Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, 14 December 2014

Here in our Byzantine church in London in December 2014, we seem for an hour to have stepped out of time. A few yards away Oxford Street is heaving with shoppers, engrossed as one mind in the drudgery of shopping for Christmas. Yet here we are keeping an ordinary Sunday, and our celebration of the Nativity of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, according to the flesh is a month away.

It is true that two weeks ago we began the Nativity Fast, but it is only next week that we will begin to sing a chant that looks to the coming feast with an anticipation that we share with the expectant Mother of God. We are also a few weeks away from the Sundays that will honour the ancestors of Christ who prepared His coming. But coming out of the time around us, does not mean that we have put the world on pause. We are not at a stand-still. Yet standing is the theme taken by both the Apostle and the Evangelist today.

For St Paul (Ephesians 6.10-17), standing is readiness and resistance, holding your position against the coming struggle. He alludes to the prowess of the soldier, the champion standing head and shoulders above the rest, the athlete whose years of physical training have prepared him to go to, in the defence of peace. This spiritual warrior is confident in the Lord of hosts and assured in what he is to do. His standing is strong, and recalls to us the way St Paul talks about how we may all attain the fullness of the stature of humanity in Christ. With this stature, such a soldier of Christ may be like a coiled spring; but the image of him is static. He stands in the strength of waiting and resilience.

In St Luke’ story (Luke 13. 10-17), at first sight the standing comes after release for an old lady of her years of being bent double. It is healing; it is freedom from misery and the spirit-sapping energy of adversity and disability. We are drawn into a bewildering scene where a woman, who has not only been disabled for eighteen years but marginalised for it because her condition is blamed on a baleful spirit, is spectacularly healed. In the dramatic moment, we expect universal rejoicing and wonder at the power of God among us. But the magic of the moment is snapped, when a clergyman with an answer for everything declares that healing on the Sabbath is against the rules. It did not dawn on him that this was not earthly effort, but can only have come from the initiative of God. You can just hear him turning on Jesus, and saying, “It’s not what you did, it’s the way you did it”; or, “You should have consulted me first.” The Lord can readily point to the double standards and the failure to see the purpose of God: that God made the Sabbath to show off the completeness of the world and of humanity that was once achieved by creation, and now by healing and salvation. Ironically – again, you can picture it – the head of the synagogue congregation and the Lord have a “stand-up” row; and between them a dumbfounded woman, also standing up, but for her it the first time properly in two decades, her lips frozen in mid-praise to God, while the very person who should have been most glad for her, the man of God, is shown up and blames the Son of God for making the world a little more like the Kingdom of Heaven than it was before. Yet the image we have is still static; we and the old lady are not moving now; again things are static. There is a hint of it in today’s troparion (Sundays of the Second Tone): “When You went down to death, O Life immortal, You struck Hades dead…” There is something abrupt, and we hold our breath as we wait for something to happen next.

In our language, standing tends to give that impression – waiting, resisting (confronting, perhaps), talking, meeting, arriving, even holding things up. Standing is after the end of things, or before their beginning, or a pause in their midst. But to the first hearers of the Lord and the readers of St Paul, standing is all about an act that is in the process of being done, a dynamic movement on which there is consequence and progression.

When St Paul writes of standing, the word he uses is part of the same word he uses for the resurrection of Christ. Telling us to stand, he is telling us to live the life of those now risen from the dead, even before their deaths. Imagine if we in English never knew of the word “resurrection”. Imagine if all the time, like the Dutch and Germans, we referred to the Upstanding of Christ. In other words, St Paul is not telling us to train and arm ourselves for a fight, even a spiritual one, so that we can stand and be ready. He is telling us to stand up, just like Christ stood up from lying in His grave. St Paul is telling us to live not as those preparing to live out our days on earth, as we head towards our deaths, but with the capacity for living the life that is already ours – the life of resurrection that is already at work in us, countering the effects of evil and destruction, which did their worst until Christ rose up and stood over them and can now never separate us from Him. This is why we sing every Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs giving life”. In the famous hymn by Charles Wesley, “Soldiers of Christ, arise” (The Whole Armour of God, Charles Wesley, 1747), he speaks likewise of overcoming, of “tread[ing] all the powers of darkness down” – not by mere victory, but by living the resurrection life in which we “stand entire at last” – entirely filled with grace, entirely filled with freedom from sin, from the destroying limitations of earthly life, thus entirely human again, being filled with the Upstanding of Christ himself within us.

So look again at the Gospel. It is not just the story of a healing miracle. It is a description of Christ’s own resurrection and the new life that comes from it for all. Like Him, the woman is brought down to nothingness until, by the end of her own Good Friday and then the beginning of the Sabbath –do not forget that days begin on the sunset the closes the preceding day, the Friday evening – she is finally laid low and all her strength is drained. The miracle of the destruction of death is worked through her on the Sabbath, which means cessation – not merely cessation from work activity, but the enforced cessation of sin and evil’s activity too. While no act appears to be have been happening, the power of God to heal and set the earth-bound soul to the eternal liberty intended for it takes effect. Lo and behold, she rises; she stands up. It is not the end of an old infirmity. It is not the afterword towards the end of a life, whose most active years, once full of potential, have been lost. It is the Upstanding of Jesus at work in her.

As we look forward with those around us to the forthcoming celebrations, we have stepped out of their time but we have not frozen our chronology, or pressed the “pause” button. The fast of moderation and the entering of a saner, less frenzied dimension may come as a relief. But we are not here for respite. We are here because we know that the real hurry of humanity is not for material things that will pass on their way in a few weeks’ time. The real hurry of humanity that we are occupied with is to meet the timing of God, who started His standing up even before there was a resurrection to show for it, as the story of the old lady has shown us. His constant standing up in every day and season takes us by surprise too, because we entertain the notion that the Resurrection is a thing of the past; and then it comes up to us, stands before us, and reminds us that we belong not to this world - or even to this passing world’s next world - but to a new, enduring and eternal world that has been begun in the midst of us and our time, and of which we are the population. Living in such a world, it is possible for us not to sin. In such a world, dying, behold we live (II Corinthians 6.9), and yet it is not we who live, but Christ who lives within us (Galatians 2.20). In such a world, it is possible for us to realise the Kingdom of God. In such as world, standing is not a matter of waiting or keeping still, but of movement upon movement, energised by grace to aspire for the blessedness of living in the very heaven, and constantly to hurry to catch up with it and get into it.

St Paul tells us that “you will be able to stand, and after having done everything, to stand”. It is a strange phrase, if you think it is all about withstanding, holding ready and staying still. But if you remember that it is about Christ’s ceaseless moving to stand up, to stand up within us, to be our rising as well, our will is nothing other than to be one with our God, and to desire above all things His Coming Kingdom, saying,
Still let the Spirit cry
in all His soldiers, “Come!”
Till Christ the Lord descends from high
and takes the conquerors home.
The Whole Armour of God, Charles Wesley, 1747

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

The icon depicting the events of this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke  5.1-11) shows the Lord standing on the shore of the lake. A crowd presses in on Him and there are too many, too close, for Him to make Himself heard. He sees Peter’s and James & John’s boats, and climbs in while the fishermen are mending their nets. He gets them to put out into the water just far enough, so that everyone can see Him and hear Him easily, using the surface of the lake to convey the sound of His voice.

At first, you might have thought He was putting some distance between Himself and the crowd, trying to get away from people’s demands. He has done this before, slipping through the crowds when accusers wanted to attack Him; or sensing someone in the crowd had taken power from Him, when it turned out that the woman with the bleed touched Him for healing.

But this is no act of escape. The true meaning of this story is not that He left the people behind on dry land, but that He “entered in”. He entered into a boat and from a vantage point actually turned back toward the crowd to drawn it into His world of the Spirit.

“Enter in” – where have we heard that phrase before? Think back to Christmas:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today…

O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord, Emmanuel.

This story of the Lord, getting into a boat, coming among His people, is a story of the incarnation, of the God of heaven taking human form and voice, to be the Word of God living among humanity. The significance of the boat is that it alludes to another ark – the Ark that preserved God’s creation from the Flood and brought it to salvation. This Ark in turn alludes to the Ark of the Covenant, the throne of the Great King in the Temple, that held both the Law and the presence of God among His people. To us in the Church, both of these are vivid symbols of the Mother of God, who is often referred to as the Ark, on whom sits the Lord as God made Flesh, Emmanuel, God among us, and in Person the very arrival of salvation.

So it is that in the Theotokion for today we sing to the Mother of God,

“The Master of all became flesh in you, the Holy Ark … you have become wider than the heavens carrying your Creator. Glory to Him Who freed us through birth from you.”

