St. Stephen and Our Vocation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen ora pro nobis.

Keep Awake | Advent Sunday

Jesus said, ‘keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming’.

In nomine…

One of my favorite moments in literature comes very early on in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and 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. Beaver 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 evil white witch, is filled with a 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 look forward to the coming of Jesus at Christmas and reflect on how God moves in our lives and in our world.

Yet it’s so hard to focus on the darkness and enter into this kind of prayerful expectency when the world seems to sweep us away with all its lights and bling. For a moment, I’d like you to imagine with me a parallel universe… let’s just imagine a parallel universe where everything is pretty much the same as ours but a few things are different. We are walking down the streets of Canton in late November and we overhear a conversation, two old ladies are saying to one another – ‘I do love this time of year, those first weeks of December, they’re so stress free.’ ‘Yes’, says the other, ‘I love that everything’s a little quieter than usual and how the shops pull their curtains over the shop-windows for a while… and you know there’s lovely preparation going on behind them, but the street is darker and we can’t wait to see what’s behind’

‘Ooo yes, and I’m so glad the social calendar’s a little more relaxed. There’s more time to be at home, to be quiet, to sit in the darkness, to pray. And its so nice that the children are more relaxed, they don’t come home from school all hyper – they’ve been doing some meditation, lighting some candles in the dark’

‘Then isn’t it wonderful on Christmas Eve! From the darkness, suddenly there’s a great opening out! The lights are switched on, the shop windows are revealed – there’s a beaming blaze’

‘I love it’ says the other, ‘and twelve days is about right – it’s about as much as we can take. I just love the contrast’

Can you imagine having that conversation? Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Instead, of course, the reverse happens! We are sometimes tired of Christmas before it happens; so much has been thrown at us… we’ve been to several Christmas doos already; we’ve heard so many exhortations to buy stuff and do stuff.. somehow, there’s no moment of transition or contrast! There’s no time when you can say those watch-words of Advent… ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ We never walk in darkness!

We know oh too well about ‘light pollution’, compared to my home in rural North Wales, you can barely see the stars here – the heavens are hidden by a thousand tiny, man-made lights. Well, if there’s such a thing as visible light pollution – where, ironically, our little man-made lights stop us seeing the great lights – how much more so is there a mental, spiritual light pollution going on in Advent! There are so many little fairy lights going on all over the place, that we cannot focus on the great light that is coming! The light which is beyond everything; shining in the face of the infant, and, most surprisingly, is shining deep within each one of us… as the reading from St. John’s Gospel at midnight Mass will remind us, ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’.

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We know, in our heads, that Advent is to Christmas something like what Lent is to Easter. It’s a season of preparation – the Church in her wisdom always puts a fast before a feast! We don’t fast to punish ourselves or anything, we’re not world-denying, we fast so that we can appreciate even more the good things that we have. In Lent, we set things aside to depend more deeply on God and then receive them back from him with joy at Easter. I think there’s a way to do this in Advent too – although I don’t think Advent is about abstaining from physical comforts and foods. Advent, I think, is about abstaining from distractions – from those flickering man-made lights. It’s a time for dwelling in the darkness and asking those deep questions: where is God moving? What do I long for? Who is Jesus Christ for me?

This means that we, as Christians, have to resist some of the bling and chaos of this time of year – or else we risk missing the great Light who is coming and getting lost in the million fairy lights which blind us. By the way, I know that I’m setting an impossible task – but I hope that we can find some small ways of doing this, but I’ll come back to that in a moment. The call of Jesus in the Gospel to keep away this Advent is first and foremost about developing the habits of looking for God on the move within our lives and in our world. It’s about entering in to the world of the Old Testament prophets – who were looking for signs of God in the world and proclaiming that one day, although they could never imagine the reality, God would come among us to save the world.

This means that keeping awake this Advent is about more than just 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 our habits, 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 really 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 country, a homeless man in the street framed by the glistening lights of an expensive shop, images of refugees and destructive wars on the news – we are so used to this that we often fail to hear the voice of our conscience anymore; fail to recognize God’s challenging, reforming movement – the movement of him who came among us to liberate the world.

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 realize 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 life of Jesus. 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.

So, how do we begin to look for this light? How do we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Light of the world in 28 days time? I have three practical suggestions, and you are welcome to talk to me more about them after our service:

  • Take time between now and Christmas, either a few minutes each day or maybe 30 minutes on a quiet Sunday afternoon, to be in silence – to turn your focus away from shopping and preparations; away from the hectic social calendar – and spend some time with the Lord. Time to ask the Lord to give you eyes to recognize his presence in the darkness – time to remove our mask, and invite God afresh into our lives.
  • In these times of meditation, I can think of few better things to do than read the prophets, especially Isaiah. I’ve prepared a weekly scheme for reading some wonderful extracts from the prophets each week – beginning to imagine ourselves in that Old Testament time, where people longed for God to move in the world.
  • Finally, I think we have the opportunity to take part in some small acts of social disobedience – resisting the endless barrage of adverts telling us to buy stuff and do stuff to be happy. Even if it’s just buying charity gift cards, or asking friends to donate money to a favorite cause instead of buying us a present. Perhaps Advent is the season to think about people throughout the year we have neglected; the elderly man on our street who we never visit; the relative who we know is struggling; the friend we’ve fallen out with – and taking steps to amend these relationships.

My sisters and brothers, we worship a God who, in Christ, has come among us, bringing the radiance of his light and glory, even into the darkest places of our world, and of our lives. God is on the move – always and everywhere. For His promise is that at midnight or at cockcrow, in joy or in those silent hours stalked by fears, he will come – this holy light who shines in the darkness, and whom no darkness cannot overcome.

