Saturday, February 25, 2017

Just a few days before the start of Lent

Christians understand the season of Lent as a special “healing time” of the Church’s year - a time for us to look carefully at our lives and work out where we really are in our relationship with God. It is a time for admitting that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt . . .” (Jeremiah 17:9) - that our capacity for self-deception, even in (perhaps especially in) the spiritual life, is limitless. That’s why holy mother Church in her loving wisdom brings us into this period of facing up to reality. She knows that reflection and diagnosis are the necessary prelude to a new healing encounter with Jesus.

I know, of course, that we can be psychologically, emotionally and spiritually worn out through the sheer pressure of the battle against evil (within us and within our communities, not to mention our warfare with the cosmic powers of wickedness) in which we were enlisted in our baptism. If that is you, then you should use this Lent largely as a time of spiritual refreshing. In the words of Jesus, you will “come apart and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31). 

I am also aware of those mysterious stretches of spiritual dryness in the Christian life, seemingly unconnected to any particular fault or sin on our part, when memories of our springtime of faith torment us, and we bang on heaven’s door asking for the grace to re-live those “good old days.” God seems a million miles away. It is important to remind ourselves that all the saints down through the ages struggled during their times of spiritual dryness just to hang on to God in naked faith, trusting the promises he gives us in his Word. Some of the saints - like Mother Teresa of Calcutta - endured decades of this. If we are going through this kind of stage right now, we must do the same, supported by the love of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and strengthened by the grace of God in the sacraments. But we don’t give up. That’s the main thing. Remember the saying, “When the train goes into the tunnel, the safest thing is to stay on the train!” Maybe for you this Lent will be a time of receiving afresh the wonderful promises God gives us in the Scriptures. 

But having recognised that it is possible for us just to be “worn out” or to be going through a patch of that spiritual dryness, we must be honest enough to admit that most of the time our spiritual, emotional and psychological problems are a direct result of our personal relationship with God becoming dysfunctional.

In our other relationships, the causes of dysfunctionality are complex, and, as a rule, both parties are at fault. Hence the need for clever counsellors and psychologists to help us work out why things are as they are. However, one thing we can be certain about when looking at dysfunctionality in our relationship with God is that God is never at fault. He has loved us with an everlasting love. He sacrificed everything to redeem us in Christ. He made us his people and gave the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. He speaks to us through the Scriptures, and he comes to us in the miracle of Holy Communion.

He has given himself so completely to us. WE must accept the responsibility for any dysfunctionality in our relationship with him.

There are at least two ways in which our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional: 

The first is when we deliberately ignore what God says in the Scriptures and try to run our own lives. Now, each one of us - without exception! - has a huge struggle to bring the various aspects of our lives into conformity with the will of God, even with the blessing of the Holy Spirit within. The point is, though, that we cannot deliberately shut God out of this or that area of our life and expect our overall relationship with him to survive - any more than we could do that in our relationships with other people. And we do shut him out when we ignore his will as we find it in Scripture. The end result is that instead of the “life in all its fulness” he longs for us to have (John 10:10), we struggle to live in a loveless hell of our own making.

The second way our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional also reflects what can happen in ordinary relationships. It’s when we become so self-absorbed, so preoccupied with what we are doing, so busy fulfilling our ambitions and goals, that we just drift from God without meaning to. This seems fairly innocuous, but the end result is the same.

In the Eastern Churches, the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is the account of Jesus healing the paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12). In that story the paralysed man’s friends got him to Jesus by pulling the roof apart and lowering him, sleeping mat and all, into the house.

The man’s physical paralysis is used in the liturgy as a picture of our spiritual paralysis, the end result of allowing our relationship with God to remain dysfunctional. It is also used to convey two other truths: First, that the paralysis caused by sin can only be healed by Jesus. So, it is to him we return this Lent, in order to know his forgiveness, his love and his healing power. Second, that those wonderful friends who helped the paralysed man show us that we need to help each other as brothers and sisters in our local Church community get to Jesus in spite of the obstacles that might be in the way.

LENT takes us right back to the basic question of our priorities in life. In Philippians 3:8-12 the apostle Paul tells us  what mattered most of all to him in these words:

“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. 

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” 

Notice here that while “faith” for the apostle Paul includes “assent” to articles of belief, it is far greater than that. It means to RELY ON or TRUST IN what God has done for us in Christ. It means our abandonment to God’s will and to the action of his love in our lives.

