Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday and our healing

LENT begins today, ideally a subdued day on which we all go to church. During today's Mass the priest marks our foreheads with blessed ashes, saying: "Remember O man that you are dust, and to dust you will return."

These words are from the Genesis account of our creation and fall. The ceremony reminds us of the mortality and frailty of human life. Vanity and foolish pride are silenced by that terrible formula: "to dust you will return."

We're not trying to be gloomy! We are just facing facts. In her wisdom, the Church does not pretend, or let us pretend that we do not die. During Lent the Church makes us face up to the dysfunctionality of our relationship with God, and on Ash Wednesday she forces us to come to terms with the fact of our mortality . . . that one day we will die. But she also points to what God, in his love and compassion, has done for us.

Through the sin and the gloom a light shines - the light of Jesus, who came to give us "life in all its fullness" - and the Church points to that light. The very ashes placed on our foreheads, a symbol of the dissolution and decay of our material bodies, are, in the Anglican tradition, imposed in the form of the life-giving Cross where life conquered death and love conquered hatred.

There IS a way out of the shadows - the way of the Cross and Resurrection, to which we journey during Lent, the "healing time" par excellence of the Christian year.

So, dust and ashes we are . . . but not merely dust and ashes! In Jesus we partake in that new creation into which we are being transformed.

May God the Father, in his mercy, grant all of you,
like the prodigal Son,
the joy of returning home. Amen.

May Christ, our model of prayer and life,
guide you through this Lent
to true conversion of heart. Amen.

May the Spirit of wisdom and strength
sustain you in your struggle against evil,
and enable you to celebrate with Christ the victory of Easter. Amen.

May the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Anglo-Catholic Kids' Confirmation Course

A few days ago I was asked if I knew of "a decent children's confirmation course for Anglo-Catholic parishes," and was able to say, "As it happens, I have just what you need", and sent the link. My correspondent was very pleased, but he complained that I had not widely advertised the course.

Well, that's because it was originally put together using a wide range of insights and resources, just as part of my own ministry. The first version was pretty rough . . . in black and white . . . when I was at Skipton in rural Victoria in the early 1980s. It was re-written in Horsham in the late 1980s, and again at All Saints' Wickham Terrace in Brisbane in the late 1990s. That edition was used by quite a number of clergy in Australia and further afield. 

In my parishes I would have the children after school one afternoon per week during school term from February to December (the Australian school year). First term was a "Life of Jesus" (so far unrevised) in which we snuck in things like creation, the angels, the Trinity etc. Attendance at the Holy Week liturgies was just at the time we were teaching about the dying and rising of the Lord. Then second, third and fourth term were spent working through the "Crash Course", with each unit spread over a few sessions, depending on the age of the children and their interests. (I have also found that the course works OK when preparing adults and children together as a family group in remote and isolated places.)

During the final term we would have a "Confirmation Camp", a blend of worship, teaching and fun, usually shared with another parish or two, and it was on that weekend that the children made their first confessions. 

On the Saturday of the weekend before the confirmation we would have a day out, with the morning spent at the Cathedral followed by lunch and ball games in a park, and then afternoon tea with Bishop Hazlewood at Bishopscourt! The Bishop would take the children into his chapel and pray for them. 

The emphasis of this course is to lead the children into a close friendship with the Lord.

The graphics are quite important, especially as discussion starters among the children.

The final revision of the "Crash Course" was in 2006, although I added some more graphics in 2011.

The easiest way of producing the course as a book that will be kept by children and families is:

2. Print the pages double-sided on 100gsm paper A5 size (just a bit thicker than ordinary 80gsm).

3. Go to a well equipped stationers (e.g. Rymans in the UK, Officeworks in Australia) and get them to spiral bind the pages with a thick card on the back, and a transparent stiff plastic cover sheet on the front.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Jesus the Bridegroom and the Wedding Feast, by Mark Shea

Mark P. Shea is a Washington-based writer, blogger, and speaker. Raised as an agnostic, he became a non-denominational Protestant Evangelical in 1979 before becoming a Roman Catholic in 1987. Mark has written a number of books and many articles in Catholic periodicals. The following is taken from an article he wrote for the National Catholic Reporter.

