The Divine Compassion of Christ | Homily for Trinity II

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

In nomine…

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

All_Saints_Catholic_Church_(St._Peters,_Missouri)_-_stained_glass,_sacristy,_Sacred_Heart_detail
The Sacred Heart of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ascension Homily: Lord, Thou has raised our human nature…

Lord, Thou hast raised our human nature
to the clouds at God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
man with God is on the throne.
Mighty Lord, in thine Ascension
we by faith behold our own.

Bishop Christoper Wordsworth summed up the feast in his great hymn, which includes this great verse. He reminds us that the Ascension is a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity, in all its vulnerability and all its variety, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life. First of all then, the Ascension is Good News for humanity – this humanity we all share in, which we know all to well to be stained, wounded and imprisoned – this same humanity, yours and mine, is still capable of being embraced by God and to be received and welcomed into the burning heart of all reality – the throne of Godhead.

Jesus takes our human nature into the very heart of God and he speaks to God his Father in a ascensionlargehuman voice – this is an astonishing reality, in heaven, the language they speak is human and not just angelic. Our words, human words, are heard at the very centre of the burning heart of all reality. Saint Augustine reflected on this in his beautiful sermons on the Psalms because, like most of us, Augustine was rather worried about the fact that the Psalms are not always fit for polite company – they are full of rude, angry, violent, hateful remarks, not to mention protests against God and the most horrific ill-wishing towards human beings. In short, the Psalms are as human as it gets! So, Augustine asks, why would we recite them in public worship? Surely these are just reminders of the bits of our humanity best left out of God’s sight?

Augustine disagrees. We cannot leave bits of our humanity out of God’s sight and, more than that, God himself has taken the initiative and made our human language is own. When we pray the Psalms, we can imagine that Jesus is speaking them. It is Jesus who says, ‘where are you God?’, Jesus who says, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me’ and Jesus saying, ‘happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ Now, certainly, Jesus is not saying that any and every human cry is good – he doesn’t endorse this violence or anger – but Jesus treats us, our feelings and our tumultuous personalities as inherently real – he take us seriously, both when we’re moving towards one another and God in love and, amazingly, when we go the other way. He doesn’t forget us when we spiral away in anger, when we try to lock ourselves away in
the dark – he hears our rage, our violence, our pain – he hears them, he takes them, and, in the presence of the Father, he says that this is the humanity he has broughtto the heart of God. There’s nothing pretty about this, it’s not edifying or heroic to have our humanity with God – it’s just real and needy and confused. You and me, the humanity of us all, has been brought home to heaven and dropped into the burning heart of God for healing and transformation. This is how we read the Psalms, to be honest, it’s probably the only way to read the Psalms.
Today, the human life in which God was most visible and tangible disappears from the world in its bodily form and is somehow absorbed into the life of God – Jesus doesn’t slip out of his humanity to do this, our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ filling ‘all in all’ we must bear in mind that picture – Jesus’ humanity, including all the difficult and unpleasant bits of human nature, is taken up into the heart of love where they can be transformed and healed.

Just before his Ascension, the Lord tells his disciples to wait for the promise of the Father – wait for the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit of God will not only allow us to be a different kind of human being but it will also allow us to see human beings differently. The Holy Spirit, poured out upon us in the wind and the flame of Pentecost, gives us the life of Jesus – through it, we share some of his capacity to truly hear human beings – he gives us the power to see, with the eyes of Christ, the full range of what being human means, it does not shelter us from the rough truth of the world – it makes us vulnerable and more exposed. The Christian can never censor out any bits of the human voice, we are called to listen to the whole troubling symphony, which is so often filled with pain and anguish and violence.

But also can’t just say ‘oh, that’s human nature’ and forget about it – we must feel the edge, the anger, the ache of human pain and suffering and recognise that it can be taken into Christ, into the heart of the Father, where it can be healed and transfigured. Throughout his ministry, culminating on Good Friday, Jesus has gone before us into the darkest places of human reality and he has picked up the sounds he has heard. He knows the sound of the quiet cry of the abused child, the despairing shriek of the refugee denied refuge, the sighs of the hungry: he knows and makes his own the cynical dismissal of faith by many, while knowing their inner need; he makes his own the joy and thanksgiving of the human heart, which finds fulfilment in ordinary, prosaic love and faithfulness. All of this, the splendour and the pain, he carries to the Father’s heart and to the throne of heaven – all of these voices, the depths of our humanity, he carried into the burning truth at the centre of reality.

