‘Great is thy faithfulness!’ | A Homily

I dedicate this post to William, my brother and friend, who has taught me so much about the wonder of the universe. Of your charity, pray for him as he sits his exams. 

Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided;
great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

For me, the most compelling theme of the Scriptures is also one of its most recurrent themes: the faithfulness of God to what he has made. This theme runs through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures with remarkable consistency. Often, I think we forget that the word ‘covenant’, the most powerful word in both the Old Testament and in the New, refers to God’s faithfulness both to human beings and to the whole created order. The God we believe in is, above all else, a God who keeps promises. God’s absolute commitment to creation is the key stone to all we believe in, from the Exodus of Israel to the institution of the ‘New Covenant’ in the first Eucharist.

I think this theme can provide one answer to the vexing question of ‘what is the Church for?’ It would be very true to say that the Church exists to express, embody and genesis1-stainedglasscommunicate God’s faithfulness. We try to do this with human communities – the Church should be able to say to all people, ‘we’re not going away’, to say to the communities around us, ‘we are going to be faithful to you in your situation, in your joy and in your suffering’. Of course, the community arounds us includes the whole created order – being faithful to our human neighbours is intimately bound up with our faithfulness to creation itself. If we want to be God’s community of faithfulness – expressing, embodying and communication that absolute commitment of God to God’s world, which was once and for all made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, we have to live out this faithfulness to all creation. We have to always ask ourselves: how do we demonstrate our fidelity to human need and suffering with fidelity to the created order of which are are a part.

How do the policies of our Church: from what coffee we drink after services to how we spend our money, communicate this faithfulness to things of the world. We are part of this world – part of the beautiful, interlocking and interweaving pattern of life which God creates. God didn’t just line up dominoes and push them over when creation happened – God creates, and holds in being at all moments, the literally indescribable web of forces and energies and presences that is creation in all its splendour. If you pulled any bit out of it, the whole thing would collapse. God’s faithfulness is indivisible – to creation as a whole, and to each human being in particular – it belongs to his creation.

I don’t think this a theme we hear about often enough in Church, but I think it makes sense to people. Reflecting on God’s faithfulness drives us back to the basic stories of Scripture. It leads us to God who, in Genesis 1, sees his creation and knows it is very good. It takes us back to God who promises never to destroy the world after the Flood. It points us to God who in the law of Moses declares that the earth will never be anyone’s property for ever that it is lent to us for a time. The land is God’s and that means none has absolute claim to possession. Reflecting on these themes from the earliest books of the Bible remind us that we, at least, have to learn to regard the very stuff on which we stand as something other than just property; something more than what we can stuff in our pockets and make use of.

The Church, both to her own members and to the world, needs to get better at communicating (in deed more than word) this basic theme and rhythm of Scripture – his faithful, constant gazing at creation in love.

All of this, for me, is summed up by a very well known passage in Julian of Norwich. A passage I reflect on most days, as I catch a glimpse of the small hazelnut I keep before an icon in my room. In one of her visions,

Julian-of-Norwich-iconChrist holds out to Julian his open hand with a little object in it the size of a hazelnut.
Julian asks, ‘what is it?’

And ‘it was answered, ‘it is all that is made’
and I marvelled that it did not fall away to nothing for it was so small.

And it was answered to me, ‘it lasteth and ever shall for God loveth it’

All that is made is shown to Julian as a tiny object in the hand of God, yet it is the object of absolute, eternal and unfathomable love and commitment. In that hazelnut is me and you and every person with whom we share this earth, along with the indescribable number of planets and stars. The Church has to live in such a way that loudly proclaims those simple words of Lady Julian: ‘it lasteth and ever shall for God loveth it.

Amen.

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A Poor Church for the Poor

The reading at Morning Prayer yesterday (Luke 9.51-end) along with the Student Christian Movement’s call for bloggers to respond this week to Pope Francis’ famous statement: ‘a poor F1Church for the poor’ has meant that, despite the looming pressure of Finals, I really wanted to write this short blog-post. I’m sorry for its brevity and inadequacy, but it comes from the heart.

‘A poor Church for the poor’ – Pope Francis

Firstly, it’s important to say that the idea of the Church for the poor is not just the innovation of an eccentric occupant of the throne of St. Peter. In fact, it is the starting place of Jesus’ own ministry. The Son of God, who possesses all the riches of the Godhead, chooses to identity not only with the poverty of the human condition in general but with the particular poverty of the poor, the homeless and the marginalised. This is the radical witness of the Gospel, here seen in three short passages (many hundreds could be chosen):

‘Christ Jesus…
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself’ (Philippians 2.5ff.) 

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Luke 9.58) 

Therefore Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God’ (Hebrews 2.17)


 

Our response to this, if it is to be genuine, can be nothing short of what Pope Francis (and many before him and today) proclaim: ‘a poor Church for the poor’. Our response to the Gospel must be a Church which exists for those from whom life is constantly precarious, a daily struggle to survive and make ends meet. A Church for those whose tightly-limited spending power means their voices seem to count for so little to our politicians, whose defences against the storms of life are often worn so thin. A Church for those who live on ill-served council estates and densely-populated inner-city streets. We must be a Church that exists first and foremost for these people – and not primarily for those who can afford to pay the piper and call the tune, or for those who are cushioned by the defences bought with a bit of money. Our society, so often seems to work for those who can navigate comfortably the coffee shops and corridors and social connections where power moves and decisions are made and grossly fails those who cannot even dream of this world.