There’s a reason Jesus gave his first sign at the Marriage Feast at Cana.  His teaching is, in fact, suffused with nuptial imagery.  He calls himself the Bridegroom.  He tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet.  And where did he get this sort of thinking from?  Well, given that he was home schooled and taught to read the Scriptures by St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, we shouldn’t be too surprised that he and his Mother are pretty much on the same wavelength at the Wedding at Cana.  She is asking himself to reveal himself as the Messiah and he knows it (otherwise, his “my hour has not yet come” reply makes absolutely no sense). She is exactly the importunate supplicant that Jesus tells us he is looking for.  She persists, and he works the sign - a sign that points forward to the Eucharist banquet and ultimately to Heaven.

If you don’t get the point, John is happy to drive it home for you. Just turn the page on his gospel and you find John the Baptist telling us who the Bridegroom is:

He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. (John 3:29)

This is not John playing at some pseudo-Dan Brown game and hinting that Jesus was the guy getting married in the previous chapter.  It is rather the commentary on the meaning, not only of the wedding at Cana, but of every wedding (and especially every wedding between baptized Christians): namely, that our earthly experience of marriage points us to the True Marriage between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church.  

That’s why Paul will write:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)

And it is why John will, in his Revelation, tell us:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)

Jesus had learned well from his home-schooling mother and father that Isaiah had declared the word of the Lord:

For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:5-8)

And so it was only natural for Christ to offer a sign which linked the the Eucharist to a wedding banquet.  That’s why the Church speaks of it as “the Paschal Banquet.”  For the Host is the Host  And He is so profligate in His affections that He throws the door wide to everybody, especially to those who cannot repay Him (i.e., every last one of us).  

That why he tells us;

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. (Luke 14:12)

We easily forget this and can fall prey to the game of “Squint at the People Down the Pew” in the effort to see if they are being as reverent as we are.  It is good to be reverent, of course.  But the moment we turn our reverence into a bargaining chip at the Banquet (“I thank you O Lord that I am not like other people or even like that guy over there who wears tacky clothes, or didn’t receive the Cup…”) is the moment we have taken our minds off God and begun to present our superior wonderfulness to Him rather than welcome those who do not repay us by conforming to what we think they should be doing.  Does this mean we should encourage irreverent Masses?  Of course not.  But it does mean that we should encourage charity even when people don’t measure up to our standards.  If the Host welcomes them, so should we.

One of the consequences of the fact that the Eucharist is a wedding banquet is, as the old saying goes, “You can pick your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives”.  The communion of Peter the Rock is a gigantic rock polisher.  We all tumble around in it, buffing the edges off one another until we become smooth.  We go to Mass with all sorts of people who cannot (or will not) give us payment on our demands that they conform to our notion of how a good Catholic ought to look, sound and smell.  And so we grow in charity even as others grow in charity over our equally irritating traits.  And so, as we rub shoulders at the Wedding Banquet with the odd relatives of the Bride and Groom, we learn the reality that the good news about the Catholic Church is that it’s like a big family—and the bad news about the Catholic Church is that it’s like a big family.

If our earthly perspective were all we had to go on, that could be grim tidings indeed, depending on our experience of family.  But our earthly perspective is not all we have to go on.  That why Paul tells us:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes in glory.  That means that we participate in his death and resurrection and that this participation is moving forward toward consummation on That Day when he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  We aren’t just spinning our wheels here, playing out an endless round of dumb family quarrels, habits of sin, and the same old same old.

Rather, the Eucharist is the Pledge of the Glory to Come because it is the glory to come.  The Eucharist is Jesus.  What we shall receive in Heaven will be full participation, not in something utterly different, but in the very same Jesus we receive in the Eucharist  To be sure, in one sense, everything will be different.  Like the Risen Christ, the whole universe will be transfigured and we might not recognize the old girl at first  But when our eyes adjust to the light and we look again we will recognize that this place is Home, the place we’ve been looking for all our lives.  And we will recognize that it has been among us, even on earth, because the same Jesus we know in the Eucharist is the Jesus who will welcome us to the Great and Ultimate Marriage Banquet at which He presides and offers Himself to us all.

That’s why the charity we are slowly learning to show to our exasperating brother in Christ matters.  Because as C.S. Lewis says:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Jesus truly present . . . where should the Tabernacle be?


