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.

St. Stephen the Protomartyr being stoned.jpg

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.

The Divine Compassion of Christ | Homily for Trinity II

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

In nomine…

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

All_Saints_Catholic_Church_(St._Peters,_Missouri)_-_stained_glass,_sacristy,_Sacred_Heart_detail
The Sacred Heart of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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