Justin Martyr: Faith in the Public Square

Exciting Holiness gives us this hagiography of Justin, Martyr at Rome, whose feast day is today.

Justin was born of a pagan family at the beginning of the second century in Palestine. As a young man he explored many different philosophies before at the age of thirty embracing Christianity. He continued to wear the distinctive dress of a professional philosopher, and taught Christianity as a philosophy first at Ephesus, and later at Rome. He became an outstanding apologist for the Christian faith, and is honoured as the first Christian thinker to enter into serious dialogue with the other intellectual disciplines of his day, including Judaism. Justin always sought to reconcile the claims of faith and reason. It was at Rome in about 165 that he and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians, and beheaded. The authentic record of their martyrdom based on an official court report has survived. Traditionally, Justin is often surnamed ‘Martyr’ because of his two-fold witness to Christ, through his apologetic writings and his manner of death.

Иустин_Философ,_АфонAfter hearing this at Mass this morning, I wanted to explore something of the message of Justin Martyr, one of the greatest early witnesses to the Faith of Christ. Brutally murdered in 165 AD because he was unwilling to offer worship to the emperor and gods of Rome, having spent his life articulating the faith of Christ as a philosopher in the public square. For Justin, fidelity to Christ was more important than his own life  – he found in Christ the wisdom and power of God.

 

‘For those who are called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (From 1 Corinthians).

Saint Justin was a man of prodigious intellectual gifts and he placed all this to the service of the Church’s mission. The Church, faced with the opposition of the Roman state in the second century, had to struggle to survive. Professing the Christian faith was considered to be treason, punishable by death. As well as this, Christians were cultural outsiders – the elites of Roman culture had their own gods and values, and to most of the Romans, Christian faith just seemed odd, if not completely unintelligible. Justin, empowered by divine grace, made it his mission to make the case for Christian faith. He presents reasoned arguments to the what and why of Christian belief and the practices of the Church.

This made Saint Justin a very dangerous man to those invested in the Roman system of power and privilege. For those who opposed the Church, there was no god but Caesar and no way of life other than the Roman way, a way of life that supremely valued wealth, pleasure, power and honours above anything else.

We might not feel that the Church is dangerously subversive, but for Justin, the Church was considered to be a threat, and was dealt with as such by those in power. Christians were persecuted. Their property was seized. Their institutions were closed. Their worship was ridiculed. Bishops and priests were arrested. And men and women like Justin, who presented Christian beliefs as credible, and the Christian way of life as worthwhile, were considered public enemies. The Church’s way of life required risk and sacrifices, and because people like Justin, were willing to take the risk and make the sacrifices, the Church not only survived, it flourished and grew. As Tertullian recognised at this time, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Central to Justin’s witness was that the Church was a public reality, not a private club. The Church existed to engage and create public culture. The purpose of the Church was to be seen and heard, as it had a message and a mission that was for everyone, not just for a privileged few. This is not simply evangelism (in the sense of calling people to worship Christ, although that is a necessary part of it) but the Church proclaiming to the culture an alternative way of living – a way of living which is not centred around wealth, privilege or power. Justin’s witness that the Church was a public reality grated on those who believed that Roman power was absolute and could have no rivals. For Justin and the Church’s opponents of the Church, the Roman way was the only way.

However, in this culture, Saint Justin believed that Jesus Christ is the Way, and he would rather die than deny his faith in Jesus Christ, and for this reason, above all, the Church remembers him and recalls his courage. The Church suffers persecution in every age of her life. We have the privilege of practicing our faith in relative freedom, but many Christians struggle and many Christians will, like Saint Justin, suffer and die in our age because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

On this day that the Church calls us to remember Saint Justin, I hope we can also remember and pray for the many Christians who today will suffer and die for the faith they profess and the way of life they practice.

For them, and for all the Church, we pray:

God our Redeemer,
who through the folly of the cross taught your martyr Justin
the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ:
remove from us every kind of error
that we, like him, may be firmly grounded in the faith,
and make your name known to all peoples;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Pray for us St. Justin, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!

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

‘Great is thy faithfulness!’ | A Homily

I dedicate this post to William, my brother and friend, who has taught me so much about the wonder of the universe. Of your charity, pray for him as he sits his exams. 

Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided;
great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

For me, the most compelling theme of the Scriptures is also one of its most recurrent themes: the faithfulness of God to what he has made. This theme runs through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures with remarkable consistency. Often, I think we forget that the word ‘covenant’, the most powerful word in both the Old Testament and in the New, refers to God’s faithfulness both to human beings and to the whole created order. The God we believe in is, above all else, a God who keeps promises. God’s absolute commitment to creation is the key stone to all we believe in, from the Exodus of Israel to the institution of the ‘New Covenant’ in the first Eucharist.

I think this theme can provide one answer to the vexing question of ‘what is the Church for?’ It would be very true to say that the Church exists to express, embody and genesis1-stainedglasscommunicate God’s faithfulness. We try to do this with human communities – the Church should be able to say to all people, ‘we’re not going away’, to say to the communities around us, ‘we are going to be faithful to you in your situation, in your joy and in your suffering’. Of course, the community arounds us includes the whole created order – being faithful to our human neighbours is intimately bound up with our faithfulness to creation itself. If we want to be God’s community of faithfulness – expressing, embodying and communication that absolute commitment of God to God’s world, which was once and for all made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, we have to live out this faithfulness to all creation. We have to always ask ourselves: how do we demonstrate our fidelity to human need and suffering with fidelity to the created order of which are are a part.

How do the policies of our Church: from what coffee we drink after services to how we spend our money, communicate this faithfulness to things of the world. We are part of this world – part of the beautiful, interlocking and interweaving pattern of life which God creates. God didn’t just line up dominoes and push them over when creation happened – God creates, and holds in being at all moments, the literally indescribable web of forces and energies and presences that is creation in all its splendour. If you pulled any bit out of it, the whole thing would collapse. God’s faithfulness is indivisible – to creation as a whole, and to each human being in particular – it belongs to his creation.

I don’t think this a theme we hear about often enough in Church, but I think it makes sense to people. Reflecting on God’s faithfulness drives us back to the basic stories of Scripture. It leads us to God who, in Genesis 1, sees his creation and knows it is very good. It takes us back to God who promises never to destroy the world after the Flood. It points us to God who in the law of Moses declares that the earth will never be anyone’s property for ever that it is lent to us for a time. The land is God’s and that means none has absolute claim to possession. Reflecting on these themes from the earliest books of the Bible remind us that we, at least, have to learn to regard the very stuff on which we stand as something other than just property; something more than what we can stuff in our pockets and make use of.

The Church, both to her own members and to the world, needs to get better at communicating (in deed more than word) this basic theme and rhythm of Scripture – his faithful, constant gazing at creation in love.

All of this, for me, is summed up by a very well known passage in Julian of Norwich. A passage I reflect on most days, as I catch a glimpse of the small hazelnut I keep before an icon in my room. In one of her visions,

Julian-of-Norwich-iconChrist holds out to Julian his open hand with a little object in it the size of a hazelnut.
Julian asks, ‘what is it?’

And ‘it was answered, ‘it is all that is made’
and I marvelled that it did not fall away to nothing for it was so small.

And it was answered to me, ‘it lasteth and ever shall for God loveth it’

All that is made is shown to Julian as a tiny object in the hand of God, yet it is the object of absolute, eternal and unfathomable love and commitment. In that hazelnut is me and you and every person with whom we share this earth, along with the indescribable number of planets and stars. The Church has to live in such a way that loudly proclaims those simple words of Lady Julian: ‘it lasteth and ever shall for God loveth it.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Shepherd Sunday (2016)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday:
‘At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’’ – John 10.22-30

This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, a chance to reflect on this great teaching of Christ in St. John’s Gospel. For early Christians, long before depictions of the Crucifixion became common, it was the image of Christ the Good Shepherd which was most ubiquitous. In this homily, I am going to focus especially on those beautiful words, ‘my sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ Cardinal Newman once said that, although writing and arguments can leave us cool, ‘a voice can melt us’ and he’s

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Christ the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs in Rome

right. While an article or book can leave us unmoved, the sound of someone’s voice, even saying similar things, can make our hearts catch fire! My grandpa is a Frank Sinatra fan, a man known simply as ‘the Voice’ – even in old age, his voice would so move people that the orchestra would put down their instruments to hear him speak or sing. Voices are important to all of us, even now I can hear the voice of my nana (probably reading this post) telling stories to us as children – sometimes, when I’m reading, I hear them in her story-telling voice. Voice’s matter to us, they stir our hearts and kindle our imaginations.

