Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Coming God - Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, 14th May 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Mayfair, London

The encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well is very like the Prodigal Son, and the Good Shepherd and that lost sheep – a description of loss and disconnection, of hopeful restoration and return (John 4.5-42).

Blessed John Henry Newman captured the feelings in the verses he wrote after he had become so dangerously ill in Sicily that he expected to die and lose everything.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Lead, kindly Light, The Pillar of the Cloud, 1833

Here we have the sensation of human beings who have almost lost all that is worthwhile. Some doubt it; some deliberately stray from it, forgetting what they have lost and yet they hardly reconcile themselves to the things that they have preferred: there is something missing. The sheep, lost from its fold, bleats to reconnect with its flock. The prodigal son spends the comfort-blanket of his father’s wealth, but is left to contemplate the bare nothingness of who he is, until he imagines he was only something in his father’s love. The woman at the well is on auto-pilot – she has been through five husbands and is on to a sixth partner; empty within, she goes through the routines, drawing water at again and again, day after day. Spiritually she is in a rut. The fresh water does nothing to quench a thirst that she barely knows is withering her body and soul from within.

Newman in his own mortal danger, however, sees the power that leads on, and through. He contemplates the loss of love, and holds on to the happiness of communion with those whose lives on earth are lived in heaven. He understands the coming of God to bring him through, and back; to end his disconnection and return him to his place.

Such a coming of God is in each of these stories in the Gospels. The prodigal son makes his own way back to his father, but the decisive moment in the story is when the father sees him from afar and runs out to meet him, forgive and restore him. The sheep wanders with the purpose of returning but cannot make it along; it is searched out by a shepherd, who risks all the others to go and find what is lost, so that not only some but all may be close to him, in the pasture as well as in the fold. The Samaritan women has no idea she is lost, as she lurches from one man to another and goes about her life in some attempt on normality. Yet Jesus takes the disciples off the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, out of the Judaic world into that of the Samaritan Hebrews. He goes aside from their company and rests, while they go into Shechem and He waits. Sure enough, the aimless woman He was searching out arrives.

How does He bring her to who she is meant to be in His Kingdom? By reconnecting her, not with a father’s home or the flock of sheep, but with the truth about herself that she had avoided, the truth about her predicament that she had insulated herself from. She argues; she confronts; she blames; but she sees herself, and knows herself as she is known. She leaves the fresh water, because the filling of her days with auto-pilot chores is over. Now she lives in the light that has been shone on her; and many more believe, when they in turn come to be told truth, and dwell for two days in the presence of God Who comes in the Name of “Lord” (Luke 19.38). We are to conclude that, on the third day [a day of water-purification of those who have touched death, Numbers 19.12], they rose to their new life by a foretaste of the forthcoming Resurrection of their Saviour.

It is remarkable that the disciples miss this light dawning on the Samaritans because they have gone into the city to buy provisions. We are reminded of another of Jesus’ stories – how it was the wise virgins who were admitted to the wedding feast, while the others, who ran out of supplies and went off to get more, missed the big moment. Once again, the Lord turns our wisdom on its head: “the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom” (Luke 8.10) have been given to those who did not expect it, and withheld from those who believed they were in possession of them: a woman, and not them; a Samaritan of the sacred mountain, and not the Jews of Galilee and Jerusalem. The disciples are lost for words, as they begin to realise that the Gospel is never about what I can get out of it for my own sense of salvation and spirituality, but what God can get out of me for the salvation and sanctification of all that He has made for love alone.

Sometimes - is it not true? – our mind and heart returns to dwell on those we have lost and see no more, on regrets for what we once did and cannot put right, on paths we took in life that mean we could not take others that now we might have desired to; we dwell on openings, promptings and vocations to love and be loving that we feared, on those shadows and ruts that we are used to for living in, so that we can avoiding the true selves God wants us joyfully to be. Yet what connects us with what is lost, and missed and lacking, is not the dismissal of past errors, or present regrets and predicaments, but encountering them in truth and with light. The Holy Father’s approach to the discipline of marriage is not to be seen as wiping away the indissolubility of the exclusive marriage bond, but - as the Samaritan woman found - to find it again through mercy and conversion to what is true and holy; not otherwise. Similarly, all of us, from the first disciples onwards, hold our breath when we realise the God has come to speak not just to us but about us to our faces. As Charles Wesley put it, “Tis mercy all, immense and free, for – O, my God! – it found out me!” Everything we are, with everything we have missed out on being, is encompassed in the forgiveness that is the opposite to loss, because it retrieves the truth about us and puts it into God’s light; it is the opposite to disconnection - and the falsity of “being realistic” and “moving on” - because it takes what was broken up and puts the whole back together; it does not avoid and cancel the past but embraces it with courage and love, to purify and redeem it. It completes our integrity. It makes the sinner righteous. It makes the one who is distant from God reconciled. It makes the one whose life confronts God to be returned, and restored to face in the right direction.