We often think of heaven as our destination after life, and the world as the path of struggles we take to it. But truly the Kingdom comes to us here. Christians do not believe in life after death; we believe in eternal life now. “Death has vanished,” we declare, and Eve is “redeemed from bondage now” – now, not at some point in the future. We sing, “You arose … and gave life to the world” – here to the world, not hereafter to its faithful few survivors. This is what the fishermen saw, especially when the Lord told them, in that luminous phrase, to “put out into the deep water”, asking them too, like Him, to “enter in” to something; something now all round them, yet something they had never known to look for before. Because here, in the deep water, is the breadth of the heavens – don’t get confused by the story – carrying not more fish than the nets can haul out of the sea, but hauling out their Creator Whom they cannot contain. Simon Peter beholds what Jesus is, and what he himself is standing before Him, having beheld the deep. Here is humanity, inadequate, failing by its own efforts, frustrated by its limitations, undermined by its shortcomings, sinful and self-defeated. Yet here too is the Creator, Who does not steer clear of what He has made but enters into it.

Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee - the crowds too - have seen the Word of God and heard Him. Just as this Word turn from heaven to face the people, so too these people have been made, by the very entry of God into their midst, to turn round and face themselves in the deep. They experience amazement, but also do not like what they begin to see about themselves. As St Luke puts it, they were filled, but “begin to sink”.

Simon Peter’s words speak for us all in the face of the Kingdom of God that constantly comes to us, not as some afterthought to our life on earth, but arriving whenever we too put out into the deep water and attend the Liturgy, say our prayers, or behold the majesty of the Creator and Redeemer set in comparison beside so much suffering and cruel disfigurement of the goodness and beauty He has made in the world and our humanity. Simon Peter, who has ventured beneath the surface of life, says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. We join him at every moment when we say, “Lord, have mercy, Hospodi pomylui, Kyrie eleison”. But Simon Peter’s words are also prophetic, the gift of his realisation of the Kingdom standing before him in Person, that - he has also found - lies within. The Lord has entered in, and Simon Peter has begun to behold the Kingdom of God; so why does he ask the Lord to go away from him? He realises that there is more putting out into the deep to be done. If Jesus does not now go on His way, the fishermen have no way to go either. If Jesus does not move ahead, they have nothing and no one to follow.

So Christ enters in, casts out their sin. The boat that almost sank under the weight of a miracle of heaven, is the Ark of Salvation that bears God among us on earth, “born in us today”. The deep water is not in the lake, but the Kingdom of God that would well up from within us and flood us into being a superabundance of the coming of heaven to the world.

For it is we who are to be the Resurrection – this is why Christ turns to face us with it, eternal life entering in now, not after. For this the disciples left everything and followed Him.  For this we join the heavenly powers crying out, “O Giver of life, glory to Your kingdom; glory to Your saving plan, O only Lover of mankind.”

No life else but Christ’s eternal life! No one else but Christ loves us so much as to enter in, cast out our sin and be born in us today. “O Virgin … Glory to Him Who freed us through birth from you.”

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Sermon for the Annual Feast of the Fraternity of Our Lady de Salve Regina, St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge

20 September 2014

In early twenty-first century England we think of the Queen as a person of immense public and international esteem, a lifelong servant of the people, a model and guardian of constitutional democracy, and the embodiment of the rule of law. We are proud that in this kingdom, we are the last on earth to anoint our sovereign, not just crowning her head for the supreme office of just government, but consecrating it, body, mind and soul, to the obedience of Christ and his Kingdom.

When Pope Benedict made his State Visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, in the Palace Yard at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, he paid tribute to our Christian constitution, personified in England and Scotland by Christian monarchs, givers of divine law and holy justice, sinners though they be, continuously for fourteen hundred years. Uniquely among other nations, in Britain the Christian Church has both an official standing and is entwined with the active role and symbolic purpose of the reigning monarch, giving the spiritual dimension not just the opportunity but the expectation to influence our civic discourse and public decisions. In his remarkable address to Parliament in Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict identified the vital importance of the gift we have in our hands in this country. In our common society, the Church people, the people of other religions, politicians and parliament, the worlds of finance and commerce, and the citizens as a whole can rely on the long crafted awareness that each has a rightful part to play and a duty to play its part. He pointed out that here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, faith and reason seen by faith’s light, religion and society can be related to each other, in the knowledge that they cannot do without each other and must remain engaged in a constant dialogue - if we are to make the decisions that answer the deepest questions that human beings face, and if we are to address the malaise in contemporary human living that has broken out in a fevered crisis in public and financial morality that still afflicts us.

In other words, the Church, the Lord’s own people, constantly says to the world’s rulers and hidden wielders of power, “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man.” “Who would you rather be released for you, this Man, or Barabbas?” We the Church are for ever asking the world, “Who is your King?” or, as the psalm puts it, “Who is the King of glory?” Many are the kings and leaders, even church leaders, who have been amazed at their own glory, only to see it slip their grasp because they forgot the reminder of the Franciscan friars who used to precede the Roman Pontiff on processions in the days of pomp, burning flax as they declared, “Sic transit Gloria mundi”; “Thus passes the glory of the world.”

The trouble is that the world has rather been allowed to think of our King as yet another leader whose time was up; thus too the influential public organisation that represents him, his Church. Perhaps it is our own fault for relying too heavily on imagery such as monarchy, because now it does not conjure up the distinct conviction of wide sway, commanding prestige and undeniable moral authority. If we were honest, I suspect even we, when we think of Christ the King and Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, picture a dignified and remote public servant, a constitutional monarch with no powers of their own and always acting on the advice of ministers. If we are even more honest with ourselves, we believe those ministers are us and Christ and His Mother are there, largely speaking, to be persuaded of what we tell them to do, however much we call it prayer.

The fresh-thinking young Australian writer, Matthew Tan has written a remarkable book to explain how we have got into this way of thinking and thus disempowered our own Church on earth. It is called Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, and describes how in the 1960s the Catholic Church at the Vatican Council decided that humanity had so grown up that it could be set free from the claims of the Church, Christ’s kingdom on earth, to rule it. Those who called for this new approach to the world saw it in terms of maturity and freedom, not compulsion, to choose the path of Christ. They assumed that with this spiritual liberty the human choice for God and the blessedness of the Kingdom, to which the Magnificat is a paean and which the Beatitudes map out, would be irresistible.

In the 50 years since, however, human society has opted not for the Kingdom of God but the market. Now instead of the “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”, all our transactions and relations are determined, not so much by our own selfish preferences, by the demands of the market to capture them. Matthew Tan even says that everything is now relative to it and human society has converted itself into a place, where every idea, value or principle has to pitch for custom and reduced to a matter of ever poorer choices, or what we are prepared to afford for them. He is astonished by how quickly the Christians have bought into this thinking, almost without hope, accepting it as “realism”. So we have the garrulous old Archbishop of Canterbury (a man who bears the distinction of interfering in the affairs of not just one successor but two) calling for the legalisation of euthanasia on the ground of supposed mercy - such a short step from expediency - without any regard in his argument for the absolute binding nature of the revealed truth of God that life is sacred and may not be harmed. I was also surprised to hear Archbishop Justin reported as saying he sometimes doubts the existence of God. Doubtless what he was saying was that he has complete faith in Jesus Christ and it was all taken out of context; but the incident illustrates how we have got ourselves into a position where we have to imagine meeting the thinking of people in the world in terms of packaging a commodity that they will be prepared to buy because it suits their tastes, assumptions and interests on this day if not on that.

Matthew Tan calls time on this: we are not competitors in a market. If the world has taken its freedom from the Kingdom of God and chosen instead the market as the milieu for human society and relations, so be it. But it is a disaster for the world and for humanity: time now to set ourselves up as a completely different way of being human; time now to declare the Church to be an alternative society. Instead of vying in competition, hoping that people will buy our idea in a multitudinous world of options where we are just one of the choices on offer, it is time to say that we alone represent the universe as it is, the created order built on loving relationships, unreserved mutual self-giving, of complete and unreserved sacrifice that alone leads to resurrection and renewal, through the radical power of forgiveness, service and worship. For the created order is not its own end – it is Christ who is its Lord and all else follows from that and falls in place behind it. His existence does not depend on my decision to believe he exists or not, though to hear most people think you would think English people imagine him to be Peter Pan’s tutelary spirit, depending on audience applause for survival.

If we think of Christ and His Mother as kindly European-style monarchs benevolently overseeing everything, hoping it will all turn out nicely in the end, and not getting too much involved, then nothing will change, and there is no point in our being Christian or worshipping in church; that would be just to meet our own emotional needs and calling the spiritual because they looked religious. Instead, we bear in mind centrally what St Paul told us in his letter to the Ephesians, that Christ fills the universe, and he intends us all to come to the full knowledge of faith in him, to reach such a true maturity in him that we reach his own stature.

So I cannot see why we say to people that we have doubts about whether God and his vision of heaven for us really exists. The question that faces us is this: “Do you believe that Christ is Lord of the universe, of everything that there is, or do you not?” If you do, then there are consequences and it truly does mean a transformation of our proclamation of what the Church is, why we have been made to belong to it – to reach our true human maturity – and how it is to be the true pattern for civil society founded on the sacrificial love of Christ, and the very endless living of the Trinity of three persons in one God.

