Friday, 25 December 2015

Homily for the Nativity of Christ, 25th December 2015, Church of the Most Precious Blood, The Borough, Southwark

It is easy to forget in London, one of the greatest cities of the Western world, as we celebrate the birth of God the Son come among us as a human being, that he was born, lived and died and rose again in the East. We find it difficult to imagine, even though the Church he founded has spread to Europe and India, the Americas, across Africa, the far stretches of Asia and across the Pacific from Australia to Alaska, that in the East, in the lands where Jesus Himself walked, there are Christians to this day. Some of them speak Aramaic, the language that He spoke. They continue to worship by the Jordan where He was baptised. They live, as they always have, in the cities where Peter, Thomas, James, Bartholomew, Mark, Andrew, Simon and Jude took the Gospel and founded the first churches. Up in the mountains are the monasteries where some of the saints that we still remember each year wrote their hymns, some of which we sing to this day across the world in English. On the plains and plateaux are the villages and towns, where bishops famous from the great Councils of the Church’s first centuries - whose faith we still proclaim - were pastors to their people then, like their successors are today, in long unbroken line.

They do not have a Mass quite like this, but it is the same Eucharist of the Lord, with music and words, colour and ceremony going back on the same spot to the earliest days of the Christian religion - that is, the religion of those who knew Jesus Christ personally and, in His footsteps on the land of the East, planted their own, as their families and descendants, father and mother to son and daughter, have been doing for twenty centuries.

You have heard in the news that these ancient communities of Eastern Christians - Catholic and Orthodox; Arab, Armenian, Assyrian; with all the rich variety that makes the Church both all-encompassing and One – are under the direst threat they have ever faced. After nearly 1500 years of living side by side with Muslims, despite the persecution of successive empires, with bonds of charity and peace as children of the same land and peoples, now a ruthless band of killers has been going from village to village, town to town, monastery to monastery, destroying the Churches, forcing the faithful from their homes, kidnapping them along with their priests and monks and nuns, sometimes executing them, burning the ancient books that tell our Christian faith in the words of our forebears from the dawning days of the Church itself, tearing down the images of the Cross on which our Lord suffered for the sake of our redemption, and desecrating the altars and the images of Our Lord and the Mother of God. In Syria alone, the north of our Holy Land, forty-five churches and monasteries have been desecrated since the present surge of ISIS began; and a hundred more churches, orphanages, residential care homes, schools, and social or medical centres, provided by the Church for the benefit of all alike, have been damaged or ruined. There are similar stories from Iraq. But the worst of it all is that every day hundreds more Christians leave the Middle East. Ancient Churches in Palestine too, within a few miles of Bethlehem, face desertion as Christians are pressured out by Israel and Palestinian Muslims alike. Christ was born and cradled in Bethlehem, but Syria and the Middle East cradled Christianity, so it is emergency that affects us, as the whole region is stripped of its Christians, as a whole way of life and culture has part of its history and identity shorn off, so that all that remains is the gap where the memory used to be. A few of our fellow Christians from the Middle East will come to northern Europe, especially Sweden where they have been welcomed; more will go to North America; still more will find new homes in South America and Australia. Far away in the future their children will forget their Arab life and culture, as they become like us who live in the West. In time the language of Christ will be spoken no more. In time, you have to wonder, will they forget the Christ their families have followed for twenty centuries, since He first stepped beside the shore of Galilee and went up to their mountains to speak of God’s eternal life, or since Paul went to Damascus and was converted? Today the Archbishop of Canterbury describes the murderers as modern Herods, seeking out all the children of God in order to attack Christ, forcing new Holy Families to flee.

St Paul told us that the Cross of Christ would be a scandal (I Corinthians 1.23) to those who cannot bear to look on it, and tear it down. Our Lord himself told us, “Blessed are you when people persecute you and speak all kinds of evil against you on account of Me. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven, because they treated the same way the Prophets before you.” (Matthew 5.11) He goes on to say – “You are the salt of the earth”, “you are the light of the world,” whose trials are seasoning to bring out the flavour of the world and to preserve it for the future; whose sufferings are the illumination that shines the way to God the Father.

So the message from the leader of Syria’s Catholic Christians, head of a Church founded by St Peter years before he reached Rome, Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch, that he has written to all his people is one of joy. It is a message he shares with the whole Church, because in the midst of the crisis, when all around is sadness and destitution, not only for the Christians but many others too, the distinguishing marks of Christians are love and joy for the very fact the God has sent His Son into the world. So there is no room for despair, no bare cupboard where once we kept our hopes in storage.

You might say, he is being brave. As Patriarch to his people, he is trying to rally people round, and encourage them to hold fast and hang on for a brighter day. You might say he is shoring up their inner faith while outside things fall to pieces. This is perhaps half the story .

But the whole truth is this. He is reminding us all that, whatever the appearances around us – and in our country it is the rough rejection of Christ and Christianity in public life and personal living – whatever it is that people do with guns and swords, with the abuse of power and money, it does not change the fact that 2,015 years ago, God caused Himself to be born a human being so that He could be God with us, not away in the distance. It does not change the fact that He taught us, when we think of heaven, not to imagine a land far off in the future, but here and now, “on earth as it is in heaven”, as we pray every day. It does not change the fact that He too was murdered on a Cross because of human wickedness and resentment of God’s goodness and beauty, yet died exhausting evil of everything it could through against Him. It does not change the fact that, thirty-three year after His birth, on the Third Day he rose again from the dead and destroyed its power and victory over us, not its victim but over it the Victor. Our pride and joy in Christ is therefore not just that He is the person who inspires us, or the One Who leads us in our hearts and imagination. It is not just that Christianity is our personal spirituality, our private belief; or that Jesus is our personal Lord, the God for me. He is Lord of all. If He is not Lord of all, if He is not the King whose power authority is above all other powers and people, if He is not the One that turned inside out the very way that life and the universe operate when He rose from the dead, then He is not Lord at all, and no Lord for me. Yet this is the Lord of all that is, this small infant we worship today. He fills the universe, this child in the farm animals’ manger. He is not only the delight of Christians today, but the enduring hope of all the world.

One of the beautiful icons you often see in an Eastern Christian church, painted up in the apse over the altar, shows the Mother of God with her hands extended, and seated on her womb is the young Lord Christ, also holding his hands out in blessing, pointing the way onwards with authority. The picture is called “The Mother of God, she who is wider than the heavens”. She is the Mother who in her own body contains the uncontainable. The sheer vastness of what we are celebrating today is this: that “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay”, is the very expression of the Word of God Who creates and rules the universe. He became flesh not only to be with us, but to die on the Cross in our flesh, to take away all the power of sin, and evil’s power over us, and then to vanquish death, using our flesh as His means, by rising from the dead. This is how we live the life on earth that is lived in heaven. Nothing can destroy it, nothing can take it away; for it is the life of the One Whom the universe cannot contained. It means that - to the eye of the Christian - Jesus Christ is the light who has come into the world, that nothing in the world can outshine. No one can put His light into a box, hide it, or extinguish it. It outshines all other lights. Not just me, all of us, whoever we are, whether we believe or not, have neither sufficient light, nor darkness, to cover it. This is the light that shines more brightly than Britain, than Syria, than the ISIS murderers, than everything the world can do to tear down the Cross and its power of liberation and rejoicing.

A number of you have brought today your little images of the Christchild for a blessing, so that you can take them home and put them in your cribs with joy and happiness that the presence of Christ shines like a light in your homes, families and loved ones near and far this Christmas. You will all be hoping that it shines through you, for we are all sinners and imperfect vessels of the light we are carrying. But try not to think of it as a little ornament, a small token of faith and love. When you look on the Christchild in the Crib here in this Church or at home, remember that here portrayed is the Lord Who fills the universe, in the embrace of her who has become wider than the heavens to contain the uncontainable. Try and imagine that you, too, in your own hands and your own heart and your own body, are containers for the uncontainable as you bring Him close to the world. Try and imagine that for a moment you, too, are wider than the heavens as you hold the hope of the whole world – not just for you personally – the very life of God Who has come into the world to bring peace, and liberty from evil, and joy.

Remember that this is the faith of the Christians of the Middle East who stand to lose everything, yet still have confidence in Christ, the Word made flesh, the Word of God from God, the Light from Light that can never be outshone, the Lord whose Kingdom prevails, on earth as it is in heaven.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Homily for the Feast of Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, December 11 2015

When we hear St John pointing to Jesus and saying He is the Lamb, what comes into our minds is vulnerability, weakness, an innocent on its way to the slaughter. Perhaps we think of springtime, and a new life at its beginning.

To be honest with you, I do not think that was uppermost in John’s mind. Nor do I think that was the imagery that caused such an impact on St Andrew that he left John’s side to be with Jesus instead, convincing his brother Peter to follow Him too.

