Wednesday 1 December 2021

Decking the halls

It may not have escaped your notice that Christmas decorations are out in force. In shops and schools, civic buildings and the high streets, trees and lights are bringing a cheery sparkle to these early nights. And it only the start of December.

In our house, growing up, there was always a certain excitement about the decorations being excavated from the loft yet again. Some were gaudy and brightly painted, others, made of glass, almost as thin as the tissue paper that wrapped them, had cherished stories of which grandparent had owned them, and still there were new purchases, adding to the hotchpotch collection. Advent has only begun, and trees perhaps shouldn’t really be appearing just yet — Christmas Eve is time enough — but the decorations should be a salient reminder to us rather than a cause of horror or stress.

The 17th century Venerable Fr Giambattista Prever of the Turin Oratory was noted for his outstanding growth in the virtues, for his gentle and charitable guidance of souls in the confessional and for his zeal in getting them into the box in the first place. But he was also notable for his creative ingenuity. “In the church too, which is the material, as souls are the spiritual temples of God, Father Prever exercised the zeal of his ingenious and ardent charity,” writes his biographer. He had an incredible desire to make the church beautiful, decorating it for feasts and celebrations with great care and, we are told, great taste. “Such was the perfection of his work and the beauty of the designs, that all were in astonishment, especially as a pair of scissors and a penknife were his sole instrument.” Sadly, no illustrations of his decorations are provided by the biographer.

For Fr Prever, the decorations he worked so hard to install were to attract the faithful to the feast, and were a gesture of devotion, making all beautiful to welcome the Lord who becomes present among us on the altar. They were expressions of that Oratorian conviction that beauty in art reflects the beauty that is in God and speaks deeply to our souls.

But the soul is the spiritual, where the church is the material temple of God. As we think about turning our mind to the decorations in our own home for the approaching feast of Christmas, as Advent has begun we ought to think about those spiritual temples of God which are our own, and how we might make them ready for the feast, to renew in them the welcome we have for our Lord by the beauty that is in them. For Fr Prever, and for us, Confession and a renewed zeal to avoid sin and practice the virtues must surely come first. The means are very simple — if Fr Prever managed so much with a pair of scissors and penknife, what might we allow God’s grace to do in us?

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Wednesday 24 November 2021

Making the effort

The second highest point on the Camino to Santiago brings you to the small village of O Cebreiro. The village is distinctive on what is already an interesting route for its thatched-roof round huts, which look like they may well have been inhabited continuously since the first people settled on top of the hill over two thousand years ago.

But there is more to the village than curious architecture, or even the stunning view of the surrounding countryside at sunrise and sunset. In the parish church, in a small niche to the side of the altar, is a very precious relic: a chalice, stuffed with pieces of linen, is displayed behind a glass screen. The chalice contains the remnants of a Eucharistic miracle that took place in the village in the fourteenth century.

The priest of the village at the time didn’t particularly appreciate his vocation. He was not convinced that the bread and wine at Mass truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, and couldn’t really be held up as a model of pastoral zeal. One day, during a particularly heavy snow storm, which would have made the steep track up to the village completely perilous, the priest rang the church bells before Mass, secretly hoping that no one would turn up and that he needn’t bother saying it.

Much to the priest’s disappointment, a farmer who lived out in the countryside had decided he would not be deterred by a little weather, and made the difficult journey up to the village. The priest began the Mass, furious that he was having to say Mass for this one person. He thought the whole exercise pointless, but Our Lord showed him otherwise. As he spoke the words of consecration over the bread, ‘This is my body,’ he noticed he was no longer holding bread, but a piece of real flesh, with blood dripping onto the linen corporal underneath. The chalice now on display contains the remains of this miracle — a piece of flesh, wrapped in the blood-stained altar linens.

The bishops of England and Wales have decided that it is not yet time to restore the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days. But the farmer of O Cebreiro shows us that if we really believe that Christ himself is present on the altar of every Mass, nothing — snow, steep hills or even pandemics — should stop us from making the effort to be there.

We may not be required in this country to attend Mass on Sundays for the moment. But that gives us an opportunity — an opportunity to show that we attend Mass not because we have to, but because we want to. We make the effort not because someone with authority tells us to, but because we won’t allow anything to stop us from encountering the one we are called to love with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength.