Devotion to Jesus, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, is common enough among Anglicans these days. Over many years, however, I have observed that this devotion tends not to exist among “rank and file” worshippers where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved out of sight in a side chapel. Indeed, in that scenario, prayer to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament becomes the habit of the devout few rather than of the many.

On his excellent blog, Father John Hunwicke reminds us of Eric Mascall’s disquiet over the same phenomenon. He quotes from Mascall’s Corpus Christi: Essays on the Church and the Eucharist (1965 ed). Thankfully, after much experimentation – and even architectural vandalism - there is a movement in Anglican and Roman Catholic circles to restore the centrality of the tabernacle. If any readers have doubts about this, I urge you to think about the passage from Dr Mascall:   

The fundamental facts about the Blessed Sacrament are its publicity and its centrality. It is not a secret treasure, hidden away in a corner to be the object of devotion of the abnormally pious; it is the gift of God to his body the Church. The method of reservation which is advocated by many - though fortunately a diminishing number - of our [Anglican] bishops . . . whereby the Consecrated Elements are placed in a safe in the church wall and removed from association with the altar, seems calculated to encourage almost every wrong view of the reserved Sacrament that is conceivable. Could anything be more likely to detach the reserved Sacrament from its organic connection with the Church’s Liturgy than the provision that the place of reservation ‘shall not be immediately behind or above a Holy Table’?. . . It is therefore, I would suggest, most desirable that the Blessed Sacrament should normally be reserved in as central a place as possible, upon the high altar of the church, and that regularly some form of public devotion to the Eucharistic Presence should be held, if possible when the main body of the congregation is assembled. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Lord's Baptism, Theophany - insights from the East

Vasili Nesterenko. Baptism of our Lord. Christ the Saviour Cathedral (Moscow). 2000

The following is a slight adaptation of a passage from ”A Handbook for Church Servers”, by Sergei V. Bulgakov, 1871-1944. (Go HERE for Rowan Williams' talk on Bulgakov's life.)

In the Eastern Church this feast is called “Theophany” (“revelation of God”) because during the Baptism of the Lord the Divine All-Holy Trinity was revealed: God the Father spoke from heaven about the Son, the Son of God was baptised by John and was witnessed by God the Father, and the Holy Spirit descended on the Son in the form of a dove. This explanation of the feast is given by the Holy Church in its hymn: “When thou, O Lord, wast baptised in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to thee, calling thee his beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of his word. O Christ our God, who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to thee.”

Since ancient times this feast also was known as the “Day of Illumination” and “the Feast of Lights”, because God is the Light and reveals himself to illumine “those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death” (Matthew 4:16), and to save according to grace, who has now been revealed by the appearing of our Saviour” (2 Timothy 1:9-10), and because on the Eve of Theophany it was the custom to baptise the catechumens . . . during which many lamps are lit.

Besides this, the ancient Church on this day also remembered other events in which the divine worthiness and representation of Jesus Christ was expressed both during his birth, and during his introduction to preach in public after baptism: 

1) The worship of the Magi as a revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world by means of a wonderful star from this commemoration the very feast of Epiphany in the Western Church received the name of the Feast of the Three Kings; in the Eastern Church though it was part of the feast, it was not expressed in the character of the feast; 

2) The manifestation of the divine power of Jesus Christ in his first miracle at the marriage in Cana of Galilee when the Lord “created the beginning of signs”; and 

3) (in the African Church) The appearance of the divine power in Jesus Christ in the wonderful feeding of the more than 5000 persons by with five loaves of bread in the desert . . .

According to the teaching of St John of Damascus, the Lord was baptized, not because he himself needed cleansing, but rather, having taken our cleansing upon himself, to destroy the heads of the serpents in the water,  “to bury human sin through water and all of the old Adam, to fulfill the law, to reveal the mystery of the Trinity and, finally, to consecrate ‘the essence of water’ and to grant us a paradigm and an example of baptism . . . it inspires in us feelings of boundless gratitude to the Enlightener and the Cleanser of our sinful nature; it teaches that our purification and salvation from sin is only by the power of grace of the Holy Spirit; it specifies the necessity of the worthy use the gifts of the grace of baptism and the protection in purity of those precious garments of which we are reminded on the feast of the Baptism by the words: ‘As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ’ (Galatians 3:27); and it commands us towards the purification of our souls and hearts in order to be worthy of the blessed life.”

