‘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.
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.
‘Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.’
We all know that Jesus’ earthly ministry in Palestine was characterized by miraculous healings – he fulfilled the Messianic expectations of Israel and brought healing to those who he met, both spiritually and physically. These are not allegories, or legends and they do not seek to glorify Jesus, they are simply a reporting of the facts, which characterized his ministry. When the Word of God, who created the world comes into contact with creation… life and healing are the inevitable result. Jesus’ very word, and very touch is healing not because of any magic spell, but because his entire being is so filled with the creative power which formed the universe… that those who came close to him were healed simply by opening their soul to that power, through their faith, however slight, that Jesus is Lord.
In these days of Advent, we await the one who comes to bring life to the world. Jesus is the reversal of death, the calmer of the troubled mind and the only name that is given for healing in the world. We come today into the presence of the Lord, opening our hearts with faith and trust to the healing, creative power of God. In Jesus, the life of God is poured out into the world and we have an opportunity this evening to experience the love and power of God – the same love and power which was known in Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Tonight is about healing and reconciling, because the Christian proclamation has always related healing with the forgiveness of sins, beginning in Jesus’ own ministry. Therefore, in order to experience the full power and grace of the healing which Christ offers tonight, we must first undertake to reconcile ourselves to God. When we turn to him in confession, God responds to us with forgiveness and all that separates us from him is overwhelmed in a torrent of his love. As the priest pronounces God’s absolution, the power with preserves the universe breaks into our lives and all that clouds our relationship with the Lord melts away and we are embraced in perfect Love.
From the foundation of the Church, Christ and the Holy Spirit has empowered his disciples to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and he gave them the authority to anoint the sick with oil as a sign of healing and forgiveness. The Holy Spirit has, by the laying on of hands, given this gift to those who are ordained as Priests – so, for us this evening, Mark and Phelim, give us access to God’s grace and healing through absolution and the sacrament of anointing. Through the sacrament of anointing, we can experience the same healing love which the boy with the spirit experienced because ‘all things can be done for the one who believes’. Even in the midst of our doubt and unbelief, God still reaches out to us and longs to bring us more fully to life.
Tonight, you will all receive the healing touch of Christ and can confess your sins and receive the anointing of the Spirit… I urge you to feel my sisters and brothers in these sacramental actions, these sacred signs, the very work of God, the hand which is laid upon you is the wounded hand of Jesus Christ; the oil on your forehead is a sign of God’s Holy Spirit descending upon you to forgive you and to heal you. In this liturgy, we ask God to minister his love and healing to us, through the Body of Christ.
As we approach Christmas, where we will rejoice again in the coming of our Savior, we must prepare ourselves, by drinking deeply from the resources Christ has given us. But tonight is not just about us – the Lord has given us a bold mission, to proclaim the Good News in our homes, our communities and in our world… but he has also empowered us all with his abundant grace to strengthen us in our mission. We come to healing so that we may heal the world; we come for forgiveness so that we can reconcile the world to Christ; we come to hear words of his love so that we can share that love in a broken world.
Therefore, let us begin this night of healing and reconciliation – let us pray for ourselves, for each other and for the world – in this Church, where God’s Spirit is present and where Christ is present, in our hearts and in the Blessed Sacrament, the body of Christ, which will be enthrone on the altar… let us with faith and confidence join the voices of our hearts with the faithful centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my room, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
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 sometimearound 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
This weekend, the feast of St. Augustine is eclipsed by Sunday, but I could not let the opportunity pass to say something about this great saint – whose massive impact on Latin Christianity and Western Civilisation is beyond doubt. As a Christian born on the Feast of St. Augustine, I feel a deep love for the Doctor of Grace and have often asked his prayers and turned to his writings for encouragement; support and wisdom. Augustine’s towering intellect and passionate spirit mean he has made decisive contributions to the study of just war; the separation of church and state; the relationship between grace and nature; methods of biblical interpretation; the nature of sin and the meaning of salvation as well as subjects ranging from the Trinity to epistemology; from the sacraments to human sexuality – all Western theology (and much work in other disciplines) is profoundly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical and theological work.