So, today is a celebration of human glory – the eternal potential, locked up in our middled, struggling lives – and it is also a great celebration of God’s ability to enter into the darkest, least glorious place of our nature and to sweep them up and drop them into his own burning heard, where they can be transformed and recreated. The Holy Spirit, whose outpouring we await at Pentecost, will teach our hearts if we let him, that nothing that is human is alien to us and to the life of Jesus – the promise of the Father today is that the love of Christ spreading through us and in us will bring the world home to the heart of God. We are the Church, the fullness of him who fills all in all, we have to hear with his ears and see with his eyes – in the midst of struggling, flailing humanity, we must remember that Christ has raised our human nature through the clouds to God’s right hand.

With this in mind, may our compassion be deepened a hundredfold; our understanding of pain and suffering be deepened a hundredfold and, please God, our hope deepened a thousandfold.

‘Whoever is not against us is for us’ – Homily for ‘Corporate Communion’

‘Corporate Communion’ occurs once a term in Corpus Christi, Cambridge and is a chance for Christians who usually worship elsewhere to join together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. This year, as a new venture, I organised it in my rooms in Corpus, around 15 attended and the Eucharist was celebrated by the Dean of Chapel. 

228
Rubens, The Victory of the Eucharist over Ignorance and Blindness, c. 1625 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

(Gospel Reading: Mark 9.33-41)
Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him… whoever is not against us is for us’

In nomine…
It was a rather daunting privilege to organise this service. Not just because it’s rather strange to see your room as a pseudo-oratory, but also because I’m aware that there are tensions between us as Christians. However, preparing for this homily and reflecting on the Gospel reading the church gives for Eucharists focussed on the unity of the Church has made me realise that one of the things I am most grateful for is that I have always had wonderful Christians around me, who have shown me what it is to be Jesus’ disciple. Friends, priests and bishops, spiritual directors, fellow Christians: I have been blessed with a wonderful array of people who have made Christianity credible to me. People who, by their love, forgiveness, faithfulness, perseverance, joy, compassion and integrity have shown me what God is like. Of course, there are also Christians who have made faith more challenging – those who have told me I am bound for hell, those who’ve said a gay man can’t be a priest; those who have hurt me and damaged my trust. It does not always follow that we Christians are good witnesses to the One whose name we bear.

And of course Christians can and do disagree passionately about what it means to be faithful to the name of Christ. This is not new: even in today’s Gospel reading, before the Church has come into being, we see the disciples seeking to draw the boundaries. ‘Someone was casting out demons in your name’, they tell Jesus. ‘And we tried to stop him, because he was not with us’.

Here is the perennial attempt to pre-empt God and decide who’s out and who’s in. What determines who may act in the name of Jesus? For John, speaking for the disciples, it’s membership of their group. They are the ones able to speak and act with authority. Others should be stopped. Later on, others will seek to make distinctions based on ethnicity, on

loyalty to a particular apostle, on assent to a particular formulation of doctrine or interpretation of Scripture.

But Jesus refuses to restrict his authority to the Twelve. ‘Whoever is not against us if for us’ he says. What the disciples need to learn, and what I certainly need to learn, is that they don’t need to be afraid, cautious about sharing what Jesus has given them, fearful lest it fall into the wrong hands. Hands that are willing to do Jesus’ work are never the wrong hands. The authority of Jesus can only be used to further his purposes in reconciling all things to the Father. It may be untidy, it may be surprising, it may put you in the company of people you might prefer to keep at arms’ length, it will probably be unsafe to those who prefer their religion institutionalised, but it will not endanger the kingdom.