If you look at the icon of this Sunday, you see the Lord sitting on the edge of the well. You notice it is in the shape of the Cross. You may also notice that the well is in the shape of the stone from the tomb of Christ’s resurrection which in icons can be shown as broken in two on the ground in the shape of a Cross on which the Risen Lord tramples in victory. In other words, to be faced with the truth of who we were and who we are is not shame but joy, to face the truth of who we are to become: the false person trampled into death by the Cross, the one being saved free at last to stand with Christ in His Resurrection and worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. A fourth verse added to Lead Kindly Light, that hardly anyone ever sings now, see this clearly:

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

Edward Bickersteth, Anglican Bishop of Exeter,
for the Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer, 1870

This is no mere after-life that is described, but setting the present earthly strife in the calm of the divine and uncreated light. “Home to my God” is not after; it is now. For as the Lord has promised to everyone who sees their sin, who falls short of the glory of God and dares to come beside Christ to be sanctified: “You shall be with me in Paradise today.” (Luke 23.42)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Who is this Son of Man? Homily at the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Palm Sunday, 9 April, 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

When the Virgin Mary is told by the angel that she is to be Mother to God Incarnate, she asks, “Who can His Father be?” When Joseph takes her with Jesus to be presented in the Temple, they wondered that He was a called a Light, uncovering the secret of every heart. When the apostles are in the boat in a storm that Jesus calms, they ask, “What manner of man is this?” Jesus asks Peter, “Who do people say that I am?”

Of course, we have abundant answers. At His baptism John identified Him as the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the world; and the Father’s voice declared Him to be His favoured Son. Jesus Himself announced that He was the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Door, the Bread of Life, the Servant. But the point is that few could fully grasp how the One Who described the Kingdom refused to call Himself its King. Who can He be? Where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this?

On the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter and James and John at last perceive Him in a new light - uncreated, a light that casts no shadows but illuminates the soul to see Him as He truly is. They hear for themselves that the Lord is the choice of His Father to restore all things. But the great revelation, which they will need all their perception and imagination to come to terms with, is that the great restoration for which they hope comes only when their Lord is raised from the dead: first, he must die as Son of Man. (Cf. Matthew 17.1-12)
Still the questioning continues. The apostles argue: “Why can You heal the afflicted and we cannot?” (Matthew 17.19) “Who shall be greatest in this Kingdom of yours?” (Matthew 18.1) “How many times do I have to forgive to be able to join in it?” (Matthew 18.21) “We have given up everything to follow you – where does it lead, what is there for us?” (Matthew 19.27) Amid all these demands from the disciples, it is no small wonder that a last healing that Jesus performs is when He comes upon two blind men calling for His mercy: “Lord, we want our sight,” they cry out (Matthew 20.33), as the crowd try to shut them up. The contrast with the disciples cannot be starker: those who have been given the vision of light cannot grasp its meaning; the two blind outcasts recognise it immediately and want to see it for themselves.

It is in this new light that Jesus, then, goes on to His controversies with the Temple authorities, and in which the people, who for a moment acclaim Him as king, turn into a jury that convicts Him of treason and clamours for His crucifixion. It is left, then, to Pontius Pilate to answer the questions that have circled for years - Who can He be? Where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this? The one who asks Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, places him at his own Seat of Judgement, vests Him in purple and crowns Him with thorns and says, “Behold: The Man.” Jesus has all the way through said that there is no meaning to everything He is that cannot be found in Who He is as the Son of Man - a human being, the summary of everything that a human is, a person in the world of creation, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, one among many appointed to serve. People say that in this Jesus is mocked, or even that He is hated. It is true, of course; but it is even truer to say that, in this moment now, He is shown to be Who He is.

In other word what a King in His Kingdom in another world looks like in this one. In today’s Kontakion, we sang, “Mounted on a throne in heaven, You are mounted on a colt here on earth.” We can add, “Sitting on the Father’s right in glory, in this world you are fixed to a Cross beside a thief.” Or, to put it another way, what is transfigured by heaven with brightness, the world disfigures before it will look at it. What God brings into the light – whether it is the beauty of Christ truly God and truly The Man, or the secrets of every heart – we in the world disguise by means of darkness, or we spoil it out of revulsion at the divine glory that could be ours.

