Thursday, December 14, 2017

St John of the Cross - Poet of God's Love

Today the Church gives thanks to the Lord for Juan de Yepes, known to us as St John of the Cross, who was born in Spain in 1542. From the beginning of his life he understood the mystery of love and sacrifice. His father, from a wealthy Spanish family, was disowned and disinherited when he married the daughter of a poor weaver. Then, just after John was born his father died. John’s mother, utterly destitute, managed to keep her homeless family together as they wandered in search of work. When he was fourteen, John got a job in a hospital, looking after patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness.

So, it was in the context of poverty and suffering that he sought to know God. 

In 1563 John took the habit of the Carmelite friars in Medina. The following year he was professed and went to the University in Salamanca to study arts and theology. In 1567 he was ordained to the priesthood, and in the same year Teresa of Avila asked him to help her Reform movement. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer. 

But many Carmelites and their sympathisers felt threatened by the Reform, and on 2nd December 1577 some members of John’s own order kidnapped him. At the Toledo priory he was locked in a cell six feet wide and ten feet long for nine months, with no light except that which filtered through a slit high up in the wall. During those months of darkness, John could have become bitter, vengeful, or filled with despair at the rejection of his ministry. But instead, he remained open to God, knowing that there was not a prison anywhere that could separate him from God’s love. During this time he had many experiences and encounters with the Lord in prayer. He described them in his poetry. He later forgave those who had imprisoned him, saying, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” 

After nine months, in 1578, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only the spiritual poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets. With no idea where he was, he followed a dog to civilization. He hid from pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. He went to southern Spain to join the reformed Carmelites, and devoted his life to helping people discover the transformative power of God’s love. 

The best known of his books are: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul and A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ. He is regarded as a great spiritual guide in the Catholic tradition, understanding the reality of God's love in the human experience of light as well as darkness. He is also regarded as a significant Spanish poet. 

St John of the Cross died at the age of 49 on 14th December 1591 at Ubeda as he was preparing for assignment to Mexico. He was canonised in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII, and is a Doctor of the Church.

Here are a few of his sayings:

“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” (From The Dark Night of the Soul)

“In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

“It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 110)

“In tribulation immediately draw near to God with confidence, and you will receive strength, enlightenment, and instruction.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest centre! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life. 

O lamps of fire!
in whose splendours
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.

How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love. 

My Beloved is like the mountains.
Like the lonely valleys full of woods
The strange islands
The rivers with their sound
The whisper of the lovely air!

The night, appeased and hushed
About the rising of the dawn
The music stilled
The sounding solitude
The supper that rebuilds my life.
And brings me love.

Our bed of flowers
Surrounded by the lions’ dens
Makes us a purple tent,
Is built of peace.
Our bed is crowned with a thousand shields of gold!

Fast-flying birds
Lions, harts and leaping does*
Mountains, banks and vales
Streams, breezes, heats of day
And terrors watching in the night:

By the sweet lyres and by the siren’s song
I conjure you: let angers end!
And do not touch the wall

But let the bride be safe: let her sleep on!

Go HERE to read the entire poem.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

St Lucy's Day

Festa di S. Lucia

Today the Church honours St Lucy. She was a young virgin martyr in Syracuse, Sicily, born in 283 A.D. and put to death in 304, during the  Diocletian  persecution.  She was, according to legend, tortured by eye-gouging and so is the patron saint of all those who suffer with eye trouble or blindness. Excavation in Syracuse revealed a tomb dating to the 4th century with an inscription that it belonged to St Lucy. (Her relics were removed hundreds of years after her death and are believed now to be in Venice). 

Beyond this, little factual information is known about St Lucy. Her name, “Lucia” in Italian, is seems to be derived from the Latin “Lux”, or “light.” The earliest known written information about her story is from the late 400s Acts of the Martyrs, which indicates that St Lucy was already venerated by that time. By the 6th century, legends about her had spread throughout Italy and other parts of Europe. Although the stories vary, their common theme is that St Lucy dedicated herself to Christ and to serving the poor, which angered the non-Christian man to whom she was betrothed. He denounced her as a Christian to the authorities, who then attempted first to drag her to a brothel and then, when they could not physically move her, to burn her – which was also a failure. Ultimately, they ended St Lucy’s life with a dagger or sword to her throat.

It is also said that St Lucy, in the darkness of night, gave wheat and bread to the poor and house-bound, even to Christians staying in the catacombs. She would carry a lamp or wear a crown of candles to light her way. Hence the lamp and wreath of candles among the her symbols. 

