Never Forget the Gift | Reflections for Corpus Christi

Last week, the Church commemorated with great care and solemnity, the gift of the life and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, given to us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.

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Cambridge celebrates Corpus Christi Day with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament

The Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, what we know as the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Communion, is not for us Christians merely a symbol of Christ, or an expression of community fellowship, or a metaphor, but it is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself. God in Christ makes himself food and drink, so that, taking him into our bodies as nourishment, we can become like him. Adoring and Receiving the Blessed Sacrament we adore and receive Christ.

This is all very mysterious and mystical, but what else could it be? All actions of God to reveal himself to us are mysterious and mystical, the breakthrough of God into this world is always confounding and never fits easily into worldly categories of experience and understanding.

The Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, is the breakthrough of God’s life and presence into our lives and into this world. It might seem easier and safer for us to construe the mystery and mysticism of Holy Communion into a symbol or a metaphor, but this construal, is not what the Blessed Sacrament really and truly is. At the end of the day, we don’t make the Eucharist what it really and truly is, God makes the Eucharist what it really and truly is- and what God in Christ makes the Eucharist is the gift of his very life.

The scriptures set for Corpus Christi emphasise this mystical element. An excerpt from the Book of Genesis recalls the ancient patriarch Abraham’s encounter with the priest and king Melchizedek, who offers bread and wine to God as an affirmation of his covenant, that is, his relationship with Abraham. In response to the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, Abraham makes his own offering of “a tenth of his possessions”.

The story of this encounter and offering is presented to us as a foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament we receive from our true priest and king, Jesus Christ. The Blessed Sacrament establishes us in relationship with God in Christ and our response to the offering of the priest and king Jesus Christ is that we offer him our very lives.

The second reading is an excerpt from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which contains the earliest description of the mystery of the Eucharist. This simple reading reminds us that the Eucharist is not an invention of the Church, but a reality that Christ’s first disciples received from him. It is Christ who declares the Eucharist to be his Body and his Blood and it is Christ who makes the Eucharist the sacrifice of his new worship.

The Eucharist is the worship that God wants for it is the worship that God in Christ gives.

We might desire a different kind of worship and even invent forms of worship to satisfy our desires and needs (indeed the Church seems intent on replacing the Eucharist as the centre of her life) but, while these invented forms of worship might appear to us to be more appealing and entertaining than the worship God in Christ gives to us, they are not what God truly wants for us and they will never give to us what the worship that is faithful to Christ gives. The worship we create may provide us with ideas and feelings and experiences that we associate with God and that’s important but the worship of the Mass is different. In all our worship, we receive experiences of Christ and have an opportunity to draw near to him and meditate with God but there is no form of worship except the Eucharist that can give us the life and presence of Christ himself. As Denys wrote in the 4th century, only the Eucharist ‘can perfect us’.

The meaning of our reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a simple meaning: from the time of the Apostles, the Church has offered the worship that we know as the Mass. It is not just a matter of human custom, but fidelity to Christ, and receiving from Christ, the gift that he wants to give. This gift is his life and his presence, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

Finally, the Gospel of St. Luke testifies to the great miracle, a display of Christ’s divine power. He feeds a vast crowd with only a few morsels of food.

There is no natural explanation to what is described in this account from St. Luke’s Gospel. The people cannot give to one another what they do not have. The disciples cannot give to the people what they do not possess. There is nothing to share, for there is nothing at all to share. God in Christ provides for the people what they cannot provide for themselves. They can only eat and be satisfied because Christ gives them food that he through his divine power creates.

This miracle foreshadows or anticipates the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, heavenly food that God in Christ gives to us, a food we cannot create or provide for ourselves. Christ accomplishes a miracle to suggest to his followers an even greater revelation that is to come – the gift of his life and presence, given to his disciples as food and drink, given to us as a meal, given to us as the Blessed Sacrament.

A greater gift than the food that fed the multitude is the food that Christ makes of his Body and Blood. Greater than the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the revelation of the Eucharistic mystery.

My prayer this Corpus Christi is for the Church – that she may never forget the great gift Christ has given of himself in the Sacrament. Only here can we be satisfied; only here can we find ‘life in all its abundance’; only here can we be perfected. So be it. Amen.

