‘Go at once to Ninevah…’ | Jonah and the Call of God

50b4d001eac9f80507037ee155c0faee.jpgThis morning the Church in Wales Morning Prayer Lectionary turned our attention towards the Book of the Prophet Jonah. It is such a joy to hear Jonah read aloud at the Offices for the next couple of days; it is one of the shortest books of the Bible and one of my favourites. The story is a surprising, funny, fascinating and deeply rewarding read. If you don’t say Morning Prayer, I would highly recommend taking 20 minutes and sitting to read the Book of Jonah – that’s all the time it will take and it is well worth doing. In this post, I’m going to run through the whole book and scratch the surface of its enriching message and the results of my lectio divina over the last week or so.

‘Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.’ (1.1,2)

There’s a lot going on in this first couple of verses. The first lesson of Jonah is one of its most important: the heroes of the Bible are always summoned, they are always, so to speak, in the passive voice. No great hero of scripture – or the Church for that matter – acts according to their own plan or design; they don’t cling to their own projects or ideas. The heroes of scripture are subject to a higher will; infused by a higher power. The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that there is a ‘power at work within us’ which ‘is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine’. This is the way the Scriptural imagination understands what it is to be a hero – it’s nothing to do with your own power and plans and everything to do with how you let the Holy Spirit work through you. John Lennon famously said: ‘life is what happens while you are busy making other plans’. This is a pretty good summary of what the Scriptures are saying: while you’re making your plans, Life is happening within you – the Spirit who is ‘Lord and giver of life’ is active, even when our back is turned.

The call of Jonah teaches us another important lesson: no-one is ever called in an abstract or generic way. Blessed John Cardinal Newman (a person whose own journey of discipleship was certainly unique) understood this. He wrote a beautiful prayer, whose first verse is this:

‘God has created me to do him some definite service;
he has committed some work to me which he has not
committed to another.  I have my mission – I may never
know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.’

I love this prayer. God has created each one of us for ‘some definitive service’. Each of us, every human being, has a particular way to serve God and the human family and the drama and true joy of life is discovering your call and living it out. Of course, the vocation of all of us is to be channels of God’s grace in the world, but we each have a ‘definitive’ way of living out this mission. For me, it is as a priest in the Church in Wales; for some it is the religious life; for some it is as a teacher; a parent; a spouse; a care-giver – there are as many calls as there are human beings. And the fullness of our vocation will never be revealed to us in this life, we will only see it clearly when we are ‘told it in the next’.

The opposite statement then is that, as Rowan Williams powerfully articulates in Being Disciples, the central tragedy of human life is to miss your calling: to fail to live out the ‘definitive service’ God has prepared for you. Human success is not about power, money, status or good-looks – God doesn’t care about these human marks of success – the fundamental question is whether you followed the call of God or not. That’s all that matters. Rowan Williams in Being Disciples tells the compelling story of Thomas French:

‘Thomas French’, he says, was ‘a great missionary of the nineteenth century who spent much of his life as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched – even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts.’ Bishop Rowan goes on to say, ‘it’s the apparent failure, and the drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.’

Bishop Thomas French failed. He failed on all the counts of human success. Yet, in the eyes of God, he flourished as a human creature because he heard the call to be with Jesus Christ amongst the people of the Persian Gulf. He heard the call; he performed that ‘definitive service’ which the Lord commanded him.

‘But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’ (1.3)

Jonah ignores the call; he flees from the presence of God and the result is ‘a mighty storm’ so violent that Jonah and all the people onboard are put in great danger. The lesson here is simple and powerful: to refuse the divine mission leads to trouble. Jonah thought he could escape the presence of God, but the presence of the Lord is everywhere, even in Tarshish! If Jonah had read Psalm 139, perhaps he’d have thought twice:

‘Where can I go from your spirit?
Or when can I flee from your presence?
If I ascent to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…’ (Psalm 139.7ff.)

But Jonah is not able to go far – he is thrown overboard and swallowed up by a great fish. We can learn something from this powerful metaphor – Jonah’s will, which was fleeing from God, is (literally) swallowed up and contextualised by a greater will than his own. It can feel like imprisonment; but it’s not – Jonah’s errant will is swallowed up by a greater will and the whale vomits him up exactly where God wants him to be. God’s ‘service is perfect freedom’ (St. Augustine).

It is powerful to remember that the darkest moment of Jonah’s life, the worst thing he has experienced, actually leads him where he wants to go. In this is great hope for us who are in the midst of a difficult time – trust in the Lord! Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (2.1ff.) shows the depths of his despair (‘I called to the Lord out of my distress’) but also his radical trust that the Lord hears and answers his prayer (‘As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple’).