One thing is certain. St Lucy gave her life to the Lord and and his people. Her courage and devotion were acclaimed in the early Church, and she is one of the women saints in the old Roman Canon of the Mass.

Here is Thomas Merton’s poem for St Lucy’s Day:

Lucy, whose day is in our darkest season,
(Although your name is full of light,)
We walkers in the murk and rain and flesh and sense,
Lost in the midnight of our dead world’s winter solstice
Look for the fogs to open on your friendly star.

We have long since cut down the summer of our history;
Our cheerful towns have all gone out like fireflies in October.
The fields are flooded and the vines are bare:
How have our long days dwindled, and now the world is frozen!

Locked in the cold jails of our stubborn will,
Oh, hear the shovels growling in the gravel.
This is the way they’ll make our beds forever,
Ours, whose Decembers have put out the sun:
Doors of whose souls are shut against the summertime!

Martyr, whose short day sees our winter and our Calvary,
Show us some light, who seem forsaken by the sky;
We have so dwelt in darkness that our eyes are screened
and dim,
And all but blinded by the weakest ray.

Hallow the vespers and December of our life, O
martyred Lucy:
Console our solstice with your friendly day.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

St Ambrose and the Call of God - a sermon by Fr Alexander Men (1935-1990)

Today is when the Church commemorates the great Bishop, St Ambrose of Milan. So, I share with you a sermon on him preached by Father Alexander Men (1935-1990) an influential parish priest and evangelist in Russia who wrote, lectured widely, and eventually appeared on radio and television, becoming a nationally known figure. He started the first Russian Sunday-school as soon as the communist persecution ceased, established a university, made a film, and started volunteer work at a children’s hospital. He personally baptized thousands, and though he had a huge following of ordinary people he was called “the apostle to the intellectuals.”

He was assassinated in 1990.

You can go to a website dedicated to him HERE. Of particular note is the article by Irina Yaziova We are Moving into an Age of Love summarising his life and work.

Here is Father Men's sermon on St Ambrose of Milan, taken from the Russian Orthodox website 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

In earlier times it was customary that a bishop would be chosen for his ministry by his own flock, by the people of the Church themselves, and only thereafter would his consecration – that is, his ordination – take place in church.

Once in ancient Italy, in the city of Milan – which was then called Mediolanum ­– the head of the local Church died and elections for a new bishop began. As with all elections, this was a tumultuous assembly. For several days there were disputes, with first one person being put forward and then another. Opinions were divided among people and clashes even broke out between disputants. Then, in order to maintain peace in the sizeable crowd, the local prefect or chief of police was called in. He was a just and kind man, well known in the city, who had not yet been baptized. As was then the custom, he belonged to the catechumenate – that is, he was preparing for baptism – although he was already in his fourth decade of life.

This chief of police, whose name was Ambrose, came to church to restore order during the tumultuous and noisy disputes about the election of the bishop. Then suddenly, during the discussion of the candidates, someone cried out (perhaps it was a wag or a child): “Ambrose will be bishop!” The crowd went silent for a moment, and then everyone cried out; both the clergy and the people turned to this Ambrose.

The entire Church of Mediolanum unanimously decided that this very person, who did not have a theological education and was not yet baptized, should be their bishop. He himself, of course, was very confused and bewildered: he had never prepared for ecclesiastical duties and had long put off his own baptism, but he took this as God’s calling and obeyed the people’s will. As if through the mouth of that child or anonymous person who had cried out his name, the Lord called him: “Ambrose, follow Me!” He accepted unwaveringly and within a few days was baptized and then, a few days after that, was entrusted with his omophorion from the bishops, becoming the Bishop of Milan or Mediolanum.

Many, many centuries have since passed, and the Church holds sacred the memory of Ambrose of Milan. Today we are celebrating his feast day, inasmuch as he was numbered among the ranks of the saints.

He was a great man of the Church: he was an organizer, a steward, and a remarkable poet who composed church hymns. According to tradition, the famous hymn we sing during the moleben, “We praise Thee, O God,” was composed by Ambrose of Milan. He also wrote commentaries on the Holy Scriptures for us.

It was then the practice to baptize everyone on Pascha, for which people prepared throughout Great Lent. Each day Ambrose sat in church, where those preparing for baptism gathered, and read the Bible to them from beginning to end, explaining the meaning of the word of God. Scribes recorded his talks, and these formed the many books of St. Ambrose of Milan.