What the Pope is advocating is a Church for the poor: not just a FoodBank for the poor, a debt advice project for the poor, a campaigning organisation for the poor or a financial literary class for the poor… we need a whole Church for the poor. A Church where the Holy of Holies is rent open, where middle-class norms and culture don’t prevail and exclude, where middle-class anxieties aren’t the driving force and criteria for making decisions. A Church where all are welcomed and embraced. Trust me, a Church for the poor would be challenging and disturbing in a society that prefers to keep the poor at arm’s length.

With Christ as our example, we have to fling open the doors of the Church in such a way that every person who walks through the doors can be greeted as Christ himself. I have wept, and so have many others, at the fact that he Church is so often wrapped-up in trying to satisfy the demands of its comfortable, middle-class members: we talk a lot about pews and what we should sit on in Church; we debate whether the Mass was celebrated exactly as we’d have liked it and we forget – forget at our peril – that Christ came not to be served but to serve and sends us out to do the same. The Gospel of Christ is not only spiritual comfort for those brave enough to step through the doors of the Church, it is good news for the world and especially for the poor. When Our Lady sang the red-song of the Magnificat, when the Lord of glory was born in a stable with only shepherds and foreigners to welcome his coming, when Jesus Christ was crucified between two common criminals in a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem, the agenda for the Church was firmly established and the priorities of God were laid uncomfortably bare.

1407782873682.jpgSunday by Sunday the Holy Eucharist is celebrated with the reverence and beauty appropriate to so great a mystery but, right in the heart of it, the holy flesh of Jesus is made present in ordinary bread, the Lord makes himself known in the food of the poor. In the Mass the most precious gift imaginable, the very life of God himself, is placed into the hands of all those who reach out for it – hands dirty from months on the streets; frail hands aware of their own unworthiness; the hands of those who work for unfair pay; the hands of saints of sinners; the hands which many would not dream to touch are touched by the Bread of Life, which is God himself. This is the ‘source and summit’ of the Church – in the Mass, the Church discovers who it is afresh. It is a sign – in its frailty and brokenness – to the God who is faithful to each person, and the whole creation, which he has fashioned in love.

If we have a God who chooses to empty himself for us, whose sacrificial life is freely offered for ‘the sins of the whole world’, then the Church too must live up to its great commission. Archbishop Ramsey said that the Church was the only members organisation that exists wholly for the good of those outside its walls – we need to rediscover this. We need to stop expending all our energy to keep our buildings open and hold on to our place in British life and start reaching to the margins, to the places where Christ can be found.

There is a power in this world. A power greater than media influence, greater than might or money – and it wells up when the words of Mary’s Magnificat are taken seriously: when the hungry are fed, the poor raised up and the wealthy and the powerful are brought down. It is a power made perfect in weakness; a wisdom made perfect in foolishness. If we live this mission, truly live it, then we will be a ‘poor Church for the poor’.

St. Francis, the little poor man of Assisi, pray for us.

Silence and Honey Cakes: On Vocation and Pentecost

As we await the coming of the Spirit of God on Pentecost Sunday, I wanted to share another story from the desert fathers and mothers (from 5th century Egypt) – this one was taught to me by my spiritual director in a recent conversation on vocation.

pentecost1
The wind and flame of Pentecost coming down on Our Lady and the Apostles

Abba Asenius was a monk in the Egyptian desert. Before he heard the call of the monastery he was a great civil servant in Constantinople and a tutor in the imperial household. As a monk he was highly educated and cultivated, renowned for his true humility. At the same time, in the same community in fact, there was another monk called Moses the Black. Before Abba Moses’ vocation to the monastic life, he was a highwayman.

One day, a visitor went to the community in which Abba Asenius and Moses were monks and asked to see Asenius ‘the foreigner’. After refusing food in his eagerness to visit Asenius, one of the brothers of the community agreed to take the visitor to the place in the hills where Asenius lived in isolation. When they arrived at the door of Abba Asenius, they were received in an awkward silence and no words were spoken – after a while, the brother who had accompanied our visitor left, and the visitor followed behind because he was uncomfortable.

The visitor then asked the brother, ‘Please take me to Abba Moses who was a highwayman’. And the brother agreed. When they arrived at the cell of Moses the Black, they were received with warmth and greeted with great delight by Abba Moses.

After their conversation had finished, the brother said to the visitor, ‘I’ve taken you to see Asenius and Moses, which do you prefer?’ he then added, ‘I prefer Abba Moses’. This conversation was overheard by an older brother, who was troubled by it and turned to prayer, asking, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me. For your sake, one brother flees human beings and for your sake the other receives human beings with open arms.’ In answer, the Lord showed him a vision:

Two large boats were shown to him floating on a river. In one, Abba Asenius sits with the Holy Spirit in silent contemplation. In the other boat, Moses the Black and the angels are singing and eating honey cakes.


Silence and honey cakes. Two distinct callings, two different responses to human contact and the wisdom of the desert affirms them both. Silence and honey cakes are both needed in the Church of God! There is a related story from the tradition of the desert fathers, which I love, which talks about Abba Anthony the Great. One day he was praying in his cell; after a lifetime of constant devotion, prayer, asceticism and solitude, he was told by an angel that there was an unknown man in the nearby city who was his spiritual equal. Abba Anthony was then shown a vision of a doctor who, unknown to everyone, gave his money to the poor and everyday in his simple private prayers he sung the Sanctus with the angels.

Silence and honey cakes are both needed in the Church of God!