On Thursday at Westminster Abbey, there was a service of hope, to commemorate those who had suffered and died in the recent attempted attack on Parliament. Ahead of the service, one of the mourners was bitter that the attacker had died at the scene: “Pity he got shot. He should have lived to suffer the same way we are suffering.” Another person, an injured survivor now mourning her husband said, “I don’t feel I could heal … as a person if I had hate in my heart. Kurt wouldn’t want that either, so there is no hate.” Both are raw and honest expressions of loss and grief; and both are reflected for all eternity in the presentation of The Man by Pontius Pilate – a King degraded, His Kingdom rubbished;  a man made to suffer because of the threat He poses; an innocent victim refusing to be provoked from love to hate; lives torn apart by those to whom they mean nothing; nothingness where there had been so much; scars for ever in place of happy goodness; even frustration of the human chance for shortcoming and unbelief to find fulfilment by means of love divine. No wonder there is honest bitterness for lost love; but there is forbearance and hope, too:  the best of us. There it is in refusal to hate and in the face of Christ forgiving that will not go away. Forgiveness is the unavoidable reality that He brings from above and beyond us, that we must deal with, just as He has dealt with the reality of our suffering and our Passion, by making it His own.

Today’s readings – Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians to find the God of peace in whatever is true, just, pure, and good (Philippians 4.4-9), followed by the gospel story of the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (John 12.1-18) – are appointed in the old English Latin rite to be read in Advent, the time that leads up to Christmas. As we read them in the Byzantine Church as we approach His Passion, thus they imply our expectation at the coming of The Man born to die and rise again, about Whom we ask, “Who can His Father be; where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this? What has He come for? Who is He?” As the story unfolds, He tells us to see Him as the One Who will restore all things, but as One Who can only raise them up if He enters into their lowest point, and lifts them from beneath their very depths. So, the only way to envisage Jesus on clouds of glory is to behold Him on His Cross. The only way for His Light to reach and shine on us, is if we peer into the gloom and let it pierce us there. The only way to know we are loved is to let it dissolve our hate. The only way to cry “Hosanna” truthfully is to accept that we have also shouted, “Crucify.” The only way to be forgiven is to accept a way to forgive. The only way to satisfy justice is not to seek revenge. The only way to be blessed is not to curse. The only way to bear the suffering and the painstaking healing is not to inflict more wounds. The only way to find peace is, for sure, in what is true and just; but this is only halfway. We press on to what is pure and good and worthy of praise from the God of peace. This is so hard for us to bear, for it is more palatable – as discovered by Christ betrayed – to shut down, close off, break, hit, destroy.

Yet, as always, our life in Christ and the way the liturgy, and its readings and chants are deployed for us to meet Him turn everything round to stop our thinking in its tracks. For what we see at Pilate’s Seat, on the Cross, is not just Jesus, Truly God and truly The Man: it is God’s presentation to us of how we are to be and what we are summed up in Him. If The Man is throned in heaven as an innocent condemned on earth, how much is it the case that we with all our sins and shortcomings look divine to God in His realm of heaven? Here our resentment at Christ’s beauty finds it unbearable to behold, as we take what we please for ourselves, and disfigure the gift that is truly good; there we look transfigured in the light of Christ as God reveals the unbearable secret bad in every heart, and takes it out of the gaze of His love. Here we are mortal like Lazarus, but already like Lazarus we are also risen from the dead?

The Lord answered Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18.36). Well, neither is our kingdom of this world. “Here we have no abiding city” (Hebrews 13.14): “Our homeland is in heaven2 (Philippians 3.20). This is actually where we are living now; this is how we live, this is how we act. And as Pilate clothes God incarnate in purple robing and a crown of thorns, saying, “Behold: The Man”, the Father is holding the fellow-humans of the Son of Man at His own judgment seat and says, “Behold: this will become divine.”

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Light that Lightens Everyone - Homily for the Second Sunday of Great Lent, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 11 March 2017

Last week on the first Sunday of Lent, we observed the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This recalled the time when, after years of controversy during which the Byzantine Imperial authorities had banned representations of Christ and the Saints, a new Emperor restored them; and the icons were solemnly processed back into the Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Constantinople on 11th March 843. Also known as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, it was a victory for the true Christian belief that God, the Kingdom of heaven and our salvation are not just ideas but something we touch, and see and the hold on to us. Our faith is in the Incarnation, in the Incarnate Word, God who did not stay a Being to be guessed at, but who revealed himself in the Son of Man. Our faith is about a creation through which God encounters us, heart mind and soul, but also body. He became human with us, that we might become divine with Him. To make and see the icons, to touch and behold them, is not to exalt a mere earthly creation and enthrone it where God ought rightly to be, but it is to encounter - in the process of their preparation and painting, in their consecration and veneration - the living work of the Holy Spirit bringing God into our midst and all the Kingdom of Heaven with Him.