John the Baptist was a hard, brave, bold and uncompromising man. He came from a priestly family in Jerusalem, but he would have nothing to do with the discredited kingdom of Herod, or the cult in the Temple Herod had built. Instead he went into the desert as an exile, waiting for a true King to enter the Land of Promise, to restore true worship, and to recover for the people a guaranteed means to life in union with God. Thus might heaven’s glory once again be seen on earth, and the Lord beheld dwelling among His people. He went into the desert; he lived on the edge. Those who came to seek him out were other bold men, who shared his longing for the People and the Land to change their ways. Their very existence was a standing rebuke to all: from the foreign King serving the supposedly divine Roman emperor and the spiritually and financially corrupt Temple, to the sinful ways of the people, from the top down. They lived on a knife-edge of being arrested and executed because of their call for everything to change, because of their effrontery in accusing the whole world of sin. In the Temple, sin could be dealt with by a donation, a sacrifice and an action performed. If your sacrifice came from love and desire to return and be near to God, it counted for everything: we remember the stories of the widow’s mite and the tax-collector praying for mercy so well. But if you thought your sacrifice was some kind of transaction with God, a deal, then to these people John shouted, “Stop going through these motions. Stop trying to strike a bargain. You need to change your minds, not just your money. Alter your thinking. Repent. Turn round. Face the way that the Lord is coming to you. He is coming in fire and glory as once before. Turn round and face His Kingdom, because He is bringing the Holy Spirit.”

This talk cost John his life with the authorities; but it was stirring stuff to honest people who, whatever else was going on in the country and throughout the known world, pored over the Scriptures, loved God, believed His promises and hoped for a new day. So Andrew starts to follow John. He sees John take all the people that follow him out across the hills to the Jordan river. He hears him tell everyone that the change they are looking for will involve coming into the Land of Promise all over again. Only then can there be a fresh start, and only then can the change of heart and thinking be permanent. He sees as, one by one, John’s followers step out of the Holy Land into the river through which their forebears once entered it. He sees them immersed in its flow, and he sees them all coming back on a new footing, new as people. He sees that one of the people John has baptised is singled out. John declares Him to be the Lamb of God, come to ”take away the sins of the world.”

To Andrew, this Lamb is not looking vulnerable or sounding uncertain. He does not speak out like John; but here, like John, is a figure of purpose and inner strength, imperturbable on His way. Soon John calls Jesus not only the Lamb of God, but the Son of God. Immediately, Andrew understands. He recalls the story of Abraham, so devoted to the Lord that he is prepared to give up and offer his own Son, to demonstrate his devotion and obedience. But the Lord desires not the death in a sacrifice, but the life and love in its offering. He Himself provides a lamb to stand for this complete oblation of living adoration. Andrew grasps that the Lord, Who once sent a lamb to fulfil an earthly father’s vow to God, now sends His Son to fulfil the heavenly Father’s promise to God’s People. In an instant, Andrew sees that for the sacrifices for sin, the Temple worship, the prayers of repentance, the heartfelt desires for everything to change in the world, the pouring out of hearts in faith, to have any effect, the one to bring them about is not a passive victim, but someone actively in control of all around Him, and of His own destiny.

Yes, He will be wounded. Yes, He will be brought down and weakened. Yes, He is innocent, and the shedding of His blood will take all human life and strength from Him. Yes, it is our sin that will destroy Him. But it is by His strength that He makes Himself vulnerable to us. It is by His innocence that He exhausts and outlasts our offences. It is by His courting and grasping defeat as a victim, that He dares to proceed as victor. It may be that as a Lamb He is led to the slaughter to bring the Kingdom of God about; but He will be none other than the Son of God, the King coming into His reign. No wonder people who lived on the edge, with little to lose and full of hopes that seemed never to be realised, left everything to follow Him.

In the last week, a self-appointed Commission on Religion and Belief has issued a report recommending that Church schools in the United Kingdom be stopped from admitting children on the basis of their families’ religious faith, and that at our civic ceremonies and in all areas of public life, Christianity should give way to other faiths. One of the Commissioners is a retired Anglican bishop who has called for the Koran to be read in Church at the traditional services each year when the judges pray for Divine Wisdom in their momentous task. The other Commissioners have called for religious education in our country to include teaching about secularism and atheism.

Secularist atheists are trying to have it both ways. First, they claim that there is a basic, neutral moral consensus that does not need God; therefore no religion making an exclusive claim to the Truth should claim any privilege in education, or public affairs. Then they say their beliefs should be recognised in education as a religion, since they are free to promote them and gain converts to them like other viewpoints. Yet to Christians it seems that secularism is already everywhere, judging from how we have allowed and encouraged our commercial and business worlds to become mercenary and exploitative, seeing how the materialism of the market replaces the value placed on God and our love of others, especially the poor. Propagating the working assumptions of secularism is also prevalent on TV and Radio, from documentaries to quiz shows. Yet our religious education consensus in this country has been wisely crafted over the last 150 years to ensure young minds receive two things. First is an understanding of the beliefs and values of Christianity as the force that has shaped and defined our entire civilisation; secondly is not the imposition of religion but education about it, borne out of a hard-won history of learning tolerance and reconciliation, so that we can know how to live together with respect and humanity. Yet the countries which have no such tradition of religious education, the places where only one faith, or secularism, or atheism, is imposed, appear now to be incapable of making sense of the world of faith and how important it is to people’s identities, their sense of where and how they belong in the world, and their aspirations. To impose secularism in the hope that it will bring about harmony is a dangerous fantasy, just as much as imposing Islam is in the Middle East, and just as imposing one form of Christianity was in Spain, or Russia, or England in the past.

So, what is needed? St Andrew followed St John the Baptist because he saw all that was wrong in the world and wanted it to change. He turned to follow Christ because he understood that the Kingdom of the Lord would return not by force of arms, or the impositions of authority, but strength of goodness (something we used to call virtue) and out of love, a love so strong and inexhaustible that it could win through and withstand anything, even death itself. As St Paul puts it, “When the day of evil comes, put on the full armour of God, so you can stand your ground, and having done all, still stand.” (Ephesians 6.13)

The way St Andrew saw this was that it was not just matter for him to respond to personally, but a concern that faced the whole of his nation. He observes Jesus as the one to take away the sins of a whole world, and this conviction spread to his brother Peter, then to Philip and then to Nathanael, as we have heard (John 1.35-51). Nathanael recognises Jesus not just as Lamb of God, and Son of God, but also as King of Israel. Jesus replies that this insight gives a vision of how heaven itself comes down to earth all the time, as earth  rises up to go into heaven. This is what we celebrate as the true reality to things in our Liturgy.

So it has to be that we see both the world and our faith in the Lord not as two separate things, keeping faith in God out of one box, and keeping our dealings in the world in a separate one from our religious observances. The Lord is the Lord of all, or he is no Lord at all and all of this is irrelevant. And so, it is for us to say that we do not wish the world merely to tolerate us, or to allow us space. We say, “You must change. You must face the coming of the Kingdom. What you see as a weakling Lamb, a disposable commodity, a sentimental story of adversity overcome, and just the cycle of life, is none other than the Son of God in all His power.

“As, of old, Saint Andrew heard it
by the Galilean lake,
turned from home and toil and kindred,
leaving all for His dear sake;

Jesus calls us from the worship
Of the vain world’s golden store:
From each idol that would keep us,
saying, Christian, love me more.”  C F Alexander

Monday, 7 December 2015

Commission on Religion and Belief Report: No help to pluralism, but surrender to the objectives of organised secularism

Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public LifeI am so dismayed by today's report from the Woolf Institute's Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. A great deal to digest and clearly some of the reflections and proposals are constructive. But....

I did a hurried first read through this morning. In parts it buys into a liberal-secularist view that religion is private and the public square is neutral. Thus the default is 'no religion' and 'shared values' in which secularism can proselytise with state sanction, behaving like a religion but claiming it's not. But it's inconsistent: "non-faith worldviews" and religious worldviews ought to be studied as alternates - so are they religions or not? If one or each religion should be relativised in the public square and in education, why provide the secular-humanist religion or worldview the position of "working assumption" in all the areas and school subjects from which religion is not allowed to have any bearing? (I write with some experience of working with those who wrote cross-curricular RE resources that cut both ways, so that study of religion - a legal requirement now more important than ever - was not siloed or confined to one denomination).

Then, surprise, surprise: the proposal directed against Catholic schools as if they were divisive, when the history with its aftermath is of Catholics being the ones to be excluded. This will ensure that all children go to schools in which teachers and governors promote secular humanism as the basic position against which to interpret religion. What will be the point of the Church of England's schools having no relation to church worshipping life, or the bringing to bear of its values on wider society through its historic positive task of the formation of young citizens; and, in a worrying repeat of history in which Catholics are once again threatened with the restriction of their liberty to play a full part in civic life and public services, what will be the point of Catholic schools that are prevented from providing education and upbringing for their own children as well as welcoming children of other faiths and none (which they do)?