‘Let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread.’ – Saint Francis of Assisi

Original Sin

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I have just listened to BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief  (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07btlm7) which discussed this evening the doctrine of Original Sin. It consisted of a group of scholars (and a Jesuit priest) discussing the doctrine and their conclusions were effectively: St. Augustine is wrong, original sin is all about babies going to hell and it is responsible for all the problems of Western society. In response to this caricature, I wanted to provide my own discussion of original sin consisting mainly of a short exposition of the first chapters of Genesis. Sadly, this portion of the Scriptures is usually treated as an embarrassment to Christians – reserved for the Easter Vigil – and dismissed as silly whenever an atheist challenges ‘creationism’. However, I think the first few chapters of Genesis provide all the fundamental of the Christian life. In these chapters right at the beginning of the Scriptures we find in symbolic detail so much of the life of faith and the reality of things.

Perhaps the most significant verse for us now is Genesis 2.7:

‘Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being’.

God made us from the clay of the earth – affirming from the beginning that we are embodied realities. As I’ve said in a previous post, we as scientific people know even better than the Biblical writers that we are truly embodied – everything in us comes from stardust. We are made from the clay of the earth, the building blocks of the universe. This is very important because the problem we have (and we’ll get there) is not with our bodies! Heresies up and down the centuries, from Gnosticism to Puritanism have attempted to say that it our bodies that are the problem. They couldn’t be more wrong. Our bodies, our passions, our sexualities are not the problem – God made us from the clay of the earth and he ‘saw that it was good’.

But that’s not all. Into that good clay he breathes ‘the breath of life’ – the ruach in Hebrew or the spiritus in Latin. God breathes into this earthly stuff his own life, his own being. What this means is that there is in us an aspiration to God: our minds don’t just seek some truth, we seek the Truth; our minds don’t just look for goodness but the Good itself and our souls won’t rest until they’ve come to the Beautiful itself. In each one of us, created from clay, there is an aspiration, a longing for God. If gnosticism denies the body of claim then modern day secularism denies the breath of life! Secularism (and scientism) reduces everything to matter, scientifically testable matter – which means that the longing for truth and goodness is reduced to psychological fantasy or wish-fulfilling delusion. Secularism denies the breath of God which animates each one of us.

Before we get to the great problem of original sin, there is another observation from Genesis which is fruitful to remember, this time from Genesis 2.15: ‘the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden’. Human beings are placed in Eden, the garden full of delights to taste and experience and enjoy. The Lord gives us practically free reign – ‘eat of every tree of the garden’ except one (but we’ll get to that). But, before we look at the problem, look at the extraordinary permission given to us! God wants the people he has created to flourish in the garden. In ancient mythology, God and humans are always rivals but the true God cannot be threatened by creation – he needs nothing from it, he demands nothing for his own well being – he simply delights to see us fully alive. We are placed in a beautiful garden, not in the desert.

Augustine and the Church Fathers take this further – all the trees represent everything that makes life wonderful. ‘Every tree’ includes philosophy, art, science, friendship, sex, politics and music  – everything that makes life wonderful is represented here and God says, ‘eat of them all!’ God never seeks to limit the human project, to arbitrarily restrict our flourishing but says to us – your being fully alive is my glory. Eat, enjoy, play!

But, what about the prohibition? One tree is forbidden – ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The Lord God is unconditioned Good, he is good in his own being and so, in his own being, is the measure of good and evil. Therefore, this prerogative belongs to God alone. Original Sin is nothing more and nothing less than making the prerogative of determine good and evil our own. The calamity of creation is that we seek to make our will the measure of good and evil rather than God’s. This is a subtle point – not a particular offence, like murder or theft, it’s much more fundamental – Original Sin is making ourselves into God, claiming we are the deciders of good and evil. Since this appropriation, human misery has followed – just read the first eleven chapters of Genesis to see this laid out; murder, pride and violence have followed this fundamental sin.

This is not abstract theological musing designed to frighten people, as Beyond Belief tried to say, it’s written into our culture. It’s seen as a basic liberty to determine the meaning of good and evil, to make my own meaning. Ask most people today and they’ll say, ‘right or wrong, that’s my personal decision’. And this attitude, before any particular sin is the disfunction introduced into the human condition.