If we do not believe that this is so, and that Christ and the Mother of God, St Joseph of the Holy Family, of St Nicholas and St John Baptist, St Mary Magdalene and St Gregory Palamas are not present to us and we to them, in this moment and by this means, we are saying, “Thank you, Rabboni, but we do not believe You and Your Kingdom of God can physically touch us now; we are inspired by the ideas and believe the faith coming to us from the past, but we are rational people and it makes no sense that you can be found in the things of the world today, or that the things of the world can bring us into contact with You, least of all these representations; except symbolically, of course.” It is as thought we are saying, “Yes, our logic tells us that since You and Your saints are not shining out of the icons, You can shine out of us either.” In other words, we are holding back from Christ, and holding back from our salvation in which we humans may shine with the light that comes from God Himself. We believe Him with our minds, we love Him with our hearts, we hope to be instilled with Him in our souls, but we say the opposite of St Peter, who said, “Do not wash just my feet, but my entire body and all over”. We are doing the opposite of St Mary Magdalen whose faith-instinct was to reach out and hold onto the Risen Lord. We are thinking differently from St Thomas who said, “Let me put my hand in His side.” This is why the icons meant so much to the Orthodox of the ninth century – the icons were their hold on Christ and His Kingdom, and Christ’s on them in the here and now; the tangible sign that they were being saved, the living evidence that the Saints were impinging on the world, as the Christians in the world were likewise being drawn into the heaven of God Himself. Here is the iconostasis, never a barrier but always the Veil of the Temple that is torn in two, so that Christ’s sacrifice may take its effect in creation. It is the porous membrane through which from heaven the Lord and His saints look upon us with God’s mercy as we behold them, too, aspiring for the glory that is theirs to be ours, even now where we are.

It makes sense, then, to have celebrated a kind of Feast in the beginning of the Great Fast, because what we are observing is the path of our redemption taking effect, how Orthodoxy - which declares its faith in the unity of the Creator with His creation - keeps us following the Incarnate Christ as we step through this world and in the next world at the same time. So we make our way through constant turning to face the Glory as it shines its Light on us, and so we pass from disobedience to new life.

Today’s gospel (Mark 2.12) reflects the same theme. It is not an iconostasis or a Veil through which the Lord bursts in with the glory of His Kingdom, but a roof. The paralysed man is lowered through it; and Christ sees the faith of his friends and the hope of the man in the power of God to heal and save humanity for the New Reign that is coming. It renders disbelief and sin beside the point. The people place their confidence in Christ, and Christ bestows on them His faith in them. They enact a kind of burial, and the body of the paralysed man encounters not death in a grave but the Lord of life. The man stands up; he rises like Christ. And touched by God he pursues no earthbound life, but passes into new life, and leads them all to behold and love, to praise and gaze on, God in His glory.

St Gregory Palamas we commemorate today for a Second Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This is because he is the one in the Eastern Church who taught the Christians to dwell upon this glory as the Light that lightens every one. See the halos on the icons; they show the brightness of the Kingdom but cast no shadow. The same light came from Christ at His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, as the apostles were more thoroughly converted to behold it. In our world of now, we too, in our prayers and contemplation but also in every corner of our being, may know God and stand in His uncreated light, as once the paralysed man beheld the glory and wonder of Christ. St Gregory’s opponents said that God in His essence is unknowable, mocking him for saying that you could see what was invisible. But Gregory insisted that they were missing the point: God is not just wisdom and spirit; He is Person, too – making Himself known in the Christ Who appears as both man and God to the paralytic and to Peter, winning their heart and mind to the core of their being. He is the Person who shows Himself to the disciples on Tabor, as much to His mother in the cradle at Bethlehem. He is the One Whose Light is beheld in the physical reality of the Icons, and in the illuminated life of those whose loving hearts can dwell on the Lord Who dwells in them. St Paul realised this when he saw Christ’s Light fill every corner of his soul and frame. He said, “It is not I who live, but Christ Who lives within me.” In the way of thinking, in the West, about this Light that lightens every one, we could ask ourselves, as Thomas a Kempis did throughout The Imitation of Christ, not “What would I do if I were Christ?”, but “What would Christ do if He were me?”