Perhaps the commissioners would like to add up the purchase price of the Anglican and Catholic bought and owned premises of all the schools receiving state funds for providing education just like any other, and then compute if they can afford to buy the Churches out. No? I thought not.

Three other observations:

1. Once again there's Bishop Harries' hoary old proposal that at traditional civic services, other religions can celebrate elements of their worship in Christian Churches. He earlier proposed that the Koran be read in Bristol Cathedral before the judges' service. I don't see the New Testament being read out in mosques. There's a question of mutual respect and integrity here. It is unacceptable that Islamic claims, which cannot be extricated from the inherent assertion that Islam is senior to Christianity having surpassed it, have a place for public proclamation in churches. The Christians in other parts of the world having their lives and homes, churches, towns, hospitals, schools and monasteries wrested from them would find this incomprehensible.

2. The coronation service with its central rite of anointing is derived from the inaugural rites of the reign of the Byzantine Christian emperor, with other elements derived from the ritual for making a king in ancient Israel. By nature it cannot be an interfaith service: it is a rite of consecration to God after the pattern of Christ the King. By all means have a non-religious inauguration (we already have: it's called an Accession Council followed by Proclamation of the new Sovereign, the day following the demise of the Crown) - we could have swearing in at Westminster Hall too, but why would that need any religious elements? Leave the anointing and crowning to be what it is (incidentally the last of its kind left).

3. Have people forgotten that 5 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI gave two stunning addresses on (a) Christianity and other faiths in their shared responsibility to society to faith leaders at St Mary's University, Twickenham, and (b) the vital need for the mutual conversation and bearing upon each other of faith and reason, religion and society to civil leaders at Westminster Hall? One of the authors of the commission's report, one Rowan Williams, was present as Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, and seemed to welcome it. Yet - unless I am doing an injustice - it does not seem to have been taken into account or cited in the text or appendices. This is a glaring omission as it has been the most high-profile and widely covered treatment of religion in society in the UK in the last decade. Indeed the Pope was saying and magnifying what the Anglican bishops were saying at that moment, and were not being heeded on. Yesterday's news is tomorrow's kindling, it seems.

Finally, I cannot see how the place of people's personal religion and identity, or that of entire large bodies of various kinds of believers, or the rights of secularists or humanists as identifiable minority organised constituencies, are strengthened by the weakening of others. Even if people don't go to Church much, or don't believe in Christ and his sacrifice like they once did in this country, Christianity is the defining shaper of its history and identity for 1500 years at least. Only 60 years ago, Winston Churchill described our "finest hour" as the defence of Christian civilisation against the malevolent forces of pagan and atheist Nazism and Fascism. Now the great and the good want to dismantle everything that once defined us. This will not help Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or non-Anglicans to have a greater stake in civil society: it will hand all the say to the secularist thought police who have been dominating our education system, trades unions and local government institutions for decades, forbidding Christian practice behind the pretence that it 'might offend' someone.

Of course, they haven't addressed at all one of the big problems in England for historically excluded Reformed (the Old Dissent) and Catholics (the Recusants) alike: the constitutional establishment bonding the Crown, the armed forces and the Church of England, in which other churches and religions are not permitted fully to participate. As much as I am in favour of the each one of these in their respective offices severally, this exclusive bond at the heart of the British constitution and society really needs addressing - but who would dare?

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Homily on the Seventh Tone Resurrection Hymns, Heavenly Hundreds, the Justice of Christ and the Massacre in Paris, 14/15 November 2015

The Byzantine Divine Liturgy, in the view of many Western people, is ornate and richly complex. In fact, while the prayers are longer than those in the Latin tradition and an obvious difference is the cumulative and insistent effect of the numerous litanies, its basic shape is quite similar to those of the mass of the Latin rite, suggesting a common tradition in the Church’s early days in the Roman Empire. In the core of the service there is even less variation than at a Roman Catholic Mass. The prayers hardly ever vary; the Introit is always the same – The Trisagion which is the response to Psalm 79; the Great Entrance or Offertory is nearly always the Cherubic Hymn, being the refrain to Psalm 23; and set verses from Psalms 22, 56 and 113 are sung every time –  "Save Your people and bless You inheritance"; "Be exalted, O God above the heavens"; "Blessed be the Name of the Lord!" The Scripture readings and the psalms linked to them for the Sunday or Feast are almost all that changes. This is how it developed in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and this is the Liturgy that was shared across the Eastern Roman Empire and up into Eastern Europe, and now across the world.

Except to say that in the ninth century, a monastic renewal flowered in a monastery in the south-western corner of the vast City of Constantinople, the famous Stoudion, or the Studite monastery led by St Theodore, who with his collaborators gathered together all the Christian hymns from the Greek, Syrian, Jerusalem and Sinai desert monasteries and cathedrals they could find, including those of St Romanos the Melodist, St Ephrem Syrus and St John Damascene. They arranged them into great cycles of weekly, daily, festival and seasonal hymns, mostly to add rich variety to the unchanging psalms of the monastic offices, but also so that great Christian poetry could bring out the meaning of the Scriptures and canticles as they reflect upon Christ and teach reveal His power of redemption. Each Sunday, we notice that these hymns are grouped according to one of the eight tones of Byzantine liturgical musical theory. Today we use Tone 7, which is known as the Grave Tone on account of its sweet but sometimes plaintive tone. In the west, for instance, this is the scale used for the gentle melody that opens the Requiem Mass. But in the East, the eight sets of Sunday hymns, are always about the Resurrection; and they glorify Jesus Christ for being risen from the dead and being the conqueror even of our destruction. So it makes no difference if the Tone uses a musical scale that to our modern Western ears sounds major, or minor, subdued, exotic, plaintive or joyful – each mood is a lens through which to view the Resurrection. Each kind of “mood music” thus becomes yet another way for the Resurrection to approach us and make itself understood whatever our disposition, whatever our circumstances, whatever our personality.

So it is no surprise that the main chants for each Sunday, weekday and feast gained popularity among the faithful. They were borrowed from the services of the monks and added to the Divine Liturgy with the highest place of honour in their own right – the very last of the songs to be sung as the priest arrives at the Altar itself. Thus it has been for over a thousand years; thus we have sung them today. It is as if a different way of praising Christ sets us up each Sunday to hear His Word, to behold Him in His Mysteries, to welcome Him in His Temple, to receive Him Who is our God into our human lives - as He once took the flesh that he raised from the dead, and as He will more and more receive us who are humans into His own life, the very life of God the Trinity.

I cannot help but feel that the chants for this Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, a Sunday of the Seventh Tone, are so deeply poignant this weekend, as we pray in shock at the murder of 127 innocent people in Paris, with many other critically injured too, by cowardly members of a psychopathic death-cult pretending to follow God and the path of Islam. At the same time, we remember the millions displaced and degraded by false Muslims across the Middle East, including our own brothers and sisters who have been called upon to give their lives for others and for Christ.

So today’s Troparion speaks of lamentation, but also how the Cross of Christ destroys death.  Once death has done its worst, what is left is mercy, capable of opening the door of Paradise, just like the stone rolled away from the Tomb that shows to the mourners that God’s new reality for humanity has prevailed, and in the midst of lamentation there can be signs of hope and joy.

Likewise, the Kontakion realises that death has no hold over us. Christ too, it says, “went down”; but the collapse shattered the power that drags humanity down, and falls in on top of it.

Then the Theotokion, the hymn to the Mother of God, confronts the fact that, if all that is true, then it is not just something that happened to Jesus in ancient history, nor is it purely something that we have to look forward to after we have ended life here, and passed upon our way: it turns everything inside out now. For Mary is the treasury of Christ’s Resurrection from before she gave birth, through to this very moment and beyond. It was then that she brought us up from the pit, when our Salvation – not an idea or an act but a Person - was born; and it is now that we are saved as she pushes us out, by our own hope, from the depth, towards the Resurrection. And, again, the Resurrection is no mere idea, nor an act, but a Person. So He says to us, as our hope turns toward His voice, “Come forward – come to the Resurrection”.