In fact, says Jesus, it is rather the opposite that will threaten his purposes. Anything that puts a stumbling block in the way of others’ belief is to be avoided. And that includes wrangling about who is a real Christian, and the divisions that beset the Church. We have the capacity to be channels of Christ’s grace, to draw others to him and sometimes this can feel like altogether too much responsibility. If the advancement of the kingdom of God is dependent on people as fallible and fickle as me, then that seems a very flimsy basis on which God should work. And yet this is the way God has chosen: by entrusting to the Church the ministry of Christ, and empowering us with the Holy Spirit.

It’s tempting to be like the disciples, and to want to tidy the Church up and draw clear lines around it: those I agree with and like on this side, and those who I think believe the wrong things, or act in a way I find difficult, on the other. But that line has the potential to go right through the middle of us. If we spend too much drawing lines between ‘real’ Christians and others, our witness is threatened and those children who will be so great in the kingdom fall away in disgust at a broken Church – this is the point of corporate communion, to remind us that, when all is said and done, there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism.

 

Don’t hinder those who are working in my name, says Jesus.

Don’t hinder those who are working in my name, says Jesus to the disciples. And don’t be a hindrance to others’ faith. But hindrances to faith come in all sorts of ways. The kingdom of God is made attractive, or not, by the ways in which we speak and act for God. Our words are hollow if they are not matched by the reality of our lives. We can’t talk about being a “Christian country” if we are not prepared to welcome the stranger. We betray the God of love if our speech and our actions are unloving and designed to exclude or diminish others. We fail to embody the kingdom as Christians if we only mix with and welcome those who are like us and agree with us. We can’t talk about God’s particular care for the poor and vulnerable and blithely neglect the needy amongst us.

To each of us, and to all of us together, is given the call to make Christ known and visible, to prepare the way so that others may come to know him, too. Christ uses people: ordinary, fallible human beings like you and me, to help others know him. Extraordinarily, he makes our lives vehicles of his grace. And this challenges us to look at the ways in which we show his love, and in which we obstruct it. If we are tempted to draw the boundaries of who belongs too tight, perhaps it’s the time for all of us to practise extending our embrace. Jesus is clear that there are consequences when we act as hindrances to his work, you only need to read on from our Gospel reading today to hear Jesus’ harsh words to those who would be stumbling blocks to others.

Christ entrusts his own ministry to us. And there is a proper shrinking before so daunting a task. Most of us know we’re not really up to it. At times the idea that people might look at us and see Christ seems preposterous. And yet this is what God makes possible. I know I’m not unusual in knowing people who have shown me, by their lives, more of what God is like. And this is the vocation given to each of us, in our own way in this place, to bring to fullness the image of Christ that is in us; to co-operate with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We go out from this Holy Meal empowered by that Spirit and fed by Christ’s own body and blood, and with the promise that our lives, our messy, broken, busy, ordinary lives, have the potential to be a sign of grace for others, as the Word takes on our flesh.

Amen.

Candlemas Reflection: The Searching Light

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified, as we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory. In this eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.          

– Common Worship: Introduction to the Liturgy of Candlemas

It had been prophesied by Malachi that ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’, and many other prophets had foretold, and hoped, that the Lord God would inhabit his home in Jerusalem. Yet, even Solomon, who built the great temple of Jerusalem, says of God that ‘even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’

However, on this great Feast of Candlemas, the feast of light, we recall that Malachi’s prophesy was indeed true, eternity can come into time and embrace us. In the form of a tiny child, the form of one like us, ‘in substance of our flesh’ as the Collect for today has it, the God of Israel appears at last in his Temple. But he does not come as a terrifying Overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming among us in love to walk the precarious road of life along side us.

In this tiny child, just forty days old, there is that light to enlighten the nations, but there is also searching judgement. The light of Christ is judgement; he ‘will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purppresentation-of-the-lord-fra-angelicooses of the heart’. Yet, as Mother Anna said in her homily this morning in Corpus Chapel, this judgement is received as Good News, because judgement is not to be confused with condemnation. Christ’s judgement purifies, it seeks to make us the people we were created to be. Simeon, who
waited all those years in the temple, is made entirely himself by his meeting with the light of Christ: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’ – he is at peace, because he has been transformed by the searching light of Christ. In the baby he sees who he is meant to be, and so he holds him aloft, and declares that he will be ‘a light’ to the nations, to Israel, to all.

