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.

St. Stephen the Protomartyr being stoned.jpg

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.

Homily – Advent Liturgy of Healing and Benediction

‘Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.’

In nomine…

We all know that Jesus’ earthly ministry in Palestine was characterized by miraculous healings – he fulfilled the Messianic expectations of Israel and brought healing to those who he met, both spiritually and physically. These are not allegories, or legends and they do not seek to glorify Jesus, they are simply a reporting of the facts, which characterized his ministry. When the Word of God, who created the world comes into contact with creation… life and healing are the inevitable result. Jesus’ very word, and very touch is healing not because of any magic spell, but because his entire being is so filled with the creative power which formed the universe… that those who came close to him jesus-healing-the-blind-man-icon.jpgwere healed simply by opening their soul to that power, through their faith, however slight, that Jesus is Lord.

In these days of Advent, we await the one who comes to bring life to the world. Jesus is the reversal of death, the calmer of the troubled mind and the only name that is given for healing in the world. We come today into the presence of the Lord, opening our hearts with faith and trust to the healing, creative power of God. In Jesus, the life of God is poured out into the world and we have an opportunity this evening to experience the love and power of God – the same love and power which was known in Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Tonight is about healing and reconciling, because the Christian proclamation has always related healing with the forgiveness of sins, beginning in Jesus’ own ministry. Therefore, in order to experience the full power and grace of the healing which Christ offers tonight, we must first undertake to reconcile ourselves to God. When we turn to him in confession, God responds to us with forgiveness and all that separates us from him is overwhelmed in a torrent of his love. As the priest pronounces God’s absolution, the power with preserves the universe breaks into our lives and all that clouds our relationship with the Lord melts away and we are embraced in perfect Love.

From the foundation of the Church, Christ and the Holy Spirit has empowered his disciples to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and he gave them the authority to anoint the sick with oil as a sign of healing and forgiveness. The Holy Spirit has, by the laying on of hands, given this gift to those who are ordained as Priests – so, for us this evening, Mark and Phelim, give us access to God’s grace and healing through absolution and the sacrament of anointing. Through the sacrament of anointing, we can experience the same healing love which the boy with the spirit experienced because ‘all things can be done for the one who believes’. Even in the midst of our doubt and unbelief, God still reaches out to us and longs to bring us more fully to life.

Tonight, you will all receive the healing touch of Christ and can confess your sins and receive the anointing of the Spirit… I urge you to feel my sisters and brothers in these sacramental actions, these sacred signs, the very work of God, the hand which is laid upon you is the wounded hand of Jesus Christ; the oil on your forehead is a sign of God’s Holy Spirit descending upon you to forgive you and to heal you. In this liturgy, we ask God to minister his love and healing to us, through the Body of Christ.

As we approach Christmas, where we will rejoice again in the coming of our Savior, we must prepare ourselves, by drinking deeply from the resources Christ has given us. But tonight is not just about us – the Lord has given us a bold mission, to proclaim the Good News in our homes, our communities and in our world… but he has also empowered us all with his abundant grace to strengthen us in our mission. We come to healing so that we may heal the world; we come for forgiveness so that we can reconcile the world to Christ; we come to hear words of his love so that we can share that love in a broken world.

Therefore, let us begin this night of healing and reconciliation – let us pray for ourselves, for each other and for the world – in this Church, where God’s Spirit is present and where Christ is present, in our hearts and in the Blessed Sacrament, the body of Christ, which will be enthrone on the altar… let us with faith and confidence join the voices of our hearts with the faithful centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my room, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

Amen.

iispubp21o19i6c8m3vryvgofnl.png

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.

vladimir_icon-14560E0CD3B3F8F3EFF.jpg
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.

year-of-mercy-close.jpg
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

stmonica1
‘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

Monica3.jpg
Monica, pray that we may be filled with that same hope which sustained you on earth!

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!

DSC_1047_assumption_of_mary
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.

Dominic.jpg

Fr. Jaques Hamel | Homily for Trinity C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary allows divine grace to rush into the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to whom be glory and praise for ever.
Amen.

Amazing love!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_Father.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Like Living Stones’ | The Priesthood of all Believers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So be it.