I hope that our faith never grows so weak that Christ feels the need to intervene with a Eucharistic miracle here in Oxford. I hope too that all those who make the effort to attend Mass in our church feel welcome. And you might be reassured to hear that pilgrims to O Cebreiro have been welcomed rather more warmly in recent years by the parish priest, who stands at the entrance to the village congratulating all those who make it up the hill.

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Wednesday 17 November 2021

‘Forgive and you will be forgiven’

‘Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ (Luke 6:36f) This is no parable. Our Lord is very clear here. ‘Forgive and you will be forgiven.’ We must often have reflected that the only petition in the Our Father with a condition attached is the one relating to forgiveness. It is also the only one on which Christ offers any comment later, when he says: ‘For if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.’ It is quite a sobering thought, since we find forgiving some injuries, even quite small ones, difficult. We hug them to ourselves and the resentment and anger, instead of abating, can grow, fester and turn to bitterness. True, the white heat of our initial rage may subside in to a red hot anger, but then it can morph into an ice-cold hatred, which can masquerade as indifference. That is rather an extreme case. Quite often, we do ‘get over it’, though the issue has not been addressed and the anger doesn’t quite go away.

Perhaps the fear of not being forgiven our own sins is not enough. Luke can help us here. ‘Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap; because the standard you use will be the standard used for you.’ Here the same teaching is presented to us in a more positive form, as the benefits of forgiveness are outlined. We are being told to be generous, and generosity is the very key-word of our religion. Generosity with God and with others and…with ourselves. There are occasions when we need to forgive ourselves. So many of us don’t and continue to beat ourselves up for our ‘past sins and transgressions’ which can ‘cause us to falter’ on our way to God. Instead, we need to keep going, acting without fear, by which I mean, without a craven fear, since we should have a healthy filial Fear of the Lord — which is, after all, one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit! St Philip would pray : ‘Give me the grace dear Lord, to serve you not out of fear, but from love.’ Otherwise we are merely slaves, doing what is required, ticking boxes, hoping to get the job done without receiving a beating.

God’s mercy is inexhaustible, but it is sometimes the case that we erect barriers which prevent us from being able to receive it. And our being unforgiving is chief among these. If we say we cannot forgive such-and-such a person, God can deal with that. There is here a suggestion of a willingness to forgive, but for the present we are not yet ready to do so. The wound still smarts too much. So we pray about it, asking of the Lord the grace to reach the moment when we can offer forgiveness and genuinely so. On those occasions when the hurt is too great and the offence has been deliberate and its effects devastating, we need longer. We may have to take many steps back in order run forward. We may have to want to want to forgive. Or even to want to want to want to do so. But if we say we will not forgive and wilfully persist in our unforgivingness, do we not exclude ourselves from heaven, which is God’s space? ‘Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.’ Think of the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son and you have there the image of God which Jesus wants us to know and to love, with whom ‘there is mercy and plentiful redemption.’ Furthermore, he tells us that we are to love this God and our neighbour with all our strength. Forgiving someone who has injured us or those we love may indeed require all the strength of mind, heart and soul we can muster, but try we must, knowing that our eternal salvation may well depend on it.

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Wednesday 10 November 2021

Reflecting on Death

November is a month when the Church asks us to pray for the faithful departed, and in doing so to reflect upon death. We may not relish contemplating our mortality, but doing so is an essential element of a well-lived life, a Christian life, realising that our life on earth will decide how we spend eternity. St Benedict in his Rule tells his monks, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily”. Cardinal Basil Hume, when abbot of Ampleforth, was asked once by a prospective parent what the school could offer his son, and replied that the school did not prepare boys for life, but for death. St Therese of Lisieux expressed the same sentiment in a different way: “The world is a beautiful bridge, but do not build your home on it”.

Catholic tradition and culture has always kept death before our eyes, but the secular world — despite the ghouls and ghosts and skeletons of Halloween — has worked hard to bury death deeply in the vaults of history. Society cannot deal with death, ignoring it, hiding it in hospitals and hospices, seeing it as an enemy that must be fought at almost any cost. And the reason is fear. We fear what we cannot see — what we do not understand. It is the fear of the unknown, of what is hiding under the bed. When we are faced with fear, the natural tendency is to push it away: we pretend that death will not happen or can be cheated.