Amen.

‘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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‘All you ever talk about is clothes and ritual’ | A response.

‘That’s not what religion is about’ – ‘It’s about faith and not all this ceremony’ – ‘All you talk about is clothes and ritual’

These are all sayings of my (previously Methodist) grandpa who has returned to Church in my “high” Church parish and who, by his own frequent admission, struggles against all the fuss and ceremony of the Sunday Mass. This is a criticism any church-goer is used to hearing: ‘Jesus didn’t come to found a religion’. In a sense, I understand the sentiment behind these sayings – they reflect a real desire to grow in, and to draw others towards, a deep and personal intimacy with the living Christ and to avoid the vestiges of a stale, dead faith. However, this aside, I must confess to rather liking my religion.

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Archbishop Rowan Williams elevates the Host at a celebration of the Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral

I love walking into Church and gazing on crucifixes and crosses; seeing the dance of light in the stained glass; the statues of the Blessed Virgin; the flickering flames atop candles; the radiance of vestments which remind me that this isn’t just another meeting.

I also love what I get to do in Church: bowing and kneeling; genuflecting and singing; making the sign of the Cross and clasping my hands in prayer – I enjoy the choreography of public and private worship.

I like what I hear in the Eucharist: the comfort, challenge and promise of the Scriptures proclaimed aloud as the ‘Word of the Lord’; the calming, exacting, ancient sounding collects and prayers of the Church; the exultant, moving, beautiful words of the Eucharistic Prayer.

In essence, I love that the faith I have is not just an idea, a set of theories about the nature of reality, but is rather centred on an elaborate series of concrete rituals; actions that are entirely gratuitous, they have no purpose (in the sense of ‘utility’) but are designed purely to honour and worship the Almighty and to transform us who worship. I also love the rules for life which my religion provides – I need these rules. If I wanted to play football, I’d have to learn the rules. It’s just the same with the Christian life – if I want to live the Christian life, and not just a pattern of life I’m making up as I go along, then there are certain forms/rules which give that life shape and make it recognisably Christian. Some rules are negative (don’t lie, don’t lust, don’t covet), and others are positive (pray the prayers that Jesus and the Church teach us, fast, give alms, worship). Religion gives shape and meaning to my life; it provides form to the formless feelings of faith and anchors it in a set of commitments that have been shown – over two thousand years – to reliably provide a concrete context for my relationship with the living God.

This is why I don’t really understand the statement that Jesus didn’t come to found a religion – which leads to the appeal for us to leave all this ‘religion’ behind. The most common example of this is a call to leave our church buildings behind and go and meet people in the coffee shops and pubs etc. As I said before, I understand the desire for the Church to rediscover its place in Welsh culture: we can’t now, for example, assume our colleagues and neighbours are Christian and will just turn up to Church because of societal expectation. In order to fulfil our Lord’s commission, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, we need to be out in the communities and encourage people to join us.

However, the final result of this commission is precisely to bring people into ‘religion’ – a regularised form of life that includes at its heart:

  • Consistent times of daily prayer;
  • Commitment to charitable giving and action;
  • Weekly attendance (at the very least) at public worship.

This public worship requires a community of the faithful being gathered together in one place and, since Christianity values Beauty, this would hopefully be a place that is radiant with beauty and looks ‘otherworldly’ enough to remind people that the reality of the universe is not reducible to the blandness of the supermarket or office, where we send the other six days; a space that lifts us from the hospital ward where the worshipper received their most recent cancer treatment or have just said goodbye to an elderly relative. Of course, a beautiful building is not the priority – but the celebration of the Eucharist in a way that inspires ‘reverence and awe’ (Hebrews 12) is truly central to the Christian life.

Even if you don’t have a beautiful building or your Church’s liturgy seems far from awesome, the other anchors of the religious life are readily accessible. We need to be people who enjoy teaching others to pray the Daily Office, or say the rosary – people who get excited about the Church’s feasts and celebrate with joy the wonderful hotchpotch of people who make up the calendar of Saints. We need priests who throw holy water at everything and anyone as often as they can – on children’s backpacks for the first day of school, on the parishioners’ new homes, on the parishioners themselves!

The Church seems keen to bang on the ‘Jesus doesn’t like religion’ drum and I worry that we are sawing off the branch on which we stand. Religion, for Christians, just means the set of beliefs and practices that provide the context for our life and encounter with God. Of course these beliefs and practices can be stale, mechanical and fruitless – but they don’t need to be! Jesus fiercely criticised those religious leaders who ‘outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’ (Matt. 23:27). He rebuked their hypocrisy in ‘tithing mint and dill and cumin’ which ‘neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.’ But he didn’t tell them to forget the tithing and the beauty and just focus on justice. Instead, he says, ‘these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others’ (23.23). Jesus was opposed to the religious leaders of his day not because religion is a bad thing, but because their use of it was corrupt. They didn’t allow the ways of God to penetrate their hearts and transform them.

By our own strength alone, we are no doubt just as bad as the Pharisees – hypocrites and purveyors of religious platitudes. But – and it’s a big but – this is the difference the living Christ has made by his death and resurrection. ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds’ (Heb. 10). Jesus himself is our religion because he has made himself a ‘full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,’ and because, by this sacrifice, he has inscribed his own self-offering, his own perfect piety, his own religion, on our hearts. The best way to know him, therefore, is to follow his command and ‘do this in remembrance of me’.

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‘Do this in remembrance of me’