It is in this universe that Our Lady of the Salve Regina stands as the Queen who is in power. She is no constitutional monarch, acting on the advice of ministers, merely benign towards our pleas and prayers, influential upon us and others only in so far as we can press her to be reactive to our interests, thus ever being conformed by us to our world. Instead, the hearer of prayers is effectual, the worker of change in individuals, and whole movements in society’s truest manifestation – the People of God – in a universe of which Christ rules, the Lord who is to be heard and obeyed, and whom our states, our civil societies and our market must likewise in the end come to obey.

This may be a “vale of tears” and “exile” for humanity according to this understanding, but it is not exile from God or his Kingdom; nor is it beyond the reach of his sovereign work. The Salve Regina declares our faith that a Queen has been appointed the advocate of this humanity as it is truly intended to be - an advocate who will turn the attention of all on the Lord of that Kingdom. Pope Benedict told us prophetically that our society is well placed to have the conversation in which faith illuminates our world, so that its kingdoms will be the Kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ. If all of us in the Church who are the People of God were to reject the falsely “realistic” barking at us in the market and to exist in and for the “Kingdom not of this world”, the “most gracious advocate” sustains our attention on what people are truly for and why nothing other than Christ is all that is to be said of the entirety of humanity and human living.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Beginning of the Indiction - Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Beginning of the Indiction, Venerable Symeon the Stylite and Martha his Mother
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, 1 September/14 September 2014

1 Corinthians 1.21-2.4 - Matthew 22. 2-14


At the height of the Christian Roman Empire, the great legal reformer Emperor Justinian, issued a decree (that is, an indiction) to ensure that everyone use a common dating system for contracts, official acts and legal documents. This had the remarkable consequence of moving the date of the imperial new year from its date from time immemorial - the Birthday of Augustus, pagan founder of the Empire, on September 23rd - to September 1st.

You will recall that St Luke describes how the Birth of Jesus took place in the context of another administrative decree from that very same Caesar Augustus, at a time which St Paul identified (Galatians 4.4-7) as “the fullness of time”, when there was peace throughout the known world of the Empire. So it is significant that, by the mid sixth century, the prestige of the founding Emperor was no longer common ground for the citizens of the Empire, or part of its identity. Instead, it is Jesus Christ himself. To this day, September 1st is the first day of the monthly Calendar for the Byzantine Churches of the Christian East. It remains programmatic for us all, because September is still the beginning of our academic and school years, and all of us feel the new working year really begins after the summer, with the burden of work to be done with the coming of the season of the harvest. This is reflected in the chants for today, which celebrate the bounty of God’s providence towards the people in the fruits of the creation: “Fashioner of all creation,” we sing in the Troparion for today, “Bless the crown of the year, O Lord, with Your goodness…”. Recently, September 1st has thus become for a large part of the Byzantine tradition a day of celebration and prayer for the environment, its careful stewardship and protection.

But today is also Sunday, a day when we think not only of this world, and its chronology and destiny, but of the Kingdom that is to come. In this Sunday’s Kontakion, in praising Christ our God, we go one further than this creation to the next: “With Yourself … You raised the dead and shattered the sting of death, and delivered Adam from the curse, O Lover of Mankind”. As St Paul reminds us, we set our affection on the things that are above, and not the things of the earth, because likewise we have died and our life is hid with Christ, in God (Colossians 3.2). In other words, we have to be whole people, leading holistic lives. Just as we are not complete persons if we live only with our material preoccupations, ignoring the human dimension that is spiritual, our soul; so we cannot live in the Resurrection of Christ, which became our defining characteristic when we were baptised in him, if we withdraw ourselves from the physical fact of the world and the body, as though they do not exist.

We have a clue to managing this seemingly impossible dual identity of ours - being citizens of the Kingdom of God, at the same time as active participants in the bountiful, beautiful and hopeful world he has created - in the words of today’s other observance, the feast of St Symeon the Stylite, of whom we have sung: “Seeking things above, you joined yourself to those on high; you made your pillar a fiery chariot, through which, O venerable one, you became a companion of the angels. With them, unceasingly implore Christ God on our behalf.” (Kontakion of St Symeon). Living in the company of the beings of heaven, he was also dwelling into advanced old age in the world, facing God at the same time as being seen by people, inspiring them and never forgetting to intercede for them.



We can put it another way. The great country, blues, and Gospel singer Johnny Cash captured an old saying, when he wrote a song about people who let their own light shine, without shining the light for others; who go to stand on the spiritual high ground for themselves, but don’t take the hands of those reaching to be lifted up there too. He sings, “You’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good” (The Rambler, 1977). This is precisely it: Christ wants it that, the more heavenly minded we are, the more earthly good we will be.

We can put it another way still. In today’s Gospel, we have the extraordinary tale of the guests who are too grand or ignorant to attend the wedding of their king’s son. The doors are thrown open for all to attend, not just the chosen few, even to the extent of gathering in the people who live on the streets. Then the king throws someone out of the banquet for not wearing the appropriate finery. At first sight, it looks unjust that the king rounds up last-minute guests in the middle of what they are doing, and then punishes them for coming unprepared. Many scholars explain this away by saying that St Matthew has just added together two separate stories with a wedding theme; but I think they are missing the point. For Jesus begins by telling a story with a popular theme, familiar to us from the Magnificat: the rich put down and sent empty away, while the humble and poor are exalted in their place – a typical “them-and-us” story. But then he gives it a twist to surprise us all out of our complacency and self-satisfaction, rich and poor, powerful and powerless alike. In the Epistle, St Paul explains what Jesus means: “God establishes you in the Anointed Christ, and anoints you by putting His seal on us, and giving us His Spirit in our hearts as a first instalment.” So there you have it: first, God the Father compels us to come into the wedding feast of His Son and seals our adoption as His own sons and daughters, co-inheritors with Christ of the whole Kingdom itself. Then the Spirit is bestowed in our hearts as the first instalment of our new way of living. But those who misuse or waste this first flow of grace will lose when it comes to the ensuing graces, whoever they are: “Many are called,” Jesus observes, “but few are chosen.”

What in us has become of this first instalment of grace? Has it simply got stuck in our hearts, or does it show in our minds in the way we decide things; does it show on the outside through the way we act? Where is the grace upon grace? Where are the signs of spiritual progress, after receiving not only the King’s invitation, but the honour of a new standing in His Kingdom? Why do we look and behave and think as before? In the case of that unchanged wedding guest, something showed the king that everything he had been given had made no difference, for there was no sign of new growth in grace beyond that “first instalment” from the Holy Spirit. Either he was living in the world, cutting himself off from the heaven that had been planted in his heart; or he was living on a personally fulfilled religious plane, with no sign to show for it in the world and for the world. The guest thrown out was not fit for the Kingdom, not because he had made no effort, but because he was enjoying heaven for himself, and living as though nothing had changed. He was not, as the Lord’s Prayer implores, seek the Kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven”. He was not a whole person, living spiritually and holistically in the world. He was unable to be what the Christian must always be seen to be: a new creation in Christ, a different way of humanity.

So what is this difference to humanity that, for instance, an astonishing saint like St Symeon, or a new Church Year resolves us to seek and emulate? Well, first, St Matthew reports how, even when we fast and lament, we should not put on the act of sorrow and penitence for public consumption, but anoint ourselves with the oil of gladness (Matthew 6.17), just like at a wedding. Joy and confidence in Christ as the centre of all things, then, are the first signs to the world of the presence of God in our midst. Secondly, as we face the prospect of war and the vicious destruction of Christianity in the lands that cradled the Church from its birth, the only point of Christians is that we are people not of revenge and ancient hatreds, of self-pity and recrimination, but of persevering forbearance and inexhaustible forgiveness, people serving reconciliation and bringing healing, people of faith in Christ’s promises, hope in His ever coming Kingdom, and unconditional love for God and neighbour - and enemy.

These are the precepts of heaven for a new Church Year: the more heavenly minded we are, the more earthly good we will be in serving the coming of Christ’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London: The Plight of the Church in Iraq

Sunday of Christ Walking on the Water , Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, 10th August 2014, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone 8. You came down from on high, O Merciful One, and accepted three days of burial to free us from our sufferings.  O Lord, our life and our resurrection, glory be to You.

1 Corinthians 3:9-17              Matthew 14:22-34

It is difficult at the present time to think of the Church as being built, when daily news arrives of our ancient sanctuaries being destroyed, either as collateral damage in war, or as a direct act of intended destruction on the part of violent, jealous men, who hide behind religious zeal their true identity as bank robbers, as perverts that rape girls and disabled old ladies, and as psychopathic serial killers that are even now murdering our brothers and sisters in the Household of Faith, or condemning them to the searing heat of the desert without food, water or shelter. It looks like the Church is being destroyed in the lands where it first took root, Iraq - the cradle of civilisation, where different peoples (such as the  Assyrians,  Arabs, Turkics and Persians) and different faiths (such as Sunni and Shia Islam, Zoroastrianism, Assyrian and Syriac Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox) have lived in harmony side by side for centuries.

