The Divine Compassion of Christ | Homily for Trinity II

‘When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’

In nomine…

The widow of Nain, to whom Jesus speaks this morning, is a woman who has lost everything. Not only is she grieving over the death of her only

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The Sacred Heart of Jesus

son but, in the context of 1st century Palestine, she is also staring into the abyss of the future. A widow in the first century, left with no children, is a person without any security, she has suddenly been thrust to the margins of society and will, from now on, be left to rely on the kindness of strangers or simply resign herself to fate and find a place to die. In short, this is a woman with every reason to weep. Yet, the Lord stumbles upon the funeral procession and, seeing her pain, is moved with compassion and wipes away her tears. This word compassion is one of the most poignant in the Gospels – it does not refer to ‘feeling sorry’ for her or taking pity on her – but rather that Jesus suffers with her, literally in the Greek that his heart breaks for her.

This is a very appropriate reading for today as the Roman Catholic Church celebrated on Friday the Sacred Heart of Jesus, introduced into Anglican devotion by the Franciscans as ‘the Divine Compassion of Christ’. This is not a solemnity well known in the Anglican Church but I’m sure many of us can picture one of the kitsch images of the sacred heart, which tend to focus on a pale Jesus with rosy cheeks piously pointing at his exposed heart, I think the idea of the Sacred Heart has much to say to us as Christians and I’d like to use my final homily in Corpus to think about how this particular devotion draws us into the mystery of God and calls us to a radical change of heart ourselves. In our College particularly, this is a poignant thing to reflect on – the founders of Corpus, using the evocative symbol of the Pelican, wanted to draw our attention to the unfathomable love of God, who pours out his own life for us on the altar and feeds us with own self.

The more time I have spent meditating on this mystery, the more I have become convinced that it is only in the broken heart of Jesus that the love of God can be found – in Jesus’ heart suffering with all who cry out in pain, with all who mourn or are left on the margins, the heart of Jesus’ moved with compassion for the poor and those whose own hearts have been corrupted in grasping for money, power or status. The love of God is found in the broken heart of Jesus. This is at the very heart of the Christian faith – as we hear proclaimed at Christmas, the Son, begotten in eternity from the heart of the Father, lives among us as our brother. In the life of Jesus of Nazareth we see as much God as humanity can hold. We see this so powerfully in our Gospel reading today – the Creator God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is able to bring life from death and hope from despair. The Son comes from the heart of the Father and is united to a human heart and, when this heart is broken for the life of the world, we come to share in his divine life.

God does not love us as we are accustomed to love each other – according to merit or worth, according to how much like us the object of our love is. God does not love us because we deserve it or because we have earned it or because we have something that God needs that he lacks in his own nature. Instead, God is love. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is trying to make this point visually – giving us a centre of meditation and devotion – because to express the wonders of God’s love in Christ verbally is almost impossible and to accept this requires a lifetime.

This wondrous love, which holds nothing back, is the reason why devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus ought to be central to the Church’s faith and proclamation. Faced with the ineffable mystery of the divine compassion, our response is adoration – but the challenge of the Gospel is not only to adore the sacred heart but to conform our lives to this self-sacrifical outpouring of love. As the traditional prayer has it:

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.

Our meditation on the sacred heart remains another load of pious rubbish, unless we heed the second line of this prayer – ‘inflame my heart’. This should be our daily prayer! When we adore the mystery of God’s eternal outpouring of reckless love, incarnate in the human heart of Jesus, we too must set our hearts on fire. With Jesus as our pioneer, we are called to imitate his compassion and join in his shameless love and self-giving mission to bind up the broken hearts of the human family. To be conformed to the great mystery we proclaim is to share in his work.

