Sunday, 28 January 2018

Only say the Word: Homily for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Church of St Godric, Durham: 28 January 2018

Whenever we hear in the Scriptures talk of the Lord’s raising a man up, immediately we think of the Father Who raised up His Son from the grace of death, to the Resurrection that opens up to us the new and living Way. In today’s reading from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18.52-20), God raises up a prophet who will speak the very words of God Himself; and so we who are Christians, always reading the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of Christ, think not just of a prophet and his words from long ago but of the Word of God, the Lord God incarnate Himself, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh.

And when we hear in the Gospel (Mark 1.21-28) that Christ teaches with authority, we see Who the Word is, and what this Word means. This Word brings with it the power to enter right into our souls and, with one command, to free them from what constrains and binds us, all that keeps us sinning and inclined to our usual old ways, and everything that holds us back from God, holds us back from praising Him for all He has done for us and everything that He means to us, and holds us back from following Him where He leads us onto that new and living Way.

St Paul typically presents a stark contrast of extremes (I Corinthians 7.32-35), a rhetorical exaggeration to make this very point easy to grasp in the midst of our lives. He says that single people are free to devote themselves to Christ, and married people need constantly to be consumed with husbands, wives and families He could easily have said the same about our work and daily duties, our passions in life and our leisure activity, about our ideas and our politics, about sport or meeting up with others in our groups of those we know in the communities of life in which we are all bound up. St Paul’s point would be the same. Whatever we are caught up in, whatever involves us, even to the depths and heights of our natures, nothing must ultimately and completely get in the way of our fundamental devotion to Christ, and our love for Him as “our” Person, the One for us, out of which all other human loves and attachments flow.

In a few moments’ time, at the hands of our priest, no prophet of old but the Lord Himself shall be raised up; and we shall ask Him, “only say the word”. Thus we shall ask Him to tell the truth about us, to loosen us from what is holding us back, to heal our souls, and to fill us with His own life, God with us. When we see Him, he captures us in adoration. We who have sung from our hearts find our hearts are indeed lifted up and for a moment in this sacred place we are in heaven here in the world. All that St Paul is saying is, when you leave and go back to your home and your earthly affairs, don’t leave heaven behind but take it with you. Just as you have seen the Word made flesh raised up and speaking into your soul, so let the people to whom we are going to return see the same Lord in us and hear Him inciting them too to find His new and living Way. None will see His glory in the world unless they can see it in us and desire the same for themselves.

So let it be that we who have been taken up with His glory, and worshipped the One raised up on the Cross for our sake, the One raised up from the dead to open up for us our new and living Way, and the One raised up in the Host to speak the Word deep into our souls to heal and delight us - let it be that we, even we, may be the vision of Christ to the people of the world, and the ones to bring the world to desire to live and be as the very Kingdom of God.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Holly and The Tree of Life: Homily for the Forefeast of Theophany & the Circumcision of Christ: 14 January 2018, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For Our Saviour Christmas morn.

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

So runs the Birmingham carol, The Holly and the Ivy. A like understanding  of the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation for our sake occurs throughout the hymns and carols sung in England to this day at Christmastime. In the American John Hopkins’ Epiphany carol, We three Kings of Orient are, Balthazar sings:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

And in Charles Wesley’s great dogmatic hymn to the incarnation of the Divine Sun of Righteousness (Hark! The herald angels sing:  an eighteenth century text drawn direct from the Fathers of the third and fourth centuries) we hear:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see:
Hail the incarnate Deity ….
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.

In the Christian east, popular hymns, as well as those of the Liturgy, honour the self-emptying of God, his condescension (as the Circumcision of Christ is referred to in today’s Troparion) to be born into the world as the Word made flesh - our God united with humanity in person, revealed by light and love in Jesus Christ Himself. Even so, there is still a hint of where this will all lead to. One Ukrainian hymn of the eighteenth century begins with the Lord being born to die: “God born a mortal, who can claim to know Him?” Who indeed can have known what He was to be about and why? Another sings, “Mary gently holds Him, tenderly consoles Him”, but not only as her little one: as the One Who has come to work redemption for her, and for all: “Hush , my Child, my God, my Saviour” (Tidings of Great Wonder).

In parts of Christianity where European Christmas customs have been embraced, East and West alike, there is a rich imaginative tradition that identifies not only the Holly and the Ivy, but also the illuminated Christmas Tree with both the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the Cross of Christ. Both signal the same Mystery: death and longing for life, shame and victory, light and dark. And at Bethlehem, the stable of our Lord’s Nativity is a cave in the rock, blazing with light from within, and foreshadowing the rock Tomb in Jerusalem out of which Resurrection will burst through Christ’s death to new life.