The Holy Spirit was revealed as a dove because this image most resembled both the Holy Spirit and Christ the Lord. According to the teaching of St. John Chrysostom, “the dove is a gentle and pure being and like the Holy Spirit is a spirit of meekness, that He also was revealed with the same image”; “in the form of a dove the Spirit descended as the depiction of Christ’s humanity as pure, sinless and true”. 

According to the explanation of Cyril of Jerusalem, “as then during Noah’s time the dove announced the end of the flood bringing an olive branch, and now the Holy Spirit as a dove announces the remission of sins; there, an olive branch, here, the mercy of our God.”

Another of the hymns chanted on this Feast in the Eastern Church links the Lord’s consecration of the baptismal stream with our own baptism: “The River Jordan receded of old by the mantle of Elisha when Elijah ascended into heaven; and the water was separated to this side and that, the wet element turning into a dry path for him, being truly a symbol of Baptism, by which we cross the path of transient age. Christ appeared in the Jordan to sanctify its waters.”

Monday, January 4, 2016

Epiphany - thoughts of Brother Alois of Taizé

The following is a meditation Brother Alois of Taizé wrote in 2009
for the newspaper "La Croix."

Christmas sets before us a humble event that took place one day in Bethlehem. Epiphany shows us that this event has a universal and even a cosmic dimension. The Wise Men are guided by a star and represent all peoples, all cultures.

Today we would like to understand how the light of Christ can enlighten all people. To achieve this, like the Wise Men we must leave our habits and some of our beliefs behind. We must leave ourselves behind, bending down and entering the stable. Any other attitude would cause us to miss the God who humbled himself to the point of being born in a hidden place.

Let us spend time with them. May our prayer, before being petition, be, like theirs, adoration. When we look towards the light of Christ, it gradually becomes an inward light and the mystery of Christ becomes the mystery of our own lives as well.

The spirit of adoration is not easy in a world where immediate results matter so much, where the mere thought of a long process of maturation arouses impatience. As for the Wise Men, a journey is necessary to allow us simply to remain in the presence of God. In long silences where nothing seems to happen, God is at work in us, without our knowing how.

[Our] stained-glass window of the Epiphany shows the Wise Men adoring the Child. Let us look at that child to understand who God is. Let us consider the extreme humility of God. Let us see that, as a poor child, he comes to beg for our love! And let us see too that he restores human dignity to those who have lost it.

To adore means to discern the presence of God. God is present in his Word (at the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome, the "sacramental" character of the Bible was recalled). God is present in the Eucharist. Christians of the East know that icons also lead us into communion with God. God is present in the humble events of our lives. And the Gospel insists: God lets himself be found among the poorest of the poor.

Adoration means turning away from ourselves to look towards God. If our own concerns take up all the room, how can the obstacles that cover over the source of life set within us by God be removed?

The Wise Men express their adoration by an offering. The prayer of adoration leads us to offer the best of ourselves to God and to others. It leads us to make our life a gift for those who are entrusted to us.

It is true that some suffer too much and no longer have the strength to worship God. We must have respect and compassion without limits for such people. But if the Gospel asks us to look beyond ourselves, it is in order to keep hope alive, even for those who are unable to hope any longer.

Christians of the East may feel an attitude of adoration before the mystery of God more spontaneously than Westerners do. I had that experience recently. In early December, the death of the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, touched our hearts. I had met him, and he told me he wanted to deepen cooperation with Taizé. I went to his funeral with two of my brothers.

During the celebrations in Moscow, I said to myself: we have such a need to open ourselves to the treasures bequeathed to Eastern Christianity. One of the secrets of the soul of Eastern Christians lies in a prayer of adoration where God's goodness becomes tangible. This prayer allows access to the mysteries of the faith: the incarnation of Christ, his resurrection, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. And it is from these mysteries that Christians of the East draw a sense of the greatness of the human being. God became man so that humanity might participate in his divinity; every human being is called to be transfigured with Christ already here on earth.

Could our liturgies, without in any way neglecting the communal dimension, lead to more adoration, to inwardness, to a personal communion with God?