How do Adam and Eve respond in this symbolic narrative – Adam says, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hide myself’ (Gen. 3.10). This isn’t being ashamed of the body, it is evidence of a deep and uncomfortable turning inwards. If goodness is found in God and the world he created, we turn into ourselves if we try to ignore this reality. Sin is turning oneself into God and the result is a turning in on yourself – no happiness can be true if you appropriate the divine life, you must receive it as a gift! The divine life is a gift, it exists in gift-form in the Trinity: the Father gives himself to the Son, the Son gives himself to the Father and the Spirit is the mutual giving of Father and Son! If you want the divine life, if you want to return the beatitude of the garden you can’t grasp the divine life, you receive it ‘on the fly’! As you receive it, you give it away! As it comes in, as you receive grace, it goes out. Then, and only then, does it really take root in you.

The best example of this is the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17.8-16). Elijah says to the women, ‘bring me bread’ and she tells him that she only has enough for one meal for her and her son and then they’re going to curl up and die. Elijah responds, ‘make me some bread.’ (Charming) She makes him the cake and the bread and oil never run out! The Scriptures tell this story over and over again – if you want the divine life, give it away, and as you give it away you get more and finally it becomes a fountain bubbling up in you to eternal life!

Original Sin is not a barbaric doctrine about the eternal damnation of children – it is central to who we are; children of God, filled with the breath of the divine life, but twisted inwards and in need of grace! It would take a lifetime to tell you how wonderful the grace of God that slowly turns us outwards – which polishes the diamond and returns us to the happiness for which we were made. But, to sum up this post – if you want to be happy, give yourself away! if you want the divine life, give it away! 

O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
– Collect for Quinquagesima Sunday (Book of Common Prayer)

‘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.

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.

The Church in Acts and Beyond

These are unformed thoughts following the consulation today over the possibility of unifying Mission Areas (like CofE Deaneries) into large single parishes… 

Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit’ – Acts 5, set for today.

This Sunday in St. Mary’s, Mold we held our Annual Vestry Meeting, at which was discussed, amongst other things, the future pattern of ministry in the Diocese of St. Asaph. We were consulted on the possibility of converting Mission Areas into (effectively) very large parishes, with a priest leading a large team across as many as 15+ churches. I expressed my serious concerns about this move in the meeting, but thought it was interesting to bring all this to bear on ecclesiology (the theology of the Church). Fittingly, the reading for this Sunday included Acts 5.27-32, which I will use as the basis of my discussion.

The Acts of the Apostles is, I think, one of the least well understood books of the New Testament, it is quite long and appears to be a jumble of stories about the early days of the Church with little to unify its narrative. However, to begin to find “the message of Acts,” one must understand it as complimenting and extending the Gospel of St. Luke, clearly written by the same person, and thus its purpose is to testify to the lasting effects of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Christ, proclaims the Acts of the Apostles, is an event with real world consequences – the resurrection changes people’s lives and it changes the world. The Book of Acts reminds us of the transforming power of the resurrection, which continues to gain momentum in history in the life of the Church. The Church, as Acts understands it, is much more than an institution or social club – the Church, quite literally, is the power of Christ’s resurrection unleashed into the world. Acts presents the Church with a straightforward mission statement: to imbue the world with the divine life, known in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus.

pentecost1
Pentecost: the sending of the Holy Spirit to give power to the Church.

Today’s reading from Acts 5 is making this exact point. Note how the  apostles are descried as continuing to do the kind of wonderful and miraculous things which Christ himself did. In other words, the Church continues the mission of Christ in the world – what he did, his disciples must do. Acting in Jesus’ name, a common theme in Acts, means acting like Jesus himself.

This Biblical vision of the Church, proclaimed in this reading at the Eucharist today, challenges the status quo which sadly seems to prevail amongst many, that the Church is merely an institution that is expected to provide faith based services to its members. In this false (but common) construal of the Church, being a Christian is reduced to being a passive recipient of services provided by the employees of a religious corporation. In this institutional pseudo-Church, no divine life is necessary and the power of the resurrection is effectively absent.

This is not the Church, in fact it is really an anti-church. The true Church, in communion with the apostles, is one where the disciples of Jesus are willing to take the great risks that come when you seek to continue the mission of the Crucified Christ – there is much danger, but also true joy, in seeking to accomplish in our own place and times the very things that Christ accomplished in first century Palestine.

