Monday, 12 March 2018

When the Wood is Dry: Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent and the Veneration of the Cross, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 11th March 2018

All over the country, you see numerous large woods and forests. Not all of these are the ancient woodlands you would think they are. After the First World War, Britain had only 5% of its forest cover left. It had all been burned for fuel, or used for industry, trade and war. During the Second World War, replanting efforts took a an even greater hit, when the forest cover was cut by a third: wood was urgently needed for fuel, industry, paper, munitions, rifle butts, repairs and construction, and for any other effort needed to prevail over the Nazis of Germany. The replanting of land with trees had began in 1919 with the foundation of the Forestry Commission and, a century later, it is the country’s largest landholder. Forest cover now reaches 10% of the land, with ambitions for even more. It is worth pausing to thing that, while many of us, especially in towns and cities, look upon trees as part of our green lung, purifying the air and enhancing the environment and the enjoyment of the natural world, for much of the last 300 years, trees’ great purpose has been to be destroyed – cut down for fuel, for shipbuilding, construction, defences, and to forge and make the weapons of war.

This thought of the industrial death of the tree, rendered unforgettable in The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien celebrates an uprising by the trees of the forest against Saruman, the wizard who has turned all his power for good to evil, burning the wood for forging ploughshares into swords, takes us back to the time a little before Our Lord was born, when there was an uprising against Roman rule in Galilee. The Romans defeated the rebels and crucified two thousands of them along the four-mile road between Sepphoris and Nazareth. The carpenters of both towns would have been forced to make the crosses, exposing great tracts of woodland to infertility, as the moisture was dried out of the earth. At least a generation of young men was lost, echoing the account in St Matthew’s gospel of the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem a few years later. The memory of the devastation of the population must have been vivid in the home and community in which Jesus grew up, and He was well aware of the use to which wood was put. I often think that this atrocity, when so many mothers’ sons were slain, lay behind His lament to the daughters of Jerusalem, after He is led away - found to be innocent but nonetheless condemned - from Pilate’s court, when He says,
Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women…’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23. 28-29, 31)
The Lord, of course, handled wood from trees every day of His youth. We usually think of Saint Joseph, His fatherly guardian as a carpenter. But in the Gospel, he is described as a tekton. The word is close to words we use to this day in English – e.g. architect, protect. It means someone who makes a roof; or puts a roof over your head. In other words, it is someone who constructs a building – a house, a store, a temple. Wood was Christ’s raw material, the everyday tool of the trade in which He was trained by Joseph. Nothing could be more solid and concrete in their practical, daily living: wood in life and death was literally a hard reality.

Here, then, are three contrasting purposes. First, the glory of the living and breathing green creation; secondly, the destruction for fuelling industry, economy and even the bellicose visitation of death; and third the construction of household, of the family home, of human community and of sacred space for the dwelling of the Spirit to bring “God with us” close. In Jesus’ life, memory, faith, vision, and destiny, all three purposes meet their converging point. A tree, that once lived, bore leaves and fruited seed, has the sap rising in it turned back to the earth, as it is called into a purpose it can only serve if it is dead. This is “what will happen when the tree is dry.” Then, two dead wooden beams assault with violence the living Person Who created them. They hold Him distorted into their shape, not His, a shape that has been given to them against their nature. They convey their own destruction to Him, and draw Him into their death. And yet, from this hell-invented parody of a tree, bringing back all that collective memory of the mass execution on the road outside the town where He had grown up, Jesus pulls to Him the wood of the trade He learned at the side of His adoring foster-father. Holding it by the nails in His hands, once more the carpenter builds a house. Again He creates the house for a holy family, like the first at Nazareth. Now He constructs the first new household of faith, as He says to St John, “Behold your mother” and, to the Theotokos, “Mother, behold your son.” For from that moment, the beloved disciple took the Mother of God to his own house and made it a home for them both. Before their eyes, they were seeing Christ’s work of redemption taking place in His Passion; and in three days from the household spiritually crafted from the wood of the Cross, St John would outrun St Peter to the Tomb to find it empty – and then run back to declare to the Lord’s Mother the first good news of His resurrection.