Despite his towering intellect, a well known story captures a different, but equally important facet of Augustine’s thought.
Augustine was walking one day along the seashore in Carthage, north Africa pondering his written work-in-progress on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, De Trinitate, when he saw a small boy running back and forth from the Mediterranean sea to a spot on the sandy seashore. The boy was using a sea shell to carry the water from the sea in order to pour it into a small hole in the sand.
Augustine approached him and asked, “My boy, what are doing?”
“I am trying to empty the sea into this hole,” the boy replied.
Augustine continued, “But that’s impossible, my dear child, the hole cannot contain all that water.’
The boy paused from his work, stood up, looked a the bishop, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are attempting, to comprehend the immensity of mystery in the Holy Trinity with your small mind.”
Augustine, amazed by the response averted his eyes for a moment, and when he glanced back to ask him something else, the boy had vanished.
In all his work, Augustine has a real appreciation of the limits of language before the wonder and immensity of God, while retaining a confidence in the capacity of language to break open our minds of clays to a real communion with divine Truth. That said, Augustine insists that only ‘humble and living faith working through an equally bold and living love’ can make our minds – made in ‘the image of the Trinity’ – capable of exploring the infinite wilderness of God’s threefold mystery. Augustine knew that, when we open ourselves up to the divine mystery, we find ourselves in Christ, set on fire with a love that plunges us deeper into that same mystery. In short, knowing God brings love alive in us, and love sparks the desire for more knowledge: a cycle of ever-increasing passion as we seek to explore more and more the wonder and mystery of the one God and are transformed into his likeness.
It is this loving, mysterious dynamic which is in the background of one of the most frequently quoted passages of the Confessions:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
Every Christian, inspired by the example of Augustine, should pray this weekend for the grace of a heart which burns for love of Christ and flames out in service to God and God’s people. But we must be aware that this fire will burn away all in us that is unworthy of the mind and heart of Jesus! If we open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God – in contemplation, the reading of scripture and the Eucharist – we must give all we have and all we are to this impassioned quest for Heaven’s Hound. I finish with the words of Pope Benedict when he revealed the Augustinian dynamism which sustained his own heroic career:
“When a person is conquered by the fire of His Gaze, no sacrifice seems too great to follow him.”
For more on this great saint and the theology of desire, see my previous post here.
If you happened to turn the news on this week, you will have seen mention of little else than the Olympic Games in Rio – the world is enraptured by this demonstration of human strength and success and we participate in an unadulterated
display of national pride. However, if you turn your eye for a moment from the glistening stadiums and sporting celebrities, you see a city divided. In one half of Rio – a Brazilian elite enjoy a life of luxury on the shores of Copacabana, basking in the power which money affords and the kudos of being an Olympic Host City; in the other half of the city, the Favelas, some of the poorest people in the world – often living without running water and electricity – with children caught up in the midst of brutal gang warfare.
Two completely different worlds – all under the shadow of the Corcovado Mountain and the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. While the world might be looking to the celebrities and stadiums and successes – the Redeemer is looking to the Favelas. The truth is, when you are seeking for God – we cannot look where the world looks for power – if you want to find the great things – look to the margins, to the poor, to the nobodies and you will find the children of God.
Here we turn to our Blessed Mother Mary, who we celebrate today. The Gospels tell us very little about Mary – but what they do make clear, as Mary herself says, is that Christ chose the lowliest of people as his mother. When God takes on flesh he eschews the royal palaces and centres of imperial power and chooses Nazareth – that town about which the Roman world made jokes, ‘can anything good come from Nazareth?’. And when he’s seeking out a mother, he doesn’t choose a comfortable, married mother who’s had three children and knows what she’s doing. He chooses the least of women – a poor, unmarried girl from a backwater town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire.
‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?