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…’

Yet, for some, this light will not be welcome – this infant pilgrim is destined to be ‘a sign that will be opposed’, a sign who will be crucified. But, not even this will extinguish his light, which stirs afresh in the darkness of the tomb. Candlemas then asks a simple question: how do you respond to Christ’s light? That light which is both a beacon, calling you home and a light which shines into the darkness of your soul and manifests the truth of your heart. Our response must be to welcome the light, to join Anna in her triumphant praise and Simeon is his proclamation of salvation, to open ourselves up to the light and find our home in it. To know God as a loving Father, who walks alongside us, who longs for us to be ‘fully alive’, which is nothing less than being fully human, fully ourselves.

In that Child, presented this day for us in the temple, we find our only hope for a world made new, the only true source of healing, the true lover of our souls. So, we must respond with hearts open to receive the light, to seek Christ’s judgement on us and to grow into the people he calls us to be. The way to this place of acceptance is clear in the persons of Ss. Simeon and Anna. Patience. Waiting. Prayer. Not all of us are called to Anna’s devotion, for it is said that ‘she never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day’ – but we are called to develop a pattern of attention to Christ, of regular confession and self-examination, regular worship in the temple of Christ’s body, the Church.

Then, and maybe it will take us until ‘a great age’, as it did for S. Anna, we will be able to receive with true joy the Gospel of Christ’s coming, to know his light as fully as our human intellect can bear and we will be so filled with that light that we can bear it truly to the world. For now, most of us show out refracted glances of the light and murky glimpses in grace filled moments, but we strive, by God’s grace, when we can reflect that Light all the more truly and all the most constantly. Then, when God ordains, we can hope to pass to that light eternal, where all darkness gives way to the brilliance of eternal splendour and the hymn of S. Simeon, Anna and all the Saints resounds eternally.

Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
fill us with radiance
and scatter the darkness from our paths. 

Christ, the Sun of Righteousness,
gladden our eyes and warm our hearts. 

Christ, the Dayspring from on high,
draw near to guide our feet into the way of peace. 

– Taken from the Blessing, Candlemas Liturgy (Common Worship)

Bread of Angels: S. Thomas on the Eucharist

Ecce Panis Angelorum, factus cibus viatorum
Behold the Bread of Angels has become the food of wayfarers

Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the greatest theologian of all time: his writings remainThomas-Aquinas.png foundational texts in almost all aspects of Christian theology and he is an influential source in philosophy faculties today as well. However, I wanted to use the occasion of his feast (albeit, I am belated in this post) to offer some short reflections on his beautiful
devotional writings. St. Thomas, this great academic of the medieval Church, had the most profound devotion to the Holy Eucharist, he celebrated the Mass every day and spent hours in adoration of the blessed Sacrament. He believed all his theology, all his gifts of wisdom, his whole life, flowed from the gift that Christ has given us in the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life.

It was St.Thomas’ theological prowess and devotion to the Eucharistic mystery that led Pope Urban IV to ask Aquinas to compose the office for the newly established feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. So, in obedience to the Pope, he composed the hymns, offices and texts for the Mass, which would have been heard year by year in my College (Corpus Christi, Cambridge) until the Reformation swept it all away. Now, thanks be to God, we hear glimpses of them again in more musically gifted churches and cathedrals.

I wanted to share just a couple of beautiful quotations from Aquinas’ hymns, and what they might mean to us – as I often think St. Thomas’ understanding of the Eucharist is caricatured too quickly by Anglicans scared of transubstantiation. Perhaps his most famous hymn is the Pange Lingua – parts of which are sung at Benediction services. My favourite verse reads:

On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with his chosen band,
he the Paschal Victim eating,
first fulfils the Law’s command;
then as Food to his apostles
gives himself with his own hand.

Here is the great mystery of the Holy Eucharist, that Christ feeds his friends, by his own hand, with his very self. Imagine arriving at a formal dinner to find that the waiters had been asked to sit down at high table and the host himself was serving the food. It’s almost impossible to believe, but it is what Christ does for his friends. He refuses the seat of honour, washes their feet and serves them. And this is not just any food, but gives his most precious gift, his very self, his own body and blood – his soul, divinity and humanity, given by his own hand to the disciples.