The Catholic and Orthodox Churches of Ukraine are conscious of a special bond with “those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”, by those who “insult… and utter every kind of evil word falsely” (Matthew 5), because less than two years ago 130 defenceless, civilian protesters in Kyiv, mostly Christians seeking a peaceful resolution to their society’s problems - and demonstrating for nothing more than you and I in Britain take for granted as our birth-rights of honesty, truth, freedom and democracy - were killed by the forces of a corrupted state. In Ukraine these innocent, brave and hope-filled people are revered as the Heavenly Hundred. So very many of them were Eastern Christians, Catholics and Orthodox, whose spiritual life was constantly animated by the rhythms, hymns and music of the Byzantine tradition of the Church’s worship. Every eight weeks they will have heard the same songs we have sung today and taken them to heart, living with the Cross, with Salvation, with the Resurrection as second nature - the simple truth of what it is to live in this world as in the next, on earth as it is in heaven, in my own skin as if in Christ’s, joyful in Christ’s life because on my own I can do nothing.

And now in France, as in Iraq and Syria, Egypt and Libya - and also as in London ten years ago and New York in 2001 - more people are being robbed of their lives and hopes, by the enemies of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven (The Beatitudes, Matthew 5, Third Antiphon). What does our confidence in Christ say to them and to the devastated friends and family who love them, as well as to the fear of the rest of us who wonder what more lies ahead? There is a message that not many will want to hear at the moment, but it is the message that dwelt in the heart of the Heavenly Hundred in Kyiv and richly with our fellow Christian Copts who, on the seashore of Libya moments before their martyrdom, calmly prayed, “Lord, have mercy.” It is the message of our salvation, the message of the Cross, the message of the Resurrection, the message of the Person who is our life, our hope. Here it is in the readings that, providentially, our Church has appointed for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in uneven years:
"If you want the world to change and for the Kingdom of God to come:

-         Love your enemies and do good. Be children of the Most High who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6. 35-36)

Why? Because you must never forget, even when you pray for the thorns in the flesh to be taken away:

-         My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness. (II Corinthians12. 8-9)

So, "blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." May this Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.

“O Mother of God, all-praised treasury of our Resurrection, we hope in you; bring us from the pit… for you have given birth to our Salvation.”

 

Homily on Mercy for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 11th October 2015, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London

It is striking that, when Pope Francis speaks of mercy, it is always in such a physical way. He speaks of balm; we all know the soothing touch of bathing and ointment, as relief on the surface soaks in to refresh, or heal the person inside. Pope Francis speaks of how mercy is the opposite of beating people up with condemnation; water poured on a dry garden to make justice flourish; the opening of door that lets the unbeliever in. He also recalls how the father did not wait for the Prodigal Son to knock on his door, but ran out to embrace the one looking for the way back.

In the world of religion, to judge from the way we speak sometimes, it seems to be all about ideas, principles, articles of belief, laws and texts. Of course, they all help us to clarify what we believe about Christ and how we follow Him more faithfully. But they are not an end in themselves: it is people for whom the Lord came. And the tool that God has given to His Church is not theory in words, but theory in practice and the name he has given it is mercy. It seems to me that Pope Francis has changed the entire nature of our discourse about matters of pastoral care and justice, perhaps for decades to come. Thus it is all very easy to talk of justice and mercy, but he insists to us, they have to take form in physical ways, for concrete people, with practical help that, just like the balm and the wronged father’s loving embrace of a forgiven son, lets the blessing sink in, as the heart changes out of sheer gladness. This is why our God took flesh and became a man. This is why he felt real pain all through a true death. This is why he rose from that death, not as a religious myth, but in the flesh. This is why the Church has been given sacraments to use so that from the other side of reality, heaven can touch our bodies in the world and enter our inner beings to take them into the Kingdom, grace by grace. It is interesting that the Pope quotes St Bernard, the great Father of the Cistercian Order, which has stressed how both the work of prayer in choir and practical tasks and labour out of love unite in the contemplative monk so that there is no escapism into the world of the mind but heart, soul and body are all at one in God – a spirituality that is incarnate and concrete, just as the hard practical fact of human existence is also thoroughly path in the Spirit. St Bernard says, “My merit is God’s mercy. I am by no means lacking in merit as long as He is rich in mercy.” This is no sentiment, no pious wording. It is the experience of a life lived physically as well as spiritually, with struggle, adversity, but also joy that comes from mercy.

What then is this mercy? We think of mercy as exceptional to justice, a begrudged pardon, being let off. In response we may explain its virtues: loving-kindness and self-sacrifice, sacred-heartedness, and restoration, all borne of forgiveness, which changes everything. But these virtues are not mere attitudes: they, are concrete in the fellow-feeling of One Who lived among us and died and rose again in one of our bodies. Christ’s compassion is in miracles that happened not in the mind but to things and people, the tender care from hands that turn tables as well as bless.

But why should Christ be merciful and ask us to be merciful too? (cf. Luke 6.36 – Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful). In Psalm 88.3, King David says, “Mercy shall be built up for ever; in the heavens Your truth shall be prepared.” So mercy is the perpetual heavening of earth. Recall what happened when Caesar Augustus issued his decree, “the whole world being at peace”. Not long afterwards, a host of angels appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace to people on whom His favour rests.” In our Liturgy we call those people the ones with good will. So it seems to me that our first thought, when contemplating what mercy can mean to the world and for its people, is that we need to begin with God’s own perspective. Beholding His universe, and the creatures within it, He saw it to be very good. God’s thought to be merciful first arises from His view from the outset that creation is good.

The second thought is that in the Good Creation things are amiss, and so are we. To some the remedy is tighter control, tougher punishment, humiliation, shame, force of correction, or even resorting to magic. But to God, it is to be all mercy, for forgiveness is what is needed to break the cycle. Our nature’s fall from grace marred God’s image in us, and to see that clear again is what he is searching for. The ultimate disfigurement of God’s image in us was to put His own beauty to death on the Cross. But in that most extreme of emergencies, when God Himself is torn inside out through our humanity, nothing perturbs the Word of God from breathing out the mercy He came to say: “Father, forgive them.”

So God is merciful because He sees what He created is good, and what is amiss He will forgive. But He will not leave it there. In His moment of bloodshed with words of judgment that pronounce for ever our absolute forgiveness, we are reminded that the word we translate as ‘holy’ in our Liturgy in Latin is ‘sanctus’, which means something that has been bloodied. The priests, the altar, the veil in the Temple, were consecrated from being spattered with sacrificial blood. This was what enabled them to serve God’s purpose in His presence. It brought about communion between God and humanity. In the same way, everything, everyone, that Christ shed His blood for has not just been forgiven, redeemed, or saved. It is to be made holy. So the third to God’s mercy is that it takes a world that God perceives to be good, forgives it, and then makes it holy.

But are these not just religious ideas? What about those practicalities we were so struck by? In the Latin Catholic Church, there is a special Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs, in praise of Christ Who ‘went about doing good’. It reads:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, to give You thanks at all times and in all places, Father of mercies and faithful God. For You have given us Jesus Christ, Your Son, as Lord and Redeemer. To children and the poor, to the sick and the sinners, always He showed that He Himself is the Merciful One, and made Himself close to those who are oppressed and afflicted.

So Christ is not merciful because He is the Son of a Father of mercies, or because it is how He feels, or because it is how He has decided to act. He is the Merciful One: Mercy itself.

Therefore the fourth aspect of mercy to bear in mind is that, as well as God’s regard for the world as good, His forgiveness and His resolve to make us holy, Mercy is the nature of God and it takes flesh in the person of Christ and hence in us. Christ’s aim is to ‘make One New Man … in One Body…”, bringing all that is lost, amiss and discarded to the lifting up of God on His Cross – thus into His Ascension and His Kingdom, so that nothing lies beyond its power to heal and change, with new reasons for living and being.

When we say so insistently in the Eastern Liturgy, “Lord, have mercy”, we bring ourselves back to the Merciful One, we find it is more the truth that He is for ever returning to us, meeting us before we reach Him, always attracted to us and never repelled by our ugliness, never begrudging compassion, never merely tolerant.  And we are to be like that in turn, “merciful as your Father is merciful” – to be mercy as Christ is mercy personified. As Pope Francis reminds us from the words of St Bernard, “I am by no means lacking in merit as long as God is rich in mercy.” My merits are Christ’s: if God is mercy, so I am mercy too.

If God regards me as good, forgivable, potentially holy, and - even more than that - someone who can be so united in His life that I can become all mercy too, what does it make of me now? How am I to go on? The Prophet Micah tells us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” and yet there is something even more.

In Psalm 84, King David sings that “mercy and truth have met together”. So the merciful and those in need of mercy encounter each other in the light of truth. For Cardinal Newman, Blessed John Henry, this was a resonant conviction – it all comes down to the facing of two facts: the truth about the individual and the truth about Christ - and thus the inevitable effect. Either the individual turns away, unable to bear the presence of truth – not so much the truth about God, but the truth about “myself” in the light of God’s face; or else the individual comes forward into the light and feels the touch of the Creator wanting back the person He has made, of His forgiveness, His holiness, union with Him and existence in His own life, the summit of mercy. So mercy and truth indeed meet, not as formerly estranged but as the reality of each other.

