Candlemas Reflection: The Searching Light

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified, as we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory. In this eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.          

– Common Worship: Introduction to the Liturgy of Candlemas

It had been prophesied by Malachi that ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’, and many other prophets had foretold, and hoped, that the Lord God would inhabit his home in Jerusalem. Yet, even Solomon, who built the great temple of Jerusalem, says of God that ‘even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’

However, on this great Feast of Candlemas, the feast of light, we recall that Malachi’s prophesy was indeed true, eternity can come into time and embrace us. In the form of a tiny child, the form of one like us, ‘in substance of our flesh’ as the Collect for today has it, the God of Israel appears at last in his Temple. But he does not come as a terrifying Overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming among us in love to walk the precarious road of life along side us.

In this tiny child, just forty days old, there is that light to enlighten the nations, but there is also searching judgement. The light of Christ is judgement; he ‘will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purppresentation-of-the-lord-fra-angelicooses of the heart’. Yet, as Mother Anna said in her homily this morning in Corpus Chapel, this judgement is received as Good News, because judgement is not to be confused with condemnation. Christ’s judgement purifies, it seeks to make us the people we were created to be. Simeon, who
waited all those years in the temple, is made entirely himself by his meeting with the light of Christ: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’ – he is at peace, because he has been transformed by the searching light of Christ. In the baby he sees who he is meant to be, and so he holds him aloft, and declares that he will be ‘a light’ to the nations, to Israel, to all.

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…’

Yet, for some, this light will not be welcome – this infant pilgrim is destined to be ‘a sign that will be opposed’, a sign who will be crucified. But, not even this will extinguish his light, which stirs afresh in the darkness of the tomb. Candlemas then asks a simple question: how do you respond to Christ’s light? That light which is both a beacon, calling you home and a light which shines into the darkness of your soul and manifests the truth of your heart. Our response must be to welcome the light, to join Anna in her triumphant praise and Simeon is his proclamation of salvation, to open ourselves up to the light and find our home in it. To know God as a loving Father, who walks alongside us, who longs for us to be ‘fully alive’, which is nothing less than being fully human, fully ourselves.

In that Child, presented this day for us in the temple, we find our only hope for a world made new, the only true source of healing, the true lover of our souls. So, we must respond with hearts open to receive the light, to seek Christ’s judgement on us and to grow into the people he calls us to be. The way to this place of acceptance is clear in the persons of Ss. Simeon and Anna. Patience. Waiting. Prayer. Not all of us are called to Anna’s devotion, for it is said that ‘she never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day’ – but we are called to develop a pattern of attention to Christ, of regular confession and self-examination, regular worship in the temple of Christ’s body, the Church.

Then, and maybe it will take us until ‘a great age’, as it did for S. Anna, we will be able to receive with true joy the Gospel of Christ’s coming, to know his light as fully as our human intellect can bear and we will be so filled with that light that we can bear it truly to the world. For now, most of us show out refracted glances of the light and murky glimpses in grace filled moments, but we strive, by God’s grace, when we can reflect that Light all the more truly and all the most constantly. Then, when God ordains, we can hope to pass to that light eternal, where all darkness gives way to the brilliance of eternal splendour and the hymn of S. Simeon, Anna and all the Saints resounds eternally.

Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
fill us with radiance
and scatter the darkness from our paths. 

Christ, the Sun of Righteousness,
gladden our eyes and warm our hearts. 

Christ, the Dayspring from on high,
draw near to guide our feet into the way of peace. 

– Taken from the Blessing, Candlemas Liturgy (Common Worship)

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Bread of Angels: S. Thomas on the Eucharist

Ecce Panis Angelorum, factus cibus viatorum
Behold the Bread of Angels has become the food of wayfarers

Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the greatest theologian of all time: his writings remainThomas-Aquinas.png foundational texts in almost all aspects of Christian theology and he is an influential source in philosophy faculties today as well. However, I wanted to use the occasion of his feast (albeit, I am belated in this post) to offer some short reflections on his beautiful
devotional writings. St. Thomas, this great academic of the medieval Church, had the most profound devotion to the Holy Eucharist, he celebrated the Mass every day and spent hours in adoration of the blessed Sacrament. He believed all his theology, all his gifts of wisdom, his whole life, flowed from the gift that Christ has given us in the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life.