The Christian faith professes that Christ really and truly died and that he is now really and truly alive. The resurrection is categorically not a metaphor or a symbol, it is not a feeling or an idea, it is a real, historic event – an event that changes history and gives us hope that, despite the awful mess that the world is often in, God is working his purpose out. God in Christ has the power to set things right and that despite the fear-filled shadow of death into which we must walk, he is a light that is cast into the dark. The power of Christ is revealed in his resurrection and the Church which springs from this great moment.

So, what does this have to do with the way the Church in Wales is structured in 2016? In short, everything.

The Church, if it is to be true to its history as it is shown to us in the Acts of the Apostles and beyond, must be a place where the power of Christ’s resurrection is experienced and given concrete expression. A place where the things Christ did are repeated: where God is worshipped; bread is broken; new life is experienced; and the world healed: the Church must be a place where the sick find peace, the sinner finds pardon, the marginalised finds home. If it cannot do this, it is not the Church of Christ.

My fear for a system in which a single priest is called to administer a vast number of parishes is that the life-giving power of Christ will not be known – we will be a Church where the Eucharist, the source and summit of the resurrection life, is not celebrated and churches are left fighting just to keep the roof on and have no time/energy to continue Christ’s work of ministry in the world. I believe that the existing model of a parish gathered around the celebration of the Eucharist, led and encouraged by their parish priest, has the potential not only to save the Church institution but also to transform the world.

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The ordination of Fr. Sam Erlandson to the priesthood by Bishop Gregory of St. Asaph

By having a stipendiary priest in every parish (even if that means multiple churches) is not about the parish priest doing everything and everyone else just receiving her ministry – it means that the parish priest can minister to the congregation, celebrating the Mass and preaching the Gospel, so that people are inspired to go out and minister to the world. The congregation, encouraged and equipped by the priest, can do the things our Lord did: visiting the sick, reading and studying the scriptures, praying for all people and working to build the Kingdom in our communities and the world. This is the ancient pattern of the Church: the Bishop, successor to the apostles, ordains and sends out priests to celebrate the sacraments, preach the gospel and encourage the diverse congregations of his/her diocese and these priests encourage others to go out and minister to the world around. This is the ecclesiology of Acts and remains the wisdom of the Church throughout the ages.

I fear that the alternative is a bland and admin-focussed order of priests, who are not called to equip or inspire but principally to make sure the multitude of churches in his care are able to get by another year. Where is the glorious power of the resurrection? Where is the bold and faithful proclamation of the Gospel? Who is the priest called to be in this context?

The Church does not need to be fearful of the future – we have the great hope of the resurrection – we are Christ’s body in the world and we must do the things we saw him do and obey no human authority. Our authority is Christ, who commands us to love and serve the world, announcing the forgiveness of sins and the coming of a new age.

The Lord is God; he has given us light
link the pilgrims with cords
right to the horns of the altar.
You are my God and I will thank you
you are my God and I will exalt you. – Psalm 148, set for today. 

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)

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! 

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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Christ the King (Homily, B)

Jesus said, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’

A joke, to give a slightly philosophical definition, occurs at the juxtaposition of incongruous elements – we laugh when the well-dressed business man slips on the banana or when grown ups behave like children, we laugh at the incongruity of life’s situations. At the heart of Christianity is a meeting of the most incongruous elements, in the centre of our faith there is a sacred joke. God, the one we confess as almighty, becomes a human – divinity and humanity meet, so that we can see in Jesus both God and humanity. As Chesterton goes on, for two thousand years Christians have laughed at this joke – we never tire of it!

Here, at the end of the liturgical cycle of the year, the Church reminds us of Christ the King – the whole cycle of the year builds up to the joke, this punchline of the sacred jest – this man, who lay in the manger too weak to raise his own head, who gives himself every moment seeking out the poor and the lost and healing the sick before pouring out his entire life on the cross in love for a sinful world, forgiving with love even those who crucified him – this man is God, this man is king of the universe. If you asked a child to draw a king the image would, I imagine, be of a man in a golden crown, revered by his subjects, lord of armies in majestic robes… but our King, our glorious, beautiful, holy jest of a King, is a man crucified and abandoned, condemned by society and the religious elite, betrayed by all but his Mother and closest friend. We gaze this morning at Christ on the cross and say ‘there is our king’ – it’s a joke, a juxtaposition of the incongruous, power and weakness held in an absurd relationship.

