Our Lenten Springtime | Homily

One of the most significant changes in myself since I left university is that – for the first time ever – I know make a conscious effort to keep my bedroom tidy. I’ve reached 21 and decided that now is the time to stop living in a hovel and start caring about my room. However, despite my best efforts, there remains one drawer where all my unsightly rubbish and no longer needed junk ends up. Instead of living in the debris of my life as I did as a teenager, I have shoved it all in one drawer. I’m sure most of us have that one cupboard or even room in our house which we’d rather our visitors didn’t see and which we’re never quite sure what to do with!

Just as it’s true of our houses, I suspect this is also true of our lives. We are very good at presenting the best version of ourselves – even subconsciously – but we rarely open up the doors of that messy room where we store our guilt, the aspects of our character or our history which we’d rather not open up to anyone – even to God. Yet, God longs for you to be a temple of his Holy Spirit and the place where he may come and abide, even in that messy room that we hide because of our shame.

The slow and uncomfortable process of opening up that messy room of guilt and shame to God, of opening our lives and hearts more and more to him, is a key part of the discipline of Lent. In the earliest centuries of the Church, newcomers to the Christian community were baptized at Easter – that time when the Church celebrates the conquest of death and the beginning of new life. But of course, believers had to be prepared for this great event, prepared by study, and prayer, and self-denial. It was believed that self-denial; fasting and extra prayer was something that, as it were, clears the way for God to make his home in you – like clearing space in your flower bed for bulbs to break through.

This is how Lent began. A period where people were thinking about baptism and the beginning of new life, whether literally as new converts to the Christian faith or – for the rest of the Church – people wanting to strengthen and renew their commitment.

This period of preparation quickly became associated with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness where, through fasting and praying, he discovered what God was asking of him. During this earliest period it became more and more common for churches to tidy-up and strip away some of their decoration, to make themselves look a bit simpler – an outward manifestation of the inner stripping and inner austerity that this service entailed. Vestments were made either of sack-cloth, simple coarse fabric, or purple, associated with judgement and the season began with Ash Wednesday – where believers were reminded of their mortality and called to turn again to Christ.

All this simplicity and stripping away is important – in fact its vital in that process of clearing a space in our lives to experience Jesus afresh at Easter. However, it’s also important to remember that the word Lent itself comes from the middle English word for ‘spring’. This season is not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it’s not about making yourself miserable; it’s not even just about giving things up. Lent is springtime. Its our annual spring-clean as we prepare for that great climax of springtime which is Easter- new life bursting through death and flooding the world afresh with hope.

And Spring is exactly how this season feels – especially when we look at the incredibly rich reading from Romans 5 which we had as our second lessons. At first glance this can seem a rather gloomy passage – about the universal subjection of humanity to sin and death, and that is part of the story! But there’s another dimension, the abundance of Christ’s grace and mercy. Sin is wintry but like the flowers of spring, the forgiving love of God in Christ abounds and gives life to all. Death and sin are destroyed by an opponent who utterly overwhelms evil will the abundance and generosity of his love. In Lent, we return again to Christ the fountain of mercy, and seek to make room in our hearts to know and experience his abundant love for us.

If you would permit me, much out of character, I’d like to offer a couple of concrete suggestions for keeping a holy Lent this spring. Firstly, find some regular time to encounter Christ in Holy Scripture. I suggest reading Luke’s Gospel from beginning to end – it’s not that long – taking it in small manageable chunks and asking yourselves two basic questions about each bit you read: ‘what is this passage saying to me?’ and ‘how am I going to respond to it?’. With prayer and patience, this engagement with the words of Scripture is a vital part of clearing a space for the risen Lord when he comes.

Secondly, and more practically still, I believe a good Lent always flows out in generosity.  There are innumerable ways to try to be more generous in this season – whether with money, time or prayer – but I would like to suggest one that is often neglected. In this season, I would encourage you to attend to the relationships in your life and especially those you have neglected over the past twelve months. Is there someone who really irritates you or who you struggle to love, befriend them, pray them and try to restore that relationship? Is there a sick or elderly friend or relative you’ve neglected to visit in the last few months, make time to rebuild that relationship in the weeks ahead. Perhaps, harder still, there is a relationship in your life that remains damaged – a relationship that haunts that inner room of guilt. Allow the new life offered to us in this season to flow through you – cross over barriers of pride and reach out to say you’re sorry; work to be reconciled and begin to make your life evermore a place where God would be pleased to dwell.