And the same story is set before us on today’s feast of the Circumcision (Luke 2.20-21, 40-52), to prepare us for what the Incarnation, the Nativity and the Theophany ultimately mean and lead to. Here are the shepherds returning from the cave of Christ’s birth giving glory to God for what they had witnessed, like the angels who told the apostles, “Why seek the living among the dead – He is not here, He is risen”. This is an echo of what Christ Himself says to His Mother and Saint Joseph when they come looking for Him in the Temple: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – not just the Temple, but the very dimension of existence that He calls both the Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Life, and which was yet to be revealed to us at His Resurrection. Thus we gather around the new-born Lord again on the Eighth Day, the day each week when the cycle of creation and resurrection is repeated as we still repeat it, and as the apostles instinctively turned to the week after the first Easter, when St Thomas acclaimed the Risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” We find ourselves witness to His Circumcision - not only the ancient Hebrew act of faith and covenant that bonds God to His people and each person to God, but also the first letting of the Blood that would inexorably be shed upon the Cross. We hear Him named Jesus - Yeshua, He Who saves - just as He will be acclaimed the Son of David coming to save God’s people, with Hosanna: Hoshana, Blessed One Who comes in the Name of the Lord. We see Him enter Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph for the Passover, just as He will in future go up with the Disciples to begin the week that ends in His Passion. We seem Him filled with Divine Wisdom in the Temple of His Father, teaching the teachers, just as He will one day return to overturn its tables and the corruption of its very purpose,  when He restores the Presence of the King, “God Who is With Us”, the Wisdom at the heart of all Creation and revealed in all its glory shining out of the Holy of Holies.

But there is more to this revelation than a restoration of true balance to the account of God’s engagement with His people. There is more than the hints of the blood, the passion and the acceptable sacrifice that are set to come and which we can detect even in the Gospel story of His early years.  After Jesus has grown into a man approaches His great apotheosis before all the world at the waters of Baptism, the Father identifies Him as His Son from heaven; but it takes St John the Baptist to realise that to us in the world He is the sacrificial Lamb – and that this is what is God looks  like, what at the heart of everything God is about - in His Temple throne, in the Brilliant Cave of the Star, the Angels, the Magi and the Shepherds, and by the Waters of Jordan when they were made to echo the Voice of Thunder.  So, the Wisdom of God looks first to us like a failure, an air of death about it, a drowning out as much as a washing clean, a weakening loss of blood: rejection, humiliation, disposal. God’s Wisdom is looking like madness to men, says St Paul; yet it is wiser than any human wisdom. For the throne of God in glory is none other than the Cross. The King  we have been given, hailed as God by His own Father in heaven, is none other than a life as cheap as a symbolic animal whose life we can afford to throw away. The Wisdom of God is a Lamb that does not open its mouth on the way to its slaughter.

In a moving prayer from the middle of Lent, the Anglican tradition prays: “Almighty God, Whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

This is the pattern and sequence of life that St Paul proposes we make our own as Christians. He looks back at Christ’s pre-sacrificial Circumcision, and sees that God has clothed Himself with mortality, so that humanity can be robed in immortality. Christ sowed His physical body, Paul said, and rose up with a spiritual body – what was perishable on the Cross is turned immortal in the Tomb. So, he tells us to think past the physical Circumcision, beyond the Passion and the Cross, and to behold the Resurrection. He had emptied Himself, or submitted as today’s Kontakion has it. But this is how He “cuts off the failing of mortals” in favour of the only alternative left: salvation.

Or to look at it another way, the fullness of God came to dwell in Christ’s Body, and the fullness of Christ has come to dwell in us, says St Paul in today’s Epistle (Colossians 2.8-12). So where does the fullness that is in us go to in turn? Paul tells us: it was buried in baptism, so you could slip off your mortal confines: You go not up to joy but first you suffer pain; you enter not into glory before you too are crucified by walking the Way of the Cross and finding it none other than the way of life and peace. Thus we see where we go in life, and why. The meaning of the holly, is the meaning of the Tree of Life and the Cross of Christ, and it is ours:

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

Troparion of the Feast, Tone 1. You are seated on high on a fiery throne, * with Your Father Who is without beginning and Your divine Spirit. * Yet You willed, O Jesus, to be born of a virgin maiden, Your Mother, * and as man, You were circumcised on the eighth day, * Glory to Your all-gracious will, * Glory to Your providence, * glory to Your condescension, O You who alone love mankind.

