Saturday, November 22, 2014

Christ the King - a beautiful Litany



Lord Jesus Christ,
reigning in the glory of heaven,
living in the hearts of your people,
and truly present before us in this Blessed Sacrament,
we come before you in adoration and love.
We thank you for making us your people
and drawing us into your love.
We thank you for all the blessings
and the strength you give us
as we make our pilgrim way through this world
to the heavenly country.

v. Lord Jesus, our Eternal King,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, most Merciful King,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who came among us in great humility,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who offers us healing and new life,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who rose glorious from the dead,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, our Eucharistic King,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, the King foretold by the prophets,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, King of Heaven and earth,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, in whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, we are one,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose Kingdom is not from this world,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who will come upon the clouds of Heaven with Power and Great Glory,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose Throne of Grace we are to approach with confidence,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who, hanging on the cross, gave your Mother, Mary, to be our Mother also,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who heals us of division and disunity,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, wounded by our indifference,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, who sends the Holy Angels to protect us,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, before whom every knee shall bow,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose reign will never end,
R. Reign in our hearts.

v. Lord Jesus, whose kindness toward us is steadfast, and whose faithfulness endures forever,
R. Reign in our hearts. ​

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the living God,
we hail you as our King. ​
Through you all things came to be;
in you all things will reach their destiny. 
You are the image of your Father,
the richness of his grace,
his free gift to us of life and love. ​
You love us with an everlasting love.
You share with us your mission
to bring the Good News to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives,
to set the downtrodden free. ​
Lord Jesus Christ,
we hail you as our King;
use us to bring your life, your love,
and the glorious freedom of the children of God
to all with whom we share our lives;
for you live and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rabbi Sacks on "the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization" - at Pope Francis' "Complementarity" colloquium - worth reading.

Among many speeches on Monday (17th November, 2014) at the Vatican, following Pope Francis’ address to the Humanum colloquium on complementarity, representing scholars from 23 countries and from a range of faith traditions, that of Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, was the one that brought the audience of 300 in the synod hall to a standing ovation. Here it is. (The YouTube clip is a video of the highlights).


I want this morning to begin our conversation by one way of telling the story of the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world. There are of course many ways of telling the story, and this is just one. But to me it is a story of seven key moments, each of them surprising and unexpected.

The first, according to a report in the press on 20th October of this year, took place in a lake in Scotland 385 million years ago. It was then, according to this new discovery, that two fish came together to perform the first instance of sexual reproduction known to science. Until then all life had propagated itself asexually, by cell division, budding, fragmentation or parthenogenesis, all of which are far simpler and more economical than the division of life into male and female, each with a different role in creating and sustaining life.

When we consider, even in the animal kingdom, how much effort and energy the coming together of male and female takes, in terms of displays, courtship rituals, rivalries and violence, it is astonishing that sexual reproduction ever happened at all. Biologists are still not quite sure why it did. Some say to offer protection against parasites, or immunities against disease. Others say it’s simply that the meeting of opposites generates diversity. But one way or another, the fish in Scotland discovered something new and beautiful that’s been copied ever since by virtually all advanced forms of life. Life begins when male and female meet and embrace.

The second unexpected development was the unique challenge posed to Homo sapiens by two factors: we stood upright, which constricted the female pelvis, and we had bigger brains – a 300 per cent increase – which meant larger heads. The result was that human babies had to be born more prematurely than any other species, and so needed parental protection for much longer. This made parenting more demanding among humans than any other species, the work of two people rather than one.

Hence the very rare phenomenon among mammals, of pair bonding, unlike other species where the male contribution tends to end with the act of impregnation. Among most primates, fathers don’t even recognise their children let alone care for them. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom motherhood is almost universal but fatherhood is rare. So what emerged along with the human person was the union of the biological mother and father to care for their child. Thus far nature, but then came culture, and the third surprise.

It seems that among hunter gatherers, pair bonding was the norm. Then came agriculture, and economic surplus, and cities and civilisation, and for the first time sharp inequalities began to emerge between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The great ziggurats of Mesopotamia and pyramids of ancient Egypt, with their broad base and narrow top, were monumental statements in stone of a hierarchical society in which the few had power over the many. And the most obvious expression of power among alpha males whether human or primate, is to dominate access to fertile women and thus maximise the handing on of your genes to the next generation. Hence polygamy, which exists in 95 per cent of mammal species and 75 per cent of cultures known to anthropology. Polygamy is the ultimate expression of inequality because it means that many males never get the chance to have a wife and child. And sexual envy has been, throughout history, among animals as well as humans, a prime driver of violence.

That is what makes the first chapter of Genesis so revolutionary with its statement that every human being, regardless of class, colour, culture or creed, is in the image and likeness of God himself. We know that in the ancient world it was rulers, kings, emperors and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. So what Genesis was saying was that we are all royalty. We each have equal dignity in the kingdom of faith under the sovereignty of God.

From this it follows that we each have an equal right to form a marriage and have children, which is why, regardless of how we read the story of Adam and Eve – and there are differences between Jewish and Christian readings – the norm presupposed by that story is: one woman, one man. Or as the Bible itself says: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Monogamy did not immediately become the norm, even within the world of the Bible. But many of its most famous stories, about the tension between Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel and their children, or David and Bathsheba, or Solomon’s many wives, are all critiques that point the way to monogamy.

And there is a deep connection between monotheism and monogamy, just as there is, in the opposite direction, between idolatry and adultery. Monotheism and monogamy are about the all-embracing relationship between I and Thou, myself and one other, be it a human, or the divine, Other.
What makes the emergence of monogamy unusual is that it is normally the case that the values of a society are those imposed on it by the ruling class. And the ruling class in any hierarchical society stands to gain from promiscuity and polygamy, both of which multiply the chances of my genes being handed on to the next generation. From monogamy the rich and powerful lose and the poor and powerless gain. So the return of monogamy goes against the normal grain of social change and was a real triumph for the equal dignity of all. Every bride and every groom are royalty; every home a palace when furnished with love.