It is, in many ways, the great mystery of Christianity that our faith is not a set of propositions that we all agree to, nor is it simply a philosophy of life, it is, deep down in its heart, a relationship with someone; someone who has voice. Our faith didn’t begin with the reasoned speculation of a social theorist or the musings of a philosopher, but when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire with his teaching. Paul evocatively tells us that ‘faith comes from hearing’ and I’m sure the first disciples would agree. I often wonder, especially when I’m on retreat and find myself with some time to spare, wondering what he sounded like. What was his voice like? Did his eyes twinkle when he spoke of his Father’s kingdom? Did his passion frighten the disciples? I am sure those first disciples never forgot the sound of voice, it was, I imagine, what sustained them even as they suffered so much for the sake of his name.

“Our faith began when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire”

After his resurrection, when Christ appeared to his disciples he told them, ‘I am with you always’ and echoed his promise that ‘whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, then I will be with them.’ We too hear his voice. We hear him when the Gospel is proclaimed in the Eucharist. It is our great privilege not just to read the Bible alone (which is, of course, a wonderful thing to do) but to hear it proclaimed to us: to glimpse the voice of Jesus when the Scriptures are carried into the heart of the congregation and proclaimed to us. We also hear the voice of Jesus in the preaching of the Church – this is his living voice, especially in the bishops and priests who Christ ordains to preach the Gospel. Through the Church, despite everything, the living voice of Christ rings out and the truth of the Gospel is preached in every generation.

As I said in my last post, we here the voice of Christ in our conscience, the primal sanctuary of our hearts. We call the pull of our conscience a ‘voice,’ because it speaks us to more powerfully than any other feeling. We have begin to attune ourselves to hear the voice of Christ in our own hearts. The voice of Christ comes to us from other places, especially in the words of good spiritual friends – our parish priests, our friends at dinner, our families – those voices which comfort and challenge us, which call us to higher ideals and refuse to let us get comfortable where we are but urge us on to a more meaningful relationship with Christ. Our spiritual friends, in persona Christi, pick us up when we fall and form part of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ which urges us on.

One thing the first hearers of this teaching knew instinctively, but we have to be reminded, is that sheep respond only to the voice of their own shepherd and no one else. Sheep, however dumb, know their shepherd and follow him. For us, the sheep of Christ’s flock, this means trying to discern the voice of Christ in the midst of the cacophony of voices which surround us everyday. Politicians, authors, cultural leaders, our friends, and so many other voices are always leading us in different directions. How do we know whom to follow? How do you listen for the voice of Christ amongst so much competing noise? Those who are formed in the Christian life begin to recognise Jesus’ voice amidst the noise. Those who are fed by Christ’s body and blood in the Mass, who hear and meditate on his words in Scripture and remember that he has chosen to identify himself with the poor and the unloved begin to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Like musicians who can pick out the right tune in a host of competing noises, so the disciple of Christ can recognise the Master’s voice and follow.

But why do we follow Yeshua? Why is this Jesus, born as he was 2016 years ago, raised in the backwater town of Nazareth and, like so many others, meeting a violent end on the Cross of the Roman authorities? Jesus gives us the answer here, ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’ We don’t listen to Christ to become more ethically upright, to be more charitable people or to orientate ourselves more towards social justice (although, these will follow from faithful discipleship!), any spiritual guru or even a good politician can teach you to do this. We endeavour with all our hearts to follow Christ because he leads us to eternal life. Jesus leads his sheep to the life of heaven where we shall never perish – where we will see God face to face and rejoice to dance with all the saints before the tabernacle of God for ever.

The eternal life to which we are drawn is a supernatural reality, it is our citizenship with the blessed in the eternal feast of heaven but it also transforms our life today. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for us that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly’ – that we might live in the glory and joy of his Risen Life now! Everything you and I do should bring us closer to this end – nothing, no one can separate you from the flock of the Shepherd who knows you and holds you save in his hand. Learn to hear his voice, meditate on his words in your heart, tune your ears to the voice which calls you to life and stay firm in the hope that he has set before you.

