Tuesday, February 28, 2017

prayer diary Tuesday 28 Feb 2017

Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 
Mark 10.29-30

There is everything to gain by turning to the Gospel. As you prepare to begin Lent tomorrow, think as to how this time of prayer and fasting will help you achieve eternal life.

Monday, February 27, 2017

prayer diary Monday 27 Feb 2017

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 
Mark 10. 21

The material things of this world can stand between us and Christ, between us and eternal life. As you prepare for Lent this year consider how you may defeat the hold that the passing things of this world have over you and gain instead treasure that is eternal.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

building on sand

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

Our Gospel reading today might be termed the parable of the wise and foolish builders. The wise man's house has its foundations upon rock and is secure against all that might threaten it; the foolish upon sand and is washed away. Our Lord tells us that it those who hear and obey his words who are like the wise man; and those who do not are like the fool. If you detect an ominous tone in this parable, you would not be wrong. For in it Jesus is telling his followers that those who are obedient to God will be rewarded; and that those who are not will be punished.

Now we live in an age in which many people do not like to be reminded that heaven is not the only option when it comes to the next life. And such as they might decry this passage as being threatening, an attempt at frightening them into being good out of a fear of divine punishment. But I think it would be wrong to interpret our Lord's words as a threat. He is Truth incarnate and therefore speaks only the truth; and therefore when he tells us that there is one fate for those who hear and obey and another for those who do not he is simply laying out the facts. And he does so with the purpose of warning us of the dangers that we face.

Now, of course, being warned of dangers can worry people. I remember, for example, when I was in the army that we were warned that some of the areas in which we did training exercises was home to Black Widow spiders. Now, black widows are, as I am sure all know, highly poisonous. Their bite will not generally kill a healthy adult but it will make them quite ill and is certainly no pleasant thing. So any time we got the news that we would be training in a place where they were commonly present not surprisingly made some of the troops quite nervous. Some people, of course, are terrified of spiders, even soldiers, which only made things worse.

So you can well imagine that when we were in those parts of the training grounds, living in tents, there was a good deal of careful checking of boots in the morning before putting them on. Typically, we'd peer into them, then bang them together vigorously, then turn them upside down and shake them even more vigorously, and then, provided no unwelcome guest had fallen out, shove our feet into them with great force, on the theory that if one had managed to stay ensconced inside our military issue shoe leather then the swift entrance of a foot into the boot would crush any deadly spider before it had a chance to bite our toes through our thick military issue socks. And, not surprisingly, once the boots were safely on, a careful checking of the tent corners followed. I remember on several occasions finding that the night had indeed brought a dark arachnid among us; but the problem was easily solved by the donning of my thick leather gauntlets and gently but carefully escorting the uninvited guests from the premises and back out into the woods.

So a serious enough problem. But people were careful and I never heard of anyone being bitten during my time there. However, imagine the authorities had chosen not to warn us. People certainly would have come to harm. Fingers and toes would have been painfully nibbled by the unpleasant lady spiders. And the excuse that 'we didn't want to worry people … or have them think we were trying to frighten them into being careful' would have sounded pretty weak indeed.

The fact is that warnings serve a purpose. And a little bit of concern over what the consequences might be if we fail to heed those warnings serves a purpose also. And just as the fear of being bitten by a poisonous spider kept us on the lookout for their presence in the army, so in life the warnings of Christ as to the consequences for those who do not listen to his word and obey helps keep us on the straight and narrow path.

And, as I draw to a close, I think it important to remind you why it is that our Lord gives us these warnings. It is because he loves us. Warnings, after all, are not given to inspire fear, but because we either love those we warn or have a duty of care toward them. And just as the warning about black widows did leave us all cowering with fear, neither should Christ's frighten us. For our Saviour has not only warned us, he has provided us with the means to be safe. He has given us the rock on which to build so that no danger may ever threaten us and we may come safely to the end of our lives to be with him in heaven. This what he wants – and he wants it so badly that he was willing to take flesh and suffer and die on the cross so that we might indeed by saved. All we have to do in return is trust in him and choose wisely. And I pray that you all will. Amen.  

Saturday, February 25, 2017

prayer diary Saturday 25 Feb 2017

'Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
Mark 10.15

God is our Father and we are his children. And we must be his loving children, obedient to his will, if we are to enter into eternal life.