Kontakion of the Feast, Tone 3. The Lord of all submits to circumcision * and in His love cuts off the failings of mortals; * today He gives the world salvation, * while in the highest there rejoices * Basil the hierarch of the Creator and bearer of light, * and the divine initiate of Christ.

Monday, 11 December 2017

A Tree, a Vine and some Bread: Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, 10 December 2017

Once I knew a severely disabled person. Her body was twisted and rigid; it was very difficult to make her comfortable. She lacked the ability to understand or to communicate much, but we knew she lived in constant discomfort, because the pain lined her face, and we could see it. But they knew how to change that, because once a week she knew she was going to the swimming baths. Her family and carers would take and place her agonised body gently into the water. At that moment, her entire frame relaxed and her limbs, hands and joints unfurled. The lines melted from her face and it shone with open joy. Her cries of pain yielded to moans of pleasure and shrieks of exultation. It brought infectious happiness to all around. Furthermore, the effect lasted for the rest of the day, so that she could go home painlessly with delight all over her.

It grieves good-minded people, when they see other people in adversity like this. It provokes generous donations, and acts of unself-conscious kindness; even self-sacrifice. English people are famed for their sympathy for the under-dog an d the disadvantaged; but today’s Gospel (Luke 13.10-17) takes us beyond our initial indignation at the injustice of adversity and the exclusion inflicted by men of God who place conditions upon God’s power to heal and save. For what Our Lord Jesus sheds His light upon at this part of St Luke’s Gospel is the entire picture of that which stands in the way of the full achievement of that which human beings’ were created for. These obstacles may be self-inflicted; or they may be harmful influences from ill will and a life of unblessedness away from God; or they may come from natural conditions that have developed over many years. To all of our limitations, Jesus presents the blessedness of the Kingdom. At every Divine Liturgy we begin by recalling this, and many a time we sing of the blessedness, not of success or approval or prowess whether spiritual or worldly, but of those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who do not put themselves first, who work for righteousness, who are merciful, who have honest hearts, who make peace, who endure adversity and injustice for the sake of the greatest prize of all: Heaven. And not just a heaven after death, but the blessing of living it now - if this is the approach to life in Christ that we resolve with all our heart to take, and make our own (Matthew 5. 1-12).

Jesus tells the story of the constricted woman whose life and heart are liberated for joy and the service of praise, in the context of three other observations. First, he speaks of the fig tree in the vineyard. The vine bears fruit, but the fig does not. The tree draws the goodness out of the earth, yet that is not enough. The owner of the vineyard is convinced to wait, to put more fertilising goodness into the earth, until the time that the fig will bear its fruit. It reminds us strongly of St John of the Cross listening to the complaints of those who were hated without cause and took it to heart, contemplating revenge or answering back. He said, “Where you find no love, put love; and then you will find love there.” So, a life held back by lasting failure, suffering because of being unloved, fruitless because of receiving no nourishment from anyone else, turns from dull wood and gives out of itself into blossom and fruit. The fig’s first fruit, as Jesus knew, would be bitter; but after that the harvests would be sweet. Time, patience, love, forbearance, belief in what will come: with all these in mind, He goes to heal the woman.

Immediately afterwards, He describes her heart as the mustard seed – on such a tiny speck of love and humanity He lavishes the expertise of the Sower, tending it from germination, uncurling in the dark earth, watering it under the warm sun, until it shoots and grows to overwhelming size. Think of that young woman I once knew, whose grimace under a cramped heart and body was unbounded to joy; and think of the woman bent double for eighteen years, her mindset unclosed and her voice released from ignored misery to spectacular glory for God. Notice how He does not wait for her to declare her faith in the Kingdom. It is He who calls to her, as He called to Andrew by the sea of Galilee, imparting the gift of belief, recognising that she has trusted God for all the years that she has come to the synagogue without relief. And so she is given the power to imagine the Kingdom come at Christ’s touch. Then, Jesus compares everything that has happened - in His thinking and in His miracle - to another laying-on of hands: the touch is firm, like that of the woman who mixes three measures of flour with water and yeast, kneading it until it is risen and can be baked into bread.