To some, mercy (misericordia, with its undertone of meaning a saddened and even impoverished heart) is too exquisitely painful to bear. This is why mercy is often described as tender. It and we are neuralgic when it is applied and gets to work. It is no wonder that people reject it and insulate themselves from it: there is too much pain to go through. But God wants us, not our insulation, not our disguise, or our wrapping - whether it comes out of sin, or pain, or injustice, or from the belief that we must appear to be something we do not have it in our nature to be. God cannot be merciful to a disguise, only to the real person in which He seeks to view His own image, uncovered and shining back at Him.

So our understanding of mercy applied to us, and how we apply it to others, concerns a search for integrity – how the world ought to be, how we ought to be, how I ought to be, how we are true, and good, and heaven’s citizens on earth. To be merciful as our Father is merciful involves uncovering the disguise hiding the true person, with our true nature. So I am very struck by how, in Pope Francis’ recent decree reforming the Church Marriage Tribunals, he speaks of the judicial process becoming ‘converted’ to the ends of mercy. Indeed this is the way to get to the truth; and the truth will set you free.

Charles Wesley put it this way:

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me! (from "And can it be)

 
Mercy does not just find you, it finds you out. So: mercy – good, forgiven, holy, one and new in Christ, the very being of His mercy, converted wholly to shining out as the living image of God, true and free.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Homily for a Memorial Requiem Mass for Principal Joseph Cassidy, St Chad's College, Durham, 20 September 2015

The words of this evening's liturgy and its prayers are substantially unaltered from the text that St Chad himself knew in Latin, doubtless by heart, when he said Mass for the departed as abbot of Lastingham, then as bishop at York for the Northumbrians and later at Lichfield for the Mercians. The hallowed use of centuries, therefore, stands behind us as we voice them once more for the repose of Joe's soul; for the mercy of our God Who created him out of love and longed for His creature's perfection and completion in the Kingdom of heaven; and as we offer the very action of God Himself in sacrifice so that the world might be saved - saved from sin and set free from all that holds us back from the Kingdom (cf. Romans 8.21) and keeps us short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23); and saved for the new creation we are intended to be when in the last day we will find how we never die because in Christ Who was crucified there is none other than resurrection and life without limit (cf John 11.17-27).

Not only St Chad but Joe Cassidy treasured these words, and the offering of this sacrifice, from deep within his being from the moment of his ordination as a priest in God's one, holy, Catholic Church. We know his journey from Catholic to Anglican; from Jesuit to husband and father. We know too that his spiritual formation remained integral to his personality and ministry; and his priestly vocation was of the essence of him. Where I stand now in this sanctuary, he stood once too. And I remember vividly and with some awe, the holy men who stood here before him: John Fenton, a great seer of the Lord in the Scriptures and wise in prayer; and Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury and an apostle of God's glory. Tonight it is the turn of Catholic "Chadsians" - thanks to the gracious invitation of Dr Ashley Wilson the Chaplain of our College - to add the most sacred act of our Religion to all the other prayers that have gone before. We do so in the same spirit of unity in grief, affection, missing what has been lost, desiring to do something generous that will aid Joe and this College to which he dedicated his life, and so in a spirit of close meeting and solidarity.

Our Mass, you may have noticed, has a slightly different register from the beautiful, moving, poignant and glorious Memorial Service at which we all assisted this afternoon in Durham Cathedral in the Anglican tradition. For instance, in our prayers we have named Joe with his full name. This is not to be stiff and formal but to recall his Baptism, when "Joseph" was given to him as the name by which the Father calls him in his heart of hearts to become His own adopted son (cf. Romans 8.15). Again, we wear black vestments, not to be miserable, but to be true to our mourning and also to our confidence that the night into which Joe went off, as he began his sleep in the peace of Christ, was not the night of guilt and lost goodness into which Judas fled, but more like the Dark Night of the Soul in which God, Whom we cannot see, warmly and sweetly works his wonder of silently, intangible recreating us, purifying us, making us holy, finishing His forgiveness of us, and utterly raising us from out of the dead. It is not for nothing that at Notre Dame in Paris the vestments worn on Easter Day, the Feast of Feasts, were black - sumptuous, woven with silver and gold, their most striking and beautiful, showing light against the dark, their most brilliant and their best.

With these ancient words and conventions, it is the most loving thing to do, to pray for the forgiveness of Joe's sins, not because we fear for him or accuse him but because we are assured of the Lord, seeing our condition, has nothing but unconditional mercy. It is the most loving thing we can do to plead for the repose of his soul, because we are believers in God's inexhaustible promise of Paradise. It is the most loving thing we can do to ask for his admission to the glory and joy of heaven, because we and Joe had long been united in confidence that we shared it, by this very foretaste of it in this world.

Much has been said of Joe's capacity for love and inspiration, as well as his passion for justice and righting what was wrong. I speak for not a few alumni, who had mourned our belonging to St Chad's through too many difficult episodes in its history or ours, leading to what looked like at one point like its almost inevitable demise. We had become strangers in our own land. Joe reached out to us and restored what was lost. He enabled us to take pride once more in our place in St Chad's life and history. He did not approach us merely because as alumni we could be useful; he just wanted us to be part of everything. "Not the things that are yours, by you yourselves" (II Corinthians 12.14, the College's motto) - Non vestra sed vos indeed.

And now it is our turn to reach out with the same love and zeal for him to be brought in, from the night of repose to the glory of living eternally in the midst of God's light and truth. A contemporary of mine at St Chad's reminded me this afternoon that in one of John Fenton's great sermons he had said, "People tend to think of heaven as all clouds. Another image of heaven in the Bible is a feast. I know which I would prefer it to be." When Joe came to St Chad's it was under very heavy clouds. By the grace of God, he made it into a banquet of life, belonging, love, learning and joy. Tonight we pray that out of the clouds of passing out of this world into the Kingdom of heaven, like his Ascended Lord before him, aided by our prayers and the power of this sacrifice, Joe will enter upon the eternal feasting of life and love and joy.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 13th September 2015, St Mary's Cadogan Street, SW3

Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8.27-35)

Jesus is not interested in public opinion, or chatter, theories or ideas. It comes down to this: Who am I to you? What am I to you? St Peter replies, “You are the Anointed One”.
This is a vast statement. We, of course, filter his answer through centuries of speaking of Christ, as if it were a surname, or even of the Messiah, by which we can tend to think of an emissary from heaven to bring our times to their fulfilment and their end.

But Peter knew he was saying far more. He rejected the idea that Jesus was a Prophet, even the greatest like Elijah. Nor was he a prophet like the much loved and inspiring John, even though they were cousins from related families. He did not say that Jesus was a king, because the monarchy in Israel at the time was a foreign dynasty and a puppet government of the Roman Empire. Nor did he say that Jesus was a priestly figure, because, while the Temple was the Temple and the law required the People to go there and offer sacrifice and the priests had sacred duties to perform, the functionaries there had long since lost touch with the people’s life and faith, as Jesus’ satire, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with its unflattering portrait of Temple priests and Levites of people with neither purpose nor respect, powers to be worked around rather than powers that manifested the Kingdom of God.
Peter simply says, “You are the Anointed One from God” (cf. St Luke’s account). He is expressing the ancient faith of the Hebrews, long discarded by the priests and the kings in Jerusalem, that God not only visits His people but dwells in their midst with power and wisdom and brilliance. He does not speak to them only in texts and Scriptures, or govern them with laws and authorities. He is present to them, He stands before them and they stand before Him. They worship Him with both love and recognising insight; while He bestows on them light and joy, and help and blessing. Most of all, He bonds with them.