Friday, February 24, 2017

prayer diary Friday 24 Feb 2017 (Day of Discipline and Self-denial)

“a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ 
Mark 10.7-9

Christian marriage is more than a mere civil contract. Through it the couple witness to the world their faith in God through their adherence to his law.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

prayer diary Thursday 23 Feb 2017

'If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.' 
Mark 9.42

Leading or provoking others to sin is gravely offensive to God, particularly when they are the young or vulnerable whom compassion dictates you should take especial care that they are not lead astray.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

prayer diary Wednesday 22 Feb 2017

'For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.' 
Mark 9.41

Small actions done with loving care matter much in God's eyes, especially when done for those whose need is great.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

prayer diary Tuesday 21 Feb 2017

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ 
Mark 9.37

We must treat the weak and vulnerable of this world as if they were our Lord himself if we wish to have God in our lives.

Monday, February 20, 2017

prayer diary Monday 20 Feb 2017

His disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast the unclean spirit out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’ 
Mark 9. 28,29

We face many dangers and temptations in this life that we can not conquer on our own. It is only by calling on God's help through prayer that we may prevail and be saved.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

they neither toil nor spin

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.
I remember once while I was working in Revenue being approached by a colleague, asking me to lend him a hand in getting a case settled that had being going on for a few years. I told him that I would be happy to, but would have to check with my line-supervisor first. He was amenable to the idea, particularly as he also wanted to see the case finalised, as it had been on our books far too long in his opinion.
'But,' he told me, 'I'll warn you now, you'll have to do most of the work on this. That chap is like the lillies of the field.'
'What do you mean?' asked.
'He does not toil, neither does he spin,' came the reply. It is an interesting twist, I think, on our Lord's words, which we hear in our gospel reading today, being used to describe someone who was particularly shiftless and idle; words, as we all know, I am sure, which were intended to make clear to us how great is God's wisdom and generosity in how he meets all our needs. When I think of all the amazing ways in which God provides for us, I find it difficult not to think of the 40 years the people of Israel spent wandering in the desert – during which time, we are told by sacred scripture, neither their clothes nor their shoes wore out, their need for food being met by manna from heaven and great flocks of quails, and whose need for water was met by the rock that Moses struck and from which a great torrent then poured out – a rock that, we are told by St Paul in First Corinthians, followed them. God therefore provided them with all they needed to survive during their time in the wilderness.
It is a powerful scriptural reminder to us, I think, of what we should know from looking at the world around us, how God provides with everything we need in this world he has created for us to live in. And because God has given us everything we need we must stop worrying, Christ tells us. Stop worrying that we do not have enough – or if we have enough for today perhaps we will not have enough for tomorrow or the day after. Trust in God; we know he will provide because he has already provided. Accept his gifts gratefully … and start to concern yourself with things that are of greater importance – the salvation of souls. Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, Christ tells us. This means we must give spiritual matters a higher place than material. Christ assures that matters relating to bodily needs will be met by God – so we have therefore no excuse when it comes to souls - your soul, the souls of your family and those around you in the community in which you live, and the souls of those in the world around us.

And of course, just as God has provided us with the means to sustain our bodies, so he provides us with the means to sustain our souls. And because it is for us of greater worth to seek the kingdom of God than it is to search out earthly treasure, therefore we must understand that the spiritual gifts God provides for us are of a higher worth than all the material wonders he provides us with. First he has given us our reason, by dint of which, as St Paul tells us in Romans, all people may come to know him – at least in the sense of knowing he exists and having the knowledge of right and wrong written in or hearts. More specifically, he has given us his word in Sacred Scriptures – a treasury of revelation through which he has spoken to men and women down through the ages and continues to speak to us today. He has also revealed himself to us even more fully through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who came into the world to suffer and die for our sins so that all might be saved. That Son established a Church to which he gave Sacraments – sacraments which are a channel of grace for us, and a powerful way for us to strengthen our spiritual lives. And just as he ensured the Israelites in the wilderness had the food they needed to sustain during their wanderings, so to does he give us the spiritual food and drink we need to sustain our souls during our pilgrimage here on earth. And not just any food, but the very body and blood of his Son Jesus Christ – the second person of the Blessed Trinity – God himself! For as Christ himself told us in Scriptures, his body is true food, and his blood true drink … and those who eat and drink of it will have eternal life … never, of course, forgetting St Paul's words that we must do so worthily – not that we can ever be truly worthy of so great a gift, but even then God's provides us with the means to be as worthy as we may through his gifts of baptism, and confession and absolution … showing that we are all, in a sense, like more like my idle colleague in the civil service than we may realise … for when it comes to what truly matters in life, we indeed neither toil or spin, but God our Heavenly Father provides … and for such great gifts I pray that we are now, and always be, truly grateful. Amen.  