St. Paul tells us ‘there are variety of gifts but the same Spirit’. These stories bear witness to this, they remind us that there is no standardised form or manner of holiness and I believe the Church has to relearn this ancient lesson. A man doing his job simply, with no visible signs of extraordinary holiness, nothing which would commend him to others, would be so easily dismissed by the Church – often this is because people like this refuse to blow their own trumpet and just go about quietly, singing with the angels, or it’s because, like Asenius, they may seem to be standoffish or rude. Since I began the process of discerning my vocation – first to the priesthood and, in recent times, the stirrings of a calling to the religious life – I have come across a ubiquitous attitude in the Church that these are in 11891224_10205974995032008_4875761879475083176_nsome ways higher vocations or, God forbid, that priesthood and religious life constitute all that God calls people to do and everyone else just passively sits in church! This is completely false; silence and honey cakes – the Church needs it all and, whatever people say, the Church needs all of its members equally. God desires the Lord Bishops as much as he desires that annoying person who talks during every Mass to be members of his Body. The Church is the Body of Christ, where every single person, by the grace of baptism, is an equal member of Him who fills ‘all in all’.

It is a source of some sadness that the Body of Christ is so often full of people make judgements about one another – do this much for the Church, why can’t so-and-so do more? She never really does anything, I’m not even sure why she’s here. He doesn’t even really believe, I don’t think, he’s just here because his wife drags him. Oh, it’s only really the priests who understand, the people in the pews just lap up what she says (I’ve actually heard an ordinand say this). The Desert Fathers and Mothers understood better than most how ridiculous these judgements are.

You can never know the inner workings of another person or how God is working in their life. In the face of another human face, we must keep silent before the mystery of the other – the imago Dei, a unique human person who God is calling to participate in his divine life. We are not the same, some of us have been created for silence, others for the revelry of honey cakes; some for the dignity of priesthood, some for the unsung joy of doing the flowers on a Saturday afternoon; a few are called to the holy habit of religion, others to the spiritual joy of family life. Only when we stand back before the mystery of the other, acknowledging that God calls and forms all his people, will we ever give enough room for others to grow as God wills.

On the Feast of Pentecost this Sunday, we await the final consummation of the Paschal mysteries – the Risen, Ascended Christ pours out the Holy Spirit of God to make the Church his body on Earth. In the silent spaces of our hearts, the Spirit works in all who participate in the Paschal mysteries through baptism and the Eucharist. Our job is to find space in our local churches and in the Universal Church for all people to grow as God wills.

This is all said with the brevity and spiritual insight of a desert father by Malcolm Guite in his sonnet, The Last Beatitude:

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

+ Pray for us Ss. Asenius, Moses and Anthony, that we might be made worthy of the promises of Christ! +

Homily: The Resurrection says ‘Listen’

Readings: Acts 9.1-6 & John 21.1-19

‘After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’’

In nomine…

It isn’t often you hear people complain about the commercialisation of Easter: talking about all the Easter shopping; the hundreds of cards to be written; the huge number of parties; not to mention the endless stream of Easter adverts and cheesy films on our televisions. For some reason, Easter, despite being the most significant festival of the liturgical year, has stubbornly resisted the commodification that has swallowed up Christmas and left the season one more of dread than the joyful celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. I was wondering about this question a lot this year how has Easter – with the

mensa-christi
The Mensa Christi (Table of Christ) on which he served breakfast in our Gospel reading – I have had the immense privilege of praying with and venerating this beautiful site in Galilee.

exception of ever-expanding baskets of eggs – maintained its relative religious purity? The answer, I would say, is the subversive message it carries with it: three simple words, Christ is risen.

 

‘Christ is risen’ is the most extraordinary declaration of the Christian faith and is also a pretty easy one to understand, whether you believe in it or not. Jesus of Nazareth, the man whose followers claim that he healed the sick, stilled storms, raised people from the dead and made the poor the centre of his ministry, was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate and died an agonising death in Jerusalem. Then, as his followers believe – include many of us here – after three days in the tomb, he rose from the dead.

If you don’t believe in the resurrection, you can go on living your life while perhaps admiring the example of Jesus, even practicing some of his teachings. But, at the same time, you can set aside those teachings that you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable – you don’t have to forgive your enemies, pray for your persecutors, live simply or risk death for Christ’s sake. If you don’t believe the sentence, ‘Christ is risen’ you can set all these demands aside because Jesus is just another great teacher among many.

But, if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead everything changes. If this simple claim is true, you cannot set aside any of his teaching because a person who rises from the grave, who demonstrates his power over death and who has definitively proven his divine authority needs to be listened to, he need to be followed as he says to Peter at the end of our Gospel reading. What that person says demands a response. The Resurrection makes a claim on you.

The Resurrection makes a claim on you.

The Easter story is both appalling and astonishing: the cruel betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest followers, the triple denial of his best friend, the gruesome crucifixion and the brutal end to his earthly life. Then, of course, there is the stunning turnaround three days later. Easter isn’t commercialised like Christmas because it’s so much harder to take – anyone can be born in a snowy stable with lambs and funny visitors – not everyone can rise from the dead.

Yet the Easter story, essential as it is for Christian belief, can be a confusing one, even for us who believe. To begin with, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection can seem confounding, they are even contradictory. They are mysterious in the extreme. In John’s Gospel alone, we have Mary Magdalen who mistakes the Lord for a gardener and only knows him when he speaks her name, ‘Mariam.’ What is going on? How could Mary not recognise the person that she has been following for so long? More confusion follows in John – on one hand, Jesus appears as an almost ghostly figure, apparently able to walk through locked doors; but this morning he sits and eats breakfast. Ghostly and yet physical, recognisable but unrecognisable. Which is it? How could Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have presented the details of such an important story with such seeming contradictions? The agnostic or atheist will point to this as proof that it never happened. But I think it’s quite the opposite.