The earliest depiction of the Cross of Christ is amazing, we believe it’s from a training centre for young gladiators in Rome. It shows a crucified figure with the head of an ass, with a small man kneeling down in prayer – the caption reads: ‘the Christian worships his god.’ Unfortunately, this was probably aimed at some poor young gladiator, but it does capture the alex3strange incongruity of our religion – a crucified criminal is proclaimed king at the climax of the liturgical year and this is the joke we are all called to share in today.

Think of that amazing reading we heard from Revelation a moment ago: Christ who has made us a kingdom to his Father; Christ worthy of glory and dominion; Christ who will come with the clouds of heaven; Christ the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty, the all powerful source and summit of all reality. And then think of the Creed we will recite in just a moment’s time, Christ: ‘God from God and light from light’, the one who is in himself God and King. Yet we, as Christians, can keep all that in mind and shift our attention to a landfill site outside Jerusalem in 30AD, because that’s what Golgotha was, and remember the scene – a young man, about 30, nailed to an instrument of torture – in the agony of death he is jeered by soldiers who specialise in brutal executions – almost everyone who paraded with him through Jerusalem two days earlier are gone. Naked, nailed to the tree, mocked and pointed at, laughed at and abused, they jeer at him, ‘he saved others, let him save himself’. We can survey this bloody, brutal scene and say this is the one the Creed is talking about  – he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, he is the source an end of all reality, God from God and light from light. What a strange religion we share this morning? This is the joke of Christianity! And it is this incongruous juxtaposition which is the drama and the poetry and the beauty and the wonder of the Feast of Christ the King.

But, to declare this Jesus as King is to admit that our notion of kingship is entirely and grievously wrong. What we take to be kingship – authority, power, dominion – have nothing to do with the real thing, we are almost entirely mistaken. The power ISIS believe they wield in the attacks in Paris or in the torture of the people of Syria and Iraq is not true power, it is a sinful facsimile of the power of the Almighty one. In our world, if you have military strength you can subdue and dominate other nations, or personally, if you are wealthy you can protect yourself from the changes and chances of the world; if you have cultural influence, you can save yourself from being forgotten and protect yourself from embarrassment. But the true King does not seek to save himself, he forgets himself for us – he never aggrandises his own ego, he gives it up in love – he empties himself of all visible signs of kingship and godly power in order to empty himself and ‘take the form of a servant’. He, the Alpha and the Omega, the power which creates the entire universe is the power of self-emptying love. This is not what the world tells us – this is not military might or wealth or status. If you want power, proclaims the Christian faith, stop trying to fill up your own life in a self-protective way but reach out and protect someone else – if you want power, if you want to live in the power which created the universe, you need only do the smallest, simplest act of love and forget yourself.

Christ_Crucified_from_betsyporter.com_This is a joke to most people. To point at that naked man, jeered at by the authorities and call him king is a joke to the world. But calling Christ King is only a joke in the context of our sinful world – it’s only a joke because we’ve fallen so far away from God’s dreams for us. In terms of the transformed world, in terms of that deeper magic, this is not a joke but the reality of God in his Triune being – everything else in our faith, all the volumes of theology and endless sermons, my entire tripos, is a commentary on this deep reality, this truth of immeasurable significance.

Unfortunately, I’m aware that this might all seem like nice abstractions from an idealistic Welsh ordinand – yes, that’s all very nice and everything, but power does come with money and influence and strength to say otherwise is just to fool yourself. But these are not the pretty musings of an undergrad theologian, love has truly conquered in history and it will conquer again. We’ve seen it – think of Luther King and the Civil Right’s movement, who transformed whole societies, uprooted centuries old institutions and systems through the power of love; think of those families who have been held together despite everything by their love; think of every refugee who has escaped the brutality of their old life to bring their family to the shores of Europe by love, and think of those less glamorous times where love has triumphed, in a trickle of distilled water and the murmured invocation of the Trinity over a neonatal intensive care cot, or in a smear of oil that anoints forehead and hands as life ebbs away.

Love is the dynamite and power of the Church…

Love, my friends, is the dynamite and the power of the Church – the Church’s power is found in self-forgetting, self-sacrificing love, because that is the power of our King. In this Eucharist, as James offers afresh the sacrifice which brought about our salvation, Christ once more pours out his love into the distinctly ordinary elements of bread and wine, the food of the poor in Christ’s time, his body, his soul, his humanity and divinity, his kingly power comes into our midst in the most humble food and drink, yet we are changed by receiving these gifts – love triumphs in us, as it one day will in all the world.