Saturday, February 18, 2017

prayer diary Saturday 18 Feb 2017

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 
Mark 9.7

God the Father calls on us to listen to the Son. Implicit in that is not just to listen but to obey, for what is the point of listening to his commands if you do not do as he asks you to do? Remember this as you read the Gospels – you are called not only to listen to what you find there but to obey.

Friday, February 17, 2017

prayer diary Friday 17 Feb 2017 (Day of Discipline and Self-denial)

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.' 
Mark 8.34

The Christian life can not be treated as a temporary enthusiasm; nor can it be taken up in fits and starts, with the person being a saint one day and pagan the next. Christ calls on those who would follow him to deny themselves and take up their cross. And as Christ himself showed us, a cross is something that once it is taken up can only be put down at the end.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

prayer diary Thursday 16 Feb 2017

He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 
Mark 8.29

This question of Christ is for all. St Peter answered rightly. How do you answer?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

prayer diary Wednesday 15 Feb 2017

Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 
Mark 8.25

We should be encouraged that Jesus laid his hands on this man more than once for it shows us that God does give up on us. And it is only when Christ has opened our eyes in the spiritual sense that we see all things clearly.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

prayer diary Tuesday 14 Feb 2017

And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out; beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ 
Mark 8.15

It is all too easy to be poisoned by the various evils of the world. Do not think you can flirt with them and remain unaffected.

Monday, February 13, 2017

prayer diary Monday 13 Feb 2017

And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ 
Mark 8. 12

In the face of miracles the doubters asked for signs. Small wonder Jesus was troubled deeply by their attitude. It is the same for us. If there are not enough miracles for you in the Gospels, then nothing will convince you.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

St Valentine and marriage

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

In our gospel reading today, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord lays out his teaching on marriage. Today is also, as it happens, the Sunday closest to St Valentine's Day. So I thought I would take advantage of the coincidence to talk a little about St Valentine – a man who was martyred in ancient Rome for his dedication to Christian marriage.

How could such a situation arise? Well the emperor of St Valentine's time, Claudius II, had a serious problem – he was finding it difficult to find men to fill the ranks of his armies. A large cause of this was the fact that it was not only the law but an ancient tradition that a recently married man was excused from military service. This was a fairly usual custom in ancient times – we read, for example, in the Old Testament, how a man who has just married must not be sent out to war for a year in order for him to be able to spend time with his new bride. But that new marriages were taking place at such a rate that it was causing problems with finding enough soldiers to keep the army strong enough to protect the empire suggests that something fishy was going on. It seems to me not unlikely that men must have been gaming the system in order to get out of military service – whether because they were cowards or they would have felt such a life inconvenient to their ambitions – soldiers don't make much money, after all - it is hard to say. So we can imagine that perhaps some men were entering into shame marriages – paying girls to marry them with no intention that they should live together as husband as wife. Worse, perhaps some who were already married were divorcing their wives so they could marry anew and avoid being called up. The ancient Romans were always very quick to end one marriage and enter another, especially when they thought there was some advantage in doing so.

Now, banning marriages taking place was something that not even the emperor could do. Marriage is part of the natural order of things. But he could ban those who officiated at them from doing so. There were a lot fewer of them than couples wishing to marry, making them easier to control. For most couples wishing to marry for genuine reasons this was not quite the disaster it seems. Ancient Rome had several different types of arrangements which would have been considered a marriage. The least formal type is what we would probably refer to as cohabitation which was called 'usus' in Latin – marriage by use. The couple simply lived together and after a time were regarded by those around them as married. This had fallen out of use by this time, but we can imagine, given no other choice, couples in love choosing to resurrect the custom; and because of its informal nature would not have attracted a free-pass from military service. No doubt those who wished to could have married more formally later if they wished to do so, once the emperor's ban had been lifted. And if they did not wish to do so, the 'marriage' would have been ended just as informally as it had begun.