Most likely, I would claim, the narratives reflect the struggle of the eyewitnesses and, later, the evangelists to understand and communicate what they had experienced. After all, no one had ever encountered what theologians call the “glorified body,” the appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection. So they naturally struggled to explain it. It was him, but more. It was his body, but something else. It was like this, but not like this. If the Gospel writers were intent on getting their stories straight and providing airtight narratives with no inconsistencies, each would have made sure to agree with the others, so as not to give rise to any doubt or confusion (a process partly visible in the accounts of the Crucifixion). Instead, the Gospel writers, composing their accounts at different times and for different communities, simply reported what they had experienced and what they had been told. And what they had been told was beyond telling.

The risen Christ bursting from the tomb is so beyond the language and experience of those first witnesses that, instead of systematising the stories into something coherent they preserve for us those first stories – stories which so set ablaze a group of Palestinian nobodies and one violent pharisee that they carried the story to the ends of the earth. There may not be one coherent account of what Jesus was like when he rose from the grave, and God only knows what we’d see if there was a CCTV camera in the tomb – but the resurrection of Christ was so certain to those first women and men that they left their fishing nets and set out, many to their deaths.

What difference does Easter make in the life of the Christian? The message of Easter is, all at once, easy to understand, radical, subversive and life-changing. Easter means that nothing is impossible with God. Moreover, that life triumphs over death. Love triumphs over hatred. Hope triumphs over despair. And that suffering is not the last word. For Peter and Paul, it means a complete transformation of life: Paul, a persecutor of Christians, becomes their greatest apostle; Peter, a fisherman from a backwater of the Roman Empire travels to Rome and is crucified upside-down because he believed his friend had risen from the dead.

Easter reminds us, as it reminded Paul and the disciples, that Jesus Christ is Lord. And if he is Lord then what he says has a claim on you. His teachings are invitations, to be sure, but they are also commandments: Love your neighbours. Forgive. Feed my sheep. Care for the poor and the marginalised. Live a simple life. Put the needs of others before your own. From now on, the universe has changed and whoever wants to keep their life must lose it for Christ.

Jesus’ message still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable, as it did in first-century Palestine. It was just as much of a challenge to pray for your enemies in antiquity. It was no easier to hear Jesus’ judgment against the excesses of the wealthy during a time of degrading poverty for so many. It was just as subversive a message to be asked to pray for your persecutors as it is now.

By walking out of the tomb on Easter morning and sitting on the beach to cook fish with hands which still bear the fatal scars of the Cross, Jesus declared something life-changing, something subversive and something that cannot be overcome by any commercialisation. It is a message that refuses to be tamed. The Resurrection says not only that Christ has the power of life over death, but something more subversive.

The Resurrection says, ‘Listen.’

Alleluia.

Ascension Homily: Lord, Thou has raised our human nature…

Lord, Thou hast raised our human nature
to the clouds at God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
man with God is on the throne.
Mighty Lord, in thine Ascension
we by faith behold our own.

Bishop Christoper Wordsworth summed up the feast in his great hymn, which includes this great verse. He reminds us that the Ascension is a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity, in all its vulnerability and all its variety, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life. First of all then, the Ascension is Good News for humanity – this humanity we all share in, which we know all to well to be stained, wounded and imprisoned – this same humanity, yours and mine, is still capable of being embraced by God and to be received and welcomed into the burning heart of all reality – the throne of Godhead.

Jesus takes our human nature into the very heart of God and he speaks to God his Father in a ascensionlargehuman voice – this is an astonishing reality, in heaven, the language they speak is human and not just angelic. Our words, human words, are heard at the very centre of the burning heart of all reality. Saint Augustine reflected on this in his beautiful sermons on the Psalms because, like most of us, Augustine was rather worried about the fact that the Psalms are not always fit for polite company – they are full of rude, angry, violent, hateful remarks, not to mention protests against God and the most horrific ill-wishing towards human beings. In short, the Psalms are as human as it gets! So, Augustine asks, why would we recite them in public worship? Surely these are just reminders of the bits of our humanity best left out of God’s sight?

Augustine disagrees. We cannot leave bits of our humanity out of God’s sight and, more than that, God himself has taken the initiative and made our human language is own. When we pray the Psalms, we can imagine that Jesus is speaking them. It is Jesus who says, ‘where are you God?’, Jesus who says, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me’ and Jesus saying, ‘happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ Now, certainly, Jesus is not saying that any and every human cry is good – he doesn’t endorse this violence or anger – but Jesus treats us, our feelings and our tumultuous personalities as inherently real – he take us seriously, both when we’re moving towards one another and God in love and, amazingly, when we go the other way. He doesn’t forget us when we spiral away in anger, when we try to lock ourselves away in
the dark – he hears our rage, our violence, our pain – he hears them, he takes them, and, in the presence of the Father, he says that this is the humanity he has broughtto the heart of God. There’s nothing pretty about this, it’s not edifying or heroic to have our humanity with God – it’s just real and needy and confused. You and me, the humanity of us all, has been brought home to heaven and dropped into the burning heart of God for healing and transformation. This is how we read the Psalms, to be honest, it’s probably the only way to read the Psalms.
Today, the human life in which God was most visible and tangible disappears from the world in its bodily form and is somehow absorbed into the life of God – Jesus doesn’t slip out of his humanity to do this, our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ filling ‘all in all’ we must bear in mind that picture – Jesus’ humanity, including all the difficult and unpleasant bits of human nature, is taken up into the heart of love where they can be transformed and healed.