The fourth remarkable development was the way this transformed the moral life. We’ve all become familiar with the work of evolutionary biologists using computer simulations and the iterated prisoners’ dilemma to explain why reciprocal altruism exists among all social animals. We behave to others as we would wish them to behave to us, and we respond to them as they respond to us. As C S Lewis pointed out in his book The Abolition of Man, reciprocity is the Golden Rule shared by all the great civilizations.

What was new and remarkable in the Hebrew Bible was the idea that love, not just fairness, is the driving principle of the moral life. Three loves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.” “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And, repeated no less than 36 times in the Mosaic books, “Love the stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.” Or to put it another way: just as God created the natural world in love and forgiveness, so we are charged with creating the social world in love and forgiveness. And that love is a flame lit in marriage and the family. Morality is the love between husband and wife, parent and child, extended outward to the world.

The fifth development shaped the entire structure of Jewish experience. In ancient Israel an originally secular form of agreement, called a covenant, was taken and transformed into a new way of thinking about the relationship between God and humanity, in the case of Noah, and between God and a people in the case of Abraham and later the Israelites at Mount Sinai. A covenant is like a marriage. It is a mutual pledge of loyalty and trust between two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, to work together to achieve together what neither can achieve alone. And there is one thing even God cannot achieve alone, which is to live within the human heart. That needs us.

So the Hebrew word emunah, wrongly translated as faith, really means faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, steadfastness, not walking away even when the going gets tough, trusting the other and honouring the other’s trust in us. What covenant did, and we see this in almost all the prophets, was to understand the relationship between us and God in terms of the relationship between bride and groom, wife and husband. Love thus became not only the basis of morality but also of theology. In Judaism faith is a marriage. Rarely was this more beautifully stated than by Hosea when he said in the name of God:

I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.

Jewish men say those words every weekday morning as we wind the strap of our tefillin around our finger like a wedding ring. Each morning we renew our marriage with God.

This led to a sixth and quite subtle idea that truth, beauty, goodness, and life itself, do not exist in any one person or entity but in the “between,” what Martin Buber called Das Zwischenmenschliche, the interpersonal, the counterpoint of speaking and listening, giving and receiving. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature, the vehicle of truth is conversation. In revelation God speaks and asks us to listen. In prayer we speak and ask God to listen. There is never only one voice. In the Bible the prophets argue with God. In the Talmud rabbis argue with one another. In fact I sometimes think the reason God chose the Jewish people was because He loves a good argument. Judaism is a conversation scored for many voices, never more passionately than in the Song of Songs, a duet between a woman and a man, the beloved and her lover, that Rabbi Akiva called the holy of holies of religious literature.

The prophet Malachi calls the male priest the guardian of the law of truth. The book of Proverbs says of the woman of worth that “the law of lovingkindness is on her tongue.” It is that conversation between male and female voices, between truth and love, justice and mercy, law and forgiveness, that frames the spiritual life. In biblical times each Jew had to give a half shekel to the Temple to remind us that we are only half. There are some cultures that teach that we are nothing. There are others that teach that we are everything. The Jewish view is that we are half and we need to open ourselves to another if we are to become whole.

All this led to the seventh outcome, that in Judaism the home and the family became the central setting of the life of faith. In the only verse in the Hebrew Bible to explain why God chose Abraham, He says: “I have known him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” Abraham was chosen not to rule an empire, command an army, perform miracles or deliver prophecies, but simply to be a parent.

In one of the most famous lines in Judaism, which we say every day and night, Moses commands, “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house or when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” Parents are to be educators, education is the conversation between the generations, and the first school is the home.

So Jews became an intensely family oriented people, and it was this that saved us from tragedy. After the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, Jews were scattered throughout the world, everywhere a minority, everywhere without rights, suffering some of the worst persecutions ever known by a people and yet Jews survived because they never lost three things: their sense of family, their sense of community and their faith.

And they were renewed every week especially on Shabbat, the day of rest when we give our marriages and families what they most need and are most starved of in the contemporary world, namely time. I once produced a television documentary for the BBC on the state of family life in Britain, and I took the person who was then Britain’s leading expert on child care, Penelope Leach, to a Jewish primary school on a Friday morning.

There she saw the children enacting in advance what they would see that evening around the family table. There were the five year old mother and father blessing the five year old children with the five year old grandparents looking on. She was fascinated by this whole institution, and she asked the children what they most enjoyed about the Sabbath. One five year old boy turned to her and said, “It’s the only night of the week when daddy doesn’t have to rush off.” As we walked away from the school when the filming was over she turned to me and said, “Chief Rabbi, that Sabbath of yours is saving their parents’ marriages.”

So that is one way of telling the story, a Jewish way, beginning with the birth of sexual reproduction, then the unique demands of human parenting, then the eventual triumph of monogamy as a fundamental statement of human equality, followed by the way marriage shaped our vision of the moral and religious life as based on love and covenant and faithfulness, even to the point of thinking of truth as a conversation between lover and beloved. Marriage and the family are where faith finds its home and where the Divine Presence lives in the love between husband and wife, parent and child.

What then has changed? Here’s one way of putting it. I wrote a book a few years ago about religion and science and I summarised the difference between them in two sentences. “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” And that’s a way of thinking about culture also. Does it put things together or does it take things apart?

What made the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.

For a whole variety of reasons, some to do with medical developments like birth control, in vitro fertilisation and other genetic interventions, some to do with moral change like the idea that we are free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others, some to do with a transfer of responsibilities from the individual to the state, and other and more profound changes in the culture of the West, almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.

The result is that in Britain in 2012, 47.5 per cent of children were born outside marriage, expected to become a majority in 2016. Fewer people are marrying, those who are, are marrying later, and 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce. Nor is cohabitation a substitute for marriage. The average length of cohabitation in Britain and the United States is less than two years. The result is a sharp increase among young people of eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, stress related syndromes, depression and actual and attempted suicides. The collapse of marriage has created a new form of poverty concentrated among single parent families, and of these, the main burden is born by women, who in 2011 headed 92 per cent of single parent households. In Britain today more than a million children will grow up with no contact whatsoever with their fathers.