But Christians, of course, were not your average citizens. They had a very particular idea of marriage – one that was very different to the culture around them. They certainly weren't about to start living with each other – doing what we in our modern age would refer to as cohabitation. For them the emperor's ban amounted to an absolute ban of marriage.

Absolute, of course, unless they could find some priest who was willing to defy the emperor’s unjust law. And St Valentine was just such a priest. We can imagine him, day after day, meeting with young couples in the cave and tunnels that made up the catacombs under the city of Rome, and by the flickering light of little oil lamps officiating at the ceremonies that would make them man and wife not only in the eyes of men but in the sight of God. It was a terrible risk, of course; for the emperor would not be pleased if he found out. More, Claudius II hated Christians and a great persecution took place under his reign. So a priest from one of the temple cults who defied his ban might expect imprisonment and perhaps a beating as well. But a Christian priest could expect that punishment only to be a prelude to death.

And so it was with St Valentine. He was eventually arrested and thrown in prison. When he was brought before the emperor it is hard to say what angered him most – the priest's disobedience or that he was a Christian. He had the holy man beaten with clubs; and then beheaded. A cruel death to be sure. But we can be equally sure that St Valentine thought it a small price to pay for doing his duty as a priest to the couples he helped and to God. For the powers of this earth may kill the body, but they can not touch the soul. And St Valentine would have known that it was that he risked, his very soul, if he failed in his duty as a priest of God.

St Valentine died a martyr's death for the Christian ideal of marriage. The kind of marriage that we hear our Lord speak of in our gospel reading today and elsewhere in the gospels. It was the ideal of marriage that the Church Christ founded sought to bring everywhere the good news was preached, knowing it to be God's plan for how men and women were to live. Many things in the world today threaten that ideal – perhaps because it is as much a threat to the culture of today as it was in the time of St Valentine. And yet he thought it something worth dying for. We no less should think it something worth fighting for. And so I end today with a prayer for marriage – that people will come understand its beauty, how it is part of God's plan for bringing men and women to be with him in heaven, and joyfully do all they can to strengthen and promote the ideal of Christian marriage in the society in which we live today and always. Amen.  

Saturday, February 11, 2017

prayer diary Saturday 11 Feb 2017

His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?' He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ 
Mark 8.4,5

When you feel that living up the demands of Christian life are impossible, especially our calling to make disciples of all people, remember these verses. It is not what you bring that matters, it is what the Lord does with them.

Friday, February 10, 2017

St Valentine: a story

Agnes smiled brightly as she walked down the narrow cobbled streets of Rome. Why would she not be smiling? She was young, the sun was shining, and she was in love. And she was in love with not just anyone, but Titus, the handsomest young man in the city. And he loved her back! Yes, he did! She could hardly believe it. But it was true – and she knew it was true because he had asked her to marry him. They planned to marry in only a few days. She could hardly wait until the time would come until she and Titus were at last man and wife. In fact she was on her way to meet Titus now. He was waiting for her at a small square near the forum. There was much planning to do for the wedding, but today they planned to take just a little time for themselves and walk, holding hands, down the banks of the mighty Tiber, the river that ran through Rome, as all young lovers liked to do.

So she nearly skipped her way through the streets. She hardly saw the slaves in thread-bare tunics who rubbed shoulders with merchants in rich robes along the way. She did frown a little when one merchant whistled her as she passed. She did not think it right that men with wives and children at home should be looking at pretty young women in the streets. But her smile quickly returned – soon she would be with her Titus!

And when she came in sight of the square she almost ran, so eager was she to see her beloved Titus. But then she slowed herself down to a gentle walk. She didn't want to arrive all red-faced and sweaty! So she strolled the last few yards to the square, then paused at the end of the street which opened on to it, looking around to spot her fiancee.