Just before his Ascension, the Lord tells his disciples to wait for the promise of the Father – wait for the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit of God will not only allow us to be a different kind of human being but it will also allow us to see human beings differently. The Holy Spirit, poured out upon us in the wind and the flame of Pentecost, gives us the life of Jesus – through it, we share some of his capacity to truly hear human beings – he gives us the power to see, with the eyes of Christ, the full range of what being human means, it does not shelter us from the rough truth of the world – it makes us vulnerable and more exposed. The Christian can never censor out any bits of the human voice, we are called to listen to the whole troubling symphony, which is so often filled with pain and anguish and violence.

But also can’t just say ‘oh, that’s human nature’ and forget about it – we must feel the edge, the anger, the ache of human pain and suffering and recognise that it can be taken into Christ, into the heart of the Father, where it can be healed and transfigured. Throughout his ministry, culminating on Good Friday, Jesus has gone before us into the darkest places of human reality and he has picked up the sounds he has heard. He knows the sound of the quiet cry of the abused child, the despairing shriek of the refugee denied refuge, the sighs of the hungry: he knows and makes his own the cynical dismissal of faith by many, while knowing their inner need; he makes his own the joy and thanksgiving of the human heart, which finds fulfilment in ordinary, prosaic love and faithfulness. All of this, the splendour and the pain, he carries to the Father’s heart and to the throne of heaven – all of these voices, the depths of our humanity, he carried into the burning truth at the centre of reality.

So, today is a celebration of human glory – the eternal potential, locked up in our middled, struggling lives – and it is also a great celebration of God’s ability to enter into the darkest, least glorious place of our nature and to sweep them up and drop them into his own burning heard, where they can be transformed and recreated. The Holy Spirit, whose outpouring we await at Pentecost, will teach our hearts if we let him, that nothing that is human is alien to us and to the life of Jesus – the promise of the Father today is that the love of Christ spreading through us and in us will bring the world home to the heart of God. We are the Church, the fullness of him who fills all in all, we have to hear with his ears and see with his eyes – in the midst of struggling, flailing humanity, we must remember that Christ has raised our human nature through the clouds to God’s right hand.

With this in mind, may our compassion be deepened a hundredfold; our understanding of pain and suffering be deepened a hundredfold and, please God, our hope deepened a thousandfold.

The Infinite Value of the Human Face

The recent decision of the government to block the Lords’ amendment to allow just 3,000 unaccompanied children to find refuge in the UK, despite the shocking reality of children homeless throughout Europe, sexual violence and trafficking, has forced me to think about me what is, in some ways, the most extraordinary aspect of the Christian faith: our belief in the inherent dignity of every human person. Today, with some significant exceptions, the idea that persons have an inviolable dignity and certain basic rights is
enshrined in international law and human conscience, but the world into which Christ was born was not like this. This short blog post is an attempt to remember where this belief came from and to express it with a distinctively Christian character.

In our daily lives we meet dozens of people: those we love with all our hearts, those we tolerate, those who barely tolerate us and those we actively dislike. This is the reality of our fallenness, a deeply rooted feeling that our life, and the lives of those we like, are more important than the people we don’t like. But, in God’s sight, all this is turned upside down – to him, every human person is infinitely precious. Every human face is worth everything, every human face is worthy of the great gift of God’s own life and love. There are no exceptions to this rule, no matter how twisted in on ourselves in sin and pride God infinitely loves who you are; he knows you, longs to bring you to life and has loved you for all time, even to death. The infinite scope of God’s shameless and extravagant love makes a mockery of our petty daily judgements about people: that sense that some people are more valuable than others, those pathetic judgements that say that the more useful a person is the more valuable they are to society (a judgement at the heart of the current UK government) – all this is revealed as the sin that it is because, for God, every single being is supremely worthwhile, they are of immeasurable valuable.

For most of us, although it’s a struggle (and I speak as a sinner to sinners), this makes sense in a way – of course, just because I don’t like Michael very much doesn’t mean God loves him any less – but, what about the members of ISIS? What about those who make martyrs of Christ’s sisters and brothers every day? This is where things gets tough – but the witness of the Messiah walking to Calvary bearing the Cross still stands; every human life is worthy of this supreme gift. The Lord sees the face of every suicide bomber, every rapist, every person that ever hurt us and sees the face of a beloved child who has forgotten him and who he longs to return to the arms of his Love.

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The 21 Coptic Christian Martyrs – executed at the hands of ISIS last year.

We face difficult decisions in the world at this time: how many refugees can we provide homes for? How do we deal with the huge threats to our civilisation posed by ISIS and those like them? But, as disciples of Christ, all of these discussions are framed in the context of God’s infinite and costly love for every human face: to kill is always a tragedy and never a triumph.

The Qur’an has one of the most profound reflections on this reality in its second chapter:

And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.’ They said, ‘Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?’ Allah said, ‘Indeed, I know that which you do not know.’

