Saturday, February 25, 2017

Just a few days before the start of Lent



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, February 11, 2017

Lourdes and Our Lady's Message



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

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

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

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









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

(From the archive of his speeches and sermons 
as Archbishop of Canterbury HERE.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemass - a kaleidoscope of symbols



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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