In the East, the Epiphany is called Theophany, "appearance of God." The liturgical tradition links the story of the Wise Men, the baptism of Jesus and the water changed into wine at Cana, since they are, at the beginning of the Gospels, three moments when the secret of Christ is revealed: letting the compassion of God shine forth in our humanity.

In coming to earth, Jesus manifested God's love for all people, for all nations. He inscribed God's "yes" in the depths of the human condition. God welcomes all of us just as we are, with what is good, but also with our shadows, and even our defects. We learn to accept that we are poor. And from that moment on, we cannot despair either of the world or of ourselves.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"Written in Red" - Father Alexander Tefft's homily

Seasoned readers of this blog know that every now and then I share with you a homily of Father Alexander Tefft, who I think is one of the truly great preachers of our age. Father Alexander serves the Antiochian Orthodox Parish of Saint Botolph, London, U.K., (the parish founded by the late Father Michael Harper). His homilies are uniquely powerful, both in their expression and their spiritual impact. Father Alexander comes from Toronto, Canada, and has lived in London for over ten years. He is the Assistant to the Dean of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of the British Isles and Ireland, the Theological Advisor to its Ordination Committee, and Chaplain of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. 

WRITTEN IN RED (based on Matthew 2.13-23 & 21.33-42) was preached last Sunday, 27th December, 2015

This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance (Matthew 21.38).

Red on gold, gold on white. Silver tinsel strews the floor. Slipping over scraps of tartan red, burnt gold, and soiled white wrapping, a Brussels sprout boiled spongy-grey slides into a pile of discarded cards. Wishbone of a turkey carcass, paper-dry glob of gristle. A chunk of lard and a crushed cranberry cling to cracked glass. Shard from a star, half-broken, swept from the floor. Placed wobbling, atop a tree. ‘Never mind’, you say. Setting red ink to gold bond. ‘Thanks ever so much, Olivia, for the lovely hyacinth blue lip gloss’. Never mind the tear in her little girl’s eye, her mother placing her in front of the dinner guests: ‘Bad girl, a bad, bad girl. No gifts from Father Christmas this year’. Behind her, barely visible, shadow of a small boy’s face. All caked with dirt. ‘Thank you, so much, dear Nigel, for the Pure Chronos DAB digital radio’. Never mind the fluffy bundle out by the bin. A puppy’s neck twisted, curly hairs wet with leaves and mud. A lesson to teach him to be good. Almost invisible, an armless figure, neck twisted, overshadows the sobbing boy. Gold ink on bond, you scribble a third note. ‘Dear Jack, many thanks for the Max Mara silk mikado dress’. Never mind that twelve year old girl, wriggling under his gropings below the mistletoe. Shadow of a child, spine snapped, resting a tiny hand on her shoulder. ‘Never mind. Never mind’, you repeat, straining to read red letters on white. Shut your eyes. It will all go away.

Grinding your teeth, stopping your ears, you force a chilly grin across a stiff jaw. ‘Christmas peace and joy, joy and peace. Our inheritance. Above all, at Christmastime. If to keep that one must sometimes look away …’ But for every tear from every tortured child ignored …

Out of a memory repressed rises another child’s shadow. Above all, at Christmastime.

What is Christmas to you? Tinsel and tassels, punch and pine? No winter’s wild laments, no cruel frost blazing its trail across the night sky. Leaving the moon fiery clear. Too clear. Our customary Christmas, you ponder, our inheritance. A soft, misty vapour hanging heavy over a village green. Creeping cosy-quiet into the nooks and crannies of an old stone church in the square. Snowy surplice atop a red cassock, a boy soprano’s note wafts woolly on the breeze … and you are in Royal David’s City. What do you see? Horse-and-cart, clambering over the bridge, waving cheerfully to the blue-eyed boy in the stable? On the hill, a legionary draws a short sword. First one, then another. Soon, dark-eyed women run in from the fields around Bethlehem. Bundles in arms. Hidden in the earthenware jar, a two year old’s face caked in dirt. A newborn’s neck twisted, curly hair wet with rain leaves and mud. Tossed off a rooftop, a spine soft and snapped. The small dimpled body left bleeding, arms pruned at the root. The women bite at soldiers’ wrists … and blades rise up from cradles, wet with blood. Do you see? Or look away? Stop your ears, shut your eyes. Hum a harmonious carol to your anaesthetised heart. Then every child shamed, scarred, abused politely disappears.