The angels protest to Allah at the creation of humanity – don’t you realise all the violence and corruption they will bring? We, the angels, praise and bless you, why on earth do you need these humans to be your ‘successive authority’, isn’t that just a terrible idea? And God replies, ‘I know that which you do not know’. There is an infinite glory to the human race, a beauty which the angels could not comprehend (in our tradition we have the same insight in the tradition that Satan falls because he refused to venerate Adam). Despite all the horror of the human race, there is such capacity of love and self-sacrifice, such a hidden strength and power to do good that God created us in an act of pure love. He did not need us, the life of the Trinity is entirely sufficient, but he created us for his glory – he created us to incarnate his love and to praise, through messy broken lives, the one who is Life and Truth and Love.

In this season of Easter, where we celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death we are reminded that our God has taken the immense risk of human life and has defeated all the arrogance and violence of this world through the witness of his vulnerability and obedience – in his love which suffers for the world, he has swallowed up our pride and hatred and burst from the tomb in decisive victory. This reality ought to frighten us: the world has changed, there is a new creation, and we long for that perfect day when his Kingdom is manifest.

Come, Lord Jesus. Alleluia.

St. Anselm and the Cross of Christ

This post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers in the Cymry’r Groes, Llanelwy – the Welsh People of the Cross in St. Asaph. A new group of dedicated young people in the diocese who are seeking to be faithful disciples in the way of the Cross. St. Anselm of Canterbury, Pray for us!

When talking to Christians in Cambridge, I’ve realised the prevalance of a truly regrettable interpretation of the Cross and, on this great feast of St. Anselm (whose book Cur Deus Homo provides an alternative reading of the Cross), it seems an appropriate time to (briefly) blog about it here. The view I often hear is relatively simple: the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, it was an appeasement to a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this theology, the crucified Jesus is like an innocent c1crucifx.jpghild thrown into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its fierce wrath.

‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.’

But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the oft quoted passage from St. John’s Gospel: ‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.’ St. John definitively reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic pagan divinity whose bruised personal honour needs to be restored; rather God is a loving Father who burns with compassion for his children who have wandered away from him and into danger.

Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbour indignation and wrath toward the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus God sends his Son, not hoping to see him suffer to satisfy to his anger, but compassionately to set creation right, to recreate us.

St. Anselm, the great medieval theologian whose feast day is today, who is often unfairly blamed for this cruel theology of satisfaction, was perfectly clear that this was not what he meant! We sinful humans are like diamonds that have fallen into the mud. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not truly have solved the problem. It would not have restored these precious diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to recreate the beauty of creation, God entered into the mud of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and polished them to their original radiance.

To do this of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of unimaginable compassion.

Jesus said that any disciple of his must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The Cross, in short, must become the very structure of our Christian life.

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection:
for by virtue of the cross,
joy has come to the whole world.

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Good Shepherd Sunday (2016)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday:
‘At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’’ – John 10.22-30

This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, a chance to reflect on this great teaching of Christ in St. John’s Gospel. For early Christians, long before depictions of the Crucifixion became common, it was the image of Christ the Good Shepherd which was most ubiquitous. In this homily, I am going to focus especially on those beautiful words, ‘my sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ Cardinal Newman once said that, although writing and arguments can leave us cool, ‘a voice can melt us’ and he’s

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Christ the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs in Rome

right. While an article or book can leave us unmoved, the sound of someone’s voice, even saying similar things, can make our hearts catch fire! My grandpa is a Frank Sinatra fan, a man known simply as ‘the Voice’ – even in old age, his voice would so move people that the orchestra would put down their instruments to hear him speak or sing. Voices are important to all of us, even now I can hear the voice of my nana (probably reading this post) telling stories to us as children – sometimes, when I’m reading, I hear them in her story-telling voice. Voice’s matter to us, they stir our hearts and kindle our imaginations.

It is, in many ways, the great mystery of Christianity that our faith is not a set of propositions that we all agree to, nor is it simply a philosophy of life, it is, deep down in its heart, a relationship with someone; someone who has voice. Our faith didn’t begin with the reasoned speculation of a social theorist or the musings of a philosopher, but when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire with his teaching. Paul evocatively tells us that ‘faith comes from hearing’ and I’m sure the first disciples would agree. I often wonder, especially when I’m on retreat and find myself with some time to spare, wondering what he sounded like. What was his voice like? Did his eyes twinkle when he spoke of his Father’s kingdom? Did his passion frighten the disciples? I am sure those first disciples never forgot the sound of voice, it was, I imagine, what sustained them even as they suffered so much for the sake of his name.

“Our faith began when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire”

After his resurrection, when Christ appeared to his disciples he told them, ‘I am with you always’ and echoed his promise that ‘whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, then I will be with them.’ We too hear his voice. We hear him when the Gospel is proclaimed in the Eucharist. It is our great privilege not just to read the Bible alone (which is, of course, a wonderful thing to do) but to hear it proclaimed to us: to glimpse the voice of Jesus when the Scriptures are carried into the heart of the congregation and proclaimed to us. We also hear the voice of Jesus in the preaching of the Church – this is his living voice, especially in the bishops and priests who Christ ordains to preach the Gospel. Through the Church, despite everything, the living voice of Christ rings out and the truth of the Gospel is preached in every generation.

As I said in my last post, we here the voice of Christ in our conscience, the primal sanctuary of our hearts. We call the pull of our conscience a ‘voice,’ because it speaks us to more powerfully than any other feeling. We have begin to attune ourselves to hear the voice of Christ in our own hearts. The voice of Christ comes to us from other places, especially in the words of good spiritual friends – our parish priests, our friends at dinner, our families – those voices which comfort and challenge us, which call us to higher ideals and refuse to let us get comfortable where we are but urge us on to a more meaningful relationship with Christ. Our spiritual friends, in persona Christi, pick us up when we fall and form part of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ which urges us on.

