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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Shepherd Sunday (2016)

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

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

Good_shepherd_01_small.jpg
Christ the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs in Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

800px-StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Candlemas Reflection: The Searching Light

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

– Common Worship: Introduction to the Liturgy of Candlemas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In nomine…Jesus-Synagogue-Nazareth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kintsugi
Kintsugi

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

 

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

 

Five Spiritual Lessons for Epiphany

After a break from blogging to enter the rich darkness of Advent and experience the light of Christmas, here are the five spiritual lessons I have gleaned from the Epiphany Gospel (St. Matthew 2.1-12), find all the readings here.

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Advent – God is on the move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On Same Sex Marriage

“Marriage is a gift of God, through which husband and wife Rainbow Flag
may grow together in the knowledge,
love and service of God.”

These words mark the beginning of the description of Christian marriage received by the Church in Wales and explained in the Preface to the 2013 Marriage Service, and they help us to understand what Christian marriage is really about. The preface goes on to discuss marriage as being:

  • For the couple to increase in love and trust;
  • The foundation of family life, in which children are nurtured (children being born is an optional addition for couples who are planning to try and have children of their own)
  • A source of strength and companionship;
  • and a means of enriching society.

This preface immediately prevents us from thinking of marriage as merely for procreation, a principle argument against Same Sex Marriage, and demands that we look deeper into the theology of marriage. Marriage is not simply about becoming a production line for the next generation, demonstrated not least by the increasing number of heterosexual couples choosing not to have children of their own, and so we must find the locus of Christian marriage somewhere other than in procreation.

For me, the most compelling place to begin a discussion of Christian marriage is fruitfulness. Jesus demands that we be fruitful, and he has given his Church grace to bear good fruit in the world, of which marriage is one. Within marriage, as the preface suggests, many fruits can be produced: love, companionship, trust, stability, a fulfilling sex-life, mutual up-building, a shared ministry to world and society and, of course, the raising and nurturing of children. Obviously, these fruits are not equally produced by each married couple; some couples devote their life to fostering children, others to their church communities and some even to caring for another member of their family. Fruitfulness is as diverse in the Church as the diverse band of folk whom Jesus has called together as his followers.

With this concept of fruitfulness as the foundation of the Church in Wales’ doctrine of marriage, it is difficult to contest that the sacrament of marriage should be open to people of same-sex orientation. I say this because science and experience have taught us that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice, it is part of the innermost Gay-Marriageself of a huge number of people, including many within the Body of Christ today. To be a lesbian or gay person is to have been created as part of the beautiful diversity of God’s cosmos, given the same grace-filled potential for fruitfulness, and the Church has a duty to welcome and embrace this beautiful group of people.  To not do so is deeply damaging, not simply because of the huge numbers of young people who refuse to be part of what is seen as a homophobic institution, but also because we are restricting the work of God’s grace in the world.

We gather together to worship our incarnate Lord, who came to preach peace to those who were near and those who were far off, he defied all the prejudices and challenges of his time to call people who previously had been exiled from the religion of their time. Today the Church has this same duty, to dismiss the prejudices and misunderstandings of the past and strive to create that inclusive, welcoming and fruitful community which Jesus lived, died and rose again to form. I pray that we may do so soon, and begin the process of healing the many wounds we have caused to the gay and lesbian community, and so that we get on with the truly important work of bearing good fruit in the world.

Article written for the Teulu Asaph, Diocesan Magazine for Diocese of St. Asaph, Church in Wales