The Church of the Ascension, Lavender Hill
Two days ago I had the honour of celebrating and preaching at the Church of the Ascension, Lavender Hill (just near Clapham Junction in south London). It’s always inspiring to visit that parish (which has never NOT had the full Catholic Faith!), whether on a Sunday or for a weekday Mass. Lots of people of all age groups, faithfully worshipping, growing in the Lord, and reaching out to others!
The Gospel for the day was the call of the first apostles and the beginning of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God in the exact place where the “Davidic kingdom” had begun to fall apart around 740BC at the hands of the Assyrians who invaded the area of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. We noted that between then and 720 the local inhabitants were marched off into captivity (see 2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chronicles 5:26). The complete crumbling of the Davidic kingdom took another century and a half - when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, and the remaining tribes exiled between 597 and 581.
Sunday’s first reading (Isaiah 8:23-9:3) foretold that the region first “brought into contempt”, would see the light of God’s salvation. Matthew’s Gospel emphasises Jesus fulfilling that prophecy near the start of his ministry. In other words, he announces the coming of God’s kingdom right where the Davidic kingdom had begun to crumble.
We also noted that the region was known as “Galilee of the Nations” or “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Vital trade routes passed through it, from Egypt and South Palestine to Damascus, as well as from the Mediterranean to the Far East. It had become a meeting place of cultures and peoples. There was a strong Gentile presence there, and Greek was widely spoken (as well as the indigenous Aramaic). Jesus begins preaching the coming of God’s Kingdom, not just where the old kingdom had begun to fall apart; but in a multi-ethnic region that was looked down on by the religious purists.
It is here that Jesus calls his first disciples, two fishermen who, he says, are to be “fishers of men” with a vocation to draw others into the kingdom. We considered how the whole Church is “apostolic”, not just because it is built on the original apostles and has the “apostolic succession’’ (vital as those things are), but because the WHOLE Church, the “many-membered Body of Christ”, is sent into the world to continue the ministry of Jesus drawing men and women into the kingdom of his love. That means each of us, in our “ordinary” lives.
In thinking about the context in which WE are called - a sort of “post-Christian" society still boasting that it doesn’t need Jesus - we finished with a quote from T.S. Eliot, who prophetically understood both the difficulty of our witness to the Gospel in a crumbling civilisation, and the importance of our being faithful, whatever the cost:
The Universal Church is today
more definitely set against the World
than at any time since Pagan Rome.
I do not mean that our times are particularly corrupt;
all times are corrupt.
In spite of certain local appearances,
Christianity is not and cannot be
within measurable time, ‘official’.
The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form
a civilized but non-Christian mentality.
The experiment will fail;
but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse;
meanwhile redeeming the time:
so that the Faith may be preserved alive
through the dark ages before us;
to renew and rebuild civilization,
and save the World from suicide.
- T. S. Eliot, from Thoughts After Lambeth (1931)