In our Liturgy today, we sing, “To Your Cross, O Master, we bow in veneration.” This is because our faith, the faith that comes directly to us from the first household of faith in Christ’s Passion that dawned on Mary and John at the foot of the Cross, is not in the power of an instrument of death, but in the means of shaping a new creation for our humanity. Thus we go on to sing, “and we glorify Your resurrection!” For, just as the beams of a disfigured tree imparted death onto the Creator, so the Creator, in the act of nailing together the first pieces of His new household of faith, gives back life to the hard and dried up wood. The great hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, from the sixth century, which will be sung from next weekend in the Latin Church until Good Friday, has it exactly:

Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a while the ancient rigour
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend.
Faithful Cross! Above all other,
One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit they peer may be;
Sweetest Wood, and Sweetest Iron –
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee.
We, in our way in the Christian East, join them and add this:
By Your Cross, You destroyed death; You opened Paradise to the thief; You changed the lamentation of the myrrh-bearers to joy and You charged the apostles to proclaim that You are risen. (Troparion of Sunday, Tone 7)
When the Lord tells us, then, in today’s Gospel (Mark 8.34-9.1), “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”, bear in mind that He is remembering the terrible events that coloured the whole of His upbringing in the community of His home town, Nazareth, and the terrible cost that is risked when justice, goodness and faith in God and His Kingdom is prized above even life and family. He is also mindful that towards a Cross is the inevitable course that His own words and ministry will take Him. Yet when He says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” and follows it by saying, “Whoever loses their life for Me, will save it,” He is not holding out for us the prospect of defeat and a dead-end sacrifice, but the inevitable consequence of crucifying our God endowed with the skills of a builder: we are being offered not only a new household for our faith and those who believe it, but the construction work of a Kingdom from God, now come with power. (Mark 9.1).

And so we sing, “The tree of the Cross … has quenched the flaming sward [that] no longer bars the gate to Eden. The sting of death banished, You, O my Saviour, have come out and called…. ‘Return again – to Paradise!’” (Kontakion of the Triodion, Tone 7).

With Jesus to His Passion and Cross, and with Mary Magdalen, Peter and John to His Resurrection, “Arise, let us be going!” (Mark 14.42; John 20.3-4)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Lawrence Gray RIP: Address at the Funeral Service, St Wilfrid, Halton, Leeds, on 26th February 2018

Lawrence Gray has been my friend since 1984. “Lawrence” was what his wife, Maureen, called him when he had overstepped her mark. But he was unmistakably himself to us, always the person, the character, that he was: Laurie.

When I was first ordained in Leeds, it was Laurie and Maureen who took me under their wing, made sure I was never lonely as I started out, fed me, and gave me four years of laughter, joy, friendship - and a regard and understanding that I never deserved, but which held me up in good times and bad. I have never been worthy of the welcome I had into that family, and their encouragement then has lived with me to this day. Laurie had been a gifted footballer with a promising career ahead, which he gave up to marry Maureen and raise their large family. He is the hardest worker I ever met; and his dedication to the task in hand, and to what he felt mattered for people, inspired the same in others. He had no respect for those who didn’t measure up, and if you were out of favour, you were out until you proved yourself again. Then you were back in – just!

But he was patient of human nature, too, and understood you had to make your way by trial and error and there was no shame in it, just a determination to win through. And so, if you liked and respected him for who he was, he liked you back. The highest accolade was a torrent of mockery and humour at your expense. A mere “Thank you very much, that was lovely” to Maureen, for yet another huge and delicious meal of Yorkshires, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, swede, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and beef, followed by the guilty pleasure of a Viennetta, was shot straight down with, “You soft-soaping Lancashire bxxxxr, Father.” Or, quoting Billy Connolly, “Another custard cream, Father?”