You see what an enormous step he took from unbaptized chief of police to bishop, holy hierarch, and later saint of the Universal Church! Why did it happen this way? Because he accepted that call as the voice of God. Each of us often hears the voice of God in our lives, but we neither hear nor listen to it. We rarely reflect on how to act, what to do, where to go, to whom to turn; we waver and fool around, while life passes by and time runs out. But we must always be attentive to the Lord, in order to say to him: “I’m listening to You, I’m coming! Tell me, Lord, which path to take!”

If you are visited by illness or grief, this is God’s call to patience. If the person next to you is experiencing difficulties, this is also God’s call. If you make the choice whether to act basely or nobly, this is also clearly God’s call. If you wake up in the morning, as if risen from the deathly sleep of night, then God is calling you to labor this morning.

Strive to reflect on the events and circumstances of your life, to look back on the years that have gone by, and you will see how often the Lord has called us. But we have not responded: we have continued to doze and to walk through life half asleep, not giving thought to how we are living or why we are laboring. God’s voice is quiet and seemingly inaudible; yet, at the same time, if we are attentive, it is powerful, calling each of us by our names, reproaching our conscience, strengthening us, and saying to us in difficult times: “Fear not, I am with you.”

Today we heard the Gospel reading about the healing of the leper. Leprosy was a terrible disease, which we only recently learned how to treat. Even one hundred years ago it was untreatable. There were islands to which the sick were taken and cast to the mercy of fate. They lived there, rotting alive, losing their fingers and ears. Frightful to behold and abandoned, devastated both spiritually and morally, they lived in huts like animals.

Ships on which missionaries were travelling to preach the word of God to savages and heathens sometimes passed by these islands. On one of these ships was a very young priest from Belgium, Damien de Veuster, who was not much more than twenty years old. He had also gone to preach the Gospel to the pagans, but when he learned that there was an island nearby where people lived as though in hell, he could not go any further. He felt that God’s voice was calling him. He left his ship and stayed on that island forever. And he, as they say, raised these people from the dead: he got them to build houses, he built them a church, and he raised their spirits. They began to live like human beings. This island was transformed, its life becoming completely different, although he himself caught leprosy and died. But he had done his duty!

Thus, God’s voice calls us in the most unexpected moments. We might think about and await one thing, but find another. We might begin building our plans in one way, but if the Lord calls us, then let His will be accomplished! Do not forget those words from the “Our Father” – few in words but great in meaning – that to us are immortal and precious: “Thy will be done!” Amen.

Fr Alexander Men

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Thinking about St Nicholas

Here are some thoughts for St Nicholas' Day. Of course, St Nicholas is more than topical in the lead-up to Christmas. But his loving witness to the Gospel in a hostile environment is a great example for us today. (The following was preached at the invitation of Canon Andrew Stevens SSC, Vicar of St Nicholas Plumstead, at that parish's Feast of Title in 2015.) 

It is a great privilege to be here in this ancient Parish Church of St Nicholas. Coming from Australia where buildings that have stood for 150 years are considered “old” it is a bit overwhelming to know that in the oldest part of this building - just there - worship has been offered to the Lord much as we are doing today since 960 AD! For all that time, this church has been a beacon witnessing to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith.

Being under his heaveny patronage, you probably know everything there is to know about St Nicholas. Nevertheless, today I want to look at aspects of his life and witness, and see how they speak to us in our time. 

We are told that Nicholas was born somewhere between 265 and 280 AD into a wealthy Christian family in Patara, a small village near the coastal city of Myra, in modern day Turkey, which was a centre for the worship of the Roman God, Diana. Nicholas’ family were probably merchants trading with the ships that visited the nearby port. The Church community in Myra dated back 200 years to when St Paul had passed through as a prisoner on his way to Rome. He is said to have preached there. It’s a tribute to our ancient brothers and sisters that despite all their hardships this local Church that had been planted during the apostolic age was still going strong 200 years later when Nicholas was born.

An only child, he grew up knowing and loving the Lord. He grew up knowing the Gospel of God’s love. He grew up familiar with the Scriptures, and joining in singing the Psalms in Church. He grew up with the ancient Christian conviction that whenever his Church family gathered for the Eucharist (as we have gathered here today) they were all swept into the worship of heaven and made part of the movement of love from Jesus to the Father in the eternal Spirit. Of course, even at that stage, they would still have been going to Mass in a large house – perhaps even the house of Nicholas’ parents? - (except for those occasions when they gathered at the local cemetery as a way of celebrating the resurrection).