As many of us prepare to leave the relative comfort of our college walls and go out into the world, my prayer is that we can do this under the banner of the sacred heart. But that’s easier said than done. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to frustrate many of the marks of human success which society has laid out for us. To enthrone Jesus in your heart is to be driven to the margins of society – to seek your treasure amongst the poor. To pray for our hearts to be inflamed with the love of God is dangerous – it is a prayer to make the suffering of the human family your own: it is a prayer which takes away any comfortable indifference. As we leave Corpus or if we are staying, the sacred heart of Jesus reminds us that we can never turn our back on the suffering of the human family: we must feed and campaign for the poor and hungry; fight all the systems of this world which prevent human flourishing and we must rid ourselves of the market-logic that says people our only worth as much as the good we can get out of them. To be inflamed with the love of Christ is not a pious sentiment – it should make us uncomfortable with the systems of this world which keep the poor poor and make the rich richer.

Praying for our hearts to be conformed to the heart of Jesus will bring about the transformation of our lives. If we, like Christ, have hearts which are moved with compassion for all who cannot live to their full potential and are moved with indignation for all who have suffered wrong – then we cannot simply carry on as we are. We have to start making decisions that put the needs of the poor above our own, decisions that preserve our vulnerable earth and safeguard the flourishing of every member of the human family.

My prayer, each and everyday is that the sacred heart of Jesus would inflame my heart with the most excellent gift of love. I pray this for each one of you and especially those of us about to set off into the world. I pray that, in the midst of our confused and messy lives, people may catch a glimpse of the divine compassion of Jesus – that, in us, the love which burns at the beating heart of the universe may be experienced.

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.
Amen.

Justin Martyr: Faith in the Public Square

Exciting Holiness gives us this hagiography of Justin, Martyr at Rome, whose feast day is today.

Justin was born of a pagan family at the beginning of the second century in Palestine. As a young man he explored many different philosophies before at the age of thirty embracing Christianity. He continued to wear the distinctive dress of a professional philosopher, and taught Christianity as a philosophy first at Ephesus, and later at Rome. He became an outstanding apologist for the Christian faith, and is honoured as the first Christian thinker to enter into serious dialogue with the other intellectual disciplines of his day, including Judaism. Justin always sought to reconcile the claims of faith and reason. It was at Rome in about 165 that he and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians, and beheaded. The authentic record of their martyrdom based on an official court report has survived. Traditionally, Justin is often surnamed ‘Martyr’ because of his two-fold witness to Christ, through his apologetic writings and his manner of death.

Иустин_Философ,_АфонAfter hearing this at Mass this morning, I wanted to explore something of the message of Justin Martyr, one of the greatest early witnesses to the Faith of Christ. Brutally murdered in 165 AD because he was unwilling to offer worship to the emperor and gods of Rome, having spent his life articulating the faith of Christ as a philosopher in the public square. For Justin, fidelity to Christ was more important than his own life  – he found in Christ the wisdom and power of God.

 

‘For those who are called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (From 1 Corinthians).

Saint Justin was a man of prodigious intellectual gifts and he placed all this to the service of the Church’s mission. The Church, faced with the opposition of the Roman state in the second century, had to struggle to survive. Professing the Christian faith was considered to be treason, punishable by death. As well as this, Christians were cultural outsiders – the elites of Roman culture had their own gods and values, and to most of the Romans, Christian faith just seemed odd, if not completely unintelligible. Justin, empowered by divine grace, made it his mission to make the case for Christian faith. He presents reasoned arguments to the what and why of Christian belief and the practices of the Church.

This made Saint Justin a very dangerous man to those invested in the Roman system of power and privilege. For those who opposed the Church, there was no god but Caesar and no way of life other than the Roman way, a way of life that supremely valued wealth, pleasure, power and honours above anything else.