Thomas is emphatic in his beautiful hymns that talk of signs and symbols simply won’t do when confronted with the reality of communion with Christ, which we experience in the Mass. In the next verse of the Pange Lingua, he says,

Verbo caro, panem verum, verbo carnem efficit
Word-made-flesh, the bread of nature, by his Word to flesh he turns

For St. Thomas, Jesus is never just a good example to follow or a good guy to know, he is the very Word of God made flesh. Aquinas believed absolutely that the Word which brought the whole universe into being, was present in Christ, who sat at table with his apostles.What God says, is – the Word of God doesn’t just describe or name, he creates and constitutes. St. Thomas is certain that Christ can, and does, initiate a change at the fundamental level in the Eucharist – the bread becomes his body – just as it was God’s creative word which spoke the bread and wine themselves into existence, so the same Word can change them at the very root of their being. As Jesus himself says, ‘my flesh is true food, my blood true drink’.

Yet, Aquinas knows that when we look to the altar, our eyes show us bread and wine, seemingly unchanged! But his great hymn Tantum Ergo, addresses this for us, ‘faith our outward sense befriending, makes the inner vision clear’.The one who says, ‘this is my body’ is the most trustworthy source! We can believe him when he says it, and St.Thomas rejoices in this mystery.

For St.Thomas though, the most wonderful aspect of the Eucharist is how it changes us, in the verse of one of his hymns that famously begins, Panis angelicus fit panis hominum (Thus the bread of angels is made the bread of mortals) he tells us:

Oh, thing miraculous!
This body of God will nourish
the poor, the servile, and the humble.

Aquinas calls the Eucharist in his writings our viaticum – which is not just food for our dying moments, but the food for our journey, the rations for the pilgrimage, and thus he believes that it is only by our participation in this incredible fountain of grace, that we have the strength and faith to live out our calling as disciples. In one of my favourite of St.Thomas’ phrases on the Eucharist, he says: Ecce Panis Angelorum, factus cibus viatorum, which translates, Behold the Bread of Angels has become the food of wayfarers. It is our extraordinary privilege, in thanksgiving of which we celebrate Corpus Christi every year,  to feed on Christ himself, served to us from Christ’s own hand. Our God is not some far off tyrant demanding subservient worship but the true God, humble enough to offer himself to us as food.This is the gift and reality which fuelled St.Thomas and that which we celebrate, with him and all the saints, as we share in the Eucharist.

 

S. Thomas, pray for us! 

Christ who Became Ugly for Us (Homily for Epiphany 3)

Jesus read from Isaiah, ‘he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor’

In nomine…Jesus-Synagogue-Nazareth

Running through this term, like a golden thread, is the theme of beauty – Ayla and James have begun their course, finding God in Art and I imagine it will continue to be a theme of much of what we will hear in this chapel over the coming weeks. We are invited then to discover God in beautiful things. This is nothing new, St. Augustine himself tells us God is beauty in the Confessions and many of us know from our own experience how beauty can disclose something of God to us. I am ceaselessly amazed that, no matter how fed up I’m feeling, no matter how frustrated or anxious I am… no matter what baggage I bring with me to the altar Sunday by Sunday,  I can be caught up in the beauty of our worship and, for me, most especially in the Sanctus – where, with angels and archangels, we are lifted up to behold the face of God, so radiant and beautiful that our only response is to bow our heads and praise him, ‘Hosanna in the highest!’

This then is God in the beautiful, the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Yet then we come to Jesus in the Synagouge where, by the wonderful working of God’s providence, he is called up to read the lesson at the time when the scroll of Isaiah was read. He is handed the scroll to read which contains his mission statement: he the Christ, the one anointed, is the fulfilment of this prophecy – he will lighten the hearts of the poor, liberate those who are captives, bring sight to those who are blind. He, the Lord of Glory, will not be found only in the beautiful, but has a particular mission to be found with those who the world deems ugly.