This is the beauty and the poetry of the Christian faith – this is the mystery we celebrate every time we look to Mary and honour her as Mother of God. The power that fashioned the cosmos, that strung an infinite number of stars, the one who brought forth all life chooses to be born of Mary – he becomes one with us, and reveals his power in the weakness of a human life. Just imagine… that foetus, which grew silently in the womb of Mary; that newborn baby, nursed at her breast; that child who grew and learnt in her house – that child, completely dependent on his mother, is God. In the incarnation, we see that our God does not identify with the elites of the world but with the lowly – the power of God is known in self-emptying love; his is a power willing to become weak for the sake of others.
In Mary, God confirms his decision to be with the misfits and ne’er do wells of the world! God chooses to be in the midst of our ordinary, sinful, messy lives. Just as, from all the nations of the world, God chose the slave nation of the Hebrews, so now he chooses to be one with the human race in all its suffering, vulnerability and pain. The world tells us to stay away from the poor, the homeless, the convicts and the refugees – but it is God’s subversive activity to tell us to stand with them. God always stands on the side of the poor and asks us to do the same.
Yet, the Church not only celebrates today the unlikely choice of Mary as the Mother of God but also her final destiny – her being taken up into heaven to reign as Queen of the saints. Mary says, ‘from now on all generations will call me blessed’ – not just because she was involved in chapter one of the Gospel but because she faithfully follows Christ through all his ministry. She ponders the truth of the Gospel in her heart and can therefore be called the first and Mother of all Christians. She stands at the foot of the Cross and shares in the anguish of her Son as he brings the work of salvation to its climax – how could she forget Simeon’s haunting prophecy, ‘a sword will pierce your own heart also’. She remained faithful after the Crucifixion and, although the Gospels fail to give us any detail, was reunited with her Son on the Day of Resurrection and remained in prayer with the Apostles and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Today is the Easter of the Summer – the day we rejoice that Mary, who remained faithful to her Son throughout his ministry, has shared in the fullness of the resurrection. In Our Lady, we see the destiny of our human nature! We will be like Christ, with Mary, in glory, crowned with grace – this is the final destination of the pilgrim people of God and the assumption is proof that Jesus is faithful to his promise that he prepares a dwelling place for the human family in his Father’s house.
So, today, on this great solemnity of the Church – we have a twofold reason to rejoice! We rejoice because God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; what is poor in the world to shame the rich – that God always stands on our side, in all our vulnerability and sin. And we rejoice because God has in store for us more than we can ask or imagine – a room in the Father’s mansion, a crown of glory – a heavenly country where we will be swept up with Our Lady into the life of the eternal Trinity.
Mary, assumed into heaven, Queen of the Saints, pray for the pilgrim Church on earth!
Homily given at the beginning of the St. Asaph Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (11th July, St. Benedict’s Day)
I wanted to spend this first homily reflecting a little on what it means to go on pilgrimage – what makes this different from your average holiday to lovely Norfolk? It might seem simple, but profoundly important, that the difference is God. We have set out on a journey with a divine purpose – a journey transformed by God’s purpose for us. God has brought you to Walsingham, Jesus has led you, as he promised, to the streams of living water that flow gently through this unassuming village.
As we set out on this pilgrimage, the great Christian writers of the tradition remind us that, in a sense, our whole identity as Christians is as a pilgrim people. In our hearts, the follower of Christ is always a pilgrim – a stranger, a sojourner on the earth, always seeking after a more than earthly homeland, yearning for an heavenly country. In coming to Walsingham, we enact this journey in miniature – we glimpse our heavenly homeland and receive fresh vision and strength for the journey onwards. The importance of pilgrimage can be traced back all the way through the Scriptures – think of the Exodus: Israel’s journey out of slavery, pursued by the Egyptians, down through the Red Sea and coming up into the wilderness. Think of that extraordinary time in the wilderness, led by Moses, together a community with God before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – before, at last, they reach the Promised Land.
