Our Lenten Springtime | Homily

One of the most significant changes in myself since I left university is that – for the first time ever – I know make a conscious effort to keep my bedroom tidy. I’ve reached 21 and decided that now is the time to stop living in a hovel and start caring about my room. However, despite my best efforts, there remains one drawer where all my unsightly rubbish and no longer needed junk ends up. Instead of living in the debris of my life as I did as a teenager, I have shoved it all in one drawer. I’m sure most of us have that one cupboard or even room in our house which we’d rather our visitors didn’t see and which we’re never quite sure what to do with!

Just as it’s true of our houses, I suspect this is also true of our lives. We are very good at presenting the best version of ourselves – even subconsciously – but we rarely open up the doors of that messy room where we store our guilt, the aspects of our character or our history which we’d rather not open up to anyone – even to God. Yet, God longs for you to be a temple of his Holy Spirit and the place where he may come and abide, even in that messy room that we hide because of our shame.

The slow and uncomfortable process of opening up that messy room of guilt and shame to God, of opening our lives and hearts more and more to him, is a key part of the discipline of Lent. In the earliest centuries of the Church, newcomers to the Christian community were baptized at Easter – that time when the Church celebrates the conquest of death and the beginning of new life. But of course, believers had to be prepared for this great event, prepared by study, and prayer, and self-denial. It was believed that self-denial; fasting and extra prayer was something that, as it were, clears the way for God to make his home in you – like clearing space in your flower bed for bulbs to break through.

This is how Lent began. A period where people were thinking about baptism and the beginning of new life, whether literally as new converts to the Christian faith or – for the rest of the Church – people wanting to strengthen and renew their commitment.

This period of preparation quickly became associated with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness where, through fasting and praying, he discovered what God was asking of him. During this earliest period it became more and more common for churches to tidy-up and strip away some of their decoration, to make themselves look a bit simpler – an outward manifestation of the inner stripping and inner austerity that this service entailed. Vestments were made either of sack-cloth, simple coarse fabric, or purple, associated with judgement and the season began with Ash Wednesday – where believers were reminded of their mortality and called to turn again to Christ.

All this simplicity and stripping away is important – in fact its vital in that process of clearing a space in our lives to experience Jesus afresh at Easter. However, it’s also important to remember that the word Lent itself comes from the middle English word for ‘spring’. This season is not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it’s not about making yourself miserable; it’s not even just about giving things up. Lent is springtime. Its our annual spring-clean as we prepare for that great climax of springtime which is Easter- new life bursting through death and flooding the world afresh with hope.

And Spring is exactly how this season feels – especially when we look at the incredibly rich reading from Romans 5 which we had as our second lessons. At first glance this can seem a rather gloomy passage – about the universal subjection of humanity to sin and death, and that is part of the story! But there’s another dimension, the abundance of Christ’s grace and mercy. Sin is wintry but like the flowers of spring, the forgiving love of God in Christ abounds and gives life to all. Death and sin are destroyed by an opponent who utterly overwhelms evil will the abundance and generosity of his love. In Lent, we return again to Christ the fountain of mercy, and seek to make room in our hearts to know and experience his abundant love for us.

If you would permit me, much out of character, I’d like to offer a couple of concrete suggestions for keeping a holy Lent this spring. Firstly, find some regular time to encounter Christ in Holy Scripture. I suggest reading Luke’s Gospel from beginning to end – it’s not that long – taking it in small manageable chunks and asking yourselves two basic questions about each bit you read: ‘what is this passage saying to me?’ and ‘how am I going to respond to it?’. With prayer and patience, this engagement with the words of Scripture is a vital part of clearing a space for the risen Lord when he comes.

Secondly, and more practically still, I believe a good Lent always flows out in generosity.  There are innumerable ways to try to be more generous in this season – whether with money, time or prayer – but I would like to suggest one that is often neglected. In this season, I would encourage you to attend to the relationships in your life and especially those you have neglected over the past twelve months. Is there someone who really irritates you or who you struggle to love, befriend them, pray them and try to restore that relationship? Is there a sick or elderly friend or relative you’ve neglected to visit in the last few months, make time to rebuild that relationship in the weeks ahead. Perhaps, harder still, there is a relationship in your life that remains damaged – a relationship that haunts that inner room of guilt. Allow the new life offered to us in this season to flow through you – cross over barriers of pride and reach out to say you’re sorry; work to be reconciled and begin to make your life evermore a place where God would be pleased to dwell.

And so as we prepare ourselves for Easter during these days, by prayer and self-denial, we must remember that what motivates us and fills the horizon of this season is not self-denial as an end in itself but tying to sweep and clean the room of our own minds and hearts so that new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us when Easter dawns.