With this as Christ’s mission statement we can understand the incarnation in a different way: God, in Christ, becomes ugly for us. You will remember that later in the book of Isaiah it is prophesied of Christ that he will have ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ Christ will be one with those from who we would rather avert our eyes – the stranger, the poor, the homeless woman on the street, the disabled, the prisoner. Christ will be one with those who all to often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, we label as a nuisance to be dealt with, a blot on the landscape of society. Christ will be there on the margins of society. And he is still there.

‘…to find the beautiful pearl of great price, we must seek in the dung heaps of the world…’

But, if our God is to be found in those we deem ugly, then we must go with him. In our seeking Christ, we serve those with whom he has chosen to identify himself – to find the beautiful pearl of great price, we must seek in the dung heaps of the world. We have a Lord who dined with prostitutes and tax-collectors, whose manger was adored by shepherds deemed ritually unclean. We must be found in those places where well-respected people don’t go, in solidarity with those people who politicians ignore – for that is where we will find Christ. The mission statement of God’s anointed is to be on the edge of things, outside respectable boundaries and amongst those we would sooner vilify as ugly.

This all seems very challenging for students in a Cambridge College: dinners, drinks, candlelit services, untouchable grass. How do we live out our Lord’s mission statement in this setting? Do we avoid the dinners and the parties, shunning the luxury to be locust eating outcasts in the cold? I’m not convinced this is the way. Instead, we have to find a way to inhabit these spaces while remembering that our true home is with our Lord in the margins. Yes, we live our little slice of luxury, giving thanks to God for his goodness to us, but we must never take this for granted, we must never forget that our first calling is to bring Good News to the poor. We use our privilege to speak truth to others about the God who became poor for us; we use our resources to improve the lot of those who have so little compared to us; we don’t just luxuriate in this life but understand everything we have as God’s gift and therefore given to us for a reason.

So, in Christ the beauty of God is made ugly for our sakes and we are to follow Christ to the ugly places but this is not the end of the story. I don’t know if any of you have heard of the Japanese practice known as Kintsugi – it involves repairing broken pottery with a lacquer dusted with fine gold or silver. It is a process which quite literally turns the ugliness of a broken thing into a new beauty – it is a method of re-creation which doesn’t w

kintsugi
Kintsugi

ipe away scars but makes the imperfections the place where beauty is to be found. Christ, who is the new creation, does just this – he transforms the ugly into the beautiful – he makes the brokenness of our world the place where his beauty is most truly known and experienced. It isn’t a failure of the resurrection that the risen Christ still bears the scars of his passion.

 

Through the action of his grace, made known in the tangible charity of us his Body, Christ transforms ugliness to beauty and anoints our soiled faces that they may once more bear the image of the God who made us. The scars of this world are the places where the golden grace of Christ can bring new life and new beauty to the human family. So, let us people of the margins, let us be found in the ugly places, for it is there that the year of the Lord’s favour is breaking out.

 

Understanding the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6)

A more academic-style article, exploring the Christology (understanding of Christ) of the Book of Revelation. 

Introduction

The Revelation of John is an apocalyptic text rich in imagery and symbolism, with a particular Christological focus – indeed, it is described in 1.1 as ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ and concerns itself with the revelation of Jesus by Jesus, through the angel, to John the seer.  Therefore, it is through how Jesus is presented that we can gain a ‘way in’ to the study of this most complex text of the New Testament. However, having said that, the life and teaching of Jesus are largely ignored, and the focus is on the heavenly exalted Jesus post-resurrection. The book follows a three-stage kemaxresdefaultnotic Christological model with the midd
le act, Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, largely ignored with the focus on the preexistent and post-resurrection Christ. Before beginning, to explore the book of Revelation, we must note that the apocalyptic idiom of the book was probably necessitated by the situation of the Christians in Asia. In the midst of persecution at the hands of the Romans and conflicting claims to power, meant there was a need for a strong stance: if you confess God to have asserted his rule over the world, then you cannot put your trust in any other earthly power or authority.

The most important Christological descriptions we will explore are: Christ as universal saviour and judge who shares in divine authority; as the slaughtered Lamb; the eternal ‘alpha and omega’; and the one worthy of worship alongside ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Finding in chapters 4 and 5 the climax and interpretive key to the text, we will argue that the most significant depiction of Christ is as the Lamb, and we will discuss the implications of this striking image.