But even after 200 years it wasn’t easy for them to be Christians. It was dangerous. We know that a few years before Nicholas was born, some Church members in Myra were viciously killed by the authorities for refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Nicholas grew up fully aware of how risky it was to be a Christian. But along with his family and their closest friends, he also grew up understanding persecution as a real sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, making their own pain and trials redemptive (1 Peter 4:13).

So, nurtured in a real relationship with the Lord from childhood, Nicholas wanted to live for Jesus. He resisted the temptations available to the affluent in Roman society - money, sex, and politicking for power. The Lord’s hand was on his life, and he knew it. His heart was open to God. His thinking was shaped by Gospel truth. He was one of those saints who never strayed. From childhood he was noted for his holiness, and his love for God was seen, even then, in the Christlike compassion with which he treated others.

Sadly, his parents died in an outbreak of plague when he was still in his teens. So Nicholas was alone. You might say that he was well set up due to his large inheritance. But even in that respect his holiness shone through. Rather than squander his inheritance like the Prodigal Son, or develop a lavish lifestyle of business and financial investment as many would have done, he prayed so as to know how he should give both his life and his resources to the Lord.

In Roman society at the time, it was usual for people to look after their own families, but not to care very much about anyone else. Historians tell us that the early Christian communities deeply shocked those around them by caring indiscriminately for the needy, whoever they were, including those rejected by society, such as prisoners, widows, and orphans. 

We tend to look back on previous times through the lens of our own values which, in fact, have been formed largely by the Gospel. Hence our shock when we discover some of the real differences between the ancient world at its best, and our culture, even in its post-Christian guise. In a filmed interview with John Dickson, the eminent historian Edwin Judge recently explained why ancient Greeks and Romans could never have approved of “compassion” and why modern Westerners do; why Stoic “courtesy” (the high point of Greco-Roman morality) is a world apart from Christian “love and charity”, and how the contemporary West is a bit like Christianity’s overconfident “teenage son”, inescapably made in the family likeness but rebellious and certain his parents have given him nothing.)

It is significant in the light of that that our culture still celebrates the way Nicholas took seriously the call of Jesus to care sacrificially for others, whoever they were and whatever they believed. This kind of giving, inspired by the Gospel, nurtured among the early Christians and personified in St Nicholas made a huge impact in a culture of patronage that knew nothing of anonymous gifts, and in which if a wealthy benefactor helped someone, the receiver would be obligated for life. Clearly some of the stories about Nicholas and his giving are legendary, but the reason they have come to us is because of the impact of his life and ministry.

When Nicholas was a young man a particularly cruel and well-organised persecution of Christians took place under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who needed a scapegoat to blame for the empire’s economic recession. Nicholas seems to have been studying for the priesthood at the time when the Bishop of Myra was killed. One night in 295 AD, the senior bishops from around that region gathered in prayer to seek the will of God, and as a result Nicholas was chosen, consecrated and became one of the youngest bishops ever in the Church, a man of the people and a man of God, who ministered according to the example of loving humility seen in Jesus. 

Not long after his consecration, he was arrested, put in prison, beaten and tortured. It was common in those days to blind the right eye of a Christian prisoner and cut the sinews of his left ankle. Nicholas bore these scars of his torture for Jesus, even though he was not called to martyrdom. And for much of the time he was Bishop of Myra, Christians were still a hated minority, suffering abuse at the hands of violent mobs and being persecuted at the Emperor’s whim. 

Then under the Emperor Constantine, a great change took place. Christianity went almost overnight from being a despised minority to the most influential religion of the Empire. But the Church had its problems. In 325 Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea, three hundred or so bishops, who gathered for discussion and debate. Picture that meeting. You have to use your imagination when reading Church history. It wasn’t like a meeting of modern bureaucratic bishops with the photocopier in the corner! Many of those present were bent-over elderly men, with eyes and even limbs missing because of the persecution they had been through. And they debated with vigour. (It is even said that Nicholas slapped the heretic Arius in the face!)  Of course, the real issue at Nicaea was whether Jesus really is God in the flesh, or just a slightly more inspired version of you and me with a “deep spirituality.” The Council affirmed the Gospel truth about who Jesus is, and that’s why it is so important. 

Nicholas died in the 330s.