 

But somehow and somewhere in all this we are to see the work of the Lord who is faithful to his people and to all humanity, even when we are tested, as St Paul tells us, in the fire. The apostle’s words recalls to us the Lord’s own parable of the house built upon sand and the house built upon the rock.  The point he is making is not about the relative strength of faith, but the strength of the grace that we rely on, as opposed to our own efforts. It almost goes without saying that the House of the Lord which is the Church of God in Iraq, led so nobly by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, is a house whose foundations are the gold and silver and precious stones that really have been tried in the fire. The buildings and everything they have may have been taken away - as St Paul says “the builder will suffer loss”; and did not our Lord say “from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away”? – but the grace of God has been shown to be the foundation not just of an ethnic or religious identity, but of the house of their faith.

Compare this with the story of St Peter, bidden by Christ to walk on nothing more than water to meet him. Peter did not believe that it was possible, started out, thought again and began to sink. It was the Lord’s hand, not his own efforts and will power, that caught him.  Jesus questions the strength of Peter’s belief in him, yet at the same time makes it clear that everything that can be achieved and withstood depends not on our strengths but on the hand of God.

Paul speaks of testing construction handiwork by fire; the construction of Peter’s foundations in faith is flooded out by water. But it is the same story. In time, with the help and grace of the Holy Spirit, he rebuilt and became the Rock on which Christ was able to build his Church. Likewise the Christians of the old Roman Empire were able to face the onslaught, knowing what was to be demanded of them, because they saw that Christ is the centre and summit of all existence and of human society, whatever the appearances. Thus Paul clearly recognised the coming of a moment when God’s temple, where the Spirit dwells in Christ’s own people, would be destroyed.

I cannot presume to know what our brothers and sisters in Iraq are going through, having lost not only everything they have but, for the second time in a century for some of them, being driven out of their historic lands and holy places. I cannot begin to enter into their grief, bitterness, desperation and mourning: now is not the time for those in the comfort of Britain to exhort them to fortitude, courage and joy in adversity. But we and they can recognise in their suffering and destruction the Lord who trod this path before and who, as he passed through death, spoke somehow of forgiveness, redemption and the promise of paradise.

Because of this, we who are Christians pin all our hopes on the resurrection, knowing that it is not some far off after-life, or a dream to console us in our pain and misery. The resurrection of Christ back then, is the same as the coming of the Kingdom of God now. For as we sing today, “You came down from on high, O merciful One, and accepted three days of burial to free us from our sufferings.”

St Paul said that if anyone destroys God’s temple, the holy place which we Christians are, then God will destroy that person. So let our prayer today on behalf of all our suffering brothers and sisters in the temple of God, the House of Faith in which we all dwell in the Spirit, be that those who hate the Church and who hate the humanity made in the image of God’s Christ himself, may be brought not to the destruction of their lives but of all that is wrong in them. Let them now be put to the test – whether it be water or fire – so that all that is evil and vain, and resentful and unforgiving and merciless, may melt away and the underlying structure of God’s handiwork be revealed – a frame on which there can be more grace, more forgiveness, and more humanity. Let them be converted to the Lord and live.

And as for us, in this Cathedral of the Holy Family, under the patronage of St Joseph who provided a home for Our Lord and the Mother of God, which began as a Church for inspiring and consoling those in exile, and which now stands as a sign for nations and societies in whom the Temple of the Lord is being rebuilt, let us remember that we have nothing to stand on unless it is the Lord that reaches out his hand to hold us up. We stand because he has stood up having been beaten down by death. Now risen from the dead, he leaves nothing behind that calls out to him, “Lord save me.” For, seeing us, who call upon God’s help to be the human beings that God means us all to be – people of love, and grace, forgiveness and hope –the world recognises Christ and turns to him as Lord. So, hearing our words and our songs ringing true, could it be that those who do not know him and even now oppose him and would bring down his Kingship - could it be that they too - would sing:
O Lord, our life and our resurrection, glory be to You?

In hope of this, let us say with Patriarch Louis Raphael the prayer he has just written and issued to all the world that the cries of the Christians in Iraq will be our own in complete solidarity:
Lord, the plight of our country is deep
and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening.

Therefore, we ask you, Lord,
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.

Lord, peace is the foundation of life;
Grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.

Glory be to You forever.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Homily for the Sunday of the Five Thousand: St Theodore's Greek Catholic Church, Cardiff

Eight Sunday after Pentecost, 3rd August 2014, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Parish of St Theodore, Cardiff, Wales


Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 7. No longer shall the dominion of death be able to hold humanity, for Christ went down shattering and destroying its power. Hades is bound. The prophets exult with one voice.  The Saviour has come forth for those with faith, saying, Come forth, O faithful, to the Resurrection.

I Corinthians 1. 10-18                                    Matthew 14. 14-22

One thing that occurs to you, when you hear the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, is that it emerges our of an animated discussion between the apostles, who see themselves as practical men, and Jesus, Who, as the hours have passed by, seems to them to have lost all track of time and the physical endurance of His hearers.

But this is precisely it: He has not. For another thing strikes you. There are other people in the conversation and that have uttered not a word: the Five Thousand themselves. Their engagement with Jesus’ discourse has been completely absorbing and it is they who have lost all track of time. They hang on His every word; it has been sustaining them through the day and of this Jesus is perfectly aware.

What St Matthew in his Gospel is describing is the season of fasting, originally in the spring, that is common in different forms within the tradition of the Abrahamic religions that we know as Lent and Islam, for instance, knows as Ramadan. In the Rule of St Benedict for his monks, the complete fast from food is the same as subsequently adopted in Islam and lasts from rising until evening, when a light, nutritious meal of vegetable produce may be taken, together on holy days of feasting with some fish. So, here we have it. During the day, those who have gathered round Jesus close in order not to miss a single word come before God to contemplate His teaching, to seek his spiritual healing and, at the close of day, to eat with His blessing, giving thanks and dwelling in the heart on all that has happened in the day before. Thus drawn up into God’s presence it is not merely a meal during the time of fasting on earth, but a share in the Banquet of heaven as well – with the loaves of bread come also the fish for a celebration.

Now, talking of monks, I remember Cardinal Hume saying that obedience is not a blind submission to a superior’s commands, but means mutual listening – the word “obedience” comes from the same root as “audience”. Thus the young monk obeys the abbot, because he is bound to listen to the teaching of a father. In the same way an abbot remembers his time of listening to his own novice-master, to the abbot when he was a young monk, and to the many spiritual fathers that preceded them all. But St Benedict makes clear to the abbot that he is not there just to be listened to, because he must listen to the other monks – not least the younger monks, for the Lord’s will can sometimes make itself known in the fresh zeal and new pairs of eyes of the young, when older ones have grown weary, and jaded, or even hard of heart.

This is what Jesus is doing with His crowds of followers. Here is a pattern of mutual obedience. There is conversation, as with the disciples, but the communication is plain: He listens to them listening to Him. They wish for more and He pours out more and more.

Then there comes an intriguing detail in the story. The disciples propose sending the crowds into the villages to get food, so that the listening and being absorbed in the Lord’s word may go on into the night. We have seen this detail before; or rather we shall see it later, as St Matthew’s Gospel story unfolds. It is that the Lord Jesus found Himself outside. Next time, it would not be outside a village near the shore of Galilee: it would be outside the gate of the city of Jerusalem, on the rock of Calvary, dying on the Cross for our sins. Next time, the night before, He will again have taken bread, raised His eyes to heaven and given thanks. Once again He will break it and fill the lives and souls of those crowded round Him. Once again, few words will be recorded and at the centre is a stillness from which you cannot turn your ears or take away your eyes.

It is no wonder, then, that St Paul has just told us that preaching the Gospel does not need eloquent wisdom: it is the power of the Cross that says it all.

The crowds by the shore of Galilee listening, watching; the few disciples left at the foot of the Cross listening, watching: it is all the same. To anyone else, this “nothing happening”, is their hearts and minds and to the very edges of feeling in their bodies, to us it is the very presence of the action and the power of God.

This weekend we are remembering the way the powers of Europe fell into war a hundred years ago, a war whose consequences are still being played out. It changed European society for ever, and the attitude of ordinary people to religion and faith went through enormous changes, as state atheism, Marxist ideology and Nazi occultism set out to dismantle Christian civilisation after the self-inflicted failure of the old Christian empires. It is often said that in the unimaginable horrors and degradation of the trenches, decent, loyal, dutiful and patriotic soldiers abandoned their hope in God and lost any sense that Christ’s Church had anything to do with them. But this is far from the true picture. We know the stories of thousands of men who had lived their lives back home on the fringes of the Church, now turning to the chaplains to make their peace with God, seeking confirmation and Holy Communion. One of the most famous chaplains was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a magnificent Anglican pastor, preacher and poet, nick-named Woodbine Willie by the soldiers because of his unconditional service to anyone in their moment of greatest need, even if they had nothing but scorn for the Church, ready with words of God’s blessing and the assurances of faith at the same time as offering a draw on a Woodbine cigarette, a last human comfort in this world before turning to the next. The story of many Catholic chaplains is just as moving. At first the War Office sent the many Catholic recruits to the front with little thought to provide them with priests, because it did not understand the central place of the Eucharist, Confession and, should the time come, Unction in the practice of Catholic faith. But it did not take long for the authorities to realise that this was not just a question of morale but of the Catholic servicemen’s raison d’ĂȘtre. The Great War changed many people’s prejudices about Catholicism when they saw the unpretended devotion of their fellows and the brave, unstinting solidarity of the priests not just with their own men, but with all who were thrown together in the raw experience of inhuman death and degradation.