And now we see where He is pointing. Soon, friends among the Pharisees come and warm Him that a second King Herod will come to kill Him like the first had tried to; and Jesus tells them that He must take three measures of His own. On one day and a second He will teach His disciples, drive out evil and cure people’s bodies and souls; and on the Third Day he will achieve His goal: to die in Jerusalem. Thus on the Cross, He will be shown disfigured and bent double. The story of the woman’s in the synagogue was about Him. It is He who will be despised and begrudged. He will be the barren fig tree, denied love and rendered fruitless. He will thirst for nourishment but receive vinegar to drink. He will be reduced to insignificance and nothingness, only to be hurried into another man’s hole in the ground. He will be the One untouched by the woman’s anointing touch to prepare Him for burial.

And yet we know that this is not the end: this is the how the Kingdom comes. We know it from the description of the only kind of people that will inherit God’s World in the Beatitudes. We know it, because we know that the Lord expects the fig tree, after three measures of barrenness, patient then nourishment and initially bitter fruit, to bear sweetness and delight. We know it from the woman’s spirit crushed for years of living death, and then set free for the happiness in a life well lived because it is oriented to His presence and His coming Kingdom. We know it from the firm touch of the baker, who takes inert powder and causes it to rise. We know that on the Third Day He will rise again; and it will be like the difference between dead wood and sweet fruit, a tiny seed and the large plant that grows from it, the flour and the loaf, to see the constricted, bowed down, destroyed human form, prevented from living, then delivered and transformed, standing forth, standing up, risen and glorious in the Kingdom of blessedness, which we are to inhabit even now.

All these events and tales of long ago do not merely motivate us from the memory. It is no accident that Our Lord sets them out with the examples of flour leavened to rise and make bread, and of a fruitless tree in a vineyard. He Who has promised to be with us always calls us over constantly into His presence, His Kingdom, where He is the Vine nourishing us with His own Blood in the Eucharist that we endlessly need to receive, and where He is the Living Bread giving His own Flesh for the life of the world.

In a few moments, we will take wine and water, and leavened loaves, and bring them to the Altar for the sacrifice. As Jesus foresaw at the conclusion of his stories, we will see Him at His coming and say, “Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord”; and we will hear Him say to us in return, “Blessed are those who are to sit at the feast in the Kingdom”.

Lord Jesus, we await Your coming. Give us this Bread always. May hearts and spirits which have been contorted by sin, self-pity and adversity be unwound. Lord, may those who are not ready to stand against the wiles of the devil, now stand clothed in Your armour, strong in Your power (Ephesians 6.10-11, today's Epistle). Lord, may we be in Your Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. God with us, Risen Lord, give us this Bread always.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Good Swine of Gerasa and a City so Faithless even the Demons Wanted Out: Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 12 November 2017

Some of what has been written about today’s Gospel (Luke 8.26-39), seems to miss the mark. St Augustine believed that Jesus’ allowing the demons to enter the herd of swine meant that Christians are absolved from any moral duty to the animal creation. In modern times, some think it can be explained as an unsuspecting miracle of healing mental health, although it plainly goes deeper than this into spiritual malaise and spiritual hope. Others say that the pigs symbolise the hated pagan Roman army; but they are not the bad guys in the story – that accolade is bestowed on the local population who work themselves up into a frenzy and reject Jesus’s presence: “Away with you,” they say; just like the crowd outside Pontius Pilate’s palace would later say, “Away with him. Let him be crucified.” Even the demons wanted out of Gerasa. Perhaps it was people from Gerasa, up for the Festival in Jerusalem, who led the clamour for Christ’s execution. So already, speculating about a healing miracle and a story of a new-found faith has taken us straight to the foot of the Cross for the key to its meaning. It is to be expected that everything points to the Passion and the Resurrection, and the Cross and the Tomb point to everything back. But how did we get here so fast?

First, let us ask about the man in chains. St Peter, who would deny Christ and then be the foremost witness of His resurrection, would also be chained up. St Paul, too; and none other than the Lord Himself was tied up on His committal to Pilate. The man in chains we first meet consumed by a host of demons, but in a few short minutes he is transformed into a man of faith, bearing out in his life all that God has wonderfully done in him.

Second, we have the demons, who had caused the wild man in chains to live among the dead. Where did they come from? St Luke tells us that they came from the abyss, the depths of created existence, and did not want to go back. Since they were causing the man to burst his chains and escape from the city of Gerasa, perhaps Gerasa is the pit to which they did not wish to return.