This is how St Paul will soon be writing, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8.39) and also, “It is not I who live but Christ Who lives within me.”(Galatians 2.20) It is how Jeremiah wrote, “They will be My people and I will be their God.”(Jeremiah 32.38) It is how Job was able to reflect, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. In my flesh, I shall see God … Him and no other.” (Job 19. 25f.)
To Peter, Jesus stands on the earth, close to the springs of Caesarea Philippi. He sees no priest, king or prophet but God His Redeemer, the one the country and the desert people had been expecting for centuries, the living manifestation of God With Us. In the ancient first Temple on the mountain in Jerusalem, it used to be that the successors of King David were bathed in fresh water, anointed head to foot in perfumed oil, and clothed in white array, before entering the Holy of Holies as the highest and greatest embodiment of all God’s People, taking them with him on his heart, and conscience and his very life into the very place of God’s Presence. There he was enthroned in light, and acclaimed as God’s own adopted son, united with Him in the Spirit and the exaltation of heaven. He would then descend, not bringing his own majesty, but bestowing blessing, forgiveness, healing and the power – as Jesus would later put it in His own prayer – the power to live in God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Ancient kings were looked on as somehow embodying the coming of God into the world. But here it was for real in what St Peter saw before his eyes in that moment of truth beside the clear waters: “God’s Presence and His very Self, and Essence all divine.” (Cardinal Newman, Praise to the Holiest in the height, from The Dream of Gerontius)
The question, “But you, who do you say that I am?”, is one that will not go away. To people who think themselves modern and developed, He is just the founder of another world faith. We have heard it all in this week’s debate in Parliament on whether it is right and moral to assist someone in the termination of their lives. We are hearing it echo in our national dilemma over how to allow immigration manageably and yet also respond to the desperation of our fellow human beings who are fleeing towards us for their lives. We hear in the exchanges of the markets, where humanity is not only the customer, but a commodity and in some cases a loss.
If Jesus is just a great human spiritual leader, we are free to form our judgment and follow him or not accordingly. But if He is God, God with Us, then there are consequences, because what we are saying is that this is not just a pious belief, but the way the universe is actually arranged. God is everything. We stand in order before Him, the One from God Who has brought to us the principles of how the Kingdom of heaven is arranged, not the realms of this world.
In the end, as so often with how Jesus speaks, the question and the story is not actually about Himself, but about us. He is in fact asking us, “Well, now you know Who I am, what does that make of you? Who do you say that YOU are?” The word Christian does not just mean a follower of Christ. It also means someone who has been christened: someone who, like Christ, is an Anointed One, someone from God.
In other words, can I be what Peter saw in Jesus so clearly in that moment of truth beside the waters? Am I a door for the sheep or a block to the Kingdom? Am I one who comes into church, washed in baptism, anointed in chrism and united with the Lord on His throne of brilliance, consumed with His own Body and Blood, only to come out somehow without being the living embodiment of His joy, His blessing, His reconciliation, His peace, His truth, His forgiveness, or the hope of His Kingdom? Am I Light of the World, or one who just wants the light shining on me to turn away, while I prefer to carry on untroubled in the dark?  This is not just about doing good, or better, deeds. It is about a state of being: “Who do you say that You are? If I am Christ, so too are you.” What would happen if we could recast that verse of Cardinal Newman’s hymn:
O, that a higher gift than grace – to me!Should flesh and blood refine – mine!
God’s presence and His very Self – in me!
And Essence all divine – that God may be seen through me!

The prophet Micah tells us to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.8). This truly is the way to the Kingdom and we keep the path clear and well lit by treading it. But ours is not a meek and mild faith, and nor is our following after Christ. The Kingdom is awkward. It does not fit the world, and the world does not fit the Kingdom. That is why Christ came to it with light, with truth, with love to reconcile what has gone wrong to what puts it right. The Lord Who healed, inspired, revealed and transformed water into wine, and death into life, is also the Lord Who opposes what he encounters, Who turned over the tables in the Temple, Who rebuked Peter, cursed the fig tree, and was such a figure of contradiction that He was put to death on the Cross.

So, when the Lord asks us, “Who are you saying that you are?” and we reply, “Christians, Anointed Ones, the ones who follow You, People from God”, we remember His answer: “Well that means renouncing yourself and taking up your own cross too.” Then if, like St Paul, we get to the point of saying, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me,” it is not because we have shed some light and joy, hope and reconciliation, and blessing in the world. It is because what shines through is a person who is Christlike not by virtue or religious prowess, but because everything has been penetrated by the cross of self-giving sacrifice and unconditional love toward God and to all. If that is Who I say Jesus Christ is, then that is what I say I am to be.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sash of the Mother of God, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

The celebration of installing the Sash of the Mother of God at a Church in Constantinople seems to fit well a Sunday of the Sixth Tone. For today’s Troparion hints at the Annunciation, when the Son of God becomes incarnate in His mother’s womb, as something to be revealed in the moment of His Resurrection out of death.

Just as the power of the Most High God overshadowed Mary to receive within her a Son from the Holy Spirit, so now “angelic powers were upon Your Tomb … Lord”, signifying the action of the Holy Spirit present at the raising of her Son from the dead.

Just as the Blessed Virgin asked, “How can this be?”, and was told that the Son within her was “God-with-us”, so now another Mary seeks out the Lord in His flesh, and understands that “God-with-us” is not “God-within-a-Tomb”.

Just as the Virgin’s womb contained the Creator of the Universe without confining Him, so now the Lord who “captured Hades without being overcome by it”, fills not only the Tomb but also “all the dead from that murky abyss, and bestowed Resurrection upon humanity” (today’s Kontakion). Through Mary’s womb comes the Life of the World; out of the Tomb comes the Giver of that Life.

In the Kontakion of the Feast, we went on to sing, “Your womb which received divinity was girded about by your precious sash, O Mother of God.” How has this sash anything to do with this Life of Christ; is it not simply a legend? The sash, otherwise known as a cincture or belt, is a garment made of camel hair, the largest remnant of which is preserved at the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos. There are other pieces in Georgia, Prato in Tuscany and at the Monastery-Shrine of St Matthias in Trier, Germany. From early times it was kept by the Christians of Jerusalem, who believed it had been entrusted to them, having belonged to the Virgin Mary. In the 400s, it was taken to Constantinople, the political capital of the Roman Christian world, where it was placed with honour in the Church of St Mary Chalkopatreia, not far from Hagia Sophia. Four centuries later, the Empress Zoe was seriously ill and received a vivid intuition that the Sash, if placed upon her, would heal her. Her husband Emperor Leo VI authorised the Patriarch to do as Zoe desired. Thus, just as the Lord told those whom He healed, “Your faith has made you whole”, so it was that the Empress was cured. During the course of a thousand years the sash was seen as a healing, protecting force in the City of Constantinople and thus the whole Christian world, a guarantee of the generosity and intercession of the Mother of God. So we have sung to her as the “protection of humans”, “might bulwark for your city”, “unconquerable force”, “generous treasury of good things”, her in whom “nature and time are made new”. For that which we celebrate today is not merely supernatural aid, or inspiration from God’s strength, but the fact that the Resurrection has changed everything, and now we live in our nature differently.

St Paul speaks of this as a treasure kept in a jar, something at work in the world yet coming from God, reflecting light from the face of Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 4.6-7). He describes how we are struck down but not destroyed, so that, while we always carry in our bodies the death that is Jesus’s too, in those same bodies what is also made visible is his life. He almost sings this, and it always sounds to me like a refrain in a hymn: “Death is at work in us, but Life in you!” The One Who raised the Lord Jesus, he informs us, will raise us into His presence too. And then we took up the theme in the Alleluia, when we called on the Lord to rise up to the place of His rest with the ark of His holiness (Psalm 131.8). This ask is the vessel who bore His divinity into the human race, Mary, who is now the human being borne out of mortal life into the presence of her Risen Son. And then, in the Gospel of the Feast we are taken into a house where another Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to every word He says (Luke 10.38-42). St Luke notes that her name is the same as the Mother of God’s. It is deliberate, because he goes on to report the words of Jesus: that those who are blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11.27-28). This lady in a house in a village is being like Mary. For the Lord is saying that to praise Mary for being His Mother is to misunderstand her; she is blessed because she heard Him, the Word, speaking in the depth of her soul and answered Him in faith and complete self-giving.

So we are back at the moment of the Annunciation, when Mary hears the Word from the Angel and says, “Let it be done to me as you have said.” She has rested in His presence from that moment on, and He in hers. At that moment, it is her womb that brings forth the Life of the World; one day it will be the Tomb of death, out of which will come the Creator of its Life. From that moment, Christ has been “God with Us”. From the moment of the Resurrection, it changes round: “our earthbound souls arise” (Charles Wesley, “Hark, the herald angels sing”), and now it is to be “Us with God” - at His feet hearing every word He says, carrying in our body the death of Jesus so that it shows His life made visible, singing, “Death is at work in us, but Life in You!”

And this brings us to the most intriguing past of the story of the Sash. The reason the Christians of Jerusalem had kept it with such love was because it had been entrusted to them by St Thomas, when he left to bring the gospel to Persia and on to India. Their account was that he had been delayed from returning to Jerusalem and had missed the funeral of the Mother of Our Lord. On his way to visit her resting place, instead he saw her assumption to heaven, during which she held out her belt to him, and left it behind in the world in his care as a sign of the power of Christ risen, and raising, from the dead: “Death is at work in us, but life in you!”