Only Rachel still weeps for her children. Every child-martyr, reaching out its hands to you.

Slipping over scraps of discarded dogmas, paper-dry sermons on how to ‘be good’, and the red-white banners at the country Christmas fair, a Christianity boiled spongy-grey slides into oblivion. A gospel of tinsel and trivia, of discretion – that is, denial. Eyes foggy in the mists of candles can make out the holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Not the Child who stands evergreen amid the biting snow. Ears dulled by the cackle of carollers only hear the gossip of the dinner guests. Not a child’s pitiful cry. Heard by the Child in the cave. The Heir himself, as helpless as they. He who is born at this time to claim his inheritance …

Not in glittering gold or wondrous white – but in the red of a martyr’s blood.

Blood rushing, hearts pounding, they hear him out. Crafty, cold eye, chilly grin of irony. Grey beards of the synagogue, soiled with gristle and gossip. When they argue, mists of memory rise up from vapid ponds. Evasive answers, vain formulas well-rehearsed. When he argues, fire burns bright. Too bright. Bright as a seraph’s wings. Paid witnesses testify: ‘This young man speaks against the custom of our forefathers, our inheritance!’ ‘Brethren and fathers’, says the young man dressed in white. ‘Did not Abraham leave the old customs behind and go to a land of new promise? Have you kept the promise? When the Transcendent sent us prophets to challenge you, did you not beat one, kill another, stone a third? And when God sent his Heir, did you not kill him – and claim his inheritance? You stiff-necked, stiff-jawed, grinning cowards, how long will you look away?’ Grinding teeth, stopping up ears (as pious folk are wont to do), one picks up a rock. One, then another. Under a hail of stones, fervent Stephen shouts: ‘I see the heavens opening and at the right hand of God, the Son of Man!’ As the last stone cracks his brow, he raises his eyes. ‘Lord Jesus’, the dying martyr gasps, ‘lay not this terrible sin against them’. His last gaze fixes on the ringleader, that young rabbi from Tarsus, whose eyes shine furious and confused … but never look away.

A fierce young fanatic named Saul. Who will change his name. And his life.

Beloved in Christ: setting red ink to gold as you sign a thank you note, mutter your mindless ‘never mind’ – if the only peace that you seek is old Herod’s peace. Purchased at the price of a cradle, dripping with milk and blood. Mumble ‘never mind’ – if the only joy that you dare to expect is chilly nostalgia and icy denial. Shut your eyes and block your ears – if Christmas means no more than hiding from whatever pinches a nerve or pierces a heart. But if a Child, born in the cave of his death, is Life himself …

Then dance with the martyrs on the Feast of Stephen.

Bright moon, cruel frost, and winter’s rage will not freeze your blood, if your heart can break with every child tortured and every martyr crowned. The Dayspring from on high dawns, cloudless and clear. If red blood spilt for the sake of a newborn Child waters the gardens of our God. A closed ear cannot hear the crackle of your fiery footprints in the white. A closed eye cannot make out the word ‘Peace’, inscribed on spotless ice and crisp, clean snow.

Little wonder. It is written in red.

Holy First Martyr Stephen and all ye innocent children of Bethlehem, pray to God for us!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The blood that flowed in Canterbury

The Assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, 1170
Hulton Archive/Getty Images Credit

It was July 1998, and I was one of two Australians on the international Forward in Faith team working on the edge of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. One of the highlights of the month for me was being able to experience a wonderful production of T.S. Eliot's play, MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, by "Group 81" (a Canterbury based theatre company). In the context of the emotional and spiritual highs and lows of the Lambeth Conference itself, reflecting (even then) the greatly troubled Anglican world, it is difficult to overstate the impact of "Murder in the Cathedral" on many of us, especially given the venue - the Crypt of the Cathedral itself!

Thomas Becket was born in London, studied in Paris, and became Chancellor to the King. When he was chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 he underwent a conversion experience and from being "a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds" became a true "shepherd of souls." He absorbed himself in the duties of his new office, even defending the Church's rights against Henry II. For this he was exiled to France for six years. Upon his return he endured many trials and was murdered by command of the King.