I’m constantly amazed how closely this seems to resemble our own life’s pilgrimage and what we encounter on our way to the heavenly homeland. That first call of Moses who dares the Israelites to break free and dream of a new future – this is the point of stirring, repenting, yearning to follow Christ and become more fully alive. The Israelites follow this desire but they are pursued – whenever we seek to follow Christ, our guilt and sin and failing follow us down the Way – but then, water. Water which looks like death but they come through it and see their sins drowned. This is the type of a Christian baptism – even today, the priest at a baptism says:
Through water you led the children of Israel
from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John
and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,
to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.
But our baptism, momentous as it is, is not the end of the story – we don’t come up from the water into glory! Baptism instils in us a yearning for the kingdom, but we are still in the wilderness – led by God! All this is there in that great hymn, Guide Me O thou great Redeemer. What better hymn for being in Walsingham – ‘Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow’. Think back to the Exodus – the very rock which impeded the Israelites journey is struck and through it they find water. The same is true for us – bring to the shrine the rocks that prevent your journey with Christ – bring your sins, your doubts, your dilemmas about the future, bring your loved ones and those you struggle to love – bring them here and pray that for them, in them and through them, the crystal fountain might be opened.
We ought to think of the Christian life as a pilgrimage – a journey made together, following the Lord, with so great a promise beyond it. This counterbalances the image of the Christian as arrogantly presuming to be better than others; an image of static perfection that says to the outside world, ‘now I’ve made it, I can look down on you and tell you what to do because I’ve made it’. This is not Christian, this is false. As the young man in our reading discovers, there are always new depths and new adventures – even for those who have followed the commandments from their youth. As pilgrims, we have know in our hearts how much we have to learn – Christians can never stop growing, discovering, changing, repenting and entering more and more into the mystery of the divine life. Christian faith is an invitation to adventure – travelling – pilgrimage. There’s a reason we baptise with scallop shells, the symbol of pilgrimage.
I pray that our time in Walsingham may be a true pilgrimage – filled with laughter and love – a time to reflect on the rocks which weigh us down and to pray for discernment for the future. God has dreams for you – he longs for you to draw near to him, to learn from Mary and say yes to the next stage of your pilgrimage. Here, in this shrine, in which, for 1000 years, Mary has brought people closer to her Son; where God’s grace has been tangible and prayer valid – here, in England’s Nazareth – discover God afresh and be transformed.
To help in your reflections, I have printed off a sonnet from Malcolm Guite for you to meditate on. I will read it now and hopefully we will then have a moment to meditate on it.
Come, dip a scallop shell into the font
For birth and blessings as a child of God.
The living water rises from that fount
Whence all things come, that you may bathe and wade
And find the flow, and learn at last to follow
The course of Love upstream towards your home.
The day is done and all the fields lie fallow
One thing is needful, one voice calls your name.
Take the true compass now, be compassed round
By clouds of witness, chords of love unbound.
Turn to the Son, begin your pilgrimage,
Take time with Him to find your true direction.
He travels with you through this darkened age
And wakes you everyday to resurrection. by Malcolm Guite (see his website here)
Exciting Holiness gives us this hagiography of Justin, Martyr at Rome, whose feast day is today.
Justin was born of a pagan family at the beginning of the second century in Palestine. As a young man he explored many different philosophies before at the age of thirty embracing Christianity. He continued to wear the distinctive dress of a professional philosopher, and taught Christianity as a philosophy first at Ephesus, and later at Rome. He became an outstanding apologist for the Christian faith, and is honoured as the first Christian thinker to enter into serious dialogue with the other intellectual disciplines of his day, including Judaism. Justin always sought to reconcile the claims of faith and reason. It was at Rome in about 165 that he and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians, and beheaded. The authentic record of their martyrdom based on an official court report has survived. Traditionally, Justin is often surnamed ‘Martyr’ because of his two-fold witness to Christ, through his apologetic writings and his manner of death.