The book goes on… ‘so Jonah set out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord’ (3.3)

Having tried to flee and failed, he arrives at the huge city of Ninevah. God brings him to this place and gives him the most unwelcome of messages – ‘forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!’ (3.4). Imagine going through Cardiff or Wrexham or St. Asaph with this message: repent or God will overthrow you! We would probably, like Jonah, flee as far from possible from this task! Yet God always calls us to self-sacrifice; calling us forward on the path of greater love and greater service. This is deeply rooted in Jesuit spirituality: semper meior, always greater! We are always spurred on to greater charity; greater sacrifice; greater love but, as we run the race, we have the promise of greater and greater life taking root in us.

Then, suddenly, Ninevah does the unbelievable – they repent. ‘The people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth’ (3.5). We can see here how much power is unleashed when we truly follow the will of God – the slightest cooperation with his grace can release the divine life into the world – the power always does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. When God calls, however the great the task, if we cooperate with his Spirit, there is no telling how wonderful the results.

Then comes the most challenging reminder of this great book – Jonah’s reaction to the faith of the city. We read in the Scriptures:

‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah and he came angry.’ (3.10, 4.1)

One of the greatest pitfalls of Christian discipleship is that sense of self-righteous superiority which infects Christian communities. Often we’d rather stay on our pedestal and can’t quite handle when God’s grace shows up and transforms lives around us. But we must remember that our call is to be a channel of the divine love and grace in the world! We can’t sulk when we succeed at that task. Our work is always to bring love, light and grace and not a sense of superiority that seeks to retain its own status, power and position. If you want to share in the divine life: give it away! Then, as you give it away, you will receive more and more! We receive God’s gifts, so to speak, on the fly!

So, what is God calling you to? Jonah ignored God’s call, but when he accepted the work he was given, enormous spiritual energy and power was unleashed into the world. What ‘definitive service’ are you called to? If I’m honest, I’m starting to thing that that is the only question in the world really worth asking – even if it will take all our lives, and the next, to find the answer.

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Hoping Against Hope | The Witness of St. Monica

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‘For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Rom. 8.24f.)

Yesterday I wrote a blogpost on my birth-saint and heavenly patron, St. Augustine, and now I wanted to say a word about his mother, St. Monica – who the Church commemorates today. Monica was probably born in the year 331AD and her death, recorded in Confessions, was sometime around 387 AD. Patricius, her husband, was a Roman citizen of (minor) nobility and Patricius and Monica had three children. Augustine would become one of the most influential converts to Christianity and his works of theology and spirituality are among the greatest of the Church’s treasure. However, as anyone who’s ever read Confessions will know, the journey from Augustine to Saint Augustine would not be straightforward or simple. Augustine spent most of his youth aggressively resisting Christ and the Church and this resistance caused his mother much in tears and turmoil.

St. Monica petitioned the Lord for years that he might intervene and bring her son into the Church. After years of prayer and countless tears, Augustine did come to know Christ and accepted a life as a member of the Church and Monica was overjoyed. Sadly, she new lived long enough to see the full flowering of Augustine’s faith and ministry as a bishop and spiritual teacher.

Prayers of intercession are at the centre of the Christian life and are the most common kind of prayer offered by all believers, yet it is perhaps the most mysterious and hard to understand. Of course, we know that the Lord knows our needs better than we do and nothing that we bring to of him in prayer tells God something he doesn’t know long before us. It’s also important to remember that our intercession, no matter how eloquent or persistent, has no power to force God to act and nothing we can say coerces God to do what we want. The mystery of prayer is that, while we ask God for many things, the deepest purpose of our intercession is not to get what we want, but to discern what God wants. St. Augustine’s conversion happened not because Monica’s prayers were particularly convincing, but because God longed to give him fullness of life.

Saint Monica’s prayers were a sign that of her belief that God in Christ would not abandon her son to the faithless and dissolute life he was living. She trusted that God’s purposes for her son’s life were greater than even he could perceive. It is St. Monica’s trust, which is a profound display of the theological virtue of hope, which became the crucible which sanctified Monica.

As Monica herself said, five days before her death:  “One thing only there was for which I desired to linger in this life: to see you a Catholic Christian before I died. And my God has granted this to me more lavishly than I could have hoped, letting me see even you spurning earthly happiness to be his servant. What am I still doing here?”

Monica and her son are both remembered in the calendar of saints because God’s purposes were as much accomplished in Monica’s willingness to live in the hope that God ultimately loved her son, even though he violently resisted that love, as his purposes were accomplished in Augustine’s conversion to Christ. It is not St. Augustine’s conversion that made Monica a saint, as if she was ‘sacred by association’ – Monica is a saint because of her willingness to surrender her will to Christ and in this surrender to abide in the hope that Christ’s purposes for Augustine would one day be fulfilled. By God’s grace, Monica lived to see her hope fulfilled – but, even if she had not, her sanctification would have been accomplished, although she may have been one of the great company of saints known only to Christ and without the Church’s official recognition.