Christ the King – a joke in this sinful world yet, for us who know him, this feast day is the deepest truth in God’s true world of grace and love, that world which breaks out in us and among us and will one day overcome the world.

Christ the Poetic King (Waldo Williams)

Waldo’s Poem, on which this post is based, is available here.

This week, the Church keeps the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it is properly known. The Feast was institute by the Pontiff in 1925, in response to growing nationalism in Europe and to freshly emphasise Christ’s soveChristtheKing-672x372reign Lordship in the wake of the brutality of the First World War. For us today, the feast is given new significance in the light of the brutal attacks in Paris only last week, the violence of ISIS which has decimated much of Syria and Iraq, and the countless souls who have fled their homes in search of safety and a better life. The death of the innocent, at the whim of those who would use them to further their political aims, takes us straight to the very heart of the Christian
Faith. It takes us to the suffering of Christ on the cross for us. Two thousand years ago, after careful consideration by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, along with the High Priest, it was deemed expedient that Jesus should die. And so he was nailed naked to that famous tree, abused and mocked by soldiers, whilst his friends, in their fear, deserted him. A week ago in Paris and daily in many parts of the world, terrorists and barbaric regimes reach the same conclusion, it would serve their interests for the innocent to die and we are left to weep, just as Our Lady Mary did two thousand years ago, as she stood at the cross and wept as she watched her own son suffer and die.

In our search for understanding, it is the words of Waldo Williams, writing about the time this feast day was inaugurated, to which I turn our attention now. Waldo was the most extraordinary Welsh poet of the 20th century, he stood in the long tradition of bardd gwlad, folk poets, and was a devout Quaker and passionate pacifist, whose poem Mewn Dau Gae (In Two Fields) has had a very profound affect on my faith and understanding of Christ’s kingship. I have printed off a few copies of the poem for you as you leave, it is a short, rich poem and I can scarcely do it justice in a single homily.

But now: imagination
shakes off the night. Someone is shouting
(who?), Stand up and walk. Dance. Look.
Here is the world entire. And in the middle
of all the words, who is hiding? Like this
is how it was. There on the shores of light
between these fields, under these clouds.

The poem begins in a field, workers engaged in a common purpose, yet basked in a light which mystically surrounds and enfolds them. Waldo’s poem is, in many ways, a rapture on the mystical ancient Welsh idea of awen. Awen a word which can only be poorly translated as ‘imagination’, for, in the Welsh poetic tradition, awen is the inspiration of the poet and the primordial energy of thought and language, that shared thing which inspires us and binds us together. The poem concerns itself with farmers working in the field but they are elevated by being basked in mysterious light, the power and energy of awen which binds them so closely – awen is the voice at the heart of the universe and it captures them now.

Somewhere between them,
through them, around them, there is a new voice
rising and spilling from its hiding place
to hold them, a new voice

The awen, the primordial energy, rises from our common purpose, our common working, in  Mewn Dau Gae, this is the hard farm work of the men, but awen is an energy which acts on us all and it calls us, as it does to these farmers, to recognise the fundamental truths of the universe and to recognise our fundamental and inseparable unity. This awen is the very power of unity, capable of drawing all things together and overcoming the lesser things which separate us. Awen is, for Waldo, the Spirit of Christ the King, who creates and saves us. These are the two fields of Waldo’s poem – one, the earthly sphere and the other the heavenly – but the light of awen binds and unites them. For Waldo, the world of heaven is not a distinct, far-off reality but is spilling into earth, blurring the lines and, by the awen, the Word of God, lifting us to taste the first fruits of its dawning. The glory of heaven, where peace and unity will reign, is overflowing into human community, into that field ‘full of folk’ as Waldo puts it, and the result is transformative.

Then the poet asks:
So who was it stood
there in the middle of this shameless glory, who
stood holding it all? Of every witness witness,
the memory of every memory, the life
of every life?

And the pilgrim clouds and the rustlings reeds give answer to the question, the King is life of every life and memory of every memory, the King is the awen. The  primordial nature of the whole universe is nothing less than a poetic utterance from the mouth of God himself, the same God and King who longs for the victory of unity over fragmentation, longs for the fulfilment of creation when the King comes again in shameless glory to make real the unity of heaven and earth.