Christ: Sovereign Lord

The sovereign and eschatological Lordship of Christ is a central image in the Book of Revelation. Against the backdrop of persecution, it is natural to focus on the sovereignty of Christ, Christ’s judgement on the wicked and the vindication of saints and martyrs. The role of Christ is to turn the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of the Lord (e.g. 11.15), which is why the concepts of salvation and judgement are so inextricably linked. Because Christ ‘shares the one eternal being of God, what Christ is said to do, in salvation and judgement, is no less truly and directly divine’ than what is said to be done by ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Salvation, the formation of this eschatological kingdom, belongs both to God and to the Lamb (7.10) and they are related together in the New Jerusalem (22.3), which will be the final consummation of Christ’s victory. In this, Christ and God are so closely connected, with language and speech often inseparable, demonstrating a clear sense in which they are seen as, in some way, one in their reign over all creation.

It is this unity in sovereignty which means that ultimate victory is assured and both God and ‘the Lamb’ can occupy the divine throne together (5.6-13). There are political overtones to this understanding of Christ, he is described as ’Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1.5); ‘the one who is about to shepherd all the nations’ (12.5); ‘Lord’ (11.8; 14.13; 22.20); ‘lord of lords and kings of kings’ (17.14; 19.16), in contrast to the imagery of two beasts (ch. 13), which is an assault on the imperial cult. Clearly then, the image of Christ as ‘lord of lords and king of kings’ is very Christologically significant. It has a twofold purpose: it demonstrates the close identification of Christ and God; and the finality of Christ’s victory over Satan and thus, his lordship over creation. However, this politically charged and powerful language is subverted by the central image which John uses; the ‘Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (5.6).

The Lord of Creation: The Slaughtered Lamb

In the cosmic imagery of the Book of Revelation, the slaughtered Lamb is at the centre of the divine throne and, in a literary sense, at the heart of Revelation. The sacrificial death of Christ is the governing image of how God rules the world and accomplishes salvation – the love-that-suffers-even-to-dying is the messianic conquest and the focus of the book (Boring, ‘The Theology of Revelation’). This image is so significant as it provides the lynch-pin to the book’s central claim: the death and resurrection of Christ has won a decisive victory for God (ch. 5) and the world only awaits the revelation of the already fully consummated victory of God. The Scroll, which governs the narrative of Revelation from chapter 5 onwards, is also closely related to this. Christ is the only one ‘worthy’ to open the scroll, which contains the secret purposes of God for establishing his kingdom (5.1). There is then a deliberate juxtaposition of the language of ‘the lion of Judah’ (5.5), with its militaristic overtones, and the image of the slaughtered lamb (5.6).

lamb-of-god-stained-glass
‘Behold the Lamb of God’

It is the opening of the scroll which is the climax of chapter 5, and John’s decision to subvert the traditionally powerful and militaristic image of the lion with a slaughtered lamb is very significant – God from his throne conquers the world by being a slain lamb and not a devouring lion, this is the shocking irony of Revelation. This reversal of power could be compared to the Johannine theology of the Cross, which subverts the traditional expectations of the glory and kingship of God. The strength, which allows the Lamb to open the scrolls, is deeply unconventional; it lies in the consistent and non-violent resistance to evil which is the witness of Jesus, a resistance which led to his execution. The slaughtered Lamb is rightly described by Boring as, ‘one of the most mind-wrenching and theologically pregnant transformations of imagery in literature.’ The lion, referenced in Proverbs (30.30), 1 Maccabees (3.4) and other Second Temple literature as a symbol of strength and military might is deliberately contrasted with the symbol of a sacrificial death and the meaning of kingship, conquest, strength and power is subverted and redefined.

The Lamb, as we have discussed it, is undoubtedly a significant image for John in Revelation, indeed, I would argue it can be considered the most significant. It is the most significant because it provides the interpretive key through which God can be understood; as the sacrificial-victim in the centre of God’s throne, he is worshipped alongside God, and provides the definitive expression of God’s activity of salvation and judgement. The centrality of chapters 4 and 5 to the book also confirms the importance of this image, which subverts the worldly understandings of power prevalent at the time, and also provides the means of understandings of Christ’s lordship as ‘king of kings’.

