St. Dominic | ‘Il Santo Atleta’

Born at Calaruega in Castile, of the ancient Guzman family in 1170, Dominic became an Augustinian or Austin Friar and led a disciplined life of prayer and penance. He became prior in 1201 but three years later, whilst on a trip to Denmark with his bishop, he passed through France and came across Cathars or Albigenses. They claimed to be Christians but held the heterodox belief that flesh and material things were evil, that the spirit was of God and that flesh and spirit were in permanent conflict. Dominic formed an Order of Preachers to combat this belief, although he would have nothing to do with the vengeful Crusade that began to be waged against the Albigenses. The Dominican Order spread to many countries in just a few years and did much to maintain the credibility of the orthodox faith in late-mediæval Europe. Dominic died on this day (August 8th) at Bologna in 1221.          – from Exciting Holiness

iturgaiz 01.jpgDante’s Paradisio speaks of my great name saint, Dominic, not only as a great preacher of the gospel or as a highly educated man but as a force of nature: ‘Then with both learning and zeal and with the apostolic office, he went forth like a torrent driven from a high spring.’ Dominic’s own friends and hearers recognised this torrential force during his own lifetime – one witness at the canonisation process remarked that Dominic was ‘so enthusiastic as a preacher that by day and by night, in churches, houses, fields, on the road, everywhere, he wanted to preach the word of the Lord and he encouraged the brethren to do the same and not to talk about anything except God.’ His compassion and desire to speak to people about God extended far beyond just the faithful, Dominic reached out ‘to pagans and unbelievers and even the damned in hell, and he wept a great deal for them.’

Santo Domingo, as he is known in Spanish, clearly possessed a strong instinct for adventure – Dante again calls him ‘il santo atleta’, the holy athlete. No matter how difficult or unforeseen the challenge of the hour, he was not afraid to take enormous risks for the sake of the Gospel. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that within a few years it could be said of the young friars (known as Dominicans) who followed in his wake, and whom he himself had sent far and wide to preach the gospel, that they had made the ocean their cloister.

When people think about Dominicans we often think about purely intellectual men, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. There is some truth in this; St. Dominic put a previously unseen focus on the place of study in the religious life – seeing it as the central and sacred task of his order, not as merely one facet of consecrated life. However, neither St. Dominic nor the friars who bear his name are detached intellectuals – their studies were shaped by the needs of the Church and of individuals. When St. Dominic founded his order, Cathars were spreading a dualistic (and heretical) understanding of the faith and Dominic recognised the need for a new order of religious to address the spiritual needs of large cities. The Dominican focus on study was a response to this crisis – not an attempt to become distant, learned monks in a cloister – but to care for the souls of faithful Christians by teaching them the Catholic faith.

As an ordinand who bears St. Dominic’s name with great pride, it is this twofold charism of the risk-taking, adventurous friar and the loving pastor who responds to the needs of the Church that I hope to imbibe. In Dominic we see a man fully alive in Christ, fired by grace to take bold risks for the sake of the Gospel and to guide and inspire the flock of Christ with the faith of the apostles. This is a model for the Church today: a learning Church, which knows its theology and can answer the questions and challenges of a sceptical world; and a passionate, adventurous Church, which is unafraid to speak about God to all who will listen and take risks to reach out to the world in love.

May God inspire the Church afresh with the example of St. Dominic and strengthen her with his unfailing intercession. Amen.

Dominic.jpg

Fr. Jaques Hamel | Homily for Trinity C

God said, ‘this very night your life is being demanded of you.’tumblr_ob79mm9xNO1qfvq9bo1_1280.jpg

On Tuesday, the peace of the sleepy town of Rouen in France was shattered by the brutal murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel, an 86 year old Roman Catholic priest. As Fr. Jacques celebrated a quiet morning Mass, surrounded by four faithful old parishioners, teenagers claiming allegiance to ISIS stormed the Church and took Fr. Jacques and the four women hostage. Once inside, Fr. Jacques was forced to his knees and his throat was cut before the altar before the teenagers began a mock sermon.

This horrifying violence is the latest in a long series of terrorist attacks; France has been targeted 14 times in the last 2 years and in the past few months alone, there have been 164 attacks in the world. The stunning frequency of violence in our world shocks the very foundations of our freedom and leaves us reeling in the face of such absurd violence. Yet, for me anyway, the attack on Fr. Jacques feels particularly painful. This is a priest who was murdered at a quiet Eucharist in an unassuming Church – he was slaughtered in the place where the love of God is announced to the people of Rouen. Churches have always been thought of as places of sanctity and refuge – we read this throughout the Old Testament and in this country, until at least the 17th century, Churches were places of legal sanctuary under English Common Law.