And so as we prepare ourselves for Easter during these days, by prayer and self-denial, we must remember that what motivates us and fills the horizon of this season is not self-denial as an end in itself but tying to sweep and clean the room of our own minds and hearts so that new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us when Easter dawns.

Amen.

St. Stephen and Our Vocation

‘No-one has ever seen God, the only begotten God, the one being in the heart of the Father, he has narrated him’ (John 1.18 own translation)

This verse from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel takes us to the very heart of the Trinitarian mystery and ‘the great and mighty wonder’ of Christmas. The Son, who is born in that stable is no ordinary human being endowed with great power; nor is he a superman – he is the second person of the Trinity incarnate: ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’ (Heb. 1.3). When the Son is born in the stable, the limitless creative love and power of God is poured into a human life so that the ineffable beauty of the eternal Source is known for a time in human form. The result of this event is an expansion of human potential beyond all imagining – we are given access to the place where the Son stands, which is nearest to the heart of the Father. We are given a home; a hope; a destiny greater than we could ever imagine – ‘we shall be like him’, says the writer of 1 John (3.2). The incarnation is not a superficial thing: neither is he a human being who taught us about God or God pretending to be a human being: instead, we believe that God, in Christ, entered the totality of human experience – gestation, birth, death and everything in between.

The descent of God the Word into our flesh was total and complete. Our rejoicing this season is in our Saviour’s willingness to become totally human and to suffer and die for those who were far off.  All this must be borne in mind when we recall that the day following the great solemnity of Christ’s nativity is the feast of St. Stephen’s death, the first Christian martyr.

Stephen is a martyr of the earliest Church and, as such is rightly known as one of the great witnesses to what faith in the Word made flesh really entails. Our faith is not in a series of propositions or a particular moral code, but in Jesus Christ himself – our faith, our act of trust in him, is that in him is a power that transcends suffering and is more powerful than death. His death is a testimony to his firm conviction that those ‘in Christ’ – in whom works the same power that raised the Lord from the dead – will experience death not as the end of something but as the route of access into the very life of God himself.

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But the manner of his death has other lessons to teach us because we begin to glimpse the human potential unleashed by the incarnation. Treated unjustly and with abject cruelty, Stephen was willing to forgive those who persecuted him – and it is this other worldly ability to forgive that displays how faith in Christ transforms us and how the disciples of the Infant King live in the world but are not of the world. Those who bear the name of the incarnate Lord are called to resist evil, to bear witness to truth in a post-truth world and to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed – but we do so not with vengeance, rhetoric or retribution – but by choosing the path of forgiveness, humility and love.

In the order of Christian funerals we pray that the Lord Jesus ‘will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body’ – this is the final destiny of the Christian; to be like Christ in the heart of the Father. But our decision to be conformed to him begins today – Stephen’s death mirrored the forgiveness and non-violence of his Master’s death –  may our whole lives be conformed to the image of him who came not to be served but to serve.

Stephen ora pro nobis.

‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’

 

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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.

‘Go at once to Ninevah…’ | Jonah and the Call of God

50b4d001eac9f80507037ee155c0faee.jpgThis morning the Church in Wales Morning Prayer Lectionary turned our attention towards the Book of the Prophet Jonah. It is such a joy to hear Jonah read aloud at the Offices for the next couple of days; it is one of the shortest books of the Bible and one of my favourites. The story is a surprising, funny, fascinating and deeply rewarding read. If you don’t say Morning Prayer, I would highly recommend taking 20 minutes and sitting to read the Book of Jonah – that’s all the time it will take and it is well worth doing. In this post, I’m going to run through the whole book and scratch the surface of its enriching message and the results of my lectio divina over the last week or so.

‘Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.’ (1.1,2)

There’s a lot going on in this first couple of verses. The first lesson of Jonah is one of its most important: the heroes of the Bible are always summoned, they are always, so to speak, in the passive voice. No great hero of scripture – or the Church for that matter – acts according to their own plan or design; they don’t cling to their own projects or ideas. The heroes of scripture are subject to a higher will; infused by a higher power. The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that there is a ‘power at work within us’ which ‘is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine’. This is the way the Scriptural imagination understands what it is to be a hero – it’s nothing to do with your own power and plans and everything to do with how you let the Holy Spirit work through you. John Lennon famously said: ‘life is what happens while you are busy making other plans’. This is a pretty good summary of what the Scriptures are saying: while you’re making your plans, Life is happening within you – the Spirit who is ‘Lord and giver of life’ is active, even when our back is turned.

