‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’

 

inqi63

Being in theological college – especially in a college not affiliated to any particular Anglican tradition – introduces you to a host of debates and tension within the Church; some of which I was never aware of! Do we read the Apocrypha at Evening Prayer or not? Should we wear vestments at the Eucharist? What is a priest for? How do we understand the Bible? One such conversation that I had recently was with someone who suggested that the Catholic tradition in general and me in particular had an unhealthy fascination with the gruesomeness of the crucifixion – a fixation on death, darkness and blood. We were discussing the Eucharist and this candidate argued that her worship was more interested in light, joy and the risen Lord – in their Church, the Cross was empty and Jesus was usually depicted as smiling, welcoming children, ascending to the Father, blessing. In her eyes, and in the eyes of many, we cling too much to the cross and fail to look beyond it.

‘…but we proclaim Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1.23)

I am almost tempted to agree with this criticism (indeed, it was a light-hearted discussion). The simple fact is, that all the jolly stuff is great and we must rejoice in the wonder of our Saviour, but it is in the Cross that I realised how much I am loved by God – when I am hurting, or see the world hurting, it is to the cross of Jesus that I turn.

Of course, all the joy and beauty of the world reveals God’s love to us – our lives, our families, our friends all show us God’s love. When we marvel at the beauty of nature, art and music we see reflected the beauty and love of the Creator. As Pope Benedict once beautifully explained in Verbum Domini:

All of creation reflects the eternal Word of God who created it and forms part of “a symphony of the word, … a single word expressed in multiple ways: ‘a polyphonic hymn’… [Yet] in this symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo,’ a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This ‘solo’ is Jesus”

Jesus is a ‘solo performance’ which speaks of the love of God and, within this solo, it is his Passion on the cross – embodied in countless crucifixes in churches and homes – that most fully reveals God’s love. Jesus in John’s Gospel talks about the Crucifixion as his moment of ‘glory’ – that is, the moment when God’s nature will be revealed, the presence of God most powerfully known. Every crucifix, in a direct and visceral way, re-presents the reality of God’s love for us embodied in Jesus.

For me, the crucifix is an unparalleled aid to contemplating the love of God. Many saints and missionaries have used the image to communicate the love of God beyond words to those who would listen. St. Paul of the Cross, whose feast day was last week, would always carry a crucifix with him to show people ‘the miracle of miracles of the love of God!’

During our times of emotional, physical or psychological suffering, we struggle to rationalise – struggle to ‘think straight’ – to understand the truth that others are trying to tell us, or to remember God’s goodness and blessing. But, when suffering overtakes us and rational arguments fail we gaze on upon the Cross, unfailing and unchanging for centuries, and know the visceral reality of God’s love. That Love which understands human suffering and redeems it.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12.1ff.

Chasing Heaven’s Hound | St. Augustine of Hippo

st-augustine.jpg!Large
Augustine of Hippo, ora pro nobis!

This weekend, the feast of St. Augustine is eclipsed by Sunday, but I could not let the opportunity pass to say something about this great saint – whose massive impact on Latin Christianity and Western Civilisation is beyond doubt.  As a Christian born on the Feast of St. Augustine, I feel a deep love for the Doctor of Grace and have often asked his prayers and turned to his writings for encouragement; support and wisdom. Augustine’s towering intellect and passionate spirit mean he has made decisive contributions to the study of just war; the separation of church and state; the relationship between grace and nature; methods of biblical interpretation; the nature of sin and the meaning of salvation as well as subjects ranging from the Trinity to epistemology; from the sacraments to human sexuality – all Western theology (and much work in other disciplines) is profoundly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical and theological work.

Despite his towering intellect, a well known story captures a different, but equally important facet of Augustine’s thought.

Augustine was walking one day along the seashore in Carthage, north Africa pondering his written work-in-progress on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, De Trinitate, when he saw a small boy running back and forth from the Mediterranean sea to a spot on the sandy seashore. The boy was using a sea shell to carry the water from the sea in order to pour it into a small hole in the sand.
Augustine approached him and asked, “My boy, what are doing?”
“I am trying to empty the sea into this hole,” the boy replied.
Augustine continued, “But that’s impossible, my dear child, the hole cannot contain all that water.’
The boy paused from his work, stood up, looked a the bishop, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are attempting, to comprehend the immensity of mystery in the Holy Trinity with your small mind.”
Augustine, amazed by the response averted his eyes for a moment, and when he glanced back to ask him something else, the boy had vanished.

In all his work, Augustine has a real appreciation of the limits of language before the wonder and immensity of God, while retaining a confidence in the capacity of language to break open our minds of clays to a real communion with divine Truth. That said, Augustine insists that only ‘humble and living faith working through an equally bold and living love’ can make our minds – made in ‘the image of the Trinity’ – capable of exploring the infinite wilderness of God’s threefold mystery. Augustine knew that, when we open ourselves up to the divine mystery, we find ourselves in Christ, set on fire with a love that plunges us deeper into that same mystery. In short, knowing God brings love alive in us, and love sparks the desire for more knowledge: a cycle of ever-increasing passion as we seek to explore more and more the wonder and mystery of the one God and are transformed into his likeness.

It is this loving, mysterious dynamic which is in the background of one of the most frequently quoted passages of the Confessions:

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

Every Christian, inspired by the example of Augustine, should pray this weekend for the grace of a heart which burns for love of Christ and flames out in service to God and God’s people. But we must be aware that this fire will burn away all in us that is unworthy of the mind and heart of Jesus! If we open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God – in contemplation, the reading of scripture and the Eucharist – we must give all we have and all we are to this impassioned quest for Heaven’s Hound. I finish with the words of Pope Benedict when he revealed the Augustinian dynamism which sustained his own heroic career:

Saint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne
St Augustine’s heart inflamed by the light of Truth

“When a person is conquered by the fire of His Gaze, no sacrifice seems too great to follow him.”

For more on this great saint and the theology of desire, see my previous post here.

‘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.

Advent – God is on the move

‘Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ – Mark 13.35-37

There is a well known passage in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, I think it highlights beautifully the Advent faith which this season seeks to distill in us. When the Pevensie children first meet Mr and Mrs Aslan_lucy_reunionBeaver the name of Aslan is introduced into the story, Aslan being the Christ-figure in Lewis’ masterpiece, and the children react in a multitude of different ways – Peter is filled with a call to action, Lucy with a sense of wonder and Edmund, having already met the white witch, is filled with the sense of dread; all because they hear the name of Aslan. What message do the beavers give the children? A simple one: ‘Aslan is on the move’. Aslan is on the move – God is on the move, and this is message of advent, this season when we reflect on how God moves in our lives and in our world.

In Advent we are called to cultivate the sort of habits and attentiveness that make us more alert to the coming of Jesus in our midst, the movement of God in our lives and in our world. The call of the Gospel then to keep awake this Advent is about developing the habits of looking for God’s movement within and without ourselves, for unless we do this,we risk simply missing Christ as he breaks into our everyday experience of life.

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

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

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

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

My sisters and brothers, as we worship in the presence of him who is the light of the world, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness, and his love for the world that he is always reaching out to save and make perfect. God is on the move; always and everywhere. For His promise is that at midnight or at cockcrow, in those silent hours stalked by fears, he will come – this holy light who shines in the darkness, and whom no darkness cannot overcome.

Therefore, in this annual service, let us pray to God – beseeching the Lord to open our minds and hearts to see his movement and presence in our lives and in the world. And let us here his call to us – keep awake.