One thing the first hearers of this teaching knew instinctively, but we have to be reminded, is that sheep respond only to the voice of their own shepherd and no one else. Sheep, however dumb, know their shepherd and follow him. For us, the sheep of Christ’s flock, this means trying to discern the voice of Christ in the midst of the cacophony of voices which surround us everyday. Politicians, authors, cultural leaders, our friends, and so many other voices are always leading us in different directions. How do we know whom to follow? How do you listen for the voice of Christ amongst so much competing noise? Those who are formed in the Christian life begin to recognise Jesus’ voice amidst the noise. Those who are fed by Christ’s body and blood in the Mass, who hear and meditate on his words in Scripture and remember that he has chosen to identify himself with the poor and the unloved begin to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Like musicians who can pick out the right tune in a host of competing noises, so the disciple of Christ can recognise the Master’s voice and follow.

But why do we follow Yeshua? Why is this Jesus, born as he was 2016 years ago, raised in the backwater town of Nazareth and, like so many others, meeting a violent end on the Cross of the Roman authorities? Jesus gives us the answer here, ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’ We don’t listen to Christ to become more ethically upright, to be more charitable people or to orientate ourselves more towards social justice (although, these will follow from faithful discipleship!), any spiritual guru or even a good politician can teach you to do this. We endeavour with all our hearts to follow Christ because he leads us to eternal life. Jesus leads his sheep to the life of heaven where we shall never perish – where we will see God face to face and rejoice to dance with all the saints before the tabernacle of God for ever.

The eternal life to which we are drawn is a supernatural reality, it is our citizenship with the blessed in the eternal feast of heaven but it also transforms our life today. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for us that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly’ – that we might live in the glory and joy of his Risen Life now! Everything you and I do should bring us closer to this end – nothing, no one can separate you from the flock of the Shepherd who knows you and holds you save in his hand. Learn to hear his voice, meditate on his words in your heart, tune your ears to the voice which calls you to life and stay firm in the hope that he has set before you.

‘Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good deed to do his will,
working among us that which is well pleasing in his sight,
through Jesus Christ,to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
– Hebrews 13.20-21

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With the Help of God: Conscience and Amoris Laetitia

Very hastily written thoughts on human conscience

‘Teach me to do what pleases you, for you are my God’ – Psalm 143.10

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Francis, Pope of Mercy

Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has rightly received much attention in both the Christian and secular press: it represents both a restatement of the extravagant and beautiful Christian doctrine of marriage and family life but also a significant shift in the pastoral focus of the Catholic Church. The Pope, fittingly in this Year of Mercy, encourages the pastors of the Church to meet people where they are and walk with those whose situation falls short of the demands of Christian marriage – especially the divorced and remarried. As one would expect, it retains an absolute condemnation of homosexuality (although, as I am arguing in an essay at the moment, there is a not insubstantial change in this teaching) but, this aside, I wanted to briefly discuss a central focus of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation and one I think is worth holding in mind in the midst of current Anglican disputes over the recognition of same-sex marriage: the role of conscience.

 

The Pope’s exhortation repeatedly asserts the sovereignty of human conscience as ‘man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary,’ the place where the voice of God ‘echoes in his depths’ and the heart communes with God and seeks His will in our lives (quoted by Pope Francis from Gaudiem et Spes, §16). In the Christian conscience, God directs our hearts to what is right and helps us to make the demands of the Gospel our own as we journey as Christ’s disciples. Of course, we often act against our consciences, but God’s still, small voice always draws us back to the Way of Christ. It is for this reason, claims Amoris Laetitia, that the Church is ‘called to form consciences, not replace them’ [§37].

How does God’s voice make itself known in our conscience? In a myriad of beautiful, profound and often surprising ways! God deals with us as individuals and speaks to us as beloved children, there is no ‘one size fits all’ with the God who notices even a sparrow falling to the ground. In some people, God’s activity manifests as a sharp pang of conscience, reminding them that what they are doing is wrong. In others, it is an irresistible invitation to a new and fuller life. In other it is a comforting feeling of consolation which follows making a good decision. Sometimes it is a vivid feeling of closeness to the divine that comes to us in the midst of prayer. We cannot sum up the countless, varied and manifold ways in which God reaches into the lives of his people and stirs our hearts. Emotions, desires, insights, memories, feelings – all of these are ways God works through our hearts.

This may seem wishy-washy and critics of faith may dismiss all of this as pious-claptrap. But it is nothing of the sort. Thomas Aquinas famously said that ‘all that is against conscience is sin’ (Summa II.i.19.5) and even the teachings of spiritual hierarchs are to be ignored if they contradict our conscience. Of course, as Francis also affirms, we are not referring to our merely human understanding of right and wrong but to a formed conscience, which knows the Gospel and is shaped by a loving relationship with Jesus Christ in the sacraments of the Church, private prayer and the reading of Scripture. But, for those engaged in this lifelong process, the voice of our conscience is a powerful, God-given thing, calling us onwards in our discipleship and shaping us into Christ likeness.