This incident is not recorded in our Scriptures, but the story of a possession preserved as a tangible connection with a deeply loved figure is not only reasonable to believe, it is deeply resonant with our incarnational religion where touch and physical form are intended to connect the spiritual to us and convey us to the spiritual: the sacraments, the icons, the relics of saints and the churches too. Besides, like much of our oral tradition that runs parallel to the Scriptures, in truth we have all the elements of the Gospel story and the proclamation of the Apostles brought together. Here is the womb that bore God into His world; here is the garment that covered it, now resembling the grave-clothes left behind after His Resurrection on the Third Day; here is the urgent, convincing faith of St Thomas in the sheer physical impact of the destruction of death; here is another Empty Tomb, once again not the end to a life but the Entrance to the Kingdom; here is the God who raised the Lord Jesus, now before Thomas’ eyes raising those who belong to Christ and bringing them into His presence. This is, as St Paul would soon be saying, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.” What begins in Christ, now takes up Mary, and will take us in turn. Thus, to St Paul, we may be a glory treasured in earthen jars, but a light now shining in our hearts reflects outwards the face of Jesus Christ himself.

When we look at the Mother of God, the Lord asks us not to praise her for being His Mother, or even for the great fame of her exaltation, though it is perhaps deliberate that this feast falls just two weeks after her Dormition and Assumption. Instead the Lord asks us to see her as St Thomas did, as the first of His beloved People in whom His promised Resurrection came to life before our eyes, “always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our … flesh. So ‘Death is at work in us, but life in you!’”

What was true for St Thomas, for Empress Zoe (whose name, incidentally, means life), for the City of Constantinople and for the Christian civilisation it spread throughout the East of Europe, is true for us. Everything has changed in us; up we are taken, and not left behind. This is how we must see ourselves if the world is to see God in Us and Us in God. When the aeroplane lands at Lviv in Ukraine and you drive into the city, everywhere you see the image of the Protection of the Mother of God, as she holds out her sash as though we too are Thomas, looking for belief and faith to be confirmed, for signs and protection to be granted, and healing and hope to be assured. So it is, because she is raised into God’s presence, that she is the Protector and Treasury of good things and the Mother that we acclaim. It is because her Son is constantly “at Resurrection” in her and now in us that our souls know that nothing is the same as it was and all has changed since through her our “nature and time are made new.”

Sunday, 9 August 2015

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

There’s the wonderful Hans Christian Anderson of a vain ruler who uses his wealth and his power to indulge himself in personal luxury to the exclusion of all those whom he regards as beneath him. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, two weavers tell the ruler that they can weave a suit for him of such refined cloth that only those who are not stupid can see its subtle magnificence. The weavers set to work, no one can see the threads they have woven, but no one dare let on in case they are exposed as unfit for office. When the invisible suit is complete, it is taken to the Emperor who likewise pretends to see it while all his courtiers assume he can. Later, he makes a ceremonial procession through his capital and, again, none of the sophisticated citizens dare say that they cannot see the delicate tailoring. But in one of those gaps in the noise of a crowd, a little boy’s voice is heard: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all”. The Emperor carries on, not letting appearances slip, but knowing the boy’s words are true.

In today’s Gospel (St Matthew 14.14-23), we have something slightly similar going on: not a grand trick to show people’s folly, but declaring a massive, obvious fact that everyone is missing. “Picture the scene”: A young man has epilepsy and his frequent fits put him in danger whether he is at home, where he has collapsed into the fire in the hearth more than once, or outside where his father is frightened he will drown if he falls into the water (the local spring and surrounding marshlands are the source of the river Jordan). The father is beside himself with worry and turns to the disciples. They have been growing spiritually; they have increased as ministers of Christ’s own power to heal and forgive and save. But this affliction is beyond them and they fail. Why does Jesus become annoyed and not simply step in when the disciples reach the end of their capacity? Why does He not just happily heal the young man like in the other stories, where someone has shown faith in Christ and humility before God? Think of the centurion and his servant, of the friends of the paralytic, or the man born blind, or Jairus and his daughter. In each of these stories, Jesus marvels at people’s honest, straightforward belief in Him and encourages them in their onward search to be true to God. Yet here, the Lord sets aside his even temper and confronts the disciples with a good measure of open humiliation and exasperation. Why? They have just been told about taking up the Cross to follow Him, and that for the Kingdom to come in power it involves suffering and losing your life. They have not understood. Then, Peter recognises Jesus as Son of the God and Jesus blesses him for listening to what God has told him in his heart. But then He tells him off for saying, “God forbid”, when Jesus explains that the Son of Man has to be killed before Heaven comes: “You are setting your mind on human things, not on the things of God.” Even Peter has not got it. So Jesus next takes Peter, James and John up the mountain of Tabor to show them what humanity looks like in the within the Kingdom of God – disfigured in the world, but transfigured by the presence of heaven; and the disciples glimpse for the first time what the Resurrection will mean, for before their very eyes they see the prophet Elijah who was assumed into Heaven and Moses who went into the very presence of God. And they hear for themselves what they had been told about when Jesus was baptised by John further downstream in the Jordan. They hear the words of the Father reverberating in the mountain clouds: “This is my Son … listen to Him.”

But still they do not hear and understand, despite everything they have seen and been told. Hence Jesus the Lord’s own declaration against those who have eyes to see and ears to hear yet do not credit the obvious. Yes, they believe Christ. Yes, the follow Him. Yes, they have begun to do spiritual deeds. Yes, they have grown in love and holiness. But, even when taken into the Lord’s deepest confidence and highest mysteries, they have not begun to grasp the purpose of it all. They do not have faith that the Reign of God, His power, His glory, and His judgment are here and now. So back close to the waters in which He was baptised, the waters beside which He called them to follow Him, the waters beside which Peter noticed the Jesus is the Son of God, the waters from which the Lord just rescued a father’s pride and joy from drowning, Christ spells it out again; “Every single incident, every single word of my parables and stories about the Kingdom of Heaven; every single miracle and healing; every single glance and gesture in my bearing; every single tone and nuance in my voice – this is all about My coming death on the Cross, and the power that will be unleashed when I am killed and the Resurrection surges up on the third day.” Everything comes from that point back to the point where the disciples are now; and everything in the future will go forward from this massive event, at which the logic of Heaven and salvation collides with a world of sin and wilful incompleteness . “Surely,” the Lord rebukes the disciples as He pleads with them to have faith in Him, “this must be plain to you from everything you have seen and heard?”

St Paul understands this from within. From his own experience he describes (II Corinthians 4.9-16) being “struck down but not destroyed”, carrying in his body the fact that he is declining deathwards at the same time as it shows the signs of Christ alive in him. He speaks of the world and the flesh - the reality we know - wasting away. But he also says that the inner nature of us is not something that is merely invisible, a pious feeling, an intellectual conclusion, a hopeful ideal by which to live, a projection beyond this world in search of a better one: far from it. To St Paul, this ideal, this better world, this inner nature to what we are and can become, this life in the midst of death, this coming Kingdom is nothing if it is not now - and concrete, more real than anything we may touch or sense in this world we think of as “realistic”. The “realism” we speak of is nothing of the sort, for it is part of the outer side to nature that is passing away: Here we have no enduring city (Hebrews 13.14). Instead, says St Paul, the inner nature is no different from the outer appearance.  “While we live, we are always yielding to death, but that is how it was with Jesus and we follow suit: thus the life of Jesus is visible, clear, real, obvious on our mortal flesh, our human living here and now.” Or, as St Paul put it another way, “it is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” (Galatians 2.20)

For us, the face of our Lord with His exasperated question asks, “Do you believe this?” Do you believe that your old life died on the Cross with Christ, and that the life you now lead is the same one as Elijah and Moses on the mountain, the life that may be here on the surface, but is realistically in Heaven? Do you live with absolute firm conviction that Jesus Christ is the only ruler of the hearts and lives of men and women, that He is the only rightful director of the course of the world’s affairs, the only thing that is real and the same, yesterday, today and for ever (Hebrews 13.8) in the midst of a world that wastes away?  Are you imagining that passing through life is like waiting for the after-life; or do you see that the Resurrection and Heaven is passing through YOU already, as you take up the Cross to follow Him, wherever it all leads? For if we live on earth as in heaven, there are consequences. We are not only blessed; we embody blessing. We are not only those who long to be caught up in heaven as we struggle through in faith, hope and love; we, the Church, are also the heaven that others can see and want to be caught up into. This is why religion is never a private matter, or the mere, bare concern of saving souls. It is always about the transformation of all humanity from what it appears to be to reveal it as it truly is: for God in Christ.

Thus our nature sings, “You arose in glory from the tomb and with Yourself You raised the world. All humanity acclaims You as God and death has vanished. Adam exults, O Master, and Eve, redeemed from bondage now, cries out for joy, 'You, Christ, are the One Who offer Resurrection to all.' ” (Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 1). Imagine we say to ourselves, “Here we are in the world, slogging on till death, till something better comes along”; and a boys voice carries from the crowd, “But you are not dead at all. Look at yourselves. You are covered in the glory of heaven. You are the Bride of Christ. I have never seen anything on earth more beautiful.”