There is a danger, however, in this cover-up. We forget one of the most profound truths of life: that it is finite. The death of a loved one will always be a terrible experience, and no amount of preparation will make the pain go away more quickly. But if we have lived a life of silence about death, if we have not thought about it, confronted it — even made friends with it — we are ill-equipped to deal with grief, to know what to do, or how to console others. We keenly sense that we are alone inside an experience that the world will not recognise; yet it is going to be experienced by everybody.

We can talk about death because we believe in the Lord who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live. Anyone who lives and believes in me, will never die”. The Kingdom of God is not a place of fear, because it has been opened for us by a God who descended into the worst fears of human reality for our sake. He shared human pain and human fear. As we contemplate the fearful unknown of human death, he embraced it for us, that we might live in eternal life with him.

Cardinal Hume was able to face the news of his own terminal illness with the assurance of faith, despite his fears:

As we approach the last bit of the journey there are days when we fear that we face an unknown, unpredictable, uncertain future. That is a common experience. But do not worry; because the time comes when we no longer carry heavy bags and all those possessions. We shall travel through the cold, grey light of a bleak… morning into God’s spring and summer. Death is the only way which leads us to the vision of God.

He had earlier in his ministry as a bishop reflected that

Death is a formidable foe until we learn to make it a friend.
Death is to be feared if we do not learn to welcome it.
Death is the ultimate absurdity if we do not see it as fulfilment.
Death haunts us when viewed as a journey into nothingness
rather than a pilgrimage to a place where true happiness is to be found.

The human mind cannot understand death.
We face it with fear and uncertainty, revulsion even;
or we turn away from the thought for it is too hard to bear.
But faith gives answers when reason fails.
The strong instinct to live points to immortality.
Faith admits us into death’s secrets.

Death is not the end of the road, but a gateway to a better place.
It is in this place that our noblest aspirations will be realised.
It is here that we will understand how our experiences of goodness,
love beauty and joy are realities which exist perfectly in God.
It is in heaven that we shall rest in him and
our hearts will be restless until they rest in God.

It is said that when the Cardinal informed his successor as abbot of Ampleforth that he was dying, the response was: “Congratulations! That’s brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you.”

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Wednesday 3 November 2021

All Soul’s Night

There is a play by the Irish playwright Joseph Tomelty, All Soul’s Night, which tells a remarkable and haunting story. Set in 1949, in the fictitious village of Assagh on the shores of a County Down lough, it tells the story of a family trying to get by, beset by strife and tragedy, who on All Soul’s night are visited by the holy souls of their relatives asking for prayers, but coming too with an awful warning. The soul of a young fisherman killed tragically at sea visits the home of his mother and chastises her for neglecting to pray for him while he was at sea and even since he has died. The quote from the play that adorns the playwright’s tomb stone conjures up the grim sentiment of the play all too well, “Pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins; pray for the living that they may be loosed from their greed.” What Tomelty conjures up is that feeling that artists and poets have always tried to at this time of year, that somehow the veil is thinner. It reminds us of our own mortality and that we had better pray.

But, of course, the veil is always exactly this thin. Each year on St Philip’s day we sing the hymn that recounts his death. Cardinal Baronius asks our Holy Father, “Will you leave without giving us your blessing?” and as the saint raised his hand in blessing, he breathed his last. Fr Faber’s hymn has it like this:

One half from earth, one half from heaven,
Was that mysterious blessing given;
Just as his life had been
One half in heaven, one half on earth
Of earthly toil and heavenly mirth,
A wondrous woven scene!

But perhaps this should be the case that for each of us, for every Christian, that our life must be marked by the character of heaven, must be shaped by the priorities of that greater city than of this one. At the heart of all this is an overriding theme, that of the spiritual closeness to the departed, of the economy of spiritual goods between the children of God. We trade freely in the goods of that place where we hope to spend our eternity; in charity we pray for those who have died, and for those still alive that we may yet enjoy the vision of God together in heaven.

The veil is always very thin, and our loved ones who have gone before us to another shore are still very close to us. We pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins, and we must pray for one another that we might lose those sometimes greedy attachments to the things that cannot get us to heaven. With God’s help, may our lives continue ever more to be a “wondrous woven scene”, shot through with the gilded light of heaven, threads which will, at the last, lead us home.

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Wednesday 27 October 2021


The approaching feast of All Saints gives us a chance to make use of two of the most distinctive features of our church. The first is the one everyone notices as soon as they walk in on the feast day: the 52 saints and angels in the sanctuary looking on, with lamps burning in front of them. Their presence helps us to visualise what actually happens during every Mass — that for an all too brief moment, we really are in their company and, more importantly, in the presence of God himself, as Christ opens heaven on earth for us.