After work in the Leeds metal and engineering industry (I think it was electroplating and that it badly affected his health and eyesight), Laurie was a much loved conductor on the Leeds buses, always ready with a laugh on the No 2 from the Corn Exchange to Belle Isle and Middleton, I think it was. He would do anything for you; and, as was always the Leeds way, everyone was “love”. When the conductors were phased out, the company was keen to keep him on, and they tried to train him as a driver; but a mix of poor eyesight and not feeling confident it was right for him meant in the end that he took on the management of the uniform stores. When he retired, he gave me his stout leather driver-conductor’s lockable float-and-ticket machine bag, which I still use regularly.

It was at Church that the Laurie I knew was his truest self. He was hugely proud that his eldest son, Paul, was a chorister at Leeds Parish Church; and his own devout churchgoing was serious, devout, loyal, and unstinting. Our Church, St Wilfrid’s, Halton, was (and is) a lively and mixed “village” church in the midst of east Leeds, set on the rise of Selby Road, a “city set on a hill” serving the remains of the old hamlet near the great Temple Newsam House, the post-war owner-occupier houses, the interwar suburban houses and bungalows, the long terrace of Victorian town houses on the ridge, where Laurie and Maureen lived, as did I, and the Halton Moor council housing estate. This was “The Parish that Came Alive” under the visionary Ernie Southcott, an energetic laboratory for his take on the “Parish Communion Movement” of pastoral liturgy that placed the Eucharist at the heart of the life and activity of the parish’s people and their homes. But it was under the steady hand and more traditional approach of Canon Kenneth Stapleton that Laurie drank deep of the Faith, and raised his family in the heart and life of the Church. Laurie on Sunday was no different from any other day, except intense and focused at Church, where he served on the altar, when he was not a sidesman or warden. He used to tell me that it meant everything that there was Christ on the altar, then the priest, then him, then the people in a clear line of connection at communion “without a doubt” (as he would say), no one in Church more than three steps from heaven itself.

What a faith! It took him all through the week, though he never wore a religious heart on his sleeve: “I am not a Christian,” he would say. “One day, perhaps, I can hold myself up and say so, without it all being a facade.” He knew himself. He knew about the falling-outs and the arguments. No pretence, his humour and expressions were so gloriously ripe (though I do not ever remember him swearing - people didn’t much then anyway – at least, I don’t remember him swearing in front of me!). He didn’t suffer fools gladly and could tell you unmistakably why; and if he had been hurt, he could keep a grudge on principle for years. This was a man of complete personal rectitude and integrity, driven to overcome his own odds, yet wise and accepting of others who struggled. He gave himself with without reserve because of love for his family. And because he understood himself, he was compassionate about other people’s needs and shortcomings, the problems they found themselves in and the needs they had to be loved regardless - even if that sometimes meant the hurt of having to leave them be.

Sadly, in later years, changes in Church life and worship left him estranged, and that is a shame; but the belonging in which he had been formed did not leave him: they remained deep within his heart, still sustained through close family bonds, and by friends and neighbours too. These things do not go far away; and nor do we, in God who is understanding of us always.

At the very centre of his service at St Wilfrid’s, something he loved deeply, were young people. He was completely committed to the Scout movement, and took it as seriously as serving in Church. Teaching, leading, inspiring young lads was in his bones, and they loved him for it, because they could see he was giving them everything of himself. He could be stern and demanding, and how they would moan; but it only increased your assurance. You would not want to cross him - not because of his wrath, but because no one would want to disappoint him. He had your back, and young people had no better protector. The walks, the canoes, the camps in the Lakes, the fell-walking with Wainwright and the treks in the Dales: it was unforgettable. He had everything covered and he opened up new worlds and possibilities to anyone willing to go along with him, to learn and play their part too. I also think that up in the dales and fells he felt the awe and wonder giving their dimension to his soul: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” resonated with him. He didn’t say much about these things, but that spoke volumes.