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Homily, St Peter & St Paul, 30th Anniversary of Ordination, Holy Family Cathedral, London

Both Peter and Paul speak today as the result of a revelation that came to them. Paul is drawn up into what he calls the third heaven and he cannot find the words to speak about it, beyond saying it is not about him, but what he saw (II Corinthians 11.21 - 12.9). Peter has his feet on the ground and just comes out with what is plain before his very eyes (Matthew 16. 13-19)

They are such different people, but both were captivated when their eyes fixed upon a world beyond their own, when their ears latched onto the words that were describing it, and something inside of them locked onto the Person who represented it.

Paul, as the Pharisee Saul, was in the midst of bringing the first Christians in the Church to justice when he himself was arrested by his vision. It became the lens through which he saw the world for ever afterwards. His voluminous letter-writing pours out for decades the flow of what he heard and saw of the Crucified and Risen King in his Paradise.

For St Peter, it is the other way round. The Gospel read today relates what he saw in plain sight, putting together everything he had known and inherited from the faith of all who had gone before him, that the Son of Man standing before him was no figure of legend, no golden age of prophets and patriarchs coming back, for this son of man was none other than the Son of God, the anointed prophet, priest and king whose every aspect, inside and out, is not an evocation in the memory, but the living presence of God Himself in the living present. What Peter saw and held in the flesh was the lens through which he would shortly see his own vision, for the encounter we have heard about today leads next into the story of another - the Transfiguration of Christ. Here Peter sees Jesus, not like St Paul as the Universal Lord in Paradise who had previously lived on the earth, but as the Son of Man among us now, shining with the light of the Kingdom from which He had come before, with which He is constantly in touch, that He is bringing for the present and the future of the world, and to which He is returning, taking us up and along with Him.

It is important to bear in mind how different these perspectives are, one from a mystical experience of the heavenly dimension, another from the mystical intuition in the world of how God is active and present in humanity, suffusing it with his light. It is important, because both the spiritual and the natural come to the same thing: the point of meeting and recognising Christ.

An old joke has it that some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. You could just as easily say that in our materialist world, with its assumptions about the purpose of life, finance, trading, politics, work, social belonging, and - behind it all - the way we live and think as individuals, God has been fully excised: “We are so earthly minded, there is no heavenly good.” Thus God is no longer second nature to us, no longer “closer than our own breath”. St Paul would say (Galatians 2.20), “It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives within me”; but we do not all find this way of putting it makes sense in our material way of existing. Thus prayer becomes a formula to follow, a technique to apply, an activity that we do. Some of us give up hope in prayer, because we cannot feel its effects, or sense the presence of Christ. Others of us may feel uplifted in worship, by beauty or inspiration, but it is in the moment and does not last - it does not seem to constitute the different state of being that we expect it ought to lead to. So, we believe, we follow, we love, we worship, we seek to live accordingly. But we can be dejected that the sense of ready communing with God in Christ is not there. It is the same for priests, lay people, monks and nuns. For some people it is the reason why they give up the practice of their faith and why some never take it up in the first place.

But take heart. Today we learn that St Paul had just one spiritual experience, massive and searing as it was, and it had to last a lifetime. It never went away from his mind and experience, and it echoed around and across him for ever. We also learn that the Holy Spirit came with the gift of faith to St Peter in the natural course of things – seeing God Himself in a human being, the Son of Man; out fishing, making an earthly tent to shelter the out-of-this-world vision he would behold on the mountain; weeping at disowning the Lord; not being physically there at the Cross; eating bread and fish with the Risen Christ; being regarded by Jesus not as some kind of angel or, as we would nowadays say, ‘guru’, but as a solid rock: praying, and living to God, and faith in ordinary.

In other words, the Kingdom of heaven is brought to natural people. It is so that natural people can realise that they are spiritual people too. As the Lord himself said to Peter, “It is not flesh and blood that has revealed what you see to you, but my Father in heaven.” This is why the Son of God comes into the world not as an apparition, or a supernatural phenomenon, or a Greek hero half-god, but in real human flesh and blood to reveal He is the living Word of the Father. He communes with us in our nature, so that we may commune with Him in His. We pray this whenever we take the Word of God’s own prayer to be our own: “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

We know this because, in the years ahead for both Peter and Paul, their great moment of mystical, spiritual perception did not gave them an escape from the world. Both were pursued, imprisoned, persecuted, publicly mocked and disgraced, then martyred. St Paul describes how what could have turned into a lifetime of spiritual elation on account of that one bewildering encounter on the road to Damascus, was pierced with suffering. The Lord sent him a thorn in the flesh, to turn his mind again and again to the struggle of living in a world of tears. Elsewhere he writes of putting on the armour of Christ to battle it out with the darkness, and then enduring to the end to be the last one standing in the combat between the good and evil that rages around us and through us.

St Peter too will have no life of ease and admiration ahead. In the hill towns east of Rome there is the ancient tradition that he went between them, house to house from protector to protector, until at last he gets a pass from an influential sympathiser to go to Rome and build the Church there as his Saviour promised he must. Eventually, fleeing pursuit, he finds himself along on the road back out of the city, where he encounters Christ coming past him and he asks, “Lord, where are You going?” When Jesus answers that He must come again to suffer and be crucified, Peter turns round, as once Christ set His face to Jerusalem, to behold Rome once more and his own certain death (Acts of Peter 35).

Both Paul and Peter we venerate as Chief Apostles and the pillars of the Church at Rome, a Church with which we, 2000 years on, live in unbreakable communion because of them. Yet both Paul and Peter knew they were inadequate people: not only inadequate to the task, but unsatisfactory as human beings. We have just sung the psalm with them (Psalm 11):  “Save me, O Lord, for there is no longer left a just man.” But the Lord’s reply is not, “I know; I forgive you.” It is that the Church is not for the perfect but for sinners. It is that he chooses the weak to make it strong, and a man whose spirit almost broke down to become the Rock on which the Church, undoing the bonds of sin, still stands. He says, “My power is made perfect in weakness. For that you need my grace in everything.” And St Paul responds, “I am glad of my weaknesses; I even boast of them, because my weakness is where the power of Christ dwells in me.”

This profoundly human and disarming honesty of St Paul about himself rings so very true in the moment when your priest marks thirty years since his ordination. Pope Francis wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (paragraph 47) that “the Eucharist … is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”  How much truer is this of a priest serving the Eucharist, whose purpose is to take on the yoke of Christ, his Cross and the priestly vesture, bear the gospel out to the people and then, with the gifts of sacrifice which are to be the oblation of Christ Himself on the Altar, walk at the head of you, the people of God, into the court of heaven itself and show you that it lies open to your eyes, drawing you in deep.

A dear priest friend of mine, who died last year, was a man of great learning, many strengths and evident weaknesses, one who long contended with the mastery of alcohol over him. He felt compromised by his inadequacy and deadened the reverberation of his failings - and the terror that he had let God down and was unworthy to approach Him - by blocking it off with drink. Eventually his body gave way and, glory be to God, he lived out five more years as a semi-invalid, but conquering and last and free of what had almost destroyed him. It will not surprise you to learn, however, that at the height of his difficulty, this was a priest who was transparent with truth and love, and who – unknown and unfelt by him – brought a declining parish to life again, and brought new souls close to their Saviour. His solace and refuge was the Mass; the people’s solace and refuge was also to find him in his preaching and the confessional, living the mercy and forgiveness that he was receiving from God, and freely offering to them too, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the medicine and nourishment of the Eucharist. He was the finest priest I ever knew, truly a wounded healer. And it was all because Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness; when there was no other resource available, Christ’s grace was sufficient.

One of the Desert Fathers said that the only ambition of a young monk is to be an old monk. It is the same with a priest. As priests, ours it is just to be this kind of person who was taken up by the grace of ordination, not because of his suitability and achievements, but because of his imperfection and weakness to walk before you in and out of the third heaven and bring back to you a lifetime’s impression of the glory of God in His Kingdom; and, by opening these Holy Doors, Liturgy after Liturgy, to invite you even now in this natural world that we inhabit, also to follow in with our eyes and ears to see what the world can no longer behold, and hear what may not be told that yet we love and long for: our recognition of Jesus, the Son of the living God

So it is that priests are lent St Peter’s keys, to unlock on earth what binds people to this world, and open in heaven the doors that get stuck on earth and need the loosening of grace. Please, friends, pray for your priests and love them. Please pray that many more, like St Paul, will be taken up in the world for the sake of the Kingdom that is coming. Please do not despise us for our imperfections, but be glad of our weaknesses, since that is where the power of Christ dwells in us. For this is your condition with ours. These thorns in our side are the crack in being a natural human, where the light shines through and grace leaks in, so that natural people can also be spiritual - sinning and needing God’s medicine now, but already holy and treading for ever the pathways of the city of peace.