St. Stephen and Our Vocation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen ora pro nobis.

Homily – Advent Liturgy of Healing and Benediction

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

In nomine…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Kyrie Eleison | Lord, have mercy upon us.

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

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

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

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

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Our Lady of Vladimir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, have mercy upon us.

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