I wanted to write this post because I believe that hope is one of the least remembered and worst understood of the three theological virtues (faith, hope and love). This is a great sadness in a world which is often so bereft of hope that people refuse to believe and refuse to love. However, hope is not merely optimism, but an act of genuine trust that the same God, who did not abandon Jesus to the powers of sin and death, will not abandon us. Hope dares to believe that God’s purposes will be fulfilled even if we cannot foresee how this will be possible or when this fulfilment will take place.

On this day, when the Church remembers the life and witness of Saint Monica, let us renew ourselves in the hope that Christ has poured into our hearts and our trust that he is faithful to his promise.

‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Romans 15.13

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

Chasing Heaven’s Hound | St. Augustine of Hippo

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Augustine of Hippo, ora pro nobis!

This weekend, the feast of St. Augustine is eclipsed by Sunday, but I could not let the opportunity pass to say something about this great saint – whose massive impact on Latin Christianity and Western Civilisation is beyond doubt.  As a Christian born on the Feast of St. Augustine, I feel a deep love for the Doctor of Grace and have often asked his prayers and turned to his writings for encouragement; support and wisdom. Augustine’s towering intellect and passionate spirit mean he has made decisive contributions to the study of just war; the separation of church and state; the relationship between grace and nature; methods of biblical interpretation; the nature of sin and the meaning of salvation as well as subjects ranging from the Trinity to epistemology; from the sacraments to human sexuality – all Western theology (and much work in other disciplines) is profoundly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical and theological work.

Despite his towering intellect, a well known story captures a different, but equally important facet of Augustine’s thought.

Augustine was walking one day along the seashore in Carthage, north Africa pondering his written work-in-progress on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, De Trinitate, when he saw a small boy running back and forth from the Mediterranean sea to a spot on the sandy seashore. The boy was using a sea shell to carry the water from the sea in order to pour it into a small hole in the sand.
Augustine approached him and asked, “My boy, what are doing?”
“I am trying to empty the sea into this hole,” the boy replied.
Augustine continued, “But that’s impossible, my dear child, the hole cannot contain all that water.’
The boy paused from his work, stood up, looked a the bishop, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are attempting, to comprehend the immensity of mystery in the Holy Trinity with your small mind.”
Augustine, amazed by the response averted his eyes for a moment, and when he glanced back to ask him something else, the boy had vanished.

In all his work, Augustine has a real appreciation of the limits of language before the wonder and immensity of God, while retaining a confidence in the capacity of language to break open our minds of clays to a real communion with divine Truth. That said, Augustine insists that only ‘humble and living faith working through an equally bold and living love’ can make our minds – made in ‘the image of the Trinity’ – capable of exploring the infinite wilderness of God’s threefold mystery. Augustine knew that, when we open ourselves up to the divine mystery, we find ourselves in Christ, set on fire with a love that plunges us deeper into that same mystery. In short, knowing God brings love alive in us, and love sparks the desire for more knowledge: a cycle of ever-increasing passion as we seek to explore more and more the wonder and mystery of the one God and are transformed into his likeness.

It is this loving, mysterious dynamic which is in the background of one of the most frequently quoted passages of the Confessions:

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

Every Christian, inspired by the example of Augustine, should pray this weekend for the grace of a heart which burns for love of Christ and flames out in service to God and God’s people. But we must be aware that this fire will burn away all in us that is unworthy of the mind and heart of Jesus! If we open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God – in contemplation, the reading of scripture and the Eucharist – we must give all we have and all we are to this impassioned quest for Heaven’s Hound. I finish with the words of Pope Benedict when he revealed the Augustinian dynamism which sustained his own heroic career:

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St Augustine’s heart inflamed by the light of Truth

“When a person is conquered by the fire of His Gaze, no sacrifice seems too great to follow him.”

For more on this great saint and the theology of desire, see my previous post here.

The Assumption of Our Lady | Homily

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

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

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

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Basilica of the Assumption on Mount Zion

Fr. Jaques Hamel | Homily for Trinity C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

‘Like Living Stones’ | The Priesthood of all Believers

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

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

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‘The Priesthood of All Believers’ by Janet Pfeiffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

So be it.

The Divine Compassion of Christ | Homily for Trinity II

‘When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’

In nomine…

The widow of Nain, to whom Jesus speaks this morning, is a woman who has lost everything. Not only is she grieving over the death of her only

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The Sacred Heart of Jesus

son but, in the context of 1st century Palestine, she is also staring into the abyss of the future. A widow in the first century, left with no children, is a person without any security, she has suddenly been thrust to the margins of society and will, from now on, be left to rely on the kindness of strangers or simply resign herself to fate and find a place to die. In short, this is a woman with every reason to weep. Yet, the Lord stumbles upon the funeral procession and, seeing her pain, is moved with compassion and wipes away her tears. This word compassion is one of the most poignant in the Gospels – it does not refer to ‘feeling sorry’ for her or taking pity on her – but rather that Jesus suffers with her, literally in the Greek that his heart breaks for her.