Unlike anything anyone had seen, here were Christians - and they were also needing to be Christians on behalf of those who could not evoke or declare a faith at all, yet face the same questions and horror as those who did – watching at the foot of the crucifixion of humanity again, and looking to see upon the Cross the figure of Christ. Here were Christians, amid the terror and the din of all reasonable explanation to the contrary, straining to hear Christ’s words - of peace and encouragement, and beatitude. As St Peter himself said, when many other disciples lost heart and turned away, “To whom else shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” No wisdom can account for it; no eloquence is worthy of it. It is only the power of the Cross that interprets it, and the faith of the Christian is thus able to descry in the supreme sacrifice on the Cross not only the atoning death but the offering of life that must ultimately prevail and be our only hope (Ave Crux, spes unica).

So today we sing, in union with all who have placed their trust in Christ, with all who have hung upon his every word, watching, listening, hoping from every corner of their being:

No longer shall the dominion of death be able to hold humanity, for Christ went down shattering and destroying its power ... The Saviour has come forth for those with faith, saying, Come forth, O faithful, to the Resurrection.

 

 

 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Homily for the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral 13 July/30 June 2014

1 Corinthians 4.9-16
Mark 3. 13-19

Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory for ever.



In 2014 with the Julian Calendar, Saturday has been observed as the Feast of SS Peter and Paul. It is an observance common to East and West, marking the time of complete union between the Greek-Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches and looking forward to its restoration, because it celebrates the martyrdom of the two great apostles of the Church at Rome and their repose in the basilicas there that bear their names.


Indeed, it is little realised that St Peter’s Basilica has only recently been known as a Papal Basilica. Until little less than ten years ago, it was known as one of the Patriarchal Basilicas. This does not mean that it was linked to the Pope as Patriarch and Primate of the Western Latin Church and successor of St Peter at Rome, as you might think. Instead, it signifies that, ceremonially, it is assigned to one of the five patriarchs of the Church from before the Great Schism, four of which were once represented at Rome alongside the Pope by a Latin-rite counterpart. The Pope’s own Patriarchal Basilica is his Cathedral – St John Lateran. S. Maria Maggiore is historically assigned to the Patriarchate of Antioch, St Paul’s to the Patriarchate of Alexandria and St Lawrence outside the Walls to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. St Peter’s is the Church in Rome where the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople always has his seat of honour. This is why, since in 1964 the venerable Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the mutual anathemas and the ‘dialogue of love’ between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches could begin, the Ecumenical Patriarch always sends a delegation to St Peter’s every June to keep the feast with the Pope in hopeful anticipation of our union to be restored and to pray for it at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. The favour is returned each November when a delegation from the Apostolic See of Rome visits the Apostolic See of Constantinople likewise to pray with the Ecumenical Patriarch, and to keep with him the feast of St Andrew, whose successor is he is seen to be and whose relics are honoured there.


You may recall that, at the end of the period of the Crusades to drive out the Islamic invaders of the Holy Land which had been part of the Christian Roman Empire, the shameful and ultimately disastrous Fourth Crusade turned on its fellow Christians instead and Latin Christians sacked and looted the city of Constantinople, all but undermining the lasting viability of the Byzantine Empire. This is a wound that is still sore for the Greek Orthodox and which the Roman Catholic West still underestimates, because it is far from healed in the memory and it accounts for a great deal of the suspicion and animosity that significant sections of the Orthodox world continue to bear towards the Latin Church which it feels has never made good the hurt. Nevertheless, when the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire at Morea in the Peloponnese collapsed under the Ottoman onslaught in 1461, it was to Italy that the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos took with him the relic of the head of St Andrew to exile. He entrusted it to Pope Pius II, who enshrined it in one of the four central piers of St Peter’s. Here it remained until 1964 when Pope Paul VI, in a great work of Catholic reparation for the injuries to Catholic-Orthodox relations in the history we share together, restored it to the Church of St Andrew in Patras that it had left five centuries earlier.


So having honoured St Peter and St Paul on Saturday, with Sunday coincides the feast immediately following, a second gathering, or Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. We have heard the names listed in the Gospel of those entrusted with the authority to proclaim the message of Christ and to cast out the powers and spirits who stand in the way of the Kingdom. Among them is included, of course, St Andrew, the first apostle to be called by the Lord from the shores of Galilee as he was mending his fisherman’s nets. Here too is Peter and all the others, including Judas who let Jesus down and was succeeded by St Matthias. Not mentioned is St Paul, although in today’s Kontakion of the Apostles he is ranked next to St Peter, the rock of Christ’s faith, and alongside the Council of the Twelve. It is always St Paul, though, who puts things most vividly. He sees an apostle as a spectacle, something that God exhibits. You might think that he means something admirable or splendid to look at; but as always he sees things as they are. What may at first look powerful, influential and even wonderful and inspiring, he knows from the inside is set up to be torn down and humiliated, or, as he puts it, “rubbished”. But he is not complaining. He is just telling us what the glory of heaven must look like when it comes into the world: beauty which human beings in their sin and enthralment with death cannot bear to behold: beauty which they must mar, obliterate.


St Paul has in mind, perhaps, that moment in St John’s Gospel when Christ is brought out by Pilate whose soldiers have flogged Him, crowned Him with thorns and dressed Him in an imperial robe of purple. When Pilate seeks to release Jesus, he brings Him out to the Gabbatha Pavement. It is unclear whether the text reads next that Pilate sits on the Seat of Judgement, or sits Jesus upon it. Surely it is the latter, because St John means to show that Jesus is the King not of this world, that Pilate realises this, and is presenting the King of Heaven to the people. “Behold your King,” he cries out. So there He sits, a spectacle, exhibited, just like St Paul imagined it years later when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth. There He sits, rejected by the people, soon to be deposed as their King.


The irony is not lost on St Paul, who will also be recalling, perhaps, Jesus’s words to the disciples not long before: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” For it is the very rejection, the obvious public disgrace that is how the apostles’ message of Christ is expressed and how His meaning is conveyed. Be imitators of this disgrace, says St Paul, in words we do not easily wish to hear.


Only this week, we have seen the terrible films from Mosul of the crazed Jihadists, perverters of Islam, desecrating not only the graves of their own fellow-Muslim forebears in faith, but also destroying the tombs of the Prophet Jonah and the Patriarch Seth, honoured by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. Once again, something beautiful about humanity has been made a spectacle and, to quote St Paul again, “made into the rubbish of the world”. It breaks our hearts to think we will never see these places, sacred presences in our world of the Kingdom of the Eternal in our midst, again.


But the Kingdom is not of this world; and what we are seeing of the fanatical destruction of holiness that has stood undishonoured in ancient churches and shrines for hundreds and thousands of years is part of the pattern we were told to expect. The destruction through human wilfulness of the unity of Christ’s Church and the obscuring of the one Body of Christ in the world, such as happened at the Great Schism; the sack of Constantinople and the destruction at rival Christian hands of the Christian civilisation and society of the old Near East; the long years of side-lined exile for the remains of St Andrew; the blasphemies to altars, churches, icons, sacred ministers, religious and lay people in Syria and Iraq, including their abduction, rape and murder; the impious sacrilege of the resting place of the holy prophets – all are part of the same pattern that belongs to what it is to be apostles and those who follow them as their “imitators”.


However beauteous is our Divine Liturgy - the very inspiration of heaven in earth - it has to be impossible to us to lose sight of what it truly represents. It is a parade of a spectacle to the world, just as St Paul said. When we clergy come out of the Holy Doors, it is a mistake to look on the surface and see gold and shining and glory. We and the mysteries of Book and Sacrament that we bear are being exhibited like the apostles, fools for Christ, weak men; and we are blessing and bringing good, with lasting forbearance and unfailing forgiveness, only because that is all that is left, once the world - and all of us included - have cast what looks beautiful away, leaving only what it thinks is rubbish, the dregs. It was the same with Christ, enthroned with His crown of thorns, then lifted up, then thrown down, cast aside. Yet out of this rejection and fall from grace came Resurrection. Thus “Death is plundered” (Troparion of Sunday, Tone 4). Thus, and only thus, does the risen “Christ our God … grant mercy to the world”. St Paul said, “Be imitators of me”. If we try to re-enact his apostolic grandeur through earthly splendour we will never achieve it. The true grandeur of our Liturgy, God’s work upon us, is that - for those who have eyes to see - it takes the road to the Resurrection by no other way than the Gabbatha Pavement, the rise up that hill of Calvary and then down again to the tomb, not far from the rubbish heap. Thus “death has been plundered, and Christ our God … grants to the world great mercy.”


Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory for ever.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Lights out at Young Offenders Institutions

Lights out - and no reading under covers: Young offenders will be sent to bed early - just like at Eton - The Independent



It's futile to argue with Lord Chancellor Grayling, as his sport is to provoke those who know what they are talking about, so that they look ridiculous in the immature swirl of populism, name-calling and handwringing that our National Discourse has become. Never mind that his ban on sending in books is counterproductive and just an old trick of Crown Prerogative "justice" to inflict a form of torture that doesn't show the marks (cf A Man for All Seasons, Act 2, scene 7). Never mind that his "strict" and "tough" measures are known to be counterproductive and contribute nothing to reduced offending, desistance from crime, or resettlement and that the Commons Select Committee has concluded that, with crime and serious crime both falling, his repression is a waste of money better spent on (considerably cheaper) prevention, therapy and problem-solving. All I will say is that, instead of ordering the practice in minute detail of experienced governors, prison staff and professionals who know exactly what to do and what not to do, at the same time as cutting the means to do it beyond sustainability, Grayling C should run a Young Offender Institution himself, be measured on his personal and direct outcomes on their behaviours, circumstances and prospects - and see how far he gets.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane - Homily For the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, 22 June 2014

Isn’t it typical of us that we have translated our entire liturgy into English, but despite sustained pressure to rename this feast “ The Most Holy Body and Blood of the Lord”, we ordinary Catholics have doggedly maintained its proper title in Latin – Corpus Christi?


For over 800 years it has been our chance to be joyful and even exuberant about that which we see every day in silence and reverence: the Eucharistic Miracle, which we see with our very eyes when the bread beneath its outward appearance becomes the Lord himself - present in the thing, present to us, present for us. For 800 years this has been our occasion for taking the Miracle out, so that the world may see what we see - to show it something so ordinary and common place, yet something that with the eye of faith is what we love the most, are proudest of, and would serve the utmost.

This is our feast of witness, when we tell the truth about ourselves and how we are unashamed to show and call ourselves religious people. And for 800 years it has kept its name.

It is hardly remarkable, because, even in our ex-spiritual society, Corpus and Christi remain very well known words. We know what a corpus of writings, artwork or music is. It is the same as a body of writings, artwork and music. And we certainly know what Christ is. It is the most commonly used expletive for exasperation in the English language. I even heard “Christ” used in this way in the lift at Covent Garden Tube station on the way here. So Corpus Christi, translated through the thought patterns of the world around us, means every petty, ill-tempered frustration coming in one go. But to the Lord in the Host, who is the same as the Lord in the Manger and on His Cross, it is nothing new; it is to be expected and endured. As G K Chesterton once put it, “God abides in a terrible patience, unangered, unworn.”

Nevertheless, Corpus Christi’s title gives us the opportunity to give our fellow members of society a fresh translation. For the Christ of the Eucharist is the anointed One of God, His chosen, His Beloved on Whom His favour rests (anointed is what Christ and christened mean), anointed at His baptism with the Holy Spirit, anointed by Mary the sister of Lazarus whom He had raised from death in preparation for His own Death and Resurrection; anointed by Nicodemus for His burial, anointed in the love of St Peter after His Resurrection and anointed in His Ascension and exaltation to His throne as King. The Body of Christ, the Corpus Christi, is none other than One coming into the world, Who promised to remain with us always, to the end of time, waiting for us to see Him for what He is, waiting for us to realise Who He is, waiting for us to come with Him, to leave all our sin and preoccupations to fall away to one side, to grow in holiness, to long for the Kingdom to come, and to find that we live in it even now. We sing of this gift of Christ in His Body every Christmas:

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still
The dear Christ enters in. 

We stand in a great long line of those for whom Christ thus waited to receive Him. To Mary Magdalen He was the gardener, until she literally grasped Him as her Teacher. For St Thomas He waited, until his belief could follow his touch and he agree with the others, “We have seen the Lord.” To St Peter, confused by the Lord’s repeated questioning on whether he truly loved Him, Christ waited for the right heart and mind to see the divine purpose and meanwhile was content to ask him, as once He had asked him and Andrew on the shores of Galilee, “Follow me”… “Bear with me, walk in the steps I have trodden, become for others what I have been to you, take up your cross and follow me. Feed my sheep with My own Body; build them up to be My Body the Church. Feed them up to be Me in the world, with it always to the end of time, enduring, abiding in terrible patience, unangered, unworn. Let them be Me, waiting for all the children of My creation to see Me for what I AM, waiting for them to realise Who I AM and why I have come.” As St Augustine told his people who they were, pointing to the Lord in His Eucharistic Oblations – “There you lie on the altar”. It is we who are the Body of Christ, not just for our own fellowship and spirituality, but anointed for sacrifice, and faithfulness, and service to the end.

When Cardinal Manning founded this Church, he meant for it to be a great National Shrine of honour and service to the Lord in His Blessed Sacrament, so that all the indignities done to the Mass, to the priesthood and to the faithful in England could be repaid not with recrimination and resentment, but with the outpouring of love and devotion. He meant it to be at the core of witness to the truth of the Catholic Church’s Catholic belief in her Master and Teacher; and he meant it to stand as the place where all this love and duty poured out would make reparation for the greatest of sins against the Providence of our Sovereign God and loving Father – the acts in the sixteenth century that, despite a millennium and a half of unity according to the mind and prayer of Christ on the night before he died in sacrifice for the world’s salvation, ruptured the Church in two in this land and inflicted division among Christians in the one Body of Christ. Of course, no human deed or failure can take away the unity with Christ and His saints that belongs to the Church which is His spotless Bride. Still, in the world, because of our sin and wilfulness in refusing to obey the will of Christ except on our terms, Christians remain divided at the altar. Last weekend, a small charity founded 100 years ago by Church of England Christians, who saw their Church as separated from the Catholic communion from which it came and to which it truly belonged, and who wanted to work for reconciliation with the successor of St Peter in communion with the Apostolic See of Rome, donated a beautiful monstrance in keeping with the period and design of Corpus Christi Church, in support of its renewed work in the vision of Cardinal Manning. Thanks to the Ecumenical Movement, and the Catholic Church’s energetic efforts towards the fullness of unity in faith and life ever since the Second Vatican Council, that little Anglican charity, known as the Catholic League, had itself opened up and welcomed Catholics as members to pray for unity in the Body of Christ alongside each other. In what may be one of its last acts before it ends its work, it decided to mark its hundred years of patient witness with a gift to this Church of Corpus Christ on Maiden Lane as it recovers its work and purpose as a Shrine of the Presence of the Lord in and for the world in His Most Blessed Sacrament, and as a place of reparation for dishonour to the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, dishonour to the Body of Christ in His Priesthood and dishonour to the Body of Christ in the Unity of his Church. This monstrance will bear the Eucharistic Lord at the heart of the prayers and devotions to be poured out here, whenever the Sacrament is exposed for veneration and lifted over the people and the world in blessing. It is a gift to this parish in the hope of visible Christian Unity, because the Lord prayed that His disciples may be one – so that the world may believe it was the Father who sent Christ to bring it to eternal life. And nothing need divide Christians in their adoration of the Lord, after all.

So in this Feast today, which has been our great celebration for 800 years of all that the our faith means to us, of all that the Mass means to us, all that the Miracle of the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament mean to us, whenever we stand out as the parish of Corpus Christi, Christ’s own Body, and whenever we lift up the Blessed Sacrament in the hands of the priest at Mass and in the monstrance with our hearts full of adoration, we will be saying like the disciples and St Mary Magdalen – “we have seen the Lord”. And what we will be showing to the world is the Lord who abides with us, in all his patience, unangered, unworn, waiting “in this world of sin, for meek souls to receive him still.” O Dear Christ, enter in.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Homily for the Sunday of All Saints, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 14 June 2014


Having taken leave of Pentecost, today we greet the Feast of All Saints. In the Latin rite, today is kept as the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. But in the Byzantine Church, we celebrate the saints, especially the martyrs who were faithful unto death.


You can understand the logic of the Latin feast of the Holy Trinity’s falling in the midst of the Christian Year – first in Advent, God the Father sends his prophets to announce the coming of God the Son. Then the archangel Gabriel comes before the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saviour becomes incarnate in her womb. After His birth at Christmas, the Latin Church contemplates His early years and then the beginning of his earthly ministry and wonderworking. At length, Lent prepares the Church for the Passion and in Holy Week the People of God follow Jesus through to his Death on the Cross and finally the resurrection of the Light of the World in the night. For eight weeks, the Latin Church lives in the glory of the Resurrection, seeing the transformation of humanity, as Christ changes the Last Supper into the Eucharistic Banquet and ascends his risen life from earth to heaven. At last, He imparts from the Father the Holy Spirit, as He promised from the moment he rose from the dead. You can understand the sequence: the work of God the Father, then God the Son and finally God the Holy Spirit. On the Octave Day of Pentecost, a week later than the feast, you can understand a great Feast of the Holy Trinity to distil the mystery of salvation, and set us fair to live within it for the rest of the Church’s year to the following Advent.