This is creating a divide within societies the like of which has not been seen since Disraeli spoke of “two nations” a century and a half ago. Those who are privileged to grow up in stable loving association with the two people who brought them into being will, on average, be healthier physically and emotionally. They will do better at school and at work. They will have more successful relationships, be happier and live longer. And yes, there are many exceptions. But the injustice of it all cries out to heaven. It will go down in history as one of the tragic instances of what Friedrich Hayek called “the fatal conceit” that somehow we know better than the wisdom of the ages, and can defy the lessons of biology and history.

No one surely wants to go back to the narrow prejudices of the past. This week, in Britain, a new film opens, telling the story of one of the great minds of the twentieth century, Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician who laid the philosophical foundations of computing and artificial intelligence, and helped win the war by breaking the German naval code Enigma. After the war, Turing was arrested and tried for homosexual behaviour, underwent chemically induced castration, and died at the age of 41 by cyanide poisoning, thought by many to have committed suicide. That is a world to which we should never return.

But our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanising institution in history. The family, man, woman, and child, is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love. It is where we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group. It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love. It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of a civilization. For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders.

Since this is a religious gathering, let me, if I may, end with a piece of biblical exegesis. The story of the first family, the first man and woman in the garden of Eden, is not generally regarded as a success. Whether or not we believe in original sin, it did not end happily. After many years of studying the text I want to suggest a different reading.

The story ends with three verses that seem to have no connection with one another. No sequence. No logic. In Genesis 3: 19 God says to the man: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Then in the next verse we read: “The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all life.” And in the next, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”

What is the connection here? Why did God telling the man that he was mortal lead him to give his wife a new name? And why did that act seem to change God’s attitude to both of them, so that He performed an act of tenderness, by making them clothes, almost as if He had partially forgiven them? Let me also add that the Hebrew word for “skin” is almost indistinguishable from the Hebrew word for “light,” so that Rabbi Meir, the great sage of the early second century, read the text as saying that God made for them “garments of light.” What did he mean?

If we read the text carefully, we see that until now the first man had given his wife a purely generic name. He called her ishah, woman. Recall what he said when he first saw her: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for she was taken from man.” For him she was a type, not a person. He gave her a noun, not a name. What is more he defines her as a derivative of himself: something taken from man. She is not yet for him someone other, a person in her own right. She is merely a kind of reflection of himself.

As long as the man thought he was immortal, he ultimately needed no one else. But now he knew he was mortal. He would one day die and return to dust. There was only one way in which something of him would live on after his death. That would be if he had a child. But he could not have a child on his own. For that he needed his wife. She alone could give birth. She alone could mitigate his mortality. And not because she was like him but precisely because she was unlike him. At that moment she ceased to be, for him, a type, and became a person in her own right. And a person has a proper name. That is what he gave her: the name Chavah, “Eve,” meaning, “giver of life.”

At that moment, as they were about to leave Eden and face the world as we know it, a place of darkness, Adam gave his wife the first gift of love, a personal name. And at that moment, God responded to them both in love, and made them garments to clothe their nakedness, or as Rabbi Meir put it, “garments of light.”

And so it has been ever since, that when a man and woman turn to one another in a bond of faithfulness, God robes them in garments of light, and we come as close as we will ever get to God himself, bringing new life into being, turning the prose of biology into the poetry of the human spirit, redeeming the darkness of the world by the radiance of love.





Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A little man meets a big God - Pope Francis on Zacchaeus



I was deeply moved by the Mass Readings this morning. They represent a kind of wake-up call to us as we head towards the celebration of Christ the King on Sunday, and then get into Advent. So, I was curious to read Pope Francis’ homily. I looked up the Vatican Radio website to see what he had said, and found this great challenge:


Conversion is a grace, “it is a visit from God” said Pope Francis at Tuesday morning Mass in Casa Santa Marta. The Pope based his reflections on the Readings of the Day taken from Revelation Chapter 3 and the Gospel according to St. Luke on the encounter  Jesus and Zacchaeus the tax collector. 

In the first reading, he noted, the Lord asks Christians in Laodicea to convert because they have become “lukewarm”. They live a “comfortable spirituality”. They think: “I do what I can, but I am at peace and do not want to be disturbed with strange things”. Pope Francis noted that people who “live well think nothing is missing: I go to Mass on Sundays, I pray a few times, I feel good, I am in God’s grace, I’m rich” and “I do not need anything, I’m fine.” This “state of mind - he warned - is a state of sin, feeling spiritually comfortable is a state of sin”. The Lord has harsh words for people like this, he says: “Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth”. Despite this, the Lord gives them some advice, he tells them to “dress themselves” because “ comfortable Christians are naked”.

Then, he added, “there is a second call” to “those who live by appearances, Christians of appearances.” These believe they are alive but they are dead. And the Lord asks them to be vigilant. “Appearances - the Pope said - are these Christians shroud: they are dead.” And the Lord “calls them to conversion”.

“Am I one of these Christians of appearances? Am I alive inside, do I have a spiritual life? Do I hear the Holy Spirit, do I listen to the Holy Spirit, do I  move forward, or ...? But, if everything looks good, I have nothing to reproach myself about: I have a good family, people do not gossip about me, I have everything I need, I married in church ...I am ‘in the grace of God’, I am alright. Appearances! Christians of appearance ... they are dead! Instead [we must] seek something alive within ourselves, and with memory and vigilance, reinvigorate this so we can move forward. Convert: from appearances to reality. From being neither hot nor cold to fervour”.

The third call to conversion is with Zacchaeus, “the chief tax collector, and rich.” “He is corrupt - the Pope said – he was working for foreigners, for the Romans, he betrayed his homeland”: 

“He was just like many leaders we know: corrupt. Those who, instead of serving the people, exploit the people to serve themselves. There are some like this, in the world. And people did not want him. Yes, he wasn’t lukewarm; He was not dead. He was in a state of putrefaction. He was corrupt. But he felt something inside: this healer, this prophet who people say speaks so well, I would like to see him, out of curiosity. The Holy Spirit is clever, eh! He sowed the seed of curiosity, and so in order to seem him this man even does something a little ‘ridiculous. Think of an important leader, who is also corrupt, a leader of leaders – he was the chief - climb a tree to watch a procession: Just think of it. How ridiculous!”.

