St. Stephen and Our Vocation

‘No-one has ever seen God, the only begotten God, the one being in the heart of the Father, he has narrated him’ (John 1.18 own translation)

This verse from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel takes us to the very heart of the Trinitarian mystery and ‘the great and mighty wonder’ of Christmas. The Son, who is born in that stable is no ordinary human being endowed with great power; nor is he a superman – he is the second person of the Trinity incarnate: ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’ (Heb. 1.3). When the Son is born in the stable, the limitless creative love and power of God is poured into a human life so that the ineffable beauty of the eternal Source is known for a time in human form. The result of this event is an expansion of human potential beyond all imagining – we are given access to the place where the Son stands, which is nearest to the heart of the Father. We are given a home; a hope; a destiny greater than we could ever imagine – ‘we shall be like him’, says the writer of 1 John (3.2). The incarnation is not a superficial thing: neither is he a human being who taught us about God or God pretending to be a human being: instead, we believe that God, in Christ, entered the totality of human experience – gestation, birth, death and everything in between.

The descent of God the Word into our flesh was total and complete. Our rejoicing this season is in our Saviour’s willingness to become totally human and to suffer and die for those who were far off.  All this must be borne in mind when we recall that the day following the great solemnity of Christ’s nativity is the feast of St. Stephen’s death, the first Christian martyr.

Stephen is a martyr of the earliest Church and, as such is rightly known as one of the great witnesses to what faith in the Word made flesh really entails. Our faith is not in a series of propositions or a particular moral code, but in Jesus Christ himself – our faith, our act of trust in him, is that in him is a power that transcends suffering and is more powerful than death. His death is a testimony to his firm conviction that those ‘in Christ’ – in whom works the same power that raised the Lord from the dead – will experience death not as the end of something but as the route of access into the very life of God himself.

St. Stephen the Protomartyr being stoned.jpg

But the manner of his death has other lessons to teach us because we begin to glimpse the human potential unleashed by the incarnation. Treated unjustly and with abject cruelty, Stephen was willing to forgive those who persecuted him – and it is this other worldly ability to forgive that displays how faith in Christ transforms us and how the disciples of the Infant King live in the world but are not of the world. Those who bear the name of the incarnate Lord are called to resist evil, to bear witness to truth in a post-truth world and to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed – but we do so not with vengeance, rhetoric or retribution – but by choosing the path of forgiveness, humility and love.

In the order of Christian funerals we pray that the Lord Jesus ‘will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body’ – this is the final destiny of the Christian; to be like Christ in the heart of the Father. But our decision to be conformed to him begins today – Stephen’s death mirrored the forgiveness and non-violence of his Master’s death –  may our whole lives be conformed to the image of him who came not to be served but to serve.

Stephen ora pro nobis.

Advertisements

Homily – Advent Liturgy of Healing and Benediction

‘Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.’

In nomine…

We all know that Jesus’ earthly ministry in Palestine was characterized by miraculous healings – he fulfilled the Messianic expectations of Israel and brought healing to those who he met, both spiritually and physically. These are not allegories, or legends and they do not seek to glorify Jesus, they are simply a reporting of the facts, which characterized his ministry. When the Word of God, who created the world comes into contact with creation… life and healing are the inevitable result. Jesus’ very word, and very touch is healing not because of any magic spell, but because his entire being is so filled with the creative power which formed the universe… that those who came close to him jesus-healing-the-blind-man-icon.jpgwere healed simply by opening their soul to that power, through their faith, however slight, that Jesus is Lord.

In these days of Advent, we await the one who comes to bring life to the world. Jesus is the reversal of death, the calmer of the troubled mind and the only name that is given for healing in the world. We come today into the presence of the Lord, opening our hearts with faith and trust to the healing, creative power of God. In Jesus, the life of God is poured out into the world and we have an opportunity this evening to experience the love and power of God – the same love and power which was known in Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Tonight is about healing and reconciling, because the Christian proclamation has always related healing with the forgiveness of sins, beginning in Jesus’ own ministry. Therefore, in order to experience the full power and grace of the healing which Christ offers tonight, we must first undertake to reconcile ourselves to God. When we turn to him in confession, God responds to us with forgiveness and all that separates us from him is overwhelmed in a torrent of his love. As the priest pronounces God’s absolution, the power with preserves the universe breaks into our lives and all that clouds our relationship with the Lord melts away and we are embraced in perfect Love.

From the foundation of the Church, Christ and the Holy Spirit has empowered his disciples to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and he gave them the authority to anoint the sick with oil as a sign of healing and forgiveness. The Holy Spirit has, by the laying on of hands, given this gift to those who are ordained as Priests – so, for us this evening, Mark and Phelim, give us access to God’s grace and healing through absolution and the sacrament of anointing. Through the sacrament of anointing, we can experience the same healing love which the boy with the spirit experienced because ‘all things can be done for the one who believes’. Even in the midst of our doubt and unbelief, God still reaches out to us and longs to bring us more fully to life.