We will come back to the demons after we have considered, third, the pigs. Instantly we think, “Ah, these are unclean animals in the Bible. No wonder the demons flocked to them in their torrent of self-destruction into the lake. But, if you think about it a little more, the pigs are innocent bystanders, foraging on the hillside. The swine are not the people who reject Christ in the city, or the demons who want to escape from them. Then we remember that the Prodigal Son found refuge and a livelihood among the pigs as a swineherd. From being the lowest of the low, the only way was up on his journey to reconciliation with his father. So we begin to see the pigs in a new light, as witnesses to the miracle of repentance and instruments of the faith bringing light into a renewed human being.  So much for “unclean”;  indeed, in other religious cultures of the time pigs are not forbidden because they are unclean, but because they are sacred and sacrificed to the purposes of God. So, contrast how the two swineherds from Gerasa run off to their city to denounce Jesus; and yet the Prodigal swineherd proceeds to rebirth in Christ’s resurrection, “I will arise and go to my father and I will say to him, Father I have sinned heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be your son; just hire me as your servant.” In the same way, at Gerasa, thanks to the swine fulfilling the saving purposes of Christ, a man returns home and declares how much God in Christ has done.

What, then, happens to the swine? Some translations of the Gospel say that, driven by the demons into the lake, the herd drowned. But the word that St Luke uses means they choked. It is the same word St Matthew uses to describe the tares and weeds that choke off the good seed of the Sower. The demons kept escaping the city that rejected Christ, and it was their voice the recognised Him as Son of the Most High God. Their distorted confession of faith in Christ, by the operation of mercy and inexhaustible love, went from the perversion of a man’s mind to his conversion by an underlying hope in Christ all along. So do the demons plead: “Do not send us back to unfaith, we beg You. Confide us to the swine that people scorn, that this bad seed may be choked, and free our spirits in death.”

So this brings us to the fourth character in the Lord’s enactment of His drama of salvation at Gerasa: the water of the lake. It was in the same waters, when they reach the Jordan, that Jesus left the land of Israel to be baptised and re-enter it as He Who Saves - hailed by St John Baptist as the Lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world, and shown by the descent of the Dove and the divine Voice to be the Son in Whom the Father is well pleased. These waters, then, are the place where an old life dies and a new life begins. As always, St Paul sees this, as he tells it in today’s epistle (Ephesians 2.4-10): “We were dead through our trespasses. Now we are alive in Christ.” There, with the baptising waters in sight, the Lord recalls the great inaugural moment of His public ministry, and before the eyes of the man who has been surprised by grace, there go the swine taking the demons into death, and out emerges a people of faith who are so alive that they describe themselves as already “raised up and seated in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus.” This is what the Lord means when he says to the man, “Return to your home”: he means, “Return to the house of the Father, enter into the Kingdom, your true home.”  It is the same situation for us, just as St Paul confronts us with it (Romans 6.3-4): “Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him … in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

In a few short minutes, then, Christ has taken us from His baptism, to our repentance in the wilderness of our living, to liberation from the oppression of all kinds of influences and forces by His mercy and compassion, to salvation by unexpected means from belief without hope, to faith in what God does within us, to the Cross where the Kingdom at work is seen in its most arresting power. It is as though Christ says to the man who was once in chains, “Return to your home. Declare how much God has done for you. And, so that everyone may see what you have seen this day, now let Me be crucified. Let the work of the Kingdom that has redeemed you - the poor in spirit, the thirsty for righteousness - now be shown upon the Cross.”

In the 17th century, the great Quaker spiritual leader, William Penn was imprisoned (like many Catholics were) in the Tower of London. There he wrote his spiritual testament, with its striking title: No Cross, No Crown. The profound lesson of our existence as Christians is, as St Paul tells us today, that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good, which He prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our way of life is the path of the Cross, taking us by the lakeshore, to the unbelieving city, to the wilderness and the valley of the shadow of death, and this is how we know that in the depths we are more accurately realising that “we are seated in heavenly places” and that this is the gift of God – we can share His crown if we share His Cross. And this is what we recognise when we sing today, “The Giver of Life, raised us the dead from the murky abyss and bestowed resurrection upon humanity: Saviour, the Resurrection, the Life, the God of all. “ Glory be to You! (Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 6).

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 15 October 2017

Often you have heard me talk about the Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”, the Resurrection now and not just after (Matthew 6.10). We often think of this life as preliminary, but this is the life that Christ came to take flesh in, to heal and suffer in, to teach and experience in, to die and rise again in. Here is where we touch the substance of things unseen (II Corinthians 4.18 & Hebrews 11.1). “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” said Christ (Luke 17.21): “I confer on you a Kingdom” (Luke 22.29). “The Power of the Most High will overshadow you,” said Gabriel to His Mother (Luke 1.35). “The Lord of hosts is with us, in the midst,” King David (Psalm 45/6.6, 8), and Gabriel repeated it: “God is with us” (Matthew 1.23). Here is where it begins; here is where it begins to go wrong; here is where God begins to put it right.