The sheer determination that carried him through life was nowhere better seen than in his unstoppable drive to build a dedicated new scout and guides hut - Laurie was the relentless fund-raiser and the builder too. He charmed the rich, and won the confidence of those with much less that it would all happen and it was worth their unstinting contribution too. It was all on, and no one could fail to be involved. He even got me, of all people, to be the Group Scout Leader, so that he had all the official backing he needed to see it through. And he did.

These recollections are from long ago; but it has been so good to have been in touch all the years since, and continually find that the friendship was always the same, always such a laugh even when life took some hard turns, and always in the midst of the amazing Gray family. He drove them up the wall, and he loved doing it; but they gave us good as they got and loved him all the more back

There are many people with state honours who have not done a fraction of what Laurie did from his heart for young people. It is my deep belief that now he has the greatest honour of all: he knew his own shortcomings well, but now he possesses freedom from them – from everything that holds human beings back in this life from being all they could have been, and from the gift of his heart’s desire: the knowledge at last that he can call himself what his beloved mentor, Canon Stapleton, assured him he would be: a Christian.

Laurie, your journeys here included the No 2 bus to the Corn Exchange and the parish trips with the scouts to climb Ben Lomond. Everywhere you went in your imagination and wonder at creation is now your true homeland. Once you knew you were no more than three steps away from Christ on his altar. Now there are no more steps and He has you to His side. Well done, good and faithful Laurie: you got there, by God's grace. Now may you rest in peace.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Sermon at the Re-Dedication of the Fynes Clinton Chantry Chapel of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Victory and St John, Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, 22nd February 2018

Every so often in the Holy Land, the archaeological survey uncovers an intriguing find that makes you think, “Of course, that makes sense.” Once I was taken to the museum at Hazor, where there were dozens of little metal and golden animals, each with a minute saddle on it. A remarkable scholar-priest of the Society of the Sacred Mission, Brother Gilbert Sinden, was our guide. He said, “These are golden calves.” He explained that the great story in Exodus (Exodus 32) of the Hebrews melting all their coin and jewellery down to fashion a great model beast, was not so as to worship it in place of the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, but so that they create a situation, a designated place where they could bring God down and make him sit, some throne where they could locate God and hold him to: hence the saddle. You will remember how Moses eventually comes back down from the mountain with the tablets of the Law and is so incensed that he drops the two stones and rushes to destroy the most profound misconception of God. For Moses has been in the ground of the Burning Bush, taken up into the mountain and brought into God’s sphere; he has encountered Him not face to face but face to mystery, face to intriguing, inscrutable but revealing mystery. It is not for us to bring God down to our size, to have Him in a position where we can corner Him, even on a throne. It is for us to be drawn out into Him. “There will come a time,” says the Lord in the Scriptures (John 4), “when people will not worship the Lord in this mountain,” and its wild expanse , “but in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.21-23.) So we have the beginnings of what we recognise as our own tradition. Not a golden representation of a divine being on which God is to be positioned and pinpointed, but a recreation of that desert and mountain top wilderness, the tent of meeting, where God comes to be present among His people - yet found in His ways, not at our behest.

We are told by C.S. Lewis that Aslan is a wild lion; and so, it is not we who create the conditions for His presence, but He who makes the conditions for ours. Thus in our churches, an altar is set within a house where no being or representation from another dimension is turned off and on - not even hints of the “magical supernatural” that we can grasp on to, but only the sacred patterns of acts and tangible things of this creation in among which our God slips in, and beyond, saying, “Behold the dwelling of God is among men and women!” Here we see not artefacts set up to be our objects of adoration, but Crosses, icons, pictures and images that are signs drawing us out from our own minds into the mind and mystery of the Spirit of God - whose presence, which they indicate and even convey, we have come into. Here we see no golden-calf containment of the whole Divine Existence, but a tabernacle, a tent-of-meeting-us for God on the move - across the desert, by the mountains, into cities and over time and space. Within is nothing more otherworldly than daily bread, to the world a token or memento, but from heaven’s perspective the means time and again (and never permanently locked down by us) that the Lord chooses for his point of entry into our midst, in among the patterns, rites and signs that He has set by grace through our nature in our creation.