Let’s use this Lent as a time for drawing closer to Jesus. The self denial and penitence that the Church encourages us to practise are not ends in themselves. They are meant to help us see the areas in which we have gone astray and then to re-focus our lives. Let’s slow down a little, allow the suffering love of Jesus to impact upon our hearts and minds, and open ourselves afresh to the Holy Spirit. Only then will we experience the mending of our relationship with God, and our capacity to relate with each other - realities that we will celebrate with great joy in the Easter renewal of our Baptism.

The journey begins on Ash Wednesday. See you in church!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Lourdes and Our Lady's Message

I visited Lourdes in 1989, and then again in 2007. Both times the Shrine of our Lady there made a big impact on me.

Anglicans often try to compare Lourdes and Walsingham; but I think that is wrong. Each of Our Lady's shrines has its own particular charism, its own emphasis, and its unique ministry. I do believe that God has graced the shrine at Lourdes in a special way, and, through the intercession of Our Lady, millions who have prayed in that holy place over the last 159 years have experienced the healing power of Jesus and the refreshing of the Holy Spirit ("the rivers of living water"). Hebrews 11:6 says that God rewards those who seek him. To go on prayerful pilgrimage to this place that he has particularly graced (or other places like it) enables us to be open to his love, and as a result we experience a spiritual renewal or receive some other precious gift from him.

If you are ever in France, you MUST visit Lourdes. You can get there on an overnight train from Paris. As well as accommodation for the well-heeled, the town has some very basic and cheap places to stay if you are on a shoestring budget. It's good to book in for for two or three days and join in the pilgrimage devotions. Read, pray, stroll around. You will be blessed.

Scroll down, and after the photographs there is the homily preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Society of Mary Lourdes Pilgrimage in 2008.

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ Homily 
at the Society of Mary Pilgrimage 
to Lourdes, 2008

(taken fromn his website HERE.

The babe in my womb leaped for joy.’  (Luke 1.44)

Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, carrying Jesus in her womb.  The Son of God is still invisible – not yet born, not even known about by Elizabeth;   yet Elizabeth recognises Mary as bearing within her the hope and desire of all nations, and life stirs in the deep places of her own body.  The one who will prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist, moves as if to greet the hope that is coming, even though it cannot yet be seen.

Mary appears to us here as the first missionary, ‘the first messenger of the gospel’ as Bishop Perrier of Lourdes has called her: the first human being to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to another;   and she does it simply by carrying Christ within her.  She reminds us that mission begins not in delivering a message in words but in the journey towards another person with Jesus in your heart.  She testifies to the primary importance of simply carrying Jesus, even before there are words or deeds to show him and explain him.  This story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is in many ways a very strange one;  it’s not about the communication of rational information from one speaker to another, but a primitive current of spiritual electricity running from the unborn Christ to the unborn Baptist.  But mission it undoubtedly is, because it evokes recognition and joy.  Something happens that prepares the way for all the words that will be spoken and the deeds that will be done.  The believer comes with Christ dwelling in them by faith, and God makes that current come alive, and a response begins, not yet in words or commitments, but simply in recognising that here is life.

When Mary came to Bernardette, she came at first as an anonymous figure, a beautiful lady, a mysterious ‘thing’, not yet identified as the Lord’s spotless Mother.  And Bernardette – uneducated, uninstructed in doctrine – leapt with joy, recognising that here was life, here was healing.  Remember those accounts of her which speak of her graceful, gliding movements at the Lady’s bidding;  as if she, like John in Elizabeth’s womb, begins to dance to the music of the Incarnate Word who is carried by his Mother.  Only bit by bit does Bernardette find the words to let the world know;  only bit by bit, we might say, does she discover how to listen to the Lady and echo what she has to tell us.

So there is good news for all of us who seek to follow Jesus’ summons to mission in his Name;  and good news too for all who find their efforts slow and apparently futile, and for all who still can’t find their way to the ‘right’ words and the open commitment.  Our first and overarching task is to carry Jesus, gratefully and faithfully, with us in all our doings: like St Teresa of Avila, we might do this quite prosaically by having with us always a little picture or a cross in our pockets, so that we constantly ‘touch base’ with the Lord.  We can do it by following the guidance of the Orthodox spiritual tradition and repeating silently the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner’.  And if we are faithful in thus carrying Christ with us, something will happen, some current will stir and those we are with will feel, perhaps well below the conscious surface, a movement of life and joy which they may not understand at all.  And we may never see it or know about it;  people may not even connect it with us, yet it will be there – because Jesus speaks always to what is buried in the heart of men and women, the destiny they were made for.  Whether they know it or not, there is that within them which is turned towards him.  Keep on carrying Jesus and don’t despair: mission will happen, in spite of all, because God in Christ has begun his journey into the heart.