Worse than that, this attack happened as the Church gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion – just as we do this morning. On Tuesday Morning, Fr. Jacques arrived in Church to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ – to distribute to God’s people the bread of life and chalice of salvation. And, when he was forced to his knees by his murders, he did not do so in supplication to these terrorists but in the presence of the author of life himself, to whom he was about to return.  At the altar, we draw near to Calvary – the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross – made present throughout the ages by this meal which Christ established as a memorial of his saving death.

I’m afraid that I have no time for the idea that Jesus is sacrificed on the Cross to appease an angry God. This makes God our enemy and not the one whose nature and whose name is love, as one poet put it. Instead, I believe that on the cross, Jesus absorbs all the violence and the sin that comes from humanity. He receives our blows, our punishments, our disdain – and, despite his innocence, refuses to answer back. On the Cross, the doctrine of ‘an eye for an eye’ is brought to an end – and, in its place, we see the reckless, overwhelming love of God displayed before our eyes.

In other words, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the sacrifice of our Eucharist this morning, is the non-violent absorption of human violence.  The ultimate offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death. This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay. This is what makes the eucharistic sacrifice life-giving and not some historical death cult or stylised community gathering. And this is the sacrifice that Father Jacques was celebrating as he died. When the priest celebrates Mass, they stand in the place of eternal love who is Jesus Christ, and feed God’s people with Christ’s own body, blood, soul, Godhead and life.

This attack is, of course, an attack on a particular priest, in a particular Church, in a particular country but it is also an attack on all priests, all churches and all countries – it is designed to restrict our freedom and make us fearful. It was designed to strip us off our love. The history of Christianity is a history of martyrs – to follow the Crucified God is to stand opposed to the powerful human evils of greed, violence and sin. Tuesday’s attack, like Nice earlier this summer, was an attack on a country of peace – a place where you could expect to worship in safety in your local church, mosque or synagogue. For this reason, the British government have made funds available to keep churches and places of worship in this country safe.

However, we must remember that this is a house of God and we worship the God of love, the God who did not hide his face from the sin of humankind but made it his own on Calvary and died for love of us. Faith, hope and love cannot be cowed by the barbarism we have witnessed this week. Neither can we let this attack lead us to hatred or violence – Fr. Jacques was a great friend of many muslims and worked to support the building of a mosque in Rouen. After his murder, local muslims came out in great

numbers to pray alongside Christians for Fr. Jacques’ soul and to declare ‘we shall not be afraid’. We, as the Church of God in Mold, must work with our fellow Christians and people of all faiths to declare to the world the power of faith to bring hope from despair and to stand in solidarity when ISIS threatens our way of life.

The attack in France was an attack against civilisation and all faiths. But it was also an attack targeted on us particularly. These men meant to kill a priest of Jesus Christ and to take nuns and faithful people hostage. The terrorists underlined this by turning this murder into a ritual sacrifice of a Christian priest before the altar and the mock homily they preached. A Christian martyr is an icon of the Passion of Jesus – out of this act of sheer brutality comes a demonstration of perfect love. In dying in this way, Fr. Jacques bore witness to the love of God – who suffered evil rather than perpetrated it, the God who loved us so much that he gave his only Son to bring us life.

We meet for the Eucharist today in communion with Fr. Jacques and the countless others who have given their life for faith and hope and love. We gather at the altar to celebrate with Fr. Jacques in glory and all God’s people throughout the world the sacrifice of the Eucharist – where we are brought once more to the foot of the cross and gaze in love at the one who is Love. As the body of Christ is broken in the hands of Fr. Kevin today, let us pray that in and through the broken body of our Lord, humanity might find healing, wholeness and peace.

Amen.

 

GettyImages-585198964.jpg
The Funeral of Fr. Jaques Hamel – the Cross lifted high in procession.

‘All you ever talk about is clothes and ritual’ | A response.

‘That’s not what religion is about’ – ‘It’s about faith and not all this ceremony’ – ‘All you talk about is clothes and ritual’

These are all sayings of my (previously Methodist) grandpa who has returned to Church in my “high” Church parish and who, by his own frequent admission, struggles against all the fuss and ceremony of the Sunday Mass. This is a criticism any church-goer is used to hearing: ‘Jesus didn’t come to found a religion’. In a sense, I understand the sentiment behind these sayings – they reflect a real desire to grow in, and to draw others towards, a deep and personal intimacy with the living Christ and to avoid the vestiges of a stale, dead faith. However, this aside, I must confess to rather liking my religion.

slide_271661_1918750_free.jpg
Archbishop Rowan Williams elevates the Host at a celebration of the Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral

I love walking into Church and gazing on crucifixes and crosses; seeing the dance of light in the stained glass; the statues of the Blessed Virgin; the flickering flames atop candles; the radiance of vestments which remind me that this isn’t just another meeting.