The square was filled with people – senators in their white togas, hurrying to the senate to do the business of the state; shopkeepers, setting out their wares outside their shops; men and women of all sorts going about the business of life. She soon saw Titus sitting at a small table outside a little shop which sold sweet pastries. He was staring down at the table, ignoring the plate of delicious treats that sat in front of him. She was surprised to see he did not look happy. Fear gripped her heart. She was bursting with happiness at the thought of seeing him. But Titus looked sad. Why did the thought of seeing her not make him smile also? Did he no longer love her? Was he planning to tell her that he no longer wished to marry her? Her heart fell within her. She almost turned and ran away home. She could not bear the thought that he might tell her that he wanted to cancel the wedding. But she forced herself to have courage. Titus was the man she loved. And she did not just love him because he was handsome. He was also a good and honourable man – and a Christian just as she was. She knew he did not love her just because of her beauty, but because he knew her to be a good woman and a faithful follower of Christ. He would never do such a terrible thing to her as to break her heart only days from the wedding. So she gathered up her courage and called out to him.
He glanced up. Seeing her, at once the sadness left his face. A smile lit it up. Agnes' heart lifted. Whatever was troubling Titus' soul, it was was not that he no longer loved her. She ran to him. He stood up. When he reached her, he took her into his arms and embraced her.
'Oh, Titus,' she cried. 'I was so worried when I saw you looking so sad. I thought something must be wrong, something terrible.' She felt him stiffen in his arms. Gently he let her go. As he looked down at her, she saw that once more great sadness was written on his face.
'It has,' he said. Agnes' heart sank again. She knew it must be something awful indeed for Titus to look so wretched, so grief-stricken. His face seemed like that of a man who had lost his dearest friend or if some close and much loved relative had died.
'Sit, my darling,' he said. She sat, trembling. She could not imagine what could be wrong. But she knew it must be serious. Not a death, for if that was the case he would be at home, helping arrange the funeral, and he would have sent her word that they could not meet that day. But what could it be? Titus took a deep breath.
'We can not be married my love,' he said. Agnes froze and then she burst into tears.
'Oh, Titus,' she said. 'I feared it was that when I first saw you sitting here looking so sad. But why? Why don't you love me any more?' She began to sob. Titus took her hands.
'Never believe such a thing!' he said. 'I do love you – I love you more than life itself! I would die for you. Please don't cry – I can't bear to see it.'
'But why Titus?' asked Agnes through her tears. 'Why can we not marry? You love me, I love you. We are engaged and all is arranged for the wedding. Why do you say it can not now happen?'
Titus glanced around to see who else was sitting near. Christians had to be careful what they said. They were often persecuted in the empire. It was worse at some times than at others. Often they were left in peace for many years. But the current emperor, a war loving madman called Claudius, hated Christians and had started up the persecutions again. They were liable to be arrested for their belief in Christ at any time – and not just arrested, but tortured and killed. So Titus could not afford to let any stranger hear a careless word in case he informed on them for hope of a reward from the cruel emperor. There were two old men sitting nearby at separate tables. Agnes knew that Titus would have to be careful in what he said, and not let slip any hint that they were Christians.
'It is the emperor,' he said. 'He has only this morning made a new decree. Until he says otherwise, no weddings are allowed to take place.'
Agnes gasped in horror.
'But why?' she said. 'Why would he do so awful a thing?'
Titus shrugged.
'It's all these wars he wants to fight,' he said. 'Wars need soldiers.'
Agnes shook her head.
'I don't understand. The army is full of married men. Why stop all the weddings?'
Titus shook his head sadly.
'Because men who are just married are excused from military service. And there are many cowards out there, men who are afraid to fight to protect their country from danger. So they marry just so they can save their skins. Some have paid girls to marry them – fake weddings. And even worse, some are divorcing their wives, leaving them and their children, and entering into these fake marriages to get out of being in the army!'
Agnes gasped in horror. She could well understand why a man might not want to join the army. But to do such a terrible thing as leave his wife for such a reason and marry someone else! It was worse than being a coward – surely it was a sin, she thought! But, of course, Romans didn't think that way. They thought it fine to end a marriage for any reason. When someone once said to the great Julius Caesar that his wife Calpurnia had had an affair he divorced even though he knew she was innocent, saying 'Caesar's wife should be above suspicion.' His reputation mattered more to him than his wife. Why wouldn't men in a society that thought like that think it reasonable to divorce a woman so that they might avoid the army?
'And so the emperor has decreed that no marriages at all should take place,' she said sadly. Titus nodded, looking sadder than ever. Agnes could not bear to see him so upset. She wanted to tell him not to worry, that God would find a way to make things right, that they should trust in him. But she did not dare say a word in case someone would overhear, someone who would tell others, those who would hurt them, that they were Christians. Just then two soldiers strolled by, their breastplates gleaming, their sharp swords sheathed at their sides. Men in the service of the emperor who would receive a rich reward for handing in a couple of Christians. So instead she did the only thing she could - she reached her hand out to him. Gently she traced a small cross on the back of his hand with her forefinger. Titus understood what she was trying to tell him. He smiled and nodded. They must trust in God.