It was St.Thomas’ theological prowess and devotion to the Eucharistic mystery that led Pope Urban IV to ask Aquinas to compose the office for the newly established feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. So, in obedience to the Pope, he composed the hymns, offices and texts for the Mass, which would have been heard year by year in my College (Corpus Christi, Cambridge) until the Reformation swept it all away. Now, thanks be to God, we hear glimpses of them again in more musically gifted churches and cathedrals.

I wanted to share just a couple of beautiful quotations from Aquinas’ hymns, and what they might mean to us – as I often think St. Thomas’ understanding of the Eucharist is caricatured too quickly by Anglicans scared of transubstantiation. Perhaps his most famous hymn is the Pange Lingua – parts of which are sung at Benediction services. My favourite verse reads:

On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with his chosen band,
he the Paschal Victim eating,
first fulfils the Law’s command;
then as Food to his apostles
gives himself with his own hand.

Here is the great mystery of the Holy Eucharist, that Christ feeds his friends, by his own hand, with his very self. Imagine arriving at a formal dinner to find that the waiters had been asked to sit down at high table and the host himself was serving the food. It’s almost impossible to believe, but it is what Christ does for his friends. He refuses the seat of honour, washes their feet and serves them. And this is not just any food, but gives his most precious gift, his very self, his own body and blood – his soul, divinity and humanity, given by his own hand to the disciples.

Thomas is emphatic in his beautiful hymns that talk of signs and symbols simply won’t do when confronted with the reality of communion with Christ, which we experience in the Mass. In the next verse of the Pange Lingua, he says,

Verbo caro, panem verum, verbo carnem efficit
Word-made-flesh, the bread of nature, by his Word to flesh he turns

For St. Thomas, Jesus is never just a good example to follow or a good guy to know, he is the very Word of God made flesh. Aquinas believed absolutely that the Word which brought the whole universe into being, was present in Christ, who sat at table with his apostles.What God says, is – the Word of God doesn’t just describe or name, he creates and constitutes. St. Thomas is certain that Christ can, and does, initiate a change at the fundamental level in the Eucharist – the bread becomes his body – just as it was God’s creative word which spoke the bread and wine themselves into existence, so the same Word can change them at the very root of their being. As Jesus himself says, ‘my flesh is true food, my blood true drink’.

Yet, Aquinas knows that when we look to the altar, our eyes show us bread and wine, seemingly unchanged! But his great hymn Tantum Ergo, addresses this for us, ‘faith our outward sense befriending, makes the inner vision clear’.The one who says, ‘this is my body’ is the most trustworthy source! We can believe him when he says it, and St.Thomas rejoices in this mystery.

For St.Thomas though, the most wonderful aspect of the Eucharist is how it changes us, in the verse of one of his hymns that famously begins, Panis angelicus fit panis hominum (Thus the bread of angels is made the bread of mortals) he tells us:

Oh, thing miraculous!
This body of God will nourish
the poor, the servile, and the humble.

Aquinas calls the Eucharist in his writings our viaticum – which is not just food for our dying moments, but the food for our journey, the rations for the pilgrimage, and thus he believes that it is only by our participation in this incredible fountain of grace, that we have the strength and faith to live out our calling as disciples. In one of my favourite of St.Thomas’ phrases on the Eucharist, he says: Ecce Panis Angelorum, factus cibus viatorum, which translates, Behold the Bread of Angels has become the food of wayfarers. It is our extraordinary privilege, in thanksgiving of which we celebrate Corpus Christi every year,  to feed on Christ himself, served to us from Christ’s own hand. Our God is not some far off tyrant demanding subservient worship but the true God, humble enough to offer himself to us as food.This is the gift and reality which fuelled St.Thomas and that which we celebrate, with him and all the saints, as we share in the Eucharist.