After hearing this at Mass this morning, I wanted to explore something of the message of Justin Martyr, one of the greatest early witnesses to the Faith of Christ. Brutally murdered in 165 AD because he was unwilling to offer worship to the emperor and gods of Rome, having spent his life articulating the faith of Christ as a philosopher in the public square. For Justin, fidelity to Christ was more important than his own life – he found in Christ the wisdom and power of God.
‘For those who are called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (From 1 Corinthians).
Saint Justin was a man of prodigious intellectual gifts and he placed all this to the service of the Church’s mission. The Church, faced with the opposition of the Roman state in the second century, had to struggle to survive. Professing the Christian faith was considered to be treason, punishable by death. As well as this, Christians were cultural outsiders – the elites of Roman culture had their own gods and values, and to most of the Romans, Christian faith just seemed odd, if not completely unintelligible. Justin, empowered by divine grace, made it his mission to make the case for Christian faith. He presents reasoned arguments to the what and why of Christian belief and the practices of the Church.
This made Saint Justin a very dangerous man to those invested in the Roman system of power and privilege. For those who opposed the Church, there was no god but Caesar and no way of life other than the Roman way, a way of life that supremely valued wealth, pleasure, power and honours above anything else.
We might not feel that the Church is dangerously subversive, but for Justin, the Church was considered to be a threat, and was dealt with as such by those in power. Christians were persecuted. Their property was seized. Their institutions were closed. Their worship was ridiculed. Bishops and priests were arrested. And men and women like Justin, who presented Christian beliefs as credible, and the Christian way of life as worthwhile, were considered public enemies. The Church’s way of life required risk and sacrifices, and because people like Justin, were willing to take the risk and make the sacrifices, the Church not only survived, it flourished and grew. As Tertullian recognised at this time, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Central to Justin’s witness was that the Church was a public reality, not a private club. The Church existed to engage and create public culture. The purpose of the Church was to be seen and heard, as it had a message and a mission that was for everyone, not just for a privileged few. This is not simply evangelism (in the sense of calling people to worship Christ, although that is a necessary part of it) but the Church proclaiming to the culture an alternative way of living – a way of living which is not centred around wealth, privilege or power. Justin’s witness that the Church was a public reality grated on those who believed that Roman power was absolute and could have no rivals. For Justin and the Church’s opponents of the Church, the Roman way was the only way.
However, in this culture, Saint Justin believed that Jesus Christ is the Way, and he would rather die than deny his faith in Jesus Christ, and for this reason, above all, the Church remembers him and recalls his courage. The Church suffers persecution in every age of her life. We have the privilege of practicing our faith in relative freedom, but many Christians struggle and many Christians will, like Saint Justin, suffer and die in our age because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
On this day that the Church calls us to remember Saint Justin, I hope we can also remember and pray for the many Christians who today will suffer and die for the faith they profess and the way of life they practice.
For them, and for all the Church, we pray:
God our Redeemer,
who through the folly of the cross taught your martyr Justin
the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ:
remove from us every kind of error
that we, like him, may be firmly grounded in the faith,
and make your name known to all peoples;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Pray for us St. Justin, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!
Last week, the Church commemorated with great care and solemnity, the gift of the life and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, given to us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
The Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, what we know as the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Communion, is not for us Christians merely a symbol of Christ, or an expression of community fellowship, or a metaphor, but it is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself. God in Christ makes himself food and drink, so that, taking him into our bodies as nourishment, we can become like him. Adoring and Receiving the Blessed Sacrament we adore and receive Christ.
This is all very mysterious and mystical, but what else could it be? All actions of God to reveal himself to us are mysterious and mystical, the breakthrough of God into this world is always confounding and never fits easily into worldly categories of experience and understanding.
The Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, is the breakthrough of God’s life and presence into our lives and into this world. It might seem easier and safer for us to construe the mystery and mysticism of Holy Communion into a symbol or a metaphor, but this construal, is not what the Blessed Sacrament really and truly is. At the end of the day, we don’t make the Eucharist what it really and truly is, God makes the Eucharist what it really and truly is- and what God in Christ makes the Eucharist is the gift of his very life.