The old man at the next table began to laugh.
'Cheer up, young ones,' he cackled. 'No need to look so glum! So the emperor has banned weddings? So what. Just go and live with one another! That's what all the other young men being called into the army will do. In a few months – maybe a few years – the emperor will change the law – or a new emperor will come along and he'll change it. Then you can marry – if you still want to, that is! And if you don't, well, you'll be spared the expense and trouble of a divorce!'
Agnes and Titus looked at each other and shook their heads sadly. What he spoke of was an old form of marriage called 'usus' – a couple came to live together without ever entering into any kind of a formal marriage. Over time they were looked upon by all as being married. And just as easily as the couple had entered into it, the could end it and move on to someone else. But Agnes and Titus would never marry in that way. 
Still cackling, the old man got up and walked slowly away. Listening to his laughter grow quieted as he moved away, Agnes and Titus looked at each other sadly. What could they say? There was nothing they could do.
'So that's it then?' said Agnes.
'I'm afraid so,' said Titus. 'But don't worry, my love. As that horrible old man said, eventually the law must change. I love you enough to wait no longer how long it takes.'
'And I love you enough to wait too,' cried Agnes. 'But Titus, how hard it will be! And it is so unfair! No one, not even an emperor, should be able to tell a man and a woman who love each that they can not marry!'
'No indeed,' said a voice from nearby. 'That is something that is only in the power of God.'
Agnes and Titus both jumped. They had forgotten there was anyone else near. Agnes looked over at the man – and then she gasped again. She knew who it was. Earlier he had had his back turned to them so she had not been able to see his face. But now she could see the long white beard and smiling eyes of someone she knew well – Father Valentine, a priest of the Christian Church in Rome. He traced a little cross on his forehead with his thumb, the signum or sign of the cross that told other Christians that the person making it was a Christian also. It was a kind of secret sign. Agnes and Titus took a quick look around to make sure no one was watching. Then they made the sign also.
'No,' continued the priest. 'No man should try to prevent a man and a woman who are free to marry from doing so. This law of the emperor's is wrong – no law that goes against the law of God can ever be right.'
'I agree, Father,' said Titus. 'But there is nothing we can do. How can we marry when the emperor forbids it? Even if it is wrong, he will punish anyone who disobeys him!'
The old priest smiled and shook his head.
'You should have read the decree more carefully, my young friend. The emperor did not ban couples from marrying. That is something that not even he has the power to do – or would be foolish enough to attempt. No, he banned all those who would officiate at weddings from doing so. The priests of the various temples, the city officials who have the authority to perform weddings. People like that he, as the emperor has the power to control. But the couples themselves are still free to marry – if they can find someone willing to defy the emperor!'
A great smile broke out on Agnes' face. She could still marry her beloved Titus. But just as quickly the smile left it again. She shook her head.
'What difference does it make?' she said. 'We are free to marry – but who will marry us, knowing the emperor will punish him for doing so?'
'I will,' said the priest, smiling. Agnes gasped. But Titus shook his head.
'No, Father,' he said. 'We could not ask such a thing of you. The consequences would be too great. If a priest from one of the temples defied his ban, the emperor would put them in prison, maybe have them beaten. But you, a Christian priest? He would have you killed – after he had tortured you first!'
'I have no doubt he would,' said the priest still smiling. 'But what of it? The emperor can only kill my body. But he can not hurt my soul. And that is what would be in danger if I failed to carry out my duty to you as a priest of God's Church by refusing to marry you!'
'Oh, Father,' cried Agnes, 'thank you! But we cannot. It is too much to ask of you. The risk is too great. Would it not be just as wrong of us to put your life in danger as it is for the emperor to try and stop us from marrying?'
The old priest shook his head.
'Not at all,' he said. 'God calls men and women to marriage. If you truly feel called by him to marry each other, promising to be with each other as husband and wife as long as you both shall live, then it would be wrong of you not to marry! For then you would be refusing to answer God's call. Wicked men have no right to make evil laws; and good people not only do no wrong in refusing to obey such laws, they do wrong if they keep them! For if they do that, they allow evil to flourish in the world!'
Agnes and Titus looked at each other. Agnes hardly dared hope that they might still be married after all.
'Titus,' she said, 'do you truly love me? Do you truly believe that God is calling you to be my husband?' Titus smiled.
'My darling,' he said. 'I do love you. And I do believe that God is calling me to marry you – just as I know that you love me and that God is calling you to be my wife!' He turned to the old priest.
'Father,' he said, 'I hardly know what the say to you.'
The old man put his right hand on Titus's hand, and the other on Agnes'.
'Then say nothing,' he said. 'We have better things to do than talk anyway – we have a wedding to arrange!'