So Heaven is no mere after-death survival either. Our culture, which has given up believing in Christ (so that it has the mental space to believe not nothing but anything), is hooked on the idea of menacing forces from outside, ghosts, zombies, demons. It has got itself into thinking that the realm of the Spirit is shadowy, untrustworthy, menacing, and leeching on us for itself. To them an after-life is not only a pale imitation of life, but a bleak imitation. Either that, or an aimless rest upon the clouds. But is that all there is?

Saint Paul, as you can trace through his Letters, realises more and more what is happening. He speaks of Christ filling the universe (Ephesians 4.10), and being all in all (Ephesians 1.23), being exalted above the heavens (Ephesians 1.20). He concludes, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Galatians 2.20). Today, he tells us of someone caught up into Paradise (from the Epistle, II Corinthians 12.4). Let us assume he was speaking about himself and those bewildering weeks of blindness and confusion he spent at Damascus, as Christ penetrated his entire soul and psychology. He describes how Christ entered into his soul only through the crucifixion of everything he thought he was about, his bringing down, his weakening, his suffering. “It’s too much to bear,” says Paul: “Take it away” (II Corinthians 12.8). But the process of “God-With-Us” has begun. The Kingdom is upon him, the power of the Most High overshadows him; until Christ filling the universe is not just about the great beyond above the stars but the great within. Paul sees it how it is: “My weakness is how the power of Christ dwells in me” (II Corinthians 12.9).

Paul regards his elation at this with trepidation lest it make him conceited. He tests it for tempter’s power, but the experience of the Cross assures him it is true. We too may thus recall the exaltation, the inspiration and closeness to God’s Kingdom that we are given to feel, sometimes in prayer, sometimes with others in the world, sometimes in worship. We sense going out of ourselves and being held onto by something new and beyond. Sometimes, then, we understand what Paul says means: “Set your affection on things above…where your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.2-3). It is interesting that Paul keeps coming back to this instinct of being caught up in Paradise, because it was what the Lord said to the thief beside Him on the Cross: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43) It was not a promise for then, but the revelation of how things now are and always will be.

How can we be living fully here, but unforgettably beyond in the Kingdom, too? It is the result of a two-way process, begun when Christ came first the other way, out of the Kingdom and into here, when He entered into His creation and took upon Himself our flesh. Consider our souls’ release from our body’s confinement into the realm of the Holy Spirit, the finite opening into the boundless, and then consider the entry of God into a self-confinement within human nature, the Infinite opening up the earth-bound with eternity. The Fathers speak of how He becomes human, that we might become divine, an exchange of characteristics that at last are put into balance and corrected relationship, by the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ. St Paul regards it as an all or nothing deal, the prize of which is so valuable that everything is put on the line: “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that through His poverty you might become rich” (II Corinthians 8.9).

No wonder the thief is told, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”. For everything, from the womb of the Virgin to the passion on the Cross, is about the release of Christ’s power to fill the universe and at last to fill humanity. The Cross and Resurrection catch the thief into Paradise, as they will catch the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Thomas in the Upper Room, and Paul on his way to meet the fulfilment of his whole world on the road to Damascus.

As Christians, then, we constantly set our affections on the things that are above. We live by the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ, Who has gone before us and opened up the way that broadens into the Father’s House. But we also know that this world and we are not there yet; and the moments when we “Lift up our hearts” to the Lord, in the world as much as in the Liturgy, are rare, even though they keep us going. But we do not lose touch with that underlying reality to where we actually are: the conclusion that Paul came to, that it is “not I who live, but Christ who lives within me”. And it is not in my strength or proficiency, but by my weakness and my blessed need of God that the power of Christ does not just come to me, but dwells here.

This is a lifetime’s work, and every Christian knows the will’s destructive attitude to the gift that has been placed within us (I Timothy 4.14). But, while we remain sinners far off, Christ runs to meet and embrace us (Luke 15.20 & Roman 5.8). What was released on the Cross to catch us up in Paradise keeps coming and coming. Observe the Divine Liturgy, as the priest and deacon come in and out, to bring us into the action of prayer, to draw us up when the Living Gospel comes in our midst and Wisdom takes us with Him into the Kingdom, to involve us on the path to Calvary when the gifts are brought for sacrifice. But see, too, when the priest in the Name of Christ comes through again and again to breathe peace, and ultimately to communicate the life of Christ Himself into the world, into you, so that You in this Temple are communicated into heaven, into the living God.