The other thing we put to good use is our vast collection of relics. You should be able to spot the reliquaries on and behind the altar, each containing small fragments of the remains of a saint. And with the cupboard doors of our Relic Chapel open for the feast, you should be able to see some of the more substantial bones, while there are even more smaller relics stored elsewhere in the chapel.

When we think about it, Catholic devotion to relics is odd. We can understand the less gruesome ones. Our church once possessed the pen with which Bl. Pius IX signed the dogma declaring the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. That was both a historic memento as well as a connection to the holy pope (sadly it was given away long before the Oratory arrived). We have a great collection of letters written by saints, and even a book that once belonged to Saint Philip and has his signature in it. These are precious in the same way that we might treasure items left to us by our own deceased loved ones. But our most venerated relics are those of the saints’ bodies themselves, usually bits of bone, blood or hair. And we tend not to preserve the body parts of our family and friends in order to remember them once they have gone.

There is a specific reason that it is the bodies of the saints that are our holiest relics, and it is tied to our faith in the resurrection. When a saint dies, his or her soul goes to heaven, while the body awaits the Last Judgment, when we will all share fully in the resurrection, as Christ already has done ever since he rose on Easter Sunday. It is the hope of this resurrection that means the body is not simply abandoned as no longer needed, but a kind of link continues to exist between body and soul. That means the bodies of the saints on earth form a link with their souls, which are now in heaven. These relics form a tiny gap in the fabric of this world, through which our prayers can reach the saints in heaven.

This is the real reason that the early Christians met underground in the Roman catacombs for Mass. It wasn’t all about hiding from persecution. Even when no one was trying to arrest them, the Church continued to celebrate Mass in the catacombs. It has been the custom of the Church since the earliest centuries always to celebrate Mass on the relics of the martyrs, because they form a link between heaven and earth. And on top of that, the Church on earth wanted to celebrate Mass in the company of the Church in heaven. It’s why our own St Philip would spend so much time praying in the catacombs of Rome, because surrounded by the remains of so many saints, we are closer to heaven.

On the feast of All Saints especially, we have these visible reminders that we have the saints on our side, to help, support and inspire us throughout this life. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

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Wednesday 20 October 2021


Our Father Jerome died on 19 October, two years ago. Many of you found his sermons and talks both interesting and entertaining. His was indeed an inimitable style. Although our Weekly Reflection is ordinarily published anonymously, the following is the text of a sermon, preached by Fr Jerome in our church on the 30 July 2017. May he rest in peace.

Solomon prayed for wisdom, and discernment. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge: St Paul tells us that knowledge puffs up, but wisdom comes from on high. What is the difference? (It has been said that knowledge tells us that a tomato is a fruit, while wisdom tells us not to put it in a fruit salad.) Knowledge on its own is useless: only wisdom tells us how to make use of it.

This city is plagued with two universities and countless other institutions all peddling knowledge. But they do not teach wisdom.

Wisdom comes from listening to God, not studying in websites, books or lectures. Wisdom is within the reach of all: there is no need to be frightfully clever, for God speaks most clearly to the little ones; no need to have the wealth they demand for teaching knowledge, for God reveals himself to the poor. God speaks directly to every human heart, if only we have the patience to listen.

God speaks in what we call “conscience”. But when we say that, we are easily misunderstood: people use that phrase “following my conscience” to mean “doing exactly what I want”. They can convince themselves with all sorts of subtle arguments and clever “knowledge” that what they happen to want to do is their right. That’s why Newman tried to invent a new word for “conscience” — he called it the “illative sense”, but somehow that didn’t catch on. Perhaps “intuition” is a better word: what we mean is that after all the clever arguments and subtle knowledge, something cuts in and says “you know that’s all nonsense: what you want to do is something you really should not do.” Or, more often, “that is something you should not have done.” Conscience, in the true sense of the word, is that within us that tells us what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. Listening to conscience is true wisdom, “how to discern between good and evil” as Solomon put it. False knowledge is what the devil promised, experience of good and evil. Wisdom is the instinctive feeling we have when all argument ceases, this is good, this is true, no matter what the experts say.