The Alpha and the Omega

However, before drawing to a conclusion, we must explore the image of Christ as ‘the alpha and the omega’. This concept is used both of God and Christ (God, 1.17, 22.13 – Christ 21.6 etc.), reflecting the remarkable extent to which Revelation identifies Jesus Christ with God, which prepares the ground for later Christological debate and discussion. The centrality of this designation is underlined by its use seven times, the number of completeness (see also the seven beatitudes scattered through the text). John, in this symbolic use of numbering, shows the significance of this idea and writes the theological detail of his work into the meticulous composition of Revelation. This Christological statement expresses John’s belief that Jesus belongs to the fullness of God’s eternal being. In contrast to adoptionist Christologies, which understand Jesus as only being exalted after his resurrection (although the resurrection is significant in Christ’s participation in God’s Lordship (c.f. 2.28; 3.21)) Jesus in Revelation shares in God’s eternal being from the beginning. This idea has its roots in Isaiah (c.f. 44.6 etc.) and in YHWH’s claim to exclusive monotheism – God and Christ are creator and the bringer of eschatological fulfilment; in other words, the origin and goal of all history. As well as its roots in Isaiah, this idea borrows from the Greek philosophical tradition, it is used in this sense by Josephus in Ant. 8.280 and Philo, as an explication the divine name. However, this is not a static designation of Christ, he is described as ‘to come’, placing the emphasis on the coming salvation and fulfilment of his reign. This is not an ontological expression of self-existence in himself, but a promise of faithfulness and commitment to his people in history.

The designation of ‘the alpha and the omega’ is one way in which Christ is closely identified with the God the Father, which leads us to our final significant way in which Christ is depicted: he is depicted as receiving worship. Worship is a central concept of Revelation, as it indicates that which is due to the One Creator and none else. John undertakes a deliberate treatment of the question of true or false worship: there is the division between those who worship and the dragon and the beast (13.4, 8, 12, 15; 14.9, 11 etc.) and those who worship the one true God (7.15; 14.3; 15.3-4 etc.); there is also the double rejection of worship by the angel who gives John the revelation (19.10, 22.8-9). The worship of Christ is therefore not done from neglect, as the book’s stringent claim to monotheism in the sphere of worship precludes this possibility.

John implies that Jesus is somehow included in the monotheistic being of God. For example, the worship of the Lamb (5.8) parallels that which is offered to God (4.11) and the ultimate aim of the worship of the Lamb (5.8-13) is that it leads to the whole creation worshipping God and the Lamb together (5.13). This is not bitheism, but a functional identification of God and Jesus, in such a way that he can be included in monotheistic worship – particularly interesting is the use of singular verbs (11.15) and pronouns (6.17; 22.3-4) when God and Christ have been spoken about. While this may not be a deliberate allusion, it certainly points to John’s reluctance to talk about God and Christ in the plural. Christ is depicted amongst the candlesticks, which represent the Church, showing his centrality ‘to the life and activities of the churches on earth’, alongside the angels proclamation of ‘the eternal gospel’ which includes the call to worship the Creator (14.7, c.f. 13.8) points to Jesus’ worthiness to receive worship.

Conclusion

To conclude, there are several significant ways in which Christ is depicted in Revelation: his depiction as Lord and ‘king of kings’; as the Lamb who stands slaughtered; as origin and source of all history; and as worthy of worship alongside God. Each of these depictions mutually interpret and inform the others: the Lordship of Christ is informed by his inclusion in the divine identity; his Messianic victory is subverted and reinterpreted in the light of his depiction as the sacrificial victim and the power, worthiness and authority of God are located firmly in the readiness of the Lamb to die. It is therefore, the image of the Lamb which is the most significant of the Christological depictions in Revelation, as it informs the others and, in its central place in the pivotal moment of the text, contains the most profound teaching of the Book; at the centre of the throne of God, which has conquered all creation, is a sacrificial Lamb who governs the way God’s will is manifest in history. It is this Christology which influences the rest of this highly Christocentric and theological vision of creation.

Adapted from an essay submitted for supervision in New Testament Christologies (C3) as part of my Third Year Theology Tripos
at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.