We go away from the Temple and we return to the world. But it is never from a high point to a low point; for always “God is with us”. Everywhere He goes before us, everywhere He dwells in us, since it is not we who live but Christ Who lives within us; and our life is hid with Christ in God. Everywhere we see this, when there is self-giving with no hope of a return, when enemies are loved, when the undeserving are forgiven, when the harsh become merciful (cf. the Gospel, Luke 6.31-36), and when those who think the world of God is a pale imitation of this reality are caught up from the bleak prospect of death, to a hope they never realised was already theirs. A fine English hymn says it all:

Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
In every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim,
Thy being and Thy ways.

Not in the Temple crowd alone
Where holy voices chime,
But in the silent paths of earth,
The quiet rooms of time.

So shall no part of day or night,
From sacredness be free,
But all my life, in every step,
Be fellowship with Thee. Horatius Bonar, 1866

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Homily for the Forefeast of the Procession of the Precious & Life-Giving Cross (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost), 13th August 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family

On Friday I was driving through a village in Kent. Growing up, I knew its church very well, despite never leaving Lancashire. I used to assemble card models of buildings to go with my railway set: Ann Hathaway’s cottage, Bletchley railway station, a little row of shops from Bury St Edmunds, and this particular church. Sadly, it has been closed for decades, no longer needed for reaching within walking distance, now that people can easily drive elsewhere. Still, for years there were signs up, about the need to retain it in community use. I keep thinking that the best way to keep it in community use would have been to attend its services. It was once well attended; now the affluent villagers will neither sustain it as a community venue, nor use it for its true purpose.

They are not alone in this disconnection from spiritual living. People currently tend to think that faith in God’s existence and authority with regard to human beings depends on our opinion. It needs to serve personal priorities, and it should accommodate our conduct and values. It is reckoned to be a “belief system” that has evolved out of human design, and what is nowadays called spirituality is simply one aspect of being a human among many. Thus the closure of a significant church results from a community of people coming to a judgment about God that he either did not exist, or that He does not matter. The Christian worldview becomes one of a number of options; and to all intents and purposes most people have adopted a belief system that does not require Christ as the key to explain the world, and where worship – orienting humanity to lift its heart and mind to adore God in His Kingdom – is unnecessary, hardly relevant to contemporary living.

It is easy for Christians to absorb these same assumptions that God and His world are all about “me”, or they are about nothing. I once had a rather bossy colleague who once inadvertently mixed the words of morning prayer: “Bend Your heart to my will, O God,” he proclaimed (cf. Psalm 40.8); and we all laughed. Yet if God is the servant of our aspirations, like some candidate appealing for our vote, He is not God. His existence does not depend on our assent, and His authority does not rely on our moral permission. Indeed, God has been comprehensively abandoned before, and history preserves the ruins of His Church which dissolved away (e.g. North Africa, Central Asia). So there is nothing new as, this time, secularity takes hold of the western imagination and dulls it, no longer to conceive of what the reign of God on earth might look like in human hearts and souls. The Christian, nevertheless, holds the vivid realisation that Christ is not only about me and my life, but about all humans and all life and all creation - or He is about nothing at all. My personal sanctification makes no sense without Jesus Christ’s work in and for all those with whom I and He share humanity. As we sing in today’s Kontakion: “You arose in glory from the Tomb, and with Yourself You raised the world.” (Sunday of Tone 1)

And this work of Christ’s, for all and in all, is not only a past event to cling on to, but now a fact of existence that provides the universe with its inner meaning. As St Paul says, “Even though our outer nature wastes away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4.16) It may be difficult to perceive; but this rhythm of God, as He lives among us, the very Son of Man, is all the truth there is. First He is abandoned, secondly He is destroyed, and third He is raised again. The pattern of the endless self-pouring-out of God is how the Persons of The Trinity are with each other, and it is how the nature of God plays out when it is united with humanity in the Person of Christ. The same cycle of pouring out, wasting away, death and dying, sacrifice and Cross, and of emptying tombs and resurrection, renewal and God’s power re-asserting itself, of seeds cast away and germinating into full grown plants and trees (cf. Matthew 17.20 & Matthew 13.31-32), of a Cross of destruction turning into a Sign of Victory (Hebrews 12.2. Colossians 2.15), is now how creation is, too.