The call of Jonah teaches us another important lesson: no-one is ever called in an abstract or generic way. Blessed John Cardinal Newman (a person whose own journey of discipleship was certainly unique) understood this. He wrote a beautiful prayer, whose first verse is this:

‘God has created me to do him some definite service;
he has committed some work to me which he has not
committed to another.  I have my mission – I may never
know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.’

I love this prayer. God has created each one of us for ‘some definitive service’. Each of us, every human being, has a particular way to serve God and the human family and the drama and true joy of life is discovering your call and living it out. Of course, the vocation of all of us is to be channels of God’s grace in the world, but we each have a ‘definitive’ way of living out this mission. For me, it is as a priest in the Church in Wales; for some it is the religious life; for some it is as a teacher; a parent; a spouse; a care-giver – there are as many calls as there are human beings. And the fullness of our vocation will never be revealed to us in this life, we will only see it clearly when we are ‘told it in the next’.

The opposite statement then is that, as Rowan Williams powerfully articulates in Being Disciples, the central tragedy of human life is to miss your calling: to fail to live out the ‘definitive service’ God has prepared for you. Human success is not about power, money, status or good-looks – God doesn’t care about these human marks of success – the fundamental question is whether you followed the call of God or not. That’s all that matters. Rowan Williams in Being Disciples tells the compelling story of Thomas French:

‘Thomas French’, he says, was ‘a great missionary of the nineteenth century who spent much of his life as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched – even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts.’ Bishop Rowan goes on to say, ‘it’s the apparent failure, and the drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.’

Bishop Thomas French failed. He failed on all the counts of human success. Yet, in the eyes of God, he flourished as a human creature because he heard the call to be with Jesus Christ amongst the people of the Persian Gulf. He heard the call; he performed that ‘definitive service’ which the Lord commanded him.

‘But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’ (1.3)

Jonah ignores the call; he flees from the presence of God and the result is ‘a mighty storm’ so violent that Jonah and all the people onboard are put in great danger. The lesson here is simple and powerful: to refuse the divine mission leads to trouble. Jonah thought he could escape the presence of God, but the presence of the Lord is everywhere, even in Tarshish! If Jonah had read Psalm 139, perhaps he’d have thought twice:

‘Where can I go from your spirit?
Or when can I flee from your presence?
If I ascent to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…’ (Psalm 139.7ff.)

But Jonah is not able to go far – he is thrown overboard and swallowed up by a great fish. We can learn something from this powerful metaphor – Jonah’s will, which was fleeing from God, is (literally) swallowed up and contextualised by a greater will than his own. It can feel like imprisonment; but it’s not – Jonah’s errant will is swallowed up by a greater will and the whale vomits him up exactly where God wants him to be. God’s ‘service is perfect freedom’ (St. Augustine).

It is powerful to remember that the darkest moment of Jonah’s life, the worst thing he has experienced, actually leads him where he wants to go. In this is great hope for us who are in the midst of a difficult time – trust in the Lord! Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (2.1ff.) shows the depths of his despair (‘I called to the Lord out of my distress’) but also his radical trust that the Lord hears and answers his prayer (‘As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple’).

The book goes on… ‘so Jonah set out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord’ (3.3)

Having tried to flee and failed, he arrives at the huge city of Ninevah. God brings him to this place and gives him the most unwelcome of messages – ‘forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!’ (3.4). Imagine going through Cardiff or Wrexham or St. Asaph with this message: repent or God will overthrow you! We would probably, like Jonah, flee as far from possible from this task! Yet God always calls us to self-sacrifice; calling us forward on the path of greater love and greater service. This is deeply rooted in Jesuit spirituality: semper meior, always greater! We are always spurred on to greater charity; greater sacrifice; greater love but, as we run the race, we have the promise of greater and greater life taking root in us.

