He was not where he was meant to be: with God in every part of his being; at home; in the presence. But Mary was. Mary, this first century Jew, a village girl, a Galilean peasant woman, was always ‘in the presence’, always. And why? Because ‘before the world was made’, she was predestined to be the mother of the Saviour, God incarnate, the One who would restore the connection all of us had lost in Adam. She was the city who was to open her gates to the king. She was, pardon the image, the landing strip on which the divine plane, the Son of God, was to land. She was Israel now ready to welcome her God. She was the one fitted to utter the ‘yes’ on behalf of us all and so allow the Incarnation to occur. And she was the one who would do for Jesus – God made man, the Holy One – everything a mother does for her son. So, from the beginning, she was prepared and equipped for her mission: properly dressed for the occasion, as it were, ‘highly favoured’, ‘full of grace’. The angel did not have to go looking for her; she was ‘there’. By the Spirit of the Son who redeems us all, she was already ‘connected’, ‘online’. She had oil in her lamp. She was awake and watching. She was the Advent that, on the human side, made Christmas possible. ‘Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God’.
At the Scottish Parliament last night, 28th November 2018, hundreds of representatives from various Catholic Church agencies across Scotland attended an event at the Scottish Parliament. The event was organised by Elaine Smith MSP & Anthony Horan of the Scottish Catholic Parliamentary Office also supported by cross party politicians including Aileen Campbell MSP Cabinet Secretary and others. Bishop Hugh Gilbert, OSB, delivered the following speech during the event:
Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are – forgive me! – a ‘species’ which evolved after the Second Vatican Council. The main founding document, called Immensae Caritatis, was issued by the Holy See in 1973. Its driving idea was “to make access to communion easier”. One aspect was ensuring that there are enough people, ‘ministers’, to administer Holy Communion. This held both within Mass if numbers are large or the celebrant disabled and outside Mass if distances are extensive and there are many housebound or sick. So, in addition to the ‘ordinary’ ministers, i.e. bishop, priest and deacon, the ordained, St Paul VI made room for special ministers, now called ‘extraordinary ministers’, i.e. not bishops, priests or deacons, not ordained but commissioned. He mentioned explicitly lectors, seminarians, religious, catechists and “one of the faithful – a man or a woman”. We would now add acolytes.
Brothers and Sisters, at this time of the year, the Church’s liturgy is giving us a course on the “last things”, as we call them, or “eschatology” if you want a fancy word. We’re being pointed to the future.
Sunday by Sunday, we are following Christ under the guidance of the Gospel of St Mark. Today we come to a high-point and a turning-point. The high-point is Peter’s profession of faith: You are the Messiah. The turning-point is Jesus revealing that he’s a Messiah who will have to suffer. Peter gets it right, very right. And then he gets it wrong, very wrong.
Today is the feast of the Triumph or Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and, dear Dominic, your diaconal ordination. It’s a good combination. And the Gospel says: “The Son of man must be lifted up.”
According to St Paul in the 2nd reading, he was lifted up by the Father through his Resurrection and Ascension. According to St John in the Gospel, he was lifted up by the Father already on the Cross. But in both cases the essential movement is the same: down and up. Coming down to share our lot, going up so that we will be healed and saved and have eternal life. This is the pattern.
Today’s feast brings to mind an episode in the life of the Apostle Paul. It occurs during his second missionary journey, some twenty years after our Lord’s death and resurrection. Paul has arrived in Athens. ‘Standing in front of the Areopagus’ (Acts 17:22), he speaks for the first time to a non-Jewish audience, to the leading Athenians. The Gospel is crossing a threshold, encountering a quite other mentality from that of its Jewish homeland. St Paul says his say, but when he mentions the raising of Jesus from the dead – the resurrection of Christ – he is met, drowned out perhaps, by laughter. ‘At the mention of rising from the dead, some’ of his listeners, says Acts, ‘burst out laughing’ (Acts 17:32). The idea is ridiculous. So it was to the Greek mind. Perhaps we can say that this ‘laughter’ at the Resurrection runs through the centuries. The notion of bodily resurrection flies in the face of all the evidence. After the experiences of the 20th c., we might feel that particularly. If there is a resurrection that awaits us, it could only be through some form of genetic engineering or artificial intelligence – not what St Paul had in mind.
We continue with Jesus’ Discourse on the Bread of Life from John ch. 6. Our Lord is saying amazing things.
‘Lord, give us this bread always’.
Brothers and Sisters, for a few Sundays in this Year B, the Liturgy turns away from the Gospel of Mark and back to the Gospel of John, the Easter Gospel. It makes a detour to John Ch. 6, the chapter on the Bread of Life. One could say much about the context. Briefly, we’re in springtime, close to Passover. We’re in the synagogue in Capernaum, with Jesus, the disciples and a crowd. Probably, it’s the Sabbath. Probably, what we’re hearing is a dialogue homily of Jesus in the midst of a service. Possibly, the reading from the Law was our first reading today, Exodus 16, the story of the manna in the desert.
Today we are offering Canon Stanley’s soul to the mercy of God and his body to Mother Earth. And so he makes his final journey. And we accompany him with our prayers. An enigmatic man in some ways, something of a loner, eccentric, prey to depression at times, a great radio ham, famous for his motorbikes and scooters and ponytail. Most of all, for 58 years, he just steadily served the Lord and his people as a priest, preaching, celebrating sacraments, taking care, attracting affection and in his last years at Northcote Lodge becoming patriarchal in dignity, with his long, white, whispy beard and a benign peacefulness.