And so some days later, by the flickering light of some small oil lamps in the caves and tunnels of the catacombs deep underground in the city, the young couple gathered with their family and the old priest to pledge their love and commitment to each other. The smile on Father Valentine's face as they kissed each other for the first time as man and wife was hardly less than that on those of the happy pair. Father Valentine went on to help many other young couples who were in the same situation as they. And the emperor, of course, found out eventually. He had the old priest arrested and brought before him. His anger at him was enormous. And, as Titus had warned him, the wicked emperor first had him beaten and then killed. But the old priest went smiling to his death. He thought it a small price to pay for helping young couples and doing God's will in the world.

Titus and Agnes heard about the terrible thing the emperor had done not long after. It was several months later. Already Agnes was expecting their first child.
'Poor Father Valentine,' she said, placing her hand on her tummy. 'We owe him so much. Without him we would not be married. Without him we would not have … ' she rubbed her tummy gently. But Titus shook his head.
'He is Saint Valentine now,' he said. 'He died for the faith; he died for doing God's will. He is a saint in heaven now and forever. So there is no need to feel sorry for him ever again. Rather, it is those who killed him we should feel sorry for. The emperor and the wicked men who do his bidding. They have killed a holy man. And one day they will face judgement for it.'
'They will indeed,' said Agnes sadly. 'Titus, we must pray for them that they will feel sorry for what they have done and come to know God.'
'Of course, my love,' he said, smiling. 'You are truly a good woman.'
Agnes shook her head, also smiling.
'And Titus?' she said.
'Yes my love?'
'I think this child is going to be a boy?'
'Really, Agnes?' her husband said in delight. 'How do you know?'
'Just a feeling,' she said, still smiling. 'And if I am right, I already have a name picked out.
'You do?' he said. 'What is it? Do you wish to name him after my father? Or perhaps yours?' But Agnes shook her head.
'No Titus,' she said. 'I think we should call him Valentine.' And smiling and nodding her husband took her in his arms.

(C) Rev Patrick G Burke 2017

prayer diary Friday 10 Feb 2017 (Day of Discipline and Self-denial)

They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ 
Mark. 7.27

People were quick to wonder at the miracles, but far slower to heed his call to repentance. So we must not be surprised when many today are all too willing to enlist the Church's aid in all kinds of social programmes, even as they mock, undermine, or condemn Church teaching. That doesn't mean we should not still help.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

prayer diary Thursday 9 Feb 2017

But she answered him, ‘Sir,even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.' 
Mark 7. 28

There is no one who is unworthy of God's love or of hearing his word. Do your best to ensure all know that they are beloved of the Lord and do not neglect to help them know that love by sharing his good news with them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

prayer diary Wednesday 8 Feb 2017

Jesus said: ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.' 
Mark 7. 20,21

Do not blame the world around you for the wrong that you do. It may make doing good that much harder, but in the end you remain responsible for your own actions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

prayer diary Tuesday 7 Feb 2017

He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.' 
Mark 7.6

Humility is the hardest virtue of all. It is humility that allows us to recognise the times when we substitute our own will for that of God's – even as we call it his.

Monday, February 6, 2017

prayer diary Monday 6 Feb 2017

And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. 
Mark 6.56

It was others, the able-bodied, who brought the sick to Jesus for healing. We also have a duty to do what we can bring others closer to Jesus.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

salt and light

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

In our gospel reading today Jesus tells his followers that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These are very powerful metaphors – so powerful that Christ is bestowing great honour upon those of us who are his followers … so great that it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the honour implied by those words – or the grave duty that accompanies them. But I think it might be necessary to explain just why the images of salt and light constitute such potent metaphors. Nearly 2000 years separate from the age in which our Lord spoke these words … and the differences between out technological age and then may make it difficult indeed to appreciate the impact these words would have had on their original audience.