This is a very appropriate reading for today as the Roman Catholic Church celebrated on Friday the Sacred Heart of Jesus, introduced into Anglican devotion by the Franciscans as ‘the Divine Compassion of Christ’. This is not a solemnity well known in the Anglican Church but I’m sure many of us can picture one of the kitsch images of the sacred heart, which tend to focus on a pale Jesus with rosy cheeks piously pointing at his exposed heart, I think the idea of the Sacred Heart has much to say to us as Christians and I’d like to use my final homily in Corpus to think about how this particular devotion draws us into the mystery of God and calls us to a radical change of heart ourselves. In our College particularly, this is a poignant thing to reflect on – the founders of Corpus, using the evocative symbol of the Pelican, wanted to draw our attention to the unfathomable love of God, who pours out his own life for us on the altar and feeds us with own self.

The more time I have spent meditating on this mystery, the more I have become convinced that it is only in the broken heart of Jesus that the love of God can be found – in Jesus’ heart suffering with all who cry out in pain, with all who mourn or are left on the margins, the heart of Jesus’ moved with compassion for the poor and those whose own hearts have been corrupted in grasping for money, power or status. The love of God is found in the broken heart of Jesus. This is at the very heart of the Christian faith – as we hear proclaimed at Christmas, the Son, begotten in eternity from the heart of the Father, lives among us as our brother. In the life of Jesus of Nazareth we see as much God as humanity can hold. We see this so powerfully in our Gospel reading today – the Creator God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is able to bring life from death and hope from despair. The Son comes from the heart of the Father and is united to a human heart and, when this heart is broken for the life of the world, we come to share in his divine life.

God does not love us as we are accustomed to love each other – according to merit or worth, according to how much like us the object of our love is. God does not love us because we deserve it or because we have earned it or because we have something that God needs that he lacks in his own nature. Instead, God is love. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is trying to make this point visually – giving us a centre of meditation and devotion – because to express the wonders of God’s love in Christ verbally is almost impossible and to accept this requires a lifetime.

This wondrous love, which holds nothing back, is the reason why devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus ought to be central to the Church’s faith and proclamation. Faced with the ineffable mystery of the divine compassion, our response is adoration – but the challenge of the Gospel is not only to adore the sacred heart but to conform our lives to this self-sacrifical outpouring of love. As the traditional prayer has it:

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.

Our meditation on the sacred heart remains another load of pious rubbish, unless we heed the second line of this prayer – ‘inflame my heart’. This should be our daily prayer! When we adore the mystery of God’s eternal outpouring of reckless love, incarnate in the human heart of Jesus, we too must set our hearts on fire. With Jesus as our pioneer, we are called to imitate his compassion and join in his shameless love and self-giving mission to bind up the broken hearts of the human family. To be conformed to the great mystery we proclaim is to share in his work.

As many of us prepare to leave the relative comfort of our college walls and go out into the world, my prayer is that we can do this under the banner of the sacred heart. But that’s easier said than done. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to frustrate many of the marks of human success which society has laid out for us. To enthrone Jesus in your heart is to be driven to the margins of society – to seek your treasure amongst the poor. To pray for our hearts to be inflamed with the love of God is dangerous – it is a prayer to make the suffering of the human family your own: it is a prayer which takes away any comfortable indifference. As we leave Corpus or if we are staying, the sacred heart of Jesus reminds us that we can never turn our back on the suffering of the human family: we must feed and campaign for the poor and hungry; fight all the systems of this world which prevent human flourishing and we must rid ourselves of the market-logic that says people our only worth as much as the good we can get out of them. To be inflamed with the love of Christ is not a pious sentiment – it should make us uncomfortable with the systems of this world which keep the poor poor and make the rich richer.

Praying for our hearts to be conformed to the heart of Jesus will bring about the transformation of our lives. If we, like Christ, have hearts which are moved with compassion for all who cannot live to their full potential and are moved with indignation for all who have suffered wrong – then we cannot simply carry on as we are. We have to start making decisions that put the needs of the poor above our own, decisions that preserve our vulnerable earth and safeguard the flourishing of every member of the human family.

My prayer, each and everyday is that the sacred heart of Jesus would inflame my heart with the most excellent gift of love. I pray this for each one of you and especially those of us about to set off into the world. I pray that, in the midst of our confused and messy lives, people may catch a glimpse of the divine compassion of Jesus – that, in us, the love which burns at the beating heart of the universe may be experienced.

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.
Amen.

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.