Thus Prince Volodymyr was baptised into Christ’s death and rose with him to new life; not just for himself, but for all his people, such that the Gospel came to the whole of the east of our continent. And, even after three quarters of century in which God was pronounced non-existent and His Church a social menace, both our Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is experiencing the pattern in life of the resurrection of Christ, and the Orthodox Church in Russia, too, is being rebuilt and renewed. This is as St Paul foresaw.

His words are why we do not lose heart, even while landmark certainties are disappear and new givens take shape. We are not merely persevering, with our “Keep calm and carry on” attitude. For, when the Lord speaks of persevering, it is with an eye to the fruit that will be borne. So there is divine purpose and process to it all. Its roots lie within the nature of God in Christ, and it provides the means for us to be faithful to Him and for His work still to take effect, not just in individuals but even in the midst of whole societies.

People say “I am spiritual, but not religious”. This is because they imagine that Church people are judgmental, self-serving, or creatures of unthinking habit. The example of the Christian martyrs of the Islamists in recent years would suggest otherwise. But we should accept the implied criticism, and avoid the snare of being “religious, but not spiritual,” of thinking that our faith and Church are just about suiting our tastes and outlook. For there is genuine curiosity about God from people and we are struggling to make the connection for them. Their outlook and lifestyle are not attuned to worship and following Christ. But they are kind, good-hearted, virtuous and moral, as well as struggling, flawed, selfish and bad at times, as we all are. Here are none other than the marks of the image of God in humanity, and the sin that mars it which God would rather wipe out so that we can see and sense ourselves for who we more truly are. Thus they have an inkling that spirituality is not just the reflective or ethical side to being human, but the space where the Divine and the Spiritual come and make their impression. Pope Benedict has often said that the mutual bearing of belief and the realities of life, of religion and human society, upon each other is vital, because only faith has the answers to our deepest questions and longings. When the connection is made, it is not first by condemnation, or imposing propositions and rules. The truth about humanity and the universe binds us, and turns round our entire sense of direction, always because it attracts. It attracts because it is trusted. And it is trusted because it can be loved. It is thus seen not only in the beauty of holiness, or by pointing to a better Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, but visible in none other than the person of Christ - Christ on His Cross, Christ pouring out his life in sheer unbounded love, and giving the truest account of what God is and who the human is to become.

Our Popes speaking tirelessly of Christ who is light and truth, hope and love, and mercy itself. But we should know that this Christ we make visible by embodying: not only in these attributes, but also in the pattern of constantly dying away and rising again that is in the reasoning behind the purpose of God and the existence of all things. While we live, we are always like our Lord being “given up” - as St Paul puts it - so that the eternity of the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortality. Or to put it St Paul’s other way: Death may be doing what death does: but so is the life of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 4.11-12).

Sunday, 16 July 2017

A final verse to Tydi a Roddaist?

The fine hymn by T. Rowland Hughes, with its haunting tune and dramatic Amen by Arwel Hughes, is one of the most moving and typical Welsh Hymns. The words, however, leaves their subject of song and salvation at the summit of Calvary, which is beautiful; but what of the resurrection and the life of heaven to come? Back in 1992, I attempted a fourth verse to address this question, but forget entirely about it. Never throw a book away: today, I took down Baptist Praise and Worship from its shelf and found the card I had written on, complete with many crossings out and unsuccessful attempts. Twenty-five years on, I have taken another run. Here is the result.

The first three verses, by T. Rowland Hughes (1903-49), tr. Raymond Williams (1928-90). (Baptist Praise & Worship, no. 650)

O Lord, who gave the dawn its glow,
And charm to close the day,
You made all song and fragrance flow,
Gave spring its magic sway:
Deliver us, lest none should praise
For glories that all earth displays

2. O Lord, who caused the streams to sing,
Gave joy to forest trees,
You gave a song to lark on wing,
And chords to gentlest breeze:
Deliver us, lest we should see
A day without a song set free.

3. O Lord, who heard the lonely tread
On that strange path of old,
You saw the Son of Man once shed
His Blood from love untold:
Deliver us, lest one age dawn
Without the Cross, or crown of thorn.

 A proposed fourth verse:

4. O Lord, who sent Your Spirit’s power
To wrest Your Son from death,
And yield Creation’s crowning hour
in Resurrection’s breath:
Deliver us, lest none below
Heaven’s tune of praise to sing should know.

©  Mark Woodruff (1959- ), 25 vi 1992, 2 vii 1992 & 16 vii 2017.

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen