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.

 

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

To Be a Pilgrim | Homily 1 at Shrine of OLW

Homily given at the beginning of the St. Asaph Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (11th July, St. Benedict’s Day)

I wanted to spend this first homily reflecting a little on what it means to go on pilgrimage – what makes this different from your average holiday to lovely Norfolk? It might seem simple, but profoundly important, that the difference is God. We have set out on a journey with a divine purpose – a journey transformed by God’s purpose for us. God has brought you to Walsingham, Jesus has led you, as he promised, to the streams of living water that flow gently through this unassuming village.

page-3-Holy-House-at-Shrine-of-Our-Lady-of-Walsingham.jpgAs we set out on this pilgrimage, the great Christian writers of the tradition remind us that, in a sense, our whole identity as Christians is as a pilgrim people. In our hearts, the follower of Christ is always a pilgrim – a stranger, a sojourner on the earth, always seeking after a more than earthly homeland, yearning for an heavenly country. In coming to Walsingham, we enact this journey in miniature – we glimpse our heavenly homeland and receive fresh vision and strength for the journey onwards. The importance of pilgrimage can be traced back all the way through the Scriptures – think of the Exodus: Israel’s journey out of slavery, pursued by the Egyptians, down through the Red Sea and coming up into the wilderness. Think of that extraordinary time in the wilderness, led by Moses, together a community with God before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – before, at last, they reach the Promised Land.

I’m constantly amazed how closely this seems to resemble our own life’s pilgrimage and what we encounter on our way to the heavenly homeland. That first call of Moses who dares the Israelites to break free and dream of a new future – this is the point of stirring, repenting, yearning to follow Christ and become more fully alive. The Israelites follow this desire but they are pursued – whenever we seek to follow Christ, our guilt and sin and failing follow us down the Way – but then, water. Water which looks like death but they come through it and see their sins drowned. This is the type of a Christian baptism – even today, the priest at a baptism says:

Through water you led the children of Israel
from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John
and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,
to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.

But our baptism, momentous as it is, is not the end of the story – we don’t come up from the water into glory! Baptism instils in us a yearning for the kingdom, but we are still in the wilderness – led by God! All this is there in that great hymn, Guide Me O thou great  Redeemer. What better hymn for being in Walsingham – ‘Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow’. Think back to the Exodus – the very rock which impeded the Israelites journey is struck and through it they find water. The same is true for us – bring to the shrine the rocks that prevent your journey with Christ – bring your sins, your doubts, your dilemmas about the future, bring your loved ones and those you struggle to love – bring them here and pray that for them, in them and through them, the crystal fountain might be opened.

We ought to think of the Christian life as a pilgrimage – a journey made together, following the Lord, with so great a promise beyond it. This counterbalances the image of the Christian as arrogantly presuming to be better than others; an image of static perfection that says to the outside world, ‘now I’ve made it, I can look down on you and tell you what to do because I’ve made it’. This is not Christian, this is false. As the young man in our reading discovers, there are always new depths and new adventures – even for those who have followed the commandments from their youth. As pilgrims, we have know in our hearts how much we have to learn – Christians can never stop growing, discovering, changing, repenting and entering more and more into the mystery of the divine life. Christian faith is an invitation to adventure – travelling – pilgrimage. There’s a reason we baptise with scallop shells, the symbol of pilgrimage.

I pray that our time in Walsingham may be a true pilgrimage – filled with laughter and love – a time to reflect on the rocks which weigh us down and to pray for discernment for the future. God has dreams for you – he longs for you to draw near to him, to learn from Mary and say yes to the next stage of your pilgrimage. Here, in this shrine, in which, for 1000 years, Mary has brought people closer to her Son; where God’s grace has been tangible and prayer valid – here, in England’s Nazareth – discover God afresh and be transformed.

To help in your reflections, I have printed off a sonnet from Malcolm Guite for you to meditate on. I will read it now and hopefully we will then have a moment to meditate on it.

Come, dip a scallop shell into the font
For birth and blessings as a child of God.
The living water rises from that fount
Whence all things come, that you may bathe and wade
And find the flow, and learn at last to follow
The course of Love upstream towards your home.
The day is done and all the fields lie fallow
One thing is needful, one voice calls your name.

Take the true compass now, be compassed round
By clouds of witness, chords of love unbound.
Turn to the Son, begin your pilgrimage,
Take time with Him to find your true direction.
He travels with you through this darkened age
And wakes you everyday to resurrection.
by Malcolm Guite (see his website here)

On Everyday Sainthood

There was once a great Saint who, realising that God was calling him to a life of silent contemplation, became a hermit in a cave in the wilderness and hoped to live out his calling in mystical communion with God. Eventually, as the world so often All-Saints-for-Podcastdoes, he was forced out of his quiet retreat and founded a monastery to house all the people that sought him out for spiritual direction. After years of austere monastic life, with the recitation of the Daily Office, celebration of the Divine Eucharist and being profligate in all good works, he asks God a simple question, ‘Lord, am I the holiest man in all the world?’ God responds with a visionary experience, and he is taken in the Spirit to the local city, where he is guided to look through a window and he sees a humble, unintelligent and simple old man washing and preparing vegetables for dinner, as he did everyday. And God said to him, in the Spirit, ‘Behold, the holiest man in all the world.’ 

I am grateful for Fr. Robert who preached in Little St. Mary’s, Cambridge about this story recently, as it has sparked all sorts of reflection and prayer for me on the nature of sainthood and the call to sanctity which all Christians share. The story is a stark reminder that holiness is not the preserve of the religious elite; of those who devoutly pray the office or who devote all their time and study to holy things. Sanctity belongs, by God’s grace, to the ordinary people who, often in quiet ways, show something of God’s loving grace and kindness to the world. Of course, the Daily Offices and the Mass are sanctifying but God does not restrict his sanctifying power to those who, let’s be honest, often by luck, are able to participate in the holy things of the Church. If, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, God is an artist and we are his works of art (Eph. 2.10), then all people are masterpieces of that cosmic artist from whom all being and beauty flow. In often quiet and unrecognised ways a myriad people go about revealing the holiness and love and grace of God. In the midst of messy, complicated human lives, a little of the divine light shines out and illuminates the world. They are like fireworks who, although of incalculable diversity, each bear witness to a different aspect of the One who sets them alight. We see this in those named saints who we know and love: in Mary’s sacrificial love we see a glimpse of God’s love for us; in St. Joseph’s faithfulness to Jesus and Mary we begin to comprehend God’s faithfulness; and the list could go on, but God is also manifest in the lives of countless thousands who remain unnamed and who have touched our lives personally.

I think of the stories told about my great grandmother, Nora Herron, whose self-sacrificing, practical faithfulness to the Church, her family and to the Lord whom she loved with childlike simplicity of heart, bears witness to the God who created her and called her and in whose arms she will dwell for eternity. There are glimpses of holiness all around us, we need only open our eyes and see. I often think to myself that Nora’s daughter, my nana, Maureen, reveals something of the tender love of God when she prepares the altar for the Wednesday Mass on Tuesday evenings. With devotion and gentleness, she lays out the sacred vessels and prepares the cloths, ensuring everything is perfect, not with irritable fastidiousness but with pure love for the One for whose revealing this altar is prepared. Open your eyes and the holiness of God is alive in the world around us, as well as in that glorious company who surround our steps from heaven. It this vast innumerable company of which it is said ‘the world is not worthy’, they are strangers and sojourners in this world, although fully committed to it, as their true home is with God eternally and they reveal something of the world to which their citizenship belongs in the everyday comings and goings of their life.

There is no criteria of perfection to be a saint, so if we’re looking for perfect people as examples of living saints, we will be looking forever. Saints, living and departed, are those in whom God’s glory is manifest and visible: I would count my dearly departed great grandmother in their company, as well as countless others who have challenged, inspired and enkindled my faith by revealing something of God to me. We profess Sunday by Sunday that the essence of our faith is that God the Son took flesh in Jesus Christ, and he continues to become incarnate in his disciples today but, if we believe that the Son of God could be found in a stable, homeless in Nazareth or even on a cross, we must be prepared to look for those in whom he incarnates himself today in very unlikely places. In our local shop, in the homeless shelter, on the sofa next to us, and even, despite everything, in our churches.

May all the Saints, known and unknown, pray for us
That we to might be made worthy of the promises of Christ

Of your charity, dear reader, pray for the soul of Nora Herron, a practical saint.

Mary the Dawn, Christ the perfect day

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Our Lady of the Sign

MARY the Dawn, Christ the perfect Day;
Mary the Gate, Christ the heavenly Way.
Mary the Root, Christ the mystic Vine;
Mary the Grape, Christ the sacred Wine.
Mary the Wheat-sheaf, Christ the living Bread;
Mary the Rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red.
Mary the Font, Christ the cleansing Flood;
Mary the Chalice, Christ the saving Blood.
Mary the Temple, Christ the Temple’s Lord;
Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored.
Mary the Beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision blest.

– Anonymous Medieval Hymn
(Taken from Draft Rule of the Sodality of Mary)


This hymn has been a real source of reflection and blessing for me over the last few days – I post it here, just to commend it as a wonderful, ancient part of our tradition worth spending some time with. 