Perhaps you will see, then, the breath-taking importance of these two Sundays as we make our spiritual progress through Lent, for they come back to the same question. Did Christ die on the Cross two thousand years ago for an idea of God, for spiritual Wisdom, or for a vision of human spirituality? Or is it that He is all there is to life of heart and mind, of body and soul; that He feels and is to be felt in every touch, that His light looks and is to be looked upon in every mind’s eye; and that there is no darkness that His Light coming into the world does not take in, that there is nothing of us that is beyond and outside Christ who fills the universe to make God Himself known, nothing that can lie beyond His Kingdom visible on earth as it is in heaven, nothing in us in the end that holds back from “His Presence and His very self, His essence all divine”, closer to us than our own breath?

Michael Ramsey, the great Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, who dwelt constantly in the Light of the divine Glory, said, “God is as He is in Christ, and in God there is no unChristlikeness at all.” In these two Sundays of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, by the same token, we are able to say that “God is in us, so in us there is no unChristlikeness at all.” If only it were so, we can hear ourselves thinking – but unless our hope is in vain it is the only possible reality for humanity that there is.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Prodigal Son, Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London,12th February, 2017

Every year, as we make our journey towards Lent, just as we complete the last week in which we are supposed to eat meat, we hear again of the Prodigal Son as his hunger begins to bite (Luke 15.11-32), but also of his father who slew the fatted calf for a feast to bring him back home.

But this is a story of deprivation, heavy fasting leading to repentance, and loving restoration only on the surface. For, if you look at the parable as a whole, one of the longest in the Gospels, it is a story of God the Father and God the Son, of the Passion and the Resurrection. Toward this aim we keep to the track of Lent, and it is why we recall the prodigal every year at this early point on our path to the Cross and then to new life, and by the Ascension to the Kingdom of blessedness in the Spirit.

But, you will protest, the prodigal son bears no comparison with Christ. The prodigal son was selfish; he split his family estate and impoverished his brother’s inheritance; he lived beyond his means and squandered everything that once supported half his entire family on high living and satisfying his physical urges, as he misused the women he encountered. How can this person resemble Christ the Father’s Son?

But, if you remember, what St Paul said to the Church at Philippi (Philippians 2.7-8), you will see what I mean: “He made Himself of no reputation, and emptied Himself into the form of a bond-servant, found in the likeness of a humbled man.” And St Paul gets to the heart of the matter when he write to  the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 5.21): “For our sake, He made Him Who knew no sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the Gospel today, then, we see a human son who is sinful, but someone from whom the Divine Son refuses to be separate, even in the moments of the young man’s furthest separation from his father – especially in the moments of his furthest separation from his father. We see a wasted and then broken man, with whom God the Son has identified and, even though He is sinless, taken on that man’s sin, and turned it inside out to face the light and overjoyed love.

Slowly, in the degradation from honour, to abandon of self-respect, to waste, disgrace, humiliation, the pains of acute hunger, of calling out in utter loneliness to his father, the final brokenness, we see the steps that Christ too would come to take in His own work of saving what was lost, and redeeming it back. Christ is God the Son, likewise as a man resolved to take a journey that entails an exile from His Father, so that at the sorest moment He too will cry out for His Father, “Why have you forsaken Me?” Thus, to the sin-filled prodigal, the Son who knew no sin lends His own righteousness. In abject isolation the prodigal is joined by Christ. Within that disfigured humanity, the Humanity of the One who will go to the Cross to be disfigured too, instils the deepest instinct of the life of the Trinity itself and causes him to set his mind on Resurrection and Ascension: “I will arise, and go to my father”.

The righteousness of Christ in the heart and mind of the sinner who has destroyed his own life, grows and changes; it flourishes and gives rise to hope. The prodigal son who was regarded as dead comes to life. His father is likewise taken up with the momentum of redemption, and runs out to find what was lost restored to him. He exclaims, “The son is come to life again.” He proclaims and foretells the Resurrection that leads all of us who are still picking our way through our sin. But it is the younger son, whose new life speaks of what has been going on unseen within him, in mystery, behind the scenes. To allude to St Paul again, the prodigal son, by his humanity restored from its living death and set on glory rejoicing, says, “My life has been crucified with Christ. It was not me who was alive in that pit of mine, but Christ who was living within me.”(cf. Galatian 2.19-20). “He Who knew no sin, became my sin for my sake, so that I might become His righteousness.” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.21).

So, when St Paul, as he does in today’s Epistle (1 Corinthians 6.12-20), exhorts us to fasting from food and warns us repeatedly about fornication, it is never in a life-denying way or to induce guilt and misery, still less to take away pleasure and enjoyment in the Creation God has made and in which generation after generation is designed to take its part. Like the father in the Gospel going after his firstborn son to come back to the feast of forgiveness and restoration, Paul asks us what we really want, what ultimately satisfies us. What brings us the fulfilment of our deepest aspirations, what is the cause of our lasting joy? Is it what we feel are our just reward; is it food and an ample way of life with plenty of resources? All these run out. Is it physical gratification to fill the void of loneliness? We may be made this way, but how it ebbs and flows. So what is the great connection that brings lasting happiness and God’s intended sheer joy of being alive? Judging what this is, is what we in turn are to be judged on. St Paul says it is this: being united with Christ who paid the highest price for you, sacrificing Himself so that you might no longer be lost to death, becoming your sin so that you could become God’s own glory, in every corner of you, heart, mind and soul; body, spirit and eternal life.