We may, for example, in this age of electricity, forget what life was like for most of human history once the sun set and darkness reigned over the land. There was no flick of a switch to make the inside of a house as bright as day then, none of the street lights that make our towns and cities shine with a brightness that can be seen from space. In the time of Christ there was only the glow of the fire and the flickering light from tiny lamps burning olive oil to bring illumination into the darkness of the night. Many here will be old enough to remember the days of the oil shortages back in the 1970s, a time when it was common to turn off the power for long periods every evening due to lack of fuel to power the generators that feed the national grid. I remember doing my homework by candlelight on the long winter nights as a result, my mother preparing the tea on a small gas stove we used for camping in the kitchen while the rest of us gathered round the open fire in the living room which was now the only source of heat … and only a few candles burning at that, as the sudden increased demand for them had made them hard enough to come by. It gives one a whole new appreciation for how important light is. And a better understanding, I think, of what great significance it was for Christ to tell his followers that they were the light of the world.

It is much the same with salt. We think of it as being something cheap that we can pop down to the local shop for whenever we need it. It is so plentiful that we are generally told by various experts to use less. Indeed, there is usually so much of it already in the processed foods we eat that we could probably manage quite well if we never bought another container of salt again in our lives. It is all too easy for us to forget that we need a certain amount of it in our diet if we are to live.

But it was not so in the ancient world. Salt was hard to come by and valuable as a result. So necessary was it that it wasn't uncommon for soldiers to receive part of their pay in salt rather than cash – it is where we get the expression that someone is worth their salt if they do their work well and are therefore worth their pay. And where did salt come from? Often from the salt mines, places so terrible to work in that only slaves and condemned criminals were sent there. Or it could be taken laboriously from the sea, by flooding a piece of land, and then letting the heat of the sun evaporate the water away leaving the salt behind – a slow process indeed. And salt, of course, as well as being needed to sustain life, adds flavour to food and would have been one of the main way of preserving food back in that era. Indeed, we still use it for that purpose today – even though refrigeration and the use of canning makes it less common.

The advances in technology may serve to soften the impact of the great compliment Jesus is paying to his followers here – and the importance of the task he is assigning them. For he is not only comparing them to these things that are so necessary for human life – he is using them to stress how imperative it is for them to bring light and life into the world by living the Christian life openly and boldly in the world, in a way that gives glory to our Father in heaven.

And I draw to a close, it is important to remind all here of our Lord's words concerning those who claim to be his followers but fail to follow through on being the salt of the earth or the light of the world. They are useless lights, lights that are hidden under a bushel basket, a basket so tightly woven that not even a chink of light could escape; and they are salt that has lost its savour, good for nothing, fit only to be thrown out and trampled under foot. I don't know about you, but it doesn't seem to me that those images convey the idea that our Lord will be best pleased with anyone fitting that description when they stand before him at the final judgement.

So the stakes are high. But is there anything that this world offers that should tempt us away from giving glory to God by being the light of the world, the salt of the earth? A giving of glory that ends in everlasting glory for those who give it. I think not – indeed, I pray that all here will give such glory to the God who made them and sent his Son to die on the cross for their salvation this day and always. Amen.  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

prayer diary Saturday 4 Feb 2017

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and Jesus had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 
Mark 6. 34

Compassion takes many forms. When we think of people's needs, our thoughts often begin and end with the material things of this world. But Christ saw deeper. True compassion does not neglect spiritual needs; indeed, it places them first.

Friday, February 3, 2017

prayer diary Friday 3 Feb 2017 (Day of Discipline and Self-denial)

But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’ … For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 
Mark. 6. 16-18

There are risks in preaching God's word. Sometimes social discomfort, sometimes physical danger. But we must not shy away from it, for the sake of the world and the salvation of our own souls.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

prayer diary Thursday 2 Feb 2017 (The Presentation of Christ in the Temple)

(Simeon said) 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.' 
Luke 2. 29-31

St Simeon recognsied that the Messiah had come into the world. Death was no longer something to be feared, for with him had come salvation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

prayer diary Wednesday February 1 2017 (St Brigid)

'I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep ' 
John 10. 14,15

True intimacy is to be found in relationship with Christ; to be known by him is to be truly known. And it is a relationship that cannot disappoint, because it is one that Christ was willing to die to sustain.