And when we encounter those who say they would ‘like to believe’ but can’t, who wonder how they will ever find their way to a commitment that seems both frightening and hard to understand, we may have something to say to them too:  ‘Don’t give up;  try and hold on to the moments of deep and mysterious joy;  wait patiently for something to come to birth in you.’  It certainly isn’t for us as Christians to bully and cajole, and to try and force people into commitments they are not ready to make – but we can and should seek to be there, carrying Jesus, and letting his joy come through, waiting for the leap of recognition in someone’s heart.

Of course, as often as not, we ourselves are the one who need to hear the good news;  we need people around us who carry Jesus, because we who call ourselves believers all have our moments of confusion and loss of direction.  Others fail us or hurt us;  the Church itself may seem confused or weak or even unloving, and we don’t feel we are being nourished as we need, and directed as we should be.  Yet this story of Mary and Elizabeth tells us that the Incarnate Word of God is always already on the way to us, hidden in voices and faces and bodies familiar and unfamiliar.  Silently, Jesus is constantly at work, and he is seeking out what is deepest in us, to touch the heart of our joy and hope.

Perhaps when we feel lost and disillusioned, he is gently drawing us away from a joy or a hope that is only human, limited to what we can cope with or what we think on the surface of our minds that we want.  Perhaps it’s part of a journey towards his truth, not just ours.  We too need to look and listen for the moments of recognition and the leap of joy deep within.  It may be when we encounter a person in whom we sense that the words we rather half-heartedly use about God are a living and actual reality.  (That’s why the lives of the saints, ancient and modern, matter so much.)  It may be when a moment of stillness or wonder suddenly overtakes us in the middle of a familiar liturgy that we think we know backwards, and we have for a second the feeling that this is the clue to everything – if only we could put it into words.  It may be when we come to a holy place, soaked in the hopes and prayers of millions, and suddenly see that, whatever we as individuals may be thinking or feeling, some great reality is moving all around and beneath and within us, whether we grasp it or not.  These are our ‘Elizabeth’ moments – when life stirs inside, heralding some future with Christ that we can’t yet get our minds around.

It’s very tempting to think of mission as something to be done in the same way we do – or try to do – so much else, with everything depending on planning and assessments of how we’re doing, and whether the results are coming out right.  For that matter, it’s tempting to think of the Church’s whole life in these sorts of terms.  Of course we need to use our intelligence, we need to be able to tell the difference between good and bad outcomes, we need to marshal all the skill and enthusiasm we can when we respond to God’s call to share his work of transforming the world through Jesus and his Spirit.  But Mary’s mission tells us that there is always a deeper dimension, grounded in the Christ who is at work unknown and silent, reaching out to the deeply buried heart of each person and making the connection;  living faithfully at the heart of the Church itself, in the middle of its disasters and betrayals and confusions, still giving himself without reserve.  All that we call ‘our’ mission depends on this;  and if we are wise, we know that we are always going to be surprised by the echoes and connections that come to life where we are not expecting it. 

True mission is ready to be surprised by God – ‘surprised by joy’, in the lovely phrase of  C. S. Lewis.  Elizabeth knew the whole history of Israel and how it was preparing the way for God to come and visit his people – but she was still surprised into newness of life and understanding when the child leapt in her womb.  Bernardette’s neighbours and teachers and parish clergy knew all they thought they needed to know about the Mother of God – and they needed to be surprised by this inarticulate, powerless, marginal teenager who had leapt up in the joy of recognition to meet Mary as her mother, her sister, bearer of her Lord and Redeemer.   Our prayer here must be that, renewed and surprised in this holy place, we may be given the overshadowing strength of the Spirit to carry Jesus wherever we go, in the hope that joy will leap from heart to heart in all our human encounters;  and that we may also be given courage to look and listen for that joy in our own depths when the clarity of the good news seems far away and the sky is cloudy. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemass - a kaleidoscope of symbols

The beautiful chapel of the Presentation of the Lord 
at our Lady's Shrine in Lourdes, France.

Forty days after the birth of Jesus, today's Mass is often regarded as rounding off the Christmas/ Epiphany season. The readings and prayers take us back to the birth of the Lord, and they beckon us forward to his suffering and death. 