The scriptures set for Corpus Christi emphasise this mystical element. An excerpt from the Book of Genesis recalls the ancient patriarch Abraham’s encounter with the priest and king Melchizedek, who offers bread and wine to God as an affirmation of his covenant, that is, his relationship with Abraham. In response to the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, Abraham makes his own offering of “a tenth of his possessions”.
The story of this encounter and offering is presented to us as a foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament we receive from our true priest and king, Jesus Christ. The Blessed Sacrament establishes us in relationship with God in Christ and our response to the offering of the priest and king Jesus Christ is that we offer him our very lives.
The second reading is an excerpt from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which contains the earliest description of the mystery of the Eucharist. This simple reading reminds us that the Eucharist is not an invention of the Church, but a reality that Christ’s first disciples received from him. It is Christ who declares the Eucharist to be his Body and his Blood and it is Christ who makes the Eucharist the sacrifice of his new worship.
The Eucharist is the worship that God wants for it is the worship that God in Christ gives.
We might desire a different kind of worship and even invent forms of worship to satisfy our desires and needs (indeed the Church seems intent on replacing the Eucharist as the centre of her life) but, while these invented forms of worship might appear to us to be more appealing and entertaining than the worship God in Christ gives to us, they are not what God truly wants for us and they will never give to us what the worship that is faithful to Christ gives. The worship we create may provide us with ideas and feelings and experiences that we associate with God and that’s important but the worship of the Mass is different. In all our worship, we receive experiences of Christ and have an opportunity to draw near to him and meditate with God but there is no form of worship except the Eucharist that can give us the life and presence of Christ himself. As Denys wrote in the 4th century, only the Eucharist ‘can perfect us’.
The meaning of our reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a simple meaning: from the time of the Apostles, the Church has offered the worship that we know as the Mass. It is not just a matter of human custom, but fidelity to Christ, and receiving from Christ, the gift that he wants to give. This gift is his life and his presence, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
Finally, the Gospel of St. Luke testifies to the great miracle, a display of Christ’s divine power. He feeds a vast crowd with only a few morsels of food.
There is no natural explanation to what is described in this account from St. Luke’s Gospel. The people cannot give to one another what they do not have. The disciples cannot give to the people what they do not possess. There is nothing to share, for there is nothing at all to share. God in Christ provides for the people what they cannot provide for themselves. They can only eat and be satisfied because Christ gives them food that he through his divine power creates.
This miracle foreshadows or anticipates the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, heavenly food that God in Christ gives to us, a food we cannot create or provide for ourselves. Christ accomplishes a miracle to suggest to his followers an even greater revelation that is to come – the gift of his life and presence, given to his disciples as food and drink, given to us as a meal, given to us as the Blessed Sacrament.
A greater gift than the food that fed the multitude is the food that Christ makes of his Body and Blood. Greater than the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the revelation of the Eucharistic mystery.
My prayer this Corpus Christi is for the Church – that she may never forget the great gift Christ has given of himself in the Sacrament. Only here can we be satisfied; only here can we find ‘life in all its abundance’; only here can we be perfected. So be it. Amen.
‘Let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread.’ – Saint Francis of Assisi
If you’d asked one of the learned philosophers of the first century how one could know God, you would have been likely to get a response that told you how hard it was even to glimpse God, and even if you did, putting it into words was next to impossible. For the few that got that far, such knowledge came through the lifting of the mind away from the world of the senses, to the pure realm of divinity.
In such an environment, Christianity seemed a debased religion. Rather than raising their minds up to heaven to seek God there, Christians claimed that God had come down to earth to seek us here. Rather than seeking the rarefied atmosphere of the pure intellect, Christians insisted that divinity itself had taken on flesh and blood, and they worshipped a criminal executed by the state on a rubbish tip. This is not how the ancient philosophers understood God. In fact, the first reference to Christianity from a non-Christian source, Governor Pliny writing to the emperor, describes it as “a depraved foreign cult carried to extravagant lengths”.