Zacchaeus, he said, “had no shame.” He wanted to see him and “ the Holy Spirit was working in him”. Then “the Word of God came into the heart and with the Word, the joy.” “Those of comfort and those of appearance – he said - had forgotten what joy was; this corrupt man immediately gets it”, “his heart changes, he converts”. So Zacchaeus promises to give back four times what he has stolen:

“When conversion touches pockets, it’s a certainty. Christians in heart? Yes, everyone is. Christians by blood? All of us. However, Christians with pockets, very few.  But, conversion ... and here, it arrived straight away: the authentic word. He converted. But faced with this word, the words of the others, those who did not want conversion, who did not want to convert: ‘Seeing this, they grumbled: ‘He has gone to the house of a sinner!’: He has dirtied himself, he has lost his purity. He must purify himself because he entered the house of a sinner”.

Pope Francis reiterated that these are “the three calls to conversion” that Jesus himself makes to “the lukewarm, the comfortable, to those of appearance, to those who think they are rich but are poor, who have nothing, who are dead”.  The Word of God, “is able to change everything”, but “we don’t always have the courage to believe in the Word of God, to receive that Word that heals us within”. In the last weeks of the Liturgical Year, the Church wants us all to “think very, very seriously about our conversion, so that we can move forward on the path of our Christian life”. It tells us to “remember the Word of God, appeals to our memory, to custody it, to be vigilant, and also to obey the Word of God, so that we can begin a new life, converted”.


(Emer McCarthy)

Monday, November 10, 2014

C. S. Lewis on the Reasonableness of Christian Faith (Video of Alister McGrath's Westminster Abbey lecture)




Telling the Truth through Rational Argument: C. S. Lewis on the Reasonableness of Christian Faith from Alister McGrath on Vimeo.

Wise words of Leo.



Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger (1622-1685), 
in the Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Tuscan born aristocratic Pope St Leo 1 (400?—461)lived and ministered during the darkest phase of the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire. To grasp the significance of this we must remember that Christians had generally come to believe the empire to be a God-given means of spreading of the Faith, and many thought that if Rome fell, the world would end soon after.

Leo may not have been in Rome during the siege (408) and the sacking of the city in 410 by Alaric I, the king of the Visigoths, but he was there as Pope in 452, when Attila and his Huns, who had crossed the Rhine in 451, invaded Italy. Leo famously met the invaders near Florence and persuaded them to withdraw, demonstrating to the people his “fatherood” of  Rome. Indeed, he considered one of the roles of his office as Pope was that of bringing stability in the chaos confronting the Western Church. (Leo was less successful with Gaiseric the Vandal, who sacked Rome in 455, though some say that the devastation of the city would have been even worse if it had not been for Leo’s influence.)

It would be a pity if Leo were remembered on this his feast day simply for his bravery and administrative skill, or for the developments in the way in which the ministry of Peter came to be exercised. He was primarily a champion of orthodox teaching, emphasising the victory of Jesus (in the cosmic sense, and - no less - in our lives) through the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection in a time of darkness and gloom. He preached the Faith he lived.


True and willing humility

When the brightness of a new star had led three wise men to worship Jesus, they did not see him ruling over demons, not raising the dead, not restoring sight to the blind or mobility to the lame or speech to the dumb, nor in any action of divine power. They saw him, rather, as a Child - silent, at rest, placed in the care of his Mother - in a situation where there appeared no indication of power.

From this lowliness, however, a great miracle was presented. Consequently, the mere sight of that Sacred Infancy to which God the Son of God had adapted himself was bringing to their eyes a preaching that would be imparted to their ears. What the sound of his voice was not yet presenting, the activity of sight was teaching them. 

For the entire victory of the Saviour, the one that overcame the devil and the world, began in humility and ended in humility. Its appointed time began under persecution and ended under persecution. Neither the endurance of suffering was lacking to the child, nor the gentleness of a child to the one who would suffer. For, the Only-Begotten Son of God undertook by a single inclination of his majesty both the will to be born as a human being and the ability to be killed by human beings.

Almighty God, therefore, made our extremely bad situation good” through his unique lowliness and “destroyed death” along with the author “of death.” He did not refuse anything that his persecutors brought down on him. In obedience to the Father, he bore the cruelties of violent men with the meekest docility. 

How humble we ought to be, then, how patient, we who, when we meet with any distress, never undergo anything we do not deserve! “Who will boast that they have a pure heart or that they are clean from sin?” (Prov. 20,9). Blessed John says, “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1Jn. 1, 8)

Who will be found so free from guilt that they have not in themselves anything for justice to condemn or mercy to forgive? Consequently, dearly beloved, the whole learning of Christian wisdom consists not in abundance of words, not in cleverness at disputing, not in desire for praise and glory, but in a true and willing humility. 

This is what the Lord Jesus Christ chose and taught from within the womb of his Mother right up to his torment on the cross - by enduring everything with fortitude. When the disciples, as the Evangelist says, arguing among themselves as to “which one of them would be greater in the kingdom of heaven, [Jesus] called a little child and stood him in their midst and said: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you change yourselves and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever, therefore, humble themselves like this child will be the greater in the kingdom of heaven.”

Christ loves the Childhood that he first took up in both soul and body. Christ loves childhood, the teacher of humility, the rule of innocence, the image of gentleness. Christ loves childhood, to which he directs the characters of older people, to which he brings back old age. Those whom he would raise up to an eternal kingdom he disposes to follow his own example.”

- St Leo the Great, Sermon 37, Epiphany, 2 - 3.



Contemplating the Lord’s passion 

True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity.

The earth - our earthly nature - should tremble at the suffering of its Redeemer. The rock - the hearts of unbelievers - should burst asunder. The dead, imprisoned in the tombs of their mortality, should come forth, the massive stones now ripped apart. Foreshadowings of the future resurrection should appear in the holy city, the Church of God: what is to happen to our bodies should now take place in our hearts.