The Gospel reading (Luke 2:22-39) tells of Mary and Joseph going to the temple with the baby Jesus, that they might be purified “according to the Law,” and Jesus consecrated to the Lord. The old man Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit, discerns Jesus to be God’s Messiah, “the light to enlighten the nations”. It is for this reason that the blessing and lighting of candles has long been associated with this day. Anna, the old prophetess, who had prayed and fasted every day in expectation of the "redemption of Jerusalem", saw Jesus and began to tell everyone about him.

In Anglo-Saxon times it was “. . . appointed in the ecclesiastical observances that we on this day bear our lights to church and let them be there blessed; and that we should go afterward with the light among Godʼs houses and sing the hymn that is thereto appointed. Though some men cannot sing they can, nevertheless, bear the light in their hands; for on this day was Christ, the true light, borne to the temple, Who redeemed us from darkness and bringeth us to the eternal light.” - The Ritual Reason Why, by C. Walker (1886) page 197.

In the midst of today’s joyful festival, we hear old Simeon’s enigmatic remark to our Lady - “a sword shall pierce your own soul, too” -, reminding us of her participation in all that Jesus suffered for our redemption.

Greek Orthodox Christians call today’s feast “Hypapante” (the encounter), seeing in the juxtaposition of the Child and the old man the encounter of the fading age of the Old Covenant and the new era of Jesus and his Church. 

There is more than a touch of irony in the fact that the poor, if they couldn’t afford a lamb to offer in sacrifice and thanksgiving, could bring turtle doves or even pigeons. Mary and Joseph were poor, and although - according to today’s Gospel reading - they brought turtle doves or pigeons, we know that they actually brought the only Lamb that has ever really mattered: Jesus, Mary’s little Lamb, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. 

Today is our feast of candles, with the warmth of their light pointing to Jesus, the light of the world.

Each of us is given a candle today as a reminder that having received the light of Jesus, which at the very beginning of creation pierced the darkness and which no darkness can overpower, we are to shine in the darkness of our own time that others may find him and be set free to walk in his light.

* * * * * * * * * *
May we have leave to ask, illustrious Mother,
Why thou dost turtles bring
For thy Son’s offering,
And rather giv’st not one lamb for another? 
It seems that golden shower which th’other day
The forward faithful East
Poured at thy feet, made haste
Through some devout expence to find its way. 
O precious poverty, which canst appear
Richer to holy eyes
Than any golden prize,
And sweeter art than frankincense and myrrh! 
Come then, that silver, which thy turtles wear
Upon their wings, shall make
Precious thy gift, and speak
That Son of thine, like them, all pure and fair. 
But know that heaven will not be long in debt;
No, the Eternal Dove
Down from his nest above
Shall come, and on thy son’s dear head shall sit.
Heaven will not have Him ransomed, heaven’s law
Makes no exception
For lambs, and such a one
Is He: a fairer Lamb heaven never saw. 
He must be offered, or the world is lost:
The whole world’s ransom lies
In this great sacrifice;
And He will pay its debt, whate’er it cost. 
Nor shall these turtles unrepayed be,
These turtles which today
Thy love for Him did pay:
Thou ransom’dst Him, and He will ransom thee. 
A dear and full redemption will He give
Thee and the world: this Son,
And none but this alone
By His own death can make His Mother live.

– Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699)
Thérèse, M. I Sing of a Maiden: The Mary Book of Verse. 
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Today's gospel: "Who touched me?" (Mark 5:25-34)

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with crowds. They can be terrifying, but they can also be great reservoirs of energy. When we're with a lot of people, the push and shove becomes part of the big day out. 

That’s what it was like when Jesus came to town. 

I remember when I first read this story being struck by the irony of how Jesus looked around at the jostling crowd and asked, “Who touched me?” 

The disciples reacted predictably. But what we see clearly is that a supernatural encounter had taken place in which JESUS KNEW THE TOUCH OF FAITH. 

For me, the lady with the gynecological bleeding problem ranks among the greatest of the Bible’s heroes. 

Not only was she desperately sick. She was poor, having spent all her money on doctors “and was no better but rather grew worse.” Also, she would have been treated by society as “unclean” according to the law and custom of the day. So, she'd have been lonely as well as sick . . . in fact, an outcast. I'm sure there were times when she wished she could die. 

But she heard about Jesus . . . about his love, about how he was going around teaching, preaching and healing. What she heard awakened a spark of faith within her. And by faith she could just manage to see that her life could be different if only she got to Jesus. Surely he would do for her what he had done for so many others. 

She was determined to get to Jesus. But she had to avoid being noticed, because in her condition she could be stoned to death for touching anyone at all. She would have crawled on the ground, in the dirt, through the crowd, because that's where she had to be to reach the hem of his garment. 

And as she got closer she said to herself, “If I touch even the hem of his garment, I shall be made whole." 

Can't you imagine her repeating over and over again as she strained and reached out with every ounce of strength she had left, “If I touch even the hem of his garment, I shall be made whole." 

That affirmation of faith in Jesus was her strategy for battling discouragement. 

The lady in today’s Gospel did well with what she had.

What about us? What about OUR struggle to get to Jesus? Do we repeat affirmations of what Jesus can do, or the promises he has made, under our breath - or even out loud - when we are struggling? All too often we forget to keep on saying to ourselves the things we know to be true that will build up our faith, and before long we are crushed by discouragement.

Holding on to the promises of God n our darkest moments can actually be therapeutic, and help us rise above despair. 

IT HAPPENED! Against all the odds the lady–actually made it to Jesus, touched the hem of his garment, and the bleeding stopped. Her life was changed.

But she got more than she had bargained for. We have already said that Jesus felt a surge of healing power flow from him. In other words, it was REAL! It wasn’t “just symbolic", any more than the sacraments are “just symbolic"! Jesus wanted the lady to face him and acknowledge what had happened to her. No sneaking off anonymously as she probably wanted to do, and as we might well have done! Jesus turned around and said, “Who touched me?” 

She “fell down before him” in “fear and in trembling.” This is an interesting expression. It is used elsewhere of humility before God (cf 1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Ephesians 6:5; Philippians 2:12). It indicates the lady's response of awe and gratitude. Jesus then addressed her affectionately as “daughter”, and told her to go in peace. He said to her, “Your faith has made you whole.” 

That is a really BIG expression in the original language, for it goes well beyond the physical healing of one ailment. It is about the totality of her life.

The important thing for us is to understand that when we gather as a church community, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the outward and visible signs appointed by Jesus himself, we encounter him in as real a way as the lady in today's Gospel, and we receive his love and healing. So, in Holy Communion, in the sacrament of anointing, in the laying on of hands or when we go to confession we really encounter Jesus. If we believe that, we will be open to ALL the possibilities, including miracles.

In the Sacraments, Jesus is objectively present to share his life with us. We don’t “create” his presence by our faith. But, as with the lady in the Gospel, IT IS BY FAITH THAT WE DRAW ON THE BLESSINGS he has for us.

“If I touch even the hem of his garment, I shall be made whole."

Praise God If everything is going well for you at the moment. But if like that lady you're as low as you can be, and you feel as if you're more or less dragging yourself along the ground through the dirt as she had to do, at least drag yourself in the direction of Jesus! And when you get yourself up to the altar for Holy Communion, draw on the healing power of his presence in a new and deep way by faith, believing his promises, whatever your deepest needs. The Lord loves you more than anyone else ever has, and he wants you to break through to him afresh by responding in your heart to his Word, and by touching the hem of his garment, expecting to be made whole. It might happen right away. It might take place over time. But that encounter with him is life-giving because Jesus is "the same, yesterday, today and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8).

“If I touch even the hem of his garment, I shall be made whole."

Monday, January 30, 2017

For the commemoration of Charles, King & Martyr

This icon of Charles, King and Martyr at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, was blessed at Evensong yesterday. 

Today at 12.30pm there will be a said Eucharist celebrated in the Chapel Royal for the commemoration of Charles the Martyr, according to the 1637 Scottish Prayer Book. The chalice and paten used with be those presented by his son to the Chapel. Entrance via Tennis Court Lane.

Here are links to useful articles on Charles, King and Martyr:

Here is the well known hymn by Dorothy Frances Gurney, 1858 -1932, usually sung to the tune Redhead No. 76 (English Hymnal 477):

Royal Charles, who chose to die
Rather than the Faith deny,
Forfeiting his kingly pride
For the sake of Jesu’s Bride;
Lovingly his praise we sing,
England’s martyr, England’s king. 

Mirror fair of courtesy,
Flower of wedded chastity,
Humble follower day by day,
Of the Church’s holy way;
Lovingly his praise we sing,
England’s martyr, England’s King.

All the way of death he trod
For the glory of his God,
And his dying dignity
Made a bright Epiphany;
Lovingly his praise we sing,
England’s martyr, England’s king.

Bless we God the Three in One,
For all faithful ’neath the sun,
For the faithful gone before,
And for those our country bore,
Chiefly him whose praise we sing,
England’s martyr, England’s King.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

St Thomas Aquinas' day

St Thomas Aquinas, painted by Carlo Crivelli in 1476 (in the National Gallery, London). Although he is often shown with a sun on his chest (a symbol of sacred learning), and a pen, in Crivelli ‘s painting he has a book instead. And he is holding a church with chipped masonry and plants growing out of the brickwork. But its spire has been repaired.

In the middle of the thirteenth century, an aristocratic southern Italian family had an ambitious plan for their son’s future. Thomas, born in 1225, was initially educated at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which had been founded by St. Benedict. It was clear to Thomas’ parents that their son was focused in a special way on God, so they intended to use their influence to have him made Abbot of Monte Cassino, a position, they thought, fitting for the son of so noble a family.

Before that could happen, Thomas needed to complete his studies. His father sent him to the University of Naples. It was there that he came across members of the new, dynamic and unconventional order known as the Dominicans or Order of Preachers. They inspired him greatly, and much to the disappointment of his parents, Thomas, joined them. He grew quickly in holiness and the knowledge of God, being nurtured by St Albert the Great who was one of his teachers. Eventually, Thomas became professor of Sacred Theology at the University of Paris at the same time as Bonaventure, who belonged to the Franciscan order. 

Thomas died in 1274. He is recognised as a Doctor of the Church and as one of the most influential Christian teachers of all time, believing that all truth is God's, and that we should seek its integration. His teaching had a strong influence on the Counci of Trent. Known primarily for his philosophical writing in his multi volume “Summa”, Thomas also wrote commentaries on various books of the Bible. Yet in his time he was chiefly known as a man of prayer who deeply loved the Lord, and followed him. Indeed, he had famously written, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” It is said that even Thomas’ philosophical study was drenched with prayer, and that this enabled him to discern what was wheat and what was chaff in the ideas of his time, and then integrate the wheat into the Christian tradition. In particular, he showed how much of the thinking of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, could be beneficial in the presentation of Christian theology, although his approach had its opponents.

Thomas died in 1274 while en route to the Ecumenical Council of Lyons. We celebrate his feast today.

There is something more to be shared if we are to really grasp the kind of person Thomas Aquinas was. He had filled thousands of pages with words about God, significant words and arguments that would light the way for waves of enquirers down through the centuries. Yet, before his death, he entered into what is sometimes called “his remarkable silence.” This has caused speculation as to whether Thomas might have had a stroke. But most commentators believe that he had a vision of God’s glory and love which transcended even the very best of what Thomas could write about him. Bishop Robert Barron says: 

“In Naples, on the feat of St Nicholas, December 6, 1273, Thomas was, according to his custom, celebrating Mass in the presence of his friend, Reginald. Something extraordinary happened during that Mass, for afterward Thomas broke the routine that had been his for the previous twenty years. According to one source, he ‘hung up his instruments of writing,’ refusing to work, to dictate, to write. When his socius encouraged him to continue, Thomas replied very simply that he could not. Afraid that his master had perhaps become mentally unbalanced, the younger man persisted until Thomas, with a mixture of impatience and resignation, finally replied, ‘Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me . . .’”

Here is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of St Thomas’ poem to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament:  ADORO TE DEVOTE

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight. Amen.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Cultural "relevance" and evangelisation

A great deal is said these days about the need for the Church to become more relevant to the world in which we live. We are often encouraged to embrace totally the culture around us in order to make ourselves attractive, especially to young people. We are told that more will then accept the Gospel message and become worshippers. At the very least, we are told that we will be spared the ridicule of our culture!

Now, it is obviously important for clergy and laity alike to connect with people around us in real friendship and genuine respect if we are to be of any use at all in loving the world back to God. At the same time, it is not possible to read the New Testament and avoid what the Lord himself said about the world (sometimes) hating his followers just as it hated him. This is surely part of what St Paul meant when he spoke of sharing in the fellowship of the Lord’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10 & Colossians 1:24). (Of course, I know that here’s no excuse for Christians, when in a minority, becoming bitter, twisted and hateful when the same Lord also told us to love our enemies and pray for them - a command conspicuously obeyed by countless generations of Christian martyrs at the very point of their death.)

There are times in history when this or that culture has been heavily influenced by the Gospel and the faith, and sometimes even solidly based on it. Don’t we all long for that to have been true for our time! Commenting on this, Fr Gavin Ashenden has recently been pointing out in the media how very powerful both secular humanism and militant Islam have become. Given the strength of each, Fr Ashenden chided the Anglican establishment for adapting itself to the role of chaplain to a decadent hedonistic culture, rather than taking a stand against the culture when required, in order to be faithful to the Lord and truly loving to those around us.

I think that there will always be some large churches. And what we have known for hundreds of years as a parish church may well continue into the future. But the nucleus of the church in this or that neighbourhood - whether meeting in an old church building or in somebody's house - is likely to be a smallish almost monastic like community of people who love the Lord and each other, who seek to build each other up for the challenge simply of worshipping, living and witnessing in the world, sanctifying their own little bit of it with their prayers. (Some readers will remember that Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, spoke about that particular development in the West, and how it would make us all depend much more on the grace of God and not artificial "props". He also said that the Church will get through that period, writing in way similar to T.S. Eliot's words quoted in the previous blog post.)

For many years I have been interested in the writings of Robert Louis Wilken. Originally a Lutheran, he became a Roman Catholic in 1994. When he was Professor of History at the University of Virginia, he gave an interview about the lessons we can learn from the way in which the early Church impacted on the culture of the Mediterranean world. Dr Wilken challenges many of the cherished opinions of those who for decades have formulated church policies, including some still trying to adapt the Church to the 1960’s, as well as others who think the Church should conform its moral teaching to that of today’s secular West. 

Specifically, in Roman Redux in Christian History Vol. LVII, No.1, because Wilken views today’s evangelistic challenge as not very different to the one that faced the early Church, he asks whether the example of the early Church has anything to teach us in our witness to Christ in a post-Christian culture.
In the interview, Wilken talks about the role of apologetics, martyrdoms, and “everyday evangelism.” He then considers the ecclesial dimension of early Christianity - the tightly knit sense of loving community Christians shared together, and the strong leadership of the bishop as priest and teacher, the one who presided over the life of the community, assisted by his deacons and presbyters, with bishops of different regions working with one another, organising themselves across the Empire. Wilken points out that there are no real parallels to this among any other people in the ancient world.

Then, says Wilken, there were the Scriptures, which grounded the Christian gospel not in myth but in history. This was especially true with regard to the community’s central belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. The ancient world had stories of gods coming back to life and miraculous happenings. But to talk about such things as if they happened in real history was unparallelled. This is what set Christ and the Church apart. It was a belief Christians were willing to die for. And it was a belief Christians didn’t soft peddle. Furthermore, we know that those who tried to adapt the Gospel message to movements of thought inimical to Incarnational Christianity got short shrift from the Church as a whole. 

Wilken draws some fascinating lessons from the early Church for our consideration today. He points out that “witnessing” to the culture (and even “apologetics”) was basically an explanation of what Christians believed and practised. Justin Martyr, for example, simply gave an account of Christian worship, and talked about baptism. Wilken thinks that modern Christians should do the same: familiarise people with the Christian story, and talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive, on account of many people today being both unaware of the basics of the Christian Faith, and more curious than we give them credit for.

Wilken goes on to talk about the essence of evangelism and conversion:

“Apologetics then and now must speak what is true, but finally the appeal must be made to the heart, not the mind. We’re really leading people to change their love. To love something different. Love is what draws and holds people.”

This leads to the whole question of the tightly knit early Christian community of love:

“How did the early church build their community? It built a way of life. The Church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community.”

In speaking of the community’s worship Wilken says:

“Did the church strive to be ‘user-friendly’? Not at all - in fact, just the opposite. One thing that made early Christian community especially strong was its stress on ritual. That there was something unique about Christian liturgy, especially the Eucharist. It was different from anything pagans had experienced, architecturally, and in terms of the various ingredients of the worship. Worship was something that baptism gave one the right to enter into. Prayers and hymns were taken out of the Bible, a book foreign to pagans. And then there was a sermon, an unusual feature in itself, with historically grounded talk of a dying and rising God. Pagans entered a wholly different world than they were used to. Furthermore, it was difficult to join the early church. Besides the social and cultural hurdles: the process for becoming a member took two years.”

Now, this runs counter to what many so-called experts tell us today. In fact, Wilken thinks that modern “user friendly” churches have a completely wrong strategy:

“A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time SHOULD feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for “seekers” is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it’s a discipline. Few people grasp that today. But the early church grasped it very well.”

This is an important point. So many churches expect every aspect of their worship to be intelligible to those showing up for the first time, when we would never expect to understand the cricket the first time we go to a match, or a code of football different to our own. But that doesn't stop the constant flow of new people becoming fans.  