‘Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good deed to do his will,
working among us that which is well pleasing in his sight,
through Jesus Christ,to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
– Hebrews 13.20-21

800px-StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Candlemas Reflection: The Searching Light

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

– Common Worship: Introduction to the Liturgy of Candlemas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bread of Angels: S. Thomas on the Eucharist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

S. Thomas, pray for us! 

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

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

In nomine…Jesus-Synagogue-Nazareth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kintsugi
Kintsugi

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

 

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

 

Advent – God is on the move

‘Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ – Mark 13.35-37

There is a well known passage in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, I think it highlights beautifully the Advent faith which this season seeks to distill in us. When the Pevensie children first meet Mr and Mrs Aslan_lucy_reunionBeaver the name of Aslan is introduced into the story, Aslan being the Christ-figure in Lewis’ masterpiece, and the children react in a multitude of different ways – Peter is filled with a call to action, Lucy with a sense of wonder and Edmund, having already met the white witch, is filled with the sense of dread; all because they hear the name of Aslan. What message do the beavers give the children? A simple one: ‘Aslan is on the move’. Aslan is on the move – God is on the move, and this is message of advent, this season when we reflect on how God moves in our lives and in our world.

In Advent we are called to cultivate the sort of habits and attentiveness that make us more alert to the coming of Jesus in our midst, the movement of God in our lives and in our world. The call of the Gospel then to keep awake this Advent is about developing the habits of looking for God’s movement within and without ourselves, for unless we do this,we risk simply missing Christ as he breaks into our everyday experience of life.

This means that keeping awake this Advent is about more than the state of not being asleep. It surely must be about more than just not being asleep, because lots of us go through life not fully awake to it, for all sorts of reasons. We follow familiar routines; we believe that the way things are is the way things must be; we do what’s expected, and often even do our best, without necessarily stopping to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing, or whether this is how life has to be. There’s a familiarity and a comfort to the habitual, to the patterns we weave for our lives, and that means that lots of us, lots of the time, are content to stay with the comfortable, and stop looking at it because we know its contours so well. We fail often even to recognise the things that make our conscience twinge: discrimination in our college, a homeless man in the street framed by the glistening lights of an expensive shop, images of war on the news – we are so used to this that we often fail to hear the voice of our conscience anymore; fail to recognise God’s challenging, reforming movement – the movement of him who is always making all things new.

To be awake to that presence in the world is partly to let the whisper of your conscience speak; to dare to imagine that we are made for more than the acquisition of wealth and that our lives are more than the sum of our achievements. And sometimes we need a wake up call to realise this – sometimes we have to be confronted again by the truth of God’s movement. Sometimes that wake up call is welcome: in falling in love, in the gift of a child, in responding to a sense of vocation, in simply hearing the name of Christ proclaimed in a new way to us. Other times we are jolted awake by illness, or bereavement, or redundancy, or a broken relationship, and suddenly the familiar contours of our lives are made strange. Redundancy, for example, can provoke us to see that we are more than just what we do. Bereavement and illness can make us re-evaluate what’s really important because they face us with the reality that we do not have limitless amounts of time.

Advent, in its liturgy and Scripture, is our annual wake up call – reminding us to be watchful, reminding us that the world as we know it is broken and in need of healing, and our lives, habitual and comfortable as they are, can always be more closely conformed to the Lord’s pattern. Being watchful for God’s movement begins when we learn to look for it in the whole of our lives. It’s easy to see God at work in the sunset, in the smile of a baby, in the touch of a lover. It’s much harder to glimpse his presence and movement in the unwelcome medical diagnosis, or in the bleakness of grief, or in the repeated lies of a person gripped by addiction. And yet the promise of Advent is that God moves in the darkness as much as in the light. To keep a good Advent is to begin to wake up to the presence of Christ in our midst, and sometimes that starts as simply as remembering to look for him.

This may seem a little shocking because, if we’re honest, I think lots of us don’t expect to find God in the darkness or in the mess of our lives. A big part of the problem is that we have this ridiculous idea that God only loves the bits of us we find loveable and, because of this, we start putting a face on for God, just as we do with other people. We have this false assumption that God only moves in the light, only works among good people in good situations. But the light of Advent, which grows brighter as we journey to Christmas, is the light that shines in darkness. We miss it if we look for its glow only in the light of our world and of our lives.

My sisters and brothers, as we worship in the presence of him who is the light of the world, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness, and his love for the world that he is always reaching out to save and make perfect. God is on the move; always and everywhere. For His promise is that at midnight or at cockcrow, in those silent hours stalked by fears, he will come – this holy light who shines in the darkness, and whom no darkness cannot overcome.

Therefore, in this annual service, let us pray to God – beseeching the Lord to open our minds and hearts to see his movement and presence in our lives and in the world. And let us here his call to us – keep awake.