Another archaeological wonder lies beneath St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Behind the wall that cuts across Peter’s grave beneath the shrine in the crypt is an old passage along one side of which is a stone row of seats, then a gap where the western end of the grave is cut in two by the wall, and then another stone row. I often wonder if that gap was left, not just to respect the grave, but to place the famous chair now lost to us, the chair on which Peter had once sat to inspire and teach the first church in Rome of the Christ he knew and loved, the chair which it took a generation for his successors to say they would sit on, the chair the idea of which we celebrate today, as the focus of our bond and dream of unity in the Catholic Faith, in but one Church inseparable from the successor of Peter. I wonder.

Yet another archaeological find last year was the foundation of a building with a large room in Nazareth, bearing hints of ancient Christian usage. Was it the synagogue in which Christ had said the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him; or was it the house of an apostle, or even of the Holy Family, where the first Christian disciples had still gathered for ages after, to hear again and again the stories that Jesus told, to honour the Divine Mother and St Joseph, and to praise Our Lord for His saving Cross and Resurrection? We will never know.

Yet here today we find ourselves in the midst of a captivating sacred geography of our own. There to the west is the Holy House of England’s Nazareth, and to its north east the chapel of St John. Within a few steps, then, we find ourselves at the same moment at the Incarnation and in its inevitable outcome at the foot of the Cross. The Mother of God, who speaks her consent to the archangel Gabriel, signals her consent to her Son and Lord, when He gives to her St John the Beloved as her own son too. Within a few steps, we move from the House of the Holy Family in Nazareth to the new Household of Faith that is the domestic church begun that first Good Friday in Jerusalem. From this house of St John, the young disciple who had remained with Mary at the Cross ran to see the emptied Tomb; and then he ran back with news of the resurrection of her Son (John 20.1-10). This sacred space of St John’s Chapel, whose renovation by the Catholic League (whose chapel it has always been) we give thanks for today, is thus fittingly the Chapel of the Holy Cross too - and a Chapel of our Lady of that Cross’s Victory, as well. We stand physically at this moment within the patterns God has set to enter into our lives and existence, to draw us into His presence and its purpose - our salvation. Here we are in among and between the moment of His Incarnation, His death on the Cross, His foundation of the Church to be the Body that brings the presence of His Body into the midst of the world, His resurrection, and the dwelling of God among men and women on earth, and thus the dwelling of men and women in the midst of God in heaven.

But there is one coordinate of the pattern of our sacred geography missing. Where is Peter, who ran with John to the tomb in all this. We hear the Lord’s commission to be the one to feed Christ’s lambs out of love for the Master. And we hear that Peter is to be the very rock on which the household of the Church is to be built. Where is he in this place of sacred interwoven times and patterns?
When Henry Joy Fynes Clinton, who was such an influential supporter of the restoration of the pilgrimage to this Holy House, founded the Catholic League, he set down an imperturbable principle: that the command of Christ “that they all be one” had to face the hard fact that there could be no unity between Christians and their churches that was not a unity of the church in its wholeness. There could be no unity to the exclusion of others, no reconciliation with Christ that allowed for a Church divided. There could be no Catholic unity that countenanced a Church without Peter. His idea was resisted and suspect, as it remains; but it would never go away. In the end, it became the basic purpose of the Anglican-RC dialogue to find how our divided churches could again be one - with integrity - and not without Peter to feed the lambs and to be the rock-foundation to all we say of the hope that lies within us, our hope in the Cross and resurrection of the incarnate Lord who is God among us.