Go HERE for a more detailed outline of St Thomas Becket’s story.

The following is from T.S. Eliot's play. It is the Christmas Day sermon preached by Becket the day before his martyrdom. Eliot at his best:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate on the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men"; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overcome by mourning or mourning will be cast out by joy; so that it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. But think for a while on the meaning of this word "peace." Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples: "My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you." Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember that He said also, "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you." So then, He gave to his disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The blood that flowed in Bethlehem

The day after Christmas Day is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, reminding us that following Jesus has meant sacrifice and pain for many. Today, however, contrasts even more with the joy of Christmas, for we are confronted with the blood flowing in the streets of Bethlehem as all the boys under two years of age were slaughtered by order of Herod the Great, the Governor of Galilee. History tells us that he was an extremely cruel man in a cruel age. In fact, he killed a number of his wives and sons when he thought they were plotting against him. Every challenge to his power was met with a swift and final response. Threatened by the birth of a king prophesied in the Jewish scriptures, Herod - enraged by the “betrayal” of the Magi - ordered the killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age and younger. (As Bethlehem was a small town, it is often thought that there would have been about 25 of them.)

Christians have always considered these baby boys to be martyrs. Today we are reminded of just how routine martyrdom has been in different periods of Church history, and also how many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the trouble-spots of the world face the very real prospect of martyrdom today. May the lives WE live, the choices WE make, as well as the outward behaviour of our Churches in relation to the values of the world, not betray all those who have given their lives as martyrs for the Gospel and the Faith once delivered to the Saints. 

O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed
and proclaimed on this day,
not by speaking but by dying,
grant, we pray,
that the faith in you which we confess with our lips
may also speak through our manner of life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (Today's Collect)

Here is a meditation on today’s commemoration by scientist/ priest John Polkinghorne, from his book Living with Hope: a Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Three days after the joyous Feast of Christmas comes the sad remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered at the command of the ruthless King Herod as he sought to protect himself from any threat to the tenure of his throne. If Jesus had not been born, and if the magi had not called in at Jerusalem in the course of their search for him, naively enquiring where the new King of the Jews had been born, those children would have lived on into adult life. The adoration of the magi and the slaughter of the innocents are opposite sides of the same coin. Those mothers weeping in Bethlehem are the shadow side of the Christmas story.

Holy Innocents Day sets before us, with peculiar intensity and sharpness, the strange character of this present world, with its mixture of joy and sorrow, promise and pain. We are glad indeed that the Christ child was born, but why did it have to be at the cost of the deaths of his tiny contemporaries? Why did God not intervene to stop the massacre of the innocents? Come to that, why did God not intervene to stop Auschwitz? One of the saddest sights of that terrible place is a room where the Nazi guards piled up shoes taken from those who were about to enter the gas chambers. Thousands of pairs are stacked there, each one representing some person whose life was untimely destroyed. Many of those shoes are children’s shoes.

Before the mystery of suffering we necessarily fall silent. We can understand that God has given humans free will and that this means that it can be, and it is, exercised in ways that are totally contrary to the divine purpose. But the bitterness of suffering is too great to be assuaged by logical arguments of this kind, true though they are in their own way. If there is to be a theological response to the problem of suffering, it has to lie much deeper than that. I believe that the Christian response does indeed lie very deep, for it speaks of a God who is not simply a compassionate spectator of the travail of creation but One who, in the cross of Christ, has actually, participated in that suffering. God is truly a fellow sufferer with creation, for the Christian God is the crucified God. The life of the baby Jesus was saved by the flight into Egypt, but there was a cup waiting, prepared for him to drink, and when the time came, he drained it to the dregs.

God of love, whose compassion never fails; we bring before thee the troubles and perils of peoples and nations, the sighing of prisoners and captives, the sorrows of the bereaved. the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the despondency of the weary, the failing powers of the aged. 0 Lord, draw near to each; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(St Anselm)

And here, from today’s Office of Readings, is part of a sermon preached by St Quodvultdeus (died c. 450) a bishop of Carthage who had been taught by St Augustine of Hippo, and to whom St Augustine dedicated some of his writings. Quodvultdeus knew what it was to suffer for the Lord. He was exiled when Carthage was captured by the Arians. He and the bulk of his priests were loaded onto leaky, unseaworthy ships, and taken to Naples in Italy (c. 439), from where he then exercised a ministry of teaching and spiritual direction.