For the Byzantine Church it is different. Our Church year begins in the mystery of Pascha, in the moments as Christ Who has died upon the Cross rises from the dead, working out of us sin and death, and working into us the holiness of the Holy Spirit and His life that can never end. Throughout the time of Easter we are caught up in the resurrection of Christ; and it is the Holy Spirit Who animates our rising sense of hope throughout. Having died with Christ in baptism and risen with Him at his Resurrection, we are caught up in joy; and we too are lifted as Christ mounts to the Father. We too are translated to heaven in this same Spirit, so that whenever we worship it is not in the world that we remain, for in hearts and in temples that have been cleared on earth for heaven to exist among us, we come to be in the very presence of God, Who both comes to us and takes us up to Him. When Pentecost comes, the union of heaven and earth in Christ in the liturgy – the work of God in his people – is sealed. It is shown to be not just a matter of faith or piety, but the way in which the universe is reconstructed in Christ risen from the dead, Who is the Lord in glory of its every aspect, movement and person, by the power of the Spirit until its final consummation in the great end of all things that is to come. You can see therefore that, in the Byzantine Church’s perspective, the whole of Pascha, from the Death and Resurrection to the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is a feast of the Holy Trinity, deep in His own mystery yet energetic in and upon the world in and through his Church. So it makes sense that today we celebrate the blessedness of heaven by contemplating the saints bathed in its glory. Indeed we are not so far distant in our thinking and worshipping from the Latin Church, because the saints are bathed in no other glory than the glory of the Holy Trinity.


So: here we are in earth, by the Holy Spirit translated in this liturgy to the court of heaven, there beholding the saints. And here we are in heaven, by the power of the resurrection of Christ at work in us, able to look around us and see how our humanity is being fitted into the life of the Trinity even now in the created universe as He recreates it. For in beholding the saints, we see with our own eyes what is to become of us. We are not to be the same. We are to be changed. As St Paul says, “Dying, behold we live.” We see people that we recognise not as we are, but as we will become. The witnesses that surround us in their great cloud are not pointing back to us; they are not helping us to make sense of things with our frame of reference, nor are they staring at us from our holy icons. Instead, they are looking to Jesus, the Perfecter, pointing their gaze past us and getting us to turn and face in a new direction too. St Paul urges us not just to persevere and push on in a race towards to heaven; he is urging us to run away from what we are at the moment.


When Peter asks Jesus what we will get out of following Jesus, he has in mind some kind of consideration for all that has been endured and all that has been given up - from every human attachment at home to the demand for any livelihood to be abandoned but the carrying of the Carpenter’s own Cross – Peter clearly thinks he will get some sort of tangible reward: a better life, a settled home, a happier world. Instead Jesus, hinting at what St John will one day write in his Revelation, tells him that everything he sees around him, sets any store by, or places any value on, will dissolve – not into nothingness but the renewal of all things: “Behold I make all things new – a new heaven and a new earth, and the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, adorned as a bridge for her husband – the dwelling of God with humanity.” This is why Our Lord says those terribly demanding things about loving Him more than parents and children. He has to break our way of seeing things. Instead we have to learn to understand people, even those we love and know the most, not just through our own human closeness but in Christ. Only in loving Christ will we love best. So Peter is brought up short, as he stops thinking of houses, family and a better world for them. He realises that the old order is only the shadow cast by the approach of the new. For, all that Christ offers him is a Cross of his own. This Cross will not be a struggle for things in this world, but the only path there is to eternal life.


This is the Peter, this is the Paul, and likewise the Blessed Virgin whom we contemplate in heaven – those whose hearts have been pierced with sorrow and like the Lord himself acquainted with grief. These are those whose glory in heaven has been transfigured out of their sufferings, their trials and their endurance through this world. For us too, it is not easy to avoid sin; it is not easy to live in the world in a spiritual way; it is difficult to set our hearts on the things that are above, when we are bound to be occupied with the necessities of life and work, of family and concerns of our fellow humans in their trials. But, says the Lord, in all these things, the only way to love them best is to love Christ first. For it is only through the transforming of us, that we can hope for the Lord to transform the world He loves and gave His life for. It is only through making our lives holy and glorious that the kingdoms of this world can be seen to be the living instances of the Kingdom of God. It is only by our longing to be saints, and to live the same glorified life as theirs, their sufferings and endurance transfigured into hope for the joy that lies ahead, that we too can point the world to running a race from itself (and its fetish for destruction and selfish-absorption) toward the heaven that God’s liturgy, His work among and upon His people, constantly opens up to draw us in.


I know this looks to nearly the whole of the population as just religion, just a pious spiritual sentiment, the wording of a belief-system, while the realities of the world are all too practical and intractable to be adequately addressed by abstractions like kingdom, glory, heaven and eternal life. But think about it. It was in just such an instant of a gut reaction from St Peter that clearly he thought more or less the same. Then and now we are not so very different. Nothing has changed. To this worldliness, this instinct to be realistic, Jesus just says this.


What is the universe you live in? Is it the universe where you are the centre, where what matters most is your life, your will, your family, your future, your material and practical concerns? These are important and I understand that you love them. But where do they lead really and what are they truly for? Or is the universe you live in the one which is the Kingdom of God, the God Who says blessed are the peacemakers, the poor, the merciful, the pure in heart, the righteous, the broken-hearted? Is your universe the one where it is God who accepts the blame and blasphemy, even death on a Cross, Whom you have seen in the flesh and followed and made the Master of your life - your only hope and greatest joy, the Lord who has promised you a place in His Kingdom and a share of His own glory, if you will only take part in the renewal of all things that will cost you not less than everything?


If you think that the universe is centred on you, of course it matters nothing whether today is All Saints or the Holy Trinity, or both. But if you believe that Jesus Christ is the master of all things, then he is Master of You, and you will desire nothing more than to be His saints in the Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Britain's Christian Society


When the Prime Minister repeated his view in April 2014 that Britain is a Christian country, it was hard to forget two things – what he said to Pope Benedict on his departure from England at East Midlands airport in 2010 and his argument against the Archbishop of Westminster over the effects of welfare reforms in February.


To Pope Benedict, Mr Cameron recalled Newman’s lesson from the decline of ancient Rome, about a state that had lost its “sentiment of sacredness” and its need for a “common bond of unity” based on more than the unanimity of self-interest (Lectures on the History of the Turks in their Relation to Europe, Lecture 7, Barbarism and Civilisation). Reflecting the Pope’s observation at Westminster Hall that British constitutional values concerning power, democracy and liberty have much in common with Catholic Social Teaching, he latched onto the Pope’s “challenge” for humanity to embrace its true purpose with “the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain”, of which “faith is part of the fabric”. Such responsibility is more than working for the common good. It estimates Britain in theological terms, going beyond faith as personal profession, to faith - specifically the Christian faith - as defining British civilisation and a national life together conceived on Christian lines. Thus, whatever our hard-won tradition of tolerance and personal religious liberty, nonetheless Britain is a corporately Christian state.

 

On Cardinal Nichols (as he now is) he observed, “Many of the great political questions of our time are also moral questions – we should not be surprised, and nor should we be dismissive, when members of the clergy make their views known.  But neither should political leaders be afraid to respond…  The Archbishop of Westminster … offered a critique of this Government’s welfare reforms. I respect his view but I also disagree with it deeply.”

It is hard to reconcile the two comments. First he admires a society that is unified in purpose, bears a sacred character, and thus resonates with Catholic Social Teaching. Next, when a Catholic Social Teacher “challenges” (Mr Cameron’s word!) the direction that British society’s purpose is taking - because in its effects it is unpicking the fabric of the common good of which is part - it is extraordinary that he personally goes to the lengths of arguing against the Church’s moral critique of these effects, point by point, in The Daily Telegraph (18 February). It is important to recognise that the Cardinal was not casting doubt on the decency or good faith of political reformers, let alone involving himself with the practicalities which are the concern of party politics. But in any state, especially a professedly Christian state, Christian teaching about how the Kingdom of God is served in this world has to be heeded, not just noted “with respect”. For, far from being “simply untrue”, as the Prime Minister complained, everything Cardinal Nichols had stated about people’s safety net being withdrawn came from the direct experience of priests, parishes, charitable organisations and other dioceses and Churches across Britain. Thus he was merely doing what a certain type of British politician says the Church should confine itself to – defining what is right and where people are going wrong, and thus saving people’s souls. He had acknowledged that politicians were trying to repair public finances, as well as to break dependency, stimulate more employment and improve more prosperous livelihoods in a sustainable way, with the necessary support for those at greatest risk. But he also pointed out, whatever the good intentions, that systems and the politics behind them are not neutral or occupy a different compartment of the universe from the “spiritualities” – they boil down to personal effects on individual households; and when this causes hardship, especially noticeably wider hardship, there is a moral question to be answered. Thus the Cardinal was not just expressing his “views” with which the Prime Minister felt free to disagree “deeply”; he was speaking truth unto power. Power found this “challenge” uncomfortable, weighed it respectfully, set aside what it had earlier said to Pope Benedict, and rejected the Cardinal’s application of Catholic social teaching.