No one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross. No one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ. His prayer brought benefit to the multitude that raged against him. How much more does it bring to those who turn to him in repentance.

Ignorance has been destroyed, obstinacy has been overcome. The sacred blood of Christ has quenched the flaming sword that barred access to the tree of life. The age-old night of sin has given place to the true light.

The Christian people are invited to share the riches of paradise. All who have been reborn have the way open before them to return to their native land, from which they had been exiled. Unless indeed they close off for themselves the path that could be opened before the faith of a thief.

The business of this life should not preoccupy us with its anxiety and pride, so that we no longer strive with all the love of our heart to be like our Redeemer, and to follow his example. Everything that he did or suffered was for our salvation: he wanted his body to share the goodness of its head.

First of all, in taking our human nature while remaining God, so that the Word became man, he left no member of the human race, the unbeliever excepted, without a share in his mercy. Who does not share a common nature with Christ if he has welcomed Christ, who took our nature, and is reborn in the Spirit through whom Christ was conceived?

Again, who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding tears of love are marks of the nature of a slave?

It was this nature of a slave that had to be healed of its ancient wounds and cleansed of the defilement of sin. For that reason the only-begotten Son of God became also the son of man. He was to have both the reality of a human nature and the fullness of the godhead.

The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven. 

- St Leo the Great, Sermon 15, De passione Domine, 3-4.



Saturday, November 8, 2014

Catholic evangelist to be Bishop of Burnley



Yesterday the great news was announced that Father Philip North, currently Team Rector of Old St Pancras (near King’s Cross), London, is to be the new Bishop of Burnley (a suffragan see in the Diocese of Blackburn). Well known in his previous role as Administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Father Philip is a gifted teacher, evangelist, and imaginative communicator. He is a member of the Company of Mission Priests. 

In the following report from the Blackburn Diocesan website, it is clear that Bishop Julian Henderson sees Father Philip’s appointment partly as episcopal provision for traditional catholics throughout the diocese.

Is it too late for other provinces of the Anglican Communion to make similar provision?


The appointment was made by the Bishop of Blackburn following consultation with a representative group from the Diocese. The appointment was made with the support of the Archbishop of York and approved by Her Majesty The Queen. He will be consecrated at York Minster on February 2 2015. It was initially announced this morning on the Downing Street website.

Philip North was initially welcomed by Diocesan staff and senior clergy at Blackburn Cathedral this morning. He then went to the Burnley Faith Centre where he met local students. Click here for pictures from both events on the Diocesan Flickr feed. The event was also ‘live-tweeted’ and you can see those on our Twitter feed @cofelancs here.

In introducing himself, Philip said: “It is a great pleasure to be here and a daunting privilege to be appointed Bishop of Burnley.

“I am very excited about sharing in the ministry of the church and the life of the community in this region. It is really good to be returning to the north of the country where I began my ministry, and especially to be coming to Lancashire with its diverse communities, stunning countryside and terrific football!

“Frankly it is a tremendous relief that the news of this appointment is out at last. The person I have been most nervous of telling is my mother who is a proud Yorkshire woman. With any luck she will forgive me for being on the wrong side of the Pennines and agree to attend my Consecration!”

Philip continued: “In recent years the church in this Diocese has been responsible for some extremely imaginative ministry. My predecessor, Bishop John, started some pioneering work with other faiths and the Cathedral has also been instrumental in enabling Lancashire’s diverse faith communities to understand each other better.

“This kind of important inter-faith work is something I am very familiar with where I am currently based in London. I am a governor of a church school with a 68% Muslim population and I have sought to encourage close links between people of all faiths to strengthen the already vibrant local community.

“One of my great passions is work with young people, and here there is so much to build on, not least with the Diocese’s fantastic network of church schools.

“In my current ministry in London I am all too aware of the impact of poverty, low pay and social inequality in undermining the dignity of human life, and the church in this region is addressing this with some bold and imaginative projects.”

The Bishop-designate of Burnley also acknowledged the challenges facing the church today and said he was delighted to be joining a Diocese that is preparing to embark on a new vision with real hope.

He said: “Of course the church here in Lancashire, like churches across the nation, faces some real challenges and the Bishop of Blackburn has recently announced a vision for the next 12 years focussed around the optimistic statement ‘healthy churches transforming communities’.

“I have seen again and again how, with that kind of faithfulness and optimism, churches can grow, and it will be good to be part of a Diocese that is looking to the future with real hope.

“Some of you might be aware that I withdrew from an appointment as Bishop of Whitby. The fact that I have been invited and have agreed to serve as a Bishop again is testimony to the very different mood across the Church of England since the understandable disappointment that followed the failure in 2012 of the legislation to enable women to be bishops.

“The Church has stated afresh its commitment to enabling all traditions to flourish within its life and structures, and I hope that my appointment will be seen as evidence of that pledge.

“Finally I am also looking forward to living in East Lancashire. In 2013 Burnley was awarded the title City of Enterprise and I think that award can provide inspiration for us as a Diocese, because we want just that spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship as we seek to build healthy churches.

“However, as well as being Bishop of Burnley I will be a Bishop working for the whole Diocese, and it is with that in mind that I say, we need local Christian communities that are imaginative in service, bold in ministry and generous in reaching out to all with God’s love.

“I am really excited about playing a part in achieving this and look forward to working with you all in the years to come.”

Welcoming Philip to the Diocese as the future Bishop of Burnley, Diocesan Bishop Rt Rev. Julian Henderson said: “Bishop Geoff and I are delighted to welcome Philip as a new member of the episcopal team here in the Diocese.

“He comes to us with a wealth of experience and a passion for spreading the gospel. His track record suggests we have a new Bishop who will make a significant contribution to the life of the Church of England in Lancashire and we look forward to his consecration in York on February 2.

“In the meantime please remember Philip in your prayers as he takes leave of Camden in London and prepares for this important new role.”

Bishop Julian added: “As a supporter of women clergy, but having voted against the proposals for women Bishops in 2012, I was then able to support the current package which, through the ‘five guiding principles’, gives space for those in favour and those against to live together in the Church of England.

“I want to make it clear that I see Philip’s appointment as a clear sign the Anglican Church in Lancashire is living out these five guiding principles.

“I wanted to have an episcopal colleague who is from the traditionalist catholic constituency and Philip fulfils that role well. 

He comes to serve the whole Diocese. He will also have particular care for those people who cannot accept the ministry of women as Bishops and Priests in the Church – and he will have my wholehearted support in carrying out this important work.”

    

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Song of the Saints - Fr Stanton's sermon



Father Arthur Stanton was a leader of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England, a real "evangelical catholic" preacher who drew large crowds, and for 50 years he was a curate at St Alban's Holborn, London. He died at the age of 74 in 1913. This is the sermon he preached at St Alban's on All Saints' Day 1910. (From Father Stanton's Last Sermons in S. Albans, Holborn)


“Unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His own Blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father, to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” - Revelation 1:5-6.

It is St John who is writing about his dear Master. There is no doubt whatever that John loved the Saviour. There is no doubt whatever that the Saviour loved John. When he speaks of the love of the Master, he cannot help himself, and he goes off at once into a doxology: “Unto Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” St John speaks here of the Blood - he has told us about the love of God before, but here he speaks about the Blood. St John is getting towards his end. He is nearing the river. Perhaps as he came near the river of death he caught the sounds of heaven’s sweet music: “Worthy is the Lamb that hath redeemed us by His Blood from all nations of the earth.” Sometimes, to those who love God, the songs of Zion sweep over heaven and come down on earth. He must have caught it. May God grant that as we get towards our end, we may hear something of the sweet music of the other side of the river. “Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own Blood . . . to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”

Of course, dear brethren, it is the song of the redeemed; it is the song of those who came out of great tribulation. It is the sweet song of the saints themselves, of which they are never tired. It is the burden of all their music. It speaks of the free grace of God, who loved us and washed us while we were yet sinners. While we were still sinners, Christ loved us. There was Peter cursing and swearing in the hall, and the Lord looked at him. It was quite enough - He is the chief of the Apostles! There is the dying thief on the Cross. He has been reviling the Master, but he says: “Lord, remember me.” And the Saviour never will forget him! There is Paul! - injurious, breathing out slaughter - a blasphemer, and he becomes the great Apostle! Now just you mark this: it is not “He washed them first, and then loved them.” You might think that having washed us, and made us so beautiful by His Blood, He would love us. It is not that - it is, “He loved us, and washed us,” The love came first, the washing afterwards. “While we were yet sinners” Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). I wonder when I say this that the whole congregation does not rise up and say: “To Him be all glory, might and dominion for ever and ever,” in a pure doxology of gratitude to God.

Well, then, I want you to notice this - the winsomeness of it. I know I can think of Almighty God as creating the world and all that is therein: “All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). I can think of God as destroying all that is evil; or I can think of God’s power. “The Lord also thundered out of heaven, and the Highest gave his thunder: hail-stones, and coals of fire” (Psalm 108:13). But to think of our God as loving us and washing us in His Blood! “Who loved us, and washed us in His Blood.” And as we so think of Him, in a moment the whole thing comes before us of the Master having girded Himself, and kneeling down and washing the disciples’ feet, and telling us that as He has done to us, we ought to do the best service - heart service - to one another. Love must issue in service, and His service comes from His heart, “who loved us, and washed us in His Blood from all sin ” - laved and loved – 

“Wrap me in thy crimson cloak
And speak me of thy love.”

Well, then, I want you to know the costliness. He washed us in His own heart’s Blood. That is the meaning of all the Old Testament types. It is the meaning of all the holocausts of slain beasts in the temple, which made the gutters of the temple run with Blood. It means that. It is the meaning of the mercy seat sprinkled with the blood and all the vessels of the Sanctuary sprinkled with blood. It means that. St Paul tells us that we are made nigh to God by the Blood of Christ. There is no doubt about that. St Peter tells us that we are not redeemed with corruptible things like silver and gold, but by the “precious Blood” - that beautiful term we Catholics love so much: “the precious Blood of Christ,” that is Peter’s expression. St John tells us “the Blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” - and, again, in the Revelation, he tells us that being “redeemed by Blood” is the Song of the Saints. Now I tell you plainly, under these circumstances, a Gospel that is without Blood is a Gospel that is without Christ. It is the Song of the Saints. He made us kings and priests to God, to Him be glory and dominion, henceforth, for ever and ever, Amen. Don’t you water it down. Don’t you make the Gospel of none effect. Don’t you give in to the twentieth-century absurd effeminate religion. He rescued us with the Blood which He took from the veins of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Well, then, again, I.want you to notice this: not only is it so precious, but it is so very effectual. The blood of no saint could do it. It is only the infinite Blood of God Himself. He came down on earth, and took His human nature of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that He might pour out every drop of Blood on Calvary for us. It is so effectual, nothing else can cleanse the heart and soul of men. All the waters of the sea, all the rivers of the land, they may cleanse the hands and the body, but nothing can cleanse the heart. The heart can be cleansed only by the Blood of God. “Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” The hands may be clean, the face may be clean, but the heart, the heart can only be cleansed by the Blood of Christ. Purge me with the hyssop dipped in blood and I shall be clean, Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”(Psalm 51) “Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own Blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father, to Him be glory, and dominion for ever and ever.” It is the eternal chorale of the saints.

And if it is so effectual, it is also so everlasting. When did He begin to love you? When do you think that He first loved you? When He saw you? When Jesus looked upon the multitude He had compassion on them. Is that the first time He ever saw them? When did He first begin to love you? From all eternity. He loved me before the foundations of the world were laid. There is an age of love! It is older than the hills; it is older than the sea, it is older than the worlds, it is older than the stars. He loved me from the very first. If you can believe that you can understand something of the joy of the saints. When God loves, He loves from all eternity. His love has no beginning, and no end. “Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end” - unto the end of what? Unto the end of all things - unto the end of all their sins; unto the end of all their sorrows; unto the end of everything, for ever and ever, world without end. When we speak of our God, we are always saying: “For ever and ever, world without end.” It means this: that God is from everlasting to everlasting, and His love is from everlasting to everlasting, “He loved us, and washed us in His Blood from our sins, to Him be glory for ever and ever.” It’s a beautiful text. It contains the heart blood of the Gospel. It contains that heart Blood from the heart of Christ that should run from your heart and tinge your fingers as you hold them up in prayer, so that your heart might swell and you might praise God, and bless His Holy Name for ever and ever.