We might not feel that the Church is dangerously subversive, but for Justin, the Church was considered to be a threat, and was dealt with as such by those in power. Christians were persecuted. Their property was seized. Their institutions were closed. Their worship was ridiculed. Bishops and priests were arrested. And men and women like Justin, who presented Christian beliefs as credible, and the Christian way of life as worthwhile, were considered public enemies. The Church’s way of life required risk and sacrifices, and because people like Justin, were willing to take the risk and make the sacrifices, the Church not only survived, it flourished and grew. As Tertullian recognised at this time, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Central to Justin’s witness was that the Church was a public reality, not a private club. The Church existed to engage and create public culture. The purpose of the Church was to be seen and heard, as it had a message and a mission that was for everyone, not just for a privileged few. This is not simply evangelism (in the sense of calling people to worship Christ, although that is a necessary part of it) but the Church proclaiming to the culture an alternative way of living – a way of living which is not centred around wealth, privilege or power. Justin’s witness that the Church was a public reality grated on those who believed that Roman power was absolute and could have no rivals. For Justin and the Church’s opponents of the Church, the Roman way was the only way.

However, in this culture, Saint Justin believed that Jesus Christ is the Way, and he would rather die than deny his faith in Jesus Christ, and for this reason, above all, the Church remembers him and recalls his courage. The Church suffers persecution in every age of her life. We have the privilege of practicing our faith in relative freedom, but many Christians struggle and many Christians will, like Saint Justin, suffer and die in our age because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

On this day that the Church calls us to remember Saint Justin, I hope we can also remember and pray for the many Christians who today will suffer and die for the faith they profess and the way of life they practice.

For them, and for all the Church, we pray:

God our Redeemer,
who through the folly of the cross taught your martyr Justin
the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ:
remove from us every kind of error
that we, like him, may be firmly grounded in the faith,
and make your name known to all peoples;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Pray for us St. Justin, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!

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

‘He’s God… let’s go to Fitzbillies’

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The Holy and Life-Giving Trinity

While stood in the entrance to Corpus (my college) today, I overhead a conversation of two people who had been at the Mass in the College Chapel earlier on. A teenage boy turned to his mum (who had clearly been in the one who’d encouraged the family into Chapel) and said: ‘Mum, I don’t really understand all the fuss about Jesus, he was kind and I like his message, but would he really want all this fuss?’ The mum paused for a moment and said, ‘Well, he doesn’t need the fuss but he’s God and I need to remember that. Let’s go to Fitzbillies’. And they left.

It reminded me, at a key moment (but that’s another story) how extraordinary the proclamation of our faith is – a statement I seem to make in every post of this blog! What the Church proclaims, by its very existence and especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, is that Jesus Christ is God – one person of the eternal Trinity accepted a human nature and wrought our salvation. What we’re saying is that that aspect of God’s life which, from all eternity, is being poured out in love is captured for a moment in one life in history. In this life from start to finish is as much God as humanity can hold – the outpouring of God’s life and the joyful response of humanity is there in one uninterrupted life. While we can never understand what this life is like from the inside, because it is the unique life of Christ, we contemplate the mystery and long to share in it. ‘He’s God… let’s go to Fitzbillies’ said the woman, and how wonderful this is! In Christ we see such a concentration of the divine life that the whole of history just turns on its axis and everything changes – even a trip to Fitzbillies.

Yet, not surprisingly, but frighteningly, because this life is so full of the recklessness of God’s love – the people around it hate it. The Gospel is full of stories of people embarrassed and afraid and hateful in the presence of the divine life in human shape. Think of Luke 4.28-29:

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

When the reckless love of God draws near to people, they push back against it, push right over the cliff, they push him right over the cliff edge on the Cross and, as they look down into the abyss, a voice behind them says ‘peace be with you!’

That is the wonder and the miracle of God’s shameless, overflowing, reckless love for humanity, found in the history of Jesus of Nazareth and in the life of the community which has followed him through time. This is all that the mother said and it is world changing. In the Holy Eucharist, this eternal life is poured out afresh for us on the altar and Christ feeds us with his own life. This is the mystery at the heart of God, the mystery at the heart of the Church and, ultimately, the mystery at the heart of all creation. God lives a human life so that humans can share in the life of God!

Now, off to Fitzbillies.

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)

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.

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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! +

From the Desert Fathers

A story from the tradition of the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said:

‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of sinful thoughts: now what more should I do?’

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame.
He said: ‘Why not become completely fire?’

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Jesus and his friend, Abba Minas, a desert father

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

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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.