In other words, turn inside out and face your coming glory. If you yourself cannot turn your heart and your outlook from the dark inside, let Christ within you push His face through your sin to look out and see God’s light. Let the voice of the One Who knows no sin be the one to say by your lips, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Even if you call yourself unworthy, even if you are not ready, let the Christ within you stand forth in you, for His Father to run and embrace you, and clothe you in that robe of joy restored. Let Christ’s be your eyes to behold His Father’s coming judgment on you, looking back at you, adoring you and weeping over you, loving you back to everything that is His, because all that He has is for you.

This inexhaustible, unconditional love is the judgment that dissolves impenitence and going round in earthbound circles without hope. So let Him Whose Cross takes away the sin that destroys you, be your endless Resurrection – your heaven on earth for now, but your place in the blessed Kingdom for ever.

Friday, 25 November 2016

St Andrew Dung-Lac and Signs of the Light, Homily at the Ordinariate Mass, Church of the Most Precious Blood, The Borough, Southwark, 24 November 2016

The Emperor Minh Mang, at whose behest St Andrew Dung-Lac was executed, ruled Vietnam in strict accordance with Confucian philosophy. Its stress on the importance of family and social harmony did not rely on a spiritual or supernatural worldview for its values. There was religion, of course, with temples, gods and offerings to be made to them; but it served to conform the divine powers and unseen forces to the needs and priorities of humans, rather than the other way round.

The activity of Catholic priests in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries told a rather different story. Here was word of a king whose Kingdom was not of this world, who had set about making the earth into a realisation of heaven, and who was not an unseeable mythical hero, but a man of flesh and blood, recognised as God among us because He banished the power of evil and injustice not by the imposition of power, but by His absolute self-sacrifice. His Cross was thus more powerful than any earthly lord, however much they might strive to establish order and harmony, because it unlocks unbounded love, and the vital preceding steps of unconditional forgiveness and the gift to trust in God. Here was a king not just to be revered, but to be loved. Here was a man who did not think He could rule heaven and manipulate it for earthly objectives: here was The Man who embodies heaven and changes the world to heavenward aims.

You can imagine St Andrew Dung Lac in 1839, and others like St Joseph Marchand, who went before him to martyrdom in 1835, St Pierre Borie likewise beheaded in 1838 and St Jean Charles Cornay in 1837: they were seen as subversives, unsettling the harmony of society and turning “proper religion” upside down. No wonder that Emperor Minh Mang called Christianity “the European Darkness”. Not for the first time were Christians seen as impious, and enemies of the plain light of the common good.

But the Lord has told us in the Gospel (Luke 21. 20-28) that you will only see the Son of Man coming in power and the great light of glory, out of a sun and a moon and stars that have been darkened by signs of agony in the world, menaces that fill people with fear, and misery and violence across every land. In other words, when we read the adversity in our times and our lives for meaning, we Christians are to look into them not for vindication, or revenge on the enemy, but for the working out of the purposes of God in the world, according to the pattern of His own life when He lived it in our own flesh. As we pray each year, Christ “went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified”. Thus the same Christ who walked in Galilee and gave Himself for our sakes in unreserved love and forgiveness, is the Christ who is active in the world now and who will come at the End of Time; there is no other Christ. And we know in our hearts that this is our life, too: no Cross, no Crown.

Yesterday at Westminster Cathedral, Aid to the Church in Need arranged Red Wednesday, when it was bathed, in common with many other Church buildings, in red light to recall the bloodshed of the martyrs. This is not for pity, or bitterness, or even for special Christian pleading, but to confess our trust in Christ and the innocent blood He poured out for us, when He went before us to perfect our faith. Present at the Mass was the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, whose community in Syria and Iraq alongside the Catholic, Orthodox and Assyrian Churches has borne the wood of the Cross to follow Christ as He foretold. But what is remarkable about the Christians of the Middle East and their bishops like Mor Ignatius Aphrem who encourage them is the faith, the confidence in God, and the joy that never ceases to shine through. It was Pope Tawadros of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who noted that when the possessed Islamic State murdered his migrant-worker flock on a Libyan beach, the young men simply said, “Lord, have mercy,” before they died. They knew that their Redeemer lives and that in their flesh they would stand and see God in His Presence, behold Him not a stranger. No words of revenge, no unforgiving curses, no bitter defiance. Just the appeal of sinners to have the grace to be forgiving, that we may likewise find forgiveness, and bring into the world slightly more love than there is at the moment.