So did the Prime Minister also dismiss the “sentiment of sacredness” and the “common bond of unity” arising from it? When Mr Cameron says “Christian”, he means a rather individualised version of “Protestant”. In a Protestant society, the individual believer is his or her own interpreter of the Bible, needing no mediation from the Church for access to God, faith or salvation. The Church conducts worship based on the Bible and its clergy’s preaching is authoritative because the theology tradition claims it says nothing more, nothing less than is explicit in the text.  In such a society, this may be fine as long as the State likewise sees itself as subject to the Scriptures (and can thus use the Church to keep the people there too). But when the nature of the text of the Bible itself is open to question -  its formation, its origins, its literary genres, its historical and social contexts, its standing as  literal, analogical or allegorical truth – who is the interpreter then? What authority privileges the “view” of the Church – in other words, her teaching - when all the world is free to decide from out of the same Scriptures their own religious teaching and moral choice, rather than those of the Body as a whole?

Thus Britain, a confessionally Christian state, has abandoned the defence of marriage and family stability by facilitating divorce; it has undermined the corporate observance of Sunday and the principal Christian holy days (notably Good Friday and Ascension Day) in favour of the pressures of the market; it has engineered the exclusion of historic Catholic institutions that helped to found the nation’s childcare services from any further role in adoption and fostering; it is tacitly softening the application of the laws that strictly limit abortion and forbid euthanasia; it is barring the professional freedom of Catholics and other Christian doctors and nurses working in general practice and reproductive healthcare if they are conscientiously opposed to the termination of the lives of unborn children, or refuse to refer applicants to those who are not. There are numerous further examples.

Yet this is not because any of our succession of church-going Prime Ministers is not Christian. It is because they do not see that, beyond a moral or spiritual critique, the Church has bearing on society, and how individuals live their lives in good conscience and under the law, any more than anyone else. The individual is free to decide, the Archbishop of Westminster is entitled to his views and a Christian Prime Minister “deeply disagrees” with him. No one wants a theocracy, social rule by religious leaders. Nor do we want this or that political leader’s subjective impression of Christianity, its generalised values and supposed historic influences, rather than what it teaches and demands. Instead we need a society that is able to integrate, rather than balance off against each other, our political and our spiritual identity, one that is, as Mr Cameron himself said to Pope Benedict, a “fabric” where faith is not a patch stitched on but in the weave.

For this to happen, England needs the Christians of this country to be united, not at odds. A society with political, social, historical, moral and spiritual integrity deserves a Church that brings Christ’s voice to bear upon it because she is His Body exemplifying His wholeness in humanity; a society without wholeness even more deserves the Church that brings integrity to its political, social, historical, moral and spiritual identity for it truly to be humanity. Only the Catholic Church can provide this; not because its universal extent in time and place can be all-encompassing, but because its social teaching is the teaching of Christ about human beings and how they are designed by God in the image of Christ to make up one humanity in Him. This is not a view, or one critique among many. It is how things are from the perspective of the Kingdom of Heaven and how they ought to be conformed in the kingdoms of this world. In a Christian society, it is not merely to be taken into account by the rulers, but internalised and put into practice.

The alternative is a society defenceless against monstrosity. One hundred years ago, Britain and Ireland went to war in defence of “little Catholic Belgium”. Four years ago, the centuries-old “folk Catholicism” of Belgium and its uneasy modus vivendi with political liberalism were irrevocably shattered, when Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Brugge admitted the sustained abuse of two nephews. Nuns were heckled in the streets, priests advised not to appear in public, the Archbishop of Brussels-Malines repeatedly assaulted with custard pies, and the retired Cardinal Danneels questioned by police. In March 2014 King Filip of the Belgians, whose uncle King Baudouin had abdicated rather than approve the legalisation of abortion, signed into law the euthanasia of children.

A remarkable recent book, Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, by Matthew John Paul Tan, explains what has been going on in advanced Western societies, by asking why, when there is so much need for Christians to unite in addressing the ills of society, and there are so many opportunities for the concerted social action in service of suffering humanity that Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism called for, Christian unity has not come to pass and the Church remains in a state of rupture. Tan locates the problem in the decision of the Church in the modern world to recognise the freedom of the world and its social, economic and political structures from the Church, allowing them to migrate beyond the realm of the Kingdom of God. The Church may seek to set the tone, but civil society and the state have autonomy in their own, separate sphere. Free from the boundaries of the reign of Christ, the state and civil society identify their own ultimate objective, which now becomes earth-and-time-bound, in preference to the end of all things - the good, and the coming of the Kingdom, such as we see in the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.

Tan sees the Church in shock and denial at the flight of its child and what it has chosen for its path to happiness. For instead of the Kingdom, the state and civil society have chosen for their own the objectives of the unfettered market. This means unconstrained personal liberty, even to the interpersonal “violence” that means one person may prevail over the rest. In this context, says Tan, it is hardly surprising that the Churches have not been able to draw together in serving the realisation of the unity of humanity in Christ, because the new “state/society/market matrix” actively prevents them from doing so. The Christian Churches have been constrained to be part of a market of choice and competition – not just with each other but with every other ware on offer. Thus the Universal Catholic Church can hope at best, if it is to engage with the world to which it has given spiritual liberty, to serve as its chaplain. It is a far cry from Newman’s state with both a common bond of unity and a sentiment of sacredness, or even Mr Cameron’s socially responsible state, with faith woven through its “fabric”. But it is what we have come to.

Tan’s remedy is to say that the Church’s diakonia – its service of the Kingdom in and for the world - whether ecclesial or ecumenical - would be impossible now, unless it is united with its leitourgia. This is not just its “liturgy” as the work of the people to worship God, but the work of God for and upon the worshipping people.  By this he means that it is time for the Church to reassert itself as the alternative humanity, the “still more excellent Way”, restoring as its end the objective that points us towards God and his Kingdom. Thus humanity can recover a proper view of the human person, and of its relations with the other, that is not modelled on the untrammelled needs of the market and unfettered personal liberalism, but on the endless self-giving and mutually receiving of the persons of the Trinity, as the pattern for the people of God and the best, the only true, pattern for the whole of humanity.

With regard to our leitourgia – how we are the humanity focussed upon God and His Kingdom – Tan believes that the way we celebrate Mass and the direction we offer it actually conforms us to the “state-society-market matrix” that frustrates us so. In other words, we aim at ourselves and our own progress and development, rather than Christ and His Kingdom. This is why we are of no use to the world and why we cannot collaborate ecumenically in a lasting way that can be consolidated, in order to transform the ills of the world by looking to the transcending intervention of the Kingdom of God in our own hands as its People.

This is also why the People of God fails to exhibit itself as the Body of Christ; for, as chaplain to the “state-society-market matrix”, we are forced to pursue its objectives and not those of the Kingdom. The “matrix” will seek the Kingdom, not because the Church as its chaplain exhorts it to, but because that happens to suit its ends for the moment. People of God we may call ourselves, but we are merely “people” like anyone else, competing in the market place of ideas and offers and objectives. Hence, we need to declare our own freedom from this “matrix”, in order to reassert the sovereignty of God and the lack of society’s autonomy to direct itself as though it lies beyond the Kingdom of God and the hearing of the teaching of Christ and His Church. As Martin Luther said, “Let God be God” – not what political leaders, however well-meaning and personally devout, need Him to be and to mean from this day to that.


In 2013, a commemorative stone was set into the floor of the West Door of Westminster Cathedral, commemorating the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Its Latin says that he “celebrated the Mass … showing what advantage faith may be to society.” Advantage? Is that all that is left for us to offer? Is faith not the “sentiment of sacredness” of a state’s very fabric, sealing that “common bond of unity” that forms society out of more than the mere coming together of otherwise divergent and sectional interests?


We are a country of wondrous diversity in which all have a stake and all possess rights and mutual obligations. Our traditions of freedom of speech, of personal and corporate religious liberty, of tolerance, equality and the rule of law have been won at the price of blood that live on in our collective memory as both defining our present identity and a warning from history. But our society is not Christian because Christianity transmits values we can all mostly sign up to, or because Christ reigns in all or some of our hearts, feebly or strongly, high in archbishops and ministers of the Crown, or low in us normal people around the altars and pulpits of our churches. It is Christian because the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of Our Lord and of His Christ. This does not depend on a ministerial evaluation, or because the Church can make a convincing argument. Christ reigns in and over society, whatever we think. That is just the way humanity and the universe have been made. To this the Church holds it.