A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.

Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.

You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.

Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation.

But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Was there a baby in the manger?

In light of a Church of England survey that found that as many as 4 in 10 British people don’t believe Jesus was a real person, Australian historian John Dickson explains why the academy is in no such doubt that Jesus existed. With his colleagues at the Centre for Public Christianity (in Sydney), Simon Smart and Justine Toh, he also discusses the meaning and significance of the Christmas story today – in other words, why it absolutely matters that there was a baby in the manger.

This audio is from the Website of the Centre for Public Christianity which you can visit HERE.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O EMMANUEL

Isaiah 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

This is the old chant for "O Emmanuel". You can listen to it HERE.

our King and Lawgiver, 
the Desire of all nations and their Saviour: 
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; Luke 1:57-66

In the Bible people's names are very important. Names do not merely identify someone in a crowd. Biblical names tell us something about who that person is. "Isaac" means "he laughs"; the name "Isaac" echoes the laughter of Abraham and Sarah when they're told that the aged Sarah will have a child. The name "Israel" means "one who strives with God", and is given to Jacob after his night of wrestling with God. Jesus gives Simon a new name - "Peter", which means "Rock", a name as solid as the foundation of his confession of Jesus as the Messiah.

Today, Zechariah wants to name his son "John". The trouble is that Zechariah ignores the custom of naming a child after the father or grandfather. Zechariah was being obedient to the angel's message. However, the family responds in a way that any of us might: "We've never done it that way before."

Naming the child "John" points to the new thing that God is doing. "John" means "The Lord shows favour." As Zechariah sings in his canticle, a new day dawns. The Lord shows favour to all people. John will declare a new day dawning in Jesus Christ. 

"We've never done it that way before" is precisely the point. As we move forward trusting in God, we, too, will see and experience new things in our lives by his grace.

Zechariah's song: 

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel : 
for he hath visited and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us : 
in the house of his servant David; 
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets : 
which have been since the world began; 
That we should be saved from our enemies : 
and from the hands of all that hate us. 
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers : 
and to remember his holy Covenant; 
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham : 
that he would give us; 
That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies : 
might serve him without fear; 
In holiness and righteousness before him : 
all the days of our life. 
And thou, Child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; 
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people : 
for the remission of their sins, 
Through the tender mercy of our God : 
whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; 
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death : 
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O REX GENTIUM

Isaiah 9:7
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 2:4
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

This is the old chant for "O Rex". You can listen to it HERE.

thou for whom they long, 
the Cornerstone that makest them both one: 
Come and save thy creatures 
whom thou didst fashion from the dust of the earth.

1 Samuel 1:24-28; 2:1,4-8; Luke 1:46-56

Today's Gospel is the response Mary made to Elizabeth's acknowledgment of her blessedness. Mary's words are infused with expressions found in other Biblical canticles and songs which she clearly knew off by heart. On her lips, however, the words are imbued with a far deeper meaning than they had in the Old Testament. Mary's rejoicing begins with the stark acknowledgment that she is "saved by grace" ("my spirit hath rejoiced in God MY Saviour"). Incidentally, this is one of the truths that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seeks to guard. 

In union with Mary and the Church down through the ages we pray her song, "the Magnificat" every day at Evensong (or "Vespers"). The Church makes these words her own, singing exuberantly the song of Mary's rejoicing, and, incidentally, reminding ourselves that our only hope of salvation is God's grace. 

With Mary - who is often said to have "foreshadowed" the Church - we bless and thank God for his loving-kindness and grace, and all the other blessing he has given us.

Mary is struck by her own lowliness before the immensity of God's power and greatness, for he has worked wonders. As we sing her song, we, too, will be humbled by that same power and greatness; most of all we will be smitten by his love. 

We are approaching the end of Advent. Today Mary shows us the way. Mulling over her prayer in faith, humility and love, and making it our own by faith, will help us to be ready for the coming of Jesus.

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.