1 January 2014 0

Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland

I love the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Poland, because Mary looks so beautiful and at the same time so sad. Jesus, quite a mature baby seems more serene. The Polish people have as a people suffered so much over the centuries. In fact the slash marks on the face of Our Lady come from centuries ago when pagan barbarians were their oppressors. In this last century they suffered the German occupation from 1939 and then the Russian occupation until 1989. In that period 22 million Polish people were murdered. The present population of Poland is roughly 35 millions. When I lived there on holiday in late September and early October I was amazed at the fidelity of so many Polish people to the Catholic Faith, young and old, families together and individuals; ordinary people like us. Polish people carry the same sadness and hope that is depicted in this famous icon, and it applies also to my soul as I reflect on the state of our own country and the state of the Church within our country. The New Year always starts in the Catholic Church with Mary under the title of Mother of God. This is not surprising and I hope to explain why.

The Church in her long tradition accepts that Mary had already a very strong relationship with God before the Annunciation when Jesus was conceived. I imagine her as a popular young girl at the time of the Annunciation, loved by her companions, joyful yet aware of the suffering among her own people under Roman rule and a corrupt Jewish quisling government supported by a corrupt Priesthood. She would also have been aware of the possibility of the coming of the Messiah in her own days. I think of her as fully alive, a maturing young lady, sure of God’s Love for her and confident in her choice to be a virgin that went contrary to the Jewish traditions of her time.  There was also, surely, a strongly contemplative aspect to her personality – she listened to the word of God, pondered it, and lived by it. She waited in trust for God’s will to be done. (Luke 2:19). It would be a great mistake to undervalue the importance of Mary in our lives.

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At the Annunciation she was the subject of a miracle for she was with child without losing her virginity. She also believed another miraculous birth – that her ageing relative Elizabeth who would  have  child when her time for child bearing was over. Mary went off in haste to visit Elizabeth in order to support and help her.

The angel Gabriel’s greeting had disconcerted her: “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”  St Luke goes on “She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour…. “. “The Lord be with you” is a greeting said frequently in Church to the congregation, and probably without batting an eyelid we reply automatically “And with your Spirit”. It does not cause most of us a second thought. Yet it should. To Mary were said the words ‘You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.’ What does the Lord expect of me? He has chosen me to be his disciple, just as he chose Mary and she is the perfect model of the disciple of Jesus her Son. That is as good a reason as any to begin the New Year with her for I will need something of the light of God’s love that she possessed to respond to whatever God reveals to me.

It is this thought that provokes me to urge each person who reads this blog not to waste any more time and to use the time left to you to find the key to your life, to develop your understanding of whatever that is and to act decisively. We must have a sense of urgency.

I say this first and foremost to myself as a man who will not have all that much longer as the parish priest of St Mary’s Leyland. I am already well into my 23rd year in this role and you will not find many priests in a parish who have been there so long. I want to try in whatever time is left to me, to become more fully a loving disciple of Jesus. I realise the journey must be with other disciples of Our Lord. I am a monk of the Abbey at Ampleforth, a monk-priest under obedience to my Abbot in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, and a pastor. I do not seek popularity; I do not seek happiness, or fame. I just want to develop, as Mary did, receptivity to the Word of God. She was reactive and proactive as events unfolded. Her life was straightforward in one sense and extraordinary in another. She is the perfect disciple of her Son who gave her trust in all circumstances to the will of Jesus’ God and her God.

Most of us live relatively straightforward  lives; yet they are also extraordinary because in the events that unfold there is the possibility of being fully in the tune with God.
Sometimes it is very difficult to know how to proceed but the following might be useful.

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Somebody said life is like being on a conveyor belt that has candles coming by and my job is to light each one.  That is an image of lighting up, with the flame of God’s love in me, every event that happens. If I fail to light one of those candles I have two courses of action. I could simply let it go  and light up the next candle; or I could run after it and try to light it. The second course will mean I will fail to light many of the other candles that continue to come up regularly on the conveyor belt. I will waste time and effort, get frustrated and angry, and many candles, or events, will pass me by because of my preoccupation with my own failure.

It is better to ‘forget’ the mistakes I make and start again lighting up the candles that are still coming. Yes, I realise that I have failed in one instance and that will be a part of my learning in discipleship. I can try not to fall into the same trap again. I may fail many times before the penny drops. In God’s dispensation there is no such thing as failure because such things as failing to act, to light the candle,  are always part of a learning curve in understanding and making real for me God’s unconditional love and mercy.

The only important thing is to have God’s flame burning in me so that I can light each candle/event.

I did wonder why Mary was so disturbed by the friendly and positive greeting of the angel Gabriel and furthermore Mary wondered what the greeting could mean. ’ Yet we tend to have a slightly “cosy” view of angels and archangels, perhaps encouraged by overly- sentimental Christmas cards. Gabriel stood in the presence of the Most High God – he would be a commanding and awe-inspiring figure to say the very least! My understanding was helped however by the following.

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Jim Phillips whose funeral was on 30 December 2014

I happen to have met the Methodist Deacon of Turpin Green, Sylvie Phillips, on the Sunday before Christmas. Her husband Jim, a practicing Catholic had died. Together with Phil Gough, the Methodist minister we were planning a joint Methodist and Catholic funeral. It is always a sad yet hopeful moment, a moment of intimacy and friendship when a priest shares the grief of the recently bereaved. This topic about the attitude of Mary came up in the conversation with my failing to understand why Mary was disturbed and could not fathom out what the greeting could mean. Quite spontaneously deacon Sylvie she felt she understood Mary, and she explained that when she was about to be ordained as a deacon, following her own vocation, she too felt a bit afraid. What was it that God would ask of her? That gave me light too, and perhaps it might be helpful to some readers.

As we come to the New Year, a lot of people like to come to Mass on the first day of the year. The whole year ahead, with all its uncertainties and challenges is given to God’s loving care during this mass. There will be worry about the future, the ability to cope and the fear of the unknown. The Lord is with those people at Mass on New Year’s Day; they would not make the effort to come otherwise. It is a free choice; it is not a Holy Day of Obligation when Catholics are meant to attend mass. What is implied by their action is that the Lord is with me, and with his help and the help of friends God will lead me through everything he may ask of me in the twelve coming months. It will be to light up Love in myself and others I meet in 2015, and so in the ordinary life I live to do extraordinary things.

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We must not think that Our Lady was never bewildered or indeed never in great anguish – Simeon said that a sword would pierce her heart.  Like Mary, we need  to have at the centre of our own hearts a naked desire for God, and an unconditional trust in Him, that none of life’s tribulations can shake.  Then we will be safe indeed.  Mary has many extraordinary titles, including Mother of God and Queen of Heaven,  but perhaps it is most helpful to remember that she is our Mother. Mothers are always there for us – always.

May God bless each one who reads this blog and give you his serenity and assurance that despite everything  all be well, and all manner of things will be well in 2015. Mary has trod the path that we tread in different circumstances and she will support us from heaven as will all the saints and angels. I will pray daily for each reader: please remember me in your prayers and may we waste time no more as 2015 comes upon us.