I also love what I get to do in Church: bowing and kneeling; genuflecting and singing; making the sign of the Cross and clasping my hands in prayer – I enjoy the choreography of public and private worship.

I like what I hear in the Eucharist: the comfort, challenge and promise of the Scriptures proclaimed aloud as the ‘Word of the Lord’; the calming, exacting, ancient sounding collects and prayers of the Church; the exultant, moving, beautiful words of the Eucharistic Prayer.

In essence, I love that the faith I have is not just an idea, a set of theories about the nature of reality, but is rather centred on an elaborate series of concrete rituals; actions that are entirely gratuitous, they have no purpose (in the sense of ‘utility’) but are designed purely to honour and worship the Almighty and to transform us who worship. I also love the rules for life which my religion provides – I need these rules. If I wanted to play football, I’d have to learn the rules. It’s just the same with the Christian life – if I want to live the Christian life, and not just a pattern of life I’m making up as I go along, then there are certain forms/rules which give that life shape and make it recognisably Christian. Some rules are negative (don’t lie, don’t lust, don’t covet), and others are positive (pray the prayers that Jesus and the Church teach us, fast, give alms, worship). Religion gives shape and meaning to my life; it provides form to the formless feelings of faith and anchors it in a set of commitments that have been shown – over two thousand years – to reliably provide a concrete context for my relationship with the living God.

This is why I don’t really understand the statement that Jesus didn’t come to found a religion – which leads to the appeal for us to leave all this ‘religion’ behind. The most common example of this is a call to leave our church buildings behind and go and meet people in the coffee shops and pubs etc. As I said before, I understand the desire for the Church to rediscover its place in Welsh culture: we can’t now, for example, assume our colleagues and neighbours are Christian and will just turn up to Church because of societal expectation. In order to fulfil our Lord’s commission, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, we need to be out in the communities and encourage people to join us.

However, the final result of this commission is precisely to bring people into ‘religion’ – a regularised form of life that includes at its heart:

  • Consistent times of daily prayer;
  • Commitment to charitable giving and action;
  • Weekly attendance (at the very least) at public worship.

This public worship requires a community of the faithful being gathered together in one place and, since Christianity values Beauty, this would hopefully be a place that is radiant with beauty and looks ‘otherworldly’ enough to remind people that the reality of the universe is not reducible to the blandness of the supermarket or office, where we send the other six days; a space that lifts us from the hospital ward where the worshipper received their most recent cancer treatment or have just said goodbye to an elderly relative. Of course, a beautiful building is not the priority – but the celebration of the Eucharist in a way that inspires ‘reverence and awe’ (Hebrews 12) is truly central to the Christian life.

Even if you don’t have a beautiful building or your Church’s liturgy seems far from awesome, the other anchors of the religious life are readily accessible. We need to be people who enjoy teaching others to pray the Daily Office, or say the rosary – people who get excited about the Church’s feasts and celebrate with joy the wonderful hotchpotch of people who make up the calendar of Saints. We need priests who throw holy water at everything and anyone as often as they can – on children’s backpacks for the first day of school, on the parishioners’ new homes, on the parishioners themselves!

The Church seems keen to bang on the ‘Jesus doesn’t like religion’ drum and I worry that we are sawing off the branch on which we stand. Religion, for Christians, just means the set of beliefs and practices that provide the context for our life and encounter with God. Of course these beliefs and practices can be stale, mechanical and fruitless – but they don’t need to be! Jesus fiercely criticised those religious leaders who ‘outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’ (Matt. 23:27). He rebuked their hypocrisy in ‘tithing mint and dill and cumin’ which ‘neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.’ But he didn’t tell them to forget the tithing and the beauty and just focus on justice. Instead, he says, ‘these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others’ (23.23). Jesus was opposed to the religious leaders of his day not because religion is a bad thing, but because their use of it was corrupt. They didn’t allow the ways of God to penetrate their hearts and transform them.

By our own strength alone, we are no doubt just as bad as the Pharisees – hypocrites and purveyors of religious platitudes. But – and it’s a big but – this is the difference the living Christ has made by his death and resurrection. ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds’ (Heb. 10). Jesus himself is our religion because he has made himself a ‘full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,’ and because, by this sacrifice, he has inscribed his own self-offering, his own perfect piety, his own religion, on our hearts. The best way to know him, therefore, is to follow his command and ‘do this in remembrance of me’.

mass_symbols copy
‘Do this in remembrance of me’

‘Behold your Mother’ | Preached in the Holy House at Walsingham

page-3-Holy-House-at-Shrine-of-Our-Lady-of-WalsinghamPreached in the Holy House at Walsingham during the St. Asaph pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The inspiration for this sermon was the Litany of Loreto (see here).