Tonight, you will all receive the healing touch of Christ and can confess your sins and receive the anointing of the Spirit… I urge you to feel my sisters and brothers in these sacramental actions, these sacred signs, the very work of God, the hand which is laid upon you is the wounded hand of Jesus Christ; the oil on your forehead is a sign of God’s Holy Spirit descending upon you to forgive you and to heal you. In this liturgy, we ask God to minister his love and healing to us, through the Body of Christ.

As we approach Christmas, where we will rejoice again in the coming of our Savior, we must prepare ourselves, by drinking deeply from the resources Christ has given us. But tonight is not just about us – the Lord has given us a bold mission, to proclaim the Good News in our homes, our communities and in our world… but he has also empowered us all with his abundant grace to strengthen us in our mission. We come to healing so that we may heal the world; we come for forgiveness so that we can reconcile the world to Christ; we come to hear words of his love so that we can share that love in a broken world.

Therefore, let us begin this night of healing and reconciliation – let us pray for ourselves, for each other and for the world – in this Church, where God’s Spirit is present and where Christ is present, in our hearts and in the Blessed Sacrament, the body of Christ, which will be enthrone on the altar… let us with faith and confidence join the voices of our hearts with the faithful centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my room, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

Amen.

iispubp21o19i6c8m3vryvgofnl.png

Keep Awake | Advent Sunday

Jesus said, ‘keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming’.

In nomine…

One of my favorite moments in literature comes very early on in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I think it highlights beautifully the Advent faith which this season seeks to distill in us. When the Pevensie children first meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver the name of Aslan is introduced into the story, Aslan being the Christ-figure in Lewis’ masterpiece, and the children react in a multitude of different ways – Peter is filled with a call to action, Lucy with a sense of wonder and Edmund, having already met the evil white witch, is filled with a sense of dread; all because they hear the name of Aslan. What message do the beavers give the children? A simple one: ‘Aslan is on the move’. Aslan is on the move – God is on the move, and this is message of advent, this season when we look forward to the coming of Jesus at Christmas and reflect on how God moves in our lives and in our world.

Yet it’s so hard to focus on the darkness and enter into this kind of prayerful expectency when the world seems to sweep us away with all its lights and bling. For a moment, I’d like you to imagine with me a parallel universe… let’s just imagine a parallel universe where everything is pretty much the same as ours but a few things are different. We are walking down the streets of Canton in late November and we overhear a conversation, two old ladies are saying to one another – ‘I do love this time of year, those first weeks of December, they’re so stress free.’ ‘Yes’, says the other, ‘I love that everything’s a little quieter than usual and how the shops pull their curtains over the shop-windows for a while… and you know there’s lovely preparation going on behind them, but the street is darker and we can’t wait to see what’s behind’

‘Ooo yes, and I’m so glad the social calendar’s a little more relaxed. There’s more time to be at home, to be quiet, to sit in the darkness, to pray. And its so nice that the children are more relaxed, they don’t come home from school all hyper – they’ve been doing some meditation, lighting some candles in the dark’

‘Then isn’t it wonderful on Christmas Eve! From the darkness, suddenly there’s a great opening out! The lights are switched on, the shop windows are revealed – there’s a beaming blaze’

‘I love it’ says the other, ‘and twelve days is about right – it’s about as much as we can take. I just love the contrast’

Can you imagine having that conversation? Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Instead, of course, the reverse happens! We are sometimes tired of Christmas before it happens; so much has been thrown at us… we’ve been to several Christmas doos already; we’ve heard so many exhortations to buy stuff and do stuff.. somehow, there’s no moment of transition or contrast! There’s no time when you can say those watch-words of Advent… ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ We never walk in darkness!

We know oh too well about ‘light pollution’, compared to my home in rural North Wales, you can barely see the stars here – the heavens are hidden by a thousand tiny, man-made lights. Well, if there’s such a thing as visible light pollution – where, ironically, our little man-made lights stop us seeing the great lights – how much more so is there a mental, spiritual light pollution going on in Advent! There are so many little fairy lights going on all over the place, that we cannot focus on the great light that is coming! The light which is beyond everything; shining in the face of the infant, and, most surprisingly, is shining deep within each one of us… as the reading from St. John’s Gospel at midnight Mass will remind us, ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’.

Advent.jpg

We know, in our heads, that Advent is to Christmas something like what Lent is to Easter. It’s a season of preparation – the Church in her wisdom always puts a fast before a feast! We don’t fast to punish ourselves or anything, we’re not world-denying, we fast so that we can appreciate even more the good things that we have. In Lent, we set things aside to depend more deeply on God and then receive them back from him with joy at Easter. I think there’s a way to do this in Advent too – although I don’t think Advent is about abstaining from physical comforts and foods. Advent, I think, is about abstaining from distractions – from those flickering man-made lights. It’s a time for dwelling in the darkness and asking those deep questions: where is God moving? What do I long for? Who is Jesus Christ for me?