Then, there are two things I want to say this morning on the Feast of All Saints.

1. Never you be ashamed of the Blood of Christ. I know it is not the popular religion of the day. They will call it medievalism, but you know as well as possible that the whole Bible from cover to cover is incarminated, reddened, with the Blood of Christ. Never you be ashamed of the Blood of Christ. You are Blood-bought Christians. It is the song of the redeemed, of the saints, and of all Christians on earth -  redeemed by His Blood. You never be ashamed of it. The uniform we Christians wear is scarlet. If you are ashamed of your uniform, for goodness’ sake, man, leave the service. Oh! never be ashamed of Christ! That is the song of the redeemed:

“To  Him be glory and praise for ever and ever, Amen.”

2. And the second thing is this: Let us all remember that our religion is the religion of a personal Saviour. It is not a system of ethics, it is not a scheme of philosophy, it is not a conclusion of science, but it is personal love to a personal living Saviour - that is our religion! Why, you can hear the voice of Christ off the altar to-day at Mass, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” “You” and “Me.” “Don’t you forget Me here at the Altar” our Lord says to you – “I will never forget you - don’t you ever forget Me.” “Do this in remembrance of Me.” It is a personal religion, by which we can say, “He loved me, and gave Himself for me” -  “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). And then, in all your experiences, however deep they may be, when you enter the shadow of death, and go through the agony of the dissolution of your body - you can say: “He loved me, and gave Himself for me.” “He loved me and washed me from my sins in His Blood, to Him be glory and dominion and praise henceforth and for ever, Amen.”


Thursday, October 30, 2014

An All Saints' Day Sermon



Coronation of the Virgin by Jacobello del Fiore c. 1400-1439

I have dug out an old sermon for you today. I preached it on All Saints’ Day, 1995, my first Patronal Festival as Rector of All Saints’ Wickham Terrace in Brisbane (Australia):

I remember years ago celebrating an early morning Sunday Mass in a tiny wooden church, three quarters of an hour’s drive from the rectory into the glare of the rising sun. There was no town around this church; it stood in the middle of a wind-break of gum trees on the edge of a paddock.

Although the little church was full at Christmas and Easter when the relatives and friends of the tiny handful of Anglicans in the district escaped the city, quite often its congregation numbered only three, including the priest.

Such was the case on the Sunday in question. There were two women present, sitting – as they often did – towards the back. I must admit that, feeling a bit flat, I somewhat perfunctorily began the old Mass from the English Missal. 

But when I came to the Sursum Corda and the well-known words of the Preface, 

“Therefore, with angels and archangels, 
and with all the company of heaven, 
we laud and magnify thy holy name, 
evermore praising thee and saying . . .”, 

something happened to me. 

It’s hard to explain, but for me it was as if I had seen those words for the very first time. Their truth hit me. A door seemed to open, a door into heaven. A great aspect of the Catholic Faith that I had known in my head for most of my life made its way deep into my heart as our little murmured Mass in that unlikely place became for me a real participation in the worship of heaven. And since then, I have found it just about impossible to go to the altar of God without an awareness of being enveloped by the “other” world (which, of course, in Jesus, is not really “other” at all). 

I agree with those who say that being a Christian is a special way of seeing things. We see the same things that others see, but we see them differently; we see their inner, sometimes hidden, significance. And so, for us, our local Christian gathering for worship is the earthly showing forth of the great heavenly gathering around the risen Lord. It is THE SAME GATHERING. In the words of Orthodox Christianity, the Christian liturgy is the “earthly heaven.”


OUTNUMBERED

The Letter to the Hebrews is built around the idea of Jesus our great High Priest gathering the liturgical assembly of earth and heaven in the worship of the Father. Do you remember that marvellous passage in which the writer says to those early Christians accustomed to meeting for the Eucharist on earth:

“What you have (already) come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. You have (already) come to God himself, the supreme Judge, and have (already) been placed with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect; and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . .” (Hebrews 12:22-24) 

And so, however big or small the congregation is at Mass, we are always infinitely outnumbered by the great company of heaven, the communion of love, into whose fellowship and worship we are drawn by Jesus our High Priest. Today - this morning in this Mass - he will part that Eucharistic veil again; he will open heaven’s door again, and we will find ourselves gazing out upon that world of the saints, the angels, our departed loved ones, that world which is the eternity of God’s love.


IN TIMES OF LONELINESS

Shortly after the experience I have just shared with you, I read F.B. Mackay’s biographical essay on Father Charles Lowder, a great priest of the Catholic revival in the Church of England, and who founded the parish of St Peter’s London Docks, as well as the Society of the Holy Cross. It describes the circumstances of Father Lowder’s first curacy in Somersetshire where he was remembered as 

“ . . . the kind young gentleman who used to come and see us very often, and who said the prayers in church every day by himself . . .

“Picture him, still the radiant boy, on a wet winter morning. He unlocks the damp, old country church, and enters the cold, musty place in the dark. He kindles a candle or two and puts on a surplice, the old square pews stretching around him into the darkness. The curate has tolled a few strokes on the bell, but no one responds. After a while, the fresh young voice breaks the hollow stillness, and the prayers are recited ‘to the four walls’, as the neighbours said, but really to the Most Holy Trinity, and with the angels, the archangels, and the whole company of heaven. Out of that acorn grew St Peter’s London Docks.” 

So many priests, evangelists, parish sisters, bush brothers, missionaries, and ordinary Christians trying to cope with the struggles of daily life and ministry, have been nourished in their loneliness and isolation - and strengthened in times of persecution - by that kind of lively sense of the communion of saints. It is my sincere belief that without it we live a shrunken Christian life.