This is one of the shortest Gospel readings in our lectionary and yet it contains one off the Lord’s most profound commandments, spoken to us in the agony of his final breaths: ’Behold your Mother’. Our pilgrimage, this very shrine, is an attempt to fulfil this command. When I brought a Methodist friend to Walsingham she said to me, playfully, that I was a bit obsessed with Mary and accused me of loving her more than Christ. No no no, I said, Mary is to Christ as the moon is to the sun – she is a reflection of the radiance of Christ. Everything we say about Mary draws our attention to Christ, her Son and Saviour. The fact is, you can barely glimpse at the sun for a half a second, yet you can stare all night at the moon, if you want. This can be true of Christ, whose intensity can overwhelm us and the demands of the Gospel on our life seem too much – yet we can always gaze on Mary, pondering with her the greatness of her Son. In this homily, I want to ponder who Mary is in the story of God’s salvation, using images from the Old Testament.

It is right to find images of Mary in the Old Testament because she is the summing up of the whole people of Israel! Mary is the flowering of faithful Israel – she is the result of God’s resolve, despite everything, to form for himself a people after his own heart, a people who would be a blessing to the world and from whom would come the Messiah. Israel in its totality is like Mary – designed and shaped to give birth to the Messiah. That means that, in Mary, we can read the whole Old Testament! The Old Testament is the story of a long pregnancy – a people whom God was preparing to bring Christ into the world.

Mary, the new Eve. Think back to Genesis 2 – Eve abandons paradise when she seeks to grasp for herself the power of God, she wants to eat the fruit of the tree and appropriate to herself the knowledge of good and evil. Eve wants to be the Lord of her own life, the ultimate judge of right and wrong. This is original sin – passed on in a million different forms to all the children of Eve – the sinful desire to make ourselves like God, we see it everywhere in our culture – but, when we do this, we fall apart, our communities fall apart and we make ourselves alien to God. But, God doesn’t give up. The story of Israel, the story of the Old Testament, is God’s faithful attempt to reverse the momentum of Eve’s sin – he tries over and over again to form a people as his friends, those who would accept his life and law as a gift and flourish under its influence.

Then we come to the Annunciation – where Mary hears the angel she says, ‘let it be with me according to your word’. Eve grasped at being God and became the mother of all sinners. What does Mary do? Mary reverses this original sin – she acquiesces to God – she accepts his will – she allows God to plant his word deep within her. And, in that moment  of acceptance, Mary becomes pregnant with God’s own life. In a similar way, all of us, members of the body of Christ, when we accept God’s will – when we say ‘let it be’ to God’s word, God’s life takes root in us.

Eve’s grasping blocked the flow of grace – blocked the flow of the divine life in the world – but Mary’s acceptance allowed that life to flow again into the world for its salvation. As the Church Fathers say, the AVE of the angel is the reversal of EVA: Mary allows divine grace to rush into the world.

Mary allows divine grace to rush into the world.

Friends, behold your mother! The New Eve, who is the fountain from whom grace flows into the world. That’s why Shrines of Mary are known as places of miracles and holiness, because Mary has unstopped the well of divine grace and given us access to the divine life! This is why it is not just a insignificant detail that the apostles prayed with Mary as they awaited the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – they knew that through Our Lady’s prayer that the grace and power of the Spirit would come!

There is a second way in which Mary sums up and fulfils the Old Testament – she is the new and greater Ark of the Covenant. During the Exodus, Moses places the tablets of the law into the ark as a sign of God’s presence among his people. In the same way, the Word of God is placed within the ark of Mary’s body. She becomes the ark of God’s presence. By extension, Mary is the new and living temple! Think of the temple, with its Holy of Holies, the place where God was pleased to dwell; where people came to commune with him. Mary now, who bears God incarnate in her womb, is herself the new temple!

Sisters and brothers, never grow tired of spending time with Mary – the ark of the covenant. She is able to lead us most powerfully to Christ – when we kneel before her, we kneel before the ark of the covenant, the place where God is pleased to dwell. The most beautiful way this is revealed in Scripture is when the pregnant Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her pregnant cousin and John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb, dances for joy! The word used here is the same as that used of King David when he dances before the Ark of God in the Book of Kings. Mary is the cause of our joy, because she brings the joy of Christ to us and calls us to rejoice at his presence.

Mary is all the culmination of all those holy women in Israel’s history who became mothers against all odds – we can think of the nameless mother of Samson, who was infertile but became a mother through her prayer. Or Hannah, mother of Samuel, who prayed day and night for a son. Then there’s Sarah, wife of Abraham who, in her extreme old age, gave birth to Isaac, father of Israel. Or even Elizabeth, Mary’s own cousin, who was infertile and advanced in years, yet became pregnant with John the Baptist. The Virgin sums up and gathers up all these women and together they preach a simple message – new life comes from radical trust in the Lord, for whom all things are possible.

