Sunday, December 27, 2015

'Church: it isn't just for Christmas, it's for Life.'

May I speak in the name of the Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen

On the first Sunday after Christmas, not surprisingly, it is customary to look at the newly formed Holy Family – newly formed, that is, in the sense of how we look at things from the perspective of our Church calendar. And this Sunday our Gospel reading from St Luke gives us our only scriptural insight into the life of the Holy Family. The evangelist describes their visit to Jerusalem for the festival – showing them to be a family for whom the religious customs of their time and place are of great importance. The piety of the boy Jesus is, not surprisingly, especially impressive. So desirous is he to be close to his Father in heaven in the great Temple that he stays behind while all others from his town travel home; and when he is found his response to the wonder of his parents is 'did you not know I must be in my Father's House?'

There is a stark contrast between our Lord's example, the one whom Christians are called to imitate to the best of their ability, and many who call themselves his followers today. This is particularly evident at Christmas time when the much fuller churches serve as a witness as to how comparatively empty they are the rest of the year. For many, it seems, there is no 'must' when it comes to being in their Father's house; once a year, if they can, suffices.

It brings to my mind the slogans used at this time of year by animal welfare societies along the lines of: Pets – they're not just for Christmas, they're for life. I sometimes wonder if the churches should not adopt some similar slogan, along the lines of  'Church: it isn't just for Christmas, it's for Life.' Because sadly many of those who say 'happy Christmas' to the the priest at the door as they shake his hand while leaving might easily add 'and see you again this time next year. ' Is to behave thus adequate when it comes to living the Christian life? I think we all know that it is not.

Consider the words of St Paul which we heard read earlier: 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.' The apostle paints a wonderful picture of Christian living here – one that would be difficult for most to achieve by way of a brief annual visit to the house of the Lord. Even great saints, who as part of their spiritual disciplines were living the solitary life, would have more frequent contact than that; and few of us are great saints and consequently need much more regular time in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in our secular modern age.

But, of course, it was never part of God's plan that religion should be something reserved for a small corner of the year. It is something for every moment of every day of our lives from the cradle to the grave. We cannot, of course, spend every second of our life in church; but every thought, word, and action is to be done as Christ would have us do. And then, as God commanded, we must come together on the day appointed by him, gathering as his people, in his house; listening to his word spoken, being taught how to live out the Christian life more perfectly, asking pardon for our failings, receiving the holy food of the Blessed Sacrament from the Lord's Table, before being sent out into the world again, refreshed and strengthened, with God's blessing ringing in our ears.

And what are those of us who try to emulate of Lord's love for his Father's house by our regular Sunday attendance to do about those who do not? Do we mind our own business, saying and doing nothing, even though we greatly fear the spiritual danger their absence places them in? No; for neither is that the Christian way, to ignore the lost sheep and leave them to their peril. Instead, we are to pray for them; to encourage and exhort them to extend their presence beyond their annual visit – always gently, but always firmly. We are to hold before them the love the Holy Family had, and above all the love our Lord had, for God's house. How could we not? They are our brothers and sisters; and our concern for their souls must be as great as that which we have for our own. Amen. 

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