The Assumption of Our Lady | Homily

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

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

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

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Basilica of the Assumption on Mount Zion

Fr. Jaques Hamel | Homily for Trinity C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Do this in remembrance of me’

Never Forget the Gift | Reflections for Corpus Christi

Last week, the Church commemorated with great care and solemnity, the gift of the life and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, given to us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.

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Cambridge celebrates Corpus Christi Day with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament

The Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, what we know as the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Communion, is not for us Christians merely a symbol of Christ, or an expression of community fellowship, or a metaphor, but it is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself. God in Christ makes himself food and drink, so that, taking him into our bodies as nourishment, we can become like him. Adoring and Receiving the Blessed Sacrament we adore and receive Christ.

This is all very mysterious and mystical, but what else could it be? All actions of God to reveal himself to us are mysterious and mystical, the breakthrough of God into this world is always confounding and never fits easily into worldly categories of experience and understanding.

The Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, is the breakthrough of God’s life and presence into our lives and into this world. It might seem easier and safer for us to construe the mystery and mysticism of Holy Communion into a symbol or a metaphor, but this construal, is not what the Blessed Sacrament really and truly is. At the end of the day, we don’t make the Eucharist what it really and truly is, God makes the Eucharist what it really and truly is- and what God in Christ makes the Eucharist is the gift of his very life.

The scriptures set for Corpus Christi emphasise this mystical element. An excerpt from the Book of Genesis recalls the ancient patriarch Abraham’s encounter with the priest and king Melchizedek, who offers bread and wine to God as an affirmation of his covenant, that is, his relationship with Abraham. In response to the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, Abraham makes his own offering of “a tenth of his possessions”.

The story of this encounter and offering is presented to us as a foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament we receive from our true priest and king, Jesus Christ. The Blessed Sacrament establishes us in relationship with God in Christ and our response to the offering of the priest and king Jesus Christ is that we offer him our very lives.

The second reading is an excerpt from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which contains the earliest description of the mystery of the Eucharist. This simple reading reminds us that the Eucharist is not an invention of the Church, but a reality that Christ’s first disciples received from him. It is Christ who declares the Eucharist to be his Body and his Blood and it is Christ who makes the Eucharist the sacrifice of his new worship.

The Eucharist is the worship that God wants for it is the worship that God in Christ gives.

We might desire a different kind of worship and even invent forms of worship to satisfy our desires and needs (indeed the Church seems intent on replacing the Eucharist as the centre of her life) but, while these invented forms of worship might appear to us to be more appealing and entertaining than the worship God in Christ gives to us, they are not what God truly wants for us and they will never give to us what the worship that is faithful to Christ gives. The worship we create may provide us with ideas and feelings and experiences that we associate with God and that’s important but the worship of the Mass is different. In all our worship, we receive experiences of Christ and have an opportunity to draw near to him and meditate with God but there is no form of worship except the Eucharist that can give us the life and presence of Christ himself. As Denys wrote in the 4th century, only the Eucharist ‘can perfect us’.

The meaning of our reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a simple meaning: from the time of the Apostles, the Church has offered the worship that we know as the Mass. It is not just a matter of human custom, but fidelity to Christ, and receiving from Christ, the gift that he wants to give. This gift is his life and his presence, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

Finally, the Gospel of St. Luke testifies to the great miracle, a display of Christ’s divine power. He feeds a vast crowd with only a few morsels of food.

There is no natural explanation to what is described in this account from St. Luke’s Gospel. The people cannot give to one another what they do not have. The disciples cannot give to the people what they do not possess. There is nothing to share, for there is nothing at all to share. God in Christ provides for the people what they cannot provide for themselves. They can only eat and be satisfied because Christ gives them food that he through his divine power creates.

This miracle foreshadows or anticipates the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, heavenly food that God in Christ gives to us, a food we cannot create or provide for ourselves. Christ accomplishes a miracle to suggest to his followers an even greater revelation that is to come – the gift of his life and presence, given to his disciples as food and drink, given to us as a meal, given to us as the Blessed Sacrament.

A greater gift than the food that fed the multitude is the food that Christ makes of his Body and Blood. Greater than the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the revelation of the Eucharistic mystery.

My prayer this Corpus Christi is for the Church – that she may never forget the great gift Christ has given of himself in the Sacrament. Only here can we be satisfied; only here can we find ‘life in all its abundance’; only here can we be perfected. So be it. Amen.

‘Let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread.’ – Saint Francis of Assisi

The Triune Love | Homily for Trinity Sunday

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Modern version of the icon of ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!