Wisdom comes from listening to God. All our prayer, all our worship is for listening. We may use words, but it is God who speaks through them. We may remain in silence, and it is God who speaks in silence. It is only after prayer that we can become aware of how our conscience has become more subtle, more accurate, listening to God.

And God speaks to us through others, yes, even the Catholic Church. When we discover that our feeling, our intuition, our conscience, agrees with what billions of others have felt, have heard God say, why, then we can be confident in ignoring the chattering arguments of the knowledge-peddlers.

This is not to say there cannot be good knowledge for those who have the leisure and the interest to acquire it. Part of wisdom is to discern between what is worth knowing, and what should be thrown away because it is no use. But wisdom is for everyone: wisdom is what we seek, and for that it is worth giving up everything else: that is the point of the parable of the pearl of great price.

Wisdom in the end is not a thing, not an abstraction: Wisdom is a Person, the one we love. For “God cooperates with all those who love him”, and it is the Son of God, Our Lord himself, who is the living Wisdom and the Power of God. It is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son who breathes within us. Conscience, intuition, the illative sense, is that part of us that can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. The more we listen to him, the more clearly we become aware of what God within us is telling us, how he is leading us into all truth.

All truth, all wisdom, comes from on high. But the Holy Spirit lives within us, so that the divine wisdom also wells up from inside us, from the heart, which speaks to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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Wednesday 13 October 2021

Push through and run

Our annual Quarant’ore devotion — Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament all weekend — begins with a Solemn Mass on Friday evening. The Sacrament will remain exposed, and the church open, all night and throughout the next day, interrupted only by the celebration of Mass. Staying up all night does feel like something of a marathon, like a great feat of endurance, and there are times when one feels the need to just keep going, just push through. But as much as the forty hours seem like a race of sorts, they should not be a race of strength or endurance — as if this time were the intrusion into our lives or a distraction that takes us away from more pressing things. We do this because we know Christ is our goal; and the thousand other things that clamour for our attention and draw us away from our real source and centre, they are the intrusion and the distraction. We need to “push through” such things and run to Christ, calming our restless bodies and distracted minds and, even if it is for the briefest of time, relearn what it means to rest gently in his love.

If you come to our church on Friday night or the early hours of Saturday distracted, inconvenienced, worrying about how the laundry is going to get done, or the dinner cooked, or wishing you were on the sofa watching the telly, then you will be in good company. To one degree or another, we all are distracted. If sitting in silence before the Lord makes you uncomfortable, if you think “what am I supposed to do?”, or “how am I supposed to pray?” — join the club. Silence can be uncomfortable. It forces us into the encounter with ourselves and the God who speaks in the depths of our being. Push through and run! That is why the Forty Hours are punctuated by Compline, Benediction, Masses, Musical Oratory — we have a chance to rest and recharge.

For what is placed in the monstrance, is a Who and not a thing — he is Christ the Lord, and we come to be in his company, in his presence. This we know and believe with all our hearts. But even though we will see the Host, seemingly immovable and inactive, enthroned in its monstrance, surrounded by candles and flowers and gold hangings, we know and believe with all our hearts that there is more happening than the eye can see. Christ is not inactive and immovable in the Eucharist. In this sacrament, he continually pours himself out in love for us and for the world he came to save. We gaze on him in the Blessed Sacrament because he first gazed upon us, not with a look of reproach or judgment, but with eyes of love, a look that pierces us to the soul and sees into the core of our being, loving us, calling out to us, asking that we forsake our sinful ways and our petty distractions, and return our love for his. Where Christ is, there is heaven and when Christ comes he never comes alone. All of heaven draws near to us, the angels and the saints, our brothers and sisters who have gone on before us draw close; past, present and future all converge in him who is the Lord of time and history. This is why when the Christian prays, he or she never prays alone. And this gift, this call to step out of time and into his company, is given not because we deserve it, nor is it denied us because we are sinful. It is given because of the love he has for us, and the mercy with which he deals with us until the day when our time is ended.

What are our to-do lists compared to this? What is one hour or so away from the telly or computer in comparison? What is so hard, really, about spending time with the One who loves us? Nothing surely.

So we still our souls, we raise our hearts and minds and voices to the Lord; we put aside our distractions for a time; we cease worrying about how we are to pray; prayer, after all, is not the words we speak, it is listening to the heart of God speaking to our hearts, and our hearts making their fleeting, and faltering, and yet eminently precious answer to his love. So come to the Lord this weekend during the Forty Hours, if not for the all-night vigil then at least for an hour or so. He will be waiting to spend time with you.