All of that is very interesting. It certainly squares with my experience over nearly 40 years of ordained ministry. Genuine friendship and love in a parish community, together with clergy and laity alike being brave enough to bear personal witness to Christ at home and in the work place, draws people to the Lord. And I know that this happens even in some “traditional” parishes which, from the point of view of many modern “experts”, ought not be attracting newcomers at all! 

Long term readers of this blog know that I refrain from criticising other Christian traditions (except, maybe, on occasion, hopeless liberals!). So, I sincerely say “praise the Lord” for every person who is converted to Christ through “seeker friendly” services, “emergent” churches, “church plants”, evangelistic outreaches, “cafe churches”, Gospel rock music, or any other means. God uses all sorts of things to attract our attention. But the cogency of Dr Wilken’s argument remains. We should not be dumbing down worship and teaching, thinking that by doing so we will make it easier for people to believe (when very often it is those genuinely seeking God who we turn away!) Nor (as Fr Ashenden has pointed out) do we make ourselves or the Gospel more attractive or convincing by embracing the ethics (and bioethics!) or the relativity mindset of a culture that has discarded the Christian revelation. 

I finish today with an extract from a later article of Dr Wilken:

“At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

“If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Proclamation of Jesus

The Church of the Ascension, Lavender Hill

Two days ago I had the honour of celebrating and preaching at the Church of the Ascension, Lavender Hill (just near Clapham Junction in south London). It’s always inspiring to visit that parish (which has never NOT had the full Catholic Faith!), whether on a Sunday or for a weekday Mass. Lots of people of all age groups, faithfully worshipping, growing in the Lord, and reaching out to others!

The Gospel for the day was the call of the first apostles and the beginning of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God in the exact place where the “Davidic kingdom” had begun to fall apart around 740BC at the hands of the Assyrians who invaded the area of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. We noted that between then and 720 the local inhabitants were marched off into captivity (see 2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chronicles 5:26). The complete crumbling of the Davidic kingdom took another century and a half - when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, and the remaining tribes exiled between 597 and 581. 

Sunday’s first reading (Isaiah 8:23-9:3) foretold that the region first “brought into contempt”, would see the light of God’s salvation. Matthew’s Gospel emphasises Jesus fulfilling that prophecy near the start of his ministry. In other words, he announces the coming of God’s kingdom right where the Davidic kingdom had begun to crumble.

We also noted that the region was known as “Galilee of the Nations” or “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Vital trade routes passed through it, from Egypt and South Palestine to Damascus, as well as from the Mediterranean to the Far East. It had become a meeting place of cultures and peoples. There was a strong Gentile presence there, and Greek was widely spoken (as well as the indigenous Aramaic). Jesus begins preaching the coming of God’s Kingdom, not just where the old kingdom had begun to fall apart; but in a multi-ethnic region that was looked down on by the religious purists. 

It is here that Jesus calls his first disciples, two fishermen who, he says, are to be “fishers of men” with a vocation to draw others into the kingdom. We considered how the whole Church is “apostolic”, not just because it is built on the original apostles and has the “apostolic succession’’ (vital as those things are), but because the WHOLE Church, the “many-membered Body of Christ”, is sent into the world to continue the ministry of Jesus drawing men and women into the kingdom of his love. That means each of us, in our “ordinary” lives.

In thinking about the context in which WE are called - a sort of “post-Christian" society still boasting that it doesn’t need Jesus - we finished with a quote from T.S. Eliot, who prophetically understood both the difficulty of our witness to the Gospel in a crumbling civilisation, and the importance of our being faithful, whatever the cost:

The Universal Church is today 
more definitely set against the World 
than at any time since Pagan Rome. 
I do not mean that our times are particularly corrupt;
all times are corrupt. 
In spite of certain local appearances, 
Christianity is not and cannot be 
within measurable time, ‘official’. 
The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form 
a civilized but non-Christian mentality. 
The experiment will fail; 
but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; 
meanwhile redeeming the time: 
so that the Faith may be preserved alive 
through the dark ages before us; 
to renew and rebuild civilization, 
and save the World from suicide.

- T. S. Eliot, from Thoughts After Lambeth (1931)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

At All Saints' Twickenham

Today I had the joy of celebrating and preaching the Epiphany Mass at All Saints' Twickenham. Beautiful church building, friendly people, inspiring worship, and truly spectacular organ postlude. The Mass included Epiphany prayers at the Crib, the sung Proclamation of the date of Easter and other moveable feasts, as well as the blessing of chalk for the use of the people in dedicating the year to God by asking his blessing on their homes and on all who live, work or visit them there.