Waldo’s understanding of Christ as a poet and the universe as his poem leads him to understand creation as the masterpiece of that cosmic poet from whom all being and beauty flow. This understanding of Christ’s poetic kingship led Waldo to become a passionate pacifist, even being imprisoned for refusing to pay income tax during the Korean war. He was a peacemaker but an aggressive peacemaker, who never withdrew from conflict but believed that the peaceful imperative was worth fighting for, but never with guns and violence but with words and protest. He was passionate only for the peace and flourishing of all people – he joined Christ the poet-king in seeking to wrestle with those powers of fragmentation in the world – a man passionate for peace, willing to wage peace with all the energy which we are so happy to waste waging war.

who with a quiet word
calms the red storms of self, till all
the labours of the whole wide world
fold up into this silence.

Waldo knows that the creative force of Christ the King and the work of his saints is to sweep away everything which divides and fragments because what is primary is what connects us one to the other, the awen comes first, the Word of God which is the speech which underlies our very being. To unite is to complete the work of creation, unity is true power and it is Christ’s work in the world. We can think of St. Paul’s famous words that in Christ there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek but the a prior, fuller, richer unity.

When I was a child, it was my favourite game to embarrass my mother by shouting ‘I’m not with her, I’m not with her!’ whenever she tried to hustle me somewhere I didn’t want to go, she would go bright red and people would look at us suspiciously. Mission accomplished, as far as I was concerned. But, Waldo, and I think he’s right, believed it is more than a childhood game but a near-universal tendency to say ‘they’re not with me’ or ‘I’m not with him’. We see it in our own day, in those who would banish Muslims from our island or close our borders to those who come to our shores in desperate need of help – to cry, ‘they don’t belong with us’ is such an easy, human thing to do. Yet Christians, Waldo believed, have a moral duty to fight against this universal tendency. For Christians, the only faithful response to those who are ‘other’ from us is to say, ‘you belong with us and we belong with you’. And this means, especially for us as Christians, a particular belief that we belong alongside the marginalised, the poor and the oppressed.

In the final and most beautiful stanza of Waldo’s poem, Jesus is described as the ‘the exiled king’ and it this image which reflects so beautifully the kingship of Christ in Waldo’s vision. Christ, the Word of God, is the awen – he is the energy which unites us and the one who creates us and longs for us to realise the perfection of his image within us. In Christ, the exiled king, God is emphatically one with us, he is literally born as one of us, he is willing to die as one of us, in order to show us that our true place of belonging is with him for all eternity. Christ does away with all the visible signs of kingship and godly power in order to ‘take the form of a servant’, to become one with us in our lowliness, in order that we might become on with him and one with one another. If all humanity is one in Christ, then we all belong together because we belong in him.

As I knelt in prayer for two hours last Saturday morning for the people affected by the Paris attacks, with many members of our Chapel community coming and going and the news reports still pounding in my ears, I grew increasingly aware that I was in the presence of the ‘exiled king’, who became one of us and hung helpless on a Roman cross. The people of Paris, and those whose lives were irreversibly scarred by those events were in the midst of deepest, blackest, Good Friday when the world seems utterly fragmented, where nothing makes sense and the unity of the mythical awen seems so far away – yet we assert that Good Friday is not the end of the story and, as the death toll rose and our hearts sank, there were glimpses of light and hope. There were glimpses of hope in the people who protected the Mosques of Paris as Muslims prayed, preventing any violent backlash against the Islamic community; hope in the Christians who gathered at the shrine of Our Lady of Paris to ask the Blessed Mother, who watched helplessly the suffering of her Son, to pray for them; hope in the people across the would who were reminded of our common humanity, and I felt a renewed longing for peace.

All these people, including us who gathered on Saturday morning, reasserted, in the very face of death and destruction, that Good Friday is not the end of the story – that the awen will one day sweep away the discordant fragments of our broken world and our unity under Christ will be revealed. His kingship will be made manifest and all other power will be subjected to Christ’s rule of love. This feast day, as on every Sunday and across the world, we are gathering both to weep and to hope – to weep for our brokenness and to hope that the exiled king will return and the poem of creation will be completed. And it is our hope and our prayer, watered by tears, which ascend to the very throne of the Crucified King and his kingdom draws near.

for it will come, dawn of his longed-for coming,
and what a dawn to long for. He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no-man’s land, the exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.

– Amen –