This means that we, as Christians, have to resist some of the bling and chaos of this time of year – or else we risk missing the great Light who is coming and getting lost in the million fairy lights which blind us. By the way, I know that I’m setting an impossible task – but I hope that we can find some small ways of doing this, but I’ll come back to that in a moment. The call of Jesus in the Gospel to keep away this Advent is first and foremost about developing the habits of looking for God on the move within our lives and in our world. It’s about entering in to the world of the Old Testament prophets – who were looking for signs of God in the world and proclaiming that one day, although they could never imagine the reality, God would come among us to save the world.

This means that keeping awake this Advent is about more than just not being asleep. It surely must be about more than just not being asleep, because lots of us go through life not fully awake to it, for all sorts of reasons. We follow familiar routines; we believe that the way things are is the way things must be; we do what’s expected, and often even do our best, without necessarily stopping to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing, or whether this is how life has to be. There’s a familiarity and a comfort to our habits, to the patterns we weave for our lives, and that means that lots of us, lots of the time, are content to stay with the comfortable, and stop really looking at it because we know its contours so well. We fail often even to recognise the things that make our conscience twinge: discrimination in our country, a homeless man in the street framed by the glistening lights of an expensive shop, images of refugees and destructive wars on the news – we are so used to this that we often fail to hear the voice of our conscience anymore; fail to recognize God’s challenging, reforming movement – the movement of him who came among us to liberate the world.

To be awake to that presence in the world is partly to let the whisper of your conscience speak; to dare to imagine that we are made for more than the acquisition of wealth and that our lives are more than the sum of our achievements. And sometimes we need a wake up call to realize this – sometimes we have to be confronted again by the truth of God’s movement. Sometimes that wake-up call is welcome: in falling in love, in the gift of a child, in responding to a sense of vocation, in simply hearing the name of Christ proclaimed in a new way to us. Other times we are jolted awake by illness, or bereavement, or redundancy, or a broken relationship, and suddenly the familiar contours of our lives are made strange. Redundancy, for example, can provoke us to see that we are more than just what we do. Bereavement and illness can make us re-evaluate what’s really important because they face us with the reality that we do not have limitless amounts of time.

Advent, in its liturgy and Scripture, is our annual wake-up call – reminding us to be watchful, reminding us that the world as we know it is broken and in need of healing, and our lives, habitual and comfortable as they are, can always be more closely conformed to the life of Jesus. Being watchful for God’s movement begins when we learn to look for it in the whole of our lives. It’s easy to see God at work in the sunset, in the smile of a baby, in the touch of a lover. It’s much harder to glimpse his presence and movement in the unwelcome medical diagnosis, or in the bleakness of grief, or in the repeated lies of a person gripped by addiction. And yet the promise of Advent is that God moves in the darkness as much as in the light. To keep a good Advent is to begin to wake up to the presence of Christ in our midst, and sometimes that starts as simply as remembering to look for him.

This may seem a little shocking because, if we’re honest, I think lots of us don’t expect to find God in the darkness or in the mess of our lives. A big part of the problem is that we have this ridiculous idea that God only loves the bits of us we find loveable and, because of this, we start putting a face on for God, just as we do with other people. We have this false assumption that God only moves in the light, only works among good people in good situations. But the light of Advent, which grows brighter as we journey to Christmas, is the light that shines in darkness. We miss it if we look for its glow only in the light of our world and of our lives.

So, how do we begin to look for this light? How do we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Light of the world in 28 days time? I have three practical suggestions, and you are welcome to talk to me more about them after our service:

  • Take time between now and Christmas, either a few minutes each day or maybe 30 minutes on a quiet Sunday afternoon, to be in silence – to turn your focus away from shopping and preparations; away from the hectic social calendar – and spend some time with the Lord. Time to ask the Lord to give you eyes to recognize his presence in the darkness – time to remove our mask, and invite God afresh into our lives.
  • In these times of meditation, I can think of few better things to do than read the prophets, especially Isaiah. I’ve prepared a weekly scheme for reading some wonderful extracts from the prophets each week – beginning to imagine ourselves in that Old Testament time, where people longed for God to move in the world.
  • Finally, I think we have the opportunity to take part in some small acts of social disobedience – resisting the endless barrage of adverts telling us to buy stuff and do stuff to be happy. Even if it’s just buying charity gift cards, or asking friends to donate money to a favorite cause instead of buying us a present. Perhaps Advent is the season to think about people throughout the year we have neglected; the elderly man on our street who we never visit; the relative who we know is struggling; the friend we’ve fallen out with – and taking steps to amend these relationships.

My sisters and brothers, we worship a God who, in Christ, has come among us, bringing the radiance of his light and glory, even into the darkest places of our world, and of our lives. God is on the move – always and everywhere. For His promise is that at midnight or at cockcrow, in joy or in those silent hours stalked by fears, he will come – this holy light who shines in the darkness, and whom no darkness cannot overcome.

Amen.