Then, suddenly, Ninevah does the unbelievable – they repent. ‘The people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth’ (3.5). We can see here how much power is unleashed when we truly follow the will of God – the slightest cooperation with his grace can release the divine life into the world – the power always does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. When God calls, however the great the task, if we cooperate with his Spirit, there is no telling how wonderful the results.

Then comes the most challenging reminder of this great book – Jonah’s reaction to the faith of the city. We read in the Scriptures:

‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah and he came angry.’ (3.10, 4.1)

One of the greatest pitfalls of Christian discipleship is that sense of self-righteous superiority which infects Christian communities. Often we’d rather stay on our pedestal and can’t quite handle when God’s grace shows up and transforms lives around us. But we must remember that our call is to be a channel of the divine love and grace in the world! We can’t sulk when we succeed at that task. Our work is always to bring love, light and grace and not a sense of superiority that seeks to retain its own status, power and position. If you want to share in the divine life: give it away! Then, as you give it away, you will receive more and more! We receive God’s gifts, so to speak, on the fly!

So, what is God calling you to? Jonah ignored God’s call, but when he accepted the work he was given, enormous spiritual energy and power was unleashed into the world. What ‘definitive service’ are you called to? If I’m honest, I’m starting to thing that that is the only question in the world really worth asking – even if it will take all our lives, and the next, to find the answer.

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Kyrie Eleison | Lord, have mercy upon us.

Having studied in a Cambridge College, the words of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, especially at Choral Evensong, remained central to our liturgical diet. One criticism I often heard applied to the BCP (and, to a lesser extent, to Common Worship services) was that the liturgy leaves us perpetually grovelling – making worms of us and never really lifting us up to our place as beloved, redeemed children of God. Even in the Gloria, the joyful song of the Church, we ask God to have mercy on us.

…And there is no health in us:
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders;
Spare thou them, O God,
which confess their faults,
Restore thou them that are penitent,
According to thy promises… (extract BCP Confession)

Personally, this has never caused me any sleepless nights – I am, as you may have realised from my last couple of blog posts, an Augustinian by nature and have a reasonably bleak view of human nature. However, having read a chapter of Bishop Rowan Williams’s excellent book on Marian Icons, Ponder These Things, my understanding of the cry ‘kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) has been completely transformed.

In Ponder These Things, Rowan Williams presents a number of beautiful meditations on icons of Our Lady, which leads the reader deep into the various traditions of icons of the Blessed Virgin and, through these icons, calls us to ponder the great themes of Christian theology and spirituality. It’s a truly remarkable little book. One of these icon traditions which has been very significant personally, portrays the Lord, not in the usual dignified posture that befits the Son of God, but clutching at his mother as any toddler might. This tradition of icon has mother and son cheek to cheek, with the infant Christ scrambling to be as close to his mother as is physically possible.

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Our Lady of Vladimir

The revelation for me in Rowan’s book was the discovery of the Eastern name for this tradition. While, in the West, this style of icon is usually known as ‘the `Virgin of Tenderness’, the Eastern Church calls this icon the Eleousa (Ἐλεούσα). Usually, this is translated ‘loving kindness’ (hence, tenderness in the West) but it has the same root as the word that in our worship is translated ‘mercy’ (ελέησον, eleison).

Since reading Ponder These Things, whenever I ask God to have mercy on me, I no longer think exclusively about me and my unworthiness – like a defendant pleading mercy at the feet of the judge – but of Christ, drawing me in, holding me close, drawing me back to himself. As Bishop Rowan highlights in his reflections, and as anyone who has ever held a toddler knows, this is not always a comfortable experience but it is an important one, one worth weaving in to our liturgy and our prayer life.

With this insight, when we pray Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy upon me, we are saying to Christ – ‘Lord, hold on to me and do not let me stray from you, remind me of your love, invade my space, even that locked room which I try to hide from you, and never forget me.’

This teaching further amplifies the threefold Kyrie which we say at the Eucharist –

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

This is, fundamentally, an invocation of the Trinity: asking for mercy from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in saying this prayer, we are not grovelling at God’s feet – but praying that we may be swept up into the life of the eternal Trinity: into the life of the God who longs to be near to us.