A PROBLEM FOR SOME

And yet, since the upheavals of the sixteenth century many good and loyal Anglicans have had genuine difficulties with the saints, and especially with the idea of asking them to pray for us. Some of those difficulties may have been justifiable reactions to superstitious practices purportedly widespread in the medieval Church, but, sadly, there emerged a thinking, an attitude, a theology, and even a spirituality far worse than anything medieval - far worse than any “abuses” because it resulted in a truncated and less-than-Christian view of reality, and an iconoclasm that in England involved the mindless destruction of so many shrines, images and holy places, those visual reminders of the love and fellowship we share with ALL our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

It was sheer vandalism, equivalent to someone breaking into our home and destroying the photographs and mementos that have been handed down through the family and that help us feel connected to those who have gone before. It was a gigantic spiritual, emotional and psychological trauma from which English speaking Christianity has not recovered - even to this day -, despite the best efforts of the Catholic revival of the last 160 years to which this dear church bears witness. 

The result has been to find close to the heart of much Anglican worship a pinched, mean and miserable idea of the saints. They have been reduced to mere examples for us to follow. You know the kind of thing I mean . . . They led holy lives, and we should follow them, emulate them, and give thanks for them.


WHAT MATTERS MOST

Well, that’s not enough. It’s not what the saints WERE that matters; it’s WHAT THEY ARE NOW. And WHAT THEY ARE DOING NOW. It is their prayer for us, their friendship with us, their fellowship and communion with us now that is important - not a history lesson about past their earthly lives! They are our friends, our prayer partners, and the sense of worshipping with them as we are swept up into the Lord’s great Offering in the Mass charges the dreariest human life with significance and joy.


OUR DEPARTED LOVED ONES 

I also want to say - especially in the light of tomorrow being All Souls’ Day - that reductionist ideas of the relationship between life here and in the hereafter spill over into our thinking about death, and have a disastrous effect on what happens at funerals. So many modern clergy say that at funerals we can do nothing for the dead, that we can only do something for those left behind. Well, let me tell you, that’s not the Gospel; that’s not a belief in the resurrection of the dead or the communion of saints - the great community of love bound together in Jesus. That’s not the Catholic Faith. 

As your priest I DO something. I pray for the dead. I offer the one perfect sufficient Sacrifice of Jesus for them. I affirm that the Church of Jesus straddles the boundary between this world and the next, with all reality being joined together in him. So, just as I am sure that those who have died continue praying for their family and loved ones on earth, we continue our prayers for them as they experience healing and cleansing on their journey to the fulness of God’s glory.


A GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES

Let’s remember how that twelfth chapter of Hebrews begins: 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2). 

The picture here is of a race for which many spectators have gathered. They line the route so as to follow the contest. They have run the same race themselves, but now they are there to cheer us on. 

Of course, we think of the Old Testament heroes from the previous chapter, the key chapter in the Bible about faith; but we also think of those holy men and women who followed Jesus and now gaze on his glory in heaven. They were saved by his grace as we are. They responded to the same Word of God that we hear. They belonged to the Catholic Church as we do. They were nourished by the same sacraments that God has given us. They grew in prayer by the working of the same Holy Spirit who dwells within us. They sometimes struggled with doubts and fears, tragedies and failure, as we do. Some of them were gentle souls. Some were grumpy some of the time. But all of them ran the race in this world, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, growing in his love. And in that great cloud of witnesses they love us as brothers and sisters, they pray for us, they urge us on to victory. How natural and right it is for us to seek their intercession! 

If you have ever been involved in the theatre or in musical productions, you will know the world of difference that there is between rehearsing in an empty hall and playing to an enthusiastic full house. Well, in our worship, in our prayer, in our struggles, and in our triumphs, we are playing to a full house. Imagine what our lives and our parish would be like if we really believed that!


OUR DOORWAY INTO HEAVEN

Every Mass here on earth is an open door to heaven. Do you remember how St John the Divine, “in the Spirit” “on the Lord’s Day”, the day of the Eucharist, said, 

“After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door” (Revelation 4:1). 

We enter that door this morning. The Lord himself opens that door to enable us to share in his Offering. We gaze out into eternity, we see the throne. We see the four living creatures, the elders, the whole of creation praising and glorifying the Lamb that was slain. We are joined to the praise of that great company of the redeemed as they sing: 

“Worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honour and glory and blessing. And we hear every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and the sea and all that is in it saying: “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever.” (Revelation 5:12-13) 

We share in that great and glorious worship this morning. Let’s ask the Lord to open our eyes. 

Because he will!

I love the story, in the Second Book of Kings (2 Kings 6:15-17), of Elisha’s servant going out and seeing horses and chariots surrounding the city. Full of fear he ran inside and said, 

“Master, what shall we do?” Elisha said, “Fear not; for those who are for us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes that he may see.”

The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and gazing into the spiritual realm he saw the great company of the Lord of Hosts surrounding them.


WITH OUR EYES WIDE OPEN

With our eyes wide open this morning, we see Jesus, our Lord and Saviour who has redeemed us with his precious blood; we also see blessed Mary, the mother of Jesus and our mother too; Mary immaculately conceived, and gloriously assumed into heaven. Mary, who believed the Word of God, who said “yes” to God, who stood at the foot of her Son’s Cross, and who rejoiced at his resurrection; Mary, now higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, leading the praises of earth and heaven, but also our sister in Christ, supporting us with her love and prayers. We see the apostles, the evangelists, ancient saints like Ignatius, Agatha, Lucy, and Polycarp who faced martyrdom for Jesus. We see Benedict, Columba, Aidan, Bede, Dominic, Francis, Teresa, Clare and the other great religious saints. We see St John of the Cross and the other great directors of souls who still help us to cope with the ups and downs of the spiritual life. We see St Therese of Lisieux, St Maximilian Kolbe, Mother Maria Skobtsova, and the other saints of our own time. We see them, and so many others as well. 

With our eyes wide open this morning, we know that in the unity of the Holy Spirit this Eucharistic Mystery joins us to that 

“great multitude which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’” (Revelation 7:9-12)


+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.