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Wednesday 6 October 2021


Some students training to be teachers once went on a visit to a cathedral in order to learn what a school visit might be like. They went in, looked around, and the Education Officer who was acting as guide, stopped them and said, “You’re all looking in the wrong direction!” When children come into a space like a cathedral, they look up. Little ones stand agog, wondering. When was the last time that you were amazed?

One of the characteristics of an encounter with God in the Bible is amazement, wonder, fear and trembling. When God acts, people are silenced. They marvel at what he has done, yes, but also, and perhaps more particularly, they marvel at his nearness. That holy amazement is, as we know, a gift of the Spirit of God. It left the Apostles speechless at the Ascension and that same fear of the Lord seized them at Pentecost — they were amazed and astonished as the Love of God was poured into their hearts.

To children, amazement comes easily, especially if it concerns something new. Is it not true that we don’t always hold on to that skill? Idle scrolling of the smartphone is conducive neither to amazement nor life-enhancing wonder. That gift of holy wonder, of Fear of the Lord, is given to us for a purpose. It enables us not only to realise how much we depend on God but also to see and renew in our hearts the realisation of the wonders he works in us day after day. The Lord is making all things new within us. By the gift of his Spirit, by the grace of the sacraments, by our life of prayer and friendship with him, he shapes us anew, and often we just have to get out of the way and allow him to do it.

“The Spirit of Truth,” our Lord tells us, “will lead us into all truth,” and we know that the fullness of truth is Christ himself, nothing else. The Holy Spirit who was given to us at our baptism, the fullness of whose gifts we receive in Confirmation, who comes to us each time we pray to him for guidance and help, this same Spirit comes to shape us, to mould us after the pattern of Christ himself.

The thing that those children were quick to marvel at in that great Cathedral was beauty. If you and I are to grow in the spiritual life, we too have to learn to become children again. When the Holy Spirit touches us we are beautified by him, we are enriched. If we can allow ourselves by simple acts of trust to be more open to the wonders the Spirit wants to do within us, if we can respond to that by a generous charity and fidelity, we become sanctified and are made truly children, the adopted children of God, no matter what age we are.

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Wednesday 29 September 2021

Angels’ Protection

The saints — holy men and women — are held up before us by the Church for a double purpose: as an example, and as intercessors for us in heaven. But with the angels, it doesn’t make sense for us to even attempt to imitate them. They are completely different beings from us. They are pure spirit. They have never had bodies and never will. They exist outside of time, and don’t know what it’s like to experience change or growth as we do.

The angels then are commended to us by the Church in the first place for us to ask their intercession, especially to ensure our safety from dangers both spiritual and physical.

The people of Israel needed precisely such protection on their way out of Egypt. They were promised: ‘Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared,’ (Ex. 23:20) and God told them to ‘listen carefully to his voice’ (v.22). The voice of God had previously terrified the Israelites when the whole people heard it at Mount Sinai:

Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Ex. 20:18–19)

The voice of the angel is meant to be less intimidating. God does not want to scare us. He wants us to picture him as our heavenly Father, and we are more willing to do that if he is not playing the part of an overprotective parent. We might make a comparison between God sending his angels to look after us, and parents asking one child to keep an eye on another, rather than being seen to interfere themselves.

If God did intervene directly in our lives all the time, with great sounds from heaven and a voice breaking through the clouds, we might begin to question our freedom. But if the angels get on with quietly protecting us in the background, we don’t feel quite so infantilised.

That so many of the angels spend time running round after us should not mean that we underestimate them. Christian artists of the last 500 years have a lot to answer for in representing angels as chubby babies, decorative in a painting but not much use in a fight. The descriptions of angelic beings in the scriptures are terrifying, and draw on images of mythical beings carved by the ancient Assyrians. If you want an idea of what the Israelites thought angels looked like, visit the monumental hybrid creatures that once guarded the Assyrian city of Nimrud and are now on display in the British Museum. When God chose to describe angels through his prophets, he drew on images such as these, which would have been familiar to the people of Israel from their neighbours. Of course the bodiless angels don’t really look like these monsters. Without bodies, they can’t look like anything. But God caused his prophets to picture them in this way in order to convey the sense of immense spiritual power that angels wield. Today’s feast is a day to thank God that such power is used for our benefit.

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