Amen.

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!

‘Let all corners of the earth be glad…’

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness. – The Exsultet (Easter Proclamation)

The highlight of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil is the Exslutet, the great proclamation of Easter, sung in the light of the new Paschal Candle. The Exsultet proclaims the resurrection of Christ, calling on the Angels to sound the trumpet of salvation; the Church to resound with praise and the whole of creation to be glad – ‘ablaze with light from her eternal king.’ Creation, then, forms the ancient heart of this greatest hymn of praise. In our own day concerns about ecology are rising; climate change, pollution, and the unnatural extinction of plants and animals is causing us to question the way we treat the natural world. I firmly believe that the Christian response ought to be a return to the doctrine of creation, the centrality of which can hardly be overemphasised. The doctrine of creation is simple: all things were created by God, who saw it was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1.31) and affirms its value in his own eyes. We human beings are created in the divine image, as part of this community of life, in order to till and care for it, not to destroy it (Gen. 2.15).

The Exsultet proclaims that creation, gladdened by the joy of the resurrection, is intimately bound up with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate through whom and for whom all things were made (Romans 11.36). At the core of our faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being in order to redeem us, in the words of the Christmas Gospel – ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). The Word is the second person of the Trinity, God’s own self-communication, uttered from all eternity and flesh refers to what is material, vulnerable, invite and what is not divine. This is the radical claim of our faith: God became what is not God, he became material in order to save us.

While, of course, the writers of the Exslutet would have been aware of the related doctrines of creation and incarnation, they could not have predicted how modern scientific discovery would enhance and colour this doctrine in the last two centuries. We now know that our human flesh is part of the great chain of evolution on earth, which in turn is part of one solar system within trillions, which in turn came into being as part of a long cosmic history.

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The prevailing scientific theory is that everything that exists comes from a single blazing instant around 13.7 billion years ago; a single speck explodes in what is (inelegantly) known as the Big Bang – an immeasurable outpouring of matter and energy which continues to this day. As this material expanded, its lumpy unevenness allowed swirling galaxies to form as the force of gravity pulled particles together and their dense friction ignited the stars. Roughly five billion years ago some of these ageing stars died. They exploded into great supernovas, which fused basic hydrogen into more complex elements. Out of these clouds of dust and gas, some material reformed and re-ignited to become our Sun, a second-generation star. Some coalesced into chunks too small to catch fire these formed the planets of our solar system—including Earth.

Three and a half billion years ago on this planet (and, almost certainly on others) there began another momentous change – molecules coalesced to form living cells. Over aeons these developed into creatures that could ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and life is born. So, out of the Big Bang comes stars; from stardust comes the Earth; out of the raw matter of the Earth comes life. This life burst forth from the life and death of single-celled creatures into an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom came human beings—mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.

This scientific story, teaches us that everything is connected to everything else. In the famous words of Arthur Peacocke (scientist and theologian), ‘every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.’ Quite literally human beings are made of stardust. And, more than that, we share with all other living creatures a common genetic ancestry in the great community of life.

While the human capacity for thought and love are unique, they are not something injected into the universe from outside. Rather, they are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. In the human species nature becomes conscious of itself and open to fulfilment in grace and glory. In the words of the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, this makes human beings the “cantors of the universe,” able to sing praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.

When we understand the human species in these terms, as an intrinsic part of cosmic matter, this hugely enriches the way we understand the incarnation. From this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. This is called by theologians “deep incarnation,” as it expresses this radical divine reach into the very tissue of all biological existence and the wider system of the cosmos. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself the traces of supernovas and the whole history of life on earth. The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.

This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. Christians must turn away from anything that is world-denying – instead, far from spiritual contempt for the world, we are to ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, which is all part of the flesh that the Word became. Again, in the words of the Exsultet:

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

This perspective is radical, it calls each one of us to the upmost respect for creation because ‘the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.9). This world, created by the same God who entered into this incredible story two thousand years ago in Nazareth, is precious and beloved – it yearns in every atom for salvation. This perspective encompasses not only life on earth, but the life of every planet in the universe, for it is from stardust that all is made. From the Cross, Jesus spoke a word translated into Greek as τετέλεσται, ‘it is finished.’ In meditating on this we
remember that, on the Cross, Christ enters into the depth of our fragile creation – he experiences the reality common to all creatures; death. He accomplishes his great work of Recreation and forever charges the universe with his power and presence. In this perspective, it is no surprise that the Resurrection happened in a garden, for every budding flower and ancient tree cries out in triumph as our stardust is redeemed and all creation is charged with resurrection glory. Alleluia.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.mp5345web-900x900.png