This is the life of heaven: to be free not only of sin but of grudges and hate, free of belief in power that can strike down, freed up for the enduring, imperturbable, inexhaustible impetus of love.

To the world, this is obscure, mysterious, convoluted, twisting reality. How can the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch smile and profess his unshakable belief in the Resurrection of Christ and humanity in the flesh? How can he spout this when all around is death, and the worst abuse and destruction cries out for redress? How can he speak of forgiveness from such weakness? But this Christian darkness is just to us how things are in the light of the Light of the World.

“Let your light so shine before men,” He said, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Let your works be goodness, virtue, mercy, forgiveness, love and persevering trust in Christ and His promises, and the Son of Man’s glory will be seen in who YOU are, and HOW you are, and how you act. The Kingdom of Christ the Son of Man will be seen coming in power and great glory for now by no other means. Then the Light will shine in the world through you.

St Andrew Dung-Lac, pray for us.
Martyrs of Vietnam, pray for us.
Martyrs of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, pray for us.
Martyrs wherever Christ’s goodness and forgiveness are hated, pray for us.

And wherever darkness calls itself reality, wherever it withholds mercy and calls it justice, wherever it shrouds people so they cannot see their hope, as God the Word spoke first to our Creation: “Let there be Light.”

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Doctor Strange and the Miracle from within: Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, 13th November 2016

Those who have been to see the wonderful super-hero film Doctor Strange, will be aware of the tale of a virtuoso neuro-surgeon, who is brought down in the midst of his pride, after crashing his car. Losing the skill of his hands, he turns to the supposedly mystic east for arcane wisdom and supernatural powers, in order to recover his dexterity and thus his former self-image. He meets a spiritual master, who tells him that his problems arise from his conceit, and that he must undo all that he thinks and believes, and start with genuine humility to learn to be who he is meant to become all over again. As the story unfolds and Doctor Strange unlearns his self-centred life, he discovers not only the difference between good and evil, but also the hidden moral force for good that guides and guards the universe, the potency of which he begins to harness.

But as his hands acquire different new powers, we begin to scent that all is not as it seems. Doctor Strange defends himself from the attacks of supernatural enemies; he contains their activities; he slips in and out of the different overlapping universes; he rolls back time to restore good and out-manoeuvre the evil consumed with bitterness, vengeance and violence. He resets history. And then it begins to dawn on those who have contended in the struggle for good to prevail over evil that, while they won, the power they drew upon was the same as the power drawn on by evil, and that they have broken the morality of their code not to subvert the laws of nature in pursuit of good. Finally, it is laid bare that the spiritual master who has provided a moral compass throughout must thus herself be deeply flawed. She has nurtured and protected Doctor Strange; but the powers to circumvent the order of the universe that she has forbidden to her disciples are those which she has relied upon to achieve for herself a life eternal.

As I watched the film to the unravelling of its moral, I kept thinking, “The end does not justify the means” and those who say “Let us do evil that good may come of it” (Romans 3.8). I also thought that the eternal life promised by harnessing the hidden force at the heart of creation is only the promise of Satan to Christ on the mountain height – “Fall down and worship me, and all this will be Yours” (Matthew 4.8-9). In other words, the Kingdom, whose blessedness we sing and aspire to so often when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, does not come by force, and power imposed on people from outside and beyond the world. It is the solidity of virtue grown and resilient from within the soul of each heart and each society. Even in The Lord of the Rings, the good wizard Gandalf’s powers are futile, when it comes down to a straight battle in the world between real good and real evil. Again and again, the evil power of Sauron forgets the lesson he is forced to learn only after he has been defeated - evil gets exhausted; it runs out, while virtue and holiness arise out of the limitless store of freely given love that is the principle on which the universe is created and sustained as it proceeds. This is what is meant by Aslan, the redeeming and self-sacrificing Lion in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, when he speaks of “the Deeper Magic from Beyond the Dawn of Time” (The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, chapter 15): God works His power upon us, to soften our hearts, achieve his miracles of the new life, and to bring in His Kingdom, from within nature and from deep inside us. Indeed there are miracles, and visions, spiritual experiences, and moments of direct confrontation between the human being and the mysteries of God; but they are rare. But even these come from within the workings of nature as it is restored by God’s grace, from within the soul as it repents and turns to look for God and trust Him.