Behold your mother who says to us that, when we stand at the end of our strength, at the limits of our hope, God can still act! When we say ‘let it be with me according to you word’ that’s when the divine life can flow and nothing will be impossible.

Finally, in her Magnificat, Mary is the greatest prophet – she is the new Ezekiel, the new Isaiah, the new Daniel, the new Amos!

He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy.

Neither Isaiah, nor David, nor Amos, nor Malachi ever spoke so eloquently of the coming of the Messiah – Mary sums up all the prophets of Israel and sings this great Biblical truth, which has been sung by the Church every evening from the beginning!

My friends, Jesus used his dying breath to give the holy Mother to us as our example and source of unfailing help. Draw nearer to her in our final days here, learn from her and ask her prayers – discover in her the reflection of her Son and the unsealed fountain of all grace. Gaze at Mary, for she is the reflection of all Israel and the perfect image of her Son,

to whom be glory and praise for ever.
Amen.

To Be a Pilgrim | Homily 1 at Shrine of OLW

Homily given at the beginning of the St. Asaph Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (11th July, St. Benedict’s Day)

I wanted to spend this first homily reflecting a little on what it means to go on pilgrimage – what makes this different from your average holiday to lovely Norfolk? It might seem simple, but profoundly important, that the difference is God. We have set out on a journey with a divine purpose – a journey transformed by God’s purpose for us. God has brought you to Walsingham, Jesus has led you, as he promised, to the streams of living water that flow gently through this unassuming village.

page-3-Holy-House-at-Shrine-of-Our-Lady-of-Walsingham.jpgAs we set out on this pilgrimage, the great Christian writers of the tradition remind us that, in a sense, our whole identity as Christians is as a pilgrim people. In our hearts, the follower of Christ is always a pilgrim – a stranger, a sojourner on the earth, always seeking after a more than earthly homeland, yearning for an heavenly country. In coming to Walsingham, we enact this journey in miniature – we glimpse our heavenly homeland and receive fresh vision and strength for the journey onwards. The importance of pilgrimage can be traced back all the way through the Scriptures – think of the Exodus: Israel’s journey out of slavery, pursued by the Egyptians, down through the Red Sea and coming up into the wilderness. Think of that extraordinary time in the wilderness, led by Moses, together a community with God before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – before, at last, they reach the Promised Land.

I’m constantly amazed how closely this seems to resemble our own life’s pilgrimage and what we encounter on our way to the heavenly homeland. That first call of Moses who dares the Israelites to break free and dream of a new future – this is the point of stirring, repenting, yearning to follow Christ and become more fully alive. The Israelites follow this desire but they are pursued – whenever we seek to follow Christ, our guilt and sin and failing follow us down the Way – but then, water. Water which looks like death but they come through it and see their sins drowned. This is the type of a Christian baptism – even today, the priest at a baptism says:

Through water you led the children of Israel
from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John
and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,
to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.

But our baptism, momentous as it is, is not the end of the story – we don’t come up from the water into glory! Baptism instils in us a yearning for the kingdom, but we are still in the wilderness – led by God! All this is there in that great hymn, Guide Me O thou great  Redeemer. What better hymn for being in Walsingham – ‘Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow’. Think back to the Exodus – the very rock which impeded the Israelites journey is struck and through it they find water. The same is true for us – bring to the shrine the rocks that prevent your journey with Christ – bring your sins, your doubts, your dilemmas about the future, bring your loved ones and those you struggle to love – bring them here and pray that for them, in them and through them, the crystal fountain might be opened.

We ought to think of the Christian life as a pilgrimage – a journey made together, following the Lord, with so great a promise beyond it. This counterbalances the image of the Christian as arrogantly presuming to be better than others; an image of static perfection that says to the outside world, ‘now I’ve made it, I can look down on you and tell you what to do because I’ve made it’. This is not Christian, this is false. As the young man in our reading discovers, there are always new depths and new adventures – even for those who have followed the commandments from their youth. As pilgrims, we have know in our hearts how much we have to learn – Christians can never stop growing, discovering, changing, repenting and entering more and more into the mystery of the divine life. Christian faith is an invitation to adventure – travelling – pilgrimage. There’s a reason we baptise with scallop shells, the symbol of pilgrimage.

I pray that our time in Walsingham may be a true pilgrimage – filled with laughter and love – a time to reflect on the rocks which weigh us down and to pray for discernment for the future. God has dreams for you – he longs for you to draw near to him, to learn from Mary and say yes to the next stage of your pilgrimage. Here, in this shrine, in which, for 1000 years, Mary has brought people closer to her Son; where God’s grace has been tangible and prayer valid – here, in England’s Nazareth – discover God afresh and be transformed.

To help in your reflections, I have printed off a sonnet from Malcolm Guite for you to meditate on. I will read it now and hopefully we will then have a moment to meditate on it.

Come, dip a scallop shell into the font
For birth and blessings as a child of God.
The living water rises from that fount
Whence all things come, that you may bathe and wade
And find the flow, and learn at last to follow
The course of Love upstream towards your home.
The day is done and all the fields lie fallow
One thing is needful, one voice calls your name.

Take the true compass now, be compassed round
By clouds of witness, chords of love unbound.
Turn to the Son, begin your pilgrimage,
Take time with Him to find your true direction.
He travels with you through this darkened age
And wakes you everyday to resurrection.
by Malcolm Guite (see his website here)

Amazing love!

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!


At Mass in St. Bene’t’s, Cambridge this morning, we sung Charles Wesley’s extraordinary hymn, And can it be. The words of this hymn are emotive and beautiful, expressing the extravagant and reckless love of God whose mercy is inexpressible and love for us is beyond reason or knowledge. It reminded me of one of the greatest sermons I have ever witnessed – preached by Archbishop Barry of Wales when he visited Corpus. He told us this story from Flannery O’Connor’s story, ‘The River’.

FlanneryOConnorCompleteStoriesThe story is about a little boy called Bevel whose parents are too busy to have any time for him, she he’s hunted off to the care of a kind country woman. One day, when she’s out with Bevel by the river, they come across a preacher baptising people in its waters. Then, without warning, the preacher picks Bevel up, swings him under the water and baptises him. Then, after he is baptised, the preacher lifts him up in the air and, looking him straight in the eye says to him, ‘You count. You count’.

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

Now, of course, I wouldn’t advocate that anyone should be baptised in quite that way but the preacher’s actions and words reveal something of that amazing and generous love, which appears so reckless in contrast to our human attempts to limit God’s love and welcome. I believe the Church of God exists above all else to proclaim to all who will hear – ‘you count, you count.’ We have to be a people who believe and proclaim that God takes great delight in all people because we are made in his image and bear the mark of his very nature whoever we are. However, we are only able to proclaim this if we realise that we ourselves are loved by God. You can only proclaim a message of love if you have first hand knowledge of what it means to be loved.

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

Every single person in the Church has been called by name and been incorporated into the Body of Christ. You are accepted in love and we are asked to respond with love. We matter to God, and because of that are able, in turn, to tell others that they matter to us and to God. This is a very simple and profound message but it is amazing how many people find it hard to believe that God actually loves them without reserve. Many people think of God as angry or vengeful – just look at the kind of God proclaimed by ISIS – while others thing of a God whose love has to be earned. Often this is because they think of themselves as unlovable or worst still, the Church has conveyed to them the impression that they are unlovable and that God has found them wanting. There’s no need to list the people to whom this applies.

In the Gospel reading today, we hear of Christ’s generous love to a woman considered so far outside the religious establishment of its day. This message of shameless, generous love was not accepted by the establishment of the day – they drove this Love to death on the Cross. This was a love which endured death rather than conform to social expectation. We the followers of Jesus are meant to be living symbols – walking sacraments of the truth of the Gospel that our God is a God of love. Jesus’ disciples are people to whom God has given a resounding yes in love – however extraordinary and impossible that might seem – and so, as people accepted by God in this way, we need to reflect that love, which means saying yes to God’s world and to everyone within it, especially those whom the rest of the world finds so unlovable: the stranger, the refugee, the difficult and the poor.

This will demand sacrifice, we can’t say how much and it will require us to constantly set aside our tidy boundaries and ideas of respectability and to reach out into the depths of the world – knowing that God says to every person ‘you count. You count.’ This is a simple message, perhaps it doesn’t even need a blog post to get it across – but there is much here to meditate on. Two hymns can provide helpful food for thought: And can it be and the beautiful There’s a wideness in God’s mercy – words I will be spending time with for the rest of the day (texts below)

Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_Father.jpg

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Saviour;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kind judgment given.

There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.


And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

‘Like Living Stones’ | The Priesthood of all Believers

‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ – 1 Peter 2.4f.