Nor was it how the Jews understood God. Here, God is known through his covenant: through the giving of the Law and the people’s keeping of it (see my recent post on God’s Faithfulness). When God reveals himself to his people it is as one God. Each day Jews recite the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…’ it begins. And that formed part of the daily prayer of the first Christians, too, for the God worshipped by Christians is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God whose name is ‘I AM’.
But for Christians, this God is also the God and Father of Jesus Christ. When St Thomas uttered those words from the Shema, ‘my Lord and my God’, it was in response to seeing Jesus, crucified and now risen – the same Jesus who had been charged with blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God. For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus demanded a new way of talking about God. The doctrine of the Trinity came to be expounded as the early Church meditated on the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit who gave them life.
And what those theologians of the early Church discovered was not that God had changed, or that they were worshipping a new God, but that their understanding of him and relationship with him had changed. As they read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, they found not that God had been one and was now three, but that God is eternally Trinity. They read Genesis, and saw in the account of creation the Father speaking all things into being through his Word, as the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. In the Wisdom tradition, part of which we heard in the Eucharist this morning, they found language to talk about the pre-existent Word or Wisdom of God:
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight.
Here, and in many passages like it, the early Christians found a language to talk about relationship within the Godhead: a relationship that had always existed, perfectly within itself, but that in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, was manifested to us.
So to talk of God at Trinity was a way of making sense of what the early Christians believed about Jesus: that in him, we see God made visible. This gave the early Church a new way of talking about God. But it wasn’t just talk. Through the gift of the Spirit, the early Christians came to understand that the same Spirit that was at work in Christ also seemed to be at work in them, enabling the disciples to forgive sins, to know Christ’s presence in the breaking of bread and the prayers, and to minister healing. They found, through the gift of the Spirit, that they were able to share in God’s life and work.
And this happened for them, and happens for us, first, through worship. We begin and end each Eucharist in the name of the Trinity. We pray to the Father in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ. In baptism, through the power of the Spirit we are made sharers in Christ’s death and resurrection, and brought into new relationship with the Father. When we celebrate the Eucharist, it is through the work of the Spirit that Christ’s self-offering to the Father is made present and real to us now. Our worship and prayer is always Trinitarian, drawing us into that perfect relationship of love that exists between Father, Son and Spirit.
And that relationship exists perfectly within the Godhead. God as Trinity has no need of anything external to the relationship of love between Father, Son and Spirit. And yet such is the generosity of that love that God chooses to share it with us. And as he draws us into that relationship through the death and resurrection of Christ and the work of the Spirit, so he makes us fellow-workers with him in bringing others into that love.
As we’re drawn into the love of God, we are transformed by it, because we become more like the one we worship. And so we begin to look on the world and each other more as God looks on us: with a love that desires that the whole created order be drawn into the fullness of life for which it is made. And so the Spirit who draws us into the love of God also sends us out to share that love with others.
And again, it’s to Jesus that we look to see what this love looks like in action. And this is where any notions that love is sentimental get squashed. In Jesus, we see love mixing with those who’ve always been told they’re unlovable. We see it giving new starts to those who’ve made a mess of their lives, who find themselves cut off from family or society or God. We see it open in compassion to the suffering of the sick; filled with righteous anger at injustice and hypocrisy; steadfast in the face of betrayal and denial; willing, finally, to die for the sake of those who are loved.
This is what God’s love looks like, revealed in the person of Jesus, and extended through the action of the Spirit that it may be made real and visible in the world through the life of the Church. This is what mission is: not haranguing people to believe the right things, but participating in God’s work of widening that divine circle of love to include everyone and everything.
This is the heart of the Christian faith: the way the Church answers the question about how we know God. We know him not primarily through the effort of our intellect or will, nor yet primarily through his revelation in a book or set of laws. We know him through love. It is the perfect love of the Holy Trinity that communicates itself to us in the persons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that we might be drawn into that perfect love, united to it for ever.