Think of the Parable of the Sower, which is today’s Gospel (Luke 8. 5-15). Jesus speaks of His own working in our souls: “the seed is the Word of God”. God the Son does not impose the outcome of the Kingdom – the establishment of peace, the achievement of justice and righteousness, the vindication and prevailing of all that is good. It comes from within. He continually sows seeds for it, to find the good earth in every person where it may sink in, take the time it needs to germinate, draw on the nurture and nutrients it needs to gather strength, put forth tender shoots, and grow from one season to another, until its ripens and the fruit is borne. It is often missed that Our Lord implies this to be a process in us that has to happen time and again, over and over: the never-ending cycle of our growing in the Kingdom to harvest time, when the Sower comes round again, never giving up on His purposes, or on the hope that next time around the barren ground will let the seed sink in, that now the thorns will not choked it, that it will not die because of the aridity of our spirits. It was Blessed John Henry Newman who recognised that “miracles are no remedy for unbelief” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 8, Sermon 6): there is no resetting of history and nature to command our belief or our virtue. If we look to Christ, we look in vain for a Super-Saviour, like Doctor Strange with his startling, magical, evil-busting but morally ambiguous powers, defeating the dark consequence of violence only because of an even more potent effort of destruction. To the wicked and corrupt generation who say, “Give us a sign” (Matthew 16.4) and “He said He would destroy the Temple and raise it up in three days; let Him come down now from the Cross, and we will believe in Him” (Matthew 27. 40, 42), Newman says, “Let us … put aside vain excuses; and, instead of looking for outward events to change our course of life, be sure of this, that if our course of life is to be changed, it must be from within.” Yet, he continues, “We have desired and waited for a thing impossible,—to be changed once and for all, all at once, by some great excitement from without, or some great event, or some special season; something or other we go on expecting, which is to change us without our having the trouble to change ourselves. We covet some miraculous warning.” Instead, it is enduring, self-sacrificing, goodness, virtue, longing for holiness, determination to seek the good – refusing to do wrong in the hope that good may come of it – that mark the grace of God, sinking within and finding fertile fruit until the fruits of His Kingdom are harvested season after season. For, as Newman concludes, not unnatural intervention, but “love of heaven is the only way to heaven.”

In today’s Theotokion, we are reminded that, as this has happened in humanity before, it can happen with us. St Anna is seen as the barren one who gives birth to the Mother of God. No longer the stony ground, by the seed sown from the Kingdom she becomes the mother of the Mother of the Saviour and thus the nourisher of our life. Likewise, in today’s Resurrection chants (Tone 4), we view the grave, but not the existence of death. It is not the tomb that has been hollowed out, but death itself. It has been “plundered” and robbed of the Lord Whom it held back behind its gates until the third day. We, too, are being excavated from within, as the sin and resistance to love are steadily removed. The gates of unlovingness and our lazy hope for some magic to come along and change us, are “shattered”. What happens next is what St Paul found had happened to him: “I have been crucified with Christ,” he says. “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ Who lives within me” (from today’s Epistle, Galatians 2. 16-20).

So here we are, with no Gandalf, no Doctor Strange, and only the Sign of Jonah to the wicked and corrupt generation: the Son of Man Who dwelt in the heart of the earth, came forth to Resurrection not through a dazzling display of worldly might or other-worldly magic, but by transforming His creation from within, from the beginning, step by step, by being born in it, by dying on one of its Trees, by taking on our sin and undermining it, and by nurturing the earth to bring Him forth as its own fruit, out of the sheer determination of love. The Deeper Magic does not inflict itself, nor does it meet violence with smarter violence. Love of heaven is the only way to change the world and its affairs; for we know that it is the only way to change ourselves. And we will know Who our Saviour truly is when we can say, “I have been crucified with Him; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives within me.”


Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Can the Ordinariates represent Christian Unity

This paper was delivered at the Third Receptive Ecumenism Conference at Fairfield University, Fairfield CT, in June 2014 and then substantially developed at the suggestion of Professor Paul Murray to set the discussion of historical origins, Anglican patrimony and ecumenism of life in the context of the crystallised and phased method of receptive ecumenical learning that he had set out in 2011 at Bose, for the inaugural session of ARCIC III.

It also draws on two earlier talks given to two "groups of Anglicans" in early 2010 - the first on the ecumenical significance and potential of the Anglicanorum Coetibus, and the second reflecting more on what constitutes the Anglican patrimony and the mutual enrichment of Anglican becoming Catholics and Catholics drawing from Anglican tradition in a forthcoming ecumenism of life together - and contribute to the ongoing ecumenism of the Catholic Church with the Anglican Communion.

The full paper can be downloaded here.