We who have been drawn into the presence of God in this place on the feast of St. Peter’s Chair bear witness that we have been walked among by the Lord, who was incarnate at the house in Nazareth, who claimed His victory on the Cross, and who burst with news of resurrection into the house where Mary lived with John, giving new life and meaning on the brightest day to those who had stood by Him in the darkest hour. We walk thus in turn at this moment in many places in time and space - the place of the Annunciation to Mary is the place of Christ’s annunciation of Himself to us; the foot of the Cross is our place, too; and the Tomb emptied in expectation of ascension to heaven is our own natural habitat. And sustaining it all is the rock, the apostle Peter, who guides the Church in history to return constantly to the Lord, as the sheep that listen to His voice, the lambs to be fed and loved by Him into the kingdom.

On this day we stand in our place in the divine pattern - there is Mary; over there is John; and on Peter we are standing. But above all, it is the Lord who is present among us, for behold the dwelling of God is with us!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

We Sheep and Goats: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgement, at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, Meatfare Sunday, 11 February 2018

The goats in today’s Gospel make you think immediately of how sharp the distinction is between being good and being bad. No grey areas; just right and wrong; and we can’t be the ones in the wrong! Thus we identify ourselves as the good sheep of the Good Shepherd, the Christlike lambs, and the others as the accursed scapegoats (Matthew 25.31-46).

Hearing Jesus’ list, most of us will be mentally checking off our attitudes and actions – “Was I so absorbed in myself that I was failing in compassion and generosity?” Others will congratulate themselves on being kind to the poor who deserve it, but tough on those who “have only themselves to blame”. I reckon, too, that there are whole swaths of Christians saying to themselves, “God is on our side, not the side of heretics and schismatics, or immoral people. First they must repent, and return. Then we will help them.” Most Christian Churches have people who think like this; let us avoid this easy and unspiritual trap.

Still others will realise that Christ is not reeling off a list of things to complete in order to be worthy of Him. Instead, he is talking about acts of humanity that, if they are genuinely godly, just come like second nature to us. He does not want us to collect good deeds like badges of virtue; and He certainly does not want us to do them as a favour to Him - regardless of the favour needed from us by the people before our very eyes. Many of us will feel guilty about our shortcomings and selfishness. But God wants us do all these things not out of shame or duty, but out of sheer love for being just naturally part of His Kingdom. So a change of heart is what today’s Gospel asks of us: “Yes” to repentance from heartless attitudes; “Yes” to compassion for sinners, because we are sinners ourselves no different; “Yes” to growth in honest goodness, so that virtue within - and generosity with the gifts God has given us – arise not from what we do, but from who we are becoming in the great scheme of God’s Kingdom, as it constantly draws up close to the people in the world. To become like that, would it not be magnificent? Well, it already is, and it is how we are being remade, even now, to be fitting for the purposes of the Kingdom, and bringing it closer.

So it is in the midst of the process of becoming - even now - what we are not yet, that we see what Jesus is really laying before us. It is the same as the question over Caesar’s currency in the Temple (Matthew 22.15-22), the wise and the unprepared virgins at the wedding (Matthew 25.1-13), and the sower’s wheat and tares (Matthew 13.1-23): the answer is not the obvious explanation, and He is making you think it through more profoundly, with just a little more self-awareness than is comfortable for us. The contrast between sheep and goats is not between them and us: but the irony of two similar things that are both true of us. Both lists are things we do and won’t do. We are sheep and goat alike. If we condemn the others, we condemn ourselves. If we count ourselves into the Kingdom, we have no ground to show people the door to the other way.