Homily: The Assumption of Mary

‘Gaze on Mary’
Preached in St. Mary the Virgin, Mold

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Silvestro de Gherarducci – Assumption of the Virgin (c.1350)

In nomine…

It took me quite a while to come to terms with Mary. I couldn’t understand the point of fostering a relationship with Jesus’ mother, I wasn’t even sure you could foster such a relationship! Of course, I loved Mary, her ‘yes’ to God had inspired my own vocation; her quiet pondering fascinated me; and her pain at the foot of the Cross moved me… but, I thought, this was as far as it could ever go. But then, one Sunday morning, gazing up at this very statue of Our Lady, I felt so certain of Mary’s maternal love for me, I felt so powerfully in her gaze, that I was forced to rethink my relationship with the Mother of God – I’d like to share with you this morning, the results of my pondering as best I can.

Mary “is an echo of God” – St. Louise-Marie

The most common way I hear people attempt to discourage and belittle Marian devotion is to say that it distracts from the worship of Jesus… they say that she takes away from her Son! I’ve realised that the people who say this are only ever those who have never spent any time with the Mother of God. In the words of St. Louise-Marie, Mary “is an echo of God” she speaks and repeats only God, “if you say ‘Mary’ she says ‘God’”. In a sense, Mary and her Son are like the moon and the sun – everything about Mary draws our attention to Christ, her splendour and blessedness are the gifts of her Son, just as the moon only shines because it reflects the Sun’s light. The sun is the superior light, because without it the moon would never shine. For those of you, like me, who like to watch the night sky – you’ll know that you can stare up all night at the moon, while the sun’s intensity is overwhelming. So it is with our Lord, he is so wonderful, mysterious, beautiful and glorious that sometimes his presence is so awesome and powerful that we feel we must withdraw because of our unworthiness and his holiness. Not so with Mary… with the Lord’s Mother, we can gaze on her as we gaze on the moon, seeing in her the reflected light of her Son and learning to love God in the same obedient and beautiful way which Mary teaches.

It is because of this that the early Church Fathers believed Mary to be foreshadowed in the burning bush – she shines with the presence and power of God but is not consumed by that power. We learn from her that the closer we are to God, the more truly we are ourselves – God elevates and enlightens me and you, he makes us fully alive, which is being fully ourselves, God never forces us to be anything we’re not. Within Mary, in the most tangible and literal way, Christ was alive – yet she is not overwhelmed or suppressed by Christ’s dwelling in her, she is made luminous and glorious, she is made the Mary she was meant to be.

This is why, in the midst of her pregnancy, when she has been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and is now the dwelling place of God, she is able to cry ‘my soul magnifies the Lord’ – her soul is made glorious because Christ dwells within her.

Our Lady became transparent to God’s love in that moment when she accepted the Angel’s call – known as the moment of her fiat. The moment she says, ‘fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum’, ‘let it be to me according to you word’. At that moment Mary becomes pregnant with God’s own life. In a related way, all of us, the Church of Christ, when we accept God’s Word, God’s life takes root in us. Here, Mary teaches us an important lesson, the new life Jesus promised comes only with radical trust in God. It is at the limits of our strength, the limits of what we can do as humans, that is where God acts – it’s when we open ourselves to God that the divine life breaks in and God’s life is born in us.

Here then is the challenge which our pondering of Mary’s life puts to us – we are called to follow the example of the Blessed Mother. Elizabeth says of Mary, ‘blessed is she who believes’ – this is the reason for Mary’s glorification, because she believed! We then must have faith like Mary! Our Lady shows us that there is space in our human nature to bear the reality of God – we can be vessels of God’s light and life to the world. St. Gregory and Bishop Lindsay are fond of calling Mary “the container who contained the Uncontainable!” – but we too are containers which can contain the fullness of God… at this altar Christ gives the fullness of his being to us, at Baptism we are born again with the fullness of God’s Holy Spirit. You and me are containers of the uncontainable God – temples of the Holy Spirit – and Mary teaches us what it means to respond to this reality with faith and hope and love.

Then we come to our reading on this solemn feast – Jesus, on the Cross, uses his dying moments to give us, his beloved disciples, his Mother – to entrust us into her care and to unite us as one family in him. The angel called her ‘full of grace’ in the beginning of the story, but now we realise that this grace she has is for you and for me – Mary does not jealousy store up grace and blessings for herself, she is our Mother and she ministers grace to us throughout our life and at the hour of our death. Mary then is the summation and overflow of all that is best in our redeemed humanity – to draw near to Mary in prayer only leaves us better, leaves us nearer to her eternal Son who made our human nature his own in Mary’s womb. Our Lady’s heart at this solemn moment on the Cross was widened to include all of us who receive life from his Cross, she is fully transparent to the tender and maternal love of God. Another quote of St. Gregory says that Mary, that container who contains the uncontainable, “is the treasury and overseer of the riches of the Godhead”.

So, in Mary we see what we can be and we find the sure support we need to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. And, on this Feast of the Assumption, the day the Church celebrates that Mary has been taken up into heaven to live forever with her Son, 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, my dear friends and fellow children of Mary, gaze on Our Lady as you gaze the moon – see in her the pattern of grace which God longs each of us to follow and find in her a faithful friend in your journey of discipleship.

Amen.