With this observation and the image of Mary the Eleousa, the kyrie eleison becomes not only one of the oldest prayers in the Christian tradition but also one of its most radical – in truth, this prayer says almost all we need to say. Certainly, the Orthodox monks on Mount Athos who spend vast tracts of time saying the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us’, wold agree that this simple prayer is a central part of the Christian life. Yet, ‘Lord have mercy’ is not the grovelling cry of a worthless worm, but the sigh of a lover, the call of the lost sheep, the mute lifted hands of the child who longs to be closer to his mother:

Lord, have mercy upon us.

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This passionate and intimate closeness, cheek to cheek, is the inspiration behind the logo for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

 

Hoping Against Hope | The Witness of St. Monica

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‘For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Rom. 8.24f.)

Yesterday I wrote a blogpost on my birth-saint and heavenly patron, St. Augustine, and now I wanted to say a word about his mother, St. Monica – who the Church commemorates today. Monica was probably born in the year 331AD and her death, recorded in Confessions, was sometime around 387 AD. Patricius, her husband, was a Roman citizen of (minor) nobility and Patricius and Monica had three children. Augustine would become one of the most influential converts to Christianity and his works of theology and spirituality are among the greatest of the Church’s treasure. However, as anyone who’s ever read Confessions will know, the journey from Augustine to Saint Augustine would not be straightforward or simple. Augustine spent most of his youth aggressively resisting Christ and the Church and this resistance caused his mother much in tears and turmoil.

St. Monica petitioned the Lord for years that he might intervene and bring her son into the Church. After years of prayer and countless tears, Augustine did come to know Christ and accepted a life as a member of the Church and Monica was overjoyed. Sadly, she new lived long enough to see the full flowering of Augustine’s faith and ministry as a bishop and spiritual teacher.

Prayers of intercession are at the centre of the Christian life and are the most common kind of prayer offered by all believers, yet it is perhaps the most mysterious and hard to understand. Of course, we know that the Lord knows our needs better than we do and nothing that we bring to of him in prayer tells God something he doesn’t know long before us. It’s also important to remember that our intercession, no matter how eloquent or persistent, has no power to force God to act and nothing we can say coerces God to do what we want. The mystery of prayer is that, while we ask God for many things, the deepest purpose of our intercession is not to get what we want, but to discern what God wants. St. Augustine’s conversion happened not because Monica’s prayers were particularly convincing, but because God longed to give him fullness of life.

Saint Monica’s prayers were a sign that of her belief that God in Christ would not abandon her son to the faithless and dissolute life he was living. She trusted that God’s purposes for her son’s life were greater than even he could perceive. It is St. Monica’s trust, which is a profound display of the theological virtue of hope, which became the crucible which sanctified Monica.

As Monica herself said, five days before her death:  “One thing only there was for which I desired to linger in this life: to see you a Catholic Christian before I died. And my God has granted this to me more lavishly than I could have hoped, letting me see even you spurning earthly happiness to be his servant. What am I still doing here?”

Monica and her son are both remembered in the calendar of saints because God’s purposes were as much accomplished in Monica’s willingness to live in the hope that God ultimately loved her son, even though he violently resisted that love, as his purposes were accomplished in Augustine’s conversion to Christ. It is not St. Augustine’s conversion that made Monica a saint, as if she was ‘sacred by association’ – Monica is a saint because of her willingness to surrender her will to Christ and in this surrender to abide in the hope that Christ’s purposes for Augustine would one day be fulfilled. By God’s grace, Monica lived to see her hope fulfilled – but, even if she had not, her sanctification would have been accomplished, although she may have been one of the great company of saints known only to Christ and without the Church’s official recognition.

I wanted to write this post because I believe that hope is one of the least remembered and worst understood of the three theological virtues (faith, hope and love). This is a great sadness in a world which is often so bereft of hope that people refuse to believe and refuse to love. However, hope is not merely optimism, but an act of genuine trust that the same God, who did not abandon Jesus to the powers of sin and death, will not abandon us. Hope dares to believe that God’s purposes will be fulfilled even if we cannot foresee how this will be possible or when this fulfilment will take place.

On this day, when the Church remembers the life and witness of Saint Monica, let us renew ourselves in the hope that Christ has poured into our hearts and our trust that he is faithful to his promise.

‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Romans 15.13

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Monica, pray that we may be filled with that same hope which sustained you on earth!

Chasing Heaven’s Hound | St. Augustine of Hippo

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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:

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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.