The New Testament and the classical tradition of theology has emphasised that every baptised person is a priest. Of course, the ordained or ministerial priesthood has its own particular charism as ‘a walking sacrament’, to quote Farrer, but all believers share together in the holy priesthood of Christ. This is a big claim. Priests are those who mediate between God and human beings – as 1 Peter says, they offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and thus draw humanity up to the Creator. Priests are a pontifex – a bridge between the Trinity and the human heart. Every Christian person is, in this sense, a priest – a builder of bridges.

simdif_0x17f33e70.jpg
‘The Priesthood of All Believers’ by Janet Pfeiffer

The background of our understanding of priesthood comes from the Old Testament. The Old Covenant is full of priests! Moses, Abraham and Noah all offered sacrifice to God and acted as priests but perhaps Aaron is the greatest. Aaron is the founding father of the long line of temple priests, who sustained the worship of Israel until the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Jerusalem priests became very interesting figures: they wear special vestments, preside over the complex liturgies of the temple and offer prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the people. In short, these priests were essential to the religious life and imagination of ancient Israel.

Some commentators have attempted to say that Jesus does away with all this priesthood and cult, that he entirely sweeps away this central pillar of the life of the old covenant. I think there’s some real problems with this interpretation. Of course, Jesus was not a temple priest – he was a Rabbi, a teacher of the faith. However, he was clearly temple-centric: the gospels tells us that Jesus often went up to Jerusalem to participate in the sacrificial cult and he often preached in the temple precinct. Then, of course, there is the climax of his public life – the event which probably led to his arrest – when he enters the temple and shocks the foundations of the religious establishment. He enters the temple, turns over the temples of the money changers and pronounces divine judgement: ‘I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up’. This is a serious judgement, but it comes from his deep love for the temple. Many prophets of Israel, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel, have pronounced judgement on the corruption of the temple – Ezekiel famously saying that the very spirit of God had abandoned the temple in Jerusalem. However, they do this because they love the priesthood and the sacrifices. Jesus too loved the temple – he wanted to cleanse, reform and rebuild it!

When he pronounces judgement, he claims that ‘in three days’ he will raise up the temple but, as the evangelist tells us, ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body.’ Jesus doesn’t hate the temple, but he reorientates it – it would be in his body that God would be properly worshipped. The creeds affirm that in Jesus humanity and divinity come together – he is, in the very structure of his being, a priest and a temple. This is how he interprets his own death – the ultimate temple sacrifice, the great high priestly act. When we hear the words of the Last Supper: ‘take, eat; this is my body which is given for you’ – this is the language of sacrifice – this is the work of a priest! In this, Jesus makes his own body a sacrifice. Then, taking the cup of wine, he says ‘this is the blood of the new covenant’ – again, the language of the temple! Just as the blood of the slaughtered animal was a sign of atonement and reparation for sin; so his blood will be poured out for the sins of all humanity. Jesus is performing the final sacrifice because he is the final perfect priest. Jesus says that he will be in his own dying the temple.

Then we come to verses I quoted above from 1 Peter. The Apostle tells us that we will become ‘like living stones.. built into a spiritual house’ – the language is strange but this would have been entirely comprehensible to Jews who knew the temple! Jesus is the new temple and we are to be living stones within it. This means, as people who belong to the priesthood of all believers, we must be stones in the temple of the Lord’s body. This is the mission of the believer: to be so configured to Christ that your whole life is an offering of praise; that you become a true priest, a bridge between the divine and human. If your life is centred around your identity as a living stone, then your whole life will become an offering of praise and you will radiate the love of Christ to those around you. That’s what it means to be configured to Christ.

If we don’t live out our Christian faith, if we don’t speak about Christ to others, or allow the love of God to radiate out of ourselves then we will fail our mission. We are priests, without our being configured to Christ, no-one will experience the love of God and the temple will crumble! This is summed up in John 14, Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper, where he is presented as the perfect priest. Philip says to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father’ and Jesus responds ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ That is Jesus’ priesthood, he is the icon of the invisible God – the great bridge between humanity and divinity. Similarly in this chapter, the apostles ask Jesus to ‘show us the way’ and he tells them that he is ‘the way and the truth and the life’! Just as the priest offering sacrifice was offering a path to connect Israel to God, so Jesus is saying, I am myself the High Priest, the perfect sacrifice and the temple! If you want to know God, says Jesus, you need to me.

Wonderfully, this is true, by analogy, of all the baptised. You and I must be the way, the bridge and the means of access to God! By God’s grace, we are to so radiate the divine life that we reconcile humanity and God and draw people to share with us in the temple of the living God.

So be it.

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!

‘He’s God… let’s go to Fitzbillies’

The-Holy-Trinity-xx-Nicoletto-Semitecolo
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.

The Triune Love | Homily for Trinity Sunday

CjCgfslWsAABFor.jpg-large
Modern version of the icon of ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’

If you’d asked one of the learned philosophers of the first century how one could know God, you would have been likely to get a response that told you how hard it was even to glimpse God, and even if you did, putting it into words was next to impossible. For the few that got that far, such knowledge came through the lifting of the mind away from the world of the senses, to the pure realm of divinity.