We are literally part of the same body of Christ as St Nicholas - as well as of those countless others who make up the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and joining us at the altar today. We have been baptized in the same Baptism, plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus so as to live his risen life. We have been anointed with the same Holy Spirit in Confirmation, and nourished with the very same Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Love. We have been formed by the same Word of God in Scripture.

And if St Nicholas lived in dangerous times when the Faith was under attack from several directions, so do we. You don’t need me to tell you that. 

But St Nicholas did what St Paul said to do in Ephesians 6. He put on the breastplate of righteousness, he shod his feet with the Gospel of peace, he buckled on the shield of faith, he put on the helmet of salvation, and he took up firmly the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying at all times “in the Spirit”, and persevering against all the odds. The whole armour of God enabled St Nicholas and all the holy ones down through the ages to live in the victory of Jesus over the principalities, powers, and rulers of the darkness of this present age.

The challenges we face today include: 

radical secularism and its desire to expunge the Gospel even from our cultural memory, 

an epidemic crumbling of relationships – in families, neighbourhoods, and even Church communities – and the resulting loneliness and isolation that is fast becoming normal all around us. 

the constant temptation to abandon the Faith of Jesus, the Faith that comes to us from the apostles . . . and, sadly, today this temptation comes not just from our secular society, but also from certain quarters within the Church itself. 

And there IS religious persecution . . . the real persecution and even martyrdom that so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in different parts of the world suffer at the hands of violent extremists. Will the same thing happen to us or to our children . . . in the next generation or the one after? Who knows! What we DO know is that the whole amour of God will avail for us as it did for St Nicholas, and as it has for our brothers and sisters over the last 2000 years.

May Our Lady, St. Nicholas and all the saints in that great multitude that no man can number pray for us, so that we, too, will have the grace to thrive in the struggle, to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand, to bear witness to God’s truth – the only truth that sets us free, and to keep loving with the love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Lord Jesus Christ, 
reigning in the glory of heaven, 
living in the hearts of your people, 
and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, 
we thank you for making us your people 
and drawing us into your love.

We thank you for all the blessings you give us 
to strengthen us 
as we journey through this life. 

Lord Jesus, our Eternal and merciful King, 
Word made Flesh, 
you came among us in great humility, 
you gave us healing and new life, 
you died on the cross and rose victorious from the dead.

Lord, you are our Eucharistic King, 
foretold by the prophets, 
in whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit we are one. 
Your Kingdom is not from this world. 
You are the Beginning and the End, 
the Alpha and the Omega, 
who will come upon the clouds of Heaven 
with Power and Great Glory. 
Reign in our hearts. 

Lord Jesus, whose Throne of Grace, 
we are to approach with confidence, 
who, hanging on the cross, 
gave your Mother Mary to be our Mother also, 
you desire to heal us of division and disunity, 
you pour out the Holy Spirit upon your people, 
you send the Holy Angels to protect us. 

Lord Jesus,
before whom every knee shall bow, 
whose reign will never end. 
Reign in our hearts. 
Reign in your Church. 
Reign in this parish of St Nicholas.

Holy Mary, 
Saint Nicholas and all the Saints  
Pray for us.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The best Ordo available . . . get your 2018 one NOW!

I am among those who believe, without doubt, that the best ORDO available to western Christians is the one under the imprint of Tufton Books (i.e. The Church Union), still compiled each year by Father John Hunwicke, now of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. It painstakingly provides full information both for the Novus Ordo Roman Rite (Third Typical Edition) and the Church of England's Common Worship. There is also guidance for those who use the old Prayer Book.

It is not too late to get your 2018 edition. Go HERE to purchase a copy online.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Marriage and Complementarity - Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the U.K.

If you are fed up with the shallow onslaught against “complementarianism” that comes from secular philosophers and "liberal" Christian theologians, you MUST watch this video of Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. He was speaking in 2014 at HUMANUM - a symposium held in Rome on marriage and complementarity, the keynote speakers for which were drawn from a wide range of traditions.

(The transcript of Lord Sacks' talk is given below for those who prefer to read it.) 

The audience of 300 in the Vatican’s synod hall gave Lord Sacks a standing ovation. His account of the development of marriage from a sexual act between fish in Scotland right up to the present day, by means of seven stories, ended with his exegesis of the Genesis account. He bemoans the dismantling of what he calls “the single most humanising institution in history” resulting in a whole new era of poverty and social division. Yet the recovery of that institution offers hope. Watch the speech here. Or read the full text below.


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 loving kindness 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.