Sunday December 21st 2014

Christmas Letter 2014

Happy Christmas.

There is a story told about a parish with an old church.  When people entered the church they would stop and bow in the direction of a wall that was painted white.  Nobody knew why they bowed to the wall, but everybody had been doing it for so long that nobody questioned it.  It was tradition!

One day the parish decided to renovate the church and began to scrape the paint from the wall.  As they did so they discovered a centuries old painting of Christ that had, for some reason, been painted over.  Down the generations, even though the people no longer knew about the painting, they continued to reverence the wall.  They knew there was something there, they just weren’t sure what it was any more.

Later this week the world will celebrate Christmas but for many people it will be a bit like the people in the old church bowing towards the wall.  Christmas retains some significance beyond the commercial hype, but many people are so disengaged from their religious roots, they miss the real  meaning of the feast.

Believers are those for whom Christmas is the opposite of the commercial extravaganza.  For us it is the sort of miracle which not only throws lights on our human condition but initiates the profound change of our humanity.

In the mystery  of Christmas we begin to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

All the beautiful words, the carols, all the celebrations focus on a tiny baby: God-with-us.  May this almost incredible love sustain us and propel us to share with others the greatest good news of all.  May we be able to reveal to others what Christmas really means and why we continue to celebrate it with joy.

May you all have a beautiful feast,

Fr Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.

WAKE UP THE WORLD

Pope Francis held a long discussion with the superiors of Religious Orders and Congregations early on his pontificate.

The sound-byte which captured his approach to Religious Life was  “WAKE UP THE WORLD”

Now the pope has gone a step further and he had declared a YEAR OF CONSECRATED LIFE.

Actually the year has already begun: it started on the Feast of Christ the King and will run throughout 2015.  We can expect to hear a lot more about this Year devoted to all forms of the Consecrated Life.

In our Archdiocese we have enclosed Religious (Carmelites), apostolic Religious (like Jesuits, Salesians, Redemptorists and many communities of Sisters) and we have other forms of Consecrated Life (Missionary Institutes etc).

As a gift to the Church, the Consecrated Life is the concern of the whole Church.  In Southern Africa we have an organization which address specific concerns of this vocation.  it is called LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE OF CONSECRATED LIFE (LCCL).

I want to share their prayer for Consecrated Life:

Loving Creator, we thank you for the gift that Religious Life has been within our church and society.

Help us to nurture this gift so that the Congregations may continue to be a healing presence in our world.

May we  all respond to the realities of our present times, in ways that promote your reign now and in the future.

May your kingdom come, may your will be done.  Amen.

[ Copies of this prayer available this weekend]

Fr Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.

BEIT SAHUR

A very popular stop in any pilgrimage is to Shepherds’ Field and Grotto.  This venue affords a fascinating insight into what it was like to live in a large cave, as did the shepherds at the time of the birth of Jesus -and for many centuries since.

The village nearby is called BEIT SAHUR and the shrine is in the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

During our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land it was interesting to learn that many of the lambs which the shepherds looked after were being prepared for the daily sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They could not be used for Temple sacrifice until they were 365 days old -mature in other words.  They had to be lambs without blemish as they were being prepared for divine service.

The sacrifice of the lambs took place at 3 p.m. in the Temple.

Jesus, as the Lamb of God, was without blemish, fully mature  and he was sacrificed on the Cross, dying at 3 p.m.

The choice of shepherds to be the first to visit the new born King of the Jews is not without significance.  Shepherds were poor, smelly (the smell of the sheep!!) and had no  place in society.  There are two long traditions about shepherds in the Hebrew scriptures: they were generally incompetent and failed to meet their responsibilities; on the other hand God is presented as a uniquely good  shepherd, caring for the sheep even to the extent of sacrificing his life for the sheep.  In the New  Testament Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

The joy of the shepherds at the birth of Jesus is therefore of special significance: the one who will indeed lay down his life for his sheep is welcomed by shepherds.  It was a particular pleasure then to sing the GLORIA in the little tent-like chapel at Beit Sahur with its glorious acoustics.

Fr Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.

COCKCROW

First,  word of thanks for all the prayers offered for God’s protection on our recent parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Although there was a lot of tension in Jerusalem, at no time were we in any real danger.  We carried our fellow parishioners with us in spirit.

Each pilgrim has personal memories.  One moment which was memorable for me was our visit to pray at the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu.  “Gallicantu” is the Latin for “cockcrow” and this site is a vivid reminder of Peter’s personal crisis, disowning the Lord three times before cockcrow.   The incident is marked by a stunning sculpture  of Peter warming himself by the fire and his gestures evoking the denial.

Underneath the church there is a deep pit cut out of the rock and the local tradition is that this was the place where Jesus was held as a prisoner after he was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane and before he was tried and condemned.  On the afternoon we visited, the place was very crowded and we had to wait our turn as a group to climb down the steps into the pit.  Because we were a small group there was plenty of room for us to appreciate the meaning of the word “pit”.  When there, we  followed the early Christian custom  of praying psalm 88, believed to have been prayed by Jesus in that very place.

Psalm 88 is a very bleak prayer of one  on the brink of the grave, a prayer is which the prisoner cries out in distress.  It is prayer than plumbs the depth of suffering : “Friend and neighbour you have taken away, my one companion is darkness”.

After a few moments of silence, we began to climb back up out of the pit.  Just then Br Richard started singing the prayer of the good thief (in the Taize chant): “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”.  As we mounted the steps, those waiting above started to join in and by the time we reached the top, everyone was singing the biblical words with great delicacy and beauty.   A moment to remember and pray over indeed.

Incidentally, access to and from this whole area (where Caiaphas’ palace stood) was by steps down to the Kidron valley, steps which are still in place today, steps used by Jesus himself.

Fr Sean Wales, C.Ss.R.

 

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