In the religion of the Hebrew Temple, sheep and goats were both sacrificial animals, so one is not pure and the other unclean. They are both offerings that avail for reconciling human beings to God. But the most famous Lamb and the most famous goat were not sacrifices for sin at all. The Paschal Lamb was a slain innocent, and his blood brought protection and blessing; but it was not a sacrifice for sin. Moreover, while the Scapegoat was chosen each year to take away the sins of the world, he was never slain or sacrificed. The High Priest, in the Name of the Lord Most High whose very presence he represented, would assume upon himself the sins of all the people - and then touch the Goat to transfer their sins onto it instead. The animal laden with sin thus became impure; it could not be offered as a sacrifice. It was sent into the wilderness. It was not banished and rejected: it was relied upon, to take the guilt far away, never to come back on us. Only then could a pure atonement sacrifice be offered. (Leviticus 16.10, 15)

In other words, the significance of the goats in Our Lord’s striking story and the symbolism of the sheep are inseparable. Christ, who will come to be the Judge of us all, looks on the whole of us, not just the presentable bits, or the side we would like Him to find. He wants to see the blemishes, the shortcomings, the deliberate wickedness that in the former dispensation no sacrifice could guarantee to take away - the side that our forebears cast onto the back of a goat to get rid of. In the new dispensation, St John the Baptist revealed that this unacceptable side of us would no longer be packed off, beyond redemption. From then on no Scapegoat, but only the Lamb of God Himself, would take away the sins of the world (John 1.29). Nothing about us need be lost, nothing of us would lie beyond redemption, everything could be turned round, the totality of us could become acceptable (Romans 12.1), and find forgiveness.

For it is in contrast with the shadows in us, the facets that are so starkly true of us, that the light at work in us is seen outshining all else, and bringing it out of darkness into His own marvellous light (I Peter 2.9). St John the Theologian told us of a light shining in the darkness that the darkness did not overwhelm. He said that that it was the light of our life - “The Light of all Humans” (John 1.4). Christ spoke of Himself as the Light of the World - not so much shining down on it, but illuminating what He intended human living to be from within (John 8.12) – like a city set on a hill, or a light shining from out under a bucket (Matthew 5.14-15), or bridesmaids lighting the path at night for the bridegroom on his way to meet his bride (Matthew 25.1-13). It is all hints, glints, gleams that Christ has seen the whole of us; and, from within, it is His Light that is overwhelming our darkness, it is His light that is becoming ever more the life of us, as we become in turn the lights of the world.

St Paul, talking today of fasting (I Corinthians 8.8-13; 9.1-2), says something intriguing: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” I rather think that this is the point of our discussion of the sheep, which the Good Shepherd knows through and through (John 10.14), and the goats – all that we do, how we act, good and evil, shedding light or casting shadow, what we believe and how we think. For, as St Paul realises, it all comes down to the question he himself faced on the road to Damascus: “Who am I, what am I in relation to this One Person, Jesus Christ? Is He everything that is the Truth of all that I mean about God? Is He the Truth of everything of what it is to be human?” For we see just as we are seen, and we recognise just as we are recognised (I Corinthians 13.12). Or, as the old man of the country explained to the priest, who enquired why he came to Church when there was no service, for hours every day: “I looks at Him, and He looks at me.” I draw Him into me, to make my darkness into His light, so I will be drawn into Him. I can look nowhere else, nothing accounts for anything, unless it is Christ.

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey used to say, when people asked him what God, the Infinite, the Transcendent, the Almighty was like, “In Him there is no unChristlikeness at all.” Our point of union with God is the same. It is not about our being special lambs at the expense of rejected goats; for the Judgment is not about condemnation, but identifying where to shine the visible Image of the invisible God (Colossians 1.15 ff.), where to stitch the reconciling of all things, making peace by the blood of the Cross. “One you were alienated and did evil deeds,” says Paul, “but now you are presented holy and blameless, if you continue steadfast in faith.” (Colossians 1.21-22)

So the Judgement upon us is this: that God sees the whole person, good and bad. Nevertheless, our being sheep and goat alike, we look back not one way to the dark and another way to the light, but to none other than Christ. In the face of this Person, we see ourselves as we are seen. We see that the Light which is the very life of us insists that what is true of God is true of us too: “In you and me, there is to be no unChristlikeness at all.” Thus Divine Judgement is both true and awesome in its blessedness and its inescapable sentence upon us with the insistent demand that will never be lifted from: “You are the Light of the World!” (Matthew 5.14)

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.