The Assumption of Our Lady | Homily

If you happened to turn the news on this week, you will have seen mention of little else than the Olympic Games in Rio – the world is enraptured by this demonstration of human strength and success and we participate in an unadulterated
display of national pride. However, if you turn your eye for a moment from the glistening stadiums and sporting celebrities, you see a city divided. In one half of Rio – a Brazilian elite enjoy a life of luxury on the shores of Copacabana, basking in the power which money affords and the kudos of being an Olympic Host City; in the other half of the city, the Favelas, some of the poorest people in the world – often living without running water and electricity – with children caught up in the midst of brutal gang warfare.

Two completely different worlds – all under the shadow of the Corcovado Mountain and the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. While the world might be looking to the celebrities and stadiums and successes – the Redeemer is looking to the Favelas. The truth is, when you are seeking for God – we cannot look where the world looks for power – if you want to find the great things – look to the margins, to the poor, to the nobodies and you will find the children of God.

assumption-siena-di-sanoHere we turn to our Blessed Mother Mary, who we celebrate today. The Gospels tell us very little about Mary – but what they do make clear, as Mary herself says, is that Christ chose the lowliest of people as his mother.  When God takes on flesh he eschews the royal palaces and centres of imperial power and chooses Nazareth – that town about which the Roman world made jokes, ‘can anything good come from Nazareth?’. And when he’s seeking out a mother, he doesn’t choose a comfortable, married mother who’s had three children and knows what she’s doing. He chooses the least of women – a poor, unmarried girl from a backwater town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire.

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?

This is the beauty and the poetry of the Christian faith – this is the mystery we celebrate every time we look to Mary and honour her as Mother of God. The power that fashioned the cosmos, that strung an infinite number of stars, the one who brought forth all life chooses to be born of Mary – he becomes one with us, and reveals his power in the weakness of a human life. Just imagine… that foetus, which grew silently in the womb of Mary; that newborn baby, nursed at her breast; that child who grew and learnt in her house – that child, completely dependent on his mother, is God. In the incarnation, we see that our God does not identify with the elites of the world but with the lowly – the power of God is known in self-emptying love; his is a power willing to become weak for the sake of others.

In Mary, God confirms his decision to be with the misfits and ne’er do wells of the world! God chooses to be in the midst of our ordinary, sinful, messy lives. Just as, from all the nations of the world, God chose the slave nation of the Hebrews, so now he chooses to be one with the human race in all its suffering, vulnerability and pain. The world tells us to stay away from the poor, the homeless, the convicts and the refugees – but it is God’s subversive activity to tell us to stand with them. God always stands on the side of the poor and asks us to do the same.

Yet, the Church not only celebrates today the unlikely choice of Mary as the Mother of God but also her final destiny – her being taken up into heaven to reign as Queen of the saints. Mary says, ‘from now on all generations will call me blessed’ – not just because she was involved in chapter one of the Gospel but because she faithfully follows Christ through all his ministry. She ponders the truth of the Gospel in her heart and can therefore be called the first and Mother of all Christians. She stands at the foot of the Cross and shares in the anguish of her Son as he brings the work of salvation to its climax – how could she forget Simeon’s haunting prophecy, ‘a sword will pierce your own heart also’. She remained faithful after the Crucifixion and, although the Gospels fail to give us any detail, was reunited with her Son on the Day of Resurrection and remained in prayer with the Apostles and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today is the Easter of the Summer – the day we rejoice that Mary, who remained faithful to her Son throughout his ministry, has shared in the fullness of the resurrection. In Our Lady, we see the destiny of our human nature! We will be like Christ, with Mary, in glory, crowned with grace – this is the final destination of the pilgrim people of God and the assumption is proof that Jesus is faithful to his promise that he prepares a dwelling place for the human family in his Father’s house.

So, today, on this great solemnity of the Church – we have a twofold reason to rejoice! We rejoice because God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; what is poor in the world to shame the rich – that God always stands on our side, in all our vulnerability and sin.  And we rejoice because God has in store for us more than we can ask or imagine – a room in the Father’s mansion, a crown of glory – a heavenly country where we will be swept up with Our Lady into the life of the eternal Trinity.

Mary, assumed into heaven, Queen of the Saints, pray for the pilgrim Church on earth!

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The Basilica of the Assumption on Mount Zion

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.

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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.

 

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The Funeral of Fr. Jaques Hamel – the Cross lifted high in procession.