And it is this love that calls forth an answering love in us, and that makes us sharers in the divine life of the Trinity – to whom be glory and praise, now and for ever.
“The Blessed Trinity is the mystery of mysteries, before which even the seraphim veil their countenances singing with astonished wonder their thrice-repeated ‘Holy.’” – Fr. Matthias Joseph Scheeben
I dedicate this post to William, my brother and friend, who has taught me so much about the wonder of the universe. Of your charity, pray for him as he sits his exams.
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
For me, the most compelling theme of the Scriptures is also one of its most recurrent themes: the faithfulness of God to what he has made. This theme runs through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures with remarkable consistency. Often, I think we forget that the word ‘covenant’, the most powerful word in both the Old Testament and in the New, refers to God’s faithfulness both to human beings and to the whole created order. The God we believe in is, above all else, a God who keeps promises. God’s absolute commitment to creation is the key stone to all we believe in, from the Exodus of Israel to the institution of the ‘New Covenant’ in the first Eucharist.
I think this theme can provide one answer to the vexing question of ‘what is the Church for?’ It would be very true to say that the Church exists to express, embody and communicate God’s faithfulness. We try to do this with human communities – the Church should be able to say to all people, ‘we’re not going away’, to say to the communities around us, ‘we are going to be faithful to you in your situation, in your joy and in your suffering’. Of course, the community arounds us includes the whole created order – being faithful to our human neighbours is intimately bound up with our faithfulness to creation itself. If we want to be God’s community of faithfulness – expressing, embodying and communication that absolute commitment of God to God’s world, which was once and for all made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, we have to live out this faithfulness to all creation. We have to always ask ourselves: how do we demonstrate our fidelity to human need and suffering with fidelity to the created order of which are are a part.
How do the policies of our Church: from what coffee we drink after services to how we spend our money, communicate this faithfulness to things of the world. We are part of this world – part of the beautiful, interlocking and interweaving pattern of life which God creates. God didn’t just line up dominoes and push them over when creation happened – God creates, and holds in being at all moments, the literally indescribable web of forces and energies and presences that is creation in all its splendour. If you pulled any bit out of it, the whole thing would collapse. God’s faithfulness is indivisible – to creation as a whole, and to each human being in particular – it belongs to his creation.
I don’t think this a theme we hear about often enough in Church, but I think it makes sense to people. Reflecting on God’s faithfulness drives us back to the basic stories of Scripture. It leads us to God who, in Genesis 1, sees his creation and knows it is very good. It takes us back to God who promises never to destroy the world after the Flood. It points us to God who in the law of Moses declares that the earth will never be anyone’s property for ever that it is lent to us for a time. The land is God’s and that means none has absolute claim to possession. Reflecting on these themes from the earliest books of the Bible remind us that we, at least, have to learn to regard the very stuff on which we stand as something other than just property; something more than what we can stuff in our pockets and make use of.
The Church, both to her own members and to the world, needs to get better at communicating (in deed more than word) this basic theme and rhythm of Scripture – his faithful, constant gazing at creation in love.
All of this, for me, is summed up by a very well known passage in Julian of Norwich. A passage I reflect on most days, as I catch a glimpse of the small hazelnut I keep before an icon in my room. In one of her visions,
Christ holds out to Julian his open hand with a little object in it the size of a hazelnut.
Julian asks, ‘what is it?’
And ‘it was answered, ‘it is all that is made’
and I marvelled that it did not fall away to nothing for it was so small.
And it was answered to me, ‘it lasteth and ever shall for God loveth it’
All that is made is shown to Julian as a tiny object in the hand of God, yet it is the object of absolute, eternal and unfathomable love and commitment. In that hazelnut is me and you and every person with whom we share this earth, along with the indescribable number of planets and stars. The Church has to live in such a way that loudly proclaims those simple words of Lady Julian: ‘it lasteth and ever shall for God loveth it.