 

S. Thomas, pray for us! 

Christ who Became Ugly for Us (Homily for Epiphany 3)

Jesus read from Isaiah, ‘he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor’

In nomine…Jesus-Synagogue-Nazareth

Running through this term, like a golden thread, is the theme of beauty – Ayla and James have begun their course, finding God in Art and I imagine it will continue to be a theme of much of what we will hear in this chapel over the coming weeks. We are invited then to discover God in beautiful things. This is nothing new, St. Augustine himself tells us God is beauty in the Confessions and many of us know from our own experience how beauty can disclose something of God to us. I am ceaselessly amazed that, no matter how fed up I’m feeling, no matter how frustrated or anxious I am… no matter what baggage I bring with me to the altar Sunday by Sunday,  I can be caught up in the beauty of our worship and, for me, most especially in the Sanctus – where, with angels and archangels, we are lifted up to behold the face of God, so radiant and beautiful that our only response is to bow our heads and praise him, ‘Hosanna in the highest!’

This then is God in the beautiful, the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Yet then we come to Jesus in the Synagouge where, by the wonderful working of God’s providence, he is called up to read the lesson at the time when the scroll of Isaiah was read. He is handed the scroll to read which contains his mission statement: he the Christ, the one anointed, is the fulfilment of this prophecy – he will lighten the hearts of the poor, liberate those who are captives, bring sight to those who are blind. He, the Lord of Glory, will not be found only in the beautiful, but has a particular mission to be found with those who the world deems ugly.

With this as Christ’s mission statement we can understand the incarnation in a different way: God, in Christ, becomes ugly for us. You will remember that later in the book of Isaiah it is prophesied of Christ that he will have ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ Christ will be one with those from who we would rather avert our eyes – the stranger, the poor, the homeless woman on the street, the disabled, the prisoner. Christ will be one with those who all to often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, we label as a nuisance to be dealt with, a blot on the landscape of society. Christ will be there on the margins of society. And he is still there.

‘…to find the beautiful pearl of great price, we must seek in the dung heaps of the world…’

But, if our God is to be found in those we deem ugly, then we must go with him. In our seeking Christ, we serve those with whom he has chosen to identify himself – to find the beautiful pearl of great price, we must seek in the dung heaps of the world. We have a Lord who dined with prostitutes and tax-collectors, whose manger was adored by shepherds deemed ritually unclean. We must be found in those places where well-respected people don’t go, in solidarity with those people who politicians ignore – for that is where we will find Christ. The mission statement of God’s anointed is to be on the edge of things, outside respectable boundaries and amongst those we would sooner vilify as ugly.

This all seems very challenging for students in a Cambridge College: dinners, drinks, candlelit services, untouchable grass. How do we live out our Lord’s mission statement in this setting? Do we avoid the dinners and the parties, shunning the luxury to be locust eating outcasts in the cold? I’m not convinced this is the way. Instead, we have to find a way to inhabit these spaces while remembering that our true home is with our Lord in the margins. Yes, we live our little slice of luxury, giving thanks to God for his goodness to us, but we must never take this for granted, we must never forget that our first calling is to bring Good News to the poor. We use our privilege to speak truth to others about the God who became poor for us; we use our resources to improve the lot of those who have so little compared to us; we don’t just luxuriate in this life but understand everything we have as God’s gift and therefore given to us for a reason.

So, in Christ the beauty of God is made ugly for our sakes and we are to follow Christ to the ugly places but this is not the end of the story. I don’t know if any of you have heard of the Japanese practice known as Kintsugi – it involves repairing broken pottery with a lacquer dusted with fine gold or silver. It is a process which quite literally turns the ugliness of a broken thing into a new beauty – it is a method of re-creation which doesn’t w

kintsugi
Kintsugi

ipe away scars but makes the imperfections the place where beauty is to be found. Christ, who is the new creation, does just this – he transforms the ugly into the beautiful – he makes the brokenness of our world the place where his beauty is most truly known and experienced. It isn’t a failure of the resurrection that the risen Christ still bears the scars of his passion.

 

Through the action of his grace, made known in the tangible charity of us his Body, Christ transforms ugliness to beauty and anoints our soiled faces that they may once more bear the image of the God who made us. The scars of this world are the places where the golden grace of Christ can bring new life and new beauty to the human family. So, let us people of the margins, let us be found in the ugly places, for it is there that the year of the Lord’s favour is breaking out.

 

Five Spiritual Lessons for Epiphany

After a break from blogging to enter the rich darkness of Advent and experience the light of Christmas, here are the five spiritual lessons I have gleaned from the Epiphany Gospel (St. Matthew 2.1-12), find all the readings here.

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