‘What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3.2)

We ought to remember this when we discuss the difficult moral questions of our time, whether it be abortion, same-sex marriage or all those whose lives fall short of the ideal taught by the Church. In his always revolutionary tone, Francis reminds us: ‘A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.’ [305]

All of this stems from the striking fact of Christian spirituality – that God works in all our lives, to bring us fullness of life and direct us. In the beloved words the Lord spoke to Jeremiah: ‘for surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ To every single person, Pope or prisoner, gay, lesbian or straight, faithful or faithless, God can speak these words and, as he forms our conscience in the ways of Christ, he continues to help, guide and comfort each one of us. Which is, I would argue, something the Church ought to remember as it ‘lays down the law’ on same-sex marriage.

What a friend we have in Jesus, 
all our sins and griefs to bear! 
What a privilege to carry 
everything to God in prayer! 
O what peace we often forfeit, 
O what needless pain we bear, 
all because we do not carry 
everything to God in prayer. 

Have we trials and temptations? 
Is there trouble anywhere? 
We should never be discouraged; 
take it to the Lord in prayer. 
Can we find a friend so faithful 
who will all our sorrows share? 
Jesus knows our every weakness; 
take it to the Lord in prayer. 

Read Amoris Laetitia in full here.

‘Let all corners of the earth be glad…’

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness. – The Exsultet (Easter Proclamation)

The highlight of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil is the Exslutet, the great proclamation of Easter, sung in the light of the new Paschal Candle. The Exsultet proclaims the resurrection of Christ, calling on the Angels to sound the trumpet of salvation; the Church to resound with praise and the whole of creation to be glad – ‘ablaze with light from her eternal king.’ Creation, then, forms the ancient heart of this greatest hymn of praise. In our own day concerns about ecology are rising; climate change, pollution, and the unnatural extinction of plants and animals is causing us to question the way we treat the natural world. I firmly believe that the Christian response ought to be a return to the doctrine of creation, the centrality of which can hardly be overemphasised. The doctrine of creation is simple: all things were created by God, who saw it was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1.31) and affirms its value in his own eyes. We human beings are created in the divine image, as part of this community of life, in order to till and care for it, not to destroy it (Gen. 2.15).

The Exsultet proclaims that creation, gladdened by the joy of the resurrection, is intimately bound up with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate through whom and for whom all things were made (Romans 11.36). At the core of our faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being in order to redeem us, in the words of the Christmas Gospel – ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). The Word is the second person of the Trinity, God’s own self-communication, uttered from all eternity and flesh refers to what is material, vulnerable, invite and what is not divine. This is the radical claim of our faith: God became what is not God, he became material in order to save us.

While, of course, the writers of the Exslutet would have been aware of the related doctrines of creation and incarnation, they could not have predicted how modern scientific discovery would enhance and colour this doctrine in the last two centuries. We now know that our human flesh is part of the great chain of evolution on earth, which in turn is part of one solar system within trillions, which in turn came into being as part of a long cosmic history.

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The prevailing scientific theory is that everything that exists comes from a single blazing instant around 13.7 billion years ago; a single speck explodes in what is (inelegantly) known as the Big Bang – an immeasurable outpouring of matter and energy which continues to this day. As this material expanded, its lumpy unevenness allowed swirling galaxies to form as the force of gravity pulled particles together and their dense friction ignited the stars. Roughly five billion years ago some of these ageing stars died. They exploded into great supernovas, which fused basic hydrogen into more complex elements. Out of these clouds of dust and gas, some material reformed and re-ignited to become our Sun, a second-generation star. Some coalesced into chunks too small to catch fire these formed the planets of our solar system—including Earth.

Three and a half billion years ago on this planet (and, almost certainly on others) there began another momentous change – molecules coalesced to form living cells. Over aeons these developed into creatures that could ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and life is born. So, out of the Big Bang comes stars; from stardust comes the Earth; out of the raw matter of the Earth comes life. This life burst forth from the life and death of single-celled creatures into an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom came human beings—mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.

This scientific story, teaches us that everything is connected to everything else. In the famous words of Arthur Peacocke (scientist and theologian), ‘every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.’ Quite literally human beings are made of stardust. And, more than that, we share with all other living creatures a common genetic ancestry in the great community of life.

While the human capacity for thought and love are unique, they are not something injected into the universe from outside. Rather, they are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. In the human species nature becomes conscious of itself and open to fulfilment in grace and glory. In the words of the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, this makes human beings the “cantors of the universe,” able to sing praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.

When we understand the human species in these terms, as an intrinsic part of cosmic matter, this hugely enriches the way we understand the incarnation. From this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. This is called by theologians “deep incarnation,” as it expresses this radical divine reach into the very tissue of all biological existence and the wider system of the cosmos. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself the traces of supernovas and the whole history of life on earth. The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.

This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. Christians must turn away from anything that is world-denying – instead, far from spiritual contempt for the world, we are to ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, which is all part of the flesh that the Word became. Again, in the words of the Exsultet:

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

This perspective is radical, it calls each one of us to the upmost respect for creation because ‘the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.9). This world, created by the same God who entered into this incredible story two thousand years ago in Nazareth, is precious and beloved – it yearns in every atom for salvation. This perspective encompasses not only life on earth, but the life of every planet in the universe, for it is from stardust that all is made. From the Cross, Jesus spoke a word translated into Greek as τετέλεσται, ‘it is finished.’ In meditating on this we
remember that, on the Cross, Christ enters into the depth of our fragile creation – he experiences the reality common to all creatures; death. He accomplishes his great work of Recreation and forever charges the universe with his power and presence. In this perspective, it is no surprise that the Resurrection happened in a garden, for every budding flower and ancient tree cries out in triumph as our stardust is redeemed and all creation is charged with resurrection glory. Alleluia.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.mp5345web-900x900.png