In such an environment, Christianity seemed a debased religion. Rather than raising their minds up to heaven to seek God there, Christians claimed that God had come down to earth to seek us here. Rather than seeking the rarefied atmosphere of the pure intellect, Christians insisted that divinity itself had taken on flesh and blood, and they worshipped a criminal executed by the state on a rubbish tip. This is not how the ancient philosophers understood God. In fact, the first reference to Christianity from a non-Christian source, Governor Pliny writing to the emperor, describes it as “a depraved foreign cult carried to extravagant lengths”.

Nor was it how the Jews understood God. Here, God is known through his covenant: through the giving of the Law and the people’s keeping of it (see my recent post on God’s Faithfulness). When God reveals himself to his people it is as one God. Each day Jews recite the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…’ it begins. And that formed part of the daily prayer of the first Christians, too, for the God worshipped by Christians is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God whose name is ‘I AM’.

But for Christians, this God is also the God and Father of Jesus Christ. When St Thomas uttered those words from the Shema, ‘my Lord and my God’, it was in response to seeing Jesus, crucified and now risen – the same Jesus who had been charged with blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God. For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus demanded a new way of talking about God. The doctrine of the Trinity came to be expounded as the early Church meditated on the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit who gave them life.

And what those theologians of the early Church discovered was not that God had changed, or that they were worshipping a new God, but that their understanding of him and relationship with him had changed. As they read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, they found not that God had been one and was now three, but that God is eternally Trinity. They read Genesis, and saw in the account of creation the Father speaking all things into being through his Word, as the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. In the Wisdom tradition, part of which we heard in the Eucharist this morning, they found language to talk about the pre-existent Word or Wisdom of God:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight.

 

Here, and in many passages like it, the early Christians found a language to talk about relationship within the Godhead: a relationship that had always existed, perfectly within itself, but that in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, was manifested to us.

So to talk of God at Trinity was a way of making sense of what the early Christians believed about Jesus: that in him, we see God made visible. This gave the early Church a new way of talking about God. But it wasn’t just talk. Through the gift of the Spirit, the early Christians came to understand that the same Spirit that was at work in Christ also seemed to be at work in them, enabling the disciples to forgive sins, to know Christ’s presence in the breaking of bread and the prayers, and to minister healing. They found, through the gift of the Spirit, that they were able to share in God’s life and work.

And this happened for them, and happens for us, first, through worship. We begin and end each Eucharist in the name of the Trinity. We pray to the Father in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ. In baptism, through the power of the Spirit we are made sharers in Christ’s death and resurrection, and brought into new relationship with the Father. When we celebrate the Eucharist, it is through the work of the Spirit that Christ’s self-offering to the Father is made present and real to us now. Our worship and prayer is always Trinitarian, drawing us into that perfect relationship of love that exists between Father, Son and Spirit.

And that relationship exists perfectly within the Godhead. God as Trinity has no need of anything external to the relationship of love between Father, Son and Spirit. And yet such is the generosity of that love that God chooses to share it with us. And as he draws us into that relationship through the death and resurrection of Christ and the work of the Spirit, so he makes us fellow-workers with him in bringing others into that love.

As we’re drawn into the love of God, we are transformed by it, because we become more like the one we worship. And so we begin to look on the world and each other more as God looks on us: with a love that desires that the whole created order be drawn into the fullness of life for which it is made. And so the Spirit who draws us into the love of God also sends us out to share that love with others.

And again, it’s to Jesus that we look to see what this love looks like in action. And this is where any notions that love is sentimental get squashed. In Jesus, we see love mixing with those who’ve always been told they’re unlovable. We see it giving new starts to those who’ve made a mess of their lives, who find themselves cut off from family or society or God. We see it open in compassion to the suffering of the sick; filled with righteous anger at injustice and hypocrisy; steadfast in the face of betrayal and denial; willing, finally, to die for the sake of those who are loved.

This is what God’s love looks like, revealed in the person of Jesus, and extended through the action of the Spirit that it may be made real and visible in the world through the life of the Church. This is what mission is: not haranguing people to believe the right things, but participating in God’s work of widening that divine circle of love to include everyone and everything.

This is the heart of the Christian faith: the way the Church answers the question about how we know God. We know him not primarily through the effort of our intellect or will, nor yet primarily through his revelation in a book or set of laws. We know him through love. It is the perfect love of the Holy Trinity that communicates itself to us in the persons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that we might be drawn into that perfect love, united to it for ever.

And it is this love that calls forth an answering love in us, and that makes us sharers in the divine life of the Trinity – to whom be glory and praise, now and for ever.

“The Blessed Trinity is the mystery of mysteries, before which even the seraphim veil their countenances singing with astonished wonder their thrice-repeated ‘Holy.’”
– Fr. Matthias Joseph Scheeben